Hawking Up Hairballs

Friday, August 31, 2007

Worse Than Doggerel

Over twenty years ago now, I edited a poetry magazine called Dead Angel with David Matthews and the now-deceased G.C.C. Like most such publications, it was short-lived. The strange thing is though, I still occasionally receive submissions in the mail. One came today. Boy, is it something. Here are the first two paragraphs of the cover letter.

"I, (name withheld), am writing on behalf of my poems (total of 63). The Lord has blessed me to write these poems to share with others around the world. I am requesting that your publishing company would allow me the opportunity to experience this vision by publishing this book of poems.

"I am sending one poem for you to read and I would love to hear feedback from you. I truly believe these poems have the power to encourage and lift the spirits of others, and you would be blessed reading them as well.

Well, in the first place, this poor soul is minimally literate. I don't fault her for that, given the sorry state of public education. I must say though, if you want to write poetry, learn proper English. This isn't a case of the woman using a form of dialectic English. It's ignorance, pure and simple, and she apparently doesn't think that it's important for her to remedy that ignorance. Why then should we read her poetry?

What really bothers me about this letter though is the implied narcissism. This woman's "Lord" has chosen her for this special mission to share her poems with the world. It reminds me of those people who believe in reincarnation. They all seem to think that they are the next coming of some famous person, or someone who was in the retinue of some famous person, but it's more than that for this woman. She has been chosen by God. (Cue the sacred music.) Not only that but she wants her poems published so because it would "allow me the opportunity to experience this vision". In other words, this is all for her benefit, though it's for mine too, as she reminds me when she says that I would be blessed by reading them too. And the poem? Here are a few lines and, yes, she writes in all caps.


Enough, my fingers refuse to type anymore.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Identity Theory

I've just finished another novel by Peter Temple. This one is an international espionage thriller, Identity Theory. It reminded me a lot of John LeCarre at his best, at least in terms of substance and characterization. However, Temple's style is all his own. It's spare, and I mean that in the best sense of the term. No one can write as well as Temple does without working at his prose.

Identity Theory focuses on three characters whose destinies are intertwined. There's Niemand, which is German for "no one", a mercenary who has come into possession of a videotape that shows an American military death squad executing civilians in an Angolan village during the apartheid era. Even worse, these civilians are survivors of an experimental nerve gas that was sprayed on their village. They were executed so that there would be no witnesses to what had happened. The American government, of course, wants this tape, and they hire a private intelligence agency in German to locate Niemand and the tape. Anselm works for this firm. He's a former investigative reporter who is suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of being held hostage in Beirut for a time. Carolyn Wishart is a struggling investigative reporter in London who gets wind of the story. I won't say anything more about the plot, lest I give it away.

This novel is distinctly anti-American, but I don't think unfairly so. The death squad had been recruited from the U.S. Army's Delta Force to operate in Third World countries. Given what we know about the present adiminstration in Washington, the existence of such a unit is certainly plausible. It is also easy to believe that the U.S. intelligence establishment would be willing to kill to recover a tape of the sort that Temple imagines. However, the anti-American attitudes that are manifest in Identity Theory also indicate something else. They reflect the beliefs of a significant segment of public opinion in Temple's Australia. A writer of popular entertainments like this can't afford to stray too far from the opinions of his potential readership, not if he expects to sell books.

Identity Theory seems a particularly cynical book. That's what I initially thought, but I changed my mind after mulling it over. Espionage thrillers are cynical by their very nature. Without betrayals, there wouldn't be much of a story. In that sense, I guess, the genre brings out the worst in us. Their common subtext is that you can't trust anyone, and they seem to reinforce that belief. It seems sad to think that this might be true, but is it really wrong? Not in the world of espionage.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Broken Shore

Peter Temple is big stuff in Australia. Five of his eight crime novels have won the Ned Kelly Award for crime fiction. The Broken Shore is the first of these novels with a specifically American edition. I don't really know what that means. The last I heard, English was the language down under. Perhaps it is only the American edition that has the glossary of Aussie slang in the back.

I liked The Broken Shore, though it isn't quite as good as all the hype. It's an intelligent book, and reasonably well written, which is no small thing these days when it comes to genre fiction. In quality, he reminds me of John LeCarre in his heyday, and that's no small accomplishment. The trouble is that The Broken Shore is a crime novel. The conventions have all been long established. Joe Cashin, the protagonist, is the typical noir detective hero. He's cynical, but honorable, a good guy at heart who's been disappointed by the world and, of course, he's flawed. I wish Temple had chosen a plot that's more original and not so desperately trendy. The murder that starts the book, and the subsequent associated crimes, can be traced back to a ring of pedophiles. Why doesn't he just bring in Da Vinci and the Holy Grail while he's at it? He wraps things up a little too neatly at the end as well, but I'm picking on him here, and I shouldn't. He's not a serious writer, and I shouldn't judge him by those standards. I enjoyed his book, and I've put a hold on his latest at the library.

That said, Aussie slang has to be some of the most uninteresting in the world. It doesn't have to be that way. Cockney rhyming slang is fascinating, but these Aussies don't display a lot of creativity. There's an awful lot of dropping the trailing syllables and adding the "ie" sound. For example, most of us are familiar with "barbie" for barbecue, but there are plenty others. "Chockie" for a chocolate candy bar. A bickie is a cookie or biscuit. There's "brickie", "corrie", "footy" and "spaggy" for "bricklayer", "corrugated" as in corrugated metal, "football" as in the Australian rules version and, of course, "spaghetti". Come on, mate, give me a break. Now "suckhole" I like. According to the glossary it's an obsequious person, and I enjoyed this comment that closed the word's entry. "A future leader of the Australian Labor Party once described those in the Liberal Party who looked to American for leadership as a conga line of suckholes."

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Simulated World

There's an interesting little article in the Science section of today's New York Times. Simulated World. It talks about an Oxford University philosopher who has proposed that there is a pretty good chance that the universe is just a simulation being run on a really powerful computer belonging to a very advanced human or post-human civilization in the future. One's first response to such a proposal is disbelief. Yeah, like that's really true. Then, if one thinks about it for a while, it becomes kind of spooky. Look at the notion of the Big Bang. Physicists agree that the universe started from a single point, a quantum fluctuation in the void. What is that but the beginning of a program, or the point at which the machine is turned on. And there's something called genetic programming that uses the principles of survival of the fitest, the principles behind evolution. Weird, huh?

As far as I'm concerned, an even more interesting point is this one. How does this explanation differ from that of traditional theism? In language certainly, but think about it. If some future human was running the universe on his, or her, computer as a simulation, wouldn't he possess all of the properties of a deity? He would be omniscient, relative to our universe, and omnipotent as well, capable of intervening and readjusting the program at his whim. Hence, we would have miracles or, even better, a human who is designated as the true son of this god, born of a virgin mother. It could be a mischievous little booger who started this simulation. He could be a post-human ten-year-old. No wonder there's so much suffering. No wonder there are wars, epidemics and famines. It makes for a more exciting game. And if it is this little Dennis the Menace who is playing, isn't a nuclear holocaust almost certain? Kind of grim, but it would take a pretty spiteful future son of a bitch to put the likes of George W. Bush in charge of things in this country.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


I've just re-read Dispatches by Michael Herr. I read it when it first came out almost thirty years ago, and it's still the best book about the Vietnam War that I've ever read. It's also just plain, good damned writing. The following passage is one of my favorites. Herr is describing his first trip into the combat zone. The Chinook he refers to is a large, transport helicopter.

"We were all strapped into the seats of the Chinook, fifty of us, and something, something was hitting it from the outside with an enormous hammer. How do they do that? I thought, we're a thousand feet in the air! But it had to be that, over and over, shaking the helicopter, making it dip and turn in a horrible out-of-control motion that took me in the stomach. I had to laugh, it was so exciting, it was the thing I had wanted, almost what I wanted except for that wrenching, resonant metal-echo; I could hear it even above the noise of the rotor blades. And they were going to fix that, I knew they would make it stop. They had to, it was going to make me sick.

"They were all replacements going in to mop up after the big battles on Hills 875 and 876, the battles that had already taken on the name of one great battle, the battle of Dak To. And I was new, brand new, three days in-country, embarrassed about my boots because they were so new. And across from me, ten feet away, a boy tried to jump up out of the straps and then jerked forward and hung there, his rifle barrel caught in the red plastic webbing of the seat back. As the chopper rose again and turned, his weight went back hard against the webbing and a dark spot the size of a baby's hand showed in the center of his fatigue jacket. And it grew -- I knew what it was, but not really -- it got up to his armpits and then down his sleeves and up over his shoulders at the same time. It went all across his waist and down his legs, covering the canvas of his boots until they were dark like everything else he wore, and it was running in show, heavy drops off of his fingertips..."

We're always told that in our writing we should show, not tell. This passage is an excellent example of that. The facts that Herr is relating are pretty simple. The helicopter in which he is riding is being shot at and hit. A soldier who is sitting across from him is hit and killed. Not much emotional impact there, but look at how Herr describes it. He's new to the war, so new that he at first doesn't even know that the helicopter in which he is riding in is being fired upon. He thinks that someone's banging on it with a hammer, and he can't figure out how they do that. Not only that, but he thinks that a soldier sitting across from him is trying to jump to his feet, when he has in reality been shot and killed. You can just imagine Herr sitting there wide-eyed with disbelief. The wound starts out as a dark spot that's the size of a baby's hand. He'd have to be in a state of shock for his mind to come up with that kind of comparison, but he can't look away. He has to watch as the dead man's blood spreads and spreads. Brilliant writing.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

An Observation

A few days ago, I joined a family outing to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Though I live less than five miles from downtown, it was my first visit, and I must confess that I was impressed. It is extremely well-designed, and the main aquarium, which is billed as the largest in the world, was quite spectacular. An ocean environment has been recreated in the tank, and it contains the smallest of fish, all the way up to hammerhead and whale sharks. I'm not really comfortable with the idea of keeping those larger species in such a tank, given that they travel great distances in the wild. This is especially true of the beluga whales, which are kept in a smaller tank of their own. These whales are quite intelligent, and it's just plain wrong to confine them like that. It's equivalent to locking a person up in a jail cell. That said, I enjoyed the experience, and I'd like to go again.

The aquarium was crowded on the day I went, and I spent as much time watching the people as I did the water life. What really surprised me was the way in which people were using cell phones. Some were using them as cameras. Others were talking to friends and family in other parts of the aquarium. Kids were sending instant messages. None of this was unexpected, but the scale of it was. We are going through a true cultural change, and the cellphone is well on its way to becoming an indispensible personal assistant. This has been predicted, but I didn't realize that it was so far along on the way to becoming a reality.

I don't own a cellphone. It's not that I'm a latter-day Luddite. In fact, I'm more a technophile than phobe, but I do have my reservations about this device. By permitting people to, in a sense, carry their own little microcosm around with them, it discourages them from engaging the world around them. I once might have passed someone on the street and exchanged a casual greeting. Now, if that person is on the phone, he's scarcely even aware that I exist. It can be even stranger when someone has one of those Bluetooth devices. They can be walking down the street talking away, seemingly to no one at all. In behavior, there's little to distinguish them from madmen talking to themselves. This obliviousness can be downright dangerous when those who are talking are behind the wheel. Studies have shown that drivers who are talking on the phone are as dangerous as drunks. Judging by my own personal experiences, I'd have to concur.

Don't get me wrong. These are wonderful devices. It looks like they will soon function as credit cards and, for many people, replace the PC in providing access to the Internet, but such blessings are not unmitigated. I firmly believe that people should find community, not in the ether, but in the world around them.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Mark Rothko

I've watched all eight episodes of Simon Schama's Power of Art. He made the series for BBC and it has been shown locally here in Atlanta on PBS. I've really enjoyed it. Schama has a special talent for doing that sort of thing. He's engaging and he's knowledgeable, and I learned something about all eight of the artists presented. The last episode was about Mark Rothko. I don't have much use for Rothko, nor for most of the abstract expressionists, and I was prepared to dislike the episode. Surprisingly enough, I didn't. Schama didn't change my opinion of Rothko, but I found his remarks intriguing.

Schama starts out by describing his first real encounter with a Rothko exhibition when he was a student in London in the 1970's. There he saw some of Rothko's late work, assemblages of rectangular figures done with indistinct edges and dark colors. He was apparently moved by the paintings, and he said that when he was viewing them, "I felt pulled through their black lines to some mysterious place in the universe." I found myself saying, What? Then I thought about it for a while, and I came to the conclusion that he was viewing the paintings much as he would a Rorschach blot. It's about the only way you can appreciate the abstract expressionists. I guess it makes sense though. This school of painting came into its own in a Freudian era. Nothing was as it seemed. The most ordinary of things were infused with a deeper, unconscious meaning. It's different today. Now, a cigar is just a cigar, and the notion of repression has been replaced by that of denial, something much more cognitive and mechanical, something devoid of the deep emotional charge of the Freudian concepts. The return of the repressed sounds ominous. The same can't be said of the returned of the denied. That's more like the flicking of a switch.

Rothko was no fraud though, and he really thought that he was getting at the distilled essence of human experience. "The tragic notion of the image is alway present in my mind," he said. And so he created his blots. He also said, "I don't paint for design students or historians, but for human beings." If that is true, Rothko failed. He also feared that his paintings would become nothing more than interior decorations for the rich. I'm afraid that his fear has probably been realized. In 1933, the Rockefellers granted Diego Rivera a contract to paint a mural, Man at the Crossroads, at their new center. A fierce controversy arose when he included a portrait of Lenin and the mural was ultimately removed. That turned wealthy families like the Rockefellers against the social realist school that was associated with the international Communist movement, and they began to fund other trends, like abstract expressionism. It was ideal for their purposes, pretty and meaningless. In a word, decoration. If writers like Frances Stonor Saunders are to be believed, it went beyond that. In her book The Cultural Cold War -- The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, she maintained that the CIA played an active role in promoting abstract expressionism by funding exhibitions and artists.

Near the end of his commentary, Schama says that Rothko had made some of the most beautiful things that any modern artist had created. He lost me there. He can project all he likes on those dark rectangles, but they're still just dark rectangles that aren't all that different from the squares of tile on the floor. You can see things in them but, in the end, you're just seeing what you want to see. It's like when we were kids, seeing things in the clouds in the sky.

When Schama talks about viewing those Rothko paintings for the first time in the 1970's, he mentions that he stumbled upon them. He was really going to the museum to visit the paintings of Francis Bacon again. Now, that I would have liked to have seen, an episode on Bacon. He has a lot more to say than Rothko, and he's one of my favorite two or three modern artists.