Thursday, August 16, 2007

Catching up on some sewing

Oh, no--it's the return of that cherished friend of sportswriters, church bulletin editors, and fluffy metro columnists--the Notes Column! Only this is a blog, so it's a Notes Post. Ahem. But I'll at least try to follow the advice I give my staff at the office when they're writing copy: make sure there's always a thread leading the reader on. Here's hoping I succeed.

1 Yesterday's post included a George Herbert poem, "Prayer (I)," that is essentially a well-patterned list of different ways of conceiving prayer. I wrote that
even a nonbeliever like me can like me can discern the quiet confidence underlying Herbert's rushing tumble of metaphor in this poem.
Being a nonbeliever, though, I'm also a non-prayer, and even Herbert's poem can't change that.

But today, while reading Tim Page's article about his Asperger's syndrome in the newest issue of the New Yorker, I came across a line that brought Herbert's poem to mind: in noting the tenacity of his friendships, Page says,
I concur with Virgil Thomson, who once said that worry was one form of prayer that he found acceptable.
Though not much of a worrier, I will gladly place myself in Page's camp here, though I'd also like to add the glories of simply thinking about friends in their absence--the joys of, for example, experiencing a work of art simultaneously from my own perspective and from what I imagine would be theirs. That imaginative creation of an absent loved one can easily shade over into the realm of prayer, a sort of devotion or obeisance or even insurance payment to an important missing piece of one's life.

2 Speaking of the New Yorker, the August 6th issue may be the best single issue of any magazine I've ever read--and that's even once you take into account that John McPhee, ordinarily a favorite, is in this issue writing about golf, a sport that, despite the fact that I played it in high school, I see no reason ever to read about. An article on e-mail spam is followed by a piece about a murdered U.S. attorney that is followed by Elizabeth Kolbert on the mysterious disappearance of the bees (which has worried the apocalyptic sci-fi fan in me before) that is followed by, unusually for the New Yorker, a piece of fiction I really liked (long-untranslated writings by Russian Daniil Kharms (who was arrested by the NKVD in 1941 for making "defeatist statements")) that is followed by a brief Louis Menand piece about the craft of biography that is followed by an article about Robert Walser's unforgettable fiction (which includes Walser's immortal response to the question of how his writing was going during his stay in a sanitarium, "I am not here to write, but to be mad.") that is followed by a look at the new New York Times building that is, finally, followed by a look at the art of Sara and Gerald Murphy (friends of Cole Porter and F. Scott Fitzgerald's models for the Divers in This Side of Paradise).

It's an astonishingly good run of articles, a reminder to occasionally stop and marvel at what the New Yorker pulls off, week in and week out. Even once I skip all the pieces about opera, classical music, and business tycoons, there's something to read and admire every week.

3 The newest New Yorker, meanwhile, includes an article by Adam Gopnik on Philip K. Dick, whose recent Library of America volume I've been reading for the past several days. When I came across the Gopnik article, I had just begun Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968); had I not, I might not have agreed with this statement from Gopnik:
Dick tends to get treated as a romantic: his books are supposed to be studies in the extremes of paranoia and technological nightmare, offering searing conundrums of reality and illusion. This comes partly from the habit, hard to break, of extolling the transgressive, the visionary, the startling undercurrent of dread. In fact, Dick in the sixties is a bone-dry intellectual humorist, a satirist—concerned with taking contemporary practices and beliefs to their reductio ad absurdum.
The sense of paranoia is hard to ignore in Dick; in my (relative to the true Dick fans) limited knowledge, it does seem to be the overarching theme, regardless of what Gopnik argues. But the opening pages of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are flat-out funny. As the novel opens, bounty hunter Rick Deckard has just woken up and is immediately in an argument with his wife, Iran. In the midst of the dispute, he considers how he ought to employ his mood organ:
At his console he hesitated between dialing for a thalamic suppressant (which would abolish his mood of rage) or a thalamic stimulant (which would make him irked enough to win the argument).

"If you dial," Iran said, eyes open and watching, "for greater venom, then I'll dial the same. I'll dial the same. I'll dial the maximum and you'll see a fight that makes every argument we've had up to now seem like nothing. Dial and see; just try me."
Gopnik goes on to point out, correctly, that
The gift of Dick's craziness was to see how strong the forces of normalcy are in a society, even when what they are normalizing is objectively nuts.

4 Dick's crazily brilliant The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) features the following exchange between a hallucinating man and his ex-wife (who is almost certainly not actually there):
Eying him, Emily said, "You're blammed."

Blammed. He hadn't heard that term since college; it was long out of style, and naturally Emily still used it. "The word," he said as distinctly as possible, "is now fnugled. Can you remember that? Fnugled."

The dispute over slang terms for drunkenness made for an entertaining coincidence: the same day I read that passage, I received in the mail an out-of-print book I'd ordered, Edmund Wilson's The American Earthquake: A Chronicle of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the Dawn of the New Deal (1958), the highlight of which is Wilson's "Lexicon of Prohibition." Wilson explains that the list of terms that follows is of words denoting drunkenness in common use at the time (March 1927) in the United States, organized roughly in increasing order of drunkenness:
lit, squiffy, oiled, lubricated, owled, edged, jingled, piffed, piped, sloppy, woozy, happy, half-screwed, half-cocked, half-shot, half seas over, fried, stewed, boiled, zozzled, sprung, scrooched, jazzed, jagged, canned, corked, corned, potted, hooted, slopped, tanked, stinko, blind, stiff, under the table, tight, full, wet, high , horseback, liquored, pickled, ginned, shicker (Yiddish), spifflicated, primed, organized, featured, pie-eyed, cock-eyed, wall-eyed, glassy-eyed, bleary-eyed, hoary-eyed, over the Bay, four sheets in the wind, crocked, loaded, leaping, screeching, lathered, plastered, soused, bloated, polluted, saturated, full as a tick, loaded for bear, loaded to the muzzle, loaded to the plimsoll mark, wapsed down, paralyzed, ossified, out like a light, passed out cold, embalmed, buried, blotto, lit up like the sky, lit up like the Commonwealth, lit up like a Christmas tree, lit up like a store window, lit up like a church, fried to the hat, slopped to the ears, stewed to the gills, boiled as an owl, to have a bun on, to have a slant on, to have a skate on, to have a snootful, to have a skinful, to draw a blank, to pull a shut-eye, to pull a Daniel Boone, to have a rubber drink, to have a hangover, to have a head, to have the jumps, to have the shakes, to have the zings, to have the heeby-jeebies, to have the sreaming meemies, to have the whoops and jingles, to burn with a low blue flame.

I hate to cast aspersions at Wilson, but I get the sense that somewhere in the making of that list he gave up on his organizational scheme, as it seems unlikely that all the "to have" constructions really denote successive states of drunkenness. But it's churlish to complain about such a valuable gift to posterity. While my friends and I have over the years regularly used soused, lit, tight, and--particularly in college--happy (which could also be turned into a noun: one could bring a bag of happy to a party, for example), the majority of these terms are new to me. At a minimum, I hope to do my part in returning "loaded to the plimsoll mark," "to pull a Daniel Boone," "wapsed down," "lit up like the Commonwealth," and (my favorite) "to burn with a low blue flame" to circulation.

5 Thinking about drink brings me back to Philip K. Dick, with the addition of the subject of a post earlier in the week, Lawrence Block. Part of the fun of reading Block's 1960s novels is entering the world that they incidentally recreate, the early 60s near-suburban world of businessmen who sleep with their secretaries, eat at smoky, dark-paneled steakhouses with deep, red-leather booths, have a couple of martinis at business lunches, and, though always looking out for the main chance, at the same time feel very secure about their place in the world. Dick, despite writing sci-fi, conveys that atmosphere, too--the very normalcy that Gopnik comments on in the New Yorker is a specifically male, post-war boom world, one that despite being propelled into an imagined future shares many assumptions and characteristics with the cozy world that Block's grifters are always attempting to invade and disrupt.

It's not a world that I find at all congenial (despite my love of its patron saint and apostle, Frank Sinatra), but that in no way lessens my appreciation of the way in which it's been almost inadvertently preserved in novels that are ostensibly about other things. A few pages of Block describing hotels and boardwalks and country clubs and I can almost feel the hitch in my lungs and the buzzing in my head on waking up after a late-night poker game with some of the guys from the Elks--that retention of a lost world, however unintentional, is one of the unsurpassed glories of the novel as a form.

6 Finally, writing about the recreation of a lost period reminds me of something that Stacey and I were talking about earlier tonight, Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier. Originally a mini-series and now available as a beautifully produced single hardcover or a pair of trade paperbacks, it's a retelling of the history of the universe of DC Comics in the 1950s, centered around the formation of the first large-scale superhero team, the Justice League.

My memories of Silver Age DC comics are so old, going back as they do to childhood days spent pawing through the footlocker of my father's mildewed Superman comics, that it's hard for me to separate Cooke's story from my at least partially nostalgic memories--so I don't know for sure whether someone who didn't know the rough outlines of the story of the DC heroes would enjoy the book. Regardless, it's rich in character and action, and Cooke's strikingly minimalist, angular art creates a fully believable post-war atmosphere of straight-cut dark suits, narrow ties, and crew cuts, and of an America (and by extension, a superhero population) that was certain its applied might and know-how could completely remake the world for the better. I think it's about as good as superhero comics get.

Plus, Cooke is the only artist I know who has ever drawn Wonder Woman--an Amazon, don't forget--as taller than Superman. That alone is worth a tip of the hat.

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