Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores has been available in the Spanish-speaking world for about nine months, but it won’t available here until Oct. 25. The Book Standard already has a review up (which I believe is the Kirkus review), and it’s quite negative: “There is no indication – unless it is the word ‘melancholy’ in the title – that Garcia Marquez means his tale to be the parody of macho idiocy it appears to be. His hero ends revitalized and radiantly optimistic, while readers are left wondering, ‘Can he be serious?'”
When I was growing up in Detroit in the 1950s and ’60s, I had a buddy named Tim Johnstone who introduced me to the joys of drawing and, more broadly, to the pleasures of letting my imagination off the leash. The Johnstones were an odd family. For one thing, they owned a foreign sports car, a curvaceous XK-120 Jaguar from Great Britain, which was regarded as an act of unpatriotic heresy in the Big Three church of Detroit. Not content to have a prosaic pet, Tim mailed away for a baby ferret, which he proceeded to toilet-train.
Tim’s father was an engineer who traveled the world supervising the construction of factories he had designed. Whenever his enormous blueprints had served their purpose, Mr. Johnstone gave them to Tim, who spread them on the rec room floor, blank side up, and invited me to help him fill them with elaborate panoramas that sometimes took us weeks to complete. We always settled on a theme — the Wild West, the Civil War, the deep sea, the Middle Ages, dinosaurs, outer space (this was those jittery years after Sputnik) — and then we spent hundreds of hours sprawled on our stomachs, pencils moving non-stop, our imaginations carrying us backward or forward in time, deep beneath the sea or out into the cosmos. t was bliss.
The itch to draw, born on the Johnstones’ rec room floor half a century ago, has never left me. One reason I was barely an above-average student was that I spent most of my time in school drawing pictures of my teachers and classmates instead of taking notes. Over time my focus narrowed to drawing one thing: the human head, in all its infinite variety. As I pursued my life-long dream of becoming a writer, the focus narrowed further. I started drawing the heads of writers. Then the focus narrowed yet again. Since I’m convinced that people tend to be more interesting once they’re dead, obituaries have always been my favorite part of the newspaper. So whenever a noteworthy writer died, I started drawing the picture that accompanied the obit, eventually adding drawings of noteworthy long-dead writers. Here, then, is a gallery of a few of those literary giants, along with brief explanations of what was going through my head as my pen (or, in a few cases, my pencil) was fashioning their heads.
Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) — Operating under the assumption that any writer who influenced Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck has got to be worth reading, I dove into Sherwood Anderson’s most famous book, Winesburg, Ohio, some thirty years ago. It bored me silly, and I came away scratching my head over what the fuss was all about. I tried again a few years ago and found the book even more boring on a second reading. So when I set out to draw Anderson, I wanted to capture a sharpie who has just pulled a fast one and is laughing at us dupes out the side of his mouth.
Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) — Here are three simple sentences from Flannery O’Connor’s essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” that changed my life: “The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.” These words taught me the invaluable lesson that my youthful hunger for experience was beside the point if I wanted to become a writer. I was already a fan of Flannery’s fiction, but her non-fiction made me realize she saw things the existence of which I had not even begun to imagine. So I wanted her eyes to look like they could see straight through anyone who pauses to look at this drawing.
Robert Lowell (1917-1977) — A brilliant poet, Robert Lowell was also a tortured man who tortured others, especially the ones he loved. When 852 pages worth of his letters were published in 2005, I drew his head from a photograph that accompanied the review in The New York Times. I tried to convey that this was a man whose spirit was being pushed earthward by a pulverizing weight, a man who was no stranger to the dark precincts of madness.
Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)– The only way Philip K. Dick could have written so many books — and so many fine weird ones — was with the help of chemistry. I imagine him slamming a typewriter all through the California night, jacked to the gills on speed, weed, booze, caffeine, maybe a hit of acid to take the edge off. Out poured a river of words that often had a manic, paranoid, bi-polar flavor. Or maybe the word I’m looking for is gnostic. Dick was a visionary chronicler of life’s moral chiaroscuro, its black evils and moments of shining virtue, which made him an ideal subject for a black-and-white ink drawing that features a blinding source of light and its inevitable counterpart, dark, dark shadows.
Irving “Swifty” Lazar (1907-1993) — Though not a writer, Swifty Lazar was the agent of Hemingway, Faulkner, Truman Capote, Vladimir Nabokov and Tennessee Williams, along with half of the Hollywood galaxy. I’ve always thought of him as the colossus of the 15 percent crowd, gazing down at us mere mortals through ashtray glasses that magnified his big barracuda eyes. (He also had sharp little barracuda teeth.) Cross this man at your peril.
William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) — As radical — and funny– as his writing could be, I’m never able to think of William S. Burroughs without remembering that he shot his common-law wife in the head during a drunken game of William Tell in 1951. Burroughs admitted that the (accidental?) killing haunted him for the remaining 46 years of his long and prolific life, and as a result I’ve always imagined him as a man split in two by the trauma, then put back together all wrong.
Naomi Schor (1943-2001) — Those lips! That hair! What’s not to love about the literary critic Naomi Schor? But it was the contents of her obituary that clinched it for me: “Dr. Schor once said she had love affairs with intellectual ‘ism’s,’ including fetishism, realism, idealism, universalism and feminism, her favorite.” It gets better. She also “explored the notion of male lesbianism, suggesting ways that Flaubert and other male authors seemed to speak from a lesbian perspective.” Wow — Flaubert was a male lesbian! This revelation convinced me I needed to read more literary criticism, but fortunately I came to my senses and drew this picture instead.
Shelby Foote (1916-2005) — Shelby Foote’s magisterial three-volume narrative history of the Civil War has been called America’s Iliad, and I’ve got to believe that devoting your life to such a project exacts a price. I think of Foote more as a monument than a mere man, so when I drew him I tried to make him look like he was carved out of stone. And I wanted him to be doing what he did for so many years while composing his masterpiece — staring into the blackest, bloodiest abyss this nation has, so far, managed to conjure.
Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]
It’s been over a decade since James Wood came on the scene to reclaim literary criticism as its own kind of literature, and though all his enthusiasts have a top-ten list of the Wood essays with which they most strenuously disagree, he comes by his reputation as “our best critic” honestly. Indeed, disagreeing with Wood can be an education in and of itself; if I had to choose one critic to pan my own work, it would be Wood. But what if I could choose a critic to praise it?For several years, Wyatt Mason of Harper’s has quietly been reinvigorating an even more recondite form than the critical essay: the literary encomium. As with Wood’s considered corrections, one can disagree with Mason’s glowing appraisals of Mary Gaitskill or Charles Chadwick (I wasn’t as enamored of It’s All Right Now as Mason was), while still being provoked to think – and feel – more deeply about literature.Congenially, Mason’s tastes are closer to mine than are Wood’s. (Witness his translation of Eric Chevillard’s wonderfully weird Palafox.) I’m particularly in his debt for introducing me to the fiction of Leonard Michaels, and at the end of the month, harpers.org will be offering the essay in question to non-subscribers. For the time being, one can check out a brief, but interesting enough, interview about Michaels.
In their quest to add more and more arcane content to every page, Amazon recently added Statistically Improbable Phrases to their pages for books that have the “Search inside…” feature. Apparently, Amazon is using an algorithm to determine which phrases in particular books are less likely to appear in other books with some interesting, though not terribly useful, results. Or so it would seem to me. (Although there is the prospect of a third party using this data to come up with some interesting applications). Anyway, to see it in action, let’s look at the page for Oblivion by David Foster Wallace, and you’ll see this near the top of the page: ” SIPs: consultant caste, executive intern, snoring issue, head intern, dominant village,” those, apparently, being some of the Statistically Improbable Phrases contained within the book. Then, if you want you can click on one of the SIPs to see other books that contain it. Here’s the short list of books that contain the phrase “snoring issue.”
You’ve probably heard the news, Blockbuster is no more. Honestly, I was surprised by my reaction to it. Not sadness per se, just an empty feeling. I hadn’t been inside a Blockbuster in many years. But when that soothing NPR voice announced the final nail in the coffin, I lost a moment or two staring off into the middle distance, wrapped in some sad or perhaps pathetic moment of nostalgia. I worked at a Blockbuster all the way through high school in the mid-to-late 90s when VHS still ruled the world and going to the video store was a popular activity.
I remember when my family got our first VCR in the mid-1980s. The first time we entered the florescent-lit jungle of a video store, I was instantly enamored. I zeroed in on Pinocchio and my father picked up Cocoon, or at least something like Cocoon. The mere fact that these memories are still rattling around my head nearly 30 years later must have some significance, right?
A few years later, after my parents divorced and my mom and I were living on our own in a mid-century apartment building, she called in and won a radio giveaway providing a year’s worth of unlimited movie rentals at another now-defunct store. To put it simply, I was in heaven. That summer my attempts to catch up on the entire cinematic canon commenced. Two, three, sometimes four films a day. No sweat.
Eventually my mom remarried and we moved out south, past the Tulsa city limits to a rural land of sod farms and recreational tractor rides. When I was old enough to get a job more interesting than mowing yards, the choices were few but obvious. While my friends toiled away in the greasy haze of fast food restaurants, I would make it a Blockbuster night, every night. Not only did I get paid, I could take home movies every single day. For free.
Sam Peckinpah might not have recognized it, but in our own way we were a wild bunch, the most senior employees usually clocking in at a mere 18 or 19 years old. The time not spent straightening the shelves or restocking the candy racks usually involved things like sitting in the return bin, waiting for customers to walk up, and tossing their videos back out at them when they turned around. You might think such a stupid and juvenile act would get old after a while. It didn’t. These were the days when the Internet was new, cell phones were for stockbrokers, and if you missed a movie in the theater, you had to wait six months or even a year or more to catch up. We don’t have to wait for anything now. I’m not sure that’s an entirely good thing.
A few months ago while my wife and I were in Austin, Texas, we popped into a quirky spot called Vulcan Video that still sells and rents out VHS tapes to the hipster masses of the Lone Star State’s capitol city. Cue The Cranberries music. Bust out the Hypercolor shirts. I felt as if I’d literally stepped back into the 90s. And I loved it. No irony. No shame. I’m not entirely sure why some of us find comfort in obsolete technology and relics of the past. I love the modern world. I embrace technology. I honestly believe that the world of tomorrow will be better than today. But when something that’s been part of my life for a long time goes away, all I want to do is push Rewind.
Photo Credit: Flickr/yapsnaps
There’s a very entertaining article at the CBC Web site about the pros and cons of being prolific as a writer. It leads with a discussion of the output of Alexander McCall Smith of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame, who regularly churns out 3,000 words at a sitting. Prolific authors are often envied, but if they happen to be genre writers they are likely to be derided as well, even as publishers covet them and count on them to bankroll riskier publishing endeavors: The dream of most publishers is to have at least one “house author,” a writer with a robust fan base who can dependably churn out one title a year – giving the publisher the financial solidity to take the occasional flyer on more challenging (read: less gainful) authors.The article also includes a great quote from DFW: Musing on the seemingly inexhaustible John Updike, David Foster Wallace once asked, “Has the son-of-a-bitch ever had one unpublished thought?” Updike’s absurdly prodigious output – in the form of novels, as well as short stories, travel writing and literary criticism – has undermined his stature in the eyes of Foster Wallace, as well as many fiction readers. I would tend to agree that volume can degrade one’s reputation in the eyes of the reader. The article goes on to mention Joyce Carol Oates whose level of output many seem to take as a personal insult, and closes with an amusing comparison of Oates and Stephen King courtesy George Murray, proprietor of Bookninja.Curious about the output of different writers? This search returns lots of interesting numbers.