Early Summer Reading

The first book worth mentioning, when it comes to my early summer reading, is Keith Richards’s Life, with its oft-amusing portraits of life as a Rolling Stone and Richards’s striking common-man writing voice. In the book there are some truly great stories – especially the excellent set-piece that serves as the opening chapter and reminds me in this way of the way the opening set-piece of Don DeLillo’s Underworld works – but ultimately I would have to admit that the book became a bit of a slog for me to get through in that I found myself very much able to put it down and return to it later. That’s not much of a critique, in that there’s nothing wrong with putting a book down, but Richards at times went over the top in his self-estimation of certain things – his drug intake, his ability to drive brilliantly at night, his excitement about playing with Jamaican musicians – so that he could become hard to take after a while. I’d recommend it to others, especially for the unbelievably conflicted feelings he has toward Mick Jagger (it’s not all negative, as the press about the book seemed to emphasize). Those parts are just plain fascinating – has anyone known such a complicated love/hate relationship? Life is not a must read, but it certainly has its moments. Great for the beach.

The next book worth mentioning is a novel by Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed. You may have come across Ferris before: he’s a young writer and his previous novel – Then We Came to the End – was something of a commercial and critical success, with plenty of positive reviews and placement on lots of Top Ten Novels of the Year lists. Perhaps you recall it: Ferris used the first-person plural to situate his story of workplace ennui, set in an ad agency in Chicago as the Internet boom came to an end. I remember reading Then We Came to the End and finding it funny at first in its satire of American boom ideology, but as I kept reading I found it less funny than clever, and by the end I was kind of tired of its cleverness and hoped it would start to add up to something more. I didn’t really think it ever did, though I also thought that it was pretty good for a first novel – to be fair to Ferris.

I began The Unnamed this winter when my kids were taking ski lessons. I became enamored of it because I found the plot conceit rather engaging. Tim is a highly successful attorney, married with a daughter, who is undergoing an affliction that is unknown to mankind: a compulsion to set out walking, walking for hours and hours until he collapses from exhaustion. This compulsion has returned – which means that he has had it before, which he did, and then it passed. But it has returned now with a vengeance. At any moment – at home, at work, anywhere – Tim’s body starts to walk. No doctor knows what is going on; his case is even profiled in The New England Journal of Medicine. Irregardless of the impact on her own work and well-being, his wife Jane is loyal to Tim, driving to find him at night, collecting him from wherever he has collapsed. His daughter Becka is rather estranged from him, but not so much because of the compulsion but because Tim is so driven to succeed at work that he tends to ignore his daughter and is unable to make any emotional connection to her.

As my kids skied, I would read snippets of the novel and savor Ferris’s writing and Tim’s problems. However, because of the time constraints of the Spring semester, I decided to call a halt to my reading of the book and to wait until the summer to return to it. When I did, I became fully engrossed rather quickly and ate it up like a fresh key lime pie. The compulsion – it’s hard to call it an illness because it’s never made clear exactly what it is (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, etc.) – ruins Tim’s career and devastates his family and the novel, on one level, dramatizes that destruction and the broad pain it causes all of the individuals in the family. On another level, the novel offers a portrait of the love affair between Tim and Jane – her loyalty to him that eventually leads to her own destruction and his loyalty to her, which is of a much more complicated sort. That element of the novel is rather brutal in its portrayal. Add to this the portrayal of Becka and the damage that Tim’s dedication to work, and then the recurrence of the compulsion, have wrought on her. The novel, in short, is hard work, at least in terms of its emotional pull on the reader.

Ferris has some strong gifts as a writer and he has come up with something strikingly original in his story. There are echoes here of the type of story that focuses on cancer and what it does to individuals and families, and much of the emotional vibe of the book is one of grieving, of something lost. There were times when I turned to my wife and said, “This part must be a dream sequence because there’s no way it could have gotten this bad, there’s just no way.” But there was. It’s terribly sad. But the novel isn’t perfect, nor fully satisfying. For all the things that Ferris can do, he hasn’t yet mastered the skill of making us feel fully invested in his characters. The story is compelling more than the characters themselves are. I wanted Jane and Becka both to be more fully developed characters. But still, overall, I’d recommend the novel, in part – I suppose – because I’d love to have someone to talk about it with!

The other book I’ve been reading, slowly, lovingly, joyously, is David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I love Wallace’s nonfiction; I’ve read some of his fiction and like it fine, but I am one of the people who believe that his true gift – his best genre – was the essay. A few years ago I read Consider the Lobster and was stunned by it. The intellectual reach, the deeply held belief in the power and beauty of language, the fellowship he felt toward other people – these were so clearly on the page, in my mind. The essays were beautifully written and they were on topics that at first blush seemed to be rather banal: an awards show for porn stars, a lobsterfest in Maine, a new edition of a dictionary. Irregardless of the topic, though, Wallace invested himself intellectually and aesthetically in the task at hand. He took it seriously and compelled us to do so as well. Those banal occasions for writing became transmuted into something beautiful, something touching, and something important. They became occasions for ideas.

That, in fact, is what I love in his essays. They so clearly serve as testaments to a mind at work, at play, engaged in the act of thinking. The word “act” is crucial, I think, when describing Wallace’s nonfiction. His writing style – discursive, with plenty of footnotes that allow us to meander into side issues for a bit and then to return to the main issue at hand, and playful, with a mixture of the vernacular and the technical that is comfortably familiar while at the same time keeping us on our toes as thinkers – actually allows us to see him thinking. It’s as if he’s working out his ideas in the moment, in the text itself as we read it. But in his best pieces, of course, he’s worked it out in advance and is instead allowing (or possibly forcing) us to join him in the act of thinking. So the reading becomes the similarly active as an intellectual process. Wallace crafts his essays – they read as fully accomplished wholes – but he structures them in such a way as to let us see his mind at play and therefore also to let us play with what he is presenting to us. It’s heady stuff, in the best way possible.

His essays are things to savor. His piece on David Lynch is such good fun that it’s almost impossible to put down. His essay on playing tennis as a teen and the combination of physical and intellectual activity in the playing is a wonderful testament to what it can mean to “get lost” in the moment of play (again, physically and intellectually). The last piece I read, just the other day, on professional tennis was especially striking. Wallace focused his attention on a rather unknown player, Michael Joyce. In doing so, Wallace was able to note how much better Joyce was than anyone Wallace had ever played or seen in person. Joyce became the embodiment of how much better professional athletes are in their sport than the rest of us. At the same time, Joyce was nowhere near the best in his sport, which demonstrated just how amazing the best players actually are. Indeed, Wallace speaks so glowingly of Joyce that I felt compelled to look him up.

It turns out Joyce’s ranking peaked soon after Wallace’s essay was originally published in Esquire. He never won any tournament of real significance and never was actually that successful as a professional athlete, at least not how success tends to be defined in our present culture. And yet. And yet Joyce won over $750,000 playing tennis. And in fact he still occasionally plays, and is certainly involved in professional tennis – as a hitting partner and occasional coach. He has made a living out of something he loves to do, something that he excels at, something that he is better than almost anyone else at doing. No one really knew who Joyce was when this essay came out, and no one really knows him now. But Wallace, in this essay, was able to make clear that Joyce was actually special and worthy of our attention and our thought. And the essay itself is as well, as again Wallace uses Joyce to think not only about Joyce and what he represents but also about tennis itself, about the place of sports in our culture, about our values. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s one of the best pieces I’ve read in a while.

I haven’t finished the collection yet, I think because I don’t want to because then what will I read? I still have the piece on cruises and the piece on the state fair and I don’t want it to end. Great books can be that way. You finish and you feel flushed and aflame and want more, but it’s gone and there isn’t more.It’s true that I can always read This is Water again, Wallace’s great graduation speech at Kenyon in 2005. And if you haven’t read it yet, you’ve made a mistake, even if unknowingly. Do so, do it now. Here’s a link to it so that you can read it online: because it’s now copyrighted, this site had to take the piece down, but it’s cached and so available, and this reads not so much like a perfectly finished text but more like a transcript, which is part of its charm in this form. This is Water, like Wallace’s essays in his collections, is a powerful evocation of Wallace’s compassion, of his desire and his ability to think beyond himself. It’s also a powerful evocation of Wallace’s basic goodness. He must have been an interesting man to know. And as I write this, I realize that one of the reasons I don’t want to finish reading his essays is because I know there will be no more new ones. He’s dead and his writing is gone. Yes, we have The Pale King, and I recently received it from my wife as a present and I hope to read it later this summer. But there won’t be any new pieces and I suppose that’s something I want to put off dealing with.

Keith Richards lived. Wallace didn’t. It’s not ironic, but it’s a brutal reality. I like the Rolling Stones, but Wallace sets my mind aflame and makes me want to be better than I am. I guess I don’t want to stop wanting that.

Defining Horrible Songs

It’s time to define the “Songs that are Horrible” series a little better.

Back in the day one of my brothers put together a cd called “Songs You Love to Hate.” He wasn’t the first to do this, nor certainly the last. But it contained some gems – like “Brandy” and “Seasons in the Sun” and “The Pina Colada Song.” All classically bad, bad in a way that is virtually unique. At the same time, there is something catchy about these songs, something that gets into your head and you can’t get out. I’m ready to sing “Brandy” right now – “Brandy, you’re a fine girl (what a fine girl)/What a good wife you would be/But my life, my love and my lady/Is the sea.” (By the way, I’ve sung this song in karoake and it’s harder to sing than you’d think. I don’t recommend it.)

The thing about these songs, though, is that they don’t really aspire to be anything more than what they are. They’re pop songs, with nothing deep, nothing particularly interesting. They don’t speak to a larger experience, not really. They’re meant to be catchy, to be popular, to sell. And they were. But they’re not horrible, because they don’t fail at what they’re trying to be. They aim low and clear that wall.

Songs that are horrible aren’t merely pop songs, they’re songs that seem to have a higher ambition, to say something meaningful to listeners, even though they don’t. They’re catchy, sure, but writingwise they’re strikingly inept. They fold in on themselves in that they want to be profound but end up as baffling, dopey, just plain confusing. This, then, is how I’m defining horrible for this series. These are songs that fail (often spectacularly) to be what the band wants them to be. They’re popular but embarassing.

Recently, in asking for some suggestions, I received a few nominations for songs that are pretty bad, but not necessarily horrible in the way that I’m thinking about in this series. For instance, one friend nominated “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats, a truly bad song from 1982 that has gotten stuck at least once in the head of most everyone who has ever heard it.  The lead singer of the band has claimed that the song is a protest against bouncers who were stopping people from pogo dancing to New Wave music and therefore a song proclaiming freedom of expression. Listening to it and thinking about the words, I have to tell you that this is something of a stretch. I guess it could be about freedom of expression, if I worked hard at the interpretation, but that’s giving the song a LOT of slack. The video is ridiculous, of course. The setting in medieval England makes no sense whatsoever, though it does seem to give license to the desire to include a midget in the cast, but at the same time the setting and its randomness is kind of the best thing about it. It’s not horrible, it’s kind of wonderfully bad.

Then there’s “Karma Chameleon,” by Culture Club. Another friend nominated this one and, again, understandably so. It’s bad. “Loving would be if your colors were like my dreams/Red, gold and green. Red, gold and green.” Umm, huh? Why would loving be “easy” if this was the case? Does Boy George have no blue, or brown, or orange, in his dreams? I sense a metaphor, but one that’s hard to pick out. Again, it’s a song that can get into your head, it’s got a harmonica part that gives it a Merseybeat feel, and it proved a winner commercially, going to #1 for three weeks. But that’s all it is – a very good pop song. Boy George has suggested that it’s a song about being “true” and  acting “like you feel,” but as with “Safety Dance,” this entails a bit of a stretch really. And again we have a fantabulously crazy video, with another setting that has nothing at all to do with the song! This time we’re in Mississippi in 1870, which allows the band members – who are both black and white – to interact together with a sense of brotherhood and community. Because we’re in Reconstruction? That’s not anachronistic AT ALL! I suspect that the setting was determined so that they could get everyone to dress up in costume and Boy George’s “costume” would not stand out so much. The funniest part of this? Other than some elaborate necklace around his neck, Boy George actually isn’t in period costume! He’s wearing a sweater vest over a button-down shirt. That’s just so unbelievably greatly bad that you kind of have to love it. So again, no this song isn’t horrible, because it doesn’t aspire to be actually good.

As I go forward, I will continue to look for songs that don’t work, songs that are meant to be “serious statements” but are little more than gobbledygook, songs that take themselves way too seriously. Those are the songs that are truly horrible. Pop songs can drive you crazy, but all they really want to do is to be popular. “99 Red Balloons“? Bad. Toto’s “Africa“? Horrible. Really horrible. At least Nena has a sense of humor. Toto is unbelievably insufferable. That and kind of casually racist. I’m all for bad pop songs. Ones that aim higher? That almost always leads to trouble.

Songs that are Horrible #3

It’s perhaps too easy a target, but the subject of this latest in the series of the “Songs that are Horrible” is “Photograph,” by Nickelback.

What do you mean, you might say, too easy a target? Well, it’s Nickelback. Pop rock band, from Canada, that has enjoyed huge commercial success. But good Lord, they are pretty terrible. I can’t really think of a single song of theirs that I would feel good about telling a friend I like, or was listening to, or that somehow got stuck in my head – which would mean either I was purposely listening to it or passively doing so and not resisting in some crucial way to keep away from my brain. They just come across as so very derivative of everything else you’ve already heard before. So I guess I feel as if picking on them is like picking low-hanging fruit. Not that this is going to stop me!

Let’s take a listen to the song, and see the video.

Ahh, literalism, that’s what we have here in this video. Often a risky move for setting too much of a limitation on what a director can do, and often a risky move because so many song lyrics are so amazingly bad. In this case, the band takes us back to the town they grew up in back in Canada and film the video there and try to match up the visuals of the video with the lyrics of the song. I’m not so sure in this case that this was a wise move. (Nor is deciding that in the video the band should play in the old school gym – it evokes Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the comparison isn’t going to go in Nickelback’s favor.) Let’s take a gander at the opening lyrics:

Look at this photograph. Every time I do it makes me laugh

How did our eyes get so red? And what the hell is on Joey’s head?

The opening two lines to me are fine and hold potential for something more than sentimentality of the worst kind, but the next two signal an inability to think interestingly or critically about the act of looking at a photograph from one’s past. Doing so always holds the possibility of becoming an exercise in nostalgia and this song falls deeply into that rather quickly. How do we know this is the direction it’s going? The only one who might know the answer to the two questions posed in this opening stanza is the one asking the questions. These don’t invite us in, or make us laugh, they actually distance us from the photograph and the song – first because we don’t know the answer to either one and second because in a song we can’t actually see the photograph! (And hence the literalism of the video, where the singer holds up the photo to the camera, but of course it’s too brief to allow us to get a good look at it and to answer the question of what is indeed on Joey’s head. Sigh…)

And then the song goes deeper into the establishment of details that the writer apparently believes will signal place, setting, location – presumably in such a way that will engender an emotional connection (looking for empathy, perchance?) between the listener/viewer and the singer.

And this is where I grew up. I think the present owner fixed it up

I never knew we’d ever went without. The second floor is hard for sneaking out

And this is where I went to school. Most of the time had better things to do

Criminal record says I broke in twice. I must have done it half a dozen times

Yes, indeed, the home and the school, the two staples of the childhood existence. The band has established its foundation here in these lyrics, its home, its point of origin. The lyrics bespeak of modest circumstances at home and a daredevil attitude of sneaking out at night, blowing off school, and yet curiously breaking in to school at other times. (Why break into the school that you’re always skipping? What psychological issue with authority are you dealing with there when you both need to establish that you need not bow to the wishes of “the man” to go to school and yet also feel the impulse to “invade” the man’s fortress. Oh, and by the way, nice detail about how you weren’t caught at least four times – you’re a rebel dude!) In the next stanza he wonders “if it’s too late/Should I go back and try to graduate.” Why would he want to now? What’s his impulse? And I like how he ends this musing with the line, “If I was them I wouldn’t let me in.” No, me neither.

And so we come to the refrain:

Oh, oh, oh. Oh, God, I

Every memory of looking out the back door

I had the photo album spread out on my bedroom floor

It’s hard to say it, time to say it. Goodbye, goodbye.

Every memory of walking out the front door

I found the photo of the friend that I was looking for

It’s hard to say it, time to say it. Goodbye, goodbye.

I don’t have much to say about these lines actually. They just don’t make much sense. There is a bunch of verb tense switches between the present, the past, and the past perfect that are confounding. And why is it hard to say “goodbye” for him? Where does that come from – it’s not like he’s been sharing the happiest of memories with him.

Please don’t make me comment on the “Oh, oh, oh/Oh, God, I” lines. They leave me speechless. Instead let’s go back to the details of the singer’s youth. In the next stanzas he mentions “the old arcade” that burned down, listening to the radio and the promises they made to one another they see “how it feels/To sing to more than just the steering wheel,” and the Kim, the first girl he kissed, who he hasn’t seen “since God knows when.” Again, these details seem designed to establish the particularity of place while at the same time allowing for identification with the details on the part of listeners/viewers who might see in them something familiar with their own experience. This is an old and valuable writing trick, and I shouldn’t denigrate it totally. Lots of writers have used it as a strategy. Truth be told, though, it’s lazy. The band would be better off not worrying about the identification and instead just sticking to the particularity, the specificity of their own experience. The bridge then takes us as deeply into the nostalgia that has been threatening to erupt from the beginning:

I miss that town. I miss the faces

You can’t erase. You can’t replace it

I miss it now. I can’t believe it

So hard to stay. Too hard to leave it

But you did leave it, I want to scream back at him!  That’s why you’re RETURNING! Silly me, perhaps, trying to follow him literally through the song. It’s not like he has shown any allegiance to literalism…sigh. The bridge concludes with these lines: “If I could I relive those days/I know the one thing that would never change” and then the song goes back to the refrain. What is that one thing, that one thing would never change? Not sure. Never articulated. Instead the song goes back to the memory of looking out the back door and getting caught up in the photo album and the difficulty – if necessity – of saying goodbye.

The song ends with a return to its beginning – a structural reprisal of the very actions detailed in the song! How sophisticated! “Look at this photograph/Every time I do it makes me laugh/Every time I do it makes me…” This is in some ways the most interesting part of the song. It echoes the beginning but also maintains the open-endedness of the end of the bridge. Every time it makes you what? And what is the thing you would change? These things aren’t made clear. Maybe this is what moves this song into particularity in the end, and gets it out of the rut of shared nostalgia with every single listener who has ever moved away from home and is feeling a little homesick for his family and his friends and his running buddies from back in the day. But I don’t know. The lyrics are bad. The music is even worse – it’s a frightening amalgam of power ballad/corporate-rock/mope rock/contemporary country that is as off-putting as can be. It denotes anything BUT authenticity, anything BUT sincerity, anything BUT the pain, the reality, of particular experience. This is why I called them “derivative” at the beginning of this post. Listening to it, I just have the terrible feeling that this song went in front of a focus group at some point before it was released and then tweaked to try to appeal to the widest possible market.

So that’s why this song feels like easy pickings for the ongoing series “Songs that are Horrible.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not a deserving member.

The Dearth of Common Sense and the Dead Heart

Just last week, a federal judge in Virginia overturned the ban on corporations making political contributions. This was a natural extension of the ruling last year from the United States Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. The justices in that case declared that the government may not ban political spending by corporations on candidates seeking political election. The decision did not address whether corporations can give directly to candidates – that’s what the federal judge in Virginia has now said is a natural extension of the logic of the Supreme Court.

The ruling in the Citizens United case was that the government did not have the right to impede on ability of or limit the amount of corporate funding that could go toward independent political broadcasts in candidate elections. The conservative group Citizens United sought to overturn the law that had limited their ability to show a documentary about Hillary Clinton close to the Democratic primaries in 2008. This law was part of the McCain-Feingold Act, passed by Congress in 2002 as part of the campaign finance reform undertaken in Congress at the beginning of the last decade.

The disturbing thing for me, as for many others, was the logic that the Supreme Court applied in its ruling in the case, where it ruled in favor of Citizens United because it found the limit to be a violation of the First Amendment. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued, “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” This might seem fine at the heart of it, but that’s simply a facile reading of the First Amendment, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Is Kennedy suggesting that Citizen United’s wish to put out a documentary on Hillary Clinton and to influence an election is somehow tantamount to “the right of people…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”? The documentary isn’t a petition TO the government – it’s a petition (if you want to stretch your definition of the term) to citizens. Or is Kennedy arguing that Citizen United has a right to free speech? I find that curious, to say the least, in that Citizen United is an entity and not an individual. How does a corporation have free speech? Corporations themselves do not speak; individuals do.

I know I’m not the only person who finds it difficult to fathom how a corporation has the right to free speech. This is certainly stretching things further than common sense would allow. I don’t really want to get into a liberal/conservative argument here, or even debate just what “strict constructionist” might actually mean (though it seems to mean one thing in Bush v. Gore and something undeniably different in the Citizens United case). I’m more interested in the lack of common sense applied in the case and how it will have a strong and clear impact on elections and on the country. I understand the need to protect free speech, but I’m not sure corporations actually “have” speech; I’m also a bit unclear on what exactly corporations need to be protected from. From individuals? From other corporations? From the government? It seems that Kennedy and his associates believe the latter, but this seems asinine to me and actually besides the point of the case.

Justice John Paul Stevens, in his dissent in the Citizens United case, argued that the decision in the case did not need to reference the First Amendment at all. The attorneys for Citizens United had actually abandoned their challenge to the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold Act. The Court pressed on, however, and used the case to overturn McCain-Feingold. In his dissent, Stevens argued that the Court had ruled on a question not actually brought before it and had “changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.” He went on to argue, referring to rather plain-old common sense, “few outside the majority of this Court would have thought [American democracy’s] flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Funny yes. Sad, even more so.

Back in the 1980s, the Australian band Midnight Oil put out a song entitled “The Dead Heart” about aboriginal rights in Australia and about the limited power aborigines had in that country. Essentially it was about money and the manipulation of the law to benefit the few who had the power. Near the end of the song, the lyrics grow as simple and as clear as the band could put it:

Mining companies, pastoral companies
Uranium companies
Collected companies
Got more rights than people
Got more say than people

In Australia, the rights of corporations are weighed above the rights of the aborigines, all because of the vast financial potential of the land – for mining, for uranium, for raising livestock. (If you don’t know the song, take a listen. This description of it sounds rather dry and academic. Actually it rocks out and is incredibly catchy – the acoustic guitars and Peter Garrett’s growl are unstoppable!) The context is different in America, of course, but  it seems we are moving in that same direction. The Supreme Court has decided it needs to protect the rights of corporations. The notion that corporate entities have the right to free speech, which protects their ability to influence elections and lawmakers, belies all common sense.

The potential for corporations to have a huge influence on elections is now there and justified. That began with Citizens United. It will grow even larger now that we are moving toward overturning the ban on corporations being able to give money directly to candidates. How many shell companies will be formed to provide cover for corporations to shovel money toward the candidates they will be able to influence once in office – all of which will now be protected? The limitations on individual spending allow the financial contributions of those of us who are not rich to have as much potential influence as those of wealthy individuals. But the wealthy will be much more ready to devise ways to spend their money through corporate shells to candidates, and of course, have more money to spend in the first place. Their influence will only increase, and at a time when the division of wealth in this country is only growing worse and worse.