Thursday, November 16, 2006

PEN Imprisoned Writer Day + Gerald Levert Dies + Etc.

PEN Day of the Imprisoned Writer
Yesterday was PEN's Day of the Imprisoned Writer. I got the email...yesterday. PEN says that

The Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN is marking the 26th Writers in Prison Day 2006 (November 15) with a campaign in defense of nearly 100 writers and journalists around the world who are in prison or facing custodial sentences for alleged defamation or "insult." It calls for the repeal of laws that treat defamation as a criminal rather than a civil offense, and argues that the term "insult" is too vague to have any legal standing as a charge and should thus be scrapped from penal codes entirely.

This is a great and important action, but as I read it through, I thought that for writers out there, every day should be a day to remember that other writers were imprisoned somewhere for expressing their views. Because does one designated day really do justice to anyone imprisoned around the world for being outspoken, a critic, a dissident? I know PEN wants to highlight the plights these literary figures are facing by marking out one day to do this, but I think it would be better if perhaps one day every month at the very least were so designated. Which reminds me, does anyone think our Dear Leader, who is always speaking of "democracy" and "freedom," is going to press this issue with any of the world leaders he chums up to in Southeast Asia? (Hint: China? Vietnam? Indonesia? Myanmar? etc.) Remember to breathe as you wait.

Anyways, back to the imprisoned writers. Here are the ones PEN highlights:

o Turkey—Hrant Dink: editor of an Armenian language newspaper sentenced to a six-month suspended term and two other cases still pending on charges of insult
o Ethiopia—Wesenseged Gebrekidan: journalist serving a total of two years in prison on defamation charges and facing further trials.
o Mexico—Lydia Cacho: writer on trial for defamation and under attack for her book on child pornography and prostitution
o China—Yang Xiaoqing: Internet journalist sentenced to a year in prison on extortion charges that are believed to be in retaliation for posting "defamatory" articles on local corruption
o Egypt—two journalists: each sentenced to one year in prison for articles “insulting” the Egyptian President.
The site has more info on the events that took place and on other PEN projects.

It also got me thinking that speaking of the imprisoned, we should have a day--if there isn't already one--calling attention to the 2+ million people who are incarcerated in US prisons, some of them quite wrongfully, and many on trumped up or outrageous sentences. We could also highlight the fact that rehabilitation has been almost completely replaced with punitive measures, some verging on the extremely cruel, that only worsen the lives of the incarcerated, making their post-prison experiences that more difficult and increasing the possibility of recidivism.

Goodbye, Gerald Levert
LevertI meant to post a short note on Gerald Levert's passing, but completely forgot. But he (at left, was one of those lavishly talented singers who emerged during the late 1980s, my college years, and for a time, with his group Levert, became the voice of R&B. Many of the tributes to him describe his voice, which pulled up soul like a backhoe and showered it over his listeners. His style, which also contained a sizable dose of big-poppa sexiness, spawned a legion of less talented imitators. (Have any of the obituaries mentioned this?)

But even his worst imitators, who try to stretch out a bar into fifteen and sometimes sound like they're gargling gravel, still grasped how exciting--how hot--his style of singing could be. When I think of post-1970s R&B, which has been in decline for more than a decade now, and its most talented male singers, I will always think of Gerald Levert and hear him singing songs--no, crooning is the better word--crooning songs like "Addicted to You." He was only 40--he'll be missed.

Muslim Student Repeatedly Tasered at UCLA Library
AmericaBlog and others have been covering the police assault on a UCLA student Tuesday night extensively, and a bystander in the library captured part of what occurred on his cellphone's videocamera and posted it to YouTube. The LA Times and the UCLA Daily Bruin have also covered it. From what I can tell, the 23-year-old student, who was repeatedly Tasered by police, is an Iranian-American Muslim, Mostafa Tabatabainejad. People present at the library say he was on his way out the door when the incident occurred; the police are claiming he resisted orders. According to the video, the police also Tasered him as he lay on the ground because he did not get up at their obstreperous commands, though it appears he had been handcuffed and could have been immobilized by the Taser shock. He did cry out that he had a medical condition. They also appear to have threatened witnesses on the scene who asked them for their badge numbers or considered intervening. The ACLU is saying that this is illegal. The police's actions, at least as they're being reported, are outrageous and unconscionable. Let's see where this goes.

According to AmericaBlog, you can contact UCLA's interim chancellor at:
Interim Chancellor Norman Abrams
Telephone: 310-825-2151
Fax: 310-206-6030

Adam Kirsch on Thomas Pynchon
There are some critics a writer dreads. Michiko Kakutani, when she offers praise, is fulsome, but when she slams an author, is even more fulsome, in the most negative connotations of that polyvalent word, etching her distaste, sometimes verging on ridicule, like hydrochloric acid. Dale Peck, a talented writer and pleasant person in person, could, when he was at his harshest, impersonate a firing squad in one sentence. John Simon was always good for some charcuterie with figures he deemed insufficiently serious or smart. I won't even get into Harold Bloom, who can be so harsh as to reduce a body of work (for example J. K. Rowling's) to something resembling rendered fat. In his heyday, when he still kept up the pretense that he was a creative writer, Stanley Crouch would really go for the jugular, though it became clear that envy underlined his particularly vitriolic dislike (hatred) of several of the major Black women writers. In general, I think one can say that the harshest critics are at their harshest when they're young and have something to prove, and particular harsh when expressing, whether openly or not, anxiety about their talent in relation to the writers they're taking apart.

I think this last bit applies to critic Adam Kirsch. A few months ago, I posted his critique of Louise Glück's work--he tore the entire edifice of her oeuvre down by singling on what he perceived to be the fatal flaw of her work: its insistent and unredeemable narcissism. Now, I do know of others who find Glück's work unappealing; for my part, I think she is a very good poet, sometimes stellar, and in works like Ararat and Triumph of Achilles, writing at the height of her powers. (Let me just say that I am not one of Louise Glück's protegés and am not ass-kissing; I really do find things to praise in her work.) Kirsch is an iconoclast and demolition man; some iconoclasm and demolition is necessary. But he is also a broadly learned littérateur who likes to make sweeping pronouncements, some of which are grossly advised and mistaken. Nevertheless, an iconoclast, on base or off, looks for icons. Glück is one such figure in the American poetry world. Thomas Pynchon, the ultraprivate, extraordinarily influential author of V., The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow, to name only his three greatest works, is another.

In his review of Pynchon's newest novel, Against the Day, Kirsch attempts to knock the great author flat out--cold. It isn't just that he dislikes the book--he must pass a moral judgment on Pynchon's art in general, and it's a severe judgment indeed. Yet Kirsch isn't without respect, or a hedge. So he begins by suggesting that if Pynchon's lists don't perturb you, then you might not have such a problem with the new work. You might be part of the thralled throngs. But, he says

If, on the other hand, you find that Mr. Pynchon's catalog of lab instruments adds up to less than the sum of its parts; if the sheer feat of touching on every major historical event from 1893 to 1918 seems sterile in its virtuosity; if the kind of ingenuity manifested in Mr. Pynchon's famously weird character names (in the new book we meet Professor Vanderjuice, Alonzo Meatman, Ewball Oust, Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin) strikes you as childish, and eventually sets your teeth on edge — then you will experience "Against the Day" as a neon-lit desert, full of distractions but devoid of sustenance.

For the writer who lives by the list must die by the list, and Mr. Pynchon, in pushing the form to its limits and beyond, demonstrates what a list-like novel cannot do. Multiplicity, it turns out, is not the same thing as complexity: Complexity requires syntax, and syntax is just what the maker of lists must forswear. Human meanings — psychological, social, spiritual — require other kinds of structure than the infinitely repeated "and" of the shaggy-dog story. That is why Mr. Pynchon's meanings, in "Against the Day" as in his better books, are finally inhuman, Manichean, utopian, and dystopian. He believes in conspiracies, not histories, including the individual histories that the novel was invented to tell.

So Pynchon's polysyndetonic prose is, by its very structuration here, a major part of the problem. Too much is placed side by side, stretched out, un-prioritized (which is what syntax does), and the result is sterile emptiness, a barren ocean of prose. This summation might seem to suggest a technically oriented critical reading. However, what Kirsch goes on to derive from all of this, categorically you see, is that the meanings in Pynchon's works in general are "inhuman...." "Manichean." And, in what I think is one of the most acid characterizations, because of what it implies, "utopian." Which is to say, it has the whiff of something utterly unreal about it--and, as becomes clear further on, Marxian-Soviet. Whew! And he ain't done yet!

He continues

"Against the Day," then, will inevitably be read as Mr. Pynchon's contribution to the genre of post-September 11 fiction. Yet by comparison with the other major novelists who have addressed this theme, he displays a surpassingly crude moral imagination. This is a novel, after all, in which most of the heroes are proud terrorists, committed on principle to murdering plutocrats like Scarsdale Vibe. Writing about such characters in our own age of terror, one might expect Mr. Pynchon to have given some thought to the rights and wrongs of political violence.

As I view it, the underlying critique here is a moral one, and a moralistic one. In Pynchon's fiction(s), the meanings do not comport with Kirsch's sense of a moral universe, the abundance of naming, the lack of syntactic variation symbolic of a deep flaw, an inhumanity, a dystopic view, a reading which fails to grasp what Kirsch has previously noted, which is that the book functions and can be read as a parody--yes, that's right, as the form and mode of literature that operates through imitation with a critical, often ironic function--and so if the work is parodic, and ironic, might it not be the case that the unmitigated violence, which functions on the diegetic plane of the novel's discourse, might reflect Pynchon's having "given some thought to the rights and wrongs of political violence," which is to say, that it's really a metanarrative and metadiscourse that is critical by sending them up, parodically, rather than in the sort of earnest, realistic prose that Pynchon has never written?

But Kirsch isn't finished, by half:

In fact, however, his attitude towards violence is childishly sentimental, and ruthless in a way only possible to a writer whose imagination has never dwelt among actual human beings. Mr. Pynchon's heroes (the poor, the workers, Anarchists) assassinate and blow up his villains (mine owners, Pinkerton thugs, the bourgeoisie) with no more qualms than the Road Runner has about dropping an anvil on the Coyote. In the novel as in the cartoon, good and evil are unproblematic, death is unreal, and sheer activity takes the place of human motive. The silliness of "Against the Day" about the very subjects where we are most urgently in quest of wisdom proves that, whatever he once was, Thomas Pynchon is no longer the novelist we need.

"Childishly sentimental," "ruthless," "a writer whose imagination has never dwelt among actual human beings," "as in the cartoon," "silliness"--"no longer the novelist we need." My God! Who is the "we" Kirsch is speaking of? The post-literate US population? The literary world in general, which saw the value of Pynchon's gifts before the critical world caught on? The elite conservative-leaning critics like Kirsch who were never particularly fond of Pynchon in the first place? America, run (into an abyss) by a "childishly sentimental" yet "ruthless" idiot and his cabal who never seem to have "dwelt among actual human beings"? My mother used to say when someone was overreacting that they had a "hair up their ass." I always thought this phrase applies to Kirsch, who really is going overboard with Pynchon; perhaps he should return to the paragraph where he comprehends at base what Pynchon is doing or trying to do--a parody--and then rethink this hatchet job. Perhaps the book has its failings, perhaps it's nowhere near Pynchon's best, perhaps in its bloated 1,000 pages it really is a failure on multiple levels, but to turn the critique into a moral judgment of the author, especially at this strident, pitch strikes me as a shriek whose source lies in something beyond the realm of this text or any other.


  1. There's so much here. I wanted to thank you for really memorializing Gerald Levert, but thanks for all of what you've posted here. UCLA: that was horrifying.

  2. And yet there's something so intellectually envigorating about a really nasty, acutely articulate hachet job. For myself, I find my uncertainties about a given author, all my vague ideas concerning her (or his) work, instantly attain clarity in the presence of such sharp opinions. Useful for that, if nothing else.

    Just yesterday, having read a long, fascinating article in the New York Review of books I sat down in a Barnes and Nobles cafe for a couple hours with Donald Hall's new collected work, Jane Kenyon's, and Gluck's new book Averno (couldn't resist that title, as a Latin teacher).

    I do have my favorite poets, whose work I read constantly, but I don't read poetry at all systematically, so I didn't know these three. I couldn't get into Kenyon at all, but I would have bought both the Hall and Gluck (had I 60 bucks to spare). Gluck? Narcissistic? Maybe. But in her case that designation reminds me of the distinction between "conceited" and "arrogant" as explained by my father: one is fatuous and unearned and for the stupid; the other justified, and backed by intelligence and genuine accomplishment. She (Gluck) is great!

    Kai in NYC

  3. wow, just on the day i begin to doubt whether i could study anything but literature, here is a new police-brutality video, horrific and infuriating.
    so maybe it'll be law school after all.

    i loved your review of kirsch's review! since about 2001 i've been thinking about, but too lazy to actually make, a site or zine of reviews-of-reviews. because why should the first reviewer get the last word? perhaps someone more motivated can go ahead with the idea.