Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Spent + Cicadas Serenade Us + Banksy Revealed + Comedy & the Novel

After finishing marking up the 102nd page of one my undergraduate students' independent study projects today (I have one more undergraduate one, an enthralling 300+-page novel; and two graduate ones, a series of stories and another novel, as well as a thesis project of stories to go before the quarter's over, and have been long finished with the honors projects, all of which have been great projects to supervise, as well as the various application files and other kinds of submissions), I realized I should risk the cliché and admit that my mental prose processing mechanism, or wick, or filament, or whatever the appropriate metaphor is, has basically burned out. Or as Vladimir Sorokin might write: BURNED OUT. I bet there are psychological and cognitive science studies on how much the average person can read in a given period, and I think I am usually exceeding whatever the outermost limit is. This evening I tried to pick up Alain Mabanckou's African Psycho and Roberto Bolaño's Savage Detectives, two books I have been reading for and with great pleasure, and could only make it one paragraph in the former and a few sentences in the latter before I had to put both down. With poetry I can do little better. I read a gorgeous few cascading stanzas of a Robert Duncan poem ("radiance"), and then my eyes started to roll. Even reading anything on the Internet is exhausting. As for my own writing... I just keep reminding myself, the summer is just around the corner.


Once upon a time I was entomologically challenged. When I was younger I really, viscerally disliked most insects, especially roaches, and many arthropods, particularly centipedes. I was fortunate that in the various houses where my extended family lived, roaches were rare. But when they made their appearance, it was if I were plunged into my own personal horror film, and if I didn't scream, it was a miracle. Ants, grasshoppers, praying mantides, earwigs, waterbugs, silverfish, and countless other creatures, especially of the sort that abound in the suburbs, were ever present, and in small numbers I could deal with them. (My brother once had to have a beetle--or was it an earwig--removed from his ear after we'd been to camp and lay in the grass a lot. That stopped me from that bit of leisurely activity for a while.) Wasps and hornets often built hives under the front porch awning, or in the corners of this dilapidated carport that separated the front and back yards at my parents house, and more than once I was stung while cutting the grass. (I regret ever wishing that the too-numerous bees, attracted by the tree nursery that eventually became a park behind my parents house, would be gone.) And i will never forget the experience, during my early teen years, of going downstairs in our suburban home and seeing this cloud of tiny insects all over the washing machine and dryer, and thinking, this looks really bad. I made a guess, and was right: termites! An exterminator or two paid visits, tore out some of the rotten wood, sprayed extensively, and all supposedly was well. I kept swearing that there were still things inhabiting the wood down there, but my parents assured me that, no, the termites were gone. The house is still standing, so I guess they knew what they were talking about. There are all kinds of flying and crawling creatures that slip through the screens in Chicago, or that ply the garden in Jersey City, but in general, none of them bother me at all.

My dislike--fear--of roaches persisted into adulthood, and ended--sorry, C, I have to retell this story--when, one afternoon in Charlottesville, at a Mexican restaurant that was on the famous "Corner," I bit into what I thought was a lemon wedge in my iced tea, and it turned out to be a semi-waterlogged roach, which is to say, dead as an ice cube, but still--a roach. While my impulse probably would have been to leap through the ceiling (and land somewhere in southern Maryland), I calmly set the plastic tea mug down, called the waiter over, and let him know that in fact, I had just bitten into a roach. He was obviously horrified and worried that I might start announcing this fact loudly, but I didn't; I was invited in back to speak with the manager, who apologized profusely and promised me a free meal the next time I returned. Of course I didn't. But from that point onwards, roaches have never bothered me. I had an opportunity to prove this supposition when I stayed with a person I knew who lived in Philadelphia, who had, to put it mildly, a very bad roach problem. In fact, it was so bad that as soon as you turned on the lights, roaches went scrambling in all directions, like a crowd evacuating a burning building. In my youth, such would have been my terror that I would have been forced to tell my host, as politely as I could, that I absolutely had to stay in a hotel (or motel), so as not to put him out, but on this occasion, I calmly elevated all my bags and shoes, made sure none of the blankets touched the floor, and slept without a problem. In the morning, I shook out my clothes, bags and shoes to ensure that I wasn't bringing any unwanted guests back, and that was that. In general, I'm fortunate that, as in the past, I rarely encounter roaches of any sort, in Chicago or Jersey City or anywhere else I happen to be.

As for cicadas, one of those common urban/suburban insects, I'm of two minds. I don't find them terrifying at all, but then I haven't seen one in years. I even invoked one (well, because of a rhyme) in an old, bad poem. But I have recently been reading about and hearing the gleeful descriptions of the imminent cicada swarm--labeled "Cicada-palooza" by one of Chicago's sorry excuses for a newspaper, the Sun-Times--that will soon hit whole portions of the US east of the Mississippi, and I have to admit, I am dreading it. Supposedly these cicadas, as opposed to the annual cicadas, have hibernated underground for 17 years and will emerge in droves (5 billion in Northern Illinois alone!) and cover everything in sight or on site like a quivering, electrified shroud. To ensure their future swarming they emit a series of mating noises that have variously been described as a trill, a muffled foghorn, and loud static. (Audiologo, do you know if anyone is planning to record the cicada's cries?). The males "sing" from dawn until dusk, at 104 to 106 decibels. According to something I read today, a swarm once interrupted a speech by Teddy Roosevelt--who I doubt even flinched--and one Chicagoland ice sculptor is so worried about them that he is declining requests for outdoor marriages, for fear that a cicada-furred sculpture might cause lasting trauma for a poor young couple. Instead of making people want to get in their cars and head for fields of Iowa (which are allegedly cicada-less), the radio and online commentators are giddy about these pests, and some are even describing how they will catch the mature adults and larva, and engage in culinary pursuits. Watching all those contests on Fear Factor and Survivor and countless other shows may have lowered Americans' gastronomic thresholds, but I seriously doubt people are going to be feasting on cicada skewers or cicadas Rockefeller or omelettes à la cicade, despite all the boosters. But then I am more concerned about having to bat these things off my car, or worse, pull them out of my hair. But then again, maybe that would cure my lingering unease about them. A cicada (or 100) in the hair is worth two in the....


Banksy Cut OutEileen wrote in the comments section to let me know that Banksy has been unmasked. (If you don't want to see what he looks like, do not visit the link.) I was hoping that Banksy was really a distributed collective of people, based in Britain and other parts of the world, who operated as anarchic, autonomous cells. Oh well. I agree with one of the commentators on the site above that Banksy remains one of the most exciting artists of the last 10 years, though as the New Yorker article-profile on him exemplified, he's now quite famous and being written about in the likes of the contemporary New Yorker (we're not talking about the Robert Gottlieb-edited New Yorker, which expounded for pages on the likes of Richard Evans Schultes, for example), and collected by the likes of Brad Pitt, among others, so despite his politics, any claim to functioning outside the wretched big-money art system no longer carries any weight. What was it that Marx (and Benjamin and Adorno and Marcuse and Althusser, etc.) said about use value and exchange value?

At right is a cut out from Complex.com. If you click on it, you can get to be your own personal Banksy (see, I knew there was a way to encourage anarchic autonomous art!). Spray can not included.

(Thank you, Eileen!)


Finally, speaking of things I have been trying to read, I came across this article, "Divine Comedy," by Julian Gough, on the dominance of tragedy over comedy in contemporary fiction. He calls modern novels "worthy and dull," but I have to disagree on the latter. Was of his assessment is right: comedy is rarely treated as seriously as tragedy these days (ironic, huh?), whether one's talking about academe or mainstream literary institutions. (And comic poetry is widely considered to be even more beyond the horizon than comic fiction or prose.) Yet in an effort to make his point, he's goes a bit overboard. It's also the case that too much humor, especially of the ironic and satirical sort, loses its edge without the intermittent relief of other modes, especially the tragic, or turns into something supercilious and tart. We were supposedly in the post-ironic age after 9/11, though the people who uttered such pronouncements had obviously forgotten about what was going on in Washington, DC, which has been so tragic it's worthy of treatment in ancient comic form.

Of course he says a lot more, including things that will make no religionist and few people teaching literature and creative writing in the academy very happy, such as:

The literary novel, by accepting the embrace of the universities, has moved inside the establishment and lost contact with what made it vital. It has, as a result, also lost the mass audience enjoyed by Twain and Dickens. The literary novel—born in Cervantes's prison cell, continued in cellars, bars and rented rooms by Dostoevsky, Joyce and Beckett—is now being written from on high. Not the useful height of the gods, with its sharp, gods'-eye view of all human classes, all human folly, but the distancing, merely human height of the ruling elite, just too high up to see what's happening on the street below.

Luckily this situation is self-satirising. Campus authority generates campus comedy. The senior academic novelist is trapped in the small world of the university, cut off from the big world, embodying authority yet still driven to write. In this situation the novel, if it is to live, must turn against the novelist. Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge, writing novels at night, attacked their day-selves, their academic selves, as absurd buffoons whose work was meaningless. And the novelist in them was right.

The university model, any teaching model, of necessity implies that there is a Platonic ideal novel in some other dimension, which has all the characteristics that make for novelness and that the more of these attributes a novel has, the more like a perfect novel it is. This concept works for the tragic, it works for the epic, it works (less well, but it works) for the lyric, it does not work for the novel because, as Mikhail Bakhtin has pointed out, the novel is the only post-Aristotelian literary form. It is not bound by classical rules. It is not bound by any rules. The novel is not a genre. The novel is always novel. The novel is always coming into being. The novel cannot be taught, because the novel does not yet exist.

This professionalisation will make poor writers adequate. And will make potentially great writers adequate. Great novelists write for their peers. Poor novelists write for their teachers. If you must please the older generation to pass (a student writing for an older teacher, a teacher writing to secure tenure), you end up with cautious, old-fashioned novels. Worse, the system turns peers into teachers. Destroyed as writers, many are immediately re-employed, teaching creative writing. This is a Ponzi scheme.

The damage this is causing to novel, writer and audience is particularly advanced in America. The last 30 years have seen the effects of turning novel writing into an academic profession with a career path. As they became professional, writers began to write about writers. As they became academicised, writers began to write about writing.

And the language of the American literary novel began to drift away from anything used by human beings anywhere on earth. Thirty years of the feedback loop have led to a kind of generic American literary prose, instantly recognisable, but not as instantly comprehensible. Professions generate private languages designed to keep others out. This is irritating when done by architects. But it is a catastrophe for novelists, and the novel.

Lastly, a series of thesis units, which is your writing time guided by your thesis committee members, will fulfil the required 36 units....

Much of their fiction contains not so much tragedy as mere anxiety. Pushed to look for tragedy in lives that contain none, to generate suffering in order to be proper writers, they force themselves to frown rather than smile; and their work fills with a self-indulgent anxiety that could perhaps best be called "wangst."

He's not talking idly...

After I read Gough's article, I had to ask myself, who was the last comic or satirical writer I taught, and I was able to name several immediately: Donald Barthelme (the inexhaustible), Franz Kafka and Amiri Baraka (who both often straddle the line, edging into the tragic), and Victor Pelevin, and the first and last are consistently among the most popular with my students. In past years I have used comic, satirical and parodic works by a range of writers, from Ishmael Reed to Mikhail Bulgakov to Ben Katchor to Mark Leyner to Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá, though I admit to tending towards the tragic crowd. One of the humor writers I've taught that I most enjoyed learning about and whom students fell in love with was Fran Ross, whose Oreo is one of the masterpieces of 20th century American comic writing. And it was, unfortunately, her only published work. If you haven't read it, run to the bookstore or library, pick it up, and enjoy!


  1. John, your question about the Cicada recordings made me curious and I looked around a bit. But I haven't heard anything about this. There are actually researchers who have been running years-long projects recording the songs of various types of cicada. Plus, a number of phonographers have done field recordings of cicadas over the years so I'm not sure folks are so excited about this. But my understanding is the last big swarm was in 2004, and I think various field recordists did some recordings then. Thanks for the reminder about Ross' Oreo. I've been meaning to read it for two years, 2007 has got to be the year...

  2. Audiologo, I've got something coming concerning these cicadas, and I'll try to post it very soon. But do you know of who might have some of these field recordings?