Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Mary Gaitskill and the Long Day's Walk

Much has been said of the creepy undercurrent of Mary Gaitskill's fiction, her characters' over-the-ledge desires and preoccupations, their cruelty and/or masochism, her seamless flow from ethereal beauty to sticky bodily functions and back. So I won't dwell on those things, because the main thing I take away from her newest novel, VERONICA, is her virtuoso use of a classic modernist narrative structure: namely, the ramble. In the tradition of Leopold Bloom and Clarissa Dalloway, Gaitskill's protagonist Alison takes a long walk and thinks a lot. The skeleton of VERONICA, like the Joyce and Woolf novels, is a day-in-the-life. Alison, an aging, ill former model, walks to work, works, then visits some friends, then takes a bus to a trail head and walks through a canyon, up a mountain, and back down.

The simplicity of this structure allows Gaitskill to riff in poetic and complex ways, embedding the "now" of the story with numerous other nested "nows," as Alison reflects with some wisdom on her life, the ugliness of her career, the nature of beauty, pity, and illness, and the loss of her eccentric, unbeautiful friend Veronica to AIDS.

A word about pity. In Gaitskill's universe, it's not an insult. It's a form of love. And illness is a normal state of being, illness being anything that doesn't conform to external ideals of beauty and health, which is virtually everything. Pity has a universality in her world, and under the skin of each living thing is disease, which sometimes surges to the surface. Disease has the power to take loved ones away from us, but its permanence has the effect of unification too: Alison observes, for example, that through death, Veronica's deep love for her deceased bisexual boyfriend is finally "requited."

And Alison is dying too, more slowly, of hepatitis. Her arm has been ruined by botched surgery, and she pops aspirin often to control the pain. Still, she takes a hike in a Marin County canyon because she wants to while she still can, and the day's journey offers rich moments of rumination on people and their natures. People are nature, nature is people. From the bus, near the trailhead, Alison observes:

I look outside and see a little budding tree, its slim black body shining with rain. Joyous and intelligent, like a fresh girl, the earth all new to its slender, seeking roots.

But later, on the hike, even trees lose their innocence, harden, and get more interesting:

Here is another slim ocher tree naked of bark. It is utterly smooth and, in the rain, so shiny that it looks almost plastic. It is twisted so elegantly, it is like an art object, made to suggest irony and hauteur...I take off my glove and stroke the tree trunk as I walk past. I wonder if it is diseased.

I found the moments of redemption and reflection in VERONICA very satisfying, and ended up copying numerous exemplary passages in my notebook to ruminate on myself, on my own rambling walks. Believe the hype, Gaitskill has outdone herself.

Saturday, February 25, 2006


Here are our first crocus of 2006. All sorts of stuff coming up now. Been seeing these all over the neighborhood, too. Keep watching this space for a play-by-play of our fall bulb yield. Hopefully the squirrels didn't get all of them.

My Knitting Club

Here's my idea of an exciting Saturday afternoon. Work on a sweater I'll wear once at most, and let the entourage pile on.

Until....the action starts. Here's the scene from my POV, looking way calmer than it is.

Angus, using some moves he learned in his years on the Brooklyn streets, "hugs" Boo.

Hey! You wanna piece of me? And the whole household is disrupted. (Hell, I'll blame the clutter on the cats too. )

Friday, February 17, 2006

Lessons on Faith from the Pileated Woodpecker

I was at the farmer's market a couple weekends ago, buying watermelon radishes, when who should be standing next to me, whistling over the sunflower sprouts, but Bill Talen, AKA Reverend Billy. I choked--I always choke when I see writers in public places--and didn't get the chance to say hey! I just read your book! And thanks! So I'll express it here.

I first encountered Reverend Billy about twelve years ago, when the two of us had a regular weekly gig together, a variety show put together by Galinsky of Manhattan Monologue Slam fame. Billy would, in his white suit and clerical collar, stand springloaded in front of us and preach like a banshee, and I often wondered where he was going with this persona, who felt to me more mayhem than message. It was the kind of religious parody that made me edgy, being a good preacher's daughter with respect for my father's beliefs and work (even if I don't share them).

But now, judging by Bill Talen's memoir, WHAT SHOULD I DO IF REVEREND BILLY IS IN MY STORE?, I realize he wasn't exactly sure himself where the persona was going. He was embracing the character on instinct, and he thankfully didn't give up. His approach to art had more in common with my father's community than my art did: he was going on faith. He was getting to know Reverend Billy on those Thursday nights twelve years ago, and in the years since has found a message I can really get behind, embodied by his Church of Stop Shopping. The message: if we wean ourselves from the temptations of genericized consumption, we'll lead better lives.

But I don't want to dwell on the message, you can read that for yourselves. What impressed me in the book was his method: the attentiveness to his environment, the courage to make an ass of himself, and foremost, his faith that if he doesn't know exactly where it is going, it is still worth doing. It is especially worth doing. He embraces the risk of real "story," where the happy (or meaningful) ending is not assured, and has been lucky and tenuous enough to generate some interesting narratives along the way.

I, for one, always love a peek under the hood of art. Like the part where Talen meditates on the Pileated Woodpecker before invading a Starbucks with his choir, then dissects his process a little:

About the Pileated Woodpecker: I was a bird-watcher when I was a kid and I was alone a lot. Now that I'm getting older, these long-dead feathered souls are soaring with me for my political performances. I've been doing these actions more and more, and I now have been revisited by Storks, Anhingas, Loons, Pelicans, Ravens...Their presence seems to make the vulnerable ego something I can leave at home.

...maybe the aviary of memories has power for me because the species I love are disturbingly eccentric. Night herons, fish eagles, snowy owls. They have mutated happily away from the mainstream pigeon on the street.

I recommend this inspiring book, where religion becomes a metaphor for art--and vice versa--where God is odd, where supermodels are called out as the "state terrorism" they are. Let's join Talen in his fight against "marching into dominant, commercial narratives."

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

I'm Reading with boni & Clem

It's this Thursday, 7PM, KGB Bar in NYC. Kathleen Warnock was nice to invite me to guest host and read, while she is tied up with her play, "Rock the Line," which is another great cultural activity I intend to partake in.

Here's more on the reading:

Drunken! Careening! Writers!
Thursday, February 16
KGB Bar, 85 E. 4th St.

With your Special Guest Hostess, Anne Elliott

Anne Elliott is a poet/ukulelist and publisher of Big Fat Press chapbooks. Her fiction appeared most recently in Pindeldyboz (web edition), and she blogs on writing, reading, handicrafts, and feral cat management at assbackwords.blogspot.com. She currently seeks a home for a first novel, THE GLORY HOLE, and a short story collection, LIGHT STREAMING FROM A HORSE'S ASS. Her excuse: she is a preacher's daughter.

boni joi has performed at numerous venues such as The Knitting Factory, Estrogenius, Dixon Place, Gecko's Night of the Living Divas & Chicks Cook, Jennifer Blowdryer's Smutfest, The Carmen Mofongo Show, and The Atomic Reading Series. She has performed in Mortified, a show where readers perform work from their teenage diaries. boni joi was part of Da Bips: Da Bowery Improv Poets, an improvisational poetry troupe directed by Galinsky. boni has read at Amanda Stern's Happy Ending Reading where the readers are asked to warm up the crowd by performing 80's cover songs, which she did, with her musical husband. Her poems have appeared in Arabella, Long Shot, Driver's Side Air Bag, Big Hammer, Mind Gorilla, Torch, The Brooklyn Rail and many others. She is author of The Jaw-harp Aphorisms and hasself-published the Matchbook poems, a series of succinct poems printed on matchbooks.

Clem Paulsen was trained as an architect and practiced architecture for over a decade. His notes from those years have grown into a sprawling comic novel, Drawing a Blank. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson where, with medication and exercise, he has managed to keep his workaholism under control.

And Kathleen's Play:

"Rock the Line," will run at Emerging Artists Theatre, 311 W. 43rd St., 5th floor through Feb 26. It's the story of seven hardcore fans who follow a rock star, and what they do while waiting for the doors to open on the day of the show. (It's inspired by Kathleen's own not-so-lost years following the Queen of Rock, Joan Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeettt).

For more info & reservations (and a couple of pictures of the cast), visit www.eatheatre.org

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Rough Day for Feral Kitties

Well, as they say up in Buffalo, we got dumped on. I, for one, am grateful for a warm home, plenty of food, and good company. Hubby and I tested the Subaru's all wheel drive this morning to go to the diner. We were the only customers there, so we blasted Sinatra and Meatloaf on the juke box. Wilbur is getting his belated white Christmas, and has enjoyed digging and having snow thrown on him.

We haven't seen much of the outdoor cats, obviously. Lots of tiny tracks in the snow...which is deep enough to be over their heads. Junior is hiding in our garage, which has not successfully kept out the snow. Vince crept out of his warm basement in the apartment building next door, and begged to come inside. Against my better judgment (he still marks territory), we let him in. I He likes the fire just fine, and doesn't mind the dog too much either.

Friday, February 10, 2006

More Audio Discoveries

You already know I am hooked on spoken word audio, so I may as well share. I haven't stopped reading, or listening, during my little blog hiatus, and found a few more good ones.

New York Public Library has audiobooks available for download now, free to any library card holder. You have to also download their reading console software, but that's not hard. Some of them allow you to burn CD's too. Now I'm listening to Sol Stein's STEIN ON WRITING. They have lots of books on pdf too, which I imagine would come in handy for students doing last minute research.

The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver podcasts writer events on its website, Authors On Tour Live. Next week they'll be featuring Zadie Smith, and I'll be listening.

Barbara Demarco-Barrett does a great author interview, and podcasts from UC Irvine on her show, Writers on Writing. The focus is also on the business of writing, and we get to learn the story of how each author sold his/her book.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

This Blog Bear Coming out of Hibernation (For Now)

Friends, I've reached my word-cut goal of less than 100,000. The novel may resemble a pincushion now, with all the poking I've been doing, so I'm going to leave it alone for a few days.

One more word-count tool to share: have you discovered the Text Stats feature on Amazon? To access it, go into a book's description page, then hover your cursor over the book's picture. (It only works for Search Inside books, and not all of them even.) Among the menu items that pops up is a stat summary. In addition to word count, you get words per dollar and words per pound, and a comparison to the word count of all other books. There are other stats too, like Fog Index, relating to reading difficulty.

I looked up a few benchmarks for fun. Mitch Albom's THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN is barely 41K words. But Gregory David Roberts' SHANTARAM, which I blogged on recently, is 383K words. (After 300K, you might as well quit counting. And Amazon also tells us that 99% of books in their database have fewer words.) And James Frey's A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, the current benchmark-of-benchmarks, is 170K words. That's 16K words per dollar spent. I wonder if this words/dollar figure will influence the outcome of those reader lawsuits.