Rembrandts of the Psyche: A Review of Bradford Morrow’s The Uninnocent

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When the concept of evil has been dissected, it’s traditionally been under the supple lenses of art and religion rather than science. A rare exception is Lyall Watson’s Dark Nature, which deploys the tools of anthropology, evolutionary biology, even astrophysics, leaving no stone, earthbound or otherwise, unturned.  Naturally, one notion that comes up is that of the sunnum bonum, the “just right,” i.e. the Goldilocks principle. Evil, in this view, is disharmony, the harmless or benign done to excess.  Indeed, Watson points out that “evil” derives from the Teutonic “ubilez,” “up or over.” Watson also suggests that what we call evil and what we deem good might exist in a sort of an uneasy tension, a push-pull analogous to how forces in the universe interact—think about protons and electrons and their charges, or the way in which gravity and inertial velocity keep the very planets in their orbits. As far as we know, on only one of these planets does evil exist. Yet Watson muses on whether a black hole, the epitome of destruction smack dab in the heart of a galaxy, might be the cosmic analogue of evil.  This sounds a bit like modern-day, astrophysically-enhanced mythmaking, but on the whole surely reflects something of our palpable intuition that evil is something we contain only through struggle, through suppression or repression, the deterrence of law or shame, the viral media being our latter-day scaffolds. If the archetypal devil and angel squabbling at the shoulders, in ceaseless tangle for our souls, sounds too Sunday Schoolish, switch out limbic impulses for the devil and a highly-activated frontal lobe for the angels; the tension, regardless of the language into which it is translated, persists.

In Bradford Morrow’s striking debut collection of short stories, The Uninnocent, released late last year, one can see both of these in action; in many cases, it is characters’ excesses, their going “up and over”—obsessive hoarding, fear, revenge fantasy, greed, or simply being soused 24/7—that hurtle them into their tailspins, equally likely to result in their self-destruction as that of a nemesis. But what, one might rightly inquire, provides the countervailing force, the gravity that keeps these stories from collapsing into black holes devoid of hope or redemption? Continue reading

I Can Read for Miles and Miles: Field Report from the Moby-Dick Marathon

Last weekend I went to the Moby-Dick marathon, an annual event in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where much of the landlubbing early part of the book is set. It’s the second time I’ve attended the Marathon, but I’ve never read Moby-Dick. Ahem, yes. You read that correctly. I consider myself a Melville fan, having read a bunch of his short stories. I’ve been to his house, seen the mountain that is supposed to look like a whale, and I had a t-shirt that said “I Prefer Not To” that I wore to such shreds and tatters that it eventually looked like I preferred Toto. After being a spectator at last year’s 25 hour event, I vowed to call the signup number the instant they started taking volunteers, but like so many vows launched from the spurs of disappointment I got lazy and distracted and missed it by a few days and got a call that said I was on the wait list. High on the wait list. I never heard another word from anyone at Marathon headquarters. But anyway, that’s all besides the point, water under the bridge, under the bilge-pump. I showed up a couple of hours in on Saturday, and it was a great time. It was my third time in New Bedford, and every time I pull into town, particularly walking on the cobblestoned, hilly streets downtown, it’s like being greeted by a relative with a very distinct cologne and hug—let’s call it History. Continue reading

Pop-up Books: An Homage

Last week, as I was picking up some films from the library of my alma mater, the University of New Hampshire, I stumbled onto their small but feisty exhibition on pop-up books (running through Dec. 15th, should you find yourself there). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it definitely wasn’t the first thing that greeted me, a pop-up book featuring, of all things, the works of M.C. Escher.

Where do you think you're going?

If that wasn’t enough to draw me in, did I mention that the other book at the entrance was pop-up Elvis? Continue reading

His Light Materials: Puig, Film, and “Gruesome Tangos”

"So, ya more of a Faulkner or Hemingway-type?"

I hope some of you are reading and digging Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth. In my first post, I talked about the disorienting opening of the novel, which thrusts us right into the middle of pages of dialogue without any sense of how many characters are talking or who they are. The book then goes on to various other chapters of dialogue, including a one-sided phone conversation, and after that into various internal monologues from the “main character,” Toto (it is difficult to call him that in a novel which is so decentered), as well as from other characters in the village of Vallejos. If you are on the fence about reading or reluctant because of the difficulties, I’m here to vouch that .

By the end of the book, if my own experience is in any way generalizable, you’ll want to go back to the opening chapters with some new insight, and will have the experience of being in a country that you’ve lived in for a few months–you may not pick up on every reference, every idiomatic toss-off, but you’ll grasp a lot more than the first time when you were struggling just to stay with the pages. Continue reading

Plunging Puigward: Welcome to La Plata, Mosca


If you’ve been keeping up (or, like me, struggling to keep up) with the Big Other Book Club thus far, you’ve at least dipped into Tom McCarthy’s C and a Mary Caponegro story or two. And in so doing, you’ve experienced some delectable, rich, intricately-knotted sentences. McCarthy’s writing felt mechanical at times to me, or rather it erased the line between the mechanical and the so-called organic in amazing ways, making the mechanistic seem gorgeous. From Carrefax near the opening: Continue reading

Good Old NeonLeaks: Transparency in Politics and Literature

The WikiLeaks story is dramatic on so many levels, with a character at center stage, Julian Assange, worthy of Shakespeare: accused of sexual impropriety and putting lives at risk, touting an idealistic mission of transforming global geopolitics by turning them inside-out, inspiring the creation of a hall of mirror-sites and spawning cyber-attacks on his behalf and counterattacks from all corners. I’m not sure which Act we’re in right now. I am sympathetic to many of the ostensible aims of WikiLeaks in terms of opening and framing a discussion about the actual motives of U.S. foreign policy, and/or making for a more accurate assessment of body counts, especially innocent civilian deaths, for instance, which may have been covered up in Afghanistan and so forth. But that’s not exactly what I’m interested in pursuing here. Rather, what I want to start to explore is this idea of transparency that has become part of our common parlance–at once meme, metaphor, value, tool, call to action, and presumption–and I want to initiate a conversation about its pervasiveness, its relationship to selfhood and privacy, as well as why we are (rightly, I think) so conflicted about it.

The conflict is this: transparency is desirable in many situations–when it comes to how charitable organizations spend donations, when it comes to what corporate lobbyist met with what senator and how many times, as well as what their voting record was. But things get a little stickier when it comes to the self. How many of us, for instance, want to live here?

Perhaps I should wallpaper with WikiLeaks documents?


Continue reading

Only a Loose Stevens Connection

Henning U. Voss and Nicholas D. Schiff (2008) from the Huffington Post

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not playing with a full deck—mine’s missing the eight of clubs and the queen of diamonds, though besides that intact, but for the crease-mark which is a dead giveaway–I mean in the Wild West you’d have been d-e-a-d—on the backside of the club of nines. Yes, you heard me right, the club of nines—that flagrant violation of the anatomy of logic was fully intended to throw you out of the metaphor, toss you out you precisely like a bouncer might toss your numb-dumb self after you tried to show the young lady at the bar that tattoo removal wasn’t nearly as involved as it’s made out to be so long as one has a sharp object on hand, like a what…a Gurkha? A toenail clipper? A cheddar? You tried to skin off a chick’s tattoo with a block of cheese that you’d been carrying around in the inner seam of your coat for? A year? What brought the bouncer round, the mold or your mouth?

I’m veering back and forth here, slaloming amidst metaphors and figures of speech which are then extended as though they are literal descriptions, all of this purposefully, I hope. What I want to get at is Robert Sapolsky’s really cool and thought-provoking argument in his New York Times Opinionator column of the other day, “This is Your Brain on Metaphors.” Continue reading

Jeans Are the Bass in the Rock Band of an Outfit

So, hey–

New here on the blogroll–you may have seen me loitering about the comments, strewing opinion shrapnel–I wanted to introduce myself by way of a ridiculous extended metaphor and a concomitant anxiety. First the analogy: an ensemble of clothes is like a musical ensemble, guitar/bass/drums to be exact. A shirt plays lead guitar…ruffled or sequined, paisley or emblazoned with a message, it’s allowed to wander around a bit in the upper registers, bend notes, solo,  show off, call attention to itself. Pants are more like the bass player–under the shirt, they anchor it, and can be inventive, but in ways that are subtler than the shirt’s inventiveness; they’re not off soloing, and are instead more functional, steady and dependable. Shoes are, as you’ve already guessed, the drums, and it’s no coincidence that they are the earthshakers, the rhythm-makers. Hats  are…I don’t know. Something has to be done with hats in the analogy. Hats are saxes? Lead singers? Tsampounas?

We’ll definitely need a place for the Tsampouna in the analogy, but maybe not today. The point is…it’s an okay analogy, maybe not a great one, maybe not one that as an author you would want to assert, but one that you might put in the mouth or mind or a character, for sure. A character who is perhaps slightly alienated or somewhat absurd, obsessed with rock bands to the degree that s/he sees them everywhere, translates everything into their language, plays air guitar not just in the privacy of home but on the suspender cables of bridges. Said musicophile might try to explain to his or her significant other that music is like an outfit–might try to bridge the gulf between them by doing so, and the reader might see the gulf widening all the while.

What do you do with such thoughts–thoughts that have some validity but probably won’t hold up under scrutiny? Do you assign them to your comic characters and have fun with them? Do you try to sculpt them or rein them in until they conjoin with other thoughts and maybe become stronger? Do you put them in a document entitled, “Semi-idiotica.doc” (or now .docx)? Do you tweet ‘em/blog ‘em? Do you refrain from doing so because who knows, you might be less inclined, once it’s been tweeted and maybe retweeted and thrice-”liked” to find it urgent to have that character spouting off about it in what might otherwise have been a moving, tragicomic scene? I wonder whether yesteryear’s napkin-scrawl can maybe too readily be proclaimed to the whole restaurant…

Napkin booklet