Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Beginnings and the Endings of Things

Historian Richard White on conclusions: “Lives are not stories. A day, a month, a year, or a lifetime has no plot. Our experiences are only the raw stuff of stories. The beginnings of our lives are arbitrary; usually their endings come too soon or too late for any neat narrative conclusions. We turn our lives into stories, and, in doing so, we can stop them where we choose. Our stories do in a small way what memoirs and autobiographies do on a grander scale: they allow a self-fashioning that gives remembered lives a coherence that the day-to-day lives of actual experience lack. History, of course, also imposes coherence, but the historian works with less malleable stuff than memory. Memoirs are seamless; good histories disrupt.”

White makes an interesting but problematic distinction. He’s correct to say that the stuff we experience daily is no more formed than clay; and that to assume that our autobiographical stories have neat endings is to is to give in to Art (shape, mold) as seductress. But a memoir — whether it’s narrative with its seams artfully hidden, or essayistic and rambling — is a history, of the writer, of a mind, of an environment, of a life. Montaigne notes that our selves change (at least) daily: what greater disruption can there be? What more vivid manner of “self-fashioning” can there be when yesterday’s truths collapse into today’s scrutiny?

It’s the essayist’s job to render incoherence artfully, to allow memoir and history — a duo White suggests are in opposition — to blend. And if I work with my history filtered through memory, than surely that history will be rendered malleable, but no less true, no less historic.

I like Samuel Butler: “Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.” That's the movement, from darkness to light, mystery to knowledge, that the autobiographical essayist has to learn.

"The Conclusion" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, May 28, 2010

Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found

Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, my book about the Killer's incredible night at the Star-Club in Hamburg in 1964, is out now in a new edition. I've cleaned up some small factual errors, so now's the time to grab it if you haven't yet.

To celebrate, here's a clip of vintage Jerry Lee recorded in England a few weeks before the Star-Club appearance. You better sit down for this, though you'll be standing by the end.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Deceit and desire

When I was a kid I was thrilled and geekily honored by a particular fact from my family history, announcing to my friends on the playground at Saint Andrew the Apostle: my great-great-great-great-grandfather signed the Bill of Rights!

I wonder now if I misremember the genealogy: was it a distant grandfather whom I trumpeted? Or a distant cousin? Anyway, I was too excited then to really care how one of my relatives ended up involved in a supremely historic moment in our nation’s history. To sign a name for posterity, to inscribe one's identity on a parchment that generations hence will study, revere, dream of...this knowledge was head-tingling for me, and I felt at once an eight-year-old boy in Wheaton, Maryland standing on a blacktop playground, and an historical person, my distinct features blurred, only a human shape now, a bodily link in a long chain leading back to democracy's origins. Growing up in the shadow of the nation’s capitol as I did, I always heard the heavy breathing of history. De riguer were class tours and family outings to our country’s great historical monuments, but when I learned this fact about my own bloodline my sense of participation in the many cliches of our Founding Fathers kind of thickened.

I've never bothered to question the veracity of this family fact. As a kid I naturally assumed its truth, bore it to my breast with innocent, excitable pride; this was something that could make me unique, that other kids would talk about: d’ya hear what Bonomo said?! In the hyper-drama of second grade, a personal link to Ben Franklin was as cool as anything else.

I lied with spectacular ease when I was young. I lied to my friends about sneaking with my best friend Karl into my neighbor’s house by climbing down their chimney, then slipping on boots with nails on the soles and jumping up and down on their waterbed. I lied that there was an Elton John album titled Pussy — and got in big trouble with Sister Irene for that one. I indulged all of the time, mostly, I think, because I had awfully gullible friends, and because I could — I enjoyed even then the play of fiction rubbing up against fact.

The attraction for lying wore away as the years progressed, but now I wonder: maybe I made up the story of my great-great-so-and-so signing the Bill of Rights. It could have been a lie I told that, retelling to myself for many years, has become a kind of truth. What else have I made up, what other pasts have I invented? My very history seems at stake.

"211/365 Truth" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"I looked for you in my closet last night"

Violence breeds fascination. I stumbled on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet while flipping through the cable channels during a visit to my parents' house a summer night two decades ago. Lazily on the couch I watched — what? Something I didn't entirely recognize, as I was participating in something — some world — I didn’t recognize. Lynch’s bizarre suburbia reflected my own terrain out the rec-room window only in surface details; the lurid underneaths, unforgettable to anyone who’s seen the film, slowly percolated up to the surface as the minutes passed. As in Van Gogh’s Night Cafe, the room tilted asymmetrically, the television light intensified, colors got gruesome. And I found myself unable to look away from the screen, from the violence.

This macabre desire is what the movie’s about: the yearning to watch (from the safety of our closets) others’ bizarre tumbling into bad language; untranslated, these others remain isolated, frozen, somehow satisfying us by their proximity.

(Once, in a museum in Washington, D.C. I literally bumped into the actor Gene Hackman, who was in the midst of a whirlwind visit to the gallery. I shuddered when I recognized him, inches away: not out of star-struck awe, but because I had watched him act so menacingly in No Way Out the prior evening; I wanted to get the hell out of there).

Blue Velvet has lost a bit of its edge for me, partially because Lynch in his subsequent tv and film work turned in on himself a bit, repeating much of what made the movie so fascinating cinematically, thus reveling his game. Though what we take for granted can eventually loom up in a violent metamorphosis, when we take extreme violence for granted—if, as artists, each image we nurture balances precariously atop fury—we tend to numb, lured back to placid fields by their promise of serenity and ballast.

I was a credulous viewer, not a studious critic: I don’t mull over what was troubling with the film on an artistic or aesthetic level, but that it simply troubled my sense of personal safety and moral certainty. I remember the textures in myself, rubbed the wrong way, more then I recall the textures of the film. Specific scenes continue to goad, however: the infamous closet incident; Dean Stockwell crooning Roy Orbison, a cad singing to his rubber sex-toy doll; the decomposing ear in the field; the final, Darwin-perfected image of the postcard songbird masticating the insect against the backdrop of suburbia. What I remember most is my violently beating heart, the capricious fear that someone might walk into the room while I was watching and I’d feel compelled to quickly switch to another station.

It felt like discovering porn when I was younger: but the dirty magazine stuffed giddily behind a tree in the woods becomes the family TV nestled in the comfort of one’s home. Camille Paglia argues that the television set has become the modern-day hearth fire: gather around and let Katie Couric’s shadows flick across your face in the new eternity. That which we tuck safely away in the dark of woods becomes exposed in the harsh glare of the room of recreation. Welcome to the Twenty-first century.

Image of David Lynch courtesy of _tiki and Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, May 14, 2010

On Montaigne & Bangs

“Anyone who turns his prime attention onto himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice” (Montaigne). Which I why on days when I’m feeling the pull toward the petty confession, toward the shallow but no less human end of things, I turn to Lester Bangs. I don’t know that there’s a greater example of Montaigne’s “obedient servant of naive frankness.” Patricia Hampl writes of listening to Fats Domino at a freshman mixer, of the intimation of sex’s “heavier pleasure” there but denied her; Bangs heard sex and rock & roll too but he barreled right in, decorum be damned. Made a career of it, in fact. “New Year’s Eve,” originally published in 1979 in the Village Voice, is a rollicking, confessional piece of raw, funny autobiography, equal parts arrogant, sheepish, profane, and repentant.

In other words, it’s a mess, and it’s terribly human. Bangs takes his reader along on several New Years’ escapades (the majority of which are actual, one or two are fictionalized and named so), blurting out his ill-mannered, adolescent behavior, especially where women, hard drugs, and rock & roll are involved, which is nearly every page. We become Bangs’ buddy at the bar, his leery friend at the suburban party, captive to the writer’s legendary prose energy. bull-dozing narratives, and album collection, nodding, wincing, laughing, rolling our eyes. What rescues the essay’s considerable lewdness (and meanness) from fatal self-indulgence is Bang’s acknowledgements of his own weaknesses, and the courage it takes to flay them so publicly. He’s an infamously honest writer, rarely to a fault, as his candid lookatthisshitIgotinto shines light in shameful corners, the personal geometry that we all embody at some point. (As a lark, read it alongside Charles Lamb’s “New Year’s Eve,” written a couple hundred years earlier, for two era’s tonally-different takes on the intimate and the personal.)

I turn to Bangs when I need inspiration to pave the way toward a little brutal self-interrogation. Montaigne again: “We are entirely made up of bits and pieces, woven together so diversely and so shapelessly that each one of them pulls its own way at every moment.”

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mirror, window

Here I am in the early Twenty-first century astride a rusted, disused railroad track somewhere in the hot, sunny Midwest. I'm alone in a semi-abandoned field, the rumble of trucks behind me a kind of sonic wind. I'm interested in this deserted rail, and in my wavering perch.

The rail's history, or mine?

"Langford Train Tracks" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Saturday, May 8, 2010

On autobiography and deus ex machina

I’ve been thinking about memoir and the “god from the machine,” about the desire for conventional, recognizable resolution in our remembered lives. I write autobiographical essays, sifting the near and far past, leading musically rather than episodically. In The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, Sven Birkerts: “Memoir begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning—with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story.”

Right: an inkling that in the midst of randomness I’ve found a subject. But discovering subject does not mean that I’m discovering shape, that Freitag’s Triangle emerges. The beginnings of things are usually messily tied up with the endings of things, and vice versa. The reason that “rite of passage” and other threshold episodes appeal to us is that they provide structure, a sturdy frame on which to stack important incidents, valuable memories we’ll dust off occasionally. It’s a self-imposed structure, of course; the secure nuts and bolts rust and weaken over time as we proceed forward and an event’s significance take on a Protean quality.

I write essayistically and I think essayistically. Part of the process is recognizing that in essaying I enter a dark, unfamiliar room. I risk stubbed toes and whacked shins, not to mention disorientation, some fear, and the disquiet of the unknown. When we write autobiographically do we long for a god to descend from the crane, or ascend through the stage floor, to provide us with answers, clear fates, closure — to the flip on the room’s light? The thorny issues and problems that we explore in essays — the past’s illusions, the heart’s indictments, the body’s thrills and betrayals, the mind’s hapless chances — are in most cases unresolved and how pleasant and entertaining it would be if life offered contrivances that tidied up the problems nicely, and provided fixed, satisfying resolution. We turn to conventional fiction for the artful shaping of lives where justice is meted, where positive endings arrive, where epiphanies, those old-fashioned kicks-between-the-eyes, strike and we are forever changed.

But in essays, the rules are different. The internal logic of our lives is confounding, irrational, obsessive; epiphanies fall away from us almost as soon as they bless us. We survey the past for larger shapes and designs, but they shape-shift.

Nietzsche’s complaint: “an earthly resolution for tragic dissonance was sought…. The hero had become a gladiator, granted freedom once he had been satisfactorily flayed and scarred. Metaphysical consolation had been ousted by the deus ex machina.” Sure, but I might have welcomed a descending god to relieve me of the playground politics at St. Andrew the Apostle School, or to have provided surcease and resolution to the ongoing compulsions, petty and profound, that plague to this day. Metaphysical consolation is all well and good, but it’s hard to spend; there’s no place for deus ex machina in autobiography.

"Comix Ex Machina" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.