A hierarchy of stress

My "stress card" is green with a blue tinge, so I'm not completely stressed out this morning, but the last few hours have been tense. The computer is really driving me to frenzied frustration. Like most people, I try to control my general anxieties by narrowly focusing them on one, apparently soluble problem, which I hope will be the key to moving on to confront the next, more difficult problem. The difficult problems are too scary to face without that shield.

Here, roughly, is the hierarchy, starting at the top, the absolutely most scary:
A) Disappearance: not mere physical death; that doesn't bother me. In fact, I imagine it as a well-deserved rest, and also an easy escape from all those unfulfilled obligations, whatever they may be when the time comes (unpaid Con Ed bills, forgotten birthday greetings, etc.). No, my fear is rather of ceasing to be recognized by other people as existing, which, when you come right down to it, is the only evidence I have that I do exist. If Susana should die, for example (she is in good health, but one never knows), a lot of that confirmation would evaporate. Regular royalty statements from the publishers of Hispanic Nation would be a lesser, but still significant confirmation -- but for complicated, unexplained and inexcusable reasons (mostly related to the bankruptcy of the original publisher, Carol Publishers), I'm still not receiving them -- though a search on Google shows that the book is still being used in classes, so somebody must be buying it (or else they're all using the same old library copies, on reserve). I don't expect money from the book (I did expect some, and was given false hopes), but at least I want some formal statement of sales.

B) Silence. So my strategy against disappearance includes writing more things that people will read. This seems easier to face than the vaguer fear of just evaporating into nothingness, and also a guarantee against that event. My body can die, but if my words are read, something of my spirit will continue to haunt the planet. Fine. So I write. That seems to be under my control. But this strategy is not valid unless I'm writing my own real things, that express my peculiar being. Writing just to get published is cheating, because what would be left wouldn't be me.

C) Publication, to get that confirmation of my existence. Given my feelings about writing, and that I don't (probably couldn't) tailor my work for the market, that's tough, but not -- I'm certain -- impossible. All I have to do is persist in my search for others (agents, editors, publishers) who (because they have equally quirky imaginations, or are very bold, or maybe just have bad judgement) will work with me. It's happened before.

D) So now I've got my stress channeled down to something I can deal with: Writing letters & e-mails and producing more interesting prose. And my computer fails me! Repeatedly. And this after hours of trying to discover why it keeps stalling, forcing me to restart and lose data, and when I hardly have the resources for any major replacement of either hardware or software. I would risk spending money on technical help, if I could only figure out what sort of technician to go to -- is this an Apple Computer problem, or (my guess) one of my many software conflicts?

So I've got to deal with D to get to C and improve B and create some safeguard against A. Well, now that I've written all this, guess I'll put it on my blog, if nothing else as a way of storing it.


La France, alors!

Faithful readers of my blog -- both of you -- will recall that last month (March 22, to be precise) I predicted that, after trashing Iraq, the Bush administration's next target would not be Syria, or Iran, or North Korea, but France. Et voilà! Look at today's news. This may prove a tougher opponent, however.
The bigger picture: Paul Krugman and "What Went Wrong?"
In case you don't know already, Paul Krugman is a much-honored, market-oriented economist at Princeton who also writes a regular column for The New York Times. He's very moderate, and because of that, and because he's been pointing out the lunacy of the economic policies of the claque that has seized control in Washington, he finds himself labeled a dangerous leftist. (The man has multiple websites, and claims to know nothing about The Unofficial Paul Krugman Archive, but recommends it as the best place to see what he's actually done and written.)

"What Went Wrong?" he asked in his talk last night at The New School, because up until 3 years ago, everything seemed to be going right in the US economy. There had been real economic growth, a recovery from the disastrous Reagan & Bush I years, with a "bubble" -- a "natural Ponzi scheme," Krugman called it, where people were suckering themselves into paying inflated prices for dot-com stocks and everybody was spending like mad -- which burst, so we had a decline but one that was easily fixable. What you do when there's a slowdown -- every standard economic text will tell you this -- is, first, you reduce interest rates to encourage more investment; when that's not enough (as it hasn't been, in this case), you give tax breaks to those most likely to spend the money (not to those so rich they'll sock it away in savings or investments), and you encourage job creation. The gang in Washington has perversely decided to do just the opposite -- huge tax giveaways to those who need them least, starving state budgets and forcing them to cut back on employment, and so on. But you know what's going on. Krugman's question was, Why?

He claimed to be holding out some of his answers for his next book, due in the fall, but I don't think he really knows. He does know a critically important part of the story, though, which is how the economy is being wrecked by ideologues without an ideology (unlike Reagan, with his goofy "supply side economics" theory, they don't even have a rationale for their policies; they just lie, claiming that depression is stimulus, benefitting the rich is benefitting the poor, and so on). Something similar -- widening income disparities -- is occurring worldwide, but nothing like in the US, where, as Krugman puts it, "Gordon Gecko won -- 'Greed is good.'" He is expecting this huge economy to soon be looking like Argentina -- an idea I've already expressed here. (I don't mean to imply that Paul Krugman gets his ideas from reading my blog. Nobody reads my blog, or almost nobody. But the economic danger is obvious enough to occur even to a non-economist like me). I'll repeat another of my earlier bloggisms: The coming economic collapse of the US is going to undermine all our great imperialist adventures. Not only won't we be able to pay for the weapons without heavy borrowing from the Asian countries -- which are already our biggest creditors -- we won't have young people healthy enough and educated enough to operate them.

Madonna, continued
Now she's doing "Like a Virgin" as a sing-along. Crowd must be exhausted, but still enthusiastic. So is she. This is fun. Usually the racket from the street is just annoying.
Madonna -- the small picture
Right now, at this moment, I am listening to Madonna, live. She has a sweet voice. The crowds downstairs have been waiting in the cold for hours, and maybe have got to glimpse her. Up here on the 8th floor, with my window open (it's not unbearaby cold), I can hear her clearly, every word. A block away, as I walked to and from the liquor store on Broadway and back, past the NYU kids and the clothing shops, it was all normal bustle and slacking -- the Madonna hysteria has been a very narrowly localized phenomenon, in this block of 4th St. between Lafayette & Broadway. What does it mean? I don't mean for her. I mean for us, Americans, that a few hundred people who look to be old enough to have jobs will stand out in the cold for hours, in some cases for a couple of days (the earliest ones got wrist bands to actually get in and see her perform in Tower Records)? I guess it means several contradictory things, some of them maybe even good -- because the message of her lyrics is basically pro-tolerance.


Robert Graves
Just did the same thing with an old note on I, Claudius. For a linked index of my notes on fiction readings (the few I've got around to posting so far), go to my Readings page.
Robert Stone
While looking at old notes, I found and have now posted this one I'd written about Robert Stone, A Flag for Sunrise.


The note below reminded me of another novel I read some years ago, so I hunted up my old notes and posted an abbreviated form on my "Readings" page. Now you can read my comments on Ralph Bates' 1936 novel (re-issued in 1966), The Olive Field.

Judging the public's taste

A friend tells me that Javier Cercas' book, Soldados de Salamina, which I read last year, is now a movie, but he's heard that the movie is not a good adaptation of the book. It was sold as a novel, but is really a long, journalistic investigation of an incident at the end of the Spanish Civil War, when retreating Republican troops were ordered to shoot their remaining prisoners but one of them, Falange party founder Rafael Sánchez Maza, escaped. (If you read Spanish, here's my review of the book from last year.)

If the movie is any good, I told him, it couldn't possibly be a faithful adaptation of the book, which is mostly about Cercas' problems figuring out what he was writing about. Now that he has achieved fame and, I trust, fortune, I hope he takes his little pitonisa (Spanish slang for fortune-teller, in this case one with her own TV show) out to a really good restaurant and home for a really good fuck. She deserves it. She was the one who told him that if he kept trying to write about a self-occupied, ungrateful, deceitful failed Falangist, nobody in Spain would ever read his book. So that's when he started on his pursuit of the old soldier.

The old soldier is a wonderful character, but he appears only in the last pages and he's mainly an invention of Cercas' imagination -- that is, the old soldier was real, but his adventures are Cercas' fantasies spun around some very terse statements. My favorite character, though, is the pitonisa. She's an airhead, but she gives good head and, even though she doesn't read, has lots better literary judgment than Cercas.


Last night we saw Shadowman, Part II, choreographed by Sara Michelson, in what may once have been the cafeteria of P.S. 122 (which now means "Performance Space" rather than "Public School" 122) on 1st Avenue and 9th St. (we're talking East Village, for you foreigners from the US mainland). Three elegant young women, two rather clumsy guys, and two girls too young to be up that late on a pre-school night, gyrating in every visible part of the odd space, including, at one point, the fire escape visible through the windows. It was nice, but strange. Various among them kept muttering, mostly in German "Achtung, bitte!" one of the guys kept saying, very softly, and he also repeated numbers: "Ein hundert Kinder, ein tausend Tänzerin, vier tausend Schauspieler!" Perhaps all those children, dancers and actors were phantasmal accompanists. "Unglaublicht," said one of the women as she collapsed, most gracefully but suddenly, at my feet (we were in the very front row). Then she did it again, and again, and grew more emphatic: "Unfuckingglaublicht!" Well, she was right about that. But whether you glauben or not, the ceremony had mysterious beauty. The mystery was just what sort of god, or goddess, they were devoted to. The ecstasy may have been fake, but it was convincing. Then the little girls (with the most elaborate hairdos) passed out cheese and crackers, and then little cups of wine, to us in the audience. You know, because of their concentration on something unseen, and that men and women were dancing at the same time, and that they included us in their refreshments, I think they must have been Bektashis, Manhattan version. (To find out more about Bektashis, if you don't already know, read my novel, A Gift for the Sultan. I know, I need to get it published first, but if you can't wait, write & I'll tell you about it.)



So far, I've escaped the vicissitudes of fame. True, I get about 100 hits a day on my website, but I imagine most of those are random and few stay long enough to remember my name. So I can wander freely around the Village without disguise and without bodyguards.

But I probably could anyway. Bruce Spears, Britney's brother, who lives on my floor, doesn't seem to be bothered by all his sister's fans (she has her own apartment upstairs -- I've probably ridden on the elevator with her, but I wouldn't recognize her; lots of slender, fashionably dressed young blondes go in and out of the building all the time). Richard Gere, who has an office downstairs, got on the elevator with me the other day, normal, unaccompanied, and friendly. I'm sure he's more famous than I, but fame doesn't make everybody crazy. Keith Richards, who used to live upstairs (he bought two big apartments and joined them), did seem crazy, or maybe just high, when I ran into him on the elevator. He crouched in the corner as though trying to disappear. He usually (I was told) came and went through the service elevator in back, I suppose so as to evade crazed fans like me. At the time, I didn't know who he was. I wouldn't even have recognized Cher -- she also used to have an apartment upstairs, but is long gone -- except that she made it impossible not to notice her. One time I barely fit into the elevator with her and her entourage and her hair, which that night was enormous. Tonight or tomorrow, Madonna is gonna be upstairs, in the suite that Tower Records keeps for distinguished guests, because on Wednesday she is signing records in Tower Records (on the ground floor). Maybe that's the real reason the building employees' strike was postponed until next week. She'll be mobbed, I expect -- but, like Cher, she has had to go to a lot of trouble to attract attention, especially in this neighborhood.

So I think that if I should become famous, Greenwich Village will be a great place to do it, because nobody will bother me. Lots of people won't even notice, and the others will pretend not to -- except for the tourists from New Jersey.


Books to put aside

Finally, a decision: I not only know what sorts of things I want to write, I am also willing to admit that there are things I�m not much interested in reading. I have had them on my shelves, in some cases for years, and their presence just makes me feel guilty. I don't read rapidly -- it can take days, sometimes a week, before I get through a novel (I suppose it wouldn't if I made it a full-time occupation, but I also have a life, and can give no more than an hour or two a day to fiction, and sometimes not that). So, just so I can keep track, here are some of the books that I am taking off my shelves and putting in a box somewhere until something or someone convinces me I need to retrieve and read them. Maybe somebody reading this can persuade me.
Buckley, William F., Jr. (1986). High Jinx. Garden City, NY, Doubleday. Well, it was cheap, on a second-hand table, and I was mildly curious to see whether such an obnoxiously supercilious and stubbornly wrong-headed essayist could write amusing spy fiction. But I'm not really that curious.

Danticat, Edwidge (1994). Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York, Vintage Contemporaries. I did try to read this, but it seemed too sentimental & forced to hold my attention. Maybe I'm just tired of the reconstructed folklore of nostalgia. I�d rather read Danticat write about being a displaced Haitian in New York, or read a real Haitian writing in Haiti. I got through her collection Krik Krak, and that was enough of that sort of thing.

Fitzgerald, Penelope (1986). Innocence. New York, Mariner Books. Somebody gave this to me. I don't remember who or why. A. S. Byatt blurbs (from Threepenny Review) on the back cover: "What is remarkable about Innocence is the completeness of its Italianness" So maybe I'll fetch it out when I'm looking for Italianness. But then, why not read an Italian? Like Calvino, whom I love, and some of whose works I still haven't got to.

Fowles, John (1977). Daniel Martin. New York, Signet. Same as below.
Fowles, John (1965). The Magus. New York, Dell. I loved his The French Lieutenant's Woman (liked the movie version, too; very clever adaptation), but couldn't get into this.

Kosinski, Jerzy (1973). The Devil Tree. New York, Hart Court Brace Jovanovich. I may have actually read this and the other Kosinski book some time in the past, and have just forgotten. I did read Painted Bird, I'm sure, and enough essays and interviews to wonder why anybody was paying this author so much attention. His main fictional character was himself.
Kosinski, Jerzy (1977). Blind Date. New York, Bantam.

Paris Review, Nos. 18 & 21 (because I've already read their good parts)

Spackman, W. M. (1997). The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman. Normal, IL, Dalkey Archive Press. Includes: Heyday (1953); An Armful of Warm Girl (1978); A Presence with Secrets (1980); A Difference of Design (1983); A Little Decorum, for Once (1985); As I Sauntered Out, One Midcentury Morning (previously unpublished). Maybe someday I will read the second one-- love that title -- but not any time soon.

Trevor, William (1980). Other People's Worlds. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK, Penguin. I like Trevor's stories a lot, but by now I feel I've read enough of them that I have no more to learn from him.

Updike, John. Couples (and all the Rabbit books, too). He is celebrated for his graceful style, but I've been exposed to enough of that in his essays and the couple of novels I did read -- Coup and the two Blech books. But I read those for their content; I wanted to know about the imagined life of a midlist author (Blech), because I could imagine myself trapped in such mediocrity, and Coup was supposed to be about Africa, and does have some stunning descriptions. But I just don't care about the neuroses of middle-class suburbia. So into the box they go.

There'll be more, I�m sure, but that's enough purging for one Easter morning. For notes on some of the books I have read, go here.