Hi folks! I’m still reading those anthologies of short fiction.
From Dangerous Stories:
New Riders of the Purple Wage by Philip Jose Farmer-If you think Robert Anton Wilson was the great American novelist of the 20th century, or you reject the notion that the Firesign Theatre ever did a bad album, then you owe it to yourself to read this gobstopper. Otherwise, you owe me $5 for reading it in your stead. After chewing my way through all hundred-or-so pages of it, I’m deeply grateful that I’ll never have to read it again.
Basically, a young artist in a whimsically imagined but dire future is trying to achieve enough glory to escape his family’s apartment, while his grandpa, who’s like R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural reconceived as a Catholic tax evader, continues to evade his Javert. The mere plot, though, is scribbled over with loads of jokey psy-kuh-delic clowning; page after page after page after page of allusions, puns, and other such textual antics. I’m open to such things in theory; I read Pynchon, after all. But, as they say on Project Runway, I’m concerned about Farmer’s taste level.
Digression about Yes: Any fan of the band Yes knows they were at their best when Eddie Offord was their producer. After he left, their near-perfection became a grab bag of good and bad ideas. I suspect that Yes had talent, but Offord had taste. The band could produce all kinds of ideas, good and bad; Offord helped sort through those ideas, separating the jewels from the jive. With him gone, there was no one to do this work for the rest of the 70s, and they devolved into Pre-Raphealite stadium rock.
Farmer, in this story at least, comes off like Yes without a sharp producer, splattering ideas and effects all over the place, swamping the occasional good idea under an array of ill-chosen effects and flatulant bombast. He invokes and evokes a range of writers both lo-brow and high (Edgar Rice Burrough’s flare for action has found an apt pupil in Farmer) but the sub-Finnegan’s Wake psychedelic folderol comes off as more modish than meaningful.
Also, the story has rapey humor on the second page (don’t worry, folks; turns out She Likes It!) and extreme body shaming (the protagonist’s mother is obese, and no war criminal was ever chastized more angrily than is mother for her weight). More sexual violence (by the protagonist, against his girlfriend) occurs midway through the story; it’s appalling, and Farmer seems to think it’s completely justified. The girlfriend is portrayed as a shrill whiner for protesting her violation and wanting an abortion. Or as Harlan Ellison puts it in his introduction, “Philip Jose Farmer is one of the few truly good people I know.”
From Outlaw Fiction:
Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles: this excerpt begins with a frame story, in which a western man, Port (who, based on what I know of Paul Bowles, may be homosexual) and an Arabic man, Smail, visit an Arabic woman who makes them some tea. Smail low-key flirts with the woman, who gently rebuffs; Port’s impatience with this flirtation probably speaks for generations of gay people waiting for clumsy hetero courting to yield the floor to more interesting pursuits. The woman requests that Smail tell a story...
The story he tells is about 3 women who yearn to have tea in the desert. It’s no spoiler to say that their attempt to put this plan into action doesn’t end well. The moral of the story seems to be that following your dreams can get you killed if you’re foolish about the risks involved, which could seem banal, but not when it’s conveyed with the existential cruelty, mingled with romantic poeticizing, that gives the story a subtle flavour as entrancing as a good cup of hot tea.
Cool For You by Eileen Myles: 3 pages in the life of a bibliophiliac girl’s mind, written with the lively directness of expression and complexity of thought you might indeed get if you persuaded a brainy young woman to tell you what she’s really thinking about. She ponders heavenly bodies, both real and imagined, and libraries, and the connection between art and astronomy; all expressed with a visceral, embodied sense of how it all matters, but in ways that are only evident to a sharp girl in a library. I am now an Eileen Myles fan.
Junky by William Burroughs: Before cutting up and folding in, Burroughs wrote with a noirish hard-boiled terseness about the zombie life of the drug addict. It’s a lot like a detective novel, but the plot isn’t directed by a mystery or investigation as such, only the drifting quest for the next hit. “Bill” just fumbles along and overrelies on other peoples’ goodwill. A glimpse of Burrough’s future work appears in a brief bad dream: “the human form can no longer contain the crustacean horror that has grown inside it.” Lack of affect and lack of effect, but conveyed with a crystalline clarity. Tellingly, one of Bill’s friends warns him to stop relying on guns, since a gun is no damn good in the hands of a hopeless screwup. If every American understood this, we’d have far fewer gun-related injuries and deaths.
Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien: O’Brien portrays alcoholism that manages to be fun for as long as the drink is available, and kinda fun when the drink is unavailable as long as one is able to schematize the next batch of booze. Alcoholism is one problem I’ve feared but avoided, largely by going long stretches without drink so that when I do have a glass, one glass is sufficient. Nevertheless, I know how wonderful life feels when you’re so thrillingly sozzled that you can only manage to do one thing, like sit down, with the kind of effort and focus a sober person might expend on shooting hoops. That’s a once-a-year treat at most. For our hero, it’s a daily deal. And he’s loving life, but the severance pay on which he’s subsisting is only gonna last so long. The prose is so cheerful and zippy that we accept that a person might choose to bollux up his life this way, but O’Brien implies, without yet showing, how joyless the crash will be, when it comes; or how much centrifugal force it’ll take to head that crash off.
From Best American Stories:
Wild Plums by Grace Stone Coates. A haughty father heaps scorn on the friendly hillbilly neighbors, while bossing his quietly resentful wife and bored little girl. The girl, who narrates, yearns to join the neighbors on their plum-picking campouts, but fraternizing with the unwashed is forbidden. She finally gets a taste of forbidden fruit, but this isn’t a story of straightforward defiance; it’s about regret and yearning and sneaking a taste of the good stuff. My ex-Calvinist heart understands.
Theft by Katherine Anne Porter: A single woman in New York bops from guy friend to guy friend, keenly observing how carefully everyone tries to stay socially and economically afloat. Then her purse gets stolen, and her confrontation with the thief ends in a victory, but also a glimpse of how bad life might yet get. Porter writes with such inventive, perceptive prose that this dunking in hopelessness is endlessly rereadable; it’s like a catchy sad song.
That Evening Sun Go Down by William Faulkner: A poor black woman dreads her violent ex. For help she turns to the well-to-do white family that sporadically employs her, and we soon see that, for a black person in America, you don’t get to need too much. I don’t know much about Faulkner as a person; they say he was racist, but however wrong his views of race, he was still a sensitive recorder of how selfishly and perniciously white supremacism works. It’s not like in tinseltown movies that portray America’s racist past as a matter of a few mean people, with a nice white savior or two for modern white audience members to identify with. As Faulkner shows, even white people who want to help don’t want to help all that much, and soon give in to all the other white people who insist that frightened, vulnerable black people aren’t as worthy of help as slightly inconvenienced white people. Throughout, a young white boy obsessively explicates who is or isn’t a n-gg-r, with the zeal of a model student. Faulkner shows us how structural racism begins with (mis)education; whatever his intent, this story is an indictment.
Here We Are by Dorothy Parker: An anxious newlywed couple can’t stop spatting and sparring; the eustress of marriage shifts into distress, and the ways they take it out on each other establish what we can tell will be patterns of conflict that last throughout their marriage. The old saw that men are dumb and women are crazy gets a thorough airing; he’s dumb enough to rhapsodize about how hot the maid of honor was, and she’s crazy enough to start a trench war over everything he says. Happily the paradise of love that is my marriage bears utterly no resemblance to any of this. Parker is the most famous wit of the Algonquin Round Table, but her humor is shot through with heartbreak. The laughter stings.
Crazy Sunday by F. Scott Fitzgerald: an ambitious screenwriter, a lonely starlet, and a miserable producer in 30s Hollywood; are they a love triangle, or is something more nebulous happening? Nobody covers this terrain with livelier melancholy than Fitzgerald. Marred by the kind of fleeting, pointless racism that was practically mandatory in pop culture of the time; otherwise this is pretty near perfect for those of us who like Old Hollywood and social complications.
From Calling the Wind:
Sanctuary by Nella Larsen: A young black man on the run from the law seeks shelter with the mother of his best friend. Things take a nasty turn or two. The question under review is: which loyalty takes precedence; loyalty to family, or racial solidarity amongst African-Americans? Loyalty to the State tries to elbow its way into the equation but gets elbowed right back out. Recently awakened debates about when black women should or shouldn’t defend black men show how urgent these issues still are; this story doesn’t so much choose a side as reveal how urgent these issues have always been.