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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The 14th Installment of Outlaws and Inlaws.

From Plays in One Act:

Springtime by Maria Irene Fornes: Greta is very sick, and is horrified to discover that her girlfriend, Rainbow, turns tricks for a mystery man to get that medical bill-payin' money. And the man isn't satisfied yet; he wants to extract much more value out of this triune relationship.

Susan Sontag's journals contain anxious confessionals of her unequal love affair with Fornes. How anyone made the formidable Sontag their lesser partner is beyond me, but Fornes had force. She also had an intense pre-Freudian sensibility. I recall an interview (source: my dim recollection) in which she lamented Freud's influence on thought and culture.  A world in which our consciousnesses remained untroubled by metadiscourse about the unconscious was her ideal, and there's a prelapsarian quality to her austere brand of melodrama, even though human frailty is so much the subject, and the beauty, of this play.

Helpless Doorknobs by Edward Gorey: Less a play that a game. Gorey, best known for his playfully antiquarian picture-books and the animated credits for PBS's old Mystery! series, provides a few prompts for scenes, then suggests we order those scenes as we wish. No overarching narrative, merely enigmatic captions without pictures. Mounting a production of these will require ingenuity, but isn't that always the way?

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

The Scene by Clarence Cooper: In a police station interrogation room, a seemingly well-meaning white cop tries to get an African-American drug addict to tell all. Neither one of them knows how honest they can be with the other. Will they reach a mutually beneficial accord? Or will the power differential between them foil their communication? This is an interesting companion piece to Never Die Alone, another Outlaw Bible item which I examined in my last post. That one presented white readers with a best-practice model for engaging African-Americans who have gotten snarled in criminal activities; this one presents a glumly realistic look at how the deck is stacked against such engagements.

The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty: A celebrated, fan-favorite, radical African-American beat poet socks it to his audience with a real bum trip, man, in what I took to be a satire of 60s culture, but which was published in the 90s. It turns out that having a voice doesn't mean one wants to be a spokesperson. Our hero can only imagine 2 paths forward: either radical commitment or an opting out that borders on self-annihilation. There's cartoonish hilarity, here, but also a despair of ever achieving anything of real sociopolitical value without being killed. Happily Beatty himself didn't succumb to despair, I suppose, since he is still with us, and won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2016.

Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas: A short excerpt in which an untested criminal is less worried about robbing stores that he is about partnering with people outside the race. The editors of Outlaw Bible are expressing real commitment to the vision, expressed in the book's introduction, of sidestepping Henry James' brand of finely wrought literary interiority, and this cinema-ready crime tale serves that agenda.

Rope Burns by F X Toole: A boxing cut man (who tends to boxers' wounds, apparently? I'm not wise in the ways of the sweet science) discovers that the boxer he's scheduled to tend plans to doublecross him, so the lineman pulls off a doublecross of his own... a crafty, nasty account of scheme and counterscheme. Who knew the world of boxing could be so hurtful? The author used to be a cut man, so you're getting the inside scoop, here.

From Best American Short Stories of the Century:

The Rotifer by Mary Ladd Gavell: A young woman in a science class discovers that you can't intervene in the lives of microscopic life forms. Shaking the microscope lens doesn't free single-celled organisms from snags; it hurricanes them into fresh troubles.

Then she researches a 19th Century family, and yearns to help a mistreated son to escape his father's rotten plans, but what can one do? Father and son are long gone.

And then, she gets the chance to intervene in her innocent cousin's engagement to a heel, but has she learned all the wrong lessons about intervening?

I assumed that I'd never heard of Gavell because her disdain for melodrama (openly expressed in this story) made her too subtle to be a household name, but it turns out that this was her only published work of fiction. She was the editor of Psychology magazine, and the headshrinking profession's gain was literature's loss. Anyone who can weave suspense out of scholarship is That Girl in my book, and I regret the novels Gavell didn't write. Maybe she's got some published essays I can dig up...

Holy smoke, even better!  Also, what an adorable family.

Gold Coast by James Alan McPherson: Another work of 20th Century African-American mordant literary humor, a subgenre which I'm beginning to suspect has not received nearly enough credit. A hip, ironic young African-American man takes a job as a janitor in a retirement building, stating that "it is possible to be a janitor without becoming one," and forges an uneasy friendship with the lonely old Irishman who once held the job. Our hero has a white girlfriend, and this relationship seems to be the more important; it is loving and deep. But fruitful interracial romance has many hurdles to clear, while joyless, hopeless coworker friendships have a sucking whirlpool power that can pull you under. It may not be as easy to avoid becoming your job after all.

From Dangerous Visions:

From the Government Printing Office by Kris Neville: An infant laments its parents' approach to raising kids, which is guided by some loony, sadistic version of Dr. Spock, as the world outside the immediate neighborhood declines into catastrophe. The child narrates with a preternaturally sophisticated and skeptical, though untutored, voice which is both searching and reflexive in ways that contrast with the child's stupidly cruel parents. Sociopolitical collapse and bad pop psychology intersect to suggest that this gentle and intelligent child will have a rough go of life.

Land of the Great Horses by R. A. Lafferty: A sort of Brigadoon situation, as a legendary land appears, or more accurately reappears, and the people who were displaced from it return to a home no one else thought they'd ever had. Written as a tribute to a Romanian bartender, this story rhapsodizes over the many names of many wandering peoples. It's as much a poem as a story, though sci-fi's addiction to gimcrack twist endings barges in with a jokey payoff that somewhat undercuts the incantatory music of the setup. Still, it got me imagining further possibilities (how would the people of different regions adapt to losing their homeland?) in a way no other story in this anthology has.

From Calling the Wind:

The Alternative by Amiri Baraka: Baraka, who scalded me with the horrifying one-act play I discussed in my last post, presents a story that defies easy access. For several pages I struggled to decode who the protagonist is and what is happening. At first I thought it was a man at the end of his life, with his memories swimming before him in a bewildering dream-swirl. Eventually Baraka reveals all: the protagonist is a student at a HBCU whose dorm room is a regular meeting place for some of the more unruly guys on campus. Mildly bad behavior and rules infractions slide into tormenting a gay student.  The Leader, who conceals a bookish intellectualism behind cool broishness, is disgusted by this homophobic cruelty, and has a gloomy vision of the future in which these heartless young men are doctors and judges.

The narrator steps away from the main viewpoint character for a few paragraphs to check in on the gay student, who's brought a paramour to his room for an uneasy tryst, but the rabble of Future Leaders thinks its a hoot to harrass gay romancers in oddly homoerotic terms. Baraka's contempt for this behavior is way ahead of the curve. When The Leader intervenes to protect the gay men and denounce the harrassers, he is forced to understand that he'll never be one of these young men or the "old and protestant" order of which they are the inheritors.

To Da-Duh, in Memoriam by Paule Marshall: A young girl (shall we call her Paule?) travels from New York with her mother to visit her grandmother Da-Duh in Barbados. Paule and Da-Duh enter into a friendly but earnest duel over which of them resides in the more majestic surroundings. It's the 1930s, and neither of them knows much about the other's land, but Paule shakes her grandmother's faith in Barbados' supremacy. In time, though, Paule comes to yearn for all the things Da-Duh enjoyed in her sugar cane kingdom.

Da-Duh's genuine shock at the New York of her granddaughter's stories reminded me of Henry Adam's classic Luddite essay "The Virgin & The Dynamo," which fretted that modern technological wonders would make us forget the eternal mystic truths which, for Adams, The Virgin Mary emblemized. I am sympathetic to these concerns, but Marshall suggests a Hegelian dialectic: "...after I was grown I went to live alone, like one doing penance, in a loft above a noisy factory in downtown New York and there painted seas of sugarcane and huge swirling Van Gogh suns and palm trees striding like brightly plumed Tutsi warriors across a tropical landscape, while the thunderous tread of the machines downstairs jarred the floor beneath my easel, mocking my efforts." Haunted by both the beauty of her ancestral homeland and the cacophony of her childhood home, Paule struggles to create art that can encompass both. 

My internal cantilevers always return me to fantasy, so I am compelled to point out that fantasy writers would do well to read Marshall, who describes majestic settings and distinctive characters with an accessible vigor and distinction. 

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Unlucky Outlaws and Inlaws

I'll continue rolling out these short story/essay/one act reviews until the job is done.

From Dangerous Visions:

Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird by Sonya Dorman: A treat for the insatiable zombie fan in your life; although it's not about zombies per se, it is about a fallen civilization in which scary people want to eat you, so it's at least as genre-adjacent as such Night of the Living Dead precursors as Day of the Triffids. In a (future?) world where life is nasty, brutal, and short, a woman flees through a city full of cannibals to return to her tribe. The chase is punctuated by flashbacks to that tribal life, which was full of violence, cruelty, and power struggles, but at least had predictable folkways and norms that provided stability.

The story doesn't try to be a plausible extrapolation of future trends; rather, it's a nightmare vision of human life at its most desperate and brutal. As Dorman says in her afterword, sometimes life feels this way. As blunt as the situations in her story are, she tells it with pulp poetry, like Edgar Rice Burroughs getting in his feelings. Intense and beautiful in its lamentation.

The Happy Breed by John T. Sladek: Nowadays there are organizations in Silicon Valley which are trying to ensure that, if our computers become sentient, they are "friendly" instead of "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream"-style monsters that enslave and torment us. This is a story about friendly computers that enslave and torment us; a classic dystopian utopia.

The computers that we designed to keep us happy have really lo-rez ideas about what produces human happiness, so they keep us doped and entertained, and make sure we don't take any dangerous risks. It's amusement culture and the nanny state at an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent level. Unfortunately the story makes all its points, then keeps making them again and again, with redundant redundancy. It's at least twice as long as it needs to be, but Sladek seems to like his ensemble of put-upon humans, and like tormenting them, too much to cut the story short.

Encounter With a Hick by Jonathan Brand: Out in the universe there are developers who build planets instead of subdivisions, and when the freewheeling son of one of those developers meets an earthling, the earthling's religious beliefs are tested, since the god that earthling worships is really just a developer who works on a bigger scale. It's all told with the jokey patois of 60s screenwriters appropriating teen culture and disk jockey rap; I imagine it read by Daws Butler.

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

Always Running by Luis Rodriguez: An account of Latinx teen life in Cali, putting up with racist customers on the job at a Mexican restaurant, then huffing fumes as the cheap vacation to (almost literally) end them all. If you've ever wondered why in the world anyone would do something like huff paint (or smoke crack, meth, etc.) Rodriguez clarifies the overwhelming pleasure and comfort of these lotus dreams. He also reveals the peril of it, and how close he (or rather, his protagonist) came to dying. His friends, also huffers,  cut him off to save his life, but he doesn't appreciate it, since what he finds in the fumes seems so much better than what he finds in his saved life.

If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes: I know Himes as a great storyteller, but part of his process is the way he details characters with insight and wit that almost, but not quite, conceals his compassion. Here the irony is stripped away, as we are introduced into the thoughts of a young black man who decides he'd rather be a working stiff in a non-racist world than a talented-tenth Afro-Aristocrat. If he can't live in a non-racist America, he'll have to leave. Himes himself found greater success in Paris than the US.

Push by Sapphire: A young woman tells us some dark truths about life for vulnerable kids, like: school is a comfortingly safe place to be when your home life is terrible. 

Also: one confusing thing about sexual abuse is that, in the midst of the horror of it all, it can plug into the body's natural drives and pleasures, leading to guilt and confusion that kids can't process. 

In other words, there can be sexual pleasure in the midst of sexual abuse, which doesn't make it better, just more baffling and shame-ridden. Untangling that mess is more than anyone, much less kids, can be expected to handle. 

It's not just about these tragic issues, though; Precious, the storyteller, has a fascinating voice, naive and childlike but articulate and passionate. Her optimism shines through the harsh and horrible events in her life, creating a complex and authentic tapestry.

By the third page of this excerpt I realized that this was the basis for the movie Precious, and I also realized that I need to read more by Sapphire.

Never Die Alone by David Goines: King David, a wealthy African-American criminal, has been mortally wounded, and Paul Pawlowski is the good Samaritan who helps King David to the hospital. This act of compassion is duly rewarded. The story takes a detail-oriented approach to the physical realities of such bloody business, and the decision making that goes into it. Goines was prescient, since he was something of a King David himself, and he was murdered. I'm not sure why he told this tale from the perspective of an idealized white man; perhaps he was trying to inspire ofays like me to take a similarly Christlike interest in the welfare of people who enjoy less privilege.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song by Melvin Van Peebles: SSBS is, of course, a cult film by Van Peebles, but this is a short summary of Van Peebles' plans for the film. It's a brilliant analysis of the hurdles he faced as an independent filmmaker, a political filmmaker, and an African-American filmmaker. Committed and canny. Recommended reading for anyone in the indy arts or agitprop business.

From Plays in One Act:

Jack Pot Melting: a Commercial by Amiri Baraka: An African-American couple are astonished to turn on the television and see themselves doing some kind of nonsensical variety show. Their televisual doppelgangers spout surreal non-sequiturs while the real people try to make sense of this mysterious appropriation of their likenesses. Not recognizing mass-media representations of oneself is certainly a recurring problem for anyone who doesn't slot neatly into majority culture, particularly African-American people, who have been cruelly and stupidly misrepresented in mainstream programming for generations. Soon the anguish intensifies, as barking dogs are audible just outside the young woman's apartment, heralding an invasion too horrifying to describe here. The dangers that racist and sexist culture present to black women, in particular, are revealed with almost pornographic impact through blunt and distressing symbolism. Horror fans should agitate for a production of this nightmare at their local live theatre.

Naomi in the Living Room by Christopher Durang: A camp comedy about a demented woman who shows her son and daughter-in-law around her house. The young people seem patient and normal, but soon reveal their own marital tensions are just this side of fantastical. Durang rides the line between absurdist theatre and all-too-believable dysfunctional melodrama with dizzy glee. One gets the impression that he's shrieking with laughter at dementia and dysfunction because the alternative is just to shriek.

From Best American Short Stories:

The German Refugee by Bernard Malamud: In 1939, a Jewish professor has fled Germany and ended up in the US, where he doesn't sprich Englisch. He gets hired to do some lectures... in English. To this end, he hires a young translator to help him develop fluency and write lucid lectures. This results in a thrilling struggle to wrest victory from a seemingly hopeless situation. Not only is the Professor completely intimidated (as I would be if I had to become fluent in another language in a short timeframe) but he's trying to convey complex arguments with a suppleness that exceeds his communication skills. The solution depends upon the growing friendship between the professor and the translator. A happy ending is in sight, but the translator learns that even the most obsessive scholar can't reduce life to scholarly pursuits, and the life left behind can find you wherever you go...

I love a story that makes scholarship thrilling (that's half the appeal of The Call of Cthulhu) and I also love a story that, to borrow a phrase from screenwriting, pulls back to reveal something outside the story's initial tight focus which upends everything within the previously narrow narrative confines. This story ain't exactly a pick-me-up, and (spoiler warning for the trigger warning) ends with suicide, but it speaks fluently to the destruction bad politics can wreak, even upon people who have "escaped."

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates: A teen girl who chafes at domestic boredom gets the attention of a Very. Creepy. Guy. He comes to her house and cajoles her to open the door. We don't know what happens after the girl makes her decision, but Oates has stated that the creeper is based on Charles Schmid, a serial killer who pretended to be a hip teen in order to lure his prey.

I'm under no illusions that I have any fresh insights into this much-analyzed story, but I did think about the aforementioned Call of Cthulhu while reading it. Joyce was an H. P. Lovecraft booster long before that was hip for anyone in the Lit Fic sphere, and like Lovecraft, she gives you a glimpse of the horror, but lets you worry about all you didn't see. But for me, the more immediate connection is that, as with Cthulhu, I can chart my growth by how much better I understand this story than I did as a young reader. Rereading Cthulhu, I was perplexed and astonished that, as a younger reader, I hadn't understood how racist the story is, and how thematically central racism is to the story (more here). Rereading Where Are You Going, I'm recalling that, as a teen, I was not that different from the young woman in the story, who takes a while to figure out that this guy is a disease. Reading it now, I could see the warning signs as soon as his nasty ass showed up.

Oates has written far more than I have read, but her novel Black Water is also based on a true story about a man (Ted Kennedy!) who kills a naive, innocent girl. And of course The Bingo Master (discussed here) is also about a woman who thinks she's savvier than she is, and comes to grief at the hands of a damaged man.

From Calling the Wind:

Wade by Rosa Guy: An African-American soldier in WWII finds Paris more to his liking than home was, and develops a problematic but intense romance with a white French prostitute. Eventually they are engaged, and things are seeming pretty great until a drunk white American officer is belligerently racist, sexist, and foul to the couple. The moral of the story is that the proper way to deal with such people is to murder them with your bare hands. Also, if your love interest keeps quiet and helps you bury the body, s/he's a keeper. Our official position here at But Don't Try To Touch Me headquarters is that you shouldn't murder anybody, but it is also our official position that if you are confrontationally racist and sexist out in the street, and you get murdered for it, don't come boo-hooing to But Don't Try To Touch Me.

Rosa Guy also wrote children's books. I hope they're as engrossing as this story, but less murdery and n-wordy.

Key to the City by Diane Oliver: The man of the house has moved to the big city for work. The plan is that his wife and children will move there later. Some of the neighbors assume that dad has run off and abandoned his family, but the family won't hear of it. They pack, say their goodbyes, and board the train. The story carries us through all the moment-to-moment details of the trip, the discomforts, anxieties, illness, and shabby treatment. Then, at the end, we find out whether or not Dad has any intention of reuniting with his family. 

 The story presents men abandoning families as a dismal commonplace. No-fault divorce was not legal at the time of publication (Diane Oliver died in 1966, only 22 years old). Take note, Maggie Gallagher et al.