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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

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Tolkien Versus Lovecraft Smackdown Supreme, Round One

There's no debate that both J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and H. P. Lovecraft, author of The Call of Cthulhu and probably some other things, are monumental figures in 20th Century dork fiction, and I celebrate them both for that.

But which of these professional daydreamers is GREATER? 

Clearly, there is only one way to settle this question once and for all. 

That way is to compare and contrast these 2 books: 

I realize this is a terrible photo, despite a handsome cat; let's just move on.

After The King, Ed. Martin H. Greenburg, and Cthulhu 2000, Ed. Jim Turner.

From time to time I'll be dipping into these mighty texts to ascertain which festschrift makes the stronger case for its chosen auteur.

Let us begin this momentous task.

Representing J. R. R. Tolkien, Samuel R Donaldson presents Reave the Just (Trigger Warning: Rape and abuse).

In this story Jillet, an affable town fool, falls in love with a beautiful and wealthy widow, little knowing that she is being held prisoner in her own home by an abusive rival suitor. As part of a desperate multi-phase wooing scheme, Jillet claims kinship with Reave the Just, who is basically Objectivist Batman, which is the worst kind of Batman. Jillet ends up imprisoned by his rival, until Reave the Just gets wind of this kinship claim and appears in the home/prison to figure out what's going on. He turns out to be Reave the Victim Blamer, telling the widow, who remains unnamed and is regularly raped by the villain, "Why have you not helped yourself?... Why do you not resist him?" 

This invigorating pep talk turns out to be exactly what abuse survivors need to encourage them to bust loose and defeat their abusers. Yay happy endings.

The story seems like a folk tale reworked in a 19th century style, with an ironic, nearly all-knowing narrator glossing his characters', uh, character. It's a skillful pastiche that bears its length well, and is sprinkled with fun all-knowing-narrator style character insights. Still, at the conclusion one realizes that one has basically been reading a Batman story in George Eliot drag.

In the other corner, playing for H. P. Lovecraft, F. Paul Wilson unloads The Barrens.

A woman who grew up in the New Jersey Pine Barrens region reconnects with an ex-boyfriend who claims to be researching The Jersey Devil. He enlists her help in getting tight-lipped rural folk to talk with him, but it turns out he's really more interested in pine lights, some kind of natural (OR IS IT?) luminescence. As the twosome work themselves deeper and deeper into the forests, and deeper and deeper into rural stereotypes (moonshine and inbreeding, etc.) they find a creepy barren patch which is the guy's real objective...

This story is WAY longer than it needs to be, written in a careless, bland prose. It doesn't help that I was reading a Mary Gaitskill story at the same time; Gaitskill embeds backstory in the midst of her tale with concision and effect, like hyperlinked koans, while Wilson pounds everything out with tubthumping obviousness. Wilson is better with location, creating a piney wilderness that feels welcoming and forbidding in equal measure. 

Spoiler warning: the tale ends with the guy being physically transformed into We Know Not What, but, in a grace note so understated that I'm not sure Wilson (who shows little interest in understatement) intended it, the hero may be transforming into a Jersey Devil.


Tolkien, as represented by Donaldson, is the greater stylist, with a defter touch at characterization, and a more complex approach to storytelling. He plays with the timeline of the tale and lets the narrator, though third person, emerge as a central character. 

By contrast, the female first person narrator in The Barrens feels more like a spectator to the action. Her emotional journey mostly consists of announcements about her feelings for the male character. The Barrens does end with an authentically Lovecraftian conclusion, though, insofar as the protagonist has come to a drastic realization (to paraphrase: "Now that I know this barren field is a portal to a mysterious place where people get physically transformed into something gross, I MUST KNOW THE TRUTH about it, so I'ma gonna go back to it and get myself disgustingly transformed, because I MUST KNOW THE SLIMY TRUTH") that she insists follows logically from the story's events, but which, in fact,  doesn't (see also Dagon by Lovecraft, which I addressed somewhere in the middle of this characteristically overlong post).

However, in a stunning upset, Tolkien (via Donaldson) is also more problematic, what with the mansplaining about how abuse survivors should go all Ms. 45.  

I think a triune rubric is revealing itself:

  • Prose, richness of.
  • Thematics, sophistication of.
  • Problematics, problematicness of. 
Under this rubric, Team Tolkien scores much higher on Prose (Donaldson's tight pastiche outshines Wilson's baggy blandness) and modestly higher on Thematics (Donaldson's insight into the value of sustaining institutions and education for helping fools like Jillet to perform beyond their own means, and which I should probably have mentioned earlier, beats Wilson's theme that knowledge is worth getting turned into a ridiculous monster for), which is good, but also higher on Problematics ("Why didn't you fight back?"), which is bad. 

Round One goes to Tolkien!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Outlaws and 15laws.

I read some more stuff.

From Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

Sister of the Road by Boxcar Bertha: Bertha rides the rails while pregnant to see a man she loves for the last time before his execution for a robbery gone bad. There's a lot of interest here; he's a gentleman thief who fell in with a desperate crew whose more violent brand of crime proved to be his downfall. He begs Bertha to say the baby's his, which she can't do with any confidence; it's all very sad, but Bertha's co-writer, fellow hobo Ben Reitman, writes with a drippy old-fashioned sentimentality that I doubt bore much resemblance to Bertha's real style. It smells like they spritzed some juniper on it to make it suitable for the parlour, and that is not what I want from a hobo's memoirs.

Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie: A crew of tramps crowd into a boxcar until a luckless few, including Guthrie, have to clamber on top and ride in the rain. Guthrie does not sentimentalize the experience; he fills you in on every ache and inconvenience of the experience. Any yearnings I had to clamber into a boxcar have been squelched. Guthrie's displeasure is reserved entirely for the rattles and rain, though; he paints an affectionate portrait of the interracial band of travelers, and ends on a mixed note of gloom and cautious optimism about the train's/hobos'/country's direction that adds depth to my appreciation for Guthrie's hard-won patriotism.

Grand Central Winter by Lee Stringer: A crack addict holes up in a subway hideyhole, but one night when the crack's not on tap he starts writing instead. Turns out he's good at it, which sets him down a path of recovery. He is indeed good at it, a witty yarnspinner who brings gentle irony and restraint to a story that humanizes a desperate junkie.

You Can't Win by Jack Black: Not the actor Jack Black; this guy was an itinerant crook, but he was another crackerjack yarnspinner. Black's detailing of criminal activity, accomplices, and travels to (and, crucially, from) one crime to another, is shot through with rueful philosophizing about the folly of crime and the complexities of fate.

Beggars of Life by Jim Tully: Another tramp turned talespinner, Tully breaks down the joys (none) and sorrows (many) of backbreaking toil. He has great respect for the workers who took him in when he needed it, even though they didn't have so much as some tooth powder to spare. Tully as also a boxer, and he writes with pugilistic oomph. 

From Dangerous Visions:

The Recognition by J. G. Ballard: A shabby circus tiptoes into town, and the narrating protagonist helps them set up, just because the gloomy staff seems unequal to the task. The circus' only attractions seem to be structuring absences, and if you don't like that then you don't want any of what Ballard has on offer, even though he writes with lovely precision, and watercolored touches that balance his astringent intent.

Judas by John Brunner: There's a religion that worships a robot as God. One of the robot's designers wants to put a stop to this nonsense. Loads of howlingly bad expository dialogue as only science fiction can provide, accompanied by one of Ellison's most passive-aggressive introductions.

From Plays in One Act:

Life Under Water by Richard Greenberg: Emotionally troubled children of privilege try to find a way out of their elders' moral compromises. Lots of beach house action, as depressed youth navigate the perils of friendship and love; meanwhile the even hornier adults on the scene justify every doubt the kids have about their parents' amorality. Witty dialogue is present but held in check, not upstaging the seriousness of the characters' delicate efforts to make connections. Clinical depression is treated seriously but with a light touch. 

Four Baboons Adoring the Sun by John Guare: Two newlywed archeologists bring their gaggle of children by prior marriages to their dig in Sicily. The parents have many ambitions; they want the children to bond, and to be infused with their parents' ardor for Sicily, mythology, and one another. But while the parents leverage mythology to provide structuring narratives, they forget that mythology also enacts lethal passions. When their elders daughter and son bond too intensely, things build to a tragic conclusion. Guare has a magnificently theatrical sensibility which presents uncountable challenges to any production. I suspect this show doesn't get presented too often, just because it would be an awful lot of work for a one-act. 

I'd LOVE to see it, though.

The Problem by A. R. Gurney, Jr.: Remember that scene in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life where the Protestant couple discusses sex with cool, sexless diffidence? This begins like that, as a married couple considers the wife's surprise pregnancy, and an increasingly complex tale of sexual misbehavior ensues. Spoiler warning: This seemingly absurdist play turns out to be an entirely naturalistic portrayal of an erotic narrative game. The show is kink-friendly, but also soaking in white privilege, as the couple indulges in race play and condescending fetishization of various races. Its good-fantasy-bad-reality understanding of erotic play is tonic to a point, and certainly fantasies don't have to be politically correct, but the play just won't stop being horrible about race, and a play that says so many degrading things about people who might be in the audience can't be judged with the same latitude as a private affair can. A problem indeed.

The Key by Isaac Bashevis Singer: A paranoid widow gets locked out of her apartment, and doesn't trust the super, or anybody, to help her, so she ends up on the street. Unusually for these kinds of literary stories, things get better, as she has a spiritual reawakening and turns everything around. Singer patiently carries us through the little details of this woman's misadventure, and with the "free indirect discourse" that James Wood taught me about, he dips into and out of the woman's thought processes, giving us a sympathetic yet unsentimental presentation of how she got so scared of life, and how she broke through the clog of fear. Very inspiring.

City of Churches by Donald Barthelme: A young woman is looking to start a business in a town where every building is, first and foremost, a church, with residences and businesses operating within the church buildings. She hasn't done any due diligence, since her business model (car rentals) is a bad fit for the community (no one wants a care, because why would you ever leave?), but the deeper problem is that the church thing is an overcompensation for unaddressed insecurities the locals can't face. Our heroine promises to upend the city's norms... 

Barthelme critiques the de facto non-separation of Church and State that Ive seen at play, sometimes, in the South. He has nothing bad to say about Christianity or any other religion, but letting the earthly institutions of Christianity overwhelm the community doesn't sit well with him or his heroine. She wouldn't be a threat to a normal churchgoing community, but to this city she may be a revolutionary.

From Calling the Wind

A New Day by Charles Wright: An African-American man takes a job as a driver for a wealthy older white woman. He's not sure he can trust Ms. Davies to treat him with respect, and her blend of tests and rewards are very, very trying... This story dramatizes the way that uncertainty hangs like a sword of Damocles over every interracial interaction between strangers, and asks tough questions about fair vs. unfair employee testing. I've not seen or read Driving Miss Daisy, but I can't help wondering if this story about driving Miss Davies planted a seed.

Night and the Loves of Joe Dicostanzo by Samuel R. Delany: Two men live in separate parts of a brooding Gothic castle where "the air was dusty with moonlight" etc. Both of them claim to be, through some forgotten sorcery or technology, the creators, not only of this castle, but of each other. Both men can, indeed, create companions from nothing (one favors beautiful female lovers; the other prefers lively parties), but one of them might be running some kind of elaborate, conspiratorial psychological program on the other. Or might only think he is! A locked room with horrifying sounds coming out and homoerotic bad-boy intruder complicate matters further. 

Delany is a master of highly cultivated yet thrilling literary fantasy. He writes with luminous specificity that suits adventure storytelling quite well, and choreographs action with cinematic clarity and dynamism. The conclusion is ambiguous but not fuzzy or disappointing; quite the opposite. A lot of narrative and thematic richness packed into 16 pages. Runs rings around almost anything in Dangerous Visions.

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.