Where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?

Fifty years after his assassination in New York’s Audubon Ballroom, the name Malcolm X remains synonymous with militancy and rage, with the angrier voice in the Civil Rights Movement. If Malcolm Little’s path to becoming Malcolm X and, before his death, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, is the hero’s journey, with all its epiphanies and tribulations, then Martin Luther King Jr. is the stranger who had come to town.

No two men could have been more different. Where X was accusatory and inflammatory, King was diplomatic and measured; where Malcolm was Icarus, flying close to the edge of violence, King was Amos, eroding racial inequality with Thoreau’s civil disobedience. Both men died as martyrs, but I’d like to offer a perspective in which both men were alike, why they were both ideological threats, and why both men remain relevant with one resonant message.

Malcolm X did the one thing that Americans claim to appreciate but seldom respect: he used blunt, direct speech. People will remember his “chickens coming home to roost” after JFK’s death, but forget that he spoke about the equally abhorrent and senseless murders of Medgar Evers, Patrice Lumumba, and the four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing in the same sentence.

Malcolm X was angry, and Anger is easy to reject because it implies the irrational, whereas America could tolerate Outrage, if it is articulated within the framework of that familiar cultural touchstone, the Christian sermon, regardless of denomination. Like musicians, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. rang out their messages in two different keys. Where Martin appealed to the ideals of the New Testament, Malcolm invoked the punitive register of the Old Testament, which makes sense since Islam is a continuation of the Old Testament. Muslims consider themselves the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s half-brother. The irony is that Martin was optimistic, for he spoke to what America aspired to, but lacked the courage to embrace, whereas Malcolm X was a hardened realist, for he spoke about the streets as they were, as he knew them as a petty criminal, and as a citizen of these United States under Jim Crow.

As to how these two men were ideological threats, it is too simplistic to point to events and their biographies, but I think my point will be clear after a brief look at one American writer. I had said that Martin was the stranger who had come to town because he had a better sense of who he was as a person. Malcolm Little did not. He could easily have stood in as Faulkner’s Joe Christmas, an angry, confused man, whose anger and confusion are redirected under the auspices of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X could have been either Ellison’s riot provocateur Ras or the titular Invisible Man, but I’d suggest a different character altogether: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Abe North.

Tender is the Night is Gatsby revisited, with Dick Diver as Jay’s unlikely protégé. Doubt the comparison, then read this:

But to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing the proud uniqueness of their destinies, buried under the compromises of how many years. He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect. Then, without caution, lest the first bloom of the relation wither, he opened the gate to his amusing world. So long as they subscribed to it completely, their happiness was his preoccupation, but at the first flicker of doubt as to its all-inclusiveness he evaporated before their eyes, leaving little communicable memory of what he had said or done.

Is that not Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island? My point is this: there is a section in the 1934 novel that I believe Fitzgerald wrote to both satirize and comment on racial violence in America. That Fitzgerald died in 1940 does not diminish his insight. In the novel, Nicole receives a call from the Parisian police. She is told: “We have arrested a Negro. We are convinced that we have at last arrested the correct Negro.” The police, in doing their job, do right wrong; they make a mistake and identify Abe North, a pianist, as ‘Afghan North.’

Fitzgerald, the pun on Abe for Abraham Lincoln notwithstanding, will also pun on the name ‘Mr. Freeman’ and add some humor when Abe tells Dick to look out for a Negro from Copenhagen who makes shoe polish. The tragedy is that Abe North wants to return to New York and he is murdered, beaten to death, outside a speakeasy. A dark comedic argument occurs after the murder because it is questioned whether a Negro like Abe could have been admitted into the speakeasy. It is a Negro’s blood on Nicole’s pillow that causes her crack-up. The horror of Abe’s violent death is negated for the sake of Nicole’s precarious state: “Look here, you mustn’t get upset over this—it’s only some nigger scrap.”

Malcolm and Martin were alike because both understood that there is no ‘correct’ Negro, so long as he or she questions the status quo, or tries, as Abe North did, to realize the ‘American Dream.’ James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner and Richard Wright can dramatize racism in America, but Fitzgerald did for American letters with Tender is the Night what Molière had did for comedic theatre and social critique three centuries earlier. Martin worked with the confines of legal and moral codes. Malcolm rejected both outright; and both approaches proved fatal.

Martin advocated for dignity and justice throughout his ministry. Malcolm campaigned for nationalism and separatism, often using provocative and polarizing rhetoric, because he had no hope for racial peace and equality in America. Like Joe Christmas and Bigger Thomas, he had seen too much: life was like a dubbed foreign film; the words do not jibe with the moving lips. It wasn’t until Malcolm had made the Hajj, after his break from the Nation of Islam in 1963, that he softened somewhat, for during that pilgrimage he had seen Muslims of all colors.

Why did Martin and Malcolm pose a threat? Why was their message metaphorical, relevant to all Americans? I don’t think that the threat they posed concerned race; rather it had to do with economics. In today’s circles, had Martin Luther King, Jr. continued his course unchanged, he would be called a socialist democrat. The direction that he was taking at the end of his life suggests that he envisioned an all-encompassing ministry for social justice. King was assassinated in Memphis, where he had gone not to speak about race again, but about the inequity in pay and about the rampant discrimination against striking sanitation workers, both black and white. His ministry sought to redress economic disparities among all Americans.

Martin believed in autonomy, yes, but Malcolm also called for economic independence. Through the Muhammad Speaks newsletter, which Elijah Muhammad had started in 1960, Black communities in major urban areas formed their own news services; but it was the militant groups that Malcolm had inspired that made self-defense and separatism a reality, for the Black Panther ‘survival programs’ provided free sickle-cell anemia testing, breakfasts for children, security for the elderly, health clinics and even veterinary services. With economic success, there is self-sufficiency, and Black self-determination would have no need for interdependence with White businesses, or America. Had Malcolm and Martin converged on the realization that though race was an issue, it is economics that is the greater lever for parity?

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Malcolm died in 1965, probably murdered by men he knew and recognized in his final moments. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr met for all of one minute, just long enough for photographs. King died in 1968, taken down by a sniper’s bullet. Malcolm X’s death picture foreshadows Robert F. Kennedy’s. The photograph of the balcony at the Hotel Lorraine is iconic, with accusatory fingers pointing in the distance. Nobody knows how they would have matured into elder statesmen. Martin is not around to give his assessment of whether the Dream has been denied or deferred, fulfilled or coopted by opportunists. I wish that I could listen to Malcolm’s opinion on ISIL, who are, as he was, Sunni Muslims. By 1968, ‘Black’ had replaced ‘Negro’; the term African-American came into use later, at some uncertain date. I suspect that Malcolm would see the name-change as no different than corporate shell games and the con man’s skilled hand at distraction. He would remind us that we had been ‘hoodwinked’ and ‘bamboozled’.

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A Defense from the Gutter: the case for Crime Fiction as ‘Serious’ Literature

In a recent review of Jake Hinkson’s latest effort, the reviewer’s choice of words: “The Deepening Shade is very much at the literary end of the crime genre…” chafed me like sand in a bathing suit. I remain perplexed why crime fiction, particularly hard-boiled or noir, is considered less than ‘literary’, less than ‘serious’, as if the writer were slumming his or her talent for story-telling.

What if I told you that the first novel in western European literature was crime fiction? I’m well aware that the Jeopardy answer for the first novel is Cervantes’s Don Quixote or that the survey classes in English literature cite Samuel Richardson’s Pamela as the first novel in English. I’d argue, though, that the more accurate answer preceded Don Quixote by half a century and Pamela by almost two centuries. I’m talking about the anonymously written Lazarillo, published in 1554. Both Don Quixote and Lazarillo are classified as picaresque tales, a genre that retails bumbling adventures, with touches of buffoonery and satire; but Lazarillo is a very dark work of crime fiction. There is nothing amusing in Lazarillo. Lazarillo is, in my opinion, the first hard-boiled novel.

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Image from Wikipedia.

Lazarillo offers so many atrocities that all of the horrors found in Dickens seem quaint; in fact, Lazarillo rivals most of the modern nonfiction novels that deal with child abuse and some of the the violence in today’s crime novels. It is that graphic and disquieting. Young Lázaro, like a Chaucerian pilgrim in steerage class, tells stories of what it is like to serve as an apprentice to a variety of social superiors, starting with a blind man who, despite his handicap, manages to smash in the boy’s face with a wine jug. His misdeed? Thirst. It doesn’t get better for Lázaro; the blind codger, thinking the boy had stolen sausage, pries open his mouth, sticks his pronounced nose into the boy’s mouth and forces him to vomit the stolen food. The blind man is but the first station on the path of miseries. Lázaro will go on to serve a priest, a squire, a friar, a pardoner, a chaplain, a bailiff and an archbishop. Only Dante had an extra circle in hell. The novel was banned for its realism, for its use of the poor as main characters, and for its anti-clerical and anti-aristocratic tone. Lazarillo did not, in a word, elevate its audience; the anonymous author reminded them all too well of the gutter. Until Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Lazarillo had been the only novel — perhaps the first — I know to depict the inequities women experienced and an interracial family (Lázaro’s mother is white; his father, black).

Lazarillo de Tormes is a story of survival, literally about finding food and outwitting sadists, who were protected by their class and privilege. Jean Valjean was a man sentenced to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, whereas Lázaro was but a child. The darkness of the story is, on the surface, the series of tribulations that the boy endures, and later, below the surface, all the negotiations and forfeitures he has to make in order to become a town crier at the end of his ordeals. Perhaps, the tradition of cynicism found in the modern hard-boiled protagonist may have started here, with a young man’s shattered childhood; it would just take a few more centuries and a passage through several languages for that cynicism to be wedded to the descendants of Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, the first literary detective, and then for the femme fatale for a love interest to be added.

Noir, hard-boiled’s second act, requires the protagonist to make a really bad choice. Since I started with Jake Hinkson’s The Deepening Shade, I’ll pick an example from one of his other works. In Hell On Church Street, a self-professed tough guy picks a fat man as an easy score. Big mistake. Paul meets Geoffrey Webb, the equivalent of Hammett’s Kasper Gutman as a driver; for those readers who haven’t read The Maltese Falcon, imagine carjacking a rotund creature behind the wheel that turns out to be as lethal and cagey as Mike Tyson.

If Lazarillo is hard-boiled, then Francisco de Quevedo  (Historia de la vida del Buscón in Spanish) is noir; it appeared in 1626, and what a crime spree it is. Imagine Quevedo as James Dickey: a writer first known for poetry, until he pens a novel such as Deliverance. The hero here, a young Pablos, undergoes a gruesome education very much like the one Lázaro experienced, except worse. Where Lázaro does what he does out of hunger and survival, Pablos does the same, at first, but then enjoys the role of criminal. If Flaubert offered an education in feelings (L’Éducation sentimentale), Pablos is the graduate of numerous humiliations and depraved rituals, not unlike Musil’s Törless at his military school. Pablos is beaten, spat on, peed on, and shat on. The degradation of the flesh here is scatological, the inverse of hunger. The result? Pablos becomes an astute liar, a master con man. He chooses the criminal path. Pablos lives day to day, using his only weapon: words. Is it here that the noir hero or anti-hero’s witty repartee originates? Much of modern noir opens up with a snarky line said in a bar, during some act of violence, or spoken by a has-been to a woman next to him in bed. The snarky line, which, if spoken in a bar, would get the speaker the business end of a shotgun in the ribs or the bouncer’s choke-hold; or, at the very least, a well-deserved slap across the face from the woman in bed.

 

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Image from Wikipedia.

For an anti-hero, Pablos enjoys striking the pose, looking the part (quedar bien, in Spanish). He has that criminal tough-guy bravado of Paul in Hell On Church Street: “I’m also one mean son of a bitch,” or the pluck of Jim Thompson’s grifters, except that Pablos does not escape unscathed. One of the complaints Raymond Chandler had about pulp writers in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” was that there was no comeuppance, no more morality. He sensed a trend, an inherent nihilism in contemporary stories; in Quevedo’s Swindler, Pablos survives the con, but there is a terrible price: his face is cut in half, from ear to ear, like The Joker in Batman. The Swindler ends with Pablos lighting out for the New World, but not before he commits yet more crimes, including murder. In both of these Spanish novels that I have mentioned, the hero’s desire and journey is survival. Lázaro starves and suffers; Pablos is victim and then deceiver. Lázaro elicits sympathy, while Pablos receives the same until he makes his decision. Their stories are a rite of passage, albeit a brutal one that anticipates the con men of Balzac and Dickens.

So crime fiction grew up from boys with ‘street smarts’ to men with despicable characters. More than that changed in modern times: Sam Spade might have “looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan,” or Marlowe, a “shop-soiled Sir Galahad,” but there was a chivalric code of conduct, a boy’s-only club. On the point of misogyny, I have read little on the sympathy that James Cain showed to single mothers in his writing, although Robert Polito did touch on it lightly in his introductory essay to the Everyman’s Library edition. I don’t know whether or not the ‘code’ originated with the boys centuries ago with Lazarillo and Swindler, but there is a stigma attached to crime fiction; it is not considered ‘serious literature.’

I guess that there are numerous questions, all of them with uncomfortable answers. Why would anyone read a narrative with such brutal violence, excessive profanity and queasy sex? I imagine that Lazarillo and Swindler would have scandalized their first readers. A modern reader is likely to raise an eyebrow and then move on, somewhat desensitized. Is the appeal of crime fiction mere wish fulfillment – a subliminal desire to be bad, to exact revenge out of a feeling of impotence, or the thrill of getting away with it? I say this from two sides of the equation: the anti-hero is the criminal and the detective is often flawed and unlikeable. Items in the gallery: Dexter, Erlendur, and Kurt Wallander, to name but a few.

To relegate crime fiction to the lower shelf as not ‘literature’ and hold the writer in lesser esteem because they choose not to offer slick wordplay that they footnote (David Foster Wallace and David Eggers) for the reader, ramble on for hundreds of pages, offering opinions on everything (Robert Musil), or any other acutely self-conscious post-modernist tricks, is unfair to the writer’s skills. Crime fiction has plot; it has an arc, a beginning, middle, and end to satisfy Aristotle, even if the hero or the ending is frustrating. Is not Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl crime fiction? Are other genres not ‘serious literature’? Readers may read YA because they hunger for a good story, are tired of the ‘serious’ and choose to ignore the designator, ‘Young Adult’ because they want to be entertained, taken elsewhere. A writer does not need ‘the chops’ to make characters sympathetic in crime fiction; good writing does that in and of itself and genre is but is just an arbitrary flavor in the variety on the bookshelves. No stigma, please.

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The Bear and the Bulldog

There are two parts to this argument, and neither of them offers a definitive conclusion. There is the novel – the bear – of the title and then the short story, the bulldog.

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Nobody would think twice about who would win in a confrontation between a bear and a bulldog, but that’s exactly the analogy I think about. What translates better to film? The novel or the short story? As a general rule: the bulldog usually wins, on paper. A glance at the list of short stories made into films proves that the awkward bulldog, with its low center of gravity, outruns and outdoes the lumbering bear.

James Joyce’s “The Dead” became John Huston’s last film in 1987.

Hemingway’s “The Killers” was done twice: in 1946 with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, and then in 1964, with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. On that ‘last of’ theme: the 1964 version would cast Reagan in his last cinematic role and first role as a villain before he entered politics.

A gaggle of P.K. Dick stories became films. “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report” are two of his most well know stories put to celluloid, although Blade Runner the movie had seven possible endings. Dick didn’t live to see the film open, but he did see alt-versions of BR endings and hadn’t liked what he had seen or read.

There are other bulldogs in the list. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” has been made into a film three times. The number of Cornell Woolrich short stories adapted for the screen could populate a kennel. His “It Had To Be Murder” is likely the one most people might know from his noirish oeuvre because it became Hitchcock’s Rear Window. 153 – yes, 153! – of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories have been made into films. The granddaddy bulldog of them all is – believe it or not, it is not the ubiquitous Stephen King, although close –the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, with 70 films made from his short fiction.

Now, the novella is more like a cub than a bear. The problem here is whether the novella is a long short story or a short novel. Henry James’s The Turn of The Screw, which inspired two films, The Innocents in 1961 and most recently The Others with Nicole Kidman, clocks in at a mere 75 pages. I mention the page count because Stephen King’s novellas vary from the 65-page Ride The Bullet, which was the world’s first electronic book for you trivia fans, to the 230-page The Mist. The point is Mr. King’s idea of a short story is broad: the bulldog is more like Cujo – a little long in the tooth.

There are novels and there are NOVELS. Case in point: The Maltese Falcon, just as Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, is a hair over two hundred pages, yet these novels inspired films in which the dialog was lifted verbatim, as if Strunk and White’s “Omit Needless Words” was taken to heart. Maltese, by the way, was put to film three times. The Shootist is another example where script and dialog blurred. Coincidentally, the other Hammett novels are somewhat lean and inspired films: Red Harvest became (loosely) Miller’s Crossing and then there is the series of Thin Man movies.

The granddaddy bear, though I don’t think that he’d have appreciated the pun, is Henry James. I know that an argument can be made for Stephen King, but I picked James for a reason. Where the bulldog reaches for the ankles, the bear is a massive predator that can swipe your head off, which is exactly the problem that faces screenwriters. A short story is compact and concise, and no matter how much leash given the bulldog, he isn’t going to outrun the walker. His legs are capable of only so much. The screenwriter who has to confront Henry James, or Dickens, or Tolstoy, or King himself has the unenviable task of trying to give a bear a haircut with toenail clippers. The powerhouse team of Merchant Ivory and the late Ruth Prawer Jhabvala translated James to film several times. The fundamental challenge is sheer scale, the sprawl of the canvas, and the aesthetic decision (or guess) whether the reader and viewer want to luxuriate in seeing “The Figure in the Rug” (a James short story), the stir of the teaspoon in afternoon tea, or get from here to there as fast as possible. The camera loves the bear. The bulldog likes to talk. The camera shows. Dialog is action. Both are revelatory in their own way.

What stays and what goes is the question that a (screen)writer must tackle in the process of moving the story from the pages of a novel onto the screen. Whether that person is working with Henry James or Stephen King, how does he or she make a doorstopper into a paperweight? Without revealing spoilers, I asked the same question about Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of her novel, Gone Girl. I selected her because 1) I saw the movie and then read the book, although I had tried to read the novel but couldn’t ‘get into it’ and 2) Flynn had that rare opportunity for the novelist to adapt her own work to the screen. For the record, King has done it numerous times, with mixed success. Flynn nailed it.

I won’t write any spoilers here, but Gone Girl is all about surfaces. The novel can be summed up in one quote from Ford Maddox Ford: “Who in this world knows anything of any other heart – or of his own?” There I did it: I gave the bear a landing strip for a haircut. Flynn had some hard choices to make: keep this or chuck that over her shoulder. No matter what your opinion is about plausibility and the contested and decried ending, she had to kill her darlings. She had two unlikeable characters: facile, insipid and shallow people. She kept Nick’s ‘move’ – and here I am reminded of Hannah’s asking Jacob what his move was in Crazy, Stupid, Love – because it is what puts Amazing Amy over the edge. What Flynn ripped out of the novel and gave short order for the film, in my opinion, are two things: the growth of Nick from milquetoast to shocked state of awareness, and Amazing Amy’s parents co-opting her childhood (Told not Shown). Amy, possibly the diva of unreliable narrators, tells Nick all about Daddy and Mommie dearest, yet Gillian Flynn did manage to trim the bear while allowing it kept its claws. I hope to see a published screenplay because I think it would provide writers with lessons on how to deal with ursine decisions.

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Good To Be the Ghoul: Zombies

Z Nation will count the body parts when The Walking Dead Season 5 starts up this weekend.

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(Image from Wikipedia)

Kristen Lamb posted an essay on her blog, which I follow (and you should, too) in July about the appeal that zombies have on us. I don’t want to summarize all that she said, but one picture – the guy in his cube, head cocked back and presumably snoring – and one phrase almost said it all: “We’re medicated, caffeinated and indoctrinated.”

She’s right. I have watched tight formations of people texting on their phones while walking on the sidewalk, their smartphones held up as proof of their stupidity. My mind flashes back to the picture-book image of Sumerian scribes with cumbersome clay tablets, their styluses sharpened. One misstep and it is a punctured lung, or a splash into the Euphrates into the mouth of a hungry alligator. The reality is that the modern phone diva will crash into you and then give you their hate face because it is your fault. You hadn’t dared to make way for them. I did witness the miraculous once: a guy was texting as he walked into traffic, oblivious to the traffic light and those pesky blocks of metal on wheels that rely on Fred Flinstone to stand on the brakes with both feet in order to stop them in mid-Tweet. Talk about faith in the modern age. One consolation, though: Destined-for-the-Afterlife idiot did his stupendous act of insanity in front of a hospital so it was one-stop shopping, from Splat to ER. Proof of insurance first, please.

What puts the Z in Zombie for me? I was alive to see George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) in a Cineplex. Side note: I saw The Godfather in a drive-in, and The Exorcist terrified me for years. The scene where Regan walks up the stairs spider-like…Shivers. I digress. The scene in Dawn that had made an impression was the chaotic mall scene. The mall was to the eighties what the roller rink was to the seventies.

To add to Kristen’s War on Ideas, I do think that zombies are a metaphor for our mindless Conformity (thunk an original thought lately?) and Consumerism. Education pays lip service to the idea of a liberal education – more like a rigorous-beat-you-down-for-that-pellet-of-praise-for-the-flock-of-parrots process. “Socrates defied the Athenian authorities and he had to drink hemlock, so do as I say,” said the teacher, who reminded his charges that there was only one answer. ONE and it is HIS. No wonder homeschooling is on the uptick. There will be no, “I walked barefoot five miles in the snow for my Ritalin.”  In nearly every class I had in college there was the Fool who raised his or her hand and said, with absolute honesty and sincerity, “What do I have to do to get an A in this class?” Bless their brave hearts since they didn’t know the meaning of double entendre.

The Scarecrow in the film version of The Wizard of Oz was prophetic when he sang: “If only I had a brain.” That was 1939, in color, and before World War II. Never mind that L. Frank Baum’s Wizard was published in 1900. He was the JK Rowling of his day. We don’t have flying monkeys like we used to – they are all CGI now. *Sigh*

The point is that we don’t think critically anymore. Everything is a fast-fix like fast food. Sentences that are too long enfeeble minds. Perhaps we are continuously interrupted, distracted, as Kristen argued, but I think the truth is closer to the early scene in Good Will Hunting, where some elitist dweeb hits on Skylar, played by Minnie Driver. He selects and plagiarizes academic texts to get her interest, until Will calls BS on his unoriginality. Conformity is a soul-killer, yet everyone is as special as a snowflake and has to have self-esteem. Why think when you can consume someone else’s thoughts? Can’t think? Nom on some brains. Makes you rethink student loans, doesn’t it?

Whether we work more for less, 40 hours or more, find out that the Koch Brothers own everything, or everything is an act of manipulation, we can control what our eyes consume. We can control the amount of stimuli that puts everyone in React Mode the second the light turns green. The answer? Turn off the television and pick up a book.

Shameless plug: my short story Zombees will appear in Big Pulp (April 2015).

Posted in Magic and Supernatural | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Third Man Disappeared

Villain. Victim.Voyeur.

Once upon a time and not long ago, the Detective was the third man in crime fiction. I’m not exactly sure when that changed, but it did. I believe crime fiction changed when the criminal became either sympathetic, or a marvel unto himself. The criminal became Lou Ford, Tom Ripley, and Dexter, or Gloria Denton and Crissa Stone. The Anti-Hero is a guilty pleasure. The reader was always there as a voyeur, complicit in the crime since he or she tries to solve the crime with the protagonist as the pages go by; the coda of satisfaction is the sight and sound of pieces that dovetail at the end, the arc completed from dead body discovered to suspect in cuffs, or otherwise punished. I will go so far as to say that the modern reader of crime fiction is sensitized and desensitized to unspeakable violence and cruelty.

The detective was self-educated, often a polymath, and a paragon of rationality, even when the detective had some serious flaws. Holmes had his fondness for cocaine. Marlowe boozed and chain-smoked. In the end, however, they got the job done: the bad guy got his, in or outside the courtroom. Then a curious thing happened. Sometimes the criminal is a careerist with the bad luck of a Eddie Coyle. Crime fiction started involving the man on the street, the Joe wronged, who — in effect – was given the task of figuring it out. The detective – stand-in for some kind of Justice — all but disappears. He is as faceless as the Continental Op; nameless as the Sergeant in Derek Raymond’s Factory Series, or absent altogether in Nabokov’s underappreciated thriller Despair.

Two things happened with crime fiction: it sold a lot of books and made for great film. American cinema, influenced by German émigrés such as Fritz Lang, emphasized the darkness, and shadow. British noir had had a delayed premiere on the silver screen because censors nixed anything negative to the wartime morale. When the British film directors did put noir up on the screen, their influence came from across the Channel; not from Germany, but France. Marcel Carné’s trilogy: Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938); Hôtel du Nord (1938), and Le Jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939) set the tone. There were shadows and lots and lots of fog, but there was also poetic-realism and Gallic grittiness. This is where Kipling’s phrase is appropriate: “never the twain shall meet.” He was speaking to the chasm between the British and Indian people. The same could be said about American and British noir literature — “never the twain shall meet” — and probably the same can be said of noir literature from other countries such as Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Sweden, and so on. I’ll limit myself to a sliver of the American and British tradition of crime fiction.

The wrong decision, the fateful choice characterized noir, from keeping the found money to chasing the femme fatale.  Another hallmark trait is snarky repartee, that entertaining banter dished out between the PI and the bad guys, or whoever is at the bar or across the desk. Chandler’s Marlowe casts his best lines at figures of authority. American noir readers know the scene: there are good guys, bad guys, and those who, like the Continental Op, operate in the shadows. The structure of society is loose, although the cops can’t be trusted and fast money and faster women talk loudly. In Hammett’s Red Harvest, it is clear that Big Money is what animates life in “Personville called Poisonville.” Chandler was not so naïve about the dark alleys, but he did get upset when Jim Thompson had broken rank and started writing crime from the criminal’s point of view. Then it wasn’t a matter of bad choices; there wasn’t any hope; no need for the detective at all. He could just disappear. The criminals could just police themselves, whether it was along the lines of clans or ethnicity.

As I had stated above, British noir got a late start, but, when the dark flower had finally bloomed, it made up for lost time. British crime fiction has a genteel pedigree. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie are but two examples. Class is always in the background in all of British literature. Derek Raymond, who is considered the godfather of British noir, is – blasphemy of blasphemies – quite French, quite the existentialist. The violence in his work will nauseate. An editor lost his lunch after reading an excerpt. The Sergeant’s frustration with his superiors in The Factory is palpable. Raymond’s dialog cuts like a rusted razor.

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(Image from the-dirty-lowdown.blogspot.com)

The blackness in Raymond’s writing isn’t the crimes, or the bleak surroundings, the endless parade of lowlifes, though all of them are bleak, depressing, über-violent and unsettling. It’s the disappearance, the anonymity of Victim and civil servant. He is ‘Sergeant.’ He works in the Unexplained Deaths Department within ‘The Factory,’ a mindless and thoughtless grind of an institution. His superiors are bureaucratic idiots, but class-conscious: one knows their place in the pecking order.

In the first of the Factory books, He Died With His Eyes Open, the victim is a John Doe, a man beaten to death. In a word, he has been pulped until he is unrecognizable. In Factory Book 2, The Devil’s Home on Leave, a man is not only found dead in a warehouse, but his remains inside five bags. The third outing, How The Dead Live, is a missing-person’s case, but retracing the woman’s hours is like a depressing documentary on blight and social decay outside of London. In the fourth installment, I was Dora Suarez, a woman and her elderly neighbor are bludgeoned to death. In this particular novel, Dora was dead woman walking. Sergeant discovers that she is dying from AIDS. The last Factory book, Dead Man Upright, published posthumously, is part procedural to catch a serial killer, while the second half of the book is a conversation between the serial killer and his shrink. He isn’t a Hannibal Lechter.

Raymond is an uneven writer. He was the darkest of the dark for his time. British noir writers after him are, if anything, even more violent in their descriptions. Unfortunately, the red bloodbath turns purple quickly. Raymond may seem British but he is as pessimistic as Beckett, who loved French pulp fiction, and as morally twisted as Genet. He is a social critic in that he criticized Thatcher’s Britain (the first of the Factory novels appeared in 1984). He has an ear for argot, which can make him more of a curiosity. His first publication, The Crust on Its Uppers (1962) is unreadable without the glossary in back. Coincidentally, A Clockwork Orange, famous for its unintelligible mélange of Cockney rhyme, Russian and British adolescent slang, appeared the same year.

I may have stretched the argument in saying that Derek Raymond was more French than British since I hadn’t mentioned some of his French peers, such as Jean-Patrick Manchette or Thierry Jonquet (read his Tarantula), with whom he shares some affinities, or that the French make distinctions in their crime fiction: roman noir (dark novel), roman policier (procedural) and roman polar (hardboiled thriller with a cinematic quality). I do feel that one aspect of Raymond’s Factory Series has been overlooked: his compassion.

Sergeant reconstructs the gruesome crimes. True, it is part of the detective tradition, but read Dora Suarez and you see a nameless man identify and relive a woman’s emotions. His compassion – not his sense of justice – is what drives Sergeant. The title I Was Dora Suarez can read as victim statement or investigator’s identification with the victim. In the universe of crime fiction, where characters are unlikeable and protagonists are dysfunctional, Sergeant is uncharacteristically empathetic. He uses the same MO in He Died With His Eyes Open. Sergeant knows that Justice is easily compromised, a matter of the right lawyer and deep pockets, of who can reach out and corrupt law enforcement. That the victims are often the marginalized members of society, those the upper crust merely tolerate as necessary, says something about Derek Raymond’s vision.

Derek Raymond was the pseudonym for Robin Cook. He changed his name to avoid any confusion with Robin Cook, the author of Coma. Cook was an interesting character. Born to wealth and privilege, he dropped out of Eton, and spent the majority of his life slumming with London’s underbelly. Like the troubled Alexander Trocchi, known best for Young Adam, and a man of many faces, Raymond wrote pornography and frequented the dark side of life. He drank. He was an art smuggler and a shadowy associate of the infamous Kray Brothers. The prolific Derek Raymond would write a memoir, The Hidden Files, before he died in 1994 from cancer at the age of 63.

In the Introduction to his memoir, Raymond conveys a sense of disappearing into writing, of having hidden files, unbreakable codes, as if he were a computer.

These memoirs are an attempt to break the codes and gain access to them, although even when open they will not have the readability of a novel; after all, the files only describe functions.

The fact that I am this machine and not a different one, better oriented to the other, and that I am deceptive exactly because the hidden files are present although unseen, is a source of distress to me as well as those close to me. Yet none of us, apart from minor modifications, have any choice but to be what we are.

Just as the Sergeant was a nameless cog in the machinery, so Raymond disappeared into himself, seeing himself as a machine.

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Marcelle Sauvageot: Love’s deceptive pirouette

The best works of literature speak to the eternal, the human condition, irrespective of historical context, their original language, or the author’s gender. Marcelle Sauvageot’s Commentary belongs to world literature because it depicts the human situation and because it defies interpretation. Ugly Duckling Presse published Commentary: A Tale in 2013, with an Introduction by Jennifer Moxley, and it includes the preface to the last French edition by Jean Mouton (1986), a preface and then a note from the first and second editions by Charles Du Bos (1933 and 1934, respectively), with Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis as the translators.

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(Image from Ugly Duck Presse)

(A Tale) is in parenthesis on the cover, silent and contained as the rage and confusion within. The story is simple: a woman, who is suffering from TB, travels to a sanatorium, where she receives a Dear Jane letter from her boyfriend. She is not only dumped, but he informs her that he is marrying someone else. She faces her illness alone. Imagine if Fanny Brawne had friend-zoned Keats before he departed to Italy to enter “his posthumous existence” (Keats’s own words there). The cruelty is devastating. The rest of the ‘tale’ is her private reflection on and response to the dead relationship. She cycles through all the emotions of grief: forced isolation, anger, not so much bargaining as rationalization, depression, and then acceptance.

Just as the greatest works of literature offer the reader a little bit of everything from the cupboard of genres, Commentary is many things: a funeral wreath of philosophical analyses (St. Augustine’s Confessions and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu); an attempt to explain perception (Montaigne’s Essays); the tell-all un roman à clef such as The Devil Wears Prada, except these are lettres pas envoyées, for the text’s format is that of angry journal entries meant as letters not to be sent to the offending party. Commentary even offers an element of mystery: we do not know the narrator’s name. Readers don’t know if the text is fictional or autobiographical. There are hints, but no real key; it defies definitive interpretation. All that readers know for a name is her nickname for him: ‘Baby,’ and he gets boxed into several corners of her mind. In the end, from her “small corner of conscience,” she is done with him. She has excoriated him, herself, and the inherent blind nature of love. The ‘tale’ is less than one hundred pages long, a novella, and it is a tour de force deconstruction, a meditation, on love and the differences between the genders, and how the eyes deceive the heart.

I read both the translation and the original, which I was shocked to discover is available from Amazon for free. The French text is clean, free of errors, and a true labor of love from the folks at ebooksgratuits.com. Readers who don’t know French have to understand that French is an allusive and elusive language, and literary French is not the same as spoken French. I mention this for one simple reason: Sauvageot’s written French is colloquial, spare and lean, although there are limpid, periodic graces. She is not Proust nor does she want to imitate him or any other writer. She is her own judge and jury. The problem is that none of this is explained to the reader because there are no notes from the translators, which is a great disservice to the reader and an injustice to the author’s prose; in fact, there is little to no biographical information on Marcelle Sauvageot, which is a shame, especially when curious readers discover that her Wiki page is in French. The dearth of biographical information diminishes her accomplishments.

Marcelle Sauvageot was born in 1900 in Charleville. This is significant. Charleville borders Belgium, and readers of French poetry will instantly recognize it as the birthplace of Arthur Rimbaud, who despised it because it was provincial and parochial. He also disliked the French spoken there. Georges Simenon was another writer who took potshots at Belgian-influenced French in everything he wrote, which says a lot since he was such a prolific writer. Sauvageot, born in ‘the sticks,’ became a professor (un professeur agrégé de lettres), which is a remarkable achievement for a woman in her time. Sense of perspective: Madame Curie was the first woman to receive a doctoral degree in France in 1903. Furthermore, Sauvageot was close friends with several members of the Surrealist movement. Readers learn from the Mouton essay that André Malraux and his wife Clara got into an argument over it. Paul Claudel and Paul Valéry also appreciated it.

Translations revive and revisit classics. John E. Woods rendered Thomas Mann anew. Several translators have refreshed Proust. In Sauvageot’s case, there is more at stake because this is her only work and it appeared and disappeared in the last eighty years. First, the title is a problem in both languages, although that is not the fault of the Ugly Duckling Presse and the translators. The original French title in 1933 and 1934, Commentaire, or Commentary, denotes intellectual analysis, whereas the 1986 title was amended to Commentaire: récit d’un amour meurtri, or, Commentary: a tale of wounded love, which subtitles the intimacy of pain; and then in 2004, it appeared as Laissez-moi: commentaire, or Leave me: a commentary. Confusing, I know, but the Laissez-moi title comes from within the text itself, when the protagonist tells off her boyfriend, but even here the colloquialism is truncated. The lady is polite when she says, “Leave me,” whereas the full expression in French is, ‘Laissez-moi, allez-vous en,’ which is one way of telling someone to go away for good.

To have a better appreciation of Sauvageot’s rage, there should have been a note of some kind to indicate just when the pen as knife turns in the flesh. It is easy to recognize, the French text says, “pirouette.” In French, the intimate form of ‘you’ is tu. You use this form with close friends, family members, and certainly, lovers. Not Sauvageot. In the text, she says, “I have to end my sentence with a pirouette.” She then uses the formal ‘you’ or vous. Yes, she wavers back and forth at times with tu, but vous is the preferred form for her, and it is a crucial decision: it is symbolic for the distance that she has placed between herself and him. There is no footnote, no nothing in the English translation for this critical shift in tone. It would have helped the reader to know how Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis approached the text.

The sick woman has been told in writing that he will marry another, that they have their “friendship.” Cold and cowardly, no doubt, but the reader will discover that the two of them were not in an exclusive relationship. He had women friends and she had male friends; in fact, she is upset at one point with one of her male friends and turns to her boyfriend for comfort. She, in turn, knew of his future wife. Her pain is that of betrayal. He chose Her instead of her. In the text she is capitalized as d’Elle (her). It is inferred that he had chosen a younger woman, someone closer to his age. I am not splitting hairs about morality or hypocrisy. My issue is with the untranslated nuances. The translation does not inform the reader that the French text does not distinguish the nature of the relationship. Petit ami is boyfriend and petite amie is girlfriend. Diction matters to Sauvageot, for she had not written copain (buddy) or copine (female buddy). Clearly, they had friends with benefits. No matter how liberated and carefree she thought she was, his decision hurt her. I can’t help but think of Simone de Beauvoir, who was deeply hurt by Jean-Paul Sartre’s affairs.

The heart of the matter is that he chose someone else. Had they had “an agreement”? We don’t know. What we know is that she was a trophy. He was younger than she was, and his college friends approved of his ‘conquest.’ The narrator informs the reader once that she had been his “gal” – the French text says, “ma grande.” She recalls a time when she visited him at his college and his friends were behind him and she saw their approving gaze. In the Introduction, much is made of the ‘male gaze’ and, while there is merit in that feminist argument, I think that Sauvageot is far more critical of herself and romantic love. She had felt deceived, first by him and then by herself.

This is a feminist text and more. The writer calls out sexism in a curious way: men start to think of social consequences in their choice of a partner, and women see marriage as a merit badge. She finds the ‘my husband…’ phrases out of women’s mouths elitist and tiresome. I also found it strange that Sauvageot put the word “feminist” in double quotes. I’m not sure whether she identified with it or not. She does not take kindly to the notion that a woman’s happiness is dependent on a man, that women are to parrot their husband’s opinions. Women were not made for men, she tells us, although both genders are selfish in love. In a great, dismissive line, she questions the societal construct of relationship, “Is the man caressing a beautiful Siamese cat hoping to find out what the animal’s light eyes are saying?” She had hoped to find her Platonic “double,” so she could be made whole, completed. She realized that that had been a mistake, another false step in “romantic diplomacy.” She does wonder why she had accepted less.

Sauvageot’s protagonist questions love as illusion because lovers see what they want to see in the Beloved, which is why she later says that friendship (amitié) is the highest form of love. In French, there is an etymological connection that traces back to Latin between the words for friend and soul, or l’âme. The Mouton essay and the Du Bos note discuss the Augustinian concept of love and friendship. Authentic love, which she had thought she had for him, accepted him, warts and all. Bébé is not an attractive man. He reminds me of the pedantic dilettante Paul in the movie Midnight in Paris. Paul had insisted that Camille Claudel was Rodin’s wife to the tour guide, played by Carla Bruni, no less! Bébé is that guy. She loves him even when he is gauche. All she wanted was for him to be himself and he was: he thinks of himself as an intellectual, yet she calls him a petit commerçant. The English translation says ‘shopkeeper’ but petit (small) and commerçant is a double insult, for it is akin to calling someone lower middle-class, lest we forget that European society has class distinctions. Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet had manners, even if she didn’t have money. In the end, she would conclude that he was “mediocre.”

Moxley alludes to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain in that Sauvageot’s anonymous woman is like Hans Castorp: the main character goes away to recover. Commentary belongs to the genre of literature of sickness and recovery, illness and realization. As the text progresses, Sauvageot’s sick woman realizes that life is fragile and precious, that she hopes for health restored, for the cure that never comes. She had hoped that he would be there when she was well again, but he is not. I am reminded of Margaret Edson’s play Wit, except that Sauvageot finds no solace in poetry. She finds resolve and determination within to face her illness alone. That she was forsaken while ill is heartbreaking, yet no one has expressed outrage at this abandonment, though those who face serious illness often find themselves abandoned because those close to them don’t know what to say, or how to comfort them. Like the aged elephants in Babar, she went off alone to die, so as not to be a burden to the herd. Anton Chekhov, John Keats, DH Lawrence, and George Orwell all wrote with their bloodstained handkerchiefs from TB clutched in their hands, to the end. Marcelle Sauvageot, in and out of sanatoriums, would die of the “romantic disease.”

Moxley makes this remark: “Du Bos would have us bathe her in the saintly light of la petite fleur, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who also died young of tuberculosis.” The comment misses the mark, for Moxley ignores the mores of Sauvageot’s day. France then was (and still is) a Catholic country. Both the Du Bos and Mouton essays are dated with respect to the liturgical year. In context, Du Bos mentions Saint Thérèse of Lisieux after he quotes Sauvageot. She was on her deathbed and she had named the prayers that she recited and found comfort in. The two of them received Holy Communion together. Du Bos had traveled to Switzerland to meet her and to get her approval for the Foreword that he had written for the first edition. Sauvageot died the day after he returned to Paris, on 6 January 1934, as he noted, with the church bells calling “believers to salvation in honor of the Epiphany.”

Ugly Duckling Presse has offered English-speaking readers and feminist scholars a milestone text, a canonical piece of literature subject to debate and discussion, as relevant today as it was when it first appeared, almost a century ago. Commentary appeared on several Best Translated lists in 2013.

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Wednesday’s Woman: Joan C. Ryan

Today’s Wednesday’s Woman is Joan Catherine Ryan, author and counselor from New Hampshire. I met her and her son, also an author, at the 2014 New England Author Expo. Michael W. Schwartz writes the Ratarra Series.

Joan is appearing Saturday, the 20 September 2014 at Barnes & Noble, Manchester, New Hampshire at 10am.

Please spend a few minutes reading some important words from this wonderful woman and her cause. Here is Joan….

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Like many women, I came down with breast cancer and survived. My baby granddaughter, Zoe, came down with brain cancer and is going through a grueling recovery process. Zoe’s web site offers updates on her and provides information on wellness.

We all know that not everyone survives this disease. My son, Eric, came down with glioblastoma, an aggressive and incurable form of brain cancer. He passed away, 20 April 2012. During his 41 years of life, he was an awesome demonstration of positive thinking and he led by example. He held us all to a much higher standard than we were/are comfortable with. To this day, his family members hold themselves accountable to Eric’s spirit in their daily decisions. I can think of no greater legacy.

profilepic1-300x225 Before he left us, Eric co-founded a company, studied International Relations, and served in the United States Air Force’s 52nd Fighter Wing. Although Eric was active in many areas, his chief passion was helping ‘first generation students’ – those kids who are first in their family to attend college — apply for, get accepted, and receive financial aid to attend college. He didn’t just talk the talk, he sat down with each student and guided them through the college application process, helped them produce all the necessary paperwork; he took the student on campus tours, applied for public and private scholarship monies. He also taught them how to study and learn their college courses. Eric stayed with his students as a mentor for support long after the acceptance letter.

Our family has created the Eric W. Schwartz Memorial Scholarship Fund, a $2,500 scholarship that solely goes to a first-generation student.

As Eric’s mother, it is important to me that his name, his passion and his spirit live on; that he is not forgotten. By purchasing an application or my book Scholarship Matters, A Parent’s Guide to College and Private Scholarships, you can help your own children or sponsor a student.

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Please know that our entire family is grateful for all the love and support that you give, have given, us in our cancer-crisis lifestyle. You have buoyed us up beyond that which is humanly possible so that we can get through one more day with hope and confidence.

Joan’s web is here.

Home of M.W. Schwartz’s Ratarra Series.

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