Saturday, November 27, 2010

Wood on Moon

I'd like to poke my head out of my lit cave for a moment to praise James Wood's article in the New Yorker this week on, of all people, Keith Moon. The phenomenon of literary writers moonlighting as rock and roll nerds is not unusual in my age bracket, but James Wood? A drummer? Really? Who knew! My initial distaste for Wood's criticism (I think it's his ambivalence about David Foster Wallace that got me thinking of myself, initially, as anti-Woodian) long ago evaporated, and these days I like him a lot.

This article in particular. Wood actually tries to explain, to the New Yorker audience, why Moon was awesome, and he largely succeeds. At times, of course, he sounds hopelessly dorky, as in this passage about John Bonham: "His superb but tightly limited breaks on the snare and his famously rapid double strokes on the bass drum are constantly played against the unvarying solidity of his high hat, which keeps a steady single beat throughout the bars." Which I think we can all agree is not what generally occurs to us while we're blasting Led Zep in the car.

But this passage about the Moon of "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Behind Blue Eyes" is right on the money: can hear him do something that was instinctive, probably, but which is hardly ever done in ordinary rock drumming: breaking for a fill, Moon fails to stop at the obvious end of the musical phrase and continues with his rolling break, over the line and into the start of the next phrase. In poetry, this failure to stop at the end of the line, this challenge to metrical closure, this desire to get more in, is called enjambment. Moon is the drummer of enjambment.

For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to do: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I feel the same way. I think the connection, among writers of my generation (guys mostly, I think, but not entirely), between literary fiction and rock has gone largely unexplored; here, Wood is getting at the kind of controlled exuberance that I find most moving both in popular music and literature, and he manages to do so without coming off like a total dipshit. That is quite an accomplishment, in my book.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Rhian and I got talking last night about all our temp jobs.  At the time, this work--reception work, phone answering, bank tellering, low-grade editing--seemed pretty empty and dull.  Now, it seems somehow important.  We got a lot of work done at our temp jobs--literary work, that is--and learned something about the era when we came of age.

I took pretty much all my notes on The Funnies while working as a bank teller at about half a dozen banks in Missoula, Montana.  This would have been around 1995.  I stood there in the drive-up window in my knit tie, adding new note cards to my rubber-banded stack, and by the time I got a real job I was ready to start writing the thing.  (Indeed, I drafted it, largely, at that real job, which was as a museum receptionist.)  The two of us did so much temping that we became honorary staff at the Manpower office; often one or the other of us would man the front desk for Debbie, the sardonic, put-upon manager.  It was here that I read Stephen Dixon's collected stories and wrote him a long letter telling him why the book had restored my faith in the form.  We're still in touch.  Rhian once won a camera by unscrambling a word in an AM radio contest, which she entered daily from her temp position at the Teamsters' Union; I later stole this and stuck it in Mailman.

Temping was a nineties rite of passage.  It was the Clinton-era boom: everybody thought they needed to hire.  But if you lived in a town without much going on, everybody was wrong.  Temping, for us, was the experience of sitting idly by while other people failed to make money.  The gears of life were turning, grinding around us.  So much of lived life, it turned out, consisted of waiting to start living life.  There was something depressing about the people who hired us, but also something inspiring.  Human beings were awkward and inept and incapable of making good decisions.  And yet they soldiered on.  In this context, fiction writing seemed no more or less important than correcting scanned legal documents or administering parts-sorting aptitude tests; it seemed like something we might be able to actually do.

My relationship to my work has grown deeper and more complicated, of course, but sometimes it's possible to evoke those early days of newness and possibility--the sense that starting a new story was no big deal, that there were plenty more out there if this one failed.  Temping prepared us well for fiction writing, really: it gave us a taste for work that is uncertain, not very lucrative, and different every day.  There are worse ways to make a living, to be sure.

You'd be surprised at how long it took to find that old-school Manpower logo.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Help me out: Crime Stories

W6 readers, give me a hand with something, will you?  I'm designing a new Cornell class, a First-Year Seminar called Crime Stories.  It will be a survey of crime fiction since the dawn of time, with written critical responses.  (I always allow at least one creative one, too.)

I have a few things I will definitely use: The Big Sleep.  Sjowall and Wahloo's The Laughing Policeman.  One heist novel, probably one of Richard Stark's Parker novels.  One genre-buster, perhaps Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music or China Mieville's recent The City And The City.  I will of course use a Poe story and a Conan Doyle story.

But what else?  I'd like more women (besides Maj Sjowall).  Dorothy Sayers?  Patricia Highsmith?  (Maybe Strangers On A Train.)  I wouldn't mind using Tana French's The Likeness, but it's rather long.  Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine?  She writes great crime novels but I don't know what I'd say about them in a college class.  Karin Fossum perhaps?  Can a case be made for Shirley Jackson?  I am thinking of We Have Always Lived In The Castle.

Or writers of color--Walter Mosley?  I'd like to get a couple more pre-war writers maybe.  It's a 14-week semester and each week will be either one or two short stories, or a short novel, or half a long novel.  Would love your ideas.  Especially if you are a Cornell freshman who happens to be registered for the class.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I Love This Blog

No, not this one, that one.  Those of you whose minds are always in the gutter, which is to say probably all of you, will dig it.

This reminds me of one of my favorite dirty-mind stories...when the kids were little they had one of those Winnie-The-Pooh travesty Disney spinoff books with the strip of sound effects down the side, and when you pressed the Tigger button you heard Tigger say, "THAT is what Tiggers do best!"

But at one point we realized it sounded like it was saying "FUCK is what Tiggers do best!"  And after that, it was impossible to un-hear it.  Imagine sitting around with one's parents hearing this phrase over and over, nodding and grinning as though nothing untoward is going on.