Cruise the Boulevards Of Regret

“You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you’ve got to get back up onto the freeway again.”
― Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

So, last September I read Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon because… well, because it is Thomas Pynchon – but more specifically because I had read that Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master) was making a film based on the book and I wanted to experience the text first.

Pynchon has occupied a great many of my thoughts and a large part of my time ever since I first picked up a paperback copy of Gravity’s Rainbow at the KU Bookstore in 1976 or so (I was not able to finish it for a quarter century – not until a summary, an online page by page annotation, and wiki helped me keep the characters straight). I have read most of the rest of his oeuvre (still have an unopened copy of Bleeding Edge on my bookshelf) and am most assuredly a fan.

Up until I read Inherent Vice I considered Pynchon’s fiction to be unfilmable. After reading it, I agreed with PTA in that Inherent Vice was only almost unfilmable. He had tried to adapt Vineland into a movie, but realized that was impossible.

Because of business and inattention to the Internet, I missed the Dallas showings of the film in December, but finally a wider release was in the offing. My son and his friends saw it over the initial weekend, but I wasn’t able to fit the time in so I decided to go after work.

On Monday I logged into the Alamo Drafthouse website (it’s only a stone’s throw from my house and my work) and bought a ticket for that evening. I was tired and it was bitter cold and I knew that if I didn’t buy it ahead of time I would wimp out after work and go home and sleep.

The Alamo Drafthouse is such a nice experience. You get a reserved seat, craft beer (Temptress Baby!) and the food isn’t bad at all. I ordered a hamburger – a Royale With Cheese, of course. Alamo’s policy of no talking and no cellphones is certainly a welcome perk.

So… how was the film.

If you are a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson you will be disappointed. This isn’t a PTA movie; it is a Pynchon movie. PTA’s movies can be weird (Frogs!?) but this one is WEIRD. What makes it crazy making if you don’t know what to expect is that he sets the stage with so many familiar tropes and then abandons them without a moment’s hesitation or regret. From the trailer you might think that it is a detective story – about a search for a missing billionaire and the detective’s old girlfriend – hoary old familiar plot devices -, but from the book I knew that this is a feint – that nothing is going to be explained, nothing is going to make sense, and the mystery will fade away rather than be resolved. What the hell exactly is The Golden Fang anyways?

You might also think that this is going to be a druggie comedy in the style of The Big Lebowski. There are elements of that – but the comedy is overshadowed by Pynchon’s signature paranoia and despair.
But, that said – I thought it was great. It is the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.

Despite the ending being changed and large sections of the novel excised (you have to do this to get a tolerable running time) it is amazingly faithful to the book – for good and bad.
What was crazy for me is the way the characters speak. I have been reading Pynchon for so long I am very familiar with the unique language a Pynchonian character uses – his cadence, style, and subject matter. I have been reading these letters on the page and hearing them in my head for decades.

Now, to hear these words coming out of another human being’s mouth was astounding. I could only shake my head at this ephemeral world of imagination now come to life on the silver screen.

Emancipate Yourselves From Mental Slavery

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our mind.
Wo! Have no fear for atomic energy,
‘Cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.
—-Bob Marley, Redemption Song

I always have a tickle in the back of my head for jerked chicken – the Jamaican dish.

The best jerk I had was in Key West – I remember it like it was yesterday. At least I remember the chicken – I have no idea what the name of the restaurant was. We were walking down Duval, back to our hotel, and it was late, very late… late even for Key West. But Candy and the kids were hungry so we ducked into the first restaurant we saw and sat down. The prices were a bit high for a late-night snack, but this was Key West and nothing comes cheap when it has to be hauled out to that island.

I looked at the menu and my eyes fell on the Jerked Chicken. I was a bit stunned when it arrived. It was an entire chicken – the whole thing. It had been expertly knifed (I have seen chefs do this on TV since) so that it was still whole, though boneless. It was flattened, dredged in jerk spices and then grilled expertly. I didn’t think I could eat the whole thing – but it was so delicious I couldn’t help but soldier through. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t sleep at all that night, but it was worth it. You never remember the pain as much as the pleasure.

When we actually went to Jamaica I wanted to get some authentic jerk but never pulled it off. We were only there for a day on a cruise. My idea was to somehow get to a jerk stand out on a highway somewhere – a place where the locals ate. But on a cruise shore excursion the time is short and the forces are allayed against you doing what you want to do.

The kids went up in the mountains to do a zipline thing and they were served some jerk chicken. The said that it was from a shack and the chickens were all running around a pen behind the place. It must have been great – I was so jealous.

Nick and I did have a little time and a little cash to spare before the ship sailed so we hired a cab to drive us into Montego Bay for some exploring on our own. I had planned on having the driver take us to a place that he knew about where we could get some food, but we spent all our money and most of our time in the city and barely made the boat before departure time.

I need to go back.

But in the meantime I discovered by reading a local blog that there was a new Jamaican Restaurant, The Jamaica Cabana that opened up only couple miles or so north of where we live. The blog made the place look great – so I made a point of trying to get up there.

It took longer than I wanted – but Nick and I had an evening free so we drove to the place for dinner.

Jamaica Cabana Richardson Texas

Jamaica Cabana
Richardson Texas

The parking lot was packed with people eating at a crowded local Tex-Mex emporium, while The Jamaica Cabana was mostly empty. I simply can’t understand the desire to gobble down mild cheddar cheese enchiladas covered in Hormel Chili perched between a puddle of bland rice and a pile of lard larded mashed pintos. Try something new, folks. Free your mind.

The menu was full of great looking stuff – but I couldn’t resist ordering the Jerk Chicken.

The chicken came with vegetables and plantains – I love plantains. One the side were what the menu described as “rice with peas” – though it was actually rice and beans.

Jerk Chicken, plantains, and vegetables

Jerk Chicken, plantains, and vegetables

The food was fabulous and the owner very friendly. There were two bottles of very hot Jamaican sauce on the table – be careful, they are of the “delayed reaction” heat. Cool for me, if dinner doesn’t make the top of my head sweat, it isn’t spicy enough.

Now I have to go back and explore the rest of that menu….

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 6 – A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day Six – A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, by Ernest Hemingway.

Read it online here:

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Like yesterday, we have a story about the desperate perspective of age.

Unlike yesterday the point of view isn’t the person themselves, but a pair of waiters, one young and one old, one impatient and one unhurried, as they observe their last customer of the night, an elderly drunk stacking up saucers, one for each brandy.

I am so much in awe of Hemingway – for the pure efficiency of his prose. The story is very short, told almost entirely in tiny snippets of dialog – yet it is so full of complex subtlety and power. Where a lesser writer might describe in careful detail and attempted elegant metaphor the sound of metal on wood echoing across the darkness, Hemingway simply says, “They were putting up the shutters.”

He cuts out everything that isn’t absolutely necessary and in that gains an unparalleled dynamic efficacy.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place is a masterful collection of mostly unattributed dialog. So skillfully constructed with subtle inconsistencies that long-standing literary controversies have arisen over who actually said what.

A work of fiction should not spell everything out. The reader has to work for his entertainment, for his wisdom.

And then, like a clever piece of music, the text explodes into one final big paragraph which throws the lonely sad desperation of the older waiter onto the page with devastating effect. Finally, the reader understands what the waiter, and the author, and humanity itself shares with the poor old man that only wants to sit there and quietly drink his brandy in a clean, will-lighted place.

He only wants to put the darkness off for a few more minutes.

“Good night,” the other said. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself, It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 3 – Regret

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day three – is Regret, by Kate Chopin.

Read it online, here:
Regret

I read Kate Chopin’s best known work – the novel The Awakening in college, like most people do. It left a strong impression on me – both the story itself, and the strong character of its doomed protagonist.

I must not have been paying too much attention, however. In my defence, I was studying chemistry and literature and didn’t have enough time to do my reading all proper in between the marathon laboratory stints.

You see, the thing is, if you would have asked me about The Awakening I would have told you it was a European story, a French story, and the beach where so much takes place must have been on the Riviera somewhere.

What was I thinking? How could I have been so mistaken? A quick read, and a foggy memory, I guess.

As an adult, I reread The Awakening and realized that it wasn’t European at all – it took place in New Orleans – and the beach was Belle Isle. Now, I suppose in some way I wasn’t too far off – New Orleans is the most European of American cities – the French Influence is hard to miss.

But still….

Now today’s story, Regret… there is no doubt where this is taking place. Nowhere else will you find names like: Mamzelle Aurlie, Ti Nomme, little Lodie, Marcline and Marclette.

In a short story there is plot, and setting (this one has a little plot and an implied setting) and there is characterization. The reward of Regret is in its characterization.

It’s tough to find room in a work this brief for a protagonist to learn and to change – but Chopin pulls it off.

Not only does the protagonist learn and change… but she realizes that it is all in vain, that it is too late.

Isn’t it always?

She turned into the house. There was much work awaiting her, for the children had left a sad disorder behind them; but she did not at once set about the task of righting it. Mamzelle Aurlie seated herself beside the table. She gave one slow glance through the room, into which the evening shadows were creeping and deepening around her solitary figure. She let her head fall down upon her bended arm, and began to cry. Oh, but she cried! Not softly, as women often do. She cried like a man, with sobs that seemed to tear her very soul. She did not notice Ponto licking her hand.

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 2 – On the Gull’s Road

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

For the second entry in this month’s list of short stories, on this second day of June, I give you a classic chestnut by Willa Cather, On the Gull’s Road.

Read the story online here:
On the Gull’s Road

I know people that read a lot of Cather. I haven’t read that much.

I always think of her as a Nebraska writer (though I know she lived most of her life in New York) and primarily as a chronicler of life on the plains.

This story couldn’t be further from that. It’s a story of doomed young love on a ship leaving Italy.

One thing that jumps out is her wonderful ability to describe life on a ship. I’ve been on cruises – and the whole deal is so much different that what a sea voyage from Italy in that time must have been – but I recognize the scene and the unique unfettered feel that riding the waves leaves behind.

The sun had disappeared over the high ridge behind the city, and the stone pines stood black and flat against the fires of the afterglow. The lilac haze that hung over the long, lazy slopes of Vesuvius warmed with golden light, and films of blue vapor began to float down toward Baiae. The sky, the sea, and the city between them turned a shimmering violet, fading grayer as the lights began to glow like luminous pearls along the water-front, — the necklace of an irreclaimable queen. Behind me I heard a low exclamation; a slight, stifled sound, but it seemed the perfect vocalization of that weariness with which we at last let go of beauty, after we have held it until the senses are darkened. When I turned to her again, she seemed to have fallen asleep.

Of course, the oddest thing about the story is the ambiguous sex of the narrator – who falls in love with the doomed, married Mrs. Ebbling. Reading it, I assumed the narrator was a man (…anticipating a consular appointment…) but on careful examination it seems that this little fact is deliberately blurred. The narrator’s name is never mentioned and is never referred to by any pronoun that would give their sex away.

This ambiguity adds a layer of unreal mystery to the love between the two young people. It reinforces the melancholy, the feeling of loss, of regret, and of nostalgia that permeates the story.

There is a lot more here than a simple shipboard infatuation.

“Don’t say that. When I leave you day after tomorrow, I shall have given you all my life. I can’t tell you how, but it is true. There is something in each of us that does not belong to the family or to society, not even to ourselves. Sometimes it is given in marriage, and sometimes it is given in love, but oftener it is never given at all. We have nothing to do with giving or withholding it. It is a wild thing that sings in us once and flies away and never comes back, and mine has flown to you. When one loves like that, it is enough, somehow. The other things can go if they must. That is why I can live without you, and die without you.”

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 1 – A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today, the first of June, I present a nice, brief, short story by George Saunders, A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room. It’s available online, here:

A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room

Go ahead and read it – won’t take too long.

I have become a fan of George Saunders in the last few years. One of his stories, Sea Oak, was read and written about in the aforementioned June of 2013. More recently I wrote about the book, Tenth of December – his most recent tome of short fiction. I have checked his book Pastoralia out from the local library and it is next on my reading list.

His stories are full of tragedy and absurd humor. They dwell on the corporate influence on our lives today and take the soulless void of daily life – and stretch it to the extreme. Below this surface, though, lies the innermost desires and passions of the human heart struggling to rise through the thick layers of bullshit to be seen in the light of day.

Or something like that.

Today’s piece, A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room is of the type. It’s typical Saunders fare. As a matter of fact, it is prototypical.

What made the work interesting, is an introduction by author Tobias Wolff. Tobias Wolff is another of my favorite writers – his story Hunters in the Snow was also in my list of last year’s June subjects. I hear him speak at the Dallas Museum of Art once – his lecture on a classic poem (Two roads diverged…) has affected my views on literature ever since I heard it.

Read the introduction here:

Genius: an Introduction to George Saunders’ “A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room”

It turns out that Tobias Wolff picked A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room out of the slush pile back in 1986 and gave George Saunders a fellowship that jump-started his writing career. In the years since Saunders has emerged as one of the most important writers of our day.

It’s always interesting to learn what twist of fate has enabled someone to rise from the vast pool of striving mediocrity into the rarefied air of success and fame.

That’s all it takes – the ability to craft something that will grip an uber-talented man like Wolff and make an impression strong enough for him to remember the moment of reading the story almost thirty years later.

That’s all it takes.

I opt for the Juarez at the Hollo-Chick Haus. It’s a South of the Border Taste Riot. A Hollo-Chick is a kind of chicken conglomerate, the size of a football and hollowed out. You can have whatever you want in there, croutons or sweet-and-sour pork or a light salad even. The Juarez is the one filled with sour cream and refried beans and some little sliced black things. I opt for extra sauce packets.

Always opt for extra sauce packets.

Zoli’s New York Style

Try driving across a city when you are hungry – you will notice that there is a pizza joint on every corner. There is pizza everywhere.

Plus, the simple word pizza means something different to different people – there are so many varieties. Most people have a favorite and will defend their choice of crust – from crackerlike to deep dish – to the death. Then there are toppings – from traditional Margherita to fried eggs or squid ink. The place can vary from a corner take-out dive all the way up to a sit-down formal experience with wines to match the toppings and everything in between. A family owned local hangout to a massive international corporate chain.

Whatever you like.

I’m not a very good judge. My opinion is that pizza is like sex – when it is good, it’s great and when it is bad – it’s still pretty good.

Everyone has to have their go-to pizza joint. Ours is Cane Rosso in Deep Ellum (Pizza Napoletana with its famous “tip sag”) – I like to sit at the bar and watch the pies go into the giant wood burning dome of an oven, where they cook for only a few seconds (a close second is Urban Crust in old downtown Plano).

I stumbled across a list of 16 Iconic Pizzerias Across the Metroplex. I’ve been to about half of these (Eno’s and Mama’s are two more favorites) – and probably won’t make too much of an attempt to add more. The city is simply too spread out and there are too many good ones too close. Cane Rosso did make the grade, which is not a surprise. Campisi’s Egyption Lounge is on the list more for its history than its food, IMHO.

We were in Bishop Arts this weekend, looking for something to eat in a place that wasn’t too smoky and I remembered that Cane Rosso had opened a branch up there in the old Bee Enchilada location (shame it closed) called Zoli’s. They promised “New York Style Pizza” and that sounded good.

Here’s a useful graphic that outlines the difference in the various styles of pizza sold at the two spots. Zoli’s uses metal ovens instead of the giant domed wood-burner at Cane Rosso, plus it offers three styles – New York, Grandma, and Sicilian.

(click to enlarge)

Photo Courtesy Cane Rosso and Zoli's (click to enlarge)

Photo Courtesy Cane Rosso and Zoli’s
(click to enlarge)

Good stuff.

Zoli's, Dallas, Texas

Zoli’s, Dallas, Texas

Lunch special at Zoli's - Ceaser Salad, Slice, Knot of Garlic Bread

Lunch special at Zoli’s – Ceaser Salad, Slice, Knot of Garlic Bread

So, was Zoli’s great or was it merely good. I liked it a lot, but I was very hungry. You’ll have to go try it for yourself.

Iguanas on my Roof

A sketch of the Casino at Montelimar, Nicaragua - once Somoza's beach house.

A sketch of the Casino at Montelimar, Nicaragua – once Somoza’s beach house.

I stumbled across a wonderfully interesting book this weekend; Iguanas on my Roof Funny, Sad, and Scary OVERSEAS ADVENTURES of a Foreign Service Family in Third-World Countries during the Vietnam War and Watergate Era. I found it on its Facebook Page and then bought a copy from Amazon for my Kindle.

Say what you want about e-books… but to learn about a publication from the web while riding on a commuter train, have it in my hand seconds later, and instantly start reading it – that’s something amazing.

The book is a slim, simple, heartfelt family memoir written by Nancy Stone, the mother of five. I went to high school with two of her kids in Managua, Nicaragua. One son was my age, a grade below me and in a lot of my classes, and a daughter was my little brother’s age. We all ran around a lot together my senior year (I graduated and left for Kansas University in 1974).

I immediately recognized the title – we had iguanas on our roof. I remember when we first moved to Nicaragua trying to sleep with some tremendous racket overhead. I crept outside and leaned a ladder up to the wall, climbing up to find out what it was. There were a half-dozen huge iguanas and an equal number of cats all chasing each other around on the corrugated galvanized roofing. I couldn’t tell who was chasing who – but it was a mess. After I learned what it was up there – it was easy to ignore the cacophony and sleep.

Although I knew the kids well, I don’t recall ever even meeting their parents and I certainly never knew their story. We were military and they were embassy – that didn’t matter to the young’uns, but there was a difference. Their father, Al Stone, was a railroad brakeman in the late fifties when he was inspired by the harrowing plight of hordes of desperate Mexican immigrants fleeing a drought to try and do something. He spent years in education and effort until he was able to go to work for the Department of State and the USAID program.

So the big family was off on a tour of the disasters of the third world. From living in the Philippines while Al was in Vietnam, to Lagos, to Washington DC, to Managua after the 1972 earthquake (where they crossed paths with your humble narrator), the book describes the shocking, the strange, the scary, and the silly of a long, often difficult trip.

I’ve always said that living in the third world is months of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

Most of what was in the book was familiar to me, even the sections from the Philippines and Nigeria. There are certain stock scenes common to life in any poverty-cursed tropical place. Every incident brought back memories of similar episodes and adventures from my own youth.

The crest from the American Nicaraguan School

The crest from the American Nicaraguan School

What was most interesting was seeing these recognizable installments from a different point of view. The book is told by an adult – a person where everything is new and strange. Nancy Stone was from California – thrust by fate, love, and dedication into a bizarre world of giant insects, bad infrastructure, iffy transport, dangerous and incomprehensible societies, and odd food. It was all so… foreign. Cultural and work protocols, manners, and etiquette were consummate challenges. But it all comes to an end. The final chapter is titled, “We Went Back Home.”

Where is home? I don’t understand the concept. People talk to me about being “homesick” – I have no idea what they are talking about.

You see, It felt differently to go through a journey like that as a kid. When you are young… it is simply how things are. You don’t know any better.

A few paragraphs of the story were written by the kids I knew – familiar voices I understand.

For me, for example, the place and time where I had the most trouble adapting was when I went to college in the states. My nickname for a couple years was “Banana Boat” – as in, “Bill, you’re an American like the rest of us, but you act like you just fell off a banana boat.” I was so happy to find four students from Barcelona that I could relate to – though I was bothered by their lispy Spanish and the incredible amounts of wine they drank.

I realize that the youngsters were able to assimilate into the local culture in a way the adults couldn’t even imagine. To this day, I’m ashamed of my terrible Spanish – but I learned that if I simply kept my mouth shut I could move around at will without anyone knowing I was an American. As a matter of fact – nobody would notice me at all. I could become invisible. That’s an amazing thing to be able to do in a place like that.

That even affects the memories I try to hang onto in my incipient dotage. For example, there are a lot of anecdotes like those in the book that I am willing to let go as they fade into the misty cobwebs of my crumbling brain. What I hang onto desperately are some of the ethereal emotions of youth, the colors of the country, and the smells of the culture.

For example (full disclosure – I’ve been writing notes about this recently for a short story I’m working on) there is the smell of the third world. It’s a smell of pork grease and wood fires – of sour sweat and homemade soap, of heat and desperation. A few years ago I walked out onto the deck of a ship as it cruised into Montego Bay at dawn. A fisherman in a tiny wooden skiff was off the port bow and I watched him untangle his nets. As the salmon glow of the sun, still hidden behind the mountains, filled the sky we moved into a thin cobalt mist of the morning cooking fires wafting offshore and there was that third world smell. I had forgotten… but it all came back in a rush.

That is what I am desperate to hold on to.

So, I any of y’all are curious enough to read about what it was like, over there, back then, go to Amazon, load up your ereader or wait for the bound paper, whatever. It’s worth your money and your time, trust me. Thanks for doing the work, Mrs. Stone, for collecting the memories, writing them down, and sending them out into the world.

It’s late, so late. I think I’ll pour a little Flor de Caña (I was so happy when that became available in Dallas), get my writing in, and call it a day.

The land of lakes, volcanoes, and sun. A painting I bought on my last trip to Nicaragua.

The land of lakes, volcanoes, and sun. A painting I bought on my last trip to Nicaragua.

Invisible Cities

Cities & Desire 5

From there, after six days and seven nights, you arrive at Zobeide, the white city, well exposed to the moon, with streets wound about themselves as in a skein. They tell this tale of its foundation: men of various nations had an identical dream. They saw a woman running at night through an unknown city; she was seen from behind, with long hair, and she was naked. They dreamed of pursuing her. As they twisted and turned, each of them lost her. After the dream, they set out in search of that city; they never found it, but they found one another; they decided to build a city like the one in the dream. In laying out the streets, each followed the course of his pursuit; at the spot where they had lost the fugitive’s trail, they arranged spaces and walls differently from the dream, so she would be unable to escape again.

This was the city of Zobeide, where they settled, waiting for that scene to be repeated one night. None of them, asleep or awake, ever saw the woman again. The city’s streets were streets where they went to work every day, with no link any more to the dreamed chase. Which, for that matter, had long been forgotten.

New men arrived from other lands, having had a dream like theirs, and in the city of Zobeide, they recognized something from the streets of the dream, and they changed the positions of arcades and stairways to resemble more closely the path of the pursued woman and so, at the spot where she had vanished, there would remain no avenue of escape.

The first to arrive could not understand what drew these people to Zobeide, this ugly city, this trap.

—-Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Invisible City - Gateway to Arcturus

Invisible City – Gateway to Arcturus

Thin Cities 5

If you choose to believe me, good. Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.

This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.

Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.

—-Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

For a month, starting on June 1, I read a short story every day and wrote a journal entry about them. For me at least, (I don’t know about how it was for you) it was a fun, interesting, and educational experience and exercise. One thing I learned is how wide the world of short fiction is – how varied and variable, diverse and divisive the styles, techniques, and artistry.

So I vowed to continue reading widely… and that brought me to a book by Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities (PDF). Technically, it’s a novel – a short novel. However, it is made up of a long series of very short sketches, each one describing a different, fantastic city – fifty-five in total. These are framed by an outer story, where Marco Polo is talking to Kublai Khan and telling the tales, thereby describing the cities he has visited.

Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them.
—-Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

The descriptions can be read individually, in relation to each other, and to the deep philosophical questions raised by the framing story.

It is short and easy to read, yet complex – with hidden aspects and dimensions that have to be teased out. It is so full of unique and interesting ideas that it slowed my reading down… I’d devour a half page and then have to rest to let the concepts and thoughts born by the text stop vibrating and resonating inside my head, let it all calm down, before I could read some more.

The book shows a lot of influence of Jorge Luis Borges… and is one book that is referred to as Borgesian. It is full of self-referential conundrums, mysterious contradictions, and postmodern enigmas.

I have to be careful about what I am reading when I write, because my reading is such an influence on what I write. I put up an entry containing something I wrote, Free Breakfast, while reading Invisible Cities a few days ago.

I would love to write like Italo Calvino… though nobody would read it. His fiction is a lot of fun, but it isn’t, for example, something that will ever be as popular as, say Harry Potter.

Now that I think about it… wouldn’t that be cool? A postmodern, Borgesian Harry Potter.

It could explore the duality of Harry Potter’s life. He lives in a cupboard, ignored, miserable, and hopeless for part of the year, then spends the rest in a world of Magic… where he is the chosen one. Which life is the real one… which is the real Harry Potter? Could the dire tragic life of poor Orphan Harry be so demoralizing that it drives him crazy? – Is the whole magical world of Hogwarts born from Harry’s desperation – an imaginary world where he gains unthinkable power and importance – where he becomes the chosen warrior in a war against the ultimate evil?

And what about Voldemort? He shatters his soul into a handful of pieces and stores each one in a Horcrux. He achieves immortality, at the price of a broken soul. Do these items then become Voldemort? How can a soul exist without consciousness? The potential for paradox and existential exploration are endless.

Even something as simple as the paintings…. Dead people make an appearance in the moving, talking paintings of Hogwarts. Is this a form of limited immortality? Do the paintings know they are dead? Are they sad? Are there moving and talking paintings with subjects that were never alive? Why not? If so… what are their memories? Do the dead paintings sleep? Do they dream of the living?

That would be a book worth reading… if someone had the skill to pull it off.

Hidden Cities 1

In Olinda, if you go out with a magnifying glass and hunt carefully, you may find somewhere a point no bigger than the head of a pin which, if you look at it slightly enlarged, reveals within itself the roofs, the antennas, the skylights, the gardens, the pools, the streamers across the streets, the kiosks in the squares, the horse-racing track. That point does not remain there: a year later you will find it the size of half a lemon, then as large as a mushroom, then a soup plate. And then it becomes a full-size city, enclosed within the earlier city: a new city that forces its way ahead in the earlier city and presses its way toward the outside.

Olinda is certainly not the only city that grows in concentric circles, like tree trunks which each year add one more ring. But in other cities there remains, in the center, the old narrow girlde of the walls from which the withered spires rise, the towers, the tiled roofs, the domes, while the new quarters sprawl around them like a loosened belt. Not Olinda: the old walls expand bearing the old quarters with them, enlarged but maintaining their proportions an a broader horizon at the edges of the city; they surround the slightly newer quarters, which also grew up on the margins and became thinner to make room for still more recent ones pressing from inside; and so, on and on, to the heart of the city, a totally new Olinda which, in its reduced dimensions retains the features and the flow of lymph of the first Olinda and of all the Olindas that have blossomed one from the other; and within this innermost circle there are always blossoming–though it is hard to discern them–the next Olinda and those that will grow after it.

—-Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

The Hunger Games and Battle Royale – Compare and Contrast

I have not been watching enough television… no, no, no, that’s not right. I’ve been watching too much television (isn’t watching any television too much television?) – what I mean is that my television watching has been too unfocused. I waste my meager allotment of precious time with sports or my obsession with How It’s Made/How do They Do That/Modern Marvels (por ejemplo – do you have any idea how much work goes into making a tennis ball?). I want to stop that and start working my way down my Netflix Queue – especially the twisted obscure crap that feeds my imagination.

In that regard, I watched too similar (yet completely different) films that I’ve been meaning to check out. I finally came around and caught The Hunger Games on Netflix, and then, last night, stayed up too late and watched a wild and controversial Japanese film from a decade ago called Battle Royale.

I had not read the books from The Hunger Games and now, I’m know I won’t. I had heard a lot of good things and, sure enough, The Hunger Games was a well-acted, slick, excellent production of a popular story and it was a serious disappointment to me. It was simply too Young Adult for my tastes.

Then there is Battle Royale. People say that Battle Royale is the inspiration for The Hunger Games – though the Suzanne Collins claims to have never read the book or seen the film. The overall concept is similar – a group of teenagers trapped in an isolated area and forced to fight each other to the death.

However, there are more differences than similarities. The Hunger Games is a carefully calibrated teen vehicle where the most horrific aspects of the godawful situation are concealed and glossed over – making a tale which is unsavory on the surface palatable for the masses. Battle Royale, on the other hand, pulls no punches. It is an unfettered tsunami of death… a tornado of gore, terror, and raw emotion. It is deeply disturbing. The ultra-violence makes A Clockwork Orange look like Barney.

Both films have political overtones. The Hunger Games concentrates on class warfare in an Occupy Wall Street inspired tale of the wealthy versus the poor – the monied, powerful elite oppressing and suppressing the unwashed, starving masses. Battle Royale has a more subtle, complex take. It is, first of all, a conflict of generations. The young people are out of control – it starts with a student stabbing his teacher – and the older generation decides to take revenge.

It is the story of a traditionalist society unraveling, of personal vendetta and obsession, of child abuse and the sins of the fathers’ hoisted on the young. Above all, it is about the Zero Sum Game and the idea that none of us, really, gets out of this alive.

The Hunger Games is modeled after television reality shows, while Battle Royale takes the form of an adolescent fever-spawned nightmare.

The Hunger Games has beautiful model-like specimens of perfection running around in a well-lit carefully manicured park-like setting, while Battle Royale is gritty, dark and more than a little rough around the edges. Instead of a shiny bow and arrow, the contestants in Battle Royale are each given a random weapon – some useful, some not. Some get submachine guns while the hero gets the lid from a cooking pot.

Model-like appearance of the contestants from The Hunger Games

Model-like appearance of the contestants from The Hunger Games

The class from Battle Royale

The class from Battle Royale

The Hunger Games contestants are carefully selected and trained, while in Battle Royale a class of forty students (half girls and boys) are gassed while on a school trip and thrown together on an island with no preparation other than a cute, silly instructional video. That means they all know each other well beforehand – and the usual alliances, crushes, and hatreds of the young come forward as a matter of life and death.

The Hunger Games is broadcast as an entertainment for a worldwide audience… like the ultimate Roman Gladiatorial Extravaganza. It is a spectacle for and about the media. On the other hand, the Battle Royale itself is not even televised. The authorities seem to stage the Battle Royale mostly because… well, because they can.

One interesting section of Battle Royale is when the members of the school’s Cheerleading squad are shown hiding out in the luminous whitewashed lighthouse. They are organized, have set up a watch schedule, a kitchen, an infirmary, and have settled into what appears to be a polite, happy, domesticated, and insulated clique. They are shown cooking and carefully cleaning – wiping down the tables before a meal. However the horror of their situation is running right under the surface and all it takes is a plate of spaghetti eaten by the wrong person to set everything off. Minutes later, they have all slaughtered each other – with the last survivor throwing herself off the lighthouse into the rocks below. One exclaims while dying, “I at least thought I’d live until tomorrow.”

Don't mess with the Cheerleaders

Don’t mess with the Cheerleaders

In a movie with an ensemble cast like this it is fun to try and spot actors you’ve seen elsewhere. Sure enough, playing Takako Chigusa (Girl #13) in Battle Royale is Chiaki Kuriyama who played Gogo Yubari in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1. I’ve always thought that the fight to the death between Gogo and Beatrix Kiddo is the best fight scene in pretty much any movie. It’s no coincidence; Quentin Tarantino is a fan of Battle Royale and based Gogo on Chigusa. I kept expecting Chigusa to pull a chain with a spiked ball on the end out of her weapons bag.

Takako Chigusa  (Girl #13)  from Battle Royale - in this one, she gets to wear the yellow jumpsuit

Takako Chigusa (Girl #13) from Battle Royale – in this one, she gets to wear the yellow jumpsuit

The same actress as Gogo Yubari in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1

The same actress as Gogo Yubari in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1

Now, the important question… what to watch next? I haven’t decided but I have it narrowed down to two that I have on DVR – Sharknado or La Traviata. They’re sort of the same thing… aren’t they? La Traviata is basically Sharknado plus tuberculosis.