Published in Gargoyle 68, 2018.
Excerpt from “Not Better Late”
Snow resonates in me like a drum. At age three until about seven snow thrilled
me as its white sweeps and slopes gleaming in sunlight settled into Buckfield
through winter, brightening the somber days when the sky changed from
patchworks of white and blue to washes of gray. I’d grope into light flurries
swirling insubstantial indecisive snowflakes. Mornings I’d run downstairs hoping
for a coating of snow across the ground and the back porch so I could put on
my little boots and tramp around outside. After short days without a visible
sun I’d pause on my way upstairs to peer out the front parlor windows at the
snowfields that muted the road. Christmases changed me about snow. Christmas,
when families get together and dreams may come true, should be the day Papa
and Maman would arrive from Michigan. What word overheard, what childish
fantasy got that dream started? Letters hoping I was well and promising a
reunion– what a special day! It had to be at Christmas. As that most magical
day in my childhood pantheon approached, I’d puzzle over the weather map
in the newspaper and listen to news broadcasts for the latest on the weather.
I’d gobble down supper in haste to station myself in the parlor chair by the third
window with the best view of the direction Papa and Maman would arrive from,
and in the faint illumination of the lights on the Christmas tree in the far corner
I’d study oncoming headlights. Would they arrive by car or bus? Snow smothered
hope. Dismayed I’d watch a steady snowfall beginning to clump on grass and tree
limbs and dissolve on the wet tarmac, then fall in wet globs fattening deep drifts
across the highway, ending the passage of cars, sending shadows of doom across
my soul. Christmas snow spoke: impossible. Inside me a silent echo trembled…
Published in Azure: A Journal of Literary Thought, 2018.
Excerpt from “Menage a Trois, With Horse”
(Setting: Cafe Central, Vienna, 1912.)
I let Brendan delineate our trip, forcing a smile when the man, Anton, stolidly middleaged, glanced at me with a discomfiting fondness. He insisted we take our chairs and small tapered espresso cups to his table. After the round of introductions Anton informed us Leon was a war correspondent for a Kiev newspaper and back from the front only yesterday, from Sofia. “Belgrade,” Leon corrected him.
I graded Leon the brightest-looking of an unusually intelligent four, impressed
by his rich black hair, a thick black moustache and intense dark eyes behind
steelrimmed glasses. Brendan said, “I’ve not heard there is a war on.”
In halting English Leon explained the Austro-Hungarian Empire wasn’t involved in it. “The Balkan nations. The Greeks. They resist the Ottomans.”
Brendan was coming alive, more than I’d felt in some time, in discussion with these new acquaintances. “Who’s winning?”
In a meld of English and French Leon asserted that’s a question those ask who don’t go to war. No one wins a war. Shaking his head as one does in pain he told of his visits to hospitals for the wounded. Anton managed a simplified translation: “Many are still in the battle. They have nightmares at night. Sometimes during the day, while awake. Shooting. Running. Seeing comrades die. Over and over.”
Leon’s features clenched at the agony he was describing. Anton addressed a question to an average-looking high-browed man with a skimpy mustache, wearing pince-nez glasses. “Herr Doctor Alfred, can these men be restored to normal lives?”
“It is possible,” replied the doctor in an Austrian accent, “with personal psychiatry. Without relying on preconceived ideas of treatment.”
“Or quackery,” hinted Anton.
The doctor made a light smile. “By which you mean ideology. My approach would differ from the pre-eminent theory of our time. These wounded men are isolated. They have forgotten where they belong. I would have them describe their pre-war memories and re-connect them to their lives.”
“Your dispute in the community is well-known.”
“Therefore I prefer not to dwell on it. I shall not respond to— his ruthless attacks in the same manner. Herr Professor Joy wants followers. My course is to break off pointless conflict.”
Anton took a small sip of his cup of mokka. “Fortunately the professor comes here no longer.” He glanced at me to discern if I guessed whom they were discussing. “His new favorite is the Landtmann.”
The doctor murmured, “Das bessere für uns.”
I sent Anton an inquiring glance. He whispered, “Better for us.”
Leon made an observation in German and the doctor replied in German. Anton told Brendan, “Combating illness and overthrowing a sick government have less in common than Leon would like.”
Brendan looked puzzled, intrigued. The fourth man, an overweight theater director named Egon, leaned forward, confiding, “Adolf is at the window. He is looking inside.”
Anton shrank in apprehension. “Does he seem inclined to enter?”
“He lives in a home for indigent men. Poverty has turned him bitter.” The table fell silent and in minutes a thin man approached, carefully managing a large black portfolio under his arm. Anton asked how his sales were going. Adolf shook his head. In German Anton suggested, “Show our lady friend your new watercolors.”
“Englisch?” inquired Adolf.
Adolf opened his portfolio and displayed three street scenes one after the other. Anton informed him, “Sie ist ein Künstler, auch.” He shifted to English, “What do you think, my dear?”
My reply carried a faintly appeasing tone I couldn’t suppress. “They are professional. That building there, I recognize it.”
Anton interpreted in German and Adolf tied the portfolio shut, looking miffed at the paucity of my enthusiasm for his work, not, I guessed, a new experience for him. Adolf launched into a rapid rant in German. Brendan smiled. “I know not the words but I envy the blarney.”
I sent Anton a questioning look and he explained, “He is upset about the state of the arts in his fatherland. The academy fails to appreciate his work while accepting inferior works of the style academics are fond of. He calls them fools who reward their flatterers and have no feeling for art.”
The others waited Adolf out in silence, Leon with a wry smile. Adolf turned his diatribe on Leon. After a brief exchange between them Adolf tied his portfolio and stalked out. I said to Anton. “Obviously they aren’t friends.”
“Adolf accused Leon and his fellow Russians of child’s play, intellectuals and revolutionaries hiding under false names. Leon writes about the war under a pseudonym. He has used many. As a Jew he has good reason. His compatriot Vladimir has taken the surname Lenin. He did not come here today. The solitary Russian who never comes here, short, thin, pockmarked, he calls himself Steel.”
Brendan shifted in his chair. The doctor offered, “He is a cold one, that Yosef. And more intelligent than one may expect from his peasant features.”
Egon eyed the doctor. “If he has any mental defect he hides it, unlike Adolf, also a solitary individual. Adolf wears his passions on his sleeve.” He scanned the table. “Has anyone ever seen those two together, Adolf and Yosef? I think not. Should they meet, Adolf would talk Yosef to death. His own. Yosef hates verbosity. He would end the conversation by drawing his knife, he carries one, you know, and could kill Adolf for his pleasure. Both are, what would our Anglo-Saxon friends say, stuck? Herr Doctor, your profession pronounces no mental disease incurable?”
The doctor named Alfred humored Egon’s amateurish analysis. “That must be our working assumption.”
“My question is simpler. Can you cure any mental disease?”
“Not so simple, sir. We have no pill to undo years of damage. The talking remedy requires time, often many years.”
“Until the patient dies,” argued Egon. “Or tires of his illness and in boredom he
goes on to some other form of entertainment.”
Published in Adelaide Literary Magazine, November, 2018. Excerpt from “Appointment in Zanesville”
Bustling more than usual this morning, Thelma sets the omelet platter down hard before me and deftly slides an omelet into my plate, then one into hers, without looking at me. In the perfect silence the omelets sound as if they’d fallen from the ceiling. It’s about me reading the newspaper at breakfast again? I lower the paper halfway. “If the paper irritates you, it gives me a start on the day. Do you mind too much?”
“Your business gives us too little spare time.”
“Your business she says,”
True, hers is our home. She’s holding back. Deflect. “Excellent omelet again.” She’s done omelets for years, hard to make bad omelets. At worst, you get scrambled eggs. “Perfect coffee, too.”
It ought to be, with a two thousand dollar coffee maker. Something on her mind. She ventures, “Did you sleep well?”
I must look bleary. Not what I want to think about. “Fine. You?”
I recognize her strenuously bland tone. “I slept well, under the circumstances.”
Circumstances? The word wakes me up and turns me off at the same time. True? I couldn’t tell, with my back to her, instantly asleep. “Midweek, I need to crash early.”
Not the greatest excuse and she doesn’t buy it. “Those long days of yours must be dreadful.”
I hear a little empathy in the words, less than usual. Irony? She knows the demands of my work. “I’m too busy to notice.”
“We both have long days. The boys will be up soon. I’ll have to get them ready, drive them to school…” She continues talking while, unhearing, I nod and turn to the business page. Then a slight edge to her tone alerts me she is watching me. She has a rhetorical question I’ve heard before: “Is this another of our talks where I do all the talking?”
Published in Fiction Week Literary Review. Spring, 2017
Excerpt from “Death, Speeches and Small Fiascos.”
Through long summer days I meandered through a catch-all of Chicago sidewalk doorways, pessimistic storefronts and a cacophony of animal, vegetable and prehistoric smells, among noncommittal faces of all colors and ages. Dismembered automobiles rust in silence behind a high fence of bare boards. Dried-yellow newspapers taped over the windows on the inside of the little corner market to shade the aging produce from direct sun give it a permanent closed look. Barroom conversations culminate in commiseration with someone else out of work, while we nurse our beers. As the fall cold and dark advance into afternoons, I seek comfort in the room I share with a collective of noises. Whenever I walk across my kitchen, the refrigerator jacks up the pitch of its rattle, a habit it has, finicking with its sound. Opening the refrigerator door shifts it into other frequencies. It anticipates approaching trains. Rumbling three feet from my second-story window the elevated trains turn my room into a concert hall with an orchestra warming up. A spoon might tinkle in a cup, the instant coffee jar tap tap tap against the cocoa can. The old woodframe windows creak and clatter as if trying to get loose and fly off. Dishes in the sink clatter. The refrigerator pizzicatos whatever is inside it. Passing trains hurl crescendos into the room. Once during my morning coffee I heard purring. A cat had gotten in? The door and window were shut. No cat in the room, under the table. Then I noticed an almost empty jelly jar shaking on the small breadboard on the table. The breadboard, warped, was quaking to the rattle of the refrigerator. I’m alone too much. My friend down the hall, Leland, has moved to Cicero. Picking up my weekly pittance in the office offers few opportunities to socialize, with eagle-eyed bosses watching, fiercely protecting employees against time-wasting distractions. On Sundays my habit is to pocket a sandwich and an apple and wander to various neighborhoods, sit in parks, stroll along the lake. During the cold fall rains I stay in and read at my kitchen table, in library books or newpapers and magazines people toss away. I cast solemn glances at dark skies hanging above the tracks and the rain blackening the elevated crossties.
SNIPPETS FROM THE QUARTET:
Woman of a Far Castle The Wages of Angst The Victorian and the Shoebox Lurching Toward Destiny
>After their initial purchase at the Angel Trading Post the four were never seen together again.
>What might my family, my friends, my social class think were I found murdered in these slums?
>…strange one. Half child.
>I wondered what they do to horse thieves in Transylvania.
>”…if you’re suggesting what I think, you’re both insane.”
>In their obscure dialect they inseminated the prelude to symbiosis of man and object.
>When the incident of that night comes to mind, I shudder.
>Telephones of old friends are disconnected. Leon is rebuilding the Red Army.
>…he hadn’t responded to the part about shooting people.
>How came I to this forsaken place?
>In one of my spells of madness I found myself watching the dawn from a parapet uncertain how I had gotten there.
>”I chose a different path.”
>”It will protect me in the booby hatch.”
>”Don’t matter who I kill, white boy. I don’t kill them, I kill you.”
>…asked me why in my father’s image over the fireplace the artist had painted a white feather in my father’s left eye.
>”I hope she doesn’t invite her talking coyote into the house for tea.”
>The Committee hunted on the New York East Side, in labor unions, colleges, sweatshops, speakeasies.
>It was the first time I’d ventured into his bed.
>”I saw a few Indians. I’m not sure they were patients, exactly. He was running experimental studies on them.”
>His excessive imbibing was well-known in the Senate. I offered mollifying words. “The voters know we have human failings.”
>Odell wobbled sideways, straining to regain his balance, did a halfspin, back-stepping as he began falling backward against the two-by-four railing replacing the missing wall and as the railing gave way he disappeared into the darkness.
>”I never expected a happy ending.”
>”Mr. Slade don’t worry about lawsuits.”
>The word ‘pregnant’ turned him pale.
>”Jay wound up alone with this crazy man, your father.”
>Two of us, said Mabrouk, and tonight we were guests of an ambassador.
>They are dangerous psychos.
>The public could still be regimented by the old methods business had employed…
>Here came Dr. Mouse now, with shirtsleeves rolled up, cradling shiny implements in a steaming white hotel towel.
>She was drinking bitterness, facing down the daughter of a murderer.
>Naturally, as we proclaimed ourselves the aggrieved party, the police blamed the strikers.
>I’d gotten stuck on how could my mother abandon me.
>Miscegenation, they label it, punishable here by death.
>Since the killing in the desert I’ve felt tense.
>”You may yet bring redemption to the ice castles of the Slade empire.”
Style is not a tool, it is not a method, it is not a choice of words alone. Being much more than all this, style constitutes an intrinsic component or characteristic of the author’s personality. Thus when we speak of style we mean an individual artist’s peculiar nature, and the way it expresses itself in his artistic output. It is essential to remember that though every living person may have his or her own style, it is the style peculiar to this or that individual writer of genius that is alone worth discussion. And this genius cannot express itself in a writer’s literary style unless it is present in his soul. A mode of expression can be perfected by an author. It is not unusual that in the course of his literary career a writer’s style becomes ever more precise and impressive, as indeed Jane Austen’s did. But a writer devoid of talent cannot develop a literary style of any worth; at best it will be an artificial mechanism deliberately set together and devoid of the divine spark.
This is why I do not believe that anybody can be taught to write fiction unless he already possesses literary talent. Only in the latter case can a young author be helped to find himself, to free his language from clichés, to eliminate clumsiness, to form a habit of searching with unflinching patience for the right word, the only right word which will convey with the utmost precision the exact shade and intensity of thought.
–Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature. Edited by Fredson Bowers, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers. 1980.
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I’ve never been interested in anything about writing after having learned, I hope, to write. That is, I mastered my craft as well as I could. There is a technique, there is a craft, and you have to learn it. Well, I did as well as I could with that, but now all in the world I am interested in is telling a story. I have something to tell you that I, for some reason, think is worth telling, and so I want to tell it as clearly and purely and simply as I can. But I had spent fifteen years at least learning to write. I practiced writing in every possible way that I could. I wrote a pastiche of other people, imitating Dr. Johnson and Laurence Sterne, and Perarch and Shakespeare’s sonnets, and then I tried writing my own way. I spent fifteen years learning to trust myself: that’s what it comes to…
A cultivated style would be like a mask. Everybody knows it’s a mask, and sooner or later you must show yourself— or at least, you show yourself as someone who could not afford to show himself, and so created something to hide behind. Style is the man. Aristotle said it first, as far as I know, and everybody has said it since, because it is one of those unarguable truths. You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being.
—Katherine Ann Porter, Conversations. Edited by Joan Givner, University Press of Mississippi; Jackson and London, 1987.
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Style, which like architecture is a language, is not necessarily the most effective means of expressing what it represents; thus Sung wash-drawings are not the most effective means of representing landscape, nor has Cubism any special aptitude for depicting guitars and harlequins. Painting centers much less on seeing the “real world,” than on making of it another world; all things visible serve style, and style serves man and his gods.
Thus, for us, a style no longer means a set of characteritics common to the works of a given school or period, an outcome or adornment of the artist’s vision of the world; rather, we see it as the supreme object of the artist’s activity, of which living forms are but the raw material. And so, to the question, “What is art?” we answer: “That whereby forms are transmuted into style.”
At this point begins the psychology of the creative process…
A style is not merely an idiom or a mannerism; it becomes these only when, ceasing to be a conquest, it settles down into a convention. The tastes of a period are mannerisms which follow those of styles or may exist without them; but Romanesque was not a medieval “modern style,” it illustrated a special attitude toward the cosmos; indeed every true style is the scaling-down to our human perspective of that eternal flux on whose mysterious rhythms we are borne ineluctably, in a never-ceasing drift of stars…
Thus styles are significations, they impose a meaning on visual experience; though often we find them conflicting with each other, passing away and superseded, always we see them replacing the uncharted scheme of things by the coherence they enforce on all they “represent.” However complex, however lawless an art may claim to be— even the art of a Van Gogh or a Rimbaud— it stands for unity against the chaos of appearances; and when time has passed and it has borne fruit, this becomes apparent. Every style, in fact, creates its own universe by selecting and incorporating such elements of reality as enable the artist to focus the shape of things on some essential part of man.
—André Malraux, The Voices of Silence. Doubleday & Co., New York, 1953.
The fate of democracy is to have entered the modern world at the same moment as capitalism, roughly during the seventeenth century. As a consequence the course of each became intertwined with the other. This meant, among other things, that the attempts to establish a democratic culture were an uphill struggle. At first democracy and capitalism were occasional allies pitted against the stratified order of monarchy, aristocracy, and established church. Then, as each became more politically self-conscious, more aware of divergent concerns, each began to define an identity and pursue strategies that reflected the reality of opposed interests, contrasting conceptions of power, and disagreement as to what degree of equality or inequality each could tolerate without compromising their respective systems.
The persisting conflict between democratic egalitarianism and an economic system that has rapidly evolved into another inegalitarian regime is a reminder that capitalism is not solely a matter of production, exchange, and reward. It is a regime in which culture, politics, and economy tend toward a seamless whole, a totality. Like the regimes it had displaced, the corporate regime manifests inequalities in every aspect of social life and defends them as essential. And like the old regimes, the structure of corporate organization follows the hierarchical principle of gradations of authority, prerogative, and reward. It is undemocratic in its structure and modus operandi and antidemocratic in its persistent effort to destroy or weaken unions, discourage minimum wage legislation, resist environmental protections, and dominate the creation and dissemination of culture (media, foundations, education).
—Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated. Princeton University Press; Princeton and Oxford, 2008
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The public relations industry is a phenomenon that developed in the freest countries, in Britain and the United States, and the reason is pretty clear. A century ago it became clear that it was not going to be so easy to control the population by force. Too much freedom had been won through labor organizing, parliamentary Labor parties in many countries, women starting to get the franchise, and so on. It was kind of like the ’60s, the danger of democracy, and the reaction was sort of similar. A crucial part of it was the rise of the PR industry.
Its leading intellectual figure and kind of guru was Edward Bernays, a Wilson/Roosevelt/Kennedy progressive talking from the so-called left end of the political spectrum. He wrote a book called Propaganda—the term was used honestly in those days—which was a kind of manual, providing theoretical guidance for the rising public relations industry. He explained the purpose in kind of Madisonian terms. He said the country has to be governed by the “intelligent minority,” which is of course us—anyone who advocates this is part of it. So the intelligent minority has to run the country in the interests of the general population. You can’t let them make the decisions, because they’ll make terrible decisions. Part of the way we do this is by what he called “engineering of consent.” They’re too dumb to understand so we’ll engineer their consent to what we decide, and that’s the purpose of the public relations industry.
You find this doctrine all through progressive intellectual thought, like Walter Lippmann, the major progressive intellectual of the twentieth century. He wrote famous progressive essays on democracy in which his view was exactly that. “The public must be put in their place” so that the responsible men can make decisions without interference from the ”bewildered herd.”
—Noam Chomsky, Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power. Edited by Peter Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott. Seven Stories Press, New York: 2017.
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What I am asserting is that in this particular epoch a conjunction of historical circumstances has led to the rise of an elite of power; that the men of the circles composing this elite, severally and collectively, now make such key decisions as are made; and that, given the enlargement and the centralization of the means of power now available, the decisions that they make and fail to make carry more consequences for more people than has ever been the case in the world history of mankind.
I am also asserting that there has developed on the middle levels of power, a semi-organized stalemate, and that on the bottom level there has come into being a mass-like society which has little resemblance to the image of a society in which voluntary associations and classic publics hold the keys to power. The top of the American system of power is much more unified and much more powerful, the bottom is much more fragmented, and in truth, impotent, than is generally supposed by those who are distracted by the middling units of power which neither express such will as exists at the bottom nor determine the decisions at the top.
C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite. Oxford University Press, New York, 1956.