Lucy and Todd

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Padgett Powell — The Interrogative Mood

In Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on July 26, 2013 at 7:21 am

‘these questions want you bad’  (113)

This is a marvellous creation, a kind of pop art that sets off blasts in your head in mystifying, startling, explosive, and expansive ways. The language is by turns old-fashioned, elegant, even (as Powell would put it)  ‘recherché’, or zapped through with deadpan profundities, bursts of slang and some superb snippets of repartee, often in black speak, or Southern dialect anyway (Powell lives in Florida). So the tone can change in an instant from po-faced and stuffy – ‘Do you think it plausible…’ (60) and, ‘…the phrase enjoys, I believe, considerable currency’ (91) – through attitudes technical and philosophical – ‘Is all life clueless, or is most of it clueless with momentary bursts of clueness, or is it a spectrum of cluelessness to clueness on which people reside at various points, and are the points at which people reside on the spectrum of cluelessness fixed or variable?’ (80) – to low-brow, with terms like ‘cut slack’ (3), ‘…do Psalms do it for you?’ (1), ‘is it received hogwash…’ (14) – or sometimes all at once, as in: ‘Do people who purport to know what a fractal is have a leg up on those who confess they don’t?’ (18) I like that ‘leg up’. Or this perfunctory quandary: ‘Should non-asses have to put up with asses?’ (109)

The weird effect of all these questions is warmth, humanity, and an infectious curiosity (about life and, apparently, about the reader). It’s welcoming! The questioner seems lenient about human failings, and human perplexities. How easily bamboozled we are if someone shows us the least bit of attention. It makes you feel loved and needed, to be talked to this much. I’m a sucker for it: I love being asked questions! And our interrogator is always polite, painstakingly so. ‘Can you see yet (I hardly mean to single you out: we will all look horrible and we will all look like old women) how horrible you will look as a very old woman?’ (7)

These are probing questions, and one’s instinct is to answer them. If it’s a novel, it’s certainly a very odd one; but in the end the book is asking what all novels ask the unseen reader: is anyone out there? Powell chafes at this divide and wittily acknowledges it. Does he care about the answers? There are times in the book when he directly puzzles over who we are, and demands details: ‘If there is a missed sexual encounter in your past, do you recall the name of the person it might have involved? Would you be willing to share that name and the particulars with me?’ (77)

It’s also a deconstruction (not in the Lacanian sense, more in the bulldozer sense) of what a novel, or poem, should be: a sincere exploration of what’s in the writer’s head at the time. The only other similarities here to more conventional types of novel include flashbacks, some hints of autobiographical info, incidental factual (loosely educational) asides, and indications of the narrator’s main concerns, worries, irritations, foibles and even medical problems. Recurrent themes are birds (especially owls, eagles, buzzards and blue jays), pine trees, handyman tools, guitarists, model train sets, medieval sieges, nakedness, clowns, hospitals and nurses, rain, guns, chocolate, vegetarians, dogs (poodles and terriers), snakes (moccasins in particular), monkeys, horses, whores, whiskey, radishes, ‘questionable’ water drunk from garden hoses, and the author’s apparent aversion to getting mail and talking on the phone. All very reasonable preoccupations! He also likes to conjure up fantasy hidey-holes – abandoned silver mines, Andean cabins, powerboats on Lake Michigan. Again and again, the idea of wholesale retreat, hermitude, comes up, lying in a hammock somewhere and living in a secluded, self-sufficient kind of way. But, he asks, ‘What if the cartoonist R. Crumb were your neighbor? Would you sleep better, or worse, or the same knowing R. Crumb was your neighbor in the next quaint stone medieval cottage in the South of France?’ (44)

Rather than forming a cohesive thread, these ideas are laid out for us intermittently, as a cat of ours used to lay out the organs of her prey in a straight line across the doormat. Some are innocent questions, some sweet: ‘Do you suppose that once a bird knows how to fly he pretty much can expect to fly without incident, more or less as, say, we walk about, or would you think bird flying to be fraught with aeronautical accident?’ (118) Others are loaded questions, like: ‘Have you ever been not disappointed by a banana split?’ (122) Most don’t lead in any obvious way from one to another, in fact Powell’s great at giving each separate question equal weight and making them work against each other. Each is distinct, there’s no hierarchy of the important vs. the trivial: they all get an airing. And the discontinuity is part of the pleasure. The book has a nice childish element to it too, since it’s children who ask the most questions, and you come to depend on the inexhaustible flow of them here. In fact, what starts as a bewildering array of random thoughts becomes a tight-rope walk – you fear Powell will fall and forget to turn every sentence into a question. That would be hugely disappointing. But he doesn’t, not once, and the effects of all this are weird and new. And fun.

There’s a lot of information about the world here and free handy hints, words of wisdom, touching pastoral moments and shifts into nostalgia – for green shield stamps, for instance, and the ice cream man, or those ‘manila rubber buttons in the garters that held up ladies’ hose’ (3). ‘Do you think the heyday of hairspray was the 1960s, or has it lived on?’ he asks, and ‘Are Kotex still worn on belts?’ (120) He throws all this at you without seeming to draw breath, and you end up astounded to consider this pile he’s amassed (or we have) of all the things human beings know and think about; everything we’ve been through, and are yet to go through.

The wit is in the way he uses language, but also in the absurd juxtapositions, when he follows a serious question with something incontrovertibly frivolous, as in: ‘If you were sitting…on a stool at the soda fountain of an old drugstore…and a robber came in armed and commenced holding the place up, and you had a nice safe handy shot at the back of his head with a convenient good and heavy blunt instrument, would you take it? Do you find the expense of alterations at an alteration shop prohibitive?’ (36-7) Another fine pairing: ‘Do you realize that on Sunday-morning network television in the United States of America one can hear a voice-over in a commercial for erectile dysfunction informing the target audience, presumable families headed for church, that an erection lasting more than four hours should be regarded as a medical emergency? Would you rather be kicked in the head by a horse or a bull?’ (111) As a result, the book is a non-stop thrill to read: moving, disturbing, heroic, and terribly funny at times. There are horrific moments too, scary images abruptly shoved before you, such as his description of cows being slaughtered (128), which is barely contained a question 170 words long, making it really a mini-essay on what our beef needs entail.

At first you just don’t know how the thing works, but within thirty pages I was completely hooked and noting my favorites. Quoted in order of appearance:

‘Are you comforted by the assertion that there are yet people on Earth who know what they are doing? Or, like me, do you subscribe to the notion that people who knew what they were doing began to die off about 1945 and are now on the brink of extinction?’ (6)

‘Are you comforted by good tile?’ (11)

‘Is the sky the limit?’ (14)

‘Does the question of where all the garbage goes and how can it not soon not be able to go there bother you? Should I have put that a little more clearly?’ (19)

‘Would you trust a vegetarian veterinarian? With your own dog?’ (21)

‘Do you carry a big gob of keys or have you managed to pare down?’ (24)

‘Is good amateur theater oxymoronic?’ (28)

‘Why do you think the hole in 45 rpm records was so large and the hole in the much larger 33 rpm record was so small?’ (29)

‘For good furniture, what is your wood of choice? Can I sell you on walnut?’ (31)

‘Have you ever carpeted a room with carpet samples?’ (38)

‘Do you miss Tab and do you fully understand its disappearance?’ (43)

‘Do you credit that a man seriously advanced “cogito ergo sum” with a straight face?’ (53)

‘Do you have a favorite dinosaur, and do you trust that the popular images of dinosaurs bear any resemblance to what they really looked like, and do you have any idea how dinosaur scientists think they know, from bones alone, what the damned things looked like?’ (56)

‘Have you ever known anyone proficient on a unicycle who struck you as a normal person…?’ (86)

‘What does “It just goes to show you” mean?’ (111)

‘Is Santa Claus in your view essentially a pedophile?’ (111)

‘Do you comprehend exactly how more casualties on a battlefield can be said to render previous casualties on the battlefield not to have been in vain? Is the argument beneath this logic not that the losing dead are worse off than the winning dead? Is there any hope? Do we need galoshes?’ (112)

‘Would you check in for a long stay, a short stay, or would you not stay at all at The Hotel Enema?’ (143)

‘Is the chief function of the doily protective or decorative or both?’ (146)

‘If told your house was to be painted either “arsenical green” or “cupric yarng,” which would you pick?’ (147)

‘Would you rather see a cancan show or a turtle race?’ (151)

And so it runs on, splendid, brave and fascinating. If there are faults, they would be these: it begins to feel as if Padgett assumes his reader is male, rather than male or female. Though this does allow him some fun jabs about erections and other stuff, it seems a mistake to make women feel excluded. And there are moments, just a few, when it can seem a bit too Americacentric. Also — I wasn’t convinced by the ending. This was perhaps inevitable because I didn’t want it to end. The whole book is sort of an open-ended question. And maybe that’s as it should be. But if I were the editor, I’d have recommended ending it with the entertaining riff on Jimi Hendrix. End on a high note.

So I will too. We have pity for each other. That’s a great human trait (though I’m sure animals have it too). We didn’t need Jesus or Mother Theresa to tell us to do it. Human beings have been pitying each other since the first woman breastfed her baby, and the first person spoke to another (unless they spoke in anger). And you see it when infants start to interact with other infants: the pity that comes when total selfdom bows to an awareness of other people. Social life requires empathy, and within empathy comes a humbling sense of equality, fellow feeling. This is the source of civilization, socialism, and most good novels. Within every question Padgett Powell asks, pity is there.

So we think The Interrogative Mood should be America’s new Citizenship Test.


(These quotations are the copyright of Padgett Powell, The Interrogative Mood, Ecco Press, 2009; Profile Books, 2010)

Eduardo Galleano, on the conspiracy of indifference

In Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on July 24, 2013 at 8:48 am

‘“…our militarism, machismo, racism all blinds us… There are so many ways of becoming blind. We are blind to small things and small people… My great fear is that we are all suffering from amnesia. I wrote to recover the memory of the human rainbow, which is in danger of being mutilated.”

By way of example he cites Robert Carter III – of whom I had not heard – who was the only one of the US’s founding fathers to free his slaves. “For having committed this unforgivable sin he was condemned to historical oblivion.”

Who, I ask, is responsible for this forgetfulness? “It’s not a person,” he explains. “It’s a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who deserves to be forgotten… We are much more than we are told. We are much more beautiful.”‘

Eduardo Galleano talking to Gary Younge (‘My great fear is that we are all suffering from amnesia’, the Guardian, July 23, 1013)


A Poem by Jade Bruno

(to Todd and Lucy)

If you’d be my friend,
I’d eat a cake
and kiss a snake,
burn a fox
paint a box,
break a house
kill a mouse,
hug you tight
then take on a fight
and smile without end
If you’d be my friend.

(copyright: Jade Bruno)

A Bright Moon for Fools — Jasper Gibson

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 17, 2013 at 8:55 am

Harry Christmas is an English con-man whom we find on the run to Gatwick Airport (someone is chasing him), and then on a flight to Caracas. He’s just stolen £26,000 in cash from his girlfriend and wants to begin life anew. Once installed in a luxury hotel, he faffs about, drinking huge amounts of alcohol, impotently admiring the local women and fantasising about starting a business – perhaps a consultancy, or a bar. Then the £26,000 is stolen from him, he doesn’t know where or how. He absconds from the hotel, gets beaten up and throws himself on the mercy of a middle-aged Englishwoman. He pretends to be the novelist whose book she is reading (whose picture she hasn’t seen because her internet access is down), hides in her house and cravenly pretends to love her. But this doesn’t work out so well, and once again in extremis he steals money from her daughter and flees deeper into the jungle. There, things get even worse.

At first this seems a typical English “comic” novel: that is, full of bigotry, very bad about women and solely concerned to make harsh, tired little jokes about the class system. Christmas is a recognisable breed of anti-hero: there is, predictably, a bit of Lucky Jim, of Ignatius Reilly in him. The novel also bears a close resemblance to Brian Hennigan’s Patrick Robertson of a few years back, if only in the terror of the non-English-speaking world and the reliance on alcohol abuse as a plot device. There are a number of teeth-grittingly amusing scenes in the airport and on the flight to South America – Harry really is obnoxious, full of drink-fuelled sarcasm, a true adept at turning the things people say on their head and running rings around them. But the people he’s clashing with – boobish businessmen, teenagers who can’t help it that they work at the airport and stock upper-middle class types – are just so many Aunt Sallys. At this point you might expect that there will be a (mostly) satirical crisis and Harry will get his money back and perhaps become the god of some tribe.

But here’s the problem: there’s a bad guy. Yes – even worse than Harry Christmas. Slade (come on) is the stepson of the woman Harry robbed in London. He begins as an archly painted loner who has an exercise machine and attends Anglo-Saxon battle reenactments. (Even though it takes place in Venezuela, on one level this is quite a scathing book about England and what a horrible place it is. Anyone still in doubt on whether to vote Yes in 2014 should read it.)

Slade is nasty all right: when he isn’t raping people, he likes to torture cats. In Caracas he seems to adopt the look of Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers. But he is made of cardboard. His function seems antithetical to anything else the novel could aspire to. Every few chapters he does something odious, then Gibson suspends him in brine until he needs him again, which does a disservice to the plot and pace. The least you can say is that at one point, Gibson doesn’t let Slade do what you dread he will – but this kind of dangly plot-torture becomes wearisome. There is no insight to be found in psychosis. That’s why it’s called that. Slade makes the book far too ordinary: after all, Harry Christmas is really only running away from himself. He doesn’t require a psycho stalker – he has enough demons to keep the reader satisfied. More than enough.

Does A Bright Moon for Fools want to be a novel about not drinking? Does it want to be a novel in which an uncivilized white man ‘learns things’ in the jungle? Maybe. But once it leaves satire behind, it has nowhere to go, and winds up literally face down in the muck. Perhaps there is some point in watching Harry Christmas change from a sidewinder into someone who realizes far too late, for us anyway, that he’s a mensch. But it’s not much fun. It’s also disheartening to hear Hugo Chavez joked about, if only a little. Bad timing.


(A slightly altered version of this review appeared in the Herald, June 1, 2013)

TransAtlantic – Colum McCann

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 17, 2013 at 8:48 am

They carried the first transatlantic airmail, a peaceable thing to do. As Colum McCann writes, they were “taking the war out of the plane, stripping the thing of its penchant for carnage”. Tucked in Brown’s coat was a private letter, given to him by a girl, from her mother to a family in Ireland. TransAtlantic is about the fortunes of the letter and the people connected to it.

It’s also about the exchange of culture between North American and Irish civilisation over the last century and a half. There is the striking story of Frederick Douglass, the escaped American slave who became a writer and a giant figure in the abolitionist movement. In 1845, he visited Ireland on a lecture tour. The potato blight had just started. I must say, it is rather fascinating for a reader in Scotland now to watch Douglass’s descent from Dublin into the regional strongholds of the English rulers of Ireland: he didn’t like it. The roads were full of mortally ill people, the English Army savage in its attempts to keep the peace.

The English “were melodic and well informed, but when he asked of the hunger that he had seen in the streets they said there was always a hunger in Ireland. She was a country that liked to be hurt. The Irish heaped coals of fire upon their own heads – it had always been so”.

Lily, a servant who encounters Douglass, is inspired by him to go to America. Her disappearance prompts a search for her, in one of many historically evocative scenes: “The closer they got to the sea, the more the roads thickened with leaving. Vendors had set up stalls against the hedges. Families were hawking the last of their possessions. Douglass and the sisters had to slow their horses down to get through the crowds.

“All manner of things for sale. Fiddles, inkwells, pots, hats, shirts. Paintings strung on the hedges. Curtains hung from the branches of trees.”

Douglass has tried to tell himself that the Irish aren’t as oppressed as American slaves, but in the wake of Lily’s departure, her utter poverty, he sees that, practically, they are. There are invigorating ideas about oppression and freedom throughout the novel.

The other major historical figure is that of Senator George Mitchell, the American who brokered the peace talks in Northern Ireland; so Americans wonder how to help Ireland, while Irish men and women wonder at America. The description of Mitchell’s brutalising schedule, the minutiae of diplomatic work, are very effective: “The British and their words. The Irish and their endless meanings.”

There is a lot of tea, but McCann is one writer, maybe the only one, who can handle tea: “This whole memory, it will taste of tea. He has become a man of tea. He never would have believed it.” There’s also a telling passage in which it develops that Tony Blair is the only guy who knows where there’s a shower in Stormont Castle. Guess he was determined to look better and smell better than anyone else at that table.

A quiet young man is killed, for his bird gun, by a paramilitary group. He is effectively the last in the line of the people the novel is about, and the story should end there. Instead, we’re given an uncharacteristically plain account of the transatlantic letter. It turns out not to be very interesting. It has bounced around the novel’s characters for 100 years, and the reasons given for its never having been opened are mumbo jumbo. It’s a kind of botched MacGuffin.

Writing suddenly in a different voice, McCann’s invention and mellifluousness desert him. He is a subtle writer, and TransAtlantic is an engaging kind of historical fiction: intimate and fresh, with not a trace of the lamp in the air. He is far better at the oldest settings in the story, however; Douglass’s tour, the description of the transoceanic flight, and the story of Lily in America are more engaged, warm and inventive than the modern sections. As with most good writers, he’s best at what he knows nothing about.


(Sunday Herald, June 23, 2013)