Friday, November 6, 2009

Ken Kesey: Sometimes A Great Notion (1964)

A month after I wrote this, I finally finish this book. Got through the last hundred or so pages on a flight out of Eugene, and on a train and in a hotel restaurant in New Jersey. That is, I started this quintessential Oregon book just after arriving in the state, and only finish it once I've left (although the leaving is only for a weekend).

I'm not sure if I have much to add to what I wrote last time. Or even to Charles Bowden's formulation in the introduction: "The choice presented is between a brutal individualism that we all secretly love, but can no longer afford, and a dreary collectivism that stills our heart when we even think about it." Chew on that for a while.

It is, among other things, a Labor Movement novel. And, specifically, a Western labor movement novel. Reminded me of Wallace Stegner's great Joe Hill in that regard. It centers around the Stamper clan in the fictional town of Wakonda Auga on the Oregon coast. The whole region is (in the novel) dependent on logging, and the Stampers are in it, too, running their own outfit. The rest of the town goes on strike, but the Stampers (who only hire relatives, and keep them non-unionized) refuse to join, instead seizing all the lumber company contracts and monopolizing their business. So the town hates the Stampers, who are making the strike ineffectual, and therefore keeping the town out of work. And the Stampers - well, they just don't give a damn.

Onto this individual vs. collective struggle we have grafted an almost Biblical struggle between two half-brothers in the Stamper clan: Hank, the young virile tough head of the family business, and Lee (Leland Stanford Stamper: awesome name), the bookish alienated son of Hank's father Henry's second wife. Hank had a sexual relationship with Lee's mother; Lee knew about it, and it destroyed his childhood; now, in the wake of a failed suicide attempt, he drops out of grad school at Yale and comes back to help Hank fulfill the lumber contract and, oh yes, to get revenge on Hank somehow.

Hank, then, is the novel's big representative of romantic, heroic, doomed, destructive individualism - although his old father Henry is still around, and he's even scarier. And Hank's scary physicality is set out in opposition to Lee - but Lee hardly represents the community side. In fact, we gradually come to realize that Lee's intellectualism is just as bullying, just as exploitative, as Hank's physicality, and that he's just as driven by his own desires, and blind to the welfare of those about him, as is Hank. They're both egotists.

Which means the community side doesn't get a particularly charismatic spokesman. But of course that's the point. Community isn't romantic. It's deadly dull to the romantic individualist. It's spiritual death. So those who are in the right position to speak for it (union organizer Draeger, local union rep Floyd Evenwrite) are pretty dull men.

But they're not set out as mirror images or opposites to Hank. Instead, and appropriately enough, Kesey gives us, as representatives of community, the whole damn community. Part of what makes this book so long and such a slog is that Kesey has committed himself to following the stories (in an up-close, stream-of-consciousness way) not only of the main Stampers, but of what feels like a couple dozen townspeople. Everyone from, literally, preachers to prostitutes. All walks of life. We get inside all their heads, sometimes following one of these minor characters for pages at a time, sometimes getting a whirlwind tour of what all of them are up to at any given moment. It's a very effective group portrait of this town. You come out of the book feeling like you know it as well as you can know any place in modern American fiction. (Is this modern? In important ways, it's not: all to the good.)

But that's not the true beauty of this novel, which is that above and beyond the rich themes, the vividly realized characters, and the (eventually, sort of) gripping story, we get a lot of very poetic evocations of nature. Ken Kesey could write like an angel when he wanted to, and he frequently wanted to while writing this book, if passages like this are any indication:

"And in the tops of the huge trees, the very rain seemed to work at fixing the trees standing, threading the million green needles in an attempt to stitch the trees upright against the sky" (p. 567).

An essential book.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Serious Man, cont'd

So in "Somebody To Love," Grace Slick clearly, indelibly, sings, "When the truth is found to be lies / and all the joy within you dies." But the Third Rabbi in the film quotes the lines this way: "When the truth is found to be lies / and all the hope within you dies."

I have complete faith in the Coen Brothers' attention to musical detail. O Brother inspired it. I'm not willing to believe this was a mistake, anymore than I'm willing to overlook the fact that the first rabbi's calendar says 1967 (supposedly - I didn't notice the detail, but others did), but the Columbia Record Club guy is talking about Abraxas, which came out in 1970. I don't know what that last detail means - is Dutton calling from the future? is the film actually set in 1970 and the first rabbi just forgot to update his calendar? is this somewhat sheltered Jewish enclave symbolically living in the past, at a moment when the present is going to come crashing in?

I don't have an answer to the Abraxas conundrum, and I'm not even sure where pondering it could lead us. But the hope/joy one seems just bursting with meaning. Larry Gopnik is in crisis, sure enough: a crisis of what? Faith? Hope? Charity, even? I know that's a New Testament formulation, and thus inappropriate, but it's not out of step with the Second Rabbi's advice to help other people. ...I don't know if he is in a crisis of hope, actually: the thing about Larry, like Job, is that he keeps expecting that life will do him right. Hope is the one thing he does have. He's not giving up. Although that x-ray tornado might just do the trick...

But joy? He doesn't seem to have much of that - and when the first rabbi tells him to appreciate the simple things in life (i.e., to embrace joy?), his example - a parking lot - is so joyless by its very nature that we, along with Larry, can only go, huh?

Larry's hope is in danger of dying. But his joy? Was it ever there to begin with? Or is it something that was never given place in his life, but is seeping in from without, in the "new freedoms" of sex and drugs and rock and roll? Maybe Abraxas is indeed signalling a time lag:
maybe the '60s, like "modernity," didn't arrive at the same time everywhere. Maybe the 1967 that San Francisco hipsters experienced, that Summer of Love, didn't arrive elsewhere until 1970...

Maybe Larry will never discover joy. But his son might - maybe it'll come seeping up from the deepest recesses of his mind like the camera and Grace's voice in that opening (post-dybbuk parable) sequence. Maybe - if he survives the tornado.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Serious Man (2009)

The Coen Brothers' newest, A Serious Man, came to Eugene this week. Saw it in the town's only art cinema, a converted church - an interesting place to see this very Jewish film.

"Screwball tragedy," this article calls it. As apt a description as any. It's also an existential horror story, a meditation on understanding life, reality.

The secret is not, as that article says, in "accepting the mystery." That's maybe the solution, the only way to live with it, but it's not the secret. The secret is: the math. As Prof. Gopnik says, the math is the reality. Schrödinger's cat is just the picture we show ourselves to help us to understand the math: it's a representation of reality, and sometimes not a very good one. And we often don't even understand the cat. But the math: that is the reality. Understand that, and you're okay.

But who can understand the math? That, I think, is where this movie is coming from. Larry is a physics professor: he understands, he says, the math. Thinks he does, at least. But he certainly can't communicate that understanding to his students very effectively. And compared to his brother... Well, Arthur really understands the math. So well does he understand the math that he can't really understand anything else. He's so in touch with the reality underlying our illusions that he's unable really to function in the world of illusions. Compared to Arthur, Larry is still trying to get by on the illusions. He knows it's the math, not the cat, but he's concentrating on the cat anyway.

In other words: are there answers to the questions Job/Larry asks? Yes, there are: but nobody can understand them, at least not and stay sane. That's not the same as saying there are no answers. It's a different thing from nihilism (and remember how we're supposed to pronounce that), even though in the end it may amount to the same thing.

BTW, the Jefferson Airplane fan in me loved the music in this film. Here's an interesting explanation of the way they segues into "Somebody To Love." I thought that jamming might have been from the live version on Bless Its Pointed Little Head (hadn't heard it for a while), but according to this interview it's new.

Janis Joplin: Pearl (1970)

Sitting here listening to Pearl and it strikes me, as it always does, what a goddamn tragic thing it is that Janis Joplin is dead. I mean, there have been a lot of premature rock and roll deaths, but I can't think of anyone who strikes me as having gone too soon in the way Janis did. Morrison and Cobain: they were always going to go sooner rather than later. Hendrix: no death wish there, but he'd already gone so far with his art that you can really imagine he just kind of used himself up. Pigpen, Jerry: anytime was too soon for them, but you could hear the long slow decline with each of them, so there was no surprise.

But Janis. She wasn't done by any means. She was just hitting her stride with Pearl. And listen to it: she's so happy on that album, so full of life. And, and, unlike Jimi, you can totally imagine where Janis might have gone from there. I would have loved to hear her Nashville album, her disco album, her underrated minor-label Muscle Shoals album, her synth-heavy '80s contemporary album, her Arista comeback album with guest spots by Lauryn Hill and Santana, her Jack White-produced hipster disc, her Bessie Smith tribute album, her Summer of Love-nostalgic Big Brother reunion tour... She would have done all that, and done it with grace, and it would have been awesome. But instead she's dead. And if that doesn't make you cry, on All Saints' Day, I don't know what will.