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Celebrity Style

by Jeffrey Thomas

(First of all, an apology for missing my turn the last several months, something I swore I’d never do. I had my July essay written but I was in Viet Nam at the time, and the eleven hour time difference and my dependence on internet cafes meant I missed the deadline anyway. I ended up posting it at my own blog site, at www.jeffreyethomas.com. And the next month, well, I guess I just got too busy with other projects. Huh, like you missed me, right? Anyway, I’m back, so here we go!)

I’m certain there are many writers, and even readers, who feel that a story’s author should be an invisible entity, who leaves not so much as a fingerprint on the scene he or she creates. An absent God, if you will; Oz behind the curtain. I can understand this line of thinking. It may be akin to the notion that if a movie’s director were to come in front of the camera, it might jar the viewer out of the plot, remind them that they’re watching a movie. Hey, wait a minute, didn’t Martin Scorcese do that in no less a classy movie than TAXI DRIVER, playing the scary passenger who sparks Travis Bickle’s obsession with the .44 Magnum? And didn’t Hitchcock do that, again and again?

Of course, there are countless novels and short stories that are so inspired by the authors’ own personal experiences as to blur the line between fiction and autobiography. So it isn’t really an issue of drawing upon one’s own life. I think it’s an issue of style that I have in mind. Critics of film-maker David Lynch might argue that his style is so strong and bizarre, so self conscious, that it overwhelms and obscures whatever story he might be trying to tell. Of course, Lynch’s quirkier-than-thou approach is what endears him to ardent fans like myself. But this kind of self conscious or “artsy-fartsy” style in the writing of fiction can alienate certain readers. Case in point is Mark Z. Danielewski’s new book, ONLY REVOLUTIONS.

I call it a “book” instead of a novel because I guess it’s hard for some people to classify it, due to its unconventional approach. My local bookstore has it listed in their computer as an anthology, of all things (because the story is narrated by two characters whom the cataloger mistook as co-authors?). And the store couldn’t even locate the copies they had received only days earlier so that I might buy one of them, said copies perhaps having vanished into the strange void between the terra firma of clear-cut genre and traditional approach. In any case, I have not read ONLY REVOLUTIONS, but I’ve been supporting and defending it based on the fact that Danielewski’s first novel, HOUSE OF LEAVES, is one of my favorite books. Even if I am disappointed with ONLY REVOLUTIONS, I feel compelled to champion it against a surprisingly hostile reception from some readers (who have not read it yet, either, and seem disinclined to even give it a chance). Words such as “arrogance” and “pretentious” have been slung in its direction. First of all, I think a writer has to be arrogant in the first place, to believe their book is worthy of trees sacrificing their lives, arrogant to think a reader should sacrifice their time and hard-earned cash. As for pretentious, well, one man’s pretentious is another man’s ambitious, challenging, thoughtful. To again use film as an example (hey, I’m a child of my times), one could say REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is pretentious and that one should still to watching purely entertaining stuff like AUSTIN POWERS. Me, I have no problem loving both those films, baby. In a comment responding to an earlier essay I posted here, in which I talked about how the names I choose for my characters often have hidden symbolic meaning, it was suggested that such efforts were “artsy-fartsy” and meaningless. Maybe that’s the case. Or maybe I’m having fun, and sharing that sense of fun with the one or dozen or hundred people who might catch on to what I’m doing, and maybe it doesn’t hurt anybody if I have hidden meanings in my characters’ names even if not a single soul catches on to them. But there is ever this animosity toward the dreaded “A” word…Art. Artsy is a bad thing, to some. It implies flatulence. Well, to each their own. As I say, my diet is pretty diverse. But you want to talk arrogance? One could say it is more arrogant to mass produce another bland, unoriginal paint-by-numbers book or movie that apes last year’s (or last decade’s) bestseller or smash hit again, and again, ad nauseam, with no real personality behind it, no sense that someone put their own soul into the proceedings.

I’m not saying I don’t feel some works – some creative people – aren’t artsy-fartsy, to put it that way. I’m not part of any crowd or camp; I take what I like or dislike one book or movie or artist at a time. For instance, I can see what Andy Warhol was doing with his soup cans, with his silk screened reproductions of other people’s photos (of Marilyn, Brando, etc.), but when I recently heard someone in a documentary say how terribly “important” those cans were, how “powerful,” I just sort of groaned inside, especially when they went on to suggest that the full collection of can paintings (bought for $1,000 at the time of their creation) might be worth $100,000,000 today, well…pass me a Norman Rockwell calendar instead, please. And let’s not even get into Jackson Pollock’s…messes. But that’s just me. That’s my tastes. If you’re into these guys, good on ya! See, though? I can scoff and sneer at what I’m not into, with the best of them.

Some writers, artists, singers and so on end up looming bigger than their art; I think Warhol is like that. I think Yukio Mishima is like that, but Mishima I love; one of my very favorite authors. Mishima was a brilliant writer who became a bodybuilder, a modern day samurai, started his own fanatical paramilitary group (which ended up storming and taking over a military school), a movie director, a movie star, and whatever else I’m forgetting at the moment. This week I watched Mishima as the star of the 1960 Yakuza film AFRAID TO DIE, directed by respected film-maker Yasuzo Masumura. Mishima does a great job as a sleazy, bitch-slapping, leather-clad antihero scratching himself and slouching around enough to make James Dean and Marlon Brando proud. *Spoiler alert!* The end has the shot and dying Mishima (like DeNiro in HEAT, trying to change his ways – with the help of a good woman – too late in the game) running in place against the flow of an escalator, a great symbol for how it is too late for him to run away from his dark past (regardless of having traded in his black leather for a sacrificial-white sports jacket). It’s a cool little flick, but most of its appeal for me is that it’s Mishima there, hamming it up tough-guy style to self consciously compensate for his homosexuality, the same Mishima who ended up disemboweling himself a decade later. An incredible writer, playing a gangster! Should his work be treated any less seriously for such antics? Was he overstepping the boundaries, becoming far from the invisible writer, wearing Oz’s curtain as a cape instead of hiding behind it? Well, that’s for you to decide. Me, I was eating up AFRAID TO DIE’s nasty grittiness and jazzy dialogue. Mishima’s ex-girlfriend: “You call yourself a man?” Mishima: “Me? Nah, I’m a Yakuza.” Coool! Bring it on, Yukio! The thing is, beyond his egotism and narcissism, it would be hard to dispute that Mishima had the talent to back it all up.

On Mark Z. Danielewski’s web site www.onlyrevolutions.com there’s a video clip from the Conan O’Brien Show of the singer Poe performing her song “Hey Pretty (Drive-By 2001 Mix),” which starts out with Poe’s brother Danielewski reciting an excerpt from HOUSE OF LEAVES, wearing a purple silk shirt and gripping the mike like a rock star. This is sure to be a turn-off for many a book reader, sure to further alienate th

em from this artsy-fartsy author*, but again, I thought it was, well, pretty cool. Why the hell not? Don’t hate the guy because he’s flamboyant, because he likes attention; a writer is all about getting attention, isn’t it? Whenever I get tired of hearing the words HARRY POTTER or DA VINCI CODE, I remind myself that these are books! Books, that people are getting so excited about in this age of movies and TV and X-Box. Let’s hear it for books, and authors getting themselves seen and heard, and strutting and showing us what they got. Hell, if Jewel can put out a book of poetry, I think Mark Z. Danielewski can have his moment on stage, and Mishima can have his drawn-out death dance on an escalator (oops, the spoiler slipped past me that time!).

Author know thy place? And stick to your “traditional” storytelling – so you won’t rile or offend or intimidate the opponents of ONLY REVOLUTIONS, who sadly seem afraid or at least unwilling to be challenged by it? Nay, I say. Be big, flashy, noisy, full of eccentric personality, if that’s your gig. I’m not knocking the legions of stolid and solid storytellers who puts it out there in the tried and true approach. I read it all. More than being disappointed, I might end up disliking ONLY REVOLUTIONS very much, in fact (if my bookstore can ever find the damn thing)! But no matter how I feel about the book itself, I defend Danielewski’s right to be brave, and idiosyncratic, and experimental, and…a celebrity.

(* I saw one message board thread where people expressed their hostility toward the word “author,” seeing even this as pretentious. That any reader or, worse, writer would reject this term depresses me. It suggests an aversion to the outrageous notion that literature might be literary. Or called literature, for that matter. Well, you know what I’ll do if anyone ever asks me, “You call yourself a writer?” I’ll scratch myself, slouch a bit, and retort, “Me? Nah, I’m an author!”)

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  1. John Skipp
    September 24th, 2006 at 15:02 | #1

    Dear Jeffrey –

    I kept waiting and waiting for someone else to comment, since it’s so obvious where I stand on this issue. But…

    GUESS WHO AGREES WITH YOU, 1 MILLION PERCENT?

    Yer pal,
    Skipp

    P.S. — “Arrogance” suggests self-importance coupled with contempt or dismissal of others. “Pretention” suggests self-importance way out of proportion with actual ability. It’s the slippery slope to pomposity, and so forth.

    “Flamboyant”, on the other hand, leads to “colorful”. From there, you’re on a slippery slope to “interesting”, “unique”, “original”, “brilliant”, “attractive”, and even “desirable”.

    So the problem was…WHAT?

    Just picking up HOUSE OF LEAVES and leafing through its puzzlebox pages, I found myself thinking, “Wow, this guy is smart, and he’s really havin’ fun with this stuff! I wish I had the month it would take to wade through his mazes.”

    So I think this guy is cool, right off the bat.

    Finally: I don’t know about you guys, but I’m an artist who likes to tell stories, not the other way around. If “art” is a bad word, then “love” is a bad word. Same with “beauty”, “intelligence”, “truth” and “wisdom”.

    I understand liking fiction that’s down-to-earth, doesn’t put on airs, is stripped down, and so forth. I love that stuff, too. And deeply appreciate the REAL ARTISTRY that goes into doing it right.

    But to jump on an author for being unconventional, and experimenting with the form, and GETTING ON CONAN O’BRIAN…well, not to put too fine a point on it, I think that whole line of thinking is bullshit. With a natural sour grape flavor. And counter-productive, too!

    So THANKS, JEFFREY, for stirring me up! If folks start jumpin’ you later, and you need a tag-team partner, REACH OUT YOUR HAND! I’m right there at the ropes, bro!

    Yer pal again,
    Skipp

  2. David Niall Wilson
    September 24th, 2006 at 16:45 | #2

    I’d have commented sooner, but I haven’t read House of Leaves. I have a friend (and one time collaborator) who bought it. He thought it was cool, but only made it halfway through. I think that to really be part of such a debate, I’d have to be more familiar with the subject matter. I have to say from a reader’s perspective that I dont’ read to “work” I read to be taken away…and this book sounds like a lot of work…a huge investment. I eventually made that investment in James Joyce and was left impressed with the talent, but unlikely to ever return…I fear the same would be true in this case.

    Still, I’m not bothered by a flamboyant attitude, or self-confidence (easily mistaken for arrogance) and I’ve long been a proponent of the more literary authors in the genres I enjoy…

    I agree with most of the intent of this eesay, though I don’t know the work in qustion…if that makes sense…

    David

  3. Jeffrey Thomas
    September 24th, 2006 at 17:13 | #3

    Beautifully said all the way, Skipp — I like your definitions of “arrogance,” “pretention,” “flamboyant,” “colorful.” And I particularly loved, “If art is a bad word, then love is a bad word.”

    Yeah, David, HOUSE OF LEAVES was a definitely a challenge (I had to decode one part on a sheet of paper!), but I was so into it I actually read it faster than I read most books!

    I found ONLY REVOLUTIONS in my local bookstore last night — in the anthology section; jeesh! — and the inside cover had me reeling right off the bat: you have to read a ton of tiny print in a mirror! But HOUSE was an adventure and I expect this to be, too. HOUSE was also the scariest book I’ve read in a dog’s age. This looks to be of a different, even less accessible slant, but I’m up for a game. One thing for sure: it’s a beautiful book, with color-coded book ribbons to keep one’s place in the twin narratives!

    Anyway, I hope the book at least stimulates conversation, “stirs things up,” as Skipp says. If bookstores can put the thing on the right shelf!

  4. Sully
    September 24th, 2006 at 19:44 | #4

    For the record, what I find particularly pretentious in the “arts” is more often on the admiration side than in the product, the latter which is usually the sincere effort of some maverick spirit. It’s the gaggles of trendy folk that elevate something incomprehensible or of dubious connection simply to own something of their own. A legitimate enough excuse, I suppose, but when the rationalizing of supposed excellence goes on and on, you begin to see how desperate the need is to lionize something as a reflection of the admirers. You see it in every art form and at every level. And the pretensiousness may be worse at the sophisticated end of the spectrum. At least “Rocky Horror Show” devotees know that it’s “a happening” — spectacle — more than anything else. Not sure I can say as much for abstractionists who mistake a chimp’s painting for human genius or those who deal in scat sculpture for religious rapture. What ever can be painted, played on a stage, or written will be. Is it all art? Eye of the beholder. Statement. But sometimes the statement is purely a function of the audience defining itself. As with Indie music fans who turn their backs on someone they idolized who starts to get mainstream recognition. Notice how I tiptoe around easily defined examples in our half-acre of muses?

    – Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

  5. John B. Rosenman
    September 24th, 2006 at 20:47 | #5

    Welcome back, Jeff. The wait was worth it.

    You know what I think? I think that most (perhaps all) rules of writing can be broken if you’re lucky or know what you’re doing. Realistic or naturalistic fiction is typified by a lot of traits, one of them being an absence of authorial intrusion. But it worked for Henry Fielding and others, who devoted chapters pitched directly to the “general reader” from the author’s chair.

    For me, the big question is, DOES THE DAMNED THING WORK? Case in point, you can’t have a first person point of view that’s omniscient, but Robert McCammon does it fine in BOY’S LIFE. Be as flamboyant and egocentric as hell, blow your own horn as loud as you please, but . . . it had better work. What Sully says is true, though. Genius MAY be in the eyes of the beholder, but an incomprehensible piece of pretentious dribble can never become “art” or even be worthwhile no matter how many people say it is.

  6. John Skipp
    September 24th, 2006 at 22:29 | #6

    I’m always amazed by accomplished “scam artists”: people whose works are so empty, oblique, and/or incomprehensible that INTELLECTUALS ARE LITERALLY FORCED TO HALLUCINATE DEEPER MEANING INTO THEM.

    Last time I checked, the definition of “genius” was not “I have no idea what this means, so it MUST BE GENIUS!”

    So, yeah. Art can be abused, just like everything else. And snooty pretension is often the culprit.

    On the other hand, there ain’t no crime in aiming high. You aim high enough, long enough and diligently enough, you never know…some day, you just might MAKE IT!

    It’s something to shoot for, anyway.

    Yer pal,
    Skipp

  7. Mort
    September 25th, 2006 at 11:04 | #7

    Ah, nostalgia for the glory days of experimental fiction, meta-fiction, super-fiction, etc. –

    –and now, with time’s test, we know that some experiments worked … We still read Coover, Barth, Bathelme, Sukeknick.

    Want meto give you a list of the others who were tearing it up in the lit fic world of the 60s, 70s, and early 80s whose experiments did not work? I could: I reviewed a number of ‘em for SMALL PRESS REVIEW (when I still reviewed stuff) and other mags …

    Yeah, the question will always be: does it succeed? Does it present a vision in a way that makes it challenging, engaging, memorable?

    Experimental? Uh, once upon a time that was Hemingway, who, I’m sorry to say, will still be thought artsyfied and mannered by many “just story pow-pow-pow” readers.

    Me, there are worse titles I might be given than capital A artist or author …

    Mort

  8. Mark Rainey
    September 25th, 2006 at 12:42 | #8

    I’m still wondering who in God’s name had the patience to determine that FINNEGANS WAKE and ULYSSES are great works of literature. Seamus on a popsicle stick…

    ;)

    –M

  9. Mort
    September 25th, 2006 at 14:45 | #9

    Mark so wisely asks –

    I’m still wondering who in God’s name had the patience to determine that FINNEGANS WAKE and ULYSSES are great works of literature. Seamus on a popsicle stick…

    ;)

    Ah, sure and it was Joyce, who was so capable of memorable and lucid prose (Dubliners, for ex) got fed up with being called a really fine “regional” writer …
    …and in that his region was Ireland, and irish writers were not quite as highly regarded as carnival swordswallowers …

    ..and then it was himself decided to give the academics something they’d have tospend centuries deciphering. We can imagine his boast … “They’ll earn their PhDs figuring out what I meant when more often than not, I didn’t mean much of anything.”

    (Apparently Hemingway was in on the joke and appreciated it.)

    Mort

  10. Mark Rainey
    September 26th, 2006 at 10:22 | #10

    That’s the thing. DUBLINERS is so damn beautiful. So much utterly inspiring prose in there…

    –M

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