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6/26/2003 10:47:00 AM
Thursday, June 26, 2003
I'M STILL HERE
It will take me a couple of days to get up to speed over at www.sheilaomalley.com. There are a couple of things I need to learn how to do ... which I WILL, dammit ... so eventually, obviously, I will make the switch-over completely. That will be by the end of this week.
I'm reading Mortals, the long-awaited second book by Norman Rush, author of one of my favorite books, Mating. I am having a very hard time getting through it. As a matter of fact, I have stopped reading it completely, and have moved onto Robert Evans' The Kid Stays in the Picture. Mating is a special book. Mortals is not. By page 100 I was sick of the two main characters. Norman Rush obviously finds them both very fascinating, and endearing. So every single tangent in the minds of the characters needs to be drawn out for sometimes THIRTY PAGES ... If I had a marriage like those two do, I might have to slit my wrists. Just to escape and get some peace and quiet, for God's sake.
It is so self-conscious. So pleased with itself. So obsessively analytical. Do these two people ever just sit on the damn couch and NOT talk to each other?? That is my ideal relationship. One that is filled with an inordinate amount of comfortable shared silence.
Another thing Rush does is continuously assure us of how funny Iris (one of the boring main characters) is. He fetishizes her humor. He gives us glimpses of it (or tries to). But mostly he just repeatedly states it, as though it is an indisputable fact. "She was such a funny woman." "He loved her humor." "He was going to be losing a funny woman."
The problem with this goes back to one of the first rules of writing: SHOW. Don't TELL.
I don't think Iris is funny. She never made me laugh. And you can't keep just re-assuring me: "No no no, wait, she is a DAMN funny woman! You have to see her when she's had a couple of glasses of wine! She is a riot!" That doesn't work in a book. It doesn't work in life either. Either something IS, and you know that it IS because it can be SEEN and ACKNOWLEDGED by more than one person, or it ISN'T. Iris ISN'T funny, in my book. Just saying it is so, Mr. Rush, does not make it so.
He gives us examples of her humor, but ... to my mind, it's all just coy stupid little puns. Now I know some truly funny people, people who you describe as "Oh my God, he is so funny" -- "Funny" is one of the top five adjectives you would naturally use to describe some people. Humor is undeniable. It's not like being sensitive, or being kind, or intelligent. You cannot fake humor. Some people THINK they are hilarious, but no one is laughing.
I think I have made my point here.
The good parts of the book are when it goes into the life of a CIA agent ... how they live, their relationship to "the agency" -- what it meant for the CIA when communism fell apart. What that event did to the psychology of the agency, etc. What it is like to have a job which is, for the most part, invisible. You will never be acknowledged publicly for your work. You cannot talk about it with your wife. All of that, so far, has been very interesting.
There's also a long sequence where Ray, the main character, is being held prisoner in this warehouse in northwest Botswana. The Boers are involved. He is being held hostage with this other man, an African, who is a psychiatrist, and very anti-Christian. His name is Morel. Morel has lived in England for years and has returned to Botswana on a mission to rescue Africa from the yoke of Christianity. He thinks organized religion is designed to keep people passive, to keep people in a state of waiting, etc. Morel is an African. Morel believes that what Africa needs is common sense, industry, and people willing to invest in THIS life. It's an interesting question. That's also brought out to interminable degrees in Mortals, but I actually have learned a lot, and it made me think.
Ray is obsessed with Milton. Which is understandable. I am relatively obsessed with Milton myself. But what I am picking up on, somehow, in the writing of this book, is that it is RUSH who is obsessed with Milton, and has tried to wrestle Milton into this story, in order to express how he, Rush, feels about Milton. And because of that, it doesn't really work. It feels very self-indulgent.
Another good writing lesson.
An interesting contrast: June 16 was Bloomsday. So I spent an entire day hanging out with James Joyce, which, basically, was how I spent my entire last summer. Joyce Joyce Joyce. Now you kind of cannot find a more subjective writer, a person more fascinated with his own obsessions, a person who can go off on a tangent for thirty pages just because the subject matter interests him. June 16 came smack in the middle of my struggling with Mortals, and there are some vague similarities between the books. And yet Ulysses captivated me, challenged me. One author goes off on tangents, and I find myself looking stuff up on the Internet, calling my dad for information, trying to understand what exactly he is getting at ... what is REALLY going on in the book. The other author goes off on tangents, obsessed with his own obsessions, and I get increasingly annoyed, thinking to myself: "Shut UP! You're not the first freakin' person to discover Milton ... Get OVER it...Shut UP!"
So here's the difference, the undeniable difference:
James Joyce is a genius.
You should not attempt such a book unless you are CERTAIN that you yourself are a genius.
Here's where I stopped reading Mortals, and I will eventually finish it, because I still feel a certain amount of obligation toward the writer who brought Mating into my life. Now Mating, with all of its serious themes, is a truly funny book. Laugh out loud funny at times. Rush just set up the scenes, and then let the narrator describe her response to certain things, and her verbiage was FUNNY, her way of dealing with stuff was FUNNY.
Okay: So Ray (the CIA agent) and Morel (the African crusader) are being held in this warehouse. And being pulled out separately by these Boer thugs to be tortured, on occasion. It is a bad situation. The two of them are enemies, for a very boring reason. It is a plot device, rather than a reality. So they are forced to deal with each other. There is a bucket in the room for them to use as a toilet, and there are two pages, two pages which took two years off my life, years I can never get back, where Morel goes to the bathroom, and he is constipated, so it is difficult for him, and Ray, to relax Morel and also to distract himself from the shitting going on across the room, recites Milton outloud.
I read those two pages. And then I put the damn book down and have not picked it up since.
When I pick the book up again, I am going to have to skip the Milton-recital-during-Morel's-"evacuation" (a word Rush actually used, and which, quite frankly, grossed me OUT.) and pick up from after that episode.
Now, when we first meet Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, he is eating breakfast with his wife Molly, kind of anxiously, thinking he is a cuckold, and about to leave for the day. But before he leaves, he goes into the bathroom and shits. It was hugely shocking at the time ... you don't usually follow characters into the bathroom like that, but Joyce did. I read the whole sequence, and laughed out loud at the audacity of it ... the reality of it ... he is bringing us all down to the human level. It may be pedantic to say to ourselves, as a way of reassurance, "Everybody has a crack in their ass." Or: "Yes, he may be Secretary of State, but he goes to the bathroom like everybody else." It is the human condition.
That's what I got when Joyce followed Bloom into the bathroom like that. I became overwhelmed by humanity. It's tragic, and it's comic.
In Mortals I just got grossed out and now I cannot get the image of Morel squatting over the bucket out of my mind. I wish I could. I need that brain space for other things.
Now I'm reading The Kid Stays in the Picture, by legendary producer and head of Paramount at one time, Robert Evans. It's awesome. A lot of fun. And he writes it completely how he talks. Which is hilarious. If you've ever heard an interview with Evans: he's very articulate, very very intelligent, but his vocabulary is like a film-noir hero.
"Lemme tell ya somethin', pal, you don't get to be where I am without steppin' on a few heads. That's the biz."
He calls women "broads", "dames".
I am enjoying it very much. Great stories. The story of his life is an inspiration, and a cautionary tale. It's FUN. It is nice to take a break from boring old Ray the CIA agent and his un-funny wife Iris, and the African Morel going to the bathroom in the corner, while Areopagitica is being recited. Jesus. Spare me.
Gimme Robert Evans.
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6/24/2003 07:46:00 AM
Tuesday, June 24, 2003
Edit your bookmarks, take note of my new URL, and come and visit me on my brand new blog ... Not much going on over there yet, and this old blog will always remain available (should you be overwhelmed with the desire to read about Azerbaijan and oil or Vaclav Havel's speech in 1990) ... but I am leaving.
Join me over here!
It's rather Amish-looking at the moment, but I will spruce it up once I familiarize myself with Movable Type.
I must send a shout-out to Mr. Dean Esmay, who has been ushering all of us onward, to bigger and better heights. Thank you, Dean!
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6/23/2003 04:39:00 PM
Monday, June 23, 2003
Out of the last 40 days, it has rained on 32 of them. It poured yesterday and it is pouring today. There is flooding in Hoboken, which means that on every block there's about 2 feet of street-space where you do not drown when you try to cross. People line up at the bottleneck, avoiding the raging white water which begins at the corner, with the sewer grates overflowing, and spreads down the street.
Last night there was a respite. The rain stopped, leaving a cool night, with a huge wind. I went and saw a show at The New York Comedy Club. There were four fabulous comics, funny funny funny, and one who was not so good. He's very successful, but there was something ... too angry about his delivery. Now, granted, comics in general are an angry bunch. That's where the comedic impulse comes from. Rejection, pain, wanting to get back at everyone who ever called them a jackass. Nathan Lane put it perfectly in an interview. He was asked, "Were you an angry child?" Lane answered, "I was a small round angry person. Nobody ever thought I would do anything, and I remember being about 5 saying to myself--" (in a tough-guy Clint Eastwood way) "Oh yeah?"
His success is his revenge.
But this guy last night wasn't all that funny ... and therein lies the rub. Some jag-off in the back started heckling him, and the guy, instead of turning it to his advantage, and either joining together the entire club in hostility against the heckler, which can work, or making some smart-ass remark which would shut the heckler up for good, which can also work, this guy started getting into it with the heckler, throwing insults back, and it was suddenly like a locker-room in junior high school. It was not good.
He also looked out at one point (the club is very small, they are right on top of us), looked right at me, and said, "Pretty girls like you are a pain in the ass." Everyone laughed, more out of the surprise of it, than the humor, and he went on on his angry 13-year-old diatribe. "You're gorgeous, woman. I would never ever trust you. I could never leave you alone at the bar for two minutes because I'd come back and you'd be surrounded by men. Pretty girls are a huge pain in the ass."
Uh ... not exactly the soul of wit, is he?
But the other ones were fabulous. So funny. Comics are some of my favorite people on the earth. Talk about your pains in the asses! In general, they are all royal pains in the asses (I have dated quite a few of them, having spent some formative years in Chicago, Comedy Central), but one of my favorite human impulses is the pro-active impulse to make another human being laugh. To me, it is the meaning of generosity.
I love being around that energy.
Walked home from the Path station through the freezing big wind. A beautiful night.
This morning? Torrential rain on my windows.
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6/22/2003 10:22:00 AM
Sunday, June 22, 2003