In Memorium: Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014)

onehundredyearssolitudeThe Nobel Prize-winning novelist, journalist, fabulist, realist, radical, magical Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away today at his home in Mexico City, at the age of 87.

You will read many books in your life without coming across one with a more perfect beginning than that of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, fragrant as it was with the promise of the wild and ravishing pages to follow:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

Many novelists from Isabel Allende to Mark Helprin worked from a similarly evocative template as Marquez’s, what became known as magic realism. But almost none were able to marry as Marquez did the ravishing heights of imaginative leaps with that bone-deep fatalism born out of his study of Latin American history and politics.

In other words, Marquez proved that in fiction sometimes a flight of fantasy tells the truth better than purported realism. The fact that he wrote like his life depended on it was just a bonus for us readers.

Department of Weekend Reading: March 14, 2014

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The Beat Report: New Kerouac Novella

hauntedlife1Not long after Jack Kerouac and his friends were wrapped up in the David Kammerer murder, he started work on a World War II novel called The Haunted Life. He only made it a little ways into the story (which was to have been a multi-volume work) before losing it, supposedly in a cab. The pages were rediscovered a few years back and have just been published; here’s a few lines:

“You’’ve been reading John Dewey.”

Dick moved off down the hall: “It’s fact. What the hell good is life if you don’t live it to the bone? Jack London was a great liver, Halliburton, even Herodotus . . . there was a man! To hell with college! Did I ever advise you to go to college?”

Peter grinned.

“No,” said Dick. “you let circumstances drag you along. Be like Hamlet . . . baffle circumstances.”

It’s hard to imagine Kerouac writing a war story, and what has survived looks more conventional and clunky than his later speedy improvisations — somewhat like how Williams S. Burroughs moved from the Hemingway-like prose of Junky to the surrealisms of Nova Mob.

There’s an excerpt here.

In Books: ‘The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking’

book-triptoechospring-olivialaing-cvr-200Late last year, the British writer Olivia Laing published The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking. It’s a rambling and discursive but smart portrait of a half-dozen writers and their struggles with the devil’s brew (Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald). Laing takes her title from a line in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and indulges in more than a few Williams-ian flights of writerly fancy along the way. Given her twinned love of these writers’ work and her impatience with the romanticism of the drunk author, it’s well earned.

My essay on the book and the author-alcohol phenomenon, “The Drowning Pool,” is at PopMatters:

More than anything else, this is a book of pain and beauty, the former constant and the latter fleeting. It’s awash in water and the attendant metaphors, from the lapping waters of Carver’s rough-and-tumble Pacific Northwest towns to the rivers of glorious and damning booze all of her subjects sluiced down their throats. Laing stabs at and occasionally hits the subject that lies behind it all: Why write and read, after all? Reading the passages left behind in a notebook that lies by Carver’s modest grave, she is awed and lets the reader be awed by “All these anonymous suffering strangers… putting their faith in stories, in the capacity of literature to somehow salve a sense of soreness, to make one feel less flinchingly alone”…

You can read an excerpt from The Trip to Echo Springs here.

Department of Cocktails: The Faulkner Recipe

faulkner1William Faulkner said a lot about drinking; which makes sense, given how much he wrote while drinking. As he once noted:

You see, I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach; so many ideas that I can’t remember in the morning pop into my head.

For all those wanting to know what the man’s favorite tipple was, it’s simple: Whiskey. Any kind. And here’s his preferred way of taking it (your basic mint julep, simple):

  • whiskey
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • ice
  • mint
  • served in a metal cup

(h/t The Migrant Book Club)

Writer’s Corner: The Devil Procrasination

TheFaulknerPortable

Every writer knows the pain of procrastination. Just about none of them know the answer to this question: Why do we put ourselves through it? By and large writers know exactly when they have to turn in their article/book/whatever and nearly everything about it (word count, tone, subject). And yet, time after time, deadlines are treated as little more than tissue paper-thin suggestions to be brushed aside at the last minute when work has finally (maybe) begun.

It’s a ridiculously neurotic cycle, and apparently impossible to break out of.

Megan McArdle’s “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators” tries to make some sense of this fundamentally illogical and self-defeating behavior. One anecdote she provides seems a fairly typical scenario:

I once asked a talented and fairly famous colleague how he managed to regularly produce such highly regarded 8,000 word features. “Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”

McArdle’s article spins off (too little, too late) into theories about overpraised millennials not being able to cope without constant feedback and structure. But before she gets to that, her theories about the roots of this procrastination—mostly rotating around the idea that many writers have an uncommonly intense fear of being unmasked as frauds, thus adding to the fear of actually writing something that could give evidence for that—are sound.

Not that that will do anything to help somebody finish that article on time. There’s always email to check, friends to write, drinks to make…

Screening Room: Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

"Be honest, and unmerciful."

“Be honest, and unmerciful.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman was a bandit of an actor. From The Talented Mr. Ripley to Charlie Wilson’s War and The Ides of March, he was rarely better than when committing full-scale larceny on the screen—walking away with an entire film while leaving A-list actors stumbling about in his wake.

With such a rich body of work cut so horrendously short, you would think it would be hard to zoom in on one particular performance that summed up his appeal. But it’s not. Almost every writer who saw Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous still remembers the scene when Hoffman, as stupendously self-destructive rock writer Lester Bangs, advises the film’s adolescent wannabe scribe about remaining true to the art and not giving in to the temptations of flattery and cool.

A few lines are thrown into the lonely night (“good lookin’ people, they got no spine…their art never lasts”) and Hoffman creates a brotherhood of uncool with his awe-inspiring mix of gruff attitude and aching vulnerability:

The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.

The writing is Crowe’s but Hoffman makes it immortal:

Reader’s Corner: Jack London

jacklondon1Mostly remembered today as the man who wrote White Fang, in his time Jack London was one of the most popular living American authors. He was as celebrated for his wideranging command of styles (adventure stories to science fiction and political polemics) to his wildly wolfish and nomadic lifestyle. London was a heroic striver or sadistic bastard, depending on who you asked. He showed up in last year’s historical gothic horror novel The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates as a bullying alcoholic who appeared able to drink everybody under the table and then write a bestselling novel about it.

white_fangIn the Weekly Standard‘s review of the new London biography by Earle Labor, William Pritchard notes that London’s prodigious literary output (50 books, 200 short stories, 400 nonfiction pieces) looks so impressive not just due to how swiftly it was delivered (he died at age 40) but to how much life he packed in when not writing:

…working as an adolescent in a cannery and as an “oyster pirate” on Oakland’s waterfront; going on a seal hunt in the Bering Sea; riding the rails across America, with an interlude of 30 days spent in the Erie County Penitentiary for vagrancy; finding out how the poor live in London’s East End; joining the gold rush to the Klondike; running for mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket; sailing to the South Pacific and visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave in Samoa; observing cannibals in the Solomon Islands. This is only the beginning of a list that doesn’t include his two marriages, his fathering two children with his first wife Bella, or his periodic intakes of large quantities of alcohol—all the while becoming, by 1915, the highest-paid author in America.

George Orwell called London “A Socialist with the instincts of a buccaneer,” which seems to get it about right.

Writer’s Corner: Detroit Book City

This could be your house

This could be your house

Still trying to figure out how to finish that first part of a six-part series of zombie CSI novels, or maybe you need time to work on your epic poem cycle about climate change? Working the job and paying rent can definitely take time away from time spent with your laptop or quill.

Well, worry no more, because there’s a new nonprofit organization called WriteAHouse that wants to give away houses in Detroit to writers. That’s correct: Free house to write in.

If approved, writers are expected to:

  • commit to living and writing in the house for two years
  • pay insurance and property tax
  • finish renovating the house (it’ll be 80% inhabitable at time of moving in)
  • regularly contribute to the WAH blog
  • “participate in local readings and other cultural events”

Then, after two years, the writer is given the deed to the house. That’s pretty much it. Nice job thinking outside the box, Detroit.

(h/t: Ian Crouch)

Readers’ Corner: Peter O’Toole (1932-2013)

lawrencearabia

Although he will go down in cultural history as the incarnation of Lawrence of Arabia (not so much the real-life one, but the fascinatingly cinematic variation thereof), Peter O’Toole had his literary side as well. When he passed away last week, most obituaries mentioned one of the hellraising actor’s more memorable lines of poetry:

I will not be a common man.

I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.

For more O’Toole greatness, check out Gay Talese’s rattlingly good profile on the man from Esquire in 1963. Among other snappy lines, it includes this bit:

All he knew was that within him, simmering in the smithy of his soul, were confusion and conflict, and they were probably all linked somehow with Ireland and the Church … a former altar boy, a drinker who now wanders streets at night buying the same book (“My life is littered with copies of Moby Dick”) and reading the same sermon on that book (“…and if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves…”)…