Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fierce Subjectivity: Mean Bastards Making Nice

Djelloul Marbrook’s fiction is like no one else’s. Perhaps it’s the rich stew of being half-Bedouin, half German-American, born in Algiers, raised in New York’s art world, educated in a Brit-run boarding school, helped by a Sicilian stepfather, then going on to a stint in the US Navy, a newspaper career, years living on a sailboat, and a classic ten-thousand hours of poetic practice—all those ingredients and other less visible ones—that worked an alchemical magic on his sensibilities and vocabulary.

Full disclosure: Djelloul is a dear friend of mine. I don’t always love his work, but I always respect its powerfully idiosyncratic intelligence.

Mean Bastards Making Nice is a slim volume from small UK publisher Leaky Boot Press. It contains two novellas related by theme and setting. It’s a thoroughly New York book, but that doesn’t mean stock Big Apple accents or tired tropes from TV. It means both city streets and upstate forests are simply there: as integral as the air the characters breathe.

To gloss the surface: “Book One: The Pain of Wearing Our Faces” introduces a painter, a composer, their shared alcoholism, and a mysterious woman who is a muse for both of them, but a dangerous one. “Book Two: Grace” follows a girl on the run from country to city, her discovery of her own warrior strength on the streets, and her profound impact on a few of the city’s art-world glitterati.

However, for a Djelloul Marbrook story, a plot description cannot begin to capture the actual reading experience. Nor can a mention of the astonishing lexicon he employs. Instead, it has to be acknowledged that the journey a reader takes between these covers is primarily a journey into the author’s mind. His voice is profoundly subjective.

Which is certainly not to say Marbrook only writes as Marbrook. Each of these novellas is about a woman, and one is narrated in first person. Both women are painters. Marbrook is neither a woman nor a painter, but the masks he creates are so vivid they transcend categories. The sensibility that drives the storytelling, that crafts the sentences, is recognizably a product of a singular author’s interior.

Granted, every writer’s narrative voice is subjective to some degree. It can’t be otherwise; at the level of everyday living, every human is a solo consciousness encapsulated inside a sensory apparatus. One point of view for each of us. But when we communicate, and especially when we use the consensual abstraction of written language (music and visual art not so much), we are moving into a zone of commonality, a dilution of our lone uniqueness. Writers, whether they know it or not, are embracing that dilution—especially those content to work with a fairly limited database of words, the words they’re confident their readers will understand. That means most of us—but not all.

Marbrook, a seasoned, professional newsman, is skilled at prioritizing clear, communal message-sharing above personal, idiosyncratic expression—all the better for journalism, but his fiction is something else entirely. It shows a conscious choice to resist the diminishment of unique subjectivity. To, instead, master the tools of the art form—vocabulary, syntax, metaphor—until a distinctive, muscular, uninhibited (but never sloppy), even hallucinatory voice emerges, seemingly without effort.

This is prose that reminds me of film school: Russian cinema pioneer Sergei Eisenstein claimed that meaning in montage (editing) came from the “collision” of adjacent shots. Marbrook’s prose accrues its dense power from the continual collision of words, phrases, images, ideas.

In addition, Marbrook puts the lie to all those Internet writing sites that say a fiction author should be invisible so the story can come through without distraction. He proves the stupidity of that idea. What would art be if all artists made their expressive style invisible so the subject matter could be seen without distraction? Van Gogh would have been a photographer taking mundane snapshots.

As a reader, submerging yourself in these novellas is like being lost in some sort of fever dream, a foreign land that’s familiar but somehow off-kilter, a parallel universe, an impressionistic, almost psychedelic vision simultaneously more vivid and convoluted than your own. To choose a convenient example, the book begins with these lines:
     I don’t trust words. That’s what he said. They’re swindlers, mean bastards making nice, he said.
     I felt like swatting his words out of my head as I swarmed into Bloomie’s on Christmas Eve in full city roast. I needed gloves. I needed a new head. I’d left my rabbit-lined Danish gloves in a cab. The cheap wool mark-ups I bought made my two first-water rubies and clitoral opal itch. You don’t want to itch anywhere, but in Bloomie’s razzle of cut-glass perfume pumps and dazzle of capitalist excess itching is a criminal impulse. I gulped three Benadryl caplets with my own spit.
     On a good day my sexual jewels are eyes for seeing in the dark, sensors to explore ocean floors, microscopes. On a bad day, they’re nails to bleed me on a cross, tear me apart. Today they itch and shine at trouble up ahead, like all good jewels. Isn’t it what they’re for? I’m an artist. I never know trouble in my head, it’s always somewhere else, tactile, fragrant, unwilling, unable to be put off. Why else would a woman want to be an artist?
You ask: Who speaks this way? Answer: Marbrook’s people.

You ask: What does it mean? What’s going on? Answer: I’ll re-read, and I’ll notice how I feel. And I’ll keep going, and I’ll observe the cumulative effect of this deluge of image and language, and viscerally, I’ll understand.

Marbrook is an award-winning poet. Perhaps a poet’s fiction is to be expected to deliver this sort of fierce subjectivity. Perhaps not. All this is to say: read him.

Here’s a video I’m pleased to have produced to promote the book:

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Warfilm / Wind-Up Bird - Dreams Redux

Consider this Part 2 of my previous entry, Warfilm / Wind-Up Bird (please read). No sooner had I finished and posted it than I realized I had more to say about those books and other ideas they sparked.

I’ve been thinking and reading, as always, about stuff like lucid dreaming, Möbius strips, precognition, quantum effects, nondual awakening, memory… the endlessly tangled strands of Mystery we live in. I’ve always been attracted to lucid dreaming, in which one is aware of being in a dream and so is able to control events, but I’ve never applied the self-discipline to learn how to do it. Right now I’m feeling pushed a little closer to taking it on.

Quick detour: To talk about lucid dreaming, we first have to dispense with the obligatory reference to the blockbuster movie Inception, in which writer/director Christopher Nolan squandered his opportunity to do something deep in favor of making one more Hollywood shoot-em-up thrill ride. It is not included in the discussion to come. No more to say. Onward….

If both Tom Newton’s Warfilm and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are, at the macro scale, depictions of dreams, then how should we look at the dreams their characters experience inside the story -- these dreams-within-dreams? Newton’s protagonist in Warfilm, Franz, under the hypnotic influence of the mysterious Lord Strange, slips into sleep and dreams himself into a DeChirico landscape scarcely more surreal than those he’s seen in the book’s “reality.” While there, in the dream-within-a-dream, he murders Lord Strange, who is never seen again in the book. It’s tempting to think this suggests the power of dream action to impact “reality”... but it’s all a dream, just different layers circling back upon themselves, like the Escher-style edifice of doors and stairways that he attempts to navigate before he wakes up.

If, as psychotherapy suggests, all objects and characters in a dream are aspects of the dreamer, did Franz kill himself? Maybe, but maybe not, because Newton’s third-person narrative point of view, as I discussed in the earlier post, is crafted to never answer the ultimate question: “Who is dreaming this dream?” We are left with the response: “We all are.”

Or: “I am.”

There’s no evidence that Franz was lucid dreaming in his dream-within-a-dream, but Murakami’s first-person protagonist in Wind-Up Bird, Toru, is very intentional about entering the dreamspace and forcing events to go his way. He isolates himself at the bottom of a well until, as he says,
“The darknesses inside and out began to blend, and I began to move outside of my self, the container that held me.” 
This sounds a lot like astral travel, an out-of-body experience (OBE). Toru finds himself in a labyrinthine hotel, makes his way to Room 208, and in the darkness there kills an unseen man who was threatening him. Later, back in “reality,” he learns his cruel brother-in-law has had a stroke and lies incapacitated in the hospital, never to trouble Toru again. Does dream impact non-dream? Does metaphor equal fact?

If I have to choose a one-word answer to that last question, I’ll go with “yes.” Metaphor and fact are like the infinite recursion of facing mirrors. When Charles Foster Kane walks through his hall of mirrors, does it really matter which of the many Kanes is the “real” one? Also, Murakami muses in Wind-Up Bird:
“To know one’s own state is not a simple matter. One cannot look directly at one’s own face with one’s own eyes, for example. One has no choice but to look at one’s reflection in the mirror. Through experience, we come to believe that the image is correct, but that is all.” 
So maybe “self” is a belief system we invent for ego survival, a mirror that needs only its own double to explode into an infinite conundrum.

But in the final analysis, the multiples are illusion. There is just One (as in: Ultimate Indivisibility). In perhaps my favorite passage in Warfilm, near the end, Franz encounters for the last time a recurring character who drops in to offer bits of trickster wisdom. His name is just a number, a different number each time he appears. This time he is Forty-Five:
“He reached into his pocket and pulled out a rectangular strip of paper.
     Watch this.
He looped it into a ring by holding the narrow edges together then he twisted one edge and rejoined them.
     See? A Möbius strip, a closed Möbius strip, a non-orientable object. It has only one side and one boundary. Two planes have become one. The inside is the outside.
He ran his finger along the plane to illustrate his point....
     For example, take the idea that two planes become one and map it on to the concept of self, then you might see the boundary between one self and another is dissolved, so you and I could be the same person. I said that I oscillated between existence and non existence. If you applied the Möbius strip poem to that thought, you could say that I just oscillate because are not existence and non-existence the same thing? Then maybe you would deduce that I do not exist, for with only one plane, what is there to oscillate between? Take your question and answer obsession. The questions are the answers are the questions are the answers ad infinitum. You can do what you like with it.”
Forty-Five is showing Franz a glimpse of the deepest nature of the universe, and the funny thing is that it puts Franz right to sleep. “He had been so tired he might have dreamed it all,” the narrator says a bit later when Franz awakes. He awakes just in time to step outside of surrealism into mythology for a fateful meeting with an entirely unexpected band of Maenads.

I found myself wondering: is Franz living a Möbius strip life? Does he proceed seamlessly from the end on a Greek hillside to the opening sentence, “He was an ordinary German, walking one night on a Berlin street…,” over and over in an endless loop? Is he a recurring dream in a realm where time has no direction?

One of Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird characters says,
“One by one, with my own hands, I had to make this thing I called 'I'-- or, rather, make the things that constituted me.” 
According to some, “self” is an edifice built of our memories. My current favorite blog is The Nightshirt by brilliant science-writer-on-the-fringe Eric Wargo. In “Feeding the Psi God: Precognitive Dreaming, Memory, and Ritual,” he mentions his hypothesis that “the function of dreaming is the formation of long-term memories through playful associations, the art of memory operating automatically while we sleep.” But he also makes a case for the non-linear, simultaneous nature of Time, with precognitive dreams as evidence. About a 9/11 dream of his own, he says,
“My dreaming mind hadn’t peered into the shut envelope, in other words; instead it picked up on the most emotionally salient event in the landscape of my near future. That event bore a chicken-and-egg relationship to the dream that precognized it. It was truly ‘acausal’ or even Moebius-like in precisely the way we should predict could occasionally happen in a science-fictional world where information can travel backward in time.”
By “science-fictional world” I take him to mean the very world we live in. In a later post, “The Great Work of Immortality - Astral Travel, Dreams, and Alchemy,” he ventures into the arcane territory of old alchemical texts, discussing how lucid dreams, astral travel (OBE), and “enlightenment” are on a continuum. He argues that the Mutus Liber (Wordless Book) of 1677, with its enigmatic depictions of a man and woman gathering morning dew on sheets and wringing them out to be distilled, is an illustrated cypher:
“So I think that the Mutus Liber is basically a Baroque astral projection manual disguised as chemistry: The stuff of dreams is the materia prima, the murky raw material that must be taken, analyzed, worked with, to create true philosophic gold: a special 'blended' state in which the soul (alert consciousness) fully joins with the spirit double/'energy body' on its nightly travels.”
I love this esoteric stuff, and long ago used the following quote from the Mutus Liber as the epigraph for Prima Materia, the literary journal I published: To find the philosopher’s stone,“Pray, read, read, read, read again, labor, and discover.” But I digress….

As a dreamer, I confess I’m pretty illiterate and unconscious. But I have ambitions to begin moving toward more dream awareness, in the direction of exactly what Wargo suggests in The Nightshirt:
“If anyone’s innocence is lost here, it should be yours: Time is not what you were raised to think it is. Neither is your own mind. Dreams are a royal road to discovering the bizarre Moebius structure of time and mind; if you are not already keeping a dream diary, what are you waiting for?”
On the other hand, there is always the option to forego such busy striving in favor of the supreme stillness of the “I Am,” as taught by my favorite Indian sage:
“The very idea of going beyond the dream is illusory. Why go anywhere? Just realize that you are dreaming a dream you call the world, and stop looking for ways out. The dream is not your problem. Your problem is that you like one part of the dream and not another. When you have seen the dream as a dream, you have done all that needs to be done.”
~ Nisargadatta Maharaj, I Am That

Friday, October 9, 2015

Warfilm / Wind-Up Bird

A few observations about two books I read this summer: Haruki Murakami’s hefty (600 page!) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Tom Newton’s debut novella, Warfilm (128 virtual pages on Kindle). Very different books, unexpectedly similar.

What we’re talking about here is dreams. According to the famous and dead writer/teacher John Gardner, the art of fiction is creating a vivid and continuous dream. So fiction as dream is one way of seeing the artform in general, a valid way. But the two books I’m looking at here go further. Rather than fiction as dream, we might call them dream as fiction.

Imagine you’re asleep. dreaming a dream that begins with Hitler as a movie director embarking on the most epic film production in history: World War II! Cool idea, but this is not a novel of ideas or politics or speculative fiction; this is not a novel at all, this is a dream. A novel might take a cool idea and develop its coolness with logical allegory, consistent characters, mandatory narrative arc, etc. But this is a dream, and dreams don’t roll like dat.

Dreams go other places. Dreams surprise you. Warfilm is a dream, and while its WWII shell and its concreteness of detail feel entirely “real,” it does nothing you’ll expect. It lands you in a DeChirico painting where you’ll be trying to get your bearings until suddenly the dream is over. You’re awake. Or are you?

Much has already been written about Murakami’s dreamlike narratives, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle may be the pinnacle of his work in that vein… the Twin Peaks-like merging of mundane reality with strange, twisted, dark dream-worlds, and no predictable resolutions. One interesting note is that World War II also plays an important role in this book, but it’s the Pacific War rather than the European War.

So the War and the imagistic illogic of night dreams are common between these books. But their difference is in point of view: the objective camera that views everyone from an equal distance, versus the subjective camera that acts as one character’s eyes. Newton’s omniscient third-person narration moves from character to character without an identified “self.” It’s detached and dispassionate, as opposed to the internal nature of Murakami’s first-person narration, limited to one individual. Murakami’s protagonist is the one having the dream, and the other people who enter his dream may tell their first person stories, but it’s all happening to just one “self.”

What this means is that Newton’s work embodies “dream as universal human reality” while Murakami’s view, surprisingly, would seem to emphasize the individual over the collective. Philosophically, Newton seems more Eastern, Murakami more Western.

To go a little deeper, Newton’s narrative POV and the surreality (reality heightened, exaggerated) he depicts work together to suggest that we are all sharing the Big Dream: life is a dream although we don’t recognize it as such. We see life’s banality first, a mask that screens its deeper magic from our awareness. With this book, Newton is doing what Melville’s Ahab urges: “If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?”

Newton might be suggesting, as do Jed McKenna and other gurus, that the “wall” is the illusion we call Reality and we are prisoners until we can break through it to see the inexplicable, the ineffable, the nonsensical truth... to acknowledge the quantum field from which we arise, in all its inexplicable whimsy, its anti-classical weirdness. Remember Plato’s Cave: to those who know nothing but the shadows on the cave wall, anything else seems impossible nonsense.

Let’s have more dreams, more invisible made visible, more impossible nonsense!

(For Part 2 of this review, see Warfilm / Wind-Up Bird - Dreams Redux)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Poetry and Video: Brash Ice by Djelloul Marbrook

An entire year has passed since I last posted on this blog. Wow! But I don't follow the new wisdom that "if it wasn't blogged, it didn't happen." The year was full of actual living.

During 2014 my friend Djelloul Marbrook celebrated the publication of his third volume of poetry, Brash Ice, from UK publisher Leaky Boot Press. The term "brash ice" refers to "accumulations of floating ice made up of fragments...; the wreckage of other forms of ice." An apt metaphor for a long life.

I'm happy to showcase these two video "samplers" that I created to support the book. Each features three poems, read by the author. Enjoy!