Stone Buildings - photo by Juliet Clark
. . .

The Glib & the Glutinous

Roger Ascham can read me like a book. (And vice versa, obvs.)

Quick wits commonly be apt to take, unapt to keep: soon hot and desirous of this and that: as cold and soon weary of the same again: more quick to enter speedily than able to pierce far: even like our sharp tools, whose edges be very soon turned. Such wits delight themselves in easy and pleasant studies, and never pass far forward in high and hard sciences.

Moreover, commonly men very quick of wit be also very light of conditions: and thereby very ready of disposition to be carried over quickly by any light company to any riot and unthriftiness when they be young: and therefore seldom either honest of life or rich in living when they be old.

In youth, also they be ready scoffers, privie mockers, and ever over light and merry. In age, soon testy, very waspish, and always over miserable: and yet few of them come to any great age, by reason of their misordered life when they were young: but a great deal fewer of them come to show any great countenance, or bear any great authority abroad in the world, but either live obscurely, men know not how, or die obscurely, men mark not when.

. . .

Character building

That was the last wallop of the sculptor's hammer. Later damage remained mere damage, weathering, regression to the mean.

. . .

A for Anything; or, Future Shuck

- in memory of Damon Knight, most prescient of Futurians

Yuval Noah Harari's speculations might be forgiven if they'd been extracted from a circa-1952 time capsule in some Detroit ruin. Within the postwar consensus of the 1950s and 1960s it was demonstrably possible for those less thoughtful than Knight, Pohl, and Kornbluth to believe increased productivity would result in less work for higher wages. But in the future we have, gains bubble directly up-uppity-up to the thinnest layer of surface scum, less-than-full-time jobs exist sheerly to let employers shirk minimum wage and health benefits, and those who've won such mini-jobs escape ennui by commuting from one paltry income to another, waiting for cheap dentists, hiding from murderous spouses, and suchlike.

Even Harari's cheerfully shabby Talmudic scholars, with their enviable nonemployed rate of 64%, are supported not only by an increasingly annoyed government but by the 71% of their wives who earn while hubbie studiously ignores the household chores and eight kids in other words, the familiar male bohemian lifestyle. Nice work if you can avoid it. (On the other hand I haven't found happiness scores for Palestine's unemployed 27% or the West Bank's unemployed 42%.)

In short but too long, "the meaning of life in a world" (which could be) "without work" is to crush as many other people as possible into a world of maximized work for minimized reward.

As for the greeny foamy microorganisms Harari seems to be addressing, they're rarely bored by the puzzle of how to gobble ever larger shares for ever extended lifetimes; the few left cold by pure greed can, I think, do without our concern given how many resources are already dedicated to keeping them entertained and enlightened.

. . .

The War of Art

What is it GOOD for?

. . .

From an otherwise innocuous cog-lit volume's bullet-pointed list of

answers that have been given [to the question "What is literature for?"], starting with the negative or dismissive ones:

Now, masturbation (solitary and unwitnessed, presumably) is a familiar exemplar of self-indulgence. But what's being contrasted to "sex without procreative intent"? Even in financial terms (our culture's current exemplar of properly motivated action), intentionally-procreative sex offers ambiguous awards unless you're a slave-owner supplementing your assets. Whereas I understand there's a fair amount of evidence that cooperative sexual acts have proven utility in strengthening social bonds, or, at minimum as a (sometimes brutal) rebuke to solipsism.

Are strengthened social bonds, then, "at best a form of entertainment"? If so, the book at least taught me something about entertainment.

. . .

Confessional Pleasures

It breaks me, I buy it.

. . .

Assume the position

by Percival Everett

Three police procedurals with a likably quirky and fallible protagonist and a shocking twist you won't believe!!

Or, hell, you probably will. Even if you never heard of Oedipus and didn't cut your genre teeth on Trent's Last Case and never saw Dark Angel on the late-late show, thirty years of blockbusters have established the good-guy-who's-really-bad as a convention which no more needs justifying than, say, a Tom Cruise love interest. Mystery readers who've reviewed Assumption felt satisfyingly tricked. Of the two academic papers on the book, one accepts the revised characterization at face-value and the other doesn't even mention it (which is a neat trick in itself).

I believed it, too, but my "it" was something stranger in reviewerly terms, if more familiar in fleshy ones. I took the ending at its word rather than at its face value:

"This is the way is is, Warren, simply the way it fucking is. Sad, sad, sad, sad, sad. Shitty, shitty, bang, bang. Nothing makes sense and that's the only way that any of it can make sense. Here I am, the way I am, not making any sense. Blood in the water. Blood on my shirt."

Generically, Assumption is a story series with the sort of showy dismount favored by writers whose ambitions reach past the commercial district. Back in the day, each novella could've appeared separately in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, with the third generating plenty of hate mail. For me, the insinuations which came increasingly (and maybe too abruptly) thick and heavy didn't (and don't) feel like clues laid to prop a backwards-reading; instead, they detoured us to structural collapse: solution by dissolved form.

The distinction partly comes down to reality effect. "Innocent" passages of the final story are detailed, individualized, and localized. Whereas the "guilty" intrusions are vague, off-the-shelf stuff, thudding the same "BOMM! BOMM! BOMM!" soundtrack used by every thriller trailer of the past, well, thirty years. The kind of bullshit which comforts juries but no one else.

I'd also been softened up (or simply concussed) by earlier apparently-realistic wholeheartedly-affective formal experiments. For reasons outside the immediate reading experience, I often find myself turning to Dhalgren:

"But thinking that live streets and windows are plotting and conniving to make you into something you're not, that's crazy, isn't it?"
I'm not a poet.
I'm not a hero.
But sometimes I think these people will distort reality in any way to make me one. And sometimes I think reality will distort me any way to make me appear one but that's insanity, isn't it? And I don't want to be crazy again.
I don't.

Most of all, my interpretive preference was swayed by hope for shared witness.

I sometimes hear shaming justified as punitive rehabilitation. A learning experience, so to speak, and I suppose it generally is, in one sense or another. It most often serves to exile (or confirm the pariahdom of) its target, strengthening the border between in-group and out-group, and confirming one's own claim to centrality. As evidence, those who consider themselves most securely in-group are notoriously shameless. Bullies (whether self-made or hammered-out) and their slaveys treat shame as weakness: the only thing that shames them is shame itself.

Censors are rarely fooled by the pretenses of the "cautionary tale"; they sense how easily the supposed warning becomes the irresistible script, a second-hand experience which your first-hand starts to grasp for.

BART: Wow. A drifter!

FUTURE BART: Lousy sheriff... Run me out of town... He's lost my vote...

BART: Cooool.

Shaming is a cautionary tale with an army and navy. Unless you have your own tribe to back you up, even if you're annoyed by the shamers' presumptions, you may later watch yourself act them out or remember having acted them out. At my lowest ebb, I recall the sudden relief of not bothering to argue with the world or myself, just doing the expected thing and waiting for the movie to be over instead of stretching it out to tedious length. If going with the flow sent me over the falls, well, I guess that's where I was meant to be.

Everett's decent-but-no-genius deputy sheriff is a black man in an overwhelmingly white-and-armed community. Wherever he goes, he's viewed with suspicion; should external reminders of bigotry be momentarily lacking, he can fill the void with memories of his father's jeremiads. He's got a place in the sheriff's department; he feels at home in a trout stream; he has to watch what he says in front of his mother.... It's not a lot to fall back on.

None of which is meant to insist that the last story's Big Kill was "really" done by anyone other than the guy who confessed to it. I don't think Assumption is a realistic story of false memory. Instead, I think it's a story that realism can't tell: the incomprehension of "Did I do that? I couldn't have done that, could I?" "Did he do that? He couldn't have done that..." "Did we do that? ..." The "No, not again" sensation of turning on the news and seeing another house idol, another icon we took as proof that life could escape that particular script Assumption freezes those final drowning moments of denial, the thing that catches in your throat even after you've begun to accept it as part of your throat....

Do I believe my own theory, as the man says? I'm not as certain of it as I am that, for example, Delany consciously embedded the funky clues that invalidate a Kid's-just-crazy interpretation of Dhalgren. The finales of both Erasure and Assumption felt rushed to me, which may betray readerly incompatibility. And in at least one interview, Everett seems to endorse the clever-clew-stringer take.

But I do feel a reasonable doubt, and the only menace I'd like to hang is the jury.


Eminent scholar Josh Lukin adds:

"Bullies (whether self-made or hammered-out) and their slaveys treat shame as weakness: the only thing that shames them is shame itself." That may be so IRL, but novels, often committed to the shaky premise that people have depth or the shakier conviction that bad behavior is a sign of that, may follow different rules. I blame Russian hacking.

You're right, I was thinking only of bullies I've witnessed or received witness of. Junior-high hallways, initiation rites, military indoctrination, and Norman Mailer all separated real-men from faggots with a crowbar by testing revulsion or scruples.

(Of course my personal canon shows close acquaintance with the appeal of insouciant transgression. But I would never mistake such refined tastes for manliness; I know the true standard of manhood is how much you can drink.)

As proven by domestic abusers and the Gorilla-Glass Tigers of 4channish doxxing, this bully-badge of courage rests easily alongside physical cowardice. And while such figures were conventional comic butts for Shakespeare's audience, bulliedom's most remarkable recent innovation has been open disavowal of bravery (as, I suppose, another convention in need of trampling). In present-day blancmange-with-a-gun America, completely irrational terror has become a surefire legal defense carrying no consequences whatsoever.

. . .


There's a Certain Tendency to confuse personal interest with moral judgment. It's not enough to feel unengaged by Jane Austen: either she (the long-dead human being) was a tool of empire or you (the individual who wanted something other than a Jane Austen novel) are a sexist fool. (OK, I'd probably guess you were a sexist fool, but I know that's stupid.) Something of the Tendency might also feed the widespread confusion of non-endorsement with censorship, as if each prospective reader, publisher, or host held the equivalent of the MPAA or Comics Code seal.

For the most part, social media simply intensifies the toxicity of normal gossip. Every account its own tabloid (at least until a real tabloid steps in). But Facebook's design also reinforces that Certain Tendency.

I had a pre-Facebook friend who I haven't seen in the flesh for many years but still feel warmly toward. She uses Facebook in a professionalized brand-maintenance way; I don't, and in an office setting my flesh-friendly comments landed like sabotage. Only after a mob began to gather did I sensibly decide to drop out of a setup which was neither real-life-friendly nor Facebook-friendly. Yet I felt a qualm about "unfriending" her. It looked like a personal judgment made public, like cutting them at the Tsarina's ball.

But I've knocked around enough to sense how someone might make those sour qualms into a tall cool glass of qualminade, along the lines of the Drama of the Gifted Quiescent Blog but with pitchforks. It's only recently I saw the process for myself, and I'm impressed. For those more at virtual-home on Facebook and Twitter, deciding to not-read someone's posts is, just as it seems to be, a declaration. And exclusion of the accused is built-in while you elaborate your declaration to an audience of your newly trimmed peers. Any particularly insistent defenders can be added to the trial docket with equal ease.

All the fun of a Poetry War with none of the annoying poetry.

. . .

Agreeing with Cavafy


Whether I am happy or unhappy I do not question.
But I do, with joy, keep one thing in mind
that in the great addition (their addition that I hate)
that has so many numbers, I am not one
of all the many numbers there. In the total sum
I have not been numbered. And for me that joy suffices.
- translated by Theoharis Constantine Theoharis

Some people describe life as a shopping list carried in a bucket (that's how big their shopping list is, they have to keep it in a bucket!), followed by an inventory of assets and an itemized bill.

How do they sum a sequence like -1 + 2 - 3 + 4 - 5 + 6 - 7 + ... ?

Does a scuffed-up crumpled sheet have a sequence at all?

I can't keep accounts on happiness and grief. But I know what I like, and I like knowing a no-’ccount goes off the books or never on them.

. . .

"Speaking as an echo chamber, this resonates with me."


Date-range web searches support my memory that the "resonates with me" formula, with its two-way passivity, first became ubiquitous after 2000.

yet: no 'I resonate with this'???

I've never heard it in the flesh; it probably sounds too Quasimodish.

. . .

Don't know but I can say

One of the things the fourth season of "The Wire" got right was that upward-mobility selects for glibness. I made it into an exclusive private college (via an alumni in-person interview and pre-Reagan financial aid) and I don't know as I ever scored an A in a class that didn't rely heavily on in-person discussion.

. . .

I Got a Right

The flip(-off) punk side of Imposture Syndrome Blues, genteely put by Stephen Greenblatt:

I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch. Prowling the stacks of Yale's vast library, I sometimes felt giddy with excitement. I had a right to all of it, or, at least, to as much of it as I could seize and chew upon.

Less giddily, there's my forever-adolescent fury at credential-based blockage. (Fifteen years of university dirt-shifting finally tunneled me behind those walls but what an absurd pretext!) And the disconcerting violence with which I met AB's and XZ's curiosity about why I follow John Crowley's career as closely as Jack Womack's, or why I should squander attention on sixteenth century literature and other hifalutin' highbrow longhair moldies when birthright entitled me to such a wealth of TV, junk food, ephemeral gadgets, and respectable edginess. The This-is-mine! snarl of a poorly disciplined cur.


Mememeister Josh Lukin fills me in:

Thanks for calling my attention to Greenblatt's sentimental essay. I like its atavism: one can imagine Howe or Fiedler or some other midcentury cosmopolitan recounting similar adventures and sentiments. Indeed, I expect Greenblatt's approach owes something to the novelists whom those Intellectuals influenced. My uncle would have enjoyed the piece, and I'm sure Greenblatt's friend Natalie ate it up.

Anent respectable edginess, the erstwhile Miss Spentyouth recently began a Facebook conversation that culminated in people discussing whether they were edgelords or edgevassals . . . I should have staked a claim for the nascent edgebourgoisie.

. . .

Trolling the Neuralnet of Things

Partisan of Things by Francis Ponge,
translated by Joshua Corey & Jean-Luc Garneau

At first, it's a luxurious sink into surface, like wading into a cozy cushion until the upholstery reknits overhead.

And then slight dizziness from the echoes of reflections, as, for instance, from "FIRE"

Once the methodically contaminated masses have collapsed the escaping gasses light a path for a solitary rabble of butterflies.

across pages to "BUTTERFLY"

A flying match of uncontagious flame. Besides, he arrives too late to do more than note that the flowers have already opened. Never mind: like a lamplighter, he checks each lantern's supply of oil. He drops atop the flowers the withered rag it carries, avenging at last his long caterpillar humiliation at the feet of their stems.

Therein a glance into the unsolvable labyrinth of Ideas in Things, as the poet sang, or, to prosify the poet, the strange entanglement of subject-minds with subject-matters, particles-of-the-observer refracting right through the most solid of apperceived bodies. Thereby a handful of handcarved woodchips off the spiritual block supporting M. John Harrison's Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, minus the colorless flavorless icing of super-science.

. . .

Heritage Turkey

If you're getting drowsy, it's not the L-tryptophan, it's the bunk

I'm not entering this old nag in the Tragedy Sweepstakes; my bookie says the fix is in for Climate Collapse. Still, one of the most trivially persistent annoyances of living in interesting times is how much more boring it makes me. Conversation has always been my sustaining pleasure, but at age 58 I've reached stable and fully-articulated conclusions on so many common conversational topics that I can empty a room of interlocuters in half an hour. Since I'm not sure I want to ripen into full Harold-Bloom, I'm increasingly limited to uncommon conversational topics.

. . .
Tender and Private
from the back cover

as stuffer or stuffing

The Lovely Horrible Stuff
by Eddie Campbell

Everything goes from grand to paltry. Given long enough the human being can destroy anything, even the planet he lives on. Destroying a system of equitable exchange is child's play.
- Eddie Campbell

The Lovely Horrible Stuff was published in 2012. Following on the full-color mysteries of The Fate of the Artist and the house-museum of Alec: The Years Have Pants, it was odd looking and oddly structured, marketed as a book "about money" but disconcertingly apolitical, and, to reappropriate Jonathan Lethem's phrase, "very quietly received."

That doesn't mean it didn't land an impact here and there. It just meant landing in a soft place.

And now aw shit.

* * *

I have a similar soft spot for 1993's Graffiti Kitchen. After a decade of charming groove, Graffiti Kitchen was a "departure," as the critics say. The King Canute Crowd's scrappy Zip-a-Tone vanished along with grins, pratfalls, and pubbish inconsequence. Instead, Campbell scratched the page till it bled.

The departure was permanent. Starting with his next personal work, Campbell changed "Alec"'s genre, marital status, profession, homeland, and (before long) name. That new groove spooled over the next two decades and there at the end of the spool lies The Lovely Horrible Stuff.

* * *

On the explicit face-and-title-page of it, "Lovely Horrible Stuff" refers to money, but most readers easily spot family squirming under that label, too. Either way,whether enthusiastic or not-so-much, whether amateur or professional, reviewers saw the book as another slice of a familiar cranked sausage. A plurality of Campbell's post-Canute work depicts the unresolvable conflict between

  1. a professional livelihood which can only be sustained by vigilant hunting, scavenging, and hoarding
  2. and

  3. a professional practice which can only be sustained by free-floating reverie and temporary delusions of omnipotent control,
and since at least The Dance of Lifey Death the conflict's been iconized as an obscuring thought balloon. Domestic squabbles and worse, in the grand tradition of newspaper comics and stand-up comedy, were there from the start of "Alec"/"Campbell"'s marriage. Furious dunning letters had been a mainstay gag since Shakespeare started penning them in 1992's The Cheque Mate. Campbell's discursive impulse had already digressed into informal research and documentary across a multitude of single-pagers and one-offs over the years. So, not much new.

In particular, The Lovely Horrible Stuff clearly "builds on" seems inappropriate; let's say led from the gorgeous full-color artwork and interstitial fumetti of The Fate of the Artist. Most bizarrely, Fate's metafictional TV adaptation became a metafactual attempt at something like "My World and Welcome to It" with James Thurber playing the role of William Windom.

The one novelty everyone noted was that Fate's photography and hand-crafting had digitally merged into something well, reactions ranged from masterful to amateurish. My own was, if I had to pick a word, "worrisome." Not the failed reassurance of CGI's uncanny valley; not with that Photoshop-airbrush applied like mascara in a Kuchar movie. Something sadder, more Cronenbergian....

In other ways, too, Stuff seemed to me like a business-as-usual brim shading some sort of breakout, or breakthrough, or breakdown.... Yes, "Campbell" had dunned before, but never so close to home:

Jack, my father-in-law, one of the six or seven truly marvellous individuals I have met in my life
Jack vs. balloons in 1988, The Dead Muse
You have given no thought to our interests in this matter so obsessed are you with
... & in The Lovely Horrible Stuff

Even when The Fate of the Artist's domestic violence drew blood, it was more or less successfully played for laffs. But the staging went awry this time round: Stuff's most physical conflict lacked any hint of slapstick, and Campbell's dash towards the safety of a gag pointedly flopped. The closest thing to nuptial comfort is confined to one page of such nakedly intense nostalgia that I avert my eyes whenever I reach it.

Despite its egocentrism (in the sense of heliocentrism), frets, and blunders, the Alec series never seemed neurotic or despairing. Even at the end of one's rope, you (almost) always reached stabilizing humor. The previous first-person installment kicked that stool aside. In Stuff, it's liable to tip over, and the failures convey self-loathing with more conviction than anything R. Crumb or Joe Matt ever mustered: as comics characters, at least, "Matt" and "Crumb" are mercifully numb to personal responsibility, much less responsibility for three children.

Structurally, The Lovely Horrible Stuff is an odd book out as well, almost two books, scored down the middle for easy snapping:

First a pacing round "Campbell"'s loathings, delusions, and losses, punctuated by brief vocational escapes into Cloudintellectualpropertyland. In this half of the book, we don't see his memorable fancies for ourselves; they're drawn as simple icons or fogbanks. "Campbell" has left the building, and like other characters we're stuck with his blind and deaf husk.

The second half shows one place he went: a continuously engaged topic-and-travel documentary (as opposed to the memoir documentary of How to Be an Artist). "Campbell" looks happiest here, in the inflated non-ego of not-painstakingly-verified research and formal control, semidetached from the ground while remaining firmly of the world, floating/sinking by his clutch of stone balloons....

* * *

I itched to write about The Lovely Horrible Stuff after my first half-dozen readings or so. But even a childless self-serializing essayist must deal with some family and finance concerns, and you see how things have gone around here.

The artist's own blog froze at March 2012. As years went by with no Campbell news other than reprints, illustrations, and, more recently, a scholarly book, the topic started to feel a bit taboo, as if the book's toxicity had leaked into the environment.

Because, like Graffiti Kitchen, it did taste toxic, or (depending on the taster) bracingly medicinal. Graffiti Kitchen put paid to the King Canute sequence; a new sequence began. Apart from the hero's signature look, what made this second, longer, sequence part of "Alec" was Campbell's faith that a world of omnipotent imagination might be built on the unscrupulous details of the real. Unlikely sounding, maybe, but certainly not unheard of.

Aestheticism-and-reality as vocation, meanness-and-dreaminess as motif, material-and-virtual as technique: three knockabout marriages of stubborn antitheses. If it was true that, after a quarter-century, the series had again scorched its own earth, where would it migrate next?

I'd still be wondering if I'd continued to look for word: the aftermath's been described only in audio. Campbell-the-artist killed his series hero off before The Fate of the Artist began. Having resurrected him in good American comic book fashion, what could the artist do for an encore? The solution was straightforward, if not exactly satisfying.

First, and barely able to get a word in edgewise:

EC: I've kind of put my own voice in storage right now. I'm applying myself as a craftsman to someone else's stories. [...] I was very driven. I felt I'd got hold of something important to say about life
FT: Heh-yes!
EC:And I was driven to
FT: To say it!
EC: ... to get it down on paper, and build
FT: Hmm!
EC: — upon it and investigate it in all its nooks and crannies and facets and variations. And I'm not feeling that at the moment
FT: No. [a spew of fucking twittery]

And then a Comics Journal podcast with room to lay down his weary voice:

Q: What's the closest you've come to quitting cartooning?

A: Recently. What I was talking about before, having lost this context. I've spent three years doing this book about the history of cartooning. But the same time I'm not creating new cartoons myself. There's probably a couple of years there where I just hadn't created any new comics work. The last thing I did was the book I did with Neil Gaiman. [...] Recently I've been drawing myself out of this funk. I've been illustrating illustrating the stories of my wife, Audrey Niffenegger. A quick catch-up there: I got divorced four years ago. And this year I married Audrey Niffenegger, the novelist. And for some time I've been working on a book where I'm illustrating her short stories. [...]

The money book, The Lovely Horrible Stuff I think that book took a lot out of me. I think it left me, I think I wrestled with so much realer stuff in there I kind of dislodged myself out of my comfort zone, [indecipherable]. I kind of left myself stranded on the beach of that sandy island in the South Seas, like O'Keefe in the story. I felt a bit wrecked after that one. In fact it was shortly after that book that I got divorced.

Q: I'm obliged to ask how was the

A: I'm kind of playing out in that book the disintegration of my own family life in a metaphorical way. The whole money arguments were really arguments for a disintegration of a harmony in my life.

Q: Was the creation of the pieces about your stepfather, even at the time of the creation, was that more taxing emotionally than the traditional Alec comics?

A: I didn't think so at the time but I think probably, in retrospect. I think in the end my feeling was that I shouldn't have done a comic about this. I shouldn't be... I think I kind of wrecked my own concept of what I was doing, by thinking "Now, how far can I push that?" Have I pushed this too far? Should I be putting real people in here in such a raw form, where they don't get a chance to give their side of the story? I-I, you know, and so many comics today are maybe going too far and you know Alison Bechdel's another one, Roz Chast's we're treading a fine line of propriety.

Out the window it goes...

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .