Archive for June 2009
I confess that when I was a kid I was into Dungeons and Dragons. * Actually, really, the whole TSR line of games, and even some extra-TSR sets. Twilight 2000 was my last and longest and greatest love in this line.
In fact, I was something of a preternaturally precocious D&D expert, dragging my mother to the local bookshop to buy me a rulebook or module a week when I was, ahem, in the first and second grade. I actually remember one time the bookshop guy telling my mother that there was no way that I could want these things at my age, and half-refusing to sell them to me and her. I can’t remember how she responded, but I’m sure I got my book.
Anyway, problem was there was no one to play these things with. I was a bit early with them, so my friends were out of the question. (Seriously, this is not a story about my titanic genius. I was way smarter as a kid than I am as an adult. That’s what years of sports related concussions and long-term substance abuse – all of the legal varieties! – will do for you! Sad really! So that is absolutely not the point – you’ll see….) Plus, due to a sick mother and the fact that I was an only-child in the deracinated NJ suburbs, I spent lots and lots of time entertaining myself in my bedroom.
And so… I learned to play the games by myself. Which is, of course, if you know anything about RPGs, impossible. The basic setup, for the uninitiated, goes like this. Let’s presume that there are four players. Three of the players will be characters, and the other one will be what is called the dungeon master, or DM for short. The DM controls the scenario, she or he sets the backdrop, the scenarios that are encountered by the characters. You are in a small room with doors on three sides. Through the door on the left, you hear a low cackling. There is a box of tinder on the floor. The players who are characters make decisions about what to do within the scenarios devised by the DM. I choose to take the tinderbox and open the door on the right. There is a third element, that adds contingency to the whole show – the dice. Both the dungeon master and the characters, at different times, roll. The former does it to add an element of chance to the story that he or she is telling (if I roll five or higher, an ogre will bound from the door on the left….), and the latter use the dice to determine the outcome of chancy actions, such as fighting. (I need to roll a four or better to kill the goblin with my mace…)
I hope it’s apparent why it’s impossible to play these things by yourself – the person who is responsible for the suspenseful story is also, at the same time, the characters who are at the whim of suspense. You know what’s behind the door on the left while at the same time, for the game to work, you can’t know what’s behind the door at the left. It’s hard for me to remember how much I actually played these games, rather than simply reading through the modules (premade scenarios) and developing and equipping characters…. Probably not all that much. But the amazing thing is that whole swaths of my young life were given over to such fruitless and seemingly unfun endeavors.
That said…. What a strange but perfectly appropriate preparation for a life of reading, writing about, and writing for myself a bit of fiction. What better materialization of the strange psychological state that one has to enter into in order to write narratives – knowing, but not knowing, what’s behind the door, what awaits the character if she does A, B, or C. I am just now starting to think that everything I am interested in, deeply interested in, about fiction probably had its start with these games for two or more played by only one back in my bedroom. The intense mandate to generate the unexpected, combined with the sheer impossibility of actually making something happen that really is unexpected, as well as the bizarre god-like stature of the author, who, during the modern period, would do anything, would commit to any sophism about impersonality, in order for the game to go on the way it was intended – both of these things are vividly analogous to what I was doing when I was filling out character-sheets and rolling twenty-sided dice on a card table while sitting on my boyhood bed.
One does wonder, however, whether another path toward some other sort of fiction isn’t hidden behind the branches of my childhood loneliness. A collaborative sort of fiction, that puts the emphasis not on the dice, that old standby of the lazy avant-garde, but on the presence at the table of other people, people who are able and permitted to make their own decisions about what happens next. Both of the people that I am reading at the moment – Flaubert and Ballard – in their ways describe the writing of fiction as a sort of experiment, as a process bent on testing hypotheses and presuppositions. Perhaps a new type of fiction, a fiction aggregate not only thematically but also at the site of production, would benefit from the lessons that I learned back there, trying to make myself believe that I didn’t know what I knew right from the start, because I had read the book cover to cover before we even started to write it.
* Since there is a natural line on continuity and causality between D&D play and gothic dress, I just thought I might mention: had a conversation last week in which I asserted, as was confirmed in my assertion, that the most unthinkable thought in the world is the thought that pictures me as a goth. It is not, in fact, that I don’t like goths or ex-goths. It is simply an unthinkable thought. Probably has a lot to do with the fact that I was during my formative years a catholic school jock, though a reflective or even overly-reflective one, hellbent on getting off the field to smoke pot and write poetry (and escape my father’s menacingly disappointed gaze). I will, perhaps, say more about this in a later post.
Too much branding going on lately in our neck of the internet! Just saying! The bubble era, sure, taught all of us lots of tricks about hype without substance, ads perhaps with products but catastropically without a business plan. Or…. it’s like we’re trying to replay English Department 1999, which I can assure you wasn’t all that fun or useful and certainly not sustainable let alone scalable the first time around. Better work before the guerilla-marketting, the spray-painted logos, the placard spots above urinals! Let the world do the naming!
IT says that the truth of Sundays is Monday… but from the looks of things the truth, in turn, of Monday is getting not much done and in coffeehouses up and down Tottenham Court Road.
I was reading Crash on the way in on the bus and Underground and enjoying it so much, actually, that I gave myself another 20 pp space of time at Starbucks. I was glad to leave, though, as I hit my page allocation just as I
- vaguely started to worry about the plate-glass window right behind me, what it would be like to pick it out of my scalp and cheeks and limbs and (jesus) genitals if something were to knock or blast it in on me. I didn’t find the thought as sexy as the characters in the novel do, weirdos.
- decided that the mother and daughter who had chosen of all the available tables in the nearly empty outlet the one located right next to mine were in fact a team of bag-thieves. They run rampant, the bag thieves, in London Starbucks. Half-tantalized by the idea of looking distracted and trying to get them to make a swipe at it (see my $2000 laptop coquettishly poking its flank out of my bag in the pic?) and then catching them, and half-realizing that if they were thieves worth their salt they could probably still nail me even though I was on to them, I left and went to the office.
Which is a shame, as Starbucks is airconditioned which, amazingly, is actually helpful here in London today. And even more a shame because, as per the general rule of department life in the summer, someone came and knocked on my door and asked me to take care of something that took me the better part of an hour or two. At least it had something to do with Ballard, what I was asked to do.
But it seemed clear that the best course of action was to get out of there before the rota fortunae of departmental work turned my way again. The upstairs of EAT is quite nice, my new favourite. Actually ate lunch complete with an apple for those who are keeping track of my health and well-being. The music is pretty nice too – a heavy-rotation of Macy Gray/Lauren Hill tossed with songs that I remember or want to remember listening to on the radio in the backyard in Hillsdale, NJ when I was 5 or 6 or 7 or 8. Hottown, summahinthecity, back of my neck feelindirty and gritty. Though it does make me feel I should change the station to listen to Rags pitch his no-hitter against the Sox while eating a Ballpark Frank or something. Distracting thought!
Where is summer but New Jersey, a longwalk away from the GWB if you could walk there? What is that boy, whose first novel was a drug-store purchased compy of 1984, doing typing in the shadow of the Ministry of Love? Why doesn’t he get the picture and type a bit faster and not in html? And why did he think buying a 3G stick for his laptop would help matters on Mondays and the rest of the days of the week?
Work on your book, fool! Just because it’s hot and you’re alone doesn’t license reverie and posting!
I’m not sure exactly why I’m driven to record my familal jaunts, my Sundays, in bland photoessays on here. The one I wrote two weeks ago worked out pretty well, so whatever, I’ll keep doing it and see what happens.
We had no plans when we woke up this morning. Today is my sleep-late day and I actually made it to 9 AM, which is rare. I’m headed into old man territory, very suddenly, with my sleep patterns. For my entire adult life, I’ve gone to bed only begrudgingly before 2 AM, and while work often mandated an early rise, if permitted I’d sleep fairly late. All of a sudden, in the last few months, I’m down before midnight and up before the alarm rings, generally no later than 7 AM.
We had no plans. It suddenly strikes me that Sunday afternoons, and what you do with them, might be read in the same way that one reads a dream. Left to one’s own devices, without the pressures of work (even if the mandate to mind children remains) one’s leisure choices form patterns that sometimes are only discernable after the fact, and sometime not really discernable at all.
I don’t really know why I woke with a strong desire to go to Islington, to Upper Street to be exact. We’d passed through on the bus a few months ago, and it’s not all that far from our house. And we’ve been around Angel for various reasons (me for Kinofist what seems like a long, long time ago and both of us together to buy couches when we moved into our place). But never to Upper Street. It’d take changing buses at Finsbury Park to get there, but buses are easier than the Underground, as we are always a large and heavily encumbered party-of-four at this point.
At the busstop near my house, we couldn’t take the first bus that came by, as there were already two strollers onboard. Another nine minutes. So I walked away to have a cigarette. When I returned my wife was having “the smoking talk” with my oldest. Ah me. Bet you my remaining days of nicotene-tint are few and getting fewer all the time. It’s just what happens, isn’t it… I suppose it’s for the best.
Ah there we are. Upper Street. There’s a farmers market on Sundays behind Islington Town Hall, but we didn’t want to keep the produce all day in the heat, so we bought nothing but pastries. The place was loaded with Americans – another woman with her own set of two kids was dropping her purchases into a Trader Joe’s bag, which made us chuckle – fucking Californians! Our own bag comes from a co-op in the rust-belt city where we lived before all this – and almost certainly marks us as academics in the Expat staring contests that occur constantly in neighborhood like this one.
A few minutes later my wife and the kids ducked into a children’s store and I had a cigarette out on the street, and took the photo that appears above. A second later, I turned to the right, and saw….. this:
Mexican food! In London! I’ve had it exactly once in the more than 1.5 years I’ve been here. It simply doesn’t exist as a food category here – there’s like a total of eight places in the entire city, and generally if you look one up and head there you find that it’s closed for one reason or another. I bounded back to the wife, who was coming out of the shop, wildly pointing toward, yes, that! And yelling, yes, yes I will, yes we will eat there! Yes! But she reminded me, though, that it was only 10:45 AM, so a little early for burritos. And plus, “tex-mex” is an ill-omen, and doubleplus (or doubleminus), good Mexican restaurants don’t ever serve tapas too. (Look closely at the sign). WTF? Yeah, Mexico is not in Spain, hmmm… I conceded she had a point, at least about the tapas part, and so we moved on.
But here’s the kicker. This Desperados, object of my gleeful pleading, is located on the site of the former Granita Restaurant, where the “Granita Pact” between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was supposedly sealed in 1994. According to wikipedia:
According to several authors, Gordon Brown agreed not to stand in the Labour Party leadership election, effectively giving Blair a clear run, and letting him lead the Labour Party in the 1997 general election. In return, Brown would be allowed wide powers over domestic policy. This was apparently confirmed by a copy of a note published in The Guardian in June 2003. The note mentions Blair’s commitment to a “fairness agenda” consisting of “social justice, employment opportunities and skills” under a Labour government.
Further, according to the Guardian, if we had gone in, we might have gotten to sit at the very table, preserved as it was, where this deal that in the long-run seems to have wrecked the Labour Party, perhaps permanently, was hashed out. I hope, when (if!) my wife reads this post, she realizes that my world-historical radar is very much in operation, even if it is oddly connected with my melted cheese radar system, and that she should always listen and willingly concede to my choices in lunchtime restaurantage!
(Hmmm… now I’m wondering if any world-historical events took place at the site of the Fuddruckers on Rt.1 right by the turnoff for the NJ Turnpike… I used to make my wife take me there for birthday dinners during grad school, because of the melted cheese machine. They should dig for Jimmy Hoffa in the parking lot!)
There is a Waterstones bookshop in Islington. I have to admit, I like going to a decent Waterstones better than the crappy little store in my neighborhood. On the front table, we saw this:
My wife made the same mistake that I did when I first saw this one. We had a long and lovely talk last night about aggregate fiction, and she lifted it from the table thinking…. But nope, no. If it were Twenty People, Two Years we’d be in business. But as it is, no not aggregate – just sentimental romantic trope. Pooh. I bought the first volume of Ballard’s Complete Short Stories and Ian Sinclair’s London Orbital.
I won’t have time to read either anytime soon, but I buy books when I am happy. And I was happy today. We ate lunch at Pizza Express. Soon, I will have eaten at all 400 or so PE outlets. During lunch, I goofed with my older daughter and discussed with my wife the strange fact that in London, people eat at chain restaurants all the time, while in NYC it would be considered quite gauche to eat at chain places. That is to say, there exists here a whole category of middle to upper-middle level restaurants that basically dominate the sub-really-fancy spectrum of eating, while in America it’s hard not to think TGIFridays when you see the same place in more than a single neighborhood. My pet theory about this divergence is that hip American cities have been populated with refugees from the suburbs (comme moi) who grew up eating and lower-middle to upper-middle tier chains on the side of highways. (For the record, Fuddruckers is distinctly sub-lower-middle, just in case you’re tempted to try….) and thus run away from them en-masse when they acquire the West Elm accoutred urban pad of their dreams. I imagine that labour issues are significant too – these fucking chains are rather merciless over here, and there’s not the endless supply of undocumented Latin Americans to shuffle the plates and make the salads.
Weird. There’s a mall in Islington. I like its name: The N1 Mall. Maybe everything should be named after its postcode – far more generic, rational, clean. (Big huge post coming soon, in the hopper, on city names, station names, predicated by an act of barbarity back in Brooklyn.) My youngest decided to poop voluminously, voluminously enough to make it through the clothes. Back with the first one, wouldn’t we have panicked… But we’re veteran parents now and so we just pulled over and took care of business right there in the stroller. Much, much nicer the second time around, I have to say. But malls never look right in the UK – or really anywhere but America. Why is this? Ah, because it’s nicer over here and they simply don’t belong.
How much nicer? This much nicer….
From what I can tell, it’s a co-op-ized former estate built on the site of a V-1 bomb attack during WWII. Islington took quite a lot of bomb damage during the war, and this is the reason why Caledonian Road, for instance, is basically a several mile long block of public or ex-public housing estates. This one (I think it’s now known as the Half Moon Crescent Co-op, though I’m not exactly sure…) is bucolic and lovely, and I sort of wish that I lived there…. But BoBos like us settle where the schools are good, where the Ofsted ratings top 90… And so we are where we are. Which is good, which is fine…
You can see the very top of my wife’s head in the picture, by the way….
We had two sleeping children by the time we boarded the bus on Caledonian Road for the trip back home. We stopped somewhere and looked at a copy of the Times whle they slept, especially the cover article about Michael Jackson’s nanny:
She confided: “When Paris had her birthday this April, I wanted to buy balloons, things, to make a happy birthday. There was no money in the house. I had to put everything on my personal credit card. I brought people to clean the house. The room of the kids needed to be cleaned. But they weren’t paid.”
Revealed within her account of their love-hate relationship was Jackson’s everyday life as a father and drug addict. Grace told me of pumping out his stomach after he took too many drugs and of how dirty and unkempt he became towards the end. Her stories of his attitude to the children shocked me.
Hard to know what to say to all that, and so we went home. It’s taken me over three hours to write this post, as my wife’s been upstairs working on a book proposal and I’ve been downstairs with the kids. One watched Cinderella for a bit, the other would sleep for 15 minute bursts only after 20 minutes of carrying her about.
I’m starting to think that I’d like to write a book someday, perhaps even someday soon, about Sundays. I certainly seem to have a lot to say about them. (Interesting to note that back at the founding of LS I was very against Long Sunday as a title – I favoured Por Ahora – maybe I’m slowing out of radicalism or something as I age, or slowing into another sort of radicalism, who knows…)
In his Politics of Time, Peter Osborne at one point quotes Benjamin’s One-Way Street:
In Nadja, Breton and Nadja are the lovers who convert everything that we have experienced on mournful railway journeys… on Godforsaken Sunday afternoons in the proletarian quarters of the great cities, in the first glance through the rain-blurred windows of a new apartment, into revolutionary experience, if not action. They bring the immense force of ‘atmosphere’ concealed in these things to the point of explosion.
I think it might just be my favorite snippet of critical prose that I’ve ever come across, even if I can’t decide for the life of me whether I agree with Benjamin here, with even the basic principles behind what he is saying. I go back and forth, and in a sense this oscillation, is an index of the rhythm of my entire intellectual life in all of its dimensions. And not just my intellectual life, but the whole burrito really.
Who knows how to handle it…. Christ, she is frightening – she is just what everyone says she is. And she will sneak in, one way or another. An unenlightened relative will send her, or there will be a fit in a toystore – this one came in a most roundabout, but also revelatory way. We let her go to the bakery to pick out her own birthday cake, and she selected the one that formed a giant dress with her in the middle.
You can’t prohibit, it only makes it worse. Those whose television-viewing was rationed or prohibited can’t stop watching shit, whereas I was literally parked in front of the set for hours at a time, it is never turned off in my parents’ house, and now I can barely stand to look at the thing. Other things were prohibited me, directly or indirectly, and if you only knew the problems that I have with them now.
You want to be vulgarly dialectical about it, you want to allow the complex relationship to things like socially-mandated norms of female beauty or (later) drugs or sex or ambition to form naturally. So you neither deny anything nor do you want to become the cool parent, the liberal parent, raising a monstrous child with no edges or real interests or ethics or properly curvaceous drives.
The festina lente temporality of parenting: at every moment, the need to have a firm grasp of a solid answer to the question What is a woman/man? There is an implicit demand, registered everyday, that you solve the unsolveable – how, for instance, the child is the mother of the woman. But at the same time, you know that you can’t rush the solution, as you have to get it right or right enough and besides it seems there’s no good way to learn it but by watching your kids grow up. The child is the mother of the man.
So true to the pattern, Barbie arrived, she is kept permanently nearly naked, and she is thrown violently a couple times a day. Apparently, all girls throw their Barbies.
CNN International is doing crossover pieces on Iran and Michael Jackson. Why not?
Reflecting on his earlier fiction, Handke says:
These narratives and novels have no story. They are only daily occurrences brought into a new order. What is ‘story’ or ‘fiction’ is really always only the point of intersection between individual daily events. This is what produces the impression of fiction. And because of this I believe they are not traditional, but that the most unarranged daily occurrences are only brought into a new order, where they suddenly look like fiction. I never want to do anything else.
And he says this:
The more I immerse myself in an object, the more it approaches a written sign.
Handke has published 4 volumes of his journals, which he began to keep in the mid 70s. Was this amidst the general crisis to which he alludes at the beginning of My Year in No-Man’s Bay?
There was one time in my life when I experienced metamorphosis. Up to that point, it had only been a word to me….
Very early on, while at the famous Group 47 meeting, he says:
Above all, it seems to me that the progress of literature consists of the gradual removal of all fictions.
Just ordered a stack of Handke, whom I’ve never read. There’s potentially productive semi-contradiction, I think, between the first quote of the series (in which fictionality seems to have been relocated from the work itself to the eye and mind of the reader – thus the impression of fiction) and the last one. Which fictions, exactly, is he out to remove?