Digging for Yukon Gold: 10 Years of Quiet Bubble

I’m no good with anniversaries. I forget the birthdays of my friends, parents, siblings, relatives, acquaintances. I semi-dread my own. The first anniversary of my marriage went OK; the second anniversary was just after we had filed for divorce, and that day in particular was full of ugly correspondence on both sides. So, there’s that. Otherwise, I’ve not been in relationships for long enough to mark substantial anniversaries, whether to celebrate or lament. I can take or leave most religious holidays.

So, coming upon a decade of this blog, I wasn’t sure what to do. It’s been stressing me out. I thought that I would dig through my archives, and repost (with commentary) my favorite piece from each category. I dug beneath the soil for Yukon Gold but found only the potato variety.

Hell, I would settle for a velvety-skinned baked potato right now, steam curling out of the mouth I just cut into it, a butter tongue melting slowly in it, fork pressing its chunks into the salt, pepper, chives, garlic, diced tomatoes, and Vidalia onions around it. Every now and then, I dug up a moment like that. More often, though, I dusted off the nugget I had unearthed, and was unable to see anything but its flaws, its bumps and nubs, the caked mud, the parched taste. In my prose, I can find paragraphs and sentences that I’m proud of but rarely full pieces. Maybe I’m just down these days but, rereading these pieces, I can recall the ambition and pretension that went into writing these and not so much that this ambitious vision was fully achieved.

When I started this thing, back in March 29, 2005, Quiet Bubble was intended as a bus stop, a nonfiction waiting station for me while I launched my fiction and poetry into the world. Trouble is, I found it increasingly difficult to write fiction, and discovered my critical voice in the process. These two things are related. As I became more confident as a critic, and more fluent in modes of criticism, it became hard for me to turn off that inner editor when I sat down to write a short story. (Being a book editor for a living didn’t help things, either.) Plus, the blog’s readers seemed to prefer the memoir—a genre I had spurned, and still have misgivings about—stuff I posted over anything else. So, despite myself, I evolved into a writer of creative nonfiction.

I won’t say that the nonfiction has taken off, exactly, but my portfolio is respectable and varied. I can write essays and criticism much more quickly than I can a short story, much less a novel. That doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped trying. From the period of 2005 to 2010, in fact, if you had asked, I would have told you that I’m a novelist first, just marking time with my criticism until I strike it rich.

It wasn’t true then. It’s certainly not true now.

I hesitate to talk openly about my influences, because I think most artists don’t truly know who or what’s influenced them directly. We know who we’ve tried to emulate or imitate but those are different things. My favorite writers, filmmakers, artists, cartoonists, musicians, etc., tend not to show up directly in my work, at least not so far as I can tell. Rather, it’s a small detail that I half-glimpsed during the day—a shining bra strap on a woman’s shoulder, sneaking out from her blouse; the way a cat crouches and wiggles his butt while watching a robin in the yard; a funny turn of phrase about hangovers in an essay by a writer whom I otherwise dislike; the overlapping drum sound on a King Sunny Adé song. (I’ve written thousands of words propelled by King Sunny Adé.) Trying to capture those things in words is impossible, so I tend toward critics who attempt to etch the impossible while simultaneously knowing that it’s indeed impossible.

In this sense, I feel that literary critics have it too easy. There’s a one-to-one relationship between a critic’s words and what she’s trying to analyze—words about words. I think that few purely literary critics have influenced me, and I don’t read much straightforward lit crit now. For a long time, of course, I did—so they’ve shaped me, sure; I just don’t know how. But, if you learn anything from digging through Quiet Bubble’s archives, it will be the trajectory of how I lost faith in the primacy of written language. That’s a good thing. I needed to learn that text is an abstract representation of the world, and not the world itself. I needed to learn that, just as history gets written by the winners, the idea that writing is sacrosanct over other arts has become common because, um, writers were the ones writing that. Just because something can’t be fully described in written language—a dancer’s pirouette across the stage; the moonglow of Sarah Vaughan’s voice on a deep, dense night; the effect of Philip Guston’s thick, chunky brushstrokes on the canvas and on your mind—doesn’t mean it is less valuable than written language. We often criticize filmmakers and sculptors for not being verbally articulate about their work, forgetting that it was their nonverbal art that got us interested in them in the first place. Sometimes, when a culture dies, its written record is all that’s left of it. I spent the last decade learning to recognize how little that written record represents, and how many mysteries are left unrevealed by that record. Quiet Bubble is a record of a guy who started off encased in books, and ended up writing and thinking well beyond them. More bluntly, it’s a record of a man getting over himself.

Give me, instead, someone like Whitney Balliett, the guiding light of this blog from day one and a man who tried, for fifty years, to make sense in language of an art (jazz) that is beyond written language. Give me Lawrence Weschler, who fuses art criticism, cultural commentary, and on-the-ground reportage into a style and sensibility all his own, because he’s truly interdisciplinary—he gets that no one aesthetic language will do when trying to understand this world. Give me Rebecca Solnit, less genteel than Weschler, more political than him, and more willing to digress into the unknown. Give me Pauline Kael, whose conversational style, fiery wit, and incisive mind managed to describe cinema—an art mode that incorporates all manner of aesthetic languages—so fluently that I recall her prose more than some of the movies she wrote about. Give me Barbara Brown Taylor, struggling in her sensual, lusciously erotic, and deeply learned prose, to make sense of God.

These writers made sense of the unknowable to me, by at least acknowledging how unknowable the world is. As I’ve tried to write fiction, I attempt to make that unknowability visible, if that makes any sense. I write love letters to the world, as I’ve written before, but part of the purpose of that correspondence is letting go of the idea that I will ever understand that mystery or be able to capture it in words.

I still write fiction. I’m just fucking slow at it. And that side of me is a shadow world mostly unrevealed by this blog. So, to celebrate Quiet Bubble’s first decade, I’ve decided not to offer my greatest hits but instead to show you a previously uncovered side of the potato.

For the next five days, I will feature an unpublished short story I wrote during the period of this blog’s existence. I’ve given up on getting these particular fictions published, because I’m 1) tired of revising them; 2) they’re not always so good; and 3) I want to let go of them so I can concentrate on new fiction and new essays. I’ve cleaned them up a bit but have left them mostly untouched and unbuffed. I’ll offer a short explanatory note for each. Otherwise, that’s it. This is a grab-bag, b-side version of my writing life—which is hardly the only life I have—so don’t come to these expecting masterpieces. But they are mine, and a part of me likes bits of each of them.

Consider them small gifts to you, faithful readers. They ain’t perfect, they ain’t shiny, but there’s the best I could do at the time.

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Beer & Book #16

BB (Balliett

Today’s beer:
Lagunitas Imperial Stout

Today’s book: Whitney Balliett’s Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz, 1954-2001

I’m preparing a milestone Sunday post by looking to the Master, and drinking a dark California brew in his honor. Been thinking about my influences, whether I can even tell who they are, and—for a related reason—why I roll my eyes whenever writers talk about their influences. I’m mostly a critic who has longed to write fiction successfully, so it’s unsurprising that a critic has loomed large in my thinking and prose mechanics. What flummoxes me, though, is that neither of the critical voices looming largest in my head and heart are literary critics. Whitney Balliett, from the beginning a mainstay of this blog, wrote on jazz for nearly five decades. The sound of surprise, perhaps, can’t be captured in words—if it could be, why would we need the music? The second critic, Pauline Kael, wrote about the movies—the visual, the overlapping of image and sound and choreography, the decidedly impure and messy. I see both in my writing, more than any number of novelists and short-story writers whom I love. What does that mean? What can I say about it? Who knows their own hearts enough to say it? Me? No. But I’ll try; tune in Sunday for more. Oh, the beer: The first beer I loved was a stout, a standard Guinness, but mostly because I was drinking one at an Old 97’s show in Austin, TX, when an unknown girl wrapped her arms around me and slurped my neck. She never explained why. I never saw her again. But I decided I would like beer. Honestly, I stick to Belgian-style ales, revering their sweetness and complexity and affinity with the rascally, not-really-chaste (and thank God for that) medieval monks who perfected beer 700, 800 years ago, all over the world, from all religions, and mostly unknown to each other. But, sometimes, I want a thick-as-molasses-in-summer, chocolately, punch-your-heart stout, because that’s what the best kisses sometimes feel like. Taste like them, too.

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“I may be wrong about this, but it seems as though so much fiction, particularly that by younger people, is very much about themselves. Love and death and stuff, but my love, my death, my this, my that. Everybody else is a light character in that play.

“When I taught creative writing at Princeton, [my students] had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, ‘Don’t pay any attention to that.’ First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends. Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris? Things way outside their camp. Imagine it, create it. Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through. I was always amazed at how effective that was. They were always out of the box when they were given license to imagine something wholly outside their existence. I thought it was a good training for them. Even if they ended up just writing an autobiography, at least they could relate to themselves as strangers.”

Toni Morrison, on the problems of contemporary American literature

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“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”

—Louise Erdrich

(Hat tip: Lisa Rosman.)

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Liquor & Leaves #7


***NOTE: Once again, a post-dated Lenten special.***

Liquor from two weeks ago: The Rub, made at Cochon (New Orleans, LA)
Leaves from two weeks ago: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation

I enjoyed Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation a lot, at times. It’s built like David Markson’s later novels, around fragments & little vignettes, shards of dark light rather than a running stream. Because it moves mostly in chronological order and because that narrative involves a single family (and one narrator) instead of many narratives (and long distances between narrative connections), it’s more straightforward & less challenging than, say, This Is Not a Novel or Vanishing Point or The Last Novel. It’s got more dialogue, and more scenes. So, it’s easier—Offill’s mainstreamed an experimental mode, to render it accessible. It’s easier to make it cohere in my mind. It’s a baby-steps version of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, in that it follows one woman’s jagged and discontinuous consciousness in minute detail as she reaches a crisis point, but makes it not so hard to follow as Markson’s opus. While I don’t mean the preceding sentence as an insult at all, I am annoyed by how many critics have written about this novel as a Totally New Never Before Done Thing. Even the voice—acerbic, blunt, revealing and cagey all at once, steely in its concern over art & culture—shares a tone with Markson’s “Writer.” There are differences, though, and they are key. Family and especially motherhood rings true and resonant here, and Offill’s is strong in conveying the ever-present self-questioning that comes with marriage and parenthood. Dept.’s narrator gives voice to the uneasy questions that both institutions raise in our hearts and heads. And that voice shifts, from 1st-person to 3rd-person and finally to 1st-person plural as the family weathers a well-wrought but predictable crisis. (Rhymes with “skinfidelity.”) Sometimes, though, I share Robert Christgau’s wondering if literary fiction is harder on marriage than life actually is. In short: I’m tired of too-hard marriages in novels at the expense of good, reasonably happy (if ever-complicated) partnerships. And I’m exhausted by babies as monsters unraveling our lives, and wondering (as Xgau—a long-married father—does implicitly) if marriage is just harder for writers to process or to convey as anything other than quiet conflict, and if maybe we should look to other sources for wisdom on this front. (On the same front, I don’t look to stand-up comics, necessarily, for insight into family and community and non-narcissistic modes of being in the world. Self-absorption and an over-reliance on “individualism” [which has a way of looking like every other comedian’s independence, right down to the cocaine addiction] is part of the territory.) And the resolution, involving the husband’s chagrined comeuppance—why is it always the husband who has the affair in literary fiction, unlike in the 46% of American marriages in which adultery occurs?—and a move to the country is way too Hollywood for the novel’s own good. (Maybe the unnamed wife ending up with her philosopher friend would have been equally problematic, but at least it would have been interesting.) All of which is to say that I like the Offill, often quite a lot, but that I’ve read her, perhaps too often, before.

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Pages & Potables #1

aira episode

***NOTE: For Lent, I gave up the internet  beyond email and work-related research but I’ll periodically log on to post things, mostly items written prior to Ash Wednesday and post-dated. Don’t expect much from me till April.***

Last week’s potable: Coffee with chicory, straight from Cafe Du Monde
Last week’s book: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira

Why have I read 6 César Aira novellas, if I’m not always sure I even like him? I mean, he’s always funny enough to carry me through his oddball detours—and there are many, and the detours have a habit of devouring the main narrative. But, then, there are his densities, his tendency to allow the literary scholar & cultural-studies wonk to overtake the prose. That density can be a tough slog to shovel though, even though and maybe especially because I’m never sure how seriously we’re supposed to take any of it. Some of the philosophical considerations are clearly batshit crazy but Aira’s prose is a little like the Onions satire—dry, even, and calm enough so that its reporting can be (and often is) easily mistaken for truth. Maybe that fluidity between truth and absurdity is what keeps coming back to Aira, even when he befuddles me. He blurs fact and fantasy and, in reading him, I’m forced to acknowledge the many ways that truth often looks absurd, and how the most patently ridiculous things can be dressed up to appear “normal” and “respectable.” Someone at 2Blowhards.com once wrote that, even if you don’t care for a particular Georges Simenon novella, at least it’ll be over soon, and it’s rarely dull. I feel the same way about César Aira. (Lest you think I’m damning with faint praise, let me go on record as loving both Shantytown and Varamo, and thinking that Ghosts is this close to being a masterpiece.) Anyway, here comes An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. It ain’t Aira’s best—at least that I’ve read; he’s published over 80 novellas, only about a dozen of which have been translated into English—but it’s maybe the most quintessential of his fictions. The landscape painter in question is Johann Moritz Rugendas, an actual German painter of note—from a long line of painters—who captured South American cultures and terrains during the mid-1800s. His work’s in museums. His first (of two) voyages to the continent produced a groundbreaking and very lucrative book documenting the region for Europeans who would come to know South America only through paintings. So far, mostly true—or at least confirmed by Wikipedia, though it looks like he didn’t make that second voyage that Aira mentions in his novella. And that’s just the first weirdness. Rugendas supposedly believes that landscape painting can document the “physiognomic” nature of all existence, boiled down to 17 characteristics, so that painting is a kind of surgical inquiry into life’s origins. He sees himself as an almost literal doctor, taking the temperature of the world he documents through painting. At least, that’s what I could make of the philosophy. It sounds insane because it is. But Aira’s prose seems to take these theories seriously. In doing so, I’m reminded that we used to believe the world was flat, that the sun revolved around the Earth, that there were four humors, and that phrenology was viable science. I chuckled. Oh that Aira, having fun with our old pseudo-sciences! Then I remember that great swarms of people, right fucking now, believe in strict Creationism (whatever that is), that vaccination is the devil, that The Bell Curve isn’t racist junk but genuine insight based on physiognomy, and that homosexuals can be “cured.” The laughs caught in my throat. Aira’s good at doing that. But, as I said before, he’s good at confusing us, too. The novella is supposedly documenting a life-changing event in Rugendas’s life, which happened in Argentina during the artist’s first trip. But it’s not quite clear what the episode is—a night amid lightning in which Rugendas’s face gets disfigured (didn’t happen); a new way of seeing the world, through black lace, that redefines how he paints (probably didn’t happen); a witnessing of an Indian raid that he sketched frantically and the subsequent paintings of which that solidified his fame (maybe did happen); or just the voyage through the Argentinian desert itself (probably happened). It’s not completely clear why this episode was chosen/made up, what Rugendas learned ultimately from it, or what we as readers are supposed to make of it. (As far as I can tell, the real Rugendas either participated in or was accused of participating in a Mexican political revolution during his first voyage, and that’s why he was kicked out. That episode seems more, um, telling than this apolitical fable.) Aira, as usual, doesn’t do a snap-to-it ending here but more of a slow dissolve into… our imaginations, I guess. His prose dazzles, making us see Rugendas’s adventures with painterly detail, but I’m not sure all the brushstrokes add up to a painting. I liked looking, anyway.

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Thank you, comics, from Gilbert Hernandez to C. Tyler to Lewis Trondheim to Joann Sfar to Frank King to (oh fine) Marjane Satrapi, from Scott McCloud to Jack Kirby. Thank you, Robert Altman & Hayao Miyazaki & Spike Lee & Clare Peploe & Billy Wilder & Mira Nair & Wes Anderson & (oh what the hell) Paul Thomas Anderson, too & Armond White & Pauline Kael & Matt Zoller Seitz & Akira Kurosawa & Yasujiro Ozu. Thank you Phish & D’Angelo & R.E.M. & De La Soul & the Beatles & Parliament-Funkadelic (for getting me laid, among other things) & Bill Frisell & Miles Davis & Dave Holland & Duke Ellington & Bedhead (Jesus God Yes) & Bob Mould & Stevie Wonder & Prince & Michael Jackson & A Tribe Called Quest. Thank you Matisse & Pollock & Miro & Mary Cassatt. And, oh, there are too many writers to thank but let’s start with Andrea Lee & Paul Beatty & Ralph Ellison & Ta-Nehisi Coates & James Baldwin & Marilynne Robinson & Kelly Link & Wendell Berry & Studs Terkel. Thank you, all, and all that I’m missing here, and let’s keep it going, eh?, forever into the wilderness.

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