Reader’s Strike

January 31, 2008

I’m reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 again. Over the summer, I read Heller’s Good As Gold— well, most of it. About 20 pages from the end I stopped. I realized I didn’t care. It just wasn’t that great of a book. I had been pulled on by bits of Heller’s signature wit and wordplay and the notion that I couldn’t make a full assessment of the book until I finished it. But Heller didn’t hold up his end of the bargain. You enter a contract when you open a book: the author will entertain you, and you will entertain him. The author entertains you with prose. You entertain his ideas, his concepts, his innermost yearnings, etc. Good As Gold displays Heller’s skill, but its value, for me, stopped there. I realized that I didn’t really care what happened after the page I was on. The book had breached our contract. And so I struck back with the most devastating weapon a reader wields: my indifference. I stopped reading.

Halfway through Catch-22 again, I remember why Heller is a known author, but I also remember why he is known as the author of Catch-22.

What books/authors have failed you? Side Question: What books have you read and appreciated as art but put down with the knowledge that you would probably never pick them up again?

I have roaches in my place. It’s gross. I know that an old apartment building in a large enough East Coast city is going to have some pests, but they’re still disgusting animals that shouldn’t be in my house. They live in and off of shit. That is, when they can’t get my food. Disgusting creatures I feel an instinctive need to kill whenever I see one.

When I’m sitting around eating a meal and I see a roach skitter out from under something and make a bee line (that phrase has lost some accuracy and intensity since I moved to Allston) for the nearest shelter, I feel like it reflects on me, my apartment, and our respective levels of cleanliness. The roach’s presence is a statement of my failure to kill it and my inability to cut it off from the food it needs to multiply, my failure to keep a clean house. I feel responsible.

I shouldn’t; I clean up after myself and the roach community was here before I moved in. I also didn’t make common roaches disgusting; evolution and centuries of survival on the fringes of human activity saw to that. Neither of those thoughts, though, do anything to quell the idea that I must kill every last shit-eating cockroach before I can feel comfortable with myself, my home, and my civic responsibility to Allston and the future tenants of my place. Let there be massive roach population die-offs in Allston due to modest changes in individual behavior, and let them begin with me.

I wrote the following Saturday night/Sunday morning after getting back from a house party:

So I’m at this party. In Boston. My friend who works with me at the bagel shop invited me. He called me after work. I was writing; didn’t think I wanted to go. I had nailed it down the night before. Drunk by anyone’s description at another house party. It was rough. I threw up. Like out of my mouth. Didn’t see it coming; had to run.

Anyways, I went. Started playing this word game with some kids outside. I forget the name; it might not have had one. The first player says a word. Any word. Proper name, place name, no matter. The next person has to say a word that has nothing to do with the word just said. Example: I say “tomato,” you say “Narnia.” You have to kill the entire thought process that arises from your natural reaction to words. The next word can’t have anything to do with direct surroundings, can’t be based off the previous word (or any words mentioned in the course of the game). It has to be totally independent. Dissociated from the context. Any word that can be traced back to a connection to the previous word or anything within eyesight is vetoed. It’s the polar opposite of “I Spy” or “Six Degrees” and it’s pretty cool.

Anyways, we’re at this party, playing this game. I have to bow out for a round to grab a beer. A beer turns into conversation, turns into a round of beer pong…I get caught up. There’s an older white dude in a black leather jacket right next to the keg talking about how his buddy shot someone. He’s older, probably late thirties with some grey hairs on the beard and the requisite “I’m balding so I’ll just shave it” Billy Corgan hairdo. He’s talking to some fucked-up waste case who isn’t paying much attention, telling him about how sweet Allston used to be back in the day, back in the late 90s before student money bought out the punk bars. Some kids that work down the street from my shop are there; I get into work-bitching with them. My friends are drunkenly, passively begging the female world to let them into her pants. It’s a college party, and I’m not in college anymore, which means all the drama and heartstrings and hormones are just funny to me now. Right?

I go out for another smoke and play a few more rounds of the word game with those dudes, who are still out there in T-shirts in below-freezing temperatures. As I’m walking back in, the black jacket dude is talking to some short scrubby-looking kids who’d just showed up. One kid’s in his face about something. Jacket-dude is clearly trying to explain his way out of a situation. He’s also drunk. He’s not as drunk as most people there, but he’s been hanging around the keg for hours talking to anyone who fills a cup and looks his way, humping the keg and his proximity to it for all they were worth. Now he’s chin-scrub to chin-scrub with some twentyish kid full of beer and piss who’s right up in his face, challenging him in language and posture. The kid had at least two friends with him, one Asian kid, one miscellaneous white, all of them eyeing black-jacket, waiting for him or their point man to do something provocative. I kept walking. Shit was going down, but why bother? Let ’em handle. I’m 24; I can’t get mixed up in the shit anymore. Right?

So I walk back in and make a few laps. I’m back in the kitchen, near the door to the outside, and I look up. The young dudes are punching the old dude on his back, over his head. They wrestle him down and somebody kicks him. Unplanned fistfights always look bizarre. The punches look weak, the fighters awkward. They’re never as shocking or exciting as you think they’re going to be. I just watched for a bit before I realized what was going on. It was three kids on one dude. They were drunk and he was drunk, so I guess even on that score. But three kids. One guy.

When I walked outside the kids had moved it out to the street and black-jacket was a bloody mess. They were still kicking him. Somebody got a shovel from god-knows-where and beat biker dude in the head with it. No one broke it up. The owner of the house came down and said some self-aggrandizing bullshit about the kind of behavior he does and does not accept in his home. Dudes kept kicking and their friends told the house owner to fuck off and get back inside. Eventually the kids got tired and black-jacket was just rolling around on the street. Everyone went back inside. Asian back-up man ran over and spit in his face. Just to be sure.

I asked around to see what had happened. The story, shaky and brittle as an autumn leaf, went like this: “He’s a fuckin’ neo-Nazi.” “Came over here and started sayin’ some white power shit.” “You see him? That fuckin’ skinhead faggot? Fuckin’ skinhead faggot; started sayin’ some neo-Nazi shit in front of three Jewish kids. Got lit up. Fuck ‘im.”

I don’t know what the dude said. Neither did most of the apparent witnesses. All I saw was three drunk kids jump one drunk asshole. I understand the whole Boston hardcore/FSU v. neo-Nazi backlash, and I’m sure that firm, principled anti-Nazi stance took a lot of soul-searching and all, but three on one is pussy odds on anyone’s scale. Though your outrage and compulsion toward direct action are admirable, nothing you accomplish in a brawl on North Beacon is going to change the effects of white American prejudice on minorities. If you want to make your point in a way as pointless and insubstantial as a drunken brawl at a house party, then go for it, I guess, but don’t advertise yourselves as cheap-shot artists.

Tonight I watched a fringe fight a fringe, weakly, in a manner that diminished the witnesses’ knowledge of what’s really up. Don’t confuse socio-political action with gangster-mentality hooliganism.

I’m sure I felt pretty cool about “gangster-mentality hooliganism” as a phrase at the time. It reads like a small-town editorial condemning the Seattle WTO riots. Whatevs.

After I thought about it, I realized instinctive, violent societal reaction to neo-Nazi ideas is not unlike my cockroach hunt. They represent a disgusting, resilient pest in the lean pantry of American thought. For many years, white supremacists could preach hatred and ignorance and intolerance without fear of retribution, often with the implicit support of law enforcement and elected officials. Multiracial groups of punks taking them on at shows and parties and driving entire Nazi subcultures into extinction might not be what, say, Dr. King had in mind, but it’s easier to defend than most violent outbursts.

That said, neo-Nazis are one thing while your average dumb-assed American white dude is quite another. Beyond “some neo-Nazi shit,” nobody even knew what the guy had said. Did he diss the Israeli flag or was he repping Aryan Brotherhood and expressing solidarity with his Czech brothers in their recent march on Pilsen? Did he call somebody a “macaca” or did he make a big dick joke?

Ultimately, I can’t answer those questions and neither could anybody else. More important to me, though, are the tactics. Forget spitting in the dude’s face while he’s bleeding in the street. Where I come from (“6th Safest Town In The Nation, Three Years Running!“), three-on-one is still cheap. I would fight someone if I had those numbers and I struggle arm-wrestling toddlers. A shovel? Seriously? What is this, Final Fight?

The weaker your methods, the weaker your message. No matter how worthy your stated cause, you’re not changing anything or anyone by jumping an already vulnerable target. And if all you’ve got is testosterone and beer farts, please: Take it to The Kells.

Watching this scene made me think of Romney v. McCain and the final stretch of GOP primaries. Ragged, ossified vultures clawing at one another for a false prize: sovereignty over a dying, incestuous tribe. One last public battle between the most ugly and avaricious among them, a contest of squawks and Costanzan feats of strength where the loser is stripped naked and exiled from a shadowed, echoing chamber already emptied by age and atrophy while the victor takes the throne to preside over the final decline of his barren species.

It’s tempting to see aspects of The Dark Crystal in the modern American landscape. Aging, bloodthirsty, gluttonous conservatives in power while sleepy, ineffectual liberal mystics with long hair and acoustic guitars whisper and sing to one another on the fringe of society. The still-entrenched Establishment vs. newly-entrenched vestiges of 1960s counterculture. The idea of a linked American duality, where one side can’t get rid of the other without destroying itself. A coming change, for good or ill. New hopes and a call for unity.

And the eight-foot rabbit-like Landstriders that transport the last remaining male and female Gelflings to the Dark Castle are clearly indicative of the struggle of the little guys, the Ron Pauls and Dennis Kuciniches of our youtube constituency, to loom larger than their outward selves and at least shape and guide the debate if not actually dominate the coming era of a post-Skeksi political landscape.


(P.S. I just watched one of the Landstrider scenes, and they totally kind of do.)

Peacebone Got Found

January 27, 2008

My stepbrother gave me Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam for Christmas. ‘Twas a moment. One of those seemingly random connections with a piece of art that make you believe in…something. A plan. God. A species-wide human consciousness. The Bills (a theoretical football team used in the study of anti-matter that cannot touch the playoffs without unmaking the universe). Whatever.

The first time I put it on was when I drove from Boston to Albany for Christmas. I listened to it on repeat for the whole three or four hour drive. I told myself I was leaving it in because changing the CD would have been a pain in the ass. I have a thing against bands I hear mentioned often by indie kids. I’m pre-disposed to dis-enjoy them. I force myself to hate them, even if I don’t. Mostly to avoid forcing myself to like them because the kid at the coffeeshop who asked me if I’d heard the new Sera Cahoone did so in a manner that displeased or embarrassed me. I didn’t know there was an old Sera Cahoone. Should I like it now? The new one, I mean. Or the old one? Her old stuff is better, back when she was in Carissa’s Wierd? Why don’t I know who they are? Can’t you just tell me what to like and how to live my life?

My Animal Collective experience was different. Though my stepbrother and I have previously sparred in verbal ju jitsu of the “which one of us is the more foolishly pretentious waste of their time and parents’ money in a failed pursuit of liberal arts-inspired life goals” variety, I see him more positively these days. His politics and worldview are more subtly communicated, his conversations multi-sided. Personal growth, on both ends. And so, in keeping with my recent (growing) good feeling toward my stepbrother, I decided to give his gift a try.

Listen to this album. I know it would be customary to apply a few links here, but Jesus, how lazy are we that we have to have links about articles we read posted in the articles we read? As if google or myspace or were like video stores on the other side of town. “Hmm, let’s see, I’ve got a six-pack at home, I just bought that pre-roasted chicken at Shaw’s so that’s dinner, just checked my e-mail, nothing pressing, and– oh! I would love to just sit back tonight and watch home-edited videos of the 9/11 timeline. But fuck– schlep all the way over to youtube? When that ‘funny cats’ video is right here on my desktop? Count it, dude, decision made.”

I won’t review it here. The album. Strawberry Jam, that is. I can’t. I left it in Buffalo when I was out there for New Year’s. But it’s good. Real good. Buy-it good. Not perfect; some of it is just loopy nonsense. But “Peacebone,” the opener, sounds like what I heard when I used to smoke joints that were far too strong for me in the woods behind my house. It was probably just blood pumping in my ears or early tinnitus symptoms, but the effect, refracted through THC, was quite marvelous. Makes me wonder less about the Mayans or St. John of Patmos. “Peacebone” doesn’t sound exactly like that, but it’s the first thing I thought of when I put the CD on. They have that one on Don’t pull your back out on the way over.

Prepare to feel uncomfortable.

Who, indeed?