Overweening Generalist

Friday, February 20, 2015

Marina Abramovic's The Artist Is Present (Thoughts on "Performance Art")

Streaming on Netflix as I write this, this documentary about Abramovic's 90 days of sitting in a chair silent at NY's MOMA in 2010. The film also covers parts of her long career as a performance artist. I loved the film.

                          Marina Abramovic: Balkan Baroque: Dozing Consciousness (1997)

Definition of "Performance Art": Dicey at Best
The definition of "performance art" is famously contentious, and when I read the Wiki on it one of the further links is to an article "Classificatory Disputes About Art," and this very nebulousness is one of the things I most like about performance art. Read a few textbook-like articles that explain what performance art "is" and you will very likely run into a sentence or two that could easily apply to why people use psychedelic drugs. Some people really don't like the effects of performance art; it wigs them out. I'll return to this subject below.

(I wish the filmmakers in the Abramovic doc would've gotten responses from some of the people who were caught looking on quizzically and then turning away with a semi-disgusted look as Abramovic sat still and gazed into the eyes of fellow museum-goers, but maybe that's just me.) The eminent art critic Arthur Danto sees Abramovic's sitting a New Thing in the history of art, because it's well-known that most museum-goers spend about 30 seconds in front of the Mona Lisa, while lo!: they sit or stand all day watching Abramovic sit and gaze. Taking in The Artist Is Present makes Waiting For Godot look like a Jet Li flick...or Cirque du Soleil. (Only if you feel like it, no pressure: think about that?)

I found Abramovic's family background edifying vis a vis what she ended up doing with her life. Some writing on her suggests that performance art was a big deal in the Eastern Bloc because of its transitory nature, which makes sense to me.

One thing I think of immediately when someone says "performance art" is "nude bodies?" Indeed, there is a lot of Marina and others nude in the documentary. And in performance art in general. Why? Well, how else to make claims for a relatively new form of art? Shock people. How? Nudity, violence, blood, gross-outs, and outrageous speech acts, for starters. In my personal aesthetics, shock is rock-solid legit in Art. I want more shock from Art. (But is it all tapped out by now? As one young Abramovic-watcher at MOMA says, "Pretty soon you'll see someone shoot someone else in the face and they'll call it art." I paraphrase from memory. Let's hope Art doesn't go there. But: it has come pretty close.)

You Say All Performance Art Is Bullshit?
How close? In an early performance in Belgrade, 1974, Abramovic decks out tables with all sorts of implements, tools, gadgets. 72 items. The audience can do whatever they want with her. The audience can walk up to her and pick anything from the table and apply it to her body. She has her clothes ripped off rather quickly. Among the 72 items: feather duster, olive oil, whatever. Some cut her body with sharp instruments Abramovic has supplied. Someone else drinks some blood from her neck. She just takes it. The kicker: the audience is informed the pistol over there on the table is loaded. Someone puts it to her head but doesn't pull the trigger. Someone else pushed rose thorns into her stomach. There was always the chance some suitably deranged individual could have shot her. But they didn't. Many did do vicious things to her. She was tearful but elated (and laughs!) after the six hour piece because she wasn't shot or mutilated beyond repair, and she got her point across: a group of people can take on a nasty tone and do some fairly heinous acts to someone else's body, just because it seems it they have carte blanche to do so. I know people who think performance art is bullshit, but you have to admit: this seems compelling.

William S. Burroughs, in one of his apocalyptic moods, wrote about Art spilling off the pages, escaping the frames and filling the streets, becoming Writ Large. In a way, certain performance art is a step towards this, but it is still "framed" by the various notices and literature that performance art will take place at a certain venue, a certain time, admission is $16, parking can be found in a number of lots nearby at $20 for three hours and the subway is just around the block, etc.

As I write, Marina Abramovic has just arrived in Australia and is "like the Beatles," as a promoter waxes hyperbolic.

Zen Shit
But let's not be cynical. I love her work. But I also laugh at almost all of it, because she's able to carry it off. Someone once said that "Art is what you can get away with," and I have to agree. Abramovic also seems genuine to me. She's 68 as of last November and in the documentary, in an interview at age 63 she states her age and - yes, she's in makeup for the interview - but she's astonishingly gorgeous at 63. Now here's some cynicism on my part: would she have attracted as many followers if she didn't look like a Slavic Goddess archetype? (Maybe...)

Abramovic has done a few pieces in which nothing happens; she just sits there. One of the main reasons for doing this is to test the limits of her body. Indeed, much of it seems brutal, grueling. But she also hints there's a political component to these pieces: in the West, it's anathema to Do Nothing. Just sit there; it's provocative!

To prepare for these works, she does "zen shit." There's a sequence in the documentary where she takes thirty or so young artist-recruits to her house in upstate NewYork, where they prepare mentally and physically to perform some of Abramovic's past pieces at MOMA, along with performance pieces by other artists. It all looks like very zen-retreat-ish with a dash of surrealism to me. (Yea, maybe you wanna see the film.)

The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson
Not long ago I read this novel and let me just say that if you're a performance art junkie who also likes to read novels, you might want to look into this one, which addresses serious items about the possible damages parents may cause their children, if the parent-artists take this sort of art too seriously. And I found it quite hilarious and entertaining too.

One of the ideas highlighted in this book is this: if you live with these sorts of artists - or actively seek out that which constantly challenges your ideas about what's "real" and who or what to trust, etc - often the most mundane situations you find yourself in can be fraught with High Weirdness. 'Cuz now you're on your toes, more than most people. About the whoopee cushions of "reality."

Toward a Taxonomy of Performance Art
Is a Marilyn Manson show "performance art"? I leave it to you. What about Christo's various monumental environmental installations? What about pranks? Guerrilla ontology? Hoaxes? Art "Actions"? Flash mobs? Fluxus performances? Interventions? Happenings? Neo-Dada? "Manouevres"? Circus freak shows? Yes, I take your point that hoaxes seem to be done for gain, and that generally the hope is that no one will catch on. And all of these things might fall under "guerrilla ontology" in that they hope to make the audience re-think what they thought was "real." Must the Work have an intended agenda or message? When, if ever, is a well-thought-out prank not performance art? (There are certain performance art aficionados who will not allow pranks in their club.) Sometimes those who take part don't know they're part of the Thing. To what degree is the audience necessary or complicit in the art-form? "Happenings" in the sense of Allan Kaprow's works seem to begin with a few parameters and then, like a scientific experiment, wonder how it will all turn out. In this sense they remind me of magickal workings. Does ceremonial magick belong somewhere in this taxonomy? Must there always be disruption? The possibility of danger? An overtly (or semi- ) political statement? Nudity? Profanity? (One would hope so for those last two...) One of the most pervasive ingredients in these things seem to be Indeterminacy, which has me buying it if only for that, because, ya know, life's too short.

Some of this stuff seems mostly to want to delight or entertain certain types of cognoscenti, and to piss off the philistines, which is all good to me. I've yet to see a very convincing taxonomy. Anyone got one?

In an ideal world, children and other innocents would be spared exposure to violent ruptures in "reality" but we all know a few hearty kids who thrive on this material from the get-go. Clearly there were children entranced by Abramovic just sitting there. There were adults who looked outraged that this was A Thing. At some point in our lives, we can go on enjoying the shock or the surrealities of these things; others shut down. It's genes plus environment plus memory and experience plus a few other things I can't remember just now. Which brings me to...

Drugs and Performance Art
Abramovic is against drug use, and claims to have smoked a cigarette in the 1970s, because it was supposed to be cool. I think her work is about zen, the body, endurance, and facing fear and overcoming it. (Much of her earlier work with her lover Ulay seemed to be about incommensurability between men and women, too.) I see her work as having a drug-like effect. It works this way for me; it may not for you. What I want from any altered state is a novel perspective on some phenomena. I look at all art as a chance to enter into what the phenomenological sociologist Peter Berger calls a "finite province of meaning." I exercise a lot and enter a non-ordinary state. I meditate, smoke cannabis, read Finnegans Wake, listen to Bach/Stockhausen/Coltrane/Sun Ra/Vilayat Khan/Balinese Monkey Music/Pink Floyd, have sex, do math or logic puzzles, eat very spicy foods, sit in a hot bath in the dark with earplugs and eyeshades on, engage with sophisticated technology, watch films: voila!: non-ordinary states. I think this came with the Instruction Manual for the owner of a Mind. Many seem to have displaced their manual. Personally, I model all of these wonderful gimmicks as sorts of things and of a piece with the practice of magick. Your Mileage May Vary. To me, it's all Drugs. Try to stop me from doing my bathtub routine, DEA!

Some people do not like many (or all) of these sorts of things, and they should not be forced to engage with it, much less endure it. As with Timothy Leary's Two Commandments:

1.) Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow men.
2.) Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow men from altering their own consciousness.

With the First Commandment and taking into consideration the somewhat fugitive nature of much of "performance art" in the wider senses of the term, sometimes we cannot help it. It could be the Times we're living in?

Other Perf-or-mances/Other Arty Mental States
A lot of the enjoyment of this - if enjoyed at all - seems idiosyncratic, a matter of taste. I have gotten my rocks off watching sword swallowers and gorgeous mostly-nude babes walking barefoot on a bed of broken glass at freak shows like the CIA in North Hollywood. Then again, I would return again and again to David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology because I was never sure what was a put-on or what was legit, and it was all so incredibly well-done. (And I liked not knowing for sure what was a put-on or fancy; I love the indeterminacy.)

If extremes with the body is the subject, many artists come to mind. Like Bob Flanagan. Or Martha Graham stuff I've seen. Ever heard of Fakir Musafar? His stuff set a mind a-wonderin', aye.

Some of the best altered states I've been in were when I flew to Tokyo or London or Amsterdam or Lisbon or Kathmandu...and jet-lagged, I got out and walked aimlessly around those metropolises. This is not art, but it does seem linked to Abramovic's body-based work. Yet no one else can enjoy it but myself. And then I get back to my hotel room and collapse from sleepiness and the dreams extend that overall weirdness. The worst part of this is the actual flying part, hands down. What, in these scenarios, is the Art? I say to you: the cities and their inhabitants. It's yoga, a connection: my blitzed nervous system and the new city's overwhelming info-density and novelty.

I remember getting high off the hijinks of Andy Kaufman. I could rely on Andy to knock me into the finite province of wonder. There's a funny put-on/performance artist alive today (not saying you're not still alive, Andy!) named "Hennessy Youngman" who cracks me up. He seems like Sacha Baron Cohen ratcheted up a notch, and he makes Modern Art seem a lot more fun than some overly serious staid lecturer at Uni. I've seen lots of video of the robot anarchy from Survival Research Labs that really blew my balls to the far side of Eris. I recall when, around age 20, I read and delved like a madman into John Cage and Lamont Young, and felt a quite visceral thrill when I read that one of Nam June Paik's "serious" music performances consisted of coming out to applause, and, instead of sitting down at the piano, he took an axe and a chainsaw and cut the piano in half. Because...it had yet to be done?

As far as pranks go as a possible subset of performance art, here's one of my all-time favorites:
If you aren't familiar with this prank, please READ HERE. Effing genius.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Robert Anton Wilson: Missing Books

I've just finished reading Patton Oswalt's book Silver Screen Fiend:Learning About Life From An Addiction To Film (2015) and it was of course very hilarious and entertaining: it's Patton Freaking Oswalt. But I had had no idea he'd haunted the New Beverly Cinema as I had. LA's greatest revival house for film, it had and has a cult following of film freaks and the book is dedicated to Sherman Torgan, who ran the place while Oswalt saw gawd only knows: probably 400 films there over a four year period, 1995-1999. The Appendix (pp.189-222) lists all the films, so I guess I could count but I'm too lazy... Yea: Patton Oswalt saw hundreds of films in movie theaters in those four years, he lists them all: date/film(s)/venue, and it's a lot like my own lists, only his manic phase of crashing the canons of film seemed deeper and more intense than mine. Torgan's programming easily convinced me he knew what films were worth seeing. I knew that if the New Bev was showing it it was probably worth seeing, it didn't matter if I hadn't heard of the film, or if it was from a genre I don't strongly gravitate toward (musicals and gorefest, anything with Doris Day in it). There's a hilarious chapter where he details the unhinged drive to see 12 Hammer Horror films in two days, and eventually, from sleep deprivation and insane film gluttony, the Hammer films begin to run together in his mind with other classic Hollywood films he'd seen recently...he's having a bad hallucination trip while awake, hilariously described, like something out of Alexander Trocchi, while in the theatre supposedly watching another film. A fellow film weirdo asks him if he's okay. Yea. (Noooo.)

I think I started driving from San Pedro up the Harbor Freeway (to the 10) to that predominately orthodox Jewish neighborhood of LA (near the corner of La Brea and Beverly Blvd) around 1996. I drove that stretch a lot. From one corner of the metropolis to another. I think I was aware of Oswalt as a stand-up comedian, and I may have seen him there, but I saw a lot of familiar screen faces there. I remember one night I took a seat in the dark moments before a double feature of Jeunet et Caro: Delicatessen (one of my all-time favorite films), and City of Lost Children. When the delicatessen owner asks "Have I got something right here?" the crowd erupts in laughter (as it should: one of the great anarchic comic moments in cinema history), and I look over at a guy cracking up and note I'm sitting next to Doogie Howser's, best-friend Max Casella.

I remember dragging my wife to see a John Frankenheimer double feature, because Seconds was the second film. Seconds totally slays me. Always. It was a Friday night - date night, when young, well-educated hipsters invaded the New Bev, usually to see the first film, then leave for - their actual lives. They all saw the admittedly great and famous 1962 Manchurian Candidate then left, despite my leaning into the aisle and telling twentysomething strangers filing out: "If you thought that was good, wait till you see Seconds," and no one would even make eye contact with the Scary Old Guy.

                                       a bit from Seconds (1966): Rock Hudson rocks!

Anyway...After Sherman Torgan's death (and Quentin Tarantino publicly standing up for film freaks all over LA by saying "As long as I draw breath, the New Beverly will remain open"), Oswalt attends a "sloppy, spontaneously organized 'wake'" inside the not-too-far-away Egyptian Theatre. (Everyone agreed it wouldn't be right to do it inside the New Bev). Oswalt tells the anecdote about the night Lawrence Tierney walked into the middle of Citizen Kane and sat behind Oswalt and started talking out loud to the screen for about 15 minutes before his handler finds him and ushers him out. Tierney had never seen the film, but the stuff he says, like the best DVD commentary ever - as remembered by Oswalt, coupled with what we know about Tierney's history and that voice - a shimmering anecdote in a book filled with them. (see pp.94-98) (I wonder how many RAWphiles that know of Tierney and his work think of him as a classic 2nd Circuit type as I do.)

After the wake, Oswalt programmed an entire month of fantastic, non-existent films for the New Beverly in Heaven, just for Sherman. Oswalt writes that he got the idea from Neil Gaiman's storyline in  The Sandman books, of "Brief Lives," where there's a "dream library" of books that famous authors never got around to writing, like Raymond Chandler's Love Can Be Murder, or Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures on the Moon. I for one would drop everything going on in my life to go see every one of these dream films, which includes Orson Welles's 1942 Heart of Darkness and Orson's 1944 Batman: Riddle of the Ghoul, starring Gary Cooper as Bruce Wayne/Batman. "And leave it to Welles to populate his movie with six of Batman's cast of villains: Lee Marvin as Two-Face, Edward G. Robinson as the Penguin, Ella Raines as Catwoman, Dwight Frye as the Riddler, Everett Sloane as the Scarecrow and, towering imperiously over the whole mad feast, Welles himself as Ra's al Ghul. The Richard Widmark cameo, at the end, as the newly scarred Joker, leaping toward the screen from the smoking ruins of the chemical plant, still makes people scream. The costumes that longtime fans wear to midnight showings only add to the chiaroscuro carnival." (p.174) I see the great RKO noir Director of Photography, Nicholas Musuraca, doing the lights and camera here, with Orson, of course.

Oh yea: how perfect is this?: In some alternate universe/Torgan's Heaven that Hal Ashby directed A Confederacy of Dunces? John Belushi played Ignatius in a miraculous performance without ever having read John Kennedy Toole's novel. With Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin. Oswalt goes on with this, an invention of 29 films. Hey! I just noticed the blogpost that forms this chapter of "dream films" is HERE! (<----In the blog there, you only get the names of the nonexistent films; you have to get hold of Oswalt's book to read the synopses.)
Reading this bit from Patton Oswalt's film addiction book reminded me of the Books Missing From Robert Anton Wilson's Oeuvre. Many of us have discussed what RAW's Tale of the Tribe would have been, but he died before he could write it. We got a precis, tantalizing to the utmost, at the end of TSOG: The Thing That Ate The Constitution, pp.203-213. If we could pool the no-doubt thousands of pages of notes from RAWphiles on what RAW was hinting at, we might be able to cobble something together. But it wouldn't be RAW.

Now please bear with me: I've gotten hold of some...well...let''s just say I've gotten lucky and was able to obtain a hot underground tryptamine drug made by the Disciples Of Shulgin (DOS). Psychonauts have been reporting that at the half gram dosage level, they've had very pleasant glimpses of other possible worlds, but only those worlds the person had been daydreaming or thinking about in their ordinary, non-stoned lives. I took some after thinking of RAW's books and, for whatever it's worth, here's what I've come back with:

The Shea Correspondence Course: Letters Between Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea (2017): RAW finally collected the vast trove of letters received from his friend Robert Shea, and via excessive volunteer wrangling by RAWphiles, found well over 40 long type-written letters he'd sent to Shea. All of the letters from both men had been dispersed, scattered among numerous friends and collectors of literary ephemera. Interviewed by NPR about the 423 page tome, RAW says from his home in Capitola that he was surprised how much he'd forgotten about how Illuminatus! eventually coalesced, but was grateful such a large number of the letters had shown up after an Internet call-to-arms from his fanatic readers. NPR seemed most interested in the fervor of glee among the cultish readers of Wilson over the publication, long awaited and thought at one time impossible. Why the word "course" in the title, NPR asks? Wilson said his friend Robert Shea was the sort of person whose anarchic intelligence always made him think, and re-reading their letters before publication he realized how much he'd learned. Shea died in 1994. Reviewed at BoingBoing: "I've never seen a correspondence that was so funny and at the same time brimming with endless ideas. Even when they seem to have a simmering feud over some idea or another, you can always tell they loved each other."

Hollywood Notes (2012?): The long-awaited chronicles of RAW's first-hand experiences seeing his books Masks of the Illuminati, The Walls Came Tumbling Down, and the midnight movie Reality Is What You Can Get Away With made into films and the sausage-factory behind the scenes. RAW agrees with Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald: if they want to pay you for the rights, best to just take the money and leave Hollywood. But RAW's too interested in the machinations of filmmaking and while he has grave problems with the liberties directors, editors and script "doctors" took with his material, he seems pleased by the results, all in all. My favorite part of the book is RAW's anecdotes about the film community party scenes in the hills above Hollywood.

Heretic: How Timothy Leary Foresaw the "New Teleology"(2025): This short tome is a surprise hit with academics who had been trying to forge the "New Synthesis" sometimes called the "New Teleology," since the rise in prominence of Sheldrake, epigenetics, CRISPR techniques that helped to rapidly cure most diseases and food shortages. Other texts had emphasized the rapid falling out of favor of "selfish gene" ideas as the main motors of evolution. RAW traces the history of self-organizing life to cosmic panspermia notions and the long list of scientific "heretics" who emphasized latent "systems" inherent in the human nervous system. This book argues that Leary's ideas about the brain and evolution were far ahead of his time (Leary died in 1996), that Neo-Darwinism was always a big chunk of the puzzle, but that scientific visionaries - once marginalized as "crackpots" or "mystics" such as Bruno, Reich, Lamarck, Sheldrake and Leary - are now seen, retrospectively, as victims of a sort of mass hubris and "Mind-Forged Manacles" of working prole scientists/old paradigm adherents (RAW loves to quote the poet Blake). It was said that the philosopher Thomas Nagel was a fan of this book, but this can not be substantiated at the moment you're reading this. At 225 pages and good humor, this one's on many a college syllabus and wins RAW a National Book Award for Non-Fiction.

New Age Sewage (2016): RAW seems to be channeling George Carlin here in his non-fiction satire on anti-vaxxers, Randroids, supply-siders (these last two not New Age per se, merely bad ideas), New Earthers, "race-ists," orthorexics, those fearful of taboo words, and fundamentalists of all sorts. Perhaps surprisingly, the book receives very good reviews from those Skeptics that RAW lampooned in many works. RAW at his most polemical, this book is at least the equal in tone and logical vigor as The New Inquisition and Natural Law.

Life Plus 3000 (2030): RAW's immortality book, which in the Preface he says he'd radically revised at minimum 32 times because of the "Jumping Jesus Phenomenon." A very old version had a working title Death Shall Have No Dominion. I found it most impressive that RAW doesn't gloat here: he'd been writing about longevity and immortality since the 1970s and was scoffed at by New York intellectuals. When the worm began to turn most decisively around 2023 he decided to wrap it up. Now he's been proven "correct" for the most part, but rather than name his fairly "wrong" (and mostly forgotten) detractors, he seems more in awe of Nature than ever.

Collected Writings on Joyce (2014): Joyce scholar Fritz Senn was the impetus behind this. He thought young European readers needed an introduction to Joyce by an intellectual non-academic Joycean. I had no idea RAW had written this much, in such detail, on Joyce. Lovers of RAW's book Coincidance will want to graduate to this text, many of the ideas of which were once too "far out" but have now made it inside mainstream Joyce scholarship.

Robert Anton Wilson's Book of Black Magic and Curses (2007): A rollicking book of humor about domesticated primate hypnosis and words, psychoneuroimmunology, the omnipresence of metaphor, a vindication of Vico and Korzybski, and "How To Tell Your Friends From the Other Apes." One reviewer blurbs on the back cover: "A linguistics book sui generis if I ever saw one. Highly recommended." RAW scholars can now see what Playboy's Book of Forbidden Words was supposed to be, before the editors took out all the most interesting parts. Or, as RAW put it, "The editors at Playboy Press, like most editors, want to pee in the soup before they let go of someone else's work."

Bride of Illuminatus! (2019) Long-awaited. Carries his (and Shea's) saga of certain families and ideas through the Age of Surveillance. The plotlines developed with Edward Snowden vs. Dick Cheney (under disguised names, for this is one long True Shaggy Dog Story) makes this Trip worth reading over and over.

Babylon L-5 (2021) One of the best of the sixty-some-odd books preparing humanity for space colonization. Said to have cheered Elon Musk, who, after reading it, redoubled his efforts to get LaGrange point communities going for industrial production in zero-gravity, followed by his (and others') move to make Project Exurb a reality. Meanwhile, space travel impact on human physiological systems are being solved almost weekly. RAW keeps up on this stuff.

Untitled Epic Poem on Evolution: So far: no publisher. He's said to still be working on it, although over 100 chapters exist in the version that passed through my hands. Seemingly influenced by both Pound's Cantos and Joyce's Finnegans Wake as well as the wildest, most outre ideas about baby universes, brane theory, black holes, and self-organizing Taoist cybernetic feedback loops within loops, the loose-leaf copy I had was over 1700 pages of "holographic poetry" and seemed to fuse in equal measure hardcore-scientific, poetic and mystical ideas. The work functions as an encyclopedia of history and hard science, while reading as poetry. One strain of poetic rumination, about a divine feminine and repressed aspect of history, coupled with - believe it or not - the history of economics (!) makes a bracing case for universal liberation and "true freedom" for all "sentient beings" and a freedom from fear, want, and State and other Gangster coercion, based on communication, humor and massive cybernetic feedback loops of information so dense...well, I just want you all to be able to get hold of a copy some day, as this is a true Terran Archive and "Blueprint For Humanity" (<-----the name of one of the poems.) There were references and allusions enough to support the argument that this might truly constitute RAW's Tale of the Tribe. Difficult and psychedelic. Readers new to Wilson are advised to study his works from 1959-2005 first. Another helpful idea, until the work is finished and published: RAW includes an annotated bibliography that in itself was over 200 pages and quite cosmically hilarious, I thought.

That's all I can remember until I take that particular tryptamine again. If any of you have similar access and find something out about RAW's nonexistent-in-this-world oeuvre, please report back here in the comments!

                                           graphic art by Bob Campbell

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz (2007)

I finished reading this novel a week ago, and it's haunting me. It was Diaz's first novel and he won the Pulitzer for it, now teaches at M.I.T. Won a MacArthur "Genius" award. Deserved it. I arrived eight years late, but I'm glad I came. (Just why I'm glad I came seems roughly the same answer you'd get when someone says she "enjoyed" Hamlet. q.v. the following.)

Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic, but moved to New Jersey as a youngster. His prose dazzles and reminded me of David Foster Wallace: not so much the style or voice or syntactical ju-ju, but overall Brilliant Mind, mixing a staggering number of allusions to history, pop kulch, esp. science fiction, gaming, and movies.  The anthropological intricacies of ideas and language involved with how Hispanics and Latinos from one society think about Hispanics and Latinos based on their relative degrees of melanin turned up my sociology nobs to 11. (I'm not saying I think this is the major criterion for snap-judgements or valuations, but it seems far more complex than my white-boy milieux, from one who grew up in the Los Angeles 'burbs.) I  also think Diaz writes on the subjects of desire, beauty and sex in particularly compelling ways.

Oscar is that fat, hopeless kid in school who gets picked on by everyone, and worries about ever getting laid. He loves women, but he's a Dominican non-macho gargantuan nerd. As a freshman in college, he's described as "307 pounds." It's some dark stuff. In college he constantly fools himself that finally some girl will love him. He attempts suicide. Still, a lot of him is in many of us, even us skinny folk. I'm haunted by Oscar, because we know this guy. And we wish we'd been nicer to him. And sometimes we were, but...and we sorta "get" why he speaks "like a Star Trek computer" and is so profoundly nerdy and clueless about social interactions, especially with the opposite sex. And still we wonder: is there more to why he's like this? The novel's - Diaz's main posit? - the family is under a curse: the fuku. 

Diaz woke up the Joyce (or, Pynchon)-reader in me in that many of his sentences are larded with references to obscure-to-me fantasy characters and there are citations to Dominican and other Hispanic and Latino histories and figures, Japanese pop culture, nerd culture, more than enough obscurities to delight my inner Wao, etc. The difficulties mount: Diaz writes in Spanglish, including many varieties of Spanish idioms and slang, and my copy was not an annotated version, so dictionaries helped, and so did the Net, of course. Finally, by page 40 or so, I stumbled onto one person's online annotations, which are a work-in-progress and "Kim" of San Francisco is crowdsourcing it. (Or is it sorta Wiki-ish?)

Diaz plays it coy with who the narrator of the story is, but eventually gives it away about halfway through. It wasn't who I thought it was...because I found I'd been prejudiced and didn't think the character in novel could be as thoughtful and compassionate as he had been drawn...but drawn by...who? Ahh, the pomo jukes of Diaz!

                             One of my favorite artists, Bob Campbell, did this for me as a 
                             surprise gift. Check him out!

Okay, the novel's about the story of Oscar's family as lived in the 20th century, mostly in the Dominican Republic. I confess that I'd heard this was a tremendous literary work, but someone in my book group picked it (egged on by me), even though I didn't know anything about what goes on in the book. Immediately we are informed about the Dominican Republic, a place I'd read a bit about, and it was all horrifying. I had read enough about Trujillo (dictator from 1930-61) that I hoped the novel wouldn't stay on the subject. It didn't. It went on and on about Oscar and his sexy feminist sister, and his workaholic, cancerous, and psychologically traumatized mother. There are no cardboard characters in the book. It's compelling on every goddamned page.

I said it didn't stay on Trujillo. But then He came back. And that's what's stayed with me.

Brief sort-of tangent: On at least three occasions I've had talks with friends about the old TV show The Twilight Zone. Usually someone brings up an episode and then we all chime in, then mention another episode and talk about our impressions and ideas about that one, usw. The show had me in a sort of Oscar Wao-ish way between the ages of 13 and 20. I was a total geek for that show, and watched some episodes over and over. I studied Marc Scott Zicree's book on the show. My favorite Twilight Zone episode is called "Walking Distance" but that has nothing to do with this. Another episode, "It's A Good Life," , which features a King-Ubu/Kim-Jong-il-like monstrous little boy with supernatural powers, has everything to do with Diaz's novel, so I'll return and try to get to the crux...

In going back to the life and times of Oscar's grandfather Abelard,  the accomplished medical doctor and center of intellectual activity in the DR, a man I'd have liked to have known, it's bluntly stated that living in the DR under Trujillo was like living in "It's A Good Life" (see p.224, ff forward and backward), which I have always thought was one of the most horrifying stories I'd ever seen. It continues to creep me out, after (easily) more than ten viewings. (See above link.)

Combine that with the most brutal banana republic fascist regime - where about half the population is a snitch or a cop or part of the secret police and the dictator doesn't wish you into the cornfield, but has goons waylay you in city traffic, kidnap you, then beat you with rifle butts until you're almost dead, then leave your body in the sugar cane fields. There's the wealthy class on the island, who own everything, there's the dictator and his goons, who can take that away from you and literally erase everything about your existence, even your signature. And then pretty much everyone else is in squalor and lives in a state of constant anxiety. And oh yea: the dictator has his goons monitor the populace for every beautiful girl, apparently the younger the better, and he gets to fuck her, or your family is ruined. No daddy can say no to Trujillo, or not for long. Torture of the Gitmo variety was commonplace. ("At least he was anticommunist!" - Unistat)

Just one of many delights from the Trujillo regime: when the price of sugar dropped - he'd stolen 80% of the sugar plantations for himself - he blamed the Haitian slaves who worked those fields, and had 20,000 of them massacred.

Unistat backed Trujillo for a long time, simply because he was anti-Communist. Eventually the CIA saw for themselves what a horror show the entire island was, and were vexed: yea, but he's anti-Commie! What do we do? JFK-lovers need to read up on his way of handling it. (This story will have to be told later. Or better yet: check into it fer yer own self?)

Throughout the book and the footnotes, Diaz sticks with the fuku narrative about why such horrific things happened to Oscar and his family and ancestors. In interviews he talks about Trujillo and how his family reacted when he brought up the topic. It's completely repressed.

So, the haunting has to do with my own silly neuroses about vast income inequality and the militarization of the police, a massive surveillance State, and sham political elections. Because I've read about these histories throughout my life. Because, when I read Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism and he showed that fascistic configurations of political life has been the default mode throughout most of what we call "history," it made sense to me, I hate to say. And because Reich and Orwell and other writers have suggested the psychological horrors of brutal regimes can last for generations.

And Oscar wanted to live in Akira. Or Middle-Earth. He just wanted a kiss from a beautiful girl and to fondle a breast, maybe even get laid.

I get it.