Category: prose

A few words on David James Duncan

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Today I finished the third book in the trilogy of David James Duncan’s major works: River Teeth. The other two books are The River Why and The Brothers K, both of which I cannot possibly recommend highly enough. I recommend the third book just as highly, however I would read the two novels first before wading (har har) into River Teeth, which is a book of short stories and autobiographical pieces about transformation; sort of a book of Ovid for the 90s. While the book is certainly the equal of the other two it pays to have DJD’s sense of timing and narrative already firmly planted in your mind before reading; plus the book features a last glance at Evertt Chance, one of the brothers in The Brothers K, and is truly a joy to read after learning about his trials and tribulations in K.

Duncan, in these three books is focused on – obsessed with, haunted by, devoted to – water and transformation, and the play between the two. His characters are, in essence, baptized – reborn, transformed – by the lakes, rivers, creeks, oceans, and irrigation ditches of the Pacific Northwest. His characters seek out answers constantly, in books and from friends – Why is littered with choice quotes from The Compleat Angler to the Koran – and from that ultimate source, nature. The final truth of these books is that people can and will change, if they open their minds up wide enough. Thus Duncan’s protagonists drop the tops of the convertibles of their minds and let the wind blow Truth through their hair, although sometimes not without a bit of forcefulness. Gus, our hero of The River Why, takes painfully long to figure things out. Even being chased down by a beautiful girl, haunted by quotes tossed at him by his hippie bodhisattva friend, and facing the utter torment and sadness of his lonely life, he refuses to change, a refusal that is all the more painful for the reader because he or she surely recognizes this stubbornness in him/herself, and is no doubt embarrassed and hurt by it. I don’t want to spoil the ending but in the end what saves him is a fish, not a pretty girl or a fancy quote. In a flash of epiphany and ecstasy his world is switched on and he, and we, are allowed to move forward. Our joy as readers is tempered only by our lingering jealousy that he gets to change and we do not.

In The Brothers K, each brother takes his own path out of darkness, and all are not equally successful. Although each has his point of ecstasy and epiphany, for some of them the magic is fleeting – they climb just to the top of the canyon wall, only to stumble and fall back in just as they peek their heads over the horizon and see what could be. Although some of the clan does get to the top, the book is ultimately a tragedy, with joy again holding hands with sorrow.

River Teeth is a series of vignettes, some fiction, some more memoir-like snippets from Duncan’s own life. Again each is a tale of transformation, a peek into the clockwork machinery of the world and the return from that. As I finished this book today, over and over in my head I heard the word “ecstasy,” just the word flipping and sloshing around in my brain like a trout in one of Duncan’s Oregon rivers. The word, as far as I can tell, is never used in this book, however each story includes an ecstatic moment. In my mind (word geek that I am) I’m thinking of an older definition of the word “ecstasy;” today we use the word as a synonym of joy or happiness, but the word’s more archaic meaning is “an emotional or religious frenzy or trancelike state, originally one involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.” The word comes from Greek, ekstasis, “standing outside oneself.” To me this is the precise word to describe Duncan’s work, filled with characters succumbing to experiences of mystic self-transcendence. Gus’ transcendence comes not from a girl or a book or a shaman; it comes at night, alone with a fishing pole. Peter Chance, one of the brothers, chases transcendence through the words of every hold man he can possibly find, finally making a pilgrimage to India where he is transformed not by a yogi or a priest or an volume of Vedic literature, but by a robbery gone wrong, after which he is left alone and naked – literally. Everett Chance too takes the route of the lonely to find his way to transcendence, bathed for an entire winter in the slogging rains of Vancouver Island.

Beautifully written and wholly inspirational, I found each book infinitely rewarding, and I feel that subsequent readings will reveal even more. Sometimes a book – or in this case a trio of books – come along right when you need them, and when you read them you feel as if the writer is talking just to you and you alone, as if he is there to help you and guide you along. Sometimes a book gives you exactly what you need, nothing more or less, and you feel elevated, enlightened. The irony of these books and that feeling of enlightenment is that in Duncan’s books, as we’ve seen, words are useless. They can lead you down the path but it’s up to you and you alone to find the rest of the way. Transformation and ecstasy is left solely up to you. I hope for myself that I can someday finish what these books have helped me start.

Loud/Quiet

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Sometimes when you’re loud, playing loud music, laughing and chatting…and then you’re quiet for a moment…you hear the wind’s picked up out through the open window…and the rain has started – just barely. And then the wind jumps up, beating against the open pane and tossing the blinds, and the rain comes heavier, and heavier, and the first thunder growls in the sky…suddenly it’s so loud you can’t even hear or understand yourself anymore.

Found Poetry: The Stockyards of South St. Paul

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Dan Barry of the New York Times brought his excellent column, This Land, to the Twin Cities recently, where he wrote about the final day and the last auction at the South St. Paul stockyard, which has been bought and sold to make way for suburbanization. “Pens for people,” Barry notes. I have some vague remembering of these stockyards existing, but I never really knew anything about them. I didn’t know that they were once the largest in the country, for example.

Being a fan of Carl Sandburg I really enjoyed this piece, a story about the clash between two Americas and the ground lost by one of them, the America that Sandburg and others with a poetic bent would consider the “real” or “honest” America. Barry honors Sandburg with his lyrical prose and vivid retelling of the stockyard’s last day. He leaves the social tension simmering in the background while focusing on the lives and stories of those who work/worked the yards for many years. I’m especially taken (as Barry was) with the auctioneer’s tale, how he sing-songs his way into history. The poetry of the occasion is not lost on the workers or ranchers; they name the last cow to be sold “Timeless.” Nor is the irony ever lost on them: free hamburgers are given out during the auction in a nearby cafe.

However you feel about eating meat and the treatment of cattle, this is a wonderful piece about a changing country and tradition vs. modernity.

Book Guilt

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The truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or desire for more.
-Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books

I like this quote. I love it, in fact. A few months back I ran out of space on my big bookshelf. The glut of books that accompany the Christmas/birthday season didn’t help matters, and soon I had at least four knee-high stacks of books hanging around in my room. Add in the comics and well…they say the human body is 70% water – I believe mine is 70% paper and ink.

Now here’s the big reveal which is sure to deny me some of my street cred: half the books I own – a literal 50% – I haven’t read. You have no idea the guilt I feel because of this. And apparently I’m not alone. This guilt manifests itself in strange ways. Like, I feel guilty about getting books from the library. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning and feel sheepish just looking at the shelf. Or I feel like an ass for taking so long to read Anna Karenina even though I love the book so much I moved it to the #4 slot of my Desert Island Top 5 the other night. (The #5 slot is reserved for a rotating selection of books.) The main reason it’s taking me so long to read is I ALWAYS fall asleep when reading. But that’s another post altogether.

The funny thing is, the ONE time I should feel guilty about having too many books – when I’m buying new books – is precisely the time I feel the least guilty about it. The feeling of joy when walking out of a used book store with a new stack of books is unparalleled. Similarly, when a friend starts gathering books for me to read, I will always choose to read those first over my own books, provided there is sufficient joy and sincerity in the recommendations, which there almost always is.

There are of course many reasons NOT to feel guilty about owning unread books. I’ve got a long lifetime of reading ahead of me, for one. And I know deep down that I’ll get to all these books eventually. My parents own about six-seven times as many books as I do and they don’t seem too worked up about it. And then there is the above quote, from a man who should know a little something about owning books. Mr. Zaid makes me feel downright proud of my unread book collection! My unread books mark me as a “truly cultured” person! You can see from the quote that Zaid understands the joy of buying books too. I shouldn’t feel guilty – I should feel good about my passion and desire for reading. Vindication.

The only way to really break the cycle of guilt is to just keep reading, which is my plan anyway. Since reading is so integral to writing, the only way to continue being a good writer is to keep reading good books. The bookshelf is like my power plant, the books my coal, the words and my eyes ingredients in a combustion reaction, the pen a power line, the poems I write the little houses lit up at night.

Found Poetry: The TV Movie

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There’s something about watching a movie you own on TV. Even though you own the movie, and you could watch it any time you want, you still sit through it when it’s on TV, enduring the ridiculous edits, commercial breaks, and the dreaded “pan and scan.” Why? I think it has to do with the understanding that something you love is also loved by many other people – enough people to warrant your loved film being broadcast on TV. What you get is this sort of communal love (the non-creepy kind) – you and the people who understand this little part of you curling up together on the couch and enjoying a good flick. Only your couch has really, really big cushions. There’s something deeply human about this kind of sharing, something very primal that goes back to campfires and tribal dances and sharing stories. It’s weird to think that these ancient urges revisit us in such strange ways, but it’s also a comfort to know that there are parts of our anatomy, soul, collective unconscious, whatever you’d like to call it – that live on and adapt to whatever the contemporary world throws at us.

Lines Written: Virginia Woolf

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In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jungle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

I learned today from The Writer’s Almanac that today is Virginia Woolf’s birthday. The above is a line from Mrs. Dalloway which, beyond being beautiful in and of itself, says much about Woolf’s take on life. Her take is a capital-M Modernist one, informed by ideas of kinetic and potential energy, which is that just about everything has potential to be important, important in a soulful, poetic, spirited way. More specifically each thing has the potential to become a piece of art, and each piece of art has the potential for epiphany trapped within it. The book Mrs. Dalloway is nothing but epiphany – that is, a series of epiphanies, or “moments” as Woolf liked to call them. The book is all insight – hardly anything happens in it that is not inside Mrs. Dalloway’s mind. Some readers find this frustrating, some find it a wonderful freedom from the confines of plot. I fall into the latter category. So I encourage people to read Mrs. Dalloway and all things Woolf and celebrate her life and her work.

Found Poetry: Buckingham Palace

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I was in the checkout line at Lund’s the other day, finishing up my grocery shopping. The last item out of my cart was a tin of McVitie’s cookies (or “biscuits,” being a British product), which are perhaps the best non-homemade cookies on the planet. The checkout lady commented that the cookies looked good, and I proceeded to tell her the story of how they were introduced to me by my sister when I was visiting her in London last year. (My sister had also recently told me that these little crumbly miracles were available here at Lund’s.)

She said she’d have to try them. Then she paused. “I went to London once, a long time ago, when I was a little girl,” she said. “Oh yeah? I just love it over there,” I said. Then she said, “I had dinner at Buckingham Palace when I was there.” I looked at her. Did the checkout lady at Lund’s just tell me she had dinner at Buckingham Palace? Is she an exiled princess? Does she just have a screw loose? She looked at me and smiled. “The IRA [Irish Republican Army] had planted a bomb in our hotel, which was right next to the palace. They evacuated all of us, and I got separated from my parents and went running toward the Palace gates. The guards took me in, and I was served dinner, cleaned up, and then reunited with my parents. I didn’t see the queen or anything, but it was pretty special.”

Speechless, I thanked her for the story, grabbed my grocery bags, and went on my way. It’s not every day you meet someone who’s dined in Buckingham Palace.

Stranger than Nonfiction

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“Chapter by chapter, we are reconstructing the history of the world,” Diotallevi said. “We are rewriting the Book. I like it, I really like it.” -Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

The game of reconstructing a tattered history begins with a tatter itself: a sheet of papyrus from 1344 upon which is written a set of instructions by and for the medieval Knights Templar. (I know you’ve all read the Da Vinci Code.) A copy of this sheet finds its way to Garamond Press in Milan, where editor/scholars Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi have it forced upon them by a precocious manuscript writer who takes the papyrus at face value. The Templars, after being supposedly annihilated by the King of France, move their organization underground where they put together a centuries-long scheme to collect a treasure for the Templars and establish them as rulers of the world. The Plan, as the men of Garamond call this sheet, was supposed to come to fruition in 1944. It’s clear that this Plan has not come to pass, which means either the Plan was a fake, or something happened along the way to disrupt the Templar’s actions. In an exercise of intellectual might, they decide to play a game: what if the Plan is real? How was it to have been completed? And, in the end, why wasn’t it completed?

The game in Foucault’s Pendulum requires the three men to do nothing short of rewiring all of modern history. Indeed, all of ancient and Biblical history as well (Jesus is a Celtic allegory, the measurements of the Temple of Solomon contain God’s true name). Following their reciept of the Plan is an influx of conspiracy-theory manuscripts: Belbo, Casaubon, and Diotallevi assume, for the game’s purposes, that they’re all true. The procession of history carries on as usual; lightswitches flipped on as you walk down a hallway. What has changed are the reasons for the history; the circuitry behind the switches that links each one to the ones preceedng and following. History becomes ruled by symbols and magic, secret orders and secret alphabets, immortal men, the technologies of Atlantis, magnetic currents, secret masters who live thousands of miles beneath the Tibetan Himalayas; an entire esoteric culture that overlaps with everything we already know. Like a scribbled drawing, upon which is laid a sheet of tracing paper containing the most immaculate, elaborate, precision inks ever concieved.

Instead of editing the manuscripts of nutjobs, they become creators. All of this is great fun, of course, until some people start believing what they created.

Don’t they love you in mysterious ways? You say “Yeah but this is now and that was then.” Put a dollar into the machine and you’ll remember when. -M Ward, “Post-War”

Eco’s novel resonates so strongly with the reader because it’s not a book about history at all: it’s a book about psychology. It’s about how we constantly seek to recreate our pasts to justify our presents and futures. In one telling passage Casaubon, the book’s narrator, says “I don’t know if what I remember…is what happened or is only what I wished had happened, but it was definitely on that evening that the Plan first stirred in out mind, stirred as a desire…to transform into fantasized reality that fantasy that others wanted to be real.” Can a version of history become true if it’s believed enough? Memory is all too tenuous sometimes. I’m certain that in all of our minds there are memories that are completely synthetic; things we always wished had happened. We wished enough and they became true. And there is a far greater number of memories that have been modified in the years since the actual event. Just put some quarters in the jukebox, take a sip of beer, and think back…

History, although documented unlike many of our memories, is still subject to revision. Compare your middle-school Social Studies book to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. There’s a lot we were never told and never would have been told (and would have gone through life content in never having heard it) if it weren’t for a few persistent individuals. Of course Zinn’s book has the potential for error as well; the reality lies somewhere in the continuum between Zinn and Social Studies.

We know he’s been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. -Vice President Dick Cheney, March 16, 2003

I don’t know anybody in any government or any intelligence agency who suggested that the Iraqis had nuclear weapons. That’s fact number one. -Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, June 24, 2003

Perhaps what’s most astounding about the Plan is that when you read it–when I read it, at least–there exists the remote possibility that it could be true. I look at it and say “Sure, why not?” We think we understand the world, but we keep finding things that show us that we never really did, and maybe we never will. Humans crave faith, and they’ll give it not just to God but to anyone who presents them with a halfway believeable story. It’s frightening what we’ll accept as truth if it helps us sleep better at night.

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