Monday, January 10, 2011

Ten Days With Kurt & Phil

It's become a January tradition for me to read a work of contemporary fiction. I'm not sure why. Maybe after experiencing yet another year of more or less troubling non-fiction, my mind is ready for a little vacation.

For several years this has meant reading something written by Nicholson Baker. I like Baker for a number of reasons, but after pushing and pulling my mind through his The Everlasting Story of Nory last year, I was definitely ready for something else.

That something else turned out to be Kurt Vonnegut's Armageddon in Retrospect, a collection of 12 pieces on the subject of war and/or peace that he'd written over many years but had never been published. I realized that it might well be yet one more attempt to suck the last little bits of profitability out of a dead man's oeuvre, but I decided to risk it anyway.

The fact that it's a rather short book with rather large print helped.

It wasn't great, but I'm glad I read it. For some reason, Vonnegut has always been easy on my eyes even when he's spouting crap, and this collection was no exception - except for the shamelessly manipulative short story entitled "Spoils." If he had pushed it just a tad further, I might have been able to enjoy it as an absurd parody of a wildly improbable O. Henry story. As it is, I think it's the only Vonnegut piece I'm sorry I read.

The best part of the book came early for me. A copy of the last public speech he ever wrote includes the claim that anthropologists have concluded that we human beings are only supposed to live 35 years. Allegedly that's how long our teeth last without modern dentistry. I'm not convinced that this claim is true, but it might be, and - as we all know - if something *might* be true and it gives us pleasure to believe it, no one has any right to burst our bubble - right?

At least not during the first week of a new year after yet another year in which all the things that are true and right have left us once again with a terrible hangover.

Why do I enjoy believing that it's true? Well, for one thing, it sure kicks the hell out of the Bible's claim that our allotted time on this planet is 72 years. That's like Ford or GM claiming that their cars are built to last nearly three-quarters of a century and then having an expert mechanic tell you that your Pinto or Impala has cavity-prone spark plugs that won't get you to the half-century mark. Haha, all you devout Judeo-Christians! Hahahahahaha!

The bigger reason that I enjoy thinking his claim is true has nothing to do with any of that, though. It involves the fact that I've already lived past 35. Which means I've exceeded not only my warranty period but my expected lifespan. I've crossed the finish line and can now idle or coast as the mood strikes me, secure in the knowledge that every additional moment my engine is still running is sheer bonus time. All ye critics of man who think I ought to be doing things better or more often are way off-base - you should be standing in awe and endlessly complimenting me for the fact that I'm still here doing anything at all!

Having been put in the mood for such literary enlightenment by Kurt, I decided to flex my eye muscles and try a second work of fiction - Philip Roth's The Plot Against America.

You might remember Roth as that fellow who was profiled on CBS's "Sunday Morning" last year. He unapologetically came out as an atheist in that interview. He was also touted as a possible Noble Prize winner. Having read and survived his Portnoy's Complaint years ago, I decided to see what sort of words he's been stringing together more recently.

I'm only about 60 pages into The Plot Against America but it's already very, very clear that Roth is a very different sort of writer than Vonnegut. While Kurt veers from the pithy aphorism to the grand, overarching theme, Roth writes much more in the style of the traditional memoirist: Lots of little details that add verisimilitude and slowly add up to Something Big.

Although The Plot Against America revolves around the mercifully fictional premise that a pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh was elected president in 1940, the story seems firmly rooted in the author's real life experiences as a Jew growing up in New Jersey. It's pretty serious but fairly straightforward stuff that offers us one more perspective on the same years Woody Allen (born in New York 1935) covered in Radio Days and Neil Simon (born in New York in 1927) covered in Brighton Beach Memoirs. Any detailed analysis of the three will probably mention somewhere along the line that Roth (born in in Newark in 1933) is the one who is looking back and *not* smiling.

I don't think I'll be spoiling the book for anyone by saying that the first 60 pages talk about stamps and stamp collecting at some length. I collect stamps, too, in the same sort of half-assed way that I do most things meant to sop up a few more hours of unwanted consciousness, so I knew what Roth was referring to in a way I never do when Melville or Stevenson or anyone else refers to the various types of sails and masts (genitals?) on a ship. Authors of sea-going adventures over the years could have saved me a lot of time and grief had they begun their works with "And now for a few hundred pages of wanton gibberish" and been done with it.

Roth's discussion of something I'm somewhat familiar with (and that I was even somewhat familiar with at the same young age as the narrator of the novel in 1940) prompted me to ponder how I might write about the same subject.

I decided that while I might have started off with a Dickens-like paragraph or two of straight journalistic description, I'd quickly lose interest in that approach and veer off on a tangent - and then another.

I don't find anything intrinsically interesting about stamps. They have a certain surface appeal, thanks to their color and design, but such things can only hold my attention for so long. The age and historical aspects of a stamp might hold my attention for a while longer, but in the end it's hard to avoid the fact that, when all is said and done, all I'm really staring at is a little piece of paper that some stranger's tongue may have touched at some point. I have to be in just the right mood for that to intrigue me for hours on end.

If I ever attempted to write about my stamps and my stamp collecting the way Roth's narrator does, it wouldn't be too long before I shifted to a description and then a discussion of the adhesive on the back. Soon I'd be off to research and share everything there is to know about the nature and history of adhesives.

Nicholson Baker might do the same. Being me rather than Baker, however, I'd soon abandon this approach as well and start pondering aloud the essentially bizarre nature of adhesives and stickiness.

Some things are sticky, some things aren't. What's the difference? What's the cause of the difference? How many years must we exist on this planet before we can more or less reliably predict what is and isn't sticky? Was the nature of stickiness different in the past? How might it be different in the future? If a bandage is pulled rapidly off a wound in the forest and there's nobody around, does anybody scream?

You know, my cup of coffee is never sticky when I drink it in the morning. But if I spill some on the table and let it dry a bit, it can become *very* sticky. Where did the stickiness come from? (Albania?)

If I let that same spilled coffee dry entirely, a hard film replaces the stickiness. What force magically exorcised that stickiness from my life? (Might I be able to bottle and sell that force to those about to go out on a blind date?)

The world is a weird place.

Stickiness is part of the weirdness, yet we take it for granted every time we get up and try to walk out of a movie theater.

Would licking the floor of a movie theater make it more or less sticky?

If licking it made it more sticky and the US Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating movie theater floors, would we know which side to put on an envelope?

But of course I'm being silly. All stamps are self-stick stamps now. Someday soon people will think licking the back of a stamp as weird as licking the back of a Post-It note - or maybe a refrigerator. (There's no telling with some people.)

All of which thoughts and comments I freely offer to you as a quick and easy way of distinguishing me and my writing from Philip Roth and *his* writing.

Maybe I'll offer it to the Noble Prize committee, too - just to guard against them accidentally awarding me the prize intended for him.

Heh - wouldn't THAT be embarrassing for everybody?

In fact, I think I better forward this to them right now.

IF I can find a stamp and then somehow avoid becoming hypnotized by its backside....


  1. lol That was an interesting read.

  2. Hee! Following your masterful mindswerves throughout this fascinating post was way more fun than a barrel full of monkey stamps! It also led me to Wikipedia and a description of Nicholson Baker's work - intriguing. Anyway, who cares about the Nobel, I feel quite sure that you deserve Pulicker Prize for writing this. :-)

  3. I never read Portnoy's Complaint. A kid in my high school class carried it around with him when I was a sophomore. He kept it in a book jacket that said DIRTY BOOK in large letters.
    I remember one day in the skule newspaper office he read us the scene with the cupcake. He was gay, but I didn't know it until years later. I think everybody else did, tho. I led a sheltered life back then--mostly on purpose.

  4. I was enjoying this until I got to the part about all the stamps being self-stick now. Then I cried because I MISS licking stamps. Why did they take that away from me?



  5. Hey, voz - thanks for stopping by! Sorry my stamp reference has left you so distressed, though. I guess you didn't think to stockpile some lickables when you had the chance, huh? Fortunately, I think I might have some to spare. Have your people contact my people - maybe we can make a deal.