fiction

Watching people sashay

Treme-S03E04-pic2

Still from HBO series Treme. Indian practice.

I don’t know what the future holds for the movie industry, but it does seem like good quality TV shows have really hit their stride in the last few years. I have to admit I find it a tad time-consuming to keep track of all this alleged bounty and usually rely on a few favorite picks from trustworthy friends. Last year David Simon’s The Wire convinced me that gritty treatment of socially intricate environments – the seedy underside of Baltimore – could be just as intellectually compelling as your well-chiseled noir novel.

Now, as I’m sadly gearing up for the last episode of Treme, I’d like to share some thoughts about a show that I feel should have gotten a lot more exposure when it aired on HBO from 2010 through 2013.

In a nutshell, this is arguably the most accurate depiction of New Orleans as the cradle of jazz music ever shown on TV. Of course the appearance of legendary living musicians alongside cast actors makes the show even more engaging and authentic. Since this is largely a music blog, I’d like to focus in on the characters of Delmond and Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux, impeccably played by actors Rob Brown and Clarke Peters. Their complex father and son relationship epitomizes the crux of what makes this music such a contentious “genre” to this day. Delmond is fast becoming a foremost trumpeter on the New York jazz scene but his New Orleans roots prove to be both a valuable trump card and a liability as he strives to carve his path as a modern jazz musician. Albert “Big Chief” sticks to the swing tradition and will not hear of those “modern jazz cats [that] can’t play shit”. What he is basically saying here is that today’s jazz doesn’t swing and therefore it don’t mean a thing, right? In one striking scene, Albert is playing a bluesy line on the bass. Delmond recognizes the tune and jumps in confidently. But soon enough, Albert gets upset and tells Delmond he came in late on the beat and wasn’t playing the [rhythm]changes. This is a case in point of the impressive scope of this show, which excels at bridging the gap between jazz initiate terminology and smart character development. Father and son are both dedicated to the music but their conceptions are irreconcilable.

Delmond admires the values that his Black Indian father instilled in him – for those, myself included, unfamiliar with the culture of African-American Mardi Gras Indians, this is very educational – but regretfully realizes he will always fall short of his father’s expectations of him: connect more with Indian culture and carry on the torch. However, Delmond is persistent and even successfully arranges a recording session in New York featuring himself, his father and a stellar cast of musicians, including the great Ron Carter. This Black Indian tradition meets modern jazz session doesn’t sit well with Albert at the beginning but when the whole band reunites in New Orleans to record the same song for a take that sounds similar to all involved, Albert brightens up and seems happy with the result. Clearly, the city’s vibe was missing. It is this level of detail that the showrunners should be applauded for as we spectators come to understand how deeply the music is ingrained in the city’s psyche. That particular relationship between Delmond and Albert is very stirring as jazz or, at least the wide variety of styles it covers, appears as the emotional bond that unites and divides them. Ultimately, Delmond embraces the music his dad grew up with but places it in a larger continuum. New Orleans is unquestionably the birthplace of jazz and Delmond won’t let anyone disparage its rich history, as he reminds two unctuous guys at his own record release party. Through his personal journey, we are reminded of a fundamental tenet of jazz expression: a constant back and forth between an assimilation of past pioneers and the development of an individual voice regardless of tastemakers’ pronouncements.

For those who still wonder why this music doesn’t fit neatly into one category, Treme provides valuable answers. After all, what you mostly hear in this show sounds very remotely related to what is commonly defined as jazz. It is New Orleans music, a rich soulful brass-heavy sound for all occasions of life, from carnivals to funerals. Jazz originated with that culture but has gone through a wide variety of styles ever since. That this show succeeds in suggesting that idea without affectation or dullness is probably its most laudable achievement. All the characters in this show are more or less involved with music in varying levels but you somehow never get the sense this show is only about music. Of course, this vibrant culture, recovering from the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, falls prey to a pervasive cocktail of murder, violence,  police and political corruption, and the show addresses the issues unapologetically.

That “creolized” culture in the words of DJ Davis, a hilarious and touching character in the show, deserves to be better known. Now is the time.

On that note, I’ve got the last episode waiting, and I’m sure that Chef Jeanette Desautel has some crawfish raviolis to make me forget how much I’m going to miss that show.

Highly recommended.

The time of insularity in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse

© Elise Fimbel

© Elise Fimbel

They finally made it to the lighthouse. It took them the whole novel to get there but when Mr Ramsay and his children reach the shore, the destination – “a stark tower on a bare rock” – pales in comparison with the craggy and drawn-out journey that led up to it. This beautiful novel set on an island off the coast of Scotland (The Hebrides) is my first attempt at reading Woolf’s fiction, and arguably a compelling introduction to her writing. The main plotline seems to revolve around the question of whether the weather will be fine enough for the Ramsays to make that long-anticipated boat trip to the disquieting silhouette looming in the distance.  But this deceivingly trivial climatic element is only one functional motif in the misty ambiance Woolf establishes through the characters’ perceptions of reality. I guess what matters ultimately in this book is not so much that Mr and Mrs Ramsay fail to reconcile their conflicting personalities and aspirations in the middle class drama, that the children James and Cam feel ambivalent about their father’s overbearing authority, or that despite her admiration for Mrs Ramsay’s beauty Lily Briscoe can’t seem to conjure up the right mix of colors to paint her portrait faithfully, as how all these issues are informed by the natural landmarks of the island and the dislocation of time that results from that insular environment.  The constant ebb and flow of the waves seems to metaphorically reflect the characters’ idiosyncratic relationships with time. Time does seem to stand still on this island and yet there is a sense that everything has already been experienced and can only be missed or recreated through melancholic recollection. Mrs Ramsay knits her way through domesticity like an impatient Penelope not waiting for her Odysseus but struggling to gain a sense of herself around his (Mr Ramsay’s) dominant presence. A boeuf en daube takes twenty or thirty pages to be finally eaten while speculation runs high as to whether the latecomers to this pivotal dinner, Paul and Minta, got engaged in the meantime. By moving to this island, Mr Ramsay has turned away from the accolades of scholarly recognition but he is restlessly craving the attention and praise of his wife and children and intent on teaching those “young men at Cardiff” a lesson or two. Through it all, one family member gets killed at the western front of WW1, others from childbirth or diseases, only to resurrect later in the next wave of reminiscences. Divided into three sections – The Window, Time Passes, The Lighthouse – the novel has all the Proustian knack for evocative metaphors and detailed characterizations. The underlying theme seems to be the perception of reality and how each character strives to see and remember in a natural environment that dictates the progression of time and what the characters will be able to accomplish in its changing rhythms. Will Lily Briscoe ever finish her painting? Is it too late for Mr Ramsay to make amends and take his children to the lighthouse?  Although Woolf equips her characters with acute vision, shapes and objects dissolve as if washed away by the tide shifts of the sea. Here’s Lily Briscoe observing Mrs Ramsay:

“Lily Briscoe watched her drifting into that strange no-man’s land where to follow people is impossible and yet their going inflicts such a chill on those who watch them that they always try at least to follow them with their eyes as one follows a fading ship until the sails have sunk beneath the horizon.”

I can’t really elaborate on this novel as much as I intended. Oh well, books need to be read not commented on, right? By blurring the line between the vastness of the surrounding space and the smallness of domestic life, between the slow rhythms of insularity and the instantaneous flashes of the lighthouse, Woolf wrote an important novel. To say that her writing ranks alongside the 20th century modernists like Proust or Joyce is probably a truism but one we don’t hear that often (women of the 21st century, revolt!).  I can hardly wait to ride The Waves.

Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse (copyright 1927; A Harvest HBJ Book, 1989). Any edition will do, of course.

Between the tropics

It all started with an eye-catching book cover sticking out from a stack of English language novels in a cluttered used bookstore in the French town of Le Mans. Be sure to check out this funny bookseller if you’re visiting, the guy has some well-hidden treasures in there. Shockingly, I had never read a Henry Miller book before, until I stumbled onto Black Spring, written between Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn (the back cover informs me) and making for a very pleasing introduction to the writer’s literary work. Divided into ten chapters, this stream-of-consciousness autobiographical novel chronicles with no apparent logic a succession of milestones in Miller’s eventful life, mainly in his native Brooklyn and Paris. A recurring motif throughout the book is the deep sense of disconnection from the motherland,  “I am a man of the old world, a seed that was transplanted by the wind, a seed which failed to blossom in the mushroom oasis of America”, and an offbeat embrace of Parisian back alleys and nighttime carousing. However, Miller seems to strive for a much larger liberation, a break from a “Coney Island of the mind” (So that’s where Laurence Ferlinghetti got his inspiration from…) that doesn’t amuse him at all. Alongside the comical situations that recall some of Céline’s juiciest moments in Mort à credit (Death on credit), a dark veil is cast over the epic journey.

Bloody and wild the night with all the hawk’s feet slashed and trimmed. Bloody and wild the night with all the belfries screeching and all the slats torn and all the gas mains bursting. Bloody and wild the night with every muscle twisted, the toes crossed, the hair on end, the teeth red, the spine cracked. All the world wide awake twittering like the dawn, and a low red fire crawling over the gums. All through the night the combs break, the ribs sing. Twice the dawn breaks, then steals away again. In the trickling snow the oxide fumes. All through the streets the hearses pass up and down, up and down, the drivers munching their long whips, their white crapes, their cotton gloves.

 The narrative jumps around a lot and it is sometimes hard to keep track of what’s actually going on, but Miller’s poetic style imbues every situation with Surrealist humor and wit. Whether he comments on the merits of Parisian urinals, introduces us to a cast of idiosyncratic characters, walks us through a watercolor lesson or strays into daydreaming abstraction, Miller’s hilarious scenes work as a foil for the Maldoror-like visions that haunt his world. Now I wonder what life is like in the tropics. Also, whoever designed this book cover is a minimalist genius.

Henry Miller, Black Spring (Copyright, 1936, published by Panther Books in 1974)

Reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and breathing afterward

Melencolia I, engraving, Dürer, 1514

Melencolia I, engraving, Dürer, 1514

After three months of fitful but intense reading, I finally got through David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King, feeling drained by the whole experience but kind of sad the journey is over. DFW, as one is tempted to call him given the writer’s fondness for acronyms, is not your middle-of-the road contemporary fiction writer and the topics of his writing as they appear on back cover blurbs are not exactly, well, inviting. His is a world plagued by social alienation and moral disarray where a cast of messed-up individuals incessantly obsess over their own obsessions. There is a certainly a line of continuity from Joyce through Kafka and Pynchon to Wallace, but somehow in the way he bridges the most distasteful aspects of mainstream pop culture with incredibly erudite and philosophical insights on why humanity acts the way it does, DFW has left behind an unparalleled literary oeuvre.

Consider this. A man, ironically named David Foster Wallace for even more polyphonic confusion, shows up for his first day at the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois. Posted as a GS-9 rote examiner (an employee tasked to examining accuracy in tax returns), a.k.a. a “wiggler”, DFW works alongside a variety of dehumanized colleagues (drones) diligently going about their repetitive tasks as if their lives depended on it.  Beyond the convolutions of bureaucratic life through the microcosm of US taxation (described in excruciating detail), boredom survival seems to be the connective thread of this book. In chapter 44, DFW learns an eye-opening lesson from his experience in tax land: “The key is (…) to be, in a word, unborable (…). It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish”.

Granted, who would want to read through a 700-page monster novel about the inner workings of the American tax system and a bunch of subservient employees zealously devoted to it? Well, one major strength of DFW is his ability to turn the most esoteric topic into a gripping take on contemporary Western culture. Though the main story line revolves around a man’s survival in the mind-numbingly dull world of tax management, addressed in Wallace’s signature serpentine style, the book is interspersed with small and long chapters documenting the backstories of the personalities that will eventually work for the REC (Regional Examination Center). One boy suffers from uncontrollable sweating attacks, another one is a ‘fact psychic’ remembering intricate details such as “the population of Brunei (…), the difference between mucus and sputum, how long a piece of gum has resided on the underside of the third-row fourth-from-left seat of the Virginia Theater, Cranston RI, but not who put it there or why (…) the amount of undigested red meat in the colon of the average forty-three-year-old male resident of Ghent, Belgium, in grams,etc.” DFW has a way of probing human idiosyncrasies with devastating humor without seeming complacent or derisive about it. Clearly, humor works as an efficient foil for the massive attack of dullness Wallace dumps on us unflinchingly.  It’s hard to overstate the seriousness of the incurable mess Wallace sees people caught in but to his credit he takes humor very very seriously. The passage when Wallace explains that examiners have their own “phantom” or “ghost” moment, a kind of hallucination occurring “at a certain threshold of concentrated boredom”, cracked me up to tears. Regrettably, I can’t summarize it adequately…

In another hilarious section, Wallace relates the “cluster-fuck” (basically a computer error) that resulted in his being misassigned to a higher-level posting and confused with another DFW. This episode gets the customary Wallace treatment of sprawling digressions and page-long footnotes! I cannot resist quoting an excerpt from his encounter with Chala Neti-Neti (later nicknamed “The Iranian Crisis”), the woman who greets him at the REC and escorts him through the hallways with confusing hospitality:

Mrs. F. Chala Neti-Neti (according to her ID badge)’s expression changed, actually several times, as I approached her with bags and a degree of direct eye contact that would have been inappropriate if she hadn’t been holding a sign with my name on it. Here, if I haven’t already done so, I should explain that in this period of what was basically late adolescence I had very bad skin – very very bad, as in the dermatological category ‘severe/disfiguring.’ On meeting or encountering me for the first time, most people either (a) looked only briefly at my face and then looked away, or (b) looked involuntarily stricken or pitying, or repelled, then could be seen struggling with themselves to superimpose on that expression another one that signified they either didn’t see the bad skin or weren’t especially bothered by it. The whole skin thing is a long story and for the most part not worth mentioning, except to emphasize again that by that time I was more or less reconciled to the skin thing and it didn’t much bother me anymore, although it did make it difficult to shave with any precision, and I did tend to be very aware of whether I was standing in direct light and, if so, from just what angle that light originated—because in certain kinds of light the problem was very, very bad indeed, I knew. On this first encounter, I don’t remember whether Ms Neti-Neti was an (a) or a (b), perhaps because my attention/memory was occupied by the way the Service ID badge clipped to her Personnel jacket’s breast pocket had a head-shot photo that looked taken in very bright, almost magnesium-looking light, and I remember instantly calculating what this sort of photo’s hideous light was going to do in terms of my face’s blebular cysts and scabs, just as it had made this creamily dark Persian woman’s complexion look dark gray, and had exaggerated the wide-setness of her eyes so that in the ID photo she looked almost like a puma or some other strange kind of feline predator, along with the badge’s displaying her first initial and surname, GS grade, Personnel affiliation, and a series of nine digits that I would only later understand to be her internally generated SS, which also functions as one’s Service ID number.

The reason for even taking the time to mention the (a) or (b) reaction thing is that it is the only way to make sense of the fact that Ms. Neti-Neti’s greeting was so verbally effusive and deferential—‘Your reputation precedes you’; ‘On behalf of Mr. Glendenning and Mr. Tate, we’re just so extremely pleased to have you on board’; ‘We’re extremely pleased you were willing to take this posting’—without her face and eyes registering any such enthusiasm or even displaying any affect or interest in me or in why I was so late in arriving and I had forced her to stand there holding up a sign for God only knew how long, which I personally would very much have wanted some kind of explanation of.

 

Are you still breathing? I left out the footnotes for clarity’s sake but their cumulative impact should not be missed. They are in there for a reason. The devil is in the details, the phrase goes, and in Wallace’s case, the details accumulate with an almost mathematical logic, drifting in and out of the narrative like an annoying insect buzzing around. They’ll drive you crazy.

It’s not clear what definitive form Wallace would have given to this posthumous novel but the editor did a good job of pulling the disparate pieces together, giving us a chance to read DFW’s last breath on paper. Next time you go shopping at the store and wonder how many more years we are going to have to stand some terribly insipid music playing overhead without an incensed employee tearing off the sound system, or whenever you feel bored to death or labor over your tax return, have a thought for DFW. He would commiserate with you. Think about what he must have gone through to write so effusively about boredom and not get bored with it. He understood its terrifying power.  “This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do”.

The Pale King (Little, Brown and Company, 2011; Back Bay Books, 2012)

Le Roi Pâle ( traduit de l’anglais par Charles Recoursé, Au Diable Vauvert, 2012)