Monday, December 10, 2018

Shit Writer

I don't consider Fernando Sdrigotti a friend. I've known him for a a few years, sure. Mostly via Twitter and several emails. He's edited my writing. I think calling him a friend is perhaps too optimistic. Unnecessarily twee.

I find myself covering the covers of his books when I read them in public. A nonstop attempt to hide the filthy urinals on both the front and back covers of his Dysfunctional Males or the word "shit" in red printed on his most recent cover. A friend wouldn't require such acrobatics to prevent offending my puritan compatriots. I find myself hiding his offensive covers even when I'm in the comfort of my own home. I don't think I'd try so hard to distance myself from the work of a friend.

La Casita Grande published Dysfunctional Males in 2017. It's a collection of five short stories and Sdrigotti's first book in English.

The irony of the title is that the males he writes about function perfectly in the shit society of contemporary London, which stands in as an empty context. The specificity of London serves as a generic site. It might as well be Paris or New York City or Tokyo—any place where people who wander find themselves.

His characters remind me of the types that populate the novels of Flaubert and Zola: exotics from faraway places who attempt to merge with the wealth and privilege of the capital. In spite of their proximity, these foreign-looking people nevertheless remain marginal, with various levels of fluency in "kebab English." In "Elision" he describes the landscape: "The roads were jammed with cars and buses. The air thick with horns and carbon monoxide and the glossolalia of tourists loitering round Piccadilly Circus."

And later, in "The Vanishing Onanist of E5": "London is the perfect place to disappear. There are cracks in the pavement everywhere, gashes through which to fall. Living in London is like walking in this gigantic field full of potholes. Nobody asks any questions here. You can exist or you might not and nobody gives a shit. People are found after three years of rotting in their flats, the telly still on. Or after thirty years of being kidnapped by a Maoist sect. It happens all the time. London is a city of erasure."

And from "Satori in Hainault": "New North Road. Little houses on one side -- they all look the same. Suburban transit cutting the landscape. Shops on the right side. Dry cleaners. Nail studio. Bakery. A tanning shop. Auto parts. After a while every single house, every single shop, becomes the same. Pet shop. China Chef. Before or after? Another dry cleaners or the same? They melt, they merge into a single über-shop, a mix of each and every one in the street: dry nail bakers auto tanning Chinese takeway offlicence."

The short stories are filled with terrible people. They're not child rapists or genocide apologists,  but it's probably because they haven't stopped masturbating enough to explore these options. Or the shit London weather is keeping them in.

The characters are obsessed with sex and with their asses and with the sexual capabilities (and capacity) of their asses. Sdrigotti writes about sex like someone unacquainted with the act itself except theoretically. The masturbation scenes, on the other hand, are almost too believable.

In some ways, Sdrigotti's tone throughout the short stories seems akin to Bret Easton Ellis' in Less Than Zero. An ironic detachment coupled with an antagonistic relationship with the city and environment. A digging through the ways in which the characters, their neuroses, are symptoms of—or causes of—the city's own sickness. In "Herne Hill," he writes, "Having a body is being always already ill." He could've easily replaced the word body with city.

A potent symptomatic image that repeats in the stories is of a character trying to find a place to fix his gaze. The Onanist thinks, "Boredom dictates that I must look at her tits. Every other guy without a book, a mobile phone, drinking alone in this place would look at her tits. That is every other guy except Big Guy, drinking here next to me, observing an impossible dusk in an impossible horizon.... I don't feel like staring at her tits. I concentrate on trying to find the horizon instead, it seems so interesting to Big Guy. There's no skill involved in staring at boobs, no art. I stare at the mirror, just below the bottle of Bailey's. But soon enough I realise I won't succeed, that I need to find my own staring point. That's the whole point of staring: you're staring into your own vanishing point, not someone else's. Staring into his vanishing point would be like stealing a mantra. I look around."

From "Satori in Hainault": "The true face of stasis and boredom fills your gut -- restlessness. A disease all too familiar to the human race, the main occupation of those in a state of detention. Restlessness, the fear of constant paralysis that makes you take in as much as possible, think as much as possible, change your position in bed as much as possible -- the perverse fantasies recede and the eyes loiter from one place to the other, looking for something worthy of attention."

In the nonplace of London, time also means nothing. Again, from "The Vanishing Onanist of E5": "It's only four o'clock and it's already four o'clock. I have all the day ahead and I have already lost the day.... I feel myself catching up with myself and I need to move." And from "Herne Hill": "It takes time to learn how to wait, but once you can there's no stopping you." Stopping you from what? From further waiting? Yes, take some time to let that logic sink in. It'd be too easy to skip over it.

Unlike Bret Easton Ellis, Sdrigotti allows his ennui-inducing prose to think and to allude. In "Herne Hill" he references, among others, Walter Benjamin, Plato's aporia, the Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and director Alfred Hitchcock among the paragraphs of parataxis. Despite the unlikable characters who accomplish little, there are little nuggets buried throughout.

And with "nuggets" we can move into Sdrigotti's 2018 book Shitstorm, published by Open Pen. Shitstorm will go down in history as the first book ratioed by its reviewers. There's something about a book about Twitter that somehow encourages the playful worst in all of us.

If Sdrigotti's short stories are Ellis-eque, then this novelette is almost Orwellian. In fact, it should be required reading, paired with Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," in political journalism programs, for it elegantly follows the various registers of shit writing and shit thinking and shit emoting online that culminate into the titular storm that has become the most meaningful context in which we live.

While the author keeps from openly critiquing the characters in his short stories, his deadpan commentary on the ways of the Shitstorm let you know exactly how he sees his role as chief shit-meteorologist: "Soon the case of the white hunter with his bow and arrow and his issues or ennui or a combination of several things finds its way to the UK, the Shangri La of the opinion piece, where every once well-reputed newspaper or sensationalistic rag is now a blog kept by unpaid interns, where every half-chewed thought has a home as long as it is a cheaply-acquired whim likely to get clicks."

Just when you think the book is more or less the equivalent of those signs hanging in toilets the world over reminding people not to flush foreign objects, it turns into something graceful and poetic in the final sections. The tones of both books are different, but both have something quite profound to say about our world despite Sdrigotti's reluctance to become our new Paulo Coelho. For this, the author deserves our respect. I just wouldn't recommend shaking his hand when you meet him.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

World AIDS Day

Instead of a day without art, I'd like to celebrate two of my favorite artists: David Wojnarowicz and Ron Athey. Both unapologetically queer. Both HIV+. Both demonized by fascist right-wing politicians.

Both have contributed to my personal vocabulary of how to be an American when the entire system is rigged against you from the start.

Two of my all-time favorite books that I happened to have read this fall include Cynthia Carr's Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz and Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey, edited by Dominic Johnson.

Carr's biography of Wojnarowicz is the best biography I've ever read. It sets a near-impossible standard for biographical writing. It's thoroughness is only strengthened by the fact that there is not a superfluous word in all of its 616 pages.

Johnson's edited volume on Athey is the best critical art book I've ever read. He has masterfully compiled a series of essays that intimately explore the meanings, contexts, and forms of Athey's work without slipping into mere academic wankery. These are astute pieces by the artist himself as well as by some of his closest collaborators. Johnson shows what a critical art book should be. (Also, I wish I was at the Biosphere today for Athey's performance.)

In conclusion, fuck George Bush.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Poet in His Labyrinth

“Criticism unfolds the possibility of freedom and is thus an invitation to action.”
“Criticism tells us that we should learn to dissolve the idols, should learn to dissolve them within our own selves. We must learn to be like the air, a liberated dream.”—Octavio Paz, trans. Lysander Kemp
I recently finished Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude. It's been on my to-be-read list since my undergraduate studies decades ago. Because I've been spending more time in Mexico over the past couple of years,  I finally decided to pick it up.

I thought the first few chapters were terrible. They read as if they had been written for the most virulent American racists and xenophobes. I found them misogynistic and clichéd. I was beginning to think that it wasn't worth the time or effort.

But then Paz started dealing with historical events, offering sociological interpretations of the Conquest and its aftermath. He critiqued positivism and its role during the Porfiriato. Who the fuck even knows what positivism is these days?! (Think of it as the shittiest view of the world and the unwarranted and privileged role of science in coming to know that world.)

His robust defense of criticism is impressive. His critical eye for the iniquities of orthodoxy in its various guises (religious, political, aesthetic) is necessary. His critique of the pyramid is substantial and essential. His insight into the United States's role in maintaining Mexico's labyrinth(s) of solitude shows the depth of his comparative knowledge and understanding.

It's not a perfect text. It's not even one of my favorite books. But still: essential reading for the intellectual who is about fifty years too late to the party. If I were teaching a course on semiotics, it would be required reading.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Xavier Villaurrutia on Abraham Ángel

At the beginning of November I was in Mexico City for a short holiday-cum-research trip. One of my research projects is to translate some of Xavier Villaurrutia's theater pieces. Another research project, should I live long enough, is to write a critical biography of Abraham Ángel, since no one has every written such a thing about him—an artist who hardly anyone has ever heard of. I searched at a couple of bookstores, never finding anything on Ángel, but I did purchase Villaurrutia's Obras, in which the poet had a brief piece on the painter. Here is my translation.

Abraham Ángel
by Xavier Villaurrutia, trans. Frank Garrett

Why doesn’t our climate support any attempt at genius? A sustained attempt at genius, more than for an intellectual culture, brilliant insights, for sure—perhaps unaware—an exercise of the senses; the attempt at genius that was Abraham Ángel. Ironically, fate, like a scowling, disgruntled rival, suddenly cut short a dynamic and fertile existence, capable of how many realities?

In Abraham Ángel the postulates of this new harmonious philosophy that awaits in Mexico to discover an exponent who expands and dispenses “the philosophy of the man who works and plays” were fulfilled. Barely, in his case. I should say, instead of the man, of the adolescent who works and plays. It’s not unmoving buddhic introspection that leads to the dispersal and the fainting, nor the rigid posture of Rodin’s thinker; better the grace of the pensive one who is always at the point of getting up, or at least changing position; better still, human dynamism: man is motion; motion, thought.

Abraham Ángel demonstrated, without aiming to, without knowing, the vital truth of d’Ors’ theory.* His pictorial work, confined to a few years, was developed during hours fully lived. Teleological repetition—with its distance in time, geography, and values—from the attitude of the hallucinatory Rimbaud who produced his work like one carrying out the unconscious task of breathing, loving, or playing. As in Verlaine’s friend, Abraham Ángel had a kind of disdain for what he so easily, so naturally, did.

The mere quick glance at his canvasses reveals our painting’s priceless qualities. Sustained contemplation exposes the vastness of the gifts of expression he had attained. A sureness of form, a markedly pronounced magnitude, harmonious ordering, brave on the enormous canvasses—a legitimate reaction against the portable copy. And a daring conception in the background of his portraits, of his groups.

Above all, the coloring: the sensuality of succulent fruits’ adolescent friend. Colors never seen on a canvas. Seen only in the parched pomegranate and the bountiful watermelon.

The son of his time and of his environment, his figures are Mexican, spiritually and formally. What’s more, they are chronologically well situated.

From the primitives he had the thoroughness that leads to considering each section of the canvas as a small picture, self-contained and complete. It directly accommodated the vision, for everything to represent it intact, even in the minor details.

He fulfilled, at the same time, his duty as a modern artist.

* In 1931 Catalonian philosopher and art critic Eugeni d'Ors (1881-1954) first proposed his theory that there have been multiple baroque periods throughout history. English translations of his work are difficult to find, though useful excerpts can be found in Chapter Four of Baroque New Worlds: Representation, Transculturation, Counterconquest (Duke UP 2010).

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Star Is Born

Watched the new A Star Is Born this past weekend after watching the earlier three versions over the past few months. There are some things the 2018 version gets right. For example, making the debut of the star a duet instead of a solo. This scene is more in line with the 1937 version when Norman Maine insists on doing Vicki Lester's screen test with her.

While the film is fine on its own as Hollywood pablum, it's dismissal of some worthy tropes, aspects, and plot points from the story's long history makes it a weak addition to the franchise.

Sausage Fest in the Writing Room

While literary giants Dorothy Parker collaborated on the 1937 script and Joan Didion collaborated on the 1976 script, there are no female writers credited on the 2018 script. It's fucking 2018.

Sausage Fest on the Screen

The three earlier versions focus on the arc of a female star being discovered and made. But the focus of the new film is on the naturalistic denouement of a male star. They might as well have called it A Star Slowly Dies.

There are apparently no other women on the planet where this film was set. In the other versions, there are at least other women around, references to other females, and even multiple female family members. Yes, there's a nod to Édith Piaf, but the only other woman with any substantial, though still quite minimal, screen time is the assistant who walks Ally to the side of the stage. There are no mothers, which makes more room for an ever abundant number of father figures! Well, there is one mother...

Ghettoized Blacks and Queers

Every single Black person, including the Black mother, is crammed into a couple of scenes to serve as ethnic accoutrements that somehow make Jackson seem more real and less of a dick. It's fucking 2018.

Ally has a Latinx friend, who, I think, is supposed to read as gay even though there is no direct evidence in the film. But come on: the (ambiguously) gay best friend trope needs to die a slow Jackson Maine death. Regardless, his character is more of a prop than a cast member.

The drag queens (again: more men) are also crammed into a couple of scenes to serve as sassy accoutrements that somehow make Ally's lame backstory more real. It's fucking 2018, which also means there is not a single drag bar on planet Earth where a woman is singing "La Vie en rose." This is the kind of bullshit backstory plot point you get when you put a group of white heterosexual men together to write a blockbuster: the worst of all possible worlds.

Ultimately, the Blacks and queers serve as supporting audiences to Jackson and Ally's love (and performances) with only the slightest gesture toward having lives away from the stars. And that's just bad—also racist and homophobic—writing. As if misogynistic writing wasn't already enough.

Bonus Question

What's the deal with all the white people having unnecessarily complicated familial relationships? Hell, my family is less complicated, and I've been estranged from them for most of my adult life.