Saturday, May 28, 2011

On Franzenfreude

Ages and ages ago, in my endorsement of Secondhand World, I promised I'd eventually try and talk about the whole "Franzenfreude" subject, especially now that enough time has passed since the accusations were going around on Freedom's publication that there's been some other really good journalism on the subject... that I can steal. Then, the author of Secondhand World mentioned personally that she'd love to see that article,so I really should. But then the chair of my department bought me a beer and the head of the Honors department bought me another beer (which is a good bit classier than that time we were hanging out and I was drinking absinthe out of a Pepsi bottle), so I have an excuse for my perpetual forgetting-to-write-this-post.
Your move, Bukowski.
Fanzenfreude is the (technically incorrect, if you care about German) term that got created when everyone was heaping laurels on Jonathan Franzen's Freedom as the new Great American Novel. It mainly refers to the way that women writers are treated in publishing and the literary world, and is your basic de Beauvoir-style second sex treatment: male writers are Writers, women are Women Writers. Not only is there an assumption that the Great American Novel will be written by a man, but, specifically, there's the fact that Franzen's novel is one of domestic drama, aesthetics, nature, and marriage. When a woman writes about these subjects, her books are about domestic life, love, and the human condition. When Franzen does, his books are about America.
Gonna kick some butt, gonna drive a big truck.
One of the best articles on the subject comes from (of course) The Guardian's book page( well, originally from The Millions, but The Guardian's edited version gets to the gender point more cleanly), in their article "How to turn a great American novel into a Great one". One of the points that the author makes (in part unintentionally) is that the things we look for in "great" novels are the things that we also expect from and encourage in male writers: daring, braggadocio, ironic detachment, brutal honesty. And when a man writes a book those things are what we look for: publishers and readers expect "masculine" writing and so they expect these traits.

Let's look, for example, at the collection of poetry on my bedside table, Jean Valentine's Break the Glass. The publisher copy and blurbs describe it as "quiet" (Publisher's Weekly) "graceful" (Library Journal), and The New Yorker praises Valentine for moving away from "the confessional poets who influenced her earliest verses" and writing more "skeletal...terse fragments."

Meanwhile, the other poetry collection I've been reading and adoring lately is the 2000 edition of Edwin Morgan's New Selected Poems. I love Morgan (more than Valentine, but let's put that aside for the time being), but reading Alex Salmond's eulogy for him from last year it's hard not to notice that he is praised for the scope and passion of his work, his long narrative explorations of death and violence, and his blunt honesty.

And yet Morgan wrote in "Strawberries" (to a male lover, no less):
"abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you"
And Valentine gave us the brutal, chilling opening of "Diana":
"The tab on the tea bag said
'Love what is ahead
by loving what came before.'
But what came before was no dream
you wake from, it was human sacrifice..."
We ignore the tenderness in Morgan and we ignore the shocking in Valentine and we do them both a disservice.

Edwin Morgan was important: he was the National poet of Scotland. New Selected Poems is implied by its back copy to be a sort of anthem, a symbol of Scottish independence and national pride, whereas Break The Glass is pitched by its copy as a warm, comforting book. Valentine has a National Book Award and a Pulitzer nomination but the "femininity" of her work guarantees that she's not going to make the cover of Time as a nationally important writer in the way that Franzen did.
Does anyone else get serious Dexter vibes from Franzen, or is that just me?
Men's books are books, women's books are women's books. To bring this back to where it started, I know for a fact from talking to the author that two of the biggest influences on Secondhand World are Yukio Mishima and James Baldwin, but the review selected for the back of the book compares it to three different minority women writers because it is a minority woman's story of the alienation and loneliness of adolescence-- never mind that, as a white man, there were moments in it that resonated with an incredible shock of familiarity with my own painful adolescence. Publishers-- and writers, and readers --make the mistake of assuming that men write more universal stories than women, that a writer's gender informs the tone of their voice, and that male readers can't really connect to a woman's writing.

Or, at its core, Franzenfreude is the fact that I can't think of a single woman who's been marketed as a Great Writer to a level that transcends the fact that she is a woman. I can't name a woman poet or novelist who is held up by "the establishment" as an artist before she is held up as a woman artist. We-- readers, writers, and publishers --are keeping women writers, ironically enough, in a room of their own instead of letting them enter a discourse with the literary world as a whole.

And to do that to Rodereda, Adrienne Rich, McCullers, Valentine, Sexton, Woolf, Octavia Butler, and Anna Akhmatova is a goddamn crime against art.

I was going to let Virgina Woolf tell you this, but... it just seemed more serious when I said it for some reason.
"You're a little shit, you know that Jasper?"

"Webster was much posessed by death..."

"John Webster was
one of the best there was.
He was the author of
two major tragedies."
--Echo and the Bunnymen, "My White Devil"

Let me apologize up-front for the lack of posts lately. I've been jetting around the state, visiting family and friends and trying desperately to get a job, preferably one where I don't end up feeling that the last four years of school were an absolute waste (does anyone out there need someone to hang around and be condescending?), and so I haven't gotten around to some of the writing I've been meaning to.

But I've wanted to do this post for a while. And trust me, your world will be a little better for having read it. I hope. I'm about to introduce you to a wonderful and terrifying man and the bloody world he ruled.
Pretty much me. But less tweedy and smug.
First things first-- careful historical research suggests that there may, in fact, have been other people writing in late 16th/ early 17th-century England besides Shakespeare. I know it seems crazy, but there were some fairly well-supported sightings of Marlowe and we're all but convinced that John Donne existed in some form. And then there's the stories-- dark, bloody, gruesome stories --of Webster.

Okay, I'm being an ass here. But the fact remains that it's pretty hard to look at that era without the Bard's shadow. Algernon Swinburne's The Age of Shakespeare, published in 1926, has the following to say of Webster:
"Webster, it may be said, was but as it were a limb of Shakespeare: but that limb, it might be replied, was the right arm. 'The kingly-crownèd head, the vigilant eye,' whose empire of thought and whose reach of vision no other man's faculty has ever been found competent to match, are Shakespeare's alone for ever: but the force of hand, the fire of heart, the fervour of pity, the sympathy of passion, not poetic or theatric merely, but actual and immediate, are qualities in which the lesser poet is not less certainly or less unmistakably pre-eminent than the greater."
 Essentially, the basic viewpoint seems to be that Webster's alright, but he's no Will; Webster may be the Raekwon of the Jacobian stage, but when Voltron formed in 1605 like 90% of it was Shakespeare. Not even the Genius got to be the head.
I have a degree, and I chose to do this.
Bullshit, says I. Yes, Webster's no Shakespeare, but pretty much nobody is. Let's not do Webster a disservice by assuming that just because he wrote at the same time as Shakespeare he should have had his talent, that he's not worth paying attention to because one of his contemporaries happened to be the most influential writer in human history. Instead, let's look at what makes Webster so goddamn great in his own right.

Webster is dark and brutal and incredibly perceptive about human evil. Eliot-- a man perhaps more keenly aware of the tenuousness of light and life than any other artist --praised Webster for his incredible grasp on humanity's frailty and mortality (moments and images from Webster's The White Devil  are scattered throughout The Waste Land). His work is bloody in ways that few other artists of his day were. When someone dies in Shakespeare, there's a purpose and a cause; there is a natural order and violence arises as a consequence of godless chaos. Webster's world rejects this: the notion of divine punishment still implies the too-comforting existence of some kind of natural order and authority, whereas Webster's plays see the world as a realm without government or reason, driven only by the base needs and frantic scrabblings of humanity.

Like I said: dark, dark stuff, but incredible. When you pick up The Duchess of Malfi there's this terrible momentum to the work: whereas in most other tragedies the heroes are noble and the bloodshed dignified, Malfi begins by demonstrating that the noble court-- and all of humanity --are selfish, petty, and grotesque. Then it gets worse. Mankind, at least to the eloquently cynical Bosola, are filth, worse than the lowest animal because we have reason and intelligence and choose to be bestial, with souls as rotten as the corpses we walk around in.
"I do wonder you do not loathe yourselves.
Observe my meditation now:
What thing is in this outward form of man
To be belov'd? We account it ominous,
If nature do produce a colt, or lamb,
A fawn, or goat, in any limb resembling
A man, and fly from't as a prodigy.
Man stands amaz'd to see his deformity
In any other creature but himself.
But in our own flesh, though we bear diseases
Which have their true names only ta'en from beasts,
As the most ulcerous wolf and swinish measle;
Though we are eaten up of lice and worms,
And though continually we bear about us
A rotten and dead body, we delight
To hide it in rich tissue; all our fear,
Nay all our terror, is, lest our physician
Should put us in the ground, to be made sweet."
 Malfi is like The Departed of the Elizabethan stage-- bloody, chaotic, this swirling cycle of pain and retribution and petty, human, evil. It's also really hard to follow and has a lot of similar characters, but that's just an expansion of the chaos inside the play itself; Webster forces you to be lost, confused, and afraid in his world.
"Your brother and yourself are worthy men:
You have a pair of hearts are hollow graves,
Rotten, and rotting others."
What makes Webster so astonishing is that he was writing his characters as lost souls in a broken world centuries before Modernism made that the popular viewpoint of literature. He paints the nobility as corrupt, restrictive sexual "morality" as a perverse obsession with purity, God as nonexistent and justice as a joke. In 1612-- when just saying that maybe God didn't directly appoint King James to rule over the British Empire for the good of all its subjects and as a defense against the Papacy was treasonous.

It's not all dark and gloom and sinister, though-- well, it mostly is, but it's not brutal for brutality's sake. Webster's aim isn't to shock his audience, but to remind them of their own frailty, of their own base humanity. One of his best moments--one of the best moments of Elizabethan drama--is the final scene of Malfi, by which point every major character is dead, except for the two who are bleeding to death as the play closes. Ferdinand, the villain of the piece, remarks that mankind is not brought down by devils (as was the case in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 30 years earlier), or by karmic retribution for transgressions against order (as in Macbeth, c.1605), but instead says that
"I do account this world but a dog-kennel...
Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,
Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust."
There's some stranglin' about to happen.
The play's ending is Godfather levels of dark: the one innocent, the Duchess's child son who stands a chance at escaping the den of killers and traitors that is the noble court, is instead guaranteed a position of high stature in the wake of everyone else's death. There's no redemption, no hero to come in and impose justice as there is in Macbeth, no ironic retribution for the nobility's sin as in Coriolanus.

Webster refuses to offer the audience an out. He refuses to let us make exceptions or walk away with a lesson learned and a comfortable resolution. Instead there's just everything wrong with the rich and powerful, and the silent promise that nothing about that is going to change.
"Now my revenge is perfect. Sink, thou main cause
Of my undoing. The last part of my life
Hath done me best service."

Webster's work is unique in its time-- ugly, crude, inordinately bloody, chaotic, rejecting any claims to moral authority and divine order. Reading it, one is reminded of J.G. Ballard's comment on his novel Crash, when he said that "I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror." Although he never lacks for beautiful language, and can even rival Will himself at his brightest moments, Webster never thinks for a moment that the beauty of his words can mask the evil that humanity is capable of, or that eloquence, money, or a fancy uniform somehow transforms someone into a moral person.

Pick him up, essentially. It's the most anti-authority British writing you're going to get until Milton comes along, and it's fascinating to see this kind of blood, hate, and anger in an era of drama that we associate almost solely with Shakespeare.

Monday, May 9, 2011

REVIEW: Fletcher Hanks's I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets!

"This is a song about a superhero named Tony
It's called 'Tony's Theme'!
I can look at the sun
If you give me some bad sunglasses
I'm back on the road"

--The Pixies, "Tony's Theme"

Thanks for letting me take graduation week off, everyone. I had a lot of fun, got some good stuff done, and I've come back bearing treasures.

I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets is one of the most astounding comic books I've ever read. Not the best-- not by a long shot --but astounding in the literal sense. The fact that it was written, drawn, published, and collected staggers the mind; the comics within seem so strange and otherworldly that it's hard to believe they ever existed.

Fletcher Hanks was a drunk, a moonshiner, and a manic-depressive bastard who, despite having some decent artistic talent (the comic reproduces a nature sketch of some ducks that he did) turned his ambitions towards crude, insane superhero comics in the 1930's, at the dawn of the American comics industry. Like a lot of outsider artists-- Darger especially comes to mind, although Hanks's work is nowhere near as beautiful --there's this incredibly primal energy to his work, this pure drive by someone trying to tell stories and make up fantasies when they don't have the best grip on how the real world functions to begin with.
Jesus, that comic looks the way that Black Sabbath sounds.
Primal really is the word that leaps to mind here. The artwork is this bizarre mix of beauty and crudity--the colors are incredibly vibrant, the line work is strong and some of the cityscapes and panoramas are actually pretty good-looking, but every character has only one expression and the body language is painfully stiff. Similarly, the actual stories are bloody and mad and feel like this grindhouse blend of early Superman, Ayn Rand, and death metal lyrics. In nearly every story of Stardust the Super-Wizard, "whose scientific use of rays has made him a master of space," Hanks's main character, a cabal of the enemies of business and America hatch some scheme to take over the earth (the best of which being when they chain themselves to the ground, magnetize every car and plane and ocean to make them stay in place, and then stop the Earth's rotation in order to fling every other person into space and rule it alone), Stardust stops them with his "fusing ray" or "boomerang ray" or somesuch, and then spends literally half the comic-- almost always more time than the actual crime took --forcing them to suffer ironic punishments.
I'm sorry, did you think I was making that up?
There's an incredible anger to these works, and you get the feeling that Hanks, who was a chronic alcoholic and a violent man, is desperately trying to lash out at the people he blames for the state of the world. In every story, the corrupt industrialists, gangsters, and evil conspiracy leaders are seized by some all-powerful being and treated as filth like them deserve. The highlight is probably the punishment for the man who used an anti-oxygen ray to try to suffocate the president, congress, and every doctor and soldier in the US: his body is condensed into a giant head, thrown into "the space pocket of living death," and is then captured by a giant headless headhunter who attaches the gangster's head to his shoulders and absorbs it into him.

Seriously-- I cannot put into words how mad and beautiful this thing is. 50,000 panthers are unleashed on New York. Stardust turns his hand into an octopus so he can grab someone with it. 5 criminals are condensed into one man so that punishing them will be easier.
Thank you, Stardust the Super Wizard. That makes perfect sense.
The closest comparison I can make to anything contemporary is Axe Cop. And Axe Cop is deliberately over-the-top and written by a 6-year-old, whereas Hanks seems to have put a lot of sincere heart and soul into his madness. He's also an influence on contemporary cartoonists like the ever-wonderful KC Green, who also loves to mix absurd violence, blunt art, and illogical cosmic disaster. It's hard not to compare him to HP Lovecraft at times, too-- just some drunken madman, holed up in New York, churning out these insane stories that you're not entirely sure he believes are fiction.

For anyone who's into comics, or into weird, transgressive art, I can't recommend this anthology highly enough. It's a strange, shocking trip-- these are comics that unintentionally accomplish the ugly, shocking beauty that cartoonists like R. Crumb and Spiegelman's early work sought so hard to embody. They're magical and strange and every page is dripping with absurd wonderment and shock. They're incredibly fun, but also get pretty deeply unsettling at times. It's childish wonder and grown-up insanity, all condensed into one technicolor package.

Monday, May 2, 2011


Probably not gonna be any posts this week, guys-- I officially graduate Saturday so I'm taking some time off, playing video games and watching cartoons. I am getting a copy of I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets later this week though, which promises to be as bizarre as it sounds, so expect a review of that.

See you all soon!