Books postsTuesday July 24, 2018
Mulaney, Vonnegut and Walking Into the Ocean
Several years ago, I pointed out the similarities between a bit of Marcel Proust's writing and a bit of Louis C.K.'s stand-up comedy. The fact that these professions collide actually makes sense to me. Proust once described artists as “creatures who talk of precisely the things one shouldn't mention,” and that's pretty much what modern stand-up comedians do.
Well, here's another novelist/comic comparison: Kurt Vonnegut and John Mulaney.
One of Mulaney's recent bits is about how robots ask us if we‘re robots. We try to log onto our stuff, and we’re made to jump through idiotic hoops (“Which of these pictures does not have a stop sign in it?”) that techies have devised that are supposedly beyond the capabiities of robots. You can see the bit here beginning at 5:41:
“You spend a lot of your day,” Mulaney says, “telling a robot that you‘re not a robot. Think about that for two minutes and tell me you don’t want to walk into the ocean.”
God, I love that.
So the other day I was rereading “Palm Sunday” by Kurt Vonnegut, and came across the following in an essay entitled “When I Lost My Innocence.” Vonnegut was asked to write the essay by an editor in a Swedish newspaper but he replied with a letter. The letter began by talking about how his only religion growing up was an enthusiasm for technological cures for most forms of human discontent. He says he lost that religion when the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. He said the soul that created that blast was so sick “it did not want to live anymore.” He adds:
It is quite awful, really, to realize that perhaps most of the people around me find lives in the service of machines so tedious and exasperating that they would not mind much, even if they have children, if life were turned out like a light switch at any time. How many of your readers will deny that the movie Dr. Strangelove was so popular because its ending was a happy one?
Made me think of Mulaney, and telling robots you‘re not a robot, and walking into the ocean.
Of these four artists I’ve mentioned, you'd think the tidy Mulaney would match better with Proust, while the sloppy, populist Louis would fit in with Vonnegut. And maybe they do. Somewhere.
Two Careers of Kevin Bacon
“People got to know...”
“It felt like a downward slide from Footloose. At that point in my life, I was really just looking at leads because that was what I thought I was supposed to be doing. And Paula [Wagner] said to me, 'I remember seeing you,‘—actually before she represented me—’in a lot of theater in New York,' because that's really where I started, as an Off-Broadway stage actor. I was doing edgy character stuff, not trying to really carry things. In some cases it was a major role, but at other times it was just darker, edgier, sometimes funny stuff—like gay hookers and junkies. And she said, 'I think you need to get back into that in the movies. Don't just focus on leads.'
”The first thing Paula suggested was that I go and sit with Oliver Stone. He had a part that she thought I could do in JFK. She represented Oliver as well at the time. ...
“It was one of those special times when I could actually feel a change within myself, like ‘Okay, this is what I need to do, not all the time, but this is the type of actor that I want to be. I’ve been a character actor pretending to be a leading man. That can't continue.' And I have Paula to thank for that. Afterward, the tide changed and that led to A Few Good Men, Murder in the First, and River Wild. The movies got better, and the parts got better.”
Kevin Bacon in the oral history “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency,” by James Andrew Miller. The early pages of the book are fun, but it gets bogged down a bit in the 1990s, and not enough context is given. I began to Google the principles to find out what happened to them.
“For ten continuous years, at 6 A.M. each day, Michael Ovitz would face the morning with a diurnal, hour-long, rigorous aikido workout. It got his juices flowing, and it reflected his overall interest in—indeed, obsession with—Eastern philosophy. While other martial arts students would do their hour and wander off, Ovitz began to fixate on his swarthy instructor as yet another potential revenue stream. In one of his cheekiest displays of hubris ever, Ovitz decided he would make that instructor a movie star—and so the career of Steven Seagal was launched. Ovitz brought Seagal over to Warner Bros., where studio bosses Terry Semel and Bob Daley, along with other key executives, obligingly sat in a soundstage and watched Steven Seagal beat the crap out of sundry guest attackers. It was an impressive display of physical skill and brutality—if not of acting prowess, showmanship, or the speaking of dialogue. No matter; those studio chiefs were wowed, and slick-haired Seagal was on his way.”
from the oral history “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency,” by James Andrew Miller
Own the Epithet
“Many in town called us the ‘TV boys,’ which was meant in a demeaning way, but we made a decision to joke about it and embrace it. We would walk into a room and say, ‘The TV boys are here.’”
Michael Ovitz, on the early days of CAA, in the oral history “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency,” by James Andrew Miller
Philip Roth (1933-2018)
I was thinking of a Philip Roth line yesterday morning before I heard the news of his death yesterday evening at the age of 85. It's a line from “The Ghost Writer,” my favorite of his novels, about a young Nathan Zuckerman visiting his idol, E.I. Lonoff, who is a combination of Malamud, Bellow, Salinger and probably other Jewish authors I'm unaware of, in the Berkshires—“that is to say,” Zuckerman adds, “in the goyish wilderness of birds and trees where America began and long ago had ended.”
But that's not the line. This is the line:
To get it wrong so many times.
It's Lonoff's line. He's an exacting presence, a meticulous writer and personality who often goes through 20-30 drafts of a short story before it's considered done. When he's complimented on this, by Zuckerman, he says the above. I‘ve quoted it before. Here, for example. I can’t remember why I thought it yesterday. Probably work related. But I think of Lonoff a lot. He read with a pen in hand to mark passages, and I began to do the same. I still do it when I'm not on a Kindle. Like Lonoff, I have trouble concentrating otherwise.
I urge “The Ghost Writer” on you as I‘ve urged it on, and given it to, countless friends over the years. I think it’s about as perfect as a novel can be. It reminds me of “Gatsby” or “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” or “Breakfast at Tiffany‘s” in that way. All of these books are eminently accessible, fun and profound. They stick with you. They’re deep in my bones.
That was my first Roth, wasn't it? It was the summer of 1981, we were on the eastern shore, at Rehoboth Beach, Del., and I'd been reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I think my father was finally curious about Vonnegut, picked him up, thought “Not bad, but ... ” When I objected to the “but,” he suggested I read some Roth. I was used to Vonnegut's short sentences and Roth gave me this at the opening of “The Ghost Writer”:
It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago—I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman—when I arrived at his hideaway to meet the great man. The clapboard farmhouse was at the end of an unpaved road twelve hundred feet up in the Berkshires, yet the figure who emerged from the study to bestow a ceremonious greeting wore a gabardine suit, a knitted blue tie clipped to a white shirt by an unadorned silver clasp, and well-brushed ministerial black shoes that made me think of him stepping down from a shoeshine stand rather than from the high altar of art.
It would be easier to name the Roth books I haven't read than the ones I have. I didn't read him much this century, so I haven't touched “Everyman,” “The Humbling,” “Nemesis.” I failed to pick up “The Dying Animal” and “Exit Ghost.” Back in the day, I didn't make it through “Operation Shylock.” “Shop Talk,” no. The other 25 books, yes.
In pre-social media days, I was part of a group of friends that met in a private online chatroom to talk about the world, and within it, by its ringleader, I was given the nom de plume Zuckerman, after Nathan, Roth's alter ego. The ringleader and I had known each other since the 1980s, and I guess I spoke a lot about Roth then. Or it could be that my early work was very much Roth-influenced: that super-articulate howl, that beating your head against the wall, that catch between being the good boy and living the good life.
How much yiddish do I know because of Roth? He was my entree there. (He and Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers.) “Gonif,” certainly. That's “Goodbye, Columbus.” It's a scene between Roth's alter-ego, Neil, and Mr. Patimkin, the father of Neil's girlfriend, Brenda, two-thirds of the way through the novella:
“Here [in business] you need a little of the gonif in you. You know what that means? Gonif?”
“Thief,” I said.
“You know more than my own kids. They‘re goyim, my kids, that’s how much they understand.”
That's such great dialogue. All that doesn't need to be said. Patimkin is the mercenary business Jew, the man who raised himself by his bootstraps, and made his children taller, more beautiful, but ultimately softer than he was. He made them goyim. That unspoken sigh of resignation when Neil knows what his kids don‘t. There’s so much of America captured in this little back and forth.
That's the thing I missed when Roth went on his spree of Great American novels in the 1990s. I reviewed most of them for The Seattle Times—I was considered their Roth expert—but gave them middling reviews. They won national book awards and I was disappointed. The themes were amazing, it was America through the American century, but by then Roth had moved past dialogue (and his trademark brilliant sense of humor) and into monologue, which was often humorless. He traded dialogue for diatribe. I missed his back-and-forths. I wanted Alvin Pepler on the scene.
I still feel guilty about those reviews. I want to return to those books to see what I missed.
In the middle of the Trump era is no time to die for someone like Roth. The man who skewered Nixon and his men in “Our Gang” in the early 1970s dismissed Trump in a paragraph just last January:
I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.
He was in retirement by then but maybe shouldn't have been. I could‘ve used an essay, or a book, on the above. His novel, “The Plot Against America,” imagined a fascistic U.S. in the 1940s with a Pres. Lindbergh in charge, and Jews rounded up and taken into those goyish woods, and for that Roth was considered prescient. He dismmised it. Lindbergh was a hero, he said. “Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.” The unstated is that 21st-century America can’t even do fascism right. We voted for a strutting clown, a pompous ass. During the 2016 campaign, I could never understand why more people didn't see through Trump, and why it was so easy for me to do so. Maybe because I saw him partly through Philip Roth's eyes.
He was the starting right-fielder of my literary nine. When Gore Vidal died I wrote “Doctorow and Roth live” and when Doctorow died I said “Now just Roth.” And now, not. Goodbye, Columbus. Goodbye, Columbus. Goodbye.