Monthly Archives: October 2018

The Books Speak

Mad HatterMaybe you’ve heard that here in the US of A we’re having an election eighteen days from now. Will this election bring us somewhat back into the light, or will we sink further into darkness? Probably some of both, just like always. In times of existential crisis, we often turn to literature for wisdom and comfort, so I decided to ask several literary characters for their opinions on the upcoming American election.

Odysseus (The Iliad)
There’s a good reason they always called me “the great teller of tales” and “man of twists and turns”. Only a fool tells the truth when a lie is useful, and I admire any politician who knows this. The more he lies, the more he is a hero. But why are you having an “election” at all? Life is for the rule of the strongest, to take what you want. There is no such thing as cruelty, only winners and losers.

Mad Hatter (Alice in Wonderland)
You’re having an election? Elect me! I’ll give everyone a cookie and a cup of tea. And a mouse. I saw some clouds in the sky. They looked like me. Elect me! I heard angels singing. They were singing about me! I’ll give you a free cap. Don’t you want a cap? Do you want to sing about me?

Joker (Batman comics)
Here’s what most people don’t understand, because they aren’t as smart as me. Everyone is out to get you, so you should do anything you can to get them first. Trick people every chance you get. I should run for Senate, ha! ha! ha! I’d be so good at it! I’d support everything that’s good for me, but I would tell people I was doing things for them. Do what’s good for you, and let everybody else drop dead, ha! ha! ha!

Police Inspector Javert (Les Misérables)
If only I lived in your country instead of France, I would run for your Congress, as I am exactly the sort of person who belongs there. I have an absolute devotion to higher authorities, and I will do whatever I’m told, with no question of right or wrong. There is no such thing as morality, only law, which should be imposed with rigor, and no such stupid idea as “mercy”.

Scrooge McDuck (Donald Duck comics)
Quack quack quack! Hah! I’m the richest person in the world, so I can’t even tell you how much money I have! I have a roomful of money where I go to lie in it sometimes, to think about how wonderful I am for being so rich! Nothing matters but money, and you should do anything—anything—that will get you more, no matter how much you already have! Quack!

Ghost of Christmas Future (A Christmas Carol)
[When I asked for comments from the Ghost of Christmas Future, I didn’t realize it does not speak. So it said nothing, but it led me into the future, to the funeral of a rich, bitter old man, who was loved by no one, and when he died, everyone celebrated.]

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How Many Colors Were You Thinking?

woman with colored hairAs I’m writing the book Moonapple Pie, part of the background for working on it is that I’m making a point of reading southern writers. I’ve found some who I didn’t know and have really liked (Lee Smith, Edward P. Jones, Mary Hood), as well as some who are just famous.

One writer who I decided to look at was Thomas Wolfe, from Asheville, North Carolina. Back during the summer I was in Asheville, which probably made me think more about Wolfe. I had known of him before, and a movie was made about his life in the past year. I had never read him, so I decided to try Look Homeward, Angel, which I finished recently, though I read it slowly (and it was more than 500 pages).

Although the book is a novel, it is also in some sense an autobiography of Wolfe and his family. Two characters in the book die, for instance, and Wolfe gives them the actual names of two of his own brothers who died when he was young. Even as he kept those names, however, Wolfe changed place names, so that Asheville was mysteriously renamed as Altamont.

Very little plot entices the reader through this novel, so that you wonder what is going to fill up those 500 pages. What plot the book has mostly concerns the character Eugene, who represents the author, but you have to read quite a ways before Eugene is born. We then watch him gradually grow old enough to graduate from college, though the book regularly focuses on someone other than Eugene.

For me, at least, what makes Look Homeward, Angel an interesting book is not the pale plot but the language, a brilliant display the flows and dances and sings on every page. Not everyone, of course, would want to read a book like that. If you don’t enjoy language for its own sake, this is probably not the book for you.

The one thing about this novel that really put me off was the occasional ugly racism. I understand Wolfe was writing the book in 1926, not a time of enlightenment in this country, but it was still unpleasant when I ran into it. There is no viciousness about the racism, but rather a striking lack of empathy, though to be sure, Wolfe is not exactly kind to a single character in the book.

As I was reading the novel, it seemed clear to me that this book was influenced by James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, published in 1922, and I would swear on a tiger’s eyes that Wolfe read Ulysses before he began writing. Sometimes the influence seemed open and obvious, and at other times it was simply the unfettered exuberance of the language that connected the books. Occasionally Wolfe’s language was so outlandishly imaginative that it didn’t even fully make sense, but the fireworks went on. I’ll serve you a few samples of the language, pulled out fairly randomly:

  • “And what Eliza endured in pain and fear and and glory no one knew. He breathed over them all his hot lion-breath of desire and fury; when he he was drunk, her white pursed face, and all the slow octopal movements of her temper, stirred him to red madness.”
  • “He turned his face up to her as a prisoner who recovers light, as a man long pent in darkness who bathes himself in the great pool of dawn, as a blind man who feels upon his eyes the white core and essence of immutable brightness.”
  • “O God! O God! We have been an exile in another land and a stranger in our own. The mountains were our masters: they went home to our eye and our heart before we came to five. Whatever we can do or say must be forever hillbound.”

Just as I would for Ulysses, I would recommend Look Homeward, Angel to other writers, as a way of saying “Loosen your reins on occasion. Look what is possible.”

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I Can’t Emphasize This Enough

whiskey bottle

What kind of boys were here?

I was walking one day in the park back behind me here, and I thought, “That’s a slow-ass couple walking in front of me.” Because I am not only crude but linguistically curious, I began to contemplate the construction I had just used, and it occurred to me that the word “ass” used in such a way functions as an emphatic particle.

An emphatic particle is a small word, really almost just a noise, that adds emphasis to another word. I learned about them while studying Russian. At some point when I was not screaming in anguish from how hard it was, I found the little word же, spelled in English as zhe. Here’s an awkward combination English/Russian sentence: he’s an idiot zhe, which means he’s really an idiot. (And it’s somebody you know.)

Meanwhile, back here in good old English, you don’t want some boring-ass discussion of Russian. I got to thinking about how exactly to use this emphatic particle “ass” in English. From my meticulous examination, it seems like the word only works with adjectives, and given the rude nature of the word, it’s found only in casual or slangy speech.

The types of adjectives you can apply it to also appear to generally be short and not very formal. So you could say “That is an ugly-ass baby you got there” but you would never say “That is an unappealing-ass baby you got there”. Though I can see—purely for poetic purposes—that you might try something more creative like “That is a loathsome-ass baby you got there”. Depending on the baby.

I was also wondering whether the adjective being used always needs to have some negative sense about it. For instance, “Tuesday was such a hot-ass day we had to drink twelve beers” places emphasis on the excess heat. Or if you say to someone “You sure got a big-ass house” do you mean that perhaps it’s a bit too big? As in “what do you pay in taxes on a place like this?” And how do you vacuum it?

Another emphatic particle in English, most common here in the south, is the word “old” but often pronounced without the final letter, like “ole”, or you’ll find it spelled to show the missing letter, as ol’. A common, preposterously clichéd, southern expression is “good ol’ boy” to refer to a grown man. Even though I’m from the south myself, I’d be hard pressed to define that expression. For me it has negative connotations of ignorance and possible bad behavior, but for the people who use the phrase, it’s positive, connoting down-to-earth and perhaps fun to share whiskey with.

Like the emphatic particle ass, ol’ is only used with adjectives. It can have a range of uses, as in “Damn, your mama’s a big ol’ girl, ain’t she?” Notice that both ass and ol’ have to be placed after the adjective that they modify. Similar to ass, the particle ol’ probably cannot be used with very long or formal adjectives. He’s a good ol’ boy, but probably not he’s a judicious ol’ boy.

But I’m not entirely sure. I’m still thinking about that, here in my dumb ol’ blog. Or should that be ill-advised ol’ blog?

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