Imagine my idiot surprise

Indeed, imagine my idiot surprise that French people talking about Jack Kerouac in Paris would be talking about him in French! Imagine my idiot surprise that French is really such a completely different language from English that whatever they’re saying about Jack Kerouac is impossible to understand even with hand gestures and changes in posture and tone of voice! Imagine that the biggest idiot ever comes to Paris for Festival America and doesn’t really get it that these are French people sharing their interest in North American writing and culture (especially Native Americans and the West) in French!

Imagine. My French sucks. I had two years in college. I love the language but am kind enough not to speak it. Unlike some doofusses on stage who even though they can speak it hurt my ears and I’m not even a French speaking person. La meme chose indeed.

Imagine also that I am trembling in the bakery, frozen, paralyzed, sweating, about to turn and run down the street because each loaf has a  signpost stuck on it with “price per piece’ and “price per kilo” or something, I can’t even figure it out because my French-speaking wife is in Innsbruck visiting her aunt and I always just thought price per loaf.

But anyway. About that time it occurred to me that … have you ever read the book Out of Sheer Rage, by Geoff Dyer? It’s all about him not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence? It occurred to me, as I was eating chocolate-covered butter cookies in room 303 of the Hotel Blason above the bar/cafe at Avenue de Paris and rue de Montreuil that I just might spend my whole three days of Festival America eating cookies in my room and wondering how much the bread costs.

But I got out. I went to the Kerouac worship service in the Auditorium Ernest Hemingway at Coeur de Ville in Vincennes. Took some notes in my notebook standing outside the door waiting for the service to begin. The previous service consisted of a movie. So we’re outside the door watching a video screen showing the movie being played inside; it’s not the movie; it’s a camera shot of the stage where the movie is playing, so in our version there are sofas and a coffee table below the movie; it’s like a cheap pirate video but there’s Lawrence Ferlenghetti talking about North Beach! and a photo of Kerouac with his hair all wet maybe from the ocean or maybe he just got out of the shower or he’s just really sweaty from having sex and my, what a head of hair, this was the early days and then a shot of the Pacific beach, a wave crashing, and my heart leaps: Here I am in Paris and they’re looking at a movie of my home town! Or the place I emigrated to on a Gray Rabbit bus from New York in 1976. This Pacific. These rocks. This is my California which Paris celebrates in a bright marble-floored heart with steel roof supports (I-beams bent like bird wings) and someone with a black T-shirt with all the names of the authors at Festival America materializes in front of me and she has a lanyard and je regrette! I could have applied as a blogger and been on the inside! But then I would have to write something and nah. Not going to write anything. And then there is beareded Ginsburg in white button-down shirt before a window and then the pudgy face of later Kerouac older scowling smoking with thinning hair, sitting by a trap set in an arm chair on black and white television his cheeks fat his neck bloated then saxophone music in After-Midnight-esque style, then some America-style poverty-porn “Salvage” wall urban poor romantic in black and white and it occurs to me that we are watching the film we are missing, which is some kind of metaphor. Jack K. shielding his eyes in spotlight at microphone with manuscript held before his face, then tubby in T-shirt sitting scowling again like he missed a bus, then him with his mom in St. Pete and yep, he probably did miss a bus! Then Ferlinghetti in denim shirt, crumpled hat/white beard before a bookcase …

The audience was 80 percent women. The presenters were 80 percent men. Nothing new there, just noticing.

So look. I love these guys. It’s what I came to SF for. It’s just odd to see it worshiped in Paris. I mean, it’s cool, but it’s odd.

Kerouac. Carver. Salinger. They’re the three great American authors being celebrated here. I can’t understand what they’re saying about them, of course, because my French is too terrible.

I meat Jesmyn Ward. She’s not crazy about her own mastery of the great French language either.

Having a great time, wish you were here, much more to come.–CT

Whatever Happened to Sara Jane … and Learning to like Michael Chabon

I do not remember exactly how I developed this huge attitude about Michael Chabon. I think it was the book Cavalier and Clay that sort of sealed it. We did not like the “innovative” language. But I have felt guilty about this for many reasons. Not only is Michael Chabon sort of local, and we should be nice to locals, but he is a brilliant writer in his way and also a father and husband and no doubt a nice man in many ways. Why is it that in matters of literary reputation we find it wholly acceptable to think and say awful things about people? It is not a desirable trait, I will say that; the desirable thing to do is to read carefully and judiciously and take note of where we differ with the writer on matters of style and preference and so forth. Yet, I suppose to those of us who take writing seriously, it is a matter of life and death and so we get all bent out of shape and conjure up these elaborate and childish peeves.

Also, it was sort of a secret perversity: How could anyone not love Michael Chabon? One sensed that it was a civic virtue to like Michael Chabon. So I wanted to come to some rational and reasonable opinion.

This is sort of the story of how that happened. That is, again today Muni took me to a library, this time somewhat by a perverse accident, and that is how I came to read the Michael Chabon story “A Model World.”

I also want to say — indeed started out this letter intending to say — that I took Muni to Powell Street today to go to the Exit Theater at 155 Eddy Street for Ady Abbot’s solo performance Whatever Happened to Sara Jane? today and it was really, really great. And that is what led me indirectly to read the Michael Chabon short story called “A Model World,” first published in The New Yorker in 1989.

If you live in SF and take Muni you will relate: After leaving the theater I found that an “equipment failure” had occurred in the Civic Center Muni station and the underground was not running. (Yes. You know.) So I took BART to 24th Street to catch the 48 Quintara out to West Portal Station where I had left the car. When i arrived at 24th Street, I found the 48 would not leave for 33 minutes. But voila! There is the Mission Branch Library so I did what I used to do all the time, which was go in and hang around among the books. And that is when it occurred to me that I have certain somewhat reflexive and not wholly rational prejudices against certain perfectly acceptable and even brilliant writers. So I browsed. I thought to myself, Let me see something Michael Chabon wrote when he was young and not such a brilliant big shot; I’ll bet I can learn to like his work if I read the early stuff, before it got fancy and full of aspiration toward something — and I don’t mean to be harsh here, I’m just guessing — perhaps only partially realizable. That was when I found the short story collection A Model World and took it home, along with also A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit, a collection of T.C. Boyle stories Tooth and Claw and finally the Raymond Carver collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? since I realized I have been using Raymond Carver as a sort of marker and totem of a certain kind of voice and style without really any great passion or clarity lately, having not really read carefully any of his work, and thought, hey, I should get a taste of that if I’m going to talk about it. Tastes change. We come back to things and feel differently about them. Reading is a constant series of corrections.

So one interesting thing about “A Model World,” published in 1989, was the place that “the so-called greenhouse effect” plays in the story. It’s a moral tale, and it’s indeed riveting and entertaining but also offers a glimpse of mid-1980s academia, academic life and the state of computers and as well the state of climate science and the state of Michael Chabon, which seems, at that time, quite likable. Competent, warm, likable. So I will stop hating on Michael Chabon. I feel much better now, thank you.

But about Ady’s performance, which was great: This was the last day of the Fringe Festival so you will have to wait to see more of the Sara Jane thing (Sara Jane Moore, that is; it’s the story of her grandmother’s friendship with the woman who tried to shoot President Gerald Ford in 1975 — a few weeks after Squeaky Fromme’s attempt).

Well, so that is my letter today; I will stick to the five-day-a-week schedule except for the weekends, when I may write only once or now and then not at all. I figure that is doable.
Now I have some more books to read, and for my birthday, Karen is taking us to Dixie, the new Southern-style restaurant in the Presidio …

So much more to say, always, but that is enough for now.
Best
cary t.

p.s. In matters of literary taste, I am not a bold leader and discoverer. Although I am indeed quite a strange individual, and though my real tastes will be often outlandishly avant-garde, I wait until someone else expresses a taste, a like or dislike, and then I second it. I am a seconder.

But it is also true that I am one of those people who does not like anyone who has too much success or gets too much attention, and if someone wins the Nobel Prize I am sure to get on him for something. This also, I suspect, comes from being a middle child: You are taking food off my plate, sir, if you become too big in the world. We must share. I, too, want some of the limelight. Not all, like you are taking; just my share. (Yes, I know how absurd this is, I who have never published a novel or play or even short story in a big magazine. I live a “literary” life wholly divorced from observable truth. It is one of the small luxuries of having no literary success: You are free to imagine your status in any way you please.)

Anyway, I am hungry. I want to go to dinner.