Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski

Ham on RyeHam on Rye by Charles Bukowski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is something about reading a novel within 48 hours: you fully inhabit another person’s life for a very brief period of time. It is also quite intense. 200 pages in one afternoon. That is often intense. But this seems to be the way I approach Charles Bukowski’s writing. The last of his stories that I read, and my first, was Hot Water Music. I found it on a shelf while working at a hostel in Rome, Italy over ten years ago; and I read it within 48 hours. This is not to note that I couldn’t put it down; oh no, I put it down. A few times, in fact. But I picked the book back up soon after it hit the floor.

Bukowski’s writing possesses a strange allure for me. I can’t quite decide what it is that attracts me to his writing, but I do know that my liking is only for a brief period. And while I do not think one should imbibe too much Bukowski—it is like being drunk on 150-proof misanthrope—a little from time to time is good. He creates well-reasoned and well-observed notions about America’s class system. And there is not a fear about his masculinity. I like that. I think that particular trait of an author or protagonist is hard to find in our postmodern writing.

Many of our (American) male authors find it difficult to write about sex, love, or basic attraction from a patriarchal, masculine, what-have-you standpoint. It is an understandable fear. But it seems that one must smoke Marlboro’s, possess numerous acne scars, and have an abusive childhood in order to make such patriarchal observations. Without these boorishly virile traits in an author, quite often, reading a male protagonist’s coming of age novel that does not include allusions to a burgeoning interest in masturbation in all its illusions, fears and fantasies is false at its very core.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not incredibly interested in reading about Holden Caulfield‘s discovery of his erect penis, but after reading Bukowski, all those existential fantasies Caulfield imagines seem so false and pretentious. But, again, too much of either seems dangerous to me.

There is a lot of hate in this novel. And this is why I strongly recommend not reading a lot of Bukowski’s work. Too much of that can turn one’s outlook. I only write that because of something unique in Bukowski’s writing: I do not feel any pity for his protagonist, Henry Chinaski. And that profoundly bemuses me. Why is that? He is beaten severely—of which we are given great detail. He is ostracized by all his classmates and on a daily basis is forced to fight or be beaten. He is beaten at home, in school, by the kids, by the teachers; his friends are beaten at home, in school, etc. and yet, I end up feeling very little sympathy for him. Is it because it is not real enough? I don’t think so. I think because it is too real. And mostly because the reader gets the feeling that Chinaski (and Bukowski, if I may extend myself) doesn’t need or want your sympathy.

So then, why write?

I think it is because Bukowski is so unflinchingly honest in his writing—even in his fiction, even in his lies. Maybe because that is where he can finally tell an honest story in an audaciously bold and benevolently destructive manner. And people listen to him. Maybe that is the only place people do listen to him. Yeah, maybe.

I always picture Bukowski as the guy at the end of the bar whose loud and lewd stories possess grit, danger, and a bit of magic; only, you don’t want to get to close to him because you are afraid you could smell the years of whiskey on his breath and in his sweat. The difficult part is that you will never be him, but you want to be that tough, that gritty, that courageous, that ballsy. And the other difficult part is that you hate him for being that way in the first place; for surviving that punishing life for so long.

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Tom SawyerThe Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is my sincere declaration that Tom Sawyer, if he were to be found in our modern age, would be diagnosed with ADHD. He would be given pills and treatment to correct his behavior. It is for this reason that I state: Tom Sawyer does not exist in our culture; we have cured him.

As Marx adroitly asks in his work, The Grundrisse, “is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Illiad with the printing press…?” (The Marx-Engels Reader 246). The answer is a resounding, No. So then, neither is Tom Sawyer possible in our modern age. His behavior is erratic. The boy cannot concentrate in either church or school—Chapter V is completely devoted to a singular church distraction: a beetle, or “pinch bug”! Tom constantly misbehaves, much to the torment of his tenacious Aunt Polly, and runs away whenever he has the chance. Tom also has a terrible work ethic—consider the infamous whitewashing chapter. He even fakes his own death! It is obvious from this example that Tom cares little for the concern of others; or, in other words, he lacks sympathy, empathy, and is unfeeling and uncaring.

“Now wait,” you may say, “Tom does some great things!” Agreed. Tom exhibits what I would like to consider as a “CEO quality”. Tom is what we often refer to as a natural born leader: he is persuasive, adventurous, opportunistic, and intrepid. And he also possesses integrity—consider the moment in school when he “lies” about the tear in the headmaster’s book to protect his love interest, Becky Thatcher. But, I contend that Tom Sawyer would never have the opportunity to perform these acts and thus redeem himself. Our culture would only highlight the bad—the misbehavior, the disobedience, the fidgeting, the inability to focus—and ignore any opportunity that Tom may happen upon to use these natural qualities to better himself and his community.

This is an obvious exaggeration, and Tom is obviously a fictional character; so, my argument is an odd one. Mostly because Tom Sawyer is, admittedly by Mark Twain, an amalgam of boys he knew and stories he either partook in or heard from someone—although he does account them all as true in the Preface. What I mean to state is that Tom Sawyer cannot occur as a fictional character in our modern era; there isn’t room for him. He is no longer an adequate representation that reflects our youth; again: we have cured him of his fidgeting, his restlessness, his distractions. Any character created on Tom Sawyer is created against Tom Sawyer; he is created both in his absence and his shadow. If a wayward youth arises in our fictional arsenal he is indebted to Tom Sawyer, but he is not him.

This is not nostalgia. As Marx rhetorically states: we can only create characters that reflect our epoch. So to read Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer is to read about a time in our nation’s history where values were considerably altered. We should not want to harken back those times any more than we are able. But texts like these should serve as a reminder; no, not to the “better, more simpler times” [blaah], but to a time when our lives presented different values, morals, challenges, and opportunities for children and adults alike. To consider that some of the same opportunities and challenges in Twain’s world could occur in ours is far-fetched due to a great deal of modernity; but on the other hand, the reason this text are still read, printed, mass-produced, anthologized, and remembered is because we come so close to reflecting Twain’s world. Tom Sawyer should tell us as much about us as he does about himself.

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Who Has Choice?

There is currently a wonderfully written article on The Atlantic Monthly‘s website entitled, “Put Your Shirts Back On: Why Femen is Wrong,” by Uzma Kolsy that I urge all of you to read. But my post isn’t about Uzma’s writing. It is about the comment section.

First cover of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. ...

First cover of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. November 1857.

I love reading articles from The Atlantic—possibly because they are free and often deal with topical cultural/gender/racial issues. But what is often times more revealing, and interesting, than the articles themselves are the comments made by The Atlantic‘s readers. First, let’s acknowledge something: all of those leaving comments must sign in somehow; whether that is through Facebook, Gmail, or whatever online system the kids use these days to remember their friends’ birthdays. They must take the time to sign in and leave a comment. So, it is with some effort and time that they devote to their often inane and dimwitted comments. Okay. Have I lost you yet? I’ll get to my point in a moment.

The article concerns Femen‘s activity regarding Muslim/Islamic culture—and their assumptions about a monolithic, oppressed Muslim female who must be represented, spoken for, and rescued (if you do not know who Femen is, please follow my .org or wiki link). Uzma argues that Femen’s “core flawed presumption” is that “Muslim women are oppressed because Islam is inherently oppressive” (Kolsy). She goes on to write that instead of removing their shirts and presumably speaking for, i.e. representing, Muslim women, they should donate their time to Muslim charities and social organizations. Her bulk argument is that the Femen organization is not helping Muslim women by considering them “unfree” or “oppressed,” but rather they are, first, bringing negative and fallacious attention on Islam, and secondly making Orientalist, racist and sexist presumptions about a women’s right to “choose” the hijab, or any other clothing.

Now, I have “cherry picked” two incendiary comments from the article to diagnose, and I realize that not all people think this way, but I wanted to mention that I am aware of that bias. I would also like to acknowledge that by highlighting these quotes I realize I am bringing a type of promotion or fame to these ideas—which I certainly do not promote or champion. Here are two comments made by readers of the Atlantic article in question:

1) “Muslim women are not making choices. They are making choices within a very limited set circumscribed by men, or by their mothers or other women who have a vested interest in the system.”

2) “If the Muslim women of the world did remove their hijabs in solidarity, you know exactly what would have happened to most of them: they would be beaten, if not murdered. Whipped back into compliance by men who are cowards and cannot trust their own wives to fend off the advances of another man.”

Now, here comes the controversy: I agree with point one, but on the condition that it be changed to “no one is making choices”. “Choice,” for me, is a highly contentious term. Many of us take it for granted that we have “choice” or that we feel the necessity to exercise some conception of “choice” on a daily basis, e.g. I “choose” to write this late at night instead of sleeping, even though I know I have to get up early (I will refrain from using ironic, and rather annoying, quotes from now on). But the problem is that a division wedges itself between those who have choice, i.e. those free to act, think, vote, etc., and those without choice, i.e. those oppressed by some larger force like culture, class, religion, etc. But the thing is: we are ALL influenced by immutable social forces, such as ulture, class, religion, gender, etc.; these things ALL enforce our decisions, actions, and lives.

Let’s be obvious for a moment. Do you wear glasses? Yes? Then you have a different mindset than someone who does not. Thought about corrective surgery? Investigated the price? Someone with 20/20 has not. Think about your glasses? Their care and cleanliness? Do you think about wearing contacts when you pick out sunglasses? A person with 20/20 has not had these thoughts. “Sure,” you say, “that’s biological”. Right. Okay… Guys, where do you buy your underwear? Target? Walmart? Is it Hanes? or Fruit of the Loom? Have you ever bought a single pair of Calvin Klein underwear at Macy’s for the price of four pairs of Hanes? No? You should. Because you have that choice.

Choose.

Choose…

Here’s where it gets sticky. You don’t have that choice, but you think you do because a nice mix of consumerism and late capitalism is an empowering and entitling narcotic. The danger is when that entitlement bleeds over into politics, ethics, gender, sexuality, etc. That you think you have choice is all that matters to Ronald McDonald, underwear factory owners, or managers at Target or Walmart. Even if you try to prove to me that you have choice, you are doing so out of a condition—sure, go buy the Calvin’s, gentlemen, you will love them! That condition is that you are trying to prove something to me, so the action is a necessary one, not chosen. Even a seemingly random act has a causal condition. But when we use the term choice, we are isolating a phenomenon in order to distinguish that act from others as important. We are telling a story. You are selecting, most often unconsciously, what information to exclude and what to include based on your experiences and the inherit desire for social acceptance. And that story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning isolates and solidifies the cause, the middle is the detail-y bit, and the end, well, the end is our moral justification—”I may have done something wrong, but here is why I did it. Do not condemn me“.

I find the use of the term choice abhorrent and despicable when used to distinguish one group from another as those possessing choice and those not possessing it. In its most casual and vulgar form it is employed to justify personal morality, and isolate and punish the other individual’s failure to achieve—”I have been able to do this, therefore you are able to do this. If you do not, then that is your choice“. This example ranges from arriving to work on time, living a healthy lifestyle, to earning a degree. Rather than choice, I prefer the terms desire and decisions. These terms allow for social influences and a range of numerous possibilities—as opposed to the either/or of choice. As far as I am concerned, choice is an absolute: either everyone has it or no one does. There is no way to clearly distinguish between those who have choice and those who do not. By creating that distinction to judge others lives of which we often know very little, we reveal the forces that have shaped our own morality; and more often than not, we reveal our bigotry, our fears, our hatred, and our ignorance. Just as some of those individuals making comments on Uzma Kolsy’s article have done.

The Trial, by Franz Kafka

The TrialThe Trial by Franz Kafka

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While I don’t think my opinion of Franz Kafka’s The Trial is unique, I think it offers a different approach then the traditional “man vs. modernity” synopsis. Let me be clear: I think this struggle is a prominent feature of Kafka’s work, and it is meant to be noticed by the reader; but, for me, the event of Josef K.’s trial is far too fantastic to be a theatrical polemic against the coarse, lifelessness of bureaucracy. I think Kafka trickier than that.

My analysis begins here: I do not think that Josef K. is in direct conflict with a bureaucracy or those who represent the bureaucracy (the thugs, the judges, the lawyers, etc.). What I mean to state is that Josef K. has invented his trial. It is not real.

While I usually refrain from a Psychoanalytic approach to texts, my reading of The Trial begins with that this thought: Josef K. is dreaming. (Phew, now I can commence a more sensible, e.g. Marxist, reading of the text). Josef K. is an overworked, overstressed, unappreciated, undersexed, lonely, and paranoid CFO. His shadows in life are Dostevsky’s Underground Man (Notes from Underground), Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin (The Overcoat), and more recently, Tyler Durden—not to mention many others that I do not have at hand.

The first time I recognized the dreaming was during the second of two shrieks that K. hears during his court proceedings. The second is on page 71. Kafka writes:

“K. was now approached by a guard, who could be recognized chiefly by a saber whose scabbard, to judge by its color, was made of aluminum. K. was amazed by this and even reached out toward it.”.

While the shrieks are not odd as an event, their peculiarity is derived from their abruptness and seemingly unnecessary nature. In the first, we never find out what happens to the screaming man; in fact, most everyone at the trial ignores the couple as though it never occurred. For the latter, the guard leaves with an intent to examine the scream himself. What caught my attention was K.’s motion to grab the saber. What an odd detail. And it is only with curiosity that K. attempts this maneuver. He does not wish to escape or attack the guard; he is like a child exploring every oddity he encounters. He is a man grasping for meaning; for reality; like a pinch for the dreaming man who discovers the guard’s scabbard is aluminum, only then to suddenly wake up.

Now, once I had made a decision to venture down this “dream” path, I noticed it everywhere. For instance, in the beginning of the chapter featuring the Painter. It begins, “K. was sitting in his office, already thoroughly fatigued in spite of the early hour” (111). It is my contention that K. often falls asleep and dreams these fanciful events. The visit to the Painter is surreal: the heat, the paranoia concerning his jacket, and finally the escape through the rabbit hole just above the Painter’s bed that, of course, leads to the court halls. Or in the chapter with Block, the Merchant. Kafka writes: “This resolution drained K. of a great deal of energy… he worked at unusually slow pace, stayed late at the office” (166). And again, in the chapter featuring the Flogger, Kafka takes note that K. is “almost the last to leave [the office] that night;” indicating that K. may have fallen asleep and dreams the absolutely absurd scene featuring Franz and Willem (80). And of course, “the next day… he had difficulty concentrating on his work, and in order to finish up he had to stay at the office slightly longer then he had the day before” (86). K. is almost disappointed that Franz and Willem are not being flogged that night as well, and in a rage makes his assistants clean out the junk room.

Each chapter of The Trial could exist on its own. There is very little narrative continuation between the chapters, i.e. the characters appear and disappear just as easily and are rarely mentioned again, and the plot does not require any cohesiveness. They are episodic and farcical; as a man trying to piece together a dream in an attempt to make sense of it all. But this dreamlike state does not erase the “man vs. modernity” aspect. All it does is make it an indirect conflict. It is not K., the physical character of the novel who is overworked and paranoid, it is his dream that confronts the bureaucracy—mainly because K.’s position does not allow him freedom to confront it. He is it. He is at the top of the bureaucratic food chain (so to speak), and he knows there is absolutely NO way out. The trial is his invention. It is his psychosomatic illusion wrestling with his position and his responsibility as CFO. The trial is his way out.

Lastly, I have to add that the priest’s story of the doorkeeper is perhaps one of my favorite moments of this text. There is so much to draw from it as an allegory or metaphor. And the literary criticism of a text within a text is an astounding feat for any author. Not to mention that it is positioned as the initial conception of the Law. I think it is K. that waits at the metaphorical door. He does not realize he is free, which is exactly why he believes that the doorman deceives the man; because K. believes he has been deceived by the grandiose promise of life, steady employment, trust in the system, etc., and now that he has ascended to his coveted position any chance to be truly free is over. After all, “Worker bees can leave. / Even drones can fly away. / The queen is their slave” (Durden).

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