I remember the voice rising in sing-song, pausing, starting again, climbing in soft melancholy, conveying the sadness of the world, stopping and starting again.I remember the pagodas everywhere, the nights cold, days without cover, crowds thick and a language impossible to understand. I remember the dogs fighting in the bushes while I haggled for something I didn’t want and then I was beside a truck, fighting to be heard. I remember my dusty feet, my bruised kidneys and my battered knees, feeling out of place and wanting to get home.
Qin Xiaolong’s Years of Red Dust chronicles Chinese history from 1945 to present day, everything set in the same Shanghai street. The prose read like Confuscius-esque proverbs that convey pithy wisdom:
Bai was hit by a stray bullet during a disorderly retreat in the Korean War. There was no possibility of recovering her body under the circumstances. Her picture appeared in the city newspapers. Her noble deeds were lauded on the radio. The loss of such a young, beautiful life made the slogan resonant and meaningful to all of us: “Down with American Imperialism!” However Bai came back, to the consternation of the lane, in the middle of 1954. It was like a bolt out of the clear blue sky. As it turned out, she had been wounded, captured, put into a prisoner camp and finally sent home.There was something like a shroud cast over her family, over the lane, and over those who had known her. At the end of the year, Bai looked like a totally changed woman – like a stuffed scarecrow, gesticulating in the wind, trembling amidst the crows of terror as darkness came falling over the field. It was hard to believe that her beauty could have she so quickly, like pear blossom petals after a storm. “The white petals stamped over and over on the wet, black ground,” Old Root commented. “Resurrection is terrible.”
It seems to me that to eliminate prejudice, we just have to get rid of time zones. I know that time zones seem like a practical system for everyone, and it only starts with a measly one-hour difference. Yes, it is all so sensible, but then the hours become two and three, and before you realize what’s happened, it’s turned into a matter of night and day. Think about how off-putting it is to realize that your noon is another’s midnight, your breakfast someone else’s dinner.Seeing the world only from a lone time zone is skewed and detrimental to all. Saying one is a few hours ahead, another a day behind is judgmental, making for a wholly classist understanding for what should be a common human experience. Why can’t we all be equal, all of us together in a fuzzy land of uncertainty, unaware of our own self-centric time? No more of this self-centered living. It is time to embrace and love the all of our communal experience. Or maybe I should try to get a good night’s sleep.
Tad Friend’s recent New Yorker article The Mogul in the Middle reminds us that movies are like everything in this life: a business. Friend focuses on STX Entertainment founder, Adam Fogelson, who “is not interested in movies where they all talk too much, that Sundance shit of jerking off on the screen.” Instead, Fogelson is celebrated for taking risks on films that larger distribution companies are scared of: “In 2012, If you asked a roomful of people ‘What’s “Ted”?,’ some might have said, ‘A conference’. Four months later, all around the world, a giant portion of people would have said, ‘A movie about a magical bear who comes to life.’ That is an exciting, terrifying, magical truth.” Friend goes on to explain that “the six major studios have bet that the future on films that are predicated not on the chancy appeal of individual actors but on “I.P.”—intellectual property, in the form of characters and stories that the audience already knows from books or comics or video games. 29 sequels and reboots came out last year, many of them further illuminations of a comic-book universe. Friend cites one studio head as to claiming, “Movies may not have gotten better over the years, but they’ve gotten more satisfying.”
Or to put it in laymen’s terms, they have become much bigger and far more dumber, exemplified in recent Oscar nominations for Mad Max, Fury Road and The Martian. Following the logic of these nominations, the 1981 Oscars would have expunged The Elephant Man and Raging Bull for Road Warrior and The Empire Strikes Back. Humanity, it appears, requires a better marketing department.
We glimpsed Mount Denali in the distance, the early afternoon sun brilliant across the summit, and decided we needed a better view.Wasilla, a wasteland of malls and franchises, Sarah Palin’s hometown, stood in the way. And then we found ourselves in the wilderness again, the trees white and heavy with frost, Denali appearing, flashing between them. We drove on, certain that the ideal vista was just over the next rise. We continued through the empty landscape, dotted by log cabins and espresso shacks; the snow deepened, the light on Denali’s summit fading, as we passed an overturned truck. No soul in sight; further on, a pair of moose. “We should turn back.”
I was thinking the same. But we didn’t. We drove on. And then it was there, finally, a sudden full view, the mountain and all of the ridges below. We got out and took our pictures. I didn’t know how far we had gone, maybe 30 miles, 40 at most.
That’s what the mileage sign read; we had driven a hundred miles, impossibly so, enticed by the dream of a distant mountain towering over the land.
“What would you think of going up?”
“You mean to the top?”
“How long could it take?”
There was no getting around it; we needed eggs, spring onions and a lime, bagels too. I had to go out into Winter Storm Jonas. We were on the outskirts of Sag Harbor, Long Island, only on the fringes of the storm, and so the snow wasn’t heavy yet, although the winds were strong and the roads empty. Sag Harbor was deserted, the bagel place closed. A lone jogger fought the winds as I ventured on. A trio of snowplows had emerged. And the store was open, and everything was half off. Was this a Winter Storm Jonas Sale? No, they were closing for renovations the next day. The roads were worse going back, branches down, the snow thicker. We ate our bagel-less breakfast, watching the snow get worse. I was glad we weren’t going out for dinner.
Haruki Murakami enjoyment of jazz, beer and sex is evident from his short story collection The Elephant Vanishes. His drifting, daydreaming style does not lend itself so much to story and character as to what writing actually might be:
Memory is like fiction; or else it’s fiction that’s like writing. This really came home to me once I started writing fiction, that memory seemed a kind of fiction, or vice versa. Either way, no matter how hard you try to put everything neatly into shape, the context wanders this way and that, until finally the context isn’t even there anymore. You’re left with this pile of kittens lolling all over one another. Warm with life, hopelessly unstable. And then to put these into salable items, you call them finished products – at times it’s downright embarrassing just to think of it. Honestly, it can make me blush. And if my face turns that shade, you can be sure everyone’s blushing.*
(From The Last Lawn of the Afternoon.)
We went to see Low play in Anchorage, Alaska, and hoped for the Northern Lights too. We had never been to The Last Frontier; neither had Low. The flight from New York was long – 14 hours with a change in Seattle – and we were verging on collapse by the 10 pm showtime (2 am our EDT). But the venue was great – an intimate bar, Taproot – and there with only a hundred others in attendance, all of whom were bushy and rough.
“We waited for twenty years!” Someone called out.
Allan Sparhawk gazed back. “Actually it’s been 22.” The band looked tired – or were we projecting? – starting slow with Gentle and other lullaby-like songs from their remarkably listenable 2015 release Ones and Sixes, before gradually picking up with Sparhawk’s characteristic distortion and intensity in No Comprehende and Pissing. The light show was understated – 90’s style mandalas blooming and transforming behind Mimi Parker, making her look like a weary Madonna – as was the sound, lilting in and amongst the non-stop chatter from all corners.
“Yeah, I saw you there, but I was talking with RJ!” His beard puffed out like a cartoon character’s. “I haven’t talked with him in months!”
The only exception to the swirl of drink-inspired banter was a young couple in front of us, she with short blonde hair, he with a blond streaked beard, sitting side by side at a wooden table, gazing into each other’s eyes every 15 seconds, talking quietly and mysteriously, consuming a beer with stoic regularity, not once looking at the stage.
A woman looked at my wife and asked if she was a mail order bride. “There’s a lot of them here!”
I imagined that many of these people had come in from distant logging camps and moose hunts for this magical night, and tried to forgive them their boisterous manner. The PA was louder the second night – although the feedback from some songs seemed at times beyond system’s capacity, enveloped in white noise. Sparhawk, Parker and bassist Steve Garrington were more upright and clear, and so was the crowd, almost twice as large as the night before, drunker, louder, crashing into one another, spinning my chair to and fro as they went back and forth to the bar.
“I’ve got four bands now, man!” A heavy man stroked down at his scraggly greying beard as he yelled out to his friend. “Our shortest song is seven minutes! We got one that goes over 40!”
“It was a family event!” The woman’s eyes were sharp, her hair wild. “What do you want from me?!”
I was more tired this night, so damned tired that I just stared stupidly at the spinning mandalas and let them coax me to sleep. I switched to water and then Coke, and counted the bearded men yell with their dates, while Low played on, their subtlety lost in the tumult, until Sparhawk played his guitar like Hendrix which quieted everyone for a moment.
Sparhawk announced that there would be no encore, just one more song. The band had a flight in four hours.
“Don’t wait another 20 years!” Someone pleaded.
We went out into the cold night, looking into the sky, deep and empty, searching the horizon, seeing nothing but the haze of the city lights, not knowing yet that the only Northern Lights we would see were those in Taproot, both they and Low at the center of the madding crowd.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is an awkward tale featuring an irritating high school senior who is compelled by his mother to spend time with a girl dying of cancer. The awkwardness is trite and purposeful, portraying the world of teenagers with some accuracy, and is wearing in the end. The exhausting atmosphere is best seen in the protagonist’s obsession with cinema, making countless references to art house films, featuring no less than three from Werner Herzog. As endearing as this element is intended, it falls flat, trying too hard, while pretending not to, and concluding with a shrug, despite a dramatic and emotional end.
John C. Lilly’s fantasy-autobiography The Scientist chronicles his life as a scientist, psychedelic explorer and Third Being from the outer reaches of the universe. His scientific work begins with messing around with monkeys brains:
It was found that in male monkeys there were separate systems for erection, for ejaculation and for orgasm. With an electrode in the separate orgasm system, the monkey would stimulate this region and go through a total orgasm without erection and without ejaculation.Given the apparatus by which he could stimulate himself once every three minutes for twenty-four hours a day, the monkey stimulated the site and had orgasms every three minutes for sixteen hours and then slept eight hours and started again the next day. (90)Lilly goes on to mess with his own brain:
John felt that he had not sufficiently explored all the parameters of K. (Ketamine is reputed to facilitate out-of-body experiences.) He decided to do additional experiments on its long-term effects. For a period of three weeks, he gave himself injections every hour of the twenty-four hours. He immersed himself in the inner realities created by K, projecting them onto his outer reality. He became convinced of the intervention in human affairs of the solid-state life forms (computer-based machines) elsewhere in the galaxy. He became convinced that it was necessary for him to the warn the government. (162) Mr. Lilly eventually loses all awareness of who, what and where he is:
I swing from contained to uncontained mind and back to contained mind. I swing from belief in the three Beings to the simulation of the three Beings as a convenient method of thought to free up my thinking. Is belief any truer than experience? (110)