morganandstefanyMorgan and Shuffy (Stefany’s nick name), why did you write a book about dead people?

Would you prefer that we write a book about live people? No, better the dead…

 

Are the essays in this book eulogies?

Yes…and no. We did try to take each of these dead persons seriously and therefore to write with some sympathy. In general, even with the living, we try to take people seriously and on their own terms. But the job of writing about recently deceased persons of note is not to say something nice simply for the sake of saying something nice. It is about digging and scratching at the lives in order to see what comes to the surface. Sometimes, this creates surprises.

 

deadpeoplecoverSun Ra

(1914 – 1993)

In the Egyptian section of the Penn Museum stands a man. He is next to a 12-ton sphinx and is wearing a multicolored dreamcoat. His beret shimmers; a red cape hangs about his shoulders. “Planet Earth can’t even be sufficient without the rain, it doesn’t produce rain, you know,” he tells the camera. “Sunshine… it doesn’t produce the sun. The wind, it doesn’t produce the wind. All planet Earth produces is the dead bodies of humanity. That’s its only creation.” The man pauses and slides his hand across the sphinx. “Everything else comes from outer space. From unknown regions. Humanity’s life depends on the unknown. Knowledge is laughable when attributed to a human being.”

There was a time in the 1970s when getting The New Yorker magazine delivered to my house was something of an event. (I don’t feel that way now and it sometimes makes me sad.) In those days the magazine was posted with a brown paper covering. I tore off the brown paper, checked out the cover art, then turned to the Table of Contents looking for Ann Beattie’s name. When she was listed there (48 times now, and counting), I was happy. When she wasn’t, I made do.

Benzos, Facebook, Twitter, television, Internet, food, chocolate, fast food, smart-phones, Skype, oh yeah Google plus I forgot about that, On Demand, TiVo, Netflix, movies, 3-D movies, iPads, kindles, iPhones, Blackberry.  Let’s face it; we’re a generation with no tolerance for longing.

There have been many crucial years in the forward lurch of humanity but today I’d like to tell you about one of the biggest: 1971. For those of you who might argue for a showier year with zeroes in it or repeating decimals let me remind you that in 1971 Led Zeppelin released “Stairway to Heaven.”


DH: This is my second post on DM’s How to Read the Air. Perhaps by the time that I finish this survey, I’ll have figured out what that great title means. You write about a book several times because you are peeling the onion. But there has to be an onion to peel. The praise is in the treatment, the attention that the book receives. Saying “I loved this book!” is silly. Talk it up. Books are the malls (agoras, if you prefer) of a literate society. When the mail packet from England arrived in NY harbor with the latest installment of the new Dickens serial, don’t imagine that the eager readers who snapped it up just read the content and then sat on their asses. They talked about it. And because the plot unfurled like a slow growing vine, everybody was on the same page when they talked about it.

And I think that was part of the point of lengthy Victorian novels. Their book talk was as measured out as the pacing that CD decided on for his storytelling. Our community has missed out on that. And don’t say that TV series perform that function. Even the most sophisticated series, most likely written by a committee, granted, of the talented…is trite in comparison to what Dickens could do with Little Dorrit in 1855. You may not think that’s so. But you’ve been listening to DM’s voice being watered down for your consumption for one hundred and fifty-five years. You have to restore Dicken’s words to the effect that they had on impact two centuries ago when every word that he wrote was fresh.

The central topic of How to Read the Air is marriage. And that’s my hope for the commercial success of this novel. Most readers won’t find the background material that helps explain the dysfunctional ticking of that marriage all that interesting. It’s my guess that DM has some issues that he is working out in this story. I wish he would forget about that

It’s wonderfully ironic that when Jonas and Angela realize that they are having some growing issues with their relationship, their half-thought out solution is to get married. But Jonas and Angela, as young adults, are always acting out the roles that they think they are supposed to play. This is very Updike of them. Read John Updike The Early Stories which is a blueprint of martial role-playing.

I greatly appreciated DM’s fine remark that you have to be in a relationship to understand that locations can become “haunted” (my word) with decisive emotional events that have taken place there. The writer is talking about the couple’s home. And aren’t there places in your own home, in my case one is the end of a cabinet in the dining room, where you will never forget what was said there? The atmosphere lingers, like a faint smoke or an odd feint of light.

DM’s remark is interesting enough. But then he points out that Jonas and Angela have a studio apartment. The small living space becomes emotionally charged with their conversations. No wonder Angela and Jonas begin a long dance of finding excuses to be out of the apartment. Their conversations at home become an electrically charged field that either repels or attracts the spouses as if they were moths. The reader greatly looks forward to eavesdropping on these conversations. DM is a master at dialogue with shadows.

But there have to be characters that can cast a shadow. My greatest confidence in Dinaw Megestu as a author is that he can write characters. Angela is a bit easier to understand. She’s had an insecure family background. Now she is a young lawyer at a white shoe firm. She’s  anxious to make it and wants a stable marriage as part of a rock solid foundation on the anthill of Manhattan.

Jonas is the puzzle and DM’s great character creation. He has not been swallowed by the whale so much as it seems as if he is trying to swallow one. He’s drowning in adult commitments that he is not ready to make. Emotionally. he’s a child who doesn’t want to tell the truth, or stand out, or get emotional. Jonas wants to distill all the emotional terror of life into a fine nectar or subtle Bordeaux that can be sipped, appreciated as if he was a connoisseur of adulthood.

That doesn’t work for Angela. She wants the five year plan to material and martial success. She wants a life trajectory that will give her confidence that the walls won’t come tumbling down.

The great DM lobs volleys of conversational shots into this scenario as if he he were an authorial Roger Federer. It’s martial tennis without any nets or balls. I’ll try to sum up what I think about How to Read the Air in one last shot some other time.


I confused Victoria Patterson with a friend of mine, who I hadn’t seen in years when I wrote my first review of Drift, and I proofed the post countless times and I never saw the mistake (Ms. Patterson pointed it out).  I’ve since gone on to read this fantastic collection of linked short stories that defy the common thinking that “short stories don’t sell”, or that no agent will buy them.  These stories will remind you of Carver, Cheever and Updike, and I’m not using those comparisons lightly. I went through a period where I was reading Ms. Patterson’s stories right along with Cheever and Updike, and I really feel like they are as good as those legends.  Here is her version of “When I Fell In Love”…

Homage to John Updike’s Rabbit, Run by Victoria Patterson

At the encouragement of my born again Christian father—who had been unable to alleviate my doubts and was anxious for me to accept Jesus—I spoke with his pastor, voiced my reservations.  This was in the mid-eighties, in Newport Beach, California.  I was fifteen years old and church was mandatory.  How, I asked, can you believe that people born in India, how can they be going to hell?  Isn’t religion an accident of birth?  What if I were born a Muslim?

Unable to answer my questions—or at least not to my satisfaction—the pastor subsequently avoided me, and I took up the hobby of scowling at him.  As a distraction, I read John Updike’s Rabbit, Run in church, camouflaged it inside a Bible.  I had found the book in my mother’s bookshelf next to a biography of Lauren Bacall, and I was intrigued by the title, which seemed like a kid’s book akin to Peter Rabbit, even though I knew it was for adults.

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom pierced through me—with his hunger for meaning, his desperation, his restlessness, and his desire to flee.  Like Rabbit, I was selfish and impulsive; but, also like Rabbit, I was sensitive and empathetic, a seeker, and I felt trapped (“You get the feeling,” he says, “you’re in your coffin before they’ve taken the blood out”).  Rabbit rebelled against people “advertising their belief that the world arches over a pit, that death is final, that the wandering thread of his feelings lead nowhere.”

Although the church sermons weren’t meant to be controversial or provocative, they troubled me, for that very same reason.  In my teenage view, the more complex and controversial the subject matter, the less anyone seemed able or willing to discuss it.  Instead of straying from complex topics—infidelity, sex, death, religion—Updike plunged in.  And his characters, like the people around me (including myself) were hugely flawed.  Jack Eccles, the Episcopalian minister, was suffering from a lack of faith, and he liked to golf and hang out with teenagers for the vicarious thrill of their sexual banter.  Rabbit’s old basketball coach, Marty Tothero, was limp and defeated, and I loved him.  Janice, Rabbit’s wife, found comfort in television and alcohol.  And Ruth, Rabbit’s lover, was a former prostitute.

The subject matter, the stream of consciousness feel of the prose, the brisk present-tense pace, the sad humor, and the bold declaration of sexuality as an uncanny force, made me want to write:  What magic—to be John Updike.  To make someone—me—feel less alone.  Like Rabbit, I wanted to, “Wake up with the stars above perfectly spaced,” in alignment with life, with some kind of certainty and meaning, even if my heart was heavy with anger and confusion.  I was bursting only with the certainty of uncertainty, and instead of tidy conclusions and bromides, Rabbit, Run offered me respect for ambiguity: for its mystery and its music, both within life and within a book.