Last Saturday was supposed to be the Spring Commencement here at Mondoville, but as is the case with so many things these days, it is postponed until date uncertain. We’re now engaged in May Term, but I never teach during that term, so I’m waiting for the first summer term, when I’ll be teaching my usual two courses (Froshcomp and a Brit Lit survey). After that, the sabbatical.
But the summer courses will be conducted online this year, which will be new for me, though less new than it would have been eight weeks ago. So in a way, this interstitial period in the midst of what already feels like an interstitial period leaves me feeling a little disoriented. Not unstuck in time like a Billy Pilgrim, but perhaps a bit loosely fastened.
Still, I can write, and you can read, if you like.
Although my classes are over for the moment, the business of school continues. The college’s president gave us an update in a virtual town hall meeting last week. While a lot of small schools are in dire straits indeed, we’re apparently in shape to keep on keeping on, even with a significant downturn in enrollment. There are apparently plans and budgets for various opening dates and enrollment levels, so we hope to remain adaptable as this goes on. Given that when I got here in 2003, some of my colleagues remembered having to run to the bank to cash a paycheck, it’s a much more comfortable situation.
We’re also trying to figure out how to achieve reasonable levels of social distancing, hygiene and such. One point of interest during the town hall was that the president expressed no interest in being on the leading edge of reopening. I think our approach will likely be more conservative, and I find that reassuring as well. Of course, all this is moot in my case, as I won’t be in the classroom this fall anyway, but living essentially next door to the campus means that the energy around here has been odd.
I continue to wear my mask when I’m out in public, which is rarely — grocery runs and the like. But it seems like I’m in the minority around here. Still, I’ll keep doing it.
Meanwhile, I’ve been engaging my Kindle of late, reading e-ditions of books by Ell Bee and the late Gerald Kersh. All of them were on sale over the weekend, so I felt virtuously frugal as I bought my copies.
Virtue, however, is not the hot commodity in the Block volumes. Both of the ones I bought were originally published under pseudonyms (although he’s never been shy about owning up to them), and fall to some extent or other under the heading of erotica. Four Lives at the Crossroads (as “Andrew Shaw”) was originally published in 1962 by Nightstand Books, a publisher that specialized in books to be read with one hand. The market’s requirements at the time were pretty straightforward — there should be a clearly described sex scene every chapter or two, but beyond that, the writer was free to write any sort of story that would serve to connect those steamy passages.
Block/Shaw opts to write a heist/doublecross novel, set in a small town in eastern Indiana (I was amused to see references both to Rushville, IN — a town I’ve used in my own fiction — and Newport, KY, a city in which I’ve gigged, and near which I lived for a number of years.) While it’s early in Block’s career, it’s well structured, and actually presents us with occasional characters, rather than assemblages of orifices and things to insert therein.
I don’t want to give the game away, but perhaps the most interesting part of the book (for me, anyway) was the denouement. The third-person narrator suddenly ignores the illusory fourth wall and starts commenting about conventions of the form and what the consequence of ignoring the conventions might be. The result is a sort of alienation effect, a term that doesn’t really appear in English-language criticism until Brecht is translated a couple of years after this book is published. It seems to me to be a pretty major flex for a book of its ilk.
Similarly, Threesome (as “Jill Emerson”, a name Block uses on several occasions) isn’t trying necessarily to be more than what it is — an account of the titular menage from the points-of-view of the participants. But what makes it something other than a run-of-the-mill softcore novel is Block/Emerson’s choice of writing it the form of a round-robin novel, with each chapter ostensibly written by on of the three, then passed in manuscript form to the next point of the triangle. So what we get is both a series of more-or-less erotic encounters (depending on your tastes), presented as three interwoven stories and the reactions of the characters to the other narrators. This book was written in the early 70s, so the sexual revolution hadn’t yet reached the level of Mutually Assured Destruction. It still may be a little dated, but there’s a remarkable level of plate-spinning going on here, and Mr. Block’s dexterity at creating characters and giving them not only things to do and say, but distinct voices and dialogue as well, certainly justify the pride he takes in the book. It takes what in lesser hands would be a gimmick and transforms it into a conceit, and in some ways, like Four Lives, it winds up working on a metafictional level as well.
One of the interesting aspects of these two books is that they remind me of something Frank Zappa said about the experimental features of rock music in the 1960s. He suggested that since the people running the music industry back then didn’t really know that much about what “kids think is cool”, they were open to stuff that might be weird, because as far as they were concerned, it was all weird anyway.
Likewise, I would suggest that William Hamling (the big cheese at Nightstand Books) was neither particularly lit’rary nor avant-garde. However, his lack of concern was exactly what gave the writers the freedom to experiment, and thereby develop their craft and range.
The Gerald Kersh book I’m reading, Nightshade and Damnations, was edited and introduced by Harlan Ellison, who cited Kersh as an amazing craftsman and an inspiration for his own work. I had read Ellison’s encomia to Kersh on numerous occasions in the past, but hadn’t read any of the work in question. So when I saw that the book was available at a reasonable price, I went for it.
It’s a collection of shorts, and I’m about halfway through it at this point. I can see the appeal they had to Ellison: they operate in a strange kind of magic realism, with a remarkable elegance to the voice, and asides — stories within the stories — that remind me a little bit of Borges. A group of circus freaks are stranded on a desert island, and it becomes a weirdly haunting love story. A watchmaker talks about his work for an aging king. And so on.
I’m enjoying them well enough to this point, but as I said on Twitter a day or two back, I almost wonder if the elegance — the beauty — of Kersh’s style inhibits the emotional impact of the works. Ellison himself was a remarkable stylist, with an instantly recognizable voice, but there is always a viscerality to his work — he produced so much that there was little if any effort applied to revision, and that is both a strength and a weakness of his work. You’re going to feel something when you read Ellison. By comparison, the Kersh I’ve read so far seems a bit like an overtrained boxer who may have left his fight in the gym. The moves are sure and graceful, the devotion to craft readily apparent, but the punches don’t seem to land with the force they should.
I’ll finish the book in the next day or so, and will likely chase down a copy of Night and the City, which most folks seem to consider his magnum opus. And of course, I realize that even if I’m not quite ready for it now, I might be later. There was once a time that I thought Gerard Manley Hopkins was impenetrable goo. Now he gets smarter every time I read him.
I know I’ve featured these guys a lot of late, but I keep finding nuggets of their work that strike me. I think what I like about this particular song is its incongruity. The music is sunshine pop, and seems suited for a lovely, relaxed afternoon in the back yard. Then you realize it’s about life in a mental hospital. It’s the most cheerful song about electroconvulsive therapy I think I’ve run across — but admittedly, that’s a pretty small niche. Anyway here’s the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (from their last album, called Markley, after vocalist and ephebophile Bob Markley).
See you soon!