The Best Time I Ever Fell Down a Well

When I was about five years old I fell into a well.

This is not as wildly dramatic as it seems, as “well” in this case does not mean the classic visual trope of a moss-encrusted piece of masonry, a chthonian portal mortared together by our pioneer forefathers and slowly crumbling into dust ever since, waiting patiently in the middle of the forest or meadow to gobble up young boys such as I and/or your telepathic demon daughter who wants nothing more to be a ghost in the television.  No, what I mean by “well” here is a large metal tub, maybe about three feet in diameter and a foot high, with a grated bottom and a water spout rising over it to one side, said water spout being the actual “well” part of this device, tapped into the aquifer below and constantly pumping forth a heady stream of absolutely frigid water into the basin, where it drains through the grate and returns undrunk to the chill, stygian darkness.  Experts call this sort of thing an Artesian well.

So: there is this Artesian well on a campground-cum-park area near my hometown, as I just described it, pumping constantly all year and exposed to the elements, accumulating since time immemorial a patina of characteristic rust.  The pipe that spills the water into the basin has this nifty thing where, if you bend down over the well and put your palm over the open end, the water redirects to a smaller aperture at the top of the pipe, sending a vertical stream of water straight up into the air and into your mouth or probably your nose as the case may be.  However, at age five, I was slightly not tall enough to make this method of operation feasible, and so if I wanted to drink I had to cup my hands below the pipe’s larger opening, spooning the water into my mouth in this way.

Fun fact: I am picky about water.  Like, super picky.  I’m very sensitive to the way water tastes, and when I was younger my parents thought I was just being a brat and bullshitting them when I said water from this faucet or that faucet or this house or that city tasted bad.  But it was God’s honest truth, and it never made sense to me how some people can just, like, drink water from anywhere.  Anyway the point I want to make is that the water from this Artesian well tasted absolutely rad.

It was untreated, of course, which I think had something to do with it.  I’ve discovered that the harder water is, the more it is essentially some sort of sand/mineral suspension, the more I like it.  Up until the time I was about 12 and my parents divorced we lived in the country, in a house with its own well, and that water was harder than an AP Calculus exam.  Part of me has never forgiven my father’s eventual decision to buy a water softener, as that water is probably some of the best I’ve ever tasted.

The water from this Artesian well at the park area was a pretty close second, though.  We were at the park this particular day in late summer for what I believe was a family reunion, which was being held a bit of a ways away from the well in a largish shelter, where there were tables decked out with deviled eggs and potato salad and iced tea and a particular Midwestern delicacy called “hamloaf.”  I had aunts and uncles milling about, and some cousins, but I ended up in some strange generational gap on both sides of my family so there were no cousins precisely my age — they were all notably older or younger.  This meant I had pretty much no one to play with during functions like this, and I was particularly sensitive to when I was becoming a nuisance to adults, which translated into me hanging around on my own an inordinate amount of the time.

And so: this explains why I ventured out to the well on my own, at the tender age of five.  This was in fact no great journey, since the well was right next to the road and at most maybe a hundred yards from the shelter.  Because I 1) was bored, and 2) absolutely fucking love drinking good water, I decided at some point that what I really needed was to head out to the well and fuel up.  I’m five years old, so at the moment I’m making some educated guesswork about my exact thought process here, but it seems good enough.

Now what I remember is having no concept of the dimensions of a circle (though of course I did not know this at the time).  What I mean by this is that it did not occur to me how a point on one side of the circle is the furthest distance from a point on the exact opposite side of the same circle, which is to say, I completely failed to understand the concept of a diameter, esp. how it is the longest chord of a circle.  How this played out in real life was me standing exactly opposite the well’s spout, leaning over the rim of the basin with my hands cupped, grasping handful after handful of water.  Because I was the greatest possible distance from the object of my desires, I was leaning forward pretty damn far.

Too far, it turns out, as the relatively low rim of the basin and my relatively large forward bent plus the sudden weight and pressure of a powerful jet of water on my tiny five-year-old arms meant I tipped right the fuck over into the well.  My trajectory, then, consisted of more and more of me being pushed into the path of the water jetting from the spout, soaking me as I fell down into the basin, splashing all over my face and doing nothing to help my sudden, panicked, ultimately useless burst of adrenaline as I smacked right into the metal grating.

This is it, I thought.  I’ve fallen down a well.

As if it were an eventuality for every child.

I had been conditioned by years of television consumption and cultural osmosis to know that the only way to be saved from a well (any type of well!) was for a brilliant, golden-furred dog to witness the event and rush back to the old family homestead, where its worried barks would be correctly interpreted by one’s salt-of-the-earth family as an oddly specific yet ultimately effective and timely warning.  The immediate problem this posed was, of course, no dog had witnessed my accident — in fact, I did not own a dog.

I was doomed.

So I lay there, a torrent of water slamming into my back, too pressurized for me to actually stand up with the leverage afforded me, and my head throbbing where I’d bumped it against the side of the basin.  Like the greedy man who wishes for infinite riches and drowns in gold, that wonderful, mineral-infused H2O I had so loved and desired would now be my demise.

Except of course there was a grate in the bottom of the basin so the water was basically just running over me, back into the ground, and only getting into my mouth/nose because I was trying to shout for help instead of concentrating and trying to like, you know, move out from under the goddamn water.

Now, you will recall the depth of this basin is only, like, a foot, so there is no way it could have swallowed me entirely.  In fact, what any passersby would have seen (should they choose to look) was about the final third of a five year old boy, being mostly the legs, sticking up awkwardly into the air, Kermit the Frog adorned Velcro sneakers waving manically.

Luckily, a passerby did choose to look at this particular sight!  Some woman who happened to be driving by (remember, the well was pretty close to the road) saw me fall in and immediately slammed on the brakes, pulling over and dashing to my rescue.  From my perspective this meant that I had been in the  well for roughly half of my life (in reality: maybe 20 seconds) when suddenly something grabbed the back of my shirt, yanked me back through the gout of water, and into the land of living, non-doomed five-year-olds once more.

The woman, I remember rather distinctly, was for some reason wearing a lady’s business suit.

She slammed her palm into my back a few times to help me expel any water I may have swallowed (not much, really), and then helped me stagger back to the shelter, where some of my family members had noticed the spectacle and my older, more female relatives were positively flipping out at the way in which I had just brushed the edge of the mortal coil.  I readily admit my memory of this bit is even more hazy, being completely panicked and cold and wet as I was, but I distinctly remember thinking that the woman who had pulled me from the well was some family member I hadn’t met before, and I think I asked my grandma (as she wrapped me in a fluffy beach towel) if my savior was one of my aunts or something.

My father and I believe my grandfather shot some stern words my way about the incident, making me feel like I was somehow totally and irrationally guilty for what just transpired (in retrospect I think they were angry this stranger saw what looked suspiciously like reckless child endangerment) and that, on top of the whole having-almost-made-peace-with-my-own-death thing, did not put me in a particularly good mood for the rest of the day.

A few years ago, during high school, I was at the park again and saw the well’s basin now had a grate on top, as well  as on bottom, and I wondered if I was the sole purpose for that or, alternatively, how many kids through the years had ended up in my position.

The water was still really good, though.

if we stop teaching we’ll need someone to raise us from the dead

“What are you preparing to study?” asks the woman next to me on the bench.

English literature, I say.

It is approximately 82 degrees Fahrenheit and our bench, which does not have a protective awning, is placed squarely in the sun.  Three hours have passed since I first got off the bus at this stop, and I have walked in toto something like three and a half miles in a pair of sandals not made to live up to my usual brisk walking pace, so consequently my feet hurt like hell.  I have visited four bookstores and have $250 (15 pounds, ~6.8 kilograms) of books in my lap, this being no doubt the reason the woman asks me what I am studying.  My bus back to my apartment will arrive, by my estimates, in more or less 25 minutes.

“English, good,” says the woman.  “It’s a good thing to learn.  Good luck to you and bless you.”

She hesitates.  “God bless you, I mean,” she says after a moment of thought.  “His blessing has got a lot more weight to it than mine, I can say from experience.”  She laughs.

I laugh too, to be polite and thank her.  “I know it can be a hectic time right now,” she says.  “A big, new experience.”

I tell her that it is indeed, though I sort of have a head start.  I’m here for my MA/PhD, I already have my BA, but that was from a much smaller institution, and a very different institution, with only about 1,000 students combined compared to this place’s 40,000.

“Well, maybe you can teach them to concentrate,” the woman says, and laughs.

I laugh too.

“I know it’s supposed to be a place of learning,” she says, “but come dusk…”  She shakes her head.

I know what she means.  I’ve been here for only a week and multiple times now, and before 11 o’clock hits, I’ve seen the roaming herds of frat guys and sorority girls drunkenly jaywalk, like flocks of petulant birds in muscle shirts or miniskirts, respectively.

“Your degrees,” she says, “after the first one, when you get those does that mean you’re gonna teach the teachers?”

I say yes, because, well, I am sure some of my hypothetical future students will teach in their turn.

“Ah, that’s good.  I don’t have any degrees, but I have some experience with that area.”

The woman is maybe forty-something (she is 54, she will tell me later) and has on her lap a K-mart bag with some boxes in it and a Nalgene.  When I first sat down the woman was eating goldfish crackers from the K-mart bag, popping handfuls into her mouth.  She is thin without looking drawn in the way that some older people sometimes have, though her blonde hair is starting to look a bit gray in a certain light.  She is wearing a pair of sunglasses that sit close on her cheeks, the lenses so large and round that they obscure a third of her face and look a bit like goggles.

I am already mentally kicking myself when I ask her what it is exactly she does, because I dislike talking to strangers generally and dislike talkative strangers even more, plus what are the odds a random bus station conversation will not turn weird, especially given the God thing from earlier,  but there I go, I ask her, I ask her what it is exactly she does.

“I teach ministry,” she says, smiling that I’ve asked.  “I work with a group of believers here and do some street evangelizing.”

I nod and consider asking her if she’s associated with any particular church but don’t.  I also consider mentioning Quakerism, the theology with which for various reasons I tend to be most copacetic, but don’t.  Instead I ask her how long she’s been in town.

“A year,” she says.  “I was doing some wandering — I was in fact part of the homeless community for a while — and ended up in a tent.  Literally, in a tent!  Like Abraham!”

I know there is something of a housing crisis in the city, forcing many lower-income locals into nearby tent communities, and I am struck by the Old Testament parallel the woman has drawn.

“Of course, we’re moving on now,” the woman continues, “and the ministry has gotten stronger.  We were in our prayer circle back then,” I assume she means the tent city, “and we heard God telling us ‘boot camp.’  My minister-friend just looked at me and he says, ‘Boot camp.'”

The chain of association here is beyond me, though I guess the idea is that boot camp whips you into shape for deployment whether you like it or not, and the woman and her prayer circle were being told by God to stop feeling sorry for themselves in a tent community and move on with their lives, an act which apparently consists of spiritual deployment into the Gomorrha of a Big Ten University town.  Whatever the case, combinations of military and religious terminology make me uneasy (cf. Quakerism, above), so I just nod and cross my arms over my books.

“And you know,” she is saying, “it took some humbling when I heard that.  I had to get rid of my pride.  My minister-friend asked me, if you were ministering in a jungle somewhere where they hadn’t heard of Christ, would you try to change their culture, or be Christ-like in their presence?”

Though I’m still not really following the chain of association, I think this is a pretty good theological sticking point and I tell her so.

She nods.  “That shut me right up,” she says.  “Now I think that when we do minister, we have a lot more behind us than we wouldn’t have without that experience.”

Yeah, I agree, it seems to me she and her friends would have a strong foundation from which to work.  They know what it’s like to be in tough spots, unlike some ministers.

She nods again.  “I may not have any letters next to my name, but I did go to college, and I’m 54 years old, and I got experience.”  She offers me her hand and tells me her name is Tracey.

I shake her hand and tell her my name is Michael.

Something flits across her face and she says, “Of course it’s Michael,” which is a pretty weird thing to say and I mentally kick myself some more while I wait to see where this is going.  “You know what that name means, right?”

I say I don’t remember the Hebrew meaning, but I know that Biblically Michael is an Archangel, the general of Heaven’s army.  (I know this because I read Milton.)

“And what it originally means,” she says, “is ‘Who is like God?'”

I know this is correct, because I remember the fact as she says it, as sometimes we remember facts.  I think it’s a rhetorical question, because the correct answer is that there is no one like God.

She says, “I know that because it’s also the name of the father of my child.”

Oh Lord, I think.

“We looked it up once.”

This is the end of this particular tangent, apparently, as she goes onto how names are very interesting, very meaningful.  I sort of wish I knew what ‘Tracey’ meant so I could say something about it, or maybe I could ask her because she probably knows, but I don’t.

The topic of names steers her toward the topic of her ministry again.  She works in prisons, leading classes with names like “Emotional Healing” and “Positive Attitudes.”  She makes it a point to memorize each prisoner’s name — and with God’s help she does it within the first six weeks — because names are important.  A lot of those people aren’t used to being called by their names, just their numbers by the guards and their doctors, and sometimes by their doctors’ diagnoses, which trap them into cycles of thinking about themselves in certain ways, ways which limit how they can act and feel.  And part of her job as a teacher, she says, is to help break those cycles, to show those people that they can be loved, to help them learn how to be loved.  If you can’t be loved then you’ll never love anyone yourself.

I look in my lap at a copy of The Duchess of Malfi, which is a play where a corrupt cardinal confesses his sins to his mistresses and then murders her by persuading her to kiss the poisoned cover of a Bible.

I tell her what’s she saying is very true.  I’m angry at myself a little because I know that despite the sappy rhetoric what she is saying is true, I’m angry at myself for thinking that and at the same time thinking it’s absolutely cheesy, and I’m angry at this woman for talking to me, and I’m angry at myself for talking back, and I’m angry I have this impulse to immediately start forming counterarguments, I’m angry that I have to squash a desire to say, Well, yes, but aren’t there some people who just won’t learn to love?

“It’s all about attitude,” says Tracey.  “You have to keep your attitude positive, because — and I know this — in a lot of situations, all you really can control is your attitude about things.”

I agree again, this time more enthusiastically because it really is true, and I don’t think this is a cheesy thing to believe or say, even though I’m aware that other people probably do.  It’s a shame, a real shame, I say, that there are so many people who never learn that, who aren’t taught that.

“You’re right,” Tracey says.  “And a problem with a lot of people who haven’t learned that early, is later on they won’t learn it.  They’ll think they already learned everything.”

I think, what if this were a Flannery O’Connor story?  The street evangelical and the modern malaised intellectual at a bus top on a hot day.  If this were a Flannery O’Connor story Tracey would be blind behind those sunglasses, or she’d have a club foot.  If this were a Flannery O’Connor story I would probably die at the end.

“I have a saying,” Tracey tells me: “If we stop teaching we’ll need someone to raise us from the dead.”

This doesn’t make sense to me at first blush.

“Something I’ve learned, while teaching,” she says, “is that if you’re teaching, you’re also learning, and if you’re learning more, you should understand each time you learn more, how much more you haven’t learned.”

Again she’s saying things I agree with, which makes me happy but then also makes me uneasy, because it makes me wonder how much of what I believe is basically bromides for street evangelists, and then I am angry at myself for wondering for even the tiniest second that something being a bromide, or something being believed by both myself and a street evangelist, makes it inherently lesser.

I tell her that’s she speaking a lot of sense, and I see my bus is coming, so I tell her good luck with the ministry.  And then I think Oh hell why not, and I tell her God bless, too.

She takes the same bus as I do, but we have different stops and sit pretty far apart, so by the time I get off she’s already having an involved conversation with the unsteady old man who sat beside her.

I think about how when I first sat down she was eating little goldfish crackers, and the little fish connected with the fact she’s a Christian minister would be symbolically significant in a short story, but I don’t know how to make it work without it seeming silly.

Touching base.

I have been very, very busy, going on a vacation of sorts!  I was trundling around New England for a few days and in that time managed to drop by and visit Lovecraft’s grave.  Isn’t that something!

While I was in New England I also managed to catch a performance of All’s Well That Ends Well, and it happened to be the Boston Commons production, so I have a handily prepackaged review written by the dude over at Shakespeare Geek.  It’s a pretty spot-on review, I think (even from the same night I saw the play!), and Duane is a good Shakespeare guy.  He’s a lot less heady and academic than I can be, so it’s good to read him and make sure I’m not disappearing up my own ass.  (If you like Shakespeare maybe you should read his blog! I do!)

The only things I would add to his take are some personal notes, namely, that I have (gasp!) never read this play before.  Yes indeed!  Despite my love of the problem plays this one had escaped me, so it was my first experience with viewing Shakespeare as performance-only.  Everything I knew about the play beforehand I’d absorbed through osmosis.

That said I have a bit of a problem seeing why All’s Well is classed as a problem play, or problem comedy.  It actually seemed remarkably straightforward to me — a young boy without a strong father figure latches onto a braggart, then learns a valuable lesson about humility and self-sacrifice when that braggart is cut down to size.  This was probably also an effect of the staging, I admit, and when I eventually get around to the text I’ll probably find some of the weirder elements of the play that were elided or cut, but until then: I ain’t got a problem with you, All’s Well.

I am also in the process of packing up to move to grad school, and also reading A Dance With Dragons, so you can imagine how busy I am.  So busy, guys!

But because that’s never stopped me before, I will now make veiled allusions to a project of mine on the horizon, a project design specifically for this blog, a project that will happen dammit because I paid money to set it into motion.  But again, given how incredibly busy I’ve been and will be, I have no idea when I’ll actually be able to initiate this project.  Suffive it to say, I think it should be a lot of fun for you and me.  (if it ever happens)

However, if you’re desperate for something to read today, something of substance, you could do worse than Blake Butler’s piece on American Psycho over at HTMLgiant.  Note this:

The way that Bateman copes with the building distortion between his inner want, however buried, and the continuing nothing his life has filled with is to break with himself underneath himself and do violence. The book goes on building further and further levels of intricately imagined scenes of rape and torture, which late into the book begin to take on a kind of ingenuity otherwise absent from his life. All throughout this, Bateman famously maintains for the most part the same copy-voice he uses in making dinner reservations or trying to impress women he wants to fuck. The narration’s sheen is perhaps what most upset readers ofAmerican Psycho early on, in that such acts were being put on with such apparent detachment that the book was “violence for violence’s sake,” which while I personally don’t have trouble with, I don’t think is the case at all here. This is not a book, as has been claimed, that sees the dark of the world and wallows in it. This is a book that in some way wanted more. This is true for Bateman, I think, as a character, if one that never definitely admits it, or changes, though there are certainly moments where the sheen begins to crack, if not in the face of it itself, but in the face behind the face: Bateman visiting his mother in a home and his odd silence there, while still not emotional; his weeping at sitcoms on TV; and even in the exuberant tone he takes describing pop music, which is of course written in a brilliant flat and media-inherited way, but also, in its reiteration, to me reflects not nihilism, but an even deeper burning for there to be something good in the world; something perhaps misplaced but to Bateman joyful, even in the multi-cloaked levels of how blank to some something like Huey Lewis, for instance, is. His wanting, where it lands, seems stilted, misplaced, but that doesn’t make it any less sincere, even when deployed as a passage turned from murdering women violently; in fact, it’s more poignant that way, if you ask me. There seems to be a big idea in literature and even all of entertainment that for something to show heart, be heartfelt, it must have light; that the moments must exhibit some kind of “human element” in order to make it relatable, and therefore somehow validated. This was Wallace’s big problem with this book, and it’s something you hear a lot. I’ll argue, though, that by leaving that sheen up, by complicating the borderline redemptive qualities of Bateman, and feeding his only out into a pathos that is terrifying in its operation in hurting other humans, is actually even more human, more honest; it does not have to bare itself in order to realize where it is. If one’s belief in humanity is founded on the idea of love, then why is that the element we continue to question? Do we really need to reach a moment in every work to remember light and love to know it exists? That the job requires you coming back to this by default seems to me a weaker pose than knowing already it is in there, or can be, and what of it. Depending on that requirement seems cheaper in spite of itself, actually less human, and less sure of the human than one who assumes it, or, holy shit, on paper, lets it go.

Let’s stay together.

So: I am 23 now.  Yesterday was my birthday.  I bought some spark plugs for my car!

I am going downstate for the weekend with a twofold purpose: to attend a wedding of some college friends and to look at apartments for grad school.

The takeaway here is that I am busy, and I have little to blog about at the moment, or at least the right mindset for it.  So nothing particularly clever or entertaining today, I am afraid!  But speaking of afraid, how about some ghost stories?

If you’re a regular reader you know my affinity for ghost stories, and you may also know I read The Awl, also known as “The New Yorker for Millennials” (note: I don’t think anyone has ever actually said that?).  Why don’t you mosey on over there and read some True Life ghost stories they posted yesterday.  There are some good ones!

Opening lines to short stories I have never finished (yet?)

  • On the day my brother and I were to meet our wives I found the aluminum crutches in the attic over the library, and thus was cast backward into memories of our childhood.
  • “Ouch!” cried the man in front of the firing squad. “Ouch, ouch, ouch!”  Then he fell to the ground, dead.
  • “Is this your first time in the UK?” asked the magician, which was always the question people here asked Sharpe after they’d talked to him long enough to pick up on his accent.
  • Ginger Sparkleshine’s eye is three hundred feet wide.
  • “Gentlemen,” said the scientist, “we have a situation: Google is haunted.”
  • Time is a strange thing — it makes all the difference between a mass murderer and a serial killer.
  • Sarah was on her way home from the library when she first realized there was a clown following her.
  • Ralph Dutch was born on a sunny summer’s day at the age of eight.  The affair was a mess for all involved, particularly Mrs. Dutch, who refused to have children again.
  • We were just across the Vermont-Massachusetts border when my sanity began to crumble and these huge lobster-bugs came swooping out of the hills and flying around the car.  “Holy hell!” I shouted.  “What the fuck are these goddamn things?”
  • Rosemarie Ashfield lay in her bed and watched the dust motes back-flip in the blades of light that filtered through the lace curtains.  She was not entirely sure what year it was, but she knew that outside on the lawn it had to be 1948.
  • Hello my Friend I am writing you about your account in the Auxiliary Christian Bank of Nigeria.
  • One morning Martin woke to discover that, much to his dismay, the entirety of his iTunes library had been converted to black metal.
  • Elizabeth’s first instinct, when she realized her family’s new apartment was alive, was to let her parents discover and deal with the fact on their own time.  But then it ate their cocker spaniel.
  • My wife emitted a high, thin whistle much like a tea kettle, and also like a tea kettle, continued to do so until I took her off the stove.

 

The Tragedy of Arthur (book review)

The Tragedy of Arthur is a book by Arthur Phillips.

Arthur Phillips, incidentally, is a writer who has hovered at the periphery of my awareness for a while, mostly for his novel Angelica (which I have yet to read but now certainly plan to), and here he demonstrates a level of playfulness, imagination, and earnest workmanship that is pretty refreshing, and redeems what could have easily been a heartless postmodern endeavor.

The plot of the novel is something like this: Arthur Phillips (the writer/narrator) is the son of Arthur Phillips (a many-times convicted forger), who upon his death bequeaths Arthur the younger a lost Shakespeare quarto, The Tragedy of Arthur — this third Arthur being the king.  Arthur the writer/narrator believes the quarto to be fake (eventually) but due to a legal fuckarow is contractually obligated to write the introduction to the play (which everyone else thinks is real) when it is published by Random House.  The first two-thirds of the novel are this introduction, in which Phillips delves into semifantastical memoir describing his childhood, his relationship with his twin sister Dana, his con man father, and the whole family’s complicated relationship to Shakespeare.  The last third of the novel is the play itself.

(Now, despite Angelica — a ghost story — being what brought AP to my attention, you may see why I went for Tragedy as soon as it hit shelves, right?)

This novel’s been well reviewed, to understate it a little.  I mean, this isn’t early Jonathan Safran Foer effusive praise, of course, but everyone is pretty set on this being a good novel, especially people who “count” like Michiko Kakutani and Shakespeareans Greenblatt and Shapiro.  And they are right, it is a good novel!  So if you need to hear it from someone more than “a dude on the internet” then there you go.  Now, we can delve into the gritty of what I think about this thing.

I’ll be up front about my big gripe here, which is that the actual play The Tragedy of Arthur is kind of a slog.  My precise feelings about this are complicated, for reasons I’ll get to in a second, but I’ll stage it first in terms of technicality.  You have a 360 page book, the last 100 pages of which are a (fake[?]) Shakespeare play written as such, while the preceding bulk of the tome was a flighty author enormously screwing up his life.  It should not take a rocket scientist to see why an abrupt transition in styles, tone, and language can potentially shut down a reader, or throw off the groove, or whatever.  My point is that it’s difficult to make the transition from one part of the narrative to the next.

This makes me wonder what it would be like if the book were just the introduction.  That would be too much of a tease, wouldn’t it?  To go on and on about this play, and then not print it?  It occurred to me at one point that the traditional (really?) postmodern thing to do in this regard would be to have the manuscript of the play be destroyed, thus making the introduction the only thing left to print, and the name of the rose is all that remains and so on.  A plot point of the introduction would be Phillips, say, destroying the quarto or allowing it to be destroyed, which makes life seem nice and inoffensive and hollow and saves him the trouble of actually faking some Shakespeare.  So in one way the warmth of the novel is attributable to the fact that, despite all his games, Arthur Phillips sat the fuck down and wrote a play in blank verse, complete with act and scene breaks, vocabulary glosses, and contextual notes.

Except it’s kind of intentionally a bad play.  Kakuktani’s remarks regarding it (“lumpy”) and Greenblatt’s thought that it is a gifted imitator lacking the genius pretty much hit the mark.  This makes me wonder.

Is the effort enough?  That Phillips actually sat down and wrote this damn thing, and there’s some value in that?  Hell, if I’m completely honest it even has a few good bits of dialogue I wish Shakespeare had written.

The best parts of the play itself by far are the Nabokovian footnotes, where Arthur Phillips argues with Random House’s hired Bardolator over the play’s authenticity, but after the genuinely intriguing and moving introduction it all seems a little rushed, truncated, tacked on.  Suffice it to say I’m intensely ambivalent about that, then, but the novel is still definitely worth a read.   Shapiro, I think, says it best when he calls this a work of literary criticism disguised as fiction: it does this neat thing where all of the themes of seeming, of authenticity and art and the stage and life, in Shakespeare’s plays get flipped around and turned on the man himself (if he ever existed).

The novel raises the possibility — one I’m partial to — that our idea of Shakespeare is more important than the mundane reality of him, and I don’t mean that in an exactly rapturous Bloomian sense.  It recalls the authorship debate, and at least some parts of Phillips’s novel suggest that it’s unimportant whether a man from Stratford wrote these plays, or if Bacon or Oxford or Arthur Phillips or his dad did, because if there is some nebulous, numinous cloud that envelops all these people which we in aggregate recognize as Shakespeare, then that might be all that matters.

Here is a bonus review of DFW’s The Pale King, which I read just before I read Tragedy:

The Pale King is unfinished.  This does not stop it from being better than Infinite Jest.  I will not be one of those reviews who says “Maybe it was intentionally unfinished, huh” because though I am something of a formalist I am not that committed to deifying DFW.  What we have is observably unfinished, assembled by an editor, and we have notes to hint at what might have been more.  Still, in its broken state, The Pale King is better than IJ.  IJ had me and lost me several times, but TPK kept me for the whole way through, could have kept me for more, had there been more.  It is a number of adjectives.  It is beautiful, it is funny, it is sad, it is infuriating, it is perhaps the most terrifying (literally frightening, scary) thing I have read in the past five years.  I do not know if something can be so unfinished and still count as a masterpiece but in my head it most definitely can.

King of Texas (2002)

Howdy friends and neighbors!  I’ve spent the last week in Seattle, with today being when I am in transit home.  I missed last week, I know, but to make up for it try this on for size: a review of a nine-year-old made-for-cable movie!  It’s King of Texas, starring the one and only Patrick Stewart.  The review itself is not entirely concerned with how good or bad the film is (it’s not very good) but investigating a strange intersection of Shakespeare, the genre history of the Western, and critiques of American expansion.  Hooray!

The opening shots of the 2002 made-for-TV film King of Texas are in a sense misleading.  A wide (as wide as you can get with full frame, anyway) view of the arid desert; a focus on the harsh, almost phantasmagoric inhospitality of the landscape, complete with corpses hanging from a gothic skeleton tree; suddenly, there emerges an actual human being — a close-up on the sweating, scowling face of a nameless man.  You might think you’re watching a film in the style of Sergio Leone, who made shots like this his trademark, or you may at least think Texas is going to be simply a Leone imitation: a faux-Spaghetti Western, a tale set in a  strange world where the American frontier is recast as an amoral comic book, with larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life deeds.

But as I have said, these opening shots are misleading.  King of Texas is not a Spaghetti Western, imitation or otherwise, but in fact falls in line with the Spaghetti Western’s antecedent, the Revisionist Western.  Added to this is the fact that Texas is not just some made-for-TV Western conforming to a particular subgenre; it’s all of that and it’s a reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Keeping these things in mind can unlock a lot of the film’s more interesting aspects.

In a wholly personal judgment, I think Lear as Shakespeare wrote it is more suited (if anything) to a Spaghetti Western; it’s really a jumbled kaleidoscope of increasingly fractured and bizarre occurrences.  There’s a staggering amount of major and minor characters, a winding and at times surprising plot, a quasi-supernatural storm, faked (and real) madness, the recitation of the names of a few dozen demons, a set of villains who, in the Spaghetti Western tradition, are wholly evil bastards seemingly just because they can be, and they are opposed by a group of good (really, less morally bankrupt but still highly flawed) people, all inhabiting a world that seems to have no particular moral plan or order.  Lear could be adapted rather faithfully into this context.

The fact that King of Texas is not a Spaghetti Western, then, means that some work on the part of the writers and director has gone toward tailoring the original play until it fits rather snugly into the Revisionist Western mold.  This, I think, is the cleverest aspect of the film’s production: it takes a story that can be (and often is) interpreted as amoral or nihilistic and, with what seems to be a minimum of jiggering given the re-setting, fashions from it a social and political point.  Not that Revisionist Westerns are all about social activism, but they’re more closely attuned to what we think of as social activism.  In the original Western, bad guys wear black hats and good guys wear white hats; Native Americans are savages and Mexicans are crooks; good always triumphs over evil; the sheriff marries the schoolteacher and they ride off together into the sunset as the United States of America brings order and civilization to lawless wilderness.

The Revisionist Western, as the name implies, casts a more critical eye toward the starkly black-and-white issues presented by its predecessor: ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ aren’t really helpful terms, but ‘antihero’ is; sex, if present, is blunt and unromantic, swapping out the schoolteacher for the prostitute; the Indian and Mexican are victims of systematic oppression, theft, and violence; good and evil don’t really seem to exist, much less have an opportunity to go head-to-head, and if the protagonist (usually an outlaw of some stripe) doesn’t die at the end, then he probably only survives to see the end credits by selling someone else out.

King of Texas falls into the realm of the Revisionist Western, then, for multiple reasons, one of them being its decisions in regard to the actual Lear character.  There are, broadly speaking, two ways to read Lear: a comically capricious blowhard, a mad king who spends a significant amount of the play naked, or a once-great man who is losing his dignity and sanity as he ages.  In the former reading Lear is merely an object of spectacle; in the latter his actions and selfish desires provoke dislike, but his situation inspires sympathy — he is an antihero.  Texas chooses this latter route, and Patrick Stewart plays the analogue John Lear with stuffy dignity and moments of grandfatherly warmth in between bouts of childish, impetuous shouting.

But impetuousness is not, in fact, John Lear’s greatest failing, and though it is an important character flaw, it is not the one the film brings to our immediate attention.  I’ve already described the opening scenes and its corpses hanging from trees; this is our introduction into the film’s world, but Lear is nowhere to be seen.  Instead we meet a silent but obviously angry man who shows up a few scenes later at a party Lear is throwing — the man, it turns out, is a Mexican landowner named Menchaca and the hanged men from earlier are in fact his men.  He berates Lear for having them killed, but Lear insists the men were trespassing on his land and he had the right, a claim with which Menchaca takes issue.  It’s made abundantly clear that the majority of Lear’s land was seized from Menchaca’s father and other members of the Mexican gentry prior to the Alamo, and though Menchaca still owns a hacienda to the south of Lear’s ranch the property lines are more than a bit muddy.  The only thing keeping true conflict at bay is a treaty Lear and Menchaca’s father agreed to following their altercations, and the fragility of the bond demonstrated here does not bode well for Lear’s choice to cede responsibility of his holdings to his daughters.

But he does, and in predictable King Lear fashion things spin out of control pretty quickly.  His oldest daughter Susannah and her brother-in-law Highsmith (the ciphers for Goneril and Cornwall) make it known early on that they desire more than the land Lear has bequeathed them — Menchaca’s remaining property is sitting idle to the south, ripe for the taking.  This is where Texas most clearly diverges from the Lear formula (other than, of course, being set in post-Alamo Texas) and, I think, where as an adaptation or re-staging it is at its most intriguing.  In Shakespeare’s play, after Lear divides the throne between Regan and Goneril, the strife is mostly isolated — Britain bears the brunt of the old king’s mistake as the new rulers squabble and vie for power.  To set things right, help must come from outside: the exiled daughter Cordelia and her husband the King of France must invade.

In King of Texas, this is situation reversed: Lear’s successors are still squabbling and scheming, but they are the ones who stage an invasion, in this case of the land owned by Menchaca, the France analogue.  In other words, military action is not a solution to the chaos but rather an effect of it — a very powerful shift, because John Lear has made himself an important figure through wars with Mexican landowners and finally, as the movie hints, during a harrowing but victorious stand at the Alamo.  Violence — specifically warfare and violence for personal gain — is John Lear’s great sin.

Comparatively, Shakespeare gives his own Lear little to work with.  He is certainly not opposed to violence — he kills Cordelia’s executioners before his own death and rather offhandedly claims, “I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion, / I would have made them skip” (V.iii.333-334).  The point here isn’t that violence is bad, but rather that Lear used to be badass.  The discovery of Poor Tom in the storm does more to underline how he has failed morally: “I have ta’en / Too little care of this.  Take physic, pomp. / Expose thyself to feel what wretched feel, / That thou may shake the superflux to them / And show the heavens more just” (III.v.37-41).

So Lear realizes that while he’s been living the good life as a king, he’s let a lot of people go on suffering.  That’s interesting, but it’s not the overarching interest of the play; what we get from this exchange is not “Lear should have taken care of the poor” but “Lear has realized that without his status he isn’t much different than a beggar.”  There may be another past mistake — Goneril and Regan hate Lear, and maybe they have a reason, but given their personalities and actions it doesn’t seem likely they resent him for not combating poverty.  Nevertheless, other than pride, being an uncaring ruler is the only concrete fault attributed to Lear in the text.

In King of Texas, Susannah’s land-grab acts as a parallel for John Lear’s own faults — he’s reared a child who is willing to treat others (including Lear himself) as ruthlessly as he has.  Likewise, Lear’s epiphany comes not during the storm — he spends most of that time simply being crazy — but during the actual siege of Mechaca’s hacienda, when Claudia/Cordelia is killed by a stray bullet.  He finally sees warfare — the thing that has made him great — as something horrible and pointless; the grotesquerie of fighting over land hits home.  This is why King of Texas is a Revisionist Western: it  exposes the traditional ideas of the Old West and early Western films, revealing that expansion and Manifest Destiny are ultimately a brutal, immoral, and absurd business.

 

the peace and safety of a new dark age