Saturday, August 27, 2011

PRIOR TO A decimation of DAVID SHIELD'S "reality hunger"..


if "all criticism is autobiography," as david shields' driveling on about how he and the authors of two books which he totally fails to review jerk each other off gives just enough impetus to complete total demolition of REALITY HUNGER, delayed because I have been engaged in on-line discussions about two recent works of the world's most capable writer, peter handke
a writer on the order of Goethe,
even Shakespeare
in whose work our reality hungry
shields of course couldn't be less interested!




and by the time i am done REALITY HUNGER  will no longer
be alexithimic
or rather feel like Hackefleisch
in as much as Hackefleisch can be said to be impued with sansations of any kind.
If the L.A. REVIEW thinks it will make  a name for itself by
indulging the self-indulgent Mr. Shields
that  is certainly true


Two pieces, one a discussion of a novel published today by 
BEN LERNER and the other a review of a memoir by FRED MOODY
still in manuscript (yes, that’s right). 


Ben Lerner
Leaving the Atocha Station

Coffee House Press, August 2011. 186 pp.
All criticism is a form of autobiography.

I’ve never met the poet Ben Lerner, though we trade email now and then, as we’re interested in each other’s work. In my case, “interested” is a bit of an understatement. I’m obsessed with him as my doppelg√§nger of the following generation, my younger self, my aesthetic son. Both of us went to Brown; have traveled in Spain/speak Spanish poorly; are Jewish — i.e., have/had Jewish parents. I wasn’t born in Topeka, as he was, but growing up in a northern California suburb felt as far removed from Oz as Kansas. Both of us are writers and “critics.” Both of us have/had accomplished mothers and passive fathers. Above all, both of us are in agony over the “incommensurability of language and experience” and our detachment from our own emotions.

I admire Ben’s poetry, but I love to death his new book, Leaving the Atocha Station, which is nominally a novel but thick with roman √† clef references to the author’s childhood in Topeka, his undergraduate and graduate years in Providence, his Fulbright year in Madrid, his essay on the Library of America edition of Ashbery’s poetry (a collection which includes the poem “Leaving the Atocha Station”), his poet-friends Cyrus Console and Geoffrey G. O’Brien, his psychologist-parents (his mother is the well known feminist writer Harriet Lerner); I’m going to go ahead and treat the novel’s narrator, Adam, as he if were Ben. Ben won’t mind! — and what difference does it make?

The book — as what significant book is not? — is born of significant despair; Adam/Ben wonders if his poems are “so many suicide notes.” If the actual were ever to replace art, he’d swallow a bottle of white pills. If he can’t believe in poetry, he’ll close up shop. You and me both, pal. The question I want to ask, in this prologue and the book that follows: twenty-three years older than he is, am I in exactly the same stew?

Leaving the Atocha Station “chronicles the endemic disease of our time: the difficulty of feeling,” a perfect phrase a reviewer once used to describe an imperfect book of mine. Ben never lies about how hard it is to leave the station — to get past oneself to anything at all. He incessantly wonders what it would be like to look at himself from another’s perspective — imagining “I was a passenger who could see me looking up at myself looking down.” He wants us to take everything personally until his personality dissolves and he can say yes to everything. Ben has never come anywhere near such an apotheosis. Neither have I: when I was a little kid, I was a very good baseball player, but I actually preferred to go over to the park across from our house, sit atop the hill, and watch Little Leaguers, kids my age or younger, play for hours. “What’s the matter with you?” my father would ask me. “You should be out there playing. You shouldn’t be watching.” I don’t know what’s the matter with me — why I’m adept only at distance, why I feel so remote from things, why life feels like a rumor —but my father was right: playing has somehow always struck me as a fantastically unfulfilling activity.

What is actual when our experiences are mediated by language, technology, medication, and the arts? Is poetry an essential art form, or merely a screen for the reader’s projections? I’ve lifted these last two sentences from the flap copy (surely written by Lerner). The very nature of language itself is a major part of Adam’s problem; he’s unable to settle on the right word in English, unable to understand Spanish, revels in mistranslation as a close approximation of the incomprehensible human flux. An unfortunate fact about stuttering — the subject of my novel, Dead Languages, published when I was the same age Ben is now — is that it prevents me from ever entirely losing self-consciousness when expressing such traditional and truly important emotions as love, hate, joy, and deep pain. Always first aware not of the naked feeling itself but of the best way to phrase the feeling so as to avoid verbal repetition, I’ve come to think of emotions as belonging to other people, being the world’s happy property — not really mine except by way of disingenuous circumlocution.

About the 2004 Madrid bombings (three of the bombs exploded in the Atocha Station) he says, “When history came alive, I was sleeping in the Ritz.” He wonders if he’ll be the only American in history who visits Granada without seeing the Alhambra. While Spain is voting, he’s checking email. Easy enough to judge Ben; harder to acknowledge the near-universality of such soul-sickness, c. 2011. The emblematic event of my childhood was a weekend I spent with my mother and father in Eugene, Oregon, where they helped the Peace & Freedom candidate map out his gubernatorial campaign; before we returned to the Bay Area, the candidate treated us to Sunday brunch or, rather, tried to treat us to Sunday brunch, since we drove up and down the strip, trying to work our consciences free to eat at a restaurant called Sambo’s or a cafe that once fired a Chicano busboy. The game: Top This Arcane Indignation. It would be difficult to overestimate either the length of the main drag or the number of times we traversed it. We stopped once for gas.

If Ben cares about “the arts,” it’s only to measure the distance between his experience of the actual works and the claims made on their behalf: “The closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.” He’s “unworthy”; profundity is “unavailable from within the damaged life.” And yet he’s willing to say, somewhat begrudgingly, that Ashbery is a great poet: “It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading. But by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence. It is a presence that keeps the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the true poem remains beyond you, inscribed on the far side of the mirror: ‘You have it but you don’t have it. / You miss it, it misses you. / You miss each other.’”

This is a lot, but is that it? Is that everything? Is that the best art can do now — be a holding tank/reflecting pool for our lostness? Maybe, maybe. Meanwhile, the words are written under water; we have nothing to say and say it into a tiny phone. Why was I born between mirrors? Picasso and the Picasso Museum guard: Ben approaches a canvas a child has touched (a miniature precursor of, or study for, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon), double-checks to make sure no one is around, and since the world is ending, touches the painting himself — 



Fred Moody
Unspeakable Joy

Ms. 292 pp.

I frequently exchange manuscripts with Fred Moody, the author of four previous books. His as-yet-unpublished memoir, Unspeakable Joy, describes his adolescent years spent in two seminaries in California. The book is framed by the national scandal in the 1990s involving the discovery of widespread priestly sexual abuse, including at one of the seminaries that Moody had attended in the 1960s. The book is written in short passages, each one separated by a triangle (= Trinity) and nearly every one just a couple of pages.

The opening of the book — Moody’s mother calling him on the phone after hearing the news, demanding to know if he was one of the abused, and he reassuring her that he wasn’t — sets a tone for what follows, framing the entire thing in a peculiar way. Moody reassures his mother that he wasn’t abused, but he doesn’t reassure the reader; if anything, I’m inclined to think he’s lying. He reflects on how troubled his adult life has been, how he has to hide in plain sight because of the horrible things within him:
Marriage, kids, house, friends, career — when you’re like me, those things are basically barnacles on a rotting pier. I suppose, for the secretive, the power of the secret has some direct correlation with the worth of the life you have: the more loved ones in your life, the more emotional equity, the more you have to lose by being found out.
All of which further inclines me to believe that he was abused, and that I’m going to hear about it, but this information is withheld, and he segues into a retelling of his entire seminarian career, beginning with his earliest, uncontrollable desire to enter the seminary because of his mortifying fear of girls and all things sexual, and his resulting resolution that “there was something deeply wrong” with him. “Joining the seminary was the only opportunity I had to flee my life, which was intolerable and frightening.” The first several chapters revolve around Moody’s unrelenting emphasis on how troubled he was as a child, how disturbed he is as an adult, and how traumatizing the intervening years were. Further, and perhaps most importantly, he describes how difficult it is for him to recall these memories, both emotionally and physically: “Memory isn’t a resurrector of past reality so much as it is a storyteller,” he muses. His wife asks him (about the manuscript I’m reading) whether he’s writing memoir or fiction, and he responds that he’s “still thinking about it.”

These two ideas, therefore, swirl around all that follows: one, that we’re going to read the story of how Moody was molested by a priest at seminary; two, that we’re going to have no way of knowing how much of what follows is “true.” Oddly enough, both of these ideas more or less drop out of the text as soon as his story begins in earnest. We’re transported not to a retrograde, medieval, Catholic hellhole, but to a largely unfun but overall not-too-bad boarding school. Interspersed throughout the chapters are snippets from other media: essays written by naive and pious pupils for the school’s journal, poems from the experimental journal started by Moody and his friends after they start reading Salinger and Ginsberg, Moody’s grade report at the end of each quarter, letters to and from parents. The essays written by the students on, for example, the “unspeakable joy” in a mother’s heart as her son is finally ordained by a priest, or on the sublime feeling that the more you sacrifice as a seminarian, the more God gives you back, demonstrate the massive gap between what Moody’s classmates seem to be experiencing and what he is; rather than growing more holy each day, Moody and his friends grow more disillusioned with religion, more rebellious and freethinking. In the later pages of the book, as Moody and his friend are hitchhiking to Dylan concerts in Berkeley and questioning God’s existence, essays by the pure of heart keep breaking in to remind us of this schism — which is not just the schism between Moody and many of his peers, but the schism between what occurs inside the seminary and the image it projects to the outside world. The snippets from various, presumably “real” sources aren’t framed as such; they’re simply inserted alongside the rest of the “normal” passages.

I all but forget about the introductory chapters to the book. And yet, of course, I can’t. The feeling of impending molestation hovers over every encounter Moody has with a Father, every time he’s alone in a room with one — not on the page, but in my mind. Every time one of his classmates has a nervous breakdown or mysteriously decides to drop out and go home, I assume abuse or molestation is the root cause, but Moody doesn’t speculate. A startling disconnect develops between the way the book is introduced and what follows. Where’s the trauma? The devastation? The “rotting pier” upon which the adult Moody’s family and marriage are to be just “barnacles?”

I’m relieved, sort of, when Moody says that his seminary is shutting down; I realize that he isn’t going to be molested there. The school closes, Moody goes home, and trauma is spared. What was the whole beginning about, then? To my dismay, I learn that Moody is going to transfer to another seminary—this one in Santa Barbara, St. Anthony’s Franciscan, which proves to be far different from the previous one. Suddenly, the chapters are numbered in Roman numerals. I meet Father Mario, the consummate disciplinarian (google him: he’s still alive). Signs of sexual abuse abound, from kids being mysteriously summoned during class to audible screams coming from Mario’s office. And after several tortured months of enduring true Catholic discipline, Moody is kicked out for giving a homily about the hypocrisy of the institution of confession.

Moody finishes school at Bellingham High, passes through college in a “drug- and alcohol-delivered haze,” and brings us up to the present. No molestation. But then he delivers his great secret, once and for all, the source of his shame: on his last night at St. Francis, Moody, accosted outside by Father Mario, pushes him over a cliff to his death. It immediately becomes clear that this fact is a fabrication. The very next passage, in the second-to-last chapter, entitled “Exomologesis” (an obsolete term meaning “a complete, usually public confession”), begins, “Novelists get a free ride, presenting fact as fiction and taking undeserved credit for creativity when they’ve simply taken down what reality dictated to them. But let a nonfiction writer try to present fiction as fact for the noble cause of inspiring and uplifting the reader, and he ends up crucified on Oprah.” The real source of Moody’s shame, I learn, is that the signs of abuse were all around him, but he didn’t do anything about it. “This is what I can’t get over: the shame over my complicity in that series of monstrous crimes.”

The “Exomologesis” chapter consists almost entirely of excerpts from court documents detailing at length the extent of Father Mario’s abuses. Victims are numbered—Victim 14, Victim 22—and the excerpts go into disturbing detail. The final chapter, “Postscript,” describes Moody revisiting St. Anthony’s with a friend. His friend shoots a photo of Moody comically trying to pry apart the bars of a gate. The final sentences are, “We entitled it ‘Prisoner of Memory.’ Then we got the hell out of there.”

I’m left asking, What was the point of all the chapters about Holy Redeemer, the “cool” seminary where Moody “found” himself, made so many good friends, had so many life-forming and -enhancing experiences? The memoir is bookended by reflections on Moody’s disturbed existence, his internal rage, and the horror of priests sexually abusing children. The bulk of the book, though, deals with none of this. Perhaps all the bad things were going on at Holy Redeemer, too, and Moody was just too young to notice. Hard to know: there remains a disturbing disjuncture between these two sides of the memoir, or novel, or whatever it is you want or need to call this book, whose title, Unspeakable Joy, almost unbearably compounds the tension.


David Shields is the author of twelve books, including Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which was named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications, andThe Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, a New York Times bestseller. His work has been translated into fifteen languages. His last piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books was “Life is Short; Art is Shorter.”

Image: Don’t Blink © Terry Strickland (

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