Part I: Foregrounding
In February, my debut novel Humboldt, or The Power of Positive Thinking was published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. It’s a satire that revolves around an under-educated protagonist who is perpetually misunderstanding, misreading, and misinterpreting the world. The speed and structure of the plot is heavily indebted to Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism.
It’s OK if you want to laugh at that last sentence. In fact, you’re supposed to want to laugh at that sentence.
Picture this: it’s morning somewhere deep in the banal heart of the Midwest. A man wakes up wearing only socks (he can’t sleep if his feet are cold or if his socks are too tight). He’s probably hungover. Like most Midwestern males, he drinks too much. This is apparent from all the Lone Star bottle caps strewn across the top of his bedside dresser that he keeps as mementoes because of the tiny word puzzles that are printed on the underside of each cap, but he only keeps the puzzles that he’s able to solve (he doesn’t like feeling intellectually inferior to a bottle of Lone Star). Before he dons the mandatory uniform of the Midwest (colorful cotton, loose-fitting denim, and comfortable shoes); before he begins making breakfast (his breakfasts are renown and he fears that people only befriend him to learn his technique for deseeding a pomegranate); before he listens to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ Thrift Shop for the first of many times that day (he has a history of wearing Thrift Store clothing and knows he would look “in-cred-da-BULL” in all pink with green gator shoes); before he steps into the shower and begins singing (he can perform a stirring rendition of the New Zealand National Anthem); before he sallies forth into the workday to live the Immigrant’s Creed (“Life is Work”), he pauses to think to himself: ‘Today, I’ll write a book heavily indebted to Voltaire.’
Sometimes truth is stranger than satire.
Misreading: (n) the act of creatively misunderstanding a work of literature
If literary influence is the struggle to unname a precursor while earning one’s own name, as Harold Bloom theorizes in The Anatomy of Influence, how did a Midwestern stumble into a literary agon with Voltaire? Answering this question requires foregrounding.
Foregrounding: (v) to make prominent, or draw attention to, particular features within a literary work.
The idea of foregrounding springs from a letter written in 1855 by Ralph Waldo Emerson to a young, unknown poet named Walt Whitman.
“I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.”
Whitman loved this quote; if he were alive today, and playing in the NBA, he would probably have the word “foregrounding” tattooed on the same spot where Derrick Rose has inked “Poohdini.”
Poohdini: (n) ?????????
Analytically speaking, foregrounding is the exact opposite of backgrounding. Anyone who’s ever taken an entry level college English class knows how to background. Backgrounding is easy; all it requires is locating the details of an author’s life within the work. Foregrounding requires finding the work within the life.
So, where did Humboldt, or The Power of Positive Thinking come from?
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Part II: Scenesetting
Nothing refutes the solidity of self-identity like Angus Fletcher’s assertion “to discover the scene is to discover the self.” Regardless of what our flopflopfearing politicians may say, the self is not solid stone; it’s shifting sand.
The act of discovering the self mirrors the creation of a literary character. And thus the idea of scenesetting plays a vital role in foregrounding Humboldt, or the Power of Positive Thinking. To illustrate the importance of scenesetting, I had to look no further than the sandsculpture of my own life.
While living in New York, I had no qualms about spending my nights drinking beer out of a can while discussing things like the performance art of Marina Abramović (“Nudity in an art museum? Who needs the internet!”) or bragging about how I once hungout with one-fifth of the band TV on the Radio (“He had a full face-fro! You couldn’t tell where the beard ended and the afro began!”) But upon returning to Southeastern Ohio, I discovered that such conversations were strictly verboten so I seamlessly transitioned into drinking beer out of a can while discussing the President’s mysterious place of birth (“Kenya? He looks Fijian Indian to me!”) and supporting the claim that Jesus rode a dinosaur (“I mean, it’s not in the Bible, but there’s gotta be something in one of those kooky Nag Hammadi texts, right?”) And these scenes differed greatly from the afternoons I spent along K Road in Auckland, ogling trannies and talking rugby (“Go da Blues!”), which differed greatly from those spent in Portland, Maine, where I ogled other bearded dude’s red plaid jackets, while vigorously insisting that lobster rolls are delicious and in no way resemble squirting Mayonnaise into your mouth and then flinging $12 into Casco Bay. And now that I live in Columbus, I happily wear scarlet & gray underwear, while assuring everyone that I’m NOT cheering for Michigan in this year’s NCAA tournament (C’mon Wolverines; beat Syracuse! I mean, get rabies and die, you prickly garbagefeeders!)
With the exception of Auckland, all of these cities appear within Humboldt, or the Power of Positive Thinking. The narrative also passes through Washington D.C., Iraq, Connecticut, Boston, prison, Houston, and New Orleans. And with each new scene, Humboldt’s shifting self assembles itself, developing over both time and space.
But here’s the dilemma: what to do with Ohio? How does an author go about scenesetting in a state that prides itself on being totally nondescript? What is there to write about? And how can an author avoid sounding like a condescending Opat or an opinionated Ohole?
Opat: (n) an Ohioan who has moved away from Ohio and frequently slanders his home state
Ohole: (n) Regional variety of asshole indigenous to Ohio
Within My Life and Hard Times, James Thurber dodged this dilemma by narrowing his focus. The book’s essays contain no lofty discussions of the Midwest, no lengthy dissertations on Ohio as a whole. His perspective isn’t vast; it’s microscopic in its precision. Thurber discovers his self through describing the mundane events of his life (his kooky family, his petulant pets, the day the dam didn’t break) within the small confines of turn-of-the-century Columbus, Ohio. In other words, Thurber allows the scene to construct the self.
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Part III: Miseducation
“Education cannot so improve a man that it uproots his natural inclinations,” so counseled Michel de Montaigne. I often find myself on college campuses; in fact, I’m in and out of universities like rappers are in and out of prison. This exposure has rendered me a keen observer of education. Whenever I’m confronted with the sight of a hung-over undergraduate consuming unhealthy food, wearing ill-proportioned clothing, and spouting crap grammar, instead of feeling outraged, I simply mutter to myself, “Heaven forbid anyone uproots his natural inclinations!”
No student is ever educated to eat Fast Food, wear sweatpants with words scrawled across both buttcheeks, speak like a chimney sweep, and binge on cheap alcohol like a barfoholic; it just happens. But it happens so frequently, and within so many different educational environments, that it’s impossible not to wonder if miseducation isn’t the true objective of education.
Miseducation: (n) education that worsens a student’s natural inclinations; dogged learned ignorance
In addition to the idea that food should be celebrated for its rapidity and price instead of its ingredients (“Taco Bell’s Beefy Crunch Burrito sounds like it might casually disembowel me, but shit… it’s only 99 cents!”), here are some other common examples of miseducation: the belief that socks are optional (unless you get weekly pedicures, nobody wants to see your toes); that employment is the goal of education (if you believe this, you probably also believe that Justin Bieber is a talented musician); that sex is the defining feature of human existence (if you believe this, I have some Shakespearean sonnets I’d like you to read); and that our President is black (people of African descent who are born in Hawaii are Hawaiian, just like people of Indian descent who are born in Fiji are Fijian Indian).
A good deal of the humor within Humboldt, or the Power of Positive Thinking is a direct result of miseducation. Just before he is expelled from school under the suspicion of being Amish, the story’s protagonist, Humboldt, is miseducated by a batty history teacher. The result of this miseducation is that Humboldt spends the rest of his life struggling to understand the world. For example, at one point in the story, he mistakes post-Katrina New Orleans for an upsidedown post-Lebron Cleveland. Humboldt’s plight illustrates another defining feature of miseducation: while education is quickly forgotten, miseducation lasts a lifetime.
One way of avoiding miseducation is by embracing your own “natural inclinations.” A nerd of epic proportions, Montaigne was heavily influenced by the ancient Greek maxim: “Know thyself.” It’s no secret that my own “natural inclinations” lean towards laughter. And because of this, I find education hilarious. For example, I still snicker when remembering the looks on my student’s faces when, as a graduate assistant in the art history department at the University of Auckland, I once blurted out, “You mean, you guys have never heard the story about how Caravaggio almost cut off another man’s penis?!!!” (And to think, until that day, they all thought Baroque art was boring!); I also still remember how hard I laughed, years later, while proofreading a student’s essay on The Return of Martin Guerre, in which the word ‘marriage’ had been so badly misspelled that it had been auto-corrected to ‘barrel.’
Here are a few choice quotes from that essay:
“In 1538, Martin Guerre and Bertrande de Rols entered into a barrel.”
“After ten years of barrel, Martin abandoned Bertrande for Spain.”
Ever since reading this essay, I can’t help but think of marriage as two people being forced into a barrel together.
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Part IV: The Art of the Ellipsis
Prestigious literary critics aren’t above hurling common schoolboy taunts at one another. The question that formalist critics like to antagonize their character-based brethren with is: “how many children had Lady Macbeth?” This question is meant to be a reminder that fictional characters are not real people, and thus it’s absurd to theorize over any aspect of their lives that doesn’t appear within the text.
Never one to ignore provocation, character-based critic extraordinaire, Harold Bloom, proudly answers the question: “just one, murdered with her first husband.” My answer deviates slightly from Harold’s. I suspect Lady Macbeth had two children: one murdered with her first husband and one from being artificially inseminated by David Crosby. (Actually, can you blame her for choosing a murderous epileptic with erectile dysfunction over David Crosby?)
The reason why Shakespeare confounds formalist critics is because he is the undisputed master of the theatrical ellipsis.
Ellipsis: (n) the purposeful omission of information within a literary work
If something is missing in one of Shakespeare’s plays (like little, nappyheaded Macbeth kids), it’s because the playwright doesn’t want the audience to know about it. Thus the situation is intentionally left blank. In Shakespeare’s day, a “blank” was the name for the center of an archery target (it’s what we today call a “bull’s eye”). The idea of an absence at the very heart of an object was one of Shakespeare’s absolute favorite metaphors.
The explanation for the Macbeths’ childlessness is as blank as Lady Macbeth’s name. (Why doesn’t Lady Macbeth have a name? Ever since the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, every time I think of Lady Macbeth, all I see is Lady Gaga in a meat dress; actually, this might not be such a bad mental image!)
Other classic Shakespearean ellipses include not knowing when Gertrude and Claudius’ affair began. (Not even a fishmonger like Polonius would dare ask: “So when did you two start dating?”), Iago’s ancestry (Whatever it was, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Othello’s ancient wasn’t hugged enough as a child), and the rumor that Brutus was Caesar’s bastard son (murdering a would-be tyrant is one thing; stabbing your father in his babymaker is something entirely different!)
Upon completing The Kid from Cambridge, I couldn’t shake the sensation that I had left a glaring ellipsis within the manuscript. What could I have possibly left out? Hadn’t I mentioned everything about growing up in Southeastern Ohio? I intended The Kid from Cambridge to be the kind of manuscript that if aliens found it a million years from now they could flawlessly recreate life in Southeastern Ohio in some distant solar system. (Enjoy those intergalactic drive-thru liquor stores, you wacky Tralfamadorians!)
Hoping to quell my doubts about a possible ellipsis, I made a quick mental checklist of everything that I had included within the manuscript: had I mentioned the rumor about John Glenn’s alien bride?… [CHECK]. Had I mentioned the night that the Shenandoah Inn was busted for “lot lizards?” (also known around Cambridge as “The Night the Shenandoah Went Down”)… [CHECK]. Had I mentioned that the Buffalo Bar and Grill is “Home to the King Frouk”?… [CHECK]. Had I mentioned my memories of drinking Zima?… [CHE… ur… I mean, I never drank Zima!] Had I mentioned why people call me “Toots the Baby Duck?”… [QUACK]. Had I mentioned the night that an undercover State Liquor Agent almost drank my urine?… [YUCK] (I mean: CHECK). And, finally, had I successfully entered the Guinness Book of World Records for “Most Hopalong Cassidy jokes made by a non-septuagenarian?”… [YEE-HAW!]
Wasn’t that everything? What could I possibly be forgetting?
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Part V: Spatchcocking
The danger associated with being a Weird Word Nerd is that the words you use routinely get mistaken for “George W. Bushisms” or worse. For example, whenever I slip “spatchcocking” into a conversation, the word usually gets mistaken for having something to do with gay sex, à la “the Rick Santorum.” (In 2003, syndicated columnist Dan Savage, angered by a recent homophobic slur from the then-U.S. Senator, spearheaded an on-line campaign to get an outrageous gay sex act renamed “the Rick Santorum.”)
Spatchcocking has nothing to do with gay sex. Or at least, I don’t think it has anything to do with gay sex. To be honest, I haven’t googled it; nor have I googled “the Rick Santorum.” (I prefer to think that whatever Savage finally chose was something so outrageous that it would’ve made Liberace blush.)
The word “spatchcocking” actually comes from Ulysses. Stephen Dedalus uses it in the library scene, musing, “Why is the underplot of King Lear in which Edmund figures lifted out of Sidney’s Arcadia and spatchcocked on to a Celtic legend older than history?”
Spatchcock: (v) the overlaying of two or more disparate narratives, especially within a work of literature.
In addition to being a Weird Word Nerd’s paradise, Ulysses is also a spatchcocking of epic proportions, combining The Odyssey’s narrative structure, Hamlet’s philosophical inquiries, and the biographies of both the author and William Shakespeare. That’s not confusing, right? So let me get this straight: the character Leopold Bloom is a fictional composite of Ulysses, Shakespeare, and James Joyce as an adult; while Stephen is a triple spatchcocking of Telemachus, Hamlet, and James Joyce as an adolescent? Thunderation! Such complexity explains why, for so many people, the sheer thought of opening a copy of Ulysses is scrotumtightening. (Those are two more of my favorite Joycean Weird Words.)
The idea of spatchcocking played an important role in the creation of The Minotaur & the Midwest, which was conceived of as a Nietzschean transvaluation of Midwestern values. (Nietzsche and the Midwest? Those two things have about as much in common as Rick Santorum and Liberace!)
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Part VI: Endgame
Every Shakespeare freak has his favorite unsolvable mystery. Sigmund Freud’s was why did Shakespeare allow some dead guy to write eleven of his plays? (Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford died in 1604; “Shakespeare” wrote his final play in 1613). T.S. Eliot’s was why was Shakespeare so unaware that Hamlet was “most certainly an artistic failure?” (Very astute, Tommy!) Oscar Wilde’s question was how much did Shakespeare really love those young boy actors who played his most memorable female roles? (According to the Sonnets, the answer to this question appears to be…awkward!) And James Joyce’s question dealt with Shakespeare’s marriage: just how bad was it? Was it simply ordinarily awful, or was Sweet Anne really making the “beast with two backs” with all three of Shakespeare’s brothers? (And come to think of it: exactly how many backs would that beast have? Three? Four? SIX?!)
[To be fair to Anne, I’ll just quickly explain why this probably didn’t happen. By the time Shakespeare appeared in London in 1592, Anne was thirty-seven and the ages of his brothers were Gilbert (twenty-six), Richard (eighteen), and Edmund (twelve). At that stage in her life, could a thirty-seven year old woman be sleeping with a twenty-six year old? Maybe. An eighteen year old? Probably not. A twelve year old? Creepy! But hey, mere chronological impossibility never stopped Oxfordians like Freud from claiming that The Tempest was written by a corpse that had been rotting for eleven years!]
My favorite unsolvable Shakespearean mystery focuses on the Bard’s retirement. What was he thinking? Who, in 1611, retires? And what did he do with all his free-time? Yes, shuffleboard was invented in 1532, but there is no historical record that a court ever existed in Stratford-Upon-Avon. And the Birmingham Barons didn’t start playing Double-A baseball until 1885. (And by the way: Michael Jordan, what were you thinking?)
I suspect that Shakespeare didn’t so much retire, as he was forced out. After all, he was only forty-seven, and he did write substantial parts, at least, of three more plays in collaboration with John Fletcher: Henry VIII, the lost Cardenio, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. (And yes, it pisses me off to no end that civilization has somehow managed to LOSE a Shakespeare play! It’s called Cardenio. It was last seen in Elizabethan London. Robert Langdon… FIND IT!)
So, in essence, what appears to have happened is that Shakespeare was forced to accept a demotion to Part-Time status. As much as I love Shakespeare, I can’t really say that I blame the directors of the Globe Theater for this decision. After all, even though his plays were still wildly popular, he had given up writing for his audience. In other words, he stopped caring what people thought about his plays.
For example, upon reading the original script for The Tempest, I envision the conversation between the playwright and the directors of the Globe went something like this:
Directors of the Globe: [tactfully] You know, Will, Bermuda isn’t really located in the Mediterranean between Italy and Tunis.
Shakespeare: No tongue! All eyes! Be silent.
Directors of the Globe: [awkwardly] Will, old chap, remember how, in your last performance review, we talked about trying to have a more positive attitude?
Shakespeare: For this, be sure, tonight thou shalt have cramps!
Directors of the Globe: Well, we’ve decided to cut down your hours to Part-Time and make you share an office with John Fletcher.
Shakespeare: Thou poisonous slave!
Directors of the Globe: Or you know, you could just retire.
In 1610, Shakespeare returned to live in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Three years later, he gave up writing completely. And after that, we have no idea how he spent the final three years of his life. According to rumor, the only thing that we know from this three year span is that he supposedly planted a mulberry tree in the backyard of his home at New Place. And I question how peaceful this act was. I envision an irate Anne screaming, “Why don’t you get off your LAZY, LITERARY ASS and go plant a Mulberry tree or something!” (And then once poor, retired Will was out of earshot, she whispers to herself, “You know, even though I’m fifty-eight and his brother Edmund is thirty-three, he sure is a hunk!”)
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