Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jack Kerouac

The Prime of Miss Elizabeth Hoover

with 2 comments

Yesterday, as I was working on my post for this blog, I found myself thinking about the first time that I ever heard of Lyme disease, which, naturally, was on The Simpsons. In the episode “Lisa’s Substitute,” which first aired on April 25, 1991, Lisa’s teacher, Miss Hoover, tells the class: “Children, I won’t be staying long. I just came from the doctor, and I have Lyme disease.” As Principal Skinner cheerfully explains: “Lyme disease is spread by small parasites called ‘ticks.’ When a diseased tick attaches itself to you, it begins sucking your blood. Malignant spirochetes infect your bloodstream, eventually spreading to your spinal fluid and on into the brain.” At the end of the second act, however, Miss Hoover unexpectedly returns, and I’ve never forgotten her explanation for her sudden recovery:

Miss Hoover: You see, class, my Lyme disease turned out to be psychosomatic.
Ralph: Does that mean you’re crazy?
Janie: It means she was faking it.
Miss Hoover: No, actually, it was a little of both. Sometimes, when a disease is in all the magazines and on all the news shows, it’s only natural that you think you have it.

And while it might seem excessive to criticize a television episode that first aired over a quarter of a century ago, it’s hard to read these lines after Porochista Khakpour’s memoir Sick without wishing that this particular joke didn’t exist.

In its chronic form, Lyme disease remains controversial, but like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, it’s an important element in the long, complicated history of women having trouble finding doctors who will take their pain seriously. As Lidija Haas writes in The New Yorker:

There’s a class of illnesses—multi-symptomatic, chronic, hard to diagnose—that remain associated with suffering women and disbelieving experts. Lyme disease, symptoms of which can afflict patients years after the initial tick bite, appears to be one…[The musician Kathleen Hanna] describes an experience common to many sufferers from chronic illness—that of being dismissed as an unreliable witness to what is happening inside her. Since no single medical condition, a doctor once told her, could plausibly affect so many different systems—neurological, respiratory, gastrointestinal—she must be having a panic attack…As in so many other areas of American life, women of color often endure the most extreme versions of this problem.

It goes without saying that when “Lisa’s Substitute” was written, there weren’t any women on the writing staff of The Simpsons, although even if there were, it might not have made a difference. In her recent memoir Just the Funny Parts, Nell Scovell, who worked as a freelance television writer in the early nineties, memorably describes the feeling of walking into the “all-male” Simpsons writing room, which was “welcoming, but also intimidating.” It’s hard to imagine these writers, so many of them undeniably brilliant, thinking twice about making a joke like this—and it’s frankly hard to see them rejecting it now, when it might only lead to attacks from people who, in Matt Groening’s words, “love to pretend they’re offended.”

I’m not saying that there are any subjects that should be excluded from comedic consideration, or that The Simpsons can’t joke about Lyme disease. But as I look back at the classic years of my favorite television show of all time, I’m starting to see a pattern that troubles me, and it goes far beyond Apu. I’m tempted to call it “punching down,” but it’s worse. It’s a tendency to pick what seem at the time like safe targets, and to focus with uncanny precision on comic gray areas that allow for certain forms of transgression. I know that I quoted this statement just a couple of months ago, but I can’t resist repeating what producer Bill Oakley says of Greg Daniels’s pitch about an episode on racism in Springfield:

Do you remember this? Something about Homer and Dr. Hibbert? Well, you pitched it several times and I think we were just…It was some exploration of the concept of race in Springfield, and we just said, you know, we don’t think this is the forum. The Simpsons can’t be the right forum to deal with racism.

He was probably right. But when you look at the few racially charged jokes that the show actually made, the characters involved weren’t black, but quite specifically “brown,” or members of groups that occupy a liminal space in our cultural understanding of race: Apu, Akira, Bumblebee Man. (I know that Akira was technically whiter than anybody else, but you get my drift.) By contrast, the show was very cautious when it came to its black characters. Apart from Dr. Hibbert, who was derived from Bill Cosby, the show’s only recurring black faces were Carl and Officer Lou, the latter of whom is so unmemorable that I had to look him up to make sure that he wasn’t Officer Eddie. And both Carl and Lou were given effectively the same voice by Hank Azaria, the defining feature of which was that it was nondescript as humanly possible.

I’m not necessarily criticizing the show’s treatment of race, but the unconscious conservatism that carefully avoided potentially controversial areas while lavishing attention on targets that seemed unobjectionable. It’s hard to imagine a version of the show that would have dared to employ such stereotypes, even ironically, on Carl, Lou, or even Judge Snyder, who was so racially undefined that he was occasionally colored as white. (The show’s most transgressive black figures, Drederick Tatum and Lucius Sweet, were so transparently modeled on real people that they barely even qualified as characters. As Homer once said: “You know Lucius Sweet? He’s one of the biggest names in boxing! He’s exactly as rich and as famous as Don King, and he looks just like him, too!” And I’m not even going to talk about “Bleeding Gums” Murphy.) That joke about Miss Hoover is starting to feel much the same way, and if it took two decades for my own sensibilities to catch up with that fact, it’s for the same reasons that we’re finally taking a harder look at Apu. And if I speak as a fan, it isn’t to qualify these thoughts, but to get at the heart of why I feel obliged to write about them at all. We’re all shaped by popular culture, and I can honestly say of The Simpsons, as Jack Kerouac writes in On the Road: “All my actions since then have been dictated automatically to my subconscious by this horrible osmotic experience.” The show’s later seasons are reflexively dismissed as lazy, derivative, and reliant on easy jokes, but we still venerate its golden years. Yet if The Simpsons has gradually degraded under the watch of many of its original writers and producers, this implies that we’re only seeing the logical culmination—or eruption—of something that was there all along, afflicting its viewers years after the original bite. We all believed that The Simpsons, in its prime, was making us smarter. But what if it was just psychosomatic?

The osmotic experience

leave a comment »

“When I was a kid, I was a science fiction freak,” Jimmy Webb says in an interview in the book Songwriters on Songwriting. Webb, who is best remembered today for writing “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park,” tells the interviewer Paul Zollo:

I remember one Sunday that I was sitting in my dad’s church. He was a Baptist preacher. I was sitting about halfway back and I had a science fiction novel snugged up under my Baptist hymnal and I was reading away. My dad was preaching a mighty sermon. He looked back and I guess the sight of me in this pious pose must have struck him as altogether unlikely. He said, “Jimmy, what are you doing back there? Come down here right now.” So I took that long walk down the aisle of the church to the front. He said, “Stand up right here.” I turned around and faced the congregation. He said, “Tell this congregation what you’re reading.” So I had to say, “Martian Chronicles, sir.”

And what I like best about this story, which dates from around 1958, is that there isn’t anything about Webb’s career—aside from the song “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” which he admits he took directly from Heinlein—that would particularly stamp him as shaped by science fiction. He might have been changed by it in ways that aren’t immediately visible, but then again, he didn’t need to be. Unlike the readers of an earlier period, to be a science fiction “freak” in the late fifties, you didn’t need to be an obsessive outsider living in a city big enough to sustain a vibrant fan community. You could just be a twelve-year-old kid from Oklahoma.

As it happened, I didn’t go looking for that anecdote from Webb—I found it while I was randomly browsing in a book that I already owned. Just a few hours later, I came across a reference to the pulps in another unlikely place, the “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. The speaker is the Reverend James E. Post, a chaplain who served as a character witness for the killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock in 1960. After the jury retires to deliberate, the Reverend Post says to a handful of the other attendees:

“Sometimes I despair. Sometimes I think old Doc Savage had the right idea.” The Doc Savage to whom he referred was a fictional hero popular among adolescent readers of pulp magazines a generation ago. “If you boys remember, Doc Savage was a kind of superman. He’d made himself proficient in every field—medicine, science, philosophy, art. There wasn’t much old Doc didn’t know or couldn’t do. One of his projects was, he decided to rid the world of criminals. First he bought a big island out in the ocean. Then he and his assistants—he had an army of trained assistants—kidnapped all the world’s criminals and brought them to the island. And Doc Savage operated on their brains. He removed the part that holds wicked thoughts. And when they recovered they were all decent citizens. They couldn’t commit crimes because that part of their brain was out. Now it strikes me that surgery of this nature might really be the answer to—”

At that point, the jury returns to sentence Smith and Hickock to death by hanging, so we don’t know what else the Reverend Post might have said about Doc Savage, whose creator, John Nanovic, worked out of an office at Street & Smith Publications next to the one occupied by John W. Campbell.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve repeatedly found myself coming across this kind of material, usually while thinking about something else entirely. While reading Saul Bellow’s Herzog, I found a reference to Isaac Asimov; shortly afterward, I opened my copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to a random page and saw a mention of Stranger in a Strange Land, which I’d completely forgotten was there. You could say that these are instances of the synchronicity that Robert Graves describes in his account of researching The White Goddess: “Though I had no more than one or two of the necessary books in my very small library the rest were soon sent, unasked for, by poet friends or tumbled down into my hands from the shelves of a secondhand seaside bookshop.” If that’s the case, it’s a somewhat cruel sort of coincidence, since it’s too late in the publication process for any of it to end up in Astounding—unless I manage to sneak it into the paperback. But it isn’t all that mysterious. All of these examples date from a window of roughly a decade in which science fiction was quietly embedded in the mainstream, either through the memories of the fans who had encountered it at a younger age, like the Reverend Post, or because contemporary readers were discovering authors like Asimov or Bradbury. A while back, in my discussion of Charles Manson, I wrote that he was influenced by Heinlein and Hubbard only in the sense that he was “influenced” by the Beatles: “Manson was a scavenger who assembled his notions out of scraps gleaned from whatever materials were currently in vogue, and science fiction had saturated the culture to an extent that it would have been hard to avoid it entirely, particularly for someone who was actively searching for such ideas. On some level, it’s a testament to the cultural position that both Hubbard and Heinlein had attained.” And that’s true of all the examples that I’ve just mentioned.

But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t significant, or that they aren’t clues to a larger pattern that I’m just starting to grasp. I still think that science fiction has influenced the inner life of our culture in ways that aren’t always obvious, and that the full picture can only be glimpsed by assembling such pieces. While I was writing Astounding, I often thought back to a passage from On the Road, another work from the same period, which I once seriously thought about using as an epigraph. It’s from the sequence in which Sal and Dean wander into an all-night movie theater in Detroit, where they end up repeatedly watching a singing cowboy picture and Background to Danger with George Raft, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, until the double feature takes up permanent residence in Sal’s brain:

We saw them waking, we heard them sleeping, we sensed them dreaming, we were permeated completely with the strange Gray Myth of the West and the weird dark Myth of the East when morning came. All my actions since then have been dictated automatically to my subconscious by this horrible osmotic experience.

For me, this is the most—and maybe the only—authentic passage in the entire book, in that it hints at the way in which such stories can seem more real than our own lives: “I heard big Greenstreet sneer a hundred times; I heard Peter Lorre make his sinister come-on; I was with George Raft in his paranoiac fears; I rode and sang with Eddie Dean and shot up the rustlers innumerable times.” I think that we all know what Kerouac means, even if we don’t often speak of it. There’s an entire secret history of America to be constructed out of these fragments. And in the meantime, all I can do is gather the evidence.

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2018 at 8:51 am

Kerouac goes to the movies

with one comment

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac

And Dean and I, ragged and dirty as if we had lived off locust, stumbled out of the bus in Detroit. We decided to stay up in all-night movies on Skid Row. It was too cold for parks. Hassel had been here on Detroit Skid Row, he had dug every shooting gallery and all-night movie and every brawling bar with his dark eyes many a time. His ghost haunted us. We’d never find him on Times Square again. We thought maybe by accident Old Dean Moriarty was here too—but he was not. For thirty-five cents each we went into the beat-up old movie and sat down in the balcony till morning, when we were shooed downstairs. The people who were in that all-night movie were the end. Beat Negroes who’d come up from Alabama to work in car factories on a rumor; old white bums; young longhaired hipsters who’d reached the end of the road and were drinking wine; whores, ordinary couples, and housewives with nothing to do, nowhere to go, nobody to believe in. If you sifted all Detroit in a wire basket the beater solid core of dregs couldn’t be better gathered. The picture was Singing Cowboy Eddie Dean and his gallant white horse Bloop, that was number one; number two double-feature film was George Raft, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre in a picture about Istanbul. We saw both of these things six times each during the night. We saw them waking, we heard them sleeping, we sensed them dreaming, we were permeated completely with the strange Gray Myth of the West and the weird dark Myth of the East when morning came. All my actions since then have been dictated automatically to my subconscious by this horrible osmotic experience.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Written by nevalalee

May 15, 2016 at 7:30 am

The head has a body

with 2 comments

Norman Mailer

As Blaise Pascal notes, a man is a thinking reed, the most fragile creature in all of nature, and an author is something even stranger: a reed that spends much of its time writing about the actions of other, imaginary reeds. We tend to think of writers as intellectual beings, but an author’s eyes and brain are inextricably tethered to the body, which often has a surprising degree of influence on the work itself. Writing is an intensely physical activity, like playing chess, and I burn a lot of calories in the process: my weight often drops during a first draft, then goes up again in the rewrite, which is when the manuscript itself tends to slim down. (Stephen King says that you should cut ten percent from any first draft, and I sometimes wonder if the missing material just ends up assimilated into the writer’s gut.) These days, the physical effects are even more striking. With a baby in the house, I’ve been getting up earlier than usual, and my writing process is more intermittent but very intense—when Beatrix goes down for a nap, I don’t know if I’ll have twenty minutes or two hours, so I tend to write with one eye constantly on the clock. As a result, I haven’t been this thin since college.

It’s been known for a long time, of course, that brain work is a very real thing. The brain consumes about twenty percent of the body’s energy at any given time, and that’s independent of any actual thinking: it’s more or less the same whether you’re writing War and Peace, killing time on Reddit, or, as is the case for most writers, alternating between the two. But writing isn’t just about the brain alone. Most of the sympathetic nervous system gets into the action as well, since you’re either sweating over a plot problem, caught up in your character’s struggles, or beating yourself up over an intractable page. (This doesn’t even account for the larger stresses of a writer’s uncertain existence, the endless worries over sales, reviews, and editorial notes that serve as a kind of perpetual drumbeat to the melody of the writing life.) It’s something like sitting down for a game of chess that lasts for forty years, and it takes a toll on the body as much as the mind. As the writer May Sarton has memorably observed: “Writing a novel is like taking an examination on which your whole future depends.” And we all know how exhausting an exam can be.

George R.R. Martin

There are more immediate physical issues as well. I’ve spoken at length about my own back problems, which arose soon after I wrote eight hundred pages of an epic manuscript while seated on a couch in my old apartment. They’ve never gone away entirely, but these days, they’ve settled into a chronic but manageable undertone, and I’d imagine that there are few authors who don’t suffer to some extent from back trouble. Keeping the body in line is one of the unstated but crucial aspects of the writer’s routine: it’s why alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine abuse is so endemic among novelists, and why a good diet is so important. Weight gain, interestingly, doesn’t seem to be quite as serious an issue, at least among authors of prose fiction. Based on no scientific evidence whatsoever, I’d guess that novelists tend to lose weight while television writers tend to gain it, which only reflects the difference between a career for which the term “starving artist” was more or less coined and one in which you at least get a free lunch every day. And our heaviest writers, like George R.R. Martin, are often ones who started in one world and crossed over into the other.

In short, when writers describe themselves as athletes, it isn’t entirely a fantasy. In his unforgettable essay “The Last Draft of The Deer Park,” Norman Mailer writes:

When it was a matter of strength I had as much as the next man. In those days I would spend time reminding myself that I had been a bit of an athlete (house football at Harvard, years of skiing), that I had not quit in combat, and once when a gang broke up a party in my loft, I had taken two cracks in the head with a hammer and had still been able to fight…

Yet Mailer, too, suffered from fatigue, and he found himself depending equally on marijuana and Benzedrine for one bad period. (Benzedrine seems to have fallen out of fashion, but it was the drug of choice for writers from Jack Kerouac to Ayn Rand.) Having the kind of career in which you can publish a novel a year for four decades is as much an endurance test of the body as of the spirit, and drugs and alcohol have the same debilitating effect over the long term as they would for any profession in which physical strength is required. The solution, boringly enough, is to treat the body as you would any other tool, and to keep it fueled with diet and exercise as much as you nourish your brain with books and ideas. Because while imagination alone can make a novelist, it’s the body and mind, working in tandem, that make novels.

Written by nevalalee

May 3, 2013 at 8:41 am

Better late than never: On the Road

leave a comment »

I’m not sure how I managed to avoid On the Road for more than thirty years. Part of it, I suppose, was the sense that I was already too old for it. The music critic Dorian Lynskey includes it along with Tropic of Cancer and The Magus on a list of books you should read before you’re eighteen or not at all, and he’s probably right. As a result, my knowledge of Kerouac never went beyond 10,000 Maniacs and “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Yet I knew I had to confront this book one day. Its central question, as its admirers love to remind us, is how to live, and when you’ve decided to write for a living, this isn’t just an abstract philosophical question, but a matter of urgent survival. On a practical level, I’m interested in any serious attempt to lay out the rules of the game. And when I picked up On the Road at last, I was genuinely curious to see what Kerouac had to teach me.

And what I discovered, unfortunately, is that I’m no longer convinced by the vision of life that On the Road represents. It begins promisingly, with Sal’s epic journey from New York to San Francisco, but founders on the figure of Dean Moriarty, presented to us initially as a reckless romantic, but who is really a monster of selfishness and, ultimately, a bore. The central figures are feckless car thieves, pickpockets, and shoplifters who leave a string of broken relationships—and abandoned children—in their headlong rush across the country. There’s a lot of talk about freedom and the embrace of the unknown, but never a moment in which anyone takes the ultimate risk of real human connection that demands any kind of personal sacrifice. The strongest emotion is Sal’s momentary infatuation with a beautiful prostitute at a Mexican brothel, but before long, we’re on the road again, leaving her to live a life that we suspect is far more interesting that those of the men we’ve been following.

And yet On the Road contains moments that shine with beauty, insight, and truth. There’s a scene in which Sal and Dean end up in an all-night movie theater in Detroit and end up repeatedly watching Background to Danger with George Raft, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, until the movie takes up permanent residence in Sal’s brain:

We saw them waking, we heard them sleeping, we sensed them dreaming, we were permeated completely with the strange Great Myth of the West and the weird dark Myth of the East when morning came. All my actions since then have been dictated automatically to my subconscious by this horrible osmotic experience.

Kerouac is getting at something crucial here about how Hollywood and mass culture can shape our inner lives, and I wish he’d followed up on the hint, just as I wish we knew more about the insipid “mystery programs” that Marylou plays on the radio as they drive through the darkness of Texas.

What On the Road finally presents is a very limited version of life and its possibilities, and although Sal seems to acknowledge this by the end, I doubt that this is the message that the novel’s fans have taken away from it. It isn’t a model for the life of art, but a cautionary tale. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t worth reading, or even worth living for a time. Any book on how to live is necessarily constrained: Thoreau only lived at Walden Pond for two years, as a sort of contained experiment before moving on to a more conventional life, even as the traces of the sojourn still lingered. And what Kerouac gives us is a chronicle of the journey that every thinking person has to pass through on the way to something else, like the countless mistakes that Proust reminds us lie on the path to wisdom. In the end, Dean is still on the road, while Sal, like all writers, decides to settle for something more ordinary that will allow him to tell Dean’s story. And that’s where the true adventure begins.

Written by nevalalee

November 13, 2012 at 10:32 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

January 4, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

Tagged with

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

March 8, 2011 at 8:08 am

%d bloggers like this: