In 2014 I got to curate a little festival of music, during my year as the Richard and Barbara Debs Composers Chair at Carnegie Hall. From April 22 – 29, 2014, Carnegie Hall presented six concerts, all under the heading collected stories. I wanted to use the idea of storytelling to show how composers solve musical problems, from a range of times and cultures, concentrating on how composers structure music differently depending upon what kind of story they are trying to tell. It was really fun to put it all together and the concerts were a blast.
On this mini-site are assembled the concert programs, the program notes I wrote, photos of the artists and the events, promotional videos I made for the Carnegie Hall website. When the festival launched I asked the literary magazine THE BELIEVER to post a story that related to each concert – it seemed silly to have a festival about story telling without real stories, and they are re-posted here.
I also asked Carnegie Hall to keep the bar open after each show and to give out free drinks. The concerts were designed so that each piece might bring in a different audience, and I thought free drinks might help those audiences intermingle. Included on this site is a section of photos of happy people at the bar, intermingling.
Thanks for visiting! And thanks to everyone at Carnegie Hall!
My introductory video for the Carnegie website is here:
At the start, I have to say that I am something of a composer groupie. I love writing music and I love the other people who write music, no matter what kind of music they write or when they wrote it. I really believe that I belong to an international community of composers, stretching across all boundaries of time and place, regardless of style or category.
It’s not the way we are normally taught to listen. Music and the people who make it can get separated from each other—by time, culture, genre, commerce. It makes it easy for us if all the different kinds of music stay separated. If everything sits neatly in a particular category, it gets much simpler to find the music you already know and to avoid the music you don’t. But because I am a composer groupie, I always want to listen to music outside of these categories so I can pay attention to the things that different kinds of music and composers might have in common, and to consider their differences.
collected stories looks at one of music’s more universal functions, namely how often music gets called upon to help tell different kinds of stories. What I am particularly interested in is how the act of composing changes depending on what kind of story the composer is trying to tell.
I started thinking about this in the mid-1990s when I was finishing two commissions at the same time. One was a giant grand opera for Santa Fe, an extravaganza with a big cast and chorus and speaking roles and children and ballet dancers. The other was a loud, aggressively static piece for the English post-rock ensemble Icebreaker. As I went back and forth from one composition to the other, I could really feel my approach change. The opera required me to tell a story, to reveal things in such a way that the audience experienced surprise, shock, elation, and sadness. In the opera, everyone experienced those things pretty much at the same time. The static piece was more like an object, an odd thing that changed very slowly. It didn’t tell the listeners much about what they should feel or when they should feel it. I began to notice how my job, my skills, my musicality, my aesthetic sense all changed, depending on the needs of the piece in front of me.
collected stories divides the world not by genre or style, but by the various kinds of stories that a piece of music can tell in order to see how the story and the composer work together. The pieces I chose highlight some of the different ways a composer’s job changes. But the truth is that everything on this series is music with which I have a long relationship and that I love. All of it. I hope you will too.
10 Best Classical Music Events of 2014
by Anthony Tommasini
December 11, 2014
“…an imaginative weeklong series of six programs.”
— Anthony Tommasini
David Lang explores the links between music and narrative.
by Alex Ross
April 28, 2014
“Inspired programs elicit narratives not only from the works themselves but also from the ghostly conversations that spring up between them…no two listeners will walk away from such a varied feast having perceived the same tale. It is a good model for programming throughout the season: let’s stop telling the same stories.” — Alex Ross
Telling Stories, From ‘Beowulf’ to the Hobo Life
David Lang’s ‘collected stories’ at Zankel Hall
by Anthony Tommasini
April 23, 2014
“It was an inspired idea to begin on Tuesday with Beowulf which made the point that music has been used to tell stories for as long as music and stories have been around.” — Anthony Tommasini
Tuvan Thorat Singers, Together in Spirit With Arvo Pärt
‘collected stories’ Series Continues at Zankel Hall
by James Oestreich
April 25, 2014
“[a] fascinating and lovably perverse program…” — James Oestreich
After Drowning, Musical Bones Wash Ashore
‘collected stories’ at Zankel Hall Explores a Tragic Tale
by Vivien Schweitzer
April 27, 2014
Visiting the Alps, With Liszt and Goats
David Lang’s ‘collected stories’ Take on Travel and Folk
by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
April 28, 2014
“Mr. Lang’s interests run wide and include the grandiose and the quirky, the sidesplittingly funny and the extremes of virtuosic self-indulgence.” — Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
Bits and Pieces Than End Up a Life
David Lang’s ‘collected stories’ Series Ends With ‘memoir’
by Anthony Tommasini
April 30, 2014
“[The series] ended with the premiere of Mr. Lang’s mystery sonatas a work of nearly 40 minutes for solo violin performed stunningly by the brilliant young violinist Augustin Hadelich… I cannot imagine a better performance than the one Mr. Hadelich gave. His playing combined impressive technical command with plush, rich-textured sound. And with magisterial poise and serene control, Mr. Hadelich became a riveting storyteller, which was the point of this piece. And the series.” — Anthony Tommasini
Robert Osborne, Bass-Baritone
Charles Corey, Kithara II and Cloud-Chamber Bowls
Christi L. Corey, Surrogate Kithara
Sverre Kyvik Bauge, Cello and Harmonic Canons David Broome, Chromelodeon I
Joe Fee, Diamond Marimba and Spoils of War
Joe Bergen, Bamboo Marimba, Bloboy, and Cloud-Chamber Bowls
Matt Olsson, Bass MarimbaKenny Savelson, Production Manager and Executive Producer
Danlee Mitchell, Chief Artistic Advisor
Charles Corey, Producer and Musical Director
Jon Roy, Artistic Director, Video Artist, and Projection Supervisor
Nick Helton, Assistant Artistic Director and Video Artist
Philip Blackburn, Video Artist
Alice Peragine, Video Artist
Gerd Stern, Multimedia Consultant
A REVIEW OF PHILIP MARLOWE
To celebrate collected stories, The Believer posted pieces from past issues that tied into the themes of each show. The first concert in collected stories, Hero, is paired with Greg Cwik’s review of Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s film adaptation of The Long Goodbye (from the May 2013 issue of the Believer).
A Review of Philip Marlowe in the Long Goodbye, Directed by Robert Altman
CENTRAL QUESTION: How does a filmmaker make an outdated character relevant?
Number of times Philip Marlowe has been portrayed on film: ten
Age of Elliott Gould when he played Marlowe: thirty-four
Age of Robert Mitchum when he played Marlowe three years later: fifty-eight
Best Hemingway impersonation in The Long Goodbye: Sterling Hayden, allegedly stoned the whole time
Actor Hayden replaced: Dan Blocker, who died just before principal photography began
Film’s tag line: “Nothing says goodbye like a bullet.”
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is malleable: literary Play-Doh for the craftily minded. As our sapient narrator, he is a lens through which we see the squalor of modern Los Angeles. We know he’s morally rigid, like an animated slab of unwritten commandments, inextirpable in his personal and political proclivities. He doesn’t take money if he finds a job unethical; he doesn’t respect corrupt police or politicians, regardless of their motivations; he doesn’t sympathize with drunks or wife-beaters; he doesn’t like the rich but he doesn’t weep for the poor. He’s a well-worn scourge of complications and intricacies, his own Osiris.
Howard Hawks and William Faulkner gracefully and loyally translated Marlowe to the screen for The Big Sleep, just seven years after the novel’s initial publication. By 1946, Chandler’s books were growing in stature, and American cinema was suffused with film noir, so the character was already relevant; he didn’t need to be modified. By 1973, though, Marlowe and his hard-boiled kin were forgotten, irrelevant, so naturalist auteur Robert Altman had a few changes to make. If Hawks’s Big Sleepis the archetypal faithful Marlowe film, Altman’s adaptation ofThe Long Goodbye is the archetypal modification: characteristically syncopated and opaque, both satire and homage, poison love letter to a genre and inside joke to its enthusiasts.
Chandler’s Marlowe thinks fast, talks faster, takes a punch like a champ. He’s invidious, antagonizing authority figures into socking him; once he sees how they throw a hook, they don’t get the chance to land a second. Altman’s Marlowe wears wide lapels and talks to his cat. He ponders his own sad, solipsistic musings because no one else will. He’s out of touch, out of his element, caught in the slipstream of modernity. Altman steeps him in voyeuristic discomfort, the camera drifting and floating and suddenly zooming, never content to stay still. The camera’s constant activity underscores Marlowe’s desuetude, makes him even more pitiable.
The Long Goodbye, Chandler’s longest and deepest novel, dissects the life of a private eye: the boring parts, the tormenting parts, everything in between. It’s more social commentary than noir, with a thread of dubious mystery holding the narrative together. Corruption, sinisterly sunny L.A., big men throwing their meaty bellies around, slamming hairy knuckles on desks, pounding shots of cheap whiskey to euthanize the slivers of passing morality. Marlowe is our tour guide on a joyless ride through the American dream as sordid reality. Sketch and scuzz are ubiquitous in Chandler’s L.A., and Marlowe is not a bright, shining light: he’s part of the city, one of its fleshy appendages who just happens to rebel a little more than most.
Altman takes Marlowe, Sherlock of the noir age, and cruelly drops him into California circa 1973. In the role, Elliott Gould possesses an air of otherness: he’s pathetically paranoid, a moke susceptible to life’s aleatory afflictions, like the mean streets have chewed him up and spat him out. His outdated wisecracks go over the heads of the police; he sucks down cigarettes while the spandex-clad ladies next door succumb to fleeting health crazes. Most jarring to viewers, Gould doesn’t look like, doesn’t sound like, doesn’t act like, doesn’t possess the authoritative suavity of Humphrey Bogart. Bogie was Philip Marlowe, setting the standard for detectives the way Sean Connery set the standard for spies. You never suspected Bogart might take a bullet to the gut, or fail to solve whatever convoluted case had fallen into his lap. By comparison, Gould’s performance is subtle and not very attractive. Bogart was a loner; Gould is lonely.
People found Gould to be an awkward and unbelievable Marlowe. They were right: he is an awkward and unbelievable Marlowe, and that’s why The Long Goodbye works so well as an introspective, almost satirical take on Chandler’s anti-hero. A year before Roman Polanski and Robert Towne momentarily rejuvenated noir with the wickedly intelligent Chinatown,Altman showed audiences in post-Vietnam/Watergate America how outdated the masculine hero of The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon had become. The morally admirable, contrarian avenger was something Americans needed, but something we didn’t want.
In the beginning was the Word. Don’t take my word for it—thus spake St. John. It’s the first sentence of the Gospel according to John, a religious text beloved by many composers throughout history and, coincidentally, the one that is nastiest to the Jews: It is John who most explicitly blames Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. Two-thousand years of persecution can be traced to this text. As a Jewish musician, it can be disturbing to listen to Bach’s great setting of the St. John Passion, torn as we are between the religious caricature and the awesome power of Bach’s music. There are few things Bach wrote that are as dramatic as “Herr, unser Herrscher” (“Lord, our Ruler”), the painful opening chorus. It is heartfelt and awesome and magnificent, but none of those features make it any easier for me to hear.
Tonight’s Passio by Arvo Pärt is also a setting of the Gospel according to John, and like all Passions it tells the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. I wanted to program this piece because of its connection to Easter, which was just a few days ago, but also because it is so beautiful.
I remember exactly when I found out about Pärt and his music. In 1984, his record Tabula Rasa came out; I bought it and got deeply hooked. His emigration from the mysterious East of Soviet- ruled Estonia, his religious practice, and his big scraggly beard gave him immediate spiritual credibility. His music on that record unfolded beautifully and powerfully, with rigorous formality and elegantly controlled directness, and it sounded authentic and pure. I remember listening to the record twice the day I bought it—in the dark before going to bed—and then I dreamed about it. In my dream, Pärt’s beard was even scragglier, and I got to hear a complete (and completely made up) piece of his. It was a wild and terrifying string orchestra piece called The Jesus Who Howls. (That was probably the most exciting dream I ever had …)
His next CD was Passio, and I bought it the day it was released. I was so eager to listen to it, and it shocked me before I even heard a single note. I put the CD in the player and the track listing came up: 75 minutes long, one track. No index points, no places to stop and start, no way to replay your favorite moments. It was a statement. If you want to listen to this music, you have to start at the beginning and stay until the end.
Having only one track is a courageous way to organize a CD, but it’s also an indication of how the music is made. There are no highlights or moments of manipulated tension and release. How can there be? There is no point in using the music to generate suspense or surprise or to heighten the fearful expectations of the listener because everyone in the audience already knows from the beginning of the story exactly how it will end. There is a straight line drawn from the beginning of the work until it is over, and all of Pärt’s musical decisions are about keeping the music squarely on it.
A point of spiritual music is to help reinforce the togetherness of the community that practices that kind of spirituality—the people who already share their stories and beliefs and feelings. Music for those communities may be more about creating a constant state of mind than a forward-moving drama because it is helping to tell stories the community already knows.
Pärt creates this constant state of mind by limiting his musical options and linking them to the words, using the text itself to help regulate the music’s form. Almost all of the text is set syllabically, and almost all the syllables have the same length. What changes do happen in phrase, cadence, and rhythm are shaped almost entirely by the punctuation marks of the original Latin: The commas, colons, and periods of the Vulgate govern the pacing of the music. How better to honor a text whose beginning was the Word?
Huun-Huur-Tu’s music starts with nature the way that Pärt’s work starts with the Latin. Huun-Huur- Tu is a quartet of singers from a region of Central Asia called Tuva, in the steppes on the border of Russia and Mongolia. They practice a kind of vocal technique called throat singing, in which a singer can sing more than one note at a time. Some notes they sing are so low that they stretch toward the bottom of the piano; some notes emerge as part of intense, raspy chords; some notes are impossibly high whistles. It is hard to believe that such a kind of singing is even possible.
All of these sounds, however, originated out of an attempt to use the human voice to describe the natural world. The songs are all descriptions of the natural: the animals, plants, and landscapes of their homeland, and the spirits that lie behind them. With their whistling overtones and their low rumblings, the songs have an animist quality, celebrating the spirit in everything that surrounds them in the land they are from.
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REINCARNATION IN EXILE
To celebrate collected stories The Believer posted pieces from past issues that tied into the themes of each concert. The second concert in collected stories, Spirit, featured Tuvan throat singing and Arvo Pärt’s Passio, is paired with Tim McGirk’s essay on Tibetan Monks exposed to the twenty-first century (from the February 2013 issue of the Believer).
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN THE TIBETAN BUDDHIST DIASPORA EXPOSED ITS MOST REVERED ADHERENTS TO TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY DELIGHTS
DISCUSSED: A Typical Spanish Breakfast, Exasperated Nuns, Precious Ones, Hip-hop Aspirations, Dilemmas for the Reincarnated, One of the Most Erotic Scenes in Indian Cinema, Mumbai’s Most Notorious Gangster, Divination, Accurate Cricket Match Predictions, A List of Genuine Rinpoches, Steven Seagal, A Delegation of Lamas, Lithium
When I was posted in Madrid as a foreign correspondent in the late 1980s, Spain was still a very Roman Catholic country, which is why a newspaper story in El Pais caught my attention: a little Spanish boy living in the mountains had been recognized as the reincarnation of a famous Tibetan lama. I decided to see the boy and made the mistake of taking along the only photographer I knew, Derek, a paparazzo for the British tabloids.
I knew nothing about Tibet, lamas, or reincarnation. But the story seemed splendidly improbable. This was, after all, Spain, the country that had lent its name to the Inquisition. And the story seemed to show that Spaniards, at last, were shaking off their hair-shirted Catholicism and exploring other means of spirituality. The boy’s name was Osel Hita Torres, and he lived in Bubión, in the Alpujarras Mountains above Granada.
The village was hard to reach. It had snowed the night before, and the road spiraling up the mountains was glazed with black ice. At a mountain inn, Derek and I stopped for a typical Spanish breakfast of espresso and cognac. After downing his cognac in one swallow, Derek reached into his photographer’s vest and, grinning, pulled out a matador’s cap.
I had known Derek long enough to fear the worst.
“We have to make it clear from the get-go that this kid is Spanish. So we pose him as a mini-bullfighter!”
We reached Bubión in late morning, the sun glinting on rock, rushing water, and snow. A villager directed us to two stone cottages that Western followers of the late Lama Thubten Yeshe—Osel’s parents among them—had turned into a Tibetan Buddhist retreat. I heard a child howling. Derek and I got out of the car and saw a young kid tussling with a buzz-cut Spanish nun. They were standing inside a wintry vegetable garden. The boy was in mid-tantrum, and his cheeks were as flushed as his burgundy lama robes. It was Osel, age four.
Exasperated, the nun turned to us.
“He wants to scrape the snow off all the plants before the ice kills them. But look, his hands are blue, and he won’t put on his mittens!” the nun complained.
This struck me as unusually caring behavior for a four-year-old. My own two young sons, left alone in that garden, would have invented some game of gladiators and started flogging each other with the frosted tomato vines. Osel was meticulously brushing the snow off cabbage leaves. His blue hands moved with urgency.
The telephone rang in one of the stone cottages.
“Watch him for me, will you?” the nun said, and without waiting for an answer she dashed up the stony path. The boy’s bawling subsided to sniffles.
“Now! Now’s the chance! While the nun’s away!” Derek urged as he reached into his vest for the matador’s cap. He stalked toward the boy, matador’s cap in one hand, his camera raised with predatory intent. Osel eyed Derek warily.
I was still puzzled by Osel dusting the snow off the plants. It was so un-childlike. So instead of helping Derek snap his cheesy photo, I nudged Osel and said: “Vamos! Come on! I’ll race you!”
He and I ran along the mountain ridge, kicking up puffs of snow. Far below was a valley terraced with almond trees and a church steeple rising through village smoke.
That was my first, and last, experience with a reincarnate lama for many years. War intervened. Flash forward to 2012. After covering conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and the Middle East, I was exhausted from writing about how people were shot, tortured, and blown up in the name of religion. But I often wondered what had happened to that little laughing boy running over the mountains. By now he was twenty-seven, a young man. Had he fulfilled his promise as a rinpoche (also known as a tulku), a “precious one,” a supposedly enlightened being who continues his teaching from one lifetime to the next?
Along with Osel, there are over a thousand other monks and laymen who are revered as the incarnations of past teachers. Among them, the Dalai Lama stands supreme. Below him are several dozen high lamas, also rinpoches, who are great teachers and whose spirituality is unquestioned. In old Tibet, the rinpoches were powerful men possessing monasteries, lands, treasure, and thousands of followers. Like any system of dynastic succession, this one was vulnerable to political intrigue, manipulation, and mistake; apparently, there’s no easy science for finding one’s reincarnation. The searchers rely on visions, divinations, and clues left behind by the old rinpoche, and sometimes things go awry. Nor do these rinpoches always behave as expected: the sixth Dalai Lama loved wine, carousing, and singing songs to his favorite Lhasa courtesans. He came to a bad end.
By and large, the lineage of rinpoches survived intact for eight centuries, until the Chinese Red Army invaded Tibet, in 1950. It was easier to maintain this system when the “precious ones” were locked inside monasteries ringed by mountains, far from worldly distractions. But in exile, this tradition is fast unraveling. The younger rinpoches are exposed to all of the twenty-first century’s dazzling temptations. The irony is that while Tibetan Buddhism is gaining more adherents around the world, an increasing number of rinpoches are abandoning their monastic vows. Some are having a hard time finding their own path through the complexities of modern society and feel unable, or unqualified, to pass on much in the way of advice. Neither their early training in the monastery nor, supposedly, the good karma of their past lives as teachers is able to shield them entirely from the afflictions that the rest of us experience—desire, rage, attachment, envy, and egotism. The pull of samsara, the flow of worldly existence, can be overwhelming. One Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas has two tests for graduation: first, monks are sent out onto a snowbank wearing only a wet sheet and told to keep themselves warm bytumo, a sort of heat-generating meditation; second, those who pass the first round are sent to the monastery’s printing house in Old Delhi, a neighborhood that teems with prostitutes and myriad sensory distractions. For young monks, the stint in Old Delhi is the harder test.
After the Chinese invasion of Tibet, many monks followed the Dalai Lama over the Himalayas into exile in India. Not all stayed huddled in Indian refugee camps. The more adventurous among them rode the wave of new-age curiosity about Eastern religions and headed west. Osel’s prior reincarnation, Lama Thubten Yeshe, was outstanding. Known for his boisterous humor and practical advice, Lama Thubten Yeshe stripped away many of the arcane Himalayan rituals of Tibetan Buddhism and drew thousands of Americans, Europeans, and Australians to his dharma teachings. He called himself “a Tibetan hippie” and enjoyed the Australian beaches. And, like his future incarnation Osel, who tried to save vegetables from a frosty death, Lama Yeshe was also fond of gardening. Lama Yeshe’s death, in March 1984, was widely mourned by his thousands of followers. Even after Lama Yeshe’s death, his organization, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), which runs over 158 centers and numerous projects in forty countries, remains the most influential proponent of Tibetan Buddhism in the world.
Initially, there were ten children, Western, Nepali, and Tibetan, who showed promise of being the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe, but the signs and the oracles all pointed to the Spanish boy. Osel’s mother, Maria, told me that even before she knew she was pregnant, she had an auspicious dream, rich in Catholic imagery. She dreamed that Lama Yeshe was standing in a cathedral full of Western followers. “We filed up to the altar, where there was Lama Yeshe. He held my head in his hands and plunged me into a fountain,” she recalled. “I felt the water enter my mouth, my nose, my ears—but instead of drowning, I felt blissful.” At the time she didn’t read too much into it, other than that it was comforting to dream of her late teacher. When the Dalai Lama confirmed that Osel was indeed the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe, Lama Yeshe’s devotees were elated; they were counting on Osel to grow up and be their spiritual guide.
Turns out, it hasn’t been easy for Osel. Shortly after I met him, the boy was shipped off to a monastery in Nepal and then to Sera Je Monastery, near Mysore, in southern India. His parents divorced, and Osel ended up leaving the monastery, disrobing, and going to a boarding school in Canada. He now prefers to be called “Oz,” and went on to study filmmaking at the Complutense University in Madrid. He hangs out on the island of Ibiza, has a girlfriend, and has given only one teaching, at an Italian retreat center in April, in which he stunned his audience by proclaiming that he was no longer a Buddhist. “When I was eight or nine,” said Osel, who has a goatee and the pallor of an El Greco ascetic, “I was always saying I was a Buddhist. But then I realized I really didn’t understand what that meant.” He said he agrees with Buddhist philosophy but prefers to think of his belief as “agnostic-scientific-spiritual.” Osel became press-shy after a “sensationalist” interview with a Spanish magazine in 2009, and my requests for a second interview were politely ignored.
Devotees of the late Lama Yeshe are divided over Osel’s unconventional choices, his refusal to assume the burden of teacher and guru. Many drifted away. Some think he was the wrong choice. I spoke to Nicholas Ribush, director of the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. “We don’t really understand the workings of reincarnation, only that there’s a continuity of consciousness. But it doesn’t happen that there’s an identical continuity, and perhaps some of Lama Yeshe’s followers expected that,” he explained. “They were puzzled, disappointed.”
Osel, in one of his few communiqués to the foundation, explained how he fought his destiny. “Some people seem to expect that because this is Lama Yeshe’s reincarnation, then he’s going to be just like Lama Yeshe. But today is not like being in Tibet many years ago, or even when the hippies were in Nepal and India in the 1970s. The world has changed a bit, and so I’m trying to find a different way of communicating.”
He is not the only tulku searching for different ways of communicating. One of Osel’s closest friends is the twenty-third Gomo Tulku. That’s twenty-third, as in twenty-three incarnations. Now in his early twenties, Gomo Tulku, wavy-haired and handsome like an Apache warrior, also talks about seeking a new way of passing on the dharma to Westerners. He has aspirations of being a hip-hop star, and in February 2012 he released a music video in Italy. In a Buddhist context, the video seemed outlandish, a celebration of the ego and the carnal senses. And in a musical context, it seemed clichéd: a blinged-out Gomo Tulku lolls in the back of a limousine, draped with miniskirted bambinas.
For these reincarnate lamas who stray, the dilemma is: how deep does one delve into samsara, the repeating cycle of birth-life-death-rebirth? One young rinpoche, who settled in the U.S. and found himself a girlfriend, told me, “To understand samsara, to teach it, you have to experience worldly existence, with all of its attachments and suffering. You have to enter the current.”
I put this to Telo Rinpoche, who was born in Philadelphia of Kalmyk origin and is considered by his followers to be the reincarnation of Tilopa, an eleventh-century Indian mystic. Telo Rinpoche had also left the monastery and wandered through a succession of jobs as a pizza deliveryman, telemarketer, and construction worker. “Monks say they disrobe to understand samsara. It’s all bullshit,” he told me in his home on the Colorado plains, whose walls are adorned with exquisite thangkas. “I’m not going to lie. I lacked discipline. I screwed up. Only after nearly drowning in samsara did I crawl to shore.”
Today, as a layman, married with children, Telo Rinpoche is following in his previous incarnation’s footsteps, bringing Buddhism back to Kalmykia and Mongolia, where the communists had razed monasteries and temples and executed thousands of monks.
The difficulties that Osel faced had much to do with being caught between a Buddhist monastery’s medieval rigors and his easygoing Spanish upbringing. Osel was not the only Western-born rinpoche. In the 1980s, there was a spate of Western boys, in Canada, the U.S., Europe, and Brazil, who were recognized as past incarnations of Tibetan teachers. But many of them endured crises of identity—and faith—similar to Osel’s. Said Thupten Jinpa, a Tibetan religious scholar, “It was especially confusing when they became teenagers. On the human level, it was a disaster.”
If the clash of cultures is what led to these human disasters, I wanted to track down a rin-poche steeped in the Himalayan traditions and find out how he was coping with his inner conflict between spirit and worldly attachments. In India, I found a rinpoche who had not only taken the plunge into the ocean of samsara but had done a triple-gainer.
Kagyur Rinpoche, a respected Tibetan scholar and teacher, had scandalized the Tibetan clergy by falling in love with a Bollywood movie star, Mandakini. In the mid-1980s, Mandakini was famous for a daring scene in which she bathes in a Himalayan waterfall, wearing a wet white sari that shows her erect nipples (it is an extremely cold waterfall). It ranks as one of the most erotic scenes in Indian cinema, which, actually, used to be far more prudish than the Kama Sutra would have us believe. The glistening young starlet also caught the eye of Mumbai’s most notorious gangster, Dawood Ibrahim, and their “romance” was the staple of Indian film magazines. If any woman could lure a shy and devout scholar-monk away from his vows of celibacy, it was Mandakini.
Born in 1968 to an Indian father and a Tibetan mother, Ajay Thakur began at an early age to speak of his past life “in a big monastery” and kept mentioning the name “Kagyur Lama.” Word reached back to Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s abode in the Indian Himalayas, and two lamas were sent out from Drepung Monastery, in southern India, where the previous Kagyur Rinpoche (who died in 1965) had a connection. No warning was given to the family, but on the morning before the two lamas were to reach the family’s house in Manali, the young child told his grandmother, “Today we’ll have guests. Make something tasty.” The boy supposedly recognized one of the lamas from Drepung Monastery and correctly picked out items from his past life—prayer beads, eyeglasses, a shirt, and a toothbrush—that were mixed in with duplicates.
The lamas reported back to the Dalai Lama, who carried out his own divinations with the help of the Nechung Oracle, a lama who dons an elaborate headdress and goes into ritual trances that, many Tibetans believe, predict the future or can identify a newborn tulku. All signs indicated that the boy with the Indian father and Tibetan mother was the third reincarnation of Kagyur Rinpoche. Ajay’s father, an Indian bank employee and a Hindu, was worried that monks of another faith were laying claim to his only son. The father also put Ajay through a little test of his own: he asked him which team would win the India-Pakistan cricket matches, and the boy was uncannily correct. “He was not happy when the lamas wanted to take me away,” Kagyur Rinpoche told me when we met in New Delhi. “My father wanted me to have a modern education.” The rinpoche is short and dapper, with a shy smile and a hint of Bollywood flash—tan cowboy boots and a striped indigo shirt that looked impeccably crisp in the wilting 105-degree heat. He’s in his forties but still possesses an openness, a childlike grace. I asked him more about his past lives but he said that his memories began fading once he entered his teens. “I can’t say 100 percent that I’m the reincarnation of the old Kagyur Rinpoche. Maybe I was his student. But a strong karmic connection is there,” he said between sips of milky chai at a New Delhi guesthouse.
Once he entered Drepung Monastery, everything seemed to be proceeding smoothly with Kagyur Rinpoche. No one doubted that he was the right pick. Once, during a ceremony, the Nechung Oracle, who had never seen him before, while in a trance picked him out of a crowd of five hundred young lamas. Bookish, he became a geshe, the equivalent of a doctor in theology. He studied at Oxford and gave teachings in the U.S. and Japan. But he felt a malaise. “I felt guilty. What I was saying, what I was teaching, I wasn’t doing,” he explained.
Nearly every Hindi film has a scene set in the mountains where the girl coyly dodges the caresses of the hero as they romp through forest and meadow. Inevitably, an entire troupe of dancers materializes and bursts into song, like a hip-wiggling Greek chorus encouraging or warning the young lovers. With its apple orchards and backdrop of snowy Himalayan ranges, Manali is a favorite location for Bollywood shoots, and Kagyur Rinpoche happened to be visiting his parents when Mandakani was there filming. (Her father is British, her mother an Indian Muslim.) “My mother met her family, and they became friends,” he said. Kagyur Rinpoche couldn’t put the actress out of his mind. “For twenty years, I was a really good monk. I didn’t touch any girl,” he insisted. Three agonizing years went by and, finally, he asked his mother for Mandakini’s phone number, and soon they were talking frequently. “I didn’t know we were falling in love,” he said, “but I kept asking myself why was I waiting so anxiously for her call.”
Then, in a scene out of a Bollywood script, she confessed to the gentle monk that she loved him. Kagyur Rinpoche replied, “Yes, I love you, too! We should get married!” Mandakini hesitated; on-screen, she would have danced shyly behind a tree. But she wasn’t just playing hard-to-get. Mandakini understood the lofty standing that Kagyur Rinpoche enjoyed among the Tibetans and all that he would be sacrificing. Kagyur Rinpoche insisted, and she relented. Two months later, he renounced his vows, and the monk and the movie star were married. And her attraction to him? “She’s very down-to-earth, not at all Bollywood,” he told me. “She liked me because I was a simple monk.”
Now all Kagyur Rinpoche had to do was break the news to the Dalai Lama. “I was very afraid,” he said. “When I entered the room to see him, my head was bowed. I didn’t dare see his face.” But the Dalai Lama hugged him and said: “Don’t worry.” Kagyur Rinpoche burst out crying with relief. The Dalai Lama joked: “All the monks who’ve lapsed are those who’ve gone to the West. But this is a special case. You fell for an Indian woman!” Then, in a more sober mood, the Dalai Lama told him: “You may not be a monk anymore, but you’re still a rinpoche and you must maintain your dignity.”
Next, Kagyur Rinpoche, in civilian clothes, took his new bride to Drepung Monastery. Some monks wept, lamenting the loss of a great scholar. Others, said Kagyur Rinpoche, “understood the nature of samsara.” The surprise marriage was an especially hard blow to Kagyur Rinpoche’s attendant, an elderly monk who had cared for him since he first entered the monastery, two decades earlier, as a child. “He was in shock. He had to be hospitalized for a week, but now he’s fine,” said Kagyur Rinpoche.
As a newlywed in Mumbai, Kagyur Rinpoche leaped into his new life with gusto. This scholarly monk found himself in the embrace of a movie goddess worshipped feverishly by over half a billion Indian men. “For one year, I was flying, not thinking about wrong or right,” he said. He and Mandakini clubbed with other Bollywood stars. “I was fascinated by discos,” Kagyur Rinpoche said. “Dancing, I found out, wasn’t so difficult. You just shake!”
There was the problem of what to wear. Having spent his life in red robes, fashion wasn’t his forte. So his wife chose all his clothes for him. But having stepped out of his robes into disco finery, Kagyur Rinpoche was soon beset with other, more vital worries. As a monk, he had been cocooned from the grueling slog of modern life. The monastery had fed him, lodged him, and given spiritual purpose to his life. For love, he had lost it all. Now he had to fend for himself and his new bride. And all his learning about compassion and kindness didn’t equip him for dealing with Mumbai’s rapacious con men. The “Thirty-seven Practices of a Bodhisattva,” a revered text in Tibetan Buddhism, urges the practitioner to abandon “negative people” and “negative places,” and Kagyur Rinpoche went from a cloistered world of trusting, self-effacing monks to Bollywood, where the sharks sized him up as easy prey. “I trusted blindly, and I was lied to, cheated again and again,” he said, sighing. “So I tried to lie, but I wasn’t a good liar. And when I came home after making a big mistake, my wife would know.”
After the initial rush of freedom wore off, Kagyur Rinpoche found himself facing a string of setbacks. His business ventures flopped. Worse, he felt that he was losing control. “It felt like some external force had taken over my thoughts,” he said. His virtues as a monk—his trusting nature and his “soft-heartedness”—were now handicaps.
Having realized that he lacked business savvy, Kagyur Rinpoche decided to try his hand at directing films. He had written poems and short stories as a monk. “Sitting in a monastery is not enough. We must change our style, our way of teaching,” he explained. He is now working on a screenplay.
Kagyur Rinpoche stared into his teacup and thought back wistfully on his years as a monk. “Those years were the best, the purest,” he said. Does he regret leaving the monastic life? He shook his head adamantly. “No, not at all. My life is richer. I’m more exposed to the world.” He compares being a monk to being a soldier. “A soldier spends years preparing for fighting. You want to see if your skills, what you’ve learned, survive the test of combat.” Becoming a layman, entering into samsara, is akin to a soldier charging into battle, he said. “Sure, I get tense. In Bollywood, there are big egos. All that matters to them is fame and money. But for me, balance is most important. If we eat more than we need, it’s not good. Same with the ego.” He laughed. “Buddhism isn’t an external search,” he explained. “It doesn’t come from anyone but you. It doesn’t matter if you are wearing robes or not, the teachings of the Buddha are something you can always practice.”
After our interview, I walked him out into the Delhi street. A flock of green parakeets scattered through the neem trees, fleeing a dust storm. I offered him a ride, but he didn’t want to inconvenience me, so my last image is of Kagyur Rinpoche in his crisp indigo shirt, one his movie-actress wife had probably chosen for him. He was a tiny figure on the road, bent against the swirling gale of dust, the turbulence of samsara.
The explosion in the number of so-called rinpoches alarms some devout Tibetans. The Tibetans say there are far more rinpoches or tulkus now than when the lamas fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet, in 1959. “Some of these lamas discover they are rinpoches on the plane to America,” joked one ex-monk. “They know it’s easier to attract disciples among awestruck Westerners if they can boast of being a rinpoche.”
Buddhists and Hindus believe that all of us are reborn again and again. What sets apart Mahayana Buddhism, as practiced in the Himalayas, Mongolia, China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and a few other places, is the belief that it is not enough for someone to achieve nirvana, enlightenment; he or she must come back over many lifetimes to help all sentient beings. Out of this belief, the Tibetan system of reincarnate lamas arose. Says José Cabezón, professor of Tibetan Buddhist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “It’s in the best Mahayana tradition, and it’s also a way of coping with the grief of losing a teacher.”
Often, when a well-known lama dies—even if he’s not a tulku—he may leave behind real wealth: temples, property spread across various countries, a treasure of donations. The late teacher’s devotees usually have a vested emotional and, at times, material interest in keeping things as they were. And so they search for his reincarnation.
Many Tibetan monks and scholars say the system is spinning out of control, growing too commercial. “In Tibet, it was more restricted to a monastic context,” said Thupten Jinpa, the scholar. “But now the control mechanisms are becoming relaxed.” No longer are the proper divinations always done, nor does the candidate have to give proof of memories of a past life. Jinpa says that the Dalai Lama has recognized “quite a few” new rinpoches. “It’s hard for him to turn down students when they say they’ve found the rebirth of their teacher.” The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said that inside the monasteries, tulkus should be treated as ordinary monks, without the special attention and perks. Only when they prove their worth, he said, should tulkus be given respect.
Bizarrely, the Chinese communists have also entered the game of proclaiming the discovery of reincarnate lamas. In 1995, the Dalai Lama announced that all the divinations and signs pointed to a nomadic shepherd boy in Tibet being the reincarnation of the eleventh Panchen Lama. The Chinese promptly arrested the boy and his family—one rumor has it that they vanished into a mental asylum—and named their own choice as Panchen Lama. Most Tibetans reject the Chinese candidate.
The Dalai Lama’s office has reportedly begun the task of organizing a list of genuine rinpoches, much like Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage, a directory of the British aristocracy. And just like those tales where nouveau-riche businessmen buy themselves a title and a crumbling castle, every so often rumors crop up inside the Tibetan community that money might have influenced the candidacy of a prospective rinpoche. One jaw-dropping example: in 1997, Hollywood’s scowling action star and martial-arts expert Steven Seagal was declared by a well-known lama to be the reincarnation of a seventeenth-century terton. A terton is a kind of spiritual treasure-seeker, able to find the hidden objects left behind by Padmasambhava, an eighth-century mystic and sorcerer who brought Buddhism to Tibet and who supposedly hid religious objects and texts that were to be revealed, throughout the centuries, at the right moment. Following the uproar over this announcement, Penor Rinpoche, who had anointed Seagal as a terton, had to fend off accusations that he had taken donations from the Hollywood heavy. Seagal, resplendent in a silk jacket embossed with dragons and accompanied by two surly bodyguards, was seen pacing outside the Dalai Lama’s prayer-flag-draped residence in Dharamsala, waiting for official recognition of his new mystical status from the boss. But it never came.
One of the most outspoken critics of tulkus is the Dalai Lama’s youngest brother, Ngari Rinpoche. He has said publicly that the system was a “manifestation of attachment,” a negative concept in Buddhism, and that “some tulkus deliver, but others enjoy the title and get fat.” What made his criticism all the more pointed was that not only was he a rinpoche himself but he decided early on to abandon his vocation. In exile, he joined the Indian army as a paratrooper to fight the Chinese. It wasn’t what you’d expect from the brother of the Buddhist embodiment of compassion.
From Delhi, I journeyed up into the Himalayan foothills to see Ngari Rinpoche. He and his wife had turned an old British colonial bungalow, where the Dalai Lama’s mother had lived out her days in exile, into a small inn. It lies in the middle of a forest where langur monkeys swing along the leafy branches and a leopard occasionally prowls below. There are no signs at the turnoff by a Tibetan momo stand; the inn seems deliberately difficult to find. I had first met Ngari Rinpoche years before, when I was a Time correspondent in Delhi. “Don’t call me ‘rinpoche’,” he said abruptly. “I don’t have the qualities to be a monk or a rinpoche. I’m an ordinary person. Call me ‘T.C.’,” short for his family name, Tenzin Choegyal. Shave off T.C.’s black hair, put him in red-and-gold robes, and he would be a dead ringer for his older brother. His years as an Indian army officer gave him a taste for English cigarettes and a brusque, military bearing that vanishes when he contemplates, as he often does, a piece of mischief.
Music wafted over from the veranda; a Tibetan guest from Alaska was playing a wooden flute, and his song seemed to be choreographing the flight of raptors soaring on the thermals that sweep up from the plains of Punjab to the high white crags of the Himalayas. The musician drifted inside his bungalow, and soon T.C. strolled over from the rose garden. When I said that I wanted to talk about rinpoches, he cut me off.
“Do you believe in reincarnation?” he asked me.
I told him that I’d like to, but that I didn’t have any proof. I had no recollections from my past lives.
“I believe in rebirth,” T.C. said firmly. “But reincarnation, in many cases, I’m not so sure. This recognition of tulkus, it usually comes from lobbying by students.”
Why were so many rinpoches abandoning their monastic vows?
“This is probably a good thing. There’s too much devotion toward them. Blind faith. They’re treated like shamans, with special powers,” he replied. “I don’t like the idea of depending on these ‘special’ people for your own deliverance when you have to do it yourself.”
But isn’t he one of these “special people” himself?
“I was taken hostage at a very young age, two or three,” he said, laughing, enjoying the shock value of the word hostage. “And I became a puppet of the tradition.”
It’s hard to get T.C. to tell his own extraordinary story. He is self-effacing and deflects personal questions. But eventually, over several meetings in his den overlooking the English rose garden, he told me how he was selected as the sixteenth incarnation of Ngari Rinpoche. It was in the late 1940s, and his brother was already enthroned in Lhasa. With the recognition of their first son as Dalai Lama, this humble farming family was elevated to Tibetan nobility. One day, a delegation of lamas from Zanskar Valley, in the Indian Himalayas, came to the family and said they believed that little Tenzin Choegyal, the impish youngest brother of the Dalai Lama, had been their teacher in a previous life. The Nechung Oracle had agreed. And now the lamas wanted him back.
His mother and sister delivered T.C. to a small monastery near Lhasa and left him there with the monks. “It was a bit of a shock. I felt lonely, forsaken,” he said. But his mother would visit once a month, and T.C. recalls many picnics in a meadow where the monks would do handstands, exposing their naked, wobbling legs, which had the boy laughing uproariously. He remembers the “melodious mantras” in the prayer hall and an incident where, ever the mischief-maker, he sewed together the robes of the monks sitting in a row in front of him, deep in meditation. He is still something of a prankster. T.C.’s proximity to the Dalai Lama (they meet often when the Tibetan spiritual leader is in residence in Dharamsala) and his blunt, often caustic impatience with the medieval bureaucracy, and all its intrigues, around his brother has earned him a fearsome reputation among the Tibetan government-in-exile. “My job is broom-sweeper,” he said, chuckling. And taking on the tulkus may be one of his housekeeping chores. Still, when he looks back on his days as a young monk, he said, “I realize that it made me strong.”
T.C. needed the strength for the terrible ordeal ahead. China had fallen to the communists who coveted Tibet. The first communist overtures to the teenage Dalai Lama were deceptively benign. As a boy, T.C. accompanied his brother on a trip to meet Chairman Mao Tse-Tung in Beijing. “He was very charismatic, very big, ” recalled T.C., adding ruefully, “At the time, I adored Mao.” But the promises made to the Tibetans in Beijing were soon broken, and Chinese troops conquered Tibet and overran Lhasa. The Dalai Lama was urged by his advisers and the Nechung Oracle to flee to India, the land of the Buddha’s birthplace. On March 17, 1959, under the cover of a sandstorm, the Dalai Lama and a small entourage slipped out of the Norbulingka summer palace. T.C. was among them. “My mother and sister were disguised as men. We walked across the sandbanks of the river, just three hundred yards away from a Chinese army camp. I stopped to pee and I could see my monastery, Drepung, on the other side of the river. We were in a hurry, but I stopped and did three prostrations to Drepung. I guess I knew it would be a long time before I saw it again,” he said.
For days, they galloped on horseback, trying to outrace their Chinese pursuers. The fleeing Tibetans scaled the high Himalayan passes and descended, exhausted, into northern India, where Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave them sanctuary. But whenever anyone wistfully suggested going back to Tibet and for T.C. to resume his life in the monastery, T.C. was overcome by “a dark paralysis.” He said: “The Dalai Lama would joke that I was the only Tibetan who was happy to leave.”
Back in Lhasa, his family had noticed that T.C., as a child, was strangely attracted to English lettering on the few books and toys that had made their way across the Himalayas to the Dalai Lama’s palace. So it was decided that T.C. would go to St. Joseph’s, a Gothic brick pile run by Jesuits in Darjeeling. It was his first encounter with Christianity. The painting over his cot of a bleeding Jesus nailed to the cross was a marked change from the Himalayan iconography of serene bodhisattvas and tantric couplings. “I loved the uniforms,” T.C. recalled wistfully. “And the senior chaps would give me sweets, pull my cheek, and say: ‘Hello, Reincarnate!’”
T.C. was a good student, memorizing Blake, Longfellow, and Browning, but his psyche was divided between wanting to be a good schoolboy and his Tibetan heritage. That “dark paralysis” that had afflicted him earlier began to surface again and again, accompanied by gusts of anger. Depression would plague T.C. for decades to come. He quit St. Joseph’s in a huff after failing a tenth-grade math final, and decided to return to his religious studies. “But I was too angry to be a monk,” he said. Besides, he had also become interested in girls. “My first girlfriend was Rebecca, a Jewish beauty from Calcutta,” he said sheepishly. T.C. is now married to Rinchen Khandro, a calm and elegant Tibetan who was his college sweetheart and who now runs a program looking after Buddhist nuns who have escaped from religious repression in Tibet. They have an adult son and daughter.
Having decided that he wasn’t cut out to be a monk, T.C. now had to inform the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama’s followers revere him as the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who is represented in statues and paintings with many arms and many faces; most are beatific, but some are scary. Combine this wrathful face of compassion with the respect, and fear, that a youngest brother accords his elder, and you have some idea of the dynamic between T.C. and the Dalai Lama. “He can be stern,” T.C. said. “I was scared to tell him that I wasn’t going to be a monk.” There was no need for him to be scared. “You may have just disrobed,” the Dalai Lama advised his brother, “but you haven’t shredded up your commitment to Buddhism.”
That commitment was a long time in coming.
T.C. traveled to the U.S. in 1971, drank too much, smoked pot, listened to rock and roll. And yet the release from his lama’s vows, which he had long dreamed of, wasn’t living up to its allure. “I thought I was a failure,” he said. His own personal shortcomings were magnified by a larger futility: the world’s refusal to help the Tibetans against their Chinese oppressors. His two lasting memories: seeing wounded U.S. soldiers being stretchered into the Seattle airport from Vietnam, and hearing a popular song by the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Says T.C., “I very much wanted to leave America on a jet plane.”
T.C. did board a plane—back to India. His anger had found a focus. He thought that if the West wouldn’t take notice of the injustices inside Tibet, it was up to him to fight back. And so T.C., the brother of the Dalai Lama, Nobel Peace Prize winner and the world’s most famous advocate of nonviolence, took up arms. He joined the Indian army. India was wary of China after their 1962 border war, and decided to form a mountain commando unit made up of Tibetan refugees. It was known as the Special Frontier Force. (The C.I.A., meanwhile, set up its own ill-fated Tibetan guerrilla force and then dropped it.) When T.C. volunteered, in 1974, he insisted on undergoing boot-camp training with the other Tibetans, crawling through barbed wire under live fire. The other Tibetans would cry out: “Why are you doing this, Rinpoche?” But T.C. endured the hardship and distinguished himself as a paratrooper and a marksman, and when he tells of shooting a circling vulture (“Quite a lot of showmanship there,” he said), it is with remorse. “My dream,” he once told me, “was to parachute into my favorite valley in Tibet, pissing on the Chinese soldiers as I drifted down. They had done terrible things to my people, and I was angry.”
T.C. was denied that parachute drop. He left the Indian special border force after two and a half years, disgusted by the corruption of senior Indian officers and their unfair treatment of Tibetan conscripts. Dark moods besieged him. “Every now and then, I would yo-yo in and out of depression,” he said. He also admitted that he was “hung up” on people’s high expectations of him simply for being the Dalai Lama’s brother.
Over the years, lithium helped to lift him—and so, eventually, did his return to regular Buddhist practice. This, he says, gave him a glimpse into the nature of the mind, the idea that all thoughts, disturbing or pleasurable, are as insubstantial as a feather floating on the winds of consciousness. “It was only when I began to understand my afflictive emotions that I became interested in spiritual matters,” he explained. This happened when he hit his forties. “In depression, you have a strong sense of ‘I,’ but you have to size it up, examine it, and the more you do, the lighter you become.” Most of our emotional troubles, he said, come from chasing after “egocentric interests.” T.C. explained: “When you can’t get what you want, you get angry—at the world, at yourself—and to overcome that, you become numb, out of sync.”
Slowly, T.C. has resumed his Buddhist “commitments.” Sometimes he gives teachings, most recently at Stanford University, and he has become a kind of sparring partner for Western students of the dharma. For years, T.C. had refused entreaties by lamas to visit his hereditary monasteries in the high Himalayan regions of Ladakh and Zanskar (“That miserable valley,” T.C. grumbled). But several years back, he undertook the daunting drive over the 17,480-foot Tanglang La pass, where the fierce winds and blizzards shred the strings of Tibetan prayer flags into bright rags. The road drops slightly and zigzags its way across the high desert to a forbidden monastery perched on a little hill against a wall of icy peaks. This was T.C.’s destination: Likir Monastery, the ancestral seat of the Ngari Rinpoche lineage. Built in the eleventh century, Likir Monastery has over three hundred monks and an eighty-foot statue of a golden Buddha who presides, with oceanic serenity, over the Himalayan ranges and a single green ribbon of barley that unfurls down the barren valley. T.C. carried out his usual “broom-sweeping,” closing down a monastery whose rituals and practices he thought had strayed into superstition. I can’t imagine that T.C. would encourage his followers to search for his reincarnation when he dies, though the Likir lamas will probably do it anyway, hoping for a more pliable child the next time round.
T.C. may have harsh words to say about the system of rinpoches, but he has no doubts that his brother and other senior, venerated lamas are the genuine article. As for the legions of new rinpoches, he is less certain. He says, “The religious concept of peerage is a dangerous thing. I’d like to change their status.”
But toward the end of the conversation, as the monsoon clouds rolled up the valley and the skies darkened, T.C. began to recant slightly. “I don’t know if that spark is there in these rinpoches. But many of them seem very intelligent. It looks like their bank account has a tremendous asset from their past karma.” He laughed. When I suggested that he might fall into that category, he replied, “I should sue the Nechung Oracle for picking me. But, all things considered, I’ve had an interesting life.”
Tim McGirk, a former Time magazine bureau chief in South Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, has written frequently on Tibet. He researched this story while a Knight Fellow for media and religion at the University of Southern California. He is currently writing a novel and helping to run the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley.
More info about Collected Stories.
As Tennyson so famously wrote, “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” So true.
Not just in Spring, not just the young, not just men, not just thoughts.
We are bombarded every day of the year with music about love. I am sure a big part of the bombardment is because love is so important to us—we constantly measure its presence or absence all around us. It is a giant component of our lives—the pursuit of it, the maintenance of it, the potential heartbreak of it—and how we feel about it has great meaning to us. We talk about it, we write about it, we make movies about it, and most of all, we sing about it. Love is by far the most popular subject matter of song, from pop music to folk music to classical music. When you turn on the radio, when you go to the opera, when you sing in the shower, chances are pretty good that the music is accompanying a story about love. If you took love out of the songs people sing, there would not be much left to sing about.
Every popular song about love is a micro-story—a compact drama with characters, action, and a narrative arc, all proposed, realized, and resolved in just a few minutes. The music helps make it possible to tell the story quickly; you can tell from the mood of the music how to interpret the emotional world that the words don’t always have the time to flesh out.
There are basically two kinds of stories about love: ones that end well and ones that don’t. If we are going to make music about love, it is almost always about how excited we are about the love that is coming up or how miserable we are about the love that just left. This concert concentrates on the miserable side, on music and stories that look at the painfulness of being open to love.
I really wanted to find a singer-songwriter for this series. Since songs with stories about love are so ever-present in the general culture, I felt this series would feel incomplete without someone singing some kind of love song. But how to choose? There is a singer in every genre—in every popular, semi- popular, and unpopular type of music—and in every age bracket and demographic who could satisfy this requirement. Singing about love doesn’t narrow the options nearly enough.
Then I started thinking that it might be more interesting to present someone whose work opens us up to feeling something, without necessarily telling us exactly what that feeling is. I remembered the great soundtrack to the film Juno, which featured the songs of Kimya Dawson. What I love about her songs is that they are so direct and so fragile that I can’t help being moved by them— even the ones that aren’t really about love or aren’t really supposed to be sad. They are so direct that I feel open to the possibility that something painful might happen and that I might have to feel it. And that is painful enough. When I saw that she is now in a duo with Aesop Rock, who is part hip-hop artist and part beat poet, it seemed exactly right.
Totally by coincidence, two New York composers— Julia Wolfe and Nico Muhly—used variants of the same folk song as inspiration to make a piece of concert music: “The Two Sisters.” It is an old Celtic song about two sisters who are in love with the same man. One drowns the other in the sea; when her skeleton washes up on shore, her bones are made into musical instruments whose sounds keep the memory of the murdered sister alive. Clearly this is not one of the happy love stories. But you can understand why it would appeal to a musician: The love, yearning, and pain in the story all need music to remember them.
Julia’s Cruel Sister is a kind of tone painting of the action of the story. There are no words, but you hear the conflict, the drowning, the transformation of the bones into a harp. Julia uses the music to dramatize the story, as if the music is the chilling soundtrack to a drama playing out within each listener’s mind.
Nico’s piece, The Only Tune, tells the story in a completely different way. He asks that the original folk song be sung complete, and his music surrounds it with other kinds of musical activity. The music he adds works as a kind of Talmudic commentary on the original, questioning it, dissecting it, pulling it apart, and extending it in several painful directions at once.
The second half tonight begins with Irish sean-nós legend Iarla Ó Lionaird singing the original folk song so that we can better pay attention to Julia’s and Nico’s different compositional strategies. This posed an interesting problem: Who knew that there were so many hundreds of variants of such a grisly song from which to choose? We finally settled on singing the variant “Cruel Sister,” since Nico’s piece includes the complete song of “The Two Sisters,” sung by folk star Sam Amidon.
Nico Muhly, Electronics and Piano
THIRTY-ONE LOVE SONGS
To celebrate collected stories, The Believer posted pieces from past issues that tied into the themes of each concert. The third concert in collected stories, Love/Loss, featuring The Uncluded (Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson), Nico Muhly, Sam Amidon, Iarla Ó Lionáird, and Nadia Sirota, is paired with Rick Moody’s essay on 69 Love Songs (from the May 2003 issue of the Believer).
REDACTING THE MAGNETIC FIELDS’S 69 LOVE SONGS UNTIL THEY SPEAK FULLY AND PERSONALLY TO THE EAR OF THE BEHOLDER
DISCUSSED: Guys Who Winnow the White Album, Neil Young, The Art of Courtly Love, Trademark Pauses, Philadelphia, Singing Homeless Guys, Gilbert and Sullivan, The Human League
It’s the fate of the good work to belong to the public. It’s the fate of the masterpiece to be bent out of shape, to be reimagined, remodeled by its audience. It’s the fate of popular art to be scoured for clues, understood only in part or misunderstood, and this can’t be controlled by the hardworking artist who came up with the work in the first place. The way a book or record or painting or movie thrives in the face of this barrage of refractions indicates its long-term durability. Those endless new translations of The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, for example. Or what about the film version of The Virgin Suicides,or The Hours?“The Star-Spangled Banner,” wrenched out of its casing by Jimi Hendrix. Joni Mitchell singing Mingus. If something works, it can stand a little misuse.
What about all those guys, and they are mainly guys, who have sat around winnowing The White Album down to a single disc? Well, first you get rid of “Revolution 9,” because it’s too long and too abstract, and then you get rid of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” despite the fact that one admires McCartney more as one grows older; out with “Bungalow Bill,” out with “Honey Pie,” “Martha My Dear,” because it’s about a dog, etc. Before long, you are left with a record that has on it “Dear Prudence,” “Julia,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Helter Skelter,” “Birthday,” “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except for Me and My Monkey),” “Cry Baby Cry,” “Yer Blues,” and so forth. In short, you’ve got an unbelievably great rock and roll album. Does it do the Beatlesa disservice? On the contrary. It indicates the bounty of material from which to choose. This is how some people pass an afternoon.
The subject of today’s surgery is 69 Love Songs by the band known as the Magnetic Fields. The Magnetic Fields, as I understand it, began, under various names and permutations, in the late Eighties, in the Boston area, and hardened, more or less, into a group when Claudia Gonson, one of its singers and now manager of the band, was studying at Harvard. The other principals were also living in the area, first and foremost, Stephin Merritt, singer, composer, guitarist, keyboardist, etc. The Magnetic Fields are the closest thing to a traditional band in the multiform career of Merritt, who has any number of other musical entities to which he occasionally turns his attention—the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes. Much of the time Merritt records all the music himself, at home. The Magnetic Fields, however, unlike most of his vehicles, lists a little bit in the direction of the band-oriented idiom called indie rock. (A term I find somewhat repellent, and I expect Merritt would too.) The Magnetic Fields are not entirely electronic. They have two guitar players, Stephin and John Woo. They have a sort of a bass player in cellist Sam Davol. They occasionally have drums—Claudia Gonson can play the drums, that is, as well as the piano. Notwithstanding their denials, and there are many denials, the Magnetic Fields are sort of a rock and roll band. They occasionally play as an ensemble, and they leave their recordings somewhat unvarnished, in the tradition of bootleg, or in the tradition of low-fi, punk, folk, old time, early rock and roll.
Prior albums by the Magnetic Fields were theme oriented. As Merritt himself points out, “Usually we do short records with some theme like travel or escape or Phil Spector or vampires.” However, the concept on 69 Love Songs was much more basic:scale. Initially intended to be a hundred love songs, the album was winnowed down, perhaps in a kind of exhaustion, though Merritt argues that the number sixty-nine was graphically satisfying. Perhaps he ran out of subgenres in which to compose. Perhaps he is saving the other thirty-one songs (though he has said that there are as many as fifty leftover tracks) for an expanded edition. In any event, the album now fits on three CDs, which, as with Guns N’ Roses on Use Your Illusion, or those two Bruce Springsteen records, you can buy separately, if it suits you. The boxed version includes a lengthy printed exchange between Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, who occasionally serves as an accordionist for the Magnetic Fields) and Stephin Merritt, which in some ways forecloses on all possible interpretive responses to the record:
DH: Do you expect people to make tapes of their favorite songs and whittle it down to a smaller size?
SM: I expect some people to hate particular songs.
I have taken these lines as an invitation, and before someone else does it, I now declare that I have made the definitive one disc collection of songs from 69 Love Songs. All others will now have to reckon with my version. I have done it because I love the band. I have done it because I love the album. I love the album as I have loved few pieces of so-called popular music in the last ten years. I love it so much that I am having one of the songs sung at my own wedding. I love it so much that I have given away any number of copies of it as gifts. I love it so much that I am still playing it almost four years later. I love it so much that I can remember the lyrics, the harmony lines, and even some of the text in the exhaustive accompanying booklet. All because I love it.
Before I get to listing the tracks, however, I should admit, in the spirit of a complete disclaimer, that sometime in the midst of my romance with 69 Love Songs, I got an e-mail message from Claudia Gonson herself, aforementioned singer and manager, asking if I wanted to open for the Magnetic Fields on a couple of tour dates they were about to undertake, in Philadelphia and D.C. Open for them? A total shock. Apparently, Daniel Handler had done it, too, on the West Coast, and, according to Claudia, it had gone “pretty well.” This ought to have been a red flag. I knew enough about reading in public to know that rock audiences, with their fickle need for spectacle, eat writers for breakfast; I knew enough to know that belittlement and heckling would be built in to this task, that not having a rhythm section up on stage with me would be the pinnacle of lunacy. And they wanted me to read for forty-five minutes, at first, a preposterously long time, and they wouldn’t put me up in a hotel suite where I could throw the furniture out the window, and they wouldn’t pay me much. I would be on my own recognizances. Like Victoria Williams, who nearly got shouted offstage opening a Neil Young show I saw. Because she was there. In short, it was a nightmare being proposed, probably in front of five hundred or a thousand people a night. I agreed.
It began this way: I walked into this old punk club in D.C., the 9:30 Club, home to many bands that I loved when I was younger. Everybody played there, I think: Black Flag, Big Star, The Replacements. Sort of nerve-racking to walk into an old punk club, and to hear Claudia Gonson approximating the synthesizer line from “You’re My Only Home” on the piano. Because I was already very involvedwith the record. I mean, there was an uncanny quality to it. And here I was, the only person in the audience, during sound check. Me and the guy up in the booth, the Magnetic Fields traveling sound guy. I watched them do their sound check for half an hour. It was great. They had huge ring binders with all the songs in there. There were a lot of songs, of course, so there was a lot of music. I loved the way they fucked with rock show nonsense. Everyone sat, for example. John, the lead guitar player, had to be one of the least demonstrative guitar players ever in popular music. He made Robert Fripp seem like Steve Jones.
When they were done running through things, I nervously made my way toward the stage. This is when I learned what many have noticed before me: talking to Stephin Merritt is one of the hardest things you will ever do in your life. Many assume that it is difficult to talk to him because Stephin is acerbic, laconic, does not suffer fools gladly, etc. And these things, I believe, are true. I was destined therefore to be uncomfortable in the first place. But there is another issue. Which has to do with the pauses. Handler, in the 69 Love Songs booklet, refers to this tendency as thetrademark Stephin Merritt pause. Does it come from a youthful obsession with Harold Pinter? Is it neurological? Is it a leftover expression of Merritt’s childhood epilepsy? All I know is that Merritt takes longer to reply to a remark than anyone you know. He is two or three beats longer in reply than all your hardcore aphasics. You will be tempted to append further wasted verbiage to your initial remark. Do not do this. It will confuse things. Wait patiently. Then, at last, you will get the acerbic, laconic reply.
I was given a couple of minutes to test out the microphone, etc., and then we all went upstairs and ate backstage food. I don’t know what was in the Magnetic Fields contract rider, nothing about M&Ms or vegan fare, but there was some fruit backstage, and a lot of beer. I don’t drink or smoke, so I was in the minority there. I think Claudia is the only person in the Magnetic Fields who doesn’t smoke, so Stephin and John, and sometimes Sam, were all sequestered in the smoking room, so designated by general agreement, where for at least part of the time Stephin was curled into a kind of a fetal ball. Not because he was nervous. He just seemed comfortable that way.
The first night, I was so uncertain about what to expect onstage that Claudia and Stephin and Sam all followed me down the stairs to the very hem of the curtain, murmuring encouragement. They were as worried as I was. Apparently, “pretty well,” Claudia’s assessment of the Handler opening gigs, did not mean, “without difficulty.” I expected the worst. But the audience, when I at last stumbled out and mumbled an exploratory greeting into the microphone, listened pretty well. At least the front third did. Instantly, I was sweating like Richard Nixon during his farewell speech. There were more people standing and staring than I had ever faced down before. And they were there to hear music,pacemaker of contemporary youth, not some guy talking. I couldn’t find a way to recover from my own resistance to the arrangement that night: a reader warming up for a band. Didn’t matter if some of the people down front actually listened or maybe liked what they heard. The seconds passed at a crawl. The clock lurched to a halt. I read short things, but they seemed long; I could hear words coming out of my mouth, but they were muffled and half-hearted. I should have stood there and read like I believed in my form, the form of literature, like they were luckyto be hearing me. But this kind of confidence is not native to me.
And then to scattered applause my job was finished for the night, and I could go be in the audience like everyone else. That’s where lovers of a record belong, in the audience, not backstage.
The next night was Philadelphia. Stephin and Claudia were already spooked by Philly, before we’d even got there. They said they’d never had a good gig in Philadelphia, ever. One of my best friends lives in Philly, though, and my sister lived there for a while, and I know that Eraserhead was filmed there, and I know that Philly used to be the speed capital of the northeast. It has the Mummer’s Day Parade. How bad could it be?
Pretty bad, it turned out. First, the club we were playing was enormous. Called the Trocadero, it seemed to hold thousands, in the upper levels, especially near the bar. Why people would want to pay to come to a Magnetic Fields gig and then just go up to the bar and talk is a mystery. But this is what happened.
For the Philly show, I’d made use of a songwriter friend from the area, Marc Beck. He was my guitar and keyboard accompanist. We were scared shitless, fair to say, partly because of the night before, partly because of Claudia’s admonitions about Philly, partly because fear just seemed like good policy. But having an accompanist made the whole opening act role a lot easier. I didn’t care that the entire back of the room was now talking and drinking, was drowning out the p.a., because at least there was an electric guitar wailing. I wasn’t as naked as the night before. I wasn’t as innocent. And the Magnetic Fields didn’t get much more respect than I did. Claudia tried talking sense to the audience, offering the disclaimer that they weren’t a rock band,etc. And Stephin, who can exude a punk rock onstage irritability when he needs to, was pretty savage. But they played great, and even, as a kindness to me, performed “Grand Canyon,” one of my favorites on 69 Love Songs. By the end of the show, though, everyone was short-tempered. They’d never play in Philadelphia again, it was a hell hole, and so forth.
The experience, for all its terrors, sort of changed my life. There is nothing harder than trying to bring fiction, literature, words, to the mass audience, even as refined an audience as the one that comes to a Magnetic Fields gig. After you have done this, after you have stood in front of a rock audience that just wants you to get the fuck off the stage and shut up, you are never again nervous about a reading. Well, maybe a reading on television. Television is still pretty terrifying. But the Magnetic Fields tamed the idea of the public performance for me, once and for all. Which is not to say that the shows were fun. They were grinding, maddening, harsh. But I survived them, and I was stronger for it.
And maybe survival or something like it was part of the experience for the Magnetic Fields, too. Did Stephin want the audience to listen attentively because that was part of the traditional compact between performer and audience? Because the performer is vulnerable in this moment, is speaking for the audience in an entrusted oratory that is both frightening and burdensome? Was he simply saying that vulnerability merits respect, especially with work as literary as the songs of the Magnetic Fields? In Philly, once the general distraction had been set in motion, Stephin introduced “Book of Love” by saying, “Now I’m going to sing ‘Book of Love,’ and you aren’t.” And it seemed in the moment that he had been abraded, worn down, by the double-trust of performance, vulnerable on the one hand, wounded on the other; hoping, despairing, and then also hardened to vicissitudes, inured.
The first principle of reduction for the abbreviated 69 Love Songswe will refer to as the principle of the self-hating bisexual. To the uninitiated, it’s fair to say that one of the really joyful, wonderful things about 69 Love Songs is the fact that it is extremely complicated from the point of view of gender and erotic cathexis. There are songs here about boys loving boys, there are songs about girls loving girls, there are songs about men loving women, and women loving men, and these are sung, more or less, by whoever has the right range. Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms hold down the upper registers. In the male range, there’s Stephin doing a lot of bass parts (some of these computer enhanced), and there are two other guys, Dudley Klute and LD Beghtol, in the upper baritone and tenor range, respectively.
As Stephin points out in the booklet, 69 Love Songs the album began as a contribution to the world of musical theater. You can feel the traces of this ambition in the finished project, in a number of songs that are closer to show tunes than to popular songs. I’m listening to one of these right now. It’s called “How Fucking Romantic,” from the first disc, and it’s the song in which Dudley sings along with finger snaps and no other accompaniment. The composition is clever, simple, and it rhymes moon with “Rogers & Hart tune.” Who can dispute the mastery of the form? Who can dispute the clean energy of its bitterness? Who can dispute how smart it is? Nonetheless, I resist the song (even though Dudley is devastatingly handsome, as many have observed). Another example? “Very Funny,” from Disc Two, another ditty in which my-lover-is-probably-cheating-on-me to an incredibly beautiful cello part. Dudley works with the upper end of his range, and he has a little of that Marc Almond sexiness. And yet the composition seems more of a genre exercise than, say, “Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long,” which deals with similar material, but which has an infectious groove.
The problem is that I hate show tunes. Not to mention musical theater. I don’t find the American musical charming and funny and full of musical brilliance. I find it embarrassing, overstated, and I resent all the old people filling the sidewalks in midtown on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I wish they’d go back to Long Island. I thought Rent was a debacle, especially the singing homeless guys. I don’t like the vibrato in the conventional show tune voice. I find it cloying. Bernadette Peters sends me screaming from a room. Liza Minelli is appalling, and so was her mom. In fact, I dislike opera too.
Having said this, I did have a past as a boy singer of Gilbert and Sullivan, and my first important experience with crossdressing and festishization of crossdressers occurred when, as a ten-year-old, I played one of the three little maids from school in a summer camp production of The Mikado. The guy playing Yum Yum was hot.Our silk dressing gowns were sexy. Etc. It’s more than possible that my disaffection as regards the show tune, even the arty, insightful, and postmodern show tune, has to do with an attempt to eradicate the legacy of Broadway and light opera from my personality. I’m not proud of this disclaimer, but it is mine. Accordingly, I knew that the tunes closest to the show-tune idiom on 69 Love Songs, the tunes largely sung by Dudley and LD, would likely be first to face elimination.
For some reason, however, Stephin Merritt, cannot sound like a show tune even when he lists in that general direction (on, e.g., “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits”). So there were fewer, if any, antipathies with his turns as lead vocalist. And perhaps this is because of his gruff, cigarette-enhanced bass-baritone, which is always funny and world-weary. My fiancée, Amy, dislikes a song called “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” because of its Hollywood excess (“I haven’t seen you in ages/but it’s not as bleak as it seems/We still dance on whirling stages/in my Busby Berkeley dreams”), but in this case I would make a strict critical division between the ballad and the show tune. I have no problems with ballads. Ballads are heartfelt and moving, no matter their lyrical content. Show tunes are over the top and sentimental. Stephin Merritt is one of the best ballad singers on earth.
No problems at all with the women singers. Shirley’s voice is incredibly sultry, with a faint Southern twang. And even when she’s singing something arch, like on “No One Will Ever Love You” (“If you don’t mind/why don’t you mind?”), she sounds earnest. Probably the faux-Fleetwood Mac guitar parts by John add to the perception. Or what about the catchy “Washington, D.C.,” where Claudia channels Up With People or the Bay City Rollers, but with an affectionate smirk? It’s hilarious and beautiful, and Claudia can rock as well as anyone in the band. Her voice has a touch of Grace Slick to it. Sort of seductive and hoarse at the same time. If one of the hidden influences here is bubblegum, the songs for women’s voices are the best examples.
However, I didn’t really make decisions on what shouldn’t be on the single volume version of 69 Love Songs. I just made decisions on what should. I just picked the songs I liked. I didn’t say, “Epitaph for My Heart” is just a little too much. What I did say to myself was how I loved certain other songs. It turned out there were a lot of songs I loved. So, at last, I append the list, with the songs stripped off of their original CDs and sequenced at random, in keeping with Stephin’s original design:
- “Experimental Music Love”
- “I Don’t Believe in the Sun”
- “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!”
- “Reno Dakota”
- “Come Back From San Francisco”
- “The Book of Love”
- “You’re My Only Home”
- “Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long”
- “Boa Constrictor”
- “Nothing Matters When You’re Dancing”
- “Punk Love”
- “Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget”
- “Sweet-Lovin’ Man”
- “The Things We Did and Didn’t Do”
- “When My Boy Walks Down the Street”
- “Busby Berkeley Dreams”
- “Grand Canyon”
- “If You Don’t Cry”
- “I Don’t Want to Get Over You”
- “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off”
- “My Only Friend”
- “World Love”
- “Washington, D.C.”
- “Kiss Me Like You Mean It”
- “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old”
- “Papa Was a Rodeo”
- “I Shatter”
- “Acoustic Guitar”
- “The Night You Can’t Remember”
- “Xylophone Track”
Though the organizing principle is nothing other than pleasure, it is possible, retroactively, to notice a few tendencies. Songs with really good piano parts: “I Don’t Believe in the Sun,” “My Only Friend,” “Papa Was a Rodeo,” “Busby Berkeley Dreams”; songs with live drums that repudiate disclaimers about how the Magnetic Fields are not a rock band: “A Chicken With It’s Head Cut Off,” “Punk Love,” “Sweet-Lovin’ Man,” “When My Boy Walks Down the Street,” “Washington, D.C.,” “Papa Was a Rodeo,” “Ferdinand de Saussure”; songs with John Woo playing guitar on them: “Reno Dakota,” “Come Back From San Francisco,” “Boa Constrictor,” “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old,” “Acoustic Guitar”; songs with really catchy synthesizer lines that recall the early Eighties, “I Don’t Want to Get Over You,” “Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long,” “Thing We Did and Didn’t Do,” “Grand Canyon,” “You’re My Only Home”; songs with a modernist ambition, “I Shatter,” “Experimental Music Love”; songs sung by Stephin; songs with incredibly inventive lyrics; songs that have a lot of space in them; songs that leave room for the listener and aren’t fussy about arrangements; songs that are full of heartbreak.
Maybe this last quality, in fact, is the quality that draws me most to 69 Love Songs, and I take pains here to point out that the perception of heartbreak in 69 Love Songs is interpretation, not fact. Since Stephin Merritt remarks that he doesn’t “want to say which ones are ‘true’ songs,” there is no profit in going down that byway of pop criticism which insists on seeing songs as extracts from an autobiography. And yet I adhere to the delusion that there’s something heartbroken and truthful and even sincereabout a lot of these songs. Sincere, a word that doesn’t come in for a lot of respect these days. I brought the point up with Claudia, by e-mail, and her response was, “There’s something about sincerity that nauseates me.” I had the same reaction from Stephin himself. I did an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirerbefore opening for the Magnetic Fields, and when asked why I liked the band, I told the interviewer that I thought that Stephin’s songs were, notwithstanding his denials, heartfelt and moving. Then I made the mistake of repeating this to Stephin backstage. His put-down was swift and complete. I can’t recreate it exactly but it was close to words like: “What incredible bullshit.”
But if there’s not something true and sincere about the complexity of human emotions on this record, why bother to keep listening to it? An album rewards attention over four years, or more, because it means something about how people live.That’s why no one really listens to the Electric Light Orchestra anymore. Theirs were impeccably crafted pop songs that meant nothing at all. They were adept, and they were as compelling as sheet rock. People listen to Burt Bacharach not for the tricky metrical changes and major seventh chords, although these are nice, but because of the conjunction of the music and the complicated pathos of the words.
After all, it’s not called 69 Clever Songs or 69 Songs with Extremely Dextrous End Rhymes or 69 Songs in Which a Guy With a Lot of Talent Apes Other People’s Musical Styles. It does say Love Songs in the title, and I take the ambition to be as indicated. The word love is invoked in the title, and it turns up in ninety-nine one-hundredths of the songs—not as a mere signifier of the sort imagined by Ferdinand de Saussure, but because love, the word, the idea, speaks to an important, even exalted way that people interact. When this interaction has been effectively dealt with in the popular song (“All You Need Is Love,” “Shelter From the Storm,” “God Only Knows,” “My Funny Valentine”), it has reached a place that is indelible to millions. To incline toward this word, to incline toward this abstraction, with all the trouble and bliss that it causes, in sixty-nine different ways, is to be preoccupied—centrally, vitally—with what it means to be living here on earth. That we are still listening to the album is proof of its meaning, not proof of its inventiveness. Because inventiveness is not forever. Inventiveness lasts about fifteen minutes.
Remember when Mike Chapman was producing Blondie and he said “If you can’t make hit records you might as well fuck off and chop meat somewhere”? The same could be said of love songs. If you can’t tell the truth about love, then you might as well fuck off, etc. The Knack were clever and shallow, and they were the next Beatles for a few minutes in the late Seventies. And where is Mike Chapman now? Doing some spots for a VH1 program in which he reckons with the fact that the popular taste has passed him by? Why love songs? What is it about love songs? Why all these love songs? Why not songs about war? Why not songs about death (like “Last Kiss” and “Teen Angel”)? Is it simply because these are not affirmations and we would be unwise to spend our leisure on music that recoils from affirmation of any sort? Or is it because music, that incredibly powerful but largely abstract art form, is best and most practically married to subject matter that ennobles? Is desire the perfect catalytic agent for the abstraction of music? Is music itself love, as David Crosby once remarked in song?
The most beautiful moments on this collection of love songs, the most beautiful moments in the history of Stephin Merritt, are the moments when he is somehow alone with his ukulele or his guitar, and there’s a lot of air in the recording, and he’s seducing the listener with lines like “You can sing me anything,” and the equipoise is between a distrust of the love and the faint but stirring hope that maybe it will turn out well this time. The accompaniment, almost always written after the melodies, leaves a hovering uncertainty in the piece, a little bit of echo, a little bit of reverb. Unmistakeable is the sensation that love is a thing of the atmosphere. It could go either way, there could be another dead end of acrimony and disputation, or, and Stephin would deny it aloud, perhaps there could be harmony. Maybe he really does know something about it, even though he would claim instead to be debunker (“Are you out of love with me? Are you longing to be free? Do I drive you up a tree? Yeah! Oh, yeah!”); maybe, even though he’d prefer to allude to a certain bar where he writes while staring off languidly and listening to the Human League on the jukebox, there are these instants when affirmation and annihilation are equallypart of love’s system of uncertain futures. And this is an instant that is best captured in song. He says it right there, in “The Book of Love”: “The book of love has music in it/in fact, that’s where music comes from.”
That’s the Magnetic Fields that I adore.
Thirty-one songs, then, because it’s a prime number, and because it’s the same number as in that medieval classic, Andreas Capellanus’s “Rules of Courtly Love,” which preserves such irrefutable complexities as (#1) “Marriage should not be a deterrent to love,” and (#2) “Love cannot exist in the individual who cannot be jealous.” Like Capellanus, the Magnetic Fields, as preserved here, have fashioned a primer on the complexities of love. They have denied both their affirmations and their heartbreak in the press, sure, and even sometimes onstage, because to be vulnerable is hard, sad, thankless, and costly, as Capellanus has himself advised (#13, “Public revelation of love is deadly to love in most circumstances”). But in their secret hearts they betray how fervently they are lovers. Compare the medieval master in #14, “The value of love is commensurate with the difficulty of its attainment,” with the songwriter, “Well, darling you may do your worst,/because you’ll have to kill me first…” Or Capellanus in #22, “Love is reinforced by jealousy,” and Merritt, on Disc One, “Fido, your leash is too long,/you go where you don’t belong.” Thirty-one love songs, then, because love songs when they are true (“No one will ever love you honestly/No one will ever love you for your honesty”) instruct us in suffering, school us in desire, remind us of our loss, foster in us our enthusiasm.
Of course, now I’m rethinking the whole project, and wondering about the songs that got left off. Maybe I really made some mistakes here. I mean, it’s stupid to overlook “Absolutely Cuckoo,” which just sort of has to start the whole thing, as it does on the official release. “The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be”? With its great guitar part? But what about the Modern English simulations of “(Crazy for You But) Not That Crazy?” LD’s star turn on “The Way You Say Good-Night?” Or what about Disc Three? Initially it seemed kind of weak to me, but now I’m kind of into “I’m Sorry I Love You,” with Shirley’s harmonies. How could I have been so stupid? And “Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin,” and “Two Kinds of People.” And Claudia singing “Zebra,” the last song. I should have included them all. I should definitely do it over. But I promised a friend next week I’d get Decade down to a single disc.
Rick Moody is the author, most recently, of a collection of essays: On Celestial Music and Other Adventures in Listening (Little, Brown and Company).
I am always interested in how the things we take for granted in our world got started. For example, we take it for granted that a musician’s life is international, that a violinist might play a concert this week in New York, then play next week in London, and then go on to Hong Kong. We think not only that this is possible, but that it’s the normal way to design a life in music.
Where did we get this idea?
The modern life of a touring, international musician was basically invented by violinist Niccolò Paganini in the 1820s and perfected by pianist Franz Liszt in the 1830s. Together, they created the life of a musician on the road, the life most musicians recognize today.
They came of age in a time when the system that required musicians to attach themselves to various courts or nobles or churches had broken down, and in a time when a rising middle class created a new category of listener that was educated, urban, and sophisticated. You know—the Zankel Hall audience. The musician’s life and the musician’s audience developed together, hand in hand. The new urban audience required a new kind of music and a new kind of musician. Liszt, one of the greatest virtuosos of the 19th century, wrote music of previously unimagined difficulty and flamboyance, then toured Europe showing off his unique pianistic skills.
Années de pèlerinage is a collection of virtuosic solo piano pieces Liszt composed across a span of nearly 50 years. He published them in three books, which he called “years.” Some of these pieces had been published in an earlier collection called Album d’un voyageur, which he later folded into the Années de pèlerinage. The emphasis changes with the title, as “A Traveler’s Album” becomes “Years of Pilgrimage.” The first explores the places he visited, the second explores the time that passed while visiting them.
It’s not the miles, but the years.
Tonight’s concert is a marathon, and like all marathons the goal is getting to the end. Années de pèlerinage is almost never played complete, or in its published order, so you should know how rare an event this is. It is rare partly because of the titanic stamina and skill required to play it all, and partly because the most famous showpieces—like “Vallée d’Obermann,” “Après une lecture du Dante,” and the three pieces inspired by Petrarch sonnets—are all over by the end of the second book. But it also must be noted that the music gets strange in the third book. The later pieces are less interested in being overtly virtuosic, so pianists play them less frequently. You feel in the last book that Liszt’s attention has wandered from pieces calculated to electrify a crowd to pieces that are introspective, more interior, more self-questioning. You hear the man aging.
The third book contains some of the strangest, most experimental music Liszt ever wrote. From the radical harmonies of the “Villa d’Este” pieces, to the proto-minimalist “Marche funèbre,” to the heartbreaking directness of “Sunt lacrymae rerum,” this book shows a very different compositional focus than the first two.
What changed for Liszt to make this music so introspective and so bizarre? Part of it may have been that later in life, when he gave up touring as a virtuoso, he gave up needing to write the kind of music a touring virtuoso needs to play—music that impresses and shocks and wows a crowd with fireworks and acrobatics.
It may also have been that what happened to Liszt was Wagner, to whom Liszt was deeply connected. By the time Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde pulled the rug out from under the traditional harmonic landscape of Western classical music, Wagner was already having an affair with Liszt’s daughter Cosima, whom he eventually married. Liszt became heavily involved in the promotion of Tristan, making a piano transcription of the “Liebestod” that helped spread its fame throughout Europe. Could Wagner’s radical approach to harmony and form have convinced Liszt that he was now old and out of fashion?
I keep thinking about how, in the years of serialism’s zenith, older composers as diverse as Stravinsky, Copland, and Shostakovich felt compelled to try their hands at it, since the young composers of the world were so convinced. An old composer might look for signs that he or she belongs to another era, and then feel compelled to change. Perhaps it is significant that all the music in the last book of Années was written after the premiere of Tristan und Isolde.
Or maybe he was just slowing down. I can’t help but be moved when I hear the tremolo in the left hand of “Sursum corda,” the last movement of the last book. When Liszt was a young virtuoso, he had no trouble generating energy with his left hand— “Orage,” from the first book, has one of the most fiery and intricately virtuosic left hand parts in all the repertoire of the 19th century, and the younger Liszt traveled the world playing it. By the end of the third book, all he needs, or maybe all has the energy for, both as a composer and as a pianist, is a simple tremolo.
It’s not the miles, but the years.
THE IMMORTAL HORIZON
To celebrate, The Believer posted pieces from past issues that tied into the themes of each show. The fourth concert in collected stories, Travel, featuring a performance of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage by pianist Louis Lortie, is paired with Leslie Jamison’s essay on the Barkley Marathons (from the May 2011 issue of the Believer).
THIRTY-FIVE RUNNERS FACE HOLLERS AND HELLS, A FLOODED PRISON, RATS THE SIZE OF POSSUMS, AND FLESH-FLAYING BRIARS TO TEST THE LIMITS OF SELF-SUFFICIENCY.
DISCUSSED: An Escaped Assassin, Raw Chicken Meat, Unimaginable Physical Exhaustion, A License Plate from Liberia, Duct-Tape Pants, Novels Hidden in Tree Trunks, Testosterone Spread Like Fertilizer, Rattlesnakes as Large as Arms, Arms That Baptize Cats, A Bunch of Guys in the Woods Talking about Something Called the Bad Thing
On the western edge of Frozen Head State Park, just before dawn, a man in a rust brown trench coat blows a giant conch shell. Runners stir in their tents. They fill their water pouches. They tape their blisters. They eat thousand-calorie breakfasts: Pop-Tarts and candy bars and geriatric energy drinks. Some of them pray. Others ready their fanny packs. The man in the trench coat sits in an ergonomic lawn chair beside a famous yellow gate, holding a cigarette. He calls the two-minute warning.
The runners gather in front of him, stretching. They are about to travel more than a hundred miles through the wilderness—if they are strong and lucky enough to make it that far, which they probably aren’t. They wait anxiously. We, the watchers, wait anxiously. A pale wash of light is barely visible in the sky. Next to me, a skinny girl holds a skinny dog. She has come all the way from Iowa to watch her father disappear into this gray dawn.
All eyes are on the man in the trench coat. At precisely 7:12, he rises from his lawn chair and lights his cigarette. Once the tip glows red, the race known as the Barkley Marathons has begun.
The first race was a prison break. On June 10, 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who shot Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and fled across the briar-bearded hills of northern Tennessee. Fifty-four hours later he was found. He’d gone about eight miles. Some might hear this and wonder how he managed to squander his escape. One man heard this and thought: I need to see that terrain!
Over twenty years later, that man, the man in the trench coat—Gary Cantrell by birth, self-dubbed Lazarus Lake—has turned this terrain into the stage for a legendary ritual: the Barkley Marathons, held yearly (traditionally on Lazarus Friday or April Fool’s Day) outside Wartburg, Tennessee. Lake (known as Laz) calls it “The Race That Eats Its Young.” The runners’ bibs say something different each year: SUFFERING WITHOUT A POINT; NOT ALL PAIN IS GAIN. Only eight men have ever finished. The event is considered extreme even by those who specialize in extremity.
What makes it so bad? No trail, for one. A cumulative elevation gain that’s nearly twice the height of Everest. Native flora called saw briars that can turn a man’s legs to raw meat in meters. The tough hills have names like Rat Jaw, Little Hell, Big Hell, Testicle Spectacle—this last so-called because it inspires most runners to make the sign of the cross (crotch to eyeglasses, shoulder to shoulder)—not to mention Stallion Mountain, Bird Mountain, Coffin Springs, Zip Line, and an uphill stretch, new this year, known simply as “the Bad Thing.”
The race consists of five loops on a course that’s been officially listed at twenty miles, but is probably more like twenty-six. The moral of this slanted truth is that standard metrics are irrelevant. The moral of a lot of Barkley’s slanted truths is that standard metrics are irrelevant. The laws of physics and human tolerance have been replaced by Laz’s personal whims. Even if the race was really “only” a hundred miles, these would still be “Barkley miles.” Guys who could typically finish a hundred miles in twenty hours might not finish a single loop here. If you finish three, you’ve completed what’s known as the Fun Run. If you happen not to finish—and, let’s face it, you probably won’t—Laz will play taps to commemorate your quitting. The whole camp, shifting and dirty and tired, will listen, except for those who are asleep or too weak to notice, who won’t.
It’s no easy feat to get here. There are no published entry requirements or procedures. It helps to know someone. Admissions are decided by Laz’s personal discretion, and his application isn’t exactly standard, with questions like “What is your favorite parasite?” and a required essay with the subject “Why I Should Be Allowed to Run In the Barkley.” Only thirty-five entrants are admitted. This year, one of them is my brother.
Julian is a “virgin,” one of fifteen newbies who will do their damndest to finish a loop. He has managed to escape the designation of “sacrificial virgin,” officially applied to the virgin each year (usually the least experienced ultra-runner) whom Laz has deemed most likely to fail in a spectacular fashion—to get lost for so long, perhaps, that he manages to beat Dan Baglione’s course record for slowest pace. At the age of seventy-five, in 2006, Baglione managed two miles in thirty-two hours. Something to do with an unscrewed flashlight cap, an unexpected creek.
It’s probably a misnomer to talk about “getting lost” at Barkley. It might be closer to the truth to say you begin lost, remain lost through several nights in the woods, and must constantly use your compass, map, instructions, fellow runners, and remaining shards of sanity to perpetually unlose yourself again. First-timers usually try to stay with veterans who know the course, but are often scraped. “Virgin scraping” means ditching the new guy. A virgin bends down to tie his shoelaces, perhaps, and glances up to find his veteran Virgil gone.
The day before the race, runners start arriving at camp like rainbow seals, sleekly gliding through the air in multi-colored bodysuits. They come in pickup trucks and rental cars, rusty vans and camper trailers. Their license plates say 100 RUNNR, ULT MAN, CRZY RUN. They bring camouflage tents and orange hunting vests and skeptical girlfriends and acclimated wives and tiny travel towels and tiny dogs. Laz himself brings a little dog (named “Little Dog”) with a black spot like a pirate’s patch over one eye. Little Dog almost loses her name this year, after encountering and trying to eat an even smaller dog, the skinny one from Iowa, who turns out to be two dogs rather than just one.
It’s a male scene. There are a few female regulars, I learn, but they rarely manage more than a loop. Most of the women in sight, like me, are part of someone’s support crew. I help sort Julian’s supplies in the back of the car.
He needs a compass. He needs pain pills and NO-DOZ pills and electrolyte pills and Ginger Chews for when he gets sleepy and a “kit” for popping blisters that basically includes a needle and Band-Aids. He needs tape for when his toenails start falling off. He needs batteries. We pay special attention to the batteries. Running out of batteries is the must-avoid-at-all-costs worst possible thing that could happen. But it has happened. It happened to Rich Limacher, whose night spent under a huge buckeye tree earned it the name “Limacher Hilton.” Julian’s coup de grâce is a pair of duct-tape pants that we’ve fashioned in the manner of cowboy chaps. They will fend off saw briars, is the idea, and earn Julian the envy of the other runners.
Traditionally, the epicenter of camp is a chicken fire kindled on the afternoon before the race begins. This year’s fire is blazing by four p.m. It’s manned by someone named Doc Joe. Julian tells me Doc Joe’s been wait-listed for several years and (Julian speculates) has offered himself as a helper in order to secure a spot for 2011. We arrive just as he’s spearing the first thighs from the grill. He’s got a two-foot can of beans in the fire pit, already bubbling, but the clear stars of this show are the birds, skin-blackened and smothered in red sauce. The chicken here (as legend has it) is served partway thawed, with only skins and “a bit more” cooked.
I ask Doc Joe how he plans to find the sweet spot between cooked and frozen. He looks at me like I’m stupid. That frozen chicken thing is just a myth, he says. This will not be the last time, I suspect, that I catch Barkley at the game of crafting its own legend.
At this particular potluck, small talk rarely stays banal for long. I fall into conversation with John Price, a bearded veteran who tells me he’s sitting out the race this year, wait-listed, but has driven hundreds of miles just to be “a part of the action.” Our conversation starts predictably. He asks where I’m from. I say Los Angeles. He says he loves Venice Beach. I say I love Venice Beach, too. Then he says: “Next fall I’m running from Venice Beach to Virginia Beach to celebrate my retirement.”
I’ve learned not to pause at this kind of declaration. I’ve learned to proceed to practical questions. I ask, “Where will you sleep?”
“Mainly camping,” he says. “A few motels.”
“You’ll carry the tent in a backpack?”
“God, no,” he laughs. “I’ll be pulling a small cart harnessed to my waist.”
I find myself at the picnic table, which has become a veritable bulimic’s buffet, spread with store-bought cakes and sprinkle cookies and brownies. It’s designed to feed men who will do little for the next few days besides burn an incredible number of calories.
The tall man next to me is tearing into a massive chicken thigh. His third, I’ve noticed. Its steam rises softly into the twilight.
“So that whole frozen thing?” I ask him. “It’s really just a myth?”
“It was one year,” he says. “It was honest-to-god frozen.” He pauses. “Man! That year was a great race.”
This guy introduces himself as Carl. Broad and good-looking, he’s a bit less sinewy than many of his fellow runners. He tells me he runs a machine shop down in Atlanta. As best I can gather, this means he uses his machines to build other machines, or else he uses his machines to build things that aren’t machines—like bicycle parts or flyswatters. He works on commission. “The people who ask for crazy inventions,” he says, sighing, “are never the ones who can afford them.”
Carl tells me that he’s got an ax to grind this time around. He’s got a strong history at Barkley—one of the few runners who has finished a Fun Run under official time—but his performance last year was dismal. “I barely left camp,” he says. Trans-lated, this means he ran only thirty-five miles. But it was genuinely disappointing: he didn’t even finish a second loop. He tells me he was dead-tired and heartbroken. He’d just gone through a nasty breakup.
But now he’s back. He looks pumped. I ask him who he thinks the major contenders are to complete a hundred.
“Well,” he says, “there’s always Blake and A.T.”
He means two of the “alumni” (former finishers) who are running this year: Blake Wood, class of 2001, and “A.T.”, Andrew Thompson, class of 2009. Finishing the hundred twice would make history. Two years in a row is the stuff of fantasy.
Blake is a nuclear engineer at Los Alamos with a doctorate from Berkeley and an incredible Barkley record: six for six Fun Run completions, one finish, another near finish that was blocked only by a flooded creek. In person, he’s just a friendly middle-aged dad with a salt-and-pepper mustache, eager to talk about his daughter’s bid to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials, and about the new pair of checkered clown pants he’ll wear this year to boost his spirits on the trail.
Andrew Thompson is a youngish guy from New Hampshire famous for a near finish in 2005, when he was strong heading into his fifth loop but literally lost his mind when he was out there—battered from fifty hours of sleep deprivation and physical strain. He completely forgot about the race. He spent an hour squishing mud in his shoes. He came back four more times until he finally finished the thing, in 2009.
There’s “J.B.”, Jonathan Basham, A.T.’s best support crew for years, at Barkley for his own race this time around. He’s a strong runner, though I mainly hear him mentioned in the context of his relationship to A.T., who calls him “Jonboy.”
Though Carl doesn’t say it, I learn from others that he’s a strong contender, too. He’s one of the toughest runners in the pack, a D.N.F. (Did Not Finish) veteran hungry for a win. I picture him out there on the trails, a mud-splattered machinist, with mechanical claws picking granola bars from his pockets and bringing them to his mouth.
There are some strong virgins in the pack, including Charlie Engle, already an accomplished ultra-runner (he’s “done” the Sahara) and inspirational speaker. Like many ultra-runners, he’s a former addict. He’s been sober for nearly twenty years, and many describe his recovery as the switch from one addiction to another—drugs for adrenaline, trading that extreme for this one.
If there’s such a thing as the opposite of a virgin, it’s probably John DeWalt. He’s an old man in a black ski cap, seventy-three and wrinkled, with a gruff voice that sounds like it should belong to a smoker or a cartoon grizzly bear. He tells me that his nine-year-old grandson recently beat him in a 5K. Later, I will hear him described as an animal. He’s been running the race for twenty years—never managing a finish or even a Fun Run.
I watch Laz from across the campfire. He’s darkly regal in his trench coat, warming his hands over the flames. I want to meet him, but haven’t yet summoned the courage to introduce myself. When I look at him I can’t help thinking of Heart of Darkness. Like Kurtz, Laz is bald and charismatic, leader of a minor empire, trafficker in human pain. He’s like a cross between the Colonel and your grandpa. There’s certainly an Inner Station splendor to his orchestration of this whole hormone extravaganza, testosterone spread like fertilizer across miles of barren and brambled wilderness.
He speaks to “his runners” with comfort and fondness, as if they are a batch of wayward sons turned feral each year at the flick of his lighter. Most have been running “for him” (their phrase) for years. All of them bring offerings. Everyone pays a $1.60 entry fee. Alumni bring Laz a pack of his favorite cigarettes (Camel Filters), veterans bring a new pair of socks, and virgins are responsible for a license plate. These license plates hang like laundry at the edge of camp, a wall of clattering metal flaps. Julian has brought one from Liberia, where—in his non-superhero incarnation as a development economist—he is working on a microfinance project. I asked him how one manages to procure a spare license plate in Liberia. He tells me he asked a guy on the street and the guy said, “Ten dollars,” and Julian gave him five and then it appeared. Laz immediately strings it in a place of honor, near the center, and I can tell Julian is pleased.
All through the potluck, runners pore over their instructions, five single-spaced pages that tell them “exactly where to go”—though every single runner, even those who’ve run the course for years, will probably get lost at least once, many of them for hours at a time. It’s hard for me to understand this—can’t you just do what they say?—until I look at the instructions themselves. They range from surprising (“the coal pond beavers have been very active this year, be careful not to fall on one of the sharpened stumps they have left”) to self-evident (“all you have to do is keep choosing the steepest path up the mountain”). But the instructions tend to cite landmarks like “the ridge” or “the rock” that seem less than useful, considering. And then there’s the issue of the night.
The official Barkley requirements read like a treasure hunt: there are ten books placed at various points along the course, and runners are responsible for ripping out the pages that match their race number. Laz is playful in his book choices: The Most Dangerous Game, Death by Misadventure, A Time to Die—evenHeart of Darkness, a choice that seems to vindicate my associative impulses.
The big talk this year is about Laz’s latest addition to the course: a quarter-mile cement tunnel that runs directly under the grounds of the old penitentiary. There’s a drop through a narrow concrete shaft to get in, a fifteen-foot climb to get out, and “plenty of” standing water once you’re inside. There are also, rumor has it, rats the size of possums and—when it gets warmer—snakes the size of arms. Whose arms? I wonder. Most of the guys here are pretty wiry.
The seventh course book has been hung between two poles next to the old penitentiary walls. “This is almost exactly the same place James Earl Ray went over,” the instructions say. “Thanks a lot, James.”
Thanks a lot, James—for getting all this business started.
Laz has given himself the freedom to start the race whenever he wants. He announces the date but offers only two guarantees: that it will begin “sometime” between midnight and noon (thanks a lot, Laz), and that he will blow the conch shell an hour beforehand in warning. In general, Laz likes to start before dawn.
At the start gate, Julian is wearing a light silver jacket, a pale gray skullcap, and his homemade duct-tape chaps. He looks like a robot. He disappears uphill in a flurry of camera flashes.
Immediately after the runners take off, Doc Joe and I start grilling waffles. Laz strolls over with his glowing cigarette, its gray cap of untapped ash quaking between his thick fingers. I introduce myself. He introduces himself. He asks us if we think anyone has noticed that he’s not actually smoking. “I can’t this year,” he explains, “because of my leg.” He has just had surgery on an artery and his circulation isn’t good. Despite this he will set up a lawn chair by the finish line, just like every year, and stay awake until every competitor has either dropped or finished. Dropping, unless you drop at the single point accessible by trail, involves a three-to-four-hour commute back into camp—longer at night, especially if you get lost. Which effectively means that the act of ceasing to compete in the Barkley race is comparable to running an entire marathon.
I tell him the cigarette looks great as an accessory. Doc Joe tells him that he’s safe up to a couple packs. Doc Joe, by the way, really is a doctor.
“Well, then,” Laz says, smiling. “Guess I’ll smoke the last quarter of this one.”
He finishes the cigarette and then tosses it into our cooking fire, where it smokes right into our breakfast. I am aware that Laz has already been turned into a myth, and that I will probably become another one of his mythmakers. Various tropes of masculinity are at play in Laz’s persona—badass, teenager, father, demon, warden—and this Rubik’s cube of testosterone seems to be what Barkley’s all about.
I realize Laz and I will have many hours to spend in each other’s company. The runners are out on their loops anywhere from eight to thirty-two hours. Between loops, if they’re continuing, they stop at camp for a few moments of food and rest. This is both succor and sadism; the oasis offers respite and temptation at once. It’s the Lotus Eaters’ dilemma: hard to leave a good thing behind.
I use these hours without the runners to ask Laz everything I can about the race. I start with the start: how does he choose the time? He laughs uneasily. I backtrack, apologizing: would it ruin the mystery to tell me?
“One time I started at three,” he says, as if in answer. “That was fun.”
“Last year you started at noon, right? I heard the runners got a little restless.”
“Sure did.” He shakes his head, smiling at the memory. “Folks were just standing around getting antsy.”
“Was it fun to watch them agonize?” I ask.
“Little bit frightening, actually,” he says. “Like watching a mob turn ugly.”
As we speak, he mentions sections of the course—Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall, Raw Dog Falls, Pussy Ridge—as if I’d know them by heart. I ask whether Rat Jaw is called that because the briars are like a bunch of little rodent teeth. He says no, it has to do with the topographic profile on a map: it reminded him of—well, of a rat jaw. I think to myself, A lot of things might remind you of a rat jaw. The briar scratches are known as rat bites. Laz once claimed that the briars wouldn’t give you scratches any worse than the ones you’d get from baptizing a cat.
I ask about Meth Lab Hill, wondering what its topographic profile could possibly resemble.
“That’s easy,” he says. “First time we ran it we saw a meth lab.”
“Yep,” he laughs. “Those suckers thought they’d never get found. Bet they were thinking, Who the fuck would possibly come over this hill?”
I begin to see why Laz has been so vocal about his new sections: the difficulty of the Bad Thing, the novelty of the prison tunnel. They mark his power over the terrain.
Laz has endured quite a bit of friction with park officials over the years. The race was nearly shut down for good by a man named Jim Fyke, who was upset about erosion and endangered plants. Laz simply rerouted the course around protected areas and called the detour “Fyke’s Folly.”
I can sense Laz’s nostalgia for wilder days—when Frozen Head was still dense with the ghosts of fled felons and outlaws, thick with undiscovered junkies and their squirreled-away cold medicine. Times are different now, tamer. Just last year the rangers cut the briars on Rat Jaw a week before the race. Laz was pissed. This year he made them promise to wait until April.
His greatest desire seems to be to devise an un-runnable race, to sustain the immortal horizon of an unbeatable challenge with contours fresh and unknowable. After the first year, when no one even came close to finishing, Laz wrote an article headlined: THE “TRAIL” WINS THE BARKLEY MARATHONS. It’s not hard to imagine how Laz, reclining on his lawn chair, might look to the course itself as his avatar: his race is a competitor strong enough to triumph, even when he can barely stand.
He used to run this race, in days of better health, but never managed to finish it. Instead, he’s managed to garner respect as a man of principle—a man so committed to the notion of pain that he’s willing to rally men in its pursuit.
There are only two public trails that intersect the course: Lookout Tower, at the end of South Mac trail, and Chimney Top. Laz generally discourages meeting runners while they’re running. “Even just the sight of other human beings is a kind of aid,” he explains. “We want them to feel the full weight of their aloneness.”
That said, a woman named Cathy recommends Chimney Top for a hike.
“I broke my arm there in January,” she says, “but it’s pretty.”
“Sounds fun,” I say.
“Was it that old log over the stream?” Laz asks wistfully, as if remembering an old friend.
She shakes her head.
He asks, “Was Raw Dog with you when you did it?”
“Was he laughing?”
A man who appears to be her husband—presumably “Raw Dog”—pipes in: “Her arm was in an S-shape, Laz. I wasn’t laughing.”
Laz considers this for a moment. Then he asks her, “Did it hurt?”
“Think I blocked it out,” she laughs. “But I heard I was cussing the whole way down the mountain.”
I watch Laz shift modes fluidly between calloused maestro and den father. “After nightfall,” he assures Doc Joe, “there will be carnage,” but then he bends down to pet his pirate dog. “You hungry, Little?” he asks. “You might have got a lot of love today, but you still need to eat.” Whenever I see him around camp, he says, “You think Julian is having fun out there?” I finally say, “I fucking hope not!” and he smiles. This girl gets it!
But I can’t help thinking his question dissolves precisely the kind of loneliness he seems so interested in producing, and his runners so interested in courting: the idea that when you are alone out there, someone back at camp is thinking of you alone out there, is, of course, just another kind of connection. Which is part of the point of this, right? That the hardship facilitates a shared solitude, an utter isolation that has been experienced before by others and will be experienced again, that these others are present in spirit even if the wilds have tamed or aged or brutalized or otherwise removed their bodies.
When Julian comes in from his first loop, it’s almost dark. He’s been out for twelve hours. I feel like I’m sharing this moment of triumph with Laz, in some sense, though I also know he’s promiscuous in this sort of sharing. There’s a place in his heart for everyone who runs his gauntlet, and everyone silly enough to spend days in the woods just to watch someone touch a yellow gate.
Julian is in good spirits. He turns over his pages to be counted. He’s got ten 61s, including one from The Power of Positive Thinking, which came early in the course, and one from an account of teenage alcoholism called The Late Great Me, which came near the end. I notice the duct tape has been ripped from his pants. “You took it off?” I ask.
“Nope,” he says. “Course took it off.”
In camp he eats hummus sandwiches and Girl Scout cookies, barely manages to gulp down a butter pecan Ensure. He is debating another loop. “I’m sure I won’t finish,” he says. “I’ll probably just go out for hours and then drop and have to find my way back in the dark.”
Julian pauses. I take one of his cookies.
He says, “I guess I’ll do it.”
He takes the last cookie before I can grab it. He takes another bib number, for his second round of pages, and Laz and I send him into the woods. His rain jacket glows silver in the darkness: brother robot, off for another spin.
Julian has completed five hundred-mile races so far, as well as countless “short” ones, and I once asked him why he does it. He explained it like this: He wants to achieve a completely insular system of accountability, one that doesn’t depend on external feedback. He wants to run a hundred miles when no one knows he’s running, so that the desire to impress people, or the shame of quitting, won’t constitute his sources of motivation. Perhaps this kind of thinking is what got him his PhD at the age of twenty-five. It’s hard to say. Barkley doesn’t offer a pure form of this isolated drive, but it comes pretty close: when it’s midnight and it’s raining and you’re on the steepest hill you’ve ever climbed and you’re bleeding from briars and you’re alone and you’ve been alone for hours, it’s only you around to witness yourself quit or continue.
At four in the morning, the fire is bustling. A few front-runners are incamp preparing to head onto their third loops, gulping coffee or taking fifteen-minute naps in their tents. It’s as if the thought of “the full weight of loneliness” has inspired an urge toward companionship back here, the same way Julian’s hunger—when he stops for aid—makes me feel hungry, though I have done little to earn it. Another person’s pain registers as an experience in the perceiver: empathy as forced symmetry, a bodily echo.
“Just think,” Laz tells me. “Julian’s out there somewhere.”
“Out there” is a phrase that comes up frequently around camp. So frequently, in fact, that one of the regular racers—a wiry old man named “Frozen Ed” Furtaw (like Frozen Head, get it?) who runs in sunset orange camo tights—has self-published a book calledTales from Out There: The Barkley Marathons, The World’s Toughest Trail Race. The book details each year’s comet trail of D.N.F.s and includes an elaborate appendix listing other atrociously difficult trail races and explaining why they’re not as hard.
“I was proud of Julian,” I tell Laz. “It was dark and cold and he could barely swallow his can of Ensure and he just put his head in his hands and said, Here I go.”
Laz laughs. “How do you think he feels about that decision now?”
It starts to rain. I make a nest in the back of my car. I type notes for this essay. I watch an episode of The Real World: Las Vegasand then turn it off, just as Steven and Trishelle are about to maybe hook up, to conserve power for the next day and also because I don’t want to watch Steven and Trishelle hook up; I wanted her to hook up with Frank. I try to sleep. I dream about the prison tunnel: it’s flooding, and I’ve just gotten a speeding ticket, and these two things are related in an important way I can’t yet fathom. I’m awoken every once in a while by the mournful call of taps, like the noises of a wild animal echoing through the night.
Julian arrives back in camp around eight in the morning. He was out for another twelve hours, but he managed to reach only two books. There were a couple hours lost, another couple spent lying down, in the rain, waiting for first light. He is proud of himself for going out, even though he didn’t think he’d get far, and I am proud of him, too.
We join the others under the rain tent. Charlie Engle describes what forced him back during his third loop. “Fell flat on my ass going down Rat Jaw,” he said. “Then I got up and fell again, got up and fell again. That was pretty much it.”
There’s a nicely biblical logic to this story: it’s the third time that really does the trick, seals the deal, breaks the back, what have you.
Laz asks whether Charlie enjoyed the prison section. Laz asks everyone about the prison section, the way you’d ask about your kid’s poem: Did you like it?
Charlie says he did like it, very much. He says the guards were friendly enough to give him directions. “They were good ol’ Southern boys, those guys,” and I can tell from the way he says it that Charlie considers himself a good ol’ Southern boy as well. “They told us, ‘Just make yer way up that there holler…’ and then those California boys with me, they turn and say, ‘What the fuck is a holler?’”
“You should have told them,” says Laz, “that in Tennessee a holler is when you want to get out but you can’t.”
“That’s exactly what I said!” Charlie tells us. “I said: when you’re standing barefoot on a red ant hill—that’s a holler. The hill we’re about to climb—that’s a holler.”
The rain is unrelenting. Laz doesn’t think anyone will get the full hundred this year. There were some stellar first laps, but no one seems strong enough now. People are speculating about whether anyone will even finish the Fun Run. There are only six runners left with a shot. If anyone can finish, everyone agrees, it will be Blake. Laz has never seen him quit.
Julian and I share a leg of chicken slathered in BBQ sauce. There are only two left on the grill. It’s a miracle the fire hasn’t gone out. The chicken’s good, and cooked as promised, steaming in our mouths against the chilly air.
A guy named Zane, with whom Julian ran much of his first loop, tells us he saw several wild boars on the trails at night. Was he scared? He was. One got close enough to send him scurrying off the edge of a switchback, fighting stick in hand. Would a stick have helped? We all agree, probably not.
A woman clad in what looks like an all-body windbreaker has packed a plastic bag of clothes. Laz explains that her husband is one of the six runners left. She’s planning to meet him at Lookout Tower. If he decides to drop, she’ll hand him his dry clothes and escort him down the easy three-mile trail back into camp. If he decides to continue, she’ll wish him luck as he prepares for another uphill climb—soaked in rainwater and pride, unable to take the dry clothes because accepting aid would get him disqualified.
“I hope she shows him the dry clothes before he makes up his mind,” says Laz. “The choice is better that way.”
The crowd stirs. There’s a runner coming up the paved hill. Coming from this direction is a bad sign for someone on his third loop—it means he’s dropping rather than finishing. People guess it’s J.B. or Carl—must be J.B. or Carl, there aren’t many guys still out—but after a moment Laz gasps.
“It’s Blake,” he says. “I recognize his walking poles.”
Blake is soaked and shivering. “I’m close to hypothermia,” he said. “I couldn’t do it.” He says that climbing Rat Jaw was like scrambling up a playground slide in roller skates, but otherwise he doesn’t seem inclined to offer excuses. He says he was running with J.B. for a while but left him on Rat Jaw. “That’s bad news for J.B.,” says Laz, shaking his head. “He’ll probably be back here soon.”
Laz hands the bugle over. It’s as if he can’t bear to play taps for Blake himself. He’s clearly disappointed that Blake is out, but there’s also a note of glee in his voice when he says: “You never know what’ll happen around here.” There’s a thrill in the tension between controlling the race and recognizing it as something that will always disobey him. It approximates the pleasure—pleasure?—of ultra-running itself: the simultaneous exertion and ceding of power, controlling the body enough to make it run this thing but ultimately offering it to the uncontrollable vagaries of luck and endurance and conditions, delivering oneself into the frisson of this overpowering.
Doc Joe motions me over to the fire pit. “Hold this,” he says, and shoves a large rectangle of aluminum siding in my direction. He balances a fallen tree branch against its edge to make a rain roof over the fire, where the single remaining breast of chicken is crisping to a beautiful charred brown. “Blake’s chicken,” he explains. “I’ll cover it with my body if I have to.”
Why this sense of stakes and heroism? Of course, I have been wondering the whole time: why do people do this, anyway? Whenever I pose the question directly, runners reply ironically: I’m a masochist; I need somewhere to put my craziness; type A from birth; etc. I begin to understand that joking about this question is not an evasion but rather an intrinsic part of answering it. Nobody has to answer this question seriously, because they are already answering it seriously—with their bodies and their willpower and their pain. The body submits itself in utter earnest, in degradation and commitment, to what words can speak of only lightly. Maybe this is why so many ultra-runners are former addicts: they want to redeem the bodies they once punished, master the physical selves whose cravings they once served.
There is a gracefully frustrating tautology to this embodied testimony: Why do I do it? I do it because it hurts so much and I’m still willing to do it. The sheer ferocity of the effort implies that the effort is somehow worth it. This is purpose by implication rather than direct articulation. Laz says, “No one has to ask them why they’re out here; they all know.”
It would be easy to fix upon any number of possible purposes—conquering the body, fellowship in pain—but it feels more like significance dwells in concentric circles of labor around an empty center: commitment to an impetus that resists fixity or labels. The persistence of “why” is the point: the elusive horizon of an unanswerable question, the conceptual equivalent of an un-runnable race.
But: how does the race turn out?
Turns out J.B. manages to pull off a surprising victory. Which makes the fifth paragraph of this essay a lie: the race has nine finishers now. I get this news as a text message from Julian, who found out from Twitter. We’re both driving home on separate highways. My immediate thought is, Shit. I wasn’t planning to focus on J.B. as a central character in my essay—he hadn’t seemed like one of the strongest personalities or contenders at camp—but now I know I’ll have to turn him into a story, too.
This is what Barkley specializes in, right? It swallows the story you imagined and hands you another one. Blake and Carl—both strong after their second loops, two of my chosen figures of interest—didn’t even finish the Fun Run.
Now everyone goes home. Carl will go back to his machine shop in Atlanta. Blake will help his daughter train for the trials. John Price will return to his retirement and his man-wagon. Laz, I discover, will return to his position as assistant coach for the boy’s basketball team at Cascade High School, down the highway in Wartrace.
One of the most compelling inquiries into the question of why—to my mind, at least—is really an inquiry around the question, and it lies in a tale of temporary madness: A.T.’s frightening account of his fifth-loop “crisis of purpose” back in 2004.
By “crisis of purpose,” he means “losing my mind in the full definition of the phrase,” a relatively unsurprising condition, given the circumstances. He’s not alone in this experience. Another ultra-runner named Brett Maune describes hallucinating a band of helpful Indians at the end of his three-day run of the John Muir trail:
They watched over me while I slept and I would chat with them briefly every time I awoke. They were very considerate and even helped me pack everything when I was ready to resume hiking. I hope this does not count as aid!
A.T. describes wandering without any clear sense of how he’d gotten to the trail or what he was meant to be doing there: “The Barkley would be forgotten for minutes on end although the premise lingered. I had to get to the Garden Spot, for… why? Was there someone there?” His amnesia captures the endeavor in its starkest terms: premise without motivation, hardship without context. But his account offers flashes of wonder:
I stood in a shin-deep puddle for about an hour—squishing the mud in and out of my shoes…. I walked down to Coffin Springs (the first water drop). I sat and poured gallon after gallon of fresh water into my shoes…. I inspected the painted trees, marking the park boundary; sometimes walking well into the woods just to look at some paint on a tree.
In a sense, Barkley does precisely this: forces its runners into an appreciation of what they might not otherwise have known or noticed—the ache in their quads when they have been punished beyond all reasonable measure, fatigue pulling the body’s puppet strings inexorably downward, the mind gone numb and glassy from pain.
By the end of A.T.’s account, the facet of Barkley deemed most brutally taxing, that sinister and sacred “self-sufficiency,” has become an inexplicable miracle: “When it cooled off, I had a long-sleeve shirt. When I got hungry, I had food. When it got dark, I had a light. I thought: Wow, isn’t it strange that I have all this perfect stuff, just when I need it?”
This is benevolence as surprise, evidence of a grace beyond the self that has, of course, come from the self—the same self that loaded the fanny pack hours before, whose role has been obscured by bone-weary delusion, turned other by the sheer fact of the body losing its own mind. So it goes. One morning a man blows a conch shell, and two days later—still answering the call of that conch—another man finds all he needs strapped to his own body, where he can neither expect nor explain it.
Leslie Jamison’s most recent book is The Empathy Exams.
More info about Collected Stories.
To celebrate collected stories, the Believer posted pieces from past issues that tied into with the themes of each show. The third concert in collected stories, (post)folk, featuring Alarm Will Sound, Alan Pierson, and Jennifer Zetland, is paired with Michael A. Elliott’s essay on the Kcymaerxthaere, the fictional universe created by Eames Demetrios (from theNovember/December 2009 issue of the Believer).
THE GRANDSON OF THE DESIGNERS OF THE MOST FAMOUS PIECE OF MODERN FURNITURE MEMORIALIZES THE SLOW DEATH OF MAIN STREET BY BUILDING AN ALTERNATE UNIVERSE.
DISCUSSED: Non-Native Elvish Speakers, The Kcymaerxthaere, Three-Dimensional Storytelling, The Battle of Some Times, The Limits of the Assembly Line, The Parisian Diaspora, Teri’s Threads, The Conditions of an Ideal Spot for Reverie
The brick courtyard was adjacent to the railroad tracks on Atlanta’s industrial west side—and part of a structure that had been transformed from its industrial roots to become the home of a five-star restaurant. I must have taken a wrong turn, because instead of finding the bathroom, I ended up staring at a bronze plaque that had been welded into the concrete abutting the building’s electrical boards. It looked just like one of the historical markers scattered throughout the South to mark every scrape and scuffle of the Civil War.
But this one wasn’t like that. “When the Tehachapi incised the Adalanta Desert with the two great sphaltways,” it began, “a settlement at their junction was inevitable.” On this spot, the plaque explained, a woman named Martha Pelaski built her trading post, the location for a series of historic meetings between people with names I didn’t recognize: Nobunaga-gaisen, Iglesia Guitierrez, Síawm Chd. For a second I thought that the local historical society must have been infiltrated by one of those people who prefer to read The Lord of the Rings in Elvish. I looked around to see if this was a joke, and if there was something else nearby that could let me in on it. There wasn’t.
I had stumbled onto the Kcymaerxthaere.
The Kcymaerxthaere is a vast alternate universe created by Eames Demetrios, a California-based artist and filmmaker who began installing the plaques in 2003. The premise of the project is that the Kcymaerxthaere exists as its own parallel world, but its remnants are often visible in our own, “linear” world—intersections that Demetrios endeavors to commemorate by physically marking their presence.
He has already installed over sixty of these faux historical markers, and hopes to increase that number to seventy by the year’s end. Most are in the United States (that is, Kymaerica), while others dot the globe, materializing in Singapore, Spain, Dubai, and Australia. This August, Demetrios even lowered a plaque onto the ocean floor, under forty-five feet of water in the Garvellach Islands of Scotland. In addition to the plaques, there are lectures, websites, travel guides (including Discover Kymaerica), and bus tours. He funds the project through gallery shows that display photographs of the plaque sites, as well as “texture flags”—dense images of physical objects that he says are carried by the people of the Kcymaerxthaere as their national banners. Demetrios calls the project “three-dimensional storytelling,” and says that he hopes to mark some two thousand sites before he is through.
It helps to know a few key features of the Kcymaerxthaere: The world there is divided into gwomes, cultural groups that bear some resemblance to nation-states, though they are much smaller. (There are more than 5,000 gwomes in Kymaerica alone.) The great cultures of the Kcymaerxthaere were made up of road builders, and Kcymaerxthaere history is marked by several massive migrations—across both land and sea. Central figures recur throughout the story, such as the Nobunagas, a father-son legacy of warriors whose saga extends from Korea to Texas (or “pTejas”). There has been warfare, including the enigmatic but crucial Battle of Some Times, and the less significant if more colorful Battle of Devil’s Marbles, where thousands of warriors fought astride giant, vicious war-kangaroos.
At times, it can be difficult to follow. Demetrios calls himself a “Geographer-at-Large,” and he talks about “research” and “discovery” as though he were mapping the Kcymaerxthaere instead of creating it. Each new “find” seems to generate its own energy, so that the stories constantly threaten to splinter and splay in dozens of new directions. When I reach Demetrios on the phone, he is in Basel, Switzerland, preparing to install plaques in Poland and excited about a future installation in Berlin. “What’s great about the project now is that things happen in certain places. So if I get permission to do a plaque in linear Berlin, then it must tell the story of the Bravenleavanne, because they were the ones who built the Monastery District there.”
“Of course it must,” I say, and Demetrios fills me in on the Bravenleavanne, a cultural group with an intense belief in doing good deeds for their own sake.
“At one point, they were in what we would call linear Norwich, England, but then they became so pleased with themselves that people knew about them, and they realized that they had to fade away from that place. Then they tried again in Berlin, but it didn’t work there, either. And then finally they kind of atomized entirely into the hearts of the inhabitants.”
Demetrios, I gather, talks like this a lot, and there’s a certain pleasure in just letting the strange names and events wash over you. He has compared the project to writing a novel and leaving every page in a different location, but I don’t think that’s the right metaphor. A novel is something that will finally hold together in its binding—that can be mass-produced in neat, identical copies as it rolls off the printing press. Demetrios comes from a famous family of mass producers, but also a family that knows we all sometimes require more than an assembly line can provide.
Eames Demetrios, texture flag from Kcymaerxthaere. Courtesy of the artist.
Eames Demetrios is the namesake of his grandparents, Charles and Ray Eames, icons of twentieth-century design who are best known today for their contributions to modern furniture—sleek, single-shell seats of molded plywood, and the padded Eames Lounge Chair. From airport lounges to living rooms, the Eameses did nothing less than remake the world that we see and sit upon everyday. But the Eameses also experimented in cinema, and as I talk to Demetrios about the Kcymaerxthaere, I keep thinking about Powers of Ten, undoubtedly the most widely viewed of his grandparents’ hundred-odd short films.
The film begins with the camera hovering above a man who peacefully naps in a Chicago park. Science books, a perfectly turned picnic lunch, and an appropriately attractive mate surround his resting body. The camera then pulls back, increasing its distance from the man by a factor of ten every ten seconds, moving from one meter to ten meters to one hundred meters, and so on. The earth appears in its fullness, planets spin by, and eventually we retreat to the edges of the known world. Then the camera moves in the opposite direction, burrowing into the man’s hand, focusing on smaller and smaller distances—skin, cells, DNA, until it arrives at electron clouds that buzz in a subatomic frenzy. The film is a kind of “You Are Here” for the cosmos.
Historical markers, at least the traditional kind, aim to locate us in much the same way by yoking a small piece of the earth to sweeping currents of time that we can’t see. This is why the plaques that Demetrios installs are both so disorienting and so effective. No matter how improbable and outlandish the stories they tell, there’s nothing in front of our eyes to contradict them. Like The Powers of Ten, they tell us how much of the universe we have to take on faith.
Paris, Illinois, seems like an unusual place to find out how much confidence the Kcymaerxthaere can inspire. With a population of roughly nine thousand, the town is bounded by fairgrounds on one end and a Walmart on the other. Its center is a town square that seems to be as much museum piece as anything else. An ornate octagonal courthouse of stone, topped by a bell tower reaching 150 feet into the sky, sits on a plot of grass dotted with war memorials. The chain stores have abandoned Main Street, and what remains are local concerns that barely occupy the expanses of their plate-glass windows.
Paris also happens to be the location of Embassy Row, one of a handful of “historical sites” that Demetrios has commemorated with a more elaborate installation than the usual bronze marker. The story is this: In the Kcymaerxthaere, this town was the center of the Parisian Diaspora, a web of communities throughout Kymaerica that took the name Paris (and variations, includingParris, New Paris, and so on)—names that we still use in the linear world. Sixteen members of this Fraternitee des tous les Paris had offices in Embassy Row. Unfortunately, the entire town was nearly destroyed in a five-day riot sparked by political rivalry.
One of the few structures still standing, ironically, was Embassy Row itself. In our linear world, Embassy Row is housed on the second floor of a former Woolworth’s building facing the county courthouse. Completed three years ago, the installation covers 5,000 square feet—seventeen rooms in all. Some rooms still wear the peeling paint and plaster that comes from decades of neglect; others have been painted in the bright colors of the embassy’s gwome. Volcanic rock is strewn about the wooden floors in careful patterns, and broken windows signal the riot’s devastation.
Each room is carefully interpreted through a series of museum-quality signs, complete with maps, diagrams, and photographs. You can learn about the history of the Parisian Diaspora and its remarkable leader, Amory Frontage; you can read about the various districts (from kNue Llorck to Centucky) that sent ambassadors to Embassy Row; and you can see firsthand where the dispute over certification first erupted into violence. At the conclusion, a glass display case holds artifacts collected from the Parises of our linear world—everything from the insignia of the New Paris, Wisconsin, fire department to the nameplates for “Parris Valley Campers” made in Perris, California. The site mimics the idiom of historic preservation so perfectly that I kept expecting to see a Park Service ranger coming through with a tour.
But I was the only visitor on a summer day—judging by the guest book, Embassy Row doesn’t get many visitors—and the midday light entered at odd angles, filtered by glass that had endured since the turn of the century. The air was stale and dusty, even quieter than the placid town square across the street. After a few moments of walking and skimming with the same mid-level attention I give to battlefields and the homes of great men everywhere, I stopped in the middle of the hallway and felt an odd sensation of, well, plausibility.
I must have driven through dozens, maybe hundreds, of towns like Paris, and passed by thousands of buildings like this one without ever venturing into their upper reaches. At some point in history, real history, these spaces must have throbbed with the heat and energy of bodies at work—clerks, managers, secretaries. Yet now, in an age when Walmart has drained town squares of their vitality, that past seems just as strange to comprehend as the possibility that these offices once served as the meeting spaces for the ambassadors of an intricate political empire.
The store beneath Embassy Row still bustles. Teri’s Threads sells uniforms, silkscreened T-shirts, and other customized clothing. The proprietor, Teri Dennis, explains that she met Demetrios through a member of her family, and soon found herself offering him the second floor of the building, which she owns. A graying, sturdy woman who is quick to laugh, Dennis explained to me that at first she didn’t know what to think about the stories of the Kcymaerxthaere that Demetrios was telling. Now, each fall, she helps to organize a Kymaerica spelling bee during the town’s Honeybee Festival.
As she tells me about Paris, Dennis nods to the patrons entering her store. Like the others who have been involved in setting up and maintaining Embassy Row, Dennis marvels at the passion behind the project. The only trouble comes, she finds, when people want the story of Embassy Row to mesh neatly with the history that they already know. “You can’t fit it into a box,” she says. “You just have to have fun with it.” I soon realize that Dennis understands the Kcymaerxthaere better than I do, and I’m grateful when she offers to make me my very own PARIS, KYMAERICA T-shirt, complete with a toppling Eiffel Tower.
When she’s done, I leave her shop to drive out of Paris and into the countryside, until I reach a dirt road marked as DURKEE’S FERRY TRACE—the first road in Edgar County, according to a green roadside marker. After another half-mile, I pull over at a small walnut orchard to read one of Demetrios’s plaques, which of course tells me something different. This is one of historic migration routes of the Parisian Diaspora, it says, and one of the few remaining examples of the early roads of Kymaerica known as Faerie Traces—faerie being a term that means both “lightness” and “intuition.”
The plaque is nestled near a barbed-wire fence and the edge of a cornfield, and the summer has advanced enough that the green stalks reach above my head. The shade of the walnut trees makes this corner of farmland an ideal spot for reverie, and I begin to wish that I could name the roadside flowers that I see growing. Slowly, I kneel to brush away the grass from the raised letters of metal writing. The bronze is warm to the touch, and I pick up the scent of things growing deep into the earth. I don’t know how long I am there before the quiet slowly gives way to the crunching gravel of an approaching truck, and a friendly voice asking me if I need any help in finding my way. No, I say. I know exactly where I am.
A memoir is a story one tells about oneself.
There is a way, of course, in which all music reveals something about the people who made it, whether they want it to or not. Sometimes, however, the life and experiences of the composer are the subject matter of the music.
John Cage’s Indeterminacy is a memoir. It began as a lecture at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. By this time, Cage had already started experimenting with using chance operations to make musical decisions, letting randomness into the process of making music. Some of these chance operations were on the composer’s side, in which he would choose the notes to play by casting the I Ching. Other chance operations were on the performer’s side; they might, for example, be given graphs that have to be decoded instead of notes to play, or given precise instructions to change the channels on a radio.
For his lecture, Cage decided to make little stories out of how he learned the value of things that happen unplanned. Indeterminacy is a personal catalog of stories about things he learned by chance, or things that happened to him by accident, or random actions involving his friends, or ordinary things that crossed his path unbidden. Some of them are funny, some of them are obscure, but they are all very personal to Cage.
Cage organized his lecture so that his performance of it would also be an example of chance operations at work. Each story was written on a note card. Cage would shuffle them before each reading so that no two performances would be in the same order. He gave himself one minute to tell each story—he would have to read the short stories very slowly, while the long stories he would have to speed through. To reinforce even more strongly the notion of accidental superimposition, he suggested that another piece of his may be played simultaneously so that two completely different art forms could be experienced, coexisting and colliding. In fact, he occasionally read these stories as accompaniment to dances by Merce Cunningham.
What I love about this piece is that the form and the content are completely and miraculously aligned. Cage composed Indeterminacy by filling an indeterminate form with indeterminate content. In other words, it is what it is.
For his original lecture in Brussels, he collected 30 of these stories; when he recorded them in the 1960s, he used 90. Tonight, we hear 45 of them. Joining us in the role of John Cage is actor and Wooster Group alum Paul Lazar. We are also joined by percussion legend Steve Schick, playing Cage’s titanic solo work 27’10.554” for a Percussionist, which is from the same period as Indeterminacy and is also composed through chance operations. And to make the experience still more indeterminate, we are joined by lighting designer Eric Southern, who will be controlling the lights by following the instructions in Cage’s graphic score Fontana Mix.
My own piece tonight, mystery sonatas, is another kind of memoir altogether. The idea for it began with a sentimental memory. In 1981, violinist Leslie Shank asked me to write a piece for a concert she was planning with pianist Jon Kimura Parker. That concert was at Carnegie Hall, and it was my first public performance in New York City. When I was designing these collected stories concerts and trying to imagine what new piece I might write to be premiered here, my first thought was to write a new violin piece, remembering that older piece so that I could pay attention to how I have changed since 1981.
I also thought of another piece of mine that premiered at Carnegie Hall, the little match girl passion, in which I wondered if I could separate the Christian details of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion from its more universal spiritual values. I am completely immersed in the life and history of classical music, but I am not a Christian. When the great composers in our shared history explore their Christian roots, I can hear and feel and appreciate their sincerity and commitment, but there is a limit to how close I can get.
I decided to combine these two memories of mine in a new piece.
Mystery Sonatas is the name of a remarkable set of violin pieces from the 1670s by the Bohemian composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, one of the great violin virtuosos of his day. This is a bizarre and fiery set of sonatas in which Biber depicts the story of the birth, the crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus in 15 separate sonatas, each of them with their own individual movements, each telling one part of the story of Jesus. More interesting, perhaps, is that each sonata is in its own special tuning, requiring a pause between movements in performance so that the strings of the violin can be completely adjusted. And to me, more interesting still is the idea that one might want to express one’s most personal, most intimate, most spiritual thoughts through wild displays of virtuosity. Because Biber’s pieces really are wild.
I decided to make my own virtuosic pieces about my most intimate, most spiritual thoughts. Mine are not about Jesus, and the violin is not retuned between movements, but I did keep one of Biber’s distinctions. He divides Jesus’s life into three phases: the joyous, the sorrowful, and the glorious. The central pieces of my mystery sonatas are called “joy,” “sorrow,” and “glory,” but in my piece, these are all quiet, internal, reflective states of being.
I want to thank Augustin Hadelich for his commitment and musicality, and Carnegie Hall for letting me do this piece, this concert, this series, and this year.
THE LITTLE NICHOLSON BAKER IN MY MIND
To celebrate collected stories, the Believer posted pieces from past issues that tied into the themes of each concert. The last concert in collected stories, Memoir, featuring the premiere of David Lang’s mystery sonatas, and work by John Cage, is paired with Paul La Farge’s essay on the little Nicholson Baker in his mind (from the first issue of the Believer).
NICHOLSON BAKER IS NOT AS STRANGE AS PEOPLE SAY. IN FACT, HE MAY BE ENTIRELY NORMAL—EVEN MORE NORMAL THAN PROUST. OR NABOKOV! COMBINED! COULD IT BE THAT HE’S JUST A PLAIN OLD AMERICAN REALIST?
DISCUSSED:Small Mucoid Ejecta, Perec and Calvino, John Updike, Grocery Lists, A Box of Matches, the Envelope Hypothesis, Pale Fire, U and I, The Mezzanine, the Kingdom of Zembla, Boston, the Lands’ End Catalogue, the Real and the Good, Trains.
Once, when I was in college, one of my closest friends came down with something and developed strange white nodules in his throat. He stood in front of the mirror in our room (we were roommates that semester), his mouth wide open, transfixed by these growths; finally, by dint of a certain amount of coughing, he was able to get a few of them out of his throat into the palm of his hand. “Hey,” he said, “these nodules are really interesting.” “Uh huh,” I said. He held out his hand. “Look, they’re kind of shiny.” I turned away. “You have to see them,” he said. “They’re really strange looking.” “I don’t want to see your nodules,” I said. My roommate tried several more times to get me to look. He seemed surprised that I could be so incurious about the marvels his throat had worked. I felt a little bit guilty—shouldn’t I have been more curious? These were, after all, extraordinary nodules; I might never get a chance to see their like again. And he was showing them to me in the spirit of scientific inquiry. Human beings sometimes produce white nodules; if you want to know what it is to be human, really to understand how human beings work, you should know their unpleasant parts, their small mucoid ejecta, along with the features (faces, secondary sexual characteristics, clothes, thoughts) that interest you in the day-to-day. I was able to follow his reasoning; at bottom I thought I agreed with it, even. It is better to know things about the world than not to know them. But I couldn’t bring myself to look at the nodules.
Reading Nicholson Baker sometimes has the same effect on me. I admire his ability to bring the small features of the world to light; and in principle I agree that everything is interesting, and worthy of careful study, but there are times when I just don’t want to look. But Baker’s writing—like those nodules, probably—is contagious. Whether I want it to happen or not, I find my way of thinking about the world changed by an encounter with his books, and my way of writing, too—how else could I have come to a dense little phrase like “small mucoid ejecta”? To read Baker is to be infected by the desire to put every experience, however small, into words that describe it precisely. Having read a short stack of his novels by way of preparation for this review, I found myself considering pieces of refuse on the street with ferocious care. Grocery receipt, I thought, looking at a white scrap on the sidewalk, small purchase. Small store, too: you can tell from the purple ink. Big supermarkets use black ink nowadays. And so on, to the point where I had to turn off the tiny Nicholson Baker in my head, repeatedly, lest my attention be utterly absorbed by the world around me, leaving me paralyzed in the middle of a crosswalk. That’s one thing you can say about Baker: More than almost anyone writing today, he makes you look.
Precision is surely a good in itself; the writing manuals all say so, and in this case their dictum jibes with experience. If you write carefully about things, they do a better job of holding the reader’s attention; your friend’s mucoid ejecta are more likely to stick in the reader’s memory than someone else’s friend’s sore throat. Baker’s precision, however, is more than a gimmick to get the reader on board; it is a way of making a point—a “deeper” point, I’d say, if Baker didn’t seem to reject the whole idea of “deep” points—about how we experience the world. Near the end of Baker’s new novel, A Box of Matches, the narrator—Emmett, a middle-aged editor of medical textbooks—has something to say about envelopes:
A succession of days is like a box of new envelopes. Each envelop is flimsy and can be treated as two-dimensional. But when you pull out all the envelopes from the box at once, there is a hard place in the middle—a thick lump—that you wouldn’t expect envelopes to have. The lump is created by the intersection of the four triangles in the middle of the back … as you reach around them and squeeze them you feel the nugget, something that isn’t in the envelopes but is of the envelopes. I would almost say that there is a hint on the meaning of life there, in that revealed kernel.
Setting aside the orthographic peculiarity of envelop—although maybe Baker wants us to think of the verb, of the fact that envelopes are doing something—the point here is that surfaces are everything. Don’t bother looking for the meaning of life buried deep inside the appearances of everyday life; the deeper meaning, indeed, the very idea that there is a deeper meaning, is an effect produced by a stack of overlapping surfaces. Appearances are everything, and if that’s true, then there is good reason to observe them carefully. If you know the difference between a big-supermarket receipt and a small-supermarket receipt, you know more about the universe than the Zoroastrian mystic who has spent his whole life determining whether the Earth is guarded by three rings of demons or by five. And if you attain the insight that grocery receipts are all there is then, in a sense, you know everything there is to know; although in practice this insight is only useful when it’s continually applied.
And indeed, Baker’s novels—the early ones, at least, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, as well as the new one—put this insight continually into practice. Their absorption into the surfaces of the everyday world give rise to a particular kind of story, in which there aren’t very many characters, not much happens, and only a short amount of time passes, a strange and almost antinovelistic fiction that has been compared to the work of the European avant-gardists Perec and Calvino, to Borges’s tiny world-devouring stories, to Proust’s large world-encompassing ones, and to Sterne’s comical assault on everyone’s ideas about everything. If you read certain works by, say, Perec, you can see what these comparisons are about—Perec, like Baker, is fascinated by things, by lists of things, by descriptions that consist mostly of lists of things—but his work has an entirely different effect on the reader. Perec’s masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual, a catalog of the contents of a Parisian apartment house, is vastly longer than The Mezzanine, and vastly loopier, too; it has at least one foot in the realm of the imagination, while Baker’s novel stands squarely in the concrete. Indeed, Baker himself seems almost puzzled by the comparison. In U and I, his brilliant, stalkerish appreciation of John Updike, Baker wonders why “not a single reviewer mentioned [Updike] as a possible antecedent.” The oversight is hard to understand, in that Baker’s minimalism really does seem to owe more to the American realist tradition—Updike’s tradition—than it does to Perec or Proust or to the American experimentalists Abish, Barth and even Barthelme, with whom Baker once studied, and for whom he feels a warm sympathy.
You get a sense of Baker’s relation to the Europeans in A Box of Matches. Some time before Emmett has his insight about the envelopes, he sits before his fire and muses on what he thinks of as “the ungraspableness of history”:
The ash was a very light grey, almost white, and very fine—composed mostly, I imagine, of clay, which doesn’t burn when paper burns. Henry [his son], who was watching me, said, “Dad, think of all the stuff we’ve burned, and it all goes down to this much.” It was only the third time I’ve shoveled out the fireplace. The ungraspableness of history, which can seem thrilling or frightening depending on your mood, can assert itself at any moment. I just found another small bedroll of lint in my automatic lint-accumulator and I tossed it into the fire: there was an almost imperceptible flare of differently colored fire—ah! lint fire—and it was gone. That is part of why I like looking at these burning logs: they seem like years of life to me. All the particulars are consumed and left as ash, but warm and life-giving as they burn.
This is the corollary to the Envelope Hypothesis: if the only real experience we have is of a succession of paper-thin moments, then history, and indeed the past, are as illusory as the idea of “deeper” meaning. The particulars of life—its most important characteristics—are exhausted by the passing of time, leaving only memory, which bears as little relation to the things it remembers as ash does to wood. Well, you might think, so much for Proust! The past won’t come whorling back from the bottom of a teacup; and as for that lost time—who lost it, baby? And whose problem is that? Of course, Emmett is typing these thoughts, so we have some record of them even after his fire has gone out. This by no means invalidates Baker’s point, which is that writing can record, but it cannot reconstruct—the best it could do in that direction would be to record someone’s attempt at reconstructing. By the same token, writing does not invent, although it can be the record of an invention—which brings us to the lovely italicized phrase lint fire, which appears between the logs of Emmett’s thought as if by accident.
A more apt image for Baker’s novel could not be found. Lint fireis not a bonfire but a small illumination, made from a material, lint, produced by the rubbing of the self against its soft surroundings. But for the careful reader, the phrase has another resonance as well. It’s an echo of Pale Fire, a book we know (v. U and I) Baker has read, by a writer—Nabokov—whom Baker numbers among his heroes. Pale Fire has the formal peculiarity of being divided between two “authors”: the American John Shade, to whom the poem “Pale Fire” is attributed; and the European exile Charles Kinbote, responsible for the commentary and the index. Shade, an academic who fusts in the rural splendor of New Wye, USA, bears a more than passing resemblance to A Box of Matches’ Emmett. Here is the poet speaking of his morning routine:
Since my biographer may be too staid
Or know too little to affirm that Shade
Shaved in his bath, here goes: “He’d fixed a sort
Of hinge-and-screw affair, a steel support
Running across the tub to hold in place
The shaving mirror right before his face
And with his toe renewing tap warmth, he’d
Sit like a king there, and like Marat bleed.
Never mind that Emmett shaves in the shower, not the bath, or that he shaves by feel rather than with a mirror; the tone of this passage is Bakerian—or does the influence run in the other direction? Little matter; you can feel the kinship between the two writers in phrases like tap-warmth. The Anglo-Saxon noun-couple is at once new and familiar, like the thing—although you hadn’t realized, until you read the phrase tap-warmth, that it wasa thing—it describes. Baker would have been happy to coin it, but one doubts that he’s jealous: He has too many good ones of his own. Lint fire is his tiny gesture of indebtedness to the Nabokovian word-hoard; it’s a flicker in A Box of Matches’ steady burn, as if to say, yes, I like the Europeans, too.
THE MEN THAT DON’T FIT IN
The kinship between Shade and Emmett is a matter of more than well-chosen phrases. In their feeling about the relative importance of big things and little ones, the poet and the textbook editor are on the same philosophical page: “Now I shall speak of evil as none has / Spoken before,” Shade writes, but he invokes no vast abyss; the line concludes, “I loathe such things as jazz.” Or again:
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
The big questions Shade raises in “Pale Fire,” about life, death, and even life after death (“the grand potato,” he calls it), have only small answers: the shape of a shaving mirror, the silhouette of a bird seen through glass. And so back to Emmett and his stationery: what’s important is not text, the words the envelope might contain, but texture, the weave of the paper itself.
But this is only half the story. While Shade is writing about what is, Kinbote is frantically at work on what is not, or might not be, a fantastical account of kings and plots in the kingdom of Zembla, where not all is as it seems. This is a side of the Nabokovian style for which Baker, in A Box of Matches at least, has little sympathy. If Emmett is his Shade, then his Kinbote is the poet Robert Service, the author of Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, Lyrics of a Low Brow, Carols of an Old Codger, etc. Emmett reads Service nightly, but mentions only one of his works by name, a versicle called “The Men That Don’t Fit In.” He doesn’t quote the poem, which reads, in part:
If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet plodding ones
Who win the lifelong race.
This is about as conservative as verse gets, about as conservative as art gets—it might as well have been titled “The Battle Hymn of the Republicans.” The poem is a paean to conformity, crossed with a lecture on the dangers of travel and inconstancy. It’s an unusual sentiment for a writer to take to heart; one expects writers to be in favor of travel, and of invention, in favor of new things if not, always, of strange ones. It’s almost as if Baker were refuting Nabokov, or having Emmett refute Nabokov: All of your crazy mirror-schemes, Vladimir, they’re just bunk! You have to pay attention to what’s here! Not the pale fire of the imagination, but the lint fire of the belly button.
How seriously are we supposed to take Service? Could he be some sort of ultra-Nabokovian ruse, a clown whose corners we’re supposed to see around, the way the clever reader figures out that Kinbote is a folding chair short of the whole lawn set? If Baker has introduced Robert Service into the novel as a figure of fun, then the humor is very subtle indeed. Emmett’s decision to read him is bound up with his decision to write down his thoughts—that is, with the whole project of the book:
On New Year’s morning this year Claire got us to drive to the ocean to watch the sun rise. That outing was what made me suddenly understand that I needed to start reading Robert Service again and getting up early—that New Year’s outing combined with the time a few months ago when I took the night sleeper car from Washington to Boston and woke up in my bunk and pulled the curtain to look out the window and saw that we were in the station in New York City, and I realized that I was passing through a very important center of commerce without seeing a single street and that something similar was happening to my life.
Unless we read A Box of Matches as parody from one end to the other—and Baker gives us no cue to do anything of the sort—we have to accept Service as a serious presence in Emmett’s reflections, of a piece with his understanding of envelopes. At most, there is a restlessness in Emmett that Service helps to assuage, a question, Is that all there is?, to which Service answers, resoundingly, Yes.
But is that all there is? Let’s play Kinbote for a moment, and consider when, exactly, Emmett decided not to let life pass him by. Baker has a habit of giving his characters his own outward characteristics: The narrator of The Mezzanine is roughly the age Baker was when he wrote it; the narrator of Room Temperature has an infant daughter and lives in the Boston suburbs; Baker had an infant daughter and lived in the Boston suburbs when he wrote Room Temperature. Consider: Emmett tells us he’s forty-four (although the jacket copy lists him as forty-five: Like Baker, he must have aged between the composition of the novel and its publication). Baker was born in 1957. If he and Emmett are the same age—conjecture, pure conjecture—then Emmett celebrated his forty-fourth birthday in 2001. A Box of Matches takes place in January. Which means either it’s January, 2001, and Emmett has just turned forty-four, or it’s January, 2002, and he has been forty-four for some time. We hear about pretty much the whole month over the course of the book. No birthday. And that means—conjecture, Dr. Kinbote, conjecture!—that this book takes place at the beginning of 2002. If that’s so, certain phrases in the passage above take on a muffled significance. A very important center of commerce: not to say a center of world trade, or a world trade center? And a few months ago was what, September or October of 2001? You don’t have to ask why Emmett would take a night sleeper car rather than, say, flying home. This is the only mention of New York in the novel, and it makes you wonder whether Emmett’s sleepy concern that something might pass unobserved masks a “deeper” concern, that something might be said.
Of course New York City is peripheral to Baker’s literary imagination, which is centered on Boston and its suburbs. Boston is the home of the Atlantic Monthly, which published some of Baker’s first essays, and which, about a hundred and twenty years before that, published four poems by a young and talented writer named William Dean Howells. In time Howells became the Atlantic’s editor, a position which was in those days even more influential, within literary circles at least, than it is now; he used his power to promote a kind of writing which has become known as “American realism.” The notion of a specifically American realism, as distinct from French realism or British realism or international realism, belongs to Howells and to his friend Henry James, who also lived in Cambridge, and who also published in the Atlantic. As Howells (mostly) conceived it, American realism undertook to represent emotions and experiences that people had in common—not just what was, but what people could relate to, what they had felt in their own lives. Like the nation that spawned it, American realism was to be a democratic art; and, for Howells at least, its democraticness had strong ethical implications. Conditions in this country, he wrote, “invite the artist to the study and the appreciation of the common, and to the portrayal in every art of those finer and higher aspects which unite rather than sever humanity.” Notice how common shades into finer and higher: The common is what we agree to define ourselves with, and, because we like to think of ourselves as good people, for the most part, the common is tugged in the direction of goodness. Howells allowed his work to be pulled along in the same direction, towards the happy, the righteous, and the comfortable. He saw no problem with the bias. “If our novelists concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life,” he wrote, “it is because they are more American.” (For James, the common and the good were not so easily equated. Indeed, as his imagination took root in Europe, and flourished there, James was to chide his old friend for a nationalism that bordered on sentimentality: “If American life is on the whole more innocent than that of any other country,” he wrote, “nowhere is the fact more patent than in Mr. Howells’ novels, which exhibit so constant a study of the actual and so small a perception of evil.” It is worth noting that James, who was no stranger to evil, also wrote that the good, when they died, would go to Paris, while the wicked would be sent to Boston.)
After Howells, American realism veered in the direction of the dark and squalid, with Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris; then the pendulum swung the other way, with William Saroyan and Pearl S. Buck; and it has been swinging ever since, alternating between an increasingly tiny hope and an ever smaller despair. Realism itself has fallen in and out of fashion, but it remains the cesium atom for American writers, the element against whose oscillations all other styles are measured. And in its bones, American realism remains Howells’s child. Disparaging other styles of fiction, written by Europeans and men in velvet suits, Howells asserted that “the talent that is robust enough to front the every-day world and catch the charm of its work-worn, care-worn, brave, kindly face, need not fear the encounter, though it seems terrible to the sort nurtured in the superstition of the romantic, the bizarre, the heroic, the distinguished, as the things alone worthy of painting or carving or writing.” This is a story about genres that has gotten into the ground-water, so to speak, from which American writers drink. The everyday is worn but still brave and kind—one imagines a farmer, or a middle manager, but not a bank president (in stereotype sleek and pale) or a union organizer (sallow and grumpy). Arrayed against our kindly laborer are a gang of adjectives that suggest Old World inequality (distinguished is particularly rich, with its connotations of “aristocratic” but also somehow “grey-haired,” as in the phrase a distinguished gentleman), weakness of character, and perhaps even (bizarre!) mental infirmity. When you play the game of fiction-writing with a deck stacked in this manner, the outcome is not in doubt. You get stories about men and women of modest means, living outside the big cities, burdened with jobs and perhaps families (how else do you get to be care-worn?) but unencumbered by anything too odd, too romantic, or too distinguished. This is the tradition that leads from Howells to Dreiser, from Dreiser to Yates and Bellow (some of him, anyway) and Updike (ditto), and, through him, to Baker.
Baker’s style of close observation may seem like a departure from Howells’s realism—didn’t it earn him comparisons to the bizarre Perec and the distinguished Proust?—but in fact it’s a way to preserve the central tenet of the genre, namely, that the real and the good are in cahoots. The everyday isn’t what it used to be, if it was ever the way it used to be; in the century since Howells, its kindly face has been distended almost beyond recognition by mass media, freeways, and disposable consumer products. Some writers have responded to these changes with revulsion. Philip Roth: It’s difficult “to understand, describe, and then makecredible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.” So Roth retreats to the self, which he calls “the only real thing in an unreal environment,” and other writers adopt their own strategies of avoidance: DeLillo has his satire and gnomic Baudrillardism; Pynchon his paranoid wonderlands, etc. Only Baker has found a way to make the environment real again. By restricting his focus drastically, he undoes the effects of mass production, mass distribution and mass communication. His writing makes each thing it considers seem singular and somehow magical—little wonder that the Home Depot in A Box of Matches is staffed by bearded dwarves, as though it were Santa’s workshop. Here Emmett watches a woman shop for a toilet seat:
She looked at it from several angles—a big angelic oval in the air above the heads of the ground-level shoppers—and then she handed it down to her husband. He held it for a while, nodding, then handed it back up to her. She rehung it on its hooks.
An angelic toilet seat! The image harkens more to the supernaturalism of, say, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma at the end of Kafka’s Amerika than to the bustle of a Home Depot during daylight hours. It’s as though time had stopped, the way it does in The Fermata or, really, in the Lands’ End catalogue—as though we were back in an era when each thing was made by hand, or, better yet, by miracle, with no end in mind but to enchant you with its usefulness.
The problem is, the real and the good aren’t always in cahoots. There are quiet, omnipresent badnesses, like acid rain or the plastic six-pack holders that end up strangling waterfowl; and there are big, spectacular badnesses like war—a very large supply of reasons to be tired of the things that are, and to wish that people would, say, drive electric-cars, however strange and new they may seem. I’m sure Nicholson Baker would be in favor of electric cars, too—he strikes me as an electric cars sort of person. But there’s a small point to be made here, and it’s one that you don’t find in A Box of Matches: To see past the things at hand to the world that produced them, you need imagination. Maybe not the virulent Kinbote variety, which sees conspiracy in a blade of grass (six-pack holders? Petroleum products! Iraqi oil!), but the sober Shade-y kind of imagination, which considers small things because, if you look at them right, the chance resemblances between them seem to form a pattern which is no less beautiful for being (in all likelihood) illusory. This is where Shade and Emmett part ways:
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something ofthe same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.
Life is a game; little matter if you will never know who the players are, or how it turns out. The point of living is to enjoy guessing at the purpose those unknowable players had in arranging this or that coincidence—to get into the spirit of the game, in other words. The alternative is death, or something very like it. If you think about things too much, you become like a thing—stare too long at a grocery receipt on the sidewalk, and see for yourself. To keep walking, you need a story about what you are doing, and why—going out for cigarettes, running away from home. And things in themselves aren’t a story, any more than envelopes are a message. To tell a story you need imagination, which, precisely because it is outside (or inside, if you prefer) the envelope of experience, gives you a perspective from which to understand that there’s more to envelopes than the presence or absence of a security pattern, the variety of adhesive, and the thickness of the paper—that the envelope has a use, the transmission of letters, which no amount of meditation on the thingness of the envelope alone will reveal. This is Shade’s “plexed artistry,” the sense that life is lived for something, and it is no less important for being completely imaginary. To believe otherwise is to sleep while the train carries you along.
More info about Collected Stories.