Of Axons and Dendrites and Mass Spectation (Short Post + Note on the Genius of Foster Wallace)

guppy fishI came across these lines while reading David Foster Wallace’s great essay “Ticket to the Fair” about the Illinois State Fair, circa 1994:

The fairgrounds are a St. Vitus Dance of blacktop footpaths, the axons and dendrites of mass spectation, connecting buildings and barns and corporate tents.  

If I hadn’t known before that moment, I knew then that I was in the presence of genius, that I could no more write a sentence that good than swim across the Pacific Ocean. I was absolutely certain then that he will be remembered, known, commented on, celebrated for at least the next few decades. As T.S. Eliot says in one of his essays, there is an excitement and thrill that comes from reading the work of one’s contemporaries that usually doesn’t happen when reading words from fifty or a hundred or three hundred years ago; this happens because our peers start at the very same point in time we did, are given more or less the same opportunities, the same tools and idioms, respond to similar events. Wallace was two years younger than I am. As recently as this year he was honored posthumously on the cover of Newsweek. A film about his book tour is now out, based on a journalist’s thoughts. A biography is also available! . . . The crucial question then becomes: How is one to go on in the face of genius, knowing one’s work will amount to little more than a wavelet in a pond next to the tsunami of a gigantic figure like Wallace?*

It is not good to think continually of those who are truly great. One could just give up writing altogether and become a “sensitive reader” (one’s proverbial “aunt”). Or: one can go on, knowing everything and everyone matters, knowing there are no “nobodies,” though the media would have us believe that reality TV stars matter more than lowly Syrians and Afghans risking their lives on the high seas to get to Greece (Greece!). The book Status Anxiety is great on this topic; it’s a book to read and reread.

For those of us who write (or paint, or compose etc.), there is an urgency about the task that’s as necessary as REM sleep. Many wise and smart people (including Edmund White in his Paris Review interview) have poo-pooed the notion of “I must write.” They’re wrong: writing is, for some of us, as necessary as the nightly dream state in order to work through life’s events/vicissitudes, and stay in balance. We have to get something out of our system—even if what we produce is “just” a wavelet. But a wavelet, from the point of view of a guppy, can be as big a deal as a tsunami.

Eliot again, from Four Quartets:

And what there is to conquer

By strength and submission, has already been discovered

Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope

To emulate—but there is no competition—

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.


* In this context it is fascinating to contemplate Wallace’s own suicide.  (In the 1990s I read his short story “The Depressed Person”; the flippant attitude to depression and therapy put me off, but I was of course not aware of his own state—how could I be?) When the man had everything, when he had a level of validation, attention and celebrity that most of us can only dream of, what could possibly lead him to take his own life? This is a question the “child” in me keeps asking; and the “adult” in me keeps answering that there are many forms of depression. Some are situational, others chemical. The chemical ones wouldn’t have anything to do with his actual life circumstances. But there could even have been a situational component: maybe he thought he was washed up, no more big books in him? What a predicament when he was still so young! With my limitations, I can’t begin to fathom what was going on in his gifted mind. For those despondent about being less than Wallace, his manner of death provides much food for thought. On the other hand, recently I saw William Inge’s play Picnic. Inge too committed suicide. I believe in his case (and I say this knowing next to nothing about the actual circumstances) his state of despair did arise from a lack of recognition for his later work, in spite of a Pulitzer Prize earlier in life. Italian composer Mascagni, another one-hit wonder, wrote a great opera in his youth that no later operas of his could equal: “I was crowned before I was king,” he once said. Thankfully, he died of natural causes.


Cambridge CompanionI’ve just finished this marvelous collection of essays.  I heard about it after I googled “John Harris,” the well-known Los Angeles poet who is now unfortunately suffering from dementia and confined to his home and even bedridden. His name appears in a list of search results, one of them a passage from this book. When I saw the title, I knew I had to read more about the city/county/mini-country I’ve been living in for twenty years. Yeah, twenty years! I arrived from Barcelona in September, 1995, just three years after the riots (called here the Justice Riots), as the whole world was awaiting a verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial, in a time before cellphones and email, when a few cool youngsters had pagers.

I was shocked to learn that the first printing press didn’t come to Los Angeles until the 1830s. I was surprised to learn LA is the twelfth largest metropolitan area in the world. After reading this volume cover to cover, I feel a new kinship with and curiosity about my adopted city.

Names and titles that keep coming up: Joan Didion, James M. Cain, The Day of the Locust, Raymond Chandler, the novel Ramona, T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. I have read some of Didion’s essays, but until now the other items on this list were either unfamiliar to me or barely familiar and not much more. Since the first printing press didn’t arrive until the 1830s, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the emphasis here is very 20th century. Not much happened before that, at least not much that has lasted. I enjoyed the discussion of the Californios, in one of the book’s early essays. I learned about Daniel Venegas’s novel Las aventuras de don Chipote o Cuando los pericos mamen, “a picaresque novel published by a Los Angeles newspaper, El Heraldo de Mexico, in 1928. Here for the first time we find the term chicano in print to refer to working-class mexicanos in the United States.” It’s a novel about the exploitation of the working class—published by a Spanish-language paper, in 1928! I don’t know if I’ll ever have time to read it, but it sounds fascinating, as does the story collection Cuentos californianos by Adolfo Carrillo. Who reads this now but a few scattered scholars?  And yet these books must open contemporary readers’ minds to a now distant and forgotten part of California history. I’m sure we’re not expecting to get something as groundbreaking and exciting as Cien años de soledad, but these books are of historical and sociological interest, at the very least.

Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (from the 1960s)—a novel I have read, but a long time ago—gets a detailed analysis. A passage is quoted, about “minority LA” harking back to “the tacky sleepy slowpoke Los Angeles of the thirties, still convalescing from the depression, with no money to spare for fresh coats of paint . . . Mexicans live here, so there are lots of flowers. Negroes live here, so it is cheerful.”  Russell Berman goes on to say, “For Isherwood this romantic poverty provides an alternative to the antiseptic modernization that he sees devastating the city.” The romantic poverty of LA? Not a point of view that one hears much about anymore, but if one looks at it in historical context, it’s intriguing: after all, A Single Man was written some fifty years ago by a British expat.

Los Angeles as the new Eden, the city of the future!—or, conversely, the city that exemplifies more than any other the decadence of America in the 20th and 21st centuries and the failures of the capitalist system. Los Angeles should be celebrated for turning its back on the old models of urban planning like New York and Paris!—or, conversely, LA as a chaotic, nightmarish mess, the graveyard of the American Dream, a monster noisily dying from an overdose of greed and hedonism. This sort of binary can be found throughout the book.

Though he is alive and well and not old, I hadn’t heard about poet Sesshu Foster until now. Here is an excerpt from one of his prose poems:

Los Angeles is my city, I sucked on her neck, gave her purple hickeys before she backhanded me out of a car at 35 MPH on a turn in Highland Park. From a street corner, all the Chinese signs in Alhambra declare her love. Korean signs of Koreatown are just another word for feelings. Beautiful hair of Vietnamese noodles. Wonderful smile of oranges sold at East LA on-ramps. Big bottles of pigs’ feet & giant kosher dills on the counter at every corner store . . . Babies, shot in the head, not knowing how to love, how to write their names. They cry too much. Their parents cry too much in churches.

Stunning, gritty, a heady bouquet scent of LA life—I need to read more by Sesshu Foster.

The only weak link in this informative and inspiring book is Bill Mohr’s “Scenes and Movements in Southern California Poetry.” He doesn’t go very deep, the way most of the other essays do. More than any other piece of writing here, his work feels like a hastily complied survey and collection of names. Take this sentence:

By the final decade of the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first, one could assemble a tantalizing anthology comprised only of university-affiliated poets: Gail Wronsky, Tim Steele, Ralph Angel, David St. John, Steven Yenser, Sarah Maclay, Cecilia Woloch, Harryette Mullen, B.H. Fairchild, Christopher Buckley, Dorothy Barresi, the late Dick Barnes, Robert Mezey, Molly Bendall, Patty Seyburn, Carol Muske-Dukes, Robert Peters, James McMichael.

Instead of pointing out trends, how poets incorporate the region’s dreams and nightmares into their work, instead of any hint of poetry in this writing about poetry, all we have is this dismal list. And where is Judith Hall?!? She’s in Malibu, she commutes to Cal Tech, she won a Pushcart Prize, she’s lived here for years. What was Mohr’s agenda? I only know him, by the way, as a “historian” of the LA poetry scene; presumably he’s written some actual poetry as well? Let’s hope it’s better than his prose. Anyway, he has nothing about the long era(s) before World War II. He almost completely leaves out Latino poetry.

On the whole this is a great book for anyone wishing to know more about a fascinating and no doubt neglected subject. Interestingly, on the cover of this book we see a photograph of the Malibu fire of the late 1970s: fire in the background, shadowy figures moving along the beach in the foreground. Riots, conflagrations, earthquakes, freeways, hucksters, smog,  greed, Manson!—but also the sea, the mountains, endless palm trees and pools, the sand, the sound of Mexican Spanish and Vietnamese and Chinese and much more, the smells from the taco truck and the Thai eateries of Thai Town: that’s the terrific aftertaste I have from this book. Now I need to dive into Mildred Pierce—I mean the book (like everyone else I know the film); I want to explore Adorno’s thoughts on SoCal; I want to see what happens in Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain; I want to lose myself in Chandler. The chapter about film has also opened up doors. Maybe I’ll sit back, click on Netflix, and relax with Terminator 2, which till now I’d never even thought to watch. Writes Mark Shiel, “While the film was most remarked upon for its pioneering computer-generated imagery and its budget of over $100 million, it arguably derives more meaning from the real city it maps out, through a shopping mall and suburban streets in Sherman Oaks, along storm drains and freeways, out into the desert, and back for a showdown in a Fontana steel mill.” The strip malls, gangs, parking lots, the emphatic rawness of hip-hop, the guns, the dying palms, the millions, the Hollywood freeway at 3 a.m., the mansions, the faint weird trickle of the so-called LA River, the drought, the drought!, the coyotes prowling through the suburbs of night, the millions . . .