Monday, November 30, 2015

The Wildflowers in Thomas Pynchon's Prose Garden: "Inherent Vice"

Everything in Thomas Pynchon's novel "Inherent Vice" (published in '09 and turned into a movie last year) happened too long ago.
           The year is 1970, with frequent rearview mirror glances to to at least 1969. Nixon is in the White House, paranoia is striking deep, short-haired muscle-bound security types are rushing all around the place, real estate pressures (among so many other pressures) are destroying the scene, and everyone is so routinely lighting up exotic varieties of their favorite weed it's hard to believe anyone is ever really worried about getting busted. But they're all worried about something.
            The place is some version of Los Angeles, a city I have never been to, but then I don't think anybody has ever been to Pynchon's version of this place and time. It's nothing but freeway, beach, bars, clubs, eateries, mansions and nuthouses. No old people, no children, no actual poor people. The closest we get to an 'ordinary' working person is a limo driver, and he's playing the angles like everybody else. The 'hero' is a PI, who displays a touching (and rare) concern for the well-being of others. The only 'straight' people are cops, and they're conspiring against one another. All the book's hippie characters act, talk, and think (if you can call it that) in ways incredibly naive, as if they're recently arrived on the planet, yet other aspects of their (mis)behavior have already achieved burn-out status.
            In other words, little of what happens in "Inherent Vice" has much resemblance to the real world, at any time or in any place. For Thomas Pynchon, the standard furniture of storytelling -- nuanced characters we can identify with and connect to a sequence of credible events -- is so much stage design. A plot is just an excuse to make words.
            And few writers can do that as well as Pynchon.
            It took me a while to remember how to read a novel by Thomas Pynchon. Not only is Pynchon's fiction not about character development or plot, so many of his 'characters' are such 'head comic book' figures it's almost impossible to remember who's who and what's supposed to be going on in the story except for the most basic of premises: somebody disappeared. Our narrator is supposedly looking for him.
            Instead of a novel about life in counter-culture California as the innocence is wearing off, what "Inherent Vice" is really offering is a vision of a TV, Hollywood, Pop Culture, Drug Culture larded alternate reality that flowers in Pynchon's mind when he thinks about that time and place. It's a thought dream, evoked by extravagant language.
            But a Pynchon is also about the pleasure of reading beautifully constructed passages such as this one, in which the book's version of a film noir PI hero, called Doc, meditates on the banally evil heavies he sees popping up these days in the Los(t) Angeles landscape:
            "Doc knew these people, he'd seen enough of them in the course of business.They went out to collect cash debts, they broke rib cages, they got people fired, they kept an unforgiving eye on anything that might become a threat. If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who'd make it happen."
            In other words, corporate honchos and their security armies 'just doing their job.' They are glaring symptoms of our world's "inherent vice."
            This passage, written in the same rolling-syntax style as Pynchon employs in the novel's meta-silly Head Comix scenes that stand in for human interchange, is more serious in tone than almost anything else in the book. But it suggests that the novel's vision doesn't really pertain to LA in 1970 as much as it does to our world, a time when the dream is indeed long over and the 'faithless money-driven world' has indeed reasserted itself with a vengeance. A world in which various government bodies, corporate entities, gangs and conspiracies of all sorts mixing public, private, technological and criminal facades "play with our world" (as Dylan's old song has it) "like [their] own private toy."
            Pynchon's language is marvelous, funny, over-blown, wry, frequently on the edge of self-parody, or heavily over it. But the book's silly, burlesque of a Hollywood film noir convoluted detective story is, in the end, nothing but a cover story. And that beautiful private toy we all played with is broken.        

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Garden of Truth: Film Turns the Spotlight on Reporting

            I've never had any connection to the Boston Globe Spotlight team, and not very much to the big office building on Morrissey Boulevard where a good piece of the action takes place in the film ("Spotlight") named after the newspaper's reporting team. While working for fourteen years as a freelance reporter for the Globe, I've never been a staff member and always worked from home. And few reporters anywhere get to work with the freedom and support provided to the Globe team that investigated the story of how child abuse by Boston priests that was systematically covered up under the rug by Boston Catholic Church hierarchy.
            The film, pretty much universally acclaimed, doesn't need another favorable review. But based on my own experience of how newspapers work, I can't help thinking it may be the best investigative "procedural" film ever made.
            That term "procedural" is generally applied to films or TV shows about police investigations. I have no experience of police work and even as reporter when it came to police stories crime I did little more than speak to police chiefs. My idea of a "crime" story is somebody knocking down a building that should have been saved; or developing a property that should be preserved in its natural state. But how many times have you heard a police officer say, "It's not like in the movies"?
            Newspaper work, at least some of time, is like what you see in "Spotlight."
            We see reporters walking swiftly alongside nervous sources, trying to keep up while scribbling notes in an open notebook. The omission here is a shot of the reporter desolately staring at the notebook later, unable to make heads or tails of some notation she's sure is crucially important. 
            We see reporters connecting with sources, then carefully working up to voicing what must be some of the most sensitive questions in the world, desiring to be sensitive, but needing at some point to be direct and even blunt.
            We see the actor portraying then-new editor Marty Baron dealing with initial resistance from a senior editorial team who knew the city, as he did not yet, to the idea of investigating the "system" of covering up sexual abuse of children by parish priests by transferring them, hiding them on sick leave, paying off families who make complaints, and exploiting their long-held faith in the Catholic church keep quiet about truths that wrecked lives.
            We see the reporting team led by Walter Robinson committing to the story as they begin to connect dots, in part by following up leads their own paper had failed to pursue in the past. We see the actor playing reporter Matt Carroll (the only member of the team I ever worked with) pursuing a paper trail in an ill-lit basement library to find records that substantiated a pattern of parish transfers and leaves of absence, suggesting which priests the archdiocese was protecting and then returning -- as known child abusers -- to contact with children. From what I knew of Matt, he is that kind of determined digger.
            Film is a dramatic medium. An investigation that took many months would not have "felt" dramatic in the way the concision of the film's artful storytelling creates a powerful experience for the movie's viewers.
            I confess that the resultant Spotlight team story did not appear that important at the time. Didn't we already know that priests were abusing children? Well, we did know of a few instances, but before the team's work nobody really knew the full extent of the story. One of the film's most effective moments comes at the very end where successive otherwise blank screens list the names of the all the American dioceses, and then all the countries of the world, that discovered similar cover-ups of the same crimes against their own children, following the Globe's reports.
            It was a story that had to be told.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

November's Garden: After the Leaves Come Down

            After the leaves come down, it's time to appreciate what we have. Something new, something revealed, something gained when something old and beloved is lost to time: the product of the spinning earth.
            Cleared views, brilliant sunsets, plenty of blue water.
            The leaves don't come down all at once. Some trees and shrubs turn in stages, giving us the contrast of darker and lighter colors. Their numbers thin and we peer between half-bare branches at the shapes and colors revealed behind them.
            When a young, enthusiastic maple tree, a volunteer that rose beneath the shelter of the big oak in our back garden, released is leaves last week, a new and brighter carpet covered one portion of the garden, a place that catches the angled rays of the morning sun. The sun on the leaves turn mid-morning a canary yellow.
            After the leaves come down, we see more sunsets. Mainly, of course, because the suns sets so early that we are still out and about and struck by this amazing phenomenon when it takes control of our senses before we are done with doing things. Or we are stuck in traffic when a turn in the highway delivers a light show. If we are driving westward into the sun, sundown means we can see the road again, free of blinding light shining in our eyes; now the hills and trees before us are gilded by its light. When the leaf fall bares the branches more of the skyline opens for our inspection.
            Last weekend we walked just far enough away from our neighborhood to climb a small rise in the neighboring town of Milton and gain a height from which to view the sunset. The western sky was a misty peach as the sun was setting, because while mostly cloudless the atmosphere was not really clear and water vapor (along with a dose of urban pollution) colored up in the slanting rays. But after the sun sank, the sky was back-lit by a stirring deep pink, nearly red, a rose-color deeper than the November roses currently still blooming in the front garden.
            When the leaves come down, and most of the flowering plants in our garden have given up their blossoms for seed, it's time to visit the salt marshes by the shoreline at Wollaston Beach. If I haven't been there for a while, the wild outdoor atmosphere and the scent of the air makes feel that I'm stepping out of a personal closet and entering the world. You can't live on first impressions, not matter how stirring, but the experience of waking up the senses is inevitably worth the trip. Along with the clean air, and the nearness of the sea, the air holds hints of decay, the dry fragrance of dying leaves, the slight wet stink of a narrow path through tall grasses, with its muddy spots and the semi-land, semi-water landscape of the adjoining salt marsh never more than a few steps away.
            Birds, squirrels, the scrape and crackle in the fallen leaves that signifies some creature at his daily pursuits, generally just out sight. Though last week I startled a rabbit whose white tail fled from me but on a parallel course, so every ten yards or so, I started him up again until he gained enough distance that our paths diverged.
            The water was high in the marsh the last couple of weeks. At intervals the city decides -- at least I assume (and rather hope) that this is a conscious choice -- to open the flood gates a bit more and let the marsh fill with water from Quincy harbor to a height that nearly drowns the spartina grass. Against the blue of the sky and the blue of the water, the grasses show their own waves of golden tints of amber and ochre and saffron. Waves of color ripple in the salt marsh.
            A special little transformation, courtesy of the lowering perspective of November sun.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Garden Of Humanity: On Being Paris

On Being Paris

Everyone is Paris,
I as much as anyone.
I'm that little bridge over the Seine
fenced with all those locked-up hearts.
But not everyone is Beirut,
or Syria.
Even I am not that part of the south suburbs of Beirut,
where two bombs killed 43 (and counting).
I had confused it with the Dahiya
where we had once been treated to an Iftar meal
after sundown in Ramadan
in a home where the power went out,
only briefly, on a very warm night in October,
and where Israel's bombers destroyed blocks of apartments and small shops
in the summer of 2006.
But no, Burj al-Barajneh, described in news reports as "a stronghold of the Shia Islamist" Hezbollah movement, 
though in fact a neighborhood where people live and shop,
is near the Palestinian 'camps' (three generations and counting)
of Sabra and Shatila where old men, women and children
were slaughtered after the Israeli invasion of 1982.

They are not like us,
the Shia of Lebanon, the Iraqis, the Syrian
refugees who live in the alleys of Beirut,
the Palestinian refugees who once lived in 'camps' in Syria,
and now live anywhere they can.
Their lives are not so materially rich
(though they wish they were),
they do not get their ideas from media and follow breaking events on television
(but of course they do)
they do not gawp at photographs of the latest Paris fashions
(but of course they do)
They do not struggle to get their children enough years of school,
in a good school, 
even if taught in a tongue not spoken in their home, 
for a shot at a prosperous future,
as we would surely do if we were in their shoes
(yet that is exactly what they do, and what we,
the lucky ones, are not forced to).

Still, they are not like us,
and some of them are refugees
massing before the gates of Europe.
And one of them (we are told)
brought a gun to Paris.

Good. Tell us who to hate,
So we will know where we are.
Back in the same old hell.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

November's Garden: Quick Peeks at a Fading Grandeur

Sunset comes so early it's gone before I remember to look at it.
On the way to the golf course there's a tiny pond just big enough for a quartet of ducks to spin around one another in circles. Go a couple hundred feet farther and the city skyline rises up above the November treeline.
Back home, the Japanese 'red' maple delivers on its promise.
The sun slips away again, its patented standard time disappearing act, not bothering to tint a cloudless sky.
The Spartina grass in the salt marsh across the road from the harbor gilds in the light of a low-angled sun.
The leaves on the weeping cherry tree do their disappearing act, by stages. Some pale yellow, some bronze. Nabokov said there are a hundred shades of yellow. He must have been thinking of autumn.
The last of the perennials, the spotted toad lilies, maked a belated appearance. Autumn, we hardly knew ye.