The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy

This book is Benjamin Percy’s masterpiece. It’s the best work of fiction from him that I’ve read, and I’ve read them all at this point. Things that stood out to me the most were the principal themes of family and duty to that family colliding with the law, lawlessness, and a sense of justice that is personal that comes into direct conflict with the government conception of law, order, and justice and this sets fire to a place that is barely being held together. It’s a naturalist novel.

It’s peppered with beautiful descriptions of the natural world. It represents the ingredients of a naturalist novel in how a main character’s sheltered, hereditary, or everyday existence comes into direct conflict with the outside world. In the Ninth Metal, this is brought on by the conflict between two families: The Frontiers and Gundersons and their prodigal sons: John Frontier and Hawkin Gunderson. Both of them come into direct conflict from the prologue to page 288. They are the personal antagonists of the two main characters.

The naturalist or external antagonist for the Frontiers is Black Dog mining in Northfield, Minnesota. For the Gundersons, it’s the Department of Defense. Both are fighting over control of the mining of omnimetal that was brought here by a comet and grants powers to John and Hawkin.

So this is an X-Men story. Mother Gunderson and her followers are Magneto’s brotherhood and their religious/cult-like overtones worshipping the omnimetal (their chanting of “Metal is” recalls “Darkseid is.”), and the Frontiers are Xavier’s students. Hawkin Gunderson is Magneto, imprisoned by the Department of Defense (or the Nazis, if you’re going to follow my Magneto origin story through line). John Frontier is Wolverine who has a familial Stoic duty, which very nearly brings about his undoing.

It’s very much a local vs. outsiders story because locals almost always lose in a naturalist novel. Not this time, though, but that’s straying dangerously into spoilers.

What made this book so good for my journey as a writer these last two years. But it comes with a dilemma: I don’t know where Percy ends, and I begin. We don’t have the same ideas for stories, but we deal in similar themes: family, social sciences, and the slightest bit of the fantastic set in a world we live in now. It’s like we have similar voices, we’re of the same generation—he’s only a year and a half older than me. To be successful in the ways that I want to be and have come up short because of one thing: I did not submit my work, and Percy did, allowing him to grow where I have been playing at the same four books more or less the last fifteen years.

But I’m not going to play that anymore. Here’s what solidified why I have a book like this one in me, but here’s where it landed for me that Percy and I think along the same wavelengths.

Over the years in his cell, Hawkin had a lot of time to think, and one of the ways he occupied himself was by pretending. Comic books owned his imagination. He had always liked Batman, best of all the superheroes. It was more than his haunting mask and the militaristic Batmobile and the gadgets he kept in his utility belt and the way he crouched like a gargoyle on Gotham’s skyscrapers with his leathery cape fluttering in the wind. It was the villains. The villains who made up his rogues’ gallery were the best of any series. Because they weren’t merely masked and spandex weirdoes to punch and kick and throw Batarangs at. They meant something. They really mattered emotionally. If Batman was order, then the Joker was chaos. Mr. Freeze represented Bruce Wayne’s emotional coldness. Ra’s al Ghul was the father figure wanted desperately but had to reject for his sinister ways. Two-Face captured the constant battle between Wayne and the Dark Knight. What you eventually came to understand, if you read enough comic books, was that Batman was a unification of his worst enemies. ..

Dr. Gunn is the Joker and Scarecrow and Mr. Freeze and Penguin and Ra’s al Ghul and all the rest of them. And this is Hawkin’s Crime Alley, where Thomas and Martha Wayne fell in a rain of bullets and blood and pearls. It was a moment of fusion, convergence. Here is the villain and here is the place and here is the core wound that Hawkin might conquer if he is going to come into his power as a hero. That’s the way the rules work.

–Ninth Metal, pg. 280

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green.

I started listening to this podcast back in the beginning of the pandemic, and it has been an almost weekly joy to listen to, so when the book came out, I knew I had to have it. What I found was pretty formulaic: introduction, research which shows Green’s OCD in full-effect with his details for getting the facts right. Highlights include talking about Edmund Halley and his many talents, or what went into making Diet Dr Pepper. This was always great in whatever essay I read–I always learned something new, which is awesome. This is followed by literary allusion, and the positive side of whatever Green is reviewing and his rating.

The best entries in this book are in the introduction and the postscript, and the DFW-like footnotes. My favorite essay is on Indianapolis, and the bits are like how they are the absolute best parts of our pandemic moment. The book is like a time capsule. Here are my favorite parts

On “Our Temporal Range, which makes an allusion to Stoicism’s “View From Above” in an impressive display of time condensing:

“The hard part, evolutionarily, was getting from prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic ones, then getting from single-celled organisms to multi cellar ones. Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, a timescale I simply cannot get my head around. Instead let’s imagine’s Earth’s history as a calendar year, with the formation of Earth being January 1 and today being December 31 at 11:59pm. The first life on Earth emerges around February 25. Photosynthetic organisms first appear in late March. Multicellular life doesn’t appear until August or September. The first dinosaurs like eoraptor show up about 230 million years ago, or December 13 in our calendar year. The meteor impact that heralds the end of the dinosaurs happens around December 26. Homo sapiens aren’t part of the story until December 31 at 11:48 pm. ..”

He then says that the Industrial Revolution, the dishwasher, and cars happen in the last couple of seconds of December 31.

On CNN: “What’s news isn’t primarily what is noteworthy or important, but what is new.” Saying that is basically all twenty-four news channels are good for. The newest outrage, misery, and disaster.

But my favorite essay is on Indianapolis, where Green and his family have made their home since 2007. He moved there from New York City, and he lays down a considerable number of disses on the city. All of which I laughed at:

“Indianapolis has tried o a lot of mottoes and catchphrases over the years. Indianapolis is ‘Raising the Game.’ ‘You put the I in Indy.’ ‘Crossroads of America.’ But I’d propose a different motto: “Indianapolis: You gotta live somewhere.’…

“Someone once told me that Indianapolis is among the nation’s leading test markets for new restaurant chains, because the city is so thoroughly average. Indeed, it ranks among the top so-called ‘microcosm cities,’ because Indianapolis is more typically American than almost any other place. We are spectacular in our ordinariness. The city’s nicknames include “Naptown,” because it’s boring, “India-no-place.”

He then goes on to rate the city four stars because it’s home.

I’ve long said that Indiana’s nickname of the Crossroads of America is because why the hell would you ever want to stay here? And even though Green goes onto say that the city is one of the most economically and racially diverse zip codes in the United States. The problem is, of course, that the rest of the state is rural white and super-Republican and is actively working against that diversity, and has adopted many of the voting rights laws that are being passed in Republican states across the nation. Eventually, if this goes unchecked, Indiana will be so vanilla that it’ll be see-through.

Though I think it’s generally acceptable to live in Indy and Bloomington, they are just about the only places you would want to live. Green even cites that the White River, its main waterway, is completely non-navigable. The city dumps raw sewage into it. When I look around Bloomington, I see every college town I’ve ever visited. I’ve even taught here. It’s called the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. I’ve been here before in Princeton, NJ, Providence, Rhode Island, and College Park, Maryland. It’s a college town. I bet you go to any large college town like this one, and you’ve likely been to Bloomington before too. Not that there’s anything wrong with that other than it’s normal. Average.

I give the book, and really the state as a whole, three stars.

How I leave Literature Notes at the end of books.
I just like this author photo.

Charlie Kaufman

A blind contour

I just received his first novel in the mail. It’s 700 pages. The David Foster Wallace of screenwriting has written a David Foster Wallace-ian novel. Then I read this great profile in the New York Times Magazine on what the quarantine has been like for him and it was eye-opening. The first couple of paragraphs were heart-wrenching:

Eight weeks, this went on. It was a bizarre way to get to know a stranger, at a time when there was scant opportunity to discover anything new in life at all. A bond formed: not friendship, not therapy, but a kind of reciprocal Stockholm syndrome with qualities of both. “I wonder if you and I are ever going to meet after this intimate thing we’ve had,” Kaufman asked during our final call on April 29.

“I’ve had that thought, too,” I said. “It’s strange the degree to which you’ve been the only real relationship in my life during this time, beyond my wife and kids.” I had tried setting up weekly calls with family or friends, I told him, but nothing else stuck.

“Mine too, really,” Kaufman said. Friends reached out, wanting to talk, but he usually felt too gloomy or anxious to engage. One guy, the previous week, had been uncommonly persistent, “and I finally had to text him back and say: ‘I can’t. I just can’t.’ But I couldn’t do that with you,” Kaufman told me. “That’s been good for me. I’ve had to do it.”

Man, what I would have given to be on this assignment. To talk to Charlie Kaufman, the writer of one of my top five favorite movies (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and to see how he’s dealing with this stuff. And I love Adaptation too–it is so exactly my kind of bullshit.

“They want you to come back to talk to me because the piece doesn’t have anything to do with the time we live in. If it did ever have anything to do with the time we live in” — and Kaufman was skeptical — “I think it’s important to point out that that was two weeks ago!”

“I don’t think that’s exactly what they’re saying,” I said. “They’re not saying it’s irrelevant. …” But I’m not sure this was totally honest. Everything except a small number of things did feel pretty irrelevant to me just then.

“It may be irrelevant!” Kaufman gladly interrupted. “I accept that it’s irrelevant.” It’s why he had felt wary of doing the profile in the first place, he said. No part of him believed that he, as a person — not just his work — warranted this kind of attention. He’d written a book, and this profile was proposed, and it clearly seemed worth doing even if it made him uncomfortable. “At the time, it was fine, because I liked you, and it’s been nice talking to you,” he said. “But now, just because I wrote a book, are you going to have to keep coming back to me until July 5, or whenever this thing is published, for updates on the world? It’s embarrassing,” he said. “It’s embarrassing to me.”

Kaufman compares this stuff to the Seven Up documentary series and rather than seven years it’s two weeks. Then they talk about how Kaufman writes—how he writes himself into corners and how he writes himself out. He’s also super-meta when he writes about what he’s thinking about.

Then, of course, the most interesting thing for me is how Charlie Kaufman seems to escape description or profiling because he’s so uniquely himself.

I don’t mean to be flip about this; I empathized with the problem because I was experiencing it myself. I worried that the conversations Kaufman and I were having wouldn’t translate well in print either; that people would skim through the article I was writing impatiently, feeling exhausted by Kaufman and his tendency to process every minuscule facet of existence through a vast, clattering, Rube Goldberg machine of introspection. But in real life, it was actually pretty moving to listen to. His vulnerability didn’t make you want to turn away from him; it made you want to be vulnerable too.

To be honest with you, it sounds like therapy. Like you’re going to see a psychologist but the psychologist is Charlie Kaufman. Then they spitball ideas of how to construct the article from a material point of view and inserting the author and getting to the truth of someone’s anxiety.

It was quite an article, and I’m looking forward to talking the novel.

Happy Fourth of July

A cover job of Sam Anderson’s blind contour of David Foster Wallace.

This morning, while mowing my lawn, my neighborhood had a parade since there isn’t going to be a big one downtown. Immediately, I thought of David Foster Wallace’s October 2001 Rolling Stone essay, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s.” on September 11.

Everybody has flags out. Homes, businesses. It’s odd: You never see anybody putting out a flag, but by Wednesday morning there they all are. Big flags, small flags, regular flag-size flags. A lot of home-owners here have those special angled flag-holders by their front door, the kind whose brace takes four Phillips screws. And thousands of those little hand-held flags-on-a-stick you normally see at parades – some yards have dozens all over as if they’d somehow sprouted overnight. Rural-road people attach the little flags to their mailboxes out by the street. Some cars have them wedged in their grille or duct-taped to the antenna. Some upscale people have actual poles; their flags are at half-mast.

Funny enough, I snickered that he was writing this from Bloomington, Illinois, and I’m writing this from Bloomington, Indiana.

Then I almost mowed over the desiccated corpse of a rabbit that may have been laying dead on my yard all week since returning from Michigan on Wednesday.

I hope you’re having a great day.

Letter of Recommendation: Sam Anderson’s Work.

Ursula Le Guin by Sam Anderson

I was introduced to Sam Anderson’s work through Austin Kleon. Really it was long before I knew of Kleon, when I read Anderson’s great piece on David Foster Wallace.

I cannot recommend his work enough. Whenever I see his byline I see someone who loves reading, and has intoxicated my own reading habits.

I highly recommend his first book Boom Town, a book about Oklahoma City from the perspective of a New Yorker. It’s informed the memoir I’m writing now and my experiences in Indiana.

This book is a history of Oklahoma City. That may strike you as unnecessary, or unfortunate. If so, I would understand. In the larger economy of American attention, Oklahoma City’s main job has always been to be ignored. When non-Oklahomans need to think about the place, we tend to fall back on cliches: tepees, wagon trains, the Dust Bowl, country music, college football, methamphetamine, radical anti-government politics.”

-Anderson, XV

Some of my favorite articles of his are Haruki Murakami, The Good Place, and recently Weird Al Yankovic.

But recently what helped me out a lot with the stress of this spring was reading his letters of recommendation on looking out the window, blind contour drawings, and the collages he does on Instagram. So I adopted those and started doing collages and blind contour drawings almost daily in June and that led to Squibbish drawing actual faces and collaging with me. As a token of appreciation I bought this Ursula K. Le Guin t-shirt featuring his sketch of her, her quote, that supports his favorite local bookstore.

A collage: “I miss baseball”

In Anderson’s style, this season’s posts will be a series of Letters of Recommendation of things that brought me joy this spring.

A blind contour of my son’s lion toys while listening to Carnival of the Animals.

The Wilding by Benjamin Percy

The Wilding by Benjamin Percy. His first novel.

I’m reading a lot of first novels by writers I respect like Mary H.K. Choi’s Emergency Contact, Drew Magary’s The Postmortal, and short story collections like Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds. This book, from one of my favorite living writers, I finished over the spring and it is the sort of book that I hope mine for the next novel I’m going to write, which thematically is sort of like this. It’s about generations, the limits and educations of those generations, and they are in a no-win situation. Here’s some of my notes:

My marginalia is copied slightly from Sam Anderson’s style. I love writing all over books because it means that I’m really enjoying it, but it is work. So often, I’ll read a book once for enjoyment and just take notes as I go. Then I’ll read it again to study it: the turns of phrases, the plot points, and then I’ll synthesize and think about what I learned. On one of the end pages. Usually highlights will get uploaded to Bear. I try really hard not to make it like work, because then reading becomes a job rather than a joy. And I’d rather stick with joy.

One of the interesting things about the end of this book is a short essay from Percy about listening to music while writing fiction. He only listens when he’s revising. I know so many writers listen to music during the act of writing, and when it comes to revision–it’s silence. That’s me. I can’t revise what I’ve written with some music in the background because I need to read it aloud otherwise I don’t catch mistakes. So Percy supplies some of the tracks he listened to while revising this book.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield

As a result of yesterday’s video this led me to purchase the book The War of Art by Steven Pressfield [tk link]. The result was a breakthrough.

The major identification I made while reading this is what I used to call the Victim’s woods, or what my diagnosis manifests as — to use Pressfield’s term— Resistance. The characteristics of resistance are: self-sabotage, self-deception, and self-corruption.

Resistance is:

It’s always lying and full of shit. It’s implacable it understands nothing but power. It’s one objective is to prevent us from doing our work. ..Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable. Resistance aims to kill. It’s target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, and the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us.

The cure, Pressfield writes is to apply self-knowledge, self-discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work.

Ultimately, being a victim compels others to come to the rescue or to behave as the victime wishes by holding them hostage to the prospect of illness and one’s own meltdown or by threatening to make their lives miserable so they do what the victim wants.

This, all of this, is what I’ve been doing for the last two years. Sure, you could say resistance is pain, addiction, mental illness. It’s all of those things and more.

For me, Resistance manifests as not doing my work, which generates as my mental health symptoms: Aspergers, ADD, Depression, and Anxiety. Now this does not mean that these things don’t exist, it’s just that I’ve been resisting the fact that they do exist for most of my life. In that denial I don’t engage in my work, or my life in a meaningful and honest way. So while reading this book, I realized what my “work” actually is: teaching books, what goes into writing those books, and writing my own books.

Not realizing your resistance generates pain, which leads to impulsivity, reactivity, anxiety, depression and that exacerbates as a lack of attention and a desire to change, make new friends or be aware in social situations. It’s basically a lack, or inconsistency of attention in all aspects of your life full stop.

But most of all Resistance is strongest—for me anyway—in addiction. That’s true of creative people. Why do you think so writers, artists, etc are drug addicts and alcoholics? Despite their ability to go professional, they still let resistance get to them through drug addiction.

My addictions are different and I think that’s why I’m on the Autism Spectrum—which manifests as wanting to keep the status quo. The comfort zone. But the addiction, specifically, is to home. Lake Placid, the mountains, the woods of upstate New York. Really New York period. My people there. Resistance wants me and you to go back to the way things were, whereas the Muse, (again: Pressfield’s term), the creative unconsciousness, God—whatever you want to call it—wants you to move forward to create something that hasn’t been seen before. Sometimes that’s being a parent, or a teacher, or an entrepreneur. But most of all there’s no going back to the way things were, and that push and pull is what makes human life.

This became clear to me when I watched a 20 minute video my friend, Tim—the novelist TJ Brearton—made of his family camping and I could literally smell the pine, feel the wind twist through the air, and shake the trees and know what the pond they were swimming in felt like. I can hear and feel the crunch of the dead pine needles under foot. It was right there in my face, under foot, in my nostrils, in my hair—while I watched the video in my office in Indiana. Now that sounds like addict behavior, right?

That’s what resistance is—it wants me to go back and not do my work. It attacks me with the way things used to be with people I love and don’t see anymore. It attacks you with addiction, which is self-sabotage.

Those people are still with me, because I brought New York with me to Indiana, but in doing so I brought my addiction to the state with me.

This attacks everyone. No matter whether you’re a writer or in business. It actively prevents you from doing what you know is your work. And that’s why you shouldn’t be afraid of it, because it points us towards what we know is our true selves.

So, in closing, Pressfield writes:

“Are you a born writer?…The question can only be answered by action. Do it or don’t do it.”

Status.

It’s been a day.

Today I found out that the new word for “pleather” is now Vegan Leather.

Here is Billy Wilder’s tombstone from a post by Austin Kleon.

Billy Wilder’s tombstone.

Here’s a great quote from Benjamin Percy in Jami Attenberg’s newsletter #1000wordsofsummer:

It begins with a glimmer. Maybe I overhear a conversation in a bar. Maybe I pause on a certain, curious detail in the Sunday paper. Maybe I wake up with a dream still churning in my open eyes. I then rush to jot down the idea before it…evaporates. If you say to yourself, ‘I need to remember this later,’ you won’t. So I send myself an email. Or I scratch something down on a napkin. Or I rip out an article with my notes scribbled in the margins. I harvest these glimmers. And pin them up in my office. Near my desk. So that I flirt with them daily. And eventually  sometimes weeks later, sometimes months or even years later  a few of them glow brightly and I realize how they are connected and they come together like a constellation. And I get to work. Often (especially if it’s a novel) I outline. Sometimes (especially if it’s a short story or an essay) I allow myself to be more impressionistic, chasing a voice, an image. But I always know my endgame. Always. Because when I know my end, everything in the story is building toward that moment, the paragraphs and chapters transferring their momentum, crashing forward like so many dominoes. People are sometimes afraid of the blank page. But if you know your end, even when you’re starting from scratch, there is no blank page. The finish line is in sight  you just have to race to get there.” 

That is all for today. Talk to you tomorrow.

On David Milch.

David Milch in this summer’s journal

Probably the greatest fear that I have these days is what is happening to David Milch. Mark Singer recently did a profile for the New Yorker on the Deadwood creator. It moved me in profound ways. Especially the interview part where you can read the marked difference between Milch as his dementia progresses. 

What would it be like to be a writer when your words, your memories, your loves, fade from the view of your existence? I think that’s pretty close to many writers’ fears. To feel your brain failing you daily when you know you used to be better? That, eventually, happens to everyone. Everyone’s body too. I imagine suffering from Alzheimers and Dementia is to the writer what traumatic body damage is to the football player where your mind and your body are failing you and you’re not even forty. 

I know what this is like. I’m beginning to understand it and in the coming days I’ll be talking about it more because if there’s one thing that I want this website to be about is an extension of teaching, since I don’t teach anymore. It’s not really about criticism, commentary, or anger—though I’m becoming less afraid of calling a spade a spade. But this will be about education, and that’s why Milch is this summer’s guardian spirit: I want to learn and then teach what I’ve learned and this is where the blog will come in, but only for one week every season—for maximum impact and focus on what matters to me. One thing that I learned this spring is it takes me a while to actually learn things and it keeps building and building and building and I’m still learning. 

My dad said something very impactful a long time ago: “The day you stop learning is the day you start dying.” So I’m always trying to learn, and that’s why this Milch profile is important to me for this quote: 

He showed up every day. He believed and still believes that any time spent thinking about writing is wasted except when one is in a room writing. He quotes Billy Wilder [The Apartment]: ‘The muse has to know where to find you.’ He also became known for nurturing aspiring writers. Writing and teaching, Milch thought, should be a ‘a going out in spirit.’ 

So I’m going out in spirit with this blog for the opening of this season.