Friday, February 26, 2010

Leyner and Saunders: Two Kinds of Edge

Mark Leyner and George Saunders are the premier American satirists of the recent two decades. They are right on target in terms of what they intend to send up, and they are a riot to read: they both consistently make me laugh out loud.

There are striking differences between the two however. One difference I discovered recently is that I can maybe reread Leyner once or twice, whereas the best of Saunders' work I can return to repeatedly. Why is this?

Whereas Leyner's work is driven by cynicism, Saunders is the rare case of a razor-sharp satirist driven as much by cynicism as by warmth. This makes Saunders, for me, the greater writer. It is also, I think, the reason Saunders can capture the American idiom (the voices of different classes, professions, generations) in a way Leyner can't.

Leyner's character Mark in his novel The Tetherballs of Bougainville is a teenager only in a very conscribed Leyneresque way: it is hilarious, brilliant writing, but Mark, like Mark's dad, are both more or less Leyner himself slightly refracted. Take a Saunders story, on the other hand--"Pastoralia," or "CommComm," or the amazing Huck-inspired "Bounty"--and each character is a wonder of suffering linguistic specificity; they are palpable to the point you can see their hands gesture and feel their facial expressions as they speak.

Leyner offers off-the-wall, trenchant literary hijinks of a high order. Saunders is something different. Saunders is almost a matter of the miraculous.

Best of the Best:

Saunders: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

Saunders: Pastoralia

Leyner: The Tetherballs of Bougainville

Leyner: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Fat Tax: An Idea Whose Time has Come

What bracket will you be in?

Picking up today's paper, I read that film director Kevin Smith was ejected from a Southwest Airlines flight because he was too fat to fit in his seat. Smith claims he had no trouble fitting in the seat--"I could buckle that seat belt"--and is now in a rage against the airline.

A few years back another overweight flier tried to sue an airline for making her buy an extra seat to accommodate her flab. The airline, she said, was discriminating against her because of her body shape.

All this raises the question: Should fatties have to buy an extra seat to fly?

My answer is simple: First, hell yes! And second, you ain't seen nothing yet.

In the same paper with the news bit on Smith was an editorial about the problems we Americans now face with our gargantuan budget deficit. Because of our unpaid-for two wars in the Middle East, and what with the government stimulus package and painful Wall Street bailout, we now face years of deficits in the trillions of dollars. How will we ever cover such huge expenses? I think, for a helping hand, we should look to huge Americans.

What I am proposing is very straightforward, a novel way of reforming the tax code. Until now, an individual's tax bracket was determined based on income. Starting next year, we should add a new and more effective criterion. We should determine a person's tax bracket based on his or her weight.

The fact is that we as a nation are way overweight. And we are now also deeply in debt. This is bad for our health and bad for our economic future. Take a stroll round the local shopping mall and you'll realize the merit of my plan. Hundreds of billions of dollars could be raised if we started taxing all those sagging bellies and elephantine hips. It's time all those man boobs cost a little. At least as much as breast implants.

My proposed tax would presumably be a hit with the couple now in the White House. Our president now faces more criticism for his ballooning budgets than for anything else on his agenda. And our First Lady has undertaken to fight obesity. Hmm. Isn't it true that a fat tax would be a way to solve both these problems at once? What's more, I think Michelle Obama would support my proposal even though, based on what I've seen, it may knock her into a higher bracket.

The fact is that if seriously overweight Americans were required to pay seriously higher taxes they might finally decide to get off those tens of millions of sofas and shake their booties a bit.

The question arises as to how this proposed tax reform would be implemented and enforced. How, in short, would we go about the business of assessing a given citizen's tax burden? I already have ideas on this.

You know how on highways you'll occasionally see signs that read "Weigh Station Ahead"? Those signs are for semi trucks of course. I suggest we open similar Weigh Stations for tax assessment purposes. (Though I do think there are people who may finally have to use the semi-truck weigh stations, given the poundage at issue.)

We could open up Weigh Stations in every town, and each year before tax day citizens would have to come in with their IDs and get weighed. First, the assessor on duty would measure the person's height, then the person would be required to walk over a long series of weight-sensitive tiles. I picture it like walking down a hallway, but in this case each section of the hallway is calibrated to buzz at a certain weight, the poundage decreasing as one walks.

And so, stepping off the yellow starting line, you step onto the first large tile. That first tile will only buzz if over 350 pounds is placed on it. So far so good. It didn't buzz. But the tile after that buzzes at 330 pounds, and the one after that at 310 pounds, and so on down to the lightest weight.

The further you make it down the hallway without setting off the red buzzer light, the lower your tax bracket and the less you'll have to pay. If however you set off one of those first few tiles-- Well, brother, looks like you'll be covering a hefty chunk of our national debt this year. Needless to say, you'll be encouraged to lower your tax bracket next time around.

I know the fast food and soft drink lobbies will fight tooth and nail to defeat my proposed reform. Nonetheless I'm looking to some of our thinner members of Congress, whether Democrat or Republican, to sponsor it. And like I say, I believe Obama will be behind it, so there's little chance of it getting vetoed.

In any case it is time Americans stopped whining about fiscal difficulties and started putting their money where their mouth is. Instead of stuffing that mouth with thick-crust pizzas and bag after bag of "diet cookies."

With a new fat tax, America's health care burden will shrink as obese folks realize they're paying too much to Uncle Sam and decide to cut calories. Admittedly there will probably be cases of citizens who try to perform lipposuction in their kitchens or who desperately amputate limbs in a last-ditch effort to lose poundage before Weigh Day. But such cases should be few and far between, and can be considered unfortunate casualties in what is a necessary policy of national austerity.

As for myself, my bracket will not be the lowest, that's for sure. I have a small belly problem, and I won't make it to the end of that hallway. But I'm willing to do my part for America. I'm willing to pay a little extra. And you? If you are not one of those shameless slobs we see lumbering through food courts, ice cream cone in hand, all across this Great Big Nation, you have every reason to give your support to this new proposed fat tax. Write your representatives today.

Director Kevin Smith is upset. Cry me a river.

Michelle will be paying a little extra too.

Yeah, you're laughing now.

Safety in numbers.

These gals will be a doing a swimsuit calendar to raise money.

"Lemme tell ya what I think of your proposal, Eric. . . ."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Daniil Kharms' Orchestra

I'll begin with a few of Kharms' texts:


Once there lived a red-haired man who lacked eyes and ears. He was also lacking hair, so he was called red-haired only in a general sense.

He couldn't speak, as he was lacking a mouth. The same with his nose. Even arms and legs, he just didn't have any. Nor stomach, nor backside, nor spine. And no intestines. He didn't have anything! Therefore it is totally unclear who is being discussed.

It's better if we don't talk about him anymore.

* * *


Once Orlov overate on mashed peas and died. And Krylov, having found out about it, died too. And Spiridonov died of his own accord. And Spiridonov's wife fell off the cupboard and died too. And Spiridonov's children drowned in the pond. And Spiridonov's grandmother took to drink and went off panhandling. And Mikhailov stopped combing and got sick with dandruff. And Kruglov drew a lady with a whip and lost his mind. And Perehrestov was wired 400 roubles and started acting with such self-importance that he got fired from his job.

All decent people, but they don't know how to keep a firm footing.

* * *

March 28, 1931 at 7 o'clock
in the Evening

Lord, smack in the middle of the day
a laziness came over me.
Permit me to lie down and go to sleep, Lord,
and while I sleep, oh Lord, pump me full of Your Strength.
There is much I wish to know
but neither books nor people will tell me.
Only You can enlighten me, Lord,
by way of my poems.
Wake me up strong for the battle with meanings
and quick to the governance of words
and assiduous in praising the name of God
for all time.

* * *


Anton Mikhailovich spat, said "ech," spat again, said "ech" again, spat again, said "ech" again and left. To hell with him. Instead let me tell you about Ilya Pavlovich.

Ilya Pavlovich was born in 1893 in Constantinople. When he was still a boy, they moved to St. Petersburg, and there he graduated from the German School on Kirchnaya Street. Then he worked in some shop; then he did something else; and when the Revolution began, he emigrated. Well, to hell with him. Instead, let me tell you about Anna Ignatievna.

But it's not so easy to tell about Anna Ignatievna. First, I know almost nothing about her, and second, I've just fallen off my chair, and have forgotten what I was about to say. So let me instead tell about myself.

I am tall, fairly intelligent, and dress prudently and tastefully. I don't drink, I don't bet on horses, but I like the ladies. And the ladies don't mind me. They like it when I go out with them. Serafima Izmaylovna has invited me home several times, and Zinaida Yakovlevna also said that she was always glad to see me. But I was involved in a strange incident with Marina Petrovna, which I would like to tell about. A quite ordinary thing, but rather amusing. Because of me, Marina Petrovna lost all her hair, became bald as a baby's bottom. It happened like this: Once I went over to visit Marina Petrovna, and bang! she lost all her hair. And that was that.

* * *


It's hard to say something about Pushkin to a person who doesn't know anything about him. Pushkin is a great poet. Napoleon is not as great as Pushkin. Bismarck compared to Pushkin is a nobody. And the Alexanders, First, Second and Third, are just little kids compared to Pushkin. In fact, compared to Pushkin, all people are little kids, except Gogol. Compared to him, Pushkin is a little kid.

And so, instead of writing about Pushkin, I would rather write about Gogol.

Although, Gogol is so great that not a thing can be written about him, so I'll write about Pushkin after all.

Yet, after Gogol, it's a shame to have to write about Pushkin. But you can't write anything about Gogol. So I'd rather not write anything about anyone.

* * *

Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) was one of the key members of the Russian avant-garde literary collective OBERIU, Union of Real Art. Kharms’ work cannot really be classed as surrealist, and Matvei Yankelevich, the most dedicated Kharms scholar working in English, argues that the frequently used epithet “absurdist” is not accurate either. How then to characterize these texts?

Kharms is working at the kind of destructive narrative techniques one finds in another writer in my personal canon: the master French prose poet Max Jacob.

One might also note, from the above, that Kharms was a believer, again like Jacob. The “Prayer before Sleep” is heartfelt, and the line Only you can enlighten me, Lord, / by way of my poems reveals how Kharms understood poetics as it relates to faith or revelation. Kharms considered his work a channel of grace; a quest, through his creative/destructive poetics, for enlightenment.

“Blue Notebook #10” is frequently quoted in introductions to Kharms. When I first read this text, it reminded me of Lichtenberg’s famous paradox: “A knife without a blade, from which the handle is missing.” Kharms was fluent in German and knew German literature well (Gustav Meyrink’s uncanny novel
The Golem was one of his favorite books). Was #10 written in response to Lichtenberg?

“Symphony #2” is of particular interest. It's the most brilliantly orchestrated piece of non sequitur I know of. Kharms moves from an unknown old man hacking, to the dryness of an encyclopedia entry, to self-ridiculing slapstick, to what starts to shape up as something approaching the erotic, but finally collapses in a totally shameful, ridiculous, utterly deadpan blast of absurdity--an anticlimax that couldn't be improved on. I say the progression here is orchestrated, and it is: thus the aptness of the title "Symphony." In a sizable handful of texts, Kharms, like Max Jacob, is above all a consummate conductor.

Both Kharms and Jacob died as victims of the extremist ideologies of the mid-century: Kharms in 1942 of starvation in a Soviet mental hospital; Jacob in 1944 of pneumonia while awaiting transfer to a Nazi concentration camp. Both writers practiced an art of intractable ambiguity, though Jacob, it is true, was victimized for being Jewish rather than for his playfully Cubist texts.

Kharms is best read in Matvei Yankelevich’s collection
Today I Wrote Nothing. I offer two of the pieces quoted above (the prayer and “Something about Pushkin”) in Yankelevich’s translation. The book has been widely praised for giving English readers access to this important voice in Russia’s literature. It is only in the recent couple decades that the Russians themselves have rediscovered Kharms’ work. In his introduction, Yankelevich explains how close the manuscripts came to being lost forever. We are lucky to have them.