Dept. of You Must Be Shitting Me

Michael Kinsley, whom I thought was at one point a journalist, had this to say in his snarky, crappy review of Glenn Greenwald’s book about the Snowden affair:

The question is who decides [what to publish]. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government.

This is a shockingly full-throated endorsement of prior restraint. The government tried this tactic with the Pentagon Papers, and got slapped down pretty hard. More’s the pity, at least according to Kinsley.

Books of 2014, #9: Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem

(I’m so behind on these; I finished this book over a month ago. I’m also behind my 2013 pace significantly, but the biking is cutting into the reading, and the biking creates the “less Chet” phenomenon, so it is what it is.)

Lethem is an old favorite. I read As She Crawled Across The Table years ago, on the strength of an NPR review, and have followed his work since. He’s had great success, and has won literary awards in addition to a coveted MacArthur Fellowship. The resulting clout and the somewhat unfinished nature of Chonic City make me worry he’s crossed into the “un-editable” phase of his career. It’s the same idea as from this review of The Goldfinch back in February:

I’m no more privy to what went on behind the scenes in The Goldfinch’s journey from draft to publication than I am aware of the ins and outs of similar processes for Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot or Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. But I know that all three of these novels (and there are many other examples) read as though their editor had been afraid to touch them, and had left early, baggy drafts unchanged.

Here, the problem isn’t so much that the manuscript is too long, but it absolutely is a bit cluttered when it comes to too-clever-by-half ideas seemingly wedged in on the strength of their own purported wit. That sounds super harsh, but I don’t mean it in that sense; Lethem is a very referential sort, peppering his work here with almost hypertextual links to pop culture artifacts that may or may not exist. It just feels like nobody told Lethem that he’d put in enough pepper already. That said, there’s a crazy amount of stuff going on here — nothing else has sent me to as many other learned reviews in years — so it’s not without reward by any means.

Chronic City is one of those love letters to Manhattan, but it’s a Manhattan that’s already gone it loves. Lethem misses the vibrant and artistic version from the 1980s, back when it was possible for weird artists and musicians to live on the island. I doubt they’ll be many such letters to the modern Manhattan of the 1%; Lethem’s bitter stand-in for the modern, wealthy-only Manhattan is a pristine apartment building restored and set aside for the city’s homeless dogs, about which more later.

Our notional hero, Chase Insteadman (the first of a host of improbable and Pynchonian names), is a former child actor (which is to say, he used to act; make of that what you will) engaged to Janice, an astronaut who is marooned on a space station with no obvious means of return due to “Chinese mines” in orbit. (Doubling down, we soon learn her health is imperiled as well.) Insteadman is an isolate: from Janice, obviously — she can write him, but for logistical reasons he cannot reply — but also from normal human discourse. Her letters, made public by NASA, have become nearly all he can remember about her. His residual income is enough to support him, which divorces him from everyday life, but it’s not enough to buy him entree into the world of wealth and privilege that he orbits as a sort of mascot (an object, an “extra man,” but not an actual participant). His isolation grows as the plot develops and we see other windows into his life.

Joining Insteadman early on is his sort-of friend and sort-of partner in crime, a quasi-employed writer and broadside artist named Perkus Tooth. Tooth is a Bangs-esque figure, hip without claiming hipness (think Hoffman’s Bangs in Almost Famous). Tooth is the source for much of the weirdness here; he has insane opinions on most everything (delightfully insisting that Brando is not dead, for example). He dresses like a throwback and lives in a rent-controlled apartment, thereby stuck in time in a fiscal sense as well as an aesthetic one.

The names just get weirder and weirder (not that I blame him): Laird Noteless is an artist specializing in enormous holes in the ground (no metaphor here!). Oona Laszlo is a ghostwriter, friend of Perkus’, and Chase’s secret lover. Strabo Blandiana is the acupuncturist to Chase and his wealthy pals. Another of Chase’s friends, Richard Abneg, is a former tenants’ right lawyer now working for the mayor undoing rent stabilization laws (chew on that); Abneg’s romantic partner is a Turkish heiress named Georgina Hawkmanaji that he always refers to as Hawkman.

(An excellent example of Lethem’s metaphorical seasoning: even with all this in play, he feels the need to have Abneg menaced by eagles; is it too literal to suggest he does so while hanging around with Turkeys?)

Much of the weirdness here comes from Tooth as he shows Chase into a sort of weird, parallel Manhattan. Tooth has become obsessed with objects called “chaldrons,” but the text gives no immediate hint that the word and the object are inventions of Lethem’s. The New York of Chronic City is full of references that might be real, that might just be something you’d never actually heard of instead of something Lethem has created (or, as in the case of Insteadman’s acting resume, a bit of both), and it gives the impression that the novel’s world is only a squint away from our own.

Lethem has also not been shy about inserting proxies for real world ideas so as to better lampoon them. For example, standing in for David Foster Wallace’s masterwork is a novel called “Obstinate Dust” by Ralph Warden Meeker; it becomes a minor MacGuffin in the story, but doing it once isn’t enough. Lethem drives the point home loudly when Oona mistakenly brings Tooth a copy of the also-fictional “Immaculate Rest,” a book of poems by Sterling Wilson Hobo instead (Tooth dismisses him as “a third-rate W. S. Merwin”). When called on it, she insists he should be thankful she didn’t return with “Adequate Lust,” which is apparently a how-to book.

These are throw-away lines to some people, I’m sure, but I have to believe most of Lethem’s audience is at least aware of David Foster Wallace, which places the whole riff too close to “look how clever I am” territory. This goes on and on; Henson’s creations wander through as the “Gnuppets,” named in a way that makes me wonder how much Lethem knows about free and open source software names. A proxy for Second Life/World of Warcraft shows up as the cheekily named “Yet Another World,” at first as a sidenote but later as a key point.

Tooth’s obsession with the chaldrons eventually leads our team to a weird sort of worship: they bid and bid on them when they surface on eBay, but with no intention of winning, even with access to Hawkman’s bankroll. Doing so drives them into an acquisitive frenzy even though they have no expectation they’ll ever actually acquire the object. The acquisition would establish a real connection, which can’t happen in a book obsessed with isolation. (It’d be hard to make these things more obviously MacGuffins, but that’s the way this book rolls.)

While all this is going on, Manhattan is menaced by an “escaped tiger” that is somehow never captured by the NYPD. It may be that the tiger is actually a renegade tunneling robot, under the control (?) of Abneg’s office and charged with damaging rent-controlled properties enough to force demotion, which would explain how a “tiger” could destroy buildings — but the whole tiger idea is blithely accepted, apparently, by most Manhattanites aside from Tooth. (As should be obvious, Lethem doesn’t miss the opportunity to lampshade the parallel between the “tiger’s” subterranean destruction and Noteless’ holes in the ground, though he’s more subtle about the “wild animal destroying village” angle that could’ve been drummed up here.)

Through all this, mourning of a certain kind of Manhattan predominates; it’s an isolating homesickness. That New York is Perkus Tooth, or at least Tooth represents the soul of it, back when artists could live in Manhattan. And that Manhattan is dead or dying. That he still lives there is an anomaly; Basquiat and Warhol and Reed are all gone, and we’re left with a fake version of the real city, now lost to time.

As the book draws closer to the end, revelations first hinted at and then explicitly stated make clear what drives Chase’s isolation: his complicity in a enormous public-relations lie. He and Janice were never lovers; he barely remembers her because he only barely met her, years before. He was drafted to be the mourning, worried boyfriend of a national hero who had already been killed by mines in orbit. Public Chase — the only Chase, perhaps, fittingly teased by Abneg as “Chase Unperson” — is a fake version of himself as a consequence. Janice as appears in the letters is entirely fictional, ghostwritten by Oona for public consumption. He lives in a fake version of Manhattan, with these fake people, pining for fake objects created in a virtual world. Perhaps only Tooth is authentic, and he withers and dies after losing his apartment to the rampaging “tiger”.

Who could feel connection in a life like that?

I don’t mean to say the book doesn’t resolve; it does, and some of the ways in which it finally comes together are satisfying. Ultimately, though, it feels too loose, still full of too many of Lethem’s darlings he couldn’t bear to cut to create a more focussed and finished work. I’m glad I read this, and I enjoyed it, but still felt like more could’ve been done with the same material.

Here’s another couple reflections on the work you might enjoy:

Dept. of Truly Brilliant Drunken Feats

On two separate occasions in the 1950s, New Yorker Thomas Fitzpatrick departed from a bar whose hospitality he was enjoying, drove out to New Jersey, “obtained” a small plane, flew it back to Manhattan, and landed it in front of the bar in question.

The first time, it was to win a bet. The second time, two years later, was because someone didn’t believe he’d done it the first time.

This man is a truly an American hero.

Save the Sounds!

Tragically, these sounds may go extinct.

Also, if you turn on too many of them, your officemates may have strong feelings about your own survival. Exercise caution.

Listen up, cause you can’t say nothin’ / you shut me down with the push of your button

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is with complete dismay that I point out that SABOTAGE is now twenty years old.

Never has a video been so perfect, but where is the cast now?

  • Vic Colfari made his debut as Bobby, the Rookie. After a series of failed pilots, Colfari became a household figure in Canada as the spokesman for Viva Queso, a chain of tex-mex restaurants based in Calgary.

  • Fred Kelly’s only role is his turn as Bunny, and we’re all richer for it. Kelly, an undrafted free agent, used his “Sabotage” fame to gain a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he played until 1999. Today, Kelly is semi-retired, and coaches high school football in his small Nebraska hometown.

  • Nathan Wind’s star turn as Cochese sent him into the acting stratosphere with almost unprecedented speed. A year before “Sabotage,” Wind was waiting tables in a Tulsa Applebee’s; a year after, he was the toast of the town at Cannes based on his cast-against-type appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s 1995 remake of “Duck Soup.” Wind splits his time between Los Angeles, his Wyoming ranch (tellingly named “Sabotage Acres,” we’re told), and a villa near Lake Como.

  • Sir Stewart Wallace, he of mustache, safari jacket, and briefcase, remains an enigma. Few realize that he wore his own clothes for the shoot, but knowing what we know now about his occasional intelligence work, it makes sense. Wallace gave no interviews in the scrum of press surrounding “Sabotage,” and quickly became almost impossible to pin down. There are stories of him surfacing at random fan events, conventions or festivals, in disguise so as not to disrupt them, but none have been confirmed, and virtually nothing is known of his personal life.

    His last public appearance was two years ago, in the spring, at the opening of a Zen retreat near Palmetto, Florida. He has not been seen since, and his representation claims ignorance.

    Regardless of his whereabouts, we wish Wallace the best. All of us miss him very, very much.

Brilliant Legal Letters, Past and Present

Yesterday, this delightful example of the form crossed my desk; I think my favorite quote is “So like your client, the facts of the claim won’t quite fly,” but you should read the whole thing despite the gross hosting site and admittedly-douchey defendant. Being an asshole doesn’t mean you’re always wrong (thank god).

Sure, it’s not up there with the Cleveland Browns letter, but it’s a solid effort.

When I showed this to Senior Heathen legal correspondent Triple-F, he was greatly amused, but complained that HE never gets to write such letters. How soon he forgets! Just over a decade ago (!), he had occasion to ghost a delightful bit of legal correspondence after the band for his first wedding (summer, 2002) didn’t show, and yours truly called them out on the web site for the affair. The band took exception to this bit of truth (and the fact that Googling their name led directly to it; go me!), and sent me the following bit of ill-advised (and grammatically challenged) saber rattling when they discovered the site a year and a half later (winter, 2004):


My name is D___ and I am the contact person for [band name].

The reason we did not show up for the wedding you are referring to is because A___, of _____ Entertainment, did not inform [band] of the engagement.

We did not receive a contract or no from of agreement for the engagement prior to the date.

Further more, what you are doing, and I am aware of others who have done the same, is slander and I am asking you to either print the truth or retract all of your statement concerning this event from your website.

Our attorneys are informed of your actions, along with others, and we are in the process of dealing with these issues on a one-by-one basis.

This is notice to you from [band name].

And now, Triple-F’s brilliant reply:


I’m sorry you’re unhappy with the events documented on the wedding site. Unfortunately, since the site documents the events of July 13, 2002, accurately, we will not be making the changes you have requested.

You seem to be laboring under a number of misconceptions regarding this situation. I’ve spoken with the [wedding site] “legal department” — you may recall that both the groom and the father of the bride are attorneys — and they’ve provided me with a few points you may wish to consider.

First, even if there were a cause of action here — which there is not — it would be libel, not slander.

Second, even if you had a case for libel — which you do not — the statue of limitations for libel as set in the Mississippi Code is one (1) year from the date of publication. The post-wedding changes to the site went up the week after the wedding, i.e. during the summer of 2002. July 2002 was 18 months ago.

Third, even if it were libel and the clock hadn’t run out, truth is an absolute defense to libel action. Absolutely nothing said on the site regarding [booking agent] or [band] is untrue. I was there, as were several hundred other people (many of them also members of the Mississippi Bar). There is therefore no shortage of witnesses willing to testify under oath to the fact that [band] did not show up.

Fourth — perhaps best of all — the contract for the performance at this wedding at the Country Club of Jackson on July 13, 2002, was signed by one D______ [i.e., the author of the above complaint mail]. The groom and father-of-the-bride still have said contract, which sort of makes it hard for you to maintain that you knew nothing of the obligation.

Fifth, as a direct result of that contract, you and [booker] have already been sued in this matter, and the liquidated damages, as provided in the contract written by the band’s management for failure to perform, have been paid (in September, 2002, if my records are accurate). The father of the bride handled this suit, and you corresponded with him during that time frame.

Sixth, if you wish to pursue this matter any further, we will not only request sanctions under Rule 11 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure but will also request sanctions under Mississippi Code Annotated sec. 11-55-1 et seq. (Litigation Accountability Act), damages for malicious prosecution, abuse of process and defamation.

If any of this is unclear, I’ll be happy to put you in touch with [Triple F] (the groom and, as I mentioned above, an attorney in Jackson). He will reiterate all the points contained herein, I’m sure, since I consulted with him before writing this reply. In the future, we suggest that you remember that the best way to avoid bad publicity is to meet your contractual obligations in the first place.

Fortunately, Triple-F had a much better replacement wedding last year. Everyone showed up. It was awesome. ;)

“In the darkness of the room / your mother calls you by your true name…”

Or, a few thoughts on how we spent Tuesday night:

  • A month or so ago, when we were at the Woodlands for Arcade Fire, we were among the oldest people present not chaperoning children. This was clearly NOT the case with Bruce.

  • Bruce Springsteen is sixty fucking four years old, and has lost ZERO steps. He remains a trim — if tiny — densely packed distillation of live performer charisma. He played for a curfew-defying 3+ hours; it’s said online that this tour has supporting acts in some venues, but the bullshit rules at the Woodlands left no room for one. He started before 8, and didn’t finish until after 11. You damn sure get your money’s worth, that’s for certain.

  • It is apparently a thing for the crowd to play a little “stump the band” game with Bruce via signage. Several times I saw him point and grab a sign, thrilling a pit member, before launching into a song almost certainly already on the playlist — but this game got truly fun a few times when the request tickled him enough to take a flyer on some deep cut. The first instance was “One Step Up,” from 1988’s Tunnel of Love; the sign noted that, apparently, he hasn’t played it with the full E Street Band since that year, so of course CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.

    The later, better example was when he pulled two young Hispanic brothers up onstage, complete with their sign to the effect of “I busted my brother out of school to sing NO SURRENDER with the Boss!” Bruce obliged, and shared the mic with them for the duration of the song. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen at a concert. (Confidentially to Triple-F, it’s a level of “cool older brother at a concert” mojo that my late-1990s stunts cannot begin to match; sorry, dude).

  • One reason we ponied up the stupid amount of money required for decent seats at a Springsteen show this time around was the addition of Tom Morello on guitar. Little Steven’s busy in Norway, as I mentioned back in March, and the swap really adds some much-needed modernity to Bruce’s live sound. Morello is a goddamn wizard, and is a real pleasure to watch play — and what he gives to “The Ghost of Tom Joad” cannot be overestimated. Track of the night, IMO.

  • Returning to Joad, it was both predictable and disappointing that much of the crowd sat for this barnburner of a track; it’s not one they know (the live version is a performance of the re-recorded track from High Hopes, not of the original version from 1995 album of the same name). Of course, a mob of rich baby boomers in the Woodlands probably wouldn’t take too kindly to the overtly leftist ideas in the song even if they were following the lyrics (notwithstanding the “ARM THE HOMELESS” slogan on Morello’s guitar, there were no verbal politics from the stage outside of Bruce’s lyrics). They did, at least, come to their feet for Morello’s solo.

  • I don’t think she had a sign, but Bruce DID fish a woman out of the pit for “Dancing in the Dark.” The woman, clearly middle aged, is probably only a little bit older than that chick from the iconic video is now.

  • By the way, watch that video. Bruce’s youth — it was 1984, a full thirty years ago — will just SLAY you.

  • If you think three decades is a long time, this’ll kill you: he noted that the first time they played Houston was FORTY years ago, in 1974.

  • You know “Because the Night” because of Patti Smith, probably, but it was actually co-written by Bruce. Knowing that, as you now do, you must be faced with the same question I have: Why in the FUCK did milquetoast meek Natalie Merchant think she could cover it?

  • Of course Bruce brings on Joe Ely. Of course he does. I just wish they’d sung something other than covers of songs designed for the geriatric set; it’s not like Ely’s own songbook isn’t full of more interesting options than “Lucille” and “Great Balls of Fire.”

  • More disappointing was how much time Bruce gave to “Shout” towards the end, when I was getting antsy for “Thunder Road.” Really? Obviously, Bruce is not my monkey, but what I said about the covers with Ely goes double for this nursing home track that was tired when Born to Run was released. (Obviously, though, the overwhelmingly older crowd loved it, so I guess he knows his audience.)

  • He did, thankfully, finish out the night with a spare, acoustic, solo take on “Thunder Road,” which was a fine way to go out, but I can’t help but wish for a higher-energy take.

Now: let’s hope we can go at least a year without driving back out to the Synthetic Suburbs.

Life in the Future

I got one of those “reminder” mails from LinkedIn today, telling me to congratulate a few folks on work anniversaries.

The first reminder in this email, though, was wrong on a scale not ordinarily seen.

  • First, I know that today is not MV’s sixth anniversary at $company, because he helped found that company in 1997.
  • Second, I know that today is not his anniversary there because he left that company over two years ago.
  • Third, I know that today is not his anniversary there because he’s been dead since September of 2012.

But good try, LinkedIn. Good try.