Thursday, April 13, 2006

Worstward Ho

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Beckett and it almost got by me.

There doesn’t seem to have been that much of a fuss, considering.

There have been some theatrical festivals, book collections, etc., but I don’t get the feeling that a whole lot of attention is being paid to it.

Strange, too, as the passing of Beckett in 1989 felt like the end of a line of giants.

I can remember the fuss in 1974 for Gertrude Stein’s centennial, and the one for Joyce in 1982.

I wonder if Beckett’s accomplishment doesn’t cut too near the bone for this century. His constant refining of words, shaving them down to a thin wedge in an attempt to come to grips with the human condition, might not be a mirror we want to look in at the moment.

Or maybe it’s simply that so much of his accomplishment is built upon the fine shades and gradations of language itself, which is to say, the essence of literature.

And that’s not worth much these days.

He wouldn’t have wanted a fuss, of course. He was the least publicity conscious author that ever lived.

I came to him through Joyce, but the first time I really got a sense of his art was through the terrific one-man show that the late Irish actor Jack MacGowran used to do.

Beckett couldn’t have asked for a better, more expressive vehicle for his words. MacGowran looked and sounded as if he walked off of one of the author’s pages.

This potpourri of Beckett’s work was captured in a special that I remember received a great deal of exposure back in the 70’s on public television. The actor delivered a series of monologues from Beckett’s works against the stark background of a dry and arid desert landscape. Dressed in a large, shapeless black sack of a thing, he seemed like a mad monk in the middle of nowhere as he addressed us on the subject of the rotation of his sucking stones from within and without his waistcoat pocket.

One quickly sensed that the rhythm and the repetition of the language was as much content as it was form, as Beckett himself said of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. This was a world in which progress was illusory, a sad and cyclical redundancy that spun its wheels while believing that things would progress, would improve.

It was our world.

But there was great humor here as well, almost a vaudevillian tone that at least let us believe in the continuance of something approximating the human spirit, if not that spirit itself.

Its purpose was not to reduce the world to a dung heap, but to show just how remarkably long we can last while we’re trapped in it.

And there is something to be said for rereading an author throughout one’s life in order to glean different things. It’s one thing at age 16 to think that one’s life is nothing but a cruel existential suffering, but it’s quite another to read that final monologue from The Unnameable ("I can’t go on, I’ll go on") after having gone through three-quarters of your allotted span and trying to come to grips with the final act.

The poetry, the discipline, and the integrity of his work will no doubt continue to be an inspiration for generations to come, even to those who are not inclined to follow him very far.

And if he taught us anything, 100 years really doesn’t mean anything at all.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Poultry Sensation Evenings or: Fry Me To The Moon!

When the weekend rolls around on its welcome and lazy axis, it’s difficult to resist the siren song of the smorgasbord.

Particularly the giddy hymn to gluttony that constitutes the Shady Pines Smorgasbord and Farmers Market. Mentioned previously in these pages, the Shady Pines has a name that unfortunately makes it sound like it could be either a restaurant or a funeral home.

In fact, both are probably true.

You probably won’t believe this but I swear to you that on more than one occasion, we have driven up to the door to find an ambulance already there, regurgitating its crew of weary (and no doubt hungry) paramedics as they swiftly move to resuscitate another overly ambitious diner.

Such is the allure of their endless mountains of prepared meat loaf, macaroni, and mystery casseroles that the ordinary person can’t help but overrule that sensible inner voice that tells them that an indulgence such as this will surely shave some years off the back end. Like moths to a flame, they gather hungrily about the grill while muttering to anyone within earshot that “Life’s too short”…

They really do this. Usually by the bread bar.

Now it’s not that the wife and I are immune to these kinds of physiological concerns. As our golden years advance upon us, we take more care in selecting those foods and beverages that will provide something other than empty calories.

On the other hand, my friends, life is indeed too short.

However, like the holy estate of matrimony, a visit to Shady Pines is not something to be entered into lightly; there are considerations. What have we eaten this week? What are we planning on eating next week? If we promise not to eat anything for three days, wouldn’t a visit work out to about the same calorie count?

Most importantly, though, is what is on the grill.

That is to say, there are a number of items that change from week to week and there is, for example, no point in going if there’s not going to be any sausage. That’s a baseline thing, a dealbreaker. No sausage, no trip.

Then there are entrees of lesser importance like, say, the veal parmagiana. Now I’m willing to make the trip (assuming sausage has already been established) if there’s no veal parm, but the guarantee of its presence is pretty much a dealsealer. Close the blinds, gas up the car, and get the hell out of our way.

Don’t wait up, we’ll be coming home late tonight.

Other grill items, such as the pierogies and the salmon, are evergreens and can always be counted on to be there in copious supply.

They also have something called a “salad bar” which, as I understand it, contains no meat, but some people seem to enjoy it.

Well, the other day we were mulling over the pros and cons of visiting Shady Pines and rather than calling them for the day’s menu, we decided it’d be far more easy and efficient to look it up online.

Assigned with accomplishing this task, the wife disappeared into the computer room and stayed there for a good long time. There was no sound, just an occasional “hnn” as if in the throes of some private meditation.

“What’s going on in there?” I asked, finally.

“Oh my god,” she said, “you won’t believe the things we’ve missed.”

“Missed? Like what?”

“Come look at this.”

There on the monitor I saw the words: Poultry Sensation Evenings!

“Oh my,” I said.

Underneath the headline, the text read as follows:

Fresh and tender capon, succulent roast duck legs, goose, delicious smoked turkey, marinated turkey breast, chicken cheese steaks, fried chicken livers, marinated wings and stuffed chicken breast, stuffed Cornish hens, not to mention chicken stir fry and marinated chicken breast.

I could feel the eyes of the Chicken Little figure from the Disney film behind me burning holes into my back.

“My god, that’s unbelievable,” I mumbled. “How did we miss that?”

“That’s not all,” the wife said. “Look at this.”

She pointed with her finger at the words Pork Bonanza!

Beneath this I read:

Roast pork, Pig stomach, fresh and smoked sausage, stuffed pork chops, carved honey ham, Smoked pork chops, Marinated pork tenderloin, BBQ spare ribs, ham loaf, pork scrapple and Ham & Bean soup and last but not least Pork & Kraut.

They had outdone themselves. This gluttonous orgy of animal flesh was surely something of a pinnacle in the history of human consumption. I felt as if it would be just as important, if not more so, to witness it as it would be to participate in it.

I could tell my grandchildren that I was there.

“Dum da da dum, da da dum, da da Pork Bonanza!” the wife started to sing, using the melody of the well-known television program. Surely this was one Bonanza that the late Dan Blocker would have approved of.

How was it that there were any animals left? Were they now in some sort of Entree Protection Program?

Of course, they got the last laugh as those paramedics got ready to jump into the ambulance with every forkful.

I had a vision of a chicken spirit, not unlike that of Chicken Little, with his ectoplasmic wings around the gullet of some overly enthusiastic customer whose breathing between bites had suddenly become labored.

“How ya like me now?” the Chicken teased, his green spectacles gleaming in the artificial light of the grilling station.

It seemed like the long-delayed revenge of all those smiling animals in the ads who’d seemed deliriously pleased to be sautéed and fricasseed for our pleasure. They had risen in legion and were now taking it out on our overfed hides.

History had passed us by, however, and the wife and I would have to be satisfied with the usual groaning board. This was fine with me as I didn’t feel like teasing the fates any more than they’d been recently teased.

The last thing I needed was a small cartoon chicken aiming his tiny baseball bat at my kneecaps.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Help Me, Jebus!

Sides are being chosen, and the future of man hangs in the balance! The enemies of virtue may be on the march, but they have not won, and if we put our trust in Christ, they never will...It is for us then to do as our heroes have always done and put our faith in the perfect redeeming love of Jesus Christ.
- Tom DeLay, last month at “War On Christians” conference.

April 4th: Resigns from Congress.

This is a bold time. This is an amazing time of opportunity. And this is a time for each and every one of us to live our faith in a public forum like no other time on Earth...Everything is possible with God.
- Katherine Harris, last month at "Reclaiming America For Christ" conference.

April 1st: Harris Campaign Imploding; Loses 3 More Core Staffers.

I'm not saying they're on the wrong team or anything, but I got my new job through Satanpower Job Services.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

You're Not Dead, You're Just In Newark

The final season of The Sopranos began a few weeks ago and if previous storylines have demonstrated a knowing use of leitmotif and attention to detail that is unusual for a television production, this current batch proves that they didn’t spend that long hiatus sitting around playing checkers.

Leaving aside for the moment the memorable sequences in which James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano seems to be wandering through a purgatory of his own design as he fights for his life in a hospital bed (and that should be enough, shouldn’t it?), there’s been a luxurious unfolding of another layer of meaning that’s there if you want it, but not necessary to your enjoyment of the show.

This season opened notably with a sequence scored to William S. Burroughs reading a section of The Western Lands, a work that describes Egyptian concepts of the afterlife. With the sort of synchronicity that one usually associates with literature more than television, each of the “seven souls” described by Burroughs (accompanied by music from Bill Laswell) matches up with a character from the show. The precise similarities are astonishing and the sequence makes the most out of them.

The purpose of it, as will become clear in the weeks to come, is to point out that regardless of what ultimately happens to these characters or what justice is or isn’t meted out to them, it hardly matters. We have entered the land of the dead and, although it would appear that it’s Tony’s unconscious that’s making the journey there, the opposite is true. It’s the sphere of reality that constitutes the show’s real hell and it has been made that way by the choices of the characters. There are enough asides to the audience to make it clear that Tony would be far better off in the afterlife depicted by his feverish imaginings. It’s the real world he’d be wise to avoid.

There’s a sly thread that has been slowly and steadily reinforcing this and it appeared first couched as a very funny line from Paulie Walnuts. Charged with bringing Tony’s son A.J. home, he glares at him and his newly elongated locks and snaps, “Hey, Van Helsing! Let’s go!”

The gag, of course, is that A.J. now seems to be sporting the same hairstyle as Hugh Jackman did in that recent ill-conceived tribute to Universal’s old movie monsters. The Van Helsing in that flick (described as “subtle as a Red Bull enema” by one critic and “like celebrating James Joyce with a monster-truck rally” by another) was not only menaced by Dracula but the rest of the original menagerie, including The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster.

So A.J. has been, however humorously, identified with a monster-hunter.

Little wonder that when he’s finally alone with his father as he recovers from the gunshot wound delivered by Uncle Junior, he swears vengeance and vows to put a bullet in Junior’s “mummy head.”

This makes A.J. Van Helsing and Hamlet simultaneously. Let’s see Lost do that.

It’s movie-hound Christopher Moltisanti who then pushes hard for the business to invest in a cheap horror movie, which he describes as “Saw II meets The Godfather.” The idea is that a wiseguy gets cut up into pieces (“He’ll feel that the next day!”) but returns from the dead to wreak havoc.

It is, of course, the movie we’re watching, filled with its own assortment of creatures both dead and undead.

Tony proves by his absence that he's the engine that allows the other characters to exist. Without him “there is intrigue among the souls, and treachery,” we read elsewhere in The Western Lands. “No worse fate can befall a man than to be surrounded by traitor souls.” It's Mr. Eight-Ball, or Ego (the very thing Tony seems to be trying to lose during the confusion of his dreams), whose insistence on identity seems to causing all the trouble: “And what about Mr. Eight-Ball, who has these souls? They don't exist without him, and he gets the dirty end of every stick. Eights of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your dirty rotten vampires...”

And the greatest monster of them all?

He’s been lying on a cold slab as he always has, surrounded by all manner of scientific equipment dedicated to breathing life into his reanimated corpse.

I can’t think of a better metaphor for Tony Soprano than Frankenstein’s Monster. It doesn’t feel forced, either. In the same way it used the Burroughs piece so skillfully, the ease with which The Sopranos absorbs so many other meanings and texts makes you begin to feel as if you’re the fiction coming out of its world, and that doesn’t happen very often.