This is the revised Primer to poet-writer-critic Dan Schneider, because I feel like I didn’t do him enough justice in my last Primer. Now that I have gotten to know the writer and his works even more, I will try to characterize who he is, what he has achieved, and why you should care about him and read everything he has to say, even if it seems off-putting at first glance.
For people who might have accidentally wandered into his website Cosmoetica, or chanced upon his movie/lit reviews (probably due to an endorsement from Roger Ebert) – you might know of him as a seemingly contrarian critic who has a lot of powerful opinions on all kinds of subjects. He doesn’t care about what has or has not been classified as a ‘Classic’ by the academic consensus, but uses his own judgment. He has rejected huge names in literature like Shakespeare (to him, the comedies are trite though he has 7-8 great premodern plays), Virginia Woolf (“a rambling piece of vomitus” with regards to To The Lighthouse), Joyce (has moments of brilliance, but is mostly a mess), Faulkner (full of stereotypes rather than real human beings) – and a variety of contemporary poets. Here is Dan ripping apart Ted Hughes:
“There is an ironclad rule when approaching the poetry of Edward J. ‘Ted’ Hughes- &, no, it is not DO NOT FOLLOW HIM TO THE ALTAR! Smartasses! The rule is this- if the poem is under 10 lines long it might be a passable poem. If the poem is over 10 lines- forget it; it’s likely a disaster. This is because TH never wrote a poem over 10 lines long that was any good. He simply lacked the musical skill to keep a poem felicitous, & his intellect was too lacking to come up with any scenario worthy of taking past the 10 line limit. TH was a bad poet, overall. I could go on to show how he relentlessly tried to capture elements of his 1st wife’s poetry in his own, despite the long debunked mythos that it was TH that taught what’shername how to be a great poet. Ever notice that that was never propounded before her headbaking incident? Yes, the wife said it, but that’s because she was stuck on TH’s fishing rod. Don’t believe me? I challenge you to read his late 1970s book length atrocity Gaudete- the longest poem in the English language. OK, not technically, at 200+ pages, but it FEELS like it as the interminably dull narrative plods on.”
Dan is unrelenting in his criticism, and he’ll tear these writers apart regardless of their literary stature. In the meantime, he will uphold as ‘great’ several names of his own choosing, and, the greatest of them all – himself. He has, by his own claim, written more than a thousand great poems, as well as several great books – including a 2 million word book called A Norwegian in the Family.
All of these things are extremely off-putting for any new reader, and will deeply piss off any intellectual type who loves to catch up on the latest review at the NYRB or the Paris Review even more, and will deeply deeply incense any academic who has spent their entire life toiling over several of these classics – and, of those people who are attracted to some of the reviews, there are probably only a percentage who will really dive into everything Cosmoetica has to offer.
There are a bunch of opinions regarding the man himself, scattered throughout the internet. Usually negative and aggressive. Dan has dealt with some of them in his own writings, and I’ll just put one up here as a representative, from a website called Flashpoint Magazine:
There’s cranky. And then there’s Dan Schneider. Dan is a guy who just can’t let it go. It sticks in his craw. It pisses him off like kids leaving garbage on the front lawn or telemarketers calling during dinner.
And what is Dan pissed off about. Taxes? Nuclear war? White slavery? No. Its poetry, no less. Poetry? Yeah, fuckin’ poetry. Can you believe it?
And why is Dan pissed. Well, because no one will recognize that he is the “great poet” he has proclaimed himself to be. And as proof he has made it his mission to attack the current crème de la crème of the poetry world.
The sad fact is personal and ad hominem or not his attacks are generally thoroughly justified. What’s astonishing is that the mainstream poetry world has given him so much grist for his mill.
To merit a ‘This Old Poem’ mugging by ex-gang member Schneider there are four sins the poet getting thumped must commit. These are Schneiders’ cardinal sins and he repeats then ad nauseam for virtually every contemporary poet he attacks.
His four cardinal sins are sloppy enjambment, use of clichés, lack of concision and the stated or implied fact that they are not as ‘great’ a poet as Schneider is.
The astonishing thing is that Schneider’s poetry and the poetry of people he claims to admire are virtually indistinguishable from the poetry he criticizes.
I chose this quote because, despite being full of spite and aggression, it does helpfully condense a couple of gripes that people have towards Dan. They charge him with egoism for even DARING to uphold his own poetry & works as greater than the Literary Canon, they attack his own poetry for being “virtually indistinguishable from the poetry he criticizes”, and they also denude his method, since Dan’s critical method of ‘enjambment, clichés, concision, and greatness’ probably seems like some kind of rigid system that reduces and formalizes the splendor of the medium, or something like that.
I’ll get into these points later, but, for now, I have to set up some preliminary set-up as to who exactly Dan Schneider is.
The Man Himself (And His Works)
Regarding Dan’s background, an article entitled “Dan Schneider vs the Rest of the World” saved in the City Pages website has a nice summary of his life. When I checked the website, it was removed, but thankfully you can find a copy of the article with Wayback Machine. I’ll post an excerpt, but you can look it up yourself. Take note that the article fails to actually showcase Dan’s works, and makes him seem like a one-sided critic with nothing to offer:
More importantly, I want to focus on the works themselves which is, in the end, what will be given over to Eternity. If the True Life Memoirs ever reaches the general public, you will get a full picture of the man with much more clarity than I could ever sketch out on my keyboard. You can see some examples of that work here, but most of the links are probably dead, so you might have to do some Waybacking. You can find a list of Dan’s unpublished works over here.
And I did a page showing some of the wordcounts and sheer quantity of stuff he has written over here.
Now, with this we have established that Dan has written more words than Proust, and probably a ton of other people out there (even though part of his wordcount is re-appropriation of old texts, A Norwegian still has more original words than In Search of Lost Time, not to mention Proust spent his whole life writing his novel, while Dan took roughly 17 months and had other books, and a few thousand pages worth of poetry, before that).
A general rebuttal you hear people use against critics is that they are all just talk, and rather than criticize, they should actually ‘do it themselves’ (as though the biography or output of the critic had any effect on the logic of the criticism). Even if we take the criticism as valid, we can see that Dan does not apply by a long shot. He is a prolific creator, as well as a critic.
But Stephen King is also prolific, and he’s a pulp writer! What about the quality of the works in question?
Well, if you’ve read any of my analyses of the works themselves, you can see how Flashpoint’s criticism of “virtually indistinguishable” does not apply.
The website claims that “Clampitt does create little impressionistic bon bons like her poem “Fog” and with far more élan than Schnieder’s crampy squats”. Here is the poem by Clampitt in question. Here is Dan’s Congoleum Footfalls, that uses 5 or so different styles in order to convey a total sense of mood. Here is his American Imperium, that switches between voices (Reverend Samuel Parris, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Nixon, and ends with a segment set in a SF setting) in order to showcase a total vision of America, syncing together with Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire series of paintings. Even in terms of smaller works of abstraction and imagery, here are the Holy Sonnets, which are all tight little philosophical posits with surprisingly simple imagery, yet leading up to complex truths. To state that Dan’s poems are “virtually indistinguishable” from those he criticizes, is to show a complete lack of understanding of nuance. American Imperium might have the veneer of a polyphonic work like Ezra Pound’s Cantos, but look at the structure, and the way that Dan sets up a narrative, and it will be more concrete and focused than the digressiveness of Pound. Look at how Clampitt sticks to a single style of poesy and vagueness for the whole poem, while look at how Dan swaps his style around with sound intellectual judgment in Angelus for the Flatiron, to fit the vision that he wants to impart.
But, maybe the lyric might be too subtle for some, so here are some teasers to the daring experimentation that Dan has done in his unpublished poems. I’ll just leave you with little snippets, and hopefully this will inspire some publishing house to step up and spread his works to all:
Do you know anybody who has written with such range of technique, difference of voice, and subject matter – in published poetry today? Not that I know of.
And let’s not get into the stuff beyond the poetry! I’ve already done some reviews of his plays and parts of his prose elsewhere in the site. Rather than being packaged into any single subject, movement, ‘-ism’, or style – Dan merely aims towards creating a vast bounty of life itself. He uses whatever technique that fits the moment, and is not limited at all. Here is an excerpt of a poetic moment from A Norwegian:
Dan can pull of the same kinds of poesy as a person like Virginia Woolf, but, in this case, it is only a fraction of the total reality encompassed in A Norwegian. He does not have to lard an entire book with it. And, compared to post-modernist fat books, he actually has living and breathing human characters of every variety walking his pages, rather than caricatures. Just look at the concision that Dan can set up a person’s psychology and background:
Look at the contrast between the more poetic excerpt, and the more psychological one. The ability to dance across so many styles for hundreds of pages, even though his writing speed is a hundred times faster than many writers out there, showcases the absolute peaks of writing ability that any human can achieve.
Now, the main reason why I spent so much time to outline all of the above is to outline a seeming paradox. People who look at Dan’s criticism seem to think of him as too formalistic, reductive, or, basically – too simple. Yet all of the above showcases the opposite in his works – the multiplicity of styles that encompasses worlds upon worlds. Is Dan being hypocritical, or lying to us? To fall into that kind of thinking is merely to misunderstand what Dan is actually talking about in his criticisms. Does his usage of “cliché” mean, for example, to merely cut out words like ‘Sun’, or ‘Moon’, or ‘Rose’ from your own writing? Of course not! This is the part where I spend my time breaking down the elements that frequently appears in Dan’s writings, and how revolutionary such thinking is, even though it seems reductive at first glance.
Cliches, Subversions, and Stereotypes
Let me bring up one of Dan’s criticisms of poet John Dryden over here, where he breaks down a couple of clichés that Dryden uses. The first one is ‘a flame within’. Does this mean that we can never use this string of words for any other poem?
Let’s compare with Dan’s own love poem, You Are All Desire, which also happens to contain the word ‘flame’ within it.
Now notice the clear difference. The flame in Dan’s poem, linked to the idea of ‘oxygen’ and the contrast of ‘needs’ versus ‘desires’ – generates tons more complexity of idea as compared to the feeble way that Dryden uses it in his love poem. He merely expounds on the idea of love being like a fire within, while Dan does the same, but twists this idea and subverts it, having water “quell the instinctual ravening” by the next line. Throughout all 4 stanzas of Dryden’s poem, his flame is the old idea of a flame of romance tormenting him. By stanza two of Dan’s poem, the ‘conflagrations’ he mentions change from being linked to love, into being linked to something higher, like the actual act of writing the poem itself.
What provides Dan’s poem with condensation of meaning is not the image itself, but the structure that it is placed in, and the varied parallels and branches that stem from its connections with the other words within the poem. This is what he means by the need to avoid clichés, or subvert them – to ensure that words are placed in a nexus that generates the most explosions of meaning and layers in the brain.
This seemingly simple command has infinite variations, and can be applied to an infinite number of things. It is a call to have everything cohere, while simultaneously building outwards into newer and newer forms. You can experiment, but make it count in the structure of the text! You can use clichés, but why say the same old thing? Make those clichés shine again in a new light! Don’t be stuck in any single bias, and keep thinking of how to build new constructions upon constructions, which are constant in their subversion and newness! From Dan’s single command to himself to always subvert clichés, and try out new things, and never repeat himself, we get the massive edifice of A Norwegian – a book that always provides something new across hundreds of pages.
This is also why Surrealists embrace the chaos as a method, yet they also sound the same across reams and reams of text. They think that having a flow of words is equivalent to mirroring the great flow of Life itself, and yet this is untrue, because Life flows, but it also gathers, into logic and narratives and coherent structures. It is a chaos that orders itself in parts, and so does Dan – that he can have variety across his pages, but he can knit them together with sense.
And this is why Dan clears out much of the literary canon, for a select few ‘great works’ of his own choosing – like Moby Dick, or Vonnegut, or Hesse, or the early works of Kundera, or even A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – and this is despite probably having actually read most of the Canon to the point where he can quote extensively from a ton of books in his own works (and the fact that he does not show it off is probably part of the reason why he has been misconstrued as a contrarian or middle-brow at times, because nobody knows what his literary cred is and assume that he’s going up against literary scholars like Bloom with little books under his belt). These books are the books with the most subversion and coherence. They always provide something new, and build up to a complex idea, and, simply put, do not waste the reader’s time with excess.
This, incidentally, leads up to the next point, about concision.
Concision of Meaning
When one thinks of what concision means, one might think of stripped down, emotionless, minimalism – or some kind of style guide like The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This is not the case, because, as established above – Dan cares about structure more than the words themselves.
You can be as ornate as Melville, or as stripped down and realist as Irwin Shaw, or as sensual and ironic as Kundera – but the best works of such writers are characterized by how they expand outwards in their constant subversion and coherence. Same for movies – in that you can have lengthy Tarkovsky-style shots, or gritty Cassavetes style shots, but the power of such films comes from how they can condense one slice of human reality into a few hours. Shakespeare’s comedies are bad not merely because they are ‘lowbrow’ (just see how Dan uses lowbrow humor in A Norwegian to elucidate the characters of people like Richard Nixon, or create greater symbolic resonances) but because those jokes go nowhere, and are limited in their purposes. Some might flesh out character, but not the bulk.
Of course, the words themselves are related to the structure in some way, which is why he has some pointers there as well. Don’t waste your time proliferating modifiers and “poetics for the sake of poetics” style imagery, especially if it only serves as cosmetics to your story, rather than contributing to that nexus of meaning.
We might find Woolf’s writing, or Faulkner’s writing, beautiful in the moment, solely due to the aesthetic proliferation of images and sounds – but when you are sitting on the bus, or talking to friends – will any of those words ever come to mind after reading? Or are they just little experiences in themselves, separated from all reality? Yet the works of Dan has penetrated my life to the point where I can remember entire scenes even when I’m just walking around or talking to people, and, more than just remembrance (because a teenage fan can remember every single song of some pop star) – I also get a sense of the fuller life and reality that exists beyond each moment. This was probably what Joyce wanted with Ulysses, but how many times does one experience that ‘elevation’ after the moment of reading, and how many days after? And Ulysses will only speak to literary scholars, while Dan’s memoirs are simply written, but complex in the truths that they build up to, and can be picked up by more people of different lives. One might feel the shifting tide of Becoming (or whatever is being propounded) if they read postmodern philosophers like Deleuze or Derrida, but who thinks of deconstruction on the toilet? Yet Dan’s poetic moments of shitting (as seen in that chapter on Richard Nixon) will outline that greater reality, sometimes, even as I am taking a dump.
(Even with regards to my point about the pop-star. Dan’s works are filled with people who attach themselves to small things like the pop culture of his time, so he reaches out to those people as well)
This is what concision of meaning can bring you. It builds up structures within you, so that you feel a multitude of lives within you that you can remember. Dan describes the same feeling in a review of Delilio’s Underworld:
“Of course, the answer is clearly no, as there need be no overlap between assertions of excellence and simply liking something, just as one might think a woman is gorgeous, yet also a raving bitch you cannot stand. They are utterly distinct domains of human reaction. But, while scanning dozens of the book’s blurbs, not a single ‘prominent’ (read- published) critic dared to state the utter sense of apathy that Duncan mentions. Like him, I too, now typing this almost a week after finishing the book, would be almost utterly helpless in describing, even at the macro level of detail I have, any of the events or characters I have, sans my notes, on Post-its, of the book. It utterly washed over me, yet, years later, without looking things up online, I can recall the smell of fresh baked bread, as described in the opening of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, the obstinacy of Bartleby in Bartleby The Scrivener, the loneliness of the General, in Sandor Marai’s Embers, as he waits for Konrad’s return, or the addled joy and despair of Billy Pilgrim in many scenes in Slaughterhouse-Five. And this is not because I am a lazy reader, rather because DeLillo simply ran out of story, and tried to bloat a good to very good novella into a monstrosity of a novel without extending the story’s scope and cast of characters to be commensurate to the tale he hoped to tell.”
Such a sense of life can only be created through the condensation of information that the above books pulls off, such that you can see resonances and parallels even in the most innocuous words and ordinary events. When you process information at such speed, no longer do you see the artifice of the text for what it is, but the words are forgotten, and there, instead, is a model of the scene, or the man. Descriptions, unless they contribute to symbols or moods, are also excessive – because people view places based on the ‘internal’ rather than the external. For an example, see how Dan uses anecdotes to characterize a certain bar in a chapter of A Norwegian, rather than describing its exterior. He calls this ‘co-creating’ with the reader, which contributes to his technique of Total Immersion.
Because of this idea of concision, it is also the reason why Dan values enjambment above all other techniques in poetry. Line breaks, which can split apart poetic images and create dualities of meaning, is what defines the medium of poetry against any other medium, even at its most experimental. Sure, prose poetry can exist, but most fail because they do not understand that the existence of line breaks means that we process the information completely differently from poetry. One of the critiques you hear is that bad poetry is just “prose broken up into lines”.
Similar to meter, which may or may not exist, but, even if it does – only contributes a small % to the overall music of the text that contributes to meaning, when assonance and consonance creates more, and all that is useless if the structure is totally devoid of intellectual heft. This is why you can have the most finely metered Romantic verses, and yet remember none of it. Equally silly is the idea that poetry should contain all sorts of imagery to stimulate the senses, like visual imagery, or auditory imagery, or kinaesthetic imagery – when the power of poetry comes from its abstraction and its ability to reach into deeper structures than the senses. If one reads poetry to merely have their senses stimulated, one might as well go to a fashion show instead, or a carnival. Only when these sensory images are combined with meaning, can you get the above effect that Dan talks about, where he remembers the smell of bread in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Rather, all of the above are tools to derive that concision of meaning that can come from the best of poems. Every line is fresh and new, and yet coheres and has multiple layers. The skewed face of a Picasso speaks more to me about war than a thousand realist paintings, because it communicates a deeper meaning about the ridiculousness of conflict, and its comicality.
The end result of all of the above, if done well, is that you get works that are truly, and objectively, great.
Objectivity is a taboo word, because anyone who claims it is also claiming the burden of order in the midst of fluctuation. The safe bet is always to take relativism as your stance, or, at the very least, a kind of intersubjectivity. After all, with stuff like the sciences, objectivity can be proven by method – but nobody wants to be told that they are objectively wrong with regards to anything related to the Arts. Art is the realm of feeling and personal meaning. You identify with it. There’s no way you could possibly be wrong about it, could you?
The fear is that if a stance is actually taken, then a hierarchy will be formed, which will lead to a dictatorship of meaning. It is the implication that some human viewpoints are going to be more valid than others, and, in this case, Dan is objectively more ‘human’ than anyone else on this Earth.
Yet, the basis of this fear is due to a misunderstanding of what objectivity entails. When objectivity comes into the frame, people will think about poet-machines, and literary AlphaGos replacing authors with their own calculations on how to write literature. They think of critic-cabals shouting down works from totalitarian towers. This is far from what Dan means when he talks about Objective greatness, and you can see from all the above examples of his bountiful variety, that they are all vastly different from one another.
There is still a gap, after all, between the world as we see it, and the totality of things. And Art is merely a translation of that totality known as Reality, turning the fluctuation of human souls into an object, as it were, that one can grasp throughout daily life. As stated here:
“Art can’t fix anything. It can just observe and portray. What’s important is that it becomes an object, a thing you can see and talk about and refer to. A film is an object around which you can have a debate, more so than the incident itself. It’s someone’s view of an incident, an advanced starting point.” (Steve McQueen quoted through an essay by Jackson Hawley, which also has a wonderful characterization on what objectivity entails)
When you compare the Love poems of Dan, to the love poetry of any lesser poet before him, which shows more sides of the thing? Which turns it into an object that you can spin around, like a cube, in your head? One merely speaks of love’s loss, but Dan’s poems are full of love’s loss, gain, passing, sensuality, and he even has poems where he’ll link it up to other things, like animal imagery and mythological imagery – and the best of his love poems can condense all of the above within its edifice. Just look at his Twin Towers Canon where he combines a love sestina with a mythological rumination on the towers.
It is more of an Object. It reaches a greater totality. This is a hierarchy in the sense that a cathedral is larger than a house, and can house and uplift much more souls in it. It houses more interpretations and minds. It is less exclusionary, and can open worlds to the reader, just as Melville opened the world of nautical adventure to countless readers who have not even stepped in a boat before, and uplifted it to a cosmic profession.
Dan doesn’t want to be a God (at least, not a monotheistic one… I hope) – but he wants as many humans to be creators of their own worlds, objectified in art, as possible:
“But I believe differently- & perhaps this explains why I don’t fall into the seemingly DIF-inspired trap of envy & irresponsibility for my art. I believe that art’s ‘physics’ hews less to a Classical line than to a more modern ‘Quantum’ line. Classical physics forbids other universes with other sets of physics. Likewise a Classical view of art hews to the DIF. Quantum physics allows for other universes, dimensions, & sets of physics within those dimensions. Likewise the more Quantum view of art allows that each poem/artwork is- in effect- its own universe & must merely be self-consistent to its own artistic principles/physics. & like Quantum physics, which allows that anything is possible but most universes that realize themselves (& are ‘successful’ by that definition) will be physically similar, so too will each poem/artwork/universe in my view have an infinite range of possibility”
Capturing the great flow of life itself, reining it in, and turning it into something concrete, that lasts as long as men have eyes to see.
I have corresponded with Dan about several things since my first primer on him, and I feel that there is one thing I must mention. Going back to the earlier charge by Flashpoint magazine. Is Dan egoistic?
The answer – definitely yes… but what artist isn’t? And egoism is negative only if it is invalid, but if you have a 2-million-word book and several thousand poems, you probably have some right to call yourself great.
But, more than anything, he does not call himself great merely to blow his own horn, but also because he wants to see more great works on the field. Imagine if there was a massive novel like A Norwegian for every country – would that not do better to break boundaries and teach other people about the multiplicity of lives? If people learnt to appreciate great works, would they not reach that totality that exists beyond the narrow scope of their biases and lives? It pains me that the trap known as the ‘Literary Canon’ has ensnared people for hundreds and thousands of years, but it gives me hope to see that a single man from Queens, who has forged his way up from the bottom, can circumvent the trap that has caught thousands and thousands of souls, through his innate talent and sheer hard work. And, according to him, it all started with Whitman – which reminds me of that beautiful stretch of verse:
Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?
Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun…. there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand…. nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.
Young poets, writers, and creators of all types – do not fall for the trap. Contact Dan. Stop moaning about the death of Literature when a contemporary Melville is walking the Earth. Put as much hours into your work, based on the wisdom he has gleamed, and come up with works that will last into Eternity. This isn’t the end of things, but the start of things. Do not be driven by externalities, and foreign words, but drive your own fate and tongue with uniquity. Do not be lazy. The world is waiting for you.
Or, in the words of the man:
“You are not the poet I love most….”
There is the feeling beside that which is felt,
as if a great artwork beyond consciousness,
whether gazing a church tower, or being sifted through its panes
like alluvial photons. There in a bowl of opening roses,
made majestic by a slice of sight reflecting
the spoke of sun upon a slab where something dead may lay,
is an abstract of insight grown well within your wreath of verse,
brief episode of touch, still opening endlessly and growing,
self-illumined, silent paladins of the muse,
like nothing that ever was:
I know nothing of life.
Yet handfuls of this distanceness flash subtle signals
kissing gently my eyes, my mind which wilders yet prompts
the words which core, then filter, sweetly a stumble of laughter,
themselves into the subject’s smile, removed from thought,
as if you, inflaming the gestures of what may occur within,
as if still seemingly supple to God’s will,
the many illusions of its breath:
I know nothing of it.
And then this love- of life, of it, of you-
as if I were what you are, so strangely
itself, like you:
I know nothing of you.
Then, as if newly formed and felt,
Some of Dan’s most powerful poesy comes from his ‘Skyline Poems’ – a series of poems each focusing on a different famous high-rise building. The verses orient more towards the grandiose and cosmic, possibly trying to emulate the grandiosity of the building’s elevation. So, this analysis, I’ll be looking at one of the shorter ones – Angelus for the Flatiron.
23-skiddoo is what they mean, and say,
to men who lift their eyes that way, to skirts blown
high from the draft from that space. 5th and Broadway
is no place for a lady to stay. Alone,
in the shade the terra cotta made, is shown
lascivity unleashed. In the here and now,
where the end is nigh, I wandered lonely in
a crowd, and stood underneath the evening prow,
as the looks grew cool, in a Renaissant way,
and foresaw Revelation: my dress had blown
so high (in culture-abandoned artsy sway!),
and arched through the dream, in which Satan had shone,
the sun catalyzed by this architect’s own
vision. Creation is the subject that now
occupies his Orpheus, this country, known
for its future. Stand beneath its steely prow
where this Gothos of limestone’s illicit ways
make old Gotham’s crush so uniquely its own
time and place; watch as this skyscraper parlays
the elegant loneliness of excellence
into Armageddon (I know not of ends-
save this!), and so I pray to the Virgin. How
I do not know, for such psalms have swiftly grown
into chorals of loss, that bequeath their prow
to the morrow, where reason is the final
straw, where women can rush, and not have to show
their best, in a gust, to strangers, whose looks cull
a crowd, glancing underneath this tower’s prow.
Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.
Before peaking into grandiosity, Dan begins with the most surprising of entrances – the slang phrase 23-skiddoo. For about a stanza and a half, the poem focuses on an image of a lady having her skirt blown up, before transitioning the descriptions of the building. This starting point also fits because the phrase has found itself embedded into the mythos of the building, as seen in the Wiki article.
The poem transitions from low slang to a higher image effortlessly in the first three lines, ending with “high from the draft from that space”. Cosmic hues are set so that they can be followed up later. The image of the men staring up the skirt also sets a connection to a phallic thrust as well, followed up later in the imagery. In terms of music, the woosh is conveyed through the “skirts blown high from that draft of space” contrasting against the slower verses before.
The remaining few lines drags back for a moment, focusing on the lady, and preparing sounds for the woosh again in the second stanza. Each line has a contrast between the ending word with ‘o’ sounds and the first part, such that there’s a constant push and pull throughout, and the “I wandered lonely in a crowd, and stood underneath the evening prow” has a slow decline that sets up the next stanza.
Enjambment such as ‘alone’ and ‘I wandered lonely in’ sets up images of a lone smaller figure juxtaposed against the tower (the beautiful image “in the shade of a terra cotta made”). Apocalyptic words are also slowly introduced such as “lascivity unleashed” and “where the end is nigh” to follow up on the theme of decadence that will be introduced later. The reveal that the whole poem is being narrated first-person by the female whose dress is blown only comes with the “I wandered lonely in” – which also brings to mind the famous Wordsworth line, but subverts it with the image of modern alienation “I wandered lonely in a crowd”.
The slow ending of the previous stanza is carried over with “as looks grew cool”, and this stanza also opens up with hints at a greater theme of historical progress, with the “in a Renaissant way”. Then, the next two lines begins the cosmic rise of the poem, segueing from the dress blowing up again (intuitively conveyed through the tones of “culture-abandoned artsy sway!”) – and changing into an abstract image of “arched through the dream”. The use of “shone” subverts “shown” and transfers over to the image of the “sun catalysed” in the next line. A possible comparison is to look at The Finn and see how the sun & dream motifs are used there.
The words used in this stanza (and the next) call-back to more Classical styles, especially if you compare it to another one of Dan’s sonnets on Milton. The Latinate words used helps to bolster the sense of ‘construction’ going on, building up the skyscraper – and providing a hardening of the softer syllables used in the first stanza. It merges with the forward ambitions of America, and also fits the ‘Angelus’ format established in the title.
While the initial lines in the stanza each had a verb or image providing something ‘hardier’ to latch onto (“grew cool”, “blown”, “sway”, “arched through”, “sun catalysed”) – lines 6 to 8 of this stanza changes into a comparatively abstracted hue (“Creation is the subject that now occupies his Orpheus, this country, known for its future”), as though standing at the peak of idea after ascending up the steps of the previous lines.
This stanza ends with a return to concrete description of the skyscraper, after spending time in a more abstract realm – with the “steely prow”. This description is given symbolic import from the connection with the “future”, and repetition of the ‘prow’ throughout the whole poem at the end of each stanza, with each repetition giving different connections.
The skyscraper is once again compared with decadence in “limestone’s illicit ways”, juxtaposed against “old Gotham’s crush”. I’m guessing this Gotham refers to the nickname for New York City, rather than the Batman city, although there are also possible connections to be made there in terms of the whole ‘dream’ strain – but that depends on the frame of the reader, and is less related to the core of the poem.
If you look at lines 2-5 of this stanza, you can see how each line subverts the one that came before it. The enjambment of line 2 seems laudatory of Gotham, but line 3 establishes its position as mere history (“time and place) and raises the skyscraper above it (“parlays”). Line 4 provides an interesting description of its greatness being “the elegant loneliness of excellence”, and line 5 segues back into the narrator’s high moral voice, decreeing its Armageddon.
With the last part of this stanza, which has the narrator “praying to the Virgin” against the tower’s decadence – the sounds change back again into softer tones with words such as ‘psalms’, ‘swiftly’, ‘loss’. It returns back to focus on the woman and shifts away from the tower. Here the symbol of the prow also shifts away from the steely thrust of ambition, into “chorals of loss/that bequeath their prow/to the morrow, where reason is final”. The symbol has changed to become antithetical to the tower’s soar.
Narratively, the poem ends with a return to the small, and it ends with the image of a crowd glancing at the woman’s blown dress under the prow. The grandiose poetics are gone, and the sounds go back to normal.
The two notable subversions in this stanza are: the ‘straw’ that appears after “where reason is the final” – creating an enigmatic feel (you could read it as a segue back into the woman narrator’s internal voice, telling herself that it’s the final straw) – and the last line’s twist on the ‘looks cull’. Before you read the last line, it feels as though the line is talking about the woman narrator feeling the crush of stares on her, but when the “looks cull a crowd” comes into play – this inverts the image as something standing up against the crowd staring at the woman. It provides an image that lingers once you finish the whole poem.
With complete control of music and constant subversion, Angelus for the Flatiron reaches its cosmic vision while still having a bit of humour in the subject chosen. Compared to the last poem that I scored, American Sonnet 11, it utilizes similar techniques like the ‘rise and fall’, but deals in larger themes. But, compared to something like the Twin Towers Canon, which is a double sestina that combines the cosmic-architectural imagery with a love poem for even more novel juxtapositions, it is definitely smaller. Taking all of the above into consideration, it places at a 97 for me – a mid-great poem.
Dan’s American Sonnets series is a series of poems drawn from Shakespeare’s sonnet. In each American Sonnet, Dan takes one of Willy’s and creates his own using the original as a jumping off point. The American Sonnet I shall focus on now is Sonnet 11 – a sonnet about aging and youth. When I first read through a bunch of the American Sonnets, this was one of those where the lyricism caught my eye immediately. Here’s the original Shakespeare version:
As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow’st
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow’st
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this, folly, age, and cold decay.
If all were minded so, the times should cease,
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish.
Look whom she best endowed, she gave the more,
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish.
She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.
And here is Dan’s:
Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.
Unlike the previous analysis, this isn’t really a comparison, since I want to focus more on Dan’s poem, so I’ll quickly take stock of the first sonnet. Take note how Willy deals with the theme of aging, and reproduction. His poem is places greater weight on youthfulness and children that will help overcome old age through continuation of “wisdom, beauty, and increase” – and ends with a call to “print more, not let that copy die”.
Dan’s sonnet takes the same theme, but doubles off of some of the images in Willy’s while still keeping the poem as, fully, his own work. Think of what significance a ‘copy’ has in Dan’s versus Willy’s.
Lines 1 – 2:
Music is apparent immediately, as the kinetic whirr of the steeplechase is conveyed through the ‘e’ and ‘i’ sounds, but the ‘o’ comes in exactly when it slows, and sets up the sounds for line 3. The image of the steeplechase is given dreamlike ambience through the “faster than true”, playing up what occurs in the eyes of the young, more caught in youthful dream than reality, also doubling on the memory & nostalgia (when the twist in the second stanza comes). The “slowing faster than you” then plays off this, with repetition giving new paradoxical meaning, pointing towards the ephemerality of the moment (or memory). Notice how immediate, concrete, and fresh this is – conveying the feeling immediately – when compared to the explanatory hue of Shakespeare’s opening.
Then line 3 carries over the sounds, as I just mentioned, but carries out of the moment to comment on youth. Even as the tones slow, there’s a sudden spur in the middle with the ‘giggle’ – which is immediately dragged back in by the “out of solemnity” – an interesting way to phrase it “leased out of solemnity” – which brings back to that idea about youth trying to escape out of solemn age.
But, the next “once I was called mine” is even more interesting, because it doubles on the ‘I’, but reveals, in the next line, that the ‘mine’ came from the other’s lips. Thanks to the enjambment, the mine can be seen as both a coming into individuality (changing from seeing the self as ‘mine’ into ‘I’) as well as expression of love (calling a lover ‘mine’). Interestingly, although I seem to have this impression of a boy and a girl, there is no indication of gender any place, only hints of the relationship from “your lips, their indeterminate beauty” – and the overall sensuous hue of the lyric.
The first stanza ends with talk about the youthful subjects being “unprodded by follies this new century/will reveal, as we rage into its incline”. The ‘rage’ is a word that sticks out, providing one last rush before dissipating into the sounds of the finale – but notice what a subversion there is as the last part. Normally, we might associate the rage with a “decline” – stemming from other lines like Dylan Thomas’ “rage rage against the dying of the light”. But, Dan uses ‘incline’, which implies a thrust without the downwardness.
The second stanza delivers the twist, and opens with a dreamy flow of lyric as the poem talks about storing the old memory of the amusement park. These languorous tones are immediately broken in line 11 by the sudden harsh tones. Look back at how Shakespeare uses the word ‘harsh’ and see how the effect is multiplied here by the contrast. Furthermore, what makes subjects of the poem ‘harsher’ is the wandering through Dreamland, which is a subversion possibly hinting at people who are too stuck in their memories and become bitter at the present.
Finally, the last 3 lines provides a complete anti-thesis to the initial flow and nostalgia, and it talks about the “forgettance of what made us become” – where, trapped in the memory of the past, forget the rest of the past that led to the present. The subversion of Shakespeare’s ‘copy’ comes at this moment, where the nostalgia leads to becoming “pale copies of children… who never get off, who never decide”.
In order to be more objective, I will try to rate this poem, basing my own scale on the 100-point scale that Dan uses, as detailed in his TOP analyses and his William Shakespeare/Wallace Stevens essay. This poem is full of twists and subversions (within itself, not just in relation to Shakespeare’s), great images, and the music is excellent at all points – so I would place it as great, in the above 90 category. When you compare to a sonnet like The Passings, though, which has similar themes in change and that sort of thing, but opens up into themes on Art and the Cosmos and many other layers – this poem is narrower in its reach (well, it also doubles as a Love poem, which is less so in the Passings, so it still has a reach in other areas). I feel this would fit somewhere close to a 93. It takes a scenario/idea and explores it fully.
The idea for this analysis was given by Peter Clease (the person who interviews Dan in his videos) in a comment over here. Comparing Hart Crane’s take on a poem by Samuel Greenberg to showcase the qualitative differences that one has over the other in terms of how both poets approach the same thing. Here are the two poems:
Conduct (Samuel Greenberg)
By a peninsula the painter sat and
Sketched the uneven valley groves.
The apostle gave alms to the
Meek. The volcano burst
In fusive sulphur and hurled
Rocks and ore into the air—
Heaven’s sudden change at
The drawing tempestuous,
Darkening shade of dense clouded hues.
The wanderer soon chose
His spot of rest; they bore the
Chosen hero upon their shoulders,
Whom they strangely admired, as
The beach-tide summer of people desired.
Emblems of Conduct (Hart Crane)
By a peninsula the wanderer sat and sketched
The uneven valley graves. While the apostle gave
Alms to the meek the volcano burst
With sulphur and aureate rocks …
For joy rides in stupendous coverings
Luring the living into spiritual gates.
Orators follow the universe
And radio the complete laws to the people.
The apostle conveys thought through discipline.
Bowls and cups fill historians with adorations,-
Dull lips commemorating spiritual gates.
The wanderer later chose this spot of rest
Where marble clouds support the sea
And where was finally borne a chosen hero.
By that time summer and smoke were past.
Dolphins still played, arching the horizons,
But only to build memories of spiritual gates.
The first part is kept mostly intact for both poems, word-wise, but you can already see how the slight variations in enjambment and word-choices in Hart Crane’s version adds to the whole. He chooses to begin with ‘wanderer’ rather than ‘painter’, creating an existential parallax as opposed to the plain old imagistic choice that Greenberg uses (Especially since the fact that he ‘sketches’ makes the occupational description redundant). As is the choice of the word ‘graves’ rather than ‘groves’, which creates that link to historical legacy that will be followed in the later parts. Both word choices also add robustness to the tenor with the roll of the ‘a’ sounds and ‘r’ sounds.
The meaningless enjambs in the 1st & 3rd line of Greenberg’s poem is excised in favor of evocative breaks like “Alms to the meek the volcano burst” and “The uneven valley graves. While the apostle gave”.
Then comes the greater additions, with “sulphur and aureate rocks” replacing the comparatively flaccid “fusive sulphur and hurled/Rocks and ore into the air”. The use of the word ‘aureate’, other than being lyrically powerful, condenses the two lines into one. The additions and the enjambment creates a link to the alms given and the ‘spiritual eruption’ that seems to occur in the aftermath – a commentary on morality done in service to religion, mirroring the ecstasy, through explosive lyricism, that a believer might feel in the act committed.
The middle portion is where Hart Crane makes the biggest change, getting rid of the mere image of the volcano, but following up on the idea of religion. Notice the freshness of the imagery such as ‘radio the complete laws to the people’ and ‘bowls and cups fill historians with adorations’. While still keeping to that high rhythm and lyric, there is also a sense of criticism hidden with the “conveyed thought through discipline” and “dull lips commemorating”, and the spiritual gates image will be followed up in the last line to provide the anti-thesis. Greenberg’s description of the volcano has rolls of language, but lacks this leap (negative capability?) that pushes the poem into high idea.
Finally, returning to the wanderer. In Greenberg, the image is used as reprieve from the volcanic outburst in the middle. Hart Crane plays with greater ideas of spirituality instead, and with his foundation set in place, can create deeper connections from the image of the statue. “Marble clouds” and “summer and smoke were past” are gentler in their lyricism, linking up to the decline in tone with “dull lips” and “spiritual gates” from the previous stanza, simultaneously adding to the sense of passing away from the varnish of spirituality. The “chosen hero”, in this instance, takes a kind of Ubermenschian hue, of the human overtaking the spiritual gates. The wanderer has many connections as well, perhaps being the artist who records the aftermath like Ozymandias, or a symbol for all humanity. The link to the leaping dolphin’s curve with the repetition of spiritual gates is lyrical in supreme, an image to remember, and a great way to end the poem with while playing off the whole idea.
In terms of the titles used, then, the addition of ’emblems’ provides deeper resonance – implying something about what drives men to their conduct, and what that emblem might be in the future.
Greenberg’s poem, as an imagistic one, is quite good in how it uses language to sketch the scene, changing to explosive before drifting away, even having a bit of higher idea about how everything cycles amidst such troubles. But Crane’s poem does the same, yet it incorporates higher, somewhat Nietzschean ideas, with fresher levels of imagery, leaps of idea (the descriptive volcano replaced with the spiritual volcano) and lyrical cohesion. When you put both in place, the qualitative levels are plainly demarcated, and one is definitely objectively greater than the other. Supposedly, there are accusations of plagarism with regards to Crane’s version, and but when you look at the words themselves, you can plainly see higher level structures at play here, beyond the mere stealing of words.
Note: Apparently Conduct isn’t the only poem that Crane draws from. The middle section comes from Greenberg’s Immortality – which actually shows even more how Crane could see the intuitive leap between these two separate poems, one highly imagistic, and the other in the vein of the abstract, and combine them into something greater than the sum. Notice that Greenberg’s Immortality also repeats the image of spiritual gates, yet Crane tempered it with his own image, of the dolphins, rather than just letting it hang as mere repetition.
The normal mode of thinking for any writer just getting into writing might be “how to get from point A to point B”. In other words, come up with a framework – all the plot events, characters, and actions – and the rest of the creative act is just stringing the above together. Deeper communication – true Art – goes one step beyond. It involves attacking a subject in a roundabout manner such that not only are there many points of entry, but many points of exit as well.
Dan has done this continuously in his countless poems, as I have analysed – but what about novel writing? Prose cannot exactly have the same ‘creative leaps’ as poetry does, at least not line-by-line. There has to be a kind of model, or ‘ground’ – that exists for the percipient to grasp.
Every chapter of Dan’s massive 2 million word novel– A Norwegian in the Family – is a practicum of how to create deeper resonance through prose. For this analysis, I’ll be examining one of the chapters and look into how Dan builds up small moments, character traits, conversations, and prose writing into a greater structure. The chapter is Knowing Dick – Chapter 14 Book 2 – from a Norwegian. It focuses on Richard Nixon and takes place in November 1964.
It would probably take too long to explain the entirety of the plot up to now, so I’ll just focus on the essentials. The chapter focuses on a mob boss, Pauly Marivelli (fictional), getting in touch with Nixon & trying to get him to side with the Marivelli Family. Nixon, at this point in time, has already lost to Kennedy – and he’s out of the race. Pauly wants Nixon back in the race so that he can become President, and then Pauly can manipulate him to lengthen the Vietnam War so that the Mob can profit off of it.
Take note that Nov 1964 was itself a presidential election month in USA – with the main candidates being Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson. Yet, while another historical writer might have focused on the big event itself, and the excitement surrounding it – Dan focuses on Richard Nixon. Even though I’m not from America – and I can’t recite every single US president in chronological order the way some schoolchildren might be able to – the context still exists in the background for me to know about what was going on at the time (though, Google also helped).
This is one of Dan’s usual tactics. If you’ve watched his video on how he wrote Ed Gein Becoming – he chooses the least expected point of entry and writes ‘around’ what people would normally expect. He avoids focusing on a major historical event in order to focus on someone who would not come into power until 1969. In this way, Dan can reach out into the ‘future’ while downplaying primacy of the presidential election. Rather than focusing on the triumph and excitement of the elections, the ‘obvious narrative’ – he focuses on snivelling Tricky Dick’s underhanded activities. This also plays into the greater thematic thrust of A Norwegian – which is a novel that analyses the nature of Evil and the contradictions implicit in the USA as a whole (among other themes).
The chapter is broken up into three main parts. It opens up with a scene of Pat & Richard Nixon going to watch a movie. It then shifts to a bar, where Pauly has brought Nixon over to talk to him about re-entering the elections. Finally, the chapter ends by focusing on a totally different character entirely – a hitman called Tony Luft & his fling with a girl called Flo.
Now, before I get into a deeper analysis, it’s very important to take note of the multiple meanings embedded in the title of the chapter. Knowing Dick, on the surface level, refers to knowing Tricky Dick in a deeper fashion. Yet, there’s also the phallic/masculine interpretation (one of the main themes in A Norwegian, whose very subtitle is “A Novel About Men”), as well as, more importantly, the link to the saying “knowing jackshit”.
Part 1: Pat Nixon
Beyond choosing the least expected event to focus on, Dan also chooses the least expected way to approach that event. He begins the chapter by sketching out a little scene where Pat and Richard Nixon go to the cinema to catch a movie. It delves into Pat’s thoughts about her husband. This not only humanizes Nixon by showing his family, but it creates deeper ‘parallaxes’ and symbols that will play out in a subtler way across the entire chapter.
The chapter opens up with Pat staring at a billboard for the 1964 drama film Where Love Has Gone – and Dan ramps up the font size to make it clear that this is probably a symbol of some sort.
The movie itself is a very interesting choice. When I first saw the title, I read it as Where Has Love Gone, as in the cliched question asked by couples in those kinds of romance drama movies. But, the title of the movie is pointing to the end destination, rather than asking the question. This fact opens up many more possible parallaxes than if the title was the above question. Interestingly, Pat Nixon sees it as a question, even though it isn’t one. Dan even points this out through parentheses (“a question (or statement?)”.
Anyway, this ‘love’ spoken of in the title links immediately to the Pat/Richard relationship, but it could also link up with the political relationship between Nixon & the people, destroyed by Kennedy, and soon to be rekindled when Nixon re-enters the race with the backing of the Mob. Finally, there’s the Tony/Flo relationship at the end of the chapter.
Combined with that title, the chapter opens with an imagistic juxtaposition of Pat Nixon being affronted with the “greasy smell of cheap popcorn”, only to be hit with the billboard – “its almost golden hue broke through the misty rain and fog of the evening, as well the frosted glass that encased it, making her nascent nausea a secondary thing to the smile upon her face, as she gazed upon it.” – poetically pointing to the kind of Romanticism captured inside Pat’s head versus its dirty reality, as well as the distance of the dream itself.
This effect is heightened by the prose seeming to shift into her style of thought, from the third-person omniscient. It shows her train of thought as she fantasizes and oohs & aahs about the various movie stars. Then, her train of thought goes into irritation as she wonders why her husband is taking so long to buy tickets. At this point, the melodramatic hooks from the rest of the billboard appears in large font, possibly hinting at the tension in the couple’s relationship.
The train of thought continues into various things, highlighting out Pat’s psychology with deftness – she thinks about Dick feeling depressed about the campaign season, worries about a possible affair he’s having, feels guilt at being so suspicious, and her mind goes back to the title Where Love Has Gone, and she also has a little aside about how she hates having “to pretend to have an interest in whatever trivial nonsense whatever little insignificant powerbroker or beancounter he was sucking up to was interested in.”
In a few quick strokes, we get the sense of her naivete and her attitude towards her husband. Dick returns with the tickets, and bitches to her:
From this little excerpt, we get to see hints of his paranoia, sniveling nature, and entitlement – traits that will come to play in greater force during his negotiation with Pauly Marivelli. Yet, Dan has the insight to add this little morsel:
His wife, Pat, was going to speak, but she found an odd comfort in the fact that her husband’s brooding, arrogance, and insecurities, were back in full force after a day of, well, harmony. As he pointed the way to an Italian restaurant, across the street, she felt sort of perverse, to be thankful for something most found so distatsteful in any person, but especially in her husband.
Which aptly characterizes how such couples who have stuck it through for a long time might feel about one another. It can be seen as either tender, in that there’s still someone who might accept (or at least bear with) Tricky Dick, or terrifying, because it tells a truth about people who have stuck it through together to the point where they cannot see any other alternative, despite the flaws. Tender, or terrifying – the main thing is that its human. Think about how that might link up to “knowing dick”.
As their conversation unfolds, Nixon bitches about the elections between LBJ and Goldwater. Pat, well-known to his ways already, merely shuts up and lets his heat play out:
She smiled and nodded, as he held her arm, and they crossed the busy Manhattan avenue.
He said, ‘Just feel like a little bit of Italian food, you know?’
‘That’s fine, Dick.’
‘Buddy, it all came to me, last night.’
She said nothing. She knew that all he ever needed was the look of approval from her eyes. She knew that he was going to tell her that he had decided to take one last shot at it, in ’68. The whole world knew that LBJ was going to murder Goldwater in the election, but she knew he had to say certain things. She smiled.
Dan ends this section with Pat having a poetic rumination on a past memory:
This is a beautiful way to cap off this segment. Yet, when placed in the context of all the psychological stuff that comes before, and what we can see of the relationship – it could be a sign of her exasperation, to the point where she has to rely on such nostalgia to remove herself from the reality of the relationship, and bear it. Does Pat love Nixon? Does she remain silent out of exasperation or consideration? Does she enable Nixon’s crimes? What about Nixon? Throughout the segment, he bitches, but he shows care for his wife. Later parts of this chapter might show how he really feels about her.
On a side note, go back and look at the excerpts, and take note of what kind of innuendo appears when you use the phallic interpretation of the term, and what sort of tricks Dan uses to create resonances in that direction (“I’m a man, damn it. I have, I have…” “Dick…”).
Part 2: Pauly and Dick
Part 2 of the chapter opens up with a description of the bar where Pauly meets up with Nixon (after getting his goons to ‘kidnap’ him from his office). Well, I say ‘description’ – but there’s not really much describing of the appearance and surface reality of the bar. Rather, Dan pulls apart the mythos, anecdotes, and stories surrounding the bar. This is a part of his “total immersion” technique. Dan rarely spends much time describing things in A Norwegian (unless there is a narrative purpose to do so), but he floats up the aspects that we, as humans, would link to. This technique is the anti-thesis of “show, don’t tell” – and he creates a model of the world in our mind through dialogues, conversations, memes, anecdotes, tropes, and everything internal rather than external in the world:
While waiting for his goons to bring Nixon over, Pauly looks at the TV and shoots the shit with his right-hand man – Tony Dellaguardo. They talk about things like the election and a bunch of other stuff. Dan is pretty much a master at writing conversations – creating a natural flow between topics, with all the jumping about and digressing that real people do, while he sticks symbolic cues and stuff to create parallels here and there.
Despite being a vicious killer and a mob boss, for example, Dan still humanizes the middle aged Pauly by having him talk about his aching feet. He tells Tony that he feels an affinity with Goldwater, even though he knows that the “bastard’s gonna get killed in the election”. Tony makes the comment that Pauly and Goldwater are similar because “He’s decisive and never backs down. People are often drawn to men like that…”. Then, they talk about the Vietnam War and Pauly remarks how:
“War is always good for business. It was good for Alexander The Great. It was good for Attila The Hun. It was good for Genghis The Khan. And, my friend, it is good for Pauly The Marrivelli”
Note that this comment has deep resonance with the overall themes of A Norwegian, about the continuum of power and an examination of evil – but it is placed in the off-handed comment of a mob boss. The historical reference is believable because Pauly doesn’t push into it like some kind of political theorist, but merely makes it something he skimmed of his mind, probably from stuff he read in the past – to suit his current conversation.
An interesting note is that Pauly himself discusses the prospect of voting independent, beyond the Republican Goldwater and the Democrat LBJ:
This idea of voting independent is something that Dan himself believes in – but he places that opinion in the mouth of a character who is definitely not himself, and is a pretty shitty human being. But, the trait fits the character. This is where the point must be re-iterated, that art must be separated from the artist – and Pauly Marivelli is not Dan Schneider, even though Dan has submerged his own traits into the mouths of his characters. In fact, it seems like the best art comes about when the artist negates himself to the maximum (or, subsumes his self into a world), and reaches out to the world beyond his ken – to prove he is vast enough to talk about things beyond his immediate limits and display that contrast of his own subjectivity, and something greater.
Anyway, as much as I would love to dissect every single line of conversation, it’s pretty much impossible due to how much stuff Dan packs into it – so I can only touch on core points. I’ll leave the full exegesis of the Schneiderverse to the future scholars.
After Nixon is finally brought into the establishment, he immediately goes into a paranoiac tirade – very befitting of his character as sketched out by Dan.
Let me take a moment here to talk about how brilliant Dan’s characterization of his version of Nixon is. He does not play off Nixon like some kind of mastermind, or devious villain. Rather, Nixon is insecure, has his head up in the clouds most of the time (in a somewhat endearing way, sometimes), and is delusional & hypocritical (possibly unconsciously) rather than being a two-faced Machiavelli. This is actually a scarier characterization than having Nixon be a crook through and through – and it reminds me of Woody Allen’s depiction of Judah in Crimes and Misdemeanors. It is a lot more painfully human, in the insecurities, pathetic nature, and self-justifications verging on the level of doublethink. The fact that this entire conversation leads to Nixon siding with Pauly, and agreeing to prolong the Vietnam War if he becomes President – is a great showcase of how it is ignorance, narrow-mindedness and stupidity, rather than outright malice, that frequently screws over humanity. Yet, despite holding such grim implications as to how the world works, Dan sketches out the whole exchange in a satirical and joyous manner – stringing together a bunch of jokes and making Nixon into a comedic buffoon.
Nixon even drops his famous line:
Another thing to note is the dick-waving and banter that occurs throughout the whole negotiation. There isn’t any Hollywood style criminal coercion type scenario, but the bullshittery and one-upping that comes with real life conversation, though possibly exaggerated for poetic and comic effect in parts. For example, Nixon remarks:
‘None of your beeswax, Mister. Dick Nixon answers to no one but Dick.’
Which leads up to this exchange:
‘Is that a confession?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. You just said you answered to dick, and I thought maybe you was queer, or something, and hadda get it off your chest?’
Tony D. started chuckling.
Nixon roared, ‘Dick Nixon a fag? Are you joking? And tell your Neanderthal, here, to cut it out with the laughter.’
‘Tony, ixnay, ixnay.’
Tony D. quit chuckling.
Here are a few more moments of hilarious exchange that occurs throughout the conversation:
Partway through the conversation, Pauly tries to drop an anecdote about how he squished a waterbug once. At first, it seems like Pauly is setting it up as some kind of intimidation against Nixon, or he’s trying to make a point – but halfway through, it sparks off a memory in Nixon about a song he would sing in a bath-tub when he was being bathed by his ‘mama’. And, much to Pauly’s chagrin, he breaks out into the song without any care about the conversation he’s currently in:
‘Dick, I wanna tell you a story.’
‘A story? Is that why you had your thugs and goons drag me out here?’
‘Thug or goon- pick one, Dick; and it don’t even gotta be an either/or thing, ok?’
‘Here’s the story I wanna tell you. Just sit back amd relax, ok?’
‘Ok. Not like I have a real choice, now, do I?’
‘No, but I’m glad that reality has sunk in. It’ll make the rest of our relationship that much easier.’
‘Dick, I saw a waterbug the other day.’
‘Where?’ said a frightened Nixon.
‘Not here, Dick- somewhere else. It was a metaphor kind of thing.’
‘I said I was ok. Dick Nixon isn’t scared of little bugs. Insects, that’s the scientific name. Spiders aren’t insects, you know.’
‘No, they’re arthropods- with eight legs. Insects have only six. Well, technically, insects are arthropods, but, well….’
‘Yeah, well, go on. Didn’t mean to interrupt you.’
‘Thank you. So, as I was sayin’, I saw a waterbug the other day, and it was crawlin’ along a wall, right were it was on a concrete floor in a warehouse of mine.’
‘Ah, a warehouse. I see.’
‘Yes, they often have insect problems. Anyway, he was around the size of a dollar coin.’
‘Ah, that’s big.’
‘Yeah, dollar coins are pretty big.’
‘Oh, a coin, I thought you said bill, as in dollar bill. I was thinking that that was enormous- something from the Carboniferous Period, I think. More oxygen in the air, then, so critters were bigger. My daughter reads this stuff in textbooks.’
‘Can I go on, Dick?’
‘Yeah, sure, sure- a waterbug. Go on….’
So, I had just finished up my business there, with a foreman.’
‘Importing some illegal trade, I guess?’
‘Anyway, he’s crawling behind the baler, in shadows, but I see his jet back body, Dick, and, naturally, of course, my first impulse is to kill the bastard. Ugly fucker, in my warehouse. I got rights, right? He’s trespassing, right?’
‘Yeah. I guess.’
‘So I watch the little fucker.’
I last saw a waterbug a few months ago. It reminded me of when I was a boy. Not many waterbugs in California, but enough, see?’
‘It got me thinking of when I’d see them come up the drains in bathtubs.’
‘Yeah, well, anyway.’
‘I used to sing songs in the tub. My mama would bathe me when little.’
‘I don’t need to hear- ‘
Nixon started singing in a mock Cockney accent:
Nixon wiped his brow with the hanky, and looked up sheepishly at Pauly.
Pauly said, ‘I’m touched, Dick. That was beautiful.’
‘Why, thank you.’
‘Yeah, yeah. Just thinking of mother, does that to me.’
‘I see. Can I go on?’
‘Of course, of course.’
‘So, I see this little fuckin’ waterbug, Dick, and I start thinking if I even have a right to killit? I mean, he’s just doing his things. That’s what the kids nowadays like to say: ‘doing my thing, Daddy-O!’ So, I watch him and watch him, ans sometimes I think he’s drunk, cuz the fuck’s got like six legs, and sometimes loses his balance. Maybe the poison traps are workin’ and fuckin’ up his brain. He ain’t a quick mover, is all I know. I could’a killed him a dozen times over. Just BAM! Slam the Buster Browns down, as they said in my youth.’
‘Yes, yes. I had a haircut like Buster Brown when….I….was…..’
‘Anyway, I’m pondering this deep philosophic shit, Dick.’
‘So, what did you do?’
‘Well, I thought about it. And then I went BAM! Slammed the Buster Browns down!’
‘Am I supposed to be moved, Mister?’
‘I mean, it’s a fuckin’ roach.’
‘Waterbug, Dick. There is a difference.’
‘To God, maybe, not man. What is the point of this story, Mister?’
‘I wanted to illustrate the preciousness of….’
‘Well, I thought it was a good story.’
‘I’d’ve squashed the little bastard the moment I saw him!’
‘Why? It’s just a bug, a- a- a little thing.’
‘Ah, Dick, but, you see- that’s what you gotta learn- the little things in life sometimes ARE the big things. I killed the fucker, but after I contemplated its life. Your problem, Dick, is that you think just of the big shit, but that’s made of all the little shit, see?’
‘Hmm, I see your point, kind of. You know, I get contemplative, too.’
‘You do, Dick?’
‘You ask that like it’s a shock. I was fucking Vice President, damn it. You think you rise that high without a brain?’
‘Of course not, Dick
The use of insects as a symbol is a trait of Dan’s, but this very exchange has so many layers to it beyond that symbolic one. The song, too, has symbolic resonance when placed against later things that happens in the chapter. The act of singing the song adds flavour and whimsicality to Nixon’s character, and plays a part in showing how delusional and pathetic he is (he even weeps slightly in the midst of the song – showing an endearing side, that he treasures his childhood and memory). Dan will also deepen the influence of Nixon’s mother later in the conversation, so this exchange sets up the inklings of that psychological background. The way the conversation plays out subverts a trope, where Pauly seems to be trying to pull an anecdote to intimidate or prove a point like some kind of more intelligent villain, only to be disturbed halfway through, and then he makes whatever point he was trying to make in a very sloppy and ambiguous way. Yet, the very ambiguity also adds poetic resonance to all sorts of other greater themes and psychological implications of Nixon’s character (“big shit being made out of little shit”). This is the difference between a writer that does a single thing in a single moment, and a writer that does multiple things in a single moment.
After the anecdote of the bug, Pauly and Nixon segue into banter about Bridgette Bardot’s beautiful naked ass from the movie Contempt. The point of the anecdote is pretty lost at this point, and they digress into talking about naked chicks. This is hilarious and bawdy, but it also brings up another aspect of Nixon’s pathetic character that will be followed up later in the conversation.
Then, they talk about a bunch of other topics, and Nixon tries to style himself up as a moral paragon – but, it’s all hypocrisy of course, given what we know of him later in history. Dan doesn’t need to call him out on it or explicate on it greatly, but merely showcases how Nixon paints himself now, and lets our historical knowledge of him do the rest of the work:
He also tries to attack Pauly through his race by ranting against foreigners and calling him a ‘dago’.
Nixon once again goes back to the topic of sex – but this time he’s talking about how he’s a family man and a Quaker, and how he’s strictly a one-woman person that doesn’t cheat:
When Dan actually drops some description, he does it for a satiric and exaggerated effect, playing up Nixon’s paranoia through this description of how he faces off against Pauly (and how Pauly is merely amused by how weird Nixon is):
Tony left the room, as Nixon sprang out of the leather chair, and Pauly and Nixon walked about each other, as if in a Mexican standoff, shy one gunman. Partly, this was due to Nixon’s paranoia. They circled each other, Pauly with a spry humor regarding all this, while Nixon seemed ready to uncoil a wrath. Nixon tugged at his five o’clock shadow and his left eye twitched.
‘Sit, sit, Dick, you’re amongst friends here. You’re so goddamned nervous. Why?’
‘Why? Why? Well, let me think, Mister. Oh, because friends don’t kidnap friends, Buster. And, since you seem to know all about me, the least you can do is let me know who the hell I’m speaking to. This is about the tenth time I’ve asked. And not a single goddamned confirmation. And don’t try to deny who you are. I may not know it all, but I know you’re bad.’
‘Now, that really hurts, Dick. After all we’ve shared these last few minutes.’
‘Bah! We’ve shared nothing, Mister!’
To follow up on the running joke, Nixon sings a few more songs (Hard Times Come Again No More, Suwanee River, Oh! Susanna) while Pauly tries to get him to stop. He stops for a while, then starts up Suwanee River again, only to have Pauly finally diss his singing abilities:
Eventually, the tension ramps up when Pauly talks about Lee Harvey Oswald shooting Kennedy (in the Schneiderverse, the JFK killing was done by a second shooter for reasons related to the larger macro-plot). Later, he also makes a comment about Nixon’s family, and Nixon takes this as another threat. He gets slightly aggravated, but both sides manage to keep it down in the end.
This is another bit of characterization on the side of Pauly too. Throughout the novel, we’ve seen Pauly lose his anger and kill a lot of people for the most arbitrary of reasons. But, there is always a clear line between how he orients himself towards people in positions of power, or people who have deep loyalty, that have value to him, and people who lack that value. Furthermore, in his mind, he already has an edge over Nixon due to a trump card he has, and so he can just sit back and enjoy the reaction. Nixon too, being a politician, and maybe also a coward, knows his boundaries. Throughout the whole conversation, though they take jabs and try to one-up each other, they don’t cross the line.
Pauly is slowly stringing him up into his deal. His eventual trump card is that he has evidence that Nixon forged the Pumpkin Papers (Google it up to get the historical context) – and he’s patiently waiting for the moment when he can drop the bomb on Nixon, outing him as the hypocrite that he is, and bringing him over to the side of the Mob.
Before the reveal, there’s another little moment that helps to deeper characterize Nixon’s personality. He sees a bowl full of ‘Coffee Nips’ candy on the table, and, with Pauly’s permission, he grabs one to eat, but kleptomania grips him and he tries to abscond with a few more candies in his pocket. Pauly catches him in the act, and tries to out him, but he immediately denies it, and then goes into a memory back when he was young:
Not only does this moment reveal Tricky Dick’s sloppy thievery (which has deeper resonance with the historical context of Watergate), but it also shows the psychological mechanism he uses – immediate denial, and a kind of escape back into his past. It also fully expounds on the possible influence Nixon’s mama had on him, due to her strictness, leading to his development into a shady and sloppy rat.
After the recollection, Pauly finally drops the bomb on Nixon. Dan’s description of how Nixon reacts to it is hilarious exaggeration:
Like the lawyer he was, he tries to cover it up and say that the public won’t trust Pauly’s words over his, but Pauly then reveals that he has physical evidence. Nixon’s reaction to this is also exaggerated and hilarious:
At this point, Nixon is on the verge of losing it, and he breaks down into a rant, then slowly descends into a pathetic appeal – even revealing his perverse habits:
Then, Pauly begins the turn, and starts roping Nixon into his deal. Dan shows the whole gamut of Nixon’s hypocrisy over here:
Even when he’s down, he still makes blatantly hypocritical remarks, claims that he doesn’t ‘sleep with the Mob’, but is more accepting when Pauly rephrases it as:
“No one’s talking about bed. Think of it as a telephone booth, and you’re just standing up with your pants around your ankles.”
Nixon, now dragged down to equal grounds with Pauly, gets into more of his weird fetishes and sexual thoughts when he recounts a moment when he imagined Pat as Audrey Hepburn:
Interesting to note that, for this chapter, even though Nixon has all these creepy fetishes and masturbates to his secretaries – nothing shows that he’s been unfaithful, and that might be one of the things that he can hold up as being honest about. The fact that he confesses to all the other acts, which seems more pathetic than having a normal affair with a mistress – lends credence to this idea. Although the acts themselves do indicate that he has lost interest in his wife, he still remains faithful… or maybe he just has the inability to attract anyone else. If you follow the thread of masculinity, impotence, and this character trait of Nixon’s – you get one interpretation of the whole “Where The Love Has Gone” title – that Nixon’s actual relationship with his wife has transferred over to this power-relationship with the Mafia, and he buys into their deal to make up for his impotence in life. This interpretation is derived from the innuendo implicit in the title, the parallel of the metaphor about “sleeping with the mafia” that Nixon uses, as well as a later part of the conversation where he talks about keeping it a secret from Pat, as though it were an actual affair he was trying to keep under wraps:
This is just one of the countless possible frames to view A Norwegian that I derived from my own speculation, and thinking about the overall themes.
Pauly, in the meantime, outlines more of his plans with Nixon regarding the war:
As the conversation goes on, Nixon gets more into it – since he is now basking in the prospect of finally getting a chance at winning the election (something that Kennedy stole from him). His pathetic nature and ranting changes into fervor, and he becomes happier and friendlier with Pauly. Another great depiction of the psychological mechanism at work:
Once the deal is finalized, Nixon dips into the bowl of Coffee Nips again, and absconds with more treats. This part ends with a great little rumination on Nixon that summarizes his character, and points towards the future of his eventual downfall:
Part 3: Tony Luft and Flo
The third part, to me, completely came out of left field. Yet, once I saw the greater thrust – it surprised me as to how much it deepened the chapter overall. To cap off this chapter on Richard Nixon, Dan totally avoids any more of the main storyline. He goes into what seems like an extended Shaggy Dog Story about a hitman called Tony Luft.
Tony Luft is one of A Norwegian’s many idiot characters. He’s a hitman that can’t do his job right half of the time, and is a total idiot and goon. Throughout the novel, Dan has characterized him as a loser totally lacking in self-consciousness. You can hear Dan talk a bit about him in this video:
The entire third section is about how Tony manages to get in a relationship with a rather intellectual girl named Flo from seeing a personals ad. She has interests in “reading, museums, art, and philosophy”. Of course, the fact that he’s an idiot hitman makes the two of them a complete mismatch:
The way the story unfolds, Tony and Flo, at first, manage to hit it off a bit, because she doesn’t know the true nature of his stupidity. But, Tony is then wrapped into what seems like an elaborate scam. A person sends him a letter full of little tips for things like stocks, races, and sports matches, and wants him to bet on the tips and send him some of the money if he wins:
Flo is, throughout the whole thing, extremely worried – but Tony tries it a few times and strikes the money, then uses that as proof to calm Flo down. Tony receives 5 tips, and follows the next four after staying out of the first one (out of suspicion – which is allayed when the tip works). On the last tip, he invests in a certain stock.
Unfortunately, its revealed that Tony also owes money to a certain hustler called Salvatore “Sally” Tranghese. Exactly when Tony buys the stock for the last tip, Sally goes after him to collect about 60 grand of debt. Tony has no choice but to hand over the stocks. His life is now dependent on the tip working out. If the stock fails, Tony will get his brains blown out.
The stock manages to hit it, and Sally leaves with all the money, including the profits that goes beyond Tony’s debt. Tony is left with nothing, but is out of hot soup. Flo, on the other hand, sees deeper into the situation. She guesses that the whole thing was a scam working like this:
And, after the incident, she breaks up with Tony because she can see the patterns of stupidity that he constantly falls into, as well as inklings of his criminal lifestyle:
This entire part then ends with a meta-fictional rumination, as the meta-fictive writer of the novel, Manny Kohl, remarks on how he did investigation into what happened to Tony Luft far into the future, and he cannot find any trace of Luft. Tony Luft disappeared off the face of the Earth after 2004. The chapter ends with a poetic rumination:
Before we get on to further analysis, we have to backtrack slightly. The third part, before it goes into the story of Luft and Flo, opens with this description of Luft shitting:
From there, we can slowly put together the thematic resonances. Even though this part doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the chapter in terms of pure plot – it has a lot of hidden parallels in terms of how it relates to the title, the symbols revealed before, and the character of Nixon. The part about shitting parallels to things like Nixon’s songs and the waterbug anecdote. The entire story of Luft being pushed around by fate, luck, and his own ignorance – leads up to that idea of ‘knowing dick’. He is able to bask in victory for a short while, but loses in the wider picture – and also loses his girl. Tony Luft’s ignorance matches up with Nixon’s own ignorance, and maybe even Pat’s ignorance, and the poetic rumination at the end seems to give some deeper comment on the flow of history. Luft disappeared into history, Nixon was conquered by history – but such men are necessary in the process of the world. They are inevitabilities, despite being the bottom muck.
“The world of the dead, the dying, the despairing, the depraved, needs all the Tony Lufts it can get, no matter the year, to perform these minor tasks of death, these errands of regret, as they rush on, rush out.”
This is how Dan approaches a single chapter, and positions it to tell so much with so little, through the parallels and resonances that builds up over time, through little hints scattered across the pages, leading up to an eventual point that is higher than the sum of its parts. And, he does it all while still conforming to all the event/plot beats that he wants to discuss.
Which returns me to what I said at the start – the need to eschew linearity, and think about ways to create multiple ins and outs of a single scene. Creating parallels and deeper thrusts, while still allowing everything to cohere.
A Norwegian in the Family is Copyrighted by Dan Schneider
Maybe After He’s Gone is the name of Dan’s 7th play, and it’s a first part of what he calls the ‘Odessey and Oracle’ series – named after the album by The Zombies.
The play itself takes its title from a song in that album as well. While existing as a smaller scale play compared to some of his other larger & more cosmic ones, this play still drills deeply into great character psychologies and perennial questions – and extends themes explored in previous plays.
Like a lot of Dan’s other plays, this one deals with characters well in their Autumn years – at a point in time where their core fundamentals have been hardened through experience (though whether they consciously realize this or not is still up in the air). It focuses on a critical juncture in the lives of these characters while animating their past memories through the use of dialogue and flashback techniques.
One primary thrust of the play is represented by the epigraph used at the start: a quote by Cicero on “six mistakes that mankind keeps making century after century”. The narrative of the play, and the characters within – will embody various parts of these six mistakes, and even provide possible answers for how to escape from them. In a larger scope, it also provides a variety of answers for the act of living itself.
To quickly outline the narrative: the story focuses on 3 siblings of Polish descent – Tom, Lynn, and Lauren. Tom is in the hospital after almost ODing from drugs, and he is visited by Lynn and Lauren. Lynn and Lauren hate each other due to various past issues and emotional hang-ups – and they go after each other’s throats for the duration of the whole play. All three siblings have their own psychoses, most likely caused by being the children of abusive parents. Lynn is the most bitter and resentful, while Lauren is the most stable and has managed to escape from developing any serious problems – but has a lot of turmoil on the inside. Dan has said before that he usually structures each play around a core distinct character – and Lynn might fill that role in this case (the other epigraph, which makes use of the actual song lyrics from the Zombies seems to point to her personality), but I find all three siblings to be stand-out in their personalities.
In Act 1, Lynn and Lauren visit Tom in the hospital and bicker around him. Halfway through the play (Act 2 Scene 2), Tom commits suicide by jumping into the hospital pool. In Act 3, Lynn and Lauren have to deal with whether to sue the hospital or not – while more about their past & character is revealed. This culminates in a kind of stand-off between Lynn, Lauren, and Lauren’s sister-in-law Laura (who Lauren considers a good friend & ‘replacement’ sister). Both sisters get into a cat-fight and then split off for good. At the end, Lynn leaves Lauren a voicemail to tell her that she has cancer (due to her own alcoholism) – and the play cuts off.
The conflict between the sisters stems from a few main things. One of these things is the fact that Lynn was a beauty back in the day, and has now declined due to age and alcoholism – Dan’s character list even takes note of this aspect. She used to be popular with the guys and was sexually promiscuous, and is now bitter and alone. The other conflict-spurring thing is that Lauren used to date Danny Wagner (Dan’s artistic alter-ego) back in the day, and they had underage sex (Danny was 13 & Lauren was 12) in a viewing of Star Wars back in their youth. Lynn caught them doing this and accused Danny of being a rapist despite the fact that both were underage & it was consensual. Danny’s reputation in the neighborhood was ruined, and Lauren, who didn’t know better at the time, completely bought into it and was drawn into her sister’s manipulation. It is implied that Lynn’s motives for doing this was that Danny was one of the boys that she couldn’t get her hands on – and so she was pissed & insecure that he went with Lauren instead.
To make things easier, here is a short summary of what happens in every scene:
Act 1 Scene 1: Lynn visits Tom and they talk about things. Soon, a black nurse called Flo enters & wants to examine Tom. Lynn leaves the room and Lauren soon arrives. They begin to bicker, and then Flo calls them both back when she’s done. A Vietnamese Doctor named Doctor Tranh comes to examine Tom as well. When Flo & Dr Tranh leaves, both sister continue to bicker. The scene ends with Tom farting while the two sisters are at each other’s throats.
Act 1 Scene 2: Tom, Lynn, and Lauren are in the same room. Silence occurs for the first minute, and then the three siblings chat & bicker (moreso the two sisters than Tom). During this scene, Dan’s poem War Comix #1452 is projected on the wall when Tom starts talking about superhero comics. The scene ends with another fart.
Act 1 Scene 3: Lauren gives a soliloquy about her own life & her past with Danny. This is a meta-fictive soliloquy because she makes a comment about “not doing this before…not capable of speaking like Shakespeare”.
Act 2 Scene 1: Lauren and Lynn talk in the hospital cafeteria about various things & the Danny Wagner incident. The scene ends with Lynn getting pissed and storming off.
Act 2 Scene 2: Flo comes to look for Lauren & Lynn and brings the news that Tom has disappeared. Lynn threatens to sue the hospital. Both Flo & Lynn leave, and Lauren goes into a flashback of a past boyfriend called Anthony. After the flashback, she returns into soliloquy and talks about how Danny was a better boyfriend. Then, she has another flashback with Lynn (both in early 30s) at Coney Island. It shows a scene with her pissing in Lynn’s drink to get back at her. Lauren returns to soliloquy and recounts some more childish and possibly dangerous pranks pulled against Lynn. It then returns to the cafeteria where Dr Tranh & Flo relay the news that Tom has drowned in the swimming pool. Lynn is happy and celebrates.
Act 2 Scene 3: Lauren has a soliloquy after Tom’s death – while sitting by his empty hospital bed.
Act 3 Scene 1: Lauren is in her living room talking with Laura about what to do when Lynn arrives – and how they’ll deal with the hospital situation. Lynn arrives and the three-way showdown begins. Laura finally disses Lynn straight in her face about what a bitch she is, and an excerpt from The Picture of Dorian Gray is projected while she tears Lynn apart. Lynn doesn’t really care and swears at them & leaves to go to the bathroom. Lauren tells Laura that she can handle her sister herself, and that Laura should leave.
Act 3 Scene 2: Lauren and Lynn face-off against each other. It then cuts to a flashback of the scene where Danny fucks Lauren in the theatre, and Lynn appears and causes havoc. When it cuts back, the two exchange a few more verbal blows before Lauren begins crying due to how pissed she is. The doorbell rings and it’s Laura – who forgot her keys. Now the three-way returns & continues – until the sisters finally break out into real fighting. During the three-way, Dan’s Holy Sonnet 30 is projected in the back. The scene ends with Lauren kicking Lynn out.
Act 3 Scene 3: Lauren is at home and receives a call from her husband. After finishing the call, she goes to Danny’s Omniservica website and reads Dan’s Poem – In Love. Lynn’s voicemail comes in and she tells Lauren about the cancer, while also trying to make up with her. The play ends when the message cuts off.
Themes & Characters
Let’s return to the first mistake listed by Cicero: “Believing that personal gain is had by crushing others”. This falls in with Lynn’s accusation of Danny Wagner being a rapist. It also comes up when Tom dies – and Lynn is completely unrepentant about his death (she is joyous that she doesn’t have to take care of her burden of a brother, and she even dances), and instead cares about gaining money from suing the hospital. In a surprising way, this is also slightly revealed through Lauren’s own dealings against Lynn – with the childish pranks she pulls like pissing in her tea & giving her a concussion by leaving a bunch of roller skates out when Lynn went to collect the mail. In her soliloquy, Lauren says that she regrets, but is then quick to try and justify herself to the audience – revealing that she, too, is not as balanced as she appears, and is also rather delusional in some aspects. On the other hand, she is still better off than her siblings & shows self-consciousness and understanding of higher things somewhat.
For many of these ‘mistakes’ – the alternative, or ‘solution’ to some of them is displayed in the character of Tom. Tom is a drug addict, loser, and a pervert (when Lauren first sees him & hugs him, she gets her arms stained with jizz because he’s been masturbating) – and he spends much of the play kind of in his own world – and his eventual suicide indicates that he finally gave up on life after receiving so much shit from it.
Yet, it is remarkable character-building on the part of Dan that he can make such a character up as a kind of paragon of virtue – at least when played off Lynn. Tom has none of the resentment that Lynn has, and despite being a loser (and is also called as such by Lynn) – he is rather in sync with his inner nature – even if it should lead him to downfall. Optimistically, this can be read as him striving to never let his inner demons show or affect anyone else. Pessimistically, this can be read as him fatalistically separating himself from life.
The play allows for both views – and Lauren even has a comment that he is supremely apathetic towards everything, but Laura also reveals his opposing good nature when talking about how, despite being an addict and a loser – he “would always play Santa Claus at Christmas get togethers… was kind and my children have many good memories of him and those visits”.
Beyond that, Dan also uses Tom’s interest in pop culture and the random stuff he spews as a means to hide cosmic asides and hidden significant symbols in the play. The play opens with Tom talking about how his Dad believed that Pee Wee Reese was the greatest shortstop, even though Tom thought that this was wrong and silly. This creates parallels to the theme of limited perception (e.g. on the part of Lynn and her biases, but also for the hang-ups of all 3 siblings). He is also the primary ‘farter’ of the play, and this is, as I have mentioned in my analysis of TTAD, a Dan motif that represents the primal undercurrents of life (he uses it in many of his other plays). He’s also the first one to title-drop the play, as seen over here:
To talk about bit more about the title & the song. You can see the lyrics for the Zombies’ song Maybe After He’s Gone – over here. In the context of this excerpt, Tom is revealing how much of a clingy wreck he was, and Lynn rightly calls him “delusional”. Yet, this parallels the end of the play itself, when the answering machine message that Lynn leaves also has that phrase – with the ‘he’ referring to Tom:
This becomes highly ironic, and when you take note of the lyrics (and the specific part that Dan used as an epigraph) – it could easily reflect how desperate & at the end of her rope Lynn is (her actions mirroring the ‘loser’ Tom). It is up to Lauren to decide, at the end of the play, whether to read it as genuine repentance, or a manipulative & selfish call from an ego slowly being strangled by loneliness (as with any great & complexly sketched psychology – it could be both). This is not the only interpretation. The title itself hangs up there and implies a kind of passing, and so it could be linked to a lot of things that various characters are ‘throwing away’ (Another example: the confrontational and aggressive aspect of humanity could also be read as the ‘he’ in the title – a sort of cosmic masculine symbol – with the deaths of both Lynn & Tom freeing Lauren from that dark part of herself)
That cosmic masculine aspect interpretation is also supported by the appearance of the poem War Comix #1452 in the play – which I’ve analysed before. This creates many implications when linked up with the tirade against the unreality of superhero comics that Tom makes:
Above all else, Tom works as a comic character – and provides a touch of levity from his unrepentant dirtiness & good humour. This serves to undercut all the moments when Lynn goes after him and he shrugs it off (and it also contrasts against the negative example of Lauren, who always falls for Lynn’s taunts & attacks).
This falls under Cicero’s 4th mistake: “Refusing to set aside trivial preferences” – and this is reflected in Tom’s love for pop culture detritus & video game addiction (although utilized by Dan to great effect, within the universe of the play – it merely shows his lack of the deeper view), in Lauren’s pettiness with anything related to Lynn, and with Lynn’s own promiscuity (unable to see the good traits in Tom & Danny Wagner – and instead caring about ornamenting her own ego through sex & romance) and pettiness towards anything. Lauren is shown to have signs of escaping this when she reads Danny’s (or Dan’s) poem at the end of the play, and is moved by a sort of realization about things – although we never know if she can ever take the next step (but she’s given an opportunity with Lynn’s message).
How Dan treats the character of Lynn is very interesting. While Lauren gets soliloquies that cores into her own thoughts & doubts – Lynn has none of that. Although there are a lot of subtle implications, there is never a direct dive into what she feels – except maybe through the Dorian Gray excerpt. There are only a few other moments where we get to see her vulnerability, and they hint at a capacity for change – but most of the time she is back into her own vicious spite. One of these vulnerable moments comes when she tearfully reveals some of her insecurities – people made fun of her looks before she became a beauty, and she ‘gave kisses’ to boys because she didn’t want them to feel left out the way she initially was. It’s an extremely pitiable moment for such an unrepentant demon of a character – though a cynic might read those tears as crocodile tears:
These moments are what makes Lynn human – pointing to many different causes for her personality – abusive parents, childhood teasing, her pride and ‘privilege’ of being beautiful, this initial bid to ‘do good’ by kissing other boys, jealousy at her sister etc… Yet, despite these myriad causes, she still has to bear her own cross to the end – including her (implied) loneliness, her alcoholism, and alienating her family from herself.
Although, earlier, I said that Tom was the core comedic character of the play – Lynn actually has her own moments of humour in a blackly comic kind of way (though some of the humour comes from her not realizing how psychotic she’s being). One moment comes when, while discussing suing the hospital – she goes off on an analysis of which Jew lawyer is the ‘savagest Jew’ (this becomes funnier if you’ve read the chapter from A Norwegian with that exact name) while Laura & Lauren are horrified at her bigotry:
In looking at Lynn, you can tick off all the mistakes listed by Cicero. I’ve already mentioned 1 & 4 – but the rest come into play & can be attached to different parts of her (except maybe 2 – which comes into play with Lauren’s angst towards Lynn – despite it not being worth the effort). Lynn displays mistake 3 when she continually jabs at Lauren’s marriage & her husband’s cheating – because she cannot believe in a mature relationship that can overcome even that due to her own immature view of relationships. 5 is obvious. And 6, probably one of the most important of all the mistakes when it comes to the themes of the play – is shown in the ways in which she tries to frame Lauren, Tom, and also Danny in her own values due to her inability to see beyond her own ego.
Now, we come to probably the most subtly complex character within the entire play – Lauren. And this comes more from what she doesn’t say, rather than what she reveals. Even though she has several soliloquies throughout the play – there are a lot of things hidden underneath that are only implied. Most importantly – how she reflects certain traits of Lynn’s, even though she might wish to deny it.
I mentioned the fact of the childish pranks earlier, and her quick defensiveness & justification in that monologue might just imply that she is as quick to defend herself as much as Lynn is. More telling is how she talks about her relationship with Danny Wagner, and how she frames it that Danny was “mine, my guy, my thing, my listener, my acknowledger. He was mine and mine alone, until Lynn took him away for good”. When you take into account Danny Wagner’s character throughout all of Dan’s plays – his largeness & his deeper understanding – then this showcases much of her narrower view (though, not necessarily her fault). Lauren touches the larger Danny Wagner only at the end of the play – when she reads his poem.
In fact, the only scene where Danny appears – the flashback in the theatre – is surprising for how un-dramatic it is, despite it being a key event in both Lauren and Lynn’s lives and the cause of their bitter fighting. It is extremely amusing, and Danny himself doesn’t seem to take it that seriously – while an usher who is present makes comedic jibes such as calling the angry Lynn & immaturely naïve Lauren part of Danny’s ‘harem’:
All these moments paint a silly side to Lauren that is the partial cause for her problems – she gullibly gets manipulated by her sister, gets dragged into meaningless fights with her sister, attaches too much weight to a fling when she was 12-years old (when she lacks the courage to speak to Danny years after the event), enacts childish & possibly dangerous pranks on her sister, and, in the end, the one who resolves the fight & really helps her throw Lynn out is Laura.
Leaving Lauren at that, let’s touch on Laura. She shows signs of intelligence and composure that the two sisters lack (though Lauren is trying to reach there), and it’s shown how heavily Lauren relies on her. This is seen, most of all, when she makes comparisons to Beowulf & Dorian Gray when the excerpt from the Picture of Dorian Gray scrolls down. The excerpt itself is perfectly chosen, especially due to how it parallels with Lynn’s beauty ruining her personality:
Laura even brings up a few of Danny Wagner’s own flaws when she talks about how “Danny would have asked a tree knot out if he could get some” – and it shows that Laura can cut through the melodramatics of both Lauren and Lynn and takes a very balanced view. She even comedically remarks: “I swear, things on my block were never this exciting”.
If we take into account the fact that Danny Wagner might be the meta-fictive personality who is writing this play, this shows the type of self-criticism that a self-aware artist can really pull off. This penetrates most deeply in the ‘over-voice’ he creates with Holy Sonnet 30, as seen over here:
Take note of all the character traits that I’ve listed above. Just think about how these beautiful lines could potentially play off & create parallaxes with the rest of the play. How, inclusion of these intertextual beats can raise the action within the play to a higher sphere & show things that the characters cannot see, but the audience can. Something that many playwrights (or creators in every medium) can learn from & utilize.
So far, I’ve only talked about The Thing After Death. But let me make it clear that with the plays Dan has been releasing so far (about 1 a week) – he has cemented himself as a playwright far above everyone else. He has created some of the most coherent and enduring characters to ever grace the stage (hopefully… one day…).
With this play (though with all other plays as well), I feel that Dan also proves that the job of Art isn’t just to pose questions, but to provide answers to the grand questions as well. These answers require a certain level of perception & willingness to open one’s horizons to perceive – but they are there within the work itself. Hopefully, this analysis has contributed to getting people to seek out those answers – and support the artists who can communicate them.