A Norwegian in the Family – Book 2 Chapter 14: Knowing Dick (Analysis)

Introduction

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 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.

Where Love Has Gone

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?)”.

WLHG Movie Poster

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:

Nixon Rants after coming back to Pat

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.’
‘Yes, 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:

Pat goes back into a brighter 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:

Uncovering the mythos of the Bar

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.

Conversation between Pauly and Tony

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:

Pauly Votes Independent

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.

Enter Richard Nixon

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:

I’m Not A Crook

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:

Nixon on being grabbed off the street

Paranoid Nixon

Nixon on Rat Poison and ‘working the angles’

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?’

Nixon sneered.

‘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.’

‘Hhhmmph!’

‘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.’

‘Oh, ok.’

‘You ok?’

‘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?’

‘No, they’re arthropods- with eight legs. Insects have only six. Well, technically, insects are arthropods, but, well….’

‘Ah.’

‘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?’

‘Dick?’

‘Sorry.’

‘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?’

‘Yeah?’

‘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 Sings (cont)

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.’

‘You ok?’

‘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?’

‘Dick.’

‘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….’

‘Yeah?’

‘Well, I thought it was a good story.’

‘I’d’ve squashed the little bastard the moment I saw him!’

‘Why?’

‘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.

Nixon and Pauly on Bridgette Bardot

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:

Nixon on his own Morality and Immigrants

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:

Nixon on his faithfulness

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:

Nixon’s Bad Singing

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.

Nixon Threatened 1

 

Nixon Threatened 2

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:

Nixon’s Memories 1

 

Nixon’s Memories 2

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:

Pauly’s Trump Card

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:

Nixon Goes Out the Window

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:

Nixon Breaks Down

Then, Pauly begins the turn, and starts roping Nixon into his deal. Dan shows the whole gamut of Nixon’s hypocrisy over here:

Pauly Pulls Nixon In

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:

Nixon reveals his fetishes

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:

Tricky Dick’s Subterfuge

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:

Nixon and the Vietnam 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:

Dick Nixon is not a Queer

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:

Ending of Part 2

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:

Tony Starts Dating Flo

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:

Tony Luft gets the ‘scam’ letter

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.

Flo Worried About the Scam

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.

Tony being hustled by Sally

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:

Most Lose

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:

Tony Luft’s End 1

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:

Tony Luft’s End 2

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:

Tony Luft and his Shit

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

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Dan Schneider’s Drama: Maybe After He’s Gone – Early Impressions

Introduction

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.

Narrative

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.

Conclusion

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.

Dan Schneider’s Unpublished Poetry: Advice to Younger Poets

Today’s analysis will be a poem aimed at those out there who are fighting the good fight against the naysayers – and seeking out their own artistic voice. I don’t think I need to go much into a background or set-up. The title is self-explanatory:

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.

This poem is copyrighted by Dan Schneider.

 

Honestly, I feel that this poem should be left by itself, and people should ruminate on it without my pulling-apart or interpretations. If you wish to let it sink into your mind on your own, then stop reading here – but if not, then let’s get right into it:

The first six lines of the poems are kind of like self-contained haiku. They cap-off at three lines each. None of the other stanzas are self-contained in such a manner, and they segue into one another. As a result, the overall effect of the poem is to have these two declarations – the primary posit of why we do what we do, and the forces that stand against us – ring out at the start. Then, the rest of the poem becomes a tumultuous river that doesn’t stop until we come to the definitive end of it. A perfect structural representation of what it must be like to step onto this crazy journey into creation.

The first 3 lines has beautiful music and drifts about in a slow way, slightly engineered by the long ‘l’ sounds of the ‘all’. By the next 3 lines, a stronger image surfaces in the ‘stars’ and ‘wind’ – but there’s an enjambment that splits the ‘moaning winds’ to characterize the frustration of the young poet, and the eventual lessening of these doubts. The first stanza was also declarative and definite in each line, while this one begins the merge through that enjambment.

The third stanza seems to begin with a lingering moment of inspiration – when we close our eyes and creativity starts seeping in. The slow pace (heaviness added with ‘thick miasma’) adds to the feeling, but there is a narrative twist in how the stanza ends. The stronger force of ‘begged, borrowed and outright stole’ cuts apart those visions we have of being some kind of Romantic poet dreamily pondering on life. Of course, originality doesn’t just come from our own, but has to be surmounted by extensive and thorough reading of what poets have done in the past – something that Dan knows all too well. Well, this is just my extended interpretation of this part, but the main thing is that the schism of tone exists so that we can read these differences into it. Besides that, the ‘expectation’ can also be read in multiple ways due to the enjambment, being both the poetic expectation of what comes next, and the expectations of life placed upon ourselves.

Then, the next stanza has a listing (‘ideas, lines, forms, and styles’) that carries over the rhythm from the previous line – and it gets stronger with the image of heat. The ‘grotesque concoction’ split can also be read in multiple ways, with the first word showing what we perceive as a mess of inspirations and plagiarisms, and the second showing what potential exists.

The fifth stanza carries over from the fourth, and adds an extra twist to the previous sentence by capping it off with a ‘yelped’ – and this stanza is full of exclamations to parry against the flow of the previous lines. More good enjambments outline the crisis & feeling of fraud that initially comes from the imitation – the ‘denial of our very own’. By cutting off before ‘soul’, it floats up more connections as to what this ‘own’ is pointing to.

All of the declarations in the fifth stanza start with ‘this is’ – so the sixth begins with the same, but shows us the refutation to those doubts, that there is a “path to an end full with greatness”. To undermine the glory of that path & statement, it caps off with ‘in the dark’ – and then begins to show the ugly side separate from those dreams. The music here amps up the gunk of life, and though Dan has frequently warned against excessiveness of modifiers in writing – this is where the modifiers fit in, to clog up the stanza and convey the effect so desired. The centre line of the sixth is the most descriptive line to appear so far, which has the effect of ‘concretizing’ an environment against the poet’s fancy.

The seventh stanza twists again, starting off as what seems to be a declaration of despair, which turns in favour of the poet – to the ‘envy’ of those who cannot enter the realm of poetry. The ‘tasteless farina of vapid doggerelists’ also cuts off the overabundant and chunky modifiers when it reaches the description of the poet ready to fly.

The eighth stanza continues the image, and adds more reinforcement through the ‘moldy and useless’ non-poets (which can be read in many ways thanks to the enjambment) – versus the You that ‘they could not shatter’.

As the end of the poem comes into sight, the repetitive ‘you’ of the ninth stanza becomes declamation of artistic individuality developing. An interesting and enigmatic symbol – ‘orangeing time’ is used here, calling up some sunrise or sunset depending on the frame that you choose to look at it. At this point, it is also good to notice all of the present participles that are floating up, ending with ‘being’ in the penultimate stanza (versus the ‘waiting’ that begins the poem). I wonder whether this was Dan’s intuition or whether he had planned it beforehand.

From here on out, I’ll talk less about the specifics and get into the general feel of the cosmic ending. The tenth and eleven stanzas plays off the initial image of the boiling after continuing the image of the chrysalis birthing – turning what was once grotesque into the ‘bubbling soup of art deep within you’. This then opens into the perennial image of the sky by the end of the eleventh stanza.

But the image of the sky here is twisted again, and it becomes more of an internal sky that you ‘hove’ back into, and also a kind of void (though, Dan structures it such that the ‘going into’ is read simultaneously with the ‘going outwards’ – because the best art is both entering into self and world) – so Dan still leaves that lingering uncertainty that results from being an artist. And then, it’s lifted up again, by changing that uncertainty into joy of being in that uncertainty.

Finally, the stunning conclusion. This is why we do things – not just because of the voice that we as artists find, but also the voice that is left behind to future generations in the form of art. It endlessly communicates even while lacking in body.

The twists in these poems, alternating between the internal and external, doubts and rewards, creation and scepticism – are what makes this poem the complex statement on art that it is. It doesn’t provide an easy view, but understands all of the complexities that goes into art. The structure of beginning inwards, then outwards, then inwards, then inwards AND outwards, and all of the above techniques that I mentioned make it a stunning poem that everyone on the path should read and try to comprehend, and draw their own from it. At the end, there’s only greatness to uncover – Venture On!

Dan Schneider On…. Approaches and Critiques to Art and Life

A video where Dan makes some comments about my analyses, as well as life in general. Goes a bit into the flaws of trying to do extensive word-by-word interpretation or applying different narrow frames (Marxist, Freudian etc…) to Art.

(As a small note, I have never been to America before)

Alex Sheremet’s Doors & Exits: Our Recognizably Human School

Introduction

In the end, recognition took weeks. Acceptance, months. Understanding – of all the variables and states involved – still going, and who knows if I’ll ever make it… but if I could pinpoint the person who delivered me to the recognition of those doors in the first place – it would definitely be Alex Sheremet.

Cue months and months back. I was still in the army. I had just watched Evangelion – and was still trying to seek out various meanings, things that would place that work in perspective. An interesting fact about Evangelion. The first time I saw it was way back when I was a child, Primary 2 – showing on some cartoon channel late night. The details are unimportant, and I’ve forgotten the when and where – but the image stuck. This was the first Rebuild movie, with crisp animation that hammered home the atmosphere – the Moon & the giant robot. I had no idea what it was about – it was already more than 50% through and I only saw the ending – but the image lured and teased something higher and unexplainable. That single image stuck over the years – and I would slowly read up about what that show actually was – but I would never touch it until I entered the army. In a sense, it was a pattern that was generated by that chance encounter – coming into fruition years later. In truth, it’s probably more banal than that – but my mind chooses to mythologize it as such.

But I don’t want to talk about Evangelion that much. I came into contact with it – and it became the jumping pad to something greater, with the mediator of that jump being Alex’s article. As I said above, recognition took weeks – and, if you go to the comments section of his article, you can see a part of that (rather cringey) process in action. Either way, something stuck – or perhaps it was just the boredom of the military environment – that made me return to that article again and again, each time gaining a little more sight beyond the surface skim of words, and seeing the things that were really there – rather than imagined. While that was going on, I had also – through his criticism – discovered critic Dan Schneider: who posed even more of a struggle due to his unflinching style – but… well, you can see the end results now.

One thing that both of these critics imparted to me – the most important lesson – was the need to go into fundamentals, and to search beyond gloss & names. The belief – for example – that a person’s method or way of life can be encompassed through a single article – that you can understand a person’s position merely through a sliver of his output. People, for example, thinking that they can understand Dan Schneider through a small handful of his reviews alone – when all that is the surface scum that aggregates into a greater sense of the man. People who see him lob terms like ‘greatness’ or ‘objectivity’ about without understanding what these terms truly entails – and thus believe that he is going by some archaic standard – when his idea of it is a leap into a future that so little people have the ability to accept, even as the times move beyond them.

In a way, it helped to read both of these critics in alternation – because Alex helped to expand on the philosophical underpinnings – while Dan was the practicum. That’s not to say that either one is lacking in the other component, but simply that they had different overall focuses – and one complemented the other. The more and more I read – words melted away – as well as particularities – but method remained. It became tool – or concept. Both critics had divergences, but approached the same higher thing in their own manner.

I’ve now read almost every article of Alex’s on his site – and impressed upon me are his particularities and core themes. Core approach to subjects – no matter how distant they seem in topic. The repeated focus on human folly, impermanence (especially of politics), and evolutionary patterns. The knowledge of Classicism, Chinese philosophies, and Nietzsche. Jabs at Nabokov and Rimbaud. Those little sayings and turns of poesy that litter his articles, and make them more memorable than just evaluation: most prominently “as long as we’re recognizably human” (he even uses the phrase for deadlifting!) – and, here are a few more lengthier ones that I’ve run through my head again and again:

“Perhaps I am biased, here, and feel undue affinity with the subject, since – unlike so many other artists in the world – I am a blank slate. Or rather, I used to be. I was pulled, prodded, numbered, branded, and otherwise owned and passed like so much chattel by everything from politics, to Latin, to powerlifting and drawing. I was going to be great, a visionary, in anything that I’d ever touch, whether that meant being a politician, or one of the few fluent Latinists in the world. I was going to be all of these things until art finally pulled me in, and grew me. I could have been Norman Finkelstein. Some unionist. A yogi. Perhaps this is why I’m sympathetic. But, something didn’t let me, for I knew how such stories end. Every time I see it unfold – for it will continue to unfold in others forever – there is some nascent part of me that understands the mindset, the consummation, and even feels nostalgia in it. Yet, as if this is the drama of some parallel dimension I’ve long left behind, I can no longer reach out my hand and make it stop. Perhaps my hand, at this point, would not even understand it.”

“Politics is an idiot’s game. In fact, it’s been an idiot’s game ever since the first 2 ‘geniuses’ got together in an attempt to solve a very simple issue: how, at a time when things were a bit more, well, visceral, a couple of poltroons might scheme to overthrow their supposed betters. This is, of course, a good thing, for when aristocrats conk, people will be forced to cooperate. They’ll get smarter and better organized, until a new dilemma emerges. People, after all, still need to be led. People, who’ve improved, as a whole, are still and always will be a mob, ruled by intangibles few can ever hope to master. And people, whether they’ve got their heads in the clouds or their asses in the mud, are still aristocrats at heart, and forever part of this transaction.”

“Art is not ‘truth,’ but a dupe’s game wherein the best sleight-of-hand wins, and utterly un-real concoctions — wonderfully sketched characters, poetic dialogue — trick the consumer into accepting them as real, thus lowering one’s autonomic defenses against feeling manipulated or ‘cheated,’ defenses that were engineered into us for reasons of survival, but still come out, now, at the slightest suggestion of deceit. This is why the worst art feels so cheap, so exploitative of people’s emotional weaknesses, and why self-conscious (i.e., pretentious) art, if done well, is so bravissimo, for it STILL manages to get to the core of reality despite its artifice, thus signaling to the viewer a level of technical mastery few art-works can achieve.”

“Interestingly, this is similar to what occurs in objective discussions of art, as human culture is the sum average of ALL discussions, and responds, no matter the seeming diversity of ‘opinions’ (e.g., quantum states, to continue Hoffman’s metaphor), with steady, predictable states that always seem to find some regression to the mean when given enough time. Unlike what we normally think of as ‘average’, however, the result is in fact a seeming contradiction with quantum reality, which, in turn, is little more than a mathematical feature of that reality. The sum total – i.e., the only objective reality – remains untouched. It is, to borrow Hoffman’s use of multiple subjects, like removing a small-‘w’ world and replacing it with percipients who are nonetheless able to re-populate the world with objects, or at the very least have logic rally around them, give them life. This can be seen with simulations, sure. Yet it can also be seen by those who have, in fact, purposed and re-purposed life effectively, and in their own way, and consistently, until a system has emerged. Great artists, for example. In the meantime, scientists and philosophers will continue to play catch-up to things that we’ve known to be implicit in what had always seemed less rational pursuits.”

“Yet if Picasso’s a little too tough for beginners to always get, the art of Francis Bacon is still here, sans much of the depth that can otherwise occlude Piccaso’s meanings. This is not so much a knock on either, as it is an admission of the fact that, great or not, not every truly great painter is instructive; and, of course, not ever instructive artist will be great.”

“To be frank, I don’t give a shit about sports, and probably never will. Their basic point of interest — to test one’s mettle in some semi-standardized fashion — is partly made redundant by the hundreds, if not thousands, of new outlets for such since the nadirs of civilization are now comfortably behind us. The human body is on the outs, and Lance Armstrong must on some level understand this. There was his cancer, for one. There was the belief (fact, perhaps) that his accomplishments were impossible without a little push. And, of course, there was the inevitable fallout, replete with a target-system — and hysteria — unlike in any other sport before it, when the records were smaller, and the men a bit shorter. Yet so many were getting that little ‘push,’ as well. Sure, they went nowhere, but revealed things that no myth-maker ever will, who is just too busy for the pettiness, and the envy, that afflicts the myth-takers”

“But, art is not chaos, nor is it necessarily about reality, at least not in a crude sense. It’s pattern. Realistic situations can arise, but if they are presented in an evocative way, full of irony or juxtaposition or even some insightful commentary, there’s a depth not present in ordinary experience, even if the characters are unaware of the artist’s machinations. “

But all of the above merely appears in the style of criticism & commentary – which must necessarily be rooted in another subject – and have its core diluted as exchange for engaging in a specific communication to a specific audience. What happens when you strip all the above from its limited premises – allowing for free reign and the highest communication to occur? You get Art!

Previously, I had a glimpse of this through Alex’s short story – published on Cosmoetica – called the Sum of Others. It’s a condensation of so many of his themes, stripped down to their core elements with poesy and narrative. Yet, that was just a taster. Recently – Alex sent me two of his novels to check out. He told me to read the unpublished Doors & Exits first, because its superior (evaluated by Dan as a great novel) – and so that’s exactly what I did.

Doors & Exits

Alex’s website that I’ve linked above describes the novel (or, as he calls it, a ‘docudrama’) as such:

“Beginning with three philosophical axioms that, in the narrator’s mind, define the universe and its machinations, the book adjusts, rejects, and renews them till the very end. But while the book’s ‘place’ may be a fabrication, its conflicts are not, for its characters (kids, teachers, and those somewhere in between) have a reality someplace, somewhere, and will repeat themselves – ad nauseam – for as long as we’re recognizably human. This is the little-known difference between Truth and Reality, and Alex’s novel – a ‘genuine fake’! – straddles both.”

This description might seem a little abstract – so I’ll just describe the narrative as simplistically as I can. The main first-person narrator is a Journalist called Bright Carlyle who – in a beautifully poetic foreword – relates to us his 3 rules/axioms that determines existence. I don’t know if I can adequately explain these 3 rules, so here’s the excerpt from that foreword:

   It’s hard to see sometimes, but the universe is not that complicated. At first, things churn. That’s easy enough. Then, they mope about through space, shaped to fit anywhere and everywhere, tugging at each other from a great distance. That, I suppose, is the first rule, the axiom that shapes all else, from the spiral of the stars, to the rhythms of the gutter. And as any poor little boy lucky enough to own a telescope in New York could tell you, the two are somehow co-dependent.

Now, I wonder if that’s the key to all this, for it seems that everything wants to somehow get together. To build. At times, I could still see a child with a sand-bucket, staring out into the ambit of the sea. He is tall, important, like something coaxed off of a Romantic painting. He is solitary. Authentic. Yet if you turn your head, just a smidge, there’s a shadow beside him, plopping sand into the bucket, giving firmness to the whims of its companion. In a half-hour, there will be a sand-castle blowing off the coast. But only one boy will get the credit. Only one will be known as the builder. The creator. One boy sees. And the other; well, the other merely believes.

I know this because I was once the shadow on that beach. The accessory. I saw but did not have the skill, the wherewithal, to put that sight to practice. To make it personal not only to me. Yes, I “believed,” but I could do little else. Such is the nature of art. The word “artifice,” after all, is related to it, and it is a relationship most people don’t really think about. Not even the builders.

Yet I am not sad, for things must be this way. For us – the accessories, the believers – there is an exit that, when we go past its threshold, disassembles us to vapor, and where we (if we’re a bit patient) inevitably become a part of something else entirely. To stay within one’s purpose; to be recycled, without a fight or plaint, into something big…I do not think there is much shame in that, even as we wish for more.

That is the second rule. It has something to do with independence; with creation, perhaps, on the small scale. I don’t know what that is, exactly. In fact, I probably never will. But I do know that I am somewhere in this process. You probably are, too.

But that’s all kid-stuff, you say. Arithmetic. Probability. Well, alright. But, there’s the proverbial monkey wrench to all this, too. Rule #2 describes a universe of interlocking squares, where a vibration in one place – any place, really – is felt, almost by definition, somewhere else too, even if that’s on the very edge of the universe.

Now, this is a zero-sum game. There isn’t much movement, even if it feels as if the world is rolling off its orbit. But as the first axiom shows, things are always churning. And, in all likelihood, things will only continue to engender more squares. More repeats of the same. Yet after a million, a billion of the same moves, something goes awry. A peg is not completely flattened. A square is not a square, but its own shape, somehow, and behaves a little differently.

Almost without fail, the universe begins to churn a little harder. It’s trying to bring these trouble-makers into harmony. It’s trying to outnumber them. Usually, they are just pummeled back into the “real” world, probably because they didn’t offer much of anything in the first place, anyway, misshapen, as they were, by mere accident. You know the type. Charles Manson. Fetishists and weirdos of every stripe. Artists who smear themselves with eye-liner, then knock themselves about a room so they could sell the photographic rights to whatever “painting” that might emerge. Blip. Off they go, through that same exit as the rest of us, as if their aspirations simply never were.

Yet what if something here is, I don’t know, useful? And what if we, the collective squares of the universe, rebel against the second axiom: that things mostly blip in and out, on some micro-scale, in pairs, triplets, and so on, and accept – after years of wrangling – just one more shape into our midst? Have we, somehow, moved creation? Did we tweak the engine that stutters life?

Again: I don’t know. But therein lies the seed of the third and final rule. If cosmic lumps like you and me shoot out from the bowels of the world, go here, go there, then make a detour before finally heading for that exit, there is, somewhere along the way, another set of doors, far more numerous, yet far more distant, than the solitary exit that the rest of us must share. They don’t lead to any one place in particular. They don’t advertise. Beseech. If you turn the knob, there is no great sucking sound that pulls you in. Instead, there is only more space.

One should not be surprised, then, that most people turn right around. They want answers. Not more emptiness. Not space. And so they leave. The door stays open just a crack.

Have we hit upon a kind of torture? A dead end? No, I’d argue, for the nature of accomplishment has no end, and nothing’s that quite settled. There are simply more doors up ahead. A few, if one looks closely, are already quite ajar, and some of us are planning to go further still.

In this excerpt, you can already see Alex’s primary style. His narrator talks in casual tone, with all the little quirks of speech, but delivers abstractions grounded with great images (the sandbox image – which can be attached to many things, including a ‘great man’ view of history). But Alex is also capable of setting a scene in a quick, impressionistic form:

   I’d gotten off the wrong end. The university parking lot was in a derelict-looking side of town, and cars tended to pile up rather quickly. Yet I was drawn to somewhere more secluded, to the flowers and trees, which gave everything the look of a post-Cambrian playground. It’s been years, I thought, and I’m still surprised to find no one here. The sky was barren. A nearby fountain sounded to no end. The only thing missing – if that’s the right word – was people. Not seeing anyone else around to give me trouble, I left my car among the weeds and made my way inside the building.

Note the natural tenor of the prose, and how it moves deftly in short bursts. Only one particularly uncommon word stands out, and that word draws everything into it. But there’s still that rumination that isn’t just descriptive, about how this place looked in the past.

But, let’s put the style aside from now, and get to what the story is about:

Bright Carlyle is looking to write a book on something and has taken time off his main job to do so. He isn’t quite clear on what themes he wants to write about exactly, but he has decided that he’ll find out at a school named School of the Future located in the housing complex of Count 46. This complex is located in a bad part of the city. The rest of the novel, told to us in a condensed 125 pages, is Bright writing about the stuff going on in the school while he ruminates on his philosophical axioms & comes across a host of characters both human and philosophically symbolic.

This is the meaning of the ‘genuine-fake’ statement in the summary. Alex, as you can see from the above quotes, understands the intrinsic artifice that goes into fiction. So, he doesn’t do anything like extensive setting description or world-building, but merely ‘floats’ up a school around Bright for him to play off of with his thoughts. It also doesn’t matter if he stretches the philosophical voice of the characters (although he doesn’t do it for all characters), because they’re set within the strong poetics of Bright’s voice, which allows for the artifice to be stretched. The easiest comparison to make would be to the symbolic settings in the works of Herman Hesse.

Each chapter is like a mini snapshot on the setting, or short-story made of multiple-snapshots – which then coheres into a greater philosophical point. With an explorative novel like this – focused on the meditations of a narrator walking through a certain humanscape – it is less of an immersive book, and more of a ruminative book – built more for slow imbibing.

Yet, the key difference between this book and another book of its sort – say a Hesse novel or a book like Soseki’s Kusamakura – is the point of entry which Alex chooses. It provides a grounding rather than just floating upon poetic remembrances, symbolic orders & philosophical abstraction – and throughout the book there are both the philosophical mouthpieces and concrete anecdotes to delineate raw nature. An example would be a chapter that makes use of the transgender bathroom case (once commented on by Alex in an article) – to lead up to a greater philosophical point about the manipulation of identity and limiting of free will that the media commits. Another chapter involves a teaching assistant called Mr Alex (who happens to be deeply versed in the Classics & compares his role to the Greek cults) talking about how he imposes order on school-children – and relating an anecdote about the time he relinquished that order out of pity for a certain crying girl who had to go to detention. My favourite chapter within the novel is a story about a boy called Boy Rogers who decides to join a Maoist gang after reading Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.

All of these are things that Alex has concerned himself with in the past. If you’ve read his articles, you can see the correspondences and parallels. For example – Soul on Ice will be familiar if you’ve seen his rap analysis, where he recounts how important the book was to his life. The Classical & Asian references are also present. At one point he uses Yellow Afternoon by Wallace Stevens – which was noted by Dan to be the perfect Wallace Stevens poem. And, the book consistently deals with those main themes again and again – human folly, impermanence, and the patterns that we are stuck to which limits progress.

   “I am a parasite. This is not an accusation. It is simply the way things are if one chooses to work this job. Any job, really, in education. There’s this big, bloated apparatus. But for what? To help a few retards tie their shoes, I’m afraid. To teach what is in effect a lump of flesh the bare rudiments. To contain a wilderness.” He fed his cigarette to the furnace. “That’s not cynicism, Bright. It is merely law. People, at best, are average. And kids, by extension, are people. I’m not sure if you realize this, but that is a rare insight. An impossible one. For if kids are not pure, wonderful, benign, but flawed – much more so than adults, even – then why the hell do we worship them? Why the apparatus? The machine? It is a wilderness out there. One does not need gears. Algorithms. One simply needs a machete.” He let this sink in a moment. “This is why I’m a parasite, Bright. I know better yet I continue on. How many, if you look at the whole mass of us, do anything worthwhile? Are we part of some grand purpose? Or are we that dying apparatus? It seems to me that, over time, we have replaced the simple things with ‘complications.’ Now, there is something medical about that term. Antiseptic. Perhaps that is only proper. Perhaps we’ve outlived our original purpose, as creators, and now, we’re simply in a numbers’ game. How many worlds, Bright, have we destroyed? And how quickly? How many can we ‘teach,’ and – more pertinently – how many can we impress by teaching? That is a mere crunch, if you ask me. A formula. Yes, I am a part of it. But I am merely one organism. A single leech. I wonder, then, where the bigger creature churns. Where one might find the mother. I wonder, sometimes, if our entire cosmos might be living on the back of some great animal, and that we’re simply too small, our instruments too clunky, to ever realize it…” (Not a quote from the narrator, but from a character named Mr Alex)

Yet, if this were merely a best-of collection of Alex’s opinions – it would not be art. It is art because of how these things are sewn into a narrative that leads up to a glimpse of something higher through beautiful poesy and the combination of these ideas – all pushing and prodding and fighting each other. Each chapter takes on a kind of analysis of a certain scenario, and by the end it feels like every aspect of our humanity has been commented upon – in the full paradox. It runs the gamut from society, to law, to religion & myth, to sex & gender (homosexual & transsexual), to race, to sports, to objectivity in arts (with a discussion of Twilight no less!), to what maturity & childhood means, to ableism & disability, to academia & school politics, to science. With all that, you have the deeply introspective protagonist commentating on characters, many who lack the ability to ‘see’ and exhibit patterns or say things that they can’t exactly place a finger on, but implies much in the network of the narrative. Even a sentence as innocuous as “where’s the exit?” is granted symbolic meaning due to the ‘exits’ of the narrator’s axioms.

A plethora of techniques are used to swap things out. For example, the Boy Rogers chapter suddenly opens into a kind of anecdotal recount of a teacher’s past without any context – only to jump straight ahead into the present, 20 years later. The way Alex engineers it is jarring, but very understandable – because certain humans are like that, in that their core axioms are defined by an early event that they cannot shake off due to a lack of insight or will to change.

Alex also has a great understanding of voice, and as a result there’s enough variance among the characters. This is probably derived from his background as a person who was born in Belarus, and later moved to America:

I went to high school… I spent a couple of years in New Jersey, but the only high school of any real memory to me is Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island. It was a… I didn’t really think of it like this back then, but when I speak to people now, they say it’s a really terrible school. And I guess in some ways it was. Very overcrowded, very violent… but I really enjoyed my time. I skipped class, I never really went. The teachers, they knew me and would mark me as present in the attendance, and I just sort of did whatever I wanted. At the time it was politics; I was really into politics, and high school let that be an outlet for me. (taken from an Interview /w Dan)

The Russian side comes through with one of the characters, who’s a Russian professor with an accent. Insights & implications are placed into the mouths of lower-class characters with the lack of an ability to grasp the wisdom of their statements:

   “Not dat, exactly. But, it’s de whole t’ing, Bright. De whole ‘smart’ t’ing, I guess. I dink I got a lot to say, but I’m no writer. I know dat. But, as a kid, I went here, see? Dis same school,” he said, pointing to the building. “And I never did too well. A lot of de class t’ing, for me, was like a whole new language, or somethin’. Dey were like squiggles. Ideas that don’t seem ta’ count. But, I’d a few t’ings, anyway. De importan’ t’ings. I knew people, for example, betta’ den anybody. I was able ta’ smell danger. Evil. Knew what teacher was tough, and who was gimme. Dat take talent, Bright. Got married. Still married. Kids. Happy. Gotta nice body, even at sixty-eight.” He made a muscle. “Dat take talent, too. But tell dat to a kid, Bright, when nothin’ matta’ but dat grade. That ‘smart’ t’ing. It was hard for me, den.”

But we must make an important note here. Just because the narrator has an ability to see into these characters and ruminate on it, doesn’t make him necessarily better. That’s the trick that’s fostered through the strong poetic voice and philosophy, making you think that he’s somehow above it – and, in a way it also engineers Bright’s own angst towards the whole thing (angst at, for example, how immobile the state of the world is). The 3 axioms are a trick that will, as noted in the summary, change and warp as the novel progresses – leading to the great conclusion at the end that sets all that ego in place (this is probably a technique taken from Woody Allen’s misleading protagonists, among other things). They represent extremes (the ‘study of two extremes’) that, despite reaching towards a greater reality, are still short of it. It is the negation of those axioms that completes the ‘door’.

As such, although there are many things that point to Alex and his own interests, throughout many characters, and some, like Mr Alex, hint at that meta-level – he is not with them, merely within them.

So that’s the overall structure of the book – Bright outlining his 3 axioms, his journey through the school and the cast of grotesques and characters he meets, the angst towards the human condition he carries throughout the whole journey – and the final moment where he steps out of that and departs from his old philosophy. Simple when you look at it from the outside, but with Literature & Art, it’s always about the details and coherence. Within a mere 65,000 words, or 125 A4 pages – the fact that Alex can generate so much coherence and link together so many disparate aspects of humanity in society is absolutely amazing. More importantly, it’s a work of great literature that has bearing in OUR times, although reaching towards universal things. It deals with issues that are more immediate to us, school-shootings, Political Correctness, mass-market popular lit, technology, media manipulation – these topics are taken with no didactics (or, with didactics utilized for a greater purpose) – while always remaining one step ahead. The deeper thrust. Here’s a moment where a top school wrestler on the school team has to ‘lose’ to a disabled child in order to grant that child a minuscule victory, witnessed by Bright:

 The bell rang for Brayan and the ref lifted his arm into the air. The two of them exchanged a few words, and Brayan slumped over once again. I watched him stare down Coach, but Coach simply ignored him, and focused, instead, on the big metal doors at the entrance.

The school band began to play the drums. One couldn’t call it music, exactly, but a repetitious beat, like something ripped from a stylized battlefield, that got louder and louder as it wore on.

Outside, I heard the clank of metal and considerable mumbling. Eventually, it got close enough that I could hear the shrill-end of some conversation. A fumble ensued, with the metal slinking away for a moment, followed by cooing and what sounded like warm re-assurance, as if helping to coax it back. At first, we heard nothing but the drums. Then, there was that hesitant squeak again, and the opening of doors.

A boy rolled into the gym in a wheelchair, losing the assistant behind him. A family poster – Charles! – unfurled from the bleachers, as the gymnasium lights blinded him for a moment, forcing him to rub his eyes under his glasses. As he rolled up to the mat, he took out a little bag and gingerly searched for his glasses case inside of it. But instead of putting them away, he took out a small cloth and rubbed the lenses, one by one, breathed on the glasses, then wiped that away, too. For a moment, he seemed uncertain where to put that bag, and simply clutched it to his person. He looked at Brayan imploringly.

“Please,” Charles managed, talking away the bit of drool that gathered at his lips.

Brayan looked on with horror.

“Sure,” he finally said. He tried to take the bag from Charles, but noticed that one of Charles’s hands was stiff, almost unusable, and had to pry it from his fingers, one by one.

“Ok,” Charles said with resignation. “I’m ready.”

And with that, Brayan lay down on the mat, and straightened out his legs. Sweat wept across his forehead and his body seemed to tighten. One thought of Aztec sacrifice. Tenochtitlan. Yautepec.

Then four men lifted Charles off of his wheelchair, and lowered him on top of Brayan. The ref dropped down, made sure everything was fair, and slapped the ground as the bell sounded.

There was a new champion, he announced. Bring us the crown.

Yet Charles had to be raised back up, first. They tried to lift his upper body off of Brayan, but something had grown accustomed to the position, and his fingers had to be unlocked before he was finally lifted to his feet. The crowd had been cheering for a long time, but to see him on his own two made everything louder. A few cameras flashed, but Charles couldn’t muster the eye-rub of yore.

A few kids had run out to congratulate him and pat him on the shoulder. He felt their hands, but as he was recovering from the effects of camera, he couldn’t quite see them, and didn’t know whom to thank in that gurgling way of his. A moment later, Coach walked over to him, and said, “Here, son,” placing the crown over his head.

Charles smiled for the camera one last time. With the crown on his head, a bit of drool collected at the corner of his mouth, but he was tired, now, without the appetite to clean it.

“I told yuh Brayan would do somethin’ big today,” Coach grinned. “That’s probably the biggest thing he did at this school. Shit. Probably the biggest thing he’ll do in his life, maybe…”

The film crews who brought this spectacle back to the news-rooms called this “sportsmanship.” That Brayan was an exemplar of good-will. Breeding. Confucianism. And I’m sure Coach must have felt this way, too. Reveled in it, in fact. But when I looked at all the news articles that had come out, I didn’t see good-will, or sportsmanship. In fact, all I saw was condescension. Charlie, the retard, could never win this sort of competition fair and square. That much was obvious. So, to remind him of his insufficiency, they decided it would be proper to hoist his impotent body up to victory as the world watched. No, he wouldn’t really be winning. Come, now. But the implicit assumption was that he was too dumb, too numb, even, to understand the genuine thing, anyway, and that an imitation was as good as anything for the likes of Charles. That he should get a taste of what the rest of us can experience. That he should win. Feel. Brim up with testosterone. And, as soon as such a taste would be given, it would be taken away again, too, until the next time someone was feeling generous, that Charlie’s time had come once more to feel the whip of sportsmanship.

But, to me, it wasn’t sport at all. I knew better. I remembered the terror of my professor, when I was about to knock him and everyone around him to the ground. I remembered the rush when I’d fight Sal, trying to pound away all difference, all minutiae between us, and I remember somehow liking it. As a wrestler, I remembered how it felt to have a body under me, tiring with the knowledge that it couldn’t budge, no matter how hard it tried. I remembered the first time I pinned my own father, when I knew he wasn’t simply letting me win. That was important. It signaled a change between us. And I remembered my first fight, my very first, out in my backyard, and how natural, how bullish it had felt to destroy, and how human it felt to stay within reason. That was sportsmanship, to me. And that distinction between power and its reining was what it meant to be a man. That is sport, folks, and while self-control was a part of that definition, too, I could not deny that power was the other half. I do not think Charles had a chance to be a man that day. Man does not grovel, or revel in his inner wimp. One would take one good look at Charles’s impotence and immediately decide against him, and his entire person. Where was his outlet? And why must it take a game, a play-thing, for him to feel a trick of manhood? What did it say about that word, and our primitive understanding of it?

These were not the questions posed that day. As the gym slowly emptied, I noticed Charlie in the corner, wheeling himself across the bits of paper and other trash the paparazzi left behind. Just moments before, the gym was active. Full of noise. It was too loud for anything of substance to be noticed. Now, it was too quiet to bludgeon back whatever it was that welled up in the aftermath.

Beyond the comment on how such overt pity towards the disabled is really condescension (a very Nietzschean point – and reminds me of this) – notice how all this is engineered through the poetics, as though Brayan was caught in a primal world far beyond him, and how these patterns might have been repeated from time immemorial, just in a different form. There’s also the off-hand comment placed in the mouth of the coach, about Brayan doing ‘the biggest thing he’ll ever do in his life’ – which links up to the critique of sports as, really, a lesser outlet for human passions. Alex, in this way, analyzes what is unconscious and immutable, rather than turn it into mere comment on our current politics.

This is the fundament that art reveals, and Alex has seen – even as the people who comment on his site would try to label him as something lesser than that. Misplacing his name in a stream of things that reveal more about themselves and the mirrors surrounding them, than what exists beyond them. Alex has probably grappled with these things to – and Bright might just be a construct made of his past woes – but to speculate any more on that would be projection! In the end, somehow, it’s all the simpler – all the more palatable – than all of those things.

Doors & Exits is, in a way, a story about adolescence and what it entails. The school as symbolic setting is (obviously) parallel to Bright’s own education from seeing beyond the surfaces of education – but it’s the how of this education that really sticks the artistry in. It acknowledges that maturity is not necessarily a stage that one transitions into but a state that one has to maintain. Adolescence is the same. A state is always constantly there, and that one has to escape – or, rather, integrate, into one’s being.

I remember a moment when I was playing trading cards with my friends in school, and this was long after the period of our youth when we played those games. We had decided to return to it, probably out of a sense of nostalgia & a way to find a little spot of childhood safe from the stresses of the exams. A certain student saw us, and felt the need to voice his opinion, loudly and rudely, on the fact that it was childish. We shrugged it off. We kept playing. We were childish, because we had yet to orient ourselves towards the higher things that exist. But, so was he – who believed that maturity was about stripping off a few particularities, toys and games, rather than a thrust of the being within himself towards the world. Both of us were play-acting. The world was larger. It still is, to me.

(All excerpts from Doors & Exits are copyrighted by Alex Sheremet)

Dan Schneider’s Drama: “The Thing After Death” & Our Human Weakness (First Impressions)

Overview

At 11pm Sinagpore time, I received a Gmail notification sent by the Cosmoetica e-list containing the full manuscript of Dan’s 51k word play – The Thing After Death. By 3am, I was 75 pages into the 100 page manuscript. I slept, woke up at 9am, read until 10am and I completed the whole play. To set things in perspective, the average Shakespeare wordcount ranks at roughly 22k words, and Hamlet is 30k words. According to Dan, the play was finished in 10 days.

Now, of course, given that this was the first manuscript – there were countless typos. But the very fact that, despite such supposedly jarring aspects – I was fully wrapped into the narrative of the play, speaks tons about the sheer ability of the author and the strength of his structure. This essay will be on my first impressions of the play.

Now, there are many places to start when talking about a humongous and complex play like this one – but I have decided to start at the place which I probably should start at:

THANKS A LOT DAN. I’m thrilled to think that, 500 years into the future – my name will exist as a footnote in the analysis of some cyborg academian trying to unweave the cultural references of the Schneider Corpus. (I have a WordPress – does that count?)

But, I don’t want to start with this extract JUST to blow my own horn about the miniscule immortality accorded to my name by the very fact of this appearance (although that is one of several reasons). Rather, I want to deal with what I perceive might be an extremely high barrier to proper criticism for those first critics who, in the future, will finally be able to get their hands on The Thing After Death (and, probably, many other Schneider books). I have a feeling that, in a somewhat similar way to the critical treatment of Woody Allen with regards to Stardust Memories – critics might be too caught up with the metafictive qualities of The Thing After Death – without realizing that, even if Dan Schneider were a two-bit hack playwright who just happened to pen The Thing After Death in a stroke of genius while the rest of his corpus was made out of B-movie flicks and bad pulp fiction – Danny Wagner (the metafictive persona of resembling Dan Schneider in this play) would STILL be a great character & fiction device simply because of how he serves more purposes than just to advertise for Dan’s greatness as a writer. On the other hand, it is exactly what makes Dan a great writer that he has the balls to do something like this while simultaneously going beyond the mere metafictive novelty of the character – using Danny Wagner as a mirror for the other characters in the play to bounce up against – fleshing out their faults in contrast to the ideal that he represents.

Metafiction Ho!

Now, with that in mind – let’s dive into the meat of the play. First, I’ll show you the Stage setting instructions & characters of the play:

Characters & Stage

The Thing After Death is a play in 5 Acts – Play 1 of Dan’s new & upcoming Infidelity Trilogy. That very subtitle creates expectations about what the play will be about – the tropes and themes involving infidelity strewn throughout Literature & Film – setting up the audience for the surprise that occurs when so many of these tropes are broken and dealt with in novel and creative ways.

The core of the narrative focuses on a screenwriter in her 50s named Megan who has to prepare for her father’s funeral. She suffers from guilt due to being the indirect cause of her family’s dissolution when she was a little girl – when she caught her father with her 17-year old babysitter named Valerie & went to tattle to her mom about it. She is married to a construction business owner named Michael, is friends with a gay black actor nicknamed Zephyr, and is also a collaborating on scripts with her ex-boyfriend Danny Wagner – Dan’s metafictive stand in. In the meantime, the play also tracks Valerie, also in her 50s, hearing about the Funeral & deciding to pay her respects and, hopefully, make up with Megan as well. The characters interact, exchange words of wisdom, ruminate on life at 50, discuss the past, and slowly prepare for the inevitable confrontation between the two women & conclusion as the funeral looms closer and closer.

Yet, while the Infidelity & the Funeral are the main plot devices of the story – there are so many other themes and moving ‘wheels’ within the play itself that build up into thematic crescendos and parallels throughout the whole story. As such, I cannot really describe the narrative in a linear fashion to you. It moves atmospherically between different scenes that seem separate but cohere together in beautiful and unexpected ways – a ‘Slice of Life’ play in the truest sense – bringing to mind Woody Allen’s Radio Days, Chekhov’s ‘mood dramas’, and Bergman’s movies. But such comparisons do not do justice to the play – which also draws inspiration from & uses devices of melodramatic Soap Operas, American Realist plays, Shakespearean soliloquies, and a plethora of other tricks that have been done in other places – but never in ways as unique and powerful as what occurs in this one. Dan once commented that his aim was to break the idea of what was truly possible in theatre by going beyond the ‘single spoke’ of past dramas.

(Incidentally, this reminds me of an 8-hour Chinese play called A Dream Like A Dream involving interweaving stories by famous Taiwanese playwright Stan Lai – that my father went to watch once. The stage is a 360 degrees stage set like an actual Buddhist wheel or something like that. I didn’t go to watch it since there were no subtitles due to the stage & my Chinese is bad – but he said it was a cosmic experience. I hope it gets translated one day so that I can really see if it stands up against The Thing After Death.)

For example – one aspect of the play is how goddamn delightful it is. The characters aren’t all dead sombre weights like many other serious drama plays. They shoot the shit about things like Star Trek and the Trump election (this is one of the greatest plays to be set in 2017, with comments on technology and our current culture). They make crass jokes to one another and bitch about their jobs. In a way, the levity of their personalities ironically undermine the character’s various melodramas & their own problems – and it all leads to a great philosophical point by the end of the play – about Life itself and the solipsism that humans have to escape from. One example comes from the element of the soliloquy – Megan breaks out into a soliloquy about all her Freudian and psychological hang-ups, exactly after the scene where she shoots the shit with the gay, black & bitchy Zephyr – which ends with him calling her a ‘downer’. In a way, this parallels with the themes as a whole – because the soliloquy is the very epitome of a solipsistic device meant to create poetic exposition on a character’s own miniscule psychology – opening up these psychologies to operatic heights.

Another device that the play subverts is the use of flashbacks. Normally, with regards to this kind of story – and given past works like Death of a Salesman – you’d expect flashbacks of Seamus to be extremely prevalent within the play itself & showcase the full nostalgia & regret of memory. Yet, there are only two flashbacks – never of the event itself – but of things before and after. One is Megan having an idealized recollection of her father when she was a girl. The other one is Valerie remembering how she got pregnant with Seamus’ baby and aborted it – and how he scolded her because he wanted to keep it. I can spoil plot elements like these because one of Dan’s views is that good Literature is cannot be spoiled because the themes manifest themselves from things beyond just the events themselves. There are great bits of wisdom and dialogue that cannot be reduced to the events and cheap revelations. Beyond these two flashbacks, a recurrent memoristic device is the sound of kittens mewing that plays during the start of certain scenes in the play – later revealed to be in reference to an event from Megan’s past where she took care of a bunch of kittens with Valerie. In a way, this is an even more refreshing take on memory than the classical devices – acknowledging the fact that memory doesn’t always just manifest in a full recollection – but sometimes it creeps and subtly alludes, or is supressed. The symbol of the kittens can, when you reach the end of the play, mean different things to different people based on their own view of to what extent Megan has really forgiven Valerie.

Kitten Noises

Also, there’s the use of excerpts within the play itself – which is intertextuality at its finest. This is one of the purposes of Danny Wagner as a character, although other characters can fulfil this role – in that it allows for Dan to use his own poems or other works of Literature within the play, with Danny as the medium for these ‘higher’ interludes. You’re also more likely to see these interludes from the characters who are more entrenched in the arts than those like Valerie or Sarah – although they have their own form of cultural reference with things like lower brow pop culture and rock bands. These excerpts are sometimes recited by the character off-handedly, without any particular higher intent – and yet the passages chosen hide deep import to the themes of the play.

In the first excerpt, Danny talks about O’Neil (in a conversation about theatre in general the play he’s trying to write – which of course happens to be The Thing After Death) & quotes a long passage from The Hairy Ape:

O’Neil Excerpt

This monologue is delivered with seething rage by Yank from the Hairy Ape, commenting about the primitive power that the workers represent which runs all things. When placed in the textual nexus of The Thing After Death, it has great symbolic import. I won’t be able to tell you exactly what import it has until I reach the themes that this work deals with – but, for now, keep in mind this excerpt, and also keep in mind the question posed by the title of the play itself – “What is the thing after Death?”.

Atmosphere & Stage

Scene fading in reminiscence

Let’s go back to the specific instructions Dan designated for the production of the play. He advises it to be told as minimalistically as possible – “things should be suggestive and influence the audience subliminally by the characters’ perceptions of them”. He also advises that many interactions & things aside from the main characters be invisible so that the characters speak to “the wraithic embodiments of such”. The result is that you have a very ghost-like atmosphere where these characters drift about in their interactions – hinting only at the viewpoint which they are present in while the outer universe is obscured. This atmosphere, if done well (in my mind’s theatre, I imagine something akin to the dream sequence from Another Woman – or the atmosphere of Bergman), can also generate visual-symbolic import for the themes of the play. Within the play itself, there are also many scenes that are engineered to fade away, rather than end with the resounding crash of a new revelation or emotional outburst – and this minimalism can help to elevate the effects of those fades.

Yet, normally, when you think about such an atmosphere – many Absurdist type or emotionally sparse plays comes to mind. The Thing After Death, as I’ve noted – with its lengthy banters about pop-cultural milieu and comedic moments – is the very opposite of the austere ‘mood-drama’ that we expect. Although – there are great moments within it that can invoke that very strain of atmosphere. In my mental picture of the play, there are moments where I feel like it would look like a sitcom filmed by Bergman’s cinematographer or directed by Beckett.

But such a contrast isn’t a detriment – though it might place a higher difficulty barrier on the cast – because of how important this tonal shift is to the core philosophy of the play. This idea of matching a minimalist stage with characters that overflow with life & humour helps to support the element that I talked about earlier – about the humour that undermines the dramatics of the character’s personal problems. Actually, I’ve just thought of a better comparison – the way the play feels reminds me of John Cassavetes’ Opening Night – and the ending where Gena Rowlands destroys the mood of the lame serious sombre play that she has to act in by doing improv comedy /w Cassavetes’ character.

Speaking of improv, there are actual moments within the play itself where Dan notes that the cast should improvise actions between characters. You can see one such example here:

Improv in Flashback

Ultimately, this makes The Thing After Death a play of extreme difficulty to pull off. Not only must the cast deal with a script that is longer than Hamlet, and, unlike Shakespeare’s play, where every single scene has import and meaning – they must also be able to deal with the contending comedy-drama moods, the intertextual elements where they have to act out scenes from other plays & Dan’s poetry, the improv moments where they have to be spontaneous to add to the naturalism, and they must also be able to gesturally hint at a string of wraithic ghosts that represents the world outside of the perspective that the characters inhabit. Not only that, but they have to play, convincingly, some of the best characters to ever appear in the history of drama – one of which is a metafictional doppelganger of Dan himself (I can imagine a possible actor focusing too much on the self-praise with none of the subtlety and wisdom – and making Danny Wagner look like a massive douche). And, to top it all off, they have to be able to fart at will. Indeed, the Thing After Death might just be the first high literary work of drama that requires a fart-track to pull off well.

Characters

I’ve talked so much about the characters but I’ve yet to go into detail about them. The Thing After Death is, at its core, a play that moves by the power of the characters and the situations they inhabit. Although I use the word ‘situations’ – you could say that much of the play is made out of small moments, the gel between the big events – and it ends with the major event of Seamus’ Funeral. The Funeral – Act 5 – takes up 30 pages and acts as the philosophical core of the whole play – uniting all the themes that were hidden underneath the surface for the first 70 pages.

The character I’ll start with first is Megan Ann Fitzgerald Morrow.

I’ve told you about the details of her past & her regret – but equally important is her occupation. Megan used to be an actress and is now a screenwriter of B-movie films – and the play itself makes reference to Piranha & The Room (Sarah, Valerie’s friend, comments that one of her films was as bad as “that Tommy Wisenheimer film… where a football game in tuxedos breaks out” – while Valerie comments that she watched a film with “Some shit about a giant piranha and six teenagers losing their virginity before penises and tits are devoured by the fish.”)

In other words, Megan is a bad writer, and she is acutely aware of that fact due to her relationship with the great writer Danny Wagner. This is another burden that she has to bear, but, at the age of 50 – it’s something that she’s accepted and has to live with. In fact, she even ropes Danny in as a script doctor for some of her scripts. To use a Dan-ism drawn from his review of Woody Allen’s Interiors – Megan is a Joey (edit: Dan contends this in the comments because Joeys lack talent but have all the passion – while Megan has some talent but was lazy), except for the fact that she’s better off because of that acceptance even amidst her own insecurities. The other difference is that the characters which surround her, the objective & wise Danny, her loving husband Michael, and her funny friend Zephyr – are a far cry from the poisonous passive aggressive atmosphere of the household in Interiors.

This aspect helps to further develop a core motif of her character – the idea of what she could have been, and probably was – but what she sloughed off in the passing of time and the development of a better environment around her. This comes to the forefront in her soliloquy/monologue where all the neurotic stuff bubbles to the surface. This part of her character is so aptly summarized by the remark she makes at the end of that soliloquy: “Oh, Michael and I are happy, but I know there is more beyond me, beyond life. It’s just the getting there that’s hard.”

First part of Megan’s Soliloquy

Of course, by the end of the play, we will know that this sentiment is more or less WRONG – or, rather, it is correct but in a different way than she probably conceives it (as, for example, the artistic transcendence of Danny Wagner). By the end, it is Megan’s acceptance of her station & her past that allows her to go ‘beyond’ – in a deeper and far more meaningful way than she is probably even aware of. Life, and age, overtakes her own woes, and pushes her into happiness. This is an amazing use of the soliloquy which, before, was used to dramatize feelings with poetic heft and turn them grandiose – but, in the play, delineates neurosis and smallness within Megan while SIMULTANEOUSLY allowing her to commentate on greater things without her realizing it.

But, we have to go back to Megan’s past and talk more about those demons that have been haunting her so.

If there’s one thing I have to hone in on to prove Dan’s expertise at subverting expectations, and getting to the core of a deeper and more interesting reality – it would be his treatment of the infidelity itself. In the end, what Megan latches onto as the most pressing consequence of the whole affair was – out of all things – the loss of her friend & babysitter, Valerie. In a way, it makes more sense that the loss of a friend who babysat & played with you for about a year – whom expanded the narrow horizons of your small universe – would be tons more painful on the subconscious than the larger stuff that she doesn’t really know the import of. It also undermines the importance of the crime – so overdone in a multitude of works and so born from petty human emotions and their selfish desires – that the real tragedy is the lessening of everything else into that thing.

Twist on Infidelity trope

Although, we only know this aspect of the infidelity from Megan herself, who has the character trait of psychoanalyzing everything too far – so it could just as easily be a myth she developed for herself to tide against the trauma. But it speaks volumes about her depth as a character that such ambiguities exist – and there can be many factors leading up to exactly what she is during the timeframe of the play – the affair, the friendship broken, influence from her mother, her artistic insecurities etc… etc… What matters, ultimately, is that she overcomes, either through myth or reminiscence, and is able to face Valerie by the end of the play & pay good respects to her father at the funeral. Although her mind is attached to those details, her body & time is already leading the way. And this grants cosmic import to the recurring mews of the kittens at the start & end of the play.

The next character I’ll deal with is Danny Wagner.

Great poet, great writer, and working on a play. Shunned by Academia. Married to Jessica Wagner – an “artsy type” with the “whole Plathian melodrama thing going on”. Works as a custodian – although has to see a chiropractor because of a hurt back. Runs an interview show & a website called Omniversica etc… etc… – all the other things that we know about Dan. OK – Next!

Just kidding! If Danny Wagner’s existence in the play was merely to recapitulate who Dan Schneider is – he would not have as much potency as he does here.

For example – to serve as a contrast to the bitter tear between the marriage of Megan’s parents. Danny is Megan’s ex, but no bad blood runs between the both of them – merely the acknowledgement that there are ‘insuperable’ things between certain people which prevents them from truly meshing, although it still allows for interaction. She retains his company because she knows that there are higher things than getting mad over a break-up.

His sincerity, directness, and ‘higher vision’ also allows him to quell situations which, in other lesser plays, would be milked for their dramatic value. For example, when Valerie arrives at the funeral, he has no problems going up to her & talking to her – despite his knowledge of what Megan feels about Val. After the funeral, he’s the only one who talks to Val – shooting the shit about lowbrow culture and television shows – while the rest stay by the sidelines & wait for the eventual confrontation between the two main characters.

Valerie’s character developed through pop-culture references

In some ways, he could be ‘harvesting data’ for his own play & literary works – & one of Megan’s hang-ups about her relationship with Danny was that she felt she was “becoming just fodder for Danny and his art” – which is, in a way, true, but also inconsequential because it is precisely this view of the world that allows Danny to have deeper relationships with & better those around him. This places Danny Wagner as the opposite of the cliched ‘aloof artist’ – but rather an entity that dives deeper into life than anyone else and is more grounded than anyone else, and his relationship with Megan failed because she could not plunge into his depths, not because of his distance. This makes Danny Wagner possibly the best representation of an artist-character to ever appear in the history of drama – which is a bit cheap because all Dan had to do was to write himself into the play.

Character implications for Megan + Meta-comment

And, to push the character even further – Dan also engineers the perceptions of the other characters to Danny’s personality. I’ve just pointed out Megan’s selfish appraisal of him – even as she’s bettered by the acquaintance. In her soliloquy, she chastises herself for wanting to live life comfortably without being able to live up to his integrity. “He was too dedicated to the arts. I wanted to live, to have life and some comforts” – and this statement is ironic because Danny is the one who is engaging in life more than her, having fun with her husband and her dad at poker games while she’s caught up in psychic shit, being able to talk to Val with ease, and moulding the environment that he sees fit for himself – doing all this despite his bitching about his lack of artistic recognition & his having to put up with blue-collar jobs and custodian work. As I pointed out earlier, critics could easily be misled by this element, should they come into contact with the play – in that they view Danny as an insecure artist egoistically flaunting his own art, when, in fact, all of his actions proves that he is simply more grounded than all of that. Megan only gets a sense of all this by the end of the play – how much life has given to her and how much she should cherish it – when she eulogizes at her father’s funeral.

“I have had the good fortune of a loving husband, one whose own success has allowed me the luxury of being an artist, even if not a high one. I know great artists…. who lack the time and support I have. Some handle it better than others, yet how fortunate I was, and am. I know it. I feel it, and, before I get too carried away, let me just state that I appreciate so much of this, even if I fail, in the end, at expressing it.”

But, if I am to talk about the character of Danny Wagner, I also have to talk about the character of Jessica Wagner as well. Jessica doesn’t appear in the play at all, and it is a running gag throughout the narrative where various characters make fun of her & share anecdotes about her tempestuous artsy personality. I have no idea if the real Jessica Schneider is like this – but within the framework of the play, she serves as a kind of foil to Megan even though she doesn’t appear. She is the great artist that Danny marries in the end, but her ability to write great novels & grasp that higher vision doesn’t save her from her own neuroses – although her marriage to Danny does – and there are many implied similarities between her & Megan, although Megan tries to distinguish herself from it:

“Well, once Danny and his wife, Jessica, visited Michael and me. She’s smart, but like me, she has difficulty making friends with women. It’s different reasons with her- the usual artsy bullshit. With me, it goes back to Valerie.”

She also notes that Danny once told her “But she’s the Sylvia Plath sort, and he has to handle her with Kid Gloves, as they say.” – the irony being the fact that Michael, her own husband, is also handling her with kids gloves by not revealing to her that he’s been playing poker with her father.

Pissing on Jess

Jess is portrayed, through the words of Danny & the others, as the person that is bitter about the lack of artistic recognition for her own & Danny’s corpus – and so she’s unable to slough off the burdens of her life in the same way that Danny, and later Megan – are able to. And it’s a resounding truth that some people can be great artists, with the ability to dive into the core of humanity – yet be less oriented towards life than others – same for people who excel in many other professions.

Zephyr (John James Johnson) is one of the primary comedic relief characters of the play – but this in no way means that he lacks characterization, depth, or meaning. On the surface, he seems like a character defined by a series of quirks – gay, black, bitchy, and sole coloured person in a group of white friends – but through the use of multiple subversions, as well as great writing in general (because, unlike what some people might believe – a 3D character can’t be created solely through subversions). Dan uses the character to criticize various and stereotypes (“Let’s face it, a short, gay, black man is boring, these days. If I really wanted to stand out, I should be a drag queen. But I don’t even have that gay lisp thing going for me. Damn my ‘hardy Negro’ voice”) – but he also uses the personality as a foil to many other characters, such as Megan or Sarah, within the cast.

Zeph’s hang-ups

Take a look at this bit of dialogue which succinctly defines his character hang-ups – providing a comparison as a person hung-up on his parents –  just like Megan – but manifesting in different ways. He also reveals a great truth about how it is those that are proximal to himself with a greater chance of causing him harm in subtle and insidious ways – rather than any overt racism. As such he wishes for an enemy, but finds none. Yet, he has enough integrity not to defer responsibility completely – which comes up in a later scene where he disses an article he saw online about a triggered Clinton supporter. His personality is bombastic and aggressive, but self-effacing. He also happens to be stuck doing lowly jobs – having to work jobs that a temp agency assigns him because his acting job isn’t paying the bills.

Unlike Megan, Zeph also has to deal with the loneliness intrinsic with his sexuality & his inability to find a companion. As a result, he frequently visits a shrink. In an Allen-esque fashion, he jokes about it and other such problems. This allows him to undermine Megan’s woes, especially when he makes fun of the affair in his own open manner – comparing it to other movies and melodramas:

Comedic foil

Yet, there’s a bit of a pathetic nature to him that surfaces during the funeral scene. Until that point, we’ve seen him as an aggressive and bitchy character – and during his eulogy, he tries to go after Seamus in a diss speech (“Bitch tried to steal the show. Now it’s homeboy’s turn.”) – only to realize that now’s not the time and place for his bullshit, and he falls into a spiel about his own childhood before petering out, leaving the floor for Danny Wagner (but not before dropping a hilarious “Thanks for saving my black ass in front of Da Man!”). Later, when Megan faces Valerie, she admits that Zeph is “all bark and no bite”. Compared to Danny, Michael, Marina, and Pastor Steege – all of which have grand philosophical points to make – his speech reveals the extent that he still has things to face. When Megan comes up, her speech begins in that kind of wavering fashion – but gradually builds up tempo into the same philosophical tremor of the other speeches, with Danny as a clutch to help her through.

Vulnerability, humour, and symbolic purport. Zephyr is elevated to a great character in lieu of this, but he gets to contribute to the bigger ‘overtone’ of the play when he drops in an excerpt from Macbeth, which speaks a lot about himself, as well as the themes of forgetting and memory:

Macbeth quote & farts

Now we move on to the other side of the equation – the character of Valerie, and her ugly friend Sarah.

The dynamic of these two characters mirror Megan & Zeph – but it represents more of a view from ‘below’. Both work at a supermarket and are lower brow, while Megan & Zeph are entrenched in the arts (although Zeph also has to work shit jobs). Even when positions apart, Valerie is just as much steeped in her own woes as Megan – while Sarah acts as the comedic emotional foundation to pull her out of it. This is a great twist – where the beautiful woman has less emotional resilience to deal with life compared to the ugly one, and she relies on the emotional support a person who has been through the rough and came out all the better and hardier for it.

Valerie is, to use her own words, a slut. She can list more than 60 past lovers – 3 divorces and once widowed – and has, by her age, gotten used to her own passions (“She seems resigned to the scene, as if she has done this many times before”). It’s especially interesting that, despite being a main character that is tracked for two acts – her troubles are not as openly signalled as Megan’s, at least until the confrontation. She even has her own soliloquy – but she lacks the Freudian terminology to ruminate about it, and focuses more on going through mementos and commenting on various things. Compared to Megan’s, hers is also funnier (“That time at the chiropractor- ten minutes of therapy and I let him take me from behind”). This soliloquy segues into a Seamus flashback – the moment when her emotional past is clearly revealed – and then goes into her waking up to her 68th lover. But, she’s troubled by things – she calls Sarah at night, calls out Seamus’ name in dream, and is said to have ‘pensive moods’ by Sarah.

What she’s been through, and a deeper sense of how she feels, is directly revealed during the confrontation:

Val’s emotions

Its implied that her parents are a lot worse, or, at least, as bad as Megan’s – and that fact, combined with her initial position in life – were what might have contributed to her personality being what it is. Throughout the confrontation, the two main characters discuss about how the affair & destruction of the friendship was both their fault (in the agency that both of them took to lead to that conclusion), and how it was also something out of their control (in that they were already in a bad situation that was bound to crash, and that they were also moulded by their circumstances).

Now, with a play as thick as this one – I have to admit to some critical inadequacies. There are still certain areas that I have not grasped given that I’ve only done one initial reading with a couple of flip-backs to concretize my points. This is, in the end, still a first impressions (even though it has already taken on the wordcount of a full-scale analysis, which just shows how much the play has entered into my thoughts for the past stretch of time). On my first reading, my mind oriented itself to certain characters versus others – such as Zeph, Megan, and Danny – due to their proximity to my own concerns & interests. Michael, Valerie, and Sarah are, as such, less concrete in my mind. I am uncertain about the details in some areas & am less sure about my interpretations – such as the extent to which Valerie is attached to the affair – whether she has sloughed it off more than Megan or not. Certain ambiguities with regards to the characters, certain depths and symbols – might become clearer to be upon re-reading, or, if the play actually, by some miracle, manages to appear in a visual format. Some of my analyses above may also be over-reaching – and a re-experiencing might tighten my view of the details.

So, to end of this lengthy section on the characters, I would like to point out one last thing about Sarah. Many who first see or read about her are likely to compare her with Zeph – as both are bitchy characters that have weaponized the negative sides of their lives into snarky and funny personalities. Yet, I was also thinking about the differences that are manifest – even with these apparent similarities!

Sarah is, in her own ways, a character foundationally closer to Danny while further away in terms of vision, and the ability to express this. She is fully aware of her station and has decided “when life fucks with me, I reach for my trusty strap-on, bend life over, and make it squeal like a pig”. This works positively for her life, but negatively towards others – in how it hardens her to make quick cruel judgments of Megan. As such, her aggressive personality feels as though it is born from her will – while Zeph’s feels like it is born out of his inadequacies.

Sarah’s Acceptance (note the view of randomness, which parallels Dan/Danny’s)

I wish I could make a greater comment on Michael – but I feel that on first reading he is overshadowed by the other characters, although he is so important to Megan. On first glance, he seems like the overall nice guy – grounded individual that helps to root Megan down & is concerned with the pragmatic parts of life. This doesn’t mean that he’s separate from higher things, because he interacts with Danny & also understands aspects of his art (“Jess is more classical in her themes and style, and very pungent in her prose’s poesy, whereas he’s the great experimenter, and his poesy is not as obvious”)

His standout moment is in the funeral scene, where he eulogizes with a quote that has less poesy than the other speakers, but is just as philosophically potent – from scientist Carl Sagan:

“On this dot everyone you love, ever heard of, every person who ever was, lived out their lives. Every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every young couple in love, every corrupt politician, supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there- on a mote of dust suspended in a shaft of sunlight. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a tiny fraction of that dot.”

The Thing After Death

1

We return to the question implicitly posed within the title – What is the Thing After Death?

Now, I have talked and talked about the play for several thousand words or so, and yet I feel as though I haven’t even gotten to the meat of it. I have talked, mainly, about the characters and their interactions with one another – and, if the play were solely about those characters – it would probably be a good to excellent play. What drives the play into greatness is something more intangible that exists in between the cracks of those words. It is about the truly beautiful repetition of ideas that play off one another – like chords and melodies in a song.

2

There are many answers as to what is The Thing After Death. It is forgetting. It is remembrance. It is a start. It is an afterlife. It can even be Time Itself.

3

Or, more likely, Life, plain and simple.

4

And, to me, if I were to give my own personal opinion as to what the title implies – I would say that it means the End of Human Weakness. Because The Thing After Death is a wonderful play about many things – but one aspect is how much understanding, recognition, and dignity it gives to human weaknesses – even while it makes fun of it, mocks it, and shows a higher view:

5

Because the subculture & medium that I love – to which I started this WordPress for in the first place – mentioned in the very title of my site itself – has a certain fondness for human weakness. They love the act of self-effacement, the comfort of self-pity, the refuge of the cute, and the allure of the minuscule little kingdoms that they can protect – database animals that they are. And, even though the play is not necessarily about those things – I cannot help but feel those resonances that are molded into its structure – calling out to the things I love. Perhaps, a later re-reading, when the years have passed, might expand my view of it – cooling the passion while increasing the insight and appreciation.

6

And it is this ability for the play to be so joyful, dreamlike, and life-affirming – even while it deals with the most sombre of subjects and criticizes aspects of human character – that makes The Thing After Death both a great play, and undeniably one of my personal favorite works of art. I cannot help but wish that everyone gets the chance to enjoy it as well.

We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail. When Duncan is asleep–
Whereto the rather shall his day’s hard journey
Soundly invite him–his two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassail so convince
That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only: when in swinish sleep
Their drenched natures lie as in a death,
What cannot you and I perform upon
The unguarded Duncan? what not put upon
His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt
Of our great quell?

(All excerpts from The Thing After Death are copyrighted by Dan Schneider)

Dan Schneider’s Poetry: Not Sisyphus (bonus – This Is Not About Stalin)

The best of poems feels like a great riddle being posed and can be more intriguing than the tightly crafted mysteries of many detective novelists. Varieties of meaning can hinge on mere shifts of words – and nothing is more interesting than tracing back how the poet led you down a certain pathway. A clear example of this is the poem Not Sisyphus by Dan Schneider – which grabbed me with its puzzle the moment I read it – and, even after I’ve come up with my own interpretation of it, I still feel as though there is something simply uncanny about its construction.

Copyrighted by Dan Schneider

The way the narrative voice sounds, the re-interpretation of the myth, and the revelation of the last line – reminds me a lot of some of Kafka’s parables, except that the sonnet is greater because it layers more paradox through the enjambment and has a wider span of techniques. The intrigue starts from the very beginning, with its title.

There are a few such works in Dan’s Collected Poems that does the same thing – overtly negating a certain subject, which all the more serves to draw your attention to it through reverse psychology. He has a bunch of poems named ‘This Is Not About Stalin’ (edit: as noted in the comments, its a 3 poem cycle with slightly different names)  where he mixes metaphors that bring to mind Communist elements like factories or mechanism – but uses it to talk about a completely different subject. You can see one example here:

Copyright by Dan Schneider

Using the destruction of individuality that Communism brings as a metaphor of the ego-negation that occurs during sex/love is absolutely wild – but let’s go back to Not Sisyphus.

Now, the very first thing that Dan does in this poem is call up the myth of Sisyphus itself. An unnamed narrator describes being stuck in a punishment much like Sisyphus, but we aren’t exactly sure yet. The next two lines begins the narrative twist. The narrator is someone sitting on the side – most likely a God – watching Sisyphus. This creates a mythic parallel & ironic re-interpretation – where it is the God that has to suffer the punishment of watching Sisyphus – while, to reference Camus & his existential interpretation of Sisyphus – Sisyphus remains blissfully happy. Incidentally, Dan has used Camus’ book before as an epigraph for his poem First Murder – although I do not know if he had the quote about ‘imagining Sisyphus happy’ in mind when he wrote the poem. In any case, when he writes how Sisyphus ‘smiles’ – that reference comes to mind.

The voice of the narrator, with words such as ‘old ghost’, ‘demeanor’, ‘sipping my ice tea’ and the barrage of alliteration in the later lines – recalls less of a God and more of a grinning Dandy or Clown musing lackadaisically about the vision before him. It is this jesting voice that brought my mind to Kafka – and it shows the range of voices that Dan can encompass in his writings.

The reinforcement of the idea that the narrator is a God comes from a ‘nymph’ that tells him of Sisyphus crimes. Notice how the rhythm & jest abruptly picks up during the nymph’s descriptions, manufactured by Dan’s intuitive poetic feeling – which could draw the reader into what Sisyphus might have felt (the thrill and whirl) at the moment of his crime before being caught. It returns to a calmer rhythm after ‘But all fails’.

The actual nature of Sisyphus’ crime is left unknown – but we merely know of the act of swindling. This helps to leave this aspect of the poem open to a multitude of possible interpretations. Yet, at its core, it describes a person full of bullshit, the transience of his moment (and his lack of awareness about its transience – Death), and the eventual downfall. Knowing what Dan loves to rail against – it could easily be a hack artist or writer like Andy Warhol that he had in mind when writing the poem – the punishment, of course, comes from the narrator having to watch these antics from his own higher understanding of Art – shaking his head at the sheer baseness of it all. Or, it could be about Crime in general – or Politics. The divide between Sisyphus and the narrator is heightened through the “Now only I bask” enjambment – and this kind of thing places it in the same element as Dan’s poem about killing a spider.

And then, we are left with the banger of an ending – which really knocks it out of the park by adding layers to the title and giving the poem so much intrigue. It is unexpectedly emotional too – throwing away the jesting voice of the previous lines with the rough and sudden ‘clutched to my core’. This is the true tragedy of Sisyphus – who, when he imagines himself happy – does not allow for the progress of the stone. In a way, it reflects cycles that are reinforced through the crimes or lacks that people commit. Lack of progress through pettiness and smallness in art, through deception in politics, or through corruption and crime. This makes the stone a large symbol that can encompass many facets of humanity that are limited by the constancy of certain lesser elements – the ignorant that are unaware of knowing when to give up. The narrator, the god or higher visionary, can laugh it off – but ultimately there is a tragedy to it all – things that need to be transcended.

Such lines are what makes these things memorable built through the great technical and intellectual labyrinths of the poet. Watch, read, and learn.