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 (Unpublished) Poetry: Congoleum Footfalls – The Logic of Moods

Those of you who have read Dan’s essays on Cosmoetica may have remembered this little claim that he made in his Wallace Stevens/William Shakespeare essay.

  OK, Yellow Afternoon 1st. This is a poem that conceptually is light years beyond the Elizabethan mind. It is in my view probably Stevens’ best poem, yet it is almost absent from anthologies or discussions of Stevens. Not only is it a great poem but it is damned near a perfect poem- something that is a quantity parallel to greatness in that great poems can have flaws & still be great while a perfect poem merely has nothing which could replace it without lessening it. It succeeds so well at what it endeavors that to change it is to destroy it. Oddly, a perfect poem is not always a great poem. I’ve written a few perfect poems & a lot of great poems. Once I wrote a poem called Congoleum Footfalls that was as perfect a dream poem as I’ve ever read- it so totally invoked the dream states, yet in doing so it could not be great. It was just a perfect illustration- nothing else could be construed nor imbued into it. Not a great poem but perfect. Yellow Afternoon, however, achieves this dufecta! I think it stands as both a summation of & a turn away from the rest of Stevens’ corpus. It rivals Plath’s Among The Narcissi, Frost’s Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening, Crane’s The Broken Tower, Cullen’s Incident, Shelley’s Ozymandias, & Berryman’s The Ball Poem as great poems which are perfect, & poems which top off, turn away from &, yet, embody a poet’s oeuvre.

And for those of you who might be wondering exactly what this ‘Congoleum Footfalls’ is all about anyway – well, that’s exactly the poem I’ll be touching on in this article!

Now, my usual method of analysis so far has been a line by line reading of a poem, teasing out the meaning – and showing various interpretations that could be taken by different frames of mind. But I feel that I cannot do such a thing for Congoleum Footfalls for the reason that Dan stated – that, in the end, CF is more of a mood poem than a meaning poem – and it is more about the effect it invokes than a specific comment. Of course, this isn’t to say that interpretation isn’t possible – but that I feel it is a better strategy to attack this poem from the direction of mood, and compare and contrast it with other poems of the same sort that invoke such things – and see how Dan innovates to push CF above many other poems of its sort.

So, before I move into the poem – here is a modest selection of many other poems (taking the entire spectrum good to bad) that have been described as dreamlike, or have had that kind of waking/sleeping imagery imbued into them. If you Google ‘dream poem analysis’, the immediate first result you get is the definitive dream poem – Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. But here are a few others:

Plath’s Ariel

A random prose poem from Trakl

Morning of Drunkenness by Rimbaud

A Dream Within A Dream by Poe (less dreamlike than the name implies)

A random prose poem from Surrealist Don Andre Breton

John Donne’s The Dream (Contains more meaning than just being about dreams)

Parisian Dream by Baudelaire

On A Dream by Keats (Also less dreamlike than the name implies)

Relating to Robinson by Weldon Kees

The Solar Anus by George Bataille

And, just for an extra, the short story Super-Frog Saves Tokyo by Haruki Murakami

And, after going through that modest selection – we move on to Congoleum Footfalls!

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.

 

Now, this label of ‘dreamlike poetry’ has been constantly abused for the sake of slapping together varied imagery that has a loose internal logic. Yet, our dreams are a lot more structured than we think – and there is a shifting logic between states even though the content itself is less structured. There is also the overall structure of sleeping to wakening (best shown in Plath’s Ariel) itself. It is more powerful to create a dreamlike vision through enforcing a strong sense of environment, and then twisting it – like what Kees, Coleridge, and Trakl have done. On the other hand, Breton is sloppy:

“The black crown resting on my head is a cry of migrating crows because up till now there have only been those who were buried alive, and only a few of them, and here I am the first aerated dead man. But I have a body so I can stop doing myself in, so I can force reptiles to admire me. Bloody hands, misteltoe eyes, a mouth of dried leaves and glass (the dried leaves move under the glass; they’re not as red as one would think, when indifference exposes its voracious methods), hands to gather you, miniscule thyme of my dreams, rosemary of my extreme pallor. I don’t have a shadow anymore, either.”

Imagine if you had placed this chunk of text as the stuff that Robinson begins spouting in Kees’ poem. It would have made the poem worse, and more overwritten, but it would have given Breton’s text a greater sense of the uncanny through the context it was placed in.

Dan’s poem is one where form follows function, and his structure makes it one of the most cohesive invocations of dream to have been written. The 5-part structure is built like this:

Primary Invocation (process of sleeping)
Sestina (hazy slumber)
Proem (core dream)
Whitman/Ginsberg-esque Anaphora + fragmentary poesy (regaining control)
Repetition of Primary Invocation (process of waking)

Besides that, the environment comes together in spurts through the first part & the sestina, hardens into a concrete place in the Proem, and loosens up by the fourth part. There are even little transitions in between the parts (L’envoy & the “…congoleum footfalls dopplerize”) to further create the flow between states.

I feel like the greatest innovation of the poem is the Sestina in Mindstorm, because of how well it syncs to the title. The repetition of last words in differing order, combined with the setting of the nightmare corridor where the footfalls thud on the Congoleum pushes the sensations all the way – and, in fact, the first connection that my mind made was to the Silent Hill series of horror games, where you wander in dark nightmare corridors fighting off mannequins and twisted body shapes.

But, the structure would also fail if there was no music in its parts, and here are some examples of the music:

Internal rhyme ‘ing’ in “Bedouin scrambling down the halls shrieking

‘O’ sounds in – “building dark diapasons loosing forth in the congoleum

footfalls, renting a dream dying from the limb” – ‘O’ sounds cut off with the comma, segueing into two internal rhymes & ‘e’ or ‘I’ sounds.

rolling down the chambered hall churning as it envies” –motion invoked through ‘ll’, ‘ch’ and ‘ng’ sounds.

gangrened in the dissected dolor of this congoleum” – ‘O’ sounds in latter part.

And there are also alliterations in all the lines above.

Then we come to the proem, which shows how you should actually do rhythm for such a form.

Night. Alone. In a dormitory. Congoleum footfalls dopplerize.” – the repetition of this 7 ‘O’ sounds opening creates a strong sense of somnolence.

A knock. I cast back shadings of the lunar glow as I rise from my bed. A knock. Katydid chirps return to the background fuzz. A knock. I walk to the door and open. Two girls. Fear in their eyes. Congoleum footfalls mean trespassers to them. Two girls fearing for their safety, I reassure. I will check things out. To their room across the hall I send them.

The starting part of this proem utilizes short bursts of sentences before the later parts will go into longer lines with less punctuation. Notice how tight the mood is as opposed to either the Solar Anus or the Breton proem. But it’s a lot closer to Trakl in its style of setting up a dark expressionist environment. When the narrator actually steps into the corridor to search, only then does the poem expand.

Tenigued, I venture down the bare lit hallways suffused in dim amber with footfalls just ahead, just around the corner, just beyond the closed door to the stairwell. Up to the second floor I stride still behind the footfalls cynosial to my quest.

And there are also a lot of Latinate science & medical/biological invoking terms to create that abandoned hospital/zombie movie atmosphere – ‘petri’, ‘fetus’, ‘hypnogogy’, ‘hypnopompic’, ‘corneal’, ‘jaundiced’ etc… I am not sure what cynosial means because nothing comes up on Google, but it reminds me of cyanosis, and the word itself has that medical mood that fits.

(edit: As Dan clarified in comments – Cynosure)

Around halfway through, the mood becomes thicker and ornate in its imagery – doubling up on the grotesque feeling of the circus, bringing up a couple of references (Romero, Alice in Wonderland, Mardi Gras), outlining the feeling of the hallway with thick descriptions of ambiguous horror states (arms & faces coming from the walls, looking into dim mirrors and fearing their pull). A lot of these are horror tropes, seen frequently in movies & video games, taken to powerful extremes through the language. It all culminates into the description of two figures – a vomiting zombie-thing and the narrator’s dad – and then he runs into a crowd of people to chase the zombie-thing, and then the entire crowd warps into zombies too, and the dream peters out into the small bursts of sentences like before.

Moving on to Subsumption – this is where the poem seems to mirror the flow in Ariel – the sense of waking up and regaining control. The anaphora of ‘I am’ pushes the focus in, while also linking up with an earlier repetition of ‘I am’ – yet, the imagery in every part of this section is still in that disjunctive dream state, which helps outline the struggle.

Eventually, the poem ‘dives up’ into the reconstitution of the self upon wakening, also reflected in how the lengthy ‘I am’ lines condense into small spurts of poetry.

Finally, we come to the last part – which parallels the start to invoke the sense of slumber dimming into clarity. The imagery changes from the nightmarish ‘expressionistic horror of a looming menace’ into ‘stone apathy’, ‘no menaced pulse reflecting’, ‘late rumblings of a wraithic gait’ – a softer thrust.

We can see this perfect invocation of a mood in glimpses through past poetry – but everything comes together here. Wakening & fragmentary short poesy in Plath Ariel. Dark atmosphere & prose poetry in Trakl. Surrealistic spasms of imagery done better than many so-called Surrealists. Twisting of the normal into the uncanny from Kees. The ornate symbols of the Romanticists and the Gothics. Congoleum Footfalls encompasses all of them into its structure. It showcases a fine-tuning of all these techniques into a poem that best encompasses the experience of dreaming. Although it lacks a cohesive meaning – it shows more of the poet’s sprawling expertise than anything else.

I think this poem also proves that even if a poet merely wants to invoke a mood or atmosphere rather than meaning – there are also complex and imaginative ways to create such a thing without merely diving into pure feeling or automatic writing like Breton did. Like how composers of Symphonies will have specific structures within their works even though music is all about feeling, the structure of the poem has a sound logic even though the content within is dreamlike. And it is this logic of form, and not the merely the content’s mood – that defines the poem as perfect.

Dan Schneider’s (Unpublished) Poem: To Look Away

Poetry can be about anything: even Spider-man! To prove this point, I share with you one of Dan’s superhero sonnets. A part of his countless portraits of characters throughout pop culture.

Although this poem is significantly less dense than many of his other greater works, it still contains an interesting twist & view of the message – and thus, might be more instructable as to how a person should understand this idea of writing to communicate.

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.

 

It was only when he first read of Mauthausen,
and of the little Jewish girl- Hildie Meyer,
that Peter Parker understood what he had done
by not stopping the thief who- then- killed Uncle Ben:

Mauthausen, as you can infer from the poem, refers to a concentration camp.

These four lines state the primary thrust of the text – splitting apart the historical reality of war & Peter Parker’s realization of what it means to be a hero. They serve as scene-setting for the inversions of the next two stanzas.

In terms of technique, there is a particular subtlety in leaving the 3rd line open through enjambment. Expanding the guilt beyond not stopping the thief – to a host of other deeper implications that will become clearer as the poem passes. Also interesting is the word ‘then’ – which reinforces the split between historical & present, although this interpretation probably has lesser weight compared to the form of the poem itself – where the ‘historical’ section thrusts itself outwards from Parker’s present.

Beyond that structure, the entire poem utilizes a rhyme scheme – which gives it a lighter tone, helping fit the theme of the poem – which, is ultimately about immaturity. (In other words, as per Dan’s view of how form should contribute to meaning, it is not forced/cliched rhymes for the sake of rhyming)

For in 1943, in her own death mill,
young Hildie always chose to look the other way
as her playmates and friends were led to the showers.
But, what could she do? She had no superpowers,
was weak, starved, only twelve years old. And, anyway,
they were Gypsies, Slavs- she had her family, still…

If I were to point to the line which constitutes the stanza the most – it would be the very first line, because you could call it the ‘head-turner’. On very first glance, I thought that the poem was talking about Hildie as a victim of the concentration camp – but the later lines paint her out as one of those who seems to have escaped it, while her ‘playmates and friends’ went to the showers. Once you get this clear in your head, the ‘death mill’ takes on a different level altogether. In a way, it is one of the many images of an unaware mind (also appearing in ‘Tis Better… – and other ‘de-mythologization’ poems like The Finn & War Comix #1452) that Dan always loves to touch upon throughout many of his poems.

The last 3 lines of the stanza seems to transition into her inner monologue justifying her lack of action against the Nazis. The irony here is that all three races, Gypsies, Slavs, and Jews – would be what the Nazis considered Untermensch, or inferior people. Yet, this doesn’t just serve to outline the historical background – a mere fact – but it brings that divide into our current time. In other words, Hildie isn’t just inferior in terms of her race classification – but her lack of action & status as a child.

Now, the above interpretation might seem like it requires historical background to become clear – but even if you don’t know the details of it, you can still see inklings of the divide. The fact that she was “weak, starved, only twelve years old” or that she had “no superpowers” – and also that she sticks to her joys and ignores others miseries with “she had her family, still”. All of these qualities are immanent in the poem – although they become illuminated with context, and point to what must have been illuminated within Parker’s head – in the narrative of the poem. In fact, the existence of this divide gives a deeper possible meaning to the ‘showers’ that Hildie’s friends are pulled away to – although this meaning is more like a flicker and requires a bit of a stretch to see.

This is where I drop a cultural sidenote that is separate from the core elements of the poem: given that Superman, the definitive superhero & one of the main progenitors of the genre, was born from the idea of an Ubermensch – this provides another cultural layer to the text. Now, Peter Parker is an interesting choice to pick as the main character within the poem – since it’s not only that his backstory fits (“with great power comes great responsibility”) – but also that his character is the exact opposite of the Ubermensch signified by Superman. He’s frequently viewed as the ‘awkward nerd’ superhero – and, in a way, he’s also an avenue for such escapisms.

So, we have all these mappings & connections in place – about the divide between Untermensch & Ubermensch, between those who have the will to stop crime and those who don’t, and between childishness and maturity.

This was where young Parker closed the book, and began
to see that inaction can lead to a pyre –
like millions of Hildies, and that to not be one
could free the world from its need for a Spider-Man.

Poetry can be about anything – as long as we understand the deeper movements and essentials that drive humans to do what they do. Once we understand that, we can use any starting point as a means of communicating those general essentials.

Like, our need to close the book, put away those superhero films, and face a quality of life higher than what we’ve been kept in all this time – to go beyond ‘young Parker’. Our need to, as the first line so slyly enjambs – ‘begin’.

In my first reading of this poem, I went through it faster than I should have – and my mind made a slight psychological misreading at the last line. I read ‘its need for a Spider-Man’ – and then constituted the last two lines in my own mind as somehow just being a recapitulation of Parker’s will to become a superhero. I didn’t read the ‘free the world’ part. Yet, this act of misreading added an extra layer to the text for me.

Our minds are, after all, prone to seeing what we want to see.

In going through Dan’s poetry, there is a constant reminder to be larger than what you are, at any given moment in time. That there are hidden realities just out of reach, and there is a deep mystery at the bottom of everything. Even though a work like Watchmen attempted a sort of critique of the childish dreams implicit in the genre – it failed to be larger than what it was because of a keen sense of nostalgia & too much limits to its vision – an inability to truly extricate itself from the detritus of the genre.

We must go higher. We must say bigger things. The work of Literature is just beginning.

Dan Schneider’s (Unpublished) Poem: ‘Tis Better To Live Than To Perceive

Poetry can be about anything. The proof of such a statement comes when you flip through the whole 3000+ pages of Dan Schneider’s Collected Poetry. There is no subject that cannot be written about, nor is there any reason not to try. Yet, many people confuse this precept for superficial innovation – believing that even nonsense strings of communicatively disparate words can provide a depth of communication.

One can write about anything – and this is true in the same way that you can have a conversation with friends about any topic. But, at the very bottom of the myriad throng of things and surfaces, there are still a few human essentials that will abide, no matter what you write about.

All this sounds a bit too abstract – but all you have to do is to compare several poems from completely different poets to get a grasp of an essential movement underneath all of the hubbub. If you look at Philip Larkin’s High Windows, Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man, Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo, Du Fu’s Ballad of The Ancient Cypress, and ee cummings’ ‘I carry your heart…’ – there are movements from smaller to larger, despite all of the above poets writing in completely different styles. There is some knot that binds the ‘high windows’, the Archaic Torso, the ‘nothing that is not there’, the Ancient Cypress tree, and the ‘root of the root and the bud of the bud’. A bind that seems to encompass the widest scope of things born from the most particular things. If you take an Eastern view of life – this might be best represented by that ambiguous word The Tao. Perhaps, if some future scientist were to discover some Theory of Everything – he might find an abstract mathematical structure behind all of these poems – but such an idea is mere speculation for now.

If you look at the poems of Dan Schneider, you can see the same thread knotting together several of his poems – some of them that I’ve already analysed. For example, the image of the Mothman in The Mothman, the “no feeling I do not create” in George Schneider Plays Handball, the ‘body of perfection’ in Holy Sonnet 1, and Part 3 of Big Red. There is a clear hierarchy at work here, hiding underneath all these words – and it is not a hierarchy determined by any tangible quality or stiff aesthetic formula – but different scopes of smallness and largeness.

Okay, I’ve blathered on a bit too long on this point – so let me move into one such poem that dives into such a hierarchy. This sonnet is called ‘Tis Better to Live Than Perceive

‘TIS BETTER TO LIVE THAN PERCEIVE

My cousin never paid attention to the huge oak tree
slowly growing on France Avenue; his youth pursuing
selfish inward things, his eyes remaining dim cherubim
in the hyena dark of suburban monotony.

As the years struck by, they lunged at recognition
until one day his frail body hove back and roared
in a reptilian blood – in the colder snows,
of January winter, my cousin in worse

condition than the newfound ophidian flexion
of his mind – so he taunted, raved and clawed
at the glaring eyes of the universe

probing his own, a protozoan; under glass
he laughed, then suffocated and became
what he is. And the tree remained growing.

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.

 

With that said – let’s break it down.

My cousin never paid attention to the huge oak tree
slowly growing on France Avenue; his youth pursuing
selfish inward things, his eyes remaining dim cherubim
in the hyena dark of suburban monotony.

When reading this poem, always keep the enigma of a title in the back of your mind – because this interplay of what it means to ‘live’ and to ‘perceive’ is a constant strand throughout the poem itself.

The very first line, despite being simple in its statement – sets up the divide. We have a cousin who cannot perceive, and a huge oak tree – possibly symbolic of ‘living’ (and the final statement of the poem fits it as such). Those of you who are more well-read in poetry might want to take note of other such poems where the symbol of the tree has been designated as something higher – like the Ancient Cypress as mentioned above, or Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. You can compare how they choose to go about their subject matter and weigh out in your mind – who deals with the image in the widest possible manner.

But I’ve only been discussing content so far. Even in the very first line, despite the lack of punctuation, the way the statement is read can allow for a slight pause after ‘attention’ – furthering the divide.

Moving on to the next line, we return to Dan’s characteristic sly enjambments. By cutting off at ‘pursuing’, it leaves the verb hanging open, which you can cognitively map to either the ‘huge oak tree’, the ‘slowly growing’ or the ‘selfish inward things’ of the next line. Of course, the grammar of the poem links the pursuit to the lesser inward things – but the very fact that the other connections exists pose the question as to what is possible. For example, you can read the huge oak tree as representative of nature, and the fact that youth pursues that, as well as selfish inward things – can create the interpretation that ultimately, all of our selfish acts and desires are born from the same root of nature as the tree itself – and we pursue the dark roots in our own selves. But, this is merely example, and to narrow it down to this interpretation only cheapens the poem. In any case, at the bottom of it all, you can still see the hierarchy of something larger and something smaller at work.

‘Dim cherubim’ is a very interesting image – because it can link to youth & naivete, but is also slightly religious & cosmic – so it has a higher link that could be characteristic of the state that all men who lack vision fumble around in. Take the thread too far and you could even view it as a critique of religion fostering such lack of vision, but we shall not follow that because it feels too spread out from the core communication of the text. The final line of the first stanza poses a strong, kind of gothic, image for the environment that coddles the cousin in his lack of perception.

Now, realize something. If you had been keeping the title at the back of your head all this while – you would have noticed a kind of contradiction. The title poses, clearly, that perceiving is worse than living – but this first stanza seems to be a critique of a lack of perception. It seems to be attacking the cousin for fumbling around in the darkness without any deeper insight to life. With this question in the back of our mind, we can continue on to the next stanza.

As the years struck by, they lunged at recognition
until one day his frail body hove back and roared
in a reptilian blood – in the colder snows,
of January winter, my cousin in worse

The very start of this stanza provides hints of the answer to the enigma posed in the title. The strong kinetic thrust of the words – ‘struck’, ‘lunged’ – linking time to recognition. In the end, a human cannot escape its own self-awareness, as the mind will force it in times of struggle. The enjambment places recognition as perception in a general sense – but it could also be recognition of the tree, which reinforces the divide.

The next line narrows the state in which this recognition was inspired – it was created through the frailty of the body. The description of a body that ‘hove back and roared’ gives me a twisted image of an Ouroboros-like sick man turning into himself. The ‘reptilian blood’ of the next line links it to something deeper in nature – maybe even prehistoric. Perhaps, something of a comment on how consciousness – and self-perception – was born from the earliest animal’s need to perceive and engineer his environment around him to survive.

That interpretation aside – the effect of the image has multiple layers. It pulls out into the ‘coldness of insight’ (ala Stevens’ wintry view of the world in the Snow-Man), and also the wintry season of old age where we are in deterioration, or the ‘worse’. The primary movement across this stanza is a kinetic struggle turning over to a winter (whether in mind or body) state – and this has a lot of implications for how we, as humans, experience life itself.

condition than the newfound ophidian flexion
of his mind – so he taunted, raved and clawed
at the glaring eyes of the universe

The image of the snake (or Ouroboros) is reinforced through ‘ophidian’ – which, incidentally, refers to the class for snakes and other related reptiles. The enjambment here links the flexion to ‘in worse condition’ and ‘of his mind’ – which poses an interesting idea that the cousin (or his body) was in a worse condition than his mind. How many sick people are there in wards that have to suffer through the awareness of their own misery – unable to escape the dark circle that the mind creates for itself?

To follow up on this, the ‘taunted, raved and clawed’ can be linked to both ‘of his mind’ and ‘the glaring eyes of the universe’ – pointing to both the struggle within himself and the struggle against a higher cosmic force. This is the perception that is worse than life – the constant sight that we have to live under – both witnessing the good and bad things within ourselves.

probing his own, a protozoan; under glass
he laughed, then suffocated and became
what he is. And the tree remained growing.

By this point, I feel that the poem has become clearer in sight and I need not explain it to myself anymore – and I no longer merely perceive it, but it has started to live inside me. I am reminded of a moment in the Army during Field Camp – when we had to sit around in the forest and wait for the next bout of torturous training that the sergeants would inflict on us. We couldn’t bring any books, nor could we bring any phones – and so we merely had the existence of our own bodies and minds to keep us company. Most of the soldiers were engaged in chatter, and some were so tired that they were trying to rest by closing their eyes and hugging their guns. Some of them would make complaints and fling expletives to no one in particular. In such a state, I took the second option, and tried to curl up into myself.

Yet, there were the trees, and they had been there from the very start, and had probably witnessed countless batches of soldiers in such a state. If, at that point in time, I had had the vision to look up and perceive that properly – as what they were – I might have pondered the elegance of the life force inside them that allowed them to stay up in such a fashion – across the years.

Now I have the words to describe the thought. And if I had read a poem like this back in those days – I would have surely had those words on my lips, at that moment of barest life.

‘Tis better to live than perceive!

Pacing The Click – Possibilities of a Visual Novel Critical Vocabulary

Since it’s a normal past-time of film scholars to come up with all sorts of names for formal techniques applied in film – I figure I should do one for Visual Novels as well.

I call this – ‘Click Rhythm’.

This is one of the subtle aspects of the Visual Novel as a medium that people don’t seem to really touch on. It’s what demarcates the text in a VN from the text in a novel. Essentially, it allows for the writer to ‘sculpt’ a part of the time that a reader takes to read a certain stretch of information.

Now, you can’t control the click speed of a reader in a Visual Novel of course – so it’s different from ‘sculpting in time’ in the sense that it occurs in film. There are actual moments in VNs where the click speed is controlled (e.g. the concert in White Album 2) but those are sparse. Yet, this element alone allows more control over information compared to a novel.

In a novel, the text takes up an entire field (unless you’re reading House of Leaves or something) – which allows for your eyes to jump around. Although we may scroll through the text linearly, you can be sure that our eyes are shifting from here to there sometimes – unless you’re a really concentrated reader of course.

But imagine if you had to read a text that said:

He walked down the corridor. The monster appeared. It ate him

Versus.

He walked down the corridor. The monster appeared.

It ate him.

Versus.

He walked down the corridor.

The monster appeared.

It ate him.

Versus (in VN format)

He walked down the corridor.

(Click)

The monster appeared.

(Click)

It ate him

Now, if you had been reading a text normally, your eyes would probably be able to grasp all those elements at once, and so there’s less of a tension. On the other hand, with a Visual Novel – there’s a greater form of suspense that comes with the click. You sculpt the reader’s reaction by having the information go out piece by piece. Combined with a nice bit of scary OST and a CG of a monster – the tension is ramped up a lot more.

Now, look at this extract from Sakura no Uta:

The Heart and Nature are, also, in a circle. Therefore, these aren’t separate things. They’re the same. And, of course, the scenery we see and get used to every day – always contains the past, present, and future. Every phenomenon that changes over time – collects within that process. A thing like that cannot be static. The World is dynamic. Removed from that. It isn’t the World. Therefore, we can continue walking as usual. We can speak to one another. We can think about painting.

And imagine the impact if every sentence was split up with a click in between them.

When you lump together all that stuff in one paragraph – it looks like the rantings of some new age hippy. On the other hand, by splitting the paragraph with click-rhythm, its significantly smoother and more poetic.

Of course, this strictly applies to the ADV format – but there are novels that swap between ADV and NVL, such as Dies Irae battle scenes. When seen from Ren’s perspective, it enters into ADV that is paced to his speech patterns. When it segues into the omniscient Masada narration, it frequently becomes NVL and barrages you with prose. The same thing occurs in SubaHibi with certain important scenes.

One of the best usages of click rhythm comes from Zypressen in Sakura no Uta – with Rina’s Monologue of course. The lines skew into poetic fragmentation, while the screen becomes swathed in a completely new art style. It grants a beautiful melancholic quality to the whole recitation.

In a way, this quality of click-rhythm actually slightly mirrors enjambment in poetry. Lines can be broken into pieces across the click the same way lines can be broken up in poetry. Poetry is also about precise control of information per line to create a powerful effect. Click-rhythm skews the notion of the normal rules of readability.

So – in order to create better analysis of Visual Novels and their effects, a renewed critical vocabulary is required. One that combines elements from Film Critique (for CG), Literature (for content), Comic Books (for matching of text to image), and Games (for systems, win-states & choices). Lack of such terminology & awareness results in stuff like Bobduh’s critique of Gakhthun where he misses out on the aesthetic qualities of click-rhythm combined with sound and image – going for a normal literary analysis. The fact is that there are some scenes in Visual Novels that only work as Visual Novels – and they read horrible if applied to a book format (Forest is full of these)

But, really – who the heck has the free time to do something excessively academic like that?