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