Sunday, June 28, 2009

New York missive no 54 - Horseshoe crabs

Perfect as a pebble.

Lying flat on my back on the grass under the sun near Battery Park and all becomes clear. My legs are tucked up crossed like a horizontal meditative pose. There’s this thing I’ll call my distance. A physical-mental thing, if it had a shape I think it would be a triangle. It means that I hold back from a straight-forward all-engrossing two way relationship. Introduce a third point. Another relationship, just to complicate matters. Or just “other things”. Doors that are not yet open but might be interesting. It’s a strange thing, keeps me in a kind of limbo land. It keeps me free and inspired and entertained, which are all good. But it also stops me from plunging into the heart of things. A triangle.

Maybe that’s why Le Clézio’s talk resonated with me so much. He had an apparent total engagement with the world and with the moment, as well as calm. I’m not bad at the engagement, but off it goes in all directions at once, keeping the calm out. Something to work on, as I’ve told myself many a time before. I used the word “apparent” for Le Clézio purposefully. Who knows, maybe he has his demons too, and is just good at tempering them when he talks in public.


I hadn’t seen a horseshoe crab ever before, then suddenly encountered hundreds. P and I went for a swim at the run. The run is a little flow of water along the edge of a Chesapeake tributary, protected by a sandy barrier. P used to swim there as a girl, and I could sense her delighted thrill of memory as we took off our shorts and t-shirts, left them on old plastic chairs dotted with caked bird poo and, in our bathing suits and canvas shoes, stepped over the syncopated rocks and waded into the cold river. We swam across with happy though slightly timid breaststrokes, underlined with that river-swimming wonder about what might be swimming alongside us. Then as we climbed out on the other side I saw two dark flat shapes lumbering along the shoreline. Then two more. Horseshoe crabs. Their prehistoric tanks of shells hid the living, breathing, mating bodies underneath – bodies locked together as their invisible legs carried them along in a straight line (why the need to move?). Then two more, two more, they were everywhere, the whole shore was covered with crabs in the act of creating more crabs. I felt, stepping quietly around them, like I was trespassing on their ancient rhythms.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

New York missive no 53 - Writing New York; Roth, Selby, McInerney, Fitzgerald


In Bangladesh, on 16 January 2008, 45-year-old Samir Shil was crushed to death while he was loading goods onto a ship at Clinker Jetty, Chittagong. In March in Comilla, three construction workers Abdul Haque (21), Md. Habibur Rahman (20) and Md Monir (32) all suffocated to death when they entered the sceptic tank of an unfinished building. In May, In Dhaka, Ms Kulsum Begum (35) was electrocuted to death when she tried to release herself from a machine in Young Star Sweater Factory. Her sari had become entangled while she was cleaning it.

Those are just five of the 305 workers named in a new report by the Center for Corporate Accountability, “Workplace deaths in the industrial, service and agricultural sectors of Bangladesh, 2008”. And those 305 deaths are only those that are reported in local newspapers. The ILO estimates that there are around 1,625 industrial and service sector deaths in Bangladesh each year.

The report is powerful because it names the workers who died. It tells us who they were, instead of merely subsuming them into statistics. It reminded me how much we overlook the need to name. “Important” people’s names, yes, we’re all familiar with those and they are always s-p-e-l-l-e-d o-u-t i-n f-u-l-l. The rest, well, they’re just the rest. I’m reading Studs Terkel’s fabulous book “Working” at the moment, which is essentially the transcripts of detailed interviews with workers in 1970s America, from farmer to receptionist, gravedigger to actor. The workers’ own words convey so much more meaning than any removed professor or reporter analyzing their worlds could do. The first interviewee is a steelworker, called Mike Lefevre. He says:

“Somebody built the pyramids. Somebody’s going to build something. Pyramids, Empire State Building – these things just don’t happen. There’s hard work behind it. I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, the name of every electrician, with all the names.”


I’ve been inspired by two girlfriends recently.

RF has just run a 150-mile marathon in the Namibian dessert. It was about six days of running, with one non-stop run of 24 hours. “You’re mad”, people had said while she was training, running around Manhattan with a heavy backpack of rice on her back. “Our bodies aren’t made for that.” “Why are you doing it?!” She carried on regardless, coming 79th out of 220 people (most of them brawny men), and raising over $2000 in the process for WEECE, that provides micro-loans to women in Tanzania. She showed that when you want to do something and focus on it, you can. “Well, within reason,” she pointed out in a typically sensible way. “Not everyone can become an astrophysicist."

And inspirational MJ, who died in May after battling cancer with a boundlessly optimistic and energetic spirit. Going to the cafés we used to go to, reading back on her enthusiastic emails, it’s so strange to think that she’s not here any more. AL has created a blog in her memory, The Mia Abides. I can’t help feeling, why her, why not me, of course there's no reason - life’s a fragile and precious gift and it’s our responsibility to treasure and value it.


Last Sunday I was a happy tramp feeling proudly incongruous as I walked back through West Village from a sail on the Hudson, hair bedraggled, bruised legs and even a rip in my shorts. I have no idea how the rip got there. It could well have been while we tried to get our Soling waterbound again after running aground somewhere off the Edgewater shore. Eventually a speedboat-full of fluorescent sunglass-wearing Russians towed us back into our depth.


So is New York City redundant? That was the thread of the discussion in the last session of the New School course on the city told through its writers. New York was born as a merchant, commercial city, a trading post where goods were brought, sold and shipped on. And then in the 19th and early 20th century, it was an industrial city, a whirr of production. Then the corporate city, focused on processing information. Through each of those phases, its body of buildings and factories and transport links was designed to fit those purposes. And now? Interactions, transactions, money-management and information-generation can all be virtual, leading to the question of what the city itself is for. Yet people still come.

They come because they’re dreaming of realizing a kind of life. And because other people are here doing the same thing. In that way the city will never change. It’s the ultimate “place to be”, both life-challenging, and life-affirming. Here, those dreams collide in their thousands and feed of each other. More often than not the dreams themselves aren’t realized but through their breaking and changing a stronger humanity emerges. The truth of the city is constructed of those dreams, of imagination, and of experience, more than with bricks and stone. And words and stories are the most capable tools we have to capture that truth (a futile but inevitable and essential endeavour). In the thick of it all, writers document actions, reactions and interactions, save moments and carve out specifics – those tiny details that speak for everything.

The writers we read for that course put distinctive voices to work, showing how people react to the city and vice versa (it's that process of osmosis again). This isn’t right, or wrong, they said, it’s how it is, at this time, for these people in this place. Now it’s up to you, reader, to react. The authors were Melville, Henry Roth, Dos Passos, Scot FitzGerald, Claude Brown, Toni Morrison, Hugh Selby, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Paul Auster and then finally a token (though in itself brilliant) “post 9-11” story, Patrick McGrath's Ground Zero, from Ghost Town. (A novel that successfully captures this time, JS felt, is yet to be written. Which is rather depressing given that we’re eight years on now). I could wallow a while on each of them but for lack of time will be lazy – here are a few my reactions from when I read them. They don't make much sense without the accompaniment of the books they're about, but thought I'd post them anyway.

First, something general on the city and its inhabitants: “It’s impossible to say if our lives are impoverished or enriched by our relationship with the city. They’re both at once. It’s a relationship like so many others. Passionate, intense, with rejections and make-ups and misunderstandings and ecstatic moments but with the somewhat sick difference that one partner in this relationship feels nothing, nada, for the other. Or am I mistaken? City, do you miss me when I’m gone?"

Call it Sleep, Henry Roth:

Call it Sleep is David’s journey forging an identity in a city that ignores him. Right at the start of the novel he is already aware 'that this world had been created without thought of him'. His challenge is how to exist, how to 'be' in that world. The challenge manifests itself in language and light. And at the same time he uses language and light (wrought together so dramatically, climatically, in the penultimate chapter) sometimes consciously, sometimes not, to meet that challenge.

David’s existence dangles in the boundary between the initially alien English world of the Lower East Side streets, and the familiar Yiddish world of home and his mother. She has a taught rope linking her back to Austria and soon dismisses New York, 'one grapples this land at first closer to one’s self than it’s worth.' Initially David clings as close as he can to her. She’s safety and something he knows intimately – he photographs every tiny beautiful detail with words in his mind as she goes about her chores in the kitchen – as compared to the wild unknown city outside where, when he gets lost, people don’t understand him as he tries to say the name of his street. He wants time to stand still. He saves the old paper days from a calendar. But that connection has to be broken. Not only because she’s his mother, but because unlike her he’s not tethered to their homeland. He was too young when they left to remember it.

Through his encounters with other people – the father who rejects him, Luther who competes for his mother’s attention, Bertha who takes him to the 'wilderness of man’s work' that’s the Metropolitan museum, Leo who is, in David’s eyes, the epitome of un-tethered ('There was no end to Leo’s blessings – no father, almost no mother, skates,' so he belongs to a 'rarer, bolder, carefree world') David is exposed to the humanity of the city, 'on feet, on crutches, in carts and cars', and navigates it. He starts to name streets. 'The Chinese laundry near the corner of Tenth Street and Avenue C'. [Aha, the weight of names again].

But he has an acute imagination so this navigation and exposure are inevitably treacherous. It’s an imagination that can make a leap from a window shade spring to an image, in his mind, of Puss in Boots bounding over rooftops then exploding after the mouse Puss has consumed transforms into an ogre. It’s an imagination that, more dangerously, turns his feelings about his mother into an exaggerated truth ('she’s dead!')– a truth fed by the fragments of her love story that he had been able to understand (the other fragments having been spoken by Bertha and Genya in Polish). His imagination causes the cowardice he battles against. And his imagination also means that the 'humanity' of the city is not enough for him. He can see beyond it and knows that there’s something bigger than it. Places, experiences and objects become hooks that he grasps and loads with meaning along the way to defining himself: cellar, picture, coal and finally rail.

When we’re first exposed to David’s mind he’s 'regarding the bright brass faucets that gleamed so far away.' He’s already yearning after bright lights. Bright, gleaming light is a challenge, a threat, and something he has to attain to overcome its threat. 'David often dreamed of his father’s footsteps booming on the stairs, of the glistening door-knob turning, and of himself clutching at knives he couldn’t lift from the table.' Getting to light is key to his survival. He’s transfixed by the fire created by boys burning a doll in the street outside his house, by the 'shadowy lamplighter' going about his work, by the hypnotic brilliance of a shaft of sunlight on East River. Sometimes, he thinks light is God. But it’s more than that. It’s peace, liberation, and the transcendence ultimately enabled by his creative/destructive imagination. Of the story he heard his mother telling Bertha, he thinks, 'all one had to do was to imagine that it wasn’t there, just as the cellar in one’s house could be conjured away if there were a bright yard between the hallway and the cellar-stairs. One needed only a bright yard. At times David almost believed he had found that brightness.' Or climbing onto the rooftop, 'he had only to conquer his cowardice, and that solitude and that radiance were his.' Once there, 'Gee! Alone…Ain’t so scared.' Then by the end of the novel, when he is driven like a crazed animal from his house, his senses frenzied by fears of his father’s violence, of incomprehensible religion and of the dizzying power of his imagination,

'…Only the steely glitter on the
tracks was in his eyes, fixed there like
a brand, drawing him with cables as
tough as steel.'

Light and language converge as he gives himself a dazzling electric shock and the city suddenly notices him, crowding round and talking in multiple tongues that are interwoven with the isolated lyricism of David’s unconscious experience. When he opens his eyes, 'behind, between them and around them, like a solid wall, the ever-encroaching bodies, voices, faces at all heights, gestures at all heights, all converging upon him, craning, peering, haranguing, pointing him out, discussing him.' He exists, but as what?

Is the light he found an ultimate truth, so he can finally 'be'? Or is it a blinding white-out, an empty tragedy? It’s both (and might as well be called Sleep).

Great Gatsby, Scot FitzGerald (only tangentially go into the New York city elements here, I got a bit waylaid on other things):

Jay Gatsby’s world is a kaleidoscopic one – a world of enticing impressions that are out of reach and transient. It’s a world shocked with echoes of Segismundo’s lament from La Vida es Sueño: 'que toda la vida es sueño / y los sueños, sueños son' (that all of life is a dream, and dreams themselves are just dreams). Yet here, even the dreams are dead, in Gatsby’s case the ultimate dream of love: as Tom starts dismantling Gatsby before Daisy’s eyes by disclosing his illicit business deals, Gatsby tries desperately to defend himself but gives up, 'and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon skipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room.'

I’ve pre-empted myself – first I was going to describe how dreams dominate on various levels and then mention that the dreams themselves are dead, but hey….here are those levels anyway:

There’s Gatsby himself, from so early on in his life an invented person, a dream of who he wants to be, chasing an elusive green light.

There’s Nick the totally unreliable narrator, a perfect conveyor of dreams who occupies a place amidst and within his characters, like air, or 'within and without' as he describes it, all the while trying to deny being a part of them. He is as unauthentic as they are, and all we can do is laugh at his dishonesty when he says things like, 'I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known', or of Gatsby, 'I disapproved of him from beginning to end.'

Then there are Gatsby’s guests, the cast of amorphous characters who are drawn to him, 'foul dust' [that] 'floated in the wake of his dreams', only to vanish into the shadows like so many ghosts when he closes up the house, leaving tiny pathetic tremors of their presence in the form of a telephone call inquiring after left-behind tennis shoes, or of a car pulling up at Gatsby’s front door, seeing the party is over, then pulling away again.

The characters live in a bubble, insulating themselves from an outside 'real' (?!) world that they both exploit and feel threatened by. Fitzgerald gives us glimpses outside the bubble from time to time, whether through Tom’s reference to Goddard’s 'The Rise of the Colored Empires' followed by Daisy’s whisper 'We’ve got to beat them down,' as she winks 'ferociously toward the fervent sun', through Nick mentioning that near the Yale Club 'There were generally a few rioters around, but they never came into the library, so it was a good place to work', or through this fleeting, vivid comment on class, 'There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.'

Yet how come, despite all the melancholy emptiness in this bubble, the book is so vital and full? The thing that endures through all the ephemeral dreams is the story itself. Fitzgerald the author achieves that by masterfully manipulating his unreliable narrator Nick. He stands just behind Nick, makes him have that 'intense personal interest' in Gatsby which is the only way this story can be told, and occasionally steps forward to spell his message out:

‘A stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles, was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books. As we entered he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.
“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.
“About what?”
He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
“About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”
“The books?”
He nodded
“Absolutely real – have pages and everything…See!...It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter.”’

It can’t be a coincidence that owl-eyes is the only party-guest (other than Nick) who appears at Gatsby’s funeral.

With language, FitzGerald turns a cloud of colliding dreams into something as solid, enduring and real as his novel.

Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hugh Selby

Selby uses a fluid narrator, rushing through one character, then a group of characters, then another character, to take the reader into the eyes of lots of hurricanes. Each of the individuals in the book is at the core of a vortex/hurricane, the world of the city swirling around them – at the same time each one is part of that hurricane for others. The city itself is like a hurricane too, spinning and drawing everyone in to it without a hope of escape, and yet it has no (real) centre, so all that people are spinning around is each other. Selby captures this experience so well, so intensely, because he’s zoomed in on a corner of the city – the world of these people, in this part of it: if he had tried to do that for the whole of New York (like Bonfire) the impact would have been far less powerful.

Selby’s characters are trapped. They are trapped in the city, trapped in their own experiences of the city, and all of them will ultimately be suffocated. Each character brings about his or her own destruction. They try to escape the loneliness at the eye of the hurricane by entering into its course, like moths to flames. And at the same time their destruction is brought on them by others, by the 'crowd' that swirls about them, within which they struggle to assert their identity (their only hope of identity) – clinging to a group that sets itself up in opposition to another because confrontation is the only way to exist, or clinging to objects of love and desire – and yet which is ultimately ruthlessly oblivious to them, able to destroy and then walk away laughing, wiping its hands of the blood, able to turn its back and ignore, ignore totally, as is captured in the last lines of the book…'Abraham slept.'

The fluid narrator means Selby can crack urban life open. He enters minds and apartments, zooms in on street corners and parking lots, spills violence in forensic, totally unemotional detail ('…the ragged flash of the cut cheek flapped against the bloodied teeth and a skull was opened with a club…'), lays out bare the destruction left in the hurricane’s wake. The reader is as complicit as the characters, discarding one and moving on to the next…left confronted with the feeling of having no feeling (like at the centre of a hurricane)? And there's Selby's implicit social message - 'so, you're in this too. Is this the city you want it to be? If not, are you going to go about changing it?'

Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney

'You will have to learn everything all over again,' says 'you' the narrator at the end of the novel, and that seems to sum up the process of erasing, and of learning then unlearning that runs through Bright Lights Big City.

The narrator’s driven to 'belong' / desperate to belong, yet the world he tries to belong to unravels him, and is permanently unraveled itself.

The unraveling plays out against the backdrop of the city: he’s really precise about Street-names and locations as if clinging to solid reference points – by locating himself on the map he’s trying to make his existence more rooted and real. Yet the atmosphere of the city echoes his actual disorientation…descriptions like 'You cross under the rusting stanchions of the old elevated highway and walk out to the pier…' which has 'holes through which you can see the black, fetid water underneath…You watch the solemn progress of a garbage barge wreathed in a cloud of screaming gulls, heading out to sea. Here you are again. All messed up and no place to go.'

McInerney's descriptions of the city show the overlapping layers of old and new, and of real, unreal and sensationalized; the processes and people that keep the city functioning (garbage barges etc, fleeting acknowledgment of people whose lives the narrator brushes e.g. Lucio the elevator operator who with a 'week’s training could probably take over your job'); and the 'groups' that people use to define themselves through ('I’m one of them') or against ('I’m not one of them'). 'Sometimes you feel like the only man in the city without group affiliation' he says when a group of Rastafarians gets into his subway carriage. He wonders why 'all the coffee shops in the city are run by Greeks', why 'all the vegetables in the city are sold by Koreans.' Self-absorbed, the narrator can’t take us any closer than that to people who aren’t part of his immediate world…but he does make a point of acknowledging them, as if to say here’s my (‘your’) story, it’s just one of millions.


After a few weekends out of Manhattan (and, not surprisingly, returning to find it just the same and indifferent to my return) – in Puerto Rico, sailing with P in Maryland, and at S’s wedding in Philadelphia - I have had a weekend here, involving lots of films. 24 City on Thursday with C, which gently bears testimony through a mix of documentary and fiction (can you bear testimony with fiction? I believe so) to a changing community of workers in Chengdu as their factory is knocked down to make way for a swanky new housing development. One of the character's descriptions that stood out for me was a student who decided to try out being a factory worker. He said, "So off I went, in my uniform, carrying a lunchbox with a spoon rattling inside it." He didn't last long before he couldn't bear the monotony of the task he was given, and decided to go back to his studies. Easier for some than others.

On Friday, a rather comical showing of WovenWays with RB. The substance of the film isn’t comical – it’s about the ways that uranium mining is impacting the native indigenous Navajo community in New Mexico. But the context was. It was shown at the Community Church on East 35th Street, to an audience of about 8 or 9, us included. It took about half an hour to get the DVD and projector connected properly, after some politely hesitant technological suggestions from audience members, then once running, the film periodically stalled for a few seconds. Then yesterday, two Human Rights Watch film festival films. First, the fabulous “The Reckoning” that tells the story of the International Criminal Court, the cases it has taken on or is investigating regarding Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and Darfur, and its struggle for the powerful idea of international justice as conceived at the Nuremberg trials to transcend seemingly relentless political obstacles. And finally “Crude”, about the ongoing lawsuit brought by the indigenous people of Nueva Loja in Ecuador against Chevron, for contaminating their water, land, their way of life.