We have recordings, but no music; we have movies, but no film; we have books, but no literature.
Remember when we were in our teens and early 20s, the incredible gamut of living authors to choose from? Pynchon, Gaddis, Vonnegut, James Baldwin, Delillo, Salinger, Brautigan, Cathy Acker, Roth, Bellow, Malamud, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, Grace Paley, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Audre Lorde, Charles Olsen, Jack Spicer, Allan Ginsberg, A.R. Ammons, Burroughs, Coover, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman and on and on and on? Ever been to a bookstore lately? Check out the “new” poetry and fiction? Like the soulless music, the childish movies and TV shows, etc. there’s nothing but “dead grandma” stories, straight “narratives, up-lifting “personal dramas” for the Oprah crowd…
I’m bored. I need something to READ.
I guess I wouldn’t be chewing such sour grapes if there were enough real publishers to give readers and writers an actual choice beyond the .current “marketable” 19th century-style novels with 20th century signifiers offered up by B&N (remember when there were OTHER bookstores?) Jane Austen and the Brontes wrote great books. Why do so many of “today’s writers” try to re-write them, as if two centuries of industrialization, modernism, technology, insane wars etc. hadn’t passed?
On the other hand, there’s Mickey Z.’s CPR for Dummies. Not so much an “experimental” novel, but a novel that wisely follows the legacy a century of modernists and post-modernists left to him. Wry, dry humor; “real” events interposes with fictional lives; a Henry Fielding-type “performance” by the author/narrator. It’s everything a novel tackling the mystifying “real world” of today SHOULD be. It is thoroughly original not so much in formal invention –considering his predecessors, which he learned from as every good writer does — but in personal style. It is a novel that could only have been written by one person: Mickey Z. Which is how all creative works should be: unique, alive. But most aren’t.
CPR for Dummies is the first fiction I actually enjoyed reading since the near simultaneous deaths of William Gaddis, Kathy Acker,,and William Burroughs in the late 1990s — early 2000s. It’s kind of like Kurt Vonnegut and Joan Didion got together to produce a very strange, very funny, but ultimately very frightening “child.”
CPR is a montage of real and fictional events. The unbelievable, insane, grim, horrific realities, and Mickey Z’ wonderfully life-affirming fictions.
At the center of it all is Janie, aspiring actress and Gal Friday for a pornographic magazine.
Janie is one of the sexiest fictional characters since Betty and/or Veronica (whomever you prefer; both would be nice). Hence, she is held hostage by a lecherous priest [name] who convinces his sexually repressed septuagenarian flock (plus Ruth, a young women confused about a lot of things, mostly sexual in nature) that Janie is the Second Coming, her initials are “JC,” while he plots to get into her pants. But while she is mistaken for a male deity, “JC,” she displays all the qualities of the matriarchal, pre-civilization goddess (though not the somewhat sinister, civilized Aphrodite): sex, art and creative anarchy trump repression, control, and ultimately destructive violence. The primordial power of unreppressed (though not promiscuous; she is loyal to her boyfriend, Lenny D) sexuality, leads to a kind of “contact” with life that is closer to a true “spiritual experience” (i.e. Janie gets the old folks and Rachel to go-go dance their hyper-civilized cares away) than the strictures and ultimate hypocrisies of “organized religion” as manifest in Father [Muscles] castigating them on one hand, while jerking off with the other. Janie is a true “healer” — as Ruth would testify — as well as the kind of messiah I would want coming (and coming again; a second coming?) to save my sorry ass by reveling in LIFE rather than the phony world of “the spirit” — a contrast that resulted, ultimately, in the mess we’re in: allegedly “spiritual” people worshiping death, denying LIFE — and hence, sex and women — in favor of some mean-assed god who has nothing better to do than brow-beat a bunch of nomads in the desert (or old folks in a church basement). This is, for me the center of the book. The character of Janie versus the macho construction workers, the priest, the niggling old women and their perverse husbands (all of whom have dirty secrets, as opposed to Janie and the innocent Ruth, who is, “as a child” in her naiveté; hence, the perfect candidate for “apostle.”).
In other words, Life, Sex, Creative Anarchy versus Technology, Repression, Atomic warfare.
Now THAT’S worth reading about.
Also, one of the many sub-plots in CPR for Dummies is that a meteor is heading straight toward earth and we are all going to die, quite soon. Enjoy.
II: Talking to Mickey Z.
Holden Caulfield wished he could call up authors of books he’d enjoyed and “shoot the breeze” with them. I tried to imagine “today’s” fictions are expressions of personal ideas and imagination by real people rather than novelizations of sit-coms written by teams of corporate hacks. In other words, I “called up” Mickey Z. (as if such a person actually exists) via email and asked him some questions about CPR for Dummies…
Adam Engel: One of the most interesting techniques you use is the “narrator as performer,” which was used by guys like Henry Fielding in Tom Jones, and Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five and several other novels, but seems to have disappeared. By “performer” I mean that the narrator “talks” to the reader while he’s ostensibly creating the story, commenting on his own scenes, characters, sentences, constantly “keeping the ball in the air.” As if it’s all happening “live” as part of a performance. You acknowledge doing this in the CPR as a way of making the nightmarish realities cited in the book more palatable. Was this a political decision, an aesthetic decision, or both? Why do you think this technique is no longer “in style,” replaced instead by the somber, sober, more “formal” 19th century voice?
Mickey Z.: I’m not sure why this technique is not all the rage these days. Everything else seems so self-referential: movies, TV, pop music, etc. As for my use of the “narrator as performer,” it came about for two main reasons. Firstly, it felt necessary at times. I was genuinely concerned that I might have gone overboard with the rapid changes in direction, so to speak, so the narration served as a Greek chorus of sorts. The other reason was simply that it I enjoyed it doing it so much. I always loved the wisecracking asides of early film comedians. For example, in Horse Feathers, Groucho Marx is asked by a jealous husband: “What are you doing here?” Groucho replies: “I’m the plumber. I’m just hanging around in case something goes wrong with her pipes.” Then he turns to the audience and adds: “That’s the first time I’ve used that joke in twenty years.” CPR for Dummies gave me my chance to join in the fun and, as you say, to give it the feel of a live performance while offsetting the more intense vignettes.
AE: Speaking of intense vignettes: the novel seems to be a kind of tennis match between Life (Janie and the Church-a-go-go, Ruth, sexuality, Lenny D. etc.) and Death (the horrifying facts about nukes, war, etc). Death is related in factual accounts, yet Life exists only in fictional vignettes. Why is this?
MZ: Good question. I’m not sure I consciously planned it out like that but it sure does mirror my life at times. I’m typically a well-liked, friendly person with a calm demeanor but I’m also the one voted most likely to shatter an illusion. Someone’s talking about cell phones? That’s my cue to bring up coltan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Eastern Lowland Gorillas. Eating meat? Well, get ready for some slaughterhouse facts. Believe the Obama hype? Don’t worry, Mickey Z. is here to tell you about his support for the death penalty and how he voted against single-payer. Factual accounts to offset the fictional vignettes in our life.
AE: Okay, then what about the “oddly” named “Lenny D.” On one hand, he’s like a zen martial arts master or samurai (except when he’s having sex with Janie), quiet, moving little, dispassionate, what “we Americans” would call lazy. On the other hand, when a friend or loved one is attacked or even merely offended (Janie, his grandmother) he becomes a lethal weapon. This is the opposite of the truly violent characters in the book, such as cops beating protesters, sexist construction workers, nasty priests, and of course, those who drop bombs, i.e. all who refuse to “live and let live.” What does the character of Lenny D. say about the nature of rightul violence or self defense against mis-used power?
MZ: Your question hits on two important angles here—one overt, the other somewhat below the radar. Firstly, I very consciously made sure no single character served as my surrogate. I infused many of the characters with traits I identify with (or wish I had) but none of them is what, say, Chinaski was to Bukowski. As for Lenny D., he has a sentimental perception of right and wrong but, you could say he lives by the immortal words of Patrick Swayze (as James Dalton in Roadhouse): “Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.”
AE: In general, at least since the mid-nineteen eighties/early nineties (I’m guessing), American “artists” who receive wide — or any — distribution to the public, “create” bland, corporate-approved movies, books and music. Do you agree? If so, why do you think this is?
MZ: A: I’d agree this is true, as you say, in general. I’m old enough to remember pop culture in the pre-cable TV and pre-VHS and pre-Internet days. Sure we had TV and radio but the faster-than-the-speed-of-light technology did not yet exist to completely homogenize the culture so artists weren’t creating for a monolithic target audience. This development had to play a role not only in the dumbing down of art but in the dumbing down of artists. Just the other day, I was having conversation about how Bob Dylan was well-versed in and influenced by classical poetry but many who were subsequently inspired by Dylan knew little of his influences. The next generation – influenced by those who were influenced by Dylan — were one more step removed. And so on. Still, having said all that, some film, literature, and music is still being made today. Not enough…but some. Consider this: When reporting on the infamous New York School of abstract expressionist painters in 1947, art critic Clement Greenberg pondered, “What can fifty do against one hundred and forty million?” It wasn’t so much an entire population stacked against a band of radical painters that Greenberg was contemplating. Rather, it was 140 million Americans essentially ignoring a movement that would eventually change the face of art. The U.S. population has more than doubled in the fifty-plus years since Jackson Pollock dripped his way onto the cover of Life magazine and there are still plenty of movements being ignored by the majority. In fact, lurking below the one-size-fits-all surface of today’s consumer culture, there’s a broad range of indefatigable rabble-rousers doing their thing. As Ani DiFranco sings: “Beneath the good and the kind and the stupid and the cruel, there’s a fire just waiting for fuel.”
AE: The minority of Americans dubbed “the reading public” prefer, or the Pavlovian Publishers who ring the dinner bell prefer, “realism” in poetry, drama, fiction. But “realism” itself is a device of — primarily — 19th century artifice. Kafka, Joyce, Stein, Breton, Woolf, Beckett, Stevens, Burroughs, Pynchon etc., in fact, the majority of late 19th to late 20th century writers attempted to capture a more psychological/unconscious reality based on individual perception. In CPR, the “realism” of the historical facts recounted are questioned, if not outright lampooned by the wild, satiric, romps that occur in the “fictional” sections. What gives? Both with this “new” fad of Tolstoy/Flaubert “realism” — appropriate for their day, not ours — and with your satirizing of such alleged “realism” in CPR?
MZ: When I hear the word “realism,” I can’t help but think of “reality TV.”What a progression, huh? Anyway, my idea of reality/realism is more in line with this: A little more than two years ago, a cousin of mine killed himself and I thought, My cousin no longer lives on this planet…but yet the subways are still jammed, bars and restaurants remain full, blogs get updated, Jane still does the laundry every Wednesday, and Joe never misses Sportscenter. Yes, of course life (so-called) goes on with or without us…but at some point that week, I was probably walking around my neighborhood feeling sorry for myself in the heat or maybe contemplating the big trade the Yankees just made. Meanwhile, at that precise moment, my cousin was out in the woods of Pennsylvania with a rope around his neck. Makes me wonder what’s happening somewhere (perhaps to someone I know and love) just as I am typing this. It’s enough to make you insane. Moral of this story (and every story?): There are no happy endings. In CPR, this concept is manifested as you describe above.
AE:If I could spend a night with any three people, real or imaginary (uh…if I weren’t married to my beautiful, wonderful wife, of course…) it would be Mary Shelley, circa 1816; Grace Slick, circa 1967; or Janie, circa — immediately. Comment?
MZ: That is the strangest compliment I’ve ever received. I’m flattered you think so highly of Janie and your appraisal helped teach me more about her than I ever knew. As I said earlier, I very consciously made sure no single character served as my surrogate and Janie is the ultimate example of that. She’s brimming with characteristics I admire and only a select few traits I possess, but mostly, she’s my fictionalized heroine (maybe she’s my Cassandra). There were instances where the mere act of typing her dialogue had me smiling ear to ear. Janie is full of contradictions, like any human, but she’s also someone finding her way better than most in this insane culture of ours. She nurtures, she heals, she listens, and she speaks her mind freely and clearly. Without the pomposity and pretension of most educated (sic) activists and radicals, Janie is – in her own way – fighting the battles we should all be fighting if we weren’t so paralyzed by fear, self-interest, and a modicum of comfort. Plus, Janie is a female and I very much enjoy the company of women and deeply value feminine energy.