Thursday, July 1, 2010

Summertime Clothes

I don’t have John Williams’ novel, Stoner, in front of me at the moment, so I will lack the ability to provide you with all the quotes that I want to share.  However, there is one poignant quote that I was able to track down.  It is somewhat lengthy, but it sums up a lot of things in general:

“He had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it. He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been. It was a question, he suspected, that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him. The question brought with it a sadness, but it was a general sadness which (he thought) had little to do with himself or with his particular fate; he was not even sure that the question sprang from the most immediate and obvious causes, from what his own life had become. It came, he believed, from the accretion of his years, from the density of accident and circumstance, and from what he had come to understand of them. He took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge: that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.”

Now, this is not the most upbeat quote that you could pick out. And Stoner is not itself a novel that is filled with humor or anything terribly upbeat.  But there is a truthfulness to it, a kind of simplicty and an inevitablity that you can’t argue with and that you have to eventually account for.

I am always going to associate Stoner, oddly enough with sensations of summertime.  One of the reasons I am going to do this is because I read the book during the high heat of this past June. I read it sweating on the Union Square 4,5,6 platform; I read it with an aggravating headache at the Lorimer L stop; I read it drinking water and coffee simultaneously on the rooftop out of my kitchen window on luxurious summer Fridays; I read it in my bed, sweating again, but listening to the whirr of my fan and the whish of cars along the road outside.  Stoner as a novel is more than just summer.  Its pages actually remind one more of the end of summer, the kind of weather we have refreshingly felt this past week along the avenues of the city and I’m sure elsewhere.  That thrilling morning chill when the sun is still very bright and you know that the heat of the day is simply lurking in the shadows of the homes and buildings that surround you, possibly in the grass and the dirt and will reveal itself in the stretch of the afternoon until it finally disappears into the cool and dew of the night – that time when you pull out a sweater or sweatshirt and wear it on your bare chest, perspiring only lightly. Stoner does all seasons.  But the concern here, the concern with summer is that Stoner offers such a view of detachment from one’s life that it seems so out of step with the things we feel in the summertime.  Usually, summer is a time for getting grass stains on your shirts.  Letting those dripping ice cream streaks run down and plummet to the knitted tops of your socks;  running blackfooted on grass and pavement; allowing the sweat to stick to your skin and the smell of dirt to linger on your fingertips and fingernails.  Sand and salt live in our hair in this vision of a popularized summer.  Stoner on the other hand is a tale of a man who finds his life being lived for him as he goes along.  Sure he participates in a marriage, a career, an affair that could be called love, and a passion for literature that he supposes rings true, but in the end he is left grasping at what has been truly palpable in his life.  That is not what we want to think about in summer.  In summer we want to think about staying up all night; we want to think about swimming in the ocean; we want to think about love and drinking coffee early in the morning and surprising ourselves at how good that can feel when everying this quiet and hot.

So how can Stoner help us in the summer? Well, it can give us memories of reading its direct and poetic prose for starters.  However, it can also cause us to remember to take hold of our lives at every moment. A passion may be stirring in your gut and you may be told by someone who is older and presumably wiser than you what that exact fire is supposed to be, but you don’t necessarily have to listen.  You can decide what the definition of your own passion is.  You may be intrigued by a quiet, charming girl at a party and you may want to make her your wife.  And perhaps you do.  And perhaps you try at that marriage and it doesn’t work, even though you have a child.  That doesn’t mean you have to listen to that institution of marriage and remain within its walls.  You don’t have to let life define you.  You don’t have to give in to a career when true love is calling to you.  You don’t have to turn your back.

Maybe I missed the point of the novel and maybe things like a career, the institutions of live, and the advice of older people are all vital and important.  But why I want to dwell on this, is because William Stoner is the second character that I have encountered in fiction that so attracted me due to the sort of disconnect that was so apparent in that character.  The first was Jack Burden from All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren.  Jack Burden’s world was vastly different than William Stoner’s.  Jack Burden was involved in the political game of 1930’s Louisiana.  Jack Burden knew humidity and heat, he knew how to dig in the dirt – he knew how to find the kind of things that stuck to people.  Jack Burden helped Willie Stark become the governor of Louisiana and he was good at digging up dirt and making it stick, yet he did it with such a detachment, with a wave of the hand that said “that’s just the way life is” that I was always so intrigued.  It made the posture of sticking your hands in your pockets seem like a defense mechanism against all that was complicated and band in the world – because with your hands in your pockets, you could just walk away from Pandora’s box, you could let it all fall to hell and not give a damn; only breaking a sweat if you pulled your one hand out to grasp a flask of whiskey in the humid Louisiana night.  Jack Burden wanted to care about things, which William Stoner  very well wanted to do as well.  Perhaps the first person narration helped Jack Burden’s case a little bit more.  For in the end of All The King’s Men, after everything has come down, Jack Burden understands how to return to his life. He has recaptured what is important to him, something that he had forgotten a long time ago, or perhaps never even truly known, and made it palpable. He is able to pursue it. And, as he so famously does, he becomes one with the mist with Anne Stanton amid the pines in Burdenville.

All The King’s Men reeks of summer and it always will.  The heat of the highway is captured as perfectly as it has ever been captured in that novel.  And you will get no better feelings of nightime in the summer than when Robert Penn Warren describes driving on the road at night and soon images of a spiderweb and the inevitability of actions in life come to the page and you start thinking about those late nights that you drove in the summer, smelling woodsmoke after a western rain, or in the orange light of sand lined streets, or away from the fair where the merry-go-round and ferris wheel lights blinked and spun as if they could tell you something you felt you already knew.

Blitzen Trapper reek of summer as well – at least I think they do.  And like Stoner, even if they don’t, my experience of their new album Destroyer of the Void has been filtered though the season of summer.  I’ve digested the album just as the summer entered the beginning of its strongest phase.  I did the same with Blitzen Trapper’s first big album, Wild Mountain Nation, which was actually their third album.  I listened to that album along the playing fields of Brewster Academy, revelling its mix of slide guitars and eccentric Pavement noise workouts.  Then, in 2008, there was Furr.  That album came at the end of the summer and it worked perfectly.  It was more focused on the rustic element of their sound and featured infectious folk rockers with playful lyrics and raucous grooves alongside memorable folk melodies and neo-murder ballads.  This latest album Destroyer of the Void has them expanding on that sound and adding a level of lushness that hasn’t been a part of their palette so far.  However, the two songs I want to tie together are two of their best piano ballads, that were actually recently compared by Pitchfork in their review of the album.  “Not Your Lover” is off Furr and is very much a Neil Young styled piano song.  Pitchfork said that this song was inferior to the newer “Heaven and Earth” off Destroyer of the Void.  I disagree.  “Not Your Lover” is definitely a poignant song about a guy sleeping next to his lover and realizing that while he is asleep, he’s not her lover anymore.  This is an endlessly fascinating idea of who we become when we are asleep.  It’s very much in line with Finnegan’s Wake because when we go to sleep we leave those realities and identies of our waking life behind and we can theoretically enter the heads and dreams of people we don’t even know, we can even become a part of that great unconscious story of history.  Certainly our identity as a lover is taken away, because when we are asleep we are alone and we indulge in those fantasies we have of who we can be.  This is all interesting stuff to be sure, but a line can be very neatly drawn from this song to After the Goldrush-era Neil Young. “Heavan and Earth” is a different beast.  Again, it is a piano ballad, but it hooks you in with a repetitive chorus/chant that introduces you to the song.  It then leads you on a vision of simplicty that I find to be very in tune with much of the writing that is found in Stoner or even in All the King’s Men. Lines like, “Over the Western World/Shadows fall under the kind and dying trees we call together/Still to feel the breeze/To shatter all these waking dreams we’ve told ourselves/To keep us free and clean.”  Again we are entering this play of dreams and the waking life.  The things that keep us free and clean are our dreams, because we can just take off and become bandits every time we hear the song “Isis” come on and forget about our jobs and whatever the hell else we are supposed to care about and go on and be clean and free of all those things.  The waking life is that life that keeps our identity in check, it is what defines us as lovers or as friends – it is what enriches us and attaches us to the earth. So, like the singer of Blitzen Trapper (I don’t know the names I just like the music) says in the song, “Heaven and Earth are mine, says I.”

So, we have Blitzen Trapper, we have All the King’s Men, we have Stoner and we have summer. On the surface, they don’t all seem to have anything to do with summer.  But, summer is that most tortured of seasons.  Not just because its so hot and because the days can stretch on forever and lead to a certain boredom and malaise.  Its because its so fractured.  You start off summer full of a crazed excitement because the weather is fantastic and you have to get outside for every hour of the long day; you have to drink refreshing cocktails; sit outside and eat; you have to go to all those places before they close up for the fall, before it gets too cold.  Then, summer, disturbingly, yet peacefully comes to an end with those fall breezes sneaking in and reminding you of something, at first school, but then you realize it is something more than that, because it always reminded you of something more than that when you were in school.  Summer is about escape, but its also about getting dirty, about feeling the earth on you more than you ever have during the past year. Its about sleeping contendedly with your shorts in a heap on the floor, grass and dirt stains all along the seat; its about drinking on rooftops and not giving a damn about the morning, because the stars look so good sitting in place up there.  See, all these things reek of summer.  And we are individuals whose lives are shaping themselves in front of us. And we can take part in that life whenever we want to, we can grip it and make it in our image.  Even if we don’t know exactly what that life is going to be.  Because, like Robert Penn Warren wrote in All the King’s Men, “the end of man is to know.”

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