The Hapless MFA

Because we sort of are.


The Hapless MFA is written by Chieh Chieng and Lance Uyeda

Tyrone Gustaf McDaniels, UC Irvine MFA, Fiction.
One of Us: Tyrone Gustaf McDaniels
Location: Outside Radio Shack

Tyrone G. McDaniels, UC Irvine MFA, Fiction, 1983. His thesis, A Lovely Summer Time (of Summertime), is a novel told from the point of view of a twelve-year-old Mississippi girl named Butters Consanguine, whose butterfly collecting career goes awry when she catches in her net an escaped convict named Dinkey Brutus. Here, McDaniels demonstrates the crackling MFA wit that earned him a spot in the nation's most prestigious MFA program (Iowa who? Oh, SNAP!).

Friday, June 15, 2007

I Know Gung-Fu

“Despite not speaking the language and asserting that ‘Chop Suey’ is a traditional dish in Mainland China, El Panda believes he is Chinese. His distorted interpretation of Chinese culture has developed through obsessively watching dubbed kung fu films and regularly visits to China Town.

“El Panda refuses to speak in any language other than Chinese. Unfortunately, El Panda does not know Chinese. El Panda communicates through indiscernible audible gibberish that he has hired an elder Chinese man to translate for others. Since El Panda isn’t really speaking Chinese, his Chinese translator invents translations as he sees fit.”

--From El Panda’s character bio on the side of the figure’s box.

Years ago, I told my friend John that I would send him a short story, and he said, “It would be awesome if you send a murder mystery and on the last page, there’s just a sheet of tinfoil with the words, ‘The murderer is you!’ or some shit like that.”

He was kidding.

I sent him the story, and I attached as the last page a sheet of tinfoil with the words, “The murderer is you!” even though the story was not a murder mystery and did not contain a murder or a murderer.

The fictional character, El Panda, is a Mexican luchador who happens to be a Sinophile in extremis. That his toy is produced by an American company (Muttpop) following a trend that had as its flashpoint, Hong Kong, late nineties, is easily ironic. That the trend itself (aka urban vinyl, aka art toys, aka designer toys) is often cited as a commingling of art and commerce is sort of like saying that the H3 Hummer is a commingling of environmental friendliness and brute, macho power.

First gross generalization: If the flashpoint of a particular trend happens anywhere near Hong Kong, then that trend has already succumbed to gross commodification.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is Michael Lau, in a 2004 New York Times Magazine article, commenting on the urban vinyl scene he’s credited with starting: “In a boring world, something happens and people hook on it, and Michael Lau created it.”

Note his use of the third person. That’s the way a professional wrestler talks. Note the tone in the stiff declaration, the style of a promo given to drum up ticket sales and excitement before a match.

Michael Lau is the godfather of the urban vinyl scene. He and fellow vinyl vanguard, Eric So, grew up poor in Hong Kong’s tenements, and a lot of their early work involve what’s described as street culture. Their drawings and, later, toy figures of teens dressed in baggy Levis and Air Jordans consumed the adult toy consumer. The toys, limited in production numbers, grew in value not only exponentially, but immediately with the help of eBay and an increasingly global market.

As with most trends, the designs of Lau, So, and other artists were copied (or "homaged") and then bootlegged, leading to a flurry of rotocast vinyl (from both Asia and the US) that has created a bubble as big as the one that enshrouded the American comic book industry in the mid-nineties, right before it blew up. Permanently. The parallels are striking. Back then, the American comic scene was glutted with new waves of ‘artists’ who had no sense of scale and depth and no understanding of basic human anatomy. Now, the vinyl scene is populated by many toy designers who have no sense of, well, art (second gross generalization).

Since the late nineties, many prominent vinyl designers have been signed up by Nike, Sony, Levi, and other big machines, and their characters, at least the Lau-inspired ones, feature an interesting mix of skateboard/street/hip-hop counterculture with a craving for material fulfillment. Designed by artists subsidized by corporations, these characters have since spawned exhibitions in France and London, and a bustling, thriving industry spurred on by eBay and all forms of commerce.

But what exactly is being celebrated at these shows?

To glibly point out the obvious contradictions of art toys that are sold and marketed like apparel or drapery (limited editions in the form of multiple colorways) is easy, but also insufficient.

What I like about El Panda, besides the degree of his cultural misappropriation, is the sheer exuberance of his Mao-loving lifestyle (especially given how much he costs). In a truly globalized world where political struggle becomes fodder for posters and T-shirts, merchandise is confused for art, and new mediums can rise and be commercialized and then devalued, all in less than a decade, the sense of haplessness and confusion is, if not justification for buying into the trend, at least an explanation for it.

I’m not a pudgy fan of lucha libre, nor do I particularly care for Mao suits, nor is there a sheet of figurative tinfoil staring me in the face, but I do feel like a comment is being made, on me, every time I look at the figure.

In the end, what I would like to say about El Panda, and the reason I spent too much money to acquire him, is that he's got soul. And yes, I realize I'm anthropomorphizing a block of rotocast vinyl.

What's more, the character description is really funny. Like, really, really funny. Like funnier than the character description of any other toy I've seen. Well, except for that of the GI Joe figure Skidmark.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Christmas Beat Down

Every year, the City and County of Honolulu hosts a Christmas tree decorating contest. Each city department buys a tree and decorates it. The most beautiful and creative decorations win! Here is an offering from the Honolulu Police Department.

Sunday, February 05, 2006


I really liked the message in David O. Russell’s movie I ♥ Huckabee’s that says random occurrences are constantly happening around us and they happen for a reason. There is a connection between the guy who made your crappuccino this morning and the guy you almost kill in a drunken rage at the karaoke bar. Things repeat themselves in the strangest ways sometimes and it happens for a reason. Someone or something is trying to send you a message…but what is it?

I experienced one of these moments last night at one of the most depressing karaoke encounters in my life. An old high school friend runs the Trivia Night at this bar in an Old Town section of a once-small town in Northern California. I felt like getting out, so I decided to go. I’d been to this bar a few times over the past three months, and I hadn’t gone in over a month, so I thought it might be fun. As I was sitting at the bar, waiting for the Trivia Master to arrive, standard bar juke box music was blaring on the speakers. AC/DC, Rush, Skynyrd…but then something came on I hadn’t heard in years: “Something to Believe In” by Poison. I was taken back to the year 1987. I was in junior high and that goddamn song was everywhere, preceded by its even wussier older sister, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” Now I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear “Rose” play on the juke box; that’s one you’ll still hear once in a while. But “Something to Believe In?” Who the hell still listens to this crap?

Poison. Remember those guys? The frosted hair? The frayed jean jackets? The leather pants? The mascara and eyeliner? Some of the dumbest stage-names-that-are-supposed-to-sound-real you’ve ever heard? C.C. Deville? Bobby Dall? Rikki Rockett? That’s right, folks, “Rikki” with two ‘k’s and “Rockett” with two ‘t’s. Nice. Nobody’s gonna tell them how to spell their names. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when Mr. Rockett made that life-altering decision. I wonder if he was on the can? Or maybe high? Possibly both? Of course, if this band had formed within the last couple of years, they would have spelled their name Poizon or Poyzin. I once had a student who wrote the saying “It Ain’t Metal Unless It’s Spelled Rong” in black sharpie on her backpack. I suppose we could look at these guys as trailblazers in the school of rock ’n’ roll misspellings. Attention, members of Korn, Trapt, Wurkt, Limp Bizkit…you will address Him as Bret Michaels, forefather. I’m sure he’d be into that.

After Trivia Night had come to a close (my team—dubbed the Kenny Loggins #1 Fan Club—ended up winning a free pitcher), the karaoke began. This bar is in a section of what is referred to as “Old Town,” meaning the buildings have been around for a very long time, the streets are supposed to look antiquated, and you’re supposed to leave with an overall pleasant old-timey feeling. Unfortunately for this particular Old Town, there isn’t much to see besides the train station, old bars, and meeting halls full of recovering drunks. The still-working-at-it-drunks like to sing free karaoke, so they often flock to this place my friend works at. Karaoke is run by this fellow who keeps a Mohawk so everybody can see the tattoos on his skull. I’ll just say his stripe of hair is usually dyed green or purple, and the tattoos are of a famous comic book villain. And he uses that character’s name as his own. Yeah.

Karaoke was especially pathetic on this night, because the bar was unusually empty. I’d been to a few of these events before, and I’ve seen some outright big crowds in this place. But last night was just dead. And the singers were terrible, as they often are at any karaoke bar. But something strange happened about forty-five minutes after the singing had begun. A woman got up to sing a certain little ditty by Poison. Right now you’re probably wondering: “Was it ‘Every Rose’?” No it wasn’t. It was indeed “Something to Believe In” and it was indeed a horrible rendition of a terrible song. She sounded as if she had been gargling with razor blades just five minutes before.

But I’m not here to make fun of the singer. This song—this monstrosity—had entered into my stream of consciousness twice within two hours. This was an amazing coincidence. That damn hook—“Give me something to believe in”—was trying to tell me something. I looked around for other possible secret messages or signs. A heavenly light coming from above? A sacred text hidden beneath a bar stool? Aside from bad singers, bad weight problems, and worse moustaches, I couldn’t find a thing. When I told the group at my table (now three former high school friends) that this was the second time I’d heard the song tonight (they hadn’t arrived yet when it was playing on the juke box), one of them said something that really freaked me out. She had heard it on the radio earlier that day! Between the two of us, we had heard this god-awful-butt-rock-nugget-that-time-should-have-forgotten three times in one day! What is the secret meaning of all of this? This must be some kind of foreboding sign!

Then it came to me: I suspect Poison will be launching another attempt at a “comeback” in the near future, probably this summer. Except this time, instead of releasing another unnecessary “Best Of” or “Greatest Hits” collection, they will be drugging our water supplies with some sort of mind-altering drug that only lets us hear “Something to Believe In,” “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” and “Unskinny Bop.” When we turn on the radio, it won’t matter what the DJs are playing or what they’re talking about; all we will be able to hear is Poison. When we attempt to converse with our friends, loved ones, and co-workers, all we will be able to hear are the words “What’s got you so jumpy? / Why can’t you sit still, yeah? / Like gasoline you wanna pump me. / And leave me when you get your fill.” Damn, that Bret Michaels sure knows how to write a brilliant fuckin’ simile. Prepare for the worst, my friends. The gods have spoken, and they have told us to do the “Unskinny Bop.” All the time.

--Robot's Mother

[Every so often, from its secret base in Sacramento, California, Robot's Mother ( will beam down to the HMFA a transmission on music related matters.]

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona: 12/16/05-12/18/05

[Note: Click on the pictures to see bigger versions of them.]

Before I begin my travelogue, to the law enforcement officer who caught me speeding through the Hopi Reservation on highway 264 and let me off with a warning, thank you for your generosity. I do appreciate it.

Located on the Navajo Reservation about 150 miles east of the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly was recommended to me by the writer Michelle Latiolais, who called the White House ruins “the most exquisitely placed architecture in the world.” With an endorsement like that, it’s hard to pass up a look. De Chelly was the third stop on a weeklong road trip up to Las Vegas and across northern Arizona.

I used to have a friend who lived in Vegas, but these days, I don’t really have a reason to go, except to stop off for a night of rest. Vegas can be suffocating. There is something very enervating about waking up in the morning, taking the hotel elevator down to the lobby, and finding spread before me a casino filled with chain-smoking slot jockeys who look like they haven’t slept in days.

But I was happy to have stopped there, if only because of Shark Reef behind the Mandalay Bay Casino. I initially thought it would be a kiddie pool filled with a couple of small shark-shaped fish; I didn’t expect what I got, which was something approximating a genuine aquarium filled with predatory aquatic life. It’s all very gaudy, all very appropriate for the town, from the Thai golden crocodiles to the piranha pool to the gem of the exhibit, an enormous tank filled with large sharks and barracudas. I’d never been in a space surrounded—above and all around—by dozens of large sharks, some of which couldn’t close their mouths because of the size of their jagged teeth. Supposedly, there was a green sea turtle in there, too, but I couldn’t find it and I didn’t have the heart to ask if it’d been eaten.

From Vegas I drove to the Grand Canyon, which really isn’t that different from what one can see in a travel book or postcard. The most interesting view is at night, when the cliffs form a massive black curtain that cuts the sky in half. The vast chasm and opposing cliffs are transformed from postcard kitsch to hell, or a very close approximation of it, as the dread is heightened by the howling winds, the cold December temperatures, and the constant possibility of stepping off of the precipice and plunging into oblivion.

Canyon de Chelly is more interesting. The ruins found here were built by the Anasazi around the 12th or 13th century. The only snag is that from a distance, against the backdrop of the massive cliffs, the buildings look like tiny scale models. A tour through the canyon, which wasn’t available because the only tourists there at the time were me and maybe some other crazy idiot, is likely the best way to enjoy it. The sizes of the ruins are impossible to gauge from afar. Height and depth become abstract, sort of like speed on road trips, like how 75 mph feels like 45 or 35 mph on a long state highway.

The famed White House ruins at the base of the cliff (center of the picture).

Closer view of the White House ruins.

While walking from White House lookout point back to my car, I noticed a Navajo sheepherder and his flock.

The sheepherder’s dog took a break from its duties to come play with me. It was curious and friendly, and had beautiful pale blue eyes. Here it is checking out my car.

The sheepherder’s dog saying goodbye right before I drove away.

The Mummy Cave ruins (center of picture). While walking from my car to the lookout point, a couple of stray dogs appeared from some nearby brush. They split up and began following me, one on either side. They were black and covered in dirt and leaves. They moved quietly—no wagging tails, no friendly bounce to their steps. I stopped and turned around to gauge their mood. I considered humming a few bars of REM’s “Nightswimming” before I realized that they might not be REM fans. One of them crouched low as it advanced. I nudged forward, kicked some dirt and rocks, and they stopped. They backed up. We stared at each other for a long time. They got bored and moved away, and I continued toward the lookout point.

I think they were disappointed that I didn’t have any food on me, or disappointed that I was all that passed for food that day.

Closer view of the Mummy Cave ruins. The central tower area is flanked on both sides by smaller rooms.

This set of ruins reminded me of the Hall of Doom from Super Friends.

Was Lex Luthor’s architectural style influenced by the Anasazi?

The twin-spired Spider Rock stands about 800 feet high. Well, I guess the taller one does. For the legend of Spider Rock, which involves a Spider Woman who devours naughty Navajo children, go here:

A primer on Massacre Cave. It’s a historical He said/she Said, but given the conquistadors’ human rights record, I’d have to go with the Navajos on this one.

The infamous ledge (center of picture).

At the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto. There’s life here, fertile green valleys along with horses and other animals that move through the canyon. De Chelly feels like it’s a part of the world, not apart from it.

For all of its grandeur, all of its epochal history, the Grand Canyon is just too impersonal, too big, too loud, too pompous and imperial.

I want to include an invective against the Bush Administration here, but the setup was kind of forced.

For some reason, Rumsfeld’s catchphrase—“The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” (i.e., Just because I can’t prove it doesn’t mean I can’t prove it)—kept running through my head during my drive along the canyon. Rumsfeld might have borrowed that line from Carl Sagan; however, Sagan was talking about UFOs and aliens.

This print of a Marvin Toddy painting was hung over the bed in my room at the Thunderbird Lodge. Toddy’s a local Navajo artist. I really liked the contrast of the irony-laden Cracker Jack box.

Nighttime temperatures at the canyon dropped down to zero. I left a bottle of water in the car one night. By morning it was frozen.

The cold temperatures didn’t bother me, not that I had to tough them out—my room was equipped with a very powerful heater. But having lived in moderate climates all of my life has made me dislike warm weather intensely. One night, around eleven, dressed in a T-shirt and khakis, barefoot, I opened the door to my room, stepped outside, and soaked in the air for about a minute or so, reveling in the quiet and isolation.

I felt no pain and not too much discomfort. I later realized that I hadn’t felt too much discomfort because my body had been numbed by the cold almost immediately upon exposure. Blood had stopped circulating to the extremities. The tissue in my fingers and toes were just about to begin dying.

Another hour and I might have gotten a Darwin Award.

Before I left for the trip, Michelle advised me to pack some food in a cooler. “There's actually not that much good food in this part of the country,” she wrote. “Sometimes you can find some okay Mexican, but for the most part, us Whiteys ruined the diet--and it remains ruined!” She was right about the lack of good food, but the food I packed was actually worse than the food I encountered. One thing about snack bars: Due to the plastic and carbon fiber material from which they’re fabricated, they’re able to survive the icy temperatures of the canyon completely unscathed. That was the main reason I brought them along. In the cold, they remained thoroughly inedible…as they would be at room temperature.

The one thing that I did take a liking to was fry bread, which I first read about years ago in Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I remember one of his characters talking about it, craving it. A sure sign of good writing is that it makes you hungry for something you’ve never tasted. Another sure sign of good writing is that it makes your crave something you know tastes like shit. (I am hopelessly addicted to canned spaghetti, for which I blame Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” read at a young, impressionable age.)

Then again, I’m the sort of idiot who as a kid drank Coke while pretending it was scotch.

The fry bread was similar to Chinese fry bread, which is used to accompany rice porridge and which itself resembles in taste and form the bread used in Russian piroshkis. It’s totally unhealthy, all that grease, but it tastes good.

I never thought I’d be driving across Arizona in December, but still, it was a nice break from the novel I’m writing, which is what I was really trying to get away from.

On my way home, I stopped at a gas station in the town of Chinle to fuel up. Next to the station was a Burger King. While eating there, I remembered a bit Chris Rock did on the decimation of the Native American population. “I have seen a polar bear ride a tricycle in my life, but I have never seen an Indian family just chilling out at Red Lobster,” he said. “I went to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this year and they didn’t even have enough Indians for that. They had a bunch of Pilgrims. When it came time for the Indians, they had three real Indians and the rest were a bunch of Puerto Ricans with feathers in their hair.”

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Aimee Bender Interview: The Lost Questions of Bernard Pivot

Aimee Bender is the author of the books
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, An Invisible Sign of My Own, and most recently, Willful Creatures. Her stories have the lovely, weightless/weighty quality of Don Barthelme’s, and her novel (Invisible Sign) is as they say in England, “unputdownable,” each of its sentences an enterprising worker ant in a bustling colony intent on long-term encampment in your brain. In the following exchange, she considers the Proustian questionnaire of Bernard Pivot, and asks us a few questions of her own.

Bernard Pivot est un journaliste français, animant des émissions culturelles à la télévision (from French!).

Dear Aimee Bender,

Let us begin by saying that the number of interviews you’ve given over the years is intimidating. Your online interviewers seem for the most part to be astute and rather hard-working, which believe us is also intimidating. So in order to have as little overlap as possible with what ground all of those other hard-working and smart interviewers have covered, we’re going to take this nice and lazy.

Have you ever seen Inside the Actor’s Studio? There is a five minute segment at the end of each show in which James Lipton reads from the last of his little blue cards these ten questions:

What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
What turns you off?
What is your favorite curse word?
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise do you hate?
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
What profession would you not like to do?
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

These questions were not invented by the Inside the Actor’s Studio’s crack corps of interns, but were written by the French journalist Bernard Pivot for his program “Bouillon de Culture,” which though we don’t speak French well might mean A Soup of Culture. For whatever reason, be it the lulling ritual of the questions themselves, asked time and again, or the endearing and sort of extremely hyper-earnest manner in which Lipton recites them, to us these questions have a hypnotic, liturgical quality. And in fact Lance is so drawn to them that he has his answers to the questions saved on his computer, in much the same way that Perry Smith, the “sensitive” killer from In Cold Blood, has a generic speech written out in his diaries: for “just in case.”

In other words, in the event that he’s invited to appear on Inside the Actor’s Studio, regardless of the fact that he is neither actor nor director, screenwriter nor casting agent (though he did produce a student film once) his answers to the questions asked at the end would be:

Home, hurry, vision, smugness, fuck, friends talking excitedly, recorded bass line through a wall, archaeologist or historian, military, nothing.

So, to begin, please answer, if you would, the following ten questions.


What is your favorite word?

Today? Moat.

What is your least favorite word?


What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Trying, genuinely, to articulate things that ultimately can never be articulated.

What turns you off?

Bogus limitations on things that are all about mystery and complexity: that goes for art, psychology, religion, etc.

What is your favorite curse word?


What sound or noise do you love?

The sound of a train in the distance.

What sound or noise do you hate?

Whispering when I'm trying to concentrate.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Something with music. Also running an arts school for kids.

What profession would you not like to do?

Something with too many details and small motor skills: surgery?

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?



We’ve titled our interview with you “The Lost Questions of Bernard Pivot,” which implies that certain of these questions have been found. They have indeed been found by us, though they weren’t really lost, just pared down by Lipton to a round ten from their original 13. Here they are:


What is your favorite drug? (we’re guessing that answers to this question range from Sudafed to other things)

Vodka's pretty good. And sometimes I love espresso, but rarely.

Who would you like to see on a new banknote?

A woman. Eleanor Roosevelt, or, like on the former franc or mark, a female artist. Georgia O'Keefe.

If you were reincarnated as some other plant or animal, what would it be?

What would it be, or what would I like it to be?
I think I'd like to be a dolphin or whale or eagle. What would it be? Maybe a dog or an oak.


Lance guesses that Chieh’s answers to these questions would be: Benadryl (really), Vanilla Ice, and a gazelle, springing happily across the Sub-Saharan plains.

Finally, to conclude the interview, we’d like to suggest an exchange of Pivotesque questions. We’ll ask you three, and you can inflict upon us as many as you like.


Our (not ripped-off, finally) questions for Aimee Bender

If you could have instant, effortless musical virtuosity with one instrument, what instrument would it be?


Who is a writer, actor, or artist who deserves a wider audience?

William Maxwell. Jane Siberry.

Would you rather be in the ocean (inside of a protective cage) surrounded by sharks, or go skydiving?

Why? Skydiving. I like air.

Aimee Bender's questions for us

What bugs you the most when you are reading interviews with writers?

When the interviewer seems to be using the interview as an occasion to test out his or her theories about the author's work, what you would imagine might happen if your average Star Wars geek found himself inexplicably in a sit-down with George Lucas. Tell me it's not true about the midi-chlorians, George!

What is the one of the most beautiful things in Southern California
and/or Hawaii?

Mountains. Whenever it pours rain in Southern California, walk around outside a few hours later and you'll get to see them. In Hawaii it is also definitely mountains. They are green and craggy at the same time. Rainbows are also nice.

Why do people make up bunk rules about short story writing?

A bunk rule is like easy anger--the feeling of strength it gives you is likely disproportionate to your muscle mass (brain and/or body).


What is something a person can actually do that is actually useful in
this scary Bush-era?

Make voodoo dolls. Just kidding. We can organize and we can vote with our wallets. We can put our money in the hands of those who are positioned to do more with it than we can for a just society and level-headed foreign relations.

The End.

The Hapless MFA would like to express to Aimee Bender its appreciation of her helpfulness and good humor.

Much gratitude goes also to our photographer extraordinaire, Lindsay Fitzgerald. Thanks Lindsay!

Walden is Not a Fucking Hallmark Card

Walden is an interesting piece of work. Since its initial publication in 1854, it has entered the popular American consciousness as nothing more than a very long Hallmark message. According to Lance, the book is a series of treacly metaphors and similes: “‘There is the river, let it flow…like your free, unfettered life.’ Ha ha!” Most people would agree.

There’s a lot of that, true. Thoreau, like his Transcendentalist brethren, enjoyed sampling liberally from Confucius’s Analects and various Hindu scriptures in arguing for a spiritually centered existence, a life liberated from devotion to material wealth or societal respect. In this sense, he reminds me of a poet Lance and I knew at UC Irvine, a young man who, after reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, fashioned himself a black belt in Buddhism. After I missed one of his readings, the poet said, “It's okay, Chieh. You’re just spiritually lazy, and I forgive you.”

Unlike this UCI poet, Thoreau was fully immersed in Eastern philosophy and religion. And unlike, say, Emerson, Thoreau wasn’t part of the club, at least not if he had anything to do with it. Thoreau scholar Michael Meyer writes, “Although Thoreau refused to be a member of any collective movement, he did occasionally refer to himself as a Transcendentalist (partially because this self-description could be counted on to confuse and dismay people).”

Thoreau was such an incorrigible loner that he didn’t want to be called a Transcendentalist, even though he had attended their meetings, baked bread with them, and gotten off on the Bhagavad Gita with them. And this, I think, is what I love about Thoreau and Walden. There is something profoundly interesting, something extremely moving about a man who so indefatigably defended his right to be a cranky individual, a man whose primary pleasure in life was to read in a cabin and talk to his beans. He loved humanity, but wasn't so keen on actual human beings.

A life of solitude to him was not an odd existence. In fact, it was the other way around. In describing the time he was jailed for refusing to pay his poll tax to a “state which buys and sells men, women, and children,” Thoreau notes, “Wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society.”

To Thoreau, this binary opposition (nature = pure paradise vs. society = tainted unnatural prison) was as clear as the pond in which he bathed and fished and from which he drank.

I kind of understand his views on solitude and “odd-fellow society,” and maybe that’s why my former classmates, Lance and Julianne, once described me to our workshop instructor, Michelle, as “well…kind of ornery.”

But this discussion of orneriness detracts from the book and from its wonderfully precise prose, which so clearly delineates Thoreau’s life at that crucial moment—when he was twenty-eight, having just moved all of his belongings from his parents’ house to a desolate spot in the woods.

In the buildup to the move, in considering the necessity of shelter, Thoreau says, “If one designs to construct a dwelling house, it behooves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all he find himself in a workhouse, a labyrinth without a clew, a museum, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum.” Thoreau’s cynicism is evident, but notice also the concrete imagery and the fast, hard rhythm of the sentence, the way it moves us quickly from a workhouse into a maze from which there is no escape, and inside of which the work-obssessed individual is transformed into an exhibit, an example of what Thoreau considers a life misspent. "Splendid mausoleum" is the kicker in the sentence, of course.

Though he believed in man’s heavenly potential, Thoreau was also constantly aware of and bothered by the grimy, physical death that awaited us all. And unlike the stiffer Transcendentalists, he had a sense of humor. At one point, he considers buying an abandoned boxcar to use as his new home: “Every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air…and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free…Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this.”

For all his commitment to the spiritual emancipation of man (and woman, I assume), Thoreau was at heart a pragmatist, a pacifist who also endorsed the tactics of militant abolitionist John Brown. And he was one cranky son of a bitch.

Linguistic precision is what anchors this book, what keeps it from being merely sentimental, Orientalized tripe. In the chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau talks about clothes, but in a very specific, very scientific way. “We don garment after garment, as if we grew like exogenous plants by addition without. Our outside and often thin and fanciful clothes are our epidermis or false skin, which partakes not of our life, and may be stripped off here and there without fatal injury; our thicker garments, constantly worn, are our celluar integument, or cortex; but our shirts are our liber and true bark, which cannot be removed without girdling and so destroying the man.” His criticism against fancy threads continues: “The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same. I sometimes despair of getting anything quite simple and honest done in this world by the help of men. They would have to be passed through a powerful press first, to squeeze their old notions out of them, so that they would not soon get upon their legs again, and then there would be some one in the company with a maggot in his head, hatched from an egg deposited there nobody knows when, for not even fire kills these things, and you would have lost your labor. Nevertheless, we will not forget that some Egyptian wheat was handed down to us by a mummy.”

It’s all there, the crankiness, the imagination, the visual clarity, and the eventual roundabout back to death, to dying, and, more appropriate to Thoreau’s argument, to how we should live.

Thoreau was extremely well read. In fact, in the chapter, “Reading,” he comes across as a predecessor to that other ornery classics geek, John Gardner. “The student may read Homer or Aeschylus in the Greek without danger of dissipation or luxuriousness,” Thoreau writes, “for it implies that he in some measure emulate their heroes, and consecrate hours to their pages.” The only thing more sacred to Thoreau than his beanfield were the copies of Homer and Aeschylus that he’d brought with him, and here, he sounds like a disgruntled English professor preaching The Iliad to a bunch of kids who only saw the Brad Pitt movie: “To read well…is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.”

But about the beans. And yes, Thoreau eventually turns them into symbols of humanity’s misplaced priorities. But before that. Forget about the metaphor. Dismiss the New Age discussion about cultivating virtue instead of crop. Consider instead the literalness of the lines. Pay attention to what he’s infatuated and obsessed with, to the physical, strangely erotic nature of the writing: “The sun lighted me to hoe beans, pacing slowly backward and forward over that yellow gravelly upland, between the long green rows, fifteen rods, the one end terminating in a shrub oak copse where I could rest in the shade, the other in a blackberry field where the green berries deepened their tints by the time I had made another bout. Removing the weeds, putting fresh soil about the bean stems, and encouraging this weed which I had sown, making the yellow soil express it summer thought in bean leaves and blossoms…As I had little aid from horses or cattle, or hired men or boys, or improved implements of husbandry, I was much slower and became much more intimate with my beans than usual…It was a singular experience that long acquaintance with which I cultivated with beans, what with planting, and hoeing, and harvesting, and threshing, and picking over, and selling them,—the last was the hardest of all,—I might add eating, for I did taste. I was determined to know beans.”

Thoreau likens himself to Pythagoras in his aversion to beans, which have historically been used as counters in voting. In this way, Thoreau again emphasizes his unwillingness to participate in society, especially in a state he considers morally reprehensible. But did he actually dislike the taste of beans? Maybe he was only being ironic. But what if Thoreau, like Pythagoras, did spend his life refusing to eat beans?

If that's the case, imagine what it required of him now to put them in his mouth—this bean-adverse man—to roll them around, to chew, to suck the flavor from the grounds, to taste the essential nature of that which he had sown, that which he had no desire to taste. Isn’t this, then, something approaching unconditional love?

But of course, this passage cannot be read only literally, and I can already hear Lance’s response: “Dude, Thoreau’s all, ‘Should we thus not sow virtue instead of beans?’ Should I thus not fart Confucius instead of Chuang Tzu? Ha ha ha!”

Friday, November 04, 2005

Confessions of a Dirty 16 Year Old

There are certain things in life I wish I could experience again for the first time. I would hope that everyone feels the same way about something important in his or her own life. Women, of course, are known to have more than one child to relive the whole creating-and-nurturing-life-thing. I am not of the feminine design, so that is something I will never truly realize. Music has always played a huge role in my life, and I guess I can say that I love music like some women love their children. I’ve unwrapped CDs for the first time and felt like I just released a shiny, digitally-encoded baby from my proverbial womb.

Of course I realize I had nothing to do with the conception of 99.9% of the music I listen to, but for some strange reason, I feel like I make very unusual connections to a lot of my favorite groups. Connections that loved ones make with each other. I love my wife and my parents and other relatives as much as anything in my life. But for some odd reason, I will always have certain feelings for a particular song or album that I just don’t have with real, breathing human beings. And yes, you are right, that is more than a little bit sad.

My original point was that there are some things in my life that I wish I could experience again for the first time. If I was walking down the beach one afternoon, and I picked a magic vase from the sand, and a giant blue dude popped out and granted me three wishes, one of those wishes would probably be this: I wish I could listen to Sonic Youth’s Dirty again for the first time.

I will always remember the album not just for its undeniably brilliant sounds, but for what it was to me when it was first released. I’ll always remember the fall of 1992 when Dirty was first released by DGC.

That was a very important time in my life, because my birthday is October 10, 1976. I had just turned sixteen that fall and my parents trusted me enough to take the car out on my own past the small suburb in which we lived. I will always remember my drive to a record store in Downtown Sacramento called the Beat. It was about 20 miles from where I lived at the time. I know, it’s not that far, but it was a huge deal at the time. Come on, you remember what it was like to be sixteen and making one of your first trips “on the road” in your parents’ car.

As you will recall, in 1992 the CD revolution hadn’t quite taken over the world yet, so there will still those things they made called “cassette tapes.” (I bet you were expecting a pretentious ass like me to say “vinyl,” weren’t you? I’ll be the first to admit that I never owned a record player.) I bought the tape and listened to it over and over and over for my entire sixteenth year driving around town, gaining independence from my folks. “100%” is in the top two opening album tracks ever (it’s number two, in my book…“London Calling” is my all-time favorite). I must have listened to that song at least twice a day for over a year of my life. I was growing as a guitar player at that time, also, and hearing those chords in that particular song blasting through car speakers or headphones…It’s an unbelievable song, in my opinion. It’s the perfect Thurston Moore song. His voice gives off that disconnected drawl that makes it sound like he doesn’t care so much about singing but getting across a message. His voice does this in every song he sings on the album.

One of the first real political scandals I was conscious of was the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill sexual harassment allegations in 1991. Dirty makes clear reference to it in Thurston’s lyrics in “Youth Against Fascism” (“I believe Anita Hill/The Judge will rot in Hell”) and the second song of the album (the album’s first track featuring Kim Gordon’s lead vocals)—“Swimsuit Issue”—is about sexual harassment in the work place. As a sixteen-year-old male, I felt like hearing these opinions come from a man’s and a woman’s voice made them matter that much more. And I dare you to listen to “Swimsuit Issue” and not be turned on by Kim’s voice. As a young man, I was a big fan of that sultry, smoky voice of hers placed on top of those heavily distorted and detuned guitars. Usually, the songs that the girl in the band sings are the more melodic, poppier songs. Sonic Youth likes to break expectations. Most of Kim’s songs are ten times dirtier and rougher around the edges than Thurston’s. Other classics from the Kim Gordon song book on Dirty: “Drunken Butterfly,” “Shoot,” and “Orange Rolls, Angels Spit.” When you’re sixteen, and a woman writes, sings, and plays bass on songs like she does, how can you not be in love with her? I always admired the fact that she and Thurston had been married for several years when Dirty came out. So many married couples in bands divorce, but Kim and Thurston are still happily married to this day. That’s unusual in the world of rock’n’roll.

I dug the fact that Ian MacKaye (one of my personal heroes in the music world) did a guest spot on the album. I loved all of Thurston and Lee Renaldo’s discordant guitar noise on every single track. I love the way Steve Shelley’s drums were recorded. People often criticize Dirty for being too slick and overproduced. I love the whole sound of the album. The guitars are loud as hell just like they should be. Almost every song on the album feels like a punch to the gut or a blow to the head. It is truly the kind of album that I can hear something new on every time I listen to it. I still listen to it very regularly. It was one of the first albums I downloaded to my iPod. I only wish I could listen to it again for the first time and hear it (again) with virgin ears.

--Robot's Mother

[Every so often, from its secret base in Sacramento, California, Robot's Mother ( will beam down to the HMFA a transmission on music related matters.]

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Teaching High School English in America: A Caveat

I was ten years old when I met Morgan Giles. It was the first day of the school year at Jefferson Elementary, and we fifth graders were milling about outside of our room, waiting nervously for class to start. We checked each other out, looked for potential comrades and enemies, and spoke softly in anticipation of what our teacher might be like. I soon noticed, standing out among the short cluster of kids, a very tall man. He was quiet and had blond hair and blue eyes. It wasn’t until I spoke with him and heard piping from his mouth a squeaky, ten-year-old voice that I realized this man wasn’t my teacher. He was my classmate, and he probably had on his face what I now recognize as the frown of perpetual and cynical despair, though he’s lightened up recently.

Morgan and I were in a “gifted and talented” class that, due to the superior intellect of its students, was burdened with the responsibility of having to enlighten the rest of Jefferson’s fifth graders…by putting on a musical. It was all very Aristotelian.

The previous year, my teacher had organized with cool discipline our production of The Wizard of Oz. Everyone in the class not only played a role, but helped in the construction and painting of sets and costumes. Jefferson's music teachers were brought in to help with the singing. Everything proceeded smoothly except for a few rehearsals, which were marred by the presence of a flying monkey who constantly screwed up the monkeys’ musical number, set to the tune of the “Axel Foley Theme” from Beverly Hills Cop. Instead of “flying” onto my assigned trampoline with both legs as I’d been instructed, I one-legged it, which prompted my teacher to shout, "Okay, you want to break your legs? You go ahead, and when that happens, you'll have a couple of broken legs! And how would you like that?" This was followed by, “And can you please, please, please smile, Mr. Chieng?”

I never understood what flying monkeys, a subjugated species in the elitist realm of Oz, would have anything to smile about.

The following year, our “gifted and talented” class put on a musical production of Peter Pan. I was one of Captain Hook's pirates, notable, this time, for constantly flubbing his one line. “Six degrees northwest, Captain, aye!” I’d say at one rehearsal, and, “Eleven degrees…southeast, sir!” at another. In Peter Pan, I was a pirate unsure of his direction, and Morgan was Mr. Darling because he was the only ten year old in our school who could physically pass for an adult.

“Who was that man who played Mr. Darling?” the parents asked after the show. “Is he a teacher?”

No, but he became one.

Today, Morgan stands six feet, seven inches. Despite his imposing stature, he found himself the subject of constant verbal threats and abuse from the high school students he taught in Sacramento. As a result of this and other factors, he quit. He's no longer teaching, but is keeping a journal of the highlights of that five-year career. You can read it at:

It’s all true, terribly so. And yes, one of the possible consequences of teaching high school English in this country is having a student fart on you, in the Chaucerian manner.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

My Guysack is Bigger Than Your Wardick

The Japanese have done something very odd. Instead of attempting to learn English as the English-speaking nations speak it, they have co-opted the language, recalibrated it, modified it, wrapped it up, and re-presented it like a box of hard, overpriced mochis. There actually exist classes in Hawaii that teach English pronounced the Japanese way. Not standard English, but Japanesenglish. So instead of “McDonalds,” a Japanesenglish learner would say (according to Lance, or Lan-su, who was enrolled in such a class as a child), “Maku-don-arudo.” And instead of “Burger King,” the learner would say, “Baa-gaa King-u.”

The misappropriation of an entire language has created some unusual side effects, and somewhere in Japan, a toy designer is laughing his ass off.

Zoids, a Japanese brand of children’s toy, first entered the consciousness of the HMFA when one Christmas, instead of receiving the Transformer, G.I. Joe fighter jet, or My Little Pony he’d asked for, Chieh received a robotic wind-up lizard that required assembly and paint.

Chieh is technically inept. (He can barely operate his laptop beyond turning it “on” and “off.”) As a result, this Zoid did not hold his interest and soon found its way into some hidden corner of a former home.

Nearly two decades later, the Zoids have evolved, if only nominally. There now exist a scorpion Zoid named Guysack and a fish Zoid named Wardick.*

Now, the question is, What’s the big deal?

If the written word is, as Foucault asserts, a conduit for power and an enabler of social hierarchies, then these two Zoids are not only badly named, they’re dangerous.

Because how could one even write the names without diving headfirst into a world of senseless farce, of unabashed, unapologetic hyper-machismo. Do we risk devolution into camp, perpetuation of the male-driven hegemony, or both?

Or do we simply have the good sense not to write about little boys playing with their Guysacks and Wardicks?

* There are unconfirmed reports from the 2005 Tokyo Toy Show that Tomy, the company which produces Zoids, will soon release a wild boar Zoid named Sausagebeater and a kangaroo Zoid named Manpouch.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Best MFA Theses You've Never Read

There sure are a lot of Best American… collections. In order of no importance: Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Travel Writing, Best American Science Writing, Best American Sports Writing, and even Best American Recipes (not a joke…and what would that include anyway? “Best chicken-fried steak?”). Dave Eggers has The Best American Nonrequired Reading, the latest edition of which features an introduction by Viggo Mortensen. John Updike compiled the relatively low-key Best American Short Stories of the CENTURY, in which he included, of course, himself. Finally--and the Hapless MFA really has a hard time believing this--there’s even a Best of the Fiction Workshops, which has since evolved into Best New American Voices.

Oh, boy.

If our country were indeed to be destroyed by terrorists with WMDs, those who discovered the remnants of our literary legacy would no doubt be impressed by our myopic fondness for the superlative, BEST.

But the HMFA is not faultless. We have on our shelf the 1998 edition of The Best American Short Stories, guest edited by Garrison Keillor, who writes in his introduction:

“If only [Anne Frank] had survived the prison camp…she might have come out with a novel in 1955 with a passionate love scene between a girl and a boy in an attic full of moonlight…She didn’t aim to be a saint; she wanted to write stories in which real people ate the pot roast and boiled potatoes and talked about childhood, lovers, children, loneliness, and old age.”

We here at the HMFA would like to think that if Anne Frank had survived, she would have aimed for just a tad more. She might have written a novel about Zevon 9, the last surviving member of the Zevon alien race who journeys to Earth in search of Euro-pop music to fuel his interstellar warp capacitor, but instead, discovers true love with the Swedish pop sensation, Tiramisu. Or maybe Miss Frank would write a collection of poems about what it’s like to be a female narcotics officer.

But who judges, or rather, who has the right to judge? And on what criteria? There’s no accounting for taste, after all, right? The HMFA’s all-time favorite Best American Short Stories editor has to be Stanley Elkin, who in the 1980 edition said:

“These are, quite simply, the very best short stories published in American magazines in 1979, and they have declared themselves to whatever sense I have of the wonderful as succinctly as so many logos.

“Because we’re talking about taste, the buds of judgment. And of course there’s an accounting for taste. This is an attempt to account for mine.

“Taste is a series of first impressions, lodestar aesthetics that last a lifetime. A man’s character is his taste, and he is as much a victim of it as the pictures, foods, music, films, books, furnishings, and clothes he chooses are the subjects of his necessity…My mother-in-law would be incapable of furnishing a living room without slipcovers, and, for her, the development of clear plastic was a technological breakthrough, a hinge event in science, up there with washable mahjong tiles. Because we’re talking, in my mother-in-law’s case, about cleanliness, lifelong shmutz-dread, that first impression she must have taken as a little girl in Russia of actual biological traif, fear of the Gentile, some sense of caste deeper than a Hindu’s, a notion, finally, of order. Which is all that taste ever is. (I, who, like you, feel I have perfect taste, am no better. It ain’t the Gentiles I fear, it’s everybody, everything. The germs on pennies, people coughing, the shit on dogshit.) Not the niceties and not notions gleaned from study, education, the great books. (The idea of an educated taste is absurd. You might as well speak of educating your need for shelter.) Taste can’t, I think, be heightened, sharpened. It comes with the territory, is fixed as birthmark. Indeed, it is birthmark, what the gypsy wishes for us in the crib, the customized, bespoke astrology of the self.”

Now that’s honest. No equivocations, no false modesty, no half-hearted attempt at self-effacement. Elkin knew that gathering, marketing, and then selling a collection based on personal taste and touted as a definitive tome of the “best” out there is, well, a bit silly. But he played his part. He did his job. He confirmed, in his tenure as editor, the intersection, the fusion, of emotion and logic. The stories he picked were the best only because they made sense to him, to his gut and to his analytical mind, which had both conspired to make him decide, and judge. He picked the stories he liked best and didn’t apologize for his opinions.

The HMFA adores Elkin, worships the man, who is in many ways our aesthetic lodestar. His writing is so charged, so vibrant, that the HMFA has occasionally been known to pop a boner while reading his work. Now that’s a legacy we’re sure he’d be proud of.

We have gotten off topic.

While it’s easy, whether out of envy or the self-conscious defeat that accompanies lack of inclusion in such collections, to dismiss them as pompous, pretentious, or worse, valueless, they do serve the important function, the only important function, of introducing writers and stories we might otherwise have missed, and might otherwise have been the worse for not knowing. Such as, from the 1998 edition, Chris Adrian’s “Every Night for a Thousand Years,” Lorrie Moore’s, “People Like That are the Only People Here,” and Tim Gautreaux’s “Welding with Children,” which features this interesting exchange between the downtrodden grandfather narrator and one of the grandchildren he’s babysitting for the day:

“Freddie’s face brightened. ‘[Mama] rented Conan the Barbarian for us. That movie kicked ass.’

“‘That’s not a Bible movie,’ I told him.

“‘It ain’t? It’s got swords and snakes in it.’”

And what about the classics, the stories that, in hindsight, seem like obvious choices for inclusion in Best American (Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” Thom Jones’s “I Want to Live!” and Elkin’s own “Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers,” which isn’t even the best story in the collection of the same name)?

Like the friend who constantly gives you movie advice but only gets it right half the time, these collections are often hit and miss. Sometimes the hits are worth the misses. Sometimes you donate the book to the library.

The HMFA doesn’t like filler, so we recently scoured the archives at the UC Irvine library in search of some badass, heart-quaking, and mind-melting fiction and poetry. We searched for the best, the best to us. We listened to Elkin’s gypsy, who wheedled and seduced her way into our collectively callous heart, she who flipped the arterial switches and turned the veinal dials to calibrate our reasonable preferences, our logical biases. So here, culled from the hash, is a brief list of we’d like to call, “The Best (to Us) MFA Theses (American) You’ve Never Read”:

Bailey “Deuce” Swinton
Well, I’m Pretty Sure You Aren’t!
story collection
Abstract: An unofficial sequel to Gish Jen’s story collection, Who’s Irish? This collection, based on the personal experiences of an Irish-American, captures the lives of Irish-Americans in New Hampshire in the 1970s.

Tifanny Lo Chun
A Heart’s Blossoming Song
Abstract: Dedicated to the memory of the thousands of sweatshop workers exploited by Nike, Wal-Mart, Hanes, and other corporate demons.

Peter Rice
Indian Allegories, or, Appetizers, Please
Abstract: After Nietzsche, a series of aphorisms or prose “appetizers” that trace bankrupt promises made to displaced persons and the hungry by those whom I call the New Puritans, vis-à-vis present day conversion narratives and a resuscitated Horatio Alger.

Jackson Elias Winsome
a novel
Abstract: First-person coming of age story about Tanner Evans, a tough white kid with a speech impediment who grows up in the predominantly black community of South Central, Los Angeles…Yo Moms, yo Pops! I did it! Fucking M.F.A., whoop-dee-whoop! I’d like to thank my brother Jaspers, my girlie Quixota, my crew J.D., S.F., C.T., and especially A.A.! Fuck, I really graduated! Just want to say, I would never have been able to write this book without all your fucking support.

Kyle Brossard
The Only Black Man in South Orange County, California
Abstract: I think the title’s pretty self-explanatory.

Sue M. Galvez
First He Called Me Lard Ass :(
Abstract: A personal account of a tumultuous two-year relationship between the writer, a 25-year-old English graduate student, and her verbally abusive online boyfriend, X2TYZ-!!$&.

Tom Parsons
Stopping for Nothing but a Bullet in the Head
Abstract: Peter J. Carter just got out of prison. His girlfriend, Tonya, just stole $10,000 from the Mexican mafia. His brother, Joey, has dyslexia. And standing between Peter and a nice restful weekend spent on the fire escape of his apartment with a case of Bud are five of the top Mexican hitmen in the world, out of blood. His.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Quite Worthless Things


Back in Salem, MA, 1692, those convicted of witchcraft were given two options: 1) Be burned at the stake, or 2) Be pelted to death with brads.

Whoever invented these fucking things ought to be tied to a stake. Best known for their ability to create lacerations and deep puncture wounds, brads are also used by screenwriters to bind their work.

The Hapless MFA's first encounter with brads happened during Chieh's brief flirtation with screenwriting. While attempting to bind the now classic, Rousing Drew McIntire,* Chieh's clumsy ass managed to poke himself multiple times with these brassy nails.

Adopted by ninjas in feudal Japan as surreptitious death-dealing weapons, and by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as interrogation devices, brads are widely used today by both assassins and writers.

If you ever find yourself in close proximity of these things, please, Handle With Caution.

*Rousing Drew McIntire is about the heartbreak a man suffers when he discovers that his fourteen-year-old son's habit of dressing up in a giant squirrel costume has evolved into a full-blown Furry lifestyle.

What Better Standard

The Manifesto of the Communist Party, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, begins: The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. It states its claim succinctly and powerfully, then proceeds to hurtle through the ages in search of supporting evidence. Whether its conclusions finally convince is a subject for someone smarter and more learned than the HMFA, but at least its case is made. As Emeril Lagasse (who is like Howard Stern with bulbs of garlic in his hands instead of boobs) might say, having contemplated the ups and downs, the twists and turns of M&E’s complex arguments, having considered their indebtedness to Hegel’s dialectic and whether it means anything: BAM!

(We think Emeril’s bamming with paprika. Good ol’ more or less nondescript paprika. Which was cool back in the day but now has been usurped by a precious liquid that comes in mysterious, tear-shaped plastic dropper bottles and is called “food coloring.” It’s probably not even Hungarian paprika he’s using but some kind of orangey, powdered potato food product from Idaho. Did you know that the best paprika comes from Hungary? Where it is consumed at a greater rate than are salsa and ketchup combined in the U.S.? B.R. Myers is cooking without heat.)

We assume many of you are familiar with B.R. Myers’s “A Reader’s Manifesto.” It begins: Nothing gives me the feeling of having been born several decades too late quite like BLAH BLAH BLAH [BLAHs ours].

A manifesto must make something manifest. Anything. Though we here at the HMFA are no aficionados of the manifesto, we think that this “something/anything” could among other things be, like, 1) a set of principles (or whatever), 2) a definition of something (or something), or 3) a declaration of one’s intentions (We Communists will conquer Europe!) or a proposal (otherwise known as “not just whining about shit”). Though it has been quite some time since we’ve read through Myer’s entire thing, which we’ll call a “thing,” since it’s not a manifesto, we do have a copy of it lying around, and let us tell you, when he has his go at delineating “evocative” prose from “muscular” prose from “edgy” prose, etc., he proves to be no less obtuse and impenetrable than the writers he imagines he is flogging. His is an obtuseness and impenetrability born of a wily combination of stylistic clarity and argumentative evasion, the scattered and various snippets he dissects falling from the sky (imagine that scene with the frogs from Magnolia) in a veritable hail of red herrings. Here’s the herring’s eye, he says, here’s its heart—its guts are green because it eats algae. Watch out for ciguatera poisoning! And the fish are red as blood because they’ve been doused in our favorite, faux-peppery Hungarian spice.

The best the HMFA has encountered of a defining statement on the love of reading is David Foster Wallace’s. In an interview given to the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, he describes himself “chasing a special kind of buzz, a special moment that comes sometimes,” what he remembers Yeats calling “the click of a well-made box”: “Something like that. The word I always think of it as is ‘click.’”

That’s right, baby. Click! Wallace refers to doing the things he likes to do­—reading, writing, solving mathematical proofs—as “chasing the click.”

The first fictional clicks I encountered were in Donald Barthelme's "The Balloon" and in parts of the first story I ever wrote, which has been in my trunk since I finished it. I don't know whether I have that much natural talent going for me fiction wise, but I know I can hear the click, when there is a click. In Don DeLillo's stuff, for example, almost line by line I can hear the click. It's maybe the only way to describe writers I love. I hear the click in most Nabokov. In Donne, Hopkins, Larkin. In Puig and Cortázar. Puig clicks like a fucking Geiger counter. And none of these people write prose as pretty as Updike, and yet I don't hear the click in Updike.

If David Foster Wallace hears clicks when he’s reading Don DeLillo, this to us is a revelation, and we want to read more Don DeLillo. If he reads Puig and hears a Geiger counter (who is this Puig, anyway?), perhaps so too will we. Gerard Manley Hopkins? Whoa! Or is there some other poet Hopkins out there? Maybe we should revisit the Victorians and see what’s been up with them lately. And we agree, we don’t hear any clicks reading Updike, either.

All right, so now we’ve stated our preferences. But here’s a question: what kind of approach is objectively better, the passing exclamation (remember, Wallace is talking to an interviewer, not writing an essay), or the long, priggish, miserly critique? The answer of course is neither; what’s preferable is what we get in Wallace’s longer essays, which we can’t quote from here because another hapless MFA has Lance’s copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and won’t give it back. In Wallace we get impassioned engagement, not smug distance; incisive analysis, not gleeful duck hunting; and appreciation that serves the reader, not antagonism that serves only himself.

Writers like Myers and Dale Peck, who base their antagonistic criticism in aesthetic conservatism (or in Peck’s case, “new materialism,” whatever that is), ironically appropriate (or just ape?) in their critical approach to literature the favorite tactics of leftist academicians such as everyone studying English at UC Irvine. Which is to say they take things out of context and evaluate them (most often and from the outset negatively) according to a theoretical framework or set of aesthetic preferences that often has little relevance (outside the “world” of the critic’s article) to the period, intellectual climate, or culture in which the work at hand was written. To grossly exaggerate, one might antagonistically criticize Paradise Lost as the worst haiku ever. Though the HMFA has no particular ax to grind against this kind of criticism, let us just say that it makes little sense to us outside the context of publish or perish in academia or I need to feed my kids something besides lima beans tonight in journalism.

What’s sad is that the end game of this type of criticism is a kind of arms race towards mutually assured destruction in which I am always trying to be more x, y, z than you. More aesthetically pure, more progressive, more conservative, moremoremore. It creates the literary equivalent of a rat-race news cycle.

You can see that by contrast, the HMFA is fairly bad as far as timeliness goes. For now, we’ll say, Read some David Foster Wallace essays. You can find the interview mentioned in this post at the following link:

And you can go out and read A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Happy clicking!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

I Got Me a Manifesto

In the May 2005 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, B.R. Myers resumed his assault on literature by, well, assaulting it, picking it apart, line by line.

Now, the Hapless MFA believes in the importance of making each line carry its own weight, especially in fiction. However, in Myers’s world, the lone sentence of a 300 page novel determines whether that novel fails or succeeds. By focusing on a line or two, Myers disregards as inconsequential little things like paragraphs, chapters, a main character or two, plot, and, hell, context.

But hey, this is Myers’s world, one in which his ideal reader, that person who demands precision, clarity, and, most of all, a lack of self-indulgence from the writer, would actually enjoy seeing the word “manifesto” in a sentence, or a book title, say.

But Myers is an original. In the May 2005 article, in addition to taking apart Jonathan Safran Foer’s current novel, Myers decided to also work over Foer’s first one from a few years back.

That is sort of original, actually.

Which leads us to Erik Kongshaug. Now, it takes a lot to make Erik angry. For as long as the HMFA has known him, we’ve never seen him lose his temper, except for that one time at an L.A. bar when someone asked, “Hey, did you see that new B.R. Myers article?”

After Erik read “A Reader’s Manifesto” back in 2001, he wrote a letter. The Atlantic liked it, but decided not to print it. The Atlantic's loss is the UMFA and our reader’s gain (we did not misplace the apostrophe).

You see, we could have asked Erik to respond to Myers’s latest article, to update the letter he wrote four years ago. But that would be too common. That would be like taking apart Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. No, we’re going after Everything is Illuminated because that’s more original.

Besides, Myer’s current argument is exactly the same as it was four years ago.

So with much thanks to Erik, we present his angry words to The Atlantic:

Pretending to Read

The subject of B.R. Myers’ “A Reader’s Manifesto” is narrative latitude, simply. Only Myers’ reaction to the subject is narrow. So narrow the author cannot name the thing feared and instead goes a whalin’ for a black-spined golden age that never was. A manufactured time when putative regular Joes were allowed to read at a safe distance from their own organs of judgment. I find such populist diction particularly offensive for the reactionary service it performs in this essay. The author’s—dare I name the real literary fish?—meaning is classist to the core. That Myers cannot see literary meaning in Delillo and Proulx, and speaks of them hap, hap happily in the same breath with the likes of Paul Auster shows just how much judgment B.R. Myers, the reader, has ceded to critics. That is a privilege the working reader cannot

Literature, on both the writing and reading side of the looking glass, is an inquiry. But Myers appears unable to see the question for the answers. A question taken seriously—like what would it really be like to live one’s life after killing someone—is the basis by which a working reader might classify the Delillo of Underworld as a literary author over a Stephen King and a David Guterson. Need we anyone to tell us these things? What have soundbytes of style to do with it, successful or not? Isolated examples from Melville and Faulkner—good and bad—could just have easily replaced the prose Myers cites from Proulx and Delillo. In the whole of her work, E. Annie Proulx mixes and stacks her metaphors not for the sake of the “‘brilliant prose’” that Myers has been told by critics to believe in, but for the sake of most fully asking the question of American violence. One wonders whether, as a reader in the throes of Proulx’s prose, Myers ever engaged the question of American violence at all. Or was the knowing future author of “A Reader’s Manifesto” content to defer a reaction pending reviews?

That’s not reading, that’s magazine reading.

Erik Kongshaug
San Pedro, Cal.
July 17, 2001

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

You know, we here at the Hapless MFA aren't always about the laughs. Sure we like to bring the funny when we can. But sometimes, we’re somber. Sometimes, we’re a little moody. Sometimes, the Orange County weather is too hot and dry, and we find ourselves sliding into the melancholia of a warm, bitter night from which erupt memories of failure and rejection.

As our guiding star, Stanley Elkin, once wrote, “Life's tallest order is to keep the feelings up, to make two dollars’ worth of euphoria go the distance. And life can't do that. So fiction does.”

Let us say this: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter will not cheer you up. In fact, it might make you cry. But what an awe-inspiring cry. The back cover hypes McCullers’s age at the time of publication (twenty-three). The front cover bears Oprah’s seal of approval. But between the pages, ah, the words.

Where to start. The elegant point of view shifts between chapters? The fact that McCullers uses the POV to essentially desegregate a segregated southern town? Or the fact that the first chapter, which introduces Singer and his soulmate, Antonapoulos, features no dialogue, but presents a relationship that is utterly palatable, clear, and moving? After the first few pages, you don’t even notice the missing words between them, so intense and vividly described are the frantic hand gestures with which these mutes communicate. Their hands, which shaped, “Holy Jesus,” or, “God,” also evoke the hands of similarly distraught and love-starved characters from Winesburg, Ohio, a book very much akin in sensibility.

The quiet lives of failure and dashed hopes McCullers presents without embellishment and adornment, with an utter lack of sentimentalism. McCullers’s prose stays the course in its hard and sharp-eyed presentation of facts. Take, for instance, a scene in which Bubber, a young boy driven by envy, by boredom, and by that destructive childish impulse, shoots the town darling…in the head:

“It all happened in a second. The three of them reached Baby at the same time. She lay crumpled down on the dirty sidewalk. Her skirt was over her head, showing her pink panties and her little white legs. Her hands were open—in one there was the prize from the candy and in the other the pocketbook.”
Again McCullers focuses on the image of the hands, of hands that reach for and grasp, hands that ultimately fail to maintain their holds on their objects of desire.

The HMFA is not ashamed to admit that we almost fell into fits of tears while reading the final pages of this book. What more can we say? If McCullers weren’t dead, we’d try to get an interview with her. Other than that, the book will have to do. And it very much does.

Why Don't You Write?

According to MFA lore, Raymond Carver was at a party in which another guest related an anecdote about a man who took all the furniture out of his house and arranged it on his front lawn. After hearing the account, Carver and his friends (including fellow Iowa instructor John Cheever) talked about writing stories based on that one premise. Carver, as far as I know, was the only one who ended up writing the story, which he eventually called, “Why Don’t You Dance?”

One night in my first year in the MFA program, Lance and I drove up to L.A. to attend a reading featuring Aimee Bender, Alice Sebold, and a few other writers. We ended up on the wrong side of L.A., a rather unforgivable crime given that I’d attended school and lived in L.A. for four years.

In any case, we missed the reading, but found Fatburger, and there, at two in the morning, I even saw the lights of the Goodyear Blimp, and it read, “Chieh Chieng’s a Pimp!”

Actually, there at two in the morning in Fatburger, Lance and I were probably drunk while throwing around ideas for stories we would write, when we eventually landed on this: What would happen if a 60 year-old post-menopausal woman got her period back?

Why this is a good idea for a story I do not now know. But it seemed mind-blowing at the time, and a week later we brought the idea to our workshop mate Julianne, who said, “I’ve got a better one. How about an old woman who starts lactating?” which prompted cheers and boastful challenges about who would pull off the story first ("Ho, ho! You shan't finish it before me!").

Lance and I didn't write the story, but Julianne did. It’s called “Milk,” and I saw it at the West Hollywood Book Fair a couple of weeks ago. I was on a panel there, and afterward, while browsing through the stands, I saw a book entitled Women on the Edge, featuring “Milk” and stories by other UCI acquaintances.

“Milk” is a great story, with or without my endorsement.

I left the book fair soon after my panel ended. I walked away from the booths, out from under the shade of their canopies, and into the light of this memory: A year or two after the post-menopausal woman became the lactating woman, after I left behind this idea and everything attached to it, a kind elderly woman approached me in a Target store and asked, "Do you know where the Kotex is?"

I was stunned. She must have been in her seventies, at least. A swirl of translucent white hair crowned her pale head. After a long pause, I said, "I'm sorry, I have no idea." Then I left. For the next few days, I was severely tempted, but I didn't write that story. I never will.