[17 December 2009]
A pivotal moment occurs late in the third act of Rudy Wurlitzer’s sardonic post-apocalyptic novel Quake, a morbid and surreal episode that unifies his third novel (after Nog in 1969 and Flats in 1971) with the balance of his work. The setting is Hollywood, California, in the late ‘60s. An 8.0 magnitude earthquake has brought Los Angeles and its skyscrapers to its knees and “the city has broken into little pathological groups… giving expression to what has always been latent within us.”
As Quake hurtles toward its redemptive climax, the nameless and faceless narrator, a man with no discernable past or future (a Wurlitzer trademark), is cowering in the darkness of a ruined Hollywood Boulevard restaurant after escaping from one of the armed and deadly militia bands that have sprung up from the ruins of the metropolis like wild poisonous mushrooms. The narrator observes:
A woman helped me. She was weaving down the middle of the street clutching a doorknob, wearing only a fireman’s hat and galoshes. She was middle-aged and plump and she was covered with blood. I could hear her laugh and talk to herself, the words running into themselves so it sounded as if she was talking in tongues. Slowly she executed a series of figure eights from one side of the street to the other. She stared at me, slapping her thighs and shouting unknown words and as I stepped further out into the street she turned faster and faster.
The late afternoon light was soft and diffuse through the heavy layers of smoke. I began my own turn further down the street, turning slowly at first but then going faster. We shouted and whirled and flung our arms over our heads and my fear receded and I was able to stop. After the dizziness had left me I looked towards her. She lay crumpled in a heap, her stubby legs bent underneath her, one arm twisted and grotesquely extended at a right angle. I knew she was dead. I lay on my back, staring at the sky. The sky was no help. There were steps coming at me from down the street.
The footsteps belong to a dozen or so men and women, weary and frazzled earthquake survivors, former suburbanites and Bel-Air mansion dwellers. They sit down around the narrator to rest and continue their heated discussion.
“If you don’t keep up, we’re going to leave you,” a man’s voice admonishes.
A woman answers, her own voice dripping with exhaustion and disgust: “Go ahead and leave me, Allen. You’ve been talking about it all day. That’s what you want to do anyway.”
“That’s not what I want to do,” Allen says angrily. “But you have to do your share. Jesus Christ, baby, you can’t just bitch about everything. This isn’t a camping trip. We’re in the middle of a goddamn disaster.”
“Go fuck yourself,” the woman mumbles. “You’re an asshole and doing a lousy job leading us anywhere. You don’t know where you’re going. You should let someone else try.”
“We’re trying to get out of the city,” Allen says. “Everything has been completely destroyed and people are killing each other in the streets and we’re in terrible danger.”
“I know people are killing each other in the streets,” the woman insists. “You don’t have to tell me that people are killing each other in the streets. My child was just clubbed to death by some lunatic in the middle of the street.”
“My child too,” Allen fires back. The woman then begins to scream and curse at her husband, calling him a lame dick and an emotional cripple. Allen warns her against “getting hysterical… freaking out.”
“You sound like a Boy Scout leader,” the woman yells. “Who says I shouldn’t freak out? Why not freak out? We might all have a better chance if we freaked out instead of creeping around trying to figure out some half-assed plan. It’s all over, don’t you understand that?”
Time and time again, over the last five decades that have played witness to the Vietnam war, Watergate, Ronald Reagan and the rise of the conservative party in America, the fall of Communism, the dot com bust, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the worst economic recession on record, Wurlitzer’s work as an exemplary novelist and screenwriter repeats in boldface type the message that John Updike delivered in Rabbit, Run:
“The world keeps ending but new people too stupid to know it keep showing up as if the fun just started.”
When independent upstart publisher Two Dollar Radio took on the task of re-issuing Wurlitzer’s long out-of-print first three novels this year, it presented the gatekeepers of literary academia with a unique gift – providing they were paying attention or have taken the time to unwrap the three-volume parcel of nihilistic, experimental American literature and recognize that herein lies a unique specimen any course on contemporary writing cannot afford to do without.
With all due respect, gatekeepers of academia, push aside Brautigan and Ginsberg and make room in the curriculum for Wurlitzer as an overlooked and undervalued voice of the counterculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s, wedged comfortably between the collected works of William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson.
Over the last 20 years I have explored Nog, Flats, and Quake as stand-alone reading experiences. But with the reissue of the three novels in chronological order it is impossible not to notice that the trio of works (written back to back and challenging the norms by which stories are frequently put on paper) are more than vaguely interconnected; a close reading of all three books reveals that the unreliable narrator of the tercet just might be the same person, bouncing like a human pinball from one corner of the North American continent to the next before coming to a full tilt rest at the Tropicana Motel in L.A. moments before the earth rips open and all manner of hell breaks loose.
(As an important aside, it should be mentioned that several literary critics have insinuated that all three novels are semi-autobiographical efforts taken from the author’s own wanderings both at home and abroad in his youth, an accusation that Wurlitzer has neither denied nor confirmed in my many conversations with him over the last 18 months; the nearest he came to asserting truth to allegation was when he bristled at my overstated reference to recreational drug use in my original PopMatters review of Nog, protesting irritably that he “wasn’t doing a lot of drugs back in those days.”
(“Rudy Wurlitzer, Bob Dylan, Bloody Sam, and the Jornado del Muerto”)
[Wurlitzer has every reason to be sensitive about the topic, however, as Jeremy Hatch points out in his insightful and useful review of Nog for The Quarterly Conversation (Jeremy Hatch, 7 December 2009), writing that the critical neglect of the novel over the years since its initial publication is “perhaps as simple as the fact that many contemporary reviewers pegged the novel as a record of a drug trip—based on no evidence other than sales copy—and that the most superficial reading of the book would likely focus on the vaguely hippie-like characters and their pastimes of popping pills and having casual sex.”]
Nog, Flats, and Quake are novels rich in invention and introduce the recurring narrative and stylistic tendencies in Wurlitzer’s canon: the myths of unspoiled frontiers and the freedom of the open road, lives played out on the margins of society (“the politics of displacement”, as Wurlitzer calls it), the dissolution of ego and the illusion of self, attachment and detachment, wrestling matches with the ghosts of Samuel Beckett and Louis L’Amour, and the author’s stubborn but refreshing resistance to “narrative authority” and “the false deliverance and redemption… of recreational enjoyments and dramas” (Wurlitzer, “This Long Century”, 2009).
Let’s examine Wurlitzer’s connection with iconic western novelist Louis L’Amour a little closer, conscripting the author’s own words from a 1970 essay titled “Riding Through”:
Somewhere in the early seventies I wrote a piece for an obscure literary magazine. The title was: The First Two Pages of Louis L’Amour. I was enamored with Louis L’Amour’s first two pages, which were almost always about a man riding through the vast phenomena of open Western space. A rider, riding, without intention, into emptiness, with no beginning, no end or assigned direction. Off the map. East equal to West or South or North, the rising sun usually behind, the setting sun in front, leaving civilization behind, riding always within the mysterious rhythms of unannounced form and emptiness. The open range, silent and spacious, the rider never having a particular name or identity or defined boundaries, inside or outside. So it was just riding, always riding. But then, inevitably, after these introductions, Louis L’Amour, needing to hook the reader, would set the trap of ‘self’, the rider finding himself inside the entertaining and seductive prisons of plot, character and story, to what James Bugental calls the ‘self-and-world construct system.’ And so inevitably the reader would be squeezed and manipulated into a grid of good and evil Judeo-Christian myths that so mark the Legends of the Old West.
The origins of Wurlitzer’s “Riding Through” essay are muddy and unclear – thousands of small indie press publications flourished in the ‘70s in America, actively seeking out musings and scribblings from underground writers like Charles Bukowski, Gregory Corso, and Michael McClure – but the mandate is loud and clear: The tradition of linear narrative is a decaying, irrelevant corpse whose habitual use and overuse results in stagnation instead of illumination. Or, as Thomas Pynchon wrote in his oft-repeated praise for Nog: “The novel of bullshit is dead.”
Photo (partial) found on Images of Route 66 by Jackie & Mike Smith
Death in the West
Between novels and screenplays for such cult films as Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Voyager, Rudy Wurlitzer has built a body of work around the precept of “deliberate strategies bent on demolishing prescribed conventions of story telling, conventions which, for the most part, assume that omniscient narratives are more comfortably accessible and authentic if arranged in linear progressions, insisting on a beginning, middle, and satisfying conclusion, instead of a spontaneous process or non-process.” (“This Long Century”)
In Wurlitzer’s syncopations we get everything Jack Kerouac told us he represented as a free-form stylist yet failed to deliver upon in the long analysis. Wurlitzer, for instance, describes his writing (particularly with reference to Nog) as “a journey that consists of circular or cyclical chords that much like a manic jazz improviser exist furiously and exuberantly inside the present moment, establishing in their flow invented rhythms and unexplained shadows, illuminations that exist only to revolve endlessly around themselves.”
Not only is Wurlitzer’s work a total refutation of traditional forms but, in many regards, it is a refutation of modern life as we conceive it. When I was studying Eastern religions as a teen in the ‘70s, one particular Hindu phrase struck me and stays with me to this day: “All is maya”… all is illusion. This is the lens through which Nog, Flats, and Quake must be viewed.
“I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would directly sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation,” Albert Einstein wrote. “I cannot do this in spite of the fact that mechanistic causality has, to a certain extent, been placed in doubt by modern science. My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality.” (The Human Side, Princeton University Press, May 1981)
In Wurlitzer’s fictional universe, a personal God does not exist and human understanding of existence is transitory, at best. Forget the collective whole, Wurlitzer seems to say, that’s a human construct like a personal God, a joke, only the individual spirit matters but how can the individual peacefully co-exist in societies structured around the biological and moral imperatives of the human being as a social animal?
Quake is centered entirely on the paradox raised in the preceding paragraph. The nameless narrator has no back story whatsoever, no family to account for, no friends or even acquaintances except for those brief encounters he has during a post-quake death march at the hands of a feral citizen militia. (“For all I know,” one of the unlucky survivors quips, “these people are the Knights of Columbus or a bowling league.”)
“People get confused and hysterical when confronted with such a calamity,” says Orville, one of the redneck militia gunmen in Quake. “It’s hard for them to know who to trust, who’s looking after them and who isn’t. They need a firm hand to guide them until everything calms down. We all have to start from the beginning now and discover who we are and what we’re made of.”
Orville’s mission statement flies in the face of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny that settled the western frontier and the every-man-for-himself conservatism and rugged individualism that marked the rousing western tales of Louis L’Amour and countless other myth makers about the American Dream and the promise of the west.
If humans are intrinsically interdependent upon one another, as Orville and others in Quake suggest, then the individual truly has no role in modern society and perhaps never has except in lip service and in brief outlaw glimpses in the arts whenever someone steps forward and boldly opts to draw outside the lines of the coloring book.
In Quake, the west as both a concept and a physical place is dead.
Human beings, in Wurlitzer’s world, are more than Pavlovian in this grotesque landscape that even Nathanael West would recoil at; the conditioned responses of many of his characters make them seem more like petulant children and less like the responsible adults they proclaim themselves to be.
“Well, I’m hungry,” an overfed quake refugee complains while being held captive by the militia and kept away from storehouses of food in abandoned grocery stores and restaurants. “I don’t remember the last time I ate. I don’t remember anything. I can barely remember what kind of job I had, who my wife was, what sports my kid played, where the fuck I even used to live. You’re goddamn right I’m hungry. They should throw us something. That’s what this country is all about, putting stuff into you. They deny you that and you know the worst has happened.”
Quake is, and remains, one of the greatest novels ever composed about Los Angeles and death in the west.
Photo (partial) found on Solar Navigator.net
In the Middle of Nowhere
The commercial accessibility of Quake is counter-balanced by the second book in the series, Flats (released simultaneously with Quake by Two Dollar Radio), a solipsistic narrative where most of the action occurs in an interior landscape.
Flats takes the concept of interior monologue and stands it on its head, empties out its pockets, and slaps it around a few times. In Quake Wurlitzer challenges the west of L’Amour and with Flats he is laying down the gauntlet for existentialist Samuel Beckett (if only Beckett were alive to accept the challenge).
Essentially an extension of tone and themes introduced in Nog, Flats is also a post-apocalyptic novel, though the conflagration to humanity is merely hinted at and never described in detail, an unnerving plot device that would be employed more than 30 years later by Cormac McCarthy in his award-winning novel The Road. What does it matter to the survivors, after all, if the holocaust was man-made or natural? What’s done is done and all that is left now is to survive or, in the case of the protagonist in Flats, to die.
In the bleak landscape of Flats, “effect has since been separated by cause” and the narrator spends the length of the tale – unfolding with no chapter breaks and shotgun blasts of one paragraph stretches – in an animalistic attempt to “surrender the illusion of control”. There are a multitude of characters, all named after once-prominent cities like Halifax, Wichita, Memphis, Flagstaff, Houston, and Tacoma.
It should not take an astute reader an inordinate amount of time to figure out that what one is witnessing in Wurlitzer’s fractured (and at times maddening) narrative is the complete and total dissolution of one man’s “self” and his various personalities as he lay dying in a boxed-in, claustrophobic landscape, with a strange blue light constantly blinking in the dark sky overhead.
Structural arrangements of time and place are absent from Flats, the author relying instead on “a rush of elliptical passages arriving nowhere in particular, but still arriving somewhere, anywhere, even if that somewhere is nowhere.”
Of course, as any French literary theorist worth his weight in Barthes research papers will tell you, just because an author has stated intent or symbolism does not by any means foreclose the text, or cut off other possible meanings and interpretations; art, in other words, cannot be overanalyzed because it is a subjective experience and with a novel like Flats, every reader’s mileage may vary. Some readers may find the entire exercise pointless and self-indulgent, others may feel compelled to ponder the meaning of the blue light hovering in the sky (an echo of Gatsby’s light at the end of the pier?) or attempt to distill meaning from the place names of the characters or what the hell that damn Dixie cup is all about. Knock yourself out. It’s all good.
Whether it took an astonishing amount of naiveté or just plain guts to re-issue Flats to a modern reading public is a question that only Eric Obenauf at Two Dollar Radio can answer but on the face of it one thing is as certain as that blue light in the sky: Most contemporary readers, whose attention span is sorely compromised by the instructions on the back of a shampoo bottle, would be left stumped and frustrated by Flats.
With the myriad of general challenges facing publishers today – including the rapid digitization of text, the death spiral of the independent bookstore, and a collective attention span that is rapidly reducing as you read this – no publishing house in their right mind would touch Flats with a ten foot pole, even if an agent attached a contract for one James Patterson novel in exchange as bait.
In a keynote address on the future of book publishing at the 2009 Guadalajara Book Fair in Mexico, Steve Wasserman, a former Los Angeles Times book editor, indicated that the most troubling crisis facing the industry today is “the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.”
In the November 2009 issue of Harper’s, Richard Rodriguez, an editor at New American Media in San Francisco, writes in “Final Edition: Twilight of the American Newspaper”:
“We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses (Moby Dick is ‘not a really good piece of fiction’ – Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill. – two stars out of five).”
Indeed, it is frightening to think that a novel like Flats, certainly deemed worth publishing by Random House in 1969, would be tossed onto the slush pile with a dismissive grunt and guffaw by a modern-day editor for the same publishing house.
But consider an ‘influential’ element among modern-day the readership. While preparing this month’s column, I had C-Span on the TV in the background as white noise to accompany my work. The United States Senate was debating President Barack Obama’s proposed overhaul of the health care system. I looked up from my work as a senior senator from North Dakota was addressing his colleagues, recalling a recent Town Hall meeting he had with constituents a few weeks prior.
One constituent, the Senator from North Dakota explained, took the mike and groused to his representative about “government this and government that”, a virulent anti-government rant. At a reception after the meeting, a woman approached the Senator and apologized for the man’s behavior, explaining that he had recently undergone open heart surgery and was, well, a bit cranky.
The Senator sidled up to the man at the reception and said, “I understand you had heart surgery.”
“Yep,” the angry constituent said.
“Did Medicare pay for that?” the Senator asked.
“Yes,” was the man’s terse, suspicious reply.
“Well, then,” the Senator smiled broadly and clapped the man on the back, “I guess that’s something good we can say for the government.”
“Medicare isn’t the government,” the constituent responded sharply.
As Bob Dylan sang in “Idiot Wind” from the Blood on the Tracks LP (1974): We’re idiots, babe/ It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.
Down the Comic Book Trail with Bob Dylan
In the July 2009 installment of the Deconstruction Zone (“Rudy Wurlitzer, Bob Dylan, Bloody Sam, and the Jornado del Muerto”) we explored the intersection between the careers of Wurlitzer and shape-shifting songwriter and performer Bob Dylan in the early ‘70s via Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Wurlitzer penned the screenplay and Dylan appeared in the film as the enigmatic character of Alias).
It was with amusing synchronicity then that the reissue of Wurlitzer’s Flats and Quake should end up on our desk for review in the same month that Bob Dylan Revisited dropped into our lap for consideration.
Presented by publisher W.W. Norton and Company as “a standing testament to the universality and transcendent vision of Dylan’s American music”, Bob Dylan Revisited: 13 Graphic Interpretations of Bob Dylan’s Songs, is nothing more and nothing less than reinterpretations of the lyrics of 13 classic Dylan tunes by leading contemporary graphic artists, many of them French. Unfortunately, attempting to appreciate the work on display in Bob Dylan Revisited is like visiting an art gallery without a guide or trying to understand Dylan’s own baffling persona without a fleet of psychiatrists at your side.
“No one knows Bob Dylan,” Rudy Wurlitzer told me earlier this year, “absolutely no one.” A very apropos comment from Wurlitzer, considering that we just spent the last 3,000 words briefly exploring the implosion of self and self-identity, a topic that no meaningful analysis of Dylan’s life and career could possibly hope to avoid.
“Americans are spoiled,” Dylan declared to an interviewer in the late ‘70s, “they expect art to be like wallpaper with no effort, just to be there.” (Speaking at a press tour for Renaldo and Clara, 1976.)
Oddly enough, Dylan’s sentiment employs the precise verbiage this writer would use to describe Bob Dylan Revisited, a work sanctioned and approved by the artist himself and Sony Music. There are some outstanding artists onboard such as Dave McKean of Sandman fame in an epic, operatic interpretation of Dylan’s Desolation Road, and Gradimir Smudja’s sepia-toned, semi-documentary approach to Dylan’s ballad Hurricane is certainly memorable, but, as the man said, writing about art is like dancing to architecture and to compound matters there is no there there in Bob Dylan Revisited.
Bob Dylan Revisited just lays on the page like yesterday’s dead fish wrapped in the Sunday Funnies; there are absolutely no artist bios in the book and no creative or mission statements from the 13 artists. It is well-known that the gifted Dylan is a difficult and controlling public persona, so one cannot help but wonder if his endorsement came at the cost of overshadowing the artists involved in the creation of the book, keeping the focus entirely centered on the man and his lyrics.
As much as I admire Dylan – his music forms a virtual soundtrack to my life – this promising book reeks of a vanity project that seeks to downplay the artistic contributions of others while further promoting an artist who needs no further promotion and who most certainly did not arrive at his mythical status all by his lonesome. (Interestingly, Norton credits Bob Dylan as the author of the book.)
“They’ll rebuild all of this and we won’t remember it happened,” a refugee says in Wurlitzer’s Quake. “That’s the way of this country. Thank God, my dear, that we can’t remember who we are, what we come from.”