Sunday, October 29, 2006

One Book Meme

Stolen from Chekov’s mistress who got it from James Marcus. Oscar Wilde said that talent borrows but genius steals. I don’t know about feeling like a genius but I do know a thing or two about feeling like a thief. So here are my answers:

1. One book that changed your life?

I think the best books change your life in ways that maybe you cannot recognise, but others recognise in you and think that it's just growth. With that as a yardstick, X-men becomes as important as The Color Purple. But if I had to pick only one book it would be James Joyce’s Dubliners. The irony is that I’m such a prude that I didn’t realize what was happening in “The Encounter” until I was 31 years old! The very first thing I ever wrote was a story-by-story response to Dubliners. The Sisters became Disintegration (yep also based on The Cure), A Painful Case became Wallpaper Faces and Two Gallants became Two Gentlemen United for Northside. All awful, trust me. But after that I realized that I was never going to whup this writing thingy. Mind you it would be another seven years before I wrote something else.

2. One book that you have read more than once?

My Name is Red, by Orham Pamuk. Possibly the only book influenced by One Hundred Years of Solitude to pose a serious threat to that book’s much deified place in fiction. Yes it is that good, and yes I knew he was going to win the Nobel this year. Joining Red in lit syndication however are Pride and Prejudice, Song of Solomon, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Lolita.

3. One book you would want on a desert island?

A desert island would probably be the perfect place to get into a writer I feel I should know intimately but don’t have a clue about. That would be Philip Roth. So hopefully I would crash land with the new library of congress editions of his books. Given his rep for misanthropy and my future without company, maybe we would be a perfect match

4. One book that made you cry?

Richard Powers's The Time of Our Singing. Call it the anti-Corrections. You root so much for this way-before-their-time interracial family that when they ultimately, inevitably fail, you feel all humanity failed with it. I haven’t been so upset over fictional characters since Bill Sykes scared me for seven years.

5. One book that made you laugh?

Shame, by Salman Rushdie. I didn’t even think I was allowed to laugh with serious literature until this book.

6. One book you wish had been written?
I can't stand memoirs but I would have given anything if one of the four: Mary Shelley, Percy Bycce, Lord Byron and that other woman who I keep forgetting, had written a memoir of that summer they all spent together.

7. One book you wish had never been written?

I could do without Nicholas Sparks and Mitch Alborn, but maybe more Oklahoma kids wouldn't be missing their parents and vice versa had their been no Turner Diaries.

8. One book you are reading currently?

Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer and Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot.

9. One book you have been meaning to read?

Oh lord where do I start? Maybe I should just say Ulysses and be done with it. And horrifying as it is to believe, I still haven’t read The Great Gatsby.

10. Pass it on

Saturday, October 28, 2006

On Mediocrity

Even though I’m dead set on becoming one, I have a huge problem with expatriates. Bad times are good times for somebody and as some Jamaicans go through the worst of times, expatriates seem to be coming here by the plane load, taking jobs, many of which Jamaicans are qualified or can be trained to do. I see them at Heathers, Peppers, Red Bones and sometimes I can’t shake this feeling that we are entering a new era of Massas disguised as marketing managers, efficiency experts, HR managers and police commissioners. I can’t shake this feeling even as I scour the online career website looking for a way to put this creative writing MA to good use. I was ambivalent about my ill will to expatriates for a long time until I realized that it wasn’t them I was pissed off with. It was Jamaicans. We are the people of the plateau—we work as much as is necessary to reach a flat, safe place. Then we stay there for thirty years.

Is there anything so ludicrous as the Long service award? It’s to reward someone for not making anything of their lives, for hedging their bets, for playing it safe, for setting their brain on dim for thirty years. For being mediocre. And not just in work but in education, politics, philosophy, music, and life. It's not that expatriates take jobs that Jamaicans can’t do—its that they take jobs we don’t feel we have a right to.

The Jamaican still feels he has no right to success, to excellence, to ever use any word in the superlative. You hear it in how we greet you.

“Whaappen star?”
“Looking at you, the better one.”

“How are you?”
“Hanging in there.”

I think we are taught this. The second we reach that career choice age in high school the first thing taught is to hedge our bets. To pick those fall-back subjects just in case. To this day I can’t remember putting my fall-back subject to good use and I wasn’t always a writer. More than that, we take the hedge your bets philosophy through life. Here is the problem with this. If in life, career or even love you always consider the alternative or the cop out strategy, you’ll never lock on to the drive, intelligence, the cojones to be a true success. If you never reach the point where the only way forward is through, where this is it and nothing else, you’ll never achieve, it. Whatever it is. Sean Paul succeeded where others did not because there was no other choice. There was no waste management career if the music thing didn’t turn out. Those who think he had lucky breaks are not only unaware of the real story but also fall prey to that sin of the mediocre: bitchiness about others’ success.

As long as you work with a net, you will never fall, but you will never fly either. The security blanket that is supposed to be a cushion for achievement does the opposite, it sucks achievement back down to the midrange. Shockingly most Jamaicans or rather most of the Jamaicans I’ve met seem fine with this.

A friend of mine told me recently that she had a huge fear of flying. I told her to become best friends with Valium, but also to take the longest flight she could book, over sea if possible where there was no chance of a stop until the final destination. The last time she flew, the knowledge that there was a stop in Montego Bay, amplified her fear instead of reduced it. Yes it’s the swim in the deep end philosophy and some will drown that way, but so many more would soar. I think. I hope.

This wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t such a national malaise. We read putrid crap like The Five People You Meet in Heaven, a book so sickly sweet that I got tested for diabetes. We watch Martin Lawrence movies, listen to Andrea Bocelli records when we want to feel cultured, along new age music and lots of lite jazz. For a particularly deep night we reach for The Road Less Traveled or The Alchemist. When asked about this most of the people I know will reply that they just want something light, some form of escape, something they don’t have to think about. Can there be anything more tragic than to believe that you could never enjoy a thought? That learning cannot be fun? That to be challenged in any way is to be subject to something just slightly worse than constipation? Believe it or not Camille Paglia can be a riot. You might shed more tears over Anna Karenina than you did over Titanic. Peter Gabriel is more rewarding than Sting. Tar Baby is a sexier read than Waiting to Exhale. I’ve been told too often that I’m too deep and you don’t have to over analyze everything or reach for the toughest most puzzling book or movie. There is this belief even among some of my closest friends that I cannot possibly be having any fun. And here I thought puzzles were fun. Here I thought that I was laughing like an idiot because As You like it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, not because Shakespeare was costing me some brain cells.

It doesn’t surprise me that people with a mediocre appreciation for art have a midlevel appreciation for life as well. Many will say that they are just being realistic and there is some truth to that. But more often than not they are just being pessimistic, as if a dim view of the world is a correct one. And while thinking the world is set against you is pessimistic, getting one CXC pass and biding time as a secretary for four years is just plain lazy. I take issue with this realism. It's as groundless as any other fantasy. But convenient. And aye, there’s the rub. There is a safety in mediocrity that’s four hundred years wide. An irresistible safety. The problem with risking failure is, well you fail, don’t you? But most of us do not fail. But maybe we should, because those who have already know that failure is just another speed bump to success.

I have friends who are writers, artists, dancers, musicians, politicians and photographers. A few will make it, some of them spectacularly. None of them will fail, but several will never achieve anything remotely close to greatness. It’s not a matter of talent or intelligence though those are crucial. But there are many mezzo-sopranos out there taking dictation. Many possible Oliviers biding time as bank clerks. Weekend virtuosos all of whom think a second job, a moneymaker is a sign of good sense, not cowardice. Maybe they are right. I’ve claimed to have a lot of things but good sense was never one of them. I just never thought that there was something in this world that should be out of reach.

Maybe this is one of those slavery shackles we’re still trying to pry loose. Or maybe we are just imitating our leaders. There was nothing particularly remarkable about PJ Patterson, but he was prepared to do the one thing at which mediocre people excel. He was prepared to wait.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The One Album Mojo

You know, CD's aren’t cheap. No matter what currency you’re paying in they are almost never worth the money. This is why the Ipod generation is among us and I am proudly among their number. The Rolling Stones albums I’ve made for my Ipod way outclasses anything they’ve ever released, ditto for Bob Marley, Eurythmics and even (gasp) Rod Stewart.

Pitchfork, the only website I check daily did something last week that I didn’t think possible, a positive review that might do more damage to a band’s career than all negative reviews put together. Near the end of their review for Clinic’s new album the writer delivered this nasty piece of viciousness: “Clinic are threatening to become the sort of rock band of which you only really need to own one album.”

I haven’t been so struck by something said by a rock critic since somebody I forgot mentioned that Prince is giving us albums we might need but do not want. (Hold on, it was Prince who said that).

But the statement had me looking at my CD collection and Ipod like never before. Even now, years since I’ve written a music review, my shelves are littered with pop detritus, records that I barely listened to once and certainly never will again from artists that I expected more from. Artists of which you really only need one album. I was about to have a requiem and needed more than black calvins to carry it out. I began to scan for artists that have failed me time and again with crappy records. I rifled through bands like The Doors, where the definitive album was a greatest hits. I realized nothing of the Eagles was worth saving but much of Fleetwood Mac was. On the other hand I realized that repetition was not necessarily the enemy. The Ramones and ACDC’s albums were all as interchangeable as they were essential. So who made my list?

Red Hot Chili Peppers
Yeah, whatever, spare me the Under the Bridge nonsense. If you were a true Peppers fan, your masterpiece was Mother’s Milk and your life would have changed the first time you figured out the chorus to Knock Me Down. You also (admit it) never listened to Hendrix until you heard Chili Pepper’s version of Fire. But alas, if the trajectory of the artist is INNOVATE, RECREATE, MASTURBATE, then the Chili’s have been wanking off since the One Hot Minute Album. I knew something was horribly wrong when the only thing I like about their new album was the artwork. Not sure whether to be the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac, the Chilies have settled on being Three Dog Night.

Keeper: Mother’s Milk, not Blood Sugar Sex Magik, you sellouts.

Wasn’t Load the most aptly named record ever? Metallica blew it when they turn against their own fans with the Napster debacle but maybe those fans were just stupid enough to believe that a band of millionaires could ever gave a damn about the “little guy.” Metallica’s fall to crap has been so catastrophic that they took once thought great albums with them, leaving only: Master of Puppets.

Badly Drawn Boy
The tantalizing thing about Damon Gough when he first appeared was that of all the Beck Clones, he was the only one who posed a serious threat to his dominance. But sometimes, and this is nobody’s fault, all that a writer needs to say he says the first time out. BDB’s new album proves he is clearly bored with himself and has no problem boring us too, but more than that we are witnessing what happens when talent leaves the talented. In its place come vindictiveness (him dissing James Blunt of all people), defensiveness and the stupidest miscalculation of Bruce Springsteen since the Killers. Like that unfortunate band he mistakes simplicity for silence, confession for revelation and regular characters for boring ones.
Keeper: Hour of Bewilderbeest

All Debuts Rappers from 1991 (and Wutang too)
1991 was the end of hip-hop golden age, but what is not being said is that it was the rappers of 1991 that killed it. More than any other genre hip-hop has been the music of the one album, and even those with long careers simply figured out how to give product a longer shelf life, not how to grow as an artist. None of these bands made better albums that their debuts, so debuts we shall stick with:
Brand Nubian: One for All
Cypress Hill: Cypress Hill
Main Source: Breaking Atoms
Black Sheep: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
WuTang Clan: Enter the Wutang-36 Chambers (not 1991, but still)

Morgan Heritage
I’m sick of people lionizing this band for what they are not instead of paying attention to what they are. And that is nothing much. In Reggae's era of diminished expectations it takes nothing to be a roots reggae star. There are a few requirements of course, mastery of the one drop, a song for Selassie, one for mama, and one for you to eat your greens people. We Jamaicans love the safety of mediocrity and have been living in that shadow for so long we don’t even remember what excellence sounds like. This one is easy. Just go over to the CD rack, close your eyes and grab one. Anyone will do.

In all my life, there has only been one rock and roll record that has caused every single person I have ever ran into from reggae deejays, to gunmen, to writers, to intellectuals to stop and ask, “who is that?” The magic of Gomez’s Liquid Skin was that you could easily make it your own masterpiece no matter who, what and where you were. The band didn’t rock so much as roll, an indefinable sound that seemed equal parts magic, rock action and the best weed in the UK. The record sounded like it took a major effort to make and by the end of it the band was spent. Now five albums later, Gomez still haven’t found back their mojo. It sucks when a major band goes to the toilet and stays there, but worse trying to sell their record on E-bay where even online one can smell the stink.
Keeper: Liquid Skin.

The rest because it’s getting late and you’re probably tired of reading:
Burning Spear: Marcus Garvey
Eric B & Rakim: Follow the Leader
Yellowman: Zuguzunzugguzunguzeng
Seal: First Album
Sting: Nothing Like the Sun (Russians and Moon Over Bourbon street are profound, if you still write your poems in a trapper keeper)
Queen Latifah: All Hail the Queen
Cream: Gold
Kiss: Gold (in fact most albums in the Gold series trump the original records from the artists)
Stevie Nicks: Belladonna
White Stripes: White Blood Cells
Placebo: Once More with Feeling
Slayer: Reign in Blood
Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral
Eminem: The Marshal Mathers LP
Janet Jackson: Control
Moby: Play

Rest assured, this list will be updated.

The Greatest Love of All, or, Reconsidering Jean Rhys

Perhaps Jean Rhys is right after all. Perhaps the best way for a writer to deal with something, or to get past something or merely to understand it is to write it down. Or perhaps that is to write it out. Or more than that, to write it off. Maybe this explains the memoir craze. Or the blog. I don't know. So I'm watching this remarkable play, After Mr. Rochester about Jean Rhys's remarkably screwed up life and I still envy her a little for at least having lived it.

The sad and amazing thing about Rhys was that all along she was only looking for a way to love herself. Self love is such a vast, infinite thing that you can only come by it simply, for once you over-analyse self love or try to comes to terms with it; once you think about it too much, you can never achieve it. The mistake Rhys made was to fail to see how vast and how simple self love was so she looked for substitutes in the only form of love she recognised, a father figure. Talk about Electra complex. Rhys surrounded herself with big daddies, I guess because she was looking for a big love, something that no other person could give her. I think this is why she exhausted all of her lovers. I also think this is why Michael Jackson never feels loved until 100,000 fans scream his name. Maybe God can provide this love since he is vast and infinite too, but he can also seem judgmental and distant to some, friend and enemy. If as the line goes in South Pacific, that we are carefully taught to hate and fear maybe we can unlearn them too. Maybe we can unlearn self loathing. Must every great artist have a self hating streak? Didn't Jean Rhys transfer hers to writing and Naipaul to everybody just like him? Is happiness a false goal for an artist? What's so meaningful about pain anyway? Just a thought.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

My Proust Questionaire, Damnit

I love Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire even more than I do Esquire's "What I Learned" column. But look, I'm never going to be famous enough to ever merit a page in Vanity fair and even if that miracle happens, it will take years and I don't have time to wait. So here are my Proust answers, because unlike 99 percent of the people Vanity Fair usually asks, I've actually read Proust.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Pesto on everything

What is you greatest fear?
That Jamaica will get neither better nor worse, just stay the same as it always has. Wait a minute....

Which living person do you most admire?
Patti Smith

What is the most overrated virtue?
Restraint, especially when it comes to sex scenes in literature.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

What is your greatest extravagance?
Rare Books, Pesto and Jeans I can't afford

What is your Favourite journey?
On my way to a newly discovered used books store

On what occasion do you lie?
When dear friends ask if their babies are pretty

Which living person do you most despise
Fundamentalists who are still alive, though the dead ones aren't much better

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
"Actually," "Don't let that stop you," (as in "Buy me lunch." "I don't want to." "Don't let that stop you.") and saying "sigh" and "argh" instead of actually sighing or arghing

What is your greatest regret?
That I didn't write down what my Grandparents told me.

When and where were you happiest?
College, 1990 although touring Sept-Dec 2005 comes very close

What is your current state of mind?

If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be?
Did I really have to get saddled with knock-knees, God?

What is your greatest achievement?
That I've made it this far without killing a fundamentalist

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing what do you think it would be?
Anything but a chihuahua

What is your most treasured possession?
Possession is counter revolutionary

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery

Where would you like to live?
Paris, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Kinshasa and the Jamaica that Chris Blackwell lives in

What is your favourite occupation?
I'm quite taken with this writing thing actually. I think I'll give it a few go's before I quit.

What is your most marked characteristic?
A harmless cynicism, an evil scientist laugh and a knock-kneed penguin walk

What is the quality you like most in a man?
Intelligent, funny, and not in the least bit bothered that a man would answer a question like this.

What is the quality you like most in a woman?
Intelligent, funny, and asking me these questions long before I decided to write these answers.

Who are your favourite writers?
Orham Pamuk, Jose Donoso, Jane Austen, Los Bros Hernandez

Who is your favourite hero of fiction?
Have no idea, but I do know that Bill Sykes still gives me nightmares. That was not an exaggeration by the way.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Patti Smith, Doctors without borders, that guy who stood in the way of the tanks during the Tiannmen square massacre. Don't worry, last time I checked I was one of two or three Jamaicans that China doesn't own yet.

What is it that you most dislike?
Fundamentalism, Christians who say they don't have a PhD but they have a G O D

How would you like to die?
In way that I don't even know that I'm dead

What is your motto?
There's always a way.

Now do one yourself. Special prize to any that I can rip off for material in my next book!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Rock the Cheeze Wiz

So I just finished my Ipod 80's hair metal mix (You give love a baaaad name! Rock You Like a Hurricane and my personal fave, Tuuuurrrrrbooooo Loverrrrrrrrrr!) and this mix had me waxing nostalgic all day. You know what I really miss? 80's Alternative. Not great alternative like the Pixies, Sonic Youth or Echo and the Bunnymen, those bands never really went away, but alternative trash. Cheesy alternative. Mediocre alternative. Even bad alternative. Alternative that had few fans, mostly because the pop audience was smart enough to buy Prince and the Bangles instead.

I miss them like how Jack the Ripper misses disection class. In my mind came a quick roll call: Romeo Void, Generation X, Revolting Cocks, Sigue Sigue Sputnik (!!!!!), Bow Wow Wow, Missing Persons, Housemartins, Romantics, Mission UK, Dead or Alive, The Busboys, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Dexy's Midnight Runners, After the Fire, Falco, Taco, M, "Just Can't Get Enough" era Depeche Mode, Madness, Whoever sung the title song for the TV show Square Pegs, Spandau Ballet, Skinny Puppy, Nitzer Ebb, Frontline 242, Cabaret Voltaire (actually they turned out to be genuises all along), 23 Skiddoo, Magazine, Toni Childs, Grace Pool, Celibate Rifles, The Glove, The Cramps,
Einst├╝rzende Neubauten and others that my subconscious chose to keep for himself.

There are a million others of course, but right now I'm too busy, hitting up my Limewire, pleading with it to let off some more underground 80's cheese, so layta for you.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

That 70's Show

I wish I was an adult in the 70's. Terrorism had sexy names like Baader Meinhoff Gang, the cocaine was wonderful and the sex came without such baggage as, well death. Radicalism was cool and revolution was as much ideology as it was pose and all the better for it.

The trouble is, I was an adult in the 70's. In Jamaica at the very least back then, there was no such thing as childhood. The cocoon of childhood, that delicious naivete that's essential for children to remain children was obliterated at about age 6 or 7, about the first time I saw a dead body or heard about politics. Because to live in the third world is to be defined by politics whether one likes it or not. Politics infiltrated everything, religion, society, culture, sex so much so that at times every decision one made was essentially political. Every action reverberated with political consequence. Before my ninth birthday I knew IMF was screwing up the economy, socialism was just an appetiser for the communist meal, gunmen would kill you for sporting the wrong colours and Reggae was the music of nasty people. I knew the Prime Minister by his biblical, demi-god nickname (Joshua, of course) and I knew why so many Jamaicans including my Dad clutched his Walter Rodney and his Eldridge Cleaver books.

In the 70's it wasn't just the children who were naive. Grown men and women living in a country barely over slavery had already begun to believe that capitalism had run its course, ignoring of course that Marx would have been horrified that such underdeveloped countries were trying on communism for size. The 70's were a decade of mistakes paid for in debt and death. A time when not even Bob Marley was safe from gun violence. It was the decade when the CIA may or may not have tried to destabilise the economy. It was the decade when my father would throw a block party just because he got his hands on corned beef.

Still I wish I was in my 20's or 30's in the 70's if for no other reason that it seems that that was the last time where anybody thought there was possibility. Maybe not in Jamaica but certainly elsewhere. Or maybe I'm still being naive. Or maybe I'm being a lot more superficial that I care to admit. After watching Munich the thing that stuck with me the most was how cool the clothes were. I'm not sure that what I'm saying has anything to do with the 70's or any or decade so much as I'm trying to say how disconnected I am from this one. Sometimes I wish for a massive global conflict just so the 21st century would start. I still feel that we're sifting through feedback from the 20th century instead of making up new explosions in the 21st. I'm impatient for 21st century lit, art, music, dance, sex, love, whatever, but feel that post modernism, that lazy act of reaction has rendered any ability to innovate dead.

Post modernism was the first movement with no creation whatsoever because it was more concerned with responding to what have been created before. As a man who came of age in this postmodern era I wonder if my generation will create anything. Even grunge was more reaction than creation, and response more than an idea. Even Pulp fiction was a response to film more than a film itself.

I wonder what the next punk rock will be. I wonder where the next Sartre is coming from. I wonder if we are capable of creating new myths and if my generation will be remembered for anything other than irony. I am intoxicated by all the good memories of the 70's despite knowing just how bad the bad was. I would like to matter to somebody and make a difference without thinking about it too much. I would like to write books that engage my generation and quite frankly it would be nice if my generation read more. I'd love a 70's in Germany or a 20's in Paris or a sixties in California or even a 50's in Cuba. I'm just anxious for the 21st century to start. Or maybe it is I who need to start something.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

My New Book

It took me a long time to accept that maybe I'm writing books that nobody wants. But knowing this and knowing the song and dance that I will face with agents again I do find myself wondering why I do what I do. Not writing mind you, I don't think I could stop if I tried, but publishing or at least, getting the publishing industry to notice. Only one publisher cared about my first book and getting nominated for a couple awards and selling out a couple printings and getting good reviews still resulted in zero, yep, nada offers for paperback rights. I'm not as pissed of by industry indifference as I once was—as I said I've accepted that I write books that they don't want. My problem or rather my question is, why try this again? I sent my new manuscript to one agent already and he passed, saying he didn't like anybody in the book. That's fine I guess. And the man is not an idiot, so I have to allow that he may be right, or that this is just not his kinda book. It's just that the last time I was rejected by over 70 people and the striking thing was that they all said near exactly the same thing. It doesn't matter if they were right or wrong, the didn't have to be. My new book opens with the murder of an attempted rapist and doesn't get very sunny after that. Did I mention that it is set in 1801 and all 550 pages are in 19th century Jamaica slave dialect? Fuuuuuunn. Did you hear that? Yup I heard it too, the sound of agents all whipping out a fresh batch of 'Not For Us" slips. I don't expect to become the toast of publishing and I don't really care. What I'm ambivalent about, what I have real doubts about is what is it driving me to make the attempt. Just a thought.

Noted without Comment: Flavor of Love

So if Madonna has taught two generations of young girls that if a woman prostitutes herself (as opposed to a man pimping her) then that is really empowerment (and maybe it is), then what are we to make of Flava Flav, samboing himself on this trainwreck of a TV show? Here's the trick with self exploitation though: as Madonna made millions, her boss made billions. And maybe, just maybe each generation gets the Steppin Fetchit it deserves. So who is exploiting who?