Bourdain

Friday was a bad day for me. Over my morning coffee I learned yet another writer I loved and admired had asked himself Camus’s question and replied in the negative. Only a few days before, I’d seen an ad for Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and resolved to watch it as I had once obsessively watched every episode of No Reservations, sometimes repeatedly, before failing to follow him to CNN. Having forgotten Bourdain, there he was on a billboard, like an old coworker with whom I’d lost touch. It made me happy to catch up, to think of what adventures we would have together. Again.

A certain chill creeps down the spine whenever I learn of a writer’s suicide. By and large, writers are not well in the head to begin with. The compulsion to record, to constantly jot in notebooks, to write down every thought or trivial experience is not something ordinary people experience; it’s a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder sprouting from the anxiety each and every one of us feels, that black thing we try to keep hidden but which lies there like a wounded bear in a cave. Nor is our constant introspection, most of it self-critical, a looping Movietone news reel of past failures and mistakes and embarrassments, particularly healthy. There’s also the loneliness. And the rejection. Then too is our constant dismay at the state of things, in all places and all eras, at the injustice and stupidity of the planet. Scratch a writer and you scratch a glass half-empty, no matter how many teaspoons of jokes and one-liners he may stir into it.

And that’s the baseline. Spread a clinical mental illness like depression on top and it’s a wonder why more writers don’t rev the engine with the garage door closed.

Not all suicides affect the same way. I can only shake my head at Robert E. Howard, who at his death — at age 30! — stood in the doorway between the fantasy stories for which he is remembered and the kind of American adventure writing that would have probably shelved his works beside those of Jack London and Louis L’Amour. Ernest Hemingway’s shotgun-guzzling is easy to explain once you realize he very likely suffered from CTE after a lifetime of taking too many knocks — from amateur boxing, from auto accidents, from airplane crashes within days of each other — to the noggin.

On the other hand, the news of Spalding Gray bothered me. And Hunter S. Thompson rattled me hard, leading to several nights of face-on-my-desk consumption and a black umbrella that lingered overhead for weeks. I apologize, BTW, for anything I might have said or written on the Internet during that period.

To a writer, a writer’s suicide is always personal. You think about their spouses and children, and maybe even the works unwritten, but you can’t help suspect, deep down, that the act may be a prophecy as well. Is it future or is it past.

A few years ago I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, which was met with less concern than relief. My father had bad OCD and was a hoarder while my mother was the victim of physical abuse by her parents, the reverberations of which it’s taken me some forty-odd years to recognize. You grow up thinking your life is normal, and only through the lens of hindsight do you think maybe not, and wonder if maybe it molded you a little, if perhaps it explains certain behavior.

“The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion,” Sartre tells us. “He will never agree that a sweeping passion is a ravaging torrent which fatally leads a man to certain acts and is therefore an excuse.” There’s a lot of sense in that. Yet if your default position is toward a certain passion and you have to consciously move yourself out of that position to avoid going in a bad direction, then it stands to reason you may not have always possessed the awareness that such action was required on your part. You went with the default, which wasn’t the right choice, because you didn’t understand you had a choice. For me, the diagnosis was a map. It’s easier to see the exit to the hedge labyrinth from overhead than from ground level.

I have a to-read bookshelf in my house — not a virtual to-read shelf like on Goodreads but rather an actual shelf where I have books queued for landing like airplanes at EWR. Plucking Medium Raw, Bourdain’s brilliant collection of post-fame essays from 2010, off the shelf this weekend reminded me what a writer we’ve lost. The book is, cover to cover, electric prose, mixing personal stories of adventure and behind-the-scenes anecdotes with calls for basic cooking competency to be taught in our schools and Asian-style hawker markets — basically food courts with independent food stalls instead of chains — in our towns. You can hear his voice in every word; every chapter reads like the longer, uncut draft of a No Reservations monologue. It’s a beer with that funny friend of yours, the one who’s been out traveling the world while you were home paying the mortgage and helping Johnny with his math homework.

It also makes me wonder about Bourdain’s default positioning. Suicide is mentioned often, usually in Thompsonesque too-weird-to-live hyperbole. In one chapter, Bourdain describes escaping to St. Martin after the collapse of his first marriage, where every night he drove drunk while listening to a local, maybe pirate, radio station that spun an unpredictable playlist of yacht rock and classic hits:

You never knew what was coming up. In the rare moments of lucidity, when I tried to imagine who the DJ might be and what his story was, I’d always picture the kid from Almost Famous, holed up, like me, in the Caribbean for reasons he’d probably rather not discuss; only in his case, he’d brought his older sister’s record collection circa 1972. I liked to imagine him out there in a dark studio, smoking weed and spinning records, seemingly at random — or, like me, according to his own, seemingly aimless, barely under control, and very dark agenda.

He then talks about playing Russian roulette with the station and a stretch of cliffside road.

For a second or two each night, for a distance of a few feet, I’d let my life hang in the balance, because, depending entirely on what song came on the radio next, I’d decide to either jerk the wheel at the appropriate moment, continuing, however recklessly, to careen homeward — or simply straighten the fucker out and shoot over the edge and into the sea.

The French investigator in Bourdain’s death has said the evidence points to it being “an impulsive act.” That I believe.

I imagine death to be the ultimate earmuffs and blindfold, the only and best way for a writer to finally shut up the voices and the critics, to shut off the looping film reel projecting all of the bad memories and bad thoughts onto the screen behind their eyes. I can imagine peace there, and I suspect that’s what those writers who answer Camus with a No are really looking for — not attention, not you’ll-miss-me-when-I’m-gone spite, but just simple peace and quiet. What they don’t realize is that in the absence of their words, their blog posts and impressions and stories scribbled in notebooks and on the backs of envelopes and napkins while sitting in the waiting room or at the bar, the noise and lights are that much louder, that much more glaring, for the rest of us.

Let the Dead Bury the Dead

At Electric Lit’s Blunt Instrument advice column, an author asked how to absolve herself from the shame of publishing a book she now feels is “juvenile:”

I saw a tweet a little while ago from someone who said, “I would never forgive myself if I wrote a bad book.” I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself, either, and I can’t figure out how to move on. For a time I thought that I would just work hard and write something else that would be so much better and erase the collective memory of my first book (I think I flatter myself to even think there is a collective memory), but I remain filled with doubt. And self-loathing. This might be a better question for a therapist, but here’s the short version: how do you recover from publishing shame?

Elisa Gabbert, the Blunt Instrument’s fount of wisdom, replied in part:

It makes sense that young people, because they lack experience, would tend to undervalue experience and overvalue talent, which may be all they have. It also makes sense that older people would place a higher value on experience, now that they have it. I am not especially young, so you can take my bias into account, but I believe that experience is important, and that more life experience, reading experience, and writing experience are going to make you a better writer.

I don’t disagree with anything Gabbert said and her entire response is worth reading, particularly for her discussion of how the vagaries of publishing often result in a disparity between the fondness an author feels for a work versus its popularity among readers.

Yet what’s significant to me is that Gabbert explicitly underscores such shame being an issue of experience. Writers who are early in their careers — regardless of their age — have smaller portfolios and therefore are more conscious of it. If you only have ten published pieces to your credit and one is awful, that’s ten percent of your bylines; but if you’ve written 100 pieces and one is bad, the stink is confined to a negligible percentage.

All writers produce bad copy — God knows I have. Thankfully most of it is lost to the mists of time, but before you tell me that Google forgets nothing, keep in mind it works both ways: yes, some of my bad stuff has fallen down the memory hole but so have some pieces I’m particularly proud of, even though they were authored in the age of search engines. Publications come and go, and often they take their servers with them. The Internet is no elephant.

If you dug up one of those old pieces of mine, the kind I’d prefer were forgotten, and waved it my face, I wouldn’t be happy. But neither would I lose sleep over it. I have a number of aphorisms I’ve developed over the years. For example: The best response to a piece of bad writing is to create another piece of writing. When I start something and realize it’s not proceeding well, I set it aside and write something else. Sometimes I will cannibalize it for words or ideas but at the very least the act was a warmup, a prelude to a new thing. To the inexperienced, a setback or criticism can seem monstrous but to the jaded rodeo clown it’s like, Meh whatevs.

This subject resonates with me, I think, because this week I’m putting the finishing edits on my current WIP, a 37,000-word novella. Today I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but while I can’t imagine ever hating it, five or ten years from now I may view it more critically. That’s OK because I’d like to think that in five to ten years I’ll be writing even better stuff.

And that, ultimately, is what you have to ask yourself: Does what I’m writing today reflect the best I can do in this moment? Is it a product of my current talent and ability? If not, throw it in a drawer. But if it is, then hustle it, and if your future self doesn’t like it, then tell him to STFU and get cracking on something better. Move forward. Forget the past. Let the dead bury the dead.

Make Mine Wakanda

Let the Dance of Friendship begin!
Fantastic Four 53, August 1966. In the previous issue, Black Panther had invited the FF to Wakanda to test his skills against them. Also, STFU Ben.

My senior year of college, I had a part-time job in the student union. It involved being something like a facilities manager, only I wasn’t an actual manager. I made rounds through the union to keep it clean and functional. If a bulb was out or something was broken, I filed a maintenance request; but if somebody had spilled coffee, I broke out the mop. I counted rolls of toilet paper in utility closets and removed outdated announcements from the bulletin boards. Sometimes I manned the information desk. Those kinds of things.

My shifts began at an awkward time in the evenings after I had eaten in the union dining hall. The difference in time, usually less than an hour, wasn’t long enough to be useful — not enough to study in earnest, although sometimes I would catch up on my assigned reading. Besides, who wants to prep for work by doing work?

Instead, I would watch TV. The union had two TV lounges. At that time of day, one was usually dark and silent. The other was packed so solid some people had to sit on the floor.

The first time I ducked into the popular lounge, I froze in my tracks. The entrance was to the right of the television, so I saw the entire audience illuminated by the glow of the screen in three-quarters profile. Every single face was black.

Now I have to confess what threw me off wasn’t just the black audience — it was also the show they were watching. It was Star Trek: The Next Generation. It had been Patrick Stewart’s baritone, overheard in the hallway, that lured me into the lounge in the first place. I thought to myself, Black people like Star Trek?

In hindsight, it’s not at all strange when you consider Trek history — even Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fan — but this was my first encounter with black fandom, or what’s sometimes called black nerd culture.

Watching TV with this group became a regular habit during my senior year. After dinner I would often stop by the TV lounge, wade deep into the room, and (usually) find a seat against the back wall to watch. Alas, since I arrived after the show began and departed before it finished, I never spoke to anybody. We were all too busy watching.

And this audience didn’t just watch Star Trek. Oh no. There was commentary.

What transpired in that lounge was essentially a live version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, only a thousand times funnier. Before me was the screen broken by the anonymous silhouettes of the people in front, all of them cracking wise at the perils faced by the crew of the Enterprise-D. Imagine watching TV with a room full of your favorite comedians — that’s what it was like. I learned to chew gum while watching so I could bite down sometimes to keep from screaming with laughter.

While they often made fun of the interior Star Trek, the crowd also criticized Star Trek the TV show. There’s one episode I remember in particular. Picard and the gang had beamed down to a planet inhabited by blonde, blue-eyed people. It might have been some kind of shore-leave episode. The natives wore flowey garments and were very friendly to the off-worlders — theirs was a perfect, utopian world, full of beautiful white people with blonde hair and blue eyes.

The room went off.

“Oh, they on the Planet of the Aryans.”

“It’s the Hitler World!”

And on and on. They shredded that episode. I think I might’ve been crying in the back.

But you know what? I had a little epiphany in that TV lounge. The Enterprise crew flew hither and yon across the galaxy encountering all sorts of extraterrestrials with sagittal crests and bumpy nose prosthetics, and yet usually those aliens only had one skin color. Black actors would turn up as Klingons like Worf but even that wasn’t consistent because some Klingons were just white actors wearing shoe polish. Just as every alien planet mysteriously looked like southern California, likewise the aliens themselves always coincidentally had pink skin.

So when I see stories about Black Panther breaking records for advance tickets or Presidents’ Day weekend openings, I get it.

Fantastic Four 52, July 1966, was the first appearance of both Black Panther and Wakanda. Stan Lee wrote the script with Jack Kirby’s artwork at full throttle.

If you’ve read my previous thoughts on Black Panther, it may not surprise you that I was very excited to see Wakanda’s realization on the big screen. I didn’t have to wait long. Early in the film we experience a flyover of the countryside before piercing the shield dome to encounter Wakanda’s main city. The skyscrapers have none of the gloomy spires of Gotham or even the blocky pyramids and temples of Egypt (which might be expected since BP’s tribe worships Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess); instead the rounded organic forms of the skyline strongly reminded me of the beehive structures and asymmetrical curving walls of Great Zimbabwe. There are too many details I could geek about — the dragonfly VTOL ships, the throne rooms, the five tribes’ distinguishing customs and clothing and palettes — but suffice to say, Wakanda makes every Star Wars planet look gray and ho-hum by comparison.

Black Panther is unique in comics in that the character is inexorably entwined with his setting. Even Batman can’t share that claim: the Gotham of the Bob Kane era is indistinguishable from any generic cityscape, featuring none of the Gothic art deco we now associate with the Dark Knight. Meanwhile, the very first appearance of BP in the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four takes place in his home country. Wakanda and its mashup of African culture and super science was baked into the mythology of Black Panther from the very beginning.

Often the settings in fiction are interchangeable; the action can be switched from city to suburbs to rural country without much trouble. In others, the setting is intrinsic. In much the same way as cutting a major character changes a story, moving a Western to New York City radically transforms the original intent into a very different work. Setting, in other words, itself becomes a main character, a silent player on the stage — excise the character, and the original concept is wounded or at least altered so drastically it becomes something else.

Black Panther would not be as successful a character (or now, a franchise) without Wakanda, and the tightly written script by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole understands that. A major theme of the film asks what responsibility does Wakanda have to the rest of the world, and more specifically, to the black world. When you are rich and powerful, is hermitism and quietude a valid strategy of self-preservation or is it complicity with evil? If engagement is preferred, what shape should it take? The film’s plot is an internal monologue of Wakanda the character, expressed through T’Challa and Killmonger. More than just visually depicting the country, Coogler and Cole perfectly communicate the tension inherent in the whole concept of Wakanda.

Jungle Action Featuring the Black Panther 8, January 1974. What’s funny is that this map differs from the map printed just two issues prior in which the Atlantic Ocean is shown in the lower left-hand corner. Now it points to the Indian Ocean, which means north is south and vice versa. This whole geographical slipperiness just adds to Wakanda’s mystique — it’s like the place is so damn secret, even Marvel doesn’t know where it is.

Black Panther is a solid film with strongly defined characters and great acting (I couldn’t decide which antagonist I loved watching steal scenes the most: Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, Andy Serkis’s Klaue, or Winston Duke’s M’Baku). Is it the best MCU film yet? I’m still partial to Winter Soldier, but Panther is definitely at the top of my list. I suspect that with its box-office success and the difficult job of introducing a whole slew of new characters behind it — and assuming Marvel keeps Coogler and Cole onboard — the next Black Panther may be the next Winter Soldier. In the meantime, I’ll just have to be patient and go see this one again.

All images taken from Black Panther Epic Collection: Panther’s Rage. Copyright © 2016 Marvel. Fair use! Discussion purposes!

Update: The capital city of Wakanda, so I’ve learned, is Birnin Zana, and Chadwick Boseman has said the cinematic version of Wakanda is based upon the real-life kingdom of Mutapa, the 15th-century successor state to the kingdom of Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe, which was built beginning in the 11th century, was the capital of the Zimbabwe kingdom.

Reading Among the Ruins

The World in Winter and The Sixth WinterIn case you missed it, in 2017 I took a deep dive into the post-apocalyptic genre and then posted a mega-review at Medium of what I found.

It wasn’t until I went on J.G. Ballard jag a few years ago that I realized the depth and variety of post-apocalyptic fiction. One book led to two more, and soon what I thought was niche sci-fi turned out to be much richer and plentiful than I had imagined, so much so that I now believe it’s unfair to label post-apoc a subgenre or subcategory of something else.

I scribbled thoughts and impressions as I turned the pages, and eventually I wondered if those notes might act as breadcrumbs to other readers seeking to wander a literary wasteland—especially in these seemingly end times. I present to you the result.

My criteria for the list was often based on obscurity, so there’s no Leibowitzes or Lucifer’s Hammers. Instead, the more off-beat the book, the more likely it appealed to me. There’s some J.G. Ballard in there, naturally, but also some Leigh Brackett, John Christopher, and even Jack London. Still, the list of books I didn’t get to is even longer: Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins (which I’m told is more apocalyptic than post-apocalyptic), and on and on.

Strangely, as I read I felt like every book had something to say about the state of America in 2017, so if you’re looking for something to read that speaks to current times without being too on the nose, check it out.

Take the Next Chance, and the Next

For Christmas I received the memoir This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake, a big coffee-table book about Garbage, probably my all-time favorite band. Incredibly Mrs. Kuhl and I saw them live for the first time this past summer when they toured with Blondie, and it’s strange to think I’d never seen them in the twenty-plus years of my fandom; but then I remember that in the 90s I was ramen-noodles poor and by the time we had money and were doing well enough to afford concert tickets and big nights on the town, we had babies and toddlers.

Flipping through the book at random I was immediately struck by a quote from Shirley Manson. In 2005 the band took a seven-year hiatus, and during that time Manson acted as a killer robot on the show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It’s not as weird a transition as you might think; Manson had been a print model in her teenage years and intended to segue into acting before, as she said, she “stumbled into music.” She took acting lessons with instructor Sharon Chatten, and although she hasn’t acted much since the show was cancelled, Manson considers it a positive experience:

“She completely changed my attitude to being an artist and my approach to making music,” says Manson. “She taught me how not to focus on results but instead to focus on ideas and taking creative detours and risks; how to cut the strings of who I thought I was and instead be in the moment, completely free of external appraisal.”

No musician, I suppose, begins her career with anything more than a vague idea about playing music. Then one day she may say, I want to record an album, but she has little idea of how the final product will sound, perhaps only a blurred notion at best. There can be no real understanding of the result; she can only understand what she is doing in that day, only in that moment.

She can only record one song, one idea, then another, and another, until she has enough to fill an album. Then later she does the whole process again, then maybe again. Eventually she has albums and albums of music and can look back and see a career and a trajectory which was completely opaque at the beginning.

Having two sons, our family is not immune to periodic Star Wars excitement whenever a new installment appears, and Manson’s sentiment dovetails with a line that hooked me while recently rewatching Rogue One. Toward the story’s climax the heroine Jyn Erso explains her strategy for infiltrating the Empire’s top-secret base. “They’ve no idea we’re coming,” she tells her misfit team. “No reason to expect us. If we can make it to the ground, we’ll take the next chance, and the next, on and on, until we win or the chances are spent.”

Take creative detours, take risks. Take chances. That, I think, is the best new year’s advice I can provide, to myself and to everybody.

If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be New Colonia

The hubbub over Confederate has spurred Amazon to reveal that they’ve been developing a new alternate-history series of their own which likewise has its point of divergence in the 19th century:

In the back story of “Black America,” the Confederacy was defeated. But instead of enduring the painful eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, African-Americans received reparations. The former slaves and freedmen claimed Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, a nation known as New Colonia.

That nation has a “tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship” with the United States, which is described as both an ally and a foe.

Black utopianism? Now that’s what I’m talking about!

I have to wonder if Black America is a replacement for The Man in the High Castle, which is entering its third (and final?) season. Regardless, the possibility of independent nations occupying the geography of the real-life Lower 48 is an alt-hist concept I adore — I’ve used it more than once in my short fiction. Amazon, you had my curiosity but now you have my attention.