Monday, June 14, 2010

Codgers and Hair

Very occasionally, I regret not knowing more about contemporary fiction. I know nothing, for instance, about Padgett Powell except the pages that I have just read in the June issue of Harper’s.

Here, with only an approximate typography, are the first few lines, which appear under the subtitle ‘manifesto,’

I will miss looking at the little creek, pointing out as I must that there is not a famous cathedral within five thousand miles of us, or ten.

What is it about the little creek?

Its forlornness, its slightly iridescent stagnation, its unsupport of anything alive that one can see, its dubious mission, its helplessness, its pity, its bravery, the miracle of it withal in even remaining wet

Which sometimes it does not—


You see in the creek us.

Yes I think I do.

It is our mirror.

It is.

Well let us not be so vain.

All right. We shall cease going to the creek.

Our hair is also not good but I do not see that we can stop it. In our hair is us bet we must have it. We are not good and we must admit it.

I think we do a fair job of that. As good a job as might be asked of anyone.

Tell that to the codgers.

It would stop them for a moment in that calm stream of strong silent knowingness they so gallantly ride.

Those codgers get you worked up.

I had intended to copy out less, but it’s hard to find a place to stop. I hope this much isn’t some kind of infringement. The unmarked dialog of two lightly differentiated voices is surprisingly effective at providing a motive force to what would, I think, be unreadable in monolog form. The juxtapositions in this first chunk of text, its variously considered objects—the creek, the absent famous cathedral, wet, us, hair, codgers—the mutual positioning and interweaving of these is quite attractively done. Other elements that I would expect to fail also came off, for instance the balance of what I want to call ‘surrealisant’ imagery with not just real places and celebrities, but even with sociologically marked slang (an early example is “Everestage”). This is prose that works, but is also formally interesting. My obligatory academic comment, perhaps over-determined by the word dialog, would be to Bahktin, but with an emphasis on his interest in sociologically anchoring the various competing voices. Here is it objects that are so ‘anchored’ in a knowing but also estranged way. When I first read through, I registered the title as ‘Afraid to be Mean.’ In fact, in reference to a different part of text than I had thought, the title is ‘Afraid to be Men,’ which is less interesting. Maybe all of this works on me because I’m reading it in an airport? Anyway, it’s another reason that I’m glad to be subscribed to a print magazine.

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