Saturday, September 30, 2006

Mystery Mountain, Part One

Day Six
“In ignorance/ a certain knowledge.” There are places on the highway that I think everybody has an intimate knowledge of, yet knows nothing about. They are those little inconsistencies or changes that mark time or space in an otherwise monotonous forward motion, curves of road that suddenly say “closer” or “farther” or “amidst,” if only to you. For me, maybe for you too, it is the place on route 78 where the highway starts to be walled with tan concrete (sound baffles for bedroom communities?) and promises the approach of New York; there’s the barn that is painted “Vote Republican” where the highway makes a sharp turn taking you that much closer to Chicago on the way from Milwaukee. You might also remember that moment in John Barth’s classic deconstruction of forward motion, “Lost in the Funhouse,” where the boys look for the electrical towers and the standpipe on the way to “Ocean City.” For Kyle Lapidus, it is a hill in Paterson that has this kind of insignificant-significance. He has only ever seen it from the highway but, in his estimation, it is the most important hill or mountain of any he has experienced . . . or rather, despite never having experienced it. We take a closer look. Who needs Pedro? In two parts.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Sam Patch!

"There's no mistake in Sam Patch." Songsters Joanne Hsieh and Jesse Roy regale us with this Patersong of the man who lept the Passaic falls and became famous for it. Click on Sam's image for their leapin' lyritudes. Joanne writes from the field: "Well, Jesse and I actually visited Paterson a little while ago just for the hell of it, to maybe get inspired to write a song. We took a super 8 camera and got some footage (as of yet undeveloped) of a condemned old mill or factory. It said no trespassing but we did anyways, and we witnessed some stunning industrial decay -- forces of nature at work creating impossible monumental beauty. The film ran out and it may have been all underexposed . . . but we'll see. We also went in search of the Paterson Project, a Jevohah's Witness establishment encompassing many acres where they train ministers, produce bibles, etc... but no one we spoke to knew what the hell we were talking about, even the people at a local blue collar diner where we ordered too many french fries which we had to take home. What a trippy place. The doggie package containing the french fries is still in my freezer as an artifact of our sojourn." Well, Old Man Google says the bible camp she talks about is in Patterson, NY, not Paterson, NJ, but who can tell as you go head over heels into the mist and spume?

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

White Flights

Word is that Updike's new novel Terrorist is set in a thinly disguised Paterson and that his research consisted of cruising the city in a taxi cab. (NYT 5.31.06) Even though Williams said "WALK in the world/ (you can't see anything/from a car window, still less/from a plane, or from the moon!? Come/off of it.)" I don't entirely begrudge him his distance. Paterson is difficult, and Updike’s not a documentarian after all (still less a psychogeographer, even though he claims that the Reading, PA of his youth was, in a sense, his map for the Paterson of today). However, if anything, Paterson needs a truer document of itself or maybe just a better map. Since Paterson was the home to the 9-11 plotters--an extremely small minority in a primarily non-white city--sources such as the NYTimes, finding Northern New Jersey to be a “hub for hijackers,” (see Lunberry 653) have undoubtedly given Paterson a new place in public consciousness; it may be that this place with its “72 identifiable nationalities. . . in 8 square miles” (NYT 9.27.01) has become one in which diversity and multiplicity is suspect. Updike details the diversity and plays with the misrecognition of Islamic fundamentalism as an implicit political threat; he’s clearly appreciative of the power and beauty of its philosophy, as if its righteous clarity puts to shame the duffer Protestantism that runs through his oeuvre (the only WASP in this novel is a morbidly obese librarian). As he turns the fear of a black city into fodder for his particular brand of Pennsylvanian realism, however, his view ultimately seems too west of the Delaware and east of the Hudson. I still can’t verbalize completely (at least in the form of the blog) what I felt and why stopped reading when the “plot” kicked in and the money showed up in the ottoman (p. 194). Maybe I’d rather the title have been a conceptual joke (surprise! Just a story about a teenage boy), or maybe I was tired with Updike’s descriptions which started to seem more and more like pronouncements, and lacked, or maybe had too much of, the authority needed to tell a story of political extremism. The novel is a well-fed form, which has had a long-term fascination with the forces of terror and the fictions of fear. But Updike’s mistake is to take these fictions too seriously, no matter how much he travesties Tom Ridge. The best fiction about terrorism challenges the suburban urge to construct the tale in the first place (e.g. Delillo’s The Names or Mao II). In comparison, Updike does not seem to have any qualms about walking the borzoi in this neighborhood. Updike could have taken a productive cue as well from those novels in which the most violent pitch of political action is turned into an opportunity for the comic appreciation of representational and metaphysical abysses (Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday; James’ The Princess Casamassima; R. L. Stevenson’s The Dynamiter). There are of course more “serious” novels of political extremism, but a writer such as Updike, by taking himself too seriously on such a subject risks making a joke of himself. . . . better to delight in the dysfunctions of white privilege or the idea of the terrorist as impossible subject (the ostensible themes of the above novels) than to attempt capture of the real. Rather than be introduced to the heart and soul of the terrorist-manqué (OK, I did read ahead a little), let’s introduce Terrorist to its new companions: Updike’s Couples, Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream and Other Delights, and the Firestone Christmas Album . . . those perennial darlings of Salvation Army bargain bookshelves everywhere.

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