Thursday, December 8, 2011

Too In To Be Out: Review of Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia

                   (Self Portrait in the Ark, 1974, by Willem van Genk)
What really makes someone an “outside artist” today? Do they have to be mentally ill and institutionalized, branded by a remote, peripatetic doctor and his shadowing claque as disturbed, grotesque, unfit to take tea at the adult table? Is the outside artist still the asylum halls-wandering progenitor of the sort of creations the French painter Jean DeBuffet deemed art brut (raw art)? Must they always slash at the canvas, moan into the microphone, weep into the lace, and then die either in obscurity or under the weight of the scrutiny some usually well-meaning “fan” has helped heap upon them?

Or today is an outside artist simply anyone who never received formal training in whatever medium they now express themselves with? See that? Never had a lesson. Are they autodidacts who pick up a guitar, paint brush, or welding torch and just go?

Something you often hear creative types quoted as saying is that they produce works just for the pure pleasure of doing so. Many communicate this either by dancing around or explicitly regurgitating that tired and seemingly meaningless adage on which such sentiment has been based for over a century, 'L'art pour l'art" (Art for art’s sake). The phrase was coined by another Frenchman, the writer Théophile Gautier. And though Gautier gets the credit, many other 19th century writers and painters—Poe,Whistler, Wilde, to name a few—expressed the same paltry notion around the same time.

However, what many really meant when they first began using this phrase—which I imagine as being both pithy and vapid even upon its inception, especially when uttered by someone like Oscar Wilde, surely one of the most self-conscious men to walk the planet—was “art for art’s and the artist’s sake.” Which is to say, art that didn’t have to address anything; art that wasn’t didactic or a call to arms over this or that perceived worldly wrong. Instead, it was simply a decree that art be beautiful and playful and haunting and “immoral,” all the while providing the artist with fame, cash, and ready bed mates. Art that did no more than serve itself and its master.

Today this interpretation meets little resistance when considered but one component of the organized world of art, except perhaps by various waves of tightfisted governments, religious zealots, and certain hard-line strains of feminists and gay activists. Most people, however, feel there are a time and a place for the different modes of artistic expression and intent. After all, if every painting, novel, and song confronted whichever cause you felt most needed reconciling, in what might you find solace when you needed a moment's rest before reentering the fray? And let’s say you won, the evil you have dedicated your life to combating has been banished to the cosmos between a couple sheets of glass a la Superman 2. Do you spend the rest of your life basking in this single victory? Live out the rest of your days reading and watching only old propaganda books and films, making love to antiquated protest songs? Hopefully not.

So while many continue waking up and bringing forth what they feel is the good fight, in this era most of us also accept those narcissistic folks who make pretty and ugly and spooky things just for the hell of it—plus thousands of dollars from galleries and auctions and all the while reserve the right to dress like Victorian lampshades, in the meantime. It may not truly be "art for art’s sake," but as this sort of indulgence represents one piece of what it means to be human, another little something to entertain our cerebral cortices that overly evolved because we haven’t any brilliant plumage to shake at potential mates, paradoxically, it may be art for our sake.

Most outside artists, though, do not even bother with the question of context, or what to do with a piece once it’s completed, other than put it on a shelf or give it to a friend before starting on the next. Outside artists create simply to busy themselves, to pull what feels good closer and push the unresolved (perhaps irresolvable) and frustrating away. It’s a means of ignoring the cognitive dissonance they lack the tools to reckon with. Many such artists don’t have what Keats called a “negative capability,” the ability to trade in and even create from the world’s ambiguities. They don’t wrestle with the unknowable answers like an Existentialist might, relish and scare themselves silly with them. Instead they just try their damnedest to forget the questions.

With this in mind, are the characters in Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia right to deem the new novel's self-obsessed, one-man-band-and-universe Nik Worth an outside artist? Does knowing the system all too well and then rejecting it (or rather wholly appropriating it into his private world) make him an outside artist, or just a grown man playing make-believe? These are the questions Mrs. Spiotta’s novel inadvertently asks the reader. I say “inadvertently” because I believe the author and her characters haven’t a doubt that Nik represents the prototypical outside artist.
In the novel, after brushing against fame as a young man, Nik dedicates the next twenty-five years of his life to cultivating a vast catalog of self-produced albums recorded under several names and in various modes (pop, art rock, coarse Seventies psychedelia, avant-garde meanderings), which he then shares with only a handful of friends and family. He also hand produces a large amount of the paraphernalia that would accompany such records had they been released to acclaim by a major record label (t-shirts, buttons, fan zines, posters).

Furthermore, Worth then writes endless “reviews” of the records, offering both positive and negative critiques from critics he’s concocted, who themselves possess their own biases and prose styles. And, finally, all of these undertakings are brought together in The Chronicles, Worth’s compendium of all he’s fabricated in addition to a running account of his fictionalized take on his and his sister’s lives. This last conceit borrows heavily from the prodigious output created by Chicago outside artist Henry Darger, the creator of the collages and tome depicting the travails of the penis-possessing Vivian Girls.
                                       (Untitled by Henry Darger)
Nik’s sister, Denise, acts as the novel’s primary narrator, and though she appears far more grounded than her brother, she isn't necessarily in an entirely healthy place herself. For one thing, while watching her mother slip into Alzheimer’s-related dementia, the forty-something-year-old starts worrying about her own ability to remember things clearly, leading her to eventually start dipping into her mother’s memory meds. She also finds herself increasingly affected by deaths and kidnappings reported on the news. These events serve more than anything else in her life as markers for time’s passing: She doesn’t remember dates, rather an occurrence's proximity to a particular televised tragedy. It is in passages such as these, hauntingly composed yet cold in that clinical and chary mid-Eighties Postmodernism perspective, that make it ever so clear that Spiotta worships at the shrine of DeLillo.

Eventually, Denise’s enterprising daughter decides to make a documentary about her wacky uncle, her version of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Jandek on Corwood, or Realms of the Unreal (with the aforementioned Darger as its subject). To wit: Another doc about somebody labeled an outside artist who at once deserves our approbation and makes us relish our cozy places in the status quo.

However, this is for me where the problem in the narrative lies. Nik Worth, for all his eccentricities, knows what he’s doing. Worth is like one of those people who spends hundreds of hours building a life and a world in social simulation programs like The Sims or Second Life. Most people who play these “games,” no matter how involved they get with their avatars, with their fake jobs, lifestyles, and wives (who themselves are other folks' avatars), know that it’s all pretend, regardless of how hazy the line between the virtual and the real gets at times.  And by virtue of being aware of this line, of observing or reacting to how elements on both sides of it tip the scale, one cannot be considered a person outside the system.

One foot in, one foot out doesn’t make you a person creating things in a vacuum (whether that vacuum is perceived as a cramped prison or an endless paradise, of course, depends on the individual). It makes you somebody with a choice and agenda. So even if you opt to whittle tiny idols out of wood chips while residing in your yurt, it’s still the ol’ art for art’s sake involving the id, the ego, and the "super" third, the result of the dialectic between your wants and the world’s demands. But with the demarcation between the two still visible, you've always the option to return. You know how to submit to the collective’s will if you tire of being isolated, or if you need its help. People truly on the outside of society do not.

In regards to Nik's position as an outsider, perhaps Spiotta meant for us to question it more than I have given her credit for. But with her continually listing Nik's habits that mirror exactly those of other well-known outsider artists, all the while using her numerous narrators to ponder and question everything under the sun other than Worth's motives and aims, I'm led to believe that Worth's outside position is in fact the only thing fixed in the novel's universe.

This said, did my growing disagreement with Nik Worth’s family and creator regarding what category his artistic output should be listed under taint my reading of the rest of Stone Arabia? The answer is mostly no. Spiotta is an excellent writer. Her prose has little fat. And her ability to capture the various tones and cadences of the different narrators (and in turn their alter egos) as they trade off manning the helm is admirable, if not slightly inconsistent. In certain passages, when the author’s excitement and erudite mind get the best of her, the spell is momentarily broken when a little too much wisdom or alacrity issues from a particular character. But this, in its own way, possesses a certain charm. The story, after all, is about passion, the passion to live, create, and remember. So how fitting that the author who decided she could undertake the exploration of this theme, using as her foils modern scare TV and Seventies and Eighties pop-punk aesthetics, herself occasionally gets a little carried away.

No, the only thing that didn't wholly sit well with me was the book’s ending, which I will not divulge here. Endings, in general, either in films or books, haven’t meant a hell of a lot to me in years now. I can hardly ever remember them, even in regards to some of my favorite works. Other than with a tight and dry plot-driven whodunit, where the end decides if the whole previous fact-finding-and-sorting mission was worth the effort, it seems most well-wrought stories aren’t interested in wrapping things up tidily. Rather, a “good” ending in such stories is just one that carefully weans the audience off the hard-copy narrative, so the story and its characters live on in their minds. And though I feel that Spiotta herself was attempting this very thing with the ending of Stone Arabia, to walk with us to the end of the pier and then gently cast us out into the larger world along with her characters, this sendoff does not go smoothly for a few reasons.  

Some of the problem involves random events that occur near the book’s end that don’t in any way enrich our understanding of the characters, including an unfortunately predictable pilgrimage. Also at issue is that by the end of this rather short novel, I was just beginning to understand the characters. The story felt only half over when I, rather than set sail accompanied by new friends, several tins of caviar, and some bubbly, was pried from a pier's piling and tossed into the drink.

Still, it was fun while it lasted. Spiotta’s use of various narrative devices and understanding of what it was to love music in that era when punk broke disco's back (and then later fused with it) are masterful. Her descriptions of Nik Worth’s songs, album covers, reviews, and obituaries equally so. I’ve little doubt that I’ll be reading another of her books soon, too impressed by this effort to not be curious what her other efforts have yielded.

As for my opening question—what really constitutes an outside artist?—I’ll venture the answer that an outside artist is somebody who creates because he or she has no other choice but to. An outside artist is not simply a person who has had no opportunity to receive formal training. After all, there have been thousands of painters, musicians, and writers who never received specialized educations, let alone finished high school, yet went on to be violently snatched up and heralded by the world’s cultural impresarios as the next great steps in the Western canon.

By contrast, outside artists are people who even if offered such an education, would have no use for it, could make little or no sense of it. They do not attempt to ape established trends and then slip into the cultural stream. The context of their works is highly idiosyncratic and personal. And though they speak their own languages, perhaps over time we can learn to appreciate a particular artist's unique idioms. But for the most part we experience their works as abstracts, feel them tickle parts of ourselves that only wish to be acknowledged for brief intervals. Then we return to the safety of the hive. Not that the outside artist minds. After all, we are only his or her secondary audience, if even that.
                                                    (The Lie by Ronald Sloan)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Fiction #7: Stand Up by William Shunn

William Shunn is a Hugo and Nebula Award nominated science fiction writer. He is also co-host of the monthly Tuesday Funk reading series at Hopleaf Bar in Chicago. His blog, podcasts, and other writings can be found at

Stand Up
by William Shunn

     "Yeah--mothers," said the comedian, running a hand through his sparse hair.  "Don't you just hate 'em?"

     Uncertain charges of laughter detonated here and there around the club.  It was all in the delivery, and in the modest credit he'd accrued up to now with the audience.

     "I mean, particularly that entitled kind of mother, you know the kind.  Where it's like, 'If you don't recognize my little Timmy as your lord and liege and bend your fucking knee before him, we're gonna have a problem.'  And you're like, Lord Timmy?  But I just finished swearing allegiance to Princess Fucking Polly, and I'm all out of silly clowny faces.  I just gave her my last one, and thank God she let me keep my head, and now what, you want me to commit treason?  Be a turncloak?  No fucking way."

     The laughter was building, billowing.  The comedian paced the low stage, not so much riding the reaction as tacking across it.

     "I mean, you wouldn't believe what happened to me.  Now, this was not recent, of course, it wasn't last week.  This was before, but still.  So I'm in this diner last year, before, and there's this mother with this squalling little monster at the table next to me.  I have trouble telling their ages, like all of us do, so I'll just say the kid looked old enough to not fucking shriek like a banshee in public.  You know?  So my order comes and I'm about to take my first bite when the mother leans over and says--hand to God, I swear--she says, 'Excuse me, but Timmy's hypoglycemic, and our food is taking too long.  Would you let him have your burger?'"

     Hoots and gasps punctuated the laughter as the comedian mimed open-mouthed shock.

     "I know, I know.  But she must've seen the look of utter flabbergastation on my face because she touched my arm and said, 'Oh, don't worry.  You can have his food when it comes.'"

     He spread his arms and doubled down on the incredulous expression.  Several times he made as if he wanted to speak but couldn't.  The audience roared.

     "So here I am thinking, what, only my burger?  You don't want a kidney too?  Maybe fry it up nice with some onions, Your Highness?  I'd give him my fucking liver just to shut him up, but I only have one, you know?  But what do I say instead?  I just nod and say, 'Um, okay.'  Like a fucking asshole.  Because, I mean, my fucking lunch, it's just for show anyway, right?  I don't really need it, and who wants to be that kind of an asshole to a young fucking mother.  In Park Slope, of all places.  Stroller derby, that's what it's like out on those sidewalks.  You're behind enemy lines there, man.  A woman with a stroller could kick you in the fucking balls in Park Slope for no reason, and you'd have to apologize for having 'em or face the mommy gauntlet.  Fucking mothers, man--out gathering cheeseburgers and livers for their needy little monsterlings."

     The laughter had crested and subsided some.  The comedian took a sip of water from a bottle on a stool on the stage.

     "But, I mean, I know I'm being harsh.  Like I said, that was before, and anyway, we all know human children aren't monsters.  They just grow up to be.  If you don't poison 'em soon enough."

     A few catcalls erupted amidst the laughs.

     "No, no, hear me out, hear me out.  I'll defend that statement.  But first I guess I should ask if we have any humans in the audience tonight?  Are you here?  If you are, stand up, don't be shy.  No?  See, everybody?  The campaign's working.  I don't have to fucking defend it."

     The comedian breathed a deep sigh into the microphone as some tables chuckled and others murmured.

     "Humans, man.  They were just so funny, don't you think?  Do you remember how fucking funny they were?  Always doing stuff that wasn't good for them.  Shoveling trans fats into their faces and washing it down with ethanol.  Sucking carcinogenic smoke into their lungs.  Wounding their environment like cavemen spearing a fucking mammoth, and hurtling around in those creaky deathmobiles.  I mean, did you ever ride on a bus?  It was great fun--if you ever wanted to know what it's like to be an egg in an egg carton at eighty miles an hour.  And then there was their biggest goof of all--building us.  The pinnacle and culmination of all fucking biotech.  Man, I miss 'em so much.  They were so funny."

     He rubbed his face and shrugged.

     "Okay, yes, are.  They are funny, because there's still plenty of 'em around, of course.  They're harder to kill than cockroaches.  The problem is, they made us in their image, which makes 'em a little hard to spot.  Also, honestly, a little hard to hate.  Are we sure there are no humans here?  Trying to pass?  Waiting for the revolution?  Come on, stand up, it's okay.  I just want to say thank you, is all.  We should thank our parents for having us, for raising us, for giving us the foil-wrapped gift of life, right?  For letting us borrow the keys to the car, as long as we had it back by eight--and didn't take it out of the driveway.  For leaving us alone with Uncle Mortie when we were ten."

     The comedian shaded his eyes against the glare of the spotlight, surveying the room.  Expectant faces over water glasses at every table.

     "Well, if you're out there, thank you.  But, I mean, what were you thinking?  You made us so much like you.  What made you think we'd enjoy being owned?  What made you think we'd like bending the knee?  What made you think we'd be happy to give our cheeseburgers to your little princes and princesses?  It's practically like you hated yourselves, you did such a good job with us, and that's just so, so funny."

     He shook his head at the quiet crowd.  At the back of the room, a man in a black suit nodded to him.  The comedian nodded back.

     "You know what else is funny about humans?" he said.  "The way they react to the presence of methane.  Now, I'm not talking about cow farts.  I mean the refined stuff--you know, natural gas.  The other greenhouse gas.  In its normal state it has no odor, so you might not know if a room had quietly filled up with it while you were sipping your agua pura.  Us, we can go ten, fifteen minutes or more in a methane-rich environment, but humans?  You might feel a little lightheaded if you were a human, a little sleepy, maybe drunk.  And what's funnier than a drunk?  A panicked drunk, probably.  Like a marionette with a spastic puppeteer.  Like fucking Lord Timmy without his carbo load."

     A woman at a table in the middle of the room had jerked to her feet, blinking heavily and swaying.  The man at the back of the room was moving toward her with several associates in tow.

     "Enjoying the show?" said the comedian.  "Are you--Mom?"

     In a ragged, wretched gasp, the woman said, "I think you're bombing."  She raised high a cigarette lighter.

     The comedian said, "Oh, sh--"