Category Archives: Literature

Book A Week 1: The Human Factor by Graham Greene

Simon And Schuster, Book Club Edition, Copyright 1978

Simon And Schuster, Book Club Edition, Copyright 1978

Well, I’ve finally decided to take the plunge. Yes indeed, I just (well, two days ago) finished my first week in a book-a-week challenge, and I have to say: I feel pretty damn good about it. But before I get into the book itself, a word about the impetus behind such seeming insanity.

I must confess, I’ve never been a terribly prolific reader. I’ve always wanted to be a prolific reader, but only in the same way I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who wakes up and goes for a run at 5:30 a.m. as the sun barely begins cresting the horizon. The Theory = a pretty cool way to go about dancing on this Earth. The Practice = hitting my iPhone’s snooze button (icon?) until my dogs all but grab me by the ankles and drag me down the stairs.

Don’t get me wrong—I adore reading. In case you haven’t noticed, I do a bit of writing now and then, and when I’m not writing I am probably engaged in some form of reading. Novels. Long form journalism. Comics. Memoirs. Online essays. The backs of cereal boxes. So yeah, reading itself has never been the problem. Reading a lot in a short amount of time, however…now that’s a dust jacket of a different color.

If I had to guess (and this, friends, is a rather liberal guess) I would say I go through—maybe—10 books a year. And that would be a good year. To be sure, that’s certainly a better number than, say, someone who doesn’t read at all, but it’s not a number of which I am terribly proud. I want to read more not only because I love reading (or because I am acutely aware of the enormity of my dream reading list juxtaposed to the limited number of days each of us is granted upon this frail plane). I also want to read more because I believe it makes us all better people. And it makes me a better writer.

Personally, my brain and spirit just feel, well, different when I’m reading a lot. My observations about life are more keen and more quick to rise from those dread bottomless depths increasingly littered with the ephemera of pop-up ads, inane Facebook posts, and so much (oh so much) clickbait. It’s a cliche for sure, but there is no better brain exercise than frequent reading. And that’s the triple truth, Ruth.

As for the writing part—same. When I’m not reading with some degree of fervency, I’m also not writing (at least not in the way I want to write). The two tasks feed off of each other in some kind of weird, cerebral dance I’m still trying to figure out. Reading makes me want to write, and writing makes me want to read. Dig?

Consider the way Stephen King puts it in his most excellent On Writing (a memoir about, well, writing—seriously, read this book):

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.

Right on. I completely understood this when I first read it more than ten years ago (!) and it still rings incredibly true today.

And so here I am, staring down the barrel of a challenge that feels at once both overwhelming and exhilarating. On one hand, 52 books is a lot of books. On the other hand, 52 books…IS A LOT OF BOOKS! Isn’t that exciting? I’ll finally read Animal Farm. And 1984. And Rabbit Run. And The Giver. And, like, a whole lot more. Yeah. It’s pretty damn exciting.

Besides, I’ve done the math. If I typically tackle books between 200 and 300 pages, that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 pages a day. Does’t sound too menacing, does it? Sure, this means reading every morning over coffee and breakfast instead of catching up on the next installment of classic Doctor Who (I’m currently up to Episode One of “Death to the Daleks,” for those of you playing along at home), but isn’t that, like, the point?

Well, having already completed one week of this exercise I am fairly confident that I can (and will) do this. As a precaution against falling off the wagon, I’ve also decided to blog about each week’s literary conquest—so keep me accountable interneters! So, now that you know a little about this project, let’s talk a little about Graham Greene’s The Human Factor.

Dust jacket photo of Graham Greene, taken by some chap with the cool ass name Ottawa Karsh.

Dust jacket photo of Graham Greene, taken by some chap with the cool ass name Ottawa Karsh.

There are three reasons I chose this as my first book (none of which are particularly poignant):

1. Greene wrote The Power and the Glory, one of my all-time favorite novels and—for my money—one of the greatest books ever written.

2. I’ve never been entirely comfortable saying “I’m a fan of Graham Greene” knowing that I’ve only got one of his books under my belt.

3. My wife and I recently moved. As a result, all of our novels are still in boxes. This one was at the top of the first box I opened last week. Win win.

I must say, I wasn’t all that thrilled with the novel at the start. Veering quite noticeably from the spiritual and existential themes and overall ethos of The Power and the Glory, The Human Factor concerns the seemingly pedestrian life of a British secret service agent named Castle (first name Maurice). Turns out he’s got quite an interesting backstory that involves a clandestine love affair with (and eventual marriage to) a South African woman named Sarah and the adoption of her infant son as his own. There’s also a lot of angst going on about apartheid and Communism and a few other dated intricacies that sometimes confused me in their lack of context, but once given a chance, The Human Factor really begins to delight with its literary minimalism and overriding atmosphere of paranoia wedged between the gloomy hum-drum of British life in the late 70s. From the inside dust jacket:

The Human Factor marks Graham Greene’s triumphant return to the ambiguous world of deceit, illusion, treachery, faith and loneliness that is espionage…

I think the key word there is “loneliness.” That’s the emotion I didn’t expect to encounter, but it’s also the emotion that continued to fascinate and move me throughout the course of this curious little novel. Loneliness is an obvious occupational hazard here (not only for Castle, but also for the hand full of secondary characters that litter the story, including the brilliantly realized Colonel Daintry). What’s more, this loneliness is an existential byproduct that seems to be absent of any really redemptive subsequent. In other words, no one in this story is particularly convicted about what he does, yet they all bemoan the dour prospects of their respective fates. Oh sure, there’s some very pale allusions to national duty or some such folderol, but I venture to guess that everyone in this novel (most especially the protagonist) would much rather be sipping whiskey on a country porch somewhere. Yes, everyone here is a spy, but they might as well be working for the DMV.

Upon doing a slight bit of research I came to realize this was precisely Greene’s intention. His objective was “to write a novel of espionage free from the conventional violence, which has not, in spite of James Bond, been a feature of the British Secret Service.” He goes on to say that he “wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pension.”

Objective, consider thyself achieved. This is indeed a spy novel with almost (almost) every ounce of sex, violence and cliched adrenaline stripped away, leaving us instead with men who are supremely unhappy with the choices they’ve made in life wandering through the mists of Britain yearning for escape that will never come. It’s a rather bleak tale that bears some hallmark passages only Greene could compose. Consider this moment between Colonel Daintry (who has just returned from a funeral) and one of his more fusty colleagues:

“I’ve come from a funeral.”

“No one close, I hope?”

“No. Someone from the office.”

“Oh well. A funeral’s always better to my mind than a wedding. I can’t bear weddings. A funeral’s final. A wedding—well, it’s only an unfortunate stage to something else. I’d rather celebrate a divorce—but then that’s often a stage too, to just another wedding. People get into the habit.”

Or even wonderfully simple lines like, “A man in love walks through the world like an anarchist, carrying a time bomb.”

All in all, an intriguing—if, at times, a bit tedious—novel. The end result is a sense of inescapable gloom that only Greene can deliver, even when his subject matter is international espionage instead of whiskey priests and broken vows.

Up Next: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’ Engle

Charlie Brown (Revisited)

This is awesome. Find the source here: http://bit.ly/SOUJMd

This is awesome. Find the source here: http://bit.ly/SOUJMd

So there’s a podcast called Book Fight, and if you have any modicum of love for literature, you should definitely check it out. Hosted by local Philadelphia authors Mike Ingram and Tom McAllister, the podcast is a consistently entertaining conversation about, well, books. According to their website description, Ingram and McAllister taylor their weekly program around “the conversations writers have at the bar, which is to say they’re both unflinchingly honest and open to tangents, misdirection, general silliness.” It’s a joy.

Anyhow, I was listening to a recent episode this afternoon and Ingram and McAllister—who both teach writing at Temple University, my alma mater—were discussing various writing exercises they use in class to spur students’ imaginations. You know, giving them all the same first sentence or asking them to concoct a short story from a single photograph. And it got me thinking back to my days at Temple and similar exercises my creative writing professors would use to elicit interesting material. And that’s when I remembered Charlie.

The task was simple: Take a classic tale of some kind and expand it beyond what we already know. Continue the story, if you will. I think we had just finished reading Donald Barthelme’s Snow White (go ahead and bend your brain a little). I can’t remember why I decided to write the piece I did, but I do remember thinking that it was going to blow the socks off of my professor. Looking back on it now I can of course see how reductive it is and oh-so-full of unearned undergraduate angst (I was reading a lot of Ginsberg and Kerouac, okay!). But there’s something really comforting about the singularity of my vision at the time. I was so insanely confident about my writing and not yet entirely schooled on the virus of cynicism and second guessing that inevitably worms its way into one’s brain. When I wanted to write I just wrote, and as I continue in my pursuits as a writer to this day I think there’s still a lot I can learn from that younger version of myself, despite how much self-absorbed and cliched dreck he occasionally churned out.

And so, submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this tale…

“That World With the Funny Dance Re-visited…”
by Nick DiUlio

Charlie was thinking of Christmas again.  He sipped a beer and sat at the small table in his New York City apartment listening to jazz on a countertop radio.  The night blazed on outside his kitchen window, cold, and the neon signs flashed intently with habit to the rhythm of his thoughts.  He lit a cigarette and closed his eyes, letting the bbbblamm…yeaaah…and “oh, how about that” music swing his mind away from the world.  He was thinking about Christmas again.

Clangs and horns and voices brought the streets to life and Charlie felt like getting out.  He quickly finished his beer and threw on an old overcoat his mother had sent him five years ago.  After shutting off the radio he made sure that his mini-cassette recorder was in his pocket.  It was a cold, angel night and Charlie was thinking of Christmas.

Mrs. Fittermall surprisingly greeted Charlie as he stepped out into the hall.  “Oh, Charlie!  How are you sweetie?  I heard about your father.  I am so sorry.”

Good grief, he thought.  “Happens to us all I suppose.”

“But such a shock.  Are you all right?  Is there anything I can do for you darling?”

“No thank you Mrs. Fittermall.”  Charlie didn’t want to talk away the night and his night, his night of screeching lostness, was on the tip of extinction.  He had to leave.

“Well, perhaps I’ll stop by later this week and drop off one of my pound cakes.”

“Alright,” he began walking towards the stairwell.  “Thank you Mrs. Fittermall.”  She turned and left Charlie to his business of getting gone.  So he headed for the streets with his hands in his worn out pockets.

It had started snowing and a lonely wind watered his eyes.  Collar up and there was music…“I heard the bells…silent night…I’ll be home…(and) have yourself a merry little…drummer boy.”  Charlie would stop every so often and stare up at the December sky knowing that his absence of heart was sure to come and go in waves as it had since he was a child—since those times of a tree, a song, and some friends gathered around a snow pile discussing the taste of winter flakes.  Since those times of his sister asking Santa for bills and unmarked generosities in the form of “cold hard cash.”  Since those times of his dog playing tricks with the bird.  Since these and a forever list of fading memories.

And with the city in a circling, voiceless mess of lost ambitions his heart made reference to these times over and over again.  His heart and times passed.  His heart and a look to the ground.  His heart and he kept on walking.

At Times Square he could hear a trumpeter somewhere far off playing “Basin Street Blues” and the movie posters loomed heavy and god-like over the people of New York.  One sight after another—family with a tree, delis with warm soup, tattooed bald headed rockers, empty lights-out rooms, shadows, ghetto poets, gutter deaths, and all under falling snow.  Charlie took out his mini-cassette and hit record.

“When all of this fades and the night falls away fully
To the potential of nothing but a lost and hungry solace,
Where will Christmas be then?  These trees and liquid hopes
And ‘yeah, let’s sing that one again honey’
Just don’t make sense any more.
Christmas.  Oh, you forgotten child…
Was it yesterday that Lucy called and asked me to a party?  Was it
Yesterday that she told me about her new husband (again
And again with that)?  Was it yesterday or three years ago?
Nothing comes together the way it used to and beliefs just fall to pieces
And my dog was not supposed to

Charlie stopped to light another cigarette.  He took a drag, looked around and decided to go see Schroder playing at the Cat Scratch.  He looked for a cab and as he stood on the curb and watched the ghostly faces rush around he realized that he thought passing time would have been easier.  He thought that all of those days in class as a child (trumpet voices, wa wa wa…) would have yielded something greater than this—cold and hungry jazz American Decembers.  He thought about Linus and how he was probably better off in Tangiers anyway.  He thought that happiness was infinitely far away at the age of 25.  He thought and thought and realized that it all came back to thinking of Christmas again.

The Endorsement: Lady Chatterley On The Radio

 

Tonight I bring you the beauty of contemporary juxtaposition, a dual endorsement that marries perfectly the old and the new. First, the old…

“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically…”

I recently finished reading “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D.H. Lawrence and cannot let another moment go by without encouraging anyone who has not yet read this novel to do so. Immediately. Written by Lawrence in 1928, the book was not published in Britain until 1960 due to the swirling controversy surrounding both the language and themes expressed in its pages. The plot is simple enough: An aristocratic, intellectual (Constantine Chatterley) finds herself in a passionless (loveless?) marriage several years after her husband returns from World War I paralyzed from the waist down. In her quiet quest for wholeness, Lady Chatterley becomes involved with one of her wealthy husband’s groundskeepers and spends the rest of the novel wrestling with the principles of devotion to her husband as weighed against the pull of organic, uninhibited passion.

As I read it, I continually had to remind myself that this novel was written in 1928 and not last year, not only because it so liberally tosses about words like “fuck,” “orgasm,” “ass”, and (oh, shudder!) “cunt”, but also because its sociopolitical themes are so incredibly contemporary. It’s unfortunate so much discussion surrounding this book concerns its more salacious moments (and believe, there are plenty), because on the whole, the novel is about so much more. It is one of the most humanistic stories I have ever read because the primary question it asks over and again is this: What makes us whole? In it you will find contemplations on sex disguised as love and love disguised as sex; socialism vs. capitalism; property and wealth as religion; the virtues and damnations of solitude; and so much more.

I picked up my copy for 50 cents at a local used book sale, and while you may be tempted to think the fusty nature of its cover makes it hopelessly dated, fear not. You are in for quite a radical treat.

And now, the new…

If you have not yet picked up a copy of TV on the Radio’s newest release “Dear Science,” do so. Now. When I first started hearing about this band four years ago, I was admittedly cynical about its supposed brilliance. The ceaseless, ubiquitous implication that everyone should be listening to these guys started feeling like a mother wagging her finger because her son will not eat his peas. I almost didn’t want to like them in spite of their acclaim, but once I realized this was an absurd feeling to have I opened myself up to their influence and have not looked back since.

“Dear Science” is one of the most solid and enjoyable records I have come across in the last year. This band blends emotive lyrics and melodies with crunchy, post-industrial electronic soundscapes so seamless as to make it sublime. Have a listen for yourself and tell me what you think. If you’re looking for a soundtrack to the age in which we live, “Dear Science” is a great place to start.

\”Halfway Home\” by TV on the Radio

[audio http://wpcom.files.wordpress.com/2007/01/mattmullenweg-interview.mp3]