To James Joyce: A Bloomsday Apology


It’s Bloomsday. Sigh. Before I get into my annual apology to James Joyce for having yet to complete reading his modernist masterwork, Ulysses, consider this term I learned from a recent New York Times Magazine article on (missing?) Joyce scholar John Kidd: horror vacui — the “fear of the void.”

The article’s author Jack Hitt, uses it in reference to the “compulsion to fill an existential emptiness” as has been recognized in the crowded canvasses of some folk art. Hitt also extends the term to the completist nature of some Joyceans to know and understand every allusion and nuance of a work Joyce himself said is crammed with “…so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” Perhaps this was Joyce’s “fuck you” to academia or an attempt at a kind of critical immortality. Or perhaps the work is symptomatic of the author’s own horror vacui — a neurotic exercise in worldbuilding akin to losing whole rooms of one’s home to the bacteria of a model train set. Why this need to rebuild the world? Is it that old saw about getting right in art that which we can’t in life? Is everything that wrong?

Yes. Yes, it is.

Horror vacui is what compels fans of Star Wars and the Marvel to know every iota about Jedis and Infinity Stones and the same anxiety accounts for those with an encyclopedic knowledge of biblical babble and base runs. I similarly had the bug one meaningless adolescent summer when I took a deep-dive into the comparatively shallow waters of The Beats. And like users who become pushers to feed their own habits, I now find myself packing my own work with enigmas and puzzles and inside jokes, not just to fill an apparent existential void but the more harrowing one of the blank screen. (Yesterday, while we were editing our film Pill Head, I changed the graphic of a phone number to suggest the title of a long-lost play I co-wrote. What’s wrong with me?)

So, this is what thou hath wrought, James Joyce. Anyway, as promised:

J.J. –

It being Bloomsday and all, I just wanted to apologize for not having finished reading Ulysses. Again. I know, I know, this is totally ridiculous, not least of which because my own mother named me for one of your major characters (you will be happy to know that I have read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so part of my pseudo-Greco ass is covered).

Back in 2004, during the Bloomsday centenary, I bought a copy of Ulysses and hunkered down in fake Irish pub called Finn McCool’s somewhere in Santa Monica. This was sad. What was sadder was my intention to drink Guinness until I finished the damn book. Unfortunately, my page to pint ratio turned out to be about one to one. You’re as dense a writer as I’m a slow reader who also happens to be a quick drinker. This is what I remember: “Stately plump mulligan,” a tower, a shaving bowl and having to return the next day for my credit card.

That particular copy of Ulysses ended up on its own Bloomsday adventure, touring the concrete jungle of greater Los Angeles from the back of the cab where I left it. Fortunately, I’ve since acquired two additional unread copies of Ulysses, so I promise to you, Jimmy, I’ll read at least one. Someday. I will. Yes, yes I said yes I will Yes.

And, yes, yes, I skipped to the last page…


Bass Fishing in America: The Search for Meaning in a Beer Bottle

Did Richard Brautigan drink Bass Ale?

Bass Fishing in AmericaAs an armchair Jungian, one of my factory-default-settings is a heightened sensitivity to synchronicity – the perception that separate phenomena may share some shared significance but without “any discernible causal connection.” Think of it as pattern-recognition-plus or being bisociatively-curious.

Connecting the dots in this manner might be an earmark of  genius or paranoia, depending which side of the meds one wakes up on. I’m neither a genius or paranoid, nor, for the record, a paranoid genius, but no matter how disparate or faint the stars, I can usually make out (or make up) a constellation.

I’m presently trying to wrestle some meaning out of the following folly, which has absorbed several precious hours this weekend:

Years ago, Trane DeVore snapped a photo of me with my hands through a large film reel as if I was locked in stocks like a 17th century ne’er-do-well. After some Jurassic-era Photoshopping (this was the early 90s), the result became the de facto logo for SCAM Magazine and other of my early enterprises. When packing for a recent move, I unearthed an original print of the image and, for safe-keeping, stowed it in a handy copy of Dylan Thomas’s Adventures in the Skin Trade until I could file it in my Smithsonian Box.

Lock, stock and two smoking barrels.
I forgot about this sentimental souvenir until a couple weeks ago when reading a quote from Debbie Millman’s Brand Thinking (via Brainpickings) that traced the origin of branding and trademarks to the “Trade Mark Registration Act” passed in the UK circa 1876. The first “brand” to receive official trademark status was Bass Ale for “its now-quintessential red triangle…”

Product Placement

Millman went on to cite Bass Ale cameos in Manet’s 1882 painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergèreand 40 odd works by Picasso (all with “Bouteille de Bass” in their titles) as milestones in “product placement.” My interest piqued, further research yielded an appearance of Bass in Chapter 14 of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the so-called “Oxen of the Sun” chapter in which Leopold Bloom contemplates the logo:

During the past four minutes or thereabouts he had been staring hard at a certain amount of number one Bass bottled by Messrs Bass and Co at Burton-on-Trent which happened to be situated amongst a lot of others right opposite to where he was and which was certainly calculated to attract anyone’s remark on account of its scarlet appearance.

This is where the synchronicity kicks in for me. Naturally, after our move I couldn’t find the aforementioned Thomas title behind which I slipped the seedling of my own nascent efforts in branding. My wife, incidentally a woman whose career is in brands, found it instantly and sure enough, on the cover is depicted a comic scene in which a man’s little finger is stuck in a bottle of Bass & Company Pale Ale (a nod to the protagonist of the title story who suffers the same fate).

Adventures in the Skin TradeThis discovery provided me an occasion to wonder what all this Bass-branding might portend and more broadly, branding in general and my relationship to it. And is this synchronicity – how one semi-loaded notion seemed to spill into another like so much pale ale? Sure, if you’re drinking from a Klein bottle. And speaking of Bass, should I have another? Or should I just drink less – period? Should I be wary of red triangles? Avoiding Red Square has seemed sensible enough at times, but where’s Red Triangle? Turns out, according to Wikipedia, I live near it:

The Red Triangle is the colloquial name of a roughly triangle-shaped region off the coast of northern California, extending from Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, out slightly beyond the Farallon Islands, and down to the Big Sur region… Around thirty-eight percent of recorded great white shark attacks on humans in the United States have occurred within the Red Triangle…

Bass Ale: No Discernible Causal Connection

I’m not worried about shark attacks or getting my finger stuck in a bottle or having some kind of existential Joycean moment whilst propping up a bar (a hazard when you’re a drinker named Daedalus). I do fear missing meaning when its revealing itself to me, nearly as much as I fear I’ve simply going mad. I can’t help, however, wanting to believe the universe provides such signs and symbols as an invitation to better understand it and perhaps ourselves within it.

Perhaps when there’s no “discernible causal connection” we have to make one, lest we live in a universe that produces only an elegant chaos that is little more than a light show. If, as they say, we are made of stardust, then mapping meaning in the phantom constellations between us is a worthy endeavor – whether one finds the Summer Triangle as in tonight’s stars or, like Manet, Picasso, Joyce and Dylan Thomas before me, a trademarked trivium of bloody angles.

Look Homeward Angel

PetalumaAfter two-and-a-half years of self-imposed exile in the East Bay, my family and I are repatriating to Sonoma County – specifically to my hometown of Petaluma. For me, the move marks an interesting chapter in my ongoing autobiographical opus, which I’ll likely lead with an epigram cribbed from Simon and Garfunkel: “Homeward bound, I wish I ?wa-a-a-s …”
But now I a-a-a-m.

Thinking of home I realize I’ve never read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, which might provide the psychic fortitude I might need when “going home.” Due to some karmic snafu – be it destiny or derailment – when trawling the shelves of Copperfield’s Books used department, I found Tom Wolfe instead. Suffice it to say, I drank the electric Kool-Aid and was soon spiraling headfirst into New Journalism. I’ve never recovered. Years later, a subsequent sidewalk meeting with George Plimpton in front of Elaine’s in NYC, only deepened my affinities and here I am still writing first-person columns in newspapers. Admittedly, this is neither New nor Journalism per se, but it pays the rent. Part of it. Continue reading “Look Homeward Angel”

From Kindling to Kindle

Will the future of reading affect the future of writing?

James Joyce, it is said, became so disgruntled while drafting his first novel that he threw it on the fire. His girlfriend rescued the work-in-progress from the flames, and the subsequent rewrite became A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Such acts of literary self-immolation and redemption could only occur in our once-analog world, when the permanence of erasure moved only as fast as fire. These days, the irreversible deletion of one’s work is a mere keystroke away.

That said, it seems would-be authors are more apt to hit the “publish” key on their blogs than the “delete” key on their magnum opus. Future literary historians will decide whether this has been a positive trend for the world of letters. Of the 100 million?plus blogs in existence, it’s unclear how many purport to be literature, let alone how many actually are. Nevertheless, entire industries have arisen to support the notion one’s blog could be a book, turning aspirants into authors with a click and credit card?at least for now.

Print-on-demand services like San Francisco?based Blurb will print the next Joyce a “Blog Book” for a percentage of that book’s sale to the author or his readers, in as many or as few copies as desired. Blurb has even automated the process with a program that “slurps” a blog’s content from its online habitu? and excretes it in the shape of a book when ordered online. Likewise, online retail juggernaut Amazon provides a similar service, CreateSpace, an on-demand clearinghouse for everything DIY, from books to DVDs. It is a micro-mogul’s mecca for the manufacture of media.

Now print-on-demand might prove to be a transitional technology the same way DVDs are giving way to digital downloads. Amazon claims 35 percent of its book sales are downloads for its Kindle “wireless reading device.” In March, cult brand Apple will overshoot the electronic book fray with the iPad, which aggregates print, video and music enjoyment into a single, sexy device.

Be assured, publishers and independent authors alike are readying their wares for Apple’s latest game-changer, which is an overgrown iPhone sans telephony. But who wants to take a call while in the thrall of a warm, glowing piece of technology anyway? It’s like a vibrator for the mind, and a throng of independent content producers hopes to get you off.

In the olden days of digital reading, circa 2000, premium content was scarce. Beyond being deskbound, the only texts available seemed to be classics poached from the public domain, Joyce included. Occasional experiments in electronic-book marketing came and went, with business ebooks and white papers seeming most prevalent. The transformation of print-to-pixel was a trickle with publishers wary or unsure of the medium, though pixel-to-print releases were garnering wider appeal and stoking dreams of digital discovery for thousands of would-be authors (blog-borne Julie/Julia is a popular example). Publisher HarperCollins even created Authonomy, an online authors community from which it occasionally cherry-picks and publishes material vetted by the crowd.

Now, however, it seems a new type of author is poised to emerge, one tailored to the new medium literally at hand, whose work will bypass traditional publishers and appear in the iTunes store, forsaking the bookshelf entirely. Pictures in printed books must have once been a novelty?moving pictures embedded in the text of your iPad is an inevitability, not to mention audio, three-dimensional maps, animated sidebars and other electronic illuminations. How will this amplify or diminish storytelling as we know it? A fear is that mutant transmedia hybrids might obviate established forms or at least leave them marginalized in the market in which a bestseller and killer app are one and the same.

What seems most uncertain is whether how we read will affect how we write. This will have to be determined in the field, for not even a visionary such as Joyce could have anticipated someone cuddling up with his words “In the silence their dark fire kindled the dusk into a tawny glow” from the glow of a tawny Kindle.