About Me

My Photo

Roy Scranton's journalism, essays, and reviews have been published in Rolling Stone,, the New York TimesBoston Review, Los Angeles Review of BooksContemporary LiteratureThe Appendix, and elsewhere. He is one of the editors of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (Da Capo, 2013). His book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is forthcoming from City Lights in the fall of 2015.

23 August 2010

Not News

Not reading much... getting ready for a 10-day Vipassana Meditation course. Will post more this fall as I turn to study...

In the meantime: Frank Kermode died, Xe (formerly known as Blackwater) will pay a $42-million-dollar settlement to the State Department in lieu of criminal charges so they can keep contracting for the US government, some xenophobic Texas racists are also functionally illiterate, and despite the fact that he was and remains wrong about Iraq, I'm praying for Christopher Hitchens.

19 August 2010


US TELLS IRAQ: "Good luck with all that freedom! Sorry about the dead bodies and corruption... And those 50,000 troops still in country are 'trainers,' got it?"

Seven years is a long time. Now my war's "over." Kinda makes me all choked up.

Also, Marc Bousquet weighs in on a recent NY Times "debate" on academic tenure; the Matisse exhibit @ MoMA is pretty awesome; a bigoted jackass running for Governor of New York voiced his support for Big Government telling Americans what to do; drag-queen and LGBT activist Anne Coulter takes another hit for his courageous outspokenness (no more taking back America!); and Tom Scott proposes some very necessary journalism warning labels.

17 August 2010

NPR is making me dumber

So to follow up my snarky carping about a book I haven't read, I'm going to engage in some snarky carping about a "debate" I'm not paying attention to. In fact, it's a brouhaha I'm actively trying to ignore--and, unfortunately, failing.

Every day it seems for the last week , I have to hear somebody opine on Park 51 (aka "The Cordoba House," or "The Ground Zero Mosque"). Why is this a discussion? Why are they giving time to witless, jingoistic bullshit on NPR? Can't we just "refudiate" all this rabble-rousing ballyhoo and put our "sensitivities" second to the idea of religious freedom, which was, you know, like a founding value and stuff (and kind of important to secular democracy)?

No, I guess not.

Maybe part of what makes me so angry about all this idiotic, bigoted, xenophobic blather arguing that we should discriminate against Muslims because some people find their religion offensive is an acute awareness of how easily I gave in to racism while serving in the Army in Iraq, and of how hard I've worked to get over that. It took me years to quit using the word hadji, or quit gritting my teeth when I saw a woman in a burqah or head scarf. So maybe I'm a little sensitive myself when rabid jackasses start parading out their racist shit under the cover of patriotism, tender feelings, and "hallowed ground".

This is a non-issue that's been seized upon by rightist wing-nuts to whip up demagogic froth. There are a variety of cogent, reasonable arguments pointing out how stupid, fundamentally against American values (and the Constitution), and racist is opposition to Park 51 / the Cordoba House (here, here, and here, for example).

It's a little infuriating to see this issue taking up so much space. Meanwhile, our Muslim "ally" Pakistan, whose unstable government is equipped with nucear weapons, suffers from devastating floods that will no doubt further destabilize the region, and Iraq continues to teeter toward collapse and civil war as we plan our escape from the deathtrap we created.

Yeah. And what happened to BP? That whole oil thing? Is that done now? The Afghanistan leaks? Anything? Anybody? Can we pay attention to something for a few minutes and not let the screaming media-idiot-machine distract us with fatuous noise? Can that happen?

Never mind.

15 August 2010

Me and Tolstoy, We Both Hate Freedom

So I found out from The Guardian this morning that Time has anointed Johnathan Franzen a Great American Novelist. Given how Time’s been so vigorously and intelligently providing of-the-moment book reviewing and criticism these last few years (the last author to grace Time's cover, a decade ago, was the Tolstoy to Franzen's Dostoyevksy, Stephen King), and that the gentleman they hired to anoint Franzen is best known for his novel of a boy who goes away to magic school (no, not Harry Potter, but a Harry Potter rip-off, which fact almost overloads my Baudrillard Simulacrum-o-meter), I have to say, well done, Time. You’ve taken your role as arbiter of American tastes and values and your long tradition of thoughtful reviews of important books and used it to lift up a difficult, powerful, but unrecognized genius, whose new book is surely as profound, rich, and prescient as his last novel, The Corrections—which, if you remember, ended by predicting the long, slow “correction” to the economic exuberance of the nineties, and the quiet, gentle decade beginning the 21st century.

Of course, betting wrong is not a novelist’s greatest sin, nor is misreading the social and cultural forces shaping the world so badly that your book gets bitchslapped by history, as The Corrections was by 9/11. Nor should we fault Franzen for his self-righteous, bathetic hand-wringing about the fate of the Big Social Novel, his unwarranted and mean-spirited attacks on avant-garde and experimental fiction, and his primma-donna drama with Oprah Winfrey. We should remember, as Grossman and others so dutifully point out, that Franzen can create three-dimensional characters who say things, feel things, and do things (I remember one in The Corrections quoting Schopenauer while he played with his own poop). That is most definitely a sterling virtue for a novelist these days, when Literature must “compete” with Television, Movies, and the Interwebs for our precious free time and entertainment dollars. Yes to characters!

William Skidelsky, writing in The Guardian, sounds the trumpets for Emperor Franzen: “if there is one English-language writer today with the ambition and talent to make the literary novel seem truly meaningful again, both as a vehicle of mass entertainment and as a serious record of our times, it is him.” Indeed, it is a crucial time for The Novel, and Literature’s vehicular history and historical veracity are the marks by which we can see it saved. The Great Literary Novel is and should be a history of the present, an infotainment about ourselves so narcissistically compelling that we’ll turn for a moment from the video teats at which we normally suck and pause to think, however briefly, in words. From Don Quixote to Tristam Shandy to Moby Dick to A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, from Frankenstein to Middlemarch to The Sound and the Fury to Invisible Man, from The Scarlet Letter to War and Peace to Magic Mountain to Gravity’s Rainbow, the greatest novels in the western tradition have all been mass entertainments whose aim was to record and detail the petty obsessions and fleeting distractions of our self-absorbed day-to-day lives.

Let all and sundry proclaim the Emperor’s arrival! Despite the fact that by all accounts Freedom sounds much like a rehash of The Corrections, with Big Current Issues swapped out to keep it contemporary (as Skidelsky writes, in Freedom “he addresses, among much else, the spread of neocon ideology, the reconstruction of Iraq and environmental desecration”—and Freedom seems to involve more poop, as well, this time with a wedding ring), it sounds like exactly the Great American Novel that America deserves: navel-gazing, over-hyped, high on the smell of its own flatulence, and most of all Very Important, Great, and Real.

I know this is the novel I’ve been waiting for, and I can’t wait to hear all the tooting that has only just begun to blast from the media machine. Ladies and Gentlemen, the lovely, photogenic Mr. Franzen, the most exceptional of all Lake Woebegon’s exceptional children, has arrived to save literature from itself. That crashing and grinding noise you hear? Applause.

In other news, I finished War and Peace. It’s hard to know how to summarize and discuss a 1500-page novel that’s regarded as one of the high points of Western Lit. I read the Ann Dunnigan translation, not the much-lauded Pevear & Volokhonsky, but I found the prose clean, swift, and strong, never dull, and often beautiful. The book is a wonderful historical epic, and once the central triumvirate emerge (Pierre, Prince Andrei, and Natasha), the many narrative strands become less confusing. It is a rich, profound, and sweeping book, and Tolstoy’s descriptions of war are simply amazing. I also particularly loved his long description of a hunt.

A few things bothered me, though, primarily Tolstoy’s heavy-handed lectures on history that weigh down and in my opinion completely warp the end of the novel. What he has to say is interesting and well-put, but he might have said it once and left it, instead of repeating himself again and again, then spending the last forty pages driving the point home one more time, in case we missed it. Basically, history isn’t about great men, but the mass of human lives, and human behavior—especially but not only in the mass—is as subject to natural laws (and as bereft of self-directed “freedom”) as any other phenomenon. I buy it, I think it’s an interesting philosophical discussion and a very important point, and I also think it’s fascinating that Tolstoy developed his theory of mass man when he did. It’s also a good point of view for a novelist to take. And while it’s interesting in the context of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the many disparate lives Tolstoy draws, Tolstoy just beats it into the ground.

I also found the end dissatisfying for another reason, which was Pierre and Natasha’s happy marriage. I’m not quite sure what it is that bugs me about it, but I feel like Pierre’s spiritual enlightenment while in prison is somehow diminished by him settling into domestic bliss and daily concerns, however touchingly drawn, and Natasha’s travails and achievements too are subsumed into diapers and babies. Maybe this is Tolstoy’s point: that life, in all its banality, triumphs. If so, he makes it very well, but it’s still not quite… maybe not quite what I want. Perhaps my taste is more for the tragic, for the uncompromising, for the exception…

It’s quite a good book, all in all, well worth the time, and I’m glad to have read it, especially for Tolstoy’s look at war, but it didn’t leave me as stunned and awestruck as did Middlemarch or The Great Gatsby or Swann’s Way, nor even as amazed and engaged as almost any Henry James, Faulkner, or Dostoyevsky would. A great novel, certainly, and a profound achievement of human art, but curiously disappointing.

I’ll finish with a brief quotation, that called to mind my Army days in Germany:
The Bible legend tells us that the absence of toil—idleness—was a condition of the first man’s state of bliss before the Fall. This love of idleness has remained the same in fallen man, but the curse still lies heavy on the human race, not only because we have to earn our bread in the sweat of our brow, but because our moral nature is such that we are unable to be idle and at peace. A secret voice tells us that we ought to feel guilty when we are idle. If man could find a state in which though idle he could feel that he was of some use and was fulfilling his duty, he would have discovered one of the elements of primeval bliss. And such a state of obligatory and irreproachable idleness is enjoyed by a whole class—the military. It is just this obligatory and irreproachable idleness that has always constituted the chief attraction of military service.

08 August 2010

Still Reading War & Peace

But I'm almost done. 100 more pages.

I did finish a really interesting book, The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Adventures, that is nurturing, down-to-earth, and provocative. I dislike the term polyamory, aesthetically and semantically--it sounds octopoid, it's a dissatisfying mix of Latin and Greek, and it's awkward (I mean, do we call monogamous people mono-amorous? uni-amorous?)--but I understand the desire for a positive definition, rather than simply a negative one (i.e., non-monogamous). The book was recommended to me by a friend who's doing research on polyamory and with whom I was discussing open relationships. Much of this is new to me (at 33, and divorced, I'm finally beginning to really own what I want in terms of relationships). I recommend the book to anyone who is thinking outside the box and exploring nonmonogamy, and even to people who are happily monogamous but are interested in thinking through their choices and preconceptions.

I also read The Human Face of Karate, by Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura. Kaicho Nakamura is the founder of Seido Juku Karate, and this book is his autobiography. It's a straightforward, honest, inspiring account of his lifelong karatedo, his difficult break with the kyokushin kaikan school, and his thoughts on ethics, karate, and spirit.

I remember a conversation a had once with a friend of a friend, who when he found out I was studying karate gave me a self-righteous and tedious lecture about how he'd done martial arts for a few years, but then gave up because he realized that all he was learning was how to hurt people, and that wasn't the kind of person he wanted to be. I knew even then that there was more to Seido, Karate, and (at least some) martial arts than that, but I wish I'd read Kaicho's autobiography at that point because I could have offered a much stronger objection.

In fact, my practice of Seido and the practice Kaicho leads at the Seido Juku Honbu isn't just about being tough, getting in shape, and kicking ass. Seido means "Sincere Way," and it's a practice of building discipline, character, and ethics in one's whole life. As stated on the Seido website:
Seido aims not only to develop students with the highest level of physical skills. It also strives to cultivate individuals of the highest moral character who can then make significant contributions to their family life, the workplace, and to society at large.
Seido school's meditations, lectures, community service, and other practices integrate the do, or way, into life and society. This is a strong tradition in karate. As stated on the Japan Karate Association (Shotokan school) website:
The ultimate purpose of karate is not physical prowess or the winning of matches, but the development of balance, harmony and spiritual and physical strength through strict, disciplined training. Karate schools you in natural, effortless action, and imbues you with an openness, peace and wholeness of character that vastly enrich day-to-day life.

Practical ethics, I suppose, has been something I've been thinking about a lot lately, in both explorative and traditional ways. I don't want to be one of those orientalist Westerners who adopt simplified versions of Asian philosophies and practice for their exotic, unusual, or easily misunderstood facets. What I love most about Seido karate are these four things: 1) the physical and mental discipline essential to the practice; 2) the development of balance, breathing, and flexibility, both physically and more than physically, metaphorically, in my life; 3) the close, supportive, and welcoming sense of community at the McBurney YMCA dojo and at the Seido Honbu; and 4) the spiritual and ethical teachings Kaicho, Kyoshi Pam, and other sensei put forth, which both speak of and exemplify values of patience, discipline, diligence, compassion, attention, empathy, and self-mastery. For me, karate offers a way to integrate the strength, fighting spirit, fortitude, and discipline I learned in the Army with the openness, empathy, spirituality, and creativity that have always been important to me, but which felt stifled in the military.

As I go to Princeton in the fall, I will probably switch from Seido to Shotokan schools, since the Princeton club is Shotokan and there is no Seido there. But I hope both that the Shotokan club at Princeton offers something of the ethical and spiritual do in karatedo, and also that I will still be able to make it up to the NYC Honbu sometimes to continue my studies in Seido.

Other than that, and working my way through War and Peace, and editing my two novels, I've also managed to see some art and movies. The two best exhibitions I've seen this summer were the Charles Burchfield at the Whitney. I knew nothing about Burchfield before going and frankly wasn't expecting much, but was blown away by the exhibition. It was curated excellently, providing a strong but not overwhelming narrative arc to the artist's body of work that highlighted both continuity and change. A few key turns/moments are well-structured within an overall flow that manages to show both Burchfield's range and his recurring themes and concerns.

More importantly, Burchfield's work itself is amazing: my favorite paintings were his "landscapes" or nature-scenes that combine a wildly expressionistic style with spare, almost minimal design techniques, an expressive personal symbology, surreal transformations, and a striking and original use of light and perspective that warps the space of the painting to utterly transform the world being viewed. Really great stuff.

My friend and I inadvertently went through the exhibit backwards, and (perhaps owing to our ignorance about Burchfield) found this reverse-narrative rewarding and even at times thrilling. Burchfield's up at the Whitney till October. Check it out.

I also finally went to see the Otto Dix at the Neue Galerie. Curatorially, this exhibit was fairly staid, but it did well enough to get out of the way and let Dix shine (or glimmer darkly like a pool of moon-lit blood oozing across a muddy trench).

The most affecting portion for me was the first room, a showcase of 50 prints from Dix's series Der Krieg, along with four related paintings (including "Wounded Veteran," below). It's easily the most striking and horrific exhibition I've seen since I was appalled by Nina Berman's photos of wounded Marine Sgt. Ty Ziegel at the Whitney 2010 Biennial. Modeled after Goya's Los Desastres de la Guerra, Dix's prints and drawings show him easily Goya's equal in the depiction of the human fragility and suffering. It calls to mind Nietzsche: "Oh this insane, sad beast man!" And what an easily butchered piece of meat.

Dix's painting on the upper floor are mostly just as good (excepting some of the boring watercolors in the hall). In nearly every mature painting, it's hard not to see the human bodies, so individual, so full of character (to the point of caricature), so full of life, as corpses on the verge of rigor mortis. Dix's morbid palette and the expressions, at the verge of hysteria, numb shock, terror, or bestial cruelty, that play on the faces of his subjects make for a series of portraits that delight and disgust with equal measure, something like the effect created by a ruptured body by the side of the road.

Dix is up at the Neue Galerie until the end of August. Go see it.

Finally, I saw some films, which I'll only mention briefly. Inception, which was an enjoyable, well-constructed, and almost even intelligent summer blockbuster, much fun; Orlando, in limited rerelease at the disturbingly skungy Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, which was almost perfect but for the plodding intrusion of Billy Zane (what? WHY!?), heavy, dated synthesizer, and an ending that seemed both vaguely antifeminist (oh, she's happy now that she GAVE BIRTH) and somewhat arbitrary; Bye-Bye Brasil, a really interesting Brazilian film from the 70's about a traveling sideshow troupe; Breathless, which was, as always, wonderful; and last but not least, The Room, a truly strange filmgoing experience. The Room is hard to describe, an "indie" film in the purest sense, and apparently something of a cult-film perhaps comparable with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I can say, having seen both, The Room is less fun, far less sexy, less emotionally satisfying, and much less interesting than TRHPS(oh Bullwinkle!), both as a movie and as a movie-experience, but it was a hoot nonetheless to go see it and throw spoons.

That's about it for now. This is like the longest post ever. Maybe I should post more briefly and more often, but hey, I'm not a blogger.

Happy Sunday.