205/ Motherless Brooklyn

There is something Tourettic in the way Jonathan Lethem sums up the premise of “Motherless Brooklyn”:

Minna Men wear suits. Minna Men drive cars. Minna Men listen to tapped lines. Minna Men stand behind Minna, hands in their pockets, looking menacing. Minna Men carry money. Minna Men collect money. Minna Men don’t ask questions. Minna Men answer phones. Minna Men pick up packages. Minna Men are clean shaven. Minna Men follow instructions. Minna Men try to be like Minna, but Minna is dead.

Lionel Essrog emits impulsive barks and counts like a one-man freakshow. But it’s not his explosive tics that impress. What does is his single-minded persistence to make sense of Frank Minna’s murder. It’s touching how he makes the most of his Tourette to go after the murderer and vindicate his mentor.

Tourette’s teaches you what people will ignore and forget, teaches you to see that reality-knitting mechanism people employ to tuck away the intolerable, the incongruous, the disruptive—it teaches you this because you’re the one lobbing the intolerable, incongruous, and disruptive their way.

I wonder what it’s like to have a Tourette. It’s probably akin to perpetually scrabbling infinite letters for words that perfectly make sense except for all the rest of the world.

204/ F. Scott Fitzgerald A Short Autobiography

If you believe in anything very strongly—including yourself—and if you go after that thing alone, you end up in jail, in heaven, in the headlines, or in the largest house in the block, according to what you started after. If you don’t believe in anything very strongly—including yourself—you go along, and enough money is made out of you to buy an automobile for some other fellow’s son, and you marry if you’ve got time, and if you do have a lot of children, whether you have time or not, and finally you get tired and you die.

James L. W. West III (editor) is so right. There’s nobody who can write about F. Scott Fitzgerald better than F. Scott Fitzgerald. His writings offer insights into his genius.

Indeed, “F. Scott Fitzgerald A Short Autobiography” teaches important life lessons. Consider what Fitzgerald essayed:

About the ideal writer: “The wise writer, I think, writes for the youth of his own generation, the critic of the next and the schoolmasters of ever afterward. Granted the ability to improve what he imitates in the way of style, to choose from his own interpretation of the experiences around him what constitutes material, and we get the first-water genius.”

On embracing poverty: “We’re too poor to economize. Economy is a luxury. We could have economized last summer—but now our only salvation is in extravagance.”

And his wishes for the young blood: “He’ll have then, I hope with all my heart, these five things—a citizenship in the world, a knowledge of the body in which he is to live, a hatred of sham, a suspicion of authority, and a lonely heart. Their five opposites—patriotism, modesty, general enthusiasm, faith, and good fellowship—I leave to the pious office boys of the last generation. They are not for our children.”

203/ Anil’s Ghost

“Anil’s Ghost” is a familiar story, or it should be to us Filipinos. It is about Sri Lanka but the disquiet and uncertainty brought about by the internecine conflict among the government, insurgents, and separatists rings quiet a loud bell in our ears.

Michael Ondaatje ponders the tragic slump Sri Lanka finds herself in the eighties. It’s ironic that what he writes so beautifully, as he always does, invokes hair-raising and stomach-turning fear:

In a fearful nation, public sorrow was stamped down by the climate of uncertainty. If a father protested a son’s death, it was feared another family member would be killed. If people you knew disappeared, there was a chance they might stay alive if you did not cause trouble. This was the scarring psychosis in the country. Death, loss, was ‘unfinished,’ so you could not walk through it. There had been years of night visitations, kidnappings or murders in broad daylight. The only chance was that the creatures who fought would consume themselves. All that was left of law was a belief in an eventual revenge towards those who had power.

Now in the Philippines we are trying out peace channels. Our brothers and sisters in Bangsamoro, for instance, are campaigning for self-determination by having a Constitution of their own, some kind of a Basic Law. It’s all very confusing right now because, the way I understand it, they seem to want independence but they will remain within the purview of Malacanang. They’re probably biding their time for budget and recognition from the international community. But how they intend to be free while shackled to a bureaucracy they’re trying to get away from is something to keep an eye on.

202/ Up At The Villa

What is the good of youth that has no opportunity? I live in a prison and there’s no escape from it.

W. Somerset Maugham’s “Up at the Villa” is just the stuff sweet dreams and nightmares are made of—everything in one rapid eye movement.

Poor Mary. Off to marry man-on-the-rise Edgar and live a perfect life. She avoids the seductions of flirtatious Rowley. But falls for sweet young suicidal Karl. She gives him pity sex. He realizes one-night stand is all there is between them. That’s when her idyllic world turns dirty and ugly. She loses heroic Edgar. But rediscovers steadfast Rowley. Her real adventure begins.

Yes, shit happens. When it does, you don’t take your life, like young people do. What you do is you cover your nose, hold your breath, until everything smells roses again.

201/ Bel Canto

There was a regular education to be had from eavesdropping. So much of what was learned was accidentally overheard, just half a sentence caught when walking through the door.

On the surface, Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto” reads like a silly romanticization of terrorism. I’m hard put imagining the al-Qaeda being so moved by little Cesar’s angelic rendition of Vissi D’arte, vissi d’amore, non feci mai that they change their mind about collapsing the World Trade Center. Nor do I see the ISIS getting tearfully remorseful about beheading their captives after hearing Roxanne Coss render a heavenly number of Nessun dorma.

But who knows? Terrorists are still human beings. They must still have emotion. Surely they feel they hurt they love—just like all the rest of us tree-hugging mortals.

I don’t get how they think, how it seems easy for them to kill—and not just kill, but kill in numbers, in a sadistic way, with pride and conviction. But opera might just be the way to get to them, to make them respect humanity again, to be kind to another breathing soul. Numbers lust power aside, I think music is one other language that man of any color sex belief understands and speaks by heart.

Meanwhile, on a totally unrelated note, here’s a thought from “Bel Canto” that I hope will give our Overbearing Binay an accurate and truthful perspective of where he stands in our political landscape: “Vice presidents were merely calling cards, things sent in lieu of things desired. They were replaceable, exchangeable. No war was fought or won over the inspiring words of a vice president….”

200/ Cat’s Eye

Hatred would have been easier. With hatred, I would have known what to do. Hatred is clear, metallic, one-handed, unwavering; unlike love.

Of Margaret Atwood: she leads you inside her own world, allows you to get lost in it, gives you the best time of your life; then you step out and you don’t know how to feel about the whole ride. All you know is that you feel good. Or heavy, soppy even, but in a cathartic way.

It’s how I feel about “Cat’s Eye”. I find it beautiful, in a way that it makes me dig up my ugly pathetic sad past. I keep thinking about my own Cordelia. Who was it I followed around unthinkingly, like a poodle to his master? Who was it I both adored and abhorred? That closest friend who was also my most feared and hated enemy?

I realize I did not have just one Cordelia, but several Cordelias. In grade school, in high school, at the seminary, in law school, at the work places—there’s always that someone I admire and detest, love and fear, that Cordelia I am drawn to but at the same time can’t wait to get away from. That Cordelia that gives me an electric violent much-needed jolt to shake me out of complacency and mediocrity.

That Cordelia I can’t quite explain.

199/ Author, Author

Consciousness is my religion, human consciousness. Refining it, intensifying it—and preserving it.

“Author, Author” is a complete surprise, at least for me who has always thought Henry James is the definition of cool composure faultlessness. But David Lodge uncovers an HJ who I don’t recognize at all, not one bit—an artist who is insecure devious bitter resentful glum. A failed playwright.

HJ was just mean to his biggest fan, Constance Fenimore Woolson—who, I suspect, he regarded as mediocre. He was condescending to his dearest friend, George Du Maurier—whose manuscripts he, I think, intentionally did not thoroughly review. He was sanctimonious about Oscar Wilde—who, I believe, he found trashy.

This observation about HJ is so spot on: “It was his misfortune to consort with, and often befriend, writers far more popular than himself whose success only aggravated his own sense of failure, but time has rectified the balance….[Henry James] contributed one word to the English language…but it’s one to be proud of: ‘Jamesian’.”

Yes, time has been kind, very very very kind, to Henry James. His works are now the standards against which contemporary writings are measured and weighed and considered. He proves to be the Master that Fenimore and Du Maurier, perhaps Edith Wharton and Oscar Wilde even, rightfully considered him to be. Time has avenged him, mightily avenged him.