Nick Flynn’s awkward and mercifully brief new foray into poetry, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, worried me from the start. The second poem, “fi...moreNick Flynn’s awkward and mercifully brief new foray into poetry, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, worried me from the start. The second poem, “fire”, begins, “more the idea of the flame than the flame / as in: the flame / of the rose petal, the flame of the thorn / the sun is a flame” and proceeds in that manner for a dozen more pages. Not content only to copy Gertrude Stein’s nonsense, Flynn also creates an unflattering homage to Galway Kinnell’s masterful “The Dead Shall be Raised Incorruptible” from The Book of Nightmares, stretching out that poet’s shuddering “Lieutenant! / This corpse will not stop burning!” into pages of meaningless psychoanalysis of an Iraq War soldier ordered to torture captured terror suspects.
one drunk night, even now I wonder-sometimes still I
imagine-was I hit am I daze, this
dream this confession, hey little girl is your daddy home, hey capt’n hey
sir am I making any sense?
No. Although I suppose passages like these make too much sense as obvious attempts to illustrate the obvious horror of doing obviously horrible things. But on a universal scale, Flynn’s belief that his caffeinated rant gives us new perspective on these crimes makes no sense at all. Reading this book left me feeling guilty by default, as though I went to an open-mic poetry slam and watched a very bad rapper read a few verses about his tough childhood. How any of the five respected poets whose complimentary blurbs grace the book’s jacket fell for this nonsense, I do not know; I’m afraid I’ve permanently lost a little respect for Franz Wright for comparing The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands to Neruda, Whitman, and Yeats.
When lyrics to Modest Mouse’s “Float On” started showing up at the end of multiple poems, Flynn’s writing process becomes glaringly evident: get very stoned, put on some indie rock, and just write the words you feel, man. Perhaps the book should come shrinkwrapped with a mix CD and a dime bag, then you would at least be getting something for your money.
Although I could go through and find several dozen examples of nonsense to shake my head at, I want to share with you the most arrogant verses of the book, which also happen to be one of its most concrete images:
the tower towers above us
now, we can see it from wherever it gives the impression
we will never get lost
Flynn has confidence: the strong tower one can never lose sight of. But that confidence is misplaced in a meaningless gesture. Only the person dreaming of this tower could actually be moved by it. Note that Flynn only gives one word that describes the tower: “towers,” the verb. Like so much of this book, the image is a closed loop, hoping to hide its pretension. Flynn is so set on congratulating himself for thinking of such a great idea that he believes it needs no praise beyond its existence. When a small child makes a totally indecipherable shape out of Play-doh, we praise him or her for their creativity, but only so the child is encouraged to continue. At his age, I’m wary about giving Flynn more of that type of ego-building.
As I said, Flynn attempts to justify all this angst by linking it to the Iraq War and, more specifically, the detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. In “seven testimonies (redacted)”, he takes some very moving prisoner testimonials and transforms them to dull sense-poetry through a pointless dada exercise. Helpfully for the critic, the original passages are printed in the back of the book. “The broomstick was metal. I was hit in the face, back, legs at Abu Ghraib,” becomes, in Flynn’s translation, “broomstick was I was / you are we want—”. But why? Why torture us (gruesome pun intended) with the senseless beating of real horror into art school refuse? It comes across as an insult to those who suffered at our military’s hands, suggesting that we can’t see the real meaning of their words until some MFA student wins a prize with them.
Flynn is rightfully angered by the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib, but he has nothing new to say about them. His poetry lacks the intellectual might required to make any persuasive arguments. While reading The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, I was reminiscing about one of the most sophisticated works of art examining the Iraq War, the play “Stuff Happens,” a brilliant take on the subtle and viral fears that allow the creation of a place like Abu Ghraib. In a scene in the second act, George Bush’s advisors are debating what concessions they need to make to Tony Blair to entice England to join the war when Dick Cheney violently interrupts them, hissing, “We don’t need him!” We may be able to round up some polite applause for Nick Flynn’s puppy-dog political poetry, but we definitely don’t need it. (less)
An excellent example of a writer with ambition and ideas without the imagination and skill to match. Howells unsuccessfully blends strict realism with...moreAn excellent example of a writer with ambition and ideas without the imagination and skill to match. Howells unsuccessfully blends strict realism with proto-psychoanalysis, creating a mushy blend of obvious description and dull revelations. He loves to tell you exactly what people are thinking and feeling, often presaging his unrealistic dialogue with two or three unnecessary adjectives telling you what the characters will experience before, during and after their speeches. The expected twist never materializes, and in the end, the plot resembles an overwrought romance novel more than a literary tale. A few times you glance some original ideas about the mind - I'm sure most of this was cutting edge in 1907 - but there's not much of use to take away from this story.
I have no idea why Melville House bothered publishing it. (less)
Ultimately, a pretty disappointing book. As a big fan of the Sports Guy's columns about the NBA, I thought I would be laughing from beginning to end a...moreUltimately, a pretty disappointing book. As a big fan of the Sports Guy's columns about the NBA, I thought I would be laughing from beginning to end and learning a lot. Neither turned out to be true. By expanding upon the worst parts of his columns - his obsessive biases towards certain types of players and teams - and mostly ignoring the profound insight he usually incites with his biting humor, Simmons comes off as someone who spent too much time watching pro basketball and now can do nothing but rant about it. I wanted to learn about all the great players of history in this book, but instead I mostly learned what Simmons thinks is wrong with them.
It's clear that Simmons has thrived online due to the work of his editors in corralling his babbling and refining his humor. The supposedly hilarious footnotes in this book consist of nothing but bad porn star humor, bad 80's movie humor, and Simmmons making jokes about how he can't stop making porn star and drug jokes. It is to our great benefit that ESPN keeps this boorish immaturity out of his columns. I began glazing over them about halfway through the book. I thought, perhaps, that I was just on Sports Guy overload, but I kept reading his columns online while I read this book, and they continued to make me chortle. By the last section, "the best teams ever," I was skipping pages entirely, as it was obvious that Simmons was just blasting out whatever it took to prove his favorite team of all time, the '86 Celtics, were also the best team of all time.
You could pick apart this book's rhetoric from many different angles, but I think it can be nicely summarized by saying that Bill Simmons is a second rate writer who, because of the popularity of his humor and his honest insights, has been tricked into thinking he is in the upper echelon. The best parts of this book are when Bill quotes other writers. But just because you hang out with Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman (and get them to contribute amazing passages to your tome of rants) doesn't mean you can keep up with them on the page. (less)
The supernatural parts aren't really supernatural enough, and the family drama parts are too overwrought. It bothers me when you can't tell whether th...moreThe supernatural parts aren't really supernatural enough, and the family drama parts are too overwrought. It bothers me when you can't tell whether the author or the narrator has a warped view of the world; it's like seeing "Inglorious Basterds" without knowing how WWII actually ended. The women in this novel are presented as mystic goddesses, all vastly superior to men but without man's humanity. It's a common problem with male authors, and it bothers me.
The criminal center of the novel is a heart-wrenching story, and it did make me pause to consider a family going through what this family goes through. But it did not justify several hundred pages of a rather boring ghost story. (less)
I believe I accidentally read the "eat, pray, love" of 1980's Japan. Banana comes up with a great premise for a heartwarming story: a girl is orphaned...moreI believe I accidentally read the "eat, pray, love" of 1980's Japan. Banana comes up with a great premise for a heartwarming story: a girl is orphaned when her grandmother dies, but is taken in by a young boy who worked at the flower store the grandmother frequented and his transsexual mother. When the mother dies as well, the narrator must face her grief all over again, just when her life got back on track. There is something to be said for the up-and-down narration style, where life can be bleak and wonderful in the same paragraph. It's perhaps a more honest reading of our daily outlook. But it's not paired with any literary aspirations, and the book relies on the old standards of describing food in great detail and completely manufactured romantic situations to generate its weight. Don't read it. Nothing here holds up. (less)
The entire novel, from its office mope opening to its cheap karmic close, is petty. We all think the self-hating thought of Milo Burke occassionally t...more
The entire novel, from its office mope opening to its cheap karmic close, is petty. We all think the self-hating thought of Milo Burke occassionally throughout our everyday lives, but who wants to read an entire novel composed of the worst bits of self-doubt? As Milo Burke makes his ask for a big give (to the university he sort of works for), we cannot help but wonder what exactly Sam Lipsyte is asking from us, other than painful endurance of his overwraught quarter-life crisis porn.
I'm surprised this book managed to get published, not because of the quality, but because its a lawsuit waiting to happen. Milo is so blatantly plagarized from Larry Kramer, the self-absorbed, class-obsessed prosecutor from Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, that we wonder if perhaps this must be a purposeful update to Wolfe's journalistic vision of New York's unwinnable rat race. Milo even manages to transport Kramer's sexual desperation to the era of internet porn, and we get a whole lot of unnecessary and boring woman-hating thanks to it. But the difference between Lipsyte and Wolfe is scope. Lipsyte gives us nothing beyond Milo's immediate bitterness, where Wolfe would have instantly realized that there were to the plight of the squashed liberal arts office drone, it's necessary to realize that the world is more subtle than lords and serfs. In The Ask, Lipsyte's supporting cast strains to break through their caracatures, to provide some insight beyond Milo's Schoepenhauer-for-Dummies schtick, but Lipsyte's reluctance to let the conversation move to a topic other than himself prevents it.
Like Bonfire of the Vanities, this novel will seem hopelessly outdated a mere 20 years later. But unlike Wolfe, Lipsyte has not provided any insight worth salvaging from the dated past. If Wolfe's world is a brash and sometimes flat alternative to a masterful Delillo mural, Lipsyte is the cheap Chinese knock-off with the important parts censored. Tom Wolfe makes a big ask, for moral clarity, and if the need is there we are willing to give it to him. Lipsyte makes a small ask, for self-hatred, and so pity is all he gets.
Lipsyte practically begs us to join in on his joke when he forces Milo to spew out the following line:
"If I were the protagonist of a book or a movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right?" And his boss, Vargina, replies, "I would never read a book like that, Milo. I can't think of anyone who would. There's no reason for it."
Fuck you too, Sam Lipsyte. Fuck you too.
Nevertheless, there are some good quotes in the book. If you throw enough shit against the wall...
"We were stuck between meanings. Or we were the last dribbles of something. It was hard to figure. The fall of the Soviet Union, this was, the death of analog. The beginning of aggressively marketed nachos."
"I'd become one of those mistakes you sometimes find in an office, a not unpleasant but mostly unproductive presence bobbing along on the energy tides of others, a walking reminder of somebody's error in judgment."
"Physical bravery probably held the same value in our milieu as skill at parallel parking: a useful quirk. But the box score stayed in my wallet, or the wallet of my heart, so to speak, a smeared and origamied scrap to remind me how little I resembled the man I figured for the secret chief of my several selves."
A coherent and at times engrossing look at the closely-guarded palaces at the center of occupied Iraq. Neocons issued strange and mostly useless order...moreA coherent and at times engrossing look at the closely-guarded palaces at the center of occupied Iraq. Neocons issued strange and mostly useless orders with an air of authoritativeness matched only by the memories of Saddam, insulated by a wall of high-calorie American-style comfort. You can see how badly we did things and how hard it would have been to get them right. (less)
I liked it, but it's more of a moral tale and than an actual novel. You have to be ready for catalogs of ancient conspiracy theories and strange names...moreI liked it, but it's more of a moral tale and than an actual novel. You have to be ready for catalogs of ancient conspiracy theories and strange names. But some amazing mystical scenes, too. (less)