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Posts Tagged ‘Rene Magritte’

A Stroke of Luck - Rene Magritte, 1948

A Stroke of Luck – Rene Magritte, 1948

‘If you know a man is wrong, I mean, if you know he did somethin’ bad but you don’t turn him in to the law because he’s your friend, do you think that’s right?

‘All you got is your friends, Easy.’

‘But then what if you know somebody else who did something wrong but not so bad as the first man, but you turn this other guy in?’

‘I guess you figure that that other guy got ahold of some bad luck.’

We laughed for a long time.

Walter Mosley, Devil In a Blue Dress

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Next Spring I will launch a publication called FLAPPERHOUSE. I’d like to tell you about it, though I’m not really the type to write mission statements or manifestos. So I’ll say this instead:

Dorothy Parker, Jorge Luis Borges, and HP Lovecraft walk into a speakeasy. Louis Armstrong sings “St. James Infirmary Blues” over a rusty phonograph. Behind the bar, Salvador Dalí pours absinthe into a hubcap full of peanut butter and raw macaroni, and he stirs the mixture with the antler of a live moose.

“Four martinis, Sally,” says Parker. “Plus whatever the boys want.”

Borges excuses himself to the basement in search of the restroom. He must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere because before long he’s lost himself in an infinite labyrinth full of shelves with mirror-spined books. He starts to imagine what stories these books contain, and how he might review them.

Back upstairs, Josephine Baker dances in sensual ecstasy on Fritz Lang’s table while he peeks at her sideways through his monocle and pretends he’s not aroused. René Magritte paints himself painting them both through a castle’s window. Apples hover before their faces.

The ghost of Franz Kafka’s in a corner, leaning sharply against the wall.  Lovecraft spots him and approaches, timid yet determined, as if helpless to confront his most horrifying fear. “What’s it like?” Lovecraft asks, referring to death. Kafka’s ghost replies only with facial expressions: First with what seems like laughter, then a grimace like he might cry instead, and finally he shakes his head to say no, I really shouldn’t tell you, no. Lovecraft sits and stares at the floor for a while.

We are neither living nor dead!” shouts TS Eliot, raising a glass of gin. “And we know nothing, looking into the heart of light, the silence!

Parker’s sipping her second drink when she finally notices the ants crawling from the stem of her martini glass and onto her hand. Fucking Dalí, she thinks, as she swats and squashes as many bugs as she can. Kafka’s ghost can hear their screams.

She holds her cameraphone in front of her face: bemused, rankled, heartsick, yet almost drunk enough to be tickled by it all. Once she’s got enough good madness framed in the background, she sips, clicks a picture, and posts it to Instagram, caption, “Just another night at the Flapperhouse… #thirsty”

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Memory, Rene Magritte, 1948

Memory, Rene Magritte, 1948

I remember reading James Frey’s drug-addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces in 2005, back when the book was still classified as “non-fiction,” and I could’ve sworn a lot of the details smelled fishy. So the following year, once Frey revealed the truth of his fictions, I felt a little happy about it. I wouldn’t call it schadenfreude; I got nothing personal against the guy. OK, maybe there was some schadenfreude. But for the most part, I simply felt nice knowing my suspicions had been validated.

Somehow I missed the similar controversy that arose just over a year later regarding Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs Of A Boy Soldier. In fact I wasn’t really familiar with the book at all. I saw it for the first time while browsing the shelves at my local library a couple weeks ago, and I thought it looked fascinating.* And until I’d finished reading it, I had no idea that its veracity had come under serious scrutiny not long after its publication. Which is not to say that I never suspected Beah’s account may have been significantly less than 100% accurate. From the beginning, I took it for granted that the memoir of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone would have to be at least a little fudgy, considering all the trauma and drug abuse that must’ve fogged up his rear-view mirror.

Then I got to page 51 and spotted this fat red flag:

“…Grandfather always gave us a special medicine that was supposed to enhance the brain’s capacity to absorb and retain knowledge. He made this medicine by writing a special Arabic prayer on a waleh (slate) with ink that was made of another medicine. The writing was then washed off the slate, and that water, which they called Nessie, was put in a bottle. We took it with us and were supposed to keep it a secret and drink it before we studied for exams. The medicine worked. During my primary-school years and part of my secondary school year, I was able to permanently retain everything that I learned. Sometimes it worked so well that during examinations I could visualize my notes and all that was written on each page of my textbooks. It was as if the books had been imprinted inside my head. This wonder was one of many in my childhood. To this day, I have an excellent photographic memory that enables me to remember details of the day-to-day moments of my life, indelibly.

Beah may as well have written “Just in case anything here seems too far-fetched, this harrowing true-life story is really truthfully true. All of it. Truly! Because my grandfather gave me Magical Memory Juice when I was a kid, that’s why.

Reading this passage saddened me. The author doth protest too much, methought. And it didn’t feel like the passage was Beah’s idea, either. Throughout the book, his voice is humble, blunt, and fearless. I could be wrong, but I couldn’t help speculating that an editor or agent whispered the idea in his ear, told him to write about the memory juice to convince readers of something they didn’t need to be convinced of.

Yet Beah’s Magical Memory Juice didn’t spoil the rest of his book for me. I believe A Long Way Gone is true enough. I believe most of these things happened to Beah, and if any of those things didn’t literally happen to him, then I’m sure they either happened to someone not unlike Beah.

I guess the reason I’m more forgiving of Beah than I was of James Frey– aside from the fact that being forced to become a child soldier sounds far more terrifying than being a drug addict– is that except for the Magical Memory Juice, Beah’s details felt truer than Frey’s. Beah’s story captures what Werner Herzog would call “Ecstatic Truth.” And if Beah had an ulterior motive, it wasn’t, as Adam Kirsch would say, to “seduce the reader with an ostentatious display of soul-bearing,” it was to shine a light on the horrors of Sierra Leon’s civil war.

If I had been Beah’s editor, I would’ve whispered in his ear: “Sell it as a novel. Just say it’s ‘Based on a true story.’ If it turns out some things didn’t happen quite how you remember them, then so what? They’ll still call you the Sierra Leonean Hemingway. Oh, and lose that part about the Memory Juice. I don’t care if it’s real; I simply don’t buy it.” 

* On the other hand, I did work in a large bookstore when A Long Way Gone was first published, so I admit there’s a chance that I had in fact heard of the book before and simply forgot. In my defense, I ingested many intoxicants in those days, and I never once ingested any Magical Mystery Juice.

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The False Mirror, Rene Magritte, 1928

I’ve been in kind of a rut lately, so I thought I’d shake things up a little. First, I bought a copy of “The Anarchist Cookbook” on Amazon. Then I called a bunch of my friends on my Verizon phone and ranted to their voicemails like “Let’s start a revolution against Big Brother and destroy the status quo!” and so on. Finally I went on 4chan and proposed that Anonymous should hack the White House and publish Obama’s browser history, or whatever it is Anonymous does. I was certain the government would quickly identify me as a potential threat to their surveillance-driven oligarchy, and my life would soon become much more adventurous and exciting.

Alas, I just received the following email from the NSA:

“Dear Mr. O’Brien,
We thank you for your interest in the United States Government, and are flattered by your desire to become an enemy of the state. Unfortunately, after careful examination, we have decided that you have neither the intelligence nor the influence to become a legitimate threat to us. Of course, we’ll still continue to monitor your every transaction and communication, and we wish you the best of luck in all your future endeavors. But we thought we should let you know that we really don’t take you very seriously as an adversary.
Sincerely,
The Feds
PS – Your dog’s bowl needs fresh water.”

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