Tag Archives: James Joyce

With a Song in My Heart: E is for…

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” – U2, 1992.

I can kick this post off by reassuring readers that it won’t be quite as heavy as yesterday’s.  Instead we’ll just offer a few paragraphs about one of my favorite bands, one with whom I have savored and at times rued a two-decade-long love/huh? relationship.  (You’ll also note that I appear to be constitutionally prohibited from in-depth appreciation of bands from my own side of the Atlantic.)  U2 first came to my attention in the mid-early-80’s when they were transitioning away raw, angry Irish proto-punk into more mature, textured material that wasn’t all allegorical retellings of the Troubles. I can say that now that my vocabulary has developed substantially; back then it was only a matter of taking the slightest interest in the Unforgettable Fire poster on my cousin Brad’s bedroom wall.  Even when their legendary Joshua Tree album dropped a few years later they didn’t really register for me.  They seemed too serious, too dire, too preachy.  What is interesting to me now, as a devoted fan, is going back and realizing just how many of Bono’s lyrics are intended to be about God, but that like the best pieces of art (or religious texts, as it were), you can interpret them to mean, or be about, whatever or whomever you want.

What do U2’s songs mean to me?  Well, let’s go back and talk a bit about how I finally got into them.

1997 for U2 brought the release of Pop, what is probably their most polarizing album, setting aside the art-for-art’s-sake Passengers misfire.  (Given the aforementioned Christian focus of Bono’s lyrics you could assign a double meaning to the title of this one as well:  Pop – Poppa – Father – God.)  The lead single was “Discotheque,” a foray into 90’s club music, featuring an appropriately cheesy video which had Bono and company donning the garb of the Village People and performing an easily mimicked hip-thrusting dance.  My playlist had grown stale and I was hungering for something fresh, and this fit the bill.  For once, those dour Irish dudes seemed like they were having some fun, and I could get into this.  The trouble was the rest of the album wasn’t so great.  Aside from one beautiful standout (“Gone,” which should have been a single but wasn’t for whatever reason), it remains a hard-to-listen-to mishmash of misbegotten experiments and half-finished ideas.  But no matter, the fish had bitten into the hook and I began to mine their back catalogue.  That’s when I found Achtung Baby.

I’ll happily argue with anyone who doesn’t think it remains their best album by a mile.  Almost like a greatest hits collection, there isn’t a single song on there that can’t stand up to years of replays.  In rock journalist Bill Flanagan’s terrific book U2 At The End of The World, the band talks about how the album took much of its inspiration from Nighttown in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and as such follows a wanderer who, seduced by more hip-thrusting rhythms, descends into an orgiastic abyss,  confronts his soul and winds up spent and wrecked in the damp gutter as the dawn finally begins to break.  Backed at every harrowing step, of course, by some simply marvelous tunes.  Now I don’t remember enough of what I read of Ulysses (i.e. almost nothing) to draw all the connections for you, but listening to Achtung Baby uninterrupted, start to finish, does feel like an odyssey of sorts, and you do find yourself feeling a bit worn as the closing track “Love is Blindness” fades away, but the journey’s been worth it.

So it’s ’97, I’m spinning Achtung Baby and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” nonstop, and driving my friends bonkers by being the worst version of a U2 n00b (U200b?) you can imagine, prattling on as if I’d discovered them.  “Did you guys know that Bono’s real name is Paul Hewson?  Did you guys know that the first time Axl Rose heard ‘One’ it made him cry?  Did you guys know that they used to be called Feedback?  Did you guys know…” and so on and so forth.  Looking back on it even I would have told myself to shut up.  But when you’ve found something that fills a void you weren’t sure was even there, your first instinct is to share the news far and wide, and be incredulous that not everyone else mirrors your admittedly insufferable enthusiasm.

U2 have released six albums and a couple of compilations since Achtung Baby, and what keeps me buying the new ones even though none have lived up to its standard, is the idea that U2 remain seekers and questioners.  They subscribe to the concept that faith unchallenged is not true faith, and are ever reinventing themselves and their sound to pursue the glaringly contradictory aim of a brutally necessary yet realistically unachievable goal:  solving What It’s All About.  However, this approach can test the patience of those fans who only want to hear the old Joshua Tree classics reinterpreted with some new guitar licks (i.e., The Rolling Stones Career Plan, patent pending.)  When you’re trying for that elusive objective as well, your heart is more forgiving of the missteps no matter how awkward or brash – especially since theirs tend to sound much better.  U2 have been called pretentious, phony, egotistical, preachy, hypocritical and even clueless, but they’ve never been accused of being boring.  Their ability to surprise is like that of life itself – built in the DNA.  Though they may never again equal the achievement that is Achtung Baby, their choice to not rest on those laurels is an admirable one.  Go away and dream it all up again, as Bono once said.  What is even better than the real thing?  Knowing that the questions, and the choice to pursue those questions, are sometimes more valuable than the answers.

Baby, what’s your line?

I’m obsessed with opening lines.  I can spend hours in a bookstore scanning first pages and evaluating the effectiveness of their greetings.  What is true in the dating world applies equally to literature – the first line sets the tone for the entire story to come.  It can either grab you by the metaphorical balls or wheeze pathetically as if to say, “well, I’m not much to look at, but please if you could be spared a minute or two, if it’s not too much trouble, if you don’t have anything better to do.”  Crafting your own is a daunting challenge mainly because of what you are trying to avoid; you never want your hello to your reader to be the narrative equivalent of “Baby, what’s your sign.”  The Bulwer-Lytton Awards, which commemorate the worst published writing, are named after the man who began his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the immortal phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and the ranks of mediocrity are plentiful enough without daring to offer one’s own work up for consideration.  The trouble is there are already so many amazing examples out there, that began intimidating all writers to follow decades before you were even born.  Behold just a smattering of the most familiar and most celebrated:

  • “Call me Ishmael.”  (Moby Dick)
  • “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”  (Ulysses)
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  (1984)
  • “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”  (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  (Pride and Prejudice)

There is my personal favorite, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” (do I really have to cite it?) and a new addition to my ranks of greats:  “Imagine you have to break somebody’s arm” (Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller).  So what makes a truly great opening line?  I’ve read thousands and I’m still trying to figure it out.

There appears to be no singular rationale, other than that the perfect example is able to convey copious amounts of thought-provoking story information while making you hunger for more.  Who is Ishmael?  What is Buck Mulligan up to?  Why are the clocks striking thirteen?  Why is Colonel Buendia being executed, and what would compel him to recall seeing ice for the first time in the moment of his death?  What has always struck me about openers is how off-handed they seem to be, as if they were composed quickly, in a matter of course of getting on with the meat of the story, even though for all I know hundreds of hours of thought and revision have accompanied each individual letter and punctuation mark, their shapes calculated precisely for maximum impact.  There are limitations:  the line cannot be so “out there” that it stops a reader’s momentum dead so they sit and ponder its meaning endlessly.  It has to be a kick in the pants to force you onward.

The Great Gatsby‘s intro does just this:  “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”  What does this tell us?  That we are about to be led through this tale by a man who is looking back on reckless youth and continuing to this very moment to wrestle with the meaning of those years.  What is the advice his father gave him and why has it haunted him since?  We need to know more, hence, we need to read more.  Contrast this, say, with the first line of Elmer Gantry:  “Elmer Gantry was drunk.”  Without factoring in the character’s name, this is really only two words.  Yet they still crack open the door to a mystery that demands exploring.  The book is called Elmer Gantry; why are we being introduced to the protagonist in such a disagreeable fashion?  Why is he drunk – is this a regular occurrence?  What could be so wrong with his life to compel him to become inebriated?  Is he a tragic or comic character?  Only one way to know.  Turn the page.

You can drive yourself a bit batty with that first line.  In writing my novel I have gone through dozens of iterations of my opener, scaling up, scaling down, going broad and universal and then small and personal, and struggling to find that ideal balance of brevity versus length, captivation versus compulsion.  It’s an invitation that has to ask without sounding desperate, and has to reassure the reader that a trip inside this little world of words is going to be worth however much time we have asked for their attention.  No wonder it’s as difficult as working up the courage to approach that sexy woman in the bar.  I remember hearing some pick-up advice once and I wonder if it can be applied here as well.  The gist was that if you are at that bar and you see a woman you are attracted to, you are obligated to approach her within 30 seconds of seeing her, otherwise not at all; the idea being that the longer you wait, the more you invest in the outcome, making a possible rejection more damaging to your ego.  The lesson to be drawn, then, is to just start writing in medias res, as if you are already on to the next woman, and that first will either come along or she won’t.  Being casual about it might ultimately lead to failure, but overthinking it makes failure certain.  The thing to remember is that it is only a start, and where you go afterwards is what really matters.

In search of lost leaders

I paraphrased that from Marcel Proust – a name any candidate for office drops at his or her own peril, lest they be labeled an out-of-touch, latte-sipping elitist and snob.  I haven’t read A la recherche du temps perdu – my experience of Proust is confined to multiple viewings of the “All-England Summarize Proust Competition” from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  I did however slog my way through James Joyce’s Ulysses earlier this year.  (Spoiler alert:  the last word is “yes.”)  I didn’t read it so I could say I did whilst peering down my nose at the teenage girl devouring her dog-eared copy of Twilight.  I read it out of a sense of curiosity and wanting to enrich myself, and as a writer, wanting to learn from one of the masters.  Will it have any discernible impact on my own writing?  Can’t really say.  But the point wasn’t to reach a definitive goal.  It was to simply add another ingredient to the bubbling stew of my intellect – a concoction of memory, schooling, experience and opinion from which (hopefully) pours forth something of value.

Pardon me as I pause for another sip of my venti decaf mocha hazelnut frappucino.  I mention this as I watch the unfolding of two election campaigns with the memory of a third only a few months old, and bemoan the race to the bottom that each has become.  If there is a singular thread that runs through my handful of postings here, it is a profound belief in the capability of human beings at their best, and an equally profound disappointment at humanity’s choice not to exert its potential.  It’s a bit like watching Superman choose to sit on his porch with a beer just because he doesn’t feel like doing anything today.  Except instead of today it’s been the last 30 years.

Jimmy Carter was crushed in his bid for re-election by a guy who galvanized America with a bold, inspiring message.  The message wasn’t about the incredible things that America had done when it pulled together and shared sacrifice, like winning the Second World War or landing men on the moon.  No, it was that their government sucked.  (It remains frustrating to me that anyone can win election to office by decrying the office itself, but there you go.)  Ronald Reagan preached that government needed to be reined in, cut off at the knees, drowned in the bathtub.  This message resonated so deeply, coupled with the other side’s failure to articulate a decent rebuttal, that it has informed the political discourse in the U.S. ever since.  It’s disappointing to see even President Barack Obama buy into Reagan’s fallacy as he describes his battles with a Congress full of people who literally hate his guts.  The debate has moved so far to the right that those of us on the other side feel like we’re a yard from our own end zone with 15 seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter.

The rebuttal should be that government works when the right people (pardon the uncomfortable pun) are running it.  And that is, subliminally, something that most people do agree with.  People want leadership.  “Strong leader” is one of the most important factors when pollsters take the temperature of the electorate’s attitude towards candidates.  Yet the atmosphere has become so trying that truly great leaders won’t even make the ballot, let alone win.  Television and 24/7 media scrutiny played on endless repeat with panel discussions, five-day-long specials and exclusive interviews has made it so that only the blandest folks can survive the onslaught.  An email used to circulate a few years ago where you were given three biographies and asked to pick which you thought would make the best leader – only after you’d picked were you given the names.  I don’t remember the exact details, but basically, the first was a drunk, the second was a cripple and the third was a squeaky-clean vegetarian customs clerk.  Based on the bios you always went for the clerk, only to discover that it was Hitler – while the former were Churchill and FDR respectively.

We’ve seen plenty of prospective leaders undone by the smallest gaffes.  Howard Dean, the progressive governor of Vermont who was leading in the early 2004 Democratic presidential race, was finished off by media overreaction to an exuberant scream he gave during a rally-the-troops speech to his supporters.  Not a sex scandal, illegal nanny or even a misfiled income tax return.  A scream.  Michael Ignatieff, the highly-regarded writer, educator and public intellectual, led Canada’s Liberal Party to its worst-ever defeat after being hounded in attack ads and the press for having lived several years abroad.  Again, he hadn’t fathered a kid with the maid or been caught snorting cocaine off a bikini model’s boobs.  He was attacked for having lived outside the country.  No one can say what kind of leaders these guys would have been had they won.  But the circumstances of their undoing merely reinforced the meme that safe and bland is a winning strategy.  In fact, you don’t have to be a strong leader at all – you just have to say you are over and over again and people will start to believe it, regardless of the evidence to the contrary, or lack of any evidence of leadership qualities at all.

If we are defined by our mistakes, and our character shaped by our reactions to them, what can be said of people who don’t make any?  How is someone who grew up in comfort and was parachuted into his career by his country club father, someone who has never had to take risks and has never experienced the ache and disappointment of loss and personal failings ever supposed to empathize with the plight of drug addicts or the homeless, or the simple working man who has to scratch for every dime to feed his family?  How is that person supposed to unite the differing interests of a vast country and guide them into a new and better era?  When you occasion to wonder why we haven’t gone back to the moon, or to Mars, or really progressed very much further in our evolution, you have only to look at the mediocrities we’ve entrusted to lead us – people with no imagination, no soul, no capability of looking beyond the end of the spreadsheet.  Politicians cruise to landslide victories on promises of nothing more than tax cuts.  We then act surprised when they don’t deliver anything else.

If someone is capable, if they are intelligent, if they are curious, if they have lived a learned and compassionate life, if they have a sense of humor, if they have experienced the world beyond their borders, if they believe in the ability of government to unite and do good, if they are driven to challenge and enrich themselves, and if the cruelties of regret have forged the gravitas of statesmen, then quite frankly, I don’t care if they have snorted cocaine off a bikini model’s boobs.  I’m more likely to admire them for admitting that and making light of it rather than succumbing to the papal-like finger-pointing of the media and the opposing party.  We need to remember that the best of us are broken in some way, and that by demanding perfection in candidates we won’t get leaders, we’ll only get managers – those guys who in the private sector become terrific assistant vice-presidents but never really impact anybody’s life but their own.  I hope to be more than that, and I hope we are one day again led by someone who is more than that.

So maybe I will pick up that copy of Proust after all.  And hopefully, a future leader is doing so right now as well.