Ruminations on Kafka


Reading a great story is similar to eating a delicious sandwich. One great sentence, like a delicious slice of salami, can be all it takes to satisfy. When we taste the relationship fresh, crisp cuts of lettuce have with the other ingredients, we taste the demands the sandwich maker made on their product before delivering it to us. Those of us, who never worked in the industry, don’t know the symbiotic relationship these ingredients should have with one another, but we know it when we taste it. Those of us who worked in the industry, and have some familiarity with the art of making a great sandwich, know that even the perfect symbiosis of the freshest, most delicious ingredients don’t matter if the sandwich artist doesn’t have great bread. The quality of the bread is the great divide between an average sandwich and a delicious one.

The consensus on author Franz Kafka is that he didn’t write great sentences. His prose was characterized by a Stanley Corngold as “luminous plainness”. I understand the ambiguity of that description, but while I concede that there are very few, there are some great lines. Anytime we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, our inclination is to add some “could’ve been, should’ve been” lines. Every time we think we found one, it just doesn’t quite fit. In the course of those efforts, Kafka’s style is unveiled, his economy of words, and the meticulous choreography of his story.

I would love to see some early drafts of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, just to see what he added and deleted in the course of editing. Did he have great sentences in the first draft only to realize they damaged the otherwise “luminous plainness” feel of the story? Did Gregor Samsa’s family have greater, more comedic reactions to Gregor transformation into an Ungeziefer ‘a beast unfit for sacrifice’? Did he vie for some greater entertainment in the story, or did he have a religious passion for the mundane feel for the story? My guess is that in the early drafts of this story, Kafka had to battle with an egotistical need to add something more to Metamorphosis to make it more. Did he initially have one of the characters make an incredibly insightful comment about humanity that illuminated for us how insightful Kafka was? Most authors cannot avoid the conceit of informing their readers how smart the writer is/was, and they do so by making indoctrinating their characters smarter, more intelligent, and brilliant. Were the characters funnier, more charming, more compassionate, more wonderful, or more something that every author wants their authors to think of them in those initial drafts? My guess is that Kafka probably had hundreds of versions before it reached final form, and that the final form we know today is an exhibition of the ego-less restraint he employed.

Great writers work through their strengths and weaknesses in pieces no one will ever see. Some of them learn that their path to a great story hinges on great sentences. Others find that devotion to ideas and style pays greater dividends. Some might suggest this is an author finding their voice. They do so in the course of reading others, trying to duplicate them, and eventually realizing what they’re greater strengths and weaknesses are.

I might be wrong, but I don’t think any reader will finish Metamorphosis with a “Holy Crud!” reaction. The reader might start the story in that vein, but Kafka diminishes the shock of a human transforming into an Ungeziefer with a level of choreographed reality the reader might find mundane. Thus, when we finish the story, it sits on a shelf in our mind like a preserved meat, until we process and digest it, in the manner we will a great sandwich. It might take a while, it might take an incident, but at some point concept of the story will hit us, and we’ll realize what a unique, and uniquely crafted story it was.

Whenever we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, we seek a reference point, a doorway into the mind of the author. Most great stories are about us, in some tangential manner. Some stories are so foreign to our experience that we cannot find a reference point, because we can’t possibly find ourselves in such a ludicrous story. The brilliance of Kafka is that his writing relies on an axis of narcissism and objectivity. Is it narcissist to believe that every story is about us, or is it narcissist to believe that none of them are? How do we define a great story? How does a great story define us? Do we know someone for whom the author speaks, and do we wish they would read Kafka to understand themselves a little better? How would they do that, what do we hope they might understand, and are our answers to those questions autobiographical?

To paraphrase author David Foster Wallace, readers should imagine a door when they approach a Kafka work. We seek a doorway into Kafka’s mind so that we can understand his works a little better. We seek a reference point, a point of entry. When we think we’ve found the doorway, we start “pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens … and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along.” 

One of the primary duties of every writer is to elicit emotion in the reader. How well they do this defines them. For one writer, it might be about the sentences, and for another it might be the idea that story is sacred. Some stories elicit instantaneous reactions, and some require some slow roasting. Some people don’t want to think too much. They want instant stories that provide a clear path from clear A to Z that culminate in an exciting conclusion. Millions of these books move from writer to reader, and the readers love them. Some of us prefer stories, like the ones Franz Kafka wrote, that reach in and fiddle with some different switches embedded deep in our psyche.

Kafka was an impersonal writer who chose to ground his greatest fantastical tale in reality. Prior to Kafka, and since him, most writers felt a need to form the basis for the fantastical with the fantastical. It just doesn’t seem realistic that something so uncommon should happen in a common home of common people. Kafka doesn’t fight against commonality in the manner some will by suggesting that the common can become uncommon. He chose to wrap his ingredients of “luminous plainness” in a bread of ideas and style.  

The Pit Stops of Life


The Pit Stop

The destination is the destination of our planned vacation. We pack up the belongings, the kid, and the dog with an ultimate destination in mind. When someone suggests that we take a pit stop, we say, “Why? We’re making good time here. At this rate, we should arrive at our destination by four p.m., with plenty of time to do much of what we planned.” The fun and frivolity we dreamed up, when we dreamed up this vacation, all took place at the final destination. Pit stops seem like a waste of the precious time we could spend having fun. The dilemma arrives when we arrive at our destination, and we have nothing to do for the first couple of hours.

“[He] never made pit stops,” a woman said of her now deceased husband. “He thought pit stops were a waste of time. He wanted to get there.” 

Well, he’s there now, I thought of joking. He’s at his final destination. It would’ve been an awful, cruel joke. No one would’ve laughed, of course. No one would’ve so much as smiled. How many pit stops did he make to his final destination? Did he go quickly? He wasn’t the type to stop at a lakeside pit stop. “He wanted to get there.”

I didn’t say any of that, but in the midst of my scheme to drop that room-silencing, reputation damaging joke, I realized that I’m a no-pit-stops destination traveler too. I don’t stop to smell the flowers, look at a lake, or carpe diem the moment. I want to get there, wherever there is. I want to have fun, and I don’t want something like a pit stop to get in the way of it. 

When we map out our vacation, it often involves lengthy travel times. Even on paper, we know we’re signing up for a long journey, even when they’re all interstate miles. It doesn’t get any better when we’re doing it. As the miles click by, it begins to feel like a Sisyphean trial of humanity to sit in a small car for that many hours in a row, and it doesn’t matter how large the interior of an automobile is, they all feel small after eight hours. The family might want to smell the flowers and look at a lake, but I’m the “Let’s just get there for all that’s holy. Let’s get this drive over” type of traveler. 

The volume of the consensus breaks us down, however, and we take a pit stop. Their primary goal, after such long car ride, was to get out and stretch the legs a little, go to the bathroom, get the kid out of the car for a while, and let the dog pee. We’re not for it, but we strike a deal with those who are dying to get out of the car. We decide we won’t stay long. We’ll look at stuff, we’ll walk down to the lake and throw some stones in it. We’ll talk to some of the other people who made a similar pit stop, we’ll let the dog run around with whatever joy he always runs around in, and the kid can have some spontaneous kid fun. Then we’ll take that almost cinematic portrait with that crystal blue lake in our background, and we’ll all get back in the car for another three hours. 

I don’t know if I needed the break more than I knew, but I was peaking at this particular pit stop. Some of the times, we have mental peaks, some of the times, we have physical ones, but every once in a great while they come together. Before we turn 25, our whole life is one peak after another. The only stories we tell involve those moments when we weren’t peaking. After 40, we are so impressed with our peaks that we tell everyone we know. Everything in between involves noticing peaks after the fact. I was peaking at that little pit stop. I was in the moment, the moment I stepped out of the car. I wasn’t thinking about the car ride ahead of us, how this pit stop might hamper our pre-planned schedule, or anything else for that matter. Once I stepped out of the car, I wanted to make this stupid, little pit stop as fun as it could possibly be. 

We had so much fun at that little pit stop that it proved one of the best we have ever experienced on vacation. When we finally arrived at our proposed destination, we had all the fun we planned to have, and I remember that vacation as one of the better ones we’ve had. We may have spent four days at our proposed destination, and we only spent 30 minutes at that non-commercial pit stop, but the time we spent there will forever stick out in my memory.

City on a Hill

I love a great line. A great line can make a movie (90 minutes long, on average) or a series (roughly 47 minutes per episode, with ten episodes on average) seem worth it. Anyone who reads this will probably say that it says a lot about me, but my favorite lines are the obnoxiously offensive and repugnant lines of vulgar cruelty. Some heart-warming, positive lines, reach me, but nothing causes me to pause and rewind more than an awful line from an awful character. 

I also prefer shows and movies that depict people doing and saying awful things to one another. There are exceptions, of course, as some shows are awful for the sole purpose of being awful. The great shows, about awful people doing awful things to one another, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men always managed to preserve some relatable integrity in their characters while doing and saying awful things to other characters. We learn to cheer the main characters on, and when they did awful things to other characters, we cheer that on too. 

The Showtime series City on a Hill is not as great as those shows, of course, but it did have one great, repugnant, moment of vulgar cruelty. 

“I can hear it now. The eulogies, the hymns, the bagpipes, everyone forgetting what a lousy piece of [dung] you’ve been your entire life,” the Jackie Rohr character says to his rival J.R. Minogue, on an episode of the TV show City on a Hill. The Minogue character lies in the ambulance, and we know he’s not going to live long enough to see the hospital. We know Rohr’s cruel sendoff will be the final thing the Minogue character hears. “Your wife’s going to be upset [after you die] for about five minutes, and I will … eventually, but this should be a comfort to both of us. There’s no hell. There’s only this life, right here, right now, and the last thing that you’re going to see in your lousy life is my ugly face.”

Seconds before this scene, Rohr eagerly leapt into the ambulance that carried J.R. Minogue, before the EMTs could close the door. We know this scene. We’ve seen it all before. The main character, a law enforcement official, leaps into the ambulance to hold a fellow cop’s hand, as the man succumbs to death. Even though they’re bitter rivals, Minogue’s a fellow cop, and that goes along way to forming some solidarity between the two. That’s the typical scene, in the typical cop movie, but the writers of City on a Hill had other plans for Rohr. They have him mock his rival on his deathbed, and he lays into Minogue with vulgar cruelty.

Ever since Sopranos, and perhaps beyond, viewers have come to accept the idea that their favorite main characters on their favorite productions can be morally ambiguous, if not downright awful people. Through a dizzying array of scenes, we accept the idea that Jackie Rohr is one such character. Yet, what motivates this character to be this spiteful? We’re to read into it. We’re to wonder if we could ever be that spiteful. We’ve all had people we dislike in a competitive manner, and we dislike others in a more personal manner, but have we ever hated someone so much that we wanted to taunt them into death? Most of us haven’t. I obviously considered this scene an interesting nugget to chew on, and I wanted a more thorough psychological exploration of why, or how, even a Jackie Rohr could be that spiteful and that hateful. Scenes like these remind me why I prefer books to movies.

We understand that when Rohr says, “This should be a comfort to both of us. There’s no hell,” he does so to inform the viewers that he knows that he’s as awful as J.R. Minogue is. That line sets up the next line well, but after I paused the series at that point and rewound it a number of times, I thought up a better line. 

“There is no heaven, and there is no hell. There’s no such thing as an afterlife.” If the writers seek spite, this might be an altogether different level of spite, because as awful as J.R. Minogue apparently was, he likely tried to counter those evil deeds with some good ones throughout his life. It might be even more spiteful to inform him that those good deeds he performed, and any other attempts Minogue made at good and honest living, were a waste of time, because “there is no heaven.”

Rohr then alluded to the idea that his main point for jumping in the ambulance was to make sure that Minogue’s loved ones weren’t the faces he remembered. Rohr wanted his face, Minogue’s most hated rival, to be the last face he saw. I see the writer(s) working here. I know that they’re vying for one of the more spiteful moments in TV history, but if there is no afterlife, and J.R. Minogue turns to dust, there will be no way for Minogue to remember the final moments that Rohr hoped to ruin. He’ll turn to non-existence, and Rohr’s awful sentiments will die as soon as Minogue does. A better line might have been, “There is an afterlife, and we don’t know where you’re going yet, but if they somehow determine in their mysterious ways, that a piece of [dung] like you is worthy of eternal paradise, I’m here to ruin all that for you by providing you your own personal definition of hell, knowing that my ugly face was the last thing you saw in your time spent on Earth.”

I read an interesting complaint regarding individuals who follow religious philosophies. The complainant suggested that religious people fail to appreciate their lives on earth as much as they should, because they place inordinate focus on achieving eternal paradise in the next life. Whether there is an afterlife or not, even if it involves a level of paradise beyond our wildest imagination, something tells me that we’ll look back on our lives on earth with some regret if we don’t make more time to enjoy the pit stops in life, en route to our final destination.

The Death of the Novel


“There’s nothing to say that hasn’t been said before,” Terence in the second century B.C.

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” –Andre Gide

“The idea that everything has already been said has already been said.”

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, someone needs to artistically slaughter the traditional novel, the novelly novel, out in the street for all to see. That which was once so important to us, is now dead. Writers will keep writing novels, and readers will keep reading them, but the era of the novel, as a cultural touchstone, has been on artificial life support for some time now waiting for someone to pull the plug, so we can reframe the real and rebirth it. Some young, ambitious kat needs to step up to the plate and destroy the art form in such a glorious way that its readers know there’s no turning back.

We pick up a book now, in our local bookstore, and the back jacket makes it feel so real, so vibrant and so cutting edge. Then we see it, the dreaded words “a novel” on the cover. We used to think that all it would take is one exciting, “I just can’t put it down” novel to reignite our passion for the novel, but we’ve read too many paint by numbers’ narrative conventions to believe that will happen. We’ve read too many authors depict wonderful and beautiful landscapes, in captivating wordscapes to want to go through it all again. We’ve read too many authors sort through romanticized sentiments in relatable conversations with side characters to give us a sense that they’re all a lot more like me than I ever considered possible. We’ve read too many authors deploy shadowing techniques to display how clever their main character is by showing us how dumb her side characters are. We put that novel back on the shelf, because we now know that in the author’s attempt to wow us with their artistry, they will attempt to please all of the people all of the time.

Our complaint might not be with the novel alone, but the novel used to be our favorite form of expression. The novel allows its author the sort of in-depth analysis of the human mind for which no other art form has the patience. The novel permits us to live, breathe, and be the character. In the more visual mediums, we might arrive at more immediate entertainment, but they fail to capture the intimacy of a great book. For most of my life, there was nothing better than a great book, and I was always reading one. As I write this, I haven’t read a novel in five years, and that was some light fare compared to my unusual favorites. 

Perhaps we’ve read too many novels at this point, but we can spot an author’s agenda a mile away, and most of us don’t want to know what the author’s agenda is. On the off chance that we enjoy it in some manner, her cloaked positions will strike us as derivative and redundant, and we will spend the breadth of the novel thinking we could’ve written it better. Typically, her main characters will be remarkable faultless, and her bad guys bumbling fools. She will engage in tired tropes, such as children being smarter than adults are, and everyone else knowing more about “the industry” than the CEO who spent 25 years in it. Bad guys gotta be bad and good girls, gotta be good. It’s so tired now that we need some new author to have the audacity to shake it up and teach us something different about ourselves.

In the same way Sam Raimi and the Coen Brother’s “Shaky Cam” killed the typical horror movie, essays, philosophical tracts, and the internet ruined the novel. The novel no longer feels as real or as relevant as it once did. It no longer feels substantial, engaging and cutting edge. It could be as simple as short form vs. long form, but we don’t think so. We think it has more to do with our hunger for some version of an author punching reality into our jugular.

The novel died right after we said, “The novel is not dead!” The writer who pines for a best-seller list might say such things, but does an artist who uses the novel as an expressive art form? After reading a novel, we should charge its author as an accessory to its murder. The reader should despise them for violating the conventions they hold dear. The writer should exhaust the reader’s anger until the reader grows to love them. “I see what you’re doing now, but it took me a while sheesh!” should be the first words that come out of her mouth when she’s done being so irritated with the writer that she put the book down numerous times (in absolute frustration) before she finally finished it.

“Don’t insult the reader,” the writing magazines advise. “Pay attention to your reader.”

Those of us who come from a punk rock school of writing think the modern writer should learn all of the novel’s conventions for the sole purpose of violating them more creatively, and we think they should know them so well that they boldly change them in an atypical fashion. If you think you know what this means, invert that thought, and give that a try. Insult the reader, we say, anger them, and make them despise us for writing what we wrote. We need to confuse, confound, and control the reader’s mind, until they come back begging for more. Could one book do all this? It would have to be an incredible book. I’m more inclined to believe it might take a movement, similar to what punk rock and grunge did for hard rock. 

“I did this for me,” we should tell those writing magazines. “By giving you me, I’ll give you you,” as author David Shields would say.

Even if our subject matter is pleasing, we should write in a way that makes the reader uncomfortable. As boring as most novels are, some earn our hard-earned money. Some offend our sensibilities so much that we find them thrilling. We’re on the edge of our seat wondering how this book is going to offend us next. We finish the book on a spiritual high, only to learn that our compadres have their thumbs adamantly pointed down. “I found it so repugnant that it made me feel uncomfortable,” they said. “Me too!” we say from a 180-degree different standpoint.

Your job, as a writer, is to take us to uncomfortable places. Tap into some uncomfortable places in our psyche and force us to explain them. “I’m not a bad guy.” You’re not, but you could be, if I placed you in such an uncomfortable position that you thought about it. “But I enjoy laughing, and I enjoy it when some beautiful text makes me feel wonderful about myself.” Is wonderful what you’re feeling, or is it publicity? How loud do you shout it out? What’s the difference between charity and publicity? That’s it, right in the jugular. Does it hurt? It’s supposed to hurt. A great writer shouldn’t address what we want. They should address need. Novel writers did that at one time. They’re a dying breed now.

We enjoy labeling eras. How about we label this era the era of same same? This is an era of “if it works, try, try, and try it again.” It’s a little narcissist to list the authors who killed the novel as an art form, but let’s just say that they might’ve been there for a rebirth, but they never did anything to help it mature. This sentiment might lead some to consider us jealous that other writers succeeded beyond us. We can assure you this is not the case, as we want some great author to mess the mainstream up with a hyper-real novel that shakes up our whole world. Yet, it’s impossible to defeat that charge, so let’s focus on an analogous comparison.

I loved the authors in question for a time, as much as I once loved Metallica. I loved the Master of Puppets and …And Justice for All albums. I don’t listen to their other albums, but I have no problem with them trying to make a buck on subsequent albums. I just don’t buy them. Other people were angry that Metallica didn’t close up shop after Justice. Why? Let people buy their other albums, let Metallica get rich. We don’t have to listen to their other albums. We have nothing against a guy trying to make a buck in any other field, but art is special. An artist has an added responsibility to the art form that made them rich. After an artist creates their masterpiece, they need to dabble in the art form to expand it and enrich it. To my mind, the great artist creates a masterpiece, and then they spend the rest of their life trying to destroy it. They should appreciate the masterpiece for everything it was, and they should never insult those who loved it and made them what they are, but they should feel a personal vendetta to top the masterpiece. They might never again create another masterpiece, but they should do whatever they can to create the uniquely spectacular after the fact.

The authors in question often come out with a book a year that duplicates the formula of the masterpiece. How many great books does one author have in them? They write one great book, sign a huge advance for another, and in their desire to make that publisher happy, they create the derivative and redundant, and everyone is happy and no one is. “It’s not as good as his masterpiece,” we say. “How many sequels are?” they reply, laughing all the way to the bank, trotting upon the art form as they escape. The question the reader asks themselves is do we want the author to destroy their masterpiece in their next outing, or do we want to remember them as they were, in the manner of the great athlete.

“Punk rock died when the first punk said, “Punk’s not dead.””

If punk rock wasn’t dead, they should’ve killed it. Those who loved punk rock should’ve planned some bloody, very public, ritual death. Never Mind the Bullocks should’ve been the only punk rock album ever made. One album of absolute anarchy and everything after it mimicked the premise and became commodity. The Sex Pistols were a horrible band, and Never Mind the Bullocks was a horrible album, but those who loved it, loved the definitive punk rock album for what it was. It stood for nothing and something that shouldn’t last. If it does last, it sounds more orchestrated and contrived in every form that follows, thus violating everything for which it stood. Everything you believe in is wrong, and all of that nonsense. The whole motif of that album and the movement it started was that everything is dead.

The novel is dead long live the novel. The truth is dead long live the truth. We should have an artistic labeling process that mirrors the Motion Picture Association of America. An M, signifies the author’s masterpiece, a DR designation informs the reader of the subsequent works from the author that are derivative and redundant, and a US rating informs the reader that the novel in question is not a masterpiece, but it is unique spectacular. Such ratings might help us avoid reading another book by an author, other than their best books. 

Tell the truth, then take it out to the side of the barn and kill it. Don’t try to recreate and recapture. It’s retread. Eat the truth and let it work its way through the digestive system and ask others what they think of it.  

“Jazz as jazz—jazzy jazz—is pretty well finished. The interesting stuff is all happening on the fringes of the form where there are elements of jazz and elements of all sorts of other things as well. Something similar is happening in prose. Although great novels—novelly novels—are still being written, a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms.” –A review of Reality Hunger on Goodreads.

When we read a great novel by an author, do we seek light entertainment, or entertainment-lite, or do we seek truth when we read a novel? Why then do we read 20 to 30 novels by the same author? How many unique novels does one author have in them? I wasted some of my life doing this once. I spotted the author’s template, and I kept reading. I didn’t violate my rule when I did this. I created the rule. I’d never do it again. I hear a song on the radio I might enjoy, and I flip the station. I’ve heard it too many times. I know every lyric, every beat, pause, bridge, and drum and bass exchange by heart. I change the channel just to avoid redoing what I’ve done a thousand times before. When we spot the template, be done with it. End it now. The author revealed the essence of their truth in that one great book. How many times can they recapture that magic, how many times can we join them before it becomes redundant. They know, and we know, that we enjoy patterns, but how many patterns can we enjoy before we end up chasing our own tail with brainless, puppy like enthusiasm?

“All an author needs is one great book,” Truman Capote.

“Everyone has one great book in them,” Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway tried a novel approach to achieving the unique novel after he wrote a masterpiece. He destroyed his life … numerous times. He divorced, remarried, and drank his way to total destruction to pave a path to a new novel, until he decided to destroy his life in an ultimate manner. We might not want to follow Hemingway’s path of destroying his own happiness to achieving creativity, but someone needs to find ‘the road not taken’ to put an end to everyone chasing their tails in novel form.   

The Tarantino Effect


Quentin Tarantino is arguably the most successful director of violent movies in the last 30 years. Men, in particular, love his brand of violence. Why were/are Tarantino movies so successful? My best guess is that, with Pulp Fiction in particular, he made violence fun and funny. Beyond the influential dialogue, the style, the great music, and the evocative colors, Pulp Fiction was a modern combination of the most violent Scorsese movies ever made and the humorous exchanges of Abbot and Costello. Another element we love about Pulp Fiction, and the other Tarantino movies to a lesser degree, is the introduction of all of these alternative codes his characters develop to assuage the guilt they might otherwise feel by engaging in such a lifestyle.

No characters refer to codes explicitly, of course, but the philosophical conversations the Samuel Jackson and John Travolta characters have, combined with the manner in which they conduct business suggests it’s not personal. It’s just business. There’s also a hint of the other mafia movie standbys, “Everyone knows what they’re getting into when they enter into this business,” and the, “Kill or be killed” motif.

In a slight twist on the conversation of codes, the Uma Thurman character mocks the extent of this code saying, “You think Marcellus Wallace would throw another person out of a window over a foot massage?” The import of this joke is that we all think, thanks to Travolta’s misunderstanding, that a foot massage is such a sensual act that it warrants violent retribution. The Uma Thurman chunk of dialogue admonishes us all for believing that these characters are so savage that they would seek to maim and kill people for whatever reason they can think up. She alludes to the fact that a foot massage might warrant a behind the scenes scolding, but what Travolta’s suggesting is crazy. She helps the audience understand that while their world does not involve the codes the rest of us live by, they’re not that outrageously violent.

In another scene, the John Travolta character states that he respects these codes, and the hierarchy of their world, but he would prefer that those who order him to do things do so in a more courteous manner. “A please would be nice.” Thus, the Travolta character informs us that he has a code within the code. 

In another scene, pertinent to this topic, Travolta defines his personal code in a conversation about someone keying his car. He says he wishes he would’ve caught them doing it, “It’d been worth him doing it, just so I could’ve caught him.” The Travolta character and the Eric Stoltz character agree that keying a car is an egregious violation of their shared code. Murdering a man is just business, but keying a car is a “They should be killed. No trial, no jury, straight to execution” personal violation of the code. We all speak in such ways, in jest, and perhaps that’s all the Stolz character was doing, but we suspect that Travolta is not joking in the same manner. The whole movie, Pulp Fiction, is all about codes. The characters don’t follow the codes the rest of us live by, but they have an insular code, a code among thieves, that they all live by to establish some sort of order within their otherwise immoral, soul-less, and piece-of-junk universe.

Tarantino did not develop this brand of comedy, and he didn’t invent the idea of an alternative code that criminals develop to assuage their guilt over murdering and robbing people, but he did it in a different, and some say better, way than most screenwriters and directors.

Most men dream of living by such codes, and we think we would might compete pretty well. If everyone agreed that we should settle zoning laws on lawn area disputes with a large pistol, we think everyone would behave a little better. We would love to pull a hand cannon out on someone, repeat some cool biblical verse, and blow someone away without flinching. We also think, on some level, that we could do it without much guilt, as long as the participants all knew what they were getting into when they entered our world. Would we have any guilt if we ran into our victim’s mother, father, or kids? No, because they all knew the life he led, and if they didn’t, that’s kind of on the deceased for not informing them better.  

“It’s not personal, it’s business,” we tell our wives in the movie theater after they question us for laughing at such violent scenes. Their lines and actions make sense to us in those 90 minutes. “That guy wouldn’t pay. The guy had something they wanted, and he wouldn’t give it up willingly. They had to kill the guy. They had to send a message. You understand that right?”

We’ve all accepted this “It’s not personal, it’s business” rationale for so long, dating back to The Godfather, that it now makes sense to us. I don’t care if you’re running a drug cartel, a prostitution ring, or whatever, is killing members of the competition the best way to run a business? Yet, few would attend a movie that contained a line from the leader of the business saying, “We really need to talk to Chris in accounting to see if we can improve on our distribution costs in the Northeast, and if you could drop a line to Steve in the Midwest. I really think he can improve his team’s Quality Assurance scores by laying off the bottom 10%.” That’s business. That’s boring. Have the managers in charge of Apple Music ever considered “taking out” some of the most talented minds at Spotify? We’ve seen that business plan work a million times, in the movies, and we know it works. No one goes to jail, and no one feels the least bit bad about it either. “The programmers at Spotify knew what they were getting into when they signed on for this. It’s just business.”

“It’s all fiction,” we tell our girlfriends who put a hand over their face when three guys stab another guy in a trunk after that guy disrespected one of the Goodfellas in a bar. The scene made perfect sense to us in the 90 minute, alternative code mentality, and we knew that guy was in trouble when he wouldn’t shut up. If he had any sense, he would’ve known better than to disrespect Joe Pesci in front of his friends. The guy should’ve known when he signed on to do this movie that if he was going to disrespect Joe Pesci, in a Martin Scorsese movie, that he would suffer some kind of grizzly death. The Joe Pesci character gave this man several opportunities to shut up, and he wouldn’t. I’m not sure how that trunk stabbing applied to their business in anyway, but it was funny when Pesci cracked at joke about it at his mother’s house.   

Our girlfriend laughed at that joke too, and we now know she gets it. She’s along for the ride. She’s adapted her moral code to the alternative code of the movie. We can’t understand why it took her so long to understand this is just fantasy and fiction. It’s not her idea of fantasy, but she’ll put that aside long enough to try to enjoy the movie.

***

I have a dream scene for Tarantino. A bank robbery occurs, off screen, as it did in Reservoir Dogs. After this robbery is complete, the boss who dreamed up this robbery, divvies up the proceeds of that robbery to all the players of this robbery in scenes that occur off screen. The only divvying up we see occurs with one particular recipient. Once this recipient receives his share, a twist happens. The boss turns on the recipient of those proceeds.

“What are you doing?” the recipient pleads with his hands up.

“I’m robbing you,” the gun-toting boss says. The audience might consider this a violation of the code, until the boss adds, “I paid you your fair share, and now I’m robbing you.”

This particular scene might involve a philosophical Abbot and Costello-style exchange that elucidates the alternative moral code of both characters. The unspoken lynchpin of the scene is if we’re going to consider the boss turning on the recipient a violation of the code, then we must consider robbery a violation of code, because the only reason the two of them have any money to divide is a robbery.

Prior to this scene, the director also strategically portrays them as equally sympathetic to the point that we’re cheering on both characters when this scene occurs. We’ve also received ample evidence of the moral ambiguity of both characters involved, and we’ve accepted the codes they’ve established. They’re both living by the code to a point that we don’t know who to cheer on in this scene. They’re both bad guys, and in their own morally ambiguous ways, good guys.

What the boss is doing is wrong in a purely philosophical manner. It is also a violation of the social contract between the two men, but in the context of the arbitrary, fictional movie of alternative moral codes, is it still a violation of the code? The main guy fulfilled his obligation as boss by paying the recipient, and once the money touched the recipient’s hand, he technically fulfilled their social contract, so he’s not a welcher. Once that was complete, he robbed the recipient, and if we’re going to consider robbery immoral, it undercuts the premise of the movie that robbery, violence, and murder are just the way some men choose to make a living.

“Yeah, but the recipient earned his cut.”

Even those of us who enjoy setting our own moral codes aside for 90 minutes aren’t going to go so far out that we think the recipient earned the money he received. He stuck a gun in a teller’s face, and he stole the money others earned. We think about all the miserable hours of labor those who deposited their money in that bank endured to put a little nest egg in that bank. The reply to this is, “They robbed a bank, and most banks are federally insured, and everyone who earned the money they put in the bank was federally insured too.” Okay, but neither the recipient nor the boss earned that money. Both men endured equal levels of risking their freedom to attain it, but they didn’t earn it.

As this scene plays out, the audience learns, through the recipient, that life is not fair, and the life he has chosen is even less fair. The business he chose also involves players who never learned how to share. The internal codes of conduct are in place to self-regulate, but what does the recipient do if a boss arguably violates one of them? The recipient cannot go to an arbitration board to air their grievances, and they cannot go to law enforcement. The boss is also a valuable conduit for the recipient to future jobs, and if the recipient wants more jobs, then he has to abide by the boss’ wishes, but who’s to say that the boss won’t rob him again after future jobs?

The recipient has three choices. He can give the money willingly, as he sees no other option, but doing so, could lead others to perceive him as weak. If he chooses that route, he might as well get out of the business, because everyone who hears about this will rob him after the fact, going forward. He can attempt to talk his way out of it, but we all know that doesn’t work in such settings. His only recourse is to refuse to give the main guy the money and pull his own gun. The main guy shoots the recipient before he can get that gun out. This tweaks our moral code slightly, until the boss says, “Sorry buddy, it’s just business” to the dying man. That line puts him back in the moral code, for it is entirely consistent with the code they’ve established throughout the movie.

We’ll probably never see such a scene added to a movie of this type, because it would lift the veil on this whole world of moral ambiguity by suggesting the only reason the piece-of-junk boss is robbing the piece-of-junk recipient is for more money, and no self-respecting director would allow their audience to think the only reason their characters want to rob is for the money. Such a scene might also undermine the motif the director/screenwriter’s portrayal that these characters are just as a bunch of good guys who just happen to steal. The scene might lead the audience to believe that they cheat their brothers in crime too, and they lie to them. The audience might also believe that thieves are bullies who attempt to dominate their weaker peers for more money, and that doesn’t serve the integrity of the characters or the appeal of the movie well.    

“If you’ve ever been in jail, you know that most of the people who succeed in that environment would not succeed anywhere else,” someone once said. “It’s a bizarro world where up is down and down is up. A piece of junk is heralded for his ability to tap into his most primal, most ruthless nature, and an otherwise successful man, who has spent his life improving on all of his otherwise negative instincts is scorned for being … a pansy, less male, or whatever.”

What would it take to succeed in the climate created at Apple, PayPal, or Spotify? The question the audience is suppose to ask is, is it really that different? The motif that quality directors, like Tarantino and Scorsese lay, is that he who believes in the “honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work” is a schmuck, and the thieves who rot in jail are schmucks too. Their players exist somewhere in the middle of that and everything else the audience considers a truth of life.    

Thus, when they lie, cheat, and steal to gain comfort in life, as opposed to money of course, we’re to assume this happens as often in corporate America, except they’re more boorish in their desire for money. As someone who has never been to jail, and who’s only experience with the culture therein is, admittedly, limited to that which is depicted in reality TV, it appears to be so much more primal. I know this is obvious to everyone but the “Is it really that different?” crowd, but an unstable person prone to displays wild emotional outbursts doesn’t last long in corporate America, but in jail he or she becomes a pod boss for exhibiting such characteristics. An inmate who belittles the weak for the purpose of dominating them doesn’t fare well in corporate America, no matter what you’ve heard, but for a person who wants to be considered a pod boss, it’s all but listed as a bullet point in the job requirements. Thus, to succeed in the jail, we need to channel our worst, most primal characteristics if we hope to succeed. In corporate America, this analogy suggests, we need to exhibit our finest characteristics, but to succeed in the fictional worlds depicted in Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction, we need to find a schmuck-less middle ground.   

Anyone who reads this might suspect that the author is subject to flights of moral relativism. I can assure you, without stepping onto a soapbox, that that is not the case. I suspend whatever I think of such alternative universes in the same manner I will when listening to music or watching cartoons. When I watch a gangster-related movie, I suspend reality in the same manner I do when I watch horror movies. I don’t believe in any of the supernatural beings that torment our main characters, but if I’m not willing to put my rational mind aside for long enough to enjoy a movie that violates everything I believe I probably shouldn’t be clicking play. If the moral fiber of our personal constitution is strong enough, we should be able to weather minimal assaults we experience in cartoons, horror movies, music, what have you. There are serious venues that challenge our modes of thought, and I think everyone should read them for the cerebral, philosophical challenges they present, but anyone who has their beliefs system seriously challenged by these otherwise unserious, artistic vehicles should probably spend more time reading.  

Smashing Pumpkins’ Cyr Will not be Mellon Collie


“It’s not Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” will be the theme of the critical reaction to the new Smashing Pumpkins new album Cyr. The songs we’ve heard from this upcoming album thus far aren’t too bad, but they’re not Mellon Collie. At this date, some 25 years since its release (!), Billy Corgan probably has a love/hate relationship with the album called Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. We can guess that he loves the fact that he created what many call a masterpiece, for not many artists do, but he probably hates that everything he created lives in its shadow.

We all have varying tastes, of course, and some might say they prefer one of the other Smashing Pumpkins’ albums, but even they would admit Mellon Collie and Siamese Dream had special, timeless, and transcendental qualities about them that are difficult to recapture. Some of us call them masterpieces in their own right, and others say they are the products of Billy Corgan’s creative peak.

What is a creative peak? It is as difficult for artists to create, as it is to maintain. It is equally as difficult for the rest of us to explain. We can say that our reaction to it was a time and place phenomenon, and we could say that Billy Corgan’s creation of it had something to do with this phenomenon too. The finished products, coupled with the worldwide reaction to them might have satisfied Corgan’s need to prove himself, and he’s never been able to duplicate that inner drive. Those of us who have never accomplished such feats don’t know how hard it must be to recapture the elements that drove Corgan to create these albums. I don’t intend that to be a commentary on Billy Corgan’s work that followed, for I think most of his work post-Mellon Collie has been better than the vast majority of his peers, but he set such a high bar for himself with Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie. Every artist goes through peaks and valleys, and most of them cannot explain them. We can’t explain them either, as I wrote, we couldn’t explain why we prefer some art to others, but we know it when we see/hear it, especially in hindsight.

When creative peaks prove as fruitful as Corgan’s was, most of us laymen just assume that they will last forever, and when they don’t, we express our disappointment by saying, “It’s a good album, but it’s not as good as their masterpiece. It’s almost like they’re not trying anymore.” Everyone assumes that Kurt Cobain would’ve just gone on, had he lived, writing top-notch albums, but as Cobain wrote, “Teenage angst has paid off well. Now I’m bored and old.” It was almost as if he was preparing us for what was going to follow, if he lived of course.

If we lump Siamese Dream in with Mellon Collie, and we add Aeroplane Flies High and Pisces Iscariot into the mix, I think we can say that Billy Corgan had an enviable five-year run. Some of the songs on those latter two productions were definitely B-sides, but if we removed some of the top-notch songs on Aeroplane, we might be able to put together two high quality albums. We diehard fans have done so on blank cassette tapes and MP3 playlists. It just seems unfair to compare everything he’s done since, and everything he will do in the future to that creative peak, but such is the nature of art.

Billy Corgan and Co. were a songwriting machine from roughly 1993 to 1996. It was an incredibly creative period for Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlain, and James Iha. (I’m sure Chamberlain, Iha, and D’arcy had more creative input than reports suggest, but from what I’ve read Corgan was the maestro/dictator in the studio.) Personally, I loved the album Gish, and I devoured that album before Siamese Dream’s release, but I wouldn’t put on the same shelf as Mellon Collie and Siamese Dream. I realize that some of the material on the boxset likely predates Siamese Dream, so let’s be generous in our estimate and say this creative period stretched out over a five year, incredibly prolific creative peak. How many musicians would give whatever remains of their otherwise damaged livers for 1/5th of the creative output the Smashing Pumpkins had in those five years? Personally, I think it was one of the most prolific periods of music for one artist in rock history, but I think it’s fair to say that the high bar Corgan set during this period ended twenty-five years ago.

I remember when the Smashing Pumpkins released the single Ava Adore. Oh boy,we thought, here we go again. The leap wasn’t as great as the one between Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie for some of us, but we all fantasized that the single was a sign that this peak would last far longer than we thought it would after the Pumpkins released a double album of material followed by a boxset. Siamese Dream was, after all, the opposite of a sophomore jinx. Once Siamese Dream hit out tape deck, Gish was obsolete, and any flirtation we had with the idea that there might be a junior jinx ended the moment we heard the single Bullet with Butterfly Wings. So, when the single Ava Adore came out, it seemed feasible that Corgan was simply a hard rock/pop prodigy who would blow us out of the water every two to three years until the end of his life.    

How could one man, and his band, release so much material in such a small amount of time, and come up with yet another great album? The answer was he couldn’t. The peak was over. I still think that if Corgan saved about eight of the best songs on Aeroplane Flies High, and combined them with the six best songs on Ava Adore, I think he could’ve satisfied critics and fans so much that they would’ve listed Ava Adore as his third best album and part of the creative peak. What motivated Corgan to release the boxset, I suspect, was that he wanted to put Mellon Collie, and everything attached to it, behind him. I think he wanted to defeat the idea of a creative peak in his own mind and challenge himself with a restart.   

***

When critics savaged R.E.M.’s first effort without Bill Berry, 1998’s Up, Michael Stipe complained that he thought Up was a great album. He said that critics unfairly compared Up to their previous five albums, i.e. their creative peak. He said something along the lines of, “If an up and coming band created Up, you critics would be salivating all over it, but because it wasn’t Automatic for the People, Monster, or New Adventures in Hi-Fi, you think the album stinks.” Perhaps Stipe and Co. were frustrated that the high bar they set for themselves that couldn’t be maintained forever, or that they felt like the critics helped cut that peak short prematurely. It’s also possible that the departure of Bill Berry was more profound than anyone imagined. Whatever the case was for them, the critics were right, as Up proved the creative peak was over for R.E.M. They would release four more albums and except for a few singles here and there, those albums only provided further evidence that peaks end for every creative artist.

Stipe’s greater question is worthy of exploration however. How would we regard albums like Ava Adore or Machina, if they came out before Mellon Collie or Siamese Dream? It’s impossible to answer of course, but it’s an interesting question.

Artists can artificially attempt to realign the stars back to the configuration they experienced during their peak. They can bring back ex-members, hire the producer who helped finesse their masterpiece, and they can go back to the basics, after expunging their need to experiment. They can eat nothing but bacon and drink nothing but the flavor of Snapple they drank when they created their masterpiece, but something will forever elude them.

Our immediate reaction to a new Smashing Pumpkins album now is, they just lost it, whatever it is. They can write some great singles here and there, but as far as writing awe-inspiring magic that drove them to create deep cuts and B-sides that are better than most bands’ hit singles, those days are over. The greater question I would ask is, “Did they ever have it?” The answer to that question, to my mind, is an undeniable, “YES! Yes, they did. For five years, Billy Corgan and Co. created some of the most beautiful, most aggressive, and most pleasing music some of us have ever heard.” For all of the comparatively greater praise devoted to bands such as Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and Nirvana, they only had two influential, transcedental albums. As great as Mr. Bungle and Soundgarden were, they only came out with two fantastic albums. How many great bands came out with songs that blew our minds, but they failed to follow those great songs up with enough deep cuts to make a great album? It’s debatable, but I would suggest that great singles blind most people to the fact that most of the albums they were on weren’t as great as we thought they were.

In some ways, legends like The Beatles, Queen, David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin spoiled us by setting such an unreasonable standard for the rest of the bands in music by having more than two great albums. For those who are lucky enough to have more than one great album, they should go on to make the best music they can, but they should know that they will probably never be able to recapture that ‘time and place’ magic that usually only happens once in a lifetime. If it happens twice, live it and love it for as long as it lasts, for it will probably never happen again. This note also goes out to all critics, fans, and everyone in between who judge decent to good albums on the basis that they’re not as great as the albums these artists produced during their peak. How many of our favorite artists never made one great album, top to bottom?

As one reviewer on Allmusic.com wrote, “You can’t blame Billy [Corgan], he already did his best.” This reviewer reminds me of other non-creative types who have never created one piece of art.  suggest that once a creative peak ends the artist should just quit. They should just ride off into the sunset, collect their royalty checks and consider their life well lived. They do the same with athletes. They suggest that after a professional athlete wins a championship that he should just retire. They proved that they did the best they could with their talent, and we all know that it’s downhill from here, so we want him to quit so we can live with this particular memory of him. The one thing we forget is accomplishing incredible feats, in athletic and artistic venues, is so hard that it involves amounts of passion that no critic would understand. The passion and love that drove them to achieve such peaks doesn’t just end after that peak ends, and with Billy Corgan it’s obvious in the beautiful music he’s created since.