Point/Counterpoint is a beloved feature that first appeared in the fall ’72 Telex edition of the Weeklings. PC/P is the product of an intellectual tradition hearkening back to storied Oxford debate squads and the golden age of radio, in which two authors match wits over random subjects while being forced to choose a side and defend it on the fly. Readers are advised to stand back, as the heat can get intense. This week’s arm wrestle involves novelist, teacher, killer bass player, and capitalism’s favorite apologist, Mr. Peter Mountford.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are now on the clock.
Point (Mountford): Eddie is a goddamn genius of self-advancement. Some people are “lucky,” but they clearly engineer that luck for themselves. Opposite of Chelsea Manning, for whom I feel a great deal of sympathy, but she’s totally screwed and has been from the start. I don’t know what Eddie and Chelsea are like as people, I’m sure they’re either great or not great, or maybe they’re both totally ordinary. Probably. Beside the point. The point is: one of these people did a whistle blowing thing and arranged a sneaky trap door for himself, so he’ll be living off of his decision for the rest of his life. The other person was pilloried in the media for years (while in jail!), and then she got a 30-year prison sentence, and then she came out as trans and got pilloried even more. Yikes! If I could only help one of these people it’d be Chelsea, for sure — but that’s in part because Eddie doesn’t need my help. End of the day, given the choice, I’d much rather be Eurotrash Eddie in whatever sleazy Moscow nightclub he now frequents, than poor Chelsea, living in a men’s military prison for however many years. Prisons aren’t nice. As it happens, I’ve visited them before, and they smell like body odor, bologna, and halitosis. I’ve been to Russian nightclubs, too, and they don’t smell that great, I suppose (Drakkar Noir, anyone?) but it’s much fucking better than prison.
Counter-Point (Beaudoin): My feeling is that this is one of those ugly governmental incidences (unlike, say, Iran-Contra or the Pentagon Papers) in which We The Public genuinely have no clue as to the true ramifications. You can read all the Atlantic and Washington Post you like. You can watch Rachael Maddow and Fox & Friends until your eyes bleed. I still don’t think that anyone outside of the deepest levels of the security apparatus–including congress and the Koch Brothers–have the least clue of what’s really going on. Is Snowden a hero? A villain? A patsy? Is deep encryption a hoax? Are we surveilled on every conceivable level every minute of our lives by a deceitful, duplicitous, and invasive shadow government? Is PRISM even now targeting me for using so many question marks? Eddie is a ghost as far as I’m concerned. A prop. A nerd herring. He’s a derivative spy procedural in which the mid-level NSA agent played by Liev Schrieber turns out not only to be the true leaker, but also the Famke Janssen-rewarded hero. So, I’ve pretty much allowed myself to have no fixed position on the issue. Every article I read, I believe. I change my mind from link to link, essay to impassioned essay. I absorb and embrace both the hysteria and the cynicism, the conspiracy theory and the official outrage. Basically, I agree that the only thing that really matters is Chelsea. I wish I could send her a care package of bronzer, Manolo Blahniks, and Midnight Hacker nail polish. Hell, it’s always the slyly transgressive low level cog–from Benedict Arnold’s tent boy to Daniel Ellsberg’s Thai concubine–that pays for it in the end.
Point (Beaudoin): I don’t, really. Anymore. The weird thing is, I’m exhausted at night after getting my daughter to bed. I try to read but can’t even keep my eyes open. I get under the covers and feel warm and relaxed and…wake up an hour later. And then pretty much on the hour the rest of the night. Around 5:20 I usually give up and stand naked by my office window and stare off into the pre-dawn murk, wondering if I have lesions on my cerebellum or I’m just getting old. It makes me want to put on a windbreaker, tan slacks, and a Fedora. It makes me want to take up golf, skim the Clive Cussler backlist, and buy a ’66 Lincoln Continental that I hire a surly teenager to wax. Will my appetite go next? Will my interest in a cleverly bared shoulder or aristocratic ankle suddenly morph into a desire to build a workshop in the basement and start making unwanted shelving units? Either way, I spend a lot of contemplative afternoons over-watering the plants, wondering what this sleepless version of me will think of the ear-hair and support-sock version of me twenty years from now.
Counter-Point (Mountford): I heard somewhere that people who don’t sleep much are very smart, or creative, or something else that our culture values a lot. Like, Bill Clinton doesn’t sleep. Whereas George W. Bush sleeps like a log, of course. This is what I tell myself to make me feel better about being a person who sleeps just about the same amount that you sleep. Same idea: I’m super tired but no dice. Then I bolt awake at 5 a.m. Was the same way in high school, actually, when it was considered even weirder. We’d stay up ’till 3 a.m. zooted on shrooms at my friend’s house, and then I’d be downstairs at 7 a.m. sipping coffee with my buddy’s parents, exchanging small talk. The point is, it’s not that you’re old, it’s that you have a restless mind. You have to work on framing this information a little better. Like: Don’t sleep? Good thing, that’s evidence that you’ve got game. Bankrupt? Believe it or not, this means that you’re a free spirit. Friends avoiding you? Guess what? Yeah, this means you’re a fuckin’ visionary — Werner Herzog had the same problem when making Fitzcarraldo.
Point (Mountford): If you like the taste of it, why not? It’s sort of ball sweat plus extra electrolytes, right? Taste aside, it’s a great way to separate rich people from their money, which is a feat worth celebrating. Kids in Bangladesh split coconuts all day in a huge warehouse, spilling the precious droplets into massive oil drums. Then a marketing and branding guru in San Francisco sorts out packaging, logo, website. A social media manager is hired. An attractive carton is manufactured in Peru. Next stop: Whole Foods, $7 for weird tasting water that has a fraction of the nutritional value of those sugary Flintstone chewables I grew up on. Still, I have no problem with wasting money on silly things. It’s the real great American pastime. I adore the experience of emptying huge plastic boxes of wilted micro greens into my compost after I failed to eat salad every day, as planned. Yes, I ate salad once, twice, and then that two foot long container of leafy bacteria started to fester, turned into a vast coffin of wannabe health. It’s fine. It’s good. I’ll try again in two months.
Counter-Point (Beaudoin): We as a country are vastly under-served in our array of energy beverages and re-hydration choices. There’s just not enough variety out there once you’ve wearied of the first six dozen or so color/flavor combinations. Which is why I was hugely relieved to hear that a number of new cutting-edge drinks will soon be rolled into the market. Like, for instance, Bowel Water (certified fair trade), Monkey Squeezings (held by the tail), Camry Juice (drained from free range radiator), Mystery Sponge (comes in Soapdish or Linoleum), Ol’ Doc Virginia’s Coaltown Slurry (with extra pulp), Leather Chaps In A Bottle (Xtreme Groupie flavor), and Duct-Aid (Bile or Lactiferous). Bottom line: it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is probably the best time in recorded human history to be both wealthy and parched.
70’s Cinema vs. Today’s Cable TV-
Point (Beaudoin): To me, the seventies were the golden era of filmmaking, the provenance of sweeping, large scale R-rated dramas. Big, raw movies with complicated adult characters, unhappy endings, and an indifference to commercial potential. Movies like Mean Streets, Alien, Hard Time, Husbands, Five Easy Pieces, and Dog Day Afternoon were deliberately sweaty, rude, and uncompromising–unabashedly telling the stories of the lower class. Alien in particular is practically a Marxist parable. Movies today? Too boring to even type a dismissive sentence about. So it’s interesting in our age of sequels and superhero franchises that the gritty, proletarian dynamic now exists almost entirely in the better offerings on cable. Cable! The former home of fixed boxing matches, back-to-back Porky’s II, and unfurled Sybil Danning. Which is either depressingly ironic or cynically excellent. But also the reason this new HBO series, Low Winter Sun, in which yet another bald white cop mumbles his way through another gritty urban landscape (Detroit), is such a colossal disappointment. Because with it we seem to have reached ouroborous, Scorcese eating David Chase’s tail, every last 70’s/Sopranos platitude used, abused, and reconstituted. Low Winter Sun is actually competently shot and acted–and should by all rights be compelling–except that it’s completely hollow, a Frankencop cliché, every bit as derivative and mindless as Transformers or Iron Man or The Avengers. It features, in no particular order: an idealized prostitute (Taxi Driver), a leather-jacketed detective (Dirty Harry), crooked precincts (Serpico), a desensitized populace (Network), an emotionally tortured veteran (The Deer Hunter), sex slaves (Prime Cut, Hardcore), drunken ex-detectives (The Gauntlet), foreign drug kingpins (French Connection), and enough hard-ass Mamet style argot crammed into every scene to make your spleen plead for a Shakespearean sonnet. Or a trip to the cineplex.
Counter-Point (Mountford): Imma go ahead and half agree. But seventies cinema, for all its greatness, was also a whole lotta macho dudes struggling to sort out their imperiled manhood, which was great, because it was a heartfelt problem for them, but it’s kind of hard to watch at times. Yeah, there was a lot of other stuff happening, but I can’t seem to shake the sense that that was the main thing. That said, I totally agree that since The Sopranos we’ve clearly had a renaissance of televised scripted series: Deadwood, The Wire, Veronica Mars, Battlestar Gallactica, Mad Men, Orange is the New Black (I’ve only watched a few episodes, and it’s not as amazing as people say so far, but it’s certainly good), a show called Huff that no one remembers but was fantastic, Louis, Game of Thrones (clearly overrated, but it has its moments), Arrested Development, 30 Rock, and probably another dozen really good or amazing shows. The main thing these shows have in common, to my mind, is that they’re really well written. And the characters are very complicated. There have been some well-written movies in the last hundred years, and a lot of not well-written movies. Many of the one you listed from the seventies were quite well written, but still . . . it wasn’t as fucking awesome as what’s going on in TV-land right now. There’s a reason screenwriters in the movie business are given about as much respect as the fella who scoops mac and cheese onto the extras’ plates at lunch, and it’s that no one really felt the screenwriters were valuable. Whereas TV writers are the same people who create and produce these shows, they’re the most powerful and respected creative community in the new Hollywood. Some of the movies you mention from the 1970s are well written, but mostly they’re carried by great actors or something. Maybe they captured something very specific and memorable about the gestalt (bad word, I know, but still!). They were great, yeah, but I feel like there was a hard ceiling on their greatness (I think I’ve seen all the movies you mention, and I liked them all a lot, but none of them were as mind-bendingly creative as Mad Men’s season 5, where the protagonist is weirdly happy, and yet the show maintains its relentless internal pressure, somehow, and the weight of the shifting cultural landscape seems to scrape raw every character in a different and understandable way. Today’s cable TV is the most fertile landscape for narrative art in generations. Okay, I should stop drinking this glass of whiskey or my hyperbole is going to get away from me. No!! Go re-watch season four of The Wire, and then re-watch Serpico. Is that a sweaty coked-up Al Pacino doing his bug-eyed glare at a nervous costar? Why yes, it is. Now just wait a minute, he’s about to do it again to a different actor.
Point (Mountford): The compact disk was an absolute abomination, and I always felt bad for the beautiful old cassette after those gleaming rainbow-reflecting futuristic motherfuckers came along, promising to “skip tracks,” and promising better sound, and all that garbage. But then everyone tried jogging with their CD player attached to the waistband of their MC Hammer pants, and suddenly the CD wasn’t so perfect anymore. That was a good moment in the whole story. Plus scratched CDs. What, you got stoned and forgot to put it back in its incredibly flawed “jewel case,” which just generates more scratches anyway because the disk is sliding around in there because the circular claw thing in the middle that’s supposed to hold the CD just breaks, finger by finger, and now the CD has scratches from those broken fingers, so you can’t listen to “Stairway To Heaven” anymore? Well, not unless you break out that old cassette tape! I loved sliding cassettes into their hinged holsters in those boom boxes, and then you’d close the cassette’s door and there’d be this satisfying CLICK as the cassette’s architecture melded with the architecture of the machine. And if you’d listened to a cassette long enough, it got these really warm fuzzy distortion. That was nice, except when it was a rare song, and then it sucked. I kept all of my cassettes. All of them. I don’t have my CDs anymore, but I’ve got my fucking cassettes. Nowhere to play them, at present, but it’s just a matter of time before they’re as hip as records were in the 90s and oughts.
Counter-Point (Beaudoin): There was a time when even saying the word “Maxell” aloud gave me wood. I fetishized the box of one dozen; each individually wrapped in golden plastic, each a virgin unit of pure glistening tape, blank stickers, and unlabeled song cards. Do you remember when a dozen tapes would come in a sturdy plastic carrier, surrounded by protective foam that could be zippered up like a womb or a kangaroo pouch? Eighty-eight minutes of unsullied tape held vast potential. For me, it was like a canvas. By the time I graduated high school I’d made hundreds of obsessively devised and re-dubbed and concocted mixes that pretty much no one but me ever wanted to listen to. And which I nevertheless transported everywhere in three large pleather briefcases, just in case. So yeah, my top-of-the-line $225 Discman with Bass Boost (not enough bass? Don’t worry, I’ve got it handled) and Anti-Skip (worked, but drained the batteries before the solo on “Small Man, Big Mouth” was even half over) and Shuffle (the sheer excitement of waiting to see which of the eleven remaining songs on your twelve song CD was coming next!) was sort of an anti-climactic piece of technology.
The Utter Narcissism of Writing-
Point (Beaudoin): I’ve never met an author who didn’t seem to be skin-diving in their own ego to some degree. Which is interesting since not everyone comes up with a string of pearls. For that matter, not everyone surfaces at all. But even contemplating a book, let alone stewing in front of your laptop for a year or two while actually completing one, requires a level of either delusion or self-involvement that is sort of staggering. An unpublished or uncompleted book is a cry for recognition. A published book is a neon sign proclaiming the (possibly incorrect) notion that the author actually has something valuable to say. Which is sort of taken as a given, but maybe shouldn’t be. Does every one of the hundred thousand fiction titles published last year deserve the eight hours it took to read? Or even the half-hour it took to skim? Being an author means purloining the reader’s time. Aside from the obvious vanity required for self-promotion, it also means purloining the reader’s cash. How much self-regard is necessary to feel worth $26.99 plus tax? I’m not sure I feel worth more than eight bucks, tops, on most days. But the notion that I will, with some future flourish, pen a novel worth cover price does sort of keep me going. It’s the same brand of faith that can be found along Damascan roads and in Nazarene cave-mouths. Which may actually be the ultimate version of authorial narcissism–attempting to construct a series of reverent sentences that will one day coalesce into a novel that dies for all of prose’s sins. Hey, Lolita did it!
Counter-Point (Mountford): Hilary Mantel said, “Memoir’s not an easy form. If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene.” Very true of memoir, but equally true of fiction. The hard thing for a lot of people — and it was hard for me, for a long time — is to realize this isn’t about you. You’re providing a service for a reader, in a way. Before I figured out that I was sort of just a performer, in a way, I found the ego gauntlet one of the hardest things about writing. It does seem to take incredible hubris to sit there all day writing and then expect someone to pay quite a lot of money and then fork over all this time (when they could be watching Mad Men, say) for the privilege of having you whisper this story into their ear. And yet if you’re to be any good at it, you also have to be able to realize when what you’re doing sucks, which is often, and you have to live with heaps of rejection, and you have to accept endless critiques — some quite pointed — from friends and editors and agents and colleagues. It’s a delicate thing to somehow have enough hubris, but also enough humility. For a long time I was pretty much penduluming between extremes of self-adoration and self-loathing. Finally, I figured out that I’m just trying to get some gate-keeper at a magazine or publishing house to decide to put my work in front of their audience, and hopefully pay me for it, too. It’s like the end of that Lorrie Moore story, “People Like That Are The Only People Here,” in which she directly addresses the editor of the New Yorker, basically, asking him to pay her for the story that you’ve just read. She writes: “These are the notes. Now where is the money?” Although the story is on the surface about her problems, it isn’t finally about her at all, she’s just doing a job for an editor. This agonizing performance she just completed. End of the day, it’s just a performance that you’re paying to witness. You’re there because of the quality of the performance, not the quality of her suffering.
Books About Being in a Band-
Point (Mountford): Word on the street is that publishers think of band novels as being almost as commercially inert as novels about finance. Sales kryptonite. They’re always excited at first, because they like the book, and then they’re always burned by the reality. It’s like deciding to get Arby’s instead of McDonald’s when you’re on a road trip: Why not? you think, but then you eat that Big Montana and it just sits in your stomach like an angry little Jabba The Hutt, and it’s going to be there for weeks. Really, publishers should feel that way about everything they do, of course, because it’s true of everything they do, but certain things really freak them out, and apparently band books are uniquely scorned. That said, publishers are also crazy, because it’s a great sub-genre. Obviously, Jennifer Egan wrote that Goon Squad book which is quite good, and three of my writer friends wrote great band books: Tyler McMahon, You, and Michael Shilling, and of course those three books are the best books about music that have ever been written. Unless you count Eleanor Henderson’s much better debut novel, which is steeped in the New York punk/hardcore scene (Gorilla Biscuits, anyone? There’s a band that didn’t survive my transition into adulthood, at all!) . . . okay, it’s not strictly about being in a band, but wow! Actually, I played in a punk band or two in DC in the nineties, but there’s no book there, there’s not even a short story. A haiku, probably:
On plywood stage,
warily scanning the crowd,
might as well jump
Also, as a side note, I think that the only thing more embarrassing and futile than trying to describe a great sexual experience in a novel is trying to describe music. And then…it was, like…whoa. The crowd all clapped at once. They were really happy. And…well…it reeked of cigarettes!
Counter-Point (Beaudoin): Yeah, it’s a doom ride. Supposedly the only subject matter more loathed by the publishing cabal than books about bands are satires about publishing. So, ideally, the sequel to Wise Young Fool will be a snarky insider look at the nearly impossible feat of publishing Wise Young Fool. But, in the end, it did get published, even if those who deigned to do so immediately chose to pretend that it was someone else’s screaming child about nine seconds after it hit the shelves. Hey, the only way to write a good sex scene is to avoid describing the actual sex. Not to mention ever using the following words: athwart, member, splay, moist, mons, gusher, rack, crux, shaft, or pinion. And the same can be said of any given rock passage. You cannot attempt to describe the actual playing. Finger movements and vocal constrictions are absolutely out. What’s in are impressionistic renderings of the aural fete shared by a thousand people in a sweaty, dark, beer-stank honkeytonk while bursts of distortion travel from magnetic coils bolted to slabs of Fender-ian wood before being forced through twelve feet of rubberized cord by sheer rage in order to blare out of speakers the size of dual Frigidaires and thereby crush the skulls of the willing listener. And reader. At least until the next ballad.
GG Allin and the Murder Junkies-
Point (Beaudoin): I saw GG play in Oakland. I think. Or maybe it was Ohio? The band was truly awful, in just the sort of way a cynical, bored twenty-four-year-old might conclude on some alternate level was actually sort of daring and excellent. From Wikipedia: “GG Allin is best remembered for his notorious live performances, which often featured transgressive acts, including coprophagia, self-mutilation, and attacking audience members.” Which at the time felt about right as a mirror of the mid-Clinton years. In fact, I had some friends that were genuinely disappointed GG didn’t shit on stage and throw it at the crowd, which had come pre-advertised as an enticement for snagging a ticket. But, after having cut himself from slamming his head into the stage, he made a few runs deep into the heart of the audience, bowling people over and sweating on them and screeching like a feral cat. It was simultaneously utterly ridiculous–just the lamest sort of carny freakshow–but also reasonably terrifying. During one of the final songs he suddenly came right at us, wild-eyed and looking ready for fluid mayhem. Without thinking, I threw a punch to ward him off. It was an ineffectual blow at best, landing somewhere between his shoulder blades. It was like punching a wet wrestling mat. I am absolutely positive he didn’t feel it at all. Someone shoved me and someone else congratulated me and then the crowd howled as one for more. The whole thing seemed like the most fraudulently honest experimental theater–pain, exhibitionism, nudity (did I mention he was naked?), voyeurism, mental illness, panic, and the politics of being unrepentantly moronic leavened with an existential fear of post-collegiate boredom. I remember thinking it was the sort of thing that would barely rate a glance on the side stage of a keno lounge in 2023. Or behind a Montana slaughterhouse on the edge of the apocalypse frontier. When the show was over, we piled into a diner for pancakes and burnt coffee, all very blase and outwardly unaffected, pleased with ourselves for having spent at least one night in a decidedly stranger fashion than the twenty-nine that had came before it. Of course, GG died of an overdose pretty soon after.
Counter-Point (Mountford): Sadly, I never saw GG Allin, but in the early-’90s I did see the sanitized, non-musical attempt at same: Jim Rose Circus. Naked dudes making themselves bleed on stage, etc. Unfortunately, being meticulously rehearsed and scripted, Jim Rose lost whatever life you could have hoped to find at a GG Allin show. I was fourteen or something, and it must have been a very weak brew, indeed, because even as a pipsqueak I was pretty dubious. Most shocking thing I ever saw at a concert was at a Murphy’s Law show around the same time. Murphy’s Law was a hard-drinking hardcore pseudo-skinhead band, or they were popular with the skinheads. This was Washington, DC, and there were a lot of skinheads around then — these were “sharps” (anti-racist skinheads…there’s an acronym in there). Despite being rebels, Murphy’s Law always seemed a lot like frat boys/preppies, as I recall. Anyway, outside of the show this Black skinhead named Dwan — I think that was his name — punched another fella in the face for some reason and then jumped up and down on his head a lot of times. Watching this, I did not piss my pants, although I was very tempted to do so. Then Dwan walked away. Word on the street is that the other chap perished of crushed head and Dwan spent a great many years living in a penitentiary. GG Allin probably would have been appalled, and rightly so. But I guess he was dead, too, by then.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the finish line of this week’s Point/Counter-point. Thank you once again for participating. The votes are being tallied and will be released to the public after they’ve been verified J.D. Powers and Associates, as well as the Washington State Attorney General.
Peter Mountford’s debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, won the 2012 Washington State Book Award in fiction, and his second novel, The Dismal Science, will be published by Tin House Books in February, 2014. His short fiction and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Conjunctions, Best New American Voices 2008, ZYZZYVA, Boston Review, and elsewhere. The 2013-14 writer-in-residence at the Richard Hugo House, he lives in Seattle.