Kind of Grace: A Style Guide
Anagrams is a 1986 novel by one Lorrie Moore, the FridayNightLights-loving perfect-sentence machine who most recently published Bark. Anagrams moves like a rowboat or dinghy, the slow slap of gunwales being the most significant noise. Docked or adrift, the typical Moore pace is sweet and low, found in Anagrams at more length than her celebrated shortforms. There is a love affair, some skillful bloodletting of tenses and POV-shifts, and a lot of Moore’s usual wordplay and intentionally-precious dialogue. Then the book is done, having not blown your hat into the creek but laid a finger’s-length of breeze thru your hair. You are delightfully ruffled, not overwhelmed.
Moore’s writing is brilliant, tho it is inconsequential. Such exquisite grace still applies to all that starry 80s minimalism. Things rarely go as deep as Self-help or Reasons To Live or Slaves Of New York or Less Than Zero; they are fine art. As titles, they are as perfect as In A Silent Way or Sketches Of Spain or A Love Supreme. More casually, they are the West Coast cool of late-century American fiction; it doesn’t matter that Moore retains no California ties. It is the woozy sound of Chet Baker, flawlessly unconsidered and in touch, the junkie beat rolling past prescriptivism. If it reads as effortless, Moore and Hempel and Ellis found the off-melody beauty in writing strictly for the vibe.
Moore and Hempel are rightly known as sentence artists, but all that fastidious attention to line is rather importantly disposable. There are never big themes, and reading them you can lose track of what’s going on pretty regularly. But you look at the sentence[s] and you feel repaired in some way, an ozone zipper opening and closing to immense satisfaction. Aggravated domestica in Moore and Hempel or the wan glam of Ellis are brackets of sensory detail that are easily-shed fun, not grand looks at the humanities. Books like Anagrams or Imperial Bedrooms, the 2010 sequel to Less Than Zero, are so minor they breathe aggressive health, to borrow a Hempel term.
A work’s major or minor properties can attract or repulse depending on how obnoxious your formal education’s been. In pop music, the new Karen O record was called ‘aggressively minor’ by the critic Lindsay Zoladz, who meant it as a positive. She affixed the same label to another boutique project, Julian Casablancas + the Voidz, with less enthusiasm, but I realized reading the piece that even at their downtown peak the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Strokes were never quite major bands. They were minor bands in a major trend. Casablancas chooses to make scuzzy tunnel-rat riffs with a pickup band, Karen O puts out a grip of skinny ballads she wrote years ago, and neither feels lazy to me. Together they feel normal to the core. When the Thom Yorke record dropped, with mere hours of tease and a whole entourage of austere motivation, I decided ambition is kind of over. Better to be a sidewheel in hell, hell being other people’s aspirations.
Something abt early sex attracted me to icons. I remember snaking a car into an almond orchard or under an overpass, which is like a euphemism on top of another euphemism, heat ahiss at window level, but so quiet you cld hear the condom drop outside. Messy stars, the huff of a train, I have no memory of winter sex. Jeff Buckley Grace and Miles Davis Kind Of Blue soundtracked a lot of these sessions, upgrading them from solid white trash to a slightly less rickety economy.
As to how I acquired this music taste, Idk. I wasn’t born into it and the hallelujahs I knew, way past adolescence, definitely weren’t composed by a baffled king. Like a child learning speech, I grew by mimesis and Miles Davis was a brand that replicated thru several spheres of influence. There’s an episode of Deadwood where they decide they shd start having snacks at business meetings, w/o any real preamble or precedent. By the same instinct, I discovered Jeff Buckley was a dead disheveled dreamboat who cld bestow cred on an entire evening.
All this sex theatre was rightfully forgettable, even as the scenes blew up to drive-in size and whoever it was and I traded sometimes awk orgasms like measures on a scale. Sometimes too much casual sex feels like waiting for smoke to clear, or your eyes to unredden after being maced. Other times it’s a night at Birdland in 1954, chemicals awry, a chatter on your skin that is felt and heard, and you start to think maybe you aren’t supposed to feel this good. When sex stops being performance, you become wise and chastened and are allowed to start your life. What’s behind you isn’t a trail of bodies; it’s a collection of highs, of polestar fixes that claw phantomly at you way after you forget. Remember the findings that every person you ever sexed is always part of you? Remember the Ondaatje line abt bodies we have swum up like rivers? My fave part of Kind Of Blue is All Blues, the best ghost song ever made: it is ‘a series of five scales, each to be played as long as the soloist wishes until he has completed the series’.
I don’t know enough abt jazz to even be conversant. I lack the translation software to get much beyond ‘this feels good’. I don’t know anyone’s discography, or any definitions or dimensions, or the difference between melodic and harmonic variation. But I know when Chet Baker was accused of using heroin in, and leaving blood from botched veins all over, an Italian gasstation, he only denied, with casual horror, the blood. I know when Duke Ellington quit drinking, he switched to Coca-Cola to which he would add, absurdly, three teaspoons of sugar. The best part of being a dilettante is the best parts of a biography will always jump out at you.
Ralph Waldo Emerson defined genius as the return of one’s rejected thoughts with an alienated majesty. If you don’t want to produce prosaic storytelling, and you are over content but under theory, trying to name what you write is more difficult. Writing about rejected moods, their arrival, is one way. Moore, at one point in Anagrams, mentions a ‘lozenge of pretend’. Benna Carpenter, the woman who slips in and out of the book’s consciousness, falls in love with Gerard Maines, a music pro who sings pop and lieder, two things that cannot combine except wildly. Except in regressive, contrapuntal, artistic trying. Anagrams reports that “love is the cultural exchange program of futility and eroticism”: yes, please! Writing, too.
Billy Corgan and Dev Hynes each came up with crazy, deft descriptions of their oft-indescribable music: ‘ridiculous form of prog-rock’ and ‘ABBA meets Black Sabbath’ in the former case, ‘odd bedroom jams’ in the latter. Arthur Russell’s ‘bubblegum Buddhist songs’ is also a chill-af designation that I shd like to own, or at least rent. I try to write essays, or forms, that feel like grooves or vibes, or at least identify as such. My own personal lozenge of pretend is that upon being written, the words create a diversion by which my real state of mind becomes meaningful and perfect. Otherwise, who cares.
Joan Didion, who was better at this kind of writing than anyone, kept her dreams in one dazzling ellipsis: ‘We live entirely..by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images’. This is sampled from the same endlessly-RT’d graf that begins: ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’. However synthetic, this school of writing is not founded in Affect: you don’t touch the reader’s feelings, you don’t even touch your own. You are making new feelings out of old material, and you are not under any circumstances trying to teach anyone anything. The best kind of essay, personal or otherwise, lands wing-like, similar to a Guy Bourdin polaroid or a Nan Goldin greatest hit. It is a readymade. It’s never more than a feeling.
"An appeal to images is a demand for love. We want something more than just their mute glory. We want them to give up a clue, a key, a way to cut open a space, cut into a register, locate a tone…It was with images that I began The Flamethrowers.”
If the writing, meaning my own, comes from any place, I’d like to think [thank?] the jazz room at Amoeba Records. There are all those b+w box sets on the wall:
The Complete Blue Note Sam Rivers Sessions [OUT OF PRINT]
The Complete Verve Recordings Of The Teddy Wilson Trio [DISCS 1&2 HAVE SCRATCHES] [DAMAGED BOX] [COUPLE OF DISCS SCRATCHED]
The Complete Capitol Recordings of Woody Herman [OUT OF PRINT] [DISC 6 HAS A SCRATCH]
So much candlesmoke prestige in one quadrant, but this is also where they keep the movie soundtracks and the opera and the Pop Vocal $1 LPs and the Disney karaoke and the Slovak Suite Marysa. It is the odds & ends division, a pocket of light-colored water way more diffuse than the more mercantile mainroom. Multiple cuttingfloor energies are gathered, creating an ejection that is the same as moving thru rooms or levels at the right kind of club. Deleted scenes roll thru your head, thin as tissue: you may be damaged, but you are nvr out of print.
Image credit[s]: event flier, internet’s own; Instagram: karliekloss; Time Out New York; Hong Kong, September 2014, internet’s own; Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in Entertainment Weekly; Instagram: laurenaliceavery; Twitter: benjaminkunkel