Thursday, January 19, 2012

'The General's Fiction': A Military Internment of Literature — No. 1

Note: For discussion of Muslim figures in literature, we turn for insight to General Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi, former Israeli Minister of Tourism. His multi-part series on Libya, Slouching from Benghazi, resumes later this year.

Amazing Gaze: The Western Eyes of Soulful Scribbler Caleb Powell

"'Algonquian women in New England,' wrote William Wood in 1634, were 'more loving, pitiful, and modest, mild, provident, and laborious than their lazy husbands.' Wood imagined that oppressed Indian women would gladly embrace European gender roles with their presumably lighter burdens of female domesticity."
Kirsten Fischer

The holidays are long over. Liquor sales have stabilized; few of the year-end suicides remain undiscovered, and, if you are like me, you have a major haul of gifted books. Stacked on my bedside table, towering over my bloated, holly-jolly frame, the books are a leering accusation: "You're like all the others," sniffs The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. "Just direct me to the bookshelf best situated to intimidate your landlord."

As I limply cast aside the hose of my opium huqqa, ash sprinkling the datemaki sash of my authentic silken Nipponese kimono, I despair: literature is dead. Then suddenly, there is a change. There is a Powellful discovery. Who is Caleb Powell? A question I pondered not two weeks ago — now I have some sense of the answer, of an author who asserted himself in my mind's eye. Thus far, his vision has been inscribed only within a few brave avant garde presses, like Prick of the Spindle, Yankee Pot Roast, and Zyzzyva. I aim to change this.

In this special inaugural issue of "The General's Fiction," I invite you to imbibe deeply of the rose-colored drippings of Caleb Powell — author, stay-at-home father, poet. Let us, in the words of the late, great Christopher Hitchens, "let in daylight upon the magic."

Enter Caleb: Street Fighting Man
A few weeks ago I wrote a tribute to the beloved bon vivant Hitchens, a fearless intellectual of unshakeable integrity whom I had long admired. In Hitch, I felt we had lost to esophageal cancer a renaissance man, a sterling judge of both human character and literature. The reader response was largely positive, but it was a dissonant voice that captivated me. His laser focus pierced this author's pseudonymity and acerbic veneer:
I agree completely with [a previous] poster about anonymity. Hitchens was more complex than this post, and the ad hominem is too distracting.
Genuinely confused by his accusation of "ad hominem" attacks against Hitch, I attempted to elicit an elaboration from Mr. Powell — an earnest attempt unfortunately hampered by a stray, accidental hyperlink to goatse (it was already copied to Scrapbook for an unrelated project). His patience exhausted, Powell delivered the crushing blow:
Well done. You have a sense of humor Seko & Ze'evi. Still, correlating "ad hominem" & "anonymity" is a non sequitor. Stick with your forte: comedy.

Anonymity makes sense if you're a Chinese dissident or a Syrian activist, but not if you're an armchair blogger. If you guys want to be wiseguys, well, fair enough. But why not change your IDs, add your real names, keep your nicknames, and show your balls.

Caleb "Henry Kissing-and-Fucking-her" Powell
Powell had thrown down the gauntlet. To be honest, I felt like a bad hominem. What seemed like a fun self-styling had turned into an object of scolding, and an impressive one at that. A fair field favoring Caleb Powell — his true name, it seemed, laid bare for all the wiseguys and comicazzi to besmirch. A grown man, on the internet, had demanded I show my balls; what choice did I have? The challenge was clear, I thought, smirking and sipping a tumbler of Sparks Lemon Stinger at the same time, "What had he written to his name that was so impressive?" With two minutes' research, I was forced to concede.

At first glance, Caleb Powell is a throwback to warrior-poets of old; even his name assures the reader of rock-ribbed Protestant ethics, of the kind that cleansed the prairies. His primary blog's motto, "Art=Antagonism," speaks to the man's penchant for danger — as evidenced by this impressively produced Zimbabwean video of Powell's death-defying late-1990s bungee habit. But the further I explored the man's body of work (and workin' body), the more I was struck not by CALEB POWER but by Caleb Pensive. The most manful courage is compassion; it's his ability to inhabit the other and retranslate the alien — the inevitably distant stranger in the workaday — into a Wordpress-ready showcase of understanding.

The targets of Powell's "art as antagonism" are varied, but the effects of his jibes are always devastating. His excoriating send-up of demented "God Hates Fags" maven Fred Phelps as a "dorkball" seems to me the final word on the Westboro Baptist Church. He had a memorable takedown of eccentric shoplifting wunderkind Tao Lin, specifically for a reviewer's charge of existentialism: "Comparing Tao Lin to Albert Camus is like comparing apples and orangutangs [sic]," countered Powell, the spelling likely an intentional dig at Lin's literary errors. His biting riposte to J.D. Salinger's son Matt, indefensibly laboring to maintain his father's lifelong wish for privacy, is an even sharper construction. By first calling Matt Salinger an "asshole," then intimating he has "a large object stuck in his anus," Powell comprehensively demolishes Salinger's pretensions to not being an asshole. But as if fighting words weren't enough, Powell opts to to then publish the letter in question, triumphantly crowing: "According to Fair Use, I'm posting… and as far as you, Mr. Matt 'Revenge of the Nerds' Salinger, well, who and what smell are you?" Powell has won the day, in the manner only a true fan of J.D. Salinger would comprehend.

But were Powell simply a Hemingway-esque cad, punching at the reader's shoulder like Papa quizzing Budd Schulberg over boxing stats, he would be merely an excellent polemicist, damning the dorkballs among us to ignominy. It is Powell's admiration for women, a sweet sticky center inside his dark chocolate cloak, that lends the artist a brooding, Byronic depth.

Soul Man: Caleb Powell Is "Down" with "The Other"
Mr. Powell's perceptive gifts exceed my own. Perhaps it indicates a circumscribed, self-orbiting sense of my own soul, but for a litany of reasons I could never imagine myself even passively linking a story about a sexual relationship with a Muslim woman to an underage peasant girl best known for having her nose cut off by the Taliban. Caleb Powell can.

A self-proclaimed "proud sexist," he knows you have to be tough with women, who, as his hero Hitch attested, are congenitally unfunny and illogical. And that goes double for Muslims. And triple for his daughters. This is a man of action. Kid won't shit in the pot? Well, "after a couple of weeks of cold butt, namely, clothes off and icy shower for every accident, Kaya learned. Cruel? No. Effective? You bet." You fuck with dad's writing time? You get the "Spider Room":
EFFECTIVE? It depends on how willing the parent is to be "mean." Enter: The Spider Room. We have three spooky corners, a closet, storage space under the stairs, and the "wine cellar", dank and dark formers stairs that led to our backyard from the basement, until our remodeled covered it up. It's grungy, it's dirty, and appropriately terrifying to a kid. Put them in (closet "spider room" for mild offense, egregious merits the "wine cellar spider room"), turn the lights out, and they learn quickly what happens to varmints that throw food, take crayon to sofa, bite each other (they’ve lefty nasty teethmarks on skin), or lie about leaving a "present" in the toilet (happens all the time, it's the lie not the no-flush that's the problem).
Don't even bother questioning the methods: they work. Powell can hardly understand how this defanged, emasculated Quisling culture would frown upon corporal punishment: "Is this what women's lib has brought on? Whatever happened to women who swooned after men who killed farm animals with their bare hands? Men, we're screwed in a bad way." It's time to fight back:
The mere mention of "spider room" gets them to behave. Yet my wife (and sister-in-law Tracy) have different methods. When the kids are naughty my wife gives a hug, kiss, and explanation of right and wrong. Eeeeek! That's not deterrent…that's incentive.
Indeed. Men see your maternal coddling, women, and they recoil, shaking a fist at the slate underside of an uncompromising firmament: "Eeeeek!"

Powell has a frankness about him that is at first shocking. From word one of "Defiling Bathsheba," his positively blasphemous reimagining of David's Biblical indiscretion as an adolescent affair with an overweight Mexican seafood waitress, he leaves no mysteries: "The summer of 1985. I read the Bible, smoked pot, and discovered the tale of David. I also committed adultery. Love trumped the letter of the law." Pot smoking, sex, the first Back to the Future movie, heady days. But as green a tree as it was, twas ripe with the fruit of sin:
My urge for intoxicants was now suppressed, yet my desire to fornicate was powerful. I had made out with girls, but was still a virgin. My pinnacle moment until then had been ineptly fondling the breasts of a girl who had probably long since forgotten my name. My confidence, more so than my body, felt the scars. I insulated myself in meditation and work.
As T.S. Eliot once wrote, "Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow.” And the pain of sexual inadequacy can certainly cast shade. But even cheesecake fantasies can sometimes come true:
Julia Mendoza also worked at The Captain Whidbey as a waitress. She grew up in El Paso, Texas, married out of high school, and her husband soon signed on with the Navy. One night at closing, Vincent the chef offered dessert. I helped myself to a piece of cheesecake as Julia came into the kitchen.

“Cheesecake on the house,” I told her.

“No thanks. Not good for my figure.”


She only smiled and disappeared.

Later she said, “Sorry I couldn’t join you. I wanted to.”
If, as Camus said, the purpose of art is to keep civilization from destroying itself, Powell has aided invaluably in pacifying a vast expanse of humanity, stretching from his curvy Captain Whidbey Fish Fry paramour, all the way to the full-lipped daughters of Afghanistan.

You may remember the tragic story of Aisha Bibi, an Afghan teenager who was unconscionably mutilated by the Taliban. While Time magazine gallantly framed her plight as a harbinger of "what happens if we leave," Powell waxed more poetically, producing his masterwork, "Living With Aisha":
After the first visit to the mosque, I realized I would never convert. My only hope to marry Aisha demanded that she drop her religious mandate. Is all really fair in love and war? I told her I would do anything to make her happy. Leaving Aisha would not be easy.
Note here how Powell subverts and refreshes the oldest cliché of romantic fiction, a tradition dating back to The Song of Roland. Is all fair in love and war? The speaker is having second thoughts. Perhaps not. It is Powell's chutzpah not merely to name the dilemma — but to attempt reconciliation.
I had already moved my belongings into her apartment on Beacon Hill, and our cohabitation, evidently, represented more than primordial sin. And yet, why did she wait to tell me? Aisha danced in a mini-skirt on fetish night at The Vogue, drank wine, and declared war against the law of her family and her people. Her claws eviscerated my flesh, and I did not notice terror and fear within her ecstasy.
Fetish nights, mini-skirts, Robert Mondavi reds — Beacon Hill. America. Freedom. Who could not fathom these joys? Aisha Bibi, if she were put in such a position, would, I believe, certainly have a good time, free of fear at long last. But how to escape the big guy upstairs?
We attended Islamic study weekly and, amidst a landscape of unrequited hadith, I discovered what “liberal” Muslims thought. In Islam, among believers, nothing between a man and women was prohibited. Though Aisha and I broke major sins, she convinced me to forego alcohol, tobacco, and the ubiquitous pig . . . pernicious gelatin, that powder from hoof of swine. She wore hijab, the head scarf, in public; she began praying, using a compass to face Mecca; she taught me to wipe with my left hand and clean myself with water, to take off my shoes upon entering home, and to wash my feet.
She taught me that hadith means the sayings of the prophet Muhammed, ﷺ, and that such sayings could be unrequited. She taught me that gelatin can come as a powder, not just as those thin sheets in the box. She taught me to wash my ass with warm water and my hand, to ignore a cultural taboo not transgressed since age four, the cold butt and the Scream Box.
And thus my precipitous descent into the year of Aisha, I read the Koran, returned to mosque, sat with adherents from Indonesia and Iran and Somalia, and contemplated rights and possessions under a new religion. If I could treat my wives equally, I asked, would she consent to polygamy? She told me: “Though I am a liberal Muslim and live in the West, I am from the East.” I still do not know what this means.
I don't either, but then, I don't possess the gift, swelling towards what Fitzgerald called that "high white note." Powell knows the risks of daring to unfurl the eastern secrets of the celestial — the "hints of murder" Islamic ragamuffins are so fond of dropping. But he wrote it anyway, right on the Wordpress. That's ballsy. 

Powell is a hero of our time, able to interpret the droppings of the Orient, even if he doesn't always get it. Keep up the good work, you King of New England, and don't let the sass talk from your dad get you down:

I will not deny that listening to me can be as interesting as watching grass grow. However, if someone’s mind wasn’t numb already, it sure would be after reading your idiotic, not clever, unfunny ramblings on who is more funny… Even someone “with space to let in their attic” would find this nonsense sleep-provoking. WHO CARES ABOUT SUCH A TRIVIAL SUBJECT!!!


Perhaps it's the contempt of familiarity that makes them so, but family always feels freest to be unkindest. Suffice to say that posterity will provide you a far sweeter bosom.

Caleb Power, you have my sword.