Archive | January, 2008

PULP Reviews: “Pulp” by Charles Bukowski

30 Jan

This column is written by our new PULPable reviewer Jacob Z. Clinton. Expect more reviews of PULPable material coming soon from JZC.

‘Dear Mr. Bukowski:
Again, this is a conglomeration of extremely good stuff and other stuff so full of idolized prostitutes, morning-after vomiting scenes, misanthropy, praise for suicide etc. that it is not quite for a magazine of any circulation at all. This is, however, pretty much a saga of a certain type of person and in it I think you’ve done an honest job. Possibly we will print you sometime, but I don’t know exactly when. That depends on you.

Sincerely yours,

Whit Burnett’ – “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip”, Charles Bukowski

This book is a conglomeration of misanthropy… etc., this is a saga of a certain type of person: Nicky Belane. It’s wonderful that an excerpt from Bukowski’s first published work can so succinctly sum up his last novel. P.I. Nicky Belane lives in a hyper-accelerated Pulp world, other parts of genres bleed into his existence, such as science fiction and the ever present race-track that takes up a large part of Bukowski’s writing. This is a saga, a short one, wherein a man does what he needs to do and prepares to die.

Man getting ready to die: what a grand subject to digest, to pulp into a boozy mass of violence and spit out on an audience used to being dragged through Bukowski’s alcoholic gambling tracts. Bukowski died aged 73 shortly after completing this novel and it would be remiss not to draw parallels between Belane’s last set of cases and Bukowski’s own personal mind-set as he set about preparing for his own demise. (His gravestone reads: Don’t Try)

To somebody who has never read Bukowski before, the experience feels like a Tarantino movie; out of sequence. I have no idea who Henry Chianski is despite him being Bukowski’s recurring protagonist figure. If the back cover blurb on the book had not told me that he made an appearance in the story, I would never have pegged him for one of the victims of Belane’s violent existence.

Does it make sense? Not, to me, on any surface reading does it fully answer a lot of the questions it raises. Does it have to? Not to me. As a ‘pastiche’ of the detective genre Pulp inherits the twisting and slippery Chandleresque plotting. People are not who they seem, things are not as simple as they appear, and when this template is applied to a work involving space aliens straight out of an Ed Wood movie plot and Death personified then things become tricky.

Belane is hired by a femme fatale, perhaps literally, called Lady Death to track down a man who could be French classical novelist Celine and discover if, indeed, he is who he appears to be. Along the way he receives more cases including tracking down the Red Sparrow, whatever that may be, catching an adulterous wife in the act and aiding a mortician rid himself of the attentions of a space alien. Cases slip and slide over one another and reveal clues to the others like any good P.I. plot. Belane drinks and fights and obsesses over women like any good, fictional, P.I. should but in Pulp’s case the action comes fast and furious, more drunk than the average detective, leering over full-figured women like some demented Robert Crumb, drinking and fighting like Oliver Reed’s last night on earth.

I was not aware of Bukowski’s work before for Black Sparrow Press* until I looked it up, and that certainly explains the naming of the text’s metaphysical MacGuffin the Red Sparrow. When Herr Le Ray first said I could scrawl some of my mind across his lovely new blog-space I was taken in by his concept of Pulp. In it I saw a movement, something that Lottery Council funding clerks could jack off over. To me the above example from Bukowski’s Pulp demonstrates something I would expect to find circling works that fall into the Le Ray-defined ‘Pulpable’; annotations swarming like flies round a pig’s head staked onto a book cover.

To me a Pulpable work is something that, as well as being a distillation of high and low-brow like some alchemist turning his turds into gold1, is pleasing on a surface reading, yet when you peel away the top layer is full of in-jokes, references and the like. It’s like the joy of getting a school textbook and finding it covered in furious pencil notes of children from the past (and drawings of cocks.) I was also not aware that Celine was an actual French classical author, again it did not hamper my reading of the text and instead became a pleasant discovery when I was researching this piece.2

To some extent Pulp fails because a surface reading is simply satisfactory, and the ending may seem a little off. Sure, things get wrapped up to a certain degree but it left me wanting more of something I couldn’t have. I appreciate that sometimes in these pulp noir novels some characters just slink off to die and are never heard from again, but Pulp is hampered by being so much more. Lady Death, Celine, the Red Sparrow break out of their pastiche conventions and I want to hold them accountable, get answers from them. Why does Belane’s path run the way it does?

As noted I have never read Bukowski before but I highly enjoyed Pulp. I felt a little dissatisfied by the ending but the writing was sharp and the chapters galloped along. If this was a horse running against some of Bukowski’s other novels I would put money on it. Even though it isn’t a favourite, I would still back it as an each-way bet.

I thought I’d finish up these reviews by taking a drink drunk in the text, some venomous cocktail, and find the recipe, sample it and tack it onto the end of the piece. I did make my published debuts formulating paint-stripping cocktails for the University of Hertfordshire fish and chip rag after all…

So here we go with the Vodka 7 which, I was upset to find out despite the moniker making it sound like an ironically named 3 piece garage band, is simply a fancier version of a vodka, lemonade and lime.

Vodka 7:

1. Take a collins glass (or just any tall glass, a highball if need be).

2. Add a few ice cubes

3. Pour juice from 1/2 a lime and vodka (you decide how strong; online recipes suggest 2 parts or 2 oz.)

4. Add a lime

5. Top up with lemon and lime soda, such as 7Up (or its Coke produced nemesis Sprite)

Happy Drinking!

*     *    *

Author’s notes:

1.Yes, I watched Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain last night.
2. The Boston Review still has a nice analysis of the Celine thing:

* Editor’s note: Black Sparrow is alas no more, though its catalogue was sold to the small independent publisher I worked for in Boston, MA – David R. Godine (reportedly for $1—Sparrow’s owner John Martin just wanted them to have a good home). I believe Bukowski’s work was excluded from the deal, but Godine still prints Black Sparrow’s old works. – DLR

PULP Places: Berlin

29 Jan

“Berlin ist eine Stadt, verdammt dazu, ewig zu werden, niemals zu sein”/“Berlin is a city condemned forever to ‘becoming’ and never to ‘being’” – Karl Scheffler, in Berlin: Ein Stadtschicksal, 1910)

Living in Berlin feels a little like being in a realistic, unpleasantly gritty movie which nonetheless has something very important to say. Perhaps I have been reading too many Chandler similes and have seen too many German art housemovies, but this seems to encapsulate much of the German cultural experience which, with Berlin as its centre, is continuing to develop publicly but without acknowledgement as an extension of Germany’s history and consequent popular psychology.

That all sounds a little pompous, in fact, and I know far from enough about the subjects to discuss them in depth, but as an observer with more than a superficial interest in German things it is something I have been considering. The cultural and historical heritage of this country, for better or worse, will always swing around Nazism and World War II—at least until some more distance can be achieved between the recent past and more quantifiable ‘history’. But this past has trickled down to the popular and public level in a very ‘pulp’ manner; the way in which history has been pulped in some ways condemns Berlin in particular to remain a city damned to be always ‘becoming’ and never ‘being’.

Berlin was a city long-divided. From 1961 to 1989, the city—and the country—were two. East Germany (the DDR) was a kind of ghostly pale version of West Germany (the BRD) to many, and one that fell under the then-anxious gaze of a vehemently anti-Communist west. The Staatssicherheit, or Stasi, and the careful culture control became synonymous with the DDR, whilst the West was a rehabilitating democracy. They were two sides of a different iconic coin to many, a high and low city and country (though some would debate the merits of one over the other). After the fall of the Wall in 1989 and (re-)unification, Berlin was the centre of an effort—not always a successful one—to combine the two halves into a new cultural capital for the country (though the seat of government remained in Bonn for some time).

To a large extent, economy took over. Companies and individuals bought cheap land in the East and intended to build upon it. The former DDR areas have become gentrified now, and many of the areas in contemporary east Berlin remain cheap, but are also fashionable, places to live. The West, on the other hand, remains much as it was—only more dilapidated and with a relatively older population. Some areas of the city have been developed as tourist centres much like those of other modern metropolises (the Kurfürstendamm, Unter den Linden) but the majority of Berlin is to this day a patchwork of shiny offices, dilapidated apartments, ethnic ghettoes and modern museums which lend to its divided, high-low feel.

And the weight of the division, the world war preceding it, and the Nazi accession preceding that, is still present. Memorial is always a problem. Germany is required to commemorate the history of the 20th Century and the millions of deaths resultant from World War II, but in doing so it ‘pulps’ its history on a tourist market and—in commemorating the past—also situates the memorial in a geographic location, thus confining its impact and relevance. But the problems of German memorialising are best answered by Ms Jones, and I should direct you, the interested reader, to her for more erudite thoughts on those matters.

As far as these factors combining to make Berlin a pulp place, I can take an everyday example. I work at an office right next to Checkpoint Charlie, and not far from the former SS Gestapo headquarters and a section of the original Berlin Wall. All of these are now tourist attractions, and most people’s touristic interest in Berlin stems from an obsession with examining the locations of terrible tortures or of guards and gun posts (in what other modern city would a visit to a concentration camp be a tourist affair?). Simultaneously, if you walk down Friedrichstrasse, where Charlie is, you can buy a postcard of the city, or a furry faux-Russian military hat, or a (probably fake) piece of the Berlin Wall pinned to some card. Trading up on tourism when you’re talking about the Colosseum is one thing—it is ‘history’—but selling horrors of the recent past is always going to be more problematic.

Of course I don’t begrudge the Turkish street vendors selling gas masks or the teenagers dressed as American WWII soldiers selling photos at Checkpoint Charlie. It’s just business—much as real estate in the former East was bought up so that the owners could make money from its later gentrification. But this combination of high and low—a reverence for the past but a willingness to make a few euros out of it—is a perfectly pulp concept. The icons of the cultural past, to pardon a bad analogy, are being pulped and turned into the euro notes funding the city.

Berlin is a pulp city in ways that many others are too. It is opera, theatre, art house movies and shiny museums. It is also protest, dilapidated buildings and dirty walls. This description could just as well apply to London or New York. But the weight of its history, and the way in which it deals with it, and is still dealing with it, make it a very different kind of pulp. Public art, graffiti and memorials bring the terrible past and the life of the city together, whilst providing the place to confine those more difficult aspects of coping with the recent past, until it becomes ‘history’.

Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of the Nazi party coming to power. I wonder if there will be mention of this at all…

Virtual PULP: Big Boys Don’t Cry… Even When Zombies Scare the Crap Out of Them

21 Jan

Disclaimer: The following blog post is written by fellow contributor Heather Akena, our video games expert. I, Daniel Le Ray, am not, nor have I ever been female. Now that this is cleared up . . .

I’m all for that little bastard to save the princess . . .

Contrary to what most gamers grew up with, the video games of today are quite amazing indeed, with one of the obvious changes being that of the attractive astuteness of the main character. The early 80’s brought us Mario, the heroic plumber off to rescue the princess Toadstool. Mario was short, fat, and, let’s face it – he did not have the best of occupations. Who thought that was a good idea? I ask myself today. The princess disappears and who does the king turn to? “Quick! The princess is missing! Get me a plumber! For only he can save my daughter with the dryer-singed hair and a skirt that doubles as a parachute. Yes, get me the plumber who will save us all!” Though Mario was a short, fat bastard with a green mustache and shoes to match, he could certainly jump well, which probably attributed to his princess-saving abilities. Women were generally helpless, and while I enjoy being a rescued damsel in distress as much as the next girl, the idea of being kidnapped, attacked by goombas, and almost being forced into marriage to a giant lizard only to be saved by a plumber 1/3 my height seems to somehow make the whole process not worth it. Maybe that’s why she was always in another castle – she knew what was coming to save her. Because she certainly owed him at least a little something for saving her life, didn’t she? The late 80’s and early 90’s gave way to more cartoonish heroes such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Rescue Rangers. The plot was always the same . . . save the girl. Be the hero. Even if you are a 3″ tall chipmunk or an abnormally fast hedgehog with scrawny legs. You can do it; go get ’em, Tiger! The late 90’s offered the reinvention of Mario . . . his green mustache and shoes replaced with better graphics and he was now fat in amazing 3-D. But the princess was still in danger . . . and he was still a plumber. All those times he saved her, and yet somehow his occupation never changes. There’s a man with dreams.

But games began to shift away from the ideals of damsels constantly in distress and cartoonish, idiotic people attempting to save the world through accidentally being in the right place at the right time. We were offered games with more storyline and plot than simply “save the dumb girl who can’t fend for herself” or “collect random crap ’til we can’t be bothered to make any more levels . . . cause we said so!” Resident Evil came along, offering players the ability to shoot zombies in the face and have it feel strangely satisfying, and the Final Fantasy series, with its various RPG storylines and roles. Even if far-fetched, the idea of a raging virus turning people in to zombies or having to wear skimpy clothes and duke it out with other karate champions for the fate of Earth at least seemed plausible; if not at the moment, at least maybe some time in the distant future. The jobs of the main characters began to develop into something important, as if they were in the situation they were in because they were meant to be there and it was part of their job description, not just someone who happened to be a passerby loser who decided it was time for him or her to do something decent with their life. In Resident Evil 2, Leon Kennedy was the last cop remaining after the rampaging T-Virus wiped out his entire team. A man simply referred to as the “Master Chief” takes on those trying to make use of a doomsday weapon so strong it was capable of wiping out the universe. Yuna was the daughter of long running line of summoners, so of course she had the know-how to destroy the most powerful being in their world.

My point? Leon was a cop, of course he’s going to have a gun and know how to use it and be trained to handle high-risk situations, even if it involves something he’s never seen before. The Master Chief was training to be a one man army since he was a little boy, so it’s no surprise he can take out loads of aliens . . . and it probably helps that he’s over 7 feet tall. Yuna trained to call the most powerful aeons in the world to her disposal. When I think of heroes, it helps that they were at least training to do the job they were presently in . . . even if they have to take it to extremes. Fighting zombies or karate fighting for the universe seems more plausible than a man who fixes toilets and pipes kicking butt all the way to the princess. And that’s not to say that I’m not a fan of Mario. I’m all for that little bastard to save the princess. I cheer him on and do my part . . .

But in many ways, Mario, Sonic, and other relatively unbelievable characters may be a little bit easier to handle in the long run. Why? The story lines were short, simple, and to the point. Fight your way to the end to the goal and get a tiny thank-you-for-wasting-two-days-playing-us-nonstop message, leaving you wondering why you spent two days sitting on your butt and getting thumb cramps for that. In short, you could walk away from it and re-insert yourself into civilization. The games of today have long, often very good and convincing story lines that interweave with gameplay, captivating you in it entirely. Thanks to the save-at-random feature of today’s consoles, the games are able to be made twice, sometimes three times as long, ensuring that you will be caught up in it for more than a week, inserting yourself in a world that is better than your own reality, even if it does contain zombies. The characters are well-made, looking more human than they probably should. The downside to that is, since you know they aren’t real, you can make a perfect person out of them. After all, who wouldn’t like a hot, zombie-killing government agent who doesn’t even blink as he blasts through them, infestations, and pompous three-year-olds as he fights to get his girl. And did I mention he’s a government agent? Honestly, how hot is that?! My point is, that the details that aren’t there, you can make them up, leaving your brain the tendency to get you a little too attached to the now perfect person swimming around inside your head that you wish was real and your friends thinking you are a little bit too insane and in need of therapy.

But that is, in effect, what the media machine wants, isn’t it? “Look, we have a very human looking character. He’s great, a knight in shining armour, with a great storyline to boot. Buy the game . . . pretty please.” So now you’re hooked. They’ve gotten you attached to this character, and you want more. When the game is over, you find it difficult to re-insert yourself in to civilization and find yourself actually wanting to just start the game over even though you know it’s going to take weeks and repeated bathroom trips as the game scares the living daylights out of you. But, lucky for you, there’s add-ons you can buy. There’s books you can read. And, for your own sanity’s sake, they’re making a sequel; the only downside is it’s twice the price you paid for the first one. But you don’t care, you’ll cough it up cause you’re hooked.

Think I’m insane? Just look it up on the internet. There’s so many sites where people just can’t get enough of a certain character that they create new material for them, writing so called “fanfics” and posting them up on message boards for the whole world to read. Either that, or they get together and discuss what they think is going on behind the scenes. For example, I was looking up Resident Evil parodies the other day on youtube (yes, I am one of the ones hooked on a CG-created person, leave me alone.), I came across the game’s ending where the developers make it quite clear that Leon is quite the playboy. After all, he goes through hell and high water to save one girl, is hopelessly in love with another, and asks his boss out on a date when she gets rid of her glasses. Yet the hopeless romantic in this gameplayer would not allow him or her (though I’m obviously going to have to assume it’s a her) to accept this fact, causing her to spit “Whatever! Leon is obviously in love with Ada, and they’re going to get together! I wrote a fanfic about it; check it out here!” in response. Of course, I’m doing her justice by replacing the multiple spelling errors, but you get my drift.

Do games of today help or hurt us as a society? Causing us to retreat from friends and family into our own little worlds where we can be heroes just for one week, taking on things that leave a more lasting impression than those of the real world, with its dismal 9-5 boring job offers. I guess it’s up to the reader to decide . . .

PULP P.I. – Raymond Chandler, part I

18 Jan


I do not regard myself as a dead shot, but I am a pretty dangerous man with a wet towel. But all in all I think my favourite weapon is a twenty dollar bill – Raymond Chandler in a letter to a fan.

Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1888 and died in La Jolla, California in 1959. This period covers what, for the modern world, is a vast period of growth and change in the public consciousness, and whilst there are few writers who embody ‘pulp’ in the public domain as much as Chandler, it is his personal life and its pulp characteristics which has fascinated me more than his writing. I was struck by a comment from my fiancée that Raymond Chandler, as a persona or public figure, was nothing like the private man that he (seemingly) was. She hadn’t pegged him for the romantic type, and was surprised at a quotation from a letter of his written shortly before his death. To a female friend he wrote, “what a man wants and needs, and surely a woman, too, is the feeling of a loving presence in the home, the tangible and ineffable sense that a life is shared.”

Chandler spanned modern times*, and his life was one of high-brow and low-brow rolled into one and synthesised into a genre and style of writing he all-but invented. The rhythms and tropes he uses are so ingrained in the public psyche now that to hear brilliantly ridiculous similes such as:

“The heart-rending dialogue of some love serial came out of the room behind her and hit me in the face like a wet dishtowel. The bright-eyed woman said: ‘You a friend of theirs?’ In her voice, suspicion was as thick as the ham in her radio.” (The High Window, p.100)

really invokes the sense of the noir literatary style that he created, and – in his days working as a Paramount screenwriter – brought to Hollywood. His acerbic wit and playful nature with words trumped even the stylings of his contemporary Dashiell Hammett (whom Chandler credited with the creation of the ‘hard-boiled’ genre).

But let’s go back to Ray for a moment. It is not his books, or his screenplays, that are the reason he is a pulp persona. It is Ray himself. And some biography might help illustrate this. His life started out in a nomadic way, and this stuck with him until the rather lonely end of his life. His father was American, his mother Irish, and on his father’s leaving the family at an early age Ray was uprooted from his Midwest metropolis, Chicago, and planted firmly in the middle of turn of the century England. Funded by an uncle, he attended Dulwich College, where he probably first encountered ‘Marlowe’, in the form of a school house name.

Transatlantic travel is a now taken for granted (I should know) but as a child in 1900, it was hardly an everyday experience. Chandler learned a very old-fashioned form of English decorum – and likely an English social detachment too – which mixed peculiarly with his American heritage. To the end of his life, he spoke with a mixed, though predominantly English, accent, and his wife Cissy even pronounced their name with a soft, standard-British ‘a’ (“Chondlah” in phonetic American English). They both hosted dinner parties and would do nothing without the proper social mores in place. Yet he had a (sometimes hypocritical) hatred of the bourgeoisie and class divisions in English society, and his social charm was coated with an acid tongue that could get him into trouble.

Returning to friends in Los Angeles after a failed position in the home office which he supported by writing magazine reviews, he gradually became a regular member of a crowd of musicians writers and artists calling themselves “The Optimists”. Here he met (the then-married) Pearl ‘Cissy’ Eugenia Hurlburt, and their relationship developed over several years of mutual interest, flirting and Ray’s seduction. Eventually, Ray convinced himself that Cissy was unhappy and demanded she divorce her pianist husband to marry him.

Perhaps to escape this drama, but also because he felt so strongly about the War, Ray enlisted in the Canadian armed forces to fight in Europe. His time on the front is something he never spoke of afterwards other than to write in a letter, “once you’ve had to lead a platoon of men into direct machine gun fire, nothing is ever the same again.” His platoon was wiped out, and after recovering in England, he moved back again to LA via Seattle.

Chandler was American, he was British, he fought in the Canadian services in France. He was a kind of nowhere man, and perhaps a victim of time and circumstance, but this defined him to a large extent. He claimed that he was fascinated with and had to learn the American vernacular like a foreign language, and the words and phrases he used in his stories and books seem to have been genuinely learned from the seedy kinds of people he wrote of.

His upbringing taught him the old, opprobrious ways of England but his character and life in America taught him the value of the new. He stood at the crux of pulp as it formed, just as he stood at the crux of Los Angeles as it was developing, a self-invented city for those wishing to migrate to a better life. Eventually those who moved there fell into the superficial glamour of the entertainment industry or into the increasingly ghettoised gutters, and it was the perfect place for such a split personality as Ray to live. The seedy underworld and the glamorous Hollywood events spoke to his schizoid sensibilities.

Eventually he and Cissy married, but only after Ray’s mother’s death. They then proceeded to live in over 30 places throughout LA and nearby suburbs as Ray moved from his accountant’s job to being a full time writer via publishing stories in Pulp Fiction magazines like Black Mask, and imbibing enough whisky to stun an African elephant. And because he was the perfect embodiment of ‘high’ and ‘low’ – the English gentleman and the glamorous LA migrant – his novels trod the pulp line beautifully, though it was in England that he was an ‘author’ whilst being only a crime ‘writer’ in the US.

Between 1888 and 1959 the world moved from letters to the telephone, from books to movies to television, from transatlantic sea voyages to airplanes. The list of cultural upheavals in Chandler’s lifetime could go on. As mass media developed, so Ray was working in mass literature, embracing the changes, exploiting the quick-buck pulps and welding his own psychology – his split character and all his quirks – onto a character called Philip Marlowe. Like Ray, Marlowe was the heavy drinking, sensitive but witty knight in shining armour rescuing damsels in distress; he was a modern man with an epic-heroic heart, and as such he became a pulp icon.

Before generations of celebrity worship and media saturation, however, we have less of an idea of the real Ray. Now we care as much about Tom Cruise’s religion as about his movies, as much about Amy Winhouse’s drug use as about her albums. I could tell you that Raymond Thornton Chandler was an alcoholic, overly-sensitive and shy man, whose psychological needs were many and borne mainly by his wife. That he was idealistic to a fault, fell in love with most women he met and even courted some after Cissy’s death with lewd sketches and expensive gifts. That he collected ‘amuels’, little glass animals of which he owned many, and wrote second-rate poetry to a wife eighteen years his senior whom he cheated on many times.

But to Cissy he was still her “Raymio” and “Gallibeoth”, and perhaps it is better left to pulp PI Philip Marlowe – and the words his creator has left to us – to embody Chandler’s pulp legacy. From “The Simple Art of Murder”:

“But down these streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He is the hero, he is everything. He must be…a man of honour, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world… He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.”

* * *

Hugely indebted to The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler & the woman he loved by Judith Freeman, The Raymond Chandler Papers edited by Frank MacShane & Tom Hiney, and various editions of the novels.

* Note: It’s amazing the associations one can go through for pulp. Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936) took a swipe at economic collapse and industrialisation (Chaplin, a modern pulp iconic if there ever was one, even turned his iconic status into criticism of Hitler in “The Great Dictator”). Bob Dylan, another pulp synthesiser of the folk music, poetry and rock and roll, took “Modern Times” as his latest album title, and courted controversy even among fans for stealing song structures and lyics from old folk songs. What goes around…

PULP Politics

10 Jan

Bush, then Clinton. Rinse. Repeat.

As probably the most-qualified candidate to be running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bill Richardson should have been the frontrunner for Democratic nominee by now. But as his own recent campaign ads suggested (they featured Richardson applying for a job and citing his qualifications to an uninterested interviewer), he was perhaps too qualified: a former ambassador to the UN, energy secretary in Bill Clinton’s cabinet and a freelance diplomat who negotiated the release of US hostages, he nonetheless was forced to drop out of the race today after poor performances in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.

Within the next year, I will be living in the US, and despite the fact that—barring my relinquishing both my European passports—I shall never be able to vote in an American general election, it seems nevertheless important to parse exactly why the road to both presidential nominees has run like it has, if I am going to be an expatriate living in a country run by one of those two people. And on all ‘media’ fronts, the US is a dominant force, its movies, television shows, and its politicians internationally recognised. As I mentioned last time, the mass production and distribution of ‘culture‘ began to blur the high/low line from the late 19th into the 20th century, and the United States was instrumental in the development of the mass media.

A pulp entertainment sensibility eventually shifted into the world of mass media. Perhaps one way of preserving a sense of coherence in such a huge (and subsequently ungovernable) country came through this mass media, and presidential elections were no doubt a part of this. What better way to celebrate the new world but by watching coverage of an election—a reminder of the country’s history—distributed via television, an invention which would become a major part of its cultural future.

It seems to have become increasingly difficult with time (and with freer exchange of information and news—like this blog—exacerbating the situation) to separate the two halves of ‘political entertainment’. It is a highly ‘pulp’ dichotomy—what is real and what is affected; is it just style or is there some substance; should I be enjoying this or should I be pensively considering it? Of course these aren’t really separable, and don’t need to be, but, coming back to the presidential primaries, it is now a double-edged sword. Candidates ‘play’ the media as much as the news networks exploit their every act and word.

Media branding for candidates—the ‘low’ exploitation on the campaign trail of the press corps which promotes the ‘high’ political message of the politicians—is how the public consciousness is determined. A quick example:

Hillary Clinton a Clinton & a woman
Barack Obama – a newbie & a black man
John McCain – a ‘straight-talker’ & a war hero
Mike Huckabee – a Baptist minister & a Nice Guy

If we accept that the qualifications aren’t paramount (Richardson out, Biden out, Huckabee in, Giuliani in), then clearly the key factors become a) how well-funded is s/he and b) how well does s/he play that intersection between high and low, between style and substance. It is Pulp Politics. The modern media brand is as important as their message. And the brand costs money.

Who wouldn’t want to elect a black man (even if, semantic discussions of the term “black” aside, he is of mixed-race) or a woman to the White House for the first time. So these points aside, Clinton and Obama have focused on the experience Vs. innovation argument. Clinton’s name essentially equates to ‘experience’ via association (with a touch of ‘Rodham’ thrown in for good measure); but a mixed race Senator with an odd name such as Barack Hussein Obama automatically conveys the new.

The Democrat nomination process is basically a two-horse race now. Personally, Obama is certainly an inspiring orator, and he has often evaded attacks from opponents simply based on rhetorical skill, coupled with his evident intellect. Hillary Clinton’s comment suggesting that he was a talker providing “false hope”, for example, was parsed very carefully by Obama in his response. After all, it is true that you cannot have ‘false’ hope—you either hope or you do not. But at the same time, the argument stands. We all know what Clinton means, and a relatively inexperienced senator with no foreign experience—no matter how well he speaks—could prove a bad long-term choice.

On the Republican side, as the critics love to say, the field is still wide open. Huckabee’s win in Iowa was certainly buoyed by his ground support and evangelical communities, but his resemblance to Obama in his ability to connect with voters and to demonstrate a warmth of character unlike the other GOP candidates may be all hot air. After all, in 2000 people chose the candidate whom they would most like to have a beer with—the Nice Guy—and it’s fair to say that George W Bush has not much endeared himself to the world. Other candidates stick to their media message too closely, such as Giuliani (his sentences, as Joe Biden said, consisting of “a noun, a verb, and 9/11”) as the world’s terrorism-expert mayor, Romney, who sticks so much on media-message that his Spiel changes every time, or McCain, whose dogged second outing for his “straight-talk express” only garners more support than the others because he seems believable and genuine.

And therein lies the key. It’s all well and good to play the pulp politician, but we need some substance, some cultural worth, and some honesty filtered through the low-brow mass media image in order to retain faith in the candidate, and to overlook their self-aggrandising. Hence Huckabee’s and Obama’s success, and Romney’s failure. As Hillary’s tears showed this week, whether the honesty is honest or not is not the main issue, so long as it is convincing.

What the US has been so proficient at creating, through the advent of pulp culture, is exactly what they need right now—an icon. As one political writer put it, imagine that you were in a country where your only contact with US politics was television news. After eight years and two wars under the previous President, on the screen comes an image of the new American President, an icon standing not only for the US, but also as the leader of the western world.

That image has iconic status globally, and I think that in choosing whom it should be, that this iconography of the USA is just as important as any other consideration. And who would I vote for, if I could? Well, Bill Richardson—but he wasn’t playing the low- and high-brow at the right ratio and couldn’t quite catapult himself to front running star status. Hopefully we can get some quality pulp out of those remaining contenders who manage to convey a genuineness about their campaigns. I for one would be a happy enough expat under a President McCain or President Obama.

Some references: Thanks to and thoughts from various news sources, including the Guardian, Slate, the Huffington Post and the New York Times, and other bloggers, including Andrew Sullivan and Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic, various people at the New York Times Caucus blog, Mickey Kaus and others at Slate.

A PULPable Preface

8 Jan

pulp (n.) […]

7. A publication, such as a magazine or book, containing lurid subject matter.

To attribute a single goal or philosophy to this blog would be foolish, since I would no doubt transgress any limits I placed upon its content rather quickly. However, as the name suggests, I will be trying to address only those things which (I believe) fall into the category of “pulp”—a concept in which I have become increasingly interested and which covers more ground than you might first think. Pray tell me more, you say?

Having attributed it a one-word philosophy in spite of reservations, a brief definition of the term (which is, naturally, ever-evolving) is probably required. Whether it is people, places, events or philosophies, “pulp” is a synthesis of high-brow and low-brow, entertainment and more intellectual musings; the intersection of these opposites is what interests me most.

A paragraph of generalisations: The advent of popular, mass culture created and distributed swiftly, from the “penny dreadfuls” of the late 19th century, through to silent film and then talkies, and on through to the bastard child of them all—television—meant that the high-brow elements of the arts, literature and culture were disseminated to an increasingly wide audience. Thus entertainment value was cranked up whilst the complexity was—in bastard-TV parlance—dumbed down.

But in its development as a genre—a style—all of its own, pulp has come to define much of what we now consider cultural modernity, precisely because of the intersection between ‘high’ and ‘low’. In its synthesis of all that was and all that is, it is a definitively modern (post-modern, neo-modern?) concept.

I shall no doubt cover many of the people, places and events (as well as more ephemeral things) in which I am interested. Perhaps a preview of sorts is in order. In Raymond Chandler’s novels, the ugly, modern cityscape and its isolated inhabitants are filtered through the eyes of an author who revels in the murderous underbelly of L.A. set against the almost epic-heroic protagonist. Andy Warhol’s iconography—famously his soup and his Mariliyns—makes increasingly secular consumerism into an ersatz religion. David Bowie’s dissemination of writers, philosophers and musicians feeds back into a rock and roll synthesis of Orwellian dystopias, Nietzschean supermen and modern paranoia presented in pop-friendly personas.

These are but a few examples of how pulp began to seep its way into the mainstream whilst maintaining its high-brow edge—and everyone I know will in turn know that Chandler, Warhol and Bowie are all people with whom I am fairly obsessed. I think there is a clear through-line, and one that can be seen both clearly, and not only in people like these. They synthesise old and new and varnish it with a populist sheen in their creative fields; but whilst we wouldn’t have a synthetic (in both senses of the word) world without such iconic figures, it is equally true that the synthetic world begat the Chandlers, Warhols and Bowies who have ridden the crest of the pulp wave.

And so I shall begin not with pulp people, but with pulp places—the cauldron for and origin of much of the cultural synthesis about which I am talking—the United States of America. With the current presidential primaries (which I have been following far too carefully) underway, finding the right synthesis between old and new, experience and populism, substance and style is paramount.