On Anthony Bourdain and the long conversation across the centuries.
Sunday, 2012-09-23 | demongin.org, On Writing Well, Television
When I was twenty-six, my first novel, The Temple of Gold, was published by Alfred A. Knopf. (Which is now part of Random House which is now part of R.C.A. which is just part of what's wrong with publishing in America today which is not part of this story.)
I have been doing quite a bit of work-related travel lately.
Which, as will already be patently obvious to those who share my irrational, pathological fear of flying, means that I have also been doing quite a bit of death-related thinking lately.
In fact, in the hour it took me to fly from Hays, Kansas to Denver International aboard a 19 seat Great Lakes Airlines Beechcraft 1900d last Tuesday night, I managed to compile (while maintaining a two-handed, white-knuckle death-grip on the yellowed plastic armrest on my left and sweating like a whore in church) what I felt at the time was a complete inventory of the accounts that would be canceled or closed in the event of my untimely death.
And then, to my tremendous annoyance, I realized that this blog would survive me by weeks, at the very least.1
"Holy fucking shit", I thought to myself, "when this rusted-out, crop-dusting piece of shit hits the Jayhawk State at terminal velocity and leaves nothing behind for the FAA to investigate but twisted metal and melted rubber, my dumbass blog will have that dumbass post about shoes and backpacks on the front page for at least the rest of the month. When everyone I have ever met hears about the freak circumstances of my abrupt death and Googles me, the first thing they see is going to be about how I live alone in my mother's condo and how I care deeply about buying stupid shit.
"Literally the last thing anyone on Earth reads from my pen will be a 30-year-old boy in the midst of an alternately petulant and preening self-congratulation-session about hipper-than-thou backpacks and unusually colorful shoe inserts.
"Fuck. Shit. Shitty shitty shitty-shit shit-shit.
"Oh God. OK: think. OK. So: in the extremely unlikely event that I survive this Snoopy and the Red Baron bullshit, the first thing I do when I make terra firma is...write an essay about dying in a plane crash.
"Yeah. Yes: perfect.
"Sure--just squeeze out a little bit of my signature blend of curlicue half-witticisms and unjustifiable invective, work in the obligatory smart-ass remark about Richie Valens or John-John or whomever, close with something chillingly somber and then, when next week's red-eye from O'Hare to Reagan International ends abruptly in a flaming crater just outside of Columbus, all of the rubberneckers and ghouls will show up, catch two barrels of neurotic posturing and erudite morbidity and I jump off of this mortal coil not looking like an out-and-out schmuck.
"Well, OK, maybe a different kind of out-and-out schmuck. One that was less interested in nesting and baubles, and more interested in cultivating a kind of grinning skull, devil-may-care persona on the Internet.
"And hey, if nothing else, my parting gift to the assholes I went to high school with is that I give them someone better than Mikey Welsh to conspicuously lower their voices wag their stupid jaws about the next time someone starts talking about people who successfully ("eerily", "uncannily") predicted their own deaths."
And that's about the time that it really hit me: I stopped writing essays because stopped wanting to be held accountable for what I wrote.
Kamikaze of Food
In addition to flying for work, I have been spending a lot of time lately with reluctant celebrity chef and television host, Anthony Bourdain.
Which, I should note, is sort of a strange thing to have happened to someone of my habits and preferences. In general, I really could not care less about the preparation and handling of food and I try my best to avoid knowing anything specific about contemporary television personalities or broadcasts.
I avoid broadcast television because I realized, long ago, that I wanted to be the sort of person who had no opinions about broadcast television: in order to muster a convincingly neutral response when someone starts in on the salacious new serial drama or the quirky ensemble comedy that was cut down in its prime by (despicable! idiotic!) network executives, I have found that it is best to actually not know Thing One about contemporary broadcasts.
Additionally, because I would rather do almost anything than purchase, transport, prepare and tidy up after food, I live mostly on a diet of bread, cheese and candy--things that can be rapidly consumed while standing in front of the kitchen sink.2
At any rate, I became interested in Bourdain back in May, when, on a strong recommendation from a trusted source, I read Kitchen Confidential during the flights to-and-from Salt Lake City (I am less inclined to fits of paralyzing terror on large commercial flights that take place during the day). And the main thing about Anthony Bourdain is this: he is a man on a mission.
I used to believe, quite mistakenly, that the main thing about Bourdain was that he was a terrific writer. While reading Kitchen, there were a number of times that I stopped, re-read the preceding paragraph, closed the book and thought to myself, "man--this guy is a mad dog: who the hell does he think he is with this stuff? This is great writing: this Anthony Bourdain really knows how to write."3
But the main thing about Bourdain is the thing that emerges about him as you start to watch his television show. After I read Kitchen I put Bourdain down until very recently, when I started watching episodes of his (at the time of this writing, current) television show, No Reservations on Netflix.4
The first thing I noticed about the show is that unlike his very excellent writing, Bourdain's television show is merely good.
Kitchen Confidential vacillates erratically between crassly disaffected culinary exposé and humorously self-effacing, darkly joyful sentimental memoir, and does its erratic vacillating to a kind of frantic, booze-and-uppers midnight jazz that you don't get in No Reservations.
Additionally, the written work hangs together because in spite of the disaffectedness, the sentimentality and the war stories, none of it feels smug. In fact, the book comes off as remarkably honest and the character of Bourdain-the-book-narrator possess the kind of toughness that William Gibson attributes to "Beat" Takeshi Kitano in his 2002 essay, "The Baddest Dude on Earth":
Toughness has been rather out of fashion, as a masculine virtue, and Takeshi simultaneously radiates it and suggests its wounded core. There can in fact be no depiction of genuine toughness (not brutality, but a sort of excess of substance, of soul-stuff) without this concomitant indication of that wound, else the piece becomes simply the pornography of fascism.Bourdain-the-book-narrator is characterized, if by nothing else, than by an "excess of...soul-stuff" and a "wounded core." Bourdain-the-TV-host, by contrast, is characterized more by a snarky affability and a tendency to repeat himself.
The show, which finds Tony frequently reminding viewers to "be a traveller and not a tourist", depends quite a bit on maxims and, to be frank, schtick. Bourdain frequently falls back, either in monologue, voice-over or both, on contrived, oft-repeated lines about how "this is what it's really about" or "real people and real food" or "genuine hospitality" for emotional ballast. Gone is the searing urgency that radiates from the cocaine-fueled full-contact hambone dance of the hard-bitten line cook policing his meez: in its place is a nervous jokiness and a tendency to platitudinize.
Even the gallows humor starts to wear thin with repetition. "If it's dumber than me, slower than me and it tastes good, then pass the salt" was unfunny the first time I heard it; by the fourth and fifth times, I was deadpanning it back at the monitor in time with Tony.
In short, while I liked the show (mainly for the host's remarkably charisma), it did not immediately strike me as excellent. It came off, initially, as repetitive and watered-down.
To my embarrassment, it took me several weeks to come to this conclusion, but the fact about No Reservations is this: traveling the world and trying to unite disparate people in disparate corners of the globe--menopausal white women tuning in from midwestern suburbs and teenage inuits unselfconsciously drinking seal blood in front of Bourdain's camera on the Canadian tundra--in a single, unifying dialectic about hospitality is the sort of work that occasionally requires simplifying one's way of speaking and repeating oneself from time to time.
In other words, to fault the show for being repetitive or for pulling punches is to hold it to the same standard of the book and, for lack of a better cliche, compare apples to oranges. The fact of the matter is that by applying a craftsman's willingness to repeat something until it is done exactly correctly is what made Bourdain an excellent writer; it is also what makes him a successful TV show host.
And, finally, though I said above that his writing was excellent and his show was merely good, I think the show's "mere" goodness makes it, paradoxically, more excellent than the book. Sure: the book is excellent and it attracts attention and notice and accolades and all that, but the show, in its "mere" goodness, has the ability to reach further and, I think, to continue the conversation started in the book with more people, across more time and more space.
For my own part, when I repeat myself, or even do the reader the courtesy of offering a thesis, I feel like I'm doing schtick. Being more of an unpracticed, dilettante artiste than a tenacious, dedicated craftsman, the thought that I might be doing schtick--even the mere suggestion--evokes a kind of creative angst that inspires me to kill a lot of simple sentences (or, alternately, to start wedging bizarre grammatical appliances in at odd angles).
After all, if you're doing schtick--if you're playing your greatest hits--then they've got your number, haven't they? A rolling stone gathers no moss, and a fundamentally unpredictable writer who never finds his way to the same phrase twice stays vital, where the guy who keeps repeating himself turns into a parody of himself, a known quantity and a predictable commodity.
A rhetoric teacher once told me that my sentences reminded him of Laocoön and the snake--writing and jumbled, each one a small fist-fight within an even wilder melee of chaotic prose that my Shakespeare professor once described as generating "far more heat than light"--and, in light of a serious writer like Bourdain and his balls-to-the-wall commitment to a handful of aphorisms, all of that nervous energy must necessarily look like a desperate, failing attempt to avoid having to one day have to answer for what I have written.
I recently gave out the following advice on what you're supposed to be learning from Montaigne when you read Montaigne essays when you're trying to learn how to write essays:5
So, here's the thing about Montaigne: he's the first proper essayist in Western lit, in the sense that he is someone who sits down with a single idea and explicitly makes an attempt ("essay" means attempt) to convey his thinking across time and space.All of which, if you care about these sorts of things, you will recognize from Sarah Bakewell's NYT interview about her Montaigne book, How to Live:
His essays are important because they are very self-aware: he makes frequent diversions into what he's thinking, why he's thinking it, why he feels like he wanted to write about it, what other things it reminds him that he wanted to set down, etc.
All of which is to say that the point is to recognize the way he sets down his goal and then leads you through his though process to that goal and a person who has good critical reading skills does NOT need to read a lot of him to start picking up on his patterns of thinking.
“This idea — writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity — has not existed forever,” Ms. Bakewell writes. “It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person.”This being my essay, I suppose I ought to have the last word.
Montaigne wrote about whatever crossed his mind: animals, sex, magic, diplomacy, violence, hermaphroditism, self-doubt. “Essayer” means “to try” in French, or as Ms. Bakewell adds, “to test, or to taste it, or give it a whirl.”
“He has this way of adding things as they occur to him, even adding things into the middle of an essay,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Clapham, in south London.
First I should say that I really and truly believe that the essays that I write here are attempts to carry on a conversation across space and time. For all of its manic black comedy, the opening bit about planes crashing and assholes from high school basing their final impressions of me on a blog entry I wrote about my preference for unidentifiable shoes really happened: I really did sit in a 19-seat plane flying over Kansas, contemplating my abrupt death and cringing at the thought of my final attempt at atemporal, asynchronous conversation being so vapid and one-sided.
Also, I should reiterate that Anthony Bourdain is awesome. Even at age 30, I still have this boyish tendency to want my literary heroes to be standoffish and aloof. The thing I think I'm picking up from Tony is that there's a lot more literary heroics to setting down a handful of ideas and then trooping them around the world than there is to occasionally lobbing some finished product over the fence in the dead of night and then retreating to the attic to view, through telescopic lens, how that finished product is received in the morning.
Finally, to the original point about being held accountable, what I want to set down is this: if I was compelled in the first place to publish a foolish essay about things recently bought, then I was also the one who wrestled with that bit of foolishness for a week and ultimately felt compelled to redress it.
Which is to say that a tendency to surrender to the moment while simultaneously worrying over posterity is characteristic of an essayist and leads to a kind of paradoxical need to be constantly making attempts, while always feeling absolutely certain of having been critically misunderstood.
To be constantly on the move, but convinced that you can never arrive.
The drive to be an essayist is a peculiar one.
- I say "at the very least", because thanks to automatic archiving, my assorted essays will probably live on at some other URL for years and years to come. But, bracketing Internet archiving for a second, the facts about this URL are these: in the absence of a Living Will to the contrary, Bank of America, will freeze a deceased account-holder's assets and, supposing I were to buy the farm on September 18th (i.e. on the flight back from Hays), that would mean that on October 1st, when the automated billing process at Linode.com woke up and failed to pull $19.99 off of my BofA debit card, that would be all She wrote for http://demongin.org. That's a whole two weeks of morons gossiping about my death, finding the URL and seeing that my last post was about preordering merchandise from Toys R Us.
- My dog, who, like all dogs, understands dropped food pieces to have been intended for her consumption, lies on her side and stares wistfully at me whenever I do this.
- One of my favorite literary kudos of all time is printed on the back of almost every Nelson Algren book:
Mr Algren, boy, you are good.That, in a nutshell, is how I felt about Bourdain after reading Kitchen Confidential.
- Just in case you don't feel like Googling it, the clip of him eating the still-beating cobra heart is from a different show. The show was called, "A Cook's Journey" and the clip can be found right here.
- This excerpt comes from recent personal correspondence; the original recipients will accept my apology for reprinting my bit of the back-and-forth without their permission.