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[JUNE 2009.]

At the Mine

Up at dawn, onto a bus; two and a half hours to Winnemucca; onto another bus which winds up a back road of sunbleached asphalt to the edge of the Black Rock Desert, where every year they burn the man. A catered lunch waits on every seat. I project the ambiguous aura of a man who doesn’t want to be sat next to, no one sits next to me, I eat the pasta salad out of my own bag and my absent neighbor’s, then take the ham out of my roll and make a pickle sandwich. Now I can read my copy of Lermontov, which is wonderful, sliced and diced Stendhal with a demonic Cary Grant playing the lead. The Nabokovs translate marvelously, that is to say invisibly, their stated intentions in the preface notwithstanding; only a few words jump out which Nabokov père must have been unable to resist—”infolded,” “asperge,” a “bicephalous” mountain. The protagonist says he’s incapable of true friendship and only has “pals,” a weird word that recurs several times; I must know, if anyone in my circle of friends’ friends has read this in Russian, what word it’s standing in for....

Everyone around me is swapping war stories from the mining business; everyone’s history intersects everyone else’s. Nevada is a big state and its demography is starting to fill up, but measured by my parents’ generation it’s a small town. By my grandparents’ generation it’s a city block.

It’s pointless to labor over descriptions of mountains, says Lermontov—exclamations that convey no meaning, word-pictures that convey no image—anyhow, deep in the desert we find the mine and get off the bus. I’m used to it as a spreadsheet of 2500 individual claims and a sheaf of survey maps; here it sits on a dozen square miles of hills crisscrossed by roads, with open pits layering their way downward. The earth’s bones come out in amazing colors: rust, ochre, powder white, a chalky sulfurous green. A faint brimstone smell hangs over everything—that’s what they mined here in the seventies, before someone discovered the gold deposit by chance. My balance is still not good, in the middle of all this sunny space I want to hold on to something, the eye does not grasp distance in the pits. Down on the floor three trucks rove around like busy beetles, dumping dirt into each other, and only when they’re joined by a mite-like pickup do I see that they’re monstrous Titan-trucks just like the one in front of the equipment shop, mounted on wheels twice my height. In the foreground a drill rig goes about its own business, readying the next blast phase.

At the shop building they’ve readied for display a special gold bar that actually looks golden, not black with tarnished silver as most will be. Everyone takes turns lifting it and having their picture taken: it’s worth three hundred thousand dollars, says everyone to everyone else, this is three hundred thousand dollars I’m holding. They take my picture too, then I go walking past the aerial photos and crushed samples of auriferous rock.

The refinery building is set up like an outdoor garage, not as large as you’d think, with a cubical blast furnace partially curtained off at one end like the Ark of the Covenant. It roars. Orange light spurts out of its apertures like a cheap optical effect in a fifties film: indescribable, no one gets within ten yards of it. A man points some equipment in its direction and makes finger-signs to his colleague: two, four, two. Is that the Centigrade temperature? One-tenth the temperature? I don’t know anything. The cyanide solution used to leach out the ore rests outside in shallow Olympic-size pools. The wind throws up blue-green ripples, perversely inviting, I want to swim and drink.

Two men put on reflective silver suits and approach the ark. One of them starts working a lever and the whole thing tilts forward until light begins to flow out: a rivulet twisted like tapwater, glowing like neon, splashes onto a stair-step assembly and runs down into the waiting mold. Stray drops hit the concrete and turn to cinders. A scorch rises. Overflowin’ with gold! shouts one of the shareholders, ha ha! Everyone laughs and applauds. That’s new wealth, my stepfather tells me, real new wealth, none of that Bernie Madoff bullshit. They hand out commemorative medallions.

Late-period Highsmith also misused “pals”; perhaps a since-lost aspect of Anglo-inflected American English?

 

Natural Enemies of the Monitor Reindeer

“Baldy Sour”
“Bloody Butcher”
“Bull Whacker”
“Duck Fraction”

 

Mining Claim Name of the Day

“Monitor Reindeer”

Very slow & deliberate reindeer of tropical islands
constantly flicks its tongue
to detect good grazing
with its Jacobi’s organ
if Santa hitches it to his sleigh
the elves & children cry

I. 2-3 = four stars

 

Thoreau, Life Without Principle

(Happy Bloomsday 105; tomorrow I’m going to the grand opening of the company gold mine)

It is remarkable that there is little or nothing to be remembered written on the subject of getting a living; how to make getting a living not merely honest and honorable, but altogether inviting and glorious; for if getting a living is not so, then living is not. One would think, from looking at literature, that this question had never disturbed a solitary individual’s musings. Is it that men are too much disgusted with their experience to speak of it?

[...]

The rush to California, for instance, and the attitude, not merely of merchants, but of philosophers and prophets, so called, in relation to it, reflect the greatest disgrace on mankind. That so many are ready to live by luck, and so get the means of commanding the labor of others less lucky, without contributing any value to society! And that is called enterprise! I know of no more startling development of the immorality of trade, and all the common modes of getting a living. The philosophy and poetry and religion of such a mankind are not worth the dust of a puffball. The hog that gets his living by rooting, stirring up the soil so, would be ashamed of such company. If I could command the wealth of all the worlds by lifting my finger, I would not pay such a price for it. Even Mahomet knew that God did not make this world in jest. It makes God to be a moneyed gentleman who scatters a handful of pennies in order to see mankind scramble for them. The world’s raffle! A subsistence in the domains of Nature a thing to be raffled for! What a comment, what a satire, on our institutions! The conclusion will be, that mankind will hang itself upon a tree. And have all the precepts in all the Bibles taught men only this? and is the last and most admirable invention of the human race only an improved muck-rake? Is this the ground on which Orientals and Occidentals meet? Did God direct us so to get our living, digging where we never planted, — and He would, perchance, reward us with lumps of gold?

[...]

Howitt says of the man who found the great nugget which weighed twenty-eight pounds, at the Bendigo diggings in Australia: “He soon began to drink; got a horse, and rode all about, generally at full gallop, and, when he met people, called out to inquire if they knew who he was, and then kindly informed them that he was ‘the bloody wretch that had found the nugget.’ At last he rode full speed against a tree, and nearly knocked his brains out.” I think, however, there was no danger of that, for he had already knocked his brains out against the nugget. Howitt adds, “He is a hopelessly ruined man.” But he is a type of the class. They are all fast men. Hear some of the names of the places where they dig: “Jackass Flat,” — “Sheep’s-Head Gully,” — “Murderer’s Bar,” etc. Is there no satire in these names? Let them carry their ill-gotten wealth where they will, I am thinking it will still be “Jackass Flat,” if not “Murderer’s Bar,” where they live.

 

Chaff

This afternoon had one of those confrontational conversations I usually manage to avoid: a neighbor upset about the disposition of certain items on the property, got bellicose and made threats of questionable enforceability to shut down my wedding reception for lack of proper permits. After I made a concession he calmed down and became friendly, in an aggressive sort of way.

The stupidity of conversations you end up replaying in your head for hours: all you want is to stop them. Lucky I had to make a three-hour drive over the mountains anyway and could crank my new cheap speakers. When you’re upset you’re thrown back on your spiritual resources, and apparently my spiritual resources are still: dharma, dharma, dharma: mind precedes all things, dominates all things, creates all things. Anyway that’s what came up. Sometimes you forget.

It had been a disappointing day anyway, because I spent most of it writing a long blog post on The Program Era and American publishing which left me feeling worse than when I’d started. Oh the tedium: I’ll never write a litblog.

maybe you should write a letter instead.

 

Ripley Under Ground

any thoughts on louis menand’s new yorker article on mfa programs?

Any old asshole with a guitar. Any old asshole with a laptop. Singing to the mirror, writing for the bottom drawer—

“Vanity projects.” Vanity is a very bad word in America.

The myth of the big break. It’s not that breaks don’t happen; it’s that the criteria don’t make sense. The terrible person who perpetrated the keyboard cat on YouTube? The bar band that’s been touring California for fifteen years? The nature photographer’s gallery shows? If not why not? Money changes the nature of some things, but not this; nor does it change after some threshold of mentions in whatever burg killed and ate Williamsburg to take on its power. It’s not that dialogic.

But the shame is real. Do it at night, with the curtains closed.

Without a trusted source of patronage there’s only the market, and prestige structures homologous to markets. Vanity remains vanity until enough people are convinced that investing their attention will yield returns in cultural literacy. No one wants a system of state censorship, but censorship projects did historically have to stop somewhere—they couldn’t colonize you all the way in.

Louis Menand is doing his job as a New Yorker critic-at-large, which is to write breezily about someone else’s argument. I’m not done with Mark McGurl, though. I’ll get back to him inside another vanity project, after nightfall.

 

Still More Songs of Experience

The company coffee is not good, and the company fridge ran out of Diet Coke, so I am attempting a Tab. They still make Tab but don’t advertise it—I’ve never tried it before. Turns out to taste something like regular Coke, with even more of that abrasive mouth-wrinkling effect and an unpleasant metallic finish.

Instead of sweets, his ample palate took
Savour of poisonous brass and metal sick:
TAB TAB TAB TAB EOF

A chain of events I’d rather not go into led me last night to accidentally shave a bull’s-eye pattern into the back of my head with electric clippers. I think it will grow out before the wedding. In a spacious office it’s pretty easy to keep people from seeing the back of your head.

i can shave mine in solidarity if you like. obfuscate!

 

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