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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Monday, 27 June 2005

Topic: Dissent

What’s Up: Who Will Say What?

Last week Karl Rove - the president's chief political advisor, life-long friend, and right-hand man - said this in a speech in New York - "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers." What else he said and the fallout from it all was discussed on June 26th in Just Above Sunset in Spin City, with a note that this seems to be part of a larger public relations offensive in Effective Response to Disappointing Numbers.

Something is up.

Rove's comments created a firestorm of anger from a whole lot of New Yorkers, and from the slightly less than half of the country who voted for the other guy in the last round. It seems they didn't like being called cowards and wimps - and traitors on the side of the nation's enemies.

Was this a mistake, or carefully planned as a way to suggest disagreement and questions are tantamount to treason? Or what?

Tuesday night the president will address the nation on how things are going with our war, and we will see if he piggybacks on Rove's comments, or tries for moderation or unity, or announces something no one expects.

Our columnist Bob Patterson, who writes for us as the World's Laziest Journalist and The Book Wrangler, has some thoughts -
Karl Rove is to politics as a Grand Master is to chess. This cannot be an error or lapse of judgment. He has done this stunt for a reason.


Booby traps work best when you rush into them.

The Democrats are rushing into reminding the world about how they stood shoulder to shoulder with Bush after 9/11.

What would happen if on Tuesday night Bush calls for a renewal of the draft and asks the Democrats to support his call for a renewal of the draft?

Rove isn't dumb. This is a deliberate provocation. He's up to something.

I say it will be a call for renewal of the draft Tuesday night.

I could be wrong, but that's my call.

Rove "has done the stunt for a reason." Is it a booby trap?
It seems to me that if you want to imagine a set-up, imagine this:

Given: The war is going badly and things are generally spinning out of control, and Rove, no fool, sees the political problem with that. As we nearly two thousand of our guys (and gals) dead and more ten thousand maimed or brain-damaged vegetables, or both, this just looks bad. How to make sure that all the dead and crippled don't much impact unquestioning support for Bush and his successors? Given the net and everything else, you cannot really shut down the news. It got too diffused - no one has enough fingers for that dike. So?

Step One: Keep hammering on the idea your side is manly and warlike and really, really, really wants this thing to work - and the other side just doesn't. They're just women. Yes, the facts don't support the idea, but keep saying it again and again until folks are numbed to the idea and, hearing it for the ten-thousandth time, shrug and say "whatever."

Step Two: Pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan late this year or by the middle of 2006, completely, and let those sad places disintegrate, and let the ensuing mess - oil disruptions and regional wars, and the economy destroyed - play itself out.

Step Three: Sadly say you didn't want to do that and, yes, things are a bigger mess than ever before, but what can you do when the women on the other side seduced the nation with all this talk of diplomacy and cooperation and understanding?

Step Four: Suggest the only solution, now that things are so much worse, is eschewing this "female view" - diplomacy and cooperation and understanding - and let the realists, the real men, do things right.

Result? Win all future election in landslides.

A return to a "drafted" Army isn't on the table. That would just piss off people. My scenario works better.

But I bet on nothing. What do I know? As Dennis Miller would say, "I could be wrong."

Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, points out some problems -
Yes, but why do they need to win in a landslide when they can still claim having "capital" to spend from winning in a squeaker, which is really a much easier way to win?

I mean, appealing to the broad spectrum of the American electorate can only be achieved in a way that would turn off the religious base, and also runs the risk of losing to someone else who does a better job of it, whereas appealing to the evangelicals - something the other side couldn't do anyway - means having a highly motivated bunch of volunteers working for you, and who are also just enough in number to put you over the top!

And even if they're not? You can always try Plan B: Cheat! After all, it's a lot easier to win a squeaker by cheating than a landslide.

But there's one more possible motive to keep in mind, and that is that, even as Bush cannot run again, Rove's career is not necessarily over after this presidential term ends. Is he working on 2006? Is he setting himself up for another candidate in 2008?

I don't know, but I assume time will answer those questions.
Yes, I failed to consider how important martyrdom is to the conservative side - and landslides are not what you want. It's hard to be "the oppressed but righteous and feisty minority" when everyone and their gay brother votes for you. Heck, I even wrote about it once - July 18, 2004 - The Importance of Martyrdom to the Conservative Movement - so what was I thinking? Heck, that item was even cited over at "Conservative Think."

As for cheating? They would do that? Really?

Most likely Tuesday night's Bush speech will be more of the "your government doesn't make mistakes" line, with the usual who-do-you-trust and stay-the-course embellishments. No more. I wonder if Social Security reform will come up in the talk. Maybe. Oil just hit sixty dollars a barrel and is rising steadily. Mention of that? Probably not.

Preparing for ennui seems appropriate. Scotch seems appropriate.

The gay conservative essayist Andrew Sullivan hopes for a big announcement - a resignation -
One way to help rebuild confidence would be to dismiss the architect of the war: Rumsfeld himself. He's proven himself useless in gauging the necessary troop levels, he has presided over the worst PR debacle for the military since My Lai, his recruitment targets aren't being met and he blames the military for decisions that were and are his to make. I love the man personally. But he's got to go. It's very hard to have confidence on our strategy with him still in charge of it.
That seems unlikely.

Of course, Bush could come out of the closet and reveal his affair with Rove - there's a reason he calls Rove "turd blossom" of course. Maybe Bush will reveal he's really an alien from the planet Clorox II. Maybe….

We shall see.

Posted by Alan at 18:56 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 27 June 2005 19:08 PDT home

Topic: Breaking News

Now We Know

In the May 15 issue of Just Above Sunset you will find this - a discussion of the Discovery Channel and AOL teaming up for seven hours of primetime telecasts to let America choose "the person who has most embodied the American dream, having the biggest impact on the way we think, work and live." That would be, of course, The Greatest American of All Time.

That May item has a great deal of background on how the BBC started this idea - a country should poll the public, in an unscientific and popular way (who feels like voting can vote, and often) – and for giggles let's see who comes out on top. The Brits came up with this order of relative greatness: Winston Churchill - 456,498 votes (28.1%), Isambard Kingdom Brunel - 398,526 votes (24.6%), followed by Diana, Princess of Wales - 225,584 votes (13.9%).

The French? The May item links to columns from Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis and "Our Man in Paris." There? Charles De Gaulle was first, of course, followed by Louis Pasteur, then Abbé Pierre, then Marie Curie, then the dead comedian Coluche, followed by Victor Hugo. Molière, the playwright, was ninth.

And last November those odd folks up north in Canada chose Tommy Douglas, the former Saskatchewan premier, the man credited with being the founding father of Canada's health-care system, as The Greatest Canadian of All Time. Go figure. The CBC results are here if you're curious.

The voting down here, south of the igloos and Tim Horton doughnut shops, closed Sunday night. Full results will come later in the week.

For now?

America Names Ronald Reagan Their Greatest American
Press Release from the Discovery Channel
Sunday June 26, 10:59 pm ET
NEW YORK, June 26 PRNewswire - America has chosen Ronald Reagan as its greatest American. Throughout Discovery Channel's GREATEST AMERICAN campaign, more than three million votes were cast via, text and toll-free numbers to name the person who America thinks most influenced the way we think, work and live.

When voting closed at 9:10 (ET) during the series' live finale, Ronald Reagan was named the winner with Abraham Lincoln running a close second.
Close was Lincoln behind by 0.05% it seems.

Christopher Hitchens had this to say on the occasion of Reagan's funeral -
Reagan announced that apartheid South Africa had "stood beside us in every war we've ever fought," when the South African leadership had been on the other side in the most recent world war. Reagan allowed Alexander Haig to greenlight the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, fired him when that went too far and led to mayhem in Beirut, then ran away from Lebanon altogether when the Marine barracks were bombed, and then unbelievably accused Tip O'Neill and the Democrats of "scuttling." Reagan sold heavy weapons to the Iranian mullahs and lied about it, saying that all the weapons he hadn't sold them (and hadn't traded for hostages in any case) would, all the same, have fit on a small truck. Reagan then diverted the profits of this criminal trade to an illegal war in Nicaragua and lied unceasingly about that, too.

Reagan then modestly let his underlings maintain that he was too dense to understand the connection between the two impeachable crimes. He then switched without any apparent strain to a policy of backing Saddam Hussein against Iran. …
And that's not to mention his record in California - and his comment that trees cause far more air pollution than cars and factories and such.

But he was an optimist, unlike the gloomy Lincoln. This might be the time to discuss the "values-based" mandate that swept Bush into a second term.

No. What's the point?

Posted by Alan at 17:31 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Sunday, 26 June 2005

Topic: Announcements


Just after midnight, Pacific Time, the new edition of Just Above Sunset, the weekly parent site to this daily web log, was posted. This is Volume 3, Number 26 - for the week of June 26, 2005 – and because it is in magazine format there is much there that you will not find here.

There, in the pages of commentary on current events you will see it has been quite a week. Extending what was first posted here, you will find fairly comprehensive reviews of domestic political news - "Just who are you calling a traitor and a wimp?" - and a bit on the Porn Star and the President in "Five Curiosities" – and a guest column from the News Guy. Last week things really got hot.

Birthdays last week? Sartre and Turing. And a famous French writer visits the neighborhood, but is Michel Houellebecq really a celebrity? Much on big doings in Paris this week with the Fête de la Musique and a curious parade five days later – and the Left Bank Lens (Don Smith) sends us great photos.

Local photography? A fantastic day on Rodeo Drive with odd old cars, and an additional page of minor curiosities. Quotes? Very cynical this week. Bob Patterson reports on the local literary scene, and ponders journalism, and provides an on-the-scene account of that Beverly Hills extravaganza. And a few things are cleared up regarding Cincinnati.

Here are direct links to specific pages:

Current Events _____________

Spin City: Temporarily Moved from DC to Manhattan [the Rove business]
Polling Notes: Effective Response to Disappointing Numbers [what motives him]
Guest Column: Rick Brown on News That Doesn't Fit the Narrative [on the Eminent Domain ruling]
Five Curiosities: Much is happening, and keeping on top of things is hard… [new photos]
Follow-Up: Last week's topics bleed into this week, so to speak… [mopping up after Dick Durbin]

Features _____________

Hollywood Notes: The Other Celebrities [Houellebecq versus Tom Cruise versus Oprah Winfrey]
Assessment: The man who thought he was being chased by a lobster through the nightmare streets full of loud music... [Jean-Paul Sartre]
Dead Guys: Another Birthday Last Week [Alan Turing]

On the scene… _____________

Our Man in Paris (1): Europe Votes for Swing [on the streets in Paris at the Fête de la Musique, with photos]
Our Man in Paris (2): Marche des Fiertés Lesbiennes, Gaies, Bi et Trans! aka Gay Pride [the parade there, with photo]
Rich Cars: Dogged Coverage of This Year's Rodeo Drive Concours d'Elegance [Bob Patterson's account, with new photos]

Bob Patterson _____________

WLJ Weekly: from the desk of the World's Laziest Journalist - Cold Pizza and Warm Beer for Breakfast [with two photos]
Book Wrangler: Doughnuts and links bond the Southern California literary scene…

Guest Photography _____________

Left Bank Lens: 2005 Fête de la Musique (and Jean-Paul Sartre) [from our professional photographer in Paris]

Local Photography _____________

Rich and Famous: The Eighth Annual Rodeo Drive Annual Concours
Curiosities: Sunrise to Sunset Out Here [note the purple octopus]

The Usual _____________

Quotes: Cynics Corner
Corrections: Regarding Cincinnati [maybe it didn't happen at all]

And here is sunset, over Sunset -

Posted by Alan at 18:02 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 26 June 2005 18:07 PDT home

Saturday, 25 June 2005

Topic: Dissent

Polling Notes: Effective Response to Disappointing Numbers

As background to the now widely-covered comment made last week by Karl Rove - "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers." - and noting the Sept 14, 2001 congressional resolution authorizing force against those that attack the US passed the House 420-1 and the Senate 98-0 with not any mention of indictments, therapy, or calls for understanding - there seems to be a bit of a disconnect.

One might assume Rove, defended by the White House and his party, knows the truth about those who are unhappy with Bush and the way things are going. These folks who have questions may have voted that way, but they didn't really MEAN it when they voted that way, in spite of how they voted then and what they say now. He, as a taxpayer-paid public servant and official of the administration, knows them better than they know themselves?

Perhaps so. Or perhaps he's just being a provocateur to rally support in difficult times. Calling those who have questions weak, cowards and, as is clear in some of his remarks, no better than traitors, is not so remarkable. Such a position may seem a bit defensive, but it does get "your side" to ramp up and be more effectively righteous and angry. But these are, after all, just words, from an official of the administration, characterizing folks with questions as cowards and possibly traitors. Standard political stuff.

If you don't want to be labeled as such, don't raise questions. Simple. Get with the program.

As for what Rove said and why he said it now, the problem is something that needs to be attended to, as the natives are restless, as shown in new polling data.

Minor Item: We all know that the Republicans while in power run the economy well because they are businessmen who know business, or so the conventional wisdom goes. But the American Research Group (ARG) poll released June 23 shows sixty-percent of registered voters say they disapprove of the way Bush is handling the economy. If you total up those who say the national economy is "bad," "very bad" or "terrible"? That comes out to sixty-three percent.

But the economy is a minor matter, and, as my conservative friends argue, there's not much any president, Democrat or Republican, can do to influence it, except to cut taxes for the ultra-wealthy so they will invest and the general economy will grow. And that this hasn't worked this time is further proof that supply disruptions, from severe weather or war or whatever, are outside the control of any president - thus Clinton was just lucky in the nineties. Yes, some of us agree no one can do much about the weather, or earthquakes or tidal waves and such, but the war thing may be different in some way. Still, no one outside the community of tin-foil hat conspiracy weirdos claims this administration was responsible for the September 11 attacks, at least in any direct way. So give Bush a Mulligan here.

But as for how Bush is doing generally, these data might explain Rove needing to remind people to shape up -
Among Republicans (36% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 84% approve of the way Bush is handling his job and 12% disapprove. Among Democrats (38% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 18% approve and 77% disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job. Among Independents (26% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 17% approve and 75% disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job as president.
It seems the independents have gone over to the dark side, or what Rove calls the side of the cowards and traitors. Not good. So, to explain, they need to be reminded that if they don't want to be called cowards and traitors, they had better change their minds.

The really starting late week poll comes from Rasmussen Reports with this:
49% Say Bush Responsible for Provoking Iraq War
44% Say Hussein

June 23, 2005 - Forty-nine percent (49%) of Americans say that President Bush is more responsible for starting the War with Iraq than Saddam Hussein. A Rasmussen Reports survey found that 44% take the opposite view and believe Hussein shoulders most of the responsibility.

In late 2002, months before the fighting began, most Americans thought that Hussein was the one provoking the War. Just one-in-four thought the President was doing the provoking at that time. …
That is a change, and quite odd. As James Wolcott comments -
What amazes me is that more Americans now blame Bush for provoking the war with Iraq than blame Saddam Hussein. That's not an argument I've heard anyone make on cable talk or on the op-ed pages. Somehow Americans drew that conclusion all on their own! The tide of popular opinion turning against the war is washing away walls we didn't even know were there.
Something is up. Rove's speech in New York was designed to deal with it. The message of the speech? Change your mind or Rove will call you names.

Over at Whiskey Bar, Billmon (William Montgomery) has more complex analysis than that.
I actually think Rove's rant should be seen as a somewhat encouraging sign. Rove and his idiot chorus aren't roaring at the top of their lungs to try to drown out the liberals - that would be absurd overkill, given how effectively the corporate media has ridiculed and/or demonized the likes of Howard Dean and Dick Durbin. No, Rove's hate rally is aimed squarely at suppressing the growing doubts of the great silent majority - and even, to a certain extent, those of the conservative true believers, some of whom are showing ominous signs of war weariness.

... nearly 60% of the American people are now willing to say, flat out, that they oppose the war in Iraq. That's a remarkable statement. I'm not sure 60% ever opposed the war in Vietnam, even after it had been lost. You don't turn those kind of numbers around with PR spin - the casualty lists now speak louder than the microphone, even one as powerful as the White House's.

Add to that the prospect of still higher gas prices, unfilled (and probably unfillable) economic expectations and the black ring of scandal widening around the DeLay-Abramoff-Reed-Norquist axis of weevils, and it's clear that recycled Reaganite optimism - the 'morning in America' brand of propaganda - isn't going to cut it.

So Rove is falling back on his classic strategy of rallying the base. What's more, he's mainlining it a much rawer and more savage version of the conservative message than the White House usually permits itself. While the customary surrogates - Fox News, Rush, the blogger hyena pack - have snarled and snapped, the results apparently have been found wanting. Now Bush's 'brain' is stepping into the ring himself.

But, like fellow psychopath Mike Tyson, Rove isn't just telegraphing his punches, he's also displaying the depths of his fear. The rhetorical ear chewing and head butting is a clear sign the champ doesn't have the juice any more, and knows it. Rove is trying to get by on sheer intimidation. He's pushing as many primordial conservative buttons as he can - leaning on them, in fact - in hopes he can once again make the dreaded liberals the story, not the march of folly currently sinking into the Iraqi quicksand.
As, those dreaded liberals who have ruined everything! It may indeed be time to excoriate them once more, because, as Hunter over at the Daily Kos explains -
The stories coming out in the next month are going to be very, very bad for Bush and for everyone involved in selling the Iraq War. Bush's numbers have absolutely tanked, the Downing Street documents are getting more and more attention, Bush and Cheney are increasingly seen as so out-of-touch with ground reports from Iraq as to border on slightly delusional, and Senate Democrats are beginning to increasingly demand specific documents relating to the ("fixed?") claims made by the Bush Administration in the runup to the Iraq War.

Therefore, anyone who doesn't support Bush's failed and increasingly unpopular policies is a traitor. That's the line they're going with.
Yeah, so? That's the way the game is played. It's just name-calling.

And it won't make the effort to change Social Security - from a safety-net insurance program of fixed benefits for set contributions into a can-you-beat-the-market investment contest - any more popular. Rove can say the dreaded liberals hate our troops, but after the senate Republicans voted against budget increases for veterans three times this year, the dreaded liberals can point to Associated Press stories like this -
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Department of Veterans Affairs told Congress that its health care costs grew faster than expected and left a $1 billion hole in its budget this year, lawmakers said Thursday.

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer, the Republican from Indiana, said the department can meet this year's health care costs by drawing on spare funds and money from other operations, including building construction.

But next year's health care budget falls well over $1 billion short, said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

"I was on the phone this morning with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson letting him know that I am not pleased that this has happened," said Craig, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

"This shortfall results from either deliberate misdirection or gross incompetence by this administration and the Department of Veteran Affairs," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington.
As you see, both sides can call names. Call me a coward and a traitor and I'll call you a liar and incompetent. Of course neither gets the veterans programs funded.

So the polls have gone in the weeds for the administration. Name-calling was predictable. And it is relatively harmless.

But is that all we get?

Posted by Alan at 14:07 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 25 June 2005 14:18 PDT home

Topic: The Culture

Hollywood Notes: The Other Celebrities

As readers might have noticed, last week Just Above Sunset took a stand against commenting on tabloid news. In an item on the close of the Michael Jackson trial the idea was that there wasn't much one needed to say about that whole sorry business, and in Ric Erickson's report from Paris on Tom Cruise and what Cruise was up to there, the idea was commenting on this all was madness. Who cares?

Friday afternoon there was an email from a reader on the current Oprah Winfrey business in Paris - and on how the Columbia Journalism Review calls it a non-story - and the reader argued it really is news, because Hermes may be racist or something. You can read l'Agence France-Presse (AFP) wire story here: "US talk show queen Oprah Winfrey is convinced she was turned away from a Hermes store in Paris because she is black and she plans to tell her millions of viewers about it, a spokeswoman said Friday." Whatever.

This too is not something of much interest to the editor. So readership will suffer. Fine.

But this is Hollywood, and Just Above Sunset is here in the land of celebrity. Perhaps something should be said about Tom Cruise who late in the week on national television strongly denounced all of psychiatry and the medical stuff concerning such things as mere pseudo-science – there is no such thing as "chemical imbalance" and all medications just mask the real problems and vitamins and exercise will fix any problem. Yeah, yeah. As one wag commented: "High school dropout Tom Cruise pulled his Scientology-obsessed, crazy train into New York this morning - his zombie virgin fiancée in tow - to grace Today Show viewers with his mastery of psychiatry."

You could read the whole exchange. It's pretty amazing. And worst case? People who reverence celebrities for some reason, who are depressed and suicidal, will now not seek help, or if now in treatment will stop taking their medications and stop going to see their doctors. They'll trust Tom of "Top Gun." Some will die. And there is something deliciously Darwinian about that. This may be a good thing.

But still, some stories of the famous are amusing, and close to home. Driving home to the Just Above Sunset World Headquarters, as a friend like to call this flat, your editor has more than one time been slowed by the late evening police checkpoint just down the way on Sunset Boulevard – as you drive east in Sunset leaving Beverly Hills the stop is just as you approach the Sunset Strip, right there at the local Jaguar, Land Rover dealership. And as folks who follow the movie business know, Oliver Stone recently got in some trouble there.

Oliver Stone in LA drugs arrest
BBC - Saturday, 28 May, 2005, 20:20 GMT 21:20 UK

"Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone has been arrested for drink driving and possession of drugs. Police said the 58-year-old filmmaker was arrested on Friday night [May 27] at a police checkpoint on Sunset Boulevard, in Beverly Hills, California. ..."

So the man who gave us "Nixon" and JFK" and "Natural Born Killers" and "The Doors" and "Platoon" and "Wall Street" - and last year that "Alexander" film that bombed - got busted. So?

The back-story is cool. According to Brendan Bernhard in the LA Weekly, Stone had had his head messed up by a Frenchman: "Shortly after sharing a table with the ultracontroversial French novelist at the White Lotus, a restaurant in Hollywood known for its deafening noise and nubile Asian clientele, the film director was pulled over by the cops on Sunset Boulevard and taken down to the station, charged with driving under the influence and possession of an illegal substance. It took a $15,000 bail to get him out."

Ah, Stone was driving the other direction, west, leaving the Sunset Strip area and going home to Beverly Hills.

That explanation of what happened is from the long Bernhard piece this week on the visit of Michel Houellebecq, the French novelist, to this neighborhood. Houellebecq is the author of The Elementary Particles and Platform, two books that have come up a few times in online discussions with readers, but not in these pages.

The full item is here:

L'?tranger in a Strange Land
Michel Houellebecq's Weekend in L.A.
Brendan Bernhard, LA Weekly, issue of June 23, 2005

And this assessment seems about right:
Houellebecq (pronounced wellbeck) may be the only writer alive to have been accused of being a Stalinist and a Nazi, not to mention a sex maniac and a drunk. He is almost certainly the only writer to have fallen asleep while being interviewed on television. (The question was too long, he explained later.) His work has been described as racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary, nihilistic, pornographic and repulsive, as well as moving, funny and prophetic. Three years ago, he was put on trial in Paris for inciting anti-Muslim hatred after he called Islam the world's "most stupid religion" during an alcohol-laced interview with the French literary magazine Lire. Even those lovable Brazilians ("morons obsessed with soccer and Formula One") have failed to escape his satirical pen.
Bernhard interviews Houellebecq, on the guy's first visit to Los Angeles, while Michel is "smoking a cigarette at a sidewalk table at Mel's Diner on Sunset Boulevard." We learn he's trying the Santa Fe Chicken Salad, but gives up on it and opts instead for a quadruple espresso. How French. But Mel's is a faux "American Graffiti" kind of tourist trap, with bad food and no carhops at all (they have valet parking, of course). Should any of you visit, we're not going there.

Is Houellebecq out of place?
What the passerby couldn't know, of course, was that Houellebecq was a French writer; that all French writers worth their salt drink terrifyingly strong coffee, usually in enormous quantities; and that, historically, the crème de la crème like Jean-Paul Sartre have added to their coffee habit several packs of cigarettes a day along with amphetamines in the morning and barbiturates at night. It's a tough tradition to follow, but Houellebecq was doing his best.
And that is how Hollywood sees the French, of course.

This is followed by an account of some really dull conversation, but then we get this -
Few doubt his intelligence on the page, however, or the sense of isolation and loneliness that underlies his satire. The tone of his work is one of radical estrangement and ennui, and his books are studded with statements bleak even for a French writer who was once frequently treated for nervous depression.

For example: "Anything can happen in this life, especially nothing." Or: "It is in our relations with other people that we gain a sense of ourselves; it's that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable."

"Life is painful and disappointing," he wrote 14 years ago in the opening sentence of his first published prose work, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, a study of the American writer that has just been brought out in translation by Believer Books, an imprint of McSweeney's. "We generally know where we stand in relation to reality and don't care to know any more. Humanity, such as it is, inspires only an attenuated curiosity in us."
Sounds very French to me. And Bernhard comments that Houellebecq is one of the few French novelists since Camus to win a substantial audience outside France. In recent decades the country "has produced enough incomprehensible philosophers, critics and theorists to fill several large cafés, but precious few writers of exportable fiction." This guy is different. He tells stories.

What kind of stories? Try gloomy realism.
Houellebecq's first novel, Whatever, was about a bored, deeply unhappy software engineer who travels around France with a pitifully ugly co-worker, teaching a new computer program to business clients. It was short, pithy and filled with a visceral loathing for just about everything. ("I hate this life. I definitely do not like it," the narrator says. "The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke.") It was based at least partly on the author's own life and had the unmistakable tang of reality. (During the 1980s, he worked as an agricultural engineer and debugged computers for the French National Assembly, often traveling around the country to do so.) As he would continue to do in his next two novels, Houellebecq had given voice to a class of people - alienated white-collar office workers, basically - who tend to be ignored by literary novelists.

... The Elementary Particles, published in 1998, was an international best-seller and made Houellebecq famous. The story of two half brothers, one an asexual scientist, the other a sex-addicted writer, it is about the end of the human race and is supposedly narrated by a member of the more evolved, peace-loving race of post-humans who, thanks to cloning, eventually replace us. Published in 1998, a time of relative optimism and economic expansion, the novel stunned people with the depth of its anger and pessimism, and the way it threw contempt on the once revolutionary baby boomers now running France and the West in general. As a child, Houellebecq was abandoned by his hippie parents and raised by his grandmother (his mother is said to have converted to Islam). This was payback time, and the fearlessness of his satire shocked France's literary world, which didn't seem to know what to do with him.

The problem became even more acute with the publication of Platform, a novel about the construction of a sex-tourism paradise in Thailand that is blown to pieces by Muslim terrorists, killing the narrator's girlfriend in the process. It appeared shortly before 9/11, and has a distinctly prophetic feel. The novel's central idea - that financially solvent but sexually uncharismatic Western men should make common cause with Third World women who "have nothing left to sell except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality," bringing about a mercenary sexual relationship satisfactory to both parties - was a typical Houellebecq provocation, equal parts genius and lunacy. (Outside the West, Houellebecq pointed out, there are millions of attractive women who'd be perfectly happy to marry a dullard so long as he brought home the bacon.) The book's withering critique of Islam made it especially controversial, and all hell broke loose when Houellebecq spouted off against the religion himself in the interview in Lire. Following a suit brought by groups including the Saudi-based World Islamic League and the French Human Rights League, he was forced to defend himself in court in October 2002.
Well, he was acquitted.

And Perhaps There Is an Island, his new novel about cloning, will be published in France at the end of the summer. Should be fun, or something.

What did he do here? He stayed at the Bel Age hotel down the street, was interviewed on KCRW in Santa Monica by Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm, he spoke at the Armand Hammer Museum over in Westwood on Lovecraft.

And there were two "performances" by the Velvet Hammer Burlesque troupe, but it's best not to ask.
After the show, Houellebecq went upstairs to the reception, where he spent a couple of hours smoking cigarettes next to the THANK YOU FOR NOT SMOKING signs, autographing books, and schmoozing and posing for photographs with the dancers and other female admirers. He spent about 15 minutes talking to Kim Murphy, a.k.a. "Rocket Sapphire," the troupe's contortionist. Coincidentally, Murphy told me later, she was in the midst of reading one of Houellebecq's novels. Her boyfriend has only one book in his apartment, and it's Platform. "At the beginning, it was, like, what the hell is this?" she said about her reaction to the novel. "How am I going to read this book about this person who is not attached to the world at all? But now I can't stop reading it.
That about sums up a lot of how we react to French novels.

Anyway, we also get an account of a dinner at Kate Mantilini's down on Wilshire Boulevard. Houellebecq ordered a steak, heaped his salad on top of it, and had red wine. Much talk. So he got used to LA, and the food is actually pretty good there.

And what did he think of his first visit to Los Angeles, to Hollywood?
"But people don't understand," he protested, saying that Californians kept demanding to know what he thought of them and their state. "Sometimes you think nothing, you have no impressions. Nothing happened, it was an ordinary story with normal people. It was a human experience."

At the words "human experience," Houellebecq doubled up with laughter.
He obviously understands life out here. This seems the appropriate response to the world of Tom Cruise and his scientology, Oliver Stone and his arrest, Oprah and her problems, and Michael Jackson.

Nothing happened.

Posted by Alan at 00:27 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 25 June 2005 00:46 PDT home

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