Two good paragraphs

I have a theory that every book has at least one good paragraph. If it doesn’t, it’s not worth reading, and some books may have a handful of good paragraphs; some books or authors can have one or two good paragraphs on every page. (Kerouac is one such author, as I discovered when I read On the Road; he’s got a couple good paragraphs every time you turn a page.)

When I’m talking about good paragraphs, I mean paragraphs where the author broke through and achieved a higher level of clarity, exalted style, or smoothness of expression. Those are the paragraphs that seem to have a shaft of light falling on them and illuminating the page as you read. The author lifts his or her prose into the realm of poetry — about to take off and soar, but not quite there yet. The wheels are bumping on the ground and the wings are straining for lift, but there’s no soaring yet.

I remember one summer I read the Rabbit trilogy by John Updike. I was working in the warehouse of a giant mail-order school supply company, and in the breakroom they had a small bookcase full of paperbacks. You could browse through them, take one or two, and put others back in their place. I wandered through those shelves, and the Rabbit books, bound in one volume, was one of the things I came away with. One good paragraph. That’s all that was in that book, and the book must have been 500 or 600 pages. What a letdown. And that paragraph was nothing like the rest of the book. (Which is why it was good.) Updike is way overrated, if you ask me — but that’s a topic for another post.

The “one good paragraph” dictum applies not only to books that suck, but also to books that are pretty good. Take The Big Nowhere, by James Ellroy. One of my favorite authors, and the book itself is a good read. Ellroy knows the language and the zeitgeist of that time & place inside & out, and can evoke it as few others can. The level of sophistication he routinely writes at, in terms of the pull his writing has as well as his facility with ’50s-’60s slang and culture, is miles beyond a lot of other writers working the same territory. Yet in The Big Nowhere, there are two paragraphs where you can feel Ellroy gathering himself and reaching for the words to express why he wrote the novel in the first place — the original germ of the idea that set him on the course of working at this thing until finally he came up with The Big Nowhere.

Those two paragraphs are worth seeing on their own. Here they are:

Danny picked up a serrated-edge carving knife. He tested the heft, found it substantial and said goodbye to Mal and Jack and Doc. He apologized for the cars he stole and the guys he beat up who didn’t deserve it, who were just there when he wanted to hit something. He thought of his killer, thought that he murdered because someone made him what he himself was. He held the knife up and forgave him; he put the blade to his throat and slashed himself ear to ear, down to the windpipe in one clean stroke.

Then, later in the book, towards the end:

Coleman was fighting his urges inchoately, with music. He was working on a long solo piece filled with eerie silences to signify lies and duplicities. The riffs would spotlight the unique high sounds he got with his sax, loud at first, then getting softer, with long intervals of silence. The piece would end on a scale of diminishing notes, the unbroken quiet — which Coleman saw as being louder than any noise he could produce. He wanted to call his composition The Big Nowhere. Lesnick told him that if he got to a hospital, he would survive to perform it. The doctor saw Coleman faltering, clarity gaining. Then Coleman told him about Danny Upshaw.

Ellroy does a superlative job evoking what’s going on in the killer’s head — not just the content of his thoughts, but the way they filter through his mind, what he wants, what he’s trying to accomplish. Uncanny and fascinating. Ellroy can really get into a character’s head and turn them inside out — which also shows us something about ourselves. That’s the point of a good paragraph, from any book.

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They don’t love you like I love you

I am besotted with this song. I heard it on my Pandora a while ago and the past few days it’s all I’ve heard. I hear it even when it’s not playing, that’s how much I dig this song. I’ve listened to it more times than I can count.

A lot of other people like it, too. According to Wikipedia (a phrase that my wife, a former college English instructor, would shoot me for), (no, seriously, Wikipedia’s reliable (ha)):

“Maps” is widely regarded as one of the greatest songs of the 2000s:

  • In 2009, it was voted the best alternative love song of all time by NME.
  • The song was also listed at #6 on Pitchfork Media‘s top 500 songs of the 2000s.
  • Rolling Stone ranked “Maps” as the 7th best song of the 2000s.
  • In 2010, Rolling Stone ranked “Maps” as 386th in their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Note that first one. Best alternative love song of all time. That’s pretty heavy.

She sings words that have universal resonance. Sooner or later everybody who’s loved somebody has felt like she sings about. That one line, “they don’t love you like I love you,” is all that this song needs to hit its mark. If you read the lyrics, they seem almost skeletal, sparse to the point of being unfinished, but in the performance of the song they totally work. They don’t need any more words. Ditto for the music — just one haunting guitar, the drums, and Karen O’s voice. This song has a lot of different little touches that add up to a wonderful whole. The way the guitarist & the drummer double back into a calmer section on the back half of the bridge is another example, as is the way the drummer varies his drumbeats slightly going into the end of the song — he chops them up a little more and makes them sound a little more tribal. When you’re working with so few pieces to your puzzle, you need to employ each of them very deliberately and in a well-thought-out way, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs do that here.  The trilling, whistling guitar hook keeps running through my head, too. The band doesn’t even waste any movements — Karen O’s moving with the music becomes larger but more deliberate as the song goes on. (The drummer gets close, but he never breaks his cool.)

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are exactly what they look like — a New York-garage-rock-postpunk-glam trio (just look at Karen O.’s Velvet Underground haircut shagging in her eyes; looks fine from some angles but ridiculous from others — and is that a bow over her right shoulder? I don’t know but I don’t know what else it could be) — but one listen to this song will convince you there’s a human heart beating inside that skinny chest under the black t-shirt. If you watch closely you’ll notice that Karen O, the singer, starts crying quietly during the video. She starts the song visibly upset and almost disbelieving at something she sees or doesn’t see, and she has to pull herself together through the bridge. I wondered if they were real tears or just for the video, until I ran across this on the Internet:

She explains: “They were real tears. My boyfriend at the time [Angus Andrew] was supposed to come to the shoot – he was three hours late and I was just about to leave for tour. I didn’t think he was even going to come and this was the song that was written for him. He eventually showed up and I got myself in a real emotional state.”

This Angus character (lead singer of the Liars, another arty neo-postpunk outfit, for those who know) also apparently inspired the song’s title. My Angus Please Stay = Maps. It’s nice to know that, and it’s basically just speculation, but I prefer to just leave it as “maps” and be done with it. If it means more than that for Karen O., that’s for her to know. I like maps in general, even though I’m not the best with one (another topic for another post), so that’s one reason I liked this song at the very beginning. Now I dig it for the song itself.

The fact that she is so emotional during the song and yet the song is so restrained and in control is really appealing. It’s like a banner to rally around for those of us who feel things very deeply but it’s not always apparent on the surface. (You know who you are.) Postpunk in general thrives on the tension between volcanic feelings and outwardly straightjacketed expression. The twisting and pushing & pulling between those two poles gives postpunk its bite. This song has that in spades.

The way a song — even a completely secular love song — makes someone feel is often the closest some people ever get to God. But even for us who know the Lord, we still appreciate such songs — and why not? The love, debased or misguided though it may be, that such songs display is only echoes of that great, pure, holy, and transcendent love — the love of God for humanity that leads us to love Him in return when faith has been kindled in our hearts. Love like Karen O. sings about, however dear or impassioned, is only echoes & shadows of the one love which is the root, source, and truest form of all love — the love of the Divine, love for us from Him and by us to Him. Think about that while you listen to the song.

Pack up I’ve strayed Enough Oh, say, say, say Oh, say, say, say

Wait They don’t love you like I love you Wait They don’t love you like I love you Maps Wait They don’t love you like I love you

Made off Don’t stray My kind’s your kind I’ll stay the same

Pack up Don’t stray Oh, say, say, say Oh, say, say, say

Wait They don’t love you like I love you Wait They don’t love you like I love you Maps Wait They don’t love you like I love you