Saturday, November 14, 2009

Of Algren's Ditty, What Do We Make?

Forgive me for that wretched, wretched pun. After pounding down a bag of donuts and a six-pack of Coke, I am currently riding a wave of loopiness that teeters somewhere between "sublime" and "dangerously out of whack." But I am entirely comfortable with this let's get it on, muthafuckas!

A word about Algren - I love him. Love, love, love him. He is the crazy uncle in your family who has somehow coasted through life without a real job, forever clinging to some mysterious set of principles that he is only vaguely able to define, but will fight to the death to defend. He shows up unannounced at family gatherings, raids the liquor cabinet, then launches into an alcohol-fueled diatribe against every member of the family with an astounding precision that belies his drunken stupor. On the verge of being kicked out of the house, he grabs his coat and then announces, with monumental self-importance, "I must now be off, as I have important engagements elsewhere!", and staggers off into the night. Afterwards, everyone laughs nervously in relief, openly commenting about how glad they are that he is gone; after about five minutes, though, an uncomfortable silence sets in, and you can see the plain truth on everyone's face - "I wish he would come back. It is just unbelievably boring here without him." That's Algren to me, in a nutshell.

I have this mental picture of him while he's writing...he's in some crappy, cavernous loft somewhere in the city, and his living space has exactly three items in it - a table, a chair, and a typewriter (he just sleeps in a pile of newspapers in the corner). He is wearing one of those wife-beater t-shirts, a pair of boxers, and nothing else. He writes at a feverish pace, on the edge of delirium, laughing maniacally the whole way through. Every now and then, after he finishes what he deems a particularly good passage, he stands up and walks over to an open window, vigorously shakes his fist at no one in particular, and triumphantly howls, "TAKE THAT, YOU MOTHERFUCKING SQUARES!!!". He then joyfully returns to his typewriter, beginning the cycle anew. I am absolutely convinced this was Algren's writing process.

Man, I wish I could have hung out with that guy.

Oh, the book. I'm supposed to be writing about the book. Hell of a book - good job, Algren! I actually would like to mention right now that my particular version contained the original text and nothing else. That's right, I read Algren in the original, without the training wheels! This will forever be a deep source of pride for me, much like having read Beowolf or The Canterbury Tales in the same manner. Half of it made no sense, but I really don't give a damn, because for me, City on the Make is self-knowingly impenetrable in its underlying motives, and really is just meant to be experienced. The only real motive we can surmise is love - a big, bold, brilliant love for this crazy-ass city that is profoundly mysterious in nature. And isn't that how love is supposed to be? Well, isn't it? Answer me, goddammit!!!

Sorry, I'm getting out of hand here.

This morning, after becoming convinced I had lost my existing copy, I trekked off to my local library branch and checked out the annotated version of the book. I refuse to read the end notes, but I am intrigued by the photo on the cover, where Algren appears immersed in a card game. What am wondering right now is - what the hell is that ghost-like image in the photo? There seems to be a logical explanation - it's just the arm of the man sitting across from Algren, and the end portion of said arm (along with the playing cards he is holding) just fell out of focus when the picture was taken. If you look long and hard enough, though, especially if you have recently consumed a six-pack of Coke and an entire bag of donuts, it really does look like the guy is giving Algren the middle finger...seriously. If this is true, then what's the story there? What did Algren do or say to warrant such behavior? I want to know, dammit!

What else can I say? The book is just a beautiful chain of unfettered prose. Algren may have been clinically insane, but there is often a stunning clarity to how he structures language, and much of it is meant to pit opposites or contradictions against each other, as we discussed in class. North Side vs. South Side. Self-important religious nuts vs. raucous, bawdy, working stiffs. Artists vs. beancounters. The dialectical tension is everywhere in this text, but to Algren, that is where Chicago begins and ends, and no synthesis ever evolves out of these polar extremes. That's right, I just went Hegel all over everybody's ass!

Have I made any relevant points at all here? Probably not. I think I need more sugar.

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