I taught David Berman’s Actual Air the other day. Teaching books that really matter to you is always risky. Someone, or everyone, might dislike the book. This puts you in an even worse position than the “I am a fraud” problem. (If you have to ask, you have not taught creative writing.) Having your cherished book be greeted with dislike by your students requires epic expenditures of self-restraint. Someone says they are bored or grossed out or annoyed by a book you love, and you have to equanimously nod your head—It’s unnatural. Maybe this is a failure of imagination on my part, and I should argue with them like I would if I was talking to somebody at a bar or a party. But you can’t go stomping around on the tender shoots. And so one must suppress the love you feel for the book, and the joy of talking about books dies a little, which is to say you die a little.
That didn’t happen with Actual Air. The students found its imagery and mood curious. They liked it. The dissenters seemed to focus on the attitude emanating from the book itself: the cover design, the author on the back, slouched like a hipster Jesus with Ulysses Grant’s face emblazoned on his T-shirt.
But the sheer joy of Berman’s dissociative mind didn’t quite make it through to the students. Which is maybe just as well. On some level you want the books you love to be a secret. You wish success for them and their author, but you also want their magic to be yours alone.
The great Jewish talent, I sometimes think, is the ability to let go of the talisman of the literal and drift into the ether of free association. This letting go is a second cousin to mysticism. Free association is both an embrace of the thought that drifts before your eyes and a kind of rejection, as well, of where that thought might lead. You perceive the logical course and then make a lateral movement away from that course as though logic is a magnet with a positive polarity and the perceiving mind a magnet whose polarity is negative. Free association, when elevated to art, is the ability to be free of sense in a way that makes sense.
For example one night in Prague Kafka is taking a walk with Gustav Janusch when a dog crosses the street in the distance.
“What was that?” says Kafka.
“A dog,” says Janouch.
“It could be a dog, or it could be a sign,” Kafka says. “We Jews often make tragic mistakes.”
When I first heard that Kafka’s stories were received as being hilarious when he read them, it stunned me. Maybe the last lines of “A Hunger Artist” have the rhythm of a joke. But it had never occurred to me to think of his writing as funny. But then who knows how he read them out loud, or what his voice sounded like? So much changes when you hear words spoken by a human voice.
Free association is not surrealism, nor is it dream logic. I use it to connote that curious levity and the vertiginous thrill that come when the mind leaps unexpectedly from one place to the next—a crackling fire sending out an errant spark that goes flying beyond the immediate circle of light, a tiny shooting star entering darkness.
Free association finds expression most famously, and perhaps most Jewishly, in psychoanalysis. But it is an essential component of all creativity. For example this line from David Berman’s poem, “If There Was a Book About This Hallway.”
If Christ had died in a hallway we might pray in hallways
or wear little golden hallways around our necks.
Ever since I read that I find myself pondering, now and then, unprovoked, what a hallway would look like rendered into an amulet.
There is a strong current of aphorism in Berman’s poetry. Another line I think of and quote often: “Souvenirs only remind you of buying them.” I look at the souvenirs in my house. Accumulations from travels near and far. I live among these objects but see them only now and then. And when I see them, and really look at them, I sometimes remember buying them. Sometimes I just think of that line.
I was standing at The Other Deli. It was on 93rd Street and Broadway, on the southwest corner. Across the street, on the northwest corner, was another Korean deli. My deli. They were side by side, or face to face, depending on how you looked at it. Sometimes, when the flowers that ran along their perimeters were especially abundant and blooming, they seemed to be literally bristling at one another. I imagined the sense of rivalry to be intense to the point of primal.
I kept it simple by patronizing the deli that was on my side of the street. But now and then I would patronize The Other Deli, I don’t know why. Maybe I was hedging with karma, the way people and corporations will sometimes give to both candidates running for the same elected position. It was late one night at The Other Deli, under fluorescent lights, that I had my first encounter with the Silver Jews.
If you hired some viral marketer to promote the Silver Jews in 1994 you couldn’t have done better than this: You take a pasty white guy, dress him in punk rock rags, and have him shave an X into the top of his head, otherwise covered with hair. It looked a lot like male pattern balding—this was disturbing, as it was surely meant to be. This young white punk in line in front of me was holding a record. A single album, which he put down flat on the counter as he paid. By 1994 the LP was already a novelty, maybe even more than it is now because it was merely obsolete and had not yet attained fetish status. So, you had a pale, reverse Mohawk punk on whose album cover was a German expressionist hodge-podge with some blue in it and the words, “Silver Jews.” It could not have been a more glamorous, ennobling, mysterious introduction to a band. I thought, “Cool name.”
There is a genius to defying expectations. David Berman is that kind of genius. Even the most famously manic reinventors tend to morph within their chosen medium. But Berman is a mixed-medium guy. He gets in bed with a medium—music, or poetry, or Judaism, or muckraking journalism. (This list feels like an IQ test question: Which one does not belong? Is Judaism a medium? Like acrylic paint or clay? Like the Internet? Something that a creator gives shape to? Or is it a medium in that other sense of communicating with the unseen and unknown? With the dead?) He does something magical in the dark, produces a record, or a book of poems, and the next morning he’s gone.
Putting it that way sexualizes the creative act in a weird way, but it’s fair to say that a fan acts like a jilted lover when the artist goes through a radical change. Dylan’s electric conversion being an example.
Berman’s career as Chief Silver Jew has been divided into curiously counterintuitive chapters. First came the phase of only putting out records but never playing live. Berman’s singing is declarative and no frills. He can carry a tune, but only barely. The music is given a kind of melodic ballast by the occasional appearance of Stephen Malkmus’ voice and guitar, so distinct and recognizable and yet so odd in the context of Berman’s spooky, dazed, darkly associative world.
Berman and Malkmus—classmates at the University of Virginia—belong to the curious genre of artists who seem to have glimpsed the engine room of society in all its mundane horror. Theirs is the poetry of arbitrage, playing the spread between the mythological and the mundane. They are fluent in the banal platitudes of corporate-speak and its ancillary, sports talk. It’s not so much a subject as a tool and a preoccupation. Sample lyric from Berman: “Girl in a special economic zone. Girl in a special economic zone. Closed sign swinging in the window of the liquor store. Better get inside the kingdom and close the door.” (Franzen has a bit of this. DFW has a lot of it. I nominate the Late Robert Bingham as the poet laureate of arbitrage, especially the stories in Pure Slaughter Value.)
I don’t think you can name either a poet or a rock star for whom the words “Federal,” “Municipal,” and “Civic,” play a larger role than in Berman’s work—both the lyrics and the poems. Malkmus’ language is more veiled by make-believe, more coded, and yet his lyrics also suggest a traumatizing glimpse into the way things work. Samples: “Open Call For Prison Architects.” And, “I was dressed for success/ but success it never comes.” And “Zurich is stained and it’s not my fault.” And my personal favorite: “There is … no … castration fear.”
Berman’s poems and lyrics sometimes sound as though his muse is a bedraggled confederate soldier moving through a modern world with which he is on familiar terms, trying to reconcile disappointment with a gratitude for being alive.
I once heard a story about the two of them working through the process of recording one of the Silver Jews’ most memorable and rocking songs, “Send in the Clouds.” Apparently they were stuck on the pronunciation of the word “Game” in the song. They did take after take and finally got it right when Malkmus suggested that Berman channel Mick Jagger when saying the word. Once you know this it adds a layer to the song. The song has a Stones swagger. But one had to picture it being performed because The Jews didn’t tour.
Berman did make one deeply weird public appearance during the first eight or so years of the Silver Jews. In 2000 word got out that he would be playing an unannounced show in an East Village bar with Stephen Malkmus. The two men appeared at the appointed hour in a bar on Stanton Street with guitars, amps. They set up. They stood facing each other, tuning up, or doing some kind of pre-song noodling as though in preparation for a song. For about 40 or so minutes they did this—and nothing else. Their body language was that of two guitarists turning to each other as though to say, “Are you ready?” Yes. And no. Not yet. Not now. Maybe never.
He lives in Nashville with his wife and collaborator Cassie. He has a dog. His neighbor is filmmaker Harmony Korine, who tells stories about his adventures in show business. I learned this when I gave a reading with Berman at Indiana University. It was fall of 2004. We walked through Bloomington’s autumn leaves while he repeated an outrageously smutty story Korine had told him about an actress. I was mortified for some reason. Maybe because my fiancée was there with me. He called us “Lord and Lady Beller.” I loved that. It was like a benediction. That smutty story, about the proclivities of a starlet, was so outrageous that I have always wondered if Berman made it up. Not that it matters. The reading was fine. There was a radio interview, and the next morning we spoke to a class of creative-writing students. You know what goes a long way toward making you impressed with a person? When they surprise you. I watched a young man’s hand tremble as he asked Berman a question. This was clearly a momentous experience for him. He kept it together, got the gist across. (How to live? How to write?) What did Berman say in response? I have no idea, alas. I was too lost in the watching. I only remember the feeling—being exhilarated by his honesty. The no-bullshit honesty and also the truth of it. Which gives you nothing. But I offer it because it was so surprising how unvarnished it felt. You don’t even realize how much bullshit you allow for in your day-to-day life, just the pleasantries of it, until you get something straight like that.
Was it before or after he publicly announced a suicide attempt that Berman decided to take the show on the road and perform live? I cannot recall. I read about his suicide attempt in a magazine. He was pictured with his dog on a leash. I remember thinking, “What about the dog?”
I met Berman for the first time in 1998 at a reading sponsored by the literary magazine I co-founded in 1990, Open City. Berman was the headline attraction. We had set up chairs in a gallery space. These gallery spaces, with their wood floors, the emptied, barren karma emanating from the fresh coat of white paint on their walls, the often lewdly provocative art on the wall, were the magazine’s staging area. The very first Open City party was at a defunct gallery on Mercer Street where the freelance curator Kenny Schachter had put together a show: used tampons in plastic sandwich bags piled in one corner, a microphone set up beside a pair of bicycles propped on kickstands, innocent enough until you noticed that the seats had been replaced with dildos and other such gear. It was a wild party. My old friend Daniel—co-founder of the magazine—and I were very proud of it, though this was long before everything was always photographed, so there are no pictures. Still, a fundamental pattern was set—we chose good work for the magazine, and we promoted it by having great parties that were also readings, and we took equal pleasure in both.
Berman appeared on our scene about seven years after that first party and reading. By then Robert Bingham had joined us, using what in hindsight I see was his M.O.: a kind of radical candor in which he comes up to a person and says, “You! I like you!” And then explains why, whether it be the band’s music, or the person’s writing, or just the person’s face.
This reading was at yet another art gallery. Berman was guest of honor. Berman stood there in the back in a blue Oxford shirt, a bit solemn, nonchalant about our attentions. He was stroking his beard. I was impressed with the beard and told him so. “It’s for my girlfriend,” he said in his sonorous, deadpan drawl. “It’s my way of saying that I’m the boss of me.”
We talked for a while, and he told me he had stayed up all night reading Seduction Theory, my first book. There are compliments and there are compliments. Like Bingham, he had a “let’s be friends but we are always going to be on our own” energy around him, a powerful force that could at any moment be turned on itself. His reading was sonoric, focused, droll. He made it clear from his posture that he took the form seriously—the poetic form and also the formality of a reading. His music and his poetry seemed an extension of each other, of course, but different. He seemed both rough and also like a delicate book whose binding was imperiled; you might want to take it to some kind of book fixer to set it straight. A specialist was needed. But then who fixes such books? No one, you think, no one fixes such things. One of my favorite Berman lyrics: “In the end the boy raises himself.”
From what did Berman’s charisma on that first night derive? He had published a few poems I admired in The Baffler. Open City had published a few more. Toward those poems I felt admiration verging on awe. They worked as poems and they also stood up in the larger world, somehow. They seemed cool. An unsophisticated response, I know, but they were exciting in part for their novelty and freshness of voice. They merged a kind of biblical authority with a contemporary sense of the ironic and droll. They were in many ways innocent, or about a childish innocence, but they were not amazed and wondrous.
He was the apple of my friend and co-editor Rob Bingham’s eye. Bingham’s eye beheld many shiny apples. Nevertheless Berman held a special place, it was clear. Rob’s excitement at having managed to get Berman’s poems, and then his presence, into the orbit of the magazine seemed boyish, verging on childish. Yet this sort of excitement was also the whole point of doing a literary magazine. That night Berman was a mystic, a degenerate, a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a genius, a poet, a rock star. He had a voice that seemed genuinely new and utterly entertaining. Bingham’s great coup was to convince Berman to let Open City publish his book-length poetry manuscript. It would be Open City Books’ first title.
At a recent reading by Sharon Olds, at Tulane, where I teach, the sound system was excellent and Olds’ every little inhaled breath crashed over the packed audience, as did the soft, sing-song mellifluous sound of her voice reading her wonderful, inventive poems. She read a poem called “Ode to a Hyman.” Another called “Ode to the Second U In Vacuum.” Terrific poems.
But I also noted a childishness she projected. Also its corollary, which is the old coot’s amazement at the modern world. The wondering way she said, “YouTube!” as though she had discovered fire and what would they come up with next? To be a poet is to be amazed, her manner suggested, even at the simplest things, which is a useful stance for a creative mind but also seems disingenuous to the point of being dishonest, because it allows for no bitterness.
I have encountered this bitter-free wondrousness among many other well-known poets. It’s almost a house style. I am not sure how I feel about these celestial beings. Robert Hass also gave a wonderful reading at Tulane; he had a bandage on his nose that made me think of Jake from Chinatown. Such an association is both inevitable but also a little hostile—because then you have to imagine a shitty little Roman Polanski figure putting a blade in Robert Hass’ blameless nostril and cutting it open. I thought, “Why would I be hostile to this nice man who is reading a moving poem about his dead brother?”
The answer lies, I think, in that childish wonder, that gentleness that poets seem so often to project. A softness and receptivity that feels frustratingly pacific and also remote. I am sensitive to this, I think, because I am complicit. In my personal essays, at least, there is a Mr. Magoo kind of levity and wonder, a feeling that all will be well. It’s almost like I am singing little lullabies to myself in those pieces. (Fiction is another story, so to speak.) But childish wonder excludes an important truth, which is I am also bitter. Bitter about so many things! And I have made it a kind of rallying cry to myself, recently—embrace the bitterness! Don’t hide the bitterness! When I cook food on a grill, isn’t the burnt bit the tastiest?
This is what Berman is kind of brilliant at synthesizing. His poems, and his songs, contain childish wonder but also real bitterness, the bitterness of knowledge. In his earlier days he was an angry young man but his delivery was not frantic. It was controlled, grounded, even soulful. But it was not childish and ethereal. Berman’s aura was that of someone who lives in the real world, among men and even football fans, and is not afraid to bring the nasty. He seems a bit dangerous, even if the person he seems most likely to harm is himself.
Actual Air was published in the fall of 1999. The book party, at Robert Bingham’s loft, was in late October. Within a month Robert Bingham had died of a heroin overdose (there I said it). Daniel went off the deep end around then. I have not spoken to him in 10 years now. This isn’t the place to anatomize that moment except to say that it was awful. Nevertheless the magazine existed and now there was also a publishing imprint, Open City Books. Berman’s book was the flagship title. That it was a huge success—by our standards, by the standards of poetry collections—added to a certain weightless feeling at the time. That it was the cusp of the millennium didn’t help. Looking back it was part—just part, but still—of what made going forward seem like a necessity. Daniel eventually left the magazine. Joanna Yas became my co-editor. We published the magazine and put out books for 10 more years.
Sometime around 2004 we were attacked by a maniac from Detroit who had long been a fan, even a friend. His name was Karl “King” Wenclas. He had reviewed Open City’s very first issue—negatively, but still, with energy and attention. I was so impressed that his byline appeared in issue #3, though I had misspelled his first name. (Ken. He wrote me a postcard that began, “Dear Tim.”)
Then Wenclas changed titles and tactics. The hostility to Open City (among many others) moved from the page, where it was welcome, to disruptions at readings and so forth, where it was not. Wenclas and his gang were throwing out taunts and dares, calling us (to be defined as everyone other than them) a bunch of pampered wusses who were marginalizing literature. All the people being thus insulted or harassed metabolized this in their own way. Most people ignored it. I tried to engage, at least for a while, as did George Plimpton, who memorably joined the group on stage at one of their events—a press conference held at the opera house next to CBGB.
The person who handled this antagonism most gracefully and usefully, I thought, was David Berman.
As Tom Bissell summarized in his essay on the subject, “Grief and the Outsider,” which appears in his collection Magic Hours:
The Open City poet (and lead singer and songwriter for the Silver Jews) David Berman … sent a lacerating letter to Wenclas, challenging the ULA [Underground Literary Alliance, which Wenclas had founded] to a “relevance read-off.” Upon receiving Wenclas’s sharp though polite reply, Berman shot back, “Look King, if you’re going to be so civil about this then disregard my first letter. I thought you were hot-headed assholes looking for a fight. … Obviously I’m talking to the wrong guy. Who’s the head asshole over there? Tell him to call me.”
A couple of years later Berman broke the no-performing clause in his contract with himself and took the Silver Jews on the road. I think the motivations were largely financial. It went well. After two successful world tours with the Silver Jews, and their most successful record yet, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea—success, it does come, as long as you don’t define it as making millions of dollars—Berman did the natural thing to do, if you are David Berman, which is break up the Silver Jews. He did so to write a book. It would be a book of political muckraking, and also an act of patricide. There is castration fear, it turns out.
That Berman’s father was a hard-charging D.C. lobbyist with unsavory political inclinations was something I was aware of, vaguely, for some time. It was hard to resist the feeling that this was, in some way, an embarrassment to Berman. Being an artist, he went to the embarrassment, to the difficulty, and devoted himself to pushing the details to the surface. The details were so dark they are almost comic—Berman’s father, Rick Berman, was the go-to lobbyist for almost every unsympathetic industry—cigarettes, alcohol, soft drinks—who wanted to influence a national discussion without leaving fingerprints. Rick Berman’s method was to create fake grassroots groups to confuse the discussion. (He is sufficiently prominent among the activist community that there is a website devoted to exposing his activities.)
That his father was working on behalf of booze, cigarettes, sugar, and against unions, and food labeling, etc., etc., could be seen as distasteful, upsetting, infuriating, or even kind of rock ’n’ roll. But I think the issue for Berman wasn’t only, or even primarily, that his father was advocating for unsavory causes—it was the method. Berman the truth-teller was sire of a kind of genius of sophistry. Faced with this he could either be paralyzed by this irony or expose it in order to undermine both the literal and figurative power of his father. He did both.
On Sunday July 25, 2010, David Berman spoke at the Open City Summer Writers Conference at the NYU writing Center on 10th Street off Sixth Avenue. The weekend had gone well, filled with readings and workshops. Now it was Sunday evening. David’s talk was the capstone event.
I introduced him as having a genius for not doing the most obvious thing. He was a poet of aphorism, I said. You could never step into the same Berman twice. I spoke of how vexing this was, how one wished to have him keep doing what he does well. I was referring to how he had a popular band that he never took out on tour, where he might enjoy himself, make money, and expand the band’s profile. And how he then finally went on tour, and how it went well. And so he then breaks up the band. I was referring to the fact that after the huge success of Actual Air he seemed to turn his attention away from writing poems.
He came to the podium wearing a seersucker jacket, white shirt with no tie, khaki pants, and sneakers. He was slender to the point of being gaunt. His hair was neatly trimmed. He could have been a Young Republican. A Jehovah’s Witness. A recently released inmate of a psychiatric ward. All of the above.
In the corner stood a man with a professional video camera. A documentary was being made about David.
It was a warm summer day, and the air-conditioning was already conceding to the packed room. David began to speak, his body swaying like a reed, bending a bit at the waist, davening. He spoke of his need to address his father, to expose him. Of the book he had tried to write. How in trying he had to eat, daily, “the cold cheeseburger of failure.”
Then something strange happened that speaks to the weird life of ideas in the culture. Once he began writing the book, even if he had not written it and had to eat the cold cheeseburger of failure every day, it was a project, an entity. And somehow HBO had gotten hold of it. They wanted to turn it into an HBO drama. A scriptwriter had been assigned to write a pilot. The project gathered steam. HBO would take David Berman’s book about his father and turn it into an hourlong dramatic series.
And then David had an epiphany. HBO’s secret sauce, common across almost all their shows, is the anti-hero. It struck him that his attempt to unmask the diabolical nature of his father, to strike a blow against his father, would result in his father being turned into the Tony Soprano of D.C. lobbyists. It would glorify his father. He pulled the plug. HBO wanted to shoot the pilot. He said no.
I don’t know the details but from limited experience I feel safe in saying he walked away from a boatload of money. Many boatloads. His friends thought he was crazy. Harmony Korine castigated him. An hourlong HBO dramatic series is close to the pinnacle of cultural prestige. What was he thinking?
He told me the whole story when we first spoke of his coming to speak at the Open City Conference. I had the same feeling as, I imagine, everyone else. Really? I thought. Wouldn’t it be better to take the cash, to let them at least shoot the pilot, to be in the game?
The room was getting warmer. No one seemed uncomfortable. David’s monologue was reminiscent of Spalding Gray in that it was a talk that was a performance. It was improvised, associative. Sweat was coming through his shirt. A pinch of Noam Chomsky. A dash of Oedipus. Pauses that held long enough to make you think it would all collapse. Then he kept going. I remember thinking, Thank God someone is filming this!
What does an anti-careerist genius of free association do after the band, the book, the HBO project, and the documentary have all been sent packing? In Berman’s case the next move was—wait for it—a blog. It’s called Menthol Mountains. The subhead, lowercase: arc of a boulder. The title is cool; the subhead provokes a feeling in me that I think many Berman readers and fans have, a mixture of appreciation and a kind of forehead slapping: Why didn’t I think of that?
The blog is an amalgam of literary quotations, eclectic linkage, music, Judaism, politics, geography, folklore, all of the preoccupations are present, all stemming from the strange, associative sensibility of David Berman. It is without any obvious purpose other than to give form to the author’s interests. It’s pretty great.
His father, as you can imagine, is a theme. In a recent post titled “Transylvania Blues,” David reprinted a long, reported article from a newspaper revisiting an unsolved murder case in Lexington, Ky. A young woman found strangled in her car decades ago. A cold case revisited. Her diary revealed she had been on several dates with a young Rick Berman, David’s father.
David’s linking to it contained a faint suggestiveness—is Rick Berman not only a cynical Washington, D.C., lobbyist but also someone with murder in his past?—that sounds like extreme paranoia and obsession. The article makes no suggestions about Rick Berman’s culpability. It’s fascinating in its own right, though I read it with a slight sense of anxiety about David being paralyzed with hate. But maybe this is also a projection. The issues to which I briefly alluded—the complicated and dire falling apart and falling out surrounding Open City just as Berman’s book was being published—are still with me.
The other day David sent out an email to five people at Bloomberg News. To which I was BCC’ed. It read:
Thank you so much for writing this article.
It’s been years since anyone has published a critical examination of his byzantine machinations and so, as of late, I’d been trying to acclimate myself to the idea that he had ultimately outlasted all the negative coverage he received early in the last decade, and had thus successfully normalized his scurrilous techniques.
What a great surprise it was to read this piece.
I wanted it to go on forever….
Thanks for restoring my faith in investigative journalism.
The article delves into the minutiae of the accounting practices that Rick Berman uses in setting up his nonprofit advocacy groups that then carry out the agenda of his for-profit public-relations firm. Reading it I felt a shiver, that spooky, happy feeling of the stars aligning. What poetic justice if Berman Sr. got tripped up not for his moral transgressions and manipulations, but for tax evasion. If he ended up being not Tony Soprano but Al Capone.
Why does David Berman care so much about his father’s work?
The poet Jeremy Schmall wrote an article about that subject that gets at the essence. He focuses on a phrase David had used repeatedly in his Open City talk: “Epistemological closure.”
Rick Berman specializes in creating fake organizations of the sort that add to what David Foster Wallace termed “Total Noise.” “Center For Consumer Freedom,” “Employment Policies Institute,” “EmployeeFreedom.org,” “MercuryFacts.org” are all Rick Berman concoctions. We can now, in the right frame of mind, detect the duplicity in the names alone. But what is the right frame of mind and how often can we be in it? We all know such fake organizations exist, but this knowledge doesn’t empower, on the contrary—vigilance against it is exhausting. So, it is no surprise that an organization with the anodyne name “Center for Consumer Freedom,” which Rick Berman, president of the American Beverage Institute, recently created, is devoted to lobbying against New York City’s law against extra-large soft drinks.
In 2010, at the same time as David Berman’s talk, Rick Berman was producing seemingly nonpartisan ads focusing on the national debt.
What Schmall’s article grasps with such acuity is the sinister nature of the long con. Its goal is not immediate results, but in creating predispositions of thought years in advance. “It is difficult to impose ideas onto people on the level of argument; people will resist,” Schmall writes. “The natural, critical, conscious mind serves essentially as a spam box. … However, it can be bypassed. As advertisers and other propagandists have learned, there is a more effective (and more sinister) way to convince people of something: by hiding information, obscuring its true intention, delivering it through supposedly neutral mediums, and veiling it in Orwellian phrases. (‘The Center for Consumer Freedom’ advocates on behalf of the gigantic food and restaurant industries, not consumers.) The cloaking device sneaks information past the critical-conscious mind, and plants it in a place where it will unconsciously be used by someone when ‘deciding’ how they feel about an issue.”
The essay in which DFW’s coined his “Total Noise” was called “Deciderization 2007—a special report.”
David’s objections to his father are grounded in politics and also in a thicket of personal motivations I can’t really speculate about. I am also aware of the temptation—my temptation—to think of this obsession with his father as a neurosis. Being this hateful toward one’s father may well be justified but it does not seem useful. It does not seem promising.
But what if the neurosis is in fact another medium of art? What if, on some level, David’s objections to his father are actually aesthetic? What if they are grounded in a sense of obligation to moral proportion to defend not freedom of speech but freedom of thought? And by extension the freedom to freely associate?
Ian Olds was working on a documentary about David Berman at the time of his talk at the Open City conference. He stood in the back filming. I was consoled by his presence at the time but now wonder if knowing the talk would be on video allowed me to drift into a reverie of experience instead of grabbing tidbits of phrases and ideas to store for later use. The documentary, I knew, had run aground on the same mysterious shoals that other David projects had foundered.
I called Olds wanting to see the footage. Also to be reassured that the footage had not vanished into the mist. He was busy editing James Franco’s Faulkner adaptation, As I Lay Dying, but I got him on an off day, and together we drifted down the Berman rabbit hole. Yes, he said, it had been amazing theater. Apparently the footage he had shot of David in Nashville was also pretty great. But it was unclear whose film it was, and how to find the money so that Ian could spend the time on it. He had the footage, though. He knew where it was. It wasn’t lost. I introduced the idea that one day David’s Open City talk, in its unadorned form—Spalding Gray or C-span, pick your parallel—should see the light of day. From there we went a bit further with what could be done with the tape and then some other ideas. Then I said we should stop. I felt like we were joining the ranks of the many people—smart, interested, connected people in the worlds of Hollywood, publishing, documentary film, music, poetry—who are admiring of a certain something about David that is both attractive and as quantifiable as air. So many people have worked to get the David Berman genie in the bottle. But it never works.
I hugged David at the end of his talk. He was wet with sweat, depleted. Happy, like a prize fighter. Then I biked home along the Hudson River. The sky was mostly dark, but the light was hanging on. A tenacious summer dusk. The Hudson River was breathtakingly bright, brighter than the sky or anything else. There was a metallic, molten heaviness to the waves and swells.
It only occurs to me now that the silver sheen of the water was suggestive of the Silver Jews. At the time I was only aware that something special had happened. I sensed this was the swan song of Open City, the conference a last hurrah. I had been fighting to keep it going. It ended faster than I expected. That December, in 2010, we put out our last issue and had our last party. To my surprise I was enormously relieved to let it go.
“The dead do not improve,” is a Berman lyric I have always taken issue with. In some ways, in comparison with the living for example, I have always felt they do.
Berman had nearly vanished into booze, drugs, depression, and suicide. But he hadn’t. That evening, in his seersucker jacket, he was absurdly slender, skinny. I wanted to think of it as Mick-Jagger skinny, but it was beyond that, more unhealthy. Yet, biking uptown along the river, I felt an incredible sense of strength and energy from the evening. From David. As with the David of biblical myth, he had taken a shot at a Goliath of disinformation. He had turned it into a story. And in some profound way he had also resisted turning it into a story. He had resisted all the usual narratives. It was his genius free-associating mind doing what you least expect. He had persisted.
I biked alongside the river of silver. The choppy water seemed especially three-dimensional and tactile. It was a wonderful feeling, moving through the soft air beside the broad river. Everything got darker and darker but the water somehow held the light.
Thomas Beller teaches writing at Tulane University. His most recent books are The Sleep-Over Artist, a novel, and How To Be A Man: Scenes From a Protracted Boyhood, an essay collection. He is working on a biography of J.D. Salinger.