Bartleby, the Carpenter; Bartleby the King of Pop: The Inevitability of Jesus and Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson died in 2009.  This post is from 2013. 

I enjoyed this recent post from Wandering Mirages about the eponymous hero (or something) of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener.   Wandering Mirages concludes that Bartleby is all things at once:

But, in the end, in the tragic and evasive end, the novella had proved itself to be anything but simple and he was none of this and all of this, of course. He was probably the essential human present in the most inscrutable of strangers, in the inner life of the other. He might also be the scion of capitalism, a representation of its many wonders, and an idle. early sacrifice at the altar of pacifism and non-violence. He was some mysterious combination of the heroic and the ironic, and the rest too, in all probability – of the incongruous and the inevitable. A Gandhi without an audience.

Just before Christmas, I was talking with a friend about Michael Jackson.  I’ve been trying to put into words exactly how it is that Michael Jackson’s later life and death were in certain ways inevitable: that somehow, Michael Jackson is precisely what we do to people in the pop age, the age of celebrity cults and ever-massive media.  (Ever-massive is incorrect, but I like the way it sounds.)  Michael Jackson is our Joker: he was formed by the dynamics of his family and then by the pathologies of the second half of the 20th century. We’re not entirely at fault:  the machinations have been moving since the printing press, since cuneiform.  But in another way, MJ died for our sins as much as his.  Everything odd or evil  about him was leavened with the grist of our corporate fascinations: in whiteness, in youth, in being thin, in being rich, in child stardom, in the facilities of fame, of fortune over health.  That he was born black and poor in 1958 in Gary, Indiana is essential: none as gifted or as tortured would emerge from white suburban basements. Jackson’s migration from black to white was, he said, genetic, but it was also an indictment of our racist predilections and expectations of goodness and beauty.  The man who transcended the color barrier on MTV and in popular music more than anyone before him was black, and we demanded greater whiteness.  He obliged.  Abused in youth and adolescence, this eighth child of the Jackson clan knew a thing about survival, keeping peace, being poor and not wanting to go back, about the weight of family needs and expectations.  Unlike our Bartleby, Michael did what he was told.  It killed him anyway.

Clearly, I’ve thought of Jackson as a kind of Christ figure for our repulsive age.  And Wandering Mirages reminds me that Bartleby may just as well have been The Carpenter, one who is all things to all people, one sacrificed like Jackson on the altar of what the old hymn calls God’s “children’s warring madness.”  If Bartleby was killed for his refusals (first to do as he was told, then to protect himself and his interests), so too was  Jesus.  While Bartleby may have been “the most essential human present in the most inscrutable of strangers,”  Jesus came, according to tradition, so that we might see God in one like us.  Fully human, he was treated as a stranger.   The mirror-Leonard Cohen.  And yet he is also, in my experience, a “mysterious combination of the heroic and the ironic, and the rest too, in all probability – of the incongruous and the inevitable.”

Michael Jackson was inevitable.  So was King.  So was Jesus.  Whether you believe he was from Nazareth or God or some mystic union of both, the incongruity of his life and message with the power values of the system in which he lived, the system in which we live, made his sacrifice inevitable, subversive, and, for those who find life in him, full of saving grace.

The deaths of Bartleby, King, and Jackson indict us all.  So too the death of Jesus.  But when Christians talk about his resurrection, I think we mean that there’s a point to unwarranted suffering, to refusing to compromise our core convictions about the economy of justice or the economy of God even in the face of our destruction.  This is the power of a flower in a rifle, of one lone citizen refusing to move before a procession of tanks.  Of a dying God refusing to come down from his cross, to call down all his angels, as it were.  This is holy irony, and a saving kind of subversion.

Book Covers Designed to Trick Men Into Reading Classics (Scroll Down for Images)

I was reading an interesting post on Bookish Us about an article at The Guardian on tricking men into reading more books.  The Guardian post links to another Guardian post in which Ian McEwan says the novel will die when women stop reading. The degree to which this project scares or saddens you depends, I suppose, on what you think  a novel is supposed to be.  On Friday, I collapsed the differences between Jerry Lee Lewis and Grandmaster Flash because they’re collapsible, up to a point. William Faulkner and mass-market popular fiction…not as much.

Do men read less than women?  I sort of doubt it, but they do seem to buy fewer books.  Since my MFA thesis is a novel, and I have another one about 2/3 finished in manuscript form and I hope to finish and sell them both this spring (agents, feel free to use the contact form),  I think about these things.  There are probably all kinds of reasons that men don’t spend as much money on books as women do,  but it does seem to me that over the last 10 years, the commercial publishing industry has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to cutting its own demographic in half.  The devil may wear Prada, but I don’t know many men who read Lauren Weisberger. I know that reference is a bit dated, but you get the point.

Yes, most of the books geared specifically to people who enjoy mass-market fiction aren’t landing in anyone’s serious canon anytime soon.  And there are books and authors that do fit into pre-existing market for guys who like to read.  But what about making readers out of men who don’t?

I’d start with Hemingway.  Sure, it’s like that scene in High Fidelity (ahem) where Jack Black makes fun of John Cusack for going with safe choices, but Nirvana makes Rob’s Top Five for a reason.  So I’ll start with Big Papa.  If Judy Bloom can get new covers geared to today’s tween demographic, surely a marketing department can come up with some manspired covers for The Old Man and The Sea or The Sun Also Rises. I’m not saying this would transmute every non-reader, but it would be fun.  This is a good start, but we can do better. How about Edith Hamilton’s recently re-branded Mythology?  (I actually don’t like the new look, but they’re trying. What they need is Zack Snyder’s design team.) You know what I would buy the crap out of for all of my friends who hate their office jobs?  A copy of Bartleby The Scrivener with a bleak circa Fight Club office cubicle cover.

Speaking of.  I like Chuck Palahniuk.  His rhythm makes sense, sounds honest to me.   And he gets savaged by genteel critics and then  doesn’t have the good sense to not respond.  I love all of this.  (Speaking of which, I just remembered that last night I had a dream where I was hanging out with Liam Gallagher. He was delightful.) There’s nothing flowery or excessive about what Palahniuk does.  He just sort of sounds like the sad, exasperated voice most many  live with and don’t talk about.  What Updike called “quiet desperation” via Thoreau.  I don’t read his more graphic stuff, but I have to say that his nonfiction collection is great and Rant and Diary are two of my favorite recent reads.  He also writes great essays on craft.

Faulkner.  Before I read The Sound and The Fury, I thought my mission was to sort of be a more hopeful minimalist in Palahniuk’s line.  My first novel (still in draft and still in progress) is sort of like that, with some narrative flourishes that Chuck (and certainly Gordon Lish) would excise.  But then I took a vernacular class with Robert Antoni and really read The Sound and The Fury and the scope of my quarry (and thesis project) changed.  I’m going bigger.  Sometimes too big, but I’ll work all of that out by graduation.

Picking up from where Friday’s post was originally headed, I also want to say this: the publishing world doesn’t need a punk moment to reach out to men.  It doesn’t need a new rock ‘n’ roll or a new Elvis.  It just needs to stop casting the entire literary enterprise as something implicitly attractive to women or the speculative niche.  And some good books with a few cus words and nuance.  And awesome covers.  Like I said, agents should feel free to use the contact form.  You know you want to.

And also, I did these:

All base images used are in the Creative Commons on Flickr:
Edward Norton image via
Michael Phelps image via
Betty Draper/January Jones image via

Penguin and Vintage logos are fair use (satire).  Book design elements by me.