The Image in My Mind of Our Hero

I decided to reread Joseph Conrad’s novel Nostromo, which I first read in college.  Over the years, I have tried to give it another shot since I recall the complexity, the difficulties, and my love of the language, the settings, descriptions, the dramatic phrases, the poetry of story, and the ambiguity of its telling.  But each time I would crack it open — and to the left is the little paperback edition I’ve had since college — I would feel intimidated, overwhelmed by the density of the text.

It took a dose of sciatica and recuperation to finally read it.  It also helped that I had a bigger hardback edition that was more pleasant to hold and read.

I’m not sure I actually finished the book back in college, or even read it in its entirety.  I also suspect I read it as part of a writing class, since I can hear my teacher’s voice lecturing us about the book.  It also felt like it was summer term at Yale — I had taken a semester off and was catching up to rejoin my class.  The writing instructor was David Milch, later of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue fame.  I remember him pacing furiously, pronouncing the words Decoud, and Dr. Monygham, and telling us that the name Nostromo was a contraction of the Spanish words Nostre and Hombre — meaning Our Man.  (Actually in the Introduction to this edition, Robert Penn Warren states that it is the Italian Notre and Uomo, which also makes sense since the character is of Italian origin.)

Rereading this classic — some call it the greatest novel in our language — was an almost shocking experience.  I remember being knocked out by the the chapter titles themselves:  “The Silver of the Mine,” “The Isabels,” and “The Lighthouse,” so simple, so powerful not unlike good Hemingway.  I remember loving Captain Mitchell’s work as narrator, his elegant, pompous turns of phrase, somehow reminding me of art history lectures by Vincent Scully I attended at Yale.  Conrad frequently uses his characters to tell the story — Mitchell speaking to an anonymous tourist in the future, post-revolutionary Costaguana, Decoud to his sister telling the details of the fight in a lengthy letter which describes the furious actions almost as they happen.

I remember as a student and then as a writer being fascinated by the issue of the narrative voice.  The narrator Marlowe is used in Heart of Darkness and other stories, and when I wrote in classes at NYU, I would tend to establish a narrator in the story, something we would call “bracketing” in screenwriting.  You see, I loved Conrad, and read everything he wrote, and thought it was normal to use a narrator.  My real first writing hero was Jack Kerouac, so far the opposite in his use of his natural voice to tell his story.  I had found that impossible to do.  I sort of knew there was a long learning curve to finding your narrative voice for beginning writers, but I had no patience, and thought I could easily use the Conrad trick and place the burden on a fictional character.  I was wrong.

But back to the book.  The first section seemed like endless setup with no action at all.  And the telling of it seemed obscure, confused, the author backtracking and repeating the same information over and over.  What a job getting through this!  Conrad broke every rule I know as a writer now:  “Show, don’t tell” in particular.  Why was he not placing his characters into action?  Was this all background?  All setup?  A few hundred pages in, he’s still introducing new characters!  Why?  This was not natural story telling?!  Isn’t Conrad called a Naturalist writer?

Somewhere in the second section we start hearing about the “revolution” but don’t know if he’s talking about previous revolutions, the ones involving Charles Gould’s family predecessors?  It is hard to tell if the Ribierists and right-wing or left.  Same with the Montero gang, at least pretending to be a People’s revolution, but really just a bunch of scoundrels, not unlike the time of Guzman Bento, the bloodthirsty megalomaniac under whom many of our characters suffered.

Why does the essential character Decoud enter so late in the book?  It seems clumsy that he wasn’t interwoven far earlier, since we have Jose Avellanos — his future father-in-law — established early on.  Same with his daughter.  We barely hear about Antonia til very late in the book.  It seems that their close involvement with the Goulds would have brought Antonia in the picture far earlier.  I understand that Decoud was abroad for awhile, but did he return at the point where he enters the story?

The actual events seem to be told sideways, sort of slipped in around the relentless establishment of characters and their characteristics.  They are told in retrospect, not while they are occurring, which seems peculiar to me now.  Things like the death of Theresa Viola appear to be foregone conclusions and I can’t figure out why the revolution in itself is enough to cause her demise.

The scene in the warehouse with Monygham and Nostromo is very good — the great man’s thoughts in the shadow of Hirsch’s hanging body. I love all the talk about Mrs. Gould as a focal point of all that is good and civilized in Sulaco, but really don’t end up with a clear picture of her.  I was shocked and depressed by the death of Decoud.  I could see clearly the difference between Linda and Giselle and why Nostromo would go with Giselle.  Linda reminds me of an ex-wife, despite the initial glamor, ultimately a lumpen hausfrau paralyzed by neurosis, and Giselle would be Sierra… wildly attractive, ever elusive.  The fact that Nostromo didn’t have the courage to state his case to Old Viola seems like a moral failing and diminished our hero a lot in my eyes.  That idea that Nostromo was a seeker of fame but had not a farthing to show for it is something I did not understand as a student, and know all too well living in Los Angeles.


Just as Louis Kahn asked “What does a brick want to be?” we may ask what does CSS want to be?  And here’s the answer:  it wants to be a block.  CSS coding presents us with The Block Model.  And our job should be to find the nature of the block model.  For example, when you apply a tag, it creates a block.  Whether it is a BLOCK block or an INLINE block remains to be seen.

We can, then, use the innate properties of CSS.  So one thing we can do is stick the blocks to edges.  I  can create four blocks and cause them to stick to the Top, Right, Bottom or Left margins.  The result looks like this.

Another thing we can do is float these blocks against each other.  We can build up a big stack of floating elements that hang together or fall apart depending on “local conditions,” i.e. platform, operating system,  screen size, etc.  One hears web people praising a CSS layout that “degrades gracefully.”  In other words, as the width of the user interface, for example, gets smaller, the blocks tumble down the page while maintaining their hierarchies and meaning.

Another great concept has to do with positioning which is typically ignored by tools such as WordPress.  I love absolute postioning withing a relatively-positioned wrapper.  (BTW, I would like to start a movement to change the name “Absolute” to “Relative,” and “Relative” to “Offset.”  These reflect their true meanings!

Guess I haven’t been blogging lately.  I’ve been busy with my fledgling web design business so I haven’t had time.  I think I got so tired of the whole lousy New York Times business that I needed a breather, too.  The thing is still going downhill, everyone’s attacking Obama anyway, it’s gray and cloudy out and for some reason I’m in NJ instead of LA.  Big difference, by the way.

I have a dream — a dream to create a new blog about Maltodextrin, my latest enemy.  This stuff is in every food product you can imagine!  Talk about the downfall of society.  Everytime I eat something and feel groggy and stuffed-up, I look at the label, and sure enough, it’s my old pal Maltodextrin.

dumbieI’m digging through my pile of New York Times issues that contain crazy errors, and this one came up to the top: February 25, 2008, p. B1, front page of the “The Arts” section has a screaming headline: “‘Old Country for Old Men’ Wins Oscar Tug of War.'”

Of course, this can’t possibly be. I recall reading this, circling it and putting it aside because it was so egregious, I felt they must be perpetrating some convoluted parody, and since I hadn’t seen the movie, thought I’d check it again later.

Well, later was today, and I went to the Times website to see if I was seeing things. The headline in the online edition was correct: “‘No Country for Old Men’ Wins Oscar Tug of War” was the wording here. Whoa. They really did make an error that big! Surely they couldn’t sweep this under the rug. I scrolled to the bottom of the page, and sure enough, there it was–

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 26, 2008
A headline in some editions of The Arts on Monday with an article about the Academy Awards ceremony misstated, in some copies, the title of the film that won best picture. It is, of course, “No Country for Old Men,” not “Old Country for Old Men.”

Holy Crap. I’m just an amateur here. This was huge. I am speechless. Devoid of words. Silent.

Let’s remember the theme of this blog: “The Dumbing of America.” How can we expect 3rd graders to read and write when the standard-bearer of the Fourth Estate can’t? Wow.

I can say no more.

Sorry to say there’s more evidence of the decline and fall of Western civilization: the decline of journalism as a professional skill. Yes, it’s represented by the writing found in The New York Times, the old stalwart of fine journalism. Today’s paper, sadly, right on page 1, features a teaser piece under the headline “Money, Influence and the Campaign.” It is subheaded under 2 columns–the article on the left about the Democrats, the one on the right about the Conservatives. I hesitate to say Republicans here, because that’s not the focus of the piece, and, I just like using the word “Conservatives” because they, since the advent of Ronald Reagan, refuse to use the word “Democrat,” favoring “Liberal” instead. Time to turn the tables. Oops, I used a cliché.

What’s bizarre about the teaser for the Conservative piece is its terrible, terrible writing style. In two small paragraphs, it manages to use so much misappropriated jargon, slang and metaphor to be almost devoid of meaning. To be fair, the remainder of the article, which is quite long and plainly written, is almost jargon-free. So rather than bringing writer Michael Luo to trial, the culprit has got to be the hidden Page 1 editor. It looks like some worried editor, jazzed up on energy drinks at 3 in the morning, feared that the lead didn’t have enough sizzle. Oddly, he didn’t give the Democrats the same treatment, but they have their own problems with sleazy, Mafia-connected Harold Ickes as the subject of the piece.

ClockThe Luo article is about the group Freedom’s Watch, who had hoped to raise lots of money for the Republican presidential candidate. Rather than led, the group is “headlined by” some ex-Bush White House officials. I think, though it’s hard to tell in this lengthy article, these are Ari Fleischer and Brad Blakeman. Apologies, I just don’t see Ari doing 10 minutes at the Ha-Ha Club. The group is also “deep-pocketed” and a “juggernaut” (sic). It has been “heralded” (I’m seeing British lords fêted by long trumpets) as a “counterweight” (now envisioning a tall grandfather clock) to a group, an individual “and the like.” What is this? 1889? Who uses this terminology? It’s as if some Robber Baron woke up from the dead, got a job at the Times, and decided to become a hepcat.

Finally, instead of giving us an actual explanation of who exactly is being counterweighted, the editor groups together a progressive political organization, a wealthy, renegade liberal activist, and, instead of putting in the work to find a third example to round out the list, throws it all away with a brisk “and the like.” He might as well write “and fellow travelers” circa 1951, since that’s what he’s implying! Talk about lazy… and all of that was in the first sentence!

The next sentence brings the Freedom’s Watch “debut” (a blushing ingenue onstage) which was “splashy” (hard to believe for über-Conservatives). But indeed, the splashiness may have been caused by their “advertising blitz” (Merriam-Webster’s actual example defining the 1940’s slang for the German term “blitzkrieg”). The organization is then described as “paralyzed” wondering “what role… it will… play” (we’re back onstage). We are now well into the world of cliché.

The third and final sentence of this nightmare features “go full bore” and “prospects… seeming to dim.” Again, WWII seems to be the start date for “full bore.”

Whether from gun or engine, bore has an extended use attributed to the Royal Air Force in World War II: ”I went after him full bore,” recounted the ace C. H. Ward-Jackson in 1943. There was a need for a new full, since full sail, full blast and full steam were obsolete.

The citation goes to the incomparable William Safire in a Times article from 1997 (“Full Bore, Small Bore,” January 12, 1997). As for prospects dimming, can’t we do any better, Mr. Editor? That’s 13 ridiculous language abuses in 3 sentences. You’re lucky I got to you before Safire did.

Herald image originally uploaded by Rovin’ Reeds
Clock image originally uploaded by Tao Jones

scarychefdet.jpgYou gotta be kidding — look at this guy. Apparently the joke went right over the collective heads of The New York Times, who published this picture today under the title, “YOUR WAITER TONIGHT…” Is that a threat or a promise?

This is what you see when you grab your first gander at today’s Dining Out section above the fold — this horrible, Manson-like evildoer serving tiny portions of gruel to you, the reader/potential restaurant-goer.

Is this some latter-day John Malkovich with a bad haircut? What about that thousand-mile stare? Or do we now expect sociopaths, recently released from the State Asylum, to serve us dinner at our local upscale NYC eatery? I don’t want my chef serving me dinner, thank you. Just because he can cook doesn’t mean he knows how to hand over my scrod foie gras without dropping it in my wife’s lap.

Beautiful MexicoWell, there it is–a great example of horribly ugly architecture. This one’s in Mexico, and completely ruins what looks like a lovely resort village on the Sea of Cortez. Words can’t describe this hideous parking garage-like structure. We can’t even attribute its brutal design to the ill-fated Brutalist movement of the 1950s. It’s just bad. I doubt there was an architect involved at all. If so, the person should bring in their shingle and keep it in a drawer somewhere. No more landscape spoilage for you. I wonder if the American developers of this place–Loreto Bay–are aware of the view. Have they considered tearing it down? I was all ready to retire to the charming Baja California town someday until I saw this image. Ouch.