Little Grotesques: B. Catling’s “Only The Lowly” and “Earwig” (2019)

Earlier this year, I posted one of my occasional Five By Five Books articles about The Vorrh Trilogy (2015 to 2018), by B. Catling. In my review of that immense series, I described the collective feel of the books thusly: “Big, audacious, immersive, surreal, grotesque, written in gloriously florid language, and screamingly unique in just about every way imaginable.” Right up my alley, in other words.

Catling has followed that sweeping epic of the strange with two unrelated novellas: Only The Lowly (released in March 2019 by Storr, a small, independent publishing house) and Earwig (published in September 2019 by Coronet, a “major” marque, which handled The Vorrh series as well). I was able to get these newest Catling books in their American editions (Lowly on Kindle, Earwig in paperback) over the past couple of months, devouring both of them quickly and eagerly upon receipt. I’d describe the pair exactly as I did The Vorrh Trilogy above, just substituting the word “Little” for “Big” at the beginning of the quote. I’d also focus specific attention on the key word “grotesque,” which is defined thusly:

Noun Usage: A style of decorative art characterized by fanciful or fantastic human and animal forms often interwoven with foliage or similar figures that may distort the natural into absurdity, ugliness, or caricature.

Adjective Usage: Fanciful, bizarre, absurdly incongruous, departing markedly from the natural, the expected, or the typical.

Per those descriptors, Earwig and Only The Lowly are grotesque, and grotesques, indeed, works of art within which the borders between the human, the supernatural, and the bestial are blurred, where physical and moral caricatures caper and prance, where ugliness of word, deed, visage and intention abound, and where deliberate narrative incongruities and unexpected plot eruptions make it impossible to establish any sense of comfort or contextual certainty throughout the books’ queasy runs. They’re wonderfully wobbly little bites of curdled literary cream, sauced with sticky drizzles of sweet and savory and possibly hallucinogenic unguents and spices, then fermented in dark broths of bubbling unease and discomfort. Both books are more than capable of causing strong revulsion upon first sample, but once a reader has acquired a tolerance for their uncanny and unnatural tastes, they become deeply desirable and most memorable, indeed.

While the emotional, intellectual and psychological experiences of reading Earwig and Only The Lowly may be similar, the books do present their pleasures (?) in very different ways. Earwig is set in Belgium and France in the years after World War I and the Spanish Flu Epidemic, and its plot is linear, for the most part, laid out from the view of an omniscient third-person narrator. It tells the story of a hateful caretaker and his strange ward, and if the very concept of “mouth horror” evokes a shudder of revulsion in you, then Aalbert and Mia’s tale should have you wriggling most uncomfortably in its unrelenting and graphic obsessions with oral disasters. Only The Lowly, on the other hand, knits together ten short, interconnected, first-person narratives by Bertie (most chapters) and Cara, a lumpen married couple living in a biologically and culturally bizarre beach city, perhaps of our world, perhaps after our world, perhaps neither or both. Like Earwig, it’s rife with squishy discomfort and disgust-inducing depictions of strange social, sexual and sensory happenings, delivered in a post-English patois somewhat akin to that deployed in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, were it to be processed through an Edward Lear absurdity filter.

Neither of these little books are comfort reading, needless to say. But they’re far richer for that, pushing emotional buttons you didn’t know you had, forcing consideration of the inconceivable, and using the tools and techniques unique to great writers to lift readers into flights of deliciously noisome fancy. Great, grotesque miniatures from a writer who has emerged in recent years as a personal favorite, at bottom line. I recommend you read them both, if you dare . . .

Five Songs You Need To Hear (I’m Only Bleeding)

In 2004, I took on a self-imposed project to write and post a poem a day on my website for the entire calendar year. I got it done, but it was a slog. On August 31, 2004, the day’s bit of poesy was called “Twice As Far Behind As Yet To Go,” noting that the year had hit its two-thirds mark, and how it was feeling a bit endless on one plane, but with an end visible ahead on another. With a little editing, it’s a perfectly apt sentiment for August 31, Anno Virum, as well:

It’s summer, yet an illness falls like snow,
atop an ice of hatred hard below.
The dire year drags relentlessly, although
there’s twice as far behind as yet to go.
The joys of friendly discourse are benumbed.
We’re isolated, bludgeoned, stricken dumb.
But as we plot the “to” against the “from:”
there’s twice as far behind as yet to come.
Off in the distance, maybe, we can see
a shoreline from this sea of misery.
Perhaps we can feel hope, to some degree,
with twice as much behind as yet to be.
(The writer sighs on reaching a plateau,
with twice as far behind as yet to go).

If all goes as planned, Marcia and I will wave off 2020 from a new house somewhere in Northern Arizona, knowing that we’ll be in the final three weeks of the worst Presidential term in American history. Please Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Brahma, Flying Spaghetti Monster, [Your Deity Here], let it be so. It’s harder to predict the state of the virus and the festering sores of institutional inequity at that future point, though I suspect that with an anti-scientific, greed-fueled, sexist and racist administration perhaps twitching in its death throes, its purveyors and enablers may purposefully make things worse before they have any possibility of getting better. But again, LORD willing and the creek don’t rise, come the end of January, we will most hopefully be in a place where those who steer our collective colorful caravan are actively interested in seeking a path toward health, justice, social equity, security, safety, stability and charity. We’re desperately in need of a new compass pointing that way.

A stirring soundtrack for that trip wouldn’t hurt either. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to this installment of my ongoing “Five Songs You Need to Hear” series. Which was motivated primarily because I just nabbed one particular song that you most definitely need to hear, right now: Public Enemy’s 2020 remix of their towering 1989 anthem “Fight the Power,” from Spike Lee’s equally thrilling film Do The Right Thing.  The core riffs, beats and rhymes of the original version of “Fight the Power” are just so iconic all these years on, and I am most pleased that P.E. have returned to this classic with a topical and timely update, involving some of the many talented folk they have inspired over the years.

I vividly remember hearing “Fight the Power” for the first time when Marcia and I saw Do The Right Thing (one of my all-time favorite films) in Washington DC on or very near its release date, and it opened with Rosie Perez dancing and boxing on the big screen with that song just absolutely kicking!!! It remains the only time I can ever recall an audience clapping, standing and whooping for an opening credit segment. (You should watch it now). As provocative and inspirational as the song was in and out of its original context, it’s dismaying to think that it’s been 31 years (“1989, a number . . .”) since Spike released that great film, in which the climactic scenes hinge upon a black man being choked to death by a police officer. I guess I hoped, dreamed, maybe even believed in 1989 that things would have changed by 2020 in ways that such acts would be inconceivable, not commonplace. But nope, we’re not there yet. And we’re maybe not even twice as far behind as yet to go on that front. We’ve got work. Let’s do it. Voting smart would be a great step, for starters.

The other four songs in this month’s installment are also 2020 cuts with topical themes, food for thought, fuel for action. You can click here to get all of the previous “Five Songs” installments (scroll down after you click that link to move past this current article), which are now at 18 posts and counting. Loads of musical wonders and weirdness await intrepid explorers there. Get down to the sound of the funky drummer!

#1. “Fight the Power: Remix 2020 (Feat. Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, Jahi, YG and Questlove)” by Public Enemy

#2. “Amoral” by Napalm Death

#3. “Asylum Seeker” by Gordon Koang

#4. “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)” by Run The Jewels

#5. “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World” by Sparks

Mask Music

It has been an annoying week in Iowa since Marcia and I returned from our wonderful trip to Minnesota. The weather has been mostly disgusting, with hot winds and high humidity making our daily walks a sweaty slog. Our Governor and junior Senator were among the cast of clowns dancing in center ring at the Von Trump Family Circus, both of them spewing the half-truths and nonsense required as acts of fealty to their ignorant overlord. Diligent and persistent community watchdogs pressed the state to admit that it has been miscalculating, doctoring and/or misrepresenting our COVID case numbers. (I’d long been observing that Iowa’s official outcomes and trends seemed improbable compared to neighboring states and other states of similar sizes, so this did not surprise me). Once adjustments were made, Iowa immediately moved into the number one national position of new case incidence by state over the past seven days.

Which also isn’t really surprising, given our proximity to several major access highways for the Sturgis Coronapalooza, the fact that we are in the bottom ten states in the nation for mask usage, and in the bottom three for social distancing. Which I experience every freaking day in our apartment building, where I swear that Marcia and I are the only people I see who conscientiously wear masks whenever we step out of our unit. Polk County (where we live) leads the state in case load, about three times higher than the second-placed county, and over 50% of cases reported are in the 18-40 year old demographic, which overwhelmingly defines the East Village neighborhood where we live. To give credit where it’s due, the Mayor of Des Moines did issue a mask mandate this week, which I appreciate, though I haven’t seen any changes to the behaviors among our neighbors. On the flip-side, after returning home from her circus performance, our Governor made a relatively short-term proclamation closing bars and making other minor concessions in only six of Iowa’s 99 counties, but still refused to make masks mandatory, because freedoms and liberties.

It’s just exhausting and sad, at bottom line. And it’s lethal. If the Governor would impose a mandatory State-wide mask requirement, and people would abide by it, the projection for cumulative COVID deaths in Iowa by December 1 would be about 1,900. (We’re at about 1,100 deaths now, officially, though I believe the state is fiddling with the reports there, too). If things just continue as they are in terms of required protective measures now, then that cumulative death prediction rises to about 3,100. And if the limited restrictions in place are lifted or reduced (which the state has done every time it has the chance to do so), then the death count is forecast to rise to 4,700. So we’re looking at a situation where our elected officials have been and will (likely) be making policy decisions that will result in killing a couple of thousand Iowans, for no lucid or cogent reason beyond currying political favor with racist rich people, most of whom don’t live here, and who don’t believe in science and social justice. Ugh! Marcia and I are (safely, distantly) counting the days until our next out-of-State trips, and until October 22, 2020, when our household goods will be packed and picked up and we will leave Iowa for good. It’s been a nice run here since we first arrived in 2011, positive for a variety of reasons at different times, but at this point, enough is enough. Stick an ethanol-subsidy-powered fork in us. We’re done.

I don’t normally rant like this here on Ye Olde Blog, but I put all of that forward just to give you a sense of my head-space as I was out driving between errands this morning, and this song queued up on the car stereo:

It’s a beautiful song by a favorite artist. Like most great art, its complexity and layers of meaning made me feel better and worse at the same time while it spun, and in the quiet afterward. The lyrics are adapted from the poem of the same title, by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The author wasn’t writing about protecting himself and his neighbors from infection, but rather about the experience of being Black in America in the post-Civil War years, and the ways in which people are forced to wear happy and harmless masks to cover their real faces, which may be wrenched in suffering and pain by their own circumstances, internal and external. So it works on many levels today, with pandemic and institutional racism vying for top-billing in the Nation’s news feeds, between the steady stream of malformed blurts that our Grifter-in-Chief barfs upon us throughout his waking hours, with no mask worn (and none strong enough anyway) to filter the infectious virality of his awful words and sentiments.

Me being me, listening to “We Wear The Mask” got me to thinking about what other mask-related songs might be found in my collection, and whether they carry explicit or implicit resonance with the spirits of our age, malign, benign and/or sublime. I came up with the following playlist about masks, veils, and other face coverings, literal and figurative. Maybe if I crank it off of my apartment balcony it might subliminally inspire my oblivious neighbors to cover their faces before they go bumbling into the hallways which we all share. Probably not, though. I guess I’ll just have to enjoy it here in my home office. Do you have some other good recommended mask songs for me to add to the mix?

Minnesotin’

Marcia and I are back home in Des Moines tonight after a wonderful week in Minneapolis and environs. It’s nearly 100° F here in Central Iowa with grotesque humidity levels, and is forecast to be so for the next week, making the inordinately nice weather we had in Minnesota over the past eight days all the more pleasurable in contrast. As noted in my prior post, we rented a really nice AirBnB in Minneapolis’ Kenwood area near Lake of the Isles, making it super easy and convenient to access a variety of great (carryout) restaurants along Hennepin Avenue, and also the glorious Grand Rounds network of trails surrounding the lakes at the heart of the city. The architecture in that area is stunning, and we were just a few houses down from the Purcell-Cutts House (a most fine example of the Prairie School), and just across the narrow lake neck from the Mary Tyler Moore House, made famous by her hit eponymous sitcom. There’s boodles of other fine specimens about, along with stunning gardens in great, full, peak bloom in most cases. Perfect!

Marcia and I circumambulated Lake Harriet, Bde Maka Ska (the Lake Formerly Known as Calhoun), Lake of the Isles, and Cedar Lake multiple times on foot without having to get in the car to get there, and we also kayaked on and between the latter three, which was wonderful. We did leave the neighborhood a few times for great walks around the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Lake Elmo Park Reserve, The Walker Art Center’s Sculpture Garden, and the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail. En route between Des Moines and the Twin Cities, we also did very nice walks at Myre-Big Island Park in Albert Lea and River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. My pedometer tells me that I walked 79 miles over the course of the week. That clearly justified all the ice cream, cookies, popcorn and pie that I ate while there, om nom nom!

After the Arboretum walk, we took a guided tour at Paisley Park, Prince’s nearby production studio and (in his final years) home. It was very cool to see, though sad to ponder how prematurely the Purple One left us, another undeserving victim of Big Pharma’s pusherman approach to opiate economics. Sigh. On the family front, we got to spend outdoor time with three of Marcia’s siblings and some nieces and nephews as well, and she had brunch with a pair of school friends at a legendary neighborhood restaurant, Curran’s, which is sadly closing and being razed soon, after over 70 years in business. We drove by Marcia’s nearby childhood home and schools, along with the church where we were married in 1989, and also went out to Fort Snelling National Cemetery to leave flowers for and pay respects to her parents, who are buried there.

And also on the paying respects front, we visited the George Floyd Memorial Site at South 38th and Chicago, which was powerful and heartbreaking in equal measure. We could stand at the spot where George Floyd was murdered and see the bell-tower on that church where we were married, just some 10 blocks to the west, so there’s a small personal connection for our family in there, a proximity to places dear. The city has closed off the streets around the area to vehicle traffic, so it’s a growing walk-in shrine site at this point, with volunteers offering visitors donated masks and drinking water if needed, and with various places and ways to leave messages, thoughts, prayers and promises. Or just to walk and reflect and be in the moment and dream of a different future, as the spirit moves each visitor individually.

It is sad to ponder how a regular night on a regular street-corner in a regular neighborhood could go so awfully, tragically wrong. But it is profound to consider the ripples of outrage that have washed outward from this modest spot, in large part because these same sorts of tragedies have occurred so many other times in so many other places, just as needlessly, just as horribly, just as wrong. One whole city block just north of the murder site now has its pavement painted with more names than I could count of victims of similar racially-motivated institutional violence from across the country, encouraging visitors to say their names aloud as they walk among them, reading them like a mantra, honoring their memories, and mourning their absence, and the losses felt by their loved ones. Such killing needs to stop. So here’s hoping those waves of righteous resistance rolling out of South Minneapolis are powerful enough to wash away some of the stubborn structures of institutional racism in our nation, for the betterment of all of its people.

I’ve posted my usual trip album over at Flickr if you’re interested in seeing the images there, including all of the sites mentioned above. Click on the “Sunset Over Lake of the Isles” photo below to see the rest of the set. Marcia and I are both very glad we went North for a spell. And we’re grateful for the reminders that we are blessed indeed to be able to make a trip like this in a time when many families are struggling with illness, or financial duress, or social and racial inequities, or all of the above, and then some. We do not take that good fortune for granted. Ever.

Magnetic North

We’ve been drawn Northward this week, following Marcia’s homing compass back to her Minnesota magnetic pole, where the Voluptuous Varmints roam.

We are renting a very comfy AirBnB just a couple of blocks northeast of Lake of the Isles, and have been walking 10+ miles each day around Minneapolis’ spectacular parks and trails system. We’re trying to safely, distantly visit as many family members here as we can before we relocate to Arizona in October, since it’s a much easier trip from Des Moines than it will be from Flagstaff or Sedona. It’s great to see folks, and great to be back in and around the area where Marcia grew up.

But there’s another component of the visit that carries an edge with a bite. George Floyd was murdered just about 10 blocks due east of Marcia’s childhood home, and we’re seeing a lot of damage around the community from the outraged eruptions which followed that tragedy. Sad and sobering on so many fronts, for so many people. It certainly hammers home the fact that we have so far to go and need to do so much better in terms of providing and protecting justice and equity as defining conditions of our national social contract.

As we watch the Democratic Nominating Convention this week, we are also reminded of one huge, important thing that we must collectively attend to by early November to redirect us along a more compassionate and Constitutionally-sound long-term national path. Marcia and I have already applied for our absentee ballots in Iowa accordingly, and will willingly head for the ballot boxes, masked, if they don’t get to us in time. When hatred, racism, grift, and willful anti-science ignorance are embraced as core operating parameters by both the White House and the Senate majority, it is hard to fight those scourges at street, community and State levels. We can do better. We must do better.

Enough on that, for here and now, I suppose. But plenty more to be said and done elsewhere and elsewhen, and we’re committed to that as a family whether I write about it here or not. Just for the record. Just so you know.

I share a few snaps below of our trip thus far, some happy and pretty, some sad and hard for us to see. We are energized by both types of photos, just in different ways. Maybe you will be too.

The Madness Of “With Which I Am Well Pleased” III

With so many things to be stressed, obsessed and/or depressed about in recent months, those little escapes, thrills and distractions that can brighten the hours and days are to be cherished, without doubt or question.

First and foremost in our family’s case, of course, is that none of us have had any medical emergencies to contend with during this our anno virum. Marcia and I were additionally pleased when Katelin called us earlier this week to tell us that she had received a very nice work promotion, demonstrating that her chosen work-remote situation in Nevada is clearly acceptable and sustainable to her employer, atop the satisfaction that she and John are feeling with their new Western lifestyle. We gave ourselves Six Parenting Gold Stars for that one. Very pleasing.

Marcia and I continue to have our own work opportunities to keep the mental juices and financial benefits flowing, I continue to find things to enjoyably think and write about, and we both continue to prioritize daily woodland and countryside walks of five-miles-plus to keep the body tuned along with the brain.  (I’m also cycling when I can to further that physical component, with ~650 miles covered over ~15 rides since May). We will be heading back up to Minnesota next week to see family in socially safe circumstances, so another change of scenery in Marcia’s beloved home state will feel good, for sure. Keeping on with keeping on, at bottom line. As one does.

Beyond those macro existential things, there are lots of smaller thrills that have delivered me the joy juice of late as well, so it seems fitting to provide a third installment to my “With Which I Am Pleased” series, building on this one and that one. As with the earlier posts, I feature 15 items in various categories, and commend and recommend them for your attention and (maybe) enjoyment as well. May they distract you from distress, alleviate your duress, and/or prepare you to safely impress your social (distant) circles with hot fresh content. Got recommendations for me in return? That’s what the comment button is for. Hit it!

FILMS

MUSIC

WEBSITES

Going Medieval

Daily Abstract Thoughts

The Diversity of Classic Rock

BOOKS