A Man and an Epigram Walk Into a Bar

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The End of My Wits. By Thomas Farber. Andrea Young Arts/El León Literary Arts, May 2013, 345 pp., $20 (paper).

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Twenty years. Four hundred epigrams. A lot of compression. Born of Thomas Farber’s self-proclaimed mania, this oeuvre has been nothing if not a tremendous labor of love. I attend. I inquire. I probe. I dare. I reflect. And: I refute—silence, that is. Behind all of which is Farber’s favorite dis-apologia: Fuck’em if they can’t take a joke.

Farber likens epigrams to prime numbers. Singular and irreducible, a prime number is defined as a number whose only two factors are 1 and itself. It’s a unique pairing, with 1 ever the common denominator. So, where is the 1 in these epigrams if not—the author? His fingerprints are all over this crime scene. We’re talking high velocity. Up close. Bada bing.

“Sex: what puts you in contact with people you might otherwise never know.”

“My accountant’s wife, #2: she’s come to believe she was a Native American in a previous life. Before the white man’s smallpox, she means.”

“False modesty: the writer enraged Toni Morrison’s won the Nobel Prize, but unable to come up with the name of someone he’d prefer.”

But, also, silencers:

“Spacious bedroom. Room for misunderstanding.”

“He’d grown afraid of winter.”

“Epitaph:

SEE YOU SOON.”

Primes? Most of us can rattle off a few (our brains seize up around 37, 41), and assume that surely they will run out. But no, they are infinite in number. Without end. So, epigrams. Limitless in possibility. Also, not limited to those words on the page. When spot on, epigrams reverberate, like a super tsunami. Long after we’re gone. (To paraphrase Aristotle: Art endures.) Do I find 5,683 as elegant a prime as 7? No. But both are exquisitely themselves and each is partnered to 1, that indefatigable, omnipresent, cruising-to-infinity-hooking-up-with-ever-more-primes 1. A kind of Casanova of numbers, even more promiscuous than the towering star Farber slams with:

“Wilt Chamberlain’s ‘20,000’ lovers. Yo, Wilt: Names? Birthdays?”

in which the Yo, Wilt delivers sly levity while sticking in the shiv. Yes, a preoccupation with sex and death. Eros. Thanatos.

“Some life forms never have sex, die, they say, only from external hazards. Life forms that do have sex always die.”

Life forms that never have sex? What’s that? I think oceanographer Sylvia Earle said that bacteria will survive even should all other life die out. As for the rest of us, we might argue to get it (sex), and get lots of it, since we are going to die anyway. We’re just blips. Then, stepping back, isn’t there something to be admired about irony and paradox? Something miraculous about death? Would you prefer immortality as bacteria, or a relatively short blast as bird, feline, or even human, pen in hand, or some other phallus of choice? Afraid of dying = afraid of living? Yes, yes, easy for me to say. Farber stands between me and silence.

“Turning fifty. Avoiding one’s older friends.

Lest what’s happened to them prove contagious.”

“Old age: when no one can save you.”

Unsparing? Consider this from Farber’s meditation On Water: Suva, Fiji. Outdoor weekend market, all manner of edible marine life splayed out for purchase, from octopus to parrotfish.

“And turtles … A very large one on its back, the lower shell, the plastron, already cut away, turtle being slowly, deliberately, butchered out while still alive, great heart still beating, pumping as the turtle urinates, urinates again, shell now a bowl for its own blood…. I turn away from this perfunctory but merciless slaughter. And turn back again to watch. And turn away again.”

The horror. Author makes himself look. He thinks about it, dreams about it, wakes writing about it. Lorrie Moore, her baby in and out of hospital with a Wilms tumor (kidney cancer), managed later to subsume the experience into a work of fiction: The Mother holding it together, barely, moving in a fog of disbelief, impotence, and massive fear, The Husband saying, “Take notes. We are going to need the money.” This is what writers do, go into the blind cave even though Cyclops is host. This is the way we earn our way home.

Here’s Farber, Boston, age ten, from the essay “Testaments & Mea Culpas,” 2005:

“we also well knew what it was to be ‘crying mad,’ to turn away from the sight of tears in others. For the grownup epigrammist, then, perhaps the motto should be ‘No flinching.’ Something we kids used to say, in moments long ago lost, when it was again our turn to strike the blow.”

What an about face those last six words. Not “our turn to take it,” but “our turn to dish it out.” Still, if the author is ever over the top in sticking it in the most putrid part of someone else’s foibles, neither is he letting himself off the hook. Observer, even of himself. Perhaps firstly of himself.

“’My wife,’ he frequently says, even to those who know her proper name.”

Need to declare the (unearned?) possessive (kin to “My son, the doctor”)? Charmed by it? Need to test the reality, to see if it will hold? For husband and/or wife? Or, just the sweet wonder of commitment, and what commitment asks? This epigram was written in 1998, about a decade before Farber himself finally renounced a self-professed promiscuous bachelorhood (Yo, Tom!) and married; and for the first months, as if in self-fulfilling prophecy, he ever referred to his beloved as “My wife, my wife.” Fast forward to 2012, from Parting Shots:

“Messianic about marriage; rebukes former fellow debauchees: no monogamist like a reformed cunt-hound.”

But neither does the (married) eye stop looking, assessing, appreciating, tripping:

“Compare + contrast: thongs, the epigrammatic.”

Still later:

“End of life: ‘The last woman I slept with’ becomes

‘The last woman he slept with.'”

~

Underlying every inquiry and compression is Farber’s love of words and wordplay.

“Hypochondria: overkill.”

“Not just fat: full of himself.”

“Children learn elephants never forget. Grownups learn women never forget.”

Funny, right? Now look at this:

“Thinking/writing: vapor/paper.”

Oh, my. Every artists knows this one. But look also at the parallel structure that makes this such a well-cut gem: the gerunds on the verso side of the equation, giving up their tinkering rhyme; then listen to the plosives of the ps on the recto side, which evokes puffs, as in Poof! Gone —if you don’t get up out of bed and write those suckers down.

Writers have words. That’s all we have. How we combine these words, juxtapose them, allude with, and to, them, exclude them altogether, coin new words, bring out new lights, refractions, reflections— words are our paint, our music, our song. Word’s root? From my American Heritage: wer5: derivatives include word, verb, adverb (modifier of verbs), proverb (brisk, terse, and true), verve (vigor, spirit, style), and irony (saying the opposite of what you mean, with effect). Epigrams, in spades.

”’Beneath contempt’ Down there somewhere.”

“Aesthetes without an art have a high opinion of opinion.”

“Pedophiles: No Child Left Behind”

You may be tempted to skip. Flip through, blindly poke your finger on a page for no other reason than you like the way the line basks in the tundra of white space. Or, you might feel compelled to just put the book down. Farber has spent a lifetime suffering no fools, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer along with him. He’s quick to own, again and again, the form’s bleakness.

Do we need such honesty, such a polished mirror held up to our less noble selves? Do we need these reminders of what we are capable of? Do we need Tom Hagen’s offer no one can refuse, bloody, in our beds? Nick Ut’s photo: Kim Phúc running naked down the streets of Trang Bang, her back on fire from napalm? Or the Munch-like silent scream of the boy closest to us? Do we need burnished into our souls what Iris Chang brought back from Nanking, and what she gave of herself to do so? James Dickey’s Deliverance? Wilfred Owen’s lines set by Benjamin Britten in his War Requiem? Or Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder? Can we listen without crying? Do we need to have our hearts broken? Well, only if we want to feel. The breaking of our hearts corroborates that we are sentient. No great love without great loss.

~

Dylan Thomas ends his masterly poem with this couplet, “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” His father dying, Thomas imploring, that we fail to see what is grand before us, that wisdom goes unheeded, is no reason to stop trying. In five tercets and the concluding quatrain, these two lines alternate in repetition no fewer than four times each. Or, of the nineteen lines, nearly half of them beg an open-eyed living to the very last breath, their incantatory repetition a cri de coeur.

One of Farber’s friends, “a very goodhearted poet” said, upon reading The Price of the Ride, “At the end of that road is silence.” Farber: “There are worse things than silence.” Apathy. Ignorance. Dishonor. Pick one. Yet, not to say the hard truth—is that not is the fastest shortcut to silence?

Read these piths for Farber’s spin on, among the vast array of human frailties: jealously, false modesty, secrecy, marriage, adultery, betrayal, aging, dying, death, the self-delusion about the same, and what it means to be preposterous. Compression, as a life pursuit. There’s a certain samurai nobility.

Consider, now, two fine stories by Irwin Shaw: “The Eighty Yard Run”; andThe Girls in Their Summer Dresses”—titles alone that are longer than some of these epigrams—each a lament to lost youth, lost opportunities, sentiments etched by these few quick lines keen with Farber’s judicious use of adjective in achieving the above, and more: mood, setting, resignation, poignancy, in possibilities pondered and possibilities discarded. Bravura compression:

“A man in middle age sitting in an outdoor café. Two young women passing his table, walking faster than he thinks he’d be able to run after them.”

This is where Farber’s epigrammatic journey began twenty years ago, with wistfulness in middle age. Then he took off his gloves and went mano a mano with his own mortality.

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farberAwarded Guggenheim and multiple National Endowment fellowships for fiction and creative nonfiction, Thomas Farber has been a Fulbright Scholar, recipient of the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize, and Rockefeller Foundation scholar at Bellagio. His recent books include Brief Nudity, The Beholder, and Hesitation Marks. Former Visiting Distinguished Writer at the University of Hawai’i, he teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and is Publisher/Editor in Chief of El León Literary Arts.

LGLOUIS[1]Author of Talking in the Dark, a Barnes & Noble Discover book, and winner of the Katharine Anne Porter Prize for short fiction, Laura Glen Louis has had work included in Best American Short Stories. Her chapbook of elegiac poetry is Some, like elephants. This essay is forthcoming as the Afterword to Thomas Farber’s collected epigrams The End of My Wits (Andrea Young Arts/El León Literary Arts, 2013).

One thought on “A Man and an Epigram Walk Into a Bar”

  1. Joekornfeld says:

    Louis’ brilliant free-associative response to Farber’s book turns it into a living thing. This is great criticism.

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