Saturday, November 12, 2011

Douglas Messerli | "Life in Duluth" (on John Ashbery's and James Schuyler's Nest of Ninnies)

life in duluth
by Douglas Messerli

John Ashbery and James Schuyler Nest of Ninnies (Calais, Vermont: Z Press, 1975)

Ashbery and Schuyler begin their fiction in what seems, at first, an almost conventional mode. Two people, Alice and Marshall, sit at the dinner table, gently arguing, a conversation that appears to be between husband and wife. He, quite obviously, goes to the city every day to work, while she, a 1950s housewife, it seems, is dissatisfied with life in a New York suburban community, "fifty miles from a great city."

     Alice seems bored, languid at the very least, disinterested in the leftovers that Marshall has pulled from the refrigerator for their supper. Poutingly, she refuses to eat, wanting to go to the city. Marshall himself is described as sulking, seeking a missing bread basket in which serve hot bread. Indeed, pouting, sulking, wounding seems to the major activity of these two, until they are interrupted by a woman, Fabia, from next door, at which point Marshall seems to come alive while Alice retreats to the basement to shake their furnace into action. Before long a fuse has blown and a snowstorm has begun, the three heading off to a hardware store and to a nearby Howard Johnson's for a drink.

     Throughout Nest of Ninnies, in fact, storms—both meteorologically and emotionally—are abrew. None of the characters might be described as emotionally stable, and the weather, no matter where these figures go, is generally filled with rain, snow, ice, and wailing winds. And many of them are perpetually drink.

     In this first chapter, moreover, we quickly discover that whatever one might think are the facts have nothing to do with reality—if there is reality in their world to be found. Language, in particular makes no true connections. In the first few pages I've described above the characters speak more by association than through any attempt to truly communicate:

                     "We of course made no attempt to alter this old place when we took
                     it over, beyond a few slight repairs," Marshall seemed aware of the
                     young woman for the first time. "I wanted to have the fireplace bricked
                     up because it cools the house, but so many people commented on it
                     we decided to leave it."
                          "You don't seem to see so many people."
                          "Look, snow is coming down it now."
                          An especially loud clang from the basement caused them both to
                     start. "You sit down and I'll get you a cup of coffee. I'll put on the lights
                     and call Alice," Marshall announced.
                          Alice's dim form appeared in the door. "I think I've just blown a
                     fuse. Hello, Fabia."
                          "That's very funny. The fuses at our house blew out too. It must be

     As we move forward into this strangely charted territory, we gradually begin to meet other characters, Fabia's brother Victor, who has just dropped out of college, her parents, The Bridgewaters, while we discover that the quarreling couple of the first scene are not husband and wife, but sister and brother, Marshall being somewhat attracted to Fabia, while Alice is interested in the wayward Victor.

     As these characters (types more than flesh-and-blood figures) are established, we begin to suspect that the fiction will be a kind of domestic story of their interchanging relationships and lives. But after a few chapters, in which the characters half-heartedly attempt to settle down (Marshall is the only one, it appears, who has a job), Ashbery and Schuyler take the work in an entirely different direction.

     Just as we grow used to the small cast of figures he has presented us, they quickly begin to gather others around them as they move forward in space, first to Florida, then to Paris, Italy, back to New York, and away again, floating in an out of their original home while adding more and more figures as they go.

     One might argue that, after the first few scenes, Ashbery and Schuyler pick up on Henry Green's marvelous Party Going just where it ended, with a large party of figures finally ready to move on. That group of ninnies is perhaps more British than is this American grouping, but there are enough French acquaintances, Italian pickups, Pen Pals (does anyone remember when young men and women had Pen Pals?), school girls, and numerous others to create a hilarious international "nest" into which and out of which the figures come and go, just as in Green's fiction.

     If the language these characters use is absurdly associative and self-centric, so too are their actions. Time and again characters meet and accidently reencounter each other as if the whole of Europe and the US were just as small as the suburban New York community in which the work begins and ends.

     Just as absurdly, in the latter part of the book, the figures pair off in odd combinations we might never have expected, Alice marrying an Italian pick-up, Giorgio, who together open a restaurant; Irving Kelso, a mama's boy and Marshall's co-worker, marrying a French woman the group has met in Florida, Claire; while Claire's sister pairs up with Victor.

     Victor's Pen Pal, Paul, meanwhile, arrives at novel's end with Marshall, the two having evidently traveled to Duluth and South Bend! As all the other figures move off in the various directions their lunatic behavior leads them, Marshall announces that he may move to Duluth; Duluth, he reveals, is big in plastics, and his company (evidently producing or using plastics) wants to open up a new branch in that Northern Minnesota City.

                          I have eyes only for Duluth. That's a place where they really
                          know how to relax and get the most out of life. I could even
                          live there myself. You never saw such steaks.

 Paul announces, in turn, that he likes the US and may not return to his home in France.  Both speak of the delights of South Bend.

                         Meanwhile Fabia was saying to Paul, "What was there in South
                         Bend, anyway?"
                             "You won't believe this," Paul said, "but it's true: a Pam-Pam's!"
                             "Oh," Fabia allowed.

The cryptic reference to the international bar and restaurant chain suggests far more that it appears, perhaps even hinting how to read through the characters' scatter-brained references.

     Bar Pam-Pam's was a kind of early bar and coffee house scene somewhat in the manner of Starbucks today, except that several of the Bar Pam-Pam's operations played cool jazz and catered to special audiences.* Cartoonist Joe Ollmann writes in The Paris Review about a local Pam-Pam's in New York which he describes as an "old man bar," suggesting to me that its clientele are elderly gays. What Ashbery and Schuyler seem to suggest, accordingly, is that suddenly Marshall and Paul are an couple who perhaps may be the first to escape the loony nest into which the dozens of characters have fast settled.

     After having just feasted on Giorgio's special courses, Victor suggests in the final lines of the book, perhaps hinting at the new relationship between the two men:

                        "I'm so hungry I could eat a wolf. Why don't we go over the Gay
                        Chico and have some refried beans?"

      And so these "cliff dwellers" bid their goodnights, moving off toward the parking lots and shopping plazas of their empty lives. Life in Duluth might be just the tonic.

Los Angeles, November 8, 2011

*Steve Fletcher describes a Bar Pam-Pam in England on the internet:

The refectory in the college had about as much atmosphere as a cemetery with lights, so a girl student with whom I was highly smitten, Diane, suggested we go to the Pam Pam. A coffee bar.  

     It was just across Oxford Circus at the junction with Hanover Street and Hanover Square and the exterior had a South East Asian look about it which was continued on the inside with low lighting, bamboo and palm trees in jungle browns and greens.

    The Pam Pam was quite small; it had about half a dozen very low tables and behind the counter was the first coffee machine I had ever seen. (There was a small upstairs section too over the counter with no more that three tables).

     Scandinavian open sandwiches were the house speciality (and the only ones on offer) consisting of a piece of rye bread topped with a piece of lettuce, a tomato and a hard boiled egg or a sardine - very exotic.

     A bit pricey too, I seem to remember. But the owner, a Spaniard, was never in a hurry to get rid of poor students. He also played music: jazz. Not on a juke box but on a Dansette 78 r.p.m. record player behind the counter.

     He had great taste and I was always asking him what the records were, his favourites being the boogie inspired piano pieces by Oscar Peterson. Cool sounds in a cool place.

     The Pam Pam was different and quite unlike the other coffee house I was now also frequenting - the infamous French coffee/newspaper shop near the corner of Old Compton and Charing Cross Road, and the Gyre & Gimbleat at Charing Cross.

     There one could rub shoulders with hookers, villains and dealers - plus the likes of Victor Passmore, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and demi-monde characters like Quentin Crisp and Ironfoot Jack.

     Because it was just outside Soho and on the edges of Mayfair, which was relatively quiet at night, the Pam Pam seemed a bit exclusive to the art students of RSP. I hung out there for about a year and became an ardent modern jazz fan.


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