Issue 78 |
Spring 1999



It's a December afternoon in Houston, and I'm stuck in traffic on Westheimer, in a strip of shopping centers -- an unrevealing detail, since Houston mostly
is a strip of shopping centers, more retail opportunities stretched endlessly along these roads than you'd think even the fourth largest city in America could ever make use of. To drive through nearly any part of town is to encounter a repeated string of terms which together make up a kind of local vocabulary: nails, comidas, cellular, autos, espresso, futons, tacqueria, big 'n tall, sushi, shoes. (My friend Alan Hollinghurst, visiting from London, asked, "Is all of America so interested in

Some fifteen percent of the cars registered in America are registered in Harris County, which gives some idea of the automobile's primacy here; this is a drivers' place, developed over the last forty years or so on flat and swampy land an hour from the Gulf Coast. This urban world's designed -- to the extent it
is designed -- for the convenience of the wheeled, and largely inaccessible by any other means. It's the only place I've ever lived where the homeless and the panhandlers actually work intersections by the freeways, standing out in the sun with handmade signs (homeless, pregnant, need help please) and hoping that drivers stopped at intersections will roll down windows closed up tight to keep the air conditioning in, even this close to Christmas, and dole out their spare change.

I'm stopped this particular afternoon because a heavy orange piece of equipment is blocking the street, beeping and idling loudly. In its big metal claw is a peculiar-looking object, a roughly textured stalk about twenty feet long, held horizontally in the air. It takes me a moment to figure out what it is: a palm tree, trimmed at the top, almost rootless, about to be set into place in a row of matching trees along the edge of a particularly glamorous strip of shops. The cordon this new palm will join is already decorated for the holidays: their trunks are wrapped in little white lights, and illuminated stars jut out into the air a dozen feet above the ground: a long row of Stars of Bethlehem, as if every one pointed to the location of a commercial miracle.

This is the sort of juxtaposition which this city offers all the time, and in fact it's one of the things I really like about living here. I came to Texas a few months ago, for a new position in a wonderful creative writing program. I knew from my first week that I loved the job, and knew equally that this sprawling, unlikely town was going to take some serious getting used to. The skies were big and dramatic, full of towering clouds blown up from the tropics; the city was low-slung and, at first glance, truly disorderly. Houston's never had zoning laws, which means that an adult bookstore sits next to a "luxury townhouse loft complex," a car wash by a cathedral, a museum by a bodega, an "erotic cabaret" by a Radio Shack. What do you want to buy today? the town says. And if you want to build it, go ahead. This lack of restriction seems metaphor for a larger kind of de-centeredness. There's no real geographical center, no heart of things; a car culture makes everything a destination, nothing any more
central than anything else. There is no dominant culture, and just barely a dominant language; in some areas the street and shop signs are in Spanish, in others Vietnamese. A teacher friend told me that there are some fifty-two languages in use here. In the classes my partner, Paul, is teaching, there are students named Gustavo, Batya, Senait, Jameka, Blas, Rogelio, Vonda, Mohammed, Chitra, and Bobbie Lee. Wildly disparate lives go on in the same city, entirely separate, occasionally overlapping. There are exclusive neighborhoods, of course, maintained by something called "deed restrictions," but even those are pierced by stacked freeways, and minutes away from collapsing apartment complexes side by side with new corporate towers poking up randomly here and there, all conjoined by the ubiquitous shopping centers: fax, buffet, quik lube, christian books.

What surprised me about all this, after the initial shock a New Englander feels on entering the rawly energetic Sunbelt, is the odd exuberance of it, an unexpected feeling of human energy, the room, even in these endless asphalt acres, for individual expression. (What else are all those shops promising nails in big bright letters offering? Some sense of personal distinction, expressed as stripes and diamond chips, five-color lacquers, metallic two-tones.) And I began to understand that this is what the future looks like; if America has a ready example of life in the twenty-first century, this is probably it: artificial, polluted, a little dangerous, and completely confusing, yes -- but also interestingly polyglot, open-ended, divergent, entirely unstuffy, and appealingly uncertain of itself. Which reminds me of a rather brilliant thing that Salman Rushdie said, in defense of his novel: "
The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and that is how newness enters the world."

This understanding -- the bracing impurity of the future -- still startles me a little. I'm a child of fifties and sixties sci-fi; the future had a whole design ethos, which was about streamlining, a perfection of ideal solutions, sleek arcs of plastic and metal. The futuristic was, in other words, modernity, in a kind of idealized, chilly form. But postmodernity shows us that the old predictions of what was to come -- which was a sort of vision of the triumph of earlier avant-gardisms -- isn't to be. And I suspect this is true in literature, too. Distrust, dear reader, whoever says that the future belongs to the non-narrative, or to New Formalism, or to minimalism, or even to the kind of formal self-consciousness and quick juxtapositions we've come to call "postmodern." Here in Houston, it looks like the future belongs to everything. And what I first took as disheartening disorder begins to reveal an interesting richness and variety of life between the cracks, along the seams; there's much more to see in Houston
than first meets the poor eye overwhelmed by all this visual info on the horizon.

Rushdie's right; newness is "entering the world" in the form of various literary practices rubbing against each other, a cheerful polyglot disassembly of boundaries. An odd thing about literary history is how the breaking down of boundaries -- consider the innovations of the Modernists, for instance -- is so quickly followed by the work of flinging them back up again. It seems to be in the nature of avant-gardes to ossify; what begins in a spirit of adventure soon calcifies into codes. But if Houston at the end of the century is any indication, we may expect that experience is about to challenge whatever certainties about art we might arrive at; we might expect that growth, excitement, energy in poetry and in prose will come from collisions which won't let us hold our realms -- either in terms of content or of form -- apart.

That palm tree decked in its holiday finery, newly upright, looks both lovely and out of place; it's a stab at beauty and a sales-pitch come-on; it celebrates life in the heart of winter here where there isn't much winter. It reaches for the "natural" in an environment manipulated to the point where that term is an empty one. It is a gesture which plays on nostalgia, sure, but one so strange as to ultimately go beyond the cynical. Palm and star are far from home; maybe they represent the reinvention of tradition. Might this bright, tawdry new world display some loveliness, a strange kind of authenticity -- its falseness complexified, if not exactly canceled out, by all these odd new conjunctions?

In that spirit, then, here is a collection of the polyglot, a slippery and contentious bunch of work from which it would be difficult to deduce, I think, a central aesthetic thread, a party line, a poetic policy. Well, okay, it isn't minimalist, it tends to believe that more
is more. That experience, be it of the world or of the inner life, is worth representing, and that language is capable of such a task. It is work interested, in various ways, in the lived experience of social and political life, in the experience of being informed by externals (which are not, when it comes to culture and language, really outside us anyway). Otherwise, the doors are open, the possibilities large. Hooray for that. If it has a unity, then the common ground is -- like Houston's -- energy, vigor, a ferocity of encounter, a sense of freshness released by the unpredictable.