The Perennial Quest for Now – A review of Randy Fertel’s A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation

(A longer version of this essay has been published in The Double Dealer:

In Boston, during the ice age winter of 1978, this callow youth had discovered punk rock, an entirely new thing which to this day I feel in some way saved my life. Eager to share my discovery, I brought Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, into the comfortable home of
 my college thesis advisor Randy Fertel. A native New Orleanian, he had been kind enough during the months of our collaboration to introduce me to Professor Longhair and the Meters, and on this late afternoon the aroma of red beans filled the house. Here was my payback. I will not say he pogoed. Fertel sat in a scholarly pose at his desk as the excellent stereo speakers of the era erupted in expletive. Two bleating tracks later he shouted above the din, “It’s been done. Have you heard of the Stooges?”

This abrupt judgment came as a punch in the gut,
 but of course the old man—in his mid-20s then — was right:  there is nothing new under the sun. Even the most spontaneous, transgressive musical nugget you may have uncovered has its precedent. But this sobering truth was only half of my advisor’s lesson. Unknowingly, I had touched a nerve of keen interest already far along 
in his consideration. This idea of spontaneity — driven by a yearning to tear down the old and yawp something else—was by his reckoning worth a closer look. Though not exactly new, the Pistols’ feral slap across the bloated face of the era’s corporate rock was something to love, and for better reasons. As I have since learned, over more than three decades of watching admiringly 
as a doctoral thesis grew tentacles that entangled not just literature, but music and the visual arts, myth, psychology, and even chaos science, my advisor had something more to say on the subject. And now we have it, a riveting, inspired, transgressive, yet authoritatively reasoned masterpiece, A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation.

One of the marvels of the book is the far-ranging correspondences Fertel so neatly draws. He will have none of the professional siloes
 we so carefully build to protect our sense of expertise, inviting us to an intellectual salon where in just the first chapter we meet fifty-plus luminaries, including authors (ranging from St. Paul to St. Kerouac), musicians (John Cage to Thelonius Monk), artists (Pollock, Duchamp), philosophers, critics and even one politician (George W. Bush).   Before this distinguished troupe, Fertel raises a toast to the one thing they all share, for better or worse, a deep and abiding appreciation for the lure of improvisation. Holding his glass aloft, Fertel asks, “What is this often overlooked theme that we call spontaneity, what technical strategies are used to employ it, how do those strategies work, what do they say? Why do artists claim spontaneity at all?”

Here lies the lever of Fertel’s argument; he refuses to take the improvisers at their word, writing, “For my purposes, the claim of spontaneity is 
a cultivated affectation.” What he means is that you can’t evaluate how spontaneous any text may be, so why judge a text based on that value? Yes, Jack Kerouac famously claimed to have written On the Road on a single ream 
of paper in a speed-infused rush, but does learning that he then spent five years revising the manuscript cancel out his claim of spontaneity? Fertel wants to know why Kerouac touted the initial inspiration and not the years of tinkering that came later. This is one of his important distinctions: If you can’t evaluate spontaneous process, what can you measure? This is the question at the heart of the book.

Lacking rhetorical guidelines for identifying and critiquing improvisations, Fertel develops his own, summarized in a pair of lists. The first sets out seven claims that improvisers use to assert the artlessness 
of their work, which is composed: (a) carelessly or effortlessly, (b) as a direct transcription of experience, (c) by chance, (d) as a found object, (e) intimately in
 an unthreatening situation, (f ) in an inconvenient situation, and/or (g) inspired by inebriants or some other external power. The foundation of all of these claims is a performative element, a sense of happening now. The second list articulates the form’s dominant stylistic conventions, which include: (a) simplicity, (b) free-association, (c) digression, (d) encyclopedic enumeration or cataloguing, (e) fragmentation, imperfection or formlessness, (f) swerving from tradition, and (g) biographical realism. Artists deploy these conventions to disarm the reader, to awaken her/him to new possibilities that may access and express “as much of life as possible.” He adds, “An ‘improvised text’ is usually implicitly or explicitly shadowed by a craftsmanly, more staidly rational kind of text that it seeks to debunk and replace.” This insight suggests a productive strategy for examining historical change. By locating an era’s improvisations and contrasting them with contemporary, more conventional texts, one can illuminate the cultural and historical clashes of an age. The improviser is not just playing a game of literary one-upmanship, but seeking to shape new knowledge into art.

Much of this book is given over to surprising 
readings of pivotal texts in light of these themes. Fertel leads us to an understanding of the ways that works
 as diverse as Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Montaigne’s Essays, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Clemon’s Huckleberry Finn, Joyce’s Ulysses and Mann’s Doctor Faustus adopt the themes he has delineated to surprisingly similar ends across the centuries. Fertel devotes close readings to classic texts, connecting them neatly to the rhetorical guidelines he has devised, while contrasting them to contemporary texts written in a more traditional style, and—most interestingly—exploring 
the historical and cultural events surrounding their composition, shedding light on the ways each author sought to bend art to changing times. Fertel then demonstrates how improvisers — despite their conceit of spontaneity — learn from their predecessors and carry on a sort of conversation across the ages about the means and ends of improvisation, further bolstering his claim of an improvisatory tradition. And he reminds us of literary cat fights — Capote vs. Kerouac, for instance — between the upholders of writerly craft and those claiming spontaneity. I particularly enjoyed his resurrection of Poe’s essay on the mechanical, by-the-numbers strategy supposedly employed to compose his poem The Raven. Fertel shows that traditionalists, too, walk a razor’s edge of inspiration despite their claims to the contrary.

The real poignancy 
of this book, I think, derives from Fertel’s discovery that improvisation succeeds by failing. Improvisers may seek or tout spontaneity, but on further examination their efforts “reveal persistent doubts about what it would mean to have unmediated experience or if, after all, it is even achievable.” This paradox is brilliantly expressed in Stevens’ masterpiece, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. Fertel reminds us that the poem exalts spontaneity, but only as a mirage that recedes as we approach it. He follows this theme across the ages, delineating the ways that artists as diverse as Diderot and Joyce, for instance, imbed its sobering message in ostensibly liberating texts.

Up until this point, Fertel has been working comfortably in his wheelhouse as a literary scholar. But then he unleashes this sentence: “Understanding the aesthetics of improvisation can help us get our minds around
 two important recent phenomena: chaos or dynamic systems science, and post-modernism.” I came to these pages with only a layman’s grasp of chaos science, which is to say, not knowing much, and since I know that Fertel is no lab-coated scientist, I expected to find him here overextended and exposed. Nope. In a dazzling chapter that ranges from the Roman philosopher Lucretius to the fractal theorist Benoit Mandelbrot, Fertel demonstrates how scientists often utilize an improvisatory method to the same ends as those pursued by improvisers in the arts. He elucidates the challenges scientists since Bacon have faced in observing and interpreting phenomena, seeking — like the literary improviser — new ways to perceive and express what is. In both cases, he sees the same impulse, to be here now, alert to unmediated experience, and the same recognition that this is ultimately impossible. In their adoption of irrational concepts and openness to patterns without pattern (for instance, Mandelbrot’s effort to “investigate the morphology of the amorphous”), the chaos scientists take this theme about as far as we can now go. From here we are just a short hop to Deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida, who sometimes seems to aim his notoriously knotty and reflexive prose at the whole corpus of received knowledge, while working within Fertel’s improvisational model, and to the same end, as in this compact manifesto: “And so I believe in improvisation, and I fight for improvisation. But always with the belief that it’s impossible.”

If you let it, this book may awaken you to a new perspective on creativity, building as it does a bridge across eras, driven by the primal human aspiration Fertel identifies and so thoroughly delineates: to be here now. As another of my 1970s pop idols, Elvis Costello, sang, “We’re only living this instant.” And as Fertel sings in page after page of his opus, that is both our comedy and our tragedy, perhaps the great theme of our lives. Those of us who are not rocket scientists or philosophers or poets live it too. Have you been born again at a backwoods revival? Fallen in love at first sight? Succumbed to road rage? Think of how an instant of spontaneity awakens and changes us. Think of how we measure ourselves and our friends on a scale from careful to carefree. How, for instance, we cherished the celerity of the late great Robin Williams’ improvisations. The creators Fertel interrogates here are like the rest 
of us, imagining a truer life lived closer to the quick. He shows us how this tantalizing aspiration is at the heart of so much that they created, and so much of what we do and care about. Yes, it has taken nearly 40 richly lived years to complete this story of the perennial quest for now. But Randy would be the first to appreciate that irony.

Roads Not Taken – essay

As a joke, I used to take snapshots of bedraggled storefronts emblazoned with the first names of my friends, and send them off as pasted together greeting cards bearing the scrawled inscription “Road Not Taken.” So my attorney friend Mike would get a card with a photo of Mike’s Pipe Fittings, schoolteacher Sharon would get one with Sharon’s Curls & Perms, professor Al, Al’s Subs & Pizza.

A joke, yes, but in these early AARP eligible years, the twists and turns of what can seem like fate leave me wondering how easily all our lives might have gone very differently, with just a tweak here, a nod there. For instance, as a freshman at Harvard in 1974, I learned about this new technology, a desktop computer. A redneck from rural Virginia, I’d never seen any kind of computer at all, though I’d read about punch card machines and seen movies with refrigerator-sized boxes spewing ticker tape. At school I learned that if you wanted to do any real calculations, there was an old cottage on a side street that housed one of the state-of-the-art Fortran punch card machines, but you had to have special permission to use it as an undergraduate, and aiming for a coveted slot on the History & Literature track, that could not have interested me less. I visited once on a tour with my physics for poets class and found it like a set for an old black and white sci fi movie, all whirring sounds, flashing lights, a little tray for punch cards, and the rank locker room smell of geeks with little interest in hygiene.  I wrote it into a script for a Dr. Strangelove sequel I was scribbling, but never imagined going there to solve a mathematical equation.

It’s hard at this late date to express how weirdly new desktop computing seemed at the time. In a back room of the sparkling new Science Center with its tall glass atrium sat ten of these machines on a row of tables. We were told they were the brain child of a Harvard-MIT consortium and that they could make computing accessible even for knuckleheaded freshman. Using a typewriter keyboard, you typed commands onto a blippy green tv screen. Conditionals such as if this, then that, etc. made the punch card world of computing easier to comprehend and act on, though our teachers made clear to us that much was lost in translating the beautiful logic of Fortran and Cobol to coded English. Everybody wanted to play with these gizmos, and lo and behold, the administration made this possible. You could sign up for a course in introductory computing and try your hand at getting the machines to simulate thought. Because everybody wanted to join in the fun, they ran a lottery. To my surprise, I won and found myself signing up for an hour each day in the computer room, typing statements like IF A=0 THEN GO TO 20; LOOP: B_? that caused the machine to carry out certain assembly line functions.  For my semester project, I decided to see if I could get the thing to write poetry.

Looking back all these years later, I realize that this was a difficult problem that has still not been satisfactorily solved. My primitive method was to type in a memory bank of cheesy words categorized by noun, verb, etc. and get the computer to select from the lists at random to build poetic lines. This hooked me more than I’d thought it would. Before long I was sub-categorizing my lists so the program would pull from rhyming words to end lines, building in a randomized choice of rhyme schemes and meters, and dog-earing my thesaurus to generate three separate word libraries for the type of poem you wanted: love, nature, or (just becoming an avid Poe fan) gloom.

Surprisingly, the program sort of worked. About every third or fourth block of words the computer generated made sense, in an autistic sort of way. I thought not that different from some of the word salad lyrics in David Bowie songs of the era. Here’s one of the better examples:





Fun, cute, what a neat toy, this computer thing. I wondered if you could make it play checkers. As the fall semester wore on and Boston’s weather surprised me in its relentless icy march, I trudged through slush in my Converse Chucks to the Science Center for my allotted hour at one of the computer terminals each day and found that other students had taken my little musings a step further. The windowless room grew funky, smelling more and more like that Fortran fortress down the street. I noticed sleeping bags rolled up in the corner. One morning, I walked in and found classmates sleeping under the tables, waiting for whatever little program they’d created to finish its calculations. We’d been warned not to do that, but these rebels had discovered a teenaged obsession that made more sense than the rest of the college experience so screw the rules.

We all benefited in the next decade from that obsession. One of those geeks under the table was Bill Gates. He dropped out of college shortly thereafter, so he could spend all day in front of the green screen with no fear of being bumped off by a no vision can’t see the forest for the trees dumb ass and his poetry program (and so he could bathe when he felt like it). In California, the two Steve’s, Jobs and Wozniak, played the same game. And then there were the rest of us, who took the class, got our inflated A’s (hard to get less than a B at an Ivy League school), and shrugged.

Could I have been a Bill Gates? If I’d offered the smelly guy under the table a candy bar from my stash, maybe dared to strike up a conversation, asked for a second eye to think about my rhyme schemes, might I have camped onto the runaway train percolating behind his rheumy eyes? Instead of steering clear, equating him with the homeless guys roaming the city streets outside, thinking weirdo, get a life loser, dude who’d never get a date smelling like that?

There were endless other opportunities to catch that train down through the past half century, of course. Eventually, I tagged onto the caboose, learning how to use smartphones and smart home devices as assistive technologies for people with cognitive-behavioral challenges and trying my hand at computer game development, prototyping a life skills program for kids with disabilities. And no, I don’t imagine my own Road Not Taken card reading “Microsoft”.

That’s the equation I could never compute. The one that goes something like: brilliance + vision + opportunity + grueling labor + dumb luck = genius. All of us lined up at those ten terminals in NS 110 in the fall of 1974 had the opportunity. The rest of the equation, not so much. We went on to other opportunities, other visions, tilted with whatever intelligence and fortitude we could muster at other windmills. Some of us got lucky. The other day, I stopped and took a picture with my iPhone of a roadside mall storefront: Tony’s Computer Repair. And another at the edge of the mall, Bill’s Barber Shop. Then drove on thinking about contingencies, paths diverging in a yellow wood, there but for the grace….