Sunday, December 14, 2008

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse: Adolescent Reading, Adult Reading

I reread Steppenwolf as part of a little project to revisit some of the novels that swept me away when I was in high school.

The danger of a project like this is that the stories won’t measure up to my estimations of the time and ruin my beloved memories of yore—Steppenwolf certainly didn’t. That said, it’s interesting to view such books through a different lens and think about why a book like this meant so much to me.

In many ways it’s obvious. Harry, the Steppenwolf, feels different. Not only does he feel different, but he feels superior to his surroundings, and doesn’t understand why he isn’t recognized for his purity and intellect. He’s full of anger, revulsion, self-contempt….and deep thinking and integrity. Sounds exactly like a teenager, or at least me as a teenager. The novel is a natural accompaniment to early ‘80s punk rock.

Harry’s further complicated by the dual self he feels warring within himself. He’s trapped in the middle, drawn to a life of intensity, the life of a wolf who yearns to live unconventionally and in the wild, but he’s unwilling to give up the comfortable and orderly life of the bourgeoisie, even though he holds it in contempt.

A teenager’s life is often similarly fraught with such drama, with the crux of defining oneself against the materialistic or middle-class wishes of parents while struggling to discover one’s true self in all of the wild madness of being a teenager. No matter who you want to be, you’ll likely have to transgress against your parents’ wishes—or more dramatically, what feels like all of society, gosh—to figure it out.

Harry has retreated from the world, cordoning himself off in a room he rents in a bourgeoisie woman’s house (he rhapsodizes about the cleanliness and order of her entryway as a way to show his addiction to a life well provided for). He takes lonely, aimless walks through town, tends to mope, indulges in his intellectualism—which is more pure and uncompromised than a poor well-meaning professor he has an encounter with—and enjoys forays out to listen to music (Mozart, not jazz, God forbid) and drink wine.

He’s living the life of a potential suicide, in short, and dwells on the thought of suicide, even making a pact with himself to kill himself when he’s 50.

Harry’s dilemmas are made all the more compelling for the adolescent mind when a mystical component is introduced. He encounters a person carrying an advertisement for a magic theater who gives him a small book, Treatise on the Steppenwolf. The pamphlet addresses Harry by name and strikes him as describing himself uncannily.

Later Harry enters the magic theater, which holds the keys and transformations of his fate.

One thing that struck me during my adult reading of the book is that for a smart man, Harry is very petulant and self-limiting. He disdains most things that are modern, in particular the phonograph, which mechanizes the beautiful orchestrations of Mozart. The purity of the world seems to be categorically sullied by all things of progress.

I suppose I found this part of him appealing in high school—and maybe I still do, never quite trusting what’s presented as technological advances—interpreting his hatred of progress as a revulsion toward capitalism. It’s that, but something else as well—an inability to adapt that’s not particularly commendable.

Being a kid is all about expecting the world to form itself to your brilliant, superior thoughts. Being an adult is all about adapting, so Harry seems particularly rigid and immature. I'd find him interesting if I met him in life, sympathetic, but a little to sour and self-righteous to want to spend much time with. And that shouldn't condemn me as one of illegitimate sellouts who are such because they aren't him.

He’s also reluctant to dance, as if such enjoyment is base and lowly, although dance and an immersion in other “instinctual” pleasures will deliver him as much as anything in the end. He even starts to like jazz. I suppose I was so entranced by Harry’s spiritual dilemma in high school that I overlooked what a curmudgeon he was.

The more striking thing I overlooked was Hesse’s exploration of individuation—the necessity of thinking of a self not as a single ego or unit, and not even a dual self split between saint and sinner, but as an inherent multitude of possibilities. The best example of this is when Harry laughs at himself in the mirror at the Magic Theatre, and his self cracks into hundreds of pieces.

Hesse wrote this in the mid-20s, so I don’t know if he’d encountered Jung yet, but Jung’s thoughts on self and individuation permeate this novel. In fact, it’s a great book to do a school project of Jungian analysis with.

Hesse felt that readers misunderstood the book, focusing only on the suffering and despair that are depicted in Harry life and missing the possibility of transcendence and healing. My high school self did misunderstand the book, but I was one who was more interested in despair than transcendence.

Hesse is masterful at blurring the lines between the fantasy and realistic elements of the book, which is one reason the story has haunted me over the years. Hermine's death is particularly riveting, especially since it's essentially carried out in a funhouse mirror.

While I wouldn’t say it’s a great book, and I would have certainly been frustrated with it if I’d read it for the first time as an adult, it was the perfect book for an angst ridden teenager like me. I wish I could go back 25 years and read it again and be swept away.

If you want a good summary of the book without reading it, this short movie pretty much captures it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lionel Trilling: Fiction and Politics

Every fiction writer or critic has to eventually face the question, "Why write?"

Fiction, whether great or mediocre or downright bad, might be nothing more than entertainment for many, or a trophy on a book shelf for others (how many people read Infinite Jest is something I want to know).

And how many novels do we need, anyway? Couldn't there be a 20 year hiatus, or perhaps strict limitations on how many novels should be published each year? What would happen in such a case?

Perhaps nothing, but I just read an article on Lionel Trilling in the New Yorker that provided a good riposte to anyone who poses such questions.
The argument of “The Liberal Imagination” is that literature teaches that life is not so simple—for unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy happen to be literature’s particular subject matter. In Trilling’s celebrated statement: “To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance . . . because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” This is why literary criticism has something to say about politics.
The word variousness is key here. Perhaps no research can make a connection between reading and writing and the kind of conscience that holds possibility, complexity, and difficulty in a single thought, but this is the value I like to ascribe to writing and reading.

It's at once political, as Trilling notes, but something more: a matter of the soul. And the two are one.
People’s political opinions may be rigid; they are not necessarily rigorous. They tend to float up out of some mixture of sentiment, custom, moral aspiration, and aesthetic pleasingness. Trilling’s point was that this does not make those opinions any less potent politically. On the contrary, it’s the unexamined attitudes and assumptions—things that people take to be merely matters of manners or taste, and nothing so consequential as political positions—that need critical attention. “Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind,” as Trilling put it, “we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.”
Trilling thought that people’s literary preferences tell us something about their conception of what he called “the sentiment of being”: about the kind of people they wish to be and about the way they wish others to be—that is, about their morality and their politics.

Trilling's viewpoint borders on using literary preferences not only as a window to the soul, but as a window to psychology and politics.

Which begs the question, why is Robert Jordan both Barack Obama and John McCain's favorite literary hero? Here's an essay in The New York Times to ponder.

And speaking of variousness, here's Trilling and Nabokov discussing Lolita:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Lit Folks, Don't Take Yourself Too Seriously

It's always good to make fun of even the most serious of matters, especially when they have to do with art.

Take a look at this contest of repackaged book covers highlighted on Book Ninja, of which the cover of Blood Meridian is one.

As much as I love Cormac McCarthy--and his overwrought prose--he deserves a good send up.

McCarthy almost lends himself to looking as cheap as the satirical cover in an interview with Oprah (clip enclosed below). For such a dignified, wise, and introverted man, I can't believe he gave one of his few interviews to Oprah. McCarthy is fine in the interview, but Oprah's sighs and planted questions and sentimental fade-aways cheapen a master like this.

Gosh, no wonder McCarthy prefers not to give interviews.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Buster Keaton: Go West Young Man

We saw Buster Keaton’s Go West at the Pacific Film Archive, and the movie was not only funny, but a surprising existential commentary on our capitalist life of supposed progress and survival that rings true today.

Buster Keaton, who plays the character Friendless, turns the convention of the lone, stoic Western hero on its head—remarkably before the advent of the genre of Westerns in Hollywood (Go West was made in 1925). It’s as if Keaton is already poking fun at the likes of Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin through his farcical follies.

Although Friendless possesses the traditional characteristics of the solitary man seeking fortune and self in the brutal West, he does so with a tiny, feminine gun that’s a wonderful recurring metaphor throughout the film. He can never find the gun in his six-shooter holster, so he has to tie a string to it to pull it out. Finding it isn’t really the problem, however; the gun is powerless to do harm in such a hard, brutish world, just as Friendless in incapable of exerting himself in any effective way.

He’s a man who would do no one any harm, a simple trait that defines his beauty and all of the comedy that befalls him—knocking him down relentlessly, in fact.

He tries his hand at bronco-busting, cattle wrangling, and dairy farming, eventually forming a bond with a cow named "Brown Eyes," who is an oddball among the cows and ostracized from the herd just as Friendless is. They form a touching bond, following each other around and helping each other in their gentle yet absurd ways. Friendless even tries to disguise Brown Eyes as a deer to save her from the slaughterhouse, but no one is tricked by the horns tied to her head.

Keaton tries to buy Brown Eyes from the hard-hearted rancher to save her from the slaughterhouse, but even his life savings come up short. Still, he ends up leading the herd of cattle through Los Angeles in what must certainly have established the chase scene in movies because he knows the rancher will be ruined if the cows don’t make it to the stockyards.

The scene in Los Angeles echoes a previous scene in New York, where Friendless tried to go before heading west. In New York, he’s unable to even walk down the sidewalk because so many people are walking in such a harried and hurried manner, like the white water rapids of a river, knocking him backward onto the rocks. The scene is hilarious, with people literally walking over Keaton as he squirms onto the street for refuge from the stampeding masses—only to be bumped by an oncoming car that also neglects to observe his existence.

You might say the movie is about stampedes, and our inability to avoid them. Interestingly, the cows and bulls seem even more sensitive and observant than the human stampede in this film--we are the mindless beasts! People are doomed in their march toward prosperity because they can’t see anything but their pocketbooks, and when they see an easy mark like Friendless, they take advantage of him as a predator kills its prey.

In the end, however, the rancher recognizes that he’d be nothing without Friendless. It’s the human bond, decency in the face of adversity, that proves most valuable. Friendless gets in the rancher’s car with Brown Eyes, both of them sitting comically in the back seat, hopefully off to a happy ending, but we can't trust that they'll be safe for long.

The wonderful thing about a Buster Keaton movie is the idea that haplessness is a trait that’s a treasure. His characters don’t possess guile, strength, or smarts, which make them victims in this world, but they do possess a strange yet unwavering sense of how one should live—in pursuit of the most rudimentary pleasures, without malice, trusting in a cow that’s a loyal friend of all things.

Friendship and loyalty matter after all--if only to save us from the slaughterhouses that await us.

Check out this montage from Go West accompanied by Tex Ritter:

Also, here's the first ten minutes of the movie:

Saturday, November 08, 2008

On the Subject of Plot: Marilynne Robinson

Since I wrote a bit about the monstrous subject of plot yesterday--and seem to always be wrangling with it in one way or another--I thought I'd follow up with a good quote from Marilynne Robinson that helps alleviate the plot pressure an author can feel, especially if he or she is an inadequate plotter like myself.

"I don't like plot very much--please contain your surprise. It becomes a big machine that carries everything after it," Robinson said in a recent reading/discussion at the Los Angeles Public Library.

It's true that plot is quite a brute. The kind of person that bullies into a room and takes over the conversation, interrupting the softer voices, the whispers, the telling pauses.

When plot becomes the absolute focus, all other elements serve it--but plot will never serve the other elements. It's too much of a king, a dictator, a despot, muscular and imperious and unabashed. It often won't suffer the time to hear the details, to allow a narrative transgression or even a little meandering.

And it's in the meandering that an author, and a reader, find so much of the meaning they're searching for. It's all a search, after all; life isn't meant to be contained in an outline.

So I suppose an inadequate plotter like myself should resign myself to that fate and focus on the things I can do better. Not every pitcher has a good fast ball.

Here's a shaky clip of Robinson reading at the event:

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Concept of Plot

It's difficult to know if the ability to plot a good story is something that is genetically endowed or whether it can be learned.

What's certain is that it's difficult to tell a good story.

Many can draw a compelling character, paint words into scenes that ring in your thoughts for days, or snap through the back and forth of expert dialogue.

But all of this still needs a storyline, even a loose one.

Take a look at this image from Norman Mailer's plot for Harlot's Ghost. It's not the details that a novelist needs to consider, but the connections. Perhaps it's worth plotting a story out before or during or even after writing, but what's most important is keeping the concept of the connections in mind.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Literary Genius: The Ugliness of It All

I recently read a good definition of literary genius.

Adam Kirsch refers to Proust's definition in a review of Roberto Bolano's Slouching Toward Santa Teresa. The irony is that our first reaction to a great contemporary work is that it doesn't strike us as beautiful, but as ugly. Only minor writers write beautifully, since they simply reflect back to us our preconceived notion of what beauty is; we have no problem understanding what they are up to, since we have seen it many times before.

This reminds me of Harold Bloom's definition that a truly great work has to startle and jar one's sensibilities. As he writes in The Anxiety of Influence, most writers are derivative of their precursors and live with the anxiety that they're not truly writing anything meaningfully different. The small minority of strong writers manage to create original work in spite of the pressure of influence--in other words, they have to wrestle with the startling, or perhaps ugly, qualities of an original vision.

Proust says that when a writer is truly original, this startling leap out of convention, makes us see him or her initially as "shapeless, awkward, or perverse." It's a shock to our system until we learn how to read the new work and find the unexpected beauty (or meaning) in the singular qualities of the work.

What's wrong about the work becomes what is right about it.

When I started Bolano's first novel, The Savage Detectives, I was swept away for a couple hundred pages. I didn't think he was brilliant, but he was daring in an awfully pleasing and entertaining way. And then the whole damn work became shapeless and awkward--and although not perverse, boring.

I admit I didn't have the energy to look for new patterns to emerge, and I quit reading the book. I was puzzled, however, given its critical raves. This is all to say that I've turned into a lazier and more conventional reader than I used to be--or that the book did suck. I'll have to return to the book again to figure out which scenario is true.

In the meantime, how to wrangle with the conventions my precursors have handed down? It is a lot more fun to write, well, with a bit of ugliness.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop: A Love Affair of Letters

I used to love to write letters.

I think letters were my genre. I wrote better letters than I wrote short stories or poems or novels or scripts or journal entries.

I thought of my friendships through letters. I dashed to the mailbox each day with anticipation. I wrote letters that passed through days and weeks--full of confessions, observations, pretensions, aspirations.

But I no longer write letters. I'd actually feel a bit foolish writing a letter these days, especially the sort of literary letter I used to write. I suppose I'd feel foolish because all of my friends are on email (or Facebook or Twitter!), and they wouldn't respond to my letter with a letter. They might not respond at all, in fact--unless I emailed them.

I've wondered for a while whether the advent of email would spell the demise of collections of letters between authors or lovers or great leaders--and all of the interesting insights they provide.

After reading the New York Times review of Words in Air, the letters that Robert Lowell and Elizabeth, I think the answer is yes. Email just doesn't quite encourage the kind of luxurious indulgence in self and relation to another like a letter does. There's something about the process of writing a letter, sending it, and waiting for a response--the time and geography of it all--that creates a dramatic tension. And then there is the pen on the paper, the personality of a letter, the pauses between thoughts and sentences, the need to express more than just a passing thought.

Words in Air presents 30 years of correspondence conducted across continents and oceans as their poetry drove them together and their lives kept them apart. What a lovely premise for a friendship of letters--except that their letters also formed a peculiar love affair, a lively collaboration, a critical treatise, a comfort.

“I think I must write entirely for you,” Lowell wrote to her. (Somehow, I think the phrase, "I think I must email entirely for you," seems less poingnant)

Eight years before he died, he wrote, “I seem to spend my life missing you!”

William Logan writes, "Their admiration even made them light fingered — they borrowed ideas or images the way a neighbor might steal a cup of sugar. Lowell was especially tempted by this lure of the forbidden, using one of Bishop’s dreams in a heartbreaking poem about their might-have-been affair, or rewriting in verse one of her short stories. They were literary friends in all the usual ways, providing practical advice (the forever dithery and procrastinating Bishop proved surprisingly pragmatic), trading blurbs, logrolling as shamelessly as pork-bellied senators (Lowell was adept at dropping the quiet word on her behalf). There was a refined lack of jealousy between them — that particular vice never found purchase, though in letters to friends they could afford the occasional peevish remark about each other. "

Sure, it could have all happened online. Except that it wouldn't have, or it would have all transpired differently--with the cursory comments, the tiny jousts and flirts and ha ha's that define email, perhaps even the occasional emoticon, links, tired jokes and YouTube clips.

I'm sure there will be fascinating collections of email, especially since email is so easily archived. Still, something will be different.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

American Fiction: The Suicide of Detail

Okay, so I've read several scathing reviews of James Wood's new book, How Fiction Works. It seems that Wood's views aren't working for many reviewers--to the point that I wonder whether he's just pissed them off at cocktail parties or slept with their partners, but that's speculation.

Several reviews have been so bad, especially the entertaining and illuminating one by the ever entertaining and illuminating Walter Kirn in The New York Times, A Not So Common Reader, that I just have to dash out and buy the book. Kirn rips Wood to the point that the book seems indispensable.

And Wood does make observations that intrigue me: “Nabokov and Updike at times freeze detail into a cult of itself.” The contemporary emphasis and glorification of gorgeous detail has always eluded me. I've always read for character, which flows into dialogue and action, choice and meaning--but rarely into detail, at least in my mind, or only as a tertiary element. I've been miffed by the number of writers who are so highly revered for their dissecting eye rather than their ability to tell a story, draw compelling characters, write startling dialouge.

Is the ability to describe in such detail truly the trait we want to honor in a writer--a storyteller? Do we really want to know so much about the dust motes in a room, to read the adjectives that describe a person's lips or brow, or how he or she walks or stands or drinks. Telling details, sure, but I'm not sure if God is in the details, at least as they've been defined recently.

I'm not dismissing Nabokov or Updike in any way. I'm just parsing Wood's keen observation.

Now I'm off to buy Wood's book, even though Kirn says it will induce a nap. If so, I know my dreams will be dramatic, but lacking in detail.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Emily Dickinson: Truth at a Slant

“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” This was Emily Dickinson’s credo.

Walker Evans applied a similar aesthetic approach to photography—a preference to take photos when the sun’s light was slanting, toward evening or in the early morning.

The approach begs the question of whether life should be represented in full illumination. What does it mean to represent something or someone in full light?

Perhaps truth—not to mention mystery and wonder—can only be found in the “slants,” the corners, the shadows.

I’m not sure if an artist needs to know much more than this, but of course these simple words require such keen interpretation and creative judgment.

What is truth at a slant, after all? It goes beyond sunrise and sunset.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

I wanted to like the Piano Tuner.

Okay, I kind of liked the Piano Tuner. I liked it like I might like a blind date who’s nice, kind of pretty, sort of intelligent, dresses well—nothing wrong with her—but I know I’m not going to call her. No offense.

Here’s the skinny of the plot, cribbed from Powell’s Books. In October 1886, Edgar Drake receives a strange request from the British War Office: he must leave his wife and his quiet life in London to travel to the jungles of Burma, where a rare Erard grand piano is in need of repair. The piano belongs to an army surgeon-major whose unorthodox peacemaking methods — poetry, medicine, and now music — have brought a tentative quiet to the southern Shan States but have elicited questions from his superiors.

I bet you can’t guess what will happen. Will Edgar Drake become entranced with Burma, feel his blood burble with adventures, and possibly fall in love? I’m not telling.

I don’t mean to get into name calling, but the novel relies on two cheap premises. The character of the sugeon-major Carroll, strange and peculiar and heroic, is derivative of Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness—too derivative because such a unique and compelling character shouldn’t be duplicated. Or if he is duplicated, the character should be damn interesting, an original, not as flat and watered down as Carroll is.

Secondly, the novel relies on a gimmick, the piano tuner traveling through Southeast Asia to tune Caroll’s piano, which affords plenty of opportunities, planted rather than organic, for long expositions on the history of the region, descriptions of the landscape, or details of tuning a piano—often gorgeous, interesting, but contrived in the end. In other words, the frame of the book is established for such writerly moments rather than for a more pure and organic storytelling. The novel reads like one that has been assiduously and gleefully researched.

In short, the novel doesn’t feel like a story so much as an exercise in selling a story. Daniel Mason, the author, is not only a doctor (at the time of publication, he was a med student at the University of California San Francisco), but a good businessman. And an adequate and sometimes flowery writer. And a somewhat adept storyteller. But not yet one who is a specialist in the human condition.

That is all to say that I felt only faint heartbeats in this novel, even though it pretends to be a novel of the heart.

Take the protagonist, Edgar Drake. Granted, it’s difficult to center a novel around such resigned, delicate character, but Edgar seems to always be pushing up his glasses rather than truly being in moments of life. He’s a stiff, erudite Englishman—okay we get it!—whose tie gets ruffled when he gets a crush on a local girl. He’s in love with his wife—as if he’s reciting the alphabet, the Lord’s prayer—but there’s a passion within his breast.

Will he risk it all?

Of course he will. He’ll push up his glasses, flex the nubs of his muscles, and say, “Damn it, I’m Edgar Drake, and I’ve had enough. I want to live!” But even when Edgar gets bold—Heavens!—his words, not to mention his emotions, feel scripted. His dreamy attraction to the jungle of Burma is assigned to him by the author, just as his love has been assigned to him. What does Edgar really want in the depths of his soul and loins? Perhaps those areas are off limits to a proper Englishman, but an author should have access to his characters’ nether regions.

Despite my gripes, the novel is adequate. I imagine that it will be made into a fairly large budget movie starring Raph Fiennes as the piano tuner. It will be the kind of movie that doesn’t rile anyone, and the scenery will be nice, and it will suffice as a way to pass an evening. No one will be too bored or too moved. All of the chords of the world’s music will seem more or less in tune.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Persepolis: The Value of a Child's Point of View

It’s an odd thing to say that a work situated in a war-torn country with an oppressive regime is fun to read, but Persepolis is fun, among other things. Sure, it’s a fun read because it’s a well-drawn graphic novel, but it’s really the lively and mischievous point of view of its heroine, Marjane, a precocious and preternaturally rebellious child, that gives the book its singular force.

The story starts during the turbulent years surrounding the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which saw the government overthrown, theocracy introduced, and war with neighboring Iraq. But a kid wants to have fun, explore, learn, hang out, screw around, etc. whether he or she is living in an affluent suburb, a poor country, or under a suffocating regime. It’s this tension between the joys and desires of childhood, Marjane’s adolescent explorations, and the uncommon limits that she encounters that makes Persepolis such a meaningful book.

In fact, you could say that the narrative is about urges—whether it’s to dance, wear a Michael Jackson pin, have a party, not to mention an opinion—and their consequences. Marjane has to deal with the father figure of Iranian culture, which hews to a stark and draconian archetype: child wants, society (parent) denies. Even the style of the drawings reflects this sharp dichotomy. The world is strictly black and white, without any of the vivid or gaudy colors that most comic books use to paint the world.

It’s not a fun way to grow up, but Marjane’s feistiness and playfulness is such a force that the totalitarian regime sometimes doesn’t seem quite so totalitarian. This can at times be a weakness of the book. For instance, despite Marjane’s rebellious acts, she usually gets off without much more than a slap on the wrist, and one wonders how much her parents’ position and affluence protects her.

They’re portrayed as outspoken critics themselves, and other family members have fallen victim to the regime, but the main group of protagonists remains safe and prosperous for the most part, so the deadly threat of the regime and the war can seem removed at times. I wonder if the form of comic book minimizes the gravity of some of the horrendous events, if only because we've been conditioned to read comics for humor or action adventure, not for pathos.

That said, there are startling and horrific scenes (it’s not all fun, of course). One of the most disturbing was one that occurred in what should have been a quotidian affair: a cocktail party. When the culture police bust the party, everyone flees, some running across the tops of buildings, and one person falls to his death after trying to jump to another high-rise—a move that’s ironically so often successful in comic books.

It’s in these moments where the memoir particularly shines because Satrapi so viscerally illustrates the choices that any American takes for granted. Marjane’s parents smuggle Iron Maiden posters across the border for her. Marjane wears a jean jacket and make-up. She goes out in public with her boyfriend. All of these actions that we wouldn’t think twice about are severely punishable in this society, so even the faintest self-expression can carry grave risks.

A reader has to ask, “Is the Iron Maiden poster really worth the flogging and jail time?” It’s impossible for us to answer. You have to live in such a place to weigh the risks and needs of expression.

It all takes a toll, though. We watch as Satrapi moves from blissful, middle-class ignorance, to righteous indignation, to an adult ambivalence—the fun ends, at least for a while, especially as we see Marjane essentially lose a home for her identity after returning from Austria.

If this had been a conventional text memoir, then I’m sure there would be many temptations for the adult’s all-knowing point of view to intrude often, to explain things—simply because that ‘s what adults are prone to do. Seeing this world through the eyes of a child, however, puts the repressive Iranian society in a more startling relief than an adult’s point of view could have ever accomplished.

In this age of memoir, this is the kind of memoir I want to read: one that takes a period of history that I know only a smidgeon about and illuminates it in a surprising way through a unique perspective. In fact, since I’m nearly the same age as Satrapi, I experienced the events only through images on TV and with the surface understanding of a child who cared more about playing or reading than delving into Mideast politics—just like her.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Last of the Big Beards: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

There are many reasons to mourn the passing of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died today in Moscow, but I think the most important one might be that he was the last living author who could carry off the big, grizzly, ponderous, “don’t mess with me” beard.

He could go toe-to-toe with Tolstoy in this department, something no great American author can even attempt. Philip Roth donning a big ass beard? No. Jonathon Franzen? Maybe a goatee. Michael Chabon? Does he shave?

We’ve got a beard crisis in world literature, and I’m disturbed by it. I grew up with authors like Solzhenitsyn, whose beard basically meant that he wasn’t going to take any crap from anyone, least of all a totalitarian regime, no matter if they sent him to Siberia. Again, would Jonathon Franzen do this?

I’m less worried about the death of the novel or the rise of video games than I am that today’s youth will grow up without such a role model. When they think of big beards, they’ll think of reruns of ZZ Top videos on VH1, and think big beards are a niche domain of rock n’ roll.

Big beards, however, have been a vital part of literary history. Walt Whitman. William Wordsworth. George Bernhard Shaw. Ernest Hemingway.

So, today I mourn Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his beard and all that it represented. Maybe someday I’ll read him.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Writing--Or Not Writing--About Work

We're in the midst of a slew of novels about the place we spend the most time: work.

Is it a trend? A new genre? A conspiracy?

Not quite. First there was Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to an End, and now there is Ed Park's well-reviewed Personal Days. The list essentially stops there.

The New York Time's review of Personal Days notes a subject I've occasionally chewed on: why isn't the workplace a more prevalent subject for novels? As the sit-com The Office has shown, it's a natural place to situate comedy. Beyond the absurd aspects of office life, however--which is where Ferris and Park seem to find their best material--office environments are perhaps too mundane to set a novel in.

Perhaps readers just don't want to dig into a setting that typically causes the Sunday night blues. It's enough to just wake up and go to work, after all. Sure there might be butt loads of existential meaning in our cube farms, but it's tough enough to make it to quitting time, let alone come home to read about meetings and corporate jargon--or write about it--unless we're laughing at the idiots in management or the cube next to us.

Here's an idea for a party game--or a road trip game--or a game for any time you're bored and want to kill time....hey, the perfect game for the workplace! Name novels that center the workplace in the novel's dominant trajectory. The Times names titles such as Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine and Upton Sinclair’s Jungle, purposely focusing on literary novels.

Just looking at those titles, however, I begin to think of other possibilites: The Confederacy of Dunces, much of Kafka (perhaps the stories don't take place at work, but they're often about work in some way), Henry Green's novels, The Grapes of Wrath. There must be more.

The question, of course, in terms of novels like Park's and Ferris's, is whether the novels are really about work or whether work is a secondary thread of the novel, present only in relief to another larger and more meaningful theme.

Perhaps not many novels focus on work because work, despite the quantity of time it swallows from our lives, is still marginal in terms of who we really are. That's the way I prefer to think of it.

How depressing it would be, after all, if Descartes had said, "I work, therefore I am"?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

T.S. Eliot and Portishead: Never Doubt That T.S. Eliot Is Cool

Here's T.S. Eliot reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock with an accompaniment by Portishead.

An unlikely pairing?

Listen to it and you'll think otherwise. This kind of juxtaposition accentuates how contemporary and edgy and mysterious a poem like Prufrock is. In fact, Portishead (this must be a late '90s or early 2000 song?) sounds more dated than Eliot. It's always a revelation how great art can be so startling and fresh after so many years

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Henry Green: Loving

It’s always fascinating to read a book and be completely at odds with other major critics. The questions span from “Am I simply the wrong reader for this book?” to “Do I have too many kids and soccer games going on to thoughtfully assess this book?” to “Did this critic have too many damn kids and activities to decently evaluate the book?”

The problem with the last question is that the answer is frequently, if not always, “no,” because critics tend to be selfish sods who expect others to take care of their kids so that they have the presence of mind for high-falutin’ thoughts.

At least I take care of my kids. Or fail trying. Or at least that’s what I think.

But…to cut to the chase, here’s the critical rub on Henry Green, who I’ve been reading praise about since I first put on Winnie the Pooh flannel jammies, or soon afterward (to be truthful, perhaps soon after I bought my first—and only—Styx t-shirt).

Elizabeth Bowen* said that Henry Green’s novels “reproduce, as few English novels do, the actual sensations of living.”

W.H. Auden once called him the finest living English novelist.

Francine Prose put Loving on her list of “Books to Be Read Immediately.”

John Updike praises Green for “this surrender of self, this submersion of opinions and personality in the intensity of witnessing ‘life itself.’”

It’s this consistent emphasis on “reproduction” and “objectivity” that troubles me. Green is too frequently a stenographer when I want him to be an author (please, what’s wrong with just a little personality?).

Sure the dialogue is, well, realistic, true to life, etc., but it doesn’t hold nearly the same subtext as, say, Hemingway, who also privileged the author as an objective witness. In fact, the reason Hemingway reads better than Green, and is more illuminating, is because he never truly dared to actually surrender himself (thank God!), but only claimed to.

Henry Green said that he aimed to “create ‘life’ which does not eat, procreate, or drink, but which can live in people who are alive.”

I could have used a bit more procreating (there was a fair amount of eating)….

Updike’s praises Green as a “saint of the mundane,” which is entirely accurate: Green bathes in the mundane, breathes the mundane, eats the mundane—and, hell, procreates in the mundane. In fact, my reading experience was so mundane that I kept getting distracted by the dishes, the laundry, and the bills, but not by any of the big life questions and thoughts I like to read for.

Updike writes that Green’s “observations of the world appear as devoid of prejudice and preconception as a child’s.” I only wish he could have presented a scene from a child’s point of view, with the jarring perspective that children so often provide simply because they are not “saints of mundane,” but steeped in the kind of authorial personality that continually demands interpretation and reinterpretation.

I do agree with one of Updike’s comments. He calls Green’s novels “photographs of a vanished England,” which is my overwhelming response to Loving. I felt as if I were walking through an odd sort of literary museum, observing some of the interesting details of class differences in England, eavesdropping, but never quite experiencing the high points of dramatic intrigue, a story that is shaped with a point of view—the fundamental characteristics of a meaningful narrative.

I’m sure that Green’s novels served a more forceful and urgent purpose in the era he wrote them (from approximately 1920 to 1950), and he’s a capable author in certain ways. He does create a polyphony of voices in the novel, so that life sounds like a hammering dialogue of competing needs. He’s just not the stylist I desire—or more accurately, he doesn’t convey the necessary transmutation that defines art. I don’t want novelists to just be witnesses, after all—the idea of aspiring to pure and faithful mimesis in a literal sense was essentially exhausted by Zola. Novelists need personality because they need a point of view.

But then again, perhaps I am simply the wrong reader for Henry Green. Or I was too distracted by things like school auctions to give him his proper due.

*The great thing I discovered about Elizabeth Bowen is that she’s on MySpace, despite being dead, and that she’s “in my extended network,” which means that I’m not too far removed from her good friends Proust and Vita Sackville-West. Jeepers, I feel special—and so early 20th century, my favorite era.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Dean Young: Skid

Dean Young is an easy poet for me to like. His congenital, sometimes twisted, joie de vivre leaps off the page. He’s a prankster, a Dadaist, a writer whose words and images juke, jab, dash, pirouette, and jump—just when you think you know where one of his poems is going, it changes course like a dare.

He’s one of the few writers who can surprise with each phrase, if not each word, tossing coarseness into a highbrow thought, switching from the sanguine to the lugubrious in a snap of the fingers. He rarely settles for a single note in his poems, in fact, but allows a playful, discordant, dreamy contention of words to define his universe.

You could read Young’s poems as a series of ornery winks, but he’s really trying to find a way to balance himself in this precarious universe, these precarious systems of meanings, whether he’s grasping on to Lorca or Love. His poems, which can be erudite, don’t lend themselves to academic essays—they’re not supposed to be illuminating as much as they are meant to be felt (and yet they are illuminating).

A friend of mine says that Young needs to edit himself more, to pause a bit, not trust his instincts so much. That could be true, but I think of what is lost with such restraint rather than what is gained with his recklessness. I don’t think Young is questing after the perfect poem, after all. He doesn’t want to be anthologized, even if he was nominated for the Pulitzer a couple years back.

Within all of Young’s shim sham—within all of his posturing even—there is a fundamental sadness, a fundamental pondering that grounds everything, as he asks ye’ olde question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ As he puts it in "Sleep Cycle":

But we can do no more than pass through
these rooms and their sudden chills
where once a plea was entered almost
unintentionally that seemed at last
to reveal ourselves to ourselves,
immaculate, bereft, deserving to be found.

His opening quote for Skid gives a macabre, yet humorous tone to all that follows: “The main thing is not to be dead.” True, but Young’s poetry makes me think there’s more. Young is a romantic who has no business trusting romanticism. He’s somehow a buoyant tragedian, a believer who’s trying to figure out why he believes. It’s the “trying to figure out” that seems much more important than the “not being dead” in the end.

As he says in "Whale Watch":

Haiku should not be stored with sestinas
just as one should never randomly mix
the liquids and powders beneath the kitchen sink.
Sand is both the problem and the solution for the beach.
To impress his teacher, Pan-Shan lopped off
his own hand, but to the western mind, this seems rather extreme.
Neatly typed, on-time themes
strongly spelled are generally enough.
Some suggest concentrating on one thing
for a whole life but narrowing down
seems less alluring than opening up
except in the case of the blue pencil
with which to make lines on one side
of the triangle so it appears to speed through the firmament.
Still, someone should read everything
Galsworthy wrote. Everyone knows
it's a race but no one's sure of the finish line.

Monday, April 28, 2008

James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime

“An opaline vision of Americans in France.”
“Lyricizes the flesh and France with the same ardent intensity.”

“A voyeur of the imagination.”

I snatched the above phrases from a 1967 New York Times book review of A Sport and a Pastime, James Salter’s unabashed and poetic erotic novel.

Because I’m quite taken with Salter—by the impressionistic sweep of his sentences, by his sharp, yet lovely descriptions—I expected more than just an erotic novel and was surprised when it stayed on that plane.

Not that it wasn’t enjoyable as such.

As the review in the Times put it, “Salter celebrates the rites of erotic innovation and understands their literary uses. He creates a small, flaming world of sensualism inhabited by Dean and Anne-Marie, and invaded by the imagination of the narrator. We enter it. We feel it. It has the force of a hundred repressed fantasies.”

The key phrases here are “invaded by the imagination of the narrator” and “a hundred repressed fantasies.”

Most critics I’ve read take this story at the level of realism without taking into account the narrator’s point of view. The events recounted in the novel are imagined by the narrator, after all, and in doing so he effectively becomes neutered by his own tale—a man who can’t score, but loves to imagine his new best friend, Philip Dean, who “comes like a bull,” having sex time after time as if he’s just stepped out of Penthouse Forum, his gal Anne-Marie worshipping his penis as if it were a shrine—as only this repressed narrator could.

In fact, the narrator has surrendered his life to Dean in a sense. "I am only the servant of life. He is an inhabitant," he says. "I breathe to the rhythm of his life which is stronger than mine."

I don’t think Salter meant this to be a homoerotic tale, but it can certainly be interpreted that way. The narrator masks his graphic imaginings by weakly claiming a sexual obsession with Anne-Marie, but any good heterosexual man's sexual obsessions would turn into fantasies starring himself rather than his best friend.
...hero worship as a lifestyle as a fecund, creative way to live...

So Salter either made a narrative choice that fails on one level, obfuscating the purpose of the sexual reveries, or perhaps he wanted the narrator to have a dual purpose--even a bisexual purpose. For the reveries aren’t entirely focused on the hero worship of Dean—no, Anne-Marie is objectified in such a way that would make any good collegiate feminist cringe. She's woman defined as sexual vessel. Salter cloaks her in a mystical sort of language that seems to give her power, but is animalistic in the end. She has the clarity of impulses, but not of thought: She "understands effortlessly. Life is all quite clear to her. She is one with it. She moves in it like a fish, never wondering if it has a bottom, shores, worlds about it."

Just as Anne-Marie is present as a character only to be fucked, Dean is present mainly to fuck, although he’s festooned with a bit more characterization (he’s a born operator, a natural in nearly everything he does, too good for Yale so he had to drop out, effortlessly charming, and when not with Anne-Marie, driving the narrator speedily around France in a stylish sports car—yes, he's more stereotype than character, that perfect, rich, handsome, decadent, young American abroad).

"Vaincre ou Mourir" a sign reads at the narrator's house--a saying that looms over the novel. Dean is the character who will vanquish, and hence live, at least in the narrator's view, if only because he has to live through another. "One must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them. And they become real through our envy, our devotion. It is we who give them their majesty, their power, which we ourselves could never possess."

The narrator then doesn't need to vanquish in order to live, but imagine and create to live. It might be a life once removed from real life, but I'm not sure if it's any less powerful. One could easily argue that the narrator's vivid imaginings might be more powerful, more lively than Dean's life itself.

The Times review claims that the narrator plays only a functional role, and that’s true, but in the carrying out of that function, lacking any memorable characterization, you can’t help but wonder why this fellow spends his day imagining his best friend in bed. Isn’t there a movie in town? A pornographic magazine to buy?

The narrator might be a sad sack, but with his (Salter's) imagination, it is forgiveable that he neglects to look at the movie listings, for this novel is one hell of a sexual romp, and Salter is too good of a writer not to deliver sentences and paragraphs that are painterly, moody, erudite, and arresting.

This world lacks a God, and other than the necessity to earn the money to drink France's good wine and pay for fine hotels, the idea of work seems quite distant and ridiculous in light of a night with Anne-Marie--a night draped in the rich, sensual possibilities of France.

And Salter is a fantastic erotic writer, if only because he's a lover of surfaces and a natural sensualist. "Painterly" is the kind of description that gets tossed around easily, but it deeply and intrinsically applies to Salter's prose. The pleasure of reading him is not found in the usual reasons one appreciates a novel--plot movements, the polyphonous nature of the world, the texture of tense points and counterpoints--but in the moments he presents, which are often as seductive and pregnant as a lover's caress.

That's why this book can be both a dirty book and a beautiful book. That's why Salter can commit the crimes he wants to.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Romantic Comedy: The Curse of a Popular Genre

Why is it so difficult to create a decent romantic comedy?

The key word here is decent, not great. The genre by its very definition doesn't demand any attempts at greatness--audiences want palatable fare, a few yuks, some suspense, and a little enlightenment about the thorny world of love. The genre isn't designed to change anyone's life, or even their relationship. A happy ending is guaranteed after all.

And yet Hollywood, despite its preoccupation with the genre and its prospects of ticket sales, continues to not even hit the mark of decent, falling usually to mediocrity or worse. Did anyone see License to Wed for God's sake?

A.O. Scott recently dissected romantic comedies in the New York Times, noting their predictable formula: "A single woman, courted by two eligible men, will be drawn toward the man who is superficially right but ontologically wrong for her before choosing, in the final 20 minutes, the man with the opposite qualities. Or, more rarely, a single man will face the analogous predicament. Or an incurable skirt chaser will be cured, usually by a lady who at first had seemed to be repelled by his irresistible manly charms. Or a couple on the verge of splitting — or already split — will discover that they were meant to be together after all."

Predictability, however, shouldn't be such a problem. It's all in the execution. As with any work of art, the vision of the thing matters more than its form. There's no reason that romantic comedies have to be "movies whose notion of love is insipid, shallow and frequently ludicrous," as A.O. Scott puts it.

Without going into details about romantic comedies my overall impression of the last decades fare is summed up by a kind of bland slapstick where no one gets hurt, no one really falls in love, and no one really laughs. It's like going to a dinner party where everyone is trying to be polite, and no one dares a joke at another's expense.

One of the answers that A.O. Scott posits for the romantic comedy's demise is an aversion to love's invigorating fisticuffs. The old romantic comedies (e.g., Grant and Hepburn) were notable for the "emotional combat of two strong-willed, independent individuals ending in mutual conquest. Love, in those old pictures, was a dangerous and noble sport that required skill and cunning as well as commitment. It required movie stars whose physical appeal was matched by verbal dexterity and a vital sense of idiosyncrasy."

A friend noted that so often in romantic comedies, the female character is portrayed as a cold, disciplined woman in a power position--out of touch with her emotions, a bit crazy without knowing it (hence comedic), and scarcely maternal or nurturing. Then the man enters the picture, and essentially brings her down to love--think Cameron Diaz in The Holiday. This isn't the battle of the sexes that A.O. Scott is talking about.

Scott mentions When Harry Met Sally, so I rented it again. I remembered it as a pretty good movie--I know I enjoyed it at the time--and while it hasn't aged well (just check out that contrived fake orgasm scene that was so dangereux in the late '80s that it put Meg Ryan on the map), it was a battle of life philosophies as much as it was a battle of the sexes.

The characters operate within entirely different experiences and perspectives on love--the movie follows this evolution as much as it does the growth of their relationship. At first, they can't stand each other (great beginning!), then they become awkward friends, suprisingly good friends--wait a minute, they're so damn close, it looks like they're going to become lovers--except, no, Billy Chrystal is still whacked, still stuck in his stupid college boy ideas, and he's going to make them both miserable forever.

They get together, but you know they're still going to fight a lot (joyfully so, or at least sometimes), so the happy ending resonates. Emotional combat present and accounted for.

I just saw The Jane Austen Book Club--not a great movie by any means, and a story that relies on contrivance--but at least it contained a few good smidgeons of emotional combat, at least the characters were portrayed with authentic, revealing quirks and vulnerabilities. With romance getting more complex (global, ages, online, etc.), you'd think that romantic comedies would follow suit instead of of presenting the same old Sam and Sallies.

The problem, however, is what kind of emotional combat can Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson possibly find themselves in? To wear a shirt or not to wear a shirt?

The Art of the Romantic Comedy, by Bill Johnson, provides a good Hollywood primer for writing a romantic comedy, but it's likely to lead a writer toward the idiotic gimmickery that's behind most movies in the genre, not to a script that dares a risk or two.

If I were going to try to write an original romantic comedy, I'd check out the blog Alligators in a Helicopter, written by Scott the Script Reader. Alligators offers much better tips and a great summation of what's wrong with the current putrid lot.

Finally, here's a funny recut of The Shining on YouTube that might best sum up the state of the romantic comedy.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

James Salter: Burning the Days

James Salter’s reputation is of a curious kind. He’s written great books, yet many lovers of literary fiction would be hard pressed to name one—or perhaps even recognize his name (I feel quite lonely as a fan).

Salter is said to be a writer’s writer, and that is one way to view him. He’s a stylist—preferring the moment over the plot—which might count for a lot, but for some reason it doesn’t in his case. Richard Ford says he writes the best sentences of any living writer. Perhaps people don’t admire sentences like they used to.

(I should note that after writing this, I listened to a podcast where Salter calls the characterization of himself as a writer's writer “ghastly”).

Burning the Days is primarily for Salter’s fans, despite its typically elegant prose, the intriguing snippets of Hollywood life in the ‘60s (a film with Robert Redford, anecdotes about Roman Polanski, and more), the stories about Irwin Shaw, or the section on Ben Sonnenberg, who founded the journal Grand Street. But then what author memoir isn’t meant almost solely for his or her fans?

Salter’s a born aesthete. How else could one be such a stylist? Because of that, and his New York/European sophisticate lifestyle, it’s fascinating that he went to West Point, and then served in the military (enjoyably, it seems) and flew planes as a fighter pilot for 15 years. Although Salter’s prose occasionally nods to Hemingway in its evocative terseness and control, he’s not exactly a macho writer, although he is a masculine writer. Still, even his manliness tends more to the Fitzgerald or Cheever camp (a man with a drink, teetering on the edge of losing control, maintaining his style, or not).

As with any memoir, what isn’t told can be as interesting as what is told. The things I want to know more about, he resists telling. I think his first wife got a single sentence, maybe two. She deserved more, if only because he mentions affairs with glamorous women (including a mistress of John Huston’s) and prefaces his first encounter with her with a chapter on his love for the wife of a friend.

So, this isn’t a tell-all memoir. Salter mentions two of his daughters, and briefly tells of the harrowing story of finding one of them dead in the shower, but there’s little more. His family life is off limits, even though that’s the story that begs to be told.

Burning the Days is imagistic in the same sense that Salter’s prose is—the pace of his narrative travels through sketches, snapshots, the sharp and telling impression of a moment. He’s somehow able to capture a passage of time in a sentence or two in a singular way. I don’t think he can truly be imitated when he’s at his best. And he’s the kind of author that I can’t quote to prove this point—his great sentences reside within the context of his stories somehow. They need to be felt in a particular moment.

And perhaps that is one reason for his lack of fame.

"What is it you want?'' a woman asks Salter late in the book, and a friend replies for him, knowing what the answer will be: ''To be an immortal.''

Unfortunately, Salter’s immortality seems on hold. He’s probably not going to see much evidence of it in his lifetime, although he deserves it.

Charlie Rose Interview with Salter

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Discomfort of Strangers

I read The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan, as part of my exploration of travel/expat fiction; I'm interested in the overwhelming tendency of these novels to put the main character in peril because he or she is abroad. The inherent premise of the "genre" is that one somehow loses an important bit of equilibrium when traveling, or that a new country's otherness is fundamentally threatening—so the characters seesaw back and forth between these two antagonistic forces.

The Comfort of Strangers is a textbook case for this genre. A couple on holiday, Colin and Mary, the force of their love and affection on the wane, yet eddying to and fro as with the tide, find themselves being led by a local who plans to harm them.

The duty of an author in these novels is to make sure the characters get lost—the winding streets of a place representing the winding streets of their souls. There's an idea of a destination, but it can't be reached. Indeed, McEwan punishes his characters, making them traipse through a city that must be Venice (the city is unnamed), in search of food when the restaurants have closed. The city is free from traffic and other signs of modern living, suggesting an older world, or a deeper and less fathomable one in the case of human desires.

To make matters worse, they've forgotten to bring their map along—of course! They are hapless in their capriciousness.

The reader becomes immersed in the characters' hunger, their need for a few simple bites of food and a drink of water becoming a quest, as if they were walking across a desert. The fact that they're on holiday—and bad things aren't supposed to happen to you when you're on vacation, right?—allows them to drift in aimlessness, to pause and try to figure out where they are in their disorientation (Colin even looks to the sun at one point to guide them in their treks, as if he's out in the wilderness instead of a city).

The reader feels their passivity, their inability to take control of their environment, which makes them vulnerable. This is essentially the foundation of the travel novel: the characters have lost their moorings in this new, strange land, so birds of prey and vultures circle above them the minute they step out of their hotel.

Robert is such a bird. He takes them under his arm—literally—and under the auspices of finding them nourishment, guides them into his strange lair that he shares with his inscrutably submissive wife, Caroline.

What's interesting in McEwan's narration is his lack of explanation. He doesn't probe deeply into any character, so their motivations, not to mention the essence of who they are, remain a mystery.

This approach has both good and bad effects. On the good side, it allows McEwan to keep the action moving. For example, the second time Colin and Mary encounter Robert, they are near their hotel, and given the fact that they don't particularly like him and only want to rest and get something to eat, one wouldn't think they would go along with him. They do, however, and the reader is forced to accept their bad decision—to trust that being on holiday has made them so passively desultory that they will go wherever a hand guides them.

The lack of explanation keeps the novel cloaked with mystery. How can we possibly understand the cruel perversities of Robert and Caroline except as living metaphors of strangeness? They are others in extremis. How can we even understand Colin and Mary? McEwan doesn't allow it. Colin's passivity can even be interpreted as a strange, perhaps unconscious complicity in Robert and Caroline's murderous scheme. Does he allow the events to occur, as Robert would have us believe? Is Colin simply a naive innocent?

McEwan's insistence on gliding on the surface of actions and characters might work well to create suspense, but in the end, it limits the novel. It's impossible to understand the characters beyond the fact that they're living relatively unexamined, shallow lives (because of laziness of a holiday?) and sleepwalk into their demise.

To be fair, McEwan does provide signals of the characters' inner states. They revert to a sort of childhood, sleeping in the afternoon, lacking the energy or motivation to tidy their hotel room, becoming dependent on their hotel maid: “They came to depend on her and grew lazy with their possessions. They became incapable of looking after one another.”

Like children, they're susceptible to trusting the wrong person.

For more on McEwan, read Notes on Saturday, by Ian McEwan and Ian McEwan's Supposed Plagiarism.

For more of my thoughts on travel/expat novels, read Death in Venice, Death in Expat Novels.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Shortcomings - Adrian Tomine

I've never been a comic book guy. Perhaps I was brainwashed by trappings of "high culture," the elite traditions of an English major, or perhaps I just never trusted anything that wasn't so dense with words that it had to provide deeper meaning.

When I was waiting tables way back in the early '90s, a scrubby cook who looked as if he'd walked straight out of a comic book—bushy red hair, skin and bones, a hopeless music nerd—gave me a wadded-up copy of some stuff by Adrian Tomine (jeepers, he must have been 18 or 19 then). I read it and thought it was great, unlike any other cartoonist I'd read, a poet of small, lonely moments, a minimalist who could fill the mundane with meaning.

I Xeroxed that wadded-up cartoon and never forgot Tomine's name, so I've taken pleasure in watching his rise in stature.

I recently read Shortcomings and thought, in short, that it packed as much punch as any novel I've read. Although graphic novels might not be able to offer the depth and texture of a classic like Anna Karenina, they certainly match a short story or a film's ability to excavate and reveal meaning in the tiny moments of life.

In fact, the graphic novel probably suffers from its comparisons to a novel. It's more like a film—I read Shortcomings in about an hour and a half and felt like I'd seen a film when I put the book down. His panels combe the precision of line drawings with the gentle pacing of art-house film. The facial expressions and gestures are subtle, and his dialogue is sharp and true whether he's portraying a squabble in a dive bar or the negotiations that precede a kiss.

The main character, Ben Tanaka, is struggling with love and self—as an Asian-American, but primarily as a human being. Tanaka, a 30-year-old movie theater manager in Berkeley, treats his girlfriend Miko poorly, alternating between bitter criticism and sullen withdrawal. She's a beauty, but he doesn't seem to realize this, and takes her for granted—like many men, unable to figure out that his sour, caustic comments aren't appealing.

After tolerating his increasingly churlish behavior for too long, and then discovering his all-white porn stash, Miko suggests they "take some time off" and moves to New York City.

Ben is crushed but in time he begins to pursue a series of blondes. Following a failed attempt to kiss the artsy punk girl who takes tickets at his movie theater, he has a brief affair with a bisexual graduate student who soon dumps him with the sendoff, "I could be totally brutally honest about why I'm doing this, but I'm going to restrain myself because I'm not sure you'd ever recover."

Shaken, Ben flies to New York City, where, spying on his own girlfriend, he discovers that she has been sleeping with a white man.

Yes, it's time for Ben to grow up, to view himself through a different lens, to think about being less negative and more appealing—but we know he's not going to do this for a good, long while. Ben has too many "shortcomings."

Beyond his"weird self-hatred issues" and "relentless negativity" that Miko points out to him, he has a pathological fear of change. Tomine depicts these flaws almost too faithfully in Ben's consistently sullen expression, which stands out all the more among the other characters' precisely inflected faces.

Ben does have a half-redeeming friendship with Alice, a serial-dating Korean dyke who is something of a narcissist and a hypocrite herself. And he has his tender moments. But he seems consistently clueless about his many flaws.

You might say that Ben is the perfect character for a an adolescent reader, if only because he's trapped in the shortcomings of his own adolescence.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Tree of Smoke" Flames Out

The New York Times' review of Tree of Smoke says that it "is a tremendous book, a strange entertainment, very long but very fast, a great whirly ride that starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder, loops unpredictably out and around, and then lurches down so suddenly at the very end that it will make your stomach flop."

Not. On all accounts.

I think I'm Denis Johnson's ideal reader in some ways--his first novel, Angels, and then his collection of short stories, Jesus's Son, are among my favorite books. So I was eager to read Tree of Smoke, especially after several reviews elevated it to masterpiece status and it won the National Book Award (perhaps in the way that Paul Newman won the Oscar for the somewhat laughable The Color of Money instead of the true classic The Hustler).

Tree of Smoke, at least by its heft, is ambitious, but doesn't deliver. The things Johnson does so well--his keen, poignant portraits of people desperately clinging to the edge of life--don't quite come to life here. The novel is littered with his usual cast of desperados--the sort of desperados I usually read Johnson for, including Bill Houston from Angels--but I never quite feel their heartbeat.

In fact, Johnson exposes a limitation in this novel. His characters always unravel in familiar ways (the same labyrinth of drugs, alcohol, quirky mysticism), so what used to seem odd, unpredictable, and possibly enlightening is now hackneyed, just another Denis Johnson recipe, almost as if he's writing a genre novel.

Since Johnson is hailed as a genius, one expects him to bring more counterpoints and layers into his prose--the polyphony that Kundera says makes the novel such a unique art form--but like listening to heavy metal, you only hear the occasional ballad among mostly head banging tunes. If Denis Johnson is indeed a genius, he needs to add second and third notes to his tune--he needs to offer a vision of life that holds surprises. In short, he needs to get over himself.

Since the book weighs in at over 600 pages and covers the time span of the Viet Nam war, it promises to provide new historical angles, but I felt as if the Viet Nam scenes were cliched, watered-down versions of Apocalypse Now or other Viet Nam classics (e.g., the colonel, who's at the moral and psychological center of the novel, is nothing more than a cross between Kurtz and a rogue version of Robert Duvall from Apocalypse Now). He's flatly mythological, without flesh, derivative.

Then there's the colonel's nephew, Skip Sands, who is perhaps the true main character of the book. Except that he's utterly without complexity, without any urgent drive or motive. When he has sex with a woman, it's hard to imagine him getting an erection. He's consigned in the novel to waiting around, organizing the colonel's card catalogue of espionage, and wanting to be a part of the war; as a character he waits for 600 pages to be a part of the novel.

Skip offers this wisdom on the war--and this is about as wise as the book gets: "This isn't a war. It's a disease. A plague." Yes, this is what high school history teachers have been teaching for 30 years.

"These folks mean business," avers the Colonel. "You whack them down in January, they're back all bright and shiny next May, ready for more of our terrible abuse." Again, no new insights here. In fact, sometimes Johnson's characters actually seem to be mouthing the historical research he's done.

Granted, it's difficult to portray this era in a fresh light given the number of books and films that have explored it, but this is Denis Johnson, supposedly one of our most original authors, so I expect more from the strange place he views the world from. At his best, Johnson presents an unhinged word that's full of odd beauty and religious possibility even as its murderous and cruel, but even Johnson's eerie lyricism only snakes through on occasion, and he doesn't earn the tilt he gives this world.

I wonder if Johnson works better in shorter forms. In some ways, the novel's length seemed to indicate an author who was trying to nail down his story, reaching, and then reaching again for something, but only adding pages to the work, not meaning. I also wonder if his editor lacked the cajones to edit him--how does one edit a master?

How does one review a master as well? Every review I read gave Johnson tremendous benefit of the doubt, as if the reviewers were afraid to say a negative word. But then American reviewers tend to act more as marketing agents and plot summarizers than true critics.

Fortunately I came across an honest, astute review of this book in the Atlantic Monthly: "When a novel’s first words are 'Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed,' and the rest of it evinces no more feel for the English language and often a good deal less, and America’s most revered living writer touts 'prose of amazing power and stylishness' on the back cover, and reviewers agree that whatever may be wrong with the book, there’s no faulting its finely crafted sentences—when I see all this, I begin to smell a rat. Nothing sinister, mind you. It’s just that once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there."

The reviewer in the Times said that by the end, he wished the novel were longer. I kept wishing it were shorter. Nearly every page until the end.