Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Leaves


Maurice by E.M. Forster : Like A Scanner Darkly, which is maybe only a very good novel until Philip K. Dick’s dedication to “people who were punished entirely too much for what they did” makes it a great one, the most affecting thing in Maurice so far is not in the novel itself but in an opening note: Begun 1913. Finished 1914. Dedicated to a happier year. Wikipedia tells me that Forster was himself gay, though not openly and perhaps not exclusively. I wonder then about the efficacy of making Maurice so unremarkable, so unlike Forster, in everything other than his sexuality. Shouldn’t Maurice’s sexuality affect his ordinariness, and what is ordinariness anyway? For the English, I guess it is what they respect in others and fear in themselves. One might think that Maurice would cultivate this so as not to be revealed, but in fact he is just inherently unremarkable. It is interesting though that the only way he and Clive are able to “come out” to their families is to come out as agnostic, atheist, or un-Christian.

So Maurice the character is sort of a bore, but the novel is psychologically accurate in pretty much every way. Some of it is somewhat trite (I’ve been thinking of that God-awful play that helps to ruin Andy Millman’s career in Extras), but many clichés of the literature of forbidden love affairs originate here. There are only so many options when one has to behave in coded ways, and when those are finally overcome, love follows its expected course. There’s one exchange (“Maurice…” “Clive…”) that could have had me rolling my eyes if it wasn’t also sort of sweet. The book makes very clear the pain of living in a place where no one ever tells you that you can love anyone you want. I bet Morrissey likes this book.

Other recent reads:

A Mercy by Toni Morrison :
Morrison has earned such a brilliant reputation that I assume she could get away with not even trying anymore, and from A Mercy I was expecting little more than a slight story with a few nice observations, or an appendix of things left unsaid in Beloved. I saw her on Charlie Rose talking about this book and her creative process with inspired vagueness, and thought, “What is she trying to cover? Here’s Charlie Rose once again pretending that something decent is a work of genius.” I guess I should feel ashamed for thinking such things about the great lady. She has put everything into this book, and it’s every bit as good as Beloved. She’s maybe the best writer since William Faulkner at tracing the fallout of intersecting lives, and describing characters who live in what feel like Biblical times. The world of A Mercy is dark, diseased and brutal, so no surprise that it is such a fertile breeding ground for violence, hatred, religion and immorality. I could go on about a million things that make this book great: structure; character; horror (one scene nearly kept me from sleeping); insights about women, what a women’s community might have looked like in 1690, how ephemeral it had to be; the volume of great lines, a trader looking at a slave and hearing “no sound, just the knowledge of a sound he could not hear.” To say more would take more pages than the book is long, and give no sense of its real beauty. A last note: This would not be Morrison if she did not return to the Middle Passage, and the way she describes it in A Mercy, with an emphasis on the fear of cannibalism and Africans jumping overboard, is reminiscent of The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano. It is fitting that she alludes to such an intense account of the passage (if she is so doing), even if the truth of Equiano’s narrative can never be established.

Other Voices, Other Rooms and Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote : I could probably be happy reading nothing but Truman Capote for the rest of my life. I had read his third phase, In Cold Blood, and here are representative examples from what he calls his first and second phases, which prove that he was working at the height of his powers throughout his entire writing career (though he claims it was not until his fourth phase that he exploded the full potential of his material). I still believe that Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding is a better tale of freakish adolescence in the American South than Other Voices, Capote’s first novel. But Capote was a prodigy on the scale of McCullers, and his novel works as a companion to hers with its boy’s perspective on growing up. He treats the delicate matter with the dense language it deserves, not the trite clichéd wisdom that so often frames the “coming-of-age novel.”

That said, Capote could never quite remove himself from his material. The way he describes his early life in the preface gives the impression he was born an adult, and he writes adults better than he writes children. The best part of the novel is Randolph’s first-person account of his own self-discovery, where, in language worthy of Moz, he describes love as natural and real, and mentions those bigots who mistake the “arrow pointing to heaven for the one that leads to hell.” I think Randolph is Capote, which could explain why the section is so effective. His monologue also describes Narcissus as being perhaps not egocentric, but more willing than most to admit his self-love. That line gave me a shock of recognition, as only a few days before, in less eloquent terms, I had tried to write something similar (though I had the benefit, inaccessible to Capote, of that great Mekons line about “lusting for youth in the mirror”).

Other Voices may be the more beautiful work, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s is more immediately satisfying, a perfect miniature. I realize now that all my notions of the ideal writer’s life come from Capote—the novel’s narrator, in his New York apartment upstairs from Holly Golightly, really seems to have the perfect lonely existence. In comparison with the movie, the book suffers from the absence of “Moon River,” but benefits enormously from not having Mickey Rooney in it. And not being a Hollywood production, its characters are able to be more miserable and all-around seedier, and the story does not have to be a straight romance with a happy ending. I wouldn’t want the movie any other way—the movies are made for happy endings—but in the book, it would be impossible for the narrator and the love interest to be the same person. It would kill that sense of loss, of not belonging, searching, loving from afar (all of this reinforced by the frame structure). Holly, in the book, can only be loved from afar—a character like her, endlessly frustrating but taking up all of one’s attention (I’ve known at least one Holly), has become a sort of cliché, but Capote describes her in so many vivid ways it is clear he originated it. Did he have Marilyn Monroe in mind? It is very funny when Holly’s gross Southern origins are revealed—almost as if Other Voices represents the repressed past and Tiffany’s is the superficial present. But what a glorious present; New York has never looked so good.

Also finished:

In the final analysis, the best thing about The Garies and Their Friends is also its greatest shortcoming: its single-minded focus on race as the only obstacle to utopia. In spite of this, Webb writes about identity in such a way that allows for more complex readings: “Coloured” could easily be exchanged for “gay” in many scenes, especially the one in which Clarence despairs of being “found out.” But the book does not challenge Victorian standards of gender and sexuality. Race is its only unstable quantity, where a truly honest book would have more. This all becomes most apparent when the sickening food imagery returns at the end (this time in the form of a wedding banquet), and Webb fails to acknowledge the possibility of anything sinister under the surface (like Frank Norris would). But for Clarence’s demise, the ending feels like a lie—when the issue of race (Clarence and Birdie’s only obstacle) is solved, joyful unity will be possible for all, and everyone can grow old and watch their grandchildren frolic.


If I was more up-to-date in my reading, this might be a good time to celebrate the best books of the year. As it is, I’ve only read three—Wrack and Ruin, Berlin: City of Smoke and A Mercy—and I’ve already described my affection for all of those on this blog. I also have new ones by Steven Millhauser, Rivka Galchen, Richard Price and Dennis Lehane on my reading list, but until I can regale you with the merits of those, here are my favorite movies of 2008 (with many left to see), in descending order of Zen: Milk, Wall-E, Flight of the Red Balloon, Chop Shop, Rachel Getting Married, In Bruges, Paranoid Park, Tropic Thunder, Happy-Go-Lucky, Frozen River, The Edge of Heaven, Be Kind Rewind, The Visitor. See you next year.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Wasting Time for Finals

(To the tune of "Making Plans for Nigel")

I'm still plugging away at The Garies and Their Friends and Fire This Time. Dang. I should probably get back to those (both still good). But before I do that…

Other recent reads:

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel :
Fantastic, but you can go read someone else’s praise on the internets: there’s no scarcity of it. Oh, what the heck… The drawings have the looseness of a New Yorker cartoon while the diction is exceedingly literary and theoretical (and the book is thick with allusion). I might normally object to this, since comics should ideally find a middle ground where words and pictures constitute a single medium (thanks, Scott McCloud!). No problem here, because Bechdel owns her big words, and needs them to help make sense of her life. She comes as close to understanding her father as possible (no small task for a man always absorbed in a book) while still making it apparent she can never know him, and is wonderfully forthcoming about the evolution of her sexuality. I don’t often say this… Very inspiring: the ways young people search for themselves, and why.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote :
I had to do a presentation on this for Marlon James’ class (yikes—as if I have anything to teach him). Having read it before I meant to just skim through, but it’s so engrossing that I ended up reading the whole thing again, more or less. Class discussion unsurprisingly centered on the ethics involved in Capote’s writing, but I hate to trivialize or criticize his method because the end result is one of the most beautiful things (very sad, too) I’ve ever read.

Tales of Conjure and the Color Line
by Charles Chesnutt :
For my money the best thing we read in my African American literature class (not to discredit anyone else, Douglass in particular). Wry humor, with all sorts of weird, comical and disturbing configurations of race and color politics. These stories are nearly 40 years more contemporary than anything else we read, which was quite evident.

Astonishing pages abound in Berlin: City of Smoke. Jason Lutes is in the middle of some sort of masterpiece. In the last issue of book two there is an odd scene in which the jazz band Cocoa Kids confront their manager about some questionable business practices. The whole scene is very cumbersome, with awkward blocking and pacing, and I have to wonder if Lutes is trying to mimic some bad 1930s melodrama. This is not to say I don’t like the scene—it’s great, and suggests that Lutes knows a lot of tricks, necessary if he’s going to pull off the wide variety of situations that crop up in the book.

I ended up drawing out the aforementioned comparison between The Bondwoman’s Narrative and House of the Seven Gables in a paper I wrote (a pretty clever argument, if I may say so myself). All I have left to mention is that I’ve never before been so satisfied with a resolution defined by marriage and stability in a nineteenth century novel—and that’s saying something, because they all end with marriage. On second thought, Great Expectations may rival it, but the last line of that book defies simple readings, or any certainty that union occurs, so I give it a pass on the merits of “too complicated.”

Saturday, November 29, 2008


I’m tired of books, but I’ve written about movies here before, so perhaps I should share the pleasant day of solitude I spent in Uptown on Thanksgiving eve, playing amateur film critic-cum-festivalgoer:

Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is a movie whose goal is to prove that its own narrative project is doomed to fail. I don’t know if that makes it a failure or a success, but it is certainly not a triumph. There would be no problem if the movie’s title was accurate, but in fact it is a misnomer. Upon winning a MacArthur Genius Grant, theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) designs a play in an abandoned warehouse that eventually comes to represent his entire life and every person in it. His ambitious (to say the least) theater piece is not a synecdoche but an example of the whole standing in for the whole. But art must be a synecdoche; one cannot represent the beauty (or agony) in every human life, but by showing the beauty in the lives of a few, one can show every other human life to be beautiful by analogy. Kaufman certainly understands this, but his movie is plagued by Cotard’s same system of representation in which everything is given equal weight and nothing is put into context. Cotard also realizes his downfall by film’s end, and seems ready to say that he wants to embark on a smaller project, but by then it is too late. His whole life has been consumed by something that was never going to succeed.

I’m perfectly happy to watch Kaufman play all the post-modern games he can devise. They are a bit perfunctory here, but probably enough to carry the movie if they were built upon something real and solid. Hoffman’s romance with Samantha Morton should be that real thing, and the suicide of one of his actors should be the point at which we realize that there are human beings underneath these kaleidoscopic identities. But both are as disassociated from reality as everything else in the movie. It requires a soliloquizing preacher to explain the tragedy: sad people hurtling toward the grave. There’s no authentic human drama in the movie to support this (quite affecting) speech. The end result is Adaptation with the life drained out of it, or Being John Malkovich with no surprises, an intentionally unpleasant movie that made me want to take better care of my body. Hoffman’s performance could stand to be less solemn, but then so could the movie. How about a laugh-out-loud comedy? It might have been doable (it’s a very funny movie at times). The whole thing needs a reworking, so Hoffman’s work is the best it can be under the circumstances. Tropic Thunder is the infinitely superior meta-actor comedy of recent months.

Not fifteen minutes after downing Kaufman’s acid, I walked into Milk, which proved to be the perfect remedy: my favorite movie this year, and the best biopic I’ve ever seen. It avoids the pitfalls of the genre precisely because it is a synecdoche: the man standing in for the movement. This is a human rights movie, dressed up in a number of satisfying ways: document of a scene, (dude-heavy) ensemble piece, history lesson, political expose. It’s a joyous experience, and only Gus Van Sant could have made it so (though Oliver Stone, who was originally attached to direct, would have known how to keep it from being overly solemn). Some have complained it does not evoke the same poetry as his most recent films. It is a poetic film, because it is so loving, but Harvey Milk was not a poetic person, so the detached, lyrical style of Paranoid Park or Last Days would have been a fatal flaw. Milk is an extrovert, so the film must reveal its intentions in every frame, as it does. I hesitate to look on Van Sant’s last four (fantastic) films as practice for this more conventional narrative, but he has at least learned when to use following shots. There are three here that come to mind: one is terrifying, one is beautiful, one is inscrutable. I’m in awe of his craft, but also of the fact that there are so many good actors in America.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Richard Van Nice

Sis sent me this article from today's edition of the Helena Independent Record. It's about one of my favorite places in Helena and the great guy who owns it. The article is surprisingly well done, and it doesn't lie: he really has read everything.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Never Hear The End Of It

It's been a long time. Currently:

The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts : I should add “by Henry Louis Gates,” as everyone in class is in a tizzy over whether his involvement with the publication of this recently discovered manuscript borders on the unethical. The narrative itself is a fine Gothic, with well-developed fictional devices and shades of House of the Seven Gables and its dead men’s curses (and apparently eerily similar to Bleak House at times), not nearly as inadequate as the unknown Hannah Crafts lets on.

Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s by Gerald Horne :
Horne has a peculiar writing style. I can tell he’s a true scholar because there is often no logical flow between sentences. He is also not afraid to reference Raymond Chandler, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, etc. when it suits him, but that is indicative of the ambitious and thoroughly contextualizing project of this book.

The Garies and Their Friends
by Frank Webb :
Here’s another antebellum African American novel that is very much beholden to Dickens—though I guess I’m inclined to find his influence in any work with a multitude of characters. The book’s politics are fairly ambiguous, though I think there’s a biting irony in its adjectives, its “Brutus is an honorable man” rhetoric. Unrespectable “respectable individuals” abound. One of my favorite moments of overstatement: a buffoonish cook described as the “reigning sovereign of the culinary kingdom.” And her poor ravaged cat!

Berlin: City of Smoke by Jason Lutes : Book Two! I’m really invested in this now. The first issue in this volume ends with four pages of a band in a Berlin nightclub. The panels are wordless and show the musicians in poses of performance. I suppose Lutes is trying to capture music in comic book form, and the attempt is interesting if somewhat baffling (am I supposed to recognize the melody?). The reactions of the audience are likewise difficult to read. But it is no surprise that Lutes is infinitely smarter than me.

Other recent reads:

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
by Hunter S. Thompson :
I was resentful of having to read this book, as it is such a high school cliché, but I’m not surprised that it is very entertaining. The book is littered with passé 60s drug culture lingo, but Thompson is a fine writer and has a strong sense of morality. It’s in his paranoia. And who ever goes east in American literature?

Our Nig by Harriet Wilson : Also “discovered” by Henry Louis Gates, another gift from him to African American lit Ph.D. students. Finds like this are what make the field so fashionable today, but that fact also makes it difficult to judge their literary qualities removed from their historical importance (and the authors are always so elusive). Is this entertaining? It is, and brutal, and vengeful, and well-told, with an evil villain.

The Coast of Chicago
is poetic prose (not prose poems) for the unpoetry crowd. “Pet Milk” is in my mind one of the weaker stories, though I do like the sense at the end that someone exists today who is you when you were younger. There’s a piece about an abstract movie that is intensely visual in a way that a movie can’t be. My favorite stories here are the ones that focus on wayward formative years in blighted Chicago, which Dybek clearly lived. He’s a masterful writer, though this collection isn’t united enough to stand alongside Winesburg, I guess because Chicago is not a small town. Still...fantastic stuff.

Other good things of late:

Rachel Getting Married
Secrets and Lies
The West Wing
Crystal Stilts
Julie Ocean
Seventeen Seconds
Barack Obama
Grain Belt

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell


Agee on Film by James Agee : Screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who also wrote film reviews for The Nation and Time for many, many years. I read his 1949 appreciation of silent comedy, which at the time helped revive nostalgia for the genre even among people who weren’t alive to experience it. Precepting a film history class, Edward Branigan (film scholar!) is much on my mind, and Agee’s article definitely falls under Branigan’s category of “adventure history” (fittingly so), but elsewhere Agee writes otherwise. I also just rewatched The Night of the Hunter, which he scripted. The film owes its incredible beauty to Charles Laughton’s direction, I imagine, but Agee has a fine religious sense and deep feeling for the plight of “little lambs” (children). Agee is also included in a recent anthology of film critics that I have checked out (including Manny Farber, Otis Ferguson, Edmund Wilson and others) and hope to get to soon.

The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek : Haven’t gotten to the story (“Pet Milk”) that is apparently much loved in creative writing programs across barren and manly America, but the first story, “Farwell,” is brief and soothing. The collection has been compared to Winesburg, Ohio, my fave.

Other recent reads:

Narrative of Sojourner Truth :
Elusive narrative, dictated to white abolitionist Olive Gilbert. The insufficiency of the written word is more upfront than in any slave narrative read thus far. But I had to present on all that in class today…

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down by Ishmael Reed : A Western parody, smarter than (perhaps) but not as funny as Blazing Saddles. The Loop Garoo Kid is a black traveling circus performer who steals a green horse and begins a voodoo reign of terror on the town of Yellow Back Radio, in revenge for the white man’s land-grubbing. All of American history occupies the same Western landscape. Some of it is very funny, some of it brilliantly explodes conventions, some of it is simply pornographic, and all of it was very clearly written in 1969.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell : Marlon James asked us toward the beginning of the semester to name the single book that made us start writing (his was Shame by Salman Rushdie). I didn’t have a good answer at the time (not that I haven’t read a heck lot of inspiring stuff), but now I’ve just read the book that may become my definitive answer. It’s not because of anything to do with the story (though it’s a great story), but because Maxwell, in his digressions and his indifference to consistency of point-of-view especially, validates the disjointed (but not incoherent) way that I like to write. It’s a book that I can let inspire me without feeling that I’m imitating it. Maxwell is another guy beloved in creative writing departments (along with the aforementioned “Pet Milk,” Revolutionary Road, etc.): a friend in the department lent it to me, and my independent project advisor says it’s one of his favorites. But the book is not all writerly tricks; as for the story, there’s a bit with a dog that will reopen all the old wounds you’ve ever experienced after losing a pet—not cathartic necessarily, but not a meaningless sadness either.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008



Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster : It’s my secret shame, now public, that this is the first Forster I’ve ever read (save for a proto-sci-fi story I read a couple years back). Forster was no fan of criticism of the arts, and this series of lectures was considered fairly lightweight in its day, though the book has quite a reputation today. This is essentially a popular novelist of 80 years ago telling what he has learned about the novel, never pretending that the creative process and the critical process have anything to do with each other.

Other recent reads:

The Life and Adventures of Nat Love : I just turned in a lengthy paper about this book and Douglass’s autobiography, so there isn’t much more I want to say about them. There’s one great passage that I wasn’t able to include, however, because it’s not the sort of passage that one includes in a literary analysis paper. Nat Love writes about his encounters with Billie the Kid, and this part nearly made me cry, for God knows what reason:

The “Kid” showed me the little log cabin where he said he was born. I went in the cabin with him, and he showed me how it was arranged when he lived there, showing me where the bed sat and the stove and table. He then pointed out the old postoffice which he said he had been in lots of times.

Passages like this—individuals moving through the world and losing things—make me wonder if a literature class can teach me anything, since these are the sorts of moments I seek out, and they can’t be experienced or explained in an academic setting. I guess reading will always have to be a solitary act and an end in itself. This is a sad book in a lot of ways, wild and free though Nat Love may be.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass : “Canonical” isn’t really a qualitative term, but I think it appropriately describes how crucial this book is. Just read it. It doesn’t take long.

The Street of Crocodiles
is in the end a great collection. I shouldn’t have summarized its contents too soon, because it contains many surprises, and the recollected child is usually only implicit and doesn’t limit Schulz’s subject matter. Much of this book is light years beyond my comprehension, but always gently delivered and never so dense with allusion like Rilke that it becomes unmanageable. A particular favorite (so many to choose from!) is the “Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies,” which is to say, a treatise on the nature and manipulation of matter, so deftly handled that a slight action at the end, “Pauline yawned and stretched herself,” is very sexy.

One more thing:

This is not a movie blog, and I don’t intend to make it one, but I’ve seen some great ones recently after a long dry spell, so I thought I would share. I rewatched Notorious, perhaps the dreamiest movie Hollywood ever produced, but also one full of passion and violence. Bergman and Grant seem very solid up against each other. In its approach towards conventions of espionage, it is in certain ways the opposite of North by Northwest. That film works itself into a frenzy over its manic plot machinations. This one is disgusted by its own lurid details, until the business with the wine, when Hitchcock gets caught up in the excitement and the violins start to work double time. “It isn’t fun,” says Ingrid. It isn’t, but it is. And the characters speak so very quietly! And the cameraman is obsessed with the contours of the back of Cary Grant’s head! And the Freudian mother belongs in a different movie.

The following night, Last Year at Marienbad played at Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis, and while no sense of romance is intended, its lead actors could have stood to be replaced with Bergman and Grant, who at the very least could create some meaning out of those long meaningful glances. That said, the new print was (here’s the cinephile coming out) magnificent. A film with such an insane-making score can only ever be admired, and I did admire it. Movies like this don’t make a splash anymore, and that made me briefly nostalgic for the 60s, which I never experienced.

Finally, Lilya 4-ever is an extraordinary movie, the best I’ve seen in ages. Naturalism is usually an excuse for laziness and hyper-editing in movies today (or maybe that’s something different, a commercial mutation of naturalism that makes me want to puke). But here, in a movie with a rare first person point of view (more or less), it is, how shall we say…natural. I knew I was in the grip of something great at the moment that Lilya rushes outside and begs her mother not to leave. It is the most insane outpouring of emotion ever seen in a movie, and I can’t imagine the amount of energy it required of its young actress. I am obsessed with sad teenagers. I guess that trivializes the traumas Lilya experiences, but it’s why I love the new M83 album, and the band My Favorite, and director Moodyson indulges in that sort of thing with the title of his movie. Lilya and Volodja—the ghosts of dead teenagers!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Before the Books All Disappear...


The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz :
I had some spare moments with no required reading, so I seized them with desperation and started perusing this slim volume of poetic childhood recollection pieces by 1930s Polish writer Schulz, who comes highly recommended by the great filmmaker Guy Maddin. These are sublime and meticulously described bits of Polish life, from a man who is described in the translator’s introduction as gnarled and lonely. Of course he had to be. I’m not surprised Maddin is a fan, since both men seem to exist at the whim of their memories. Maddin though has a style modeled on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, while Schulz’s recollections are firmly located in space and time, even though the way of life they describe has long since disappeared.

David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World : The outrage we’ve been waiting for in my African American literature class. Multiple exclamation points abound. Walker maintains throughout that God is just, but I want him to say even once that God is not just, or that God has abandoned us. I suppose the reason he doesn’t is because his intended audience is after all not slaves but white “Christian Americans,” and he needs to prime his warning of eternal damnation. In that way he is like Jonathan Edwards, just not so unbearable.

African American Women Confront the West 1600-2000
and Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California : Two anthologies of essays about the Black West, more or less informative and more or less well written, as anthologies tend to go. My own prof’s article about the 19th century San Francisco millionaire Mary Ellen Pleasant is the most interesting so far. I wouldn’t say she lived a charmed life, but she is one of those people whose history is an accumulation of the life of an era. If you go searching out any interesting aspect of life in San Francisco in the 1800s, she’ll be hovering in the margins.

Other recent reads:

Slouching Towards Bethlehem
by Joan Didion :
The title comes from a Yeats poem, the same poem I heard quoted last night as my roommate watched Heroes in the next room. That goes to show once again the way that a lot of these hip new TV shows tend to embody the finer points of a liberal arts education. As for Didion, she’s quite the dude. She admits that writing amounts to selling out your subjects, and the portraits here range from weirdly admiring (Joan Baez) to downright unflattering (Haight-Ashbury). I didn’t know anyone was writing with such clarity about the 1960s while they were happening. And there is a line, about California being a place where a belief in the Bible imperceptibly gave way to a belief in Double Indemnity, that made my heart leap.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
It should be called The Halfway Interesting Narrative, because the naval battle digressions and religious conversion chapter are distinctly uninteresting. Even Equiano admits, with the expected humility of an 18th century writer, that his work may be altogether without merit. This book confounds the ethics of non-fiction writing. I don’t want to spoil the controversy surrounding this narrative, but I suppose I will by saying the following: I have to suppose that Equiano’s reasons for lying are strategic ones, and that his protection of his true identity and his false narrative says as much for the relevance of his writing as his actually having lived this narrative would.


My sister in Helena, Montana alerted me to this article. I don’t want to give the impression that my hometown is unenlightened, but there is always some fool complaining about some book or play or other (to name a few: Cabaret, Grease, some Joyce Carol Oates teen novel, Fools Crow) and the debate that should never have been never dies. Feel free to send a written comment to my public library, and remember that if you don’t, I will have to live with the consequences. They may even keep me from rereading Watchmen, because Dr. Manhattan appears naked.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Maurice Sendak

There was an article about Maurice Sendak in The New York Times yesterday that made me very sad. The great artist is 80 years old, recently lost his longtime partner, had a triple-bypass that has left him weak, and is riddled with worries about whether he is in the final analysis a true artist or merely a great illustrator (his Norman Rockwell complex). The discussion of what makes something art is not one I usually like to engage in, but whatever the case, these are not the anxieties that a man at the end of his life should have to experience. Whatever Tony Kushner and others say to the contrary, he is concerned about his legacy and his potential failure, even lamenting that people aren’t impressed by a triple-bypass anymore, that it has to be a quadruple (that pithy line isn’t presented as a joke in the article, and I get the impression it’s not). Cheer up, Maury. A life spent in the arts is a noble thing, and Where the Wild Things Are (among others) is better than art because it is exactly what it is, and what it is is great!

Saturday, September 6, 2008


School started again, which means until December I’ll always have three or more books going at any given moment. That’s a good feeling, though there hasn’t been any unexpected or surprising overlap in the things I’m reading yet. I don’t really care to write here about my school reading, since I’ll have to do that for class, but I’ll jot some brief comments down, trying to whittle my feelings down to their essence. I tend to construct really convoluted and unbelievable arguments in all my English papers, so maybe here I can try to set the precedent of saying what I actually think. Right now:

Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas : So far, it’s the best thing I’ve read in a long while. No one has ever needed writing like Arenas needed writing. There are some fine pieces of childhood recollection, the sexual moments are particularly honest and funny, but the whole thing is damn good.

Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley : The first published African American woman. Her poetry deals with religious themes in conventional ways, but denies simple readings; it’s a shame that the author is dead, literally and philosophically, because she could clarify much of the ambiguous meaning in these poems. This is all to say that I don’t know what I think yet (so much shouldn’t, but does, depend upon historical context), though I do agree with editor Vincent Carretta’s description of the author as “artful.” Does that make her akin to one of those 18th century literary heroines, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, whose art is both in her writing and her ability to manipulate her own status as a slave (details that won’t be gone into)? I think that’s a way to understand her importance both in terms of her identity and her accomplishments.

Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction
by Nell Irvin Painter :
I’ve only worked through the background and contexts, but it’s a good account so far, with an interesting bit about the contradiction of “national leadership” for black communities after the Civil War.


The Big Money by John Dos Passos : I finally finished this beast, which means I’ve finished the entire U.S.A. trilogy, and that’s a big weight off my shoulders. Joe Queenan had an article in the New York Times Book Review about his predilection for reading, and re-reading, excessively long novels, and being one of the elite few who has read War and Peace however many (too many) times. That article was obnoxious, but U.S.A.’s a book that doesn’t get read much anymore, so I do have to wonder if I’m among the elite (well, not so elite, but it is something) few currently alive who has read all of its 1500 or so pages. I wish I had some grand conclusion about the trilogy now that it’s behind me, but it’s the sort of book that doesn’t really invite grand conclusions, so I’m left with a few unimportant thoughts:

The most noticeable feature of the writing, and maybe most subversive, is the way that Dos Passos denies every moment of potential drama, and lets everything happen at the same emotional pitch, which is to say no emotion. That doesn’t mean there’s no possibility of a reader’s attachment to these lives, but one has to pay careful attention to feel emotionally moved. The characters are relatable because Dos Passos doesn’t shroud them in myths and fictions, and denies the grand narratives commonly associated with America. The Big Money is no Horatio Alger story, after all, and Dos Passos can’t be accused of being overly optimistic. The lives described are shapeless and aimless, justified by their sheer volume. The only thing particularly American about the novel is the way it’s always looking to the future. What else to like? Dos Passos is a master of free indirect discourse (better than Jane Austen?); creates beautiful imagery with basic colors; and while the “Camera Eye” sections aren’t quite feverish enough to convey a single powerful feeling, certain small phrases stick out as masterful: a theater audience described as a “vague cave of faces” (phonetically grand), a “rusty freighter wallowing in indigo.” The seeds of the D.I.Y. philosophy are here, and a bit of John Edwards’ “Two Americas” campaign theme. The characters often say they “want to see life,” and I can’t help thinking of Morrissey’s same sad desire. Every moment is given equal weight in these lives, but while there are no emotional highs and lows (except the ones assigned by the reader), it’s still life. This book is teeming with life.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

August, Come She Will

Probably moving on to The Big Money by John Dos Passos next. Haven’t started it yet, so I don’t have anything to say, except that I’m deeply invested in the USA trilogy, and the last installment is damn long.

Other recent reads:

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing : This 1940s novel describes the corporate world with such insight and modern cynicism that it seems a shame at first that it doesn’t just relish in it and instead develops a plot. But that plot is ingenious (reassembled from other crime novels though it is) and airtight (well, Fearing does fudge it in a few places, to set up situations in which his themes and metaphors are right at the surface). Fearing was also a poet, that profession other than crime novelist that knows how not to waste words, so the elevated diction and terse objectivity mix beautifully. The novel is frighteningly intelligent, with more on its mind than working through a clockwork plot. There’s a great plotline in which a painter’s career is given a reappraisal in a popular magazine merely to aid in a manhunt (the appraisal is phony; art has no value as art in this world, even though the paintings described sound great and I wish they were real). That same magazine is also working on a project called Funded Individuals, in which every human being will be incorporated for a value of a million dollars and crime will be eradicated. That’s a sci-fi concept if I’ve ever heard one, but by leaving it as a notion of magazine writers and not making it real, this novel underlines the mistake that a lot of sci-fi makes. (There’s also a lot of Jesus/Judas/Caesar/Brutus/maybe a bit of J.P. Morgan stuff going on in the characterization, but that’s beside the point.) The central metaphor here is the big clock that controls life, a meaningless design that cannot be escaped. That’s our hero’s philosophy anyway, though I would have liked to see it removed from the first-person narration and made concrete with a real clock in the action of the story (e.g. The towering Janoth Enterprises building really ought to be topped by a huge clock). But that would make it Fearing’s philosophy as well, and I don’t know if he shares it. The key might be the last phrase, “Ousted publisher, plunges to death.” That reminds me of a song by Zounds, “Did he fall or was he pushed?” Meaningless design or divine retribution? Answer: great novel!

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers : McCullers was one of the first authors I came to love after the long anti-reading period of my early teens (I had to do a report about her in 11th grade), so it is nice to find that she is still one of my favorite writers and not forever locked in the milieu of clichéd teenagerish reading (my other favorites then included Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick). She’s a good writer for young people, and a great observer of adolescence, and this one is something like an extended meditation on puberty, to the extent that it is a fairly unusual coming-of-age story (if it is even that). It is also a story about desperately wanting to be (or be with) your older sibling, which is the oldest story in the world as far as I’m concerned. How refreshing after the entitlement and vague bigotry of The Sportswriter to find a novel with such a deep love for all humanity. Identity is both amorphous and inescapable; the characters here speak frankly about name changes, sex changes, there is a black woman who is slowly turning white. It didn’t even bother me when Frankie scales the impossibly tall heights of naïveté, because her delusions are so much the delusions of a sad young person. This book made me love the author as much as it made me love her characters, which is one of the best feelings that reading novels can give.

I entered that weird zone with The Sportswriter in which I’ve decided I don’t like a book and become increasingly irritated by the tiniest details (overuse of the word “vaguely,” the way Frank’s car is always “easing” somewhere, adjectives that needed to go), but then found myself liking it for extended periods. Richard Ford is a strong writer in certain respects, but I can’t say I got much out of this (he’s prone to clichéd wisdom that he tries to mask with his writerly confidence). It’s good at least to be reminded in these pages that Macalester is a good school and the reason that Montanans are not introspective people (untrue). For the record, Frank does end up changing his mind about the importance of a person’s background, but his original opinion is so unbelievable that this change is the epitome of too little too late. I’d advise anyone interested to start with Independence Day, because it would be a shame to have that novel ruined by a preconceived bad impression of its protagonist. Cases in point: we leave 39-year old Frank in The Sportswriter as he is about to seduce a 19-year old, which he treats almost as an act of nobility; elsewhere, the racism is unsettling, and while it may only be Frank’s racism, it is still unjustified, because there is not much to say about it except to note that it exists (i.e. his racist comments are his birthright). Maybe I’m being stupid and overlooking something, but as a non-introspective Montanan, I guess I won’t look into it.

Other things I’ve liked a lot recently:

Tropic Thunder
Flight of the Red Balloon
Chop Shop
Beijing opening ceremonies
Laceless shoes
Smell of apple cider vinegar
Certain children
People doing well at the Olympics

Thursday, July 31, 2008


Been reading some plays, because The Sportswriter was for a while too unbearable, and I didn't want to commit to something long that might end up being the same...

Fool for Love by Sam Shepard, Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shepard & Patti Smith : Cowboy Mouth doesn’t do much more than revel in its own coolness, but still manages to be pretty good. It’s fun to read as a document from some bad bad times in early 70s NYC, and I certainly know what a “rock-and-roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth” is all about (I agree that Bob Dylan isn’t one—too ambiguous—and Mick Jagger isn’t either—lips too big). Funny that Sam Shepard was flirting with the idea of becoming a rock star, when Patti Smith would be the one who ended up filling that role. Fool for Love was written over a decade later, and despite some similarities is much more polished. It’s supposed to be performed “relentlessly without a break,” which makes me want to see it performed, as it is hard to sustain that energy in my mind (lazing in bed). I did the next best thing and watched Robert Altman’s 1985 film version, which departs from the play only in the long, ponderous spaces inserted between the bursts of dialogue. That makes the story possibly more languid, romantic, haunted, but it also stretches it too thin. The characters aren’t complex in a way that demands that the camera linger on their motionless faces for long minutes, and their verbal sparring is diluted. Some of it is pretty expert, but I still don’t know how it would look on a stage.

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen : Two young people fall in love before learning that they share a father. That was the story of Fool for Love, and it’s the story of this one too. Was Sam Shepard reading a lot of Ibsen in the 1980s, or were both of these guys just really concerned with incest? Whatever the case, this is a nicely constructed play, and those “ghosts” (could a title be more evocative?) are the same burden as the dead men Holgrave speaks about in The House of the Seven Gables (though Ibsen has much more bile in him than Hawthorne). Ibsen was apparently deep into philosophy when writing his major plays, but he always seems to favor the specifics of a life over generalities (“Don’t let us talk in such general terms. Suppose we say: ‘Ought Oswald to love and honor Mr. Alving?’”), which as a philistine I appreciate.

The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov : I've long supposed I could never want to die (if I may so conceitedly ruminate), because there will always be one more song I want to hear or one more story I want to be told. It’s a shaky claim on life, one that can’t sustain nations or maybe even most people, but to the extent that this is a hopeful play, the central hope is that the next song or the next story will reveal some crucial meaning. Olga says it best: “The music is so gay, so joyous, it seems as if just a little more and we shall know why we live, why we suffer.” I don’t know if this is a tragedy full of comedy or a comedy full of tragedy (it’s classified a “drama”), but it’s so full of Chekhov’s apparently reliable warmth and humanity that one can’t help but feel that the gloom is never oppressive. It’s another one that would be good to see on the stage, in particular because overlapping action and dialogue don’t read as well as they play, and because it is hard to get a sense of the long swaths of time that pass both during acts and between them (how clever that the play gives the impression of a complete day even as the years go by). I’ve never thought of Robert Altman (still on my mind) as a realist and/or naturalist, but he would have been a good one to film or stage these (long ago Russian) lives being lived. (I’ve never encountered Ibsen’s name without Chekhov also being mentioned, which is why I read them in tandem.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

July, July


The Sportswriter by Richard Ford : It’s good enough, so it is strange that the only feeling this book has inspired in me thus far is boredom. I’m backtracking a bit with this one, having read the sequel Independence Day last summer (and liking it quite a lot). I was aware reading that book—an awareness I don’t often experience in the realm of grown-up literature—of the impracticality of myself reading about adult dilemmas and mid-life crises. That sensation is even more pronounced reading The Sportswriter, in which our hero Frank Bascombe is a mere five years younger than in the sequel and even more profoundly unrelatable (to me). Given Frank’s (dumb) belief that personal histories are uninteresting and don’t reveal anything, reading in reverse chronology seems quite self-defeating. Frank, a former successful short story writer and budding novelist, also has some annoying ideas about fiction (annoying at least to someone like me who is not yet past the point of anticipating a life that might somehow be involved with literature). About the larger world, he says, “That we all look at it from someplace, and in some hopeful-useful way, is about all I found I could say—my best, most honest effort. And that isn’t enough for literature.” Actually, it is enough for literature, and since Richard Ford is writing literature that espouses such ideas, how am I supposed to feel about Frank? That he’s a poet and he doesn’t even know it? Also, why the insistence on the use of the word “Negro” in a book from 1986, along with statements like, “This is the reason New Orleans defeats itself. It longs for a mystery it doesn’t have and never will, if it ever did”? Taken together, these seem to be some sort of revelation of Frank’s inner character so subtle as to be both baffling and irritating. Frank likes to remind the reader that he lives an ordinary life, and he is often celebrated as one of literature’s few good, honest men, but he seems unaware that only a fraction of the world’s population lives his brand of comfy suburban life, and the critics seem unaware that he is boring. I don’t know why this book is upsetting me so. It’s not markedly different from the sequel, which deserved its Pulitzer, and I’ll continue with it though I seem to be in a poor frame of mind for doing so.

Other recent reads:

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy : This, on the other hand, is great, the type of cynicism that Richard Ford is constitutionally unable to deliver. Fairly experimental in its construction, and I thought all the formal devices worked really well. There’s the paralleling of the courtroom with the dance marathon (obvious but not overdone) as spaces where America’s outcasts are judged. The place from which events are narrated is simply but powerfully rendered in a series of intertitles, and those intertitles are something in themselves, including both the oft-repeated generalities of a prisoner’s death sentence, and information that locates that death sentence in time and space, the specific tags of person, place and date. The way those titles interact with the main narrative is interesting, often surprising. The bulk of the story is a bleak portrait of drifters in 1930s California. Some people hold up Jim Thompson as the darkest chronicler of America’s criminal class, and some say it’s Horace McCoy. I’d go with McCoy. There’s a fair amount of pizzazz in Thompson’s writing, while McCoy simply seems to be saying, “This is the shit.” Thompson’s America might be a bad place because his characters make it bad, but McCoy’s characters have been dealt such a bad hand that there is nothing to do but want to die. A question of immorality versus amorality? Our hero does the humane thing, and the unlawful thing, and morality never enters into it.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill : As great as its reputation. Sad, sad, sad, but the one salvation may be that this is a family that talks to each other, truly talks (like the representative American families in two of my favorite movies, The Best Years of Our Lives—“You may find it very cute and late Victorian of us,” approx.—and Happiness). This is a good one to read (even if you’re lucky enough to live in a theater town): Some of the stage directions are very meticulously phrased and further the themes of the play (the mother’s hands in particular).

In The Killer Inside Me, we eventually get a textbook definition of paranoid schizophrenia, advanced type, and it fits our narrator perfectly. But it’s not a creative shortcoming that the novel takes this definition and has it walk around in the body of a Texas deputy sheriff—the book’s a lot more fun than that, for all its depravity. Strangely, the sheriff's psychosis doesn't make him an unreliable narrator so much as an overly reliable one (hard to believe the stuff he's peddling). I wonder if a movie today could get away with half the stuff that’s in here. Absolute insanity, sir. The ending is spooky, the narrator coming to feel as one with his victims, a community of the too-good-for-this-world. Or too vulnerable, in spite of all the homicidal urges.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Really Good Stuff


The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson : Jim Thompson is the most cynical writer I’ve read in a genre of cynics, the crime novel, and this is said to be his nihilistic peak. This is from the early 50s, but none of its horrors are coded: everything is out in the open.

Other recent reads:

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder : It doesn’t really need to be said again, but this is a perfect little book, capturing the same poignancy as one of my favorite Morrissey lyrics: All those people, all those lives, where are they now? / With loves and hates and passions just like mine / They were born and then they lived and then they died / Seems so unfair, I want to cry. One might expect a 1920s American like Thornton Wilder to treat his 18th century Peruvian subjects in a condescending manner, but the way they are written, they are as fully human as any fictional character can be.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow : I love books like this (turn of the century America, high diction, lack of dialogue) simply on principle, but that’s not to say this one didn’t earn that love. It’s a page-turner, though not in the usual sense, and a joy to read, but I’m still pleasurably baffled by some of its effects. The book seems to suggest some of the inherent problems of writing history, and adopts a playful attitude toward the project, taking a lot of liberties with historical “truth” but retaining the essence of the times. One way this plays out is in a series of meetings of the minds, including plausible conversations between J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, Harry Houdini and Franz Ferdinand, and Emma Goldman (who?) and Evelyn Nesbit (double who?—Wikipedia helped here). How fun! In a way, I would’ve liked the novel to be even more diffuse and abstract, to peer into the minds of other great men and women. More, please! The best lines aren’t the ones that concern the characters, but the ones that begin, “This was the time in our nation’s history when…” After Martin Dressler, this is the second book I’ve read recently expecting, and not finding, a nostalgic romp, which may have been more gratifying but would not have been nearly as fulfilling. I find it odd that Ragtime was nominated for a Nebula (the famous literary sci-fi award) upon its release, suggesting that the grand Nebula committee was interested in Doctorow’s academic project of alternative history (though that genre is usually concerned with the way history impacts the present, while the history presented in Ragtime has no bearing on the time after). There is a scholarly aspect to the novel, but it is a great imaginative feat as well. And how to account for all the changes in America since the turn of the last century? The novel plausibly demonstrates dissatisfaction to be the natural state of the world.

One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry : Collection of absolutely delightful autobiographical comic strips originally published on a few years back. Barry went to college with Matt Groening, and she achieves the same warm and loose depiction of a happily dysfunctional American family as The Simpsons. She despairs of her intellectual powers, but in her nine page comic strips, she arrives at moments, concerning music, dancing, pets, the past, and more, as profound as I’ve ever read. She asks more questions than she answers, but her questions are great ones.

Gateway was a pretty compulsive read, and its ending is the most touching example of robot psychology I’ve encountered since 2001. But nothing can excuse its vision of the future as a swinger’s playground. Oh yes, something can: it is from the 1970s. I appreciate the honesty amidst all the casual sex, but I don’t appreciate lines like this one: “Although we had very little conversation in a verbal sense we communicated beautifully with our bodies.”

Two things I learned about Jason Lutes after finishing Berlin: City of Stones: He grew up in Missoula, Montana (!) on a diet of Herge and other such comics luminaries. Also, he has never been more prolific than he’s been over the past year. He has recently churned out a number of new issues of Berlin, and book two, City of Smoke, will be published next month (!). Given the number of storytelling techniques at his command and the wealth of historical detail in book one, there is no reason to stop reading, or to assume the complete trilogy won’t be a monumental triumph.

Plus a little something not related to my daily reading:

I thought I would take a moment to list a few words and phrases that I dislike, ones that often make me cringe when I encounter them while reading. I don’t mean to be nitpicky, and I don’t really have a problem with the use of these words by people who know how to use them properly, but I am not that person.

Because these actions seem impossible…

1. Screwing up one’s face/eyes
Does this refer to making oneself look like the victim of a bar fight, or controlling one’s features with a screw-like motion? I’ve never known, but I don’t know how either one is achieved.
2. Gnashing one’s teeth
Gnashing one’s gums in the absence of teeth is a possibility, but this just seems painful.
3. Sucking one’s teeth
How can you suck something on the wrong side of your lips?

Because they can only be used in one context…

4. Aquiline (as in noses)
5. Akimbo (as in arms)
What’s the use of a word with no versatility? If I could say Have you seen John’s new aquiline dreamscapes or I placed the chairs akimbo in front of the fireplace, then I would like these words, because they sound cool.

6. Graphic novel

For these reasons five:
a. Connotations of the word “graphic.” Doesn’t “graphic novel” describe porno-graphic fiction as well? On a more fundamental level, “graphic” simply refers to writing, and no novel can exist without being written.
b. It is often used erroneously. A collection of Peanuts comic strips is not a graphic novel, but a person who thinks the term is synonymous with “comic book” might refer to it as such.
c. It is often used to justify the literary value of comics by people who would be embarrassed to be caught reading a comic book. Well, not all comics have literary value, though there are other reasons why they are worthwhile for non-adolescents.
d. It removes contemporary comics from the history that they are heir to. A comics artist may be in part a student of literature and construct his work specifically as a novel, but calling it a “graphic novel” emphasizes that aspect of his art and deemphasizes his debt to old newspaper cartoonists and other comics artists.
e. It is such a leaden term. It sounds like required reading.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Comics, etc.


Gateway by Frederik Pohl : I haven’t read any good SF (I would say sci-fi, but I’m afraid a fanboy might find this blog) in a long time. I think Ubik was the last one, and that was like a year ago (!). The chief interest of Gateway so far is that it is a pretty standard SF narrative told as flashbacks during the protagonist’s therapy sessions with an artificial intelligence. That seems to be a way of injecting a genre that’s usually big on ideas and short on characters with a little humanity. Robinette Broadhead (that’s the narrator’s actual name) is hiding some secret pain, you see. It’s oh so very 70s, full of the sort of pop psychology that The Bob Newhart Show was so good at poking fun at. But there is quite a bit at stake with all the psychoanalysis, because beneath the narrator’s lackadaisical façade he seems like he maybe did really become unhinged during his time at Gateway. And he’s started repeating himself, in very obvious ways, even in complete sentences, which may be greater proof that something is not quite right in the deep structures of his brain, that his “feelings” are troubled. Or maybe his brain operates according to a system of functions just like his robot analyst. Hmm…

Berlin: City of Stones by Jason Lutes : Beautifully drawn fictionalized account of the last years of the Weimar Republic. So technically proficient that it seems a bit lifeless at times, but this guy’s lines are unbeatable, and I’ve never read a comic book that’s so well oriented in the space of a big city. The discussions of art, writing, Frans Masereel, etc. among the characters are illuminating, authentic, not too meta. Structurally this is fairly similar to John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy: the same era, the same sorts of players with interlocking narratives, different country.

Other recent reads:

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain : I guess Billy Wilder knew he had a hot property when he filmed this, because not much was changed for the movie. The ending is a bit different; the main players meet the same fate, but in a way that is more fatalistic, more Cain (the attractiveness of Death, star-crossed lovers, and all that). There’s also some nice play with a minor character’s doctoral thesis (which Cain wisely doesn’t make a big deal out of, just a clever aside), and some weird (maybe non-existent) homosexual codings unlike any I’ve ever encountered. I don’t think James M. Cain was gay, but there’s always such an overbearing psychosexual element in his novels that it carries over into every interaction.

Bighead by Jeffrey Brown : An individual Bighead comic might seem amateurish even to a child, but collected in this volume, they really are quite something. Jeffrey Brown is so insistent with this Bighead character that it becomes apparent that he needs the comics like R. Crumb needs the comics. The series is both a deflation and a celebration of superhero comics, featuring villains whose chief crime is selling bootlegged CDs, and lines something like the following: “My name is Crabby, but most people call me… Crabby!” It will make you feel good about being a hopeless nerd.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao never lived up to those first 80 or so fantastic pages, but I still have a lot of affection for it. It is one of those novels in which everything is overstated (always trying hysterically to maintain its vitality, as James Wood might say). This doesn’t work as well in the historical sections as it does in Oscar’s (where it comes across as ironic and funny) and Lola’s (where it adds up to the sort of tragic teenager narrative worthy of the (brilliant) new M83 album). The sections relating the lineage of Oscar and Lola are good enough, and I like the idea of using one’s parents’ histories as a template for making a start in life, but otherwise it’s been done before (I can't help thinking of Zadie Smith again)—whereas books are never written about people like Oscar, even though he deserves to be the hero more than most.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

June, cont'd


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz : This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, currently all the rage, and it’s pretty damn wonderful (wondrous) so far. Two epigraphs and an introductory chapter frame the idea of the novel a bit too thoroughly before the players are even introduced, but as opposed to someone like Zadie Smith, Diaz actually cares about his characters’ lives and not just the idea of their lives. I haven’t loved a protagonist this much in a long, long time, which probably says a lot about my inner nerd.

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 16 by Will Eisner : I’d previously read the earliest, and fairly conventional, Spirit comics from 1940 (collected in volume one), and after seeing the teaser for the new Frank Miller film adaptation (which looks all wrong, by the way, like an unnecessary extension of the lame-brained Sin City), I thought I should catch up with The Spirit post-WWII, when Eisner was defining new rules of comics storytelling and creating the so-called Citizen Kane of comics. There’s no doubt that Eisner is a master, as evidenced by his later Contract with God series (the second novel, A Life Force, is the masterpiece that the first is often claimed to be), and pretty much every seven-pager of The Spirit circa 1948 has many clever new ways of telling a standard action story. Each one is packed with detail, but with a very impressive narrative economy, and the splash pages are quite something. The minstrel character Ebony is still around, and his appearances are even more disconcerting in the 1948 comics than in those from 1940. Maybe Eisner is trying to tackle a serious subject when Ebony has a flash of a noose while on the lam after stealing a dog, but the caricatured depiction makes it seem that Eisner is simply ignorant of the stereotypes he’s reproducing. Ebony is even told, “It is your kind of villain who makes this community so unsafe,” with, unbelievably, no detectable irony. And why is it wrong when Ebony threatens to kill a bad guy, while it’s just good fun when the Spirit piles up dead bodies?

Other recent reads:

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata : A great translation by one Edward G. Seidensticker. Either Kawabata is such a great writer that the beauty of his prose comes through effortlessly in English, or Seidensticker is something of a poet himself. It is soothing to read about the coldness and darkness of wintry Japan during the heat of summer, while the warmth of the novel comes exclusively from the characters, who speak in peculiar ways, with plenty of double and other multiple entendres. I expected a 50’s Japanese novel about a geisha would probably be fairly misogynistic, but this captures the ambivalence of the character Komako’s position pretty well. A great book, masked by its subtlety.

Herzog, in the end, is probably a masterpiece, though so particular to the time in which it was written that it is hard to capture the relevance of its ideas. Do people experience Herzog’s anxieties and philosophical crises anymore? Being alive in the modern world, being anonymous, the end of moral suffering? Probably not, so a novel in which he is set up as ambassador of the human race seems a bit odd in 2008. African Americans and transvestites and homosexuals (and everyone who is not Herzog) are often lingering in the background of his world, and it is too painfully obvious that they could never be front and center in a Saul Bellow novel. But still, the greatest stylist of his era? For sure. Herzog makes novels with plots seem absurd.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

May & June


Herzog by Saul Bellow : I’m 50 pages in, and at this point the book is a bit too masculine and too heterosexual for my tastes (i.e. Bellow is great at describing what women mean to men, but doesn’t know how to describe women, etc.). That would be fine if that was simply the approach Bellow had taken to this specific material, but his style and his worldview seem to be synonymous, so that it is hard to imagine him writing about any other sort of character in any other manner (and from my other Bellow experiences, Seize the Day and Henderson the Rain King, it seems his protagonists are always more or less the same as Herzog). I guess I should appreciate that he knows his limits, and pushes himself more on a formal level than an empathetic one. Otherwise, this is really a novel’s novel by a writer’s writer, and is holding my interest based on the quality of the writing alone. Showy novels can be stifling, but this one already has a number of beautiful moments to its credit. Great rambling structure, too.

Other recent reads:

Wrack and Ruin by Don Lee : An immensely entertaining read, that I wouldn’t be surprised to see optioned by Hollywood. Elmore Leonard comes to mind. Everything that can possibly (and impossibly) happen, happens, but there’s a nice lackadaisical quality to the whole, and some pleasant themes floating around. I was reminded of that speech by Gandalf, choosing between what is easy and what is right. Here the choice seems to be between what is comfortable and what one truly desires. There’s a strange pleasure in seeing the two brothers become more and more bruised and broken as the novel progresses, and most importantly, the writing is often hilarious. I appreciate any book that takes time to ponder the fate of one hit wonder Christopher Cross. Mad props to former Macalester College professor Don Lee.

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser : Millhauser definitely has a list fetish, and the same perverse interest in the products of human ambition as his subject (who is made to stand in for that category of men at the turn of the century who became entrepreneurs, tycoons, and World’s Fair designers). The book is more about an idea than about its characters (and nearly dialogue-free). Plot-wise, the only real development is an escalation of monotony—Martin builds grander and grander buildings, endlessly—but every word is deliberate (Millhauser excuses his stylistic eccentricities by drawing a parallel between his own and Martin’s; novel-writing is his version of dreaming), and there’s always an implicit guarantee that the last few pages will respond to the previous three hundred in a big way. That’s exactly what happens—my expectation was that the dream would collapse, but instead Martin just walks away from it, lingeringly. The book wisely sidesteps some potential pitfalls—there’s no clever post-modern trickery here, and no attempt for relevance to the world as it is today. It’s also not about evoking a bygone era (though it does that); it records how the world feels when life seems fated, or like a dream. And Chapter 3 is one of the most stunning things I’ve ever read.

John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James : Novels about religion (primarily Christianity, and specifically Catholicism) usually baffle me (Wise Blood, The Power and the Glory, etc.), but this one is both very entertaining and fairly enlightening. There’s an archetypal battle between good and evil at the center, but the characters are very well drawn. There’s also a whole lot of nymphomania and pedophilia (and accompanying questions of homosexuality), but in a roundabout way, the book ends up celebrating women and homosexuality (or at least the ability to perform one’s true identity). Mad props to Macalester College professor Marlon James.

The Body Artist by Don DeLillo : A brief novel, but one that continually redefines itself. A belief in time is essential for establishing a concept of self—that seems to be the ultimate conclusion, though there are ideas and moments along the way that are more interesting. Crucial realizations for the 21st century abound; there’s a very funny line (I don’t remember it exactly) in which a character looks at some manufactured product, and realizes that its manufacturing is a part of the way the world works, and that’s just the way things are. I can’t think of a more precise writer than DeLillo, but here he uses his talents to show how imprecise language can be. And in so doing, proves the opposite.


Taking It All In by Pauline Kael : I’ve been browsing through some of Pauline Kael’s early 80s movie reviews. She was as hard to please then as ever. She can be quite nitpicky, and I have to wonder, doesn’t she realize how oppressive a perfect movie can be? But she’s like a theater critic in a way, taking great joy in picking things apart (performances especially). I wonder how despairing she would be of the worst bad movies today. She is resolute and persuasive even when I disagree with her (No on Fitzcarraldo? Seriously?).

And a couple I didn’t have time to finish during the semester:

Londonstani by Gautam Malkani : The surprise ending was spoiled for me, and my reading was so prolonged anyway that the potency probably would have been diminished. I don’t feel one way or the other about the final revelation, though my ambivalence probably says something about its effectiveness. Otherwise, the book can be maddeningly trivial at times, though that’s part of its charm.

Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra : This is a great novel. For Chandra, the ideal story would seemingly include everything, and that’s what his follow-up to this one, the 900-page Sacred Games, apparently does. Maybe I’ll get around to that book sometime within the next 50 years (right after I finish War and Peace).

Mission Statement

My name is Geoff Stueven and I just finished my junior year studying English and Creative Writing at Macalester College. Summertime blues and sheer boredom led to the idea of this blog, in which I'll keep an update of reflections on each book I read. I mostly read novels, because I don't really enjoy anything else (though I sometimes read comic books, short stories, movie review anthologies, and punk rock histories). The first post (after this one) will include everything I've read since school let out a month ago. I'm sure you can't wait.