Thursday, July 31, 2008

Plays

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

Currently:

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

Currently:

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 Salon.com 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.

Currently:

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 fa├žade 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.