Monday, December 28, 2009

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, pt. 1

In my opinion, Terry Gilliam has made five perfect films: Tideland, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, and Brazil.  In each of these, he marries his rococo visual style with an omnipresent -- in fact, at times overwhelming -- emotional immediacy.  His characters, grotesque as they can sometimes be, are entirely transparent to us in these pictures: Fear and Loathing manages to paint an incredibly complex portrait of two men, despite the fact that they are never for a moment sober, and by yanking us painfully out of their protagonists' imaginary worlds, the endings of Tideland and Brazil reveal how close we've been to these characters all along.  Gilliam can take me from weeping to laughing faster than any other filmmaker (the moment in Fear and Loathing when Hunter awakes from his early 60's reverie to find a Z on his forehead and a gun in his hand springs to mind); he sees the complexity in even minor players (like Fisher King's unforgettably tragic gay hobo, or the veteran in that movie played by Tom Waits), and he knows how to get insanely good work from actors: tiny child Jodelle Ferland detonates in every scene of Tideland, 12 Monkeys boasts brilliant performances from Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, both generally reliable but unextraordinary, and the flicker of mania, desire, and pain across Robin Williams's face in Fisher King make it, for me, his only truly accessible film performance.  I may come to Terry Gilliam for the scenery, but I stay for the people chewing it. 

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus isn't like these movies.  It didn't do a Mexican hat dance on my heart or leave me wanting to adopt a junkie's child.  Though the performances were strong -- particularly by Christopher Plummer and luminous newcomer Lily Cole -- I didn't feel I was inside these characters, despite the fact that I spent a decent amount of time literally inside their imaginations.  For the most part, they're depicted as fairy-tale types: the Devil, the child-bride, the trickster, the oldest man in the world.  We hold them at a distance, and their actions often read as pieces of a half-remembered story, performed for our pleasure, rather than human choices enacted in the moment.  But, unlike Gilliam's lesser-but-fun Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, I didn't feel that this distance came from a desire to keep the material light and storybookish, the action quick and springy.  This is a dark, ambitious, panoramic film, sprawling and loose-ended, a collage of landscapes and narratives and layered symbols.  As a character in the film advises us, "Don’t worry if you don’t understand it all immediately."  And don't worry: you won't.

For that reason, I'm not going to write a real review of Imaginarium until I've seen it at least one more time.  But I would advise you to get out to it as fast as you can, because I have a feeling it won't be in theaters for too long.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Holidays from a Dying Industry

The American publishing industry is a decadent empire, teetering on the brink of self-destruction, and in its cluelessness the above advertisement is a rough equivalent to Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake."  I've watched the above clip some three or four times now, and each viewing has left me in a state of slack-jawed amazement.  What is going on here?  Over the course of two and half minutes, some two dozen "authors" -- mostly dimwitted celebrities whose ghostwritten bestsellers have already vanished into the gulping swamp of our collective national amnesia -- offer bizarre non sequiturs on the value of the book as consumer product.  The handful of literary writers who put in appearances (Lethem, McCourt, even Angelou) appear to find the whole project very amusing; the others, some of whom may not yet have cracked the spines of their own published works, range from shamelessly self-promoting to dead earnest.  (OK, except for Jon Stewart, but has he ever said anything that didn't sound sarcastic?)  Although Judy Blume has written some charming kids' titles, her quip -- "You can never have too many" -- takes the cake for idiocy here, especially in light of the other authors sharing her screen time.  I hate to tell you, Ms. Blume, but for my household, one Bill O'Reilly screed is one too many.

I find the ad so fascinating, I guess, because it speaks to what I see as a profound misunderstanding on the part of the publishing industry about what books are.  Here's a hint: they are not neckties.  The reason that books are difficult to sell is not because people don't realize that they make "great gifts"; it's because buying a book for someone requires that the giver have some familiarity with -- and interest in -- said book's content.  Yet, with print review space ever dwindling (bye bye Kirkus) the publishing industry appears to have given this up for a lost cause and has chosen to focus its energies instead on producing content that is more or less reducible to an author photo and jacket copy.  People don't have time to read, the logic goes, so we'll give them books that they barely have to skim.  Such books "make great gifts," of course, because you can purchase it with the same confidence as when you buy a one-size-fits-all Snuggie.  There are no surprises lurking inside.  If Grandpappy liked Cesar Milan's last book, he'll like the new one too.  The old dog will not be learning any new tricks, however.

A lot has been said about the "fragmentation of our cultural attention" in the age of the internet, but I would actually argue that the opposite is true.  With Wikipedia, YouTube, and yes, the blogosphere at everybody's fingertips, people are digging more and more deeply into the subjects that fascinate them, without the moderating force of a teeny local library or a shitty mall bookstore holding them back.  The reason books are losing out against new technology is not because, as the self-pitying publishing conglomerates would have it, readers are getting distracted more easily and simply consume whatever's in front of them at the moment.  As technology allows us to increasingly customize our own consumption of information and entertainment, people are actually, I believe, getting pickier and more active about what they choose.  We don't watch "whatever's on" anymore; we go to Hulu or Netflix streaming or watch the shows we've saved on TiVo.  We don't get all our news from the New York Times anymore; instead, we read articles from a variety of papers, magazines, and online news hubs, eclectically chosen.  So why do publishers concentrate their money, marketing dollars, and editorial focus on a tiny number of titles meant to appeal to "everyone"?

Not surprisingly, Lethem puts it best: books are a blessed escape from life's realities, even the realities of the very industry that produces them.  I suppose this ad did work on me, if only in the sense that it made me long for a fictional alternative to our weirder-than-plausible world. 

Happy holidays, everyone, and here's hoping for a less desperate 2010.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Me and Mr. Pynchon

In life, I've found, we have two kinds of friends.  First, we have the friends we admire.  These are the friends who send us Christmas cards with pictures of their pets and children, the friends who throw dinner parties and attempt dishes out of cookbooks illustrated with photographs of the food.  These friends own appliances, knit, and regularly wash their hair.  These are the friends whose sheer competence dazzles us, gives us hope, that we too will one day have some similar measure of control over our own lives.

Then there are the other friends.  These are the friends we can't take anywhere.  These are the friends who barrel through life, leaving a scattered trail of McDonald's wrappers and parking tickets in their wake.  These friends alternate between stunning us with their intellectual brilliance and describing their gynecological problems in graphic detail.  These friends trash our apartments, drink our booze, crash our computers, and scare our dogs.  These friends give us presents they found in the garbage, and those presents are lovelier than anything else we own.

Of course, this is a vast oversimplification: in life, our friends are generally some amalgamation of these two categories -- they wouldn't be bearable otherwise.  But for the sake of argument, let me offer that we generally love and admire others because they either maintain a degree of control that we cannot, or because they allow an amount of chaos that both frightens and excites us.  For me, writers are the same way.  Steven Millhauser, Charles Baxter, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver are, for me, all examples of the first category: though their work is at times really freakin weird, there's a sanity, a logic, to the way that images and characters are conveyed.  When reading, say, The Feast of Love -- an intensely ambitious, formally experimental novel, mind you, and one of my all-time faves -- I still had the sense that Baxter inhabited the same world that I did: his mall coffeeshop, his Humane Society, his football stadium were all instantly recognizable to me, and within them, he was articulating thoughts that I might have had myself, if only I'd thunk a little harder.

Thomas Pynchon, on the other hand, has always been, for me, squarely in the second category.  Though I believe that a sort of skewed logic usually -- probably? -- underlies the choices he makes in his work, I am not going to sit here and pretend that I know who or what the Kenosha Kid is supposed to be (I never did).  Pynchon's work has left me laughing, annoyed, stupefied, wowed, puzzled, turned on, grossed out, and bored, and in many ways, it would be easy for me to dismiss it now.  When I first read the guy, I was in college, still infatuated with the Beats, and wild for anything -- intellectual or otherwise -- that would blow the conservative Midwestern sensibilities of my childhood to smithereens.  Pynchon, with his pornographic imagination (I adored his original title for Gravity's Rainbow: Mindless Pleasures), his panicked, drugged-out antiheros, his steamroller intellect, and his compulsive distrust of authorities and systems, even the mail, for Chrissake, became my patron saint. 

In his New Yorker essay "Mr. Difficult," about his complicated relationship with the work of William Gaddis, Jonathan Franzen describes his experience reading The Recognitions for the first time: "I sat and read the next seven hundred pages in something like a fugue state, as if planting my feet on a steep slope, climbing. I was reluctant to leave my ultrasuede perch for any reason... I was alone and unprepared on a steep-sided, frigid, airless, poorly mapped mountain. Did I already mention that The Recognitions has nine hundred and fifty-six pages?  But I loved it."  I read Gravity's Rainbow -- after two other "long books," A Hundred Years of Solitude and Anna Karenina -- during an internship at a library in my hometown the winter I was nineteen.  Alone in a cubicle with not nearly enough to do (and a roll of toilet paper for my consistently runny nose), I wandered beneath those endless arches of sex and death, a sleepwalker in Pynchon's dream.  When I'd finally finished the novel, I decided to go for something lighter -- only a week or so remained before I returned to school -- and picked up a copy of The Whore's Child, a short story collection by Richard Russo, whose Empire Falls I'd read for a class and liked okay.  It was a mistake.  I couldn't even get through the first story.

"I feel like I have the bends," I told a friend.  "Compared to Pynchon, everything's shit."

Now, though, many years and an MFA later, Pynchon no longer towers over my intellectual landscape, laughing maniacally and killing everything else in sight with a rocket launcher.  I don't write like Pynchon -- other authors, mostly the sane ones, have influenced me more -- and though I've reread Slow Learner, The Crying of Lot 49, and large chunks of V. over the years, I haven't gone back to Gravity's Rainbow in a serious way since that enchanted winter.  Vineland, Mason & Dixon, Inherent Vice, and -- until recently, of course -- Against the Day have had to wait their turn behind, among many others, Murakami, Link, Auster, Christopher, Nabokov, Ishiguro, Chabon, Calvino, McCarthy, and both Shelley and Shirley Jackson.

Yet, returning to Pynchon now, after all this time, I find, almost to my disappointment, that he's still got the old magic in spades (and this time, with more anarchists).  Against the Day is, if anything, more beautiful, heartbreaking, panoramic, and simply weird than the other three novels of his that I've read, and I'm only 119 pages in.  Watch for more updates as this old buddy continues to make a mess of my (intellectual) life... and for God's sake, if he wants to crash on your couch, let him in.  It's worth the chaos.  Take it from one who knows.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Funny Bones

In an interview, the filmmaker Errol Morris once said, “I don’t believe in that distinction between laughing at and laughing with. There’s just laughing at. Let’s get real here. And I suppose my final answer is, ‘So what!’…The important thing is to create complexity and to try to capture the complexity of your characters.” I’m inclined to agree. Humor need not blind us to the humanity of its subjects; in fact, it can help to point out their frailties, their excesses, their self-delusions, with an accuracy that is at times as painful as it is hilarious. Sometimes, as in Chronic City or James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times, the humor complicates a tone of tenderness and nostalgia, giving the book a self-awareness it wouldn’t have otherwise; at other times, in a piece like David Sedaris’s “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!” the humor makes a black-as-coal vision of human nature palatable. Though not every story needs to be funny – and certainly not funny all the time – humor is one of the most efficient ways of cutting through the comforting bullshit, of getting to the heart of things. For this reason, humor and horror exist along the same continuum: at their best, both reveal more than we “can take” – they make us cringe, make us shriek, make us cover our eyes. The question is simply one of degree.

To backtrack: I have decided that the next book I read will be Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, about which I will undoubtedly have much to say in the coming posts. But, like a selfish fiancé at a bachelor party full of strippers, I decided that I deserved one last fling before making such a major commitment, and I woke up in bed with The Lovely Bones.

I expected this book to be commercial schlock, and I won't mince words: it is. This is a novel where a grieving mother orders toast in a diner and “butter[s] it with tears.” It is a novel where a dead girl dances in heaven with her grandpa: “I found myself small again, age six…Now, as I had done then, I placed my feet on top of his feet.” It is a novel where a creepy single guy who builds dollhouses turns out to be – gasp! – a serial killer. It is a novel where newly engaged lovers run joyfully, nearly naked, through the rain. It is a novel where no one checks the friendly neighborhood sinkhole for a missing body. It is cheesy as a Lifetime movie starring that chick from “Touched by an Angel.” But although I could make a laundry list of the things I disliked about the novel, the one thing that stands out as an underlying factor in all of them is the book’s humorlessness – not seriousness, but humorlessness – about its plot, its characters, and its central conceit.

In an early scene, when the limb of the narrating dead girl is found, her sister reacts to the news thus:

“ ‘Dad, I want you to tell me what it was. Which body part, and then I’m going to need to throw up.’

My father got down a large metal mixing bowl. He brought it to the table and placed it near Lindsay before sitting down.

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Tell me.’
‘It was an elbow. The Gilberts’ dog found it.’

He held her hand and then she threw up, as she had promised, into the shiny silver bowl.”

In addition to the fact this on-cue vomiting recalls for me, quite unintentionally, I’m sure, the famous restaurant scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (“Better get a bucket”), it is a perfect case-in-point of the characters’ surreally appropriate responses, throughout the novel, to every goddamn thing that happens. These characters rage, cry, suspect, fall in love, get aroused, withdraw, open up, celebrate, and yes, puke, with all the unpredictability of clockwork automatons. No one ever says something bizarre, out of left field; no one ever has their priorities all out of order; no one is ever disappointed when their dream comes true, or relieved when their worst fears are confirmed. No one ever screws up bigtime. If a character thinks something weird or crazy, like that the neighbor killed his daughter or that her ghost is in the room, it’s not because he’s cracking under the stress – it’s because, actually, he’s right. That lonely artist girl isn’t being pretentious when she thinks she has a special tie with a dead classmate she hardly ever talked to: fo’ shizz, the two of them have a psychic connection. And God forbid the dead girl’s high school crush get over his feelings for her and move on with his life, even, cruelly, forget about her for months at a time: no, that one kiss they shared means as much to him down on earth as it does to her up in heaven, and when they reunite years later, he isn’t freaked out (or turned off) at all.

Sebold doesn’t have the guts to subject her fantastical conceit to the test of humor, which leaves me as a reader duty-bound to do that myself. And there’s plenty to laugh at here if, like me, you’re the kind of person who spent the ‘90s cackling over promos for “Mother May I Sleep With Danger.” But I can’t help imagining how much better the book would be if she’d gone to the trouble herself. Picture a scene, a la Melanie from Kids in the Hall, where Susie, still acting like a lovesick fourteen-year-old, returns from beyond the grave to rekindle her love with a boorish ninth-grade flame who’s nearly forgotten her. Or picture her father suspecting the wrong neighbor of her bloody demise, while helping her real killer trim his hedges. And what if her sister was, like Dawn from the film Welcome to the Dollhouse, both intensely miserable and inappropriately happy about her beautiful sister’s disappearance? Developments like these wouldn’t undermine the novel’s conceit; they’d bolster it, by showing that even in a world with heaven people are still, well, fucked-up. Even one or two touches along these lines would breathe life into a novel that feels dutiful and wooden in its depiction of a family’s grief. As it is, I don’t begrudge Sebold her success – but don’t look for this book on any shelf in my heaven.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Honest to Blog

As I mentioned in my first post, blogging does not come naturally to me.  Why is this?  I think the main issue is one of control.  As a fiction writer – and, hell, as a human being – I tend to obsess over the way I present my words to others.  When I was in my MFA program, I would read my submissions over and over, often aloud (to the amusement, and probably irritation, of my partner and dog), checking and re-checking the sentences for imprecisions, repetitions, grammatical mistakes, and weird punctuation.  After I printed out a copy, I invariably found more flaws.  Our windowsill is still cluttered with a pile of scrap paper from my torn-up drafts.  Although the finished product still sometimes bore unfortunate sentences like, "She shoved her glasses up her nose" ("Wouldn't that hurt?" inquired a friend), for the most part I at least had the illusion that what I was offering up in class was polished, thought-out, complete.  The same is true for me even with communication where that shouldn't matter.  I preemptively bought a bottle of white-out for writing holiday cards this weekend (and promptly put it to use), and whoever invented the "review and re-record your message" function on modern voicemail is both my savior and my tormenter.  If I could have three wishes, one would be for an edit function on emails already sent.

One of the purposes of a blog, for me, is to provide myself a low-stakes forum for hashing out half-formed ideas.  In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott extols the "shitty first draft"; similarly, another writer pal and I often exhort each other to "poop it out," to get words down on paper, regardless of the quality.  Rewriting and polishing are essential, of course: though charmed by it as a teenager, I'd never endorse Allen Ginsberg's credo, "First thought, best thought" now.  But sometimes, I err too far to the other extreme: I can prune the first thought away to nothing before it has the chance to grow.

I don't yet have a wide circle of readers on this blog, but I do have a handful now, and I find that the more people I imagine might see my posts, the longer and more worked-over those posts become.  Although I like the idea that I can delve into my ideas and opinions deeply here, and I want to keep that trend going, I also think that goal can, at times, undermine what a blog does best.  The blog post can and does bear a resemblance to many earlier forms – the newspaper column, the journal entry, the book review, the editorial, the essay, the memoirist's vignette – but at heart it is a new animal, mutant and rangy and omnivorous as a Sendak beast.  The tendency of the poem is toward an austerity of language, the novel toward a broadness of ambition and scope, but the tendency of the blog post is toward immediacy, speed—and then dialog, as the blogger's voice spills out from the main post into the comments.

Though I grew up in the first generation of bloggers, this idea is still foreign to me.  But I think it's a beautiful one, and it's something I'll try to keep in mind as I continue my work here at Ye Olde Chaw Shoppe.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Stuck in the Middle With You, pt. 2

"'The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot." - EM Forster

Let me say, first off, that Middlesex is beautifully written, and that in it, Eugenides effortlessly creates an unforgettable world.  I loved the descriptions of Detroit, before and after the race riots, and of the futuristic house on Middlesex, "a house that was more like communism, better in theory than reality" with its "long accordion-like barriers, made from sisal, that worked by a pneumatic pump located down in the basement" in the place of traditional doors.  The Zebra Room restaurant and the hot dog stands and even the girl's bathroom in Callie's school are rendered with such care and specificity that it's almost impossible to believe they don't exist.  And even individual scenes -- like the burning of the restaurant, or Callie and the Obscure Object's sleepovers -- come gorgeously, luminously, to life.  But, for me at least, the whole of this book doesn't hang together.  It is a story, in the sense that one event follows another in rapid succession, but it isn't a plot: the events bear no more relation to one another than fireworks shot off one after the other do.

After finishing the novel, I found this article from the New York Review of Books, which captured part of what I struggled with in it.  Mendelsohn writes, "There's no way to prove it, but I have a feeling that Middlesex began its life as two novels: a Greek immigrant story, based to whatever extent (one hopes not too great) on the author's family history; and a novel about the alluring subject of bimorphic sexuality (based, perhaps, on the sensational case, much publicized a few years ago, of a Midwestern girl who turned out, like Callie, to be genetically male)... But the graft didn't take...  There's no reason, whether in theme or meaning, that this hermaphrodite should be Greek, except that Eugenides makes her Greek, because he has a Greek story to tell as well as a hermaphrodite's story." 

I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment.  Although, as I mentioned before, we spend the first 200+ pages of the novel with Cal's parents and grandparents, the only link between their stories and his appears to be genetic.  Though we're introduced to Cal through the lens of his family, his relationships with them are sketched in at best, nowhere near the emotional center of the book.  An almost cartoonish example of this can be found on page 521, when, after literally hundreds of pages with no mention of the family matriarch, Cal writes, "Patient reader, you may have been wondering what happened to my grandmother.  You may have noticed that, shortly after she climbed into bed forever, Desdemona began to fade away.  But that was intentional.  I allowed Desdemona to slip out of my narrative because, to be honest, in the dramatic years of my transformation, she slipped out of my attention most of the time."  I'm glad Cal/Eugenides points out that this was intentional, because if he didn't, I might have thought it was really fucking sloppy.  Fortunately, he has a good reason for dropping this central character from the narrative, even after spending chapter upon chapter on her love life and struggles in the New World: she slipped his mind.  Nice save.

But it isn't just the schism between the Greek and hermaphrodite parts of the novel that bothers me.  It's the schism between every single one of the book's many set pieces.  For one example, Eugenides creates a character, Maxine Grossinger, for the sole purpose of having her die of an aneurysm, in order to throw Cal and his crush into one another's arms; Maxine's life and death are inconsequential compared to the resulting embrace, and the event is never returned to in any significant way: she's just gone.  The focus then shifts to the relationship between Cal and "the Obscure Object," whose love for each other blossoms despite the stigma of what they believe to be their lesbianism.  OK, so surely this thread won't completely drop out of the novel without explanation, right?  Wrong again.  After Cal gets hit by a car and rushed to the hospital, where the doctors discover his hermaphodism, one might expect to learn the consequences of this jarring news for the fledging love affair.  Maybe the Object will be relieved.  Maybe she will be disappointed, or scared, or angry.  What's her reaction?  We never know, because she never appears again in the novel.  The last time we see her is before Cal even finds out what he is: "I lifted my head from the stretcher to gaze at the Object... For once more she was becoming a mystery to me.  What ever happened to her?  Where is she now?" 

Good questions, all.  A quick phone call could probably answer most of them, but that's not something Cal ever considers doing.  I guess long distance was more expensive in those days.

Cal's father's death, probably the low point of the novel, also happens in a void: in a needlessly complicated sequence, a minor character convinces Cal's father that someone is holding runaway Cal for ransom.  He delivers the money, but in the ensuing high-speed chase, his car goes off a bridge and he dies.  One might expect some significant emotional consequences for Cal, especially since this death could have been prevented if Cal hadn't run away, or if he had just gotten back in touch with his family to let them know he was all right. 

But instead, his reaction is this: "Most important, Milton [Cal's father] got out without ever seeing me again.  That would not have been easy.  I like to think my father's love for me was strong enough that he could have accepted me.  But in some ways it's better that we never had to work that out, he and I.  With respect to my father, I will always remain a girl.  There's a kind of purity in that, the purity of childhood."  Huh?  That's basically the same logic as, "Mom and Dad, I'm gay.  And now that I've told you, I'm going to have to kill you."  Cal's supposed to be a hermaphrodite, not a sociopath – how could such a major emotional event be resolved for him as some kind of brow-wiping happy coincidence, all in a single paragraph?

In the climatic scene when Cal's hermaphrodism is revealed, Eugenides writes, "Chekhov was right. If there's a gun on the wall, it's got to go off.  In real life, however, you never know where the gun is hanging.  The gun my father kept under his pillow never fired a shot.  The rifle over the Object's mantle never did either.  But in the emergency room things were different... my body had lived up to its narrative requirements."  But whose narrative requirements are those?  Certainly not mine.  For me, it's not enough for a character to lose his virginity, or die violently, or lose a fortune, or turn out to have X-Y chromosomes.  If those things happen, they still have to matter: they have to have consequences, they have to come back.  When they don't, we're left stuck in the middle of nowhere.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Peter Pan in Barnes & Noble

When I was growing up, I read indiscriminately.  I read choose-your-own-adventure novels.  I read R. L. Stine.  I read cautionary tales about steroid use, unplanned pregnancies, eating disorders, drunk driving, and date rape.  I read sci-fi, fantasy, ghost stories, biographies, collections of famous quotes, screenplays, and newspaper comics.  When I went out to dinner with my parents -- which was often, since neither of them like to cook -- I always had a book with me; sometimes I brought two, as if the restaurant meal was a long flight or a subway ride to Coney Island.  I read in the car, nausea be damned.  I read when I couldn't sleep and I read when I first woke up.  I did not like everything I read, and sometimes I started a book I didn't finish, but for the most part, my relationship to books was an uncritical one.  I read nearly everything I could get my hands on.

Although I may have been an extreme case, I don't think this kind of behavior is uncommon in children, especially not the lonely ones.  Books (and their modern descendents in the Kindle and the Sony Reader) are like doors to Narnia that you can fit inside your Hello Kitty purse or the kangaroo pouch in the front of a hooded sweatshirt.  And, like portable doors, they do more than just open inward; they also shut the world out.  As Brock Clarke points out in his novel An Arsonist's Guide to Homes in New England: "...maybe this was another reason why people read: not so they would feel less lonely, but so other people would think they looked less lonely with a book in their hands, and therefore not pity them and leave them alone."

Living as I do in New York, I see people reading almost every day, on the subway or the bus, and much of the reading I see reflects a similar attitude of escape.  But there's a difference.  Though as a child I read very many bad books (the Goosebumps cover of Say Cheese and Die! springs to mind, with its Polaroid photograph of a skeleton family on vacation), and I generally didn't care about their mediocrity, even when it was pointed out to me by older readers or authority figures, I also read those books in a spirit of genuine curiosity.  In Writing Past Dark, author Bonnie Friedman describes on an occasion when she, a friend, and a friend's mother went to see a movie about a young understudy trying to make it big.  At the very beginning, the friend's mother remarked that the leading lady would, no doubt, break her leg right before the big performance, giving the heroine her chance.  Bonnie Friedman describes her surprise and confusion, as a child, when that prediction came true, then points out that she can no longer remember what it was like not to know the leading lady would break her leg -- such ignorance/innocence is gone from her forever.  But many of the readers I see on public transportation or elsewhere are long past the point of losing this innocence, and yet the titles they choose don't reflect this seismic inner change.

Here's my point: parents' and teachers' complaints over vampire romances, Harry Potter, Gossip Girl, etc., are often squelched with the retort that "at least the kids are reading," the attitude being that reading something is better than reading nothing.  I wholeheartedly agree with this refutation: reading books, even trashy books – especially trashy books – is an essential part of learning the conventions and mechanics of fiction and nonfiction.  But, over the last few years, I've noticed what I think is a disturbing trend in the opposite direction, toward adults reading either books intended for children or, at any rate, at the same level as books intended for children, and justifying it by the same logic: "Well, at least I'm reading."

Pulps have always been a part of the American publishing landscape, and I don't think there's anything wrong with guilty pleasures (hey, I used to watch the Anna Nicole show when it was on television).  But when we start behaving as though our guilty pleasures are good for us – that munching potato chips is akin to eating our vegetables – I think the world of literature is really in trouble.  Reading a schlocky romance about teenage werewolves may teach you a lot at age eleven, but at age thirty-one, it is to my mind far less intellectually "good for you" than even a great many TV commercials, in that it simply reinforces your existing assumptions. When we start seeing the act of reading at any age as virtuous in itself, regardless of content, we refuse to grow up, to own our knowledge and take on the responsibility of expanding it.  And thus, we act like babies.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Stuck in the Middle with You, pt. 1

Right now I'm reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.  I'm not even halfway done with it, so this doesn't constitute a review, but it has gotten me thinking about storytelling.  As with The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides goes way out on a limb with his choice of narrator, and, as with The Virgin Suicides, it somehow improbably works.

The first 200+ pages of Middlesex take place before the birth of the narrator, Calliope/Cal, who, we learn almost immediately, is a true hermaphrodite, born apparently female but now living adult life as a man (albeit with ambiguous genitalia).  The first chapter concerns his (I'm going to use male pronouns for the sake of simplicity) conception and birth, but then we backpedal wildly, back to the youth of Cal's grandparents, who were brother and sister, and whose incest resulted in his gender-bending gene.  It's a bizarre move, and actually made me set the book aside the first time I set out to read it: it's sort of like sitting down to watch Transamerica, only to have someone immediately change the channel to My Deeply Disturbing Incestuous Greek Wedding.  It's not that I'm uninterested in Greece or, for that matter, hot brother-on-sister action, but it was completely different than what I expected.

But this time, I found myself fascinated.  The perspective of a narrator who sees every event in his family's history as leading up to his own birth renders the world with a kind of megalomaniacal gloss, especially because, as he sometimes acknowledges but more often ignores, there's no way he could have access to the kind of information he's sharing about the sex lives and secrets of his parents and grandparents.  This is not an unheard-of technique – in fact, Lethem does it from time to time in Chronic City – but doing it to the exclusion of anything else for hundreds of pages creates a really strange effect.  Although we've spent hundreds of pages with this character, we've barely seen him interact with another human being, let alone reveal his character through choices of any consequence.  But, if character is action, then why do we feel we know this guy so well?  Our relationship with this narrator is less like our relationship to a character in fiction, and more like our relationship to an author, who reveals himself slowly through his allusions, vocabulary, and occasional personal asides.

The only comparison to Middlesex I can think of is with the television show "The Wonder Years," which is narrated by an unseen adult voice who repeatedly reminds the viewers that they're watching scenes from his childhood.  That show was decidedly odd, because although the whole world of the episodes was cast in a nostalgic glow, you didn't know the present-day context for the memories; the narrator was both familiar (you knew his voice and the kinds of things he'd say) and unfamiliar (you couldn't picture his face).  But even that isn't as strange as this, because the narrator is still a character in the show – he's just a child.  Middlesex is like a version of "The Wonder Years" directed by Spike Jonze, where the narrative follows the events of Fred Savage's parents' lives as reconstructed in Fred Savage's mind.  Also, there are silkworms.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Magician's Wife

Plenty has been said about the recent phenomenon of putting "wife" or "daughter" in the title of a book: The Time Traveler's Wife, Ahab's Wife, The Bonesetter's Daughter, The Abortionist's Daughter, The Time-Traveling Whale-Fighting Bone-Setting Fetus-Punching Badass Motherfucker's Wife's Daughter, etc. Like putting women's pink high heeled shoes on the cover, it is a signal to potential readers that "This is for you," but also a means of warding off those for whom the book is clearly not intended -- a pink-papered invitation to a girls' night out. One might also argue that it's somewhat insulting to these invitees, placing them squarely in a supporting role to the men in their lives, but in a culture where this is sold and worn, and not as court-ordered public shaming, I guess I'll pick my battles.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is, obviously, not a book in the previous category. Clarke did not title it The Magician's Wife -- and why should she have? Arabella Strange, Jonathan Strange's wife, is tertiary in importance to these two main characters, and the story it tells is not, in any meaningful respect, hers. But when I think of the book, I do keep returning again and again to her character. I loved most of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and I feel strongly that it could have been a masterpiece. But there's something missing from the center of its wondrous world, and the hole is shaped like a magician's wife.

Jonathan Strange, according to the novel, chose to become a magician "to impress Arabella with his determination to do something sober and scholarly." Her disapproval keeps him from journeying on the otherworldly King's Roads behind the mirrors of the world. Her death changes him profoundly, severing his last real link to humanity, leading him toward black magic and madness. And the novel ends with their parting. In this sense, even though Strange is the active character, the protagonist, his relationship with Arabella is essential to the plot -- emotionally, at least, the driving force behind it. But to me, she never comes to life on the page. Take this paragraph, which introduces her character:

"She was about twenty-two years of age. In repose, her looks were only moderately pretty. There was very little about her face and figure that was in any way remarkable, but it was the sort of face which, when animated by conversation or laughter, is completely transformed. She had a lively disposition, a quick mind, and a fondness for the comical. She was always very ready to smile, and since a smile is the most becoming ornament that any lady can wear, she had been known upon occasion to outshine women in three countries."

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is filled to the brim with gorgeous, delightful visual images, of magical events, of course, but no less of people. A minor character, a Frenchman named Perroquet, is described like this: "...a very small man no bigger than an eight-year-old child, and as dark as a European can be. He looked as if he had been put into the oven and baked for too long and now was rather overdone. His skin was the color of a coffee bean and the texture of dried-up rice pudding. His hair was black, twisted and greasy like the spines and quills you observe on the less succulent parts of roasted chickens." I can see him so clearly. At the end of the first chapter, when Clarke describes how "Mr. Norrell's small blue eyes grew harder and brighter and his lips tightened as if he were seeking to suppress a great and secret delight within him," I can see him clearly too. But after reading this paragraph about Arabella, I am left with no images from this moment in the scene, no impressions of particular eccentricities -- nothing but the vaguely sick feeling one gets from reading senior quotes from lame Midwestern high school yearbooks, because that last line is just as bad as, "Your never fully dressed without a smile LOL Go Cyclones!" Which is to say it fuckin' sucks.

Now hold on a second: I do not believe that every book needs “strong female characters”; I do not believe that every book needs female characters at all, weak or strong. I do not even believe that every book needs “strong human characters” (I am a fan of Animal Farm) or “strong characters” (Invisible Cities, anyone?). But I do think that, when a novel sets a precedent of incarnating its characters through sensory detail, the effect of that choice is to make the reader anticipate the same degree of concreteness with all the characters.  And if a character is then rendered vaguely and/or in clichés, the reader will inevitably take notice.  And, if it's being done for no reason, the reader will be justifiably pissed.

Everything in the above quote about Arabella is half-assed.  Numero uno: “moderately pretty”? Moderately pretty to whom? When Clarke describes Strange in an early section, writing, “Some people thought him handsome...[but] his face had two faults: a long nose and an ironic expression…[and] as everyone knows, no one with red hair can ever truly be said to be handsome,” she imparts three things to us simultaneously: concrete details about how Strange actually looks (long nose, ironic expression, reddish hair), a judgment by the speaker on those looks (handsome but with faults), and a hint that the speaker’s words should be taken with a grain of salt (unless, of course, the reader agrees that redheads are fugly). Here, though, “moderately pretty” just hangs out there like the generality it is.

Various reviewers, including the NY Times Book Review, have compared this novel to Jane Austen, but although Austen’s books may at times generalize like this about their female characters, those passages are balanced by their rich inner lives, opened to us in intimate detail on the page. Especially in Mansfield Park (to my mind her masterpiece), Austen goes out of her way to show that the personas of her young ladies – lively or prim, social or timid – are just that: personas, masks behind which their real selves strain and contort. In her novels, the complex and often contradictory desires of her women – for money, for sex, for friendship – animate them. Clarke, on the other hand, hopes to animate Arabella by simply showing us the scrim of her social graces.

And the trend continues throughout the book. One of the weirdest scenes comes shortly after Strange returns from the war, and he tells Arabella to sit down so he can look at her. After he stares at her for a time, she says, “I am sorry to disappoint you, but you never did look at me so very often. You always had your nose in some dusty old book.” The two laugh off this line as an affectionate joke, but it gives me pause. Is Arabella resentful of the distance between her husband and herself? Or does she appreciate the privacy it affords her? I don’t think Clarke needs an extensive close third-person with Arabella, because that might take over the book. But I would argue it should be possible to glean an answer to this basic question through the subtext of her actions and dialogue in the many scenes where she appears.

And the ending of the book is the weirdest part of all. Strange, having used his magic to return Arabella to the mortal world, now retreats into the Darkness he has conjured. Here’s how Clarke writes it:

“She did not offer to go into the Darkness with him and he did not ask her.

‘One day,’ he said, ‘I shall find the right spell and banish the Darkness. And on that day I will come to you.’
‘Yes. On that day. I will wait until then,’” Arabella replies.

My response to this is, “What. The. Hell.” It’s one thing for the two characters to realize they inhabit different worlds and part ways – that’s how I would have ended this. (A la Wendy and Peter Pan.) But if the Stranges’ passion is such that it can survive years of separation, why is it not strong enough to coax Arabella into the Darkness? Isn’t the Darkness a part of Jonathan, after all? There are possible explanations, of course, but none of them are offered here; instead, Clarke ends this scene on a bizarre rom-com note, with Arabella asking, “How shall I think of you?” and Strange answering, “Think of me with my nose in a book!” In other words, When we’re apart and you’re waiting faithfully for me, think of all the times we were together and I completely ignored you! Arabella’s response, of course, is to kiss him (one of the few examples of anything remotely sexual in the novel).  Huh?

In my opinion, Clarke never did the hard work of figuring out who Arabella is and what she wants. Instead, she uses the character as a device, a McGuffin to push Strange through the plot. And that's cheating. I wouldn’t recommend it for a book title, but would it have killed her to spend a little more time thinking about the magician’s wife?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Thought Experiment: The Starving Veterinarian

Imagine the following scenario. From early childhood, Bob is skilled at science and at working with his hands: he constantly takes things apart to see how they work. He has a Visible Man at the age of four that he can disassemble and reassemble. He kicks ass at "Operation!" Teachers recognize his abilities and encourage him; he stays after class to borrow books and spends long hours in the library. Biology especially fascinates him, because he loves animals, and in high school he interns at the local zoo. He majors in pre-med, but ultimately decides to go on to veterinary school, so he can continue working with animals. Although the applications are difficult, he survives the battery of tests. He goes through four years of medical training, aces his courses, even publishes some papers. But he doesn't want to be an academic: he wants to get out there and be a veterinarian. So the day he graduates, he starts applying to minimum wage jobs in retail and food service and, late at night, when everyone is asleep, he takes No-Doz and performs surgery on horses in his parents' basement.

Why do we find Bob's behavior strange? Or, more directly, why do we find the notion of the "starving artist" any less strange than that of the "starving veterinarian"? Why do we seem to think that an artist should be able to do his best work on no sleep for no money in moments stolen from a full-time job, while we would never expect the same from a veterinarian (or a publicist, or a stockbroker, or an accountant)? Why do we see an inherent contradiction in a person wanting to make art and also live comfortably, maybe even have a family, when many of the great artists of history have been aristocratic or literally patronized by kings? (Virginia Woolf thought that a woman writer needed "a little money and a room of one's own" to thrive as an artist; I don't think she'd be cheered to see that male writers today often don't have those things either.) And why does our culture persist in claiming to value artists while treating their time as literally value-less? The laws of capitalism are not the laws of nature; it is a choice to behave as though they are.

I know that things are tough all over, even for folks with "real careers."  And don't get me wrong: I don't think a good writer (or composer, painter, etc.) does his work for the money. But I don't think a good veterinarian does either. The difference is that the veterinarian is employed.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Chronic City, pt. 2: Perkus Tooth Owns Your Soul

Characters have always been the most enigmatic part of fiction writing to me. David Mamet once said, "There are no characters. There are just words on a page," and when I first heard that quote I found it liberating. It's easy to forget that writing is, by its very nature, made not of dreams or souls of feelings, but of words. There is nothing hidden: where would it hide? Everything that happens in a story, happens on the page.

Fair enough. Yet characters, even more than a novel's static images, seem capable of wriggling free from the books that give them life; stepping, like the cartoon characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, from their fictive world into our own. If a character only exists in the writer's words, how is it that we feel we can remove him from the specific scenes dramatized in the book, that we can imagine the "outtakes," the wealth of ordinary days that stretch between the novel's oases of drama? And even if we loosen this definition of character slightly, saying that the character is defined not just by the specific words the author used to capture him but, in a larger sense, by his role in the story, how is it that we feel we can remove him from those circumstances and speak meaningfully of the same entity? To do such a thing is to be like the Little Prince, who imagines a real sheep living inside a drawing of a box.  Which is to say what I'm suggesting is impossible. But it's nevertheless true, at least true for me, of the way I encounter characters in fiction.  And it was particularly true of the way I encountered Perkus Tooth, one of the primary subjects of Jonathan Lethem's unqualified masterpiece, Chronic City.

Perkus Tooth is a mouth. He eats, he smokes, he talks, talks, talks. He is a consumer of music, film, pop culture, a ravenous devourer of information. To love him is to love the sound of his voice; his friend Chase declares, "Oh I missed him, and his ridiculous language. I wanted to hear Perkus speak it again." Like the novel's Gnuppets, Perkus only exists from the waist up – or more accurately, from the neck up. Headaches afflict him, hiccups destroy him. When he finally finds a soulmate of sorts in the pit bull Ava in the book's final chapters, Lethem makes the basis of their kinship clear: "...from the first instant, before even grasping his instinctive fear, Perkus understood that Ava did her thinking with her mouth."

Perkus Tooth is a knight.  He quests for a grail, the fabled chaldron; he loves chastely; he devotes himself loyally to his kings (Brando, the Stones) and even to the haphazard alliances of his friendships – Les Non-Dupes, the Coalition of the Chaldron. A monster, the novel's "tiger," besets his city, destroys his home, slays a woman he loves. Yet he lives always by his code.

Perkus Tooth is a lazy eye, roving rudderless from subject to subject.  Perkus Tooth is a critic, defined by reactions rather than actions. Perkus Tooth is a headache, a brain filled to rupturing. Perkus Tooth is "Shattered." Perkus Tooth is a fictional character in a metafictional novel, a character clad in iconography who speaks in riddles and allusions. And yet at the same time, Perkus Tooth is irreducibly, wholly, unmistakably alive: a little man in a crushed velvet suit, no more and no less. But how does Lethem accomplish this? How is it that Perkus, laden with so many symbols, does not get buried under their weight but rather flourishes, becomes more completely himself? How is it that I feel like I now know Perkus, despite the fact that he does not, and never will, exist -- how is it that I can imagine him sitting on my couch, analyzing the finer points of Brando's performance in The Island of Doctor Moreau? What is it, for lack of a better phrase, that "brings him to life"?

So. Perkus's verbal tic is a segue, and with good reason: each time Lethem has gotten a point across, each time a motif in Perkus's behavior has become almost predictable, stable in its meaning – from the brand of weed he smokes to the reasons behind his frequent visits to Jackson Hole – Lethem changes the subject, the focus of his prose. He complicates Perkus. He keeps showing him from new angles, in new conjunctions. Though Perkus does change over the course of the book, his real depth comes not from what develops but from what is revealed to have been there all along. Like a conspiracy, he connects improbable players, positioned worlds apart. He is Richard Abneg's loser friend, Oona Laszlo's former boss (and romantic reject), Chase Insteadman's mentor, Biller's library, Lindsay's best customer (probably Watt's, too). Perkus is a madman and condescendingly sane ("A dog doesn't need a stereo," he tells Insteadman), a ringmaster and a recluse, a paranoiac and a naif. Throughout the novel, Chase Insteadman as narrator tries again and again to encapsulate him in metaphor, including some of the ones I've listed above, and yet Perkus resists every time.  As readers, we find ourselves in constant conversation with him, without hope of a final summing-up.

Perhaps Lethem himself says it best, when he writes:

"’s right to remind a reader that a character is a chimera, a shadow, a glance, far less in substance than even the shallowest human being who ever lived, it’s equally true that most characters are dwelling-places for dozens of human lives, containers for much more than a description of a single person."

Maybe the reason this character is so singular a creation is because, paradoxically, Lethem doesn't try to pin him down. The symbols that make up Perkus Tooth point in all directions, to literature, to New York City, to the personal and to the public. His obsessions have made parts of our world his -- and in the same way, as we piece him together, as we make sense of him, he becomes part of us. Lethem may claim that he is "incapable, with words and sentences, with speculations, of stealing anyone else’s soul," but he was capable of borrowing mine for long enough that I saw myself in Perkus Tooth's asymmetrical eyes, looking back.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Chronic City, pt. 1: Almost Like Being in Love

Much has been made of the "bro-mance," so popular in Hollywood of late: the stories of male friendships, often fortified with a diet of Bud and bud, platonic but more potent at times than the competing ties of sexuality and romance.  The films of Judd Apatow, Pineapple Express, Old School, the Harold and Kumar franchise, Stepbrothers, Jay and Silent Bob -- the list goes on.  Despite their box office success, these movies have been called, variously, everything from homophobic to homoerotic, not to mention misogynistic, scatological, and crude, and have been slammed more than once for celebrating relationships based on male self-indulgence and escapism, for thinking it's funny when husbands skip out on their dishwashing duties to smoke pot together behind the garage.  Though I take issue with the tone of this criticism -- lighten up, mom -- it is true that these movies are at times dismissive, or at least glib, in their treatment of female characters, and that all too often, they are disappointingly stupid. 

But at a deeper level, the movie "bro-mance" is simply a popularization of a thread long present in American storytelling, from the buddy road trip of On the Road to those two marriage-crashers, Nick Carraway and Gatsby, to the laugh-out-loud hijinks of Huck and Jim, utterly companionable even when pissed at each other.  Friendship, though less glamorous than true love and less sexy than, well, sex, is a subject that in my opinion lends itself well to long-form narrative exploration, because its stages and heartbreaks and sheer importance remain mostly unarticulated in our culture; it's necessary to write about, if only to explain it to ourselves.  We may have weddings and anniversaries, Valentines and housewarming parties to celebrate new developments in our love lives, but how do we celebrate our friends?  Usually we don't, and we only realize how much they meant to us when death -- or life -- permanently separates us.

So, when I say that Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem is a masterpiece of bro-mance, a wildly ambitious stoner novel, an epic of two guys on a couch, I mean no contradiction.  Lethem has taken on a vast challenge in painting the portrait of this friendship, and doing it (unlike so many of his aforementioned contemporaries in Hollywood) with unerring sensitivity, imagination, and depth.  It's difficult for me to even begin writing about this book, in fact, because despite the fabulist slight-of-hand that renders his Lower Manhattan invisible behind a gray cloud and sets loose eagles and what might be a tiger on the rest of the island, this book and especially its characters felt so real to me, so true and vibrant and achingly alive, it's almost impossible for me to admit that they were constructed by an author out of mere words.  I'm going to write a series of posts about the book -- probably two or three -- as my thoughts continue to percolate, but for the time being, I can only say that Chase Insteadman is right: Perkus Tooth's friendship (and ergo, his apartment) is a "magic zone," an enchanted place I never wanted to leave.  And if that's not love, I don't know what is.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Night Music for Robots

If it rains, it pours, or so they say.  For some reason, it seems to me that I tend to happen upon good books in twos or threes or fours, then, like an unlucky bowler or a gambler too long at the slots, exhaust my streak and find myself without a new text for days or weeks following.  So far I'm two for two in my current book binge: I just read Nocturnes, the new story collection by Kazuo Ishiguro, and am now deep inside the wondrous labyrinth of Lethem's Chronic City, which, if it keeps up its current pace, might actually top my personal list for best characters of all time.  But I'll talk more about that in another post. 

For the time being, I'd like to reflect a bit on Nocturnes, a book that I greatly enjoyed, but that somehow seemed to evaporate even as I was reading it, a diffuse cloud of disappearing ink.  Don't get me wrong: I am not one of those asshats who thinks story collections are "minor," that the most substantial work of a writer can always be found in his longest pieces.  I am a huge fan of Steven Millhauser's short stories and novellas, for example, and the fact that James Thurber at times professed to feeling inferior to his novelist contemporaries seems to me his only regrettable joke. 

But Nocturnes has a quality of being dashed-off -- doodled, maybe, rather than finely drawn.  Perhaps it's partly Ishiguro's prose: he's always struck me as an author for whom the writing itself was the easy part, or at least the part to be dispensed with as quickly as possible.  I saw an interview with him once wherein he described how he painstakingly maps out each detail of the action and narrative before a "crash," in which he drafts the entire book in a matter of days or at most weeks.  And at times it shows, in forgettable sentences that start with impatiently blurted exposition ("Back home, back in the communist days...") or tie in lazy "why imply what you can state" emotional shorthand ("Maybe I did feel a little stab of pain").  But usually, this matters not at all.

More than any other contemporary writer, Ishiguro is an artist of plot, that much-maligned yet irresistable force that animates fictional characters as electricity does a movie Frankenstein.  Every book of his is driven by two near-hack conceits: our hero really really wants something that's difficult to obtain (external conflict), a quest made even more difficult by a terrible secret that he can't bear to confront (internal conflict).  Like a silent filmmaker with a penchant for tying leading ladies to the train tracks, Ishiguro plies these engines of suspense mercilessly (will he get the girl and what's he hiding?), till we're sick at heart and pissed at him (fess up you stupid shit, she almost loves you!) and still reading (thanks a lot, douchebag, now I'm crying on the bus).  The summaries sound grabby but, frankly, dumb: the clone really really wants to grow old with the other clone, but she won't admit they'll both die young from untimely organ harvesting.  The detective really really wants to run off with the socialite, but he won't admit he'll never track down his missing parents.  The butler really really wants to bang the housekeeper, but he won't admit his boss is a Nazi. 

Yet somehow these books are not just un-put-downable in the bestseller sense; they're genuinely affecting, deep, and weird.  Because Ishiguro is not just a plotter, a la Syd Field or James Patterson: he is an artist of plot.  He understands it so deeply he knows what he can distort, and these distortions, though minor when they're visible at all, tilt the floors and doorframes of his stately mansions into the askew dimensions of a funhouse.  His masterpiece, The Unconsoled, drove this technique to its limits.  Rather than complicating his fictiverse with multiple narrators, varied levels of prose complexity, experimental formatting (drawings, footnotes), jumbled chronology, pastiche/parody, or any of the other jangling tools in the
(post)modern novelist's bag of tricks, Ishiguro simply tweaked the laws of cause and effect a little more than usual.  Our hero still really really wanted something, namely, to play piano brilliantly at the concert and thus win (back?) the family he loved -- but the various external obstacles preventing him somehow seemed to be extensions of himself.  And there was clearly something he wasn't admitting, to the reader or to himself -- but that secret was, in the story's world, unsayable: the meaning, revealed upon waking, of the fictive dream.

The complexity of this work is only comprehensible qua novel, of course, because the complexity doesn't emerge at the level of the sentence, but from the rules of the world.  In this sense, Ishiguro is more truly reminiscent of sci-fi or fantasy writers (Tolkien, Asimov, Orson Scott Card) than many other more overt genre-benders*, who adopt the trappings of these genres to broaden their metaphorical reach (Andrew Sean Greer's Max Tivoli) or sharpen the bite of their satire (the Saunders of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline).  Though these books use, say, the downloading of memories or the idea of aging backwards lyrically, they don't use them as a controlling force behind the plot, a determining factor behind evey thought the characters have and every decision they are capable of making.  Ishiguro, on the other hand, wants to come up with a sort of Three Laws of Robotics even when setting out to write about a butler in a recognizable, historically grounded England.  His characters do not define their own roles in the plot; they are defined by those roles, constrained by them, incapable of imagining themselves or their lives outside of the system their author has set up. 

But back to Nocturnes.  Though these stories don't fail to alarm and delight (my favorite features plastic surgery and an ill-fated roast turkey), their length keeps them from revealing the accretionary power of Ishiguro's plotting.  These characters' fates are sad, or at least melancholy -- but we do not have time to dread them.  They do not bear down on us with the force of their inescapability.  Where his earlier novels may depict the woman tied to the track, the schedule of trains, the lowering of the guard rails, in these stories we glimpse only the freight cars rattling by.

*Of course, one could argue that Ishiguro has done his own bit of overt genre-bending, with his detective and clone novels respectively -- but in my opinion, the use of genre in these books still figures more into the construction of rules for the world than what that genre as an existant genre evokes.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Some Kind of Monster

When I was a freshman in college, several older girls lived in my dorm building who wore velvet Ren Fair costumes, braided their hair like Princess Leia, and periodically went out to the otherwise unused soccer field next to the parking lot to hit each other with foam swords.  Unlike most of the other students at my college, these girls were not drunk, on drugs, having a nervous breakdown, or attempting to make "performance art."  They were LARPers, which I quickly learned meant "Live Action Role Players."  I have never LARPed myself, but over the next four years I learned to diagnose the tendency, in the same way that a soldier in World War I would learn the signs of shell-shock.  At my school, LARPers tended to have a certain nasal pitch to their voices, a certain Middle Earth quality to their style.  The men wore shirts with lacy cuffs, the women corsets and hooded capes.  For some reason unknown to me, their fingernails tended to be unusually long, but unpainted, talony.  One LARPer wrote a purportedly nonfiction essay for class about a young girl discovering she was a werewolf, in the same coming-of-age way that another young woman might discover she was a lesbian ("'Why am I different?' the girl would ask herself, roaming beneath the light of the harvest moon"); the essay concluded with the line, "And that little girl was me."  Another LARPer wrote and performed in a full-length theatrical production about Eleanor of the Aquitaine, which involved a fully articulated Pope puppet and musical compositions by several students who opted to keep their names out of the program. 

Like the Rastas, New Agers, vegans, and nihilists I knew throughout my college years, some of the LARPers were nice, some were insane, and some were nice and insane.  Though I couldn't bring myself to feign interest in any activities involving their magic staffs or pendulous owl-shaped medallions, I considered them harmless, even charming in their imaginative enthusiasm, and it didn't seem outside the realm of possibility that, at some point in the future, they might write a poem, put on a play, or design a costume that I would unironically love.  I don't doubt that if I were to get back in touch with them, this would likely be the case.

So when I say the film Monster Camp was one of the most horrifically depressing documentaries I have ever seen, beating out by a long shot films like American Movie and even the Thin Blue Line (after all, in that one at least they CATCH THE GUY), I want to preface this remark by saying that, as truly weird as the behavior of LARPers can be, I do not find that behavior in and of itself depressing, or even unfamiliar.

Monster Camp is a film about the Seattle-area chapter of NERO, a role-playing organization that arranges LARPing weekends in what appears to be some sort of nature preserve.  (A scene where two hikers are interviewed about the foam-sword melee they just glimpsed amid the trees provides one of the film's few breaths of reality.)  Although we are repeatedly assured that the rules of the game are dictated by a handbook that outweighs most debut story collections, what is captured on video more closely resembles a horde of frizzy-haired nine year olds pretending to be pirates.  The filmmaker follows the game-players home from NERO weekends to their everyday lives, where fluorescent-lit programming jobs or big box stockboy positions give the lie to their alternate lives as warriors or the undead.

I mentioned the film American Movie earlier.  I loved that picture, and felt strongly that, despite the presence of Christopher Guest hovering over scenes of stunts gone wrong and repeated mispronounciations of "coven," the filmmaker managed to locate something very real and very meaningful in his central character's attempts to make art.  Perhaps one reason that movie succeeded was because Chris Smith, the maker of the documentary, couldn't help but see something of himself reflected in another filmmaker.  But, for whatever reason, real emotion did creep into the final cut.  In his relationships with friends and family, with his community, with his art, our protagonist didn't become heroic, exactly, but he was revealed as a whole person whose interior life couldn't easily be summed up or dismissed out of hand.

But, although Cullen Hoback, the auteur behind Monster Camp, is clearly reaching for some similar revelations, I for the life of me couldn't find them here.  Yes, these characters long to escape, and they sometimes acknowledge that (one of the most powerful moments is when a disabled player points out that, in a fantasy world, she doesn't have to have a wheelchair).  But you don't have to see a movie to know that people who put on face paint and pretend to be monsters are trying to escape. 

For me, the big surprise of Monster Camp is how little these folks surprised me.  It's as though they read a handbook on how to behave exactly how we'd expect: if in-game they act and dress like characters we've seen from a dozen lame fantasy flicks, out-of-game they could be extracts from a flatfooted high school movie about nerds.  Where are the details here?  Besides an ice cream cone-shaped model rocket and an underexplained Coke can collection, they're MIA.  There's nothing bizarre, nothing twisted, lurking here, nothing to love or hate -- nothing glimmering in those eyes except for the reflected images of a World of Warcraft screen.  In the sections focusing on their real lives, these characters appear almost interchangable, their steering switched to cruise control.  We see no passion, no anger, no grief.  We see only gamers.  Have the souls of these people crept out of their bodies, into a realm of utter fantasy?  Are their lives simply empty houses with the lights still on? 

I found this obliteratingly sad, worse than a movie shot outside a methadone clinic at the end of the world.  But as I continue to think about it, I also seriously doubt it's true.  I think Hoback simply failed to capture the footage that would lift this story from pathetic (in the modern, derogatory sense of the term) to "full of pathos."  Maybe the problem was his strategy.  After all, in American Movie, Chris Smith didn't set out to make a movie about the phenomenon of loser Midwestern filmmakers.  He set out to make a movie about Mark Borchardt, director of "Coven."  Instead of trying to capture the phenomenon of LARPing and what it means to LARPers in general, maybe Hoback should have tried to capture what LARPing means within the context of a particular life.  Or, even better, just captured the images of that life, without trying to explain them.  I think again of the werewolf I once knew, how she would emerge from her dorm building topless during fire drills, the way she stood up once and howled during philosophy class, the Harry Potter sorting hat she wore to our graduation and how she moved the tassel across the brim after she received her diploma.  She didn't symbolize a subculture: she was simply, unavoidably, herself.  And as such, she never failed to surprise.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"The imagination is a dying animal."

In my first post on this blog, I admitted that I do not entirely understand my own taste -- that sometimes I am moved beyond reason by writing or films or television or even advertisements that do not satisfy my own stringent criteria for greatness.  And I promised that, from time to time at least, rather than pretending to be a stainless priestess of high art, I would acknowledge and even try to articulate why I love the things I do.

I'm going to come right out and say it: I love the Kids in the Hall.  I love them beyond sense or reason.  I laugh every time I watch them, despite the fact that they're sometimes not funny.  Sometimes I laugh because they're not funny.  The summer before I left for college, Comedy Central played two episodes of Kids in the Hall every day in the afternoon.  I watched these episodes every day.  I also tape recorded them and have watched them repeatedly since then.  There are many TV series that I find sporadically entertaining, that I'll watch when they're on: South Park, the Wire, who the hell knows.  Fundamentally, though, it would make zero difference to me if these shows had never existed.  Not so with Kids in the Hall.  Kids in the Hall is my show.  Something in it speaks to me.

I once had a professor who told us that, when asked to name his influences, Borges listed a very strange assortment of authors, including Robert Louis Stevenson, who was considered something of a hack writer at the time (and is still regarded that way by many, despite the patina of age that has transformed several of his books into "classics").  This professor told us that our own work would benefit if we followed Borges's example.  Instead of copying the writers we saw as the most accomplished or influential, we should take our inspiration from the writers who excited us the most, regardless of what they actually had achieved.  In fact, if they were second-rate, so much the better.  That way, we'd be mining uncharted territory, rather than picking over the dust and nuggets left in a ghost town after the rush.

Obviously, this professor wasn't saying we should be inspired by the flawed techniques or sloppiness of these mediocrities.  He was saying, though, that respecting, say, the craft of Raymond Carver doesn't mean you have to write about realist characters getting divorces in laundromats.  This is a sentiment echoed by George Saunders in an interview.  After naming a handful of writers -- Gogol, Hemingway, Kafka -- whose influence he still feels, he goes on to say, "But I think also, lately, I'm starting to be more honest about the fact that there are a lot of TV influences and pop culture stuff in there too. You know, in a funny way I'm starting to rethink the whole influences thing. It feels to me like you're born with certain neurological tendencies or affinities, and then you just kind of walk through the world picking out the things that feed that."

As a writer, I understand this perfectly: in my own art anything goes.  If Kids in the Hall, or for that matter, the New Kids on the Block, inspire me, it doesn't matter; the only thing that counts is the end product of what I create.  But as someone who wants to write critically about narrative art, this troubles me.  How much of my experience of, say, Kids in the Hall, is a result of my "neurological tendencies or affinities," and how much is a result of my considered judgment?  And, if I admit that most of my experience is a result of these affinities, then what does that say about my opinion of a film or novel I regard as a masterpiece? 

Wittgenstein, to rope him into my arguments again, once wrote, "When I read over a poem or narrative with feeling, surely something goes on in me which does not go on when I merely skim the lines for information.  What process am I alluding to?  The sentences have a different ring."  When I first started dating my partner, I couldn't believe he didn't love Kids in the Hall.  I "told" him many of their jokes and sketches, which I had memorized, or nearly, and he generally thought they were funny.  When we watched the aforementioned videotapes together, though, back in my childhood home, he still didn't love it the way I did.  "They draw every joke out for way too long," he argued.  "And a lot of it just isn't that funny."

A teenager tells his uncaring parents, "You have carpet on your hearts."  A young man rhapsodizes about the legs of his lover as she stands in the water: "Like God's own barge poles."  A blues guitarist sings, "You can't use your tongue to stop a fan," and his back-up drummer sticks out his tongue to reveal a prominent band-aid.  A pyromaniac French woman pouts when her boss puts out a fire: "Monsieur!  Mon feu!"  A bearded lady declares, "We're freaks!  We can drink as much as we want!" and a confused waiter replies, "But don't you get drunk?"  "Of course," replies her companion, the Chicken Lady.  "My brain is only the size of a waaaalnut."  After writing this paragraph, I went to the Kids in the Hall Wikipedia site to look for more examples and laughed so hard I literally started crying.  But my partner has watched these episodes, and though he saw the same show I saw, he didn't see in it what I saw.  It didn't have the same ring.

I'd argue that, with a truly accomplished piece of art, it doesn't all just come down to the randomness of taste.  There are things we can point to, structurally and at the level of the sentence, that clearly denote a rigorous craftsmanship in the piece's design and execution.  But as much as I admire these qualities, and as fascinating as I think they are to talk and think about, they're not necessarily the reason I love the piece in question -- or at least not the reason I fell in love with it in the first place.

Who says a blog post has to have an ending?

Friday, October 23, 2009

On isolation

The writer hates our world.  The writer wants to escape.  The writer builds a time machine, a magic door, a tunnel through the center of the earth.  The writer puts on the skin of a cat, a horse, a Frenchman, a woman, and plays pretend alone, always alone.  The writer daydreams.  The writer does not have time for you.  The writer will not accept what's given to him.  The writer builds his own world instead.

But the writer also loves our world.  The writer wants to know the names of all the trees.  The writer wants to know how the glovemaker makes gloves, how the hotelier designs hotels, what's really in a sausage.  The writer eavesdrops on the cab driver, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the ladies who lunch.  The writer observes.  The writer cannot go home alone, not tonight -- stay for another drink.  The writer takes what he gets.  The writer wants to communicate.

This paradox doesn't just apply to writers, of course.  The act of making art, real art, is both fundementally public and deeply private, both a form of communication and an obsessive, anti-social behavior.  There's something unhealthy about it.  We long to be discovered and, like criminals, fear discovery.  When Henry Darger was dying in the hospital, his landlord came by to see him.  "We found your paintings when we were cleaning out your room.  They're beautiful," he told the artist.  He knew Darger had never shared his work with anyone and feared he might be upset.  Henry Darger smiled, then shook his head.  "Too late, too late."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Riddle Me This

Knock knock.
Who's there?
Banana who?
Knock knock.
Who's there?
Banana who?
Knock knock.
Who's there?
Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn't say banana again?

Unfortunately for the adults in my life, the above is the first joke I learned as a small child, and for awhile, it was the only one I told.  I still remember the satisfaction it gave me.  There's a power in the structure of a joke: the set up (knock knock), the complication (which is this case is drawn out for an extra two beats: banana, banana, orange), and then the resolution ("Orange you glad I didn't say banana again?").  In this most basic sense, this is the structure of a conventional story.

In the mid-60's, a young man was dating a girl named Lorraine that his parents hoped he would marry.  However, he was in love with a hippy chick who played folk guitar and called herself "Clearly."  Despite his feelings he allowed himself to be pushed into an engagement with Lorraine.  Fortunately for him, on the day before their wedding, Lorraine unthinkingly stepped in front of a bus and was killed instantly.  Upon hearing the news, the young man declared, "I can see Clearly now, Lorraine is gone!"

The similarity between jokes and fables or parables is, to me, obvious.  Both "explain away" weird imagery or bizarre events with a punchline that all at once reveals the organizing force behind the narrative, a force that, up until that point, has gone unnoticed.  The moral of, say, the ant and the grasshopper ("Be prepared for lean times") may not be funny, but it reduces these characters and their situation as a tool we can apply to our own lives, in the same way that "I can see Clearly now, Lorraine is gone," reduces the proto-characters in the love triangle to the homophonious sounds of their names.  The last line releases us from our emotional investment in the dear departed Lorraine in the same way the moral releases us from our investment in the dear departed grasshopper.

Immediately the fairy gave a stroke with her wand, and in a moment all that were in the hall were transported into the prince's dominions. His subjects received him with joy. He married Beauty, and lived with her many years, and their happiness -- as it was founded on virtue -- was complete.

We expect a similar kind of release in the endings of longer stories.  The fairy tale's "happily ever after" is the most obvious example.  An ending of "happily ever after" moves the characters back from the specificity of a human situation unfolding in space and time into an abstract, purely fictive zone.  In the Disney film version of Beauty and the Beast, this is visually literalized: at the end the animated characters we've been watching for nearly the whole film freeze for all time into a still image made of stained glass.  But this is also true in many stories intended for adults.  Jane Austen's novels retreat into stasis: at the end of Sense and Sensibility, we are told in the last line that the two sisters, fundementally opposed throughout the novel, "live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands."  And modern novels too: Joe Meno's The Boy Detective Fails concludes with the (up till now) solitary, nostalgic, and clinically depressed title character declaring, "It's all over now.  I'm not young anymore.  No more adventures, no more mysteries, no more secrets," to which his lady love gives the suitably vague response, "We'll make our own secrets now, maybe."  After endings like these, further action isn't just omitted; it's actually impossible under the terms of the story we've just witnessed.

I'm not categorically dismissing endings of this punchline- or "happily ever after"-variety, because I think they can be remarkably effective.  But they do bear more resemblance to the structure of a joke than to the structure (or rather non-structure) of "real life."  So why is it that some readers assume that the "meaning" of a story comes entirely at the end, in the same way the "meaning" of a riddle comes from its solution?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Je Ne Sais Quoi

In my first-ever writing workshop, the teacher had one rule for our discussions: you were not allowed to lift your eyes from the story's pages.  Any comment you made had to be a comment about something that was literally printed in the text.  A story is made up of words, and he felt that any criticism or praise of the story had to be criticism or praise of those actual words.  This seems obvious, but at least to me at the time, it was a revelation.

The craft of writing is not mysterious, or at least it is not inherently mysterious.  Words have definitions.  Sentences have grammar.  Paragraphs are long or short, have sentence variation or they don't.  And, at least in conventional fiction, story structures have a kind of grammar too (see my posts on the film A Serious Man).  Yet somehow, many readers feel that something in fiction is indefinable, that it can't be pinpointed, that it somehow exists beyond the words on the page, and that to look at it too closely can cause it to vanish. 

I am of two minds about all this.  A workshop professor who espouses such a view makes me about as nervous as a surgeon who's worried about cutting into a patient's soul.  But at the same time, I think we've all had moments when we scribbled something down, and though it wasn't yet ready for another reader's eyes, we knew we had found It, that spark that brings a piece of prose to life.  What's the deal with that?

Friday, October 16, 2009

That's Gotta Hurt: Some Thoughts on Violent Movies

When I was a kid, I watched gangster movies with my dad. My mother has never liked violent films, so I think he was pleased that he finally had someone he could share pistol whippings, broken glass, car chases, shoot-outs, and double-crosses with, even if it was his eleven-year-old daughter. To my credit, though I sometimes covered my eyes, even at that age I loved these movies, which I will generally call "film noir," despite the fact that some people use that term only to refer to the films of the 1940's and 50's. One of the main things that intrigued me about them were the characters, who were not like any characters I'd seen before.

A lot of movies intended for children actually do have intense violence, or at least intensely disturbing action. Parents die, siblings die, a kid has to KILL HIS OWN DOG OR BE KILLED WTF (Old Yeller). However, two things are notable about the role this violence plays in the story. First, it almost always takes place off-screen. There are a handful of exceptions to this, but even when the violence is glimpsed, it is not visually articulated -- there's not an interest in distilling it, stylizing it, extending it, exploring it, for maximum intensity. Second, the violence in kids' movies is always entirely justified or entirely evil, and accordingly, the characters themselves are either good or bad.

Side note: I am using "kids' movies" here as the name of a genre. There are certainly some movies intended for children that do not meet the criteria I'm describing here -- Time Bandits and Tideland by Terry Gilliam, the films of Tim Burton, the Dark Crystal, and Babe Pig in the City, for example, all use violence and shading in a way that is notably unusual for their intended audience. I'm also not slamming "kids' movies" as a genre: Disney's best animated films are masterful, decadent romps, as pleasurable to watch as the Beatles are to listen to. But I'm seeking here to contrast the logic of their fictive worlds with the logic of noir -- a very different animal indeed.

When I began watching noir, I was struck with the knowledge that the characters I saw were real, in a way that the inhabitants of Sleeping Beauty's castle were not. At the time, I couldn't articulate why this was. Considering my sheltered and privileged suburban existence, my reality was probably actually closer to that of a princess in a tower, and it would have been easy to dismiss my reaction to the films of Scorsese et al as a knee-jerk response to their appearance of grittiness, in the same way that a beggar's subway pitch might engage us with its pitiful details ("I'm thirty-two years old, an Iraq war veteran, and my cat and I are both HIV positive") while still being a lie. However, now that I'm older, I can see what it is that I was responding to.

When violence is played out on screen, when it is a significant part of the action in a movie or novel, the literal tangibility of the characters is revealed to us. When a character like Jack Nicholson's in Chinatown walks around for the whole movie with a bandage on the side of his face, or Leonardo DiCaprio's arm is broken completely and with enthusiasm in The Departed, we are placed not outside of those characters, using their story to learn a moral lesson, but inside of their bodies: "That's gotta hurt." (Sex in movies functions the same way. In the truly erotic, we also -- and more happily -- project ourselves literally into the skin of another character.)

Moreover, a well-done scene of violence, like any well-done scene, is not reducible to a simple, "And then that happened." When violence is played out in scene, the importance is shifted from the fact that the violence happened to the way it happened. I remember the first time I saw the film LA Confidential, a movie I became obsessed with for most of junior high. At the beginning of the movie, there is a terrible scene of police brutality: wrongly believing that several Hispanic prisoners in custody sent their colleagues to the hospital, a bunch of drunken cops go down to the holding pen and beat them within an inch of their lives. The scene is horrifying, but the moment I remember is when Jack Vincennes, the character played by Kevin Spacey, steps into the fray to break things up. He's a nice guy, but arrogant, a dandy, and one of the prisoners knocks into him, getting blood on his white jacket and tie. Vincennes promptly punches him in the face. Does this excuse his actions, even in the context of the story? No. Does it explain them? Unfortunately, yes. Though we may still condemn him, seeing the violence as it actually plays out forces us to understand him -- which leads to the disturbing feeling of complicity many people complain about in violent films.

Again, this is not to say that violent films for adults cannot be just as empty and stupid and disappointing as hideous children's shit like Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. But I do think that, often, violence in a movie can serve a purpose nothing else can.

That's right, kids: sometimes violence is the answer.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On social awkwardness

Writers don't like to talk because of what they might say. Writers don't have peripheral vision. Writers see one word at a time, a little planet, sometimes orbited by punctuation. Writers have a flashlight in the cave, no map. Writers want a rewind/erase button. Writers want a lawyer present at all times -- a lawyer and an absolving priest. Writers want an auto-complete function for social niceties.

Writers who like to talk like to tell stories, which isn't talking at all: it's recitation. Writers strew words in all directions like a child digging through a toybox, looking for something at the bottom. Writers close their eyes to hide themselves. Writers talk too fast.

Writers like a drink to hold when they're talking -- coffee or preferably a beer. Even better, someone's hand. It's easy to get lost in the forest of language, in the branches, in the dark.

Writers like to talk in the car with the radio on, with raindrops coming down and wipers squeegeeing the glass. Writers shouldn't know they're being taped, being filmed, being photographed. Writers don't know how to pronounce words they've written a million times. Writers aren't really here -- they're in their books.

This writer, anyway.

The Road, or Dad You Suck

Did God create man, or did man create God? This question has been pondered by great thinkers (Nietzsche) and not-so-great thinkers (the Kids in the Hall, stoned philosophy majors) since the mid-morning of human history, when things with the sabertoothed hyenas had cooled off enough for the pondering to commence. And it's been the subject for no small amount of literature since then, from po-mo shindigs like The Dead Father to the grotesque stylins of Flannery O'Connor.

Although The Road by Cormac McCarthy is, like most masterpieces, about a lot of things -- nuclear winter, cannibalism, suicide, and canned pears also top the list -- I would argue that it is also in large part about this question, and that its answer is a strange one. To me, The Road emphatically takes the position that our universe is Godless and seriously fucked up, but that paradoxically, it is for that very reason that our idea of God is so precious and important.

In The Road, a man and his son -- both unnamed -- travel across an America transformed by nuclear winter into a wasteland of swirling ash. Each is "the other's world entire." The father is no hero. Over the course of the novel, he kills (or effectively kills) two men; he cannot dissuade his wife from committing suicide; he does not help the sick and starving they pass along the way. His only goal is survival for himself and his boy.

But -- and here is the interesting part -- the father, who could tell his son anything and be believed, who could easily paint himself as utterly justified in all his actions, has instead chosen to teach the boy to believe in ideals that he himself doesn't live up to, ideals that have no real place in a world of cannibal gangs and scorched human skeletons: ideals like generosity and heroism and morality, and yes, even God.

Like any parent trying to do the right thing, of course, he finds this comes back to haunt him. As the son gets older, rather than becoming more realistic and pragmatic, he becomes more intensely idealistic, beginning to see how they fall short of the "good guys" featured in his father's lessons: "The boy looked at him and looked away. Those stories are not true... in the stories we're always helping people and we dont help people." The son is so utterly convinced of the truth of the father's philosophy that it in fact distances him from the very man who taught the philosophy to him. Yet, in the world of the novel, we never see any evidence (until the very end) that the type of goodness the father describes still even exists. The "fire" the father refers to is not one placed in him by God; it is one kindled in his son through the power of his words.

Raised on his father's stories, the boy is "an alien," "a creature from a planet that no longer existed." Despite the fact he has never known anything else, he is still shocked to see cooked human flesh; he is concerned with the morality of looting, even though it is their livelihood and is unsuspicious of strangers. At times, the boy's naivete and dogmatism is almost annoying to the reader. But the father is never annoyed by it. He reinforces it, encourages it. And, at the end of the story, in a final, unheroic act, the father cannot bring himself to sacrifice it: even though he promised he would never leave the boy, and even though the boy has no obvious way of surviving on his own, when the father is dying he cannot bring himself to kill his child. "I cant hold my dead son in my arms. I thought I could but I cant," he says, describing even this final act of love in terms of his own frailty, his own shortcomings. He is like a Biblical Abraham in reverse: when tested to prove his faith, he chooses the life of his son over his ideals. Yet those ideals live on, in the boy.

There is a moment in the novel when the father is going through the wreckage on board a beached ship and he finds a beautiful brass sextant still in its case. "It was the first thing he'd seen in a long time that stirred him," McCarthy writes. A sextant, a nautical navigation device, allows human beings to chart their course in the path of the stars. The father himself is like that sextant. He is like a tool who allows the boy to chart his course by something far loftier and more eternal than himself.

I think what I love so much about The Road is what it suggests about parenthood: that a truly good parent is humble enough to teach his kid to look beyond his own example, toward something greater; that a truly good parent trains his children to be disappointed in him. Maybe he's not a hero, but he's a damn sight better than some white guy in the sky.