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 clich├ęs, 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:

"...it’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.