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 fiancĂ© 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.