Sunday, February 28, 2010

Do You Believe in Magic?

Believe it or not, working at a low-level position in the publishing industry does not have many perks.  I do not spend my days clad in a bikini of diamonds body-surfing through a Scrooge McDuck swimming pool of coin, nor do I speed a company Mercedes convertible down the West Side Highway as part of my morning commute.  However, when I get lucky, I do get to see an occasional Advanced Reading Copy of a book before it's published, and this time, though I am not affiliated with Random House or any of its imprints, I was fortunate enough to get my greedy paws on Aimee Bender's new novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which doesn't come out till June.  I'm not going to write a full review here, because, as the back matter sternly indicates, the galley takes its text from uncorrected proofs and is not to be confused with the finished product.  I also feel like I need to give the book another chance, since I was suffering a lingering hangover from my latest Pynchon binge when I cracked its spine.  But it did get me thinking a bit about magical realism, so I thought I'd jot down some thoughts on that subject while they were still fresh in my mind.

In a recent interview, the New Statesman asked Jonathan Lethem if he considers himself a "magical realist."  Lethem's response was both pithy and hilarious: "I've always resisted the phrase, finding both terms - 'magic' and 'realist' - shaky at best, with unwelcome or unexamined assumptions camped out all around them. Some of this reaction is deeply rooted: as a child I hated the whole disingenuous kabuki of stage magicians. I identified with 'Hot Town, Summer in the City' but not 'Do You Believe In Magic?'"  Although I disagree with what he goes on to say about Marquez, something about this statement resonates with me (and it's not just the image of a pint-size Lethem critically assessing birthday party entertainers and the oeuvre of the Lovin' Spoonful).  "Magic" or "magical" are words that, when applied to fiction, do indeed summon up "unwelcome" associations: of pure escapism, of children's books, of deus ex machina, of "fate" or "destiny" subbing in for legitimate character motivations.  The same slipshod approach to storytelling that scared me off of superhero films as a genre until recently has many intellectuals rejecting "fantastic fiction" sight unseen.  A friend of mine recently mentioned a former professor who refused to rent the Lord of the Rings films because he wouldn't watch anything "that has unicorns in it."  Though his students explained that unicorns were in fact not in evidence in any of the three films, he would not be dissuaded.

The Fellowship of the OMG PONIES!!!!1

Yet magic is a primordial force in storytelling, one that predates anything resembling "realism" in the collective imagination of mankind.  Tales of God or gods, of talking animals, of heroes on unlikely quests, form the foundation on which our current literature rests.  A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see a magic show at Proteus Gowanus art space in Brooklyn, where Acep Hale, street performer extraordinaire, integrated his flawless execution of classic tricks (no "disingenuous kabuki" here) with a lecture about the role of the shaman in historical narratives from ancient times to the present.  The shaman's arc -- a descent into an underworld of some kind, a reforming of the person, and a re-emergence changed -- is one of the most basic stories we as humans tell ourselves, and it accounts at least in part for our fascination with figures from Harry Houdini to Jesus Christ.  But a story doesn't need a shamanic character to take its cues from the magical.  Even superficially plausible modern fiction (like the later epiphany stories of Ray Carver, the family epics of Faulkner, the degradations of Mary Gaitskill, etc.) is often structured in ways that intentionally evoke myths, religious parables, and even fairy tales.

So why is it that when magic is literalized in a story, it often gives the reader pause?  The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake offered me some clues.

Sadness centers on an ordinary young girl, Rose, who at age nine, discovers she has a magical power: the ability to taste the emotions of the chef in whatever food she consumes.  I haven't read Bender's last novel, but her short fiction often centers around characters whose emotional states are similarly made manifest.  (For example, in her story "Marzipan," a man who loses his father wakes up with a hole in his stomach the "size of a soccer ball"; his wife gives birth to an old lady who looks and acts just like her departed mom.)  These stories read as metaphors, smart and small.  Yet in Sadness, Bender extends her conceit for nearly 300 pages.  As the story progresses, Rose comes to prefer pre-packaged food, created in factories, which, oddly enough, she distinguishes first and foremost by their geographic locations: Louisiana, New Jersey, Kentucky.  She discovers her mother's infidelity from a platter of roast beef, and ultimately finds work in a French restaurant where the food is "beautiful."  But unlike, say, Dickens, Bender isn't obsessed with the sensuality of food: for a book with "cake" in the title, her descriptions of flavors, aromas, textures are cursory at best.  When Rose embarks on a tour of LA area restaurants (seeking that elusive thing, a truly happy meal), what we get mostly amounts to a list.  And Bender's not obsessed with cooking either, its rituals and necessities and jargon, the way it carves up time: in fact, except for the initial cake-baking scene, the most memorable evocation of food preparation is in a short description of a factory with a "no touch" system where enchiladas slide off a conveyor belt without ever encountering a human hand. 

I think what interests Bender most is the psychology of the characters.  But that psychology is glossed over, too.  The problem here, as I see it, isn't the magic but the realism.  It's clear from the way she writes Rose that Bender wants her to be a relatable character -- ordinary, likable, familiar -- living in a world very like our own.  Rose loves a handsome older boy, a friend of her brother's; she worries about popularity and her parents; she learns to drive.  Bender makes a point of telling us that Rose has no particular interests, nothing to set her apart; the great tragedy of her young life, along with her parents' troubled marriage, is that her brother is the family genius, tormented and beloved, while she's only average.  Bender also endows her with a magical power, one that would, realistically, make anyone she described it to think she was crazy, or lying, or both.  It's a power that disorders her relationship with food, that allows her to read minds, a power that was granted by an unknown force or that results from a profound, unheard-of mutation in her genes.  Yet somehow, Rose does not fear she's going insane; she doesn't use her ability to manipulate those around her; she doesn't research the phenomena and find others of her kind; she does not become convinced that her superpower makes her superior to her peers, called for some peculiar mission, or inferior, cursed by an unseen Creator.  She doesn't go to great lengths to keep it secret, but, until the final pages, she also doesn't press the issue with anyone who would feel compelled to react: her parents, a teacher, a psychiatrist.  (At one point she mentions it to a distracted school nurse, but they speak at comical cross-purposes; her one childhood freak-out is easily resolved when she eats a bowl of chicken soup.)  She does not even become anorexic or obese.  Bender does not allow the magic to bear meaningfully on the realism, and so the magic stays removed from it -- abstract, fanciful, and therefore tough to swallow, if you'll pardon the pun.

Because, as I said, I'm not reviewing this book here, I won't delve into the subplots about Rose's brother's disappearances, her grandma's care packages, or her father's fear of hospitals, and I won't try to address the overall structure or prose.  I'd also like to add that Bender is a highly original writer, and I'm not coming to any final conclusions about the novel just yet.  But I will say that it's this kind of magic that gives me pause as a reader.  I will accept anything in the world of the story: an apocalypse, dream logic, clones, time travel, a tiger loose in Manhattan, a boy who can fly, yes, even unicorns.  (Thank you, Haruki Murakami.)  All that I ask is that the author stay as fascinated with her own magic for long enough to explore its natural conclusions.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Mid-Day Report

If a short story is shorter than a novella, and a novella is the kid sister of the novel, then it stands to reason that there should be something that dwarfs all of these: a novellum?  A novelot?  Though we may not have a name for the form, that doesn't stop Pynchon from writing them.  It's not just the length I'm referring to here: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, for example, is hardly shorter than one of Pynchon's tomes, and the Harry Potter series, viewed as a single work, is double the length, if not triple, of any one of Mr. P's masterpieces.  But I'd hardly claim Clarke or Rowling's books exist outside the category of Mansfield Park and A Tale of Two Cities.  Their plots obey familiar rules; their structures fall into patterns the average novel-reader can easily predict.  The fact that they can be serialized easily, as multiple volumes or as a series of films or miniseries, reveal them to be nothing more than a series of friendly, approachable fictive units, sitting atop one another's shoulders, clad in a stiltwalker's clothes.

Pynchon, though, is different.  Just as a giant is distinguished not only by his height, but by his curious phrenology, the otherworldly proportions he displays in his limbs and hands and feet, so too are Pynchon's novels marked even at the level of the chapter, the paragraph, the sentence, as the mutants that they are.

An artist's rendering of AGAINST THE DAY alongside two other novels

As readers may remember, I embarked on my ill-advised journey into the giant's mountain cave back in December, when I began reading AGAINST THE DAY.  I am sad to report that after two full months, I am only halfway through the novel(lum), and no closer to unlocking many of its mysteries. 

AGAINST THE DAY is not just a historical novel, but a novel about the past: about innocence, about boys' adventure novels, about the legacy of parents on their children.  And about time travel, let's not forget that.  We move through its pages like these ghostly visitors from a tainted, darker future, unable to quite touch the characters who -- with their blazing red hair or their uncorrupted sensual passions or their inescapable missions or their half-mystical scientific theories -- seem to fly through the world fueled only by air and wonder.

What is this book about?  Icelandic spar.  Revenge.  Two women named Estrella.  Anarchy, dynamite.  A family of magicians.  A dog who reads.  The World's Fair.  A zeppelin.  A harmonica academy.  Venice.  A vehicle that explores under sand.  Eternal youth.  Photography.  An avalanche.  A weapon based on time.

I am not going to lie to you: it is very difficult to follow the "story" of AGAINST THE DAY.  There are several threads I can think of off the top of my head: the story of the Traverse family, headed by patriarch Webb, an anarchist bomber, whose children Reef, Kit, Frank, and Lake scatter in all directions after his untimely passing; Dally Rideout, whose father Merle raises her when her mother runs off to form a new family with impresario Zombini the Mysterious; the Fraternity of the Venturesome Chums of Chance, a crack team of do-gooders who, it's strongly implied, are at least in part fictional; Lew Basnight, an amnesiac detective who uses explosives as a recreational drug and pals around with Englishmen Neville and Nigel; Yashmeen Halfcourt, a beautiful mathematician -- and on and on.  And, as I suggested before, these stories hardly break down into managable fictive units.  Characters appear in passing, then return to dominate a section or chapter; Pynchon lavishes detail on settings that, like the World's Fair, are rapidly dismantled before they can ever be fully explored.  Reading this book is an exhausting experience.

And yet.  I went away over the weekend, and on the train struggled through some fifty or so pages of this novel, only to set it aside.  I felt frustrated that I had not finished the book yet, that I wasn't even close, and that it seemed like I would need to start from the beginning as soon as I finished, if I wanted to be able to comment meaningfully on it.  I planned this blog post to be a tombstone to the reading project, an admission of defeat, a white flag raised to the forces of the forty-hour work week and the Playstation 3.  And yet.  On the train ride back, I read another novel, one I'll talk about in the next post, perhaps, a light, approachable novel about cakes and high school, and it happened to me again.  That old feeling, the same one I had after finishing GRAVITY'S RAINBOW: the feeling that next to Pynchon, nothing has substance, nothing has depth.  And it drove me back to AGAINST THE DAY. 

Because next to Pynchon, everyone looks like a midget.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I Mean It's Like I Don't Know What

Over the weekend, I saw my first Mumblecore movie: Funny Ha-Ha.  I've seen films by Jean-Luc Godard, John Cassavetes, Francois Truffaut, and other New Wave/cinema verite auteurs, but nothing I've come across in the past quite prepared me for this.  In description, the film sounds simple enough: it tells the story of a young woman named Marnie, who works as a temp (later she becomes a professor's assistant); she's attracted to one guy, makes out with another who's attached to her friend, and goes on a few dates with a third.  In the beginning, she drinks too much -- then she stops.  We learn that she wants to play chess and spend more time outside, because she makes a to-do list. 

But Funny Ha-Ha is a bizarre cinematic experience, for one primary reason: not only is this movie nearly devoid of meaningful action, it's also nearly devoid of meaningful information.  There are no telling details here.  While a film like Clockwatchers (for example) also tells the story of a lonely temp to whom nothing much happens, that picture fetishizes certain images, endowing them with power and meaning: a green plastic monkey, the clock of the title.  The office setting there, though drab and depressing, is depicted memorably, almost as a character in the film: rearranging the temps' desks becomes an act of betrayal.  With the exception of one scene where Marnie finds a packet of birth control pills in a potential boyfriend's desk, though, the characters in Funny Ha-Ha hardly interact with their settings or the objects within them.  Scenes are vaguely grounded in apartments or on the street or in other interchangable locales; the camera rarely, if ever, hones in on anything besides a person's face.  We never get a sense of the relationships between the characters, their shared history, or their individual backgrounds.  Even the actors' physicality is nonspecific, fidgety, and vague.

All of this probably sounds like criticism.  But in fact I thought Funny Ha-Ha was beautiful and fascinating and deeply, compellingly strange, and for me it raises an interesting question about storytelling.  The popular wisdom seems to be that, if the viewer/reader is confused, he will get bored and abandon whatever story he's watching or reading.  But often, when a film or book refuses to directly offer the elements of conventional narrative – character motivation, for example, or exposition – I find myself seeking those out, almost desperately, from whatever material is available.  When one character in Funny Ha-Ha suddenly and inexplicably gets married (off-screen, of course), I project onto his situation all kinds of possible explanations: maybe his new wife guilted him into it?  Maybe there was some practical reason – health insurance, a green card?  Or maybe his attraction to Marnie has frightened him?  Far from boring me, puzzling over this question draws me deeper into the film than many plausible explanations could.

Though the characters in Funny Ha-Ha are unguarded, awkward, and vulnerable, the experience of watching the film is far from intimate.  On the contrary, the viewer becomes a voyeur.  We don't know these people.  These scenes have not been prepared for us.  We rifle through them, as Marnie rifles through the materials on her would-be lover's desk, piecing together a story from whatever clues we can find.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Thought Experiment: Ghostbusters

Imagine, if you will, a world where poorly executed fake Picassos go for more money than work by the best contemporary artists, even though it's tacitly understood that they're made by unemployed grad-student painters. Imagine a world where random character actors grace the Broadway stage, but are credited in the program with names like "Scarlett Johansson" and "Claire Danes." Imagine that the lip-synching acts, a la Milli Vanilli, dominate the music scene. Imagine that all of this is an open secret, and nobody says anything, because nobody cares. If that sounds outlandish to you, then take a good look at the New York Times bestseller list any week of the year. I'm willing to bet that half the titles you find there are ghostwritten.

Ghostwriting is a parasite eating the face of American literary culture. And I'm not going to lie: I've tasted that face myself. I doubt there are too many writers in the NYC area who haven't at least contemplated the possibility on occasion. Ghostwriting is a decent way to make a few thousand dollars as a struggling novelist, and for those who excel at it (like Chronic City's Oona Laszlo), it's not a bad way to make a living. Although it's nigh well impossible to survive financially as a literary writer, I know of at least a few people who are able to keep out of poverty ghosting full-time, and I don't fault them in the slightest. Nor do I really take issue with the "Authors," the folks whose names go on the spine. Often celebrities, politicians, or major successes in other fields, they've paid their dues, and who can blame them for wanting to share their knowledge, their stories with the world? Wanting to see yourself on a library shelf isn't the worst form of hubris I can imagine.

Yet therein lies the problem. The whole point of a ghostwritten book is its physical presence: there is the "author's" name on the cover, his photograph on the back. Though the words inside are not the author's per se, the book is his, and thus an object worth desiring. As we move into an era where the book qua physical object is increasingly separated from the content within its pages, though, I wonder what the consequences of this paradigm will be. Through ghostwritten titles, publishers have trained readers to devalue the actual formation of language into narrative, meaning, idea. The content, i.e. the writing itself, is treated as a commodity, easily farmed out to the lowest bidder; the "author" (and his "platform") is the product. But as we gain ever-greater access to these "authors" through streaming video, Twitter feeds, podcasts, and the like, what does a ghostwritten book offer that sets it apart?  Immediacy?  Even when a book is "crashed," or published in the minimum amount of time possible, it can't compete.  Greater accuracy?  Book publishers aren't exactly known for their fact-checking.  A handsome binding?  Forget it, says the Kindle. So, without the jacket design, the creamy heavyweight pages, the glossy photo inserts, what will be left of the author for publishers to sell?

This is why I consider ghostwriting a face-eater. The only way to make books relevant in an increasingly digitized world is by valuing writers not for their ability to promote and publicize their work, but for their ability to, well, write it: beautifully, intelligently, distinctively. Because books aren't made of paper and ink anymore, if they ever were -- they're made of words. Funny how easy that can be to forget.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Chronic City, pt. 3: Why So Serious?

"When we speak of 'seriousness' in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death -- how characters act in its presence, for example, or how they handle it when it isn't so immediate... (I suspect one of the reasons that fantasy and science fiction appeal so much to younger readers is that, when the space and time have been altered to allow characters to travel easily anywhere throughout the continuum and thus escape physical dangers and timepiece inevitabilities, mortality is so seldom an issue.)"  -- Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner (Introduction)

Over the weekend, I was thinking a good bit about this statement, and how sneakily true I've found it to be over the last few years.  In my post on violent movies, I talked a little about what I saw as violence's power to make characters real, or more precisely, corporeal, to place the viewer in their living bodies -- to shift the focus from what happened (good or evil, right or wrong) to the necessarily more complex realm of how it happened.  But, more even than violence, I think that the role of death in a work of fiction can lend characters this reality, or conversely, rob them of it.

After I read Chronic City, I struggled to articulate what made Perkus Tooth so real to me as a character.  A larger and perhaps more interesting question, though, is why anything in the world of that novel felt as significant to me as it did.  Chronic City presents a landscape burgeoning with pop culture references, and satire, and stoner humor, and sex.  Eagles and tigers render characters homeless; an installation artist digs big holes in the ground.  And Lethem is well aware of the hilarity of all this, playing even poignant moments for laughs: for example, when Perkus's heart is breaking, he "blame[s] the nearest cultural reference he [can] find"; when he and Chase are fighting over a burger waitress, he refuses to celebrate Thanksgiving, ostensibly "out of respect to Sacheen Littlefeather."   The epic quest for the grail-like chaldron takes them to -- where else? -- ebay.  In a certain way, the book sets itself up to be dismissed (a "baked Seinfeld," as one reviewer put it). 

And yet, from the beginning, death circles this novel, just as the birds circle Insteadman's church spire, just as Janice Trumball's doomed space station orbits the earth.  When Chase first meets Perkus, he observes, "With Tooth's turtle's posture and the utter slackness of his being... I could have taken him for elderly... [but] he was in his early forties, barely older than me.  I'd mistaken him for old because I'd taken him for important."  Perkus's fragility, and his failure, are the open secret of this novel, the first and truest fact of him.  And though his quests and his brilliance and the bizarre accumulated complexity of his life and relationships for a time overshadow this in the reader's mind, it's his vulnerability that subconsciously sticks.

The same is true for the other characters.  At the funeral where Oona and Chase initially pursue their love affair, Chase describes "the shameful survivor's lust I've known to sometimes wash over me at funerals, the giddy, guilty apprehension of one's own continuing lucky freedom to feast and fuck and defecate, to waste hours flipping cable channels watching fragments of movies or half solving crossword puzzles then tossing them aside, to do pretty well anything but sit and honor the memory of another whose lucky freedom had run out."  When he and Oona flee the funeral together, they are fleeing death.  Yet the two of them are no less mortal than Perkus or, for that matter, the now-deceased Junrow.  When they visit the Urban Fjord, a child asks Chase if he's the same boy from the sitcom reruns; "You look old," he says, to which Chase replies, "I am old."  And Oona?  "Her frame wasn't strong enough to carry around a coat heavy enough to warm her."  Neither of them are indestructible.

Throughout the novel, the characters seek to halt the inexorable forward motion of time through language, argument, art.  Oona keeps Janice Trumball alive through the letters she ghostwrites; Biller removes the fact of Brando's death from the star's Wikipedia page; Insteadman's younger, immortal self is preserved on VHS as if under glass.  And marijuana, their substance of choice, is known for its strangely slowing effect on one's perception of time.  This is not your teenage brother's stoner novel.  Only in forgetting the past, however temporarily, can these characters ignore the looming fact of a future where they'll have vanished into complete insignificance.

As Heidegger says, death is the essential fact of one's existence; though someone might sacrifice himself for my survival, no one can die my death for me.  That death is my own.  On further reflection, I think it is Perkus's death, more than anything else, that provides the center, the grounding, to his vast and complicated character, just as the presence of death does the same for the larger world of this novel.  In his descriptions of Perkus, narrator Insteadman creates, at moments, an illusion of the infinite: "[Perkus's] mind's landscape was epic, dotted with towering figures like Easter Island heads," he notes upon their first meeting.  Yet what ultimately defines Perkus, renders him tragic, is his finitude.  Perkus never knows romantic love; he is a pawn in the conspiracies of others; his body is falling apart; and even his verbosity, his intelligence, once met its limit: "It's like when I tried to write a book, Chase.  Practically every day I had to remind myself what it was even about, why I'd even started it!" he confesses in their final conversation.  Insteadman wants us to mistake Perkus for important, for larger than life, just as he did; he wants to immortalize Perkus.  But it's Perkus's unimportance that brings him to life -- and makes his death heartbreaking.

I'm not interested in quibbling over genre terms.  Some people have described Chronic City as science-fiction.  It's also fucking hilarious.  But, when I return to the Pynchon quote, I can't help but think of it first and foremost as "serious fiction."