Friday, April 30, 2010

Pecked to Death

I have a hard time imagining a critic I'd disagree with more than Dale Peck.  In fact, it's hard to imagine anyone agreeing with Dale Peck with any degree of consistency.  In his essay collection Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction, Dale Peck just hates so much: "most of Joyce, half of Faulkner and Nabokov, nearly all of Gaddis, Pynchon, Delillo, not to mention... their contemporary heirs," a category that includes David Foster Wallace, Colson Whitehead, Jamaica Kincaid, and, of course, Rick Moody.  But that's not all.  Peck, like a small, aggressive child who has just learned the meaning of the word "no," emphasizes his renunciation of these authors over any subtler points he might have to make about their work -- and, like a small, aggressive child, he is more intent on kicking you out of his blanket fort than persuading you to come around to his point of view.  Regarding Pynchon, Peck writes that "the US literary world can be divided into two camps: those who think Pynchon is a very clever guy, and those who think he's a great writer... I'm of the former camp."  Of Rick Moody's work he declares, "My gut feeling is that if you honestly don't believe it's bad, you're part of the problem."  And Vonnegut's old-age slump is the fault of his fans: "It's not the Vonnegut's fans don't believe what he has to say.  They just don't seem to care." 

Peck is not just controversial.  He's profoundly unconvincing.  It's possible to write a negative review, even a diatribe, yet seem as though you're having a good time.  The seduction of negative reviews, in fact, is that derision sometimes seems more entertaining than sincere enjoyment: over there at the grown-ups' table they're laughing harder at the clown.  Yet Dale Peck, like Patton Oswalt's unfortunate heckler, seems doomed to "miss everything cool and die angry."  The writers he reviews not only appear to be having more fun than Peck is; they also, surprisingly, even sound like they have a better sense of humor (and this is based on Peck's descriptions alone).  Peck's bon mots are the province of an unseasoned stand-up comic, veering from da-doom-crash punchlines ("As we say in the East Village, that and $2.50 -- not including tip -- will buy you a skinny mochaccino" and "with friends like this, literature needs an enema") to clumsy attempts at harnessing catchphrases ("As a friend of mine says, That is just so wrong").  Dale Peck seems to not quite get the jokes of the books he reads.  He's quick to take offense, to jump to conclusions, to take things literally.  Even A Confederacy of Dunces comes under his ire ("a book nearly as bloated as its protagonist"), which I find ironic, since if Ignatius Reilly were a book reviewer, he would write a lot like this.

Peck is a master of the unintentionally funny.  His rage, like that of a cartoon character, sends him wheeling off cliffs, tiny fists pummeling the air, or yanking on the fuse of a bomb that winds up detonating in his hands.  Many of the funniest moments here are hilarious not because he's right or wrong, but because of what he inadvertently reveals about himself.  In the Rick Moody essay, he writes, "When I finished The Black Veil I scrawled 'Lies! Lies! All lies!' on the cover and considered my job done."  Let's unpack this statement for a moment.  There are two possibilities here.  Either Dale Peck defaced his own hardcover copy of the memoir (reminiscent of the US patriots who dumped French wine they had already purchased down toilets in the early, heady "freedom fries" days of the second Iraq war) -- in order to, I guess, prove a point to anyone who noticed it proudly displayed in his home?... or Dale Peck is pretending that he did just that in order to, I guess -- sound punk rock?

His persona is larger than life, and larger than any of the points he makes.

And yet, despite all this, I find it impossible to dismiss Dale Peck's Hatchet Jobs, if only because of the weird humility that underlies the entire project.  In the Afterword, he writes, "The very extremity of my views does as much to undermine my authority as enforce it, or at least I hope it does, because I am by no means convinced of the hallowedness of my own ideas... These reviews, if not as direct as a barroom brawl, are, I hope, some kind of dialogue with my generation... My hatred of all this teenaged posing has reached such a fever pitch I'm willing to be clownish in my denunciation of it."  The fact that Dale Peck is willing to embarrass himself for the sake of literature, the fact that he's willing to sacrifice his own intellectual credibility "to start some kind of dialogue," is a strangely noble thing, even if it is itself a kind of adolescent posturing.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

For Kids of All Ages, pt. 2: High Water Everywhere

"If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is 'God is crying.' And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is 'Probably because of something you did.'" -- Jack Handey, Deep Thoughts

Let's be honest: children are narcissists. They cry when they don't get their way. They throw temper tantrums. They pout. They shriek on the subway, they bawl on the bus, and god forbid you get seated next to one on an airplane. For a child, it's almost impossible to understand that his own emotional state (sorrow over a lost toy, excitement over a trip to the zoo, righteous indignation over a broken promise) is not permeating the atmosphere and affecting everyone he encounters. Conversely, when it rains on the day of a picnic, or refuses to snow come Christmastime, or when the weather outside takes another, darker turn, children turn inward; they use magical thinking to figure these indifferent external events into a personal narrative: God is angry with me, Santa knows what I did. The journey to maturity is, in part, a growing understanding that other people have their own inner lives, as intense and complex and consuming as one's own -- and that the things that happen in the world do not only happen to you.

In my last post, I talked about the genre of the Young Adult novel, and how for me that differs from a novel that's simply about young people (i.e., a bildungsroman or "coming-of-age"). I think that the central distinguishing factor between the YA and coming-of-age novels is that, in the coming-of-age novel, the child's narcissism at some point collides meaningfully with a world inhabited by others. And I don't mean a wise old baba who pops up in every few chapters to deliver homespun wisdom, or the bully at school who serves as an inexplicable thunderbolt of in-scene tension, or the Good Teacher who sees the narrator's potential. I mean other real characters, ones with motivations and drives and faults that have nothing to do with the journey our hero is on -- ones who could just as easily be the focus of a novel of their own. For just one example, in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, three characters (sisters Ruth and Lucille and their aunt Sylvie) tug in opposing directions: what each one wants is understandable, but mutually exclusive to the desires of the others. In negotiating her relationships with her aunt and sister, Ruth, for all her dreamy self-absorption, is forced to enter a realm where other people's loneliness, grief, and obsessions share equal time with her own.

For all its strengths, and there are many, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close does not share this quality, not ever but especially not at the end. And I'm going to sound the SPOILER ALERT right now, because much of what I have to say about the book relates to that ending, a ridiculous, saccharine, cop-out of a twist, which I found to be an M. Night Shyamalan-level betrayal of everything genuinely poignant or intriguing about the book that preceded it.

The set-up of Foer's novel is ingeniously simple. Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old Manhattanite, loses his father in the WTC attacks on September 11. In his grief, he discovers a key in his father's closet inside a small envelope with the word "Black" written on it in red ink. Since his father always set challenges for him, Oskar decides in mournful desperation this is one last mystery for him to solve. He sets out to find the lock that matches the key by visiting everyone with the last name of "Black" in the NY metro area. With an unlimited supply of cab fare and a shell-shocked mother who barely seems to notice his comings and goings, he embarks on a quest that takes him to all five boroughs (though, with typical New Yorker chauvinism, never to Jersey).

To me, the brilliance of this concept is that it inherently suggests a gap between the child's point of view and the harshness of reality. Oskar behaves as though he's living in The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but the New York he actually inhabits isn't cute or charming: it's dangerous, a place where terrorists fly airplanes out of a clear blue sky and fucking kill everyone. This reality, telegraphed from the first chapter on, inflects Oskar's imaginings with a kind of manic optimism, a naivete that feels more longed-for than actual: "Sometimes I think it would be weird if there were a skyscraper that moved up and down while its elevator stayed in place... that could be extremely useful, because if you're on the ninety-fifth floor and a plane hits below you, the building could take you to the ground," he observes on the third page. Oskar is not just a child, but a child clinging on to childhood, a precarious situation that sets us up with an immediate source of tension. As he rings the doorbells of total strangers, we're frightened not just for his personal safety (though certainly that too), but also for the last scraps of his innocence.

And yet, as we move through the chapters, it becomes, weirdly enough, clearer and clearer that Oskar has nothing to fear -- that his naivete is right on the money and that his fears and distrust are actually what he needs to shed. The Blacks he meets are charmingly gruff at worst, but mostly indie-flick quirky, with life lessons to share. One of them, his upstairs neighbor, a 103 year-old war reporter, even joins him on his quest; the old dude tromps gamely around the city until he dies, out of sight, from health problems that fortunately haven't hindered him from acting as Oskar's sherpa for the last hundred pages. It's his time to go, natch: Oskar bringing him back into the world is "the greatest thing anyone could have done," and now, thanks to the kid, he's finally ready to close up shop.

There's an eerie feeling about the encounters with these Blacks, who seem to spring into existence solely for Oskar's therapeutic benefit: only one of them, a woman he meets at the top of the Empire State Building, is a literal tour guide, but the others are like tour guides too, displaying museums of their lives, relating life philosophies and stories of grief that, curiously, seem to relate directly to Oskar's quest. Some of these interludes are undeniably entertaining -- Sherpa Black's card catalogue system, which sums up the lives of the important (and mostly dead) with one word each ("Who's Marilyn Monroe?" "Sex!") had me laughing out loud. But there's something about the book that reminded me of the profoundly creepy film The Truman Show, even before I reached the end.

I thought it was a question of authorial contrivance, but in fact, this contrivance is part of the plot. All along, you probably thought Mama Schell was dealing with her own grief, losing herself in a new romance, or maybe just getting an eensy bit drunk, but, wise to the little one's plans, she's actually been orchestrating this journey all along! She's phoned each Black in advance, to make sure they had cookies waiting and, presumably, didn't have a criminal record, and she even knows the ultimate solution of the mystery: the second Black he visited called with the big reveal just after he left her house, and good old mom picked up the phone. "My search was a play that Mom had written, and she knew the ending when I was at the beginning," Oskar relates. There was no danger all along.

There's so much that annoys me about this that it's tough to know where to start, but here's the gist: it's not just that this ending retroactively undercuts the dramatic tension of the entire novel. It's that it also simplifies the only other potentially complicated character, Oskar's mother, into just one more good-guy babysitter among many. Even if a lot of her story takes place off the page, a mother so bewildered in the wake of her husband's death that she literally loses track of her son makes for a truly poignant, disturbing, and believable character, and one peculiarly appropriate to a 9/11 novel. After all, in the confusion and despair following the national tragedy, a lot of authority figures in this country seemed to drop the ball on their responsibilities. Instead, Oskar's mother, like everyone else in the book, exists just to heal him, and to keep him "safe."

"Safe" is an important word when describing this novel, and not just because it's the last word in the book. Since the adults here have no driving motivations, take no significant actions, they're about as threatening as imaginary friends. The other part of the story, which I've so far omitted from this summary, has to do with Oskar's grandparents, survivors of the Dresden firebombing. His elective-mute grandpa and his grandma -- who pretends to be blind so she can type a "memoir" of entirely blank pages -- exist in an overlong parable of passivity. They serve entirely as a cautionary tale about how one mustn't be afraid to love, even when one has lost before. (And, like Oskar's mom, they prepare their story intentionally for the edification of their son and grandson, with second person "you" references throughout.) Yet in this part of the story, as in Oskar's, there's something missing: the problem of evil.

This is not what actually happened.

September 11 wasn't an accident; neither was the Dresden firebombing or Hiroshima (also featured here) or for that matter, the Holocaust or the Iraq War. They were awful, cruel, intentionally destructive acts that human beings committed against other human beings. And, although I don't think any novel needs to take a dark view of humankind, I do think that a novel that makes use of these tragedies needs to in some way account for them, to figure them into its picture of the world. In my last post, I wrote about how the adults in a true YA novel can't be fallible, because then the sense of order, necessary for the hero's safe return to the world of childhood, would be thrown out of whack. And in that sense, the primary thing that adults can't be in this novel is angry.

The catastrophes of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have victims by the truckload: men, women, children, zoo animals. But what they don't have, and what they could never have in the world of this novel, are perpetrators. No one here is violent, or capable of violence. When attacked, these characters turn inward. They become isolated, sad, numb, nostalgic, and then ultimately, they become wise. They don't become militant, and they don't want revenge. Christlike, they endure, and thus, Christlike, they eventually rise from the ashes unscathed and blameless. Their biggest regret is falling out of love with the world and temporarily losing their sense of childlike wonder. Fundamentally selfless, their only hope is that the next generation will learn from their mistakes.

This is an appealing view of human nature, but it's also one that doesn't make any sense in light of the events of the novel -- that is, unless you take the child-narcissist's view. September 11 happened in reality, a mass violence by some people on others that led to misguided retaliation and two wars' worth of gruesome, still-continuing bloodshed. That is unfathomably horrifying, and the questions it raises are unanswerable. But, if like everything else in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, we saw September 11 as something that happened to Oskar Schell to teach him difficult but beautiful truths about life... well, that would make a lot more sense, wouldn't it? As much as it might upset a child to think that God is crying because of something he did, the truth of the matter is even more disturbing: that though the water is rising, the rain doesn't have anything to do with him at all.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

For Kids of All Ages, pt. 1: Why A?

I recently read an article in the LA Times online about a phenomenon I posted on back in November: the fact that more now than ever, adults are reading novels and fiction series intended for young adults. Spurred on, I guess, by the worldwide success of titles like Harry Potter and Twilight, readers (and thus publishers) increasingly regard these books as intended for an audience far beyond the too-old-to-nap, too-young-to-drive. My initial response to this, as chronicled in my earlier post, was reflexive snark: adults were trying to escape, rather than encounter a genuinely challenging aesthetic experience, and for that reason the whole scene was a damn shame and I was going to have another beer before going to bed. I see now, though, that this attitude is as vague as it is dismissive. The question I failed to ask then, but that I'm asking now, is, "What is it that makes something a young adult novel, rather than simply a novel about young adults?"

It's probably obvious by looking at my earlier posts that I don't believe that a literary work's success hinges on its subject matter. In my life, I have loved books about everything from unicorns to the apocalypse, and found fault with ones whose heroes run the gamut from magicians to hermaphrodites. I also have loved a lot of books with child or teenage narrators. For several years, my favorite novel of all time was Steven Millhauser's masterful Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright, a vision of childhood hallucinatory in its accuracy, purportedly penned by a pre-teen with a Nabokovian vocabulary and a covetous, lonely soul. I already told you how I feel about The Catcher in the Rye, a book all-too-often undervalued by adults precisely because of its appeal to the young. And Huckleberry Finn needs no endorsement from me to demonstrate its self-evident weight and significance (the ending is lousy, though).

These books -- and there are others in their company -- could easily be classified as YA because of their characters and subject matter; the edgy parts of any of the three have nothing on today's reads, where rape, violence, murder, S&M, substance abuse, promiscuous werewolves, pregnancy, and relentless texting are giving parents panic attacks, or driving them to Borders to buy copies of their own. Yet I would argue that, despite the subject matter they chose, Millhauser, Salinger, and Twain's novels are in fact not members of the genre they resemble.  Here's why.

Let me offer, for your consideration, the following theory. The young adult novel is about a flirtation with independence -- a journey that has its roots in the tradition of children's books, akin to the voyages of Max in Where the Wild Things Are or the title character in The Runaway Bunny. In the young adult novel, the protagonist visits the grown-ups' world, but he does not stay: sometimes chastened, sometimes changed, he returns at the end to his childhood for a little longer, usually with a greater appreciation for it now that he knows what's in store. In the young adult novel, there is, beneath all the chaos, a profound faith in order and authority.  Though the protagonist may feel at sea, there is in the end someone -- or Someone -- to take charge, if only he'll let them.

Big Bunny is watching you.

Young adult novels can do beautiful, brilliant things: Coraline by Neil Gaiman is a delight, for example. But there are two things they cannot do (and this goes for young adult movies too). First, they can't intelligently and honestly investigate the inner lives of their older characters; this would make these folks incarnate, fallible, and as such would undercut the whole enterprise, like seeing Jesus on the toilet (eww). Second, as much as they may imbue their teen or child characters with precocious wisdom, this wisdom must always have clear limits, beyond which adult authority endlessly stretches. The child narrator, regardless of his worries or his crimes, must always lack some essential perspective that, when finally grasped at the end, returns him to his rightful place in kid-dom.

The thing that makes a book about a young person part of adult literature, in my opinion, is that the protagonist in question knows just as much, if not more, about what is going on than the adults surrounding him do; that he, in fact, is pointing out truths about grown-up culture that grown-ups can't or won't face. When, given a choice between submitting to what he believes is divine law and following his own judgment, Huck Finn actually rejects God ("All right, then, I'll go to Hell"), he also marks the novel that contains him as a whole different kind of journey than the roundtrip represented by the children's stories noted above. In adult books about children, the child-characters ultimately face the potentially terrifying reality that no one knows what the hell they're doing, that the world is unjust, that some mistakes cannot be undone, and that nobody but Nobody is in charge. They may wish they could relinquish their independence in the end, but there's no going back. They can't rewind the tape.

This is all a long way of leading into what I'm going to talk about in my next post, the novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a highly original, tenderly poignant, inventively constructed book that I would nevertheless place squarely in the genre of the Young Adult Novel. The book fascinated me for a number of reasons, but perhaps most of all because of what I saw as the schism between the reach of its formal ambition and the thematically inhibited, even precious way it approached certain questions of character, death, and survival. I have many more thoughts on it, but for the time being just let me say it's well worth a read, even if it has some growing up to do. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be watching the Muppet Show.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Future of Criticism: or, A. O. Scott, Time to Get in the Fridge

About a week and a half ago, I read a misguided and admittedly self-serving piece on the future of film criticism by the New York Times critic A. O. Scott.  Until recently, Scott – whose reviewing style will one day be remembered as a pioneering influence on the the "Vague-Plot-Summary-Followed-By-Dismissive-One-Liners" school – has continued to believe, despite, as he puts it, "all appearances to the contrary," that the future of criticism is bright.  But this was until what he calls his "own brush with the grim reaper" of contemporary cultural malaise: his syndicated TV show "At the Movies," which back in the day used to star Siskel and Ebert, has finally been canceled. 

Please don't cry.  Here's a little something to help you take the news:

Who needs therapy when you have this picture, seriously?

Anyway.  Scott's article addresses how "At the Movies," which "in its twilight, looks exalted and heroic" (to him), was once regarded as an enterprise that would dumb down the level of the cultural discourse about films into a simplistic see it/don't see it product evaluation.  Ya think?  Citing an older article called "All Thumbs, or Is There a Future for Film Criticism?" by Richard Corliss, Scott writes, "The threat Mr. Corliss identified has migrated to the Internet, where self-credentialed commenters snark and snipe and where the simple binary code of the thumbs-up or thumbs-down voting that Mr. Siskel and Mr. Ebert trademarked has been supplanted by the crunched numbers of the Metacritic score."  Where once we had "James Agee, now there is Rotten Tomatoes."  (Apparently Scott is unaware that if James Agee were writing now, there would be links to his articles on Rotten Tomatoes; there are unfortunately links there to A. O. Scott's.)  But all is not lost.  Scott indicates – and I believe he thinks he's being generous – that the future of criticism is "the same as it ever was," that the detractors of today's internet criticism are no more right or wrong than the generation that took Siskel and Ebert to task for their moronic reductionism.  "How can you do a movie justice in 60 seconds?" he asks, referring to the time allotted for discussion on his now-defunct show.  "You can’t, of course – or in 800 words of print or in a blog post – but you can start a conversation, advance or rebut an argument, and give people who share your interest something to talk about.  And that kind of provocation, that spur to further discourse, is all criticism has ever been."

A. O. Scott is not always wrong, but he is always shortsighted.  And in this case, he's absolutely both.  Criticism has not always been about "starting a conversation," the intellectual equivalent of chatting up a hottie in a dark bar, and criticism at its best is not about that now.  Criticism is fundamentally, ideally, about having something to say.  Now, there are times when that can be said in 800 words, or a blog post, or in sixty seconds of dialogue.  But the idea that extremely limited space or time constraints are an inherent part of the critical enterprise is something A. O. Scott has brainwashed himself into believing, probably because he wants to think the snarky blurb fodder he shells out for the New York Times is the apogee of commentary on film. 

Great criticism, like great art, finds its own shape.  Sometimes it sprawls and meanders; sometimes it explodes.  I think of David Foster Wallace's masterful essay on the films of David Lynch, or Mark Twain's truly wondrous "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses."  But, since A. O. Scott brought up online criticism, I think first and foremost of the best movie reviewer I may have ever encountered.  You might've met him already.  His name is Mr. Plinkett, and he's got just one question for all the pretentious assholes out there:
 What's wrong with your FAAAACE?

Mr. Plinkett isn't a real person.  He's a pizza roll-devouring serial killer, the brainchild of one Mike Stoklasa, a writer/director/Star Wars fanatic, and his bite-your-tongue brilliant, coughing-fit hilarious reviews of sci-fi films have held YouTube viewers as captive as prostitutes shackled to a basement wall.  The same week that trees died for A. O. Scott's misinformed "At the Movies" elegy, Plinkett's epic ninety-minute long review of Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones was garnering views on hundreds of thousands of screens around the country; Red Letter Media production company, who put this masterpiece online, announced their channel was the most viewed on all of YouTube.

The phenomena of Mr. Plinkett gives me hope, and not just because he's able to attract an audience without the grandfathered-in prestige of a dinosaur print publication or high-overhead cable station.  Rather, I'm blown away by how thorough, and smart, and dead-on-target his critical assessments are -- and by the fact that viewers seem to notice that. 

Here's the thing: in a world where what Scott calls the "democratic forces of the Internet" have supposedly made everyone a potential critic, people can still tell the difference between lame generalizations and incisive, witty critique.  If anything, they're more discerning than anyone could have possibly expected.  To watch a review the length of an entire movie represents a wealth of patience, intellectual engagement, and deep curiosity about the mechanics of narrative that a lot of so-called intellectuals would have us believe flew out the window sometime before The Elements of Style was published.  "But maybe people just find these videos entertaining," a naysayer might argue.  To that, I'd say the fact that Plinkett's reviews are well-written, carefully edited, with masterful comic timing and even fragments of story only serves to further prove that, when given the option, viewers, at least these ones, prefer criticism that aspires to the condition of art.

Only time will tell what the Internet holds for American intellectual culture in general, and for film reviewing in particular.  But I'm hoping that the world of pat, cramped mini-essays and 60-second discussions die with the media outlets that contain them, and that something more idiosyncratic, more expansive, more deeply thoughtful will take their place.  To me, the future looks like a much better time for what Scott calls "a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them" than the recent past ever did.  Then again, maybe someone's just fucking with my medicine.