Sunday, October 16, 2011
That is the central problem for Wim and Marie, an average young Dutch couple who agree to hide a Jewish man, Nico, during the Nazi occupation. And then he dies.
Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key is a slim, somewhat simple novel that easily shows the anxiety and issues arising from having someone in your house that you aren’t supposed to have in your house. At first they think that they can do it without anyone knowing, including family and the cleaning lady. But slowly – purposefully and accidently – a lot of people end up knowing. Through it, they come to learn that many of their own circle that they thought they knew well were also concealing secrets – which end up helping them in the end.
What I liked most about this novel is the averageness of its characters. Wim and Marie don’t take Nico in out of some high purpose…there isn’t any moralizing about “the right thing to do,” or Schindler’s breakdown (“I could have done so much more!”). They do it because it has to be done, out of some vague sense of duty to their country. Someone asks them and they say, well sure. And Nico is so ordinary himself…a single perfume salesman, parents are dead, and no real relatives or importance. As much, I suppose, as any person could be said to be unimportant.
That Nico died in such an ordinary way underscores this. There is a sense that he didn’t need to go into hiding just to die from an illness; he went into hiding so he could live - so the three of them could come out the other side. That comedic irony, as well as the simple way in which his disposal is bungled (a mere oversight of a monogram and a laundry tag on a pair of pajamas) is what makes this novel almost humorous. It has a slapstick, Waiting for Godot quality about it. One review I came across called the novel’s subject the “goofy, quotidian kindness that is one possible response to violence.” The everyday-ness of the novel, the, “yeah, sure we’ll do that” is what’s amazing. There aren’t many light-hearted novels on this subject.
Comedy in a Minor Key is a small novel that doesn’t deal with any of the larger issues that I have come to expect in a story of occupied Europe. It’s about muddling through and figuring it out as you go along. But perhaps its publication in 1947 is a reason for that – it takes decades to truly process the totality of such a disaster. At this point I could start to go on angrily about our expectations of the 9/11 novel by extension, but I’ll save that for another post. It’s perhaps the ordinary stories that often come first, the stories that would be familiar to most people. The overarching epics that make us proud to be humans – in spite of what we humans sometimes do to one another – seem to come later.
Sunday, September 25, 2011
Sometimes in my life, I get feelings about things. I don’t mean everyday coincidences, such as the fact that today I e-mailed a consultant about grass (my life is so exciting, I know), and it turns out he was on the job site at that moment looking at the grass. That’s a coincidence.
By feelings, I mean connections between people, often before they are aware of it themselves. I often am able to pick up when a person likes someone else…not obvious flirtations, but those secret things we don’t always like to admit. The way they throw a snowball, or the slight, so easy to miss twinkle in their eye at the mention of the person’s name.
Once, I don’t remember the situation, but I shared a very personal story with a friend of mine. There was some subtle something in the way she reacted to the story, and I thought, I think she (yes she) is in love with me. Months later…maybe four or five months later, she tells me that she is in love with me. Here was the rest of the conversation:
“I’ve known since November.”
“But I didn’t realize it until March.”
“I’ve known since November.”
I usually try to keep these feelings at arms lengths, especially when there is a desire for them to be correct. So I try to ignore them, and let things go where they go. And also because every now and then I seem to be off.
In Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, Jed Parry gets it very, very wrong.
I loved the first few paragraphs, setting up the story:
The beginning is simple to mark. We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind. I was kneeling on the grass with a corkscrew in my hand, and Clarissa was passing me the bottle – a 1987 Daumas Gassac. This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand, and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout. We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running toward it. The transformation was absolute: I don’t recall dropping the corkscrew, or getting to my feet, or making a decision, or hearing the caution Clarissa called after me. What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness among the fresh spring grasses by the oak. There was a shout again, and a child’s cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees along the hedgerows. I ran faster. And there, suddenly, from different points around the field, four other men were converging on the scene, running like me.
…I’m holding back, delaying the information. I’m lingering in the prior moment because it was a time when other outcomes were still possible; the convergence of six figures in a flat green space has a comforting geometry from the buzzard’s perspective, the knowable, limited plane of the snooker table. The initial conditions, the force and the direction of the force, define all the consequent pathways, all the angles of collision and return, and the glow of the overhead light bathes the field, the baize and all its moving bodies, in reassuring clarity. I think that while we were still converging, before we made contact, we were in a state of mathematical grace. I linger on our dispositions, the relative distances and the compass point- because as far as these occurrences were concerned, this was the last time I understood anything clearly at all.
What were we running toward? I don’t think any of us would ever know fully…it was an enormous balloon filled with helium, that elemental gas forged from hydrogen in the nuclear furnace of the stars, first step along the way in the generation of multiplicity and variety of matter in the universe, including our selves and our thoughts.
We were running toward a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes.
One of the men running was Jed Parry. Our narrator, Joe Rose, has an odd encounter with him when one of the people trying to hold down the balloon is lifted up and eventually falls to his death. Jed asks Joe to pray with him there over the body. Joe refuses, disgusted at this reaction and leaves. In the middle of the night, Joe receives a phone call from Jed: he knows that Joe is in love with him, and he just wanted to call and let him know that he was in love too. So it begins.
Jed follows him – staking out his apartment, interpreting the movement of curtains for signals from Joe. And Joe’s wife Clarissa misses all of this. Jed hides when he sees her coming, and his handwriting is close enough to Joe’s that Clarissa thinks Joe is making it all up. Until he tries to kill them.
I thought the book got off track when Joe goes to find Jean (widow of the man who fell), and she asks him to find the girl that must have been in the car with her husband. She believes he must have been having an affair with whoever left the scarf behind. This plot line was then seemingly forgotten about to return to the original plot – so wholly forgotten that I had to go back and make sure I didn’t skip a chapter. It is introduced again at the very end for what seemed like no purpose. After thinking about it, the purpose obviously was to give a non-psychotic twist on the case of getting it wrong. Jean believes – based on evidence she interprets – that he husband was having an affair. In actuality, he had picked up an illicit hitchhiking couple who flee the scene when it takes its deadly turn.
In the end, I don’t think that I particularly cared for Enduring Love. I think I really enjoyed the Jed Parry/Joe Rose story…maybe “enjoyed” isn’t the word. I was freaked out, kept interested. But the other portions of it seemed superfluous. I thought for certain that when Rose looked into the mysterious scarf left in the car, he would find another reason to fear Parry. Instead, he found what amounted to a strange and unnecessary feel good ending – or at least feel good in context. The end, generally, all neatly tied up, was really just feel good in context. And I suppose that that is where my disappointment lies. Not because I didn’t want it to end well for Joe and Clarissa, or anyone else, but it seemed both rushed and dragged out at the same time. I found myself skimming through conversations on Keats to find out what Parry was going to do next.
So, something like The Mustache is happening here with my reaction to the book. It was, as a whole, just ho-hum...the ending like a deflating balloon (pun intended). The ideas that the novel presented and explored, however, were interesting and disturbing. McEwan writes, “No one could agree on anything. We lived in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception, and our sense data came warped by a prism of desire and belief, which tilted our memories too. We saw and remembered in our own favor, and we persuaded ourselves along the way….believing is seeing.” How much do we see about the world, and our relationships, simply because we believe it? How much of the stuff we see as symbolic, or “meaning something” is just coincidence? What’s disturbing here is to see those pattern-seeking tendencies we have as humans blown up into something deadly. And where is the line between generally reading evidence and drawing a wrong conclusion, and just being certifiable? Probably somewhere around the time you start following someone around. Creepy.
Saturday, September 3, 2011
Imagine Rod Sterling's voice here. Meet ____ (we don't know his name). About to set out for a dinner party, he decides to shave off his mustache. In this ordinary act, something extraordinary occurs. When he walks out of the bathroom, he will be entering - The Twilight Zone.
Ok, that was lame. But imagine you had a mustache for years. And you decide to get rid of it, just to see. But no one notices - not your wife, not your friends, not your coworkers. Your mustache, you thought, was such an obvious feature of your appearance that someone would comment on its disappearance...especially since some, like you wife, have never seen you without it. But no one notices. You begin to suspect they are all playing a trick on you, an elaborate joke. One night you ask your wife (named Agnes) why she hasn't said anything. And she informs you that you never had a mustache. !
You call some friends, and they say you never had a mustache either. ! You produce some photos from a trip to Java you and Agnes took, with your mustache, and Agnes dismisses them. In the morning, the photos are gone, and she informs you that you never went to Java, with or without mustache. The friends you visited the night before - Agnes tells you that you not only spent the night at home but that she never heard of these friends. !
Through all this, you find out that your father died the year before, but you don't remember...you thought he was alive and well. !
So...what do you do? Are you insane? Is Agnes insane? Is Agnes trying to convince you that you are insane for some reason?
___ runs away - hopping on a plane to Hong Kong, where he spends a few days riding a ferry back and forth and shaving over and over and over and over again. He moves on to Macao, and one night coming back to his hotel - there is Agnes, talking about going to the casino again, as if she had been along on the entire trip. He goes into the bathroom, and cuts off his face. There. All better.
The Mustache certainly isn't for everyone. I wasn't sure it was for me, given my New York Trilogy problem. But I actually really, really liked it. Sometimes I apparently have trouble relating to people who think differently than I do, to the point where it seems there are two different realities. So the concept of The Mustache - that what we feel constitutes our life, our reality - could be very, very wrong is extremely creepy. What if reality as I perceive it is as it is for the unnamed narrator? Not that I actually think it is - I'm not that crazy (I don't think!) but it is eerie nonetheless. There are tracts of Sartre and Nausea here.
Thursday, September 1, 2011
--Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before
--Check this hand cause I'm marvelous
--I don’t know what you mean to me, but I want to turn you on, turn you up, figure you out, I want to take you on
--You’re standing in the places…that bring to mind traces of a girl that I knew somewhere/I just can’t put my finger on what it is that says to me watch out, don’t believe her…And if your love was not a game, I’d only have myself to blame…
--Is it my turn to wish you were lying here...
--I see your lips moving but I don't hear nothing/Everybody talking like they really wanna know about us
--Do you feel what I feel? Can we make it so that’s part of the deal?
--What if you could smile? What if I could make your heart ignite just for a while?
--You might think that I’m crazy but you know I’m just your type…if I said my heart was beating loud...
--Give me everything tonight, for all we know we might not get tomorrow (Is it weird that I think this song is sooo incredibly sad?)
--I never dreamed that I'd meet somebody like you...
--There ain’t no reason you and me should be alone tonight/I need a man who thinks it’s right when it’s so wrong…
--And now I know just why she keeps me hanging around/she needs someone to walk on, so her feet don’t touch the ground/but I love her…
--He’s a wolf in disguise, but I can’t stop staring in those evil eyes
--You’re so hypnotizing/could you be the devil/could you be an angel? You’re not like the others…
--Can’t believe you’re taking my heart to pieces
--At night you hang about the house and weep your heart out, and cry your eyes out, and wrack your brain…you sit and wonder how anyone as wonderful as he could cause you such misery and pain
--Child of the wilderness, born into emptiness, learn to be lonely…learn to find your way in darkness
--One begins to read between the pages of a look...I saw you coming back to me.
--In this world, if you read the papers, you know everybody’s fighting with each other…so if someone comes along who’ll give you some love and affection, I say get it while you can
I’ve sat with that sentence now for quite some time, and haven’t been able to come up with anything else.
Firstly, I took too long to read this novel. It wasn’t anything against it, anything I didn’t like. There were even periods in the last two months when I was really into it. But then I would see something shiny. This is very different to the other Boll novel I’ve read, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which I finished in two days.
Secondly, it wasn’t anything like I was expecting. But on the other hand, I’m not sure I was expecting anything. Which, I suppose, is strange. I didn’t know anything about this book other than what was written on the back cover. Boll is not particularly fashionable, as far as I can tell, so not many people are talking about him.
Billiards at Half Past Nine is a day in the life of a family of architects in 1958 Germany still dealing with the aftermath of Nazis. Strange thing about this book – Nazis are never mentioned. Instead, everyone is divided up into those who partook of the Host of the Beast and those who didn’t (also called lambs). But the beast imagery also continues into their present. Every chapter is told from the point of view of a different family member. I sometimes had difficulty figuring out who I was following.
I feel like I’m getting nowhere with this.
The writing was good, but nothing jumped out at me enough to underline. The plot was mildly interesting, but not enough for me to even explain any bit of it here beyond what I already did. I don’t know what else to say about Billiards, and I have nothing to say about Boll other than I want to like him but I just keep being left cold. I liked Katharina Blum better than this one.
Here ends my useless review.
Monday, August 15, 2011
I saw this article on The Millions two weeks ago, which notes Erlend Loe’s Naïve.Super. After noticing the shipping time on amazon, I marched myself to the library and filled out the interlibrary loan request. Book came on Thursday, I started to read it yesterday and finished it this morning.
My first impression of the novel – as I was reading it walking through the library parking lot – was that it would be cute; right up my alley. As I started to read it seriously, though, it began to feel a bit derivative – a little too much like a combination of Wittgenstein’s Mistress (in structure), and a hero from the Jonathan Safran Foer/Jonthan Letham/Mark Haddon mold. Though that really isn’t fair, since Naïve.Super was published in 1996, and the quirky, neurotic and/or autistic characters were all created (or published) in the decade after. So maybe they are the derivative work. Don’t know. I just feel like I’ve been encountering this voice quite a lot.
But then on Sunday came the moment where I had to put the book down. This feeling had been slowly creeping up on me, but I didn’t catch it – identify it – until this moment:
TV is a good thing. I ought to watch TV more often. I get pleasantly diverted. I can’t quite tell whether the thoughts I’m having are my own or if they’re coming from the TV. Animal programmes are the best. David Attenborough explaining that nature is intricate and that it all fits together. Wasps that navigate according to the sun. they know what they’re doing, the wasps. They know a lot better than I do.OMG this person is just like me.
Yes Yes Yes on David Attenborough. Does anyone else do this – watch nature documentaries for perspective – to feel that everything is just part of the grand parade of life? Or is it just me and this unnamed character? Is that where the feeling of derivation came from – not from Foer or Lethem or Haddon, but from my own head? I think, really, it’s a combination. Still. FREAKY.
This character is having something of a quarter life crisis. He quits college and moves into his brother’s apartment while his brother is in New York. He’s going somewhat crazy, and finds comfort in throwing a ball against a wall, playing with a hammer-and-peg set, and reading about the universe. I do that too – read about the universe that is – when I’m feeling out of sorts. Nothing, really, is more comforting for me than the stars and string theory. Have you seen the Google Sky Map app? These last few months I’ve been looking at it a lot, just moving my phone around and seeing what I’m surrounded by whether I can see them or not. Does this sound strange? Maybe. But you should try it sometime.
This is that feeling that was creeping up on me. I have never encountered myself in a novel as much as I have here. And that’s really, really freaky.
“I think he’s got problems with time himself, but that he still hasn’t found out. One day he’ll be the one who hits the wall.”Things have been weird for me the last few months, though they are working themselves out. I’ve learned a lot about myself, and a lot about how I deal with other people, and how my own limits and suspicions both protect me and hinder me.
I think quite a lot. I have very few waking moments during which I’m not thinking about anything; and usually those few moments of “quiet” are interrupted by someone asking, “what are you thinking about?” Perhaps I’m most deep in thought when I look like I’m not thinking. And vice versa. Sometimes this is a problem – when I need that quiet and am unable to get it within my own brain, or when the constant din goes off the rails and the only respite is to listen to AM radio from Quebec – the more static the better. Perhaps that makes me sound crazy.
It’s taken me most of my life to understand that not everyone thinks as much – or about the same things – as I do. That not everyone is as concerned about what the universe is expanding into, or if hell is a state of mind can you think yourself out of it? And what is color and does it exist objectively? (I don’t believe that it does – I’m a color subjectivist...there are others out there with me on this one. People smarter than me and you.) When I talk about these things which genuinely interest me and sometimes keep me awake at night people mostly just stare at me. Or tell me I think too much.
Well, damn it (here’s where my frustration of the last three months comes out…) maybe I think just the right amount. I should start telling people, “Maybe you don’t think enough.” Maybe the world would grind to a screeching halt if it were filled with people who think as much as I do, but most people could probably use a little more sincere reflection on themselves and the universe and their place in it.
So in this little crazy tornado, I came to realize that thinking too much isn’t necessarily a problem. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. I’m not an extrovert. I never will be, and it’s silly of me to try to pretend that I am or could be - or even that I understand extroverts. I don’t. I’ve given up. But by giving up on trying to be what I’m not, I’ve accepted (at least a little bit) what I am. My personality certainly has its downsides, but it also has its upsides. And I wouldn’t give one inch of my ocean of contemplation for one more extra of extroversion. Somehow Naïve.Super brought that home.
A parting thought from Loe’s too-familiar-for-comfort novel:
“There is no time. There is a life and a death. There are people and animals. Our thoughts exist. And the world. The universe, too. But there is no time. You might as well take it easy. Do you feel better now? I feel better. This is going to work out. Have a nice day.”
Monday, August 1, 2011
I've said before that things are weird. I don't know how else to describe my life right now. Just weird. (Getting better, though, a bit.) I'm always particular about what books I read when, in what mood, but when things are like they are now, that selectivity is heightened. I cannot read just any book, and I will flit between ten or more books until I find the one that feels just right. For that reason, in times like this, I find myself going back to my happy places: Kerouac, Ondaatje, The Virgin Suicides,The Great Gatsby. The English Patient has been calling to me like a siren in the last few months, but I have had to resist the temptation. I know what happens when I read that book...despite what some may believe, sometimes I really do know what's best for myself. I'm not always into self-sabotage.
Anagrams was a test for me. I would pick it up, read a few pages, and put it back: "Not now." A few days later, I would pick it up again and read a few more pages, and put it back. "Not now." Well why not now, damn it? Because it's too upbeat? I want to say, yes, too upbeat, but to call this book upbeat is, well, to be Kristin I suppose. Turns out, I needed this book.
I'll admit, at first I thought I got this book. I became slightly more confused with each chapter…ok, so Benna teaches geriatric aerobics, AND teaches art history at a community college, AND is a nightclub singer. And Gerard teaches aerobics to kids AND is a nightclub singer AND in a rock opera version of Dido and Aeneas...hard economic times, you know? (FYI...Dido and Aeneas are EVERYWHERE for me right now.) It all, sort of, made sense in my mind...first Gerard must have been Benna's student, married with a daughter, then gotten divorced and started up with Benna, and eventually moved into her apartment house. Then they broke it off, but still drink near beer together every morning. But then I get to the second part, and Benna says that her friend Eleanor is imaginary. Wait – what? And where did this daughter – who is also imaginary – come from? At first I thought this was one of Benna's witticisms, because it seemed the type of quip she would make. But I kept going, and it was clear she was serious. So, I had to look it up. Duh! Sometimes I read into things too much ("I'm cool? What does that mean?") and sometimes I accept too much at face value. There must be a middle ground somewhere that I just cannot seem to find.
So here's what's really going on: Benna teaches poetry at a community college. She makes friends with Gerard. She has an affair with one of her students. She has an imaginary friend Eleanor, and an imaginary daughter. This is all learned in the second half of the book. The first half of the book is a series of short stories, really, about people named Benna and Gerard and Eleanor, etc. in parallel lives, essentially. It's derivative of reality, or nonreality since Eleanor is imaginary anyway.
The writing was amazing. Yes, this story is desperately bleak. Benna is so lonely and isolated that she makes up imaginary children. But it's funny as hell. I get this humor. I could have written this. Well, not really, but three quarters of it is stuff that would come out of my own mouth. Even in the depths of despair, sometimes, I cannot help but be sarcastically funny. Here are some examples that I underlined. (I underlined a lot in Anagrams.)
- "Yes, well," said Gerard, attempting something lighthearted. "I guess that's why they call it work. I guess that's why they don't call it table tennis."
- Eleanor and I around this time founded The Quit-Calling-Me-Shirley School of Comedy. It entailed the two of us meeting downtown for drinks and making despairing pronouncements about life and love which always began, "But surely…" It entailed what Eleanor called, "The Great White Whine": whiney white people getting together over white wine and whining.
- "I think a few well-considered and prominently displayed uncertainties are always in order."
- "...Remember: It's important not to be afraid of looking like an idiot." This was my motto in life.
- Aeneas shouldered his guitar and riffed and whined after Dido throughout the entire show: "Don't you see why I have to go to Europe?/I must ignore the sentiment you stir up." Actually it was awful. But nonetheless I sniffled at her suicide, and when she sang at Aeneas, "Just go then! Go if you must! My heart will surely turn to dust," and Aeneas indeed left, I sat in my seat, thinking "You ass, Aeneas, you don't have to be so literal."
- Things, however, rarely happened the way you understood them. Mostly they just sort of drove up alongside what you thought was the case and then moved randomly down some other way.
- No idiocy was too undignified for me.
- I didn't want my life to show.
- He also has a cold, and has pulled the hood of his sweat shirt up over his head and tied it. "You look like the Little League version of The Seventh Seal"
- ...feel my heart fluttering. It's a Tennessee Williams heart. A bad Tennessee Williams heart. I don't know what to say. The music urges love on you like food.
- "I've never put much store by honesty. I mean, how can you trust a word whose first letter you don't even pronounce?"
- It is as if our separate pasts were greeting each other, as if we were saying, This is how I have been with other people, this is how I would love you. If I loved you. Everything always seemed to boil down to boil down to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Off you would go in the mist of day and all that.
- You have a choice," she told her class. "The whorish emptiness of lies or the straight-laced horrors of truth."
- "You made her up? You made up an imaginary daughter?"
"Of course not," I say. "What, you think I'm an idiot? I made up a real daughter...I don't go around making up imaginary daughters...That would be too abstract. Even for me."
Shawn has been showing more of an interest in what I'm reading; I know why he's doing it and I really appreciate it. And he's asking me about this book that I will not put down, and why it's called Anagrams, and what it's about. As I'm trying to describe it, and how it's a bunch of stories about the same people, but not the same people, etc., and he says, "like Mulholland Drive?" YES. THANK YOU. EXACTLY LIKE MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Except funnier. But the basic idea of doppelgangers living tangential lives is the same.
So, why did I need this book? I can't explain it. I love Benna. I love Gerard. I love Eleanor. I want a friend like Eleanor, who would yell out of cars at joggers, "Hey, go home and read Middlemarch." In college I had a friend who would have done something like that, but it wouldn't have been about Middlemarch. No, seriously, I need someone in my life who will yet at random people at George Eliot. Who will know who George Eliot is to begin with. That is why I needed this book. Thank you, Lorrie Moore.
Friday, July 15, 2011
Friday, July 8, 2011
This is a play of restraint. Alec and Laura meet when she gets something in her eye at the train station and he (a doctor) helps her get it out. One accidental meeting, and then another. And before long they are in love. But they're both married with children. (In the movie Laura says, "I was happily married until I met you" or something like that.). In the end, he and Laura agree it's best if Alec moves with his family to a new job in Africa. At their last meeting, a silly gossip friend of Laura's shows up, and Alec and Laura can only shake hands.
There were many parts that got me...one in particular that is so personal right now I won't quote it just so I can keep it to myself. But here is one that I'm willing to share:
ALEC: ...Please know that you'll be with me for ages and ages yet - far away into the future. Time will wear down the agony of not seeing you, bit by bit the pain will go-but the loving you and the memory of you won't ever go- please know that...I love you with all my heart and soul.
LAURA: I want to die - if only I could die.
ALEC: If you died you'd forget me - I want to be remembered.
LAURA: Yes, I know.
This play is a comfort to me right now- there's so much going on. I will carry this around with me for awhile...physically and emotionally.
by William Carlos Williams
This quiet morning light
reflected how many times
from grass and trees and clouds
enters my north room
touching the walls with
grass and clouds and trees.
trees and grass and clouds.
Why did you follow
that beloved body
with your ships at Actium?
I hope it was because
you knew her inch by inch
from slanting feet upward
To the roots of her hair
and down again and that
you saw her
above the battle's fury-
clouds and trees and grass-
For then you are
listening in heaven.
Monday, July 4, 2011
I know I said that I wouldn't often post my own poems (which I don't write anymore), but today I am going to again. I happened to catch "The Universe: Parallel Worlds" or whatever it was called on the History Channel on Tuesday night. I wish I understood physics/astrophysics/ cosmology. But what they were talking about reminded me of a poem I wrote 8 years ago. The basic premise is here described by Max Tegmark in a 2003 article for Scientific American:
"Is there a copy of you reading this article? A person who is not you but who
lives on a planet called Earth, with misty mountains, fertile fields and
sprawling cities, in a solar system with eight other planets? The life of this
person has been identical to yours in every respect. But perhaps he or she now
decides to put down this article without finishing it, while you read on.
"The idea of such an alter ego seems strange and implausible, but it looks as if we will just have to live with it, because it is supported by astronomical observations. The simplest and most popular cosmological model today predicts that you have a twin in a galaxy about 10 to the 1028 meters from here. This distance is so large that it is beyond astronomical, but that does not make your doppelgänger any less real. The estimate is derived from elementary probability and does not even assume speculative modern physics, merely that space is infinite (or at least sufficiently large) in size and almost uniformly filled with matter, as observations indicate. In infinite space, even the most unlikely events must take place somewhere. There are infinitely many other inhabited planets, including not just one but infinitely many that have people with the same appearance, name and memories as you, who play out every possible permutation of your life choices."
Here's the poem:
Infinite Amount of Chances
"If you accept that the universe is infinite, then that means there's an infitite amount of chances for things to happen...if there's an infinite amount of chances for something to happen, then eventually it will happen - no matter how small the likelihood." - Alex Garland
Am I with you now?
Can you feel me kiss you goodnight?
Sleepwalking I stumble into your bedroom
Infinately we are together - you and I
In the darkness of every star's a sun with planets
Makes you feel small
Out there you are holding my hand thru periodic sadnesses
Somewhere at sometime you were or will be allowed to love me -
I will be allowed to love you
Infinity is a button on my calculator
And tonight I am lost and alone
Knowing one day you will find me
No matter how small the likelihood
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Unrat, which translates into something close to "garbage" - my version translated it as "mud" - is a tyrannical professor, vilified by his students and former students who insist on tormenting him constantly. He hates - HATES!!!! - being called by his nickname, and will seek out everyone that calls him that and mete out whatever punishment he can. They shout at him in the street, mocking him everywhere.
His arch nemesis is a student named Lohmann, who actually makes a point never to call him "mud" - he's above it somehow. One day, Lohmann turns in his notebook after an exam and Unrat notices a poem tin it addressed to an actress, Rosa Frohlich. Boys in the school are not supposed to be dilly dallying at theaters, and so Unrat sets out to catch Lohmann and his two accomplices. Unrat searches the town for where this infamous Rosa may be, and he eventually finds her at the Blue Angel. His goal is simple: bring down Lohmann by catching him in after-hours dalliances with a woman of low-repute. But that's not what happens. Rosa, instead, catches Unrat.
The students know what's up, and because of it Unrat completely loses control. He eventually is forced to leave his post and uses all his money catering to Rosa. Lohmann resurfaces, Unrat tries to kill him and really just ends up stealing his wallet. As he runs down the street, he is like always tormented with insults. Unrat's unwavering righteousness - his need to ruin those who have mocked him - is excellently portrayed. A very powerful story.
Though I love The Blue Angel (which is why I cannot help posting the clip at the bottom - her expressions in the German version are much better than the English), the motivation behind Unrat is completely different between film and novel. Though at first he really is interested and flattered by Rosa (called Lola Lola in the film), in the novel his undoing is his absolute desire to ruin everyone and he is able to do so via his relations with Rosa. In the film, it's his devotion to Rosa/Lola herself that is his undoing without mention of his overriding obession. That just gets him into her dressing room. Both work and both knock your socks off, but for different reasons.
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
I'll be honest. This abandonment of the reading desert is not without its catalysts. By far not. It's been spurred by a whirlwind in my head, the kind that makes me want to shut myself off from the rest of the world and listen to AM stations out of Quebec with a lot of static. It's been part injuries and illnesses and potential illnesses – my own and others –overbooking myself, and living with a toddler who is intent on driving me absolutely bonkers for an hour and a half about eating breakfast (or, really, pretending to eat breakfast…and dinner, and every other time I try to feed him), and then asking for a bear hug and a kiss. Maybe also that for a month or two, my part of the world suddenly assumed Seattle's climate, without the perks of a really great scene and coffee shops on every block, and now suddenly it's Louisiana. It's part other stuff too.
Usually I feel this way in the fall and early winter even numbered years, but for some reason here I am in spring of an odd numbered year. Which is disorienting in itself. I always look to books for bearings, but strangely, the books I look for are fractured themselves. Now is not the time for funny, or upbeat. (Do I ever do upbeat, though?)
I tried to read Wittgenstein's Mistress last year (of course, in the fall/early winter of an even numbered year), but it didn't work for me at the time. Sometimes you have these things. So I've been flitting from one book to the next lately (literally with piles stacked next to my bed of maybe 15 books), but this time WM stuck. It's fractured, too, and feels like a cocoon. Which is what I really need right now.
Kate, the narrator, contends that she is the last person alive – or at least as far as she can tell. We have to take her at her word for it, because she's all we've got. Every review I read for the novel said we are "lead to believe" that Kate was the last person, leaving me to expect some clues in the end that she really was just insane. Yes, some devastating things happened to Kate (the death of her child, etc.) and some of these reviews suggested that with that devastation, Kate lost it and therefore we cannot take her word for the state of the world. It's possible, of course, but there isn't anything particular hinting one way or the other. We can take her at her word, or not.
WM doesn't have a plot. The idea that she's the last person alive is just the starting point for Kate's thoughts. This isn't a story about she is became the last person alive, or how she has dealt with being the last person alive. It's Kate, alone, in a house on the beach perhaps a decade or more after she stopped looking for other people, typing her disjointed thoughts, which are not about her life but about philosophy, art, music and the Trojan War. This may seem odd, but I thought it was perfectly normal. When you're disjointed – as one might be if one were the last person alive, or, of course, if one is crazy enough to think one were the last person alive when really one isn't – these are the types of things that may come up. Sometimes, in such situations, it's much, much easier – and more soothing, more calming – to think of facts, to think of things completely unrelated to anything, independent of you, the feeler, instead of focusing on what is happening in that moment that has made one feel disjointed. Here, Markson perfectly captures what happens to our brains when we – ok, I – feel isolated and alone. It's perfect pitch.
What's most amazing about WM is that it works even if you don't know anything about Wittgenstein (though it works much better if you do). Though I read The Odyssey, I haven't read The Iliad, or many of the other ancient Greek works that are referenced here – that would have heightened my understanding, but it worked even without it. This novel made me want to put away Arabian Nights and get my Bulfinch's Mythology out again.
I loved this book. It was everything I expected it to be, which is often not the case. I'm sure that when once again I get to another fall/winter of an even numbered year, I will pick it up to find my bearings in the color of the cat Kate saw at the Coliseum.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
At first, I really enjoyed this novel. Daniel Quinn, a writer of cheap detective novels, gets a phone call in the middle of the night. The phone call is for Paul Auster (someone Quinn doesn’t know – how clever, no?), but it’s so intriguing, Quinn pretends he’s Auster and thus gets mixed up in the strange affair. The call was from Peter Stillman. Peter had been locked in a basement by his father for years; his father was trying to get him to speak the original language of god, or something like that. After a fire, Peter was discovered and Stillman Sr (also named Peter) went to prison. The deal with the phone call to Quinn/Auster was that Stillman Sr was getting out of prison, and Stillman Jr and wife thought he was going to come and kill Jr. Quinn was to pick up Sr’s trail at the train station and keep him from getting to Jr.
Quinn follows Sr all over New York, day after day, to no avail. Nothing happens. The guy just walks. Turns out, though, that he was spelling something on his walks that had to do with his thesis on language (total bull so I won’t elaborate). Quinn finally tries to talk to the guy, which he succeeds at doing, but Sr is a total nut job, and every time Quinn meets him, he gives him a different name and Sr. doesn’t seem to notice. Or does he notice and pretend not to? Turns out it doesn’t really matter.
And then one day Quinn loses him. Sr. doesn’t appear outside his hotel one morning, and it turns out he had checked out the night before. So Quinn is stuck. He looks up Auster in the phone book and goes to see him. Turns out he’s a writer and is a complete dead end. Quinn tries to call the Stillmans, but their line is constantly busy. For days. Finally (rather, you know, than going to see what is up), he sets himself outside the Stillman Jr apartment building and waits. After literally months, he runs out of money and so calls up Auster. Who tells him that when Quinn lost Sr, the guy had jumped into the Hudson and died. He goes back to his own apartment, to find all his stuff gone and someone else living there. So Quinn finally goes to see the Jr, and guess what – the apartment is completely vacant.
So what does he do? He strips naked and hangs out there for quite a long time (days? weeks? months?). Eventually Auster goes to find Quinn, and he isn’t there – just his notebook.
My favorite comedian, the late Mitch Hedberg, used to do the following bit:
You know when you go into a restaurant, and it gets busy and they start a waiting list, and they start calling out names, "DuFresnes, party of two." They say again, "DuFresnes, party of two." But then if no one answers, they'll just go to the next name, "Bush, party of three." Yeah, but what happened to the DuFresnes? No one seems to care. Who can eat at a time like this? People are missing! And they're hungry! That's a double whammy! "Bush, search party of three!" You can eat once you find the DuFresnes!I kept thinking about that when I got to the last 30 pages or so, when Stillman Jr disappeared. Why was their line busy? Where did they go? And then Quinn disappears. Where did he go? The novel ends with the suggestion of, “well, he’s out there somewhere.” Yeah – naked. Clearly I was very disappointed in this.
This second story in the collection was why I bought the novel in the first place. Blue is a private detective, hired by White to trail Black. White pays for an apartment with a view of Black’s apartment, and Blue commences watching. But nothing really happens. He has no direction in terms of why he’s watching Black. The end was bizarre and like City of Glass, disappointing.
The Locked Room
The third and final part of the Trilogy centered around an unknown narrator (who is supposedly the author of the other two novels) who is contacted by his childhood friend’s wife when the friend disappears. He is tasked with going through the friend’s (Fanshawe) papers and novels to see if anything is publishable. It is, and in the meantime the narrator ends up marrying Fanshawe’s wife and adopting his son. But Fanshawe isn’t really dead, and the narrator knows it, and goes on a hunt to track him down. Names that appear in the other stories – Peter Stillman, Quinn – appear here as well, but I’m not sure if they are supposed to be the same people, or if they are just another play on names and mistaken or interchangeable identities. The writing of this section was markedly different (as in, not as good) from the previous sections, and was a little annoying. Unlike in The Piano Teacher, I found myself rolling eyes a few times.
I don’t know why I was so disappointed in these stories. My first reaction is that I didn’t like the ambiguity, the unanswered questions. But that can’t entirely be true. For years, I’ve been searching for novels that are like David Lynch’s films. In New York Trilogy, I recognize this long sought after novel. My central question, though, is how can I love love love Mulholland Drive and hate New York Trilogy when the central themes of identity and doppelgangers, puzzles and locked rooms or objects, etc. are so similar?
Reading some scholarly reports on New York Trilogy, (as well as some help from Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, which I started this weekend), I’m beginning to see my problem.
In Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous character (appropriately a sort of stand-in for Coetzee himself) is giving a lecture on realism, in which she states, (paraphrasing here) if I say there is a table in the hall, I mean there is a table in the hall. I think for some reason I’m stuck there in realism when reading. Perhaps it’s because I have problems processing information that I read, which is why I read so slowly – that’s the explanation that makes the most sense. It’s easy for me to see symbolism when I know it’s symbolism (The Metamorphosis for example), but less so when it’s subtle, and I don’t know if I’m supposed to take things at the author’s word or not. But then again, I loved The Trial. Where does that fit in, since it’s certainly more subtle than Gregor Samsa becoming a bug? I don’t know…this is an evolving theory on myself.
But in the end, I suppose, my reaction to both is the same. When I first saw Mulholland Drive, I couldn’t stop thinking about it to the point where I bought the movie and started to watch it over and over again. I didn’t expect to figure it out, but its puzzles wouldn’t leave me alone, and that feeling in Club Silencio when Diane/Betty finds the key in her purse still gives me the chills. In the same sense, I am pestered by this sense that I inherently didn’t get these stories – I know that there are layers there that I just didn’t delve into – perhaps because I was too distracted by the image of Quinn wandering New York naked. Maybe it comes down to expectations. I was not expecting a typical novel here, but I wasn’t expecting what New York Trilogy actually offered. So I wasn’t prepared for it, like I was with The Trial. I’m sure, in years to come, I will come back to this book, hopefully after I’ve read more Auster so I get all, or at least some of, the self referential stuff. This return won’t be any time soon. Unless, like Mulholland Drive, it really begins to bug me. In which case, I may be back reading it next week.
Friday, May 6, 2011
I have to take a big breath just to begin.
Gatsby came to me in 10th grade Honors English. I was 15. A romantic 15. I had already been in love twice. The third time came when I was 15…it had probably already arrived by the time we got to Fitzgerald (though #3 was really just trying to recapture #1). Perhaps you may think I’m being melodramatic, to say that three (out of four!) of the times I have been in love with someone occurred by the time I was 15, but looking back even now, as I approach 30, it’s true. There were two other times – at 18 and at 21 – when I thought I was in love, but in hindsight I know that I wasn’t. But if those first two times I fell in love were not love, than I don’t know what love is. (Do not cue Foreigner here). This was the lens through which I was reading Fitzgerald – three unrequited loves, and only 15 years old!
When I was 12, I fell in love for the first time. The person I fell in love with was much older than me. I don’t know if he ever even knew I existed, though I made every attempt possible (in the pre-internet days when I couldn’t cyber-stalk him) to make myself noticed. I was a non-entity, as 12-year-olds tend to. That whole situation has colored my entire life since. I will go no further into details. But I was an incredible fool (“colossal vitality of his illusion”). I was reading Romeo & Juliet for god’s sake. I believed that if only I had enough faith, if only I tried hard enough, IF ONLY, we would be together. I believed we were “meant to be” in a way that only an innocent child can believe such a thing and not be incredibly creepy. And you cannot argue with a 12 year old who is convinced of something, especially one as stubborn as me. (“It was an extraordinary gift for hope…”)
When I realized it wasn’t going to work out the way I had planned, there I was – Gatsby reaching out to the green dock light across the Sound. There I was, setting up my entire life so that this person would happen to someday show up at my party. That is where Gatsby really began for me, where he entered my life. I was Jay Gatsby before I ever knew of him.
I’ve been revisiting the novel in the last few weeks, reading it to Brendan at night as he falls asleep. This might be close to the tenth time I’ve read this novel. I find myself tearing up at certain passages. Though this book has always moved me, something about reading it out loud, 17 years down the road, has brought tears to my eyes more than once. I can feel Gatsby’s longing over the years…I can feel his heartbreak that hot afternoon at the Plaza. I mean that I can literally feel it. My heart is breaking for him as I write this. And in a sense, breaking for myself at 12 at the same time. The images from The Great Gatsby have become part of my own personal mythology.
Here are some of the quotes I’ve underlined in the book over the years. Some are fabulous sentences, some evocative images and some have just spoken to me as if Fitzgerald just got it. It’s the best I can do in terms of a review.
- It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
- On Sunday morning while church bells rang in the villages alongshore, the world and its mistress returned to Gatsby’s house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn.
- The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.
- The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain.
- A pause; it endured horribly.
- He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity.
- Daisy put her arm through his abruptly but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.
- No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. (My.favorite.line.from.a.novel.ever.)
- But the rest offended her–and inarguably, because it wasn’t a gesture but an emotion. She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented “place” that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village–appalled by its raw vigor that chafed under the old euphemisms and by the too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short cut from nothing to nothing. She saw something awful in the very simplicity she failed to understand.
- He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: “I never loved you.” After she had obliterated three years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken. One of them was that, after she was free, they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house–just as if it were five years ago.
- “I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”
- He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was. . . .
- Their eyes met, and they stared together at each other, alone in space. With an effort she glanced down at the table.
"You always look so cool,” she repeated.
She had told him that she loved him, and Tom Buchanan saw.
- ”An Oxford man!” He was incredulous. “Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.”
- But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room.
- There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.
- He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him.
I appreciate a good book, a well written book. A book that sucks you in with its language and paints for you a world that you know, or don’t know; gives you a new light, or illuminates an old one. But then there are books that speak to you – that feel as if they were plucked secretly out of your heart. In Gatsby, it seemed as though Fitzgerald had beautifully rendered in poetry my own experience. To feel that someone gets what you’re going through so much that they can turn such pain and despair into something as magnificent as Gatsby is an amazing, amazing feeling. When I was younger, Gatsby was a comfort, providing a kindred spirit – a story, a despair, a drive, that I was intimately familiar with. Now it serves as a reminder of and connection to some core self that has been wrapped and buried under layers and layers of years and experiences I once never could have conceived of.
Once upon a time, when I was 12, I had a nightmare that I still vividly recall 17 years later. This person I was in love with was visiting – not visiting me, but back in the area. This person was “20 minutes away,” and I couldn’t get to him. No one would drive me to where he was. There was my chance – if I could only get there – and I couldn’t. It’s a feeling of complete and utter helplessness…one’s future is waiting just out of reach, and you just cannot get to it.
Last year I heard through the grapevine that this person was coming back – literally 20 minutes away. And I could have easily found my way back into that situation, once again seeking out the opportunity to say, “Does my name mean anything to you? Did you ever know that my life revolved around you, and that its trajectory is entirely because of you?”
Inside of me, my 12 year old self is always tugging at my sleeve, still looking for answers that at 29, I know will never come (“He’s afraid, he’s waited so long”). And to some extent, I don’t know that I want to know the answer. The likely truth would no longer be helpful. But she – the little lost girl still cowering inside me – still seeks those answers.
I thought about taking that next chance to find answers, if only for her, in honor of who I once was. But my life is at a good place now and I do not want the emotional implosion that always comes along with these questions – from opening up these old wounds again. At some point, I had to take Gatsby as a lesson rather than a reflection. At some point, I had to learn to ignore the green light. The light will always be there, since it’s myself – my past, the life I once believed I would have but never did – that is glowing across the Sound. But I have learned that I don’t need to stand at night and reach out to it. At some point, I had to just turn around.
Gatsby pursued Daisy, believing he could go back into the past and fix it, only to have reality shoved in his face at the Plaza that hot, hot day. (A day that feels more palpable, more real to me than any day I’ve ever read of in fiction.) For me, in the end I decided not to try once again to find answers, since I know what they will likely be. All of this is kept in a tightly closed box inside me, and I now prefer to keep it that way. That chapter of my life is best not reopened.
I found out that he had a baby girl recently (and gave her a dumb, dumb name). I felt nothing. At last, I realize, it’s behind me.
Monday, May 2, 2011
Erika Kohut is a piano teacher in her mid-30s. She’s drab, maybe frumpy, exacting and particular. She has no friends, she has no life besides music. She was trained to be a successful concert pianist, but was never much more than mediocre and so became an instructor at a conservatory in Vienna. From the outside, she is a picture of respectability. But after work, she roams the seedy districts, visits peep shows, and engages in a variety of other voyeuristic activities.
Erika lives at home with her creepy, domineering mother with whom she often has hair-pulling fist fights over what time she came home and what dress she bought. Did I mention Erika is approaching 40? And that she and her mother sleep in the same bed, despite the fact that Erika has her own room? Mrs. Kohut has always believed her daughter was the best – or at least did everything she could to convince Erika of it – and has constantly been disappointed with her daughter’s inability to realize her full potential. She wants to keep her daughter all to herself.
And then along comes Walter Kelmmer, a handsome, blonde engineering student who is also a talented pianist and taking lessons with Erika. Walter sees a challenge in Erika and begins to pursue her. He thought he bargained for a woman who was just waiting for someone like him to come along and help her loosen up, I suppose. He didn’t want anyone to know of his affection for his teacher for fear it might hurt his reputation with the other ladies – especially those his own age. But he had no idea what he was in for.
Erika catches on that Walter is interested, and while at first it sort of serves as a joke between her and her mother, she eventually begins to see the possibilities. In a moment of jealousy, she puts shattered glass in the pocket of someone she thinks Walter is also interested in (another student). Because, you know, that’s what normal people do, right? After a good start in a bathroom, the “relationship” gets on a strange trajectory when Erika writes Walter a letter detailing all the, ah, peculiarities she has been saving up for.
Walter reads the letter and keeps asking, “Are you serious?” But oh yes, she is – she shows him the box of accoutrements.
I don't want to give the rest away, because I was pretty surprised by the ending, and by what lead up to the ending. I didn't see any of that coming. Nor had I seen Erika's box coming. Nor, I suppose, had I seen The Piano Teacher coming.
The novel to me to revolved around power – who had the power. Mrs. Kohut wants to maintain absolute power over her daughter, but isn’t able to. As the authority figure in the relationship, one would typically conclude that Erika has the power in her “relationship” with Walter. As the male, Walter feels he has the power. Erika believes that by allowing Walter to believe he is in the power position, it will really be her. She tries to set the rules of the relationship with her letter, giving him the physical power but on her terms. And Walter does what she asks, but of course it doesn’t turn out to be what she wanted. Walter knew that would be the case, and of course with that knowledge, and with his act, he felt that he was in control. And with her final act, Erika has put herself back in control. Sort of.
Something about the text was a bit odd, with its drawn out and sometimes awkward metaphors; at times I wasn’t sure if that was the fault of the translation or the original text. Things like that can get extremely annoying and distracting, but I didn’t find it so in this case. The descriptions are lengthy, though there wasn’t a point where I wanted Jelinek to get on with it, and despite the graphic depictions of everything, I never found myself rolling my eyes. In 1988, the New York Times reviewer saw Erika’s violent fantasies as having been concocted by the author just for the shock value. I didn’t get that at all. Nothing seemed out of place, and I never thought to myself that something seemed contrived to get a reaction, in the way that American Psycho did.
What struck me, at least for the first two-thirds or so of the book was how little happened, without it seeming like nothing was happening. The bathroom scene isn’t until more than half-way through, and it isn’t until the last 50 pages that any action really gets going. It reminded me of real life - the fact that the overarching story of ourselves and the events that make up those stories are really few and far between. That the majority of our lives are mundane and average. Perhaps that's why I didn't feel that the long descriptions or the lack of action for most of the novel was out of place. It felt like reality.
I’m still not sure what to think about The Piano Teacher – as in I’m not sure if I liked it or not. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it, but I found myself not wanting to put it down, which should say something. I was surprised by the ending; I was surprised by lead up to the ending; I was surprised by Erika, which again is saying something. The novel was made into a film in the last decade, which won a number of international awards. I don’t think that I want to see this novel visually, though. Reading it was enough for me.
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Way back in August or September, there was a little controversy in the literary world. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom was released to much fanfare, including double reviews in the New York Times. Two popular authors, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, started a twitter frenzy that was dubbed Franzenfreude, complaining that female authors get put in the category of popular/commercial fiction or chick lit and are thereby ignored by the literary establishment. As a chick-lit and popular fiction ignorer, and a fan of decidedly high-brow literature, I had wanted to do a long post on the subject taking up the torch for literary fiction as clearly superior (and therefore more deserving of any reviews). But by late September, a post no longer seemed relevant as the controversy died down, and I also didn't feel like I had all the information. I had never read anything by Picoult and Weiner - in fact, I had purposely avoided them. All of the charges being thrown from Picoult and Weiner could easily (and justly) be thrown at me. I do look down on commercial fiction, and women’s commercial fiction specifically. I do lump all books marketed “for women” as chick lit and mean it in all its derogatory ugliness, failing to distinguish between so-called “shoe porn” of the Candace Bushnell variety, and other more general fiction that just happens to be written by women. And looking at the list of books I have read over the past few years, very few have been women, though I have my own excuse for that (blame the Modern Library).
So, before slinging insults at Picoult and Weiner, and other commercial women’s fiction, I wanted to be in a better position to judge. So I did the unthinkable and read a book by Jodi Picoult.
I did a little research prior to selecting which to read. I could have selected any one of the dozen or more Picoult books, letting the chips fall where they may. But believe it or not, I really didn’t want to embark upon this project just to be insulting or snarky. In order to make all attempts possible to avoid that, I sought out the one that I felt would interest me the most. I settled on her 2000 novel, Plain Truth for two reasons: (1) familiarity with the subject matter and proximity to the setting; and (2) I saw the made-for-tv adaptation of the novel a few years ago (the only Lifetime movie I believe I ever watched) and I found it entertaining – for a Lifetime movie, that is.
I wouldn’t say that I was particularly “into” the novel. There were certain points where I felt compelled to keep reading, and points where I would go weeks without even thinking of it. Which is why it took me four months to finish. The prose was often clunky, the dialog awkward. “Jacob, I stopped trying to figure out American juries around the same time Adam Sandler movies started raking in millions at the box office” or “Questioning Coop as a witness rated high on my scale of discomfort – somewhere, say, between suffering a bikini wax and braving bamboo slivers under the nails.” It’s not high-art. At some point I became immune to it, for the most part, and able to focus on the story, which is what people read Picoult for. As far as I can tell, at least. And the plot had many twists and turns, as should be expected from courtroom drama. But the end of the trail really got to me. The jury is out deliberating, day after day. Will the prosecution win, and sentence a poor Amish girl to prison, or will the defense win, and a no one be punished for the baby’s death? We’re waiting and waiting, and suddenly, they decide on a plea bargain, Katie gets to wear a monitoring bracelet, and everything is good. This felt to me like Picoult’s jury got away from her, or she couldn’t decide what to do – Katie couldn’t go to jail, but perhaps she didn’t want to come back that she was innocent, though I believe that that would have been just a fine outcome in itself. It felt like Picoult gave up waiting, wanting to wrap everything up without too much mess, and so took the plea bargain way out.
Though I think this novel was likely the best pick I could have made, I often wished it wasn’t so close to home, literally, because I found myself picking a lot of details apart. There were a number of geographical mistakes, the most obvious of which is that there is not an Amtrak station within 30 miles of State College, and a number of glaring issues with the depiction of the Amish. Now, I’m not an expert on the topic by any means, and though my own interaction tends to be with Wenger Mennonite than the Amish, I’m also not unknowledgable. I mostly resented the depiction of the Amish in Lancaster County as country bumpkins who don’t know what traffic is. Yes, parts of Lancaster County are very rural, and I suppose there could be some Amish in those parts of the county that never ventured out of their township into the metropolis of Lancaster City. But I would imagine that is the exception, not the rule. Drive along Route 30 sometimes, including through Paradise, a community mentioned several times in the novel, and you will know what I mean. Many Amish are business owners that serve the non-Amish community, often in urban areas. They even shop at Walmart. This isn’t to say that the Amish aren’t sheltered to some extent from the world – they certainly are. Picoult defiantly did her research on many of the details of Amish life, but the portrayal of the so-called English world as completely foreign and unfamiliar to them felt disingenuous. It served its purpose within the plot of Plain Truth, but I did not feel it was an entirely accurate characterization.
So, in the end, what can I say? I know why people read this type of novel. And by “this type of novel,” I don’t mean novels written by women, or marketed to women, or novels that a lot of people purchase. I mean a novel in which everything is surface. And that, I believe, is the distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction. There is no subtlety here. In other words, I didn’t have to think about anything. Oh sure, I could have wondered what really did happen to Katie’s baby, whether she really did kill it or not. But that’s not really the same type of thinking that is invoked by say, novels by Jeanette Winterson or Margaret Atwood – two contemporary female novelists who (1) get reviewed by respected establishments and (2) sell far fewer novels than Picoult or Weiner.
People read these types of novels for pleasure, for escape. To be entertained. I suppose I never really approached reading for simple entertainment or escape, and I never understood the drive to do so. That’s me, though. Plain Truth wasn’t bad. It is easily consumed, like fast food – quickly churned out for the Pertinent Topic of the year. But it wasn’t high-art, as I mentioned before. And that, perhaps, is what frustrated me about the Franzenfreude hullaballoo. Picoult and Weiner write, I suppose, for the masses. They make a lot of money doing that, because there are a lot of people in the world who want to escape for a bit with reading, such writers provide them with satisfaction, and that’s perfectly fine. Adam Sandler makes a lot of money doing the same thing with movies (to use Picoult’s own example, quoted above). But in 100 years, people (hopefully) won’t be talking about Big Daddy in the same way we talk about Citizen Kane, or even The Wizard of Oz. In the same way, look at the bestsellers from the early 20th century. Other than one or two every decade, we’re not reading the popular fiction of yesteryear. They were reading The Broad Highway by Jeffrey Farnol and The Rosary by Florence Barclay, not Gertrude Stein or Thomas Mann. Sometimes good fiction happens to be popular. But popular fiction isn’t always good fiction, as in, fiction that will still be relevant in some way in 2110. And I doubt that Picoult & co. will be amongst those that are.
I’m not going to comment at all on the merits of Jonathan Franzen. Having never read anything he’s written I am as equally unqualified to evaluate his work as brilliant or not as I was to evaluate Picoult. But I’m going to way in a bit here on the controversy that got me reading Picoult to begin with.
There are two aspects to the debate. The first color, which is where Picoult and Jennifer Wiener specifically steered the ship of Franzenfreude, is the coverage of female writers versus male writers. But what does that mean? Are serious books written by women reviewed less than serious books written by men? What is the cause of that? Are men writing superior books to their female counterparts? Or is serious fiction by men published more often than serious fiction by women? As in, if two-thirds of the serious fiction published is written by men, then two-thirds of the reviews of serious fiction should be reviews of books written by men. But there is a question beyond that which is, are women writing as many serious novels as men but getting published less often? What if fifty percent of all serious, really good books (by whose standard, of course?) are written by women, but only one-third of the serious, really good books published are written by women? I don’t know. And I’m not about to spend my time counting up reviews, as others have done.
It is here the Jennifer Wiener may have a point that I am certainly willing to concede: that there may be a gender bias here somewhere. Why aren’t there more prominent women writers of literary fiction? But I don’t know that it’s right to blame the NYT for that. Lionel Shriver, a serious writer of definitely not fluffy female stuff has stated she has had to fight her own publishers to keep her books from being marketed to the women-only reading public. Wiener also brought up the name Nick Hornby as a (semi?) commercial fiction author who gets much more respect that Wiener and Picoult. Is that the result of the gender bias? As someone who has read Hornby (High Fidelity), and thought it was decent, I will say no, it’s not. High Fidelity was quirky and interesting. Plain Truth was predictable and cheesy. Honestly, I feel Hornby would more likely be classed with the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, another on-the-margin-of-commercial-v.-lit, than Picoult, though I cannot speak for Wiener. This is just judging from the limited number (as in, one per) of novels by each that I’ve read so perhaps I’m judging prematurely? But regardless of the number of female v. male novelists, or published novelists, or reviewed novelists or respected novelists, I agree with C.E.Morgan’s assertion that we shouldn’t champion mediocre novels by females out of defensiveness. We should seek out good literary fiction by women, but we shouldn’t praise it just because of the gender of the writer.
The second aspect to the debate is commercial fiction versus literary fiction. Picoult and Wiener seemed quickly to distance themselves from this in favor of the gender angle. (Though at least Wiener acknowledged she knows she isn’t as good a writer as Jonathan “Genius” Franzen – with the snide remark about his intellectualism.)
This aspect of the debate can quickly devolves away from what books are “worthy” of reviews into questions about the place of genre fiction, including romance, and do graphic novels count here anywhere? People get defensive when you start comparing quality, because judgments about artistic talent or expression are really based on the observer’s individual taste. Or is it? I might not like a particular style of art, but can I make a value judgment on the artist’s talent even if it isn’t what I like? I think in many instances you can. Others disagree. And this is where I think Picoult and Weiner are wrong. Though there is a fuzzy area around the middle (in my opinion populated by those such as Oates and Hornby, as mentioned above), it is pretty clear what should count as commercial fiction and what should count as literary fiction, and why they are two very different things.
Wiener/Picoult tried to frame the debate surrounding the lack of respect for commercial fiction, particularly when geared toward females, in that Franzen and others like him get kudos for writing about the same subjects as “chick-lit” authors who are ghettoized for doing so (thus the gender bias angle). Picoult stated, “a lot of the same themes and wisdoms I find in commercial fiction are the same themes and wisdom as what I see lauded in literary fiction.” The majority of fiction books that are written are about “Family, Relationships and Love” (as one of their websites’ announces to potential readers). The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill A Mockingbird, A Handmaid’s Tale, Crime and Punishment, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Portnoy’s Complaint are all about family, relationships, and/or love. But that’s not the point. It’s not that Picoult and Company write about the same topics as their male counterparts and get less respect for it. There is a difference.
And that difference is the quality of the writing. Commercial fiction is much more predictable, more formulaic (how many Picoult novels include a crime or a trial?), and everything is wrapped up with a beautiful, Martha Stewart-esque bow. People who consistently read literary fiction over commercial fiction are looking for something beyond plot or character development. They want good writing. The kind of writing that demands you read with a pen or pencil in hand for underlining. Have you ever heard a commercial literature devotee say, “Well, that novel had a good plot, but I didn’t like the writing.” You won’t, because that’s not what they are reading for. And let’s be truthful. Commercial writing, especially in the vein of what Picoult writes, is not on the same level of those novels listed above. They are not on the same level as the many women authors who do write consistently about Family, Love and Relationships – whose writings are considered literature with a capital L. And the reason why isn’t because they are women, or because they commercial fiction writers, but because their writing isn’t as good. If it was, it would be literary fiction.
Commercial fiction is easily consumed, like wolfing down a hamburger and fries at a fast food joint. Literary fiction is much more like upscale dining. McDonald’s shouldn’t win culinary awards, and it shouldn’t expect to. A new McDonald’s opening down the street shouldn’t be reviewed by a food critic. Fast food/fine dining. Not consumed for the same reason. Shouldn’t be packaged the same way. Shouldn’t be expected to get the same coverage or praise from Great Restaurants Weekly. Both food. Not the same.
A female author on par with Jonathan Franzen (or any other “white male literary darling”) whose books are relegated to the chick-lit section due to some error on their publisher’s side has a right to be angry about that treatment. But the reviewers at the New York Times and other such establishments should not be expected to comb through the thousands of published novels every year hoping to find those one or two gems that were mislabeled. They have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is a category largely called literary fiction. Maybe reviewers miss something great by doing that, but there is only so much time in the world, and only so much space in the newspaper.
A review for the likes of Picoult and others like her would not be of consequence. Yes, it would give her a pat on the back, and maybe some feeling of acceptance by the literati (“you like me! You really like me!”), an article she could cut out and put in a scrapbook. And maybe it would move a few thousand more copies of her novels. But she’s already topping the best seller lists. Maybe I’m wrong about the other people in the world who read the NYT for recommendations, but I don’t think that they are looking to find out if they should read this week’s best seller. The job of the NYT, and what I look at it for, is to introduce me to writers and novels that I would likely not otherwise have heard of. People either will or will not pick up the mass market paperbacks at the airport, or Walmart or wherever. Franzen’s novels, and novels by writers like him, would never have the success they do without the New York Times, and even with two reviews, they will never have the mass popularity that Picoult or others do without critical adoration or even attention. And the good thing is, with the internet, there are hundreds and hundreds of reader review sites out there reviewing everything your heart could desire.
I searched the NYT and found four reviews for Jodi Picoult – none of which were for Plain Truth, so it gave me the opportunity to look at plots for her other novels and compare them to Plain Truth to see if that novel was truly representative, and I believe it was. Each of the reviews were written by Janet Maslin, who was described as “panning” Picoult’s works. While the reviews aren’t exactly positive – they are called “proficiently constructed” and described as having the “subtlety of a jackhammer”, Malin does say that Picoult is a “solid, lively storyteller.” I agree with all of those statements. But what struck me is how similar all of the plots sounded. I think Maslin sums up quite nicely (I’m combining two reviews here): “There are reasons why Ms. Picoult’s books are so widely read. However doggedly she belabors the obvious, she writes articulately and clearly, making her all too much of a rarity among popular authors. Her stories are more reassuring than disturbing, and their surprise twists pose no threats. These novels have soap opera momentum, and they guarantee comforting closure. When writers become this popular…they can coast in ways not possible for the up-and-coming. The opportunity to be long-winded yet perfunctory, paradoxically daring yet formulaic, is available to only proven hit makers at the top of the heap.”
What got on my nerves the most about the controversy was the strain of anti-intellectualism that pervaded it. When you wipe away the maybe-a-ploy-to-divert-attention-from-the-fact-that-we-are-jealous-of-Franzen’s-talent-not-his-reviews of calling it all gender-bias, there is a not-entirely subtle hint that it’s those “elites” who want to read books – or reviews – with big words that run the newspapers and shut out people who write for the masses – as in stuff without the word “lapidary”. The reviewers are condemned for not giving equal weight to empty-calorie airport novels (that are justly categorized as so) as they do to the tomes that actually make us think, or pick up a dictionary. To quote Picoult: “I think reviewers just like to look smart.” They also pull out Dickens and Austen as “popular” authors. Well, let’s be honest. Austen-as-popular-writer isn’t exactly historical truth, and Dickens was a damn good writer and created some of Western literature’s most enduring characters and literary moments (despite being popular). There is nothing wrong with a book being a best-seller or having mass appeal. But as I said before, being a best-seller does not make a book Literature. I can’t say if Franzen or any of the other (male) authors mentioned in the context of this controversy will be read a century from now, but I can venture one guess – Picoult likely won’t be.
I suppose in the end, when I pick a book, I want something that speaks to me. To quote Jonathan Frazen, via A.V. Club interview, “when I connect with a good book, they are telling me a story that seems true, and are telling me things about myself that I know are true, but I hadn’t been able to put together before.” And how books, or what books, speak to anyone is different from person to person. I suppose I look for complexity, subtlety, good writing, three-dimensional characters that I will remember forever. Sometimes this also includes giving me an opportunity to understand myself, or my life, or my relationships, or whatnot, in a new way. And that’s what the really important books in my life have done. And I know – instinctively, I didn’t have to actually read Picoult to know this – that commercial literature isn’t where it’s at for me.