Sunday, December 10, 2006

Reading for Character

Among the various reasons I stopped subscribing to The Atlantic—the continuous inclusion of Christopher Hitchens’s articles, that interminable travelogue by Bernard Henri-Lévy—was a little feature called “The Close Read.” Its subtitle was What Makes Good Writing Good. It could also have been called Unremarkable Samples from Books that No One Will Remember in Two Months, Including Me; or—and this is just an ungenerous hunch of mine—Passages from Books by People I Know.

Various people wrote it, and I don’t much blame them for failing to turn this misbegotten idea into a success. I can’t imagine what I would have done with it. When I copy down passages from fiction, they are usually essayistic, and contain ideas I want to remember, not (necessarily) great writing. And the bits that seem strangely beautiful almost always lose their magic when they’re taken out of context; I read them later and have no idea why I copied them down.

I recently got an idea, though, for a similar feature that I could actually write; it would be called Reading for Character, or maybe Reading for an Author’s Mood. Most people can get a sense of what a writer is like from reading a few pages of creative work, but it’s usually impossible to pinpoint what passages created this impression. They’re rarely the most memorable sections, or the ones worth copying down; a writer has his guard up at these points, or (if we’re lucky) inspiration has struck and he’s picking up a transmission from somewhere else.

Where you can get this sense is from sentences written with partial attention: narrative connective tissue, transitions, things that could as easily be written one way as another. Decisions made here are of so little importance to the quality of the final work that they are only attributable to character. I read a passage recently that provides a good example. It’s from a perfectly okay movie review by Stephen Holden in the New York Times of a documentary about Ingmar Bergman.

This intimate, compelling film, which opens today at the Film Forum in Manhattan, confirms what any astute viewer of his films has probably guessed: that they are intensely autobiographical.
I didn’t remember this sentence at all after I read the review, but at the end I got the impression that Stephen Holden was not someone I liked—that he was, at least when he wrote this review, a bit of an ass. I went back to read it again to figure out why I felt this way, since he didn’t say anything that actually offended me. And I settled on this sentence. Why would you write “any astute viewer”? That sentence could easily have been written “what viewers of his films have probably guessed” – or “what most viewers of his film have guessed.” Either would have been a much more generous sentiment, and probably more accurate.

I like the “probably” on top of it, too, because that implies that even some astute viewers have missed what Stephen Holden sees as elementary. He probably never meant to imply any of these things; he wrote the sentence without thinking, and he happened to be in a pompous mood, which may or may not be a permanent condition with him. Incidentally, I was reading some old work e-mails of mine and realized that I sounded like (and actually was) a jerk. Once I said that I “had no idea” what someone’s e-mail address was; it would have been just as simple, and more sensible, to say that I didn’t know what it was.

Why did I write that? It implied that my boss was being stupid for expecting me to know what this person’s e-mail address was, which I suppose was what I thought, completely unfairly, because I hated my job on that day and it crept into my language. Work e-mails are usually forgotten in an hour, and seen as utilitarian and characterless, but I bet you can trace someone’s outlook on life more easily and accurately there than in, for lack of a better word, expressive communications, which tend to put on more layers of artifice.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz

I wonder how many books got sold or thrown out the year after the Soviet Union collapsed. My friend told me that his public library had shelves and shelves of books for sale written by political scientists during the Cold War, all trying to puzzle out what the Soviets were thinking. Most of them are temporary in the way that all such books are temporary, but I’m sure there is a great deal of intelligence there that is perhaps never going to see the light of day again, except by the occasional historian.

Among the books that have already started to gather dust are the most distinguished works related to communism. I doubt many people will read Koestler in another fifty years. I don’t know a single person that’s read John Reed, or Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky (unless you count Tony Blair; it’s apparently one of his favorites). All those novels about nuclear anxiety will probably soon be forgotten too: On the Beach, etc. Even Faulkner’s famous Nobel lecture seems so dated. None of my friends who studied philosophy care much about Karl Popper or Alexander Herzen.

The obvious exception is 1984, which survives even as Animal Farm, deservedly, disappears along with the memory of its historical originals. Another book that deserves to survive, and I fear will not, is Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. I am a little embarrassed about why I picked it up. The book is a study of the capitulation of artists to the demands of Communism, and I was looking for some insight into the bad state of political affairs in this country—the fact that so many people who seem bright enough are willing to accept what they must know are lies for the sake of their political affiliation.

The book’s epigram appeared to prepare me for getting what I wanted; it is a quote from “an old Jew of Galicia”:
When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever say he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.
Hooray, I thought! Take that, Dubya! Because what I wanted out of this book was to be told things I already knew, with a dash of wit, from someone with some moral authority. Basically, I was looking for another one of the political cheerleading books that work their way, within a year, from the central display case to the $1 section at the back of the store. I was a symptom of the bad situation I was describing.

In any case, as I started reading, I realized I wasn’t going to get what I was looking for. Milosz describes the attractions of Communism; the hard questions that any all-embracing philosophy spares a person from answering for herself; and the strange sort of dissembling life produced in a society of informants. There were oblique analogies here to American life, but nothing direct. Everything was beautifully written, and clearly the product of an incisive mind, but it felt like a book that no one would much care to read fifty years from now.

And then, a few chapters in, Milosz starts writing a different sort of book. He produces four character sketches of artists known to him who, in some form of another, decided to bend their art to the demands of the state. He doesn’t name any of these people, but each can be said to conform to a certain artistic type; the names of the chapters are Alpha, the Moralist; Beta, the Disappointed Lover, and so on. Each one is enthralling. It is one of the most beautiful acts of identification I have ever come across. Novelists are continually writing about artists – painters, musicians, other writers – but I have never come across another book that I felt had such insight into the different varieties of the artistic temperament.

Milosz does not attempt any generalizations; the sketches, in addition to being a history of life in Poland during the Nazi years, are attempts to see what made these specific writers decide to alter their art to the dictates of socialist realism. Milosz describes their life and temperament, he reads everything they have written; and slowly, he brings out some element of their outlook that keeps emerging through their life and work, something that makes them willing to settle, in the end, for untruth.

Most Western artists no longer have to worry about the demands of the state, but the traits that make a person susceptible to one capitulation will always leave him open to others, and modern society has no end of compromises that it encourages artists to make. Forget modern society—life encourages compromises. It is always easier to take your cues from convention, give up before something is quite right—or, for that matter, just leave the damn page blank and go to bed.

There are a few books that I feel like I need to read every few years to steady myself somehow. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is one; I think this will become another. I encourage everyone to read it.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Revaluation (The Great Gatsby)

I read The Great Gatsby in high school and don’t remember thinking anything in particular about it. I went to Fitzgerald’s grave around then (it was just across from my high school); the book’s lovely last sentence is carved on his tombstone, and I’ve never forgotten it. During college, I would occasionally come across passages from Gatsby quoted in other books to make various points about America and the American dream; the scene with Daisy and the shirts was quoted in a book about consumerism. The green light and the ash heap showed up in various essays.

Eventually, the consensus about the profundity of this book – along with, I’m sure, an attraction to Fitzgerald’s life – started to make me think that I must have missed something in high school (god knows I missed plenty) and just needed to pick the book up again. A professor of mine recommended Babylon Revisited, which was supposed to be Fitzgerald’s best short story. I finished it and remember thinking, a little puzzled, Wow, this is bad.

Well, no matter, I thought: his masterpiece is Gatsby, and his almost-masterpiece (as everyone knows) is Tender is the Night. The latter was assigned for another class college, and I was a little shocked to find myself thinking, after the first twenty pages or so, Wow, this is actually awful. Then it got a little better, and ended so beautifully that I forgot about how lame so much of it was. It might not even have been the entire ending; I remember being extraordinarily moved by just the last paragraph. I don’t much remember the rest.

So now, after all these years, I decided it was time to take up Gatsby again. The only serious candidate for the great American novel other than Moby Dick, right? Glorious prose? Trenchant insights into America, money, love, and how they are all wrapped up together? I was excited. Pretty soon – I would say again within twenty pages – I started to get worried. The book begins well enough, but as soon as the first chapter ends, there is a huge, dry stretch: predictable, toothless satire; stilted dialogue based purely on one or two catch phrases; and characters that are basically patched together from one personality trait and a physical feature.

Even the famous passages that would show up now and then – Daisy’s voice that sounds like money, the shirts on the bed – seemed false and unconvincing in context. The premise of the novel is a great one, but the actual plot is so full of ludicrous coincidences and melodrama that it’s hard to remember how moving the central situation is. Again, the book ends well, but the rest was so mediocre that it didn’t change my basic disappointment.

Fitzgerald’s limitations as a writer are never clearer than the section when he assumes the voice of Jordan Baker, the young “cool, insolent” lady golfer. Here’s a piece of his attempt, as she narrates a story to Nick: “I was walking along from one place to another half on the sidewalks and half on the lawns. I was happier on the lawns because I had on shoes from England with rubber nobs on the soles that bit into the soft ground.”

“Bit into the soft ground.” A better writer would have passed on that phrase if he had any interest in plausibility -- which is closely related to respect for a character. But Fitzgerald is incapable of capturing another person’s voice; when he tries, the person sounds exactly like him. So he has to give people little tics to animate them somehow: Gatsby with his “old sport,” Meyer Rothstein with his inability to pronounced the letter x. He describes a person’s personality instead of capturing it on the page; he has no knack for creating interesting people, so his usual method is just to insist that they are very special indeed. Occasionally it works. Here’s my favorite passage in the book, about Gatsby’s smile:
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. 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 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.
The book never gets this good again. In addition to the things I mentioned above, the actual prose takes a nosedive too. For someone known for the quality of his sentences, it is astonishing how unedited most of the book seems. Fitzgerald is continually using words whose meaning he appears to only half-understand. His sentences are full of redundancies (“clever, shrewd men”) and he is a master of the ill-considered adverb (“he found her excitingly desirable”). Edmund Wilson wrote an essay about him where he pretty much took his measure. Wilson is writing about This Side of Paradise, which Fitzgerald is supposed to have transcended completely in writing Gatsby, but I think this passage could easily apply to every work of his I’ve read:
The story itself, furthermore, is very immaturely imaged: it is always just verging on the ludicrous. And, finally, This Side of Paradise is one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published (a fault which the publisher’s proofreader seems to have made no effort to remedy.) Not only is it ornamented with bogus ideas and faked literary references, but it is full of literary words tossed about with the most reckless inaccuracy.
Wilson goes on to say that Fitzgerald does not commit the unpardonable sin for a novelist; that is, his book does not fail to live. And it’s true, several scenes from Gatsby do stay alive in the mind, and appear to have worked their way into the American literary consciousness. However, as “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” proves, simply being memorable is not necessary a sign of any deeper merit. In any case, something bothers me more than everything I’ve mentioned so far, and that is that there is something very phony about a lot of Fitzgerald’s writing. Even in his most beautiful passages, there is some element of false bombast -— some disastrous faux-poetic choice, usually -- that continually makes me think: He’s lying.

Let me give you an example. This passage ends the chapter when Gatsby tells Nick about kissing Daisy. “Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.”

Something important has apparently happened here; Nick has grazed the edge of a profound mystery. And I don’t believe it; I don’t believe that a man feeling anything deeply is going to write something like “wisp of startled air.” Because that is nonsense.

I always feel like Fitzgerald is wrapping his phrases around unfelt emotions. Even that famous last passage—read the sentence before it, the one everyone forgets: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” There it is again in “orgastic future,” a little voice that says (to me at least) “bullshit.”

Compare the end of My Àntonia to The Great Gatsby. The two books are written just a few years apart; both end on the same word—“past”—both have the same elegiac tone. But there is nothing false about Cather’s last passage. Every word is written with sincerity and authority. It is the work of an artist. Fitzgerald’s is the work of a good writer who has struck upon a pretty phrase.

I suppose Fitzgerald’s life has something to do with this book’s popularity, along with the fact that it deals with the big American themes, and is therefore suitable for classroom discussion and scholarly analysis. But it also isn’t that great, and it’s odd that America – which has produced so many genuine works of genius – has decided to hold it up as one of the premier achievements of its culture.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Textbook diversity

I recently stumbled across a website that provides stock images for textbook publishers and other media outlets. Unlike Reuters and similar services, however, this organization has a slightly narrower focus. Take a look at it, and make sure you move your cursor up to the scrolling bar of images at the top of the screen.

At first, I thought this service was hilarious just because it was such a tiny, bizarre niche. But part of the humor lies in the fact that the website is blatant about something which is usually handled quietly.

A related story that got me thinking about this question of creating images of a cheerful diversity that doesn't actually exist: Houghton Mifflin got in trouble recently for using healthy children from a modeling agency and having them sit in wheelchairs when shooting their textbook images. Apparently they did this so often that they had to start keeping careful track to make sure that someone who was handicapped in Chapter 2 was not jumping around in Chapter 5. (Incidentally, insisting on a vision of the world where children in wheelchairs are stuck there forever, in addition to being rather hopeless, is clearly discriminatory, since it disregards the claims of the large community of American faithhealers.) Naturally, there is something a little seedy about this sort of thing, and the author of the article where I read about these various practices, says that truth is being sacrificed to political correctness.

He makes some legitimate points. It is offensive for the CEO of PhotoEdit (and Hollywood, for that matter) to indicate that some races can be passed off as others, and clearly we can't pretend that the high points of American history and literature are more diverse than they actually are. And if a school can’t actually find a legitimate picture of black and white kids together, then perhaps something is going wrong at their university.

Some of his other points, however, indicate that he has a very particular version of the truth that he wants presented. He rails against the publisher for not wanting to use a picture of a barefoot African villager, indicating this ignores the grinding poverty that is the norm in Africa. Who exactly decides what is representative? And even if determining this were possible, why exactly are we required to depict the median? Shouldn't the pictures in certain types of books be of the world as we wish it to be, instead of the world as it is?

I'm sure that somewhere out there in an African village is a kid with shoes. In a French textbook introducing a student to francophone Africa, I don’t see why the picture can’t be of a healthy smiling kid, instead of someone dying of cholera. A complete education will inform a student what the actual proportion is, but indicating that the former image is somehow a lie is ridiculous.

I foresee an objection that the world as we want it to be would, perhaps, not contain anyone handicapped. But this would be a world in which no one ever had an accident, and medicine had reached a stage that it appears unlikely ever to reach. A world where kids in African villages have shoes, however, and different sorts of people enjoy hanging out with each other might require a little more generosity than we appear to currently possess, but it can at least be imagined.

Obviously, an image in a textbook doesn’t go very far towards creating this reality. But even if someone laughs at how unrepresentative a collection of images is, acknowledging the gap between reality and fantasy is at least the beginning of progress. I read a good essay recently by John Crowley that said that perhaps creating an awareness of this gap is one of the functions of art.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino

I read this book largely on train rides and one long flight, and it was a wonderful companion. It's been a while since since I've read something that made me this happy. The story starts in the 1760s, with a twelve year old Italian Baron climbing up into a tree to defy an order from his father. The family assumes that after he is through sulking, he'll come down, but the Baron decides that he is never going to return to land; and like Robinson Crusoe, there is some pleasure to be had just from seeing how he manages to stays up there. The book is, in some ways, an elegy for feudal Italian society, since the Enlightenment happens while the Baron is up in trees (incredibly, he finds a way to take part); and after his death, the thick groves of trees that allowed him to travel over such an immense distance are gradually cut down.

The book is narrated as a memoir written by the Baron's younger brother, and a great deal of the book's beauty comes from Calvino's creation of this sad, wise voice. Calvino clearly understands the danger of a fanciful premise, and makes sure that there is nothing fanciful about the prose or narrative style. It reads something like an exceptionally well-written journalistic account, with attempts at corroboration and alternate versions of the same story.

A little over halfway through, thoroughly delighted, I thought about how lovely it would be to read this story to a child. And then the book began dealing with the adult Baron's love affairs and, to my mind, started to unravel a little -- or at least become less purely delightful. At first I thought it was just because the fairytale world of the first part of the book had been spoiled with adult concerns, but now I think it's something else. The memoir is clearly being written for the public by a nobleman in the early 19th century, and there's something jarring about this man mentioning a woman opening her blouse to bare her rosy nipples. There is something far too modern and unreticent about his treatment of the Baron's affairs, and it breaks apart the reality of the book.

Calvino could still have dealt with them, but it would have to be done in a different way. (At the end of the book, the brother indicates he is just writing in a notebook for his own private pleasure, but I suspect that this is Calvino realizing that something has gone wrong, because this is certainly not how the first part of the book reads.) After the Baron's affair with his one great love, the book never feels quite as pure as did in the beginning; it's hard to forget, now, that you're reading a whimsical story. Characters from other books start to show up (well, at least one, from War and Peace); events strain credulity; and one catches the author trying to be funny, instead of letting the story produce its own humor. But, for a long stretch, this is a brilliant, delightful book. And strangely sad, somehow. I've read if on a winter's night and Invisible Cities, and it's astonishing how wide-ranging Calvino's talents are, how many voices he can assume with integrity and ease. I may have to go back and read those books again, but right now this is the only one I really love.

Monday, September 18, 2006

James Schuyler's letters

Much to my surprise, Bookslut published (a month later) the other review I had submitted to them - and this time with my name. Here it is. I hope you enjoy it. I actually got rather interested in the subject of when people first got the idea of publishing private correspondence -- thinking that this might be a real psychological turning point of some sort -- but was never able to figure it out. Granted, my efforts consisted of sending off an e-mail to an old professor of mine (no response, sadly) but I wasn't sure how else to pursue the subject. I don't mean the oldest collection of letters that's even been published, but the year in which someone first thought that a collection of posthumous letters would, on its own, find an audience. Any help is appreciated.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Pennies from Heaven

There is a local library near our house that has very few books, and appears to be used primarily as a place to rent videos for free. In any case, it is full of completely forgotten movies on videocassette that no one rents, which my girlfriend occasionally picks up on a whim. Anyway, she picked up, as a joke, what appeared to be a kitschy musical called Pennies from Heaven, with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. The only indication that it was anything unusual or special was a bit of praise on the back from Pauline Kael.

In any case, we watched it, and it is extraordinary. It is one of the darkest movies I have ever seen - it's the kind of musical I could imagine Nathanael West writing. The movie deals with a song salesman in the great depression who dreams of opening up a record store. He is a stock figure from old movies: the big dreamer. His wife is frigid; he's sexually voracious. He falls in love (or appears to) with another woman, has an affair, gets her pregnant.

In most movies, the big dreamer's dreams are actually worthwhile, and his love is actually sincere. But everything about this person is incredibly second-rate. And his completely lack of consistency and sincerity ruins life for everyone around him. The songs, for the most part, instead of expressing any sort of exuberant emotion, just express the character's delusions. Throughout the movie -- which I can't say, incidentally, that I actually enjoyed -- there is this feeling of something like cognitive dissonance. You have no idea how to react to anything: a love song is sung with semi-obscene sexual gestures; sometimes songs run directly counter to what is actually happening, and occasionally express what the character is feeling.

Occasionally, I got the sense that this was because the filmmakers themselves didn't know what they were going for. The movie actually works a lot better when the songs work unironically -- as they do, for the most part, in the second half of the movie -- and just express what the character is feeling. Even then, the dissonance comes -- as in West's books -- with wondering how much sympathy we are supposed to give the characters, how seriously we are supposed to take their plight. Like that awful letter in Miss Lonelyhearts from the girl who was born without a nose. Her voice is captured too perfectly to not feel connected with her, but there's always this feeling that all of it might be a joke to the writer, who is just playing around with the conventions of what captures our sympathy.

I felt the same way here sometimes -- but too many of the scenes played too honestly, with too much compassion, to not have the hand of some sort of artist behind them. I read the biography of the writer at allmovie, and apparently he's a legend in Britain, where this was originally a seven-hour miniseries. Anyway, at first I recoiled a little bit with the usual line about movies like this -- why would anyone spend time and money on a movie just to get depressed? -- but it stayed with me for too long. It's worth seeing.

(Incidentally, I realize that DVDs are a superior technology, but in four or five years all of those discs in the library will be too scratched up to play at all, and get thrown away; old videocassettes may go fuzzy in places, but they will at least play - if our library is any indication - for about twenty years. It also struck me that, despite the greater cultural importance of movies, a pre-DVD/VHS movie that didn't immediately find an audience -- and isn't made by someone later acknowledged as a master -- is much more deeply lost and unlikely to be rediscovered than a book. Anyway, it turns out this movie has been released on DVD, so see it if you have the chance.)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

M31: A Family Romance, by Stephen Wright

I wrote this to get the reviewer spot at Bookslut. I thought I'd post it before it was completely forgotten. It's all right - the voice is a little bland, and I sound a little bit like a bored professional, but I don't think I say anything too stupid. The only lie in it is that I made myself sound more enthusiastic about the book than I actually was.

Here the truth: the book is very good and still probably not worth reading. It's scary: Wright's clearly an imaginative writer, far above the usual run, but it took very little time for me to feel like I'd reached the borders of his talent, at least as expressed in this book. I could tell that M31 was good and I still got bored. If it was a movie of similar quality, I would have been perfectly content and entertained and recommended it to my friends. But for some reason as soon as I pick up a book and it doesn't stack up to Tolstoy and Proust I wonder why the hell I'm wasting my time.

There's this scary line I read once from Simone Weil about how the only function a second-rate writer serves is to help create an atmosphere out of which a man or woman of genius can emerge. It's an awful thing to consider for someone with literary aspirations, but when I read fiction I feel like I agree. Maybe this is why so many writers nowadays cram their books with information. Beauty is a roll of the dice, but people will always appreciate facts. Anyway, here's the review:

Since at least the 1950s, when city dwellers started escaping to the suburbs instead of out to the countryside, American novels and movies have capitalized on something that can be identified as rural dread. From Shirley Jackson to Deliverance, these works have always played to the suspicion that moving among all these placid, friendly farmers and small town folk were murderers, sodomites, and the insane. Ever motel had an owner with a knife behind his back, every basement a deformed child produced by incest and too much power line radiation. An urbanite driving across these vast flat spaces in the middle of the country might well feel that anyone could go crazy out here. Couldn’t looking out at miles and miles of corn be like staring at wallpaper? Eventually shapes would start moving around in there, and if you kept looking long enough they would probably become real.

Aliens, Elvis, the Virgin Mary: why are they never spotted in New York? Stephen Wright never answers this question directly, but he gives us enough information to figure it out for ourselves. M31: A Family Romance features a family that the locals call the “saucer people.” They live in what was once a church; a satellite dish next to the old steeple scans the sky for signals. They are surrounded by acres of corn, with the nearest neighbor visible only with binoculars. A single road goes by the house, and one day it brings a couple – one of them is a woman named Gwen who is sure she was contacted by aliens. They are here to see Dash and Dot, the patriarch and matriarch of the family, and celebrities on the UFO contactee circuit with multiple books under their belt explaining the ways of the Etherians to humans.

Alone in the house while the couple goes to the conferences are their five children: Maryse has a baby of her own whom she only feeds weight loss smoothies, which is all she drinks; Dallas, their teenage son, prefers beer; Edsel, their younger son, is convinced that he is adopted, for no apparent reason; and Zoe, the youngest, screams constantly and has seizures that her parents interpret as communications with the Occupants, the aliens. Trinity, the teenage daughter who seems like the sanest of the bunch, apologizes to their guests: “This family should be driven around in a van and displayed at pro-abortion rallies.”

For the first third of the book, however, the family appears to be no stranger than most: a lot of pointless sullenness and hostility, wisecracks, constant complaining, and showing off one’s wit in front of the guests. (The book features one of the most hilarious family dinners ever depicted in print.) The only sign that there is anything at all odd is the metallic spaceship, known only as The Object, that family members go in and out of when the mood strikes them; they are waiting for a sign from The Occupants to put it into use.

The family seems no more messed up than any other, but the undercurrent of dread remains. Gwen, the visitor, feels that something is wrong, and wants desperately to leave. A gun disappears. Dallas, the oldest son, seems to hover on the edge of violence out of sheer boredom. Something is strange about the way Dash acts around Gwen and his own daughters. And there is always the corn, stretching out for miles, with, as Dallas explains, American nuclear warheads buried just beneath them, pointed at the Soviet Union. And there is the immense sky, unpolluted by city lights, which the family looks up at with binoculars. They are searching for M31, the galaxy in Andromeda that Dash identifies as our home, where the informed will go when the Etherians come. Wright has done his research; UFO chaser jargon is scattered throughout the book. (The fascinated, the skeptical, and the crazy are welcome to find out about “deros” – or detrimental robots – at the Wikipedia entry for Robert Shaver.)

From here, things begin to happen – strange violent things – and revelation follows revelation, but none of them seem to clear anything up; this is one of the few books where things make less sense the more you find out. At the end, you are unsure about what happened, let alone why people acted the way they did. This appears to be the point; the characters are mysterious even to each other. The novel’s approach to its people can be summarized by how Dash looks at his wife: “He stood there until her eyes met his and in them were neither questions nor answers but sharp facets of light glimpsed for the first time, the deeps of a stranger.”

What holds the book together is Wright’s prose: his sure sense of metaphor; his precise, serpentine sentences; and his ability to capture strange floating states of being: “White veins of lightning stood up stark as winter trees on the far sky where he half expected to spot a grim finger or two reaching through the low racing clouds.” (Occasionally, my reaction was more “Wait, what?” but the passages can usually be deciphered.) By the end of the book, Wright is unable to keep the family together, and the book drives itself into the sort of hallucinatory tinfoil-wearing madness that I was glad it had avoided until then, since crazy people are never all that interesting. The ending strikes me as a failure, because the heart of the book was the family, not the obsession with aliens. The conclusion succeeds, however, even as it spins out of control, in evoking a combination of the various forms of dread that have filled the rest of this strange, beautiful novel: rural, domestic, cosmic, American.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Caleb Williams by William Godwin

I've finally found a book that I think could be enjoyed by every single person I know. And it was written in 1794! I've tried reading a few things that are identified as "page turners," and have usually found them so thinly conceived that the solution is either fairly obvious by the middle of the book, or so arbitrary as to be of no interest. Most modern mysteries annoy me for the latter reason. The only mystery writer I find consistently delightful is Chesterton, and this may partially be because they're short stories and consist almost entirely of problem and solution.

Anyway, it's been a long time since I've read a book this quickly just to find out what happens. I was unwilling to take out less than a hundred page chunk every day. The book is a sort of murder mystery, but the murderer is revealed about a third of the way into the novel; and the rest of it is just a cat and mouse game. But the relationship between the two men is so strange and interesting that I never got bored. There isn't a huge amount of subtlety in the novel, and most of the characters are painted in primary colors -- but the central situation is so genuinely fascinating that it carries the entire book.

I think I have a vivid image of pretty much every scene -- and, what is rarer, a completely clear idea of causality and chronology -- while also not remembering a single memorable sentence or interesting turn of phrase. In fact, the only places I noticed style was when a section was getting unusually melodramatic. Godwin doesn't bother describing much of anything beyond what is absolutely necessary, and has no real feeling for rhythm or music in words -- but I haven't come across another book that demonstrates how largely irrelevant this is to whether or not a novel is successful, as long as the author is not actually vague or imprecise. But the praise that you seem to see most commonly on the back of literary fiction, at least in my experience, relates to prose style.

This is, in fact, the thing that I tend to look for first in books -- college training, perhaps, or because it takes less time to make this judgement -- and I have occasionally maintained that I can tell whether a book's any good from the first page. (In my defense, this is almost always because of a pretentious style, not an undistinguished one.) And Godwin's prose was so blunt that in the beginning of the novel I was really wondering why this book was worth reading, but I couldn't have cared less when the plot started to move.

Anyway, a wonderful book. Everyone go out and read it and tell me what you think. There are, incredibly, four editions of it in print. If you have any sort of a long trip coming, pick it up. It is certainly the most rewarding and engrossing potboiler I've ever read. I was even thinking of turning it into a screenplay, set in some sort of semi-feudal landowner type society. Maybe the post-Reconstruction American South. But there a few time change difficulties that I haven't figured out how to get around.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

A Musil review

A review I wrote of a collection of Robert Musil odds and ends is here. My name is nowhere to be found on the page, so you will have to take it on faith that I wrote it.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Garrison Keillor

There have been a flurry of articles about Garrison Keillor recently, but this one -- mentioned in Bookslut -- caught my attention for its unusually bitter tone. Everyone should read it, because it is a good example of the dangerous appeal of a vicious review.

First, I have not read Good Poems, nor do I have any particular attachment to Garrison Keillor, but it was still obvious to me that Kleinzahler never really scored any honest points. The only legitimate criticism of a book like this one is that the selection is lousy, but Kleinzahler never identifies a single poem that he wishes wasn't here; he appears to dislike Billy Collins, but doesn't give an example of how an included Collins poem is bad. He maintains that the poetry read on Keillor's shows "as a rule, isn't poetry at all but prose arbitrarily broken into lines masquerading as poetry" -- and doesn't provide a single example. A usual sample is "more often than not a middle-aged creative writing instructor catching a whiff of mortality in the countryside — watching the geese head south, getting lost in the woods, this sort of thing." I would bet a fair amount that there is not a single poem in the collection that could be identified by this description. It is a lot easier to be funny than accurate.

The only poets Kleinzahler does mention are Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Burns, along with Whitman and a few other modern poets that he likes; but all in all, on the basis of no evidence, he wants us to accept that this is a "rotten collection." When he does actually quote something, he identifies himself as a reader of extraordinary insensitivity. He quotes William Carlos Williams's "To Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (the relevant line is this one: "It is difficult to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there" ) and then lays out this paragraph:
A pretty sentiment, to be sure, but simply untrue, as anyone who has been to the supermarket or ballpark recently will concede. Ninety percent of adult Americans can pass through this life tolerably well, if not content, eating, defecating, copulating, shopping, working, catching the latest Disney blockbuster, without having a poem read to them by Garrison Keillor or anyone else. Nor will their lives be diminished by not standing in front of a Cézanne at the art museum or listening to a Beethoven piano sonata. Most people have neither the sensitivity, inclination, or training to look or listen meaningfully, nor has the culture encouraged them to, except with the abstract suggestion that such things are good for you. Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.

This is an incompetent reading of the Williams poem, which is a great deal more subtle than Kleinzahler can apparently handle. First of all, since he has decided to get news from this poem, it is worth pointing out that Williams does not specify a percentage of men who die miserably, so all those Americans at the ballpark are beside the point.

More importantly, there is a calculated ambiguity in the use of the word "miserably." The first meaning is that every day people die unhappy for lack of something that poetry can provide. But, in a sense that Kleinzahler misses completely, it can also mean that these deaths are miserable because of what they have missed, that these people's lives have been somehow wretched, pitiable, lacking in fulfillment, because they lived them with no sense of beauty or imagination. Their deaths are sad for the poet, not for the people themselves, who perhaps -- as Kleinzahler points out -- never knew or cared what they were missing. From his reading of this poem, though, I suspect Kleinzahler is missing quite a bit himself. Miserable bastard. If only he got as much out of poetry as I do.

Let me just point out one more incoherent paragraph in this thoroughly incoherent review.
Are we not yet adult enough as a culture to acknowledge that the arts are not for everyone, and that bad art is worse than no art at all; and that good or bad, art's exclusive function is to entertain, not to improve or nourish or console, simply entertain. And in this, Moby Dick or Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" are not different than the movie Cat in the Hat or Britney Spears wiggling her behind on stage; the former being more complexly entertaining and satisfying, but only for those who can appreciate the difference, and they are the minority.

I was thinking for a while about this phrase: "bad art is worse than no art at all." Is this really a choice that we get to make? Has there ever been a society where exclusively good art has been produced? Our only real options as a culture are a mixture of good and bad art, purely bad art, or no art at all, and the latter two scenarios are mainly created by totalitarian governments. And how in the world is reading a bad poem worse for someone than not reading one at all? They might be equivalent, but worse?

Kleinzahler is forced to make this clearly indefensible assertion because otherwise there would be no reason to get this pissed off about a collection of poems that he happens not to like, for reasons that he himself doesn't seem to be clear about -- especially when he also argues that art is merely entertainment that some people get and other people don't. It's true that for people of a certain sensitivity bad art really is offensive, but you can't defend unleashing that anger in print unless you think that it's honestly damaging people somehow. And that's the problem if you simultaneously argue that, objectively, it isn't all that important, while generating feelings of a strength that indicate that it might just be the most important thing in the world to you. Kleinzahler realizes this contradiction, I think, but to truly face it would require throwing out most of his review, so he slips out of the knot with a bad joke...
Poetry not only isn't good for you, bad poetry has been shown to cause lymphomas and, in extreme instances, pancreatic cancer, in laboratory experiments. (I'll have to dig around in my notes to find exactly what study that was....)

The only sense in which bad art can actually be bad for you, I think, is when it generates too many reviews like this, which I honestly believe stimulate malice and are bad for the character.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Haditha and Christopher Hitchens

Anytime you're looking for someone to say something either extremely obvious or thoroughly incoherent about the situation in Iraq, but with great vehemence, Christopher Hitchens is your man. He is at it again in Slate, arguing that Haditha is not like My Lai.

I hadn't heard much of this talk, so I was curious who was actually making this claim. Hitchens has his sources. He says there's been a lot of "glib talk about My Lai." This, in the style of Internet journalism, hyperlinks somewhere. And where does it hyperlink? Yes, to another Hitchens article about why Iraq isn't like Vietnam. Is Hitchens accusing himself of glib talk?

Well, no: My Lai is never mentioned in his article. Is it mentioned in the New York Times article that he links to, which compares Vietnam and Iraq? No: that article was written long before Haditha, and mentions no massacres. Anyway, before I analyze the rest of this argument, I would just like to make something absolutely clear about this: Christopher Hitchens is a liar. If you link to something that is supposed to corrobate your argument, and it leads here, then you are either being dishonest or are just an incompetent journalist. Why do people keep publishing this guy?

Here are some of Hitchens main points: My Lai took all day; more people were killed. The army now warns people not to do such things again. Indeed, all of this is true. I waited to see where this was headed, but then he switches gears, which I must say is one of his characteristic moves:
The other difference, one ought not need add, is that in My Lai the United States was fighting the Vietcong. A recent article about the captured diary of a slain female Vietnamese militant (now a best seller in Vietnam) makes it plain that we were vainly attempting to defeat a peoples' army with a high morale and exalted standards. I, for one, will not have them insulted by any comparison to the forces of Zarqawi, the Fedayeen Saddam, and the criminal underworld now arrayed against us.

Indeed, one ought not need add this, Mr. Hitchens; I will throughly concede that these massacres took place in two different countries. Two different enemies were involved. They even took place, yes, more than thirty years apart. Why has no one else thought to point this out?

Then he marches forward with his apparent argument: the Vietcong were a people's army and he won't have them compared -- simply won't -- to Zarqawi and the other monsters we are now fighting. What? But we were talking about the massacre of one group of women and children, and comparing it with the (alleged) massacre of another group of women and children. What in the world does this have to do with the nobility or savagery of the enemy we are fighting? Is it better to shoot down a village full of civilians in a just war or an unjust war? Hitchens doesn't care; he wants to get indignant about yet another straw man. (He wisely decides to link nowhere to prove this point; I have not heard anyone praising Zarqawi's methods or congratulating him as a freedom fighter.)

Then Hitchens goes forth to take a bold position. Apparently, some insurgent elements are actually trying to make American soldiers jittery about the civilian population by sending suicide bombers. So what does this mean? "As with the foul policy above, the awful thing about this charming policy is that it works. Which leads us to one very important conclusion: Any coalition soldier who relieves his rage by discharging a clip is by definition doing Zarqawi's work for him, and even in a way obeying his orders. If anything justifies a court-martial, then surely that does."

So here is the grand finale. A soldier who shoots a civilian should be court martialed, because it's bad for America's status in Iraq. Well said, Mr. Hitchens. I too believe that a soldier - no matter how rattled his nerves might be - who walks through a village and shoots women and children, and then proceeds to cover it up by filing a false report, should be punished. And I also think that My Lai and Haditha are two different things, and that both are awful. Can I get published in Slate for saying it, or in The Atlantic, which also continually publishes this guy's useless articles? I sure hope so, because I could use the money. Here's an idea for my first article: Iraq is in the Middle East. Now all I need is a suitably vehement first sentence, preferably a little orotund: "All across the media, you can see people arguing about the position of Iraq on the globe, first saying that it is located in South America, and others arguing that it is in fact in Asia. But this is absurdly false..."

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Hypothesis About Dreams

I read an interesting article in The Sun about dreams; unfortunately the less interesting first half is all that's online. In any case, I was annoyed that I remember so few of my dreams, since apparently they are the ticket to psychological health; more dreams might also mean less money spent on movies.

My genuinely hallucinatory sequences -- the sort of things stereotypically associated with deep sleep -- happen in daydreams, or when I've just started to go to sleep, the periods during which I still have some level of control over what happens, and for whatever reason am no longer thinking about sex. So why do I remember nothing happening when my mind is left to its own devices? Am I completely lacking in imagination? To avoid reaching this conclusion, I've come up with a hypothesis to explain my sad dream life, as well as those of most people I know.

From reading old books, I have a real sense that, a century ago and farther back, people dreamed more - or rather, they remembered more; and that these memories had greater density and were therefore taken more seriously as a part of everyday life. So why do so many people today say they rarely remember dreams? Here's my theory: alarm clocks. The few dreams I do remember almost always come when I'm about to come out of sleep: when the sun is starting to shine on my face, when my bladder is just starting to make demands in the middle of the night; that is, at the stage when the conscious mind is just starting to rouse, and with it our capacity to remember what is going on. The slow wake is essential to remembering dreams.

And what completely destroys the slow wake? Yes, the alarm clock! Nothing is more destructive to the in-between stage between sleep and consciousness than the braying of the alarm; it immediately displaces whatever might have been going on in your head with its insistent reality of beeps or songs or people talking.

So why don't people always dream on weekends, you ask? Well, it's quite possible to internalize an alarm clock, and live by the habits it instills; even without the alarm going off, your conscious brain may lose the facility of gradually waking and sneaking up on those vaporous dream transmissions. Another possible explanation: more comfortable beds. I remember dreaming a great deal when camping, because the rocks poking into my back kept me continually floating in the in-between state, but I was tired enough from hiking to stay asleep instead of just tossing.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Slate has an feature with various authors recommending their favorite beach reading. You get to watch a bunch of authors do a little dance as they try to avoid seeming pretentious without losing their credibility as literary intellectuals. The really sad display comes from the people that try to be funny (cf. George Saunders, whose early storiesI really love; he should have known better.)

Anyway, one author who contributed to this list was David Amsden, who has inspired violent hatred in me and a couple of my friends purely because he went to our high school and published a novelat the age of 21. I have no idea if it's any good. Publisher's Weekly called it "solid but unremarkable" - which sounds like something one might tell a gastroenterologist about recent bowel movements. (Seriously, could any review be more quietly vicious? I would rather be punched in the face than have someone call me "solid but unremarkable.") Here, in any case, is Amsden's entry:
The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis. My gut tells me that Amis would disapprove of being labeled a beach read, but I read this book at the beach when I (much like the protagonist Charles Highway) was a pretentious 19-year-old neophyte obsessed with a girl who didn't know I existed. I've reread this whenever I feel like recapturing that ignorance, which is exactly the point of beach reading: to zone out, to simultaneously forget and remember, to be misguidedly nostalgic about moments that didn't actually happen. Plus, the novel was made into a perfectly terrible film starring Ione Skye and Dexter Fletcher—the ultimate post-beach rental.

Nothing about this struck me as terribly bad other than its self-involvement and rather pretentious explanation of "the point of beach reading" (also, you have to be a neophyte in something; Amsden seems to just mean it as "a young man") -- but my friend dug through the passage and found something to hate. What, he asked me, could this possibly mean? "To be misguidedly nostalgic about moments that didn't actually happen."

This initially felt fine to me: lame writing, but nothing actually nonsensical. But something did seem off. I didn't think you could be nostalgic about things that didn't happen; you could only feel regret for them, mixed perhaps with nostalgia for a time when they might have happened. (Ah, college.) Even if your memories are somehow false, you still have to believe in them on some level for this emotion to exist at all.

I looked nostalgia up to confirm my suspicion, and here is the definition: "A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past" - perhaps a false past that exists only in your imagination, but definitely nothing that you know not to have happened. Apparently the word comes from the Greek nostos (to return home) and algia (pain). The pain of returning home. Isn't that lovely? I think I remember reading somewhere that Nabokov thought it was the most beautiful word in English.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory

An incredible book.I never thought I would be this captivated by what is essentially just a study of the literature of the First World War. But unlike Patriotic Gore, which did the same thing for The Civil War (and is also incredible), Fussell's ambition goes beyond literary criticism; he wants to give the reader something of a sense for what modern warfare has become, and what impact it has on soldiers. It appears that he knows himself; the book is dedicated to Technical Sergeant Edward Keith Hudson, "killed beside me in France, March 15, 1945."

The book proceeds unchronologically from theme to theme and, while quoting from an astonishing number of letters, poems, and novels - often from other modern wars, especially WWII - it usually has a single author represent the most comprehensive example of Fussell's thesis for each chapter; the main four are Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, David Jones, and Edmund Blunden. As in Patriotic Gore, each of these authors receives a true appreciation; there are few other books that make you want to go out and read so many other books. My library copy is already folded over every fifteen pages or so with a passage I want to write down and remember.

The Great War and Modern Memory is not perfect, but it almost seems ungrateful to mention it. Fussell's broader ambitions occasionally hurt the book, and lead him to draw conclusions that seem untenable to me; he sees the First World War as being a dividing line that it doesn't always appear to be - for example, he writes an entire chaper on the impulse in soldiers to demonize the enemy, and constantly establish Us and Them binaries. This depressing tendency struck me as having little to do with the First World War and much more to do with being human. The book also ends on an odd, unsatisfactory note, moving too far away from the reality of the battlefields.

But when Fussell stays with the soldiers, and focuses on telling their stories, and the way in which they started to realize, together, the horrible magnitude of what was happening to them, he is incredible; he has read so widely, and so sensitively, that he vanishes into their words, and at times seems to speak for all the soldiers in our awful 20th century. It is a cliche, but the world might really be a better place if everyone read this book.

Let me just quote one passage. Everyone will respond to different parts -- especially if they have experienced combat, or known people who have -- but the last sentence of Blunden's quote is what I remember whenever I think of this great, great book:
Whatever the main cause of failure, the attack on the Somme was the end of illusions about breaking the line and sending the cavalry through to end the war. Contemplating the new awareness brought to both sides by the first day of July, 1916, Blunden wrote eighteen years later: "By the end of the day both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. No road. No thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win, the war. The War had won, and would go on winning."

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Gore Vidal's Lincoln

I came to Vidal through his essays, which I read nonstop for an entire week before I started to feel like I was reading the same thing again and again. I also got the sense that the essays that I thought were really great, durable pieces - the end of his review of a Dos Passos novel, for example, or his essay on Suetonius - were all written in the mid-50s, before Vidal started producing the historical novels for which he's best known; his essays from this later period get more and more showy. He seems like a stand-up comedian repeatedly reworking the same material - I would enjoy the performance, but since the ideas were old there was nothing left but the style and maybe a phrase or two. Maybe there's some sort of rule that you can't be a great essayist and a great novelist at the same time.

By which I mean that Vidal is a great novelist, and Lincoln is an exceptionally good book. It starts a few days before Lincoln's inauguration and ends (I hope I'm giving nothing away) just after his assassination. I've lived in Washington for several years, and am constantly running into old buildings with historical information - I stumbled across Ford's Theater after seeing a movie on E Street - and the Surratt's boarding house, which has a plaque that is barely noticeable, is now a Chinese restaurant (it's called Wok n' Roll!) on H Street in Chinatown. Every time I walk by it now, though, I can imagine the chickens in the back, the staircase that led to the upstairs rooms with the piano.

The book, luckily, is not concerned exclusively with such details; Vidal has a sure instinct for exactly how much period color to include. He can't avoid some of the other common flaws of historical novels: characters who have only a couple of character traits and keep repeating them from scene to scene; and horrible expository dialogue meant to educate an ignorant audience about their country's history (I include myself) - here is an example from when Lincoln arrives at the White House early in the novel:
"Last time I was here it was 1848." Lincoln looked about with some curiosity.
"Your friend Mr. Polk was in residence then."
Lincoln nodded. "But never friendly to me, particularly after I attacked his Mexican War."
"Ah, the irrespressible speeches of one's youth!" Seward made a comical face.
"You'll be hearding a lot about that speech of yours before you're done."
Lincoln grimaced. "I know. I know. Words are hostages to forture. The only problem is we never know in advance just what the fortune is."

Luckily, such stilted sequences are fairly rare. (I can't wait for people to start writing historical novels about our times: "Ah, yes, I remember the crucial evidence revolved around a blue dress owned by the young lady in question, stained with President's own semen. Strange: rumor has it that the old boy always had a hard time finished using that method, but the woman was apparently rather gifted in this respect." "Isn't it ironic - as the old song goes - that his ejaculate, when finally released, proved to be his undoing?" "You can say that again, homeboy.") The flat characters appear to be a bigger problem. Almost everyone in the novel is a conglomeration of a few traits: for example, whenever Chase appears, he exhibits some combination of these factors: bad eyesight, a love for autographs, a strict desire to maintain his rectitude in all government matters, and presidential ambitions. That's pretty much all there is to him - and plenty of major characters have even less going on.

At first this struck me as a major flaw, but I eventually realized that Vidal was actually doing something very canny. With the exception of a few characters who are too stupid to merit his attention - McClennan, for example, and Sprague - Vidal enters into the minds of virtually all the major characters, and makes them seem like fairly basic, comprehensible people: their thoughts run without fail on only a few rails; Seward, for example, has imperial designs, and that's virtually all Vidal allows him to think about. There is only one exception: Lincoln. We never get to enter into his mind at all; we only see him as observed by these various flat characters, none of whom can really understand what he's up to - and by dividing up the perspective in this way, Lincoln starts to achieve a mysterious grandeur. It seems paradoxical that a novelist can make a character more psychologically interesting by dwelling only on what is observable, but that is exactly what happens here. This opacity also makes certain scenes - such as Lincoln on his son's deathbed - much more moving: first because we know that they actually happened, and second because, by refusing to provide any interior details, Vidal forces us to make the imaginative identification ourselves. He accomplishes something similar with Kate Chase, the second most interesting character in the novel and a sort of a female foil to Lincoln, who is the only other major nonstupid character whose thoughts are never revealed. (I think a great historical novel, incidentally, is waiting to be written about her marriage to Sprague and later life.)

The book is not flawless. It is far too long, with whole chapters that could have been cut with little loss: everything involving David Herrold, for example. The book's vitality depends entirely on its central character; as soon as it moves away from him, it loses momentum, and it is telling that once Lincoln dies Vidal barely has the energy to slap an ending on the novel. Also, on the level of individual sentences, it isn't very well-written. There are all sorts of knotty constructions and loopy double negatives (I would bet anything that the book was written by hand) which a careful writer would have caught: "Several imprudent answers occurred, as always, to Chase and, as always, were replaced with that habitual prudence for which he was never entirely not admired." I have never not entirely understood that last part myself - or have I?

Finally, though, prose is secondary. Vidal possesses a much more important talent for a novelist; he has a natural sense of structure and pacing, and he knows how to manage an immense canvas. He also has a wonderful wit, which is not the same thing as being funny. Here's a sample quote from Seward - "I believe that every young man should live for as long as possible in Paris, in order to perfect his French and strengthen his morals, which is more easily done in a capital where vice is not only everywhere but so repellent that no temptation is possible." This is not going to to make anyone laugh out loud, but it produces a little internal grin, and it's the sort of thing that sustains a reader through a long book. Too many comedic writers today - perhaps taking their cues from television - try to tell actual jokes, and there is something frantic and degrading about this, especially when the jokes fall flat, which some invariably will.

Finally, Lincoln is also a decent guide to the period's history, and a wonderful compendium of political wisdom. Here's one of my favorites, about responding to smear attacks:
Currently, the press was making much of the fact that while viewing the dead on a battlefield, Lincoln had asked Lamon to sing him some ribald songs. The story was curiously repellent; and so believed by many. But Lincoln would not ready any version of the story, much less answer it. "In politics," he had said to Seward, when the subject came up, "every man must skin his own skunk. These fellows are welcome to the hide of this one. Either I have established the sort of character that gives the lie to this sort of thing, or I haven't. If I haven't, that is the end."

Monday, April 24, 2006

Roy Fisher

I've never heard of this poet-- apparently he is better known in England, although not much. I read a review of his Collected Poems (I found out about it from here) and came across this beautiful prose poem -- I think this is just an excerpt, although it feels complete. It's called Metamorphoses.
She sleeps, in the day, in the silence. Where there is light, but little else: the white covers, the pillow, her head with its ordinary hair, her forearm dark over the sheet.

She sleeps and it is hardly a mark on the stillness; that she should have moved to be there, that she should be moving now across her sleep as the window where the light comes in passes across the day.

Her warmth is in the shadows of the bed, and the bed has few shadows, the sky is smoked with a little cloud, there are fish-trails high in the air. Her sleep rides on the silence, it is an open mouth travelling backward on moving waves.

Mouth open across the water, the knees loosened in sleep; dusks of the body shadowed around the room. In the light from the windows there is the thought of a beat, a flicker, an alternation of aspect from the outside to the inside of the glass. The light is going deep under her.

That line about the open mouth travelling backward -- it's uncanny how strange and accurate it feels, the mysterious way in which the words have their impact. Maybe it's just me.

Anyway, it is a nice thing to discover in the middle of a drab workday. And nice to think that there are still so many beautiful things being made, and that you can run into them just skimming across the Internet.

I was just thinking the same thing a few days ago, after I discovered this great music website that generates songs based on information that you supply - favorite songs and artists. I tend to be rather greedy and acquisitive about such things, so I was initially typing in search after search about every song and artist I liked, and pondering purchases, until I chilled out a little and decided to enjoy what I heard and leave it at that.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Père Goriot by Balzac - trans. Burton Raffel

I haven't read Balzac until now because I had gotten the impression that, while being an established classic, he was still somehow second rate - like Dvorak, Trollope, Chesterton. Maybe John Updike will be in the same boat eventually. Someone whose talent was undeniable, but who produced too much and with too much apparent ease for his work to be of the highest class.

I only picked up Père Goriot because a friend of mine is a Raffelite - that is, he is enamored with the translator, which I never thought was possible - and insisted that everything the guy touched was worth picking up. Well, I was incredibly glad I did. I haven't been this thrilled by the beginning of novel in ages.

Here's a sample of what was so gripping - a lengthy sample, since Balzac loses all of his charm in snippets:
Monsieur Poiret was more machine than man. Seeing him gliding along the pathways of the Botanical Gardens like a gray shadow, a limp old cap on his head, barely able to hold the knob of his yellowing ivory-headed walking stick in his hand, wind flapping his wilted coattails so loosely behind him that they barely hid trousers that seemed to have nothing in them, his blue-stockinged legs quivering like a drunk, flashing a dirty white vest and shriveled shirt-ruff of coarse muslin that seemed ready to part company from the tie knotted around his turkey-cock neck--seeing him thus, many people must have wondered whether this Chinese ghost truly belonged to the bold white race, said to be described from Japthet, flitting up and down the Boulevard Italien. What could have been the life's work that so shrunk him down? What passion could have darkened a face so bulbous that, had it been drawn by a cartoonist, no one would have believed it? What had he been? Maybe he had worked at the Ministry of Justice, in the office to which executioners report their expenses--how much they'd spent on black veils for the eyes of parricides; how much for straw and chaff, to line the basket where heads drop; how much for twine to tie the guillotine's blades. Maybe he had been the receptionist at a slaughterhouse door, or perhaps an assistant inspector of health or sanitation. In a word, this was a man who looked as if he'd been one of the mules who turn out great social mill wheel, one of those Parisian Rats who pull other people's chestnuts out of the fire but never ever know who eats them, a sort of spindle for public misery and filth to whirl around on--in short, one of those men of whom we say, the minute we see them: We can't do without fellows like that. Their cadaverous faces, stamped by pain--psychological or physical--are unknown to the Beautiful People of Paris. But Paris is as immense as an ocean. Drop in your sounding line and it will never reach the bottom. Have a look, try describing it! No matter how carefully you try to see and understand everything, to describe everything, no matter how many of you there are, trying hard, all of you exploring that great sea, there'll always be places you never get to, caverns you never uncover, blossoms, pearls, monsters, quite incredible things that every literary diver overlooks. And Maison Vauquer is one of those odd monstrosities.

There are a number of serious things wrong with this passage. First of all, it is totally unnecessary; Monsieur Poiret is a minor character who has only one real thing to do in the narrative, and we don't need much convincing to believe that he would do it. There is no real reason to learn so much about him, let alone hypothesize about what he might have done involving twine and guillotines. Second, there are sentences here that are obviously untrue - can anyone really imagine a nose on a human being that would seem unbelievable if a cartoonist drew it? But Balzac cannot stop to think about whether what he is saying makes exact sense - it sounds good, and he is writing as fast as the ideas come. And that, finally, is what is great about this sloppy passage. It gives off the impression of being written at white heat. This writing is alive, and that is more important than anything that might be wrong with it.

Apparently Balzac had the habit, like Proust, of getting back proofs from the typesetters and, when inspiration struck him, basically changing the manuscript - adding pages and pages to a single passage and getting rid of others. I do not get the impression that this is because he was a careful writer - he did not tweak sentence by sentence; something set off an idea, I think, and he followed it wherever it led. That is why this novel, at least, and I'm guessing most of his others, has absolutely no sense of proportion - the narrative is like a roll of dough that has been squished in various random places; there will be pages and pages devoted to minor characters, and what should be major developments in the plot are rushed through. The plot has clearly been planned out, but what should be major dramatic scenes do not come off at all, and scenes of pointless narrative padding - like a group of people eating at the inn - are as wonderful as any scenes in realistic literature. You read this novel and get the sense of a great artist who appears of have no control over his talent.

Another thing: I get the sense that Balzac's genius would have expressed itself best in short essayistic sketches. This is one of those books that starts to suck whenever it becomes concerned with advancing the plot - the basic thread is an ambitious middle-class law student named Rastignac, up from the provinces, with some distant aristocratic relations, who wants to make his way into Parisian society. An old man, Goriot, lives in the pension with him, and is driving himself to bankrupcy supporting his two daughters, who have both made bad marriages to wealthy but stingy and controlling men. There is also a schemer Vautrin who wants to help Eugene acquire a forture by less than moral means. How will all these conflicts be resolved? Balzac's prescription: melodrama.

That is, lots of long speeches, sequences of long, stagy dialogue, and - of course - secret, hidden pasts that get characters conveniently dragged off when they have performed their function in the plot. I noticed something about this book, and I get the feeling that it is representative of Balzac's work as a whole - it is at its absolute best in character sketches, generalization from the mouth of the author, and in large group scenes.

Any time a scene calls for real intimacy between two people, or a small group, it quickly starts to sound phony. But when you get a bunch of people together, engaging in the silly collective chatter that takes up so much of modern life, Balzac is your man - I have never felt a stronger sense of verisimilitude come off a book than in some of these scenes. And for anyone that thinks that, because of television or whatever, modern people speak a more degraded version of language, and are more prone to stupid fads, look no further for evidence that it has ever been so - although in Balzac's time I suspect it was an urban phenomenon and not, as it is now, universal.
The rest of lodgers appeared, one after the other, both those who lived in and those who did not, wishing each other good day and murmuring those empty phrases which, among certain sorts of Parisians, constitute a kind of droll good humor of which stupidity is the main component and whose principal virtue consists only in how the words are pronounced or what gestures accompany them. This sort of jargon is always changing. The jokes that underlie it never last a month: some political event, some lawsuit or trial, a street song, some actor's comic routine, all serve to keep this joke going, since more than anything else it involves snatching up words and ideas as they go flying past, and then hitting them back, as if with racquets.

In this case, the silly joke of the day consists of adding "-rama" to everything, as in "souporama" and "healtharama" (and I checked the French, it is "rama" in English, so apparently we English-speakers were dominating shit culture even in Balzac's time). It is hard to explain what makes these group scenes so pleasing - maybe just their energy, and how accurately they capture a bunch of people sitting around and shooting the breeze. It is easy to see why so many great writers have admired Balzac, despite his obvious flaws, because the flair and ease with which he brings off certain types of scenes is astonishing.

There was a lot in the novel, actually, that reminded me of Proust, although Proust is by far the greater artist. The main similarity, I think, is the impulse - alternately fascinating and maddening - to make every action and event stand for some sort of generalization about society. Nothing can just be what it is: there must be some sort of larger truth behind it. Even when the generalization is apt I'm annoyed to keep having the narrative broken by these essays (Balzac is much clumsier about it than Proust) especially since it seems to keep robbing the characters of their reality.

Both writers, too, despite their love of generalizations, have absolutely no talent for the epigram, because they refuse to ever turn away a clause that might pin down their meaning a little more clearly. I suppose this is a form of honestly, since an epigram always requires that a great deal be ignored. For example, the most famous line in Balzac is probably "Behind every forture lies a great crime." Well, I think it comes from this novel, and here is how it actually reads, with greater accuracy and a lot less punch: "The secret of all great fortures, when there's no obvious explanation for them, is always some forgotten crime--forgotten, mind you, because it's been properly handled." The only generalization I remember being presented with complete simplicity comes out of Goriot's mouth, and from what I have read it is the one thing that Balzac believed with no qualifications: "Money is life. It can do everything."

So: I finally understand why Balzac is usually seen as second-rate (he is) and also why he is still a classic and worth reading and learning from. Regarding Raffel, the translation reads well, although I glanced occasionally at the French and was confused by the odd liberties he took in translating colloquialisms. For example, in the French, Vautrin is talking about killing someone quickly, and says "Et, à l'ombre!" This literally means something like "into the shade/shadows." (See the second volume of the Recherche for a sample usage.) I'm guessing an equivalent English phrase would be "Lights out!" - or, in case this phrase only makes sense with the widespread use of electricity, something quick and brutal like "That's that!" since Vautrin is saying this as he demonstrates a fatal saber thurst. Here's what Raffel chooses: "And he'll do it without any fuss at all!" How he gets this out of "à l'ombre" is beyond me.

Anyway, these are quibbles. The book was thoroughly engrossing, and for all its flaws clearly had the mark of greatness on it.

Friday, March 24, 2006

E.O Wilson and God

This interview with E.O. Wilson in Salon wasn't exceptionally interesting, but one passage got to me. For the most part, I agreed with everything Wilson said, and have since high school. I actually get the impression Wilson has lived with these ideas for a long time, too, and would rather have talked about something else (like, say, his book) if the interviewer had not focused so exclusively on whether or not he thought there was a god.

Wilson's answer, like Mill's, is who knows - but if gods are around, they're certainly not like the ones described in the world's major religions, and they either don't care what we do or are not particularly benevolent. Here's the section that stuck with me.
I think this is actually of great importance when we're talking about science and religion. There are a lot of people who discount the literal interpretation of the Bible because it does not square with modern science. And even God is such a loaded word. What if we put that word aside? Can we talk about energy or some sort of cosmic force?

That's why I say, I leave this to the astrophysicist.

Not the religious scholars?

Oh, of course not. They don't know enough. Literally. I hope I'm not being insulting. But you can't talk about these subjects now without knowing a great deal of theoretical physics, particularly astrophysics and developments in astronomy concerning the origins and evolution of the universe. But one thing we may very well be able to understand from start to finish -- we haven't done it yet -- is the origin of life on this planet. And that's what counts for human beings. Where we came from. And it's beginning to look -- it's looking pretty persuasively -- that we are in fact ultimately physical and chemical in nature, and that we evolved autonomously on this planet by ourselves. There's no evidence whatsoever that we're being overseen or directed in our evolution and actions by a supernatural force.

It's very strange, because I have never really had a strong faith in anything supernatural or divine, but this passage really disturbed me. Something about the way it was said. I think it was the phrase "ultimately physical and chemical in nature," as vague and obvious and accurate as that sounds -- something about it seemed horrible. Maybe I've never really forced myself to think about what logically follows from agnosticism.

I think previous generations had to fight their way through the fraudulence of their faiths; and they had to overcome the emptiness that comes with its loss on their own, by making some sort of meaning out of apparent pointlessness. But agnosticism seems to come ready made for my generation - most people I know didn't really start out with faiths to lose; religion struck them as either silly or beside the point pretty much from the time they began to think about things. If it's a given that there isn't a god - the reflection that previous generations, who had to make an active decision to renounce their faith, were forced to engage in, never really happens. Maybe this is why I see some people my age returning to church largely out of confusion; I've never seen anyone who has actually lost faith go back.

Friday, March 17, 2006

American Inventor

That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time. -- John Stuart Mill

Last night, I sat and watched all two hours of American Inventor, the ABC reality show created by Simon Cowell and some other guy. It is exactly the same as American Idol except with inventors instead of adolescent singers -- and has gotten a number of severely negative reviews, accusing it of being derivative and manipulative. I believe the Orlando Sentinel called it a "queasy retread." What this means is unclear but I think they didn't like it.

Everything about these reviews is accurate. The show's judges are again either obnoxious, completely inarticulate, or gushing, although their personalities are not divided up as neatly as in American Idol, and their comments are not as predictable (dog, that was hot!). The inventors, like the singers, are again the subject of mocking or gauzy featurettes, with music to indicate whether you are supposed to find this person inspiring, ridiculous, or heartbreaking. Every moment that is at all dramatic is seen eight times in teasers before the show will agree to show it to you.

None of this keeps the show from being, for me, genuinely fascinating. Unlike American Idol, which features young people (within their genre of choice) trying to sound as much like other singers as possible, American Inventor focuses entirely on individual eccentrics, something Idol only does in the early qualifying rounds and the shows cobbled together with the express purpose of ridiculing people who can't sing. Also, you learn very little about a person singing a song badly; they might be slightly delusional for trying to attend the audition, but that's about all you can feel. The situation is pathetic but little more.

It is a different story when a person has poured tens of thousands of dollars and decades of his life into something that is a pure product of his imagination; the nearest Idol equivalent would be performing a song that you spent years writing yourself. This is a situation that has an element of tragedy. Not because the idea is bad, necessarily -- most of the inventors who have spent a great deal of money do have a decent idea. It is tragic because their devotion to it has become single-minded, and they have sacrificed too much. Or because their ambition has blinded them to some enormous flaw, like extremely restricted appeal; one man (who actually made it through to the next round) had spent $20,000 on a prototype for a shovel which did work, but whose only function was filling sandbags faster.

The show devoted far too much time to making fun of people who were clearly unstable or crackpots, or who have immense ambition and no real idea, but its concept is too powerful for the judges or producers to ruin. You could see an entire life in some of these people's faces - I mean the people who took what they had made seriously. Unlike Idol, it didn't seem to be just the money or fame they wanted, but validation for decisions they had made over years and years. And you couldn't laugh at them - not without looking at the plausibility of your ambitions, or wondering whether the laughter came out of some defensiveness about your own compromises.

As I watched the show I kept thinking that, no matter how much intelligence and creativity is lavished on scripted shows, this is what they have to compete with - and although the scripted comedies might be better at provoking laughter, I can't think of any that can match the humanity of this one show, built around this fairly brainless, derivative concept. Even when they are being belitted or cut into vignettes, these people are more interesting, more alive, than every fictional character on television.

At the end of the show, a fourteen-year-old with what I thought was a pretty good invention (a ventilator that fit into a car window, so dogs would be comfortable inside alone) was turned away. He was bitter, crying; a judge went outside and comforted him, told his mother she was doing a wonderful job. It looked like she was raising this kid and his little brother alone. At the end of the show, when the judge was gone, the boy thanked his mother for helping him so much on the project; he was still crying a little, and he told her she was the best mom in the world. She started tearing up and hugged him. And I didn't care that the producers of the show were trying to get me to be stirred or sad with their goddamn schmaltzy music; it was stirring, it was sad.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Rivers & Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time

My roommate recently rented Rivers and Tides, a documentary about Andy Goldsworthy. What a wonderful movie! Goldsworthy is an abstract sculptor who works with natural materials -- rocks, leaves, moss, ice. His art is generally installed in the areas where the materials come from (there is one indoor installation in the movie where he uses clay) and is also distinguished by its ephemerality. Except for some of the stone installations, most of what Goldsworthy creates -- like some beautiful arrangements of fall leaves -- is meant to be taken apart, either slowly or quickly, by the natural world. He documents them with photographs.

Anyway, the film is episodic, following him from one project to another. The main interest is the art itself, and my attention flagged a little any time the movie started to focus on Goldsworthy's life, conversation, or family. Goldsworthy seems like a nice guy, and he is very interesting when talking about the natural world -- about spores, bracken, and how to stabilize clay (hair, apparently) -- but vague and tedious when he talks about his art: he has to resort often to words like "energy," and then, much to his credit, realizes that he is not saying much and stops. One of the loveliest things about his art, in fact, is that it requires no analysis; I can't think of another modern artist whose work almost everyone would find beautiful.

Goldsworthy's art taps into some very universal sources of beauty -- fall leaves, the sun shining through ice; and the shapes he is obsessed with -- a line that winds back and forth like a river, a circle that, like the sun, appears to have been cut out of something -- all have something elemental about them. The art shows us how to notice the natural beauty that is overlooked because it both common and chaotic; by supplying an element of order that appears to have risen organically out of the material, he points out the beauty that is always there.

What I found inspiring about it is that this is not only art that anyone can appreciate; it is art that anyone can make, although Goldsworthy admittedly has incredible patience and a brlliant eye. In one scene, for example, he grinds iron-rich stones he finds in a stream and tosses the red powder into the water; the camera follows the color as it swirls and defuses through the current. It is lovely, but it is exactly the same beauty that exists in a cup of tea, if you bother watching the color seep out of the bag and spread like smoke through the cup. I remember spending hours digging channels in our yard as a kid, and using the hose to make the water run through them. There is something instinctual in the kinds of things that Goldsworthy does -- an instinct that seems to be getting increasingly foreign as we lose contact with the natural world.

It is true, there are plenty of beauties in the unnatural world as well, but I feel like the ability to sense them begins with an appreciation of the natural. I remember seeing a purple dragonfly in Madagascar and thinking that its wings looked like cellophane, and then noticing how odd it was that, when struck by a natural phenomenon, I always made analogies to the synthesized, as opposed to the other way around. But I immediately recognized that the dragonfly's wings were lovely, and I would probably never have thought that about cellophane. But cling wrap actually is rather beautiful, as amazing a sign of human capacity as the dragonfly is of evolution.

Anyway, just some thoughts as I sit in a typical office building, where vast resources have been used to create something that, taken as a whole, is so astonishingly ugly that one wonders how much longer it will take for our sense of anything but human beauty to be totally stamped out -- how else could we stand continually being in places like this? Since schools, modern office buildings, care facilities for the elderly, and hospitals are coming more and more to ressemble one another, we will soon spend most of lives with flourescent lighting, industrial carpet interspersed with stretches of linoleum, and the hum of the air conditioner. I also find it kind of funny that the the drab beige hallways at my office are distinguished from each other primarily by the works of high art on their walls -- Matisse is an especial favorite, specifically the cut-outs that he did towards the end of his life, when he was going blind.