Friday, August 19, 2011

Cross-Promotional Bliss

Just a quick note to say I've been distracted by a side project, namely: a new blog about film.

You can find the first entry in said blog (Auteur Guide) here.

I will continue to book blog, I promise.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bloglette: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary
by David Sedaris
2010, Little, Brown & Company

I have read a lot of David Sedaris books. There was a time in my life when I virtually obsessed over his brand of wry personal essay. His writing, which undulates on the surface with a hilarious blend of sad-sack cynicism, contains a strong undercurrent of empathy for a wide swath of people and a fair amount of a particularly virulent brand of self-loathing that was quite well known to me. At one point, I was fairly convinced David Sedaris was the only man I could ever love.

So it was with delight, then, that I turned to Sedaris's first
work of published fiction in over fifteen years, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. This collection of stories shares very little in common with the acerbic, melancholic autobiographical essays we, his readers, have grown accustomed to. What it does share is the very kernel of what makes Sedaris so lovable: his seemingly endless supply of hilarity.

Sedaris deviates from his successful formula by regaling us with fable-like stories of anthropomorphized animals demonstrating the foibles of humanity, from its confusing quirks like internet dating to its inevitably vicious social constructs like wealth or gossip. The stories are brought to life by animals doing very human things, all of which are incredibly funny and more than a little bit dark.

My favorite story in the book is the one I heard first, at a reading he did last year at the Wang Center or the BSO in Boston. In the book, it's entitled "The Faithful Setter" and it is narrated by a dog who bickers with his wife about the taste of scented candles and about his career as a stud for breeding. "The Faithful Setter" is a perfect encapsulation of what works about this book: its seemingly blase (or occasionally naive) delivery of what Sedaris imagines to be the annoyances of daily life from an animal's perspective lays bare the inanities with which we, as people, occupy our lives with.

I read somewhere once (who can remember these things) that the best fiction is that which makes the world newly strange, and that is exactly what Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk does: introduces a world eerily inverted from our own that pokes hilarious fun at the way we conduct our lives, constantly enraptured by the sound of our own voices, unwilling to turn our gaze inward, and preoccupied disproportionately with trivial matters right up until the moment of our death.

It's funnier than it sounds, I swear it.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hard-Boiled Legs

The Grifters
by Jim Thompson
1963, Vintage

Occasionally I like to indulge in a bit of fluff from the past that offers very little beyond stylistic derring-do. Like watching old film noirs or listening to Whitney Houston albums, reading these works offers little beyond the satisfaction of false nostalgia. By this I mean there is something comforting (even a little dazzling) in delving into an out-moded genre knowing that it existed as a pure, inimical product of its time. There was only one unique point in history where Courtney Love could record Live Through This or Preston Sturges could have made Sullivan's Travels; moreover, that point in history has passed and cannot be recaptured. That we may view these artifacts - curios, really - of time gone by is (for most of us) false nostalgia that inspires curiosity, devotion and certainly no small amount of bemusement.

This is why genre exercises (particularly in film) often fall flat. The aping of a sincere mode of an expression inevitably comes off as insincere. To take On the Town and turn it into New York, New York is to plunder something special, something earnest, and make it a false artifact. There is a sly knowingness, a "wink, wink" quality that ruins the purity of these outmoded genres.

In some way The Grifters by Jim Thompson is understood best as lacking what it cannot have: earnestness. In contrast with Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely (which I wrote about here), Thompson's book fizzles where it is meant to crackle. Its attempts to modernize the dimestore noir genre come off as disingenuous when it's good and quaint when it's bad.

It's a tricky case, though. Thompson published pulp fiction from the early 1940s through the late 1960s. The Grifters falls late in his canon - 1963 - and Thompson had to have been aware of how much the world had changed from the world he possessed with Chandler and Hammett decades earlier.

As such, The Grifters is ultimately a self-conscious work. Thompson struggles in the text to maintain tension in true hard-boiled fashion. The story begins with a small-con grifter named Roy Dillon who is caught performing a con wherein he receives an extra twenty dollars by intentionally confusing a sales clerk. The clerk, who thinks he has caught on to this grift, assaults Dillon with a baseball bat. Dillon lands himself in the hospital with severe internal bleeding.

While Dillon, who values the "freedom of movement necessary to carrying on the grift," is laid up in the hospital he is visited by his over-bearing and nefarious mother whose loose morals and similar occupation is what leads Dillon initially to a life of crime.

His mother, Lilly Dillon, is given Thompson's most careful treatment in characterization. Lilly is a woman who "[knows] how to take care of herself" and whose "fatalistic do-or-be-damned philosophy" preempts maternal instinct in favor of a brand of tough love that has the ring of apathy to it. As a child Roy was treated by his mother with carelessness; he is ostensibly a sibling to Lilly, an annoying fact of life that cannot be discarded.

As Roy matures and his body grows into a handsome figure, Thompson alludes to a softening of her manner towards her son, "a suppressed hunger in here eyes." These incestuous undertones allow Thompson to impel the plot forward as Lilly attempts to insinuate herself further and further into her estranged son's life in his time of need. First and foremost, Lilly takes it upon herself to drive a wedge between Roy and his amoral part-time girlfriend, whose on motivation and backstory grow increasingly suspicious.

Where Thompson falters first is in his inability to maintain the necessary tightness to the plot that permits tension. Thompson traces his characters meanderingly, alternating points of view among Lilly, her son and his girlfriend (and even some minor characters). This alternation would be enough to dissolve tension, but even within each character's self-contained chapters there is a constant switching between backstory and present. The backstories do very little except fill in some character detail that does not directly contribute to the plot of the story and distract from its possibilities for tension-building.

Of course, character writing is an important part of what makes novels great - arguably more important than plot. But Thompson's sense of character ends up being a troubling situation.

Where most pulp fiction would not make avail of its female characters, Thompson should be credited for his significant interest in employing female perspective as part of his narrative. Lilly Dillon, as stated above, is given a good deal more care to idiosyncratic detail and psychological complexity than her son. Female characters abound in the book and their power in moving the narrative forward is a testament to Thompson's attention to the issues of feminism that no doubt pervaded cultural discussion in the early 1960s.

But Thompson's treatment of those women is another issue entirely. The three main female characters who appear in the book represent a sort of trinity of conventional female roles: there is a nurse, the survivor of a concentration camp, whom Lilly attempts to foist on her young son; there is the aforementioned over-bearing, criminal mother whose disinterest in her son gives way to incestuous impulses; and finally there is the girlfriend, whom Roy uses as little more than a commitment-free source of sex-on-demand.

For Thompson, women are defined entirely by their sexuality. Roy views the world in terms of women who use their beauty and those who do not:

[Lilly and Moira] were both members of the same flock; women who knew just what it took to preserve and enhance their natural attractiveness. Women who were either endowed with what it took, or spared no effort in getting it.

Thompson's "it" here is central to the problem of his treatment of women; there seems to be an air of predation here. Women are either naturally given the ability to enhance their "prettiness" with sex, subsequently granting them power, or they devote their lives to masquerading as such.

All of Thompson's women are portrayed as either victims or victimizers of sexuality. Lilly is ostensibly a predator, as her callous attitude toward her son is only able to shift when she can sexually desire him. But even Lilly can be victimized by her weakness. She is portrayed as pathetic, deluded by her false sense of female empowerment, when she is abused by her mobster boss. She loses control of her bladder as he burns her with a cigarette. Her manner becomes obsequious, grateful to the man who has spared her life by beating her.

Moira, Roy's girlfriend, uses sex as a bargaining chip in acquiring things in life. She is fully aware of the "delicate shivering of her breasts and the sensual swing of her rounded little hips" and is unafraid to take advantage of her sexuality to accomplish her goals. While Roy chauvinistically uses Moira as a sexual plaything, Moira uses her body for monetary gain.

In one chapter, Moira is confronted by her landlord on an issue of outstanding rent. Moira has the cash at hand and offers to her landlord that he can have sex with her instead but that he would release claim on the cash. "The lady or the loot," she threatens him. Preying on his weakness of character, she submits her body to him because of the perverse power play it permits her to enact, not because of necessity. In other words, her acting of essentially selling her body can only be read as a malicious act, one of depravity, not an act of necessity.

To drive the point home, Moira laughs during coitus and fails in her attempt to "[repress] merriment."

And finally, his nurse Carol, whom Thompson describes as a "child playing at being a woman", is seduced by Roy who cares nothing for her or for her troubled past of victimization. As Roy takes her to bed, Carol naively hopes that her sacrifice will find some meaning in Roy's hands. "In the drape-drawn dimness of the room," Thompson writes, "she was reborn, and there was no past but only a future." Roy consents to sleep with her only once he has established she is not a virgin. In Roy's mind there is a dichotomy that exists wherein women are either virginal Madonnas who are not to be defiled with sex or experienced women who offer their bodies freely for his (and other men's usage). When Roy discovers the source of her de-virginity, her past as a victim of the Holocaust, he is disgusted not by his carelessness in using her a sex object but by the transformation of his sex object into something that requires reciprocal feeling.

"Yes, I was very young. seven or eight, I think. That was the reason, you see: to discover the earliest possible age at which a female might conceive. It can be very early in life, as young as five, I think..."

Roy wanted to vomit. He wanted to shake her, to beat her. Standing apart from himself, as she was standing from herself, he was furious with her... The pious mourning of sin; the joyous absolution of the sinners; the uncomfortable frowns and glances-askance at those who recalled their misdeeds. After all, the one-time friends, poor fellows, were now our friends and it was bad taste to show gas-stoves on television... And after all, those people, the allegedly sinned-against, had brought most of the trouble on themselves.

To read this, wherein our main character wants to strike a woman because he slept with her and then revealed her victimization as a child in the Holocaust is frustrating enough. When Roy decides she is trying to romantically entrap him, that the story is a ploy designed to create emotional connection, he grows very cold. He rationalizes to himself that she is a "nice girl" and that she does not deserve him to enter in bad faith into a relationship. In Roy's view, what she apparently deserves is to disrobe and keep her mouth shut.

But are Roy's attitudes towards women also Thompson's?

It would seem very clear that Thompson, writing in 1963, is not expressing a hatred for women in the telling of Roy's emotional abuse of Carol. he is calling, of course, attention to Roy's misogyny, his self-centeredness, his inherent greed. He is seemingly coming to the defense of this weak, pitiable woman - but in 1963, would it not have been more heroic to portray a woman in a pulp novel who is not victimized by a man?

The answer is in Lilly Dillon, Thompson lamentable interpretation of an empowered woman. Lilly is a strong character insofar as she can manipulate them (until they threaten her with bodily harm) and is not dependent on them for definition (unless they offer her the promise of sexual satisfaction). Lilly, though a fully realized and truly memorable character, demonstrates Thompson's inability to reinvent the crime novel he knew so well in the context of modern issues.

You might object to my placing the onus of women's liberation so squarely on Thompson's shoulders. Surely it's not his obligation, as a writer of pulp fiction, to accurately encompass the changing tides of attitudes towards women in his novel of petty theft. Isn't it enough that he devotes so much energy to portraying them in the novel? That he demonizes Roy for his mistreatment of them?

But Thompson determines the terms on which we will engage with his novel. The Grifters is clearly a hard-boiled crime novel that has unusual interest in women for a pulp. This unique preoccupation with the role of women and, especially, sex demands that we engage it on these terms. By 1963, Thompson was no doubt aware of the heritage of pulp fiction he had a hand in creating. To include characters more multi-faceted, more carefully assembled, that the typical ingenue or femme fatale portraiture is to call attention to its modernity.

Thompson's Grifters are set, like Scorsese aping the Hollywood musical in New York, New York, in a hard-boiled past that cannot include it. To demand that we treat The Grifter as both a classic genre exercise and as a modern take on said genre is a contradiction that, like Thompson's unvarying definition of women as wielding the promise or the villainy of sex over men, cannot be justified.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Entertaining Instruction

The Best American Short Stories 2010
Edited by Heidi Pitlor and Richard Russo
2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The Best American series originated as a collection of the year's best short fiction by a single editor. Since the late seventies, each year's publication has featured a guest editor who works with the series editor to cull down to 20 the number of stories which will appear in the finished product. The tastes of these disparate editors (who have included the likes of Stephen King and Raymond Carver) rarely seems to have too much of an impact on the collection.

This year's collection is unique in that the best piece of writing it features is guest editor Richard Russo's introduction to the volume.

My experience with Russo is limited. In high school I read his Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls and subsequently gave a copy of it to a friend. This was in a stage of my development as a reader that gave priority to cleanly realistic modes in novels, one that in recent years I have become disinterested in (my entry on John Irving's last novel demonstrates this backlash clearly).

As such, I was a little bored by the idea of Russo guest editing this year's issue, which continues a long line of talented but purely realist writers picking stories of a similar ilk (where, for example, was the guest issue by Donald Barthelme? or Aimee Bender?). Russo would doubtlessly prove to be just like the others, choosing traditional stories of people experiencing quiet epiphanies in their otherwise ordinary lives.

Well, to a certain extent I was right; there are plenty of those (most of which, as those things tend to be, are well written). But oddly the most enchanting piece in the collection is Russo's introduction, in which he recounts a visit to his university from Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Singer had come to read a bit of his work and to answer questions posed by the university's students and faculty on the nature of his craft. Russo describes with loving, amusing detail the comedy of Mr. Singer's struggles with the pile of paper on which his excerpt was written. The papers, not bound together but loose, each have but a few sentences written on them in large print to accommodate Singer's failing sight. As Singer finishes with a page, he drops it off the podium and sails over the audience.

Russo's anecdote, despite being very funny, achieves some sort of gravitas as he relates Singer's suffering as the audience presses him on the purpose of fiction, a question that Singer answers simply by saying, "To entertain... and to instruct."

In this way, the introduction proves to be the perfect segue to these 20 stories of an occasionally entertaining and quite instructive nature. There are, of course, several duds in the collection: stories that wax epiphanic in soapy prose. But it is in the nature of this sort of collection for these things to appear (indeed, each year's edition contains some sort of warning along those lines from its editors). Instead, I'll focus on a small handful of the ones I like best.

Jennifer Egan's story "Safari" appears here, although it was excerpted from her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which just won the Pulitzer for fiction (and which I wrote about here). "Safari" seems to me to need to function within the novel, now that I've read it, but will certainly entertain any reader (regardless of "instruction").

"Least Resistance" by Wayne Harrison describes the flailing attempts at happiness by a young auto-mechanic. The main character in this story is content with his mostly passive life and does not appear to realize that he is stalling out, allowing the doors to his future to close neatly, quietly as he convinces himself that an ill-advised dalliance with the boss' wife ensures him the minimal amount of happiness required to live.

Rebeca Makkai's "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship" is a very funny story about a professor of literature who accidentally kills an albatross, aping Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner". What starts as a delightful saga of this meta-literary murder becomes an exploration of perhaps two of the most complex issues in contemporary American society: race and gender. The professor's neurotic need to be found attractive belies her intellect and her boyfriend's honest attempts at comfort and the professor's insecurity and her inflated sense of her importance at the university set the stage for a larger conflict on racism in higher education that is gripping right until the end.

A story I was not so sure that I loved until I finished it was Brendan Mathews's "My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer", which contains the following sentence (which should tell you all you need to know): "It wasn't just that you were beautiful; there are a lot of pretty ladies in the circus, tattooed and otherwise."

"Lion Tamer" begins with a strong undercurrent of dark humor and gets much darker in a hurry. It's worth a read as its circus act love story recalls La Strada in its pathos.

"Further Interpretations of Real Life Events" by Kevin Moffett is a story I had read previously, in McSweeney's Quarterly, although I was pleased to re-read it. It is the story of a son who is struggling to write fiction about his relationships with both parents. His work comes out puerile or adolescently bitter. He is stunned to discover his father, in his retirement, has taken up fiction writing and begins publishing work about the very same subject. It is probably my favorite story in this year's collection.

Lastly, I was reluctant to read the story included by literary super-starlet Tea Obreht given her age (25) and reputation (inflated and rising). I read a few paragraphs of her story "The Laugh", thought to myself "Now, what's all the fuss" and skipped it, vowing to return after I'd finished the other pieces in the collection. Well. I did.

"The Laugh" is without a doubt one of the finest short stories I've read in several years. It is still preying on my thoughts, haunting me with its stunning imagery, its assured sense of location, its gripping view of the ceaseless quest to make sense of our lives through love. I highly recommend it.

Other notable stories in this year's collection included a story by Karen Russell about time-traveling seagulls and a story by Danielle Evans about a war hero who lies his way into a contest to win Hannah Montana-like concert tickets.

One final note: in the past, I had contemplated reading a ten- or twenty-year-old edition of the Best American Short Stories to contrast with the current year's. Would anyone actually find this an interesting exercise? I have back issues dating to about 1987 and could easily execute such a task.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Bloglette: Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

Consider the Lobster: Essays
by David Foster Wallace
2005, Little, Brown & Co.

Those of you who know me well are doubtless familiar with my slow-burning obsession with DFW of late. His essays, in particular, have proven fertile ground for the seedling of my infatuation to flourish into a wild post-modern fruit-bearing leafy-looking semiotic representation of a tree.

Consider the Lobster was the most recent of my forays into DFW land. I completed the book
several months ago and due to some moving silliness and personal shirking of self-imposed intellectual responsibilities (aka this blog) never wrote about it. As with all these bloglettes, too much time has passed for me to give an accurate reading of my impressions of the book except that I loved it.

Of particular note were an essay on the debate in the dictionary-writing community between
recording language as people speak it (descriptivists) and recording language as people should speak it (prescriptivists), an lengthy essay on John McCain's failed 2000 presidential bid that assumes that its audience of Rolling Stone-reading 20-something white guys were apathetic towards politics, and a beautifully sad and insightful article on the emotional consequences of Sept. 11th from the perspective of a (like me) highly conflicted American.

What sticks in my mind the most, though, is DFW's alarming ability to shift rhetorically to address the audience he is courting. His explication of the ins-and-outs of grammar snobbery, for example in the aforementioned article on American usage, professes gleefully to DFW's elitism in grammatical matters in order to sidle up along his readership, whereas his titular exploration of the morality of eating sentient food (namely, the lobster) downplays its end-goal of forcing the readers of Gourmet to re-think their position by evading its central moral question until the last few pages, masquerading its point as it were in a cleverly deceptive, nearly parodic description of the mania surrounding a lobster festival. (Hello, run-on, let's be friends.) After all, who could doubt DFW's seemingly impromptu questioning of the ethics of lobster bib-donning when he first describes in excruciatingly funny detail the tumult and buffoonery around him?

Now that I've ostensibly exhausted his nonfiction, you can look forward (if anyone can be said to do such a thing in reading this blog) to my turning an eye to his short fiction soon.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Cog in Something Turning

Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell
2004, Hodder and Stoughton

It's hard for me to keep track of books I'm interested in reading. Scrawling a recommendation on a post-it, for example, is typically proven fruitless when the title comes out of my washing machine mangled in a chewing gum-like wad. The closest I've come to a workable system is in saving notes on my phone, but the down-side to this method, as I've entertained my friends with on countless occasions, is that I'm left to decipher cryptic notes like "Tapper Evolution", "Earth Abides" and "Blood Feast".

This mobile phone-as-notepad system had its genesis several years ago when I first took a walk around the Andover Bookstore, my preferred local indie. Pressed with a sense of urgency to remember the countless employee recommended titles and alarmed at the sheer volume of them, I began a note on my phone in desperation to take down the names of these surely soon-to-be-favorites.

I'll admit that not too many of these titles wind up working their way into my hands. In that first note is a flurry of book titles without coherent punctuation or author names that might help me determine where exactly their names begin or end. I quote: "Wednesdays wars society of the spectacle optic nerve mudbound kaputt cloud atlas the intuitionist the to breathe underwater".

Earlier this summer I was reminded of that then-forgotten note when I picked up two things more or less simultaneously: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet from the library and the new issue of the Paris Review (for my boyfriend because of a new story by Geek Love author Katherine Dunn) which featured an "Art of Fiction" interview with David Mitchell.

As you may recall from my blog entry on it, Jacob de Zoet was a delight to read. And so, several months later, looking for a title to resuscitate my reading habits, I turned to that note.

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas was exactly the book I needed. Like a shot of adrenaline, Mitchell's prose awakened my senses to where my love of reading comes from: a desperate need to validate my existence by forging the kind of connections I was so enraptured by in reading David Foster Wallace's essays. The book is hellbent on forging such a connection; it presents characters whose lives, seemingly removed temporally and geographically from our own, speak to some intrinsic aspiration in human nature to seek understanding for our existence, to find balance and rhythm - meaning, even - to the chaos of our lives.

It will help to explain these concepts with the context of the book itself, which displays bravura shifts in dialect and voice and a remarkable breadth in genre.

Cloud Atlas is composed of six texts. Each of these texts, excepting the centerpiece, is interrupted by another. The narrative unfolds so that these pieces, each functioning more or less independently of the others, is cushioned within another, creating a sort of Russian nesting doll effect. After the centerpiece of the novel is reached, each text resumes its narrative and plays out to its end in reverse order.

This might sound complicated, but while the book is highly structured, its rhythms are anything but oblique. For example, the opening text is a piece called "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing".

"Adam Ewing" recounts in the style of a journal its eponymous character's voyage aboard a ship from New Zealand to America. Ewing is an American notary who is unfamiliar largely with the crew of the vessel upon which he travels. Ewing discovers mid-way through the narrative a native New Zealander who stows away in his cabin. Ewing, a man of god, is reluctant to deny the man protection on account of his morals and jeopardizes his standing on the ship by offering him safe harbor.

Meanwhile, Ewing discovers that he has fallen victim to a parasite in his brain that endangers his life. He is offered council and medication from a physician on board, who supplies him with medication during the treatment that has adverse affects on Ewing.

Mitchell's prose in the "Ewing" section is the sort of deck-swabbing, arch nineteenth century writing one might read in Billy Budd. It is initially a little off-putting to slog through; despite its relatively short length (at 40 pages), it took me two days to wade, as though knee-deep through a bog, through Mitchell's thicket of arcane syntax and vocabulary.

Sentences like "Mr. Roderick has little sympathy with my petition to have the offending hawser removed elsewhere, for he is obliged to quit his private cabin (for the reason stated below) & move to the fo'c'sle with the common sailors, whose number has swollen with five Castilians 'poached' from the Spaniard at anchor in the Bay" are not conducive to breezy reading.

Eventually though, the nautical terms like "hawser" and "fo'c'sle" grew on me. By the section's end, I had grown accustomed to beautiful, graceful passages cast in sepia-toned prose like this one:

By day, my coffin is hot as an oven & my sweat dampens these pages. The tropic sun fattens & fills the noon sky. The men work seminaked with sun-blacked torsos & straw hats. The planking oozes scorching tar that sticks to one's soles. Rain squalls blow up from nowhere & vanish with the same rapidity & the deck hisses itself dry in a minute. Portuguese man-o'-wars pulsate in the quicksilver sea, flying fish bewitch the beholder & ocher shadows of hammerheads circle the Prophetess.

Just about the time that I had grown accustomed to this style and passages like that one snagged on my breath and left me gently tugging to set it free, Mitchell cuts "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" off - in mid-sentence, no less!

The second section, which interrupts "Ewing" just as it is getting good, is entitled "Letters from Zedelghem" and is set in Belgium in 1931, nearly eighty years after "Adam Ewing".

"Zedelghem" is comprised of a series of letters from a young composer named Robert Frobisher to a friend from his home in England. Frobisher is traveling in the Belgian countryside to seek a distinguished composer named Vyvyan Ayrs in order to offer him assistance in transposing new musical ideas that have been prevented from being recorded due to illness.

The shift in location across the globe and in time by three-quarters of a century necessitate a shift in style and Mitchell envelopes the reader in a warm, personal narrative full of asides and short-handed cleverness. Where Ewing was writing to no one but himself, Frobisher's narrative (also in 1st person perspective) has an audience: a mysterious man named Sixsmith. As such, the writing is more intimate and more amusing, in the way that one always wants to amuse when writing a letter. Take for example, this passage, in which Frobisher describes being interrupted having intercourse with his boss's wife:

A tiring night turned inside out. J. came to my bed at midnight, and during our athletics, my door was barged. Farcical horror! Thank God J. had locked it on her way in. The doorknob rattled, insistent knocking began. Fear can clear the mind as well as cloud it, and remembering my Don Juan, I hid J. in a nest of coverlets and sheets in my sagging bed and left the curtain half open to show I had nothing to hide.

As the narrative progresses, the bedroom farce of Frobisher's cuckolding of his mentor, the delicious complaints of a stifled artist, and the sneaking suspicion that Frobisher and Sixsmith were gay lovers sucks you in easily. Imagine my surprise when towards the end of the section, Frobisher discovers in his master's library and mangled, interrupted copy of a the Pacific journal of a certain American notary.

It is in this manner that the narrative continues: Mitchell entertains with a passage that is interrupted by another set in the future in which the new main character somehow discovers the preceding manuscript.

It's a complex structure, but a simple idea (nearly a gimmick), but one that compels the reader to zip along, eager to see in what manner Frobisher's letters, for example, will reappear in the next narrative, a airport novel about corporate demonism set in the 1970s.

While part of me is desperate to re-live Mitchell's worlds by describing in depth their virtuosic range in voice, tone, style, characterization, I am reluctant to ruin the pure joy of discovering (and then re-discovering) each layer of this novel. Instead, I suppose I'll stick to generalities, starting with the pure breadth of his writing style.

Mitchell's ear for language, colloquialisms both invented and borrowed, is astounding. His sense of syntax, of vocabulary, of semiotic signification is dizzying. It's not often that I get to read a stylist so prone to inducing goosebumps at the language itself, divorced (as much as it can be) from the narrative framework that surrounds it.

This is not to say that the framework within which these delightful linguistic adornments is not compelling, because it is. Mitchell's six narratives pulsate with rich imagery and wordplay, but so too do his characters thrum with energy. Each is a delightfully realized, idiosyncratic presence - the scrim through which we view the newly weird world around us. And yet, there are distinctive commonalities that help to flesh out Mitchell's themes: among them, the idea of fate, societal and social predation and religion.

The first and last of those themes seem somehow tied together in this work; throughout Mitchell's narrative his characters seem destined, guided by some authorial force. Part of this is overtly literal, of course. Mitchell is their author, their fates in his hands. But moreover, perhaps through the construction of the Russian nesting doll-like narrative, each character seems to be functioning as individual pieces of the same large, multi-decade machine ("I feel to be a cog in something turning," Joni Mitchell has sung). The eventual significance of one character's story in another's, their very interconnectedness, implies some fate that belies the sometimes-illusion of fiction writing that what you read is occurring contemporaneously with the act of reading it.

This sense of authorial guidance seems to be part and parcel of Mitchell's characters' tendency to seek guidance of some religious nature. In part one, Adam Ewing is a man of profoundly religious devotion whose faith as a Christian leads him to make moral choices that directly lead him down his eventual course. In a later portion of the book, corporate enterprise takes the place of religious devotion as characters worship, in Orwellian fashion, the visage of a Ronald McDonald-like commercial logo.

Mitchell's work, while transparent in its authority (in an inversion of an Oz axiom, Mitchell seems to call us to "pay attention to the man behind the curtain"), is sincere and ambitious in its determination to present its characters as living truths while keeping them characters - that is, dramatic (or almost semiotic) representations of people. Mitchell's sense of humanity is warm, all-encompassing. In his portraits of characters striving to make sense of their fated lives by fighting the apathetic or malignant societal machinations that surround them, his demonstration of their devotion to causes and ideas beyond themselves, and especially his loving, precise crafting of their voices - in all these things, we see a writer whose abundant goodwill towards humanity-as-the-individual and whose profound suspicion of humanity-as-the-collective is transformed by his gift for style into the beautifully elegiac fates of the six characters in Cloud Atlas.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

All You Need Is Love

Editor's Note: This entry marks the third guest blog to appear on Pygmies & Peanut Butter and the second by guest blogger MB. You can find her previous effort, on Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story here.

The White Album
by Joan Didion

1979, Simon & Schuster

The White Album is a collection of essays by iconic journalist Joan Didion concerning the cultural climate of 1960s America. It is not, as the title may suggest, an examination of that infamous Beatles record. In fact, throughout the text there is a conspicuous lack of reference to the Fab Four or their copious musical output. With no other apparent justification for the title, the onus is placed squarely on the reader to make sense of the allusion.

Although the book was originally published in 1978, many of the individual essays were written in the late 60s or early 70s. Seeing as I personally came of age during the grunge era, the more obscure references (of which there are many) were lost on me. What I did understand was that being alive, American, and socially conscious in the 1960s was like being on one of those carnival rides that spins around faster and faster until the laws of gravity that have governed your whole life up to that point suddenly fall away and you are left untethered to the earth, realizing that everything you once believed can no longer be trusted. The most romanticized era in American history is known for free love, rock 'n' roll, flower children, and "peace, love, and understanding." It was also the decade of political turmoil, Charles Manson, Vietnam casualties, and Lee Harvey Oswald. I read the news today. Oh, boy.

The essays, in true "new journalist" fashion, parallel social evolution with the author's personal experience. We begin with both America and Didion in a state of disillusionment. The cultural revolution of the late 50s/early 60s promised change and offered radical solutions to society's ills. But as solutions failed and changes remained only superficial, Americans were set adrift wondering who they were and what, if anything, to believe in.

It was at that point of critical mass that Didion personally suffered a nervous breakdown. To her contemporaries she seemed to have it all: a family, a home, a successful career, public accolades. On the inside she felt out of control and disconnected from the world around her. She describes the experience as that of having "lost the narrative" of her life, reducing her existence to one of "disparate images" devoid of cause and effect. As her depression worsened she retreated into herself more and more, eventually reaching the point of hospitalization for "nausea and vertigo." Didion credits the absurdity and pretense of the time for her descent into depression. As she puts it, her breakdown "does not now seem... an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968."

Throughout the next nine essays she goes on to expose social and political hypocrisy in all its forms. Joan Didion is displeased with Jim Morrison, Los Angeles traffic control, the literary style of Doris Lessing, collegiate political rallies, the Getty Museum as well as the critics of the Getty Museum, the fact that not enough Hawaiians have read From Here to Eternity, and the Women's Movement - just to name a few. I found her ceaseless derision of all things relevant to be tiring, especially in the absence of any clear opinions or solutions of her own. I grew weary of her in the same way I'm weary of condescending hipsters and their ironic t-shirts. I was clutching desperately to the hope that she would eventually stand up in favor of something, anything at all really, but in the back of my head I was snarking, "Hooray for you and your ability to see through everyone's bullshit! You're a regular Holden Caulfield!"

At the absolute breaking point of my frustration with Didion and her distaste for everyone and everything I actually had to shut the book and walk away. The next day, feeling newly energized by the hot L.A. sun, I began where I left off, with her essay on Georgia O'Keeffe. To my delight, Didion not only praised O'Keeffe but unabashedly gushed over her with that special kind of adoration usually reserved for the parents of very young children. She loved O'Keeffe's paintings, yes, but what truly impressed her was the spirit of the woman who made them. To wit: "George O'Keeffe seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it."

From that point on, the tide changes. There is still plenty of finger-pointing and condemnation, but we see Didion gradually coming to her personal salvation. She finds worth not in communal experiences or social "movements" but in the very personal and solitary act of loving something beyond oneself. She gravitates toward those who dedicate their lives, beyond all rationalization, to whatever it is they love, be it painting flowers, harnessing water, or breeding rare orchids. The act of love is what gives the narrative meaning.

In fact, the only collective human trait Didion seems to find desirable at all is the irrational love of something above all else and beyond all hardships. At first it seems as if this is a quality she admires in others simply because she doesn't possess it herself. She sits high in her ivory tower above everything, judging those who do care. What I eventually realized is that she does love something above all others and beyond all reason: writing. She cannot live without it.

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

These are the very first words of Didion's treatise on America. Taken out of context, they appear dreamy and romantic. To tell stories is so uniquely human, and aren't we proud of anything that sets us apart from the other primates? But as I read on past the first few lines I began to wonder if this opening statement weren't a whimsical musing after all but rather a pointed finger of blame aimed squarely at us all and the narratives we so often create to soften the world's harsh truths. Even weeks after finishing the book I am left pondering the meaning of this deceptively simple line. Maybe it is simply a fact, devoid of virtue. Good or bad, we need the narrative in order to survive.

Guest blog by MB (with apologies to Elvis Costello and The Beatles).