Friday, December 21, 2007

A Fraggle Is Haunting Europe... the Fraggle of Communism!


Speaking of Muppets and the contemporary exploitation of indentured servitude by the so-called "knowledge-classes," what about the Fraggles' unending oppression of the Doozers? I can't think of a more concise example of a knowledge-class (the mystical Fraggles who "live to play") extracting the congealed labor ("Doozer sticks") of an underclass (the hard-working Doozers).

The Fraggles literally gobble the labor up.

Just listen to Jim Henson's description of the system of oppression--he's like a wackier incarnation of his bearded brother, Karl Marx. And yet he seems to accept the system of exploitation as unavoidably rooted in some sort of alleged naturalism: "Doozers live to work." Clearly Henson subscribes to Fraggle-mysticism. In other words, we know what side he's on.

Perhaps a re-reading of Fraggle Rock is the most urgent thing Cultural Theorists could be doing.

Do-doooo, da-do-doo: Menomena!

Donald Hipsterdoofus, here, albeit reluctantly. Once again, from my painter's loft in Silver Lake, I am forced to provide the missing allegory for the contemporary exploitation of the proletariat by the Regime of Knowledge. I am, after all, an ex-graduate student who worked for what amounts to bee-wages.

So: here is the video for Menomena's "Evil Bee"--I think that the immediate and direct relation between this video and graduate student labor should be self-evident--(the crow-mobiles powered by bee-barf, for example, are obviously the Junior Faculty of a Comparative Literature Department, and the poor bees are overworked grad students--but once again, all of this is self-evident).



Clearly this is the allegory the previous poster (Tamilda, ahem) was looking for.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Story of Stuff


I suppose the state of Contemporary American Fiction doesn't seem so dire when viewed in the context of The Story of Stuff. A few minutes in, at about the part where she begins discussing quote unquote Externalized Costs, I began, moderately, to freak out. I like the way Annie Leonard shifts this notion from being simply the burden of corporations (it's they who are externalizing costs for their profit) to being our burden (it's our costs that are displaced into and diffused through a global system of waste and oppression). This can only happen, naturally, through the efforts of huge corporations to increase their profits, but in Leonard's formulation WE too are the direct oppressors. I'm not sure I've ever seen it expressed as clearly as it is in this movie.

In the context of literary production and the culture industry maybe it would be worth looking at Melville's "Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" in which a bunch of British scholars (the bachelors) leech off of American paper mill workers (the maids). It begins in the second person, immediately implicating the reader in the exchange of paper and the system of externalized cost:
Sick with the din and soiled with the mud of Fleet Street -- where the Benedick tradesmen are hurrying by, with ledger-lines ruled along their brows, thinking upon rise of bread and fall of babies -- you adroitly turn a mystic corner -- not a street -- glide down a dim, monastic way flanked by dark, sedate, and solemn piles, and still wending on, give the whole care-worn world the slip, and, disentangled, stand beneath the quiet cloisters of the Paradise of Bachelors.
This is what externalized cost aims to do--to slip out of the "din" and "mud" of the real world and into a simulated one. Like Harry Potter worm-holing to Hogwarts. Problem is, you can only worm-hole for so long--pretty soon that woman on the right is going to run at that brick wall and bounce back. (Worm-holing, I hear, takes tremendous amounts of electricity).

I don't know what the modern equivalent of Melville's diptych would be--say, you reading this blog on your computer or iPhone or eText reader--but I imagine it would be written by Philip K. Dick, and would have something to do with the unbelievable quantities of waste that go into building a computer (something on the order of an acre of rain forest, says NPR), not to mention the waste after you dispose of the computer:
The CTBC claims that e-waste accounts for approximately 40 percent of these three toxins [mercury, cadmium and lead] that end up [sic] landfills, noting that "just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate 20 acres of a lake, making the fish unfit to eat."

Maybe those Gigantic Feral Infants from Infinite Jest aren't too far off.


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Gentle Essays and Wimpy Essayists


Donald Hipster-Doofus here. Basically, I think that this essay is really good. It's by Christina Nehring (and to answer your question: no, I've checked, she isn't a character in a Wagner opera, for those of you who like opera jokes). It's about how essayists have lately become big wimps, and how that has made essay writing in America completely uninteresting. Here's an excerpt, from somewhere in the middle:
The problem, of course, is not merely our essayists; it’s our culture. We have grown terribly—if somewhat hypocritically—weary of larger truths. The smarter and more intellectual we count ourselves, the more adamantly we insist that there is no such thing as truth, no such thing as general human experience, that everything is plural and relative and therefore undiscussable. Of course, everything is plural, everything is arguable, and there are limits to what we can know about other persons, other cultures, other genders. But there is also a limit to such humility; there is a point at which it becomes narcissism of a most myopic sort, a simple excuse to talk only about one’s own case, only about one’s own small area of specialization. Montaigne thought it the essayist’s duty to cross boundaries, to write not as a specialist (even in himself) but as a generalist, to speak out of turn, to assume, to presume, to provoke. “Where I have least knowledge,” said the blithe Montaigne, “there do I use my judgment most readily.” And how salutary the result; how enjoyable to read—and to spar with—Montaigne’s by turns outrageous and incisive conclusions about humankind. That everything is arguable goes right to the heart of the matter.
I'd argue that this is sort of the case of Contemporary American Fiction, and perhaps also Contemporary American Poetry, and maybe even Contemporary American Politics (at least on on the Left, though this is changing). Big Claims/Ideas/Opinions/Ambitions are associated with Big Stupidity... which is generally a fair assessment: things do tend to be far more complicated than, say, Karl Rove lets on. Invading and occupying Iraq, for instance, is now sort of universally acknowledged to have been a Big Stupid Idea, and needed to be thought through in a way way more nuanced manner. In itself this, however, doesn't mean a) that there aren't Big Ideas that are true or, more importantly, b) that posing nuanced rhetorical points in the guise of Big Ideas / Claims / Statements doesn't have some sort of big payoff, even if those Big Ideas are revised / undermined / deconstructed / found to be utterly false and stupid in the process.

But at least in that case you have people's attention... Gomez Addams is the most important American Intellectual of the 20th Century!


See? This claim is false (the most important American Intellectual of the 20th century is clearly Frasier Crane), but at least I have your attention.

And I'm actually sort of serious about Frasier--Frasier Crane was the Clinton-era image of what an intellectual is (snooty, effete, urban, bi-coastal, bi-curious (?), cheese-eating, nauseating, utterly horrible), an image turned against the Left by Rove and our Cowboy President in the 2000 and 2004 elections. Look, for instance, at this picture of Frasier pompously lecturing Eddie-the-Dog on the historical determinations of liberal bio-politics and how it caused Hilary Clinton's 1994 proposal for universal health care to self-destruct in the face of the slanderous attacks of Rush Limbaugh. Who would you side with in this debate: the pretentious and boring and weird-looking Frasier (the liberal intellectual), or the cute and likable Eddie-the-Dog (who is, by analogy, conservative)?

Is it any coincidence that Kelsey Grammer is Completely Conservative? Is it totally paranoid to think this? Is it utterly paranoid to have written an all-but-completed 722 page PhD dissertation applying the theoretical work of Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Rancière and Ernesto Laclau to Frasier, Seasons 3-6? But let's move on.

When Nehring says that everything is arguable, she is admitting that everything is rhetorical. It strikes me as odd when people (rightly or wrongly, from a scientific standpoint) apply the analogy of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle (that the act of measuring fundamentally alters what's being measured) to language and the things that human beings do in the world, and immediately retreat, as though what's being measured were something Sacred. Of course, sometimes that thing being measured IS sacred and worth preserving (e.g. a culture being prodded by anthropologists). But in a society like the U.S. where everything has always already been tampered with, things (the sorts of things you'd write an essay about) aren't sacred--they're determined by the manner in which we frame discussions around them.

That's why Nehring's essay is so great--because she pinpoints the fact that our discussions / analyses / narratives about most things are unbelievably timid and gentle and wimpy. I'd argue (hell, I AM arguing) that the indirect effect of this timidity is an unconscious reverence for the object being discussed.

And what is unexamined reverence for what exists if not Conservatism?

Seriously?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

On Ngugi's "On the Abolition of the English Department"; or, Big Ideas (Don't Get Any)

Here's something Shelley wrote a few weeks ago... we haven't posted it because it's a huge subject that deserves a whole book, but here you are. Or, as Shelley would put it, thou art there!

-Tamilda

Since Cleveland lost game 7 of the T-Ball ALCS (erroneously, I might add--Kenny Lofton was clearly safe at 2nd, and would have scored, which clearly would have changed the entire dynamic of the game... Manny, for instance, would have been bummed out and not actually run after that ball in left--he would have walked to it, as he did in Cleveland, and begun listening to his iPod for the rest of the game), I've had a lot of extra time to read. And in two of these books I've noticed that I--I, the swirling collection of atoms our habits of language deem Shelley--was quoted in the first couple of pages. In his Falling Man Don Delillo discusses a postcard from Rome that someone sent him with the title of my Revolt of Islam. The character gets this postcard and naturally associates it with 9/11 (since you Americans associate everything with that day), ignoring that my title refers more to Islam qua "submission" (i.e., a revolt of submission--along with Thoreau, this poem was an inspiration Gandhi's non-violent revolutions) than Islam qua religion. Delillo clearly hadn't read it, and was making reference to it solely for a cheap intellectual gag. And it worked--I totally gagged when I read it.

The other book is Kim Stanley Robinson's Sixty Days and Counting, the final volume of his trilogy about ecological disaster... but more about that in the near future. I'm about a third of the way through, and will write a whole review of it once I finish. (In any case, let's just say that Robinson quotes me correctly, and has been quoting poems as obscure as Epipsychidion since his early works).

So what else have I been reading? The incomparable Ngugi, for one. This, over and over, in particular:

"On the Abolition of the English Department"

Here's Ngugi, from the manifesto he and his colleagues used to restructure the "English" department at his university in Kenya in the sixties, when all that was taught was Kipling and H. Rider Haggard and Shakespeare and Milton and my own dear co-opted lyric poems that I wrote when I was drunk in Italy--nothing directly relevant to lived experience in Kenya (except from the point of view of the colonizers); nothing in any way liberating (again, they weren't reading my political poetry, which let-me-tell-you is liberating as heck); nothing African:

The primary duty of any literature department is to illuminate the spirit animating a people, to show how it meets new challenges, and to investigate possible areas of development and involvement.
As far as I can tell, English departments today, in the U.S., tend not to do this. They sometimes even darken and dampen that spirit.

One thing that shocks me about the scene of Contemporary American Literature is that the people who are by definition the best trained to evaluate and discuss and analyze the literature being produced today are in many ways the furthest removed from it. Yes, removed because they--and by They I mean professors and graduate students in literature departments--are stored away in universities like chickens laying eggs, but even more because all they do all day is lay eggs. Detailed historical eggs discussing the influence of fashionable top hats on Anthony Trollope's early fiction, or complicated and wordy theoretical eggs explaining that Wordsworth could not possibly have read Spinoza's political philosophy (this is actually true--from what I knew of him, Wordsworth spent most of his time eating porridge and trimming his side-whiskers). They don't, in other words, have time to read the books that are being written today. Go to your nearest university and take a poll about how many books from the last decade they've read.

Sure, there are some who read a lot, but let's just say that I can't count how many graduate students and professors have told me, while rolling their eyes: "I haven't read a book--I mean a real book, a non-work book--in years." And why? Because (leaving aside the question of the quality or vitality of today's work) in order to get a job in academia, or to hang on to one, you don't have time to read today's fiction. Thus what calls itself the left's vanguard is cowed by brute capitalism into reading about the influence of the New Deal on the marginalia of Theodor Dreiser, or the influence of New Porridge on Wordsworth's late poetry (hint: it was very influential). In order to create and secure jobs, English departments need "slots," and have invented only two rubrics for organizing these slots: one is historical (we need a Medievalist and a Victorianist and a Modernist etc.), and the other is multicultural (we need someone to teach Asian-American lit, and someone else to do Afro-Caribbean, etc.). And the second is always drastically subordinated to the first, and is made in many ways simply auxiliary to the historical regimen of the first.

[There is a third, called Critical Theory, but, for better or worse (probably worse--seriously--just check out some contemporary historical criticism), Critical Theory is all but defunct now. It's complicated. How about let's just not go there.]

Although each of these, particularly the second (the multicultural rubric), makes some sort of sense, the dominance of the first (the rubric historical specialization) is a shame for at least two reasons. First, it makes any sort of political or social engagement they want to enact immediately distanced from the thing they're critiquing. A critique of Bush's imperialism becomes, in articles and in the classroom, an investigation of how naughty Rudyard Kipling was for writing about India in that way. An exploration of Palestinian suicide bombings becomes a close reading of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, written a hundred years ago.

The second reason that it is a shame that English departments aren't vitally engaged with the literature of our (well, your) times is that it makes today's literature worse. In my times, if you wrote a poem or a novel you had to worry about reviews of it from Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Leigh Hunt or the wankers over at the Edinburgh Review--they were wankers, but they were smart wankers. Boy were they wankers... But anyways who do you have to worry about today? Oprah? Michio Kakutani and the people at the NY Times? Have you actually read the NYT Books Section lately? It makes me want to drown all over again.

I would say that even more than MFA programs, one reason that today's fiction is so pallid and thin and--dare I say it--anti-intellectual is that criticism has been disengaged from fiction. In a certain sense. I think you could argue that contemporary fiction is operating according to an outmoded notion of criticism--one which values craft far more highly than ideas, particularly big ones. The motto being Big Ideas (Don't Get Any), and the result being perfect little self-contained $14.00 books that risk nothing.

And as a precursor to my conclusion: think about the American Left's current state in those terms.

At its core Contemporary American Fiction is far more closely aligned with journalism than with anything like literature or a history of ideas, and values the representation of experience more highly than the creation of experience and the presentation of thought. It values, I (Shelley, ahem) would argue, the representation and transcription of an agreed-upon reality more highly than it does creation or risk or creativity. This is problematic.

Let's look again at Ngugi's definition of what a literature department should do:
The primary duty of any literature department is to illuminate the spirit animating a people, to show how it meets new challenges, and to investigate possible areas of development and involvement.
Clearly, our departments in the U.S. don't do this--they don't even come close. But what if we turn it around, and try to figure out what literature itself should do according to Ngugi. Shouldn't literature, under this idea, present the spirit animating a people? Does today's fiction do this? Does it have within it something resembling an animating spirit?

Where's the spirit!

Doesn't today's fiction more often than not present us with the spirit disanimating or oppressing a people without giving us the other half--the resistance? Maybe it's worth thinking about William Faulkner's definition of the artist:
The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.
Is it life and spirit that today's writers are arresting, or simply an agreed upon image of life? Are they conveying spirit to us, or are they conveying the experience of experience to us? It's not that one (vital vital vital) aspect of literature shouldn't be the representation of our lived and perhaps agreed upon reality. It should, obviously and like journalism (which is also vital vital vital), do that. Fiction should shine its light upon the darkened corners of our society (e.g. the modes of life of the disenfranchized), but it should also do more than that--it should urge the reader, while the light's still there, to walk into that corner and do something. Literature that merely represents and transcribes that reality can't do that--it lacks the spirit and energy to impel anyone to do anything. It is not, in other words, creative.

Here's a thought experiment. I just went to a lecture on the philosopher Immanuel Kant's anti-war thought and writing and rhetoric. It was great--it showed how Kant grappled with the beaten down spirit of his times (Prussia had been at war for roughly 150 years) and tried to awaken a new spirit of Enlightenment and progress. It showed how Kant wrestled with the question of whether violence is justifiable in the name of a Greater Good, and whether something like the French Revolution could really free anyone from anything. It was fascinating.

But here's the thought experiment: how many contemporary American authors could you imagine actually going to that lecture? Any? And keep in mind that Kant isn't just some philosopher, but is arguably a) the most influential philosopher in the past 250 years; b) the ur-thinker of Romanticism, which gave us the form of the nation state that we live in today; and c) really fucking smart. What author would go to a lecture on Kant? (A lecture given, by the way, by someone called perhaps the smartest living commentator on Kant--it wasn't totally high brow and snooty. It was something anyone with a little philosophy under their belts, as in Philosophy 101, could handle). Would David Foster Wallace? Paul Auster? Jane Smiley... maybe? The people from McSweeney's would be fleeing. Aimee Bender would be heading for the hills. Steve Almond would be tearing his hair out--and by hair, I mean his Lush Thicket of Chest Fro, which would be incredibly painful: I guarantee that's how much he hates thinking about Kant.

And why not? Should they go to a lecture on Kant? Is it important? Why is it so hard to imagine a contemporary writer making it a priority to think about modernity's most influential philosopher? Isn't this a weird question? Is it one we should be asking? Is it, in any manner, pressing?

Alternate thought experiment: what non-American authors would go to the Kant lecture? And before you answer, look at that picture of the huge stack of books sculpture in the middle of Berlin: KANT, BRECHT, MARX, GOETHE, and even friggin' HEGEL. Could you imagine that sort of thing in America?

CUSSLER
CRICHTON
TIMOTHY McSWEENEY
RICE
friggin' DAN BROWN

And why not? Lisa Simpson spotting a copy of Gravity's Rainbow in somebody's backpack in an obscure episode of the Simpsons isn't quite the same thing as stacking up a huge pile of books in the middle of your city. If you go to a bookstore in a lot of other countries, even something like the equivalent of a Borders of Barnes and Noble, you'll find a very different dynamic at work from what you find in the U.S. On the tables in Cuspide, a chain in Buenos Aires (where Tamilda and myself passed most of last year), you'll find that the display tables have yes, Harry Potter and Dan Brown, but also: Borges and Cortázar and José Donoso; and Spinoza and Foucault and friggin' Hegel; and poetry; and Marx; and other really smart authors. There're whole tables devoted to philosophy, and poetry, and literary fiction. Why do you have to go to an independent bookstore in the U.S. to find anything resembling what you find in the generic bookstore-next-to-the-megaplex-movie-theater in BsAs? Is this a problem? Is asking this sort of question simply elitism, or is it something else? Does having something like Amazon where you can order any book in the world make up for the communal (well, capitalist) display of new translations of Kant?

It seems to me that the problem comes from both sides: English Departments are stuck in the past, and can launch their progressive attacks on The Powers That Be only indirectly, from trenches dug several hundred years back; and contemporary fiction writers by and large, to put it bluntly, lack depth and creativity and, above all, curiosity. Both need to be reworked--in tandem. And don't get me wrong--I'm not saying that Michael Chabon should be going to more lectures on Kant or reading more Karl Marx. What I'm saying is that those sorts of Big Ideas can provide a model for today's Big Ideas, but there can be others that are less securely tied to "the Canon" or Snooty Intellectual History--take, for example, Ngugi's most recent book, the Wizard of the Crow. Or his other books, like the Devil on the Cross. These are books designed to be read by Kenyan peasants and intellectuals both--they're simultaneously very readable and hilarious and sophisticated and politically and intellectually daring. Hell, he went to jail for those ideas.

And of course, there are exceptions in the U.S.: look at someone like the late Edward Said; or someone like David Foster Wallace, who tricks people into thinking. Or the poet Tom Sleigh, who knows more about ancient Greece and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze than almost anyone I've ever met. Or Denis Johnson's ambitious rethinking of Vietnam qua allegory for American imperialism. But still, aren't these people the exception rather than the rule? And aren't they all over the age of 45?

And isn't this problem (or crisis?) in Contemporary American Fiction somehow merely a subset of the crisis facing Contemporary American Left? That is, that all of the Big Ideas come from the Right? Invading Iraq; Obliterating Our Public Education System and Turning it into a Private One; Ruining Medicare and Privatizing All Health Care; Invading Iran--these are F******* Huge Ideas! It's as if any sort of Political Will on the Left has undermined itself and taken its task to be one of defense. John Kerry, for example, is only just now fighting back against the Swftboaters who helped ruin his 2004 campaign! And how was he attacked: for taking a principled stance against Vietnam (by the Swiftboaters), and for being an East Coast "Liberal" "Intellectual" by Bush. Is it wrong to associate Bush's anti-intellectualism with the implicitly anti-intellectual (if anti-Bush) nature of today's fiction? Is it utterly elitist to ask this question?

Glimmer of Hope: I can, actually, imagine some contemporary writers attending a lecture on Kant, or thinking seriously about something like the French Revolution, and they're far more influential than anyone I've named so far: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Just read their books, and watch their shows. But isn't it weird that it's people on TV carrying the torch of something resembling the Enlightenment, or a popular intellectual movement, rather than literature? And are they, really?

Wow, how snooty and polemical was that! Here is my dog.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Steve Almond's The Evil BB Chow and the Inexplicable Evils of Way Too Much SpongeBob SquarePants

Tamilda the 10yr Old Genius talking. Before beginning this, let me put both hands on the table, palms up. There they are. If you look closely, you'll notice chocolate smudged across my fingerprints. Sweet gourmet whorls sweetened by gourmet truffles imported from Seattle and placed in my palm by none other than Steve Almond. It was, clearly, a ploy, an attempt to butter me up. And it worked. Endorphins, weeks after the fact, still swirl through my whorls and brain and judgment, and this review will be sweeter than it would have been. So here we go.

Steve Almond is true to his name. In other words, he's nuts. Yes, he distributes truffles at his readings, but that's just plain charming. The nuts part is when he yells at people to not stand up and he means it. Or when a woman in the back of the bookstore is doing yoga and he screams out YES! YOU GET YOUR YOGA ON! I LOVE IT! like Dane Cook yelling about how THERE'S ONLY ONE OCTOBER!!! (The woman doing yoga during the reading, by the way, also appeared to be nuts--she claimed, for example, to have been hit on and leered at repeatedly by Kurt Vonnegut, and demanded that Almond use that information to instantaneously reevaluate his outspoken liking of Vonnegut). Another thing that was nuts about Almond: the sudden and frequent appearance of the author's quote unquote Lush Thicket of Chest Fro. Meaning that in the middle of the reading he would spontaneously pull the neck of his shirt all the way down to his belly button to reveal to us, an audience of good humored literature nerds, his Lush Thicket of Chest Fro. Also nuts: the point where he began to read something entitled quote unquote Hand Job, stopped, looked out into the audience and asked whether there were any children and whether he should edit his reading and, seeing only three children (including myself), said, well, whatever, and continued reading Hand Job, unedited.

He is, in other words, an utterly tremendous and entertaining reader. I mean seriously, what other writer would show you their Lush Thicket of Chest Fro? Thomas Pynchon? Margaret Atwood?

OK, OK, anything's possible. I've heard the stories about the debauches in Manhattan Beach and Toronto.

And yes, I do know that Mario Vargas Llosa has actually been arrested for flashing his Sultry Latin Thicket at unsuspecting listeners at a reading in Japan. Fine. Point taken.

But what author would repeatedly flash their Chest Fro at you AND give you gourmet truffles painstakingly carted from Seattle to Los Feliz? Only a true nut: Steve Almond.

OK, I've tipped my chocolate smudged hand, and now I can be objective: Steve Almond is one of the most dynamic and interesting and entertaining authors I've ever seen. If he comes to your town: go see him and eat his truffles and gaze admiringly at his Thicket.

Don't, however, read his books.

"Why? He seems so great."

Well, he sort of is great. But, again, his writing... his writing is basically exactly like his talking. Except that when you're reading he's not there yelling at you to sit sown, and there's no crazy woman next to him doing yoga, and you're not up past your bedtime, and it gets old pretty quick. It's actually sort of worse than his talking--maybe four times during the night he'd read a sentence, stop, repeat the sentence, and say What a Horrible Sentence! I Can't Believe I Wrote That!--except that when you're reading he's not there saying Whoa! What Was I Thinking? Imagine, for instance, attending a 10+ hour stand-up act; or watching every SpongeBob SquarePants episode in a row; or eating all of your Halloween candy by 2pm on November 1st. Steve Almond's books are sort of like that. They're fun at first, but ultimately they're empty calories.

Huh?

Almond's writing is basically candy for people between 15 and 40. It's full of weird little details about sex and relationships and things you're never quite sure about and deeply deeply want to know about and talk about and learn about... but he doesn't really tell you anything conclusive or interesting about these things, and so you keep reading, not quite believing that Steve Almond could be as nuts as he is and not say anything Loud and Clear and Real about those things about which we can only wonder and whisper.

Which explains why he's been published in basically every publication ever: from The New Yorker to Harper's to Vending Machine Quarterly. Because story by story, he's interesting enough. But after a whole book of those sordid little bits of info you feel like you shouldn't really know about you feel sort of awful and hollow, like how a kid does after watching an afternoon's worth of SpongeBob, or like a twenty-something does after watching a day of Sex and the City.

When you look up from reading his book it's like it's gotten dark without your knowing it, and now you have to turn the lights on.

OK, that's a lot of analogies of what it's like to read Steve Almond, so let's actually try reading him. This is from the title story, "The Evil BB Chow," and is told from the point of view of sort of a lower level Devil Wears Prada Meryl Streep CEO fashion woman who's incredibly lonely and begins falling for a bizarrely earnest (and ultimately horrible) med student:
Sadly, B.B. is not much of a kisser. He presses too hard, and doesn't know how to modulate the whole mouth-opening-tongue-moving-forward-thing. All effort and no technqiue, which is a marked difference from the guys I usually date, who generally seem to be auditioning for the well-hung/feckless love interest on Sex and the City. And yet, I can't help being flattered by his bungling persistence. If push came to shove, I could hog-tie B.B. Chow (I've got at least ten pounds on him). But there he is, groping away at my culottes, smashing his mouth against my bra-cup, whispering, "You're so sexy, how can you be so sexy?"
If this isn't a sort of meta-critical account of Almond's own writing, I don't know what it is. I don't want to carry this metaphor all the way through (if you go back and reread that passage it should be enough), since he did give me truffles, and seems like a genuinely well-intentioned guy. For instance, he quit his teaching position at Boston College when Condi Rice was made commencement speaker in 2006, accusing her of (among other things) directly lying to the American people about the threat posed by Iraq before the war. This was a good and courageous thing to do. And yet I wonder why his writing doesn't have quite the real life urgency or heft of this act.

That said, there ARE the kernels of incredibly real and touching humanity in The Evil B.B. Chow, as in the description of a young kid's inner torment after accidentally hitting another kid in the head with a baseball bat in "I am as I am"; or the thing I can't really bring myself to describe in "Skull." There are other such moments, but they tend to be moments. There should be more of those moments. Those moments should be as Thick and Lush as his Chest Fro.
(Exhibit A: Look at the neck of his shirt--it's clearly stretched out from pulling it down so much.)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Darjeeling Delimited; or Three Quirks for Mystic Monks and the Strenuous Oddity of Blue Men Hopping; Plus Undeniable Proof that Al Gore Is Running

A rather anxious Tamilda the Genius 10yr Old here, seeing as it's past one o'clock in the morning and game two of the T-Ball ALCS is tied in the 11th inning 6-6... But wait! A base hit! And now a wild pitch! 8-6 Cleveland! Darjeeling Limited catches a break! My review will be largely positive now, I anticipate... unless Cleveland wheels out a T-Ball stand named Borowski in the bottom half of the 11th. You can never trust that T-Ball stand.

OK. Darjeeling Limited is a story--wait, another base hit, 9-6!--about three brothers who have, for various reasons, become estranged after the death--and one would also assume before the death--of their father. And so, estranged, they estrange themselves from whomever they are with in Europe or the U.S. and meet up in India... for whatever reason they meet--wow! 10-6 Cleveland now!--on a train in an unnamed place. Apparently meeting in say the Bombay or Calcutta airport wouldn't have worked... Why? Because if they'd simply met in an airport then Wes Anderson wouldn't have been able to open the film with the tremendous and self-reflexive metaphor that marks the film as Anderson's own:

Wow, a home run by Gutierrez! 13-6 Cleveland!

OK, sorry. They just keep scoring runs and I feel it's my duty to record them. Anyways here's the opening to the film: Bill Murray sits in a taxi, driving through anonymous urban India, jumps out at a train station, doesn't pay the driver, grabs two old-school suitcases, and takes off at full tilt jowls jiggling huffing puffing after a departing train that seems to be pulling away from him... it's a schlubby moment, and by the time it was over I already felt tired and bored, a bit like I felt 15 minutes ago at the top of the 11th after about 11,000 foul balls.

But then: a change in the music! We remember that this is Wes Anderson, the Human Ipod. He hit shuffle and we know that something is going to happen and it does: Adrien Brody running, lither and less jowly than Murray, but with an equal number of outdated suitcases--surpassing Murray and catching up to the train, tossing his baggage on the back, hopping aboard and gazing meaningfully at, first, schlubby Murray who's been left behind and then, second, at an Indian kid, maybe 14, who's standing right beside him. The kid had watched the whole affair and hadn't lifted a finger, and before Brody walks into the train he looks the kid right in the eye, sort of like how Larry David tries to divine the truth by staring at someone's face for minutes and minutes and minutes. Brody does basically that, albeit more briefly and without the slowed down Woody Allen music, and you get the impression that what he's trying to divine isn't the Indian kid's quote unquote Otherness, but somehow his youth. That he's trying to figure out how this kid could have just stood there, stoically, the whole time and simply observed the over-obviously Oedipal struggle in which Brody had outrun Murray.

(Perhaps it's significant that at the end of the movie Jason Schwartzman--the youngest brother, a thoroughly ironized writer who's always barefoot and looks sort of like a cross between George and Ringo in their Indian days--reads the ending to one of his short stories and Brody tells him "I like how mean you are..." both in the story and in real life... Brody's character seems like he's sort of bad at being mean, that he sort of fails at it, and in doing so somehow makes his meanness worse--like how being cut by a dull blade hurts more and does more damage than being cut by a sharp one.)

In any case, it's quite an opening. It's startling. A truly brilliant example of everything that film should do. And, given it's unbelievably obvious casting of Murray as the outrun schlubb, I'm sure that Anderson wanted people to try to figure it out, to talk about it. Which I will... but maybe not in the way he expected. I expect he expected that the opening would signal a rebirth for Anderson who'd relied too long on the father-figure-ly Murray for inspiration. Indeed, it is a movie about fathers, and in an intellectual way it's sort of beautiful: there's a juxtaposed funeral of the brothers' father and the death of a little boy where the brother's mourn both the death of their father and the death of their former, feuding, childish selves; there's the meta-narratological stuff with Murray and Schwartzman; the Stones play when I was clearly expecting the Beatles; and at the end of the movie the brothers chase after a train and cast off their baggage, literally--the baggage that had been given them by their father. It all fits together.

But it doesn't quite work.

The Departed, too, is about fathers and sons, except that that movie, as they say, works. You care about the characters (some of them), and what happens to them feels somehow like it matters--matters to you, matters to them, and matters in a much bigger way. It feels as though what they're going through--their father/son/Freud issues--and how they resolve or unresolve them has consequences for humanity as a whole. Except for brief moments, The Darjeeling Limited doesn't feel consquential, and perhaps this is because its characters aren't characters, but bundles of quirks. Not bundles of quarks (though they are presumably those too), but bundles of quirks, and habits, and idiosyncracies.

A recent Atlantic Monthly article called (I can't believe I'm typing this stupid pun out) "Quirked Around" argues in a Melvin Jules Bukiet-esque manner that our culture is plagued by Quirk. And while its author, Michael Hirschorn, seems far more congenial than Melvin Jules Bukiet (he doesn't, for example, at any point in the essay advocate for the death of kittens), his point is more or less the same: that quirk is usually bad. Not always, but at least usually.

We’re drowning in quirk. It is the ruling sensibility of today’s Gen-X indie culture, defined territorially by the gentle ministrations of public radio’s This American Life; the strenuously odd (and now canceled) TV sitcom Arrested Development; the movies of Wes Anderson; Dave Eggers’s McSweeney’s Web site; the performance art, music, and writing of Miranda July; and the just-too-wacky-to-be-fully-believable memoirs of Augusten Burroughs.
I don't want to get into all of the examples that Hirschorn cites... but seriously: he finds Arrested Development quote unquote Strenuously Odd? Everything S.O. about it is simply an exaggeration of the S.O. culture we live in--A.D. didn't, for example, simply invent The Blue Man Group. There are actual Blue Men, dozens of them in a dozen cities, who hop around like lunatics playing drums the size of above-ground swimming pools. And hundreds of thousands of people have seen them and loved them--have recommended to their friends and lovers and elderly grandmothers that yes, You should go watch the blue men hop around.

So Q: what's more Strenuously Odd: a TV show that makes fun of silent Blue Men hopping around like lunatics, or the actual Blue Men hopping around and selling computer chips? I guarantee that Michael Hirschorn and his S.O., whoever that may be, have been to one of those shows and have walked out saying "that was really great" and "incredible" and "for a while I forgot they were even blue." I guarantee, in other words, that deep down Michael Hirschorn is True Blue Loony.


I mean seriously, what in the hell is this? (And remember, I'm 10, so I don't use the word "hell" lightly--you wouldn't believe what would happen if my mom or dad or Shelley found me saying much less publishing-on-the-internet this word outside a strictly theological context). So what is the Blue Man Group doing selling Intel Processors? It's economically sanctioned, socially approved MADNESS. Not quirk. It is, plain and simple, Insanity. It's Capitalism and Schizophrenia rolled into one.

Anyways, my point is that huge sweeping statements like Melvin Jules Bukiet's (Wonder Is Bad) or Hirschorn's (Quirk Has Become Strenuous) seem to a) like most sweeping statements, fall apart when actually analyzed with concrete examples--I don't really agree with the majority of Hirschorn's, for example; and b) miss something vital about our culture--neither of them really understands that there is a complex historical context governing why Quirk and Wonder are so prevalent and overworked today, and it seems impossible that any vital piece of art could overlook these contemporary obsessions, even if it ultimately rejects or modifies them. Traditional, Quirk-Allergic Art can't stop the capitalist and schizophrenic drumbeat of the Blue Man Group.

(And worse: perhaps nothing can--but that's beside this point).

But back to India and Darjeeling Limited. Back specifically to a blue man named Vishnu. If Vishnu is the Preserver, then I would say that what Wes Anderson needs is Shiva, the Destroyer. He needs a flaming blue man to dance his last two movies to smithereens and begin again. Hirschorn is right on this: Anderson is drowning in Quirk. I don't want to give anything away, but I'll say that the outrunning of the schlubby Bill Murray, the tossing aside of the patriarchal baggage in The Darjeeling Limited to me rings false. It is a simulacrum of a rebirth, of a starting-over. The film is aware of the falsity of an outsider trying to attain spiritual enlightenment through the half-assed appropriation of a foreign religion, and yet... it holds out hope. Here, look: Shiva destroys The Entire Universe, and I think that maybe that's what Wes Anderson needs to do. To destroy the fictive universe he created in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums (two, by the way, of the defining movies of our times, in my humble opinion), and begin anew.

Speaking of failed rebirths, I guarantee that Al Gore is going to run for President. The Proof? Well, he just put out three video blog thingies on hot political issues (Iraq, Domestic Wiretapping, Universal Health Care). But couldn't he just be employing his newly gained influence in the wake of his Nobel Peace Prize? Couldn't he just be scaring Hilary and Obama into taking stronger, more progressive stands on these issues? Yes, perhaps, except that look: these new videos are BORING BORING BORING. The Old Gore Is Back! Go Gore 2008!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

In Rainbows, DFW's Oblivion and Comically Oversized Underpants

Donald R. Hipsterdoofus reporting for duty... and by duty I mean that I am currently listening to Radiohead's 24 minute old In Rainbows
which is, when you think about it, the only truly liberal--(I'm using this in the traditional Lockean sense not in the PoMo Flip-Floppy We-Say-Progressive-But-We-Mean-Locke But-We-Really-Don't Because-We're-Not-Quoting-Or-Referencing-Him-Outright)--and just and righteous thing anyone could be doing at the moment.

How, today, could the revolution begin without a theme song? And by theme song I mean a long and involved concept album. How could the revolution begin without that? It couldn't. It couldn't and it won't. And that is why the most politically efficacious thing to do this minute is to go out and pay your 45p, download the new Radiohead, and read Theodor Adorno's essays on music over and over and over until you look out the window and the Revolution is walking by and a cute girl with a copy of that sleek cool $56 Verso edition of The Communist Manifesto sewn into her jeans jacket lowers her half-ironic white aviators and winks unironically at you and sees you're reading Adorno and you know that you've done your part for the Cause and the Event and that life is really like the Dreamers which I thought was very cool and revolutionary indeed.

The album so far, after 26 minutes, is, well, great. And that's a hard thing for me to say, and I'm sure that you'll take it ironically, and while yes [eyes rolling] of course I'm being ironic when I write quote unquote great, I DO actually mean it. Meaning the irony.

My only complaint is that Radiohead took the greatest song title ever ("Big Ideas (don't get any)") which has Irony and Parentheses All the Fuck Over the Place and they changed it to the title "Nude." Which, don't get me wrong, is sort of ironic because it is sort of "denuded" of its original title, and I love nudity (cf. the Dreamers again)... but only sort of. Nudity is what you dress up. Nudity is what you Adorn. O, I don't know. Maybe that's why they changed the title. So that the new one is like a naked paper doll that we can dress up with our own skinny jeans and ironic t-shirts.

Anyways, I'm supposed to write about David Foster Wallace's short story collection Oblivion, which is ironic because it's like half-ironic/half-sincere and can only arrive at that sincerity through like halving the irony like Achilles and the Tortoise chopping onions or whatever they do that's paradoxical, and the irony is there (the most recent irony, the one where I just said "which is ironic"--that irony) because in the previous paragraphs I was talking about irony and whatever, but I was talking about it sincerely (mostly).

And anyways Tamilda assigned me to write this thing like 4 years ago so I'm just getting to it now which is a) a miracle given the dissertation revisions I'm doing right now (which were due seven years ago); and b) it's actually better because I think our culture is only now ready for my kritik of it.

So here it is:

Or wait, our culture's not ready. Plus I'm listening to this Radiohead and reading Adorno and waiting for the Revolution and the Girl with the cool Sunglasses to walk by and head down to Café Intelligentsia which is really very trendy and down the street from me. I once saw, for example, Wes Anderson drinking macchiatos there with the lead singer of Blonde Redhead and this really cool lit. theory guy Pheng Cheah from Hong Kong and someone who I think was probably Dennis Kucinich. I think it was them. I was running late to a hair appointment and didn't get a good look but anyways you get the idea of what sort of crowd hangs out there and I'm usually there too.

Eyes-Rolling-Anyways in the Name of the Revolution I have to recycle my assignment and submit this parody of DFW I found in my inbox from waybackwhen... I sort of assume Shelley and Tamilda wrote it, since they seem to know so much about underpants--(e.g. the lyric drama they're reputedly drafting called Prometheus Underpants). Supposedly they won something--I think a book, how ironic--using some stupid pseudonym with it over at the Howling Fantods but whatever big deal:

RE: THE AFOREMENTIONED MATTER OF THE COMICALLY OVERSIZED UNDERPANTS

By (apparently) David Foster Wallace

The problem didn't so much concern the origin of the underpants that the Senior White House Aide was found sniffing—the origin was verified by the DNA tests that the Senior White House Aide had ordered be performed on the traces of vaginal mucus found within the underpants on account of his [i.e. the SWHA's] own doubts concerning the origins of the underpants he was so keen on sniffing—so much as it concerned the incredible size of the underpants that were found draped across the SWHA's head. In other words, after the results of the DNA tests were leaked to the quote unquote Liberal Media, and after the subsequent public and scientific verifications of said leaked results, no one doubted that the underwear had been, if not provably owned and purchased by the Young Female Celebrity Who Shall Remain Nameless, at the very least worn for an extended period by the Aforementioned YFCWSRN. But again, that was not really what concerned people. What people were really scratching their heads over also wasn't why a SWHA would want to sniff the AYFCWSRN's aforementioned underpants (nearly eighty percent of males aged 14-65 would have sniffed said underpants if given the chance, CNN polls reported), but why, when the AYFWSRN generally appeared so fit and lithe, the AYCFWSRN's underpants were so friggin' huge. As in comically huge. As in probably too big for any
or most NFL players or sumo wrestlers to wear. As in if you were stranded at sea on a small raft with only one piece of clothing you would want those underpants because those underpants would make a big ass sail and then some. But the AYFCW—For the Purposes of Keeping Fiction an Autonomous Realm Not Wholly Dependent on the Quote Unquote Real World—SRN said the SWHA had politely and through secret but reputable channels asked for her underpants, and that those (i.e. the comically large ones found on the SWHA's head) were indeed her underpants, which, after the leaking of the DNA results, no one could rationally deny. And yet the size of the underpants was so inordinate that people did begin denying that the underpants were really those of the AYFCW—FtPoKFaARNWDo i.e. Subordinated to tQURW—SRN, and began suggesting that perhaps they had been given to the SWHA only in jest so as to openly mock his underpants sniffing fetish and perhaps demonstrate to him that the manner in which he perceived the world was all out of proportion, that a celebrity's underpants were simply underpants and not some quote unquote Big Deal or something to risk one's career and dignity over. This, said some, was maybe what the AYFCW—FtPoKFaARNWDoi.e.SttQURW—SRN was trying to signal to the SWHA by sending him such comically oversized underpants. But, given the AYFCW—FtPoKFaARNWDoi.e.SttQURW—SRN's quote unquote shallow Hollywood personality and her quote unquote Utter Imperviousness to All Forms of Subversive Irony or Deconstructive Play or What Have You, the case for irony was a hard one to make. Which is why some have suggested that previous to the incident involving the enormous underpants the AYFCW—FtPoKFaARNWDoi.e.SttQURW—SRN may have in fact hired some sort of quote unquote Irony Consultant to spark interest in her public image with quote unquote Literate Hipsters and Bourgeois Intellectuals, the prime candidate for said position of delving out irony being one David Foster Wallace . The present author, WFtPoKFaARNWDoi.e.SttQURWSRN, would like to assure the well-meaning but unbelievably nosey public that David Foster Wallace has never and not even in an advisory capacity FedEx-ed comically large underpants to any public official, and would in fact much rather be on the receiving than on the advising and FedEx-ing end of such an operation:

David Foster Wallace

423 North Haberbrook Avenue

Pomona, CA 93421

This public baring of one's deepest and most intimate flaws and obsessions should relate how much the APAWFtPoKFaARNWDoi.e.SttQURWSRN (i.e. the fiction author David Foster Wallace) denies his or her involvement in the aforementioned matter of the comically oversized underpants, just as it should conclusively demonstrate how he or she is a thinking and breathing and above all feeling human being not wholly consumed and overwhelmed by the aforementioned subversive irony, which does tend to consume and overwhelm if not properly pruned.

********************************


Here is my dog, Count Virilio Hipsterdoofus of Montreal:

nB: This costume is being worn at least 65% ironically.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Denis Johnson's Big Plagiarism, Bad Times of Irma Baumlein, and Judith Miller's Wealth of Hamsters


Hello, Tamilda here. We've all been busy this past week--the days are just packed... like sardines in a tin can. Some of us revising dissertations even though we've dropped out of graduate school (Donald Hipsterdoofus); some of us (Christianne Alarmist-Librarian) trying to decipher whether Borges' Ficciones is as obscene as she thinks it is (it isn't); others of us are simply wallowing (Richard Schmooze) or seething (Michael Flatly-Abrasive) or grocery shopping (Gloria Oldschool); and others of us are following the Major League T-Ball playoffs very closely (PB Shelley and myself)... on ESPN Gamecast's tiny 80's-style Tiger Electronics-quality screens.

The last case (mine, Shelley's) is arguably the worst of them all, seeing as neither I nor Shelley have the funds to purchase the MLT-B Post-Season package, even though it only costs $9.95. Someone, it seems, purchased with this month's allowance a) a two hundred year old copy of John Newton's The Return to Nature, or, a defence of the vegetable regimen; with some account of an experiment made during the last three or four years in the author's family; and b) a pouch of Big League Chew the size of a mailman's bag. I won't say who did this, but I will say: 1) Big League Chew is not a vegetable; and 2) you are not, PB, supposed to eat or digest Big League Chew.

But we *have* been reading: on our bookshelves and bedside tables right not are: Steve Almond's The Evil B.B. Chow (which I just finished); Anne Wroe's Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself; David Foster Wallace's Oblivion; and The Return to Nature, or, a defence of the vegetable regimen which Christianne Alarmist-Library is checking for obscenity--she's found, apparently, over seventy instances so far... which is, coincidentally, the number of times cucumbers are mentioned in the book + the number of times pumpkins are mentioned. I'm guessing it's a Halloween thing (cf. her comment about her dog, Samson, in her post on The Yiddish Policemen's Union).

And Denis Johnson's 624 page epic chronicle of Vietnam War espionage and recent-past analogy for our current quagmire in Iraq, Tree of Smoke, which I'm halfway through. Now, because of the novel's justifiably intense / disturbing / highly intellectual nature I wanted to write a funny and ironic blog, so I began searching on YouTube for old clips from Reading Rainbow. But what I found was dead serious. What I found was outright plagiarism. Just look at this review of the novel Bad Times for Irma Baumlein from the 1979 Reading Rainbow rival called Hooray for Reading:



The similarities between Bad Times for Irma Baumlein and Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke aren't simply uncanny: they're illegal. I think that Denis Johnson could, at the very least, have changed the names in his novel. I mean seriously, who would believe that a Vietcong double agent was named Irma Baumlein? That name is either the work of a very incompetent spy, or a greedy plagiarist author. I'll leave it to you to decide which is more likely.

And this isn't simply a case of someone "borrowing" a plot and translating it into a different context in the way that, say, James Joyce employed Homer's Odyssey as the template for Ulysses. The case of Tree of Smoke is different because, as should be clear from the clip above,
Bad Times for Irma Baumlein is already a scathing critique of the violent ideologies that led up to the Vietnam War. Cf. for instance the place where the twerpier girl is bragging about the how many hamsters she has: Wealth of Hamsters -> Wealth of Nations -> Adam Smith -> Volume II of Marx's Kapital critiquing Smith -> Struggle between Capitalism and Communism -> Cold War -> Bay of Pigs -> JFK -> JFK (1991) -> Kevin Bacon -> Balto (1995) -> Bob Hoskins -> Paris Je T'Aime (2006) -> Willem Dafoe -> Platoon (1986) -> Vietnam War (1959-75)--the Invisble Hand of the Author doesn't really get any heavier than that... it's all there in Irma Baumlein, and more subtly I might add.

Perhaps Denis Johnson's only true innovation in Tree of Smoke is it's commentary on our most current imperial venture, the Iraq War. At the book's emotional climax the novel's clear stand in for Dick Cheney writes home to his mother in that plaintive voice he so often uses:
Dear Mother, I'm in a lot of trouble and I wish you were here. I told a lie and stole a dummy. What'm I gonna do? I'm in so much trouble (p. 322).
I, personally, wept for Dick Cheney at this moment. Why had he so long ago bragged to Saddam Hussein that he possessed the "biggest doll in the whole world"? And look what it led him to do--he stole a dummy (George Bush), told even bigger lies, invaded a country, and still doesn't have all that Saddam had. Not the four brothers or two sisters; not the more or less stable (if oppressive) relations between Sunis and Shiites; not the little dog who can roll over, shake hands and jump over a stick; not the relative regional stability; not the functioning electric grid and running water; and even not the wealth of hamsters. All he has left is the big dummy, a 9 trillion dollar deficit, and a 9% approval rating.

And what good is a big dummy if you've got no money and no friends? Ask Irma Baumlein.

Oh, and what's the other little girl's name in clip? Who, in other words, did Dick Cheney tell his first big lie to? It's Judy Miller... Go back and watch the clip, I'm not joking.

Now that I think about it, maybe a little plagiarism is OK once in a while.

More on this book soon.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Melvin Jules Bukiet: Advocate for the the Death of Kittens. And Smoking.

Tamilda the Genius 10yr Old, here. Jessa Crispin over at Bookslut alerted me to an article at the American Scholar written by someone named Melvin Jules Bukiet. The article is called "Wonder Bread," with a subtitle thingy that runs like so: Come with us to a place called Brooklyn, where the stories are half-baked and their endings bland and soft. The subtitle thingy is, I take it, some sort of play on words, though I'm unsure what part of the loaf of Wonder Bread is the story-part and what part is the ending-part. I would imagine that the story-part is kind of a state of the loaf (i.e., being half-baked) whereas the ending-part is the loaf, or is the subjective experience of what it is to eat the loaf. It is very complicated and doughy pun / metaphor /analogy, almost as complex and doughy as the author's name: Melvin Jules Bukiet.

Anyways, I have read Melvin Jules Bukiet's article and it seems to me that the stone cold kernel of its argument is this: we need more novels and short stories where people smoke cigarettes and kittens are accidentally killed.

OK, this might just be a corollary kernel of the essay's even more central and even more unbreakable kernel: Wonder Is Bad. Wonder Is Bad, and any author who employs wonder to any end that doesn't illuminate the true and real fact that human experience is Utterly Hopeless and Horrible is worse than Bad, they are Phony. A few times the essay wavers on this point, and tries to finesse it, but I find it hard to believe that anyone would walk away from the essay thinking that Melvin Jules Bukiet's point isn't larger and loftier and darker than merely that a certain sort of trendy book is misguided.

As Zizek tells us, kernels tend to be indivisible, and therefore I will try to do something entirely else with Melvin Jules Bukiet's stone cold kernel. I am going to heat it up. I am going to heat it up, roll it around in some oil, and then I am going to sit and wait and watch until (POP!) it pops out of the pan, and then I'm going to pick it up, walk into my yard and throw it to a bird who will lift it into the sky.

But back to the smoking and the accidentally murdered kittens. Melvin Jules Bukiet's essay proceeds by examining a vast number of works written by young hipsterish Brooklynites or Brooklynites-in-absentia (Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg, Alice Sebold, &c) and comes to the conclusion that all of their novels fit a certain predictable structure: something terribly bad and sad happens at the beginning (9/11, a girl is raped and murdered, the Holocaust), but by the end the characters in the novel somehow learn to cope with that awful event via some form of the fantastic acting in reality, be it relayed via magical realism or unbelievable coincidence or whatever. The idea being that these young authors offer an escape from the horrors of reality rather than spending 400 pages facing up to that reality.

But what about the kittens? Woven through the mean-spirited critiques of these books by young authors is Melvin Jules Bukiet's genealogy of the Brooklyn Book of Wonder (he drops the Wonder Bread pun / metaphor / analogy as quickly as he picks it up), citing Michael Chabon and JD Salinger and Paul Auster and even Günter Grass. And Jonathan Lethem. Melvin Jules Bukiet seems to like Lethem, a little, and argues that the "BBoW authors have adopted Lethem as a surrogate father," and that "he ought to disinherit them." Why? Because they, his imitators, have somehow "carried [him] away" with wonder.

So OK, here's the kittens:
Moreover, Lethem doesn’t pull punches. On the second page of The Fortress of Solitude, a kitten is accidentally killed while the protagonist’s mother smokes cigarettes. Unless it’s Mr. Harvey in The Lovely Bones, no one smokes in BBoWs. They’d as soon smoke as fail to recycle. Also, a daring flight at the end crashes.
I copied and pasted this quote so that I could really lean into it, so that I could smash it to pieces, so that I--Tamilda, the 10yr Old Genius--could pretend to be like Edward Norton in Fight Club and destroy something beautiful. Except that as I reread it I'm no longer angered--this passage is not like Jared Leto's face. It's more like Meat Loaf's, and that's sad. In fact, Melvin Jules Bukiet's whole essay reminds me not of Wonder Bread, but of Meat Loaf. Yes, the singer / actor / pitiful victim of testicular cancer, but also the food, the actual loaf of meat. It's heavy, it's eerily dark, and I almost never want to eat it. It's Wonder Bread gone horribly, crazily wrong.

So let's leave aside the fact that a kitten being accidentally killed while a mother smokes is a far weaker "punch" than the opening of The Lovely Bones that Melvin Jules Bukiet describes earlier in his essay--that is, the opening where a young girl somehow magically survives or transcends her rape and murder. Let's leave aside the fact that this part of his argument undermines itself and let's get to the indivisible kernel of my own argument.

My central hypothesis is this: Melvin Jules Bukiet is a nerd. A big one. And not one of those kind of cool half-ironic Wonder-Bread-t-shirt-wearing Brooklynite nerds, but like an old school Revenge of the Nerds-type nerd. I know, it shocked me too. I never would have guessed it based on his name. And yet look at this picture:


At the beginning of his essay Melvin Jules Bukiet is very interested in letting us know that he knows about all of the hip streets and neighborhoods and landmarks in Brooklyn. At first he just drops names (Prospect Park, Fort Greene) but quickly enough he just outright lists places in order to establish his credibility. You should notice, however, what is conspicuously absent from his essay: the nerd picture. It would ruin his whole ethos and clue us into the fact that with a name like Melvin he must be good friends with wedgies. I am imagining an entire dresser drawer filled with underwear elastic thrown to him by bullies. Heck, I bet even the half-ironic Wonder Bread t-shirt nerds gave this guy wedgies when he was young and--and I can't tell this for certain, it is just another hypothesis--I bet that they still do.

If Jonathan Safran Foer [cf. the never-used Freaks and Geeks photo below] is giving you wedgies and you are a college professor of course your world view is going to be bleak as heck. The kid in my class who got the wedgie at the beginning of the year didn't eat his lunch for a week, and that was his first wedgie. Imagine what a lifetime of wedgies would do to you! It would make you conclude your essays like this:
In fact, trauma’s never overcome. That’s what defines it. Your father is dead, or your mother, and so are most of the Jews of Europe, and the World Trade Center’s gone, and racism prevails, and sex murders occur. What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.
Here's the problem with this logic: the real, the whole real, hasn't already happened. Yes, we are shaped by our personal and collective histories, sometimes irrevocably. But not always. The real is not something that is always already predetermined, that we can only watch from the sidelines, keeping a scorecard. That's not how it works, because we are part of the game, and because the game isn't over.

My friend Percy Shelley always tells me this when we're losing in t-ball, and the authors that Melvin Jules Bukiet cites at the beginning of the essay believe this too. What is the last word of Joyce's Ulysses? It is Yes. In the end Molly returns to a memory of when she and Bloom were young and half in love--not half in love with easeful Death like melancholy Keats, but half in love with love and hope and possibility and, yes, Wonder. If there's nothing to hope for, to wonder about, we should ask what is life worth living for and seriously consider the late Kurt Vonnegut's idea that human beings should just leave.

At a reading at Skylight Books in Los Feliz last night the fiction writer Steve Almond made the convincing case that in spite of the sadness, Vonnegut is actually an extremely hopeful writer--that he helps us through trauma via the "courage of his imagination" (Almond's words), and that this is why people like Jon Stewart have thanked Vonnegut for making high school livable. It seems to me that this is what fiction should do: it should open our eyes to the horrors and truths of Pandora's box, without losing sight of the hope, wonder, buried at the bottom of things.

Now, this does not mean that the books that Melvin Jules Bukiet reviews aren't employing Wonder irresponsibly. (I haven't read all of the novels of the last few years that Melvin Jules Bukiet refers to, and hadn't planned on doing so any time soon--there are other books like Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke that are higher on my list. I'm not sure that people regard BBoW as anything more than wish-fulfillment-lit in the first place. In other words, it seems to me that solid American Literature won't be shaken by their, in Melvin Jules Bukiet's words, "ripples").

There is nothing more pressing than actively critiquing our fantasies, our "wonders"--I am far more than sympathetic to this cause. Without such intangible wonders eating up our time and molding our ideals we wouldn't, for example, be fighting a hopeless war in Iraq. This aspect of Melvin Jules Bukiet's argument is categorically true. Joyce, too, makes it crystal clear that things only get better after shattering the fantasy. In the Circe chapter of Ulysses Stephen Dedalus shatters the fantasy-producing gas lamp at the whorehouse with his ashplant, and it is only then that he and Bloom can commune. But the fantasy was necessary--"the true" and "the real" couldn't have come to light without the fantasy, without the gas lamp, and this is because that is how human beings experience the world. Through fiction.

It makes me wonder what Melvin Jules Bukiet's fiction must be like. Maybe I'll read it one day...

Ha!

Here are my dogs. They're great.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Christianne Alarmist-Librarian reviews Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union


I was not personally aware that the Jews had been relocated to Alaska, but I suppose it only makes sense.

The majority of my knowledge of the Jewish culture and religion comes from my husband's stories about that dreadful program on the Home Box Office Network, Curb Your Enthusiasm. I normally would never allow him to watch such a program, but my sister and her husband, who live down in liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, have strayed from our flock. If it weren't for the efforts of myself and my husband I swear that my sister and her husband would immediately divorce one another and marry the nearest person of the same sex walking down the street. Which is, as I understand it, the law in Massachusetts.

This is why it is so important that my husband watch Curb Your Enthusiasm with my brother-in-law. Because it allows them to bond, spiritually. It is our belief that just as in the time of Christ Judaism gave birth to Christianity, so too will Curb Your Enthusiasm resurrect my poor dear sister's fallen soul. As for my brother-in-law, he can go to hell for all I care. He's the one, after all, who bought the DVD's. He's the one who plucked my sister's soul from heaven and placed it in the dumpster, as one places a slim and still-fragrant orange peel on top of a heaping pile of rotting garbage (i.e. Barney Frank's congressional district).

But her peel can be saved! It's still fragrant! I've smelled it! I've smelled it in the way she washes the dishes, in the way she admonishes her husband's off-color jokes about Our President, and in the way she bites at her lower lip whenever I'm around. Her peel can be washed!

After these Curb Your Enthusiasm Saturdays my husband, too, must be washed. On the drive back to New Hampshire I make him repeat to me every blasphemous and un-Christian thing that happened in the episode. This is how I wash him.

As we leave the city he is usually deeply embarrassed, and blushes, and usually begins with the words Larry David uses. He said a swear, my husband will say. What swear, I will ask, eager to hear what swear so that I can wash it away with my, as it were, spiritual hand sanitizer. I think it was a Jewish swear--M@sh#gg@!-something. Oh dear, I say, usually while applying actual hand sanitizer to the fronts and backs of my hands, because my sister, in her spiritual neglect, keeps an absolutely filthy home.

After the first swear, usually a Jewish one, my husband and I tend to keep silent for several long minutes. But then, once we leave the city, we begin to loosen up and we become more confident in our faith, and he tells me everything that happened. Who said what, what those pagans did, how some seemingly small detail of the story loops back on itself to bite Larry in the tush at the end. By the time we roll into our driveway we're so hopped up on our faith and hand sanitizer fumes that we're practically speaking in tongues, which, with all of those Jewish swears, we sort of are. And the funniest thing is that our Enthusiasm isn't Curbed at all--it's Redoubled! I think that the PAX network should launch a counterattack on HBO called Redouble Your Enthusiasm! Now that's a show I could watch!

Wow, thinking about that show I got a little carried away with my faith there--I was picturing how heretical that episode where Larry David accidentally sets the Manger Scene on fire must have been to watch. But that's how faith works. When faith carries you away, you gotta run with it. You gotta run with it like you'd run away from a flaming Manger Scene! Ha!

I'm sorry. Let's return to Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. From what I gather this Mr. Chabon must have watched quite a bit of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I cannot say this for certain, as I do not know Mr. Chabon personally, thank God, nor have I ever seen the show. What I can say, however, is that as I read Mr. Chabon's devilishly clever descriptions of the characters in the Jewish-Alaskan town of Sitka, what I pictured was this:


A whole city full of foul-mouthed, bald, sinning, and from what I gather very Jewish, Larry Davids. Needless to say the first 50 pages were utterly horrifying. But, as happens in the car rides from Boston, I quickly regained the strength of my faith, flipped open a couple bottles of hand sanitizer, breathed in their cleansing fumes, and began rolling through chapter after chapter of Mr. Chabon's wacky narrative as though they were episodes of Seventh Heaven.

But why, you ask, would I ever even want to touch such a novel, even while wearing several differently scented layers of antibacterial hand sanitizer? Because the library where I work was going to put this book up on the shelf, without thinking. Book Sense recommended it and, sheep that they are, the other librarians ordered two copies to put up on the shelves for anyone (children, adults, Christians, Jews, Moslems) to read. Luckily I caught the two copies on the shelving cart, checked them out under the secret library account I made for just such emergencies, and reported the other librarians to the Department of Homeland Security.

And so I read it, the whole thing, every night in the bathtub surrounded by antibacterial candles and opened bottles of hand sanitizer. It took all of my faith to stand up to it and its blasphemies. During this time my husband reports that I would sometimes talk in tongues in my sleep, and when he tried to describe the noises that issued from my unconscious mouth I quickly recognized them as passages from the book. For example this one:

A mob of black-hat Jews chugs its way, a freight train of grief, from the gates of the cemetery--the house of life, they call it--up a hillside toward a hole cut into the mud. A pine box slick with rain pitches and tosses on the surf of weeping men. Satmars hold umbrellas over the heads of Verbovers. Gerers and Shtrakenzers and Viznitzers link arms with the boldness of schoolgirls on a lark. Rivalries, grudges, sectarian disputes, mutual excommunications, they've been laid aside for the day so that everyone can mourn with due passion a yid who was forgotten by them until last Friday night. Not even a yid--the shell of a yid, thinned to transparency around the hard void of a twenty-year junk habit. Every generation loses the messiah it has failed to deserve. Now the pious of the Sitka District have pinpointed the site of their collective unworthiness and gathered in the rain to lay it in the ground (197).
Shtrakenzer? Yid? Twenty-year junk habit? Viznitzer? Shell of a yid? After repeating these phrases, foreign to him and now all too familiar to myself, my husband reported that in my sleep, as I lay on my back repeating Mr. Chabon's words, tears were running running across my cheekbones, away from each other, and onto the pillow.

This is not to say that in its Larry David-like fiendishness The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a great book. It is a good one, a fun one, and an entertaining one. I don't say this because in the novel's pages the Apocalypse did not actually happen, which is of course the truest sign of any truly great book. No. I say this because in spite of its prose, which is often sublime (I repeated it in my sleep, after all), it lacks something. Call it heart. There are times where the heart is there, as in the funeral scene of Mendele Shpilman quoted above, but more often than not the heart seemed to me to be almost purely linguistic. Call it "heart."

Or better yet, call it humor. The dark humor that saturates this book like a clammy Alaskan humidity never quite makes it to the places that, I hear from my husband, Curb Your Enthusiasm makes it to. There are genuinely funny lines, but overall the humor holds far too much back for my (husband's) tastes, as though it were more worried about not making a bad joke than about actually making good ones. The jokes are muted--muted and plentiful. Perhaps this reflects the muted beaten-down nature of the citizens of Sitka (its population is reported to be over 3 million, and is slowly being evacuated). Chabon never holds back as much as someone like Kafka, who--so I hear--never breaks a straight face. I would say, and I know this is harsh, that Chabon in fact holds back the exact wrong amount.

It reminds me most of the slapsticky tone and humor of Thomas Pynchon, who I have read and banned from my library, and who I've never found outrightly knee-slappingly hand-sanitizer-fumingly funny. Not funny like John Kennedy Toole or David Foster Wallace are funny--(I banned them, too). The humor, rather, is diffused throughout the--and I can't repeat this enough--absolutely brilliant and tenaciously inventive prose, so that as you read you find yourself "laughing" rather than laughing.

And don't get me wrong. It's not that I think that Michael Chabon missed his mark. I think he hit it dead center. I suppose what I can't figure out is why he would be aiming for that mark in the first place.

And yet I genuinely liked this book. It Redoubled My Enthusiasm! Heck, it Quadrupled My Enthusiasm! And so I didn't ban it. I merely shelved it, secretly and without the Department of Homeland Security's knowledge, in the Non-Fiction section. People should know about the plight of those poor Jews in Alaska--they just shouldn't know too much.

Here are my dogs:
Moral Note: We allowed Samson [bottom left] to wear the blasphemous Harry Potter costume because of how much he licks himself. We figure that if he's going to hell anyways, why not let him have some fun beforehand. Plus the wizard's robes make it harder for him to lick himself.