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.


Gimcracked said...

To say that this blog brought me to do an orange juice spit-take in the privacy of my own home would be, unfortunately for my computer's keyboard, the truth. A trenchant commentary.

Andrew Warren said...

Dear Susanne,

I am very sorry to hear about your keyboard and your orange juice. The truth can be a difficult thing to accept--just ask Irma Baumlein or Dick Cheney. Though you're probably better off asking Irma Baumlein about that seeing as, to my knowledge, Dick Cheney has never accepted the truth about anything ever. I know he turned the dummy he stole, for example, into a real human boy rather than accept the truth of its dummyhood.

Tamilda the Genius 10yr Old

mewmewmew said...

To say that this blog brought me to do an orange juice spit-take in the privacy of my own home would be, unfortunately for my computer's keyboard, the truth. A trenchant commentary.

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