Category Archives: Teaching

Cupholders that Do Not Fit Any Cups; Practice, Preach, Etc; and Assigning Chitra Divakaruni’s “One Amazing Thing”

Until a few months ago, I drove a 1995 Honda Odyssey.  It wasn’t the age (17 years), color (maroon), noises (an intermittent donkeylike braying that no mechanic could positively identify), or rust (yes) that bothered me, or that fact that the gas pedal didn’t really make it go, or that, near the end, the brake pedal didn’t really make it stop. It was the cupholders.  They did not fit any cups.  And the part that bothered me wasn’t my inability to imbibe and operate.[i]  It was philosophical: Honda had rolled out a line of vehicles WITHOUT EVER SEEING IF THE CUPHOLDERS COULD HOLD A CUP FIRST.

***

I teach writing.   Therefore, I create writing assignments for my students.  Therefore therefore, I try out the writing assignments myself before I assign them.  Just to make sure there aren’t any problems that become obvious only after the writer begins.  And not necessarily to change the assignment, but at least so that I can anticipate complaints.  Sometimes, I like what I’ve written.  This blog entry began life as a test drive on an assignment.  But I don’t really think of them as test drives.  I really think of them as trying to put a cup in the cupholder first.  If nothing fits, I can’t distribute the cupholder.

***

Occasionally, there is a snag.  In this case, it’s that I distributed an assignment that I co-authored as part of a college-wide essay contest in conjunction with the shared campus read book. You may remember the difficulty I had in choosing it, indeed with the whole selection process and perhaps even the emerging genre of “campus reads” books.   No matter.  The book selected is One Amazing Thing, by Chitra Divakaruni.  I’ll write about the book itself some other time.  For now, I thought it would make a good shared read because of its potential for thought and discussion, centered on the title concept.  To avoid accusations of spoilers, I’ll just quote the back of the book itself[ii] :

Late afternoon sun sneaks through the windows of a passport and visa office in an unnamed American city. Most customers and even most office workers have come and gone, but nine people remain. A punky teenager with an unexpected gift. An upper-class Caucasian couple whose relationship is disintegrating. A young Muslim-American man struggling with the fallout of 9/11. A graduate student haunted by a question about love. An African-American ex-soldier searching for redemption. A Chinese grandmother with a secret past. And two visa office workers on the verge of an adulterous affair.[iii]

When an earthquake rips through the afternoon lull, trapping these nine characters together, their focus first jolts to their collective struggle to survive. There’s little food. The office begins to flood. Then, at a moment when the psychological and emotional stress seems nearly too much for them to bear, the young graduate student suggests that each tell a personal tale, “one amazing thing” from their lives, which they have never told anyone before. And as their surprising stories of romance, marriage, family, political upheaval, and self-discovery unfold against the urgency of their life-or-death circumstances, the novel proves the transcendent power of stories and the meaningfulness of human expression itself.

 It wasn’t much of a stretch, then, to ask students this:

As you have been reading One Amazing Thing, you may have been wondering what “one amazing thing” in your own life might be. What makes an experience stand out, be “amazing,” “sublime,” and how can it change a person and influence his or her future life, for better or worse? Reflect on and write about one such “amazing thing” in your life and compare it in some way with at least one of the stories told in One Amazing Thing. Your essay should be no more than 500 words.

It’s a perfect assignment for the book.  There is just one problem.  I have not tried it out.  And upon inspection, the assignment is surprisingly difficult.  Do I—and by extension, does anyone—have a story like the ones the characters share in the novel?  I mean, yes, of course—but can a person distill it and tell it as easily and intricately as these characters causally spout, when in reality it’s clear that the author herself labored and revised to get the stories just so?  I’m on the Hourman clock, and nothing is coming to mind at all for me.  Too many stories, and too few.[iv]  If the cup does not fit, you must remit.[v]

[Sips coffee, ponders for a few minutes, which totally count in the time]

OK.

***

Seven years ago, in the pre-Cambrian before Facebook made it easy, Angela contacted me to find out what happened to me and her other peers from Public School 208. I had not heard from her in over twenty years.  I heard from her first, I inferred, not because we were friends, but because she simply found me, since I’m the only person in the world with my name.  I replied, cramming high school, college, grad school, marriage, two (at the time) kids, two cross-country moves, and my book (a gratuitous, narcissistic, and necessary inclusion) into a short paragraph.  The first sentence began with “I…”; all subsequent sentences began with “And then I….”  Angela put me on an alumni email list.  Then I forgot about her.

A week later, Angela emailed again.  This time the letter was longer.  She was putting together a website.  She needed detailed biographies, she needed pictures, she needed contact information, she needed phone numbers of lost friends.  But my semester was starting, and I casually ignored her.

The next week, the demands grew: where were the pictures, the updates?  She had started the website and sent subsequent blog invitations.  But where were her bloggers?  (I will never blog, I harrumphed.)  She threatened to call.  Then she did call and left a voicemail.  Her message sounded vaguely menacing.  She was getting harder to ignore.

So I checked the website and saw that the enticements—or possibly the threats— of nostalgia had worked: there were pictures of P–, a lawyer; of A–, widowed at a decade earlier with two toddlers;  J–, a dentist living in Florida;  I–, a bearded accountant who had just married a Panamanian; S–, an elementary school teacher in Queens.  Many of our former teachers were dead.  Angela wrote by far the most, varying tragedy and conceit: her father had died of emphysema, she was a published poet, her partner had brain cancer, she lived happily in Connecticut.  Many of their parents were dead, mostly of cancer.  The bad news was upsetting.  But so was the good news.  Worst were the pictures.  No one looked anything the way I remembered.  They looked like their parents.

The emails continued, abuse and contrition: more threats, more pleas, more updates.  Two months after I had received that first email, I had collected over a dozen more. Reading them together, they seemed a strange collage of obsession.  Their goal, their longing, their desire to piece together a lost childhood, failed utterly: the retreat into the past, into the urban idylls of 1970s Brooklyn, was a futile talisman against the death all around her.  Instead, it became a reminder that, at best, we were all twenty years—and now, today, twenty-seven years—closer to death than we were when we last saw each other; and at worst, any one of our loved ones, any one of us, could be taken at any time.  A part of me wishes that I didn’t know what happened to Angela, P–, A–, J–, I–, S–, and the rest of them—a litany of names  that  grew exponentially when  I joined Facebook a year or so later.  If I didn’t know anything, in my mind they could stay children forever.  If they had grown up, then so had I.

I received one more email a month later, from J–, another former classmate.  Angela had died of an aneurysm.  It’s a twist that, had I read it in a novel, I would have found cheap and tawdry, the boneheaded hack irony of a 13 year old who had discovered O’Henry.  But it was real.   And in the worst senses of the word—“causing great surprise or sudden wonder; awful”— her sudden discovery, and abrupt loss, was amazing.

 

FIN   

***

OK, I didn’t actually compare what I wrote with one of the stories in the book, and I didn’t do a word count, so I guess I have to be docked a few points.  And the word “amazing” is inelegantly shoehorned in at the end.

But it does look like the assignment can hold a lot of cups.  And each cup will hold something different, and amazing, for each writer as well.

Time: 90 minutes

This image is intended as comic relief after a heart-wrenching piece of writing.


[i] Awful phrase, but I can’t write “drink and drive.”

[ii] Does a blurb on a book cover or on Amazon.com count as a “spoiler”? Short answer: No. Long answer: it depends.   Read more about my take on spoilers.

[iii] Since today I’m all about linking to previous blogs, and footnotes, let me add that this book is another entry in what I previously described in “Avengers Resemble” as “a story of People from Diverse Categories Thrown into an Unlikely Situation who then Realize that they have A Lot in Common, or ‘PDCTUSRALC.’”

[iv] That’s deep, man.*

*Nobody likes a sarcastic endnote.

[v] By which I mean “refrain from inflicting or enforcing.”  Not pay.

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The New School Year! Or, Despair is Not Just for Students; Or, Two Cheers for Uncertainty

Dickens’ opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities—the famous “best of times; worst of times”—sometimes at risk of turning into a cliché, instead seems truer all the time.  I can listen to any song ever recorded and ingest better wines, cheeses, fruit, and fish than all the kings of yesteryear, even as the world is plagued by more apocalyptic scenarios that I can recount here, from scorched earth to possible pandemics to rogue nukes to real-life zombies to the end of year tax cliff.

In keeping, this best of times/worst of times dichotomy also works for the opening of the college term. For students: friends! College life! And best of all: possibilities.  And the worst, as they often discover after a class or two: the pressure, the exhaustion, the work. College would be so much fun if not for the classes.

I too relish the energy and opportunity of the beginning of the school year.  But I also feel doubt, even dread.  Unlike for students, the angst isn’t about work, which I love.  It’s existential. Does teaching students to read, write, and think make any difference in the world at all?  Americans hardly read books anymore; schools are teaching less and less fiction and creative writing; writers can’t stop plagiarizing anyway. So why bother? The majority calmly play Angry Birds while Rome burns, but is teaching writing and literature—or, worse, writing or blogging itself—any better, or just a more painful and equally pointless endeavor?

I didn’t always feel this way. If anything, ironically I worry more now that I have more experience and am, arguably, at the top of my teaching game. Unlike during my first few years, I no longer feel like an imposter, and unlike future decades from now, when I’ll remember the good ole days of online course management systems, discussion boards, and blogs before it all went downhill with the introduction of cerebral cortex implants in 2032, I still know what I’m doing.

Maybe it’s me.  An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last spring suggested that mid-career professors were less happy than those who were starting out, despite better pay and job security: “The survey shows that on most key measures, professors are actually happier while working toward tenure than they are once they’ve earned it.”  This reversal calls for more clichés: journey not destination, be careful what you wish for, etc etc etc.

But in another sense, this dissatisfaction is a narrative problem as well: what do you do after you’ve reached the end?  I am applying for my final promotion this year, to what is commonly known as full professor, and after that, despite that I’m on the early side of midlife, I have nowhere left to go professionally. Except, I suppose, down.

Or maybe: it’s OK.

Not the problems, but the doubt, the ambivalence, the conflict.  In addition to more doubts, I feel a concomitant skepticism of the usual virtues of certainty and decisiveness.  It appalls me that the dictionary lists “weakness” as an antonym of “determination,” and that, say, Hamlet’s doubt is often taught as his tragic flaw.  If anything, the seven deadly sins get it right: pride is far more dangerous than uncertainty, since it is through doubt, even vacillation, that we grow, reflect, change, and learn.  If anything, Hamlet’s real flaw was the same as in the ancient tragedies: his hubris.  He believed that the world revolved around him, and that he could treat those closest to him, especially Ophelia, with caprice and contempt, BECAUSE HE WAS WRONGED.

The little voice inside that always asks, “Why should students have to do this?” is my students’ best advocate, so that when they think—or ask—the same question, they’ll learn that I do not treat the question casually or cynically.  It’s the best question I can think of.

One of my little pleasures is that the word “Commencement” means beginning; it is used to signal the opening of the term, but it is also now synonymous with completing one’s education, graduation, or what feels like the end of something for students.  Yet once they graduate, most jobs are about the same in September as they are in January or April, and the narrative wonder that’s built into the school year disappears.  But I cherish it, so that I always have another start, and a new conclusion that begets a new start and another finale, to look forward to. Students—and teachers—get to experience life with a series of beginnings and endings built in.  Everyone else receives only one ending.

At the risk of sounding trite, students should read because it’s fun, and a different, deeper, better, even more lasting kind of fun than Fruit Ninja.  And that sometimes, it also happens to be beautiful, or ugly, or compelling or—and I use this word despite doubt, skepticism, and ambivalence—true.

Although I reserve the right to change my mind on that.

Time: 60 minutes. Back on schedule.

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Angles on Angels in America in 2012

You mean it’s also a play?

It’s twelve years after the millennium, and even more since anyone thought much about Perestroika or the millennium as still approaching.  But last week couldn’t have been a better time to have seen Angels in America.  Despite having taught Tony Kushner’s masterpiece twice (or at least the first part, Millennium Approaches) and although I’ve seen the HBO adaptation again and again, I never thought I’d get to see the play AS a play—until the Stray Dog Theater in St Louis undertook performances of both parts.  It’s a bold and difficult play to stage, but it couldn’t have been a better venue—Stray Dog performs in the Tower Grove Abbey, its arched ceiling, wooden pews, and stained glass windows creating a hyperreal, ethereal quality to seeing angels.  And the 8 actors who took on all 32 roles were more than up to it.  In many ways, the play is about ‘80s apocalypticism, although it wasn’t actually produced until the 1990s.  Yet I want to emphasize that it works just as well now as it may have then—maybe even better. 

Tower Grove Abbey

The play relies on the symmetry between two couples—Prior, struggling with his diagnosis of AIDS, and his lover Louis, struggling with Prior’s struggling with AIDS; the Mormon couple Harper, struggling against mental illness, and her husband Joe, struggling against his own repressed homosexuality.  Prior wrestles angels; Harper wrestles inner demons.  The live staging frequently features both couples on stage at the same time, taking turns acting their conflicts adjacently, literally in parallel.  When reading—or even watching as a movie—we’re used to page breaks or camera cuts, naturally shifting our attention.  But we can’t forget the other characters when they’re all still in front of our eyes, like watching doubles tennis.   The HBO series’ introduction is all sky, swoops, and distance, but the enclosed play forces our attention strictly on the characters.

Students reading the play always fret about what they should take as real, fantasy, imagined, or hallucination. I always told them not to worry too much about it and just go with the play’s feeling and language.  And seeing the play live confirms this sense that the supernatural elements—Prior and Harper somehow meet in their dream-slash-Valium induced delirium, respectively; the ghost of Ethyl Rosenberg shows up to haunt the other main character, Roy Cohn, based on the recently deceased (or he’d have no doubt sued) real-life Roy Cohn who, like Prior, has contracted AIDS—aren’t really meant to be puzzled over.  Like so much of what’s strange or inexplicable in real life, they’re not even that mysterious. They just are.  

Seeing the production live emphasized another crucial aspect of the play that’s easy to overlook or forget on the page, one that wasn’t a part of the film adaptation: for much of Part 1, whether he is part of the scene or not, Prior lies in his bed in the middle of the stage; for most of Part II, it is Roy.  No matter what else is happening, the viewer is constantly reminded of the AIDS-stricken bodies that for most of the ‘80s seemed kept out of view, offstage.  Similarly, in Part 1 Prior strips of his clothes for his medical examination; in Part II, Joe and Harper appear nude.  In the movie, it seems standard issue celluloid skin.  Mary Louis Parker’s Harper isn’t so different from Mary Louis Parker’s Nancy Botwin on Weeds, who is semi-clad semi-weekly.  Yet when the actors strip in real time, in place, in person, it is another reminder of the way in which the roles themselves force the actors to bare all emotionally, and now physically, another way in which this play, angels to the contrary, is all about human bodies.        

 If you’re not familiar with the play, it may seem as though its emphasis on homosexuality, on the one hand, or religion, on the other, could be a turn off.   In fact, when I went to IMDB for the blog’s opening image, its sidebar offered two Related Lists: one that featured the movie Doubt, and the other labeled Gay Interest. But media talking heads to the contrary, gay and religious themes aren’t necessarily on opposing hands at all, and the play is very much about love, and death, and the problems of being human, things I imagine that anyone can relate to. 

But despite the play’s length, running over seven hours total, dialogue, which is often rapid-fire, and concomitant complexity, let’s even take its themes at face value. Even then, the last two weeks suggest that the play is not just of the 80s, or the 90s, or the millennium.  We now have the first serious Mormon contender running for President, even as Angels is preoccupied with the ways in which Mormonism is America’s only home-grown religion, and perhaps all saints are now Latter Day.  And less than two weeks ago, President Obama finally made his support for same-sex marriage clear. 

In the play, Louis rails against what he sees as “the worst kind  of liberalism, really, bourgeois tolerance, and what I think AIDS shows us is the limits of tolerance, that it’s not enough to be tolerated, because when the shit hits the fan, you find out just how much tolerance is worth. Nothing. And underneath all the tolerance is intense, passionate hatred.” In some ways, the scene is meant to stack the deck against Louis—he himself is hypocritical, overly cerebral, and self-indulgent, spouting polemics when in his personal life he has abandoned Prior.   His conversation and sparring partner here is Belize, who replies to Louis’s page-length monologue with a dismissive “Uh huh.”

Yet I can’t help but wonder if Kushner nevertheless stands partially behind the sentiment, as perhaps now, with the millennium firmly behind us, we may as well. While it looks like once again gay marriage will be a culture war issue for the ballot box, it now seems as though endorsing it, rather than opposing  it, may be the winning side on the issue.  We can now see tolerance for what it is—not necessarily Nothing, but rather simply setting the bar too low, far too low, since to tolerate something suggests that we’ll put up with it, but nothing more. 

Angels in America in 2012 suggests that we can move past tolerance to something better:  equality.

Time: 70 minutes. This took me longer than I thought it would.

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Textbook Marriage

Belvedere Castle, in NYC's Central Park. So romantic!

I read fiction about suffering, madness, and death.  Not brave quests to overcome seemingly-impossible obstacles.  Not lovable talking animals learning valuable lessons.  Not We-Disliked-Each-Other-at-First-but-Now-We’re-Falling-in-Love stories, unless untranslated from the original Austen.  No happy endings.  Fittingly, I am also a college English professor, down to my daily uniform of corduroy pants and up to my suede elbow patches.  So the books in my American Literature class this semester represent Unhappiness’s Greatest Hits, especially marital misery.  For all of its green lights, ash heaps, and eyes in the sky, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a novel whose plot boils down to adultery, filled with lines like this: “Most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands.”  So far, no student has asked how I personally feel about the subject of marriage itself.  They do not ask, Are you married? Or, What do you think?  So thankfully, I don’t have to tell.  As long as they don’t want to know, I can keep my personal life out of it.  That’s good.  If they did ask, I would be afraid to answer.

Neither great nor Gatsby, he's really a legume

Instead, we stick to the stories.  And I find myself in the position of persuading skeptical students—women at least as often as men—to see how, in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” from 1899, Edna must have felt trapped in her marriage, even as she strives to exercise some semblance of control through her questionable decisions.  I need students to consider the possibility that, in the “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” the care given to the unnamed, seemingly unreliable wife by her husband could be the cause of her illness, not the cure.  And I want them to imagine that these stories’ turn-of-the century timeframe does not mean that their gender troubles have all been settled by our own enlightened turn of the millennium.  The conventions of first-comes-love, then-comes-marriage, then-comes-baby-in-the-baby-carriage are powerful traps—for women, certainly, but, in Ernest Hemingway’s and Nathanael West’s work, men as well.  Fortunately, students don’t wonder how I feel about marriage personally.  They think they know.

I know why the caged bird drowns herself

In New York, where I lived most of my life, maybe marital ambivalence is well understood—fewer and later marriages are the norm.  But where I now live in the Midwest, many of my students are engaged by their junior year.  Many more marry upon graduation.  When characters rightfully stand up to parents, my students say things like, “My parents and I are BEST FRIENDS!”  I roll my eyes and think snarky thoughts and generalize about the Midwest as though I don’t live here, too.

Yet there is something about me my students don’t know. Something that few, except for those closest to me, can fathom or would even suspect.  It’s a truth so clandestine, so potentially startling, that it casts a bright light over my dark, shiny veneer of authority and credibility as a writer, academic, and curmudgeon.

I have a happy marriage.  I am happy. 

Please.  Don’t judge me too harshly.  It’s difficult, not just in my line of work but in America in general, even in the Midwest once college ends and adult life begins, to admit to being happy.  Before I decided to write this essay, in fact, I needed to consult with my wife to make sure it was safe with her to come out. 

“It’s not something I can talk about with most people,” she agreed.  “When my friends start talking about their husbands, I just smile and keep quiet.”  For the record, she agrees that we’re happy.  And like me, she was happy before we met.  One person can’t make another person happy anyway.  Being happy is not a choice. While we’ve managed to meet other happy couples over the years, they also tend to keep their business to themselves.

Of course, no marriage is perfect.  My wife doesn’t like that I chew too loudly.  I don’t like that my wife doesn’t like that I chew too loudly.  As I keep having to explain, it’s temporomandibular joint disorder, and eating bagels is no picnic for me, either.

OK, our marriage is perfect.   But it’s not as though our lives are perfect.  We have struggled with money, with painful decisions, with bouts of dissatisfaction, with buying homes and raising three children, with health scares and the everyday array of American anxiety.  But through everything, it was and always is the two of us, together, against the world.  Never against each other.  

We knew we were going to marry each other on the night we met, when we left Webster Hall, a loud downtown club, at its 4 AM closing, to walk and talk together.  After stopping at an all-night diner for coffee, we went to Central Park to watch the sun rise as we sat in Belvedere Castle [top image].  Neither of us was looking to get married, so like an experienced screenwriter my wife threw in an obligatory Third Act conflict, declaring a few weeks after we met that she wanted to move to San Francisco, going as far as to fly there with an eye on an apartment in the Haight.  In my memory, our story unfolds like a movie.  What would be three quarters of the way through—or in real time, a month after we met and upon her return home—we were back together and soon engaged.  At the end, we married, in Brooklyn, eleven months from our first night in Central Park, wondering why it took so long.  

If our lives had really been that movie, I would not watch it.  Too Hollywood.  It would feature a long musical montage of us: walking up First Avenue with ice-cream cones, then ordering pasta dishes with different color sauces so we could mix them together at the table, to the cook’s dismay.  Flipping through bins of second-hand CDs, perusing stacks of used books, watching “Stomp” on Second Avenue, taking the L to Brooklyn, fumbling coins for our laundry, sitting on the floor and drinking a bottle of plum wine for so long that we missed our restaurant reservation and didn’t notice.  All while a Foo Fighters—no, worse, a Goo Goo Dolls—song played in the background of the scene.  Laughter, smiles.  An uplifting romantic comedy, when the only romantic comedy I like is “Annie Hall.”  But we really did do all that in our first months together, and the night we met was the first of thousands of beautiful, magical times we would spend together. 

Ugh.  You see the problem.  I wrote “beautiful, magical times.”  I know, I know: what people like us do behind closed doors, in private, is our own business.  We have no right to flaunt our happy lifestyle, to shove it in other people’s faces.    

Since then, every Valentine’s Day my wife cooks a heart-shaped meatloaf.  When our first son was born, I wrote Welcome Home to mother and child across the living room with dried rose petals.  For reasons I still can’t fathom, I was once singing the “Annie” song into a banana: “The sun will come out, banana, bet your bottom dollar that banana, they’ll be some.”  I looked up to realize I was not alone in my foolishness, only to hear my wife join in singing too: [together] “Banana! Banana! I love ya, banana.”  Giggles and hugs.  Our cars are matching colors.  And so on.  These and many more are the joyful, shameful secrets I must never reveal if I want to be respected, for they push the limits of tolerance, even in a free, Western, supposedly open-minded society such as ours. 

In addition to being an Expressionistic representation of modern alientation and angst, The Scream may also depict how you feel right now from reading this post. I'm so sorry.

Great thinkers, artists, and writers are supposed to struggle in their loves.   The best someone should hope for is the marriage of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, passionate at first but then tense and drifting later on.  It could be worse: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre’s drunken turbulence; or worse, Edgar Allen Poe’s creepy union with his thirteen-year old first cousin, Virginia Clemm; or worse, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s catastrophe.  Actually, I’m not sure which is worse.  But it’s not a contest; it’s like the opposite of a contest.  Of course, there are renowned literary romances.  Just not literary marriages.  The story of Darcy and Elizabeth ends once they marry, Catherine and Heathcliff marry others, and Romeo and Juliet, you know.  For every novel like Ian McEwen’s Saturday, including a happy marriage, there are hundreds, thousands, of unhappy fictional marriages.  From the impression I get from journalism, there are hundreds, thousands, of unhappy nonfictional marriages, too.

Yet even Tolstoy, who famously warned readers of happiness’s narrative monotony—“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” in Anna Karenina, another great and terrible novel of adultery and death—was, by most accounts, happily married.  Or at least, like Joyce, he was happily married for most of his life, before the marriage finally soured.  Thankfully, my wife and I have been married for only fifteen years, so there is still plenty of time for us to have the dramatic and tumultuous relationship we envy in others, the kind of traditional marriage that we can admit to in the open, without fear of intolerance or ridicule.    

For now, until the rest of the world is ready, I live in fear that one day, my literature students will find out who and what I really am: someone who makes them read only about misfortune in marriage, when my own is inappropriately happy.  And that I secretly hope my children will think we’re still best friends when they’re in college, too.

Jesse Kavadlo

 Time: OK, this requires some explanation. I originally wrote a 60 minute version for last Valentine’s Day, but when I was done I thought I might try to do something else with it. I spent a lot more time on it, in exactly the way I promised myself I wouldn’t for the blog, made it longer, edited it more carefully, and sent it to the New York Times Modern Love column.  Which, um, didn’t want it.  If you read “Modern Love” regularly, you’ll notice that they like stuff that’s far more depressing than this piece, missing the point that SO DO I. Oh, well.

It’s coming out in hard copy next week in Maryville’s literary journal, Magnolia, which is fine with me. Unless someone wants to buy it. Then email me.

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I Have Issues with Fictional Characters’ Names

I’m teaching Henry James’s “Daisy Miller: A Study,” a very frequently taught short story, in my just-started American lit class.  If you haven’t read it, or read it a long time ago, it’s an ostentatiously written drama from 1878 about a group of privileged Americans living in Europe and their reaction to a new-money girl, the title character, as seen through the perspective of Winterbourne, a young man who finds her, in a word repeated a million times, “pretty.”  Nearly everything about the story is ambiguous or could be argued from either side, which is one of the reasons it works so well in a class: is Daisy a strong, free-spirited proto-feminist, or a foolish girl?  Does she understand the way the vicious polite society talks about her behind her back—and if so, what does this say about her behavior?  Does Winterbourne really love her—or does Daisy really love him—or are they both toying with each other in different ways?  Does Daisy—does Winterbourne?—understand what she—or he?—is doing?  Does Daisy’s [do I really need to say Spoiler Alert about a story that’s over 130 years old? Fine. “Spoiler Alert.”] death at the end suggest a misogynistic society, a kind of death wish, recklessness,  or just a fogey author who needs to punish his own literary creation?  Is Daisy “innocent”—another repeated word throughout the story—or, in the words of Jimi Hendrix, experienced?  Is this even a fair question?  Does Winterbourne experience an epiphany at the end thanks to some revealed information, or has he learned nothing? And over a hundred years of scholarship more.

HOWEVER.  For all the complexity, intricacy, and layered ways of reading, one aspect stands out: for all of James’s painstaking realism and period detail—clothes, speech, scenery—Daisy’s and Winterbourne’s names are so heavy-handedly symbolic that they threaten to bring everything down.  “Daisy”=fresh, lovely flower; “Winterbourne”=bearing or aspiring toward cold. ‘Cause you know, winter kills flowers! So much for subtlety.    

Maybe it’s more complicated—Daisy’s real first name isn’t even “Daisy;” it’s “Annie.” Her last name “Miller” could be analyzed, and Winterbourne’s first name, “Frederick,” could be worked in.  But the headline “WINTER KILLS FLOWER!” is inescapable.

Last month I wrote about Lev Grossman and The Magicians.  As much as I love the novel and admire the marriage of magic and realism, the main character’s name, Quentin Coldwater, still leaves me, um, cold.  A book-smart kid from Brooklyn (something I know a little about) is far more likely to have a name like Chang, or Furci, or Jackson, or Reddy, or really, for that matter, Grossman.  Like Winterbourne, Coldwater connotes someone chilled in his emotions, and “throw cold water on” means “criticize something that people are enthusiastic about,”  both of which describe Quentin well.  (“Coldwater Creek” and women’s apparel, less so).    

And the alliteration is reminiscent of real-life writer Quentin Crisp; of course, Crisp changed his name from Dennis Pratt.  Quentin Coldwater is closer to Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, but for me is most reminiscent of superhero names—especially recent X-Men villain Quentin Quire—and the never ending litany of Clark Kents, Peter Parkers, Lex Luthors, and Bruce Banners.   OK, Bruce Wayne doesn’t have alliteration, but he has two first names, along with Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Steve Trevor (Wonder Woman’s love interest).   Speaking of Steve, Dr. Stephen Strange gets—who could have seen it coming?—mystical powers! Dr. Victor Freeze develops cold powers!  And Dr. Victor Von Doom’s parents should have changed every name involved.  I don’t know what he’s a doctor of, but I’m guessing it’s not English.  As J. Jonah Jameson (triple alliteration!) slyly notes, of Dr. Octopus, “Guy named Otto Octavius winds up with eight limbs. Four mechanical arms welded right onto his body. What are the odds?”  Pretty good, I’d say.    

Would you take a college course from this man?

The Wizard of Oz pits sweet but sassy Dorothy Gale (meaning: “a very strong wind”—cyclone?) against wicked Mrs. Gulch (“a rocky ravine”).  The Bourne Identity’s Jason Bourne—Quentin Coldwater gets the Winter, Jason gets the Bourne—rediscovers his true self after losing his memory and becoming, quote unquote “born,” if you will, by fighting the covert operations who had previously employed him.  Guy named Bourne gets amnesia.  What are the odds?   Lev Grossman held a contest in December on his blog to provide a last name for one of his main characters, Julia.  The result: Julia Wicker. Gal named Wicker winds up becoming a witch.  What are the odds?   

But what’s the alternative to non-symbolic names?  While Hermione Granger gets both mythological allusion and a last name metaphorically fitting her reading habits, title character Harry Potter gets the Everyman treatment—no allusions, no symbolism.  But then, the LACK becomes the point.  His nonsymbolic name symbolizes his very ordinariness and relatability.  The Big Lebowski’s unliterary name is itself funny, and like Daisy, he then anoints himself anew. (The Dude also Anoints.)  I would quote Juliet’s “What’s in a name?” here, but Romeo and Juliet’s names have become symbolic, even if they didn’t start that way. 

When names belong to fictional characters, then, they’re either already filled with meaning, or we can’t help but fill them with meaning ourselves. 

Even if it would be unfair to warn women with floral names to stay away from Winterbournes , or Coldwaters, in real life.  Maybe they should, just to be on the safe side.

Time: 60 minutes, not counting making the My Name Is Daisy Miller image or, as usual, uploading.

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Don DeLillo is Not Dead

Also: Not Dead Yet

While it seems impossible to believe, some people don’t know who Don DeLillo is; or, as I say to students, he’s the most famous author they’ve never heard of.[i]   And many of those people, including my non-academic acquaintances—yes, I have some—presume that Don DeLillo is dead.  They’re surprised that he’s not.

Their assumption raises a few interesting problems for teachers and scholars of living authors.  The first is the notion that the only authors worth studying must come from a previous era, a line of reasoning that English Departments discarded decades ago but that the general public may not have.  Not that they don’t read, or even prefer, living authors themselves, but that living authors don’t produce Literature, only books, and ideally bestsellers.  We can’t, in this line of thinking, really know an author’s place, value, or contribution in his or her own lifetime, as though authorship were akin to sainthood.

The second is what I think of as the Back to School Problem.  If you’ve seen the movie (1986), Rodney Dangerfield (who is, in fact, now dead) plays his usual self-deprecating schlub.  In the words of IMDB’s tagline, “To help his discouraged son get through college, a funloving and obnoxious rich businessman decides to enter the school as a student himself.”   When Dangerfield’s character needs to write a paper on the novels of Kurt Vonnegut (who is also now dead), he hires Vonnegut himself to do the work.  The cameo alone is funny, but the punchline is that Dangerfield fails the paper, not just because the professor knows right away that someone else wrote it, but also because “whoever did write [this paper] doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut.” (Warning: offensive language)

The joke, as usual I suppose, is on the professor, who, we understand through dramatic irony, only thinks she is an authority on Vonnegut’s work.  Or worse, she (unknowingly) believes that she knows Vonnegut better than he knows himself.  Despite decades of reader response theory and deconstruction, despite cases where authors themselves have claimed not to have understood what at they wrote at the time, despite authors admitting only a hazy notion of how their work would be interpreted, in the popular mind, the author is still the best, and maybe only, authority on his or her work.  Shakespeare can’t tell you that your, say, Lacanian readings of Hamlet weren’t what he intended.  Well, how could they have been?  And contemporary critics understand that intentions are not the only point—if not beside the point entirely.  But Don DeLillo can still tell you that your, say, ecocritical reading of White Noise isn’t what he intended.  Or, as he has suggested in interviews, that he never reads critical or literary theory.  And, unlike, Back to School, it would not be a joke.  If students worry that they’re not entitled to form opinions on Shakespeare because his work is centuries old, endlessly discussed, and firmly canonical, they can feel equally constrained by the living author, because they can still be proven wrong, if the author only says so.

Which takes me to my final problem.  DeLillo, unlike, say JD Salinger (who died only recently), is not only alive but still prolific.  The last decade alone has produced The Body Artist, Cosmopolis, Falling Man, Point Omega, and the new collection of short stories, compiled from 1979-2011, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories.  This work alone could be the envy of many authors—consider that in about the same time, Jonathan Franzen produced a single novel, Freedom; in only a little less time, Jeffery Eugenides wrote The Marriage Plot.[ii]  So in addition to what I see as the indisputably Great Novels—White Noise, Libra, and Underworld—such an output is astonishing.     

And these works can’t help but change how I read DeLillo now.  Point Omega is almost the anti-Underworld (Overworld?), so sparse and imagistic as to be nearly inscrutable.  If Underworld overwhelms readers, Point Omega underwhelms them, by design.  Libra is often read as speculative fiction, a conspiracy-minded counter-narrative to the prevailing Kennedy history.  But rather than taking on what could have been a similar approach to 9/11, DeLillo completely eschews paranoia in Falling Man, surrendering his anointment as chief shaman of the paranoid school of literature.  And Angel Esmeralda, for me, provides the greatest pause.  Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that I had never read the first story “Creation,” published in 1979, but reading it now reveals a writer interested in mixing breezy eroticism into his usual—and now, arguably since White Noise, semi-suspended—absurdist, black humor. 

Overall, what the collection—and the past decade’s work—demonstrates is an author who is unrepentantly alive, in all senses of the word:   animated, energetic, relevant, and changing.  It gives the reader a lot to live up to, and much to look forward to as well.

Time: OK, I have to admit that I forgot to pay attention to the clock today. I know, I know, that’s my whole schtick.  Maybe 60 minutes? Probably a little over.  Not too much, though.


[i] Chances are that this isn’t even true, since many have not heard of Joyce or Faulkner or even Austen, but I like the line.

[ii] Not that these aren’t great achievements, I hasten to add, since Franzen and Eugenides are alive and likely to get annoyed at such comparisons.

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No Gym Lockers to Narnia

Lev Grossman during our Skype session. Forget the wizards of Hogwarts–he’s the Wizard of Oz.

High school gym had a lot of rules.  Mr. Arbuse, his apt name a neologism of roast beef and cruelty, began every term with his stump speech:

“Dis is gym. Yuh cut, yuh fail.”    

“If yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

“If yuh not in yuh spot when I call yuh name, yuh late; yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

“If yuh not wearing yuh yuniform, counts as yuh not in yuh spot.  If yuh not in yuh spot when I call yuh name, yuh late.  Yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

And so on.  Scary, but, in fact, manageable, a series of reductions and equivalencies.  And Mr. Arbuse had no rules about actual participation in sports.  So I passed, even though I spent all year sitting in the bleachers talking about Metallica with Tommy Cassidy.

Cut (no pun intended) for a moment to the end of one of my own classes, twenty-five years later and two weeks ago.  Titled “Secret Worlds: Fantasy Novels and their Fans,” the class reads Peter Pan, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and The Magicians by Lev Grossman, with watching the movies The Wizard of Oz, Coroline, and Pan’s Labyrinth.  The books and movies serve as springboards and metaphors for first-year students’ own entrance into a new, unfamiliar place.  There’s magic, of course, but the books mostly revolve around life as students understand it: new schools, powerful friendships, dealing with authority figures, and rites of passage.

This year, when I met him at a St. Louis reading for his new novel, The Magician King, Lev Grossman graciously and generously offered to have a Skype session with my class.  And my students—both last year and this year—had very strong reactions to The Magicians, especially reading it last in sequence.

If you haven’t read The Magicians, you should.  Critics frequently resort to Hollywood high concept mash-ups to describe it: Slate called it “Hogwarts-goes-to-Harvard”; the Village Voice called it “Less Than Zero plus Harry Potter.”  They’re right, but they also both acknowledge that novel is more than that.  Magic in Harry Potter doesn’t actually affect the world much: Mrs. Weasely has self-washing dishes, wands can kill by pointing and shooting, and newspapers have moving images, as though we Muggles have to do without such extravagancies (“You mean the dishes wash—BY THEMSELVES?”  “You mean you have the power to kill from a distance WITH A SMALL HANDHELD OBJECT?” etc).  But JK Rowling never really asks how magic—how the power for words to affect the world in immediate, literal, physical, palpable ways—would affect our inner and outer worlds and force us to ask hard questions in the absence of fairy-tale morality and the face of real-life ambiguity.  Grossman does.  I’d call it Magical Realism if that term didn’t already mean something else entirely. 

And in our session, Lev Grossman was terrific, explaining (for what couldn’t be for the first or even tenth time) his relationship to the Narnia books, his initial motives and even doubts about the novel, and his recent meeting with Neil Gaiman, giving the impression that our course authors must loll away the afternoons over parchment and butterbeer.    

For all his great and funny responses, though, two stand out.  First, when asked about how he felt about an upsetting and unexpected development late in the novel (no spoilers—this is the Internet, after all), Grossman reveled that he himself didn’t quite understand what he had written when he wrote it, and that unlike other parts of the book, that section came quickly and without immediate introspection.  At other points, Grossman similarly demurred, suggesting that his intentions weren’t entirely clear even to himself at the time, and that even now he’s still coming to understand exactly what he wrote .

This admission—which one student brought up later as a revelation—flies in the face of what many students are taught about books and their writers.  Authors are not watchmakers; they don’t work in precise, mechanical ways and therefore don’t always have definitive answers about their books, or even their own motivations. 

Yet the Mr. Arbuses of English have drilled into too many students that reading is a set of equivalences, a scavenger hunt for Symbols—or clues, keys, secrets, decoding the correct combination to open the gym locker of Authorial Truth.  All stories become a series of equal signs: yuh cut, yuh fail.  If yuh don’t see that duh green light in Duh Great Gatsby is hope fur duh American dream, it counts as a cut; yuh cut, yuh fail.  If yuh don’t see dat duh white whale is an unobtainable goal, counts as not seein’ duh green light, counts as a cut, yuh cut, yuh fail.

In response to his recent blog post about advice for college writers, I asked Grossman what he would tell college readers.  And his reply: he wants them to enjoy reading.  Reading for school can take the fun out of it.  And he’s right.  The two responses—authors don’t have all the answers; enjoy reading—are intertwined: students hunting for the right answers and author’s intentions will detract from the one thing I do think authors intend: for readers to take pleasure in the reading experience.  I worry that English classes instill Arbuse-ive values: that learning to read and write well and critically become versions of good behavior, sitting still, in uniform.  Despite the convention of including a map in the inside cover of these secret worlds novels (The Magicians is no exception), Lucy Pevensie and Harry Potter have no roadmaps, no keys, and no immediate agendas to save the new world.   Even Dorothy Gale doesn’t really understand where the Yellow Brick Road will take her until much later.  When Lucy emerges from the wardrobe, Harry from his closet, Dorothy from her transported house, and The Magicians’ Quentin from ,well, Brooklyn, their worlds are bigger, not reduced.  (OK, Alice [of Wonderland fame] does have a key, and Lyra does have a compass, but that’s for another entry).  Quentin keeps looking for his purpose, his destiny, his Quest.  But there isn’t one—not exactly, or at least not that he’s aware of as he’s experiencing it.  At these moments, he’s less a character in a story and more of a person—and an adult.

Overall, students loved the talk and loved The Magicians, which I say in agreement with Grossman is very important to me. I don’t teach books that I don’t also love.   Last year, one student was absolutely convinced that the Narnia-like books within The Magicians, called Fillory, and their imagined author, “Christopher Plover” (a quasi-JM Barrie more than CS Lewis), were real, declaring as evidence that she had, in fact, read them as a child. Googling (now acceptable as a gerund) only made matters worse, thanks to Viking/Penguin’s websites for the imaginary land and the equally imagined author.

It’s a testimony to how richly and deeply the Fillory lore runs through the books, and it made me appreciate that Grossman chose to write The Magicians INSTEAD of Fillory books.  Despite any waxing about timelessness, Peter Pan and the Narnia books—and, already, Harry Potter—are really products of their time. Part of the point of The Magicians seems to be that you can’t go home again—not to your parents, and even to your stories.  It’ something that college students learn too well, especially now, with their first winter break upon them.  Showing up, in the right uniform, in the right place, on time—good enough for Mr. Arbuse—is really only the beginning.  You also have to find your own answers—to your own questions.    Literature, like life, is better than that. 

Gym is not.

 

Time: Geez, I sat down and was interrupted at least six times for this one. I’m willing to call it an hour.

Coming soon: The only false note I detect in The Magicians is Quentin’s last name, “Coldwater.”  More on why.   

UPDATE 2/6/12: Here’s that blog on Quentin’s name: https://jessekavadlo.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/i-have-issues-with-fictional-characters-names/

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