Reflections on Glass

I did this

I did this

I smashed my glass back door last week, a casualty of a drive-by pebble kicked up while weed whacking.  It wasn’t a dramatic shattering, Batman careening through a skylight—just a tap, a ping, and then the fracture spread.  I couldn’t see the ripples, but every time I looked it was wider and wider and more diffused, and I could hear it, tic-tic-tic-tic-tic, like the ominous soundtrack of children standing on thin ice.  It took at least twenty-four hours for the tempered glass to completely web over. 

I called the glass company with the best slogan: We Fix Your Panes.  Yes.  That is what I want. And I couldn’t help but think of all of the glass and mirror metaphors we live by, because we literally and figuratively see ourselves in our glass. (And our glasses, but that’s for another post.)  People who live in glass houses should not throw stones, or maybe we just need to be more careful about rocks lying near lawn tools and windows.  

Yet the resulting door looked, to me, deliberate, and beautiful.  We take transparency for granted, imagining that glass lets our sight out and light in without calling any attention to itself, an invisible shield against the outside.  We can be indoors but not see the door itself; instead, we think we see the world as it is.  The cracks made me see the window rather than through it, bringing the difference between insides and outsides into sharp relief. Not just through the looking glass, but at looking the glass. 

It has been over a week now and I’m still waiting for the replacement window to arrive, but I’m in no rush anyway. I find myself looking at and out the broken glass more than any of the others in the house.  I’m glad that I can’t see right through it, and that, unlike the other three adjacent glass doors, it does not reflect back on me in the same way anymore.  I prefer for mirrors to be mirrors and glass to be glass. And as any car’s side mirror will tell you, Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear.  It’s less a warning to drivers than a snippet of found poetry, an accidental koan.  We rely on reflections to represent reality, when in reality they are only reflections.  

objects in mirror

I just finished creating and teaching a new class, a first-year general education Western Civilization class on the topic of Hell in literature.  And images of, and in, mirrors were a recurring theme, including Sartre’s No Exit, where hell is not just, famously, “other people,” but also a gaudy hotel room strangely devoid of mirrors.  The three trapped characters can see only each other, never themselves.  As they did not reflect on their actions in life, so they are denied the same in death. They can only see one another and are controlled by each other’s powerful gazes. 

Less famously but more elaborately, Gloria Naylor (who also wrote Women of Brewster Place) has a novel called Linden Hills, modeled on Dante’s Inferno (which we also read). Again, mirrors seem to follow characters everywhere, here as a way to force these still-living people (Linden Hills is a more of a hell-on-Earth allegory than a straightforward vision of punishment in the afterlife) to ponder what part of themselves—referred to as the mirror in their soul—they are willing to barter in exchange for greater material success. 

The book holds on to the possibility that  reflections can be truthful—“Mirror, mirror on the wall,” etc.  But I don’t believe they ever can be.  Teachers use the word “reflection” to describe a particular kind of writing assignment, one that asks for thought, retrospection, and maybe a little personal soul searching.  Dracula does not appear in a mirror, presumably because he has no soul, but also because he is not capable of this kind of human reflection: rumination, remorse, regret for his centuries of crimes. He cannot do anything differently.

But we need to be mindful of the problems of reflection as well: they can be fragmented, like my door; unflattering, like in a bathroom, or too kind, like in a department store; like the car’s mirror, dangerously close, or not close enough.  And even the best reflections are really reversals: not the way things are, but their opposite. 

Narcissus was never in love with himself; he was in love with his reflection.  In the end, the only person in the world that you can never see is yourself. 

And now, I need to call the glass company again. It has been longer than 4-6 days, and I my panes are still not fixed.

Jurassic Park mirror

Time: a ten minute rough draft yesterday and forty six minutes just now.

Hourman note: Thanks to the WordPress world and all my new Followers.  I hope you like what you’re reading. It’s because of you that I’m feeling motivated to get back to writing the blog on a regular basis.

Jesse Kavadlo

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Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Nightlight

Warning: may not be safe for children's emotional health

Warning: may not be safe for children’s emotional health

My son Dorian’s nightlight broke.  It was, I eulogized to him, truly an exceptional nightlight: its bulb was surrounded by blue glitter suspended in liquid-filled glass, its warmth combining the cool of a snow globe and the heat of a lava lamp.  It had comforted him against the darkness for several months, a talisman against invisible monsters.  But then I noticed that it was dripping—dripping directly into its electrical outlet, reminding me once again how companies routinely market the most gorgeous garbage imaginable.  To Dorian, freshly five years old, the nightlight was a sacrosanct promise of protection and a new day.  To me, it was an invitingly colored leaky cauldron of antifreeze plugged into a live socket next to my child’s bed, presenting any number of fatal opportunities.  It, obviously, had to go.  But Dorian’s tears flowed more freely than even his sodden nightlight’s, and no hugs, no kisses, and no declarations of replacement could console him.  The immediate substitute was a poor understudy.  Its ordinary plastic, inattentively embellished with the obligatory stars and crescents, only underscored the original’s brilliance.  Dorian lobbed thick sobs into his pillow and the night, the din punctuated only by the pregnant silences of lungs reloading.

Finally, my wife, Aura, managed to comfort Dorian by telling him a story: the tale of his older brother Jonah’s lost balloon.  Again, it was not just any balloon: it was a silver helium balloon in the shape of a diving dolphin.  We bought it at a parade when he was two, and he was so happy with it that he wanted desperately to hold the string himself rather than tie it to his wrist.  The ending was inevitable: he accidentally let go.  I ran after it, crossing the parade to chase it, and when it eluded me by mere inches, I heard the crowd gasp.  I didn’t mean to upstage the festivities, but it was clear that the brief saga of a father’s failed rescue of his son’s balloon captured the tragic mythos of parenting better than the semi-cacophony of a high school marching band.  We helplessly watched it float away, growing smaller and smaller.  Jonah cried for days.

But Dorian stopped crying.  And then he asked for more sad stories.  And so they came: about Aura’s butterfly ring, her only special possession in a Bronx working-class rental unit childhood devoid of house and car, to say nothing of fairy princess tea parties.  The ring was lost for days, despite frantic search and rescue efforts, until she accidentally found it, broken underfoot, while her friend Lauren was over.  Aura cried so much that Lauren, nonplussed, had to be sent home. 

And then more: about the time I threatened to pop my younger brother’s balloon and he, my brother, popped it himself to prevent me from popping it, and how I, not he, mourned.  About how the very same thing happened again, this time over a record we were arguing over that he then broke to prevent me from having.  About the tragic sunglasses trilogy: the ones I dropped while riding my bike, and how a car ran them over, and my futile effort to retrieve the shattered pieces and flattened frame.  About another pair lost on a water flume ride at Six Flags.  And another forgotten in a restaurant and how I stubbornly didn’t go back for them.  (I have only recently permited myself sunglasses again.)  One hour and a dozen dead treasures later, Dorian was asleep.  The next night, he was fine. 

Even at five, Dorian saw the horror in his loss.  More than a beacon, certainly more than a way to avoid tripping on the way to the bathroom, a nightlight is a surrogate parent: even after Mommy and Daddy tuck the boys in and go downstairs to do nighttime grown up things (read: eat ice cream), the nightlight, ever vigilant, ever loyal, remains on guard.  How could something so precious bleed?  How could it die?  Yet it could happen even to a nightlight, a sign of childhood but a symbol of life.  It could happen to a balloon, so much like a living thing, yet its membranes are even more fragile, its lifespan even shorter, yet its nature even more recklessly fugitive.  It could even happen to a butterfly ring, emblem of metamorphosis, of the wishful childhood change from ugly and earthbound to beautiful and free, to fly away, not rashly like a balloon, but with color and panache, transformed and brilliant.  If a nightlight can go out, if a suicidal balloon can abandon its young caretaker, if a ring can be broken, if sunglasses can repeatedly fall by the wayside, where does that leave us, aside from lying alone in the dark, balloonlessly, with no sunglasses?  If a nightlight can go out, then anything can.  Dorian may not have had the words for it, but he experienced his first intimations of mortality.  Everyone’s nightlight goes out.  It is, in the end, the very dread that leads many an adult to lie in bed awake well into the night, or to keep a small light on, just in case.  Parents included.          

FIN

FIN

 Time: another explanation. I wrote this a few years ago before I started blogging and timing myself, but with the attention WordPress gave me by Freshly Pressing Transference, my last entry, I wanted to follow up quickly with something in the same vein that I’ve never posted. Thanks to the WordPress editors and all of the new readers who found me.  So maybe now is not the time to continue my 2013 hiatus.

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Transference

 

DVD-Video_bottom-side

Two years after buying a recordable DVD player, one year after the threats from my wife got serious, I begin transferring the home movies of my children from VHS tapes to DVDs.  I know I’m still at least one platform behind, but any digital form is better than one that can be destroyed by light, air, and time.

Because they’re analogue, I need to play them in real time to copy them.  And as I do, I watch them, and I realize that the last time I watched them was the last time I transferred them, from camcorder cassettes to VHS.  Their entire existence rests on converting them from one obsolete medium to the next.  

As I watch, I see my young self and young wife, recent parents and, far more seriously, recent homebuyers.  I see my oldest son, now a teenager, as a baby, then a toddler, then an older brother to his new baby brother.  And I think, Ah, so young, so cute.  The kids, too.  The tapes from twelve to eight years ago show a new family in a small, snowbound Minnesota house, each of us swaddled and layered in Fleet Farm sweat clothes, the new baby in so many layers that he’s a Midwest Matryoshka.  All laughing and smiling, just joy, spinning, dancing.  Nine years, four houses, and three states elapse in two hours, and our daughter, now five, is born. 

Yet looking at these people on TV, I realize that I don’t remember the times this way. What I remember is the stress and mess, the lack of money, the ever-present question: what’s going to happen?  Not unlike now, but then even more so.   I never liked recording the movies, never feigned love or expertise manning the camera.  I always felt that parents who spent their time with a lens in front of their eyes were blocking their view of their children, already anticipating the minute when that very moment would turn to nostalgia: Ah, look at us. We were so happy fifteen minutes ago. 

But it has not been fifteen minutes. It has been fifteen years, and I can see not just how fresh but how fragile the moments were. I’m glad I didn’t film too much, the Warren Report of our lives, the volumes Proust would have filmed if he’d lived in the Midwest and owned a camera.  But I’m grateful that I have something, a few compressed flashes beyond the faded reel of my own mottled memory, and that these videos are more luminous and numinous than my mental VHS’s translucent haze.  I wish that I could transfer the images in my head to a newer platform as well, and as the last tape cuts to static, I close my eyes and imagine how today will look to the future me of the next transference, how I’ll look at the deteriorating self that I now see entering middle age, and instead I marvel at how young and thin, how thick the hair, how joyous the moments, since I have recorded proof that they will not last.

 

Time: less than an hour. Lost track.

This was published in the 2013 issue of Maryville University’s literary magazine, Magnolia.

Hourman update: despite two posts this month, still on hiatus.  Thanks for hanging in there.

–Jesse Kavadlo

 

 

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Cosmopolis: Don DeLillo Goes to the Movies

DeLillo, Cronenberg, Pattinson--what could possibly go wrong?

DeLillo, Cronenberg, Pattinson–what could possibly go wrong?

For a writer whose first novel is about a filmmaker, whose most recent novel is a hybrid story and film criticism, who cites Godard as an influence, and whose magnum opus pays homage to Eisenstein, Don DeLillo has not gotten his due at the movies.  Cormac McCarthy gets the Coen brothers, Viggo Mortensen, and Matt Damon, but White Noise and Underworld elicit only confusion: students get excited to hear the books’ names, only to discover disappointedly they are entirely unrelated to the movies that share those titles.  DeLillo’s novels feature neither ghosts nor vampires.

Until 2012, of course—the movie, and the monsters.  Cosmopolis was released in theaters last fall and on DVD in January 2013, to the delight of DeLillo’s fans and apparent dismay of Robert Pattinson’s, according to these (typical) Amazon.com reviewers: “As much as I like Robert Pattinson, this was the worst movie I’ve ever watched. Wanted to throw away DVD afterward.” And this: “I love Robert Pattinson. … I loved all the Twilight movies… but Cosmopolis is … not a movie so much as a long nightmare in which every word is measured and every character represents something heavy…. Even Pattinson, who is very handsome in his business suit, isn’t enough to make me want to watch this again.”

Even for DeLillo’s readership, Cosmopolis is a strange first adaptation, a language-bound and seemingly unfilmable novel, especially compared with the black comedy of White Noise, which supposedly attracted director Barry Sonnenfeld before disappearing and being removed from IMDB, with only Wikipedia (!) aware that an adaptation was ever a possibility.  The eminently filmable Libra was famously optioned by Oliver Stone, who then shelved it in favor of that other JFK conspiracy book.  The less realistic one.

delillo_NYT_1998

On the other hand, the plot of Cosmopolis always struck me as similar to the one DeLillo film that did make it—Game 6, written by DeLillo and starring Michael Keaton, who was also in the non-DeLillo White Noise film.  (Everything is connected.)  At the time, Game 6 struck me as compressed DeLillo miscellany—Mao II’s author/reader dynamics, White Noise’s SIMUVAC, and of course Underworld’s mediation on the meaning of loss, in baseball as in life.  Now, though, Game 6 seems more of a blueprint for the future Cosmopolis than a retrospective.   I find myself returning to Game 6’s cross-town New York City long day’s journey into night, its Pinter-esque dialogue between driver and troubled passenger who happens to be toting a loaded gun, as so many of DeLillo’s protagonists do, less as Chekov’s symbol of narrative economy as much as DeLillo’s favored way of propelling the plot deathward.

Cosmopolis, though, the book and the movie, is a far greater achievement than Game 6. As Cornel Bonca begins in his brilliant essay “Contact With the Real: On Cosmopolis,” when the novel “first came out in 2003, it was regarded by most reviewers, myself included, as a disappointment,” but he rightly concludes that the film may give “renewed life and attention to a novel that tells us more about this culture’s hurl into the future than we want to know.”  And indeed, the film does tremendous justice to the novel’s ideas, criticisms, but especially, for me, its sub-zero sense of humor, including Kozmo on Brutha Fez’s death: “Hope you’re not disappointed…. That our man wasn’t shot. Hope he didn’t let you down. Natural causes. That’s a letdown” (132), or Vija Kinsky, on time, technology, and language: “Even the word computer sounds backward and dumb” (104).  Director and adapter David Cronenberg seems an obvious partner.  His concern with technology is pervasive, including films like Videodrome, but Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash demonstrates that, like DeLillo, in too many scenes to name, Cronenberg has had a particular ambivalence toward the automobile.  Cosmopolis, then, coalesces the DeLillian—and maybe American—obsessive trinity of money, guns, and cars.

Unlike those Amazon.com reviewers, I loved the movie. I was riveted, and I laughed out loud in ways that embarrassed me in front of only myself. But for me the surprise, and brilliance, was in casting Robert Pattinson.  Bonca suggests that Christian Bale, “whose imposing physicality and cruel intelligence[,] would have been perfect for Eric Packer.” Of course.  But the American Psycho-era Bale that Bonca envisions has turned into Terminator Salvation-era, Dark Knight Rises-era Bale—an action hero, or anti-hero, but either way a method-acting master and big budget Leading Man, too physically imposing,  ironically too well cast, for the ethereal weirdness of DeLillo’s prose and Cronenberg’s vision.  Pattinson’s casting reminds me of David Fincher’s at-the-time risk of with Brad Pitt in Fight Club: Pitt, like Pattinson, seemed less in keeping with the adaptation’s social satire and more like the thing the film was satirizing.  Yet instead, like Pitt, Pattinson brings an artless, rather than method, quality to the part—his ready-to-wear materialism and superficiality are neither teeny bopper nor ironic, but rather, perfect.  He even seemed out of control and frightened by the end, which works better than Bale’s perpetual imperturbability or even DeLillo’s paper Packer, who never loses his icy cool.

Pattinson fans hoping for a love story, or even a story, certainly set themselves up for disappointment. What DeLillo, Cronenberg, and Pattinson deliver is film’s most scathing critique of techno-capitalism in decades.  And once again, DeLillo comes off as the most prescient guy in the room, forecasting the possibility that a single hubristic day trader could threaten the entire global financial system, or even that a grassroots 99% movement could occupy New York—ideas that seemed unlikely in the shadow of 9/11 when the novel came out.  With its references to Marx (“A specter is haunting the world—the specter of capitalism!” [89, 96]), Cosmopolis positions Packer as the uncanny embodiment of Marx’s infamous monster metaphor: “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”  Pattinson/Packer is that ghost, and that vampire.  Awake all night, pacing his urban Gothic castle, perpetually prowling for food and sex, preternaturally smart, hiding behind sunglasses and in his cork-lined, hearse-like automobile, Pattinson carries his Twilight fame readymade into Packer.   As Vija Kinsky explains to Eric, “People will not die. Isn’t this the creed of the new culture? People will be absorbed in streams of information” (104).  And at the end of the film, as Paul Giamatti’s Benno Levin holds the gun to Packer’s head and the film abruptly cuts to black, Packer is left suspended between life and death, undead, the final moment of the murder never to arrive. 

Packer may not be Edward Cullen or sparkle in the sunlight, but I know a true vampire when I see one.  Cosmopolis may not be White Noise or Underworld (the movies, that is), but at last DeLillo has his ghost and vampire.

He's so sparklie!

He’s so sparklie!

Hourman Update: The blog is still on hiatus, but I wanted to crosspost this piece with the Don DeLillo Society Newsletter, Vol 7 no 1, March 2013. I expect Hourman to return, in slightly different form, in a few months. Thanks to everyone who has been interested.

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The Rock & Roll Novel: Where Great Jones Street Meets Telegraph Avenue; Or, Hi, Fidelity!

Part II of ALL PLACES EXCEPT HERE ARE IMAGINARY: HEARING MICHAEL CHABON’S TELEGRAPH AVENUE, PART I  

From Esquire's review

Image from Esquire’s review

Last month, I concluded by saying that “no other novel showcases Chabon’s prose powers better than Telegraph Avenue.”  It turns out that the New York Times later agreed (who knew they read my blog?), placing TA on the 100 Notable Books of 2012 list with this summary:  “Chabon’s rich comic novel about fathers and sons in Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., juggles multiple plots and mounds of pop culture references in astonishing prose.”

It’s the “astonishing prose” part that I want to analyze.  Here is a sentence on the opening page, the first appearance of the one of the novel’s main characters:

Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned, Archie Stallings manned the front counter of Brokeland Records, holding a random baby, wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin-bright turtleneck that reinforced his noted yet not disadvantageous resemblance to Gamera, the giant mutant tortoise of Japanese cinema.

In this sentence, we can already see both the novel’s preoccupations and style: the alliterative opening, the juxtaposition of images, the mild surprise of “random” before “baby”; the low culture reference to Gamera; the interests in vinyl, threads, and film. But we can also see begin to hear its music: the record store is more than a setting.  It establishes that Chabon’s prose will be musical to match.

Telegraph Avenue

Telegraph Avenue also distinguishes itself from the novels I immediately thought of from reading its description.  One is Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street—its title, like TA, uses a real-life street name as metaphor, with Chabon going for assonance and an overt communication message vs. DeLillo’s more subtle allusion to longing and drugs.  For all of its seeming preoccupation with music, though, GJS—an underrated early ‘70s novel about a rock star trying to escape the life—is not singing TA’s tune.  Contrast Chabon’s earlier first page (although not first paragraph) with DeLillo’s opening paragraph:

Fame requires every kind of excess.  I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings.  I mean long journeys across gray space.  I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic.  Understand the man who must inhabit these extreme regions, monstrous and vulval, damp with memories of violation.  Even if half-mad he is absorbed into the public’s total madness; even if fully rational, a bureaucrat in hell, a secret genius of survival, he is sure to be destroyed by the public’s contempt for survivors.  Fame, this special kind, feeds itself on outrage, on what the counselors of lesser men would consider bad publicity—hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium and drugs.  Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide.

(Is it clear I was a hero of rock ’n’ roll?) (1)

great_jones_street_

It’s brilliant, but the rhythms and repetitions (“I mean”), to say nothing of DeLillo’s unique imagery (“chinless kings,” “vulval,” “bureaucrat in hell”), are nothing like Chabon’s gee-whiz sincerity.

The other obvious comparison is between TA and High Fidelity, another novel about another record store owner on the brink of economic and romantic collapse.  But again, the voice in Nick Hornby’s novel could not be more different from Chabon’s, or DeLillo’s. Here is Hornby’s opening:

My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:

  1. Alison Ashworth
  2. Penny Hardwick
  3. Jackie Allen
  4. Charlie Nichilson
  5. Sarah Kendrew.

Gone are Chabon’s—and DeLillo’s—meandering cadences. This is clipped prose that captures narrator Rob’s solipsistic and obsessive (a period at the end of a list?) yet engaging character.  Hornby’s use of hyphens, to say nothing of lists, makes Rob as different as possibly from laid-back, often dispassionate Archie and Sphinx-like, cipher-like Bucky in Great Jones Street.

High Fidelity

You can leaf through Telegraph Avenue and pick nearly any passage on nearly any of the book’s 465 pages and see the same superrealistic attention to detail, details that mostly do not accrue or foreshadow; they are like ornate, lovingly crafted background shots and costumes that the camera pans over closely to capture and create tone:

Page 176: The door to the office creaked open with its trademark creature-feature spookiness, a sound, impervious to old can and WD-40 alike, that had in turn haunted the practices of a Jungian analyst, a couples therapist, a specialist in neurolinguistic programming, a hypnotherapist, a shiatsu practitioner, and a life coach before settling on to lock the tenure of the Birth Partners in suite 202.

280: A last morning glad of summer, blue banded with gold and peach, unfurled slowly over the streets as the two wanderers, denizens of the hidden world know to rogues, gamblers, and swordsmen as “the Water Margin,” made their way along the Street of Blake toward the ancestral stronghold of the Jew-Tang Clan, its gables armored in cedar shakes faded to the color of dry August hills.

412: On the dilapidated sign of Steele’s Scuba, a ghostly diver confronted the lost submarine mysteries of Telegraph Avenue.

On each page, but especially in the longer sentences—and many of the sentences are very, very long, including a single-sentence tour de force chapter that runs over a dozen pages—we see the clauses balanced, sometimes Jenga-style, so that the reader is sure that the whole thing will fall apart or dissolve into run-on cacophony  (it never does), often phrased like a long jazz phrase, the reader almost hearing the horn player just make it to the end on a single breath.

Benjamin Percy in Esquire, however, doesn’t see it that way:

…Telegraph Avenue aligns itself more with [Chabon’s] earlier pre-Marvel novels — about real people in the real world, such as in the remarkable Wonder Boys — yet he’s stuck with his over-the-top hyperactive style of recent years. It’s the equivalent of Michael Bay directing a romantic comedy. It may be entertaining, and there may be a great story buried beneath the special effects and explosions, but it doesn’t track.

I think Percy is using the wrong metaphor.  Despite my earlier movie simile, I don’t see the sentences as “the equivalent of Michael Bay”—big, dumb, show-offy spectacle—at all.  Instead, I hear them, and, in keeping with the novel’s recurring use of real songs to provide a quasi-soundtrack to accompany the story, the sentences sound like Charlie Parker or early Miles Davis. (Percy compares them with Sergeant Pepper, which I can see, but that comparison contradicts what he also suggests about Chabon’s show-offy virtuosity.) Sometimes I hear Frank Zappa, when it gets far out.  And mostly Chabon sound like a hyperarticulate yet dreamy poet more than a realist novelist. Typed differently, the opening page passage (or again, really, any of them) begins to look and sound like Allen Ginsberg, except I suppose for the Gamera part, which I’ll excise:

Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned,

Archie Stallings manned

The front counter of Brokeland Records,

 Holding a random baby,

 Wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin-bright turtleneck that reinforced his

Noted yet not

Disadvantageous resemblance …

Yet at the same time, despite the breathes, cadences, and musicality, the prose—or the neighborhood, or these characters—can exist only as words, as language.  Percy’s Bay analogy is doubly off base, and even my music is a metaphor.  It’s no surprise that William Grimes, also writing in the NY Times, declared the audiobook of TA a dud, despite what seems the obvious potential:

A prime example of a good book defeated by the format is TELEGRAPH AVENUE (Harper Audio, $44.99), Michael Chabon’s teeming novel about race, human relations and a lot of other stuff swirling around a vintage record store in Oakland, Calif. The language is dense, allusive, hip and sharp, which is to say, very difficult to perform. Clarke Peters, who played Detective Lester Freamon on the television series “The Wire” and Big Chief Lambreaux on “Treme,” picks his way carefully through this minefield, articulating painstakingly in the sonorous, low-pitched voice of a late-night D.J. on a progressive jazz station. It’s a swinging style, perfectly attuned to the novel’s setting and falls easily on the ear, but Chabon’s relentlessly brilliant prose style makes heavy demands on performer and listener alike. By the second disc in a marathon that goes on for more than 18 hours, the thought arises that some books simply need to be experienced in black type.

Despite seeming to be based on Oakland, despite the voluminous attention to real-life detail with occasional real-life people thrown in for good measure, Telegraph Avenue, is, in the end, a purely imaginary place, a fantasy that exists only on the pages of the book of the same name.  Chabon originally wanted TA to be a TV series, and plot- and character-wise, I can see it.  But no screen, or even spoken reading, can do what words alone on the page achieve.  Telegraph Avenue makes the case that the printed word can still do things that music, television, and even Michael Bay cannot.

Time: 90 minutes. Yes, this is a long entry even for going overtime, but I copied and pasted or retyped more than usual.  I still feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of this novel—what about race?—but I’m ready to move on.

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We Have Entered the Era of Un-

In culture, literature, and theory, the 1960s marked the beginning of postmodernism.  And quickly the prefix post- became the operative way of understanding the world: post-war, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, post-industrialism; then, post-human, post-Boomer, and post-punk; more recently, post-millennial and post-apocalyptic; and for a least a little while in 2008, post-partisan and post-racial.   (Many a postdoc has been devoted to developing post-anything.)  Post- became more than a prefix—it became a worldview, an epistemological category.

But what, students in my class on postmodern literature reasonably asked, can possibly come after postmodernism, or post- anything? More post. Post-postmodernism. [Shudder]. Post- is the prefix that devours itself, since it is always after, belated, still waiting, and deferred. Nothing can come after post-.

Nothing except, with apologies to Existentialism, a new kind of nothing.

Enter: Un-.

Un-, like post-, is not a word. Unlike other prefixes, however, like pre- or post-, or re- or un-’s near-relative, under-, un- does not describe, affix in time, suggest repetition, or, like mis- or mal-, even suggest that something is wrong.  Unlike with-, dis-, de-, counter-, anti-, or even the powerful non-, un- does not suggest opposition, working against.  Un- suggests more than reversal or opposite: it is negation, disappearance, taking out of existence.  And if post- described the world after about 1945, Un- describes the world from 2000, or maybe 2001, to the present. We are living in the era of Un-.

Now, I realize that lots of words began with Un- before 2000.  I used “unlike” twice in the last paragraph alone. But I used it as a preposition, “dissimilar from.”  On Facebook, unlike is a verb: if you click Like, and then decide that you don’t like that thing anymore, you can click Unlike and it will erase your Like. Since Facebook does not have a Dislike button, Unlike is as close as people can get.

But Unlike is as different from Dislike as unable to disable, unaffected to disaffected, unarranged to disarrange, unfortunate to disfortunate (which is sort of a word).  Which is to say, very different.  Both suggest opposition, but dis- implies an active opposition, expending energy to reverse.  Un- feels passive, a kind of vanishing—or worse, the suggestion that the thing never was in the first place.  When we Unfriend on Facebook, we do something we cannot do in real life or face to face, which is presumably why the word had to be recently invented. We don’t Unfriend corporeal people.  We just—what, exactly?  Stop being friends? Spend less time together? Drift apart? Or something stronger—not a drift but a rift.  A fight, a falling out.  We’re not on speaking terms anymore.  But not Unfriend.  We can only Unfollow online, on Facebook or Twitter.  We can’t Unfollow in person.  Unfriend and Unfollow seem etymologically and epistemologically close to Untouchable, with the implications of prohibition, exclusion, disappearance. Unclean.

Like many people who spend time at their keyboard, I have become reliant on Delete, on Backspace, on Undo.  When I knock down a glass and wish it would float back in a startling cinematic backwind, or misplace my book and want it to reappear, or say something that I want to take back, I can picture Ctrl Z clearly in my mind’s eye.  But it does not Undo.   Glasses do not unbreak; books are not unlost but rather must actively be found (without Ctrl F, either). Words that are unspoken were never spoken, not spoken and stricken.  We say, I take it back.  But the words cannot be unsaid.  Judges instruct juries to ignore testimony, but lawyers know that jurors cannot unhear. Judges cannot unstruct.  Traumatized viewers cannot unsee.

Do not try this in real life

And so Un- fails at complete erasure.  Like a palimpsest, Un- can’t help but leave traces of its former self behind.  The close reader can see what used to be there, the residue of virtual Friendship, the electronically unsettled path left behind after one has Followed, or been Followed.  And perhaps this failure is for the best.  The only thing more powerful than Un-’s fever dream of retroactive disappearance is that the wish cannot come true.  If anything, the electronic world that birthed the fantasy of Undo is the same one that never lets us scrub our online prints away.

Time: 55 minutes

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All Places Except Here Are Imaginary: Hearing Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Part I

I have a book called The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi.  Its Forward explains that the writers were inspired by what it might be like to take “a guided tour of Paul Feval’s vampire city, Selene,” and, “excited by the idea, it did not take long for us to compile a list of other place we felt we would like to visit: Shangri-La, Oz, and Ruritania readily sprang to mind.”  But, they write, “as the project developed, our list of entries kept going, threatening to become endless,” in what sounds less like a real book than an imaginary story about an imaginary book about imaginary places by, say, Jorge Louis Borges, who as far as I know is not imaginary.

So the writers imagined up some rules: no imaginary places that were “in effect, disguises, or pseudonyms, for existing locales.”  Not “Pooh’s turf or Watership Down” because “these exist… the characters, the actions, were imaginary—not the places.”  No imaginary worlds set in the future, for reasons I still don’t get.  And more.  Even then, the book runs 755 double columned pages.  And it raises some serious ontological problems: aside from the place where we are at any given moment, aren’t all places imaginary places?  This sounds like solipsism: if I close my eyes, the world disappears.  But it’s a little different, in that places in our minds, and certainly in every work of fiction, become imaginary places, even movies filmed in real (or “real”) locations.  Any world from our past, and even anywhere we are not, becomes a mental reconstruction, a psychological set as unreal as any façade Hollywood might construct.  And that’s still assuming we can trust of our senses, ignoring every philosopher from Descartes through Lacan.[i]

Michel Chabon is best known for constructing imaginary places, fanciful conceits, and high concepts.  It’s no wonder that he is one of the few award-winning Serious Novelists to have co-written big Hollywood screenplays, including Spider-Man II (yay!) and John Carter (um…) .  Can you imagine Jonathan Franzen putting time into Blade III, or Jane Smiley revising a few drafts of Fantastic Four II: Rise of the Silver Surfer?[ii]  In keeping,  Chabon invented a number of imaginary places in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—the world of his superhero The Escapist, who is imaginary even by the already imaginary standards of superheroes, in that he is not a “real” superhero, even acknowledging that there are no “real” superheroes.[iii]  But he also invents an alternative Prague for Josef Kavalier, one that includes magic and a real (no quotations) Golem, although unfortunately Chabon does not imagine it without Nazis.   And the world of late 1930s Brooklyn, with Sammy Clayman and Josef’s comic book collaboration and the rise and fall of the costumed superhero’s Golden Age, while not entirely imaginary, is entirely imagined.

The Sitka Alaska of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is even more imaginary, although Sitka itself is not.  It is a kind of alternative history, a What If? in the great Marvel comics tradition, imagining a Jewish state not placed contentiously in the Middle East but rather somewhere no one would want.  And even within this imagined world, we see the double imagined world of the Jewish hardboiled detective novel, Yiddish-speaking flatfoots and underworld goons, an invented genre that becomes palpable in the book’s pages.  This is to say nothing of Chabon’s foray into Harry Potter and Narnia-esque Young Adult Fiction in Summerland, or its opposite, the seemingly realistic by comparison Wonder Boys.  While the movie adaptation does a great job of dramatizing blocked writer Grady Tripp, the novel does a better job dramatizing the blocked novel itself, a universe that is imaginary even within the imaginary confines of the novel itself.

All of this is a way of getting to Chabon’s new novel, Telegraph Avenue, which, by the standards of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, contains no imaginary worlds at all. Its setting is the intersecting space around Oakland, California.  No one invents any superheroes, although there are plenty of allusions; no one speaks Yiddish, although there are prominent Jewish characters.   Here’s the blurb:

As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there—longtime friends, bandmates, and co-regents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, two semi-legendary midwives who have welcomed more than a thousand newly minted citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart—half tavern, half temple—stands Brokeland.

When ex–NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in America, announces plans to build his latest Dogpile megastore on a nearby stretch of Telegraph Avenue, Nat and Archy fear it means certain doom for their vulnerable little enterprise. Meanwhile, Aviva and Gwen also find themselves caught up in a battle for their professional existence, one that tests the limits of their friendship. Adding another layer of complication to the couples’ already tangled lives is the surprise appearance of Titus Joyner, the teenage son Archy has never acknowledged and the love of fifteen-year-old Julius Jaffe’s life.

And here’s the thing: all of this is a long way of setting up that the Chabonian emphasis on setting, on imaginary places, is, in fact, misplaced.  It’s only a part of the story.  The other part, the one that makes Chabon’s novels elaborate works of the imagination—along with, I’ll add, the works and worlds of JK Rowling, CS Lewis, HG Wells, JRR Tolkien, and so many others—are not the imaginary places, with apologies to Manguel and Guadalupi.  It is his language.  Language turns Oakland and Brokeland into worthy entries in the Dictionary of Imaginary Places.

Unlike his contemporaries like the aforementioned Franzen, Eggers, Smiley, or David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon is yet not recognized as a first rate prose stylist.  I think this is, in part, as I will argue, because his style varies from book to book.  That ability to transform, one of Chabon’s key themes, is part of what makes him so great.  And no other novel showcases Chabon’s prose powers better than Telegraph Avenue—which I will get to next week, since my hour is almost up.

Time: 55 minutes.  I ended where I intended to begin, hence the hastily added Part I to my title.


[i] My plan is in fact to ignore them.

[ii] Although I suppose Dave Eggers wrote Where the Wild Things Are.  Which is not the same thing.

[iii] I’m going to stop before I make anyone’s brain hurt. You know what I mean.

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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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Puns of Anarchy; or, Sons of Anarchy Also Rises; or, Sons of Innocence and Experience; or, Serial Narrative Killers

Back for Season 5

Like Weeds and Mad Men—like Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and the Godfather of the cable antiheroes, The Sopranos—Sons of Anarchy is another long running series about a morally dubious subculture, in this case, bikers, as opposed to noncable TV’s continued fixation on morally salubrious subcultures, like doctors, lawyers, and twenty-year-old white people living in NYC apartments they shouldn’t afford.[i]

Sons of Anarchy began five years ago as a Hamlet on wheels. The Prince is Jax, short for Jackson, since being a Son is a big literal and metaphorical deal on the show. Last name Teller.  And tell he does: his hopes and dreams, wishes and fears, loves and hates.  Played by devilishly handsome Brit Charlie Hunnam, he’s a perfect female fantasy—the sensitive tough guy who just needs the right girl.

~sigh~

The Right Girl is Dr. Tara Knowles, a bad girl gone good gone bad, who seems to knowle everything about the human heart, but not her own.  Her medical specialty is Anything That Anyone Needs a Doctor For.  HamJax’s Claudius is Clay Morrow, whose clay morals take the motorcycle club deeper and deeper into harder and harder crimes: running guns, running coke, murder, and sporting a soul patch.  Gertrude is Gemma; with mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage, Jax’s mother has jumped from mourning John Teller, Jax’s father, into marriage with Clay, John’s spiritual brother.  But Jax has unearthed a cache of his father’s journals, much to Clay and Jemma’s chagrin, and through the magic of reading and voiceovers, his father’s ghost speaks from the grave to warn Jax to rebel against Clay.

This all made for excellent TV.  We got to see Jax struggle, even falter, against his doubts, conscience, relationship with Tara, and American accent.  And over the seasons, the backup bikers in the Sons have gone from sidemen and comic relief, a gang of jackbooted Rosencrantzs and Gildensterns, to round characters in their own rights.  The flawed but honorable Bobby Elvis, the scarred and unintelligible Chibs, loose cannon with a good heart Tig, and especially perpetually incarcerated, self-sacrificing Otto (played by Sons creator Kurt Sutter): each developed backstories and pathos beneath their tattooed skins, lives and motivations beyond how well they serve or don’t serve the Melancholy Mane.

This journey is in keeping with contemporary notions of TV in the age of DVDs and On Demand.  Thomas Doherty writes this in “Storied TV: Cable Is the New Novel”:

Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton, the series are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty. Episode per episode, in milieux that stretch from the ruthless geopolitics of a medieval off-world to the gender dynamics of a post-zombie apocalypse, the tide of action ebbs and flows in a meandering but forward direction, gaining momentum over the course of a season (now likely to be a mere 13 episodes), before congealing and erupting in a go-for-broke season finale.

In 2005, Stephen Johnson suggested much the same in his book Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, literally charting the way in which multiple plot threads have grown exponentially from 70s series Starsky and Hutch (one single, linear plot per episode) to Hill Street Blues (multiple threads in each episode) to the Sopranos.  This last series, for Johnson and many other critics the most effective complex show to date, works like Hill Street Blues, but more so:

Each thread is more substantial. The show doesn’t offer a clear distinction between dominant and minor plots; each storyline carries its weight in the mix…. A single scene from The Sopranos will often connect to three different threads at the same time, layering one plot on another.  And every single thread in this Sopranos episode builds on events from previous episodes, and continues on through the rest of the season and beyond. (69)

And yet, neither Doherty nor Johnson mentions that another TV genre has always used serial narrative, or employed multiple threads to “build on events from previous episodes, and continue on through the rest of the season and beyond,” or arc TV, to use Doherty’s phrase.

It’s the humble Soap Opera.

This tension, then, between creating a highbrow televisual novel—complexities! Nuances! Craft! Characterization!—and rehashing the lowbrow soap—with its cheap, tawdry thrills and ludicrous plot twists—is not mutually exclusive, but comes into sharp relief in Sons of Anarchy , especially in the ways in which the show has ratcheted up and escalated its requite quota of threats, sex, and violence each season.  In the beginning, the big menaces were a rival biker gang, the Mayans, with their nefarious mustaches, and perhaps a stealth enemy in Clay, himself no slouch in badguy facial hair.  But each season, the arc has gotten wider, and the dangers to our lovable bikers have dug in deeper.  Over the past five years, the Feds, a county takeover of the local police department, Irish gun runners, a drug cartel, secret after unearthed secret, Jax’s near death on almost every episode, and most recently the threat of Damon Pope, a huge, rich, connected Cali crimelord, who, paraphrasing Jax and Bobby (from memory, sorry) “isn’t anything like anyone we’ve ever dealt with before. He could kill us with a snap of his fingers.”

Similarly, with the stakes raised, the sex and body parts have rivaled what we see on HBO, the recipient of an imaginary Nudie Award; and similarly, the level of violence has reached a new level of graphic in its own depictions of bodies (dismembered, etc.), with [SPOILER] Tig’s daughter shrieking as she’s burned to death in front of her father, who later cradles the charred corpse in his arms.  Most importantly, we’ve bared witness to the brutal beating to death of a main character himself (revealed below), as the other Sons impotently look on.

Yes, other characters have died before. But at the risk of sounding callous, it wasn’t anyone we really cared about.  This escalation becomes the downside to the serial narrative.  SoA, each season, in true soap opera style, has to outdo the last, creating, as I suggested of Weeds a few weeks ago, a glut of both trauma and narrative from which the characters and the show itself cannot recover.    I fear this season marks the beginning of the end. Not in the Jump the Shark way, which is still a great phrase to mark the precise moment when a show passes its prime.  Maybe we can call it [SPOILER ALERT] “Killing Opie,” for the moment when a show becomes willing to sacrifice a major character on the alter of Higher Stakes (or higher ratings), as opposed to an essential narrative reason.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still enjoying SoA plenty.  But how long can this arms race of sex and violence continue for Sons of Anarchy? Hamlet may seem interminable to high school students, but it doesn’t take five years to tell its story.  The threats escalate, the thick plottens, [spoiler?] and it’s curtains, for the characters, of course, but also for the play itself, and for the audience.  Ideally, life goes on for decades. Ideally, stories do not.

Time: 60 minutes

Comments: what other shows have killed a major character just, it seemed, to up the ante?


[i] Actually, cable loves them, too.

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Learning to Sing Hours and Hours of Cover Songs

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as Frank Zappa, or Elvis Costello, or George Carlin, did or did not say.[i]  Except, of course, that it’s not.  It’s more like writing about architecture, except more fun, frequent, and widely-appealing.  Humans strive to put abstractions, like justice; emotions, like love; senses, like taste; and art, like, um, art—that is, that which seemingly defy the verbal—into language all the time, a kind of symbolic synesthesia. Plus, the analogy does not hold, since music is unique; in addition to listening to music, playing music, and writing about music, we do dance to music, and create architectural structures devoted to it.

And yet, ZappaCostelloCarlin is/are also on to something.  For the past nine months, I have been playing music semi-professionally—three paying gigs for six hours of playing this month, y’all—after a seventeen year hiatus, as I wrote about here.    And although I teach a class on rock music (early version of the syllabus posted here) and have written an academic essay on the rock novel, it turns out that there’s still more to learn from playing the music itself.

For one thing, unlike my romantic, idealistic former self, the one who wrote the music and lyrics and refused to play covers, my current self is happy to play other people’s music.  If anything, playing covers is more like what I do for my day job—interpreting books and literary criticism.  In some cases, I find myself less faithful to the original artist, while in others, I’m more faithful.  Some of this is just me—everything I play on the guitar sounds metallic, so even Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny” gets an inadvertent metal makeover.

At other times, it’s the problem of trying to adapt a studio creation to a three piece guitar-bass-drums performance.  Even a relatively straightforward pop rock song like Ratt’s Round and Round overdubs multiple lead singing tracks (and guitar tracks, a different problem), so that each first line of the verse very slightly overlaps the one before it, making it impossible for one person to reproduce live. This overlap is almost inaudible and of no concern to anyone—except someone trying to sing it live.

Whereas other songs are just fun to copy, like Green Day’s Basket Case, where making myself nasal and deliberately trying to imitate Pee Wee Herman’s serious voice—the one he’s using when not screaming—becomes a pretty solid approximation of Billy Joe Armstrong.

And it is really the singing, much more than the guitar playing, that’s the challenge for me.  I like playing the guitar. I want to play guitar.  Every part of it is fun—practice, repetition, volume, the instrument and gear itself.  While I’ve resigned myself to being a singer, it’s much harder.  For one thing, I have to use my voice ALL THE TIME, for work, for leisure, for everything.  I want to save it and keep it safe and preserved, yet I keep having to take it out to do all sorts of things.  I imagine taking my guitar out of the case, say, to sweep up, or knock a Frisbee out of a tree, and what a dangerous waste that is to use an instrument for a nonmusical, mundane purpose. Yet I’m stuck doing that will my voice all day, every day. Tea and honey can only repair so much.

But even more than the challenges, learning covers, especially singing them, has made me think more about how songs work, and their structures.  Although they use words, rock songs are not narratives—rock operas , all those Billy Joel songs with verses that  begins with people’s boring first names, and Iron Maiden epics to the contrary.  Songs have too much recursion and repetition.    It’s a cliché to say that rock songs are verse/chorus/verse.  And in reality, it’s usually closer to intro/verse/prechorus/chorus/verse/prechorus/chorus/solo/bridge/chorus/repeat chorus fade.  But they don’t move linearly from beginning to middle to end the way a story does.

Yet they’re also not poems, Dylan and Lennon and Baez to the contrary as well.  They have elements of poetry, like rhyme, rhythm, and meter (although at this point I roll my eyes at any rhyme schemed or formulaic poems written after about 1940).  But they’re not usually interested in exploring or developing ideas through imagery the way poems are.  And they’re certainly not essays, all Rush lyrics to the contrary.

What the words often are, then, are part of the music itself.  Their sound, their tone, their shape in the singer’s mouth makes the song.  Rockists like to make fun of the toe-tapping masses who say things like “I don’t listen to the lyrics, I just feel the beat” [comma splice sic].  And I admit to being something of a lyric fanatic, whether it means greater appreciation or greater disappointment.  Mock if you want, and I’m iffy about some songs, but Pearl Jam has some strong lyrics. Spin the Black Circle, Even Flow, Jeremy: these are songs where the lyrics, as sung and together with the music, turn Eddie Vedder’s voice into a pure rock instrument.  And sometimes, I’m flummoxed : The Scorpions’ Rock You Like a Hurricane, a song I’ve heard a million times, is nothing but a series of crude sexual non-sequiturs, somehow  palpable because  Klaus Meine’s German accent makes the lyrics vary between percussive and sweet ‘n’ sibilant at the right moments.

In the end, why the opposition to writing about music at all? It turns out that music needs words a lot more than words need music.  There’s only so many times even an ardent rock fan can listen to YYZ.  On with the show.

Time: 55 minutes.


[i] Quote Investigator does a pretty stellar job tracking the sources of “writing about music…” http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/11/08/writing-about-music/

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