Tag Archives: books

How I Spent My Summer Vacation (which lasted two years, apparently)

American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror

Hello! It’s been a very long time since my last post, which was October 2013. That’s at least 14 years in blog years. While I’m not coming back to regular blogging–not yet, anyway–if there’s anyone out there who remembers me, I wanted to share some great news.

I recently published a book, American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror: Falling Skies, Dark Knights Rising, and Collapsing Cultures (Praeger, 2015)It’s in some ways a vast elaboration of some of the topics and cultural criticism that I spent two years exploring on this very blog. Although, and I can’t emphasize this enough, it took far longer than a hour to write.

Here’s the description:

Bringing together the most popular genres of the 21st century, this book argues that Americans have entered a new era of narrative dominated by the fear—and wish fulfillment—of the breakdown of authority and terror itself.

Bringing together disparate and popular genres of the 21st century, American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror: Falling Skies, Dark Knights Rising, and Collapsing Cultures argues that popular culture has been preoccupied by fantasies and narratives dominated by the anxiety —and, strangely, the wish fulfillment—that comes from the breakdowns of morality, family, law and order, and storytelling itself. From aging superheroes to young adult dystopias, heroic killers to lustrous vampires, the figures of our fiction, film, and television again and again reveal and revel in the imagery of terror. Kavadlo’s single-author, thesis-driven book makes the case that many of the novels and films about September 11, 2001, have been about much more than terrorism alone, while popular stories that may not seem related to September 11 are deeply connected to it. 

The book examines New York novels written in response to September 11 along with the anti-heroes of television and the resurgence of zombies and vampires in film and fiction to draw a correlation between Kavadlo’s “Era of Terror” and the events of September 11, 2001. Geared toward college students, graduate students, and academics interested in popular culture, the book connects multiple topics to appeal to a wide audience.

Features

  • Provides an interesting new framework in which to examine popular culture
  • Examines films, television shows, and primary texts such as novels for evidence of cultural anxiety and a preoccupation with terror
  • Offers insightful and original interpretations of primary texts
  • Suggests possible conclusions about cultural anxiety regarding breakdowns of tradition and authority

 You can read more about it here at Praeger’s website, or you can go to good ole Amazon.

As it turns out, I miss writing the blog. And I have an idea for the next book, and some of the ideas  should work well as the kind of short explorations that blogs are known for, with the plan to revise and expand in book form later. Here’s hoping–for me, anyway, and maybe for you?–that I’ll be able to get that project underway and that, a few years down the road, it will lead to another book.

Sorry about the long internet silence, sorry about some more subsequent silence, and here’s hoping that 2016 is a big year for American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror as well as the beginning of the next project.

Cheers!

 

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The Ethicist Who Wears the Black Hat

I wear the black hat

There is no way that I won’t read a book by Chuck Klosterman.  Still, that sentence’s double negative reveals my ambivalence.  In some ways, CK and I doppelgängers: we’re the same age, moved cross-country in our adult lives (me: born and raised in Brooklyn, then lived for 4 years in Minnesota and now, St Louis; Klosterman: born and raised in North Dakota, now lives in Brooklyn), grew up on and still defend heavy metal when other aspects of our lives would seem to suggest—even demand—more highbrow predilections (such as the use of the phrase “highbrow predilections”).   Certainly this blog is indebted to Klosterman’s groundwork as that rare writer who is a popular culture specialist who is also firmly a part of popular culture itself.  Yes, he sells way more books than I do, but I is a English professor.

Yet Klosterman’s writing is also sometimes exasperating, including his current gig as the New York Times Ethicist and his new book, I Wear the Black Hat.  And they are exasperating for opposite reasons.  In his Ethicist column, Klosterman prevaricates and dithers for most of the response, before finally settling on an ethical verdict—one that often seems shortsighted at best and just wrong at worst.  Klosterman’s cultural analyses, on the other hand, are consistently overconfident and make sweeping generalizations—Klosterman would have written this paragraph’s topic sentence this way: “What is so weird is that they are always exasperating for exactly opposite reasons.” Although often, he  also has a good point.  In their approaches, tone, worldview, and conclusions, the Ethicist and the author of I Wear the Black Hat seem to be two completely different personae of Chuck Klosterman.

Or, better yet: two different Chuck Kloster-men.

05ethicist-superJumbo

Let’s look at Kloster-man A, the Ethicist.  Sometimes, he is just wrong, such as his response to a former college student who writes that he would “sometimes write a single paper that would satisfy assignments in more than one course. For instance, I once wrote a paper on how ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ expressed satire; I submitted it for assignments in both my poetry course as well as my completely separate satire course. I did not disclose this to either professor.”

As usual, the the Klostethicist dithers for a surprisingly long time:

As I read and reread this question, I find myself fixated on the idea that this must be unethical, somehow. I suppose my knee-jerk reaction could be described like this: Every professor is operating from the position that any assignment she makes is exclusive to that particular class, even if she doesn’t expressly say so at the onset (in other words, it’s simply assumed that work done for a specific class will be used only for that specific class). It’s as if you were breaking a rule that was so over-the-top obvious it may not have been overtly outlined. But you know what? The more I think this over, the more I find myself agreeing with your position. I don’t think this is cheating. I wouldn’t say it qualifies as “genius,” and it might get you expelled from some universities. Yet I can’t isolate anything about this practice that harms other people, provides you with an unfair advantage or engenders an unjustified reward.

I look at it like this: You were essentially asked two questions that shared a common answer. The fact that you could see commonalities between unrelated intellectual disciplines is a point in your favor. Some might call your actions self-plagiarism, but the very premise of stealing your own creative property is absurd. You’re not betraying the public’s trust. It seems strange only because the assignments involve a degree of creativity. If this had been a multiple-choice physics test you failed to study for — yet were still able to pass, based on knowledge you acquired from an applied-math class taken the previous semester — no one would question your veracity.

It’s possible to argue that you were “cheating yourself” and wasting your own academic experience — but that’s not an ethical crossroads. That’s more of an existential dilemma over the purpose of a college education that (in all probability) you paid for. In the abstract, the notion of using the same paper twice feels wrong — and if you contacted your old school and told them this anecdote, it would most likely cite some rule of conduct you unknowingly broke. But fuzzy personal feelings and institutional rules do not dictate ethics. You fulfilled both assignments with your own work. You’re a clever, lazy person.

In other words, Verdict: ethical. Or not unethical. What Klosterman does not acknowledge, however, is that this person’s actions, in addition to  “cheating himself,” which is apparently not unethical, is that self-plagiarism dupes instructors—the former student did not ask permission, knowing that he was breaking the rules.  But OK, why is it a rule? Because it cheats the instructor, who wants original work, and more importantly, it cheats his classmates, who, through no fault of their own, did not have the luck to land two assignments similar enough for the same paper.  The students in those other classes did all of their work, essentially twice as much, as the letter writer. This person did half of it, for the same credit, at the expense of his teachers and peers.  Despite the dissembling, the answer was still wrong.

Here,  a person writes that he or she volunteers “for a program that serves homeless and at-risk American Indian people.”

He or she continues:

I sometimes sort and distribute their mail. In a separate community role, I advocate for infant and maternal health, because infant mortality rates in the Native community are three times higher than average. While distributing mail, I found an “introductory” infant-formula package for a Native mom. My first instinct, knowing the proven health advantages of breast-feeding, was to toss the package into the garbage, which seemed unethical. But it seems more unethical, given the higher infant mortality rates, to give her formula marketing materials without providing her the information that breast-feeding is better for her baby.

The Ethicist’s response–more evasion:

While the solution to this particular dilemma is straightforward, the broader question it raises is not. You have two unrelated jobs — mail delivery and advocating for infant health. So what do you do if the requirements of one contradict the responsibilities of the other? My advice would be to consider the worst case within each ethical framework and ignore whichever system has the least damaging real-world potential. Throwing away someone else’s mail is absolutely unlawful. (In this case, it’s defined as obstruction of mail and would be treated as a misdemeanor.) On the other hand, there’s obviously nothing illegal about failing to tell someone that formula is less healthful than breast milk. But can anyone objectively argue that the upside of upholding a man-made law regarding the improper disposal of unsolicited mail is greater than the downside of placing an already at-risk child in a potentially amplified position of peril? It’s not as if you’re making this judgment arbitrarily; as someone holding both jobs (and presumably trained to do so), you are in a valid position to decide which edict matters more.

So eventually, Klosterman decides that reading a stranger’s mail is OK, but only if you’re going to hector her about her personal life decisions, even if you don’t know anything about what might be going on in that person’s life, or what the person has even decided to do, if anything, with the formula:

In the specific scenario you cite, however, your two volunteer jobs are not really at odds. Give this woman the formula that was mailed to her, but not before urging her to consider the value of breast-feeding. Use the opportunity to educate her about how these nutritional methods are different, and let her decide what is best for her and her baby. In this way, you’d be performing both of your duties simultaneously.

This seems to me a clear case of Don’t Interfere with Other People’s Mail–or Personal Life Decisions. Ten unambiguous words.

In another ethical quandary regarding another’s mail—in this case, email—Klosterman again equivocates. Here’s the letter:

I sent my wife an angry e-mail. An hour or two after sending it, I was working at our shared computer and saw my e-mail, unread, in her in-box. Feeling regretful, I deleted it. Was this unethical?

And here’s the evasion (God, I’m running out of synonyms), before finally suggesting that the husband cannot ethically delete the email he sent to his wife, followed by a completely hypothetical caveat:

This is a situation in which our current relationship with a specific technology obfuscates the essence of the problem: who owns information, and when does that ownership start?

Let’s say you dropped a physical letter in the mailbox, walked up the block and suddenly regretted the decision to send whatever was in the envelope. Reaching into a public mailbox to retrieve that letter is unlawful (and complicated). But if the only letter you want to grab is the one you deposited, would the impulse be immoral? What if you regretted the decision not because of what the letter contained but because you realized it was incorrectly addressed? And what if the mailbox wasn’t public? What if it was the private mailbox in front of your suburban home (but you’ve already raised the box’s flag, signaling to the postal employee that the letter is now available to be delivered)?

It’s difficult to definitively declare when a physical letter no longer belongs to the person who wrote it. It could be argued that the moment a letter is placed inside an envelope and the recipient’s name is scrawled on the outside, the contents become the recipient’s property. But this, somehow, feels incomplete; you could hold onto an addressed, stamped envelope for years, and no one could stop you. What makes e-mail different is that this philosophical haze is technologically eliminated by the lack of a middleman: the moment a user hits the “send” button, the question of ownership is moot. But that shouldn’t dictate the ethics.

The reason I would classify what you did as unethical is that you shouldn’t be directly accessing your wife’s e-mail account. The fact that you saw this unread e-mail was possibly unavoidable, as that’s always a risk with a shared computer. But you should not manipulate or examine the contents of her in-box, regardless of where those contents are from (there are theoretical exceptions to this rule, but they’re so rare that they can almost be disregarded from the discussion — if your wife was missing, for example).

I will, however, say this: had you remotely deleted your own unread e-mail after it was sent, I would not classify the act as unethical. If someone wrote an ill-advised e-mail in haste (or inadvertently sends a message to 100 co-workers instead of one) and used an “unsend” feature to destroy it before it could be opened, I would support the act (although it should be noted that the current technology for doing so isn’t very practical — not everyone has it, and my e-mail system only allows for a 30-second annihilation window).

Now, I realize this presents a logical contradiction. As the writer of the e-mail to your wife, you could claim you’re being reprimanded for manually doing something that would somehow be acceptable if it were done remotely, even though the outcome is identical. The difference, however, is this: the first situation involves rooting through someone’s nonphysical mailbox, which we’ve collectively agreed is off limits. The second situation involves pre-emptively extracting something that — in my view — is still partly your property. That distinction is minuscule and certainly debatable. But that’s what makes this a good question.

So…  it’s ethical to read a stranger’s mail if it leads to meddling in her personal life, in which you have nothing at stake, but it is not OK to delete an email you sent to your wife, even though married couples often share computers, often leave their computers open, and seldom sign out of accounts, making such a deletion less of an intrusion than reading the stranger’s mail, but it’s also wrong even if you yourself wrote the offending email—and deleting it will preserve marital harmony.   In Klostermania ethics, deleting an email from your spouse’s account, that you yourself sent, is a worse violation than egregiously  hurting her feelings.  Perhaps the email had been lecturing her about breastfeeding, so it’s OK.   Of course, a husband who is sending his wife nasty emails probably has bigger issues in the marriage, which is apparently a less important point to raise than a “distinction [that] is minuscule and certainly debatable.”

Yet for all the, um… synonym… fudging in those answers, the other Klosterman, in Black Hat, is sure as shit and right as rain: The Eagles “are the most unpopular super-popular entity ever created by California…  I know this because everybody knows this….”  Beginning a book about villains with the Eagles is counterintuitive, but it helps to reveal an interesting idea—that people are capable of vilifying even the blandest, more innocuous stuff—that then becomes smothered by the high-stakes hyperbole.

And: “There is no greater conundrum for the sports-obsessed historian than the relationship between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frasier.” Look, I’m not a sports guy at all, but I find it hard to believe that sports-obsessed historians agree on anything.

When Klosterman gets to comparing real-life subway shooter vigilante Bernard Goetz with Batman, then I’m interested.  But again, Klosterman’s strange need for absolutism and Manichaeism leads to pronouncements like this: “But oddly—or maybe predictably—most of these comparisons [between Goetz and Batman] are primarily occupied with why everyone still loves Batman (as opposed to why everyone stopped loving Goetz). They start from the premise that vigilantism is indisputably wrong. The core question is always some version of ‘Why are actions unacceptable in life somehow acceptable in fiction?’ But this seems like the wrong thing to worry about. That answer seems self-evident.  I more often wonder about the reverse: Why are the qualities we value in the unreal somehow verboten in reality?”  He goes on to suggest that “Batman is a beloved fictional figure who would not be beloved in a nonfictional world… He would be seen as a brutal freak, scarier to the public that the criminals he captured.”

It could be such an interesting comparison. But the insistence that the first question is self-evident and that the second question is somehow better and opposed to the first seems wrong-headed.  Klosterman’s second question in fact seems far more self-evident: because real people get hurt in real life.  And the follow-up ignores that the recent Batman relaunch—the one that grossed a hundred gazillion dollars—is in fact primarily concerned with the very question of what Batman would be like in a less cartoonish, less fictionalized fictional world.  What began as a good set of questions seems undermined by smug certainty and cherry picked examples.

Look. I liked the book. I like the topic. I like that Klosterman actually talks about Mr. Bungle (who I love, unlike CK).  But I can’t get behind that I Wear the Black Hat is written in the same overheated rhetoric of the above quotations.  Here’s the repetition breakdown:

Always is repeated 68 times

Never: 78 times

Inevitable/inevitably: 22 times

Everyone: 38 times

No one: 32 times

Certainly: 23 times

True: 36 times

All: a whopping 92 times

The book is only 199 pages.

Perhaps, in the end, the two Klostermen can come together.  Perhaps the Ethicist can achieve some of Black Hat Klosterman’s insight and moral clarity—less wishy-washy, but more insightful. And BHK can approach the world in a way that’s more relativist (in a good way), to try to examine his subjects in a way that acknowledges that not all things, everyone, or no one certainly always believes or behaves in the ways he proscribes.

We would have a more ethical Ethicist, and more readable cultural criticism that acknowledges the ambiguity of his subject matter.  After all, metaphorically speaking, most characters and people wear gray hats.

Time: Over! 90 minutes

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Everyone who believes in books, or has (or has been) a child, should read Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree

Far From the Tree

A quarter of Americans read zero books per year.  The Onion, as usual, put it best: “Print is Dead at 1803.”  I know this is a blog. You’re reading it on a screen.  And I like blogs, and websties, and Facebook. (Twitter, however, is too scary. Mean people.) I read articles and sites online every day, sometimes for hours.  I teach online classes and collect and respond to student papers, even in face to face classes, electronically.  But books are different, and special.  People need to read more of them.[1] Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity demonstrates precisely what a book, and no other form or medium, can still do.

Greatly exaggerated

Greatly exaggerated

What it’s about: children who are different from their parents.  That, of course, would be all children, but a simple recitation of the chapter titles alone reveals something of the book’s scope and depth: Son, Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, Transgender, Father.  The first and last chapters refer to Solomon’s personal experiences and bookend the other the chapters.

Of course, it takes nearly a thousand pages to cover the material.  Solomon frames his discussion of seemingly disparate groups in two main ways.  First, he talks about parents and children as having both “vertical” and “horizontal” identities.  Parents default toward the vertical—that is, what is the same between parents and children, and what is passed down (the language itself suggesting verticality) directly from parent to child.  Hearing parents, heterosexual parents, cis gender parents expect and assume their children will be the same as them.  But often, children are radically different, instead having what Solomon calls horizontal identifies, therefore becoming part of a new, horizontal community outside of the biological family —the deaf community, the dwarf community, the disabled community.  And sometimes, there is only the identity without the community: prodigies, children born of rape, children whose disabilities prevent them from any form of communication, who, unlike other groups, have not coalesced into an identifiable horizontal identity.

But even the idea of identity itself is complex, which brings Solomon to his other framework. Drawing upon his own experience as a gay man and the cultural trajectory homosexuality has taken during his lifetime, Solomon suggests that his subjects can each be understood as operating on a kind of spectrum.  On the one end of the spectrum is illness, which requires intervention: homosexuality, and various kinds of disability, were believed to necessitate cures, treatment to establish the vertical identity of the parents.  But on the other end of the spectrum is identity: a meaningful difference that is not perceived as undesirable, one not to be taken away, pitied, or, for that matter, admired.  Where different syndromes and orientations fall on this spectrum, however, is subject to contentious debate.

Not surprisingly, the book is exhaustively researched and extensively documented: over 100 pages of notes alone, so it felt nutritious—I learned more on every page.  But it is not just a synthesis of academic articles, or the more than three hundred interviews that Solomon conducted himself. The tensions between these ways of understanding children who are not like their parents—vertical/horizontal; illness/identity—inform each chapter, and my summary cannot do justice to the overall intelligence, nuance, morality, and warmth that comes through.   It is a long book that easily moves back and forth between individual case studies—no, not case studies, people, since “case study” sounds more clinical than the human, and humane, portraits that emerge—and academic analyses spanning literature, psychology, history, and medicine, navigated and negotiated by an author who places himself, and his well-informed beliefs and ideas on the page.  By the time I was done, I felt as though I had been through something, and gotten to know, and love, Andrew Solomon himself.  I didn’t agree with everything I read, but I considered everything I read.  Nonreaders are quick to create a false dichotomy between books and life, but they are wrong. The best books provide a deep, meaningful life experience for the reader.  Books, like births, create horizontal communities and identities as well.

One of the few 1-star reviews on Amazon.com, for me, helps explain the book as well as one of the many 5-star reviews: “The author talks 2 much- and he is super boring and actually sounds like he just took a class in college and is repeating what the professor said- very disappointed.”  This reader, unwilling to put in the time, retreats into the worst cliché, boredom.  (The part about “repeating what the professor said” baffles me, though, as through Solomon somehow didn’t write it.)  Reviews like this help me to understand the zero books per year number.  A good book, unlike other popular forms of reading, to say nothing of other forms of entertainment, makes the reader work, but feel as though the work is worth it. Even if I did not work as hard as Solomon, who took over ten years to write Far From the Tree.

I don’t know how he finished it so quickly.

Time: 50 minutes, not counting reading the book.

In Comments, feel free to share a book that you felt to be a meaningful life experience.  While Far From the Tree is of course nonfiction, any genre is fine.


[1] I’m not going to get into the electronic vs print book issue here, except to say that I still read books only in hard copy, and I can’t imagine having read this one on a screen.

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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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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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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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No One Knows What Manhood Is Yet No One Will Stop Writing about Manhood

Just as I planned to write on new books about manhood—Time’s Joel Stein and Man-Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity , and GQ’s Glenn O’Brian and How to Be A Man–The New York Times goes and publishes a magazine cover story on the same topic, “Who Wears the Pants in this Economy?” an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Hanna Rosin.

Manhood, it turns out, is a deceptively elusive subject.  If the obscure definition of obscenity is “I know it when I see it,” then the definition of masculinity is even vaguer. Taking the two books and Times article together, here is a definition of manhood: We don’t know it when we see it, we don’t see it when we know it, or we don’t know when we don’t see it.  And I thought Flight of the Concords had this all sorted out in “Think About It”: “What man?/ Which man?/ Who’s the man?/ When’s a man a man? What makes a man a man?/ Am I a man?/ Yes. Technically I am.”

(see 1:18)

Take Stein’s book.  Please. [rimshot] The High Concept is this: the new father of a boy, Stein fears that his effete, metrosexual lifestyle will not allow him to raise his boy to be a real man, so he attempts all of the most stereotypically manly activities he can imagine, one per chapter—essentially hanging around with other men like Marines, day traders, hunters, and ultimate fighters—in order to learn the lessons that he’d like to pass on. Call it The Year of Living Manfully. The result is sometimes funny—“When I played Dungeons & Dragons, I was never a fighter or an assassin; I was always a magic-user.  Even in my fantasy life, I was a nerd”— and just as often not funny: “I am no human resources expert, but I believe Great Point Capital might have a much easier time recruiting female employees if it didn’t feel so much like Rape Point Capital.” But to pull off the conceit, Stein is too accepting of standard out of the box masculinity, pretending that decades of academic research into gender—across fields of sociology, psychology, literature, and entire fields of gender studies—never happened.

I guess that could be OK—this book is clearly part humor, part AJ Jacobs-stolen stunt memoir. Except that Stein keeps defining himself as an “urban intellectual” seemingly without irony (I thought post-William F Buckley, the word “intellectual” was now officially an insult) and therefore in opposition of the kind of manly adventures he chronicles here.  What kind of intellectual is this juvenile?  OK, I take that one back. But what kind of intellectual appears to have read nothing on the subject of his book, including parenting books? And while Stein will intermittently bring up race, class, and his suburban Jewish upbringing on rare occasions, he seems not to think of manhood in sociological, political, or class terms, even as they clearly, inadvertently emerge that way. As a result, the book mostly ends up supporting stereotypes about masculinity—men don’t like to talk; men like to kill things and sleep outdoors—at his own self-deprecating expense, since he isn’t like this. But the stereotypes are also at the expense of exploring, developing, and  challenging—or, if it suited him,  defending—traditional conceptions of manhood. Stein begins the book believing that driving a fast car and firing a tank will make him more of a man, and concludes that, surprise, they have.  Self-consciously calling his book a “stupid quest” does not inoculate it from the charge that it is stupid. It is.  But that’s actually OK.  My problem is that it was never even a real quest at all.

Glenn O’Brien’s book seems at first as though it is exactly what Stein did not set out to write. Stein: “I’ve decided to make a list of tasks that I hope will turn me into a man. My list will not include anything I have ever read in GQ or Esquire: I will not learn to fold a pocket square, mix cocktails, build my triceps, look up word bespoke, or get the right haircut for my face shape. That’s being a dandy. My book could beat up that book.” But it turns out that O’Brien did not write that book either, not exactly.  While there are plenty of sections on shirts, drinks, and style—not to mention that O’Brien clearly celebrates dandyism—what O’Brien has done it construct a deft collection of essays on topics related to manhood in the 21st century, while at the same times suggesting that some aspects of manhood are, indeed, timeless and archetypical.

So despite pages riffing on ties, O’Brien is far more intellectual than Stein—and therefore does not ever need to call himself one—suggesting that “A gentleman is reason personified” and referring or alluding to Socrates, Emily Post, the religious concept of acedia, Brad Pitt, Muhammad, Rocky Marciano, Andy Warhol, and hundreds more, in a way that seems erudite rather than namedroppy or shoehorned in.  So nothing about tanks, but rather, a confident book of ideas that I don’t always agree with but respect. And respect is a word that Stein reserves for his new friends but not himself—or at least the fake funny-guy persona he tries to foist on the reader.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but think of the Mark Twain adage, that to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The Style Guy sees manhood in style.  In Stein’s book, rich men see manhood in money; martial artists in punching; hunters in hunting; ballplayers in playing ball; firefighters in fighting fires.  But what happens when they lose their hammer?

That’s where Hanna Rosin comes in, in The Times.  Her article is about men who have not only suffered the indignity of losing their jobs, but also of SEEING THEIR WIVES SUCCEED! Which is somehow salt on their wound, as opposed to, I don’t know, “Thanks, Wife, for saving my ass.” Quote after quote reinforces their sorrow: “Probably no one has had their wife move up the ladder as far as I’ve moved down,” says one; “We’re in the South,” Rosin quotes another. “A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.”  This is Stein stripped of all humor, purpose, and self-consciousness, manhood not as fodder for jokes but just fodder, or just a joke.

Of course, manhood’s perceived strength—which is, um, strength—is its weakness.  Part of Rosin’s point is that women feel less entitled to start at the top and are more flexible employees, and therefore are better suited to contemporary employment needs. Yet Rosin also misses that man’s rigidity means that her thesis is old news, destined to spark controversy before disappearing for another few years, when suddenly it is rediscovered, kind of like John Travolta.  Previously, in April 2003, the New York Times Magazine also published “Commute to Nowhere.”  with its thesis that “By the numbers, women have been hit as hard as men, but white-collar men tend to experience unemployment differently, organizational psychologists say. For most women, survival trumps ego; they simply adapt and find some job. For men, grappling with joblessness inevitably entails surrendering an idea of who they are — or who others thought they were.”

And in light of at least one other 2011 New York Times article, “The Gender Pay Gap by Industry,” maybe the problem of manhood is overrated to begin with: “Over all, women who worked full-time in wage and salary jobs had median weekly earnings of $657 in 2009. That’s 80 percent of what their male counterparts earned.”  Women are still only earning 80% of the pants.  They wear the shorts in the family.

In the end, if manhood can mean anything to anyone, then it doesn’t have any meaning at all.  In some ways, that would be a very good thing, especially to Rosin’s subjects.  I recently found out that Marlboro cigarettes, of all things, were originally marketed to women, pretty much proving that, at least in some arenas, gender is a total construct and fabrication with no intrinsic truth at all.  And that cigarettes’ flavor is whatever people believe it is, since the same ones are “mild” for women and full of “flavor” for men.

But in other ways, I’d like to see manhood stick around.  For all the emphasis on the South, the men of Rosin’s Times piece don’t know the first rule of manhood, inspirited by Rhett Butler: a man doesn’t give a damn about what anyone thinks about his manhood.

And personally, I’d like to think that I do know it when I see it.  And technically I am.

Time: 90 minutes. And I had to force myself to stop.

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“Call Me Maybe”: The Deconstruction

Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” is the musical embodiment of what critical theorist Jacque Derrida refers to as “différance.”  Unlike “Call Me,” the previous hit song by Blondie of almost the same name, “Call Me Maybe” throws the initial utterance, the command to “call me,” into question, even forces it under erasure, through the retroactive emendation of final ambiguity, “maybe”; “call me” lies simultaneously with its very negation.  Yet the call itself has not been placed, and in fact exists only in the world of the Imaginary—that which, in Lacan’s parsing, by definition we cannot know. The call forever remains hypothetical, subjunctive, unrealized: deferred.  As Derrida explains, “the relationship to the present, the reference to a present reality, to a being—are always deferred.”

At the same time, the title’s syntactical construction posits its speaker, “me,” in the object position, the patriarchal relegation of the feminine, even while the speaker simultaneously issues the grammatical imperative, “[You] call,” (re)positioning her in symbolic authority.  Derrida suggests that “Différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences … the simultaneously active and passive…”—just as the speaker of “Call Me Maybe” implies as well.   Further,  the lyric sheet reads “Call me, maybe,” with the comma to separate the command from the adverb, suggesting a heightened claim of ambiguity.  Yet the title, “Call Me Maybe,” with its elided comma and conventional titular capitalization, refigures its meaning entirely: the statement employs the dative declension, echoing literature’s most famous manifestation of this form, Herman Melville’s opening line to Moby-Dick, “Call me Ishmael.”  She is commanding the listener that she should herself be called Maybe, a name that is Not.

The speaker’s utterance, but also the speaker herself, has thus been rendered indefinite, unknowable, and differed ad infinitum.  The title must be read simultaneously as “Call me, maybe,” “Call Me Maybe,” “Call me, maybe,” if the call is never placed, or “Call me, maybe” if it is. We therefore find Carly Rae Jepson in the rhetorical situation of Derrida translator Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak.  In her Translator’s Preface to Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Spivak writes that her “predicament is [that of being] ‘under erasure.’  This is to write a word, cross it out, and then print both the word and deletion.  (Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out.  Since it is necessary, it remains legible.)”

While I have been using the gender specific pronoun “she” to refer to the speaker, since Carly Rae Jepson’s voice, clothing, and sex all code her as “heterosexual female,” the gender identity and sexual orientation of the speaker are in fact ambiguous as well. The opening line, “I threw a wish in the well/Don’t ask me, I’ll never tell” recall the famous “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law established under the Clinton presidency preventing gay and lesbian solders from revealing their sexual orientation, under the risk military discharge.  The ending, or “punch line,” of the “Call Me Maybe” music video introduces the possibility that what we had been viewing all along is not a heteronormative enactment of adolescent dating rituals but rather their subversion, playing upon the complacent viewer’s culturally rigid assumptions of masculinity.

Indeed, the song not only embodies différance; it embraces paradox.  The repeated last line to each verse, “And now you’re in my way,” as well as the reiterated “Where you think you’re goin’, baby?” imply the threat of male coercion despite the feminine vocal delivery.  And the final bridge section, repeating  “Before you came into my life/ I missed you so bad” like a mantra, becomes a Zen kōan, reflecting upon a sublime yet uncanny sense of temporal disconnect.  The notion that one can miss something that has not yet been experienced recalls haiku poet Matsuo Bashō, who writes of the ways in which one can long for an interior, emotionally subjective construction of life even at the expense of its own reality:

Even in Kyōto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyōto

The sense of différance set forward by the lyrics is further augmented by the music behind the chorus. The standard popular song follows a I-IV-V-I pattern: firmly establishing its chord progression with the I cord, developing tension through the IV and V chords, and then resolving the musical conflict by reestablishing the root or alternately moving to the root’s relative minor.  In “Call Me Maybe”’s key of G major, however, the chorus chords move back and forth between C (the IV) and D (the V) without ever returning to G (the I) or moving on to E minor, never resolving, a musical manifestation of différance itself, even throughout the end of the song, which, unlike the conventional fade-out, ends in a pitchshifitng downward spiral, deferring even the idea of a musical conclusion.

The final result of this radical indeterminacy is that “Call Me Maybe” is a musical Mona Lisa, rendering itself a cultural cipher, a tabula rasa upon which any reader may impose meaning; with over 222,500,000 views on YouTube, its video is a floating signifier capable of accommodating virtually any viewer.   As such, the Internet is inundated with “Call Me Maybe” memes, each imagining a different, resolved signified of the song that, taken together, negate each other, paradoxically denying any such certainty.

And so many more

Maybe.

Time: 75 minutes

Derrida quotations from “Interview with Julia Kristeva” in Positions (University of Chicago P, 1981)

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