Friday, December 30, 2011

My Year in Books 2011

Greetings Narrative Reviewers to our first annual "My Year in Books" segment. Here you'll find a complete listing of my yearly non-academic or semi-academic reading and back links to the appropriate entries. I set out this year wanting to read the following twelve books:

1. One Russian Novel
2. Don DeLillo, Libra
3. E. L. Doctorow, Waterworks
4. William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
5. Frank Norris, The Octopus
6. Philip Roth, The Human Stain
7. Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan 
8. Zadie Smith, The Book of Other People 
9. Mark Twain, Autobiography vol. 1
10. John Updike, The Rabbit Series
11. Gore Vidal, Myron
12. Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome


Out of these twelve, I finished 8. My apologies to Don DeLillo, Frank Norris, Mark Twain, John Updike, and Russian novelists everywhere. Although I did not complete all the books I set out to read for last year, I did manage to read quite a bit. Here's what I read (for fun) in 2011:


Aimee Bender, The Girl with the Flammable Skirt

William Wells Brown, Clotel or, The President's Daughter

Heinrich Boll, The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum
  •  The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum answers the question, "What if Law & Order were actually well thought out police procedurals?"
J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
  • Sparse in language but dense in emotional resonance, Waiting for the Barbarians presents the West with a millennial judgement upon its soul. 
Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image

Robert Coover, The Public Burning 
    Joan Didion, Democracy
    Joan Didion, El Salvador
    • In both fiction and fact, Joan Didion shows us that democracy occurs not at the center but on the edges.
    E. L. Doctorow, Water Works
    • A postmodern thriller of old New York. It doesn't aspire to the greatness of Doctorow's The Book of Daniel or Ragtime, but it's a fun page. 
    Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot


    Dave Eggers, The Wild Things

    William Faulkner, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem 
    William Faulkner, Sanctuary 
    • Honestly, why do I keep on trying to read Faulkner. 
    William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
    • The clipped nature of noir dialogue might just have been preparing us all for Twitter.
    F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Pat Hobby Stories

    Reginald Hudlin & John Romita, Jr., Black Panther: Who is Black Panther? 

    Henry James, The American
    Henry James, Daisy Miller
    Henry James, The Europeans
    Henry James, Washington Square
    • OK, none of these were read purely for fun, but I'm finally developing an interest in James after seven years of grad school, a place where everyone talked about how great James was.
    Gish Jen, Mona in the Promised Land

    Murray Kempton, Part of Our Time: Some Ruins of the Thirties
    • Kempton gives the arguments of Partisan Review a popular sheen.
    Michelle Latiolais, Widow: Stories

    D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

    Scott McCloud, Zot!

    Norman Mailer, The Prisoner of Sex
    • Did Norman Mailer hate women? Probably. But if this is him at his worst, it mostly consists of him doing anal retentive, literary critical hair splitting.
    Toni Morrison, Sula

    Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father

    Ismet Pricic, Shards

    Philip Roth, The Professor of Desire
    Philip Roth, The Human Stain
    • Roth's book is stronger for its statement about African American and Jewish relations than it is about the cultural politics surrounding the Clinton-Lewinski affair.
    Ishmael Reed, Juice!

    Ishmael Reed, Japanese by Spring

    Ishmael Reed, Mixing it Up 

    Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan
    • Those of you have not read Shteyngart are missing out. At the very least you should subscribe to his Twitter fed. 
    David Simon, Homicide

    I. B. Singer, Gimpel the Fool
    • It's easy to mistake this story as nostalgic, but its better to think of it as elegiac.  

    Zadie Smith, The Book of Other People
    • A remarkably consistent short story anthology. I enjoyed almost every story here.

    Craig Thompson, Blankets

    Lionel Trilling, The Journey Abandoned
    • Although I like Trilling's criticism, his fiction really is the work of a snob. Check out page 101 for the most spurious comparison that I read this year.

    George W. S. Trow, My Pilgrims Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998
    George W. S. Trow, In The Context of No Context
    • Trow has  a great style, but his arguments can be a bit cranky.

    Kurt Vonnegut, Look at the Birdie
    • Normally I'm not the biggest fan of Vonnegut's short fiction, but these previously unpublished works were great little stories.

    Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
    • Other people's appreciation for this book prevented me from enjoying it fully.

    Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
    Oscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray
    • Although this has a fairly conventional movie-monster type plot, it has enough twists that it surprised me. 

    Gary Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg
    • A very solid rhetorical account of the Gettysburg address. 

    Richard Wright, Lawd Today

    Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

    Dan Zevin, The Day I Turned Uncool: Confessions of a Reluctant Grown-up


    So, what did you read?

    Friday, December 23, 2011

    Mona in the Promised Land (1996)

    Author: Gish Jen
    Title: Mona in the Promised Land
    Publisher: Vintage
    Price: Free from Community Reading Exchange Shelf
    Book Put in its Place: Old issue of PMLA
    LCC: PS3560.E474 M66 1996

    The 1980s. The San Fernando Valley-- Mom, Dad, and I have are going to dinner at Road to China. It is a small, family-owned restaurant across the parking lot from where my father owns a muffin bakery. We have just gone to see a movie. It is Christmas and the all diners are Jews like ourselves. While our goyishe neighbors are celebrating the birth of their Lord, we are celebrating a tradition of our own. It might not be the sort of thing that Teyve would sing about, but it means something to us. The hostess and the waitstaff are all Chinese and are, we presume, possibly erroneously, Buddhist. Most of the cooks and the one busboy are Mexican or El Salvadorean immigrants. We don't think to ask how they feel about working on Christmas. If we did, I presume we would feel sorry for them. We don't work or go to school on our High Holidays after all. As an adult, I'll learn that some Jews eat Chinese food because it constitutes what Jordan Rosenblum terms "safe treyfe." Chinese food may not be Kosher but it becomes a safe way to develop cosmopolitan tastes and to interact with the society as a whole. To this I would add that Chinese food is "safe treyfe" because it allows Jews to interact with the wider community while not risking assimilation. As a Jew, you can eat all the Chinese food you want, but no one is going to mistake you for a Chinese person.

    Gish Jen's novel Mona in the Promised Land describes this assimilation story from the perspective of the the Chinese, the  so-called "New Jews." In language that modulates between a Chinese-inflected English, a vaudeville Yiddish dialect, and conventional tight readerly prose, Jen tells us of the story of her titular character.  Mona is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and is trying to find her place in America. Rather than assimilate completely or remain culturally Chinese like her parents, Mona finds the best way to be both an American and Chinese is, oddly enough, to covert to Judaism. For being Jewish is perhaps the easiest ways to be a "model minority."And thus, Mona begins to volunteer at the local temple's suicide teen hotline, learn her prayers, and attend confirmation classes.  Of course, such a decision does not go over well with her parents. Upwardly-mobile Ralph and Helen work hard at the Waffle House they own. They want to make it in America--the Promised Land--but they are more reluctant to modify their Chinese traditions. To be Chinese means to stay Chinese, to know one's place. Mona realizes this most concretely when she views an exhibit of Chinese portraiture. Only the faces of the monks are distinct; the peasants, merchants, and other members of the society are distinguished more by their clothes than anything else. While Mona's mostly-Jewish friends believe that if the peasants had commissioned the painting it would look more differently, Mona quietly disagrees. She knows that they find great comfort in knowing exactly what their role in society is. Mona, however, no longer feels comfortable inhabiting the strict role of "good Chinese daughter" that her parents have laid before her.

    While the novel plays at the "identity  novel" that folks like Amy Hungerford have identified, ultimately it's just as interested in the "marriage" plot as Jeffrey Eugenides recent novel. Instead of meeting those expectations that her parents lay before her, Mona finds herself increasingly laying before Seth Mandel. Seth is a product of the 1960s if ever there was one. He is almost a stereotype. Having a high draft number, Seth has put off college indefinitely to find himself. Mostly, this means reading continental philosophy, volunteering at the temple, and living in a teepee set up in his parents backyard. At first look, the novel's love story may seem to be the sort of thing one finds on the back of a Soy Vay bottle, but their romance is complicated not only by Mona's family but also by the tumultuous politics of the 1960s. Indeed, Seth is only capable of wooing Mona through a process of identity transformation that is even more unusual than Mona's own conversion.

    Mona in the Promised Land is a romance in the tradition of Jane Austen. Like every good Austen novel, Jen gives us the happy ending we all want. It does so by weaving together all the loose threads in the tapestry of America. Shouldn't we all hope to be so lucky?

    Happy holidays, everyone. Tell us what you're reading over Christmas and Hanukkah?

    Friday, December 16, 2011

    Goodbye to all that or, The Marriage Plot (2011)

    Title: The Marriage Plot
    Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
    Publisher: FSG
    LCC: PS3555.U4 M37 2011
    Price: $15.49

    And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
    And you may find yourself in another part of the world
    And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
    And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
    And you may ask yourself-Well...How did I get here?

    -Talking Heads

    Or not.

    Not too long ago, I filed the paperwork to get my Ph.D. in English. It was an anticlimatic event. I went to the basement of the administration building, walked into grad division, and turned in half a dozen or so forms that stated that I was now fit to be called Dr. ASK with all the rights and privileges thereto pertaining. The man behind the front counter quietly examined my paperwork and when he was done he stoically wished me congratulations. For the sake of catharsis, I decided to ring the bell on the counter. It brought me a slight thrill but the man behind the counter looked annoyed. Some months later now I find my job prospects a bit dim and I'm sure the Stoic behind the counter is till gainfully employed. This is not another post imploring the young to skip out on grad school. No, this a post on Jeffrey Eugenides's new novel The Marriage Plot. I mention my own situation because I find that his characters, all recent BAs who are strong candidates for graduate study, remind me of myself and yet seem so distant from where I am right now in my life. And like any good reader of realist fiction, I cannot help but wonder what they should do. Should they make the same mistake choice that I did?

    This of course is not the immediate question that Eugenides sets out to answer for himself. Rather, the question he poses is this: After feminism and postmodernism, is the 19th-century marriage plot still a viable vehicle for telling stories? At one point, Eugenides has a character, a crusty English professor stretch the point even further. As the narrator tells us: 
    In Saunders's opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success i life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. . . Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel.
    Again, can we have modern love and the Victorian novel today? The nature of the question seems to be a sea change for Eugenides. His first novel, The Virgin Suicides (1998), told the tragic story of the Lisbon girls. While committed to mimetic fidelity the novel also reflected a postmodern epistemology. The boys narrating the story obsesses over the minutia of the Lisbon girls' lives, but they are incapable of formulating any coherent narrative about their successive suicides. While postmodern literary theory is something that Eugenides new characters talk about, its hardly an influence on the construction of the novel. The Marriage Plot ventures out into Franzen-like realist territory, ditching the postmodern epistemological question altogether.

    With this in mind, Eugenides gives readers a classic romantic triangle. At the center is Madeline Hanna, the privileged daughter of academic Brahmins. Her family is so WASP-y that they all have names that sound like they came from an Elvish naming dictionary. An English major in love with Victorian literature, Maddy finds that life becomes decidedly more complicated when she takes an upper-division class in theory. This class acts as more than a nod to the setting: Brown University in the early 1980s. It also marks a break in Maddy's intellectual and romantic life. Although she resists theory (get it? get it?), reading De Man, Derrida, and particularly Barthes alters her simple appreciation of romantic literature.

    The class also introduces her to Leonard Bankhead, her chief romantic interest throughout the novel. Bankhead's family is of "old Portland" stock and like a lot of old families they are both financially-strapped and dysfunctional in a Byzantine sort of way. However, what Bankhead lacks in financial resources, he makes up in other ways. Leonard is good looking, charismatic, and brilliant.  He bats out twenty page papers on his typewriter with such grace and clarity that he is an ace student in both his philosophy and biology classes. However, the same things that make Bankhead brilliant also make him a deeply flawed character. Leonard has a Promethean sense of superiority and his sparks of manic brilliance are more set off by deep and profound depressive episodes.

    Enter Bankhead's rival: Mitchell Grammaticus. Mitchell is a religious seeker, a youthful devotee of Franny and Zooey who hopes to see Christ in the fat lady even though he feels cynically toward most people. Unlike Leonard, Mitchell lacks the mojo to seal the deal. Mitchell and Maddy were once on the precipice of becoming romantically involved, but unsure of himself Mitchell blows it. He quickly finds himself an unwilling friend and his love for her sours into resentment. After graduation, Mitchell decides to trek through Europe and help Mother Theresa in India, partly to avoid the Regan recession and partly on a religious quest. Despite his seeking, he can't seem to help how he feels for Maddy.

    Of course, while the triangle is classic there are other elements which are contemporary. Characters have sex before marriage and these scenes are described in full, if not pornographic, detail. Furthermore, the novel breaks from the typical Victorian novel in that it has three different perspectives. This makes the novel seem a little lazy in terms of plotting. At first, episodes alternate from those that focus on Maddy to those that focus on Mitchell. Only much later in the novel, do we have any focus on Leonard other than as the object of Maddy's affection. Given the fact that Maddy falls hard for Leonard early in the novel, the effect of this plotting seems to suggest that, in due time, we will find Maddy and Mitchell in each others arms. However, Eugenides manages to make the marriage plot work for him on modern terms. He lets us think that we're getting the easy romantic story that we're used to--romantic love will conquer all and Mitchell and Maddy will fall in love--and we enjoy it while it's happening. But he also puts a modern twist on this, giving us just enough novelty to show that the marriage plot itself offers some new possibilities and that the novel isn't dead yet after all.

    But I know what you're thinking. None of this matters. The real question is should they go to grad school? In a recent interview, Eugenides suggested that there was something special about where his characters were in their lives. He said that they were adults, fully formed, but that they were still malleable enough that books could be profound to them. Maddy's life is changed when she reads Roland Barthes The Lover's Discourse and Mitchell devours theology and religious testimonies. I know just how much literature changed my life when I was in college. I even took up a religious studies double major because Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that if you wanted to write you needed to know more than just literature. In grad school, that relationship to literature became obviously more complicated, but I'm glad that it did get more complicated and that I got to read so much more than I had before.

    So, should they go?

    I don't know. Maddy, probably. She's got the connections and by the end of the novel, a publication.

    Friday, December 09, 2011

    Japanese By Spring (1993)

    Title: Japanese by Spring
    Author: Ishmael Reed
    Publisher: Penguin
    LCC: PS3568.E365 J35 1993

    Leslie Fiedler did not think much of the campus novel. In an essay titled "The War Against the Academy," Fiedler dismissed the genre as minor and wrote that such novels "tend to fall into self-pity or self-explication, since they are inevitably histories of defeat, a defeat which the institution the writer berates may consider his, but he asserts. . . is the institutions." Fiedler noted that the campus novel was a place for writers to vent their frustration at campus administration and interdepartmental politics while continuing to cash their checks. Also, he didn't think the books were funny enough. Neither Mary McCarthy's Groves of Academe, Randall Jarrell's Pictures of an Institution, nor John Barth's The End of the Road could make him laugh. These were just acts of catharsis for their authors. 

    Luckily, Japanese by Spring breaks this mold and manages to deliver when it comes to comedy. Still, the question remains: what the hell happened to Ishmael Reed at Berkeley? One imagines quite a bit, considering he was denied tenure in 1977 and remained a lecturer at the university until he retired in 2005. Reed's focus in Japanese in Spring concerns not his individual professional advancement but the role of multiculturalism on college campus throughout the 1980s and 1990s. One would think, given his association with the Before Columbus Foundation, that Reed would support multiculturalism's celebration on college campuses. But Reed is suspicious of academic multiculturalism and writes about his experience with it in Japanese by Spring:  
    Ishmael Reed attended a meeting of American Cultures Fellows at the University of California at Berkeley. After reading the Bernstein proposal, he thought that he'd find a room full of brothers and sisters. He and one other black men were the only "people of color" present. Those who were benefiting the most from multiculturalism, in this room, were white women. One white women asked another, who was addressing the group, her advice about what to do if a 'third world' student challenged her authority to teach multicultural course without her having experienced oppression in her background. She was advised to tell her students that multicultural people weren't the only people who were oppressed. She said that an unwanted sibling had it just as bad as a "person of color." Hmmmmmmm, Ishmael Reed thought. Gerald Ford was an unwanted sibling and he became president of the United States.
    In other words, Reed sees multiculturalism as an academic hustle. 

    With its focus on multiculturalism, the canon wars, and the culture wars, Japanese by Spring seems on its surface to be very 1992. Multiculturalism is taken for granted today, the culture wars have become election-year only skirmishes, and the competing sides of the canon debate declared a truce when they decided to teach the conflict rather than reenact it in the classroom. Even though Japanese by Spring may seem superficially to belong to another era, I would argue that it has much to teach us about the contemporary struggles facing the humanities, particularly departments that teach foreign languages.

    Reed's campus novel centers on Benjamin "Chappie" Puttbutt, a black junior professor who teaches at the mostly white Jack London College. Unlike Reed, Chappie is an academic striver, a man on a mission to get tenure. As such, he spends his time accommodating anyone who can advance him in his career. For Chappie this means being the "intellectual houseboy" of white conservatives. In the media and in his books, Chappie blames white racism on the fact that African Americans are just too forceful in demanding their rights. Chappie also accommodates the racist sentiments of his neo-Nazi students, despite the fact that they have been linked to beating the college's few black students and have published a derogatory cartoon about him in their newspaper Kikes and Koons. Again, Chappie excuses their behavior and hopes that doing so will help his tenure decision. (Bass, Jr., Chappie's main antagonist,  is the son of Jack London College's primary financial backers).

    Despite his appallingly reactionary views on race, Chappie also adopts an aggressive feminist stance in order to court the university's powerful feminist bloc. When one of them asks why he is learning Japanese in his spare time, he tells them it is because he wants to teach female court poets in one of his classes. However, Chappie, always planning for his academic future, is learning Japanese because he expects  the East to rise up and dominate the United States' economy and its academy. (Remember, this was 1992 and America was in thrall of Japan bashing and did not yet know about the "lost decade").

    Chappie proves unsuccessful at divining the ideological currents of the campus and looses his bid for tenure. Despite the fact that he is black, conservative, and a New Critic too boot (a rare find indeed), he is simply not minority enough. Instead, his tenure track position goes to a black lesbian. However, taking Japanese lessons does prove to be a good investment. In a stunning reversal of fortune, the campus administration is thrown out of office and they are replaced by none other than Chappie's Japanese teacher, Mr. Yamato. Yamato immediately reverses Chappie's tenure decision and puts him in charge of reorganizing the campus curriculum and firing faculty reluctant to change their ways. Suddenly, the $245 he paid for Japanese lessons seems to be a very good investment.

    The section detailing Chappie's revenge is perhaps the funnest part of the novel, but it is also the most instructive given the current funding crisis in the humanities. Yamato has Chappie reorganize the campus in such a way to satisfy the new president's Japanese ethnocentrism. Thus, Yamato wants all the ethnic studies programs, the history department, and the English department all folded up into something he calls "European Studies," a move that refuses to see the differences between peoples or even disciplines. Western philosophy, Yamato tells him, could be covered in a week. If Jack London College was previously a bastion of ethnic-feel goodism for whites, Reed shows what it would be like if Jack London's fears of Asia came true. Essentially, the college trades one form of race supremacy for the other; the department titles shift, some faculty get fired, but the underlying structure of power remains the same.

    Things eventually go too far on campus, and Chappie eventually changes his mind about Yamato when he discovers that the new president is part of a right wing paramilitary outfit. Yamato's brief reign, nonetheless, shows the relationship between what Pierre Bourdieu calls the field of power and cultural capital, or what we might otherwise call "the curriculum." As Bourdieu argues in The Field of Cultural Production, the art that we consider valuable is always tacitly approved by those who govern society. Certain art works achieve high status because they are liked by the right people and because they may espouse values convenient for those with economic or political power. What we see in Yamato's tenure as president of Jack London College is the purposeful rearrangement of the curriculum to fit the values of Yamato's nationalist organization.

    Although it does not do so directly, Reed's satire of campus multiculturalism speaks directly to the current state of foreign language and literature programs in the United States. Much was made last year of the proposed plan by the University of Albany to close down its foreign language departments. Such plans have become increasingly common on American campuses, but Albany proved to be especially alarming because it was a Ph.D.-granting institution that had global ambitions. Many schools have phased out their foreign-language majors and have done away with teaching foreign literature. What remains at many colleges and universities are introductory language instruction. At risk, of course, is the ability to perpetuate advanced knowledge of these languages given that there will be few instructors in America with the skills to actually teach someone else the language. While there has been an upsurge in students taking Chinese and Arabic, European languages have seen their funding sources dry up as Europe, along with the Cold War, seems to fade in the popular memory. All of this should seem short sighted, of course. The current debt crisis will have an enormous impact on the American economy and it might be a good idea to have a few Americans around who can read and speak fluent German (the language of the creditors) and Greek (the language of the debtors). Achtung αγόρια και κορίτσια!

    Why are languages so vulnerable to being eliminated? It is not because they are too expensive. Although language departments produce few majors, they bring in money through tuition and they have relatively low overhead. As Christopher Newfield discusses in Unmaking of the Public University it costs a lot to operate a biology laboratory, but it costs very little to run a Spanish classroom. Language programs are vulnerable for two reasons. The first, surprisingly, comes down to questions of multiculturalism. In the United States you can cut a program that teaches German language and culture or a Classics Department, because there is not a sizable German or Greek population that will treat such cuts as an affront to their culture. You lose no political points outside the profession for cutting these programs. The second reason, and by far the more important, is that the humanities in general, and foreign language departments in particular, have difficulty in translating themselves into the only type of value currently recognized by the powers that be: market value. As universities lose public funding and are increasingly subsidized by corporations, they have increasingly took on the qualities of a for-profit private institution. The invisible hand of the market is God and it guides curriculum decisions. Business schools are praised as income generators for the school and job creators for the community and free copies of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged are handed out to young, impressionable MBAs. Medical schools are useful. Again, they make money and doctors tend to be rich so we want more of them. But why do you need someone to read Goethe in the original when everyone speaks English? Why read Borges when you learned how to order off the menu and ask for directions to the bathroom in Spanish 1A? How can I turn an understanding of The Iliad if not into cold hard cash, at least into finance capital? Of course, as Newfield makes clear such a view is incredibly shallow; even in capitalist terms its incredibly short-sighted. Teaching students to interpret texts, and I would add here foreign language texts in particular, is an investment in human capital. Students who know how to communicate in multiple languages are an asset, particularly as the economy goes global and  financial power becomes decentered. Even the best English ain't gonna cut it.

    However, it's also the case that every language contains within it a certain way of looking at the world. It's no mistake that the French only have a masculine word for "nurse." That says something about the French, non? It is ultimately through language that Reed builds an argument for multiculturalism. At the height of the Yamato regime, Chappie exerts his revenge on Prof. Crabtree. Under the old administration, Crabtree had voted against Chappie's tenure case. Being a part of the English Department's Milton-fraction, Crabtree had opposed Chappie's early, black nationalist work on Shakespeare's Othello. In retribution, Chappie does not fire Crabtree, but he makes him teach Yoruba. Learning Yoruba and learning more about the culture transforms Crabtree's understanding of his own culture and leaves him to moderate his previous stances on the superiority of European literature. In a sense, and a doubt Reed would agree with me, multiculturalism reproduces the best impulses of Matthew Arnold's educational project. Multiculturalism exposes Crabtree to the "sweetness and light" of other cultures and makes him more accepting of others. By learning the language and cultures  of supposedly "savage" peoples, Crabtree is finally civilized.

    Wednesday, December 07, 2011

    Zot and Geography

    "Jenny said, when she was just five years old
    There was nothin' happening at all
    Every time she puts on the radio
    There was nothin' goin' down at all, not at all
    Then, one fine mornin', she puts on a New York station
    You know, she couldn't believe what she heard at all
    She started shakin' to that fine, fine music
    You know, her life was saved by rock'n'roll."

    --Lou Reed, "Rock'n' Roll" 

    In my last post, I wrote glowingly about Scott McCloud's Zot! (1987-1991). I'm not about to change my mind about what I think about the merits of the book, nor am I going to retract my belief that mainstream superhero books have a lot to learn from the lessons of Zot! However, I would be remiss if I did not also share my thoughts about how geography structures the book as a whole.

    Last time I wrote about Zot's interest in geography and world-building. Clearly, the series juxtaposes the futuristic and utopian urban environment of Zot's planet and the humdrum planet that Jenny lives on to make its point about futurity and fantasy. Zot's planet stands-in for fantasy and romance while Jenny's suburban existence represents a Cheever-esque realism. Taken on its own terms, there seems nothing wrong to me on how McCloud differentiates these worlds in terms of genre.

    However, Zot! produces another set of geographic binaries that is more problematic. McCloud places in opposition the suburbs of New York where Jenny lives in and the urban-core of Manhattan. Jenny, like the central figure of Lou Reed's song "Rock'n'Roll" is a suburban kid, but for her the city doesn't promise the musical kicks of the AM station or the darker thrills that Reed depicts in "I'm Waiting for My Man." Instead the city remains alien, a violent place marred by crime, institutionalized dysfunction, and racial antagonism. Where Zot's Earth is paradise, and Jenny's suburb is merely mundane, the city is a dystopia.

    While McCloud expresses far more antipathy toward the city than Reed, both are united in that they depict the city as primarily a zone that is made distinct from the suburbs by its racial otherness. For Reed, New York City is the cite of soul-enriching black music and, more problematically, Harlem drug dealers. McCloud too fixates on inner-city crime, but he finds no pleasure in it.What makes Manhattan dystopic is that it remains, essentially, racially other and that confronting this difference seems to be the only thing that seriously harms Zot, both physically and emotionally.  

    Zot's first defeat at the hands of the city comes when he attempts to stop a mugging in New York City. All to predictably the mugger is a black teenager (with an odd karate headband) and his victim is a white woman. Zot manages to stop the mugging, but things turn for the worse when he is attacked by the black teenager's older, bigger, and stronger accomplices. These gang members beat Zot into the ground and continue to beat him once they've got him there. Zot, normally so full of confidence, has suffered his first real defeat. However, even more disturbing for Zot is when he calls out for help the crowd of strangers around him is too afraid to help. Zot is more devastated by the crowd's lack of intervention then he is by the beat down. Commenting on this particular episode in the collection, McCloud wrote that he was embarrassed by the scene: "The would-be purse-snatcher and his bigger gang member friends were just lazy stock characters of a sort common in  the mainstream titles of the day, and they strike a false note to me now."

    However, in the final chapter of the collection Zot is made again victim to the city's violence. Once Zot is stuck on Jenny's Earth for good, he tries to make a life for himself as an urban superhero. Apparently, the 'burbs are a crime-free zone. Zot finds this task more difficult than he does at home on his own Earth. Instead of being attacked by mad scientists or crazed robots, Zot has to seek crime out and he does not always find it. In these sections, it's obvious that McCloud is satirizing superhero story conventions where the hero manages to always stumble upon a crime in progress. However, Zot does find crime and he nearly dies for the privilege. Assisting the police on a raid on a crack-house, Zot is shot and seriously wounded. While these events happen off-panel, the crack-house and the surrounding crime are clearly racially coded as black.

    If the book's geography betrays a series of assumptions about crime and race, this is pointedly not to say that McCloud is a racist. At times, McCloud tries actively to address the negative implications of racism.In one scene, Zot is riding the subways when he makes a disturbing discovery about residential segregation. Zot is an innocent and on his world racism is not a problem and thus, he cannot fully comprehend why the racial composition of the subway trains shift depending n the neighborhood he is in. This issue too would later embarrass McCloud. In the collection he writes, "When I look at it again, all these years later, I want to reach over and pat my younger self on the head and say: 'Nice effort, but let's try sticking closer to home from now on, okay?" Although this scene seems borrowed from Brother from Another Planet (1984), it seems like an observation that a formerly New York-based cartoonist would be able to make.

    McCloud takes far more of a risk in writing Ronnie, a black kid living in the white 'burbs, and this risk pays off for him far more than the subway scene. Ronnie is the son of a teacher and a hardware store owner and is thus a member of the black middle class that has left the city. However, Ronnie's father would still prefer it if his son's friends were black. McCloud illustrates this compelling in "Clash of Titans" (Zot! #31):

    FATHER: Why do you hang out with those kids, Ronnie? They're not your kind. . . 
    RONNIE: They're my friends. Dad. It's a white town. . .
    FATHER: I know. . . I know. . . it's my fault for raising you here. But do all your friends have to be white? The kids from the city. . .
    RONNIE: I'm scared of those kids, Dad. Those kids hate me. I'm not like them. Can I go to my room now, please?
    Although this scene reproduces the geographic binaries that render the suburbs white and safe and the city dangerous and black, it also complicates those boundaries. There is a hint of honesty here that the stock figures of Manhattan do not have, cannot have as they're written. Ronnie is a fully developed character who must contend with the class aspirations of his family and his father's call for racial solidarity. He must figure out how to be black, while being groomed to wear a white collar. At the same time, Ronnie is trying to figure out who he wants to be and this doesn't always coincide with the professional and social ambitions that his father has for him. Ronnie's story illustrates the strength of the series, but it also points out the deficiencies that are inherent to Zot!'s troubling geographic distinctions.

    Friday, December 02, 2011

    Zot! (1987-1991)


    A backward glance, a compassionate caress. In this panel from Zot!, Scott McCloud depicts his titular hero bidding goodbye to his romantic interest,  Jenny. Zot must return to his own utopian version of Earth, leaving Jenny to deal with her mundane problems back home. If ever there was a panel that could best encapsulate the collected black and white run of Zot! it is this one. If our hero Zot represents anything, he represents hope and the possibility of change. He is the symbol of better times to come. In contrast, Jenny is a figure grounded in realism, a pessimist at heart who hopes to expatriate herself to Zot's idealized world. In this image, the pair embraces and readies themselves for a kiss that will be all too brief. The issues anthologized in Zot! (1987-1991) deal with teenagers struggling with their own problems, wondering where the future will take them and if they will make their dreams come true.

    Scott McCloud is probably better known as a comics aesthetic theorist rather than as a comic book artist.  Although academics have taken issue with some of his more hazy generalizations, Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2005) remain bold efforts to explain how comics work as a medium. Unquestionably, McCloud figured out how comics worked first hand when writing and drawing Zot! in the late 1980s. The book shows the maturation not only of McCloud's characters, but also illustrates the maturation of his artistic talent. While the early stories remain committed exercises in genre, the second half Zot! takes on a quieter more introspective tone that is rarely achieved in today's mainstream, superhero-heavy comic book marketplace.

    The first half of Zot! focuses almost entirely on Jenny's trips to Zot's futuristic Earth of "1964." It is a planet that never ages, but is always making social and technological progress. This fantasy Earth serves McCloud's purposes in two ways. The first way is that it allows McCloud to imagine future problems that may besiege mankind in the future. Thus, Zot's super villain adversaries all represent some future menace that mankind better avoid, whether that be primtivism, hyper-capitalism, technological supremacy, or a dehumanizing aestheticism. While the villains are all a lot of fun, they are not the real strength of the first half. Zot's utopian version of Earth provides him a means to talk about the nature of escapism. Jenny's desire to live on Zot's world is really just a way to avoid her own problems. Rather than go into what these problems are exactly, McCloud only hints at Jenny's difficulties. In the first half of the collection, we learn about these problems only from Jenny's thought bubbles or from her conversation. We experience her dilemmas primarily as baggage that she brings with her on her trips to Zot's world. It's a smart move.

    In the second half of the collection, McCloud changes the tone of the book radically. Doing so was a risk for McCloud and it took some real chutzpah to do so. The second half of the book finds Zot stranded on Jenny's planet, unable to return home or to facilitate her visits to Earth 1964. Zot remains a fantasy figure in these stories, but his potency as a symbol for escape is not what it once was. Instead, McCloud turns his attention to Jenny's other friends and the mundane but painful struggles they have to endure. Each of McCloud's "Earth Stories," thus focuses on a member of Jenny's nerdy and socially-maladjusted clique as they deal with problems such as family substance abuse; divorce and dysfunctional families; homophobia and coming out; and teenage dating and sexuality. Although these stories are more down-to-earth (or down to our Earth, anyway), McCloud is still extending his original theme. The new characters that McCloud introduces are, like Jenny, trying to make sense of the world while at the same time trying to figure out who they want to be. While the science fiction elements of these stories are minimized, the series remains squarely focused on the future.

    One of the aspects of Zot! that made it noteworthy in its day was the influence manga had on McCloud's stories. In the late 1980s, manga was still fairly hard to find in the United States. These days, manga is easily found in chain bookstores and when I walk down the aisle I usually see a good number of teenagers sitting on the floor, working their way through book by book. Manga has also become a stronger visual influence in American comic books as seen in the work of comic book artists like Humberto Ramos, Carlos Pachecho, and Salvador Larroca. However, what seems to be missing in most mainstream comic books today, and what should serve as the real lesson of McCloud's early work, is that character has to come before both marketing and spectacle. McCloud's stories still work today because human emotion remains central to their drama. Reading an issue of Zot! I never get the sense that "nothing-will-be-the-same-again" or "everything-I-knew-was-a-lie," but I do come to understand a character better and I do see the consequences of their simple maturation.

    Wednesday, November 30, 2011

    Happy 176th Birthday, Mark Twain!

    I hope you got something real pretty.

    Friday, November 25, 2011

    The Image (1962)

    Author: Daniel J. Boorstin
    Title: The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America
    Publisher: Vintage
    Price: Birthday Loot
    LCC: E169.12 B66 1992

    The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1962) is Daniel Boorstin's effort to help his contemporaries understand the media environment around them. Anticipating the thought of post-structuralist thinker Jean Baudrillard, Boorstin is preoccupied by the diminishing status of reality and the concomitant rise of what he terms "the image." A self-described "how not to do it" book, The Image hopes to "dispel some of the mists" that surround America so that the reader "may better see the landscape to find whatever road he chooses." Nearly 50 years later, Boorstin's text seems to posses a basic common sense, but it is as unlikely to empower readers today any more than it did in 1962. Despite the fact that it addresses itself to the common citizen, The Image is underwritten by a nostalgic conservatism, tinged by pessimism and hostile to people in the aggregate.

    Boorstin's title may mislead readers. He is not concerned with images per se, but with the mirages produced by contemporary media. Rather than produce reports on the world-as-it-is, contemporary communication systems begin to manufacture events in order to serve their own ends. Boorstin traces this development to what he terms the "Graphic Revolution." The term signifies a seemingly endless process that began in the Industrial Revolution when the means of communication became easier. This produced both a tremendous upsurge in the number of communications and a tremendous market for them.  Whether these communications were found in visual media like the newspaper, the book, and the cinema or in audible media like radio does not matter. The rise of the "image" comes about because, according to Boorstin, there has never been enough "real" content to satiate the needs of these communication venues.  In order to serve their respective markets, communication firms have had to produce "pseudo-events." These events all have four things in common: 1) they are not spontaneous; 2) they are planned for the sake of publicity 3) their relation to reality is ambiguous and 4) such events are intended to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

    Anyone paying attention to our current political affairs must have noticed the prevalence of such pseudo-events. However, nothing seems to demonstrate the pseudo-event as the political career of Sarah Palin. When Palin pretends to be running for president she fulfills all four criteria. Her visits with her family to historic American sites are certainly not spontaneous family trips, but are planned around the production schedules of television news media. Such trips are not spiritual journeys for the Palins--after all, they seem to learn almost nothing from them--but are conducted solely for the purpose of bestowing an air of patriotism to the Palin family name. I think we can all admit, especially at this point, that Palin's presidential run had at best an "ambiguous" relationship to reality. Finally, these trips were intended to make Palin an important political force, and in a sense, they did secure a role for Palin as a prominent political commentator.

    Boorstin's focus on the celebrity as "human pseudo-event" also possess a certain diagnostic acumen. Boorstin laments the loss of heroes who achieved their notoriety through great deeds. In their place, came the celebrity who is principally well known for being well known. Perhaps nothing represents this transformation than the career of Hulk Hogan. A former wrestler whose matches were staged, Hogan went on to participate on a reality TV show. Hogan Knows Best, modeled itself after a 1950s sitcom, documented the lives of Hogan and his family as they did. . . well, they didn't do much of anything. Nonetheless, it managed to revive Hogan's career and temporarily launch the career of his daughter Brooke. Boorstin's theories also help explain the careers of movie stars as well. Describing the emerging institution of the late night talk show and the already established gossip magazines, Boorstin writes, "One becomes better known by being the habitual butt of another's jokes, by being another's paramour or ex-wife, or being the subject of another's gossip, or even by being ignored by another celebrity." Could any other sentence better explain the success of Jennifer Aniston's post-Brad Pitt career?

    While we have all experienced the lack of reality that Boorstin describes there are a number of problems with the arguments he lays out in The Image. With his concern for "reality" and "experience," Boorstin may seem to fall into the American tradition of philosophical pragmatism. However, Boorstin is in fact an idealist and this gets him into trouble when he tries to imagine alternatives to a public life dominated by the image. Instead of calling for a return to "reality"--whatever that might mean--Boorstin calls for a return to ideals. For Boorstin these ideals can be located in religion, in history, and more problematically in the world around us. Boorstin is aware of the vagueness in his definition of "ideals," and he tries to minimize this difference by saying that searching for ideals is a difficult process than manufacturing "images." However, I think Boorstin recognizes that if he pressing his definition of ideal further he'll find that he has come very close to his definition of "image" as "the un-real." The real problem with Boorstin is that he cannot recognize that all social situations and institutions are constructed. He is, at his root, an essentialist.

    Boorstin's appeal to religion and history of course mark Boorstin as a deeply conservative thinker. Boorstin is not the type of conservative currently represented by the Republican Party, but he is a conservative in the Burkean sense of the term. (George Will, however, does provide the book's glowing afterword). Boorstin longs for a time before industrialization and capitalist market relations. The problem of the image is, after all, the problem of the Graphic Revolution and the markets it produced. Latent throughout The Image is a nostalgia for a time when writing was restricted to an aristocratic manuscript culture and the rest of us had an oral folk culture. This is a romantic vision but I imagine few of us would leave the comforts of the present for the brute simplicity of feudalism. Ultimately, a kind of austerity underwrites the entire project. Although it is an austerity very different than the one currently advocated by European elites, it nonetheless seems to support the interests of the wealthy few while castigating the many.

    Friday, November 18, 2011

    Widow (2011)


    Author: Michelle Latiolais
    Title: Widow: Stories
    Publisher: Bellevue Press
    Price: $14.95
    LCC: PS3562.A7585 W53 2011

    In "Hoarding,"  Michelle Latiolais describes an emotionally adrift protagonist.  Driving around Los Angeles, Latiolais's heroine hears on the radio that a new study has determined that aging does not make one smell. The news does not come as a relief. The story's nameless protagonist thinks differently. "We smell of longing. . . we smell of desire; we smell of how unseemly these desires are at our age." She tries to console herself. "You're not really old," she thinks. But the effort is halfhearted and she knows regardless of her age that her heart is weak and wounded and she feels pain in her chest.

    Widow is Michelle Latiolais's meditation on loss, pain, and trying to capture that experience into words. Although the titular widow is not Latiolais herself, the author lost her husband seven years after a bout of depression led him to take his own life. Widow collects Latiolais stories from the past fifteen years, some written before her loss and some after the fact. Literary theorist Elaine Scarry has written that pain entails the destruction of language, but as Latiolais made clear on KCRW's Bookworm, these stories attempt to defy Scarry's proclamation. Rather than capitulate to the idea that pain entails the loss of meaning, Latiolais shapes language in order to express the somatic experience that grief entails. It is a careful record of grief and of loneliness and it is scientific in its accuracy.

    In her effort to capture these experiences, there is a type of quiet lyricism that permeates throughout  Widow. Rather than tell straightforward continuous narratives, most of Latiolais's stories record small moments in time: the stupid comments of a gynecologist, the color of a tea cup, the feeling of boredom at church, the awkward chatter at a dinner party, the feel of a cotton napkin, an awkward date with a speed reader instructor. In a mode reminiscent of Joan Didion's novels, these experiences are recorded in a sometime fragmentary or associative manner, however the total adds up to more than the sum of the parts. There is an indirectness to these stories, but Latiolais meditates on the minute in order to address emotions of a greater magnitude.

    While many of the characters are obviously inspired by Latiolais, only once is the primary character unquestionably the author. More often than not, Latiolais refuses to name her central characters. Sometimes her protagonist is "the young woman," sometimes she tells her own story in the first person, but more often than not she is simply "she." I imagine that relying on the third person feminine pronoun made it easier for Latiolais to write these stories. By not having to produce a named character--someone with a whole biography--it may have made it easier for her to focus on those small moments that constitute the characters' widowhood. This lack of specificity also has an effect on the reader (or at least this reader). For the vagueness of the word "she" produces a text that is more open to reader participation. It becomes easier for the reader to enter into the text, perhaps to accept the experiences of the protagonist as his or her own. This is not to say that Widow presents the reader with the short-story-as-therapy. While therapy is important, it gives the reader a much more valuable experience: communion.

    For this reason, Widow might not always be breezy reading. But it possesses an honesty and an intimacy that we encounter only too infrequently. For that alone, it's worth sitting down with it and reading, however slowly, however carefully.

    Friday, November 11, 2011

    If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939)

    Title: IF I Forget Thee, Jerusalem
    Author: William Faulkner
    Publisher: Vintage International
    Price: Full (Barnes & Noble)
    LCC: PS351.A86 W5   

    William Faulkner's If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem consists of two thematically-linked stories that are told in alternating chapters. The first of these short stories, "Wild Palms," documents a torrid love affair between Harry, a lonely medical student, and Charlotte, a woman so devoted to the idea of love that she abandons both her husband and her children to be with Harry. The second story, entitled "The Old Man," focuses on an unnamed convict who is impressed into saving a pregnant woman during the 1927 flooding of the Mississippi.

    Given the lack of continuity between the stories, some publishers have released them as separate novels. During the Pulp Age, these editions often appeared with hilariously lurid covers. While it certainly is possible to enjoy the two stories separately, Faulkner did not intend his readers to do so. In an interview for Paris Review, Faulkner spoke about how he came to write two stories within the same novel:

    When I reached the end of what is now the first section of The Wild Palms, I realized suddenly that something was missing, it needed emphasis, something to lift it like counterpoint in music. So I wrote on the Old Man story at what is now its first section, and took up The Wild Palms story until it began to sag. Then I raised it to pitch again with another section of its antithesis, which is the story of a man who got his love and spent the rest of the book fleeing from it.
    In making this statement, Faulkner nearly guaranteed that the critic's task would be to determine the exact relationship between the two stories.

    Faulkner, himself, says that the relationship between the two stories has to do with the different types of love they depict. Harry and Charlotte are bound by a passion that seems out of control. Both are willing to sacrifice the comforts of middle class life to be with one another. Indeed, they convince themselves that if they are going to be truly devoted to one another, they must sacrifice everything. Thus, they enter into a picaresque romance where they travel around the South and the Midwest, moving from job to job, trying not to put down roots. Their affair, governed solely by Eros, however cannot last. Charlotte gives up her life to the idea of love. Harry, his freedom. When Charlotte becomes pregnant, she becomes convinced that if they have a child they will be forced to live a bourgeois lifestyle. Harry is willing to let this happen, but Charlotte convinces him to perform an abortion, a procedure he bundles. Devastated by his lover's death, Harry willingly goes to prison. (I'm not spoiling much here; so much of what I have just said is revealed in the opening chapter).

    In contrast, the convict of "Old Man" has given up on even the concept of the desire. Long ago, before he was imprisoned, the convict had been inspired to rob a train after reading one to many pulp story. The convict had a girlfriend at the time, and she would go down to the prison to visit him, but after awhile she abandoned him to marry someone else. Now, the convict has no use for women. The sight of the pregnant woman only makes him think of "female flesh" and disgusts him. The convict is certainly without Eros in the Freudian sense of the term. However, we might also say that the convict is also without Eros in the way that Hannah Arendt means it. In her essay "Thinking and Moral Concerns," Arendt follows Socrates when she states that Eros is the love for what we do not know. Although he travels up and down the Mississippi--a traditional site of romantic adventure in American literature--the convict longs for the solitude of the prison he has, quite against his own will, escaped. Rather than encounter the world, the convict embraces life in the prison barracks.

    While this psychological reading of the novel provides an ample understanding of how the two parts work together, I want to suggest tentatively that the novel functions as a parable to Faulkner's relationship with mass culture. At the same time that Faulkner was working on his modernist classics, he was also co-writing screenplays for MGM and Warner Bros. and churning out short stories for the slicks. I haven't figured how this parable works in its entirety yet, so what follows is a rough sketch of something that I may, some day, want to say in a more formal context. Here goes: I have a feeling that the bifurcated nature of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem provides some insight into the bifurcated nature of Faulkner's divided career. "Wild Palms" seems at home with the conventions of such "low" genres as romance or film noir. The two heroes are amoral for love and they suffer the consequences, but not before readers have been able to indulge in the sensationalism of their story.  In contrast, "Old Man" seems more like a traditionally modernist text. Much like the modernist work of art, the convict shuns the world at large. He is closed off--almost mute in his answers. He does not indulge popular taste. When his fellow convicts suggest that he may have been intimate with the pregnant woman, the convict refuses to embellish the story for their sake. He has also, much like the modernist artist, been hurt by mass culture and has rejected it.

    Next week: Michelle Latiolais's new collection of stories Widow (2011).

    Monday, November 07, 2011

    "Why Trilling Matters"

    Close reading.
     
    In Sunday's New York Times Book Review, Michael Kimmage reviews Why Trilling Matters by Adam Kirsch. Kimmage is enthusiastic about the new book (Yale UP, $24) and gives it high praise. At the end of his review, Kimmage writes:

    “Why Trilling Matters” is not simply the best book yet written on Lionel Trilling. Its subject, an austere man previously tethered to the age of Eisenhower and Kennedy, is the pretext for an invigorating magic trick. With Trilling’s help, Kirsch transforms a backward glance into a forward step.
    This is no small compliment. Kimmage himself wrote a book on Trilling, The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, and that book is nothing to shake a stick at. The small cottage-industry known as Trilling-criticism is an insular world, a world that I may still be a part of, and so I wanted to add my two cents. I haven't had the opportunity to read Kirsch's book, but I wanted to write about why I thought Trilling still matters.

    In the 1950s and early 1960s, Lionel Trilling was perhaps the most important public intellectual and literary critic in the western hemisphere. He appeared on radio and television where he discussed books and literature and the big ideas of the age (mostly Freud).  Trilling began his career in the 1930s as a graduate student in Columbia. His dissertation, which later appeared as his first book, was a critical biography of Matthew Arnold. In many ways, Trilling's Matthew Arnold would set the path for his entire career. Like Arnold, Trilling believed that literature "is the criticism of life" and had the purpose of making readers more moderate and less likely to blindly follow an ideology.


    By the time of The Liberal Imagination (1950), his major collection of criticism, Trilling had enlisted this critical humanism in the cultural Cold War. While Trilling flirted with communism in the 1930s, he became a committed member of the center-left once the excesses of the Stalinist regime became public.Trilling set out to attack the remains of Popular Front culture, a culture that Trilling felt was too ideological and too associated with the Soviet Union. Along with his fellow New York Intellectuals and their Southern analogues, the New Critics, Trilling set about reshaping the canon of American letters. While Progressive intellectuals and Soviet-influenced critics held up figures like Theodore Dreiser and proletarian authors such as Mike Gold, Trilling was a devoted follower of Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald. These writers were either apathetic toward progressive social movements, or, in the case of James, suspicious of their motives. Despite the fact that James and Fitzgerald didn't seem to advocate a cause, Trilling thought they did something political all the same. In examining the culture of their time writers like James and Fitzgerald allowed readers to see the constructed-nature of all institutions. They allowed readers to see that society operated under certain assumptions, but that these assumptions were often little more than what Trilling called "manners." However, in pointing out this fact, Trilling did not want to make readers feel superior to society; rather, he implicated them in society's folly. Trilling's audience learned that their own attitudes were just as constructed by society as those characters depicted in the works of James and Fitzgerald.

    Certainly, Trilling is a product of his time and many of us would find his Cold War politics to be reactionary. For many, Lionel Trilling might seem like a relic, a stodgy, old, neo-Victorian in an age that has long since been postmodern. However, we should not be so quick to judge. If we heed Trilling's words we might manage to avoid the extremes of our own ideology and the false comfort of easy assurance. If Trilling still matters it is because he teaches us to avoid hubris and that reading the right type of literature might be the way to do it.

    Come back on Friday when I try to figure out Faulkner.

    Friday, November 04, 2011

    The Day I Turned Uncool (2002)

    Title: The Day I Turned Uncool: Confessions of a Reluctant Grown-up
    Author: Dan Zevin
    Publisher: Villard
    Price: Received as a gift
    LCC: PN6231.M47 Z48 2002

    I turned 30 recently. The big THREE-OH. THIR-DEE, as in pretty much middle-agish. Shortly after my birthday, I twisted my torso too quickly and immediately experienced crippling back pain that brought me to my knees. I haven't had my hair fall out and I haven't had a prostrate exam yet, but I am  awaiting my inevitable slow decay.

    However, now that I am facing my own mortality, I thought it was finally time that I take Dan Zevin's The Day I Turned Uncool off the shelf. I had received this as a gift from my then-girlfriend/now-wife in college and had never gotten around to it. Reading it did not seem pressing at the time, but now I approached it as if it were Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed.

    Zevin's book consists of a series of brief confessions that examine what it means to be a "reluctant grown-up." Zevin finds himself increasingly doing the things that grown-ups are supposed to do--lawn care, investing in retirement, golf--but he's surprised to find that part of him actually enjoys these things. The confessions themselves are breezy. Depending on your fiber intake and your reading speed, you may be able to read a confession during your morning BM. That's not bad, really, when you think about it. Consider this sentence from Gertrude Stein's Everybody's Autobiography:
    He told about how you had to know that you should never stop before a red light signal, anybody in an automobile is too impatient not to lose any time starting if the lights should change to take anybody up so you want to stop behind the crossing because then having made the start anybody is good-natured and willing to take yo up, you should also always think about hills in the same way, you should never stand with any one and above all not with a woman, some one might take up a woman alone but they would never take a young man with any kind of a woman, and as he went on and he made those long roads so real Picasso got scared, it is a funny thing but knowing so much about what people are going to do on the part of anybody always scares people who are occupied in creating they like to analyze and talk about what people are going to do but they never like that anybody can known what anybody will do, really know and act successfully act upon what people are going to do.
    I've already flushed and I haven't even finished the sentence. Oh Gertrude, as bathroom reading this will never do. Advantage, Zevin!

    Zevin is at his best when he describes the dwindling of his male friendships. In a confession entitled "My Social Circle Has Shrivled and Shrunk: Why I Have No Friends," Zevin reveals how a combination of work, children, and geography have caused his friendships to erode. This may make Zevin's 2002 book seem like a forerunner to the bromance comedies of Judd Apatow. Both Zevin and Apatow revel in their lack of maturity. But Zevin's is a very different sensibility than Apatow. Zevin is far tamer. His brand of humor is closer to Dave Barry or Ray Romono. His is a very CBS-sitcom style of comedy. It's acceptable to everyone.

    Many of the confessions feel like they could be the premises for individual episodes. "The One Where Dan Plays Golf," "The One Where Dan Hires a Cleaning Lady," "The One Where Dan Gets a Massage," etc. Indeed, reading the book I wondered if I wasn't so much reading a humor book, so much as I was reading a pitch for a sitcom: Seinfeld with a moral conscious, or Mad About You meets Dave's World. According to Zevin's website, he's sold the rights o the book to Adam Sandler's production company. So, ready yourself to hear "ADAM SANDLER IS . . . DAN ZEVIN" some time soon in movie theaters. 

    The jokes might be sweet-natured, but there's also a kind of navel-gazzing entitlement that runs throughout most of the book. What makes Zevin a "reluctant" grown up is that his new status symbols make him feel uncomfortable. This doesn't lead to much soul searching on Zevin's part about what it really means to be an adult. His is less the life examined, so much as it is the life shrugged off. In light of the current economic crisis, Zevin seems to be living the good life, but he just can't enjoy it because to do so would supposedly be a mark of maturity. So when I read Zevin complain about how weird it is that he has a cleaning lady or that as a part-time community college instructor he's distressed by his new found authority, I can't help roll my eyes both on behalf of the cleaning lady and myself. Boo Hoo! Now grow up.

    Wednesday, October 26, 2011

    Shards (2011)

    Title: Shards
    Author: Ismet Prcic
    Publisher: Black Cat
    Price: Full Price and Well Worth It
    LCC: LD 791.8 .E5 2008 P73 (Dissertation Version)

    The dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was a total disaster. It resulted in the bloodiest conflict Europe has seen since World War II. While all sides violated the Geneva Conflict and committed war crimes, by far the worst offenses were perpetrated by the Serbian army against Bosnian Muslims. Under the leadership of Slobodan Milošević, the Serb forces attempted Europe's second internal genocide in a process they hideously euphemized as "ethnic cleansing."

    Genocide can be the fate of the people, but it can only be experienced by the individual victims and perpetrators. Since 1945, we have learned plenty about the horrors of the Jewish holocaust from Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, Elie Wiesel's Night, and Ruth Kluger's overlooked memoir, Stay Alive. Europe's second attempted genocide has also produced a literature of equal quality and candor. Even in the midst of the conflict, novelists in the former Yugoslavia were capturing the experience of living in a country under siege by its own people. Among this growing body of literature were Semezdin Mehmedinovic's Sarajevo Blues, Aleksander Hemon's Nowhere Man, Miljenko Jergovic's Sarajevo Marlboro, Sasa Stanisic's How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone.

    The most recent addition to what we might call Yugoslavian Civil War Literature (syllabi makers, take note) is Shards by Ismet "Izzy" Prcic. Prcic's novel is an account of the war and its aftermath told in a Bosnian-inflected punk rock idiom. In postmodern fashion, Shards blends together the memoir and the novel. The text juxtaposes "shards" of prose narrative and pretends to be a manuscript that combines Prcic's therapist-mandated memoir of the war, a diary that details his life as a refugee in Southern California, and material that details the presumably fictitious adventures of Mustafa Nalic, a Bosnian man who rather than flee his homeland, fought in the Bosnian army as a special unit commando. Prcic's first novel strikes me as reminiscent of Philip Roth's Israeli fictions, Counterlife and Operation Shylock. Just as Mustafa offers Izzy a view of what his life had been if he stayed and fought for Bosnia, Counterlife documents two different accounts of Nathan Zuckerman's life, one where he leaves the United States to live in Israel and one where he dies. In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth writes about a fictitious version of Philip Roth who is besieged by his anti-Zionist doppelganger who is also named Philip Roth. Similarly, Shards plays with autobiographical elements that readers know must be fictional and Izzy, the character, is tormented by alternative versions of himself.


    Early in the novel,  readers learn from a diary entry that Prcic has taken on the rock 'n' roll name Izzy. The new name marks an effort to assimilate in America, but it also promises Prcic a new identity that unfortunately does not help him forget his previous life in Bosnia. As he explains in a later entry, when he returns or thinks about Bosnia he reverts to Ismet, when he acts as a college student at Moorpark College and later UC San Diego, he's Izzy. Readers are thus treated to a schizophrenic memoir-novel that alternates between a teenage Ismet who grows up in Tuzla, Bosnia and a slightly older Izzy who both narrates Ismet's previous adventures and writes in his diary about how he cannot forget about what happened to him and his family even though he is a hemisphere away.

    In the memoir portions of Shards, Ismet encounters the war both as something that merely happens on TV--a space where politicians argue and make disparaging nationalistic remarks--and as a restrictive, life-changing event. The home that the family keeps for weekend getaways becomes a symbol of the family's fear and oppression when they are forced to abandon it. Prcic describes a conversation between his mother and their Serbian neighbor. Harvesting her garden, Mrs. Prcic tells the neighbor that she is going to make jam with some of her yield. The neighbor encourages her and then adds, cryptically, that once preserved who knows who may get to eat it. Ismet's mother interprets this as a veiled threat, packs up the car, and considers the weekend retreat as good as torched. Episodes like this shape Ismet's childhood and when he is given the chance to travel abroad to Scotland on a government sponsored theater trip, his family arranges for him to enter into exile just before he is inducted into the Bosnian army.

    Where Ismet ends, Izzy begins. Izzy is a brash college student who is doing his best to be "normal." He hangs out with friends, he goes to parties in the Valley, he falls in love. And yet despite his efforts to just be "Izzy," Prcic cannot forget his past in Bosnia. In diary entries addressed to his mother, he recounts the difficulties of the war years, the stress that they have put on his family life, and the mental anguish that he is currently going through. At one point in the novel, Izzy wanders around a strange San Fernando Valley neighborhood. Hearing someone speak Bosnian, he asks for help and is invited into the family home. Once inside, he discovers that they are roasting a pig and are in fact not Bosnian Muslims, but Serbs with military regalia decorating their house and pictures of Serbian war criminals on the wall. Izzy carefully maneuvers his escape from the home, but the episode points to the fact that Izzy cannot escape what he experienced back when he was merely Ismet. 

    Finally, there is Mustafa. The novel is perhaps at its most postmodern when it comes to to this illusive figure. Mustafa may be only a fictitious persona that Izzy creates for himself in order to deal with the death of a friend. He might also be a real person who is a true-to-life Bosnian commando. Either way, Mustafa's character is an attempt for Ismet to answer the question, What would have happened if I stayed in the army?  Ismet feels guilty over the figure of Mustafa and the sections dealing with are an amalgam of regret and cartoon masculine fantasies. He is the character who can live up to the ninja stories that Ismet loved as a child. It is Mustafa who gives Bosnia "his shooting finger for defending, his body for a shield, his sanity and humanity as a sacrifice for future generations, [and], his blood for fertilization of [Bosnian] soil." The fictional Izzy cannot  seem to forgive himself for making such a noble sacrifice, but he sacrifices anyway.

    Shards is a compelling first novel and we at Narrative Review await Prcic's sophomore effort. Those of you in the Los Angeles area will have the opportunity to meet Prcic and have your copy signed by the author. On October 27th, Ismet Prcic will read and sign copies of his novel Shards at Skylight Books. If you are smart, you will go and check him out.

    Friday, October 21, 2011

    Juice!: A Novel (2011)

    Author: Ishmael Reed
    Title Juice!: A Novel
    Publisher: Dalkey Archive 
    Price: $9.10 (Amazon)
    LCC: PS3568.E365 J85 2011

    In Bigger and Blacker, Chris Rock discusses what some have called "The Minority's Prayer." In the bit, Rock reenacts the experience of watching the local news. When Rock hears a reporter tell of a violent crime, Rock lowers his head and utters something along the lines, "Please, God don't let him be black. Lord, whatever he is don't let him be black . . . Puerto Rican? Hallelujah! He's Puerto Rican!" Admittedly, the joke loses something in print, but it helps explain Ishmael Reed's latest novel, Juice!

    Juice! tells the story of Paul Blessings, a cartoonist who becomes obsessed with the O. J. Simpson trial. Blessings works for KCAK--a formerly left-wing, viewer-supported television station that has recently gone corporate and has become as a result, increasingly right-wing. Fed up with his station's anti-O. J. bias, Blessings does a series of O. J. cartoons that both defend the former football player and attack the media. Blessings encounters trouble when Princessa Bimbette, a conservative blonde anchorwoman in the mold of Fox News, complains that his latest pro-O. J. cartoon features Simpson sodomizing America. The image, featured on the cover, is meant to portray Simpson calling the shots of the American media, supplying them with the so-called "juice" to run. Censored from the airwaves, Blessing's work is banished to the station's new experimental blog.


    While Reed's title identifies the work as a novel, the publisher's description on the back cover identifies the work as a "faction." This seems a more fitting appellation to me given the content of the work. Juice! tells us of Blessing's personal and professional travails, but the majority of the novel consists of Blessing's analysis of the media. For someone like myself, who is interested in exploring how postmodern fiction teaches media literacy to its readers, I could not have found a novel more apt for my research. Indeed, Reed himself has become a major critic of the media within the last decade. He has written two works of media criticism and has produced Konch Magazine, an on-line journal that publishes "those voices ignored by the American media." Juice! reveals that at its heart the saga of O. J. Simpson is simply a twentieth-century captivity narrative. As Reed informs readers, these types of narratives are as old as 1682. Captivity narratives tell of  white women raped (in all senses of the word) by Native American or African American men and are subsequently rescued and redeemed by virtuous white men. Often times there is a prurient interest in the story with the sexual desire of white readers displaced onto the offending racial other. O. J. Simpson thus becomes our nation's latest "vicious savage," Nichole Brown the picture of white womanhood, and Mark Fuhrman the white avenger. While the supposedly "all-black" jury failed to convict him, Reed tells us that the "lynch mob of the media" has done their best to hound and ruin O. J. Simpson.

    Reed is spot on when he reads into the O. J. Simpson trial the structure of the captivity myth. However, the category of the "faction" produces some interpretive problems. When Blessings critiques the media is the reader to understand these views merely as the views of Blessings or do these views belong to Reed as well? Certainly, there are moments of self-reflexivity that would seem to call this into question. For instance, Blessings is often critical of what he might term the white feminist establishment. Reed has often been accused of harboring misogynist views and Juice! will no doubt raise similar accusations. Seeming to know this, Reed has a friend of Blessings stages a play that defames the Japanese princess Masako in protest of an article that Tsunehiko Kato wrote for MELUS that chastised Reed's view of women. Does this postmodern playfulness shield Reed from these allegations? Ultimately, readers will have to decide for themselves.

    Fictional or not, many of Blessing's views correspond to Reed's earlier writing in Mixing It Up (2008) and Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media (2010). In these works, Reed follows third wave feminists by accusing the Women's Liberation Movement of being riddled with white and middle class bias. For Reed, white (and usually Jewish) feminists attack black men like himself and O. J. Simpson for misogyny because as a class, African Americans have little financial power over the lives of white women. For some, the distinction between Reed's critique of the women's movement and women more generally will merely be academic.

    More disturbingly however is that although Juice! critiques the collective guilt heaped on African Americans for the alleged actions of O. J. Simpson, Reed is just as likely as to partake in bestowing collective guilt himself. In an essay in Mixing It Up where Reed rightfully attacks the virulent racism of the Don Imus Show, Reed takes a moment to signal out Imus's sidekick Bernard McGuirk for his racist radio impersonations. Here, Reed points out McGuirk's Irish ancestry and the troubled history of Irish-Black relations:
    McGuirk’s sexual obsession harkens back to the old Confederate fear of miscegenation. McGuirk is the son of Irish immigrants. It was an Irish immigrant named David Goodman Croly who, according to Harvard professor Werner Sollors, coined the term ‘miscegenation’ and perpetrated ‘the great miscegenation hoax of 1863.’ Croly was the author of a phony pamphlet that exposed a plan by Lincoln’s party to invade northern bedrooms with black women. Lincoln was forced to defend the party from the contrast. . . Contrast McGuirk’s reactionary bile with the views of Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin Party. he told a U.C.-Berkeley audience about the renting of the alliance between the Irish and the blacks who worked on southern plantations by slave masters, who turned them against each other. When Gerry Adams visited the United States, he stopped off to see the late Rosa Parks to thank her for inspiring the Irish movement
    What seems to motivate this passage, and others like it, is a sense of resentment. McGuirk and other Irish-Americans should know better than to disparage African Americans because the Irish themselves were thought of as less than white by more powerful white ethnic groups. Racial history in this interpretation would seem to demand that McGuirk and other white ethnics follow the example set by--of all people--the leader of Sinn Féin. However, the problem with McGuirk's racial caricatures is not that they are made by an Irishman, but that they are simply wrong on any scale of justice that tends to the universal and not the tribal. And so, Reed leaves us with the minority prayer. Please don't let Nicole Brown Simpson's killers be black and please don't let O. J. Simpson's critics be anything less than pure symbols of White Anglo Saxon Protestant Patriarchy.

    Friday, October 14, 2011

    Who is the Black Panther? (2006)

    Title: Black Panther: Who is the Black Panther?
    Author: Reginald Hudlin & John Romita, Jr.
    Publisher: Marvel Entertainment
    Price: Free (Library) 


    Inspired by the decolonization of Africa, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced a new character into the pages of The Fantastic Four in July of 1966. The first prominent black superhero to appear in American comics, the Black Panther was really T'Challa, a costumed adventurer who ruled the fictitious African state of Wakanda. Since his introduction, Black Panther has attracted a solid fan base, but he has been most successful as a supporting character. Whether this is because comic book fans are reluctant to pick up a book that stars an African character is a subject much debated by comic creators and fans alike.

    Reginald Hudlin's Who is the Black Panther? (2006) is an attempt to both streamline the character's storyline and to make him a more prominent figure in Marvel's publishing line. In the back of the collection, Marvel has provided readers with what I assume is Hudlin's pitch for the series. Here, Hudlin establishes that he wants his run to be an iconic version of the character--something that Marvel could base a film franchise upon. (In 2009, the series would serve as the basis for a cartoon on NET). No doubt, this was a smart move given Marvel's recent forays into film. In his attempt to define the character for his editors, Hudlin writes:
    The Black Panther is the Black Captain America. He's the embodiment of the ideals of a people. As Americans, we feel good when we read Captain America because he reminds us of the potential of how good American can be, if, of course, we have the conviction to live by the principles the country was founded on. As a black person, the Black Panther should represent the fulfillment of the potential of the Motherland.
    For the most part, Hudlin succeeds in writing the "movie version" of the character. Who is the Black Panther? has a strong narrative thrust that would play well on the big screen. Of course, Hudlin is assisted admirably by veteran comic book artist John Romita, Jr., who uses wide panels to reproduce the experience of cinema. In the first chapter of the collection, the pair effectively defines not only who the Black Panther is, but what makes the nation of Wakanda so significant. Unlike the rest of Africa, Wakanda is a technologically advanced society that has never been conquered by another nation. They have always remained free of colonial rule. Hudlin's plot hinges on whether or not that will remain the case.

    At times, Hudlin and Romita are capable of subtlety. When the United States plans an invasion of Wakanda and the assassination of T'Challa, we can see a sense of conflict on the face of Secretary of State Ms. Reese (an obvious surrogate for Condoleezza Rice). She is simultaneously disgusted by a racist U. S. military culture, proud of Wakanda's accomplishments, and perhaps, willing to attack the nation simply to prove her patriotic bona fides. Similarly, Hudlin is also willing to showcase the xenophobia of the Wakandas whose technological superiority manifests itself in arrogance and disdain for the outside world.

    However, more often than not Hudlin goes too far in his effort to establish T'Challa and Wakanda as real "bad@asses" (his word, not mine). Instead of simply invading Wakanda, the U. S. covertly funds a crack team of super villain mercenaries. Super villains are a natural fit for any superhero series, but Hudlin goes too far by making the villains representative of Africa's colonizers: Belgium, Britain, France, and the United States. This is heavy handed and in the case of the U. S., not entirely accurate historically . Even here, Hudlin doesn't leave well enough alone and also attempts to indict Christianity's role in colonization of Africa. Thus, Hudlin creates a Church conspiracy (shades of The Da Vinci Code) in order to indict Christianity's troubling past in Africa. In doing so, he makes the British villain, the Black Knight, the Church's sworn servant. Readers are conveniently supposed to forget that England has been a Protestant nation since the 16th century. And then, at the end, there are the zombie cyborg marines whom T'Challa scares off with a few words. Is that too much? I suppose that depends on your sensibilities.

    All and all, Hudlin's Black Panther is an engaging read, but at times its politics are--if not black and white--capable of only four colors.

    Sunday, October 09, 2011

    A. O. Scott on "Insider Baseball"


    Today's New York Times, featured a film essay by A. O. Scott entitled "Inside Knowledge for All You Outsiders." The piece deals with a recent spat of films that trade on what A. O. Scott calls, borrowing a phrase from Joan Didion, "insider baseball."  Given my interest in media literacy and my last post on The Public Burning, I thought I would link the article here and write a little bit about it.

    According to Scott, films like Moneyball, The Ideas of March, Contagion, and television shows like The Wire succeed because they reveal to readers the trade secrets of managing a baseball team, running a political campaign, controlling the outbreak of a plague, or policing Baltimore's inner city. Whereas in real life the technical knowledge one needs to be a baseball manager, political operative, public health specialist, or even a cop remain obscure, these films make these things visible. Scott argues that these films reassure audiences. A the same time that they demonstrate the mechanics of these professions, they also reveal that the people who run our sports, political, medical, and legal establishments are just like you and me. Scott writes:

    And this is the ultimate reassurance offered by the insider narrative. Unlike the paranoid conspiracy thrillers that are their fraternal twins, inside-baseball movies do not turn on hidden agendas and concealed motives. On the contrary, once you pierce the veil of illusion you find regular people doing their jobs: the schlubby campaign managers played by Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Ides of March”; Laurence Fishburne’s Centers for Disease Control bureaucrat in “Contagion”; the brokers, bankers and analysts who scurry through “Margin Call” trying to stem the tide of catastrophe. Those guys are running the world, but they’re also just doing their jobs, which consist of trying to wrest some temporary order out of the chaos of life. It helps to be good at math.

    Scott is dead on  when he writes that the "insider baseball" film is the fraternal twin on the conspiracy thriller. So much of modern political and social life runs along an axis that moves from the paranoid conspiracy to the reassuring personality. After all, given that specialized knowledge is needed to participate in most modern institutions of power, it seems natural that one would imagine that these same institutions are nothing if not conspiratorial. In the absence of understanding and knowledge, we imagine the worst. Conversely, given the lack of hard information, it also seems natural that one would turn a reassuring personality who one can instinctively trust to do the right thing.

    In Scott's account, the "insider baseball" film fall away from technical explanations and moves to focusing on personalities. I take it for Scott this is less a problem and more an inevitably. These films are supposed to reassure audiences and it's hard to imagine popular narratives that do not seem centrally focused on real life characters. But there is the potential for a problem here.

    In my last post, I argued that Robert Coover's Public Burning revealed Nixon  to be "a man torn by conflicting sentiments, but ultimately . . . a man [willing to] do anything to seize power." While this is a strength of the novel, I wonder if this is not also it's weakness, a weakness also potentially shared by the films that Scott describes. When we get distracted by personality, we tend to forget about policy and the technical details which effect us far more than whether Moneyball's Billy Beane is boastful or Richard Nixon is deceitful. At the same time, I find it difficult to say that particular human quirks are unimportant. People defy logical explanation all the time. The trick when focusing on personality, and I think Garry Wills does this beautifully in Nixon Agonistes, is that it must stand in for the whole of a system of thinking. A personality or character, as Georg Lukacs argues in The Historical Novel, is the product of historical circumstances. When authors and filmmakers look at personality, we should not accept the "ho-hum" response that such-and-such is just like you and me, but we should ask how that personality reveals some fundamental value about the time that the film depicts.