Friday, March 16, 2012


Hiatus is a horrible word in blogging, but at times it becomes a  necessary one. On the "About Me" section of this blog it reads "ASK is a writer, editor, and PhD." Now, I'm actually getting paid for the editing portion of that description. 

I have a very good 40 hour a week office job working on what will remain an anonymous academic journal. At the same time, I'm still working on my own academic research projects. (Still want that tenure-track professor job, after all.) Unfortunately, this means that I have very little time for strictly "leisure" reading and even less time to blog about it.

Among the things I've had on my plate lately:
  • Revising a dissertation chapter for journal publication.
  • Working on a conference presentation on Ishmael Reed's Juice
  • Figuring out how to turn my dissertation into a tighter book project. 
With all this going on, I can't keep to my once a week blog posting, something that regular readers of Narrative Review have probably already realized. With last week's post on The Professor of Desire, I've exhausted my backlog of completed posts. There's nothing more in the hopper. Hopefully, when my schedule becomes less hectic, I can resume my blogging activities.

Still, because I conceived of this blog as a space where I could share with you what I've been reading, let me tell you what I've read so far in 2012. You'll see just how much of my time has been spent working on Reed:

Reed, Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media.
----, Flight to Canada
----, Last Days of Louisiana Red
----, God Made Alaska for the Indians
----, Airing Dirty Laundry
Baldwin,One Day When I was Lost
Reed, Conversations with Ishmael Reed
Burger, Theory of the Avant Garde
Ausubel, Nobody is Here Except All of Us
Reed, Another Day at the Front
----, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans
----, The Plays
Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
----, Blue Nights
Reed, Writin' is Fightin' 
Teres, Renewing the Left
Morrison (ed), Birth of a Nation'hood
Kompare, Rerun Nation
Shytengart, Russian Debutante's Handbook  

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Professor of Desire (1977)

Title: The Professor Desire
Author: Philip Roth
Publisher: Library of America
LCC: PS3568.O855 A6 2006

Two major preoccupations have shaped Philip Roth's career. The first of these concerns the shifting contours of Jewish-American identity. The second of these focuses on the nature of sexual desire. Although both preoccupations can be found throughout his works, generally Roth's works can be broken down into either Jewish-books or sex-books. This may seem reductive, but as a method of classification it works out pretty well. For instance, the Zuckerman books are about Jewish identity and American politics. The major exception here is the latest in the Zuckerman books: Exit, Ghost. That book is about facing mortality, which for a more senior Roth, is the new sex. Sitting on the opposite side of the Jewish identity-sexual desire divide are the books that make up the Kepesh trilogy. Spotlighting Roth's other recurrent protagonist David Kepesh, these books focus on Kepesh's almost all-consuming need to gratify his sexual urges. Roth writes in the last of these books, The Dying Animal, "No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you're not superior to sex."

The Professor of Desire is the second book of Roth's Kepesh trilogy and marks a stylistic departure from The Breast. The earlier novel is a post-Playboy take on Kafka's Metamorphosis and depicts David Kepesh as he is transformed into an enormous breast. The Professor of Desire disregards the events of the previous book and is more committed to literary realism. Here, too Kafka reigns as a heavy influence, but Roth's allusions are no longer as surreal. Kepesh discusses his problems with a fellow literature professor when in Prague. While the Czech professor sees the bureaucratic indignities faced by Josef K. as an analogous situation to life under the Iron Curtain, Kepesh says he too feels like Kafka because he finds himself in the totalitarian grip of his libido. Later, Professor Kepesh will write a lecture to his introductory literature course that mimics Kafka's "Report to the Academy." In this case, it's not an ape who does the talking, but Kepesh feels just as brutish. Kepesh wants nothing more than to be the nice Jewish boy that his parents raised him to be, but cannot reconcile this desire with his more prurient interests.

I could write more about the plot and theme of this 34-year-old novel. I could go highbrow and talk about its largely Freudian orientation or I could go lowbrow and describe in more detail the more pornographic moments of the novel. However, in the first case, I think I might bore you and in the second case, I would probably embarrass myself. In the last month, this blog has had only 36 visitors, most of whom left soon after coming here. This post may get a few more hits. It does include the words "sex," "libido," and "pornographic" and the Internet was built for men not that much different than David Kepesh. Still, since I'm writing largely for myself at this point, I'll write about what really interests me.

What I always appreciate about Roth is how he fluidly moves from scene to scene. From a holistic perspective,  the three chapters that make up the novel might seem mechanical. Chapter one details Kepesh's youth, his dalliance with two Swedish coeds while on a Fulbright Scholarship in England, and his disastrous marriage to a trivial women. Chapter two traces the angry years after Kepesh's divorce and how a new relationship resuscitates him. In the final chapter, Kepesh is still in love, but his ravenous sexual libido has reawakened and he awaits the relationship to dissolve in spite of himself. However, what really makes the novel mesmerizing is what Roth does within those constraints. The first chapter alone moves seamlessly from the Borschtbelt comedy of Kepesh's youth to Russ Meyer-like scenes from his days as a college Lothario to the unhappy days as a married sexual acetic. Being able to weave in all these disparate scenes, each with its own unique resonance into an organic hole is, I would argue, the principle strength of Roth's novelistic technique. The only art form that I think comes close in its jauntiness, in its ability to mix moods, is the expertly made music mix tape. To be able to work in a host of divergent musical styles and moods takes skill and a careful ear.  While I'm often taken by how well Roth does rage in his writing, I think that particular talent is really a subset of his own ear for tone and his ability to integrate that rage into a larger, more melodious whole. And Roth makes all of this seem effortless.

Friday, March 02, 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

Author: Oscar Wilde
Title: The Importance of Being Earnest
Publisher: Oxford World Classics
LCC: PR5812.C38

The Importance of Being Earnest is not a particularly good play, but it does strive to amuse and sometimes it succeeds. Part of the problem with the play rests with the weakness of its conceit. Jack Worthington has been leading a double life. A foundling, Worthington has been made a gentlemen by a wealthy benefactor. He is also the guardian of Miss Cecily Cardew and he finds this duty sometimes too much to bear. In order to escape, Jack has invented a fictitious brother named Earnest whose affairs Jack must often straighten up in London. Once in London, Jack pretends to be Earnest. Upon this one lie, the whole play and its complications rest. These complications are four in number: 1) Little Cecily has fallen quite in love with the romantic image she has of Earnest, unaware that the man is really her "Uncle" Jack; 2) Jack's fiance in the city, Gwendolyn, is quite in love with him, but a good deal of her attraction rests upon her odd fascination with the name of Earnest; 3) Jack's friend Algernon Moncrieff also likes to impersonate others, and gets the idea to go to Jack's country estate and pretend to be Earnest in order to seduce Cecily and; 4) Cecil falls for Algernon, but like Gwendolyn, has a particular and inexplicable fondness for the name Earnest.

But all of this requires the play's audience or its characters to ask a simple question. How does an orphan child, found in a rail station cloak room, have a brother in the first place? It's a giant plot hole and the entire play sinks into it.

The other problem with the play is that sometimes Wilde strains to be witty and he falls flat. Like the modern sitcom, which must have a joke per page, Wilde's play prefers to keep a bad joke in the script rather than to have a "dull" moment. The worst example of this habit comes early in the play when Algernon is trying to deduce Jack's secret.

ALGERNON: Yes, but that does not account for the fact that your small Aunt Cecily, who lives at Tunbridge Wells, calls you her dear uncle. Come, old boy, you had much better have the thing out at once.
JACK: My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn't a dentist. It produces a false impression.

Now maybe simple anti-dentite humor was all the rage in the Victorian period, but I take the joke here to be a rather lame pun on the word "impression." Call the comedy police because this is just not funny. In fact, better yet, call Monty Python.

Oscar Wilde on Monty Python

This is not to say that all the jokes are bad. Just a few minutes later, Wilde does much better when Lady Bracknell utters the famous line that, "To lose one parent is unfortunate, to lose two is carelessness."

The quality of some of his jokes aside, why do we continue to read Oscar Wilde and see performances of his plays and their Hollywood adaptations? I think the answer resides in the very modern quality of the plays themselves. Despite the fact that they are close to 200 years old, the plays nonetheless continue to reflect certain attitudes that are still with us. Shakespeare wrote about people masquerading as other people. Sheridan, like Wilde, populated his scripts with wits. What seems both new to Wilde and to the modern age, however, is how Wilde focuses less on character--the moral qualities of a person--and more on the personality or the style of a person.

In Wilde's play, wit becomes a form of social combat. To talk faster and with a better turn of phrase means to establish oneself socially. What matters most is not moral character or birth--even Lady Bracknell's displeasure at Jack's rude origins proves transitory--but the ability to communicate with force. For Jack, for Allgernon, as for all of Wilde's characters being able to say the wittier thing is in a sense to achieve dominance not only over your conversation partner, but over the situation itself. This has remained a strand throughout comedy.

His Girl Friday

Take, for instance, the above scene from His Girl Friday. Walter Burns's (Cary Grant) wit and his ability to speak fast is his way of trying to dominate his ex-wife Hildy (Rosalind Russell). However, we can see that Hildy can keep up with Walter, interrupt him if necessary, and this is how we know they are equals. In contrast, Hildy's new fiance Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) is from Albany, talks slow, thinks slower, and just doesn't belong in the picture. His static nature might be wholesome, but it is also an abomination. We know that he needs to be removed from the romantic triangle if we are to get any sort of satisfactory end.

Will & Grace

Will and Grace of course provides a different view of the Wilde-aesthetic. Will (Eric McCormack), Grace (Debra Messing), Jack (Sean Hayes), and Karen (Megan Mullally) are all perfect wits. While they are all often the butts of each others jokes, they are nonetheless equal wits and thus their friendship can continue. The fun of Will and Grace was not only the Wildean speed of the characters but also the way in which we could see the characters verbally joust with one another, all for the sake of fun and all for the sake of their friendship.

Of course, all of this is incredibly shallow. But Wilde might have found it fitting that his legacy was wider than it was deep.