Friday, October 21, 2011

Writing a Personal Biography: Reflections on Alexandra Styron's "Reading My Father"

Alexandra Styron's Reading My Father (2011) sounds, if the jacket copy is to be trusted, like the companion piece to William Styron's mind-staggering—yet eloquently brief—memoir Darkness Visible (1990). This is, of course, because the book's description opens with an invocation of Mr. Styron's depression memoir, now a classic in the field of depression literature. And it would be a gross misreading to state that the elder Styron's battle with melancholy does not inform the book; one of the threads that Ms. Styron delicately needles throughout her prose is the insinuating yarn (one woven from her ancestors' mental states and her father's biography) that her father's depression is equal parts experiential and biological.

The book, though, is an object lesson in the importance of genre—just like many other mislabeled works of art. Several years back, I saw a production of the so-called "rock opera" Movin' Out, based on the songs of Billy Joel. The expectation, going in, was that the production would have the look and feel of something like Mama Mia, a musical that somehow generates a plot out of a single group's songs. But the difference between Abba and Billy Joel is one of narrative access: Abba's songs, generally told from the first person, open themselves to the possibility of a person inhabiting that voice, while Joel's tunes (either a straight third person narrator or a secondary figure telling somebody else's tale) require that somebody tell us what's happening. Had I been told, on entering the theatre, that I would be observing a ballet enacting the narrative of Billy Joel's songs, I would have been more amenable to the artistic project. But I was told "rock opera," and a ballet to rock is hardly a rock opera.

I allude to my experiences with Movin' Out to emphasize the importance of genre and narrative approach when reading something like Ms. Styron's volume. Reading My Father—termed a memoir, at least according to its title page—lacks the explicit self-evaluation and introspection that we generally expect of that literary form. Terming this book a "memoir" performs two other functions: the book enters a dialogue with Mr. Styron's Darkness Visible, and the book likewise finds itself in a literary genre that, recently, has sold like hotcakes.

Though we do learn of how the late Styron's irascibility upended the family's life and created distance between various members of this book's ensemble, the great novelist's fits and personality tics—along with the effects on Ms. Styron and her elder siblings—is hardly the focus of this piece of nonfiction. In the book's second chapter, Ms. Styron reveals her actual purpose for writing this reflection on her father. She spoke about telling her "father's ghost stories" at the 2 February 2007 memorial service for Mr. Styron, which she had hoped would offer "an opportunity for closure, as they say in griefspeak." Ms. Styron began her address with an opening line that, she claims, had been consistent through all drafts of her remarks:
"My father used to scare the crap out of me," I declared. The lurid stories I chose that day were selective (omitting a few that my husband, Ed, thought were actually too awful to get a laugh). And after I told them, I wondered aloud why he had [told ghost stories]. Why would a grown man scare his children so completely? . . . Was it catharsis? Was he blowing off steam after a day grappling with all those barbarous slavers and Nazis who inhabited his books—real-life maniacs on the loose inside his head? . . . The answer that I settled on reflected what I believed was a deeper truth. Whether he meant to or not, Daddy taught us a lesson—a lesson which tested him hard at the end of his days—that life requires courage, and a sense of humor.
Ms. Styron seeks, through Reading My Father, an understanding of that man's courage, sense of humor, sensibility, and raison d'être. Her endeavors to explicate her answer, to respond to the question of why a man such as her father would evoke such fear in his own children, takes her into a genre that is beyond a father-daughter memoir or a depression memoir; she embarks on what I shall term a "personal biography," an exploration of an ancestor's history.

This term—"personal biography"—strikes me as particularly apt, as Ms. Styron casts herself as a child whose coping mechanism was an avoidance of her father's often ornery disposition. So she investigates Mr. Styron's life and his writerly craft, re-reading his works and studying his papers at Duke University and interviewing Mr. Styron's friends, editor, and biographer. Reading My Father is a biography, in that it espouses a particular picture of a man and sketches his contours, colours in the lines of his character so that readers learn about the man; it is a biography of art, too, in that Ms. Styron's approach to her father's fiction is one of biographical criticism, in which his life necessarily translates into his prose. But the stakes are personal, as Ms. Styron is working to discover the man behind those texts, the father whom she often missed seeing directly, clearly, as a child.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Literary Liberty: Some Thoughts on Banned Books

This semester, I'm teaching a section of freshman composition, and I've selected the 2010 Best American Essays as the reader for the course. Early on, my students read Arthur Krystal's contribution to the volume: an essay entitled "When Writers Speak," which presents a case for written texts as the most powerful means of conveying thoughts, ideas, and arguments. Krystal claims that he appears most intelligent in writing, "not because writing helps me to organize my ideas or reveals how I feel about something, but because it actually creates thought, or at least supplies a petri dish for its genesis." This development of thought, or so Krystal contends, does not occur when writers simply speak. The mind is the petri dish, and language, the germ growing into something larger.

I asked my students why, in addition to fostering our own ideas, we should write; a few commented that writing removes a person's fetters and allows them to move freely in an arena of thought. Unlatching our intellectual shackles gives us the freedom to move between different modes of thinking, different ways of considering and approaching information.

But all this, as I pointed out to my students, is if writing—and consequently, reading—are such open venues. Which historically, they haven't been—even in the allegedly democratic twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The problem is something that John Stuart Mill observed in On Liberty: Limiting access to books doesn't simply prevent a free and open exchange of ideas, but promotes bigotry, stunted ideologies, and stultifying social values performed by rote.

This past week was the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, meant to increase awareness of the book's importance to our intellectual way of life. The ALA's advocacy page for the week offers a gloss of the event's zeitgeist: "Intellectual freedom—the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular—provides the foundation for Banned Books Week." Banned Books Week follows Mill's belief that the only way for society to progress is to confront these issues—even if they are "considered unorthodox or unpopular"—in our personal thinking and in the public sphere.

Consider the effect a book can have on our social values. And Tango Makes Three (2005)—which the ALA ranks as the most challenged book of 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010—relates in a delicately illustrated children's book the true story of Roy and Silo, a male same-sex penguin couple who were given an egg of their own to hatch at New York's Central Park Zoo. Parents and communities opposed to homosexuality attack the book for its depiction of—and its pronounced support for—same-sex couples as viable parents. (The book also offers readers the notion that homosexuality is natural, undermining one of the key talking points of the LGBT movement's foes.) This book, however, educates children on tolerating and accepting a group of people, of extending human rights and admiration to folks who have been denied those liberties for far too long.

"There's something about writing," Krystal notes, "that affects how we think and, inevitably, how we express ourselves." But those thought patterns (and by extension, our attempts at self-expression) depend upon the intellectual climate in which we live. Books like And Tango Makes Three ask us to engage with pressing social issues, while other books—challenged for offensive content—thrust readers into situations in which we must struggle with our own repressive and cruel history.

We have not yet reached—and perhaps shall never attain—the unfettered expression that Krystal touts in his essay. Nor have we shaken off attempts to restrict knowledge. Regardless, our intellectual evolution requires that we grapple with contentious texts and learn where we stand, a process that requires poise, consideration, and respect for others.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Shakespeare and the Infinite Monkeys, or Why Art Isn't an Accident

Some people take their clichés too seriously.

A BBC article this morning, entitled "Virtual Monkeys Write Shakespeare," investigates Jesse Anderson's project to simulate an infinite number of monkeys hammering on an infinite number of typewriters, to see how long these code monkeys take to reproduce the Bard's complete body of work. In short, this is a virtual test of the platitude that an infinite number of monkeys pummeling relentlessly on a battered keyboard can shamble together the prose of a lyrical genius. So how much value is there to this cliché?

"If you put enough monkeys in a room with a typewriter, they'll produce Shakespeare": this concept is called the "infinite monkey theorem." (And yes, there's a Wiki page on it. And no, I will not explain the mathematical proofs.) Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay "The Total Library," traced the idea as far back as Aristotle--so the idea is hardly new. Literary theory uses this concept in one of two general ways: either to argue that art is not an accident, or to contend that anybody has the ability to produce art. In the latter case, the monkey adage swings from our tongues to insinuate contempt at someone else's good fortune, or to compliment a budding talent.

But let's stop for a moment. Anderson's project provides a fun glimpse into a quirky thought experiment--can an infinite monkey actually generate Shakespeare's texts, yet alone any others? There are a few pragmatic issues that weigh down this test, like a monkey on the back. Firstly, nobody--save the titular Doctor of Doctor Who--has an eternity with which to toy around in time and space. Secondly, genuine art is a reaction to life experiences, a considered and developed response to an individual's sense of reality. The collaborative effort necessary for monkeys ad infinitum to gather in a room and produce a text are staggering. In the instance of a single monkey, an eternity could elapse before producing the opening chapter of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight.

Which would leave literature in a sorry place, indeed.

This is to say that the complete works of William Shakespeare are the culmination of the Bard's singular existence. His endeavors as an actor, playwright, father, husband, lover, etc. produces an array of influences far vaster than the random happenstance of monkeys slapping their digits across a typewriter's keys. Furthermore, Shakespeare has a certain social, historical, and political context--Elizabethan England, the rise of empire, the culture of the stage, bowing to the wants of groundlings and nobles alike. Perhaps the only context—political or otherwise—of imprisoning monkeys with typewriters is a pending legal action by the ASPCA, or a series of coy adverts released by PETA.

Let us leave literature to each other, and to our individual talents and insights. And let the monkeys keep their own interests intact. "Monkeys," as the BBC article's photo caption reads, are "more interested in throwing faeces than writing sonnets."

Monday, August 8, 2011

Guest Post on The Story Prize Blog

Hey folks! Long time, no blog. Anywho, mosey on over to The Story Prize blog for a guest piece, by yours truly, on Flannery O'Connor. The piece pulls in some thoughts on O'Connor's fiction, as well as a review of an event sponsored by One Story, where editor Hannah Tinti discussed O'Connor with novelist Ann Napolitano.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Wednesday Poetry: "Baseball and Writing," by Marianne Moore

Over the next few days, I'll be attending three baseball games in the company of my brother. So, with no further ado, today's poem is Marianne Moore's "Baseball and Writing." You can find today's poem in Moore's Complete Poems. Although... I disagree with her assertion that baseball is exciting. I, for one, can't wait for it to get jazzed up a bit--Futurama's Blernsball would be an acceptable upgrade.

"Baseball and Writing"
by Marianne Moore

(Suggested by post-game broadcasts)

Fanaticism?  No.  Writing is exciting and baseball is like writing.    You can never tell with either       how it will go       or what you will do;    generating excitement--    a fever in the victim--    pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter.  Victim in what category? Owlman watching from the press box?  To whom does it apply?  Who is excited?  Might it be I?  It's a pitcher's battle all the way--a duel-- a catcher's, as, with cruel    puma paw, Elston Howard lumbers lightly       back to plate.  (His spring        de-winged a bat swing.)    They have that killer instinct;    yet Elston--whose catching    arm has hurt them all with the bat--  when questioned, says, unenviously,    "I'm very satisfied.  We won."  Shorn of the batting crown, says, "We";  robbed by a technicality.  When three players on a side play three positions and modify conditions,    the massive run need not be everything.       "Going, going . . . "  Is       it?  Roger Maris    has it, running fast.  You will    never see a finer catch.  Well . . .    "Mickey, leaping like the devil"--why  gild it, although deer sounds better-- snares what was speeding towards its treetop nest,  one-handing the souvenir-to-be  meant to be caught by you or me.  Assign Yogi Berra to Cape Canaveral; he could handle any missile.    He is no feather.  "Strike! . . . Strike two!"       Fouled back.  A blur.       It's gone.  You would infer    that the bat had eyes.    He put the wood to that one. Praised, Skowron says, "Thanks, Mel.    I think I helped a little bit."  All business, each, and modesty.         Blanchard, Richardson, Kubek, Boyer.  In that galaxy of nine, say which  won the pennant?  Each.  It was he.  Those two magnificent saves from the knee-throws by Boyer, finesses in twos--    like Whitey's three kinds of pitch and pre-       diagnosis       with pick-off psychosis.    Pitching is a large subject.    Your arm, too true at first, can learn to    catch your corners--even trouble  Mickey Mantle.  ("Grazed a Yankee! My baby pitcher, Montejo!"  With some pedagogy,  you'll be tough, premature prodigy.)  They crowd him and curve him and aim for the knees.  Trying indeed!  The secret implying:    "I can stand here, bat held steady."       One may suit him;        none has hit him.    Imponderables smite him.    Muscle kinks, infections, spike wounds    require food, rest, respite from ruffians.  (Drat it!  Celebrity costs privacy!) Cow's milk, "tiger's milk," soy milk, carrot juice,  brewer's yeast (high-potency--  concentrates presage victory  sped by Luis Arroyo, Hector Lopez-- deadly in a pinch.  And "Yes,    it's work; I want you to bear down,       but enjoy it       while you're doing it."    Mr. Houk and Mr. Sain,    if you have a rummage sale,    don't sell Roland Sheldon or Tom Tresh.  Studded with stars in belt and crown, the Stadium is an adastrium.  O flashing Orion,  your stars are muscled like the lion. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Fan Fiction Isn't Always a Bad Thing

For some reason, I've spent the past few weeks in a Sherlock Holmes frame of mind. Maybe it's because I binge-watched a few Columbo episodes, or maybe it's because I read Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974) during my long stay in Pennsylvania and then revisited Michael Chabon's The Final Solution (2004). Meyer's novel explicitly positions itself in the Sherlock Holmes canon by claiming that the novel is an as-yet unpublished memoir penned by the steadfast Dr. John Watson, while Chabon's novel--never mentioning Holmes by name--draws some pretty obvious parallels to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's inimitable consulting detective.

Now, where fan fiction gets dangerous is when it starts to flirt with actual historical events. Chabon's novel, which involves an elderly Holmes ripping through a mystery and reassembling its components, all the while criticizing the infirmity of his aged mind, stays strictly in the realm of the imaginary. Meyer's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, however, claims to be a significant revision to the Holmes canon, as Meyer's rendition of Watson claims that Holmes's alleged death is a patent falsehood: Holmes vanished in order to kick his opium addiction.

And that's when Meyer commits himself to one of the greatest fanfic mistakes: introducing real-life, historical figures to the narrative. In this case, Dr. Sigmund Freud.

But Meyer's interpretation of Freud is surprisingly... human. (This differs drastically from a pretty awful made-for-TV movie I saw, starring Christopher Lee as Holmes and Patrick MacNee as Watson--they're in Vienna, where they meet a Sigmund Freud whose accent makes Joey Tribbiani's portrayal of Freud in an episode of Friends seem like an Oscar-worthy performance.) Freud, in Meyer's novel, comes across as a therapist, interested in his patient's recovery--not as a crackpotted stereotype interested only in pinning everyone's problems to childhood sexuality.

I still think, though, that Chabon's route is the safer of the two--and likewise results in the stronger book, as it doesn't cause the reader to pause and question the story. Chabon, who sticks to the particulars of scene and place, evokes reality in that manner, while Meyer skirts a dangerous line in attempting to use historical figures as characters, as opposed to compasses for indicating time and place.

(And if you want more on fan fiction, I defer to Strong Bad, who covers this topic in one of his scathing emails.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wednesday Poetry: "Harvest," by Louise Glück

So: I've recently returned to Newark, New Jersey, after a month spent in Pennsylvania. It was a difficult period of time, with emotional highs and lows--but that's hardly the topic for today's post, which I hope marks a return to the normalcy of these jottings that I had [once again] achieved at the start of June.

We'll start off slow, with a poem that explores the relationships between the living and the dead, between lessons and practicing that knowledge. In "Harvest," Louise Glück juxtaposes gathering food to sustain oneself against the inevitable death of the plants, spurring one life while uprooting another. But it's neither entirely good nor entirely bad; this poem suggests that the strength we draw from harvests (either the literal kind or the metaphorical reaping of wisdom from the fields of our forebears' experiences and tales) is at once a gift and a curse. We are cursed, in that we have lost that source; we are fortunate, in that we carry those fruits within. Yet, we exist precisely because of this conundrum.

"Harvest," by Louise Glück

It grieves me to think of you in the past--

Look at you, blindly clinging to earth
as though it were the vineyards of heaven
while the fields go up in flames around you--

Ah, little ones, how unsubtle you are:
it is at once the gift and the torment.

If what you fear in death
is punishment beyond this, you need not
fear death:

how many times must I destroy my own creation
to teach you
this is your punishment:

with one gesture I established you
in time and in paradise.

(You can find "Harvest" and many other poems in Glück's collection The Wild Iris.)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bloomsday 2011

On 16 June 1904, James Joyce's Leopold Bloom traversed the streets of Dublin. Since Ulysses was first published in 1922, Bloomsday has become something of a holiday to Joyce fans and literati everywhere. So! There are a few things, in addition to the L.A. Times list of ways to spend Bloomsday, that you can do to celebrate this Joycean day.

Here are my suggestions:
1.) Yes, it's a stereotype, but certainly one with lots of truth to it: The Irish like their booze. Have yourself a merry little Thursday with a Guinness, or perchance a shot of Jameson.
2.) Take a long perambulation through your neighborhood, complete with long contemplations of your neighbors.
3.) Enjoy a cheese sandwich: "Peace and war depend on some fellow's digestion. Religions. Christmas turkeys and geese. Slaughter of innocents. Eat drink and be merry. Then casual wards full after. Heads bandaged. Cheese digests all but itself. Mity cheese.
"—Have you a cheese sandwich?"
4.) Don't let yourself get duped by advertising: "Potted meats. What is home without Plumtree's potted meat? Incomplete. What a stupid ad! Under the obituary notices they stuck it. All up a plumtree. Dignam's potted meat."
5.) Last (and certainly not least) consider what animals feel. Particularly our feline friends: "They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too. Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it. Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me. [...] She blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes, mewing plaintively and long, showing him her milkwhite teeth. He watched the dark eyeslits narrowing with greed till her eyes were green stones. Then he went to the dresser, took the jug Hanlon's milkman had just filled for him, poured warmbubbled milk on a saucer and set it slowly on the floor."

I'm aware that this isn't a real post, but! Enjoy Bloomsday--fun for the whole family (and even the cats)!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New Fiction: "Space Cases," at Revolution House


Head over to Revolution House Magazine to read their inaugural issue online (or save the pdf); my story "Space Cases" appears in this issue. I couldn't ask for a better gift a day before Bloomsday.

So read it and enjoy it. Seriously. And direct any comments you have on "Space Cases" via the comment function here on the blog!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Almost famous? Sure, why not?

A blog post over at The Story Prize has announced that Phedra Deonarine and I are Larry Dark's new assistants for the prize:

Sadly, my pic is just further evidence in my long-ago announced "I need a photographer who isn't my cat" issue.

More anon--and I'll link to the occasional guest posts that I write for The Story Prize!

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Cynic: Oscar-nominated Films and My [Apparent] Discontents

The only way I can describe my relationship with television and films is to shamelessly pilfer some words from the late and great David Foster Wallace's essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction": "[...] there's no denying the simple fact that people in the U.S.A. watch so much television basically because it's fun. I know I watch for fun, most of the time, and that at least 51% of the time I do have fun when I watch. This doesn't mean I do not take television seriously." I, for one, feel that the same could (and should) be said about watching films.

Yet, the last few movies I've [attempted] to watch have left me yearning for something more substantial. And these are Oscar-nominated flicks, the creme de la creme, if you will. Now, keep in mind that I've cried at episodes of Doctor Who and at certain moments in Harry Potter novels--not because they're the classiest brand of literary texts, but just because characters were so well evoked. I'll try to twitterpate the last two of these experiences--140 characters or less--to convey what I mean.
Juno: If I didn't adore Ellen Page and her snark, this would've flatlined before she finished chugging Sunny D.
American Beauty: Wait. Family Guy parodying a cheerleader unbuttoning her blouse is more poignant. Angst-enough to shame Holden Caulfield, who at least has some verve.

And I'm not being stodgy, "I've-got-a-lot-of-books" guy. Yet...there needs to be a bit more going on than simply the plot, and I feel that's what happens with a lot of these Academy Award nominees. They have good stories, and the stories are left hauling a lot of the tensions. In Juno, Ellen Page acts circles around the rest of the cast. In American Beauty, rose petals out-act Kevin Spacey's award-winning performance, IMHO.

Neither Juno nor American Beauty are bad films, but I wanted more in terms of character development and personalities--which I didn't quite feel in either flick.

So, here's the request: What are some films, faithful readers, that you've found in which a rich plot and strikingly-evoked characters evolve hand-in-hand?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Wednesday Poetry: "The Mute Cat," by Les Murray

Consider today's entry a follow-up to Monday's post, a glance at a bit of what Les Murray can do as a poet, when not writing about mental illness. This poem comes from his 2010 collection Taller When Prone.

I'll admit that this selection may or may not have something to do with my long-ago conversion to the loyal ranks of cat-adorers everywhere. As a bibliophile and ailurophile (fancyshmancy term for cat-lover), I must say that my favorite stanza is the final one.

"The Mute Cat," by Les Murray

Clean water in the house
but the cat laps up clay water
outside. Drinking the earth.

His pile, being perfect,
ignores the misting rain.

A charcoal Russian
he opens his mouth like other cats
and mimes a greeting mew.

At one bound top-speed across
the lawn and halfway up
the zippy pear tree. Why? Branches?
Stopping puzzles him.

Eloquent of purr
or indignant tail
he politely hates to be picked up.
His human friend never does it.

He finds a voice
in the flyscreen, rattling it,
hanging cruciform on it,
all to be let in
to walk on his man.

He can fish food pellets
out of the dispenser, but waits,
preferring to be served.

A mouse he was playing
on the grass ran in under him.
Disconsolate, at last he wandered
off -- and drew and fired
himself in one motion.

He is often above you
and appears where you will go.

He swallows his scent, and
discreet with his few stained birds
he carries them off to read.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Leashing the Black Dog: Thoughts on Depression Memoirs

A while back, The New York Times had a strong review of Les Murray's memoir Killing the Black Dog and his poetry collection Taller When Prone, both published by FSG. Meghan O'Rourke, in the review's opening sentence, describes the "visceral smoldering" that is the hallmark of Murray's poetry. Certainly true in his poetry--but that vehemence and power seem absent, as if panned away, in the prose of his memoir.

Perhaps, this comes from the fact that Murray's piece isn't a memoir at all; in an afterword written in 2009, Murray informs the reader that Killing the Black Dog was originally written as a lecture in 1998. The piece has the casualness of an oration, a stream-of-consciousness flow that seems more fitting to a speech than a memoir. The text's long, rambling paragraphs contribute to this sensation and flood us with surface-level accounts of the author's psychological and familial troubles.

I don't protest the fragmentation of the narrative--I imagine that, for most folks who have struggled with a mental illness, the worst depressive episodes feel frozen in time, and then memory becomes a desperate jumble to scrapple together some order, some unifying logic to life. It's canning the lecture as a memoir and then appending the 25 "Black Dog Poems" that seems a disservice to the reader. The book--at a meager 84 pages (not including the indices)--needed about another fifty pages to explore the subject matter.

The poems draw from and hearken back to the episodes in the memoir, but the memoir needs to be developed beyond the lecture script and into the memoir. The memoir tells us, flatly, many of the traumatic events, without dramatizing them or analyzing them. His mother's death, for instance, comes to us in such vague approaches as this: "In facing my personal inner history, I had to look at some dark stuff. I had to remember what had felt like a growing dislike of me on the part of my poor mother, as her miscarriages ate her happiness away, and to recall a nightmare sense on my part [...]" (19). The afterword to the memoir attempts to provide the expansion, but it seems--to this reader--to be too little, too late.

O'Rourke's contention--"Now comes a book that offers a powerfully candid view of Murray’s struggles with depression — one that will speak even to readers unfamiliar with his work"--also seems a bit off, since we need the poems (and ergo, familiarizing ourselves with Murray's work) to feel the full impact of Murray's narrative. Best not to let the horse run off without the cart, methinks.

William Styron's Darkness Visible continues to be the standout depression memoir, though Murray's piece can be read as an interesting complement, as the two books are part of the same dialogue. (At one juncture, Murray charges that certain aspects of Styron's book are too facile, but Murray's book would need some expansion to further that claim.)

So pardon the rough review--Murray has assembled his tragic story, and the interplay between the lecture and the poems is an ambitious formal choice. The lecture portion of the book just requires something more--that stylistic, vocal difference between a talk and a confession.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wednesday Poetry: "The Makers," by Howard Nemerov

We can never find that initial thing that got us going, that initial inspiration that transcends generations. That's something that Howard Nemerov explores in his poem "The Makers," which attempts to look back at poetry's genealogy with the ultimate conclusion that what really matters is this: that all of those physical, tangible sensations get passed down throughout history via poetic tropes and images. It doesn't matter who those first poets were, nor does it matter what precise tree or rock or star was originally described. The fact that we can share these descriptions and bond over them--that's what matters most. The repetition of these sensory details tells us something essential about the human experience.

(I could into a long tangent about how we can read this poem through the lens of Jacques Derrida's idea of différance, how we have these words that pay homage to an original that we can never actually observe, but I won't do that to all of you.)

"The Makers"
Who can remember back to the first poets,
The greatest ones, greater even than Orpheus?
No one has remembered that far back
Or now considers, among the artifacts,
And bones and cantilevered inference
The past is made of, those first and greatest poets,
So lofty and disdainful of renown
They left us not a name to know them by.

They were the ones that in whatever tongue
Worded the world, that were the first to say
Star, water, stone, that said the visible
And made it bring invisibles to view
In wind and time and change, and in the mind
Itself that minded the hitherto idiot world
And spoke the speechless world and sang the towers
Of the city into the astonished sky.

They were the first great listeners, attuned
To interval, relationship, and scale,
The first to say above, beneath, beyond,
Conjurors with love, death, sleep, with bread and wine,
Who having uttered vanished from the world
Leaving no memory but the marvelous
Magical elements, the breathing shapes
And stops of breath we build our Babels of.

For an added treat, listen to Hillary Rodham Clinton reading "The Makers" when she was First Lady! The video is part of the Favorite Poem Project, and HRC follows it with a brief explanation of why she picked this poem.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Words Generally Only Spoil Things: In Defense of Philip Roth's Man Booker Prize

For those of you who aren't aware, Philip Roth was recently awarded the Man Booker International Prize, which is awarded every other year to an author who has made outstanding contributions to literature. The nod to Roth prompted an outcry from (and the departure of) one of the judging panel's members. Carmen Callil decried the choice of Roth in remarks that, since Callil spoke with The Guardian, have reappeared in the L.A. Times and other newspapers. "He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe," Callil states, before elaborating on her contempt: "I don't rate him as a writer at all. I made it clear that I wouldn't have put him on the longlist, so I was amazed when he stayed there. He was the only one I didn't admire--all the others were fine."

So, this is last week's news from the literary world, and it has, accordingly, raised a range of questions about Roth's suitability for the award. But this focus, brought to us by Callil, turns us toward whether or not the author meshes with the judges' politics or aesthetics, when such a panel needs to consider whether or not the person's works have added something to literature, something that has irrevocably changed the literary landscape and recharted how we think about books and the potential of fiction.

Callil contends that Roth is a one-trick pony with no staying power. Yet, her attacks fail to undermine the poignancy of his fiction and his novels' power to incite controversy, to force us to reconsider some pretty central ontological, epistemological issues. Who are we, and how do we learn who we are? For those contending that Roth's only subject matter is some variation on a Roth-like persona, I'd counter that Roth is simply using that with which he has the most familiarity--his own experiences--to force us into these considerations.

I'll state, for the record, that there are moments and stylistic choices in his most recent novels that didn't jive with me. Roth's best, though, is haunting and intellectually riveting. To Roth's naysayers, I'd ask them to consider how Roth grapples with the national consciousness in novels such as The Plot against America or how Roth tackles issues of personal identity in Operation Shylock, where a fictionalized Philip Roth discovers that he has an impersonator also going by the moniker Philip Roth. In Shylock, Roth negotiates mirroring of identities and personalities--his avatar with his imposter, an elderly Demjanjuk with the concentration camp slaughterer Ivan the Terrible--in a manner that seems fresh, considered, especially since this novel comes in the post-Lacan, mirror-obsessed world.

The fact that Roth is such a divisive figure--that people feel they have to engage with Roth's legacy in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries--is indicative of the sway that his fiction possesses. Love or hate Roth, he's here, and he's captured the critical imagination. His fiction contends with some issues central to the American experience, to the international Jewish experience, to local communities, to cultural transformation, and to interpretations of crises. Regardless of the presence of Roth stand-ins or the masculine points of view, his novels have structured problematic realities that force readers to stake out their own positions.

If that's not altering the literary landscape, I'm not sure what is. Our ideological maps of various constructs--America, masculinity, Jewishness, artistry, rationality--do not survive Roth's novels with their borders intact, even if you dislike his prose.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Altogether Now! Some Thoughts on Jo Walton's "Among Others"

A short one today, as I wrap up end-of-semester affairs, submit grades, and hawk over the Rutgers web portal to see if I've clinched yet another 4.0 semester. We'll see.

Now, for some words on books. It's been a while since I've read a novel with such fantastical elements as fairies and magic, but Jo Walton's consideration of the supernatural in Among Others is at once elegant and plausible. Among Others is written as a series of Morwenna Phelps's diary entries between 1979 and 1980; the events follow the magic-induced death of Mor's twin sister (Morganna, also known as "Mor," as if this wouldn't cause more confusion), and the novel approaches the aftermath of these happenings with a measured tone, a rare occurrence in the hackneyed diary-as-novel genre. The twins' mother tried to twist the twins' beloved fairies into doing her evil bidding--which resulted in Morganna's death and Morwenna's crippling injuries.

(If you caught the subtle pun near the end of the parenthetical in the above paragraph, I applaud you.)

Glossing the novel in this way does it a disservice and paints it as something from the catalogue of trite, post-adolescent, angst-and-acne pocked high fantasy. (Blame the dust jacket for this affront and its explicit reference to a "magical battle.") The novel is actually about the lifelines that we draw during our own existences, and Mor's diary illustrates magic, life, and literature as something almost Heideggerian, something that is always already happening, so that the inciting moment appears to be coincidental at best.

Books are like these coincidences: They appear at the right moments and allow us to make sense of the world. The fairies draw Mor back to her native Wales, where she forms a gate through which the spirits of the deceased pass. One of those souls is Mor's twin, and she almost refuses to let go until a fairy whispers "Half way" into her ear. Mor elaborates, "he didn't mean I was half dead without her or that she was halfway through or any of that, he meant that I was halfway through Babel 17, and if I went on I would never find out how it came out." Despite the absence Mor feels because of her twin's death, Babel 17 serves as an unlikely--yet somehow appropriate--reminder that the rest of the world still exists.

Books, for Mor, function as a collective codex for negotiating existence, and her feverish reading (n.b., it's implausible how much she can read) allow her to sail through a depressing, fairy-less life at Arlinghurst, the boarding school she attends. Those who have not spent their lives floating across the existential pond with Ursula K. LeGuin, Robert Heinlen, Frank Herbert, and Anne McCaffrey in tow will have difficulty understanding how these books serve as Mor's intellectual life preservers. (For the rest, Mor also avidly reads Plato and The Communist Manifesto.) Regardless, she is able to unify her life and her reflections around these books, around the search for these authors and their bodies of work. Her diary entries are often about these pieces, about how Mor responds to them, as they are about her constant struggle to restart a dialogue with the fairies and to escape her mother's dark machinations.

Also, apparently, the fairies speak Welsh. (One should keep in mind that Jo Walton, the novel's author, is a Welsh-Canadian, and Mor herself is also a Welsh girl.) Though we occasionally have to sort through some difficult-to-pronounce Welsh, we receive some translations of fairyspeak into a Tolkien-esque, high rhetoric, courtesy of Mor. She uses Tolkien to translate for us, literature as a tool to explain the speech of others.

So literature lets us make sense of the world. Now--whoever would've thought that?

And now begins a long summer, some four months of imminent unemployment, in which I'll be reading and (I hope) writing a lot. I accept donations in the form of pittances, books, and stuff for my cat.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Posts Returning on Wednesday

I'll hold myself to this promise, folks. Life should return to whatever passes as normal these days, so expect posts to start up again on Wednesday!

(I apologize for the distinct lack of witty repartee in the above announcement.)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Libraries on the Go

Recent news in the e-reader world is that Amazon will enable Kindle Library Lending later this year--which at last puts the Kindle on track with the Barnes and Noble Nook and other e-readers that already have access to digital libraries and rentals. The New York Times reports that Amazon will work with OverDrive, a large lender of e-books to schools and libraries.

Some may see this as another stab into the traditional book's chest. This may be the case for some readers, but true bibliophiles will use e-rentals in the same way that some TV watchers (myself included) use Netflix--to preview a title before deciding if it's worth buying. If it's a piece that really grips the reader, that reader will still buy the book (either for an e-reader or in physical copy) to read at leisure, or again in the future.

Secondly, this gives another e-reader the chance to defibrillate the book, to shock away its decline. In the way that Amazon reshaped commerce with its web presence, rentals over e-readers reconfigure our expectations of librarians.

Hey, we need somebody to manage all of that information.

I would, of course, be interested in hearing what others of you have to think; feel free to weigh in on the Kindle question.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wednesday Poetry: "The Cambridge Ladies Who Live in Furnished Souls," by e.e. cummings

Been a while since a Wednesday poetry entry. Though it's the cruelest month, I won't give you all T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. I will, though, give you a poem from e.e. cummings, who often gets lumped into American modernism. "The Cambridge Ladies Who Live in Furnished Souls" does not have the formal play that often appears in cummings's poems, but it does tell us something about those who compartmentalize and refuse to move outside of their philosophical/ideological comfort zones. These sorts of people, who live in their own mental boxes, fail to understand the hugeness of the world beyond. So--here's some e.e. cummings.
"The Cambridge Ladies Who Live in Furnished Souls"
the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church's protestant blessings
daughters,unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,
are invariably interested in so many things--
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
.... the Cambridge ladies do not care, above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless, the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Return of the King, or Some Thoughts on Posthumous Publication

Today marks the official release of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, the highly anticipated novel that was in the works at the time of DFW's tragic suicide in 2008. The novel, weighing in at a lean 547 pages (lean, of course, in comparison to the 1000+ cramped and endnote-heavy Infinite Jest), comes to us via Michael Pietsch's painstaking work to compile DFW's papers and notes. Reviews and commentaries to debate have appeared measured, calm, and a bit evasive of the text itself--a touch of folk wisdom to this treatment, in that we should never speak ill of the dead. (Although, through books, some version of the dead still manage to speak to us.) The Daily Beast's piece on six novelists' reactions to The Pale King provides a fairly accurate glimpse at how people have treated the novel so far: They're reacting more to DFW as construct of novelist, of person, more so than the novel.

Because, as with any posthumous publication, we have dozens of critical/textual/metatextual conundrums to mull before even diving into the book. The most important aspect of The Pale King's publication is precisely that we remember DFW for his entire body of work; the publication is a monument to DFW, not to this book per se.

(So, go and buy The Pale King, a novel on taxes et al, after remembering to submit your tax forms. And if you've already received your return? Buy a copy of the book and put those returned tax dollars to good work, rejuvenating the publishing industry!)

I won't comment specifically about The Pale King here (I'm actually contracted to write on that specifically, elsewhere), but it forces us to consider what exactly a posthumous publication is, and what service it provides the author. It's clear with the pre-release work surrounding The Pale King that folks want to immortalize DFW.

But most posthumous publications are not so easy to pigeonhole--one only need to look at the reception of Nabokov's The Original of Laura and the treatment it receives at Sam Anderson's hands in New York Magazine. Anderson informs us of some popular wisdom--that Nabokov wanted the ms destroyed after his death, but his family kept it around for sentimentality. (A similar love led Leonard Woolf to publish Between the Acts--arguably Woolf's weakest novel--after her suicide during WWII.) Anderson enjoyed the book, saw it as a glorious study of a controlled master out of control, and David Gates's review in the New York Times concurs that the book was properly published--if it was proper to publish it at all. Aleksandar Hemon's review in Slate pushes us toward the understanding that The Original of Laura isn't a novel at all, and that the underdevelopment of voice does a disservice to Nabokov's famous penchant for control.

And it gets messier when you have antagonisms and relationships that aren't strictly family. Consider Sylvia Plath's Ariel--and the various hands that Ted Hughes and Plath's children and others have had in different editions of this, The Bell Jar, and Plath's collected poems--and suddenly what should simply be a book gets pickled in the variegated brine of love, contempt, depression, and sold to us in a package that contains, for instance, not Plath but the bottled chunks of whom Ted Hughes wanted Plath to be. So it's more Ted Hughes than Sylvia Plath.

So posthumous publishing isn't easy, but despite these difficulties, much good can come from it. These books can immortalize or slander authors, but what's most important is that we keep reading. So get The Pale King or any DFW title, get The Original of Laura or a Nabokov classic like Lolita or Pale Fire, or track down an edition of Woolf's novels or Plath's poems. Read, remember, and be remembered.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Toni Morrison v. Snooki

This weekend's front-page literary news (at least for anybody in New Jersey) is the brouhaha over Snooki out-earning Toni Morrison at Rutgers events. Snooki earned $32,000 for two student-produced comedy Q&As, whereas Morrison will receive $30,000 for delivering the commencement address to Rutgers students in May.

From what I've ascertained, Snooki's biggest asset is her lush mane, which Toni Morrison's tongue could effectively trim/shred/hack apart in no-point-two seconds. But the priorities seem to be a bit skewed. The commencement address will hit over ten thousand students and offer them a chance to hear an iconic figure speak. Snooki, a "reality TV" (and don't get me started on that genre), hasn't made the intellectual and cultural contributions that a figure of Morrison's stature has.

A Star-Ledger editorial critiques Rutgers's decision to offer Morrison the $30,000 speaker's fee, yet...strangely, it doesn't even call Snooki into question. The editorial attacks the decision simply on a financial matter, and sure--maybe it's gratuitous. But it's a rare step from a New Jersey establishment that's been slicing funding left and right. Instead of axing connections between the arts and society, bringing Toni Morrison to Rutgers as a commencement speaker presents a dedication to literature and the arts that we need in economically trying times.

Now, $32,000 to Snooki...that might be a little too fat.

(By the by, Toni Morrison will be reading at Rutgers-Newark on April 26th.)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Throwing off the Casino Mindset: David Foster Wallace on Life, the Universe, and Everything

"Although of course you end up becoming yourself," David Foster Wallace tells David Lipsky on the promotional tour for Infinite Jest in 1996. They converse through the week about identity, self-actualization, when and why we eat certain meals, the relationships between writers at conferences, the effects of books reviews on writers' psyches, managing depression, the purpose of writing workshops, the dangers in stow for avant garde and experimental writers, and handling insomnia and book tour and the different brands of fame. (Btw, eggs in the morning--eggs are a nascent, transient form of life, just as we're gradually growing into our waking states--and meat in the evening--decomposing animal matter as we fade into unconsciousness.)

This/These is/are the subject(s) of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a transcript of Lipsky's time interviewing DFW for a 1996 Rolling Stone essay. Straight transcriptions of Lipsky's tapes, complete with Lipsky's notations telling us what they're doing, as they do it. This is a biography as only DFW could write it--a prolonged and rambling and brilliant account of DFW's history, his beliefs, and his values.

And refreshingly, the DFW in the transcript reads like the coy and insightful DFW of his books.

I was struck by many of the things appearing in DFW's rambling answers to Lipsky's questions and comments, as well as the way DFW flipped the interviewing role, often transforming Lipsky into the subject, scrutinized in DFW's witty asides and one-liners. And we cannot, of course, ignore the cultural references abounding throughout their repartee.

Most interesting, though, was how DFW attacks the casino mindset (he says it really latches on to writers at conferences, parties, and the like) and claims that fixating on that competition between writers simply ruins art and the ability of insightful and dedicated young artists by damaging their self esteem and their ambition: "And I don't know if Rolling Stone readers are interested, it's just—most bright people, something happens in your late twenties, where you realize that this other, that how other people regard you does not have enough calories in it, to keep you from blowing your brains out. That you've got to find, make some other détente."

There's some great stuff in this book—and it's not hard to draw connections between the thoughts here and DFW's other stories and novels—but this idea, handling fame, reoccurs often. DFW argues throughout that his exchanges with Lipsky that fame can destroy, that pride can be equally fatal. The dialogue is often tragic, especially since we approach the transcript with knowledge of DFW's suicide.

But we also have to consider that DFW postulates here something he describes much more eloquently in This Is Water: some thoughts on leading a compassionate life. A compassionate life consists of more than considering what others feel, think, and believe; DFW tells us, as he speaks to Lipsky and masticates plugs of chewing tobacco, that we have to remember that we are human beings as well, and we should never let ourselves decline back into the darkest, most threatening times of our lives.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Of Phones and Supermen: A Brief Interlude from Wednesday Poetry

Last night, my brother Joe and I were talking on the phone about (here's the jab of postmodern irony) phones. I mentioned my love for those old Nokia clunkers that could do only three things: make calls, send texts, and let you play that really cool game where the snake eats the apples. Joe may have said something about replacing his cell phone with a clay tablet, a stylus, and a pterodactyl. We both agreed, though, that cell phones have created the best of times and the worst of times.

You can contact people easily, but you can't get away from them. You can have your phone with you everywhere (great for emergencies), but people don't understand that there are reasons as to why you're not answering your phone (meetings, conferences, driving, rendered incoherent courtesy of a fever...need I go on?).

Oh, and have we mentioned that there are places cell phones don't work? Such as subway tunnels or random valleys across the Pennsylvania wilds?

Not only that, cell phones have changed the way our culture works, and I thought about this when I read this morning's Pearls before Swine strip (which is the work of Stephan Pastis). Goat says that he misses phone booths, and Rat--always having a snide comment--retorts with a rhetorical question: "Who needs stupid phone booths when everyone has a cell phone?" In the next panel, Goat and Rat glance over their shoulders toward Superman, a single emo tear dangling from his eye as he pulls open his Clark Kent garb to reveal his logo. Rat then says, "Forgot about that guy."

Yes, I understand that the iPhone 4 has come to Verizon, and I'm sure that its successor, the iPhone 5, will allow us to communicate anywhere across time and space, brew fresh tea or coffee on the go, hover over our shoulders and whisper financial advice into our ears, and...well, you get the picture. Regardless, there are some things that phones, despite their seemingly Kryptonian capabilities, cannot do. Walk into a tunnel, lose signal, and your super iPhone becomes a clunky iPod touch.

And besides--enough of our pop culture figures rely on phone booths and their cousins, police boxes, to save the world time and again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mechanical Penguins Will Resume Marching Shortly

No Wednesday Poetry today--I'm off to Susquehanna tomorrow for a fair mix of loitering and guest appearances.

Regular posts shall resume forthwith. Ciao!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Not Dead Yet: Marginalia and the Book

There was a recent New York Times article on marginalia, those little scribbles that bibliophiles scrawl in books' margins. Dirk Johnson, the article's author, suggests that the increase in electronic publishing modes decreases the interest in books and, consequentially, that little spark of insight that often comes when we read with a pencil in hand. An economic argument saturates the piece, which is noticeable through Johnson's opening anecdote--Mark Twain's notes in Walter Besant's The Pen and the Book. Johnson comments about the marginalia that makes an otherwise unimportant book rather valuable: "The scribbler was Mark Twain, who had penciled, among other observations, a one-way argument with the author, Walter Besant, that 'nothing could be stupider' than using advertising to sell books as if they were 'essential goods' like 'salt' or 'tobacco.'”

Johnson traps his reader in viewing the book only as a fetishized object--the very "essential goods" categorization that Twain derides. If we do not take notes in books, books will depreciate in value, and this important exchange of ideas--like a flow of currency--will get dammed for good. It's a recent tolling of the printed book's death knells.

The essential aspect of marginalia is not the exchange value it generates for a book but--if we're going to get ourselves stuck in Johnson's materialist world--the book's use value. Marginalia creates a community of readers that supersedes generations. I arrived at this idea (and remembered Johnson's article) as I read a poem in Rachel Hadas's collection The River of Forgetfulness. In that poem, "Marginalia," Hadas informs her reader that "[w]ho scans and skips misses the ghostly power / of all the readers who have come before" and that "the measliest annotation / helps us determine by triangulation / what some previous peruser thought." For those of us who have an affection for used books, we can feel the hands of previous readers as we turn through the pages, and if we encounter a note scribbled in the margin, we find ourselves stumbling into a discussion about life, literature, and politics.

But why does this mean the book is dying? Or that marginalia has had its day? We need to consider the possibility that the text is communicating outside the page's confines. Book reviews, critical essays, the lot of literary nonfiction--all of these can amount to marginalia that's too big to smash into the margins. Electronic publishing is good for what it's good for--taking books on the go and having something to read in transit. But there's nothing like a solid, close reading--something that college English professors should make clear cannot occur without a pencil in hand. That can be through marginalia or notations. The whole point of marginalia isn't how it boosts a book's cost but how it boosts the knowledge we get from reading.

Consider this my footnote on Johnson's New York Times article. Especially since I read it online and don't care to run Sharpie all over my MacBook's screen.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wednesday Poetry: "A Postcard from the Volcano," by Wallace Stevens

I've recently started getting into Wallace Stevens's poetry. The interest stems, partially, from the fact that Stevens was a Pennsylvanian who departed from that state (I'm learning that PA has some serious issues with retaining its artists), but I'm more interested in the philosophy of his poems.

"A Postcard from the Volcano" builds together a variety of images that open us up to a wide range of readings. We can see, from the "[c]hildren picking up our bones," a reading that focuses on the older generation lamenting its death and what little it has left to its successors, but there are also intimations that the development of culture is beyond our control: Stevens places spring clouds above a shuttered mansion house in the middle of the poem, which suggests that even new seasons arrive over our closed-off institutions. There are lots of different ways to read this poem.

This poem contains lots of complicated imagery, so don't rely on my gloss alone.

"A Postcard from the Volcano" (1936)
Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion-house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion's look
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is...Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,

Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Real World Is a Dangerous Place

The real world is a dangerous place, and in a novel that manages to grasp that teenage sentiment of "Nobody understands me" while avoiding Holden Caulfield-esque angst, Japanese novelist Natsuo Kirino sets up, like dominos, a chain of relationships and events that topple over, irreparably change the lives of a few teenaged girls. The novel grapples with issues of self-identity and belief, as well as pressing issues like the psychological states of teenagers facing increased pressure to succeed.

This novel, Real World, comes to us in a very conversational tone, courtesy of Philip Gabriel's deft translation and a series of first-person narrators. Symbolically, the novel opens with Toshiko penciling in her eyebrows and the blaring of a smog alarm--indicators that our characters will struggle to draw themselves, distinctly, against suffocating odds. She is about to leave her house for summer break sessions at a cram school when she overhears a ruckus from her neighbors' house. While biking to the train station, she runs into the neighbors' son, a thin boy she calls "Worm," and confronts him about the experience. Worm, however, claims that she must have the wrong house.

But while Toshiko is at the cram school, Worm absconds with her bike and the cell phone that Toshiko left in the basket. He calls Toshiko's friends Terauchi, Yuzan, and Kirarin; in these conversations, Worm confesses to murdering his mother that morning because she pressured him into attending an elite high school where he couldn't succeed. That theft--and the resulting phone calls--are an undertow, sucking the girls into a whirlpool of events that they cannot escape.

The encounters with Worm force Toshiko to tackle her ambitions to remain anonymous; Terauchi, with depression and her mother's affairs; Yuzan, with her homosexuality; and Kirarin, with her disparate personae of sex object and good girl.

Terauchi, whose depression jades her observations with a considered nihilism, speaks of "irreparable" acts--those things that forever alter our realities, our individual abilities to be ourselves. Terauchi says, "I've hidden my distrust of my mother and am doing my best to trust her and love her. But it might not work out. Because I love somebody I don't trust anymore, I've lost all faith in myself....Check it out, Worm. This is what I mean by something irreparable. Not murdering your mother." Terauchi claims--in an object lesson for all of the characters in Real World--that ignoring your real problems fixes nothing. Worm cannot succeed as a student even without his mother. But Terauchi has destroyed her own reality in order to discover this; by internalizing her own problem, by refusing to live with it, she succumbs to her depression as the novel's events careen recklessly forward.

Critics from publications as diverse as the Los Angeles Times and The Village Voice have praised the feminism and the grittiness in Natsuo Kirino's work, and a novel like Real World adds something to this dialogue. These events do not occur in isolation, although our thoughts do. To understand a situation, we have to--like Terauchi--understand the difficulty of relationships, but we must learn to encounter these problems.

Monday, January 31, 2011

In Memoriam: Dr. James A. Blessing, Imparting Wisdom

The start of another semester, complete with relentless wars with technology: Chains of emails to program coordinators and my mentor instructor, the evils of the quasi-defunct Xerox machine in the Writing Program office at Rutgers-Newark. It was inevitable, as with the start of every term, that I'd be thinking of Dr. James Blessing, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Susquehanna University. And I was shocked, saddened, when I learned that Dr. Blessing had passed away on Thursday, 27 January.

When I was an undergraduate and one of Dr. Blessing's student workers in the Poli Sci department, we all knew that Dr. Blessing and "the technology"--as he unilaterally referred to computers and machines of most stripes--were seldom on speaking terms. But he still learned PowerPoint and prepared slides for his freshmen class--Comparative Government and Politics--because the students had asked him to do so. I helped Dr. Blessing save the PowerPoints on a flashdrive so he could easily access them in SU's smart classrooms. One morning in his office, before he was off to teach the freshmen course, he was telling me, for the umpteenth time, how distracting technology could be. As he waggled the flashdrive in his hand, that thumb-shaped, plastic wedge of a device suddenly looked absurd.

Because, of course, it was. Because, as I learned from being a TA at Bucknell and from leading my own section of freshman comp at Rutgers-Newark, Dr. Blessing was right. Technology is a distraction from what actually matters: the people one encounters.

(And I can't ignore the irony of using technology to say all of this.)

Dr. Blessing knew this, better than most, when he went to his classes--as he always phrased it--to "impart wisdom." Dr. Blessing was more than a good teacher and a good advisor to his students. He watched out for us, in and out of the classrooms. We were there to learn, and he would make sure we would. His hand-drawn diagrams were scrawled on the chalkboard to slow himself down so we, the students, could ask him questions and better understand the complex structure of the European Union; the PowerPoints he made for his freshmen class gave the students clear study aids.

He was wry, clever, sharp. And, though somewhat irascible, kind and brilliant as anything. In Dr. Blessing's classes and his company, your wit had to be quick, and you had to open your mind to inquiry.

During the three years I worked for the department, I was living on campus year round, and Dr. Blessing was there, too, looking after me. I had a succession of...hazardous cars, and whenever I drove anywhere, Dr. Blessing grilled me on my return to make sure nothing went awry, that my deathtrap cars did not fulfill their particular idiom. While my oldest brother was serving in Iraq, Dr. Blessing called me into his office and asked if I needed to talk about anything. And he listened, counseled--even when I knew he had stacks of papers from his different classes to get through.

Having taught at Susquehanna for 44 years, Dr. Blessing affected generations of Susquehanna students, shared with them his knowledge and his generosity. I'm not the only student with Dr. Blessing stories, and I'm not the only student who has found himself inspired by his example. Dr. Blessing has given us, firstly, the academic ability to inquire and to investigate. But he has also given us an example to live up to, a model for leading a compassionate and meaningful life.

I tend to avoid the creative nonfiction spiel like the proverbial plague, mainly because I'm not sure that I have anything worth saying. But maybe the point of the personal essay is precisely that it's personal, that it contributes to our understanding of how people think, that it makes us want to be better at whatever it is we do. Maybe, for me, the personal essay should be about what others have given. Not just to me, but to others. And this is what Dr. James Blessing has given me, and other Susquehanna students: Something to live for, someone worth writing about.

(Read Susquehanna University's in memoriam about Dr. Blessing.)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Review! (Or, followup to the Reading at the Coffee Cave)

Another shameless plug and a first, for me--linking to a review of my work! The link here is to the permanent url at the official Rutgers MFA blog, for the readings Sean Kennedy and I gave on the 18th at the Coffee Cave.

So for those of you wondering how it went, there it went!

(Regular PitM posts will perchance be plowed out again by Friday.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Revolutionary Road Cornered the Market on Middle-class Angst First: Review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

At the start of the week, I posted about Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road. Well, there's a reason for that. The next book in my reading queue was Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which last August was heralded as something of a literary landmark. It was Oprah-fied after being out in hardcover for only about two weeks--evidence, perhaps, of what readers expected from it.

I'll say this: Freedom is a good book. But I hardly feel that Mr. Franzen's novel is the monumental, literary event that reviewers and the media led us to expect.

At its best, Freedom is a considered examination of what happens to the deferment of the middle-class's ambitions, as well as a somewhat Marxist rendering of how the social elites employ their resources to misguide concerned citizens into doing their will--a prime example being Walter Berglund's work for the coal industry under the guise of saving the cerulean warbler.

At its worst, however, Freedom is a weighty repetition of the half-hearted, inert political complaints that my generation has often heard from our parents--those complaints from liberals that the world needs to be better, without doing much about it. There are also frequent pages of dialogue exchange--about various plans and schemes, for one reform or another--that could perhaps be more effectively condensed into exposition.

As these discussions also lead to many arguments, I'd also like to ask Mr. Franzen to turn off the caps lock in future books. Thanks.

In Salon, Laura Miller described Freedom as "[r]emarkable and possibly unprecedented: a merciless satirical look at contemporary life that's also fundamentally generous and human." The novel does find compassion enough in criticizing the crumbling family life of the Walter and Patty Berglund in the present; of the ambitions of Walter (social reform), Patty (her college basketball career), and their friend Richard Katz (a professional musician, who does roofing on the side); and the complicated lives of their children.

But in doing so, Mr. Franzen borrows, perhaps too heavily, from Tolstoy (he makes a point of having Patty Berglund reading War and Peace) in order to give the book an epic scope that this reader, at least, is not certain the book has earned.

And despite Mr. Franzen's largely effective efforts at capturing the mood of a generation, some things feel off; for instance, much time is devoted to explaining Richard Katz, the politics of his music, and the meanings of his sound--and yet there's no reference to punk music, not even a negative comment. Furthermore, Ms. Miller's claim about the novel's originality seems a bit off, especially when we consider that Mr. Franzen's approach to middle-class life is hardly new; in the marital struggle between the Berglunds and their affairs with secondary characters, Franzen recreates many of the ideological and social pressures that Richard Yates explores with Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road.

Freedom, overall, is a good book--but not the monumental novel that paves the course of 21st-century literature. If anything, in this novel I found a somewhat ballooned return to the central conflicts of mid-20th-century novels like Revolutionary Road.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Wednesday Poetry: "The Fool," by Hugh MacDiarmid

I found myself thinking about MacDiarmid's poetry recently, in part because of a book I blogged about recently--Irvine Welsh's The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. At several points throughout the novel, Welsh's protagonist, Danny Skinner, thinks about a collection of MacDiarmid's poetry that he has been intending to read. Skinner thinks to himself, though, that it's a bit difficult to trust somebody who has changed his name.

Hugh MacDiarmid is the pseudonym for the Scottish, modernist poet Christopher Murray Grieve (1892-1978). In this short poem, "The Fool," MacDiarmid forces us to reconsider delusions. There's a "fool" who believes he's God, and the narrator possess a similar touch of insanity, which we see in the poem's final lines--a suggestion that the narrator believes himself capable of killing God.

So at the poem's end, who is the fool? The man who believes he's God, or the narrator hoping to be a God-killer, who leaves a body in a pool?

"The Fool"

He said that he was God.
'We are well met,' I cried.
'I've always hoped I should
Meet God before I died.'

I slew him then and cast
His corpse into a pool,
--But how I wish he had
Indeed been God, the fool!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Reading Tonight in the Coffee Cave in Newark!

So there you have it--a shameless plug. I'll be reading tonight at 5.30 p.m. in the Coffee Cave in Newark, along with Sean Kennedy. So if you're nearby and interested, stop by the Coffee Cave and hear some Rutgers MFA folks read their fiction.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Revolution That Wasn't

Over the weekend, I read Richard Yates's novel Revolutionary Road, and no--I haven't seen the film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. (I would say, though, that I wouldn't have cast either of them in the lead roles of Frank and April Wheeler.) So I'm not going to be talking about how well the film meshes with the book or differing impressions of 1950s America.

But there's something important to get from the characters of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple living in their house on Revolutionary Road. The novel opens with Frank watching April, who once attended a New York acting school, in an embarrassingly awful rendition of Robert Sherwood's play The Petrified Forest. At the start of the play, April was the only good thing going, but everything eventually wanes and the performance goes to pot. This doesn't go beyond Frank's notice.

And here's where entitlement begins to kick in: We can imagine, with how Yates directly yet sympathetically describes the Wheelers, that these are intelligent young adults in the post-war years who think that they are too clever for the suburban life. And, reading this novel, we get the impression that Yates would genuinely like to help these people. When the Wheelers begin planning an escape to France, a return to their intellectual roots, Frank listens to April outline the plan with some reticence, a hint of the tensions mounting:
But [Frank] knew better than to interrupt [April] now. She must have spent the morning in an agony of thought, pacing up and down the rooms of a dead-silent, dead-clean house and twisting her fingers at her waist until they ached; she must have spent the afternoon in a frenzy of action at the shopping center, lurching her car imperiously through mazes of NO LEFT TURN signs and angry traffic cops, racing in and out of stores to buy the birthday gifts and the roast of beef and the cake and the cocktail apron. Her whole day had been a heroic build-up for this moment of self-abasement; now it was here, and she was damned if she'd stand for any interference.

But the Wheelers refuse to help themselves, and that's the problem. All they do is think and still assume that they can overcome a suburban existence. Without trying to spoil too much of the novel, I'll say this much: The above quotation is a pretty good parallel to the novel--lots of build-up, leading ultimately toward self-abasement. And Frank, of course, listens to all of this, his reticence creating an insurmountable obstacle.

The Wheelers assume that they are entitled to cleverness, to a life in Europe, to all the benefits that a post-war life should bring. But they aren't willing to work toward that end, and so their many plans seldom move beyond talk. Revolutionary Road is a strong example of how, even with resources and access to art and wisdom, nothing comes about without a bit of elbow grease.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Matter of Voice: Irvine Welsh's The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs

Irvine Welsh reaches the apex of his powers when his books speak like their Scottish protagonists, something best illustrated in his famous novel Trainspotting (1993), in which the fevered dreams of junkies Renton and Sick Boy get injected into the reader's thoughts in a bevy of Scots dialect and angst. Then they find themselves goaded by their sociopathic acquaintance Begbie, who bears an eternal disgust for junkies.

This is territory that Welsh has explored again in Trainspotting's sequel--his 2002 novel Porno--and will likely tread again in the novella Skagboys, slated for publication in 2012, which will investigate the formative years of Trainspotting's primary characters. But in The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (2006), Welsh attempts to investigate other forms of addiction: love, sex, alcohol, family, model railroading, punk, food, and even a slice of otaku-geekiness in Star Trek fandom and the videogame Harvest Moon.

All that, in no particular order. And a surprising dearth of illicit substances and designer drugs--something unique in Welsh's corpus of work.

Central to all this is the antagonism between Welsh's two protagonists: the upstanding family boy Brian Kibby and the reckless, feckless, Danny Skinner, both of whom are in the employ of the Edinburgh Council's health inspectorate. Brian and Danny find themselves tied together in an abusive relationship, one caused by a hex that transforms Brian into a Dorian Gray-esque portrait of Danny. Their bond is an endless chain of ambitions and desires, of unfulfilled dreams: Brian covets Danny's ease with women; Danny, Brian's considerate and yeoman behavior--even while arguing about Brian's phoniness. Both of these young men suffer their hatred for each other in silence, until their mutual aggression festers into preoccupation, into a crippling hatred. All the other addictions in the novel are merely symptomatic of the central focus, that is, Brian and Danny's intense rivalry.

The strongest moments in The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs arise, not surprisingly, from Welsh's use of first-person narrators, although the Scots dialect does not appear as heavily as it does in his other works. Mostly, the first-person segments are more rooted in the psyches and sensations of the characters. The third-person episodes, though, tend to move time along quickly, through exposition that lacks the verve and angst of his characters.

The novel certainly has some redeeming moments, although the Dorian Gray motif gets a bit heavy-handed and other portions of the novel move sluggishly. To readers wishing to venture into Irvine Welsh, I'd suggest holding Bedroom Secrets for a later moment in the relationship; start, instead, with a bout of Trainspotting.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Story Is a Dangerous Thing (Review of Doctor Who: The Mind Robber)

Let's not encounter fiction casually. A good story can be a matter of life and death.

This is the lesson we learn from the Doctor Who serial "The Mind Robber," in which the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) uses the Tardis's emergency unit to pull the Tardis out of the approaching path of a lava flow. The Doctor's companions--the Scotsman Jamie McCrimmon (Frazier Hines) and the young genius Zoe Heriot (Wendy Padbury)--relax, despite the Doctor's warning that the emergency unit has evacuated them to a non-place, a void that exists nowhere in time and space, outside the confines of any known universe.

This non-place evolves from a white void into a realm of stories, which begins with Jamie and Zoe being lured from the Tardis by visions of their homelands. Though his young companions are easily compelled outside the time machine's safety, the Doctor resists the strange, telepathic strength of an unknown force--until, that is, he must exit the Tardis in order to save the hasty Scotsman and the over-analytical Zoe.

This Second Doctor story is rife with what we might expect from the early years of Doctor Who--the Doctor's cleverness saving his companions, a foreign world, a bit of techno-babble, and Patrick Troughton's characteristic playfulness. But this story makes itself unique; across five episodes, this 1968 serial treads on some pretty postmodern territory.

For starters, the non-place that the Tardis arrives in is blank. White. An unmarked page. Once the Doctor and his companions are lured away from the Tardis, though, they begin traveling through a realm where a forest is composed of jagged, printed letters; a world in which Lemuel Gulliver travels and provides the Doctor with random tidbits, all quoted straight from Swift's iconic novel; a land with caverns through which the horrors of Greek mythology wander; and a rugged terrain where past stories--along with future tales not yet written--mingle and encounter the Doctor.

Confronting characters such as the Minotaur and Medusa, the Doctor must teach his companions that these are fictions--creations--which are real only if we allow them to be real. All the while, a sinister force attempts to write the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe, eternally into this world of mingling fictions.

So there we go--not only do we have fictional characters meeting up with the Doctor in an impossible realm, we also have an unlikely conflict between two author-figures: The Doctor, and the controller of this strange realm. But if the Doctor loses out, he and his companions will become text--nothing but ink under the controller's command, nothing but words to be interpreted by somebody else.

The narrative structure of "The Mind Robber" isn't unlike our own adventures in reading. We begin with white space, move on to words, and then encounter a range of characters. But we also have stories to tell ourselves, and what we believe can influence our lives. And through this all, the Doctor guides us to an understanding that we, even when surrounded by stories, have to maintain some storytelling agency of our own in order to survive.

Overall, I'd suggest looking into "The Mind Robber" if you're a fan of the original run of Doctor Who, or if you even have an interest in all the fun postmodern play of stories building into stories building into stories.