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.