The City Slicker Returns Home

November 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Great Expectations.

There’s a theme throughout the second book of GE that feels uncomfortably familiar. It also feels very American, and very modern. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it handled quite so well.

Pip comes into money and leaves his rural home for the big city. He is ashamed of where he comes from, and who his people are — which is to say, who he is (and claims no longer to be).

It is the narration of GE that makes this so effective: since Pip is narrating the story from far into the future, as a bildungsroman, he realizes how shameful his earlier attitude is.  On the other hand, he has also made great hay out of the homespun, undereducated ways of the folks back home, and will continue to do so with great clarity of vision. This beautifully written (fictional) memoir is a testament to precisely the good that comes from leaving home, and seeking wider cultural pastures.

Pip wants to “confess exactly” his attitude toward his hometown and the people he knew there: for instance, he receives the news that Joe, the man who has been both best friend and father-figure to him, is going to visit London, “with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity.”

The elder narrator Pip twists the knife in his subject — his own younger self — in a variety of ways in chapters XXVII through XXX. The excuses he makes for himself not to have to stay with Joe when he returns home; his narration of the fact that he keeps Miss Havisham and Estella strictly separate from Joe “because I knew she would be contemptuous of him” (and therefore believing her to be right in being so, to a great degree), just a day after his emotional reunion with Joe in London; many other lines and phrasings.

It’s not all gloomy, though. A lot of it is very funny. The best fun is reserved for “Trabb’s boy,” who serves as a kind of unwitting audience surrogate in his hilarious mockery of Pip the dandy.  He struts through the streets like Pip’s own subconscious, “wriggling his elbows and body, and drawling to his attendants, ‘Don’t know yah, don’t know yah, pon my soul don’t know yah!” to humiliate Pip–rightfully so.

This comes to a head in chapter XXXV, when Pip returns for the funeral of his sister.  His disdain for the artificiality of Victorian funerary customs is palpable, as is his disgust for the ways in which small-town funerals can so often become weird festivals of a kind: the sensation that something has actually happened overriding any sense of grief or loss, for those at the margins of that loss.  Pip’s insistence that he will return often to check in on Joe and Biddy, and his older self’s admission that he would not, that he was a hypocrite and a liar, is really heartbreaking.

This is a particularly raw subject for me at the moment, I suppose, because of the  complicated feelings about where I come from, dredged up by the past presidential election. I hope to God I’ve never been as insufferable as Pip; but in general, those thousands (millions?) of us who left small towns and rural areas for bigger cities do seem to share some of his attitude toward the place he left. We love those places — parts of them, anyway — but we prefer not to engage with their politics or their bigotry overmuch. Those of us who have the connections in those areas we come from probably have more talking to do (including about why we left) and more honest engagement with our people there — not to mention issuing more invitations for them to come visit us in the cities.

Childish Dreams

November 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens.

I recently finished Stuart Dybek’s wonderful book of short stories, The Coast of Chicago. It has an epigraph that sticks with me, by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “De toda la memoria, solo vale / el don preclare de evocar los suenos (Out of the whole of memory, there’s one thing / worthwhile: the great gift of calling back dreams).”

That’s an evocative, marvelous, ambiguous, highly arguable line, but I don’t mean to tangle with it here. I mention it, instead, because it’s been coming back to me throughout the first quarter of Great Expectations: the book (at least, so far) is like a recounted dream, as much as a recalled childhood.

And since it is, quite deliberately (and famously), a story framed as a memory of childhood, that makes sense: our dreams and our childhoods — when so many sensations are new and confusing, when so many of us are often confused and conflicted, when everything seems larger than life — are so closely connected.  As with most of Dickens’s books, there are archetypal figures and scenarios from folklore and fairy tales near the surface of the text, particularly at the beginning when his protagonists are children.  But to a greater degree than most of Dickens, from its very beginning, the emotions in GE feel heightened, jumbled, confusing, as they do in dreams.  Pip introduces himself in the graveyard holding the tombstones of his parents and siblings, and then, by page two, we have abruptly shifted to Pip being accosted by an escaped convict.

That abrupt shift itself struck me as rather oneiric, but what follows is really the stuff of nightmares: the pervasive sense of being trapped and compelled to commit what seems a grievous sin (even if it is actually not, seen in the light of day), and the overwhelming fear of being exposed for your wrongdoing.  The first seven chapters or so of the book are essentially an anxiety dream with melancholic interludes.  I don’t mean that to seem  negative.  It’s shockingly effective.  (The setting of the marshes also adds to this sense; I happened to begin the book on a very foggy day in Chicago, and reading on the train as we passed through white clouds made me feel slightly less than real.)

Then there’s Miss Havisham and her ramshackle house. The strangeness of Estella’s conduct toward Pip, the bizarre scene of Pip’s one-sided fight with the “pale young gentleman,” and of course of Miss Havisham herself, all feel like dream sequences.  I can’t get over the weirdness of the scene that Dickens creates in Chapter XII.  Pip’s routine upon his visits to her home is to “walk” Miss Havisham around her suite of two rooms, and then to continue by pushing her in her “garden-chair.”  “Over and over and over again, we would make these journeys, and sometimes they would last as long as three hours at a stretch,” Pip says, and then states that he does this “every alternate day at noon… [for] a period of eight or ten months.” Finally, Miss Havisham commands that Pip sing as he’s pushing her in her chair, in an endless loop around two rooms, and so he sings the song that comes first to mind, the tune used by blacksmiths to keep time at their work, “Old Clem.” Miss Havisham likes it, so she joins in, and so does Estella at times.

This scene, of a boy pushing an old woman in a bridal gown around a closed circuit of two rooms, accompanied by a beautiful girl, all three of them chanting “With a thump and a sound — Old Clem! Beat it out, beat it out — Old Clem!” Amazing. Set it in Mississippi and I’d believe it was written by Faulkner.

 

Restarting

November 14, 2016 § Leave a comment

It’s been over three years since I wrote anything here. There are a number of reasons for that: laziness, first and foremost, but also a busy and at times exhausting work life, and a feeling of burnout with my own thoughts on what I’ve been reading.

I’m restarting now, and committing to writing at least one weekly post here for the foreseeable future. Here’s why.

  1. To combat my own laziness. Reading literature has always been one of the most important parts of my life; I don’t feel like a whole human being if I go too long (like, more than a few days) without it. The impulse for this blog, way back in 2008, was to ensure that I was actually thinking through what I was reading — to engage, not simply consume. I need some form of accountability to ensure that that happens, even if it’s self-imposed, and making my engagement public (for a widespread audience of half a dozen people!) is a big part of that.
  2. For sanity’s sake. Every age seems a dark age, but some are darker than others, and it’s always a matter of perspective. My perspective is that we’re (I’m) going to need as much empathy, beauty, intelligence, artistry, complexity, and ambiguity as we can get in the coming years. I need to make myself as conscious of that as possible, and share it with people who might care.  And I honest to goodness worry about what my media consumption over the past year has done to my brain. I need to slow down and step away from the churn of news and work more often, if only to step back with a greater sense of purpose and energy.
  3. I miss you all. People who mean a lot to me are strewn about the country and the world. I want to talk books with you, and I talk better in writing than in actual conversation.
  4. I’m going to be reading some really good stuff. My plans for 2017 involve a lot of poetry, particularly by black and indigenous poets, and a focus on gothic/weird American fiction. I want to savor these books, not just gobble them up and forget them, and my experience has shown that writing posts here helps me retain a lot more of what I read.

Happy reading. Talk with you soon.

On the Nickering of Thunder

August 17, 2013 § 2 Comments

Just finished: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell.

Reading next: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.

Right near the beginning of the first story in Karen Russell’s first book, there’s a short sentence like a litmus test:

The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker.

How’s that grab you?  Out of context, at the basic level of language, I would say that it’s lovely: rhythm, assonance, the particular sound and sense of place and time that it evokes, the spice of unusual word choice and the use of the adjective “gentle” as a verb.  Beautiful.

There are complicating factors, however.  There’s that “has.”  We’re in present-perfect tense, and the story as a whole is in the present tense.  And there’s the fact that the story is narrated by a twelve-year-old. The twelve-year-old is not, apparently, any kind of savant, or genius, or literature aficionado.  The twelve-year-old is a twelve-year-old, in a swamp.

So whether or how you can justify to yourself a twelve-year-old’s usage of the sentence “The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker” will go a long way to determining whether you can appreciate, or even tolerate, the stories in this collection.  Many of them are concerned with and narrated by twelve-year-olds and others on the verge of adolescence, in the present tense.  The situations in which they find themselves are brilliantly imagined and otherworldly, partaking of the “new weird” or new fabulist blending of genres.  There are underwater ghosts and  a sleepaway camp for those with unusual sleep disorders and a minotaur on something like the Oregon Trail and the titular home for the children of werewolves.  And yet it’s hard to focus on any of that when the stories are perversely in the present tense, and narrated by twelve-year-olds who compose thoughts and/or sentences such as “The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker” but who are not, by all accounts, graduates of well-regarded MFA programs.

The Twilight Zone‘s Women in Trouble: “The After Hours”

April 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

CM Capture 14See also all five preceding posts in this series on the five female-protagonist episodes of The Twilight Zone, season one.

I’ve mentioned before that Serling had two daughters who were growing up as The Twilight Zone had its initial run on CBS.  This seems to be one of the main influences on some of the female-protagonists episodes which he wrote for the series, and none more so than “The After Hours” (viewable online on YouTube).

A few months before The Twilight Zone first aired in 1959, Barbie was introduced to the American marketplace.  Whether or not Serling and/or his wife bought the dolls for their daughters, it’s pretty obvious he noticed her appearance.  Because look: Marsha White, our protagonist in “The After Hours,” is Barbie.

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This becomes explicit late in the episode, but the resemblance is there from the very beginning.

Many of the themes that Serling and his collaborators examine through these five episodes — the increasing mobility and independence of women in post-war America; women seeing their own, anxious images in mirrors, doppelgangers, and filmed selves; a pervasive sense of loneliness; a subtext, perhaps unintentional, of sexual violence — many of these themes are wrapped up here in the image of the Barbie-mannequin come to life.  They are accompanied by other themes that we now think of as integral to an understanding of the 1950s: consumerism, the understanding of Americans primarily as customers, purchasers, consumers, and the blossoming of advertising and marketing to encourage such an understanding.

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Marsha White, in this episode, is the desirable image, the advertisement, brought to life.  She is, in a way, her own doppelganger, her own uncanny second self.  This episode is ahead of its time in the way in which it points out how often such images encourage women to pursue an impossible body, an impossible image of perfection.  One of the ways in which this is foregrounded is in repeated shots of Marsha’s legs.  After her attempt to purchase a gift — a thimble, for which she has seen an advertisement — ends in an odd trip to an empty floor of the department store, she finds herself locked into the store, alone, after hours.  And in her desperation, she tries to run in her heels; the shots of these attempts are painful, showing the way in which a real women’s legs are made to look like a doll’s when any physical exertion is attempted in the shoes they are encouraged to wear.

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Ankles ready to snap at any moment.

In one particularly effective sequence, Marsha cries for help with mounting panic through a frosted-glass window: “Somebody?  Please, I’m locked in here… Anyone?  I — I — I — I need some help… Anyone? Please?”  The smearing and blurring of the perfect image through this bubbled glass is powerful, in ways that are hard to define.  It’s a view through a non-window of one who begins to realize, or believe, or remember, that she is a non-person.

"I need some help."

“I need some help.”

Welcomed back to the fold of mannequins at the end of the episode, Marsha says it was “ever so much fun” to be a person, an “Outsider.”  And yet she is relieved to be back in the store, among her fellow mannequins, with no decisions to make, frozen, displaying the store’s wares.

There’s a bizarre touch in this scene of exposition, when Marsha remembers what she is and the nature of the mannequins’ agreement — each gets one month as a human, then returns to let the other one leave.  In the background are three skiers, each wearing his own ski mask.  It’s an odd choice, to say the least.  In 2013, it reminds one equally of a hostage situation and of the Russian feminist activists of Pussy Riot.  And perhaps that’s as good a note as any on which to sum up this series of posts.

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Patriots’ Day

April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Novels in Three Lines, by Felix Feneon.

Finished: The Angel Esmeralda, by Don DeLillo; The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon.

It was Patriots’ Day (Observed) in Boston.  It was also tax day.  And two pressure-cooked bombs went off.

The past two days have been very strange for everyone.  The strangeness in my case is due to spending the last two days in transit.  I was in an airplane when the bombs went off.  When I arrived at my destination in Alabama, I was told the news.  I packed what I needed to pack into the U-Haul and drove, out of Alabama and into Georgia, flipping the dial through static to find snippets, details, all the sifting of information that occurs in the hours after Something Happens. And then stopped at my cheap motel room, sad but somehow not surprised. And then, unable to sleep, drove through the day until mid-afternoon.

So yes, I had basically turned into a Don DeLillo character in a Don DeLillo story for a couple of days.

Mostly I was unsurprised not due to any DeLilloesque philosophical exploration of terror and the contemporary American condition, but because I’d been reading about bombs for weeks. In The Lazarus Project, anarchism in early 1900s Chicago is one of the main subjects; the Haymarket bombing lurks behind everything.  When I was driving, I thought, “When is this going to happen to Chicago?” before I remembered that it happened 127 years ago.  (Not that it can’t happen again.)

And on the plane yesterday I read Novels in Three Lines, a truly amazing compilation of very short, very stylish news briefs filed in a Paris newspaper by the critic, anarchist, and clerk Felix Feneon in 1906.  Many of his columns reported at least one bombing or (more often) failed bombing.  They were everywhere, in 1906.

As prose it’s an incredible book, each three-line snippet full of character and complexity.  It its litany of stabbings, beatings, shootings, accidents, strike-related police brutality, and (yes) terrorist bombings, it’s surely one of the most violent books, line for line, in history.  And yet there’s something comforting about it, too.  As I implied above, there’s non- or anti-news here as well as news: “bombs” that turn out to be nothing but sandbags, accidents averted, fires contained and suppressed quickly and efficiently, shots fired and missed.  These terrible things happen over and over, in 1906 as today as 2000 years ago.  It is part of human life, and human life goes on.  And the lines often make clear that it is our response to such awful occurrences (or the fear of awful occurrences) that makes us human or less-than-human.

This particular awful occurrence hurt a lot.  Though I’ve never lived there, I love Boston.  I consider it one of “my” places.  But I turn to David Foster Wallace’s piece on 9/11, “Just Asking,” after such events.  Whoever did this, for whatever reason, let’s remember and honor the fallen they struck as Patriots, as heroes of life in an open democratic society.

The playing of “Sweet Caroline” tonight, at Yankee Stadium and elsewhere, is an excellent start.  Congregate.  Dance.  Play ball.

The Twilight Zone‘s Women in Trouble: “Nightmare as a Child”

April 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

CM Capture 14See also the four preceding posts in this series on the five female-protagonist episodes of The Twilight Zone, season one.

I’ll admit it: “Nightmare as a Child” (available for viewing on YouTube, at least for now) freaked me out.  It struck me as easily the most effective piece of horror in the first season.

Now, part of this is intentional and related to the good work of the principals: Serling, the director Alvin Ganzer (also the director of the also-effective “The Hitch-Hiker”), the stars Janice Rule and Terry Burnham.  The Freudian bent of Serling’s episodes for women in the first season reaches its culmination here, in a wonderful scenario: a woman meets a young girl outside her door.  She invites the strange girl in, and it’s slowly revealed that the girl is her younger self, visiting her to help her remember an important but traumatic memory that could now save her life.

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Older Helen “meets” younger Helen.

But it’s especially creepy partly because of two unintentional elements of the episode.

1) Terry Burnham, the astounding child actor who portrays Helen Foley’s childhood self, sounds an awful lot like the voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  The two also share a similar matter-of-fact delivery.  The monologue that young Helen (aka Markie) delivers to her older self, as the younger self “remembers” for her the violence of the night that she has repressed, delivered in the voice of a Peanuts character, is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard — the twisted flip-side of Linus’s “meaning of Christmas” monologue.  (It starts at 19:00.)

I'm you Helen

“I’m you, Helen.”

The monologue, by the way, starts with a truly remarkable piece of business.  Markie begins to confront Helen with the truth, asking, “You still don’t understand, do you?” Helen responds, “Understand what?” and we see Markie mouth these words along with Helen, over her shoulder, quite deliberately.  It gives you chills.  It’s a stroke of genius.  And yet, it’s conceivable that this was a mistake — a very young actor mouthing the lines of the other actor — that was retained by the director.  Was in the script, or was it an intentional or serendipitous ad lib?

CM Capture 9crop2) The villain of the tale, one Peter Selden (played by the wonderfully named Shepperd Strudwick), bears a striking resemblance to Ray Wise, aka Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks.  The particulars of the episode make this especially uncanny, as we’ll see later.

LelandPalmerFWWMThe best thing about the episode is Terry Burnham.  Her dark eyes contrasted with blonde hair, her knowing playfulness varying with solemnity, her sense throughtout of being somehow both more and less than she seems, are the keys to the episode’s power.  It’s an incredible performance for a child, and obviously that has much to do with the adults creating the episode.  However, part of the episode’s core meaning is the amazing power of perception and retention held by children.  Burnham’s performance not only reveals that, it embodies it.

We have here, again, a variation on the theme of a woman looking in a mirror and seeing another self, another reality.  We also have here, again, a woman finding herself supplanted, to a degree, by a doppelganger.  Markie, the younger self, is in control throughout the episode.  It disturbs and disorients Helen.

Girls, the control that they could (or were not allowed to) exert, the intelligence that they could (or were not encouraged to) display, and the ways in which they would become women, were certainly on Serling’s mind.  He had two daughters growing up throughout the filming of the Twilight Zone.  This would come up again in the final woman-focused episode of the first season, “The After Hours.”

And so Helen has forgotten the most important event of her childhood, and Markie goes about carefully leading her to this realization, having worked an invitation for a cup of hot chocolate from what we initially believe to be a total stranger.

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The subtext of the episode throughout, of a woman not trusting her own self, her own childhood, and her own instincts, is brought to a head with the arrival of the wolfish Peter at her door, asking, “Do you remember me?”  One gets a sense throughout the episode of Helen being a kind of non-person, the kind of thing a fellow non-person, Markie, sees when she looks in the mirror.  The twenty or so years since her childhood trauma have revolved entirely around forgetting said trauma and building routine upon routine to fill the day.  She does not think of the past.  She does not even recognize herself as a child.  She lives alone, she teaches school, and she invites strange children in to have hot chocolate.

Peter shows her a photo of herself as a child, and things get exceptionally uncomfortable.  “You were an exceptionally beautiful child,” he says.  “And you look so like your mother.”  Helen enters a kind of fugue state, and relives the memory of the night that her mother was killed.  The superimposition of the childhood memory on Helen’s body, reclined on the couch as if in psychoanalysis, may be a visual cliche, but its power may explain why this particular effect became a cliche.

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We have here, you may have noticed, a subtext (just barely sub) of sexual abuse, as close as any television program in 1960 could dare to come to addressing the issue, endemic in American society then as now.  I do not know if David Lynch or his compatriots working on Twin Peaks saw or were influenced by “Nightmare as a Child,” but the moment below certainly made me think it a strong possibility.

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Peter’s words right before this? “I want to be the first, I want to be the very first.”  He’s ostensibly talking about “imparting some information,” and the murder of Helen’s mother was ostensibly over Peter’s embezzlement.  But could viewers even in 1960 have missed the meaning here?  Especially given the remarkably ugly tone in Peter’s voice when he delivers these lines?

Twin Peaks, in some ways, can be seen as a story of a town desperate to return to 1960 or thereabouts, precisely because it was a time when awful things like sexual abuse within families was not spoken of.  Its very existence could be denied.  Hence the bobbysoxers, the beatnik jazz, the “darn good pie.”  The truly terrible, pollyanna ending of “Nightmare as a Child” was essential to television in 1960; I remain glad that, however messy it got in its second season, Twin Peaks did not have that.