April 21, 2013 § Leave a comment
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
July 10, 2009 § Leave a comment
Finished a while ago: The Empire of Ice Cream, by Jeffrey Ford.
Jeffrey Ford is another of those “new fabulists” or whatever you want to call them: he writes good, weird stuff. He’s more of a straightforward fantasy writer than someone like Kelly Link, but he’s also doing really interesting things both within and between genres. This is a solid story collection, a thoroughly enjoyable read. My favorite stories were the title story (a great story about synesthesia which made me wonder why I have never read any other stories about synesthesia), “Botch Town” (actually a novella, and a great one, something like a blend of Stephen King’s “The Body” and Bradbury’s Green Town stories, but creepier), and “The Green Word” (which I happened to read right before seeing Hellboy II; the awesome Elemental in that movie is very reminiscent of this story).
But the story that’s going to stick with me the most is probably “The Weight of Words,” which is an utterly ingenious satire on advertising. A savant named Albert Secmatte has cracked the pseudo-mathematical code by which language functions, enabling him to manipulate words in such a way that hidden messages can be smuggled in plain sight into any kind of missive. Inevitably, a powerful businessman places his faith in Secmatte, who begins to write feel-good flyers encouraging people to enjoy life, be kind to others, etc., hiding advertising messages therein. These messages prove utterly irresistible; even the narrator, who assists Secmatte in his endeavor, finds himself smoking the brand of cigarettes Secmatte is writing copy for. All of this is set in motion by another, more personal, kind of advertising: the narrator’s desire to win back his wife, who’s left him for another man. He takes as his payment for assisting Secmatte a letter which contains the wordsmith’s wooing magic.
The advertisements here are effective, we are led to believe, because of Secmatte’s powerful word-equations. But they’re also effective because they are unavoidable, unobtrusive, and associated with powerful messages: subliminal advertising doesn’t work, but this story’s found a way to imagine that it does. And of course, advertising is always trying to be subliminal: always trying to make us forget it’s advertising, and always trying to be noticed without making us think too much about the negative aspects of what it’s selling.
I find this story so interesting because the nightmarish scenario it posits is not a nightmare at all: it’s more or less the current state of affairs in the real world. We all think we’re immune to advertising; we all think there’s too much of it; we all think ads are crass, exploitative, manipulating fears and lusts and unhealthy urges. (Okay, maybe not all of us; but most, at least.) And yet it continues to work, continues to function, continues to do exactly what it wants to even when it’s in our plain sight. It wraps itself in pretty pictures and pleasing phrases and somehow it works.
You should read the story yourself, but I think the key to the satire — the critique — imbedded in the story is the letters to the narrator’s wife. Advertising is always trying to be about love, and yet it never understands it.
October 16, 2008 § 1 Comment
Now reading: Infinite Jest.
How could I neglect for so long the great discussion of the death of broadcast TV and advertising (p. 410-16)? It’s great, obviously, for the way it deals with advertising’s weird codependent, parasitic relationship with TV entertainment: how everyone claims to hate TV ads, and they can be so grating and omnipresent and obviously horrible that they even hurt the ratings of the TV shows on and around which they appear (strange: do ads appear “on” or “in” a TV show? why not “among,” or “through”?), but nonetheless they work no matter how much we claim to hate them. Exhibit A: the political attack ads everyone in the free world claims to hate, but which recur like clockwork in any remotely competitive well-funded race, because they work so much better than the positive ads we all claim to prefer. (I’m estimating 3/4 of all TV advertising I’ve seen for the past three months has been political — and I watch Simpsons reruns, football, and that’s about it — and just about the only positive ads I’ve seen have been Obama’s, and that’s only a quarter to a half of his ads. Here in NC, Kay Hagan and Elizabeth Dole are basically just flinging monkey feces at each other by now. )
So this is much like drug addiction (and, while I’m thinking mostly of the recipients of attack ads here, I can imagine McCain furiously rationalizing to himself about one last bender before he goes cold turkey and throws out all the attack-ad and character-assassination-consultant paraphernalia). But the really stunning phrase occurs in a footnote, in which the narrator pulls us out of Hal’s account to provide a more considered, wider perspective:
164. Granted that this stuff is all grossly simplified in Hal’s ephebic account; Lace-Forche and Veals are in fact transcendent geniuses of a particularly complex right-time-and-place sort, and their appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom almost unanalyzably compelling.
Of course DFW (and that’s as close to straight-up DFW as we get in this book) would consider masters of marketing and advertising “transcendent geniuses.” He was often a rhetorical writer and they, as a group, are our rhetoricians, however we (or he) may feel about their motives or means.
“Almost unanalyzably compelling” “appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom.” Well, yes. That’s a very large part of this book. The AA paradox — the way it works even when you don’t believe in it, and the way it seems to just replace one master with another — is part of that. This is the darkest aspect of that thread of the narrative: the thought that recovery is just a way of making it appear that you’re free, when you’re really just burying the old urges under layers of habit and repetition and willful recitation of how bad you’d once gotten. (But it works. And there’s the complication of the Higher Power, which Gately acknowledges that acknowledging this HP even if you don’t believe in it seems to work, and make you feel better. And the whole AA thing is immensely complicated.)
So there’s our cultural tendency to tell ourselves (in both ads and entertainments) that we have choice, are autonomous, can make that great life-changing moment or relationship or epiphany happen. But, behind that: the appearance of freedom, not freedom itself. Our ideology is not freedom itself — freedom is scary, and I’d agree with DFW here that we’ve more or less rejected it by this time in our history, if we ever actually embraced it — but its image. We have admitted that we do not know what’s best for us and will gladly accept a life of wildly proscribed activity, provided we’re kept safe and entertained. We’ll watch the TV so long as we appear to be watching what we want. We’ll pick from two candidates so long as they strenuously insist that they have major differences which we need to take seriously. We’ll ignore our piles of waste and our overcrowded prisons so long as they’re not in our neighborhood.
And there’s the appearance of freedom from the self: the desire to look like you never think about what you look like, or how you appear to people. (The U.H.I.D. is a fascinating hall of mirrors, in this respect: appearance of freedom by freedom from appearance.) Tennis plays into this, too: Schtitt’s philosophical lectures on battling the self, on the freedom available within the constraint of the lines of the court. Almost Oulipian, those speeches of Schtitt’s.
April 27, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Art of Memory and The Wet Collection.
A serendipitous pair, these two. I’m enjoying bouncing back and forth between them. The Wet Collection, at least so far, is all about memory, nature, travel, personal codes of conduct, and the connections among these things. In more obscure and historical ways, The Art of Memory is about the same things, or at least how they were seen in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The most interesting thread in TWC so far deals with memories and impressions of travel. “A Field Guide to Iridescence and Memory” records “specimens” found in nature: a damselfly “like a Christmas ornament,” a spider’s silky web encountered “One night, walking through the woods” (a nice mystery packed into that scene-setting), black opals owned by a couple in Oregon, retrieved from a mine in Nevada, a Costa Rican butterfly. There’s a nice paragraph then, transitioning to echoing memories of travel: “The iridescence of memory happens when one image (physical) illuminates another (imagined): not quite a reflection, but a refraction. These visions, these flashes of color come again and again. How then must I live?”
This juxtaposition, of memories and specimens, so nicely illuminates The Art of Memory. I’ve been reading about the art’s transformation by the thirteenth-century thinker Ramon Lull, often thought of as a magician, mystic, or alchemist (Yates disabuses me of most of my preexisting ideas of Lull, although he still seems something of a magus and was certainly seen that way during the Renaissance). As Yates explains it, Lull “introduces movement into memory.” He created this incredible system, intended to encompass all possible knowledge, based on Kabbalistic ideas of the names of god and medieval theories of the hierarchies of life and human knowledge. By linking God’s traits or “names” to the levels of being (angelic, celestial, human, animal, etc.) and the forms of human learning in mystical wheels-within-wheels which could be spun to match any of the three names with any of the levels, Lull devised a memory system he thought could be used to unlock the mysteries of the universe and, as a special bonus, reach out to Jews and Muslims and show them the truth inherent in Christianity, since aspects of his art drew on their own theological teachings.
(As a bookish aside: Lull’s books were among the first to use volvelles, those toy-like discs found in some early books, for a non-astronomical purpose.)
As Yates explains it, there’s a shift here from the eminently static art of memory encouraged in the ancient world and by rhetoricians, in which images were placed on sites to be recalled through the impact of the images and the familiarity of the sites, to Lull’s emphasis on memorization through repetition and the use of mnemonics which could be moved to keep one’s memory of the levels of knowledge sharp, and to move one up the “ladders” of the mystical Lullist art toward knowledge of the Trinity. Isn’t it interesting, then, how Joni Tevis contrasts the term specimen, with its connotations of pinned butterflies, taxidermied trophies, and precious stones, all eminently dead, with the fluidity of memories, always shifting as our perspective changes, as they recede or are “refracted” off of other experiences, other memories? (Interesting, too, but perhaps misleading, how Tevis also writes, in the section of this story entitled “What I Want,” “To know what it means to live a biblical life, uncloistered every day. This is my book of new ritual…”)
The arts of memory persist, in ways profound and banal. Since it’s so much on my mind lately, advertising occurs to me as an obvious (if lame) application. Aren’t most commercials intended to provide a mnemonic — a jarring, memorable image which carries a “message” embedded within it? There’s a truck campaign on the air now that is based on the placement of figures embodying one truck trait, like “smooth,” with a place that embodies another, like “rough.” (Here’s one example.) Perhaps this is one reason why Lull seemingly disapproved of the use of powerful mnemonic images, preferring memorization and contemplation of symbols: images are very, very powerful, but easily misused and misunderstood.
To return to TWC. Tevis is very good on Janus-faced travel. “Travelling Alone,” a very short piece, captures the time-murdering that happens in airports every day (I’m especially interested in this, having written a story some time ago setting a man’s personal purgatory in the Phoenix airport), but also the magic of air travel, the strange mixture of non-being and deification to be experienced in an airplane: “The moon burns cold behind my ear.” A couple of stories later, in “Everything but Your Wits,” revisits memories of past travel destinations, each marked as a “Gate/Platform.” There’s a gorgeous memory of growing up in South Carolina, cleaning up a movie theater after closing and watching a passenger train roll through town: “I wondered about the people on the train, where they were going, if they felt the excitement I did, whether any of them looked out their windows at the town, my town, that must have looked nondescript, to them.” This might seem pedestrian or boring to some readers, but if you grow up in a small town — mine was in Nebraska — you know the complicated texture of memory and emotion evoked by the sound of a night train rolling through town: its loneliness, its wanderlust, its nostalgia, and its promise. It is all a matter of perspective: likely none of those passengers have the memories to unlock the beauty and importance of that small town, likely a young girl in that small town does not have the experiences to know the feeling of being in transit, at the mercy of a train’s speed. But she will, we’ve already learned: she will. We are reading her own art of memory in this book.
April 22, 2008 § 3 Comments
Just finished: Sharp Teeth.
Reading next: The Wet Collection, by Joni Tevis.
One of my favorite comedians, Bill Hicks, had this incredible bit in which he suggested that anyone working for an advertising or marketing firm should just go ahead and kill him- or herself, and then speculates on marketers’ reaction to his “going after the anti-marketing market.” Hicks was about a decade and a half ahead of his time and was funny as hell, with or without a mullet.
I bring this up because, much as I try to avoid delving into authors’ bios (and yet I’ve done it twice since I started doing this, what a hypocrite!), I can’t help but notice that Toby Barlow works in advertising. More than that: “Toby Barlow is executive creative director at the advertising agency JWT…” It’s right on the back of the book. The man’s no drone; he’s a big shot. (JWT used to be known as J. Walter Thompson until they “relaunched their brand” a few years ago — a la “KFC,” I suppose — and, in my ongoing quest to Fully Disclose, I suppose I should say that my employer holds the archives of this agency. All views only my own etc. etc. You know the drill.)
Okay, so actual (very prominently displayed) copy from the JWT website: “At JWT we believe advertising needs to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.”
Advertising does play a small but significant role in Sharp Teeth: there’s a campaign orchestrated by the rogue wolf Baron and his friends in the industry to stop the execution of strays and plaster L.A. with celebrity-endorsed ads to take in a stray dog. It’s a strategy to infiltrate homes with werewolves planted in the shelters, gradually taking over the city for the wolves, and it works for a while; then the reprieve is lifted, the campaign ends, the adopted remain adopted, waiting for a signal to strike that might never come. So Barlow doesn’t shy away from the dark side (or at least the darkly humorous side) of his day job, it would seem.
What we have here, then, is the work of a nighttime novelist. There’s plenty of precedent here; I mean, DeLillo and plenty of others wrote ad copy, too. Kudos to Toby Barlow for juggling work and more personal work. The book is remarkably devoid, in this day and age, of brand names; no complaints there.
It’s tempting to see a self-allegory in this tale of white-collar workers transforming into vicious dogs and wolves at will, but the book seems to resist that: one of the best things about this book is its playing with the werewolf trope without simply exploiting the wolf-man dichotomy. They’re doggish-wolfish-mannish beings, in this book, their desires and motives and appetites all jumbled up. It’s clever that there are white-collar wolves in law and advertising, but it doesn’t seem to be more than a slight joke, a touch of surrealism, and a Zevon homage.
Now, I’m an old fogey when it comes to advertising. (I don’t think advertising firms even like to call themselves advertising firms anymore; it’s all branding and promotion and such.) I like ads to be ads, the better to ignore them. I hate it when songs I love get plopped into commercials. Hearing about viral marketing campaigns and product placement (even — hell, especially — ironic product placement) and branding strategies is nails-on-a-chalkboard stuff for me. (I hate that I know the terms, actually, but what can you do?) So it bothers me that the book is in free verse which often seems just like prose. It seems like marketing, which is apparently something Gavin Grant, Elizabeth Hand, and others have also indicated.
The book’s a novella, really, if it’s on the page as prose: 150 pages, tops, probably less.
No one buys a novella. No one reviews a novella. No one sells a novella, much less a first novella.
Then there’s the climax. Don’t worry, I won’t give anything away; let’s just say that the presence of a Blackhawk helicopter and government snipers made it seem an awful lot like a glorified film treatment.
I’m bothered by this book, because I liked parts of it an awful lot. The parts where nothing important is happening are great: people falling in love, keeping secrets, going to work, feeding dogs, playing bridge, hanging out at the beach, telling tales. There are some lovely passages in here, and some really great action-packed prose that does flow as fluidly and naturally as poetry.
And yet it bothers me that the book has this gimmicky no-dust-jacket design (which does, I suppose, help the book stand out on a shelf, but it’s impossible to keep the glossy labels on the covers in decent shape), and that there are blurbs all over the front and back endpapers. I know, I know: you’ve got to sell books to keep publishing more books, I know that even the most lily-white work of art needs a patron. And yet it bothers me, like graffiti ad campaigns bother me, and Clash songs showing up in commercials bothers me.
(I promise to be less cranky with the next contemporary book I read.)