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.
March 17, 2012 § 7 Comments
Finished: The Art of Fielding.
Among my favorite books as a kid were sports stories of the Matt Christopher ilk, especially basketball and baseball books. These books more or less always featured a preteen or teen whose real-world problems overlap with and affect their sports abilities. I still have one of these, which I’m pretty sure I bought through Weekly Reader for $4 or so: Johnny Long Legs, featuring a new kid in town heroically struggling to improve the strength of his freakishly long legs and help his school’s basketball team, the hilariously named White Cats. But I loved the baseball books, too, and have a vivid memory of reading one on my bed on a rainy summer afternoon, swept away by a young shortstop’s difficulty with turning the double play.
I mostly read these books for the descriptions of the games: the main, non-sports conflict in the book was only useful insofar as it enhanced the conflict I really cared about, that of the Cougars vs. the Eagles or whatever mascots were involved. To be honest, I also just loved the creation of team and player names, uniforms, and mascots. My favorite sections of pretty much all of these books were the expository paragraphs at the beginning of the games, the scenery of names, colors, gyms or fields.
All of which is to say that, though I’ve done an awful lot of reading since then, there’s still a big part of me that craved the baseball action in The Art of Fielding, and that valued it as a baseball book with a nostalgic, Christopher-esque structure: boy loves baseball, boy has baseball-related life problem (or life-related baseball problem?), boy finds help and solves problem to improve baseball skills. Harbach intentionally embedded this nostalgic structure, I think, having a similar reading background: in this interview, he mentions growing up reading “Matt Christie” books, which I think is a reference to Matt Christopher. And you can feel his delight in the creation of the Harpooner’s uniforms and logo, and those of their small-college rivals. The “powder-blue jerseys” of the Muskingum Muskies (a real school whose colors appear to be red and black). The “beet-red” jackets, uniforms, faces of the preppy Coshwale “douchetards.” And, especially, the mild satire of the Opentoe College Holy Poets, in “threadbare brown-and-green uniforms” like a bunch of John the Baptists or Thoreaus.
Of course, because this is not a kids’ book, Harbach uses Henry Skrimshander’s baseball problem as a way into complex thinking about life and the process of becoming a functioning human adult, and critiques its own embedded YA sports-book structure. But it’s also a really good baseball book, and one of its interesting sidelights is that it might, in its roundabout way, show how maybe athletics of the small-college variety could still have a place in the educational mission of institutions of higher learning. (There’s no point in even trying to defend big-money Div I programs anymore. They’re hopelessly corrupt alum-appeasing farm systems with zero educational reason for being. And I’m pretty sure that, deep down, every administrator knows that.)
The device that brings this all together is the eponymous book within the book, The Art of Fielding by Aparicio Rodriguez, Henry’s idol, a Hall of Fame shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. Rodriguez’s book is a collection of numbered items of practical advice, epigrams, and aphorisms, some of them cryptic koans. The two most important appear very early in Harbach’s book:
3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.
213. Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does.
These epigrams form a fascinating thought. These two statements are bookends to Rodriguez’s book, the earliest and latest excerpts we are given from it, and keys to Harbach’s book, as well.
The first is the journey of Henry Skrimshander compressed to a “simple” Buddhist thought. In the book’s gorgeous, idyllic 50-page opening overture, Henry is a “natural”: a scrawny South Dakota kid whose preternatural grace, constant practice, and passionate love for the game have made him the perfect defensive shortstop. He thoughtlessly is a being made to play shortstop. If such being is useful, we call it talent, and Mike Schwartz recognizes and hones Henry’s talent. In a bravura passage at the book’s center, Mike reflects on Henry’s development, and “[t]he making of a ballplayer: the production of brute efficiency out of natural genius.”
For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine….
The body of the book constitutes “Thought” in Aparicio’s formulation, introduced to Henry’s mind by his near-fatal errant throw into the dugout, and brings us to the second aphorism. Sanction is a complicated word. A sanction can be a permission or encouragement; it can also be a punishment, and this seeming contradiction stems from the word’s original meaning of a law or decree — and, even more interesting, its etymology from the Latin sancire, “to render sacred or inviolable” (per OED). Death can be the athlete’s sanction in the sense that Mike uses above — encouraging production of the grace and beauty that athletes feel and display in the use of the lively body that will eventually perish and move no more. But it can also be a warning or punishment, as when Henry nearly kills Owen with a bad throw, and has his own brush with death later. And athletes grow older, lose their skills. The athlete must become reconciled to the mini-death of losing the body’s ability, an image of the larger, final death of the body and spirit.
Beyond the level of the individual, Henry’s crisis of thought — his severe case of “Steve Blass Disease,” or “the yips” — also has cultural significance. In another great passage, the literary scholar Guert Affenlight reflects on the apparent lack of such cases before 1973:
It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation — the Modernists of the First World War — would take a while to reveal itself throughout the population. And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the realm of utmost confidence in same: the realm of professional sport…. that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era when even the athletes were anguished Modernists.
Rodriguez’s Buddhist formulation has an important codicil: “33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.” Henry has to come to realize that he cannot un-think the thought — the consciousness of life, and death, to which he has been awakened — which has been introduced, but must understand and learn from it. His (and Mike’s) desire for life to remain forever the same must be understood as impossible. Like any college student, and any baseball player, he has to move into the world, and become an adult, to be able to play again. There’s a lovely little intimation of this cycle in an early training scene. Henry, in the batting cage, seeks to “meet the ball so squarely that it retraced its path and reentered the mouth of the pitching machine, sending the big rubber wheels spinning in the opposite direction, as if reversing time.”
March 6, 2011 § Leave a comment
Finished a while ago: The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo.
Reading now: Big Machine, by Victor LaValle.
Reading next: You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner.
I’d like to think that DeLillo wrote this when he did for much the same reason I read it when I did: Fot the love of God, let me finish something quickly! After Underworld, DeLillo surely enjoyed writing this spare novella, a whispering ghost of a book.
And yet, he’s DeLillo, so it’s also, still, a book like a steel rail, vibrating with the force of the train bearing down on us, and a book like a radio spinning its dial through the world’s most erudite and finely crafted frequencies. It’s a book that concerns itself with film, radio, audiotape, performance art, art reportage and criticism, but mostly death and the human body. DeLillo notices more than most of us, and shows us things we were bound to notice eventually but hadn’t yet. But he does it in such interesting ways that often it’s up to you to notice what he might be talking about.
Case in point: the Internet, here, in this 2001 book. It make a direct appearance, as the “live-streaming video feed from the edge of a two-lane road in a city in Finland” with which Lauren becomes obsessed for its “sense of organization, a place contained in an unyielding frame, as it is and as you watch… she could see it in its realness, in its hours, minutes and seconds.” But the Internet might be a larger figure in the book. Is it the mystery man who appears in Lauren’s house?
This feeling, that the mysterious savant is actually some sort of Internet Man, came slowly, but once I’d had the thought it was difficult to dislodge. DeLillo is a master of ambiguity, and so he can be an Internet allegory and many other things at once. But his uncanny mimicry, his lack of human personality and self, his flat screen of recited language and incident, and his blurring (both to Lauren and to us, the readers) of “realness” and artifice or simulacrum add up, for me at least, to a portrait of a new technology, this search-engined network of knowledge and memory.
It crystallized in this passage, near the end, after meditations on the nature of “past, present, and future” and language:
“…she opened and closed her eyes and thought in a blink the world had changed.
He violates the limits of the human.”
The connection of all of this with the book’s deep concerns with death, with the body, and with art: this is, perhaps, of a piece with millennial techno- and future-thinkers, and yet it is utterly different from utopian wishes to escape the body online or dystopian visions of technological tyranny. It takes Lauren’s artistic vision — and especially her “body work” — to make sense of both the Google-like retrieval of her late husband’s voice by the “savant” in her house and of the mysterious appeal of a Finnish road in the dead of night.