March 17, 2013 § 5 Comments
On February 19, 1960, at the end of the twentieth episode (“Elegy”) of a new series entitled The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling, the mind behind the series, unexpectedly came onto the screen and delivered the following message:
[First clause cut off in surviving footage, likely “I want to”]… settle an argument to the effect that I’m not at my best when writing scripts for women. Miss Vera Miles takes my side, in a most unusual and unique story we call “Mirror Image.” I hope to see you next week: you in your living room, and Miss Vera Miles and the rest of us in the Twilight Zone.
I’ve been watching the Twilight Zone in chronological order via Netflix’s streaming service; on-screen appearances by Serling were not yet a normal part of the series, so this made me sit up and take notice. It made me notice, too, that only two of the first twenty episodes had focused on female protagonists. I would agree that these were not the best-written episodes, but I had appreciated the conceits of both episodes, and they were among my favorite episodes visually.
As it happened, the weak ratio of female star turns in the first season only slightly improved — five of 36 (36!) episodes — but these five clearly mattered a great deal to Serling, and I’d love to research the backstory of his reasons for the on-screen proclamation. The five episodes hang together in fascinating ways, and form (consciously?) a suite of stories about women in American life on the cusp of second-wave feminism.
In some ways, the focus in the series on male protagonists and, often, exclusively male narratives was in keeping with the 1950s television (and broader cultural) emphasis on the heroic male in westerns, science fiction, and other genres with pulp roots. The female episodes of The Twilight Zone must have stood out for contemporary viewers from such offerings, especially as all five are focused not on domesticity or even married women, but women working, traveling, making their own decisions (for better or, more often, worse).
I’ll explore each of these five episodes in a series of posts. I’m especially interested in a really interesting subtext in these five, and in series as a whole: women as subjects as well as televised objects, women looking back at the male gaze. This would be nicely summarized in the very first image of the opening sequence used for the last few episodes of the season:
June 26, 2010 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Inherent Vice.
Continuing the tradition I founded in a post on Vineland, to which IV is nearly a prequel — stylistically, thematically, in place and character, they are of a piece — I give you my ten favorite Pynchonian jokes, riffs, and goofs in this book. Once again, feel free to print out and take to the library to enjoy in air-conditioned splendor. In paginated order:
-Wouldn’t be a Pynchon book without at least one ridiculous TV-commercial setup: here, it’s Bigfoot Bjornsen, an LAPD cop of ambiguous motivations and allegiances, who “moonlight[s] after a busy day of civil-rights violation” in commercials in an Afro wig and cape with a ” relentless terror squad of small children,” with whom he’s worked up a W.C. Fields routine. p. 9-10.
-Doc’s conversation with his lawyer, Sauncho Smilax, p. 28: a laugh-out-loud drug-addled discussion of Donald Duck’s whisker-stubble that’s downright Tarantinoesque. (He has a hilarious riff on Charlie the Tuna on p. 119, as well.)
-St. Flip of Lawndale, “for whom Jesus Christ was not only personal savior but surfing consultant as well,” and the conversation at surfer-breakfast joint Wavos about the lost island of Lemuria on p. 99-102. I especially like “GNASH, the Global Network of Anecdotal Surfer Horseshit.”
-The counterfeit U.S. currency featuring the face of a tripping Richard Nixon, p. 117 and following.
-Doc and Denis’s trip to the house of the surf-rock band the Boards, p. 124-136, chock-full of crazy details and tidbits, including a fun discussion of the difference between American and English zombies.
-“Soul Gidget,” by black surf band Meatball Flag, p. 155. Enough said. Some band needs to cover this, already. Pynchon’s really on top of his game with the music in this book. (The country song “Full Moon in Pisces” on p. 241-42 is also great.)
-Pynchon’s one of the great scene-setters in American literature. My favorite example here is probably on p. 236, his gorgeous description of the decrepit Kismet casino from bygone Vegas. Also excellent: the amazing global-warming-inspired paragraph on p. 98.
-The motel for “Toobfreex” on p. 253-54, with its incredible amount of early cable programming thanks to “time-zone issues.”
-Doc’s dialogue is frequently priceless, and it may be mere speculation, but it does seem like Pynchon enjoyed The Big Lebowski — or maybe both works just capture that stoner cadence and vocabulary perfectly. Innumerable one-liners and PI quips to choose from. One of my favorites on p. 313: “You know how some people say they have a ‘gut feeling’? Well, Shasta Fay, what I have is dick feelings, and my dick feeling sez —”
-Doc’s parents getting hooked on dope and getting freaked out by Another World, p. 352-53.
November 30, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Guilty Pleasures, by Donald Barthelme.
Reading next: Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens.
Don B gets my vote for coolest writer of the century: he’s like the Miles Davis of literature, unassailable in his hipness and his knack for finding the joy in (and audience for) experimentation. But coolness is not an unalloyed good. Some prefer warmth, after all. Or sincerity. Or finely drawn character.
I love Barthelme, have ever since I first read him in college. I can’t even hold it against him that he was the New Yorker‘s darling for so long; that’s how much I love him. I can remember reading “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” and thinking it was the greatest thing ever. In this collection, we get “And Now Let’s Hear It for the Ed Sullivan Show!”, which is simply a recitation of the events of an episode. Proto-TV fiction, in other words. These TV-episode stories are still delightful examinations of how TV was fun and how it was banal (it’s both fun and banal differently now, 40 years down the road, of course). I love the staccato incantation in “Ed Sullivan,” the flat judgments of the everymannish narrator, and the weirdnesses of people being on camera that it exposes. (These, of course, are still weird, for all their seeming less weird to us: we are so used to the mannerisms and rhetoric that TV inflicts on us, now.)
But somehow these are less impressive to me, now, though I certainly see them as crucial for American experimental lit’s development. I love Don B when he’s in pure play mode, especially: when he’s messing around, creating narratives around his collages of old engravings and illustrations, or compiling lists of real and/or imaginary things (“Games Are the Enemies of Beauty, Truth, and Sleep, Amanda Said” is an absolute classic of this type), or when he’s throwing his narrative and/or argument off the rails (or at least onto a sidetrack) just because it pleases him to do so (like the old-style s confusion in “An Hesitation on the Bank of the Delaware”). Is it weird that this is when he seems most important to me — not when he’s being “topical,” or “satirical”?
Mostly I love his mimicry: his perfect synthesis of tone, form, and vocabulary. His story “That Cosmopolitan Girl,” an extended parody of an ad for Cosmopolitan magazine, is quite funny at first just for its silly exaggeration of the ad’s own rhythms and mannerisms and utter emptiness. But it stays funny due to phrases like “pure unshirted hell” and its gonzo plot: when it moves beyond satire into surrealism. He was a perfect sounding board for his time, was Don B.
There’s guilt to be had in the inconsequentiality of so much of his subject matter, I suppose, but Barthelme always seemed to get in at least one sentence that actually made you consider why he was writing what he was writing, or see why he loved what he was doing. Sometimes he can seem a little too smooth for his own good — all of those seemingly tossed-off New Yorker pieces must have grated on his less fortunate contemporaries. But hey, people love Kind of Blue for a reason, too.
November 10, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: End Zone.
Like a good-sized chunk of America, I have a football problem. It’s partly geography and heredity — born and raised in Nebraska, I came of age during a span of an almost unfathomable 33 consecutive years when the University of Nebraska never won less than 9 out of 12 (or sometimes 13) games and the triple option was manifestly the perfect offensive system — partly habit, and partly a sense of obligation. Something about the short season and the fact that the vast majority of the games take place on the weekend makes it seem somehow obligatory. I don’t claim to know why that is. I just know it’s so.
DeLillo made the choice, back in the early ’70s, to use football to write about some really abstract and difficult things. He set the book at a place called Logos College in west Texas, and he’s really quite good on the football details; now, of course, the football scenes seem antiquated, but then it really was true that colleges, especially on the plains, ran and ran and ran some more. (It’s somehow an added bonus to me that this book came out in 1972, the year that began with Nebraska winning its second straight national title, the obvious model of a successful football program.)
The book’s divided into three parts; the central part is a 25-page description of a football game, the most important of the year for Logos. It begins with an unexpected authorial interlude, and it’s so good on sports, football, our spectator culture, and language that I have to quote at length:
…numerous commentators have been willing to risk death by analogy in their public discussions of the resemblance between football and war. But this sort of thing is of little interest to the exemplary spectator. As Alan Zapalac says later on: “I reject the notion of football as warfare. Warfare is warfare. We don’t need substitutes because we’ve got the real thing.” The exemplary spectator is the person who understands that sport is a benign illusion, the illusion that order is possible. It’s a form of society that is… organized so that everyone follows precisely the same rules;…that roots out the inefficient and penalizes the guilty; that tends always to move toward perfection. The exemplary spectator has his occasional lusts, but not for warfare, hardly at all for that. No, it’s details he needs — impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols. Football… is the one sport guided by language, by the word signal, the snap number, the color code, the play name…. The author… has tried to reduce the contest to basic units of language and action.
This is the best summation I’ve come across for why football (and sports in general, for that matter) works for me: “impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols.” It’s also a reason I like sports (especially baseball) on the radio quite a bit: the games are literally made of words and numbers, that way, and the rest is imagination. The interlude also clarifies that the play-by-play we’re about to read is a kind of “sustenance” for the sports junkie — “the book as television set.” (An early example of DFW’s good ol’ “imagist” TV fiction. Weirdly, I don’t think he mentions End Zone in “E Unibus Pluram,” although he discusses other, later, DeLillo works at length.)
DeLillo’s a bit coy throughout that whole authorial interlude, and the talk of “exemplary spectators” does seem both ironic and mockingly faux-academic. A lot of what follows is fairly evenly divided between the coded symbols and words and isolated moments we’re led to expect, and descriptions of more or less warlike scenes. Bodies broken and carted off the field, a benches-clearing brawl, mentions of rape and racial and sexual pejoratives (although these, too, are sometimes broken down to the level of incantations or meaningless word-symbols). In the thick of Vietnam, this all must have been meant to signify war.
DeLillo seems to me to have always been a writer of systems, concepts, and phenomena, but with a wide metaphysical streak. He’s wildly anti-realist, to a surprising extent for a novelist who’s gained such wide acclaim: his people almost never talk like people, things never happen like they’d really happen, people don’t wear quotidian clothes or eat quotidian meals or discuss quotidian problems. There are diatribes and incantations and epigrams, but hardly ever conversations. All of this is by design, of course. His characters seem trapped in their own concerns and concepts and thoughts: not communicating, transmitting.
A lot of this book, like a lot of White Noise, seems to be about the human (and especially the atomic-age human) need to shout down the silence, the possibility of nothingness. Words call attention to themselves in this book, and when they don’t either DeLillo or Gary Harkness, his narrator, calls attention to them for us. I mean, for God’s sake, the school’s name is Logos — the Word, as in the Gospel of John. And but so also the paradoxical attraction of the apocalypse — the joy and terror of reaching the end zone.
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.
August 17, 2008 § 2 Comments
Now reading: The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.
It’s something of a commonplace that we look to find ourselves in art, and value the feeling of recognition when we do: the idea that there’s a kindred spirit, that we’re not so weird after all. We tend to think things that we understand — things that are close to our own experiences, thoughts, beings — are “good,” and those that aren’t are “bad” (if we bother with them at all).
I’m no exception here, although I wouldn’t consciously say that this kind of feeling is anywhere near the top of the list of reasons why I love to read. But there are a handful of books where I’ve experienced such an overwhelming rush of recognition that the feeling was almost appalling. Although it does involve recognition of self in deeper ways, as well, mostly it’s been such a similarity to something I’ve actually written, or at least an idea I’ve been playing around with, that there are mingled sensations of pride, envy, horror, and yes, kinship. (The short list, off the top of my head, for the curious: American Gods, House of Leaves, White Noise, a number of Bradbury stories.)
And now there’s The Raw Shark Texts. Lordy, what a first act; what a first 90 pages. I’m going to try to be even more cryptic than usual, because, frankly, you (yes, you, three people who read this blog, you, dammit) need to read this book. It’s awesome and brilliant. I mean, do conceptual sharks cruising communicative waterways for the chum of human memory and identity strike you as interesting? Come on. It’s irresistible.
(Actually, now that I think about this, you shouldn’t be reading this.
I shouldn’t be writing this.
Shit. There was even a warning about the internet.
Forget I said anything. No one reads this. Nice sharky.)
So I’ll just babble a little about four things I loved in Part One:
-Chapter 4, “The Light Bulb Fragment (Part One),” is almost unbearably poignant and touching and eerily familiar (not in the writerly ways, in the personal ones). Scary good. A DFW-level observation of a relationship, only it’s a great relationship, and we know he’s not into those.
-On p. 57-58, there are these two cool representations of a TV screen with something like (but then, very unlike) concrete poetry on their “screens.” A kind of creature made of typography, barely perceptible in the static (so the text tells us; the representation of the screen is just a blank rectangle with this typography-creature). The book has been fairly cinematic, so far — I mean, it’s extremely lucid writing, very visual, and intentionally so. But there has also been a lot of wrangling with “concept” versus “reality,” or the tangible, at any rate — the physical, the solid. (Brilliantly handled wrangling, I might add.) It made me wonder how this would be handled in (the inevitable, if there’s any justice) film adaptation, because it would be easy enough to just picture this creature as a creature, and it’s certainly a powerful enough image just as a creature, rather than a creature made of these words, this jumble of different-sized type. This is cool, after my late experiences with the “TV fiction” of Bear v. Shark and Vineland: finally, the screen makes it onto the page, only to be filled by words, letters, concepts.
-Letter #4 is awesome. This whole sequence of letters is like if Memento and The Matrix had a baby and The Crying of Lot 49 and “The Library of Babel” had a baby and those babies… well, you get the idea. (Yes, I loved Pineapple Express, too.) At any rate, I love the breakdown of the protective powers of “Books of Fact/Books of Fiction,” and this little doozy: “I have an old note written by me before I got so vague which says that some of the great and most complicated stories like The Thousand and One Nights are very old protection puzzles, or even idea nets…” If I were more ambitious, I’d found a whole school of satirical criticism based on this passage.
-On p. 86 we get a small passage which set bells a-ringin’ in my head: “I learned… how to attach the bracken and lichen of foreign ideas to my scalp and work the mud and grass of another self into and over my skin and clothes until I could become invisible at will, until anyone or anything could be looking straight at me and never see the real me at all.”
You may or may not know that I’ve been working on a piece of writing related to King Lear for a very long time. This passage sounds like Edgar transforming into Tom o’ Bedlam, the madman on the heath. And he’s doing something very similar: while his mud and grass are real, it is the other self he really is working into his skin, the mannerisms and the rantings of a being completely foreign to him, and that is mainly why he is not recognized.