Wednesday, July 28, 2010
I was anything but a precocious or intelligent elementary school student, but even so, I'm sure my eight or nine year-old self would have been envious at the wealth of history books that have been published in my adult lifetime, works that would served as either replacements or healthy compliments to the bland textbooks. 2004's America: The Book worked as a wonderful spoof not only of American history, but of the layouts and banalities of standard elementary school textbooks. Historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough have the ability to create works that are both intellectually stimulating and vastly entertaining. These are just two examples of good writing, but on the flip side, the market is saturated with history books that have blatant political agendas (hello, William J. Bennett) or attempt to capture niche markets (the American Civil War was undoubtedly multifaceted, and every battle and character seems to have at least two books devoted to the subject). I recently read Fred Kaplan's 2009 book 1959: The Year Everything Changed on the basis of its focus on a seemingly innocuous era, especially given the events before and after. I had a feeling that, for such a slim volume, it would lean towards the "niche" side of history publications. However, Kaplan's writings do reveal some pleasant surprises, or, for a better phrase, lesser known happenings in that year.
"[Fidel Castro] was a far more engaging, charismatic figure...Just thirty-one years old, sporting green army fatigues and a scruffy beard, Castro strolled along the Washington Mall, paying respects to the Lincoln Monument and the Jefferson Memorial, eating ice cream cones, kissing babies, signing autographs, waving to students on buses (many of whom shouted, 'Hi Fidel!') and chatting--in heavily accented but fluent English--with anyone who approached him (Kaplan 95)."
Fidel Castro's visit to the United States never seems to garner much attention, both historically or in contemporary analysis of his power. In other more partisan hands, the account of this visit could have been skewed negatively, but Kaplan does an excellent job of proper "historical journalism." In reality, The United States didn't know what to make of the young rebel, and the visit was viewed as a hopeful avenue to steer his fledgling government away from Communism. A visit like that (and, by extension, any event in world history) lends itself to the idea of the opposite direction. In simple terms, readers are either introduced to, or forced to think about, the idea of "what would have happened otherwise?"
Kaplan does hint at the "what ifs?" even if he doesn't devote much analysis to the potential outcomes. This is a history work, and what actually happened in 1959 is worth more than the potentials. However, the occasional sentence does lead to the occasional pause as to how history could have played out. In the chapter on jazz musician Ornette Coleman, Kaplan's account of a meeting between Coleman and record label owner Lester Koenig almost reads like a cinematic climax, bridging the gap between Coleman's creative breakthroughs and the possibility that it never would have happened.
"The timing was fortuitous. Coleman had given up on a life in music; he'd planned to go back to Forth Worth and get a normal job. The day he first met with Koenig, his mother sent him money for a bus ticket home. Now he decided to give jazz another chance (Kaplan 202)."
Analyzing every 1959 event that Kaplan includes would turn this into a tedious summary. The happenings include the emergence (and backlash against) Lenny Bruce; the crusaders and doctors who came together to create the birth-control pill; and another U.S. visit by a foreign leader, one that is better known than Castro's--the tense visit by Soviet premiere Nikita Khruschev, described in all of its emotions and potentials, for better or for worse. At times, 1959 runs the gamut from mere recaps of the events to more insightful narrative. Kaplan should be commended for highlighting such a whirlwind year, but, whether through his own time constraints or editing, the book does suffer from some faults. Depending on the subject, some of the chapters seem to go through the motions, especially "Civilizations In the Stars," a look at (then) modern science's search for extraterrestrial communications. From beginning to end, the research is impressive, but Kaplan is much more knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the art scenes in 1959. Kaplan's music writings are stunning, and highlight an obvious deep passion for the music of the era, combining both historical happenings with accessible analysis of complex musical theories. His looks at Coleman, Miles Davis, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg are the most striking.
"A year before he wrote Howl, Ginsberg wrote to a friend, 'I have been looking at early blues forms and think will apply this form of elliptical semisurrealist imagery to rhymed blues type lyrics....internal variants and changes of form in midstream like conversational thought.' He later told a critic that Howl's cadences were inspired in part by a recording of Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet solo on 'I Can't Get Started (Kaplan 33).'"
While 1959 is a wonderful look at cultural developments, it does, as I mentioned before, feel constrained. For such vastly different stories, it's a relief that Kaplan didn't attempt to make hasty connections between such dynamic people, but the occasionally "encyclopedic" feel does put a sort of hold on an obviously talent writer. It's my hope that Kaplan will publish more detailed books on singular people and developments. For example, his knowledge of jazz could be applied to biographies of some of the lesser known artists and experimenters of that time. However, 1959 doesn't always go for the obvious stories and opinions, and what it does illuminate is done professionally, without any unneeded nostalgia or poetic waxing.
Kaplan, Fred. 1959: The Year Everything Changed. Copyright 2009 by Fred Kaplan.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
"[Art] is based on no truth that exists before it; and one may say that it expresses nothing but itself. It creates its own equilibrium and its own meaning. It stands all by itself, like the zebra; or else it falls."--Alain Robbe-Grillet
Earlier this year, I began, for lack of a better term, sporadic readings of Alain Robbe-Grillet's literary manifesto For a New Novel. While many of his assertions and hypotheses make much more sense now than they did when I was in college, it didn't hook me as much as the theory works of Italo Calvino or Milan Kundera, to name a few. His fictional works are much more satisfying, and I have thoroughly enjoyed two readings of Snapshots, a slim short story collection that is heavy on descriptions and forms, rather than plots, but still works both emotionally and aesthetically. For example, this passage from "The Shore" has long struck me as a particularly vivid piece of writing:
"In front of them, a flock of sea birds walk briskly along the shore, just at the edge of the waves. They move parallel with the children, in the same direction, about a hundred yards farther on. But, as the birds do not move as fast as they, the children again gain upon them. And while the sea constantly wipes out the starry tracks of the birds, the children's footsteps remain clearly inscribed in the barely damp sand, in which the three lines of footsteps grow longer and longer (Robbe-Grillet 41)."
I'm not at all ruling out a return to a more detail analysis of Robbe-Grillet's fiction or literary theories; however, I felt that these were essential introductions to this piece, a look at the 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, directed by Alain Resnais and written by Robbe-Grillet. I was tempted to merge some thoughts on this film along with the book writings of Robbe-Grillet, but realized that the film is meant to stand as its own piece of art. However, the opening quote (taken from For a New Novel offers one of the best introductions to the film, a work that is polarizing, unabashedly (even insistently) confusing, and constructed as an almost literal definition of postmodernism.
The film takes place inside and outside of a grand hotel, full of vast, winding corridors, intricate, priceless decor, and a garden that seems to stretch for miles, even maintaining an almost canvas-like vanishing point. The hotel is patronized by upper-class visitors, but the primary ones are a man (unnamed, but dubbed 'X' in the screenplay), who consistently pursues a woman ('A'), claiming that they met the previous year, that they shared a brief fling (or, depending on the various interpretations of the narrative structure, he raped her), and were planning on going off together. Consistently looming in the background is another man ('M'), possibly the lover of 'A,' or her husband, a virtually silent, cold figure who seems to hypnotize the other two whenever he's present. Giving letter designations to these characters could also stretch the idea that their various interactions could be worked out into various mathematical formulas. This could literally be a stretch, but after one screening of the film, the idea that any hypothesis can be applied becomes logical.
The film opens with a consistently repeated voice-over, offering a poetic description of the hotel, including mentions of the corridors, the black mirrors, and the footstep-muffling carpeting. This then blends into a scene in which the hotel guests are watching a play, giving the film its potential turn into a standard narrative: perhaps the voice-over was part of an avant-garde play. But, just as quickly, the viewer is thrust into continuing motifs and alternating emotions, with scenes both beautiful, playful, and downright discomforting. Any attempts to keep track of the time, the man's claims, and the linear narrative become blurred very quickly, and, for at least the first screening, it helps to get lost in the shifts.
The above still is merely a hint of the film's visual pleasures. 'X' (Giorgio Albertazzi) stares at 'M' (Delphine Seyrig), who approaches down the hall in a black dress. Her face and body language is apprehensive, given that 'X' has not stopped insisting upon their past rendezvous, and at times has been either creepy or aggressive in his insistence. His look could be read as either flirtatious or lustful, appropriate given that his actions in the film border on either one of those descriptions, never occupying a happy medium. Even though the mirror stages her away from him, the shot is set as if they're standing next to each other. Other examples of Renais's direction involve scenes that begin as freeze frames before moving into fluid action; single frames of 'M' with a white dress quickly inserted into scenes of her standing at the hotel's bar in a black dress, with the single frames flashing more and more quickly, alluding to either a flashback or 'X''s fabricated memories of her; and one of my favorite shots in the film, an inexplicable lineup of men turning, almost ballet-style, shooting guns into a shooting range behind them. No dialogue, no explanations. Just symmetrical actions that are both beautiful and jarring.
Two other key contributors to Last Year At Marienbad are cinematographer Sacha Vierny and music composer Francis Seyrig. The cinematography, combined with the film's black and white footage, is lush, but also just as jarring as the actions on screen. Some of the scenes are lit almost blindingly bright, but can also move, sometimes as quickly as the next shot, to almost pitch-black hues. Granted, quite a bit of this was probably done under the guidance of Resnais, but Vierny's touches are, whether obviously or subliminally, constantly noticeable throughout the film. Seyrig's compositions are sometimes evocative of horror movies: shrieking violins and dramatic rises accompany some of the more frenetic actions, and I found myself almost expecting a "jump" moment that is usually indicated in horror. Instead of just working as a pleasant background diversion, the music is essential, not in making the audiences feel what they "should," but becoming another part of the screen, "acting" just as much as the characters. These elements are just parts of what make Last Year At Marienbad such a mental exercise.
So the question that invariably arises in any discussion of this work: What is it all about? What actually happened (or will happen) between 'X' and 'A'? The original trailer for the film is almost a spoiler, with its heavy indications that the audience becomes a part of the narrative, and it's up a given viewer to "decide" what happens or what the film is about. It's not so much a mystery or a puzzle, but mainly an exercise in perception. So many elements are intentionally left blank (such as the theme or rape, or of 'M''s true identity), and so many elements are repeated. It's virtually impossible to give any clues to anyone who hasn't seen the film. Despite my earlier claim of separating Alain Robbe-Grillet's non-film writings from his screenplay, another passage will serve as yet another introduction to the film. View it as a mystery, a surrealist art piece (although I find that classifying Last Year At Marienbad as a surrealist picture), or a Memento-like cutup. What it really boils down to is suspending any dependence on traditional narratives. Robbe-Grillet says it best. This passage is about fiction, but aptly describes the experience of the film classic. And if one is to take this below citation at face value, it renders my even attempting to describe this film as pointless. And this is a chance I'll gladly take, at least to add another layer to this mental exercise.
"But we are so accustomed to discussions of 'character,' 'atmosphere,' 'form,' and 'content,' of 'message' and 'narrative ability' and 'true novelists' that it requires an effort to free ourselves from this spider web and realize that it represents an idea about the novel (a ready-made idea, which everyone admits without argument, hence a dead idea), and not at all that so-called 'nature' of the novel in which we are supposed to believe (Robbe-Grillet 25)."
Robbe-Grillet, Alain. For a New Novel. English translation copyright 1965 by Grove Press.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
"But, as every writer knows, there can be magic in rules and conventions."
This sentence appeared in the June 21st issue of The New Yorker, in an article explaining the process of that magazine's selection of the twenty best writers under the age of 40. This may seem like a familiar mention, seeing that said list appeared, coincidentally, as I wrote about Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. After reading through that list, and catching up on some short stories written by some of those talented individuals, I wanted to read a novel by one of them, and I came across Nicole Krauss's The History Of Love. In the case, coincidence turned into intention, which then revealed itself as a pleasant mistake. A close friend of mine, with similar literary tastes, had been gushing over the fiction of Karen Russell, a woman who also appears on The New Yorker's list. Embarrassingly, I got the two names mixed up, and decided to read The History Of Love by Nicole Krauss, subliminally thinking that it was her, and not Karen Russell, whom my friend had recommended. However, after reading excerpts of Russell's work, it's obvious that both women are incredibly talented. In addition to being referred to as "genre-bending," I found that Krauss's 2005 novel was best described in terms of the magic in rules and conventions.
The History Of Love weaves together the tales of Alma Singer, a precocious teenager who's trying to explain to herself the death of her father, as well as her mother's blatant unhappiness. Her mother is translating a work (The History Of Love), and Alma ventures that the man who commissioned the translation may be a suitable match for her. Various family members are introduced, either in passing or with sizable parts, especially her brother, affectionately known as Bird, whose coping mechanisms eventually morph into a believe that he is a "lamed vovnik," a spiritual figure in the Jewish religion. Alma narrates her own parts of the novel, and Krauss does an admirable job of creating a teenage character who's equal parts regular teenager and wise beyond her years. Either character trait could easily have fallen into a sort of grandiose sketch, but, in keeping with the idea of "magical conventions," Alma is both heightened and realistic. She takes an interest in wilderness survival, since it was a passion of her father. This hobby is expressed both earnestly and with a tint of sadness, since the death of her father hovers over most of Alma's activities. However, it becomes a deft blend of obsessive list-making (a prevalent occurrence in the book), intelligence, and a realization of her still being a child.
"I kept Edible Plants and Flowers in North America under my bed in a backpack that also had my father's Swiss Army knife, a flashlight, a plastic tarp, a compass, a box of granola bars, two bags of peanut M&M's, three cans of tuna, a can opener, Band-Aids, a snakebite kit, a change of underwear, and a New York City map...
...For Chanukah I asked for a sleeping bag. The one my mother got me had pink hearts on it, was made of flannel, and would keep me alive for about five seconds in subzero temperatures before I died of hypothermia (Krauss 44-45)."
The other main character, and probably one of the most sympathetic characters in recent fiction, is an aging former writer and locksmith named Leo Gursky. He used to be in love in Poland before moving to America, and eventually lost the woman to unforeseen circumstances. This love led to the writing of a book that he long assumed had been lost, not to mention a son that grew up to become a writer, never knowing who his true biological father was. Leo's book makes its way to Chile, published under the name Zvi Litvinoff, and he eventually encounters his son at a book signing, both wishing to reach out to him, but also oddly comfortable in his usual invisible state. Leo occasionally draws attention to himself with mild accidents in public, and his every action is, at least subliminally, a way of coping with the loss of his former love. Again, much like the characterization of Alma (Alma and Leo are connected in much more profound ways), Leo is utterly convincing as a part of the novel. He's an aching combination of imminent death and past despair, without being the least bit melodramatic or overstated about his mindset. In this passage, he recalls watching his son.
"Every time Isaac moved, I mapped out the route between my place and his. The first time he was eleven. I used to stand across the street from his school in Brooklyn and wait for him, just to catch a glimpse, maybe, if I was lucky, hear the sound of his voice. One day I waited as usual, but he didn't come out. I thought maybe he'd gotten into trouble and had to stay late. It got dark, they turned off the lights, and still he didn't come. I went back the next day, and again I waited, and again he didn't come. That night I imagined the worst, I couldn't sleep, imagining all the awful things that might have happened to my child (Krauss 162)."
Given these introductions and sketches, two things should be clear. One, I'm obviously not doing the entire novel justice. At the heart of the book is a slight mystery, but one that should be semi-obvious, based on what I've written; it's even spelled out on the book's back cover synopsis. While the statute of limitations on a spoiler is long gone, part of The History Of Love's benefits are seeing the problems unfold. Two, someone unfamiliar with the book would be right in assuming, again based on my summaries, that it's one of the more depressing books written in recent years. Granted, large sections of the book are either saddening, or hinted with either symbolic or literal depression: Leo and Alma's mother are two perfect examples. Even the flashback scenes are glossed with references to the Holocaust.
"Even during the years when I hid in the forest, in trees, holes, and cellars, with death breathing down my neck, I still never thought about the truth: that I was going to die. Only after my heart attack, when the stones of the wall that separated me from childhood began to crumble at last, did the fear of death return to me. And it was just as frightening as it ever was (Krauss 129)."
However, and there's really no way to write this without being either cliched or making The History Of Love sound like a combination of a thousand other novels, in spite of the melancholy that permeates the characters, there's a definite sense of hope, at least in part because the reader can guess what the final outcome of the book will be. The fun, however, is the journey. Krauss's prose is extremely meticulous, but never borders on either mundane or careless. And, as she showed recently in her latest short story "The Young Painters," she can balance a straightforward narrative that also serves as its own mystery, in the sense of leaving the conclusion unforeseeable until the end. Her writing in this novel is an excellent mix, combining both contemporary settings and historical narratives, as well as sections that are composed exclusively as lists, and an ending broken up into careful parts, working as a stunning buildup to a satisfying, emotional ending. Much like the aforementioned Wells Tower, her plots sometimes take a backseat to structure, and while I feel it would be a stretch to call her experimental, she obviously knows what she's doing, and her voice is strong enough to break parts of the novel up aesthetically without having it be a distraction. The History Of Love is an excellent work, but, in the best of ways, I feel that her best writings are ahead of her. I feel that, despite the unanimous praise for this novel upon its publication, readers will look back at this one as a fine compliment to a more stunning bibliography.
Krauss, Nicole. The History Of Love. Copyright 2005 by Nicole Krauss.
Friday, July 9, 2010
Last night, I took my dog for a walk, enjoying a rare July evening not weighed down with excessive humidity, a rarity in Chicago. After returning to my apartment, I made a light dinner and had a few hours' worth of conversation and beer with my older brother, who's visiting from Seattle. This all came after an easy day at work, and I don't think that too many people would disagree that the aforementioned activities were the ingredients of a nearly perfect summer night. However, the only real deviation came in the middle, when I excused myself to check ESPN.com, and found out that LeBron James had announced his intention to sign with the Miami Heat for the upcoming 2010-2011 NBA season. I watched a thirty second video clip of the moment of his announcement, and then got up from my desk to resume the more noble activities.
For the past week, I've unabashedly been a part of the herd, checking websites, reading about rumors, and keeping on top of all of the NBA free agents. Hell, I even found myself partaking in the ESPN page that was modeled after a slot machine, clicking the button to see the possible destinations of James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, and even David Lee. As you very well may know, I'm a Chicago Bulls fan, and I've spent the last week daydreaming about the possibility of James teaming up with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, adding scoring and an interior presence to a young, playoff-tested team. As the days went on, the possibility of James signing with the Bulls seemed less and less likely, but my enthusiasm didn't waver. In all likelihood, based on my personal hunches (not to mention way too many readings of every possible basketball writer available on the Web), I thought the likely choice would be for James to remain a Cleveland Cavalier. Of course, this didn't happen, but the fact that he chose the Heat is not the problem. The problem was his decision to announce this as a one-hour special entitled "The Decision."
And with that, the floodgates opened, and within the course of a day, he went from being one of the most well-liked athletes to one of the most despised (at least outside of South Florida). While I refused to watch the TV special, something was made painfully clear, but should be obvious--LeBron James is an entertainer above being a basketball player.
Of course, he's a phenomenally talented basketball player, if not the best living player right now. For all that the Cleveland franchise has done to bring in complimentary players, James hasn't played on a great team; he's only reached the NBA Finals once in his career. Like any player, he claims that his goal is to win championships, nothing more. And his signing with Miami proves that it's not about the money, since he could have earned $30 million more by signing with the Cavaliers. And it's very likely that the Heat will win at least one championship, if not more. The NBA's Eastern Conference is stronger, but still lacks the team depth of the Western Conference. If I were a coach or executive with the Heat, I'd be concerned about the team's chemistry. After re-signing guard Dwyane Wade and forward Chris Bosh, the Heat now have three players who are used to being the best on their former teams. One of those players isn't going to get the ball as much as he wants, which, if a championship is truly the goal, shouldn't be that big of an issue. However, the Heat are now like an exaggerated fantasy team. Someone's numbers are going to dip, and time will tell if that leads to any friction during a long season.
My decision (no pun intended) to not watch James' TV special was due to the fact that the off-season free agent parade had become a show in its own right, rather than a true look at how a given player could make a new team even better. The day before, the Bulls signed forward Carlos Boozer. In any other off-season, this would have been phenomenal news, since Boozer gives the Bulls some much-needed inside presence to compliment Noah, and his playoff numbers are seriously higher than his regular season totals. However, this signing took a backseat to "LeBron Watch," and it was then that I decided to save my energies for actually watching the games when the new season begins.
In watching the brief clip of James, the notion that he's an entertainer was never in doubt. He says everything that anyone would expect him to say, and the segment with Jim Gray comes across like every pre- or post-game interview given by any basketball player. James is a consummate professional, and as he rightfully states, the country (not just Ohio) has seen him grow from "an 18-year old kid to a 25-year old man."
The media will continue to feed on this for several weeks, and by even posting any thoughts about this, I've voluntarily included my voice in the millions that have shot opinions back and forth. However, I reached my limit and decided to extend my energies last night to more satisfying activities. And when I do resume focusing on this year's NBA season, I will give more attention to more worthy, and less expected story lines. The Bulls are a much better team with Carlos Boozer, and the Oklahoma City Thunder have wisely locked up star Kevin Durant to a long-term contract. But more importantly, the Heat won't be the only story. The younger, hungrier teams will be waiting once the season kicks off in October.
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