Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Backing Into the Future: "Super Sad True Love Story"



I've been thoroughly enjoying, as well as looking forward to, the second half of 2010, and the many notable book titles that have been released. From David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet to next week's highly anticipated release of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, writers both established and new are getting a lot of attention. The year is also a testament to the timing and power of The New Yorker's list of the twenty best writers under the age of forty; I've been enjoying the recently published short stories by the likes of Karen Russell and Joshua Ferris. A writer who fits both of these groupings (a major 2010 release and placement on said list) is one whom I've been meaning to read for quite some time, but have sadly never gotten to, until now. Gary Shteyngart has been receiving major acclaim for his latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story. I recently finished reading this latest work, thus continuing an unintentional trend of reading certain writers' bibliographies in less-than-chronological order.

Super Sad True Love Story is set in the near future, in an America beset by violence, in debt to China, and in an increasingly devastating war in Venezuela. The yuan is replacing the dollar, and dependency on "äppäräts," small, pebble-like internet devices, is the norm, along with a vast social network called GlobalTeens. While working in Italy for his company, Post-Human Services (a company that promises to give clients immortal life and youth), Lenny Abramov meets a young Korean-American woman named Eunice Park. He's older, balding and hopelessly smitten; she's young, brash, and hopelessly mean to him. However, their shaky connection is formed, and they end up living together in New York. He's attempting to gain respect at work, all while constantly fearing death, continuing to read books (or, as they're called in his time, Media Artifacts), and doing whatever he can to placate Eunice. She does her best to change Lenny, to make him more "hip" and respectable, but is beset by crippling self-esteem issues, attracting the wrong men, and dealing with her unloving, violent father and god-fearing mother. As America cracks around them, their relationship evolves, both for the best and for the worst.

The novel is composed in both "old" and "new" fashions. It's narrated by Lenny's hand-written diary entries, as well as Eunice's e-mails and instant messages. Lenny is extremely intelligent and book-smart, occasionally coming across like an unintentionally funny Woody Allen. He fully understands that Eunice is mean to him, but he cannot help but be in love with her.

"Dear Diary,
I learned how to say 'elephant' in Korean this week.
We went to the Bronx Zoo, because Noah Weinberg said on his stream that the ARA [American Restoration Authority] was going to close the place down and ship all the animals to Saudi Arabia 'to die of heatstroke.' I never know which part of Noah's streams to believe, but, the way we live now, you can never be too sure. We had fun with the monkeys and 'Jose the Beaver' and all the smaller animals, but the highlight was this beautiful savannah elephant named Sammy. When we ambled up to his humble enclosure, Eunice grabbed my nose and said, 'Kokiri.'

'Ko," she explained, 'means nose.' Kokiri. Long nose. Elephant in Korean.'
'I hab a long dose because I'm Jewish,' I said, trying to pull her hand off my face. 'Dere's duthing I can do aboud it (Shteyngart 119).'"




Super Sad True Love Story has been referred to as a satire in most of the early reviews, and I suppose that's an apt designation. Of course, if most good comedy is based in truth, then the idea of satire becomes much more relevant. The future America that Shteyngart creates feels both contemporary as well as not terribly far-fetched. Globalteens is presented as a hilarious child of both Facebook and Twitter, with 'teening' someone being the latest verb, not unlike 'tweeting' or 'friending.' The hilarious dystopia is also a wealth of soundbites and catchphrases. Globalteens offers friendly advice: "GLOBALTEENS SUPER HINT: Switch to images today! Less words=more fun!!!" The American landscape is awash with advertisements, including a wonderful phrase that is both subtle as well as hilariously urgent: "Together we'll surprise the world!" However, Shteyngart is able to move briskly between lampooning today's world and offering stark hints to violence.

"The first-class cabin disembarked with great haste. We ran down the stairs and onto the cracked JFK runway, which shuddered beneath the armadas of armored personnel carriers and roving packs of luggage carts. The summer heat stroked my wet back and made me feel as if a fire had just been put out all over my body. I took out my U.S. passport and held it in my hand, fingering its embossed golden eagle, still hoping it meant something. I remember how my parents would talk about the luck of their having left the Soviet Union for America. Oh God, I thought, let there still be such luck in this new world.
'Please wait underneath the "security shed,'" one of the stewardesses sobbed to us. We walked toward a strange outcropping, amidst a landscape of forlorn, aging terminals heaped atop one another like the vista of some gray Lagos slum (Shteyngart 42)."

Despite its futuristic tone, the novel fits perfectly into both postmodern literature as well as the increasingly debated category of the social novel. A few years back, Jonathan Franzen expressed concern about attempting to write about a world that can change drastically between the writing of a story and the publication of it. Shteyngart is fully aware of this; therefore, this "futuristic" work has its basis in today's world. Yes, most of the descriptions are fanciful, but the genius lies in the expression of issues that will always remain, no matter what the national/political landscape or the shape of the devices that we hold. Everyone will always fret about their body image, everyone will have strained issues with their families, and everyone will continue to strive for true love. Throughout the novel, Eunice receives e-mails from her mother. The messages are heartbreaking, but also a terrific example of old-world family issues combined with technology.

"CHUNG.WON.PARK TO EUNI-TARD:

Eunhee,
We terrible worry right now because it sound like bad political situation in Manhattan. You should move back to Fort Lee and be family. This is more important than study for LSAT even. Remember we are old people and we see history. Daddy and I live through bad time in Korea when many people die on street, student young people like you and Sally [Eunice's sister]. Make sure you no political. Make sure Sally no political. Some time she talk. We want come see you Tuesday coming up. Reverend Suk he was teacher to our Reverend Cho bring his special sinners crusade to madison square garden from Korea and we think all family should go and pray...(Shteyngart 169)."

Shteyngart's writings on political upheaval and family strife has warranted comparisons to classic Russian literature (Mr. Shteyngart was born in Leningrad before emigrating to the United States as a child). With this in mind, the hypothesis can be made that Super Sad True Love Story spans three distinct eras, with its nods to the classics (Lenny and Eunice have even been referred to as a contemporary Romeo and Juliet), the current world and its technologies, and the not-too-distant future. The beauty of his writing is that nothing is written to be too outlandish, moving the novel into science fiction territory. The relationship between Lenny and Eunice (as well as their relationships to their own parents) can be cringe-inducing, and the violence and imagined future are, to be frank, scary as hell. But really, given today's economic and political landscape, is Shytengart being THAT fictional? Time will tell, but in the meantime, we have a terrific novel from an energetic, talented voice. From early reviews, Franzen's upcoming novel spans from the 1970s to the present time. After Mitchell's foray into the 18th century, and Shteyngart's look at the future, it's clear that important, contemporary literature is at home in a dizzying array of genres.

Work Cited:
Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. Copyright 2010 by Gary Shteyngart.

NOTE:
If you're in Chicago on September 22nd, Mr. Shteyngart will be reading at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 North Lincoln Avenue, at 7:00PM. Visit the novel's website for a list of upcoming readings.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Quieter Urgency--Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs"

"[Arcade Fire] has become inextricably linked to bombast and epic feats of rock heroism since releasing their debut, Funeral, qualities that have turned just as many people away from their subtlety-free sound as easily as they have attracted hundreds of thousands of fans. But after ramping up the drama further on 2007's Neon Bible, the band, with two ambitious and well-crafted under their belts, veered close to being crushed under the weight of their own ostentation." --Jeff Terich, in his review of Arcade Fire's The Suburbs for Treblezine.



After reading Jeff Terich's review of the latest Arcade Fire release, I was struck by two things, but pleasantly surprised by both. One, after years of hearing the cliche of "sophomore slump" bandied about in sports, literature, music, and film, it's almost refreshing that someone has gone a bit further and highlighted the very real possibility of a "third-year slump" (would the correct term be a "junior slump?"). Funeral threw Arcade Fire onto the scene back in 2005, and I remember the sheer exuberance and word-of-mouth excitement that never seemed to die down. After the release of Neon Bible, with its more abstract philosophies, there was still no doubt that the band from Montreal was one of the best around; even if their debut album was their only released work, that sentiment would still be true. The second part of the review that never crossed my mind was the possibility of the band simply not being able to reach their own lofty, echoing anthems. I looked forward to The Suburbs with excitement, but in that rush, never thought that there was the potential for disappointment. Instead, I was struck by a vastly different sound, but songs that still retain intense heights, but in different packaging. It also goes without saying that I've never been privy to the idea of anyone being turned off by the band. Perhaps I haven't read that many reviews of their previous two works, but I've never heard any serious criticisms.

"The Suburbs," the album's opening track, is an almost shocking departure from the band's normal sounds; it begins happily, quietly, but the lyrics, sung perfectly by Win Butler, set the stage for the rest of the album. The idea of suburban angst has been expressed countless times by everyone from Green Day to Richard Yates. However, the "setting" is merely that, a setting for more complex musings on the desire for change and the onset of complacency. The songs combines such opposite statements as "You always seemed so sure/that one day we'd be fighting in a suburban war" and "So can you understand why I want a daughter while I'm still young?" There are two sides to every feeling, and it's established early that both will be expressed throughout the album.

My favorite track, "Ready To Start," is closer to their more rock-heavy past, as evidenced by their Madison Square Garden performance, directed by Terry Gilliam. However, even with more intense instrumentals, the lyrics dominate. That's not to say that Butler hasn't always been a gifted songwriter, but The Suburbs scales back the theatrics to make the messages more clear.

"All the kids have always known/that the emperor wears no clothes/but they bow down to him anyway/'cause it's better than being alone."

Kids and children are recurring motifs on the album, and yet again, these mentions provide a yearning for previous innocence, youthful rebellion, and a myriad of those ideas blended, standing alone, or dissected. The track "City With No Children" takes a step forward, observing the lack of happiness from an outsider's view, and the haunting lament of "I feel like I've been living/in a city with no children in it/a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside a private prison" makes the listener want to cry as well as take in the sheer number of metaphors. For an album that's supposed to be less showy, there's never a passive moment.



Régine Chassagne is just as powerful a vocalist as her husband, and if I had to give any "complaints" about the disc, it would be that she could have stood to be featured a bit more. Unlike other bands, even though Butler tends to handle the bulk of the singing, there's never a doubt that it's a collaborative effort from every musician; his words are just a part of a larger canvas. However, Chassagne gets an excellent outlet towards the end, with a beautiful rendering of "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," a song that keeps the album's themes going, but offers a different aesthetic take with a new voice. She's not the best female vocalist ever, but it's amazing what a strong lyric and passion can supplement. It would be too easy to fall back on the notion that "less is more," but really, "The Suburbs" is an excellent example of that idea, that by scaling back the anthem-like intensities, Arcade Fire gets their messages across just as much, if not more, than they've always done.

To quote Mr. Terich again: "Yet in spite of its hugeness, it's not an album that overwhelms or bludgeons the listener with spectacle. In fact, it may even take a few listens before its blend of folk-rock, post-punk and gorgeous synth work truly clicks." The hugeness that he references is literally about the album's length (it's easily their longest-running album so far), but it can also be taken further. The hugeness is in the lyrics, not the music. However, the music does tend to be reminiscent of those varying genres. There are so many little moments that appear within the bigger picture, and "The Suburbs," with all of its possibly implied tips of the cap to folk and post-punk, can leave the listener almost dazed, but with plenty of ideas spinning. And, a rarity in any form of media, it's a careful blend of both ingenuity and sheer entertainment.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Everybody Hurts



Yesterday at work, I had an impromptu discussion about Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music. I enthusiastically recommended it to a coworker awhile back, and in our conversation, I dropped a phrase that I quickly realized I use quite often. Rightfully so, I mentioned that I had last read the aforementioned novel "when I was around 20." That generic time span tends to cover my reading life from when I was 19 until around 23, give or take. It was during this time that I did a lot of voracious reading, but I now retain little concrete memories about certain titles, whether this is due to the passing of a few years or my lack of intellectual comprehension, i.e. reading books and thinking more than "that was great" or "that was bad." Upon further thought, I realized that this also extends to some of my readings by Michael Chabon. This is not a new revelation; I more or less stated this last October, in my review of Manhood For Amateurs. At the time, I wrote:

"During the course of [reading Manhood For Amateurs], it struck me that, despite his staggering publication resume, I've never read any of Mr. Chabon's non-fiction. I've read two of his novels and one of his story collections, and despite having some catching up to do with his complete bibliography, I've long counted him as one of my favorites."

To make this more comprehensible, my appreciation for Chabon's writings stemmed from readings of the story collection A Model World (when I was roughly 19) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (when I was 20). The natural solution would be to re-read these works, and I fully plan on doing so. I'm not worried that I'll suddenly dislike them; on the contrary, I fully expect that I'll pick up on more nuances now that I'm a more seasoned reader than I was years ago. I recently finished Chabon's 1999 story collection Werewolves In Their Youth, and when I saw Mr. Chabon read last fall, I remember him mentioning that the stories were written around the time of his divorce from his first wife. I went into the collection expecting stories that dealt with difficult emotions. Little did I realize that it would be one of the most mentally draining works I've encountered in a long time.

Virtually every story in the collection deals with strained or outright failed relationships, sometimes with a glimmer of hope, and sometimes just served cold. The opening story, "Werewolves In Their Youth," tells the tale of two misfit elementary school students, one of whom is called upon to "communicate" with the other, a young boy who adopts varying pretend personalities, depending on the day or the situation.

"The girls screamed at Timothy the same way every time he came after them--in unison and with a trill that sounded almost like delight, as if they were watching the family cat trot past with something bloody in its jaws. I scrambled up the side of the ravine and emerged as Timothy, shoulders hunched, arms outstretched, growled realistically and declared that he was hungry for the throats of puny humans. Timothy said this or something like it every time he turned into a werewolf, and I would not have been too concerned if, in the course of his last transformation, he hadn't actually gone and bitten Virgina Pease on the neck (Chabon 4)."

It may seem that the obvious conclusion is that Timothy is suffering from a dysfunctional home life, but Chabon crafts the story so it flips, and the reader realizes that Paul (the narrator) is suffering from his parents' separation. Despite being a social outcast, Paul seems to act out more "normally." Timothy is on the verge of expulsion and a transfer to a special school, but seems more comfortable as evidenced by his elaborate daydreams. Paul seems to suffer more as evidenced by the explicit realities of his parents' crumbling marriage.

"'You mean, he can't come over to our house anymore? Ever again?'
There were tears in her eyes. 'Ever again,' she said. Once more she crouched before me, and I let her take me in her arms, but I did not return her embrace. In the picture window at the end of the hall I watched her reflection hugging mine. I didn't want to be comforted on the impending loss of my father. I wanted him not to be lost, and it seemed to me that it would be her fault if he was (Chabon 25)."



If these fictional realities seem harsh at the beginning, Chabon is just getting warmed up. None of the stories are meant to be about sadness for sadness's sake, but he does come awfully close to making some of the situations seem impossibly despondent. The best example of this is the story "Son Of the Wolfman." During yet another failing marriage, Richard has to decide whether or not to be emotionally involved in his wife Cara's pregnancy. She's been impregnated by another man, a serial rapist, after a stretch of time in which she and her husband have been unable to conceive. What saves this from being a horribly gratuitous sketch is Chabon's knack for creating honest pain. While the idea of the rape is the most wrenching, the split between Richard and Cara seems almost akin to that travesty, at least atmospherically.

"He never went with Cara to the obstetrician, or read any of the many books on pregnancy, birth, and infancy she brought home. His father had been dead for years, but after he told his mother what manner of grandchild she could expect, which he did with brutal concision, he never said another word to her about the child on the way. When his mother asked, he passed the phone to Cara, and left the room. And when in her sixth month Cara announced her intention of attempting a natural childbirth, with the assistance of a midwife, Richard said, as he always did at such moments, 'It's your baby (Chabon 57).'"

So in all of these depressing scenarios, where is the beauty? As I mentioned before, Chabon does offer moments of hope and redemption, but not in the obvious, revelatory ways. In "Spikes," a man named Kohn gives Bengt, a young neighbor, a ride to baseball practice, and the normalcy of the game works as a soothing antidote to the different forms of depression and problems that the two seemingly unrelated men are facing.

"They stood around behind home plate, smoking, leaning against the backstop. Then when practice began--ball tossing, bunting, and base-running exercises, followed by an intrasquad game--the men, as Bengt had suggested, mostly stayed put. From time to time they exhorted their sons, or teased them, not always kindly. The boys made a study of ignoring the men and the things they said. And yet Kohn felt that the presence of their fathers was as indispensable to them as bats, dirt, spikes, grass, the reliable pain of a baseball smacking against the heels of their mitts (Chabon 137)."

As always, Chabon's attention to detail is wonderful, whether said details are literary or authentic. Sometimes both of these ideals are combined. In one brief passage, he writes about the sad dynamic between two parts of the United States, two areas in which I've personally lived, and the chord he strikes, while gloomy, is incredibly apt:

"Eddie left the clamor of the freeway and plunged into the calm, alphabetical streets of Northwest, then headed west on Burnside, towards Williamette Heights. Although he had spent most of his adult life amid the vast, amorphous, pale cities of the West Coast, cities built in rain forests and bone deserts and on the shoulders of terrible mountains, he had been raised in the corroded redbrick river towns of the old Midwest (Chabon 107)."

Will these stories appeal to everyone? Probably not. Unlike music, it's rare for someone to pick up a book in hopes of having accompaniments to sorrow, loss, or heartbreak, and Werewolves In Their Youth has the vibe of a literary blues album--no problem or heartache goes untouched. However, the pieces work along the lines of my favorite stories, and atmospherically, I was reminded of the short works of Raymond Carver. The problems aren't solved by the last page, but enough is given that a reader can see both sides of a possible conclusion, for better or for worse. Perhaps the heightened sadness in these tales makes for a subconscious look at the beauty in Michael Chabon's fictional craft. A good friend of mine once commented on how it can be difficult to read fiction that feels like it's not meant for public consumption. If all of these stories were written under the umbrella of his divorce, then one is reading not only stories but glimpses into mental stress. However, Chabon retains his distance from the stories, and this collection is an excellent, rare example of taking the bad (the negative sides of human experience) with the good (terrific writing).

Work Cited:
Chabon, Michael. Werewolves In Their Youth. Copyright 1999 by Michael Chabon.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

An Atlas Of the East



Months ago, when I learned of its upcoming publication, I began an informal mental countdown to the release of David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Virtually everyone with whom I've discussed books has had to listen to me rave about his 2004 masterpiece Cloud Atlas, and in what I felt was an otherwise decent look at his second-to-last work Black Swan Green, I couldn't help but include some fawning mentions of the previous work. This may be reminiscent of my consistent appraisals of Roberto Bolano, but even looking through rose-colored glasses, it's impossible to deny Mitchell's literary talents. That said, The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet fits into many categories, one of which is a genre that I have a tendency to avoid: historical fiction. I hesitate to disregard a genre without having read many examples, and I know that writers such as Philippa Gregory and the late Patrick O'Brian have followings that are just as ravenous as I am about my own favorite writers. However, I usually prefer non-fiction accounts of various historical eras, or, if applicable, novels written in those times, rather than contemporary imaginings (for example, I'd lean more towards Jane Austen than The Jane Austen Book Club). It's extraordinarily convenient that, even though I would read a David Mitchell novel set in any time period, it focuses on an era that I've always found fascinating: historical Japan.

The novel opens with Jacob De Zoet, an idealistic young clerk beginning a five year term with the Dutch East Indies Company in Edo-era Japan. The year is 1799, and Jacob is hoping to end the term with enough money to marry Anna, a young woman in Holland. However, Dejima, the island harbor off the coast of Japan, is rife with corruption and greed. Quickly, Jacob learns that his innocence and morals will face an uphill battle against the more worldly men in his company. His first meeting with Dr. Marinus, who will eventually become his ally, shows that nobody is immune to bad first impressions in Dejima.

"The clerk raises his voice: 'Dr. Marinus? I apologize for disturb--'
'From what mouse hole,' Marinus glares, 'did you spring?'
'I just arrived a quarter hour ago, from the Shenandoah. My name's--'
'Did I ask for your name? No: I asked for your fons et origio.'
'Domburg, sir: a coastal town on Walcheren Island, in Zeeland.'
'Walcheren, is it? I visited Middleburg once.'
'In point of fact, Doctor, I was educated in Middleburg.'
Marinus barks a laugh. 'Nobody is "educated" in that nest of slavers (Mitchell 27)."

Jacob eventually wins the respect of a few of the men, but this immediately backfires when he refuses to sign off on a corrupt deal, therefore losing a potential promotion and being ostracized by the majority of the company. To make matters worse, he begins to fall for Orito Aibagawa, an intelligent Japanese midwife who's considered to be poor marriage material for a Japanese man due to a burn on her face; even the hint of a relationship with Jacob is out of the question, since the larger relationship between the Dutch and the Japanese is strained, with the only acceptable "relationships" being between the traders and the prostitutes. Jacob understands this, but does everything in his power to interact with Orito. She's hesitant and distant with the young foreigner, and Mitchell sets up their interactions in a way that their eventual outcome could go either way. Their conversations are sweet, and Mitchell employs careful use of comedy to highlight Jacob's attraction to her.

"Her wooden slippers crunch the friable earth as she walks along the path.
Act, implores the Ghost of Future Regret. I shan't give you another chance.
Jacob hurries past the tomatoes and catches her up near the gate.
'Miss Aibagawa? Miss Aibagawa. I must ask you to forgive me.'
She has turned and has one hand on the gate. 'Why forgive?'
'For what I now say.' The marigolds are molten. 'You are beautiful.'
Her mouth opens and closes. She takes a step back...
...into the wicket gate. It rattles. The guard swings it open.
Damned fool, groans the Demon of Present Regret. What have you done (Mitchell 128-129)?"

These may seem like basic initial summary outlines, but, to use an apt cliche, the plot does thicken. To pay off her father's debts, Orito is sent into a perverse slavery, a temple of deformed young women who are impregnated by mysterious men. A rescue is organized, and the adventure then turns into a standoff between the Dutch, Japanese, and the British, who wish to make their own trading contract with the Japanese. In these sections, Mitchell combines his literary acumen with a fondness for breathtaking, suspenseful action scenes, the likes of which are only hinted at in his previous works.

"Cutlip waits until the gap is closed to fifty yards. 'Fire, lads!'
Splinters fly off the guard's boat's stanchion; the sea shatters into spray. One inspector crouches; his colleague dives into the deckhouse. Two oarsmen jump to their positions and haul the boat out of the Phoebus's path--and not before time. The prow affords a fine view of the soldiers: they stare up at the Europeans, unflinching and unafraid, but make no move to attack with arrows or spears or to give chase. Their boat lists clumsily in the Phoebus's wake and is lost astern in little time (Mitchell 431)."



It's impossible, unless this essay was to run pages upon pages long, to recap every event and character in The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet. This isn't a sign of laziness on my part, since other, more respected reviewers have written fine reviews of this novel, giving readers a decent understanding of the outlines, without getting into a lot of the secondary characters and actions, some of which, as Dave Eggers has suggested, might have benefited from some editing and paring. After finishing the novel, I read two reviews: Eggers's glowing essay in The New York Times Book Review, and the opinions of a critic I've had some stylistic problems with: James Wood of The New Yorker. Both writers explore Mitchell's work in the context of postmodern studies, since Cloud Atlas is generally considered a classic example of postmodern fiction. I was very pleased with Dave Eggers in his assessment:

"That book [Cloud Atlas], like much of Mitchell's fiction, plays with narrative structure while never abandoning a traditional love of storytelling and an unmistakable affection for historical, and adventuresome, settings. Now comes The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet, which retains those narrative tendencies while abandoning the structural complexities often (and often wrongly) called postmodern. This new book is straight-up, linear, third-person historical novel, an achingly romantic story of forbidden love and something of a rescue tale--all taking place off the coast of Japan, circa 1799. Postmodern it's not....it's not an easy book, period. Its pacing can be challenging, and its idiosyncrasies are many. But it offers innumerable rewards for the patient reader and confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless writers alive."

My problem with James Wood came when he completely ripped into the works of Paul Auster. He's incredibly well-read and knows literature, but his reviews have an annoying tendency to become weighed down in random structural analysis that, while understandable, seem to come across as a salute to his own intelligence rather than a straightforward critique of a given writer. He offers mild criticisms of Mitchell, but eventually offers praise to the man's talents. In a much more detailed (albeit confusing) manner, he also goes where Eggers goes, attempting to place Mitchell's postmodern label in conjunction with an unabashedly historical novel.

"We might settle for 'late postmodernism, a term that suggests the peculiar statelessness of contemporary fiction, which finds itself wandering--not unhappily--between tradition and novelty, realism and anti-realism....thus David Mitchell can follow a 'postmodern' novel with a 'traditional' comic bildungsroman, and then follow that with a conventional historical novel...meanwhile, the historical novel, typically the province of genre gardeners and conservative populists, has become an unlikely laboratory for serious writers, some of them distinctly untraditional in emphasis and concern."

So if we cut away even the most intelligent hypotheses, it's not far off to assume that Mitchell was intending to write a standard, historical novel. The research that went into The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is impressive, and even for readers like me who avoid historical fiction, it's a classic example that great writing can illuminate even the typically standard plot outlines. It's not a mistake that the secondary headline of Wood's essay is "What can't the novelist David Mitchell do?" All of his typical pieces are there: research, comedy, rich descriptions, and multiple, unfolding plots. And, while this might seem like a spoiler, he genuinely knows his audience and their expectations of hints to his previous works. He does this in one sentence towards the end of the novel, and while it may seem obvious, there's little doubt that he wrote this sentence as a wink to his readers.

"West to east, the sky unrolls and rolls its atlas of clouds."

Works Cited:
Eggers, Dave. "Empire Of Desire." The New York Times Book Review. June 24, 2010.

Mitchell, David. The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet. Copyright 2010 by David Mitchell.

Wood, James. "The Floating Library." The New Yorker. July 5, 2010.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Private Codes



One of the subjects I omitted in last week's review of 1959 was the rebirth of Norman Mailer, from a writer of the fabled Great American Novel to a proponent of the writing style that falls under the umbrella term of "New Journalism." Fred Kaplan painted an understandably conflicting picture of Mailer, balancing the man's undeniable writing talents with a few missteps, some of which are just as embarrassing now as they were at the time. Mailer was fascinated by black culture, and was so enamored with the sounds of jazz music that he thought he could play the saxophone by spirit, not taking into account the actual learning and studies that go into improvisational music styles. Up until this week, I had never read any of Mailer's published works, and the following descriptions are based on the pictures painted by Mr. Kaplan. Socially, one of the many hats that Mailer seemed to wear was that of a white man who at best tried to show a wary, bigoted white society the artistic and social progress of the black community, and at worst that of a white man trying to make himself an honorary member of black society. While this might induce a lot of cringing today, one cannot deny that Mailer's attempt to straddle two personalities was revolutionary for that time.

This profile was fresh in my mind when I came across his 1974 profiles entitled The Faith Of Graffiti, a celebration of the art form that most of society (read: white urban) found either criminal, ugly, or both. The collection is dominated by the stunning photography of Jon Naar, with Mailer's words acting more as a highlight, a compliment to the hidden artists and the documentary photographer. Mailer conducted interviews with the pseudonym-labeled kids and with former New York City mayor John Lindsay. Interspersed with these interviews are thoughts on the artistic qualities of graffiti, both in contemporary form and in harmony with art history as a whole. Mailer's style in the five essays may or may not be a microcosm of his writing styles as a whole, but I found his passages to be both beautiful and problematic at the same time.



"But on reflection, was old A-I [Mailer's adopted tagger pseudonym, an abbreviation of Aesthetic Investigator] trying to slip in some sauce on the distribution of art down from the museums through media to the masses, smuggle over some old piety how the subway children may never have seen Memoria in Aeterum at the head of the stairs at M.O.M.A. but still had it filter through to them by way of Hofmann's imitators, and his uncredited influence on advertising artists working for layout? Fell crap! Rather say art begot art, and the migration's were no one's business (Mailer 18)."

The above passage is both a combination of Mailer's talents and shortcomings. He skillfully balances the artistic creations of the disadvantaged youths, and blends the urgency and thought-provoking natures of both their street works and the bold messages of the master painters found in museums across the world. However, there's the nagging feeling that Mailer is trying his hardest to appear "hip." This book was a landmark in showing graffiti as a social/artistic statement, but at the same time, it's hard to read the text and not feel that Mailer was subconsciously saying "I see the value in what you think is defacement." Then again, that might be too critical, seeing that the man went through many public mid-life crises, and the result was writing that wasn't as common then as it is now. This goes even further when Mailer describes a visit to interview Mayor Lindsay. His descriptions of the governor's mansion is somewhat overwrought, combining both meticulous details with a sort of atmospheric disdain of New York's upper echelons compared with the gritty reality of the ghettos. The below passage is a rambling run-on, leaving the reader both informed and utterly confused as to where exactly Mailer is going, story-wise.

"It is not a large lawn in front of the Mayor's residence nor even a large house and old white Gracie Mansion might be no exceptional residence on any wealthy road in Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine--there is even a basketball hoop on a backyard not far from the front door, a political touch to date perhaps from recent years when the Knicks became the most consistently successful team in New York--yet with all its limited grandeur, Gracie Mansion is still one fine Federalist of a house (built in 1799), and if the spirit of an age could have been captured by a ratio, then where better to measure this magic mean....(Mailer 21)."

Perhaps intentionally, his interviews and descriptions of the taggers are much more satisfying and coherent.

"The windows are stained glass, sheets of red and yellow plastic pasted to the glass--the view must be on an air shaft. No light in this gray and late afternoon day. It is all the darkness of that gloom which sits in the very center of slum existence, that amalgam of worry and dread, heavy as buckets of oil, the true wages of the working class, with all that attendant fever in the attractions of crime, the grinding entrapments of having lost to the law...(Mailer 6-7)."




The true beauty of The Faith Of Graffiti comes in Jon Naar's photography, and the artwork itself. The photos capture graffiti in both everyday contexts as well as close-ups and in what are usually private moments--the actual acts of painting. While Mailer did his best to stress the vibrancy of the colors in the face of urban gray and monotony, Naar's photos highlight this in much more emotional fashion. According to Naar's afterword to the 2009 reprinting of the book, the photos were taken in December of 1972 and January of 1973. The photos look atmospherically cold, especially with the even sunlit winter skies appearing harsh. The image below is my favorite, since it shows a panoramic view of a neighborhood, in a quiet, seemingly midday lull, with the train slicing through the simplicity of the street and the above buildings. On the right-hand side, underneath the tracks, sits a man in a chair, and from what I can gather, he's the only person in the shot, or at least he's the only one truly visible. The photo seems to show him slouching in his seat and bored, a sobering small moment in an otherwise active photograph.



While Mailer's words are supposed to be the prime evocations of the photographs, I found that Naar's afterword was just as poetic, even if it was straightforward. Based on this small sample, he's not a writer like Mailer, but he sums up his artistic vision almost perfectly.

"I was impressed with how they used their graffiti as a private code to communicate with each other via the public transit system and the other means throughout Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens....my original intent [was] to show the spirit of a time and a place gone by celebrating the adventuresome young writers who made the graffiti, and this very book, possible."

Work Cited:
Mailer, Norman and Jon Naar. The Faith Of Graffiti. Text copyright 2009 by the Estate Of Norman Mailer, photographs copyright 2009 by Jon Naar.