Thursday, December 29, 2011

"There Is No Year:" The Ups and Downs of Blake Butler

My final post of 2010 was a look at two aspects of literature--Karen Russell and Tin House--that I became fond of and looked forward to reading more of in 2011. This final post of 2011 is sort of the same. My work with Instafiction has been a joint project of discoveries. I'm now familiar with some excellent writers (David Yost and Jessica Forcier come to mind) whom I likely wouldn't have known about if it weren't for my project research. Jeremy's selections have also introduced me to some compelling literary artists, one of whom is the basis for this review. The stories of Blake Butler (The Copy Family and The Many Forms of Rain ____ Sent Upon Us In Those Days Before the Last Days) managed to stick with me long after my initial readings. In the span of a few pages, across two stories, various themes and styles pop up seemingly at random: dystopian fiction, fables, allegories, horror, and so on. I recently picked up a copy of his latest novel, There Is No Year (The Copy Family is an excerpt from this), and upon reflection, my feelings about his long-form work are contradictory. He's an undeniably talented writer, but at times a reader wouldn't be faulted for thinking that his elaborate set-ups and styles are too much when packed into a single volume.

As a personal rule, I almost never read other film or book reviews before I'm finished with my own write-ups; I want my thoughts to be solely influenced by my own critical background. However, I went through about three different review of There Is No Year, because I was sure that I was missing something. However, the thoughtful reviews explored the text exactly as I understood it. A plot summary of this novel will not give anything away, nor will it fully explain it. An unnamed family--a father, mother, and son--live in a house inhabited by copies of themselves, with minor differences.

"The copy family would not go away. The father worked himself into a state, shouting curse words, splaying arms. He went out to the car and got a softball bat he'd used for pickup games in college--he's not once had a hit, though he'd been beaned more times than he could count on all the hands in all the houses on the street where his house stood--he could often still remember how the ball felt each time, banging fast into his muscle--how his chest would scrunch then expand--how he sometimes seemed not there at all. The father stood at the window with the weapon. He threatened legal action. He spoke in unintended rhyme. He said his own name to the copy father. The copy father seemed to have more hair than him (Butler 13-14)."

After awhile, the mother takes it upon herself to kill off the copy family. After this is done, the three family members become isolated in their own problems and surreal happenings. The father's job is unsatisfying, and he notices the streets to his job growing to the point that his commute takes up most of his day. The mother falls into a state of madness, and discovers an egg-like object that produces intense orgasms. The son seems to suffer more than anyone. There are hints to a previous (and possibly ongoing illness); He develops a relationship with a mysterious girl in his school; and his online communications veer from mystical to creepy. Throughout the novel, the family tries unsuccessfully to sell the house, even with offers of exorbitant cash. Mysterious visitors drop in, and the house has its own life force, with hallways and movements and ominous objects discovered by the family. Plague-like occurrences become almost normal: ants burrow through the house and the son, and the mailbox becomes infested with caterpillars.

On their own, these plot points would seem like the basis for a compelling horror novel. There are moments in There Is No Year that definitely constitute horror:

"The black creation that'd been seated on the neighbor's house's front lawn all this time had by now spread around the structure, further on. It had covered over the old doors and windows with new doors and windows, such as the one the son had come to stand in front of, sopping wet. The son did not see the swelling structure. The son did not see the street, nor his own house there beyond the pavement--the same house they'd lived in all these years, they did not know they'd never moved. The son couldn't see much for all the glaring--even if he had seen, even if he wanted, his house would not be there. The son felt sure that he'd arrived (Butler 243)."

There are also elements that hint to a kind of surreal science fiction:

"At sudden nodules in the network, the father found holes where he could see back into the house--the living room, the upstairs hallway--the walls there had been painted over black--in some rooms orange or yellow--screaming neon--though here the vents went so thin he could not see them, not even partly, just his arms. Some rooms had been filled with dirt or smoke or foaming. Some rooms were full of skin--other families, people, bodies--smushed. One hole into one very far room was the exact same size as his eye--through the hole he could see another small eye seeing. His eye. Light (Butler 263)."

Through all of this, the initial confusion becomes accepted. The reader is not supposed to "get" what "the novel is about." When I read a book, I have a tendency to underline multiple passages and take a lot of notes in the margins. Going back through There Is No Year, I realized that my markings were nearly nonexistent. There is such a wealth of detail and activity, but unless a certain section is repeated or expanded, the novel works as a progression of what the family experiences. I eventually gave up on trying to find active threads or connections and let myself get lost in the atmospheres. Keeping with the personal contradictions in my reading habits, Butler has created a work that is its own contradiction: it's a blend of minimalism (no names, no mentions of a specific city, and stark details) and extravagant forms. The pages are dark shades of grey, there are occasional photos that may or may not reflect the immediate text, and some of the chapters are poetic stanzas or drawn out over multiple pages. The overall atmosphere calls attention to creativity in all its forms. It would be too easy and tempting to make a reference to "the medium is the message," but it seems that Butler intentionally takes this to the extremes.

There Is No Year won't work for everyone; I can only imagine how divided people can be over this novel, especially since I felt personally divided--there are multiple passages of terrific writing and atmosphere, yet I occasionally found it to be lacking or unsuccessful in its execution. However, I still have the utmost respect for Butler's creativity, and more than once, I found specific chapters that would work exceptionally well as their own short stories, thus turning back to what started my first appreciation for his work. While not every novel needs a tidy conclusion, the ending of the book is far too succinct. Readers can draw their own conclusions and attempt to create hypotheses to why the family experienced what they did, but for the most part, there's a too-familiar pattern of compelling details that draw the reader in, yet never get mentioned again. Butler is a masterful storyteller who is intentionally audacious in his forms and philosophies, but there's an unnerving wonder as to whether he built the work up so much that it collapses under its own weight. Some of the jacket blurbs hint to Butler creating a new form of American fiction. There's definitely a potential for that, but in due time. There Is No Year has definite hints to further brilliance, but its problems are just scattered enough that breathless praise is too much, too soon. I love his writing, and for now I appreciate his shorter pieces. There Is No Year certainly has its merits, but tries to go in too many directions. I don't want Butler to reign in his styles, but this work could maintained its aura and questions and could have been even better with just a bit more condensing.

Work Cited:
Butler, Blake. There Is No Year. Copyright 2011 by Blake Butler.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Instafiction On Longreads

Instafiction has yet another major market appearance this week. Editor/founder Jeremy P. Bushnell wrote up synopses of our five favorite stories of 2011 on behalf of the excellent curatorial site Longreads (beware of this site; even if you're the most casual of readers, there's enough material linked to move one to tears). The folks at Longreads have been very kind to us, linking and retweeting our selections from the very beginning, and now offering Jeremy the chance to expand on some of the more vibrant pieces.

The original link is here. And this link is a compilation of multiple lists of 2011's best long form writings. Enjoy and support!

"Instafiction's Jeremy P. Bushnell: My Top Fiction Longreads of 2011" (Originally published in Longreads, December 27, 2011)

1.) "Backbone," David Foster Wallace (The New Yorker)

During his lifetime, David Foster Wallace made massive contributions to the worlds of fiction and nonfiction alike, and I still miss his presence in the world acutely. The Pale King was a towering book of my summer, and although it didn’t quite yield the pleasures that a truly finished work might have, many of its fragments and episodes had the power of great short stories. See, for instance, this chapter, published as a standalone piece in The New Yorker.

2.)"Zone One," Colson Whitehead (excerpt, Esquire)

Whitehead’s Zone One is a great 2011 novel about government, bureaucracy, urban space, and human population. Oh yeah, it has zombies in it, too. Esquire gave us the first 20 pages—detailing a four-zombie attack on the book’s protagonist—right before Halloween, but it’s just as good a read now, at year’s end.

3.) "Female Explosion Syndrome," Jessica Forcier (New Delta Review)

Women all over the globe begin spontaneously combusting. Men don’t. Feminist? Fabulist? All of the above? Either way, this one stuck with us. Thanks to New Delta Review for publishing it.

4.) "The Empty Room," Jonathan Lethem (The Paris Review)

Lethem hasn’t put out a short story collection since 2006’s How We Got Insipid, but he’s still writing short fiction, and this year he placed a memorable tale of domestic collapse with the Paris Review. The setup: Upon moving his family into a sprawling farmhouse, a father makes a decision: one room will remain empty. “The empty room is like a living organ in our family’s house,” he claims, although in actuality it becomes the hollow core around which the family implodes.

5.) "Becoming Deer," Rachel Levy (PANK Magazine)

This fall, in the Chicago Reader, our Associate Editor Jamie Yates praised this story (from PANK Magazine) as a story that straddles the line between “the realistic and the mythical” and derives strength from each. You could also say it does the same with the line between the human and the animal. All this line-crossing makes the story into a kind of tangled skein, humming with tension. Taut, terse, and eerie: the best of a certain kind of experimental work. **

I think I speak for Jeremy when I say we're excited to carry Instafiction into 2012. Thanks to our readers and the excellent literary community for the excellent work that we find and share.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Chicago Flame Archives: Michael Cunningham Interview

As is the case when I present one of my Chicago Flame, pieces, I'm currently a bit behind schedule on my other readings, especially with the holidays in full swing. After flipping through my copies, I came across this phone interview I conducted with author Michael Cunningham in conjunction with the film version of his novel The Hours. I've now seen the film about four times, and while I wouldn't immediately list it as one of my favorites, it seems to get better with every screening. While several years have passed, and since it was conducted via telephone, I clearly remember Mr. Cunningham to be very engaging and genuinely humbled by the response to his work. I'm ashamed to admit that I still have not read any of his novels, but I'm going to make sure that I include one or two of them on my 2012 reading list. For the most part, this is the full article, but I had to make some edits based on my then-faulty factchecking (A Beautiful Mind was NOT a novel as I originally stated). But otherwise, I present this in full, stylistic problems and all.

Cunningham Reflects On the Impact Of The Hours (Originally published in The Chicago Flame, February 18th, 2003)

A bulk of the best films in the last decade share a little-discussed bond. Forrest Gump, Fight Club, Jurassic Park, and scores of others have been based on novels. An author pens a tale that becomes modified into a screenplay, and hopefully it becomes a feature film. The original storyteller often becomes lost in the shuffle, and probably has every right to feel spited. However, Michael Cunningham is anything but bitter. His novel The Hours is the source of one of this season's best films, a movie set to take home several Academy Awards. Cunningham couldn't be happier for the movie's success and critical acclaim.

"It's life-affirming," he comments. "The movie is about life going on in the worst of situations. It's a beautiful film with its own life."

Authors are also known for disliking the films based on their stories. However, with better acting and filmmaking, this trend seems to be changing. Cunningham seems just as moved by the film as any regular moviegoer. He's especially touched by Nicole Kidman's amazing performance as Virginia Woolf. "I was surprised. She was magnificent, and we've been really underestimating Nicole as an actress. It's a respectful, compassionate portrait."

"The film shows what an actor can do. Meryl Streep breaks an egg in a way we've never imagined. Julianne [Moore]'s able to break down and cry, yet still be composed," he says, regarding the small yet power scenes in The Hours that not only define the emotional intensity, but also show the talent of the film's leading actresses. Cunningham loves the film, and feels satisfied by having written the novel and nothing else. "I wouldn't have wanted to write the screenplay. I got along with [The Hours screenwriter] David Hare. He's English, formal, and kind of standoffish, yet deeply involved. We had a long discussion, yet he wrote the screenplay alone. It needed a fresh eye."

He is not totally modest about his importance to The Hours' legacy, both as a novel and a film. "I feel that I'm part of the team, but I was instrumental. But not for a second did I think it [the novel] would be such a hit. It's shocking and daunting." As satisfied as Cunningham is, the adaptation doesn't come without setbacks, albeit mild ones. "The pattern and symmetry are better in the film," he says. "Things had to be cut out of the film, including characters. But, the characters are more rich onscreen."

The art of writing is a passion that is easily open to influence. Any author will be more than happy to discuss the writers who came before him or her, the idols that shape both styles and serve as motivation for originality. Cunningham best exemplifies this idea, being forever grateful and indebted to the life and work of Virginia Woolf, especially her visionary novel Mrs. Dalloway. What better way is there to honor a novelist than by writing a novel that intricately relates to her life? "Any great artist is fascinating," says Cunningham. "Especially people who beat the odds. Woolf's life was colorful, and she lived in a time when changes were taking place."

His response to Mrs. Dalloway is simple, yet profound: "How does one produce such a thing?...Woolf was the first great author that I read. I was forced to read Mrs. Dalloway [in school], and I saw the complexity. She did what Jimi Hendrix did to music. I hoped to do something 1/10th of that."

"She writes so beautifully about London. It tells more than a document or a photograph."

The Hours is a homage to Woolf in virtually every single aspect, including the title. Cunningham acknowledges that The Hours was Woolf's original working title for Mrs. Dalloway. "She thought it was the simple story of a hostess who eventually kills herself. Then she realized that it really was Mrs. Dalloway. I even tried some different endings for The Hours, just like Woolf. I just wanted a modern day Mrs. Dalloway."

Cunningham is happy to see Woolf's novel continuing to be a required reading in college classes, for he feels its influence will touch impressionable readers for years to come. "It's great to see anything living on. Virginia wrote about the joy of being alive. We're supposed to look at the big things in life because we're only here for a short time. There are no mundane things in life. The clock is always ticking."

"The Hours doesn't belong to any genre, it's a member of its own. There's no real target audience."

The film presents scenes that depict the three leading women displaying homosexual tendencies, which some critics claim supports a "gay agenda" in today's movie business. Cunningham downplays these comments with optimistic views of today's more accepting climate. "There's no gay agenda. Hollywood shows different lifestyles. None of the women in the film are gay or straight. We're all complicated. We don't fit political roles. Today even men can be feminists. The terms gay, straight, and bisexual don't say anything about the ambiguity of sexuality." The notion of a male writer exploring the female mindset doesn't faze Cunningham, as complicated as the subject can be.

"As a male author, I get the character or I don't. The gender doesn't matter. I don't know anything about women that nobody else doesn't know. We may or may not have knowledge of a woman's sexual ambiguity. I like to complicate sexuality." He brings up a crucial fact that applies to all writers. "If I didn't empathize with my characters, I wouldn't care about them." That is extremely important from a writer's point of view. As influenced and touched as Cunningham is by Virginia Woolf, his growth as a writer has yielded immense self-discovery and inner gratitude.

"I started off in writing workshops. I went in confused and young, but came out as a confused, young writer." Cunningham is an alum of Stanford University, where more exposure to creative writing changed his life. "Stanford creative writing taught me how to write," he puts it simply. "It turned a hobby into a passion. The line between talent is blurry. I'm interested by the notion that I could write about my surroundings."

The great writers have influenced him, both past and present. Flannery O'Connor, Gabriel Marquez, William Faulkner, and William Gibson are just a handful of the writers who have helped Cunningham. He's prepared to be a role model himself for any writer who needs someone to identify with. He offers this tried and true advice: "It took me ten years to get published. Don't give up." Fortunately for us, Mr. Cunningham never gave up. A devotion to a legendary author guided his goals, and now he'll forever be associated with the creation of a groundbreaking novel and a surefire film classic in The Hours.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"The Ecstasy Of Influence:" Titular Truth In Advertising

Last year, after consistently reading a good majority of Jonathan Lethem's novels, I picked up his essay collection The Disappointment Artist. The slim volume was enjoyable, especially his take on John Ford's The Searchers (I wrote a film and textual analysis of it, which has proved to be my most-viewed post ever, but mainly because of Google image searches; however, I hope people read my work instead of just browsing the film stills). While I highly recommend Lethem's nonfiction, I would be hard pressed to recap the majority of the topics contained in that volume. That's not to say that it's forgettable, but after a year and a half, only small fragments stick in my mind. Nonetheless, I was excited to read his next batch of essays, the recently published The Ecstasy Of Influence. The work is longer, the topics are more varied, and while the pieces scan multiple years, Lethem has, like any good writer, grown wiser (in its many definitions). It would be difficult and pointless to compare two very different collections, but I'm sure that the newest collection will be sticking with me much longer. I went into both books with the same mentality (I always enjoy checking out the nonfiction work of my favorite fiction writers), but The Ecstasy Of Influence feels much more determined and curated.

As with any collection of separate pieces, it would be much too time consuming to analyze every essay or story (in Ecstasy, there are a couple of fiction pieces, too). With that in mind, it's also difficult to select the most representative works as well, since Lethem has assembled one of the more eclectic volumes in my recent memory. There are analyses of various writers and texts, poetic sketches of Brooklyn, and fantastically entertaining interviews with James Brown's band and Bob Dylan. A good starting point is one of the opening pieces. I had no idea Lethem spent years working as a bookseller, and his memories are pitch-perfect for anyone who works or has worked in this noble trade.

"I was what I would be if I wasn't a writer: a clerk in a used bookstore. No other possibility. I worked in eight bookstores in fifteen years, five years during high school and college, then ten years straight after that. Shelving, running registers, re-alphabetizing sections, learning the arcana. I was bitter, intense, typical, holding myself superior to customers who could afford the best items I could only cherish in passing, part of a great clerkly tradition. I was certainly aware of the tradition. I still repair broken alphabetical runs and straighten piles on tables, absently despite myself, whenever I'm in stores. It calms me during book tours (Lethem 29)."

Reflections on relationships to women, from teenage years to adulthood, have been written about constantly by the usual grouping of white male authors. There are other views out there, from women, homosexuals, and nonwhites, that bring this cycle to completion. But much like his bookselling memories, Lethem's memories of teen angst in dating and coveting are painfully true. He seems to sum up what was going through my mind (and still does, occasionally), energies that I personally put into terrible fiction, poetry, and self-exile.

"These girls blew hot, and could be mockingly affectionate or even briefly lusty in my direction, but in their willingness to show disdain, to crush unworthiness like a bug, they were fundamentally cool, cool, cool. I had a lot to learn, and I put my own enthusiasms and provenances on the table very carefully, or so it felt to me. They had a name for what they despised, 'green,' a word which seemed to encapsulate being lame, unenlightened, feeble, corny overreaching or straining for effect, and much else. I lived in fear of being cast in that shade (Lethem 40)."

In addition to feeling solidarity with Lethem's memoiresque remembrances (he's one of a good handful of writers I dearly hope to meet someday), I was immediately reminded of his skill of literary criticism (and also reminded of The Disappointment Artist and the brutally compelling essay on Edward Dahlberg). Lethem knows his way around genre fiction, literary fare, and the often-critiqued combination of the two. There is a definite feeling that this collection is merely an appetizer of further thoughts. In addition to "clerkly traditions," Lethem also understands the tradition of writerly influences and reasoning. So many books, essays, and interviews have long debated the reasons why writers and artists create, and while Lethem is not attempting to sum up these seemingly metaphysical possibilities, he manages to provide one of the better hypotheses.

"Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one's voice isn't just an emptying and purifying of oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing (Lethem 97-98)."

At his best, Lethem combines the technical aspects of writing with the intangible (sometimes these distinctions are mutually exclusive, sometimes not). For as intelligent as he is, there's never a feeling that he claims to have all the answers for the never-ending questions of fiction and writing. But even with his opinions, he manages to illuminate some of the shaky definitions and assumptions. Anyone who has read my essays consistently knows of my fascination, disdain, and collective confusion over what constitutes postmodernism. Lethem understands that it's a mess, and his definition is both right on and comical in its showcasing of that very mess.

"Let's wade into the unpleasantness around the term 'postmodernism:' Nobody agrees on its definition, but in literary conversations the word is often used as finger-pointing to a really vast number of things that might be seen as threatening to canonical culture: author-killing theories generated by French critics, collapsings of high and low cultural preserves into a value-neutral fog, excessive references to various other media and/or mediums, especially electronic ones (ironically even a Luddishly denunciatory take on certain media and or/mediums may be suspect merely for displaying an excess of familiarity with same), an enthusiasm for 'metafiction' (a word that out to be reserved for a specific thing that starts with Cervantes, but isn't), for anti-narrative, for pop-culture references or generic forms...(Lethem 79)."

He can also be intentionally contradicting. The above reflection on art coming from art can sometimes lead to hoisting up a biased debt of gratitude:

"The crime of Literary Rushmore, the one that anyone notices first, is that which ought to dissolve Rushmore forever in a bath of shame, but never does: The stone heads are white American men. There's never a Cather or Ellison or Baldwin or Oates or Ozick or Morrison on that mountain, no matter how unmistakably said person may have knocked one out of the ballpark that particular year, or decade, or century (Lethem 368)."

This review may very well come across like a giddy fan's adoration of a given literary hero. However, while I could easily cite other great passages, namely Lethem's thoughts on Italo Calvino and his problems with the style and demeanor of literary critic James Wood, there were a few essays that didn't grab me like the other ones. I've never been a major reader of graphic novels or comic books, so while I appreciated the effort, I didn't think twice about his essays on Spider-Man or Marvel comics (as much as I adore him and Michael Chabon, there's only so much academic writing I can take on those subjects). The latter half of the collection is dominated by writings on Brooklyn, some of which are vivid (and one, "Ruckus Flatbush" is a cool, almost hip-hop poetic freestyle on the borough's idiosyncrasies), but sometimes a bit repetitive. Granted, the majority of these essays were published elsewhere, but the mental image of a person wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers cap without a bill, resembling a yarmulke, was repeated often and lost its metaphorical shine after awhile. These are minor, almost squabbling complaints, and there is so much in The Ecstasy Of Influence that reaffirmed by literary beliefs and gave me genuine material for deep thought. The collection might seem like Lethem's hand-selected "best-of" anthology, but it's really so much more. For someone like me who loves to be entertained and educated at the same time, this is a nearly perfect book, especially since I came out of it energized and further appreciating Lethem's stances on a myriad of issues. Upon immediate reflection, Jonathan Lethem quite adept at selecting his own material for a single collection. He knows his strengths, he lets his intellect do the talking, yet he's just humble enough to offer critiques of his own essays with honesty.

Work Cited:
Lethem, Jonathan. The Ecstasy Of Influence. Copyright 2011 by Jonathan Lethem.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"1Q84:" Love and Trope

To say that Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 was an anticipated release is the very definition of "understatement." Annually, dozens of books have a lot of true build up and excitement long before publication, but not since the last Harry Potter release has a title warranted over a year's worth of speculation and midnight release parties. As I've mentioned, I'm still behind on the majority of Murakami's bibliography, but I couldn't help but join the communal anticipation. In Japan, the novel's 2009 release became the bestselling title in the country's history. Even the slightest hints (the titular pun, the online preview of the first chapter) really didn't give much away, plot-wise. Granted, I'm sure I could have snooped online and found summaries or concrete previews, but it would have taken the fun out of actually going into the book with no notions or knowledge. I finished reading it a few days ago, and have waited to gather my thoughts rather than jumping right into a review; granted, this is my standard method for any book review, since I'm not only any real deadline. The more I think about 1Q84, the more I'm torn between my genuine appreciation and some of the book's small problems.

The novel manages to be both massive in its scope as well as relatively basic in its plot lines. The chapters alternate between two main characters. Tengo, a young Japanese math teacher and fiction writer, is secretly commissioned to re-write a novella entitled Air Chrysalis, originally dictated by a mysterious teenage girl named Fuka-Eri. The story reveals the secrets of the religious cult in which Fuka-Eri was raised, and when it becomes an instant bestseller, Tengo and his editor try to keep the ghostwriting under wraps as unwanted attention begins to pile up. The other main character is Aomame (Japanese for "green bean"), a young fitness instructor who moonlights as an assassin for a wealthy widow, carrying out hits on pedophiles and abusive husbands. Aomame is haunted by her own past in the religious cult, her one true love from childhood, and the realization that she is experiencing two separate worlds. She has moved from 1984 into 1Q84 (the "q" stands for "question mark," and is also a play on the Japanese character for the number 9). The world of 1Q84 features two moons unseen by anyone else, as well as subtle differences between the true reality and the alternate present time. After Aomame carries out her final mission, the two separate realities begin to merge, with reflections of Air Chrysalis and the side-by-side convergence of her and Tengo. Other minor yet important characters come into play: Tamaru, the intimidating gay bodyguard of the dowager; Ushikawa, a seedy, ugly private investigator for the religious cult; the cult's Leader and the fantastical creatures known as the Little People; and the passing friends and lovers of Tengo and Aomame.

Given the wealth of ideas and plots, it's remarkable how easy 1Q84 is to follow, and much like the story, its form is also a separation between the postmodern and the standard genres: romance, thriller, and science fiction. In some of the book's best passages, Murakami goes off on metaphorical tangents that sometimes give thematic hints, but mostly work as their own little vivid slices:

"Tengo was just then dreaming about crossing a long stone bridge on a river. He was going to retrieve a document that he had forgotten on the opposite shore. He was alone. The river was big and beautiful, with sandbars here and there. The river flowed gently, and willows grew on the sandbars. He could see the elegant shape of trout in the water. The willows' brilliant green leaves hung down, gently touching the water's surface. The scene could have come from a Chinese plate (Murakami 64)."

The thriller aspects, namely Aomame's assassin work and conversations with the dowager, are as blatantly satisfying as any such scenes found in an action film, and they alternate between gripping and beautifully evasive. When Aomame and the dowager discuss an "assignment," everything is left between the lines.

"'Of course a person's existence (or nonexistence) cannot be decided on the basis of mere practical considerations--for example, if he is no longer there, it will eliminate the difficulties of divorce, say, or hasten the payment of life insurance. We take such action only as a last resort, after examining all factors closely and fairly, and arriving at the conclusion that the man deserves no mercy (Murakami 219).'"

Some people may disagree with me, but I found the asides and the intentionally vague descriptions to be extremely well-written. Murakami's metaphors may not be the best examples, but he crafts them to be evocative and extremely visual. However, and most people will agree with me on this point: 1Q84's biggest problem is repetition. Various passages and ideas are constantly reflected and rephrased: Fuka-Eri speaks in a halting, direct style devoid of punctuation or inflections; Tengo is haunted by early memories of his mother standing by his crib, having her breasts suckled by a man who is not Tengo's father; Ushikawa is ugly with a misshaped head. These range in plot importance, from immediate to passing, yet Murakami repeats these descriptions constantly and steadily. After awhile, a reader wouldn't be faulted for thinking to him or herself: "Okay, I get it. Move on." In certain cases, this would be insulting to the reader, since the atmosphere would be one of a writer assuming that the reader had forgotten these elements. However, for someone as established and revered as Murakami, it seems to be a constant need to address the book's unusual atmosphere, even though the descriptions are enough to be mentioned once or twice and not revisited. I would never be one to complain about a novel being too long; however, such a massive work would have benefited from a scaling back of repeated ideas.

On the flip side, some of the passages demand further explanations and do not get them. Toward the novel's end, Fuka-Eri disappears, and aside from a long letter sent to Tengo, she's simply forgotten about. Air Chrysalis is summarized and shown to reflect the actual workings of the religious cult, but its late appearance is obvious, providing no new insights into how the story ties into reality. Tengo's memories of his mother are repeated, but never explained, except in vague connections to his affair with a married woman. Murakami gets very close to impassioned critiques of religious movements and cult mentalities, but just when he gets into what could be revealing insights, the story jumps away to another part of the plot, leaving a potentially sociological/cultural aspect virtually untouched. There is so much good to enjoy in 1Q84: the science fictional elements are seamlessly integrated and made out to be realistic in their own ways, and there is a genuine joy and excitement in figuring out how Tengo and Aomame are connected. However, the novel as a whole nearly suffers from a death by a thousand cuts. The little problems, both stylistically and thematically, bring down what is very close to being one of the best novels in recent memory.

I won't go into a long discussion of the book's sex scenes, but it is worth noting that 1Q84 has been nominated for the 2011 Bad Sex Award: The Guardian has linked the more dubious passages here. From Philip Roth to Jonathan Franzen, the literary merits and distractions of bad sexual writing have been discussed in many ways. Murakami's descriptions can be embarrassingly comical at times, but they tie into my above critique. It's not so much that they are bad, but they are repeated far too many times. Aomame has misshaped breasts; her friend Ayumi has perfect ones. Tengo's penis is described both hard and flaccid. Other writers have written worse, but when the ideas and images are constantly refreshed, the repetition calls far too much attention to already shaky passages.

While I am being pretty critical, I do want to stress that this is a work of redeeming merit. Murakami has a keen sense of blending genres and everyday situations that cross multicultural boundaries. Again, the science fiction never feels out of place, and the initial set-up draws the reader into the strange world without question or hesitation. While I'm no expert in contemporary Japanese life, Murakami is an expert at conveying societal norms and the isolation of people who want to live their own lives. The Tokyo in 1Q84 is daunting and crowded, and Tengo and Aomame are perfectly captured as the classic lost souls in an unforgiving metropolis. With this in mind, it's saddening to realize that little mistakes mar this otherwise excellent novel. There is so much left unspoken and undeclared, and it's difficult to imagine why Murakami left these holes in an otherwise meticulously plotted work. Tengo and Aomame get their happy ending, but the reader will likely be left only partly satisfied. I do recommend 1Q84, but cannot help but wonder if I've missed something. I don't think I'm being too picky with the fine details, but they are what separates it from being a classic instead of just a very fine novel.

Work Cited:
Murakami, Haruki. 1Q84. Translation copyright 2011 by Haruki Murakami.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Chicago Reader: Culture Vultures

This has shaped up to be an excellent week for Instafiction. Our Twitter and Facebook pages have experienced some small measures of growth lately, and we've been extremely happy with our dedicated readers and supporters. Jeremy and I have e-mailed some press releases to a few publications and websites, hoping to get feedback, some possible acknowledged support for our endeavor, and more exposure to people looking for a good variety of short fictions. One of the releases I sent went to the esteemed Chicago Reader, and I was offered a chance to write one of their weekly Culture Vulture features, a revolving assortment of Chicago based writers, actors, and artists who share what they're consuming, creative-wise.

For this, I had to select a certain literary magazine to write about, and I kept coming back to PANK Magazine. Jeremy recently selected two of their stories for our daily Instafiction links (Rachel Levy's Becoming Deer and John Jodzio's This Is All the Orientation You Are Gonna Get), and the stories in the magazine are some of the best, most consistent pieces of writing. So in addition to having Instafiction's name in such a respected Chicago newspaper, it was extremely satisfying to share the name of what has become one of my favorite literary journals. I'm sharing my piece below, but please visit the original link (or, if you're in Chicago, pick up the paper this weekend) for other pieces. Alongside mine are excellent recommendations for a Thanksgiving weekend of "Deadwood" and the upcoming productions of the DePaul Theater School.

Chicago Reader Culture Vultures: (Originally published November 24, 2011):

"Researching literary magazines is often an exercise in repetition. For every genuinely innovative print journal or webzine, there are, quite literally, dozens of tired attempts at "edgy writing" failing to stand out or offer anything beside the claim of being different. With this in mind, PANK Magazine has forged an impressive spot in the online literary community.

"Bios are boring," states its Twitter description. Although this is a defiant statement, it reflects the magazine's lack of pretense. With the exception of themed editions, the only real mission for PANK is quality short fiction. The stories are genuinely heartbreaking and compelling, the contributors work in a variety of genres, and the end products get the most out of the realistic and the mythical. Rachel Levy's story "Becoming Deer" offers a truth lying in the soul of any great piece of writing: "Slice open a word, and it will bleed." PANK Magazine's writers and editors do this with a measure of increasingly rare consistency."


In their wonderful Thanksgiving blog post, the magazine offered us some kind thanks for our article. Because of this weekend and its quick descent into holiday madness, I'd like to ask serious readers to think about small presses and journals this year. If you have readers on your Christmas lists, do some research and give subscriptions to some of the better journals out there. Not only will you expose your friends and family to some under the radar works, you'll also be financially supporting organizations and writers who need it.

Friday, November 18, 2011


For the last several weeks, I've been trying to find time to visit Chicago's Occupy movement, with the hopes of seeing it firsthand and possibly interviewing some of the attendees. Originally, I made a decision to not write about it until attending, but I haven't been able to make the trek downtown, and my desire to share my thoughts cannot wait any longer. Writing this from afar, even separated by just a few miles, seems to go against the spirit of the nationwide Occupy movements. However, one part of that spirit is solidarity, so lending my opinions in essay form is something, I suppose. I've read countless news articles from both mainstream and grassroots media outlets; I've bantered via social media, even taking time to read dissenting opinions to make sure I have a balanced foundation; I've heard varying thoughts, from extreme support to extreme disapproval to hints of being in the middle. After taking all of this in, weighing various themes, and simply sitting deep in thought for stretches of time, there is one thing that everyone has to agree upon: the system is flawed. The one idea a lot of people will disagree with me about: the Occupy protesters are engaging in their patriotic duties. Of this I am unequivocally certain.

With unregulated activity, banks and corporations have dug this country into a hole that we're all desperately trying to get out of together. From stock market manipulations to risky spending to flat-out criminal activities, the financial landscape is frightening. Do I claim to have all the answers and understandings? No. But I do know how this personally affected me. I was laid off from a bankrupt company (with no severance) while its executive officers received lucrative bonuses after running the company into the ground. Our customers, dealing with their own financial problems, couldn't spend money as freely as before. Sometimes financial woes are singular, but in this case, there has to be a connection. All the while, the gap between the wealthy and the poverty-stricken has grown at an alarming rate. Nobody is saying that the wealthy cannot earn money, but there is a problem when the top 1% decries fair tax rates while people like myself spend long stretches clinging to unemployment. During my jobless phase, I opted to pay my taxes outright, even though it meant less immediate money, and never once did I question my requirement to pay my share...yet some wealthy people refuse to accept higher taxes, even though they would still be able to live luxuriously. Yes, some may call me a tree-hugging, whiny liberal. But after months and months of desperate job hunting, I finally landed a temporary bookselling position. While I'm grateful to have income that's slightly higher than my unemployment rates, I realize that there are still millions of people, some much more educated than myself, clamoring for dwindling career opportunities. And still, people do not want to hold the perpetrators of the financial crises accountable, and claim that people like myself are lazy and demanding handouts.

My friend Rachel (the founder of Booksellers Without Borders)has been a consistent presence at Chicago's Occupy rallies, documenting her thoughts and experiences via social media, and also via regular newspapers. On October 30th, The Chicago Tribune published her article "Why I Occupy," a strong, pointed account of her reasons for making multiple visits downtown. She engaged in no name calling, no snide remarks, and made many a valid point. A sample of her letter:

"I occupy because I believe in the First Amendment and the civil liberties it grants us.

I occupy because the system is not broken but relies on this kind of active participation to remain strong.

I occupy because it is exciting to see democracy working.

I occupy because after seven years combined of undergraduate and graduate studies, I have student loan debt but not the gainful employment necessary to pay it down.

I occupy because I have been underemployed since finishing school, often working two or three part-time jobs to try to make ends meet.

I occupy because I have spent half of this year unemployed altogether, through no fault of my own. I occupy because the unemployed cannot afford to be invisible statistics any longer.

I occupy because the alternative is sitting in my parents' basement writing cover letters that won't even be rejected, just ignored.

I occupy because if it weren't for the safety net my parents have provided, I would be sitting on a street corner all day asking for a different kind of change."

I am in the same position. If it weren't for my parents, I would have been on the street a long time ago. Of course, since I know Rachel, it's easy for me to have her back. She and I are two educated, intelligent, hard-working people with our hands tied due to the current economic system. For anyone who has not been unemployed recently, it's hard to convey just how daunting it is. Again, it's easy to assume that everyone is lounging around and milking unemployment benefits. Critics of the Occupy movements love to make jokes about the protesters being a bunch of drumming, stoned hippies who have no idea how the system works. Currently, the system benefits the elite and is leaving everyone else trying to stay above water. Are there people at the Occupy movements who are there "just because?" Of course. Are there people who don't know what they're protesting? I'm sure of it. However, the vast majority are Americans who realize that something is wrong, and if some attention can be called to a broken system, so much the better. Perhaps this is naive, but I like to think that some of the people have followed the Occupy movements and have come out more educated. Critics have fallen back on the notion of "they don't know what they're protesting!" But the movement has been flexible. It's making people aware of the problems.

Naturally, Rachel's letter received a lot of feedback, both positive and negative. I'm going to cite some of the responses, all of which are available online at the Tribune's website. I'm not going to use the names of the people who replied, but only out of respect. If I knew them, I would ask for permission, or I would attempt to engage them in dialogue. Another reason is that I don't want it to seem like I'm criticizing AND hiding behind a blog. I'm only using their cited rebuttals to offer my counter-arguments in relation to Rachel's letter and my own opinions. Again, like Rachel, I'm not engaging in name-calling or needless criticism. If someone is against the Occupy movements, that is his or her opinion.

"You occupy because you are anti-military, anti-capitalism, anti-government, feel that society owes you something, are well-educated and unemployed but too good to take a temporary job, still living at home, frustrated, bored and, yep, liberal."

Occupiers are NOT anti-military. Our men and women in uniform also suffer from job insecurity and constraints, and the War on Terror has been draining the national budget for nearly ten years. Soldiers are doing their jobs admirably, and we support them unequivocally. What we do not support is them being in danger due to dubious decisions on the part of the government. And I find it curious that a supposedly conservative person would claim that Rachel is anti-government. If anything, if the government had imposed the proper regulations, the recession might not have been as drastic. And if the government held Wall Street accountable, there would be a sense of justice instead of frustration. And the current GOP candidates are trying to promise an end to proper government regulations. To me, that's much more anti-government. I find it to be very hypocritical that the same political ideology that claims we have too much government is turning around and claiming that another ideology hates government.

"I do not occupy because while working menial jobs during my college career, I chose a major that would be attractive to employers instead of majors such as History, Gender Studies or English-Literature; and I then paid off my loans."

This letter troubled me the most, for multiple reasons. If someone desires to study subjects in college with the sole purpose of making him or herself attractive to employers, that is their choice and that cannot be argued. However, the implication is that subjects such as History, Gender Studies, and (my major) English are dead ends. I've been hearing this long before the Occupy movements began. Even at the very naive age of eighteen, when I decided to major in English, I knew there wouldn't be immediate jobs available, that I would have to spend time honing my craft and educating myself. However, why can't one study what they're passionate about and have that lead to gainful employment? I will never be someone whose sole purpose is to make money. I majored in English because I love writing and literature and wanted to devote my life to these subjects. If the above-mentioned majors were not beneficial in some way, why would colleges offer them? Artists and critical thinkers are invaluable to society. I'm not making any assumptions about the writer, but I'm criticizing the opinion. I'm sure he/she has various passions unrelated to the line of work. But the current landscape makes the pursuit of passions for employment next to impossible. People like me and Rachel are trying our best to be self sufficient. We're not relying on our parents out of laziness. We're trying to forge our paths in an economic world ruled by a lack of jobs and opportunity. The unemployed are decried for "looking for handouts," but it's okay for a bank to receive a government bailout while its CEO makes more money than most people can imagine?

I know this has been a pretty rambling essay, and I know there are much more eloquent pieces out there. But this is one of those moments where I'm writing from the heart as well as my brain. There are so many other concerns and questions I could have raised, but I wanted this to be a small part of support to Occupiers and their message. Keep exercising your first Amendment rights, keep questioning our current state, and let's actively work to make a better world. And my final message is for the critics: we respect your opinions, even if we respectfully disagree. However, do not claim that Occupiers are anti-American. The beauty of this country lies in the realization that such movements and rallies are possible. During all the criticism of the Tea Party movements, not once did I hear anyone question their right to protest. Change is needed, and the Occupy movements are proving to be a necessity. Believe it or not, these movements are really the definition of patriotism. We have so much potential for positive changes, and while our current state is not perfect, we're not completely hopeless. And least not yet.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chicago Flame Archives: Derek Luke Interview

Once again, I find myself slightly behind schedule on my readings, so I figured I'd fill in some gaps with another archival piece from my college newspaper tenure. After digging though my copies, I came across this interview I conducted with actor Derek Luke, in conjunction with his starring role in Denzel Washington's directorial debut, Antwone Fisher (2002). While Luke has definitely made a name for himself, it seems as if he hasn't really captured the genuine excitement that came with this performance. He's worked with some acclaimed filmmakers (namely Spike Lee and Robert Redford), and recently starred in Captain America: The First Avenger, but his debut performance garnered serious award nomination talk, and I remember him being genuinely excited about the film's potential. At the time of this interview, Derek and I had a brief talk about America's race relations, and sadly, I never got the conversation going further, so none of that piece of the interview found its way to the page. I was nineteen when I met with Derek Luke, and while this piece does contain the occasional youthful embellishment, shoddy transition, and weak sentence, I feel that it represented my gradual development as an interviewer.

Derek Luke: Cinema's Latest Potential (originally published in The Chicago Flame, January 14, 2003)

Film debuts are about as common as the commercials and posters that hype these new talents. "A new film by so-and-so", "introducing so-and-so," or "an electrifying debut by so-and-so are the common blurbs in film advertising. For every Edward Norton there are a hundred David Carusos whose screen presence and potential will never materialize. The scenario is similar to big league baseball. Sure, you might get called up, but there's no guarantee that you'll be talented enough to stay. Last month, Derek Luke made his film debut playing the title role of Antwone Fisher. In addition to a strong performance which is creating Oscar buzz in Hollywood, Luke was teamed up with the biggest of big shots in Denzel Washington.

Derek Luke is no shady newcomer, nor is he a potential "so-and-so." Luke is a lit fuse, primed and ready to shake the foundations of American cinema. On top of that, Luke has one of the living legends vouching for his talents.

"Woo-hoo!" is Luke's only response to the emotional magnitude of being able to work with Washington, or as Luke constantly refers to him, Mr. Washington. Not once does the name "Denzel" leave his lips. After starring in a film focused on respect, it is only appropriate that Luke shows that for Washington. "I was allowed to break off of him," says Luke. "But, I did pursue him [from an acting standpoint]. He wasn't a credit to my account."

Antwone Fisher focuses on a sailor haunted by his memories of child abuse. Luke's character is prone to violent outbursts that threaten to lead to his dishonorable discharge. "We're all angry," says Luke. "We all get pushed to the snapping point, whether due to bullies, disrespect, or getting made fun of."

Fisher is sent to see Naval psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Washington originally just wished to direct the film, but decided to play Davenport for the film's financial backing). The two are only scheduled for three sessions, but Davenport's influence stretches outside the office to help Fisher overcome his problems.

Antwone Fisher is Luke's film debut, but he also has two other films slated for release in 2003. Pieces of April will be screened this month at Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival. Luke has started off mainly with dramatic roles, but he hopes that the future will bring more variations. "I like everything, I'm open," he says with a sly smile. Luke is a true actor, proven by his body language. His hands constantly move, and his face shifts from one sort of smile to the next. At one point, he even chooses to jump on his hotel windowsill to emphasize a point. "I've made three films with three new directors," he says. "I'd love to try new comedy, new drama. Comedy, long as it works."

As far as specific roles are concerned, Luke doesn't have a steadfast preference. "But it is much easier to play a real-life character," he says in reference to Antwone Fisher. The film also has not-so-subtle undertones of racial conflicts. It is obvious that Antwone Fisher goes to certain lengths to show a young black man feeling racially at odds with some of his fellow white sailors. In a film era affected by the lack of black contribution to American cinema, Antwone Fisher is noticeable for black influence--the new star, the director, and the screenwriter are all African-American. Derek Luke is optimistic that the future will be more integrated with little to no focus on skin color. "The world becomes different as it grows," he says. "With time rising and some fine tuning, it won't be about race."

Fame has not gone to his head at all. With the onslaught of accolades and publicity, he simply has to turn towards his family for calmness and reassurance. "It's a new world with my nieces and nephews," he says with glowing pride. " They range in age from five to seventeen. When they touch my face and call out 'Uncle D,' 'Uncle D,' that's all that matters." That statement is almost eerie with its relation to the film. Luke plays a young man striving to attain a family that he never knew. In real life, he has a family that makes him visibly happy.

Being so new on the Hollywood circuit, it is impossible to predict what fortunes that Derek Luke will receive. Oscar speculation for his role in Antwone Fisher is growing steadily. Whether he's nominated or not doesn't matter. Whether he becomes a legend in American cinema doesn't matter, either. Derek Luke has already succeeded. He knows what truly matters in life. Peace of mind will not be a problem for this man. He only needs to look toward his nieces and nephews, his biggest fans. However, don't be surprised if Derek Luke becomes a very hot commodity in the future. He's already halfway there.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Doctored Interpretations: "The Rum Diary"

I found Hunter S. Thompson's early novel The Rum Diary (it originated in the 1960s but remained unpublished until 1998) to be beautifully written when I first read it years ago, and while my memories of it are somewhat hazy, I remember thinking that it could be a decent film adaptation. It contains a vibrant locale (1960 San Juan, Puerto Rico in the midst of political turmoil), and a balanced mix of characters and conflicts. Before seeing its adaptation (written and directed by Bruce Robinson), I became worried that it would try to mimic Terry Gilliam's film version of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. Yes, the two different books contain vastly different material, but given the cult success of the previous film, and especially since star Johnny Depp again inhabits the lead role, one wouldn't be faulted for expecting another attempt at the same hedonistic style. However, The Rum Diary, in addition to being one of Thompson's few available pieces of fiction, is also one of his most straightforward narratives. Fear and Loathing was a successful attempt at visualizing a long drug binge, and Robinson's version of The Rum Diary smartly embraces the storytelling, thereby giving audiences an interpretation of Thompson that remains honest, even if, in this case, the book proves to be more memorable.

After waking up from a night of binge drinking, journalist Paul Kemp (Depp) heads to the office of the San Juan Star, an English language newspaper in the heart of Puerto Rico. The paper is under heavy financial strain, but Kemp is nonetheless offered a job by Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), and he immediately becomes close with the staff photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the often fired/rehired junkie journalist Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi). While working on dead-end assignments (including a memorable scene in which he interviews, off-camera, an American couple who are vacationing in San Juan but refuse to visit any places besides their hotel and the bowling alley), Kemp becomes acquainted with Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), an American businessman who wants Paul to help write promotional material for (illegal) real estate deals that will eventually drive the locals into even worse poverty. Kemp quickly becomes enamored with Chenault (Amber Heard), Sanderson's fiancee, which adds further complications, especially after Sanderson bails him and Sala out of jail after a reckless night on the town. With the Star on the verge of shutting down, Kemp, Sala and Moberg attempt to bring the shady business dealings to light, even though the paper cannot risk controversial material.

With the exception of his voice, it's refreshing to find that Depp plays Kemp as an original character, rather than as an imitation of Hunter S. Thompson (even though the original novel is semi-autobiographical, it's impossible not to imagine Kemp, both on the page and on the screen, as a stand-in for the Doctor). Yes, Kemp is prone to heavy drinking and a commitment to journalistic integrity, and much like Thompson, he manages to be a detached outsider even when he's in the middle of the most important scenes. Only at the end of the film do Thompson's characteristics become consistently noticeable, and even then, Depp is as reserved as an actor can be, with the actions being based on the plot developments, rather than the character's personality. It would be too tempting to see Sala as the Dr. Gonzo character, but this only comes after a brief drug hallucination scene (the only blatant reference to Fear and Loathing) and after a long sequence of a drunken night out. Sala is written as a stock "buddy" character, but Michael Rispoli plays him exceptionally well, employing equal parts integrity and comic relief without being terribly obvious. At first, I found Giovanni Ribisi's Moberg to be grating, but I quickly realized that the character is supposed to be annoying. Moberg, while technically a journalist, is seen walking around the island like a vagrant, dressed in a comically over-sized trench coat, producing dangerous moonshine and drugs, and happily blaring phonograph records of Adolf Hitler speeches. I always consistently notice film characters who would be terribly hammed up by certain actors, but Ribisi manages to create an air of perverted slapstick. Eckhart has an strange ability to play seriously flawed/demented characters yet maintain a seductive edge; even when the audience knows he's being conniving or wrong, it's easy to see why characters would fall for his schemes. Sanderson is not nearly as twisted as Chad in In the Company Of Men, but Eckhart uses the same acting gifts. For better or for worse, his unsavory characters are compelling. That's the whole point.

The relationship between Chenault and Kemp is very basic and provides some of the film's faults. It's hard to tell if Heard is a good actress, because her character is, for the majority of the film, nothing but a trophy fiancee for Sanderson. The sexual tension between her and Kemp isn't exactly sly (their first meeting is in the ocean while she's skinny dipping), but their long stares and near-physical interactions become too obvious, and the audience is merely left counting down the seconds until they actually embrace. After that, the film's closing title sequences are too easy of an ending. However, Heard does what she can with Chenault. Even though she's an object for everyone but Kemp, the character is not played as dumb or insulting; she's merely tied to her relationship with Sanderson before she's able to break away. Depp and Heard are enjoyable to watch together, but are victimized by the script's occasional misstep.

A lot of credit has to be given to production designer Chris Seagers. The San Juan settings, especially given the era, doesn't have a lot of happy mediums. The locales are either poverty-stricken or tastefully wealthy (Kemp, Sala, and Moberg are the only whites to live in destitute dwellings). However, even though both types of settings are integral to the story, they feel authentic. Kemp and Sala's apartment is somewhat comically rendered, but the dive bars, slums, and dance halls of San Juan aren't marked by obvious (read: insulting) indicators of depression. Sanderson's residence is a classy beach house, but isn't depicted as a ridiculous mansion. Combined with the subdued cinematography and costume design, The Rum Diary works as a contrast of bright and dark hues, both casually and intentionally, with a lot of jumps between the two. Even in the extremes (Kemp's apartment, specifically), the exaggerations are pointed out in the script, but Seagers does an impressive job of creating a classic movie feel to the environments.

After leaving behind directing due to disillusionment with the Hollywood system, writer/director Bruce Robinson finds himself with a decent piece of material with which to return. His script is much stronger than his directing, but his directorial style is fairly straightforward in this film. The Rum Diary moves toward expected climaxes and developments, but Robinson writes exceptional dialogue with well-placed one liners and a knack for comedic timing, and the direction moves along with it. Again, some of the developments are cliched and can be seen coming several minutes beforehand, but these are small faults, especially since the majority of the film, combined with the excellent cast, works so well. I've yet to see Withnail and I, lauded as an excellent British black comedy, but The Rum Diary definitely has its moments of dark humor, and it will be interesting to see the differences between his smaller work and this more big budget production. On top of that, Robinson's attention to detail makes some negative aspects--binge drinking, chain-smoking, and even cockfighting--blend together as merely parts of an era, without moralizing or apology.

I would guess that the majority of people who seek out The Rum Diary will be Hunter S. Thompson fans, and I hope that they have read the novel beforehand, lest they be disappointed. Atmospherically, it's very true to Thompson's work, and shows that even his standard storytelling manages to convey his beliefs without the almost trademark insanity. Strange as this is to imagine, the film also works nicely on its own, even for people unfamiliar with Thompson's journalism or fiction. With another other people involved, I might be harsher with the criticism of the film's ending and antagonism. However, the cast and filmmaker do their respective work very convincingly, and overall, it's a lot of fun and beautifully styled. And the best compliment to Thompson is that his ideas can be separated from his constantly portrayed public persona without anything being diminished.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Other Moneyball: Notes On the NBA Lockout

For the last few weeks, I've been toying with the idea of doing a piece on the current NBA lockout, but a few troubles and issues have delayed it. At first, I wondered why I cared so much, especially given my other interests and goals: the impressive fall book season; much needed, behind the scenes work for Instafiction; getting used to a seasonal position back in bookselling; and so forth. The bigger picture, however, is literally a bigger picture. With so much going on in the world, namely the passionate Occupy Wall Street movements, why am I concerning myself with the squabbles and ridiculous back-and-forth between billionaire team owners and millionaire professional athletes, men who wring their hands over lost revenue and income, but in reality could never work another day in their lives and still have a better quality of life than the often mentioned 99%? But then again, even as I plan to visit Chicago's Occupy groups in the very near future, and as I focus on my literary goals, there's no shame in my being a basketball fan and annually looking forward to cold winter evenings with drinks, friends, and a game on TV. Last year's playoffs, even with my Bulls falling to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals, proved to be some of the most exciting postseason basketball in recent memory. And right now, with NBA games canceled through November 30th (at the time of this writing), fans could be "treated" to a repeat of the 1998-1999 season, which was cut to 50 games and featured watered down playoffs that didn't feel complete, especially since no team had a truly full season.

Right now, the NBA Player's Union and league executives are trying to pass a new collective bargaining agreement. There are many contractual stipulations at hand, but the most divisive issue has been BRI: Basketball Related Income. The team owners want a 50-50 split of basketball revenues, whereas the players want to get 52%, which is down from the 57% given to them under the previous agreement (these stats are taken from this article from The Associated Press). Much like the recent NFL lockout, another instance of "billionaires fighting with millionaires," the average person likely has little sympathy for either side. The owners purchased their teams, and like any business, profits are the bottom line. They pay millions in player contracts with the hope of putting winning teams on the courts, and therefore increasing income via the fans. But suddenly, with the potential for even more money on the table, the owners frantically point to fiscal losses and demand a salary cap. The players, while directly responsible for the income that a team generates (executives cannot hit three pointers or play defense), have the option of playing overseas for less money, but still for thousands and even millions. This also doesn't take into account advertising and income related to endorsement deals. Again, these are just the details. I'm a basketball fan, but after months of unemployment and still living drastically beneath my meager means, these details aren't meant to give an edge to either side. In reality, no matter what the final agreement is, both sides will be financially well off for life, and the whole cycle will begin anew when the future agreement expires.

Billy Hunter, the Player's Union Executive Director, and David Stern, the NBA's Commissioner (pictured above), keep going back and forth in the media, thereby, perhaps intentionally, giving sportswriters the obvious angles in which to pursue the story. Sometimes, this is done humorously, making for a read that is at least enjoyable, even if it sheds no new light on the subject (see some of the articles in Grantland, such as this one from Jonathan Abrams). More often than not, sportswriters are naturally critical of the whole debacle, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. Yesterday, Hunter claimed that he (and the union) feels "snookered" by the owners' attempts to bring the two sides closer together. Sean Deveny of The Sporting News offered this statement in a recent article: "The rest of the world—normal folks, the ones who watch the games, the ones dealing with a battered economy, not just here but all over the world—are looking at a group of 400 players and 30 owners fighting over 2 percent of $4 billion." His claim is that the fans are the ones who should feel insulted, since they are the ones who financially support the organization. However, much like the aforementioned NFL lockout, it's tiring to see the fans help up like neglected children who are watching their parents fight. In the scheme of things, basketball fans can turn to NCAA basketball and other winter sports, but there's something insulting about the idea that the consumers are always portrayed as innocent pawns who just want to give their money and time to the NBA. I personally watch games, but I never purchase licensed products or find myself swayed by commercial advertising, but that goes for areas outside of the NBA as well. In this economy, both the players and owners should realize how lucky they are to have this much money to fight about.

The problem is that NBA fans have not made major complaints about the lockout, which is fascinating to me. I'm a very casual football fan, and I wouldn't have been deprived if the NFL season had been scaled down or canceled, but at that time, football fans were constantly taking to social media to bemoan the potential loss of that game. Yes, football is much more popular than basketball right now, but the media members are the ones attempting to create fan backlash where there is none. However, where are the fans who were rooting for various teams during the playoffs? I saw a variety of impressive commentaries via Twitter last spring, yet nobody seems to care if the entire NBA season is lost. However, there is a much more important angle that has been lost in the shuffle, and does tie into the money that fans end up spending.

In the above AP article, Commissioner Stern was said to have apologized to the people whose livelihoods are directly connected to the NBA: the salespeople, concession workers, cleanup crews, maintenance workers, and regular employees who work at the twenty-nine NBA arenas. However, there wasn't even a direct quote from Mr. Stern, only a recapped line at the end of the article. To me, this is the biggest travesty of the entire lockout. At the end of a given workday, I'll have plenty of things to occupy my time if there are no basketball games to watch this winter. NBA players will have other sources of income to live better than the rest of the world. Owners, people who amassed staggering fortunes that allowed them to purchase their teams, won't be counting spare change in order to buy a gallon of milk. However, nobody is thinking about the people who earn money directly or indirectly (restaurant/bar owners and staff, the aforementioned stadium workers) who are losing money that is the difference between getting by and being poverty-stricken. In this sense, my opening mention of the Occupy Wall Street movements could also apply to the National Basketball Association. In this case, there is a true representation of the divide between the 1% and the 99%. With an entire month of the season already canceled, the league needs to come to an agreement, and fast. If fans do become apathetic, their withheld dollars won't affect the players or the owners, but rather the faceless worker who very well is working at a stadium to support a child or a family. At the end of the day, there is so much more at stake than the ability to watch a game. If more people called attention to the plight of average workers, if priorities were truly in order, none of this would be happening. Instead, fans and readers will be fed the same recaps until the agreement is met, when in reality there should be outrage, not for the players, but for the people who depend on their abilities to draw fans and supporters. Once the agreement is reached, there will be smiles and handshakes all around, and the fierce divide will be conveniently forgotten. But none of those dollars will go to the people who need it the most. Much like the Occupy movements, this isn't about handouts, but rather equality and the rights of people to earn a living.

So this is my message to the league and the union: try to think about the people you pass in the hallways at the arena. You probably won't, but imagine your survival depending on an extra paycheck. There are thousands depending on you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Roughly 39 Problems

To get into the spirit of Halloween, I had planned to write at least one review of a horror film or a collection of good scary stories, slated for the end of October. However, a recent, random film screening has moved this plan up a couple of weeks earlier than anticipated. Reviews of horror, especially film versions, are often produced by niche websites and publications that strive for comedic or far too serious angles, but with the occasional positive. Two of my fellow bloggers are must-reads for excellent horror film reviews: Bob Turnbull has a wealth of essays at Eternal Sunshine Of the Logical Mind, many of them focusing on rare or under-the-radar movies from Japan and the world abroad. Vincent Sassana's HTML Slop contains reviews of sometimes terrible movies, but his writing is finely balanced between the critical and the hilarious. I recently saw Christian Alvart's Case 39, a seemingly forgettable horror film that was released in the United States last year to very little attention (my first awareness of its existence came when it popped up on my girlfriend's Netflix queue, and we watched it with a shrug, wanting to see a random scary movie). I lack the skill of writing funny takes on bad films, but after a lot of thought, Case 39 is actually a good example of questionable horror craft and misguided films in general. I never write about a piece of media unless there are at least some positives, but even a throwaway film does have the potential to educate.

Renee Zellweger plays Emily, a social worker who begins to investigate a troubled young girl and her eccentric parents. Lily is bright and caring, but her grades are slipping drastically. Emily's first visit is obviously unexpected and unwelcome, and she takes an immediate, sympathetic liking to the girl, telling Lily to call her if she needs anything. A distressed late-night call leads Emily and police detective Mike Barron (Ian McShane) to the house, where they save the girl from being killed by her parents. Afterward, a young boy in Lily's support group brutally murders his own parents, and calls are traced from Emily's house, leading some to believe that the two young children communicated right before the killing. Emily investigates Lily's old house and finds signs of her parents attempting to barricade themselves from the girl. While evaluating Lily, psychiatrist Douglas Ames (Bradley Cooper) is questioned by the girl and is made to reveal his worst fears. Once all of this comes together, and after seeking out the former parents for questioning, it becomes apparent that Lily is a mind-controlling demon, and is seemingly impervious to control or elimination. Emily must fight through everyone else's disbelief to vanquish the "little girl."

It has often been said that some of the best horror films are psychological, but there's nothing wrong with a combination of the psychological and the supernatural. However, re-read the above plot synopsis: the genre rarely provides ground for originality, since every possible scary movie element has been done, done again, told from different angles, and so forth. However, Case 39 commits some pretty basic errors, ones that become all the more unnerving when the rare decent moment comes up. First of all, I've often wondered why horror films with famous cast members tend to do poorly. Perhaps higher production costs, given the cost of the actors associated, make horror movies too glossy and sacrifice emphasis on direction and writing in favor of seeing well-known faces in precarious, CGI-infused situations. In my opinion, scary movies are better when seemingly done on the fly, with relatively unknown actors seeming more like characters instead of having the audience make mental notes of "Hey, _____ is about to get killed!" I've never really considered Renee Zellweger a favorite actress, but I've never really disliked her. Her performance is fine, but given the limitations and obvious developments of the story, any actress could have been cast and able to frown and look stressed out. Ian McShane (Deadwood) is physically cast as a stock type, a grizzled yet caring detective. Bradley Cooper's role is actually important for unexpected reasons (more on that later). Child actress Jodelle Ferland actually works quite well as the demon child. She doesn't overact and makes a convincing portrayal as a seemingly bright, innocent girl. Later in the film, CGI takes over, but she manages to be unnerving and unsettling when letting the hints of her true character come out. She's soft spoken, direct, and in one of the film's best scenes, adds a lot of creepy atmosphere to the simple, childhood act of spinning around in a wheeled office chair.

In such a film, any actor is reliant upon the screenwriter and director. Screenwriter Ray Wright seems to have not expended any energy into the story, following a "paint by numbers" formula that manages to foreshadow every so-called twist and turn. For such a weak film, he at least attempts to build up the climaxes instead of revealing the demonic forces early and often; then again, even someone like me, a film lover who is behind on noted horror movies, gets used to the cliches and the supposedly scary moments. However, there are three key moments in the film that should make an audience wonder how much better the final product could have been. This isn't a horror-comedy, but at one point, Emily tells her boss that Lily's mother is an emotional slave to her husband; he turns and asks if she had actually interviewed his parents. Toward the end of the film, Emily confronts Mike outside of his church and asks why he believes in religious forces and not the ones outside. Religion and horror have been explored many times in film, but this loaded question could have possibly provided more intriguing angles. And finally, when Lily asks Douglas about his fears, she tells him that she doesn't like him and finds him smug. I sincerely hope that this line was added after the casting was done, because it works as unintentional comedy: she seems to be saying that to Bradley Cooper, not his character. Director Christian Alvart doesn't provide any directorial touches other than the ones seemingly mandated by horror conventions. Of the technical aspects, the best work is done by cinematographer Hagen Bodanski. The colors are drab and gray, and every setting seems to be muted and depressing. It might seem like an obvious atmosphere for such a film, but it's done well without being ominous to the point of distraction.

In any case, this film will ultimately be forgotten, but will probably benefit from the impulse rentals and screenings around this time of year. I was also taken aback by the title. Case 39 is a reference to the final case examined by Emily at the end of her workday (another cliche). However, it recalls Brad Anderson's vastly superior Session 9 (2001). If this was meant to be a homage, it backfires terribly, since it subconsciously reminds viewers of the better films out there. Or is it supposed to reference The 39 Steps? I couldn't find any plot similarities, but again, it's a bad titling decision to salute films that work on a better psychological level.

In searching for images to use in this piece, I came across a review written in the British newspaper The Guardian. This is a slight spoiler, but the article's headline was nearly perfect in its jab at the film's quality: "If only the producers had been sensible and marketed this Renee Zellweger horror as the movie in which Bradley Cooper vomits bees."

"Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl:" New Fiction in Gulf Stream Magazine

Good morning, y'all! I have a new short story up today. You can read " Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl " in the Spring i...