Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Last month, I began a painstaking process of trying to archive my old college newspaper articles. My original introduction (and much-needed caveat) can be found on my first archival piece, an interview with author Chuck Palahniuk. Earlier today, I was going through my physical copies of the old Chicago Flame pieces, and decided to reprint my interview with actor/director Robert Duvall. This interview was conducted as part of a Chicago junket for Duvall's Assassination Tango, a 2003 film that seems to have fallen into relative obscurity. Like The Apostle, Duvall wrote, directed, and starred in this feature. This wasn't my most in-depth interview, but at the time, he was very personable and genuinely interested in interacting with a group of college newspaper reporters. The interview also featured his then-girlfriend and co-star, Luciana Pedraza.
Duvall, Pedraza Dance To a Different Beat: Originally published in The Chicago Flame, March 25, 2003)
Not a movie goes by where a filmmaker does not address a current film assignment as a "life" or "dream" project. Take Martin Scorsese, for example. It seems as if every film he's directed, from 1980's Raging Bull to last year's Gangs Of New York, has been influenced by his life or his ideas. Not to take away from Mr. Scorsese's talents, but Robert Duvall's latest effort, Assassination Tango, redefines the phrase "a labor of love." The film combines virtually every important aspect of Mr. Duvall's life. In addition to writing, directing, producing, and starring in the movie, he shapes it to reflect his personal life and immense attraction to the seductive, fantasy-like world of Argentinean tango.
"It's an extension of myself," Duvall tells The Inferno (note: this is the entertainment supplement to the aforementioned Chicago Flame) about Assassination Tango. "Whatever works, works, from ink to behavior." His reasons to make the film are simple. "I like to tango. My curiosity made me do it."
Duvall is no novice filmmaker, having succeeded with past directorial works such as 1996's The Apostle. Along with financial support from friend and The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola, Duvall had little trouble getting the film off the ground. Assassination Tango tells the story of John J. (Duvall), a man leading a classic case of a double life. In addition to owning a string of beauty salons, he moonlights as a hit man. He's able to keep his dark side a secret from his girlfriend (Kathy Baker) and her young daughter, but a problem arises with his latest duty. John is hired to wipe out an Argentine political leader. However, plans backfire, and he is forced to stay in Buenos Aires longer than anticipated. To elude boredom, in a foreign land, he spends his nights at a local tango club, only to become quickly infatuated by the beauty and dance skills of Manuela (Luciana Pedraza). The two have an instant attraction to each other. Interestingly enough, the attraction does not come in the form of blatant romance or lust. The world of tango brings them together, both as a physical dance as well as a mental euphoria.
Behind the camera, the casting choice of Luciana Pedraza was a worthwhile risk. She is not a professional actress, but is Mr. Duvall's real-life girlfriend. The two met during one of his many trips to Argentina, and he introduced her to tangoing. Assassination Tango is Pedraza's film debut, and she learned a lot from Duvall, and very rapidly at that. One of her many lessons was that of small nuances that go into making a feature film.
"Films are a learning process for everyone [involved]," says Pedraza. "I learned a lot from Bobby [Duvall], he's a professional. You listen to Bobby and learn. It was his project. If I needed help, he'd give it to me. Most directors don't." For an acting newcomer, Pedraza knows that acting is no small feat. It involves intense work, seriousness, and above all, patience. "It took me a year [to prepare]," she says. "You work with hair, clothes, and makeup. You need to put up with your moods. There's a lot of working out, about five hours a day. I lost 10 pounds!"
Duvall and Pedraza were able to maintain a proper distinction between their personal and professional lives. "Good directors let the actors bring it," says Duvall. About Luciana, he comments "she never let me forget her performance [in the film]." It's obvious that their experiences while making Assassination Tango have added to their understanding of true acting. "What we do in front of the camera is what we do here," says Pedraza. Upon seeing the film, one realizes how true this sentiment can be. The acting does have a natural flow, without the slightest sense of strain or rehearsal.
"It's like life," adds Pedraza. "I wanted to be truthful. [You have to] remember everyday life and add a sense of reality."
The film is based on Duvall's keen interest in the tango lifestyle, especially in Argentina. If the film's acting was supposed to be natural, then the beautiful dance scenes seem to be instinctual. Duvall and Pedraza epitomize the moves and mannerisms of world-class dancers. According to Duvall's observations, Argentinean tango is an activity that encompasses many layers. "Dance is a continuous thing, a hobby," he says. "You need a physical hobby. [I was] a little shy dancing in public." Despite dozens of trips to the country for the sole purpose of honing his dance skills, Duvall makes a curious comment: "Many Argentineans can't do it." So what makes tango in Argentina so appealing? "The people [European tango dancers] are so skilled and so arrogant," says Duvall. "[In Argentina] it's a social dance, like with the old men at weddings. It's sweet and calm in the clubs. It's more for export, for flash and show in Europe."
Overall, Assassination Tango is yet another solid outing for Duvall the auteur. The plot is simple and relies mainly on thematic dancing and everyday dialogue. Duvall's screenplay lacks some action that would have provided an interesting contrast with the wonderful dance sequences. However, that does not detract from a visually appealing and intoxicating portrait of a well known yet little understood dance.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
I've been known to do this in the past: a friend of mine will start a new website, or I'll discover some literary organization that's doing good things in the Chicago area. I'll make an initial essay contribution, tout said website/organization on this blog with excited claims of further information or updates, and, through nobody's fault but my own, I'll get caught up on other projects, and therefore am left with single posts with empty future promises. After being unceremoniously laid off by Borders, a dedicated group of people decided that the lack of a brick-and-mortar store was not doing to deter them from being book recommenders. The website Booksellers Without Borders was created, and it already has an excellent collection of reviews (from history books to children's books) and impressive author interviews (including one conducted with mystery writer John Connolly). I had promised a contribution months ago, yet it took some time to actually make good on it. Earlier this week, the website kindly published my review of The Long Goodbye, a memoir by poet/literary critic Meghan O'Rourke.
I'm re-posting the review in its entirety for my own personal archival purposes, but if you want to read the review, please visit Booksellers Without Borders. And while I genuinely want to say that I will be making more contributions there, I'm going to hold off on that proclamation, since it seems that saying so out loud means that it won't happen. But I'm very optimistic, and hope that the site gains more audience members. Also, you can join their Facebook page and/or follow them on Twitter.
Guest Review: The Long Goodbye, by Meghan O'Rourke (originally published July 12, 2011)
In my career as a bookseller, I had a tendency to disdain memoirs. Let me make a distinction—I’m not lumping biographies into this category, but rather clarifying a much needed division between the two. I generally enjoy biographies, even though supposedly “journalistic” accounts are sometimes revisionist histories, but that’s another topic altogether. Memoirs, however, are sometimes unabashedly biased or skewed towards an almost pornographic/voyeuristic look into private lives. Are you a long forgotten 1980s/1990s television co-star with a former co-dependency? Are you a non-famous person who endured unspeakable personal atrocities? If so, then your chances of selling a memoir to a publishing house are probably pretty high. I’m not trying to sound cold or unfeeling towards these sub-genres, but after awhile, there are only so many (likely ghostwritten) accounts that one can handle. The troubling subjects are explored with the stated goal of continuing the healing process, or reaching out to others with the same afflictions. Noble, yes, but after awhile, readers can become desensitized when so many similar titles have been released.
However, in my last days of corporate book selling, I excitedly came across a galley of The Long Goodbye, a memoir by poet/critic Meghan O’Rourke, a former editor with The New Yorker and The Paris Review, and a current contributor to Slate magazine. My admiration for her writing stems back to 2010. When everyone in the literary community (myself included) was eagerly reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, O’Rourke wrote a stunning essay exploring the role of female authors in the goal of writing “The Great American Novel.” She wondered whether Freedom would have been as highly received had it been written by a woman, and almost immediately after, she was the recipient of several critiques herself, as well as a briefly altered Wikipedia page (“Despite her Yale education and privileged life, she believes she is at a great disadvantage as a writer because she is a not a (yawn) white male”). These attacks were utterly unfounded, and that single example of her writing hooked me. Her arguments were precise, but not attacking; rather, the overall atmosphere was that of someone seeking an honest, open discussion about an aspect of the literary community that needed to be out in the open. Plus, while I’m still a huge fan of Mr. Franzen, I agreed with her statements, and was bewildered that people would take her words as personal attacks. I made immediate mental notes to read more of her bibliography. While my hope was to catch up on her poetry, I found myself beginning to read more of her work with The Long Goodbye, an account of her mother’s cancer and imminent death, and their many personal implications.
A memoir about death can be difficult to critique, since, other than the writing style, it’s impossible to suggest “improvements” on such a personal, troubling experience. However, O’Rourke writes about a variety of topics—family histories, the ordeal, and the aftermath—with a stunning combination of candor and beauty. The reader gets a sense of this in the very first chapter, when she writes
For several weeks before her death, my mother had experienced confusion from the ammonia that built up in her brain as her liver began to fail. Yet I am irrationally confident that she knew what day it was when she died. I believe that she knew we were around her. I believe she chose to die when she did. Christmas was her favorite day of the year. She adored the morning ritual of walking the dogs and making coffee while we waited impatiently for her to be ready; she taught us to open presents slowly, drawing the gift giving out for hours. On that last day, her bed was in the room where our tree was, and as we opened presents, she made a madrigal of quiet sounds, as if to indicate that she was with us. Her hair was swept up behind her, and she looked like the mother of my earliest memories.
It’s nearly perfect that such a loaded paragraph occurs so immediately, since it’s an excellent example of the book’s themes: O’Rourke is blunt with the medical diagnoses and bodily disintegration, evocative with the descriptions of her family life (being open and honest in depictions of friction and arguments without being saccharine in the positive moments), and still manages to craft a non-fiction narrative into creative paragraphs that read almost like a novel. She also explores research into the psychology and sociology of the grief process, and the results have a double benefit. In addition to being a way for her to come to terms with her mother’s death, her studies show the hallmarks of a critic with a supreme talent for empirical data; the reader empathizes with O’Rourke’s journey, but ends up learning along the way.
My pervasive sense of loneliness was a result, I believe, of what I now think of as the privatization of grief. For centuries, private grief and public mourning were allied in most cultures. In many places, it used to be that if your husband died the village came to your door, bearing fresh-baked rolls or soup. As Darian Leader, a British psychoanalyst, argues in The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia, and Depression, mourning—to truly be mourning—’requires other people.’ To lose someone was to be swept into a flurry of rituals. In many nations some kind of viewing followed the cleaning of the body—what was known as a wake in Ireland, an ‘encoffining’ in China. Many cultures had—and some still have—special mourning clothes.
O’Rourke goes even further, citing literary examples of mourning:
I was struck, too, by how much of Hamlet is about the precise kind of slippage the mourner experiences: the difference between being and seeming, the uncertainty of how the inner translates into the outer, the sense that one is expected to perform grief palatably. (If you don’t seem sad, people worry; but if you are grief-stricken, they often don’t know how to deal with it.)
Memoirs about the death of a family member aren’t for everyone; granted, had I not been familiar with O’Rourke’s work before, it’s unlikely that I would have read The Long Goodbye. However, there’s an almost daunting wealth of creativity and honesty in this work. She explores how her mother’s death affects her love life and personal relationships; her family is presented honestly, even if some of their emotions and actions are painfully human and not tidy, rose-colored expectations of how one would deal with such a loss. Most importantly, at least to me, is the realization that O’Rourke isn’t necessarily writing to let other people know that they’re not alone in a specific grieving process. Her story is personal and is a look at how her own personality was shaped by the event, as well as how grief manages to be the ultimate paradox: everyone experiences it, but it’s never truly universal. Going by two major samples (her Franzen essay and this book), I’m confident in my belief that Meghan O’Rourke is one of the finest non-fiction writers working today. Her blend of the journalistic and the creative are nearly pitch-perfect, and her work, above all, is extremely confident. As I’ve mentioned in some of my other essays, I hesitate to use the word “poetic” as an adjective for non-poetry writings. However, dozens of passages in The Long Goodbye are almost impossible to describe otherwise:
The night is very long and my mother is lost in it. I can see the world below the plane, the aurora borealis shifting to my right, just outside my field of vision, just beneath the surface of my consciousness, a cold sea, a bright star.
Saying that O’Rourke is talented is simply an empty statement. She is a master of various styles, and, while she’s very respected in the literary community, this latest work could be a gateway to more mainstream appreciation. The Long Goodbye is highly recommended.
(NOTE: The passages were taken from an uncorrected advance copy, hence the lack of page citations. There is a chance that some of the cited passages were altered in the final published work.)
O'Rourke, Meghan. The Long Goodbye. Copyright 2011 by Meghan O'Rourke.
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
In the introduction to Paul Auster's Collected Poems, writer Norman Finkelstein offers a telling passage: "Yes, this a writer not only with readers but with fans (italics mine)." This is equal parts true and a reason for pause, since it seems to suggest that literary writers are "above" enthusiasm that isn't scholarly or critical. Of course, there's absolutely no reason why certain writers cannot have avid fan bases in addition to more studious admirers. The best of both sides of this parallel is mirrored in the fans/readers of the late David Foster Wallace. In addition to his works being commonplace on university reading lists and being generally revered by the literary community, his followers can also be a giddy, fan club-like bunch. In the months and weeks leading up to the posthumous publication of The Pale King, my friends and I dutifully shared links and news reports about the book. Of course, given that he committed suicide in 2008, any of his publications (both books and articles) that have come out are always bittersweet as well. With some deceased authors, a posthumous release can sometimes be viewed as a way to cash in; with Wallace, even his unfinished works have lasting value, and are worthy for an audience still dismayed over his passing.
The Pale King was pieced together by his editor, Michael Pietsch, and his widow, Karen Green. As it's been recounted in numerous articles, the latest novel was a collection of notebooks, computer files, and discs, with notes that hinted to possible trajectories the novel might have taken had Wallace lived to complete it. It's worth noting that, while rightfully extolling the novel's excellence, Piestch is explicit in explaining that The Pale King is an unfinished novel; it's even the book's subtitle. That's not to disrespect the semi-finished product, but a way to make the reader know that Wallace, sometimes a perfectionist to a fault, undoubtedly would have changed and edited some of the pages and passages that made their way into the "finished" product. While it's much different in scope from his previous novel, Infinite Jest, it's a novel that demands attention to minute details, has a penchant for hilarious comedy, and ultimately demands more than one reading.
The Pale King follows a group of characters in 1985, IRS examiners who work in Peoria, Illinois, following vastly different paths to come to that time and place. Their back stories are detailed, and give hints to their personality makeups that may hint to their reasons for being drawn to a career in a tedious, psychologically challenging bureaucracy. In any other profession, these characters would have the same lives and the same inner turmoils; however, the nature of tax work seems to highlight their personalities, sometimes explicitly and sometimes metaphysically. Leonard Stecyk spends his childhood as an impossible model of goodness, selfless to the point of making adults hate him, and being ostracized by his peers to the point of extreme violence; Lane Dean is a Christian who grapples with questions of faith and a pregnant girlfriend whom he doesn't love; Toni Ware, a woman with a troubling history of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her mother's boyfriend; and David Foster Wallace, the character/author who provides legal/liability disclosures on providing IRS information, as well as his personal history of unethical behavior as a college student. The novel also has paranormal elements. In the throes of intense concentration, some of the IRS workers see ghosts that haunt the office. There is also the hint of an algorithm that can put someone in a state of immediate, almost spiritual concentration with no distractions, a mysterious entity that echoes the coma-inducing entertainment tape in Infinite Jest.
These brief summaries are not meant to be of any serious help in understanding the story's complete arc. There are numerous other characters, both major and minor, and while this may seem like a sorry excuse, even some established literary critics have professed some troubles with the book, as far as a complete understanding. Some of the chapters, while moving and brilliant, aren't attributed to any specific character. Even the most devoted readers can be forgiven for glazing over pages upon pages of tax law and documentations. Perhaps some of the frustration can be attributed to the novel's unfinished state, but that's not at all to say it's not worthy of attention. The character sketches are sometimes brilliant. For example, the sketches of Stecyk as a dutiful young boy are both funny and discomforting:
"...[his father] offers to take him to Dairy Queen as a kind of reward, and Leonard tells his father he's grateful and that the gesture means a lot to him but that in all honesty he'd like it even more if they took the money his father would have spent on the ice cream and instead donated it either to Easter Seals or, better yet, to UNICEF, to go toward the needs of famine-ravaged Biafran kids who he knows for a fact have probably never even heard of ice cream, and says that be bets it'll end up giving both of them a better feeling even than the DQ would...Leonard takes a moment to express concern about the father's facial tic again and to gently rib him about his reluctance to go in and have the family's MD look at it, noting again that according to the chart on the back of his bedroom door the father is three months overdue for his annual physical and that it's almost eight months past the date of his recommended tetanus booster (Wallace 30.)
My friend Paul , arguably the biggest fan of Wallace that I know, described his reading of the novel as "equal parts brilliant and tedious." The tedium, which comes in the details of IRS tax preparation, is completely intentional. Wallace describes it in a way to make the reader understand how detailed and intense the work is; it's not written to show the amount of research that went into the book, but to give concrete examples as to why tax examination is such a specialized field. It's not so much that it requires care and attention to detail (which it does), but that it takes a certain kind of personality to be able to deal with long days of careful readings and understandings of wildly complicated tax codes. Of course, given Wallace's penchant for footnotes and incredibly detailed non-fiction passages, there's a certain joy and admiration that comes with even the most daunting accounts. There are very few authors who could pull off such passages without losing the reader. We're not expected to understand the codes, but we're shown them for the sake of understanding the characters and what they deal with on a daily basis:
"For ruling requests concerning the classification of an organization as a limited partnership where a corporation is the sole general partner, see Rev. Proc. 72-13, 1972-1 CB 735. See also Rev. Proc. 74-17, 1974-1 CB 438, and Rev. Proc. 75-16, 1975-1 CB 676. Revenue Procedure 74-17 announces certain operating rules of the Service relating to the issuance of advance ruling letters concerning the classification of organizations formed as limited partnerships. Revenue Procedure 75-16 sets forth a checklist outlining required information frequently omitted from requests for rulings related to classification of organizations for Federal tax purposes (Wallace 248-249)."
Taking this even further, there are passages that even work to explain boredom, both historically and socially:
"Word appears suddenly in 1766. No known etymology. The Earl of March uses it in a letter describing a French peer of the realm. He didn't cast a shadow, but that didn't mean anything. For no reason, Lane Dean flexed his buttocks. In fact the first three appearances of bore in English conjoin it with the adjective French, that French bore, that boring Frenchman, yes? The French of course has malaise, ennui. See Pascal's fourth Pensée, which Lane Dean heard as pantsy (Wallace 383)."
I'm still convinced that Wallace, for all of his talents, never gets full respect as a humorous writer, and in several sections of The Pale King, it's evident that Wallace's knack for humor was as strong as ever. Sometimes that can be lost in the shuffle, but along the same argumentative lines as the "reader/fan" debate, there's also a need to understand that hilarious commentary can easily be great writing in its own right. There are very few authors who make me laugh out loud, and I did so more than once while reading The Pale King.
"'My earliest memory of shit is dog shit. Remember as a kid how potent a presence and threat dog shit was? It seemed to be all over. Every time you played outside, somebody was stepping in it, and then everything stopped and it was like "OK, who stepped in it?" Everybody has to check their shoes, and sure enough somebody had it on their shoe.'
'Embedded in the sole. In the pattern.'
'Impossible to scrape off.'
'New was always wet and yellow and horrible, the most horrible. But old got embedded more deeply in the sole. You had to set the shoes aside until it dried and then try to scrape out the sole's pattern with a sticky or a rusty old knife out of the garage (Wallace 347).'"
"In short, not only was it surprising to be greeted in person with such enthusiastic words, but it was doubly surprising when the person reciting these words displayed the same kind of disengagement as, say, the checkout clerk who utters the words 'Have a nice day' while her expression indicates that it's really a matter of total indifference to her whether you drop dead in the parking lot outside ten seconds from now (Wallace 287)."
The fact that I've been able to cull such varied examples of the novel's themes proves two points: one, even unfinished, The Pale King stands as one of the best books published so far this year. Two, even with his death (understandably) permeating the few reviews that I've read so far, this isn't a work of nostalgia, nor does it exist solely as a lamentation of Wallace's passing. While reading it, I was challenged, amazed, sometimes confused, and ultimately very satisfied. Wallace left behind an excellent piece of literature, evocative of his previous efforts and consistent talents. When getting lost in the book, the events surrounding its release tend to fall to the side, and the novel becomes the focal point, not the author's passing. Of course, those sad events are still there after the book is done, but it's a relief that The Pale King is a work on its own, even if it was a work in progress. Much like Infinite Jest, it's not easy. Careful readings, note taking, re-reads, and pauses for reflection are required. As I mentioned above, there is so much that I haven't touched upon or summarized. Taking it all in, it's a welcome addition to the Wallace canon, and the people responsible for its publication were right to see that it made its way into book form, and its unfinished standing and occasional questionable detours work as smaller pieces to a large, enjoyable puzzle.
Wallace, David Foster. The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel. Copyright 2011 by David Foster Wallace Literary Trust.
Monday, July 4, 2011
I'm excited to announce the launch of Instafiction, a website created and designed by Jeremy P. Bushnell. The goal of the site is to provide a quality piece of fiction everyday, available via RSS feeds, online, social media platforms, and mobile reading devices. I was humbled to be invited to join Instafiction as a contributor and associate editor, and so far, it's been a (rewarding) challenge to find pieces of fiction to promote. Our goal is diversity and quality with both classic and contemporary fiction.
From the About Us page:
"Instafiction.org provides one quality short story each weekday morning, formatted in a single page, for ease of use with services like Instapaper.
Our aim is to help short-form literary fiction thrive in the information ecology of the 21st century. To achieve this aim, we use social media and other network technologies to present short fiction in a manner designed to work with the expanding diversity of reading platforms and applications.
We drew inspiration from exemplary sites doing similar work for long-form nonfiction, specifically the great Longform.org and Longreads. But these sites largely stay away from fiction, and so we've decided to step in and fill what struck us as a need.
We encourage authors, literary magazines/websites, publishers, and other parties who are interested in seeing work featured on Instafiction to get in touch. (We're also looking for donors and potential advertisers.) Thanks for reading."
So please pay us a visit for an excellent short story every weekday. You can subscribe for an RSS feed, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.