Friday, March 30, 2012

Chicago Flame Archives: "Dark Blue" Cast/Crew Interviews

It has been awhile since I've done one of my college newspaper archival pieces. For this installment, I'm sharing the film review/press junket I took part in for the 2003 Ron Shelton film Dark Blue. This junket marked my first (and so far only) time in Los Angeles, California, and at the age of nineteen, I felt I had "made it" in some way, being one of a few dozen college journalists flown out for the event. As time went on, I looked back on my experience with an air of negativity. I was in Los Angeles for roughly 36 hours, and barely had time to think or take anything in as we were shuttled from one interview to the next. Since I wasn't twenty-one, I couldn't join anyone at the bar, instead spending my one free evening having a few beers in my room (courtesy of a fifty dollar minibar voucher), and taking a long walk around the streets of my hotel. I have hazy memories of the film, but for the most part, the cast and crew provided some good conversation pieces. This is my longest Chicago Flame article, since it has parts of interviews with virtually everyone attached to the film. With my previous college newspaper archival pieces, I offer a "warning" about poor writing, and this is no exception. Looking back on the original published copy, I was deeply embarrassed at the filler interview quotes, the terrible transition, and the obvious attempt to stretch the piece out. I've made a lot of cuts and changes to this reproduction, but there are still a lot of problems. I apologize now.

A Dark Blue Fire Of Intensity (Originally published in The Chicago Flame, February 25, 2003)

Every once in awhile, a film project will come along that provides immense satisfaction for everyone involved. Dark Blue is such a film, providing an ideal cop drama that allowed the actors and director to really sink their teeth into the roles. Whether veterans of police drama (actress Michael Michele) or novices (director Ron Shelton), Dark Blue owes its success to sheer devotion and skill. The film focuses on veteran LAPD officer Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), and the chain link of corruption and choices from individual officers and their superiors. However, opinions vary on the film's themes and values. Dark Blue opens with actual footage of the Rodney King police chase and beating, mixed with recreated images. Immediately, we're transported back to the time of a modern-day revolution, an uprising against police corruption, and the systematic, previously unquestioned white control of the police and judicial systems.

This premise does drive Dark Blue, yet at the same time it merely serves as a backdrop. The true focus targets the choices and personality of a veteran white cop in this hierarchy, a man marred by corruption and committed to justice at all costs. This cop is Eldon Perry, a man who abides by simple codes of the LAPD and is truly honored to be carrying on the traditions of his police family. "I'm a gunfighter raised by a family of gunfighters," he says. With that, we're drawn into a police world not unlike the Old West. Cops act like killers for hire, large posses willing to play by their own rules. Many people are going to walk out of the movie theater and will feel cheated. The two main complaints will regard the film's ending and the other--probably the biggest one--will attack the parallels to Training Day. After emotions settle down, audiences will realize they have seen one of the most visually stunning, character-based police dramas in recent memory. Dark Blue reeks with realism because audiences are accustomed to constant news reports of corruption and goings-on with police departments across the country. The underlying philosophy of the men in blue is 'if justice is served, what's the harm?'

"Kurt doesn't think it's a cop movie," says director Ron Shelton. "His character is a product of a lot of things. The question is: Why did he cross the line?"

Kurt Russell has more direct opinions of his character. "Eldon isn't an antagonist, he's just a guy who gets shit done. It's not easy to put a human in this position. His personal life is a disaster, and he's not aware of it."

Adds Shelton: "We need to ask ourselves: Could I be an Eldon Perry?"

"Perry is who we're not," continues Russell. "Yet you see Eldon as the way you are."

In the film, audiences get the sense that none of the characters are truly honest. In addition to the ladders of superiority, new officers have to be broken into the rules. Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman)is Perry's partner, the young officer in focus. He's not of Perry's stature, but he desperately wants to be so. Keough is inexperienced, yet has the rough ideas of the silent pact among white cops. Early in the film, he is under review for possible reprimands after a "killing." The review board acquits him by a majority rule. The lone official who votes against him is black deputy chief Arthur Hammond (Ving Rhames), a man who badly wants an equal system, but is a lone voice among a crowd of deep-rooted whites. "Keough definitely betrays himself," says actor Scott Speedman on his character. Bobby Keough is naive yet at the same time aware of the corruption that surrounds him. He's in awe of his worldly partner and is willing to go to drastic lengths to prove himself. "I identify with Keough," says screenwriter David Ayer. "You have to develop who you listen to and don't listen to."

Perry's office assistant is Beth (Michael Michele), a cop for whom sexuality is as much a part of her life as her badge. She is sexually involved with Keough, and that relationship begins a domino effect that leads to the film's stunning (but not surprising) conclusion. In the tradition of Serpico and Training Day, Keough realizes that he can help put a stop to some of the LAPD's power problems by going against his partners. His respect for Perry is wounded following a street killing that goes against Keough's sheltered conscience. Perry's ethics become too hot to handle.

Kurt Russell gives Perry a wonderful spectrum. The character divides up audience reactions, being both unjust yet a victim of his police upbringing. His final vindication does not come without a high price. It's a classic example of learning the hard way, which comes as an ironic shock to an officer who has seen everything. Scott Speedman is convincing as Keough due to his physical appearance as well as a strong performance. The film needed a stark visual difference between Perry and Keough, and Russell's grim, weathered face is the experience to Speedman's eagerness and unproven image. David Ayer, like virtually all screenwriters, is likely to be overlooked should the film end up being a critical success. Following the success of Training Day, Ayer does not fit the usual stereotypes of a writer. He's not idyllic and sees Hollywood and his writing as a mere business.

"[Writing] is a cycle, like the movie Adapation," he explains. "I thrive under pressure." While writing Dark Blue, he went against the rules and thought ahead to production and casting of the actual movie. "I don't let movie characters influence my writing, but I thought about Kurt [for the lead role]." The film was plagued by budget problems, but those blocks were eventually overcome. "Training Day had a $40,000,000 budget, but Dark Blue had a $4.50 budget," jokes Ayer. "But Ron Shelton can stretch dollars."

"We were shooting on the fly," says Shelton. The director did a wonderful job of organizing Dark Blue's multiple themes, but made a noticeable turn from his usual movie fare. Shelton is most famous for directing major sports films, from Bull Durham to White Men Can't Jump. For such a major break from routine, it's pleasing to know that Shelton is just as knowledgeable about the streets as he is about the ballparks. This goes to show his versatility: "Any movie can be a cop drama," he says. "But I made Dark Blue more about Eldon Perry."

Dark Blue should open to favorable reviews. The stars and creators of the film have made great strides to make an entertaining, gripping police drama, and their devotion to the project should be duly noted. No matter what their prior experiences dictate, satisfaction and optimism will the guide the film's respect. This film was shelved for over a year because of the strong [post 9/11] themes. It turns out that the wait was worth it, for this film is a visually attentive, well-acted piece that operates on meticulous and strongly connected layers.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"No Doors, No Windows:" Harlan Ellison Without Labels

"They were a cool young group, very California-cool and casual, and one of the coolest seemed to be a little guy, very quick of movement, who had a sharp profile, pale blue eyes, blondish hair, and squared eyeglasses. He wore a pair of brown corduroy slacks, a green shaggy-dog Shetland sweater, a tan suede jacket, and Game Warden boots, for which he had recently paid $60. Frank Sinatra, leaning against the stool, sniffling a bit from his cold, could not take his eyes off the Game Warden boots. Once, after gazing at them for a few moments, he turned away; but now he was focused on them again. The owner of the boots, who was just standing in them watching the pool game, was named Harlan Ellison, a writer who had just completed work on a screenplay, The Oscar." --Gay Talese, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," Esquire 1966

Up until roughly three weeks ago, I had no knowledge about the life and writings of Harlan Ellison, except for his brief appearance in the classic article above. Now, I find it incredulous that it has taken me this long to be at least semi-familiar with him, given my usual tendency to enjoy certain writers with colorful personalities reflected in their bibliographies (William Gaddis, Hunter S. Thompson, etc.). My best friend, always quick with a good book recommendation, had been touting Ellison's work for some time, and even went so far as to purchase a wonderful old Pyramid paperback copy of Ellison's story collection No Doors, No Windows for me. This is the same friend who ignited my early appreciation of H.P. Lovecraft, so I was eager to see what Ellison's works had in store. Based on the book's back cover, I was expecting delightfully cheesy horror tales, since the description was rife with the kind of flourishes only found on cheap 1970s paperbacks: "Harlan Ellison shows you a frightening world of paranoia and panic, fear and fantasy...with no way out!"

This expectation was nearly undone by Ellison's own introduction to his work. Book introductions range from a few pages to several, with details ranging from necessary background information to historical minutiae. I found it odd for a writer to pen his own introduction, and for someone new to Harlan Ellison, his nonfiction accounts of his own work can be hilarious and/or self-serving, but by the end, there's no doubting his confidence. He's a man with a passionate following and vitriolic haters, and his explanations of the stories seem to be written with both camps in mind.

"I've gone on too long. Conversation, the rap, still holds top spot in my catalogue of ways to have a good time. But I've rambled and digressed, and I've got to tell you a few things about how some of these stories came to be written, and then I'll get my face out of your way and let you go on to read the entertainments. Excuse me if I lecture. I don't mean to. It just comes over me sometimes.
In the main, most of these stories were written in the early and mid years of my writing career. I went through about 300,000 words of previously published (but never collected) stories to select these sixteen. I like each one of them, or they wouldn't be here. But I've substantially rewritten all of them. The errors of style and grammar I made when I was learning my craft were so silly and awful, I couldn't bear to let them stand. So in many ways these are new stories (Ellison 29)."

Upon completion of the book, it becomes evident how necessary the long introduction is--some of the stories would seem like mere snippets of prose instead of pieces with deeper foundations. Ellison could have been accused of rampant misogyny were this not disavowed in the opening pages (given the tendency of people to confuse the material with the writer). He even explains the need of a re-written title: "White Trash Don't Exist" was originally titled "N---- Don't Exist," meant to be a jarring look at the lives of Southern blacks, but given the new title due to a racist editor. Most importantly, Ellison takes pains to distance himself from the label of being a "science fiction writer," preferring the more encompassing term "speculative fiction." What is intriguing about this collection is the lack of anything that could be deemed either "sci-fi" or "speculative." Ellison, at least within these works, displays a combination of noir and magical realism, infusing blatant dime-store plots with gripping narratives that become believable in their own twisted worlds.

"The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" opens the collection, and manages to combine the bulk of these ideas. A woman is violently killed in a courtyard with her neighbors watching from the windows, and one of the voyeurs, another woman, feels a sense of guilt for not helping or calling 911 (understatement intended). She begins dating Ray, a man in her building and another witness to the killing. He quickly reveals himself to be a misogynist, dismissing her and engaging in forceful sex. While these plot lines seem unrelated, the story ends up being a look at the hard realities of city life, with the extreme actions providing a buffer to the everyday urban monotony and grimness, and a supernatural force comes into play as well. For an opening story, it gives a strong sense of what else is to come, with the remaining stories focused on singular weirdness, rather than outlandish layers:

"She tried to decorate the apartment with a less precise touch. Huge poster blowups of Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham replaced the Brueghel prints that had reminded her of the view looking down the hill toward Williams. The tiny balcony outside her window, the balcony she had steadfastly refused to stand upon since the night of the slaughter, the night of the fog with eyes, that balcony she swept and set about with little flower boxes in which she planted geraniums, petunias, dwarf zinnias and other hardy perennials. Then, closing the window, she went to give herself, to involve herself in this city to which she had brought her ordered life (Ellison 53)."

Ellison also has a gift for finding the humorous in the macabre. "Tow the Line" explores a foolproof carjacking scheme that goes terribly awry, with the revelation saved for the very end, a clever twist overriding the gruesome consequences, explained almost cheerfully by an FBI agent. "Opposites Attract" is an offbeat love story, with a killer and a bomber finding themselves to be kindred spirits. In "Status Quo at Troyden's," an elderly man goes to extremes over his raised rent and evil landlord, and even in the senseless act, the reader feels dark sympathy for the protagonist. We're in his head, and while the murder cannot be condoned, there's a twisted logic in the old man's actions:

"He never quite finished. Mr. Huggerson had moved with the precision of a zombie as the fat man had turned away. He lifted the metal ashtray with the heavy weighted base, and moved in behind Troyden's chair.
Without sense or reason or actual volition, all energy had drained from him as the cruelty and unreasonableness of the landlord's words struck him forcibly. To not get the reduction was bad enough--but to pay twice again as much! It was horrible, it was torture; he had to put a stop to those words that were terribly, mercilessly destroying his universe. He had to stop the torment of this man. He had to!
Strangely, there had been no blood (Ellison 76)."

It's difficult (and rather pointless) to pick a favorite of the collection, but I found myself drawn to "The Children's Hour," a story that seems to be the most horrifying and timeless. At the United Nations building, dozens and dozens of children enter the hall and plead for world nations to stop fighting. After the spokeschild states their case, they leave, and the (un)expected happens:

"What happened next was pandemonium. A pandemonium of laughter. The Russian delegation began, and in a few moments it had spread till the entire room was a bonfire of mirth. The Russians begged to speak and when their representative rose he said this was a poor, shabby trick for the Americans to pull, and that it changed no one's mind, except that perhaps the Yankees were greater fools than the world had thought.
The US representatives accused the Russians.
The Chinese accused the British.
The French accused the Germans.
Bedlam was the order of the day.
And the next day...
And the next...
But on the fourth day, there was no bedlam, because the wars in Europe, Africa and Asia simultaneously escalated. They didn't last long, however, On the same day, wherever anyone might have been...whether in a bathtub, or on a desert, or in a jungle, or on a mountaintop, they heard the sounds (Ellison 142-143)."

These aren't the stories for which Mr. Ellison is best known, but as an introductory collection, these are great starters, and the gaudy 1975 packaging actually aids the the best stories. One wouldn't be faulted for going into this expecting breezy, ridiculous horror tales, and for serious readers, this expectation, while met, is elevated by the genuinely gripping passages. Whether he would admit this or not, there is a smattering of sci-fi and the supernatural, but the majority of these stories achieve what the best genre fiction tries to do: there are morals and contemporary problems even in seemingly unrelated scenarios. This is my guess as to why Ellison despises labels and opts for emphasis on the act of writing. He knew that some people wouldn't take him seriously, and designations such as "sci-fi" or "horror" writing would add to the derision. Many great modern writers continually share their early loves of genre writing--Lethem has Philip K. Dick, Michael Chabon has the world of comic books--with the hopes of "elevating" the genres to show how they work beyond the stereotypes. While I'm not immediately familiar with Ellison having any outspoken backers, his stories don't need apologizing or explanations. At his best, he packages deep philosophical musings into fantastical scenarios. Even at his worst, you can't go wrong with a good thriller story when the mood strikes, and he's not one for cheap thrills. He still values good writing and intelligence in areas where it seems they would not be found.

Work Cited:
Ellison, Harlan. No Doors, No Windows. Copyright 1975 by Harlan Ellison.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Fifty Shades of Dismay: A Bookseller/Reader's Perspective

As a bookseller, I've spent the last few months fielding multiple requests for copies of E.L. James's romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey. The numbers of inquiries started modestly, and have grown with the book's recent media attention; had I documented this, I would be able to illustrate it with a pretty straightforward graph chart. I knew the title before I knew its contents, and certain genre titles (in this case, romance) get extra notice before fading away. However, Fifty Shades of Grey has shown no signs of slowing down. It began as a "print-on-demand" title, frequently being unavailable, and has been picked up by Random House for another release in April. At first, I merely shrugged when I kept getting asked about it. Then, as details of its plot became more understood in the mainstream, I found myself grumbling a little, but treating it no differently than any other erotic thriller that my store keeps in stock. I then crossed two thresholds of anger and despair that led me to devote an essay to this "phenomenon," since I very rarely write pieces for the sake of complete criticism. I caught a Today show segment on the book, in which a book club participant boasts about having not read a book in nine years until picking up Fifty Shades of Grey. Then last night, I read the first chapter of the book on a whim, and was completely taken aback by the terrible writing, to the point of sending out this tweet: "I did it: I read chapter 1 of 'Fifty Shades Of Grey.' What utter, unequivocal shit on paper. Please let this be a joke. Please." This garnered the most retweets I've ever gotten (okay, four people retweeted it, but it's still my highest total), mainly from people whose profiles indicate that they write erotic fiction, as well as from Andrew Shaffer, a writer who has had success with his own Fifty Shades parody.

My tweet was meant for laughs, but I was serious. My reading of the first chapter left me in a state of complete exasperation and disbelief. Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fan fiction before morphing into the BSDM tale of Ana Steele and Christian Grey. The shudder-inducing phrase that has been thrown about is "mommy porn," but I didn't even get into the sexual aspects of the book. The opening chapter is rife with ridiculous passages, banal character descriptions, and a ridiculous emphasis on Ana's clumsiness and Christian's wealth and power. A co-worker of mine was taken aback at how shocked I was at the writing. I knew the work would be fluff, but James's writing style is that of a teenager, and the fact that people supported it and read it so much to the point of major publication is astounding. Am I being too harsh? Yes, because this is clearly the work of someone who is new to fiction writing. Fifty Shades of Grey is exactly the type of writing that happens when a.) someone decides on a whim to start experimenting with fiction, and b.) is given too much praise and not enough constructive criticism. I'm sure fans of the book will roll their eyes at me, being just another "book snob" who is being too mean and is not content to let people enjoy what they want to enjoy. I've thought about this to the point of coming up with genuine retorts to the kinds of criticism that would be given to people who simply want to promote good writing instead of the juvenile works of writers like E.L. James.

1.) You're not the book's target audience. Yes, that's true. Genre fiction is marketed (and sometimes written) with specific niche audiences in mind, but I've always been a champion of works that speak to a wider group. For example, I'd be the first person to admit that I've read very little science fiction in my life, yet I know enough to appreciate the writers who manage to have crossover appeal. Romance novelists have their devoted fans and followings, but very few of them garner the mainstream attention inexplicably given to E.L. James. Writers are free to create what they see fit, and there are plenty of titles and subject matters that don't appeal to me, but appeal to millions of others. My entire gripe is not the book's genre or subject matter, but the fact that the writing itself is so bad. It's not a case of me "missing the point" or sticking my nose where I have no business doing so. Good and bad writing abounds in every style, fiction or non-fiction. I feel that I have the background to make my opinions known.

2.) E.L. James is giving her fans what they want. What have YOU had published? Yes, that's true. And a few months ago, I lost a few Twitter followers after making fun of romance novel titles. Romance aficionados are a very devoted group, and who am I to critique an author who knows her audience and is garnering attention? And no, I'm not writing this because I'm jaded, nor am I approaching this with the mindset of "great, THIS is considered publishable fiction?" I'm 28 years old, and after years of writing my own fiction, I've yet to have anything published. This is because I wrote A LOT of terrible stories in my late teens and early twenties, and after awhile, I was able to discern what was good and what was bad. I have friends who are not afraid to tell me if I've written something that needs fixing or complete scrapping. I'm self-critical to a fault: I will absolutely love a piece of my own fiction one day and hate it the next before moving into another round of editing. I'm working on a few pieces that I hope to have ready for summertime submissions. This has taken years of trial and error, self-reflection, and energy, but I know I've evolved and grown both personally and academically. This never would have happened if I had had an audience of people who would not critique me and tell me if my writing was bad. I'm not begrudging James for having a work published that I dislike.

3.) People who otherwise wouldn't read are reading. What's wrong with that? The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon has gone against a truth that I used to passionately promote. I generally believe that all reading is good, even if a given work is weak, since the act of reading engages the brain in unique ways. But Fifty Shades isn't even pretending to be a piece of literature. People are reading it just to get to the erotic parts, as evidenced by the bland opening chapter that establishes the obvious personalities of the main characters. Therefore, I can't in good consciousness believe that this is good reading for people who don't read. At work, I'm continually stumped by people who ask for recommendations, followed by "but I really don't like to read." My heart goes out to romance novelists who actually attempt to create a plausible plot, or even put time and effort into supernatural or outlandish plots, rather than writing like a teenager. Again, these aren't my genres, but I know there are dozens, even hundreds of novelists who have put more effort into their works.

As for the subject matter: like any plot, sexual writing has its good and bad examples. At Instafiction, we've featured quite a few stories with explicitly sexual themes, proof that good writing can elevate anything. "Quiet Please" by Aimee Bender and "The Fence" by Lindsay Hunter are great examples of sexually charged fictions that don't hold back, yet are pieces of superior writing styles. These are female writers who are unafraid to push boundaries and explore unusual manifestations of sexuality, yet, with the exception of Bender, haven't received nearly the attention that E.L. James has enjoyed in recent months.

Much like political writings, I know this piece isn't going to sway anyone. People who love Fifty Shades of Grey won't blink and realize that the writing is bad, and readers who agree with my assessments already have the same views, and therefore won't find anything new in my words. I'm simply dismayed that the nationwide attention is being given to these books (it's a trilogy), when far superior writers can offer the same explorations in far better styles. I'm not being critical to be an asshole, and I'm not trying to be a book snob, turning his nose up at popular culture. I'm just amazed at how terrible the writing is, and that's my biggest complaint. Read and write anything that explores any kind of sexuality you want, but at the end of the day, emphasis on sound writing skills is essential. I just can't sit here and let these works be classified as literature. And for people who claim they don't read or don't like to read: please, just try. You'll find that any interest you have is backed up by excellent writings. You just need to be patient and look, instead of opting for the easy examples.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

People and Spaces: "Oblivion" by David Foster Wallace

On February 21st of this year, David Foster Wallace would have been fifty years old. This milestone date was met with an unexpected outpouring of support via social media, with readers and admirers sharing a variety of quotes, video links, and seemingly "forgotten" articles by and about Wallace. Not that any fan of Wallace needs any real push to immerse him/herself in his writings, I realized I'm within range of completing his complete published bibliography within the next few years, and I decided to read Oblivion, his 2004 story collection. Among his story/essay collections and novels, no single title has ever received "bad" reviews, but there seems to be a definite hierarchy to their respective receptions (and, as I've heard via anecdote, Wallace himself despised his debut novel The Broom Of the System). Oblivion doesn't get mentioned a lot, and I found that to be a good thing, since it made for a rare opportunity to go into the pieces with no subconscious influences other than Wallace's other stories.

Recently, I read the perfect description of Wallace's writings, the deceptively simple term "maximalist." In Oblivion, this seems to be heightened, especially in the exploration and juxtaposition of minute and more universal details (again, this could easily apply to his entire canon). And it bears mentioning that any single piece of his short fiction can be examined with a full essay, so a single review of a collection will not touch on every detail or plot point. "Mister Squishy," the opening story, explores the mix of corporate and personal lives, with a focus group testing a new snack cake, while an employee pines for his coworker. A "human fly" appears as well, seeming both random and necessary for the story's arc. For an opening story, it thrusts the reader right into Wallace's expansive details, and manages to be both explicitly funny as well as finding odd humor in even the most casual observations:

"Precisely 50% of the room's men wore coats and ties or had suitcoats or blazers hanging from the back of their chairs, three of which coats were part of an actual three-piece business wardrobe; another three men wore combinations of knit shirts, slacks, and various crew- and turtleneck sweaters classifiable as Business Casual. Schmidt lived alone in a condominium he had recently refinanced. The remaining four men wore bluejeans and sweatshirts with the logo of either a university or the garment's manufacturer; one was the Nike Swoosh icon that to Schmidt always looked somewhat Arabic. Three of the four men in conspicuously casual/sloppy attire were the Focus Group's youngest members, two of whom were among the three making rather a show of not attending closely (Wallace 9)."

Just as precisely, Wallace can use the same details for uncomfortable, painful effects (as seems to be the prevailing theme in the collection as a whole):

"...which was another reason why Schmidt had stopped looking at the sky or going out at night or even usually ever opening the lightproof curtains of his condominium's picture window when he got home at night and instead sat with his satellite TV's channel-changer in his left hand switching rapidly from channel to channel to channel out of fear that something better was going to come on suddenly on another of the cable provider's 220 regular and premium channels and that he was about to miss it, spending three nightly hours this way before it was time to stare with drumming heart at the telephone that wholly unbeknownst to her had Darlene Lilley's home number on Speed Dial so that it would take only one moment of courage to risk looking prurient or creepy to use just one finger to push just one gray button to invite her for one cocktail or even just a soft drink over which he could take off his public mask and open his heart to her...(Wallace 33)."

"The Soul Is Not a Smithy" is my favorite piece in the book, since it manages to upend nostalgic sketches of childhood with scenes of domestic terror and a stunningly rendered portrait of a schoolteacher who snaps into a schizophrenic coma. The buildup to the teacher's collapse is done slowly and carefully, and unfolds almost like a scene in a thriller novel, since the reader is led to expect the worst climax.

"Meanwhile, the Xth Amendment (the first I-IX are what compromise the familiar Bill of Rights, although the Xth Amendment was adopted simultaneously in 1791) contains the phrase The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, and so forth, which Mr. Johnson, while at the board, according to Ellen Morrison and every other pupil taking notes, wrote The powers not delegated KILL to the United States THEM by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it KILL THEM to the States, at which time there was again, evidently, another long classroom silence, during which the pupils all began looking at one another while Mr. Johnson stood with his back to the room at the board with his hand with the yellow chalk hanging at his side and his head again cocked to the side as if he were having trouble hearing or understanding something, without turning around or saying anything, before picking up the board's eraser once again and trying to continue the lesson on Amendments X and XIII as though nothing unusual had taken place (Wallace 87)."

It is too tempting to read too much into a story, given Wallace's 2008 suicide, but it's impossible not to be disheartened and moved by the story "Good Old Neon." In this piece, a young man explores the ways in which his life has been a fraud and a layered misunderstanding, all told from the beyond following his suicide. He details his attempts at therapy and the psychological manners in which he manipulates others. Despite the memory of Wallace's death hanging over my reading, I was touched by the story's dignity and psychological explorations; it's another example of Wallace's ability to inhabit any subject as an artist and as an expert researcher. Even if suicide wasn't acknowledged in the piece, it would still read as a personal story, given his lifelong battle with depression and emotional instability.

"Once again, I'm aware that it's clumsy to put it all this way, but the point is that all of this and more was flashing through my head just in the interval of the small, dramatic pause Dr. Gustafson allowed himself before delivering his big reductio ad absurdum argument that I couldn't be a total fraud if I had just come out and admitted my fraudulence to him just now. I know that you know as well as I do how fast thoughts and associations can fly through your head. You can be in the middle of a creative meeting at your job or something, and enough material can rush through your head just in the little silences when people are looking over their notes and waiting for the next presentation that it would take exponentially longer than the whole meeting just to try and put a few seconds' silence's flood of thoughts into words. This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person's life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn't even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by...(Wallace 150-151)."

"Oblivion" is the painstaking title story, dealing with an older married couple beset by a husband's snoring, and the battle between his insistence that he is awake when his wife accuses him of doing so, and her insistence that it's a problem that he is unwilling to address. Wallace is just as keen to domestic scenarios as he is to anything else, and the fights and repetitious struggles faced by the couple are set up to be unique takes on the oft-told story of suburban family strife. The final story, "The Suffering Channel," manages to be hilarious yet slightly faulty. A newspaper editor for a People-like publication is writing a story about an artist who defecates perfectly formed, dynamic sculptures (Wallace is the only writer who can detail waste in hilarious yet appropriately sickening details). My view of the story's fault is a minor one: for someone as vastly talented as Wallace was, it seems as if he was going for obvious metaphors (art, creation, waste, and reception), and the piece works much better when taken at face value as a hilariously offbeat fable.

I haven't mentioned all of the stories in Oblivion, but the samples I've provided give a rounded summary of the styles and themes. Why isn't this book as consistently well-regarded in the Wallace bibliography? Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is generally assumed to be his best collection of stories, and perhaps it is due to the titles stories linking together to make it feel like one thematically tight piece of writing. Oblivion works as a true "collection," and the similar tones are divided by drastically different subject matters. Has Oblivion been more read by Wallace completists? I feel it's just as important as his other works, and I was very pleased by the sense of discovery as I continue to make my way through his published pieces. It's not "classic" Wallace, since all of his writings are connected by his voice, research, and details, but rather "expected" Wallace, which is not all meant derisively. For anyone looking for further readings, or even as a starting point for his writing, this is just as good a place as any to pick up or dive in.

Work Cited:
Wallace, David Foster. Oblivion: Stories. Copyright 2004 by David Foster Wallace.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Inglorious Bastard: The Mystique of Jack Green

Last month, William Gaddis's first two novels (The Recognitions and JR) were reprinted in new paperback and e-book forms by the fine publishers at Dalkey Archive Press. These reissues were met with muted but enthusiastic response, since the works have been out of print for a few years since their previous release by Penguin Classics. I'm always excited when the works of William Gaddis receive new attention, but I was even more excited when I found out that Dalkey Archive was also publishing Jack Green's Fire the Bastards!, an underground rant against the poor early reviews of The Recognitions. I've read about Fire the Bastards! in the occasional Gaddis essay, and I was quick to snatch up a copy upon its release. In some paradoxical way, I knew what to expect going in, but at the same time I had no idea how Green went about his critiques. I was also challenged by wondering how to go about this written response, since I realized it would be too much to have this be a review of a review of multiple reviews.

When The Recognitions was first published, the reviews were a combination of scathing, confused, and outright wrong about its meaning and often confusing plot structures and dialogue sequences. Upon reading the book, the pseudonymous Jack Green took to his underground publication, entitled newspaper, to provide detailed, unrelenting criticisms of the reviewers who failed to see the genius in Gaddis's work. Steve Moore's introduction to the 1992 printing (which is also available in this year's edition) provides some valuable background into Green's life, and the details are just as entertaining as the book's content.

"He entered Princeton in 1947, where he majored in music, but apparently he left without a degree. In the early fifties he lived in Greenwich Village, studied the psychological theories of Wilhelm Reich, and worked on trying to perfect various gambling systems.....
He then changed his name to Jack Green, perhaps taken from Jack Green's card--a horse-racing tip sheet of the 1940s. Supporting himself as a free-lance proofreader--by all accounts a quick and accurate one--he started newspaper, which he had been planning since his insurance company days (Moore v)."

Another important part of Moore's introduction is as follows: "Green learned of [The Recognitions] from a review in the New Yorker shortly after publication in 1955, and though he admits that he had some difficulty adjusting to it at first, by 1957 he was convinced it was 'a great work of art, the best novel ever written in America.'" Before getting into Green's writings, one would assume the critics of The Recognitions suffered from the same early struggles that Green had. However, Fire the Bastards! is not just a screed against poor book reviewing, but a condemnation of plagiarism, intentional boasting of not finishing a work one is meant to review, and the general attitude of giving up on something that takes time to appreciate. It took Green two years to come around to the book, and it took me months to read it myself (and I'm sure my review has some errors Green would have been all too happy to point out). This problem is the only one not truly touched upon. In the haste to have reviews out in a timely fashion, challenging books might not be given adequate time and reading. Even the fastest readers need time with something as complex as The Recognitions. But, even with this in mind, Green bitingly attacks the other faults committed by the book reviewers. His style is similar to that of Gaddis, taken even further. With the exception of exact quotations, he writes with little to no punctuation or capitalization. It's not distracting, but rather gives his words even more emphasis. Even without adherence to grammatical rules, there's no doubt he's a fiercely intelligent reader and critic.

"FIRE the anonymous hack of the toronto globe & mail he didn't finish the book either headline: It Beats Us

Frequently we sample a new book, reading a few paragraphs here and there to get the hang of it; but several such samplings left us blanker and blanker. It is a most humiliating thing for a reviewer of upwards of 40 years' experience to not be able to understand a novel, not even get a clue. So the samplings became fewer and fewer and farther apart and had stopped when we discovered the able Chicago Tribune man, Edward Wagenknecht, was in the same fix.

'able!' the provincial disciple acknowledges his master--at gold-bricking after 40 years experience faking cant he even write his own review? almost 1/2 of it is right out of wagenknecht (Green 5)."

What I didn't anticipate in my reading was how funny Green is at his most scathing. I read the following line multiple times, and its humor was never diminished:

"im biased for reviewers who favored the recognitions except some who write like cold oatmeal (Green 8)."

For all of my appreciation of Green's intelligence, I'm not going to say, had I read The Recognitions without any background information, my critical eye would have seen it as a landmark novel; I likely would have been just as lost had I not read multiple essays about the book before my attempt. And as I mentioned in my linked piece, I know I missed a slew of references, allusions, and translations, but what I got out of it far outweighs what I didn't. But the heart of Green's argument is that esteemed, professional book reviewers were so quick to find no redeeming value in it. Furthermore, Gaddis's lack of dialogue indication, while relatively daring at the time, was viewed as too anti-establishment and yet another demerit to an already difficult work. This provides yet another method to Green's (emotional) madness, ridiculing the expectations of conformity. Similar to Gaddis, one sometimes has to carefully dissect Green's longer sentences to see the clear meaning embedded in them:

"(yes i know youve heard all about conformity madisonavenue & individuality & you dont want to read another word about topics stale usedup & newly unfashionable which means: youve been conned again! when an idea starts to look dangerous to Them they destroy it with the novelty trick they grab onto it themselves & write it up everywhere & everyphonyway until you get sick of it, the novelty wears off, the ideas not dangerous but passe & meantime the right people have made plenty of money out of it especially compared to what theyd make if they wrote about their own ideas but ideas arent like hats 1 fashions not replaceable by another except among the fashionable timekillers 'conformism's just as important before during & after the henry luce boys get the hots for it)(Green 34)"

As I neared the end of Fire the Bastards!, I couldn't help but wonder if Green was too scathing for his own good. There's such a great buildup, and there are many terrific lines, but I had the occasional feeling that his critiques were repetitive. And given the style, it's easy to see how some assumed, according to Moore, that Gaddis himself was actually Jack Green (this was a rumor that has since been dismissed). Had this been true, then it would have been an utter embarrassment. On the flip side, I wonder how many writers would really want someone like Jack Green on their side. It would be gratifying to have a champion, someone willing to research and defend against negativity, to a point. But Fire the Bastards! is a rare piece of literary criticism that manages to highlight an entire industry, rather than just a single author's negative reviews. The research is astute, and there is undeniable creativity in the venom. And equally as rare is the realization that the work can potentially be read on its own without one having read The Recognitions (although I wouldn't immediately suggest this). So while I cannot help but wonder if Green's work is just a bit too over the top, it's an admirable study of someone passionate about a work of art, done in a style that would have been ridiculous in other hands. Green hits his targets and makes this a helpful companion piece. My own take on it might not be the most in-depth, but the citations are good examples of what he did, and it's proof that literary criticism isn't always solemn and stodgy. Most importantly, the slim volume likely did more for a literary classic than any more academic analysis could have done. By digging into the novel's imagined faults, Fire the Bastards! is just slightly more an appreciation of the book than a rant against the critics. Just slightly, but enough that both sides can be easily ascertained.

Work Cited:
Green, Jack. Fire the Bastards! Public domain. 1962.

Moore, Steven. Introduction copyright 1992 by Dalkey Archive Press.

"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...