Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Even in 2012, one of the more striking traits about John Dos Passos was his tendency to write about the American immigrant experience in a complete circle, unafraid to explore the negative sides of poverty, racism, and hardships. These notions are all too familiar today, but in the early 20th century, one can only imagine the emotional impact of his words, especially when they so freely go against blind and unquestioning patriotism. These notions first came to me in college, when, for a course on American Literature, I was assigned his 1925 novel Manhattan Transfer. In addition to its gritty, almost musical prose, I was also enamored with his dialogue, which was realistic and contained a stunning ear for accents and dialects. It's been years since I last read it, and while I've planned to reread it, I only recently got around to reading another one of his works. The 42nd Parallel is the first novel in his U.S.A. trilogy, and I'm not sure if the same themes listed above are even more prevalent, or if this is merely a case of having them refreshed in my memory. The beauty of The 42nd Parallel, in addition to being an invaluable fiction of American life, is its structural layout, working as a straightforward novel complete with interludes, asides, and recreations of newsreel items from the time period. In Dos Passos' era, this type of writing would have likely been viewed as wildly experimental. That holds true today, but in my mind, it's an early form of hypertext. I generally shy away from assumptions about how a given piece of art would have been experienced in its debut, but given how this text is still fresh and open to format interpretations, it's impossible not to make those comparisons and hypotheses. With today's political and economic turmoil, this text is a reminder that some problems have never gone away.
The narrative of The 42nd Parallel follows the singular and intersecting lives of five characters: Mac, a printer with revolutionary ideals; Janey, a stenographer; Eleanor, a department store worker and designer; Ward, a hopeful songwriter turned public relations executive; and Charley, a small-town auto mechanic. Their lives and travels take them, in various times and situations, from the United States to Mexico to Europe. Their personal lives are blended with a bigger picture, effectively showing how individual lives can serve as examples of how the world works, for better and for worse. In his foreword to the latest publication, E.L. Doctorow offers a phrase about Jazz Age writers that can serve as an imaginary subtitle to this work: the characters "entangle themselves in the crises of civilization."
The early works of Dos Passos are full of political explorations that were radical at the time. The book opens with Mac, who quickly becomes a champion of workers' rights, leading to passages of dialogue that are still lively and stunning today:
"'...I read Bellamy's Looking Backward, though: that's what made me a Socialist.' 'Tell me about it; I'd just start readin' it when I left home.' 'It's about a galoot that goes to sleep an' wakes up in the year two thousand and the social revolution's all happened and everything's socialistic an' there's no way anybody can get to be a rich bondholder or capitalist and life's pretty slick for the working class.' 'That's what I always thought...It's the workers who create wealth and they ought to have it instead of a lot of drones.' 'If you could do away with the capitalist system and the big trusts and Wall Street things 'ud be like that.'
'All you'd need would be a general strike and have the workers refuse to work for a boss any longer...God damn it, if people only realized how friggin' easy it would be. The interests own all the press and keep knowledge and education from the workin'men (Dos Passos 49)."
Dos Passos was also ahead of the time socially as well as politically:
"In Salem, Ike found that he had a dose and Mac couldn't sleep nights worrying for fear he might have it too. They tried to go to a doctor in Salem. He was a big roundfaced man with a hearty laugh. When they said they didn't have any money he guessed it was all right and that they could do some chores to pay for the consultation, but when he heard it was a venereal disease he threw them out with a hot lecture on the wages of sin (Dos Passos 61)."
"...and the fact that Maurice didn't like Eveline the way Eveline liked him make Eveline very unhappy, but Maurice and Eric seemed to be thoroughly happy. They slept in the same bed and were always together. Eleanor used to wonder about them sometimes but it was so nice to know boys who weren't horrid about women (Dos Passos 174)."
Occasionally, the passages are still worthwhile, but show their age. In this passage from Janey's childhood, Dos Passos attempts racial tolerance in the form of Janey's mother, but there's still a hint of racism. I'm not projecting these views onto Dos Passos, but while I'm only partially familiar with his biography, I'm not sure if the follow passage was meant merely for the character or if it projected his own views. The passage loses none of its fictional intensity, but the reader has to take it from two potential points of view: 1.) Dos Passos critiquing literal white supremacy (i.e. respecting black people but holding them in a lesser light) or 2.) Dos Passos projecting his own views in the passage, which would case today's reader to pause:
"Janey stood in front of her mother shaking her head about so that the two stiff sandy pigtails lashed from side to side. 'Stand still, child, for gracious sake...Jane, I want to talk to you about something. That little colored girl you brought in this afternoon...' Janey's heart was dropping. She had a sick feeling and felt herself blushing, she hardly knew why. 'Now, don't misunderstand me; I like and respect the colored people; some of them are find self-respecting people in their place...But you mustn't bring that little colored girl in the house again. Treating colored people kindly with respect is one of the signs of good breeding...(Dos Passos 107).'"
Worldviews aside, it's easy to lose track of Dos Passos' gift as a writer of everyday passages. For all of his audacious examples of social and political ideas, he presents the smaller moments with equal vividness. In a similar fashion to Manhattan Transfer, The 42nd Parallel even the most normal scenes are rendered with an almost musical energy, therefore (to use a tired phrase) making them come alive. The prose is constantly moving and descriptive, almost making the reading cinematic. With any novel, a reader visualizes the actions; with a Dos Passos novel, the internal visualization tends to be more more expansive, since there are so many accompanying details:
"The roadhouse was kept by a French couple, and Ward talked French to them and ordered a chicken dinner and red wine and hot whisky toddies to warm them up while they were waiting. There was no one else in the roadhouse and he had a table placed right in front of the gaslogs at the end of a pink and yellow diningroom, dimly lit, a long ghostly series of empty tables and long windows blocked with snow. Through dinner he told Gertrude about his plans to form an agency of his own and said he was only waiting to find a suitable partner and he was sure that he could make it the biggest in the country, especially with this new unexploited angle of the relation between capital and labor (Dos Passos 202)."
As I mentioned before, I couldn't help but mentally classify The 42nd Parallel as a form of literary hypertext. This definition might not be literally accurate, but there are "links" to the aforementioned social and political messages, and interspersed with the character narratives are recurring sections: "The Camera Eye" and "Newsreel." After doing some outside research, I learned that "The Camera Eye" pieces are collections of semi-autobiographic sketches, and the "Newsreel" pieces were taken from actual newspaper headlines. Together, they form part of the overall collage of The 42nd Parallel. The news items present a dizzying account of the era's happenings, and are both timely and sometimes hilarious:
"the mannequin who is such a feature of the Paris racecourse surpasses herself in the launching of novelties. She will put on the most amazing costume and carry it with perfect sangfroid. Inconsistency is her watchword
Three German staff officers who passed nearby were nearly mobbed by enthusiastic people who insisted on shaking their hands
Girl Steps On Match; Dress Ignited; Dies (Dos Passos 206)."
"The Camera Eye" sections read like free verse and are among my favorite sections in the novel. They tie into the plot occasionally, and sometimes not at all, but Dos Passos writes with an almost experiment edge. These are poetic, moving, and stylistically years ahead of other literary experimenters. Even in their randomness, there's no doubt that, even on their own, they're essential to the overall arc:
"in the mouth of the Schuykill Mr. Pierce came on board ninety-six years old and sound as a dollar He'd been officeboy in Mr. Pierce's office about the time He'd enlisted and missed the battle of Antietam on account of having dysentery so bad and Mr. Pierce's daughter Mrs. Black called Him Jack and smoked little brown cigarettes and we played Fra Diavolo on the phonograph and everybody was very jolly when Mr. Pierce tugged at his dundrearies and took a toddy and Mrs. Black lit cigarettes one after another and they talked about old days and how His father had wanted Him to be a priest and His poor mother had had such trouble getting together enough to eat for that family of greedy boys and His father was a silent man and spoke mostly Portugee and when he didn't like the way a dish was cooked that came on the table he'd pick it up and sling it out the window...(Dos Passos 131-132)."
According to Doctorow's introduction, Dos Passos grew much more conservative as he got older, but as readers today, we're lucky that he put his early social passions into literary form (this would be the basis for another article, but much has been made about why conservative art is nearly nonexistent). While I've given only a passing summary of the plot, the samples I've cited are perfect examples of the myriad of forms Dos Passos worked with in the confines of a single text. He's still not as immediately famous as Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I personally find his prose to be much more timely. In today's climate, even the mere suggestion of fixing social problems can be branded by some as "un-American," so in a time of such intense patriotic fervor, Dos Passos was more daring than any political writer of today. He took a lot of risks to even explore some of his subjects, let alone explore them with sympathy and understanding. Discussions about the immediacy of the social novel abound today, and The 42nd Parallel works as both historical fiction as well as a model for our current world. There is so much packed into this text, with so much diversity in its forms. One can agree or disagree with its messages, but it succeeds as an art form, being entertaining, almost literally timeless, and a voicing so many ideas.
Dos Passos, John. The 42nd Parallel. Copyright 1930, 1958 by John Dos Passos.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
I didn't do any outside research after this reading, so I don't know if Christopher Bram's Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America is the first, or at least most definitive account of gay/bisexual writers. If it truly is, it begs the question: why hasn't this been done before? The personal and creative lives of gay writers are usually explored within singular memoirs and biographies, and while a more encompassing work like this has to sacrifice some details in the interest of space and variety, it's the sort of book that has the potential to appeal to a variety of of readers and scholars, those interested in gay as well as literary history. Many people in literary criticism often make concrete distinctions between a writer's work and life, but as Bram shows, the identities of gay writers are sometimes impossible to separate from the books, since honest fictional accounts of gay lifestyles have been censored or forced to use metaphors, especially in the early and mid-20th century. Like gay acceptance and consciousness, the literary side has had to overcome discrimination and ridicule to achieve mainstream acceptance and judgement for the content rather than the labels.
In his introduction, Bram makes some important distinctions:
"This book is about gay male writers and not lesbian writers. I chose this focus reluctantly, but I needed to simplify an already complicated story. Also, lesbian literature has its own dynamic and history. It needs its own historian (Bram x)."
"This is not an all-inclusive, definitive literary history. I do not include everyone of value or importance. Nor am I putting together a canon of must-read writers. I am writing a large-scale cultural narrative, and I include chiefly those authors who help me tell that story--and who offer the liveliest tales (Bram xi)."
Eminent Outlaws is indeed simplified, but I don't mean that in a negative way. It follows a semi-chronological development and bibliography, but gets its dynamic from the mix of textual studies and sociological/biographical/historical explanations (which, in a sort of paradox that I'll get to later, marks the book's success and problems). Bram definitely chooses the liveliest stories, and while he's careful to mention that this isn't a collection of "must-read writers," the names are ones that people should have at least a passing familiarity with--Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Frank O'Hara, et al. He also mentions a few writers who have flown under my literary radar, including Edmund White and Armistead Maupin. There's also the notice that this really is the first definitive history of gay writers, which goes against my initial introduction, but as I said, I find it fascinating that this type of history hasn't been compiled before.
The book opens with the 1950s and Gore Vidal, and along with Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, Vidal makes the most appearances in the decades that follow. In 1948, Vidal published The City and the Pillar, the first obvious book with male homosexuality as the central theme, as well as setting a sort of template for the gay-themed novels that would follow: the act of publishing it was daring, the book found a passionate gay readership, and the reviews either overlooked the sexual content or dismissed it due to the social mores of the time. The history of literary criticism is worthy of its own story, but when applied to gay writers and books, the reviews seem to follow the trajectory of mainstream opinions of homosexuality, from outright contempt to acceptance as the years go on.
"Reviewers who ignored the sexual implications tended to give [The City and the Pillar]good reviews. 'A short novel which is as dazzling a phenomenon as has burst on the literary scene in the last ten years,' said the Chicago Tribune. The sexual critics almost all leaped to negative conclusions. 'The book is immature and its theme is calculated to make the flesh crawl.' said Time magazine. 'The distasteful trappings of its homosexual theme overhang it like Spanish moss.' Carlos Baker, future biographer of Hemingway, said in the New York Times Book Review, 'The story of Joel Knox did not need to be told except to get it out of the author's system'...as early as 1948, the mainstream nervously dismissed the subject as old hat. Other reviewers called the book 'disgusting,' 'sterile,' and 'gauche.' The two or three good reviews were couched in sociological terms (Bram 8)."
Even as culture and criticism advanced, some writers, namely James Baldwin, were tossed and torn between conflicting identities. Should Baldwin be remembered as a gay writer or a black writer? Was Tony Kushner's Angels In America specifically about gay life or the AIDS crisis? Bram presents the multiple sides of these issues without making assumptions, but rather presenting the histories and ultimately letting the texts speak for themselves. His best passages, however, are biographical. The research he put into this book is impressive, and the lives of the writers are shown with all of their ups and downs, from romantic struggles to creative blocks. Sometimes these themes come together all at once. For example, Bram presents the fascinating story of the development of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, told through both the creative process as well as with the backdrop of Isherwood's relationship with his lover, Don Bachardy. Bram presents a detailed history, and his experience as a novelist makes the best passages read like stories without sacrificing detail or knowledge.
"Like many quarreling couples, they remained each other's best confidant, even when the problem being discussed was the listener. One day at the beach Isherwood complained to Bachardy that the new book was slipping away. Bachardy asked what he really wanted it to be about. Isherwood told him. 'And in no time at all the blindingly simple truth was revealed that the book isn't about the Englishwoman but about the Englishman--me,' Isherwood recorded in his diary. Bachardy suggested he give this woman's problems to someone more like himself, a middle-aged gay man. Isherwood did not hesitate, despite his experience with Down There On a Visit. He immediately went back to his manuscript, retitled it The Englishman, and began again. Indirection hasn't protected him on the last book: he might as well go all the way. He must tell the truth or be silent (Bram 110)."
Eminent Outlaws does have its occasional misses. For the most part, Bram includes citations when he writes about specific passages, but often, a book or story will be discussed critically with no excerpts, forcing the reader to assume that what he says is true. This also leads to a sort of stylistic tug of war throughout the pages, with the occasional shift in tone from academic to general. Also, with the occasional lack of examples, Bram will offer an opinion along the lines of "we now see this [passage or character] as a representation of a gay person." As a gay writer himself, Bram is wonderfully unbiased, but this occasional reliance on assumption slows down an otherwise well-researched history. But for the most part, he can be critical of even the best writers, since no bibliography is composed of brilliance.
The book as a whole works well as an encyclopedia of gay writers, and while there are so many areas and time periods condensed, one can't help but wonder how the complete histories would look. Bram's best chapter, "Dead Poets Society," is a stunning look at writing and the AIDS crisis, and while the details are plentiful, it's clear that this era deserves its own book. Biographies of Gore Vidal and Truman Capote are plentiful, but these men make so many appearances (again, due to their long lives), that they can sometimes overshadow other subjects. Bram's passages on gay playwrights are generally well done, but his analyses of stage performances and dialogues don't translate well to the book. The background information shines, but the reader is occasionally presented with confusing critical assumptions. Take this summary of the meaning of Angels In America:
"So what does this thematic plotline mean? I think it's primarily a shaggy dog story or, more appropriately, a shaggy God story. There is no 'beautiful theory,' which might be for the best since we know from the Soviet Union where beautiful theories can lead. It's a deliberate letdown, a carefully crafted anticlimax (Bram 271)."
Intriguing? Definitely. But, for someone like me who hasn't seen the play, these kinds of thoughts can be shaky. This isn't meant to an attack on Bram, but I get the feeling that his critical eye works best with literature and not theater reviews. Like his own assessment of lesbian literature, this is an area that needs a specific scholar. However, it's an essential part of the overall arc, and Bram at least gives a thorough introduction to the subject.
As someone who studies literature, I recommend this as a unique introduction to a variety of lives, and I can only imagine how some of the passages and understandings would speak to gay readers. This encompassing story is one that has been decades in the making, and as an early volume into these lives and creative styles, it's an admirable achievement. Hopefully some of the smaller stories will eventually be expanded by other writers, and there are countless other voices that didn't make it into this volume. Bram alternates between the academic and the general, and while I feel that I learned some new ideas (my reading list has definitely expanded thanks to the titles mentioned here), Eminent Outlaws would have benefited from a more consistent narrative voice, and perhaps with more pages devoted to certain areas than others. But again, these are essential literary lives, and the entire history presented here succeeds more often than not.
Bram, Christopher. Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America. Copyright 2012 by Christopher Bram.
Friday, April 13, 2012
I cannot remember if he was citing a specific review or not, but in a recent conversation, my best friend shared a terrific quote regarding the music of Andrew Bird: "If you were explaining Bird's music to someone who wasn't familiar with him, it would be impossible to not sound completely pretentious." Granted, this is how I feel with most music writing/reviews, but it fits Bird almost perfectly. His sounds, lyrics, and arrangements have consistently created some of the most original albums in the last ten years. More than once, I've heard his music described as "baroque rock," which is literally true, but his albums are always so varied, with such combinations of instruments and styles, that it's pointless to attach genre-specific labels. Even his "weaker" efforts (in 2009, in a very brief write-up, I likened Noble Beast to a way to introduce a Bird novice to his style, and then they would be blown away by his earlier works) have at least a handful of amazing tracks. Last month, he released Break It Yourself, and, after several listens, I feel it's one of his best works, utilizing his standard creativity with slight tweaks.
"Desperation Breeds," the opening track, thrusts the listener into dual trains of thought--it's an ecological plea, but manages to lay the foundation of the album's overall atmosphere. Break It Yourself is full of desperate stories--bees, broken communications, repetitious history, and even war stories--and there's a sense of desperation on Bird's part, but in a positive sense. While I respectfully disagree with this assessment, Treble's Justin Stephani feels that the novelty of Bird's style has worn off. This would be true if Bird's music was based on a gimmick, but I can see how his standard styles have been consistent through his last four albums, and perhaps this has grown tiresome to some listeners. But this album, in addition to its creative songwriting, has a definite "edge" at times. There are quiet, string-based interludes, but also a good deal of intensity, a trait that wouldn't be associated with Bird, since his music always speaks for itself; he has never had anything to "prove."
But here, he manages to add layers and combinations, going from one style to another in the same span, creating bridges between specific songs, but without anything being jumbled or with obvious flourishes. An excellent example is "Danse Caribe." It begins with an excellent guitar and string, but as the song goes on, this rises into an intense, folk-like fiddle. This rapid switch is obvious upon multiple listens, but at first, and when you're listening to casually, it works as just the natural progression of the song. Two vastly different atmospheres don't necessarily "combine," but manage to work together as part of specific piece.
"Give It Away" and "Eyeoneye" take this even further. Lyrically, "Give It Away" is the most catching track, being a neat take on love as a statistic and a currency, but becomes more noticeable as an example of some of Bird's best vocalizing, which keeps going on the follow-up track. His singing voice has always been fantastic, but on this album, it feels more careful and confident. The emphasis is normally on the instrumentation and Bird's whistling, but at times on "Eyeoneye," his voice stands alone, with beautiful echos and reverberations. He's one of the rare singer-songwriters who doesn't get attention for his singing voice, but here, it's impossible to not notice and enjoy. He has never had real vocal distinctions (Thom Yorke's screams and rasps, Colin Meloy's nasal tilt), but it has always been pleasant. This time around, the listener is forced to take notice. He's always used it as another instrument, but it's almost shocking to realize that it could stand on its own.
Everything I've mentioned so far comes together beautifully on "Lusitania," a duet with St. Vincent. Bird offers his amazing whistling, but then his singing starts, followed by the soft vocals of St. Vincent. Their vocal styles are a wonderful compliment, taking unique lyrics (early wars as an extended metaphor on communications), and making the entire combination an awesome display of creativity. It's beautiful and touching, but it's easy to be fooled by its apparent simplicity--there's a lot going on right under the surface. And that makes for yet another layer for Break It Yourself: Bird's usual careful touches are just as important as the more bombastic flourishes.
If I left it alone, my above mention of Stephani's review would, out of context, seem to hint that he disliked the album. But he concludes with:
"The difference here is that critical interest has already piqued, while Bird arrives at this stage so late, knowing how to harness that zeal and confidence with educated, experienced expertise. For those paying attention, close attention, this is nothing short of a mini-resurgence (creatively speaking). And for that matter, it's some of his best material to date. "
Perhaps I just don't read as many music reviews as I used to, but again, I've never felt that Bird has "piqued," but I do agree with the idea that this is some of his best work to date. There's a definite need to pay close attention, since there are smaller pieces to what feels like an album with everything thrown in. Is this Bird's resurgence? It depends on your current view of his works. Personally, instead of a resurgence, I would call this a reminder. Noble Beast was Bird in a more minimalist manner, and with Break It Yourself, we find him going all in, playing to his strengths, but at the same time, he reminds of his sometimes overlooked gifts. This is one of the more satisfying albums I've heard in awhile. I'm going to be seeing him perform in July, and I'm anxious to see how these creative and technical details translate into a live show.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Yesterday, Jeremy and I were honored to receive some kind works from Hayden's Ferry Review, a literary journal based in Arizona State University. On their blog, Instafiction.org was selected as their Website Of the Week, and highlighted the work we've been doing. Here's the full write-up:
"How would you like to enjoy a short story every weekday morning? Well, look no further than Instafiction.org to begin your day.
Instafiction is dedicated to providing daily stories that are suited to diverse reading platforms, as the stories are formatted to take up a “single page,” which sounds like the perfect length to enjoy with morning coffee before the day begins in earnest.
Within the past week Instafiction featured stories by Jeanette Winterson, Adam Levin, Harlan Ellison, BD Feil, and Shellie Zacharia. And with archives stretching back to July of 2011, one could explore all that the site has to offer. And best of all, no subscription is required!
But that’s not all. Instafiction is also encouraging “authors, literary magazines/websites, publishers and other parties who are interested in seeing work featured” to get involved here. What better way to give back to this site than offering suggestions for future stories or—perhaps—submitting your work? (April 9th, 2012)"
I love posting recaps of this type of attention, not out of any egotistical back-patting, but because it's exciting to know that other people and journals appreciate what we do, and this particular post captures exactly the essence of how we imagine people enjoying our story selections. Instafiction is slowly approaching its first full year in existence. We're still a small operation, but the attention has always maintained a steady growth, and we do have some fiercely dedicated readers. We haven't received any submissions yet for original material, but I'm hoping that will change soon.
Thank you to the staff of Hayden's Ferry Review for your kind words and dedication to quality short fiction.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Overall, I'm likely less familiar with Miranda July's work than most people. I loved her 2005 film Me and You and Everyone We Know, and while I've read only a handful of her short stories, they affected me in similar ways. I'm not sure if her short films and performance art pieces run along the same thematic lines, but July's work manages to take universal subjects--connectivity, love, and emotional states--and explore them in unique and tender ways. I missed the theatrical run of her latest film, last year's The Future, but I found myself drawn to her latest book, written in the midst of her work on that screenplay. I merely assumed that the above-mentioned themes would be at least hinted at in It Chooses You, but I was also pleasantly surprised to discover July's intelligent takes on the creative process and the universal obstacles that writers have to overcome.
During the writing of The Future, July found herself at a personal impasse. In the solitude of her office, the temptations of mindless web browsing proved to be detrimental, and her examinations of this kind of time wasting will undoubtedly ring true for virtually all writers:
"Some of this could be justified because one of the characters in my screenplay was also trying to make something, a dance, but instead of dancing she looked up dances on YouTube. So, in a way, this procrastination was research. As if I didn't already know how it felt: like watching myself drift out to sea, too captivated by the waves to call for help. I was jealous of older writers who had gotten more of a toehold on their discipline before the web came. I had gotten to write only one script and one book before this happened (July 6-7)."
During her lunch breaks, she began reading the PennySaver ads, a classified booklet with various items listed for sale, a sort of non-web based Craigslist. I've come to realize that the PennySaver has national publications, but I was unaware of its existence until reading this book. July got the idea to contact people offering pieces for sale, and asking them to submit to interviews while she looked at the items. She received her share of refusals, but managed to get enough agreements to form It Chooses You. Along with photographer Brigitte Sire, July set out on her interviews and documentations. Had this project been undertaken by almost anyone else, there is an excellent chance that the finished work would have looked condescending or pandering. The people who take ads out in the PennySaver tend to be poorer, sicker, and have less means than people who advertise online. In the process, July tells the story of the sellers, and manages to create a work of art in a touching, intelligent manner.
The book's first interview is with Michael, an older man selling a leather jacket and undergoing a gender transformation. July's interviews are straightforward, but given the dynamics of people, the simplest questions manage to illuminate the subject's desires and mindset, whether this was intentional or not.
"We murmured admiration for the jacket, which was entirely ordinary, and I asked if I could turn on the tape recorder. Michael settled into a medical-looking chair and I perched on the couch. I glanced at my questions, but now they seemed beside the point.
Miranda: When did you begin your gender transformation?
Michael: Six months ago.
Miranda: And when did you know that you--
Michael: Oh, well, I knew it when I was a child, but I've been in the closet all my life. I came out in 1996 and then went back in the closet again, but this time I'm not going to go back in the closet. I'm going to complete the transformation.
Miranda: So the first time you came out must have been hard. You must not have had a good experience?
Michael: It wasn't hard. I just decided to do it, and I don't know why I went back in the closet. It's one of those psychological things that I'm going to a psychologist to work out (July 17)."
In the second interview, July meets Primila, a woman selling authentic Indian outfits. The woman asks July about the nature of the project, and in the process, more illuminations of the creative process come about. Just like the simple conversation with Michael shed light on his life and the layers of his goals and psyche, Primila's questions allow July to add more insights into her overall mission.
"Primila: So do you want to tell me again a little bit more about what this is for? Do you have any brochure or write-up on things that you do, or your company?
Miranda: I'm just interviewing people. I'm really interested in just getting a portrait of the person and what they're interested in, and a sense of their life story. I'm a writer and I usually write fiction, but this is--you know, I'm always curious about people. So this is a chance to--
Primila: You write fiction? Do you have any particular themes or any commission or fashion?
Miranda: They're--I mean, gosh. They're usually about people trying to connect in one way or another and the importance of that. And the different ways people sort of make that harder than it needs to be (July 30)."
As the interviews go along, two other ideas surface. In making these seemingly random connections, the palpable loneliness of the interviewees becomes universal, especially against the backdrop of our digital, social age. It can touch everyone, whether one is a likely hermit/shut-in (some of July's subjects fit this mold) or if one has a wide circle of connections.
"It was a relief, meeting someone whom I had anything at all in common with. Michael and Primila and Pauline had exhausted me with their openness and their quaint inefficiency, but Raymond and I were the same generation; we both knew how to click on things, we both had a version of our name with @ in it. As I left his room I said something like 'Maybe I'll see you around,' as if our generation all liked to congregate at one coffee shop.
But the moment I got back in my car I knew I would never see him again, ever. It suddenly seemed obvious to me that the whole world, and especially Los Angeles, was designed to protect me from these people I was meeting. There was no law against knowing them, but it wouldn't happen (July 56-57)."
The other idea was July's notion of casting some of the people in The Future, and while the idea of capturing non-actors in real moments was tempting, she found that it didn't quite work out. She ended up trying out Dina, a mother selling a hairdryer, but found that her style, when done for a specific purpose, became more like unnatural acting than capturing a real person in a real moment. July persisted, and found probably her most touching subject (the final interview), an old man named Joe who was selling old Christmas cards and had a penchant for dirty limericks and caring for animals. His tenderness and genuineness were touching, and her interview with him caused July to reexamine herself.
"I thought about his sixty-two years of sweet, filthy cards and something unspooled in my chest. Maybe I had miscalculated what was left of my life. Maybe it wasn't loose change. Or, actually, the whole thing was loose change, from start to finish--many, many little moments, each holiday, each Valentine, each year unbearably repetitive and yet somehow always new. You could never buy anything with it, you could never cash it in for something more valuable or more whole. It was just all these days, held together by the fragile memory of one person--or, if you were lucky, two (July 199)."
She ended up casting Joe in a small part in The Future, and he was determined to finish his job, even in the face of a cancer diagnosis. He died after filming his scenes, and the book ends with July's conversation with his widow, who was initially reluctant to participate. It's incredibly sad and beautiful at the same time, and while this wasn't July's expectation, the entire project seemed to be leading up to this moment, the realization that her act, while not providing any monetary liveliness for Joe, gave him something concrete to do, and ended up giving his last weeks an unexpected direction.
For all of July's writing skills and ability to conduct moving interviews with unlikely subjects, It Chooses You succeeds just as well because of Brigitte Sire's beautiful photography. Her camera captures the sale objects with unnerving focus, illuminating them and highlighting a weird sort of sadness at the same time. Her images of the interviewees are a deft combination of random moments and posed shots. Even the posed photographs feel like quick snapshots, since the subjects, while aware of the camera, don't seem to be trying to pose or make themselves appear differently from what/who they are. The emphasis, whether via the objects or the people, is on the details, for better or for worse. They are serious, yet occasionally playful. These combinations and varieties are perfectly aligned with the July's words, since none of the subjects were completely alike, and all of them went into the interviews with different motives and emotions. Combining words and photographs can be a slippery slope. Norman Mailer and Jon Naar, in their collaboration on The Faith of Graffiti, hit a few missteps, since the beautiful photography sometimes seemed at odds with Mailer's occasional moment of embarrassing prose. Here, however, July and Sire work together beautifully, with the words and images supporting each other without one dominating the other.
With certain books or works of art, I have a tendency to say that some pieces are above or impervious to concrete "reviews." I believe this to be true with It Chooses You, since July manages to stay true to her subjects even when she turns the focus on herself and her own artwork. I only touched upon a handful of the subjects featured in the book, and copyright page explains that there was a certain amount of editing that went into it, for clarity's sake. Even so, the entire work feels natural, and July manages to make this a work that strengthens her creative mission as well as a sociological study. Most importantly, she doesn't always give her subjects the complete benefit of the doubt: there are moments of caution and trepidation, but even in these moments, she lets them speak for themselves. Overall, this is a stunning look at how lives and objects go back and forth between the universal and the personal, and gives artists reassurance that setbacks and detours happen, but can lead down positive paths. The reader will be fascinated and sympathetic to the interview subjects, but as I mentioned above, there's no pandering or "class guilt" that goes into July's work. She wants us to see the people the way she does, and in the process makes these random folks compelling and natural storytellers.
July, Miranda. It Chooses You. Copyright 2011 by Miranda July.
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