Thursday, September 27, 2012

Some Fine Messes: Katie Roiphe's "In Praise Of Messy Lives"

My previous readings of Katie Roiphe's essays and criticisms are fairly limited in number, but the pieces affected me enough to clearly remember her over two years after I first cited her. In analyzing (and daring to critique) the literary styles of certain male novelists, Roiphe and Meghan O'Rourke came under intense critiques themselves in 2009 and 2010, stemming from O'Rourke's questioning the popularity of Jonathan Franzen, in which she cited Roiphe's "The Naked and the Conflicted." Having recently completed In Praise Of Messy Lives, a recently published collection of Roiphe's essays, I learned that she is no stranger to a lot of other jabs, arguments, and controversies. Agree or disagree with her stands, it's admirable to find that she counters her critics not with name-calling, but confidence and further writings. Also, as much as I devour essay compilations, I've found that category to be rife with male writers, and reading Roiphe's essays was a great way to shake this up, at least in regard to my own reading habits. She doesn't view herself as a divisive figure in the literary world, but acknowledges that her opinions tend to have extremely intense backlashes. In her introduction, she cites a response letter written after the publication of "The Naked and the Conflicted:"

'To the Editor:
Not only are you contributing to the total annihilation of the literary culture, but also to the destruction of our civilization. Think about it.'

Roiphe writes beautifully in her personal essays, with the opening selection detailing how people treated her in the wake of her divorce. Her friends and associates seemed to be carefully dancing around the issue, or treating her much too delicately. However, her occasional asides into personal reflection and assumptions can give the reader pause (I say this in reference to myself, since I try to elevate discourse above the "angry commenter" she explores later in the book):

"I once wrote an entire book about how one shouldn't reach for easy feminist interpretations of the world. And yet, even I can sense the residual sexism at work: while a woman outside of marriage is still considered a vulnerable and troubling figure, a man is granted a higher measure of autonomy. My husband, for instance, hasn't been receiving quite this level of solicitude. I don't think we are nearly as quick to assume that divorced men are falling into a life of despondency. I don't think that we are as concerned about what will happen to them, that we are filled with the same exquisite worry over their situation. We assume they will marry again, and until they do, we assume they're fine (Roiphe 6-7)."

Based on my own experience of men in the process of divorce, I can say, without giving away too many personal details, that divorce can be just as strenuous, the reactions can be just as similar, and many people are filled with the same exquisite worry. Roiphe is much too keen a writer to make flippant generalizations about the outside world, so I know this is based on her experiences, whereas my own experiences are opposite what she describes. Again, her writing is beautiful, but this specific passage jumped out at me as something I disagreed with; but one can admire the style without fully agreeing with the substance.

Her "voice" has a way of changing depending on the subject, but not in a distracting way. Later in the collection, she shares a college memory of sleeping with the romantic interest of one of her close friends. The essay feels like a short story, but one never gets the feeling that she's embellishing or softening any of the tense details. She's honest about her emotions at the time, and her exploration of the set-up and the aftermath is philosophical in its own way. She doesn't present any explicit, physical details of the encounters with the boy, but her full honesty in other passages creates an intensity beyond a lurid sexual adventure. The essay is not about sex, but about friendship and the workings of the teenage mind, minds intellectually but not emotionally advanced (or, to use a better word, experienced).

"As it turned out, my efforts to explain myself bothered Stella to no end. I think, in retrospect, that all she wanted me to do was accept responsibility. I think the whole conversation about what happened exhausted her. Who cared why or how from her point of view? Who cared what particular frailties of character led me to be vulnerable to this sort of thing? What matters in the end is the irrevocable act. Even if I was able, through sheer force of will, to create a little ambiguity in a wholly unambiguous situation, there was something insulting, finally, about doing it. My impulse, it seemed, was to take the whole thing apart like a car motor, to take out the pieces and look at them together; of course, if I could engage her in this process, if I could get her to look at each one of these oily mechanisms with me, then I would be part of the way to regaining our friendship. It is the two of us doing something together, however awful. Stella, in her own way, sensed this and refused (Roiphe 57)."

More than a couple of the essays in In Praise Of Messy Lives are witty dressing downs of modern urban parenting. As the mother of two children in New York, Roiphe constantly encounters worrisome parents, an onslaught of conflicting parenting books and advice, and an emphasis on safety and structure that goes beyond logic. Roiphe never criticizes parents for wanting the best for their children, but she addresses the sometimes insane extremes. Today, it sometimes feels like kids aren't allowed to be kids, and while I don't have any of my own, my work in bookselling has exposed me to the sheer number of books, as well as the parenting styles of upper-class Lincoln Park people. Roiphe's explorations are comical and sometimes incredible, but even through her opinions, she lets the examples speak for themselves.

"As their children get a little bit older, and slightly beyond the range of constant obsessive monitoring, homework offers parents another fertile opportunity to be involved, i.e., immersed. I can recall my own mother vaguely calling upstairs 'Have you done your homework?' but I cannot recall her rolling up her sleeves to work side by side with me cutting out pictures of rice paddies for a project about Vietnam, or monitoring how many pages of Wuthering Heights I had read. One mother told me about how her seven-year-old, at one of New York's top private schools, received an essay assignment asking how his 'life experience' reflected Robert Frost's line in 'The Road Not Taken': 'I took the one less traveled by.' And of course, that would be a question calling out for the parent writing it herself, since the seven-year-old's 'life experience has not as of yet thrown up all that many roads (Roiphe 194-195)."

The sections of the book that I enjoyed the most were Roiphe's literary criticisms and textual analyses. Her explorations of Joan Didion and Susan Sontag are both textual and personal, with references to specific passages as well as their meaning in the bigger pictures. I'm more familiar with Didion's writing than I am with Sontag, but, as I mentioned via Twitter the other day, Roiphe succeeds admirably with what I feel is a basic requirement of contemporary literary criticism: she manages to illuminate and educate with the texts I haven't read, instead of assuming that the reader is familiar with them. I've encountered essays on Susan Sontag many times, but I still haven't read her works. Thanks to Roiphe's pieces, I know much more about her life and writing style than I did before. Roiphe digs deeply into her literary explorations and manages to expose some very intriguing arguments. What started as a review of a biography of Lucia Joyce, James Joyce's daughter, becomes a look at the biography market in general, especially biographies of women associated with famous male artists.

"Of course, the biographies of great men's women lend themselves to all kinds of romanticizing. It is, in these hefty, attractive books, with their dramatic, sepia covers, enormously glamorous to be mad. Had Lucia Joyce simply married, and stayed in Paris and taught dance to eager young protegees, and pursued her art in a modest way, and grown fat and happy and had a couple of children in a little apartment with a view of the river, there would be no Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake (Roiphe 83-84)."

In Praise Of Messy Lives follows a sort of formula that seems to be prevalent in all essay collections by established authors: there are a seemingly equal number of pages devoted to personal essays, literary criticisms, and intelligent investigations of pop culture. I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy Roiphe's takes on Mad Men, Facebook, and Twitter, but these sometimes feel like they're supposed to be pleasant diversions from more complex material. From Roiphe to Jonathan Lethem to Zadie Smith, one can almost feel the paths turning throughout the course of a book, an almost subliminal "okay, enough with that heavy stuff, let's have some fun." But, these authors can find areas not often discussed online or on blogs. I'm not critiquing the authors, but rather the way essay collections are constrained in presenting diverse material. Nonetheless, Roiphe's take on Facebook, for example, is spot on and hilarious:

"Many, especially slightly older, teenagers seem to like to parody the Facebook norms even as they embrace them. The idea is that you are pretending to speak in the common language of Facebook, and are in fact speaking in that common language, but are aware of how unoriginal you are being; so when you write 'omg' you are ironically commenting on the use of 'omg,' but when other people write 'omg' they are seriously saying 'oh my God.' This very delicate balancing act is artful, in its way. Your character is now employing the cliches of the genre, but with satire, or maybe that would be satirrrrrrrrrre (Roiphe 230)."

To disregard (or ignore) my previous assessment, the "essay collection formula" does work well with Katie Roiphe, especially given her public image. Her essays acknowledge controversy without inviting it. She's honest and seems welcoming of constructive criticism that almost never comes, replaced by assumptions and nasty assessments made by online commenters. So seeing her balance between pieces that have received intense reactions and seeing her use biting comedy to illuminate her points is a formula unto itself. She never apologizes for her opinions, but also knows that some topics are universal. In Praise of Messy Lives is a invitation to educational writings with the understanding that you'll either agree or disagree with the author's assessments. Who knows? Maybe I'll go to some of her back list works and find writings that I completely disagree with. But, just going by this latest collection, I find that I agree with her more than I disagree, and this is a rare example of knowing a bit more about the author's personal life helping to put the essays in context. I've read some of the sneering, embarrassing insults directed her way, and I admire her way of defending herself with a quick wit, rather than giving into the easy temptation of stooping down to the level of personal attacks. There are many topics and passages I've left untouched, but I've explored enough to give potential readers a taste of what to expect. These pieces won't change the mind of anyone who dislikes her writing, but there's just the right amount of challenging material to foster discussions and further studies. And really, no matter what your opinions of her opinions, isn't that the ultimate goal?

Work Cited:
Roiphe, Katie. In Praise Of Messy Lives. Copyright 2012 by Katie Roiphe.

Monday, September 17, 2012

"A Maniac's Masterpiece:" Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita"

In my reading lifetime, I've missed or overlooked a fairly large chunk of classic works, and one of my many goals for this year was to play catch-up. Some of these works are daunting, not in the sense of literary difficulty, but rather in trying to keep an open, unassuming mind. My recent reading of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is a good example, since, like a lot of universally regarded works, it's impossible to go into it without at least a basic notion of what will unfold. It's almost shocking to read some of the classic lines ("Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins") in their original context, as well as seeing its influence on other works (the phrase "Picnic, Lightning" is also the title of one of my favorite poetry collections by Billy Collins). When the aforementioned examples appeared on the first two pages of the work, I found myself wondering why it took me so long to get around to it. Add the fact that the name "Lolita" has entered everyday vernacular in a variety of ways (not to mention that Googling "Lolita" for research purposes brings up some pretty unsavory material), and I was slightly worried that I would be keeping an eye out for the book's cultural references, rather than immersing myself in the plot. Luckily, there were many things about the work I didn't know, and I found Nabokov's writing to take several unexpected, delightful turns.

A plot outline is virtually unnecessary, but I'll keep this brief: Lolita is the story of the aging European professor Humbert Humbert and his consuming, obsessive lust for the twelve year-old Dolores "Lolita" Haze. He meets her after renting a room from her mother, and while he aches to leave the house almost immediately. The assessment of Mrs. Haze is one great example of Lolita's unexpected themes: his own lusts aside, Humbert is a hilarious, astute observer of 1950s American culture:

"She was, obviously, one of those women whose polished words may reflect a book club or a bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but never her soul; women who are completely devoid of humor; women utterly indifferent at heart to the dozen or so possible subjects of a parlor conversation, but very particular about the rules of such conversations, through the sunny cellophane of which not very appetizing frustrations can be readily distinguished (Nabokov 37)."

He changes his mind and stays after seeing Lolita. Earlier passages explore his attraction to young girls (or, as he refers to them, "nymphets"), partly stemming from a girl he loved when he was a child. This obsession turns into In an unexpected turn, Lolita's mother offers Humbert a strange ultimatum: she claims her love for him, but tells him to leave the house unless he plans to marry her. They do end up married, part of Humbert's desire to be close to Lolita at all costs. In an unexpected turn, Mrs. Haze discovers Humbert's illegal, carnal intentions, and not a moment later, she's struck and killed by a car. In most cases, this would seem like a too-convenient plot device, but Nabokov writes the scene astutely and carefully. When Humbert identifies the body, he does so in a very detailed, gruesome manner consistent with his other observations. He's very evasive and suggestive about his sexual activities with Lolita (saying too much with very little), but manages to be delightfully long-winded about every other topic. His assessment of Mrs. Haze's dead body is awful, yet manages to be darkly, terribly funny:

"Three doctors and the Farlows presently arrived on the scene and took over. The widower, a man of exceptional self-control, neither wept nor raved. He staggered a bit, that he did; but he opened his mouth only to impart such information or issue such directions as were strictly necessary in connection with the identification, examination, and disposal of a dead woman, the top of her head a porridge of bone, brains, bronze hair, and blood (Nabokov 98)."

After his wife's death, Humbert becomes Lolita's caretaker, and this quickly escalates into a world of constant road trips, sex, sexual bribery, and his descent into eventual psychosis. His narration balances between unstable, unreliable, and occasionally nonsensical. His most reliable observations are the creepy, detailed longings for Lolita's body; of course, even in clear prose, the reader knows that dark things are brimming just beneath the surface. Given the censorship of the time, and the book's controversial subject manner, Nabokov couldn't go into explicit, more detailed examinations of their sexual encounters. However, by being sly, the narration (as I mentioned before) forces the reader to use his or her imagination, which renders the acts that much more appalling.

"I had not dared offer her a second helping of the drug, and had not abandoned hope that the first might still consolidate her sleep. I started to move toward her, ready for any disappointment, knowing I had better wait but incapable of waiting. My pillow smelled of her hair. I moved toward my glimmering darling, stopping or retreating every time I thought she stirred or was about to stir. A breeze from wonderland had begun to affect my thoughts, and now they seemed couched in italics, as if the surface reflecting them were wrinkled by the phantasm of that breeze. Time and again my consciousness folded the wrong way, my shuffling body entered the sphere of sleep,
shuffled out again, and once or twice I caught myself drifting into a melancholy snore. Mists of tenderness enfolded mountains of longing. Now and then it seemed to me that the enchanted prey was about to meet halfway the enchanted hunter, that her haunch was working its way toward me under the soft sand of a remote and fabulous beach; and then her dimpled dimness would stir, and I would know she was farther away from me than ever (Nabokov 131)."

Having read very little of Nabokov's other works, and going into Lolita with a hope of discovering something about it I didn't know, I was (delightfully) caught off guard by Nabokov's humor. This work is one of the funniest books I've ever read, and much like the vagueness of the overt sexuality, it's an essential element--with so many illegal and distasteful goings on, the reader needs to laugh to shake off the unpleasantness. As Lolita and Humbert undertake one of their many road trips, he examines the world of motels and lodgings. Humbert's take on the American experience is exaggerated and precise all at once.

"Nous connûmes (this is royal fun) the would-be enticements of their repetitious names--all those Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts, Pine View Courts, Mountain View Courts, Skyline Courts, Park Plaza Courts, Green Acres, Mac's Courts. There was sometimes a special line in the write-up, such as "Children welcome, pets allowed" (You are welcome, you are allowed). The baths were mostly tiled showers, with an endless variety of spouting mechanisms, but with one definitely non-Laodicean characteristic in common, a propensity, while in use, to turn instantly beastly hot or blindingly cold upon you, depending on whether your neighbor turned on his cold or his hot to deprive you of a necessary complement in the shower you had so carefully blended. Some motels had instructions pasted above the toilet (on whose tank the towels were unhygienically heaped) asking guests not to throw into its bowl garbage, beer cans, cartons, stillborn babies; others had special notices under glass, such as Things to Do (Riding: You will often see riders coming down Main Street on their way back from a romantic moonlight ride. 'Often at 3AM,' sneered unromantic Lo)(Nabokov 146)."

The line between Humbert being Lolita's stepfather and lover is increasingly blurred, for his apprehension about her hanging out with other boys can sometimes stand out as fatherly worry, instead of his being worried about sexual rivals. Humbert's remarks can be sexist at times, and it's difficult to tell if this is part of his makeup or merely part of the societal outlooks and conventions of the time. These blurred lines become increasingly frenetic as the novel works its way into its various climaxes. The humor becomes less frequent, the delusions increase, and the revelations and turns become, for lack of a better word, standard. However, as Humbert becomes increasingly delusional, one has to wonder how many of his actions are being faithfully recalled. By creating him this way, Nabokov adds yet another level of daring to this work: he's creating a character who is a manipulative pedophile, but bizarrely sympathetic. When he meets up with Lolita late in the book (after she leaves him under even more disgusting circumstances, at the hands of another pedophile), he's undergoing a massive mental breakdown, and while it should be his comeuppance for his actions throughout the work, he is instead presented as a sad, hopeless mess:

"'Good by-aye!' she chanted, my American sweet immortal dead love; for she is dead and immortal if you are reading this. I mean, such is the formal agreement with the so-called authorities.

Then, as I drove away, I heard her shout in a vibrant voice to her Dick; and the dog started to lope alongside my car like a fat dolphin, but he was too heavy and old, and very soon gave up. And presently I was driving through the drizzle of the dying day, with the windshield wipers in full action but unable to cope with my tears (Nabokov 280)."

The easiest way to close an essay on this work is to examine the metaphors for Humbert's obsession with Lolita, of which there are many: the battle between European and American actions and sensibilities; the universal desire for youth and immortality, even in perverse ways; and how their travels throughout America reflect both a literal escape and a way for the two to find themselves (the underlying plot of almost any road trip, literary or cinematic). However, I like to think of Lolita as a pursuit of happiness, which can oftentimes take deluded, ill-fated forms. Humbert Humbert is a child molester, and there's no way to soften that or avoid it: both he and Lolita say this explicitly more than once. But Nabokov's work takes untouchable themes and makes them unavoidable. It's a hilarious, unsettling journey, and while no character reaches a happy ending, Lolita remains a timely exploration of a variety of ideas. This essay adds nothing new to its decades-old discussion, but Nabokov creates a world of talking points that will never be tidily summarized or finished. No matter how offended the reader is by Humbert's actions, there's no question that the complexities presented by his obsession with Lolita create philosophical and moral debates beyond a matter of right and wrong. The reader has a lot of big pictures to assess, and the journey is a marvel of storytelling and high comedy. There were many writers tackling controversial subjects and characters at the time, but few would have been able to manage this type of psychological investigation with the same kind of daring, absurdity, and variety.

Work Cited:
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. Copyright 1955 by Vladimir Nabokov.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Fit To be Tied (In): A Critique

Not long ago, I viewed trailer for the film adaptation of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which is one of my all-time favorite novels. While the film version will very likely pale in comparison (not to mention the fact that the trailer did not, or rather could not, come close to visualizing the novel's intricacies and layers), it has led to increased attention and demand for the book itself. In one of the rare instances of joy in corporate bookselling, I've been able to discuss Mitchell's work with a variety of people, most of them new to the work, buying it because of the upcoming film. Virtually all of these people seem excited to tackle the book itself, especially when they receive a glowing endorsement and hints that the reading experience will be much more than they anticipated. Since sales of the work have jumped, I've taken to replenishing stock of the book, as well as tracking how many copies are selling everyday. However, I did this the other day, and I was taken aback by a new entry on the computer screen. I clicked, and while I knew full well what it was, I sighed anyway when I saw: Cloud Atlas--Movie Tie In Edition.

Before I continue, I'll gladly admit to owning a good handful of movie tie-in books (for clarification, I mean original works with movie poster covers, NOT novelizations of film screenplays, the last one of which I read when I was around eight years old), but these were purchased on clearance, since most publishers put out staggering numbers of these editions in hopes of capitalizing on the attention a film adaptation will receive. In my case, these MTIs were bought solely for the text and the chance to pick up a noted work for a bargain price. But I've never understood the appeal of picking up a book simply because it has a movie poster on the front of it. Add the fact that the original paperback version of Cloud Atlas, designed by Casey Hampton, is one of the most beautiful jacket designs in contemporary fiction, and it seems to add up to an assumption that a reader wouldn't be able to see a regular book cover and realize that it is the source material for the movie playing down the street. Someone with a more optimistic outlook could point to the possibility that MTIs might lead people, ones who would not otherwise be inclined, to read books after enjoying its film adaptation. There's a pretty complicated battle here, one between design aesthetics and the overlap between two very different mediums. While a film version of a novel needs to in some way pay homage to the original source material, there are other ways to go about this. Perhaps, during the opening credits, a full block of text, five seconds longer than the other credits, with a bold declaration of "BASED ON THE NOVEL BY ____" I have no aversion to a small, tasteful sticker that states "now a major motion picture," provided it can be peeled away easily. While some movie posters are powerful works of art in their own right, placing it on a book cover screams of an uneasy relationship between what started as a written story and is now a vastly different form altogether.

Some examples are insulting. When the MTI of The Hunger Games came out, the list price was about five dollars more than the original paperback version. Five dollars more for a glorified movie poster, for a series that would go on to reap a ridiculous amount of money from box office sales and an embarrassment of merchandising tie-in riches. Years ago, I purchased a clearance MTI of Jose Saramago's Blindness. The film poster (and subsequent book cover) was uninspired, and had two of my favorite actors featured: Julianne Moore and Gael Garcia Bernal. I never saw the film adaptation, and while I generally enjoyed Saramago's novel, I found myself subconsciously envisioning Moore and Bernal in their respective roles (even though I never saw the film, I did look up the casting online). In this case, the merge between the film and the book was an unpleasant experience, and it's why I much prefer reading the book before seeing the film. I enjoyed the language and the plotting, but in my head, it managed to be more "cinematic" than "literary." Am I making petty, needling arguments? Perhaps, but I generally limit my strictly opinion-based blog posts, and I'm trying to back these thoughts up with honest assessments. In other MTI examples, there's a question of what exactly the new book version is trying to do, visually:

The MTI of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis is perplexing. I read parts of it years ago, and from what I've read, the film is generally faithful to the source material. And I enjoy the movie poster's design, but I can't help but wonder: Robert Pattinson looks pale, brooding, and isolated, just like Eric, his character (from what I remember of my early readings). But is this too, well, Twilight-esque? I highly doubt that this MTI was done to dupe Twilight fans into reading a novella that dives into post-9/11 and pre-financial crisis America. However, Pattinson is still so tied to his vampire character that any insinuation will call to mind his most famous role instead of hinting to his new territories as an actor. However, in a perverse way, I'd love to see teen Twilight fans read this and attempt to create Cosmopolis fan fiction. But in all seriousness, this MTI manages to create three levels of distraction: by (even unintentionally) evoking Edward Cullen, it detracts from David Cronenberg's film, and by the process of getting to the novel, DeLillo's original novel. I'm delighted that DeLillo's work is being adapted, so I really shouldn't be complaining too much. But my point is that MTIs can do more harm than merely blurring the lines between words and film.

I read Stephen Chbosky's The Perks Of Being a Wallflower a few times as a teenager, and like it did for many others, the novel did an amazing job of speaking to the intangible teen angst I felt at the time (I should do another reading, to see how my reading of it at age 29 differs from my reading at age 19). Much like the Cloud Atlas poster above, this does absolutely nothing to even broadly hint at the novel's content. The actors look vainly detached, but sort of bemused, a far cry from Charlie's (the main character in Wallflower)honest looks at growing up, sex, drugs, and maturity. The poster doesn't detract, but doesn't add anything, either. But this might be the most promising example of the bunch: I can imagine a lot of young adults seeing this film and being drawn to the book (even though the book is a perennial bestseller, I'm assuming that a good number of people will see the film first), and discovering a good narrative and epistolary story line. This film will be released in the next couple of weeks, and if I don't see it, I'll still be curious to read reviews to find out if the critical opinions reflect the book's overall atmosphere. So while I still prefer the cover of the original paperback, I can't criticize an MTI that might lure in younger, potentially reluctant readers. If adults need to be swayed by an MTI, that's sad; if it helps the other demographic read, I'll tip my cap.

I'm closing with an older example, and probably the biggest culprit in movie tie-in editions. I'll start by admitting that I haven't read the book, nor have I seen the film. Years ago, a co-worker of mine enthusiastically recommended Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, and even just by paging through the book, it's one of the most captivating blends of cover art and title. These two elements (words and illustration) combine to be mysterious, dark, darkly funny, and beautiful. No, you should never judge a book by its cover (or, for this matter, its title). But one would be challenged to think of any other immediate examples of the perfect evocations:

And below is the MTI/film poster. Yes, I'm critiquing a film I haven't seen, but despite the inclusion of Robert DeNiro and Paul Dano, two fine actors, the poster (and movie tie-in book) is an utter mess. It's trying to be "artsy" and "edgy," with the bright glare and faint outlines of the two characters. Of course, the book's title could never be marketed, but slapping the film title (what is less imaginative than Being Flynn) onto a cover that's the exact opposite in aesthetics? It's an insult to Flynn, plain and simple. Perhaps he liked the changes. If so, nobody should fault him, since the book itself was so highly received and is still well regarded today. But to go from the beauty above to the blandness below is staggering. And despite the lackluster title, the original title is clearly printed below ("Originally published as Another Bullshit Night In Suck City"), therefore doing away with the original intention of not offending anyone who would take offense to the word "bullshit." In this case, the book and the film need a vast separation. The movie tie-in doesn't have the true heart or edginess of the original.

And really, this is where "bullshit" is needed in big, bold letters. I'm not trying to be petty--visual design is not my field, so I'm trying to look at it from a literary standpoint. But to fall back on an argument that I tend to avoid, I know what speaks to me from a visual standpoint. The movie tie-in edition will not stop, and I know I should come to accept it, to cling to my original hardcovers and paperbacks, and hope that the words inside of a book become more important to someone than what's on the front.

However: if I discover a movie tie-in for The Great Gatsby this December, there will be some strongly worded letters and e-mails.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Clusters, Branches: Communication In Denis Johnson's "Tree Of Smoke"

During my reading of Denis Johnson's Tree Of Smoke, I found myself being pulled in a few directions. When I started it, I made the occasional mention of my progress on Facebook and Twitter, and some of my friends, with whom I share a passion for literature, mentioned how much they loved the work. It's not that I wasn't enjoying it at first, but I was in a rare position of being slightly confused by Johnson's intentions, and I was overwhelmed by the immediate introductions of dozens of characters, and the intertwined dialogues and plot sequences. Admitting this, in any form, makes me feel like a fraud sometimes. I'm someone who champions complex fictions that require time, dedication, and the metaphorical rolling up of sleeves; on this blog and in conversations, I've made probably far too many references to my appreciation of David Foster Wallace and William Gaddis, two writers whose styles require time, note-taking, and the realization that an occasional stumble through the narratives will happen. In Johnson's work, however, I found the first two hundred or so pages to be fascinating and well-written, but I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that I was missing one or two plot points, or that there was something between the lines that I wasn't picking up. Again, I'm sure this happens to everyone, even people with many more books checked off their lists. I was so caught up and afraid that I was being a poor reader, but once I let myself get into the story and its progression, it seemed to be an easy navigation to the ending.

Tree Of Smoke can be classified as a Vietnam war novel much in the way Chad Harbach's The Art Of Fielding can be classified as a baseball novel: it's true in theory, but there's so much more beyond that designation. The novel revolves around the exploits of William "Skip" Sands, a CIA operative working in Psychological Operations. His uncle, Francis is the head of Psych Ops, and works as both a commander as well as a seemingly mythical figure in military and civilian circles. The narrative comes to include the brothers Bill and James Houston, who serve in the Navy and Army, respectively; Bill's story serves as a balance between military and civilian life during and after the war, while James's platoon comes into contact with Sands' Psych Ops unit. Kathy Jones, a Canadian nurse, is a fiery combination of religious intensity and a love interest for Skip. Vietnamese associates, especially Nyguen and Trung, work with Francis and Skip both overtly and secretively. A mysterious German assassin appears at the beginning and the end of the novel, and a series of mysterious documents, double agents, and general (but intentional) confusion about the war's ultimate goal come into play. Johnson presents all of these singular and interconnected stories, which in other hands would serve as a basic foundation for a basic, often-told account of the American involvement in Vietnam. However, Tree Of Smoke is crafted in a distinctly postmodern fashion, sometimes veering on experimental.

If this seems like a vague summary, it's not. The novel itself, through its dialogue and descriptions, is self-reflective, with some passages hinting at the general atmosphere. The cited passage below is a great example, and while I didn't read Tree Of Smoke as any sort of metaphor for Operation Iraqi Freedom, it was published in 2007 and sometimes expresses ideas that have surfaced in America's modern conflicts.

"'Unknown what? I say we look at it in terms we can utilize,' the colonel said. 'I say they found themselves engaged at the level of myth. War is ninety percent myth anyway, isn't it? In order to prosecute our own wars we raise them to a level of human sacrifice, don't we, and we constantly invoke our God. It's got to be about something bigger than dying, or we'd all turn deserter. I think we need to be much more conscious of that. I think we need to be invoking the other fellow's gods too. And his devils, his aswang. He's more scared of his gods and his devils and his aswangs than he'll ever be of us (Johnson 61-62)."

Johnson's dialogue manages to say much and little at the same time, with so many implied, unspoken meanings and intentions. This happens almost every time Bill and James Houston talk, with the two brothers seemingly shooting the shit but hinting at heavier, deeper looks at their dissatisfaction and mutual isolation. A conversation between Skip and Kathy, composed of what seems to be standard dialogue, manages to encompass a diverse array of meanings on religion and identity. This happens very often within the book, and sometimes it becomes a pleasant challenge to figure out what sections are just conversation pieces and what sections are examples of the novel's themes.

"She said, 'We Westerners have many blessings. A freer will. We're free from certain...' She stalled in her thoughts.

'We have rights. Liberty. Democracy.'

'That's not what I mean. I don't know how to say it. There are questions about free will.' She trembled to ask him now if he'd perhaps read John Calvin...No. Even the question was an abyss.

'Are you feeling okay?'

'Mr. Sands,' she said, 'do you know Christ?'

'I'm Catholic.'

'Yes. But do you know Christ?'

'Well,' he said, 'not in the way I think you mean.'

'Neither do I.'

To this he said nothing.

'I thought I knew Christ,' she said, 'but I was entirely mistaken.'

She noticed he sat very still when he had nothing to say.

'We're not all crazy here, you know,' she said. --Another one he had no reply for. 'I'm sorry,' she said (Johnson 105)."

Johnson's descriptions and place settings are incredibly detailed and vivid, giving the reader a strong visual sense of the surroundings, a stability that counteracts the mysterious actions and motives of the soldiers and Vietnamese citizens. The nightlife, even though full of drunken debauchery, prostitution, and madness, is carefully mapped out. The balance between the sometimes experimental construction and the occasional foray into strong, literary evocations is seamless. The strangeness is captivating, along with some beautiful similes and metaphors.

"He strolled into the red-light district--Angeles consisted of little else--the slop, the lurid stink, the thirsty, flatly human, open-mouthed stares of the women as he passed dank shacks with rock 'n' roll music, as hot and rich with corruption as vampire mausoleums. The wanton mystery of the Southeast Asian night: he loved it as passionately as he loved America, but secretly, with dark lust; and he admitted to himself without evasion that he didn't care if he never went home (Johnson 189)."

Documents play a vital role in the novel, adding even more layers. Skip ends up staying in a house once owned by a deceased doctor and ends up studying and analyzing the notes and papers that have been left behind. He's also responsible for maintaining his Uncle's files, full of intelligence information for the CIA. The colonel is also responsible for a detailed, seemingly academic documentation of the goals for Psych Ops, which are controversial and dense. In Johnson's recreations of these documents, there's a stark reversal to the atmosphere of the conversations: while the dialogue leaves much between the lines, the documents are so full of information that they become just as open-ended. This, in my opinion, is part of the war metaphors. In any war justification, there are obvious, public statements and secretive, allusive meanings that are meant to be kept secret. The colonel's article is a clever, evasive metaphor for the book itself (the aforementioned self-reflection) and the disastrous aftermath of the American involvement in Vietnam.


Want to revitalize the distinction between analysis and intelligence--clarity of thought, purity of language, correctness of speech, etc, clarity of fact--appreciating how a lack of clarity has led to the complete perversion of the intelligence function of our Agency. Its motives and its purpose. And its means. Its methods.

Let's hit that as the main thing--the distinction between analysis and intelligence.

Orwell--'Politics and the English language'
As far as intro--

On the next page began the typed material. Skip anticipated an embarrassing mess (Johnson 284-285)."

Have I touched upon everything in Tree Of Smoke? Not even close. Even my introductory summary leaves out some of the characters and doesn't hint at their eventual actions (and, in some cases, demises). When I wrote about William Gaddis' The Recognitions, I had to divide my thoughts into two separate essays, and really, that's what I should have done with this work. There are simply too many angles and themes to discuss in one essay without going into a several pages' worth of analysis. Denis Johnson is the rare writer whom I've heard of many times before reading his work, but had no concrete ideas or notions about his style. He's written a collection of interconnected stories (Jesus' Son), a novella with (from what I've read about it) deceptively simple tones of Americana (last year's Train Dreams), and several longer, more labyrinth-like works. When I get to these other pieces of his bibliography, I'll know then whether or not Tree Of Smoke was a proper introductory work. Also, have I missed the "point" of this novel? It's possible, but I feel that focusing on the communication aspects provides a decent introduction. By combining simplicity and complexity in how the work unfolds, Johnson has intrigued me with his ability to, even if this was done unintentionally, show how language, dialogue, and writing can be shaped into assets and detriments to understanding. As a blanket conclusion, this is also how wars (including Vietnam and Iraq) are justified and explained in public and private. I've since read reviews of Tree Of Smoke full of breathless praise and constructive criticism, but I was relieved to find that none of those reviews, even the ones in major publications, came anywhere close to fully explaining the work. I hope that my focus is at least somewhat illuminating, even if, for an angle of a writer's sense of communication, there's so much left unmentioned.

Work Cited:
Johnson, Denis. Tree Of Smoke. Copyright 2007 by Denis Johnson.

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