Friday, November 30, 2012

"Lincoln" Avenues


When I review a book or a film, I tend to wait at least a day or two before writing my assessments. I do so in order to have enough time to process the opinions and to make sure the various components of the media aren't hastily explored (I do this via copious note-taking and/or long stretches of deep reflection). By waiting, I'm also giving myself time to avoid jumping to conclusions. I'm sure more than a few of my previous essays have the veneer of being glowing endorsements rather than truly critical reviews. However, it's been nearly a week since I saw Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, and the more time I have to analyze the film, the more and more I like it, and for unexpected reasons. A lot has been (rightfully) made about the title performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, but that's merely a part of a more complex exploration of a public figure who has been depicted countless times, often with historical inaccuracies. As it progressed, so much was revealed and presented in beautiful, stunning ways. And most importantly, Lincoln feels like a painstakingly collaborative result, with the acting and behind the camera work blending together almost seamlessly. I do have some mild critiques (I'll get to those soon), but they were not enough to bring down or mar one of the best films of 2012.

Lincoln is partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The focus of the film is Lincoln's attempt to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in the House of Representatives, outlawing slavery before the official end of the Civil War. Like any political issue, it's not without its potential downfalls or manipulations. The Democrats are generally opposed to the legislation, and much scrambling and lobbying is needed to secure some of their votes for the Amendment's passage. President Lincoln has to maneuver to get the Amendment passed before the Confederate States are accepted back into the Union; any delay or veto would render his Emancipation Proclamation defeated. He's aided and advised by his divided cabinet, led by Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), who in turn relies on early versions of lobbyists (including excellent performances by John Hawkes and James Spader) to meet with certain Congressmen to ensure their vote for the Amendment. The vote of Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) is necessary, but fraught with danger--he supports not only abolition, but complete equality among blacks and whites, an idea that seemed too dangerous at the time, when the focus was supposed to simply be on emancipation. In this process, President Lincoln is dealing with a strained home life, with wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) on a seemingly continuous verge of nervous breakdowns, and son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) eager to join the Union Army against his parents' wishes. Historically, the audience knows the Amendment will pass; however, the film is crafted to show how political dealings in the 1860s are not terribly different from today's fractured political climate.

Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Lincoln is startling, and not just in the physical sense. Yes, he looks exactly like every famous photo of the 16th President, but this goes far beyond looks.



As a child, I had a VHS documentary about the U.S. Presidents, and long before this film came into my consciousness, I remember Goodwin discussing President Lincoln and his "frontier lingo." Most films depict him with a polished, deep, stately baritone, but Lewis plays Lincoln with far more historical emphasis. His voice is high pitched and twangy, and he has a penchant for long-winded, sometimes nonsensical allegories. His body is long and bony, and he constantly slouches or hunches, rarely standing straight up and looking dignified. Day-Lewis's performance, without hyperbole, is nearly perfect. He combines the general image of Lincoln with his own research and accuracy. Far better writings and analyses of his acting have been published over the years, so I'll offer this simple opinion: his performance as Lincoln is truly a work of art in the literal sense. This also applies to Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, whom I learned more about through the film that I have in my scattered history of Civil War readings. Since Stevens isn't as mythological or revered as Lincoln (in fact, his views on equality were probably greater than the President's), Jones plays the role with various hints of flair, donning a dramatic wig, carrying a cane, and portraying the man as committed to his ideals, willing to compromise for the sake of the greater good, and delightfully cantankerous. Stevens was born in Vermont before becoming a Pennsylvania Congressman, but Jones adds a bit of Southern gothic to the role, therefore making it a more creative, inspired piece. David Strathairn has long been one of my favorite actors, and his portrayal of William Seward is one of the great political roles I've seen in quite some time. Seward is a staunch supporter of Lincoln, but is unafraid to voice his displeasure during times of crises or with disagreements.

Sally Field's Mary Todd is very well done, a careful balance between private torments and potential mental illness and a brave public face. Since the death of their son Willie, she believes her husband hasn't properly grieved or mourned, especially since the death occurred during the height of his stress over the war. Mary Todd and Abraham have one major cinematic argument, but their private conversations feel realistic and natural. The only real issue I had with the casting of Lincoln was the choice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, and this is through no fault of the actor. With such a variety of subplots and layers to the film, the moral and ideological arguments between Robert and the First Family over his joining the Army aren't very well-written. I enjoy Gordon-Levitt as an actor, but he didn't have very much to work with in the film, and therefore it feels like he's there as one of many famous faces in famous roles, which was slightly distracting. The father-son bond is explored well, but with limited time, since if every aspect had been given proper time, the film could have stretched into many untold hours beyond the standard film time allotments.

Spielberg's direction is excellent, and combines exceptionally well with the screenplay by playwright Tony Kushner. The directorial flourishes are minimal--the occasional setting of Lincoln in shadows or out of the main picture, the opening scene of Lincoln from behind and sitting down, rather than standing and looking more "stately." Since the events depicted are not the most well-known in the Lincoln Presidency, Spielberg and Kushner are able to present their own takes on the settings and the dialogue, with a careful, terrific mix of historical accuracy and inventiveness. As a co-worker of mine pointed out, Kushner's screenplay feels like a stage play at times--there are a lot of long monologues and interior scenes/conversations with dramatic arcs. Kushner also explores Lincoln's status as a natural storyteller, with my favorite monologue having to be seen to be fully appreciated, in which Lincoln recounts an anecdote about Ethan Allen and a portrait of George Washington in an outhouse. The writing is carefully executed, since Lincoln isn't a film about dramatic Civil War battles, but primarily about conversations and rhetoric. Most films (or screenwriters) would shy away from long, exploratory dialogue about laws and diplomacy, but this film simply has to use these, and even in the most technical and detailed explanations, there's never a loss of the built-up drama. Lincoln's famous speeches--the Gettysburg address, for example--are merely hinted at or recalled by other characters rather than filmed.

Adding to the overall atmosphere is the cinematography by Janusz Kamiński. The cinematography is smoky, clustered, and sometimes feels like its presented through an old lens. Rick Carter's production design gives the White House and the Capitol Building a cluttered, dusty look, rather than orderly cleanliness that most films would opt for:


As much as I've lauded the historical accuracy of the film, I'm sure there are plenty of embellishments and creative licenses taken with some of the portrayals--any historical film simply has to do so. And as I've mentioned, some of the scenes are intentionally "dramatic" and clearly done in the interest of cinematic touches. Also, there are so many actors and characters I haven't mentioned in this review, since there are so many elements to Lincoln that a full, complete analysis would require multiple posts (I've done this for books, but I hope this single post on the film is a proper overview). Even with some stretched imaginings, it's so refreshing to see a film that's as entertaining as it is educational. I've only read samples of Goodwin's book, and there's so much more to Lincoln's political acumen. However, this film gives a stunning look at how political diversions and commentary aren't just twentieth and twenty-first century phenomenons. Toward the end of the film, when Congress casts its votes for and against the Amendment, people listen in and share the results as they happen by shouting them to outside listeners and sharing them via telegraph. It's too easy to imagine this happening today, with a constant flurry of tweets, e-mails, and social media updates. But it shows how, even in the days before instant news, historical events were followed with the same amount of fervor and excitement. However, the ugly side of compromise and ideological divisiveness was just as prevalent, too. In the context of the film, these connections aren't done in an obvious manner, but rather, it allows the viewer to make these assessments and links. The collaborative effort that is Lincoln is incredibly satisfying and compelling. While I'm still playing catch-up with some of the latest 2012 releases, I'm sure this film will keep growing as awards season and year-end lists start to approach. It's a relief to know that these accolades are warranted, and I hope it gains much more analysis and credit beyond Daniel Day-Lewis. As much as his amazing acting stands on its own, it's merely a single piece of a larger, excellent movie experience.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Shiny Unhappy People: Zadie Smith's "NW"


White Teeth, Zadie Smith's 2000 debut novel, is a source of embarrassment and pride for me. The embarrassment stems from my reading of it (roughly ten years ago), and my continual plans to give it another slot in my ever-growing list. I remember enjoying it, but, since it was so early in my reading life, I have almost no memory of its content or plot, but more than once, I've placed it on a "best-of" list or mentioned it as a recommendation. However, there's a definite pride there, since it marked a stark change in my usual book habits, since my late teens and early twenties were marked by a devotion to transgressive fiction. While my college classes helped steer my tastes and outlook, my random perusal of White Teeth began a shift of my reading better books independent of school requirements. Frankly, I'm at at loss to explain why, outside of the occasional short story, I haven't read Smith's follow-up works, On Beauty and The Autograph Man. I adore her essays and critical pieces, with Changing My Mind being one of the better collections I've read in the last couple of years. However, this doesn't explain my lapse in reading her novels, and I hope I've made some amends by recently devouring her latest work, NW. I've read some blurbs and short reviews of NW, some glowing, and some that have reservations. Even with the occasional stumble or pause, I found it to be one of the more challenging, beautiful works of 2012.

The summary and characters could fit into a variety of descriptions pertaining to most novels: NW explores the lives of a group of friends from Northwest London who have returned to the neighborhood as adults. The book opens with Leah Hanwell, a white office worker who, despite her general faith in other people, finds herself as a slight outsider in a neighborhood beset by crime, despondence, and shady inhabitants. The novel opens with a memorable scene in which a neighbor, one who knew Leah growing up, knocks on her door asking for help. It's a careful balance between personalities, with the implied understanding that the neighbor is fleecing Leah with a bogus story, but showcasing Leah's instinct for care and trust, and how it shows her nobility and naivety.

"Together they look like old friends on a winter's night, holding their mugs with both hands. The door is open, every window is open. No air moves. Leah takes her shirt in hand and shakes it free of her skin. A vent opens, air scoots through. The sweat pooled beneath each breast leaves its shameful trace on the cotton.

--I used to know...I mean...

Leah presses on with this phony hesitation and looks deep into her mug, but Shar isn't interested, she's knocking on the glass of the door, speaking over her.

--Yeah you looked different in school, definitely. You're better now innit. You was all ginger and bony. All long.

Leah is still all of these things. The change must be in other people, or in the times themselves.

--Done well, though. How come you aint at work? What d'you do again?

Shar is already nodding as Leah begins to speak.

--Phoned in sick. I wasn't feeling good. It's sort of general admin, basically. For a good cause. We hand out money. From the lottery, to charities, nonprofits--small local organizations in the community that need...

They are not listening to their own conversation. The girl from the estate is still out on her balcony, screaming. Shar shakes her head and whistles. She gives Leah a look of neighborly sympathy (Smith 13-14)."

Smith's passages and styles are wildly yet creatively rendered in the early stages. There are pages of dialogue like the above sample, sometimes unattributed, sometimes in smaller font sizes than other pieces of dialogue, and giving readers unexpected hints to the novel's progression. Some chapters are only a page long, with maps and collected items giving the layout and atmosphere of the Northwest side of London. Smith goes all out early, which sometimes makes the more standard narrative chapters jarring in their simplicity. And as much as I dislike referring to fiction prose as "poetic," there's an undeniable feeling of that sometimes, with rhythmic, almost free-verse sentences. But what feels like improvisation is carefully written. The reader doesn't get the feeling that Smith is showing off, but the myriad of voices and styles are evocative of contemporary city life.

"From A to B redux:
Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only--quicker to walk! Escapees from St. Mary's, Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Everybody. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life-size porcelain tiger, gold taps. Casino! Everybody believes in destiny. Everybody. It was meant to be. It was just not meant to be. Dead or no deal (Smith 42)."

Leah's childhood friend is Natalie Blake, who used to go by the name Keisha. Her life and complications form the majority of the novel. Originally another struggling child in a struggling NW family, she has worked her way up as a lawyer with children, a good husband, and security, but feels torn about her life, which she deals with in secretive, eventually damaging ways. She and Natalie bond early, find themselves separated by different interests and lives, and reconnect as neighbors. While Smith begins the novel with Leah's activities and devotes smaller yet equally detailed chapters to some of the minor characters, her obvious fascination lies in Natalie and her subsequent torments. Natalie's life and experiences are broken up into 185 chapters, sometimes three or four to a page, sometimes longer. Some of the chapters are random vignettes, but combined, they give a complete portrait of Natalie. A lot of Natalie's problems stem from her self-identity, but Smith is not blatantly obvious about this. Natalie doesn't feel guilty about being a successful black woman in a less-successful area, but there are hints to racial identity and its conformity throughout NW. For example, a quick chapter about her (then future) husband Frank uses careful wording to explore race, image, and status:

"86: Style

The dreadlocks were gone. His dinner jacket was simple, elegant. A starched pink handkerchief peeked out of the top pocket and his socks were brightly clocked with diamonds. His Nikes were slightly outrageous and box fresh. He no longer seemed strange. (Any number of rappers now dressed like this. Money was the fashion.) (Smith 255)"


But race is merely one issue of many for the characters, since their problems are much more complex and universal. Generational and societal conflicts abound as well. All of the characters, even the minor ones, have standoffs with youthful antagonists, some verbal, some physically violent. Even though the older characters are still in their twenties and thirties, there's a definite vibe of uneasy battles with "young punks." Taking this further, some of these scenes are about respect, both personal and societal--most of the conflicts arise due to casual, disrespectful behavior, and harsh lessons are taught to and by both sides. These chance encounters sometimes pale in comparison to the tensions between parents and their grown children. Again, family conflicts might seem like obvious traits in any novel, but Smith rarely crafts them as major blowouts. These are smaller moments, full of conversation, but they contain a multitude of layers. In one of the better sections, a character named Felix is visiting his father, and the dispensed advice is humorous, but showcases a difference of opinion and outlooks. It also showcases Smith's use of slang and dialects.

"It was that particular tone, inquiring and high--and suddenly Jamaican--coiling up to Felix like a snake rising from its basket. He tried to laugh it off--'Come on now, don't start that, man'--but Lloyd knew to place his poison with precision: 'I'm trying to train you up, right? It's not that you don't hear me, Felix, it's that you don't want to hear me. You're the big man these days. But let me arks you some ting: why you still chasing after females like they can save your life? Seriously. Why? Look at Jasmine. You nah learn. The man cyan't satisfy the woman, right? Don't matter how much he gives. The woman is a black hole. I've gone deep into the literature, Felix. Biological, social, historical, every kind of oracle. The woman is a black hole. Your mudder was a black hole. Jasmine was a black hole. This one you got now is the same, and she's nice looking, too, so she's gonna suck you all the way before you realize she's sucked you dry. The finer they are, the worse it is.' Lloyd took a large, satisfying slurp from his tea. 'You give me jokes,' said Felix, weakly, and just about managed to make it out of the room (Smith 125-126)."

While the chapters with secondary and minor characters are well written and imporant to the overall arc, the true basis of the book is reflected in the differences and friendship between Leah and Natalie. I read an online comment by someone who said he couldn't finish the novel because the characters were too self-involved and not sympathetic. However, I found the opposite to be true in a way. Yes, Leah (and especially Natalie) are extremely focused on themselves, but not in a way that makes them unsympathetic (again, Natalie comes into a clearer focus, since her mistakes have the bigger outcome and repercussions). I'm also at a stage in my reading life where I don't need characters to be completely lovable or in need of tidy redemption. In my review of Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, I didn't care about the characters, some of whom were even more selfish and problematic than the citizens in NW. However, there are too many amazing secondary details and sketches that make the novel go above the lives of the two women. While the focus is on London, the actions and strife could easily be transplanted into any major urban area. Smith isn't concerned with moralizing or whether or not the characters are redeemed. The novel is a careful collection of random and specific moments, and while some of the issues are left unresolved, it's a satisfying work. At times, we're repulsed by the actions, but there's an overall emphasis on honesty and reality. By combining these layers and interactions, along with a dizzying mix of craft styles, Smith has created one of the better novels of 2012. It's a careful blend of storytelling and experimentation in form, and while there's an occasional detour into the lives of the secondary characters that are left completely unresolved, the bigger picture is more important. I'm going to re-read White Teeth in 2013, and I'm going to catch up on On Beauty and The Autograph Man. Even if I find these works lacking in comparison to NW, I'm going to make sure I don't overlook Zadie Smith's fiction any longer. I can see how readers can have divided opinions on this new work, but I feel it's one of the more better executed works, in both themes and style.

Work Cited:
Smith, Zadie. NW. Copyright 2012 by Zadie Smith.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Man, Not the Legend: D.T. Max's "Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life Of David Foster Wallace"


I planned to read D.T. Max's Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story ever since it came out, and thanks to a friend tipping me off and accompanying me, I had the fortune of seeing him discuss his work at Chicago's Book Cellar. Max gave an excellent, humorous discussion, read selected passages and provided fantastic context and back stories, and was extremely personable and gracious to the crowd when he signed copies of the book. However, as I waited in line to meet him, I felt a pang of empathy. I realized that everyone was there, myself included, not specifically for Max, but for his subject. One of the obvious questions posed to him was "Did you ever meet David Foster Wallace?" He hadn't, except for seeing him from afar at a party (which is documented at the end of the work). Granted, one can't write a book about a still revered literary figure and not expect to be asked about said subject, but the signing felt like a way to get close to the late Wallace, even if deep down, there's much appreciation for Max and his dedicated, complete examination of Wallace. Bits and pieces of Wallace's life are well-known (his Midwestern childhood, his lifelong battle with depression), yet when I first learned about this biography, I realized how necessary it was. Now, upon completion of the work, I also realize how necessary it was to have Max as the biographer.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story follows a chronological path, beginning with the aforementioned Midwestern childhood (Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, and his family moved to Illinois when he was a toddler). Max establishes details of life in the Wallace household, with touching details about their interactions. Wallace's parents were academics, and the combination of regular family routines, intellectual debates, and Wallace's precociousness led to a unique upbringing. His relationship with his mother went through some tense and sometimes alienated years, but Max's sketch of the early times are well crafted, combining factual details with a style that lets the reader imagine the scenarios.

"For Sally [David's mother], grammar was more than just a tool. It gave membership in the club of educated persons. The intimation that so much was at stake in each utterance thrilled David, and added to the excitement of having a gifted mother. As did her sensitivity--Sally hated to shout. If she was upset by something she would write a note. And if David or Amy [his sister] had a response, they would slip it back under her door in turn. Even as a little boy, Wallace was attuned to the delicate drama of personality. He wrote when he was around five years old--and one hears in the words the sigh of the woman who prompted it:

My mother works so hard
And for bread she needs some lard
She bakes the bread. And makes the bed.
And when she's threw
She feels she's dayd
(Max 3)."

A good portion of the work is devoted to Wallace's college years. It led to his heavy drinking and drug use, which in turn led to his stints in rehab and attempts at a clean life; he struggled with his identity, attempted suicide, and made the decision to switch from philosophy to fiction writing. The combination of these factors mark the foundation of the public Wallace, and the private Wallace is a complex, sometimes broken person alternating between needing support and alienating those around him. His enrollment in the graduate program at the University of Arizona coincides with the writing and publication of his first novel, The Broom Of the System, as well as early stories, some of which find their way into his first collection, Girl With Curious Hair. As the book progresses, Wallace's stints in rehab, a halfway house, and his relationship with his mother are continual hints to the experiences that would lead to Infinite Jest. While this might seem like a hurried recap of Wallace's life, these are the more logical, famous notes. Max ends up sharing many more minute details, including Wallace's penchant for letter writing. There are excerpts from his correspondences with the likes of Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, and other writers, editors, and friends. It never feels like Max is invading anyone's privacy; the words are necessary in shaping a full look at the public and (more relevant) private Wallace:

"Franzen offered to get together that April when he was in Boston, despite Wallace's changed circumstances. Wallace said fine but stood him up after they made plans. But because one tenet of recovery is to make amends to those you have wronged, he sent a quick note to his friend explaining his behavior. 'The bald fact is that I'm a little afraid of you right now,' he wrote. He begged to be allowed to bow out of their embryonic competition, to declare a truce against this writer who was so 'irked by my stuff,' because Wallace was no longer a 'worthy opponent in some kind of theoretical chess-by-mail game from which we can both profit by combat (Max 143).'"


When I mentioned the necessity of having Max as the first true biographer, that wasn't a throwaway line. Given Wallace's talents and the unique devotion and love that his writing inspired, other writers wouldn't be faulted for painting his life in a grandiose fashion. Max respects Wallace's intellect, explores his life with great sympathy, yet doesn't shy away from the negative aspects of his personality. Yes, Wallace was a genius, and yes, he was constantly troubled by depression and substance abuse, but Max never shies away from the bigger picture. Like anyone, Wallace could be mean and difficult. He pursued a doomed relationship with poet Mary Karr, which provides a backdrop for some of his less savory actions.

"As the fall turned into a remarkably snowy winter, Wallace's relationship with Karr deteriorated further. The two fought bitterly. Karr, Wallace wrote Franzen, was prone to 'terrible temper-outbursts.' She found him spoiled, a mama's boy using rehab as an excuse for self-absorption. Her needs were more concrete--food, money, child care for her son. He still wrote her constantly, even though he was just around the corner. He printed out in huge letters on a computer the words 'MARRY ME' and added, 'No shit, Mary Karr, do not doubt my seriousness on this. Or the fact that I'm a gila-jawed bulldog once I've finally made a commitment, a promise. My expectation is not that it would be easy, or all the time pleasant. My expectation is that it would be real, and illuminated.' Karr knew it would not work out, she remembers, when one day she asked Wallace to pick up [her son] from school and Wallace said he needed his car to go the gym instead (Max 170)."

And when Max discusses Wallace's writing and creative process, it's equally wonderful. He doesn't revert to hyperbole, as any admirer can do at times (lord knows I've done that myself in some of my Wallace critiques). The balance between descriptions of Wallace's solitary writing habits and the business side of editing and publishing are fascinating. Many terrific examples come from the back and forth between Wallace and editor Michael Pietsch as they debate, edit, and come to agreements on the changes, cuts, and publication of Infinite Jest:

"In April 1995 Infinite Jest was back on Wallace's desk--Pietsch had had the novel set in sample type again and realized the book was still too many pages. He sent a list of possible new cuts. To DeLillo, whom he increasingly turned to as his authority on literary matters, Wallace voiced a growing worry:

I am uncomfortable about making cuts for commercial reasons--it seems slutty--but on the other hand [Little, Brown, and Co.] is taking a big gamble publishing something this long and this hard and I feel some obligation not to be a p.-donna and fuck them over. Maybe I'm writing because I want your general aestheto-ethical input on this. I don't know (Max 205)."

Writer Tom Bissell's blurb for Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story is actually totally accurate: "This book should be handed to anyone who wants to write." There aren't any wistful totems of literary wisdom; Wallace was more talented than most writers of this generation, but he still struggled with doubt about his work and consistency. But generally, the book presents the case of a man who sits down and devotes the time to his craft. He experienced a lot of early setbacks (both personally and creatively) and used those knocks to fuel his stories and essays. The book rightfully breaks down the Wallace mystique. His vision was singular, but came about through time and hard work.

Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Wallace knows how the story ends, so to speak. His successful marriage to artist Karen Green gives him stability and happiness as he works on The Pale King, which likely would have been even bigger and deeper than Infinite Jest. With so many essays and remembrances that came out following Wallace's suicide, Max takes a decidedly neutral tone as he gets to the sad conclusion. It might feel like a cold summary of the end of a life, but there's no judgement or hypothesizing. Wallace's lifelong struggles tie into his end, but Max leaves the opinions to other people. The biography's ending is blunt, much like the end of its source material.

Reviewing a biography is not unlike reviewing a collection of critical essays--one can agree or disagree with the opinions, but the focus should be on the writing and tone. In this sense, D.T. Max has done an amazing job with this work. There's no doubt that he admires Wallace's work, but he is steadfast in presenting an honest, varied account. I've read quite a few reviews that merely pick and choose interesting factoids that can be learned in the book, of which there are many (there's an amusing anecdote about Ethan Hawke attending one of Wallace's readings). By doing impeccable research and conducting dozens of interviews, Max succeeds in giving readers a definitive look at a writer most people know only through oft-repeated stories and, of course, the books he left behind. By knowing more about what went into those amazing works, Max manages to increase the admiration people feel when digging into Wallace's fiction and essays. A lot of Wallace's friends and associates have written their own remembrances, the majority of them illuminating, respectful, and fascinating. However, as a generally detached biographer, Max manages to cut through the "legend," without sacrificing his own status as a fan and reader--were he not a lover of Wallace's works, he wouldn't have undertaken this book. Wallace is more real to me now that I've learned more about him, and I would venture a guess that this is what Max had in mind.

Work Cited:
Max, D.T. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Copyright 2012 by D.T. Max.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Weathering Storms: Paul Auster's "Winter Journal"


I admire more than a few authors who are equally talented in fiction and nonfiction writings, but generally, I tend to favor their fictional sides--as much as I promote and love the essay (and the essay collection), I'd be more apt to pick a novel as a favorite work, rather than a collection of critical pieces. However, this belief gets turned around when it comes to Paul Auster. I've long considered him one of my favorites, but upon reflection, it's shocking to realize how little of his fiction I've actually read (one novel, a handful of shorter works and samples). His memoir, craft explorations, and poetry move me a lot more, and The Invention of Solitude, his 1982 explorations of family, masculinity and writing is one of the very few books that changed me and how I view my own approach to creativity. It was recommended to me while I was dealing with long bouts of financial strain, isolation, and attempts to figure out my priorities while living outside Seattle, Washington. It wasn't a romantic time, and who I am today is directly related to who I was back then (that was around the time I started putting my shaky writing into this blog format). Recently, Auster published Winter Journal, and remembering how much his previous work affected me, I was eager to read this one. It's vastly different in its approach and content, but I still found myself touched and moved in unexpected ways.

It isn't an autobiography or a memoir in the traditional sense. Instead, Auster explores various moments in his life, from physical descriptions to analyses of random happenings to descriptions of the dozens of homes and areas where he's lived, but without any cliched nostalgia. There are fond memories, painful, brutally honest critiques of himself, and reflections on his body. At first, it appears to be chronological, but quickly, Auster begins to alternate time frames. Early memories of two childhood accidents are quickly followed with adult observations. Auster writes in the second person point of view, addressing himself as "you," which allows for two sides of the narrative--in addition to sharing aspects of his life as a sort of letter to his self in various ages, it allows the reader to inhabit Auster's world, especially when (and this happens quite often, at least for me) he gets into universal experiences.

"Yes, you drink too much and smoke too much, you have lost teeth without bothering to replace them, your diet does not conform to the precepts of contemporary nutritional wisdom, but if you shun most vegetables it is simply because you do not like them, and you find it difficult, if not impossible, to eat what you do not like. You know that your wife worries about you, especially about your smoking and drinking, but mercifully, until now, no X-ray has revealed any damage to your lungs, no blood test has revealed any devastation to your liver, and so you forge on with your vile habits, knowing full well that they will ultimately do you grave harm, but the older you become the less likely it seems that you will ever have the will or the courage to abandon your beloved little cigars and the frequent glasses of wine, which have given you so much pleasure over the years, and you sometimes think that if you were to cut these things out of your life at this late date, your body would simply fall apart, your system would cease to function (Auster 14-15)."

This is a universal picture, but at times, he even goes even further. If some of the passages strike readers as self-serving, even when mixed with ruminations on his shortcomings, he sits back and offers the occasional philosophical sentiment that might not be original, still gives the reader cause for thought, even if these thoughts have been experienced by everyone at some point in their lives. And while the thoughts aren't "original," the writing certainly is--note the descriptions and careful word choices in this passage:

"You would like to know who you are. With little or nothing to guide you, you take it for granted that you are the product of vast, prehistoric migrations, of conquests, rapes, and abductions, that the long and circuitous intersections of your ancestral horde have extended over many territories and kingdoms, for you are not the only person who has traveled, after all, tribes of human beings have been moving around the earth for tens of thousands of years, and who knows who begat whom begat whom begat whom begat whom begat whom to end up with your two parents begetting you in 1947 (Auster 115)?"

And while this isn't strictly autobiography, there are enough details to gain a better idea of Auster's life. I know very little about his life, save for the murder of his grandfather by his grandmother (mentioned here and further documented in The Invention Of Solitude). He's been married twice, once to the writer Lydia Davis, who is mentioned not by name, but by the occasional sketch and rumination about living with another writer (as my friend Jeremy once said, "to be a fly on the wall for that relationship"). There are sad, touching remembrances included in his meticulous documentation of the places he's called home.

"Age 32. Before landing there in early 1979, a whirlwind of shocks, sudden changes, and inner upheavals that turned you around and set your life on a different course. With nowhere to go and no money to finance a move even if you had known where to go, you stayed on in the Dutchess County after the breakup of your marriage, sleeping on the sofa bed in the corner of your downstairs study, which you now realize (thirty-two years later) had been your bed as a child. A couple of weeks later, on a trip down to New York, you experienced the revelation, the scalding, epiphanic moment of clarity that pushed you through a crack in the universe and allowed you to start writing again. Three weeks after that, immersed in the prose text you had begun immediately after your resuscitation, your liberation, your new beginning, the unexpected hammer blow of your father's death. To your first wife's infinite credit, she stuck with you through the dismal days and weeks that followed, the ordeal of funeral arrangements and estate matters, disposing of your father's neckties, suits, and furniture, taking care of the sale of his house (which had already been in the works), standing by you through all the wrenching, practical business that follows death, and because you were no longer married, or married in name only, the pressures of marriage had been lifted, and once again you were friends, much as you had been in your early days together (Auster 91-92)."


The passages are combinations of smaller vignettes and much longer passages, some of which, while very well written, didn't hold much interest for me. Even with strong prose, I found myself glossing over some of Auster's sexual details. To his credit, while tinted with a hint of longing, he doesn't veer into embarrassing reminiscences of lost prowess or such. His sex life is merely a part of his life as whole, with the passages given equal time as the rest of his memories. Some of the happenings weigh on his mind more than others--two separate sections are devoted to details of a nasty car accident that nearly killed him and his family. The painful realization of mortality is a given, which makes the surrounding sketches that much more poignant.

"The day after the car crash in 2002, you went to the junkyard where the car had been towed to retrieve your daughter's belongings. It was a Sunday morning in August, warm as always, with a misty blur of rain dappling the streets as one of your friends drove you out to some godforsaken neighborhood in Brooklyn, a no-man's-land of crumbling warehouses, vacant lots, and boarded-up wooden buildings. The junkyard was run by a black man in his mid-sixties, a smallish fellow with long dreadlocks and clear, steady eyes, a gentle Rasta man who watched over his domain of wrecked automobiles like a shepherd tending a flock of dozing sheep. You told him why you were there, and when he led you over to the shiny new Toyota you had been driving the day before, you were stunned by how thoroughly destroyed it was, could not fathom how you and your family had managed to survive such a catastrophe. Immediately after the crash, you had noticed how badly damaged the car was, but you had been rattled by the collision, were not fully able to absorb what had happened to you, but now, a day later, you could see that the metal body of the car was so smashed in, it looked like a piece of crumbled paper. 'Look at that,' you said to the Rasta man. 'We should all be dead now.' He studied the car for a few seconds, looked you in the eye, and then turned his head upward as the fine rain fell onto his face and abundant hair. 'An angel was watching over you,' he said in a quiet voice. 'You were supposed to die yesterday, but then an angel stretched out his hand and pulled you back into the world.' He delivered those words with such serenity and conviction, you almost believed him (Auster 167-168)."

There's no doubt that some of these descriptions might be slightly embellished, and if this is the case, it's not done to stretch the truth in a misleading way. I believe this because even the most "novel-like" passages are no different than the smaller, mundane aspects of Auster's life experiences. That's what made Winter Journal so satisfying to me. His prose never gives the reader the feeling that he's at the true end of his life, looking back wistfully, even though the book might seem that way at first glance. These are moments of his life, big and small, presented as they are. It makes the "Journal" part of the title very accurate. Yes, this is a published work, but part of me, even if this is slightly naive, can see the book being an unpublished project for Auster's own reflections.

Because the mentions of his previous works are either scarce or brought up in passing, I'd be hard pressed to imagine someone unfamiliar with Auster picking this book up, but I could see myself enjoying it on its own. In due time, I'm sure there will be an independent biography of Auster published, one that will expand on his travels, marriages, and writings. However, Winter Journal is beautiful and provides new information and highlights I had been unfamiliar with before. Outside of general curiosity, he's a writer who interests me more with his words than his exploits, and these pages put more emphasis on the former. I found this difficult to review and cite, since quite a few of the passages are long and so intricate that providing a sample would be pointless out of context. His style is unique, and while nothing in it affected me like The Invention Of Solitude, I had the rare experience of being moved emotionally as well as being moved by his craft. I've long had my own issues with the memoir genre as a whole, but Auster's formatting and attention to detail made this reading experience so much more than an inventory of what he's done and experienced.

Work Cited:
Auster, Paul. Winter Journal. Copyright 2012 by Paul Auster.



Saturday, November 3, 2012

Errors of Comedy: Richard Russo's "Straight Man"


When my schedule allows, I've been participating in a monthly book club organized by one of my co-workers, and thanks to it, I've been reading a variety of works I would normally overlook. Even on my own, there are still dozens of authors within my radar whom I know surprisingly little about given their reputations. Last month's selection was Straight Man by Richard Russo, and had it not been suggested and voted upon by my book club, there's an excellent chance I would have gone a couple more years without reading it, or any of Russo's works for that matter. This isn't out of any specific avoidance, but because Russo, while being prolific and generally well-regarded, hasn't really come up in my outside literary readings, nor have any of his books been recommended to me. Even with one of his titles under my belt, I'd still be hard pressed to give a truly accurate assessment of his image or his writing style as a whole. I found Straight Man to be very funny, one of the more genuinely comical novels I've read in quite some time. However, the appearance of passages that made me laugh out loud weren't enough to overcome other, more glaring stylistic issues. And while I can't say that I'll avoid the other titles in his bibliography, the reading didn't fuel any immediate desire to add them to my future reading list.

The novel takes place within the confines of a week at a small liberal arts college in rural Pennsylvania. William Henry Devereaux, Jr., is the chair of the English department and has a variety of problems and people within his orbit. He has one successful book, published years earlier. The school is having serious budget problems, and rumors of faculty dismissals are rampant. His fellow professors annoy him in various ways, from their timidity to bombastic natures to their outright loathing of him (in an early, outright metaphorical scene, a poet attacks him with a notebook, cutting and impaling his nose with the metal spiral of her notebook). His relationship with his wife is occasionally strained to the point of him imagining her having affairs, not out of any sexual fetish, but out of mere curiosity. His grown daughter is having her own marital issues. And to top this off, he fears he has a kidney stone (his efforts to urinate are documented very consistently). All of these combine and are elevated by a random declaration--while wearing a fake nose and glasses, William appears on a local TV station and threatens to kill a campus goose every single day until the budget situation is rectified. In addition to dealing with his family, students, and fellow faculty members, he also gains national exposure for his declaration, and nobody knows with any certainty whether he meant his statement or not. The week takes several turns, some expected, some unexpected, as William attempts to navigate the various problems.

As the synopsis implies, Straight Man is comedic, with scenes and dialogue both slapstick and wry. William is mentoring his secretary and her writings, and offer this observation, the likes of which appear steadily. This is one of the better pieces of humor in the novel, whereas at other times it feels a bit too unbelievable.

"Last fall, buoyed and excited by my enthusiastic response to a new story, she made the mistake of sharing my comments with her husband and inviting him to read one of her stories. It took him most of the evening, she said, sitting there in his armchair, laboring over her sentences, his brow darkening, phrase by phrase, pausing every so often to glance at her. When he finished, he got up, scratched himself thoughtfully, and said I must be trying to get her in the sack. Where literary criticism is concerned, he's a minimalist (Russo 64-65)."

William's duck threat--a common refrain is people saying duck when the object of the threat was a goose--is so outlandish, and everyone's opinion of him is so fraught between respect and disdain, that nobody really knows if he's serious or kidding about the declaration. This balance makes for some well-played interactions, since while everyone is sure William isn't the kind of person to kill animals for monetary reasons, it seems just plausible enough to tread with caution.

"'That's good news,' I say. 'At a duck a day that means I only have to kill four or five ducks, and we've got close to thirty.'

Dickie thinks this is pretty funny and laughs immoderately. I remain immoderately sober. If he's at all disconcerted to be the only one laughing, he shows no sign. 'No, seriously,' he says. 'You did us all a favor, Hank. Last night--I admit it--I could have stabbed you through the throat with an ice pick, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought, we can use this.'

'The throat?' I say. 'With an ice pick?' I mean, after all, we're sitting here on Dickie's leather couch in the office of the chief executive officer of an institution of higher learning, as close to the heart of civilization as you can get without going to a better school.

Dickie ignores me. 'I mean I called you ever name in the book at first. I said, 'What's that hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm' trying to do to me?' He pauses, as if to allow me the opportunity to count the hmm's and substitute expletives in the blanks so I'll know what he called me (Russo 160)."

For the most part, the plot is straightforward, leading to semi-expected conclusions with unexpected courses for getting to those conclusions (a later scene, involving wet pants and crawlspaces in a ceiling, is handled very well). This also makes Straight Man one of the more dialogue-heavy novels I've read in awhile, since most of the developments and revelations come through outright discussions rather than narrative execution. However, while William does genuinely care about the people he loves and respects, his sarcasm can be grating, and some of his observations edge precariously on those of a typical cranky middle aged white guy, occasionally flecked with bits of mild sexism disguised as humorous narrative.

"Gracie enters. She's dressed beautifully, expensively, in a beige dress that looks like it could be cashmere. As her always lush body has gotten bigger, so has her hair, as if it's her intention to keep her general bodily proportions the same. She looks, frankly, heroic and quite wonderful, a brave woman intent on one last sexual conquest before menopause (Russo 104)."


While I went to a large state college and not a small liberal arts school, a member of my book club stated that Russo's fictional imaginings of small town college life are nearly flawless. Everyone knows everyone, indiscretions and dalliances are sometimes common knowledge, and people often stay in positions or houses for years after claiming they'll be leaving. I can say on my own authority that the scenes from William's creative writing class are spot-on. Russo captures the essence of many early writing students, balancing their actual writing skills with their general demeanor of wanting to be writers. William actually seems like a knowledgeable, fair writing instructor, and his students are full of memorable characteristics.

"Although they have been chafing each other all semester, Leo and Solange are not so different. Both are friendless, as far as I can tell. Neither seems to have discovered a way to exist in the world. Solange fancies herself a poet, and to her this has less to do with writing poetry than it does with adopting a superior attitude. She dresses in black, eschews makeup, smokes dope, feigns a kind of exhausted boredom. She'd like to think she's smart (she is) but fears she isn't, at least not smart enough to justify her superiority. She's pale-skinned and bony, and this, I suspect, is partly why she objects so strongly to Leo's lurid adolescent fantasies. In his stories girls like Solange don't rate notice, much less ravishing. To attract the attention of one of Leo's vengeful ghosts, a girl has to have big breasts, not a protruding breastbone (Russo 99)."

Russo wisely doesn't opt for some obvious directions--William's thoughts about his wife's potential affairs are merely thoughts, and the supposed flirtations of his colleague's daughter turns out differently than some writers would opt for (given the whole middle aged white guy angle, there are plenty of writers whom I can see inserting a fantastical affair, but for all of his faults, William is more or less noble). However, Russo's execution falters fairly often. There's a big build-up to William meeting his father for the first time in years. When this finally happens, it commands all of two or three pages of strange, unsatisfying dialogue. A goose does end up being killed, but the revelation of the killer, while obvious right away, isn't explored with any true discussion of why it was done. And the biggest problem of all is the novel's epilogue: Russo jumps forward several months, and everyone is happy. Problems are solved, characters are content, and closure is given where, in some cases, it would have been more intriguing for their to be none. In my previous reading of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, I complained about the ending as well, how it seemed to be tied up and closed off far too abruptly. In Reif Larsen's case, I chalked it up to a beginning novelist's lack of experience. But in this case, coming from a writer as established and supposedly versatile as Russo, it's perplexing.

I'm just confused as to what he was trying to do with Straight Man and how it received as much praise as it did upon its publication. I have too many issues with its development to be able to recommend it to anyone--in fact, one of my fellow book club participants made an amazing assessment, saying it is the kind of book one would recommend to someone who claims to like everything. There's enough variety in these pages for appeal along a variety of genres. Personally, I think its reception is due to its time. With very few exceptions, the late 1990s seemed to be a kind of stagnant era for literature. In that time, the country was stable, both economically and socially, without the serious divisions we've faced in the new century. This might seem like I'm going overboard, but in 1997, William's problems could have seemed bigger than they actually were. I don't know if this is Russo's only foray into comedic writing, but again, I genuinely enjoyed his timing, and there were several instances where I actually laughed out loud. Humorous writing is hard on its own, and even harder to consistently infuse into what is otherwise a serious novel. But if Russo is more of a straight literary writer, I'd be more interested in his serious works in order to see how he does arcs and climaxes without being able to insert a slapstick breakdown or a well-timed zinger. Overall, I'm apathetic about Straight Man, which to me is worse than outright disdain. There are just enough literary elements to make this the book equivalent of fast food--good in small doses depending on one's mood, but not meant for any lasting value.

Work Cited:
Russo, Richard. Straight Man. Copyright 1997 by Richard Russo.