Saturday, March 31, 2007

Excerpt: Mornin' Carrie, Albert Here.

"Look, Carrie, I've got somethin' for you."

"Oh, Al, again!"

"It's the gift that keeps on givin'!"

"What time is it? It's still dark out that window!"

"Five-fifteen, Carrie, early enough for one more little spin before you've gotta hit the road back to Omaha. There'll be traffic, maybe, and my flight's outta Kansas City Airport; I've got drivin' to do, too."

"Mmmm. . . I'm so tired. I think maybe I'll just call in sick."

"After Mary Beth knows what you've been up to?"

"Mary Beth does not know anything! Christ in Heaven!"

"You don't think she was doin' you a little favor, sendin' me out here to you like a present?"

"She did not send you out here to me like a present! She sent you out here to do your job, which yesterday just happened to be in Kansas City, which just happens to be two hours from Omaha!"

"Aw, that's right, Carrie. You're my present. Come here an' let me unwrap you."

"You sure are somethin', Albert, rearrangin' the world to get what you want."

"I didn't rearrange nothin', Carrie. I'm just doin' my job, like you said. An' now I'm gonna do my job on you, one more time before you drive on off to Omaha and leave me on an airplane with nothing but peanuts and coffee to keep me company."

"Oh, don't be silly. You have plenty to keep you busy at home and I know it. You don't have to hide it from me. I know you've got a pretty little girl and a wife and all of that; I've seen their pictures in your wallet—you showed 'em to me, back in Pittsburgh two years ago. Haven't said a peep about 'em since, but I know all about 'em, an' I-"

"An' I don't want to talk about them now, an' I don't want to think about them. I want to talk about this thing I got right here for you, and what you're goin' to do with it so's I can remember it while I'm on that airplane, and remember it when I get home, and remember it every time I hear your sweet voice on the phone sending me off to some other corner of the Earth to fix some goddamned piece of junk machine while all these doctors walk around acting like they're better than me because they've got on a white lab coat. I used to wear a white lab coat. It's nothin' special. Same thing underneath. Here—put your hand underneath the cover—see—mmm—same thing."

"Oh, Albert, really, I really ought to get up and take a shower an' get ready to drive back—"

"How 'bout I get in that shower with you?"

"Albert! Are you crazy or something? I'm not doing that with you in the shower!"

"Oh, Carrie, it's lotsa fun, you ever try it?"

"No! What kind of girl do you think I am?"

"Oh, I don't know, the kind of girl that drives me crazy from halfway across the country and lets me kiss her sweet little blossom once or twice a year, which all the rest of the time I gotta satisfy myself with the blossoms in the park."

"Oh, stop that nonsense."

"Let me kiss it again, Carrie."

"Oh, Albert, I just-"

"Let me kiss it again. I want my mouth to be filled with your roses."

Friday, March 30, 2007

Excerpt: Anarchy in Plum Street

"Yes, sir, Sergeant, sir!" we laughed and he rolled us up a joint and I put the Queen record on and we didn't talk anymore.

So that was how I first thought of my big project, and here I am about to execute it. My first Alley Snake is going to be a scavenger hunt: go to these places—like I said, leftist bookstores, cafes where students and intellectuals congregate, spots like that, spots where people can come together and talk about things without being afraid someone's going to come listen in on them and lock 'em up for refusing to tow the line. For enjoying a joint with their brew the way a fat cat would enjoy a cigar with his brandy. The social security numbers are going to be at the sites, not in the paper—printing them would be too risky, I talked to Perlman about it and he was willing to put the paper on the line for me, but I'm new here and I'm not ready for that. Plus, I think this is going to be a bigger deal than he thinks.

The plan is that Bus and I are going to break into the houses of the top detectives in the DPD, go through their paperwork, find their social security numbers—theirs, their wives', their kids'. All the detectives that work narcotics—we had to narrow it down and I figured that was as good a place to start as any. Doobie wants to maybe come along because he likes the anti-anti-narcotics angle, but I'm afraid he'll leave the detectives' houses stinking like a hotboxed VW. I want to keep it completely clean—no prints, no signs of entry, nothing--not a thing will be missing, since we'll just be writing their little numbers down in my notebook, and that will be that. They'll never know anyone was there.

Movies: Zodiac

Way better than Se7en, not as brilliant as Fight Club, but still a damn fine movie, Zodiac starts as a make-you-whimper, lets you off the hook awhile, and then makes you whimper a few more times before leaving you to stew in nervousness, anxiety, and delight. Excellent performances all around, particularly from Mark Ruffalo (who finally seems to have grown up) as Toschi, a detective with a penchant for animal crackers, and even more particularly from Robert Downey Jr., as journalist Paul Avery. Jake Gyllanhaal, as cartoonist-turned-obsssionist Robert Graysmith, suits the role and is the inheritor of the bug-eyed looming weird kid tradition most recently effected by Tobey Maguire. Chloe Sevigny manages to be uglier than usual.

The plot arc describes killing enough, and it is indeed brutal (particularly a stabbing at Lake Berryessa—one of the best onsceen screams I've heard ever), but the film focuses less on the killer than the obsession and ensuing breakdowns suffered by those tracking him. At one point, Graysmith shows up at a women's penitentiary to question a prisoner tangentially related to one of his leads and she looks at him sideways when he says he wants to ask her about the Zodiac. "You've got the look," she says, and it's true: he has the dark circles and three days growth that Hollywood uses again and again to convey sleeplessness and obsession (cf., most recently, Aaron Eckhart's Sgt. Lee Blanchard in The Black Dahlia).

Minus points for neglecting to age the actors properly; Robert Downey Jr. is the only one whose physique shows any sign of the decline that comes with the passage of ten then twenty years, plus extreme anxiety.

Bonus points for a perfectly on-point visual description of the Bay Area of my youth, recollections of Melvin Belli and Herb Caen, and a killer (ha ha) soundtrack.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Excerpt: What You Need Comes in a Bottle

Sandy is a tall lady in blue jeans. She lets me look on her music while she plays guitar and sings, across the room from my dad pumping his accordion open and shut. He bought me a tambourine for Christmas and I bring it every Saturday night.

Everybody comes to the back room and sets up their music stands and their instruments. Arlo sticks little metal hats on his fingertips with his banjo in his lap. Warren starts pulling wooden benches down from where they're stacked against the wall and setting up his corner; he has some jugs that he blows into, and an empty plastic Alhambra jug that he puts upside down between his legs and bangs on. We have one of those at home, too, but it's half-filled with pennies.

A few other people come with guitars—Rich, who plays with his eyes closed, some one else I can't remember. Jack brings his spoons. John brings this thing that's like a big metal bucket, upside down, with a broomstick stuck inside, with a string tied too it, and another thing that slides up and down the stick to make the string tight. My dad calls it a base.

When we get to the cafe, my dad orders a coffee. Paul makes me a hot chocolate, and I sit at the bar and we tell each other riddles until he gives me a pack of cards to go play solitaire. When I get bored, I wander into the back room, where the walls are covered in corrugated metal, and the floor is sticky, and there is a low wide machine that vends cigarettes. There are wooden benches stacked up against one wall that they take down Thursday nights for the poetry readings. Since it's Saturday, the band needs all the room; they are all standing in a circle—fifteen, twenty people—with music stands and black three inch binders filled with songs. There are some songs I like best and sometimes they let me pick the next one to sing. I like Big Brown Bottle, because Sandy sings it like the blues. I guess it's not a great accordion song, but I don't care. My dad bought me a little accordion and tried to teach me how to play it, but I like the tambourine better.

Everyone has a tall glass with beer except my dad, who's drinking coffee. They are also all smoking. My dad smokes cigarettes even though they told me at school it makes you die and I begged him to stop because I don't want him to die. They have a little cigarette, though, that someone rolled up with a tiny piece of tissue paper and licked all over, and they pass it around the circle; everyone takes a puff or two and passes it to the next person, holding it between their thumb and index finger, even though my mom holds her cigarettes between her index and middle fingers. My dad doesn't smoke it. Some one lights a stick of incense and leans it on the cigarette machine, where its burning tip sticks out off the edge. After a while the room gets really stinky, and they're playing some song I don't really like, like Salty Dog or Long Tall Sally. I want to sing the song where She appeared to be eighteen or nineteen years old and then by the end of the song, after she takes off her wig and her make up and her glass eye, she appeared to be eighty or ninety years old, but Sandy tells me we can't always sing the same songs because there's a lot to practice. I go back outside to play solitaire and wait for my mom to come pick me up.


Sandy is a fine, lovely lady. Her long limbs flex under cotton and denim, her long fingers working the neck of her guitar; I could stand to have them work my cock. Not in front of the kid, of course. Nothing in front of the kid. No drinking, certainly no pot. Not that she knows what it is, but I wonder when she'll be old enough to understand. One day, we're gonna have a beer together. She'll grow up pretty like her mother; hopefully, a lot less bitchy.

Sandy's sweet with the kid, though. She would hate me for my thoughts because she's such an upstanding lady, and really likes the kid. I could ask her, later, after a few more drinks, after Lu comes and picks up the kid and takes off, when it's just us adults here and some beer and some pot and the music; I could ask her if she wants to go across the street to the Lonely Palm and have another drink, the two of us, see what happens. She doesn't have anyone at home to stop us. That could work, if she were drunk enough to forget the kid, forget my wife, not care. . . I don't care, why should she? She didn't last time.

The kid is sweet, though. Doesn't look too much like her mom yet; looks like my sisters when we were all kids, with all that stick white hair like a pile of hay on her head. She plays that tambourine like it was part of her body. No one's ever seen rhythm like that in a five year old. She's a better musician than half the cats in here. John with his "base"--the thing doesn't play any actual notes, I don't care if it looks authentic or even is authentic, the goddamned piece of crap isn't on pitch! And Rich, playing with his eyes closed, as if he had memorized all five hundred songs in the book, well, I can see your lips moving, man, because my eyes are open, and what my eyes see is that your lips are moving, and they are singing the wrong words.

Arlo's a good man, though, his banjo's got a sweet sound, and Warren keeps a good rhythm on the jug; we are, after all, a jug band. We've gotta keep the jug. And Sandy, well, she's a natural looker with those brown curls and the Navajo turquoise rings on her fingers, and she has a dusty, dirty voice that works nice on most of the songs.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Poem: After Talking to Perdition

"This is such a girly place. There needs to be some serious man around. You can imagine what everyone else is like."

gay 'n girly—flushed 'n curly
riding 'round the whirly-twirly

brawn 'n burly—davidson-hurley
plowing through all hard and surly

they so pearly—you so churly
poppin' cherries oft' 'n early

lick 'em, surely, for their purely
burning urge to sigh demurely

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Books: Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh

A month ago or so, one of my coworkers (who is raising his two year old daughter without a television in the house (read: fellow nerd)) asked me what I was reading. A bit abashed, I mumbled something about needing a little break and doing some silly light reading, just a bit of Evelyn Waugh, you know, because I'd been reading Proust and needed something light to break it up, and well, you know. . . Yes, I was babbling, because I was embarrassed, because I had spent the weekend speed-reading through some delightfully frothy English satire, not any more challenging than P.G. Wodehouse, and almost as insubstantial.

He began to laugh; meanwhile I was becoming exceedingly flushed. "Evelyn Waugh? Light? That's amazing. . . you consider Evelyn Waugh light?"

"Well, um, you know. . ." I was a bit lost now, because, well, yes, it was extremely light reading and this is a guy who reads Pynchon for fun, so he should recognize light reading, and, well, now I was just confused. "You know, I mean, it's not trash, but it isn't, well, you know, serious reading. It's pretty frothy. . . a bunch of silly British people capering through London and then mucking about it in the countryside."

He asked me precisely what titles I'd read, and I told him A Handful of Dust and The Loved One (which was particularly silly) and he told me that he'd only read Brideshead Revisited, and had I ever, which I hadn't. "I don't know," he said, "I'm pretty impressed if you think that that's light reading, that's all." And so that was that. A few days later, I conveyed this story to my friend who had actually recommended Waugh in the first place, and asked whether I was missing something, and wasn't Waugh basically the same as P.G. Wodehouse. He insisted that Waugh was bit more "nasty," (actually, an apt description) but then explained that Brideshead Revisited was a dreadfully boring, non-satirical book that, while being his most well-known, was thankfully the single one of it's terrible kind in Waugh's oeuvre. He instructed me never to read it. Therefore, I promptly did.

I wasn't just being contrary, you know. Since one of my reasons for reading is educational, it does me little good to have an experience of an author that is inconsistent with the literary world's experience of that author.

It was a good choice. This is a lovely little plaintive book. It's better than Waugh's frothy satires—not actually that much different in content, actually, only tone. The nastiness has been replaced with poignancy—loss and longing. The capers of the wealthy are still featured with Waugh's particular combination of disdain and sangfroid (Lady Julia is brought as a gift a living tortoise whose shell has been embedded with diamond chips that spell out her initials by her beau Rex Mottram), but Waugh's nimble way with words is even easier to appreciate when one isn't distracted by the utter inanity of satires' necessarily flattened characters.

It's a lost love book that actually tells the story of Charles Ryder's—an Oxford dropout turned painter—loss of not one love but two: his highly-affected college chum Sebastian Flyte (note: extremely close homosocial relationship—tell me—are they gay lovers?) and, later, that chum's sister, Julia. There are marriages, politics, and theological frustrations; alcoholism, aesthetics, and sexuality, too, are treated to Waugh's deft analysis, which never feels of analysis at all. One could, indeed, easily make the argument that the fall of the Flyte family represents the fall of the English manor house, or that Sebastian—beautiful, effete, profligate—himself is a cipher for Brideshead (and the manor's name itself—Brideshead—could be written about in great detail), but one doesn't need to make these arguments.

That Sebastian, by the novel's end, has become a neurasthenic sot, bald, bearded, and living in a Tangerian monastery, seeking the religion of his mother and his Nanny, and that Brideshead itself is serving as camp for English soldiers, one of whom is Charles Ryder (hence the revisiting) at the brink of WWII, its glorious fountain wrapped in chicken wire and filled with cigarettes and sandwich wrappers, renders arguments of that kind rather impotent. And that impotence—the impotence of will, the impotence of love, the impotence of intention—is consistently Waugh's conclusion. Whether the world is nasty or tender (after all, it is both), it is, more savagely, meaningless.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Movies: Nacho Libre

An odd little mash-up of genre farce and kid's movie infused by an indie sensibility, Jack Black's Mex-a-thon pleased my palate more than I ever expected it would, despite highlighting a variety of things that I can't stand (wrestling, fat people, Mexican accents). Shot in hyper-color teals, reds, and oranges (think William Eggleston), details of homes' and churches' interiors more than make up for the aesthetic travesty of Black's permed corkscrew Mexi-fro and distended white belly.

In this film, Jared Hess, who seems to be styling himself—at least so far as art direction is concerned—after Wes Anderson, elaborates on the best feature of (the dreadful wannabe indie cult film) Napoleon Dynamite: the unknown Mexican actor (in NP, it's Efren Ramirez as Pedro Sanche; in NL, Hector Jimenez as Esqueleto, along with an entire supporting cast of clergymen and orphans) characterized by a deadpan expression warmed with the addition of random expressive tics.

Despite my general affection for Jack Black, it is the supporting cast that makes this movie worth watching, since Black—as he does so often—slips in and out of his Nacho character and into "straight" (as if there was such a thing) Jack Black (think: Tenacious D), this time to the detriment of his performance (in other, straighter, films (The Holiday) this slippage rescues his performance from death by banality).

Ultimately, it's a feel-good movie that stays true to the Nickelodeon logo pasted onto the opening credits, but it recalls, to its credit, the Nick that brought you The Adventures of Pete and Pete, not the Nick that brought you Rugrats (not that I didn't like Rugrats): gross and silly, yes, but also arty, quixotic, and zesty.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Writing: The Nine Day Novel Challenge**

Luckily, it is not a reality TV show (yet?!).

My friend, "I never actually do anything I say I'm going to do," has challenged me to a nine day novel challenge, in part as an attempt to save face over the screenplay debacle.*

The challenge is inspired by his airline reading of "one of those mickey spillane novels, which are fun but unbelievably lazy--at one point he describes a roomful of commies as 'they looked like commies from a cartoon, you know'."

No; I don't know. I don't know what commies in a cartoon look like (doesn't it depend on the animator?) and I don't know who Mickey Spillane is.

My friend goes on to explain, "of course, the reason why he was lazy is that he took about 9 days to do one of, should we do a nine day novel challenge? it can be something pulpy (not of course some sort of crime novel or anything, as we can't do those)"


We actually are now talking about taking two weeks to do it (although Nine Day Novel Challenge is a more marketable title for the reality TV show), with a 100-150 page count. The loser is the one who doesn't do it (gee, I wonder who that will be?) and the punishment is that the loser buys the winner a pricey dinner (I don't think he and I have the same concept of "pricey dinner," considering all those $4 curries, but whatever). In the (unlikely) case that both parties presents a manuscript on the due date, a disinterested third party (who works at a big publishing house!) will be the judge, and the loser buys dinner for all three.


I am concerned. Two weeks for 100 pages is about 10 pages a day. That's a lot. That will cut seriously into my reading time, which will in turn cut seriously into my blogging time. Do I really want to do this? Also, the prize isn't that great. It's actually more about gloating power, and I'm not so big on gloating.

And how am I to write a novel in the style of Mickey Spillane when I have no idea who he is? Now I need to dedicate research time as well?! I don't know about this. . .

*Six or so months ago, "I never actually do anything I say I'm going to do" and I were having a chat over some godawful $4 curry or something, and he was describing his new get-rich-quick scheme. I actually adore "I never actually do anything I say I'm going to do," because even though he always has new get-rich-quick schemes, they are never ugly capitalist pyramid scenarios, or duplicitous web sites, or dealings with drugs and hos. They are always semi-intellectual/semi-artistic pursuits. This time, it went thusly:

INADA. . .: Did you know that you can get like $20,000 just for writing a screenplay?
me: "Just" writing a screenplay? Is it really so easy?
INADA. . .: For $20,000, yeah, it can't be that hard.
me: Well, why don't you do it, then.
INADA. . .: I think I'm going to.
me: I challenge you to do it. As incentive, if you do it, I will do my utmost to get it filmed (I have connections, and anyway, I know he'll never do it anyway).
INADA. . .: Excellent. I'll do it then.
me: You'd better. How long do you need?
INADA. . .: I don't know. . . three months?
me: I'm putting it in my blackberry. I'll give you a one-month warning.

Well, at the one month warning, he asked for a one-month extension, because his great Viking idea was taken already, but he had a new great Nazi idea or some such rot. Of course, he never did it, and thereby earned his INADA. . . moniker.

**Update: We are indeed doing the challenge, and I am publishing excerpts as I go along. See all blog entries titled "Excerpt: . . . "

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Books: Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth

Today, we practice using em dashes correctly. I have been using them incorrectly for many years now. It's infuriating.

When every book you read reminds you of a different old lover, you begin to feel old. Not old because one must be old to have had so many lovers, but because of the concomitant emotions the reading inspires. A tender, almost Proustian, nostalgia comes in waves—poignant—fragile—and the time elapsed since said affair—usually a month or two, sometimes maybe a year or two—and the time elapsed during said affair—so often barely an actual affair and instead a string of semi-isolated incidents, meaningless at the time, to one party or sometimes even both—in retrospection, both durations take on proportions—emotive and temporal—that they never had in real time.

The non-affair—the ill-strung strand of isolated incidents, as it were—whose memory this book welled up in me—was one that ended badly. It was one that progressed badly, too, but was marked by a few shimmering highlights—the warm shock of our first coupling, a bottle of my favorite bourbon on my birthday, a sweaty evening when a thunderstorm blinked my walls blue, and the inconstant but lovely parade of sweets—financiers, eclairs, palmiers, blackout cookies (no croquembouche for the two of us, alas)—left on my desk after lunch while he was courting. I will leave out the bad parts. Who wants to remember them?

The problem is that reading this book, I couldn't help but remember them all. He (the lover), being a hyper-intellectual Jew, mid-30s, a victim of arrested emotional development, whose sexual appetite was dark and wide, leaped from lover to lover, mirroring completely our narrator, Alexander Portnoy, also hyper-intellectual, also Jewish, also mid-30s, as he philanders his way across America, obsessed with goyische cunt. My lover aside, the book is incredibly well written and filled with stunning passages on the joys of female anatomy, the horrors of Jewish mothers, and the dangerous places in which the two intersect. Told in confessional flashbacks, from the analyst's couch, the chronology slips as easily in and out of childhood as. . . well, you know.

Like the affair, the book ended badly (though without any cursing; one has lower expectations for books than lovers, which, upon consideration, might be completely backward), although it didn't progress badly at all. It just sort of, well, stopped. I'll admit that I was disappointed when it finished before I did. I mean, before I wanted it to. I mean, ahem, yes. I suppose that is the primary pitfall of writing a novel without a narrative trajectory. To be completely satisfying—all-encompassing—art must stop when in reality, life goes on.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Reminder from Alfred Polgar

A commonplace soul is often uncommonly spirited.
But dreck is still dreck, even when phosphorescent.


Monday, March 19, 2007

Books: Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

Opacity and tedium conspire to confound those readers who style themselves after bulldozers (myself very much included). The time it takes one to slog through this little wisp of a novel, perhaps due to its extreme soporific effects, condemns writers of the leisure class and every critic (likely also of the leisure class) who, via High Modernism, extols their graces.

Indeed, Woolf must have buried her tongue deeply in her cheek when she named her protagonist "Mrs. Dalloway," for the lady dallies away not only the single day whose dalliances the novel delineates, but, as Peter Walsh (an ex-lover) and Sally Seton (an old friend) (both pseudo-character foils, mooted by the novel's end by their own inanities) incise, (and as the "heroine" knows, but ultimately couldn't care less) Clarissa Dalloway has frittered away her entire life.

But that is what the leisure class does. Woolf chooses words in the way that Clarissa Dalloway chooses flowers, and for the same purpose: to fill up otherwise empty vessels and mask vapidity via decor. And of course, to entertain herself. However else could she pass the time?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Movies: Black Snake Moan and Raise the Red Lantern

A ill-matched double feature. I oughtn't even discuss them in the same post, except for having seen them both last night.

Black Snake Moan. First of all: SO Hot. After reading a few annoying liberal-academic-ish reviews and being told that a) it's not OK to sexify anorexia via Christina Ricci's emaciated body and b) it's not okay to chain people to radiators in these days of Guantanamo Bay, I went to see for myself whether this movie was as hot as the posters promised. It's a scorcher.

A finally not fat anymore Christina Ricci absolutely embodies Rae: a Southern anti-belle with a rockstar's swagger, child's eyes, trucker's mouth, and a perfect rack (proof of non-anorexia, FYI). Rae has "the sickness," a sort of sexual poltergeist effect comprised of post-traumatic stress flashbacks that drive her to consummate sexual acts with whatever man is readily available. As the plot progresses, we find that she was sexually abused as a child by her mother's boyfriend (hence the PTS), leading not only to her sickness, but also to a rift between her and her mother, who denies the abuse ever happened. Rae's only source of stability is the faltering Ronnie (Justin Timberlake, who turns in a not very interesting performance of a not very interesting role, but who definitely looks like the wussy honky cracker (hey - it's the South; it's okay) he's supposed to be), who goes away for a stint in the National Guard. Without anyone to protect her from herself, Rae fucks a few awful characters and then goes to a lawn party where she takes some pills and drinks a beer. A stunningly-shot night scene follows in which Rae and a few unnamed teens play touch football on the grass, drunk and stoned. Rae wears nothing but white underpants and football shoulder pads. In the middle of the game, she's pushed down to grass, fucked, and left there. Her body is collected by Ronnie's best friend Gil who loads her into his truck to drive her home. He stops on the way, presumably to fuck her, but instead starts punching her when she says something surly. When he can't revive her, he does what any freaked-out dude would do - kicks her (yes - with his shoe) out the truck and speeds away.

Her perfectly formed, scantily-clad body is discovered the next morning by Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), whose back story we've meanwhile also been following: his wife just left him for another man, he plays a mean blues guitar, and he's angry with God. He takes her home, cleans her wounds, and fetches her medicine. When she becomes halfway cognizant, she tries to have sex with him (he does not, of course, allow this). When she becomes two-thirds cognizant, she tries to run away, leading Lazarus to tether her to his radiator with a heavy metal chain wrapped around her waist and padlocked. Pretty hot. (Absolutely nothing to do with Guantanamo Bay, by the way).

Then of course the plot must progress, so we see how Rae and Lazarus ultimately help each other (she is the child he never had (his wife aborted his baby against his will - another source of his deep pain); he is the father she never had). Ronnie comes back, a bit of drama ensues, and everything turns out even better than just okay. Whatever. The whole is far less than the sum of the parts - this movie is brilliant in its details. Ricci is perfect in every flick of her tongue and hips. Jackson is perfect, down to his ruined fingers against the guitar strings. The music is brilliant, the exchanges are raw and pithy, and the shots are well structured. Great movie. Critics: lighten up.

Raise the Red Lantern. A Chinese classic featuring the young and (supposedly) beautiful Gong Li (she's just not really my type.) Annoying liberal-academic-ish reviewers, come and get it; this is a film for you. "Haunting," "seething," "slow," "lyrical," etc. etc. ad inf. Young Songlian (Gong Li), after six months at University, loses her father and thereby her financial support. She becomes the Fourth Wife of a wealthy man whose myriad family traditions include hanging red lanterns in the home of the wife with whom he chooses to spend each night. Clearly, much jealousy and plotting amongst women (including the serving girl with whom he also engages in sexual service) then ensues. Friendships are made, enemies are established, secrets are revealed, truths are laid bare. The main truth being that this is not a good system. But those liberal-academic-ish reviewers can make some feminist statements and whatnot. Yay fun (not really).

Anyway, the reason this movie is good is because the tone and the pacing and sets and such are good. It's aesthetically quite lovely. Particularly the parts with the snow. It's rather aesthetically repressed (one could argue easily that this is a good thing), but that prevented me from empathizing with any character. Songlian may be the protagonist, but she's no angel, and her fate (she goes mad after witnessing the murder of the Third Wife in retribution for an extra-marital affair, which affair Songlian accidentally disclosed to the Second Wife) left me cold. The whole thing sort of left me cold.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Movies: 300

300 brawny soldier and 300 dishy cliches. I won't list all 300, because that would take too long.

1. good v. evil (duh)
2. Euro v. pan-Asian
3. freedom v. tyranny
4. strong=wise=good
5. gay men can't be trusted
6. piercings are evil
7. money is evil
8. sex and sexual desire is good (in the moral sense) if you're married and in love (king and queen) and depraved if it's decadent lust (Persian camp; oracle). Nipples are neutral.
9. physical defects belie character defects
10. infidels die like swine, and heroes die nobly
11. men who wear make up are depraved
12. brains are better than brawn, but heroes are brainier and brawnier
13. what doesn't kill you makes you stronger
14. the prettiest youngest soldier always dies first
15. hero (king) always last to die
16. Persian girls are hot
17. Darwin was right
18. religion is corrupted by the money-grubbing, power-hungry, lusty freaks who administrate it
19. metal is the soundtrack of my rage as I chop your head off with my sword
20. wolves want to eat people, particularly adolescents (do they really? where did this notion come from?)
21. traitors are always revealed and punished
22. a rhinoceros can be ridden into battle (has anyone actually ever rode a rhinoceros?)
23. politicians are liars at worst and do-nothings at best
24. fighting is healthy for a young boy
25. pride is okay if you're the good guy, but it's evil if you're the bad guy
26. women give their men their jewelery for good luck before a battle
27. decadence and hedonism are bad
28. airy ululating woman is the soundtrack of my death
29. history remembers heroes
30. when in doubt, borrow from Lord of the Rings

I have nothing against these cliches' appearance in 300. After all, it's a movie based on a comic book based on an ancient tale of battle. In fact, I expected them. In fact, I expected more. I thought that this movie would be really over-the-top, particularly aesthetically. I expected more than just flying drops of blood. I expected more artistry and more Greco-pulp (e.g. Sin City in Ancient Greece). There were a few bits like that (the oracle writhing around, cloaked in smoke wisps; Xerxes costuming for sure), but I wanted 200% pulp every goddamn minute. My most serious artistic complaint regards the structure of the shots; in any non-Will Ferrell or Drew Barrymore movie (you must know what I mean by that) I expect more careful storyboarding, but this movie is frickin' based on a graphic novel, which is all about story boarding. So why weren't the shots more carefully composed? The real work of art was the ad for the Air Jordan XX2 basketball shoe set to Mozart's Lacrimosa. That was storyboarding; that was artistry. (Youtube version of course lacks the impact of the big screen, but it's still a must-see: Lacrimosa XX2)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Books: My Uncle Oswald, by Roald Dahl

Yay, fun! Everything you loved about Matilda (if you're a girl) or James and the Giant Peach (if you're a boy) when you were a kid, modified slightly to please your adult tastes. Windy descriptions of bread with jam become descriptions of lobster and wine (Dahl belies a hedonistic tenderness for gastronomy to which I have always related, and one of Matilda's most memorable moments was (giant chocolate cake aside), the use of Miss Honey's margarine consumption to describe her financial condition). Sophomoric capers, like the newt in the teacher's water pitcher, turn coed, when the narrator has his, um, knockers sucked down the bath drain thanks to the wiles of a tricky little trollop. Wealth comes easily and is taken lightly, failures are accepted because successes always follow, and little racing cars zip about the countryside with ease.

The added value, in this book, comes from its (very liberal) historical quotations. The protagonist/narrator (Uncle Oswald), with sexpot Yasmin (picture Eva Green, halfway between The Dreamers and Casino Royale) at his side, traipse around England and the Continent, collecting the sperm of great and famous men after a third business partner, a Chemistry professor at Oxford (which school Oswald attends), discovers a way to freeze sperm and preserve it indefinitely. Oswald is creating the very first sperm bank, and, being a great capitalist, plans to collect only the sperm of very great men, which will, after their deaths, be available at exorbitant prices to wealthy ladies so that they might make themselves little genius babies. It being the nineteen-teens, there is no other way to get these great men to give their sauce unwittingly except to employ Yasmin to drug them with a mysterious ur-hyper-Viagra, made from the dried and pulverized bodies of Sudanese beetles (yes, early in the book, Oswald travels to Khartoum to purchase a huge supply of this powder, with which he ultimately makes his fortune), entertain them the nine minutes the drug requires to instigate an undeniable stiffy, wrestle them into the "mackintosh" (once Yasmin calls it a tea cosy, another time tells her victim that it was an invention of Oscar Wilde, designed to enhance pleasure), and, well, um, collect their deposits. If the powder's effect is too strong, and the men refuse to cease their pounding after she's gotten the goods, Yasmin stabs their behinds with a hatpin.

But again, the added value comes specifically from the enumeration of these great men, and Dahl's descriptions of their sexual capers: Renoir and Monet, Puccini and Stravinsky, Freud, Einstein, and Proust (Proust is a great one; particularly because I stopped reading the painfully tedious and neurasthenic Within a Budding Grove to read this salacious tale instead). There are others, too, including a good dose of royalty (the King of Spain, too lazy to move his pelvis during the act, has had a sort of vibrating couch rigged up with clockwork (requiring winding, of course)). Fun fun fun; quirky, English, saucy. Would make a great randy indie film.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Books: A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey

Pace Smoking Gun, controversy be damned, and as embarrassed as I am to have read a paperback with an Oprah's Book Club sticker pasted on the front cover, this is a damned good book. Ashamed nevertheless, I read it in the safety of my home - a copy found in my building's laundry room - because I wouldn't want to be seen with it in public after the brouhaha a few years ago. The irony in my fear of being judged is that far more people probably judge me by what I'm wearing and maybe the fact that I'm reading a book than by what book I actually am reading. But the people whose judgements might matter know. Unless you see what book I'm reading and you are about to judge me by what book I'm reading, I couldn't give a rat's ass about your judgement. That's pretty twisted, huh?

I had, I think, an extremely valid reason (i.e. excuse) for reading this book. As I've said before, I write (wrote?) semi-fictional memoir. I call it that. I actually consider all of my memoir "real," but I call it that - semi-fictional - for the same reason that James Frey ought to have called his the same: the reader machine (reviewers, columnists, Oprah, Larry King (as it turned out for Frey), and last but not least, readers, of course) doesn't discern between memoir and autobiography. I, however, do, and by my personal understanding of memoir, Frey did no wrong. I know (obviously) that "my personal understanding" of a word is meaningless and that words are defined by their uses in common. I can think that "cat" means what others call "dog," but it's moot until I can communicate dogness with the word "cat" to a group of other speakers. It is with resignation to this fact, then, that memoir is now a synonym for autobiography that I call my writing and his semi-fictional memoir, which seems redundant to me, but won't be to anyone else.

My understanding of memoir encompasses a retelling of and reflection upon one's memories. Memories are not facts. People mis-remember things constantly (hello, Scooter Libby trial). Sometimes people pretend to mis-remember things (hello, Scooter Libby trial) and they lie about it under oath and then the reader machine gets mad because the reader machine feels foolish for having been duped. But memoir is not the grand jury, affidavits, depositions. What happens in my head - only in my head - dreams I have at night, fantasies I have during the day, stories that I am told by others which may or may not be 10 or 50 or 100% true - is all equally valid, in my head, as things that actually happened (I sat at a desk all day). Because in reality I didn't just sit at a desk all day. My consciousness was where ever else it went. Traipsing across the Steppe with a grandmother I never really met - photo documentation to the contrary aside.

It seems as though I'm making a dangerous argument for the total subjectivity of reality, and I'm not - whether I believe that or not - and I don't (although there is something to be said for the existence of different layers of reality; I've not schematized it and I refuse to do so) - but in literature, we write what we write; what inspires us to write is real, and what we write becomes real while we write it and while it's read. The young author portrayed in You Can't Go Home Again committed the opposite sin of Frey - he wrote what he called a novel, based on the characters and essence of his hometown. People recognized portraits of themselves and their neighbors and became enraged, sent nasty notes and death threats to his apartment. Reviewers and columnists criticized him for drawing too closely on his personal life. Perhaps if he had called it a memoir, the reader machine would have let him off the hook. But his book, Frey's books, and my books (um, I don't have any books yet, but yeah) are NOT Bob Woodward books. They are about us and our experiences with the people we interact with and the things that happen inside our skulls. Henry Miller wrote. . . what? Novels? Memoir? Something half-way between? Bingo. Semi-fictional memoir.

Frey's book is potently honest in transcribing the inner workings of a certain sort of psychology. I can say this and know it's true because I know a Frey-like person very well. I thought of him all weekend while I read A Million Little Pieces; I felt like he had written the book, rather than this James Frey person. The undiagnosed pain that causes what Frey calls the Fury - the passionate, enraged, all-encompassing drive that comes over the book's narrator, inspiring violence, self-loathing, self-destruction, substance abuse, etc. - is a fury that I have seen again and again in this person that I know, and it is that fury that has repeatedly ended our relationship - this time for the last time, I'm certain, despite his calls last night. It's time for me to let go of him because, unlike Frey/Frey's narrator, this person is not working on controlling the fury. He is still making excuses for himself, blaming others, and manipulating. I told him to go to therapy, or to at least try yoga or meditation. We were on the phone, but if we'd been speaking in person, he would have spit in my face. I think instead he hung up on me.*

The psychology I am referring to is one most often seen in teenagers - even I, demure as I am, expressed it a bit toward the end of high school - and it therefore comes off as young. The book's descriptions come off as young; there is an intensity in the content, but also in the clipped styling of phrases - direct, spare melodrama - that recalls the anguish and drama of high school and college. I don't doubt that older people think and write like this (many of them in far grosser terms even less evolved), but still, the effect is that of youth. And in the vulnerability (Frey calls himself a sheep in wolf's clothing) lies the empathy, and in the vulnerability that inspires melodrama (Look at me, world, I'm important! World, I'm in pain; I suffer! World, look! Look at my pain and look at me!) lies the empathy. The very fact that Frey worsened his narrator's fate (a longer prison stint than his own seems to be the main issue the reader machine attached) enacts this sheep in wolf's clothing vulnerability, which demands attention at all costs, even the self. It's young, but it's real, and it's valid.

*Update: While I was writing this post, he sent another text message: "I am super sorry. Have a nice life. I am going to clean up." The problem is that his behavior forms a repeating cycle: apologize and promise to be good; actually be good; fuck up; rage and deny having done anything wrong; repeat. I've been through this more than three times with him now, and I'm done. I am tender to a point, malleable even, but I will not be manipulated and abused.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Books: You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

My reading list is a odd mélange, and at any given time, someone I know will roll his eyes at what I'm reading. The list is comprised of the following: Modern and Postmodern Classics (i.e. books I personally want to read), Canonical Classics (books I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't read), and recommendations (whatever anybody whom I remotely respect suggests, which lately occasionally includes Slate's book reviewers, but is generally limited to living, breathing people that I know personally, or at least correspond with online fairly regularly). You Can't Go Home Again is a recommendation from my mom, who claims to have read quite a bit in her day. I sort of believe her, even though I haven't seen her ever get past page four of any book in my lifetime. She's a non-linear reader. About once a month, when she gets the urge, she cracks a book on Bob Dylan or Paul Gauguin open to a random page, reads a paragraph or two, becomes inspired, and goes off to make a cup of tea and draw in her journal.

My mom mentioned this book and then expressed shock that I hadn't read it; she told me I just had to. She did not tell me what it was about. Having it in my possession, I hadn't started it and still had no idea what it was about when, stopping at my favorite Chelsea bakery for a second petit déjeuner and a bit of reading, I bumped into an old landlord/friend (a writer whose Chelsea apartment my boyfriend and I had sublet our first two months in New York, which tiny, lovely apartment came equipped with one neurotic cat, one giant terrace that regularly flooded in heavy rains, and one wall completely lined with books - many of which, my boyfriend and I decided, had never been read). We hadn't spoken in months - maybe a year - so we did a bit of catching up; he told me that he had completed his first novel and that it was out at agencies; I told him that contrary to popular belief I was not depressed. He asked what I was reading and I showed him You Can't Go Home Again. "You're certain you're not depressed?!" he insisted.

The week has passed; I've finished the book; I don't know why my mother insisted that I read it, and I don't know why reading it would signify depression. It's not a very emotional book. It's neither dark, nor decadent, nor existential. It's not Hecht, and it's not Pessoa. It's actually rather plain. A good portion of it (the first four of seven books) reads like something assigned for high school summer reading, describing America just before and then during the Great Depression. It's filled with long passages that "sing" the "song" of "America" in a way that we can blame on Whitman. At times it's quite insightful, and at times it's embarrassingly didactic; at times it is uncomfortably old-fashioned, and at times it appears to have been written just last year. It's not well-balanced. The phrase "you can't go home again" is over-repeated and over-addressed by the narrator. It is misrepresented by the summary on the jacket.

I had planned to write a more thorough treatment, but I just cannot bring myself to bother. It's not that there isn't anything in it to discuss, but Wolfe's handling is so stilted (so green for a last novel) that looking through the book again for specific passages is just too tedious. I don't even have the motivation to summarize it, except to say that the protagonist is a young writer, and this may be the first novel about a writer writing that didn't knock my socks off.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Poem: On Auden's Fall of Rome

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

A clerk I am of no import
I spend the hours sitting here
In brown and taupe official drear
And writing rhyming lines for sport.

My desk a haven square and true
With walls around that hide my face
So nobody can see a trace
Of the naughty things I do.

Sometimes I have an itch or two
In places inappropriate
With no one to prevent respite
I scratch them and I think of you.

Caesar, love, you lie abed -
Tell me you don't think of me!
Staring up into pink canopy
Which mimics well my well-formed head

Or bottom, in its curvature.
Its color, like the forms I stamp,
Like my body, flushed and damp
With perspiration's overture.

To craft a rhyme takes only time,
And steady rhythm aids climax,
And then my muscle - contracts -
At thoughts of stacks of forms sublime.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Books: A Deka-Log

I don't know if he knows it, but my father has OCD. He doesn't suffer from OCD, he just functions with it. Actually, I don't know if he could function without it. The astounding volume of information in and about our world is daunting to some and totally disabling to others. Others find it exciting, and still others never notice it, or, if they do, quickly do their utmost to forget they did. My father's OCD enables him to function amidst what would otherwise be a disabling amount of information, because he is of the scholarly type. He is an Intellectual, in the classical sense. He would have been sent to the Gulag had the timing been right (or wrong, of course).

For as long as I can remember, my father has worked obsessively on some project. The projects change every few years (his current dedication is the longest-lasting thus far), but each, to me, stems from the same impetus: an obsessive, compulsive need to organize the information around him into an order that is logical and consumable. For example, one project, when I was very small, was literature. I do believe that my father was always a lover of books. He wrote his never-published novel in his late 20s/early 30s, living in a by-the-week room rental in San Francisco's Chinatown, sharing a bath down the hall, eating ramen noodles, and drinking at Vesuvio. He's the original hipster. The way in which he approached literature, when I was very small (perhaps five and six and seven years old) is distinctly illustrative. Rather than choosing books at random, by mood, by recommendation, he chose to read each Nobel Prize winning Author's most famed novel. Additionally (and this is key), he kept spiral notebooks in which he would write (in those pre-laptop late 1980s) book reports - a summary, and, I imagine, a few thoughts and insights as well. To an outsider it might seem odd, then, that he now reads almost no literature, and instead spends his time marking historical events in various periodicals for inclusion in his leviathan website (which documents the history of the world in time line format:, but I read this as a continuation of his life's work (which work keeps him "sane," which work keeps him "functioning," which work keeps his mind from wandering into the darker territory that often leaves Philosophers, Mathematicians, and all other brands of thinkers lying on their backs unable to turn over and get up (cf. Gregor Samsa).

Throughout my childhood (ages four to fourteen, at least), my father and I had a Saturday routine that included his dropping me off and picking me up from dance class, us having lunch together (nice days: picnic in Golden Gate Park; not so nice days: chicken chow mein and coke at Hung Yeung), and a trip to the library. Usually, he would sit in the research section, copying figures out of the newsprint volumes of Value Line (recall the pre-internet days) into still other spiral-bound notebooks (my mother once misdiagnosed his OCD in a rather Jungian judgement: "oh, he's just a scribe," not comprehending the drive behind his perhaps unconscious compulsion to copy the world into his little notebooks. This project). Meanwhile, I would wander the childrens', then young adults', and eventually fiction sections of the library, choosing a stack of five to ten novels to last me the week. I was a very quick reader, and with no siblings and few friends, I had usually digested at least half of my stack before the weekend's close.

My father repeatedly suggested that I keep a record of what books I had read; bulldozing through the library as I was, he doubted whether I would remember any of what I had consumed, and gave me notebooks in which to write book reports of my own. I hated book reports, however (perhaps, if in second and third grade, I'd been taught to write papers as I would later be taught in high school, I would have been more inclined to produce such interpretive documentation). I refused not only to write reports on my personal reading, I refused to even keep a list. When I was in high school, long after he gave up literature for best-selling books on tape, he again pushed me to keep a list of the books I was reading. When I was in college, majoring in English and reading on the average a novel a week per English class (and sometimes four classes per semester), he restated the importance of keeping a list. Not once did I heed the advice, because of one part rebellion, one part distraction, and one part frustration with the necessary incompleteness of the project (since I hadn't been keeping a list since birth, the list would not be all-inclusive, and would therefore be flawed).

As I age (and yes, despite the tenderness of my youth, I feel very old indeed these days, and at times the nostalgia is overpowering), I realize that I am growing more like my father. I do not share the necessity to document, but my hunger for information is deep, and he trained me, perhaps against both knowledge and will, to like documentation. I keep every bill in a tabbed section of a binder and start a new binder each new year. I file my emails in folders according to author, and wish Microsoft Outlook provided a way to label them by topic for cross-referencing. And now, I blog. I plan to write on each book I finish (and I almost never start a book without finishing - the list of books I've only partially read is short indeed.)*

Meanwhile, during a short (and rare) literary conversation at work, brought about by discussing airplane reading for my boss when I gave him his week's travel itinerary, he asked what I was reading (he knows that I haven't a television or internet at home and do little else but read on my evenings and weekends). He then asked for a list of my top ten books. Now, I've always preferred High Fidelity's Top Five to David Letterman's Top Ten. It's a bit of an apples v. oranges comparison, in that the first encapsulates the "best of" and the other simply strains at humor, but I think it's a relevant comparison nonetheless: the Top Ten strains so often not because of lame humor, but because ten is just too many. It was difficult for me to think of my "top ten books," as he put it, because first: are these the books I enjoyed the most, or the books I think are most important, or the books I think the establishment thinks are the most important; and second: well, ten is just too many. Within a list of ten, there will be two or even three tiers of greatness. One or two books will be what I consider "the best ever," a few will be "really amazing books" that I would be satisfied to have written, and the remainders will be well-written books that are fun to read. But I am an obedient employee, and it sounded like a healthy exercise, so I have complied. Here is my list, in the order I thought of them:

Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace
This is the best book ever. Yes, it is daunting at 1,100+ pages, some pages taken completely over by rampant footnotes, 200+ of which pages are dedicated to lengthy endnotes, and one needs two bookmarks at all times when reading it. But I reiterate that this is the best book ever. It will become an obsession. I didn't even want to see my boyfriend when I was reading it. I didn't want to sleep. I only wanted to read Infinite Jest. And four years later, the characters, the tropes, the various plots, the images, the details - everything about this book, really, is so potent, so indelible, so evocative - still present themselves in my thoughts, conversation, and writing. I cannot begin to enumerate further details, lest I never cease (that too, being a theme of the book.) It is the hallmark of postmodernism; it is postmodern literature's only masterpiece.

Terra Nostra
Carlos Fuentes
This is a sprawling and quite insane book. Like Infinite Jest, its page count is daunting. Like Infinite Jest, each page (unlike, say, War and Peace) is packed with thrilling writing. There is a bit more historicism in it, and (to be honest) the third section, which deals with a hero's journey in some Apocalypto-like, pre-historical-ish, dream-state journey is rather disappointing and ought to be skipped, unless the reader like that sort of thing (folklore, particularly Latin American, Wicca, earth/moon goddesses, etc. - I find it sort of annoying). The first two sections, though, are filled with crazy Spanish court characters, and it's not unlike a Velasquez painting come to life (not that I like Velasquez' paintings, because I don't - they are too murky and mushy in execution, and his color and composition are rarely interesting, and his portraits are ugly in an uninteresting way; but none of that means that the characters and tone Velasquez portrays don't make for good novels, especially when the writer is as masterful as Fuentes).

Thomas Pynchon
This is one of Pynchon's least popular books. It was written in the late 80s, critically panned, and brought the word "thanatoid" into my vocabulary. Aside from The Crying of Lot 49 (which is a lot of fun, but much too short and a wee bit shallow), it is the most readable of Pynchon's books. The most famous of Pynchon's books would be Gravity's Rainbow (which I loathed), or perhaps it's predecessor V. (which I also loathed). I read it quite some time ago, and the characters and plot are far from crisp in my mind, but I remember details, and moods, and I am attached to these details and these moods. I am attached, intensely, to his description of the thanatoidal surf rock. It's not unlike a deeper darker Kurt Vonnegut, an author whose books, though I love them, don't make this list, perhaps because they are too readable.

Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole
A brilliant, hilarious romp (oh I hate to use that word and make this sound like a romantic comedy). There is a good story behind the publication of this novel, and I will not recount it here. That's what google and wikipedia are for. The writing, like the protagonist, is inflationary, caustic, and precocious in a paradoxical way, for although the protagonist is an adult, he lives still with his mother and is emotionally something of a bloodsucking child. I'm not a good enough writer to write about the brilliance of Toole's writing. It is satire, but it is tender; it is robust with (earthy) love and abhorrence for life, society, intellect. It is the funniest book I've ever read, but still one of the smartest.

The Bear
William Faulkner
This is a little book - a novella - found in a Three Stories volume long out of print. This is a work of mood and tone and darkness and feeling. It's not as difficult as other works by Faulkner. It's also (I think) more rewarding. It is, in a way, what Moby Dick ought to have been, or is said to be by those who haven't actually slogged through it, but set in the woods, of course, rather than on the sea. First published on its own in Harper's, Faulkner later included it in revised entirety in his novel Go Down, Moses, which I have not read, and probably should.

Henry Miller
Here I may be cheating because these seem to be three books. They are, actually, three volumes in a series (The Rosy Crucifixion). Written later than the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, these books blend an increasingly philosophical curiosity with Miller's more well-known lusty habits of fucking, eating, and living beyond his means. Miller is the only author of semi-fictional memoir that I've encountered, and while I don't swoon for his language or tone the way I do for that of other writers on this list, the rawness and accessibility - the lusty plainness of it - echos loudly in my own writing.

The Tidewater Tales
John Barth
Another sprawling, brilliant, postmodern tome. A good knowledge of literature isn't mandatory for reading this book, but it helps. A love of literature and storytelling, however, is mandatory, if you are to enjoy the book at all. The protagonists are a literary couple of some breeding, pregnant, on their sailboat (I know, I know, it's a bit Lacoste and country club, and yes, it's a very white book, and yes, it is very, well, preppy. But try to let go of that. There's nothing inherently wrong with being 30-something, happily married and happily pregnant, from a bit of old money, and literature-obsessed. I think. Um. Yeah.) Anyway, the book does quite a bit of riffing on The Odyssey, Don Quixote, and The Arabian Nights. John Barth is a brilliant writer, if a bit overbred (if this book is just too stuck up for you, try The Sot Weed Factor. If that is too stuck up, try The Floating Opera). Hubby is an author, postmodernly of the postmodern variety, who has postmoderned himself into a hyperintellectualized version of writer's block. Mom-to-be is a professional, practicing storyteller whose personal history includes a terrible waspy marriage gone awry and a possibly symptomatic short stint in a monogamous lesbian relationship. The book is far from perfect, and I wonder whether I wouldn't like a crack at editing it, but ultimately it is the sweetest (and smartest) love story I've read. Yes, read it with your lover, or at least read the sweet, sweetly dirty parts aloud to your lover if your lover otherwise hates postmodernity in literature.

William Gaddis
Gaddis may be known for being unreadable, and this book is indeed very difficult. I showed it to my mother and she couldn't understand why I would want to bother. It is quite a bother, but it is epiphanically worth the effort. In another postmodern urge, the book is nearly devoid of exposition, comprised completely of almost slavishly reproduced dialogue; discourse markers (e.g. "uh-") are all included, as are mid-sentence (and mid-word) breaks, interruptions, etc. The most challenging and most brilliant sections detail an executive conversing with two different parties on two different phone lines, a secretary (or two) and a guest in his office, all simultaneously (as he does in our real world). Further, the speakers are rarely if ever identified by anything other than their style of discourse. A new speakers' speech is flagged by a line break and an introductory dash. What emerges, though, are a myriad of distinct, identifiable voices, shining in comparison to the text of other books, where only the narrator's voice has a tangible particularly.

John Fowles
I wonder whether Fowles is as underrated in his native England as he is here. I never would have heard his name had my father not recommended The French Lieutenant's Woman. While lovely and poignant, that book is nowhere near as - yes, again; I'm sorry - brilliant - as Mantissa. This is - yes, again; I'm sorry - a postmodern - yes, again; ugh - romp, written by about a writer writing. I'm sorry. Maybe it's only because I'm a writer that I like to read writers writing about writers writing. (Did I mention that the obese protagonist of Confederacy is a writer himself as well? Actually, the stats are not so bad - only three or maybe four of my ten are writers writing books about writing. I expected much grosser proportions.) So, yes, this is another one of those, with a healthy dose of intellectual fantasy, Freud, sex, Greeks, and so forth. It's a smart, sexy, writerly book, and it's fairly short and easy and fun. If you think that Freud and Greeks and writing are fun, of course.

Fantazius Mallare
Ben Hecht
This books is very different than the others on the list. It's something of an "aht novel" ("art" with a breathy, haughty accent), written in the 20s, and banned for obscenity. It's extremely decadent (in content and especially diction), fantastic (phantasmagoric), and wrought (linguistically and psychologically). Minimalists: beware. Goth kids: please form a line starting here. The author, Ben Hecht, is the same Ben Hecht as the screenwriter for numerous mid-century films, including Hitchcock's tedious Notorious and Spellbound; please forgive him. He wrote other brilliant books on the same theme as Fantazius Mallare - the psychological tumult of the richly overinflated ego (cf. his semi-autobiographical novel Eric Dorn). There is a sequel - The Kingdom of Evil - which is good, but not as good. Bonus: the book features stunning - and I don't say that lightly - woodcut illustrations by Wallace Smith.




*It is, in chronological order:

1. A Wrinkle in Time (I checked it out of the library and never had time to start it, and for some reason I cannot remember, returned it rather than renewed it on its due date. I suppose it barely qualifies for inclusion in this list, as I never even actually opened it, but I think checking it out of the library ought to count.)

2. The Color Purple (I started reading a classroom copy of it after finishing a standardized test early, so couldn't, of course, take it with me when I didn't have time to finish it. It was far from compelling enough to warrant my ever checking it out from the library.)

3. Native Son (The first of three sections was assigned by my English teacher during my sophomore year of high school. The character's predicament was so absurd and frustrating that not only could I not empathize with Bigger Thomas, I couldn't bear to read anymore of his story.)

4. The Book of Disquiet (Pessoa's dreadfully slow, painstaking compilation of scraps slowed my usually brisk clip along my reading list nearly to a halt. I haven't any problem with slow or difficult books (after all, I've even read Pynchon's Mason Dixon, which is, basically, unreadable), but this, first, barely qualifies as a novel, and second, just became obnoxious. A collection of (depressive) never-completed (or edited) thoughts and aphorisms does not need to be read in a linear or complete manner, despite my usual insistence on linear and complete reading. Ultimately, this book is the crappiest waste of time ever. The first twenty-five pages or so are fun.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Conversations: IM with Perry

me: I started a blog

perryg: Good. You can blog about your sex life and gain a huge audience.

me: um. . . no? I want a blog my parents can read?
anyway, my sex life is no longer a hobby.

perryg: Boring blog then.

me: I got bored.

perryg: You'll come around.

me: um, ok. If I were Peter Weisman, I'd bitch you out for telling me all about what's gonna happen to me.

perryg: Ha! Good thing you are not.

me: But since I'm just me, I'm going to tell YOU that YOU'LL come around.

perryg: That's very true. We all come around.

me: And then we go back around and then we are dizzy.

perryg: And around again.

me: very dizzy

perryg: Spin the other way. It will undizzy you.

me: kiss girls?!

Monday, March 5, 2007

Movies: Breach

While based on a true story, Breach makes its most honest achievement in disillusion: unlike Hollywood's FBI, the United States' FBI offers few adventures, few thrills, few heroes, and much bureaucratic tedium. Yes, that is a grandiose way of saying that this movie is a complete disappointment.

The story has potential. Young whippersnapper Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillipe) finds himself assigned to clerk for the crusty, Catholic Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). What Hanssen doesn't know, but seems to always suspect, is the O'Neill has actually been assigned (by Kate Burroughs, competently if plainly played by Laura Linney) to "keep an eye" on him, and provide the Bureau with detailed summaries of every move he makes. What O'Neill doesn't know (until about half way through the movie) is that he's not been assigned to babysit a (mere) sexual deviant, as he was originally told, but to babysit the biggest seller of secrets in FBI history, and to assist the Bureau in catching him red handed. It's not much in the way of plot twists, and all we get along the way is some (very thin) character development: O'Neill has a lovely young wife, Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) who doesn't like to go to church.

A comparison to The Departed is inevitable. Not because it won Best Picture, and not because I liked it so much I saw it twice in the theatre, but because it works the same plot/character structure, and does so with much more efficacy. That structure, of course, is the following: precocious young man (Phillipe, DiCaprio, Damon) is pushed to act as a double-agent, spying on the senior member of some agency (Cooper, Nicholson, Sheen), and oddly comes to respect that person, but still must bring that person down. Much psychological machinations ensue. . . Well, in The Departed much psychological machinations ensue. In Breach, a bit of fluffy discussion of faith ensues, along with an awkward trip to church for Phillipe and his young wife with the Boss and his own saintly wife, Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan).

Suddenly, and seemingly from nowhere, the tough spy who's spent the past 20 years selling secrets to Russia cracks up over some glitchy sounds coming from his car stereo, shows up drunk at the whippersnapper's house, and takes him out to the snowy woods where he screams, cries, and shoots a gun at his subordinate. After coming home from this daunting episode, the subordinate has another fight with his young wife about his job, shouts at her, and storms away. Neither of these emotional breakdowns are warranted by anything that has happened in the film thus far. The good news is that the whippersnapper is able to use his reading of the crusty spy's psyche (the man desperately wants to be important) to goad him into making a final "drop" of secrets. The FBI arrests Hanssen, and O'Neill goes home, kisses his wife, and, just as easily as their marriage was spoiled, it is made whole again by that kiss. Right.

Let it not be held against Cooper that this film is no good. His performance is excellent, and the screenwriter seems to be in cahoots, giving him all the best lines: a melange of the racist, sexist, and generally elitist epithets we have come to expect from anyone working in military and/or intelligence. Phillipe, however, is like a doe (yes, a doe - no young buck is he) caught in the set's tungsten lights. In The Departed, Damon morphs into a drowning self-preservation machine and DiCaprio trembles like the last leaf on a November tree branch. This is psychological depth, Ryan Phillipe. Watch and learn. You can't turn in a Cruel Intentions performance for a film like this. Your ineptitude was marginally forgivable in Crash, when you portrayed doe-in-the-headlights ineptitude personified, but it won't cut it much longer.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Movies: A Streetcar Named Desire

Today is wet, gray, and drippy, recalling the suppressed and sticky indoor lunch hours of fourth and fifth grade when, supervised by eighth graders while teachers smoked their cigarettes under the peeling overhang of the school's back entrance, we were forced to play the popularity game of Heads Up, 7 Up. To play this game, we all sat at our desks with our heads down on a folded arm, hitchhiker's thumb raised, while seven of our classmates - chosen by the power-wielding eighth graders - that choosing the very conference of popularity - walked between us, choosing one person's thumb to press down (a second degree conference). Once each of the seven had turned down one thumb, they returned to the front of the room, an eighth grader called, "Heads Up, 7 Up!" and we seated raised our heads. Those who had been lucky enough to have their thumb put down had three guesses to decide which of the seven had blessed them with the gesture - if they guessed correctly, they replaced that person at the front of the room; if not, they remained at their desk and their thumb-turner at large. This game never interested me, because my thumb was not once turned down. Not once, in all of San Francisco's rainy days.

But that is a far digression from my topic today. Last night was movie night at The Big R's (who's catching up on his classics) and we watched A Streetcar Named Desire, which I don't remember having seen before. I don't really know where to begin a discussion of this. The film is so fraught with melodramatic neurosis that watching it, one teeters between falling into the moody melancholy (much achieved by the excellent cinematography's portrait-like close-ups - cf. the shot of Blanche and Stella intertwined, face-to-face like lovers), and recoiling from the loony absurdity of Blanche's big-eyed, mile-a-minute chatter. The melodrama exists in the play, certainly, but there is something (much explained away by the era - movies from the '50s are rich with overacting that tips the intensity scale in the favor of the in-credible) so hyperactive in Vivien Leigh's performance that our empathy is thwarted.

I wouldn't say the same of Brando, Kim Hunter, or Carl Malden. My grain of salt, here, and no pun intended, is that these three are Salt of the Earth-type characters. Raw, real, and responsive to visceral emotions with which we connect: pride, desire, and neediness - respectively, though interchangeably as well (Brando's Stan shifts from pride to neediness when he cries "Stella!" in the rain; Malden's Mitch shifts from neediness to desire when he woos a coy Blanche outside the nightclub, begging her to go somewhere with him, meanwhile relieving his sexual tension by embracing a wooden post and rubbing his body against it). Blanche's "reality" of magic (as she calls it), however, is a frantic fantasy structure of a constantly collapsing delusion. Her airs denote pride, but it's a put-on, poorly masking her a self-esteem vacuum. Her desire, too, is a sham - the coy flitting of a small pet bird, as opposed to the animal stare of Hunter's eyes as she slinks down the stairs in the rain, where Brando falls to her feet and buries his head in her stomach (Hunter wins for best descent of a staircase in film, ever). Her neediness is true, but it's not the neediness of the other three - a loneliness of the self that is completed by another "half." It is the neurotic neediness (the one that has earned all of women a reputation as "blood-sucking bitches" amongst many a hurt man) that isn't ever satisfied, that must be buoyed tirelessly by a lover/care-taker who constantly entertains her with complementary fantasies. Is Blanche actually crazy? Is she driven crazy by watching her life in Mississippi crumble around her? Is she unstable but sane until raped by Stan?

Blanche's melodrama - although I might need to say Leigh's melodrama, to be honest - hardens my resolutions against her, much in the same way she immediately hardens Stan. I would imagine that, based on dispositions, other viewers will react to her differently. We who are empathetic and given to agape will feel Stella's tender sorrow, and we who are swept up by the beauty and exoticism of her fantasies will be bewitched and betrayed, and ultimately bewildered, like Mitch, sitting and staring at her from the card table while she's led away on the arm of her stranger. But, staunchly in Stan's camp, I don't know if she's crazy, I don't know when she went crazy, but she is more than just a nuisance, and out of sight means out of mind. A major reason I quit my last job was because of what I at the time called the Chicken Little antics ("the sky is falling!") of my boss. What I now realize is that she was trained in the Blanche DuBois school of femininity.

And what of the very end, now, in which Stella, with new found resolution, insists to the infant she shakes in her arms that she'll "never go back. . . not now. . . never again. . ."? I don't believe her. Again, out of sight is out of mind, though we now are driven to wonder whether the love of a man trumps the love of a sister. Being an only child, I will never know, but if Stella left home once, she can forget the past again. The only thing that could change this is an awareness of Stan's transgression against Blanche's body, and it's arguable whether she knows or not.

After the movie, The Big R and I got into a discussion about melodramatic people and "crazy" women (a topic of choice for me, since I have something like a perpetual fear of being "one of those crazy girls," and therefore constantly rein in my actions and words around danger areas (i.e. people for whom I have unrequited affections). I commented on my difficulty relating to the way of life (drinking, brawling, break-up/make-up) the film depicted, and The Big R said, incredulously, "You realize this is how most people function. They have to create drama around their lives in order to verify their existence. So they have a story to tell their friends. So that they feel something." Do I realize it? Yes.* Do I like it? No. Do I want to be a part of it? No. As goes an expression my mom picked off her Southern girlfriend, "I got no dog in that fight."

He and I, though, are always a bit incredulous with regard to the way the average American lives (working to the point of breaking your soul to support a spoiled family that doesn't appreciate your sacrifice, and spending what little time you have to yourself medicating with television, liquor, drugs (prescription and non-), wandering around an ugly reality wondering how it happened - being locked in a present without awareness of how you got there, without a idea of how to get somewhere else, and not even knowing where you'd rather be.) Not that he and I operate in the same way. He has big goals, and big plans, and these (I think) distract him in a way from that existential crisis that nips at every one's heels. But he is driven, too, by a faith (in himself and in the universe, in meaning and in perpetuity) that I don't. To pursue a goal, one needs faith. But without goals, and without faith, I think I'm also doing okay.

*I used to do it. In a way, it was part of why I wrote. Some people fight themselves into a frenzy. My mom talks herself into a frenzy. I would write myself into a frenzy. I think (I hope) I'm done with that.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Art: SCOPE, The Armory Show, and Jeff Wall at MoMA

Last weekend was big for art. Lots of art fairs. Too many. I went to two. And a lecture. Big weekend.

The big big big thing is The Armory Show. I will not tell you about it's history or why it's a big thing, partially because I don't know, and partially because I don't care to do the research to find out. Suffice to say, it's a big thing. A gazillion people show up, stand on line for an hour, and pay $20 just to walk around a very very overcrowded, overheated, overhyped tented pier out past 12th Avenue where any gallerist who's anyone (internationally) has a little cubicle of sorts in which he or she shows represented artists' work. Prices are upon request.

My understanding is that SCOPE is sort of the Ugly Step-sister. It's smaller, located (also overcrowded, overheated, and in a giant tent) behind the Lincoln Center Plaza. Same deal - gallerists, booths, etc., but some of the wall labels divulged prices. I think this is a good thing. I actually almost bought something, knowing it was in the range of affordability. My friends who are in the know say that SCOPE is "awful," "tedious," "dreadful," etc., so I am being very uncool when I say that I think it was way better.

Let me say this, though. The ratios of schlock to decent, somewhat interesting art were too imbalanced at both fairs. SCOPE probably came in at 10-20:1, The Armory 50-100:1. These are not good ratios. There are too many galleries, and there is too little quality art. There is too much posturing amongst gallerists (and artists). This is, of course, why I am an executive assistant at a leading international executive search firm rather than a gallerist, art critic, etc., despite my snazzy graduate degree from Columbia's Modern Art and Critical Studies program (more on that some other time).

That said, there were a few things that caught my eye. I wrote them down, and here they are:

Neasden Control Center
The piece I mentioned considering buying came from this artist. The work is multi-media and based in a sort of post Stanly Donwood (of Radiohead art fame), skater/street art aesthetic, with a lot of collaging and good appropriation. Amusing exchange heard at the booth, where the artist's various works were arranged into a wall installation of sorts, but were marked with individual prices:
Lady (to gallerist): Is this a collective?
Gallerist #1 (with heavy accent): Yes, it is, but you can buy them separately, or there is another price for it all together.
Lady (to her friend): This is a collective.
Friend: What does that mean?
Lady: It's a group of artists working together, collaborating, as a group, so no individual artists have their names on the pieces.
Gallerist #2 (overhearing): Oh, this isn't a collective. It's just one artist.
Lady: Oh it is?
Gallerist #2: Yes, it used to be a collective, but everyone else quit, so now it's just this one guy.

Here are other artists I noted as being of interest:

Cat Clifford
I saw some pretty little drawings on torn bits of paper. Apparently he works in video, too, but I didn't see any of that.

Yigal Ozeri
These were shockingly precise photorealist paintings of women and plants in thick, glossy oil on huge canvases. I didn't love the portrait aspects of the paintings (a bit romantic for my taste) but the plants were lusciously executed and really just amazing.

Tessa Farmer
Exquisitely crafted hanging sculptures of. . . insect carcasses. Really quite stunning and delicate and lovely.

Bert Teunissen
Strong, punchy color photographs of old European people in their oft-crumbling kitchens.

Mike Bayne
Smaller than postcard oil on panel paintings of wood frame houses. Tender.

Izima Kaoru
Melodramatic fashion-mag style color photographs self-portraiting the styled artist as dead in a myriad of dramatic, fashioned ways. N.B. Probably the least respectable work in this list. My friends are shaking their heads sadly at my lack of taste and saying "tsk, tsk, tsk." Sure, it's Cindy Sherman and Nikki S. Lee retread, but I like Cindy Sherman (at least, up to a certain point prior to the clowns) and Nikki Lee.

Hans Op de Beeck
Very weird, very wistful, very white color photographs of old people dressed all in white and holding white balloons.

Paul Graham
More very white photos - well, not quite. Large color photos of streetscapes with the brightness turned way up - they have the same quality of color that a Polaroid has when you cut it open and just look at the very back sheet.

Matthew Brannon
Print maker layering text and various images. I don't find his use of text (the content) very interesting, but I like his aesthetic.

Juliao Sarmento
Paintings, again with text. These are line drawing figure type paintings, very simple, black on canvas painted white, with a color block at the top (often yellow or brown or burgundy) with text in the color block and on the white area. The text here is a bit more interesting, and the pictures are a bit spacey and sad, again, recalling Radiohead album and web art from the OK Computer era. I am a sucker for it.

Leslie Hewitt
Well collected and arranged scraps - old photographs, scribbles, notebooks, etc. - placed in frames. Minimal but emotionally rich.

Barbara Probst
Photography. Again, a bit fashion maggy. Deal.

Kota Ezawa
Elaborate cut and paste with construction-type paper. Panned by my friends. I love it.

Jen Ray
Illustrations in ink and watercolor. A little girlish and a little goth. Delicate.

Alison Elizabeth Taylor
Figurative wall-hangings made of wood inlay. I don't know exactly how I feel about this, aside from the fact that her craft is amazing.

Kent Henricksen
Framed tapestries featuring the traditional imagery of racism in the American South. Again, amazing craft, and a sauciness in the content that appeals to me. I generally despise political art, so it means a lot for me to like this.

The other art-related thing I did this weekend was listen to Jeff Wall talk about himself at MoMA. In theory, I want very much to like Jeff Wall's work. I really do. He brings a relationship with traditional painting and with cinema to his photography practice, and he makes big, color, staged pictures. I like that. And yet. There is first the issue of the lightbox, arguably the aspect of his work for which he is most famous (rather than prints, his photos are printed on giant transparencies and shown in lightboxes, not unlike bus station advertisements in his native Canada). I'm not crazy about it. It over-conceptualizes an uninteresting aspect of photography/cinema/advertising, and it washes out color. Then, there is the general structure and aesthetic of his pictures. They feel stilted and stagy in an uncomfortable way. Not in a postmodern, ironic, campy way. Not in a Victorian, preening, ur-postmodern way. Just in the way that (oh, forgive me) Canadians are sort of stilted and uncomfortable.*

My graduate thesis was on the appropriation of visual and thematic structures of Western canonical painting by contemporary color photographers. That might sound fancier than it is. I was writing about photographers who "re-build" (using models, make-up, costumes, sets) Art History 101-type paintings as photographs - including Yasumasa Morimura, Cindy Sherman, Tom Hunter, and, yes, Jeff Wall. There are others. . . the more photography I see, the more I see it happening, if a bit more loosely. There was a giant photograph at SCOPE of twelve African women arranged around a long rectangular table (yes: The Last Supper. Ever so loose a reference, but a reference). The thesis pulled in Benjamin's concept of Aura and tried to determine whether these photographers wanted to use the aura of these canonical paintings in order to ratify the Art-ness of their pictures in some way. I elaborated on the history of documentary v. art photography.

So I calendared Jeff Wall's talk months ago. MoMA has launched an apparently huge retrospective of sorts, and his talk sold out a 450 seat theater. I had to wait an hour on line for standby tickets (purchasing tickets ahead of time somehow never occurred to me. I forget, sometimes, that New York is filled with weirdos like myself who would want to listen to Jeff Wall talk). He was one part boring (people began walking out ten minutes into his hour and a half talk), one part stodgy, and one part just plain wrong - or lying. I wasn't too surprised - after all, his work is one part boring, one part stodgy, and one part. . . well, art can't be wrong per se, but then it sort of can be, and his sort of is.

During the talk, I really wanted a transcript on which to make my favorite kinds of notes: "No! You are wrong!" but alas, I didn't have one, so I will have to work from memory. Here is a list of wrong things that Jeff Wall said:

1. He made the point that the size of his pictures was less about making big pictures than about making pictures that were the scale of paintings. (This is already flawed, because paintings, as we all know, can be giant, Salon-sized monsters, or delicate Gothic miniatures.)

2. He began to discuss paintings, and said dreadfully old-fashioned things about how paintings make us feel [random synonym for "nice" or "good"].

3. He said that aside from painting, the other major influence in his work was film. He stated that a cinematographer is basically the same as a photographer and that photography is basically the same as film, except film is shown in a different way (many frames per second instead of just one). He considers himself a cinematographer. (He does not take into consideration the fact that a cinematographer must consider the movement of shapes and the movement (zooming in and out, panning) of the frame. He is just so wrong it shocks me.) During question and answer period, someone asked whether he ever considered making films, and he answered, plainly, "No." He then elaborated: "Sorry, the medium just doesn't interest me." And yet, he calls himself a cinematographer?

4. He said that his photographs are near-documentary, because in them, he recreates something that he actually saw. He doesn't ever carry a camera with him. He thinks these pictures are very interesting, therefore, "because they're real, but they're not real, but they're real." That is just silly. Even a staged photograph of something that never happened is "real," because photography requires the tableau to exist in order for its image to be recorded - one cannot photograph from the imagination the way one can draw or paint.

5. During question and answer, someone asked what his work's relationship is with early staged photography (e.g. Henry Peach Robinson and Julia Margaret Cameron). He said that their work was "just awful," because they were working within a sort of bum aesthetic (Victorian and Salon culture - the cloying works of the 19th century). I studied this photography carefully, and devoted a chapter of my thesis to it. I think it's positively brilliant. If any artist were making that work today, it would be all over the biggest galleries and magazines. It's so ur-postmodern and campy and ironic. Some Academic painting is, too, although critics are slow to accept that (e.g. Bougereau, though I will lose credibility in many people's eyes by saying that. So it wasn't his intention to be campy. I honestly don't care. The work is campy, and it's brilliant. Intention is irrelevant in art.) Wall stated that these early photographers would have done better to emulate the so-called good art of the time (e.g. Degas). This never would have worked, though, because Degas was emulating snap-shot photography (with asymmetrical compositions cutting figures off the frame's side). Wall denied having any relationship with this early work, which is an untruth. Like it or not, he has simply remade what he would consider their "mistakes" - stilted, stodgy, oddly frozen photographs, eerily like and unlike the paintings to which they refer, only without the abundance of camp, irony, etc. that could rescue them from that tedium.

*It never occurred to me that the staginess was due to a particularly national experience until I spent a week in Canada with one of my friends, who also knows art. After a few days of looking around, I mentioned that I finally understood why Jeff Wall's pictures were so weird, and he laughed and laughed and laughed.