Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Straight Man

Richard Russo

Straight Man is a contemporary novel (1997), and it’s one of what seems to be an emerging recent genre of page-turner comic mysteries involving college English professors who become embroiled in ridiculous department politics where there are bizarre romances, crazy murders, and wonderful suspense. I’m thinking here of Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, Jane Smiley’s Moo, James Hynes’s Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror as well as Hynes’s The Lecturer’s Tale. That more than one such story exists in no way diminishes Russo’s novel or necessarily makes it less original, because I did indeed stay up later than I planned a few times reading to find out what would happen. But when I read the countless times that Russo’s protagonist Hank Devereaux, Jr. rolls his eyes at the fact that every college English teacher has a novel manuscript tucked away, I began to wonder, is this book just another drop in the bucket—another English department narrative about life in the English department, appealing to me only because I know all about life in the English department?

Nevertheless, what appears to be a plot-heavy narrative drives around the fact that the university is rumored to be undergoing heavy budget cuts, a rumor division chair Hank Devereaux, Jr. decides not to pay attention to until he finds out for sure. He continues to communicate poorly with everyone around him, including the faculty members who report to him along with his wife and daughters as well as his close friends and superiors at work. Hank doesn’t even communicate directly with his wife, who he imagines is cheating on him. Symbolic of his emotional and communicative withholding behavior is Hank’s inability to urinate. He’s completely blocked in several ways, then.

To add insult to injury, the college administration hasn't given him a budget to run his department. So, imagine his surprise, when just at the height of his dissatisfaction, he encounters a newsteam on his way outside a meeting. As he is interviewed, Devereaux grabs a goose from the campus pond and threatens to kill it and another one every day until he gets a budget from the administration. Hijinx ensue. The goose gets cooked—literally, well, at least it gets killed, but not by Devereaux, but the administration doesn’t know that. Predictably, though, in the end the killer is the psycho student from Devereaux’s fiction writing class.

Yet even if that part is predictable, Devereaux himself is not. The likeable facet of Devereaux’s personality is that he’s a 50-ish smartass. The fact that he can’t get serious about life is infuriating sometimes to everyone he deals with; it’s the very withholding of communication that bothers everyone so much. If he clowns around and remains childish, it stops him from having to confront his absent father about having essentially abandoned him and it allows him to ignore the college leadership crumbling all around him. It even allows him to ignore all the signs around him of middle age, including colleagues on their second marriages to extremely young women and having to stop driving because of illness. Not getting serious, as it happens, pays off for Hank Devereaux.

So when in the end he turns down the dean’s job he even anticipated getting from his friend Jacob Rose—infuriating Jacob Rose, who asks him, “What kind of man goes through life content to be a fly in other people’s ointment? What kind of pleasure do you get from that? How old are you?”

How is it resolved, then? It’s one of those novels, where we see the protagonist at the end arriving at some sort of psychological understanding with his former nemesis (along with his other pals) and throwing back his head shrieking with laughter, in this case in a room all together at an insignificant joke. It’s all a little anticlimactic, frankly, after an otherwise pretty good story.

I like what the book says about the importance of a comic hero. Devereaux’s power is underestimated by all those around him because he’s a joker, but as a result of his wish not to be serious, he doesn’t get old the way his colleagues do; he stays married; he doesn’t sell out. In that regard Devereaux is the winner in my book. Comedy wins.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Wobegon Boy

Garrison Keillor

“I’m a cheerful man, even in the dark, and it’s all thanks to a good Lutheran mother,” begins Keillor’s narrator, John Tollefson. It’s one of those First Sentences they talk about in writing workshops, the kind that pulls the reader into the narrative, and in retrospect the sentence truly encapsulates the gist of the novel.

Though the term is a little off, Tollefson is a mensch, a nice guy who is a bit of a loser. Director of a public radio station at a university in Syracuse (“WSJO—Public Radio for the Finger Lakes” (47)), he seems to be on the slow track rather than on any fast track. He’s missed the boat on the feminist wave that rushes around him. An intellectual, but one of the old-fashioned kind, he’s not one of the new-fangled guys that wants to flaunt silly theories in talk-radio. One of the terrific ironies of the book is that when he drives in his car, he often flips from the soothing classical music on his own station to W100, the “Folks Next Door” talk radio. One time, he listens to:
two guys discussing field markings discovered in nearby Troy Township, the corn flattened and the earth dig up in concentric circles, no footprints to be seen; was it a visit from outer space, or kids doing wheelies? They were taking calls from listeners. Interesting to consider, the possibility of aliens reconnoitering in upstate New York. You never hear this sort of news on public radio, just people with advanced degrees talking about the need for retraining in the Information Age. (125)

Tollefson knows he doesn’t fit but not why. One thing he does to correct his unease is revisit his hometown in Minnesota, Lake Wobegon. Early in the story, his friend at work, Texan business manager Marian MacKay asks him how long he plans to stay at the radio station. When he answers that he plans to stay around a long time, she says, “You remind me of that Sorry Mutha song, ‘Why Do You Try So Hard to Get What You Don’t Even Want?’” (10). So right then we know that while Tollefson may be cheerful about where he is, he is “in the dark” about being there.

He says of the people in Lake Wobegon (the Scandinavian-Midwestern folk): They are not “the warmest people you’d ever hope to meet. An embrace is rather intimate for us. A handshake goes a long way. Sometimes we just nod. We aren’t all that keen about scholarship; we believe that any display of learning is purely superficial, that nobody is smarter than anyone else. We can be surly and stubborn and downright ugly. We are people of fixed principles, who drive in the passing lane at exactly the speed limit and wonder why drivers are passing us on the right and shaking their fists at us” (63).

In other words, he learns about the special reserve of the Midwestern folk, how his own culture varies slightly from East-coast culture. Though it doesn’t prepare him for his father’s death (because nothing can prepare one for that), he is changed by that death. He doesn’t care so much when he loses his job—he’s almost happy to lose it. His lover, Alida, comes to the funeral, and they decide to marry.

I hate books that profess to be comic but which make me cry, but this one does; in fact, it’s pretty sentimental in a few places: dad’s death, the whole wedding thing. But it’s sort of a nice story, ala Garrison Keillor. Heart-warming, I hate to admit. The worst part, though, is the whole family tree sub-plot towards the end, about the Siamese (which should read conjoined) twins. The whole thing sounds like it’s completely plagiarized from the Farelly brothers film, Stuck on You—though a quick date check, frankly, makes me recant and politely suggest the reverse. Could it be that Bobby and Peter Farrelly have read this book? The plot about the conjoined twins is identical from the one twin hitting the bottle but the other getting the hangover, down to the part where the twins are separated but miserable ever after because they can’t walk in proper balance after the surgery. It’s uncanny!

Anyway, it’s a cute book—interesting because of its regionalism.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Wise Blood

Flannery O’Connor

Author Flannery O’Connor said of fiction writing in general, “it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe. One reason a great deal of our contemporary fiction is humorless is because so many of these writers are relativists and have to be continually justifying the actions of their characters on a sliding scale of values” (“Novelist and Believer” in Mystery and Manners 167-168).

Even more than her stories, O’Connor’s novels have a, mythic, almost cartoon-like feel to them. The characters are somehow larger than people, or maybe just their heads stand out. I used to picture characters in medieval morality plays whose names conveniently represented their governing characteristic—Truth, Death, Evil—as actors whose heads had been replaced by giant three-dimensional letters spelling out their names. In Wise Blood, Enoch Emery and Hazel Motes are quite apparently these sorts of allegorical characters, only I spent the whole novel squinting to try to read the larger-than-life letters that spelled out their names.

The plot of the novel, Wise Blood, is strange. We meet Hazel Motes, a young man who is a drifter of sorts, behaving strangely on a train. He’s rude to a woman who speaks kindly to him and rude to a porter. When he begins to ask strangers, “Do you believe in Jesus?” and say, “If you’ve been redeemed…I wouldn’t want to be” we have all the evidence we need to know that Motes is troubled (7).

When Motes arrives in the city of Taulkinham, he meets Enoch Emery, a young man who lives in town. Emery knows he has “wise blood, like his daddy” (40), and he’s going to show his new friend something secret—which turns out to be a shrunken person from the museum, who he thinks is the new Jesus for the church Motes wants to start. Oh, it gets even more bizarre from there, when Emery dons a gorilla costume at a movie theater…but I could go on and on…

In her essay “Novelist and Believer” (in Mystery and Manners), O’Connor talks about the role spirituality plays in her work. She explains, “[w]e live in an unbelieving age but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual. There is one type of modern man who recognizes spirit in himself but who fails to recognize a being outside himself whom he can adore as Creator and Lord; consequently he has become his own ultimate concern” (159). In this description I see a picture of Enoch Emery, who is completely lost in what he thinks is his own “wise blood.” He’s only wise to himself. He worships the bizarre, the unusual, but not the spiritual—and in doing so he’s lost.

In the same essay O’Connor describes “another type of modern man who recognizes a divine being not himself, but who does not believe that this being can be known anagogically or defined dogmatically or received sacramentally. [...] Man wanders about, caught in a maze of guilt he can’t identify, trying to reach a God he can’t approach, a God powerless to approach him” (159). Here I see Hazel Motes, who wanders and follows after the (ostensibly) blind man who he thinks is a preacher, wondering why the blind man doesn’t try to convert him. The blind man even accuses Motes of following him, saying, “I can hear the urge for Jesus in his voice” (25). The blind man tells him, “you can’t run away from Jesus” (26). Though Motes insists there is no Jesus, he thinks and talks constantly about there being “no Jesus,” and he tries to start his own church and tells others to repent. Just as O’Connor says, he’s “trying to reach a God he can’t approach.”

O’Connor says, “some tell me that Protestantism in the South is not at all the way I portray it, that a Southern Protestant would never be concerned, as Hazel Motes is, with penitential practices. Of course, as a novelist I’ve never wanted to characterize the typical South or typical Protestantism” (164). In being penitent, Motes blinds himself with lime, which makes his landlady decide to take care of him, and which makes Motes in some ways “see” better spiritually—it’s a classic F. O’Connor ending, really, where a smug character undergoes a soul cleansing and gets real as a result. But the great part is where it gets completely absurd and hilarious in the middle, where she lets “the maximum amount of seriousness admit the maximum amount of comedy.”

Friday, December 30, 2005

Trout Fishing in America

Richard Brautigan

Understanding the misery I put students through is easy when I read Richard Brautigan. And actually I’m surprised. I like the Beats. Somehow, though, the meaning of Brautigan is sealed up tight in some kind of a metal drum. He’s like having a keg without a tap—an apt simile, as it turns out. I have to confess right off that I had to read a good bit of criticism before I could comment on him, and I was surprised that I did, since the Beats usually make sense to me. Having done so, though, gave me some insight about why students end up plagiarizing literary essays.

We (English teachers) expect them to have the same kind of immediate insight that we do into the literature we just automatically love and when they don’t, we don’t understand. So many professors forbid students from reading criticism, calling that “cheating,” and forcing them to pound their heads against these metal drums (bong, bong, bong) in what must feel like a futile effort. Perhaps at one time, when information wasn’t so easy to come by, after a certain number of hours of head-banging, the headache paid off. But now that information takes no more than the soundless effort of our wireless connection, doesn’t it make sense to consult the critics? It did for me.

Surprised that I could not crack the code and step inside Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, I continued ahead and read The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar (all in the same volume). Brautigan’s poetry in Pill was much more accessible and I liked it better than his fiction, though I found even that to be the stuff of student writing—that sort of narrative ramble that is generally lacking in images which I would, in a workshop, direct the writer to revise by “showing,” rather than “telling.” For example, in “Albion Breakfast,” the speaker tells of his “long pretty girl” who wants him “to write a poem about Albion, / so she could put it in a black folder.” And then he tells us:
I said yes. She’s at the store now
getting something for breakfast.
I’ll surprise her with this poem
when she gets back.
I get the feeling from that one that the poet simply included something that transpired between him and a (probably former) lover: more than I care to know about a private event. However, on the other hand, another simple, incidental prose poem is lovely because it captures an image so carefully:
In a Café
I watched a man in a café fold a slice of bread
as if he were folding a birth certificate or looking
at the photograph of a dead lover.

But Trout Fishing in America is another animal altogether. Like Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, it is a novel told in short, titled vignettes, some as long as little chapters, and others as short as one-page prose poems. Unlike Connell’s work, though, Brautigan’s doesn’t really hang together. I understand—and usually like—absurdist works. But this one didn’t engage me somehow. There’s a protagonist, the narrator, “I,” and as it turns out “Trout Fishing in America” which is both an occupation and a character (though it’s hard to know that until we’ve read in a few pages). Understanding a real plot, any sort of narrative at all, is a challenge. Instead, Brautigan attempts a whimsical jaunt that, to my mind, doesn’t engage readers. I do think the novel is interesting for the sense of place that it evokes. In a chapter, “THE SALT CREEK COYOTES,” we read the following:
The smell of the sheep grazing in the valley has done it to them. Their voices water and come down the canyon, past the summer homes. Their voices are a creek, running down the mountain, over the bones of sheep, living and dead. (53)

And even a little later he describes a sign that warns against the coyotes—and the cyanide capsules “put along the creek to kill” them, even stopping to describe the sign in Spanish: “CUIDADO CON LAS CAPSULAS DE CIANURO: MATAN” (53). So the place is visible in the description and we understand the danger—as well as the danger to the animals. It seems like a place, as they say, not fit for man or beast. He’s captured, whimsically, the decay of nature.

But in terms of any real broad comedy, on my own I was lost. The prose didn’t strike me funny. That’s why I had to turn to what a few of the critics said—to help me tap into the metal drum. I didn’t see why it would hurt a student to do the same, I thought, as I did it. (Incidentally, if you’re reading this, it’s perfectly fine with me if my students read criticism when they take my literature courses). A quick web search was a great help, in fact. I happened upon Birgit Ferran’s fantastic Brautigan Archives site (at http://www.eoiweb.com/brautigan). Ferran lists an address in Spain in her contact information, not any university affiliation. However, she urges the interested reader to join a Brautigan listserv, and describes the purpose of the site as “a place for Brautigan fans and scholars to share ideas and information on [his] life and work.” I take it from her statement of purpose, as well as from the quality of the more than 175 articles about Brautigan and other authors on the site that Ferran is a scholar. This kind of website evaluation is what we should ask of our students, rather than forbidding them to use online sources.

I found on Ferran’s website Philip C. Kolin’s most helpful essay, “Food for Thought in Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America” from a Spring1981 volume of Studies in Contemporary Satire, where Kolin argues that the point of Brautigan’s novel is to satirize American values using images of food. When I read the introduction to his essay and the first few supporting paragraphs, I felt stupid. “Of course!” I thought. “He’s absolutely right. How could I have missed this!” Students often say the same thing when we discuss thematic elements of stories and symbolism in poetry and film. I tell them that ideas like the ones we discuss in class will be more obvious to them independently when they learn to look for them. Well, in this case these ideas sure as hell weren’t obvious to me. Maybe if you’re a literary scholar, you’re thinking….well it’s just this reading about food imagery that didn’t jump out at me. But NO reading jumped out at me. Brautigan’s prose just seemed flat and meaningless—and that’s how literature seems to students many times, when they can’t crack the code that encases it.

But back to Trout Fishing in America: In arguing that Brautigan’s food imagery represents certain American values, Kolin first has to define satire, which he does by citing Alvin Kernan’s definition from Plot of Satire. Satire, says Kernan, determines:
such matters as what kind of food to eat, how to manage your wife and household, how to dress, how to choose your friends and treat your guests, what kind of plays to frequent and what kind of books to read, how to conduct political life. (qtd. in Kolin)
In other words, the satirist will decide what the characters will eat, how they marry and so on, based on the agenda for satire. Indeed, notes Kolin, “[m]uch of the action in Trout Fishing in America, therefore, is occupied with food - its description, preparation, consumption, and spoilage” (Kolin). So, explains Kolin, the trout in the story are becoming less and less “plentiful,” contrary to expectation in what is known as the land of plenty.

Furthermore, we read examples in the novel of “objects transformed metaphorically into food” (Kolin). A good example takes place in the chapter called “Trout Fishing in America Terrorists,” where the narrator describes having been called as a child to the principal’s office for misbehavior, “and looking up at the light fixture on the ceiling, how much it looked like a boiled potato" (38). According to Kolin, what Brautigan means here is that “the light of education is neither clear nor creative but as bland and unexciting as the potato, which seems like an appropriate symbol for a shriveled society that propagates conformity” (Kolin).

Another way food symbolism comes into play in Brautigan’s novel is in the opposite, where “food is compared to inedible objects” (Kolin). In other words, “[i]n the absurd world of contemporary America, trout become anything but edible” (Kolin). I love the example that Kolin gives—and truly if I had been paying attention, I should have noticed this one. Brautigan’s narrator says:
We read books like The Thief’s Journal, Set This House on Fire, The Naked Lunch, Krafft-Ebing. We read Krafft-Ebing aloud all the time as if he were Kraft dinner. (93)
Actually, that is sort of funny, and it should catch the attention of the reader, as should the narrator’s desire to end the book with the word mayonnaise. That did catch my attention. What was it about that word, I wondered? It piqued my culture ear, so to speak, because I immediately thought of mayonnaise as “white people’s food.” But I figured that unless Brautigan had been Black, he wouldn’t have written about that in the 1960s, and I would guess that Brautigan, who looks (at least in his picture) about as white as me, would not be hip to that significance of mayonnaise unless he had lived to the present. So ending on mayonnaise SHOULD have been my signal to read this book more deeply for food images, and if I were teaching this book, I would have to tell my students that noticing such a clue would be important for a good scholar.

Anyway, in Kolin’s view, mayonnaise is as important as trout in the novel in terms of symbolism because “mayonnaise [...] contrasts with the dying trout and other blighted food” (Kolin). In the chapter, “Trout Fishing on the Street of Eternity” we read of the narrator’s working for an old lady. In return, she makes him lunch: “little egg sandwiches with crusts cut off as by a surgeon and [...] slices of banana dunked in mayonnaise" (80). Kolin argues that “the mayonnaise - soft and white - represents familial security and the loving care for the young narrator who buys it for her. Mayonnaise, therefore, is a symbol of personal though nationally unattainable hope at the end of an otherwise bleak study of America. It evokes fond memories of a generally disappointing childhood across the flotsam of time” (Kolin). Thus, Brautigan’s imagery of food is a key to his satire of American cultural values.

Having read Kolin’s essay carefully and spent a lot of time journaling about it, I can see now how an inexperienced writer on a deadline winds up plagiarizing parts of his or her paper. Nonetheless, I don’t see that the solution is to forbid students from using the internet to do research. That just seems unrealistic. Wouldn’t it make better sense to find a way to make the resources educational rather than pretending that students—and faculty alike—use the riches that are out there?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Dorothy Parker's Complete Stories

Dorothy Parker

Parker is tricky. She seems to be out of style, at the present, and I think it’s because she’s fooled a good many of the present-day audience. A careless, surface reading of her short stories is likely to give one the impression that she’s as shallow as one of her Park Avenue protagonists. A common conflict occurs in “Mrs. Hofstadter on Josephine Street,” in which a young couple (“The Colonel” and the narrator) hire “a man to market, to cook, to clean,” and they want a man specifically because “maids [meaning women] talked a good deal of the time. [...] We must insist [...] that our servant be, before all things, still” (Complete Stories 236). Another story deals with the inner conflict concerning a young woman who is upset over her choice of dance partners. She thinks, “I’m so glad I brought it to his attention that this is a waltz they’re playing. Heaven knows what might have happened if it was something fast; we’d have blown the sides right out of the building” (“The Waltz” 210). Still another depicts an upper class couple who are the envy of all their neighbors, are extremely polite to each other, saying things like, “See my pretty daffy-down-dillies?” but who, we learn from the gossiping neighbors, are getting divorced (“Too Bad” 17). In “The Sexes,” we read of a tiff between lovers, in which the young woman finally says, “Why don’t you go up to Florence Leaming’s? I know she’d love to have you?” (75). So on a surface read, the reader might begin to wonder whether these stories truly offer conflicts worth pondering.

At present, I believe, we have a reverse classism in literature. There’s a certain shame in reading literature that represents the upper classes, especially where I teach (in the introductory College English courses in a community college). The idea is that we want to represent, perhaps, the socioeconomic status of our students somewhat more accurately than do stories that were written for the upper class of New York society of the 1930s. But even among scholars and colleagues who don’t have those same concerns, I believe that Parker has somehow less status than she once did—and unfairly so.

Those who disregard Parker or view her as somehow shallow miss the boat because they don’t read deeply enough to see Parker’s biting satire of the very women she writes of. In part, I’m sure, it’s the first person narrator; so many people can’t get past believing that when the author addresses the audience as “I,” she is speaking as herself, rather than as a character. Furthermore, even among the more sophisticated audience members who understand the nature of the first person narrative, as well as satire are those who believe the 1930s women about whom Parker writes are outdated. At this reading, though, I find myself even more engaged with her characters, if possible. These are the Paris Hiltons, Nicole Richies, the Desperate Housewives, the Botox injectors, the anorexia women. Their behaviors may vary slightly according to the decade in which they live, but essentially, they’re the very empty-headed women about which E! and VH1 spend their entire programming schedule on. In fact, it might make an interesting popular culture paper (Dorothy Parker and the Women of the E! True Hollywood Story)…but there are only so many papers and so little time.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Assassination Vacation

Sarah Vowell

Reading S. Vowell for me brings up a range of emotions from feverish laughter to horrific despair and jealousy. The funniest part of Assassination Vacation is the preface, in which Vowell describes her reluctant breakfast at a B&B—something I can so relate to. She explains, “I understand why other people would want to stay in B&Bs. They’re pretty. They’re personal. They’re ‘quaint,’ a polite way of saying, ‘no TV’” (2).

Her writing is so good and so detailed, descriptive of places and historical events—particularly when I think of how young she is, fourteen I think, I fall into a terrible despair and want to kill her in the same way she describes wanting to kill G. Bush…well, even less so, really, because I don’t even really hate her. I just hate myself for not being as fabulously successful as her. This book is great, and she is greater.

The premise of the book is that she has had a lifelong fascination with the assassins of the four U.S. presidents who have been killed on duty. So, she takes us on her pilgrimages to the places where she goes to learn more about the places and relics surrounding the assassins. I was especially interested in the book because of its sense-of-place/travelogue aspects. It was interesting to me in form because she wrote this for a wide, commercial audience, clearly, rather than a scholarly audience—evident from her lack of footnotes or bibliography. The only credit she gives to sources is in her preface, where she discusses some of her main historical sources (like, for example in researching McKinley’s assassination, Vowell discussed Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, which she called a “great history of European and American events leading up to World War I” (7) mentioning a chapter on anarchism that was especially helpful).

I expected to be able to use more of her work to help me define place, but what I found instead was some interesting information in the chapter on Lincoln. First of all, it will probably help the reader to know that I never studied American history at a very high level—say beyond primary school. I think I must have taken a semester in high school, but let’s just call that a blur. Otherwise, I went to school in Latin America, where we studied Latin American history. So I never really knew more than the superficial details of Lincoln’s assassination—especially the ones Vowell discusses in this chapter. I viewed this chapter in history through hindsight, thinking Lincoln was a popular president, so imagine my surprise to read Vowell’s statement, that she was “amazed Lincoln got to live as long as he did” (28). Indeed, apparently detectives had foiled at other assassination attempts before the successful one, and throughout his term, “Lincoln kept a desk drawer full of death threats” (28).

But putting my historical education aside, I found some of the historical information about Maryland as a place was very interesting, and as I read along, I began to think about the information as a foundation for the dissertation chapter on John Waters.

What I found in the chapter will help me to define Maryland as distinctly Southern.

She says, “While technically Maryland remained in the Union during the Civil War, it was the border state, a schizophrenic no-man’s land with the North at its door and the South in its heart” (56). She goes on to discuss the lyrics of the state song, “ Maryland, My Maryland,’ the song says, ‘spurns the Northern scum!’ The song also calls for seceding from the Union, to stand by its sister state Virginia” (56).

That’s enough for tonight—but I strongly recommend the book for a great, entertaining read!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Black No More

George Schuyler

Trying to reason why Schuyler’s Black No More is hard to find in the average library can take one down a number of paths. My first assumption was that librarians might be afraid to add the book to a library’s collection since Schuyler was known to be conservative (and by conservative, I mean a member of the John Birch Society), so adding Black No More to any collection might make some sort of political statement. And librarians get so nervous about making political statements with their collections. But then I thought, well that’s silly. Libraries have all kinds of books representing all points of view on purpose. Another reason not to have Black No More in, say, an average medium-sized collection would be that Black No More is (mayhap as a result of its controversial satire) not such a popular work of Schuyler, who is himself, well, sort of a lesser-known African-American writer. When we consider that even the better-known African-American writers have had to elbow (after a fashion) their way in to the canon, then…it’s easy to explain Black No More’s absence with the marginalized-by-the-white-majority excuse. However, to do so might be oversimplifying; to leave out the most insidious explanation would, I’m afraid, cause Schuyler himself to spin on a mini-rotisserie in his grave. I speak here without any research to support my argument—which is the most fun to do (it’s my blog, dammit!)—but it would seem to me that African-American scholars have done a great deal of work to encourage the inclusion of African-American writers in the canon. Were it not for their solid work, perhaps white scholars might have ignored the important work of many black writers. Could it be, then, that many black writers overlooked or ignored Schuyler not just because of the message of Black No More, but also because of some of the activism Schuyler himself undertook? For example, according to Ishmael Reed’s foreword to the novel, “Schuyler denounced the platform of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” though it was because “he believed it fostered violence” (vii). I imagine, however, that Schuyler’s conservatism, matched with the cruel satire he writes in this book (like, for example, of the cultural icons such as W.E.B. DuBois) might have made him unpopular within African American culture. It certainly would make for some interesting debate.

More interesting still, though is to look at the novel. If you haven’t read it, just go buy it. Likely as not, unless you live near a large library or have privileges at a university library, you’ll just have to order it from Amazon. It’s worth the price, though (less than $15). The novel’s premise is that a cleverly named Dr. Crookman develops a way for Black people (called “Negros” in the book—which was written in the 1930s) within seconds to be turned into blonde, straight-haired, blue-eyed white people. There’s only one catch: the change lasts through only one generation. In other words, the formerly black person will be immediately identified upon the birth of progeny with potentially humiliating results.

Max Disher, the protagonist, whose “negroid features had a slightly satanic cast” when he lived in Harlem and dated “his high ‘yallah’ flapper” (5) saved his $50 to have “the world [as] his oyster [...] and the open sesame of a pork-colored skin!” (19). Yet after first changing his name to Matthew Fisher, he finds life a little less interesting. He notes that, in all, white people are “less courteous and less interesting.” He misses the “happy-go-lucky, jovial good-fellowship” of the “Negroes,” but when he goes to the old neighborhood, his former friends no longer know him as a “Negro” (43).

So “Matthew Fisher” nee Disher moves to Atlanta to find a white woman who once turned him down for a date. Now that he’s white, he can pursue her.

In his travels, he by accident happens upon the headquarters of the Nights of Nordica, an analogue of the KKK. The Grand Wizard is just the kind of idiot one would expect in that kind of job. Matthew lies and somehow manages to have himself appointed to an officer post, the Grand Giraw—a brilliant plan, especially when he finds out that the Grand Wizard’s daughter, Helen, just happens to be the woman he loves.

Meanwhile, we meet the National Social Equality League (which, I gather is supposed to be the NAACP), which includes a number of “Negro leaders of the country” (65). Here is where the cruelest satire takes place. We meet Dr. Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard, “graduate of Harvard, Yale and Copenhagen (whose haughty bearing never failed to impress both Caucasians and Negroes)” (65). He’s pretty obviously meant to satirize W.E.B. DuBois. We read of him:

For a mere six thousand dollars a year, the learned doctor wrote scholarly and biting editorials in The Dilemma denouncing the Caucasians whom he secretly admired and lauding the greatness of the Negroes whom he alternately pitied and despised. [...] Like most Negro leaders, he deified the black woman but abstained from employing aught save octoroons. He talked at white banquets about “we of the black race” and admitted in books that he was part-French, part-Russian, part-Indian and part-Negro. (65)
OUCH! (I read somewhere, I don’t remember where, that DuBois thought it was funny…but who knows!?).

Another character, who satirizes I-don’t-know-who (but does it really matter—it’s so cruel!) is Dr. Jackson, of whom the narrator says, “There was no fear of Dr. Jackson ever winning a beauty contest.” We hear that he has “long, ape-like arms, a diminutive egg-shaped head that sat on his collar like a hen’s egg in a demitasse cup and eyes that protruded so far from his head that they seemed about to fall out” (67). The horrific physical description goes on, but the worst part is that his “chief business in the organization was to write long and indignant letters to public officials and legislators whenever a Negro was mistreated, demanding justice, fair play and other legal guarantees vouchsafed no whites except bloated plutocrats fallen miraculously afoul of the law, and to speak to audiences of sex-starved matrons who yearned to help the Negro stand erect” (67).

Another interesting character is Dr. Gronne, who appears to be college president (but who at one time or another had been “a college professor, a social worker, and minister”) who was very popular because “he very cleverly knew how to make statements that sounded radical to Negroes but sufficiently conservative to satisfy the white trustees of his school” (69). It doesn’t matter who this guy satirizes from the 1930s, he—all of them for that matter have analogues today!

I think what Schuyler does with these characters is to show them for the buffoons that they are. At the risk of pissing off anyone who reads this, I would nominate a present-day example of the kind of person Schuyler means: Jesse Jackson. How different is he from “the Right Reverend Bishop Ezekiel Whooper of the Ethiopian True Faith Wash Foot Methodist Church”? Schuyler’s definition of Whooper was that “he had a very loud voice and the white people praised him. He was sixty, corpulent, and an expert at the art of making cuckolds” (71). Take out the corpulent and you’ve got Jesse Jackson: He’s a blowhard who claims to be making a difference, but who in actuality is shucking and jiving to placate the white man. What does he really do? No one really knows where all that money goes that he “fundraises.” But I digress. I only mean to say that every generation, every era has liberal fundamentalists as well as the conservatives. They just dance a different dance, I guess. I just love the way Schuyler shows them up.

Ultimately in the novel things get ridiculous. The plot begins to remind me of the Dr. Seuss book, The Star-bellied Sneeches, which is such a wonderful allegory. We read of star-bellied sneeches and sneeches with no stars on their bellies. But, guess what? All the sneeches want to have stars on their bellies, and so they devise a machine to add the stars. But when the original star-bellied sneeches realize it, they devise a star-remover, so that they can be exclusive once more (though I doubt that old Ted Geisel really came up with a rhyme on exclusive). Ultimately (ditto on ultimately), an endless cycle begins through the two machines until neither group can tell who had which (star or not) on the belly to begin with….so it ceases to matter. Same goes in Black No More with the white—when the rumor begins that the people with the whitest skin were once black and (prescient Schulyer predicts) white people start going to tanning salons.

So much to discuss in this book, but the idea it ends on is powerful, that race is no more than a color that one can spray on. It’s an artificial construct that we assign far more cultural meaning than it deserves. So even when Max Disher misses the relaxed lifestyle of his Harlem friends, he’s missing an artificial construct. And similarly, when the uptight white, mayonnaise Atlanta lifestyle gets him down, maybe we are to gather that it’s more of a culture, class, or regional construct than of race.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Friday Book

John Barth

This isn’t a confession. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m no John Barth fan—generally speaking, that is. My distaste goes back to early adolescence when my dad tried to get me to read Giles, Goat Boy, a novel, if you don’t know, that’s just entirely too heady for most fourteen- or fifteen-year-olds, even me at the time (I was pretty strange). In college I was intrigued with “Welcome to the Funhouse,” the story, not the collection. I have found Barth’s fiction writing generally verbose, purposely hard to understand. Like Pynchon’s, it’s self-conscious, experimental, story-for-the-sake-of-story, showing off. Fiction like that always gives me a terrible image of the author writing the original prose, like he was practically masturbating words onto the page at the typewriter, saying “look, aren’t I clever?”

There, now. I think I’ve made my point.

But I read The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction specifically because of its two essays, “The Literature of Exhaustion” and “The Literature of Replenishment,” which are important because in them Barth defines postmodernism, at least for himself. What I found surprising was that upon looking at the introduction and other early parts of the book, I felt compelled to read almost all the essays out of a strong interest in what he was saying. At first I thought it was because this non-fiction Barth was a different character than the guy who writes that insipid metafiction, but truth told, Barth’s nonfiction narrator is much the same as the fiction Barth. In fact, the first three mini-essays in The Friday Book are self-conscious comic pieces giving advice about writing the type of book he’s writing. The very title page—before the essays—parodies an actual title page, saying:


and Other Nonfiction

Then, in the first piece, “The Title of This Book,” he points out that his own title, as well as The Canterbury Tales, Moby-Dick and several others, “are straightforward” (vii). Importantly, though, he insists, “[c]comic works need not bear comic titles,” giving examples such as “The Frogs. The Birds. Don Quixote. Tom Jones,” etc. (viii).

A little later, in an epigraph, Barth goes on (with comic effect) to show why epigraphs “should be avoided” because there “is something hokey about an epigraph” since they are “a kind of rhetorical attitudinalizing” (xvii). And so on.

The book is particularly appealing to someone in the process of writing a book—even though Barth is obviously (to me) parodying the angst a writer goes through when s/he’s putting together a book.

When I figured that out, I realized that when my dad asked me to read Barth’s novels in early adolescence, he was asking me to read something too abstract for my age. I wasn’t ready for metafiction until right now. (You’ll note that I’ll be writing about the Sot-Weed Factor then shortly, because I’m in the middle of reading it at the moment. I still like Barth’s non-fiction better, though.)

Nevertheless, another reason why the essays were so appealing was that Barth talks about speaking to groups of college students about literature and writing, an experience any English faculty member like me can relate to.

That’s exactly what Barth was doing when he gave the lecture on “The Literature of Exhaustion” (at the University of Virginia). The idea of “exhaustion,” he says, comes not from the traditional sense of the word, but rather from “the used-upness of certain forms or the felt exhaustion of certain possibilities,” which makes sense (64). If postmodernism was the beginning of a new “movement” in literature, it happened because every possibility had already been exhausted in modernism, so this new movement had to arise in order for writers to try new things. Indeed, Barth calls himself an “author who imitates the role of an Author” when he wrote the Sot-Weed Factor (which itself parodies the colonial American poem) (72). So the main point of the essay is that parody and the reuse or retooling of stories are part and parcel of postmodernism.

Another interesting essay in the collection is “The Spirit of Place.” He begins this essay by paraphrasing Hemingway, who said that “every writer owes it to the place of his birth either to immortalize it or to destroy it” (127). Barth also says “A good writer may be inspired in part by the locus genii of the place where he was born or raised [...]. But at least as often, the writer’s place of origin may be of little or no significance to the work” (128). In other words, postmodernism (unlike modernism) frees writers from being bound to setting.

Barth discusses the matter still more specifically, saying “the ‘postmodern’ writer may find that the realistic, even tender evocation of place (for example) is quite to his purpose, a purpose which may partake of the purposes of both his modernist fathers and his pre-modern remoter ancestors without being quite the same as either’s” (129). Ultimately, then, the details, now are up to the writer, rather than up to the period. The piece determines the rules.

“The Literature of Replenishment,” says Barth, is “meant as a companion and corrective to” the previous essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion” (193). As of 1979, when he gave the original lecture, the word “postmodernism” had not yet made it into “standard dictionaries and encyclopedias,” Barth reports, yet at the time the topic already was hot at the university and the MLA. At first Barth takes up the definition of postmodernists—who among the white male canon may be considered to be postmodern. For example, Vonnegut: is he or isn’t he? Some of the theorists say yes, and some don’t. Some trace postmodernism as far back as Virginia Woolf, Baudelaire, and de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. According to some definitions, variations may be judged “among the productions of a given writer” (196). For example, Barth classifies “John Gardner’s first two published novels” as “distinctly modernist works” whereas “his short stories dabble in postmodernism” (196). Barth even sees “both modernist and postmodernist attributes” in his own work (196).

The term “postmodern,” says Barth is not easy to define, since it has such broad applications. A number of theorists, according to Barth, begin with the premise that postmodernism in some way extends some of the ideas of modernism (197). But the way Barth sees it is different. He says:

My ideal postmodernist author neither merely repudiates nor merely imitates either his twentieth-century modernist parents or his nineteenth-century premodernist grandparents. He has the first half of our century under his belt, but not on his back. [...] The ideal postmodernist novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and “contentism,” pure and committed literature, coterie fiction and junk fiction. Alas for professors of literature, it may not need as much teaching as Joyce’s or Nabokov’s, or some of my own. (203)

Barth ends by saying that while he argued in his original essay that “The Literature of Exhaustion” could refer to having exhausted the possibilities of modernism, “The Literature of Replenishment” was actually a better term for Postmodernism because of the many possibilities it offered for literature of the future.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Sherman Alexie

Ignoring the old maxim about not judging the thing by its cover, let’s begin by looking at this volume’s front, with the familiar basketball hoop against a background of surreal orange and purple thunderheads, in which we can see at the top the shadows of Tonto and the Lone Ranger (by the way—remember the Lone Ranger was a cowboy and Tonto the Indian, and Tonto in Spanish means Stupid). Then, at the bottom, across the back-board of the basketball hoop is the laser-lit trajectory of a trout, as though he has flown past (but not through) the basketball hoop. Oh, and over there behind and to the right of the hoop we can see the smoky flame of a fire burning.

This mighty list of incongruities really does sum up Sherman Alexie’s book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which, not incidentally, was the basis for his award-winning film, Smoke Signals. One interesting reaction to Alexie’s work came from J.T., a professor whose opinions I respect. He had seen the film and read a bit of Alexie’s work—perhaps some of the anthologized stories. He said something to the effect of: “I just don’t know where to put those ideas.” In other words, even classifying Alexie’s ideas was difficult for J.T., because they don’t relate to any of the traditions J.T. (a white male) is accustomed to.

That makes a lot of sense. J.T. is aware of the traditions that create his “taste” (I’m using that word for lack of a better one at the moment. But other readers and reviewers aren’t so aware—and that’s how writers outside of the traditions get marginalized. I’m not sure I’m making my point very clearly here—so I started by talking about the picture on the cover of the book. Many people who were steeped in traditional art would look at the book cover and say “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” They might not stop to think about the Indian traditions that informed the art, or that they themselves are biased by their white, traditional upbringing. Similarly, they might not stop to think how limiting their reading has been—and they might not understand that Alexie is doing something with his writing that can teach all of us something.
One thing we learn is Indian truisms, like Victor tells us in the story, “A Drug Called Tradition, “There are things you should learn,” he says (21), and “We are trapped in the now” (22). There’s tremendous depth in these stories. And while they are traditional in that they have a beginning, middle, and end, I find that the forms of the stories are sometimes different, and that there is more of a puzzle to them.

One thing that is somewhat different (and especially interesting to me) is the humor. One example of Indian humor is the way Indians hide from tourists behind “quick joke[s]” (“Amusements” 55). Also, we find out about wry Indian inside jokes. In “All I Wanted to do was Dance,” Victor shares a drink with a drunk stranger, who tells him it is his birthday. Victor asks him, “What tribe are you?” and the stranger tells him, “Cherokee.”
“Really? Shit, I’ve never met a real Cherokee.”
“Neither have I.”
They laugh at this, and share some more drinks, and then the stranger says,
“Hey, cousin [...] You know how to tell the difference between a real Indian and a fake Indian?”
“The real Indian got blisters on his feet. The fake Indian got blisters on his ass” (91).

I like humor like that, because it feels most like authentic Indian humor—like we’re being let in on secret Indian jokes.

Other funny passages, though, are more contemporary and cross pop culture borders. For example, in “Family Portrait,” Junior says, “I’ve seen Indians who could do all this MTV Club dancing, electric slides and shit, all over the place and then look like a white person stumbling through the sawdust of a powwow” (201).
And Norma tells him “You can’t dance very good but you got the heart of a dancer.
Junior tells her “Heart of a dancer [...] And feet like the buffalo” (201).

Alexie doesn’t want to be called Native American, because the term is just a symbol of white guilt to him, is worth reading because he’s a great writer, not because he’s a marginalized writer. His book is fantastic.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

Hmmm…a memoir, I kept saying. Why would this be on the list of American Comedies? Let me rephrase that: A memoir in which the author tells the very upsetting story of her molestation by a step-father—as well as her repeated abandonment by her parents and other events…how can that be a comedy. A few parts were funny, and by that I mean that I might have smiled as I turned a page once or twice, but even though I could not put down the book for the two days it took me to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I found it hard to judge the book as a comedy. Viewed broadly, from a literary seat at roughly the height of a tennis chair umpire, I suppose it is accurate to call Angelou’s book a comedy in the way the ancient Greek plays where the couples that have rotten beginnings and end up married are called comedies. Similarly, Angelou, who suffers agonies the Greeks never thought of mentioning, ends up with a baby son (just never mind that no one would sleep with her, so she decided to deny her lesbianism—and who knows what about her transgenderism—and get the cutest boy in the neighborhood to do her [not such a bad plan], but then she lucked out and got pregnant first try). So she’s stuck with raising him on her own. I guess I’m Euro-centric in assuming that’s not such a happy ending. In WASP-ville, that’s a one-way ticket to permanent shame-ville, and I could cite you ten examples right now of some shamed WASPs who headed directly to trailer-ville with their out-of-wedlock children. But no one asked me.

Mostly, I’m being silly there, because it truly is none of my business to discuss, but the notion of being outside my culture to discuss child-rearing practices, but the ability to observe one’s culture—as well as what’s outside it—is one of the themes of Angelou’s book. The story of her life truly does deserve to be memorialized. Her first memory is being put, at the age of three, with her four-year-old brother on a train from California to Arkansas with a note pinned on their shoulder about where they were going. The story says so much that she didn’t have to say. Having just taken a train trip, I am astonished at the irresponsibility of the people who did that….and how they could have let two such tiny children out of their sight. Not to mention how the little children managed to feed themselves, much less stay out of harm’s way (the train wheels, diapers, etc….). How terrifying for them! I wonder later at the various other abandonments that occurred to Angelou along the way, the various places and ways where people let her down. The only “symptom” of such brutality that she reports is that she stops talking for a while, which at the time when she does it (after she is raped) seems like a perfectly adaptive response. Indeed, the book is entirely—and seemingly without her knowing it—a testament to her strength of will, to the depth of her character.

How does she do it? How was Angelou strong in the face of disaster after disaster, which to many other lesser human beings would have been extremely destructive and might ultimately have resulted in the annihilation of the personality? I think in part the tremendous strength of her grandmother, who at least partly raised her, was very helpful as a type of stability. Angelou’s belief is strong in the African-American female of every variety as a source of strength. In the end, she argues:
The fact that the adult American Negro [sic] female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance. (273)

Miss Lonelyhearts

Nathanael West

In all these years of reading Great American Books, how did I miss N. West? Turns out I love Miss Lonelyhearts. Almost every one of the passages is funny, and even though some of them are perhaps a bit overwrought, I think he means for them to be so, and from that excess of feeling derives much of the humor. In case you haven’t read Miss Lonelyhearts, it is about a newspaper reporter who, at the bottom of the proverbial writing totem pole, is assigned to write an advice column (thus the title). At first, he’s cynical about the whole prospect, but the experience of having to write the column turns him into a humbler sort of fellow. That synopsis makes the story sound overly sincere to the point of being trite—but believe me when I say that it isn’t. The tone of the story is anything but syrupy.

For a sense of the tone, the reader must listen to a few descriptions from early on in the story. One of the first times the narrator allows us to see Miss Lonelyhearts at work (we know the writer by his pen name), the narrator explains that Miss Lonelyhearts can hardly face his subjects. He wants to turn instead to:

the imagined desert where desperate, broken-hearted, and the others [are] still building his name. They [...] run out of sea shells and [are] using faded photographs, soiled fans, time-tables, playing cards, broken toys, imitation jewelry [...]. He killed his great understanding heart by laughing. (26)

So by listing the squalor he sees around him. Miss L. is maybe for the first time in the literature (1930s) describing some of the squalor he sees around him—but for entertainment.

One of the interesting parts of the narrative, for me, is the protagonist’s name. Clearly, we are to snicker a bit each time at his being called “Miss Lonelyhearts”— all the other characters also call him that. Of course, that raises the issue of an entire gender-crossing subtext; one could read this book productively from the perspective of queer theory, questioning the way Miss Lonelyhearts feels distant from (and moves closer to) Jesus Christ as a possible metaphor for the distance from the church a transgendered male feels from the church. Textual evidence abounds that would support such an argument. At one point, for instance, when Miss Lonelyhearts ponders his distance from Christ, he decides that he can “find no support for either his eyes or his feelings” (39). The narrator doesn’t explain, but the reader can infer from the passage the sense of distance.

But from the standpoint of a researcher of comedy, to call the male character Miss Lonelyhearts is to destabilize him, to create an incongruity about his obvious masculinity, and that is humorous.

Shrike, Miss Lonelyhearts’s boss and sinister seeming editor, seems to have several purposes. Lonelyhearts smiles at him “as the saints are supposed to have smiled at those about to martyr them” (44). We are to gather a religious feeling about Shrike—and about Lonelyhearts himself, who the narrator often compares to a priest who hears confession in reading and answering the letters. But the comedy comes from his smart-ass responses to the letters. When he can’t write a heart-felt response, the snide answers are comical. Lonelyhearts’s inability to feel makes fun of the sentimental response that we’re expecting.

The climax of the novella happens when Miss Lonelyhearts agrees to go home with the disabled Mr. Doyle, husband of Mrs. Doyle who he has been sleeping with (after reading her letter about being lonely in the presence of her “crippled” husband). It’s a terrible scene, in which Lonelyhearts agrees to go with Mr. Doyle, fully knowing what awaits him in the room with Mrs. Doyle, and indeed it happens that she tries to play footsies under the table. Only this time, Miss L. “only [breaks] his beatific smile to drink” (48). He has decided in this case to take the high road, and he’s waiting, it seems, for some sort of communication from God. The narrator explains that he’s not afraid of silence because he’s “busy trying to find a message” and that when he does “speak it [will] have to be in the form of a message” (48).

Finally, Mr. Doyle, the disabled man, apparently having observed his wife’s flirtations with Miss L., half-jokes “Ain’t I the pimp, to bring home a guy for my wife?” (48). Mrs. Doyle protests in a fury and they both laugh, but then fight, ending the tousle in tears. Finally, Miss L. says something:

Please don’t fight [...] He loves you, Mrs. Doyle; that’s why he acts like that. Be kind to him. [...] You have a big, strong body, Mrs. Doyle. Holding your husband in your arms, you can warm him and give him life. [...]He [carries] a heavy load of weariness and pain. You can substitute a dream of yourself for this load. [...] You can do this by letting him conquer you in your bed… (49)

But rather than stunning them with his brilliance, Miss Lonelyhearts merely confuses them. This “sage advice” turns out to be a bunch of silliness. Mrs. Doyle is “too astonished to laugh” and Mr. Doyle is “embarrassed” (49). Miss L. has “failed to tap the force in his heart and merely written a column for the paper” (49). This part is really clever, see, because West makes fun of the kind of sentimentality that everyone else writes by writing it himself—and then making fun of any reader who might have fallen for it!

So what can Miss L. do, then but try again. He becomes “hysterical” and screams “Christ is love,” which might at first sound like the ultimate trite ending, but listen to what else he says about that: “Christ is the black fruit that hangs on the crosstree. Man was lost by eating of the forbidden fruit. He shall be saved by eating of the bidden fruit. The black Christ-fruit, the love fruit. . . “ (49). It sounds like his own love poem to Christ, not someone else’s made up religion.

That would have made a good ending, but in fact what happens is bizarre, what is truly an end-of-the-twentieth century Hollywood ending, rather than a 1930s ending, for my money. Don’t read this if you don’t want to know. Miss L. is sick with a fever and hallucinating. He begins to hallucinate, looking at the crucifix on the wall across from his bed, seeing “a background of blood velvet, sprinkled with tiny nerve stars” (56). Then he realizes that “the room [is] full of grace” and hears the voice of God. The narrator says “his identification with God was complete” and “God approved of his every thought” (57). By a silly twist of events, Mr. Doyle has decided to kill Miss L. So in comes Mr. Doyle, and disguised behind a newspaper, of course, is a gun. Doyle and Lonelyhearts struggle over that gun.

The really great part of it is, though, that Betty (Miss L.’s other almost virginal, but now pregnant lover, who he has agreed to marry) enters the scene in time to stop the struggle. But when Doyle sees her getting in the way, he tries to drop the gun, which then goes off accidentally, shooting Miss L. anyway, who then takes Doyle down the stairs with him—the joke here is that the deaths are accidental/on purpose, the ultimate random end to the religious, no?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Side Effects

Woody Allen

“Needleman was constantly obsessing over his funeral plans and once told me, ‘I much prefer cremation to burial in the earth, and both to a weekend with Mrs. Needleman.’ In the end, he chose to have himself cremated and donated his ashes to the University of Heidelberg, which scattered them to the four winds and got a deposit on the urn” (“Remembering Needleman” 3).

We meet Needleman in the first story of the collection, a narrative that serves as a scaffold to rest jokes upon—jokes that stand of their own accord, or perhaps would stand up were they given Allen’s live delivery.

Did you know, reader, that Allen was first a standup comedian—funny, at that?

At any rate, it is difficult not to read Allen’s short stories in his familiar stammering, sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow speech. What is true, though is that this story, “Remembering Needleman” doesn’t develop Needleman as much of a human being the reader is to care about; rather he—and the others in the story are meant to reflect the kinds of people we might encounter. That is, if we live in the big city. Needleman waxes philosophical by pondering the nature of Existence:

“Authentic Being, reasoned Needleman, could only be achieved on weekends and even then it required the borrowing of a car. Man, according to Needleman, was not a ‘thing’ apart from nature, but was involved ‘in nature,’ and could not observe his own existence without first pretending to be indifferent and then running around to the opposite end of the room quickly in the hopes of glimpsing himself” (“Remembering Needleman” 5).

Needleman is a city hero, who has to borrow a friend’s car to achieve any sort of enlightenment. Only a New Yorker can understand that. Someone from L.A. doesn’t get it; hell, as the song goes, “nobody walks in L.A.” In NYC, you don’t need a car, but for nirvana, one borrows one. Profound.

Interestingly, though, these one-liners continue through the other stories, including the now much-anthologized “Kugelmass Episode,” in which the eponymous character, Kugelmass, a middle-aged and unsatisfied college professor gets an opportunity to travel in time. For $20 a visit, the inventor of the device can throw “any novel into [the] cabinet” with him and “shut the doors, and tap it three times” (44) Then, Kugelmass finds himself within the pages of that same novel and may cavort freely with the character of his choice. He selects Emma Bovary, but then finds the affair gets out of control when she becomes too demanding.

While the characters are slightly developed in that story (since Emma Bovary in and of herself is somewhat developed in Flaubert’s own book, and so we can hardly credit Allen with having invented her in the first place), we can credit Allen for having developed for characters that truly do seem to change and develop in the final story, “Retribution.” This story felt, plotwise, more like the outline of one of his films, in which the young man loves—idealizes—his girl, but she doesn’t love him—until the tearfully break up, he finds someone he professes to love, and then he finds something else to do. Then SHE decides she likes him. Reverse psychology works. More to say here, but much more to read.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces

It took me twenty years to finish Toole’s book. Someone in college gave it to me, shocked that I hadn’t already read it, and I practically threw the book away after reading only about thirty pages, believing (I confess to you ashamedly today) myself to have been identified by the gift horse as the Ignatius Reilly character. Perhaps if I had been more accurate, I would have realized the only person who had identified me as Ignatius was myself. But to say we’re stupid when we’re twenty years old is a truism, so we’ll just skip on by that and say that twenty years later, I did see what everyone liked about the tragic Toole.

First, if you don’t know, Walker Percy, one of U.S.’s great writers, wrote the introduction to the book, explaining how it came to be published—and to cult classic status. Toole committed suicide in 1969 before the novel ever met human eyes. Toole’s mother decided in 1976 to take it to Loyola University where Percy taught. As one might imagine, explains Percy, “if ever there was something I didn’t want to do, this was surely it: deal with the mother of a dead novelist and, worst of all, to have to read the manuscript that she said was great and that, as it turned out, was a badly smeared scarcely readable carbon” (7). Much to Percy’s shock, though, Confederacy turned out to be not just okay, but very good—in fact, also very funny, but at the same time, he reminds us, very sad, not least because we remember as we read it that the book will be the only John Kennedy Toole novel that we ever read.

But what a novel Confederacy of Dunces is, most of all because the characters are drawn so intensely. The protagonist, the aforementioned Ignatius Reilly, who wears a bizarre New Orleans version of a Holden Caulfield Hunting Cap, is morbidly overweight and behaviorally challenged. He complains constantly about his stomach in times of stress: “My [pyloric] valve closed on the streetcar,” he says to his mother, explaining why he looks like he’s about to die—and why he didn’t get a job (70). He lives alone with his mother, who he badgers because he believes she drinks too much—he accuses her constantly of clandestinely storing booze in the oven. Early in the story, Mrs. Reilly has a car accident that she must pay for, which requires Ignatius to go to work—a turn of events he finds immensely distasteful, since he believes he is writing important works of literature in his bedroom. He gets a job at Levy Pants as a file clerk, where he systematically throws away the files because he’s too fat to reach the lower drawers and where he tries to organize the factory workers to rise up against the management (but fails because he’s so offensive). Other equally absurd characters figure into the story including a dancer and a doorman in a French Quarter bar as well as friends of Mrs. Reilly’s. They’re so aptly drawn, when I was reading the book, I kept feeling as though I saw them on street corners, saying to myself, “now that guy there, he could be Ignatius.” It’s not very often that I read a book so vivid.

Another fascinating part of the book is that it truly is a novel of place. Like Walker Percy’s novels of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, this book truly evokes the New Orleans-ness of the city with the descriptions of the place around the seedy strip club where Darlene and Jones work:
Twilight was settling around the Night of Joy bar. Outside, Bourbon Street was beginning to light up. Neon signs flashed off and on, reflecting in the streets dampened by the light mist that had been falling steadily for some time. The taxis bringing the evening’s first customers, Midwestern tourists and conventioneers, made light splashing sounds in the cold dusk. (29)
Toole also captures the place around which Ignatius ends up selling hot dogs. When Ignatius goes to collect the hot dog cart, we read about the location of the vendor:

Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, was housed in what had formerly been an automobile repair shop, the dark ground floor of an otherwise unoccupied commercial building on Poydras Street. The garage doors were usually open, giving the passerby an acrid nostrilful of boiling hot dogs and mustard and also of cement soaked over many years by automobile lubricants and motor oils that had dripped and drained from Harmons and Hupmobiles. The powerful
stench of Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, sometimes led the overwhelmed and perplexed stroller to glance through the open door into the darkness of the garage. (164)
What’s funny about it? Well, first of all, Ignatius is the biggest of the buffoons, and it’s clear that Toole most wants us to laugh at him. But, just as Percy points out in the introduction, it’s hard not to infer some autobiographical sense to the novel—outlandish as it is. After all, it’s about a depressed young man living with his widowed mother, so we—or probably more accurately I should say I–feel pretty sad about laughing at Ignatius. Mrs. Reilly herself is pretty silly too, though. However, then, for much the same inferential reasons, I find myself feeling sorry for the long suffering Mrs. Toole. But the many absurd characters—even the racistly drawn African American, Jones—are very funny because of the absurdity of their behavior. I have the sense that Toole must have had that sense of the world, that people, in his view, really do act stupidly—that they (like Flannery O’Connor’s Aunt said, have certain things that they just have to “go and do.”).

Monday, October 24, 2005

Life on the Mississi

Life on the Mississippi

This is a book that, without the contextual essay in the beginning, would have formed a great question mark in my mind—perhaps on its way back to the library in a big hurry. Johnathan Raban writes that Clemens had a terrible time writing a travel book that William Dean Howells proposed to him from a series of articles he originally had written for the Atlantic Monthly. Problem was, making more than the existing seven chapters proved to be more difficult, apparently, than he thought.

As a result, Raban explains so aptly, “Reading Life on the Mississippi, it is not the river one sees first, but the writer’s desk—a desk littered with magazines, books, brochures, writing pads” (xiii). In other words, as readers we feel Twain’s struggle to find enough material to speak about. We can picture him surrounding himself in the research. He tells folktales, relies on maps, other people’s stories, too much material that is, in effect, outside of himself. The result is disjointed—quite literally it needs a major revision. Says Raban, “Few books expose the halting progress of their own authorship so plainly” (xiii-xiv). Truly we see both the best and the worst days of Twain’s writing in this book.

It’s a great one for me to read as a model for a few reasons: surely parts of it are quite funny, so it’s evidence of American humor writing; also, it’s either a model of a travel book or a model of how not to do a travel book, depending on which way I want to read it; but perhaps most interesting, the book is at least in places an attempt to define and distinguish among the regions of the U.S. Parts of the book, for that reason, are particularly fascinating, because even if what Twain says is true only historically, they’re interesting and relevant to what I’m about to write.

First, though, it might help to look at the way he structures the book as a travelogue; Twain deals with the history of the river, which is appropriate within the purpose of his book. We also find out about his experiences as a “cub pilot” of a steam boat, also important historical information – but the appeal of it has some interesting connections. First, of course, we as readers of the present relate to the persona of Mark Twain/Sam Clemens as a mythical figure of American Literature/History; the stories are clearly exaggerated—they’re as tall as the tales about Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan or any of the others we’ve heard for ever and ever. Even if we shrink the tales down a size or two, though, reading about Twain’s life experience has a voyeuristic appeal. Maybe “voyeur” is too strong a word—but we like to see inside him. To a certain extent, I think the appeal of the narrative criticism I’m interested in is the revelation-of-self of the critic. We’re interested in the person who’s talking, even if s/he isn’t a mythical persona. An invisible, omniscient voice is authoritative and, ultimately soporific—kind of like Ben Stein’s bland teacher voice-over in The Wonder Years “…anyone?...anyone?” What I’m saying, if I’m saying anything at all that makes sense, is that indeed we do like to find out about Mark Twain’s life—but we like to find out about the traveling writer, even if s/he isn’t a mythical person, because the person is a key part of the journey.

And/but/so….later, Twain begins to examine regional differences, which is interesting, but sort of disappointingly dated and not helpful. He was writing shortly after the Civil War, when such regional differences were painful. In a chapter, “Southern Sports,” Twain takes up the topic of conversation about the war to illustrate just how the tensions regarding the war show up in the various regions. He says that in the North people might mention the war once a week or as much as once in four weeks because, in “dinner company of six gentlemen [...] it can easily happen that four of them [...] were not in the field at all” (275). However, in the South, “every man you meet was in the war; and every lady you meet saw the war.” Thus, the “war is the great chief topic of conversation” (275). So we shouldn’t surprised when things are “’placed’ as having happened since the waw; or du’in’ the waw’ or befo’ the waw’ or right aftah the waw;” because that is evidence of how much everyone was affected by the events of the war (275). He goes on to tell a few stories about why all the southern men are called Colonel, and so on, but for the most part, he’s going for local color and that’s all.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Diaries of Adam and Eve

I never even knew about this soft-hearted little book Twain/Clemens wrote. The first part he wrote in the late 1890s from the point of view of Adam, discovering the effusive, garrulous Eve, frustrated with her mystifying habits as well as those of the bizarre creature she spawns (good old Cain), which he mistakes at first for a kangaroo, and later rules out that he is a fish, though Eve will not allow him to throw baby into the river as a test. This Adam is a comical, fin de siecle Deborah Tannen, only in this case men are from Eden and so are women. But, while Eve bothers and distracts him at first, Adam concludes, “After all these years, I see that I was mistaken about Eve….it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her” (31).

The poignancy comes from reading the part that is Eve’s diary. I’m not sure one even really has to know that Clemens wrote this part about fifteen years later, in 1904, shortly after his wife, Livvy, died. The style of Eve’s diary is entirely different, more lyrical. While Adam’s short sentences communicate merely the events that occurred (on one day, his report is merely “Pulled through.”), Eve describes her surroundings enthusiastically, loving even the stars, saying “I wish I could get some to put into my hair” (36). But in her descriptions, Eve reveals that she knows the way she chases after Adam, always naming things before he can get around to it, always talking and disturbing him, annoys him. Nevertheless, she says, “this kind of love is not a product of reasonings and statistics. It just comes” (62). Most poignantly, though, she wants to stay with him, to “pass from this life together” (62). The most heart-wrenching part, though, if we know that Livvy died before old Sam Clemens, is the last passage, where she says (you’ll forgive the long quote):

But if one of us must go first, it is my prayer that it shall be I; for he is strong. I am weak, I am not so necessary to him as he is to me—life without him would not be life; how could I endure it? This prayer is also immortal, and will not cease from being offered up while my race continues. I am the first wife; and in the last wife I shall be repeated. (63)

Oh sure, we can write it off as nineteenth (more accurately early twentieth) century sentimentality, but it’s very sad. The last line is from Adam’s point of view, “Wheresoever she was there was Eden” (63).

The Diaries stretch out over the great intertext to Don Delillo’s White Noise, in which the protagonist worries throughout the story, as he thinks of his wife, “Who will die first?” (Delillo 30). Maybe it’s a universal thought; inherent in commitment is the end of commitment. A happy thought as the leaves fall on a rainy day.