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.”).