The Bat Segundo Show: Blake Bailey

Blake Bailey appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #284.

Blake Bailey is most recently the author of Cheever and the editor of the two-volume John Cheever set recently issued by Library of America.


Subjects Discussed: Eponymous titles, Cheever as a brand name, whether literary biographies are needed, contending with Updike’s review, the hard things that Cheever said about Updike, the literary biography as a history of the 20th century, interview subjects who use pseudonyms, telephone prank calls, writing a biography while considering the Cheever family, establishing total independence, corralling incidents in Cheever’s journal with real-life incidents, whether or not Cheever’s accounts could even be trusted, explicit connections between the stories and Cheever’s life, similarities between Richard Yates and John Cheever, shyness and courtliness, living in squalor, Cheever’s phony aristocratic voice, getting naked, Robert Gottlieb’s late-career intervention, whether or not Cheever was washed up after Falconer, financial unease, Dwight MacDonald’s “By Cozzens Possessed,” the power of literary critics in the 1960s, narcissism, status and quids pro quo, Cheever pushing the envelope in his fiction, Cheever’s strange obsession with television commercials, Cheever and postmodernism, Donald Barthelmie, and Cheever and postmodernism.


blakebaileyCorrespondent: John Updike. He wrote a piece called “On Literary Biography” — I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with it — in which he asked whether we needed literary biographies at all. He concluded that “[t]he vocabularies of psychoanalysis and of literary analysis become increasingly entwined; though we must not forget that these invalids receive our attention because of the truth and poetry and entertainment to be found in their creations.” Now, of course, in the last piece he wrote for the New Yorker, after his death, he reviewed your book. And he wrote that “all this biographer’s zeal makes a heavy, dispiriting read,” where he wanted your narrative “pursued in methodical chapters that tick past year after year, to hurry through the menacing miasma of a life which, for all the sparkle of its creative moments, brought so little happiness to its possessor and to those around him.” So I put forth to you, Mr. Bigshot Literary Biographer, why do we need literary biographies? Are you perhaps more of a literary historian? Because there is a considerable amount of detail in this. Would you call your book more of a history? Is it really gossip-peddling? What’s the deal here? Defend yourself from Mr. Updike’s charges!

Bailey: That’s a pretty involved question, Ed. Can I take it one at a time? You mention Updike first of all. And I’m sure that Updike would be tempted to do without literary biography. Particularly a literary biography of himself. And I think that that was somewhere in his agenda when he reviewed my book. Which he was kind enough to call and which will be used as a pull quote in one of the advertisements “a triumph of thorough research and unblinkered appraisal.” Now I would venture to suggest a couple of things. First of all, that Updike was a dying man when he reviewed my book. And it was very depressing to read — and not the first time that Updike has been exposed to this — to read about some of the many hard, hard things that Cheever had to say about him in private. Because as Updike has noted on many occasions, Cheever was always witty and debonair and charming in person. And really tirelessly promoted Updike’s career. He seconded his nomination in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was the primary nominator of Updike to the Academy of Arts and Letters. And so on. And blurbed hiim, and congratulated him. On and on and on. In private, in his journals, Cheever was, to put it charitably, very ambivalent on the subject of Updike. And so that can’t be very pleasant to read. And also the chapters dealing with Cheever’s own death from cancer must have been grindingly lugubrious for Updike to read.

I would also — and this is a very self-serving theory, but not without merit, I think. I have now written a very thorough biography of Richard Yates. I have now written a very thorough biography of John Cheever. The three great chroniclers of the American postwar middle-class are generally perceived to be Richard Yates, John Cheever, and John Updike. I have been named on more than a few occasions as a prospective biographer of John Updike. He is vary chary of biographers. And I think that he did not like the prospect of my bringing my thorough research and unblinkered appraisal to bear on an account of his own life. So this was a very shrewd way of steering me off at the pass. Because I could hardly seem disinterested after a biting review of my book. One of the very few biting reviews I have received, I might add.

Correspondent: I’ll jump back to that point momentarily. But going back to the idea.

Bailey: Do we need…?

Correspondent: Why do we need literary biographies?

Bailey: Well, I mean, I think that that’s a silly rumination on Updike’s part. Unless he’s — I would have to see the entire context. Is he calling it a question of validity of biographies in general? Because I think biographies are one of the most fascinating genres. Certainly I am more attracted to exploring the universe of a single individual and can imply so much thereby. I think that, and indeed, it’s been noted that my biographer of Cheever has also something of a history of the 20th century of literary life in America. So, well, of course we need literary biographies. Who’s more interesting than Cheever? I mean, he had the most exhaustively documented inner life of any major American writer. A 4,300 page single-spaced typed journal, which one can constantly counterpoint with his rather absurd and certainly disparate public personae. So I think literary biography is fascinating. And I think well-done literary biography is doubly fascinating.

Correspondent: But would you say that this history of the 20th century would be your way of essentially deflating or countering the Updike charge that really it should be just about the writer’s work?

Bailey: Oh absolutely not. What nonsense. Uh, no. I think that again — Joyce Carol Oates, of course, is famous or infamous for coining the term “pathography.”

Correspondent: Yeah.

Bailey: In her review of the Jean Stafford biography. That is any biography which places an unseemly emphasis on the subject’s tortured inner life. I think if you tell the whole truth about your subject that everything will work out. You just show the man in the round. And ultimately, you will deplore certain aspects of him or her. And you will sympathize with certain aspects. I was confronted with some pretty nasty stuff about Cheever. But in the end, I the biographer felt compassion for him.

BSS #284: Blake Bailey (Download MP3)

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May Podcast Madness!

In today’s edition of the Chicago Sun-Times, you can find my review of Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger. Waters appeared on The Bat Segundo Show back in 2006. And she’ll soon be making a second appearance. Which brings us to an unexpected issue of productivity that I need to address.

First off, I wish to offer a profound apology to several authors and publicists, who have been waiting patiently for several Segundo installments.

podcastmadnessI am not entirely certain how it happened, but I apparently interviewed quite a number of intriguing people over the past month or so. Many of these interviews are quite funny and interesting. One interview is extremely odd and features a notable cinematic figure making a rather naughty reference to a chorizo. Another interview ended with the guest falsely believing me to be a Republican when I stopped tape. Yet another interview features an author and a translator sitting next to each other. But one should not confuse the prolificity of these interviews for any downturn in quality.

But because there was so much interview conducting, this has resulted in an extremely ridiculous backlog of shows that I could not keep up with. And the many gigabytes of data presently lingering on my hard drive probably represents the largest backlog of shows I’ve had in the show’s history. (Indeed, I was so busy conducting these interviews that it hadn’t occurred to me to produce the shows. Between looking for work and other professional obligations, I could do either one task or the other. And not one to keep idle hands, I ended up doing a lot of the former.)

So in an effort to catch up with this mess, I have decided to not interview anybody for the next two weeks or so (although a few interviews have been scheduled after that time). Instead, for the next two weeks, this website will become a depository for May Podcast Madness! I will be putting up a new conversation during just about every weekday for the next two weeks. I suppose that this is podcasting’s answer to television sweeps week. Brace yourself.

The Bat Segundo Show: Atom Egoyan

Atom Egoyan appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #283.

Atom Egoyan is most recently the writer and director of Adoration, which opens in limited release on May 8, 2009. He is also a very friendly and interesting Canadian who does not bite people, but who somehow frightens the MPAA.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering whether he is adored.

Guest: Atom Egoyan

Subjects Discussed: Scenes in airports, custom lines, airport security interrogations, passage within cinematic narrative, literal and figurative baggage, detonation devices, comparisons between Adoration‘s Simon and Ararat‘s Raffi, the video camera as a suitcase for memories, family confessions captured on video, making an experience substantial, technology in Egoyan’s films, closed-circuit vs. open-circuit technology, the lack of emotional filtering on the Internet, creating a chat room prototype hat doesn’t exist in reality, Nezar Hindawi, drawing from real-life incidents for ideas vs. cinematic invention, whether a narrative filmmaker needs to be responsible to history, finding the meaning in creches, the violin as a permanent artistic symbol, suggestions that we are now living in a cultural Roman Empire that is now crumbling, embracing an order to a material world, victims and mourning subcultures, the inheritance of tradition vs. new traditions, the excitement of interpretation vs. meaning to interpretation, teaching vs. primordial instinct, giving substance to the gaze of obsession, being driven to trauma, decorative masks and drama, concerns for class, role-playing and therapy, “democracy” and the Internet, shooting in natural locations vs. constructed sets, Chloe, and abstracting characters in a designed space.


atomegoyanCorrespondent: I had a rather funny question. But it’s one concerning your films that I have been obsessed with for some time. And I was pleasantly surprised to see the motif crop up again in Adoration. And that is your propensity to have shots set in airports or custom lines. We have them in the beginning of Exotica. We have them in Ararat with Christopher Plummer.

Egoyan: Felicia’s Journey.

Correspondent: Well, yes, Felicia’s Journey. But I noticed that from Exotica onward, every one word film title of yours has an airport security scene or a custom lines scene. I’m wondering if this is Egoyan house style for a one word title. I’m wondering if it’s a scenario in which you have a particular preoccupation or a concern or an anxiety for airports. What of this?

Egoyan: Well, I think that, first of all, they are the borders where someone asks you, “What are you doing?” And how do you define yourself. And to me, it’s such a fundamental question. I love that idea of having to prove who you are. And I also think it probably has to do with the fact that, at a certain age in my formation, I went through a major airport. The family moved into a new country. And so we must have been grilled by some customs agent. I must have seen my parents break down in the process. I’m just assuming all this. Because it’s obviously is something that has left such a huge impression on me. I actually have gone through some pretty nasty interrogations too at airports. Where you try and answer a question with a joke. Which is never a good idea. And I’ve been whisked away and gone through more intense procedures. So I do think that there’s this moment where, if you take that question really seriously — when someone says, “So what are you doing? And why are you coming into this country?” — you can actually provoke a whole series of responses. Which may not necessarily be helpful or fruitful to getting you into the country, where a very simple response is required.

I can’t really explain it any more than that. It’s just that — and in this film certainly — it’s very stylized. And the whole environment of it is quite dreamlike. But it’s a huge part of the beginning of the film.

Correspondent: I should point out that the very beginning of Next of Kin features suitcases at the airport.

Egoyan: Absolutely.

Correspondent: I mean, is the airport for you what the bathroom was to Kubrick?

Egoyan: Uh, that’s a really interesting way of putting it. I would say that somehow, if I could combine a bathroom with an airport, that would probably be the best place I could situate any scene.

BSS #283: Atom Egoyan (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: John Wray

John Wray appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #282.

John Wray is most recently the author of Lowboy.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for those who will listen to him in the subway.

Author: John Wray

Subjects Discussed: The ABAB narrative of Lowboy, mirroring schizophrenia within a narrative structure, a sane perspective that assists the reader, subway details, Franz Kafka’s Amerika, real vs. imaginary details, Jonathan Zizmor, the C#/A subway tone, the origin of the character name Heller, Ulysses, resisting eccentric character names, merging two words into one unhyphenated word, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ideal seating positions in a subway, appealing to a wider audience, balancing the uncompromising literary voice with suspense, comparing the research in Wray’s three books, the difficulties of convincing the reader, Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, sexual preoccupation and schizophrenia, an intimate third-person voice, the relationship (or lack thereof) between Freud and Schreber, pat summations, urban exploration, the benefits of imagination, the Sikh religion and the end of the Seventh Avenue Line, open interpretations and false connections, respect for the subconscious, the old City Hall station, the dangers of being subsumed by research, writing vs. thinking, graphical segues in prose, B.S. Johnson’s holes, and John Wray vs. John Henderson.


johnwrayCorrespondent: You have Emily and Lowboy entering at the 14th Street station. I’m going to get subway geeky with you here.

Wray: Okay.

Correspondent: I should point out that when you get into Union Square, there is — or there is now and there won’t be very soon — a Virgin Megastore.

Wray: Right.

Correspondent: Was that particular location a deliberate choice on your part?

Wray: (laughs) You know, sometimes there are just these happy accidents that come about either completely by chance or through some sort of action of the subconscious. I’m not really sure. The German editor of Lowboy was very proud of himself for the game of interpretation that he played, which involved a lot of reversals and mirror image analyses, that I guess you could say. He was very proud of himself for having been the only person to discover that the name of the detective in the novel, Ali Lateef..

Correspondent: Either the jazz artist or even the hip-hop artist in Oakland.

Wray: Well, there’s that. Yeah, that was a conscious reference on my part. But this German editor of mine was very proud to have figured out that Lateef spelled backwards is “fetal.”

Correspondent: Yes.

Wray: Which is something that I never thought of. In a million years, I wouldn’t have thought of that. And I still don’t know what he was getting at. But who knows? I mean, it’s quite possible that these things percolate up from the subconscious in some way.

Correspondent: But I also must point out that the 86th Street Station does not have a line that you can see across, as you point out in this particular book. This led me then to believe as I was reading it, “Oh! Is this really real or not?” It was a kind of clue. Deliberate choice on your part?

Wray: Well, I deliberately — I’ve always been a big fan of Franz Kafka’s novel, Amerika. Particularly of the way that Amerika begins. Amerika, of course, being a novel written by someone who had never been to America and who was making deliberate use of the myth of America as a way of addressing many other things. Kafka was not particularly interested in the United States. And in the beginning of the novel Amerika, this boat filled with immigrants enters New York Harbor. And one of the very first sentences describes the Statue of Liberty holding aloft its wonderful gleaming sword.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Wray: Rather than the torch, of course. So in an earlier version of Lowboy, in a bit of a tip of the hat to that novel, I introduced various, fairly overt features into this New York City that would differentiate it from the New York of realistic fiction. Then as the novel evolved, it became more and more naturalistic in a way, and eventually settled into this mode of heightened realism that it now occupies. But there are still certain little vestiges of that earlier alternative New York.

Correspondent: And this would be one of them.

Wray: I think you’ve caught one of them. Yeah.

BSS #282: John Wray (Download MP3)

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Review: Star Trek (2009)


In 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture featured the likes of David Gerrold and Bjo Trimble in small roles, transmitting a subconscious wire that, whatever the film’s faults, this was really an expensive telegram for the fans. Thirty years later, with similar commercial circumstances in place, Vulcan Council Member #1 is played by the notorious hack screenwriter Akiva Goldsman — the no-talent Oscar-winning scribe behind Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies, the man who had the effrontery to butcher both Lost in Space and Asimov, and who was recently reported to be sodomizing Dave King’s excellent novel, The Ha-Ha. If this representative casting doesn’t spell out the Sino-British style handover of the Star Trek franchise from the fans to the hucksters, then perhaps you may not understand that Hollywood has remained quite interested in systematically raping your childhood if it will fill its coffers.

Since comparative points are often the best place to start, let’s just say that J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek isn’t as bad as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier or Star Trek: Nemesis. I realize that’s a bit like telling you that having a dentist rip out your molars without anesthetic is better than getting repeatedly stabbed in the eyeballs. For the undiscriminating fanboy who will lap this movie up without complaint, the film is about as good as Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: Insurrection. Which is to say that it isn’t up there with the sublime quartet of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Star Trek: First Contact. It isn’t one of those movies you’re going to geek out about, although Eric Rosenfield and I spent more than an hour in a diner expressing our frustrations about the film’s total misunderstanding of basic science (And neither of us are scientists.) There was a point where the film almost had me, but J.J. Abrams betrayed that trust by having three guys in spacesuits enter into a planet’s atmosphere without burning up. This mesospehre-defying trio eventually land on a drill platform tethered to a space elevator that is floating several thousand feet above the planet’s surface. And even after the considerable wind factor has whisked away the token red shirt, the remaining crew members still manage to duke it out with Romulans while standing on the platform. Which is as improbable as Philippe Petit juggling fifty chainsaws while standing on the wire between the Twin Towers in 1974. The man certainly had skills, but the world has physics.

These fighters don’t contend with wind, even as the planet is in seismic upheaval. Indeed, they perform acrobatics while fighting on the platform. (For those who don’t mind spoilers, Eric has outlined some of the egregious specifics in his review.) When John Rambo leaping off a cliff without so much as a scratch on his body carries more plausibility than a Star Trek movie, you know that the latter has serious narrative issues. (And speaking of cliffs, the scientific discussions involving Kirk’s fingers in the trailer are worth revisiting. This post demolishes the physics and even has Neil deGrasse Tyson showing up in the comments.)

All this is a shame because the new cast, who I’ll get to later, is quite good. But the “every other rule” that used to be applied to the Star Trek movies is no longer valid. And that’s because J.J. Abrams and his team really don’t get Star Trek. I suspect that they don’t even like Star Trek. And let’s face it. Today’s most critically and commercially successful franchises are made by geeks like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, not cold and calculating businessmen like J.J. Abrams. If Star Wars: The Phantom Menace served as Lucas’s visceral betrayal to his fans, perhaps epitomized best with the unpardonable Jar Jar Binks, then J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek (a more aloof and uninformed vision than Rick Berman’s) is more of an intellectual betrayal. It has a few good ideas to shake up some of the creaky complacency that has set in, but it still staunches the bloodflow. The film is not outright bad. It’s good that the crew of the Enterprise is carrying on in some form. But what now is ultimately the point? The Star Trek of 1968 was utopian and futuristic. It projected a hokey but earnest progressive vision. And even in television reruns, you could somehow believe that this was a future that could happen. But the Star Trek of the last two decades has been constantly playing catch-up with present-day technologies. Despite the presence of geek outreach representative Simon Pegg in the role of Scotty, this Star Trek is all about the cold hard cash. (And to give you some small sense of the commercial sacrifice, Pegg has shaved off his goatee for this. Apparently, there’s no room for true geeks in this new commercial vision. Nor is there any room for the handicapped. In a move that will surely ire legions of handicapped Star Trek fans, at the end of the film, Captain Christopher Pike is stripped of his command and booted up to admiral because he now sits in a wheelchair. Pike isn’t burned or scarred or given two lights to flash his affirmatives and nays before a magistrate, but he remains quite lucid despite having chowed down a Centurion worm. Which leaves one to wonder why the Americans with Disabilities Act isn’t applicable to the rosy humanitarian goals of the future.)

The problem may lie in the conceptualization. It’s a little discussed chapter in the Star Trek franchise history, but shortly after Harve Bennett produced the dreadful Star Trek V, he had an even worse idea called The Academy Years, focusing on Kirk and Spock when they were young Starfleet cadets (believe it or not, John Cusack was in mind for the younger Kirk) and featuring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy bookending the film in small roles. Top brass were initially wary of a film released around Star Trek‘s 25th anniversary that didn’t feature the regular cast. Bennett wrote more wraparound scenes for the veteran thespians. But the project was eventually scrapped, and Bennett was gone from Paramount not long after.

What’s striking about this reboot is how close it resembles purported descriptions of Bennett’s The Academy Years. Like Bennett’s story, the young Jim Kirk is a reckless rebel smashing up vehicles in Iowa. (In Abrams’s film, he drives a motorcycle instead of Bennett’s speeder bike.) Like Bennett’s story, young Spock is told not to go to Starfleet, with Spock informing his fellow Vulcans that logic suggests that he go anyway. The people of Earth are, in this phase of the Federation’s existence, still bigoted. (What’s interesting about this reboot is that the “green-blooded” racism originates not from McCoy, but from Kirk. It is McCoy who perpetuates this verbal ignominy. The suggestion here that Kirk’s red state beliefs are somehow responsible for sullying Starfleet’s blue state virtues is a daring and subversive one, but one that the writers have neither the skills nor the intelligence to fully weave into their narrative) We may never know whether writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who also “rebooted” the Transformers mythos in disastrous collusion with Michael Bay) were aware of Bennett’s script, or if Paramount felt compelled to draw upon some of the ideas for some source material. But while these two writers may know how to write a dumb yet engaging high-octane thriller, they don’t know elementary science and they sure as hell don’t know Star Trek.

In order to reboot the series, you have to comprehend a number of very important principles behind Star Trek. First, Star Trek has borrowed liberally from science. So much so that physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote a book called The Physics of Star Trek and entire websites exist attempting to provide scientific explanations for the concepts. People have devoted their careers to science because they have been inspired by Star Trek. The transporter beam and the slingshot time travel effect seen in “Assignment: Earth” and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home may not have any real-world counterparts. But the details are vague enough for us to believe in the premise. So when J.J. Abrams and his writers have a starship hovering next to a black hole, or someone observing a black hole on a nearby planet, and none of this adjacent space gets sucked into a considerable gravitational pull, this goes beyond lazy writing and into the realm of unbridled idiocy. It’s a big fuck you to the fans. (The science geeks aren’t the only ones left huddling in the cold. IT geeks will also bristle over one scene in which Chekhov must run several decks to a transporter room to beam aboard two people. Despite the Enterprise containing limitless displays of consistently shifting text and graphics, Abrams and his team apparently haven’t heard of VPN.)

And while I appreciated the Starfleet skirts returning and the general defiance of political correctness, one of Star Trek‘s appealing qualities has always been its multiculturalism. You’d think that, in an Obama presidency, we’d be given a Uhura who is more than a leggy linguist. But Uhura’s screen time involves fending off advances from Kirk and throwing herself at Spock. She’s a character composite of Nurse Chapel and the Nichelle Nichols incarnation. This is not a character who is permitted to think or offer solutions. Sure, she intercepts and translates a vital radio transmission. But it is Kirk who seizes this information and uses this to advance up the ranks of command without crediting Uhura. Again, if Kirk embodies the ugly capitalist who keeps utopia’s engine running, there’s some promise in the suggestion. But the writers simply don’t have the chops to think along these lines and make this interesting. Indeed, with Uhura so exploited, it’s evident that the writers barely grasp feminism’s second wave. (It’s worth noting that Kirk does sleep with an Orion, but she resembles nothing more than an attractive actress who has been painted green. There is nothing “exotic” about her, and the film offers no contemporary answer to the Vaseline-smeared lens or the strange soft lighting that greeted many of the women in the original series. So even if the film adopts the position that sexual conquest is alive and well, it lacks the courage to be forceful about it. And it becomes as cowardly as the G rating attached to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.)

J.J. Abrams’s film flits through three years in Starfleet Academy with all the contrivances of a by-the-numbers TV movie (complete with a few token “farmboys” that seem more applicable to Luke Skywalker than Jim Kirk), it’s worth pointing out that Kirk and Spock never required an origin story. They were never characters who, outside of homoerotic fan fiction, we were supposed to speculate about. With their cinematic incarnations, we had three seasons of the original series to inform our view. But what we have with Abrams’s Star Trek is a solid cast very familiar with the cultural canon, but a group of filmmakers who fundamentally misunderstand the truth behind the legend. Bennett’s The Academy Years was vetoed for the right reasons. We want to see the Star Trek crew in action, using their seasoned experience and skills to battle it out with Klingons. We want to see them contend with scenery-chewing villains like Khan Noonien Singh or General Chang. We want to see Shatner shout “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNN!” Who is our nemesis in Star Trek? Eric Bana, who could not even pull off Bruce Banner (and caused the studio to act as if Ang Lee’s Incredible Hulk adaptation had never happened). Presumably, he was cast as the Romulan because he starred in a movie called Romulus, My Father. And why have a cheesy actor in the role of a Romulan commander? The Romulans were often commanded by women — most notably the commander in “The Enterprise Incident,” who tempted Spock with both lust and knowledge. But in a typically sexist move by Abrams, we don’t see a single woman on board the Romulan ship. It’s as if Abrams and company confused the Klingons with the Romulans. Indeed, in a prosthetic move that desperately attempts to one-up the ridged Klingon forehead introduced in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Romulans have been given bald pates and silly tattooed faces. They look like something out of a bad cyberpunk movie from the 1990s.

And to give us characters fresh out of the academy, permitting them to run the Enterprise through contrived circumstances just days out of the gate, is somewhat entertaining but unacceptable. We get an explanation for the “Bones” nickname, but wasn’t this a mystery better left unknown? We get cliched dialogue like “I knew I should have killed you had the chance,” but this lacks Star Trek II‘s melodramatic poetry (“I’ve done far worse than kill you, Admiral. I’ve hurt you. And I wish to go on hurting you. I shall leave you as you left me. As you left her. Marooned for all eternity in the center of a dead planet. Buried alive.”). (Come to think of it, should there be a reimagined Star Trek II, perhaps Nicholas Meyer might be coaxed to write it.) Even the stardates here have been replaced by crude anno domini.

All Abrams has here to sustain his tentpole picture are desperate references to previous films. An ice planet evoking the Klingon prison planet in Star Trek VI. A slimeless Centurion worm that rips off Star Trek II‘s slimy Ceti eel. The three Vulcan computers used to rehabilitate Spock’s intelligence at the beginning of Star Trek IV. The lone Spock investigative mission in Star Trek: The Motion Picture recycled late in the film. This is a film that offers a phaser with a sliding click, but that simultaneously gives us the fundamentally stupid idea of red matter. This is a film that has the courage to make Spock unapologetically emotional, but that has the fine Karl Urban simply doing an accurate DeForest Kelly impression (complete with a prefatory “My God, man!”). Chris Pine has the ego and the masculine swagger to sell Kirk. And I can even imagine him putting his own spin on the immortal line, “I am Kirok!” But even Pine is given a Shatneresque “Bones” boom when he takes the bridge near the end of the film. John Cho is Harold as Sulu, and it’s just possible that the excitable Anton Yelchin may be his Kumar. But even Zachary Quinto, who was better as Spock than I anticipated, is doomed, like the rest of the cast, to mimic the cast that came before.

Had Abrams taken the chances that Ron Moore did with his Battlestar Galactica reimagining, this might have been a franchise worth getting excited over. But Abrams’s failure to shake up the Star Trek universe while remaining fundamentally true to the franchise’s underlying appeal is a sign that some mausoleums are best left sealed and that reinvention is another way of saying that you’re out of fresh ideas.

Colson Whitehead Responds to YA “Controversy”

whiteheadThe blog A Lil’ Sumpin’ Sumpin’ recently posted an item from an appearance that Colson Whitehead made at The New School. At the event, Whitehead was reportedly asked about whether his latest novel, Sag Harbor, could be classified as YA. And it was reported that he got “huffy” about the issue. This surprised me, because Sherman Alexie and China Mieville have both written specifically for a YA crowd. And it might also be argued that David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time could swing both ways as a YA and an adult title. If Whitehead had indeed said these things, it seemed counterintuitive to reduce his novel’s possible audience.

Curious about Whitehead’s side of the story, I contacted him by email and he responded to my questions quite quickly. Here is his answer:

Thanks for letting me address this “controversy.”

I remember the exchange. Do you have a transcript of it? Anyone who knows me will tell you that I don’t do “huffy,” but I do roll my eyes in exasperation, as I will when asked at a writers conference about “how will it be marketed?” I’ll talk about writing, how I got started, my work process, what have you, but marketing is boring and not what a writer should be asking about. Write the book. Make it the best book you can make it. All the other stuff is crap. So if I seemed “huffy,” that’s the reason: I’d rather talk about the work. I’m not hawking Flowbees here. I don’t “target” my work to a “demographic.”

Labels bug me. My first ideal reader was a teenage version of myself; someone who might randomly come across my book and be changed by it, the way I was changed by so many books in that key time. Then I started publishing, and the people who came to see me read were so varied – old, young, black, white, redheaded, balding, etc. – that it seemed dumb to have a mental picture of my ideal reader. It’s a blessing if anyone reads your book at all. But if she or he is a “Young Adult,” great. With braces & a bad slouch, even better.

If I had my way, there wouldn’t be any categories at all. For me, it’s all just “writing.” Is The Colossus of New York non-fiction? Not strictly, but it has to go somewhere in the bookstore, and if it’s in Essays or in the About New York section, I don’t care. I’m just glad that it’s getting out there. But we need classifications, I guess, and this has to go here and that has to go there. If Sag Harbor is in YA tomorrow, I wouldn’t care, as long as people who want to read it can pick it up. In some bookstores, I’m in African American as opposed to Fiction; this is a category failure, but it’s out of my control and in the end I’m glad that I’m in the store at all, and hopefully the savvy consumer who is looking for me will find me. What I’m saying is that we write, and then the world categorizes us, and the next day we get up and start writing again.

I’m publishing in the age of the web. You don’t have to go far to find that I’m not a snob about genres, and go out of my way to say that I came to writing by loving comic books and Stephen King, because that’s how it happened and you should read what you want to read, and not what someone else thinks is proper for you to read. Frankly, I don’t really know what YA is. Does that mean it features kids or teenagers and is only intended for kids and teenagers? I’m sort of out of the loop about these turf battles. They seem kinda dumb. If it’s a good story, I don’t care what section I find it in.

(Photo credit: Melissa Hom)

The Novelist as Used Car Salesman

There is a type of novelist who saddens me: the kind of novelist who prefers the status of having written instead of the consistent joys of writing, the type of author who only communicates to people if he wants something instead of being curious in other viewpoints. This novelist’s primary subject of interest is likely to be himself, but he’s capable of cloaking this solipsism by suggesting to others that they are just as much a part of his process. The novelist, in cues straight out of the Dale Carnegie playbook, will remember one specific detail about the other person that nobody else has and thereby create a greater impression.

Now this novelist may be talented, but he is so quietly convinced of his own apparent superiority to others that he refuses to listen to any person conveying the truth to him. And because a good deal of the literary community is wise enough to know about the novelist’s narcissistic temperament, even those who feel that the novelist’s latest work isn’t up to snuff will never go on the public record about how lacking it truly is. This is an understandable impulse, because the novelist has probably written at least one book that is amazing. And there remains the hope that he will write something that good again. And there also remains the hope that the novelist will grow out of this self-centeredness. Except that the novelist is probably over forty, and the novelist may have entered into the period of permanent emotional calcification.

All this is complicated by the novelist going out of his way to befriend every known person in the literary community so that he can secure positive coverage of his book. Again, it’s never really about writing the novel or even having a pleasant conversation with another person without any quid pro quo. It’s all about feeding the novelist’s narcissism. And when certain people have granted him the coverage or the bookstore appearances he so desperately craves, the novelist then dismisses and ignores them. For he never really wanted to know them. Even though he pretended to be nice. But, hey, he got what he wanted. And through numerous princely gestures, these people become useless to him. And he gradually moves up the totem pole and does the same thing. And anyone who has been used in such a manner has to bite her tongue. Because if you tell the truth, you’ll look like an asshole. Because those people who are presently being charmed by the novelist will never understand. The novelist is just so gosh darn nice.

This novelist is so fundamentally insecure in his own work that he must resort to these dishonest maneuvers. And indeed the novelist may play up his background or his circumstances in an effort to secure more press coverage or garner repeat mentions from a litblogger. But he lacks the spine or the smarts for civil disagreement or natural evolution.

These actions really aren’t too different from having to endure a charming yet sleazy used car salesman who won’t go away. But the literary world is so peculiar that it very much enjoys and inveigles these passive-aggressive hucksters. It wants to be told that what it’s doing is worthwhile. And while used car dealerships don’t face the same degree of marginalization that the literary world has, and while it is indeed possible to find a good used car at a decent price, wouldn’t we be more suspicious of the used car salesman than the insecure novelist who preys on the good will of other people in the same way?

Fortunately, most novelists aren’t like this at all. And I should probably remove the type of novelist who is an unapologetic publicity whore. For that type of novelist, at least, is honest about the fact that he’s shilling. But the type of novelist I’m talking about here not only seems to be cluelessly unaware of the grief he gives to publicists, booksellers, other authors, and those who wish to help them. He seems to actually enjoy it. And why shouldn’t he? This novelist is a legend in his own mind. If only he knew what people really thought of him.

My Services Elsewhere

Two pieces have been recently cajoled out of me. Chris Robbins recently acquired the domain,, through some legerdemain that I won’t inquire about. (It seems more interesting, anyway, to keep it all a mystery.) When he told me that a number of writers had suggested that they might write pieces for him — in the same cowardly way that a casting director tells you that he will call you or an accounts payable person tells you that the check is in the mail — I felt compelled to offer him this entry for why I presently feel embarrassed.

I was also very honored to be asked to contribute to the Philly Inquirer again — courtesy of some kind lobbying from a few considerate souls who still seem to think I can write — and you can read my review of Thomas E. Ricks’s The Gamble in today’s edition. I must say that I came away from this book respecting General David Petraeus considerably more than I had in the past. It’s easy for any liberal-minded individual to get caught up in the crude sentiment that the war is wrong. It certainly is wrong. But the book challenged and informed my perceptions about Iraq in a way that I think any good thinker should consider. On this basis alone, the book is worth your time. We’re content to look at the situation with a sense of detached removal. As if it will go away. Like some obnoxious uncle with a drinking problem at a family reunion. But it’s not going away. It’s a scenario that we must understand and that we must take responsibility for. And perhaps that might involve looking hard and less superficially at the Baghdad clusterfuck.

The Roots of Insomnia

I had proceeded thus far, when I found I had been lying awake so long that the very dead began to wake too, and to crowd into my thoughts most sorrowfully. Therefore, I resolved to lie awake no more, but to get up and go out for a night walk – which resolution was an acceptable relief to me, as I dare say it may prove now to a great many more. — Charles Dickens, “Lying Awake”

In 1885, Henry Munson Lyman reported that one doctor’s cure for insomnia involved placing tourniquets around certain parts of the body to increase blood circulation to the brain. But if I had the choice between constricting my blood flow and going on one of Dickens’s predawn walks, I’d certainly choose the latter. Yet presently, as I face another one of these damn bouts, walking seems like too much effort. For does this not take you further from the bed? And is not the purpose of the pursuit lost?

In 2009, the dead do not rise in New York. They are doing just fine being ignored, even as they scream like frightening banshees clinging to bars inside express trains momentarily hitting local stops during the construction period. The normal rules of sleep do not apply. The regular laws of the universe do not apply. You wouldn’t ask the dead to go for a walk during the day. Because you don’t want to see them. You’d rather tie tourniquets to prop them up on the subway where they can deliver their frequently fabricated stories announcing their names and situations to mostly deaf and bankrupt travelers. But if they were permitted to walk and they were allowed Dickens’s privilege, then I suspect the world might learn a few things, unsettling though these truths may be.

In 1999, I was in San Francisco jumping from one glum galleon to another that promised to utilize my apparent killick-slinging skills. I was a dead man who had to walk. Dickens noted that Ben Franklin made the idea of procuring pleasant dreams sound so easy. No amount of pillow-beating could cause me to fall asleep. But I did jump. And a few leaped with me.

In 1984, the Reagan presidential campaign insisted that it was morning again in America. Twenty-six years later, the video is creepy and excessively sedate and phony. Who wants to stay awake when so many white people have been told precisely how to be happy? What happened to the 6,500 young men and women who were married then? Can they say that they experienced confidence in the last twenty-six years? Did their marriages last? (Hal Riney, the man who wrote and narrated the ad, died last year. He lived in San Francisco. When I took a voiceover class five years after I knew I could sling a killick, I was given a lot of Riney’s ad copy to speak before a microphone. My voice appeared briefly on a local radio commercial. This disturbed me.)

In 2009, Hal Riney does not rise in San Francisco. San Francisco itself is not dead, but it was never really allowed to stay awake. Between the hours of 2AM and 6AM, there is very little to do other than hole up in houses and seedy motels and 24-hour diners. There you may find acceptable relief, which is not spelled with the seven letters provided by Madison Avenue. There you may walk the streets if you can’t sleep and sleepwalk in the morning.

In 1880, an insomniac named Joshua Norton passed away. He was replaced by Frank Chu 120 years later. But in New York, they do not often let the insomniacs take the dais. If they do, they are heavily supervised or ignored.

In 1904, Henry Munson Lyman died in Evanston, Illinois at the age of sixty-eight. He had been ill for four years. He had started off in Hawaii and spent most of his professional career in Chicago — located 1,863 miles from San Francisco and 714 miles from New York. Whether Dr. Lyman felt any closer to the dead in New York who now do not rise remains open for scholarly debate. But if he suffered poor health for four years, presumably he suffered acceptable relief upon his death. There is certainly an acceptable relief in discovering him 105 years after he stopped gracing the world with his presence.