Is Conan O’Brien a Corporate Shill?

We saw Prime Minster John Key on David Letterman’s show pushing Cinnabon while reading the Top Ten List. But what happens if you’re a world leader who appears on a late night program and you don’t even have a choice? Take Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s September 28, 2009 appearance on The Tonight Show. The production team grabbed a clip and decided to add subtitles featuring Subway products. Indeed, Conan O’Brien’s zeal for Subway is so strong that he interrupts jockey Joe Talamo, which you can see at the 0:47 mark. Does Conan just like Subway sandwiches or does he have a sponsor to appease?

This is the third video in the “corporate shill” series, which follows Jay Leno and David Letterman. In deciding whether or not Conan O’Brien fits the shilling bill, you may want to ask why O’Brien makes reference to two recent consumer events (The Gap founder dying and The Wizard of Oz DVD coming out this week) two nights in a row.

Is David Letterman a Corporate Shill?

While David Letterman isn’t as prolific as Jay Leno with his in-show hawking, Letterman does shower his opening monologues with products. Applebee’s and Hooters are frequent mentions. But very often, Letterman will name a product and speak of it in a way that is reminiscent of a commercial. Watch how Letterman names KOA at the 0:10 mark and starts talking about KOA’s electrical hookup, swimming pools, and vending machines. (Paul Shaffer is heard reinforcing this by responding, “They have everything you need.”) Later, in the same show, Letterman’s writers have embedded StairMaster into a joke. Letterman is also given the opportunity to drop a few products during the Stupid Pet Tricks segment. Presumably, the chihuahua was chosen not because of the trick, but in order for Letterman to offer the crack about the Taco Bell chihuahua.

One fishy quality on Late Show (and not even Leno does this quite so explicitly with his guests) is the way that products enter into these interviews. We’ll see a particularly offensive example of a product within an interview in a future segment of the “Corporate Shill” series which I’ll be unloading later in the week. But for the moment, observe how The Mentalist star Simon Baker drops Kmart and Mars Bar into his story. Why can’t Baker simply say that his mother worked as a security guard? And why does Baker say “Mars Bar” instead of “candy bar?” Might it have something to do with the fact that Mars Inc is a major advertiser on Letterman? [UPDATE: A commenter points out that the Mars Bar was discontinued in the States in 2000, replaced by the Snickers Almond.]

But perhaps the most astonishing moment here is Prime Minister John Key pushing Cinnabon while reading the top ten list. As we shall see, world leaders are fair game for hawking products, often without knowing it.

Wooden Disposition

jameswood2It is difficult to respond to James Wood’s remarkable misreading of Richard Powers’s Generosity without giving away the ending. As someone who respects a reader’s sense of discovery and who therefore stays mum on “spoilers” — a term that I suspect Wood is unfamiliar with — I would not dare give up the ghost. Needless to say, as I anticipated, Wood has again demonstrated his predictably vanilla failings with idea-driven novels. He is once again hysterical, starving and naked in a sad but interesting way, about a novel that is not always intended to be explicitly realist. Wood is certainly a fine literary critic and a giddy finger drummer. He’s been leveled with many needless generalizations about his aesthetic tastes and sensibilities, including Colson Whitehead’s puerile parody. But this latest New Yorker essay simply does not reflect his apparent good faith efforts to adjust his own opinions and prejudices.

To wit: Surely the many fades closing Generosity should have offered Wood a clue as to what was going on. Here is a novel that not only depicts why we are drawn to fiction, but why we are seduced by information. If Wood hasn’t been trawling along the edges of social networks in the past few years, then he’s missed out on some of the more pointed potshots on online authority. If only Wood had familiarized himself with Technorati’s definition, he might have understood some of the metrics at work here. (And indeed, Generosity‘s greatest flaw is that it may not date very well.) Surely the clear pisstake of Oprah Winfrey, with the novel’s stand-in given “the power to create instant celebrities, sell hundreds of millions of books, make or break entire consumer industries, expose frauds, marshal mammoth relief efforts, and change the spoken language” should have registered in Wood’s brain as goofy, but nevertheless true hyperbole. Surely the extended sequence when the power shuts off in Chicago, written in a sincere and melodramatic tone, should have clued Wood in that here was a novel in which narrative dichotomies were intended to fuse. Wood has read this book so without care that he makes no reference to the “author” who frequently jumps into this book to announce his presence. “Forgive one more massive jump cut,” this mysterious narrator says early on, revealing what happens to Tonia Schiff. “I have her flip up her window slide and look out the plastic portal,” concludes the passage. And we wonder whether the creative nonfiction here is written by Thassa or by the “author” of the book. If this is all about boxes within boxes, has Powers authored another author? Or is this him? Who’s being generous here? Certainly not Wood.

richardpowersThis life of the mind is fun stuff, as Powers has suggested to us throughout his work. But Wood is simply too married to the idea of characters as distinct individuals to smile. From How Fiction Works: “Even the characters we think of as ‘solidly realized’ in the conventional realist sense are less solid the longer we look at them.” The problem here is that Wood has failed to look long enough to see what Powers is up to. As Edmond Caldwell suggested some months back, Wood’s narrow definition of “negative capability” means that we are never permitted to forget that the terms themselves are limited.

While Wood is certainly qualified to write about realist and modernist books, he cannot have the orderlies loosen the straps long enough to understand that Generosity is, like all novels, a fictive construct. In his review, he shows his contempt for books outside his natural affinity by misconstruing “enhancement” for “entertainment.” And Wood’s failure to comprehend that Generosity is a postmodernist con about our present information age’s indignities and expectations — a con that is somehow fair and respectful to the reader, but a con nonetheless — says much about his critical and perceptive limitations in this piece.

Among Wood’s complaints: In one passage, “Thomas Kurton is sketched journalistically, as David Brooks might glance at him in an Op-Ed column.” But how we know Kurton through the written word — in this case, through a laundry list of biographical details — isn’t necessarily how we’d know him in person. And since Generosity constantly reminds us of the novel’s form, the journalistic sketch is part of the point. How can the written word convey all the complexities of life? And why are we constantly demanding more of it? After all, one can say something sincerely, but it may read as hokey when written down.

Wood falls into the trap of generalizing about Powers’s work. All of Powers novels, Wood writes, are double plotted, with the secondary plot “almost always boy-meets-girl, in which protagonists connected to the first plot meet and fall in love or lust.” Would that include Gain‘s secondary plot of a woman suffering from ovarian cancer? As Tom Bissell has noted, Plowing the Dark is more concerned with the inverse relationship between shifting ambition and young love. That hardly fulfills the “boy-meets-girl” proviso. Wood makes no mention of The Time of Our Singing in his essay, and the love contained within is hardly generic. Has Wood even read it?

Wood also points to Powers’s ambition for clarity, and he is right on this point. But he cannot seem to understand that those who inhabit the grand realm of ideas, whether Powers the author or his often brainy characters, are also contending with raw emotions. The day-to-day shit that is subconsciously tied to an active mind. Archimedes’s principle — or, rather, the principle behind the principle — means living a life to come up with an earth-shattering idea. In Archimedes’s case, it was discovering buoyancy while resting in the bathtub. And so it is with Powers’s fiction. This dichotomy is only difficult for the reader if he is morose enough to believe that the quotidian is low voltage. The scientists in Powers’s books talk like scientists because they are presented with the danger of a life with nothing but ideas and vocation. Thus, it is close third person description that reveals the sympathies behind Dr. Stuart Ressler’s nascent problems in finding that fused point, with Gerald Weber experiencing similar dissonance. He kisses his wife while studying the brain. Of course, he’s going to look for generic reference points. But will the reader find the unity before Weber does? The commonplace stuff of life also includes lines like “I’m not yelling” in Gain. Wood’s failure to understand these connective points suggest a critic who is afraid to be taken out of his comfort zone, a man who, despite his mostly dignified engagement, is too suffocated by the realist straps in his straitjacket.

UPDATE: James Wood responds:

Thank you for that sensible response to my review of Richard Powers’s new novel. It is absolutely not true that I am hostile to ideas in fiction — but if you think the “ideas” in his latest novel are worth much, then we do indeed have a real disagreement.

Of course I noticed all the metafictionality buzzing around the novel — Powers fairly hits us over the head with it. I’d have to be moronic to miss it. But it is very hard to read, let along forgive, a novel that has lines like: “Thassa is twenty-three years old, give or take an era,” or talks about the “travelogue aromas” of her Moroccan cooking. Every page has hideous sentences. Your position amounts to forgiving this kind of atrocious writing on the basis that Powers decided to write the entire novel self-consciously, as if with the pen of a very bad writer who is not himself. I guess it’s possible, and that thought did indeed cross my mind as I read the book. But it would be a pretty stupid thing to do, no? And then one goes back and looks at the much less metafictional earlier work, and finds equally atrocious writing (”mocha locks of hair,” and so on). Perhaps they are all written by alter egos of Richard Powers, programmed by him to write badly?

I think Powers is very brilliant, and very talented, in a way. It is hard not to admire the intellectual intensity of “The Gold Bug Variations.” But despite how daring he is with ideas, he is very conservative about the self, in fact (unlike Michel Houellebecq, say). And, technically speaking — I mean, as a writer of narrative — he is like Dreiser attached to the mind of Pynchon. It makes for curiously hobbled texts. And Dreiser, despite being a terrible prose stylist, has real power, which Powers has only intermittently.

Is Jay Leno a Corporate Shill?

You’d think that with a whopping 20 minutes carved out of an hour for commercials, the actual television program itself would be devoid of commercials, right? Not so. Jay Leno has a considerable preoccupation with naming products on his show (and, in the video above, interviewing the Wendy’s girl). The above video, featuring moments only from the September 25, 2009 episode of The Jay Leno Show, features blatant references to Cialis, Walmart, Photoshop, Waffle House, numerous tire companies, Wendy’s, and Microsoft’s Bing, calling into question the notion that The Jay Leno Show is an entertainment program. With all of these mentions, you’d think that Jay Leno was running a glorified infomercial.

Nitrous Oxide

Reality is a toxic oxidant that we inhale at least eight hours a day. We take in the redolent whiff of the shit-stained social contract that we never got a chance to revise or look over. Learn the language and you get lost in clauses, becoming one of the lawdogs barking a sweet song in court just after spooning oodles of corn-based sugar in a rushed breakfast of dry cereal. It is hard to dwell on this nightmare without sounding like a strident agitator. They’ve taken our passions and transmuted them into cliches. Those great quotidian moments are corrupted by the sharp clacks of harsh teeth clasping upon a small shred of meat that has to be chewed up to go around six times. The portions are wrong. The plates are big. The eyes are bigger. The stomachs grow. And any decent gesture is declared a collective and contrarian sully upon all the agents pumping savagely into the air.

Reality. Confess it and you’ll be deemed pathetic. Sing true only in code. Don’t mention the pennies you’re collecting from the insides of the couch. Don’t mention the finite nature of this sad copper supply. Bring up the Socratic method and you’ll see your queries misconstrued as endorsement. Your options are the limp pose of reason and the unsettling truth of passion, but never anything in between. The eccentric’s teeth is a bit crooked. Never mind all the good ideas she’s had. Throw her out on her ass. She’ll be homeless in six weeks. Then maybe she’ll change.

Can’t handle that? There’s plenty of fantasies and parallel universes to choose from. Take your pick. If you don’t have cash to nurse a beer in a bar or you can’t trust anybody, there’s always the men confessing their private griefs to strangers over the microphones during a first-person shooter. Be careful with what you disseminate though. It could be picked up later. They haven’t quite put a microphone on every street light. But that camera wasn’t there last year. That’s not paranoia. It’s reality. Or is that fantasy? Open your eyes long enough and you’ll believe they’ve stayed closed.

Simulacra are dangerous. But several realities run atop and intertwine with each other. There are cities within cities. People within people. Nobility within nobility. Boxes within boxes. It’s just a question of how far you want to dig, and most people are getting a bit tired with the shovel.

Effects of nitrous oxide: dizziness, depersonalization, analgesia. We could all use a little analgesia right now, right? But who will narc on the narcotics? When the rubber bullets send you to a rubber room, the linguistic symmetry becomes a discordant shock to the system. We talked of the Bush Doctrine, but nobody knows the Obama Doctrine. They raise their voices with hysteria and the truth gets confused with lunacy. Hold the line. Love isn’t always on time. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, but that was forty years ago. When nouns were customizable shoes rather than rigid marketing terms. Hope. Just do it. Dance your ass off. Who wants to be a millionaire? Who really can be a millionaire?

Freedom of Assembly

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “‘It was all students and no protesters — it looked like any Friday night in Oakland but with more people,’ said Nathan Lanzendorfer, 23, of Mt. Lebanon. He went to Oakland out of curiosity to see the protests. Shortly before midnight he was caught on Forbes Avenue, with police deploying OC gas from two directions.

“He was hit with a rubber bullet in his right leg and his left, started to run, and was then hit in an arm and his lower back.

“‘I never heard any warning to leave the area — all four [rubber bullet] shots were within five seconds,’ he said. ‘All the wounds on my back. If I was opposing [the police] at all you’d think I’d have a front wound.’

“Mr. Lanzendorfer went to UPMC Presbyterian for treatment of his contusions, one of which is softball-sized, he said.”

The Bat Segundo Show: Nicholas Meyer

Nicholas Meyer appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #310.

Nicholas Meyer is perhaps best known for his work on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He is most recently the author of The View from the Bridge.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ah, listener my old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish best served cold?

Author: Nicholas Meyer

Subjects Discussed: Lotus positions, talking back to prescience, writing books when the Writers Guild goes on strike, Samuel Johnson, the origins of The Seven Per-Cent Solution, words as a place of retreat, William S. Baring-Gould, generating “scholarly” commentary, Meyer’s dislike of Sherlock Holmes movies, Watson being portrayed as a buffoon, using the old Warner shield for Time After Time, the unusual opening shot of Time After Time and developing a directorial voice, Stanley Kubrick on the set of Spartacus, on-the-job training about cinematography, directing Ricardo Montalban, making specific choices, directors who don’t know what they want, the importance of understanding actors, finding distinct style with a preexisting Star Trek cast, William Shatner’s concerns on Star Trek II, the Coca-Cola product placement in Volunteers, responding to Ken Levine’s remarks on the scene that ruined Volunteers, Meyer’s problematic metrics with cinematic comedy, Black Orchid, whittling down the original draft of The View from the Bridge, being a script doctor on Fatal Attraction and determining Meyer’s precise involvement with the bathtub ending, calculating a film for an audience and the problems with doing so, how to write a good screenplay with Philip Roth’s source material, the differences between source material and other versions of the story, The Wizard of Oz, arguments about Dickens film adaptations, thoughts on Josh Olson’s “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script,” The Avengers, and why Meyer’s frequent flyer miles are in the University of Iowa archive.



Correspondent: You’re sitting in a rather strange lotus position.

Meyer: No.

Correspondent: Do you sit like this often?

Meyer: I’m not lotus actually.

Correspondent: Oh. Not lotus.

Meyer: You can’t see, but, underneath this table, my legs are stretched out in a very conventional position.

Correspondent: I’m sorry I wasn’t noticing your muscular legs.

Meyer: The anti-lotus.

Correspondent: How are you doing?

Meyer: I’m doing fine so far.

Correspondent: Okay. I had a question pertaining to recent events and also pertaining to your work and your tendency to have scripts mirror certain international events. I think, going back to Star Trek VI and Company Business, how real events tended to unfold in relation to those particular scripts. But simultaneously I might argue that you were prescient with one particular character in the Star Trek films. Most recently, as you’ve probably been reading the headlines or seeing various clips, a certain Congressman from South Carolina basically said something to the President. And I couldn’t help but think when that happened, Chekhov saying to Khan, “You lie!” Which I thought was quite prescient of you possibly. But simultaneously, in relation to Chekhov and Presidents, I should point out that Chekhov was able to correctly pronounce “nuclear,” whereas the previous President was not. So what do you attribute this linguistic prescience on your part?

Meyer: Well, talking back to prescience is like one of the weirder things that you can do. And I think the fact that Chekhov addressed Khan so disrespectfully in the well of the Botany Bay obviously qualifies him for a Federation reprimand.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Meyer: Does this address your question?

Correspondent: It sort of does. But it’s interesting that Chekhov could pronounce “nuclear” where George Bush could not. 43.

Meyer: The list of things that George Bush was unable to pronounce. In order to pronounce some of these things, I think you have to conceive of what they are first.

Correspondent: And Chekhov was able to conceive of what they were. I mean, it’s funny that Chekhov was the guy here. This could also have a lot to do with my own particular connections to your work and the larger canvas. But you did bring this up in your book and so I was tempted to infer many things in your scripts that possibly were intended or prescient or seer-like.

Meyer: Well, I think Chekhov’s remark clearly, as far as Congressman Wilson is concerned, is an accident. It was about thirty years before. And there are people who go around saying “You lie!” at the drop of a hat. Chekhov, I think, is more right than not when he accuses Khan.

Correspondent: Yeah. I also wanted to ask — just to go to a general question that isn’t so convoluted or so crazy. This particular book. Was this written during the writers strike at all?

Meyer: Yes.

Correspondent: It was.

Meyer: I write my books when the Writers Guild goes on strike. You’re not allowed to write screenplays. And I usually write it because I have to make money. And Dr. Johnson said a man is a blockhead who writes for any reason except money.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, that’s paraphrasing it a bit. But it’s close enough.

Meyer: Well, I got “blockhead” and…

Correspondent: You got “blockhead” and “money” definitely. Nobody but a fool wrote for money…

Meyer: For anything except for money, yes.

Correspondent: I think I’m mangling it now. Yeah, I’m familiar with that quote. You were a movie reviewer at the University of Iowa. You then wrote press kits for Paramount. And then you wrote The Love Story Story. And then you headed out west to become a screenwriter and what was, of course, this novel that came about. Quite a circuitous route in terms of approaching the inevitable. And so I’m curious why you postponed it for so long over the years. Was there a definitive answer? You say that you’re not an analytical person. But I’m sure you’ve had many years to think about this roundabout way of going to your present profession.

Meyer: Well, I always wanted to make movies from the time I was very young. I never thought much about the writing part of it. Which is interesting, because I’ve been writing since I was five years old. Writing was just something I always did. Words were the place to which I retreated. Sort of instinctively and intuitively all my life. I tried writing novels as a young man and I didn’t like my novels very much. And by the way, neither did anyone else. So I went to California eventually to seek my fortune and try and get into the movie business. And I was lucky. I started to make some progress. And then just as I was starting to have stuff produced, the Writers Guild did go on strike. This was back in 1972 or ’73, I think. And I was sharing digs with a young woman who said, “Well now, since you’re not allowed to write screenplays, you can write that book you are always talking about.” And that book was my fanciful notion of a Sherlock Holmes adventure, in which Holmes met and joined forces intellectually as well as narratively with Sigmund Freud. And there really wasn’t any good reason at that point not to try doing it. I don’t think I was expecting it to add up to much. But it was as much a way of passing the time when I wasn’t on the strike line as anything else.

And so, yes, it became a big success. It was the number one best-selling novel for a while in the United States. And then when it was optioned for the movies, I said, “Yes, I will sell you the option on condition that I write the script.” And the script with all its faults was lucky enough to be nominated for an Oscar. And so that sort of led me to the next level. And the next screenplay I wrote, I said, “Yes, I will sell you the script, but I must direct the movie.” And so I leapfrogged my way into my profession.

BSS #310: Nicholas Meyer (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #309.

Brian Evenson is most recently the author of Fugue State and Last Days.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Latching onto toccata.

Author: Brian Evenson

Subjects Discussed: Knowing when a story concept has legs, ideas that never come to anything, the origins of “A Pursuit,” The Open Curtain, maintaining surprise, text sources vs. personal experience, writing fiction moments that hit two simultaneous emotions, grisly moments and descriptive detail, the reader’s imagination, revision and rhythm, not showing work to people, the surprise of audience responses, Bjorn Verenson, certain similarities with characters in “Ninety Over Ninety” and publishing people, Morgan Entreiken, determining the precise moment in which a story ends, open endings and critical theory, story concepts as building blocks for novels, similarities between “An Accounting” and Last Days, conversations between stories, bureaucratic language, investigating religious communities, solitary figures being pursued by men vs. the recurrent theme of community, expanding on conclusions from Ryan Call’s Collagist essay, literalisms and tributes to pulp, challenging the assumptions of “human,” translating, Antoine Volodine, how a line from The Savage Detectives inspired a short story, dwelling upon consciousness, intertextual aspects, absurdity and violence, characters who plunge into dark chambers to experience horror, being the dungeonmaster at 12, knowing the environment, Evenson’s concern for numbers and scales, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, postmodernism and theft, and the satisfaction of genre literature.


evensonCorrespondent: Do you need to have a source text more than, I suppose, a personal experience? I mean, I could inquire as to whether you had sex with a mime. I don’t know whether you have or not.

Evenson: No, no, I didn’t. I did meet someone, after I read that story aloud, who had had sex with a mime. It made me think that maybe I could have gone even farther in that story than I did. But not a lot of it is from personal experience. I mean, I think the things that are from personal experience are not the things that you would expect. So in “Younger” and in “Girls in Tents,” you know, when I was a kid, I used to make tents out of blankets. Which I think a lot of kids did.

Correspondent: I did myself.

Evenson: Yeah. But my daughters never did. So there is a kind of personal thing there. There’s a moment in one of my stories — I think actually that it’s in The Wavering Knife, in that collection — in which someone is taking bread and squishing it until it makes a ball of bread. And that’s something that’s incredibly vivid to me from my childhood. But the main thrusts of the plot and those sorts of things are not personal experience so much. But they do respond to a lot of other things.

Correspondent: But then you’re also dealing with a lot of mutilation and violence.

Evenson:Correspondent: Like, in particular, Last Days. I mean clearly, I see that you are a zero according to that particular scale.

Evenson: Right, right, right.

Correspondent: Unless there’s something you’re not showing me.

Evenson: No, no, no.

Correspondent: How do you get into that particular mind set to make a narrative along those lines real when you have not personally experienced it?

Evenson: (laughs)

Correspondent: There’s the old famous story. Well, Stephen Crane never experienced or witnessed any kind of war. So how does reality come about for you? When do you know it’s real when you haven’t experienced it? Or are we underestimating verisimilitude and not always capitulating to that wonderful imagination?

Evenson: Well, I really do think a lot about how things would feel. Even if I haven’t experienced them. I really see myself as partly a — I don’t know quite how to describe it, but I want to create a world that the reader experiences as if they’re living through it more than something that they can see as a representation on the page. And to do that, I spend a lot of time thinking how things would feel, how things would occur. What would happen to a limb if you did something to it in Last Days. And I read a fair amount and try and figure things out that way. But mostly it’s just trying. What you say. The primacy of the imagination. Trying to imagine yourself into a space where you really are experiencing something on the page in a very visceral way. One of things that people say about my stories, both for better and for worse, is that there are stories that you don’t forget and there are stories that you feel like you’re suffering through them in some ways. While the character suffers. And as a writer, I think that’s very much what I do. I try to put myself very much in the position of the characters in the story. So in Last Days, there’s all these moments in the hospital bed. And trying to figure out how you see around the curtain if you have one kind of mirror and another kind of mirror. If you can’t move this bar to your body, then what do you do? And I took a lot of time thinking very seriously about that and trying to figure out what would I do.

(Image: Beowulf Sheehan)

BSS #309: Brian Evenson (Download MP3)

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Review: Capitalism: A Love Story


It seems to me that, if you’re rolling out the howitzers with the intent to destroy an ideology, you should probably blow the shit out of everything. But Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, feels passe and diffident, despite the fact that it has gone out of its way to include footage from only a few weeks ago. Maybe this film’s dated feel has much to do with our present information age. In an age of YouTube and Twitter, how can any well-meaning documentary capture a permanent image for posterity? But Moore’s best films (Bowling for Columbine and Sicko) have worked because they operated within a specific focus. By examining one aspect of the failed American system, Moore has demonstrated a knack for showing a regular audience how the world works according to his mind. But with a more general emphasis, Capitalism: A Love Story, much like Moore’s narcissistic offering The Big One, is unfocused, messy, and even contemptuous of its intended audience.

For example, Moore suggests that the derivatives which guide the stock market cannot be understood by anybody but the Wall Street guys. As one economist explains a derivative to Moore, we see Moore’s eyes glaze over. Moore then cuts to an academic having difficulty explaining a derivative. Lost within all this didactic comedy is the fact that a collective website called Wikipedia allowed people to come together to explain a derivative in fairly straightforward terms .

But forget how the Internet can galvanize the people (and lead Obama to presidential victory). Let’s talk about the distinct possibility that Moore’s starting to rust within his gilded cage. Since Moore has clearly not thought much about his thesis, he seems to have fallen asleep at the wheel of his liberal limousine. He looks into the recent Pennsylvania child care scandal, in which two Pennsylvania judges bartered kids for cash. But he doesn’t use his ambush tactics to interview the two judges. (In fact, unlike Moore’s other films, this film lacks a heavy along the lines of Phil Knight or Charlton Heston for Moore to confront at the end. And without that perceived villain, Moore’s hollow demagoguery is revealed for what it is.)

To the film’s credit, it does go after Democrats — including Senator Christopher Dodd — and points to Democratic complicity in the Goldman Sachs bailout. Moore hasn’t been this vocal about the lies of the two-party system since he campaigned for Ralph Nader in 2000. (He later campaigned against him in 2004.) But Moore is hardly the fearless agitator he thinks he is. He’s too afraid to criticize Obama’s many failings, preferring instead to dwell on that hopeful day in November when we elected “our” candidate and we used “our” votes to get the Democrats into office. Of course, months later, millions of jobs have been lost, the unemployment rate hovers around 10%, and universal health care — part of FDR’s Second Bills of Rights, a clip of which is included in this film — remains distant. But Moore doesn’t pin any of this on Obama. In fact, Bush 43 receives more camera time than Obama. (That’s a bit like a bunch of philosophers arguing about the 1968 riots as people are losing their jobs. Oh wait. I saw that happen last year when Bernard-Henri Levy and Slavoj Žižek argued last year at the Celeste Bartos Forum. I guess we’ll never have the guts to discuss current predicaments.)

Moore points out that Jonas Salk offered his polio vaccine for free. And at the film’s end, Moore suggests that the audience should be doing what Moore’s doing. Of course, this comes after we’ve paid $10 to see the movie. Moore stands to make millions from this movie. Is he really all that different from a rapacious CEO? Glenn Beck may want all of his pie, but then so does Moore. It’s insulting to have someone in the film referring to mainstream media coverage as “propaganda,” when this film clearly serves the same function.

This is not to suggest that our nation doesn’t need a corrective or that Moore’s services are no longer required. There is, frankly, no other filmmaker out there who can get progressive messages out to a mass audience. He is not, as The New York Times suggested, our little tramp, but there’s nobody else out there stepping up to the plate in quite this way. But Moore’s party mix of stock footage, snarky narration, and righteous indignation is starting to wear thin. It’s the kind of thing we expect out of a filmmaker in his twenties and his thirties, not a 55-year-old filmmaker. Moore naively believes that Wallace Shawn’s presence will somehow attract his established liberal affluent audience. But this is clearly a film made for Middle America, and it doesn’t understand that Middle Americans are often much smarter than bicoastal elitists.

Case in point. The naive majorette Rachel Sklar, who participated in an intellectual sweatshop during her tenure at the Huffington Post by collecting a salary while not paying her contributors, tweeted in response: “WOW. Michael Moore’s latest movie is gonna stir up some SERIOUS shit. Wow. Wow. One more time: Wow.”

No, it’s not. You can cream your pants like it’s the first time all you want, but capitalism isn’t going away.

In fact, Moore’s film really isn’t all that anticapitalist. As Moore points out, capitalism under a more equitable tax system wasn’t so bad for the middle-class. (See this helpful spreadsheet from the IRS containing lowest and highest bracket tax rats from 1913 through 2008. From 1944 to 1963, the highest bracket tax rate hovered around 91%.)

Moore pins the blame on Reagan. And the highest bracket tax rate did indeed fall from 70% to 50% in 1982, eventually down to 30% in Reagan’s second term. But drops, as we all know, occur in degrees. This didn’t happen overnight. Surely President Johnson should be held just as accountable.

So if we accept Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, as a series of generalist sentiments designed to fire up the masses, then, to my mind, it’s probably Moore’s most toothless and tepid film. The film is entertaining enough. We get the obligatory shots of Moore being denied entrance into corporate buildings by security and Moore shouting through a bullhorn. We are horrified by Wal-Mart filing a life insurance policy against one of its employees and collecting a tidy sum (without a cent going to the family), as well as the phrase “dead peasants” used in the insurance policy. On the other hand, if people have allowed capitalism to continue, shouldn’t they be taken to task just as much as the corporations? The film’s credits feature numerous quotes from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. One key Jeffersonian sentiment that’s missing: People get the government they deserve.

The Bat Segundo Show: Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #308.

Lawrence Block is most recently the author of Step by Step.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ruminating upon a life of exquisite indolence.

Author: Lawrence Block

Subjects Discussed: Step by Step as an anti-memoir, exploring childhood experience in print, randomness and finding connections, writing with a greater degree of freedom, Random Walk, concerns about a limited audience, earlier attempts at memoir, attempts by Block to write memoirs in the mid-1990s, the virtues of getting older, being less guarded with age, following up on Block’s remarks from Galut, avarice as the guiding principle, Evan Hunter, Charles Ardai and Hard Case Crime, growing less reticent about limited editions, the $479 Kindle, not carrying about work being preserved, genre fiction as a window to a specific world, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie never going out of print, Block and Judaism, being a creature of intense and transitory enthusiasms, not having a goal, the lack of commonality between writing and race walking, becoming increasingly drawn to pursuits that don’t involve leaving the house, writing screenplays, short stories vs. novels, and Alexander McCall Smith’s Wall Street Journal article and reader “ownership” of the characters.


lawrence_blockCorrespondent: You mentioned that you had attempted memoir before.

Block: Right.

Correspondent: And that memoir, which I presume is still unfinished, that had more to do with the working life of a writer, I suppose?

Block: That memoir was about the early years. About the years writing pseudonymous books and getting started in the business. And I wrote about 50,000 words of it. And it still exists. And I went back to it. It was part of a multiple contract. It was submitted as part of that. And eventually the day came when I bought it back. It was a tiny portion of the advance. And I don’t think anybody at Morrow was that excited about it. My agent had just bundled things together. And because I didn’t seem inclined to resume it, oddly enough, now I find myself thinking maybe I ought to. That maybe that’s what I might want to do next.

Correspondent: Really?

Block: Yeah.

Correspondent: What brought this on? Was it just from…?

Block: The experience of Step by Step. It’s early days. I have no idea how it will sell. But people seem to like it and it seems to be getting a fair amount of attention. So we’ll see.

Correspondent: Well, I think just speaking as one person familiar with your work, the reason I was piqued when you talked about this unfinished memoir was because there’s almost like a surprising lack of amount of stuff written about that time period where you were writing pseudonymously. There was a book written by the guy who later went on to do Don’t Know Much About History, who wrote a book published about twenty-five years ago about the paperbacking of America [Kenneth C. Davis’s Two-Bit Culture] and went on about mass market paperbacks as a whole. But nothing much about the dawn of Gold Medal and Dell and all the other paperback houses. And the pseudonymous aspect. So I wonder could this interest also have to do with the fact that, with all due respect, you’re also one of the few people left who remember.

Block: Yeah. That might have something to do with it. Also, when I wrote — I think it was about ’95, ’94 or ‘5, that I wrote the memoir. And I hadn’t been planning to, as I may have mentioned in there. I was stuck on something else. I had time booked at Ragdale. And I had to write something. And at the time — that was what, fourteen years ago? — I was fifty-five, fifty-six years old. It felt early days to be writing a memoir to me.

Correspondent: Right.

Block: And before the memoir genre became something.

Correspondent: Now you have memoirs by twentysomethings.

Block: I know. I know it. “I remember the birth canal.” (laughs)

BSS #308: Lawrence Block (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Michael Muhammad Knight

Michael Muhammad Knight appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #307.

Michael Muhammad Knight is most recently the author of Impossible Man and Osama Van Halen.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Expressing forceful words about his distinct identity.

Author: Michael Muhammad Knight

Subjects Discussed: Knight’s powers of prescience, Muslim punk, fictional suicide as a form of personal critique, the fictional character Mike Knight vs. the real Mike Knight, the Amazing Ayyub, character creation as the author arguing with himself, spiritual poles and quasi-Mikes talking with Mike creations, romanticizing the failure to be an adult, the mythology of consolation, leading a life in peripatetic homelessness, being a provocateur, compromise vs. getting into certain quarters, reading Will & Ariel Durant’s big red books at an early age, God as the Force (Star Wars) vs. God as the Dao, the Asma Gull Hasan defamation suit, Edward Norton’s soliloquy in The People vs. Larry Flynt, the coercive nature of apologies, getting kicked out of ISNA press conferences, journalism and formality, being disheartened by the Sunnis, whether or not umma is impossible, respecting religious difference, noting laundry lists of possession, constant reference to Spike Lee’s Malcolm X over The Autobiography, women-led prayer and Islam, disowning whiteness, Pakistan as a white supremacist country, elaborating on Knight’s remarks to David Hunter concerning cyphers, filtering information from the outside world, the apostasy essay, following up on Mark Athitakis’s remarks on allegorical house layout, and the last time Knight was in touch with his father.


mmkCorrespondent: I want to start off with something that you have a particular talent for in your fiction — and that is the anticipation of events. The Taqwacores, of course, most famously initiated the Taqwacore punk movement. But as I learned in the afterword of Osama Van Halen, you write about Muzammil Hassan, arrested for beheading his wife on British TV. And you are unnerved by the fact that you were not only not able to foresee it, yet it happened. What do you attribute this prescience to? I’m curious.

Knight: I don’t know. It spooks me out a little bit. You know, I wrote this fictional decapitation of myself in the parking lot of a TV station in Buffalo. Having a Muslim TV station in Buffalo and then, in real life, there was a Muslim TV station in Buffalo. And an actual decapitation happened there. Just as this book was about to come out. And that started to spook me out a little bit.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Knight: I’m starting to get afraid right now.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. Because as I read your two memoirs — both Blue-Eyed Devil and Impossible Man — I saw, for example, that the Victoria’s Secret catalog actually came from a personal example.

Knight: Oh yeah. Yeah.

Correspondent: As did the Penguin misspelling of the Qur’an. And I’m curious as to whether this almost convenient lifting of events from your own life is what leads to this prescience. Have you ever thought about this?

Knight: I don’t know. But it’s all starting to blend together. Because I was on the set of the Taqwacores movie, when they were shooting that in the fall. And one day, I showed up on the set and I saw Dominic Rains, who was playing Jehangir, in a drum circle with Marwan from the real life band Al-Thawra in the parking lot of this house. The driveway. And you had the real life Taqwacore punks and the film Taqwacore punks. The fiction and the reality, all the borders are gone.

Correspondent: But drawing from events so explicitly, what do you do to invent? To draw the distinction between something that is personally experienced versus what you concoct? Such as the idea of a Muslim punk scene.

Knight: I don’t know, man. Because in Osama Van Halen, I have a fictional character. So sometimes I’m writing from the omniscient narrator. Sometimes I’m writing myself. Like the real-life author. First person narrative. Sometimes I’m talking about this fictional Mike Knight. And it’s almost like there’s no distinctions anymore. I mean, I just wrote myself getting my head chopped off. And now I’m afraid that’s going to happen.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if this is more of a metaphorical losing your head. Because after you wrote The Taqwacores, I know that you were considering leaving Islam altogether. And you were urged back into it when you realized there was some fluidity. And so I’m curious as to whether this was finally cutting the cord to a particular type of Mike Knight or….

Knight: Well, there were some serious things I was trying to talk about in that story. You know, Imam Ali said to hate in yourself what you’re going to hate in other people. So the way that I made my points was to just look at myself in the worst way and to see myself as the object of critique. Everything that I was lashing out against I could search into myself and find some trace of that. That’s why at the end, I deserved to have my head chopped off.

(Image: Publishers Group Canada)

BSS #307: Michael Muhammad Knight (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Laurie Sandell

Laurie Sandell recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #306.

Laurie Sandell is the author of The Impostor’s Daughter.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if the coalminer was an impostor.

Author: Laurie Sandell

Subjects Discussed: Chicken recipes, the quest for truth within memoir, how narrative shapes and stretches truth, subjective vs. objective accounts, the essay written anonymously for Esquire, memory vs. concrete evidence, emails from Ashley Judd, how hard evidence enhances a visual diagram, lawyers sifting through evidence, the use of clothing against background, working with a colorist, becoming one’s parents, the use of motion lines, adopting comic book semiotics, drawing from an intuitive part of the brain, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, feeling liberated in comic form vs. restrictions in textual form, maintaining privacy vs. spilling all details to the public, diagramming environment, knowing the lay of the land, static panels, consulting graphic novels, Scott McCloud, arrows pointing to figures, strange stays in five-star hotels, sketching out the book before drawing, taking the story arc from the text version of The Impostor’s Daughter, structure and spontaneity, maintaining momentum vs. contending with painful memories, emotional change and artistic change, whether or not writing is the proper way to exorcise demons, the story of Sandell’s father as a former sense of identity, the ethical dilemmas of narrative seduction, and fearlessness.


lauriesandellCorrespondent: I should point out I’m not trying to insist that stretching [the truth] is necessarily a bad thing. I’m merely pointing out that memory, as we all know, is a fallacious instrument.

Sandell: Yes, it is.

Correspondent: It’s been said that memory is the greatest liar of them all. It’s been said — by, I believe Lincoln — that you have to have a great memory to be a great liar.

Sandell: Right.

Correspondent: So given this conundrum, I’m wondering to what degree you relied on your own memory and to what degree you relied on reference shots. You have, for example, illustrations that crop up within the course of the book. This leads me to wonder about other specific details. But maybe we can start on memory vs. concrete evidence.

Sandell: Well, you know, it was a mix of memory and concrete evidence. On the one hand, I had a lot of concrete evidence because I had interviewed my father over a period of two years and I tape recorded our conversations with his knowledge. This was leading up to the Esquire piece when I had a 300-page transcript. So most of the things that my father said in the book came directly from those transcripts. So he’s telling stories from his past. Those came directly from my father’s mouth.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Sandell: As far as — I’m trying to think. I don’t know. What else?

Correspondent: Well, I could actually cite specific examples.

Sandell: Okay, sure.

Correspondent: For example, the difference between the narration and what is actually spoken in the text bubbles.

Sandell: Right.

Correspondent: Here’s one example. When you’re working at the office, you have a text box point to the screen: “Have you considered inpatient treatment.” We don’t actually see the email on the screen.

Sandell: Okay.

Correspondent: We actually see your particular perspective.

Sandell: Right.

Correspondent: And so I want to ask you about why that particular emphasis — I mean, that’s inherently subjective. We’re counting on your subjective viewpoint as to what is on the screen. As opposed to later on, when we actually see what’s on your screen, when you’re on your laptop in your motel room.

Sandell: I need to be honest. The reason you didn’t see that screen was probably because it didn’t fit in that box.

Correspondent: Okay.

Sandell: And so I had to deal with little callouts so you could actually see what was on the screen. But the interesting thing about the process of putting together all this evidence — a lot of it really was evidence — is that there were so many emails. For example, that email was an email, I believe, from Ashley Judd.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Sandell: And I have those emails from Ashley Judd. I have the emails from my father. You know, I worked with a private investigator for two years. So I have all of his information and the lawsuits he compiled and all the various evidence and things written by my father. You know, I think — did you ever read Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy?

Correspondent: No, I never read that.

Sandell: It’s a beautiful memoir. Ann Patchett later went on to write Truth & Beauty: A Friendship.

Correspondent: That’s right.

Sandell: And one of the things that Ann Patchett said in her afterword — after Lucy died, Ann Patchett wrote an afterword to the book — and she described how, at a reading, someone said to Lucy Grealy, “How did you remember all those details about your past?” And she said, “I didn’t remember it. I wrote it.” And people were a little bit up in arms about that. But she was pointing out the fact that this was a piece of art, it’s a piece of subjective memory, and the most important thing is to show the emotional truth of the situation. And I would say that in my case, because I have so much evidence, and evidence that Little Brown asked to say and anytime I’ve done television, they’ve actually asked to see the evidence, I feel pretty comfortable that there’s not going to be any big explosive James Frey situation.

Correspondent: Well, to what degree were they asking for the evidence? Because we’re talking about transcripts. We’re talking about investigative reporting. This is all text right now. And here you are. You have a visual document here.

Sandell: Yes.

Correspondent: You have to construct something from the text here. So it’s a wonder that evidence even means anything if it’s a visual result.

Sandell: I think it does. I mean, the visual result is obviously my memory. It’s the way I remember the situation.

(Image: Brantastic)

BSS #306: Laurie Sandell (Download MP3)

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placeholderThe girl broke his heart. Just like the previous one had. And the one before that. But it was meant to be this way. This was his lot in life. He hadn’t intended it to play out like this, but it always did. And he was helpless when it came to the horrible side effects of his strangely appealing character. Three years from now, he would discover that the latest girl who broke his heart would be married to somebody else. A man less photogenic on Flickr, some Romeo who wrote blog posts and tweets that were inarticulate (to put it charitably), and yet the new man was somehow meant for the girl. He’d stumble onto photos of the happy couple and he’d see her snuggling up to the new man in the same way that she had once snuggled up to him. And while this hurt, he knew deep down that the new man, the right man, somehow fit better.

He wondered why he was always doomed to be this temp chip on the felt. He had done everything right, sending roses at the right time, alternating between surprise and routine, and lending an open ear over so many silent hours. But he was always the unappetizing appetizer. The sampler before the main meal. The one year prerequisite course before soulmate. The previous girls had called him soulmate. They lied. Or maybe he was and they had been wrong. Or maybe he wasn’t and they had been right. Feelings were fickle and subject to change. Still, all these endearments were meaningless in the end. These girls needed him because for some reason he lifted them. He empathized and listened and walked them home. Then he’d loosen his own feelings and the girls would accuse him of selfishness. And he’d read all the emails frozen with those telltale time-date stamps of a soul locked in development and he’d see confusion instead of solipsism. But he couldn’t blame these girls. It may have taken two to tango, but the dance of blame didn’t require a partner and was often harsher.

And just when he thought he was finished with girls, another would come. Some unexpected fuck blooming into a full-fledged relationship. Sometimes they would make the moves. They smelled his nascent shyness and sniffed something in him. And since it always played out the same way, he wondered if they had always anticipated his inevitable role as placeholder. They would sometimes approach him after the break, sponging his heart and intellect, hoping to grab a few more bits.

He was thirty and he already felt like an old man. But he wouldn’t be a placeholder forever. He would learn, like most men waking up just before the midlife hill, just why he had been a placeholder and his chip would slip from the green.

If you are a placeholder right now and you are reading this, please have patience. The wheel turns after you stop paying attention to the clock.

The Follies of Emotional Expression

Lifestyles I'm Sorry Take Two

ITEM: September 1, 2009. A YouTube video surfaces. In the video, Van Jones calls Congressional Republicans “assholes.” The video is from an event in February 11, 2009. Jones was appointed by President Obama in March 2009. After considerable outcry from conservatives, Jones resigns from his White House position as Special Advisor for Green Jobs.

ITEM: September 8, 2009. President Obama delivers a speech before Congress. Rep. Joe Wilson (R – SC) shouts “You lie!” in the middle of the speech. Wilson apologizes, but the matter isn’t dropped. There are countless efforts to find ways to respond to Wilson’s words (is it racism as Jimmy Carter suggests a week later?). There is endless chatter by liberals and conservatives alike. More than a week later, Joe Wilson remains in the news.

ITEM: September 13, 2009. Serena Williams goes ballistic at the US Open. She is fined $10,000 for delivering a tirade at a judge. (She is also docked $500 for racket abuse. It was a tough racket.)

ITEM: September 13, 2009. Taylor Swift wins a Video Music Award. In the middle of her acceptance, Kanye West grabs the microphone out of Swift’s hands and shouts, “I’m sorry, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.”

ITEM: September 13, 2009. President Obama is asked about Kanye West and Obama calls West a “jackass.” Efforts to prevent the tweet, the audio clip, and the video clip from disseminating around the Internet fail. Most side with the President.

One could probably include many other visceral explosions in recent history. Sherman Alexie, Alain de Botton, Alice Hoffman, Michael Richards, Christian Bale, or Don Imus all come to mind. But the above items all went down this month. We still have about two weeks to go before September’s over. It appears very likely that more public figures will erupt (or interrupt) with a subtlety worthy of Vesuvius.

But what do these reactions mean? And what is the appeal? It would be superficial to blame it all on the media, although the media is going out of its way to perpetuate these stories. (Arguably, as a questionable media source, I am going out of my way to perpetuate these stories, although I am trying to ruminate on it all instead of getting away from it.) Could it be that the tendency to fixate on these incidents involves some desire to make sense of these reactions? Maybe. I doubt that any of us could have predicted that POTUS would have managed to mix himself up in a Kanye West tirade, particularly when more pressing concerns like unemployment and health care are burning up national peat. But politics is now just as vital to the celebrity-industrial complex as sports, movies, and music. (It could hardly have been an accident that the FOX Network timed its announcement of Ellen DeGeneres as new American Idol judge to coincide with the President’s speech.)

Instead of trying to understand these visceral impulses, it has become the duty of every cultural observer to perpetuate the shallow headlines rather than plunge deeper. Are two words or two sentences really enough to denounce someone? Is this not continuing the soundbite culture? (No accident that Twitter, itself a bedrock of textual soundbites, was one of the major conduits through which these stories spread.) Should we not judge these people on a more complete impression? What resides beneath the comments?

Van Jones’s “assholes” admonishment came when the assembled group was trying to understand how bipartisanship could be an option when the Republicans remained obdurate. That’s a fairly interesting question, but it’s too bad that sensitive ears and Penn Ave propriety weeded Jones out.

Joe Wilson, as inappropriate as his actions were, was trying to express his passion. And isn’t understanding that passion, as unsettling as the motivations may be, the more important concern here? If we calmly listened to people, as Al Franken patiently did, wouldn’t this cut down on conservatives showing up at town meetings packing heat? Why not ask questions? Or see where people are coming from? Why did Wilson think that Obama was lying? And why aren’t we discussing the more interesting facts?

The Nation‘s Dave Zern observed that Roger Federer had a tantrum two days after Serena Williams, but Federer wasn’t upbraided in the press as severely as Williams. Is there a double standard? Does Federer get a free pass because he isn’t African-American and he isn’t a woman? Maybe it has more to do with celebrity figures fulfilling our expectations. After all, Federer is known more for his calm demeanor on the court. Williams, on the other hand, is known for her temper. Shouldn’t Federer’s incongruous reaction (“I don’t give a shit what he said” uttered on national TV) be rejoined with greater severity? And shouldn’t we praise Serena Williams for handling a future game with calm professionalism? Are we not just as guilty with our predictable responses? Are we true to our nature?

Kanye West acted like a jackass (a subjective view), but he never called Taylor Swift a jackass (the objective quote). He told Swift that he was “very happy” for her before turning his back and denying her moment. And yet President Obama, who used an ad hominem remark to respond to the whole mess, has neither given an apology nor been asked for an apology. (Contrast this with the Cambridge Police Department demanding an apology from Obama in late July, after Obama declared that the police had “acted stupidly” in the Henry Louis Gates arrest. Obama didn’t apologize, but there was a beer summit.)

Since the President has become involved in these public disputes with greater frequency, and he reserves the right to tell people that they “acted stupidly” or call someone a “jackass,” then perhaps he should start setting a better example for rational bipartisan discourse. Or perhaps he should abandon his “civilized” remarks and call people “jackass” from time to time. (Nixon was hardly a President to be proud of, but it’s worth noting that he had no problem using the word “cocksucker.”)

Maybe there’s something else at work here pertaining to executive privilege. The New York Times reported that New York City’s unemployment rate hit 10.3% in August, a 16-year-old high. The national unemployment rate still holds at just under 10% — the highest unemployment rate since 1983. As of April, two million jobs were lost in 2009. In tough times, when those who are fortunate enough to remain employed have a strong desire to stay mum and keep their jobs, and when millions of unemployed people can’t take any chances, it makes intuitive sense to look vicariously towards those who have this executive privilege of emotional expression.

But if emotional expression is so atavistic, shouldn’t it be predicated on egalitarianism? Is it not a double standard for Van Jones to be dismissed while Obama keeps his job? Subjectively, I happen to think that Obama was correct in both instances. But why can’t somebody who isn’t the President make such statements and not have to go through the endless rigmarole of apologizing over the course of multiple interviews? Why can’t we just accept someone’s apology and move on? If we don’t, then the purpose of an apology is useless or the apology doesn’t fit the apparent punishment for the crime. And if we don’t accept other people, which includes listening to their heightened emotional expression, then this runs counterintuitive to eclectic discourse.

If emotional expression is reserved only for those at the top, then should we really be surprised by the people who show up at tea parties? Should we really be surprised that Glenn Beck’s popularity has risen dramatically during the Obama Administration?

Perhaps these people are expressing extraordinary emotions like this because society has established unspoken prohibitions in the manner by which they communicate. As I type this sentence, I happen to believe that Salman Rushdie is a cunt. I could tell you why if you asked me. And if Rushdie were to explain himself, I would be happy to listen. If he had a reasonable explanation for his cunt-like behavior, I might change my mind. But because I have stated that “Salman Rushdie is a cunt,” people will see this and possibly believe me to be an asshole. But should such a sentence discount all the thoughtful and positive sentences I have ever uttered? And is my opinion of Rushdie so inflexible? By our present emotional expressive standards, this would certainly be the case if I had, by some lark, achieved the fame of Serena Williams.

But let’s approach this issue from another sideways shuffle. It is very possible that you, dear reader, harbor a feeling, however permanent or temporary, that someone that you know is a cunt. If that sentiment is permanent, and if it is not subject to change, then you may not be a civilized person. (Or, in Joe Wilson’s words, you lie!) But if you accept the follies of your emotional expression and you remain flexible enough to change it or to embrace it, then it is very probable that you are a civilized person, assuming that you aren’t a sociopath.

And now that I’ve thought about it, I don’t think that I believe that Salman Rushdie is a cunt. I believed it just now, but after thinking about it, it seems ridiculous to place a writer who has written a novel as great as Midnight’s Children into the same milieu as Hitler, Nixon, and Genghis Khan (to name only a few rotten apples, but, to give Hitler that cliched benefit of the doubt, he treated his dogs well). I have not thought to strike the sentence from this essay. But if this were published somewhere, I’m certain that very few editors would print the phrase “Salman Rushdie is a cunt.”

Is it reasonable to prohibit ad hominem or emotional expression? Or to dwell on it, as it crops up from time to time, as if it something to be skimmed over and over like a four-second tape loop? Only if you believe that humans — or, with the second rhetorical question, a select civilized elite — are capable of nothing more than profound enlightenment. Humans certainly do great things, don’t they? But if you’re naive enough to believe that they contribute nothing but thoughtful contributions, then I urge you to acquaint yourself with the many psychopaths who have chewed up the scenery over the course of human history.)

But let’s say that we accept emotional expression and slow down with these knee-jerk responses. We therefore give those who practice this perfectly normal tendency an opportunity to explain or atone. The eccentric contributors come out of the closet. Innovators who have held their tongues are permitted to communicate wild ideas and become part of the process. And we expand the repertoire of human behavior. There will probably be ugliness, but ugliness can be rectified without forcing horses to drink the water. Asking people to constantly apologize — often before a camera — is the action of an autocratic enforcer who has no faith in humankind. But when two people listen to each other without instantaneous judgment, you can plant seeds instead of chopping down trees.

Housing Works Report

The bloggers won tonight. But that’s only because our teammate Catherine Lacey knew her stuff. If I learned anything from the last time bloggers went up against an opposing team, it’s that men really don’t know anything, even when they think they do, and that they should hold their tongues. Sure enough, I held my tongue many times — in large part because Time Out New York mentioned something about cunnilingus after the event and for a more practical reason — the buzzer I was using had a two second delay and I was unable to answer questions I knew in my sleep pertaining to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Philip K. Dick.

Kenneth C. Davis was an extraordinary moderator, expressing considerable patience with the more obnoxious part of our team (i.e., me) while showing no diffidence whatsoever in repeating some of the more indecent answers (“Longfellow’s ‘Fuck'” and “Frankly I Don’t Give a Damn O’Hara” — again, me). Open Letters Monthly’s Sam “The Man” Sacks gets major props for going to the other side twice when we had a full table. And aside from the aforementioned Catherine Lacey, I must commend teammates Buzz Poole and Jason Boog for likewise demonstrating great skill and bravado.

I must also thank the dutiful audience for enjoying these hijinks and for stepping up to the opposing table. (Some audience members, including the one and only Miracle Jones, went up twice.) And, last but not least, gratitude should also be directed to Rachel Fershleiser, who organized the whole shebang.

I also saw some dude with a flipcam taking video. So presumably some embarrassing video will eventually show up on the Internets.

For those who attended, thank you very much for showing up. For those who had the stones to challenge the book bloggers, you likewise have my unwavering kudos.

Review: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)


It’s safe to say that any imaginative soul will welcome the prospect of tasty food descending from the heavens. It’s a great idea. Not only does this cut down or entirely eliminate precious minutes in the kitchen, but it also benefits the lazy and profligate types who eat out all the time. Instead of driving to some restaurant, you could merely stick your hands out a window and await immediate results. You wouldn’t even need a microwave. Then again, if the food isn’t prepared to your liking, you’re not exactly in the position of returning it to the kitchen. Getting the ideal meal is more akin to scratching off a lottery ticket with a nickel. Maybe you’ll win. Maybe you won’t. But with so many free-falling viands, you have a pretty good law of averages on your hand. But what of quality? The food may come from the atmosphere, but if a chicken bursts through your roof during a candlelight dinner, chances are that the mood will be killed. These are gustatory dilemmas that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, based on Judi Barrett’s book, is remiss to investigate. But then I was probably the only guy in the audience looking for philosophical arguments within a mainstream family film. I am sorry. But if you give me food fused with weather, you’re going to get my brain going.

These perfect food storms come from a whiny scientific punk named Flint Lockwood, who has somehow built a giant hidden laboratory without his father knowing and has a somewhat annoying tendency to speak in gerunds when building something. (The lab is accessible through an elevator hidden in a portable toilet.) Flint, voiced by Saturday Night Live regular Bill Hader, has come up with several rum inventions, including spray-on shoes, remote control televisions, monkey translators, and electric cars. But he now has an invention that can turn water into food. (Why he hasn’t considered turning his talents to the far more lucrative sideline of alchemy is a question this film never answers.) His scientific endeavors are misunderstood by his father (voiced by James Caan and largely hidden behind a unibrow and a moustache), a sardine shop proprietor too taken with communicating through fishing metaphors. Our man Flint is also menaced by Baby Brent, who appeared on numerous sardine cans in his callow infancy and who has been riding on this diaper-wearing fame ever since. It’s also worth noting that Bruce Campbell plays the town’s mayor, and this casting is every bit as pleasant as you might expect. Flint’s invention is let loose at the unveiling of a preposterous sardine theme park — with The Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” suitably matching this crass commercialism. Inclement weather soon takes on a new meaning. There is also Sam Sparks, a one-dimensional meterologist voiced by Anna Faris, who offers a contrived romance subplot and a tired geek vs. beauty dichotomy that’s out of step with the film’s scientific sympathies.

This nifty-looking universe — centered on a town located on “a tiny island hidden under the A in Atlantic” called Swallow Falls (no relation to the Maryland park) — hasn’t entirely accounted for the supreme messes arising from these food-related meteorological mishaps. Sure, there is a vehicle that drives around town, hurling leftovers into a giant pile. But surely great torrents of ice cream and spaghetti sauce would slick up the hamlet. There are rat-birds flying around the place, and they’re seen several times chomping away at the stray bits of food. But do they carry disease? (Indeed, why do we never see animated rodents for the bacteria-carrying vermin that they are?) And why doesn’t Swallow Falls have an exterminator? Furthermore, if the Swallow Falls population has been eating nothing but sardines during its history, why does Steve the Monkey — Flint’s happy servant, appositely voiced by Neil Patrick Harris –have a Gummi Bears fixation? Surely, his master wouldn’t know about Gummi Bears if there’s been nothing but sardines on the menu.

And when all this food falls from the heavens, why are the townsfolk familiar with it? I must presume that, despite the town’s limited resources (no exterminator, no doctor, no lawyer), all citizens somehow manage to take several months of vacation. But surely there are dishes here that they have never tried before. Come to think of it, the pelting cuisine is mostly American. We get burgers, steaks, pizza, nachos, jelly beans, and hot dogs. Lots of breakfast food but no frittata or smoked salmon? Foodies will be upset. For that matter, no Indian food? Chinese food? Mexican food? When some vaguely Italian spaghetti drops from the sky, one character shouts, “Mamma mia!” I will leave the PC types to argue over whether this possibly Anglo-Saxon, anti-multiculturalist conspiracy. In the film’s defense, I must point to Chief Earl Devereaux, a cop voiced by Mr. T, who scrunches his butt before dealing with his a stressful scenario and somersaults before writing a ticket. Poor Mr. T is assigned this mouthful by the screenwriters: “You know how fathers are supposed to express their appreciation for their sons.” That doesn’t quite have the ring of “I pity the fool,” but Mr. T does what he can.

How can one find plausibility in this giant peach of a premise? To cite another incident, giant pancakes fall from the sky, followed by two square dabs of butter, and then followed by a melange of syrup. Since all this is animated — in 3-D and in IMAX, ideal for a 420-friendly crowd were this not a family film — this is all very pleasant to watch. But the pancake dilemma also assumes that all three breakfast components will fall at precisely the right times and spatial coordinates. Likewise, a roofless restaurant has diners holding out their plates waiting for steaks to pelt down hard from the sky. The success of this operation hinges upon (a) the sky remaining sunny, (b) the steaks somehow magically landing in the desired plate positions, (c) the steaks not hitting these diners in the head and rendering them unconscious (there are apparently no lawyers or courts in this town; so I presume nobody in Swallow Falls is litigious), (d) the steaks maintaining an ideal warmth over the course of a fall of several thousand feet, and (e) the steaks landing on the plates without breaking apart or otherwise being split into inedible pieces upon impact.

You see the problems.

In an open letter to Alexei Mutovkin, the writer Ursula K. Le Guin suggested that plausibility within fantasy is uprooted by wishful thinking. And Cloudy, as enjoyable as the film frequently is, relies very much on wishful thinking. It is wishful thinking to expect a really cool idea like falling food to hold up. Then again, Roald Dahl managed to hold our attention with James Trotter back in 1961. So maybe we should blame the filmmakers. Expanding her thoughts further, Le Guin also wrote that a fantasy story’s plausibility rests upon “the coherence of the story, its constant self-reference.”

By Le Guin’s standards, Cloudy is a failure. And I suspect that because the film often lacks narrative coherence, it will not last very long in the heads of children hoping to ride this gleeful storm out. This film possesses too much energy for its own good. It feels the need to constantly insert characters doing funny things in the background. It is terrified of inserting a natural break, perhaps because we’re not meant to think too much about the world that the film presents. The film therefore lacks confidence, in large part because the coherence and the constant self-reference, as I’ve just demonstrated, fails to make sense.

(For parents, I should probably also note that I observed two kids having a difficult time near the end because of the film’s relentless tsunami of visual information. One boy retreated to his mother’s lap, crying and exhausted. Another was frantically waving his arms at the screen and began to jump up and down in confusion. The 3-D is certainly impressive at times, but little ones may get overwhelmed.)

I don’t mean to suggest that this film isn’t fun. But it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. It is more interested in perpetuating a concept than building a world. The filmmakers have avoided Ron Barrett’s illustrations from the book, opting for a peppy and textured look that does away with Barrett’s lines and shadings. But Barnett understood that a fantastic premise, particularly an unlikely one, needs a little reality to make it work, to make it coherent, and to avoid wishful thinking. Had this film opted for conceptual quality instead of quantity, it might have stood toe-to-toe with Pixar.

RIP Patrick Swayze

If you don’t enjoy Roadhouse, I’m convinced that you don’t have a soul. The fact remains that this cheesy movie wouldn’t be so magical had not Swayze understood the material so well. Watch how he sells the above scene. It’s all in the delivery and that modest Swayze head jerk. I liked Patrick Swayze. Who didn’t? He could take syrupy screenplays and give them backbone. Not unlike David Carradine, come to think of it.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #6

hatemail6A few weeks ago, I learned that somebody had been pretending to be friendly with me for quite a long time. This person was uninterested in explicating feelings or having any rational point of reference. What mattered most to this person was hostility. As you will soon see, the email was ridiculously petty and obstinately worded.

Therefore, my audio series — Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project — must continue.

The following clip represents my dramatic reading of the hate mail in question, read in the style of a Miss Manners schoolmarmish tone. During the course of my reading, not only did the email feel like a pointless lecture, but I began to wag my fingers midway through the delivery. I have spent most of the afternoon keeping my hands in a folded position to prevent such gestural mishaps from occurring. And should you find yourself uncontrollably pointing while you are listening to the file, I apologize in advance for any finger-related inconvenience.

I plan to continue reading more hate mail. Again, I will be happy to read any specific hate mail that you’ve received. (If you do send me hate mail for potential dramatic readings, I only ask that you redact the names of the individuals.)

Click any of the below links to listen.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #6 (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Previous Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Installments:

#5 A hate mail read in the style of Richard Milhous Nixon
#4: A hate mail read in the style of a drunken Irishman.
#3: A hate mail read in the style of a quiet sociopath
#2: A hate mail read in a muted Peter Lorre impression
#1: A hate mail read in a melodramatic, quasi-Shakespearean style

Quiz Show — September 17th

I have been enlisted to serve as quiz show participant for something called the “Don’t Know Much About Literature Quiz Show” at the Housing Works on September 17, 2009, at 7:00 PM. I am not sure what this evening entails exactly, but it looks to be very fun and apparently Kenneth C. Davis is involved. Davis is the guy who has authored such books as Don’t Know Much About History, Don’t Know Much About Quantum Physics, Don’t Know Much About Euclidean Geometry, Don’t Know Much About Tax Code, Don’t Know Much About Building the Great Pyramid of Giza, Don’t Know Much About the Theory of Everything, Don’t Know Much About the Fountain of Youth, and Don’t Know Much About Dan Brown’s Next Book.

Aside from me, there are a number of very fun people involved with this, including Jason Boog, Garth Risk Hallberg, Buzz Poole, Catherine Lacey, and Drew Toal. Beer is involved. Do stop on by and check it out!

Jelly Spills and Underwear: A Manifesto

I am not wearing pants. This is the optimal thinking position. And this makes my recent failure slightly humiliating. You see, there are several globs of grape jelly that spilled onto my boxers. This was because I faced the common domestic problem of making a jelly sandwich with the hope of using the maximum amount of jelly possible. The trouble was that there was just enough jelly left in the jar for about a sandwich and a half. An immediate decision was made. Finish off the jelly. Who would want enough for only a half sandwich? We don’t do half sandwiches in this house. One hopes to get the most in such scenarios. I got cocky, and it wasn’t just because I was wearing boxers. The remainder of the jelly — all one sandwich and a half of it — was spread onto the bread. For a while, it looked like everything was okay. The whole jelly sandwich, despite the slightly overflowing mass of jelly contained between the two slices of bread, would stay together. The mass would hold. There would be streamers and pinatas. But then the jelly dripped as I raised the jelly sandwich. Gravity was not on my side. I should have performed better calculations. The jelly dripped and plopped and fell atop my boxers. And now I have to do more work — specifically, Shouting it out — when I next wash these boxers. In the meantime, I am wearing boxers with jelly stains. The congealed jelly seems more shameful and disgusting than, say, semen stains. But the manner in which I got to where I am right now is, from a certain subjective viewpoint, less shameful and disgusting, and is more common than most people think. But we cannot talk about it in contemporary America. And since the final results — purplish stains close to the vent where my penis is most likely to pop out, should I be equally careless — are an aesthetic eyesore, you can see why there would be bad feelings incommensurate with the circumstances. This was, after all, an accident. Well, not really, given my overscooping of the jelly. But we can call it an accident. Men like to take off their pants when they are indoors and it is the autumn time of the year. We do this as often as we keep on our black socks when we take all other clothes off. But the black socks move lasts all year round.

I will likely have to wear pants at some future point tonight. After all, one cannot stay in the house forever. One certainly shouldn’t wear the same boxers forever. And yet if not wearing pants is the optimal thinking position, my optimal thinking position has proven to be less than optimal. I might blame the jar of jelly, which had the misfortune of possessing a few extra scoops extra of jelly. I could claim that the jar of jelly caused my present philosophical contretemps. But then that would be pointing fingers and evading my responsibility. The only person to blame here is me. Optimally, I am the source of my jelly problems. And by relaying this domestic anecdote in a public forum, the hope is to encourage all men who have experienced a problem of this sort to emerge from anonymity and to declare that they too have spilled jelly or some other food upon their boxers, and to be perfectly okay with the awkward folly of a slight miscalculation gone awry. I am sure there are also women who have stained their panties with jelly. Frankly, I find that development a little sexy. It doesn’t seem nearly as ignoble as a man spilling jelly onto his boxers. Now I realize that there is a double standard when it comes to spilling jelly onto underwear. I will turn myself into the appropriate authorities at Berkeley.

But I have moved beyond political correctness and into greater possibilities. Perhaps when we next protest some terrible political development, we — men and women — can all march upon the appropriate government wearing nothing more than underwear and with an overstuffed jelly sandwich in our hands. The jelly sandwich can be handed to each protester just before they approach the ideal protesting position. The jelly can then fall onto each protester’s underwear and therefore suggest some diabolical smearing of the pure human spirit. If the protesters eat all the jelly sandwiches, perhaps they might throw jelly at the appropriate political opportunists. (The truly honest protesters can throw jelly at themselves.) Perhaps exciting pornography can be created that involves jelly spills. Perhaps celebrities can appear on television dropping jelly onto their underwear. Perhaps we can get a jelly company to sponsor all this. Or maybe not. Maybe that would corrupt the pure behavioral liberties.

Was this worth writing about? Some would say yes. Some would say no. Some will find this revelation to be creepy; others quirky. For my own part, writing about something embarrassing has caused me to see its potential. I think I will make more deliberate efforts to spill jelly onto my underwear.

Sarah Hall Roundtable — Part Five

(This is the fifth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man.)

Other Installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

More on Hall: “The Early Fiction of Sarah Hall” and a one hour radio interview I conducted with Hall in 2008.

Many thanks to all the participants, to Gregory Henry at Harper for getting the books out to everyone so quickly, and to Sarah Hall for her gracious eleventh-hour participation.

Judith Zissman writes:

hallrt5Ed started us out with this, among other things: “This does raise the question of whether this structural tension stacks the deck against the reader.” And I was intrigued to follow that thread through your commentary — many of you commented on the beautiful but chilly still life of words Hall paints here, and her overtly formal techniques.

I like this kind of effort, and the way that the work itself becomes about representational strategies as much as it is about plot or character or other elements. The book asks the reader to participate in the act of making meaning, much in the same way that visual artists demand the viewer’s collaboration. When I was thinking about curating art to character, I found myself immediately thinking of Cindy Sherman’s work for Susan — the questions of archetype, sexuality, surfaces that thread through Sherman’s work are in part the questions Hall assigns to Susan.

Annette, too, feels archetypal to me – as Kathleen says, the title of her section gives it away (I picture her as The Blind Girl in the famous Millais painting, in that glowing light of divine vision). And knowing that, being handed the playbook for each of those characters up front, all at once as in a painting (as Brian points out), I was still interested in watching those sections unfold. I found them captivating.

I was less captivated by Giorgio, and less still by Peter. In each case, I felt less to explore under the surface than with the women, and I was less interested in their archetypal qualities. I suspect I’d be less interested in their paintings as well (Giorgio seems clearly to be Giorgio Morandi, yes? I couldn’t quite match Peter — did you have any luck with that, Peggy?), and am interested to see the broad split in our roundtable between those of us who thought the Susan sections most successful and those who thought them least

To me, the Susan sections were successful precisely because they asked so much of the reader: you (yes, you!) must insert yourself in to the work directly or actively resist that insertion – it’s a bold start to the novel and then unrelenting throughout. You are asked to be present for Susan’s wrenching pain, her transgressions and carnality. You’re not allowed to look away.

Peter’s foot stuck in the rock? Not so boldly compelling.

Of Hall’s other work, I’ve only read Daughters of the North, which shares with HtPaDM the strong female archetypes, the gorgeous Cumbrian landscape and the exquisite mastery of language. That work is definitely more plot-driven, but still quite formally experimental. I’m curious to read her other two books, and will do so next.

(Speaking of curiousity, and tangents, I’m amused that on Harper Collins’ web page for HtPaDM, the blurb for “New Books Similar to This One” suggests The Tenth Justice By Brad Meltzer: “Landing a prestigious position as a Supreme Court clerk fresh out of Yale Law, Ben Addison is on the ultra-fast track to success—until he inadvertently shares a classified secret with the wrong listener. And now the anonymous blackmailer who made a killing with Ben’s information is demanding…” Hee.)

Thanks for the invitation to participate. I’ve so enjoyed reading collaboratively with all of you.

Anne Fernald writes:

It’s been alternately moving, exasperating, and impressive to read through all these comments from beginning to end just now. But, as others have said, it has been a lot of fun to read this book along with you & I am grateful to Ed for including me in this experience.
Since I’m such a slow reader and such a terrible procrastinator, I saw these emails coming in, one at a time, over the past two weeks and saw many, many of them expressing frustration and even strong dislike for the book.
This took me by surprise.
I loved this book. And often, I haven’t been thrilled by Ed’s picks, so this was a lovely, welcome read. Sarah Hall is new to me and I am happy to have discovered her.
As Ed mentioned at the start, I’m a Woolf scholar. It’s probably no surprise, then, that what matters to me most is not plot: I don’t care at all if a novel has a plot. I do care about voice, about what Woolf called “tunneling,” that sense that characters have lives that stretch back before their novels. I care about careful sentences. Ed suggested “this book is something of an interesting rupture between the modern novel of consciousness and the postmodern novel of playful structure.” It doesn’t feel like a “rupture” at all to me, so I’ll quibble there, but I do think that this novel benefits from both modern and postmodern novelistic traditions.
Miracle finds this a cold book. To me, it’s a lonely book, but not a cold one. Hall seems to care about her characters: Peter and Susan reflect on their misdeeds in ways that suggest a strong ethical sense without passing judgment on them. She even offers Susan a complicated chance at redemption on the book’s final page. I don’t think a cold book would set Susan in motion, grieving for her dead brother, behaving badly, trying to find her way back toward life and feeling, and give her such a measured bit of hope at the end.
I was really struck by Peggy, Jenny & Traver’s critiques because they were so funny and, in being full of wit and energy, I found them hard to disagree with. When Traver writes that he was put off by “fancy prose clouds of florid fucking” and the “genteel exoticism” of the Italian sections, I see what he means. And Peggy’s incredulous, impatient “ “Italian villa plus cleaning woman, anyone?  Eat Pray Paint?” made me laugh out loud. Still, and in spite of the fact that I’m not much for erotic novels, I really loved the sex scenes and the way Hall had Susan use them to grope her way back to feeling. I really loved the description of her lover grabbing her bottom and splitting it like he was sectioning a fruit. Typically embarrassed by such comparisons, I found this one sexy and funny: a great way to revive the cliché about apple and peach bottoms.
I share Jenny’s distaste for writing bad reviews, so I had all the more admiration for the way she eased herself into the distaste. And, again, I guess I can see the stereotyping in the Giorgio chapters, but I didn’t mind it. Nor did I mind the fact that some of what he wrote didn’t really seem like the way a painter would talk about his work. Again, perhaps that comes from being a Woolf scholar, having spent decades thinking about Lily Briscoe and Woolf’s ventriloquizing of a painter: whatever Lily may say that’s odd, Woolf’s sister found it spot on. And she was a painter.
The Giorgio chapters, though, were vivid to me (though not my favorite narrative) because I recognized early on that they must be based on Giorgio Morandi, something the title page note confirms. Though I get to the Met much less often than I would like, my daughter, 6, and I spent a day there last January. We stumbled upon the Morandi show. She had her sketch pad with her and was determined to draw, so I spent a long half hour in the small show. The paintings, grey and tan still lives of bottles, grew on me, as did the sense of this artist as a great painter and a cold, quiet man. Wandering through the galleries while my little girl sketched Morandi’s paintings of bottles was a deeply moving experience for me and Hall got the benefit of some of those very powerful and wonderful feelings as I read her book.
Though the communist teacher admires him, I never thought him a communist: the teacher is always apologetic and firmly aesthetic in the terms of her admiration, always defending him against detractors. Morandi died in 1964, at a time when communism in Europe still had cachet and credibility among the elite. I did a little checking and confirmed my suspicions: Morandi had fascist sympathies, as this Yale Press book seems to explore.
I was fascinated by the narrative of Annette: I love the idea of a girl trying to escape the confines of  a Catholic village and I think the added complication of blindness allowed Hall to really explore that difficulty with added intensity.
I loved how seriously the book took Susan’s grief. As Jenny is a fan of books about twins, I enjoy reading about grief. Maybe I think I can inoculate myself against the inevitable. In any case, her descriptions of the unsettling sense of detachment from one’s own body resonated deeply with me. As someone said, for me, too, grief happens in the gut and intense sorrow seems to swaddle me away from life and from color.
But my favorite and the funniest was Peter’s narrative. I love taking this big, funny, lout and trapping him in a rock with only his mind to race as maniacally as all of him usually races. And rich and funny that this painter of rocks is named for the rock, Peter.
I also love the subtle feminism: the way that the shadowy women behind Peter and Giorgio and Annette are given enough of a life for us to know that they suffer, that their lives stink for being interconnected with these jerky men who don’t really sufficiently notice them. Someone else said that the second-person works to ratify women readers. I felt that, throughout the book, Hall really was imagining the suffering of the characters on the margins — male and female — in ways that struck me as feminist. I don’t simply mean empathetic, though that’s a big part of it: I mean deeply conscious of gender roles as they shift over time and the pain that we all suffer (including poor Nathan) from being trapped by cultural expectations.
This is a deeply Woolfian book and I loved it for that. I also found myself thinking fondly back on a much less-known and more middlebrow writer who writes about painting and grief: Sue Gee. I’m a big fan of hers and her Earth and Heaven, about artists at the Slade after WWI and the death of a child, was deeply, deeply moving to me. It shares with Sarah Hall a sense of some kind of complicated connection between art and grief: a refusal to make an easy equation, a refusal to make a choice, but an interest in how art takes from and gives back to life: that parents who are artists miss some of their children’s lives, but that they also have a way of mourning that loss that matters beyond themselves. My former professor and friend Harriet Chessman’s novel about Mary Cassat, Lydia Cassat Reading the Morning Paper, also treats similar themes with beauty.
I’ve already recommended this book to several friends. It gave me a lot to think about. As did our discussion! Thanks, all!

Peggy Nelson writes:




So here are what I thought might be “Peter’s mountains!”   I was in Venice to see the Biennale, and saw the paintings there. They are by Daniele Galliano and all are 2009, interestingly enough.  The canvases were big enough, about 300 cm wide, so that you’d need your whole arm to paint it, and would need to stand back often to judge the effect of the whole.  But why I thought of Peter here was that the brushstrokes were bold and obvious, I think Peter would not be so much about blending things as the big feeling and the big gesture – but also conveyed a sense of geology.  He’s someone emotionally involved with nature in all its forms (family, quarry, feelings), and I think he would want to make the connection between a brushstroke that he “just feels,” and the sedimentary layers that are actually there!  (Note however, the fish as the priest’s headress/vestments – that’s not a Peter thing, too funny, too symbolic.)

I do like Judith’s suggestion of Cindy Sherman-type work for Susan.  Also, I did see something in an Australian art magazine, Art World (issue #12) that made me think of Susan as well, but stupidly I left the issue behind because I was stressing about my bags being too heavy again. Anyway these were wall-sized photographic diptychs, one side of which featured a contemporary person, alone or with a bag, barefoot, devoid of expression, while the other side showed shots of walls and angles in empty malls.  It sounds too clever and cold, but the visual impact was good, perhaps because of the lighting, the collection of angles, or the not-quite-expressionless faces, which allowed one to project psychological depth.  Actually, now that I’m describing them, it kind of sounds like Hall’s project as well!

Anne, Morandi is a great mapping for Giorgio!  (In my mind’s eye I kept thinking Manet’s “Asparagus,” if spears were actually bottles  😉

I had such terrible internet connections while traveling that I felt a bit like Peter in the rock (oh no, just got the religious pun there.  arrrrgh), knowing all sorts of interesting things were happening in this discussion, yet unable to participate b/c my connection kept getting dropped.  Did anyone else think Peter’s predicament a metaphor for castration?  I mean the appendage, his name, the balance with the other characters’ sexuality either acting out or repressed . . . We once had an entire lecture in Contemporary Art Theory about Castration Metaphors in Star Wars.  Interestingly, our lecturer had turned his polo collar UP.  Not sure he realized . . . Anyway, I thought it was the falsest note of the book to pen Peter in like that.  Especially when we have the recent example of that guy who actually did use a penknife to amputate his arm to escape from a canyon (in Utah?), and then wrote really beautifully about the horrifying experience.  Find another way to show us the flashbacks, I wanted to insist to Hall.

Miracle, I think your observation about the language of art criticism being the closest thing we have to spiritual philosophy is right on.  I’m not even a spiritual person, but I agree that that language holds that place in the culture, no matter how secular one personally is.  And thanks to Kathleen, I now have a much greater appreciation of Catholicism as a theme in the book, which I had skimmed over the first time.  I do think Annette died, and her Vision is commensurate with the divine images of the martyrs, turning their eyes upward while dying, in pain yet in thrall to a more beautiful picture above.  That kind of stuff pretty much drives me absolutely bats (not *another picture of Mary and Jesus looking “abstracted”), but because of that, I missed it as a theme the first time around.

Like Michael I was also reminded of films while reading it, maybe La Terra Trema for Italy fore and aft?  And Traver, what do you think: an Austin Powers/Blow Up mashup for Peter’s world?

I have also been thinking about what Kathleen and a few others of us said about a consistent authorial voice, and how for some works, or for some writers, that is not only ok, but desirable: mentioned were Roth, O’Connor, Dick, Woolf, and others.  And that made me pause, because I do agree with that.  So I reconsidered why I had reacted so strongly against it here, in Hall’s book.  It may be because I really wanted action, although in Virginia Woolf I do not mind the serious lack of plot.  But it may be that the combination of Hall’s beautiful yet somnolent voice, and her choice of still lives as subject matter, enabled the weakest qualities in each, like partners in a dysfunctional relationship.  I am again drawn to her including the Renaissance art manual as a coda, in which the importance of choosing different colors is stressed.  I think Hall has the answer to her puzzle-box there, but repressed the insight and abreacted it into this novel instead.

Sarah Hall responds:

First let me say how delighted I am that How To Paint A Dead Man has been part of this roundtable discussion. The reading responses have been fascinating, as have the wonderfully tangential avenues down which the discussion has ranged.

Every human state exists in life, and I guess the book tries to be a life study before it is an art study, which does not accord with some of the things that have been suggested: quite the opposite, in fact. I wanted to reflect states of being and ways of contracting with the world. We all live. We all die. We all love and lose and create and question and make meaning in between. For me, the book absolutely does not say that the meaning – the art – that we struggle to make is meaningless when set beside the life.

The exhibition that Susan curates, and initially disapproves of, about the personal lives and artefacts of artists, explores the desire we seem to have to hold practitioners up against their work, to have them explain the work, and often be commensurate to it. It might be worth me saying that what I think and what Susan thinks is rarely the same thing. It seems troublesome to mix up the work and the worker, which is part of the problem that I thought How to Paint a Dead Man explored. It worries me that an exploration of the problem seems to have been mistaken for the problem itself.

Life has few neat arrangements, answers or conclusions, except the great inevitable conclusion. Perhaps it’s a risk not to provide the reader with the level of consoling solvency much literature has conditioned us to expect. The most externally dramatic character interactions and outcomes, written for the sake of convention or superficially to ‘make something happen’ or ‘develop a character’, would have ill suited this novel; it is more of a speculative book, and my preoccupation was with character interiority and investigation. My own preference as a reader is simply to feel accompanied in my life’s experience by fiction, to feel that a novel is a companionable, resonant thing, a reflection of life’s complexity and opacity, rather than a reassuring guidebook with trite answers, or a theatrical set piece with a neat ending. Such are my reading preferences, and such was this project. This is why, for example, I wasn’t worried about the undermined jeopardy of Peter’s predicament. He survives the mountain ordeal – we know this because his story is set in the early 1990’s and he is alive in Susan’s narrative, which is set in present day London. His story is not really a does-he-doesn’t-he-get-out-of-the-mountain-trap story. The trap is the trap of himself, his life, his history and experiences. Can any of us escape this? How might we reconcile ourselves with our own traps?

At one point during the editing I went through and tried to tie the stories together a little more. But the narratives became too contrived and it seemed like such an insult to the intelligence and connecting skills of the readers that I reverted back to a version featuring independent but cross-resonating stories. The version of the manuscript published is the most successful version of the book, the most ‘true’ to itself and to its original ambitions. I do feel – as did those trusted others with whom I consulted during composition – that there are enough deliberate and straightforward connections in the book. Some are subtle, tucked away, and I hope satisfying to discover or uncover (Tom, Tommaso, hyacinths, erotic suffocation). The main characters do feature in each other’s stories, and the narratives all ask the same questions and explore similar ground: how shall we live? Who am I? What meaning is there in this world?

Annette’s story is essentially a dark folk tale. It still employs a degree of ‘realism’ but there seemed fewer requirements for absolute reality. High-resolution, if and when it is used, is used in Annette’s imaginative realm. Also the world in which Annette operates – she is blind and her experiential development has been arrested by her family – is a world of the senses, and of the mind’s eye. Not only of the mind’s eye, but also of the black hole – of the unspeakable powers beneath our impulse to represent, and make the world. The Bestia is there, only just held in check, in each of the four stories.

The sense of the second-person address being the right expression for Susan was intuitive too. That first line, ‘You aren’t feeling like yourself’, I think wrong-foots the reader but also contains its own strange logic when the reader discovers what’s going on with this character – the displacement of her identity. The second person asks the reader to think about who is speaking (or perhaps thinking) the story, and it also asks who is being spoken to. It is an imperative but it is also inclusive. Susan herself is made more remote through the device in a way, while the reader is implicated. Susan’s story, though it is about personal descent and dislocation, I hope really encompasses those modern anxieties we might have about how to be in the world, how to know and be ourselves, and how, despite ourselves, we might make something lasting. This is why I opened and closed the novel with Susan.

I think I can, with a somewhat European sensibility perhaps, become deeply involved with the ideas and philosophies at play in the work, rather than dishing up straight brazen plots and transparent prose. Critics have felt that I haven’t always succeeded in my work, that I’ve fallen off my own tightrope, and that’s likely true, but I guess I would rather try to be ambitious than not – isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

The book is not really trying to be like a painting, or to use language to evoke, echo, or embody visual art. I would caution against imposing a particular art historical or practical art theory, frame or critique on the author’s motivations and operations – there simply is not one at work in the text. It’s always odd and quite difficult to talk of the influences and scaffolding surrounding a novel. I am not so conscious of them. The novel is a world in itself, grown by its own inner insistences. The drafting and editing choices or instincts occur in accordance with that world’s habitat. Once a novel is completed those interior pathways, every one of which I felt I had fully explored at the time, seem terribly overgrown. Please forgive my inability to be more articulate, more revealing, or perhaps even more curious, about my own creative and constructive process. As I see it my duty is to articulacy in the work, in the fiction. I have no rigid academic take on my literary interests and motivations, creative imperatives or systems. Nor are the books academic fictions. The reader is free, and most warmly invited, to interpret the ideas, meanings, and structures of this book using whatever tools, theories, experiences, emotions, and intellectual faculties they possess and prefer to use.

The novel’s language was a natural and fluent expression for me, a way to tell the stories, a way to evoke and extrapolate. First drafts look very similar to later drafts as far as sentences, descriptive images, and metaphors go, though there are of course cuts, additions and refinements along the way. I’ve never viewed richer language or poetry as a barrier between the book and a reader –- any reader. I don’t consider this work to be exclusive. Literature can be rich and layered. It can also be plain and one-dimensional. It’s up to a reader to decide which kind they want in their diet, and there’s no telling who wants what.

In the end I think literary fiction is, and must be, divisive, because it is particular, often has identifiable stylistic DNA, takes risks, issues challenges, isn’t always comfortable, doesn’t always pitch an easy entertainment, and is imperfect. I know, fundamentally, that this book is, that all my books are, not to everyone’s taste. How To Paint A Dead Man won’t work for everyone. What else can I say? If it’s too cold, read it by the fire. If it’s too hot, put some ice on your neck. But thank you, sincerely, for reading it.

Sarah Hall Roundtable — Part Four

(This is the fourth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man.)

Other Installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Five

More on Hall: “The Early Fiction of Sarah Hall” and a one hour radio interview I conducted with Hall in 2008.

Jenny Davidson writes:

hallrt4Ugh, I am feeling awful about this — I don’t like writing negative reviews, I’ve been dragging my heels on finishing the book and writing a few thoughts for your consideration – but now that I’ve finished reading it, I will have to say that I pretty strongly disliked it!  I found both of the Italian “voices” almost intolerably artificial/stereotypical feeling — I particularly loathed the Bottle Diaries, which seemed to me much more like a non-artist’s view of what an artist might think like than anything actually insightful or persuasive or striking about art, but I found the Annette chapters also overly fey and affected.

I had nothing against the second-person voice used for the Susan bits, and I am interested in novels about twins, but I realized that though I felt that voice does an effective job for the novel of establishing mood/sensibility, I would have had a higher tolerance for it had it been used to narrate, say, a thriller/mystery plot.  And the Peter chapters seemed to me the most successful on Hall’s own terms, with a more complex character and voice and narrative structure, only I found him singularly annoying as a character as well!

In short, I am clearly not the ideal reader for this book.  Hall is a very skilled crafter of sentences, of course, and yet there is nothing magical about them for me, they do not take off and become transcendent, there does not seem to be some insight motivating them or even just the sound of language in some striking new way.  Anyway, I’ll now just put together a pair of paragraphs, my least favorite and the one that I liked the best in the book, to show more concretely what I see these weaknesses as being.

A good example of what I really didn’t like about the Bottle Diaries chapter falls on p. 72, the two paragraphs beginning “The room has gained infamy with very little help from me.”  The diction, with its air of having been translated, seems to me portentous but bland; there is something smug or self-satisfied, to my ear, in this ostentatious pondering on art.

A good example of what I liked — a paragraph that definitely stood out to me, although I still don’t think that the sentences themselves (the diction, the style) are as distinctive as what I see in the writers I most enjoy (Peter Temple, for instance, who I have been reading again recently) — the description of Susan and her lover stripping wallpaper and accidentally dislodging an old wasps’ nest (p. 257):

It was a hot summer.  The windows were open and one or two wasps had been drilling about the place.  Then Tom found the grey, cindery pocket in a wall cavity, and, thinking it was disused, he began to chip between its seal and the plaster.  Suddenly the air was swarming.  For a moment he was paralysed as the insects rushed and scribbled above the nest.  Gesu Cristo!  He picked up a decorating sheet, threw it over the two of you, and you stumbled from the room,s lamming the door closed.  Are you stung? No.  Nor am I.  Underneath the sheet he smelled of sweat and dust.  You could hear the wasps as they flew against the other side of the door, rapping softly like fingertips.

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

Anna and Kathleen: Your posts made me wish that I’d been more careful when writing my first post, and made me rethink some of the points I made altogether.

Anna, when I read your post, I felt an instant camaraderie. Usually, I’m one of those readers for whom the writing style is everything: If the writing is superb, I don’t care about anything else. And I found myself nodding in agreement with everything you said, even as doing so contradicted what I’d already said. Also Kathleen, I agree with you re: plot as well (especially since I stumbled across Lev Grossman’s WSJ piece). Though I like plots as much as the next reader, I’m not a plotmonger the way Grossman appears to be, nor do I think books without them are necessarily somehow inferior. I also realized, as I thought about it more, that my idea of a plot is pretty minimal. Someone mentioned Virginia Woolf; I really like her and think the interpersonal relationships she develops are plot enough. And have y’all seen the movie The Straight Story? Old guy drives across Iowa and Wisconsin in a tractor, meets people. Or Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine? Guy rides escalator, thinks about stuff. That’s more than enough plot for me.

So why did I get fidgety? (Because I did, I can’t take that back.) Were I to start my post all over again, I would have foregone the concept of plot (which I ran with as far as I could in my caffeine-addled state) for the looser idea of movement. Which allows me to say a more concise thing about How to Paint a Dead Man than I managed to before.

In essence, Hall’s concept runs into a paraphrase of the old expression: Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture, and it has to do with the way you experience the two forms. You take in a painting, to some extent, all at once. Sure, you may linger over it, examine details, return to it later, but the experience of looking at a painting or photograph is basically one point in time. A novel, meanwhile, is stubbornly linear–you can’t see the whole all at once, and grasping the whole requires time–a lot more time than most people would spend looking at one painting. So using one to mimic the other is, conceptually speaking, pretty awkward (unlike, say, books about music–see the entire 33 1/3 series–or paintings about a specific moment in history). Put another way: What would a single painting that tried to mimic the experience of reading a novel look like?

I’m not saying anything profound here, and I imagine Hall thought about this a great deal as she set herself a kind of impossible task, intentionally picking up the wrong tool for the job, like grabbing a screwdriver when you need to bang in a nail. That she pulled it off at all is a real achievement; that she did it so cleanly is pretty miraculous. (I say this as someone who has actually used a screwdriver to bang in a nail; it’s not a good idea.) But still, the two concepts, writing and painting, are awkward bedfellows, and what made me fidgety, I understand now, was the lack not of plot, but of apparent movement. For so much of the book, the main characters are trapped–Peter literally so, others figuratively, and yeah, the tension definitely builds because of it. Hall does release us from it–in the final sections for each character, each one is freed from whatever has been trapping them–but perhaps the characters were stuck just a little too long for this particular reader.

That said, reading what I wrote, I realize that this is a small complaint about an otherwise quite impressive novel. And the more I hear what others say about the book–both positive and negative–the more HTPADM is growing on me. I suspect, too, that HTPADM is a book that would richly reward a second or third reading. For me, a second reading would be all about exploring the connections among the characters — a few of which I missed the first time (e.g., that Tom is Annette’s brother — that was a real “of course!” forehead-slapper for me when a couple people mentioned it)–and it’s quite possible that this kind of reading would reveal in HTPADM the sense of movement that I like when I read books.

P.S. Miracle, I love that you lumped Atlas Shrugged, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Battlefield Earth together. That’s a beautiful thing. Also, I can’t believe you don’t think Zep rules.

Michael Schaub writes:

While trying to figure out what to write about this, I kept going back to Ed’s suggestion that we all respond to books subjectively, and Brian’s great “ambitious little prick” moment (awesome) where his professor talked about the difference, such as it is, between admiration and love. (Which is not to say the two are mutually exclusive.) After I finished reading How to Paint a Dead Man, I realized that I’d have to read everything else I could find by Sarah Hall. I realized she was an undeniable talent and an extraordinarily gifted young writer. I admire her.

And I admire parts of this book. But I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t enjoy it, though there were parts I found interesting, and sections that were beautifully rendered. My reaction comes closest, I think, to Jenny’s – she and I were bothered by at least one of the same things: the chapters dealing with Annette and Giorgio, which we both found artificial. I did think that Hall did a great job in making Giorgio’s sections sound like English translated from the Italian, which has to be hard to pull off, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the reclusive master painter and the poor blind flower girl were stock characters in an Italy-romanticizing movie from the past. I actually wasn’t convinced at all that Giorgio and Annette were necessary as characters in this novel; they struck me as flat, especially compared to how well Suzie was rendered (and, to a lesser extent, Peter).

I loved, for the most part, Suzie’s chapters. Like Abigail, I wasn’t bothered by the second person – frankly, I didn’t even really notice it for a while – and I thought the conceit made sense given the questions of identity and twinhood (is that a word? It is now!) that the book raised. The most striking parts of Suzie’s installments, I thought, were the sex scenes – not for any licentious reasons; it’s hard to imagine colder, less prurient writing about sex than these. I loved them because they were cold -– I think that’s a word Miracle used, aptly, to describe the book. My problem with the book as a whole was that when it was cold, I wanted it to be colder. And when it was warm and sentimental, I missed the coldness.

I wonder if the book wouldn’t have worked better –- for me, anyway -– if Hall had stuck to just Suzie. Of course, this would have made it a different book entirely, so it’s not the most helpful criticism to make. Peter’s chapters almost worked for me; I lost him, though, when Raymie was introduced as a character, near the end. Raymie couldn’t have been more flat – she came across like the saddest character in the saddest Velvet Underground song ever written. The whole ‘60s reminiscing thing left me unconvinced.

But I want to get back to Ed’s point about judging this book subjectively. I have no doubt that at least 90% of my reaction to this book – both negative and positive – is purely subjective, purely personal. For a long time, I’ve been unable to read books, watch movies, even listen to songs that mention the death of a sibling. I haven’t been as unlucky as Suzie, but I came close, not long ago, and considering this kind of thing still unsettles me, nauseates me, makes me turn away.

Is that why I found the book off-putting? I have no idea. I’ve considered other possibilities, especially after reading the positive reactions from all the intimidatingly smart people taking part in this discussion. There are very few subjects about which I know less than visual art; I love it, but I’m as unlearned as you can possibly be on the subject and still be a high school graduate. I’m an American with a pitiful lack of knowledge of Europe. Did any of that make me miss something?

I don’t know. And I hate to keep saying that -– it sounds, to me, like a critical abdication, but it’s where I am as a reader right now. I wonder, though – to paraphrase the “eggshell skull” rule in law –- if authors and books have to take their readers as they find them, with all their blind spots and vulnerabilities and fields of ignorance.

I do know that Hall is gifted, and I do look forward to reading her other work. I’d love to see her indulge her sense of humor more (did anyone notice the reference to a misheard Stone Roses lyric in one of Peter’s chapters?), and I’d love to see her focus more –- I think my problems with the book stem from the fact that Hall, I’m guessing, thinks quickly, and thinks a lot, and the end result here wasn’t as tied together as I would have hoped.

Maybe, of course, the fractured nature of this book was supposed to be discomfiting. It reminds me of Annette’s mother reassuring her that no furniture would ever be moved in the house: “Nothing will be rearranged. There. Doesn’t that make you feel safe?” Safety, it turns out, isn’t really the point.

Amy Riley writes:

This discussion has been very interesting to read, as I’m fairly certain I would never have even considered the majority of the points raised if I had simply read this on my own.  To be completely honest,  I may not have even finished the book.

Which is not to say I didn’t like it.  There were times I actually looked forward to turning the page.  On a few occasions, I thought about skipping ahead to the next section of whichever narrative I was on, because from a plot standpoint I didn’t think it would make a lot of difference.  

The use of second person didn’t bother me but I don’t know if that’s because I found Suzie’s narrative one of the more tolerable ones to read or not!  It did make sense to use it for her…after all in her opening pages is a discussion of how people don’t use “I’ anymore because they “do not want to be involved in the desperate act of being.’  Suzie fits right into that in her grief she has lost her sense of self and connection.  She was only “I’ in relation to Danny, once Danny was gone who was Suzie?   I also looked forward to Annette’s sections, though I found her death bizarre.  The overall structure…the fact that the individual stories were only loosely linked and spanned years wouldn’t bother me on it’s own and in fact was one of the reasons I wanted to read the book. I am generally drawn to explorations of how our lives intersect and how our actions impact each other.  I suppose the very subtle nature of that in this book made it more realistic, but I felt I like I really had to work for it.  And perhaps the loneliness and the isolation were so extreme that the small ways these lives did affect one another never penetrated through that shield.

Looking at the book as moving from frame to frame or as a stillpoint in each character’s life was helpful to me in understanding the book or what it aims to be.  I don’t have much understanding of visual art so I do fear much of that went right by me.  While I appreciate the skill this book must have taken, I have to agree it’s not really for the casual reader.  In fact, when I told a friend who had read this book that I’d be participating in a roundtable discussion, she seemed uncertain about what we would actually discuss.

Traver Kauffman writes:

Hey, kids. I just finished the book ten minutes ago, and I’m now ready to make dumb jokes about it. See, I used to have this somewhat credible litblog, and then this and that happened, and now I write limericks and go for cheap laffs. Which is unfortunate, because this is a serious book, right down to the author photo.

Which I love, by the way. It’s standard practice, in some corners, to objectify the attractive lady author, but I’m just not going to do that. Still, and honestly, I’m a little in love with this photo. I want to buy fresh peaches at the farmer’s market, stay up until the wee hours peeling the skins, and bake them into a peach crisp so I can serve it with fresh bourbon whipped cream to my love, this photo. I want this photo to recline on a bed in a cheap motel and unroll its torn black stockings slowly whilst I read Bukowski to it in a cigarette voice. I want to reform the Stone Roses and take this photo to our first show, where I’ll dedicate “I Wanna Be A Dog”…er…I mean “I Wanna Be Adored” to it. Yes.

Is this a good book? Pretty good. Not the sort of thing I’d typically reach for, and something I probably would have tossed aside if not for guilt associated with skipping yet another Eddie Champ-curated roundtable. But it does pick up considerably around page 90 or 100–I believe I made a note about this in my thinkspace at page 99–and wasn’t much of a slog from that point forward.

Cheap and easy judgment: Susan is OK; Peter is better. And, yes, Peter is a man from central casting, in some respects, but he did benefit the most from the novel’s structure, in my view. That is, his character deepened and changed most–benefitted most–from the tellings of the other individuals (save Annette, but more about her later). From the “Fool on the Hill” sections I never would have pegged him as an iconclastic artist–more of your all-purpose crank–but by the time Susan and Giorgio are through telling him, it’s clear he’s a fellow of some (apparently well-earned) genius and prestige.

Susan seems like she could have been interesting, had she not been obscured in fancy prose clouds of florid fucking. Again, this is competently and perhaps well-written sex, depending on your politics, but transcendence-by-prick isn’t my thing. The second person didn’t bother me at all, even though it seems like a curious authorial choice. We’re meant to share in her experience most intimately, even as co-conspirators, and therefore most painfully? I dunno.

(At one point, I had a writing advisor who told me in no uncertain terms that reading second-person narration is like being cornered by a drunk. Of course, he was drunk at the time and I was backed into a corner at the Union Club in Missoula, Montana, so take that as you will.)

Giorgio and Annette: where to begin? I think others have touched on it, so there’s not much point in my running down these sections. Gorgeous writing? OK. But this genteel exoticism didn’t do it for me, especially in the Annette sections. Aside from the kind of relentless otherness (by way of stereotype, as others have noted), these bit in particular suffered from needless obscurity that doesn’t plague the other sections. By the end, I wasn’t sure what had transpired, and, apart from my lifelong stance against anyone being rudely violated by a beast of any sort, I couldn’t bring myself to care.

Boiled down, we have here a book with an interesting structure and a writer of some considerable gifts. I just didn’t love it as much as I love that photo.

I leave the floor to my fellow commentators, both more serious and more estimable than I.

Abigail Nussbaum writes:

Brian mentions plot, and specifically the recent Grossman fracas, which reminds me that I never talked about my own reaction to the book as a whole.  I tend to think of myself as someone who reads for plot, but then a novel like Remainder, or City of Saints and Madmen, or Light, comes along and reminds me that that’s not at all true.  It would probably be closer to the truth to say that I find it easier to read for plot, but I suspect that’s true of most people – a plot-oriented novel carries you along with it, whereas a plotless one requires you to navigate your own way through it.  Still, when I turn the last page of a novel my first response is often to ask what happened there, and if the answer is nothing or very little I often find myself without a handle on the work, which is why I’ve so enjoyed this discussion while fearing that I wouldn’t have much to contribute to it.

All of which is a prelude to saying that, like Michael, I admired How to Paint a Dead Man but didn’t love it.  As reviewer, the novels that I enjoy reading and writing about most are the ones that offer an angle of approach from which to engage with them – not necessarily plot, but some element that fires up my imagination.  I tend to think of if in terms of chinks in the surface, handholds and footholds.  HtPaDM feels very smooth (though it might not to others, and particularly those with a background in visual arts), which leaves me admiring it as an edifice, but unable to grasp its component pieces.  And without doing that, I can’t love it.

That said, I don’t think HtPaDM is a novel that wants to be loved.  As Michael says, this is a cold, cold book, and even those parts of it that might have appealed to sentiment — Giorgio and Annette’s narratives — never achieve enough life of their own to be more than sentimental.  Peter is puppyishly lovable, but his narrative is mainly concerned with describing the worst things he’s ever done, and there’s something almost deliberately off-putting about his predicament – he’s in physical distress and in need of assistance, but we’re encouraged to believe, as he does, that he’s not in mortal danger (in fact we know that he isn’t because he’s still alive and apparently recovered – though he walks with a limp – at the time of Susan’s narrative).  So instead of arousing tension and distress, Peter’s injury is aggravating and frustrating – he’s simply stuck.  Finally, there’s Susan, of all the characters the one who most resists emotional connection, with the readers as much as with the other characters.  The only aspect in which Hall seems to be courting the readers’ affection is with her prose, which is indeed quite beautiful (though she tends to fall flat when describing sex – I don’t have the book in front of me but there were a couple of metaphors for bodily fluids that seemed more than a little off).

All of which brings us back to HtPaDM as a painting in prose – capturing a moment, and attempting to engage the readers’ affection not through plot or character or theme but through beauty and superior technique.  It works, I think, though still in the sense that I can’t love HtPaDM the way I love other novels (it’s not just that I’m unschooled in visual arts but that they don’t appeal to me.  I’m all about narrative arts, and even music isn’t an abiding interest), and I find myself going back and forth about it.  On one hand, I admire Hall’s guts for even making the attempt to court a kind of love that her medium isn’t suited to, much less for having the skill to pull it off.  On the other hand, I’m not sure such a chilly trick ought to be celebrated – it’s brave, to be certain, but in the final accounting the result isn’t really a novel.

Review: 9 (2009)


“We had such potential, such promise,” croaks an apocalyptic voice at the beginning of an apocalyptic movie. That may as well be director Shane Acker and screenwriter Pamela Pettler talking. 9 is the kind of film you expect from a mirthless marketing team stumbling onto a hip concept discovered two years too late (“Oooh! Steampunk! That’s what the kids are into!”), only to fumble so desperately in the conception. Sure, the filmmakers were given enough money to attract Christopher Plummer, Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, and numerous other big name actors for voice talent. But they couldn’t be bothered to come up with a coherent or original script, characters worth caring about, or interesting dialogue. After all, when a film’s characters are given such generic names as #4, #8, #1, The Scientist, Dictator, and #8, one shouldn’t expect dialogue as commensurate. Unfortunately, Pettler can be counted upon to give us such cliched dialogue as “I know where we can find answers!” and “We have to find the source!” (One of Pettler’s forthcoming projects involves the forthcoming Monopoly movie. We shall see if she ends up writing such lines as “We have to pass Go and collect $200!”) Let me put it to you this way. Jeff VanderMeer could have written a steampunk movie in his sleep a hundred times better than this after being bloated with Belgian beer, with both hands tied around his back and using only his nose to peck at the keyboard.

The movie’s environment resembles maps that were too shopworn and derivative to make it on Team Fortress 2, with rust and squeaky wheels randomly deposited in the environment without a real sense of purpose. Acker can’t even decide if the remaining corpses of humanity are skeletal or have only partially decomposed. Acker and Pettler have a promising time period to play with for their parallel universe: what looks to be an alternative history circa 1970 after a Nazi-like empire somehow built up an analog version of Skynet. But because there’s no logic to the environment or the backstory, there isn’t much for us to latch onto except sour eye candy. Watching this film is like being promised a tasty taffy stick and being given a Now and Later that’s been melting in the sun since 1962.

I felt nothing when I watched this film. I kept hoping that the cut scene would end. But it didn’t. It went on for an interminable 80 minutes. I would have had more fun waiting for a video game level to load. At least with a video game level loading, you get some carrot at the end. Something worth your time or something you have some control over. But we aren’t given anything here in our passive roles as audience members except dolls (with a dismaying lack of expression: see the above still; Acker tries the whole wide-eyed look for his titular character and it grows tedious quite quick) who have some dim remnant of humanity to recapture here. And so 9 is nothing more than a steampunk knockoff of Wall-E. But it’s worse than a knockoff. Because Wall-E not only presented us with characters we could care about, but an environment that demonstrated the dangers of present human folly. Without any such reference points, 9 is a lackluster husk of a film.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #5

hatemail5A few days ago, somebody forwarded me an email. Apparently, someone had sent an angry email to the writer Jason Sanford, claiming that the writer Jason Sanford, despite writing fantasy and science fiction, was apparently ignorant of the genre. The name “Harlan Ellison” was evoked within the email, presumably to secure the maximum hatred possible.

Therefore, my audio series — Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project — must continue.

The following clip represents my dramatic reading of the hate mail sent to the writer Jason Sanford, read in the style of Richard Milhous Nixon. During the course of my dramatic reading, I began to feel the overwhelming need to tape record all of my telephone conversations. Fortunately, this impulse passed once I had concluded the dramatic reading. I certainly hope that the writer Jason Sanford, as well as listeners, will excuse these dramaturgical explosions.

I plan to continue reading more hate mail. Again, I will be happy to read any specific hate mail that you’ve received. (If you do send me hate mail for potential dramatic readings, I only ask that you redact the names of the individuals.)

Click any of the below links to listen.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #5 (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Previous Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Installments:

#4: A hate mail read in the style of a drunken Irishman.
#3: A hate mail read in the style of a quiet sociopath
#2: A hate mail read in a muted Peter Lorre impression
#1: A hate mail read in a melodramatic, quasi-Shakespearean style

Sarah Hall Roundtable — Part Three

(This is the third of a five-part roundtable discussion of Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man.)

Other Installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Four, Part Five

More on Hall: “The Early Fiction of Sarah Hall” and a one hour radio interview I conducted with Hall in 2008.

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

hallrt3This has all been a pleasure to read so far, and good to be meeting some of you, if electronically, for the first time.

When I was in my first year or so of college, and an ambitious little prick, I once asked a professor what I should read for the summer. For some reason I’d decided that I was going to read either a bunch of Faulkner or a bunch of Woolf. This professor smiled broadly when I laid out my choices (“what an ambitious little prick,” he was probably thinking ) and then said “I’d go with Woolf. I really admire Faulkner, but I love Woolf.” I promptly disregarded his advice and read a bunch of Faulkner, but the distinction he made between admiring something intellectually and liking it emotionally — and the fact that he was able to make that distinction at all, and so casually and easily — really stuck with me, and ended up having a profound effect on me as I struggled to become a better reader (a struggle I continue with today).

This isn’t a backhanded way of saying that I didn’t like How to Paint a Dead Man. I liked it fine. But I find much more to admire in it. The writing itself is gorgeous, pretty much cover to cover; for readers
who love language, Sarah Hall’s sentences are more than enough to keep the pages turning (like Abigail, I wasn’t put off by the second person, especially given that she makes it make sense really quickly).

The tone of the book is precise and exquisitely well developed (I didn’t mind, for example, that that characters pretty much sounded like one another, because it increased the book’s overall effect). And from a formal perspective, as several people have already mentioned, it’s really neat that the experience of reading a book about three painters and a photographer who works in a museum is bit like walking through a museum and looking at a series of paintings and photographs: Form follows function and subject. I also liked the way Hall framed (hold on to that thought) a lot of her subjects: the artists vs. the critics and the search for meaning, as well as the more specific question of whether all that noise people made in the late 1960s amounted to anything. (I think it’s kind of funny that the preoccupation with the late 1960s has been passed down a generation, possibly two, by the way. I’m told that teenagers these days are as into Led Zeppelin and the Beatles as I was when I was a teenager in the early 1990s. Which is interesting when you stop to think that, generationally speaking, teenage me or a teenager today getting his mind blown by Led Zeppelin to the detriment of contemporary music is akin to a kid in 1969 plugging his ears to Led Zeppelin and the Beatles and getting his mind blown by Frank Sinatra’s records from the 1940s, or Bessie Smith’s records from the 1930s. That said, I also happen to think that Frank Sinatra and Bessie Smith rule, but now I’m getting off course. Moving on.)

So Hall is really smart and a terrific writer. No question about either of these things. But I found it difficult to connect to the book, to give myself over to it, and I say this as someone who gives himself over to books very, very easily. What’s my problem? you might ask. It’s what a few people have already mentioned: There is almost no plot.

This isn’t the same thing as saying nothing happens. Plenty of things happen. But very little of it is due to the characters actively, well, acting. I can think of only one instance in which a character truly acts–Peter’s figuring out how to free himself from his predicament on the hill–and that happens almost at the end of the book. I know, I know–if the book is really more like a painting, then it shouldn’t have a plot in the conventional sense. Plots move forward in time, whereas paintings give you everything at once. I get that, and intellectually, I admire that the book does it; intellectually, I admire many, many things about this book, especially its conceptual underpinnings. But that didn’t stop me from getting, as Ed put it, fidgety.

It’s also interesting to me that Hall chose to have so little plot in her book, given that she raises a number of issues, both intellectual and emotional, that having more plot would help her explore. Here I’m about to semi-break one of John Updike’s excellent rules for book reviewing–“do not blame [the author] for not achieving what he did not attempt”–but I’m doing it mostly as an thought experiment, not to set the book up to fail. After all, plot isn’t just plot, as I have no doubt Hall knows. It’s a way to develop characters–are not characters defined by their actions as much as their thoughts, and sometimes the friction between the two? It’s also a way to–and I hate these words, but–operationalize and mobilize the ideas in a book.

Let’s go back to the way Hall frames her ideas. Peggy argued that “the character of Giorgio might be old-skool and prefer to leave his frame to the dealers and critics … but for Hall to accept this at face value and treat not only contemporary interpretations of Giorgio’s work via this trope, but to also view the other artists in the book through it, is doing no one any favors, least of all an author who proposes to use language to plumb meaning in visual art.” I agree with her, and couldn’t help but feel that, by leaving the idea static, an opportunity had been lost. Giorgio is a somewhat reclusive painter who has difficulty talking to critics. Peter is an outspoken, sociable painter who has no problem talking to and arguing with critics,
sometimes to their faces. These two painters write to each other all the time, it seems. Would it not have been interesting to have these two talk to each other directly about their relation to critics and the interpretation of their work? And argue about it? This would help us learn more about both characters *and* let Hall bounce from point to point to push the book’s ideas further–to get beyond the frame, or to fill it in. Another example: So Nathan doesn’t find out about the affair. Fine. But what if he did? Given that Nathan appears to be a fairly easy-going, lighthearted guy–in many ways, not so dissimilar from what we know of Danny–a confrontational conversation between them might have been interesting in moving the ideas in Susan’s story forward and showing us more about these two characters–Nathan’s relationship with Susan, and Susan’s relationship to both Nathan and her brother. Then there’s the ideas about the 1960s–so much fertile ground there, between Danny, Susan, Peter, and Giorgio, none of it more than briefly surveyed.

Clearly, more plot would result in a very different book, and might very well have destroyed both the concept of HTPADM as a still-life painting and the unmoving, tense spell that Hall casts through her writing–like I said, two things I really admire. So if the issue of the relative lack of plot came up, either while Hall was writing the book or in conversation with her editor, I can totally see why they weren’t explored. (It would be a great question to ask Hall directly, rather than have me blather on about it speculatively.) But somewhere in the ether, where there exist alternate drafts of the books we read, there’s a version of HTPADM that’s livelier, more argumentative. There are even glimmers of such a book in the final sections of HTPADM, and Hall is such a good writer that I believe she could have pulled it off, preserving everything that’s good about the book already while applying the same mounting energy in those last pages to the story all the way through: a still life, but still, life.

Kathleen Maher writes:

Having been away for a week, I found the critiques so far of How to Paint a Dead Man terrifically enlightening. Sarah Hall is new to me and the novel together with your insights have felt like a blessing.

As Ed wrote: discussing this book begs a subjective viewpoint perhaps more than most fiction. Taking this as permission, I offer a few personal facts that affect my response to any work of fiction that aspires beyond commercial goals: As an unschooled and mostly unpublished fiction writer myself, I take an author’s “authority” as real, and am reluctant to conjecture about other ways the book might have been written. Until recently, when I began experimenting with serial fiction online, I preferred a plot that lagged behind a story’s character and style.

So the still-life quality here and its plot–where the characters effortlessly change like day into night–delighted me.

It’s probably pertinent, too, that I consider literary “failures” as a sign that a fiction writer is honestly facing his or her daily task, which is always risk. Big or small, failure appears–to me–as fundamental to creative endeavor. Without it, a writer presents only safe, perhaps popular and even beloved, replicas. Further, should those so-called failures become published: hurray for the writer!

Finally, to the novel: I agree with Sarah Weinman that Susan required a second person voice, although my reasons differ from hers. The second person, for me, shows a person so self-absorbed that she or he might as well speak for everyone. That, I think, is what’s off-putting about it. It’s possibly even more egotistical than prose where every sentences begins with an “I.” Susan’s “Mirror Crisis” assumes obliviousness to everything but herself and her grief. As for starting the book with Susan, it was risky, but not much riskier than presenting a novel with four only slightly related protagonists in different time periods.

Yet, Susan’s “You aren’t feeling like yourself…” might especially appeal to women who rarely feel the universal voice champions their personal lives and perspective.

To me, Susan’s second person also announces that here is a woman who is certain of some men’s undying devotion. We take her universal word for it that her twin brother couldn’t settle down, because he wanted only her.Her faithful partner Nathan stays six years after her refusal to marry him. And while she grieves, which I know first-hand is abominable work, he does all the cooking and cleaning without asking questions.

Further, she — or — you — were the smart and capable twin.  Her father–we learn from his first person dreams during the phase where he’s trapped and for all he knows dying–adored and infuriated her.   

Along those lines, I enjoyed and deeply admired Sarah Hall’s writing of Susan’s sexuality. Maybe I’m reading the wrong novels, but graphic descriptions of a woman’s illicit, powerful desires and the frank activity satisfying them do not occur often enough in novels. Certainly not with Hall’s exquisite precision and grounded description of pleasure lasting hours, even days after an encounter.

Cliches? The author’s job is to make them new. They’re cliches to begin with because they’re usually true. (Though I agree with Miracle Jones that a Fascist flower girl, a psychic mountain, and a man’s foot trapped in blind twins would be fabulous–perhaps that’s a story she should write.)

That the four stories intersected at all– father and daughter, mentor painter and student, mentor painter and blind school girl– appealed to me. I believed it because the author wrote it that way and gave us plenty of evidence, whether we get to read Giorgio and Peter’s correspondences or not. But the novel’s beauty would have shown the characters as new and universal even if no relation existed among them.

Brian Slattery’s observation that the characters sounded alike was one I longed to see, because lately I’ve wondered if the lasting writers, the ones most appreciated, are like movie stars who play “themselves” no matter what the movie. They act like characters we associate closely with who we think they are. They’re the stars we recognize and remember.

Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Nabokov, and Philip K. Dick are only a few among a pantheon of writers whose protagonists’ tend to speak with the same authorial voice. In dialogue, it’s nice to find variation among the characters. But if I’m buying a Philip Roth novel, be it set in Israel, New York, or New Jersey, I want it to ring with his voice, his sentences, and sensibility.

Anna Clark writes:

I waited until this morning, until I turned the final page in How to Paint a Dead Man, to take in your perspectives on the novel. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on it, especially because in many ways they seem to differ from mine. For example, I seem to be unusual in that I very much enjoyed Sarah Hall’s book, without qualification.

Here’s why.

For me, the uncommon structure of the novel worked not simply because it assumes a gallery-like experience of peering into one frame after another, but because it is the short sections, the different forms of narrations, the four leading characters that we follow, all this serves the movement of the novel. The instability I felt as a reader in the first pages, unclear on what Hall was up to, transformed into suspense: what was Hall up to? Where is this going? In a novel that, as was mentioned, borrows from the artistic forms of landscape and still-life, the intervals we spend with each character before spinning off into another universe serves to maintain the novel’s profluence, its forward-motion.

While much has been made of Hall’s really fantastic language — she clearly is in love with words, which, frankly, is not a given among contemporary authors — some of you aren’t enamored with the fact that Hall’s language is consistent, even as she moves among her characters and her landscapes. (Though, to be sure, she does vary her vantage points among first, second, and third-person perspectives). This seems to me to be a wise choice: in a novel where so much is unsettled and atypical, using a more or less consistent language gives the reader something to hold onto as she moves through the text. It keeps the novel from veering into unhelpful fragmentation and absurdity. What’s more, the consistent language makes the textual rhymes more apparant; I found myself finishing one section where the images linger on, say, eyes and sight, and I know that that the next section will move to Annette and the stories of her pending blindness. What’s more, Hall’s language is so good, so striking, that it is an argument for itself. I’m happy to meet it, section after section.

Speaking of seeing the rhymes among the characters’ lives–you all have made plain that Girogio teaches Annette and receives letters from Peter; that Peter is Susan’s father. But there are other connections that emerged through the novel–revelations that happened not in the traditional ways of plot, but in the the authorial (painterly?) techniques that Hall embraces here: juxtaposition, association, composition.

I realized late in the novel, for example, that Tom, who Susan is having an affair with, is Annette’s littlest brother (Tommaso). It’s apparent that the bottle Annette leaves on Girogio’s grave–returning a gift he’d given to her–is the bottle that Peter steals when he’s in Italy and later gives to Susan for her exhibition of artist’s relics (though Susan never believes that it’s anything but a tall tale). Connections like these are never pushed on the reader, but emerge in the text, like delicate spices in a well-made meal, like the glimmers of movement that we see when we gaze long enough at a nature morte painting.

The novel carries its share of active tension: Peter’s horrific accident; Annette haunted by the Bestia, by her bizarre family, and the final incident at Girogio’s graveside; Susan’s secrets. But it’s no secret that this novel rides primarily on its stylistic verve. Suspense doesn’t take the usual trappings in How to Paint a Dead Man. But it’s there, in surprising costumes, and I thrilled to it.

One further point: it’s been mentioned that it seemed strange that we learn so few details about what the art made by these characters actually looks like. Such a lack of details comes in context of a novel that is emphatically a visual one. The characters spend an enormous amount of time looking at things; visual images are thick in Hall’s pages. It seems to me that the lack of narration describing Peter’s paintings, say, or Susan’s photographs is again an appropriate choice. No character is compelled to describe their own art to themselves in excruciating details, though we readers get enough information about their canvases to extrapolate; being visually-oriented, the intersections between the characters’ work and their world emerges (for example, through Peter’s life in the north country of Cumbria).

How to Paint a Dead Man is a risky novel, and it is carried by Hall’s sheer confidence and nerve. Even as it simmers under the prominence of the language and structure, this is a physical, muscular work of fiction–one that dwells on bodies, violence, sex, drugs, drunkenenss, blindness, cancer, pregnancy, movement–and so it is perhaps no surprise that it hits viscerally.

Frances Dinkelspiel writes:

I wanted to explore another aspect of the book: Annette’s death at the grave of Giorgio.
Throughout Annette’s sections I kept dismissing her mother’s concerns as the worries of an old-fashioned woman who resisted her daughter’s burgeoning sexuality and who used Annette’s growing blindness as an excuse to control her daughter. After all, it is (somewhat) clear that Annette’s father died while in the presence of his mistress and that they may have been having a sexual encounter at the time of his death. This humiliated his widow, who narrowed her world down to her home, her church (and her tv church) and her children. She clearly only tolerated her brother-in-law and was oblivious to his desire to have a romantic relationship with her.
Annette was obviously very beautiful and she navigated her village and the market without fear. But she always kept a vision of the Bestia (beast in Italian) nearby. At first I just dismissed the Bestia as an Italian peasant superstition. He was the devil, obviously, and in Italy in the years after World War II, most Italians still held a close allegiance to the Catholic church.
But it turns out that the Bestia was real, and Annette’s mother’s fears were realized. There was a dark force out there and it was after Annette. This came as a surprise to me. I expected the story of Annette to be one of modernization. After all, her brother Maurizio had such a playful personality and her uncle was experimenting with cross breeding plants and other science experiments. The family had just bought a television, which I had expected would provide Annette with enlightenment about the broader world. (It did not) I thought Annette’s story would reflect Italy’s transition from a country rooted in superstition and religion to one governed by science and connections to the broader world.
Why did Hall kill off Annette, her flower, her innocent protagonist who had few aspirations in life, who pleased Giorgio, a true artist? Why did she make all the fears and superstitions that had surrounded Annette and her mother happen? Was she creating a counterpoint to the very modern Susan who refuses to marry, indulges in an affair with a married man, and seems to be having a child out of wedlock? Was Hall painting the trajectory of women in recent history? I don’t have an exact answer and am curious about other people’s ideas.
The last chapter of Annette is called “The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni.” Annette goes to church, hears the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac to show his love to God. Annette vows not to be afraid any more and when the rapist approaches her, she does not run or fight back because “she has made a promise not to be afraid. She has made a contract with God to trust in Him so that He will keep her safe from harm.” Her blind obedience to God is her undoing.
At the same time, Hall writes this scene as if it is something beautiful, not violent. At least I wasn’t jarred by it. The last scene in this section is a dead Annette, her eyesight restored, flying over her village and watching her mother and brothers from afar. She sees a tableaux, a pretty picture as she goes to her death.

Kathleen Maher writes:

Frances, your response to Annette’s death touched upon a few things I had decided not to mention but have now supposed I might as well as dare. Readers have referred to this novel, which I found beautiful and stirring if not a straightforward page-turner, as one that lacked a plot and offered scant dialogue, both of which are true.

It’s just that literature promotes and discards and rediscovers style the same way bell bottom (call ’em boot cut) blue jeans, capris, loose clothes and then tight ones, short and long skirts create and follow trends. Plot plays big right now. And it’s likely that scholars discover connections and layers in novels that may or may not be intended. I think it was Jame Joyce who said whatever patterns people found in “Ulysses” were precisely intended. I use this as an example because I can easily imagine a keen mind spending a life time sifting through Joyce’s novel. (Finnegan’s Wake, on the other hand, I’ve never managed to read. And since I can’t make sense of it, I wonder if the novel, if not the author, was insane. But that’s me and I’m all too aware of my limitations.)

Plotless novels were once in published and praised, if not especially popular. Among the most revered I’d put Milan Kundera (yes, his novel have plots but they’re sketchy plots) and the few novels I’ve read by Camus. Perhaps scholars can find prominent, driving plots in Virginia Woolf’s novels, but I can not. Falling along a separate strata there’s Peter Handke and Larry Woiwode.

To touch upon a different strata there are countless “road trip” novels, drunk in Mexico novels, and what would you say about Henry Miller or Genet? They write about one episode after another. There’s action and dialogue but nothing I’d consider “plot.”

Regarding Annette, my sense was: terrible and random things happen. And while her mother did seem hysterical–and in fact didn’t face even the predictable challenges a daughter presents, like her period–her fears came true. That doesn’t mean she was right. If Annette learned Braille, for instance, if she were allowed to grow toward her adult self, perhaps she would have survived and married and had a daughter she was able to nurture more realistically than her mother treated her.

Of course all of that might have occurred if she continued to sell flowers in the market. But she was beautiful and unprotected there at a time when most young women are in school. The story of Abraham sacrificing his only son may be preparing us. But the old fashioned Catholic religion was in love with death. It was enthralled and obsessed and truly besotted with mortality. One’s whole life and its endless frustrations and tribulations would be rewarded in heaven. A young girl who threw herself from a roof and died because a man was approaching her with sexual intentions was considered a martyr. Disabilities–like being blind or lame–were revered. (Mental illnesses not so much unless the Virgin gave you letters.)

So in that vein, Annette’s vision is Divine.  A cradle Catholic as we’re sometimes called, I knew Annette would die in this novel as soon as I read “The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni.” If the family was to portray Italy’s progression into the modern world after WWII, Annette’s story would carry another subtitle. Further, to old-line Catholics, death is always exquisite and glorious, even when it occurred in the Roman Coliseum and lions ripped you limb from limb.

Miracle Jones writes:

Kathleen and Frances: Did Annette die? Do the dead dream?  Upon rereading the passage it is still unclear to me.  She chokes; she passes out.  But death?

Let’s say she did die.

Annette’s death cancels out Susan’s pregnancy, just as Peter’s escape from the hole cancels out Giorgio’s fiendish cancer deathtrap.  Balance!  Even as both elder gentlemen reminisce about women that they could not save, Peter gets a reprieve, returning happily to the woman he is now certain that he loves. Giorgio welcomes death for the same reason. 

Also, if Annette didn’t die, then Tommaso and Susan wouldn’t have anything in common and they wouldn’t be passionately drawn together as incest taboo guilt survivors (dirty feelings killed their siblings), and so there would be no “Yes Baby” at the end.

No, this is a book where everybody gets what they want, whether vision, absolution, rest, or epiphany.  And I think that’s why the plotlessness and silence of this book didn’t feel so strangling.  These people aren’t physically active, but they are certainly mobile in their intellectual and emotional lives.  They are artists, like we all are, and they earn their intellectual and emotional victories in the trenches of their own minds, battling themselves, each one of them winning in the end.  The music soars.

And here’s what Hall says about Ulysses, perhaps inviting us to think about Dead Man in the same way:

“After many attempts he has not read past the first twenty pages.  Something in the language has prevented him, he says.  But on the last attempt a revelation!  The text is a doorway, or a device for transporting the mind.  In itself it resists interpretation, but instead affords the opportunity to think in tandem, like a man riding a bicycle while aboard a ship.  Peter thinks this is what Joyce intended.  It will not make him unhappy to be oblivious to the narrative until the book’s very end, he writes, for he is sure to enlighten his mind in other ways.

“Such interesting philosophy!  My advice would be to concentrate.”

Brian: I’m with you on “fidgety” while reading this book.  I read it mainly while riding back and forth to work every day on the train, and I resisted it every single time I made myself crack it open, looking around everywhere for some girl to flirt with instead.  But once I was engaged, like you said, the language was pure pleasure, like chocolate melting on the tongue.  Of course, as with real chocolate, if you eat too much the dry bitterness hits the back of your throat and it turns sour. This book must be read in doses, with time in between to reflect and savor.  Several times I found myself deeply impressed by a particular phrase or word choice, raising an eyebrow, uncrossing my legs, and leaning forward — possibly sticking my furrowed brow in a straphanger’s crotch.  Hall is a surgeon with image and syntax.  Sometimes its rough to be American, to have your own tongue weighed down by so many awkward marbles. 

Also, NB: I think members of my generation listen to The Beatles and Led Zeppelin as if it is church music.  People who are really into that stuff are not to be trusted.  They will probably try to get you to come back to their place — not for sex or drugs — but to debate one of the seven deeply important books they own, like Atlas Shrugged, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Battlefield Earth

“Dad Rock” is quaint enough.  It takes you back to childhood innocence, even though all the lyrics are about drugs and fucking (also like church music).  There is the smell of incense, perhaps even a buried memory of a bearded man in a robe doing something obscene.  But I don’t think too many of us are going around ignoring the modern equivalents.  Instead, we find it fascinating that once upon a time “pop” could be so musically challenging.  We figure that back then the people who were craving American Idol must have been alienated and pissed off all the time; mad as hell at the whole dang world.  Hence: war.

Peggy: I can’t really disagree with you about anything, and I think I would mistrust this book too if I had to read a book about the glorious insights one gains while working in a coffee shop.  The crema!  The porcelain!  The rich and ineffable foam! 

As a painter and artist, I’m sure painting and art have been thoroughly demystified for you, and a book that traffics in such broad stereotypes ought to be truly villainous to your taste.

I can’t really speak to any of your criticisms, except to say that the language of art criticism is the closest thing the modern world has to  spiritual philosophy.  We want our artists to be wise and impenetrable.  We want our artists to be avatars of what they produce.  This piece of fiction presents a world where such a longing for “authenticity” is true.  A fictional world.  And this world is illuminating for a little while, even if deeply false.   

A Special Musical Interlude from Stacey Q!


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Fun Facts!

The song was recorded on a TASCAM 85-16. (Source)

In 1986, Tampa Bay DJ Bubba the Love Sponge of WFLZ managed to talk a women out of suicide. She had called in to request “Two of Hearts” as her last song. (Source)

Stacey Q played a character named “Cinnamon” on an episode of The Facts of Life and sang the song at the end. The episode was called “Off-Broadway Baby” and was the fifth episode in season eight. It originally aired on November 1, 1986. A video clip from the episode can be enjoyed on YouTube. (Source)

There was also an episode of Full House in which Kimmy and DJ try and get an autograph from Stacey Q. (Source)

“Put a foursquare disco beat under the music, and Americans might dance to it; exchange a long, intricate melody for a short, repeated hook and more Westerners will think it’s catchy. But follow that recipe too closely, and you end up with Stacey Q singles.” (Source)

Sarah Hall Roundtable — Part Two

(This is the second of a five-part roundtable discussion of Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man.)

Other Installments: Part One, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five

More on Hall: “The Early Fiction of Sarah Hall” and a one hour radio interview I conducted with Hall in 2008.

Miracle Jones writes:

“You turned instead to the place where all depraved civilian requests are made and met: the internet.” — Sarah Hall, How to Paint a Dead Man

hallrt2This book was chilly.  Cold, cold, cold.  Not just cold: frozen.  Ordinarily, I distrust books that are so still and moody and arid, but I realized while reading How to Paint a Dead Man that I distrust those books because they don’t freeze anything worth looking at or worth taking the time to get your mind around.  Sarah Hall’s novel is frozen solid — your tongue sticks to it — but it is still full of life, like a snow-buried city in the Antarctic or an ice cube stuffed with worms. 

This book has assembled a whole helluva lot of interesting things — fast things, emotional things, beautiful things, above all ordinary things — and frozen them in time and space so that the artist can paint a truly remarkable still life.  The kind of still life painting that gives Peter brief transcendence at the end of the novel, a painting of which he says “was nothing for a moment, and then was everything.”

I certainly couldn’t recommend this book to a casual reader.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an artistic triumph even as it is not much of a page turner.  Instead it is an exercise in shade and light that must have been exceptionally difficult to pull off.  This book was far more engrossing than it should have been considering that there is no plot of which to speak.  The only events that really “happen” in the book are Peter getting his foot stuck in a hole (which only freezes things further; and how else to freeze this hyperactive madman?) and Annette’s attack by the “Bestia” at the book’s end.

(Who is that “Bestia” by the way?  Was I not paying enough attention?  I want it to be Ivan or Peter on their Italian trip.  I want that to be how Peter “unofficially liberated” the bottle that ends up in Susan’s collection.) 

Ed, your question about structure is the most important consideration here.  This book is all structure.  Form, composition, and relationship.  One must analyze this novel the same way one analyzes a serious, labored painting of dusty bottles on a table.  The four cycling sections each have a different pronoun perspectives (you, I, she, he), each centering on a main character living in a different decade.  Each of the characters are dealing with their own consuming “it,” their muse who is now dead and gone.  They each deal with this loss through changing the nature of their art, even as they are physically altered by shifting circumstances.

Susan curates a show of personal effects, Peter conquers mountains (literally and on his canvases), Annette lives through flowers, and Giorgio has his bottles.  There is a web of inspiration between the characters that is solidified by Susan’s affair with Tom (and its “fruit”), which ultimately makes a weird, circular nexus.  Tom and Susan are clearly breeding the Kwisatz Haderach.

And that’s it.  That’s the book.  The neat and artistic delivery of a complicated structural form, wrapped in very beautiful language, sentence to sentence.  But it is so clever when you consider the limitations!  It is so neat and mathematical and attentive!  Too convenient?  Too contrived?  Perhaps.  But so what?  This is the literary equivalent of “math rock.”  If this were an album, it would be by King Crimson.  It would be called Bottles

If you were to make a movie out of How to Paint a Dead Man, how would you do it without contorting the plot into a flashback-riddled caricature?  There’s no way.  It could be black and white, with only the objects that connect the characters in color: Tom, Peter’s letters, the bottle, and of course all the paintings and sculptures. 

I don’t think the Procrustean plot structure is this book’s weak point, however.  I think instead the contrived plot elements are what make this book suffer, plot elements that throw into question the “realism” of our Art Squad.  I mean, come on, psychic twins?  Dude getting his foot stuck in a hole overnight?  A noble Fascist painter?  A mystic and innocent blind flower girl? 

How about a Fascist flower girl?  A psychic mountain?  A dude getting his foot stuck in blind twins? 

But maybe that is the point.  The point is the characters each have all of these arbitrary characteristics, and each have none of them.  Maybe the point here is the same point as at the end of The Breakfast Club.

Note: Everybody seems to be agreeing about the rough beginning of this book.  Perhaps it should have begun at a different place in the cycle.  The first chapter sells a much different book than the one you end up reading.  That’s why it is so hard to walk across Hall’s “flagstones.”  Your mind is trying to synthesize the shifting perspective, unsteady about what is going to happen to “you” next.  The second person totally works, but I think it is a mistake to hit the reader with it first thing in this kind of book.

Mark Athitakis writes:

It’s a hell of risk, isn’t it, opening a book in the second person? Like the others who’ve commented, I’m immediately skeptical of any writer who works in that form (call it Bright Lights, Big City Syndrome), because it’s so hard to not look gimmicky and it contrives a false intimacy with the reader. Once I got past that initial irritation, though — and Hall is such an impressive stylist that it didn’t feel like a gimmick — I was free to wonder why Hall used it, and why she introduced us to Susan first.

My general take is that the novel is largely about identity, and how easily we lose our sense of ourselves. And the first chapter is sort of an overture to that them — not only is Susan fractured be cause she’s lost her brother, with who she’s had an unusually symbiotic relationship, but she doesn’t even get the benefit of using “I” in commenting about herself. She’s “you” — meaning the reader, somebody she doesn’t know and can’t access. A line in the second paragraph announces that point pretty clearly: “You can’t quite catch sight of yourself as you go about your life.” I don’t mind being disoriented a little, if the theme of the novel is disorientation.

It’s interesting to jump from Susan’s unsettled state to Giorgio’s exceedingly settled one. The painter is very much the novel’s emotional polestar — he’s dying, but at peace with himself, and the other three characters all seem to be striving for the kind of self-assurance he has, the easy dismissals he can make of others’ attempts to categorize him. It’s important that the journals we read actually exist in the world and aren’t just Hall’s Olympian vision of the great artist’s private mind — those journals are being translated and readied for display in the show that Susan is working on. Susan is capable of reading them, though unless I misremembering she doesn’t actually sit down with them — she’s too consumed by her despair, and the affair that she’s having with the man who’s actually doing the translation.

Regardless, I’m glad there isn’t a concluding moment in the novel where Susan comes across the journals, finds herself thunderstuck by their thoughtful, restful tone, and proceeds to reorder her life. Most novels that break up into multiple narrative voices seem determined to resolve their various threads neatly, but if anything the emotions are more unsettled by the end of the story than they were as the novel opens. One particular element of that which I found interesting (and which I’d be curious to hear others’ thoughts on) is how Peter’s narrative is structured. His story is outwardly dramatic — he’s trapped underneath some rocks, and he’s in a feverish panic to escape — but there’s no real drama to the predicament itself. We know early on that he survives his ordeal. The true drama is in how the incident calls up a time during his youth where his behavior was at its worst. Does Peter’s entrapment expose his true nature (the callous young man perhaps complicit in a drug casualty), or does it strip away his true nature (his happy life as a father and productive, successful artist)? Hall keeps putting her characters into situations where they’re forced to confront those questions. (The author also wants to make some kind of comment on the 60s, I think—why else title Peter’s sections “The Fool on the Hill”?)

That’s enough for the moment, and I haven’t even gotten to Annette and the matter of the Bestia that Frances brings up; I had similiar questions and thoughts on that point, but I’ll defer to others for a bit.

Peggy Nelson writes:

The major theme in the book is a play on the literal translation of still life, nature morte — dead nature.  Stillness is like a little death.  OK.  All the major characters are stilled in certain ways: blindness, grief, old age, hiking, and of course death itself.  But the point of still life in art is that from the point of stillness we are supposed to gain greater contemplation, greater insight.  We purposely don’t portray the busyness of the world so we can clear our minds and focus on what really matters.  

But what really matters here?  We have (very) cursory descriptions of the actual art: “mountains,” “bottles,” “photographs,” we are given more detail about Annette’s flower-arranging!  (Not that flower-arranging cannot be an art, but Annette does not consider herself an artist, so we can leave that for now.)  What really matters in the book are not details of the art, but details of the lives: the actual bottles, the cleaning woman, the exhibit of artist knicknacks, their sex lives.  Life means something, because — it begets more of itself?  Because it leads to more life (symbolized by the pregnancy at the very end)?  Well, isn’t that a little pointlessly circular?  If something is meaningful “just because,” then we certainly don’t have to be still to get it.  That is not an insight, that is a justification.  

And, in this case, it is completely wrong: an artist’s life is more meaningful than their work?  No, it isn’t.  It is exactly the opposite, for the artist qua artist.  Why bother to do anything at all when you can just live?  An artist bothers to do anything at all because of the hope (and the promise if achieved), that one’s work will mean more.  Here I’ll lapse into the second person as well: if your great insight is that life is more important, you don’t have to become still to realize it.  And you don’t have to do art.  You have to stay moving, you have to live!

For the first two chapters I was captivated by Hall’s voice and her powers of description.  But then it paled fast — not because her voice failed, but because it never changed.  There are four major characters in the puzzle living in lightly interconnected but separate worlds, or at least separate enough to give them their own sequence of chapters.  Yet the voice in each one sounded exactly the same.  The only character that broke out of the beautiful yet somnolent prose was Mauri, Annette’s wild brother (who I thought *may have been the Bestia until I re-read it).  For Tolstoy, it is all *happy families that are alike, the unhappy (alienated) ones are supposed to be different – and should have their own voices.  Reading this book I was reminded more than once of the brilliance of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which represents a high note of sequential chapters/different voices.  In Hall’s book it’s not different voices/still lives, it’s same voices/still lives, and I think that did the characters a disservice.  The similarities are established by all the characters being separated from something essential.  But we don’t need the exact same cadence (comma comma comma. declarative. comma comma) to drive the point home; we get it.  I wanted to know more about their differences, in that that might illuminate different aspects of alienation.

The coda at the end is from a Renaissance book of painting techniques.  It says, literally, that how to paint a dead man is the same as how to paint a living one – you just use different colors.  This book was all the same color, the same voice.  Someone did not read the manual.

And I want to touch on something in the portrayal of Giorgio, the Italian painter.  We meet him as he ruminates on interviewers bugging him about “what it all means.”  Why the bottles?  Why still life?  Why the  single focus?  He is simultaneously frustrated with the questions, and pities the questioners.  Here, spend some more time.  Drink coffee and look at the horizon.  Stop thinking, pretty much.  

Full disclosure: I do “new media” now, but I got my MFA in painting.  And one of the major things we struggled with in the studio and the critique sessions was this paradox of expressing the ineffable.  Not in our work – we all knew when a piece was successful, even thought the styles were wildly different – but in talking about it.  There is the cliche, which this book embraces in Giorgio, of the artist-as-child: can’t talk about the work because doesn’t know how, is not smart enough, art comes from someplace *below the intellect, true artists with true access to this intuitive source are like children, innocent vessels of the spirit, or the flow, or what have you.  Now, this idea has old legs, but was really argued as a political trope by Clement Greenberg in promoting the Abstract Expressionists after WWII.  Jackson Pollock, the inarticulate vital force!  American ingenuity, innocence, and power!  See, old verbal Europe, what your decadence got you: Nazis, is what it got you.  We’ve cleaned the Aegean Stables with our pure energy, and here it is, expressed in our art.  Which of course is necessarily better than yours.  That’s when the “center of the art world” shifted to New York from Paris, and of course the money followed.

There is a truth that some things are not verbally accessible; we refer to the ineffable for a reason, there are meanings we can only gesture for, maybe they’re out there, maybe they’re not – and in truly great art we might see them revealed for a moment.  Or gestured towards in an intriguing way.  But it is a mistake to infer from this that artists are ineffable, that if they can work with images, language is denied them.  And that the minute they actually start speaking articulately, they’ve destroyed something in art.  Language is not the enemy of visual art, language is the frame.  And he who controls the frame, controls the context, and controls the money.  As well language gives the artist something to paint about – you do have to think, in words, in order to be interesting.  So we were encouraged — no, *commanded, to be verbal advocates on our own behalf, because otherwise someone else would do it for us, and yeah, they might not get it right.  Now the character of Giorgio might be old-skool and prefer to leave his frame to the dealers and critics, who apparently have done all right by him and his work.  Italian villa plus cleaning woman, anyone?  Eat Pray Paint?  But for Hall to accept this at face value and treat not only contemporary interpretations of Giorgio’s work via this trope, but to also view the other artists in the book through it, is doing no one any favors, least of all an author who proposes to use language to plumb meaning in visual art.

Abigail Nussbaum writes:

I think I’m the only one so far who took the second person in stride.  Not sure why it didn’t throw me at first, but once it became obvious that the different narratives were being told in different persons, my natural tendency to look for patterns and meanings took over, and of course the second person is the perfect voice for Susan, who spent her life completely focused on another person and feels lost and almost disembodied by their death.  As Mark notes, Giorgio is the most settled character, the most self-contained.  I don’t read him as incapable of analyzing his art so much as humorously uninterested in that analysis unless it taps into the aspects of it that interest him – the technical, which Peter is so in tune with.  What Giorgio doesn’t want to analyze is himself, and whether that’s because he’s comfortable in his own skin or unwilling to examine his past, or some combination of the two, the result is the most self-contained character in the novel.

Meanwhile, Peter and Annette are all about the great world outside of them.  Peter is the small-town boy who escapes (escapes a life in the dark like his miner father, who left the house before sunrise to go underground) and sees the wide world and joins in its revels, but at the same time there’s a part of himself that he’s kept inaccessible, an aspect that’s been left out of his public image.  Annette, meanwhile, wants to be in the world but is kept from it by her mother’s hysterical (though, as it turns out, not at all unfounded) fears.  Even so, she ‘sees’ more than anyone gives her credit for (though she doesn’t always understand what she witnesses), and participates in the lives of others.

I thought Frances’s comment about not seeing Peter’s grief for Danny was interesting, because there’s a lot that’s left unsaid or unseen in this novel.  Inasmuch as the narratives do connect with each other, they do so around, but not at, the most important moments in the characters’ lives.  Susan sees Peter just after Danny’s death.  Giorgio receives letters Peter sends him just before he becomes entangled in a poisonous love triangle and an even more poisonous marriage.  Annette meets Giorgio just before his illness becomes apparent.  Though we learn about the fate of Giorgio’s wife, we never find out why he came under political scrutiny after the war (given that fate, and the fact that he’s eulogized by Annette’s communist teacher, I assume he spoke out against fascism, but that’s not clear) or how that scrutiny affected his career.  We have no idea who rapes Annette – Like Peggy, I thought Mauri was the rapist, but it’s later revealed that he was at home at the time, and I don’t think it could have been Peter, because he takes his family to Italy and retrieves Giorgio’s bottle in the mid 80s, more than ten years after Annette’s narrative.

The crux of the characters’ lives is missing.  Except for Susan, who arguably doesn’t have a crux to her life, who is the most disconnected of the characters.  It is, presumably, no coincidence that Susan isn’t a ‘real’ artist, but seems to have settled in the nebulous region between artist, skilled technician, and critic/curator.  There’s almost no discussion of her work as there is of Peter’s, Giorgio’s, or even the watercolors Annette paints at school, and it’s stressed that her connection to Peter has smoothed her way into the British art world even though she’s missing his spark of genius.

In fact, though the second person narrative didn’t bother me, I found Susan’s narrative the least persuasive of the four.  It was the way she so quickly demolished her own life in the wake of Danny’s death, and the brisk pace at which she achieved this.  It felt like a condensed version of some movie of the week (or a more traditionally structured literary novel) about a person Dealing Badly With Grief.  Alienating loved ones, neglecting one’s work, fetishizing some object belonging to or reflecting the dead, having inadvisable, rough sex with someone inappropriate – these are all items on the checklist, and Hall rushes through them much too quickly.  The descent into sex clubs and internet porn was so rushed that it couldn’t transcend the cliché.

Not that there’s a shortage of clichés in the novel.  Peggy’s comparison to Cloud Atlas is apt but, as she notes, unkind to Hall.  Cloud Atlas uses broad clichés and genre tropes as building blocks, and builds something transcendent out of them.  How to Paint a Dead Man often seems to bog down in those clichés – the domineering, restrictive Italian mother and her hysteria over her daughter’s sexual purity; the wise old hermit; Peter’s narrative of sexual liberation and drug abuse in the 60s.  It’s only because Hall is such a fine and delicate writer that she gets away with these tropes at all (well, that and the fact that she doesn’t linger overmuch on any of them, and that as soon as one begins to grate she switches narratives and into another), but even so I quite often found myself knocked out of the novel by their broadness.

Sarah Hall Roundtable — Part One

(This is the first of a five-part roundtable discussion of Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man.)

Other Installments: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five

More on Hall: “The Early Fiction of Sarah Hall” and a one hour radio interview I conducted with Hall in 2008.

This week, Sarah Hall’s fourth novel, How to Paint a Dead Man, hits bookstores in the United States. And this website will be devoting the entire week to discussing Hall’s book. We’ll be serializing the conversation in five chunky installments from Monday through Friday. Be on the lookout for cameo appearances and some unexpected revelations. And feel free to leave any additional thoughts or feelings in the comments.

Edward Champion writes:

“A Truth is the subjective development of that which is at once both new and universal. New: that which is unforeseen by the order of creation. Universal: that which can interest, rightly, every human individual, according to his pure humanity.” — Alain Badiou

hallrt1A book of this type is difficult to discuss in a collective manner without bringing one’s own subjective viewpoint into the larder.  So I shall do my best to convey some initial thoughts and impressions as a starting point, with the hope that other views will mesh and rustle with multiple truths.

It’s fitting that this novel kick-starts with a Gaston Bachelard quote.  For what is this book but a series of epistemological obstacles?  We are given four separate perspectives (indeed, four discourses in the Badiou tradition, if we want to start throwing around impulsive philosophical parallels): a second person “mirror crisis” defying the I (or even the eyes reading this book); Signor Giorgio, the dour and dying painter who complains of overanalytical journalists (and overanalytical readers of his Bottle Journals?) who “feel they will catch my true self”; Peter, the Fool on the Hill forced to revisit the uncomfortable past after he slips in an almost absurdist manner into the earth; and Annette Tambroni, whose powers of imagination help her to overcome her diminishing blindness.  I’m particularly curious how your own reading perspective was shaken up by this structure, or if we might even sufficiently fence these experiences into a structure.  (Surely, it’s the failure of these characters to appreciate the undissected ambiguities before them that is part of the problem.)

For my own part, I plead guilty to initial impatience.  I became something of a fidgety bastard when the quartet failed to “connect” with each other and when the specific character details took their sweet time bubbling up to the surface.  Normally with books of this type, I’m content to walk atop the flagstones laid down by the author.  But that wasn’t the case here.  Fortunately, about fifty pages into the book, this feeling subsided and I eventually came to a point where I was eagerly turning the pages of the book as new details emerged.

I found it curious that my own structural prejudices were ferreted out like this, and I suspect this book is something of an interesting rupture between the modern novel of consciousness and the postmodern novel of playful structure. 

This does raise the question of whether this structural tension stacks the deck against the reader.  It also has me wondering whether this book is unfairly manipulating the reader, or legitimately doing so.  After all, we can all accept that a novel is a fictional construct.  Who are any of us to settle for “truth” when we are given, in this case, such intricate prevarications?  Aren’t we all looking for the Bestia?  But here’s the rub: is this book staking its claim for truth or verisimilitude entirely on solitude?  Signor Giorgio tells us early on, “Of all the conditions we experience, solitude is perhaps the most understood. To choose it is regarded as irresponsible or a failure.”  But did Peter choose his solitude when he stumbled down the hill?  Did Susan choose her solitude when her twin brother died?  Did Annette choose her solitude as she went blind (just before Giorgio offers her inspiration)?  These are all narrative developments that are clearly contrived, but don’t feel so within the course of the structure.  So what might this book be saying about the reader’s capacity to believe?  (Come to think of it, this book would make a great double bill with Richard Powers’s Generosity, which concerns itself with the same questions.)

As the book proceeded further, I became less concerned by these connections.   Perhaps I required my own subconscious landscape to root these many characters.  Near the end of the novel, when Hall began shaking up the order, I found myself pleasantly liberated by the constantly shifting manner in which I was lost.  Susan, as we learn at the end, has always been there.  But what of the other characters?  What is this book’s accent precisely, darling?  Or are such questions no different from the superficial banter one must endure at a literary cocktail party?

A few other quick notes:  It’s interesting that the painter-like usage of color in this novel is largely related to human fluids or suffering.  It’s interesting that so many characters are maimed or silenced through injury throughout the book.  (Also interesting: pages and pages without dialogue, rendering the characters as “voiceless” as Susan’s coma-laden friend.)  It’s interesting that there is both a hostility to making sense of art (through Signor Girogio) and a hostility to imagination (the snowflakes Annette “feels” against her face).  And in light of the book’s emphasis on solitude, it’s interesting that family (whether Annette’s or the proposal that Susan puts off) is something to be avoided.  One should not make the mistake of confusing the author’s intentions with the character intentions.  But is one permitted a confusion of art and real life?  If we don’t give into a novel, how then do we find an experience that is new and universal?  How then do we have our reading comforts ruptured by epistemological obstacles?

Frances Dinkelspiel writes:

I will just say upfront that I am neither as profound nor insightful as Ed, that I mostly read for pleasure, and that I read a lot. In short, I rarely analyze character motivation, themes sprinkled throughout a book, etc. I look for good writing and a way into another world.

I was immediately put off by the use of the second person in this book. I think it was galling of the author to use the “you” form in the opening because it alienated the reader rather than invited her into a particular world. But this annoyance only lasted a short time. I was soon drawn in by Hall’s writing and the other characters she created. By the time I came to the third of the second person sections I didn’t care anymore that the voice was so strange. I was engrossed.

I usually don’t like loosely linked narratives either. But once again, Hall managed to make me not care that her quartet of characters were tangential to one another. (How did they connect anyway? The painter Giorgio taught the young blind flower arranger Annette, and received letters from Peter, the painter in England. Peter was Susan’s father) Each character was his or her own self contained story (we don’t even see Peter’s grief over the death of his son) and most of the stories had sufficient narrative thrust, drama and tension that I wanted to know how they ended. And I guess I liked the idea that humans often unknowingly influence others in the world. When Peter was writing Giorgio, he was writing as a young painter to a master, little realizing that his penetrating insights and questions about the still lives would bring Giorgio such pleasure.

I do think this book is in large part about solitude, or put in another way, how we all stand fundamentally alone in the world, even when surrounded by family. At the same time it doesn’t seem to me that any of these characters, except Susan, is lonely. They all have their art, which gives them a profound connection to the world. They have a vision, and thus a place. And I wouldn’t even call Susan lonely. The death of her brother, someone with whom she had a strong physical attachment, has knocked her off balance. In the end, when she discovers she is pregnant and suddenly has another physical being she is attached to, we see the glimpses of her recovery.

Sarah Weinman writes:

How to Paint a Dead Man sneaked up on me. At the time I read it I was aware of being caught up in all the various perspectives, but now that it’s been a few days I’m thinking more and more about the interlocking narratives, the interplay of reality versus simulacra, art and life, and all that jazz (so to speak!)

Like Frances, I was put off, just a bit, by the second person perspective. But it quickly became apparent that Susan’s viewpoint had to be told that way because then we became privy to her transformation, her engagement with herself and her body and her sexuality, but she herself was rather taken aback by these changes even as she became more enthralled by then. So to step outside of herself, to feel things around her while succumbing to all these changes, gave Susan this greater sense of the visceral and the immediate. And truth be told, her viewpoint was the one I looked forward to the most, that sense of jabbing, rhythmic present in the midst of the larger historical context of Hall’s story.

But looking at the other perspectives, I loved how Hall took her time in making them connect, and trusting the reader to infer what he or she wanted to, even leaving things a bit fuzzy. Frances has it right, and those tangential connections also reinforce the power – and the distance – of these viewpoints. Giorgio is all about art even as, at least to me, he never quite got to where he was going. Annette, being blind, could remain in a state of purity that may or may not be up to 100% emotional truth. And Peter, somehow, both measures up and doesn’t measure up, and his legacy hangs over both Susan and her dead twin brother she both reveres and holds in suspicion.

And like Ed I got lulled into a sense of four-part harmony that, when Hall shook it up, seemed jarring – but then, that’s kind of the point. We’re lulled into a sense of order in life, and art is all about chaos and inviting in an array of emotions, however ugly or beautiful. So in the end it makes sense Hall would use as many vantage points as she could, setting it up almost like a sonata or a semi-symphony, and then she goes and gets all atonal on our readerly selves.

Later on if enough people have read the book I would love to delve more into the parallels between How to Paint a Dead Man and Generosity in terms of real/artifice and art/life.

Anyway, that’s my starting point, but looking forward to what everyone else has to say!

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #4

hatemail4A few days ago, somebody forwarded me an email. Apparently, someone had sent an angry email to the writer Sean Aden Lovelace, quibbling with certain fiction categories and forms of prose that the writer Sean Aden Lovelace used.

Therefore, my audio series — Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project — must continue.

The following clip represents my dramatic reading of the hate mail sent to the writer Sean Aden Lovelace, read in the style of a drunken Irishman. During the course of my dramatic reading, I began to crave beverages of an alcoholic nature, perhaps because the hate mail sent to the writer Sean Aden Lovelace proved very long and I began to become the character. This proved especially alarming, since it was very early in the morning. I have been informed by educated parties that this is what’s known as “sense memory” and that there is no need to alert any psychological authorities. I hope that listeners will forgive my occasional Irish asides, which were not included in the original email sent to the writer Sean Aden Lovelace.

I plan to continue reading more hate mail. Again, I will be happy to read any specific hate mail that you’ve received. (If you do send me hate mail for potential dramatic readings, I only ask that you redact the names of the individuals.)

Click any of the below links to listen.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #4 (Download MP3)

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Previous Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Installments:

#3: A hate mail read in the style of a quiet sociopath
#2: A hate mail read in a muted Peter Lorre impression
#1: A hate mail read in a melodramatic, quasi-Shakespearean style