Review: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)

There was a time not long ago when I was a booster of all things Werner. Here was a man who contended with the twin terrors of Klaus Kinski and Bruno S. – the former was given a fascinating documentary, My Best Fiend – allowing them to explode into mad rages on set. He had stolen a movie camera to get his career started. He had moved a boat over a mountain. He had been shot during an interview and carried on talking. For Little Dieter Needs to Fly, he explored a Vietnam vet’s experience of being tortured and starved by hiring Laotian locals to tie him up and recreate the experience. Herzog was a bona-fide original, a maverick devoting decades of his life pursuing the perverse and the idiosyncratic.

But my feelings on Herzog changed a few years ago when he decided to rethink Abel Ferrara’s masterpiece, Bad Lieutenant, without respecting the artistry of the original. Ferrara wasn’t pleased. “I wish these people die in hell,” said Ferrara at a press conference. “I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.” Herzog replied, “I have no idea who Abel Ferrara is. I’ve never seen a film by him. Is he Italian?” This seemed out of character for a man who had gone out of his way to chronicle the misfits and the misunderstood. Surely a man as thorough as Herzog would have checked out the original film before signing on. While the resulting film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, had its moments, it served as a sad concession to the sausage factory. Herzog had at long last gone part Hollywood. David Lynch helped Herzog make My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? with schlocky results. And now we have Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 3D documentary about the Chauvet Cave.

The Chauvet Cave, a subterranean treasure trove of Paleolithic paintings discovered in 1994, is a near foolproof subject for 3D. The paintings depict now extinct panthers of which there is scant trace of fossils. There are depictions of Venus-like figures, along with striking perceptive shifts created by the cave dwellers over time. The cave itself has been sealed off from the public to prevent Lascaux-like destruction. Film is the only way in which we’re likely to see it. That Herzog managed to get what he did, when he was limited to staying on the paths and when he could only shoot for four hours a day, is a testament to his tenacity. Sure enough, the dripping calcite compounds, the plentiful passages, and the stark stalacites framing the cave art certainly inspire a genuine sense of awe as you’re wearing the glasses.

The problem here is that we’re dealing with the post-Bad Lieutenant Herzog, a carnival barker more interested in badgering us into wonder rather than seducing us into how people live. Herzog is the type of narrator who compelled to boom “How did they live?” multiple times while the viewer is trying to form her own impressions of the art. And this becomes an annoying intrusion. I mean, imagine that you’re staring at Guernica and some intense German sneaks up behind you and keeps saying, “Do you see how great this is? Do you see how they died?” You begin to wonder if it’s possible for some authority in Madrid to issue a temporary restraining order so that you can rid yourself of the creepy man who wants to get inside your pants but won’t take no for an answer. That Herzog’s overbearing narration comes with bad Baywatch jokes doesn’t help matters. Who knew that Herzog was the Paul Reiser of tour guides?

Because Herzog’s approach is so corny and melodramatic, it takes away from some of the film’s more successful quieter moments, such as the former circus juggler who turned archeologist and another expert who presents a reconstructed ivory flute and who speculates the type of music our ancestors were likely to play.

Given how Herzog fabricated aspects of Bells from the Deep, hiring two drunks to stand in as pilgrims, these over-the-top moments shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. But given that this is a film professing to explore the nuances of artistic eloquence, such an artless approach is severely misplaced. Cave of Forgotten Dreams feels like one of James Cameron’s narcissistic explorer documentaries rather than something that can stand toe-to-toe with Grizzly Man or The Dark Glow of the Mountains. Herzog had the rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to chronicle some of the oldest art on this planet. I was left asking myself, “I have no idea who this new Werner Herzog is. Is he an artist? Or has the old Herzog left us for good?”

The Bat Segundo Show: Lynne Tillman

Lynne Tillman appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #392. She is most recently the author of Someday This Will Be Funny.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he should laugh today or five years from now.

Author: Lynne Tillman

Subjects Discussed: Giddy book titles, William S. Burroughs as a slob, Flaubert’s writing maxim, how writers stay adolescent, the soul-sucking atmosphere of Forbes magazine, the story behind the writing of the story “Dear Ollie” as perpetuated by Lynne Tillman and Paul Maliszewski, mining from personal history, the death of cats, audience reaction to animals, material that readers fill in themselves, the essaylike trajectory of American Genius echoed in “That’s How Wrong My Love Is” and “Impressions of an Artist With Haiku,” editors who have been confused about what Tillman is trying to teach them, fiction and pedagogical requirements, whether women writers are allowed to play with ideas in the way that men are, Nicholson Baker, neurotic women protagonists, Moby Dick, daily minutiae, when ideas emerge from perspective, American Genius originating from the concept of sensitivity, pronoun happy prose, Tillman’s reluctance to initially name character names and what the reader earns, first name familiarity with celebrities, disconsolate shorthand for people in American Genius, using plain names in Haunted Houses, choosing names that are sturdy, clarifying Tillman’s stance on “backstory,” Hemingway’s iceberg theory, the appropriateness of ambiguity, Method acting, film and theater crossing into contemporary fiction, Antonioni’s L’Aventura and Edith Wharton, architecture indicating people’s positions in life, when certain aspects of fiction are spelled out too much for a reader, Cast in Doubt, approaching sex and relationships from an oblique vantage point, thinking about sex every seven minutes, Weird Fucks and “getting the fucks out of your system,” Edmund White’s sexual imagination, the tongue being privileged with information, Dennis Cooper, Tillman’s apothegmatic moments, whether shame is a necessary component of fiction, Leslie Fiedler and guilt shaping the American novel, and being shocked by what you’ve written.


Tillman: I’m happy that I was finally able to title a book Someday This Will Be Funny. And if you’ve noticed, there’s no story called “Someday This Will Be Funny.”

Correspondent: Exactly.

Tillman: In the book.

Correspondent: It’s literally a grab bag for the reader. They can determine if it’s funny or it’s not funny. Or if it will be funny tomorrow or six years from now.

Tillman: Or never! (laughs)

Correspondent: Irony, it seems! I wanted to first of all start from an unusual tack. In Brandon Stousy’s Up is Up But So is Down, you bring up an interview with Lou Reed and William S. Burroughs where they’re talking about Kerouac. And Reed says he cannot understand how such a great writer was a slob. This is an anecdote you bring up. You’re just fascinated by this. That he just drinks beer in front of the TV. And then Burroughs responds, “Well, Kerouac did that while he was young. And he just grew up to be an old slob.” This is a very interesting pretext to talk about, well, what do you have to give up to be a writer? To stay fresh as a writer? I mean, it’s said that you often have to stay young. Then there’s the Flaubert maxim: “be calm and orderly in your life so you can be violent and original in your work.” So I must ask you, Lynne, in light of the fact that you’ve struck such a variegated crop here yet again, what you had to give up and what have you not given up? I mean, how adult are you? (laughs)

Tillman: Oh, I’m just a child. Totally immature. Give up. Well, I had to give up making a lot of money. I mean, it was never in my legend anyway. I never really thought about it. Only as you get older do you realize that you made a choice in life that is not financially wise. But what do I give up? I don’t think very much. Because this is what I want to do. I guess I give up a certain kind of calm or sanity because trying to write your next story or find your next book, your next novel, what you want to do, can be extremely difficult and painful and there’s no reassurance in it. I guess I’ve given up reassurance in a way. When I worked as a proofreader one week on, one week off — actually at Forbes Magazine.

Correspondent: The ultimate soul-sucking atmosphere.

Tillman: Ultimate! Ultimate. I knew that where I would be for twelve hours a day for five days. And in its tedium, it had its calming effect. And in that time, I didn’t have to think about anything. I just had to be a good proofreader. Which wasn’t that hard for me. But when you’re writing, there are no assurances. So if I’ve given up anything, it’s the sense that I can feel satisfied. Because as any writer will say to you, it’s always the next book you’re worried about.

Correspondent: Yes. You may be giving up assurances, but, on the other hand, you’re getting liberty in return. You’re getting freedom. The question I had was whether there’s some lingering adolescent quality that you’re holding onto or is it really just this idea of getting used to the idea that there is no assurance? That that, in its own way, is also creatively liberating even if you have no specific timetable for when your next story or when your next novel is going to come out of you?

Tillman: I don’t know that those two ideas are entwined with each other. I haven’t given up my childhood in the sense that it’s still a source of material for me. Not that I write autobiographically, particularly; but that whatever the desire was that made me want to be a writer from a very early age, it’s still there. It must still be there. Because I keep going.

Correspondent: I’m glad you brought that up. Because I wanted to bring up “Dear Ollie,” because a person named Lynne Tillman is the author of that letter. What’s also interesting is I know that appeared in 2002 in McSweeney’s, although it’s not actually named in the book.

Tillman: It isn’t?

Correspondent: No. It’s the one credit that’s missing! I can show you.

Tillman: Is it really? Wow. You can show me later.

Correspondent: I didn’t know if you were trying to hide the origins.

Tillman: No! I wasn’t at all.

Correspondent: Really? Okay.

Tillman: That’s probably a mistake.

Correspondent: I mention this because you recently did an interview with Lydia Davis for Electronic Book Review and you said, “By the time I use something autobiographical, it’s not about me and my life.” And we were just discussing that. Your discussion of autobiography triggered this. Does this mean you’re dispensing with emotional investment when you use something autobiographical? Are you, in the case of say “Dear Ollie,” approaching the autobiographical form from an entirely new emotional vantage point?

Tillman: Well, it would be new to me in the sense that I’m working out of stuff that happened. In this case, it had to have happened. Paul Maliszewski edited this section. And we all had to put our last names. We had to use our real names, as far as I recall. And that’s why the name is included. It’s the only time that I’ve ever done that.

Correspondent: Oh really?

Tillman: That the narrator and the author are the same.

Correspondent: You were a friendly witness.

Tillman: Exactly. Or unfriendly.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Tillman: Ambivalent anyway. And that was not difficult material to write about it. I mean, it wasn’t terribly emotional for me.

Correspondent: There was an Ollie?

Tillman: There was an Ollie. And there was a prank. It had to be — Paul wanted a real prank. And I thought, “Well, this was a prank I participated in.” A wonderful practical horrible joke.

Correspondent: This explains a lot. ‘Cause when I read that, it just sticks out. Wait a minute! Why is there this absolute need to correct the public record? Because I think of your work and I think, “I don’t think she’s the kind of person who needs to do this.” But if you were actually asked to do so, this makes complete sense.

Tillman: Oh, it’s completely invented. The writer in there.

Correspondent: Oh, I see! Got it.

Tillman: That’s the invention. I use the device of writing. It had to be a letter. And I use the device of writing to someone who had also been in this situation and who then went on to become a writer. And his characterization of this event, I objected to. And of course, the “I Lynne Tillman” who is writing this objected to it. There was an Ollie. He was a musician. There was no writer.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious about this idea of autobiography. I mean, when you’re mining from it after you’ve experienced it, after you’ve thought about it, what dregs are left generally? Is there anything left to mine? Are there incidents that are the basis for two separate stories sometimes?

Tillman: Well, it’s not drained of all feeling. But you’re able to see in an incident that you yourself experience, with more distance, a way that it has pertinence for other readers. In other words, it’s not so close to me anymore that I can’t give it up, so to speak. It exceeds my own personal history.

The Bat Segundo Show #392: Lynne Tillman (Download MP3)

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Jason Allardyce: How a Sunday Times Journalist Ripped Off Ian Rankin, Bat Segundo, the Observer, and an Australian Producer

On April 24, 2011, the Scottish edition of The Sunday Times published “Rankin admits Twitter addiction” on page 21. It was written by Jason Allardyce, a 40-year-old who was named “Scottish Journalist of the Year” in 2003. His MySpace page states that he likes to go by the name “wolfspider” and that he is based out of Callander. But “wolfspider” is a lonely man. He only has two friends on MySpace: the ever-popular Tom and MySpace UK.

On Easter morning, I knew nothing about Allardyce. A friend had forwarded me this Deadline News report by Peter Laing, in which I recognized quotes identical to my conversation with Ian Rankin on The Bat Segundo Show. The conversation was not accredited. As someone who had investigated the Cooks Source scandal and who remembered the online tarring and feathering, I was appalled that anybody would still consider that ripping off other people’s journalism — even from behind a paywall — would still be okay. But this time, I was on the receiving end for a project that I make little to no money on. For the Rankin show, I had devoted perhaps 25 to 30 hours of my life to reading Rankin’s books, conducting research, interviewing the man for an hour, and mastering the audio. My labor was being exploited. I immediately contacted Laing by email. And on an Easter Sunday, a little less than an hour after I contacted him, he replied back on Twitter:

The Sunday Times? Murdoch’s newspaper? I told people on Twitter about what had happened and asked if anybody could send along the article. And a very friendly pescatarian vegetarian in Scotland going by the name of @SeymourSunshine located the article and photographed it for me.

I transcribed the article. I was stunned to learn that 215 of the 758 words in Jason Allardyce’s article were taken directly and without attribution from my Bat Segundo interview with Ian Rankin. I emailed Alladyce and his editors. And then I discovered that I wasn’t the only one getting played by the wolfspider. An additional 126 words in Allardyce’s article were lifted wholesale and without attribution from two whole paragraphs that Rankin contributed to this Gaby Hinsliff compilation in The Observer from February 13, 2011. To add insult to injury, Allardyce plagiarized a third source, pilfering a good 74 words from this Lisa Zilberpriver piece from World News Australia (January 18, 2010). For all three original pieces that Allardyce has used, a copyright notice was clearly listed on each of the pages.

In other words, Allardyce did not obtain a single original word from his subject for his article.

Ian Rankin was kind enough to confirm with me that nobody from The Times had contacted him. So if we add up the tally, 415 of Allardyce’s 758 words, or 54% of his article, were taken from three separate sources. That’s considerably more words than a famous fair use case here in the States, where The Nation published 300 to 400 words of verbatim quotes from a 500 page Gerald Ford memoir without obtaining permission, was sued, and lost. So that it can all be made clear, here is a breakdown of Allardyce’s liberties (with the unattributed quotes indicated in bold and, for Bat Segundo, the specific times in the program where the words are mentioned):

The writer admitted that Twitter was “taking up more of my life than it should.” [Bat Segundo interview, 27:08-27:09]

He added: “I’ve a kind of addictive personality so I’m always very careful to try to avoid things that can become addictive. [Bat Segundo interview, 27:01-27:06] It’s like a diary. I used to keep a page-a-day diary when I was a kid from the age of 12 till I was 29 and I had to fill up every single page. I couldn’t leave any blank space.” [Bat Segundo interview, 27:49-28:00]

He conquered the diary addiction after moving to America with his wife for six months. [This part is paraphrased from Bat Segundo interview, 28:00-28:30]

But I use Twitter like it, as a kind of memento mori of everything I have done. [Bat Segundo interview, 28:33-28:37] When I started writing a new book, I made a vow to myself that I wouldn’t go near Twitter until the end of the working day and I kept that up for about three weeks. Then, if I stopped for a cup of coffee, I would check Twitter; stop for lunch, check Twitter. I have to be careful about how many people I follow because, having an addictive personality, I feel the need to read every single tweet on the timeline so if I’m following 300 people that’s potentially 300 people’s tweets I’m reading in any one day…. [Bat Segundo interview, 30:24-30:49]

I’ve got to go back and read them all. When I wake up in the morning, I’ll go back to the night before and scroll through the night to find out what people were up to.” [Bat Segundo interview, 30:51-31:00]

Rankin said he went through a stage of having a similar addiction to viewing bids on eBay, and that he cannot play computer games because he believes he would be unable to stop, having gone without sleep as a student in order to play them. “It’s insane,” he said. [Bat Segundo interview, plagiarized paraphrase, “I went through a stage of buying vinyl on eBay, buying records…,” 31:02-31:09; “…if I finished browsing eBay…,” 31:10-31:12; direct “It’s insane,” 31:21-31:22]

He recently wrote: “I work from home and work on my own. Twitter connects me to the outside world, and makes it feel as though I’m in a huge, airy office full of funny, well-informed people.

“It gives me instant news, clever jokes, views, and reactions. Fans of my books can contact me, and I can let them know what I’m up to.

“Twitter is also my diary. I can scroll back through my tweets and recall what I was up to on any particular day. I keep in touch with friends make new ones, renew old acquaintances, and sometimes am even gifted ideas for stories. All from my office chair, in 140 characters – which also makes it a fantastic daily exercise in editing and concision.” (The last three paragraphs taken entirely from this Guardian article.)

Internet addiction is well recognised, and has even led to the residential treatment programmes in America to help people wean themselves from obsessive use of Twitter, eBay, Facebook, texting and video games. Research published last year suggested that the speed and unpredictability offered by social media stimulates dopamine, which can create an addiction to seeking, rather than finding, contact through them. It added that as more people join in, the scope for overuse grows. (Taken from World News Australia article.)

While it is true that Section 30 of the UK Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act of 1988 specifies a fair dealing exception “for the purpose of criticism or review,” the attribution must contain “a sufficient acknowledgment.” Furthermore, according to English law, there’s very little I can do to stop Allardyce or any other person “reporting current events” from infringing upon copyright provided that “it is accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgment.”

What is a sufficient acknowledgement? Well, unlike much of the American tax codes, you can always count on English law to be concise and thorough. Here’s Section 178 of the CDPA:

“sufficient acknowledgment” mean an acknowledgment identifying the work in question by its title or other description, and identifying the author unless—

(a) in the case of a published work, it is published anonymously;

(b) in the case of an unpublished work, it is not possible for a person to ascertain the identity of the author by reasonable inquiry;

It may very well be a common practice for some UK journalists not to provide attribution. But when they don’t, they are clearly breaking the law. And they are exposing the newspapers and outlets that they write for to considerable legal liability. But more important than such legal propriety, it’s just plain rude and antithetical to the spirit of human togetherness.

But Allardyce’s failure to credit any of his original sources extends far beyond the prospect of fair dealing and fair use. His disingenuous usage could be interpreted as an intent to deceive.

Let’s approach the question form a practical position. Why is attribution important? Well, take this UPI report from September 5, 2010. The UPI quotes Cardinal Keith O’Brien: “Our detailed research into BBC news coverage of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, together with a systematic analysis of output from the Catholic church, has revealed a consistent anti-Christian institutional bias.” That’s an extraordinary statement. If you’re at all interested in the many opinions, you’ll want to know where it comes from. And the UPI, because it is a responsible service, notes in its article that The Sunday Telegraph first reported the Cardinal O’Brien quote.

Jason Allardyce, on the other hand, doesn’t make such a distinction when he produces the same quote in his article, and he doesn’t attribute The Telegraph. This causes the Richard Dawkins Foundation (where I found Allardyce’s article, now conveniently hiding behind a paywall) to believe that Allardyce is conducting original reporting. This also causes confusion for the BBC, which erroneously reports that Cardinal O’Brien said these words “in an interview with the Sunday Times.” So Allardyce and The Sunday Times gets credit for a quote that they cut and pasted from another newspaper.

Now let’s say that, several years from now, a historian is looking into biases against religion (or the mythical claims of biases) during the early 21st century. The historian will want to go straight to the original source so that she can ensure that the quote and the context is accurate. But if she has to wade through Allardyce’s misleading attribution, this is going to cause needless work for the historian. Allardyce’s misleading attribution also creates the false impression that the Sunday Times was the central place for that news story.

And because Allardyce has published his “article” in a prominent newspaper, with anyone who reads the article believing that the interview comes from him, there’s very little that I can do to get proper credit or compensation.

I have emailed Allardyce the following terms for resolution:

(a) a public apology, both prominently in print and online, for taking my quotes without asking or attributing;

(b) the issuance of a correction, both prominently in print and online, indicating that the Sunday Times and Jason Allardyce lifted quotes from my radio program, along with a URL directed to my site,

(c) a donation of £500 (as compensation for using my quotes and others without permission or attribution) to Reporters Without Borders.

It’s impossible for me to be entirely objective in this report. I am doing the best that I can to keep a level head. Still, in an age where Arianna Huffington insists that it’s “wrong and offensive to insist that HuffPost is exploiting journalists,” the time has come to stand up against anyone who believes that they can get away from stealing anybody’s labor. If ostensible professionals feel that they are above the law and above the decency of community, then what’s the purpose of their collective existence?

[4/26/11 UPDATE: As of Tuesday afternoon (UK time), Jason Allardyce has not returned my telephone calls and emails.]

The Magus (Modern Library #93)

(This is the eighth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Wide Sargasso Sea)

Over the course of several interviews, John Fowles enjoyed recycling one particular anecdote concerning The Magus. The then bigshot author once received a letter from a woman who didn’t care for his book. The woman asked Fowles if two of the novel’s characters got together at the end. Fowles wrote back and said, “No.” He received another letter from a New York attorney dying of cancer in a hospital. The lawyer asked the same question, but, unlike the woman, informed Fowles that he enjoyed the book. Fowles replied, “Yes.” In 1986, Fowles would tell a dull interviewer seeking literal-minded answers, “I tell that story because that’s how I feel — I don’t know the answer. And I tend to react as people want, or don’t want it — if they’ve annoyed me — to end.” But Fowles’s story after the story does have me wondering about the novelist’s responsibility. If a novelist leaves his volume open-ended, does he not have some duty to know every aspect of his characters as he knows the back of his hand? On the other hand, if Fowles led his narcissistic schoolteacher Nicholas Urfe to a specific point, perhaps he’s off the hook for anything beyond these final words:

cras amet qui numquam amavit
quique amavit cras amet

Some takes on these closing lines, repurposed by Fowles from The Virgil of Venus (3rd century AD), can be found at the most definitive online place for all things Fowles. Loosely translated, the Latin reads: “Tomorrow let him love, who has never loved; he who has loved, let him love tomorrow.” While this suggests that Fowles wanted the frequently callous Nicholas to love again, the lingering question I had after finishing The Magus was whether Fowles even cared about people. I realize it’s important to separate the novelist from the novel, but I think my impressions were colored by The Magus‘s repugnant first-person perspective:

We both smiled, and we both knew we smiled to hide a fundamental truth: that we could not trust each other one inch.

At the risk of oversimplifying a big burly opus, this is the general timbre in which Nicholas relates to people. People don’t exist to feel. They exist to be used. At one point, there’s the possibility that Nicholas’s actions may have caused another person to commit suicide. It wasn’t too much of a surprise to learn from Eileen Warburton’s John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds that Nicholas Urfe and John Fowles weren’t terribly far apart. The young Fowles, teaching at the University of Poitiers, was “a shy, self-absorbed young man” who was unable to write much of anything aside from his diaries. Yet even more than a decade after Fowles first talked shit about his friends and colleagues in his wildly bitter journals (collected in two volumes and loaded with the kind of vinegar and vitriol that one expects from a sociopath-in-training), he remains quite singularly absorbed in himself:

11 October 1963 It enrages [Elizabeth Whitton, Fowles’s wife] that my priority isn’t the getting of a house, it enrages me that her priority isn’t giving me the time (or peace) to finish The Magus. So we live at cross-purposes.

Fowles began work on The Magus (originally titled The Godgame) when he was 28, and then dropped the project for ten years. One quotation Fowles relied on during the writing of The Magus was from Henri Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes: “I like the marvelous only when it is strictly enveloped in reality.” And yet the one thing distinct about The Magus is the frequent lack of reality. We are asked to believe that Nicholas, a learned man, would not conduct some serious research into Maurice Conchis, the apparent World War II veteran who charms Nicholas into his manipulative world, after so many inconsistent stories. (To cite just one example, if you are a young and self-absorbed man with poetic aspirations and a man tells you, “Words are for facts. Not fiction,” would you not doubt him?) Nicholas does look into Conchis and his ostensible associates eventually, but only after the terrain has shifted into the ridiculous, with Nazi reenactments and implausible impersonations.

It has been put forth by some critics that The Mysteries of Udolpho was an influence upon The Magus (both books initiate a series of adventures from the discovery of a poem), yet Fowles was to dismiss Ann Radcliffe in a 1956 diary entry: “not much ear, but some pleasant fragments of 1800 delight in batsy gloom and soft despair.” One accidental influence may have been Dickens’s Great Expectations. In a 1980 interview, Fowles was to speak approvingly of one dissertation making this connection, in large part because the student didn’t know that Fowles had taught Great Expectations while writing The Magus. (In a 1959 diary entry, Fowles, who mostly didn’t care for Dickens, called Chapter 29, where Pip returns to Miss Haversham’s house, “one of those remarkable seminal chapters in Dickens which really touch upon something vast and deep.”)

27 May 1964. I cut everything that stands in the way of the narrative thrust; anything that lapses beneath a certain state of tension. Because this seems to me the essence of the novel — the exact harmony between subject-matter (symbolisms, intellectual and stylistic aims) and narrative force (simple old readability). The words on a page have got to life it over. Narrative is a sort of magnetism.

When Nicholas tells Alison, the purported paramour whom he proceeds to treat like dirt, about the tricks that Conchis has been up to, he says, “It’s not that I believe any of these things in the way he tries to make me believe them….It’s simply that when I’m with him I feel he does have access to some kind of power.” And yet Conchis’s magnetism is clearly a load of bunk. When a man you confuse with “an Elizabethan nobleman” sends you a note not to come around again shortly after you have had to cut yourself free from German soldiers who have tied you up (and where did they come from by the way?), only to send you another message through his courtesan, surely there is a point in which you realize your homemade cork needle isn’t bobbing the way that you hoped.

On the other hand, hokum does sustain readability. In a 1971 interview with Daniel Halpern, Fowles would cop to going back to Chandler and Hammett in order to get a handle on craftsmanship. He admired Chandler especially, telling Halpern that “his best paragraphs are absolutely tight and hard. Like good furniture.” Sure enough, The Magus proves to be a learned man’s attempt to simulate pulp. Consider the early hookup between Nicholas and Alison:

“You don’t know what its like waking up with a man you didn’t even know this time yesterday. It’s losing something. Not just what all girls lose.”

“Or gaining something.”

“God, what can we gain. Tell me.”

“Experience. Pleasure.”

“Did I tell you I love your mouth?”

“Several times.”

She stubbed the cigarette out and sat back.

“Do you know why I tried to cry just now? Because I’m going to marry him.”

Hundreds of pages later, we get “I HATE YOU!” in all caps. We have words “spat out like a grape pip.” We have plenty of purple pots boiling: “Her eyes were very direct, so direct I looked down from them.” (These examples were culled from the revised edition, which was the only copy I could find. Yes, Fowles would revise The Magus in 1977, which he would declare the favorite of his novels “in the sense that one might love a crippled child more than normal children.”)

So when we tally up Fowles’s concern for taut narrative, the desperate approximation of tough guy craftsmanship, and the desire to write Dickensian chapters communicating epiphany (but stopping short of that “vast and deep” artistry through gesture; hence all the Jung and the philosophy and the psychoanalytic bullshit), it is especially interesting that he would write novels that weren’t interested in the most peremptory reader wish fulfillment: resolution. (Fowles wouldn’t confine his desire for open and alternative resolutions to his correspondents. His third novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman contains three possible endings.)

Of Anthony Burgess, Fowles was to write in his journal: “It is a mistake when fine minds wear a mask of plebeian coarseness to excuse themselves, even truth can’t pardon that.” I can’t help but feel this way about Fowles, a novelist who preferred the company of readers over critics and who, for a time, received the twin triumphs of unmitigated sales and critical acclaim. But stacked against Jean Rhys’s pith and Iris Murdoch’s layered comedy, for me, The Magus was the reading equivalent to watching an untrained wrestler without confidence attempt to fight himself.

It’s very possible that I was a tad too old to read this book. For many, I suppose The Magus is a bit like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But I’m certain there were other stumbling blocks having little to do with the philosophy. Self-described centathlete Michael Menche, also working his way through the Modern Library, observed that Fowles shares a quality with Herman Hesse: namely, an inability or unwillingness to make the reader laugh.

What’s especially interesting is that when The Magus came out, it was widely ridiculed in England. But in the United States, it was championed as a masterpiece. Whether trash or gem (and I suspect that Fowles would have agreed with both), I’ll let the novelist have the last words:

Novels, even much more lucidly conceived and controlled ones than this, are not like crossword puzzles, with one unique set of correct answers behind the clues — an analogy (“Dear Mr. Fowles, Please explain the real significance of…”) I sometimes despair of ever extirpating from the contemporary student mind.

Next Up: William Kennedy’s Ironweed!

Review of an Unnamed Documentary (2011)

A few weeks ago, I attended a press screening for a documentary that I refuse to name (hereinafter referred to as “The Unnamed Documentary”). The Unnamed Documentary’s facile joke is that the Filmmaker financed the film, which is ostensibly a documentary on product placement, entirely through product placement.

We can accept that advertisement is ubiquitous, except in São Paulo, where a recent law has banned advertising from the city, creating (as the film demonstrates) an absolutely serene environment that becomes exotic and rather beautiful when compared to our own. As the Unnamed Documentary rightly points out, there is no way that a Hollywood blockbuster can make an obscene profit without a co-branding relationship. So perhaps some advertising is necessary for a movie. On the other hand, would you make a documentary on political corruption while engaging in political corruption? If you are interviewing a man who has butchered his family, would you butcher your own family?

The failure of any figure in the Unnamed Documentary, save one tepid introspective moment involving the Filmmaker, to question these motives and the giddy placement of featured products throughout the many interviews leaves any honest person questioning the Filmmaker’s motivations — especially when he lies to Ralph Nader about a certain pair of shoes he’s promoting being manufactured in America (unless Nader is in on the joke, which is likely). (Indeed, the Filmmaker proved so ambitious that he even managed to get product placement within the Unnamed Documentary’s title.) The Unnamed Documentary is somewhat entertaining, but it doesn’t exactly tread new ground. The Filmmaker isn’t nearly as smart or as successful or as brave or as crafty as he thinks he is (save in obtaining money for himself, a serious ethical problem that I’ll get to in a bit). For if he were, he would have figured out a way to get the very corporate forces to finance something that was truly dangerous and that truly made them look terrible. The Filmmaker insists that he had total control over the finished product, but can one really have any control on a film in which it becomes necessary to stay in certain hotel rooms, fly certain airlines, drink certain drinks, and pump gas at certain gas stations? One cannot imagine DA Pennebaker or Barbara Kopple working this way. Thus, the Filmmaker is a fraud and a hypocrite who does not respect the intelligence of the very mass audience he purports to enlighten.

When I exited the screening room, many of the products (none of which I will name) were available. Every person who attended the screening, save my girlfriend and me, picked up the free goodie bag without so much as a shred of remorse. The screening crowd included “critics” and other people who purportedly practice journalism. And even though I was practicing an admittedly shaky and very casual form of journalism, for me, it was a basic ethical tenet not to submit to the game. If someone gives you money or considerable material goods when you cover something, is not your integrity compromised? We’re not talking about a free book or a free movie or a free ticket that you are being given for critical consideration. For this, there is no quid pro quo. If you permit me to experience a work of art for free, then you do not buy my opinion. But if I am offering my opinion on an Unnamed Documentary that concerns product placement, my feeling is that, if I take any products you shill after the screening, I am morally compromised.

Why can’t I name this film? Because that’s also part of the game. If I spill the title, then I will be promoting it. And I will be doing exactly what the Filmmaker wants. During one scene in the Unnamed Documentary, the Filmmaker is asked to guarantee a set number of media impressions if he is expected to receive the money for sponsorship. So if I mention the name of the film or the filmmaker, then my review may very well count as a “media impression.” But I don’t want to do that. I’m pretty confident anybody reading this can figure it out. However, if anybody names the film or the filmmaker in the comments, then I will replace their names with “Unnamed Documentary” and “Filmmaker.” Unlike the Filmmaker, I actually still want to stand by something.

I had hoped that the Unnamed Documentary would be a legitimate protest against corporate sponsorship using its very tools — see Chumbawamba taking money from GM to use “Pass It Along” in a commercial and then disseminating the GM money to Corpwatch to protest it, which is a very funny statement about the futility of activism. But the Filmmaker plans on taking all the money. To my knowledge, he doesn’t plan on giving the profits to anti-corporate forces or people who want to fight advertising in all of its horrific forms. There is nothing in the press notes or the end credits to suggest that he will do this. In other words, the Unnamed Documentary stands for nothing save the Filmmaker’s materialistic gains. The Filmmaker includes several prominent moments with his kid. And the Filmmaker’s true narcissistic goal becomes apparent with these very scenes. So the Filmmaker and the Unnamed Documentary are both situated against the audience’s interest, assuming that the audience has hoped to be informed about the increasing role of product placement in current American cinema. It’s very possible that they don’t care and that they’ll wish to think that, by paying for the Unnamed Documentary, they’ll believe themselves to be “in” on the joke in the same way that a bunch of rubes believed themselves to be “in” on the joke when Charlie Sheen took their tickets for the Violent Torpedo of Truth Tour and performed poorly and was booed by those who attended. “I already got your money,” responded Sheen.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Filmmaker is responding to the audience with pretty much the same attitude in not standing for a corresponding set of virtues. And this makes the Filmmaker as selfish and as immoral and as bad-mannered as Charlie Sheen. There are news reports now circulating about the Filmmaker obtaining product placement for another documentary. And when you pull a move like that, it doesn’t make you a prankster. Your set of values is no different from the creative accountants who ensured that General Electric would pay no taxes during a year in which they earned $5.1 billion in profits. It turns you into an asshole who is very much a part of the problem.

Wide Sargasso Sea (Modern Library #94)

(This is the seventh entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Under the Net)

In Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, there’s an essay in which Dyer describes his reading habits. He writes about a late stage wade into Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. “I could make neither head nor tail of the first part,” notes Dyer. “[B]ut, since the book was short and the end in sight almost from the first page, I finished it and realized that it was indeed the masterpiece everyone had claimed.” It’s safe to say that this knowingly superficial take, coming from a man who has offered similarly ridiculous thoughts in relation to David Foster Wallace, is woefully insufficient, even if it does come from a posturing Englishman. To adjust Dyer’s own metaphor into a framework which renders the length of a book extraneous, I think that judging any author against the promise and the propinquity of the last page is the cry of a miscreant, one either disinterested in literature or, as Scott Esposito has recently suggested, trolling so that he can move more units.

As someone who has recently confessed his own blind spots and “allergies” in relation to Jane Eyre (along with a willingness to confront this aesthetic resistance), I feel it incumbent to report that Jean Rhys’s masterpiece placed me in such a great trance that approaching it like some notch to be etched on my belt or miscomprehending the first part never entered my mind. If anything, I wished to comprehend it more. It could very well be that the silly ambition of this project has forced me to become obsessed with some of the individual volumes. But when I read Wide Sargasso Sea a second time, I had to stop myself from reading it a third time.

By contrast, when I read Jane Eyre in January, I felt no such impulse. I wanted to scream very much in the manner of Bertha, throw the book against the wall, and then try to understand why Charlotte Bronte drove me crazy while perfectly amicable and intelligent people continued to enjoy Jane Eyre (and its overwrought cinematic adaptations). It will be at least ten years before I attempt to read Jane Eyre again. Why should this be? I suggested in my Jane Eyre essay that Rochester was my entry point, yet Rochester is an absolute scoundrel in Wide Sargasso Sea. In considering both books, I find myself pitying him in Jane Eyre while loathing him in Wide Sargasso Sea. (It isn’t enough for Rochester to pluck her surname; he must change her first name too. We know this in both books, but the gesture means something different in Wide Sargasso Sea, perhaps because Rochester is there to answer, and often not answer, for his actions.) Yet strangely enough, I can compartmentalize these two feelings, perhaps because Rhys’s book stands as firmly on its own two feet as Bronte’s. Rhys has the benefit of being complementary, but I somehow came away feeling that Jane Eyre was the volume inspired from this one. Bronte’s line of Rochester making Jane Eyre “love him without looking at me” is expanded upon in exceptionally cruel and interesting ways by Rhys. “Look at me,” says the scheming Christophine to Antoinette. “Look in my eyes.” Did Rochester pick up such obeah from Granbois? Was such magic enough for Jane to hear that of Rochester from afar, speaking “in pain and woe, wildly eerily, urgently”? Or were all such women he encountered susceptible to the look? (An idea for a grad student: Rochester as a 19th century Zoolander?)

Unlike Jane Eyre, I found Antoinette is an immensely sympathetic character. I truly believed that she could run away from Rochester, yet I couldn’t believe this of Janet. Antoinette not only suffers terrible abuses (a girl swipes her only dress at a bathing pool for mere pennies, her mother disowns her, she attempts to love her husband and he takes her money), but, if we are to believe her perspective, she is demeaned by nearly every side character. She is called “white nigger,” “white cockroach,” and beke. She is presumed mad by lineage, with her new hubby Rochester one of the biggest boosters of this hysterical theory (on flimsy evidence too). Yet isn’t it a bit mad for Rochester, even if he is suffering from a fever, to echo all of Christophine’s words when he is being rightfully condemned? To call this a double standard is an understatement. Unlike Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea gives us multiple perspectives (the never named Rochester, Antoinette, and the transformed “Bertha”) with which to assess the action. Yet the additional vantage points creates something oblique and tantalizingly incomplete.

But even though this book leaves so many questions, there’s a good deal of potent imagery, much of it startlingly specific. Consider the family parrot, Coco, who tries and escape a fire — the conflagration a case of vengeful arson after Antoinette’s new stepfather (one Mr. Mason) says some impetuous words easily overheard — to the dilapidated home in Coulibri in the book’s first part. Coco’s wings have been clipped by Mr. Mason after he “grew very bad tempered,” even though he sits quietly on Antoinette’s mother’s shoulder. Coco’s death is clearly a sign of things to come:

I opened my eyes, everybody was looking up and pointing at Coco on the glacis railings with his feathers alight. He made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him and he fell screeching. He was all on fire.

We know, of course, that Antoinette will be doing a good deal of screeching herself as Bertha. Coco is hardly the only bird in the book. Later, when Antoinette leads Rochester down a very bad road pushing past the boundary of Granbois, Rochester hears a bird whistling “a long sad note.” He asks, “What bird is that?” But Antoinette is too far ahead to hear his question. Later, Rochester encounters a moth so large “that I thought it was a bird.” Does Rochester see birds (or women he can crush) in every half-feeling being? Once Antoinette is past the point of no return, Rochester has this to offer:

I will listen to the mountain bird. Oh, a heartstopper is the solitaire’s one note — high, sweet, lonely, magic. You hold your breath to listen…No…Gone. What was I to say to her?

That this comes after Antoinette has tried to explain her personal history to Rochester is especially stinging. “You have no right to ask questions about my mother and then refuse to listen,” says Antoinette during one key moment, after Rochester has met with Daniel Cosway about some adulterated family business that may or may not be real. What is Rochester’s reply? “Of course I will listen, of course we can talk now, if that’s what you wish.” Rochester tells us that he listens to Christophine. But he only listens in self-interest, only because what she is talking to Antoinette about is “dangerous.” Long after that, Rochester declares, “Sing your songs, Rupert the Rine, but I’ll not listen, though they tell me you’ve a sweet voice.” It becomes quite clear that Rochester listens only as a scarcely practiced marital obligation. But given the fact that he’s boffing the servant Amelie, he’s hardly a man of duty. (Not especially a gentleman on the subject of getting it on with the missus, Rochester notes, “Very soon she was as eager for what’s called loving as I was — more lost and drowned afterwards.”) Alas, as Antoinette learns from Christophine, Rochester has English law on his side. And if that means Rochester sleeping in his dressing room, so be it. Having fleeced the pittance left, Rochester’s view of Antoinette is somewhat akin to the high-pitched voice opening up Swizz Beatz’s “Money in the Bank”: “She ain’t got no money in the bank / She be walking round acting all stank.”

Of course, Rhys had a great deal of time to think about Antoinette. Wide Sargasso Sea was the book she offered to the world after nearly thirty years of anonymity. As it turns out, she wasn’t entirely slacking off during that time. In a letter to her daughter on March 9, 1949 (which I found in Lilian Pizzichini’s biography, The Blue Hour), Rhys was to write:

If I could earn some shekels I’d fly from damp and bloody Beckenham and finish my book. Oh God if I could finish it before I peg out or really turn into some fungus or other!

I think of calling it The First Mrs. Rochester with profound apologies to Charlotte Bronte and a deep curtsey too.

But I suppose that won’t do. (I’m supposing you’ve studied Jane Eyre like a good girl).

It really haunts me that I can’t finish it though.

The above letter counteracts the familiar claim that Rhys took nine years to write Wide Sargasso Sea and that Rhys was commissioned to write the book in 1957. A crass numbers man might do the math. If Rhys was thinking about Wide Sargasso Sea for 17 years, and the result is a 170 page volume, then that’s ten pages a year. How much of the book did Rhys write in her head?

Some early critics of the book expressed their resentment at having to know a good deal of Jane Eyre before “knowing” Wide Sargasso Sea. A critic in the Sunday Times, knowing nothing of Rhys being born in Dominica, hoped that Rhys would return to “an aspect of life she has observed and experienced rather than by annotating” Bronte. Such variegated views tend to undercut the distinct possibility that with great cogitation comes great literature.

Next Up: John Fowles’s The Magus!

The Bat Segundo Show: Jaimy Gordon

Jaimy Gordon appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #391. She is most recently the author of Lord of Misrule.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Praying to equine gods for a better motel room.

Author: Jaimy Gordon

Subjects Discussed: Dancing with award winners, the Gargoyle interview from 1983, how “the best young writers” change in an instant, Michael Brondoli, Tom Ahern, on not being terribly prolific, being cherished by 25 people, Shamp of the City-Solo, battling procrastination, subterfuge by husbands and publishers to get Lord of Misrule finished, inspiration points from John Hawkes, learning Italian, the use of Yiddish words in Lord of Misrule, referring to the same character from multiple vantage points, creating inconsistencies, Two-Tie’s philosophy of the world, private people who scheme, passing time and stories before radio and television, Cynthia Ozick, Marilynne Robinson, the pre-Internet storytelling culture, Steven Milhauser’s Edwin Mulhouse, Kellie Wells, the use of television in fiction, DH Lawrence and sex, staying “young” as a novelist, hanging out with criminals, being preserved by immaturity, the problem of not working enough, joy and ecstasy as a requirement, Nicole Krauss’s refusal to dance, Janet Maslin’s sense of “the exotic,” the National Book Award judges, Gordon’s explanation of her “churlish” speech, “A Night’s Work” as the origin point for Lord of Misrule, characters who escaped the novel, Two-Tie vs. Batman’s Two Face, the problems of drinking a lot, having an uncle as a loan shark, the multiple meanings of dirty books, the many ways that a grown man can get into trouble, using one’s own life as material, being a dark romantic, on not believing in real life, discussing opera with Bill Clegg, challenging Jane Smiley’s notion of the “narrowness of the world,” colors and description, the dangers of falling down the linguistic rabbit hole, unexpected methods of attracting regular readers, astute reviews from horse racing people, happy accidents in the author/reader relationship, vulgar desires to see one’s novel at an airport, the need to love literature, Donald Westlake’s Parker novels, how popular literature chronicles the underworld, Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, Balzac, the myth of pulp, loving horse racing despite its corruption, Czeslaw Milosz’s notion of America as a moderately corrupt country, the complicated emotional connections between humans and animals, and the paucity of fiction dealing with animals.


Gordon: I didn’t think I was writing this for the small presses. I thought that this was a book with some commercial potential. And I eagerly gave it to my then agent, who showed it to a few places and came back and said, “You know, Jaimy, I think you have to face it. You’re still a small press author.” I was very depressed and very mad. My agent and I — she’s a very nice woman, maybe not good for that kind of book — we parted company at that point. And I worked on the manuscript again for a few years. Sporadically. Took out of it some of the Medicine Ed material. About this 72-year-old illiterate groom who knows how to work roots, knows how to do folk magic, and is looking for a home. Trying to make this big score for that purpose. I reworked some of that Medicine Ed material into a separate story, which came out in Witness and I loved the way that that chapter came together. I decided I had to redo the novel that way. But I didn’t finish it before I was overtaken by the deaths of my two parents and other things that happened in the last decade. But anyway.

Correspondent: Did it require an ultimatum from McPherson? “Hey, Jaimy, you better finish this book!” Is this the only way to finish a book for you?

Gordon: At some point, I must have rashly promised him that he could have it by the summer of 2010. I’d even kind of forgotten about that. Because I’d many times vaguely told him, “Well, if no one else will do it, you can have it.” But I had meant to get it out there and sell it. And I do think that I could have probably found someone if I had really asserted myself. Gotten a new agent and so on. But I’m a procrastinator and easily distracted. And I forgot about it. And suddenly McPherson said, “Well, it’s going to be this summer, you know. It has to be this summer because I think this book could be a contender for the National Book Awards.” After I stopped laughing, I said, “Well, alright.” I figured this book has been sitting there. An unmovable, implacable obstruction on my writing table for the last ten years. At the least, I gotta get rid of it. I’ve got to get it out of my way. I said, “Alright. I’ll start revising it.” This was maybe back in May. But I didn’t start revising it. And I found out later that he and my husband, who’s also a writer — a German writer, Peter Blickle — were having conferences. “What are we going to do to get this woman back to work? She has to finish this manuscript!” And somehow McPherson got the brilliant idea of sending me galleys with this corrupt early manuscript. It was even the earliest manuscript.

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh really?

Gordon: They must have sent him the file back before I even took the Medicine Ed material out. And so he sent me galleys. I mean, it’s easier now to generate galleys than it used to be. But he sent me galleys and he said, “Well, this is the book.” This is the book coming out in July. We’re sending this to press on such and such a date. And I was absolutely horrified. The biggest problem in getting back to work on it had been that, for five years, I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I could not make — I mean, it’s really hard to revise a book without reading it. And, for some reason, I just had an aversion to it. I know why it was. I’ll explain in a minute. But at this point, I was galvanized, horrified into reading it. And when I did, I thought, “This is not bad at all actually.” I had even forgotten a few subtle points of the plot. I found that I cried twice when I read it. I thought, “Well, you know, I must really have something here.”

Correspondent: Crying for the good reasons, I hope.

Gordon: Yeah, that’s right! I wasn’t crying because I thought it was so bad. I cried because I was moved at the plights of some of the creatures therein. But anyway.

Correspondent: Ten years of procrastination. I mean, that’s a lot of procrastination. Especially since the book here…

Gordon: Oh, that’s nothing for me.

Correspondent: Really? Nothing? Why do you require publishers and husbands to play such tricks upon you? I mean, some writers make up the excuse, “Oh well, I’m always thinking about the novel!” or “I’m submerging myself in the novel when I’m not doing anything related to the novel.”

Gordon: How about “I was occasionally thinking about the novel?”

Correspondent: Yes!

Gordon: Occasionally I thought about it.

Correspondent: Essentially, you’ve got a “My dog ate my homework” here. So what’s the real excuse?

Gordon: What do I do?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Gordon: Well, both my parents had lingering last illnesses. And they required care. But I was not — I’m one of five siblings. There were plenty of others. But nevertheless, there were very big events in my life. And then there was another family member who was sick. That took time. But what did I do to make myself better? Did I go into my study and write? No. I took Italian lessons. I got passionately involved in opera. In fact, I have to write some kind of a book about opera because I’ve spent so much of my time following opera in the last ten years. It’s the way horse racing was for me at a certain stage. So it’s going to be absolutely necessary for me to make use of it at some point.

Correspondent: Who was the novelist who said that the novel is everything that an author has been thinking about for the last five years?

Gordon: Who was that?

Correspondent: I’m blanking out on the name.

Gordon: The way I heard it, it was ten years.

Correspondent: Ten years. There’s variations of this quote. It seems to me that, for you, it’s actually the five years from forty years ago. Is that safe to say? Do you require a long introspection time before finally getting the project nipped in the bud?

Gordon: The truth is: this novel was substantially written between 1997 and about 2002. I know exactly the date because I was in the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown as a returning fellow on the beginning of a sabbatical in fall 1997. And it just so happened that John Hawkes, who had been my teacher at Brown, was there on a senior fellowship for the month. And I always associated my passionate interest in horse racing and my urge to write about it with him. Because he had written about racetracks in Sweet William and The Lime Twig. That’s probably the most famous of his novels that concern horse racing in any way. He was kind of a fantasist about horse racing, although eventually he bought a crippled old, once great stakes horse. Whereas I had actually worked on the racetrack. And when I saw him in 1997, I said, “I’m finally going to write that racetrack novel. I’m here to start it.” And he said, “Well, make sure you make the horses into real characters in that book.” Which I did, I thought. But it didn’t take an extraordinarily long time to write an advanced draft. I don’t write early drafts. I don’t tear through 400 sheets of paper never looking back. I construct every page and work on every sentence a long time. And I’m really fairly well along by the time I get to the end of the book the first time. But I also do a lot of new writing when I go through those pages again.

The Bat Segundo Show #391: Jaimy Gordon (Download MP3)

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Under the Net (Modern Library #95)

(This is the sixth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Sophie’s Choice)

The movement away from theory and generality is the movement toward truth. All theorizing is a fight. We must be ruled by the situation itself, and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try as it were to crawl under the net.

The above sentiment comes from Annandine, a character in a manuscript entitled The Silencer, modeled upon some philosophical chatter between a frustrated translator named Jake Donoghue and an industrialist/sophist named Hugo Belfounder, which is contained within Iris Murdoch’s debut novel, Under the Net. And if all that makes the book sound like a matryoshka doll with endless porcelain layers that need to be opened if the reader has any hope of unraveling the truth (to some degree, it is), then I should also note that Under the Net is also a sprightly picaresque novel. There are dogs, fireworks, giant Roman film sets occupied by socialists, martinets working at hospitals, experimental theatrical performances, and mad searches for people in pubs.

The Complete Review‘s Michael Orthofer called these affairs “a bit too manic” and accused Murdoch’s protagonist of living a life that was “a bit too unsettled.” The latter charge is certainly true. Jake Donoghue does indeed hop from domicile to domicile, often at the behest of a generous woman, seeking rent-free space to sleep and frequently checking his possessions in with a newspaper vendor named Mrs. Tinckham (a working-class Lady Metroland?). But I think the good Mr. Orthofer’s being a bit unfair. The book’s bountiful gallivanting reminded me of similar evenings I’ve had. I may not have plunged fully clothed and drunken into the Thames (although I have thrown my unclothed and inebriated form into the San Francisco Bay), but I have climbed through windows, crashed parties, and found myself locked in rooms. I suppose verisimilitude depends upon the circumstances you invite into your life. For my own part, I have been liberal-minded.

As many know, Murdoch was an Oxford-trained philosopher and a leftist (at one point, a member of the Communist Party, as was de rigueur among the Oxford set), leaving one pondering the real-life origin of the above-cited philosophy. The snippet may have emerged from something Murdoch overheard from two students. Or perhaps it didn’t have any existential origin point at all. At the end of Under the Net, after many journeys in London and Paris, Jake is presented with an observational puzzle. “I don’t know why it is,” he responds. “It’s just one of the wonders of the world.”

This tidy finale suggests that the philosophy presented in this novel is very much about the journey rather than the destination. The “original” Jake/Hugo conversation, which concerns the lofty topic of whether or not language is capable of expressing our true feelings, demonstrates the inherent emotion within the proposition. “There’s something fishy about describing people’s feelings,” says Hugo, who swims in these choppy waters to expound his theory that all statements are falsified from the start. Say that you’re “apprehensive” after the fact, Hugo says, and it doesn’t cut the mustard. That these words are exchanged in an experimental clinic, where both men are sick, says it all.

If language can’t capture every mite of emotional complexity, then the completed volumes contained within Murdoch’s volume matter very much to her effervescent characters. Jake’s translation of a novel becomes an unanticipated instrument of coercion. The Silencer, Jake’s effort at writing a novel (“treated to a few lukewarm reviews”), is also responsible for much of the lack of communication between characters. Because Jake has modeled his novel on his conversation with Hugo, he is reticent to reestablish ties — until, of course, he discovers Hugo’s involvement with a pair of sisters he knows. And even then, he has “really very little idea about what I wanted to say to Hugo.” It is only when Hugo is ensnared in a hospital that Jake can at long last use language to patch things up. But Hugo claims that, despite his singular philosophy from the past, he cannot remember what he talked with Jake about. Later still, Jake locates Hugo’s copy of The Silencer (Murdoch’s novel contains a remarkable amout of breaking and entering), and discovers that Hugo has “underlined passages, put crosses and question-marks in the margin; and at one place there was a penciled note, Ask J.” Is Hugo being coy? Or does he genuinely not remember? And if it’s the latter, where does the point of translation begin?

Why not seek such answers in the protagonist himself? Jake’s main employment comes from translating a hack French novelist named Jean Pierre Breteuli, author of such books as This Wooden Nightingale. But later in the book, Jake discovers that Jean Pierre’s latest volume (which Jake hasn’t yet translated) has won the Prix Goncourt. This merit is enough to confuse poor Jake, who has spent much of his time viewing Jean Pierre’s work (and thus his own labor) with derision:

I had classed Jean Pierre once and for all. That he should secretly have been changing his spots, secretly ennobling his thought, purifying his emotions: all this was really too bad. In my imagination I was already lending the book every possible virtue, and the more I did so the more I felt a mingled rage and distress which drove every other idea from my mind.

Murdoch plays Jake Donoghue in the first person. And it seems prudent to bring this up, given that the two Quentin sisters he encounters are both involved in performance. The younger, Sadie, is a film star, a seeming ingenue who Jake dismisses as childish (despite hanging out with men who enjoy being childish), but who proves more cunning. She asks Jake to take care of her flat, but she locks him in. Still looking for a place to live, Jake meets the older sister, Anna Quentin, who is a former singer six years older than Jake, a past fling, and now something of an experimental theater queen (literally crowned by Jake). Anna’s also as old as Murdoch was when she wrote Under the Net. Jake attempts to reintroduce himself into Anna’s life through a quite eccentric method:

At that time too I had, in a not entirely disinterested fashion, been teaching Anna some Judo, and one of our customs had been that when I came in I would seize her and throw her down into this corner to be kissed. The memory of this rose in me now like an inspiration and I advanced upon her. I took her wrist, and for an instant her eyes wide with alarm, very close to mine, and then in a moment I had thrown her, very carefully, on to a pile of velvet costumes in the corner of the room.

If Anna can be likened to Murdoch, might it be possible to construe this as a character pouncing upon its creator? That’s probably a stretch. Still, Jake has his custom, just as sufficiently transferred through years of singular permutations as The Silence, and it is feeling which causes this physicality. If it so astonishing through physical action, then is it not possible that such fancies are just as astonishing through the linguistic? Jake’s competing with fragments of all types. When Anna eventually leaves, Jake is locked up in the theater and must spend the night in a room amongst a good deal of bric-a-brac. When Jake catches sight of Anna later in Paris, he cannot catch up with her. He is reduced to plucking her shoes from the grass.

Jake is certainly a young man with fussy peculiarities (“I hate entering a crowded room and feeling a whole gallery of faces focused upon me,” “I find that sea voyages promote reflection”), yet one who impulsively declares that he’s a socialist when confronted by a political figure named Lefty Todd. What do politics mean in this book? More of a dog-and-pony show (with a film set subbing in for the pony) than anything else. There is an effort at a political conversation between Lefty and Jake. Jake makes an appointment to continue it, but he never does. If philosophy is something that is transmuted over iterations, then politics resembles more of an endless cycle.

Under the Net is dedicated to Raymond Queneau, and this French comic novelist proved to be such an influence that Murdoch would later cop to copying him as much as she could. One sees Queneau’s Pierrot Mon Ami as one of two novels that Jake leaves behind when he must flee his rent-free home at the beginning. The other book Jake abandons is Samuel Beckett’s Murphy. Despite Murdoch’s dedication, it is with Beckett that the imitative influences are more readily identified. Jake has distant kin named Finn, often confused as a servant, and this is very close to the relationship between Neary and “his âme damnée and man-of-all-work, Cooper” in Murphy. Neary’s pursuit of Miss Counihan might be likened to Hugo Belfounder’s pursuit of Sadie in Under the Net. Where Murphy suffers from heart attacks (although that’s nothing compared to Neary’s ability to stop his heart), Jake suffers from shattered nerves. However, in a possible deference to Neary’s sputtering palpitations, Murdoch does have Jake’s heart “beating out the refrain too late” when locating a taxi. More obviously, in both books, a hospital figures prominently.

In a 1968 interview with WK Rose, Murdoch was to call Murphy “a kind of ancestor to Under the Net.” And in John Bayley’s book, Elegy for Iris, Murdoch’s husband revealed that Murdoch learned about Murphy directly from Queneau himself when the two writers hung out in various Brussels cafes. Jake Donoghue’s account, expurgated, accelerated, improved and reduced, gives off undeniable similarities, yet both books are sui generis.

In assessing Under the Net later in life, Murdoch was to write, “I can see very clearly how bad it is. It is very romantic and sentimental, even what is intellectual in it is intellectual in a romantic way. If anything saves it from complete wreck it is a sort of vitality and joy that lifts it a little.”

But it is this very sentimentality that not only makes the novel so much fun, but that permits Murdoch to use conceptual philosophy as ironic comedy. Aside from the funny methods in which the Quentin sisters lock Jake up, Jake’s cosmic fate serves as a comical counterpoint. He can only be kicked out of a domicile or locked into one. (These incarcerations are interesting involutions of Beckett’s Murphy, considering that Wylie is locked out of his room and our introduction to Murphy sees the layabout tied up by choice in a rocking chair. There is no rocking chair in Under the Net, but there is a rocking horse with “big vacant eyes.” This is undoubtedly a nod to the opthalmically obsessed Beckett, as well as DH Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” (Indeed, there are many winners at the racetracks in this novel.) Murdoch, to her sly credit, provides no homage to chess.

There is also the matter of Mister Mars, a stunt dog owned by the Bounty Belfounder Studio who is encountered by Hugo while locked in a cage. Mister Mars doesn’t quite serve as a Schrodinger-like answer to the Cartesian logic within Murphy, although at one point he does play dead so that Jake can escape an imbroglio. Over the course of the book, the dog is both young and old, worth nothing and worth quite a bit, quiet and boisterous. Yet the many parties feel the need to appraise him. “Sorry to be a business girl,” reads the final message concerning Mister Mars, “but one has to watch the cash, with the cost of living and partly living what it is.” “Partly living” is the key phrase here. Perhaps the young Murdoch, the progressive-minded humanist who eventually liberated herself from the Communist Party yoke (becoming a very hard Thatcherite in later years), was trying to determine if the novel offered a reconciliation point between accurately representing life and some concession to narrative that involved “partly living.” Under the Net succeeds because it is both a series of adventures (akin to The Ginger Man) and reflective of a young person’s intellectual journey. And what better metaphors are locked rooms or diminishing paramours for the divagating and theoretical manner in which we seize every possible scrap and hang on to every possible word?

[UPDATE: I had no idea that another Iris Murdoch biography had been published, but Martin Rubin’s review in the Wall Street Journal (published the day after my essay) sheds some additional light on the connections between Murdoch’s early life and her early novels. Was Jake Donoghue inspired by Frank Thompson? And if Murdoch recruited Thompson to the Communist Party, is it possibly that Lefty’s laughably smooth coercion of Jake in Under the Net is based on this exchange?]

Next: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea!

BAMcinématek: De Palma Suspense

If all De Palma films come from Hitchcock, then all words written about De Palma must originate from Pauline Kael. Kael once identified De Palma’s style as “a perverse mixture of comedy and horror and tension” that came with “a lulling sensuousness. He builds our apprehensions languorously, softening us for the kill.”

That’s a highfalutin and reserved way of ignoring one possible takeaway: if Brian De Palma were not a filmmaker, he may have ended up as some kind of felon. Indeed, so subtly disturbing is his imagery, murderously more so on the big screen, that one is tempted to give the man a movie camera before he hurts someone. I’ve had conversations with film buffs over the years and I’ve been relieved to learn that I am not alone in having these momentary thoughts. But “softening us for the kill” or speculative homicidal impulses don’t really permit us to understand De Palma.

Now thanks to a retrospective series that you can still catch at BAMcinématek, there’s an opportunity to see just how potent the man’s films are. There are three films left in the De Palma Suspense series. There’s Raising Cain, a somewhat unfairly condemned late period movie that Peter Travers once described as a “De Palma movie made by a forger who can barely conceal his contempt for the artist he’s copying.” But was De Palma mimicking Hitchcock or the Hitchcock pilferer he was always being pegged as? More promising than Raising Cain is the vibrant and elegant Femme Fatale, in which De Palma more successfully embodies homage into homage, including a brazen “seven years later” flashforward, a film festival within the film, and numerous cinematic archetypes.

But the last film still playing is Dressed to Kill, one of De Palma’s masterpieces. Its mixture of sex and violence proved to be too much for some audiences in 1980. It was protested by at least one group that declared in its circular: “DRESSED TO KILL ASSERTS THAT WOMEN CRAVE PHYSICAL ABUSE; THAT HUMILIATION. PAIN, AND BRUTALITY ARE ESSENTIAL TO OUR SEXUALITY.”

This is a misread, I think. One only needs to discern the manner in which the camera cranes in on a closing elevator door, catching the reflection of a woman being murdered, to see that voyeurism has much to do with this brutality. As the grisly scene plays out, we see (above) a connection to Un Chien Andalou. Yet while Dali and Bunuel were eager to slice the eyeball, De Palma does not. He leaves the razor there and slices the cheek. Is all violence equal in cinema? Or is De Palma’s razor the new tongue? If the latter, it’s a very twisted joke.

There is something valiantly creepy about De Palma’s films before Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s probably a mistake to ascribe some ethical code, whether religious or not, to movies that have the effrontery to depict atavistic human emotions. (I especially admire this attempt to comprehend De Palma through his lack of religious affiliation: “There is no indication that De Palma was an active churchgoer or member of an organized congregation or denomination as an adult.”) But the boldness cuts both ways, so to speak. One can feel unsettled by the needless punishment that Angie Dickinson receives for having an affair in Dressed to Kill (even as one remains dazzled by that movie’s museum scene), while also applauding the bravery in broaching intense father-daughter relationships in Obsession.

To some degree, this willingness to depict the unpleasant aligns De Palma with such iconoclasts as Lina Wertmüller (declared misogynist by many for Swept Away) and Dario Argento (whose hands have always portrayed the hands of any male murderer he depicts on screen). But by cementing human behavior in cinematic history, he’s suggesting something more dangerous and intriguing. In cinema, all emotion is valid. Cinematic language permits us to confront our darkest emotions in the smoothest of terms. If that is one method of appreciating his films, then it seems incumbent for any serious filmgoer to see his work on a movie screen. From what I understand, this is becoming an increasingly dicier situation. I am informed that Sisters requires forty to fifty thousand dollars worth of restoration work and that most of the prints, save two (owned respectively by producer Ed Pressman and MOMA), are largely faded.

The Bad Prose Reading Project #2 (“It Was Real Light”)

Back in February, I initiated the Bad Prose Reading Project — an effort to find new joy and meaning in prose that was truly atrocious. The joy and meaning would be delivered through audio dramatizations.

The idea behind the Project was to respond to a specific phenomenon that all readers know very well. Every now and then, you encounter prose so wonderfully preposterous that it feels quite a crime not to share it with other appreciative readers. Some confine this morbid pleasure to the Bad Sex in Fiction Award handed out yearly by the Literary Review. Others test their mincing mettle by contributing their own exemplars to the annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest.

But the best bad prose isn’t always planned. It’s written and discovered by accident.

I had thought that The Bad Prose Reading Project would be a one-off. But then, on April 14, 2011, I discovered an extraordinarily awful specimen. It was so atrocious that it filled me with great delight! And as I read the words, I took further joy! When you listen to the recording, you will hear me go overboard near the end as I preach about “letting live and loving.”

As always, I won’t name the author, the story, or the novel that I’m reading. I feel this is fair to those who may judge the prose to be excellent. Needless to say, if I’m dramatizing it, it’s probably been published somewhere in the last few months. But that’s also part of the fun. Perhaps in dramatizing “bad” prose, the oral delivery may transform it into “good” prose because my dramatization is “bad.” Or perhaps I’m overthinking the experiment.

As always, I invite listeners to judge the results. The second installment of The Bad Prose Reading Project features the phrase “it was real light” and can be listened to below.

The Bad Prose Reading Project #2 (“It Was Real Light”) (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #390. He is most recently the author of The Complaints.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Playing good cop and bad cop with his interlocutory approach.

Author: Ian Rankin

Subjects Discussed: The benefits of talking with a Scotsman on St. Patrick’s Day, sartorial description in prose, pleated miniskirts, balancing descriptive detail against dialogue, people who are intended to be larger than life, on not describing the central character, physical descriptions that compete with the expectations of television, Malcolm Fox vs. John Rebus, trying to make a protagonist who isn’t a maverick compelling, the adjacent sounds of garbage being emptied, what tastes in music reveal about character, family and backstory, the connections between Rebus’s father in The Black Book and Rankin’s father, moving past autobiographical connections, Rankin’s early pursuit of an English degree, avoiding the existential possibility of Ian Rankin the Accountant in early years, parents who don’t understand, Woody Allen, the limitation of locations in Edinburgh to write about, Doors Open, financial institutions and cities, Edinburgh as a microcosm for Scotland, the economic collapse as a creative muse, occupations that permit access to every layer of society, Michael Connelly’s start as a journalist, journalists-turned-novelists, sources who retire, making things up vs. research, not getting too close to the police, The Wire, the disadvantages of amateur detectives, Mario Puzo making the mob up in The Godfather, when imagination turns you into an unexpected police suspect, Hide and Seek‘s close similarities to real crime, serendipity, the universal nature of office politics, how much police procedure a writer really needs to know, being oblique enough to be believable, writing a first draft in six weeks, William Gibson, writing and revising on the road, Alexander McCall Smith’s prolificity, the danger of forgetting plot details, eating multiple candy bars per day as an alternative to nicotine addiction, nonsmokers who write convincingly about smoking in fiction, Rankin’s addictive personality, computer games, Iain Banks’s addiction to video games and Scottish roads, Rankin’s addiction to Twitter, being unable to tweet using a European phone due to the draconian wifi costs established by hotels, keeping a diary vs. maintaining a Twitter feed, writers as public property, the drawbacks of instant feedback, Facebook, The Social Network, Twitter as an exercise in editing, eBay addiction, compartmentalizing time, the possibilities of bringing Rebus and Siobhan Clarke back, not having a storehouse of ideas for future books, comics and working on Dark Entries, the creative differences when working with another person’s character, John Constantine, Neil Gaiman, hanging out with Alan Moore, naming characters after literary writers and rock stars in The Complaints, when too many character names begin with the same letter, long and ambitious novels, biases against shorter novels, Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the poet’s talent of distillation, the rising market share of ebooks, commercial forces and maintaining a mystery series, attracting new readers for a series, parallels between the publishing and the music industries, speculating on a future industry of freelance editors, independent bookstore alternatives to Borders, the modest revitalization of vinyl, the frequency of cheek gestures within The Complaints, repeating words and phrases, intrusive commas, manuscript fatigue, becoming part of the old guard mystery writers, and keeping books fun after multiple books.


Correspondent: Michael Connelly, who was also a journalist at one point, has discussed how he was worried that, as a journalist, a lot of his sources and a lot of his contacts would possibly go away. And this would prevent him from getting a lot of really interesting stories that he could put in his novels. I’m wondering if you’ve faced anything similar to that with your network of sources. Or whether you have accidentally burned a source. Have there been any problems?

Rankin: The problem with my sources is that a lot of them have retired.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Rankin: If they were my age — I mean, I’m going to be 51 this year — most of them have retired form the police. So guys that I met in my mid-to-late twenties when I was starting the [Rebus] series are now gone. And you either have to find a new set of people. Or you just make it up. I mean, it is fiction after all. What I do is that I’ve got enough people around me who can help me with the detail if I need them. But I don’t want to get too close to the police. Because I don’t want the books to become public relations exercises for police. And, of course, the only people who will talk to you are the good cops. The ones who are straight, you know. They’ll talk to you. Well, if that’s the only people you’re meeting, you might feel constrained. You might feel you can’t suddenly write about cops who’ve broken the rules or who’ve bent the rules a little bit. So I only go near the police when I need them. I mean, with The Complaints, I did need to talk to someone who worked in internal affairs. I set that up through another contact, who’s a senior police officer. But it was a couple of hours of conversation. And that was all I needed. That gave me a sense of what this organization would be like, what the office politics would be like, what kind of powers they have, what kind of stuff they did. Two hours. And the rest of it is invented.

Correspondent: Have facts and background been more of a limitation than a help throughout your work?

Rankin: Well, I do think there’s restrictions on what you can and cannot do. Because readers are much more sussed than they used to be. I mean, they’re watching cop shows on TV — whether it’s reality shows or dramas.

Correspondent: Or The Wire for that matter.

Rankin: Yeah. But they feel they know what goes on forensically. They feel they know what goes on at a crime scene. So you can’t suddenly start taking liberty. I mean, I’m very lucky. Because my guys are professional cops. Therefore, they would be at the scene. It’s much harder if you’re talking a kind of Miss Marple character. This notion that an amateur detective — a Lord Peter Wimsey or a Miss Marple — could just turn up at the crime scene and trample all over it. And that the cops wouldn’t give him a good kick up the backside and send him on their way. These days, it’s much harder for readers to take on board and accept. So I don’t write about private eyes. And I don’t write about amateurs who just happen to get caught up in drama. I write about people who get invited into the drama. Because that’s their job.

Correspondent: On the other hand, there’s, of course, the famous story that Mario Puzo made all of The Godfather up. So much so that mob people were reading this and they were saying, “How did he know so much about this?” Is this similar to your situation when you invent something? That almost inventing layers or systematic connections is almost better than relying on getting something right.

Rankin: Well, I mean, on the very first book that I wrote, I got the idea for the plot. And then I went to a police station to talk with a couple of cops. You know, just to get some background and some detail. And they asked me what the plot of the book was. And I told them. And it turned out that it was very close to a case they were working on. So they viewed me as a possible suspect for a short time. Until they decided that I was just insane. But the next book after that — Hide and Seek — two or three years after the book was published, a similar case came to light. And that gave me great kudos in Edinburgh. Because cops and the public alike said, “How did you know about this stuff?” I mean, it was kind of there. It was happening a few years ago. But it wasn’t. It hadn’t come to light then. And I had just invented it. And it came true later on. So people thought I knew what I was talking about. But I really wasn’t. I was making it up. And that continued to happen. There was a lot of serendipity. That I would just write about something that then seemed to be true. And it worked the other way as well. I would take a really true thing like the G8 — when the G8 came to Scotland. And that was just a great source of information. All you had to do to research that book [The Naming of the Dead] was to live in Scotland for a week. And that was a very easy book to write from my point of view. Because about half of the stuff in there actually happened. Up to and including President George W. Bush falling off his bicycle while trying to wave to a police officer. In my book, it’s Rebus. I mean, what if it wasn’t? It was someone else.

The Bat Segundo Show #390: Ian Rankin (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Carol Emshwiller & Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Carol Emshwiller and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #389.

Today is Carol Emshwiller’s 90th birthday. She is the author of Carmen Dog, The Mount, and numerous stories. Nonstop Press has recently issued The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller. Her work can be thoroughly investigated through The Carol Emshwiller Project. (Many thanks to Gavin Grant for his assistance in setting up this conversation.)

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is the author of Harlem is Nowhere.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why there’s a sentient mount attached to his back.

Authors: Carol Emshwiller and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Subjects Discussed: Bears that Ms. Emshwiller keeps in her house, writing to please one’s self, fooling Harlan Ellison, slanting a story to sell it to a science fiction magazine, throwing strange ideas into short stories on purpose, increased short story competition, selling a story in a day, commercial value vs. name value, not writing for eight months, dealing with blindness, working on multiple stories at the same time, the difficulties of writing fiction vs. the ease of nonfiction and email, Kate Wilhelm, the visual components of sentences, being advised to purchase $150 glasses, inventing a fictional family as a way of coping with grief, how a single line of dialogue can stop a writer in her tracks, not forcing the creative process vs. keeping productivity going, whether or not Ms. Emshwiller has ever been terrified of her own ideas, the torture within Carmen Dog, Kafka’s influence, authors who laugh at terrible events on the page, the emotional truth of dangerous ideas, collaborating with Ed Emshwiller on films, formulating plot and looking ahead, repeating an idea, the cheat of characters who go for a walk, twisting an emotion, kindness as a wild emotion in “Creature,” studying animal psychology before The Mount, being seized an idea, reading for pleasure, the inseparable connections between reading and writing, books on tape, loss of reading desire with blindness, how blindness causes everything to take six times as long, competing notions of what Harlem’s boundaries are, balancing a view through books and a view through people, capturing “snapshots” of neglected figures as an observer, James Baldwin’s “Jimmy moment,” personal evasions, Rhodes-Pitts speculating on Harlem based on observing funeral parlors, having a relationship to a place without going in, aligning a piece of information from the library to personal experience, serendipity, Rhodes-Pitts’s film background, how films and photographs help make sense of a neighborhood, Aaron Siskind’s Harlem Document Series, photographs as a residue of living, addressing Dwight Garner’s white bread vantage point, interpretive demands from critics, parallels between the African American Day Parade crowd and the 1919 Harlem Hellfighters, ongoing familiarity with historical figures among Harlem residents, the applicability of historical framework, Ralph Ellison and the Federal Writers’ Project, Invisible Man, Zora Neale Hurston, 1944’s “Harlem Hunches,” quibbles with WPA oral history and manipulated slave narratives, phony dialect created by white writers, attempting to write a hopeful account when there’s a historical sense of pain, and the shock waves of Harlem gentrification.


Correspondent: In the introduction for The Collected Stories, which has been collected all in one book and published just in time for your birthday, you allude to there being five different phases of your writing life. What was interesting to me was that you mentioned the fourth phase, which was just after your husband had passed away, and you say that you were writing stories and these Western novels because you wanted to have a family. Your kids had gone away and all that. I was curious why the family on page meant more or needed to be there in addition to the real people in your life.

Emshwiller: Well, my family wasn’t there. (laughs) That’s the point! You know, the kids had all gone off. And I didn’t have any kids anymore near me. And then I didn’t have a husband anymore. And I was by myself. And what I did was — well, it’s sort of a long story. The very first thing, to get into that cowboy stuff, my daughter had a wonderful idea. She said, “Why don’t you go to this dude ranch that I know of?” Right? And I said, “I don’t even like horses anymore!” And I didn’t want to go. And I just fought her and fought her. And she said, “You gotta do something. You gotta go some place you never went before. Do something you never did before.” And she pushed me up there. And then, in two days, I was just back to horses and farm life and cows and everything. They had everything up there. Pigs and chickens. Everything.

Correspondent: Why the aversion to horses?

Emshwiller: What?

Correspondent: Why the aversion to horses?

Emshwiller: Oh, before, you mean?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Emshwiller: Well, when I was a twelve-year-old girl, I was into horses. And if I had a dollar, which I didn’t have very often, I would go and ride. Which was not every often. And after that, I grew up.

Correspondent: Horses? Yeah. Big deal. In the boonies.

Emshwiller: (laughs) Yeah, right! I didn’t hear anything about them anymore. But then it only took two days to realize that this was really great. And my daughter was absolutely right. I would just switch away into another life. And then when I came home though, I didn’t write another line for a year.

Correspondent: Oh wow.

Emshwiller: After Ed [Emshwiller] had died. And I lay comatose in front of the TV set, looking at Westerns. Trying to see. Watching horses and watching mountains, which I really learned to love the mountains with Ed. When we were together, we used to climb around a lot. And then, after I got through mourning for a year and not doing anything, then I started writing the Westerns. I made myself a family. The thing is: I wrote. I can see a lot of people doing this though. For those two novels, I wrote like I never wrote before. I didn’t go anywhere. Those people were more real than my friends.

Correspondent: Wow.

Emshwiller: More real. And they were my life. For two years. Or three years. I don’t know how long it took to write both those novels. I thought of nobody else. And I didn’t go to any movies. My friends would give readings and I didn’t go. I didn’t go to everything.

Correspondent: They were more real than your real friends. Why do you think that is? Why did they…?

Emshwiller: I don’t know how that happened! (laughs)

Correspondent: Your imagination was that powerful, I suppose.

Emshwiller: And my writing changed completely during that. Then I went back to science fiction. From that experience, I think it expanded deeper into people, I think. Although I don’t think I’m as deep as U was into those people now. I think I squeezed back a little bit to the science fiction things.

Correspondent: You needed to invent people in order to understand them?

Emshwiller: I think. I don’t know. Of course, they were my invention. I understood. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs) Yeah, it’s tilted the balance there.

Emshwiller: Of course they don’t always do what you want them to do.

Correspondent: Of course. Which is why I suggested an invented simulacrum of people might almost be more effective. Because they’re coming from your subconscious. It’s not like you are controlling them completely.

Emshwiller: No. I found that out. (laughs)

* * *

Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start with the notion of Harlem as an area. There are numerous skirmishes throughout history, some of them based off of racist fears about what Harlem’s boundaries are. And even when you were in Texas, you describe in this book creating an imaginary map of Manhattan. So given this, and given the fact that one person will call Harlem “a ruin,” another person will call it “an East Berlin whose wall is 110th Street,” how can any one person describe its totality? I mean, can this book or can any book really capture it? Or do you essentially fall into the Alexander Gumby problem of an overflowing collection of clippings?

Rhodes-Pitts: My attempt was not to give a description of Harlem in the colonial sense, when cartographers would go off into the bush and make a map that attempts to be true to life. It remains an idiosyncratic map of this place that is outlined by my personal experiences and my personal curiosity. And in the midst of living here — and really it was living here that helped for the book, it wasn’t the other way around; I didn’t move here to write this book — my own personal obsessions and curiosity collided with those of other people. And some of those encounters are captured in the book. Now whether it’s — I mean, I guess I don’t trust the project of someone who would claim that they were setting out to describe the totality of any place. It’s simply as that.

Correspondent: How about this? I’m curious about the different worlds between your peregrinations through the neighborhood, talking with people who live here, versus your dutiful efforts in the library to make sense of the history. You say that the personal quest encouraged this more scholarly quest. And I’m not sure if it’s fair to necessarily call it a dichotomy, but I’m curious how the two worked in relation to each other in terms of this book.

Rhodes-Pitts: Well, it’s a funny way of running back and forth between two fields in a way. And clearly my first encounters in Harlem, as I described in the book, were through literature, through books. And then I guess you could say I run to the field of experience when I actually move here. And then I’m simultaneously collecting things from the field of experience and from the field of the archive. And I guess as I finally set down to sort through everything that I gathered in my imagination and my experience and my reading, I was conscious of one way to make all of those things on one plane as best as I could. And I think I tried to do that through the way certain fictional characters move through that one chapter as characters and plucking them from their environment and colliding them together as figures in one scene from their different respective homes in literature. And then also making those figures live alongside the people that I knew and who told me their stories, or shared not even their whole stories but snippets of stories that come out in casual conversation. Not through interviews. Which I was really conscious about. So I just think my attempt was always to make the things equal in my treatment of them, and not to privilege one over the other.

Correspondent: Well, for example, you do write about going out of the library and seeing a man there who is reading the Koran. And you observe this tableau. But the question of what you memorialize — and this is also in relation to that photograph you mention — is something interesting and oscillates between these two points. I detected in reading this book that there was a little bit of “Should I impede on the person who’s practicing this private ceremony, but is nevertheless part of the neighborhood or should I observe him?” Was this a struggle in terms of deciding which characters to pick for the book? Who to populate the book to really present your view of Harlem?

Rhodes-Pitts: Again, I think a lot of that is defined by temperament. And I don’t think there was a method to it as much as there was my way of moving through the world, which is often as an observer, and completely aware that what I observe and then choose to describe is part of a selection process. And it was really important. The book is in no way my unscented notebook of seven years in Harlem. It’s very specific images — whether they’re flashes in the case of that particular man, who, for me, sitting outside the library. Clearly some sort of dedicated scholar or man of religion, who was also selling incense and shea butter as a street vendor. Probably not making that much money. Which is an interesting tableau, as you put it, of the pursuit of knowledge happening right outside the door of this other shrine to that pursuit. And I was always very interested in how a lot of the figures — especially the ones that I knew — when I tell their stories, it’s not just a funny story he told me, but it’s really often those stories are about an exchange of knowledge. The impossibility of seeking the stories and the truth and history in some ways. The evasiveness of those stories. And so I guess when I do go through my — whether memory or notes or the histories that I read, it’s very much with a direction. So there’s always a choice. You know, I have a background in film. So I’m very much aware of what it means to edit. To seek and to edit. To capture and sift.

The Bat Segundo Show #389: Carol Emshwiller & Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Holly Tucker

Holly Tucker appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #388. She is most recently the author of Blood Work.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why his bank statements come back bloody.

Author: Holly Tucker

Subjects Discussed: Early philosophical notions of blood, ill humors, whether science without the scientific method can be adequately called science, the Royal Society, William Harvey and the discovery of circulation, Descartes and mind/body dualism, the ethics of unmitigated animal torture, Sir Christopher Wren’s city plan and the Great Fire of London, the connections between architecture and medicine, Claude Perrault, Da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man, the physiology of architecture, Wren’s animal experiments at Oxford, early scientific interest in the brain, French rejection of English scientific theory in the 17th century, medical theory and medical practice, questioning everything as a sport, prostitutes vs. Protestants, claims that the English are liars, royal censorship and Henry Oldenburg, the medical culture wars between France and England, monarchies and clear ideas, staving off espionage issues while pursuing science, the Parisian medical elite, the role of women in 17th century medicine, Jean-Baptiste Denis, the remarkable sacrifice of Antoine Mauroy, throwing a scientific temper tantrum, the charming nature of megalomaniacs, whether early scientists took delight in making dogs miserable, Robert Hooke’s tracheotomy experiments, writing about dogs being muzzled and experimented upon with a dog sitting at your feet, remorse in early medicine, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Arthur Coga, experimenting upon the poor and the vulnerable, Bethlem Royal Hospital, the shifting nature of medical consent over the centuries, and the relative “grisliness” of medicine.


Correspondent: I know bloodletting. And I know bleeding. Not personally. But I do understand that its historical basis was based off of trying to release the ill humors out of the blood. And all that.

Tucker: Absolutely.

Correspondent: The big question I think we should start off with, so that people know what we’re talking about, is: How did such a primitive approach to blood become something? Why did people start thinking, “Oh! We could probably use this for transfusion purposes! We could probably use this for transferring one blood to another!” It seems, in light of its early use before the 17th century, that there was nothing in the cards to suggest that human beings would come up with something like this.

Tucker: No. The fact that they did in the 17th century is, in itself, the story that we’re telling. Because for millennia, they believed that the body was just this mix of fluids. As you said, humors. Blood, phlegm, bile, black bile. Ill health was when those fluids were out of balance. And good health was when they were in balance. We laugh now about bloodletting. Because we think it’s the most gruesome and horrific thing. And it was. But it made total sense to them. That they would need to — well, that and purging and laxatives. So what you tried to do was rid the body, where you could, of all these foul humors. So you’re going to ask me about how they got to blood transfusion.

Correspondent: Yes.

Tucker: I’m trying to make my answer nice and compact for you.

Correspondent: Oh, I see!

Tucker: Because what happened — I will go for the next ten minutes.

Correspondent: Well, go for a protracted answer. Protracted answers, by the way, are welcome here.

Tucker: So when you start dozing off, you tell me.

Correspondent: Oh no. No, no, no.

Tucker: And jump in with questions.

Correspondent: There won’t be any dozing here. I assure you. I’m fascinated by the subject. We’re talking about blood! We’re talking about gore!

Tucker: Gore.

Correspondent: We’re talking about viscera. Okay? You note that some of the natural philosophers were so duped by their own success that they couldn’t actually judge the results objectively. Edmund King reported that sheep he had infused with milk and sugar were more than ordinarily sweet. I’m curious, just talking about the Royal Society. We’ll get into the French later. What were some of the chief factors that made the Royal Society carry on with these things without this scientific oversight that we now know in the 20th and the 21st centuries? Can we really call these early efforts “science” if there was — well, first of all, they lacked the vigorous oversight. But, second of all, the unmitigated torture of animals, which we can also get into.

Tucker: Well, I would say that what they were doing was science. They believed that what they were doing was science. In fact, early blood transfusion happened because of one of the biggest and most important scientific discoveries in medicine, which was the discovery of blood circulation, right? And William Harvey was very methodical about how he went about discovering blood circulation in 1628. So he was really confused by this idea of humors. He shouldn’t have been. Because it had been the dominant way of viewing the body for millennia, as I said. He said that there has to be a better explanation. Or at least there has to be a good scientific explanation about how these humors work. And he was suspect about the whole idea that blood was produced in the stomach and then was distilled into the liver and moved up to the heart, where it burned off like a furnace, and that breathing was a way to stoke fire and also blow off the fumes. And that’s what they believed up until Harvey. So he started to do some detailed methodical experiments by, first, dissections. Animal and human. Looking at how much blood was in the heart. And then he noticed in a human heart that there was about two ounces of human blood in the heart. Multiply that by the number of heartbeats. He found this obscene number. Forty-one pounds of blood would have to be produced in a half hour. So he said, “This cannot be.” So then he started doing experiments on live animals. Particularly coldblooded animals. And he said, “Aha. No. Blood is circulating.” So you know, for as much as we look back and, yeah, there’s a lot to laugh about in previous periods.

Correspondent: A lot to laugh about. Torturing animals? A barrel of laughs.

Tucker: Okay. A lot to laugh about as far as how they understood the body. And the way the worldview dictated the questions they could ask and the answers they could then get. Because it’s a completely different philosophical, economical, and political framework that we have now. Yeah. Torturing animals is not a cool thing. It never has been. It never will be. But there too, you can start to see what’s happening. It came from a notion of the body and the mind and the soul being distinct. And that’s an idea that’s coming out in the 17th century in the works of, for example, Rene Descartes. Quiz. Who’s Rene Descartes?

Correspondent: He’s some guy who was all about thinking. Maybe therefore. Something along those lines?

Tucker: Maybe “I think therefore I am.” We associate him with the scientific method, right? My daughter is in grade school and she just did one of her first science fair projects and came home and did the poster. And it was almost like watching Cartesian indoctrination in her science. Because he put that idea forward and he also put that idea forward along with another one — which was mind/body dualism. He said, “Hmmm. What differentiates animals from humans? Both animals and humans have bodies. And those bodies are very likely similar. Maybe they’re machines.” And this is the age of hydraulics. This is science being invented. Barometers, you name it. So it makes sense that they’re viewing the body as a machine. And he says, “Well, if we broke machines in bodies, there has to be something that is different. Well, we have minds. We think. We speak. We have souls.” And those souls and the capacity for thought can’t be in the body. Because animals, he said, don’t have that. And so if we take the soul of an animal, and they become nothing more than machines, then it’s a bit like working on your car. Are you really torturing that animal? Now I’m not saying that I think that. But that’s what Descartes allowed the natural philosophers, as scientists were called, to be able to do. It’s to start taking apart those machines. Those animals.

Correspondent: We’ll get more specific into animal torture in just a bit. But I do want to actually jump off…

Tucker: That’s a nice segue.

The Bat Segundo Show #388: Holly Tucker (Download MP3)

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Review: Arthur (2011)

Let’s say you’re a billionaire in your mid-thirties. You spend one evening banging three princesses, but you have no recollection of the orgy that transpired. In fact, there are many fleeting women in your debauched and privileged life. You even describe yourself as a metrosexual. Your image is frequently in the tabloids. You drink. But for the purposes of this scenario, that’s not important. What’s important is this: One night, you have a choice.

Option (A) You can spend the night with a woman who is dressed in a metal outfit, and who is somewhat drunk but lucid. She’s hiding in your bedroom, and your bed incidentally is a magnetic platform. She would like to give you a night of carnality, one that you didn’t expect. She has a whip. She declares herself a cat.

Option (B) You can spend the night with a woman who dresses in a childish polka dot dress, one whom your butler Hobson (played by Helen Mirren, who is phoning it in here) rightfully describes as “Minnie Mouse.” The second woman is nothing less than timorous. She marvels over the Pepe Le Pew cartoon playing in your private screening room. This woman, unlike another woman once played by Liza Minelli who stole ties and smoked cigarettes and encouraged mischief and dressed interestingly, is about as hot and dangerous as a dying titmouse squiggling in a glue trap.

Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure that most men – unless they are gay, shy, highly introverted, or celibate – would choose Option (A). But Arthur, played by Russell Brand in his 2011 incarnation, chooses the second option.

Why doesn’t the Arthur remake work? Well, we can accept toothless director Jason Winer’s complicity in this implausible story logic. After all, Winer cut his teeth directing episodes of Modern Family, a television series so toothless that it did not included a moment in which its gay characters, Mitchell and Cameron, kiss on screen during its first season.

Yet when one considers that screenwriter Peter Baynham — a man who has worked alongside such accomplished comedians as Christopher Morris (The Day Today), Steve Coogan (It’s Alan Partridge), and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) – was involved, then it becomes necessary to pinpoint the insufficient hackwork of these scabrous sellouts.

Let’s say that you’re a calculating studio executive who misunderstands human nature (or a craven screenwriter known named Peter Baynham bending at the knees when offered a large bag of cash). Your mind is likely to come up with sentiments along these lines:


Unfortunately, in your pursuit of money, you fail to comprehend that none of your reworking makes any fucking sense. Your decision to rethink the elements of the original Steve Gordon script that worked so well (an alcoholic wastrel discovers that love encourages his dormant empathy and pro-active behavior; he is more true to himself and doesn’t feel as alone) becomes something illogical (a wastrel, who is kinda alcoholic and not terribly active at anything, discovers that people will do his bidding with or without money).

Consider the beginnings of the two films. In the original, a drunken Arthur (Dudley Moore) rudely accosts two prostitutes from the window of his Rolls-Royce. We see that his chauffeur Bitterman also has to suffer through his terrible jokes, but isn’t merely a doormat. He actually resists Arthur’s commands. (Indeed, this inversion of class expectations was one of the reasons the originalArthur was such a hit.) Director Gordon is careful to instruct Moore to have his glass of scotch arched upward during his exchange with the prostitutes. Visually, we understand that this man has a drinking problem. Emotionally, based on Bitterman’s actions, we understand that he may be a decent guy when he’s away from the hootch. In the remake, Bitterman is seen squeezing into a Robin costume, with his paunch pushing out (thus, unlike the original film, establishing a lack of dignity). Arthur is dressed as Batman. The car that Bitterman drives isn’t a Rolls-Royce, but the Batmobile. What does this say to the audience? Visually, we have no clue that Arthur is an alcoholic. He comes across more as a spoiled brat and we can only find sympathy in the character through Russell Brand’s enormous energy. Emotionally, we are invited to laugh at Bitterman’s willingness to do anything to appease his master. (Just imagine the comic potential of Luis Guzman, the talented fast-talking character actor who plays Bitterman in the remake and who is needlessly wasted, upbraiding Arthur in ways that only the audience can perceive!) And because the character relationship is so predictable, we have little reason to care.

Russell Brand shouldn’t be blamed here, but he will if this movie tanks hard at the box office. The wild anarchy that made Brand such a draw as Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek is only here in spurts. Consider one moment in a prominent candy bar (deliberately unnamed to discourage product placement), where Brand, dressed in a gummy costume, is briefly seen swigging a flask while entertaining children. That split-second moment might have inspired some inappropriate comedy, but company man Winer (the Zack Snyder of comedy?) doesn’t want to upset his soul-sucking overlords and keeps Brand on a leash.

Even accounting for these limitations, Baynham’s script and Winer’s direction just isn’t capable or courageous enough to give the talented Brand an opportunity to develop a character. In the original film, Moore’s overbearing laugh always signaled to the audience that Arthur was drunk, and how Moore often drifted into lucidity. This careful telegraphing suggested a good-hearted man beneath the excess. The 1981 Arthur was brazen enough to drive to Queens while drinking from a brown bag. No such disastrous pro-active behavior from the 2011 Arthur, who has to be driven everywhere and doesn’t even know what Outlook is.

Yes, both films feature a moment in which Arthur hands his love interest a check and she rips it up. But the 1981 Arthur learns from that moment, while the 2011 Arthur does not. It’s understood in the 1981 version that Arthur will let Linda (the Liza Minnelli character) pursue her acting ambitions through her own initiative (the underlying assumption is that both Arthur and Linda will love each other outside of Arthur’s wealth, because they accept each other; Arthur is still a drunk at the end). But in the 2011 version, Arthur actually purchases Naomi’s dream, which is to become a published writer. I won’t even get into the film’s laughable ignorance of the publishing world, which had my moviegoing companion (a publishing reporter) and I howling. Let’s forget all that. If you’re a woman who has worked long and hard on a manuscript and has seen it accepted rather swiftly for publication, and you discover that the man trying to woo you (a man, incidentally, who has lied about having a fiancee) has had his company purchase your manuscript, can you honestly forgive him for deflating your shaky sense of meritocracy? (It doesn’t help that Naomi is played by the thespic cipher Greta Gerwig. She’s nothing less than a smiling doormat expressing nothing less than enthusiasm, even as Arthur downs loads of alcohol. She reminded me just how annoying Bonnie Langford was as the chirpy and clueless companion Melanie Bush on Doctor Who.)

Class, which guided the original Arthur, has been largely dispensed with. In 2011, “working class” means visiting a woman who lives off the elevated subway line. (The beauty of the original Arthur is that the rich only needed to mention the subway to taint it.) The 1981 film also allowed Bitterman to drop Linda off in front of her apartment complex, so that she could fool her neighbors and Bitterman could play mock chauffeur. This moment allowed both Linda and the audience to parse the frivolous nature of wealth. By contrast, the 2011 remake uses inflated excess as the basis for its romance, with Arthur wooing Naomi by closing off Grand Central and having a dinner at a table surrounded by rosebuds, with acrobats bouncing around on another level. What’s for dinner? Dispenser candy. If that isn’t romantic enough for you, then consider the many permutations of SpaghettiOs (never named, presumably because the studio couldn’t get Campbell’s to agree to shell out the chowder for product placement) that Arthur and Naomi eat for dinner.

The original Arthur offered a perfectly reasonable fantasy that one may find a comfortable adulthood while also keeping the inner child alive. By contrast, as the childish menu options I’ve cited above suggest, the remake is about how one’s adulthood is defined by being nothing more than a passive and entitled child. It’s a troubling sign that the Comic-Con geek mentality has crept into mainstream romantic comedy. What the filmmakers don’t understand is that fantasies must have some element of reality in order to persuade. But Arthur, much like its protagonist, gives nothing to the audience. It is a spoiled movie written and directed by spoiled people who deserve to be sent to the poorhouse.

Review: IMAX Born to Be Wild 3D (2011)

Perhaps it’s somewhat wrong to be suspicious about a movie featuring elephants and orangutans, but then IMAX Born to Be Wild 3D is 40 minutes in length, narrated by Morgan Freeman, and feels the need to announce its film format in the title. Now I like Morgan Freeman and I like animals. But nothing says We Take No Chances more than this cinematic configuration. The formula is perfectly calculated to persuade families to part with their hard-earned dollars. And perhaps the responsible thing to do is condemn the film from some strenuous anti-consumerist stance. On the other hand, I cannot deny the inherent soft spot within my otherwise no-bullshit psyche. Let’s face the facts. Outside of the regrettable fact that Hitler liked dogs, you’d have to be a complete sociopath or a total asshole not to love animals in some way. So the real question we must ask is whether IMAX Born to Be Wild 3D captures the mammals released from captivity into the Kenyan Savannah and the Borneo rainforests in an informative and helpful way.

Because this is 3D, we see elephant trunks curling in our direction, but not close enough to cause alarm. An orangutan’s hindlegs wrap around the bottom end of a bottle. Cute! But while the orangutan is mostly a fruit eater (a fact one doesn’t learn from watching this movie), one is left to ponder the possible physical harm to others, should the orangutan have an empty stomach. When the animals lope across logs or frolic in rufous terrain, the 3D captures the details quite well. Unfortunately, since 3D requires considerable visual definition, the efforts to capture Discovery Channel-style imagery don’t always work. There is one moment when an orangutan swings in slow motion. It should be breathtaking. But because there is so much movement, the orangutan dissolves into a blotchy amalgam of squares – reminiscent to a DVD skipping – once it has reached camera left. I am pretty certain that this phenomenon would not occur in the real world. Later in the film, a troublesome fly enters the frame and it destroys the “natural” moment. Perhaps these 3D deficiencies had something to do with the Lincoln Square IMAX theater I was sitting in. Yet I did see Avatar at the same theater and experienced no such problems.

Some of the feeders wear bright orange coats and the milk guzzled down by the cute orangutans is in green bottles. One gets the feeling that the filmmakers called Todd Haynes’s set decorator just before the camera started rolling. Then again, it could just be the film stock.

I must confess that my inner skeptic scoffed at some of the reductionist hand-holding: “As long as [the orangutans] feel loved, they will have the confidence they need later in life.” Love can help you in life through any number of ways, but it’s not necessarily the best method to ward off a predator who wishes to have you for lunch. We are also informed that the orangutans “can read your heart and they will understand you.” Well, if you’re providing free food and an open terrain, that will certainly be the general impression that you get from an animal. On the other hand, I’m certainly not an orangutan, but I assure you that I can read the heart and understand the soul of anyone buying me at least than two drinks in a single sitting.

There is a moment midway through the film in which Morgan Freeman’s avuncular voice attempts to wrap an absurdly sunny bow on a disturbing moment. An elephant, who has seen one of his family members butchered by humans, storms around his pen when more benevolent humans (or so the filmmakers lead us to believe) attempt to tame him. We are assured that once the elephant receives “a thorough checkup,” he will be good to go. Who knew that the pachyderm equivalent of PTSD was so swiftly resolved? Do animals have emotional consciousness? That’s a question for a more involved essay than this one. But since the traumatized elephant is presented shortly after we are informed that an elephant has an amazing power of perception and a remarkable memory, I can foresee an especially inquisitive child, once they have connected the dots, unleashing a barrage of disturbing questions. Parents, you have been warned.

I’m probably making IMAX Born to Be Wild 3D sound worse than it is. The film is quite pleasant, a mostly sufficient method to blow wads of twenties on the kids, provided you understand that it doesn’t serve as a substitute for education or even edutainment. Still, for all the “nuanced animal behavior” that the press notes describes, I would have preferred a nuanced animal narrative. They are, after all, an indelible part of our existence.

A Conversation with Stewart O’Nan

[Stewart O’Nan has also appeared twice on The Bat Segundo Show: Show #161 (2007, 38 minutes) and Show #454 (2012: 57 minutes).]

Stewart O’Nan has been called “a national treasure” by Three Guys One Book. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer has compared him to Dickens. In The New York Times, Joanna Smith-Rakoff suggested that O’Nan was influenced by “the spectre of Henry James.”

O’Nan’s twelfth novel, Emily, Alone — a sequel to O’Nan”s 2002 novel, Wish You Were Here that doesn’t require that you read the first book — follows an 80-year-old woman as she carries on a quiet routine in her Pittsburgh home. Her husband is dead. Her children have grown up and moved away. Her once lively dog Rufus is, quite literally, on his last legs. Her friend Arlene could go any minute. Despite this mortality, the novel remains determined to capture Emily’s life through very careful sentences devoted to telling details. When Emily replaces a box of Kleenex, we get economical insight into how she spends her money (“She’d bought a three-pack last week, saving a dollar, as always, with a coupon.”). We learn of generational differences when Emily considers her daughter Margaret’s attitude (“Thank-you notes belonged to the same category of useless formalities her square parents followed blindly, like sitting down to meals at prescribed times or going to church on Sunday.”). When an older acquaintance dies, O’Nan foreshadows the insufficient shorthand Emily is likely to have directed towards her in a few years (“She always had a lot of energy”).

I had interviewed Stewart O’Nan before in 2007 for The Bat Segundo Show. And after reading Emily, Alone, I had hoped to set up a second interview. Unfortunately, O’Nan’s hectic schedule of teaching and long driving to author events made things a bit difficult. And when I received an unexpected jury duty summons in the mail, I prepared for the distinct possibility that a few weeks of my life would be sacrificed to the courtroom.

We started volleying by email. And the two of us learned that we both had quite a lot to say about American fiction. Our conversation touched upon the influence of Richard Yates, what a writer can learn from John Gardner, avoiding parody and creating dimensional characters, and how one can protest marketplace realities while appealing to the reader. My many thanks to Stewart for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer my somewhat verbose concatenations.

* * *

Reluctant Habits: Before we started this conversation, I remarked upon a jury duty summons that I had received (and should our conversation extend into a diversion from the courtroom, thank you very much in advance!). This led us both to remark upon the importance of civil duty in American life. But this got me thinking. Emily Maxwell is someone who maintains her dignity, a quality that might also be described as a civil duty. And your work offers an attention to the everyday that, when stacked against other fiction, might almost be said to originate from a similar impulse — namely, a civil duty to portray certain everyday Americans who don’t always get these narratives. To what extent do you feel that it’s your civil duty to portray families like the Maxwells? Does the duty ever burden you or threaten to take away from the curiosity or the fun? Additionally, why do you think civil duty has been given short shrift in recent American fiction? To what degree are you aware that you’re working a corner of the room that few other writers wish to peer into?

Stewart O’Nan: Emily does see herself as a part of larger social constructs–her marriage, her family (as a mother), her original family (as a daughter), her church, her neighborhood, the city of Pittsburgh, the town of Kersey, the old-guard Republican party–yet for all her sense of civic duty, she’s incredibly private and not always available, emotionally or otherwise. Plus so much of her world is gone and lives only in her memory. So she’s not as involved in that larger life as she sometimes wishes she were. Some days the only soul she speaks to is her dog, Rufus.

I think when I run into a character I find interesting, I feel a wild curiosity about him or her. How does this person feel, and how does he or she get through the days? What’s important to this person? Usually I write about people unlike myself, so there’s a constant process of discovery, of trying to get close enough and understand enough so I can provide the reader with a true sense of intimacy. And definitely, when I’m taking on someone in a realistic mode, I feel a responsibility to the character, in how I portray him or her. Not that I’ll soft-sell Emily’s faults (readers will want to shake her at times) or make things easy on her, even though I care for her deeply. The goal is to be honest and go deep, find the voice and style and structure to bring across her emotional life as powerfully as possible (not as loudly as possible, or as showily as possible, or as cleverly as possible), with the hope that readers will see their own lives and their own Emilys and add their memories and emotions to the book and end up being moved, not in a corny way, but really moved.

Impossible, I know, but that’s what interests me: How does it feel to be you? When I discover a character like Emily, or Manny in Last Night at the Lobster, or Patty in The Good Wife, after following them a while I realize that their stories are huge stories, their lives shared by millions of people yet rarely examined or taken seriously. So it’s an opportunity to take the reader a place they might never go otherwise and show them a whole world that’s been right in front of them the whole time, hidden in plain sight.

I’m aware that during the whole time I’ve been publishing, the main stage of American literary fiction has featured a kind of pyrotechnic fabulism. The Ice Storm is ’93, I think, The Virgin Suicides right around there, Infinite Jest is ’95, Lethem’s putting out his genre-bending stuff around then…and I dig all that stuff. I cut my teeth on Gaddis and Gardner and Gass and Barthelme and Barth and Coover and Hawkes too, and I admire the comic virtuosity of all these writers, first- and second-generation. The Speed Queen is obviously a whacky metafiction, and A Prayer for the Dying is a bit of a bravura performance in the manner of Charles Johnson, just as The Night Country owes much of its soul to Ray Bradbury and George A. Romero, so I haven’t entirely forsaken those roots, but even in those books I hope I’m using those dire means because they seemed to me the best solution — the unique solution, the ex-engineer would say — to the problem off getting my characters’ worlds across to the reader as powerfully as possible. Because in the end the writing isn’t what’s important — it’s just a medium. If the reader pays more attention to the writing than to what’s going on with the characters, the writing isn’t working.

RH: In your essay, “The Lost World of Richard Yates,” you observed that “the danger Yates courts is combining the conflicted character with the average or unexceptional person — with a talent I can only aspire to.” Yates, rather famously, was influenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald — which is quite interesting, seeing as how Fitzgerald often wrote about the rich and Yates gravitated toward the middle class. Following this natural path of inspiration, we see in your work that the danger you’re courting involves both the working class and the middle class. Last Night at the Lobster very clearly documents working class life. But I’m wondering to what degree the 2008 election — seen in Emily, Alone — served as an effort to chronicle a social sector that is rapidly eroding. In other words, as was suggested in the recent PEN America correspondence between David Gates and Jonathan Lethem, are you setting yourself up to be more of a historical novelist rather than a social novelist? What do you think accounts for the downmarket class drifting in this trajectory from Fitzgerald to Yates to you? How does this constant process of discovery pretty much demolish literary influence (whether Yates or pyrotechnic fabulism)?

O’Nan: Oh, definitely social fiction, utterly contemporary fiction, the skin of life as it’s lived now. Which is why the last seven books or so are set right here, right now, as opposed to the first five, which were all set in the historical past, in very different American eras and locales. How does life feel? What do we care about, what do we really fear? What do we really feel about the people closest to us, about ourselves? I still think fiction lets us go deeper into what life feels like than any other medium. Film is shallow, nonfiction is suspect (the more creative, the more suspect), memoir is unreliable and self-serving. The novel, by its very name, is utterly plastic, capable of taking any form, focusing on anything (an entire epoch or a guy riding an escalator after buying a pair of shoelaces — both accounts hilariously footnoted with unexpected yet absolutely true musings). Realism is a misnomer, since any art takes on, twists, or knowingly overthrows a convention to get the feel of life across to the reader/viewer/listener. Shields in Reality Hunger says he’s against the novel, then lists a whole raft of anti-novels that he claims are exceptions. But the anti-novel is still a novel. So it’s like saying, I don’t like vegetables, but I do like beets and carrots and squash and peas and kohlrabi and…While it’s true that viewers love reality TV, there’s a formulaic sameness to even the best reality shows that can’t approach the variety, depth, drama and comedy of scripted shows, the best of which — Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Party Down — make reality TV look shallow and silly. Likewise, documentary film, feature journalism since the mid-’60s, and everyday newspaper writing since the ’80s, have taken on as many of fiction’s tools as they can to seduce a larger audience. What’s the basis of all mass communication? Tell a good story.

Fitzgerald and Yates had their specific social territory which they rarely strayed from, especially Yates, who, though he wrote from the ’40s till the ’90s, only once stepped away from his home base of the ’40s and ’50s in Disturbing the Peace. I haven’t claimed one territory, and wouldn’t want to. I’m no spokesperson or poster child. As a reader I have very catholic tastes (Stephen King and Virginia Woolf, Ray Bradbury and John Wideman). So it makes sense that as a writer I write very different books about very different things. It’s been that way from the start, and because I don’t have to fulfill any expectations, I’m free to write about the affluent, the middle class, the working class, the poor, children, teenagers, young adults, the middle-aged, the elderly, urban life, the suburbs, small towns, country, frontier, and in any manner I choose. I’m not locked into a bankable voice or style, so it doesn’t become self-parody or shtick, like James Taylor singing Christmas carols with the same intonation he’d sing Motown covers. If there’s a common thread, I’d say I tend to dip into very American subcultures and address very American questions or traits. In each book there are influences, most of them consciously chosen — say, James Salter in A World Away, the Cormac McCarthy of Blood Meridian and George A. Romero in A Prayer for the Dying, or Sherwood Anderson and Dickens in Last Night at the Lobster — never in imitation but using their schemes to support whatever I’m doing. Hoping it turns out to be interesting, well done and ultimately true. And if it doesn’t, well, hell, they’re not all going to be good. It’s not supposed to be easy. If you’re a writer, you keep trying. You don’t throw your hands up and say the novel is dead just because yours is.

RH: I bring up the idea of Emily, Alone being historical (both in terms of literary influence and charting a specific time), rather than “utterly contemporary” (as you suggest), because there’s a chapter late in the book (“The Lesser of Two Evils”) where we understand that, despite Emily being a “lifelong Republican,” her life choices involve that sense of duty we were discussing here at the outset. She asks the question, “Was it too much to ask for someone she could believe in?” Yet she leaves the gym with the I VOTE TODAY sticker on her lapel, feeling a sense of pride. Here is someone who feels compelled to be part of the community, but who also finds some solace in being solitary. My takeaway here is that Emily, who has bought a brand new car (and if she didn’t have the money, this deal may have been comparable to some dubious tranche loan) and who is also contending with the home in her neighborhood that’s about to be sold. You’re telling me, Stewart, that this materialist solace competing with the communal solace (whether it be Arlene, Rufus, or even the reluctant relatives who come visit) isn’t capturing a national mood (or a specific type of older person in 2008) to some degree? Doesn’t the process of keeping a novel alive — especially social fiction — involve rigorous interplay between well-defined characters and where they are likely to stand in their particular period? What makes the process of knowing people in 2011, in 2008, or the Civil War different on a novel-to-novel basis? Is this simply a matter of how much you’re willing to throw yourself into a time period or talk with people or think about these motivations?

O’Nan: When I say contemporary, I mean that I was writing the novel at the very same time as the events (and the world, the moment) it describes. So that, unlike when you’re writing a historical novel, the zeitgeist hasn’t been codified. You have the opportunity to feel it and get it across fresh through your character. Emily is so much of the past that she’s actually a little behind the times, and the book, at heart, is about the collision of her rich and busy memories with the empty and quiet present. I didn’t write her story to capture the national mood, but in her brushes with the world, some of it might bleed through. Her story is essentially personal and private, unlike, say, Patty’s or Manny’s or the Larsens, all of whom have to confront the current world in a very public way, often against their will. But in all of these cases, it’s a question of what, from the larger world, realistically and naturally, would impinge on their lives. It’s their motivations and their world that everything has to come out of, and that comes from staying close to them, knowing them intimately and trying to see the world–their private world and the larger world–through their eyes, not impressing my views onto them and the world. It’s their book, not mine.

And it also differs book to book in how important the time frame is to the storyline. Emily’s storyline is anchored in 2007-2008, but it could have happened in other years and felt relatively the same, whereas A World Away, set in 1943, is so tied to larger world events, and the characters so tied to the movements of the outside world that it naturally contains more of the zeitgeist, for lack of a better word.

It’s a tough question, especially for this particular novel, because while it’s trying to take on some very large areas — time, family, memory, life, death — it’s trying to do so quietly, almost sneakily.

RH: This discussion about fiction having resonant points with American life brings us to inevitable comparisons between Emily, Alone and its prequel, Wish You Were Here. The first book, which is quite sprawling, seems determined to capture almost every detail, from the book barn to the specific movies that the Maxwells watch to discussions of the board game Sorry. There’s also the subplot involving the missing person at the gas station, which threatens to take away from such character dilemmas as Margaret’s recovery from alcoholism, Kenneth hiding his vocational problems, and so forth. By contrast, in Emily, Alone, there’s something of a concession to narrative right from the get-go with that incident at the buffet. What ultimately accounts for Emily, Alone‘s leaner feel? Do you feel that there was any loss of control when you wrote Wish You Were Here? That the previous book involved creative propagation you had to go the distance with? Aside from keeping the focus on Emily, what steps did you take in curtailing the possibility of writing another 600 page novel? Were there certain advantages in thinking about the Maxwell family before that allowed you to rein things in? How does some of this account for the quieter and sneakier investigation into larger areas? (And while we’re on the subject, do you see the Maxwells as your answer to Rabbit Angstrom or Frank Bascombe?)

O’Nan; Wish purposely slows things down and doesn’t make the usual pregnant narrative promises to the reader we expect from fiction. I was trying on a new mode of storytelling, trusting John Gardner’s dictum that if a character is worthy of and capable of love, then the reader will follow him or her anywhere. I expected that 80% of the readers who opened the book would never finish it, and that was fine with me. That was the risk I was willing to take for the reward of getting deep into the characters and their worlds, thinking that the readers who did stick with it would mingle their own lives and memories with those of the Maxwells and come away with a richer, more intimate experience than from some plug-and-chug potboiler of a story line. Even the girl who goes missing line takes place off-stage and is really just K’s version of avoidance and escape (they all have some version of escape from what’s supposed to be family togetherness). The novel’s put together by poetic juxtaposition, by tone, by mood, and the fact that it’s so long (and was a hundred-plus pages longer in ms) just emphasizes that strategy. No nifty ironies, no self-conscious tricks, no mannered quirkiness to distract the reader. It lives or dies by the quality of its observations, by its truth (or lack thereof). As a friend of mine says, it’s an epic about nothing. My wife calls it the Big Boring Book. And that’s fine. Everyone doesn’t have to like every book. (And honestly, every book isn’t going to be good.) But the people who do get into the book really feel like they’re part of it. Some say it’s spooky — it’s as if I’ve been eavesdropping on their families, or reading their minds — so I feel like the method worked. Not for everyone, but for more than the 20% I’d hoped for.

And it’s a book that couldn’t have been written by anyone else, which makes me happy. I guess it was a bit of a protest. A quiet maybe even underground protest (since no one really cares), but a definite break from what I’d been doing previously, and what you’d call the norm. Ditching the whole here-we-are-now-entertain-us premise. A book wholly on the writer’s terms.

Emily, Alone is organized a little differently, around what puzzles or bothers or thrills her — the bumps in her otherwise quiet days — but also makes no promises to the reader plotwise, other than that she cares and worries about the people closest to her, and of course Rufus. And at their age, she has reason to worry.

In Wish, I was coming to know all the different Maxwells at that one moment, a turning point in their family life. Going into Emily, Alone, I knew Emily well, but I knew I wanted to get deeper and closer, really find out how she became the person she was in Wish and the person she is now, seven years later. What’s changed? What could possibly be new? A lot, it turned out, though I didn’t know exactly what when I sat down to write it.

The scope of Emily, Alone is narrower but deeper, necessarily, by my choice of point of view, and that’s what I was hoping for — a book even quieter and more intimate than Wish, a book comprised of flurries of busyness and then long stretches of stillness. Another book only I could write, and one some readers would see their lives in, and the lives of their sisters and aunts and mothers and grandmothers, I hope.

RH: So it seems to me that readers are very much an important factor when you’re writing a book. On the other hand, as Ron Charles recently suggested, your determination to chart the seemingly routine results in “the Kobayashi Maru scenario of book marketing.” Yet here’s the double-edged sword. If you’re hoping to write books where readers see their lives, or the lives of someone dear to them, then one might conclude that Emily, Alone isn’t wholly on the writer’s terms. Have you had to give more to the readers with the more recent books? If Emily, Alone is more of a Rorschach test for readers, then how do you find ways of protesting? If protesting is part of your voice, don’t you have to do that? Or are you happy with the present compromise?

O’Nan: The Rorschach blot is the protest, that’s the beauty of it. In Wish and Emily (and to a lesser extent in The Good Wife and Last Night at the Lobster), I’ve asked the reader to make the sacrifices, giving up any semblance of the usual set-up/build-up/payoff of conventional storytelling without substituting the overactive surface or off-beat/trendy characters of the contemporary literary scene. Instead of the industry standard extraordinary character in an ordinary situation or the ordinary character in an extraordinary situation, I’m going — like Yates — for that rare, dull bird, the ordinary character in an ordinary situation. As Gardner says, as readers we naturally hold any fiction up to life, testing it for truth, and since that rare, dull bird is most of us, I actually have a better chance of connecting deeply. In these books, if I’ve done them well enough, readers will also hold their lives up to the fiction, completing the exchange. Everyone has an Emily.

(Image: Sidney Davis)

Sophie’s Choice (Modern Library #96)

(This is the fifth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Sheltering Sky)

In Alexandra Styron’s forthcoming book, Reading My Father, she describes liberating a galley of Sophie’s Choice, a presale unit freshly arrived at the family home, at the age of twelve. It was the spring of 1979. Her plan was to read the mint green paperback between classes. She felt it incumbent “to somehow validate the rumors of his greatness.” Young Alexandra discovers that the novel bores the tears out of her. “The difficult vocabulary and historical references kept eluding me,” she writes, “until finally I began to let them sail by, unchallenged.” Further, upon encountering her father’s libidinous passages, she then becomes embarrassed, wincing “at the liberal sprinkling of words like fucking and horny and lust.” (Here’s the full tally according to Amazon’s Look Inside! feature: “fucking” — 29 counts; “horny” — 4 counts; and “lust” — 20 counts. I am also informed that readers in need of steady doses of the mildly profane are likely to find a good deal more “fuck” and “fucking” in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books. Miles Davis’s autobiography, published a decade after Sophie’s Choice, contains 672 uses of the word “fuck.” I think it’s safe to say that Styron was pushing the “fucking” boundaries no more and no less than any other writer around the time. Perhaps his striking tone says something about his ability to alarm.)

A good thirty-one years later, The Millions‘s Lydia Kiesling posted a Modern Library Revue installment on Sophie’s Choice. Kiesling, fourteen years older than Alexandra Styron when she first read Sophie’s Choice, wrote, “I’m not a prude; I think there should be sex in novels. However, while I’m not certain how it is best achieved on the page, I feel quite certain that ‘mossy cunt’ and ‘undulant swamp’ are not the ideal epithets. I mean, Jesus. Also, it’s just so cheesy — the release of her secrets, the release of his orgasms.” To be fair to Styron, he actually writes about “her moist mossy cunt’s undulant swamp.” Say what you like about Styron, but it takes a rare writer willing to go the distance like this. (Incidentally, “release” gets five counts in Sophie’s Choice according to Amazon and in neither explicit usage that Kiesling claims. In fact, at one point, “release” in the orgasmic context is declared “an odious word” by young Stingo, of whose randiness more anon, in one of his notebooks.) This prompted Emma Barton (not the actress who played Honey Mitchell on EastEnders) to leave a spirited comment in response: “You must have noticed there’s a new generation of us younger feminists coming up who don’t get our panties in such a twist over guys talking about their sexual thoughts, since we’re pretty open about our own sexual thoughts too.”

If Styron’s sexual effrontery is a matter to be settled by the old guard feminists, then we’re in luck. In her essay “Night Thoughts of a Media Watcher,” Gloria Steinem was to offer stronger sentiments. For Steinem, Sophie’s Choice was “like reading a case history by Freud in which he stoutly maintains a woman patient was not really raped by her father as a child, but just made up this story because she had hoped it would happen.” To put it mildly, I don’t think this gets at the complexity that Styron was attempting. But let’s carry on. Shortly after Steinem concedes the possibility that “Styron knew what he was doing,” she writes, “My first hope is that there was no real Sophie, that Styron just made her up completely. Like Freud’s women patients, however, she is just real and believable enough to break your heart; all the more so because she is recorded by someone who describes her but never understands her.” While it is true that Styron has drawn heavily from his personal experience for Stingo (especially for Sophie’s Choice‘s enthralling opening chapter), Steinem’s diagnosis presupposes that Styron wasn’t remarking in some way upon Stingo’s own (and Styron’s own) failure to understand her. Styron alludes to a real-life Sophie in a 1983 interview with Stephen Lewis, but not for the reasons that Steinem imputes:

It summed up the absolute totalitarian nature of this evil, which we really had not seen, certainly in civilized society, since history began to be recorded. It seized me so poignantly that I was compelled to write a book about it. I also connected it with something that had happened to me: I went to Brooklyn, in the late 1940s, and met a young — older than I was, but nonetheless young — woman who had been a survivor of Auschwitz, and who had a tattoo on her arm. Her name was Sophie.

So if absolute evil was Styron’s primary focus, how did we get from 29 uses of “fucking” to nebulous Freudian speculation to bright spirits duking it out in the comments at one of the Web’s best literary sites? Whatever it was that Styron was doing, in 2002, it was enough to get the California-based Norwalk-La Mirada High School District to remove Sophie’s Choice from its libraries after a single complaint. The objection? You guessed it. The sexual content. The ACLU intervened after students protested the distinct possibility that their very own First Amendment rights were being violated. The book was eventually returned to the stacks.

* * *

I think it’s remarkable that a brick-thick book from 1979 has continued to get so many people hot and bothered — especially since most novels written in the last decade don’t possess this power. (One cannot imagine people getting this worked up about Jonathan Franzen in 2043.) But now that I’ve finally read Styron’s masterpiece, I’m bewildered by much of the ballyhoo. The objections over the book’s sexual passages would suggest that all this exists independently from the book’s take on the Holocaust. It is almost as if the book’s opponents are incapable of reconciling the two strands, a grave oversight in light of the book’s presentation of tragic relativism, which I’ll get to in a bit. Of the four objections cited above, only Steinem makes a tenuous connection. And even then, she falls into the cliche of accusing Styron of some psychosexual fantasy — as if every impulse an author sets down involves unzipping the pants of the mind.

To get the hot stuff out of the way first, it cannot be stressed enough that we are dealing with Stingo, a young man who isn’t getting any during the postwar epoch, which comes a few decades before American culture has at long last grasped and permitted the reality of teenagers losing their virginity. As Stingo himself explains:

A lot in this way of bilious remembrance has been written about sex survivors of the fifties, much of it a legitimate lament. But the forties were really far worse, a particularly ghastly time for Eros, shakily bridging as they did the time between the puritanism of our forefathers and the arrival of public pornography. Sex itself was coming out of the closet, but there was universal distress over how to deal with it.

Here is a young man so lonely that we see him, in the book’s extraordinary opening chapter, fantasizing about “the Winston Hunnicutts, this vivid and gregarious young couple,” whom Stingo sees from his window in the rotting University Residence Club on West Eleventh Street. Yes, Stingo offers us extraordinary fantasies about the wife, using romantic language (“My lust was incredible…priapic, ravenous, yet under hair-trigger control”). But it is clear that Stingo’s fantasies also revolve around the Hunnicutts’ “enormous good fortune to inhabit a world populated by writers and poets and critics and other literary types.” To some degree, Styron’s fusion of sex with literary aspirations anticipates Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. And yet because Bolaño’s book carries the heft of multiple testimonies to sustain its illusion and Styron confines his interests to a singular first-person perspective, the former is permitted his posthumous genius while the latter is seen as a late middle-aged creep (also dead, by the way) getting his jollies through a young man’s perspective.

Never mind that Styron has taken care to include excerpts from Stingo’s notebooks, which contain prototypical revelations about Stingo’s life, along with wry commentary after these italicized passages: “I am a little mortified to discover that almost none of the above was apparently written with the faintest trace of irony (I actually was capable of ‘somewhat slightly’!”)”

If such provisos aren’t enough. Stingo, who is very aware of his prose style, is fond of embellishing his life story — even decades later — with seemingly robust, manly sentences. One such sentence reads: “I got up and made my way to the men’s room, weaving slightly, aglow at the edges of my skin with a penumbra of Rheingold, the jolly, astringent beer served at the Maple Court on draught.” Taken out of context, some of the phrasing (“aglow at the edges of my skin with a penumbra”) might be construed as awkward, yet Styron’s “edges of my skin” anticipates how the out-of-practice, out-of-time romantic phrase is no longer used among male writers today. Indeed, in recent years, “edges of my skin” has been used by such highly readable writers as Stephenie Meyer, Alice Sebold (in Lucky, no less), Aimee Bender, Lorrie Moore, and Justine Larbalestier. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a single male writer born after 1970 using such a phrase in contemporary fiction.

Stingo’s revelations serve purposes beyond the ostensibly tawdry. Styron is telegraphing a dying language, revealing modernist modes misconstrued today as overly melodramatic. Yet if they are so over-the-top, why then is Styron so willing to have Stingo explain himself? As Stingo notes late in the book, once he has at long last accomplished his effervescent goal (I have blanked out the name to avoid spoilers):

The varieties of sexual experience are, I suppose, so multifarious that it would be an exaggeration to say that _____ and I did that night everything that it is possible to do. But I’ll swear we came close, and one thing forever imprinted on our brain was our mutual inexhaustibility. I was inexhaustible because I was twenty-two, and a virgin, and was clasping in my arms at long last the goddess of my unending fantasies….For me it was less an initiation than a complete, well-rounded apprenticeship, or more, and _____, my loving instructess, never ceased whispering encouragement into my ear. It was as if through a living tableau, in which I myself was a participant, there were being acted out all the answers to the questions with which I had half maddened myself ever since I began secretly reading marriage manuals and sweated over the pages of Havelock Ellis and other sexual savants.

Speaking as a man who was once twenty-two and sexually frustrated (as nearly every kid at that age is), I can assure all parties that Styron accurately describes what it means to sow one’s young oats.

If Sophie’s Choice were merely an itemization of Stingo’s sexual fantasies, then it would not have rightly earned its place in the Modern Library canon. I haven’t even brought up the indelible Nathan Landau, Sophie’s wildly exuberant and psychologically troubled Jewish paramour. He is inarguably worse than Stingo, prone to rages and boasting about cures for cancer, and abusive of Sophie and Stingo. Yet he shares much of Stingo’s autodidacticism. Indeed, it is Nathan’s curious amalgamation of knowledge (one might very well use the 21st century term “mashup”) that is the allure:

His range was astonishing and I had constantly to remind myself that I was talking to a scientist, a biologist (I kept thinking of a prodigy like Julian Huxley, whose essays I had read in college) — this man who possessed so many literary references and allusions, both classical and modern, and who within the space of an hour could, with no gratuitous strain, weave together Lytton Strachey, Alice in Wonderland, Martin Luther’s early celibacy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the mating habits of the Sumatran orangutan into a little jewel box of a beguiling lecture which facetiously but with a serious overtone explored the intertwined nature of sexual voyeurism and exhibitionism.

What’s especially interesting is how close this self-taught ideal mimics Stingo’s own narrative voice. The key tell here is “the intertwined nature of sexual voyeurism and exhibitionism,” which serves in parallel to Stingo’s own sexual exhibitionism. This is unconsummated for the most part, with even “a remarkably beautiful, sexually liberated, twenty-two-year-old Jewish Madonna lily named Leslie Lapidus” (later revealed to be involved in orgone therapy; Wilhelm Reich, of course, being one of the twentieth century’s great charlatans) just outside his grasp.

* * *

DG Myers has put forth the idea that Sophie’s Choice owes its historical importance not because of its literary quality, but as “a pioneering dissent on the Holocaust.” (While Myers’s 10,000 word essay is well worth reading, especially because Myers offers a very helpful overview of Styron’s developing thoughts on the Holocaust, Myers is curiously prudish about the novel’s sexuality.) I think he is right to observe that Sophie’s Choice is about “the ideological representation of the Holocaust,” with the origins of these thoughts to be found in Styron’s essay, “Auschwitz” (contained in This Quiet Dust). But Myers is wrong to suggest that Styron’s views on Jewish exclusivism — with the non-Jewish Sophie serving as Styron’s ecumenical exemplar — are invalidated by what Myers perceives to be a historical error. Myers cites Styron writing that Sophie “had suffered as much as any Jew,” but there is also this parenthetical (after Stingo has made efforts to reconcile Sophie’s life with George Steiner’s Language and Silence):

(It is surpassingly difficult for many Jews to see beyond the consecrated nature of the Nazis’ genocidal fury, and thus it seems to me less a flaw than a pardonable void in the moving meditation of Steiner, a Jew, that he makes only fleeting reference to the vast multitudes of non-Jews — the myriad Slavs and the Gypsies — who were swallowed up in the apparatus of the camps, perishing just as surely as the Jews, though sometimes only less methodically.)

Here, Styron dares to enter into the tricky realm of genocidal relativism by inclusion. Yet if Styron is going to quibble with Steiner, we must quibble with Styron by his own rules. Stingo has left out the pink triangles, the political prisoners, and numerous other laborers who perished in the camps. If Styron hopes to “sum up the absolute totalitarian nature of this evil,” it is quite possible that no book can truly contain it. On the other hand, when Styron writes of Stingo’s whereabouts on April 1, 1943, he is clearly showing the foolish nature of the comparative enterprise:

I was able to come up with the absurd fact that on that afternoon, as Sophie first set foot on the railroad platform in Auschwitz, it was a lovely spring day in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I was gorging myself on bananas.

Stingo is gorging himself on bananas because he needs three more pounds to meet the minimum weight requirement to join the Marines. And yet, at the time, Stingo

had not heard of Auschwitz, nor of any concentration camp, nor of the mass destruction of the European Jews, nor even much about the Nazis. For me the enemy in that global war was the Japanese, and my ignorance of the anguish hovering like a noxious gray smog over places with names like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen was complete. But wasn’t this true for most Americans, indeed most human beings who dwelt beyond the perimeter of the Nazi horror?

In condemning Styron for his “historical error,” Myers correctly observes that none of the books and records that Stingo quotes is a firsthand source. And yet while Myers is right to point out that Sophie’s testimony to Stingo “secures the narrative authority of Sophie’s Choice,” he fails to observe that even Styron’s fictional firsthand source is suspect, suggesting that “the novel’s case against the Jewish interpretation of the Holocaust depends upon the claim that Jews are ignorant of the historical reality.” But if Stingo himself starts from a blank slate of ignorance, is not the purported case against predicated on an interpretation built atop gentile ignorance? The details here are as much about the lies and the omissions as they are about what is stated and filtered through Stingo. Of one of Sophie’s accounts, Stingo notes, “Her brief observation on the function of Auschwitz-Birkenau….is basically an accurate one, and she neither exaggerated nor underestimated the nature of her various diseases….Why, then, did she leave out certain elements and details that anyone might reasonably have expected her to include?” Later in the novel, Stingo declares, “Would I not forgive her, she said, now that I saw both the truth and her necessity for telling the lie?” Still later, a highly inebriated Sophie exclaims, “Jews! God, how I hate them! Oh, the lies I have told you, Stingo. Everything I told you about Cracow was a lie. All my childhood, all my life I really hated Jews. They deserved it, this hate, I hate them, dirty Jewish cochons!”

This is distressing and prejudicial language. And it certainly points to one interesting takeaway that Myers promulgates: “The only respect in which [the novel’s Jewish characters] remain Jewish at all is in their exclusivist response to the Holocaust.” But can Stingo as narrator be entirely trusted? Is not Sophie’s anti-Semitic outburst, the fissures widened by self-medicating swigs of rye, not pointing to the inherent ugliness within the Enlightenment liberal position?

Sophie’s Choice is many things, but the thrust here may be more emotional than intellectual. Cannot the Holocaust be both ecumenical, as Styron once proposed, and exclusively Jewish? If one is not Jewish, and one feels deep sadness and great contrition for these tremendous atrocities, then Jewish exclusivity presents no other option other than conversion. Thus, Stingo’s romantic language, tailored for crass sexuality, may very well be upholding the folly buried within.

Since Myers was too timorous to consider this angle, I’m going to suggest that Stingo’s sexual longings represent some wishful reconciliation between Jewish exclusivity and universal understanding. For the gentile denied exclusivity, there is the commingling of guilt with passion, even carnal passion. Yet as Leslie Fiedler observed in his take on Sophie’s Choice, “Even when Stingo manages to participate in the action, he proves incapable of influencing its outcome.” So if Myers believes that Styron “fails to understand the sense in which the Holocaust calls into question the left-liberal distaste for Jewish exclusivism,” it would appear that he did not read the following reflective passage near novel’s end, when Stingo is attempting to balance his youthful journal with his adult self:

Someday I will understand Auschwitz. This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will understand Auschwitz. What I might have set down with more accuracy would have been: Someday I will write about Sophie’s life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world. Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response.

Next: Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net!

(Image: Alfred Eisenstaedt)