Cinematic Authenticity

godfrey.jpgTwo movies opening today have me concerned about the way that contemporary cinema is avoiding authenticity in an age of wartime. If we accept the idea that a movie is, in some sense, an entertainment, then should not the entertainment at least be authentic in some sense? I think of films like My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve, and It Happened One Night, all outstanding examples of the screwball comedy. I don’t think it’s an accident that the screwball comedy emerged from the residue of the Great Depression and continued on roughly until America became involved in the war. My Man Godfrey offers a wonderful performance by William Powell as the besotted man taken up by Carole Lombard in a scavenger hunt. What Lombard doesn’t realize is that Powell, the ostensible freeloader, is quite loaded. And Lombard’s assumptions about socioeconomic status mirror the class mobility that was very much a reality in 1936. The Lady Eve, written and directed by the great Preston Sturges, likewise plays with issues of class and very much concerns itself with a milquetoast (Henry Fonda), who must find a way to embrace the realities of fortune hunter Barbara Stanwyck. I’ve always thought that Fonda, to some degree, reflected how America was concerning itself with events unfolding in Europe. After all, much of the action takes place on an ocean liner. And Fonda’s diffident spirit seemed to reflect America’s unwillingness to get involved with events across the pond. Then there’s 1934’s It Happened One Night, in which how one survives becomes a running comic theme, as in this moment, in which Colbert is shocked to learn that she’s identified as Gable’s husband, little realizing that this is how Gable’s managed to secure a room before all the bus passengers nab them.

What’s great about these films is the way that lively quirks and idiosyncrasies emerge from human moments that are recognizable not only within the framework of the prewar years, but the manner in which they become timeless precisely because they start from human moments.

I had hoped for something similar with Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. It had the promise of the wonderful Amy Adams, who is proving to be nearly as endearingly effervescent as the great Ms. Lombard herself. Set in the days before Britain became involved in the war, Miss Pettigrew strives to be something of a farce, depicting how its titular character (played by Frances McDormand), who has just been sacked as a housekeeper and cannot find work, emerges quite by accident as a “social secretary” to Adams, who may also be something of an impostor.

pettigrew1.jpgBut I felt as if this film’s energy didn’t so much originate from its human moments, as it did its rampant concern for chasing nostalgia. This is evident through the film’s showy performances that are less designed with characterization and more designed with approximating screwball comedy conventions. (It doesn’t help that the great character actress Shirley Henderson, reduced here to robotic snaps of the head and her lovely voice reduced to two shrill notes, is more or less wasted as an embittered socialite.) The film relies too much on obvious gags, such as the “boy” upstairs who must be woken up, who is not some unruly tot, but actually one of Adams’s lovers. (Witness too how this setup is based around a contrived and entirely predictable irony, in which the characters are not allowed a whit of spontaneity.) It relies very much on coincidental run-ins. There are forced double entendres, such as Ms. Adams’s “There’s something so sensual about fur next to the skin,” which she manages to make work. But more attention has been devoted to sweeping pans of parties and the crazed curve of Adams’s hat. In short, the technical outweighs the human. Which likewise involves keeping Adams’s nudity constantly covered by towels and other obstructions for the obligatory PG-13 rating. (For those who detect the whiff of prurience with this allegation, I am, like any red-blooded man smitten by a striking actress, understandably curious. But I register this charge because I am disheartened by films that wish to suggest that a woman would, in the company of another woman, constantly hold up her towel in a convenient and preordained way. We are no longer in the days when husbands and wives were depicted in double beds. This is particularly ridiculous because Adams’ character wrestles three lovers throughout the film and is by no means modest in her temperament.)

The only moment in Miss Pettigrew that stirred me, and that had me pondering authenticity in entertainment, is when McDormand commiserates with a middle-aged underwear designer (played in a gruff debonair manner by Ciarán Hinds) she’s spent much of the movie resisting her romantic feelings for. They observe a number of planes heading south while many young pups shout their tally hos on the balcony. “They don’t remember the last one,” whispers McDormand. “No, they don’t.” It was a simple and by no means subtle moment. But I was intrigued by the hushed whispers, the implication of hastily capitulated memory, and it was the only moment in this movie in which I felt the human tensions of this prewar environment. I put forth that such attention to human atmosphere could have made Miss Pettigrew something special, and that such attention could have as easily have been played for laughs and worked.

I thought the running gag of McDormand desperately trying to grab a nibble, only to have a dish overturn onto the floor or an apple swept up by a broom, largely unconvincing, in part because McDormand didn’t once convince me that she was hungry. (Melodramatic lines like “I have not eaten for a very, very long time” certainly don’t help matters.) This is not to suggest that Miss Pettigrew is entirely one of those movies that you have playing in the background as you fold laundry. But it simply does not have the effrontery and good sense to concern itself fully with authenticity. It is a film made to run five years from now on some third-rate cable channel. It opts to be mere filler, and we are all the lesser for it.

statham.jpgThe Bank Job is slightly better, in part because Jason Statham is a charismatic if two-note lead and Roger Donaldson is a good enough craftsman to get some kind of performance out of the rather uninteresting Saffron Burrows, even when she beams, “I’m in a spot of bother,” to remind us heavy-handedly that we are, after all, in London. Statham, at the mercy of loan sharks, gets a lead on a bank and sets out to rob this bank in an effort to secure himself and his family for life. What makes this film work, before it drifts disappointingly into standard heist movie territory, is the intriguing way that Statham and his crew make mistakes. They haven’t committed a robbery before and they jackhammer underneath a restaurant to get to the loot, not thinking that their quite audible work is going to get them some attention. There’s a lookout man outside, but they’re all communicating through walkie-talkies on an open frequency. (This audio is intercepted by a ham radio enthusiast.) These thieves don’t know what they’re doing and, when they remain naive and clueless, this film is often gripping. And this works because these moments are human, dripping with some relative authenticity.

But when Statham wises up that he’s being used and transmutes from a car salesman to a badass overnight, the film lost me. Sure, we want these thieves to get away with the crime. And as a balding man, it was good to see a follicly challenged character manipulate politicians and pornographers and talk his way out of situations with bravado. But that’s too easy a dramatic line to pursue. We expect these things out of heist movies. We don’t expect everyday types to become criminals and we don’t expect criminals to screw up.

Authenticity, it seems, has become too much to ask of cinematic entertainment. Because it no longer fits into the formula that gets people into movie theaters. But these two films would have been infinitely more interesting had they lived up to the human promise of films that came before. But perhaps that’s too screwball a notion.

Interview with Bill Plympton

I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a number of new podcasts, which I anticipate releasing today. But in the meantime, here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming interview with animator Bill Plympton.

plympton.jpgIf you don’t know who Bill Plympton is, you’re missing out on one of the most unique independent animators now working in America. Plympton emerged into national consciousness when many of his shorts begin appearing on MTV’s Liquid TV during the late 1980s and early 1990s. This came concomitantly with success on the film festival circuit — in particular, with Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation. But, ironically, his work has found greater appreciation outside of the States. In his own country, he’s considered more of a cult item. Which is too bad. Because if this were a just universe, Plympton would be considered a national treasure.

I wasn’t surprised at all to see Plympton name-check Winsor McCay during our conversation. There is a fascinating surreal component to all of his films. Take 1994’s “Nose Hair,” in which a pesky and ever-growing follicle kick-starts a wondrous free-associative trip involving a man walking up and down a changing landscape. Or the unusual first-person approach of 1998’s “The Exciting Life of a Tree,” which is told entirely from a tree’s perspective. Couples copulate on a blanket, believing that there is privacy. Other trees are sawed down. But somehow the tree is abandoned.

Plympton puts together his films with a small staff in his New York studio. And, believe it or not, he draws all of the frames himself — at least a hundred drawings a day, he tells me — with his staff coloring and compositing these drawings.

Plympton was kind enough to find a few minutes to talk with me while putting the finishing touches on his most recent animated feature, Idiots and Angels.

(And, incidentally, Plympton tells me that the storyline for the new film involves a disgruntled angel who is a bit peeved that the angel wings force him to be good. As soon as I learn of a release date and/or a distributor, I will follow up.)

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about something that’s long been curious to me. The suit guys, who have these square shoulders, and who likewise seem to have these very large frames and these very big asses and these very short legs. I’m wondering how this particular look came about.

Plympton: Well, that’s a very good question. Because I see a lot of young animators doing cartoons. And one of the cartoons on the Cartoon Network uses the format that “zany looking people are funny.” Like clowns or animals with big bulbous eyes and huge noses and tongues that stick out and crazy hair. And it’s my feeling that that’s really not funny. For me, humor comes across when you take something that’s normal, that’s placid, that’s bland, that’s a cliche, and do something weird to it. If the main character is weird already when something weird happens, it’s not a surprise. It’s not a shock. Therefore, it’s not funny. So I like to choose characters that are fairly bland. Like vacuum cleaner salesmen. Very normal. And someone you can identify with.

yourface.jpgI guess that character, who was originated in “Your Face,” was inspired a little bit by Bud Abbott on Abbott & Costello. The pencil-thin moustache guy with the suit, the slicked back hair. Kind of a sleazy salesman type guy. And that film was such a big success, such a big hit, that I continue that character on through “The Wise Man” and through “Push Comes to Shove,” and a bunch of my feature films — The Tune and Mutant Aliens and I Married a Strange Person. So those films use that character a lot. And I’ve found that he’s a very good character for laughs.

Correspondent: In “Push Comes to Shove,” that character resembles Alfred Hitchcock to some degree.

Plympton: Well, not at all, I don’t think. Because Alfred Hitchcock is really a caricature. And this guy — even though he is a little stockier — there were two guys in “Push Comes to Shove.”

Correspondent: Yeah.

plympton2.jpgPlympton: A thin guy and a stockier guy. I guess that was inspired by the old Laurel & Hardy gag where they would take an egg and squash it on his head and put the hat back on. It was very dry humor. Very deadpan humor. And then that would escalate. And it escalated into, I don’t know, getting hit by a board or something like that. Well, I wanted to take that escalation and exaggerate it even more. So it becomes so violent and so surreally violent, that it’s just preposterous. And that was my initial inspiration for the film. So Alfred Hitchcock wouldn’t be someone I would say. It was more like Laurel and Hardy. Although even then, Oliver Hardy is more of a caricature than I would want to use. I brought him down as to more of a normal person than Oliver Hardy.

Correspondent: It also reminds me very much of the Fish-Slapping Dance. That kind of one-upmanship between the two characters.

Plympton: Yeah. That’s exactly what the inspiration was.

Correspondent: I wanted to also ask you about some of the perspectives you have. You had a few shorts — and also in your features — where there’s this first-person perspective. I think of the tree, for example.

Plympton: Yeah, “The Exciting Life of a Tree.” “One of Those Days.”

Correspondent: I’m wondering how this came about. Did you need to get away from the typical third-person look of these particular shorts?

Plympton: Well, the magic of animation is that the camera can go anywhere you want. And it’s harder to do that with live action. Although it’s easier now with digital technology. Digital effects. But with animation, you can put the camera anywhere. And that’s part of the fun of it. You’re seeing something that is maybe cliched or boring from a different angle. It makes it exciting. It makes it interesting. And so I wanted to see an event from one person’s POV and see the worst day ever — what it would be — if you lived that life. If you were actually in that person’s place. So it’s very autobiographical in that sense.

But I like to do that a lot. I did another film called “Draw,” where it’s a cliche of two cowboys in a mainstream Texas town. And they draw their guns. Only this is a POV of a bullet. And so again, it’s a kind of cliched, boring situation. But when you see it from the eye of a bullet that is traveling through space, going through someone’s heart, it gives it a whole new perspective. And I love that kind of thing that you can do with animation: change the perspective, change the viewpoint in each shot. And that’s the reason why I love animation.

Correspondent: Is this often why you are drawn to weapons? Not just bullets and cannons and the like. But also chainsaws, I have to ask you about. And cutting people in half. This seems to be a common theme throughout the work.

Plympton: Well, you know, movies have always been violent. Whether it’s Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Abbott & Costello or the Marx Brothers, violence has always — the Road Runner is a perfect example. Violence has always been part of humor. And so has sex. I don’t know why a lot of Americans are offended by sex in cartoons. It never made sense to me when I grew up with Mae West or Jean Harlow or Marilyn Monroe — there was always sex in adult films. And I just thought cartoons should also have sex. And so the violence is as American as apple pie. And so I like to take the violence and exaggerate it to such an absurd degree that it’s not really scary anymore, it’s funny.

I saw those Saw films and I was really squeamish about it. And it really wasn’t my cup of tea. But I think if they were to have taken that humor and that violence, and exaggerated it to an absurd level, I think it would have been much more interesting and a lot more entertaining.

(The full conversation will appear in a future podcast installment of The Bat Segundo Show.)

The Myth of Karma

One is tempted to look upon an array of serendipitous factors, particularly those that are strange and unfavorable, and find some cosmic justification for karmic retribution. Some are tempted to attribute this casual anarchy to a deity, but I prefer to embrace the innate timbre of chaos and exist within these wild whorls as naturally as possible, while likewise respecting the rights of those who require an explanation to be taken up among similarly bewildered but ultimately good-natured people on a weekly basis. Just don’t proselytize. That’s all I ask.

karma.gifMy morning started with a knock on the door. While I usually sleep like a log, I am particularly sensitive to unusual sounds. I was wispy-eyed, wearing a Jack Daniels shirt and boxers. The JD tee had been slipped on last night because it was clean, loose-fitting, and therefore comfortable. Had I known that the person knocking at the door was the property manager of the apartment building, I might have put on something different. But there was barely any time to think and the voice didn’t sound like a salesman. I was disoriented. The apartment was a mess, because I had been extremely busy trying to meet deadlines, which further embarrassed me. The purpose of the property manager’s visit involved investigating a leak from my radiator that was plaguing the neighbor downstairs. To add insult to injury, I pointed out to the property manager, with a surprising vocal lucidity, that a leak was coming from the apartment above me that I had neglected to report. It’s quite possible that this property manager had encountered other tenants who were dressed worse (or perhaps not at all), had their apartments in worse shape, and had permitted some plaster cavity to linger much longer than I had. But as far as I was concerned, this property manager was taking mental notes about my diseased character and the slipshod condition of my apartment, which he would then factor into some elaborate ledger about the curious and possibly mildly negligent people who dwelt in the units he managed. By my own exacting standards, I was a terrible tenant. Never mind that I have always paid my rent on time. But I’ve always had a minor sense of terror about the relationship between tenant and landlord, and this wasn’t helped when I moved out to New York and learned that, unlike California, one must renegotiate the lease every year, as opposed to permitting it to continue on month-to-month once the one year term has been satisfied.

The visit encouraged me to clean the apartment. At least partially.

I then attempted to find out why a good deal of checks owed to me had not been cut and had learned in nearly every instance that someone had been sick and that this surprisingly recurrent factor had caused many wrenches to clog up various hillocks of machinery. That not one of these checks would come through was, of course, quite unfortunate. It meant that the next few weeks of my life were likely to involve a considerably more penurious existence than I had anticipated. I then began scrounging around the apartment for pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, which I laid out in several stacks on my desk and later used to buy a bagel.

I then learned that I had been screwed over by the MTA. They had charged me twice for my monthly Metrocard. Forty minutes of my time was lost attempting to rectify this. My bank was exceedingly unhelpful. The MTA was slightly less unhelpful. But it was resolved after I was forced to adopt a bulldog temperament — not something I’m altogether proud of — to make things happen. One small victory after a few existential calamities.

Despite all this, I remain calm and hopeful. There is someone on this planet who had a worse day than I did. It isn’t schaudenfraude that makes me think this way; just a relative sense of where I stand and how fortunate I am. It’s much better to maintain some hard but by no means humorless fortitude in order to empathize. Even though I maintain an existence without religion, there is a small part of me that wishes to draw a correlation here that I know is quite false. I want to think that the same factors which spawned this morning’s motley madness likewise resulted in the unwonted earthquake in the United Kingdom or William Buckley’s death (the latter, in turn, made me think of Sam Tanenhaus, who must surely be regretting his decision not to finish his Buckley bio). This is entirely unreasonable, I know. But there remains a considerably visceral part of me that causes me to contemplate such associations of existence and to occasionally endorse them — particularly if I’ve had a few drinks.

But I don’t think I really believe in karma. I observe good people who are screwed over. I observe incorrigible people who are rewarded for being assholes. The correct thing to do in life is to try and be as good as possible. But it’s also important to be as true to who you are as possible. And often this truth gets in the way of being good. There is, I must confess, a great delight I frequently experience in being bad. Of course, my sense of bad is rooted in a baroque set of ethics that would take too much time to explain. But I try not to go out of my way to hurt people. And if I do hurt people, which is often unintentionally, I try to atone with positive actions to others.

The standard understanding of karma is this: what goes around comes around. I find this to be less true in practice than it is in principle. I suppose I believe that if you are ultimately true to who you are, you will encourage other people to be true to who they are. And if karma is rooted upon this sense of personal truth, then I approve of this. (And this seems to be more philosophical than religious.) But this karmic idea is more rooted in action, as opposed to some cosmic overseer who lays down the law for the universe.

If karma is rooted on coincidence, however, I cannot subscribe to it. And I don’t see how any reasonable person can fully put their faith in this. In fact, the sooner that other people understand this, the sooner we can put the self-help industry out of business. Really, they’ve made too much money exploiting human suffering.

The universe is based on one simple Newtonian precept: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. While this rule applies to gravity, I think it likewise applies to life. But since human beings decide how or when or if they wish to respond, one simply can’t anticipate when that “equal and opposite reaction” will occur. (And sometimes, it occurs from the unlikeliest of sources.) Hence, the giddy vales of chaos. Which is a lot more fun than sitting around worrying about when something will happen.

So I look at this morning’s unpleasant events and I figure that it’s something I can write off as a reaction to something bad I’ve done somewhere along the line. And I look at the good things that happened today, such as taking notes on some really good stories in Marshall Klimasewiski’s Tyrants (who I’ll be interviewing in person tomorrow at 7PM at McNally Robinson; details here), listening to the pleasant rustle of the plastic sheet beneath my bagel as the door to my neighborhood cafe was opened and a great gust came in through the aperture, and making a glum-looking boy, who was throwing paper detritus at me in the cafe, laugh.

There’s certainly an ignoble self-justification of my own character flaws here, but nobody’s perfect. (I’m certainly not a saint.) Certainly the universe isn’t. But if it were, then life wouldn’t be nearly so interesting.

A Can of Grape Soda

It’s safe to say that most of us fail to observe where our food comes from. I am currently examining an empty aluminum can of Welch’s Grape Soda, which was imbibed about four hours ago and was abandoned on my desk. In tall and semi-gothic lettering, the words NEW YORK appear — as if to suggest some homestate affinity, perhaps a reason for another beverage enthusiast to slap me on the back with an avuncular gusto as we down a few cans of Welch’s. Less comforting than these words is the NATURAL & ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, which was somehow invisible to me when I procured the soda in questions. These words are more troublesomely legible than NEW YORK. And I ponder whether this is really a strong selling point. Turning the can on my side, I learn that I have put into my system the following ingredients:

carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, grape juice concentrate, citric acid, natural and artificial grape flavors, sodium benzoate (preservative), red 40, blue 1

The drink was “produced under the authority of Welch Foods, Inc.,” which I am assured is “a cooperative” based out of Concord, Maine. And yet the drink was “canned by Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New York, Inc.” So I’m wondering where Welch Foods’s authority left off and Pepsi-Cola’s bottling began, and I’m pondering what happened between Concord and Queens. (College Point is fairly close to LaGuardia.) There isn’t an answer on this can. We accept that some complicated process has occurred and we don’t ask questions about whether any of this is good for us.

I don’t know if I completely trust “the authority of Welch Foods, Inc.” And yet I placed my trust in this authority when I decided to enjoy a can of grape soda, little realizing that I was experiencing a form of “high fructose corn syrup” that Michael Pollan has probably fulminated about somewhere. I am especially disturbed that grapes are not a part of this beverage, at least not in any direct manner. It’s all concentrate and natural and artificial grape flavors here. But what of the grapes? Did anybody inspect these? In the rush to mass produce cans of Welch’s, did someone decide to skimp out on the grapes? “The authority of Welch Foods, Inc.” may very well be an austere and ruthlessly efficient force that keeps the cans running down their tracks on time and into the ebullient hands of consumers like me, but I really want to know where the grapes come from. And this website isn’t exactly forthcoming about which grapes are used.

When I obtained the can of grape soda, I naively believed that some jolly group of vintners had smashed the grapes with their feet, that there was some natural process that permitted the grapes to ferment, and that everybody had congratulated each other on a job well done. But the truth is I know nothing about the complex machinery that put this drink together. Perhaps there was scant human intervention. I’m pretty sure that what I happily ingested was probably quite bad for me. 51 grams of sugar in one can! I mean, that’s phenomenal and it’s certainly a sign of high fructose. At least Welch’s is being clear on that point. (Of course, they have to, what with federal law and all.) But Welch’s hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about how much sugar this is. They have informed us, quite predictably, that the can contains 12 fluid ounces (or FL OZ for short, which suggests that one should probably floss shortly after knocking back a cold can of grape soda). In parentheses, we are informed that this amount is also 355 milliliters. But why not be forthright about what this amounts to in grams? It’s probably because 12 ounces is roughly about 340 grams. Which means that one sixth of this beverage is composed entirely of sugar! That’s more sugar than someone is likely to spoon into a cup of coffee!

I must conclude that Red 40 and Blue 1 are both forms of food coloring that are hiding some terrible truth about what these grapes have been through or how they have been sullied by the fructose and the concentrate.

There is a 1-800 number on the side of the can urging me to leave a “consumer comment.” But it’s now too late for me to call and I fear that this number exists for me and other consumes to explain to Welch’s how I feel about their beverage, perhaps in polite and enthusiastic terms. But the truth of the matter is that I have questions, not comments. And the person who would answer at this 1-800 number might panic because they didn’t have these answers at their fingertips. Or I might have to climb my way up the bureaucratic ladder to find out who does know. “Uh…grape juice concentrate. I’ll have to get approval from Bob before I can tell you what this is.”

The Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New York, Inc. is based in College Point, New York. It is a place that employs 1,100 people and made $166.60 million in 2007. There are two bottling plants and six warehouses. Yahoo! Finance assures me that this is “one of the largest private bottlers in the U.S.” But it doesn’t tell me where the grapes come from.

The Welch’s website assures me that their beverages are made from dark grapes. And there is this:

These dark grapes contain flavonoids, which are a likely source of heart heath benefits. Both red wine research and purple grape juice research have shown antioxidant, anti-clotting, and arterial flexibility benefits. Many scientists believe that these properties are linked to heart health.

I am somewhat suspicious of flavonoids. They sound too much like the “electrolytes” that the futuristic population of Mike Judge’s film, Idiocracy, so passionately believed in. And while flavonoids are indeed good for you, a UC Berkeley study in 2000 revealed that high concentrations of flavonoids, particularly in supplements sold at health food stores, may assist in cancer formation. A 2007 article from Science Daily is somewhat more encouraging, pointing out that high-sugar drinks with flavonoids are still beneficial because of the flavonoids.

So many questions! But then trying to find answers is what the Internet is for. Thankfully, there are a few enthusiasts out there who care about these seemingly pedantic but alarming issues. A new blog, Food Mapping, appears determined to use topographical technology to answer these questions. It promises “a visual representation of the how, where, and why of our food.” And it has (so far) explained the effects of humans eating too much fish and has provided helpful maps for local dairies. It also led me in turn to this map of New Orleans, in which one can view an overlay of stores, restaurants, and sundry markets across the city — important questions for anyone curious (and indeed hopeful) about how this ravaged city can restore itself after Katrina.

It’s self-evident that independent experts and enthusiasts need to investigate these culinary mysteries. And perhaps with serious inquiry, we might loosen a few answers into the great mysteries we blindly accept. Perhaps there is a can of grape soda somewhere that is completely transparent about the manner it is manufactured and canned and that doesn’t use nearly as much sugar. Or perhaps drinking grape soda is an unhealthy fait accompli. One obvious solution would be to avoid grape soda. But wouldn’t it be better to know precisely what one is avoiding?

The Other Bald Man

Whenever I go to a party, particularly one with lithe lads and lasses who are a good five or seven years younger than me, I feel a great sense of delight when another bald man arrives. “Aha!” I cry. “One of my kind!” Any lingering nervousness lifts. And I often single out my bald compatriot with a cheery hello, sometimes offering a telling wink or a gentle, avuncular nudge. It is my hope to imbue any bald man with a sense that they could be as badass as Samuel L. Jackson or Patrick Stewart or Sean Connery if they really wanted to be.

I should point out that my thatchy crescent has not yet completely receded. It has remained, much to my shock, recalcitrant in some places and skin-abdicating in others. For example, there remains a small but stubborn patch two inches above the outer edge of my left eyebrow that does not wish to yield to the fleshy inevitability just over the hill. I have taken to shaving my hair off every few months just to see how much of the hair will grow back. And to keep things quite fun, I have also grown more beards in the past year than I have in all the years previously. (The beard growing/hair shaving gambit is also my way of adjusting to the pronounced shift in seasons, which I am truly unused to — this being my first year living outside of California.)

But the balding is slower than I imagine. A friend who hasn’t seen me in two or three years will often refrain from telling me how much hair I’ve lost. And while I’ve long accepted the fact that I’m balding and would not take offense, I’m honored by this politeness and hold my tongue.

But back to this business of the other bald man: sometimes, when the other bald man is younger than me and has balded more substantially than I have, there is something of a social impasse. Particularly when the other bald man is experiencing some crisis of confidence common to a young man in his mid-to-late twenties. And instead of returning my good-hearted cheer, the other bald man’s eyes dart upwards to the hairy isthmus at the top of my head and widen with a sense of fear and panic. And whatever words I have to say on the subject (“Don’t worry. I’m sure it will be gone in a few years.”) are nulled by the sense that I somehow got a better deal. When in fact, the degree of one’s hair loss has no real bearing.

A few evenings ago, I encountered another bald man of this type and began to conduct some social experiments. I would move to a corner of the room he was occupying and beads of sweat would appear on his forehead. He would then move away. I would shift again. He would move away again. I had never met this guy before. And he certainly didn’t know me. I was a bit boisterous, as I usually am at such occasions. But I was polite and did nothing out of the ordinary.

Since the other bald men wished to ignore me, it became necessary to take things to the next level. I began talking to several young ladies, determining which ones were single, and, for those who did not appear to have a date or a steady man, I started suggesting that they talk to this other bald men. I made oblique references to a great act of courage that I had heard about. I pointed to the other bald man’s wit, écalt, and other factors, and even managed to cajole a few of them to walk across the room and start talking with him. And I would watch the other bald man blow these opportunities in minutes.

I suppose I sympathized because I was that bald man once, before I snapped out of it. Regrettably, balding is one of those things that we’re expected to sneer down on. The same way shallow and myopic types concern themselves over those who are fatter, older, or some needless aesthetic qualifier that ends with -er, and feel the compulsive need to expend a good deal of time, money, and energy over this when it’s far simpler to accept others as much as one can.

Because of this, you’ll always find me saluting and encouraging the other bald man at a party. He may very well have his act together, but it never hurts to remind him that there’s a hell of a lot more going on than “Who loves ya, baby?”

Diary of the Dead

Diary of the Dead is going to split critics. The film snobs who can’t handle a populist movie with a brain will groan (as many did quite audibly at the screening I attended). The hard-core Romero fans looking for Savini-style gore will be disheartened by the film’s focus on the internal (although there is one glorious zombie moment involving a defibrillator).

diary3.jpgThis is a pity, because Diary of the Dead is a gutsy and energetic film that believes in its audience more than Land of the Dead ever did. Romero made something of a mistake going to the big studios. He’s always been a more instinctive and playful filmmaker when working the indie turf. Land‘s blunt gas nozzle through the windshield has been replaced by more intriguing symbolism, such as a deaf Amish farmer now giddily grenading the dead and an overturned American flag hanging from a dormitory wall.

One of the film’s opening shots, taken from a television camera just as the dead are coming alive, is masterful satire. The camera zooms in on a driver chewing on a sandwich and crew voices mutter snarky comments over this private moment. A crew member asks an ambulance to move out of frame because it’s blocking the shot. Never mind that the camera is set up in front of a hospital.

diary2.jpgTold from the perspective of college filmmakers who see the (again unexplained) rising of the dead as an opportunity to record “a part of history,” Diary is a claustrophobic assault on media culture. “I just want to record it,” chants Jason Creed like a creed. He’s the director of the film-within-the-film, The Death of Death. And while his fellow students are initially uncomfortable, they become distressingly accustomed to having cameras in their faces. Some may decry the “amateur” acting, but when Romero has his actors mug for the camera, it’s symptomatic of a disease more pervasive than the zombies. At one point, just before entering an abandoned house, Creed tells his cadre to stop so that he can get a good wide angle shot. The voice of reason (so dissolute that he clings to a first edition of Dickens and seems, like Abigail’s Party‘s Laurence, more taken with the cover) is an alcoholic professor named Maxwell, named perhaps after the mathematician who proved that light was an electromagnetic wave and who thus made cinema and DV possible. Maxwell’s weapon of choice is not a gun, but a bow and arrow, which suggests that Romero’s affinity for chivalry — seen most prominently in his underrated film Knightriders — still holds.

Sharing a confined miasma similar to Day of the Dead, Diary champions cramped interiors over dystopic vistas. The only way of relating to fellow humans is through text messages and YouTube videos. The only real safety is a sealed panic room in a gated manor, a more socially isolating milieu than Dawn of the Dead‘s shopping mall. Its characters access the Internet not to check in on loved ones, but to upload footage. And why the need to promulgate information? As one of the filmmakers explains, “News is always horseshit. That’s how they sell soap.”

One gets the sense that Romero has been building up his fury for quite some time. His fiery stance suggests that an act of rebellion has less to do with improving human conditions and everything to do with seizing an alt-media fief. His characters prefer fully loaded cameras over the assurance of escape. “I can’t leave without the camera,” says Creed, who willfully keeps himself plugged into the wall to charge his battery while pals battle zombies. But Romero hasn’t quite abandoned his hippie idealism. The filmmakers find a number of National Guardsman — “all the folks without suntans” — who have holed up in one town with a stockpile. There’s a righteous and palliative solution to gentrification when the head points out, “We got the power,” and is even munificent with supplies when one of the students stands up to him. But in the face of chaos, honor, like all civilized tenets, goes south. Another faction shows up later, but its commander is wild-eyed and predatory, but still honorable enough to leave weapons.

diary1.jpgAdam Swica’s cinematography favors crisp and steely digital blues. The visuals remain cold and rampant even when a camera is shoved in the face of a young woman trying to remain calm after driving over a number of zombies. “How do you feel?” asks Creed, unable to discern the tangible trauma.

At times, Romero overplays his hand. While I could accept the double entendre of “shooting” that comes near the film’s finale, montages of catastrophe with Full Metal Jacket-style narration were unnecessary, particularly when nestled with such hokey lines as “It’s interesting what we find out what we’re capable of becoming.” One character even escapes with the line “Don’t mess with Texas” and needless musical accompaniment, an overly cornball tone at odds with the film’s more serious questions.

Nevertheless, Romero’s reboot (along with the forthcoming movie, The Signal) suggests that independent horror may very well be the only place where filmmakers are likely to kick against the hypocrisies of media. If Diary is not quite a masterpiece to rank up with Night or Dawn, it does signal a fantastic return to form.

I Need a Husband!

About six months after I continued to remain happy and childless, I saw a woman sitting with her son on a blanket. Her name, I later discovered, was Lori and she was there with her friend Caitlin. It was a sunny summer weekend, and there were parents and kids picnicking nearby.

The day had been going fine, until Lori started checking out my ass in a really intense way. Which was odd, because I have an okay ass. Nothing to write home about. I guess it was an ass you could settle for. Of course, when pressed, I can shake my booty as well as anybody else. Still, it was somewhat disheartening to have someone checking out my ass without even having the courtesy to introduce herself.

“Excuse me,” said Lori. “Are you married?”

“What? Why, no,” I said.

“Do you shout ‘Bravo!’ in movie theaters?”

“Sometimes. When it’s an action movie.”

She introduced herself. She then asked if she could smell my breath. I told her that I needed one minute to suck on a breath mint. She told me that breath mints weren’t necessary. I informed her that her request was quite unusual. And she then grabbed the roll of BreathSavers out of my hand and stomped my mints into chalky powder. She insisted that I had halitosis. This was not true.

“Hey, you owe me a buck for those BreathSavers!”

“I want a husband,” she said.

“What for? What do you really long for?”

“An angle for this Atlantic article I’m writing. Well, actually, a husband. I’m very worried about that. Every single woman I know feels panic about this. I need to marry and reproduce.”

I then noticed that she was taking notes.

“You know, you don’t need a husband to be happy,” I said. “Mr. Right often comes along when you least expect it.”

“I need a husband now.”

Lori didn’t blink as she said this. I was starting to get an Ira Levin vibe.

“Yeah, and I’d love to write for The New Yorker. It’ll probably never happen. But that doesn’t stop me from writing or living.”

“You don’t understand. I need a husband now.”

“Well, if that’s the case, go get one.”

I started to walk away. I considered calling 911. Lori was starting to give me the creeps. There was a wild look in her eyes.

“Will you be my husband?”

I was unnerved by Lori. I knew many well-adjusted single women in their thirties and forties who were living fantastic lives. And they were doing this entirely without partners.

“Are you The One?”

“No!” I shouted.

She then consulted a complicated Powerpoint presentation on her laptop. There was a red text box with the words MUST MARRY MAN NOW! flashing in bright white text.

“Are you my soul mate?”

“Look, Lori, I don’t know you, but I think you need help.”

“I need to marry somebody. Someone who can help me pop out 1.2 children from my uterus. Will you marry me and help me pop out 1.2 children? I have one son. I need 1.2 more so that I can live the perfect dream. Are you Mr. Good Enough?”

“I’m Mr. Champion.”

Lori then complained to her friend Caitlin that I wasn’t cooperating. Caitlin suggested that they should go home and watch the final episode of Friends to get some additional ideas for Lori’s article. And that was the last I saw of them.

I didn’t understand Lori’s problem. If only she would stop with the whole “I need a husband” nonsense and accept that life happens when you make other plans, maybe she might get her wish.

But it was good to meet someone who wrote for The Atlantic. I was pretty sure that Lori would read a few books on the subject, talk to some noted experts on relationships and human behavior, cite a few studies, and write a very thoughtful article without a single generalization about gender. After all, The Atlantic was a respected magazine that attracted only the best writers.

Chapter One

On Sunday night, I stepped into the chilly cold and ventured off to see two fabulous pals — Matt Cheney and Tayari Jones — read at the Sunday Salon series with the ebullient Frances Madeson and the somewhat intense Tony D’Souza. All four readers were compelling, but the biggest surprise came when Tayari, who had assured me early on that she would be reading a “rerun,” inveigled the crowd with a chapter from her forthcoming novel, citing, to my surprise, me specifically as the guy who had seen the act before. As Tayari came down to retrieve her manuscript pages, there was only one thing to do. Express my gratitude and hug her profusely. I am known to do this from time to time. Writers sometimes need to be encouraged.

In any event, since this was an uncommon reading of material that was still being worked out, it seemed only fair to return the favor. So I’ve prepared an audio file of the first chapter of my novel-in-progress, Humanity Unlimited, which can be sampled below. It involves balding, neuroses, a stern receptionist, false accusation, and an overly exuberant photographer. This is slightly different from another version I performed once at Writers With Drinks, and will likely be different still in six months.

(Of course, if this doesn’t tickle your fancy, I should note that four new installments of The Bat Segundo Show have just been released.)

Conscience and Integrity

He was a passionate devotee of David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, and many others who he sensed were writing the Great American Novel. He made acquaintances with a few of his heroes, attending workshops and the like. And he spent eleven years working on his novel. Because he needed his novel to be perfect. To his mind, this was the only way he could live up.

He didn’t realize that great novels — and indeed great art — often happen by accident. By routine. By turning around work and getting better at what you do. Even the best ball players can’t hit a homerun every time. He caused himself and a number of other people close to him some grief. It’s all there in Chip McGrath’s article. And it will all be there in a forthcoming installment of The Bat Segundo Show.

I bring Charles Bock up in light of Carrie Frye and David Ulin’s responses to the Zadie Smith controversy. Both suggest that Zadie Smith’s decision was exacted with, respectively, conscience and integrity. Anyone who writes knows that writing can be a tough and unrelenting business. That you’re going to get “no” (or, more often, no reply at all) more often than you get “yes.” Which is why it’s important to keep on writing and not let anyone stand in your way.

Now it’s certainly important to demand the best out of people, no matter how small the stakes. When friends and acquaintances offer me their manuscripts, they know damn well that I’m going to be hard and ruthless with their words. Writing is too important to be taken for granted.

But I believe that it’s also important to be encouraging with people who have the basic nuts and bolts. To leave some wiggle room for another writer to work out a problem and to find her voice in her own way. To encourage a writer, particularly a good one, to carry on writing, however difficult the process, however much the writer’s writing may not speak to you, and whatever the extant fallacies you perceive. The only way that a writer can get better at writing is to look that white whale right in the eye. To produce without fear of judgment and without fear of failure, but with an upturned ear. Judgment and failure come with the territory.

A wholesale dismissal of a manuscript without reason is less helpful than an honest and reasonable excoriation, which might provide the writer some clues on how to get better or where the writer went wrong with one person. Writing, like many things in life, benefits from failure as well as success. So I can find little conscience and integrity to Zadie Smith’s actions. Had she bothered to highlight the deficiencies of these manuscripts using very specific examples — and, for that matter, had the print people damning blogs used very specific examples — we might be having a pugnacious but ultimately well-intentioned discussion. But Zadie Smith, lest we forget, is just one voice. She is not the final arbiter of taste. The very idea that art must be perfect fails to take Michelangelo’s maxim into account: “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”

Casablanca, you may recall, was just another studio picture. Picasso was frighteningly prolific. On the Road was written in three weeks. Dostoevsky quite famously wrote his novella, “The Gambler,” because he had to meet a crazed deadline in order to meet his debts.

The Charles Bocks of our world are left to sweat when they might benefit from writing with a sense of urgency. They continue in this way because instead of being true to their voices, they feel the need to adhere to some ridiculously high standard proscribed by others. When the high standards should come primarily from the artist, guided in large part by an intuitive subconscious.

So what role then is the critic or the judge? I think Mencken was pretty close:

A catalyzer, in chemistry, is a substance that helps two other substances to react. For example, consider the case of ordinary cane sugar and water. Dissolve the sugar in water and nothing happens. But add a few drops of acid and the sugar changes to glucose and fructose. Meanwhile, the acid itself is absolutely unchanged. All it does is to stir up the reaction between the water and the sugar. The process is called catalysis. The acid is a catalyzer.

Well, this is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts. It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.

Law of Averages

I hope to find more time to write at length about Charles Baxter’s extraordinary novel, The Soul Thief. Beyond Baxter nailing the relationship of “God Only Knows” to Brian Wilson’s personal development as an artist, one is tempted to read Nathaniel’s relationship with his parents in the context of this interesting essay (in which Baxter’s son offers annotated responses in relation to remembered anecdotes) contained in this month’s issue of The Believer.

There is also this striking passage, to be considered in the same context as Philip Roth’s American Pastoral moment and Richard Russo’s “wrong end of the telescope” speech from Bridge of Sighs:

But sometimes it happens that we enter a public place and find that, for once, the law of averages has broken down. We step gingerly into the darkened movie theater, the film starts, and we are the only ones in attendance, the only spectators to laugh or scream or yawn in the otherwise empty and silent rows of seats. We drive for miles and see no one coming in the other direction, the road for once being ours alone. Our high beams stay on. Where is everybody? The earth has been emptied except for us as we make our stuttering progress through the dark. We take each turn expecting that someone will appear out of nowhere to keep us company for a moment. In the doctor’s anteroom, no one else is waiting and fidgeting with nerves, and the receptionist has vanished; or we find ourselves alone in the fun-house at the seedy carnival, where, because of our solitude, there will be no fun no matter what we do; or we enter the restaurant where no one else is dining, though the candles have all been lit and the place settings have been nicely arranged. The waitstaff has collectively decamped to some other bistro even though they have left the lights on in this one. The water boiling in the kitchen sends up a cloud of steam. The maitre d’ has abandoned his station; we sit anywhere we please. The outward-bound commuter train starts, but no one sits in the car, and no conductor ambles down the aisle to punch a hole in our ticket. In the drugstore no one is behind the cash register, and the druggist has left the prescription medications unmonitored on their assorted shelves. We enter the church for the funeral, and we are the first to arrive, and we must sit without the help of the ushers. Where are they? No sound, not a single note or a chord or a melody line from the organ loft, consoles and sustains us.

Such occasions are so rare that when they occur, we often think I don’t belong here, something is wrong or Why didn’t they inform me? or Let there be someone, anyone, else. But for the duration, when the law of averages no longer applies, we are the sole survivors, the only audience for what reality wishes to show us. This may be what the prophets once felt, this ultimate final aloneness.

Breaking News: Snobbery Ain’t Cute

Dear Zadie Smith:

Well, this isn’t a difficult thing to write. Because the kind of sanctimonious attitude you espouse with your open letter really doesn’t tell us the whole story.* Really, what happened here? Did you actually read all of the entries? Or did you shoot them down on sight because the first sentence wasn’t some florid specimen of “originality?” You know, “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father” wasn’t exactly the kind of sentence I’d write home about. (And neither, for that matter, was Forster’s original line.) But I gave On Beauty a chance and stuck it out, despite its cheap reliance upon coincidence and a few implausible relationships, and I enjoyed it. But I gotta say that it took some hubris there to rewrite Howard’s End. Almost as cocky as Gus Van Sant remaking Psycho shot-for-shot. But then you’re Zadie Smith. And, hey, it won you the Orange Prize and got you on the Booker shortlist. And I’m just some crazed blogger who writes on a medium that you won’t deign to capitalize.

Anyway, this isn’t about your novels, which I think are fantastic. This is about something else. I don’t have a prize to hand out. I’m just a guy who likes literature. And I too look for quality and am known to masticate upon wretched manuscripts when the cupboards aren’t stocked with trusty tins and I feel a pressing need to be tortured by a dentist. But if you honestly believe that not one manuscript out of hundreds was worth something, then just what the sam hill were you doing judging a contest anyway? I mean, I thought that I was Mr. Crankypants. But you take the cake! And apparently you want others to eat it too.

So let’s conduct ourselves a little basic math here. There were 800 stories in this contest. And let’s say that the average length of each story was roughly ten pages a piece. So we’ve got ourselves 8,000 pages total. That’s a lot of reading material, I know. But let’s be utterly brutal and cut it down to 1%. That’s eighty pages left. Or eight stories out of 600. If you want to say .05%, that’s four stories. Surely, even you, Ms. Smith, in your hard-pressed quest for “quality” could cop to .05% of all the material coming in being worth something. Surely, even you, Ms. Smith, could count one sentence in that crop as amazing.

So you and the judges don’t want to read all the other crap that comes in. Okay, that’s cool. But surely you understand that when you sign on to judge a reading contest, inevitably, you’re going to have to wade through a morass to get to the really good stuff. This is, incidentally, what an editor of a literary journal has to do. And, by editor, we’re not talking about asking top talent, who could write amazing things in their sleep if they had to, to submit stories for The Book of Other People. We’re not talking about having Dave Eggers email you some article that you simply say yes to for The Best American Nonrequired Reading. We’re talking about real editing by aspiring writers, good and bad, who want to be published. The kind of pull-up-your-dungarees-and-wade-into-the-septic-tank hard labor that involves vertiginous slush piles. Oh, they’re nightmarish. But if you’re a glass-is-half-full kind of person and you have even a remote love of literature, you’ll know that every now and then, something good comes through. And it makes the job worthwhile. Do you think you’re exempt from this basic vocational reality because you’re Zadie Smith?

And incidentally, who are you to complain about “pseudo-literary fictio-tainment” when your dear husband offered just that with Utterly Monkey? Not that I have any problem with “pseudo-literary” offerings. But I’m just saying.

Really, Zadie honey, you’re in your thirties now. You really should know better than this. Particularly after all the trouble you got into by declaring England “a disgusting place.” (Aha! A common theme here!) But if this is really one of those cases where you vant to be alone, then please, just stay away from journalists and judging reading contests and concentrate your attentions on what you’re really good at: writing novels.

Yours sincerely,

Edward Champion

* — The “whole story” was, incidentally, relayed by Bilal Ghafoor — if indeed this is the “whole story” and not just another case of CYA.

A Tribute to Frank Wilson


Frank Wilson will be hanging up his hat as books editor of the Philly Inquirer on Friday and I feel that the battle to save book reviewing sections has been lost. I figured that if Frank could keep his books section running, the newspaper situation would be okay. I know that there were many struggles to keep the section afloat and that Frank worked damn hard at his job, often performing double duty on other arts sections. But he won’t tell you about what he went through. Because he’s always been a class act.

He cared a good deal about arts coverage and he had many ideas on how to make a books section both lively and profitable. He was a man who fought hard to get a Steve Erickson review running off the front of the Arts & Entertainment section. But I suspect many of his innovative ideas fell on deaf ears. I don’t know if Frank will ever reveal the true sacrifice of his labors. But trust me. The man did everything he could and kept at this game far longer than any reasonable person should.

So the news depresses me. Because Philadelphia was lucky to have Frank Wilson. Hell, the whole nation was lucky to have Frank Wilson. He was possibly too smart for this business. He may have cared too much.

Frank ran reviews on all types of books from all types of writers. One turned to the Inquirer‘s books section for passionate and thoughtful books coverage, not a section composed of “names” coasting by on credentials. Unlike many other editors, he was open-minded enough to understand that the current convergence between print and online was not a development where you had to pick a side, but where you had to work both sides of the fence and bring people together. He corralled top talent in the blogosphere and forced them to up their game. He knew intuitively where cultural coverage was going and did everything he could to bridge the gap.

He was also the first newspaper editor to take a chance on me with a book reviewing assignment. And so I owe much of my current full-time freelancing career to Frank. And I will never forget him for this. I was extremely privileged and honored to write for him. And I always busted my hump to get him something extra special. He let me get away with reviews written in the first person plural and let me throw in a lot of embedded wordplay that I sneaked into my reviews to amuse the copy desk. In return, I’d try to scout out books for him that nobody else was covering.

But now that Frank’s almost gone, with his Books, Inq. blog sadly following, this is a huge loss for Philadelphia and a huge loss for newspapers. The news came hot on the heels of other losses in the Philadelphia newspaper community. So it stings that much more.

I’m not sure if this means the end of the Inquirer‘s books section. But the paper needed Frank Wilson. And I don’t think they were really aware of the talent they had.

[UPDATE: It appears that despite being devoted to “commentary on literary criticism, publishing, writing, and all things NBCC related,” the NBCC blog Critical Mass hasn’t bothered to point to developments at the Philly Inquirer. This is especially astonishing, considering that NBCC President John Freeman was a regular contributor to the Inquirer‘s pages. But I guess when you’re busy pretending that an established social networking site doesn’t exist and you’re attempting to replace it with the most predictable lists of books imaginable, I suppose that more tangible developments in the universe such as a newspaper books section that may very well be dead aren’t so important. In other news, I hear that next year’s NBCC reading campaign is “Shelfari.”]

[UPDATE 2: Hmm. Funny that. Freeman’s post at Critical Mass went up not long after the previous update.]

Dave Itzkoff: The Genre Dunce Who Won’t Stop Dancing

Dave Itzkoff has been an embarrassment to the New York Times Book Review for some time, imbuing his “Across the Universe” columns with a know-nothing hubris that one expects from an investment banker who considers himself an art expert simply because he’s had his secretary send in a tax-deductible donation to the opera. Never mind that he hasn’t once listened to Verdi. But Itzkoff’s latest piece truly demonstrates that the wretched and rackety well has no bottom limit. Reading Itzkoff is like being paired up with some otiose oaf on a field assignment who will cluelessly drill into a septic tank and spew all manner of malodorous shit without recognizing how incompetent and disgusting this is. Unlike someone like quarterback Eli Manning, Itzkoff’s instincts can’t help him win the game. Not even accidentally.

Itzkoff first tries to be cutesy with this column, comparing his subway rides to “Bruce Campbell dodging zombies,” when in fact the Evil Dead films concerned themselves with the backwoods, not an urban setting, and it was the supernatural (as opposed to zombies) that Bruce Campbell dodged in the Evil Dead films. He might have had a decent comparison on his hands had he evoked something along the lines of Lamberto Bava’s Demons. But a tired and clumsy reference to Bruce Campbell? Clearly, this was one of those “hip” comparisons that Itzkoff sneaked into his column not with the intent of relating to his audience, but to desperately pine for a geek chic he clearly does not and can never possess.

And then we have the telltale phrase of a dolt signifying everything: “I sometimes wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers.” I wonder how any “critic” could write such a clueless sentence. Bad enough that Itzkoff invokes two books that have been out for many months (one more than a year) and is about as current on science fiction as a high school jock trying to crib tips from reluctant geeks who recognize a flagrant pettifogger. But this ignoramus also has the temerity to suggest that speculative fiction authors can only write speculative fiction and that there is nothing of value in YA books. Further, Itzkoff can’t seem to understand that selling millions of books may not be why an author turns to the form. As it so happens, China Miéville was once good enough to tell me that he didn’t write Un Lun Dun with money in mind. But he didn’t need to inform me about the artistic satisfaction he found in creating worlds for kids. It was, despite my quibbles with the book, nascent on the page. You’d have to be a tone-deaf dilettante out of your element not to see it.

Then there is Itzkoff’s ignorance in quoting Miéville’s previous works. He doesn’t cite the New Crobuzon books (were they just too long and too filled with big words for Itzkoff to ken?). He seems to think that a fantasy audience is more likely to know Miéville for King Rat and his short stories. When in fact, the reverse is true. And what should Miéville’s polemic on Tolkien have to do with the imaginative strengths of Un Lun Dun? Is Itzkoff taking the piss out of Miéville’s socialist views by comparing this essay to “one of the most imaginative young adult novels of the post-Potter era?” When, in fact, Miéville argued:

As socialists, we don’t judge art by the politics of its creator – Trotsky loved Celine, Marx loved Balzac, and neither author was exactly a lefty. However, when the intersection of politics and aesthetics actually stunts the art, it’s no red herring to play the politics card.

Un Lun Dun is not a case where the environmental politics stunt the art. And if this is Itzkoff’s crass attempt to be clever, to equate Miéville’s politics with his art, then why doesn’t he just fess up to what a pinko author Miéville is?

And then there is this bafflingly obvious observation:

When Miéville hangs a crucial story element on an alternate definition of the word “phlegm,” he does so not only to educate his audience about its forgotten second meaning, but also to acknowledge that kids love the word “phlegm.”

You think, Itzkoff? That’s a bit like writing, “When Miéville titled his book Un Lun Dun, he does so not only to suggest phonetic transcription, but also to acknowledge that kids love to misspell words.” It’s the kind of dull conclusion I’d expect from a burned out undergraduate taking on some hack assignment of dumbing down literature for a Cliffs Notes volume. Not something from the New York Times.

When Itzkoff brings up Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves’s InterWorld, the book is “still something of a departure,” presumably because Itzkoff remains incapable of fathoming why a fantasy author would be found in the children’s section. Bafflingly, Itzkoff writes that the book “falls into the same broad category as ‘Un Lun Dun.'” While you’re at it, Itzkoff, why don’t you tell us that the book is “published by the good people at McGraw Hill?” These are utterly useless sentences. Itzkoff can’t seem to accept a book as a book. He feels the need to pigeonhole it, even to suggest that Gaiman and Reaves had a specific type of reader in mind, when, in fact, the book’s origins have a completely different story. But Itzkoff is too lazy to conduct even the most basic of research. Again, he would rather assume and drop in a reference to Heavy Metal.

Itzkoff writes that InterWorld “isn’t sugarcoated for its readership” and describes how it “wastes no time in putting its young heroes in mortal peril.” Which leads one to wonder whether Itzkoff is even familiar with this little story called “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which featured this giant chanting for the blood of an Englishman. As nearly every bedtime reader knows, children’s stories have a long history of putting young heroes in mortal peril. See, for instance, the tales of Grimm.

Why someone like Itzkoff has remained continually employed at the NYTBR for nearly two years is no mystery. Nobody at the NYTBR gives a good goddam about science fiction, nor do they care about incisive coverage of genre books. I doubt very highly that Sam Tanenhaus or Dwight Garner have read one science fiction book in their entire NYTBR tenure. There’s certainly no evidence to suggest that either of these two have open minds on the subject. Garner once described Philip K. Dick as a “trippy science-fiction writer.” Which is a bit like calling Dylan “a trippy singer.” A New York Times search unearths not a single article by Sam Tanenhaus with the words “science fiction” in it.

So if Itzkoff, Tanenhaus, and Garner are failing on the science fiction front, why then should one give credence to them? Because Tanenhaus actually had the hubris to tell me (and a large audience) that the NYTBR is “the best book review section in the nation.” But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To my mind, if you are an editor striving to be “the best book review section in the nation,” you should take genre as seriously as you do mainstream literature. You should not pollute your columns with clumsy cultural references that have no relation to the material.

And, above all, you should not hire a dunce like Dave Itzkoff.

[UPDATE: Andrew Wheeler writes: “Perhaps the problem is that Itzkoff has a whole page to fill, and, given that he’s only read two fairly short books in six months, he doesn’t have much actual content to fill that space with. So once again I will suggest a tightening of Itzkoff’s assigned space. One word every decade would about do it.”]

Class Distinctions

Back in the days when I played at the gilded trap known as the nine-to-five rap, there were often times in which my failure to distinguish social hierarchies was at odds with policies practiced off the clock. There was a night when I went out to dinner with my fellow co-workers. One of those terrible fusion places. The kind of place not so keen on food and atmosphere and social camaraderie, but where the individual goes to be seen. I have never cared too much about being seen, but I do like to have a good time, even if my own social tendencies sometimes get me in trouble.

waiter1.jpgThe place pounded bad house music at deafening levels. There was very little light, save for a strip of green neon snaking around the perimeter of the bar. The waitstaff were clad in black, murky figures who sneaked up on tables like highwaymen descending upon a stagecoach. I kept feeling around for my wallet just to be sure.

It was clear from the stray sentences that managed to penetrate through the deplorable four four beat that my co-workers had class aspirations. Their fun was tied into the consumption of material goods. Whether spending every spare dollar on needless decor, drinks tabs that extended into a three digit sum in mere hours, or the blow that one secretary snorted in the restroom with a file clerk two decades her junior. (“I still have my tits,” she once said to me, little realizing that my interest in breasts had to be justified with some minimum but by no means unreasonable level of smarts.)

waiter2.jpgI lost interest in the talk of a reality television show I had never watched and began observing a server who reminded me very much of one of the attorneys at the firm I was then toiling at. She had spent a good deal of time perfecting her posture, had carefully kept up her skin, and was in her early thirties. Roughly around the same age. The resemblance was so similar to me that I could imagine her replacing a tray with an attache.

I pointed out these physical and behavioral similarities to the group. They looked, conceding that there was some resemblance. But the secretary, slamming down her fifth straight shot of Jamison’s, waved her finger imprecisely in my direction and insisted, “But [attorney name’s excised] is beautiful!”

The waitress and the attorney were indeed both beautiful. But I didn’t really see why one would be more beautiful than the other. The only real difference was the vocation and the amount of take home pay.

But I suppose that if you look through a haze of drug and drink and drudgery, your sense of the world grows distorted. The ugly takes on a sudden allure. The tendrils of stasis start to resemble upward mobility. And beauty, which takes on many forms great and small and shouldn’t have a price tag, is hopelessly cross-stitched into commodity.

The U.S. Copyright Office

  • Paramount Pictures Corporation holds co-copyright on David Foster Wallace’s “Host.”
  • Nicholson Baker’s first two records, registered in 1981, were for two stories: “Snorkeling” and “K.590.” Both stories have not been collected. But the former appeared in The Little, v. 13, no. 1 and 2, p. 74-81. The latter appeared in the December 7, 1981 issue of The New Yorker.
  • George Romero has been busier than you think. Romero is understandably meticulous about copyright — perhaps because Night of the Living Dead was, quite famously, issued without a copyright and entered into the public domain. I’m extremely curious about what 1994’s Jacaranda Joe might have been. There is no reference in the IMDB. This was a 23 page script — presumably for a half hour anthology series. Actor Andy Ussach even has a picture of him and Romero “during the Jacaranda Joe filming.” So if something was shot, was it simply not completed?
  • Did Good Man Park author a book on psychological self-defense? This might explain his exclamation marks!
  • Will Stanley Kubrick’s Lunatic at Large be turned into something? The entry reads: “Statements re transfer space, address & corres.” More info on this lost treatment here.
  • Is it the same Tao Lin who wrote Overconfidence and Asset Prices?
  • A screenplay written by Pablo Guirado Garcia called I Pass Like the Night: Serial Fucker based on the Jonathan Ames book?
  • I’m curious about Neal Pollack’s play, Chicago on the Rocks. Was it performed?
  • I have typed in about twenty-two women into this search engine, but I have unearthed nothing lost or unknown. I find the gender disparity troublesome.
  • I could be here all night. Really, I could. There are mysterious works here that were never published or saw the light of day. Some of the copyright documents have mysterious exhibits attached, and I imagine that this is not necessarily the diligence of a cutthroat attorney hoping to protect his client’s interests, but that some of these writers offering eccentric riders to their manuscripts for those who take the trouble to go down to Washington to examine these documents in person. A bonus for anyone wishing to go the extra mile — a consolation prize for the truly obsessed.
  • There must be other copyright obsessives out there right now. Perhaps their partners are now in bed and they find the same solace I do typing in search terms into the WebVoyage interface. They may have the same admiration for the neat organization, the helpful annotations throughout the database (“Notes: play”), the specific dates, the letter code which precedes each copyright number (TX for text, V for recorded document, PAu for dramatic work and music; or choreography), and, like me, they may be pondering why the recorded documents have two sets of numerals (VxxxxDxxx).
  • Then again, if you work at the Copyright Office, the taxonomic structure with which I am now finding some strange appeal would likely become insufferable. The same way that a file clerk mindlessly puts away files and, in the worst of cases, doesn’t even have the benefit of music. I suddenly have great sympathy for the folks who work at the Copyright Office, particularly those who must ensure that the records are put away accurately. And yet it is the top-tier executives who we pay more money.
  • Did the clerks have any say in the way this system was set up? Or were they at the mercy of middle managers who insisted that V had to represent “recorded document?”
  • Furthermore, how much time was devoted to typing in all of this data into a computer? Is it really worth the $45 registration fee for all that pain? Or are the top men at the Copyright Office getting a good chunk of that cheddar? Perhaps the clerk spent three minutes typing all of the necessary data into the Copyright Office computer. That means that the clerk should rightly be earning $900/hour. But such an hourly rate is inconceivable. So where does this extra money go?
  • I think I will copyright a few things this year myself.

The Decline of Book Reviewing: A Case Study

It is said that the Eunectes murinus — referred to by laymen as the anaconda or the water boa — spends most of its time shooting its slimy body beneath the water, waiting for a hapless gazelle to stop and take a drink, only to grab the lithe animal with its jaws, coil its scaly muscular husk around its quivering body, squeezing and constricting until the animal is helpless (the animal is never crushed), where it then feasts upon the meat. It does this, because, while the boa does surface on land from time to time, the boa is more taken with the scummy agua. It does not know any better.

And while most mainstream newspaper book sections are devoted to thought over carnivorous instinct, there remain some critics, terrified of inhabiting any topography foreign to their hermetic environments and who remain needlessly hostile to any author crossing multiple ecosystems.

vollmann.jpgThe author in question is William T. Vollmann. And the book is Riding Toward Everywhere, a surprisingly thin volume (by Vollmann standards, at least) that concerns itself with trainhopping and vagrants. (Full disclosure: While the book isn’t Vollmann’s greatest, I did enjoy the book. And while I may be a devotee to Vollmann’s work, I have never let my admiration for the man hinder fair and critical judgment. Above all, I recognize that Vollmann, like any original and idiosyncratic author, must be read on his own terms. This would seem self-evident to even the most elementary reader, because of Vollmann’s style and his distinct subject matter. But other individuals, as I shall soon demonstrate, don’t share this commitment to due consideration.)

A number of recent reviews reveal an astonishing paucity of insight and, in some cases, remarkable deficiencies in reading comprehension. And this all has me greatly concerned about the state of contemporary criticism. While there were dismissals from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette‘s Bob Hoover and the Los Angeles Times‘s Marc Weingarten that had the good sense to avoid dwelling so heavily on Vollmann’s peccadilloes, the majority of these negative reviews not only failed to comprehend Vollmann’s book, but appeared predetermined to despise it from the onset. They wished to judge Vollmann the man instead of Vollmann the author. Which is a bit like judging Dostoevsky not on his literary genius, but on his abject personal foibles. Or dismissing Woody Allen’s great films because he married his adopted daughter. This is the stance of blackguards who peddle in gossip, not criticism.

And yet speculation into Vollmann’s character was unfurled in messy dollops under the guise of “criticism” or “book reviewing.”

From Rene Denfeld’s review in The Oregonian:

There is a saying among some bloggers: “I think I just vomited a little in my mouth.”

That’s how I felt reading “Riding Toward Everywhere.”

William T. Vollmann is a mystifyingly respected writer, a man who has made his reputation by exploiting sex workers, the poor and other helpless targets as he plumbs their depths with his supposedly insightful pen, not to mention other appendages.

Well, this blogger has never typed that hackneyed sentence, in large part because resorting to cliches are about as enticing as four hours with a dentist (or, for that matter, dwelling on an essay written by a lazy writer). But then Ms. Denfeld has no problem letting false and near libelous conjecture get in the way of understanding what’s in the text. She fails to cite any specific examples on how Vollmann has “exploited” his subjects. And she has deliberately misread Riding Toward Everywhere to suit her false and incorrigible conclusions. To be clear on this, it was not — as Ms. Denfeld suggests — Vollmann who referred to “citizens” contemptuously, but the vagrants who Vollmann interviewed. Since Ms. Denfeld doesn’t appear to know how to read and infer from a book, here is the specific manner in which Vollmann establishes a “citizen.” Vollmann starts talking to vagrants in search of the notorious gang, the Freight Train Riders of America. Early on in the book, Vollmann approaches a man with a bandana and bluntly asks him, “Are you FTRA?”

You goddamned dufus! shouted the man. That’s the stupidest fucking thing I ever heard. You wanna commit suicide or what? I’m not even FTRA and you’re already starting to piss me off. Don’t you get it? We hate you.

Why’s that?

Because you’re just a goddamned citizen.

Sorry about that, I said. (33)

Denfeld further claims that Vollmann “fancies himself the Jack Kerouac of our times,” but it’s quite evident that Vollmann, in addition to pointing out the differences between hitting the roads and riding the rails, views himself as a somewhat clumsy traveler and does not permit his literary antecedents to define him:

Neither the ecstatic openness of Kerouac’s road voyagers, nor the dogged cat-and-mouse triumphs of London’s freight-jumpers, and certainly not the canny navigations of Twain’s riverboat youth define me. I go my own bumbling way, either alone or in company, beset by lapses in my bravery, energy, and charity, knowing not precisely where to go until I am there. (73)

Denfeld also writes, “His concession to the law is to borrow friends’ cars when he picks up hookers so if he gets caught, it won’t be his license that is lost.”

Again, Denfeld deliberately twists Vollmann’s words around. Here is what Vollmann actually wrote:

My city passes an ordinance to confiscate the cars of men who pick up prostitutes. This compels me to walk….It may well be that I am a sullen and truculent citizen; possibly I should play the game a trifle. But I do, I do: When I pick up prostitutes I use somebody else’s car. (4-5)

denfeld.jpgIt is clear here that Vollmann is being as straightforward as he can about his life, trying to set down personal fallacies he may have in common with his subjects. It would be one thing if Ms. Denfeld stated the precise problems she had with the book, but she remains so fixated in her happy little universe — which involves living with her partner with three adopted children and OMG! “teaching writing in low-income schools and volunteering in adoption education and outreach”; could it be that Vollmann is not the only “rich” person who “brags” about philanthropy? — that she can’t seem to consider that other people relate to the world a bit differently. And it’s clear that she can’t be bothered to engage with the issues that the book presents. Masticating upon this book, good or bad, seems beneath Ms. Denfeld’s abilities. Beyond Ms. Denfeld’s consistent failure at basic reading comprehension, I likewise remain gobsmacked that these flagrant errors, easily confirmed by checking Ms. Denfeld’s statements against the text (which runs a svelte 186 pages), were allowed to run in a major newspaper.

Ms. Denfeld isn’t the only venerable nitwit assigned to review a book outside her ken. Here’s the opening paragraph from “respected” author Carolyn See’s takedown at the Washington Post:

William T. Vollmann is revered and venerated by a lot of men whose brains and souls I deeply respect. They love his ideas, the sheer length of his work (one book of his, “Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means,” runs over 3,000 pages); they love his freedom and eccentricities — he’s been to and written about Afghanistan, the Far East and the magnetic north pole, and has spent vast amounts of time with prostitutes while also managing to keep a wife and kid. He seems to be a man of prodigious abilities. At the same time, I can say I’ve never had a conversation with a woman about his work. He just doesn’t seem to come up on our radar. Is it that we don’t have the time to read 3,000 pages? That we don’t care as much as we should about the magnetic north pole? I don’t know.

Rather then dredge up my own empirical evidence of women I know who do read and enjoy Vollmann in response to this egregious sexism, which is particularly ignoble coming from a Ph.D., I’ll simply presume that See’s sheltered life at UCLA, much less basic library skills, precludes her from consulting such books as Linda Gregerson’s Magnetic North (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Kathan Brown’s The North Pole (Crown, 2004), or Helen Thayer’s Polar Dream: The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and Her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole (NewSage, 2002). Further, Laura Miller’s womanhood didn’t hinder her from devoting 2,000 words to Poor People, pointing out (although critical) that Vollmann was “a writer of extraordinary talent.” Dava Sobel called him “ferociously original.” Numerous other examples can be readily unearthed in newspapers and academic journals. Vollmann is no more an author just for men than Jennifer Weiner is an author just for women. And only a fool or a John Birch Society member would declare otherwise.

See’s prefatory paragraph, of course, has nothing to do with the book in question. And if See had been a responsible reviewer, she would have recused herself from reviewing an author who “doesn’t come up on [her] radar.” An ethical and responsible reviewer knows her own intellectual or perceptive limits.

And then there is J.R. Moehringer’s offering in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. Like Denfield, Moehringer has reading comprehension problems, although thankfully not as severe. Moehringer completely misses Vollmann’s point that Cold Mountain is, much like Shangri-La, an unobtainable destination, although he does seem to understand that it’s “a nonexistent mountain.” But for Moehringer, “the words lose all meaning.” It doesn’t occur to Moehringer that Vollmann’s repetition of “Cold Mountain” might be a way of expressing the ineffable or the unfindable. Or as Vollmann puts it:

I stood here wondering if I had reached Cold Mountain. Where is Cold Mountain, anyway? Isn’t it for the best if I can never be sure I’ve found it?

But Moehringer’s biggest sin is to ask Vollmann the hypothetical question, “Pal, what the hell’s wrong with you?” He finds Vollmann crazy for “get[ting] his kicks breaking into rail yards and hopping freight trains,” and wonders why nobody has caught him. But he fails to consider that Vollmann’s romantic description of the open air or the modest code of honor that prevents a fellow hopper from stealing another hopper’s sleeping bag might hold some appeal to a man of Vollmann’s eccentricities. Clearly, there are reasons why Vollmann hops trains. And Vollmann dutifully explains why. But since Moehringer lacks the intellectual flexibility to understand this, he breaks John Updike’s first rule of reviewing (“try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt”) at the onset.

He declares Vollmann “miserable” and “filled with irredeemable gloom about the state of the world,” wondering how anyone could feel this way more so than others, but fails to recognize that one of the major thrusts of Vollmann’s work has been to chronicle the misunderstood. Kindness and empathy, and writing about people that other novelists and journalists are all too happy to ignore, are at the core of Vollmann’s output. Further, there is more to Vollmann’s mantra than Cold Mountain. As Vollmann explains:

I am sure that the fact that my wife had expressed her wish for a divorce two days before had nothing to do with the fact that I kept saying to myself: I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to get out of here.

Moehringer also writes, “Early on, Vollmann mentions ‘a Cambodian whore’ he nearly married. Why? No reason.” But what Moehringer conveniently elides is how Vollmann mentions this in connection with taking a bus trip out to Oakland. When the bus stopped at Cheyenne, Vollmannn felt that he had reached “true West.” He did not get out of the bus, but he felt that “Cheyenne changed me at that moment.” And if Moehringer is so indolent a reviewer that he cannot grasp the basic concept — indeed, the specific “reason” Vollmann is bringing up this anecdote — of how one decision often changes a life at a crossroads, let us consider the specific passage:

Once upon a time I almost married a Cambodian whore, or at least I convinced myself that I was on the verge of wedding her; once I considered moving in with an Eskimo girl; in either case, I would have learned, suffered and joyed ever so intensely in ways that I will never know now. And what if I had gotten off the bus in Cheyenne in the year of my youthful hope 1981? California is only half-western, being California. Cheyenne is one hundred percent Western….And had I stepped off the bus in Cheyenne, I might have become a cowboy; I could have even been a man.

If Moehringer — a Pulitzer Prize winner, for fuck’s sake — is incapable of seeing the reason why Vollmann mentioned the incident, then I shudder to consider his dull worldview and nearly nonexistent sense of adventure. Why climb Everest? No reason. “Because it’s there.”

All three reviewers demonstrate a remarkable devotion to remaining incurious and to condemning an author personally rather than trying to consider an author’s perspective. Small wonder, given this reactionary clime, that book reviewing sections face extinction.

Night at the Boxcar


This was roughly the view you received if you had the privilege of attending the Boxcar Lounge on Wednesday night. The venue was indeed shaped like a boxcar and it was SRO for those souls, like Levi and me, who had arrived from McNally Robinson. (Of that counterprogramming, while John Freeman made a valiant attempt to ask questions of Lee Siegel that would cause him to think instead of fulminate more on his puerile anti-Internet views, the two of us left after twenty minutes. Siegel, as a speaker, has the voice of a semi-squeaky plush toy that still has a bit of air left, but hasn’t yet figured out that the tots have moved on to newer baubles. I had seen this kind of arrogant and opinionated blather before when the speaker had referred to itself as Andrew Keen. So there was no need to subject myself to it again. To offer a small sample: According to Siegel, the Internet is apparently composed of 80% porn. And while it’s absolutely diabolical for people to leave anonymous and hateful comments (as they did for Siegel’s posts at the New Republic), apparently it’s perfectly peachy keen for Siegel to impersonate “sprezzatura” because there is nothing forbidding such a cheap impersonation under journalistic rules. Never mind that Siegel’s shenanigans were hardly transparent and had to be ferreted out by top brass at the New Republic. I took notes, but I felt like I was transcribing a kindergarter’s efforts to discuss Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason based on a one-sentence summary. As such, my notes are not worth reproducing or summarizing.)

You couldn’t get a seat at the Boxcar Lounge. Unless you were one of the smart ones, like Maud and her friend, who arrived early to get a seat. There were many bloggers in the crowd, including Jason, Levi, Marydell, Lauren, and Sarah. It was also a pleasure to talk with Michael Orbach, Jami Attenberg, and a number of other people who I will no doubt remember after I hit the “Publish” button. I’m sorry.


Besides, who needed Siegel when there was another installment of Jami Attenberg’s Class of 2008 Reading Series going down? This one featured Michael Dahlie reading from A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living, Lynn Lurie reading from Corner of the Dead, and (pictured above) Ceridwen Dovey reading from Blood Kin. Dovey was one of the evening’s standouts. Her reading was quietly intense and suitably genteel, and I am now most curious about her novel.


And then there was Mr. Sarvas himself, who read from a chapter of his forthcoming novel, Harry, Revised: the infamous incident in the bookstore. The chapter contains a disparaging reference to David Foster Wallace and I felt compelled to cry out a “Yea!” in DFW’s defense. Mark likewise felt compelled to point to me during this moment.

Is Harry, Revised any good? I was a bit hesitant to approach it, as my candor compels me to tell even my closest friends when their work is not up to snuff. But I have read the whole of Harry, Revised and I can recommend it. Mark has ventured down a somewhat unexpected path here, unafraid to have his protagonist enter into uncomfortable territory. The book’s style displays Mark’s clear love for Fitzgerald and there is something of a French farcical feel that permits material that should not work to be executed with a crazed grace.

I am sorry to report, however, that there remains one passage that will almost certainly be nominated for The Bad Sex Award. But you’ll have to wait for a forthcoming installment of The Bat Segundo Show to find out precisely what it is.

Interview with Charles Burns

Four new podcasts were released today at The Bat Segundo Show. And since we’re on the subject of Segundo, what follows is a short excerpt from my conversation with Philadelphia-based artist Charles Burns, who I chatted with during a recent visit through New York.

blackhole2.jpgYou might know Burns’s work from his advertisements or his illustrations for The Believer. But he’s best known as the writer and illustrator of the graphic novel, Black Hole, a compilation of his twelve-volume comic book. Burns worked on this over the course of ten years. And one of its remarkable qualities is the way that it remains remarkably consistent in its tone, despite the fact that Burns saw his two daughters grow up as he patiently put his work together. Black Hole depicts the story of a sexually transmitted disease that afflicts various teenagers in the Pacific Northwest. The work is very much a Rorschach test for the reader. One might infer a parable about AIDS or, if you wanted to get really reductive, innocence lost. Or it can be simply enjoyed as a dark tale of American adolescence gone awry.

Since Burns has conducted many interviews for his magnum opus, the challenge was to come up with a few conversational angles that he hadn’t encountered. But the interview frequently drifted into abstract personal memories when I asked him about a specific facet of Black Hole, demonstrating perhaps that artistic ambiguities aren’t always so easily pinpointed.

Correspondent: You’ve probably seen Vanessa Raney’s really lengthy critical essay of Black Hole, where she analyzes your panels quite in-depth. And I actually wanted to ask you about a comparison she made. She pointed out that Keith, Chris, and Eliza actually represent the same relationship structure in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. And I wanted to ask you about this. Was Sartre ever on the mind in concocting this narrative? How did the relationship structure begin?

Burns: Boy, that’s a good question. I don’t know that I’ve read the essay that you’re referring to. But there have been some questions asked along those lines before. It really wasn’t an influence or that wasn’t in my mind when I was creating the story. I guess I was trying to create these characters. Two very different types of women. The main character is just coming to terms with the differences between them and his attraction to them. His initial attraction to Chris, a girl that he admires from his biology class, is this very kind of clean-cut — what he thinks is kind of clean-cut. The kind of woman that he’s putting on a pedestal. She’s perfect. But he doesn’t really know anything about her at all in reality, other than just that she seems amazing.

And then he meets a very different kind of woman, who’s very much earthy. Much more sexual. And he finds himself attracted to her, much to his dismay. So the story’s really his coming to terms with his reaction, I guess, to these different women.

Correspondent: But no Jean-Paul Sartre.

Burns: No.

Correspondent: Any literary…

Burns: I would love to be able to say that there’s a good comparison there. But, no, that wasn’t the case.

blackhole1.jpgCorrespondent: Okay. I also wanted to ask you about some of the anatomical close-ups throughout Black Hole. They remind me very much — in addition to the pustules and the various biological impediments that many of the characters have — it reminds me very much of the sort of World War II venereal disease films.

Burns: (laughs)

Correspondent: I was wondering. What kind of visual references did you use for these particular decisions? Or was it just more of an intuitive choice?

Burns: It was probably more of an intuitive choice. I mean, there’s those things that I grew up that are out there. I think there’s references in the movie to sitting in the biology health class and looking at — learning about sexuality that way. There’s was always this kind of very strange antiseptic situation. I remember one time in biology class, there was — I guess, what do you call it? — a TA. A student teacher. And there was some film on — I don’t know, reproduction. And she showed the first half of it. And then she abruptly turned the film off. And, of course, everybody in the class said, “Oh, keep running it! We want to see it again! We want to see the rest of it.” And she would say, “No, no, no, no.” And finally she turned it back on. And there was this very graphic portion of the movie, where we were seeing an IUD inserted into a vaginal — (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah.

Burns: And everybody just immediately got very, very quiet and very, very uncomfortable. Because here’s this — suddenly after seeing these very typical movies about “Your Growing Body,” suddenly we were seeing these very graphic representations. It was an odd moment.

Correspondent: Is it something about that period between, say, 1945 and 1975? Was that very much on the mind — in terms of getting this particular look? Or this particular emphasis on close-ups and warts and the like?

Burns: I don’t know. I guess that’s more of a personal thing. I guess that’s just how my brain works or thinks. Those were the kinds of images that were coming up. Again, it has to do with all the things that you’re subjected to and that you come across from that time period. But nothing as thought out as that, no.

Correspondent: So really it’s more of a personal intuitive experience that you’re drawing upon here? I know…

Burns: That would be a better description.

Correspondent: Yeah, because this leads me into another question. I know that the yearbook photos, or rather the photos on the inside cover, were taken from your own yearbooks.

Burns: Yeah.

Correspondent: And this leads me to ask you about how much of what is in Black Hole is taken from your personal experience, and where do you imagine certain details. I mean, certainly, the disease which plagues all these various people is imagined in some sense. But I’m wondering, in terms of the more personal observations, were these taken more from anecdotes? Were these imagined? On what level did you feel the need to draw upon real life and your own instinct for reimagining behavioral scenarios?

Burns: I mean, my situation growing up was a much more benign situation than what I’m depicting. I mean, there were internal struggles that I was going through, that I think everybody goes through during adolescence, that seemed extremely dramatic and extremely heartrending, difficult times. And I guess I was trying to depict that. What those feelings were. The kind of internal struggle that I was going through.

There are certainly situations in the story that are drawn directly from my life. I never met a half-naked girl with a tail.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Burns: I would have loved to.

blackhole3.JPGCorrespondent: Wouldn’t we all really?

Burns: That never happened. My existence was much more sedate and pedestrian, I suppose. But again, these sorts of things were brewing in my mind. My sense of not fitting in. My sense of this kind of internal horror that I was feeling in a lot of situations. Whether they were anywhere near…

Correspondent: Well, in terms of personal experience vs. what you observed, I mean, it seems to me that personal experience is more the motivating impetus for what you put into Black Hole more than anything else. If what I’m understanding you to say is correct. Were you more of an observer or were you one of those types of people?

Burns: I was one of those types of people in varying degrees. Someone was asking me the other day, “Were you a punk?” I was there in all those concerts participating, but I never shaved my head or carved a swastika on my forehead. But yeah, I was there. I guess that’s what I wanted to do too — in the book, talk or just have a realistic look at the times I was growing in. There’s moments in there, even though they’re very sedate, that are very horrific to me. To be sitting in a room for four hours listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon get played over and over, and sitting around with a bunch of guys for hours and hours, is horrific to me.

[The full interview will appear in a future installment of The Bat Segundo Show.]

The Video Game as Art

In 2005, film critic Roger Ebert ruffled a few feathers when he suggested that because video games require player choices, games are therefore an inferior medium:

To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

bioshock.jpgI can certainly agree with Ebert that video games are, for the most part, showcases for the latest gaming engines, primarily designed so that the individual will drop hundreds of dollars for a next-generation console system or a needlessly expensive video card that will be outdated in a few years (only to be replaced by yet another). We are now in the nickelodeon days, although, as the Wii demonstrates, the game controllers are getting more interesting. But this multi-billion dollar industry is less concerned with the human experience than it should be. It has come close with the Civilization games and the Sims offerings, and may come even closer with Will Wright’s much delayed Spore, an ambitious god game that permits the player to develop a cell and then control the natural development of this cell into a species, and then further manage the species as it plunges into space exploration. I’ve lost many hours feeling an ignoble cathartic thrill when fragging a junior-high schooler who, like me, should probably be reading a book. But I can justify my shameful vicarious pleasure by knowing that this is a medium that has yet to produce a Battleship Potemkin or a Birth of a Nation.

To suggest, however, that the video game will never find the same gravitas as cinema is to fall prey to same prejudicial thinking with which intellectuals once castigated cinema in the early 20th century. Let’s not forget that it took the motion picture around thirty years of technological developments before it was considered more than a gaudy amusement. And we have only just passed the 30th anniversary of the Atari 2600.

This New York Times article from September 7, 1913 suggests that the then primitive motion picture was, like the contemporary video game, very much about delivering spectacle to a mass audience. George Kleine, one of the key people who established the film industry in the United states and who had just made a cinematic adaptation of Quo Vadis? with a cast of 3,000 people (then an unprecedented number), is quoted in an eerily comparable manner about the future of the medium”

“I have plans for the future which make everything I have done so far seem to be mere child’s play. The educational end has not begun. Motion pictures will not supplant books in the public schools, according to my opinion, but they will revolutionize our educational system. Instead of being bored, the child will enjoy learning by object lessons conveyed by the use of moving pictures.”

ffever.jpgReplace “motion pictures” with “video games” and you essentially have what’s reflected in this 2002 BBC News article, in which a study reveals that games are not a substitute for books, but a way to help children learn. And if, like me, you grew up playing Fraction Fever (the ROM is here, if you’re an emulator geek) or any of the other Spinnaker titles, perhaps there is some credence to these theories.

There is also this commentary from the 1913 article:

There are many pictures being thrown upon the screen every day which, although not really harmful, possess no merit. Some are positively ridiculous, and portray scenes both unnatural and unreal. It is not to be expected, however, that with the demand for films exceeding the supply every production should be perfect.

It seems to me that Ebert’s Grumpy Old Man routine was published in newspapers a century before. The medium is the only thing that’s different.


Jason Rohrer’s surprisingly touching game, Passage, freely available for download and released a few months ago, quite easily destroys Ebert’s thesis that the video game is incapable of poetry. Rohrer achieves a unique poetry both in limiting the player’s perspective to a 100×16 window and through the deceptively simple manner that he has designed this game for the player. Play the game once and you will follow a strapping young man from left to right. He finds a woman along the way. A pixelated heart soon follows. As the man advances further along this horizontal tableau, he (and his sweetheart) begins to age. He goes bald. As he continues to age, his position on the axis shifts further to the right. Near the end of his life, he is hobbling. Then a tombstone crops up. The End.

Or is it?

The game isn’t limited to left-to-right movement. Play the game again, press the down arrow. and you will find yourself exploring a maze below the top, collecting many stars and stumbling for a way out. But with this simple design, Rohrer has done something very interesting. If you choose to fall in love with your sweetheart, the two of you can only explore certain areas. Because with your partner in tow, you collectively take up a wider space and can only fit into specific territory. If you choose to go through this life solo, then you’ll be able to collect many of the stars denied you and your sweetheart, but you may get lost in the maze and be unable to find your way back to where your sweetheart waits.

If Passage is not quite the video game’s answer to The Waste Land, Rohrer’s poetic game demonstrates that independent developers can in fact use the form in favor of human experience. Rohrer’s lo-fi approach is a welcome response to high-end graphical tentpole operations. I found myself thinking of all the choices I had made over the course of my life and wondered how I would have turned up if I had made slightly different decisions. Contra Ebert, I did indeed find the experience to make me more curious and empathetic about the human condition. (And this would appear to have been Mr. Rohrer’s objective.) This was something that no amount of fragging had inspired.

If all this sounds fishy, well, the game simply has to be played. Like any work of art, it is something better experienced than talked about. And it requires that superannuated naysayers keep open minds.

Beware of the Owl

owl.jpgThe reports promised snow but prevaricated. My mind marinated. You get that feeling when you are conned into picking away at a slice of red velvet cake because it’s there and you have only poor penmanship instead of an able fork. Never mind culinary sullies. The owl’s snooty hoots belied a ballistic solipsism suggesting the sword was mightier than any midnight rambler. And we were rendered into spittle and drivel hoping that flurry would scurry and leave us with some natural marching power.

Do not attempt this at home. This is an experiment to be carried out in the field.

The mind’s confines are best addressed with cardboard forms of demarcation. One expects lobes to spill but finds an ungracious appreciation for cerebral aerobics. To expand with substance, or to impute that other substances were snorted, is to fall prey to the owl’s howling mantras.

And yet the owl’s maxims mean much to many. An internal stare avoided for fear of the external. The febrile zeal to fit in when best adjudicated by entropy. The enameled mammals flensed their telegenic teeth because this mattered more than a whore. First person prima donnas not comprehending their spending and, worse yet, failing to feel the beats of their hidden hearts in a playground for the rich and a salvo for the stitch. Small wonder that my soul resembled an over-tossed baseball.

Thus, I retreated into gibberish, what they felt was folderol. My sentences became longer and the owl still did not understand them. The owl merely responded to big billboards and bright lights. The owl offered me a script.

“HOO HOO! Say these HOO HOO! words and HOO HOO! you will HOO HOO! be a HOO HOO! success.”

“He was on first,” I replied.

“HOO HOO! Stop that HOO HOO! they’re beginning HOO HOO! to turn away.”

Idle talk amidst the unfulfilled flakes. Damp matches struck sulfur and the owl’s paper package transmuted into a capable conflagration. No one was more surprised than me. There was, after all, the slush.

The owl offered another script. I took it, but the words were the same.

Hillary’s Tears, Our Tears

hillary.jpgLorrie Moore’s naive essay on Hillary Clinton not only demonstrates the unspoken precept that skilled fiction writers are sometimes remarkably simplistic when they write about politics, but deploys the same scripted liberalism that every progressive is now expected to chant to peers in coffeehouses. The formula, it seems, boils down to this: Hillary Bad, Obama Good.

Now I’m not exactly a Hillary lover. Clinton waffled from a 1993 universal health care plan which mandated all employers to provide health care for employees to her latest “universal” plan, which shifts the mandatory financial burden to individual citizens. But a proper universal health care program is single-payer, regulated by the government, and doesn’t abdicate the spoils to HMOs. Clinton is also the senator who received the most money from HMOs in the 2008 election cycle. (Obama was second.)

Like every good left-leaning American, I have been seduced by the seemingly limitless reserves of Obama’s charisma: his smooth handling of Bill O’Reilly’s arrogant attack dog antics, his adroit response to anti-abortion protesters, insert your magical Obama moment here.

The man is slick. Slicker than Bill Clinton. I firmly believe that he can be the next President. He looks good. Too good.

In comparing Obama with Clinton, Moore writes that “unlike her, he is original and of the moment. He embodies, at the deepest levels, the bringing together of separate worlds. The sexes have always lived together, but the races have not.”

wecandoitreal.jpgI wonder if Moore remains aware that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, women earn 77 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make. (The disparity, incidentally, is better in Washington, DC, where women make 91 cents to the male dollar. This may explain why Capitol Hill remains somewhat out-of-touch on this issue. An Equal Rights Amendment may provide succor to these problems.) Or maybe Moore remains unaware that young women are earning degrees at a higher rate than men do.

This certainly doesn’t reflect a case where the sexes “have always lived together.” Unless, of course, we’re talking garden-variety cohabitation. And while Obama may talk the talk, I fail to see how Obama’s legislation record brings together separate worlds in any way that is substantially different from Hillary Clinton. The oft bandied boast is that Obama was not Senator in 2002 and therefore unable to vote for the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq. But what’s not to suggest that within this climate of fear, Obama wouldn’t have done so? (The record demonstrates that John Edwards also voted for it. Kucinich and Paul did not.)

The distinction then is predicated on retroactive speculation. Which is a bit like seriously considering the ridiculous question Bernard Shaw asked of Michael Dukakis during the 1984 Democratic presidential debates: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Kitty Dukakis was not raped and murdered. Obama was not Senator during 2002. Nonetheless, it is an American political tradition to rate presidential candidates according to what they may have done under certain circumstances, as opposed to a more reasonable survey of what they are likely to do based on their past records.

So ultimately the difference between Obama and Clinton comes down to charisma. To watch Obama in action is to experience the most pleasant and capable of political machines. He’ll jazz up a crowd in minutes and give them the fleeting sense that they can change the world. But who is the wizard behind the curtain? Progressives — including myself — were so eager to fixate upon Karl Rove, but why do we fail to apply the same standards to those who run Obama’s campaign?

Last week, Hillary Clinton welled up on camera and was roundly ridiculed. The question arose over whether this was sincere. Cruel YouTube parodies surfaced soon after. For some, the tears confirmed the inevitable. Here are some of the YouTube comments:

I really feel that Hillary Clinton is a worhless [sic] piece of shit.

i hate this woman

This bitch won because she got on national television with her fake crocodile tears in front of million of viewers.

Yea what a fucking cow. She should be making pizza.

This is a very EVIL fricken human being…She should be ashamed of herself! If she had any heart at all she would finally tell the truth!

Go and fuck Bill.. instead of cheating people

Hillary Clinton is a worthless piece of shit.

And so on.

This was not, however, a Muskie moment, even if an op-ed columnist like Newsweek‘s Karen Breslau was keen to dredge up the droplet that careened down Muskie’s cheek and sealed his political fate. Until the primary results dictate otherwise, Clinton is still very much in the game.

What was not factored in Breslau’s article was the double standard with regard to gender. I find myself being one of the few who remains suspicious about never seeing a gaffe from Obama. Real humans screw up. But presidential politics demands perfection or, as Bush’s two victories confirm, a guy you can drink a beer with.

The cult of personality remains so seductive that even adept writers like Moore offer this foolishness: “it is a little late in the day to become sentimental about a woman running for president. The political moment for feminine role models, arguably, has passed us by.”

On the contrary, the present political moment is very much about whether a president has the right to appear sentimental before the cameras, which in turn is very much predicated upon whether the candidate is a man or a woman. It does not matter what Hillary Clinton’s positions are. What matters most of all is whether or not the “bitch” or “the worthless piece of shit” fabricated her tears.

The question we should be asking is just why these gratuitous issues of telegenic interpretation are deflecting more pressing concerns, such as platforms and positions, and why even the best of us are happily swallowing the bait.

Sprezzatura the Maligned

It’s been more than a year since the manboy cultural critic Lee Siegel was temporarily suspended from The New Republic for allegedly posting anonymous comments on its blog, under the name “sprezzatura.” And while Boris Kachka has interviewed Lee Siegel, Filthy Habits recently received an email from an individual claiming to be “sprezzatura.” He wished to set the matter straight. Sprezzatura’s email, which contained three mysterious JPEG attachments (among them, a picture of an alpaca in a compromising yet family-friendly position), claimed that he had been misrepresented, that Siegel was not “brave, brilliant, and wittier than [Jon] Stewart,” and demanded immediate reinstatement to the New Republic message boards. It remains a mystery to me why sprezzatura thought I had the keys to the New Republic castle. But this was a desperate email written in a desperate time.

“It is there where my shallow invective flowed best,” wrote sprezzatura of the New Republic website. He offered to send me $100 if I would interview him. I declined on moral principle. Then sprezzatura demanded an interview with me gratis by email because “Kachka had proved to be a wuss with his softball questions.” And I agreed, only because I had no wish to receive an email from sprezzatura ever again. I have been unable to confirm whether this “sprezzatura” is the same “sprezzatura” unleashed on Siegel’s blog. Indeed, I do not how many “sprezzaturas” there are. But I suppose it’s pedantic mysteries like this that have many of us wasting long hours on the Internet.

sprezz.jpgWhy don’t you just get a blog?

Because that would be too easy! And if I had devoted a blog just to clarifying my identity, I would have been thought a kook!

Actually, most bloggers are cranks. I speak with some expertise on the subject. But I don’t see how you’re making a case here, Lee.

Do not address me with that name! Those days are far behind me! We must forget that regrettable episode!

So you are Lee Siegel.

If you’ll pardon a metaphorical leap, Lee Siegel is a tuna melt poorly prepared with half-melted cheese. John Battelle never responded to any of my thoughtful queries. Therefore, he is an imbecile who cannot recognize my genius. David Brooks rested his argument on the flimsiest of premises. I do not need to inform you what these premises are. Just trust me. They’re flimsy. And when Cox wanted to draw attention to herself, she used the word “cunt” to make a point. Plus, she made more money than I did. And she’s a woman two decades younger than I am. It’s not fair!

Lots of invective there, sprezza baby. But can you cite any specific examples? Some might argue that you are using “cunt” to make….well, not exactly a point, but to stand out with an irrational Dale Peck-style explanation.

It doesn’t matter! Malcolm Gladwell’s hair was adopted for television as American Idol. I have tried to stop them from supplying him with shampoo, but they keep arresting me!

Lee, step away from the Internet and get some fresh air. We’ve had some unseasonably warm weather in January. Go for a walk.

I love the Internet, I’m on it all the time. I couldn’t have written my book so quickly without it. Thanks to the Internet, I didn’t have to think. I could just cut and paste some boilerplate, bang out a book and make a quick book and show those New Republic bastards exactly who mattered. I don’t think it’s making more people connected than they were before, not at all.

It didn’t have to be this way, Lee.

I react very badly when mediocrity is associated with my name.

Well then, write well!

That is hard when you are “sprezzatura” and you have been banned from your own magazine’s message board. Will you give me a hug?

Only if you stop using the moniker “sprezzatura.”

Forgotten Statue, Forgotten Spirit

schurz.jpgLike many statues nestled along the rectangular trestles of Manhattan’s parks, Karl Bitter’s bronze depiction of Carl Schurz — situated at the corner of Morningside Drive and 116th Street — is regularly overlooked by many New Yorkers. They walk their dogs. They chat on their cell phones. They rush to important appointments or set out to beat a jogging record. But they rarely stop to observe this rather tall and intriguing figure who remains memorialized.

That’s saying something, considering that Schurz is quite vertical in design (he stands nine feet tall), his left foot juts a mite forward, and his portly girth, disguised by a thick and definitive bronze coat and cape, demands attention. To look over the promontory where Schurz is propped, you must walk up three stone steps to get an unoccluded view. But no matter what building your eyes settle upon, Schurz will remain in dogged peripheral vision. Maybe pedestrians are vexed by Schurz’s hatless and Germanic form — for what it’s worth, he does politely hold his hat in his right hand — invading Harlem’s horizontal vista, which, like every Manhattan neighborhood, is now undergoing terminal gentrification. Perhaps to live in New York, the New Yorker cannot look upon the past, but must continue contending with the swift-paced momentum of the present. And if that means accepting glass monstrosities in lieu of charming brick buildings without remonstrance, so be it. But this willful acceptance also extends to figures like Schurz, who reminds us that there was indeed a New York before the present one.

The Schurz statue is unsullied by the verdigris now eating away at another of Bitter’s sculptures — that of Franz Sigel residing on West 106th Street and Riverside, currently earmarked for renovation. Schurz and Sigel both have parks named after them. (Karl Bitter, alas, does not. New York reserves its laurels for its heros, not the artists who render the legacy.)

We know that Schurz was a military man, a political reformer, and a journalist. He spent the majority of his life outside of New York, served as Secretary of the Interior for President Rutherford Hayes, moving to the city in 1881, ostensibly to retire. But a man of his insurmountable energies could not settle down. He had twenty-five years left in his life to make a name. And he did. Starting with his immediate rise to editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post in 1883 and followed by becoming one of the Mugwumps supporting Grover Cleveland the following year. He spoke out against Tammany Hall, drawing enthusiasm for his remarks even as a fife and drum corps passed by.

The first fact that, in our efforts for good government, stares us in the face is the existence of an organization — Tammany Hall — whose very purpose it is to give the city the worst government it dares, to the end of making money out of it. And this organization has been for years, and is now, in full possession of the municipal power.

schurzreal.gifSchurz spoke these words as two friends of his were the top mayoral candidates. He would not let friendships get in the way of principle. Likewise, he did not think much of William Jennings Bryan and also campaigned against him.

As the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation is proud to announce, he was an adopted New Yorker and was often unpredictable with his political choices. Schurz was gleefully antagonistic, and on September 22, 1900, he resigned his Presidencies of the National Civil Service Reform League and the Civil Service Reform Association of New York, observing, “I frankly confess that on account of my position of antagonism to other policies of the Administration, the performance of my part of that duty is especially unwelcome to me.” But he could not quite give this ghost up and was elected the following year as President of the Civil Service Reform Association.

When Schurz was buried in Sleepy Hollow in May 1906, he had an audience both rich and poor. Andrew Carnegie and Joseph H. Choate stood beneath one umbrella. The Times described Schurz as “a publicist and patriot.” The funeral was attended only by relatives and close friends, but policemen had to stop many who hoped to get a view of Schurz’s coffin. It was Choate who ensured that the statue now standing in Morningside Park was completed.

Schurz had a reformist ebullience scarcely seen in the present political age. We now seem to settle for charisma and monoglot messages about hope. Those who do stand out are censored or declared too lunatic for the political arena. This stands in sharp contrast to the words Choate unfurled during the statue’s unveiling, “As a leader he did what is so seldom seen and yet so necessary in the upholding of the best in public life. He put expediency above personal and party advantage. He never allowed party to lead him in the wrong direction, and for years he stood alone, an independent figure in party and public life.”

At the pedestal before Schurz’s form are the words: CARL SCHURZ Defender of Liberty and Friend of Human Right.


Today, who knows Schurz’s name outside of hard-core history buffs, fans of The Who, and curiosity seekers? Not long ago, when I visited Schurz’s statue, I observed a broken bottle of Gilbey’s upon the faded ornamental brick. The bottle had apparently been thrown at Schurz, and the glass shards glistened more resolutely than the brick. While the bottle, in all likelihood, had been hurled by a cavalier youth, I couldn’t help but contemplate whether there was a rejection of Schurz’s spirit in the air. History was apparently the work of others. But it seemed to me that it was the other way around.

Interview with Jami Attenberg

(Note: The full interview excerpted here can now be listened to as the 172nd installment of The Bat Segundo Show)

For my first 2008 interview, I met up with writer Jami Attenberg at her Williamsburg apartment. During our conversation, Attenberg’s very friendly and intelligent cat, Cracker, proceeded to climb upon my leg and claw at the wires. He then deposited his slinky corporeal mass upon my lap and, later, climbed atop the table and deliberately occluded my notes. I was then forced to wing a portion of the interview. But the cat’s daring locative intervention proved pertinent to the conversation at hand.

Attenberg’s second novel, The Kept Man, is as much about a woman’s relationship with topographical territory as it is about a passive thirtysomething drifting on the dregs of her husband’s legacy. To my mind, the two themes were linked. And during the course of the interview, I asked Attenberg about the connections between her protagonist, Jarvis Miller, and the neighborhood she inhabited. (The full interview will appear in a future installment of The Bat Segundo Show.)

attenberg.jpgCorrespondent: I’m wondering also about the Terri Schiavo narrative, because it does play in more later in the book than in the beginning of the book. Did you know immediately that there was this almost quasi-allegorical feel to that? Or did it start with the fact that you had Martin Miller in this coma?

Attenberg: It started with Martin being in a coma. I knew that. Actually, the first chapter that I wrote in the book was about the donut girls at one point.

Correspondent: Oh, interesting.

Attenberg: That was the first thing. Because I wanted to write a little bit about the art world. I knew that. And then I knew that there was this man who was in a coma. I wanted to do that. But I didn’t know how it was going to end. I’ve said this before, but when you have a guy in a coma, you set the stakes really high like that. There’s only three ways that it can possibly end, which is that he dies, or he wakes up, or somebody kills him. Or he just keeps floating along, I suppose. But that wouldn’t be a very good ending to a book now, would it? So I didn’t know about the more political stuff until I got to the end of the book. I don’t want to give away the ending though.

Correspondent: No, no, no. We’re not.

Attenberg: But I really have no idea when I start writing a book how it’s going to end at all.

Correspondent: So you actually had sort of a mish-mash here. You jumped from Point A to Point 6 to Point Z, etcetera, throughout the course of writing these novels? And that’s how you sort of stumble upon the narrative?

Attenberg: I mean, the first two books I wrote — this is the second book — I wrote in about a year. So everything, like I said, it’s very organic. I just sort of making up things around me and putting them into a book. Eventually, when you get to the end, you filter out what worked and what didn’t work.

donuts.jpgCorrespondent: Okay, well, if Davis and the donut girls was one of the key starting points, was this an imagined experience? Or was this drawn from anything specific that you observed? Because I am certainly not familiar with this phenomenon. (laughs)

Attenberg: With donut girls?

Correspondent: Yeah, yeah.

Attenberg: Well, you have to live in this neighborhood. It’s more north side. We’re on the south side right now. And we’re doing this interview in my apartment. And on the south side, it’s very Hassidic and Puerto Rican and Dominican, and then when you head towards more of the north side, it’s Greenpoint. And then it’s really Polish over there. So you notice the Polish girls that are out there. And some people are really fascinated and obsessed with beautiful young woman.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Attenberg: And they’re recent immigrants. And they’re definitely a force in the population.

Correspondent: Well, I’m wondering though. Donut shops in particular. It seemed…

Attenberg: There is a donut shop! In Greenpoint. On Manhattan Avenue. And it just stuck in my brain. I think I went there after seeing a rock show. So it’s sort of like that donut shop. And it just sort of stuck in my head. And I wanted to write about it.

Correspondent: Did you observe any specific pickup artists there?

Attenberg: No. I don’t even know if people really do pick them up. It was just in my imagination that they did.

Correspondent: Interesting. Or even someone constantly buying clothes and this whole modeling thing.

Attenberg: Right.

Correspondent: The whole thing escalating into something else. This was the imagined part.

Attenberg: But that’s no different from Jarvis wanting to be taken care of. Or these men wanting to be taken care of. That there are these people in the world who look to other people to sponsor them or meet their needs. But they provide something in return. I think I missed the point that I wanted to make, which was that, after I had all these ideas about these characters and plot points, I came across the idea of being kept or held back. Once I realized that that was going to be the title of the book and that was a major theme, then it was really to go back to move forward and make sure that every character has something that’s holding them back or keeping them into their life. That’s where it comes from.

nabokov.jpgCorrespondent: Going back to this issue of topography as a launching point, it’s reminiscent to me of Nabokov’s rule, where he basically said that he could not write a novel until he actually had a particular location. Likewise, in addition to this inspirational momentum, I wanted to first of all find out if this was a factor for you in terms of writing this. And it also leads into another question about Jarvis’s perspective, where she’s generally taking a small item and putting it into a larger neighborhood. For example, there’s a pack of cigarettes she observes. And she’s very clear in the way that she describes it as coming from a particular deli and how it was actually purchased and the like. So I wanted to ask you about this phenomenon. Was this a way for you to generate momentum in your book? You needed to get the lay of the land before the lay of the characters?

Attenberg: I’ve lived here for five years. And I’ve lived in New York for ten years. So, for me, it’s not conscious in any sort of way. I wanted to write about the neighborhood that I lived in. And I take a lot of pictures. I go out a lot to document. And I have a blog. So I have been writing about the neighborhood a lot. So, for me, it’s just a natural — I don’t know. It’s not like — it’s not a conscious thing. I would love to take credit for it being some sort of conscious, deliberate act on my part. I just write about the world around me. But I did feel like, at that moment I was writing the book, that there was so much going on in Williamsburg. I mean, this is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Thematically, it did feel perfect for Jarvis. Because Jarvis needs to break out of something in Williamsburg. And Williamsburg was very quietly becoming something. Then all of a sudden, it burst out and there was all this development. And people were really concerned with its development. And I think people in this book suddenly become very concerned with Martin Miller’s life as well.

Correspondent: Well, concerning this gentrification, you have Jarvis fleeing — almost like the Trail of Tears — across the river. And yet, she is very taken with, for example, bagel shops. The laundromat as a kind of social nexus. As well as finding comforts in the very locations that she often despises. So I’m wondering when did you know that this was coming up. Did this come about from knowing the neighborhood or as an extension of Jarvis’s consciousness?

Attenberg: I think that, if you’re going to write a true New York story, you have to write about all of these little shops and stores. We don’t know our neighbors a lot of the time. Our friends tend to live really far away from us. Or it’s not like you can walk down the street and knock on someone’s door and see them. So it becomes really crucial where you have these relationships with a person at your bodega, with a laundromat. It’s just an interesting community. And in Williamsburg, where there’s so many different kinds of people here, and there’s this big influx of young people who really like to engage, it just seems really natural. I don’t know. That’s just my version.

Correspondent: So it sounds like it very much is a topographical concentration.

Attenberg: But she’s not me. But it’s just how someone like her would. You know, I certainly identify with her. I don’t think that I’ve ever done anything that she’s done before. And I’ve certainly never had anyone support me.

* * *

For related conversations, see Jami Attenberg in conversation with Kate Christensen and Ryan Walsh interviewing Attenberg at Largehearted Boy.

Rep. Randy Forbes: Revisionist Historian

House Resolution 888 (presumably 666 was unavailable) aims to celebrate and glorify a little bit of that ol’ time religion in a very big way. The resolution, introduced by Rep. Randy Forbes of Virginia and signed on and unquestioned by 31 co-sponsors, wishes to “rejec[t], in the strongest possible terms, any effort to remove, obscure or purposely omit such history from our Nation’s public buildings and educational resources.” It also wishes to set up an “American Religious History Week” each year “for the appreciation of and education on America’s history of religious faith,” although the resolution’s litanies are curiously Judeo-Christian in priority. (Where other civilized nations remain capable of walking and chewing bubble gum on this topic, it appears that, when it comes to religion, the United States can only concentrate on one religion at a time. There was no greater example of this deficiency in national character than last Sunday’s “Islam Issue” of the New York Times Book Review.)

bushreligion.jpgI’m fine with the appreciation and education of American history. I’m not so fine on politicians seeing deities and religious influence in every corner and demanding that the country be “educated” about it. In examining Forbes’s endless “Whereases,” I’ve found more than a few historical humdingers and at least one egregious prevarication.

Whereas the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed this self-evident fact in a unanimous ruling declaring `This is a religious people … From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation’;

The specific case being quoted here is the 1892 case, Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (143 U.S. 457). But it was Justice David Josiah Brewer who stated this in the opinion, which was not based upon upholding religion, but concerned whether an Act “to prohibit the importation and migration of foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor in the United States” applied between an alien and a religious society. And while Brewer’s words do regrettably speak for the Supreme Court, it is highly disingenuous to suggest that the ruling, which dwelt upon an entirely separate decision, had to do explicitly with religion.

Whereas political scientists have documented that the most frequently-cited source in the political period known as The Founding Era was the Bible;

Since the bill fails to cite any specific political scientists, I must conclude that they are referring to the claims made by two University of Houston researchers, where it was demonstrated that of the purported 94% of all Founding Father Biblical citations (or conclusions based on the Bible), 60% of these citations were from the latter and the sources were unclear. Much, it would seem, as Forbes prefers to conjure up the ghosts of “political scientists” as he goes along.

Whereas the first act of America’s first Congress in 1774 was to ask a minister to open with prayer and to lead Congress in the reading of 4 chapters of the Bible;

If we are presumably talking about the First Continental Congress who met at Carpenter’s Hall starting on September 5, 1774, is this truly “America’s first Congress?” The First Continental Congress met up two years before the Declaration of Independence was agreed upon, thus technically making it more of a British colonial congress (or a response to oppressive conditions) rather than a United States congress proper.

Whereas Congress regularly attended church and Divine service together en masse;

How do outside religious activities pertain to what Congress does within its halls? If Congress attends a stag party en masse, we don’t ask for a “Scotch and Hookers History Week?” (Or since we’re talking about Rep. Forbes, why not an “Abramoff Corruption History Week?”)

Whereas upon approving the Declaration of Independence, John Adams declared that the Fourth of July `ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty’;

johnadams.JPGWell now, let’s take a look at that letter Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on July 2, 1776. First off, Adams was tickled pink that the Continental Congress had that very day unanimously approved the Declaration of Independence. Which is no different from yelling “Holy shit!” when some particularly great news has poured into one’s ears. The fecal matter in question is not necessarily holy, but the speaker is certainly excited. Nevertheless, here’s the full paragraph that Adams wrote:

But the day is past. The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this country to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.

Clearly, deities weren’t the only thing on Adams’s mind. This was an excitable moment in which Adams was rattling off many of the ideas to his wife in Braintree. Adams was lonely in Philly, a bit busy contemplating nothing less a major revolution (inarguably a political achievement far more profound than anything Forbes has planned in his life). So I think, under the circumstances, he should probably be cut some slack. Besides, what of these other ideas that Adams had in mind? What of “guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations?” It’s a pity that the only people who seem to get together to educate themselves on these topics are libertarians.

Whereas 4 days after approving the Declaration, the Liberty Bell was rung;

Whereas the Liberty Bell was named for the Biblical inscription from Leviticus 25:10 emblazoned around it: `Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof’;

To take these two items at once, while it is true that the Liberty Bell’s inscription was taken from Leviticus 25:10, the Bell was commissioned not to celebrate religion, but to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges. Penn was a big God-loving man himself, but he, nevertheless, had this forward-thinking idea:

That no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the Civil Government, shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or their Person or Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or super any other Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.

Well, gee, that sounds like a guy who was pretty hands-off when it came to enforced church going. Funny. When you start examining the specific reasons why certain symbols were established, the origins appear decidedly more tolerant than Bible-thumping pettifoggers like Forbes concocting 21st century malarkey.

Whereas in 1777, Congress, facing a National shortage of `Bibles for our schools, and families, and for the public worship of God in our churches,’ announced that they `desired to have a Bible printed under their care & by their encouragement’ and therefore ordered 20,000 copies of the Bible to be imported `into the different ports of the States of the Union’;

The Daily Kos would prefer to declare this a lie without bothering to look this up. And that’s a very bad precedent for any thinking individual. The specific claim was promulgated in William Joseph Federer’s America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations (p. 146, if you can access it through Google Books). Federer claimed that, on September 11, 1777, the Chaplain of Congress, Patrick Allison, brought this matter to Congress’s attention and that the Committee of Commerce was ordered to import 20,000 copies of the Bible from Holland. Except that, according to the Library of Congress, this did indeed happen.

randyforbes.jpgThe bullshit actually comes from Forbes, who puts phrases into Rev. Allison’s mouth that, as we can see and unless I can be proven wrong, simply don’t exist on the official record available to the public. Allison got Congress to move the Bibles not because Congress “desired to have a Bible printed under their care & by their encouragement,” but because, as the record states:

The committee appointed to consider the memorial of the Rev. Dr. Allison and others, report, “That they have conferred fully with the printers, &c. in this city,and are of opinion, that the proper types for printing the Bible are not to be had in this country, and that the paper cannot be procured, but with such difficulties and subject to such casualties, as render any dependence on it altogether improper: that to import types for the purpose of setting up an entire edition of the bible, and to strike off 30,000 copies, with paper, binding, &c. will cost £10,272 10, which must be advanced by Congress, to be reimbursed by the sale of the books: (Emphasis added)

It was a general paper shortage that caused the Rev. Dr. Allison and others to figure out how books in general could be printed under the circumstances.

* * *

I’ve Googled around after typing all this, and discovered that Chris Rodda has also done some debunking.

Rep. Forbes’s bill is clearly that of a man quite willing to twist history to serve his religious purposes. It seems that Randy Forbes either does not know his history or he wishes to malign it by not citing events and context properly. On this basis alone, the bill should be rejected by any thinking representative. And if it is not, if a few Democratic cowards actually vote for this flummery because they fear that their constituency will view them as not “religious” enough, then it is time for them to be shamed. Just as that corporate buffoon Hillary Clinton got her ass handed to her in Iowa. The American people are not nearly so foolish.

Mothlight and the WGA Strike


America’s troubled soul snaked around two building corners on a late Monday afternoon. It read books. It offered quizzical pikers when WGA strikers handed out pink papers containing the phone numbers and emails of eight Viacom head honchos. It took pictures of the fourteen placard-holders as if on holiday. But there were no visible signs that it was registering the hypocrisy of standing in line for a show that was allegedly progressive (and pro-union) in tone as strikers quietly expressed their rights with signs. Maybe the strikers were performance artists or buskers who had escaped the subway. I kept vigorous watch, hoping that a few audience members would feel disgusted and walk away, only to be readily replaced by those in the standby line. But they held onto their tickets like hard-won candy.


The eager audiences waiting to see Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert lob a few unscripted bons mot about the state of politics remained uninvolved. They were there to be entertained. A bald man in his early forties disseminated circulars. He told me that the strike had been a success.

“Is it?” I asked. “These people are still standing in line.”

He didn’t give me his name and he declined to be interviewed at length. But we did talk for a few minutes.

I was interested in this man, because I had seen him trying to quietly persuade people in the Daily Show standby line, who appeared to take these flyers more readily than those who had tickets. One young man told him, “If we’re close in any way to the front, we’ll do what we can.” “Do what we can.” It essentially amounts to nothing.

To be fair, The Daily Show admitted its audiences at the pre-determined time, permitting its audience to see the WGA strike. The Colbert Report, by contrast, shuttled in their audiences well before the 5:00 PM start time so that the strikers would not be seen or, at least, endured as infrequently as possible. “What a mess!” proclaimed a plump woman standing protectively near the Colbert Report doors. She complained that there had been no progress in two months. The strikers were gnats to be swatted away on a wintry day.


With the exception of a funny interviewer from Associated Press TV who quipped to one Colbert Report audience member, “Enjoy the show,” shortly after challenging his need to be entertained, the media was, for the most part, out to lunch. A New York Post reporter spent most of her time talking on the phone. “Sorry, I’m so spacey!” she said as she talked with WGAe President Michael Winship. The outlets who came included CNN, NY1, and me — if I am indeed an outlet.

“It’s only ten after four?” bitched one reporter. “I thought I’d been here for a day. Jesus.”

He had arrived only fifteen minutes before.

I was extremely saddened to see that nobody waiting in line really cared. There was no reaction from these audience members. No acts of dissent. The pink flyers were folded inside newspapers, deposited on the sidewalk like stray trash. Just as American audiences had chosen Leno over Letterman, despite Letterman busting his hump to cut a separate agreement with the Guild, the audience here opted for entertainment over integrity.


The strikers silently holding up placards circled up and down the queue, appearing to be mostly comprised of WGA members from other productions. (One writer I talked to was from All My Children. There’s a podcast interview below.) If there was a Daily Show writer in the bunch, the writer did not announce himself. I asked a few strikers if there was anyone here from The Daily Show and they told me they did not know. One gentleman declined to answer. Perhaps answering involved a confession of failure.

Since the bald flyer man refused an interview with me, I approached the WGAe publicist Sherry Goldman, asking if I could interview her. She wouldn’t talk to me on tape, snapped at me, and turned briskly away to answer her cell. I had seen her talking in front of a camera. I approached her again and said, “Excuse me. You’ll talk to CNN, but you won’t talk with me?” She then very kindly led me to WGAe President Michael Winship. I also talked with All My Children writer Kate Hall. You can listen to the podcasts below.


Winship: And let me say that all of these guys have been very supportive of the strike thus far and that we are not protesting them as people. They’ve been great. They’ve been supportive of the strike. They’ve been supportive of their writing staffs. But their companies — the big companies, the media conglomerates, the penny-pinching producers if you will — will not allow them back on the air because they won’t bargain a fair and respectful contract.

Correspondent: Now do you consider Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to be hyphenates. Are they actually, by going back to work, kind of going against the nature of the strike here?

Winship: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are both members of the Writers Guild of America. They have both been given copies of the strike rules. They know the kinds of work that they’re not allowed to do. And they know that there are penalties that can take place if they, in fact, perform what we consider struck work.

Correspondent: But if The Daily Show were to show a clip in advance, if they were to design it in advance and have Jon Stewart comment on it, would that constitute an act of writing in your eyes or…?

Winship: If Jon is spontaneously ad-libbing and responding to a clip that’s on the air, we don’t consider that struck work.

Correspondent: What would you consider out of the boundaries of what he can do today?

Winship: Well, in terms of things that he can and cannot do, one of the things that he could not do is to write a monologue in advance or go on the air with material that appear on cue cards or a teleprompter.

Correspondent: Yeah. Gotcha. But anything else pretty much? Ad-libbing, he’s fine then.

Winship: Well, the rules are pretty specific about things that he can and cannot do. He cannot write questions in advance for interviews, for example. He cannot write the monologues, as I said. He cannot write any kind of sketch material for the show.

Correspondent: But let’s say that there’s a guest who appears, who has like a book or something like that. He’s going to have to read it in advance. Does that constitute writing or preparation?

Winship: I don’t think reading constitutes writing. If he was writing down his questions in advance and so forth, that would struck work. But if he has a guest on the air whose book he has read and he asks questions off the top of his head, that is not struck work.

I was fascinated by Winship’s criteria about what “writing” entails. One cannot prepare a show entirely in one’s head. There must be the need to write words down. And nearly all of Jon Stewart’s clips feature those trusty blue pieces of paper. Or are these sheets mere props?

As it turned out, the January 7, 2008 episode of The Daily Show did indeed have a guest: conflict resolution specialist Ronald Seeber, presumably a friendly nod to the WGA strike. But did Stewart take notes before this interview? Did Stewart prepare his questions in advance? And if he did, is there any real way for the WGA to enforce this?


It’s also important to observe the distinction put forth by WGA. In the WGA’s eyes, Jon Stewart is not the enemy. Viacom is.

From my interview with Kate Hall:

Hall: We’re not striking The Daily Show or Jon Stewart. I think everybody here for the most part — I can’t speak for them, but I would imagine that they’re all big fans of his and the show. So we support him. We just won’t support Viacom’s decision to put him back on the air without the writers.


But if the WGA wasn’t striking The Daily Show, what were they doing in front of The Daily Show building? Is not Viacom providing the resources to run The Daily Show? And is not Jon Stewart, in going back to work, complicit in allowing Viacom to continue running The Daily Show? It seems to me that he gets off on a technicality.

But let’s take a look at the strike rules, as Mr. Winship suggested.

Since Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are hyphenates, Rule 12 applies to them:

The Guild strongly believes that no member should cross a WGA picket line or enter the premises of a struck company for any purpose. Under applicable law, however, the Guild may not discipline a hyphenate for performing non-writing services. This legal restriction only extends to services that are clearly not writing services. (Emphasis in original.)

If Stewart or Colbert write so much as one word on a sheet of paper, either before the show, during the show, or after the show, then they are in violation of the agreement.

It is impossible to imagine either The Daily Show or The Colbert Report succeeding in any way without writers or a scrap of paper.

However things ended up, the moths were there, attracted to the light. Unconcerned with who provided the electricity.

(Many thanks to Sarah Weinman for assisting in this report.)

Pommes Frites

It was an unwonted warm afternoon in January when my corpus decided that it required protein. My culinary id had screamed for the wrong kind of protein, the messy kind that requires many napkins. We settled ourselves inside a rectilinear restaurant in Fort Greene. I procured a burger, along with a large gantry-like basket of fries that towered over my small glass of RC Cola. I was hungry and had eaten without wisdom that day, but there were more potato slivers here than even the most ravenous soul could devour. The basket was an apparent bargain for three bucks, but ultimately a remarkable waste. Having been instructed as a young boy to “clean my plate” and having maintained this half-hearted economic virtue over the years, I considered all the fries that this restaurant, like many others, had willfully wasted on a daily basis.

pf.jpgDays before at a French bistro, there had been an elliptical receptacle of fries (or, to be specific, pommes frites, lightly seasoned with salt and fresh parsley). A bonus. An unanticipated side dish, really. We masticated on ten out of the perhaps ninety thin rectangular wedges jutting upward like baked and irregular flowers. But the waiter had not waited to take them away. Indeed, he had not given us the choice of picking away at more fries or a moment of silence in which we could grant them the eulogies they clearly deserved. Perhaps he wanted this table cleared so that another set of customers could use it.

More fried casualties. If someone possessed the foresight to construct a potato cemetery for all these fallen soldiers, there would surely be ten Vietnam Memorials for one day in Manhattan restaurants alone. And yet over three decades of existence, I had never thought to name any of the fries. I had never eaten a French fry and said to it, “Hey, Joe, you’re about to be eaten!” or “Phyllis, nice curves! How did you get away with that daring French fry figure? I hope you don’t have body image problems. Here, let me straighten you out with my bicuspids!”

I speculated to my dining partner that it hadn’t always been like this. There must have been a time in culinary history in which one ordered a burger and there were about five steak fries on the side. A reasonable portion that was neither wasteful nor encouraged sloth on the part of the diner. But at some point during the twentieth century, there may very well have been a collusion between the fries suppliers and the restaurant managers. Perhaps it was not economically sound to throw five mere steak fries into a fryer. From an economic standpoint, it was better to use as much of the fryer’s cooking juice at one time instead of spoiling the oil with small orders. Plus, there was likely a large bag of fries that had to be used, along with many other large bags that had been included in the bulk box purchase. And all the fries had to be used before the expiration date.

Additionally, if the supplier was going to deliver frozen food, expending gas and labor to ship many boxes to many restaurants, then it really needed to be worth his while. The restaurant manager was forced to order too many fries and then had to find a way to move fries. And a dainty portion that came with a meal would result in a surfeit of fries. If, however, the restaurant manager could sucker the customer into paying two or three bucks to order too many fries as a side dish, the restaurant manager could not only move the fries rapidly, but he could also make a large return and ensure that all of his fries would be cooked.

But this does not discount the fact that too many fries are wasted. Now I’m not a religious man, and, as such, I don’t believe in life after death. So I must presume that these glorious fries wither their flaxen luster away, going nowhere in particular and remaining unremembered by anyone save Mama and Papa Spud, both of whom would enact a Charles Bronson-style death wish against ape-descended bipedal life forms if they had minds, mouths, and, most importantly, an ability to use a Luger pistol.

And how does one reuse these abandoned fries? Because of their terrible nutrition value, they cannot be recirculated among the less fortunate with any ethical grounding. They grow cold too quickly. They lose their oily taste if they are microwaved. They cannot be mashed up into a delightful potato concoction because the majority of the fry is a crisp affair and mushiness has been compromised.

Thus, for the moment, suppliers and restaurant managers turn a profit on a product that is readily wasted. And the French have the temerity to call these pommes frites! (The British had gone further with the benign-sounding “fish and chips,” which resulted in a tasty but rather unhealthy fried concoction and more waste.)

I now feel tremendously guilty for having eaten so many fries over the years, because I have never been able to entirely finish a serving. From a dollars-to-food perspective, I am likely losing more money with fries than I am with other dishes.

The only ethical solution here is to stop eating fries or to insist to the person who serves me that I really don’t need that many of them. But even if I were to carry out the latter, more fries would be wasted and led to that black plastic coffin within the garbage can.

There are clearly no winners here in the fries scenario except those who are making the money. And I harbor a not-so-small revolutionary fantasy in which diners rise up, boycott restaurants, and demand smaller portions of fries. It seems only fair to the maligned fries, who are being thrown away every day by the thousands, and this would probably help in a small way to combat the national health problem.

Filthy Habits: An Introduction

“Habits in writing as in life are only useful if they are broken as soon as they cease to be advantageous.” — W. Somerset Maugham

Welcome to Filthy Habits (working title, possibly subject to change), which isn’t really a blog and isn’t really a online magazine, and may not even be about literature all the time. But it does reflect the inevitable continuation of this site.

logo.gifWhat you will find here are long-form entries on a wide range of topics: some involving strange journalism, some involving cultural commentary, some involving personal experience, and some involving bizarre satirical exercises. Eventually, the plan here is to offer one new story each day, five days a week. I’ll still be appearing here on a regular basis, writing at least two to three posts a week (and considerably more during the opening weeks). But the difference this time is that this website will also be a place for other writers to offer unusual and idiosyncratic perspectives. This is a place that will retain its whimsical iconoclasm, but the new emphasis involves a more thoughtful approach. We also have editors on board, all kind enough to volunteer their time, who will be helping to shape the pieces that will appear here. Levi Asher, Eric Rosenfield, and Sarah Weinman represent this Grand Army of Associates. (And if you’re interested in writing something here, feel free to drop me a line.)

As things move forward, we’re hoping to offer more than just a site. We’ve been kicking around the idea of a monthly reading series, which would involve this site’s contributors bellowing their work in front of a crowd and maybe carrying forth a discussion on a particular piece in front of an audience. And if you have any ideas, by all means, don’t hesitate to let me know.

The Bat Segundo Show will continue. But in addition to authors, I’m hoping to expand the podcast’s emphasis to other cultural figures who may not be explicitly literary. The radio drama project is still alive, as is the novel I’m working on. (In fact, I have also started writing a bizarre noir tale that is either a novella or a novel.) Written depositories for these ancillary projects will eventually find their way to these pages.

What you won’t find here anymore are link roundups, YouTube links (unless pertinent to a piece), and one sentence throwaway posts. I’m not really sorry about abdicating these elements. There are plenty of other places where you can find that sort of thing.

I’ve made these changes for several reasons:

(1) For a long time, one of my goals for this site was to offer a place where those who are denied or overlooked by the mainstream media could receive the kind of encouragement and editing that they deserve.

(2) The litblog, if this website can still be categorized as one, is here to stay. Thus, the time has come for litbloggers to do more than provide just links and commentary, and to devote their attentions to more original content. As newspaper book review sections are cut and there are less conduits for literature, we have a responsibility to do better and, where necessary, take up the slack.

(3) As my freelancing responsibilities have expanded, I wanted to ensure that I could carry on writing for this website without burning out. This is not to suggest that you’ll be getting day-old leftovers here. I plan to tackle my daily duties with the same gusto as before. But I also required any work committed here to be a tad more ambitious.

I have, for the moment, folded all of the Reluctant pages into this site, which you can revisit through the archives.

This remains very much an intuitive and instinctive experiment: one that I intend to give at least six months. But I do hope you’ll join us for the ride. And thanks, as always, for reading.