Shadow and Act (Modern Library Nonfiction #91)

(This is the tenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Power Broker.)

mlnf91When I first made my bold belly flop into the crisp waters of Ralph Ellison’s deep pool earlier this year, I felt instantly dismayed that it would be a good decade before I could perform thoughtful freestyle in response to his masterpiece Invisible Man (ML Fiction #19). As far as I’m concerned, that novel’s vivid imagery, beginning with its fierce and intensely revealing Battle Royale scene and culminating in its harrowing entrapment of the unnamed narrator, stands toe-to-toe with Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March as one of the most compelling panoramas of mid-20th century American life ever put to print, albeit one presented through a more hyperreal lens.

But many of today’s leading writers, ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Jacqueline Woodson, have looked more to James Baldwin as their truth-telling cicerone, that fearless sage whose indisputably hypnotic energy was abundant enough to help any contemporary humanist grapple with the nightmarish realities that America continues to sweep under its bright plush neoliberal rug. At a cursory glance, largely because Ellison’s emphasis was more on culture than overt politics, it’s easy to see Ellison as a complacent “Maybe I’m Amazed” to Baldwin’s gritty “Cold Turkey,” especially when one considers the risk-averse conservatism which led to Ellison being attacked as an Uncle Tom during a 1968 panel at Grinnell College along with his selfish refusal to help emerging African-American authors after his success. But according to biographer Arnold Rampersad, Baldwin believed Ralph Ellison to be the angriest person he knew. And if one dives into Ellison’s actual words, Shadow and Act is an essential volume, which includes one of the most thrilling Molotov cocktails ever pitched into the face of a clueless literary critic, that is often just as potent and as lapel-grabbing as Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

For it would seem that while Negroes have been undergoing a process of “Americanization” from a time preceding this birth of this nation — including the fusing of their blood lines with other non-African strains, there has been a stubborn confusion as to their American identity. Somehow it was assumed that the Negroes, of all the diverse American peoples, would remain unaffected by the climate, the weather, the political circumstances — from which not even slaves were exempt — the social structures, the national manners, the modes of production and the tides of the market, the national ideals, the conflicts of values, the rising and falling of national morale, or the complex give and take of acculturalization which was undergone by all others who found their existence within the American democracy.

This passage, taken from an Ellison essay on Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, is not altogether different from Baldwin’s view of America as “a paranoid color wheel” in The Evidence of Things Not Seen, where Baldwin posited that a retreat into the bigoted mystique of Southern pride represented the ultimate denial of “Americanization” and thus African-American identity. Yet the common experiences that cut across racial lines, recently investigated with comic perspicacity on a “Black Jeopardy” Saturday Night Live sketch, may very well be a humanizing force to counter the despicable hate and madness that inspires uneducated white males to desecrate a Mississippi black church or a vicious demagogue to call one of his supporters “a thug” for having the temerity to ask him to be more respectful and inclusive.

Ellison, however, was too smart and too wide of a reader to confine these sins of dehumanization to their obvious targets. Like Baldwin and Coates and Richard Wright, Ellison looked to France for answers and, while never actually residing there, he certainly counted André Malraux and Paul Valéry among his hard influences. In writing about Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Ellison wisely singled out critics who failed to consider the full extent of African-American humanity even as they simultaneously demanded an on-the-nose and unambiguous “explanation” of who Wright was. (And it’s worth noting that Ellison himself, who was given his first professional writing gig by Wright, was also just as critical of Wright’s ideological propositions as Baldwin.) Ellison described how “the prevailing mood of American criticism has so thoroughly excluded the Negro that it fails to recognize some of the most basic tenets of Western democratic thought when encountering them in a black skin” and deservedly excoriated whites for seeing Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson merely as the ne plus ultra of African-American artistic innovation rather than the beginning of a great movement.

shriversombreroAt issue, in Ellison’s time and today, is the degree to which any individual voice is allowed to express himself. And Ellison rightly resented any force that would stifle this, whether it be the lingering dregs of Southern slavery telling the African-American how he must act or who he must be in telling his story as well as the myopic critics who would gainsay any voice by way of their boxlike assumptions about other Americans. One sees this unthinking lurch towards authoritarianism today with such white supremacists as Jonathan Franzen, Lionel Shriver, and the many Brooklyn novelists who, despite setting their works in gentrified neighborhoods still prominently populated by African-Americans, fail to include, much less humanize, black people who still live there.

“White supremacist” may seem like a harshly provocative label for any bumbling white writer who lacks the democratic bonhomie to leave the house and talk with other people and consider that those who do not share his skin color may indeed share more common experience than presumed. But if these writers are going to boast about how their narratives allegedly tell the truth about America while refusing to accept challenge for their gaping holes and denying the complexity of vital people who make up this great nation, then it seems apposite to bring a loaded gun to a knife fight. If we accept Ellison’s view of race as “an irrational sea in which Americans flounder like convoyed ships in a gale,” then it is clear that these egotistical, self-appointed seers are buckling on damaged vessels hewing to shambling sea routes mapped out by blustering navigators basking in white privilege, hitting murky ports festooned with ancient barnacles that they adamantly refuse to remove.

Franzen, despite growing up in a city in which half the population is African-American, recently told Slate‘s Isaac Chotiner that he could not countenance writing about other races because he has not loved them or gone out of his way to know them and thus excludes non-white characters from his massive and increasingly mediocre novels. Shriver wrote a novel, The Mandibles, in which the only black characters are (1) Leulla, bound to a chair and walked with a leash, and (2) Selma, who speaks in a racist Mammy patois (“I love the pitcher of all them rich folk having to cough they big piles of gold”). She then had the effrontery to deliver a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival arguing for the right to “try on other people’s hats,” failing to understand that creating dimensional characters involves a great deal more than playing dress-up at the country club. She quoted from a Margot Kaminski review of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee that offered the perfectly reasonable consideration, one that doesn’t deny an author’s right to cross boundaries, that an author may wish to take “special care…with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell.” Such forethought clearly means constructing an identity that is more human rather than crassly archetypal, an eminently pragmatic consideration on how any work of contemporary art should probably reflect the many identities that make up our world. But for Shriver, a character should be manipulated at an author’s whim, even if her creative vagaries represent an impoverishment of imagination. For Shriver, inserting another nonwhite, non-heteronormative character into The Mandibles represented “issues that might distract from my central subject moment of apocalyptic economics.” Which brings us back to Ellison’s question of “Americanization” and how “the diverse American peoples” are indeed regularly affected by the decisions of those who uphold the status quo, whether overtly or covertly.

Writer Maxine Benba-Clarke bravely confronted Shriver with the full monty of this dismissive racism and Shriver responded, “When I come to your country. I expect. To be treated. With hospitality.” And with that vile and shrill answer, devoid of humanity and humility, Shriver exposed the upright incomprehension of her position, stepping from behind the arras as a kind of literary Jan Smuts for the 21st century.1

If this current state of affairs represents a bristling example of Giambattista Vico’s corsi e ricorsi, and I believe it does, then Ellison’s essay, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” astutely demonstrates how this cultural amaurosis went down before, with 20th century authors willfully misreading Mark Twain, failing to see that Huck’s release of Jim represented a moment that not only involved recognizing Jim as a human being, but admitting “the evil implicit in his ’emancipation'” as well as Twain accepting “his personal responsibility in the condition of society.” With great creative power comes great creative responsibility. Ellison points to Ernest Hemingway scouring The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn merely for its technical accomplishments rather than this moral candor and how William Faulkner, despite being “the greatest artist the South has produced,” may not be have been quite the all-encompassing oracle, given that The Unvanquished‘s Ringo is, despite his loyalty, devoid of humanity. In another essay on Stephen Crane, Ellison reaffirms that great art involves “the cost of moral perception, of achieving an informed sense of life, in a universe which is essentially hostile to man and in which skill and courage and loyalty are virtues which help in the struggle but by no means exempt us from the necessary plunge into the storm-sea-war of experience.” And in the essays on music that form the book’s second section (“Sound and the Mainstream”), Ellison cements this ethos with his personal experience growing up in the South. If literature might help us to confront the complexities of moral perception, then the lyrical, floating tones of a majestic singer or a distinctive cat shredding eloquently on an axe might aid us in expressing it. And that quest for authentic expression is forever in conflict with audience assumptions, as seen with such powerful figures as Charlie Parker, whom Ellison describes as “a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos…served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public which had but the slightest notion of its real significance.”

What makes Ellison’s demands for inclusive identity quite sophisticated is the vital component of admitting one’s own complicity, an act well beyond the superficial expression of easily forgotten shame or white guilt that none of the 20th or the 21st century writers identified here have had the guts to push past. And Ellison wasn’t just a writer who pointed fingers. He held himself just as accountable, as seen in a terrific 1985 essay called “An Extravagance of Laughter” (not included in Shadow and Act, but found in Going with the Territory), in which Ellison writes about how he went to the theatre to see Jack Kirkland’s adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. (I wrote about Tobacco Road in 2011 as part of this series and praised the way that this still volatile novel pushes its audience to confront its own prejudices against the impoverished through remarkably flamboyant characters.) Upon seeing wanton animal passion among poor whites on the stage, Ellison burst into an uncontrollable paroxysm of laughter, which emerged as he was still negotiating the rituals of New York life shortly after arriving from the South. Ellison compared his reaction, which provoked outraged leers from the largely white audience, to an informal social ceremony he observed while he was a student at Tuskegee that involved a set of enormous whitewashed barrels labeled FOR COLORED placed in public space. If an African-American felt an overwhelming desire to laugh, he would thrust his head into the pit of the barrel and do so. Ellison observes that African-Americans “who in light of their social status and past condition of servitude were regarded as having absolutely nothing in their daily experience which could possibly inspire rational laughter.” And the expression of this inherently human quality, despite being a cathartic part of reckoning with identity and one’s position in the world, was nevertheless positioned out of sight and thus out of mind.

When I took an improv class at UCB earlier this year, I had an instructor who offered rather austere prohibitions to any strain of humor considered “too dark” or “punching down,” which would effectively disqualify both Tobacco Road and the Tuskegee barrel ritual that Ellison describes.2 These restrictions greatly frustrated me and a few of my classmates, who didn’t necessarily see the exploration of edgy comic terrain as a default choice, but merely one part of asserting an identity inclusive of many perspectives. I challenged the notion of confining behavior to obvious choices and ended up getting a phone call from the registrar, who was a smart and genial man and with whom I ended up having a friendly and thoughtful volley about comedy. I had apparently been ratted out by one student, who claimed that I was “disrupting” the class when I was merely inquiring about my own complicity in establishing base reality. In my efforts to further clarify my position, I sent a lengthy email to the instructor, one referencing “An Extravagance of Laughter,” and pointed out that delving into the uncomfortable was a vital part of reckoning with truth and ensuring that you grew your voice and evolved as an artist. I never received a reply. I can’t say that I blame him.

Ellison’s inquiry into the roots of how we find common ground with others suggests that we may be able to do so if we (a) acknowledge the completeness of other identities and (b) allow enough room for necessary catharsis and the acknowledgment of our feelings and our failings as we take baby steps towards better understanding each other.

The most blistering firebomb in the book is, of course, the infamous essay “The World and the Jug,” which demonstrates just what happens when you assume rather than take the time to know another person. It is a refreshingly uncoiled response that one could not imagine being published in this age of “No haters” reviewing policies and genial retreat from substantive subjects in today’s book review sections. Reacting to Irving Howe’s “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Ellison condemns Howe for not seeing “a human being but an abstract embodiment of living hell” and truly hammers home the need for all art to be considered on the basis of its human experience rather than the spectator’s constricting inferences. Howe’s great mistake was to view all African-American novels through the prism of a “protest novel” and this effectively revealed his own biases against what black writers had to say and very much for certain prerigged ideas that Howe expected them to say. “Must I be condemned because my sense of Negro life was quite different?” writes Ellison in response to Howe roping him in with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. And Ellison pours on the vinegar by not only observing how Howe self-plagiarized passages from previous reviews, but how his intractable ideology led him to defend the “old-fashioned” violence contained in Wright’s The Long Dream, which, whatever its merits, clearly did not keep current with the changing dialogue at the time.

Shadow and Act, with its inclusion of interviews and speeches and riffs on music (along with a sketch of a struggling mother), may be confused with a personal scrapbook. But it is, first and foremost, one man’s effort to assert his identity and his philosophy in the most cathartic and inclusive way possible. We still have much to learn from Ellison more than fifty years after these essays first appeared. And while I will always be galvanized by James Baldwin (who awaits our study in a few years), Ralph Ellison offers plentiful flagstones to face the present and the future.

SUPPLEMENT: One of the great mysteries that has bedeviled Ralph Ellison fans for decades is the identity of the critic who attacked Invisible Man as a “literary race riot.” In a Paris Review interview included in Shadow and Act, Ellison had this to say about the critic:

But there is one widely syndicated critical bankrupt who made liberal noises during the thirties and has been frightened ever since. He attacked my book as a “literary race riot.”

With the generous help of Ellison’s biographer Arnold Rampersad (who gave me an idea of where the quote might be found in an email volley) and the good people at the New York Public Library, I have tracked down the “widely syndicated critical bankrupt” in question.

sterlingnorthHis name is Sterling North, best known for the children’s novel Rascal in 1963. He wrote widely popular (and rightly forgotten) children’s books while writing book reviews for various newspapers. North was such a vanilla-minded man that he comics “a poisonous mushroom growth” and seemed to have it in for any work of art that dared to do something different — or that didn’t involve treacly narratives involving raising baby raccoons.

And then, in the April 16, 1952 issue of the New York World-Telegram, he belittled Ellison’s masterpiece, writing these words:

This is one of the most tragic and disturbing books I have ever read. For the most part brilliantly written and deeply sincere, it is, at the same time, bitter, violent and unbalanced. Except for a few closing pages in which the author tries to express something like a sane outlook on race relations, it is composed largely of such scenes of interracial strife that it achieves the effect of one continuous literary race riot. Ralph Ellison is a Negro with almost as much writing talent as Richard Wright. Like his embittered hero (known only as “I’ throughout the book, Mr. Ellison received scholarships to help him through college, one from the State of Oklahoma which made possible three years at the Tuskegee Institute, and one from the Rosenwald Foundation.

If Mr. Ellison is as scornful and bitter about this sort of assistance as he lets his “hero” be, those who made the money available must wonder if it was well spent.

North’s remarkably condescending words offer an alarming view of the cultural oppression that Ellison was fighting against and serve as further justification for Ellison’s views in Shadow and Act. Aside from his gross mischaracterization of Ellison’s novel, there is North’s troubling assumptions that Ellison should be grateful in the manner of an obsequious and servile stereotype, only deserves a scholarship if he writes a novel that fits North’s limited idea of what African-American identity should be, and that future white benefactors should think twice about granting opportunities for future uppity Ellisons.

It’s doubtful that The Sterling North Society will recognize this calumny, but this is despicable racism by any measure. A dive into North’s past also reveals So Dear to My Heart, a 1948 film adaptation of North’s Midnight and Jeremiah that reveled in Uncle Tom representations of African-Americans.

North’s full review of The Invisible Man can be read below:


Next Up: James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough!

What Jonathan Franzen Didn’t Include in His New York Times Op-Ed

On May 28, 2011, The New York Times published a Jonathan Franzen op-ed “adapted from a commencement speech he delivered on May 21 at Kenyon College. The piece contained a link to an audio version of the piece. Here’s a breakdown of what Franzen didn’t include (I have not included throat clearing or minor linking words):

“Good morning, class of 2011. Good morning, relatives and faculty. It’s a great honor and pleasure to be here with you today. I’m going to go ahead and assume you all knew what you were getting into when you chose a literary writer to deliver this address. I’m going to do what literary writers do, which is talk about themselves in the hope that my experience has some resonance with your own experience. I’d like to work my way around to the subject of love and its relation to my life and to the strange techno-consumerist world that you guys are inheriting.” (Beginning to 00:38)

“…powerful Blackberry Bold with a five megapixel camera and 3G capability.” (Bolded product description dropped, 00:43-00:48)

“…tiny track pad…” (“tiny” dropped, 1:03)

“…impelling them to action by speaking incantations…” (dropped, but this may have been a reading flub, 2:02-2:04)

“Let me toss out the idea that according to the logic of techno-consumerism in which markets discover….” (dropped, 2:26-2:28)

“…the ongoing transformation…” (“ongoing” dropped, 3:48)

“…fallen for your schtick. Those people exist to make you feel good about yourself, but how good can your feeling be when it’s provided by the people you don’t respect? You may find yourself becoming depressed…” (dropped, 5:17-5:23)

“dissed” upgraded to “disrespected” (6:34)

“One of the heartening things about the plague of cell phones in my Manhattan neighborhood is that among all the texting zombies and the party-planning yakkers on the sidewalks, I sometimes get to walk along somebody who’s having an honest to God fight with the person they love. I’m sure they prefer not to be having the fight on a public sidewalk, but here it’s happening to them anyway and they’re behaving in a very, very uncool way. Shouting, accusing, and pleading, abusing. This is the kind of thing that gives me hope for the world.. Which is not to say that love is only about fighting or that radically self-involved people aren’t capable of accusing and abusing.” (dropped, 7:53-8:30)

“When I was a senior in college, I took the first seminar the college had ever offered in literary theory. And I fell in love with the most brilliant student in the seminar. Both of us liked how instantly powerful literary theory made us feel. It’s similar to modern consumer technology in this regard. And we flattered ourselves on how much more sophisticated we were than the kids who were still doing those tedious old close textual readings. For various theoretical reasons, we also thought it would be cool to get married. (uncomfortable laughter from students) A longer story than we have time for here, but my mother, who had spent twenty years making me into a person who craved full commitment love now turned around and advocated that I spend my twenties, as she put it, footloose and fancy free. Naturally, since I thought she was wrong about everything, I assumed she was wrong about this. I had to find out the hard way what a messy business commitment is. The first thing we jettisoned was theory. My soon-to-be wife once memorably remarked after an unhappy scene in bed, ‘You can’t deconstruct and undress at the same time.’ (more uncomfortable laughter) Try it. We spent a year on different continents and very quickly discovered that, although it was fun to fill the pages of our letters to each other with theoretical riffs, it wasn’t so much fun to read those pages. But what really killed theory for me, and began to cure me more generally of my obsession with how I appeared to other people, was my love of fiction. There may be a superficial similarity between revising a piece of fiction and revising your webpage or your Facebook profile. But a page of prose doesn’t have those slick graphics to help bolster your self-image. If you’re moved to try and return the gift that other people’s fiction represents for you, you eventually can’t ignore what’s fraudulent or second-hand in your own pages. These pages are a mirror too. And if you really love fiction, you’ll find that the only pages worth keeping are the ones that reflect you as you really are.” (9:00-11:00)

“unliked” instead of “disliked” (11:08)

“My wife and I, having married too young, eventually surrendered so much of ourselves and caused each other so much pain that we each had reason to regret ever having taken the plunge. And yet I can’t quite make myself regret it. For one thing, our struggle to honor our commitment actively came to constitute who we were as people. We weren’t helium molecules floating inertly through life. We bonded and we changed. For another thing, and this may be my main message to you…..[segues into “pain hurts”]” (11:27-11:55)

“What I said earlier about how engagement with something you love compels you to face up to who you really are may apply particularly to fiction writing. But it’s true of just about any work you undertake and love. I’d like to conclude here by talking about another love of mine.” (12:34-12:49)

“And since I’d been fired up by critical theory and I was looking for things to find wrong with the world and reasons to hate the people who ran it…” (bold parts dropped, 12:59-13:05)

“…the angrier and more people hating I became…” (bold part dropped, 13:20-13:25)

“Finally, around the time my marriage was breaking up, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment” changed to “Finally, in the mid-1990s, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying…” (13:26-13:29)

“I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. Yeah, what a drag.” (bold part dropped, 14:38-14:40)

“Like I said, the bird thing was very unexpected to me. For most of my life, I hadn’t given much thought to animals. And maybe I was unlucky to find my way to the birds so relatively late in life. Or maybe I was lucky to find my way to them at all. Once you’re hit with a love like that, however late or early, it changes your relation to the world. In my case, for example, I’d abandoned doing journalism after a few early experience [sic] because the world of facts didn’t excite me the way the world of fiction did. But after my avian conversion experience, which has taught me to run toward my pain and anger and despair rather than away from them, I started taking on a new kind of journalistic assignment. Whatever I most hated at a particular moment became the thing I wanted to write about. I went to Washington in the summer of 2003 when the Republicans were doing things to the country that enraged me. I went to China a few years later because I was being kept awake at night by my anger about the havoc the Chinese are wreaking on the environment. I went to the Mediterranean to interview the hunters and poachers who were slaughtering migratory songbirds. In each case, when meeting the enemy, I found people who I really liked. In some cases, outright loved. Hilarious, generous, brilliant gay Republican staffers. Fearless, miraculous, young Chinese nature lovers. A gun crazy Italian legislator who had very soft eyes and who quoted the animal rights advocate Peter Singer to me. In each case, the blanket hatred that had come so easily to me wasn’t so easy anymore. (15:59-17:26)

(Photo credit: Daniel Sillman)

Solipsism is for Cowards. Go for Full-Fledged Hubris.

A couple of weeks ago, I replaced my 51-year-old Ego with a much more powerful Post-Dave Died of Boredom Hubris. Needless to say, I was impressed with how far my haughtiness had advanced in three years. But it wasn’t enough to have been on the cover of Time Magazine. Because I had been wrongfully denied every major award (Pulitzer, National Book Award, NBCC) for my latest novel, it became necessarily to diminish my friend’s vastly superior talent by writing a self-serving essay about him in The New Yorker and by delivering a commencement speech here at Kenyon — the very same locale that my friend had delivered a poignant and deeply humanist speech six years earlier.

I was infatuated with my new device. My Hubris was so big that I knew I wouldn’t die from boredom. I could undermine anyone I wanted — the women whose love for writing (and reading) I had destroyed; my troubled writer friend who had committed suicide; even the very audience I speak before now. After all, you’ll believe just about everything I have to say without question. Yet like Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, you all make me want to be young and miserable again. I’d been similarly infatuated with the old device, of course. I’d authored a volume of essays called How to Be Alone, in which I wrote, without irony, “What I really want from a sidewalk is that people see me and let themselves be seen, but even this modest ideal is thwarted by cell-phone users and their unwelcome privacy. They say things like, ‘Should we have couscous with that?’ and ‘I’m on my way to Blockbuster.'” The nerve of these troglodytes! Why didn’t they look up from their cell phones and bask in my Franzenness? Toward the end of its run, I had some doubts about my Ego’s efficacy (and that’s Ego, not Egan; if I catch you with a copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad in your hands, I will write a 3,000 word essay about how much I despise you), until I’d finally had to admit that I’d outgrown the relationship. I now required levels of pomposity and navel gazing that rivaled the size of a massive continent on an undiscovered planet, but that general readers might interpret as meaningful.

Do I need to point out that my relationship with humanity was entirely one-sided? That I don’t really give a flying fuck about whether anything I say may be wrong or misguided or inconsiderate or socially clueless or needlessly reductionist (especially since I’m essentially cannibalizing the best bits from Dave’s 2005 speech)? Let me point it out anyway.

Let me further point out how the word “sexy” is almost never used to describe late-model Franzen androids; and how the extremely selfish things that we can do now with these gadgets — like impelling people to believe that superficial speeches such as this one possess profound insight into The Way We Live (the way I had once looked to Paula Fox’s fiction as how-to manuals) — would have looked to everyday people like the actions of a self-serving and inconsiderate asshole finding himself at the opposing end of a fist were he to say such words and pull such shit in a bar.

Let me toss out the idea that I would not be here, and I would not have sold as many books as I have, were it not for the very vagaries of the media system and the markets I detest. But I will condemn these anyway, even though an adorable video of a cat mother hugging her baby — “liked” by more than 100,000 people in a mere two days — willfully demonstrates that people are willing to feel something online outside the capitalist nexus.

It may seem a bit hypocritical and short-sighted for me to suggest, finally, that the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love. But I saw this movie Catfish the other night and needed to cleanse myself the next morning with a hearty dose of birdwatching, a hobby I valued above all else because it attracted so many people with Asperger’s and everyone had the decency not to talk. Anwway, techno-consumerism represents everything I loathe about the Internet, and I feel far too comfortable cleaving to my inflexibly prejudicial perceptions to change my mind.

You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. But I won’t listen to them. Because the only thing I care about are my examples.

I will also complain about Facebook, despite the fact that if you wanted to read my last New Yorker essay you were forced to become “a fan” of The New Yorker. Perhaps my limitless enmity for Facebook has something to do with this. But I shall not be transparent with you. It is clear that you did not love The New Yorker or me. You heard that this piece was making the rounds, became a fan because it was the only option outside of rightfully coughing up the subscription or newsstand money, and I learned later that some of you hated it. I now declare you all soulless consumer scum.

The big risk here, of course, is rejection. We can handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely great number of people who will buy our books. Even some of the happy little people who watch Oprah and who I now can’t slander because I decided to appear on her show and because I enjoy taking the money. The prospect of pain is generally compensated by that of financial gain. It’s best to avoid a serious consideration of these morally conflicted issues (I am, after all, a passive aggressive) and seek out illusory targets. Besides, don’t false dichotomies go over well before a college crowd?

When I was in college, I was angry and I remained angry. But then a funny thing happened. Somebody told me that people wouldn’t listen to me if I was angry. So I pretended not to be angry and strive now to be thoughtful, even though thinking about my speech for about five minutes will reveal the sad deficiencies under the hood. And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and fear only increased when I discovered wild birds. I learned to pretend that I didn’t feel this way about people. I fooled myself into thinking that people only relate to each other in terms of competition, even though I’m telling you from the dais that it’s all about love. And it became easier to live with my anger and pain and fear because I shifted the burden to lower life forms rather than live with feeble souls who talked on their cell phones on the sidewalk. I am Jonathan Franzen. I shouldn’t have to live with anybody other than an extremely limited set fulfilling my ridiculous and entirely unreasonable criteria for Being a Good Human. On this point, I am worse than Woody Allen.

When you stay in your room in the Upper East Side, as I did for many years, you eventually write speeches such as this one. And when you put yourself in front of real people, there’s a very real danger that you think you know what you’re talking about.

And who knows what might happen to you then?

P.S. Please buy my books. And whatever you do, don’t click the “Like” button below this adaptation from a commencement speech. It is important to understand that some actions are consumerist and cowardly, and some are not when they benefit me.

Jonathan Franzen vs. Richard Stark: Which Writer Really “Knows” the World?

Sam Tanenhaus: “Once again Franzen has fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life. Franzen knows that college freshmen are today called ‘first years,’ like tender shoots in an overplanted garden; that a high-minded mom, however ruthless in her judgments of her neighbors’ ethical lapses, will condemn them with no epithet harsher than ‘weird’; that reckless drivers who barrel across lanes are ‘almost always youngish men for whom the use of blinkers was apparently an affront to their masculinity.'”

Here’s a passage from Richard Stark’s The Outfit:

All the money came to the Novelty Amusement Corporation. It started as small change, here and there throughout the city, and it all funneled into one central office, all the money bet every day on the numbers.

Take one dime. A lady goes into a magazine store and tells the man at the counter she wants to put ten cents on 734. If 734 hits she wins sixty dollars. The odds are 999 to one, but the pay-off is 600 to one. The magazine store owner writes 734 and 10¢ under it on two slips of paper. He gives the women one slip; he puts the other in a cigar box under the counter. He puts the dime into the cash register, but he rings No Sale. At three o’clock, his wife takes over at the counter while he takes the cigar box in back and adds up the amounts on all the slips. The amount is $18.60. He puts all the slips in an envelope and goes out to the cash register and from it he takes a ten dollar bill, a five, three ones, two quarters, and the dime. He puts this cash in the envelope with the slips. He places the envelope inside a science fiction magazine — on Wednesdays, it’s a science fiction magazine — and puts the magazine under the counter.

At three-thirty, the collector comes. The collector is a plump young man with a smiling face, a struggling writer making a few dollars while waiting to be discovered by Darryl Zanuck or Bennett Cerf. He drives up in a seven-year-old Plymouth that belongs to the local numbers organization and which he is allowed to drive only while making collections. He parks in front of the magazine store, goes inside, and asks for a copy of a particular science fiction magazine. The owner gives him the magazine and tells him that will be $1.86, but that’s what the young man hands over with no protest.

The young man then carries the magazine out to the car. He sits behind the wheel, takes the envelope from the magazine, puts it in a briefcase which is on the seat beside him. He tosses the magazine onto the back seat with seven other discarded magazines and taking a small notebook from his breast pocket, he writes in it after several other entries: “MPL 1.86.” Then he puts the notebook and pencil away and drives on to his next stop.

All in all, he buys fifteen magazines, then drives on to the Kenilworth Building and leaves the car in the lot next door. He carries the briefcase up to the seventh floor and enters the offices of the Novelty Amusement Corporation. He smiles at the receptionist, who never gives him a tumble, and goes into the second door on the right, where a sallow man with a cigarette dangling from his lips nods bleakly. The young man puts briefcase and notebook on the desk, and sits down to wait.

The sallow man has an adding machine on his desk. He opens the notebook and adds the figures for the day, coming up with $32.31, which should be ten percent of the day’s take. He then adds up the prices on the policy slips, and gets $323.10, which checks out. He finally adds together the actual money from all the envelopes, once again arrives at $323.10, and is satisfied. Out of this money, he gives the young man $32.31, which is what the young man paid for the magazines. In addition, he gives him $16.15, which is one-half percent of the day’s take from his area — his cut for making the collections. He averages $15 a day, for an hour’s work a day. Well pleased, the young man goes home to his cold typewriter.

The sallow man now takes out a ledger and enters it in the amount of, and the number of, each bet according to the exact location where each bet was made. He adds his figures again to check his work and gets the correct total. By then, another collector has come in. The sallow man is one of six men at Novelty Amusement who each take in the receipts from five collectors. They work at this approximately from four until six o’clock. Each of them clears about $1,500 a day — resulting in a grand total of about $9,000 a day for the entire operation.

Ten-and-a-half percent of this money has already been paid out. The receivers each get one percent. Additional office salaries, rent, utilities, and so on eat up about 3 1/2 percent more. When the sallow man stuffs the day’s proceeds into a canvas sack and carries it back to the room marked “Bookkeeping,” there’s about 85 percent of it left. On an average day, this leaves about $7,700. Ten percent more is deducted almost immediately and put into envelopes which are delivered to law officers and other local authorities. Twenty-five percent is retained by the local organization and split among its chief personnel; the remaining 50 percent is shipped weekly to Chicago — the national organization’s piece of the pie. In an average six-day week, this half of the pie comes to better than $25,000. Each day’s cut is put in the safe in the bookkeeping room, and, on Saturday nights, two armed men carry the cash in a briefcase to Chicago by plane. For security, one of the armed men is from the local organization and one is from the national organization.

On this Saturday, there was $27,549 earmarked for Chicago, in the safe. In the addition there was the $20,000 kept as a cash reserve — on the unlikely chance that, someday, there might be a run on a winning number, or for additional greasing when and if necessary, or for whatever unforeseeable emergency might arise. And further, there was $13,774,50, in the safe, which represents the week’s 25 percent cut for the local organization to be split on Monday. The total in the safe was $61,323.50. Including the dime.

Here’s a passage from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom:

The most difficult problem he’d had to solve for the Trust had been what to do with the two hundred or so families, most of them very poor, who owned houses or trailers on small or smallish parcels of land within the Warbler Park’s proposed boundaries. Some of the men still worked in the coal industry, either underground or as drivers, but most were out of a job and passed their time with guns and internal-combustion engines, supplementing their families’ diets with game shot deeper in the hills and carried out on ATVs. Walter had moved quickly to buy out as many families as possible before the Trust attracted publicity; he’d paid as little as $250 an acre for certain hillside tracts. But when his attempts to woo the local environmentalist community backfired, and a scarily motivated activist named Jocelyn Zorn began to campaign against the Trust, there was still more than a hundred families holding out, most of them in the valley of Nine Mile Creek, which led up to Forster Hollow.

Expecting the problem of Forster Hollow, Vin Haven had found the perfect sixty-five thousand acres for the core reserve. The surface rights of ninety-eight percent of it were in the hands of just three corporations, two of them faceless and economically rational holding companies, the third wholly owned by a family named Forster which had fled the state more than a century ago and was comfortably dissipating itself in coastal affluence. All three companies were managing he land for certified forestry and had no reason not to sell it to the Trust at a fair market rate. There was also, near the center of Haven’s Hundred, an enormous, vaguely hourglass-shaped collection of very rich coal seams. Until now, nobody had mined these fourteen thousand acres, because Wyoming County was so remote and so hilly, even for West Virginia. One bad, narrow road, useless for coal trucks, wound up into the hills along Nine Mile Creek; at the top of the valley, situated near the hourglass’s pinch point, was Forster Hollow and the clan and friends of Coyle Mathis.

Over the years, Nardone and Blasco had each tried and failed to deal with Mathis, earning his abiding animosity for their trouble. Indeed, a major piece of bait that Vin Haven had offered the coal companies, during the initial negotiations, was a promise to rid them of the problem of Coyle. “It’s part of the magic synergy we got going here,” Haven had told Walter. “We’re a fresh player that Mathis’s got no reason to hold a grudge against. Nardone in particular I bargained way down on the reclamation front by promising to take Mathis off its hands. A little bit of goodwill I found lying by the side of the road, simply by virtue of me not being Nardone, turns out to be worth a couple million.”

If only!

Based on the above two passages, which writer do you think really “knows” the world better?

Bad Neighbors

Walter and Patty Melted were the young products of Franzen Hill — the first dreadful characters to spit out of the misanthropic novelist’s mind since the old heart of The Twenty-Seventh City had fallen on hard times two decades earlier. The Melteds hadn’t done anything to that bitter elitist hillock in Manhattan, except have the misfortune to run into it and kill themselves for ten years while the ultramontane deities renovated them. Early on, some very determined blogger torched the shit monster and did everything except beat this sad lifeless soil to a pulp so that he could drink Pabst Blue Ribbon with Howard Junker and cook up a few hot dogs with some of the boys at the raucous rooftop party that Jonathan, that sour whiny motherfucker with earplugs permanently stuck inside his hirsute ears, would never attend. “Hey, you guys, you know what?” Jonathan asked on behalf of the Melteds, “you are low-class people who will never understand my literary genius.” He saw Oprah — or was it Oona? — on a bigass tv set and wanted to destroy this pox upon pop culture that his dainty toes would never touch. The Melteds hung down their heads, wondering why they had to be attached to this utterly incurious novelist and outright wanker. Behind the Melteds you could see the glazed Galassi making book-encumbered demands of book-encumbered novelists who forgot just what lively writing was all about; ahead of him, an afternoon of George Michael on radio, Freedom, an important title for an important man who had sideswiped Gaddis, taking his title and then dissing his last two books while the great Bill G was safely packed away into his maggot feeding plot, and then “Goodnight Fuck,” then Zinfandel, not that low-class populist Pabst Blue Ribbon. The Melteds knew that Gawker reporters would be there. Jonathan knew that he was a gasbag that just couldn’t stop expanding over the itchy and queasy expanse of Franzen Hill.

In the earliest years, when you could still remember getting your fingers greasy without feeling self-conscious or ashamed of the remainder of those middling Missouri roots, the collective task at Franzen Hill was to relearn certain joys about life that everybody else seemed to experience, but that eluded the sourpuss gestalt, like how to find some moment to smile at over the course of a 72-hour period, and how to actually enjoy some sight without standing on the edge of Central Park with a stick up your ass, and how to understand that there was actually a universe that extended beyond the island of Manhattan, and how to not write needlessly long sentences with laundry list clauses and pretend that you had something significant to say. Did they print this silly shit because it shot from the soulless steam stacks atop Franzen Hill? Did they even check the manifest anymore? Who needed to? The piece — whether story or excerpt from forthcoming novel — would give phony comfort to New Yorker readers. Franzen Hill was a brand name. One as dependable as Nike, Pepsi-Cola, and Microsoft.

For all existential queries and verisimilitudinous volts, Patty Melted was a resource, a dried up construct whom Jonathan the novelist could desperately look to for the answers. A carrier of sociocultural pollen, if only the author had anything sociocultural to really draw from. She would have to remain a spent capsule, a sarcophagal bee that never talked back and stung the author, and only the author, when provoked.

Make no mistake: this was a disease, a cancer that would cause the unthinking literary acolytes to praise Franzen Hill’s physical dimensions without considering the pustules and sputum enervating the whole. Those flabby Bolanoites holed up in garrets still actually believed that they could bust shit up from the inside when they were part of the unthinking market forces. The rush of Franzen Hill would spread with the thwacks of magazines hitting doorsteps and newsstands, and continue with the reverberating dings from email clients. Endless forwarding, some printing off of the story for the subway, the sense that Franzen Hill was only the finest. Never mind what shit the story was. It appeared in The New Yorker!

The Melteds still knew that Everest towered over Franzen Hill.

“It’s a wonder,” Walter Melted remarked to Patty afterward, “that this sad and contemptuous man is even still writing.”

Patty shook her head. “I don’t think he’s figured out how to love anything.”

The Brooklyn Book Festival: Hopelessly Manhattanized?

I don’t wish to sound ungrateful for the gratis plastic cup of wine that I enjoyed on Friday night, but the Brooklyn Book Festival launch party was more than a tad pedantic. The crowd of elitist insiders, bored organizers, and exhausted publicists — all hoping that cheese and crackers would serve as a surrogate dinner, all speedily adopting that predictable industry pretense of snubs and meaningless status, all more than a little uncomfortable with Brooklyn President Marty Markowitz’s call for a moment of silence for the late Tim Russert — gathered together in a manner that was more evocative of Manhattan rather than Brooklyn. Circular buttons of various Brooklyn neighborhoods were available with elliptical offerings of nuts on various tables. But my old neighborhood, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, wasn’t represented among this mostly Caucasian representative provincialism. I suspect that this jittery atmosphere, combined with a recent bout of deadline-induced cabin fever, caused me to be excessively ebullient. And thus I apologize to my blogging peers and friends if I affrighted or unnerved them in the process.

Nevertheless, the truth of the matter was that one could not be one’s natural literary self at this shindig. And nobody had the heart or the decency to suggest congregating elsewhere. We were obliged to stay for some reason, believing that the name Brooklyn would magically translate into streetcred.

But who were the big authors announced? Jonathan Franzen — a man who openly joked that he had only spent three nights of his life in Brooklyn, remarking that they were not happy. Joan Didion — who has almost certainly done more for Manhattan than Brooklyn. Dorothy Allison — who will certainly be more accepted in Brooklyn than in Manhattan, assuming that the Brooklyn Book Festival has not become as hopelessly Manhattanized as I fear.

Terry Gross Responds

Terry Gross, recently referenced in this story involving a Jonathan Franzen interview that had been cut for broadcast, has been kind enough to respond to my questions. She informs me that “there has been no self-censorship or deals cut to suppress the Franzen interview.” Gross tells me that the audio for the original October 15, 2001 broadcast should have been available on the Fresh Air website and that she was surprised to learn that this wasn’t the case. Fresh Air has asked NPR to restore the original Franzen interview on the website, and I will follow up next week to see if it’s there.

Gross’s email was also forthright in describing Fresh Air‘s policy concerning repeat interviews. She informed me that when an interview is rebroadcast, “we almost always shorten it.” In the case of the elided Franzen remark, the decision was made to curtail the Oprah section because it was “dated.” As to Fresh Air editing policies, Gross pointed out that all of her interviews were pre-recorded and that they are all edited before they are broadcast. She does not record anything live. “Editing is not censorship,” wrote Gross, “Editing is not unethical. Editing is part of what journalists do.”

While I agree with Gross that a certain degree of audio cleanup is necessary to ensure a professional broadcast, I still remain mystified why additional broadcasts are edited further. I also wonder why such concerns as “dated” material should even matter. After all, if the listener knows that she’s listening to an interview that aired before, why then should such a distinction matter?

I have sent Gross a followup email, pointing out that abridgment is not indicated on the broadcast and that the main page for the Franzen repeat does not read, “This is an excerpt from an October 15, 2001 interview,” but reads, “This interview first aired October 15, 2001.” Thus, the listener might insinuate that what she is hearing is the same interview that aired before. This specification would certainly put Gross in a more ethically sound position.

Nevertheless, this offers some insight into how Gross and Fresh Air operates. And I am glad that she has at least taken steps to restore the original interview. I only hope that Gross will be more forthright about how future rebroadcast interviews are edited, if only to escape an ombudsman’s wrath.

Did Jonathan Franzen Cut a Censorship Deal with Terry Gross?

On October 26, 2001, Dennis Loy Johnson reported on the Franzen fiasco:


Three days later in an interview on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” he told host Terry Gross that he was still conflicted about Oprah because — well, “So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I’m sorry that it’s, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking.”

Thus does class meet boorish elitism. Franzen, through his publisher, issued an immediate sort–of apology: “I try to explore complicated emotions and circumstances as honestly and fully as I can. This approach can be productive on the page, but clearly hasn’t been helpful in talking to the media, many members of which used the occasion of my book tour to raise questions about Oprah’s Book Club and the supposed divisions among American readers. The conflict is preexisting in the culture, and it landed in my lap because of my good fortune. I’m sorry if, because of my inexperience, I expressed myself poorly or unwisely.”

So, as it turns out, it was Terry Gross’ fault; even though she started off the interview by gushing, “I read your book and I loved it!” and did not press him in the least or follow up on his blatantly chauvanistic take of Oprah’s audience, she was, apparently, out to get Jonathan Franzen . . . a poor, “inexperienced” lad with only two previous books and hundreds of previous interviews and public appearances under his belt.

And here is the quote reported by the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Review.

I remember hearing Franzen’s remarks. But if you go through the Fresh Air archive, you’ll find no trace of the full record, much less any indication that the broadcast was modified. There is, of course, this repeat of the October 15, 2001 interview in question, broadcast on September 6, 2002. But listen to the RealMedia file for this show and you’ll find only this excerpt at the 3:34 mark:

I mean, so much of reading is sustained, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV. Or, um, you know, playing with their flight simulator or whatever.

After this, we hear Terry Gross ask her next question. The other part of the quote, as reported by Johnson, “I worry — I’m sorry that it’s, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking,” is missing.

If Terry Gross is a journalist, then she has the responsibility to maintain the full record of this conversation, or at least apprise her listeners that the interview was modified. I do not yet know Ms. Gross’s motivations, but if she is willfully allowing her program to be pressured by authors and/or publishers, then it seems to me that the Literarian Award, which purports to “recogniz[e] the important contribution she has made to the world of books — and to our understanding of literature and the writing process — through her probing and intelligent interviews with authors” does not appear to recognize an interviewer who thoroughly probes her subjects. Indeed, the National Book Foundation has honored an ostensible “journalist” who has failed to preserve the historical record.

At the very least, Gross should have observed — both on the September 6, 2002 repeat broadcast and on the NPR page representing the broadcast — that the interview was edited or tampered with.

I have sent an email to Terry Gross asking for clarification on this matter. I will update this story if I learn any additional details.

[UPDATE: It would appear that Gross has a history of pulling punches. An interview with Village Voice reporter Robert I. Friedman was recorded on January 27, 1993, but Fresh Air never aired the interview, because they were looking for a “moderate” voice.]

[UPDATE 2: Terry Gross has responded to my questions.]

This Just In

Jonathan Franzen has disappeared from Facebook, presumably heading to that isolated edifice where Greta Garbo once resided. Oh well. It’s too bad J-Franz is no fun. But on the bright side, L’Affaire Franzen has resulted in a great outpouring of amicable and swell people contacting me via Facebook — some of them united by Mr. Franzen spurning them (including some old friends from Missouri) and others just looking for a friendly hello. So I really can’t complain. Perhaps this is a topic that the Two Franzens need to take up.

Reason #426 Why Jonathan Franzen is No Fun

Jonathan Franzen does not want to be my Facebook friend. He is, however, Howard Junker’s Facebook friend. This is understandable, because Howard Junker is Howard Junker. Nevertheless.

Many of my former and current nemeses are my Facebook friends. For crying out loud, even Rick Moody is my Facebook friend. If Jonathan Franzen wishes to keep up this virtual Bartleby business, well then that is certainly his right as a human being. But I think Facebook may very well be a good judge of character. After all, if someone won’t be your Facebook friend, what does this say about the person’s ability to connect with the world at large?

I’ve taken to simply saying yes to anybody. I figure that most people in the world are pretty decent. I figure that anybody who seeks me out on Facebook probably has a good reason. And life’s really too short to deny someone their pleasure. It takes a fussy bastard indeed to say no to someone on this thing.

Superman II: Donner Cut vs. Lester Cut


I don’t believe Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II (recently released on DVD) is necessarily better than the 1981 theatrical cut directed by Richard Lester, but it is still fascinating on its own terms. When Donner helmed the first Superman, he actually shot a good deal of footage for Superman II, much of it (including all of the Lex Luthor scenes) contained within the theatrical version that was subsequently released. Donner was kicked off the project midway through the film because of cost overruns, replaced by Richard Lester. Fans, tantalized by the footage that appeared in various ABC airings of the film in the 1980s, have long hoped for Donner’s vision to be reinstated. Warner listened and tracked down some six tons of film, restored all of it, and re-edited Superman II to reflect this what-if scenario.

This cinematic experiment certainly demonstrates what Donner would have effected, had he been left alone to finish the film. But it also indicates that Richard Lester’s contributions weren’t nearly as bad as Donner makes them out to be. (Donner’s commentary track is a veritable shitting contest. But Donner has produced many cinematic dogs himself. Exhibit A: Assassins.)

Donner’s version moves faster, with an opening sequence that dovetails Superman II‘s story into the first film quite nicely. (It is the missile aimed at Hackensack that causes the three supervillains to be released, not the nuclear bomb at the Eiffel Tower. Lester’s Eiffel Tower sequence has been removed.) Donner’s version takes more chances with the characters, particularly in an exciting early scene where Lois Lane throws herself out the window of the Daily Planet to test whether Clark Kent is actually Superman. Susannah York’s Lara has been replaced by Brando’s authoritarian Jor-El at the Fortress of Solitude. While these scenes play up the father-son dynamic, Brando is just as stiff as he was in the first film.

Donner’s panache for action sequences works well in the first hour, but I found myself missing Lester’s light touch, particularly with General Zod and company’s appearance on Earth. The two small town cops arguing about the restaurant (“They have a fine selection.”) are now one-dimensional characters for Zod, Ursa and Non to fuck with. Lester’s humor also worked effectively as the three supervillains let loose a gust of wind just as the people of Metropolis attempted a lynching (“Superman is dead! Let’s get him!”). The scenes of cars flying through the air and colliding into each other had a certain gravitas when edited against Lester’s slapstick contributions (ice cream flying from a cone onto another’s face, the guy still talking on the phone even after the booth has been knocked over).

The musical cues have also been seriously marred. In the Lester cut, when Superman flies into Niagra Falls to save a boy from falling into the waters, he was accompanied by a reprise of John Williams’ main theme. The Donner cut has opted for a more diluted theme and it makes Superman’s rescue of the boy nowhere nearly as dramatic as it was in the original. (A similar change has been made when Superman rescues the large antenna from falling onto a mother and her stroller.) Also greatly missed is John Williams’ menacing series of percussive quintets, which lent Zod’s takeover of the planet Houston a sense of dread. I’ve long considered Williams’ contributions to the Superman films to be among his best as a composer, but the Donner cut reveals just how naked the Superman films are without the score: a telling sign of its own.

But perhaps my biggest objection (aside from Donner’s bitterness) is that Superman’s sacrifice of his powers for Lois Lane feels more solipsistic in Donner’s hands. In the Lester cut, Superman sleeps with Lois Lane only after he loses his powers. But in the Donner cut, he gets bedtime action before. While it’s nice to see a postcoital Lois Lane observe Superman’s conversation with Jor-El dressed only in his shirt, Reeves’ conversation with his father (instead of his mother) is now laced with selfish import (“I deserve this!”) as opposed to a bona-fide declaration of his love for Lane (“Mother, I love her.”). Because of this, one views the diner scene that comes after, in which a powerless Kent is beaten to a pulp by a truck driving bully, in a new light. Clark Kent’s request to step outside is now guided more by hubris, rather than a desperate need to figure out where he stands and how to defend himself as a human.

Donner’s contributions were certainly essential to the Superman films. His camerawork was better. His action sequences were better. But I suspect he sometimes took Superman too seriously, considering him to be an almost Christ-like figure. I’d argue that Lester understood that Superman II was an entertainment and injected just the right amount of comedy into Superman II, giving it a more humanistic feel. It’s regrettable that Lester’s equally essential contributions are being pooh-poohed by the fanboys.

The Discomfort Zone

There’s a good deal of commotion over Michiko Kaukutani’s review of Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone. Has Michiko gone too far? Having read most of the contents of this disgraceful essay collection, I don’t think so at all. Where Franzen’s previous essay collection, How to Be Alone, presented Franzen’s interests in a thoughtful and benign (if whiny) tone (the postal system, an almost nostalgic concern for mechanics, etc.), The Discomfort Zone presents Franzen as a middle-aged enfant terrible, a spineless yuppie who hasn’t grown up and who clings to narcissistic self-absorption as if it were oxygen.

franzen190.jpgReading this collection and having this misfortune to experience some of these essays for the second time (many of these were published in The New Yorker; the Peanuts one is by far the worst), I felt the need to beat Franzen repeatedly with a thick newspaper or at least rob the bastard of his riches. This collection is the best he can do? Five years of putzing around with the coffers filled and what does Franzen give us? Not a novel, but a medley of hyper-neurotic essays that are embarassing as hell to read.

Does the world need another book from an upper middle-class Caucasian whiner? I think not. Particularly when his main beefs are being asked to give to the Katrina refugees. David Remnick, for whatever reason, has been responsible for bankrolling Jonathan Franzen’s writing as therapy. I’m thinking that Remnick is doing this because he’s hoping for more essays of the How to Be Alone variety. But what nobody expected was Franzen transforming into a smug upper-class twit, not unlike those bowler-hatted morons in the famous Monty Python skit. The fact that Frazen is, for the most part, humorless and fond of framing uninteresting generalizations in ponderous language makes The Discomfort Zone one of the worst books of the year. To wit, here’s a small sample from the aforementioned Peanuts essay:

To the countercultural mind, a begoggled beagle piloting a doghouse and getting shot down by the Red Baron was akin to Yossarian paddling a dinghy to Sweden. The strip’s square panels were the only square thing about it. Wouldn’t the country be better off listening to Linus Van Pelt than Robert McNamara? This was the era of flower children, not flower adults. But the strip appealed to older Americans as well. It was unfailingly inoffensive (Snoopy never lifted a leg) and was set in a safe, attractive suburb where the kids, except for Pigpen, whose image Ron McKernan of the Grateful Dead pointedly embraced, were clean and well spoken and conservatively dressed.

Observe the uncontained (and unpursued) comparison to Catch-22 here. Or the sad effort to spin “square” into a second standard definition. Or Franzen’s desperate obsession with dichotomies (establishment or hippie) and inability to plunge further into the subject? Or the wordy clause extended to Pigpen. Or the prim modifiers conjoined in the final sentence.

Even casting aside Franzen’s shameless solipsism, this is bad and needlessly wordy writing. And a legion of editors needs to be strung up for allowing this copy to escape unfixed to the printed page.

Of course, if you like keeping company with smug twits, then Franzen’s your man. Franzen has become a highbrow Chuck Klosterman. He’s that insufferable prick right before you at the salad bar, who feels the need not only to complain about the offerings, but who holds up the line.

For those fond of taking in the great oxygen of life and avoiding those who believe the entire world is about them, Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist (another slim collection of New Yorker pesonal essays) is a far more compelling and thoughtful alternative.

Morning Pileup

  • Frederick Forsyth has decided to run against Tony Blair. Well, if this is what it takes to get him to stop writing, count me in as one of his most febrile supporters.
  • Chang-rae Lee’s next novel will center around the Korean War. The story will involve “a refugee girl raised in America after the war, a solider and an aid worker during the war.” Lee also confessed that he made a mistake titling his last novel Aloft, pointing out that too many people were hoping for a gripping tale about real estate developers fighting over a flat.
  • Somehow it escaped our eyes, but “Harry Matthews” gets an appropriately mysterious writeup in the Gray Lady. But an interesting side note is that nobody should trust John Strausbaugh with an “off the record” comment.
  • We all know about Kathryn Chetkovich’s infamous Granta essay about J-Franz. But what I didn’t know is that Franzen’s ex-wife stopped writing and reading after the breakup. The lesson here is that if you hope to keep up your writing career, DON’T DATE J-FRANZ! This has been a public service announcement for the Society to Preserve Creativity.
  • Alice Hoffman was “deeply affected by The Twilight Zone.”
  • Fumio Niwa has passed on. He was 100. Also RIP David Hughes.
  • There’s a campaign in place to restore Ohio’s image by the Ohio Secretary of State. Unfortunately, what the campaign doesn’t tell you is that most of the writers and artists (including Toni Morrison, Michael Dirda, and Roger Zelazy) ended up moving away from Ohio.
  • Oliver Stone + James Ellroy? Say it ain’t so. What next? Paul Verhoeven and Donald E. Westlake?
  • The Cumberland County Library in North Carolina has catered to its constitutency. They’re paying $18,000 of their hard-earned money to offer 700 audio books. By my math, that’s $25.71 a pop, or considerably more than a wholesale or library-rate hardcover.

A Special Therapeutic Column from Jonathan Glandzen

In May 1981, a few months into the Reagan administration, my father and my brother Colin and in fact every member in my family started fighting. They weren’t fighting about Reagan, per se, but they wanted to give me a solid foundation for long-term neruosis. I never blamed anyone for the fight, but years later, after making a mint off of my novel, The Peregrinations, I felt stifled by the smell of cash around me. I had been approached by several financial advisors who suggested long-term savings and IRAs. They wanted me to live and travel and roll around like a self-entitled pygmy while my fellow writers starved. Had I been rude to Oprah? Had I forgotten the little people?

In considering my sordid sobbing history, I remember that it was Colin who first suggested that a real man took control of his life and that obtaining this confidence was easier when one was well grounded. Every time I tried to be myself, I was faced with Colin’s menacing shadow. Colin made less money in his life than I had in a single year, and yet he was secure, happily married, and encouraged me to roll into a fetal position at family reunions.

I think back to those halcyon days of 1981, because, despite my upper middle-class upbringing and a stable, albeit occasionally combative family, I was frightened every time I had to make a decision. I didn’t learn to tie my shoe until the age of 26 and it took a Iris Murdoch type who knew what she wanted to deflower me in grad school. She must have anticipated my hunky looking author photo — the bane of my existence since my success. She never revealed her name.

But there was some comfort growing up — no thanks to Colin, thank you very much. On my night table was the Marmaduke Omnibus, a dogeared (if you’ll pardon the pun), decaying paperback that I had found one day in the dumpster. I opened its pages and discovered that someone had written “This shit isn’t funny” on the inside front cover. This austere warning didn’t faze me one bit. Indeed, there was a sense of comfort in seeing Marmaduke’s innocuous disruption of the household. Like me, Marmaduke didn’t know any better. My heart quivered over Marmaduke’s long ears, and I soon developed an intimate relationship with Brad Anderson’s creation that posed certain problems during adolescence. Marmaduke, as you might imagine, was the only dog that counted. It took several Siamese cats, four parakeets and a few goldfish before I could allow another dog to roam in my own home.

Thankfully, my therapist understood this. After the unfortunate sprinting incident at a cocktail party, I was given a ritalin prescription. This, I might add, at 36.

Throughout the years, Colin suggested Bloom County, The Far Side or “hell, even Doonsebury.” But my mind was made up. Even Boondocks was too much for my refined sensibilities. It was Marmaduke or nothing. Other people I met had bad heroin habits. For my own part, I had a sociopathic obsession with a comic strip that wasn’t particularly funny.

J-Franz Returns

Rake points to a new story from J-Franz in the New Yorker. Our immediate impressions can be summed up as follows:

  • Hey, J, ever heard of paragraph breaks?
  • Was there ever a clunkier lead sentence wrought in Remnick’s pages?
  • This “young husband,” does he have a name?
  • “The divorce was done by mail.” How convenient!
  • “[H]he feared his only purpose on the planet was to insert his penis in the vaginas of the greatest possible number of women.” Mock clinical language is so 1986, Franz.
  • “But Ron insisted that he had never seen this word before, that her vocabulary was much larger than his, and, absurdly, that he had never in his life scored eighty-seven points in one Scrabble play.” Dave Eggers-style nonsequiturs are a sudden influence on J-Franz?
  • “..but he was forty years old, and it was time to grow up…” Or autobiographical?
  • “In later years Antonia never, in her stocking-footed friends? hearing, spoke of him with anger, always only pity, because, she said, he knew himself so poorly.” Comma, comma, commala!

J-Franz Gets a Phone-In

A new tell-all book on the Kennedys is coming out. But this time, it’s from the inside. The book is authored by Christopher Kennedy Lawford, and will include an essay by Ted Kennedy entitled “Mary Jo and Me: A Politiican’s Guide to Avoiding Entanglement.”

Shelsey Sybrandts, a 9 year old Coloradan, has become the youngest author of valentine verse. Harvey Winstein has optioned the eight-line poem for a future Miramax film, noting, “The little fucker’s a motherfucking genius. But if she tries to cross me, she better watch out. The fat man always wins.”

Ahmed Bouzfour won’t be taking home Morocco’s Literary Creation Prize. Bouzfour rejected the award, protesting Morocco’s low level of literacy. He also protested Morocco’s continuing promotion of the casbah dance.

In The Guardian, Richard Holmes examines Percy Shelley’s premature drowning.

Filmjerk uncovers an early draft of the Corrections film adaptation. David Hare wrote the script but, despite his solid credentials, to summarize their findings, the screenplay sucks. Big time.