But tell us what you REALLY thought of it, Michiko Kakutani

Wow.  Feels like a moment of self-revelation here: “Readers given to writing comments in their books are likely to find themselves repeatedly scrawling words like “narcissistic,” “ridiculous,” “irritating” and “pretentious” in the margins.”

The premise of this tiresome new novel by the critically acclaimed author Norman Rush sounds as if it had been lifted straight from “The Big Chill”… The result not only lacks that movie’s humor and groovy soundtrack but is also an eye-rollingly awful read.

The novel’s preening, self-absorbed characters natter on endlessly about themselves in exchanges that sound more like outtakes from a dolorous group therapy session than like real conversations among longtime friends. Its title, “Subtle Bodies” — which refers to people’s “true interior selves,” whatever that means — is a perfect predictor of the novel’s solipsistic tone. Readers given to writing comments in their books are likely to find themselves repeatedly scrawling words like “narcissistic,” “ridiculous,” “irritating” and “pretentious” in the margins…

Douglas (who seems to have driven a lawn mower too close to the edge of a ravine) was the leader of the pack. Reminiscent of the charismatic genius figures in Iris Murdoch novels, he was an intellectual guru for the others, though it’s baffling why anyone would look up to such a pompous jerk….

There’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo about Douglas’s philosophy …and more portentous gibberish about his current mysterious work… The other members of this novel’s cast are either as insufferable as Douglas or as flimsy as paper-doll mannequins….

Perhaps Mr. Rush means all this to read as black comedy, but it’s not remotely funny or compelling. In fact, it’s impossible to work up any interest in hearing what these absurdly self-important and poorly drawn characters might have to say as they drone on about themselves…

At one point, Ned says to Nina, “Why are we even talking about this?” It’s a question the reader might well ask about this claustrophobic and totally annoying novel.

I can definitely appreciate an enthusiastic critical pan, but sometimes I wonder if the NYT needs to assign MK a new beat, if only to lower her blood pressure.  Maybe something in the Verlyn Klinkenborg line, appreciating sunsets and birds in the backyard or some such?

Watching Hitchcock’s Classic Thriller Sextet on Family Movie Night

Well, actually just a third of it to date: The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps in the Criterion Collection reissues over the last two weekends.

Between 1934 and 1938, Alfred Hitchcock made six films in England that stand collectively as the highlight of his British period. Dubbed Hitch’s “classic thriller sextet” by theorists and critics, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (’35), Secret Agent (’36), Sabotage (also ’36), Young and Innocent (or The Girl was Young Indeed, 1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938) all contain thematic and visual elements that he would later implement in his Hollywood films.

Cinefile.

The_Lady_Vanishes_1938_Poster

Both are fantastic, but my nod goes to The Lady Vanishes even if the BFI list of the top hundred British films ranks it at #35 as opposed to #4 for The 39 Steps. My memories of it were so vague, and I am wondering how much of this relates to the likelihood that I previously watched a lousy public-domain video version; this is a recent, deluxe, beautiful Criterion two-disk version.  If you have not seen it in years, I highly recommend checking it out.  Comedy, chills, and chuckles are delivered in profusion as per the poster. I did not even have any memory of the not-so-brief beginning part of the movie that takes places off the train, in an inn in the nameless and oddly-imaginary Eastern European (?) country.  My most vivid recollection was the hauntingly uncanny moment when the writing in condensation on the train’s window, “Miss Froy,” re-emerges. The part of the movie where Margaret Lockwood can’t get anyone on the train to admit that her seatmate Miss Froy ever even existed is classic Hitchcock in its frightening atmosphere of sudden, inexplicable conspiracy.

Interestingly, in both movies a crucial plot point depends on the recollection & memorization of a certain tune or snatch of music.  The 39 Steps begins and ends in a music hall, and I think it “re-mediates” music-hall entertainment, in certain respects — i.e. it references and re-frames music-hall as a pre-existing representational code. In The 39 Steps the memorization of the tune is central to the plot and frames the entire story; in The Lady Vanishes it’s also important, albeit (as is typical of the movie) given a light spin: Michael Redgrave is some kind of musical ethnographer who, at the onset, is gathering examples of traditional native dance and music, so he is confident that he can easily memorize the crucial message encoded in the tune.  He actually loses the tune, but it turns out all right even so.

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Some of the original taglines from The 39 Steps:

It’s Great…It’s Grand…It’s Glorious!
Handcuffed to the girl who double-crossed him
The MAN who put the MAN in roMANce.
A hundred steps ahead of any picture this year
The Most Charming Brute Who Ever Scorned A Lady
Fated to be Mated with the One Man She Hated
She Hated to be Mastered… But She Learned to Like it from the Man who put the MAN in roMANce [!!!]
Its gender politics are creepy in not-atypical Hitchcockian style (much more so than The Lady Vanishes), with a plot contrivance handcuffing Robert Donat to Madeleine Carroll and requiring him to knock and drag her around quite a bit. One senses some disgust at the female body and perhaps a suppressed desire to stab it in the back with a kitchen knife. I was glad the kids had gone to bed by the time I watched excerpts from the famous Francois Truffaut interview with Hitchcock in which he drawls about his favored archetypical Blonde: “we want her to be a lady in the drawing-room and a whore in the bedroom.”  Subtle, Hitch!

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

LoveAffairsOfNathanielP_300dpi

I liked The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman (her 1st novel) more than I expected to.  This portrait of a caddish, former-nerd 30-year old Brooklyn freelance writer and his love affairs sounded very Girls-ish, and probably fun but shallow.  But it turned out to be a better novel than that.  Things I liked about it:

  • it offers a vividly detailed, often witty portrayal of a very particular place and time — hipster literary Brooklyn today — inhabited by equally particularized individuals who are also types; Nate and Hannah are quirkily particular, but one also always sees how they’ve been shaped by broad socio-cultural dynamics.  (Odd that she’d be named Hannah given the inevitable comparisons with Girls (whose protagonist is named Hannah Horvath)… But it seems that Waldman’s been working on the novel for a while.  There’s also the great Vampire Weekend song “Hannah Hunt” come to think of it.)
  • It’s good on the gender dynamics, and particularly the balances of power between men and women in the urban dating market (shifting more in the men’s favor by age 30). Waldman implied in an interview that she decided to make the male character the main protagonist as a challenge to herself and (I think she said this?) to ensure that the novel did not become too autobiographical. One does feel that Hannah, Nate’s love interest and one of his girlfriends — a smart, pretty but not gorgeous, witty writer-editor type — must have a lot of the author (and her friends) in her.  And I did feel that this strategy worked well; we sense a lot of personal investment and experience in the depictions, but the novel’s focus in Nate rather than Hannah keeps it from falling into certain autobiographical-novel paths.
  • [That said, probably my one criticism would be that at moments the free-indirect-discourse dipping into Nate's thinking can feel rather broad in its critical perspective: "But did any of it make him an asshole?  He had never promised her anything..." Early on you quickly feel, "yes, this guy is an asshole," and then the novel guides you toward at least limited sympathy for him.]
  • Perhaps along slightly comparable lines to Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot [my post about that one], it’s deeply steeped in a longer history of the novel and does some interesting things in updating marriage-plot novelistic conventions for our moment. Here is Waldman’s recent essay on how she stopped being a Richardsonian and learned to appreciate Henry Fielding.  And in this NYT interview she explains how Balzac’s Lost Illusions was a “lodestar” for her own book: “It nails the literary scene in every city, in every time,” she said. “A sense of people being motivated by a mix of idealistic commitment to the arts and love for it and vanity, ego, ambition.” [Oh and I just saw on Waldman's Twitter feed that she's an Elizabeth Gaskell fan and recommends Wives and Daughters.  Yes! -- that might be my pick for the best-but-least-known Victorian novel.]
  • The novel is satirical and brightly amusing about Brooklyn/ NYC literary-world mores, but also has a strong undertow of sadness in its portrayal of relationships and the ways these young men and women use one another, strategize, and develop layers of self-protecting cynicism, irony, and low expectations about romance.
  • It was fun to think about possible models for certain characters– e.g. is Greer Cohen, the sexy & flirtatious recipient of a big advance for her “memoir about my teenage misadventures,” a version of Elizabeth Wurtzel?  (Or am I out of date…)

Can Pop Culture be Toxic? Call of Duty, the Geto Boys, etc.

Interesting piece in the NYT by three forensic psychiatrists, “Does Media Violence Lead to Real Violence?” making the case that recent research suggests that yes, in fact it very likely sometimes does.

There is now consensus that exposure to media violence is linked to actual violent behavior — a link found by many scholars to be on par with the correlation of exposure to secondhand smoke and the risk of lung cancer. In a meta-analysis of 217 studies published between 1957 and 1990, the psychologists George Comstock and Haejung Paik found that the short-term effect of exposure to media violence on actual physical violence against a person was moderate to large in strength.

This makes sense to me.  I’ve long felt that progressives and First Amendment champions can get themselves into a corner on this issue.  Whenever there is a mass shooting, conservatives reflexively start looking for a link to media violence.  Since lack of effective gun regulation is so clearly the more immediate condition for most such acts, and since the turn to blame “the media” so obviously seems to serve as a distraction technique deployed by gun-freedom absolutists, the liberal-progressive instinct is to insist that violent video games and other media must have absolutely no relationship to actual violence (and/or other social dysfunction).  It’s as if the only choice is all or nothing: violent video games and movies cause and are to blame for dysfunction, or are irrelevant to it. But while of course unregulated gun ownership is the overwhelmingly more significant problem, this does not mean that it is not a problem when emotionally damaged/ depressed/ angry young men spend years in basements in effect massacre-training on games like Call of Duty.  After all, as Buddha is sometimes said to have said (though maybe did not actually), “what you think, you become.” Consider Anders Behring Breivik, gunman in the July 2011 Norway massacre, who “played video games such as World of Warcraft to relax, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for “training-simulation”. He further told a court in April 2012 that he trained for shooting using a holographic device while playing Call of Duty. He claimed it helped him gain target acquisition.”  Or Adam Lanza, who, similarly, obsessively played Call of Duty. Does this mean Call of Duty “caused” the shootings?  No. But it does suggest that a hyper-violent video game could, in some contexts/ for some individuals, become toxic in extended exposure.

I thought about these issues when reading a fascinating interview in the magazine Sang Bleu with Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys, one of the founders of the “horror-core” genre of hip-hop incorporating imagery and lyrical content from slasher and horror films.  The Geto Boys produced the wonderfully laid-back, and oddly melancholy, classic “Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangster” (which Office Space turned into a kind of anthem for white suburban wanna-be’s) but also songs like “Assassins.”  Sample lyric (decided just to keep it to one line): “She screamed, I sliced her up until her guts were like spaghetti.”

The “conservative” position on horrorcore, or on other similarly extreme forms of pop culture (e.g. “torture porn” horror films – although of course there’s a race angle w/ the Geto Boys that isn’t usually a factor in those), is that it’s degenerate, probably dangerous, and should be banned or heavily restricted.  The usual liberal/”progressive” position is that while the lyrics/images may be disturbing, this is free artistic expression, and that if we try to ban or restrict it in any way, we’re behaving as bourgeois audiences always have in response to challenging, boundary-pushing art.

The interview with Bushwick Bill suggests that both positions might offer one necessary but incomplete piece of the full picture. To the typical (especially white) middle-class listener in 1990, a song like “Assassins” was unnerving, more unnerving than a slasher film, because it felt less mediated, more purely the self-expression of an anti-social, violent, and misogynistic point of view.  But Bushwick Bill in fact comes across as a thoughtful, surprisingly well-read guy who saw the Geto Boys’ music as not that different from what someone like Stephen King was doing in fiction or Alfred Hitchcock or Wes Craven in film — like them, exploring the potential of horror as a genre.

I was trying to be like Alfred Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Poe on that “Chuckie” song, and “Mind of a Lunatic” was my version of Psycho…. I always thought it was creative how they [horror film-makers] captured a mood in a moment—like a fear of the unknown. I grew up watching The Outer Limits, where people were afraid of what they didn’t know. I compared that to being an artist with a group from Texas. We were the unknown, and we had to give them intriguing or questionable stuff so they’d say, “Man what’s wrong with these guys? Why they saying that?” In order to be noticed in the South, we had to be shocking…. On the first Geto Boys album called Making Trouble, they had a song on there called “Assassins,” and that was really my introduction to horror core rap. That was my first time hearing rap like that. I started comparing it to movies. That’s what a New Yorker’s mind is like, you see a movie, you compare it to the things you see in the hood. That’s just how New Yorkers are, we compare it to things we know, things that we are familiar with, just like our graffiti names come from TV and comic books.

The interviewer asks, “You mentioned morals… You went to a biblical school, you were about to go on a mission in India, so how do you go from that to making these dark rap songs? Did you ever feel guilty about it?” Bushwick Bill replies:

It was never an issue. To me it was just being creative. I never in my wildest imagination ever believed that anyone would think I had done anything like that or was capable. To me, it was just being creative…. I applaud any musician that can be creative enough to make people feel like they are watching Wes Craven, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg or Steven King. It’s no different than Orson Wells reading the War of the Worlds. What the difference? It’s supposed to be entertainment. That was the sole purpose: to entertain.

(Not quite explicitly articulated in what he says about why the Geto Boys were viewed differently from Wes Craven is what could be called the Trayvon Martin effect, that is, how scary young black men appear to many Americans.) BUT — it gets more complicated as B.B. talks about how he felt it subsequently affected him to keep working in this style.  He started getting into drugs, and he now says that he lost his way in part because he was so entirely immersed in the Geto Boys’ violent, misanthropic material.

I was rapping about horrific situations and psychotic mentalities everyday. It started becoming a habit…. There wasn’t a balance, we were always talking about death and killing all day long, that’s it. Could you imagine that being your only food for thought?

To me, this points to certain limitations to the absolutist First-Amendment “progressive” position on media violence. Certainly horror and the horrific can produce valuable art and of course need to be protected by First Amendment principles.  And violent video games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto can have a lot to offer beyond their more obviously sensationalist content, e.g. clever and imaginative game design, the construction of virtual spaces and geographies, etc.

But “you become what you think,” the culture we consume does become our food for thought, and Bushwick Bill’s comments suggest that at least for some of their consumers and producers, the most extreme, violent, and misanthropic forms of culture can in fact, as the conservatives always insist, become toxic. And I don’t think it does the progressive position any favors to pretend that is never the case.

Brilliant Clog-dancing to Siouxsie & the Banshees

I find this kind of mesmerizing.  I think it partly has to do with the sad backdrop — the scrubby trees, cheap picnic table w/ umbrella, gas grill — contrasted with her total exuberance.  2:05 is one especially great moment; and 2:39. This also makes me wonder if I need to go back to Siouxsie, about whom I’ve never cared much (forgot about this great song).

Rock on, you clog-dancing banshee!

h/t to Dangerous Minds.

The New Canon (Fiction Since 1985)

Have not checked this out thoroughly yet, but it seems a neat & handy site/blog: the New Canon: the Best in Fiction Since 1985.  One could object that the choices veer a bit predictable, but then, that’s kind of what a canon is all about definitionally, and it strikes me as a fairly solid list.  A little surprised to see David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion on there, I don’t think of that as a book that has produced an enormous amount of readerly pleasure, but then DFW’s works do seem generally difficult to figure out how to place in a canon once you get past Infinite Jest (I’d include the essays before the stories, personally).

The Pok-a-Dot and other attractions of Batavia, NY

We’ve fallen into the habit of spending the night in Batavia on our drives East.  It mostly just happens to fall at a good spot for us to break for the night, but we also kind of like it.

We have a big soft spot for a popular Greek diner-type 24-hour restaurant called Sport of Kings (named for the nearby seedy-looking racetrack) where you can get a really good chicken Souvlaki plenty big enough for two to share for $10.99.  Tip: get it with the sweet potatoes.  Sport of Kings is a great place to settle into for some comfort food (fantastic rice pudding, too) after driving for 9 1/2 hours (no beer, though, unfortunately).

This visit, though, we discovered what is now my favorite establishment in Batavia, the Pok-a-Dot diner, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary.

photoAmazing place, no?  [What is a Beef on Weck, you ask?  Well, I still have never eaten one, but it is a central element of the distinctive Western New York state regional cuisine, a kind of sliced roast beef sandwich on a kosher-salt-topped roll, dipped in "au jus."  Here's a fuller explanation.]

Here’s the inside.

photo copy 2As someone commented in a posting, it feels a bit like a slightly amplified food truck.  One pregnant woman complained/ commented that she had trouble fitting into the bathroom, and it’s true that it’s quite a squeeze– feels like you’re on a boat, with a wooden sliding door!

The Pok-a-Dot was apparently a favorite of Batavia’s most famous native son author, John Gardner– best known for his Beowulf retelling Grendel, and nowhere near as prominent now, I don’t think, as he was in his heyday in the 60s and 70s… but perhaps ripe for a revival, I don’t know.  The John Gardner society holds their annual readings at the Pok-a-Dot because it’s mentioned in his 1972 novel set in a fantastical Batavia, the Sunlight Dialogues, which (wiki) “follows Batavia police chief Fred Clumly in his pursuit of a magician known as the Sunlight Man, a champion of existential freedom and pre-biblical Babylonian philosophy. As Clumly believes in absolute law, order, justice and a Judeo-Christian world view, the two butt their ideological heads in a number of dialogues, all recorded on audiocassette by Clumly.”

Here’s a little plaque the John Gardner society had erected outside the Pok-a-Dot:

photo copy

Breakfast was pretty great. We ordered as much as we thought we could possibly eat, for four, with coffees, etc, and the total was something like $19.60.  Sarah and I each had the eggs-with-peppers– you can choose Hot or Sweet or Mixed, and I got the latter.  Delicious, filled with tomatoes too, and accompanied by a buttery hard roll toasted on the grill.  I was kind of hoping I’d get a “weck” (see above) but it did not have the salt so was I guess simply a hard roll.

Before concluding my guide to Batavia, I will mention the place we’ve stayed for our last couple visits, the Sunset Motel.  I kind of like this place though can’t really give it an all-out recommendation.  It is a bit shabby and really could use some fixing up.  It is clean, however, and the place has some charms.  It has a large field in back which is great for taking the dog and kids on a little run, and features some spooky cow and deer figurines:

photo copy 4And, remarkably, the interior back wall of the motel features a worn/fading mural featuring an accurate rendering of the motel’s proprietor holding a glass of wine (very debonair!) and accompanied by a Shih-Tzu (he currently has two of these) and two Dobermans.

photo copy 3As I said, this place could definitely use a renovation– for example, it was rather difficult to get our motel room door shut — you had to put a shoulder to it.  But I give it a lot of credit for the wacky mural and the uncanny deer.

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