Sunday, November 28, 2010

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A More Perfect Union

The train from Philadelphia to New York City passes through the parts of New Jersey that the rest of the nation is referring to when it speaks derisively of "New Jersey." I'd never been through Jersey myself, only heard tell of the pollution and stench and general excretory aesthetic. I've tried to withhold judgment on the state, influenced both by my friend Chuck, who harbors a warm curiosity for the wonders of each state (he seems to know every county in the union), and by my often weak attempt to live up to James Madison's concept of the high-minded citizen.

My forbearance paid off in this case. The pollution and ugliness were there, of course, but these aren't unique to New Jersey. What doesn't get mentioned—what I had to see for myself—was the latent beauty surrounding these blights. Factories and digging sites abutted wetlands and knots of trees that, when I focused on them to the exclusion of the industrial encroachments, struck me as rather idyllic. Newark reminded me of Providence, and even the towns more visibly ravaged by the decline of manufacturing contained a wonderful public building or two, relics of the New Deal (or perhaps even earlier—though I could see nothing through the train's windows but an unremarkable station, I was still excited to pass through Trenton, site of Washington's morale-boosting victory over the Hessians in 1776).

I certainly didn't find this slice of New Jersey to be the circle of Dante's Inferno that acquaintances have made it out to be. But I can't exactly say I saw paradise potentially regained, either. Instead, I saw a synecdoche for this moment in America, a moment which may not prove to be terribly important but, because we don't yet have the convenience of historical vantage, might as well be considered so. It's a moment that finds potential grappling with uncertainty, leaving the nation tired and immobile.

Citizen's fatigue is prevalent these days. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reported that 65% of Americans believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction. That's a powerful figure, and an understandable one. The national debt is climbing towards a trillion dollars, gnawing away at GDP like decay inside a tooth; our first branch of government, Congress, is plagued by bickering and vitriol; our president, once seen as an agent of hope, does not appear to feel the nation's pain; our armed forces are fighting (and the country is ignoring) two wars with uncertain definitions of victory; our airports and railways are in disrepair (many of the bridges my train crossed on the way to Manhattan made me hold my breath).

These are daunting challenges, but they are not the Civil War. Still, as the columnist David Brooks has frequently pointed out (here, for example), belief that the nation is on the wrong path, whether correct or not, is still troubling, for it has the potential to blossom into self-fulfilling prophecy. Citizen's fatigue is a nasty disease, one I've been battling for a while now. Being an American in 2010 can be a tiring business. On my way to New York, I read John Cassidy's trenchant inquiry into the utility of American finance in The New Yorker. Our economy, Cassidy says, depends for its growth on an industry that produces little of social value. But finance is extremely lucrative, and so, as both Brooks and Cassidy point out, the brightest young Americans tend to gravitate towards those fields. With apologies to Allen Ginsberg: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Goldman Sachs.

With Cassidy's article in mind, all I seemed to see in New York were the vaporous engines of our economy: CitiBanks and Chase Banks and shops, shops, shops. After walking a few blocks past all the lights and signs for sales, I felt as if I'd eaten nothing but candy for a week. We've created a paradoxical economic system in which our economy depends upon consumption, which happens to be exactly what our planet (and perhaps our morals) can hardly withstand.

It's a system that has incalculably improved the lives of millions; industrialization, in the span of about two hundred years, ended millenia in which most human beings lived barely above the subsistence level. But it is a system, as Cassidy points out, that has been perverted beyond recognition. Few people know that Adam Smith saw economics as a moral philosophy, not a mathematical "science." The increasingly complex financial markets, meanwhile, have lost any semblance of moral grounding, often failing to perform the market's basic function, the allocation of goods and prices. It is a system that demands consumption to the point that politicians' calls for sacrifice, however noble, are rendered moot.

The damper on America's mood, as the NBC/WSJ poll suggests, is not that systems like our rampant financial markets exist, but rather that we feel that nothing can be done to improve them. I suspect this isn't the first time many of the poll's respondents have felt that America is headed in the wrong direction. But it may be the first time they feel that this regression has an inexorable momentum. Republicans claimed their recent midterm victory as a mandate, but the low turnout seemed more suggestive of a pervasive sense that no matter who's in power, nothing will be done about the debt or the climate or unemployment.

This is a dangerous way to feel. Congress certainly has its issues, but it's important to remember that it is not designed to move quickly. Read Federalist No. 10, and you'll see that Madison and his fellow founders were fundamentally elitist; they designed a representative democracy so that the whims of the people wouldn't throw government off course. But this can make the individual citizen feel frustratingly impotent, especially in times like these, when the very air seems filled with decay.

What is to be done? There are a lot of policy proposals to consider (making debt reduction a national project akin to the space program seems smart to me), but these are beyond the practical purview of most individuals who live and work outside the Beltway. From my own limited experience, I can only urge belief. Belief has lately taken on a connotation of soft hearts and weepy eyes, but I'm not talking about the clap-your-hands-for-Tinkerbell type of belief. Nor am I talking about unthinking ideological frenzy. Real belief is thoughtful and tough, a resolution to prefer action to despair, which is always the easier course. Read Maira Kalman's outstanding illustrated American journey, And the Pursuit of Happiness. It's a Whitmanesque celebration of our unique nation: unapologetic, open-hearted, and curious (excerpts available here). Belief as Kalman portrays it is not free of doubt and melancholy, but neither is it bowed by them. Real belief is a powerful thing. It kept Washington from despairing in 1776, and it kept Lincoln from faltering in 1862.

But belief needn't be so world-historical. Belief led me to a new school halfway across the nation, and belief keeps me here in spite of my fears and doubts. Belief, whether we know it or not, leads us to hold doors, to volunteer on Saturdays, to pick up a littered candy wrapper on campus, to do all the things that, as Robert Kennedy said on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated, "make gentle the life of the world." And if these things seem futile, consider to whom the Constitution gives ultimate responsibility: "We the people..."

Friday, November 19, 2010

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Coming Together, Before the Break

We recently watched A Hard Day's Night for my creative writing class, and I was really taken by its smart and sweet take on being young, the aspect I tried to pursue in the following critique. 

Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964) is a period piece in the best sense: it is a product, not a prisoner, of its time. It endures not because it has aged well, but because it has hardly aged at all. The film had an immediate commercial purpose that it fulfilled and subverted at the same time. It showcased the Beatles' music, yes, but it also gave them their first chance to define themselves at a time when the cultural powers that be had written off the group as a degenerate fad to be sold and discarded. Lester's respectful and smart treatment suggests that he knew what he had on his hands, and out of the film's local context sprang a tale of youth's endless struggle with age.

The struggle here takes the form of the Beatles' gestures towards independence as their embattled manager herds them towards London for a television appearance. They play hooky, speak irreverently, and make eyes at girls—anything to have a bit of fun in the midst of their confining fame.

And the antics never go beyond fun; the rebellion is fundamentally innocent. Their subversion doesn't yet have the apocalyptic feel of the culture wars. When the group runs out of rehearsal, it's to romp in a field, not to drop acid. This is insolence in the mold of adolescent acting out, a bid for freedom based on the naive hope that it will bring an end to responsibility. The audience knows the Beatles will make it to their gig, and the band members themselves never seriously consider skipping out on their fame. As their manager tells the imperious and ridiculously-sweatered studio director, "Don't worry, they're good lads, they'll be back."

Rather than nihilistic stonewalling, the Beatles content themselves with satiric subversion. In the film's smartest scene, the group is fed to a pack of hungry reporters. Lester intends the metaphor literally, alternating shots of the Fab Four answering questions with grotesque close-ups of reporters' mouths chewing the hors d'oeuvres repeatedly denied the Beatles. Their witty answers defy stereotypes, even as they work within them; they refute all labels by pretending to embrace them. When asked about his hobbies, John scrawls something in a notebook and shows it to a female reporter, whose eyes widen in horror. It's obvious to the audience that John isn't a threat to the village maidens, but the reporters just don't get it, no matter how plain the Beatles make it for them (Reporter: "What do you call that collar?" Ringo: "A collar"). A Hard Day's Night is an establishment project that went straight over the establishment's head, a wink behind the adults' backs to the youths that were making the Beatles a phenomenon.

However, it's a wink that leaves room for love. The satire is sharp but never mean, for it's often turned against the Beatles themselves (Ringo's ostensible marginalization within the group is a running gag). The film is an appeal not only to the young in years but also to the young in spirit. Paul's grandfather, affectingly played by Wilfrid Brambell, is an unlikely accomplice to the group's escapades. This sharp but generous satire is the film's genius, but also the source of the poignancy that 46 years have lent the film: within a year, the burgeoning youth movement would begin to rumble with violence and bitterness. A Hard Day's Night captures the last stop for amity. Soon, the Beatles would be into beards and drugs and songs like "A Day in the Life" and "Helter Skelter;" not so long after that, John would be dead. But Lester gives us 90 minutes within which the Beatles are forever young, and for 90 minutes, we're young with them.

Monday, November 8, 2010

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I've Been Asked How I'm doing

Lately, I've been listening to My Morning Jacket's second album, At Dawn, after three years of barely touching it. I'm not sure which is stranger: that I didn't listen to one of my favorite albums for so long, or that during the hiatus, I never stopped numbering it among my favorite albums. As one whose musical awakening coincided with iTunes's ascendancy, that last honorific is one I bestow on few LPs. There are many albums I respect--Blonde On Blonde, Sweetheart of the Rodeo--but few that I make a point of returning to in their entirety, as I would to a favorite book. And even smaller is the subcategory of favored albums that aren't by the Rolling Stones; At Dawn is a member of this select cohort.

My Morning Jacket is one of the best bands working these days, and certainly one of the only contemporary groups that knows how to produce albums in the warm early-1970s vein. The group attracted me with their command of atmosphere; their first two records were recorded in a grain silo, the only space that could contain Jim James's rich, towering voice. Really, I was drawn to My Morning Jacket as a band with an unerring ability to capture loneliness. James's haunting vocals, the mist of reverb and distortion, titles like "Old September Blues," the photo that graced their first album's cover, of an empty motel pool glowing emerald in the Southern night: it was all evocative of time spent in between the places you really wanted to be, a decent description of how I thought of my life's geography at the time.

This wasn't just teenage angst. I actually loved high school, and I'd had my Zeppelin-Sabbath-Stooges phase the year before. It had something to do with the apartness I was increasingly aware of each day, the sense of fundamental loneliness that unfolded along with my budding desire to write. I assumed that this country of solitude was simply a temporary residence, a river to be forded, an airport to be left behind. But it never went away. Sure, part of the avidity I felt for My Morning Jacket was a sixteen year old feeding his Keatsian self-image, but it had more to do with a deeply felt connection, one pocket of loneliness communing with another. I'd sought out Led Zeppelin because rebellion seemed cool. But My Morning Jacket found me.

At Dawn was the album that really cemented my love of the band. Its sound was a bit brighter and its sentiments a bit sweeter, which meant that the inevitable loneliness, when it came, stung a little sharper. Even a galloping bar stomper like "Just Because I Do" contained the lyric, "I'm wishing you'd get better/And I'll get rid of you," a lyric in which sickness and health get confused. I bought the record just before my junior year of high school,a year defined by the Thursday night car rides home from working on the school newspaper. When it wasn't Exile on Main St. or Sticky Fingers seeing me and my fellow editor Charlie home through the empty streets of St. Louis, it was At Dawn. We talked about college, which was now looming, and we talked about girls and the paper and high school, which we both loved. And, as I remember it, Jim James sang the the whole way.

The discovery of Rolling Stones bootlegs kept me locked in one part of my iPod for most of the next three years. I'd come back to an MMJ song or two on occasion, but I didn't listen to At Dawn in full until last week. There was no fuss about putting it on again, but I don't think its return to my rotation was coincidental. Two and a quarter years of college have been all about loneliness, in spite of many wonderful friendships. It's taken a transfer for me to realize that this feeling, which I assumed would pass when I first felt it five years go, may just be what it feels like to be me. What I thought were the in-between places, the flyover country of my life: these may well be the destinations.

This realization constitutes a redrawing of the map, and its magnitude makes it hard for me to respond when friends ask how I'm liking my new school. Transferring has been excruciatingly lonely. My move to Philadelphia has been accompanied by the realization that I too easily waved aside the friendships I'd forged in Chicago; that I precipitously made a large choice; that as long as you have good friends, you're all right. It's brought about the admission that I don't really like college, which suddenly feels in the way of what I actually want to be doing. And it means that many days, most of the faces I see are strange to me.

I rehearse these anxieties daily. Funny, then, that they are always met by a voice from a stony, obdurate part of myself that I didn't know I had until I transferred, a voice that says, "You did the right thing." This voice is unmoved by my protests, and it is right. Something in Chicago was poisoning me, and whatever that something was, I'm free of it. The pain here is the product of growth, not stagnation. College suddenly feels like an obstacle because my writing is thriving, and I'd rather be working on that than scraping a C in statistics. It's lonely, but instead of wallowing in loneliness, I'm learning how to live with it, to see it as a realm to be explored rather than a weight to be carried. And the regrets I have about Chicago--these are reminders to be patient with my new school, to let it run its course so that laments can be contained later, and to cling to friendships where I've got them. Above all, I'm learning to listen to that intrepid voice within, urging me to stay the course, because no one said that the right choice wouldn't hurt. Sometimes, that voice sounds like me.

Returning to At Dawn has felt like the best gift that gritty voice could give the rest of my anxious self. Revisiting to that album, though a small event, has lent me a wonderful feeling of self-sufficiency, as if I'd found a way to pay myself twenty bucks or compliment my own haircut. At Dawn was the last album My Morning Jacket recorded on the tiny, endearingly named Darla Records label. They've since appeared on Letterman and at Madison Square Garden and no longer have to record in a silo. Walking around with At Dawn in my head, I like to think that the bandmembers look upon that album as a dispatch from a despondent time that turned out to be quite happy.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

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The Franzen Files-Part 3

I wrote the following piece for my creative writing class with Anthony DeCurtis. There, we're limited to 750 words, so this critique of Franzen's Freedom cuts corners where I would usually elucidate. Still, I think it captures the anxious experience of reading my favorite author's latest book and realizing that I just didn't like it. I also sought to record my anxiety with Freedom's receiving more praise than any other novel of the new millennium, a disheartening indicator of literature's degraded cultural status and a curious example of the new media's fickle attentions. 

"Because it's the same problem everywhere. It's like the internet, or cable TV—there's never any center, there's no communal agreement, there's just a trillion little bits of distracting noise."

So proclaims Walter Berglund, a central character in Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom The book is full of such complaints  about our disconnectedly connected times. Curiously the praise that met Franzen's book seems to belie Walter's lament: Freedom's reception certainly didn't suffer from fragmentation, as the accolades piled up in unspoken consensus. The last work of serious fiction to be so commercially successful was Franzen's previous novel, The Corrections, published days before 9/11. Even the early reviews of Freedom that dared to criticize did so with kid gloves. The Wall St. Journal declared half of the novel to be "bogged down with tendentious speechmaking and baleful overanalysis," but hastily added that Freedom "remains a weirdly addictive reading experience."

The Journal was not alone in commenting on Freedom's addictive quality, and here complications arise. There's a contradiction when a novel is simultaneously panned as ponderous (even favorable reviews wondered if Franzen really needed so many cultural references) and praised as compellingly readable. Broadly speaking, serious literature comes in two flavors: the pleasurable (think The Great Gatsby) and the laborious (Gravity's Rainbow). Novels can be serious and ponderous, they can be serious and pleasant, but seldom are they both ponderous and pleasant. What could account for the frequency with which Freedom's reviews contained this contradiction? The answer has something to do with Walter Berglund's grumble about our manic culture.

As Walter describes it, the media, with its "bits of distracting noise," is like a swarm of bees whose members frenetically buzz after different ends. Viewed one way, Freedom's reception thwarts this model, as it was a case where the swarm picked up on one common theme until it became cultural shorthand: Freedom is an Important Book.

But from another vantage, Walter's theory holds. It's tough to discern a center to all of the feverish hailing of Franzen's book. Reading Freedom, you start to wonder: why the focus on this book? For Freedom lacks the lasting human feeling that marked The Corrections. It too self-consciously tries to mention every cultural touchstone since the Clinton years. For these reasons, Freedom really is ponderous, unless you enjoy long digressions on bird watching and coal mining; unless you aren't wearied by 550 pages of sustained archness; unless you're willing to quell the urge to veer from the critics and just dislike the book. The question persists: why now, ten years after the last popular crowning of a masterpiece? Why not any of the fine novels that appeared in the interim, many of which gathered a critical champion or two, but none of which pervaded the culture with the sense of indispensability that has grown around Freedom? Why?

Pure expectation accounts for some of the frenzy. The Corrections was rightly treated as a masterpiece, and Freedom's long gestation meant there were a lot of laurels waiting to be brought out of storage. But there's another conclusion, one that Walter Berglund would recognize. Freedom feels indispensable because it advertises itself as such. It clumsily seeks to "document our culture" and "comment on America in decline" and perform countless other dubiously important literary tasks that can only be rendered in quotations. A critic or two bought into Freedom's self-conception, and then, as the media's fast-twitch fibers began thrashing, it became the received wisdom, the shared notion, even the subject of a David Brooks column. It was chosen for Oprah's Book Club, a symbolic triumph for Franzen after The Corrections' infamous exile from the same group a decade ago. The few heretics, notably The Atlantic's B.R. Myers, were sunk before ever setting pen to paper.

Freedom owes its success to the very apparatus it harangues. It mourns the decline of reading, and now it is the most widely read, most culturally influential piece of serious American fiction to appear in years. This may seem like a victory, but it is not. Freedom is bereft of feeling and bloated with canned ideas. It's a puffed-up pamphlet that has thrived because critics have bought into its Cassandra cries, and because Franzen remains a skilled writer. But as long as it's another ten years before the media fixes its limited attention on a serious novel—as long as another decade's worth of fearlessly conceived, deeply felt fiction passes unnoticed; as long as the public only rallies around novels that the media hails as Important, which will tend to be books that proclaim themselves as such—then Freedom will have succeeded in being heard, but not in being heeded.

Monday, November 1, 2010

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The Franzen Files-Part 2

I wrote the following at the end of the summer, right after Franzen's turn on Time's cover. At this point, I'd been eagerly awaiting Freedom's arrival, and the ambivalence I felt about the Franzen cover was tied to the demise of the printed word. I didn't yet realize the different character of the publicity Franzen was getting this time around; it would be a few days before I realized that Franzen wouldn't belong to me anymore.

"The only mainstream American household I know well is the one I grew up in, and I can report that my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover and Time, for my father, was the ultimate cultural authority. In the last decade, the magazine whose red border twice enclosed the face of James Joyce has devoted covers to Scott Turow and Stephen King. These are honorable writers; but no one doubts it was the size of their contracts that won them covers. The dollar is now the yardstick of cultural authority, and an organ like Time,which not long ago aspired to shape the national taste, now serves mainly to reflect it."
                   -Jonathan Franzen, "Why Bother? (The Harper's Essay)"

That Jonathan Franzen, as of this week, is the first living novelist to grace Time's cover since the aforementioned Mr. King did so in the year 2000 is the type of poignantly absurd modern irony upon which Franzen's writing thrives. This weird echo-chamber scenario—a writer laments the author's eroding social power, using as one example of this Time magazine's shift from cultural arbiter to cultural observer, then ends up on Time's cover fourteen years later, and certainly not because of Stephen King-esque sales—does not seem all that far removed from the various recursive episodes that populate Franzen's 2001 book, The Corrections. In that novel, for instance, the Lambert family matriarch benefits from a new anxiety drug produced by the same corporation that is ruthlessly denying the Lamberts the money they seem reasonably owed thanks to the family patriarch's pioneering research efforts toward another pharmaceutical treatment made by this same corporation (which treatment may well benefit said patriarch, now suffering from dementia); the drug the matriarch enjoys happens to be an illegal narcotic enjoyed by one of her sons earlier in the book. If readers found all this PoMo looping to be a bit too self-serving, then Time has graciously presented them, by way of Franzen, with an example of how modern life indeed has a way of catching its own shadow.

Franzen was right about Time serving mostly as a behind-the-curve observer of national taste. For the last decade, the magazine's cover has seemed more in attuned to the cover of Newsweek, its genial competitor in inoffensive middlebrow reportage, than the nation. The irony is that in putting Franzen on its cover for reasons not having to do with the now all-too-well-documented Oprah incident, Time is gesturing towards once again shaping American taste. As if acknowledging its reentry of territory it ceded long ago, the cover's subtitle reads, "He's not the richest or the most famous. His characters don't solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future." Time is nodding to what Americans want out of their literature these days (some combination of vampires, wizard kids, and a plot implicating the Vatican) at the same time that it's offering an alternative that it knows will almost certainly not prove as popular. Franzen's new novel, Freedom—the occasion for all this publicity—"shows us the way we live now," the cover declares.

I'm an English major and an unabashed Franzen fan (a St. Louis native, like Franzen, I've had the good fortune to meet and correspond with Franzen, who has been nothing but gracious), and so a large part of me is thrilled by Time's decision. It's nice to see a largely obsolete (but potentially still important) vessel take a stand for a largely obsolete (but definitely still important) art form. It's a rare act of countermarket courage. Even those who find Franzen whiney or elitist—and this Franzen fan begs these people to reconsider—ought to take some satisfaction in Time's extension of its literary middle finger, if they care about serious fiction.

But as in Franzen's writing, the sweet inexorably mingles with the sad. On a personal level, consider the passage quoted at the beginning of this piece. Franzen's father—who in many of Franzen's essays is depicted as at best wary and at worst disdainful of his son's decision to pursue such an unmarketable vocation as writing—is not around to see his son on the cover of the magazine he so respected, taking his place in the line of Cheevers and Baldwins. That's the kind of poignancy that seems to have characterized Franzen's life, and particularly his well-documented relationship with his parents.

And even if Mr. Franzen were still around to see Jonathan framed in red, what would he really be looking at? The triumph of Time's decision lies, as I said, in its apparent futility, an Alamo of one dying medium defending another, but this doesn't mean the futility isn't still there. The future of Time, Newsweek, and just about every other printed news source is doubtful, and their passing marks the end of an age that saw a more unified culture, one in which John Cheever was not just the province of English departments (even there, sadly, he is an endangered species). We enjoy more choice, yes, but the price of this seems to be that we enjoy less community. It certainly feels that way. Time says Franzen's new novel shows us the way we live now; but sadly, comically, it's the form of this episode, not the content, that says the most about life in America in this decade that we still don't know what to call. For perhaps the last time, Time is bringing us the news.