Wednesday, January 30, 2013

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Once More Unto the Breach

There's often an awful moment in the interim between the completion of a piece of writing and its publication, a moment when all the initial excitement at the prospect of an essay or story finding an audience wider than yourself suddenly gives way to to a horror at the basic implication of this pending broadcast, to wit: Other people will see what I've written.

And so you open up the Word document that even at that moment a coastal editor is busy transforming into HTML format or whatever it is that allows anyone with Wi-Fi to read your attempts at getting at something honest and true about your experience—an attempt that anyone who's made knows to be compromised from the start—and rifle through it to try and divine signs of the coming carnage, to see just which quadrant of your boneheadedness is about to be mapped before a (theoretically) large group of people. And sometimes—even, perhaps, most of the time, if the effort has been an honest one, faithful to the parameters of your experience as you understand it—the piece actually holds up all right, and all of the fire alarms go quiet and the dean of students in your mind comes on the PA system to tell your neurons and synapses that this was just a drill.

Such was my reaction to The Paris Review's publication of another one of my memoirish-esque-piece things, written as much to prove to myself that I can get published in 2013 as well as in 2012 as out of a real delight in The Seminary Co-Op's new location, which is probably not the best motive for writing something, but there you have it.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

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Norman Mailer's Prescience

He's largely discredited, talked about more than read, derided more than admired, invoked as a warning more often than as an example. And yet: Mailer casts a shadow. Swaggering, bloated, misogynistic, self-important, his ambition cramping his achievement, Norman Mailer nevertheless still looms large for a young man trying to write, even if that young man has never read him. He's like the planet that appears in Borges' story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," its effects felt before it ever appears in the sky. Of the great postwar dinosaurs, I've read a lot of Bellow, Cheever, Updike, a bit of Malamud, but Mailer? The Naked and the Dead, The Armies of the Night, The Executioner's Song—they often came down from the bookstore or library shelf, cover opened, a paragraph or two read, but never enough urgency radiated from them so that they had to be read right now, not when I hadn't read Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice or....

This constant relegation would have wounded old Norman, of course, because he wanted nothing more than to be The Novelist. Not the next Hemingway, but Hemingway's better—everyone's better. And yet even as I placed his books back on the shelf, moving on to more vital parts of the canon, books that would come in handy at the kind of cocktail parties I assumed I'd someday attend, I knew I'd have to come back around to Mailer at some point; there was no way not to. He was Mailer, an object of both fascination and repulsion thanks to his insistence upon his own greatness, a greatness that even he seemed to know he was never quite fulfilling, and that even when he came closest, it was in his nonfiction, not in his preferred field of fiction. The nonfiction is where I finally tried to start last spring, with "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," his report on the 1960 Democratic National Convention for Esquire that's widely considered one of New Journalism's Founding Documents, but which I found to be a fetishization of John Kennedy that a half-century's worth of revelations had rendered into a wince-worthy panegyric. Undaunted and beset by exam-week boredom, I took a crack at Of a Fire On the Moon, an impenetrable inquiry into the Moon landing that I abandoned after thirty or so pages, in no small part because of Mailer's insufferable insistence on referring to himself as "Aquarius" on just about every page.

And yet I'm finally engrossed in a Mailer book now, and it was by no design of my own, which feels fitting. It's as if Mailer's legend, lurking out there on the periphery of good taste, picks readers in its own good time. The book is Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer's account of the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Convention. I came across it on the shelf at Chicago's Seminary Co-Op Bookstore, its cover emblazoned with a stark aerial photo of riot police and protestors squaring off in Grant Park. I was in the right city, in the right post-election mood, and so I bought the book and began reading on the plane home.

As ever, Mailer's pompousness is on display ("Norman Mailer took up too damn much room," Jonathan Lethem writes in a fond essay). He refers to himself as "the reporter," a device one might think is chosen for unobtrusiveness that ends up drawing large amounts of attention to itself (though it's better than Aquarius). His self-regard surfaces in laughable ways (" was possible the reporter had influenced as many Black writers as any other white writer in America," e.g.). His self-analysis veers into the absurd. (At one point, he entertains the thought that if he apologizes to his wife for having an affair, a wounded Robert Kennedy might survive the bullet wound to the head. To be fair, Mailer acknowledges that this thought is ludicrous, but this acknowledgement does nothing to lessen the ridiculousness of his disclosure.)

And yet the book remains a feast of humor, erudition, and insight into the American scene that feels as valid in 2013 as it must have in 1968. Here, for instance, is Mailer's assessment of the old-guard Republicans at the convention's outset:

"They believed in America as they believed in God—they could not really ever expect that America might collapse and God yet survive, no, they had even gone so far as to think that America was the savior of the world, food and medicine by one hand, sword in the other, highest of high faith in a nation which would bow the knee before no problem since God's own strength was in the die."

Yes, the young writer thought to himself: maybe there are reasons Mailer continues to haunt the land, after all. He was insufferable, a bloviator, and rarely sober, but he was on to something.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

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This Is Criticism

Judd Apatow has earned a reputation among critics as a director able to pair an outrageous, adolescent sense of humor with an eye for the melancholy realities that comedy is often called upon to mask: loneliness, emptiness, and mortality. For some critics, however, this formula began to fray with Funny People, his 2006 film about a terminally ill comedian, and has further deteriorated with his new film, This Is 40. Writing at Slate, Dana Stevens called the film "overly long, self-indulgent, and bone-crushingly banal"; Richard Roeper said the film was "a huge disappointment."

One of the popular criticisms leveled at the film—delivered at withering length by Meghan Daum in a piece titled "This Is Not 40" at The New Yorker's website—is that the movie is a mopey tale of self-pitying, well-to-do white people who feel that the world is ending because the temperature of their priviliged womb has changed a half-degree; further agitating these critics is Apatow's decision to cast his own wife and children in the film, suggesting that This Is 40—which I found to be moving, languorous, and pretty damn funny—may be little more than a cri de coeur of a famous director who never quite grew up.

Attacking a work on the basis of its protagonists' class—a tactic used against, to name just a few examples, Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls (which Apatow produces); almost every film Wes Anderson has ever made; and even, occasionally, The Great Gatsby—always strikes me as a stupid complaint, one that reinforces our nation's current mood of mistrust and division, claims that a fair proportion of the population can't possibly yield any interesting stories based solely upon their social status, and excuses its wielder from examining what it is they actually dislike about a certain film or play. Yes, privileged white people are overrepresented in American culture. True, wealth removes a whole swath of challenges that bedevil the poor, making elites' self-pity especially galling and, at face value, an unappetizing subject for a serious comedy. But human beings of all strata are capable of self-pity, or self-aggrandizement, or anger, or love, or any of the emotions that make us such complicated and marvelous creatures regardless of our incomes. Human beings of all strata, in other words, are potential subjects for art, whose first task is to represent experience. What's worthy of evaluation is not the 401ks of a work's protagonists (if This Is 40's critics are right, and the movie is a vapid tale of the ennui of wealthy white people, then let us here and now make Don Draper walk the plank), but rather the work's success in portraying its characters' struggles.

This is the job of the critic, and so I thank god for Richard Brody, the New Yorker's bearded, balding, and bespectacled online film maven, a shameless aesthete who feels no compunction about calling This Is 40 "a kind of wild-souled existential drama." For Brody, the question of the class of the film's protagonists is no question at all; what matters it that the film movingly (and hilariously) depicts a quandary faced by all humans at one time or another, that of time slipping away. It also deals with the strains that beset a marriage as it rolls along, the enormous obligation and helplessness parents feel in trying to raise good children, and the ways in which we all compromise our dreams in the course of trying to make them reality, and it does so with generosity and patience (indeed, Brody thinks the film should have been longer). These are the things that interest Brody, and if it at first feels a bit tone deaf to invoke Ingemar Bergman in connection to a film that includes a scene of Paul Rudd spread-cheeked before the camera, trying to get a glimpse of his own anus, it feels less so when you consider that Brody's business is film, and the film under examination is a comedy by one of our greatest practitioners of that genre, which has mixed bawdiness and dread since the days of Aristophanes. It's the critic's job to make those connections, to consider those works that are worthy of consideration, to resist the the easy jab that we shouldn't care about Paul Rudd or Leslie Mann's characters because they're rich; or that Wes Anderson is simply a hipster curator; or that the implications of the violence in The Dark Knight Rises don't have any reverberations beyond the theater, because it's just a theater. To the critic—an increasingly endangered species—the theater is never just a theater, and as a society, we're better off for his restlessness.

Friday, January 4, 2013

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A Year In and Out of Reading

I was not sorry to see 2012 go. The year certainly held its treasures—some nice publications, a return to a favorite summer job, a happy end to college—but it also felt indeterminate, wearying.

It's an indication of how I felt about last year that I don't much feel like interrogating that last statement. I'll instead appeal to a different measure in bidding farewell to 2012. In 2011, I read 23 books, a nice figure that I briefly (and stupidly) bemoaned as the year drew to a close. I was on pace to shatter that figure through August, at which point I'd finished sixteen books, but then my new job started and my reading slowed significantly. I ended the year having completed twenty books. That small figure makes me wonder if this will be the last year I keep a reading list, at least for a while: inexplicably, I don't keep track of articles and short stories and essays I read, which makes the list feel partial, and keeping a year's list of reading often turns my favorite pastime into a race against the clock, a task performed for the menial reward of another notch in my notebook. In any case, here's a look back at what I read in 2012:

I began the year with Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, a novel with a pleasant campus atmosphere and half-baked characters. I then moved on to a series of rereads, dipping into Dante's Inferno for the third time, his Purgatorio for the second time, and Bellow's Herzog for the second time. Dante remains a favorite, a well that can never be exhausted (alas, I aborted a reading of Paradiso shortly after beginning); I feel much the same about Bellow, whose Herzog truly deserves wider attention as an American Ulysses, a novel of ideas that is all about living.

I finally broke my Jane Austen fast and read Persuasion, a novel whose charms and sly political undertones made me sad that I'd waited so long to read Austen and glad to have finally been initiated into her happy readership. I tackled Paradise Lost for a class; compared to Dante, Milton's Christian epic is rigid and puritanical, and my experience of reading it was dutiful and detached.

In May, I read Jonathan Franzen's new essay collection Farther Away for a review. He's of course a favorite of mine, and I remain under his spell, no matter his critics' carping. I also read my first Graham Greene novel, The Quiet American, which kept me in good company in the empty days between the end of exams and graduation.

Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station received a lot of attention last year, and I'm already planning a reread in 2013; I found its examinations of the nature of contemporary life's relationship to art to be compelling and perhaps a bit too accurate, but I read it mostly in airports and airplanes and thus not as carefully as I'd like. Hemingway, usually not an ally, surprised me at the beginning of summer with the heartache of The Sun Also Rises, which I read at the prompting of Tom Bissell's lovely short essay on the book from a back issue of The Believer. Adrian Goldsworthy's biography of Julius Caesar was my history for the year, an informative if slightly dry recounting of the great man's life.

Melville's Billy Budd was as stirring and mysterious in its economy as Moby-Dick is in its bagginess. Sarah Bakewell's offbeat biography of Montaigne, How to Live, is not only a lively and amusing take on Montaigne's idosyncratic life and works; it's also an interesting reconsideration of what a biography can be. I can't recommend it enough.

Anna Karenina was the year's crowning achievement. I liked it less than War and Peace, but comparisons are relative at such heights. Tolstoy may profess in the famous first sentence to write about unhappy families, but I'm always impressed by his ability to depict happiness as an equally interesting part of the human experience.

From there I read two Michael Chabon novels back-to-back: The Yiddish Policeman's Union and the new Telegraph Avenue, which I reviewed here. Chabon is a stylistic and narrative wizard, and both experiences confirmed him in my mind as one of my favorite contemporary writers, a neon whiz kid who touches on themes of loss and nostalgia close to my heart.

Dave Eggers' A Hologram For The King was topically interesting and emotionally chilly. Turgenev's Fathers and Sons immediately entered the pantheon of my favorite books. John Updike's Rabbit Redux was waterlogged and moldy with Sixties motifs. His vision still strikes me as best contained in the botanical garden of the short story rather than the forest of the novel.

Finally, in the days before Christmas, I revisited Hamlet for the fourth or fifth time. It's always good to be back in Denmark, no matter how rotten the state.

A parting word about this blog: Traction did a bit of slipping this year. I posted less than ever, and my interest waned accordingly. I've considered converting this into a Tumblr for simply posting published pieces, but I'm not ready to give up on the project yet, which has now been with me through three calendar years, a companion that's always in the process of being created, just like someone I know.