Saturday, July 31, 2010

Short-a-Day: Charles D'Ambrosio's "The Dead Fish Museum"

Originally published in A Public Space 01, Spring 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 86.

I'm not sure exactly what's going on in this character piece, and yet I found myself completely content while reading the story. The little details given for these three carpenters--Ramage, Rigoberto, and RB--hint at their worlds, and the way in which they just sort of slog through them, but it's all held very close to the chest. For instance, Ramage has been in a hospital, RB tells him "You used to be somebody else," and he carries a gun, carefully planning a suicide, yet never following through, even when he's totally drunk, as he often is. He's annoyed by children--he remembers moving a knife from one side of his plate to the other, so as to quell his sudden urge to stab a baby in the eye--and yet he cares for the abandoned baby in the hotel room next door when its parents are long since passed out. He's got ample opportunity to score with Desiree, the porn star for whom he's building sets, and yet, he passes by. And he steals from the local grocery, but for no reason (feeling deeply ashamed of himself, too), but doesn't skip out on his hotel bill, though his reckless neighbors do.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Short-a-Day: Stuart Nadler's "Visiting"

Originally published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 88.

A common complaint from both readers and writers of short fiction is that every story has already been told before. The more you read, in fact, the more intimidating it can be to try to write something of your own. What's important, then, is the telling--the voice, the characters, the language; not the plot. So what if it's yet another tale about a distant father visiting his even-more-distant son: life happens. How we deal with those common experiences, those shared stories, that's the interesting bit. And that's what makes Nadler's clean story such a simple pleasure to read.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Short-a-Day: Russell Banks's, "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story" (1985)

From The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 99.

The nice thing about anthologies--especially those that pull from a long range of time (in this case, 37 years) is that they've already culled from all the published stories out there, so while you still may happen upon styles that you dislike, you're at least seeing the emblematic versions of those tales, the best of your worst, so to speak. What Banks's story illustrates best is the choice of narrative person, and he vacillates from the first to the third in his attempt to quantify and explain his own personal type of love, a love that he was unable to recognize at first and which still, to be frank, confuses him (as it does all of us), and which he must therefore distance himself from in order to describe. He, of course, still fails, but like Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," it's in the failing that he really succeeds.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Short-a-Day: T. C. Boyle's "The Silence"

Originally published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 96.

I've long since stopped trying to guess what sort of story T. C. Boyle's going to tell me. You can pick up his marvelous collection of a hundred stories and mistake it for an anthology of writers; it's only in comparison to the teaching anthology he edited, Doubletakes, that you realize it's not. But enough about my admiration of his craft: "The Silence" is another winner, a strange, exotic (and erotic) story of reinvention, with the fantastically named Jeremy Clutter, 43, giving up his life (and his first marriage, wife, twins, and all) to become Ashoka (Sanskrit for "Without Sadness"), the newlywed husband of Karuna ("the former Sally Barlow Townes of Chappaqua, New York"). How bland and ordinary their names and lives seem, compared with this--their three year, three month, and three day meditative sojourn in the desert, a "retreat, under the guidance of Geshe Stephen O'Dowd andlama Katie Capolupo." No, for a moment his choice is totally logical, especially with the first section "Dragonfly" (each has a one-word title) promising such a poetic reunderstanding of the world: "I am the karmic representation of the insect world, here to tell you that all is well amongst us. Hooray! Jabba-jabba-jabba!"

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Short-a-Day: Tea Obreht's "Blue Water Djinn"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 2, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 30.

Obreht loves the sea, and therefore spends much of this story describing it with a lush and magical voice: "All around him stand small towers of coral, gray breathing things. The retreating water has dragged the starfish from their moorings, left them red-backed and raw in the sand, reaching for their hiding places. Sea urchins cluster together, spines shining. Twenty feet out on the crenellated alleys of the reef, the underwater forest begins." It is, fittingly enough, another world, and it's true that there's much that we don't know about the wet underbelly of the earth. And yet: so what? Obreht hints at a connection between the boy (Jack, our unclaimed narrator) and the Frenchman, whose drowning--perhaps the hands of the water djinn--is the impetus for this tale. But it remains liquid, so the "revelatory" climax, with the boy watching the Frenchman calling out for help, lacks punch.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Short-a-Day: Katie Williams's "Bone Hinge"

Originally published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 67.

"The place where we are joined is a secret place for Hattie and me, especially since everyone always wants to look at it. The skin of our backs descends into a V, like a bird's wing does to its body--a bone hinge covered in smooth skin, our spines locked together at the base. We face away from each other, simply two girls standing back to back. When walking somewhere, I let Hattie lead, because then I'm not obliged to wave to anyone or chirp some greeting that will likely not be returned. I trail with perfectly placed backward steps, looking at the world after Hattie has passed it, which makes it a little friendlier somehow."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Short-a-Day: Ryan Mecklenburg's "Hopefulness"

Originally published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 40.

Ouch; I was digging Mecklenburg's anal-retentive narrative, about a man who fixates first on his family, then, when this pushes his wife away, on the regulations for his Neighborhood Watch committee. It gets better when we see him shirking on his duties when it comes to the foreclosed Martin house next door--especially as we learn that he goes so far as to help thieves roll up and steal the carpeting because his wife, Marlene, isn't on an extended vacation with the kids, but has actually shacked up with Mr. Bob Martin, and has sent him divorce papers from St. Louis. But then there's this line: "The comparison is obvious, but I make it anyway: my negligence, in both the crumbling of this house and the crumbling of the marriage. How I ignored the signs."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Short-a-Day: E. C. Osondu's "A Simple Case"

Originally published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 60.

This is really a simple story, bulked up simply by being a foreign tale, of police corruption in, I think, Nigeria. Basically, the protagonist, Paiko, is waiting for his girlfriend--Sweet, a prostitute--when the brothel she works at is raided. Before he can bribe the officers, as usual, he is taken to the jail, and--after armed robbers snatch a Commissioner's car--he is used as a scapegoat, paraded around as if he's a hardened criminal. Powerlessness becomes a theme, especially as he's carted off to Area F: "'Sergeant Torture will hold a suspect's penis in his hand and insert a rusty sharp bicycle spoke into it. Sometimes, if he does not want you to suffer too much, he will use a sharp broomstick, ah, that place na waya,' the speaker concluded."

Friday, July 23, 2010

Short-a-Day: Jerome Charyn's "Lorelei"

Originally published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 78.

Charyn's got an original character, a small-time grifter named Howell who half-cheats wealthy widows by using his conservative attitude and his "beautiful hands" to get them to fall for him and, subsequently, to invest in him--as a means of tying themselves to him. In return, he offers actual emotions, not mere illusion: "The chiseler fell in love, even if only for five minutes." It's a great start, especially in the way he sets himself apart from the lonely widows, "the real birds of prey. They grasped at Howell with their forceful talons." Now, though: "He was middle-aged, well past 50, and couldn't bear to romance another widow."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Short-a-Day: Melanie Rae Thon's "Heavenly Creatures: For Wandering Children and Their Delinquent Mother"

[Every Thursday, I'll be looking at an older short story.]

Originally published in The Paris Review, No. 169, Spring 2004. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 90.

Thon's story goes on so long that it gets a little heavy-handed, what with the abandoned children turning into the animals that haunt the woods, and the narrator--who has learned to empathize, now that she is a mother, an orphan, and a widow herself--turning inward, with an italicized prayer to Love. But the majority of the story is a loving piece of work, open-ended and misleading in terms of plot, but totally grounded in its sense of character and in the shifting tone. That's the growth that justifies this story: "A story like that could turn the hard of heart into believers, or the most trusting souls into cynics. Didi's children chose to believe." It's this coming-around choice, that perception and emotion are really, ultimately, what we choose to make of them, that lends the tale such power.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lovesong of the Electric Bear

Photo/Stan Barouh 

It can't be easy to be different, but it sure as heck makes it easy for someone to write a play about you. In Lovesong of the Electric Bear, Snoo Wilson's subject is Alan Turing (Alex Draper), the socially awkward British mathematician who--after being convicted of what was in 1950 known as "gross indecency"--committed suicide. Rather than styling the play in a machine-like way, as one might expect from this computer and A.I. pioneer, Wilson instead patterns it off Turing's immaturity, staging the action as the final dream of Turing's inanimate childhood companion, a stuffed bear named Porgy (Tara Giordano). The result is a bizarre memory play that traces Turing's life from his torment at boarding school to his redemption as a fellow at Cambridge, from his involvement in WWII as the head of a cryptanalyst team to his tireless attempts to create his "Universal Machine," and from his homosexuality to his chemical castration.

Just as Turing is said to "make no distinction between living things and machines," Wilson's script makes it difficult to tell the memories apart, or to rank them by importance. The multiply-cast actors don't help in this regard either, for it's hard to tell when they're returning as a previously introduced character, or if they're someone entirely new. If you're not familiar with Turing's personal history, this is even more difficult, for Wilson rarely explains the relevance of people like Dilly Knox (Peter B. Schmitz) and glosses over the importance of characters like Joan (Cassidy Boyd), turning what would be emotional moments into puzzled, intellectual ones. Thirty years are compressed into two hours, and what comes across clearest is the awkward humor of the play. It's not until the final scenes of the play, left alone with Turing's anguish over the betrayal of his lover, Arnold (Willie McKay), seeing him interact with his psychiatrist's family (Claire Graves and Lilli Stein), or being coldly abused by his mother/British judge (Nina Silver) and the doctors who medically unman him (Alex Cranmer), that we're able to feel anything.

Short-a-Day: Karen Russell's "The Dredgeman's Revelation"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, July 26, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 70.

Well, Karen Russell loves the everglades--something about the natural magic must do it for her. But unlike Annie Proulx's gruff love for Wyoming, Russell tends to spend so much time on lavish descriptions that the story gets all swamp-like. The descriptions are fine, but a bit artful: "white-tailed deer sprinted like loosed hallucinations," "[buzzards] made Louis think of funeral umbrellas," "Florida...a peninsula where the sky itself rode overland like a blue locomotive, clouds chuffing across marshes...." The tale is on firmer ground when focused on Louis and his more child-like perception of the world--especially given the ending of the story, in which Louis, who was born dead, finally understands the "pure sadness" of death.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Short-a-Day: Heidi Julavit's "Multiples of Cohen"

Originally published in Harper's Magazine, August 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 45.

What a testosterone-y story; reading it feels like being clubbed to death. By a cock. In this case, the one wielded first by Cohen, a black singlet wearing Ari Gold-ish man, and then by his cardiologist/friend/jealous rival, our humble(d) narrator. I dunno about this story; there are some funny details (recent vegetarian Cohen orders "faux eggs and faux sausages"), a lively narrative that crams these points into parentheses and switches into the second person every so often, and a really casual tone ("So we'd had a baby, Wendy and I, after much pricey ado"). But it's trying too hard to be funny--it literally strains and buckles plausibility to do so--and often repeats itself, as if worried that you won't see the humor of this man getting a "gravestone erection." And for what? So that our "hero" can learn to step into Ari's misogynistic shoes long enough to realize that he doesn't want to win back his wife? Sorry. It all just seems too thrown together for me to care about anything other than the occasionally clever surface.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Short-a-Day: C. E. Morgan's "Twins"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 93.

There's a slow build in Morgan's short, but the time she spends building up the setting and establishing how that relates to these twin boys--one black, one white, later called the Oreo Boys--is well worth it, with biting parallels and a warm, gauzy attention to detail: not specific, but as if you can feel it sweating all over you:

  • "Each thinking himself dark or light, depending."
  • "They lived in the valley.... The wealthy lived on Cincinnati's seven hills, and when the flooding came they gazed down from their hills, troubled."
  • "No one had ever said she was beautiful, but she was young and that was a kind of beauty. People driving north sometimes thought momentarily, fondly, of their own mother, of her scent and the dry-handed grip that once secured them to her. Others would think, Black girls have kids way too young...."
  • "Sometimes she cried over their pertussive crying. These were her babies--she crushed them to her despite the heat."
  • "Sometimes there was a man in the apartment. He was a white man, and he came and went." 
Now, about that last quote: the slow build matches the way Morgan weaves this man--their father--in and out of the story. At first, he's just a suddenly mentioned presence. Later, he's acknowledged as their father. By the end, he's actually got a name and a personality, memorably depicted by the day-trip he takes them on and the story he attempts to tell them while falling drunkenly to sleep. We learn that he's a trucker, and not very smart ("Um, a crocodile is like a fish with a fucked-up grill and legs"), and not reliable, but that only makes him more necessary in their lives, and tells us a lot about how much the mother is struggling.

The other great part in this story stems from that first quote--"dark or light, depending"--and it's interesting to see not just how others react to them, but how they carry themselves. Mickey, the white one, is more confident, and Allmon, the black one, often stands in his shadows. But while Mickey becomes an angry child, the more contemplative Allmon seems more aware of what he wants and how to get it. There isn't a single relationship in this story that rings a wrong note: I'm deducting points mainly for the hasty ending--it leaves me with a confused taste in my mouth, but I may just be missing a cultural reference: "'Hey, Jude,' he said, 'don't be sad.'" (If it's the Beatles, it comes out of nowhere.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Game Play Festival: "Theater of the Arcade" and "Modal Kombat"

Photo/Hope Cartelli
If video games aren't art, Ebert, then they certainly inspire it: they're a rich part of our culture, and just as they've grown from two-bit Pong to multidimensional Super Mario Galaxy, so too have they grown on the stage. Last year's Game Play Festival--hopefully an annual occurrence at the Brick--featured a faithful staging/parody of old Infocom text-based adventures (Adventure Quest). This year's centerpiece is Jeff Lewonczyk's Theater of the Arcade, which not only creates hilarious backstories for five classic games, but pitch-perfectly matches them--aided by the solid direction of Gyda Arber--with the distinct styles of famous playwrights. (So many possibilities for future installments, too: Chekhov's Arkanoid, Ianesco's Joust.)

Part of the fun--and that's important to recognize: these shows are a delight--is trying to figure out what game is being parodied, so oblique are some of these stories. But even on their own, the five one-acts that make up Theater of the Arcade are a blast. For instance, the plaintive struggle of "Monologue for a Single Player," in which a suspendered, black-hatted man in tattered pants (Robert Pinnock) attempts to reach a thumb-sized patch of green, oppressed by his limited range of motion, yet waxing philosophically on it ("You cannot undo forward, you can only do backward"). Frogger, Samuel Beckett, but more importantly: easily relatable, this world in which the promise of a restful lily pad merely cues another level, endlessly so. (In modern meme terms: "The lily pad is a lie.")

By the way, "Monologue" is probably the weakest of the bunch--which is not an insult, so much as a recognition of how terrific the rest of the pieces are. "The Alabaster Nymph" is a cleverly obfuscated tale, in which a jealous, hairy, brute of a husband named Joe (Kent Meister) loses his job at a wooden-barrel factory and takes it out on his fragile wife (Shelley Ray) and the "dego" plumber in their building, whom Joe fears is coming to steal his wife away, the only thing a dumb lug like him's got. (Right, it's Donkey Kong done by Tennessee Williams.) But even the readily apparent ones have plenty of laughs: for instance, "Savage of the Heart," features red-and-green-shirted brothers Marv and Lou (appropriately alternated each performance by Josh Mertz and Stephen Heskett). As they try to reconcile their past with beers and mushrooms in the middle of the desert, they are visited by the specter of their Old Man (Pinnock)--and by the "princess" (Ray) they both love. (Yes, Super Mario Bros. meets Sam Shepard.)

The two breakout hits of the night, though, are "Der Rundegelbenimmersatt" and "Magdalena Magellan Mars," both of which feature scene-stealing performances from Fred Backus. In the first, he plays a circle-chested and rather orotund capitalist who heartlessly fires his employees: a pretzel-factory worker (Mertz), his mistress (Hope Cartelli), his poetic secretary (Stephen Heskett), and a farmer (Pinnock)--all because he hates art, loves younger women, and treasures money above all. Musical interludes and direct addresses follow, as the workers plan a Christmas Carol-like trick against their boss, luring him into a "maze of slums" with a trail of fruit, and dressing up as ghosts (with eyes that last forever). There's a neat backhanded twist of an ending, but it's otherwise clearly a send-up of Pac-Man, courtesy of Bertolt Brecht.

It's Backus's misogynistic second role that will probably warm the cockles of most young audiences. Two workers--the smug, assertive go-getter (Backus) and the somewhat reserved old-timer (Meister)--are told by their boss (Heskett) that only one of them's going to walk out of this room with a job. An icy efficiency expert (played to the hilt by Cartelli) is going to identify which of the two demolitions experts isn't properly finishing the job out in the belt. Mamet's always been a highly quotable playwright, and Lewonczyk gets many gems out of this homage, from "punch his cock so hard it turns into an asshole" to the mock-philosophy of lines like "People are the vector on which failure travels." (There's also a melange of uses of "fuck," tons of clever repetition and non-statements like "Why we do what we do?") Even if you were to miss the spinning-in-circles references and the "Shooting from one side of the screen to the other is for fags" dis that mark this as Asteroids at its finest, you'd probably still have a blast, and that's the joy of Theater of the Arcade.

Photo/Lori Deemer

Modal Kombat, on the other hand, isn't really a work of theater, so much as it is an intriguing performance piece. Like Lewonczyk, the self-effacing duo David Hindman and Evan Drummond love their old-school games: in this case, "Pong," "Mortal Kombat," "Tetris," and "Mario Kart." But they also love playing their guitars. Their happy medium, then, is "Modal Kombat," in which guitars are mapped to classic controls and used to actually play these games--while, theoretically, making music. In truth, the music is achieved by looping a track, and intermittent chords are what follow, but there's something hilarious about watching Sub-Zero and Scorpion flail about as David and Evan strum up a flurry of punches.

It's all very silly; David's right when he says that "these games have no business being played with instruments." But it's also unique as hell: when the audience gets roped into helping rotate the pieces in a game of "Team Tetris," they practically turn feral in their support of this wonderfully useless bit of art. How can one not applaud the sheer effort that goes into their version of "Guitariokart"? One wishes that David and Evan had more of a stage presence--they mainly disappear behind their effects--as their hour-long show feels a bit thin. As a variety act, though? It's a total nerdgasm.

Short-a-Day: Salvatore Scibona's "The Kid"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 58.

I admire Scibona's clear writing, and I love the introduction to his story, in which a weeping boy is found, but goes unclaimed, at the Hamburg-Fuhlsbuttel Airport. "The intercom repeated in English, 'Terminal 1, a child in lost-and-found,' while the boy hustled along, incongruous: a body automatized with purpose, as though if you got close enough you would hear him ticking. And yet, under his crooked hat, his face was anarchic with spasmodic blinks and sniffles."

But I just didn't get where it went from there. That is, yes: I understand that the father, Elroy Helflin, is an army man--a bit of a drifter--with problems of his own, especially when his girlfriend Evija declines to marry him, remaining in Riga with their newborn Janis, where he only sees them once every year or so. But the "something" that makes Elroy abruptly decide to "inherit" his son from Evija, who is off to Spain, and then just as abruptly to abandon him--leaving all his cash with him--doesn't come through for me.

And the revelation of Elroy's own father issues doesn't actually clarify things either. "Sergeant Slocum wasn't really Elroy's father. He was Elroy's stepfather. His ex-stepfather, properly speaking. He had let Elroy stay with him after the second divorce and sent him to St. Xavier's to finish high school. Then the old man had retired up here. Ma had run off. Who knew where." For some, perhaps, this is enough. But the story itself is what ends up feeling abandoned, and for all the lovely flashback details, I don't get a strong enough sense of these characters.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

GORMANZEE & Other Stories

Photo/Scott Snelling

"You sick fuck," says one of the characters, in one of the three of playwright Anna Moench's shows being performed as part of GORMANZEE & Other Stories. You could just as easily say, "You poetic fuck," about another of the shows, or "You sad, romantic fuck," about one of the others. Because in each of these diverse shows, well-directed by Meredith Steinberg, someone is getting fucked, and whether or not you like or connect with any of the material showcased here depends on how much you like twist endings and cheap tricks, because the material itself is really, really light.

This is especially true of the lengthy first half of the show, "Bill It," which is a rather glib slice of one night at an upscale reservations-only restaurant. There are several dance numbers before and after each scene, but these movements--while neatly tied to the beat of each musical selection--do a poor job of telling a story, and the individual scenes--while finely acted--aren't exactly the most original or revealing things ever staged. You might call this Sketch Theater, for while it's got the outlines of something more, it's too hasty and filled with absent, unfilled spaces. For instance, Sarah (Sarah Elmaleh) and Jean Ann (Jean Ann Douglass) spend a great deal of time showing us their false smiles and Vanna White gestures, talking over one another as they welcome and then delay each of their guests. But it's not until we see the way Head Hostess Jean Ann snidely puts down Sarah and waitress Molly (Molly Gaebe) that there's any spice in the meal. Also, she's missing her just desserts, and that leaves the meal feeling half-finished. This goes double for a meal between an aspiring designer, Dave (Dave Edson), and a rich but belittling potential employer, Nathan (Nathan Richard Wagner), and his toady, Edward (Edward Bauer).

The other portions of "Bill It" revolve around misunderstandings and Tales From the Crypt twists: two rich socialites Claire G (Claire Gresham) and Claire S (Elisa Matula) brag about their passion for Bodywork, only to find that they're talking about quite different hobbies; a fresh-raw fruitarian bugs the shit out of her date; and a girl is creeped out by her date's angry insistence that he never gets upset. This is a little too similar to the final play of the evening, "GORMANZEE," which is not only implausible (on many, many levels), but unnecessary, even as a reflection of how disgusting some of our dietary concoctions are. There are some odd aesthetic choices in each, too: the two Claires wear hideous leggings that don't match their wealthy accents and the use of shaving cream in "GORMANZEE" seems a bit unnecessary given what's to come. An audience can only suspend its disbelief so far.

The danger with a partnership like anna&meredith is that the playwright (Anna) isn't being forced to finish her thoughts, because the director (Meredith) is doing too good a job of filling in the blanks. (The directorial decisions for stage blood are praise-worthy and well worth being left a secret.) It's a problem, because if Moench were pushed more, she might write more solid, original scenes. For example, the heart of "Bill It" stems from the way waitress Molly turns from relishing the fact that her ex-boyfriend Nathan is being stood up by his current girl to the way she finds she doesn't hate him--and he doesn't hate her. (There's a twist here, too; but this one seems both earnest and earned.) Likewise, the best segment of the night, "The House on the Shore," is a delicate memory play, in which Gart (Wagner) sits in a house that is slowly sinking (along with the rest of the flooded Earth), unreliably remembering the woman who now haunts him, Tess (Matula). Not only is the story inventive and cleverly told, but Steinberg's spine-to-spine movements further that story, and the language is genuinely haunting. ("And they say the mountains are safe the mountains are the place to regroup and rebuild and I say the mountains are teeth biting the sky in half and no place for a man to lay his head at night, still and silent, glowering, grudging, nothing like the sea.")

It's fine that anna&meredith are exploring, trying out a variety of things, and enjoying their own work. But it's important that they now learn what's working and decide upon what kind of story they want to tell. Because right now, GORMANZEE & Other Stories isn't really succeeding at telling any story: it's just talking a lot.

Short-a-Day: ZZ Packer's "Dayward"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 89.

What good is a story that only has a beginning? This excerpt from ZZ Packer's upcoming novel, The Thousands, really ought to be labeled as such (an excerpt), but I won't hold that against her. Besides, what is here is fairly clear, and sets the time--using a slightly antiquated grammar--right from the first sentence: "Early yet, the morning clouds the color of silver fox, and Lazarus was running." There's delayed action, a poetic rhythm, a(n overly) descriptive bit, all in one, not to mention the odd prepositional phrase, "Early yet."

The next two pages, however, are an ecstatic read, and have a lot of storytelling juice. Despite having been freed from the neglectfully cruel Miss Thalia ("'All I got to say,' Miss Thalia said, curls agog as if she'd been caught in a freezing rain, 'is that we always fed and clothed you slaves.'")--"by poor dead Abe Lincoln himself"--she's still loosed the hell-hounds on them, seeing them as emancipated deserters. Lazarus, who is "fourteen years old. Perhaps fifteen," also goes to great lengths to save his deaf, nine-year-old sister, Mary Celeste, choking the dog with his own arm, regardless of the cost. There's a lot of compressed weight to all this action: Lazarus takes action based on his father's favorite anecdote, in which a man does the same thing to escape a dog: "My hand's back in slavery, but the rest of me's free, by God." The names tell us a lot, too, about the sort of faith of their parents had, although they both died--the father, foolishly, and the mother following, distraught, in his footsteps.

Packer shows some great promise here, but she needs a novel--there's no middle to all this action (their exodus to Aunt Minnie's in New Orleans), and the ending seems contrived, artificial as it is: "'Nine goddam children,' [Minnie] said to the dark. It was neither a curse nor a lament but a pledge." Nothing's changed, and we don't know if Lazarus will lose his arm (he's already survived a bullet to the temple), so I'm left unsatisfied, but excited enough to forgive the editor's choppy decisions.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Gary the Thief & PLEVNA: Meditations on Hatred

Photo/Stan Barouh 

Richard Romagnoli and his long-time acting collaborators Robert Emmet Lunney and Alex Draper give breath to two powerfully political Howard Barker poems, but although the evening is just under an hour in length, it's a taxing affair. Poetry isn't easy, no matter how good the reader (or performer), and while certain things land neatly on the air, highlighted by a well-placed shaft of light or a neatly blocked pivot of a foot on stage to match the foot in the text, Gary the Thief and, to a lesser extent, PLEVNA: Meditations on Hatred, feel more compelling on the page than in the theater. These are texts that cry out, after all, to be studied: not momentarily glimpsed. And in that respect, lumping two disparate poems together--while perhaps necessary to call it an evening of theater--doesn't give one enough time to dwell on what has been presented.

That said--and with my personal disclaimer about not fully appreciating poetry thrown out there--Barker's writing is as meaty as ever, even severed from the often-more-dramatic context of a scene or the full-throated build of a character. Ironically, Gary the Thief--which reads as a stylized monologue from Lunney, showing how the misanthropic Gary is born ("a shrapnel of abuse/through which the infant crawls"), thieves ("your greed dwarfs my offense/your violence staggers the ropes of the globe"), is arrested, and is reborn within the system ("I pilfer your language/I steal your respect")--is the more difficult text. Draper's glib, business-like presentation of PLEVNA, meanwhile, works as a series of wry observations about the nature of violence in the world--filled with opinion, yes, but apart from having a plot or clear character: "Hatred was described as an infection/and murders happened like a rash" and "The worst catastrophe is not to die/but to lose stock," or the brilliant conclusion: "The possibility hate is intrinsic/the possibility hate waits to be born with every breath.../Explains its durability among so much civility." 

For what it's worth, both actors give tremendous performances, nailing the necessary (and tricky) leaps and reversals of the best modern poems. The digressions aren't buried in the lead, nor are they whispered as asides: they are presented as Barker would have wanted them, as arguments--his style is Wrestling, always Wrestling--and though much may be consciously missed, perhaps it's our unconscious he's trying to hit.

Short-a-Day: Gary Shteyngart's "Lenny Hearts Eunice"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 83.

In an exaggeratedly militaristic and consumerist future America, the sort of place you'll find George Saunders hanging out, the sweetly satirical Shteyngart wonders if love can still exist beneath all the superficial concerns. The narrative choices to have the two "lovers"--he, the meek, very old (almost 40) Russian-Jewish salesman; she, the unabashedly young (24) Korean-American--write in diary entries (or "teens"--digital e-mail), in a world that shuns books, is a good one, and it speaks to this literary concern. "The fact that [technology] knows every last stinking detail about the world, while my books know only the minds of their authors." There was a time--and still is--when knowing a singular mind was a beautiful thing.

I'm not totally sold on how much of a sad-sack our hero is ("Lenny Abramov, your humble diarist, your small nonentity, will live forever"), but I can understand why he feels that way, working for a company that promises Indefinite Life to the High Net Worth Individuals that can afford it, and watching his boss--sixty-something--walk around with a "moustache as black as eternity"; younger, in other words, and therefore more important than Lenny. Also, because we're given Eunice Park's epistolary views, as well as Lenny's observations of how people like the "SUK DIK" T-shirt wearing Darryl view him (not well), it's understandable that although Lenny's a smart man, one of the last to still read Tolesoy [sic], that is not an attractive quality.

The real question for a story like this, however, is if the author can find a heart beneath all the sorrowfully snarky details about our "future." As this is an excerpt from a larger novel, his upcoming Super Sad True Love Story, it's hard to tell if he can sustain an even balance--the conclusion here seems a little forced into resolution mode. I don't think he's quite up to the world-building of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. But he's a funny, solid writer, and at worst his novel will be as emptily entertaining as the world he envisions.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Short-a-Day: Rivka Galchen's "The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 87.

"All those things which I so studiously knew nothing about." I admire characters like Trish, writers who use the humor of everyday things to cope with what they cannot control or explain. I think this happens fairly often with writers, especially young writers, because it's in fiction that they're able to control their world, and at least so far as I go, I know that's part of why I turn to writing prose: because it helps me to understand myself, to communicate that self with others, but also to control and cope with what is otherwise so ordinarily frightening. So Trish, rather than be an overeducated protagonist who is too intellectual to be mentally hurt, can only throw jokes at the "Kantian sublime" which is maybe related to Key lime in her world. Or who refuses to read the blog her husband--who has scammed her and suddenly left her--has been writing: ICan' ("I wasn't going to read the blog. So much writing out there in the world and who wants to read it? Not me.")

I particularly like these two excerpts, since they illustrate the order of priorities in which Trish lives her life, or at least the telling way in which she has fooled herself, temporarily, into coping with it. There's a lot of delayed information, information itself which is then carefully clarified, working up to it step-by-step. It's a consistent tone, too, which means the narrative informs the story, which doesn't always happen.

  • "He had taken quite a lot with him. For example, we had a particularly nice Parmesan grater and he had taken that. But he had left behind his winter coat. Also a child. We had a child together, sort of. I was carrying it--girl or boy, I hadn't wanted to find out--inside me."
  • "Why was I already low on money? Partially because money just flies, as they say, or I guess it's time they say that about, the flying, but money, too--very winged. Still, one of the main reasons I didn't have much money was that I had been paying my husband's way through business school. At least, I'd thought I was doing that, but it turned out he wasn't enrolled in school...."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Short-a-Day: Philipp Meyer's "What You Do Out Here, When You're Alone"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 25.

"Sometime driving along the streets at night you saw things that you were not supposed to see: Buck Hooper touching himself in front of the pay-per-view; Jeanne Winston throwing a Bottega goblet at her much younger husband; Clyde McCay, who owned an island off Mexico, having a long visit with the commode. But those things were all distractions."

To me, Meyer's entire story reads as a distraction. Fiction is supposed to help us see things we wouldn't otherwise see, but Meyer, while technically precise in the architecture of his piece, has neglected to fill that house with anything intimate or interesting. Especially in the context of the celebratory "20 Under 40," this feels like a very old-school, traditional piece of prose, something that could just as easily have been written in the '60s or '70s as in the '00s, and I don't think that's a good thing--especially when the text lacks life and is riddled with talky prose: "The only drug Max had ever tried was alcohol, and this saddened him now--he should have had those experiences. He looked around like someone might be watching. It was strange being naked in your son's bedroom."

To provide context: his son was arrested for cocaine possession, and as a result of his parents trying to teach him a lesson--leaving him in jail an extra day before posting bail--he had what they call the Accident. This is the one part of the story I like, which makes sense, since it doesn't tie in with Max's longing for a new home, desire for a lazier lifestyle, and lust for his willing next-door neighbor. I recognize that some people like having things spelled out for them, but I like more succinct and potent stories, not loopy revelations about Max's affection for the unexpected flowers that have popped up on his lawn. "He had not been in there since the Accident, and the order of it all, the way there was a space for everything--saws, clippers, trimmers, all outlined in marker on peg-board--almost made him cry." Our eyes remain dry.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Short-a-Day: Jonathan Safran Foer's "Here We Aren't, So Quickly"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 100.

It's hard to call out individual lines from this brilliant Jonathan Safran Foer story, because--like much of his work--it's not a traditional narrative. Instead, it's a story told in list form, one that starts out very structured, but slowly falls apart, like the relationship at the heart of this simple "He says-she says" dynamic. So we go from paragraphs of "I was not x" and "You were not x" to a paragraph that mixes the two, and then to a paragraph with what "We" did--that's a courtship and a half right there. Then it's a less even mix between the I and You again, and then it's into a regretful territory: all couldn'ts and wouldn'ts and should haves. The story itself builds slowly, nestled carefully within the seemingly innocuous facts, and here are some of the highlights:

  • "We went to Tobey Pond every year until we didn't."
  • "We braved my parents' for Thanksgiving and yours for the rest, and how did it happen that we were suddenly at my father's side while he drowned in his own body?"
  • "They encouraged us to buy insurance. We had sex to have orgasms. You loved reupholstering. I went to the gym to go somewhere, and looked in the mirror when there was something I was hoping not to see." 
  • "We were always moving furniture and never making eye contact. I hated my inability to visit a foreign city without fantasizing about real estate. And then your father was dead."

There's so much there, not least the passage of time, which reflects the great title (and start of the second "part" of this very short story), "And here we aren't, so quickly; I'm not twenty-six, and you're not sixty." The ages may be arbitrary, to a degree, but the sound of them isn't--Foer's an author with a lot at stake, as in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (which really is a great title for a 9/11 book, isn't it?), but one who stresses the perfection of each line, too, especially when broken syntax is involved. Line for line, this story is filled with terse beauty and extreme sorrow, all missed opportunities and lost love.

A Question of Mercy

Photo/Stan Barouh 

At the opening of David Rabe's powerfully gray A Question of Mercy, Thomas (Alex Cranmer) asks Dr. Chapman (Paula Langton), though she is no longer practicing, if she might intervene on behalf of his friend, who is suffering from AIDS. What Thomas is asking for isn't ambiguous--especially given how America's morals have shifted since Rabe was inspired by Richard Selzer's essay in 1997--but it's easy enough to set aside, since Chapman is a steady, uncommitted woman, one who has dealt with enough care and concern for a lifetime. But things shift from a carefully considered case study to a heart-wrenching commitment once the big guns come out: Anthony (Tim Spears) calls Dr. Chapman himself--speaking in short, sharp, desperate breaths, his face a spasm, his body a stooped wreck--and implores her to see him. At that point, to the play's benefit, it becomes a question not of mercy, but of heart.

On the strength of the script, Jim Petosa's production--for PTP/NYC's 24th season--holds up, though the staging--which needs to be unrelenting--has some unfortunately inconsistent transitions. The show alternates between Chapman's hand-wringing monologues--a task that Ms. Langton excels at, never over-emoting, but also not dispassionate--and the plan she and Anthony methodically enact to end his life without anyone suffering too much, or going to jail. However, during some of these breaks--in which characters are frozen in the background--we see the otherwise outstanding Spears as himself (an actor) instead of as the suffering Anthony; Petosa makes a bold choice for the play's lone dream sequences, having Spears move freely for the sake of illustrating how diminished his character is in his nightmare life, but what it actually points out is that Spears is showing us his suffering--he is not caught within it. In fact, it's not until the excellent climax of the play, Bach playing in the background as Anthony attempts to take one pill, then another, then another, that he seems to have lost control entirely.

PTP/NYC boldly takes on tough--intellectually and emotionally--plays, and their work ethic, which gives recent and current students from Middlebury College an opportunity for professional experience and exposure, is admirable. But it can sometime stand in their way, as it does here with A Question of Mercy. Compared to the central three characters, Eddie (Mathew Nakitare) is a throwaway role--he's a significant-in-plot-only doorman. As a device for Rabe, he's meant to lighten the mood, but as used here, he's a caricature who--for some reason--flirts with Dr. Chapman over hockey tickets and becomes a distraction. Worse is Martha Newman's lack of emotion in her role as Susanah, who actually becomes part of that inner circle. Rabe has written her as the cold moralist of the group, the practical, emotionless one, but Newman not only makes her frigid, but makes her seem downright uncaring. It's a by-the-lines performance, and it hurts not just her, but her scene partner, Mr. Cranmer, who is a fantastic emotional wreck (as he should be) whenever he's not with her.

But A Question of Mercy is a near bulletproof play, especially with Langton and Spears in the lead roles. Rabe successfully asks a question and more successfully refuses to give an answer, with assisted suicide coming across both as a necessary right and as a rash, ill-considered act. For two weeks, Dr. Chapman and Anthony discuss the need for, and then the method of, suicide ("Are there no good days?"), and Thomas does his best to suppress himself ("Ignore me"), knowing that his lover's pained selfishness trumps his own. Petosa has, in the end, depicted an honest, painful struggle, and has succeeded in giving life to Rabe's--or Ambrose Pare's--twin serpents: villainy and mercy.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Short-a-Day: Joshua Ferris's "The Pilot"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 92.

A life, reduced to just one of hundreds of blind carbon copies on an impersonally e-mailed invitation to what is the Party of the Year only to the sort of person--like protagonist Lawrence--who has nothing else going on. And yet, Ferris--known for his spot-on observations of a mundane office in And Then We Came To The End--turns this into another miniature tragedy, expressing the character's frazzled nervousness in clipped, repetitive sentences: "He didn't expect a reply. It was a mass e-mail--she couldn't reply to everyone who'd replied." This leads, in turn, to his worry that she hadn't meant to invite him specifically, but had accidentally lumped him in, Facebook-style, in a Rolodex-dump. And that, in turn, leads to his concern over the lack of a reminder e-mail; was the party actually tonight? Was he still invited, if he had ever been invited to begin with?

The luminous center of his story, Lawrence's TV-writing idol Kate Lotvelt, writes similar stuff. "How, week after week, did Kate Lotvelt turn something so morbid and frightening into the funniest show in television." Her show is directly about death, but then again, so is Ferris's story--his is just a much slower, sadder burn. In fact, not much of a satire, ultimately, as a eulogy: "What was the better option--go to the party of the year, to which he'd been invited, and network with actors and executives? Or return home to Atlanta and die? Those were his choices. So what that the protocol for kissing hello kept shifting on him?" Note that he's seriously asking these questions--it's actually a tough choice.

The story takes on a final bit of weight and heft with the introduction of Lawrence's mother, who, we learn, calls him once a day to make him promise that he won't drink. Suddenly, the context of Lawrence going to a party surrounded with alcohol sounds like a much bigger deal, and this bit sums it up best: "A whiskey and a chaser was all he needed to make it to Kate Lotvelt's party unconcerned about his place there and at ease without the sunglasses or the jacket, and sufficiently fortified that if the opportunity presented itself he could ask Kate to have a look at his pilot. It was only twenty-four pages. It was only a whiskey and a chaser."

The clever ending leaves you to conclude one of three things: a smashed Lawrence has drowned in Kate's pool--which is her version of television ("Death in the Family")--, a sobering Lawrence has woken up and, making it to the surface, has become reborn--which is what his pilot's become about ("The Life of the Party')--or, more realistically, since life isn't a television show, a liquid Lawrence is just floating there, going nowhere at all, doomed to return to the same-old same-old, this moment meaning, sadly, nothing at all.

Sweet, Sweet Motherhood

Photo/Jim Baldassare

If you think it's hard to write good political theater, think about how hard it must be to write a good play about hard science: all those cold facts, those rigid experiments, those black-and-white subjects. No wonder playwright Jeremy Kareken cheats, shifting away from molecular biology and toward the far murkier realms of ethics and, later, love. It's no surprise, either, that Sweet, Sweet Motherhood exaggerates the central characters, the self-deprecating Professor Henry Stein (Michael De Nola) and his polar opposite, the gutsy, sexually-explicit student Shelley McAnn (Caroline Cooney). "At the moment I'm thinking to myself, her breasts actually are a cup size larger but I have a job, and can't spend all day contemplating her bosom. So I get down to business. (to Shelley) How was your summer?" "Da bom. I rawked da hizzle." Never mind that characters don't actually talk like this--at least they're not dry!

Except . . . well, a play about science would, ostensibly, be something new, would be exploring new ideas to their logical ends. This, on the other hand, is an exasperating banal play that uses science--and the contributions of Professor Lee M. Silver--as a prop; literally, Stein's between-scenes lectures involve blackboards, slide-shows, and clever anecdotes like "Two mice walk into a bar...." When Shelley, trying to gain a prestigious award, recklessly injects herself with chimpanzee sperm, the process she's used, ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), is shoved to the background, and melodrama ensues--will Stein be the father, at first metaphorically, and then, out of the blue, legally? Stein explodes at her, "Let's extract the tiniest infinitesimal drop of academic rigor--" and she cuts him off: "Dude, unlax. I'm not dropping monkey boy for the next few minutes..." The play's not even really about abortion, either (with the science operating as a delivery vehicle); when Shelley starts masturbating in the bathroom to the sound of Stein's stern voice, or when her water breaks and she cracks, despite supposedly being in intense pain, "Looks like you really do make me wet," you'll be begging for some hard science, too. Because without it, the play's just one big aimless joke, and things like Schrodinger's Cat are just being name-dropped for extra credit.

Honestly, these things are exciting for the first twenty minutes of the two-hour show, and both de Nola and Cooney are consistent in their depictions of the character, even as Kareken's script starts shifting from the office into the imagination. But director Michael Bigelow Dixon has nowhere to take them; their banter in the second act is much the same as it was in the first place--they're still arguing about the ethics of the experiment--as if nothing has changed, even though Cooney's walking around with a baby bump. Dixon also never really cranks up the volume of the show: even as they stray from scientific topics, de Nola maintains his unaffected, scholarly tone, and Cooney keeps up her irritatingly wide-eyed lingo. And while Ray Neufeld's realistic set is terrific, it doesn't fit the morphing structure of the play, which call for a more symbolic set--something like that from Rachel Axler's Smudge.

But what kills Sweet, Sweet Motherhood is this simple fact: even forgiving the murky hypothesis and the uncontrolled experiment, it has no conclusion. Professor Stein warns that he's a harsh grader, and is not afraid to give such work an unsatisfactory grade, forcing those students to find a new advisor or to "graduate with an English degree or something." This uneven, unrealistic play might not even manage a good grade there.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Short-a-Day: Raymond Carver's "Beginners" vs. "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"

Originally compared here, in The New Yorker, December 24, 2007.
Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 94 (What We Talk About) vs. 26 (Beginners)

From the neatly broken up short paragraphs to the emphasis on opinion and the minimalist touch that invites us to fill in gaps, "What We Talk About" is a much easier to read story than "Beginners." It's also a much better draft, though arguably not Carver's, but rather the result of a master sculptor-editor, Gordon Lish, who has chiseled away the lengthy digressions, focused the action by limiting it to the present (and to this single room/table), and really summed up the absurdity of trying to explain love.

Whereas "Beginners" is a lengthy albeit generally natural slog through an increasingly drunk conversation, "What We Talk About" is a sharp and fiery story from the get-go: "Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right." (As opposed to "My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking.") But I don't need to complain any more about the difference between showing and telling, or the difference between engaging the reader and preaching to him. "What We Talk About" works by cutting the two lengthy digressions of Carver's short, and refocusing the action on Mel's personality, which not only makes a logical sense--for instance, why is Mel telling this particular story about love?--but creates a coolly crafted one, too, in which the opening conversation--about a Stella/Stanley sort of violent love--comes back to haunt Mel, for while he's argued against that ("I don't know what you'd call it, but I sure know you wouldn't call it love"), it's what he feels strongest--and toward his ex-wife, Marjorie, whom he hopes is stung to death by bees; not toward his current wife, Terri, who seems to have devoted her life to Mel.

The reason for the huge difference between the two scores, though the stories share much in common, is that "What We Talk About" comes together, whereas "Beginners" doesn't go anywhere. That doesn't mean there aren't some good observations, some nice lines, but a story needs to be more than a bunch of precariously (or preciously) strung together prose. In Lish's version, Mel is cruder, which makes him more human and, therefore, more sympathetic. It also makes his fantasy of being a knight--violence again--seem more elegant, and it gives more weight to his self-deprecating description of himself as a "mechanic." (In "Beginners" he's reading Ivanhoe and making out-of-character quips like "Vassals, vessels, ventricles, vas deferens," which don't really mesh with someone who'd confuse "vassals" and "vessels" in the first place.) Going a step further, Lish strips out the specifics of the story Mel tells, understanding that it's not about an old couple's car-crash and their mutual recovery (and memories of Victrola records)--it's about his slant on it, which in "What We Talk About" is brusquely presented as "I'm telling you, the man's heart was breaking because he couldn't turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife." It's his current situation all over again, right down to being stuck in the same room--he's trying to see Terri, he's looking right at her, but he only sees a distasteful stranger. And what he wants--what he needs--is that yearning, that love. It's a stake-raising moment, for while there's still not much plot, and really no action, it's filled with character, and that's sometimes all a story needs.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Short-a-Day: Dinaw Mengestu's "An Honest Exit"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, July 12 & 19, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 80.

"I had brought directly to their door a tragedy that outstripped anything they could personally have hoped to experience." Fiction is the vicarious lie that tells the truth, right? That's what I'm reminded of when, in the middle of Mengestu's semi-history, his narrator--a teacher of "Early American literature to privileged freshmen"--is called to account for the story he has been telling his students, the story of his father's exodus from Ethiopia to Sudan to London to America, a story that he has taken many liberties with as a means of coming to terms with his father's recent death and all the unspoken things that lay between them. The professor doesn't mind the inaccuracies, though: "Regardless of that," he said, "it's good to hear them talking about important things. So much of what I hear from them is shallow, silly rumors. They can sort out what's true for themselves later."

That's what works in this short: true or not, it's substantive, with a real weight and history to it--and a real surprise of an ending, one that's sadly all too American. The son's fictitious representation of his father, having betrayed the man who smuggled him out of Sudan, thinks to himself: "There were no rewards in life for such stupidity, and he promised himself never to fall victim to that kind of blind, wishful thinking. Anyone who did deserved whatever suffering he was bound to meet."

It's such a jaded end to such a hopeful story, and considering that the son is the one making up these details, essentially creating the father and the past that he wants, what he's lost is even more tragic. Hope, thinks the son through the father, is a stupid thing, as is faith, and it's only facing the truth that will help us. And yet, this story is almost entirely fabricated, so what sort of suffering is the son setting himself up for? Or already living? It's hard to write both sincerely and cynically, and Mengestu gets away with it by alternating between scenes involving the teacher in the present and the scenes he is "recounting" to his class, tales of the past.

That said, the story itself is almost too straightforwardly told for my tastes: Mengestu is a clear, traditional storyteller, and he shows a fine ear for historical details--true or false--, but he doesn't really have much of a voice (not like The White Tiger or Everything Was Illuminated, which are exaggerated, I know) that makes him stand out. Still, some great descriptions: "His clothes fit him poorly. His hands looked larger; the bones were more visible. He thought his fingers were growing."

Friday, July 09, 2010

Underground Zero: The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik Deep Sea Explorer

Hollywood has it all wrong: in the box-office bomb Waterworld, the world was submerged and they thought what interested audiences was a tale of piracy and war. But in Tim Watts's brilliant The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik Deep Sea Explorer, he realizes that what really grabs the audience is the loneliness of an empty world, the tragedy of something as simple as a broken heart. Using puppets, Gorey-like animations, and a Wiimote controller of all things (who says video games aren't art?), Watts lights up the dark depths of the theater with his imaginative heart. See, what Watts understands about the theater, and about true storytelling (as opposed to that Hollywood schlock), is that he doesn't need to throw more money into special effects or to use the entirety of the stage--he sticks to a tiny porthole-sized sliver. He just needs to be true.

The result, Alvin Sputnik, is a whimsical fantasy, one of the few shows that's easily recommended both to kids and adults--it's certainly no darker than a Burton-Disney film (though with the Elfman-esque score, it often comes across as one). Even the pre-show introduction is swept up in Watts's world: he quickly makes digital sketches of cellphones and cameras and x's them out; what he leaves--with several check-marks next to it--is simply a smiling face. But don't let that childish simplicity fool you: the play begins with a wet-suit clad Watts-as-Alvin holding a bundle of rags that represent his fading wife, and continues with him paddling his boat in a heart-shaped circle in pursuit of a ball of light that he believes to be his wife's soul.

The real action, however, begins once Alvin arrives at Earth HQ. After watching a fail-blog worthy series of attempts to restore land to Earth, he's tasked with diving deep beneath the ocean in search of a volcano that spews oxygen, a volcano that is attached to the hollow earth within. Watts deftly narrates all of this while strumming a ukulele-looking instrument, then switches over to a hand-puppet version of the deep-sea-helmeted Alvin. For the remainder of the play, he recreates a magical watery landscape with the most minimalist of techniques, from plastic-bagged jellyfish to a disco-light ball and its brief montage moments of unexpected happiness (including a great use of Mika's "Happy Ending"). Sweet, enchanting, sorrowful, hopeful, and intermittently brilliant, it's hard to ask for more in a forty-five-minute-long show.

Short-a-Day: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's "The Erlking"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, July 5, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 85.

I've got a soft-spot already for writers who seem to have a handle on a child's voice, and Bynum not only nails the child, but the mother, too, and the push-pull relationship between them: "Her child is named Ondine but answers only to Ruthie" and "Sometimes they are in cahoots, sometimes not," both establish the stubbornness and their togetherness. Moreover, Bynum has set her story in a real-world location that has a magical element to it: a fancy private elementary school (you know, the sort of place that John C. Reilly's kids might attend) that is throwing an Elves' Faire. The story ends before revealing whether or not it is wending into magical realism or just the stuff of a child's fanciful wishes and a mother's nightmare, and that lack of resolution will either irritate the reader or make perfect sense.

Me, I'm torn between the two: as a writer, I get it, as a reader, I'm frustrated. I can understand Bynum's reason for ending so ambiguously--this is, after all, a story about insecurities, and the mother, Kate, spends much of the story worrying that she's done something wrong as a parent, cleverly inserting a flashback of the ten-week application process for a Jewish Montessori school and the crushing feeling of being unwanted upon their rejection. Bynum's writing is well-suited for this sort of inbetweenness; she uses a lot of hyphens and question marks to break up the character's thoughts. For instance: "Could that be what she lacks--a spinning wheel? She glances down at Ruthie--is she charmed? happy?--and then looks anxiously around the room at the sweet assortment of milky faces peeking out from under tiny elf caps or heaps of luxuriant hair." If Ruthie has in fact slipped away from her mother to be with the stranger made of straw and presents, Kate will have even more to be sorry for.

I get the reasoning for the magical elements of the story, too. Ruthie, like most children of that age, craves something more, and her inability to articulate what that is--it's just a feeling that wells up and makes her want to vomit--leads her imagination to act up. This works well because Bynum has Ruthie's voice down cold: "Ruthie will hold the jiggly snowflake feeling inside her body for as long as she wants. This will mean that she wins, because when she doesn't go potty regular things like walking or standing are more exciting. She's having an adventure." So as a bored Ruthie watches her mother browse the school's gift shop, and as she worries about being punished for losing her "special thing," it's no wonder that she fantasizes about running off.

I wish there had been more, but I'm not totally disappointed that it ended as a moment in time, a memory that will either turn to unforgettable tragedy or one that--just another day like any other, ultimately--is just forgotten. On the cusp, as it is, it can be both, which is as good a reflection of life in the present as you're going to get.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Underground Zero: The Ring Cycle (pt 1)

The mythology of epic fantasy already comes across as sort of a cheesy thing--is recasting the entire thing as an 80s wrestling match really the best idea? Well, it doesn't exactly hurt the first part of Wagner's Ring Cycle (Das Rheingold); it just doesn't add much. Wotan (Jeff Clarke) has long stringy hair, a grizzly beard, tights and thick boots, and thick visor-like sunglasses with feathers on them, and he's got a big, booming voice to go with that flesh-colored muscle suit he's wearing. Cathy (Sara Buffamanti), the ringside interviewer, fills us in on his situation as his wife, Fricka (Rachel Jablin), starts weeping over the loss of her sister, Freia (Rebecca Lingafelter), whom Wotan has handed over to the giants Fafner and Fasolt (Christopher Hirsh and Michael Melkovic) in return for their labor in building Valhalla. Given how little sense that makes in the first place, especially since Freia's the only person able to grow the golden apples that keep the gods immortal and strong, it might as well be turned up to eleven.

Of course, your enjoyment of Dave Dalton and Jeremey Beck's adaptation is reliant upon a love of camp, especially as the fey Loge (Christopher Ryan Richards) starts prancing through a flashback and the pathetic dwarf Alberich (Marty Keiser, admirably giving his all) starts leaping around like a flabby luchadore. Much is dependent upon Casey Robinson's fight choreography, too, but it simply isn't all that impressive--especially compared with the higher-budgeted fights from The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity or the similarly scoped but far more impressive Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. "Ballroom Blitz" is a good song for a fight, but it's--at times--more captivating than the fight itself.

Still, there's a lot of heart and passion coming from the Performance Lab 115 team, and the show finds a much-needed second wind with its postmodern critique of the gods--a Super Fan (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) pops out of the audience and disgustedly flings his Wotan shirt into the ring, his faith destroyed by seeing a so-called hero turn into a relentless heel. The play seems to dismisses this insight all too quickly, preferring the easy job of transposing the rest of Wagner's cycle onto the mat, ending as Fafner kills his brother and runs off with the cursed ring. What is superficially entertaining for fifty minutes hardly seems large enough to keep the audience coming back for their promised second part; hopefully, PL115 finds something more to do with this schlock as they continue to develop the piece.

Short-a-Day: Nicole Krauss's "The Young Painters"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 28, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 15.

Stories about writers are always hit-or-miss; they either reveal something about the craft--i.e., the struggle--or they simply talk without really saying anything. Krauss's story falls into the latter category for me, beginning with its meaningless structure, in which the narrator relates a story to a judge ("Your Honor"), even though the judge is nothing more than a device, a person to talk to. So, too, the telling of it, which rambles all over the place and yet never actually impresses with the details it chooses to alight on.

For instance, the unnamed protagonist mentions that she and her husband, S., were thinking of having a child, but Krauss explains this in a general tone: "But there were always things that we felt we had to work out first in our own lives, together and separately, and time simply passed without bringing any resolution, or a clearer sense of how we might go about being something more than what we were already struggling to be." It doesn't help that the character is somewhat aware of this ("Maybe this seems like ambivalence").

The same goes for the narrator's descriptions of her writing, most of which is appropriated from her life (though she gets offended when "journalists and readers alike...insist on reading novels as the autobiographies of their authors"); her brief synopsis of her repurposing of a morbid story told by a dancer at a dinner party seems to miss the point entirely, as does her chronicling of the humiliations her father faced, which comes across as a book report, or a gloss, than anything with emotion or feeling.

Krauss posits that "In her work, the writer is free of laws" and therefore leaves her own story full of cryptic mysteries--a two-fingered tap (perhaps of rehearsed admonishment) from the dancer, the ghostly scream of a child--that add up to this unearned statement: "And slowly, Your Honor, I began to distrust myself." But she also says that "In her life, Your Honor, [the writer] is not free," and since it is the duty of the writer--at least in this story--to depict a life, I wish that she'd been far looser in her writing.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Underground Zero: Father of Lies

Jose Zayas tends to be a very literal director, and the best stuff of his I've seen has been with explosively direct playwrights--Thomas Bradshaw and Taylor Mac--who give him energetic, meaty texts to wrestle with. I haven't read Father of Lies, Brian Evenson's 1998 novel, from which Zayas has adapted this production, but what he's chosen to stage doesn't play to his strengths. There's no ambiguity about whether Provost Fochs is a child molester and murderer--especially as played by the uncomfortably skinned Evan Enderle--and even less regarding his motivations: he's spurred on by The Man (a hammy, but not unpleasantly so, Richard Toth), a religious icon who wears a red shirt and isn't Jesus Christ.

According to synopses of Father of Lies, the novel is written from three perspectives--including a psychoanalyst, Dr. Feshtig (Matt Huffman), who is muted here--and focuses on the hypocritical "trial" of Fochs, who is defended blindly by his church leader, Rector Bates (a steady Pete McCabe), against accusations of molestation. These elements are part of Zayas's show, but dismissively so, and consequently, the only thing that ends up being ambiguous is who the excellent Jocelyn Kuritsky and Jessica Pohly (who play a variety of wives, mothers, and girls) are at any given point in time within the non-linear, dreamy narrative.

When Zayas focuses on Fochs's madness--playing with the theater's audio levels (unbearably, at times, but understandably so), dimming the lights, swapping characters--he produces an admirably creepy environment. But he has not yet grounded these effects in anything real, so a car-crash is dismissed, a bloody sex scene is swiftly forgotten, and nothing is learned, which makes the devil not just the father of lies, but a bad parent.

Short-a-Day: Robert Coover's "The War Between Sylvania and Freedonia"

[The first in perhaps a daily series of investigations into the use of fiction, specifically the short story.]

Originally published in Harper's Magazine, July 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 95.

"His countrymen lie all about in decomposing heaps, cadavering the landscape like punch lines, fallen flat, to unspeakably filthy jokes."

  • I'm fairly sure this is familiar terrain, the "war-as-a-bad-joke" metaphor, but Coover presents it at what seems like the top of its form. I'm also a sucker of the well-verbed noun, in this case, the very evocative "cadavering." 
"He has, in the name of reason, declared war on madness, but war itself is a madness, so reason, even if it should win, has already lost."
  • Ah, Pyrrhic victories, those flammable, foolish fates. Coover's protagonist, the poor Ambassador Trentino, is in over his head from the start, which is what makes him such a tragic figure. He truly believes himself to be trying to prevent a war, though it is his poor diplomacy and high-minded arrogance that leads to the actual violence. After all, neighboring Freedonia had a bloodless coup--he is the butcher who hypocritically announces that "Freedom is not a joke." 
"He has repeatedly shelled their headquarters, bent on destroying them utterly--he, who believes in diplomacy and abhors all violence, especially that unleashed by the state--he sincerely wished to kill them all."
  • Such frightening sincerity. Is justice blind, or is war? In any case, it's a clever twist on the unreliable narrator, and it is Trentino's awareness and simultaneous ignorance of his own fallacies that elevate the horrors of war to the Dr. Strangelove-like comedies of war. The two, in any case, are never all that far apart, if you get enough distance on it. (Which, to me, should be one of fiction's goals: giving you the sort of distance--perspective--necessary to close in on the hidden truth.)

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Infinite Summer: A Year Later, or Postscript, or Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

It's been a long time since I marathoned my way through a book, but I've just crossed the finish line that is David Lipsky's five-day transcription of his 1996 Infinite Jest book-tour road trip with David Foster Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Couldn't put the book down, save to solve a few crossword puzzles and write a brief blog/tweet about a particular line of his that resonated w/r/t the other stuff I do on this site (re: criticism). At the best moments, Lipsky vanished from the book--his stuff is very much showmanship, because, as he himself points out, it's not about him--and it felt like actually being on the other end of a conversation with Wallace. Which is all the more simultaneously uplifting and depressing, since of course Wallace--after a long battle with depression--took his own life on September 12, 2008, so I'll never be having a conversation like that with him.

But the great thing about books--words, really--is that they live on, even if our ability to grok them fundamentally shifts. And what's key for me about reading is something Wallace touches on very early in his interview:

 There's a certain set of magical stuff that fiction can do for us. There's maybe thirteen things, of which who even knows which ones we can talk about. But one of them has to do with the sense of, the sense of capturing, capturing what the world feels like to us, in the sort of way that I think that a reader can tell "Another sensibility like mine exists." Something else feels this way to someone else. So that the reader might feel less lonely.
And his point proves itself, so far as I'm concerned. Fiction, when it's done properly, is an active conversation between the writer and the reader, and as I've posited before, doesn't really exist without both people, the one laying down symbols, and the other translating them, working together to create a unique experience for each participant. In this sense, it's totally unlike film, which is processed and edited to within an inch of its life to provoke a universal experience, or theater, which is looser and liver, but still designed with a specific and unavoidable goal of repetition (of that experience, from night to night, which is why I think I tend to love the work of the New York Neo-Futurists--who break that mold--so much). But back to Wallace: reading even this years-old interview opens up a connection between his worldview and mine, and in this case, helps me to realize something fairly obvious but also extremely reassuring: that I am not the only person to think this way. (And no, not in a paranoid "everyone's out to get you" way or a smug "I'm better than everyone else" way, but more in a "These insecurities that I don't feel comfortable sharing have now been aired by someone else" psychotherapy sort of way.)

In this particular section of the interview, Wallace is talking about his dislike of "really really shitty avant-garde" stuff, which is "coy and hard for its own sake," and yeah, I can see that in my own fiction. What I want to be writing is what Wallace describes as "stuff that's about what it feels like to live" and not stuff that's "a relief from what it feels like to live." And it's great to hear that Wallace came to some of the same conclusions I reached (at the same time, too): "When I was twenty-two or twenty-three, I pretty much thought every sentence that came off my pen was great. And couldn't stand the idea that it wasn't." Except that because he'd soon publish A Broom of the System and Girl With Curious Hair and then check himself into a rehabilitation center, I can skip straight to the wisdom of his/my future self, his insights into letting it be about the work itself, not about the perceptions or the outside stuff about it:
I think that the ultimate way you and I get lucky is if you have some success early in life, you get to find out early it doesn't mean anything. Which means you get to start early the work of figuring out what does mean something.
Wallace would speak about stuff like this later on, most notably in his commencement speech at Kenyon University in 2005 (anthologized by Dave Eggers in the "Best Nonessential Reading" series, and later turned into a book-Zen pamphlet, This Is Water), which spoke about how the real importance of college wasn't necessarily in the over-learning of classes, but in the education of empathy, in the ability to find and truly connect to the bigger and more important things of your life, as in What Are You Really All About? But it's crucial stuff, at least for me, this avoidance of distraction and nitty-gritty focus on Excuses Aside, Why Are You Not Doing What You Really Want? And but then suddenly realizing that you're living a life of fear, in which you've convinced yourself you want other, safer things, and prescribed yourself routines and safety nets as a way of masking the possibility of an unhappiness that lurks and wears the mask of dissatisfaction, if you should slow down enough to really consider it.
That the fear is the basic condition, and there are all kinds of reasons for why we're so afraid. But the fact of the matter is, is that, is that the job that we're here to do is to learn how to live in a way that we're not terrified all the time. And not in a position of using all kinds of different things, and using people to keep that kind of terror at bay... Well for me, as an American male, the face I'd put on the terror is the dawning realization that nothing's enough, you know? That no pleasure is enough, that no achievement is enough.
No wonder people choose the complete Entertainment of Infinite Jest, eh? Or perpetually assault themselves with the temporarily filling emptiness of television and film. But a novel, in my posited case in that it exists as an active conversation, isn't a dead-end loop. It's a propellant, something that pushes the engaged reader to actually pursue the things they wanted to do, mainly by reminding them that there are things they want to do and that there are reasonable ways in which to achieve those ends. (Small caveat: television and film can do this, too, but they require the participant to choose to get a whole lot more active--the irony is that their ease of viewing actually requires a lot more effort of thought if you want to get something permanent out of it.)

I don't want to leave off with such heavy stuff, though, so I'll end with a post-script/blog-confession: I rather enjoy his insight into his own shyness and relationships with women. I don't think I share all of his hang-ups--partly because I haven't had to deal with his success--but I get a kick out such human observations as "Psychotics, say what you want about them, tend to make the first move." DFW, you will be missed.

Monday, July 05, 2010

metaDRAMA: Everyone's a Critic, *BUT* ...

Reading through although of course you end up becoming yourself, and at first, I was just going to tweet this perfectly sized quote of David Foster Wallace's, but I wanted to expand on it.

"I don't think writers are any smarter than other people. I think they may be more compelling in their stupidity, or in their confusion."

I agree with the essence of that off-the-cuff sound bite. And I think it has an interesting application to the Big Question I face as a critic: what makes me so special, as an audience member, that I should be able to elevate my opinion--educated or not--above Joe the Theatergoer's? Well, first off--I don't feel that way, and as I've said many times before, aggregates are probably more accurate than a single critic. But, just as DFW and his interviewer David Lipsky sort of rally around Pauline Kael's voice, I think there's something to be said for people who seriously write about theater--and think about it--on a daily basis. It'd be nice if they'd practiced the art itself, at some point, just to increase their breadth and experience, but that's not necessary. What's needed is that compelling part that Wallace points out, the part that makes you empathize or at least recognize that there is another viewpoint, something that's especially important when you might otherwise dismiss a show.

There is something compelling about watching the struggle to express something--to translate from a script to the stage and then back, compressed, to the page; at least, I certainly find it fascinating. And the critics I follow are the ones who really seem to wrestle with ideas--people like Matthew Murray. It's when he's confused about a show--but unwilling to outright dismiss it--that his writing is at its best. So yeah, I'm stuck in a ramble, but something about that quote just vibrated through me, and I can't wait to get back to the theater (On the Levee, the Underground Zero festival, PTP/NYC's new season, the Brick's Game Play festival), where I can only hope to be ecstatically confused. (After all, who wants only to see a reflection of what they already know?)

Sunday, July 04, 2010

metaDRAMA: The Importance of Endings

Preface: I like Hulu, but I despise their advertising model. I'm more than happy to tell them exactly what demographic I belong to, and to help them tailor their ads specifically to me, but it's so frustrating to watch a good show like Ugly Betty only to be constantly reminded by them that their demographic is a Revlon-branded 14-year-old girl. But that won't stop me from from watching.

Start: And nothing would have stopped me from watching the series finale of Ugly Betty. The show's been a terrific ride, working the over-the-top style into a smooth and seductive storytelling device (the telenovela, used for good), and building up terrific characters--slowly--like Justin, who finally came out toward the end of the series, or Mark, who went from a comically brilliant henchman to a sympathetic lead--a really good person underneath all of his defense mechanisms. Even people like Amanda, who remained the necessary comic relief, remained human enough--thanks to a talented cast--to keep from growing old, and it's a credit to the writing that Wilhelmina was able to end on a good note, rather than to continue being the Wicked Witch of the West.

But all of these things were possible because from the start, Ugly Betty has always known exactly how it's going to end. It has known that the garish "Ugly Betty" title card was eventually going to appear right before the end credits simply as "Betty," and in doing so, it's been able to actually grow a character--to show how Betty goes from being a mess to being a hot mess to being hot--and that's leaving attraction out of the equation. Yes, there have been ridiculous plots and love interests--many of whom came back for the last three "wrap-up" episodes--and yes, the finale was so crammed with the final leg of Betty's journey that it was overwritten and often rushed. But hey, the show got canceled; at least it was able to wrap things up.

And though I was upset to learn that the show was ending, I can say that I'm actually quite pleased having now seen how it went out: coming out, having a wedding, and leaving the country. It took big steps, took bigger risks than ever, and most importantly, preached the importance of going after your dream; it spoke toward not staying in your comfort zone. Ultimately, Betty leaves the big money of high fashion to go into a risky start-up New Yorker-ish venture, leaving behind all of her friends to do so, because that's her dream. And thank goodness the show was canceled, or it would have stretched that out another couple of seasons, to the point at which the ending wouldn't have seemed so earnest.

Conclusion: So yeah, you can take whatever sort of risky ventures you want during the progression of your television show, can stretch things for temporary financial gain, but you've got have an end goal in sight, and you've got to be unwilling to compromise on that simply for the safety of job security. My favorite shows have always seemed to know where they were going--The West Wing had a set term (literally); The Wire told a comprehensive story (from all angles) of Baltimore, reminding us that things are never as simple as they appear; Veronica Mars didn't overstep its season-long mysteries, but found new social issues to investigate; The Shield ended in an inevitable and unenviable way; and Friday Night Lights looks to be on track to wrap things up for everyone in a natural way. Breaking Bad may prove the exception that proves the rule--it's true that Gilligan doesn't know exactly where he's going, but he's not stretching anything out: he's gunning full-throttle toward the finish line, as excited as his audience is to see where we all wind up. Of course, an ending isn't everything, as FlashForward learned; you still need good actors and directors. But ultimately, we remember the transcendent shows by how well they grew toward the end, so let's always keep the journey in mind, and let's never stop believing.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Insurgent Summer

Fredy Perlman's 1976 political novel, Letters of Insurgents isn't exactly as complex and rich as Infinite Jest, the David Foster Wallace masterpiece that was last year's big summer reading project, but it's certainly a window onto another world. Whereas Infinite Jest was all too accurately a reflection of our future and of the twin dangers of isolation and addiction, Letters of Insurgents, so far, is a frightening mirror of our present, a fine way of realizing that things haven't changed very much in the last 35 years, at least when it comes to politics. And that's very much the point of Perlman's novel, which probably explains why it's available online through The Anarchist Library. You can find out more about the group-read (which is already four weeks in) here. For my part, since I'm reading Jonathan Lethem's so-far-tediously-snobby Chronic City for my regular book group and am about to start reading Cervantes's Don Quixote for the third time as part of another reading circle, I don't intend to post much about Letters of Insurgents, especially since there's nothing in the structure--not even the back-and-forth letter-structure between Sophia and Yarostan--worth delving into. Like many political novels, it's overwhelmingly repetitive, but also fascinating, and what I'll be emphasizing are the most philosophical sections, or at the very least, the parts that have given me pause.

Illusions (First Letters)
Call it the Matrix dilemma, if you like, or a proof of the old saw that "Ignorance is bliss," but there are few things more cruel than to give someone the illusion of freedom--and then to take it away from them. Far better to be in prison and aware, at least according to Yarostan, than to have an ineffective life of "freedom." Consider Sophia's response to this letter: the defining moment in her life was the group project of rebellion that she undertook twenty years ago, in which "We defined and determined ourselves. No one pushed, drove or coerced us. Each of us was free in the fullest sense." Ironically, as the novel continues, Yarostan will do exactly what he most fears to Sophia, continuing to dispel what he sees as her faulty remembrance of the past, i.e., the illusions of her memory. And if her very self-definition is wrong, then what exactly is she?

I recently saw a play by a young playwright, it was called That Face. You can read into it as you like, as a case study of madness and its effect on a family (see also the gaudier Next to Normal), but what I took out of it was that the main character, Henry, has created a necessary fiction for himself, one which allows him to survive his mother's madness, his father's abandonment of them, and his sister's exile. For the last five years, he has appointed himself the man of the house, believing to the extent that it becomes his reality, that he can be the one to save his mother, that he can make a difference. Spoilers ahead: at the end of the play, his father returns, commits her, and the son, Henry, has a nervous breakdown--because his entire world has just been pulled apart. He's spent five years--wasted them, really--trying to accomplish something, and he's failed.

The insurgents of Perlman's novel face the same issue, twenty years down the road, having suffered imprisonment and other deprivations along the way. Their happiness derives either from a total ignorance of politics, by which I mean a blind acceptance of the way things are, or from a total awareness that they are actively in charge of their own lives, working and struggling to build something of their own.

Language (Third/Fourth Letters)
I really enjoyed my classes in deconstruction, even if the college experience itself is derided by Sophia, now a teacher, who exclaims, "How sickening adaptable people are! During my first few days in school I was revolted, shocked and indignant. Lively young people sat like trained poodles and let ignorant functionaries stuff their heads with garbage." Thankfully, the classes I most enjoyed were the ones that strayed from syllabi and forced--although perhaps not to the extent of anarchy--students to think for themselves. So when we studied Derrida and Saussure, signs and signifiers, well, those were my favorite classes, wild and practically unteachable at times.

I think that's why I love Zdenek, a friend of Yarostan's, so much. Take this section, for example:

"All the forms you mention are forms which allowed politicians to make themselves representatives of the working people, embodiments of the worker's movement. You missed my comparison with a commonwealth. Just as in a commonwealth, the monarchs of a union speak for, dominate, repress and sell their subjects."
"That's of course true today, but--"
Zdenek interrupted the teacher and shouted, "That's true whenever working people lose control over the language they use, whenever their very thoughts are couched in terms that don't understand, terms like organization!"
"But that's ridiculous," the teacher objected. "You seem to want every generation to destroy the language and invent one of its own."
"Maybe that's exactly what I want," Zdenek said. "For people to destroy the language along with all the other conditions they're born into, for every generation to shape its own world and invent its own language. How can we talk of a revolution in which people reshape their world if we can't even imagine people shaping their own language? How can people shape anything if they never leave the world they're born into?"
Zdenek's talking about a pure form of anarchy, an uprising of a million independent voices, not thrown together by political speeches, or urged to action by leaders, but by their own personal feels. The cruel irony here, which the teacher points out, is that present-day conditions make this sort of revolt absolutely untenable, which means that, so far as I can see, the rebels have already lost. One coup just leads to another; the leaders we appoint to give us strength eventually end up replacing the people we've just thrown out, and the realization of this creates a complacent feeling of "Why bother?" in which the people basically repress themselves. And our willingness to simply follow in the footsteps of the past--nowhere more clearly than in the way that we stick to the same old imprisoning conventions of language--proves this. We accept what we've learned as fact--all too blindly for some people these days, with FOX News being a major inciter of unrest, but controllable unrest, which is useful only to the Tea Party politicians who ride that wave into their own personal power--never questioning that the old sayings might be wrong. "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." Or maybe it's that those who remember the past are bound to remain living in it.

Here's the really frightening part that feels most salient to today's world: "When we applaud, we again become the lifeless globs of organic matter we've been nearly every moment of our normal lives. We cheer the pedants and we're again helpless, like the spectators of a sporting match rooting for a team. We're hypnotized by the bouts and struggles among the concepts; we passively admire reflections of our own real longings and we passively admire the politicians who return our longings to us in the form of images." I read a great op-ed once, which argued against watching the Daily Show on the grounds that it took away our anger: having heard what we felt be articulated, we lost the impetus to actually go out and march. I also saw a play recently which argued a similar thing--I think it was Collected Stories--and that was that once you've said something out loud, you lose the drive to actually do that thing. We take ourselves out of the moment, we reduce our passions.

As Yarostan says, "Instead of taking steps with those around me to realize my desires, I transformed my desires into what seemed to be the first step toward their realization, namely into a program of action. But by this transformation, I negated my real desires; I replaced them with ideas, with words, with notions in my brain. Instead of a life, I had a credo. Instead of taking steps with other people toward real projects carried out during our living moments of time, I took steps to convert other people to my credo, my religion, my words. I replaced the concrete practical activity of the whole human being with merely mental activity, with activity that took place inside my mind, with combinations of written letters or spoken sounds, namely with non-activity."

Having written this, I can't really argue with Yarostan's point. As I've often been accused of--in my writing, which is even worse--I tend to be to intellectual about things. I think them through, and by the time I'm ready to act, if I ever am, the need to do so is long past. To bring things full circle, David Foster Wallace also wrote about men of action and inaction, and he worried, greatly, that America was heading more and more toward "heroes" of the latter kind. Should I be concerned, then, that despite being aware of this, I'm still not troubled? Is my complacency such a terrible thing? I think that's a good spot to stop writing.