Saturday, April 30, 2011

Short-a-Day: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's "A Withered Branch"

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 22.

[Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers.]

"I met my twin soul at dawn on a narrow street by the cathedral," writes the short-story writing protagonist of Petrushevskaya's piece. She has just arrived in Vilnius, and despite the narrow sexual escape of the previous night, in which her hitchhike-enabling trucker chooses not to rape her, she feels alive. She is open to the world, and in that light, she is welcomed by this "twin" -- "a modestly dressed woman of about fifty, wearing a kerchief," who offers, knowing that all the hotels are full, to let her stay in her home. She is greeted with dinner, given a spare key, treated kindly, and unlike your traditional short story, this does not end badly for either one.

As it turns out, the woman, Jadviga, is just looking for someone with whom she can talk. "She has been quiet, saying nothing to her new neighbors. They would never accept such tragedy, would shun her the way her old neighbors did in Panevezys." It's not clear how long she's been bearing this weight, and the cultural boundary between America -- which practical brags of its suffering -- and Russia makes it unclear if there's something else behind the loss of her husband, daughter, son, and son's husband in what appears to have been an accidental fire. The point, I guess, is that she's not accepted or that she feels unaccepted, and in that, our narrator can relate, for she has an asthmatic son (currently in a sanatorium) and a dead husband who was paralyzed for a fifth of his life. ("By the end he was so emaciated he looked like Jesus.")

The difference between them is that our narrator has something to live for -- her son ("my child, my savior, my treasure" -- whereas Jadviga is the titular "withered branch on a dead tree." Nothing more to the two-page story than this; just a moment in which grief is temporarily alleviated by the simple act of sharing it. Certainly not my cup of tea, but there's nothing offensive in Petrushevskaya's writing, and she lays out desperate times in an almost depressingly neat prose.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Short-a-Day: Keith Ridgway's "Goo Book"

 Originally published in The New Yorker, April 11, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 52.

Not the good book, mind you, that much is clear from the opening line -- "It was fucking hot" -- and the first section's introduction to our anti-hero, the sort of man who "slid through [tourists] like Jesus through children" and "came out the other side with a box purse and what his fingers had thought was a wallet but turned out to be a notebook," a character who dreams of the girl he has just slept with beside the canal as "probably snoring now, dreaming" or alternatively "being robbed, raped, murdered, bullied, torn apart, and if the canal had a tide she would drown, just for him, just because of him." He's the sort of person who worries that one can love too much, the good thief who goes out of his way to return the stolen notebook because he's filled with sentiments himself; he wants only emotionless money.

No, we're talking about the goo book here, a book that he has started to record his sentimental thoughts in -- and which she, his girlfriend, has started to do the same -- as "They couldn't talk. They were not good talkers, either of them." They are anti-Romeo and Juliet, a pair of damaged lovers who like to tie one another up and be hurt because of the way in which they hate themselves: "She hated her name. He hated his name." The book, then, is for tenderness and dreams; their physical lives, on the other hand, are partitioned from that, are meant to take on all the roughness of the world. Ironically, it's not clear that our protagonist knows much of the actual roughness out there: his father has gotten him a job working for some potentially violent characters, deal-makers that he serves as driver for, but he's never actually seen violence done -- he only suspects it. When police collar him and try to turn him, he not only agrees to their terms (easily coerced and fearful of prison), but winds up sleeping with one of the officers, a man named Hawthorn.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

PALE SPRING: When You Were Inside Them They Ceased To Be Clouds (§1 - §9)

[The first in a series of posts that I'll be making for the blog-through of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, all of which can be found, in the future, at Pale Spring.]

If we are what we eat, then we are also what we read (or devour, in the case of David Foster Wallace), and so it is that §1, which only seems to be a simple (but rich) list of descriptions, dictates what we can expect of The Pale King, and what we can expect The Pale King to do to us. This opening is a shell-game of perspectives, far more than "coins of sunlight" sparkling on a "tobacco-brown river." It is, almost immediately, a series of contradictions, for while it is a "very old land" shaped with "quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs," it is also a place with a singular moment in which "an arrow of starlings [fire] from the windbreak's thatch," and a place newly anointed with "dew that stays where it is and steams all day." It is an "untilled" place, but it is processed enough to look like "flannel plains."

The ground from above is "blacktop graphs," the sky from below is "ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow" (and thereby the two never touch). From where you stand (note the second-person intrusion, the reader joining the author), things are defined and definite: "insects all business all the time." And yet, down the road from where you find "Your shoes' brand incised in the dew," we have the unshaped: "The horizon trembling, shapeless." In a moment, we will join Claude Sylvanshine en-route to Peoria via plane (§2); we shall then eavesdrop on two GS-9s in their "mindless monochrome drive up to Region HQ in Joliet" (§3); catch up on some IRS-related news (§4); flashback with Leonard Stecyk (§5), Lane A. Dean Jr. (§6), and Thomas Bondurant (§7); sit for a spell in a trailer park with Toni Ware and her mother "abroad again in endless night" (§8); and catch up with "the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona" (§9), and in this notably un-annular way, we will stress the kicker of that opening paragraph, which states that for all that we may see, experience, or be, "We are all of us brothers."

Anything can happen when we play with perspective in this fashion: the worms baked (and then unbaked) in the earth each day will constantly make new shapes in the ground; the "core accounting equation A = L + E can be dissolved and reshuffled into everything from E = A - L to beyond." The word "illiterate," repeated with the frequency of a oscillating propeller, can cease to mean anything and yet still be lovely in itself. So as we travel, let us pay closer attention to the things we do share in common with one another -- the worms themselves, and not the shapes they temporarily make up -- and consider the twins of entertainment and boredom that we so often use in casual conversation to connect us. Let old stalwarts like "How 'bout them Yankees?" or "Lovely weather today, no?" give way to the underlying mindlessness they represent in our "safe" interactions; as Wallace puts it: "The entire ball game, in terms of both the exam and life, was what you gave attention to vs. what you willed yourself to not" and "The whole ball game was perspective, filtering, the choice of perception's objects."

So what is it that we all have in common? What it is that Wallace wants to show us as he moves from the aerial overview to a slow decent ("mainly a heightening of the specificity of what lay below") toward a parking lot, "Each car not only parked by a different human individual but conceived, designed, assembled from parts each one of which was designed and made, transported, sold, financed, purchased, and insured by human standards, each with life stories and self-concepts that all fit together into a larger pattern of facts." If it is the anxiety that comes with being unable to recognize ourselves (or ourselves in others, thereby leading to distrust), then let us listen to these fears; let us see them and in seeing them, be unafraid.

The unnamed GS-9 makes me worried that others will not understand me. Frederick Blumquist makes me worried that no-one will notice that I am gone. Leonard Stecyk makes me worried that I will never be good enough, and worried that, in realizing this, I will never really try to be good enough. Lane A. Dean Jr. makes me worried that I am not a good person, simply because I worry that I may not be a good person. (He worries that "He might not even know his own heart or be able to read and know himself.") Additionally, worried that I, who have only rarely been in love, might have "no earthly idea what love is." Worried that, like Toni Ware, I have become so accustomed to life the way it is that I have limited myself from what might or should be. Worried, like Sylvanshine, that man is nothing more than "the exact pocket of space that he displaces," and terrified, like Wallace, that there is "some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us (whether or not we're consciously aware of it) spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least feeling with our full attention." But hopeful, too, in that we are all brothers, and that there is more than mere distraction. That as I stand here, in the dew-stricken pasture, affirming that everything is affixed, there lies change -- or the potential for change -- down the horizon, where none of us can entirely see.

THEATER: The Book of Mormon

Lo, and it was true that Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and Robert Lopez fill the book and lyrics of The Book of Mormon with references to fucking magical frogs (as opposed to virgin babies), fucking God in his various holes (including his cunt), and colorful characters like the crazed General Butt-Fucking Naked (which refers to the fashion in which he likes to slaughter people). Yea, but the true revelation -- racily given unto the audience -- was that the creators of South Park and Avenue Q had more than obvious jokes about overzealous Mormons and delusional Ugandans. Thus did the laugh-out-loud funny give way to the transcendental humor, in which the leaden salespitch of religion gave way to the golden tenor of the Broadway musical, and we were all saved from Yet Another Broadway Musical. Funnier than Spamalot, deeper than The Producers, The Book of Mormon is wedged between the winking sarcasm of Urinetown and the earnestness of The Drowsy Chaperone.

Long-term fans of Stone and Parker are no doubt unsurprised by this notice: their ability to hide deeper meaning in over-the-top premises and vulgarities has sustained South Park for fifteen years, taking it from the outright humor of an alien anal probe (or singing piece of fecal matter) to the absurd cracks at legalizing pot ("Medicinal Fried Chicken"), a damnable paparazzi ("Britney's New Look"), and bizarre economy ("Margaritaville"). But they will be cheered to know that tourists and theatergoers alike are getting the message beyond the buried gold plates and the maggots in my scrotum: "It was made up," realizes Elder Price (Andrew Rannells), reuniting with his prevaricating partner Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), "but it pointed to something bigger." One hopes, too, that they walk out of the theater prepared to call an end to the American exceptionalism that The Book of Mormon mocks in its sanitized references to The Lion King and the song "I Am Africa," in which the missionaries naively purport to be not only in the same boat as their Ugandan neighbors -- but to be more authentic than they are. (The only downside to some of these agenda-driven songs is that they are less catchy than their anthemic brethren.)

As they did when "mocking" Scientology, The Book of Mormon simply presents the Mormon beliefs more or less as they are, trusting that the tale of ancient warring Hebrew tribes and Joseph Smith's communication with the angelic spirit Moroni (Rory O'Malley) will do their work for them. (It does.) This tricky bit of sincerity is the show's saving grace, particularly in the way the creators use it to subvert musical traditions, like the "love story." Here, Elder Cunningham and the village elder's daughter, Nabulungi (Nikki M. James), sing a terrifically euphemistic song that gets them both good and wet ("Baptize Me") . . . which turns out to be entirely literal. The same cannot be said for the Act II's climactic "Joseph Smith American Moses," in which Mafala Hatimbi (Michael Potts) leads his tribe in what they believe is an "accurate" musical portrayal of the religion they have now pledged themselves to, for though they sing of increasingly absurd things -- like hobbits and Ewoks and all the other embellishments Cunningham has passed down to them in good faith -- they, unlike the horrified visiting Mormons, understand the meaning and power of metaphor. 

There's the real mark of faith, then: not so much the religion's past (its beliefs and lore) but its future (its actions). This is what we're taught by Price's breakdown in a "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" littered with leopard-printed devils who tap dance with silvery canes and top hats, to say nothing of a dancing quartet of Hitler, Jeffery Dahmer, Johnny Cochran, and Genghis Khan, or the twirling coffee cups and maple-glazed donuts. (The musical will forever be alive and chorus-line-kicking in dream sequences.) When he wakes up, it's to belt out "I Believe," which more or less dismisses the inanities of his religion in order to double-down on the faith that comes from believing in doing good nonetheless. And though this revelation doesn't have the result he's hoping for, it works wonders for The Book of Mormon, which is constantly pushing further than you thought it would -- even after explaining the English translation of the catchy, Hakuna Matata parody, "Hasa Diga Eebowai."

It takes a solid foundation in order to make those leaps of faith, and Parker, who co-directs with choreographer Casey Nicholaw, successfully provide that grounding. The framework of a Broadway musical is established from the very get-go -- a spotlight rising on the top of the proscenium, a curtain rising to reveal a chorus of polite doorbell ringers -- even as inexpensive scenic backdrops (Mormon headquarters is littered with fast-food chains) knock the needlessly lavish expense of other musicals. (At the same time, Ann Roth is tasked with designing a wide range of pop-culture costumes from Star Wars, each of which appears for roughly five seconds.) What appear at first to be shortcuts -- like a clap-on/clap-off lighting effect in the song "Turn It Off" -- reveal themselves to actually be stage illusions. (The second time the lights "clap on," the chorus's clothes have changed.) 
In other words, The Book of Mormon is far more than it might seem -- not just in terms of being deeper than the blatant jokes, but in an homage to Broadway that runs far beyond simply name-checking other shows or dance techniques. Like all religious texts (and Broadway shows), it could stand a little editing, but let's not hold that against it, especially as it isn't holding anything back.

Short-a-Day: Ramona Ausubel's "Atria"

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 4., 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 38.

What's the line -- if there is one -- between humans and beasts? High-school sophomore Hazel Whiting doesn't see much of one; life is a "soggy thing" to her, her peers look "like helpless, hairless baby rats," and she decides that she will "survive each of these endeavors by not becoming invested." And yet (a phrase that echoes through her mind), she winds up convinced that her mother -- who has already raised the daughter's three older sisters -- wants her to grow up faster, and so she sleeps with a beer-drinking and jerky-chewing clerk at the local 7-Eleven. Animals come into play again:

"Mmmmmm," he said. "Mmmmmm," she returned. Hazel thought they were like whales in the sea, searching for something over long dark distances.

Her final observation's a bit of a cliche -- "She had done this grownup thing, yet she suspected that her mother would find her even more childish for it" -- but the distance in her voice keeps the story fresh, a tone that's needed since she is raped by a stranger in the next section, and checking her urine two paragraphs later: "Hazel sat on a closed toilet next to a little plastic spear with a bright-blue plus sign on one end."  But it's here that the tone starts to peter out: Hazel imagines the child within her as a menagerie of animals, from a "glowing fur baby" to a "large bird of prey," and various others. There's a little history given about her mother and sisters, who believe that their dead husband/father will return through the child, which might explain Hazel's disassociative fantasies, and yet . . . .

In the story's climax, she has given birth and is left alone with the baby. As it begins to cry in its bassinet, she goes to comfort it -- not as baby, though, but as what she recognizes it to be: a seal. She collects the blowing dew from the four-AM wind and sprinkles it on the child; when this is not enough, she begins to wring out a dirty mop atop the child; finally, she lifts up the entire bucket and soaks the baby through and through. The story ends there, with the two of them naked in the dark room, the "seal" suckling at her breast -- and it comes as a disappointment, an "Is that all?" moment. The language is fine -- "The bundle coughed one beautiful polished river rock of a cough" -- but with Johnny the 7-Eleven clerk popping in, the sisters and mother responsibly caring for her, the town shipping her endless sympathy casseroles, it's hard to resolve the story's ultimate destination and abandonment of its prior threads. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

THEATER: "Lover. Muse. Mockingbird. Whore."

Photos/Steven Schreiber
Company XIV's latest, a so-called "meditation" on the desultory women in Charles Bukowski's life, is a carefully culled selection of the poet's work, each piece selected and subsequently edited into visually appealing chunks by Austin McCormick, the group's choreographer/director. Unlike previous work, however, which pulled a decidedly adult view (and physical) view of the stories of the Trojan War, Adam and Eve, and The Nutcracker, Love. Muse. Mockingbird. Whore. is a flightier work (as the four-part title suggests).

The end result is successfully stark and bleak: designer Zane Pihlstrom leaves the garage-like theater open, save for a cluttered "apartment" that we see through shutters and video feeds, and Gina Scherr's lighting is dusky, or fed up in dire earthy tones from the LED-boxed ground. That is, unfortunately, all that comes through: a dark, ravaging, and hard-to-follow screed in which Laura Careless dances atop a dirt-covered and rain-soaked piano lid (severed from its body), climbs the walls (so as to better scrawl curses on them), and writhes around in lingerie, all while a somber and wife-beater-wearing Jeff Takacs stalks the periphery, rasping Bukowski's words. Though McCormick comes up with a staggering number of ways to show these rough-and-tumble women, there's a one-note feel to them, to the point where the music, the words, and the dancing bleed together (retitled: "Lovusingbore").

That single note, however, is still a doozy -- or as Bukowski might put it, "All rump and breast and dizziness," and if the work seems stupid, it is "stupid with life," for whether you like it or not, Careless dances (and stomps, and spins, and rolls, and crosses, and grunts) the work to within an inch of that "stupid life." When the poet describes a drunken woman who trips in the street and slows traffic as a green antelope, it is McCormick who takes the image to task, using a fan to blow green smoke through the theater, and it is Careless who teeters in those "tower stilts" of her heels, to the point where she is often forced to walk on the sides of her shoes. She dances, at first, as a projection of the text (it lights her up, the words filling the floor and walls), and by the end of the play, she dances atop the writer, Takacs giving us a clear image of an author debased and lost in his own work, his haunting lyric women.

As a whole, Lover. Muse. Mockingbird. Whore. seems incomplete, or at least less multifaceted than it was intended to be: despite being literal poetry in motion, the words seem entirely beside the point. But in specific moments and with special effects, Company XIV continues to prod the imagination. Though you may not fully understand their latest, you cannot help but feel it.

Short-a-Day: Lore Segal's "The Ice Worm"

Originally published in Harper's, May 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 81.

A small story, no doubt, but far from a slight one. If Segal had written merely of Maggie's "small ice-worm of panic" upon finding that her elderly mother has been lost in the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of the hospital's emergency admissions center, this would have been nothing new to the genre. Instead, however, Segal spends the first third of the story having the grandmother, Ilka, telling Maggie's son, David, a biblical story: she gets us invested in Ilka through the open love of the grandson, and sets a benchmark for Ilka's lucidity -- the way she carefully skirts around the violent confrontations between King David and Ishbi-benob of the Philistines -- that gives her growing senility more of a bite. This opening is such a heartwarming and simple expression of family that it's really only a matter of time before this storyline winds up on Parenthood, though Segal goes the extra mile to throw in a few observations about saintly Maggie's self-worth: "Good people don't think they are being good when they like doing the good thing. If they did it with gritted teeth, then they would think that it was good!"

The second third of the story covers Maggie's attempts to cope with the Kastel Street Social Service office (which indicates heavily how problematic eldercare is in this country, and how awful it may become if social services are cut); it notes, too, that for all our growing intimacy and affection for her mother, Ilka, we cannot justify giving her special treatment, for she is not the only suffering old person, nor is Maggie the only daughter struggling to provide for an aging relative (and Maggie has the calming help of her husband, Jeff, a man who, despite being "married to [his] own priorities," makes his wife's problems one of those priorities):

Maggie's idea was to place Ilka's face where Ms. Haze's eyes, as she seated herself in her chair, could not help meeting Ilka's eyes. And here Maggie's eyes met the eyes in the faces stapled, glued, and paper-clipped to all the notes and letters, and correctly attached in the upper-right corner of the applications waiting for Claudia Haze's perusal, determination, and appropriate action.

So it is, then, that the final third of the story does not simply set us on Maggie's ice-worm-driven side: we understand the terrible triages of the hospital, the impossible -- and thereby impersonal -- choices of the bureaucrats, and the awful truths that nostalgia forms because time has moved on -- things are no longer as they were, because they simply, bitterly are the way they are now. Well told, Segal, well told.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

TV: Treme (Season Two)

Having just gone back to watch the first season again, I maintain that there's nothing on television quite like Treme: it's the most character-driven (and at some points city-driven) show I've ever seen. Like The Wire, the second season is more of the same, only with a wider scope: let's look into the contractor racket, the reconstruction of schools, and the triage of the police department. You should definitely watch: read my whole review over at Slant.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


The play's called High because it follows the attempts of a street-smart, plainclothes nun named Sister Jamison Connelly (Kathleen Turner) to reform a serious drug user, Cody Randall (Evan Jonigkeit), at the behest of her boss, Father Michael Delpapp (Stephen Kunken). The subject matter, however, is dead-on-arrival sober, which you'd expect from a playwright (Matthew Lombardo) who alludes to some expertise with addiction in his bio. It is also, unfortunately, slight, trite, empty, vacuous, boring, obvious, heavy-handed, lethargic, drowsy, and -- in case you aren't getting the picture -- repetitive. It is a show with precisely one idea, and perhaps one surprise, that nonetheless earnestly and awfully stretches itself to fill two acts, mainly by telegraphing what's going to happen ("Who knows," says Father Michael to Sister Jamison, "you might even learn something from this one") and summarizing what's just happened.

One expects better of Ms. Turner, but once you get over the shock of hearing her plangent voice wasted on such awful lines, there's a certain campy pleasure that stems from watching as she proudly holds her head high and, with a straight-face, speaks out: "Temptation. Whenever you give into it, it never ends well." At one point, Lombardo shamelessly retells that old self-destructive anecdote about the scorpion and the frog, and while it doesn't do much for the play, the sight of Ms. Turner serenely enunciating the punchline ("Glug. Glug. Glug.") nearly makes the whole thing worthwhile. Still, despite the unfunny jokes ("Why do you play the guilt card?" "I'm a Catholic priest!"), it's important to remember that High isn't a comedy; you'll especially want to keep this in mind while watching Jonigkeit's portrayal of being "high," particularly in his climactic Act I relapse, in which he spasms and howls and wobbles and leers and attempts to molest Sister Jamison, stark naked the whole time, mind you. This isn't to say that Jonigkeit doesn't have his moments, but most of the time, he's so snide and stereotypically over-the-top that it's hard to detect an ounce of character, let alone feeling. That the same can be said of Kunken, a veteran who comes across as a flighty amateur here, leads one to suspect that director Rob Ruggiero's to blame.  

J'accuse, then! Ruggiero's production is a squalid, paint-by-numbers affair that cuts corners -- like character development -- all the way down to David Gallo's mirthless set design, which uses a spare, starlit backdrop for Sister Jamison's loopy monologues (the last of which "explains" the importance of said stars), and cranks out a few perfunctory white doors, chairs, and walls for the rehab center scenes. You'd think that space would be one of the key elements of a play about a druggie looking to escape, and the fact that Ruggiero so broadly lays out the stage shows how little he cares about containing and sustaining anything real, let alone dramatic. Here's a timely and appropriate metaphor for the effect: it'd be like rolling a blunt with a fishing net. Cody confesses that he was molested by one of his neglectful mother's Johns and Sister Jamison speaks of the problems with alcohol that made her turn to the convent: these are serious, weighty issues. But in the context of High, they slip right through the cracks, and the few emotions that do make it through, in a highly disconnected fashion, feel manipulative and unearned. (Much like the convenience of Cody being related to a terrible-at-his-job Father Michael.)

If High were a drug, it wouldn't even rate as skunk weed: it'd be baby powder, capable of satisfying only the good and truly deluded.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, The Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright's Father Begs a Boon"

From Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 91.

My dutifully proud -- wear a mask and your face grows to fit it. Avoid all mirrors as though -- and no, worst, the black irony: now his wife and girls are bewitched this way now as well you see. As his mother -- the art he perfected upon her.

Written as a monologue (complete with humorously bleak medical stage directions) from FATHER to a "you" that starts out as a deathbed confession to a priest (a Father) and his divine sister, this story is filled with mid-sentence pauses and shifts like the ones above, and rich with a sense of this narrator's unreliable character, a fact that emphasizes the broader point Wallace is making (in his work) about perception and (I'll say it again) empathy. The key phrase here is "Wear a mask and your face grows to fit it," because for years, the father has been living a lie, refusing first to tell his wife that he detests their son, and then never admitting to his son -- with whom he awkwardly interacts -- that he's a detestably selfish hindrance to the father's own happiness. In this, the story shares unhappy secrets with "Adult World" and, more accurately, "Suicide as a Sort of Present," which, if you assume to be talking about the mother from this story, is really kicking things up a notch, for it says that both the father and mother detested the child, but both hid it -- the father, out of love for the mother, and the mother, out of her outward attempts to face her inner emotional difficulties. Even on its own, however, the story is a gripping piece, and yes, one that demands to be performed in a theater.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "The Depressed Person"

From Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 75.

Here's the most emblematic story of Wallace's c. 2000 fiction-writing style: a clinically written, circuitous, and emphatic third-person narrative about the self-torture that comes from losing an ability to empathize with and trust in the world around oneself. "The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror," begins the story. We hear of the various medications she's been on, without effect, and learn of the horrifyingly petty Blame Games her divorced parents played over the costs of raising her, a childhood that has vestigially shaped the way she is now, with specific regard to her inability to blame anyone but herself. This is true to the extent that when she calls her Support Group -- her long-distance "friends" -- she spends as much time apologizing for her interruptions and pitiable behavior as she does attempting to talk about the formative traumas in her life, a vicious circle in which she feels demeaned by her attempts to feel less demeaned. (For example, she is mortified by the amount of money she spends to "force" her therapist to listen to her -- not because she doesn't have the money [and this reminds her of how her parents haggled over the principle of raising her] but because it re-enforces that she is the type of person who has to pay someone to be her best friend.)

So far as stories go, it's an excellent mood piece: we feel clutched at by the depressed person's intense needs, in the sense that we are almost dragged down with her, reaching the point at which we want -- like her friends -- to hang up the phone and stop listening. And yet we are also fascinated by the intricacies of her thought process, in which everything has a coded secret meaning; we are forced to wonder what it might be like to worry so much about how others see us, to be unable to forgive or forget or simply Be There (the code that she ignorantly uses to describe her Support Group's support). The unappealing nature of the story, which is really dryly written, in the flat tones of the depressed -- i.e., those who cannot feel/connect with themselves or others, but do, sadly, realize and fret over this (as opposed to psychopaths) -- shows that the story is having a successful effect on the reader. You sort of have to judge/see for yourself:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko"

Originally published in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 86.

Creativity now lay in the manipulation of received themes. & soon, the C-sharp siren Foretold, this would itself be acknowledged, this apotheosis of static flux, & be itself put to the cynical use of just what it acknowledged, like a funnel that falls through itself. "Soon, myths about myths" was the sirens' prophecy & long-range proposal. TV shows about TV shows. Polls about the reliability of surveys. Soon, perhaps, respected & glossy high-art organs might even start inviting smartass little ironists to contemporize & miscegenate BC [before cable] mythos; & all this pop irony would put a happy-face mask on a nation's terrible shamefaced hunger & need: translation, genuine information, would be allowed to lie, hidden & nourishing, inside the wooden belly of parodic camp.

So yeah, don't get hung up on whether or not you'll be able to follow the many in-jokes Wallace makes here about Agon M. Nar (Agamemnon) or the titular "Tri-Stan" and "I Sold" (Tristan and Isolde) or the blatant Nar(cissus) and Ecko (Echo) -- our humble author is quite upfront about his recombinant sources and parodic intentions, and so while the story isn't particularly deep -- beyond pointing out flaws in our relentless entertainment cycle that Wallace has made, better, elsewhere -- it is followable and, more importantly, funny, even in the weird non-poetic and well-endowed vocabulary of the semi-shorthand that the narrator, "the fuzzy Hensonian epiclete" Ovid the Obtuse, uses.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Forever Overhead"

Originally published in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 95.

And so but here's the story that's almost the total opposite of "Church Not Made with Hands": it's poetically written, sure, but in a familiar and intimate second-person that thrusts us into what is an easily recognizable situation: a pubescent thirteen-year-old boy ("Your voice is rich and scratchy and moves between octaves without any warning"), on his birthday, decides to grow up by plunging off a local swimming pool's diving tower. Time slows for him in this formative moment and his senses flare to life: there is nothing too small to be detailed as he climbs out of the pool, stands in the line that snakes past the "SN CK BAR," and prepares to climb the ladder, feigning the boredom of waiting that comes to those who have done something before, who can no longer appreciate the experience with fresh eyes.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Church Not Made with Hands"

Originally published in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 0.

First, an epigrammatic quote from A. O. Scott's New York Review of Books article on the oeuvre of Wallace (c. 1999): "Wallace, then, is less anti-ironic than (forgive me) meta-ironic. That is, his gambit is to turn irony back on itself, to make his fiction relentlessly conscious of its own self-consciousness, and thus to produce work that will be at once unassailably sophisticated and doggedly down to earth." I lead with that, because to me, that's the essence of Wallace's best writing (both fiction and non-fiction): work that is relentlessly conscious, work in which we can see the writer struggling to name the world around him, to understand it, a God-like task that is made simpler for the reader, who is led to realize that We Are All in the Same Boat.

Which brings me to "Church Not Made with Hands," the first piece of Wallace's I've read that appears to be struggle-free. In the worst way possible. Confusing from the get-go -- "Drawn lids one screen of skin, dreampaintings move across Day's colored dark" -- the work gets more pretentious from there, hinting only briefly at Day's profession as a part-time art-therapist and his own mental issue, the brain damage done to his wife's daughter, Esther, whom was caught in the suction part of their private pool, and whom he (a non-swimmer), was unable to save. Elements of this permeate the story, it's true, from the use of color -- particularly pink and clear blue -- to the waterlogged writing itself, through which one struggle to find purchase. But rather than make you ponder the situation, these distant, distant third-person characters, the work is ponderous, filled with apparently meaningless descriptions and short sentences that fly by: "Sunlight reverses HEALTH pink through the windshield's sticker. Day drives the county car past a factory."

THEATER: The Tremendous Tremendous

Coming toward the end of the Great Depression, the 1939 World's Fair was designed to be a tremendous exhibition, one that would celebrate and unite the many different peoples of the world. To this effect, one of the highlights was the Westinghouse Time Capsule (though most of us will have to take Wikipedia's word for that), which captured that singular moment in time. While it's true that the capsule isn't due to be unearthed until the year 6939, that hasn't stopped the Mad Ones from painstakingly recreating one such moment -- the eighty celebratory, real-time minutes following the final performance of the Tremendous Traveling Abbots. What follows -- The Tremendous Tremendous -- doesn't wear itself out or sell itself short. Like their previous work, Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War, the company uses a timeless setting to focus on the minutiae that keep us living and thriving together.

The play opens with a reversal of the usual theatrical norms: the five-member cast is returning from their final performance, a Shakespearean tragedy (done as a comedic vaudeville act), and between triumphant shots of liquor, they go to the sad task of taking off their fake breasts, unstrapping their blood packets, and washing the greasepaint from their faces. What was the Abbotts' finest hour -- the New York Times gave them an energetic five stars -- may have passed, and the future is terrifying. (They're divided over what their next gig should be.) This, in turn, is a second reversal on our expectations: rather than move on, the group attempts to live in the glorious past, the result of which is a gripping and emotional yet largely plot-less play. (Nothing wrong with that, especially if you're a fan of character-focused playwrights like Annie Baker, and particularly impressive, considering that the play was written by the ensemble.)

Of course, nothing is that simple: the future isn't simply the bright and shiny thing the World's Fair promises it will be, nor is the past this grand Golden Age to swoon over. Squid (Michael Dalto), the group's swarthy musician, has only recently joined the group, and the company does their best to avoid mentioning Murray, the fallen legend he replaced. For all their smiles, his death is a matter of contention between the tomboy Lucilla (Stephanie Wright Thompson) and the wry Bald Henry (Marc Bovino), to say nothing of the deeper sorrow this summons up in the serious Charlie (Joe Curnutte), an emotion that their bubbling leader, Tall Henry (Henry Vick, new to the company, though you'd never be able to tell), does his best to soothe. But such specifics are hardly the point; the subtext exists merely to convince us of the deep bonds and history that ties the group (which isn't really related) together: watch the way they rib one another about their barroom flirting, unite to make up stories on the fly (a preposterous explanation of how Charlie lost his leg), and sweetly share gifts with one another. They're so loose, so utterly convincing, that you'll feel like a time-traveling party-crashing voyeur (particularly in the intimate space).

In fact, everything about The Tremendous Tremendous feels authentic, from the type of popcorn they throw into one another's mouths to Sydney Gallas's brilliant costuming; from the silent projection of the World's Fair they marvel over together to the lights studding their dressing-room mirror. Though the Mad Ones bring this aesthetic with them (they're credited as producers and set designers), they're aided by Jeffrey Withers, who, being primarily an actor, is the right sort of director for a piece this loose and character-driven. That is, though the plot drifts -- it's not unusual for two distinct conversations to take place at once -- there isn't a single moment that feels unnecessary, and that applies to the ending, which takes a turn that, while unexpected to we on the outside, seems inevitable to the Abbotts.

So forget the sealed capsule, forget the lifeless exhibits: The Tremendous Tremendous is the thing worth remembering, a testament not only to a time and a people, but to the idea that we can be better than this, and for as long as we choose to make that moment last.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Adult World (I) & (II)"

Originally published in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 76.

You may have noticed by now that many of Wallace's stories don't exactly end. After watching the author struggle within the fiction of "Octet," the logic behind this becomes clearer: to end a story is to, in some way, resolve it; in turn, this can be said to then absolve the reader of any obligation to come to terms with it, much in the same way that when an answer key is provided to a student's mathematics homework (when it is presolved), the student has less motivation to derive a logical/fitting answer. For this reason, Wallace splits "Adult World" into two stories. (I) is a three-part exploration of an "immature, inexperienced, emotionally labile young wife" who, after three-and-a-half-years of worrying that she's hurting his "thingie" when they have sex, has an epiphany that accounts for all the subtext in her dream images and for her husband's peculiar quirks. (II), on the other hand, is the fourth part of the same story, written as a schema (a formal outline often done in shorthand, as Wallace was wont to do), the part that actually explains the nature of the epiphany and details what happens next -- a sort of "ending" that Wallace was apparently unable to force himself to seriously write (as in, as an actual story segment, and not just as the writerly, self-conscious outline of such), and throughout which there are bracketed notes reminding the author to "avoid ez gag."

Friday, April 08, 2011

THEATER: Bring Us the Head of Your Daughter

Photo/Larry Cobra
"Forgiveness is the easiest way to ignore shit that ain't pleasant!" shouts Dexel (Jordan Tisdale) as he attempts to reinsert himself (after a long estrangement) into the life of his half-sister, Contessa (Mara Lileas). So it's more than a little surprising that Bring Us the Head of Your Daughter -- an early play by Derek Ahonen (revised for this production) -- is filled with so much forgiveness and unpleasantness. As the volume ratchets up, the characters grow more melodramatic, and the situations flaunt plausibility, it becomes all too easy to ignore their motivations and underlying truths, and to fixate on the shock of it all: two lesbians, Contessa and Jackie (Anna Stromberg), have raised a spoiled daughter, Garance (Sarah Roy), who spends her time dressing in blackface and cannibalizing housewives at random. Dexel raped Contessa when they were both fifteen; Jackie is a fall-down drunk who has been enabled by her repressed wife. What needs to be a tragic dissection of American values is instead a comic distortion of them, a play that is so many sheets to the wind that it's barely intelligible.

In Ahonen's previous shows for the Amoralists, conventions have always been subverted for some deeper reason -- the uniting religion of Amerissiah; the passions of Happy in the Poorhouse; the utopianism of their best work, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side -- but with Daughter, which purports to be about the necessity of family, the sight of a cannibal giving a rapist a massage is just that, and nothing more. To be more accurate, when the theatrical Garance finally makes her appearance and is given the opportunity to explain her actions, she simply screams at the top of her lungs -- as she did as a child at piano recital -- and sticks out her tongue. It's a cry for attention for the sake of attention, and has as much to do with the lack of a father figure in her life as her insistence on speaking with an English accent has to do with her "hatred" of America. Under all that, Ahonen is struggling with America's paradoxical split between puritanical and excessive values, but by so easily resolving the absurd dramas of the play -- Oh, let's just move to Israel; Say, let's find that daughter I left at the adoption agency -- we don't rubberneck long enough to feel involved or implicated.

Ahonen's direction shows an awareness of the play's breakneck speed, and frequently slows down, but this inadvertently has the opposite effect as intended, for it exaggerates the comic portions -- see Garance, sneaking around like a ninja in her burqua -- while telegraphing and diminishing the serious portions. Significance isn't created by placing a hideously lengthy pause between two characters: it is earned. This extends to the cast, as well, which needs to find reasons for their actions beyond their being directed to do so. Ms. Lileas approaches Contessa -- rightly so -- with a strong backbone and resilience, but is time and time again forced to abandon that strength for the sake of physical comedy, so much so that she ends up a cipher. As for Ms. Stromberg and Ms. Roy, who are asked to play "drunk" and "crazy": they come across as well-acted but motivation-less moods, not characters. Only the repentant Mr. Tisdale, whose AIDS-afflicted Dexel realistically struggles with reasons to stay and put up with all this shit, comes across as a character in full, which is all the more a shame given how rich Alfred Schatz's kitchen/living-room set and noisy Brian Lazuras's sound design is.

The Amoralists have the components to put on good, original theater, and have boldly widened their company in this, their fifth straight year of productions, but at this point, they seem to be running on fumes. Bring Us the Head of Your Daughter still has the manic energy of their past work, but it lacks the head-rolling conviction that made me fall for them in the first place.

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Octet"

Originally published in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 92.

As a fiction writer myself (specifically an unpublished fiction writer), I am RIGHT THERE with Wallace's self-professed "honest" struggles to salvage the metabelletristic fiasco of these eight pop-quiz interrogations (only three of which he's actually included, a fourth of which is a revision of one of the earlier pieces) by introducing a "ninth" pop quiz that begins as such: "You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer. You are attempting a cycle of very short belletristic pieces, pieces which as it happens are not contes philosophiques and not vignettes or scenarios or allegories or fables, exactly, though neither are they really qualifiable as 'short stories'..." Through the duration of this lengthy and heavily annotated "final" quiz, Wallace stresses the importance of honesty, that being the key that will save the story from being simply a "cute formal exercise in interrogative structure and S.O.P. metatext." He also points out the thin thin line on which the story skates, that it must be

...both grotesquely funny and grotesquely serious at the same time, [lest] any real human urgency in the Quiz's scenario and palpations is obscured by what appears to be just more of the cynical, amusing-ourselves-to-death-type commercial comedy that's already sucked so much felt urgency out of contemporary life in the first place...

Yes, this point's been made in Infinite Jest, but given how raptly readers have been poring over interviews with Wallace's editors and colleagues circa that 1994 publication, they might just as well hear it from the self-conscious author himself, some five years later. The internal struggle of the author is on full display here, and although it does sometimes tip too far into manipulation or "ironic undercutting" -- particularly in the footnotes warning us about the use of terms like "relationship," "to be," and "feelings" -- these flaws are what we're being asked to empathize with in the first place, re: the whole interrogatory quiz structure, and the more he (= Wallace) contorts to himself understand what he cannot find a way to write, the more he, in his unclear clarity, succeeds in convincing us that there is in fact something to be salvaged from his failure.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace \ (More) Short Shorts (Exclusively) from "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men"

If you're writing a very short story, it may be because you don't have much to say, but that doesn't mean you can't at least say it creatively, as Wallace does in one of his odder classics, "Datum Centurio." The "story" is written as an entry from Leckie & Webster's Connotationally Gender-Specific Lexicon of Contemporary Usage © 2096, one that's looking specifically at the third definition of the noun form of "date." He offers us two forms, one for a "soft date" (in which one "voluntarily submit[s] one's nucleotide configurations and other Procreativity Designators to an agency empowered by law to identify an optimal female neurogenetic complement for the purposes of Procreative Genital Interface") and one for a "hard date," which involves "the creation and/or use of a Virtual Female Sensory Array," and is derived from "hardware date."

In tracing the history and usage of this future term, Wallace explains that as our culture grows more emotionally distant (or "hard"), we will require the antonymic "soft" term in order to connote tender sentiments. There's some clever stuff in here, too, about the divide between the predominantly male-centric view of the purposes of a 20th C "date" and the supposedly female one: "(B) the unilateral pursuit of an immediate vigorous, and uncodified episode of genital interface without regard to neurogenetic compatibility or soft offspring or even a telephone call the next day." This is where Wallace's technical prose comes in handy, for it forces us to really look and consider our actual terms and uses (and purposes) for the language we use today, when we throw "fuck" around without anything behind it, and perhaps already cheapen the idea of dating. This is, like much of Wallace's fiction at this phase, cautionary, and in this case, the warning is loud and clear. [72/100]

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

THEATER: Blue Man Group

When a show runs as long as Blue Man Group (twenty years!), it's easy to take it for granted, a part of the neighborhood you, having once been there, hardly think about any more. I speak from my own experience here, since the last time I saw their show I was only thirteen years old; although I was impressed (as I was by Stomp, Blast, and other musical spectacles), I didn't give the show any further thought. I speak also from observing the audience, which seemed to be composed largely of rowdy tourists (a large group shared the "splatter zone" seats). The point is: though they seem to be having no trouble filling the theater, perhaps its time for regular theatergoers and New Yorkers to think about Blue Man Group again. After all, their shtick involves playfully looking at ordinary things anew, and we can all stand a spot of wonderment in our lives.

The first thing you've probably forgotten about Blue Man Group is that they're not just a bunch of blue-clad drummers. Yes, they like to thwack paint-filled puddles with drumsticks, and they like to experiment with the various sound-waves you can get from shortening and elongating giant tubes. But they're also a cadre of clowns, wide-eyed merry-making mimes who may pull you onstage to share a Twinkies dinner (aliens love candy, don't they?) or who may teach your children to turn eating cereal (Cap'n Crunch) into a musical adventure.

The second thing you've probably forgotten about Blue Man Group is that while they don't talk, they've got video interludes and on-screen text that's filled with some self-aware jokes and existential science. In other words, you won't just be dazzled by their colors; you'll have a neatly digestible lesson regarding the rods and cones in our retinas. You won't just be asked to shake your booty in the climactic having-a-good-time "rave" scene; you'll hear what seem like hundreds of slang terms for your behind, your trunk, your caboose, your "happy walrus with no tusks."

The third thing you've probably forgotten about Blue Man Group is that their show, which tours around the world and has permanent locations in a quite a few cities, keeps evolving its material. A xylophone-like synthesizer now allows for shout-outs not just to, say, Beethoven, but to Lady Gaga. More importantly, a variety of new segments have been added to the show that revolve around three "GiPad" devices -- iPads that are nearly twice as tall as the performers -- that descend from the ceiling and allow for some digital delights. In fact, the highlight of the show involves an illusion brought about by the "Digi-Enhance" feature of the GiPads: what begins as a series of onscreen images mirroring the live performers turns into a series of comic quick-changes, in which a Blue Man runs "into" one side of the digital image and out the other . . . only to find himself now wearing the avatar's costume. It's the most intricately timed portion of the evening, rivaled only by the physically impressive feat with which one Blue Man catches over sixteen marshmallows in his mouth -- at one time. (Kids will be rolling in the aisles; you may want to remind them not to try that at home.)

There are still a few ponderously pandering moments -- the Blue Men perhaps spend too much time wandering the theater's aisles, and a "human paintbrush" segment is charmlessly performed backstage -- but the show succeeds in leaving the audience with a sense of community and euphoria, which is the whole point. The Blue Man Group aren't just a bunch of musicians and mimes; they're ambassadors from a far-out planet, here to make friends and new discoveries, and their show remains a terrific staycation for the whole family.

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace \ Short Shorts (Exclusively) from "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men"

And now, the best micro-story that you'll ever read:

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.
The man who'd introduced them didn't much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never know, after all, now did one now did one now did one.

This is the page-zero opener of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, entitled "A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life." Consider this the follow-up to Girl with Curious Hair's "My Appearance," in which although sincerity has long been shown the door, we soldier on with grim humor. These two potential lovers don't talk about themselves: if they did, they might not be liked, even if it can only be the appearance of being liked (considering that, not actually knowing anything about one another, there is nothing to like). And there's something funny and sad in saying "She laughed extremely hard," for laughter should be free, not forced. As they leave, alone, focused entirely on their own narrow strips of pavement, we can imagine their faces twisted up into a smile and down into a frown. And, of course, the kicker: even the man who introduced them doesn't like them; will we ever be able to take anything at face-value again? [100/100]

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

THEATER: Marie and Bruce

Photo/Monique Carboni
Though they share the same bed, there's a deep disconnect between Marie (Marisa Tomei) and Bruce (Frank Whaley). If that's not apparent from the first moment you see them in Marie and Bruce, playwright Wallace Shawn quickly clears up any confusion with Marie's opening monologue, a long harangue in which she repeatedly calls him a "shit" and a "cocksucker." That Bruce ignores her mocking shows either how depressingly inured he is to life with her -- and she to him, to have built up such an arsenal of insults -- or, more realistically, given the introspective style of much of Shawn's work, shows how much of this relationship is built on silence, i.e., the festering things not said aloud. That both are possible is actually a credit to Scott Elliot's vocally explicit, emotionally implicit direction, which magnifies the play's psychic rift by leaving the audience unsure of what to believe. (For instance, Marie insists that Bruce's trousers reek of urine, and he ends up changing pants, but because there are no visible stains, we have to take her word for it.)

This uncertainty is especially effective given that the play (save for a few monologues) is hyperrealistic, much like the film My Dinner with Andre, which Wallace completed two years after writing Marie and Bruce in 1979. In fact, the majority of the play takes place at the dinner party of a friend, Frank (Adam Trese): philosophical conversations and small talk take center stage (around designer Derek McLane's slowly spinning round table) as what we know about Marie -- she plans to leave Bruce after this party -- and what we are finding out about Bruce -- he's a likable guy with some ugly vices -- provide ominous, almost suspenseful subtext. With smooth segues from Shawn and gentle lighting shifts from Elliott (who has always been a genius with crowd scenes), an entire evening of highs and lows fly by, and as the diners grow fatigued, so do the cracks and separations between them, particularly with Marie, who quietly falls asleep at the table, alone in a sea of people.

Toward the end of the dinner, one of the guests bursts out with the philosophical conceit of Marie and Bruce, stressing that we don't always feel what we're actually feeling -- that is, because we're stuck processing things in our head, confused by, say, societal values that insist we should feel a certain way, we become separated from our true selves. Both Marie and Bruce are dependent on one another to some degree; have they mistaken that, somehow, for love? Thankfully, Shawn doesn't have any other guests blurt out the answer; instead, he doubles-down on subtleties that a wearied Tomei seems to dredge out of her soul in her post-dinner confrontation with Whaley, who, in turn, shows an anger and helplessness that sheds some light on an earlier revelation of his involving waitresses with low self-esteem and hotel-room voyeurism. These are just flawed people, after all; they, like us, don't have the answers. However, in watching them muddle through their relationship, we, unlike them, can have a good time.

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace \ Short Shorts (Mostly) from "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men"

At the tail-end of Girl with Curious Hair (ironically, just before his longest story, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way"), Wallace makes a sudden shift toward shorter fiction -- pure anecdotes or vignettes that briefly distill an idea, leaving the wrestling mainly up to the reader. And that's fine, but only when it's really intensely done: there's not enough room in these shorts for Wallace to wander or play at vagueness.

That's precisely the problem with Curious Hair's "Everything Is Green," which opens in media res after our first-person narrator, Mitch, has apparently accused his younger girlfriend, Mayfly, of cheating on him. She's denied it, but "It is for sure that she is lying. When it is the truth she will go crazy trying to get you to believe her." In their rundown trailer, Mitch confesses that "Every thing that is inside me I have gave you" and that he feels "like there is all of me going in to you and nothing of you is coming back any more." All this is fine, and familiar in tone to his previous stories "Here and There" and "Say Never," but then Wallace takes a poetic turn, has Mayfly spout this: "Look how green it all is Mitch. How can you say the things you say you feel like when everything outside is green like it is." The idea, perhaps, is that even in the face of betrayal, we should recognize that life itself goes on, unaffected, and we should find comfort in that, not sorrow, this realizing of how small we are in the world, how minute our problems are . . . even though Mitch observes, wisely, that there are plenty of things that aren't green. There's something to be said for perspective -- having it, that is -- but the point is unconvincingly made here. [6/100]

Monday, April 04, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Say Never"

Originally published in Girl with Curious Hair. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 48.

I mentioned yesterday that Wallace's characters were sometimes criticized for appearing to be shallow constructs with which the author can demonstrate a point -- for instance, in this story, that humans are abruptly changeable things (hence the title, playfully modeled after the axiomatic never say never). I added, too, that when Wallace is dealing with the shallowness of Media and its insistence on appearances, this isn't really much of an issue: the characters are magnified by their proximity to that great magnifying glass of a television set. (Likewise when Wallace is writing specifically of General Characters, like the Account Representative, for then they are pared down to the titles which we ourselves may then more directly assume, and don't we all have a secret wish when reading to assume those roles, at least vicariously?) But for stories like "Say Never," which end abruptly, before the climax, and which flit between a variety of narrative styles as a shorthand for character (a bit like Faulkner, though not as developed), I can understand the complaint, even if I soldier through it out of love and respect for the artist at work.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "My Appearance"

Originally published in Girl with Curious Hair. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 94.

When it comes down to media, particularly television -- or video in general -- and the ways in which it was influencing (and would influence) culture, David Foster Wallace was a genius writer. You can see this in his essays (from David Lynch to John McCain) and throughout Infinite Jest, whose essays on the rise-and-fall of the videophone and evolution of the hero still seem remarkably prescient. This is part of what makes "Small Expressionless Animals" such a potent piece down the road, for it talks about the meaninglessness of trivia (and what we sacrifice in order to fill ourselves with this nothingness) in equal strides with how all data have import, depending on their use. In turn, this is what makes "My Appearance," which turns away from Jeopardy and toward late-night "anti-shows," particularly David Letterman's, so effective: he uses the veneer of a remarkably fake talk-show ("hokeyness," he calls it) to comment on the place (or lack thereof) for sincerity in a media saturated world. Look, really look at what you're watching on these programs, or the so-called "reality" shows -- which I'm disappointed DFW didn't have more of a field day with -- and all you'll see is smugness sandwiched between self-satire, as we mock ourselves lest we ourselves be mocked.

And so but then, "My Appearance" begins as a well-employed forty-year-old television actress (who has recently been shilling for Oscar-Meyer), the mother of four children, is prepared for her upcoming appearance on NBC's Late Night With David Letterman, citing previous appearances by Teri Garr (fictitious, or at least unavailable on YouTube) as cautions for how she will be "savaged" and "ridiculed." It gets to the point that they actually give her an earpiece -- her husband and a television professional -- and attempt to give her directions during the actual interview, which rather feels like prepping for the SAT, in that you may have short-term gains, but will, in the long-term, not really exhibit much of anything. That is, by trying so hard to appear "real," she cannot help but come across as anything but fake, though she avoids this fate largely by ignoring the "advice" of her husband and living sincerely on stage: she is, after all, "a woman who acts." The tragedy, of course, comes afterward, as she cruises in a limo to dinner with her husband, who insists that things aren't what they seemed:

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Here and There"

Originally published in Girl With Curious Hair. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 28.

[Okay, I've received my copy of The Pale King, but since I haven't finished my taxes yet -- or my catching up on Wallace's earlier work -- I'm going to hold off on starting it, difficult as that is, until the "official" release date.]

At first glance, it's a simple He Said/She Said chronicling of a breakup, with separate monologues spliced together so as to feint at actual communication, a thing that the two of them -- along with emotion, connection, actual presence -- seemed to have issues with. Then, as a doctor introduces himself, explains that "fiction therapy in order to be at all effective must locate itself and operate within a strenuously yes some might even say harshly limited defined structured space," and we learn a bit more about Bruce, a mathematical poet, the story feels as if it may be a thinly veiled attempt at autobiography. Ultimately, the story comes across like the anecdotal self-fulfilling prophecies of Infinite Jest -- with a slight glimmer of self-revealing hope -- in which a character is so afraid of something that their actions lead to the fear, which in this case is loneliness, caused because of Bruce's distance, first linguistic, then (cunni)lingual, then actual, which leads back to the title's supposition of the obvious otherness between here and there.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "John Billy"

Originally published in Girl With Curious Hair. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 68.

Was telling the dust-watcher how C. Nunn Jr. passed up multitudes of come-hitherish cheerleaders and oriental princesses to return to Minogue and enter into serious commitment with his childhood sweetheart, the illegally buxom and tall Glory Joy duBoise, closest thing to femininity and pulchritude that to date exists in Minogue Oklahoma, eyes like geometry and a all-around bodily form of high allure and near-religious implication, and just as I was commencing a analogy relating the shape of Glory Joy's hips to the tight curve of the distant Big Dirt horizon, the door to the Outside Minogue Tavern busted inward and there against the dusty sunlight was framed the tall, angstified, and tortured frame of Glory Joy duBoise, hand to her limpid and Euclidean eyes, hips (that was similar to horizons) brushing the trauma-struck frame of the busted-inward door.

Language-wise, this is a beautiful and inventive story. Simply from the section quoted above: "illegally buxom," "eyes like geometry," "angstified," "hips (that was similar to horizons)." But at the same time, it raises a valid complaint about post-modernism's weakness for style over substance, and again, from the section above, you've got improper grammar ("Was telling the dust-watcher") right alongside highfalutin (irony intentional) words ("femininity and pulchritude"), to say nothing about the repetition of descriptions ("eyes like geometry" and "hips [that was similar to horizons]" are great; "limpid and Euclidean eyes" and "relating the shape of Glory Joy's hips to the tight curve of the distant Big Dirt horizon" aren't very good). I don't mean to dwell on the technical, because I do believe that Wallace does usually work toward something more -- particularly in his essays -- this tale which seems to get away from him. While "Lyndon" was stifled by its realism, "John Billy" is over-amplified by its increasingly surreal elements. 

THEATER: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Photos/The Hartman Group
In this bleak economic time, it's nice to have a cheery old-fashioned musical putting a fresh spin on office politics: it's still the daily grind, as evidenced by songs like "Coffee Break," and "How to Succeed," but with ballroom finesse and heel-spinning pizazz. The secretaries are as mistreated here as on Mad Men (and seem happy about it, according to "Cinderella Darling" and "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm"), but they're well-treated by the choreography, which has them tap-dancing away in high heels. And while the lyrics of songs about office loyalty ("Company Way") may have aged poorly, the catchy tunes have not, and time after time, choreographer Rob Ashford's lively, colorful choreography steals the show.

Which leads to a valid question: in a show which stars Daniel Radcliffe as the young, making-it-up-as-he-goes entrepreneur J. Pierrepont Finch, and John Larroquette as the beset and blustery boss, J. B. Biggley, how is it that the dancers steal the show? Well, first of all, Ashford's also directing, and he's a dancer's director (which serves a high-energy show like this). Second of all, it's a matter of conviction: Radcliffe's trading on the charisma of his films rather than establishing his own, and he speaks -- particularly in the second act -- at such a clip that he frequently trips himself up. Though he throws himself into the role, particularly the athletic "Finale" and the football fantasia of "Grand Old Ivy," he's a bit reedy compared to veterans like Christopher J. Hanke (who plays his incompetent, nepotistic rival, Bud Frump) or unknown talents like Rose Hemingway (who stiffly plays the love interest, Rosemary Pilkington, but delivers with her profound pipes). On the other hand, Larroquette oozes comfort, even when singing well out of his range (in his love song to his mistress, "Love From a Heart of Gold"), but isn't on stage often enough to out-do the spectacles. (Oh, and Derek McLane's absolutely mod three-tiered honeycomb of cubicles helps to literally elevate the dancers, too.)

But here's the more important answer: it doesn't matter that the dancers are the stars here; Radcliffe's a perfectly serviceable Finch, and bound to draw in a crowd. The musical's not really about him, so much as it is about the idea of upward mobility that he represents: the thought runs, if he can do it, so can we -- so having a semi-ordinary star may actually be a boon. It's only a shame that the romance is so hackneyed: "Rosemary" and "I Believe in You" are sincerely beautiful songs, and they're a little undone by the glitter of the purely comic numbers that surround them. Still, there's nothing wrong with a frenetic comedy like this when it's done well, and thanks to a roster of well-cast supporters that include Tammy Blanchard as the air-headed secretary Hedy La Rue and Mary Faber as the voice of reason and best friend Smitty, it's done well. And after another month of performances, who's to say that Radcliffe won't join them, once he learns how to stop trying so hard, and to start really succeeding.

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "In the Arcade at the Beginning of the End (Today)"

Originally published in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men*. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 75.

[Heavily footnoted story; for the sake of quoting, I've simply put the footnotes in brackets.]

He had inserted the quarter, or was about to; the silvered disc clung to those final pale inches of his fingers, fleshy whorls brushing metallic ridges, the token more than half-spent, quivering now (the hand, not the object) from the vice-like effort with which he held to those last precious seconds between deposit and purchase [the irony was not lost to him, the Player, for it was the purchase of those ever-slickening betrayers of fingers with which he prolonged the physical purchase]. Mean-mean-meanwhile, the other hand, the Claw, gripped, with its not inestimable oligodactylic strength, the vulcanized bulb of a joystick [joy, and yet it was a fist you made to hold it, he mused, the quarter slipping another millionth of an inch], lethargically sweeping it through the paces as if it were an inverted miniature music-box dancer (Beauty), and the Claw (Beast) the filigreed gear spinning along to the empty orchestra pinging through the speakers.

The novelty of this story, itself originally disseminated in novel (literal and figurative) form, has always struck me as showing a side of Wallace's playfulness -- despite the tragic ending, involving the inevitable asphyxiation of the boy's baby brother, trapped within the machine -- that we don't often see in his other work. The wordplay is admittedly more showy than in Wallace's other shorts, particularly by the final, terser, more removed stage of his writing, but in many ways, that's a necessity of the theme and setting -- an arcade on its final legs -- and one whose gaudiness helps to reflect the disfigurements of the characters and machinery (all of which, it can be said, are stand-ins for the larger city itself, in the midst of a depression that may remind modern readers of Detroit).