Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Blues Pill

I feel a little silly responding to so many of Christopher Hitchens’ autobiographical nuggets on this sparsely-frequented corner of the internet, but so it goes. (This will probably be the last such entry, except for a possible review.) I was moved to write after reading this:

[W]hen I abandoned the smoking habit of more than three decades I was given a supposedly helpful pill called Wellbutrin. But as soon as I discovered that this was the brand name for an antidepressant, I tossed the bottle away. There may be successful methods for overcoming the blues but for me they cannot include a capsule that says: “Fool yourself into happiness, while pretending not to do so.” I should actually want my mind to be strong enough to circumvent such a trick. I try to deny myself any illusions or delusions, and I think that this perhaps entitles me to try and deny the same to others, at least as long as they refuse to keep their fantasies to themselves.

This isn’t a developed argument so much as it is a part of one—it’s part of several overlapping larger points, really, whose through line I admit I cannot fully trace (something to do with how learning the facts changes the facts, and living without illusions, and taking advice)—but I found it obnoxiously ill-considered all the same. I was diagnosed many years ago with what the clinicians call depression, Hitchens' late friend William Styron called a brainstorm, and most sufferers would call agony. I've been on Wellbutrin--the mention of it is what caught my eye--and it is actually one of the safer antidepressants, as I understand it, not having the minor side effect of increasing suicidal thoughts that tends to accompany others (though it comes with side effects of its own).

I too would have loved to have had the mental fortitude to beat back the blues, and indeed tried to stick it out before. But when the mind effortlessly and most naturally marshals all of its energies toward convincing the individual of his own worthlessness and the futility of anything getting any better, at all, ever, trying to rely exclusively on willpower to get on is to play a dangerous game with weighted dice. Depression is very often a grueling confluence of biology, neurochemistry, and circumstance. Hitchens, an admirer of Darwin, a friend of Sam Harris, and the son of a suicide, ought to appreciate this more than he indicates.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Burn a Koran Day

Hitch-22 makes for a useful springboard. Heading the chapter on Salman Rushdie:

"Where books are burned, people will next be burned."
- Heinrich Heine, on the burning of the Koran by the Inquisition, in his Almansor [1821]

Let's hope not.

A couple points: obviously some fringe group in Florida (that even other churches are criticizing) does not have the cultural standing of the Inquisition. Equally apparent is this group's right to burn Korans, as much as Imam Rauf has to build his Cordoba community center a couple blocks from Ground Zero.

A few years ago a Koran book burning would have been pretty shocking, but I don't think it would have found much traction. As it is, the event is riding a tide of anti-Islam hysteria cultivated by cynical opportunists capitalizing on a weak economy in an election year. Sarah Palin won't be taking part in Burn a Koran Day, but only because she disagrees with the tactics; the sentiment--"9/11: We Will Never forget (that all Muslims are responsible)"-- is exactly the same. People need to be calling her and her ilk on this, and putting collective guilt and punishment outside the realm of public discourse, where it belongs.

The Pendulum Swings

I'm now about halfway through Hitch-22. An interesting find: in describing how he came to appreciate America, Hitchens writes of Watergate and Richard Nixon’s ouster:

[T]he American legal system and the U.S. Constitution had survived Nixon’s attempt to undo it. Congress had held wide-open hearings, of a kind it was very hard to imagine taking place in the Palace of Westminster, and summoned important witnesses to testify. The Justice Department had resisted the president’s lawless attempts to purge it. The special-prosecutor system had proved itself. The American press, led by the Washington Post, had penetrated the veil of lies and bribery and—despite crude threats from the White House—had eventually named the main perpetrators on the front page. And all of this in a time of continuing warfare in Indochina.

As Andrew Sullivan notes, the new Cameron government is opening an investigation into Labour's complicity in torture in the War on Terror. Meanwhile President Obama, despite having campaigned on restoring law to our foreign policy, refuses to take legal action against the architects of the U.S. torture policy, and continues the process of extraordinary rendition and maintains its right to executive secrecy and, stunningly, the right to assassinate U.S. citizens with no oversight. That this is the best we could have hoped for in the last presidential election, and seeing Hitchens’ and Sullivan’s counter-examples of what could be, is most dispiriting.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Mehlman Comes Out

That former Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman is gay is only half-surprising. The political landscape is littered with the wreckage of sanctimonious anti-gay bigots, to the point that to call it hypocritical flirts with cliche (but in a chaste, Platonic flirt, you understand). Mehlman, though, never made any huge political statements on gay marriage, but he gave the go-ahead on Republican attacks on gays. He claims not to have known he was gay until now, but as Dan Savage said, this "doesn't pass the smell-my-finger test," especially considering gay rumors had been floating around since 2004 or so. He may have been in terrible denial, which I would not wish on anybody. But the fact is he was in a position where could have prevented the Republicans from doing a lot of damage, or at least walked away from it, but he did nothing.

Since his tenure the situation has developed such that Californians, based entirely on a campaign of hysteric demagoguery, voted to strip gays of the right to marry. In Uganda, the parliament has introduced a bill that would criminalize homosexuality under pain of death, with the tacit approval of figures of the Christian right that have been instrumental in the gay political struggles here in the U.S. The Republicans are hostile and the Democrats tepid on repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, a move that 75% of Americans favor.

These are all things Mehlman can help on, and I'm sure he will. I'm frankly skeptical that he will be able to persuade any of his erstwhile allies of the rightness of marriage equality. It's very difficult to convince people who start with a conclusion and work their way backwards of anything. But Mehlman has a lot of atoning to do, and any constructive steps should be applauded and encouraged.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cereal Authors

Reading Christopher Hitchens' autobiography, and especially the chapter on his friendship with Martin Amis, reminded me of this bit of brilliance from Tom the Dancing Bug from a few years back. (The image won't size properly and I'm pressed for time, so you'll have to settle with a link).

Friday, August 27, 2010

3D Distraction

Is it really so surprising that 3D technology is seeing diminishing box office returns? Of course people are going to get tired of studios rushing a 3D transfer onto 2D movies to squeeze a few more bucks out of ticket prices. The reason Avatar did so well--the only reason that cliche wrapped in an archetype did so well--is because its 3D was implemented flawlessly, from its conception. To complain that Piranha 3D is just a gimmick is to be disingenuous; at least it's upfront about its intentions (though why it too was shot in 2D and converted is a question worth asking), and has some reason for being 3D, which is more than can be said of Clash of the Titans.

Speaking for myself, Coraline and Avatar were wonders to behold (though the former gave me a headache and the latter I would have not bothered to see without the 3D technology), and this is because Henry Selick and James Cameron understand how to use the technology to its best advantage. Werner Herzog, who is filming a 3D documentary about the 30,000 year old cave paintings in France, also seems to get how to use it to enhance the experience.

That's my perspective, anyway.

No promises, but...

...I'm hoping to add to this blog on a semi-regular basis. It's a good habit to keep, and who knows, maybe I'll actually attract some readers. I'll try to add some little note every day or so, and then on my days off I'll try to do something a little longer, like the Da Vinci Code and Gatsby pieces of the past couple days. But: no promises.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gatsby's Unappreciated Greatness

The Great Gatsby is a victim twice over. It received middling notices and scant attention in its author's lifetime. Such was the cool response that, as Matthew Bruccoli's Forward to the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Edition tells us, there were still unsold copies of a second run of 3,000 gathering dust in a Scribner warehouse when F. Scott Fitzgerald died. Critical reappraisal in the 1940s and 50s gave Gatsby a second life, however, and the consensus opinion of it as the preeminent American novel have made it a fixture of literary curricula ever since. It is there, in the middle schools and high schools of America, that The Great Gatsby went to die once more. Although the numbers will be never known, the casualties of this second death are, I posit, quite high. The second death is born not so much by the neglect characteristic of the first, but of reader indifference and rejection.

I did not understand The Great Gatsby in high school. A good friend of mine didn't. A stranger who was reading it at the coffee shop that I work at, shortly after I had just re-read the book, did not get it when he was assigned to read it in middle school (I know this because he told me when I complimented him on his taste). This should not surprise. High school students hardly understand themselves, much less literature.

And Gatsby is deceptively simple literature. Until the end it is lacking in incident; when I first read it I hated it and dismissed it as "150 pages of exposition and 30 pages of plot." This observation in itself is not wrong, but it is sort of missing the point (a result of high schoolers' lack of understanding). The real "action" is confined to the book's "climax," yes, but that is 1) as it should be, and 2) just fine, because it is such a fine payoff of everything that precedes it: Gatsby's desire for Daisy, Tom's almost violent need to control everything, the affair happening under George Wilson's nose, even the Dr. Eckleburg billboard's stare, all converge in the end with a vengeance. The narrative's construction is eminently sound.

I suspect part of my lack of understanding stemmed from the book's adult sensibility. In the first place, the storytelling itself is dependent on the reader having a grasp of a great many things that most adolescents just don't think about. While the attentive students might know Prohibition was law in the early part of the century and that there was a World War I--if only because its more famous sequel requires an antecedent--I wager few would know the significance of New Haven or the geography of Manhattan and greater New York. Not understanding these and trying to make sense of the characters and their actions would be like watching an animated movie without the backgrounds.

Yet even with only these figures to watch, the teenage reader is apt to only pay attention to what is going on, not how it’s being done. This happens, I think, for two reasons. The first is the mechanistic idea of storytelling elementary English classes cultivate in their students; one could go through high school thinking that opening, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement are all that matter in a story. The second reason has to do with the teens themselves. At a time in life when everything seems like a personal crisis, alcohol is consumed solely for inebriation, and sexual encounters are awkward and often short-lived, how else can one look at storytelling but with the most stark and functional expectations?

This means, of course, that in waiting for something sexy to happen in what is mostly a subdued narrative, young first-time readers miss entirely the delicious prose that is the book’s real treat. I am lucky enough that on first reading the phrase “Finnish wisdom” stuck in my mind long after I had read it (I eventually forgot where it had come from, even though I still remembered the phrase). The full sentence, which delighted me when I came upon it again seven or eight years later:

I had a dog, at least I had him for a few days until he ran away, and an old Dodge and a Finnish woman who made my bed and cooked breakfast and muttered Finnish wisdom to herself over the electric stove.

Though no other sentence has stuck with me as this has—and I cannot guess why it did except for the originality in its construction; I doubt that before or since I had or have seen the words ‘Finnish’ and ‘wisdom’ put side-by-side—there are hundreds like it throughout, at least one a page, enough that every few sentences I would chuckle in the manner of one who can’t quite believe he keeps being surprised. It’s seduction, whereas high schoolers only know of hitting-on.

Here’s another gem:

My own house was an eye-sore, but it was a small eye-sore and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor’s lawn and the consoling proximity of millionaires—all for eighty dollars a month.

And another:

She laughed again, as if she had said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see. That was a way she had. She hinted in a murmur that the surname of the balancing girl was Baker. (I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming.)

And one more. This one’s a goodie:

As I went over to say goodbye I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.

‘The consoling proximity of millionaires,’ ‘colossal vitality;’ these words and phrases are like fine liquor, to be swished around, the flavor savored, not chugged as fast as possible until they’re gone. They are so intoxicating because we can so easily recognize the sentiments behind them. Anyone well into their adult years knows the satisfaction of scoring a good place to live, knows any number of charming characters, and certainly is familiar the way one can idealize one’s loves, especially in their absence. Small wonder that a sixteen or seventeen year-old, so few in years and experiences, should be utterly unable to relate.

Yes, the Great Gatsby is best enjoyed with a mature, discerning eye for detail, yet it remains best that it be first assigned, as it is, to those ill-equipped to fully appreciate it. Primary education, for those who bother to care at all, are a formative time, and the entire reason for a K-12 schooling is to teach to our youth the most critical knowledge, that we expect our adults to know even without the benefit of college. As bad as the Shakespeare industry can be, his plays are required reading because of their cultural significance. Fitzgerald has hardly such defenders to rescue him from a bad high school experience as old Will, but if we are to so exalt him in the American literary canon as the critics and the culture have, then even a bad first exposure is better than none at all. More readings—and more understanding readings—will come from an early exposure, good or ill, that will at the very least plant the seeds for subsequent growth. So it was for the critics; so for me, my friend, and the man in the coffee shop; and so will it be, I suspect for others to follow.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Da Vinci Prose

My tastes in books and music have always given preference to the come-and-gone. There are too many classics demanding digestion and too many new releases competing for attention, and so many trends and pop culture artifacts tend to pass me by. Sometimes this means I miss out on some very good things. But it also means weathering the hysteria surrounding the likes of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

I had seen people sporting the book in public, heard about the “controversy” over its treatment of Catholicism (that the Church took to publicly refuting a work of fiction says a lot about the sand on which Peter’s holy house was built), and had heard the occasional dismissal of it as ‘beach reading,’ ‘airport fiction,’ what have you, but I never took much of an interest in the book myself, not until recently. I chanced upon a website--sadly forgotten, though this is very much in the same spirit--which pilloried and most courteously excerpted its ungainly prose, starting with the book’s opening:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

Reading this was a revelation. Did Dan Brown have an editor? Were readers so undiscerning as to let their fiction be driven by such a loud and ugly engine? The author of the webpage showed several such examples and pointed out just how they were written so perfectly wrong, noting for instance that telling us straight out that a character is a “Renowned curator” is a terrible way to start a book, and an action scene to boot.

I thought there was a good writing exercise to be had in rewrite the given examples, which I did. Then I thought, well hell, why not the whole book? I thought I could learn something about how writing does or doesn’t work, and along the way develop Dan Brown’s halting style into something if not more elegant, than at least less awful. So I went to my local library to pick up a copy, embarrassed enough that I felt like I was buying pornography in public. I read the Prologue and then set about whipping the text into shape.

Here are some examples. The first is a revision of the excerpt from above:

Jacques Saunière staggered through the gallery’s vaulted archway. He lurched toward the nearest painting, a large Caravaggio, and with stiff, arthritic hands gripped it by its gilded frame and pulled. It refused to move. He pulled again, more determined, and it only barely shifted. With all the strength he could muster he gave it one last pull and tore it from the wall and collapsed beneath it.

Nothing special, but you see what I’m getting at. That this is the Grand Gallery will be mentioned later on; right now I’m aiming for boldness and broad strokes in the scene-setting. Then instead of coming right out and saying he’s 76 years old, I mention his hands being arthritic. He’s going to die in a few pages anyway, it’s enough that we know he’s old. The most liberal amendment is the act of pulling the painting down, which takes three attempts, described in some detail. The original version says he “heaved the masterpiece [don’t we all wish we could heave masterpieces?] toward himself until it tore from the wall.” The word ‘until’ suggests it takes some time before it tears free, but the entire act happens in one sentence, confusing the effect. Confusion reigns in Dan Brown’s writing.

The next example is much briefer, thus managing a breathless economy of ineptitude.

“I told you already,” the curator stammered, kneeling defenseless on the floor of the gallery. “I have no idea what you are talking about!”

Here’s the redux:

“I… I told you already,” Saunière said, kneeling and putting his hands in the air. “I have no, no idea, what you’re talking about!”

Any writing teacher will tell you the ironclad rule of writing is “show, don’t tell.” It makes no sense to tell us the curator is stammering when the speech we are given is in complete flowing sentences. Nor should we be told he’s defenseless when the particulars of his defenselessness can be described. And we already know he’s in the gallery, it doesn’t need to be reiterated in the heat of a death threat. There is also the matter of Dan Brown’s tic of referring to characters by their occupation. Nearly 15 times in three pages Saunière is referred to as “the curator.” All of these are obtuse generalities that inflate the action without telling us anything of substance. I may be interested in reading about a defenseless stammering curator, but when I do I’d like to hear Jacques Saunière say “I… I…” with his hands in the air. Dan Brown is telling us about what’s happening and not what actually is happening.

One more, this time from the end of the Prologue:

Alone now, Jacques Saunière turned his gaze again to the iron gate. He was trapped, and the doors could not be reopened for at least twenty minutes. By the time anyone got to him, he would be dead. Even so, the fear that now gripped him was a fear far greater than that of his own death.

I must pass on the secret.

Staggering to his feet, he pictured his three murdered brethren. He thought of the generations who had come before them… of the mission with which they had all been entrusted.

An unbroken chain of knowledge.

Suddenly now, despite all precautions… despite all the failsafes…Jacques Saunière was the only remaining link, the sole guardian of one of the most powerful secrets ever kept.

Shivering, he pulled himself to his feet.

I must find some way…

My edits:

Saunière wiped his brow and, shivering, rose to his feet. He was trapped, and the doors could not be reopened for at least twenty minutes. By the time anyone got to him, he would be dead. That did not matter. Next to the secret, his death was trivial. He thought of his three murdered partners. He thought of the generations who had come before them, of the mission with which they had all been entrusted, of the unbroken chain of knowledge they had formed. He thought of how suddenly now, despite all precautions, despite all fail-safes, he was the only remaining link of that chain, the sole guardian of one of the most powerful secrets ever kept.

The original is quite lengthy, and my whole point is it need not be. One of Dan Brown’s more obnoxious habits is to include and italicize characters’ thoughts, usually the ones that ought be accompanied with booming BUM-BUM-BUUUUUUUM drums. In this case, the effect is additionally maddening by weaving the thoughts with the narrative, instead of settling on just one of those approaches, and then having the narrative elaborate on those thoughts (after Saunière thinks of “an unbroken chain” the narrator describes Saunière as “only remaining link”). It needlessly wastes space switching between the two, and ends up reading more like a bad back cover synopsis that tries to be exciting as possible to entice readers, perhaps because the actual back cover was already filled up with glowing, and wholly undeserved, endorsements, one of which considers this book “pure genius.”

Also in this sample, Saunière pulls himself to his feet, after staggering to his feet. Pure genius!

I had thought I would redo the entire book, but after reworking just the prologue took me a couple hours, I doubted the idea. Then I read the first few chapters and quickly realized rewriting would be impractical, not only because the prose is so painful, not just because I could never do anything after investing so much effort into it, but because there are things I could not do without changing the entire nature of the book. For The Da Vinci Code is, in its own idiot savant-like fashion, an ideal marriage of form and content.

The book tells of the unraveling of an elaborate conspiracy of the Catholic Church’s covering-up evidence of a secret relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, or something of the sort. It’s an elaborate conspiracy, and so needs to be as absolutely impenetrable and busy as possible. So we get things like—and this is just the first few chapters, mind you—a sadomasochistic albino priest trying to kill the “renowned curator” but instead deciding to leave him to bleed to death, giving him twenty minutes to screw up the Grand Plan. But instead of just calling expert symbologist Robert Langdon on his cell phone like any sane person would if they were about to die, he engages in some ridiculous symbolic exercise which Langdon must then decipher. All of this is cheap baiting of the reader, to get them to go on to the next chapter: ‘Saunière only has twenty minutes to live. WHAT’S HE GOING TO DO?’ ‘Saunière did that to himself. BUT WHAT ELSE DID HE DO?!?’

The writing describing all this is, accordingly, full of sound and fury. When characters act ridiculously, with their actions being described ridiculously, they will also speak ridiculously:

“Excellent. I had feared the brotherhood’s reputation for secrecy might prevail.”

“The prospect of death is strong motivation.”

“So, my pupil, tell me what I must know.”

The Da Vinci Code is plotted like a parody of a conspiracy thriller, and so it is only fitting that it be written thus. So you see, one cannot go in and attempt to “fix” its wretched writing, for it is tied inextricably to the brutally mechanical goings-on it describes. To make these creatures talk like real people would entail making them act like real people and not morons enslaved to Dan Brown’s needlessly Byzantine plot machinations. The entire story, such as it is, would collapse under the strain of logic and credibility and well-observed characterization.

And so I realized my time was too important to waste on The Da Vinci Code. I had better authors, like Fitzgerald and Rushdie, to absorb. That I had to take the most circuitous route possible to reach this obvious conclusion, I am sure Dan Brown would be proud.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

40 Years of Solitude

The fact of the last remaining member of an undocumented Indian tribe living alone in 31 square miles of government-protected land is kind of amazing. That this man has gone on for so long without human contact that didn't involve putting an arrow in the other person's chest, while Google, Facebook, Twitter, and GPS document the goings-on of much of humanity, is close to unfathomable. What happened to his parents? Did he have siblings? In the absence of propagating his seed or culture, does he devote his life to anything besides everyday survival? What does he think about?

I'm waiting for the romantic comedy version of this story, in which the Last Indian--played by Hugh Grant, of course--has to adjust to modern society and win the heart of The Woman He Loves (Drew Barrymore).

Friday, August 20, 2010

Putting on the Fritz

A day after having first seen it, I'm still kind of traumatized by Fritz the Cat. Being the first X-rated animated feature carries with it certain expectations, which were more than met. But there's a whole lot more going on besides sex and general raunchiness. There's a gleeful irreverence toward hippies, some shall we say, frank racial content, and violence that's way more discomfiting than the genitalia whipped about. There's real wit behind the proceedings, particularly the opening scene with some college girls' clueless condescension to a black man they're fawning over ("Why does a great actor like James Earl Jones always have to play black men?"), followed by Fritz's wooing them by pretending to be a tortured soul. There's also something approaching affection in a scene in a synagogue, particularly when one of the cops (a pig!) complains that goyim aren't supposed to sing, that could only come from intimate familiarity (the Fritz the Cat comic's creator, Robert Crumb, recently published a comic version of the Book of Genesis, all 50 chapters).

In spite of this, though, the whole thing has a nasty edge to it that I can't entirely articulate in words; I think pointing to the scene of the Nazi cult biker tying his girlfriend to the bed naked and whipping her with a chain, is illustrative. Or when Fritz starts a race riot that leads to Harlem being bombed by fighter jets. The wit at work is very pointed, indeed, and spares no one, including the viewer.

The net effect of it all is kind of a hectic jumble. That makes it hard to think of Fritz the Cat as a "good" movie, but then again that kind of distinction is kind of beside the point. It's an underground movie based on an underground comic book that isn't looking for mainstream acceptance, so you almost have to approach it on its own terms. Its merciless nature also gives me the sense that it probably isn't a terribly great exaggeration of what the 60s were actually like. That it's still so shocking to a viewer as jaded as myself 38 years on is saying something.

Hitchens' Timing

The timing of Christopher Hitchens’ esophageal cancer is quite striking. Having only received Hitch-22 in the mail a few days ago and being already committed to Midnight’s Children, I’ve only read the memoir’s “Prologue With Premonitions.” Yet just this introduction, which I read as Hitchens undergoes chemotherapy, takes the breath away. Framed around a National Portrait Gallery brochure’s typo describing him as “the late Christopher Hitchens,” its meditations on impending death seem to presage the cancer that brought an end to the subsequent book tour. These sentences in particular gain in urgency:

When I first formed the idea of writing some memoirs, I had the customary reservations about the whole conception being perhaps “too soon.” Nothing dissolves this fusion of false modesty and natural reticence more swiftly than the blunt realization that the project could become, at any moment, ruled out of the question as having been undertaken too “late.”

For Hitchens, “too late” would have been a matter of months, not years. I am sure he would dispute the notion of his cancer’s timing being providential, so instead let us be happy for his prudence.

Monday, August 2, 2010

How Things Change

Iraq's electrical grid is failing and the people are none too happy:

“Democracy didn’t bring us anything,” Mr. Farhan said in his newly darkened shop. Then he corrected himself. “Democracy brought us a can of Coke and a beer.”

So much for democracy, whiskey, sexy.