Archive for June, 2008

Cronenberg’s violence

In both of director David Cronenberg’s two most recent films, A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), Viggo Mortenson stars as a man whose identity is revealed via acts of violence. Both films employ dramatic, game-changing plot twists in which the audience suddenly learns that Mortensen’s character is someone quite different than who he’s been claiming to be. But significantly, these twists come well before the end of either film: Cronenberg isn’t using them to bring about resolution, but rather to complicate the storyline and to unsettle the audience’s understanding of the meaning of the violence portrayed in the films. With a shift in context, what at first seemed to be a brave act of self-defense is revealed to be a continuation of a cycle of vicious criminal violence; and what seemed to be a desperate and brutal act of self-preservation is later proven to be part of a risky and heroic operation intended to bring down a gangland empire. Cronenberg blurs motives and justifications in ways that make it exceptionally difficult to judge whether or not any given act of violence might be necessary or ethically justifiable. All you’re really left with by the end of either film is the fact of the violence itself, which Cronenberg puts on screen in all its awful, shocking brutality.  The films seem to argue that violence is irreducible: that whatever the motive, cause, or outcome, there’s no escaping the fact of its horror.



Overtly quirky characters and settings are a risky move for a novelist: some writers make the mistake of substituting a short list of quirks for actual and substantial development of character and place, which leaves a book with nowhere to go once the initial surprise and novelty have worn off. Penelope Fitzgerald‘s Booker Prize-winning 1979 novel Offshore definitely flirts with this kind of danger: it centers around the lives of a handful of eccentrics who live on repurposed barges anchored on the Battersea Reach of the Thames. Fitzgerald’s first smart decision is to make the book very short: at under 150 pages, the unusual setting remains fresh and surprising right up until the end. But more importantly, Fitzgerald also expends considerable effort to make the setting come to life: she describes what it’s like to prepare food in the boats’ cramped kitchen quarters, and the ways in which life changes for their residents with the daily ebb and flow of the tides, and the way the children sift through mud in search of valuable trinkets and scrap lost to decades-old shipwrecks. Fitzgerald also gives the culture of the people living on the boats real attention: she offers details like the residents’ habit of calling each other by the names of their boats, and also shows the ways in which the tolerance and insularity of their small community lends its members the freedom and strength to each live their individual lives as they please, even in the face of constant social and economic pressure from the outside world to adopt more conventional lifestyles. Offshore never indulges in eccentricities purely for the sake of eccentricity, or for surface entertainment and distraction; the book is largely about what it means to be a nonconformist, and is particularly interested in the idea that nonconformists cannot easily thrive without the support of some kind of community.

Offshore also succeeds by virtue of its warm heart; Fitzgerald often gently pokes fun of her characters for their eccentricities, but always in the context of genuine affection. Further, the book is extremely funny, and all of its humor rises naturally from character and situation. Fitzgerald doesn’t resort to forced punchlines or comic exaggeration—she takes her characters seriously as people, and the laughs come from their very human interpersonal conflicts and predicaments. But for all its humor and warmth, the book is also far from lighthearted, and doesn’t indulge in sugarcoating or unrealistically happy outcomes. Most of the novel’s characters are quite poor, and consequently, their freedom and their community are fragile. You come to love the people of Batterea Reach—and when their lifestyle becomes seriously threatened, it seems both inevitable and deeply sad.

Lay It Down

It’s easy to dismiss the efforts of older musicians to make new records in the style of their classics—the resulting music all is all too often nostalgia-drenched and artistically desperate. On the other hand, many other musicians stumble when trying to avoid a return to form: by self-consciously adopting more contemporary styles and sounds, old hands often come off as pandering and insincere, flailing about cluelessly in an attempt to recapture the vanished energy and cultural relevance of their musical youth.

With Lay It Down, soul great Al Green has chosen the former path: under the able direction of producers Amir “?uestlove” Thompson and James Poyser (of the Roots; they’re aided here by the horn section from the fabulous soul revivalists the Dap-Kings), Lay It Down captures the feel of early seventies Green masterpieces (like Let’s Stay Together and I’m Still In Love with You) without descending into one-dimensional imitation. And it works beautifully—Green’s voice has aged, but he can still break into his familiar falsetto with feeling, and he remains a deft and compelling songwriter.

The album opens with its title track, which effectively sets the tone: there’s a simple guitar riff, tight but minimal percussion, melodic bass, and a soft, gorgeous organ to fill out the arrangement, and then over all of it Green huskily calls for his lover to lay down for him. And there’s never any doubt that she’ll agree: Green’s songs often invoke desire, but they also typically deliver fulfillment and satisfaction. Even back in the early 70s, Green’s tunes relied neither the adolescent swagger and aggression of rock nor the pining, unfulfilled longing of soul balladry: instead, Green’s great theme is the joy of grown-up love and sex. His classic tunes are along the lines of “Let’s Stay Together” and “I’m Still in Love With You,” celebrations of the deep-running pleasure of faithfulness, commitment, and mutual satisfaction. It’s little wonder, then, that a return-to-form record like Lay It Down succeeds: there’s nothing shameful or out of place about an Al Green singing with adult satisfaction and happiness today, even if the same feelings also animated his music when he was thirty-five years younger.

Adding to my reading list

Erudition, wit, substance, and style are all welcome characteristics in criticism—but I think my favorite kind of book review is one that makes me feel a strong desire to immediately read the work under discussion. Many of the pieces in Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints meet this description; in fact, upon the strength of her recommendations I bought four titles (Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems) at the Printer’s Row Book Fair yesterday. In addition to the pieces on writers ranging from M.F.K. Fisher to Philip Roth, the collection includes several essays on choreographers and dancers, plus one on sculptor Louise Bourgeois and two (as the title would suggest) on saints.

The whole of the collection is loosely themed on the idea of artists struggling through difficult circumstances in order to find their voices and make good work. Refreshingly, Acocella (as she notes in her introduction) isn’t particularly interested in “early pain, conquered and converted into art,” but instead “the pain that came with the art-making, interfering with it, and how the artist dealt with it.” Though her essays typically display a great deal of interest in the lives of her subjects, at the same time, she’s highly suspicious of biographical criticism that relies on psychological speculation, and in several cases (Lucia Joyce, Jerome Robbins, Primo Levi) she mounts devastating attacks on biographers for doing so. Instead, she’s fascinated by questions like how Nijinksky was able to make dances even while suffering from mental illness, and how M.F.K. Fisher’s choice to go home to take care of her elderly father altered her subsequent career as a writer. At their best, Acocella’s essays display a deep passion and understanding for the work of her subjects, as well as a keen curiosity about the lives they led, and also about how their lives shaped the production of their art.

The city as ecosystem: gentrification and monoculture

In Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism, Rebecca Solnit (who wrote the book’s text; it also includes numerous photographs by Susan Schwartzenberg) argues that there’s a parallel between urban gentrification and the decline of ecosystems in the wake of human exploitation:

Think of San Francisco as a rainforest being razed to grow a monocrop. Think of all the eccentrics and idealists as forty species of orchids or as butterflies whose function is subtle but critical to the ecosystem. When rainforests are clearcut or burned to grow monocrops, they are productive for a few years, and then the soil once teaming with life becomes barren.

Writing in 2000—before the dotcom crash, September 11, and the housing crisis—Solnit describes the ways in which many poor people, artists, and activists were rapidly priced out of their longtime homes in San Francisco due to the sudden influx of internet cash. Becoming a bohemian artist or activist, or merely surviving in poverty, became much more difficult and expensive as housing prices rose and local businesses gave way to multinational chains. Meanwhile, Solnit contends, the city’s cultural and creative heart was hollowed out, leaving a playground in which the dot-com rich could visit trendy bars mimicking the styles and cultures of the bohemians who’d been priced out.

I don’t know enough about San Francisco, or about what’s happened there in the years since Solnit wrote, to judge her assertions here. But I’m intrigued by the idea she articulates here of the city as an ecosystem—and particularly when she extends the parallel in order to suggest ways in which concerned community members might struggle against the negative consequences of gentrification:

The proposed solutions recall environmentalism long ago, when it was the conservation movement: it sought to preserve wilderness, intact ecosystems and endangered species within a society that was devouring the landscape for development and resource extraction….When it became clear that creating exceptions to the rules was no longer an adequate solution, conservationists began asking larger questions about those rules and became environmentalists: they recognized that only profound changes in priorities and practices would sustain the ecosystems we depend upon.

Solnit suggests that activists should focus on the big picture, and become urban ecologists, rather than merely preservationists. Their goal shouldn’t be merely to preserve the status quo against gentrification, but instead to promote those policies (old or new) that will promote the continued diversity and vitality of the city. It’s interesting to think about this idea in the context of Jane Jacobs (whose classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities Solnit cites), who felt that most of the action in keeping cities alive and vital would need to happen on a very local level (the block or neighborhood) because of the extreme difficulty of taking account the full complexity of what makes the whole of a city function.

Sacred Games

Vikram Chandra’s 2007 novel Sacred Games weighs in at 947 pages in paperback, and during the course of its epic length, Chandra unfurls an intricate, grand-scale plot spanning decades and dozens of characters, tracing the rise and fall of a Mumbai crime lord and the many lives (and deaths) caught up in his wake. The novel is violent, suspenseful, and deeply influenced by film—Bollywood is a constant presence in its pages, and as I read I was also frequently reminded of police procedurals and film noir. At its extremely dramatic climax, the fate of Mumbai (and perhaps the world) rests on policeman Sartaj Singh’s shoulders, in the kind of moment that you’re far more likely to encounter in a Hollywood action movie than in a lengthy literary novel. But rather than rushing from that climax into a quick, easy, and simplistic Hollywood ending, Chandra then dips back deep into the novel’s backstory, giving more than fifty pages to new characters whose lives and decisions have in some ways shaped the events of the main plotline. The purpose of this move isn’t merely to tie up loose ends so much as to reinforce the novel’s central ideas: that, for all the struggle, passion, violence, patriotism, honor, lust, theft, and betrayal experienced by Chandra’s characters, the specific outcomes (the losses and victories, worlds being lost or worlds being saved) end up mattering relatively little. Near the novel’s end, Chandra gives us the thoughts of the novel’s hero, Sartaj Singh:

There was no calculation that could determine how much had been sacrificed or what had been gained, there was only this recognition of loss, of pain endured and absorbed.

Throughout the novel, many characters are obsessed with accounting for things: both police and gangsters (as well as politicians, Bollywood producers, prostitutes and virtually everyone else in the book’s pages) are constantly tallying up what they have, what they’re owed, and what they might expect to earn in the future. They’re all angling for power, for prestige, for money—except (for the most part) Singh, who sometimes accepts under-the-counter payments and bribes as a matter of necessity in order to continue operating successfully in the deeply corrupt Mumbai police department, but who shows little of his coworkers’ personal ambition for wealth and power. Singh is an obvious foil for the gang lord Ganesh Gaitonde—who narrates about half of the book, telling the tale of his rise from provincial obscurity and the trail of bodies he left along the way. Gaitonde is a fascinating character: he’s completely ruthless, but also both introspective and oddly naive. He kills his rivals and those who betray him with efficiency and brutality—yet he also falls in love with a prostitute with film star ambitions, and labors to learn English in an effort to rise above his provincial origins. He doesn’t feel especially guilty about the people he kills or otherwise brings to harm—but he does wonder about the ultimate purpose of his actions, and more fundamentally, about who he truly is. Throughout the course of the novel, Gaitonde consistently refuses to answer questions about his background when others ask him about it—and yet after his death in the novel’s opening pages, he speaks to Singh from beyond the grave with complete honesty, telling the full story of his life. It’s only in death, then, that Gaitonde faces up to the fact that the whole of his murderous climb to power was ultimately nothing but an attempt to create distance between himself and his provincial origins—and further, that no amount of wealth or power—and not even the plastic surgery he gets in order to remake his face into something more like a Bollywood idea of handsomeness—had in actuality utterly failed to remake him into some kind of new and different and better person.

It’s here here the book’s pervasive allusions to Bollywood (and the fantasy world of movies in general) take on deeper significance: it’s not only a matter of style, but also a device for pointing out the falsity of numerous characters’ dreams of escaping their lives and origins. Some—like Gaitonde—do succeed at least for a time in reshaping their lives into dream-like forms: Gaitonde sometimes believes that he really has transformed himself; and his prostitute mistress Zoya really does become a film star (though in the process she becomes empty and cold, a literal embodiment of her ambitions, her whole appearance surgically re-shaped in order to become a kind of on-screen simulacrum of her provincial girlhood fantasies). Others do not dream of escape from their lives and origins, but instead, destruction: Gaitonde’s guru harbors a dark fantasy of doom, and even Sartaj sometimes wonders what it is, exactly, that he is struggling to save.

Chandra is by no means suggesting that people ought to remain in their place—quite the opposite, in fact. Sartaj’s quiet struggles against the anti-Sikh prejudice in Mumbai’s police department are portrayed as admirable, and Gaitonde’s compassion for hopelessly deluded young people who write to his friend (and madam) JoJo Mascarenes in hope that she will help them achieve their impossible dreams of becoming stars and models comes off as one of the vicious and self-deceiving gang lord’s few redeeming qualities. Instead, Chandra is pointing out the ways in which the desires underlying the grand dreams and hopes of ordinary people often become compromised in the face of the real world: that the great difficulty of achieving success leads many people to betray themselves again and again, until one day (whether their dreams have been realized or not) they can no longer recognize the people they have become.

Writing courses as mental hospitals

The Guardian reports that the playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi recently made a caustic public attack on creative writing courses and programs, describing them as “mental hospitals” in which students are misled into believing that the academic study of writing will “inevitably” result in successful literary careers. No doubt Kureishi is correct that many writing students begin their coursework with unrealistic expectations—and it’s definitely also true that some writing programs are happy to nurture students’ fantasies of bestsellers and Nobel Prizes beyond all reason, just so long as the tuition checks continue to clear.

That said, the sheer vitriol with which Kureishi delivered his assault fascinates me. Not that Kureishi is doing anything unusual here—writers and commentators frequently mount attacks on writing programs and students along these lines, and very often using a similarly abrasive and contemptuous tone. But why is it, exactly, that the idea of creative writing as an academic pursuit brings on this kind of harshly negative response? Very few people seem troubled by the existence of university programs in film and the fine arts—which aren’t any more likely to produce the next Picasso or Hitchcock than a writing program is to nurture a 21st-century Shakespeare. Film, art, and writing programs all graduate their fair share of mediocre (and outright bad) practitioners—as well as the occasional master. So why, then, do creative writing programs get singled out?

I wonder sometimes if underlying this kind of attack there might be some anxiety about the value of literary writing itself. Film is still seen mostly as a mass medium; its extreme popularity guarantees its cultural importance (at least for now). And visual art, in contrast, has long been viewed as belonging almost exclusively in the realm of high culture—it’s supposed to be abstruse and remote, something to be appreciated primarily in museums, in the academy, or on the walls of the homes of the extremely wealthy. Lliterary writing seems to be on its way to a cultural position less like that of film, and more like that of visual art: it’s slowly fading out of the broader popular consciousness and into a the hands of predominately academic and subcultural audiences. An instructive comparison might be the fate of jazz in recent decades: the music still has its core of dedicated fans, as well as some truly remarkable present-day practitioners—but it’s now rarely given any attention at all in the mainstream media, while at the same time it’s become the focus of more and more scholarship and academic programs. Jazz is by no means dead, and neither is literary writing—there’s still vital (even great) work being done in both, and there are still niche audiences that appreciate them.

But if literary fiction is headed for the retirement home of academia and subculture, then it becomes somewhat unclear what its cultural role might (or should) be. Literary writing sets out to be “important,” and its finest practitioners are supposed to be “great.” But if no one’s paying it any attention, it’s understandable that writers and commentators might get a little nervous about their continued claims for the significance and relevance of literary writing. Phenomena like MFA programs and creative writing courses just serve as reminders of how difficult it is for a literary writer to make a living without institutional support; and that institutional support itself suggests that literary writing’s vitality has weakened.

Of course, the nature of the contemporary cultural environment—with its infinite array of forms, genres, styles, and media to choose from—encourages niche-based cultural engagement over mass popularity in any case. Whatever the value of literary writing—or of any kind of artistic expression—it seems increasingly unlikely that it can achieve a truly broad popularity or cultural importance now. If writers and commentators on literary writing continue to hold it to those expectations, they’re bound to be disappointed.

There’s perhaps another (but related) reason why some folks dislike writing programs so intensely: viewing literary writing as embattled, some of its proponents would like to circle the wagons in order to defend its purity and superiority against outside cultural invaders. Literary writing is unpopular, but writing courses, on the other hand, are anything but: MFA programs routinely receive hundreds or even thousands of applications from aspiring writers, and undergraduate creative writing courses tend to fill up quickly. Some of those students aren’t particularly well-read, and have no particular literary ability; others are very knowledgeable and/or talented, but are predominately interested in modes like genre fiction or inspirational poetry. But they do all want to write—much to the frustration of the sometimes narrowly literary-minded writers who teach them. The fact that so many of these hopeful scribblers aren’t particularly interested in literary aesthetics is no doubt galling to many literary writers— and of course if you hold the narrow-minded (and also very much outmoded) idea that the only kind of writing of value is literary writing, then you’re very likely to see much of your students’ work as worthless.

But: so what if writing classes don’t produce many literary greats? Why should that be the point of writing classes? What’s wrong with ordinary people getting a chance to learn how to be better writers and storytellers in some small way? Who cares if, by literary standards, their work is wretched? Isn’t it better to have at least engaged even the worst writer in the process of writing—to have made them think about writing and literature? And isn’t it good to give everyone a chance to raise their voice, knowing that at least a handful of people in a workshop will listen to them? Is there any reason on earth why a writing workshop (or even an MFA program) should be considered a failure if it doesn’t produce a literary master?

The other side of the coin here is that even if most writing students have no particular literary ability, there’s all the same actually a great surfeit of literary talent out there. The literary world tends to elevate a handful of writers to greatness: only so many books can win the National Book Award, and there’s only enough space in The New Yorker or The Paris Review to publish a very small percentage of the good stories and poems that are being written. Even tiny literary journals read by a couple hundred people typically receive thousands of submissions annually—and though no doubt a great deal of that writing isn’t very good, it’s no doubt also true that there’s more worthy work in the slushpile than there will ever be room to print.

The fact of the existence of all of this talent is no doubt also troubling to some writers, editors, critics, and commentators of a particularly elitist bent. An elitist might wonder: who are all these people who think they can write? These masses of uncredentialed unknowns, people who don’t live in New York and don’t know anybody in literary publishing and don’t have an Ivy League degree and don’t have any kind of recognizable pedigree—how dare they put on such airs! The presence of so much talent and good work threatens ideas about canonicity, or about the central importance of a handful of successful contemporary literary stars. It’s hard to do your job as a cultural gatekeeper if you have to admit that there are a dozen or a hundred great stories out there for every one you decide to anoint with your approval.

Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

June 2008
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