Sunday, December 30, 2012

Curb Your Enthusiasm: TV, The State of Criticism, and the Dramatic Potency of Abusive Relationships

Remember back in 2000, when Big Brother brought reality TV to North America and everybody thought that this was the end of television drama? Or by “everybody” perhaps I mean me. But I couldn't have been more wrong. TV drama was about to undergo a renaissance, beginning with HBO and Showtime and later extending to basic cable. First came The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, then The Wire, Mad Men, and now, Breaking Bad. TV that's such a pop culture phenomenon you can't escape it; TV that's everywhere; TV that you have to watch or be profoundly exiled from the cultural loop. It's not just what everyone's watching, it's what everyone has to watch.

There is a blanket consensus among TV critics, whether writing for established, elitist magazines like The New Yorker or for pop culture websites like The AV Club and Slant, about the quality of the trendiest shows that baffles me. It's not just that there are no dissenting voices: there is nothing to temper the breathlessly laudatory terms in which these shows are praised, as if there weren't five centuries of Western literature to measure them against; as if the “showrunners” (a term recently introduced into cultural discourse) of premium cable shows invented drama roughly three decades ago.

The 1960s French intellectuals who defended the value of studio-era Hollywood cinema and their American acolytes, like Andrew Sarris, may have been guilty of taking themselves as seriously, but at least they were struggling against a cultural consensus when they argued for the art of American movies. In contrast, online TV critics are setting the cultural consensus when they praise the premium cable show du jour. And this strikes me as a shame, because I once hoped that the internet might be a place where you could find writers with a healthy scepticism towards cultural trends. But I couldn't have been more wrong about that, either: the internet has turned into a place where giddy praise of pop culture poses as pop culture criticism. And since practically no one at all is paying any attention to the traditional arts, pop culture criticism is criticism today. And it's not good enough. Pop culture deserves better criticism; it deserves more critical criticism.

In fact, however, I'm less worried about pop culture than I am about the state of criticism. A small portion of pop culture has become very smart, but criticism has dumbed way down. Not its prose, not its analysis of tropes, not its close readings – that's all as sophisticated and earnestly thorough as you can ask for. But it's dumbed down its expectations.

And Then There's Robot Chicken

One problem with regarding TV as an art form is that it offers nothing new as a medium. To cinephiles like Pauline Kael it was a repetition of cinema on a small scale, visual-kinetic storytelling with none of the power and grandeur of the big screen. Technically TV shows are serial drama, which was introduced by radio, but no one has ever seemed much excited about that novelty in either medium. Yet it gave rise to the familiar TV format, which may be summarized briefly as: a group of characters have adventures. Although most TV shows have a protagonist (the owner of the workplace where the show takes place or the business the show is about; the character whose name is in the title; the character who narrates; the normal one; the newcomer; the boss or leader or captain or mother or father, although sometimes the son if the show is after a youth audience; the one with the skill or ability or problem the show is about; in the case of some comedies, the star, even if their character isn't named after them and in the title), TV shows are much less focused on the protagonist than either the majority of novels written for adults or stage dramas. An adventure-of-the-week show can have as few as two regular cast members, the protagonist and the sidekick, and in a long-running show the sidekick can be replaced. The pure soap opera (the daytime soap) has no protagonist; it's about families and couples. Some sitcoms give it away in their title that protagonist duties are shared (Mork and Mindy, Laverne and Shirley, Will and Grace). The father is the protagonist of most family sitcoms, but sometimes a sitcom really is about the entire family, like The Simpsons. If the daughter is the protagonist, you may have a sitcom-soap hybrid, like Mama's Family.

Serial drama, it seems, is a democratic genre at both its poles, the sitcom and the soap, one made up of self-contained episodes in which at best only the romance between the leads develops, the other of ongoing dramatic developments: the sitcom is virtually always about a family (whether nuclear or metaphorical); the soap opera is always about multiple families. The affection the viewer feels for the characters, which is necessary for the sustained interest the medium demands, is built up by watching the family-like ways in which the characters interact every week. In TV's implicit epistemology, “family” is the only way in which we know how to relate to the rest of the world. This has sometimes been mistaken for a cozy worldview, but the nuclear, workplace, and friend families portrayed on TV have often been deeply dysfunctional since long before premium cable.

Adventurous TV doesn't so much challenge the established genres and sub-genres as see what can be done with them: it's a question of how dark and complex the writers can make the soap, how dark and messed-up they can make the sitcom. TV is only ever dark and complex relative to TV, not to other media (messed-up, I'm not sure about); and as for experimental, the closest you'll get to that other than half a dozen Twin Peaks episodes is the pop surrealism of some children's fantasy programming and animation. I'm thinking of British fantasy from the 60s and 70s and Henson's Muppets in the 70s (Looney Tunes shorts, being made for theatrical release, don't count); but for a contemporary examples there's the stop-motion-animated Robot Chicken, which updates the pop nihilism of MAD magazine in the 50s in ways so vulgar and deranged that Robert Warshow might have taken back his endorsement of Krazy Kat if he knew where this was going. But then, we're post-South Park, and post-internet.

She Wouldn't Even Harm a Fly”

Breaking Bad is the first critically untouchable TV series that hasn't made me fear for the critics' sanity. It's not that I think it's notably well-written, and I wouldn't quite count myself a fan, but at least it's not just another campy soap, like Mad Men or the colossally stupid Downton Abbey. I like Breaking Bad but I don't love it; I watched the first four seasons on Netflix in a couple of weeks with half-attention, but I kept watching.

Warning: SPOILERS for up to the end of Season Four.

The show starts out with a premise combining the premises of two premium cable hit shows, Weeds and Dexter: a genteel white parent launches a career in drugs to get money for their family and must make their way in the violent but authentic world of the non-white Other; in the process developing a criminal double life under the nose of a sibling who works in law enforcement. On my Netflix home page, Dexter and Walter glower out at the viewer like the white dude badasses they are.

In no time at all, however, Breaking Bad has virtually nothing to do with drug manufacturing or dealing. Walter no sooner cooks a batch than all hell breaks loose and he spends the rest of the season struggling to survive. If the show is about anything, it's about the relationship between Walter and his “partner,” Jesse, a former high school student of Walter's. But where that relationship comes from or what it's about is, again, enigmatic.

Walter and Jesse's relationship is about the only humanly recognizable one in the series; it's certainly the only relationship that seems to have any meaning for Walter, despite his posturing about his family, whom he pursues with the tenacity of a stalker after his wife, Skylar, discovers his double life and tries to leave him. He seems to view his family as possessions, and as we'll see, he treats Jesse the same way, but at least there's passion in his grotesquely abusive and destructive relationship with his partner. His wife is viewed satirically from the outset as a spouter of platitudes, only taking on a certain dignity and interest after she goes over to the criminal side of the plot, while his son is barely characterized – moody teenager, victim, or daddy-worshipping angel as the plot demands. For his part, Walter seems incapable of relating to them except through lies and platitudes. None of these family members know each other, which makes it difficult to believe that any very valuable relationship exists between them; instead I often felt during the first two seasons that I was watching a satirical Douglas Sirk-style characterization of a middle-class family, except that the effect didn't seem altogether intentional.

For me the show kicked into gear in the third season, with the introduction of Gus, and really started to fly in the fourth season, with the establishment of a chess game between Mike and Gus on the one hand and Walter on the other, with Jesse as pawn. By this time most of the drama was going on between Walter, Jesse, Mike, Gus, and Saul, with Gus as an entertaining villain and Saul as an entertaining comical crooked lawyer. Obviously, this is a show that's all about men and their world of one-upmanship; Skylar and her sister are the only regular female cast members in the whole series, and except for Jesse, none of the men in the criminal plot seem to ever give women a thought. It's hinted that Gus's relationship with his murdered partner was homosexual, which extends Gus's function of Clare Quilty-like double for Walter to Walter's relationship with Jesse. Certainly, whenever Jesse tries to establish a heterosexual life for himself, independent of Walter, Walter attacks it – responsible for his crossing of the Moral Event Horizon at the end of the second season and again at the end of the third. In the first instance, he's just getting rid of a “Yoko,” as Saul sulkily dubs Skylar after she takes charge of her husband's money laundering (she was a bookkeeper, you see), but the second and, in dramatic terms, morally graver attack – that's got to be pure spite.

Season Four's admirably constructed, darkly comic melodrama of manipulation reminded me of the chess game between Maggie, her father Adam, and her friend and stepmother Charlotte in Henry James's The Golden Bowl, in which Maggie marries off father and friend only to discover that Charlotte is having an affair with Maggie's husband; she then has to figure out how to vanquish Charlotte and win Amerigo back, in a long and exhausting mental game in which no one may be directly confronted and in which every move Maggie makes against her rival compromises her impeccable moral credentials. Similarly, after Gus moves against Walter by using Mike to seduce Jesse away, Walter must figure out how to win Jesse back, which he does in a desperate gambit that delivered the best season finale audience anagnorisis I've seen since “Death is my gift” on Buffy, though to very different emotional effect.

Again, there's no explanation for the destructive passion that exists between Walter and Jesse. Walter is either telling Jesse he's shit or saving his life, and it's hard to understand why he does either, and impossible to understand why Jesse remains loyal to Walter: he behaves like Ariel but gets treated like Caliban by Walter the irascible chemist-magician. Their sadomasochistic relationship fills up practically the whole universe of Breaking Bad, in a grand tradition of love-hate fictional character relationships that extends from Lovelace and Clarissa to George and Martha to, oh, Sam and Diane. In a couple of striking episodes that evoke the starkness, simplicity, and claustrophobia of modernist theatre, “Four Days Out” from Season Two and the even more stylized “Fly” from Season Three, Walter and Jesse respectively spend the episodes stuck in the middle of the desert facing likely death under absurd conditions (all because Jesse forgot the key in the ignition of the RV) and trying obsessively to kill a fly in Gus's lab, which with its bulky equipment and shiny red floors looks like some circle of hell envisioned by Samuel Beckett via 1970s sci fi. I can't recall the last time a TV show was confident enough in its writing, or in writing, to offer up episodes consisting entirely or almost entirely of dialogue between the two main characters. I only wish I found the characters compelling enough to remember any of that dialogue, instead of finding them vaguely, distantly fascinating.

The Great Man and The Girl

Speaking of destructive, obsessive relationships: I was surprised by the furor, particularly in England, over the HBO-BBC TV movie The Girl, about the relationship between Tippi Hedren and Hitchcock. The British are sure protective of their cultural institutions, and in this case it's turned into cries of “How dare that little slut make up stories about a great man” vs. feminist rejoinders of “How dare you men not believe a woman who says she was sexually harassed?” Step right up and choose an archetype to irrationally defend: the victim-woman or the great man.

For my part, I heard the stories about Hitch and Hedren years ago, mainly, I think, in Camille Paglia's BFI monograph on The Birds. That's because I am actually a Hitchcock fan, and do occasionally read a book about him. Hedren's stories seemed perfectly plausible given other things known about Hitch through his own admission as well as what anyone can see: that he was repulsive in appearance and had never had sex with anyone but his homely wife, in a marriage that, by the time of The Birds, had been celibate for years.

As for why other Hitchcock blondes didn't have the same experience with him, that makes perfect sense to me as well: Hedren was nobody when Hitchcock cast her in The Birds, whereas after Psycho he'd risen to a position of unprecedented power in Hollywood. He simply couldn't have gotten away with it with any of his other leading ladies. And then, too, as a nobody with the quality of impassivity that Hitch had always valued in his blondes, Hedren was a blank slate; Hitchcock may have thought he could play Svengali (an obvious reference that The Girl makes at one point) like Scottie in Vertigo. However, since he was dealing with a real woman, not a character written for him, he was in for a rude surprise.

Believing all of this as Hitchcock (and I do happen to believe Hedren's stories, which does not, of course, mean I'm right) has had no effect whatsoever on my opinion of him as a filmmaker: I think he's a genius. If anyone finds such stories shocking in association with Hitchcock, they evidently haven't been paying a lot of attention to his best films, which are precisely about sexual obsession, voyeurism, and the physical and/or psychological torture of his blondes. Not that it follows that an artist will act out the obsessions of his art, but surely Hitchcock fans shouldn't find it surprising that a human being could act as the Hitchcock character does in The Birds.

As a movie, The Girl is not very interesting if you already know the stories: although I only caught about an hour of the movie on HBO, it adds little to what I've already read and appears to be directly dramatizing incidents recounted by Hedren or others, with loads of exposition and little attempt to interpret the material. (There's a bit of pop psychology here and there, but it's talk, again; the motivations aren't dramatized.) However, I “got” the dramatic interest the story does have even from that partial viewing: I understood that the movie was about a battle of wills between a powerless and vulnerable but strong young woman and a powerful young man, in which the woman refuses to be crushed. The value of the movie is in providing inspiration for other sexually harassed young women – or really for anyone struggling with a huge power imbalance in a relationship, to which men are hardly immune. The interviews I've now read on the internet with Hedren on the movie have confirmed that this was the intention. It pains me to think that you would have to be a woman to understand and appreciate what the movie was doing, but from the reaction of male reviewers and commenters on the internet, for whom the movie is character assassination or at least “one-sided,” it appears to be the case. A movie about Hitchcock that's not about Hitchcock? Then the title wasn't kidding.

The reaction to the movie is ultimately more interesting than the movie itself – and so are Hedren's interviews, in which she fills in more of the picture and of her perspective. She speaks, for example, of how her moral and religious upbringing gave her strength in the situation, which was not apparent from the hour or so of The Girl I watched. Ultimately, the Hedren-Hitch story is an inspiration for young women in a curiously conservative way. Hitchcock's movies with cool blonde heroines inherit the rape theme of the British novel that goes back to Clarissa, but the Hedren-Hitch relationship, as recounted by Hedren, much more closely resembles the plot of Clarissa than anything he put on film – with the difference that instead of being sexually irresistible, like the diabolical Lovelace, Hitch was the opposite. Hedren was not only physically, but also morally repulsed by his sexual attention, and no doubt Hitch bombarded her with vulgarity all the more in an effort to break down the reserve that attracted him. 

The Pleasures of Incomprehension

In the article “Child's Play,” New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum notes that despite Vince Gilligan's daring in pulling the moral carpet right out from under Walter at the end of Season Four, fans have found ways to justify Walter's reprehensible action – an action that makes him arguably worse than his supposed double, Gus, or at least every bit as bad. I'm sure this is nothing new; I'm sure the readers of Clarissa found ways to justify Lovelace's rape of the heroine. They must have, since fans (surely female readers among them, who were surely Richardson's main readership) wanted Clarissa to forgive and agree to marry Lovelace. Never mind if the writer wants to portray a character's tragic moral downfall; the reader/viewer's desire for two characters with chemistry to get together and live happily ever after, or to root for the protagonist, trumps all merely fictional crimes, no matter how great their magnitude.

Didn't Nabokov definitely prove that in Lolita? We forgive Humbert the ultimate taboo crime because he's the sole protagonist, the narrator in fact; we're stuck with his point of view; and he's charming. How much do we forgive Walter because he's positioned as “normal” and “safe”? He's a WASP, middle-class, middle-aged high school teacher and husband and father with children, and so, even though we've had more evidence of his anger management problems and seen him commit worse crimes every season, we continue to assume that he must be a good guy after all. Whereas what we learned in the paradigm-shifting Season Four finale is that we weren't on the side of good (however deeply compromised); we were simply, contingently, on a side in a war between identically vile individuals.

Like much of the best television drama of recent decades, Breaking Bad succeeds in keeping the objective stakes for the characters high, delivering dramatic gratifications unknown to stage drama since the Greeks and certainly absent from 20th century stage drama, whether in its middle class or avant-garde manifestations. Because of our pleasure in these high objective stakes, we forgive TV drama the silliness of fantasy – plots about saving the world from evil or overthrowing psychotic drug lords. My problem with accepting Breaking Bad either as “great TV” or great drama, period, isn't so much that Walter is too awful and Jesse too passive for me to care much about them, as that I don't understand what the stakes of their relationship are. I know why Clarissa and Lovelace can't live with or without each other; I understand the fantasy and mutual disappointment that bind George and Martha. But I don't understand what Walter and Jesse need from each other, practically or psychologically, and even in TV land, “subtextual homoeroticism” can't explain everything.

It's not unlike my reaction to this year's critically-acclaimed film The Master, which was also about a warped father-son love affair between an aimless younger man and an older man who at least offers the semblance of authority, although in this case it was the younger man with anger management problems. At least, however, the reviews of The Master that I found online through Rotten Tomatoes acknowledge how tremendously strange the film is. So far I'm willing to say about Breaking Bad: it's strange, and I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. I think I might like TV criticism better if it would linger with me in incomprehension more often, rather than rushing to a verdict. It's safe to say that until you don't understand everything, you don't have an art form.  

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Myth of the Writer for the 21st Century in Vila-Matas, Marias, and Bolano

The Writer as Hot Mess

In recent decades we've heard a lot about the death of literature, meaning variously: the death of print in the online era; the death of reading in the age of digital distractions; and the death of “literature” in a time when the mass audience has been lost to electronic media, the remaining book audience has been lost to “YA fiction,” and, anyway, modernism rendered the traditional novel aesthetically void. Under capitalism, this millennial anxiety about literature inevitably immediately issued in a new publishing genre: books about books, extolling the wonders of books, talking about the author's experiences with books, providing clueless or curious readers with lists of books they ought to read.

The new myth of the writer conjured by the works of three Spanish-language authors, Javier Marias, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Roberto Bolano, seems suited to these times. On the one hand, these are writers obsessed with writers, or the idea of the writer, in a modernist version of the turn-of-the-century self-cannibalization of literature. But while this obsession speaks to the regard in which they hold The Writer, their work simultaneously diminishes that figure. In The Savage Detectives (1998), Bolano nostalgically glorified a failed literary movement whose chosen figurehead was an obscure and elusive experimental poet, as if the movement, too, glorified failure (or “the literature of desperation,” as it's called at once point), or saw it as the only authentic kind of success; 2666 (2004) also uses the quest for an elusive author as one of its structural devices. In Bartleby & Co. (2001), Vila-Matas wrote a “novel” that is really a work of literary theory about the mostly non-fictional “Bartlebys” of literature, or Writers of the No, who gave up writing temporarily or permanently or could not get started in the first place. And in Written Lives (1992), Marias's brief biographies of mostly famous writers, written as if their “fairly disastrous” subjects “were fictional characters,” produce an effect that “is hardly likely to lure one along the path of letters,” as Marias litotically warns in the Prologue.

Indeed, the impression one gathers from reading Bartleby & Co. and Written Lives back to back is that you would have to be a fool to be a writer. Marias, a self-conscious anti-hagiographer whose miniature biographies often reminded me of the fictional ones in Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996),
but with less generosity extended towards the subjects, strips even the glamour of tragedy and Romantic self-destruction from his writers, eccentrics who lead lives characterized by mainly quiet desperation, but also occasionally marked by violence. Those memorable episodes of violence – Turgenev's grandmother's grisly murder of a young servant in a fit of pique, Sterne's father's being run through with a sword in an argument over a goose, Verlaine's brutalizing of his wife and his and Rimbaud's mutual brutalization, the elderly Isak Dinesen's bullying of a young male worshipful and whimsical threatening of him with a pistol – are another link to NLITA, in which the banal, the bizarre, and the violent jostle.

Although Marias is remarkably short on sympathy (as opposed to pity) for his writers, he saves his vitriol for his betes noire, Joyce, Mann, and Mishima. In those chapters, Marias proves he can rival Camille Paglia as an artist of the ad hominem, and it's hard to know whether he has chosen sex as a ground on which to attack them or whether their sexual psychology is part of what inspired his disgust in the first place. We are, in any case, expected to share that disgust as he quotes representative passages from Joyce's pornographic letters to his wife, Mann's diary entries on his digestive complaints and attractions to young men, and Mishima's public musings about his sadomasochistic fantasies. One only hopes that Marias's sex life and sexual thoughts are clean and orthodox enough to escape such a treatment, or, if not, that they never fall into the hands of posterity.

The persona adopted by Vila-Matas in Bartleby & Co. is much gentler, yet his celebration of literary silence does not make the writer's life appear any more attractive. It is a life largely wasted, as the writer loses sight of the reasons to write, or never manages to keep them in sight long enough to get started, or – like Vila-Matas's paradigmatic Bartleby, Robert Walser – contrives a way to continue to write, but only with the lowest possible opinion of his work. When I recently came across a New Yorker post on Philip Roth's announcement of his retirement, I saw it through the lenses of Vila-Matas and Marias simultaneously: Roth's retirement was an act of Bartlebyism, albeit at the end of a prolific career, and he speaks of writing as an addiction that required such single-minded devotion from him that he found taking care of a friend's cat “consuming.” The post makes the life of a writer – and a critically and commercially successful one – sound austere, ascetic – even impoverished. I wondered, reading it, how a man who had lived so little in order to write so much could have written anything at all.

I have no doubt myself that the mythology of the writer is part of what lured me into my career... as a Bartleby. As a teenager I devoured biographies of writers whose behavioural excesses and tragic trajectories made them compelling subjects, and although my life has been conspicuous for its lack of excess (although the disasters have been plentiful), I am nonetheless as guilty as any of assuming, based on this mythology, that to be a writer was to not only be good at writing – but to also be interesting. Between, say, Oscar Wilde in the 1890s and the generation of Capote, Mailer, Vidal, and Williams, the writer was a proto-rock star; the American writer of the Franzen, Chabon, Eugenides generation is, in contrast, at best an indie rock star.

The Great Gender Divide

The myth of the writer-rock star lives on, however – only now it's gone international. Just go on Scott Esposito's online lit journal, The Quarterly Conversation, and what do you see? In a sidebar to the right, a row of links with photographs, devoted to Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, and Roberto Bolano. Notably, two of the four died young, and notably, the writer as rock star, like the rock star, is gendered male. Not that female writers are incapable of inspiring cults by dying young, but the Sylvia Plaths are left to feminists. Women read trash, men don't read, intellectual men read male modernists, and feminists read female modernists. And if you think I'm simply parroting stereotypes about the literary tastes of average North American men and women, take a look at the 2011 winners of the Goodreads Choice Awards for Fiction, and you tell me which gender is using the site more, what kind of fiction they're reading, and which gender is writing it. Jessa Crispin's popular Bookslut site appears to be a gender-neutral literary site – despite the gendered monicker – where women and men who are interested in serious writing by men or women can gather and contribute; the question, however, is why there should ever be gender segregation on literary sites.

Or in books about writers, because female writers are rather left to the side by Marias and Vila-Matas (and not a sexy sidebar). Out of his dozens of Bartlebys, in a book stuffed with literary references, Vila-Matas mentions less than a dozen female writers in total. Only three, or possibly four, of them are Bartlebys, and they are: a friend of the fictional protagonist who gives up on the idea of being a writer after her head is turned by literary theory; a woman who ghost-wrote feminist plays for her famous husband; a courtesan who ghost-wrote a few lines of verse for Goethe; a member of Strindberg's circle who wrote a memoir of her childhood and adolescence. And this despite the fact that off the top of my head I can think of two female modernists who fill the qualifications of a Bartleby better than many of the male authors Vila-Matas includes: Djuna Barnes and Jane Bowles. One can only conclude that Vila-Matas either doesn't read that many female writers (he seems mainly to hear of their existence through rumour, perhaps while reading biographies of Goethe or Strindberg) or doesn't think too hard about them if he does. I'll definitely be interested in seeing how he represents his relationship with Marguerite Duras, his landlady (who is quoted a few times in Bartleby & Co.), when he was a young aspiring writer, in Never Any End to Paris.

The Great Gender Divide in contemporary letters needn't be attributed to anything more sinister than identification: Vila-Matas may stick mainly to male authors because they stick mainly to male protagonists, which are easier for both reader and writer to identify with; and when Vila-Matas, as a writer, muses about Writers and Writing, for the same reason it's male writers he thinks about. And this neglect of female writers – whether in books by male modernists or on literary sites devoted to modernism, like The Quarterly Conversation – reinforces the same tendencies in female writers.

And so the discussion of female modernists and their Bartlebyian tendencies is left to its own book, or books – like Kate Zambreno's Heroines(Semiotext(e)/Active Agents), which I have not read, because it's not in my public library system, but which does discuss Bowles and Barnes – and the Great Gender Divide perpetuates itself. Which makes Bolano's feminist gesture of making a female poet the object of his two male poets' quest in The Savage Detectives all the more remarkable, although it only seems logical to make the “silenced” female writer (or, for that matter, femininity, the no-thing, as negation) into a symbol of literary modernism in general.

Symbols aside, however, the truth – as Bartleby & Co. proves in abundance – is that male writers are every bit as likely to be Writers of the No as female writers are, as sad as it may be when the latter have more famous husbands who are also writers. The reverse still seldom happens, although Sylvia Plath's suicide and subsequent appeal to feminists and precocious teenage girls does mean that more non-poetry-readers have heard of her than of Ted Hughes (in any capacity except as her husband). Likewise, the feminist embrace of Frida Kahlo means that now, at least, more people with no great interest in art have heard of her than of her artist-husband. It helps, too, that Kahlo made her own image the subject of her art, which lends an illusion of intimacy that the mass audience seems to respond to – like Oprah putting herself on all her magazine covers.

Marias, who has stated in a Paris Review interview his distaste (he must have more of those than any celebrated writer since Nabokov) for writers who write from the perspective of the opposite sex, includes only three women, Isak Dinesen, Djuna Barnes, and Madame du Deffand, out of 20 authors, in the main portion of Written Lives; he then devotes a second section to even briefer portraits of six “Fugitive Women.” I can't say I understand what makes these women more fugitive than the others, or whether “fugitive” is meant to suggest that they are fleeing (like hunted outlaws), fleeting (three were short-lived), or elusive figures, but it's certainly a Bolanoesque concept of the female writer.

To this concept Marias, however, adds the further meaning that the interest of several of these women's literary work is also fugitive. Two, Vernon Lee and Violet Hunt, are treated as hangers-on in important male literary circles (in fact overlapping circles). Adah Isaacs Menken, a mid-19th century American actress whose fame was due to her appearance at the climax of a play by Byron, in which she played the male protagonist, in a flesh-coloured leotard, tied to a horse, is treated more affectionately by Marias than almost any other figure in the book, perhaps because of her unabashed and abundant absurdity, yet she seems to have been sneaked in because she happened to write a critically excoriated, posthumously published book of poems. It does give the impression that Marias is scraping the bottom of the barrel to come up with women of letters to write about.

Somebody, please, send him some binders.

Pretty On the Inside

You may have noticed from the foregoing that I am impatient with any attempt to set female writers apart from male ones with even the best of intentions – by male or female writers. I can't think of anything more alien to me than the idea that the sexes are so alien to each other that they can't enter into each other's perspectives, or that the imagination of the writer – I should say, The Writer – is so feeble that it can't transcend something as fictional as gender. If all we're going to do for the rest of all time is read and write about our almighty, all-important experiences “as woman” and “as men,” we might as well all start taking literary silence literally.

However, the writer so incapable of imagining an experience different from his or her own as to produce inadequate characters of the opposite sex is fully deserving of ridicule. Interestingly, in Written Lives Marias is guilty of the same trespass against feminism that recently rocked the internet when Jonathan Franzen made it in his NewYorker piece on Edith Wharton. Not only does he remark on his assessment of Djuna Barnes's appearance in his second paragraph on her; her returns to the subject in the book's third section, in which he analyzes photographs of writers. Out of 23 writers, Barnes is the only female writer whose picture he includes, and it causes him to confidently proclaim, “Unlike Wilde, who tries to be and to seem handsome, she knows she is not pretty and does not believe she can seem so, that is why she makes no attempt to adopt the faraway look that flatters most faces, instead she looks straight ahead, skeptical and mocking, trusting only in her costume (especially that raised collar), and in the confidence of her pose.”

Is it a double standard that I think Marias's analysis of the Wilde photos – those wonderful early dandy photos (probably more responsible than any text in fooling me into thinking that to be a writer meant to be interesting) – in terms of Wilde's desire to appear handsome and his momentary achievement of that goal (as if by force of will, the way Bette Davis made herself appear pretty in Jezebel) – but that this analysis of “prettiness” as a central concern in Barnes's life is piffle? I don't know anything about Barnes's private life other than what Marias wrote in his sketch – as I know nothing about Wharton's private life besides what Franzen wrote in his article. Perhaps if I did, the male writers' assertions not just about the female writers' appearance but their feelings about it would make that life snap into focus for me – which is what happened when I read Marias's lines on the Wilde photos. The pursuit of beauty is certainly a major motivating factor in Courtney Love's life, for example: she's sung about it, talked about it in interviews, and given herself a very public makeover that unfortunately degenerated into a plastic surgery addiction.

Oscar Wilde, before he stopped trying to incorporate the object into himself and went in pursuit of it.

Bette Davis, defying you to think she's not beautiful.

Djuna Barnes gets it right.

Courtney Love before she started trying to incorporate the object in herself.

Franzen and Marias are, at the very least, guilty of showing a Romneyesque insensitivity to context; their failure to provide biographical evidence for their theses reads as though they have such difficulty imagining the female mind that they have grasped desperately at the one clue society has given them: “Women want to be pretty!” Which, moreover, causes them to underestimate the human capacity for complacency and self-delusion, as anyone can see nowadays by going on Facebook, my own account not excluded. 
Besides, Marias has chosen the wrong photo of Barnes for his claim that she was neither pretty nor believed she could seem so. There's another from the same session in which Barnes, attempting a softening smile that is in fact less flattering to her face than a frank expression, looks downright awful. In the photo from Marias's postcard collection of writers' portraits, on the other hand, to me Barnes looks like a perfectly presentable, somewhat eccentric woman who precisely thinks she can sometimes pass as pretty – and has done so here. Marias's emphasis on Barnes's modesty in the next sentences is also revealing: apparently one of the first things he looks at when he looks at a picture of a woman is how much skin she's revealing, which issues immediately in a judgement on her virtue. Of Barnes he declares approvingly, “She is a woman dominated far more by modesty than by esteem for her own image,” which translates into the vernacular thusly: “She keeps her clothes on instead of running around showing off her body to get attention from men.”

Some people aren't meant to smile.

Maybe it's a good thing that Marias doesn't try to enter into women's heads very often: instead of vividly imagining Barnes's inner life, he can only file her appearance into his limited, dualistic categories for women – sexually attractive (good) or not sexually attractive (bad), virgin/matron (good) or whore (bad). Not that women don't have the same categories for men (Rhett or Ashley, Team Edward or Team Jacob?), but one expects a little more of a writer of international reputation writing about another writer of international reputation.

Speaking of writers' appearances, Kate Zambreno's blog, Frances Farmer Is My Sister, has finally gotten me to take an interest in Clarice Lispector – one of the very few female writers whose name I've encountered on The Quarterly Conversation. The summary of a recent biography by Walter Moses gets off to an hilarious start by quoting his description of Lispector as “That rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf,” but I'm intrigued by Moses' thesis that the Jewish Lispector, whose family fled to Brazil in 1922, when she was two years old, is “the true heir to Kafka.” I would actually be intrigued by any writer who's supposedly the true heir to Kafka, but if she also happens to look like Marlene Dietrich, you can't beat that package. And to judge from the pounds of makeup Lispector wore throughout her life, neither her narcissism nor her preoccupation with philosophy and mysticism interfered with each other in any manner. It's only the less physically and intellectually gifted of us who are superficial enough to be interested only in our appearance or in our inner life. 

The writer as movie star.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

In which I discover Goodreads, Archer, and Brideshead Revisited, basically

For the past few days I've been fooling around with Goodreads, after a friend mentioned it again. I've developed a fidgety past time of cataloguing my reading, so I thought I might as well do it on the internet, like everyone else. My Goodreads account isn't a matter of boasting, though; it's more of a source of shame.

As I suspected, despite the designation “reader” being at the core of my identity, I haven't actually read that much. In the internet era, anyone who might be timidly inclined to congratulate themselves on their knowledge of literature or film has learned that the true bibliophile has read thousands, not hundreds, of books, as the true cinephile has watched thousands, not hundreds, of movies. If you exclude the picture books and children's novels I read as a child, or the popular fiction I read from 10 to 15 (probably around 80 novels), from 12 to nearly 37 I've only read around 300 “books.” I suspect, based on just how slow and picky a reader I am, that in another 25 years I will have only read another 300, at most. In fact, such is my desire to be free of the obligation to read the thousands and tens of thousands of great books out there, that I'm toying with the idea of drawing the line and not reading any more fiction after my 50s, except perhaps new works. Right now, my “to read” tag contains around a hundred books, and I don't particularly want it to grow much more; the only books I want to add to it are those I haven't heard of yet, new ones especially.

Now look at this picture, which I will come back to at the end of this post:

In the meantime, back to dry reflections that are only of interest to myself. 

Of course “books” is a dubious way to quantify one's reading. Though not so dubious that I don't think it gives a fairly accurate representation of my shame. First, individual plays and some long short stories, essays, and poems count as a “book,” but so do collections of them. I'm inclined to choose the anthology I read if I can find it in the database; however, that doesn't allow you to rate the individual works in it.

Other kinds of reading are left out entirely. It's hard to say where to draw the line, of course: do magazine articles on how to apply eyeshadow count as part of your “reading”? Does the newspaper? At the moment I follow the NYRB and LRB, and several online literary sites; in university I had to read all kinds of academic essays and book chapters; as a teenager I read a lot of criticism for pleasure. I could track down some of those books, but it seems pointless; I wasn't reading out of interest in the essay-writer, but in the book under discussion, the same way I might, now, read a blog post without taking note of the author if I find it through a google-search for a topic. Such reading is enormously important in helping me form my opinions, but authorial “anonymity” seems an essential part of it. On the other hand, I've included classics of criticism in my Goodreads catalogue.

Another inaccuracy is that I often can't find the translation I read, or not without searching through many pages, which I don't have the patience to do. The ratings seem to apply to particular works, not editions – meaning not translations either. I can't help feeling odd recommending a translation I didn't read. The difference a translation makes is obvious in the case of two different collections of Robert Walser that I rated, with different translators: one got 5 stars from me, the other 2. In rare cases I couldn't even find the work, in any edition, either on its own or in a collection – for example, I found Colette's Innocent Libertine, but not its sequel, Minne.

Other interesting quantifications that Goodreads allows me to perform on my reading: I have forgotten nearly a quarter of what I've read (mostly books I read before the age of 21); and the books I read as a teenager account for nearly a third of my reading. (Which I suppose makes sense, since that was nearly a decade of my life, and since then there has been another decade and another near-decade.) Books I read for university, on the other hand, account for only a miniscule amount of my reading, which doesn't surprise me, although it was even less than I'd thought.

Reading, Memory, Mortality

Preparing my Goodreads catalogue has made me reflect on what I've only thought about glancingly in the past: what it means to “remember,” or not remember, a book. To begin with, I was surprised and pleased to discover that in about 80 per cent of cases I remembered the covers of the books I read (which is how I knew what editions I'd read) even if I read them 20 years ago or more, no longer own them, or have them in storage and have seldom looked at them since. On the other hand, if the editions I read were clothbound volumes from the library or purchased second-hand, they'd be impossible to identify even if Goodreads included pictures of hardcovers without their dust jackets. In some cases I selected editions that I owned at one point, although I may have first read – or only read – another edition from the library.

Some prolific authors I've read in numerous collections over many years – such as Freud, whom I've read in volumes I've owned and in volumes I've taken out from the library. I know which works I've read, but I can't always remember which collection they're in. If I took the volume out from the library I was only interested in a particular essay and would have left everything else in the volume alone. With Emerson, again, I've read him in a number of editions, both owned (second-hand, new) and taken out from the library; I summarized this in Goodreads by choosing a complete works I've never touched and tagging it with “partial reads.”

Reading is, simply, much less tidy than the idea that one reads authors in the form of particular, discrete volumes assumes. Again, if I read a play in an anthology of drama for university, I'm disinclined to look up the anthology and mark it as even a “partial read,” since I may have read less than a third of it for the course; instead I'll find and review a random edition of the play; however, I will also have no idea who the translator was if it was a foreign play.

But the question of recalling the content of a book is the most fascinating, and depressing, of all. In many cases, I don't remember the book itself, but plot summaries and thematic analyses from the criticism I've read (e.g. Pale Fire). In most cases, even if I can only recall one or two scenes from the book, I do remember my reaction: it may have been violently negative (1 star), or blissful (4 or 5 stars), or indifferent and a little contemptuous (2 stars), or indifferent but respectful (3 stars): there you have my interpretation of the 5-star system for rating books (subjective in all cases, no doubt). There are two cases where I feel I can't give a book a rating even if I do remember it: if I didn't actively dislike it, but the pleasure I got from it did not outweigh the effort, and consequent frequent boredom, of reading it (the case with monsters like Paradise Lost and Middlemarch); and if I read it largely for its reputation of being sexually subversive (the case with many books I read as a teenager, such as Naked Lunch and Story of the Eye).

In almost all cases where a film adaptation (or, even better, audio book) hasn't prompted my memory and I haven't read much criticism of the book, I will not remember most of the events in any novel or play I haven't read several times without looking up a summary online. Because I'm such a slow reader, I seldom re-read; exceptions include the Shakespeare plays I've read (most of them twice or three times, Hamlet around a dozen times), Jane Austen's novels (most of them twice, Pride and Prejudice around half a dozen times), Henry James's Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove (twice each), Jane Bowles's Two Serious Ladies (twice), and a few other favourite plays (e.g. Importance of Being Earnest, Streetcar Named Desire, Hedda Gabler). “Pure” cases of forgetting a novel include Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which I read as a teenager and remembered enjoying, but didn't recall a single event from it, and The Brothers Karamazov, which I read in my late 20s and enjoyed, but couldn't recall a thing that happened in it almost immediately afterwards. To my mortification, I'm in that position with Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives and 2666 now: although I read both recently and loved them more than almost anything else I've read, I recall few of the characters by name and very little of what happened to them. In this case, though, I will certainly re-read.

Then there's the problem of applying ratings to books you haven't read in over a decade. As I said, I can always recall my reaction even if I can't recall anything about the book; that doesn't, however, mean I'd have the same reaction if I read it now – either again or for the first time. Many Goodreads users mention this phenomenon and give the context of their reading in their reviews. The sense of dissonance arises when trying to list one's all-time favourite books; it would be more accurate, perhaps, to list them by decade, keeping to the books read that decade. Or even by year.

Films, oddly, seem to be a different case, at least for me. It's far easier to rewatch a film than to reread a book, and while I may like a film slightly more or slightly less than the first time I saw it in subsequent decades, my tastes in film were more formed by my 20s then my tastes in literature will ever be: there is nothing I liked or loved in my 20s (in contrast to my teens) that I'm likely to repudiate now, although there are things I hated in my 20s that I may appreciate now. My taste in films follows the course that Northrop Frye considered ideal for the literary critic: an increasing catholicism. (Though, I have to admit, incrementally increasing.) I can't think of many books I've loved that I'd repudiate now, either, but I'm not sure that Pride and Prejudice would have had such an impact on me if I hadn't read it at 16, or Portrait of a Lady or Wings of the Dove if I hadn't read them in my early 20s. Often, my favourite novels are those in which I powerfully identify with the protagonist due to perceived psychological or circumstantial similarities. One may consider this a limited response to literature, but the fact is that I expect literature to translate my experience into literary terms, and in the process help me to make sense of it and help to make it more endurable. I do not have that expectation of film; I expect, from a film, to be entertained, perhaps moved, perhaps even gain a little insight into myself, but I don't expect it to explain me to myself. For one thing, movies usually only follow the main character's life for a few weeks or months; novels follow the main character or characters for years, concentrating on a period of formative development and typical experiences – growing up, struggling to acquire money or achieve fame, falling in love, falling out of love, getting married, getting divorced. Movies are a type of drama, and also (as Hitchcock, I think, pointed out) related to the short story: they deal with a particular event or episode in a character's life that changes them forever. (Often, it destroys them.) The novel is... the novel. It encourages the application of one's entire life story to the character's entire life story. In the best cases, it encourages the conscious or unconscious reassessment of one's entire life story, or large portions of it.

There is another kind of book I can't review, and those are the books that changed my life as a teenager. With the exception of Paglia's Sexual Personae, the most important of them, which I gave 5 stars; I am still reasonably confident that it's a masterpiece, though every year that I have to hear more out of Paglia shakes my confidence. I'm also reasonably confident that Ellmann's Oscar Wilde is a masterpiece of the biography genre, although some of its interpretations have since been challenged; however, I can't review it, because the 5 stars wouldn't be for that, but for the impact it had on me when I read it at 13. What one reads as a teenager has an impact that nothing ever will again, because it forms one's identity and view of the world. One is also, of course, unconsciously shaped in many little ways by the things one reads, watches, and listens to as a child and teenager; but I don't believe that any of it is as important as the conscious influences of adolescence: the books (and in rare cases, popular culture) that challenged the assumptions with which one was raised (the assumptions of parents, class, and mainstream culture) and made one aware of additional, or alternative, possibilities.

At one end, there are movies and books; on the other, music and visual art. We are expected to remember the basic plot of narrative fiction to say that we “know” it, even though we will also insist that knowing the plot a work of fiction is not equivalent to reading the work, or we could all read the Sparks notes (and anyone who thought that knowing the plot of a movie was equivalent to watching the movie would be considered crazy). But it's the texture of a novel that makes up the bulk of our experience of it – the prose, the wit, the observations, the descriptions, the dialogue – and that it what is likely to escape our memory, except in the form of a general impression. It's a rare reader who can recite prose from a novel or story; not so with dialogue-based works: most movie and play fans can recite lines from their favourites; monologues, like poems, lend themselves to memorization.

We are not, however, expected to “memorize” music or paintings. There's no shame for the classical music fan in only being able to hum a bar or two of a composition, or in having forgotten how it goes completely. And we don't know what it would mean to memorize a painting; I can vaguely call to mind most of my favourite paintings (particularly the figural ones) as well as others I've seen often, though not in any detail. (I should add that, as a Canadian who hasn't travelled much, almost all of my experience of famous paintings is through books, posters, and the internet; I think I saw one Picasso during a trip to San Francisco, but I can't remember which one.) But this is simply a fact about memory; it's not an accomplishment.

Contemplating the books I've read and haven't read, and making decisions about what I still want to read and what I have determined inessential, is one of the ways in which I come to terms with my mortality; I've started to wonder whether, since I'm not religious, it's the main way. I feel more shame and regret over the number of books I've forgotten than the amount of events in my life I've forgotten (who remembers more than a handful of days, a dozen experiences, from every year, despite the number of minute events that obsess and oppress us daily?), perhaps because reading time is time stolen from life – not time deliberately wasted, however, like watching junky TV or piddling around on the internet, but time that is supposed to be invested; the experience of art is transcendence at one's command, taking time away from one's life but, in return, giving an experience that's worth any number of mundane days spent obsessing about minute things one will not remember and watching junky TV and piddling around on the internet.

Arrested Development: Brideshead Revisited and Archer

What if readers approached books as the music fan approaches music (in the age of recorded music, at least): re-read a favourite book whenever they want to in order to experience the pleasure it gives, without expecting to remember anything about it (except that pleasure) between readings? Consider the difference between books and movies here: most cinephiles think that you must watch a good film many times in order to see all of the things in it, and that, consequently, a critic like Pauline Kael, who refused to watch movies more than once, was irresponsible, or just plain crazy. But although everyone would readily admit that a great 19th century novel like Middlemarch is more complex than even the most complex film, I don't think any literary critic would claim that you have to read them many times in order to “get everything out of them.” A single careful, attentive reading will do.

Are film critics more pretentious than literary critics? Or are they unconsciously motivated by the fact that watching a movie is, for most people, considerably less time-consuming, as well as far easier, than reading a novel? Or is there the idea that meaning is far less contained in films – because of its visual nature – than in novels, so that, as with poetry, the meanings that can be discovered are potentially infinite? In any case, although readers who are at once faster and less ambitious than I am (slowness and ambition: what a terrible combination) are doubtless more inclined to re-read than I am, unless you're Harold Bloom – you knew that he had not only a freak speed-reading ability but a medical condition that makes it unnecessary for him to sleep – you will probably, as an adult, read most books once. Whereas, in contrast, if I like a movie I am extremely likely to watch it more than once, and I can think of dozens of favourites that I've seen anywhere from half a dozen to several dozen times.

Recently I read Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisisted for no reason except the pleasure of reading it: I went to it straight from watching the 1981 mini-series, a roughly 13-hour affair that's such a faithful adaptation that there is practically no difference between watching it and reading the book; somehow, however, it made me want to read the book anyway. The major departure was in the ending: the screenwriters wisely dramatize incidents related in the novel in dialogue. Otherwise, between Waugh's strong reliance on dialogue and the screenwriters' use of great swathes of the first-person narration in voice-over, the mini-series is practically a word-for-word, scene-by-scene adaptation. The only odd note was in the casting: Anthony Andrews as a blonde Sebastian is iconographically correct as a homoerotic beautiful boy, but it underlines how little he resembles Diana Quick as his twin, Julia. (In the novel as in the mini-series Julia is dark-haired; the colour of Sebastian's hair is not given in the novel, that I noticed.)

I gave Brideshead a miss when I read Waugh's satires as a teenager, having read that it was his most “conservative” novel. While that may be true politically, it certainly isn't true sexually: although Catholic theme of the novel is the working of grace in the lives of the main characters, Waugh's attitude (and the attitude of those main characters) towards sexuality is startlingly worldly for a novel published in 1946. Not only is Charles, the narrator, depicted as being reciprocally in love with the beautiful young aristocrat Sebastian, but he later goes to what he specifically refers to as a “pansy bar” with their flaming queen friend from Oxford, whom he specifically refers to his “pansy friend” – both to his mistress, Sebastian's sister Julia. Neither Charles's love for Sebastian nor his friendship with Anthony is ever repudiated, nor does Waugh depict Charles as feeling any shame over them – other than his early ambivalence towards the outrageous Anthony.

One of the most interesting things about the novel is how much Waugh leaves opaque about the characters and their motivations – and I don't mean just the depiction of Charles and Sebastian's relationship, which is at once elliptical and absolutely direct. We never learn precisely what causes Sebastian's disintegration, although we know that in his own mind it is connected with his family, especially his mother. From what I've seen on the internet, readers love projecting their own issues with their mothers onto Lady Marchmain, complete with early 21st century babble about “narcissistic” parents (as if there were any other kind) – just as Anthony and Sebastian himself love to do. It almost makes me wonder if Waugh was influenced by T. S. Eliot's essay on Hamlet, Gertrude, and the objective correlative. Waugh gives no objective correlative for Sebastian's distress; it is simply the case that families do this to one; it is part of what we understand, in 20th century literature, the family to be.

And nothing seems to bring out the pressures and repressions of the nuclear family – whether middle class or aristocratic – like the depiction of addiction: the horror of the addict's misery and uncouthness intruding upon the family's calm, respectable surface, its failure, dysfunctions, and deeply buried disorders personified; the attempts to control the addict without ever directly broaching the problem, at least to him. I found myself frequently thinking about Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and was therefore struck when, late in the novel, Charles calls the thwarted, hysterical Julia, “Cat on a roof,” and wondered if Brideshead could have influenced Williams. Waugh's blackly comic depiction of the dying paterfamilias's favouring of Julia and Sebastian, the adulterous but aesthetically pleasing scapegraces, over his pious but aesthetically displeasing eldest son and his vulgar new wife, also brought to mind the battle between Maggie and the “no necks” for Big Daddy's regard. And of course, in both play and novel, the alcoholic is also implicitly homosexual. Is Sebastian's homosexuality the sufficient cause for his depression and self-destruction? Is that what his family is trying to control? Waugh gives us very, very little indication of this, although the defender of this interpretation could argue that Waugh could not emphasize this interpretation without making the homosexual theme completely explicit. The mini-series – made 35 years later, after the legalization of homosexuality – gives a few more hints: in one Heavenly Creatures-esque scene that's not in the novel, after Charles and Sebastian are kept apart from each other in the evenings at Oxford due to their shenanigans, a drunk and sobbing Sebastian shows up outside Charles's rooms to wail pathetically, “I just want to see you!” If Lady Marchmain had allowed Sebastian and Charles to take up residence together as planned, instead of trying to put Sebastian under religious supervision, would they have lived happily ever after, with Charles – as he argues to her – able to keep Sebastian's alcoholism in check? I suspect that Waugh's answer would be the same as the Jesuitical Bridey's when Charles argues that Sebastian would be better off if he'd been raised without religion: “It's quite possible.” (On the other hand, it doesn't turn out too well when Jeremy Irons applies this logic to his homoerotic relationship to his drug-addicted twin in Dead Ringers.)

As it is, however, the novel testifies to the enigmatic nature of human character and relationships; in particular, the mystery of self-destruction, which always has too many causes and never enough. The heterosexual reader who is uncomfortable identifying with a homosexual character can argue that Charles's homosexuality was an adolescent phase (albeit one he never repudiates); the homosexual reader or more open-minded heterosexual reader can argue that Charles is bisexual or that he suppresses his homosexuality due to the social pressures of the time – the outwardly conservative Charles can't live like either Sebastian or Anthony. Whatever sociological or psychological explanation ones gives for Charles's sexuality in the novel, Waugh seems to be pursing the theme of a bisexual ideal, between Anthony's recitation from the Tiresias section of The Waste Land and Charles's transference of his love from a male to female twin (does “Sebastian” refer to Shakespeare's twins as well as the early homosexual icon St. Sebastian?); also a Platonic ideal of progression from the sensual to the spiritual in which his homosexual love for Sebastian is a forerunner of his “mature” love for Julia, which is in turn a forerunner of his fully sublimated love for God.

It doesn't quite work: mysteriously, Julia, although also conceived as a sort of charismatic androgyne, is not as successful a representation as Sebastian. Is it because the section that depicts the idyllic early days of Charles and Sebastian's relationship is drenched in nostalgia for the prelapsarian last days of youth and illusion – into which adult sexuality, to say nothing of responsibility and, worst of all, reality, is always a painful intrusion? The novel is as much in love with this adolescence, in a Gothic, regressive way (as Wuthering Heights is obsessed with the freedom of Cathy and Heathcliff's childhood) as Sebastian is with his childhood; this vision ruins Charles, as Anthony sees: he sees that charm has ruined him, just as it has led many homosexual men to destruction, starting with Wilde, who represented it as a beautiful boy in The Picture of Dorian Gray; but Charles is ruined by the charm of a family – insular and doomed.

Charles's – and Waugh's – fetishization of the upper class is made either better or worse, depending on the reader, by the fact the family, their estate, even or especially their Catholicism all stand in for the aesthetic way of life, as the aristocracy did for Wilde and Proust. Charles's bowels may shrink when his vulgar wife chatters to party guests that he “lives only for beauty,” but she's absolutely correct. There is nothing more to Charles: the modern world is vulgar and ugly; the fading past is beautiful; if the war does not bring about the end of the world, it will most certainly bring about the end of everything good and permanently usher in the modern. After reading over the years that Wilde's trial made things extremely difficult for male homosexuals for decades afterwards, it's astonishing to see, in Brideshead Revisited, 1920s Oxford represented as though it's the 1860s Oxford of Pater and Wilde's 1895 trial had never intervened. Anthony Blanche is more than up to the small amount of bullying from the macho element at Oxford that he receives, and aestheticism, hedonism, and homosexuality as a single education of the senses and cunning method of rebellion against social convention and parental expectation (with conversion to Catholicism as the seal upon one's aestheticism); it is all excitement, even the bit of shame that Blanche's shamelessness makes Charles feel; there is no fear or furtiveness.

Poor old conventional heterosexuality can't live up to this glamour, at least for some readers, though I'm not one of those who thinks there's less emotional conviction in the Julia section of the novel. On the contrary, the storm at sea drenches their affair in an atmosphere of roiling emotion and the overcoming, however briefly, of tremendous sexual repression. I don't think there's any way to get around Charles's psychosexual excitement at discovering his lost male love in the person of his twin sister, which also allows him to make an attempt to recreate that lost love and all it came to represent by entertaining fantasies of becoming the master of Brideshead. That he does not suggests the Oedipal fantasy underlying this ambition (also suggested by the adultery angle). At heart this is a Gothic novel, haunted by the ghosts of the family romance, which give it its emotional energy.

I came to the mini-series by hearing it mentioned in the same breath with Downton Abbey, which even in its first season is a poorly-written soap opera (I was too bored to go on to the second season, which I've read on the internet is supposed to be the bad one). It is also truly unfortunate in its social implications: the servants are either pure good or pure evil; they are good if they are loyal to their masters, evil if they harbour any class resentment; the only servants who are permitted to have social ambition move in the orbit of the cause-y aristocrat sister, presumably to make her look good. Fans of the massively popular series – a phenomenon in the UK, a cult hit in North America – appear to defend it as “escapism,” but I can't escape when the series keeps rubbing the ugliness of social divisions in my face with its retrograde assumptions. The character of Daisy, the simple-minded, childlike, superstitious young servant girl, is a throwback to Prissy of Gone With the Wind, but since she's white, I'm not even sure if fans have realized that this is an offensive characterization of the rural peasantry. Not that I know anything about the rural peasantry of the early 20th century, but I did find myself wondering, as I watched the servants of Downton, “Did anyone, anywhere, ever talk or act like this?” I doubt it: Julian Fellowes is working from melodrama archetypes that haven't changed in hundreds, maybe thousands of years. If Downton was well-written I could forgive it its basis in snobbery; but then, its class condescension and poor writing are inseparable: the problem with the servant characters is that they are written like no human beings anywhere, ever. (The aristocrats don't correspond to any known human types, either, but at least they're allowed to have flaws and virtues without being depicted as strictly good or evil.)

The difference between Downton Abbey and Brideshead Revisited isn't the difference between bad and good writing; it's the difference between TV writing and real writing. Many contemporary novels, both commercial and “literary,” are so dreadful that sometimes I wonder if real writing exists or if it's something I made up; Waugh reminded me that it does exist, and it's not the unique preserve of untouchable masterpieces: the writing in Brideshead isn't flawless, nor does it exhibit Modernist difficulty; it seems to be absolutely lucid, but the characters and their dilemmas are finally opaque and their psychology murky. If Brideshead reminded me of how good even the lesser masterpieces of the early 20th century Anglo-American novel could be, Downton reminded me, with a thud, of how bad TV writing usually is. TV is not especially good at realistic drama; it is very good at fantasy and sci-fi adventure (my own favourites are Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the revamped Battlestar Galactica), and in the best series, sneaks realistic depictions of relationships into these genres.

It is also very good at comedy; the sitcom seamlessly took over stage comedy (unchanged in its essentials since Greek New Comedy, as Frye observed) and combined it with the pleasures of the serial. Besides Brideshead, I also checked out the adult cartoon series Archer last month. It's ostensibly a spoof of the spy genre, with lots of gross-out comedy involving vomit and kinky sex, but its interest, for me anyway, lies in its satire of 21st century masculinity in the figure of the main character, a Don Draper/James Bond type whose “retro” appeal is a cover for his thoroughly modern metrosexuality – and whose adventurous, womanizing ways are undercut by the fact that he works for his actual mother, who runs the spy agency – and who's played by the same actress who played the mother on Arrested Development. The adolescent boy's fantasy of being a misogynous, babe-magnet spy is acknowledged as such; Archer's inability to settle down, respect women, or get a real, grown-up job is attributed to his screwed-up relationship with his domineering, manipulative, cold, and neglectful mother – openly depicted as all the things readers tend to project onto Lady Marchmain. Waugh, by keeping the mother-son relationship enigmatic, sidestepped the Freudian explanation for Sebastian's arrested development; Archer, as a satire on ideas of masculinity, revels in it. Most of the reviews I've read note the quality of the voice acting, and when Archer and Malory are allowed to tear into each other with rapid-fire sitcom insults, it's a testament to the genius of H. Jon Benjamin and Jessica Walter that they manage to generate some kind of emotional truth and stakes; while the timing of the cast and the Bogey-and-Bacall energy they bring to Adam Reed's endless barrage of deliberately infantile sarcasm often produces small miracles of comedic ensemble work.

Early on, before serial plotting takes over and characters become more dramatic and less inclined to be the butt (or boobs) of the satire, much fun is had at the expense of the equivalence of Archer and the show's action girl babe, Lana, as sex objects; both are inclined to prance around in their underwear, wiggling and jiggling, but Archer is more of a narcissist and exhibitionist – or at least he's more out about it than Lana, who must cling to her feminist principles even as she prances around in post-feminist clingy mini-dresses or designer underwear “knock offs,” as Archer camply accuses her. As cartoons they can effortlessly embody the fantasy ideals for male and female bodies – which, as Mark Simpson argued in "Transexy Time!", are so similar, in the end, that it's hard to believe that they belong to opposite – or even different – sexes. I thought of that article as I watched Archer and Lana traipse across the screen in their undies and listened to them compare notes on the sleekness of their depilated genitals: these are not opposite sexes; they are one sex, the product of the pornographic imagination, which isn't interested in gender, but simply in sex – sex that has nothing to do with nature and everything to do with the perverse imagination. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

April in Review: Cinephiles vs. Movie Geeks, Nostalgia for the Filthy 1950s, and Posthumous Bolano

I only have time for a post per month now, in this white elephant of a blog. In this month's post, detailing what my brain has been up to in April, The Beatles are now as old as Mozart; Doris Day sings about stalkers; and Roberto Bolano makes me hallucinate.

Aesthetic Prejudice

The other day I came across this children's reference book, published by Doris Kindersley, on Great Musicians, which pictures The Beatles on the cover, along with smaller illustrations of Mozart (that's the little guy in the periwig, right?) and Billie Holiday. It occurred to me that this was the best answer to the high-low conundrum posed in my last post. With time it doesn't particularly matter in what sense an artist is considered “great,” or whether that sense is decided at the time or at any point afterwards. Less than 50 years after their advent, The Beatles are now “classics”; they have been canonized; as part of their education, children must be taught about the contributions of the great rock musicians and of jazz musicians as well as classical musicians to culture. To children who would not have heard of any except through their education they must all look the same: 50 years ago or 250 years ago, it's all old.

I'm not saying The Beatles don't belong there, either; I'm simply curious about the process by which pop culture gets incorporated into the cultural canon, since it's not by a rationally-formulated critical consensus based on a systematic, comprehensive aesthetic theory. For example, I've noticed on the internet that movie fans frequently come in two flavours these days: “movie geeks,” who are interested in contemporary movies (going back to, say, the 90s); and “cinephiles” (or movie snobs), who are interested in “the classics” (or, Hollywood and European cinema up to the mid-60s) and Modernist and avant-garde cinema up to the present, and tend to scorn geek favourites. It would be easy to argue that movie fans who are interested in classical Hollywood cinema are not interested in contemporary movies because the two have almost nothing in common: classical Hollywood movies were based on popular (and often dreadful) novels and plays and influenced by theatre; contemporary Hollywood blockbusters are based on comic books or YA series and influenced by video games. But then, classical Hollywood movies have nothing in common with Modernist and avant-garde movies, either, and “cinephiles” (myself, for example) tend to be open towards both, whereas they are less open towards contemporary blockbusters (although this, like everything, is generational, and probably changing). So why do the snobs appreciate both but scorn comic book adaptations? (For my part, despite being a superhero comics fan as a child – yeah, I know, that's no geek cred at all – I disliked The Dark Knight because it was heavy, ponderous, hard to follow, no fun – not even the Heath Ledger parts – and had none of the basic, dramatically powerful psychological interest that the superhero genre – including such extensions of it as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and some manga – shares with Greek tragedy. From the favourable reviews I glean that The Dark Knight was a “morality play,” but I can't be that bothered about superhero moral dilemmas, so if the introduction of weighty moral questions into comic books is considered an advance in the form, I apparently prefer it in its immaturity.)

One huge difference between the play-or-book-based movie and the comic-based movie or the movie based on a YA or sci-fi or fantasy print franchise is that it is often assumed by cinephiles that the movies, by some mysterious alchemy that no one has ever systematically formulated, aesthetically elevated trashy novels and plays: although themselves (arguably) a kind of trash, classical Hollywood movies transformed the detritus of the traditional literary arts into a kind of art (“American art,” like rock and roll, although the British quickly appropriated the latter as they never managed to do with the former). Whereas now the source medium has overtaken the adapting medium; the former comes with devoted fans who are disturbed if the movie is unfaithful to the source (or who sometimes view both movies and books as “products” of the franchise to be separately considered and possibly enjoyed on their own merits). David O. Selznick anticipated the future of moviemaking when he adapted the pop classic Gone With the Wind into an epic blockbuster, realizing that he had to please the novel's rabid fan base. What I wonder about are movies like The Notebook. If many film critics are willing to consider the Bette Davis soap Now, Voyager, based on the bestselling novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, a “great woman's picture,” why isn't the same respect extended to contemporary woman's pictures based on bestsellers? Really, I'm asking the question of myself. I love the woman's pictures of the 1930s and 40s starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck, but I wouldn't even consider watching a contemporary movie in the same genre. Maybe I should put my irrational prejudices to the test by comparing The Notebook (which I've never seen) to a couple of well-received “postmodern” woman's pictures that I disliked, Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven and Stephen Daldry's The Hours. But I'll probably just rewatch Now, Voyager instead.

Like A Good Girl Should

My YouTube find for this month is this Doris Day song, “A Guy Is a Guy,” which conjures a creepy stalker scenario in a manner reminiscent of Morrissey's unsurpassed masterpiece of lyrical economy, “Suedehead." According to the fascinating, and also blessedly brief, Wikipedia entry, the 1952 song, written by Oscar Brand, was a cleaned-up version of a bawdy song, “A Gob Is a Slob,” sung by WWII soldiers, which was in turn based on an early 18th century British song, “I Went to the Alehouse (A Knave Is a Knave)." I don't know about you, but I don't want to know anything more than this about any of the songs; as with the Day and Morrissey songs, I prefer to let my imagination run wild based on the few provided evocative tidbits.

Brand's version ends respectably with marriage, which made it appropriate for Day's squeaky-clean image. But then, as with other great American pop icons of the 1950s and early 60s, Day's image is a lot more complicated than the way it was officially presented and is now recalled – incorporating the shadings found in this song, for example. Pillow Talk (1959), with Rock Hudson, is the tragedy of Clarissa and Lovelace reimagined as a sex farce that's all the smuttier for its surface cleanness, showering the viewer with double entendres and treating them to scenes like the one where Hudson and Day, in split screen, talk in their respective bathtubs with their naked feet seemingly pressed together (and tubs seemingly joined). The prurient battle-of-the-sexes question, unchanged in the over two centuries between Clarissa and Pillow Talk despite the new female independence, is whether Day, the single career woman guarding her virtue, will be tricked by Hudson into giving it up, or whether she will domesticate him into marriage. The audience, naturally, roots for both while fearing for Day even as we now that she will, by the code of the time and rules of the genre, win in the end.

One of the strangest pop culture artifacts of the 50s I've ever come across is this Colgate Comedy Hour performance by Jerry Lewis of a song called “Never Been Kissed,” which also slyly undermines his squeaky-clean image (which the song appears to celebrate) with a bawdy, and possibly queer, subtext. In the performance, Lewis trades on his juvenile/asexual/queer image (a “queerness” that wouldn't necessarily have been associated by the majority of the audience with then beyond-the-pale homosexuality) by selecting elderly men as his backup singers and giving them the names of elderly women. Then, as he gives his trademark deconstruction of performance through lip sync, he uses them for a running gag of turning to them indignantly whenever the comic sound introduces the chorus and he thrusts his hips forward (anticipating, before The King had even appeared on Ed Sullivan, Morrissey's queerification of Elvis's dangerous pelvis in his Top of the Pops “Shoplifters of the World Unite” performance), as though suspicious of their designs on his rear end. (Anality is a key feature of some of Lewis's best comedic deconstructions of class and gender, as in the spike over the college's sign that spears the telephone repairman, the ultimate victim of the electric nervousness beneath the Lynchian placidity of all-American Milltown, in the opening sequence of The Ladies Man,, and the outrageous bit of business in The Disorderly Orderly, directed by Frank Tashlin, in which Lewis as the clinically hysterical, menial orderly of the title plugs a vacuum into his ass to perform his hospital chores.)

The narrative of the song itself involves a racy woman who pretends to be virginal; Lewis's gender-crossing identification with her is evident not only in the way the song fits his official persona but in the brief flirtation with cross-dressing when he dons a wedding veil to narrate her wedding. In the curious denouement, the fallen woman who's found a way around the double standard gets her just deserts when it turns out that she's “married a man who has never been kissed” – in other words, a man like this one?

The American 1950s, as the last moment when innocence was valued in pop culture icons, is a rich and strange era for the student of pop culture to examine. As pop culture has become more permissive, it has also become, paradoxically, cleaner, since restrictions on permissible sexual content (and, ostensibly, on permissible sexual behaviour) no longer tempt performers and writers to subversion, with the result that, overall, there's less convention-flouting content in mainstream pop culture. When Beyonce tells her ex that if he didn't want her to go out and flirt with new guys he “shoulda put a ring on it,” she's relating a narrative that many women of her generation can, apparently, relate to, but there's are no additional layer of meaning, no examination or satire of sexual mores or gender roles. Somehow we're sexually freer than ever, yet at the same time more conventional than ever.

Roberto Bolano, Ghost Author

Reading Roberto Bolano's posthumously published novels since 2666 sometimes inspires in me the fantasy that these are in fact the works of ghost writers who are playing around in the vast, vague field of “the Bolanoesque,” as V. C. Andrews's ghost writer has continued to churn out novels employing the themes she established in the two series and one stand-alone novel she wrote or started before her death. What do Andrews, the trashy Gothic novelist, and Roberto Bolano, the darling of the literary avant garde, possibly have in common? Well, they both became famous as authors late in life, Andrews at the age of 56, with the publication of Flowers in the Attic in 1979, and then died young, Andrews at 65. (Bolano, as I understand it, became famous in the Spanish-speaking world with the publication of The Savage Detectives in 1998, when he was 45; he died at the age of 50.) They were also both obsessives in their fiction, Andrews's circling around themes of incest, rape, family romance, and a traumatic female coming-of-age, Bolano's around themes of rape, fascism, and the idea of art. Andrews's ghost writer, Andrew Neiderman, can perform variations on her themes but can't capture the claustrophobia of her fiction – of her Gothic imagination. (As a female Southern writer whose experience outside her family and imagination was severely curtailed by incapacitating illness, she reminds me of Flannery O'Connor – in her different literary mode.)

My fantasy is no doubt encouraged by the fact that Bolano has two English translators, Natasha Wimmer and Chris Andrews, which exacerbates the wide stylistic differences in these posthumous works. The first two I've read are The Third Reich, translated by Wimmer and apparently written in 1989, and Monsieur Pain, translated by Andrews and apparently written in 1981 or 1982. The first is an exercise in seeing how little event a novel can sustain, the second an invention-packed surrealist riff on the death of a poet by hiccups in Paris (and half the length of the first). It should come as no surprise that I preferred Monsieur Pain.

In a review of Monsieur Pain in The Guardian, Ursula Le Guin (a literary connection that heightens Bolano's genre-bending incorporation of sci-fi and fantasy elements into I guess what we have to call his avant-garde fictions) objects to the “surrealistic devices” of the novella, calling them “overly cinematic.” Her phrasing made me wonder how a novel can be overly cinematic, while her observation made me further reflect on why I – in common with many reviewers – want to call Bolano's writing cinematic at all. In his Guardian review of The Third Reich, Giles Harvey notes of the far-spaced and abortive “events” of the novel, “As in a film by Antonioni, what we are left with – what we are forced to get by on – is atmosphere,” and, I think, correctly pinpoints why the novel is unsuccessful: the menace that Bolano seemingly intends by the events is not communicated to the reader. We know that the author feels they're portentous, but the atmosphere isn't there on the page.

I also thought of Antonioni while reading The Third Reich, as well as - another “atmospheric” Modernist filmmaker, Roman Polanski – particularly his early work about relationship angst between eccentric couples, Cul-de-sac. But Antonioni and Polanski are still interested in meaning, whereas in The Third Reich, Bolano seems to be on a quest to erase any trace of meaning as he writes. Bolano's Nazi obsession shows up in the titular war game that the protagonist, Udo Berger, plays with the scarred burn-victim pedal-boat purveyor with whom Udo has become inexplicably obsessed, but the reader never learns what, if anything, is at stake (actually or symbolically) in their game, and the anti-climactic climax, centred on the pedal-boat structure that also has a great and mysterious meaning for Udo (but not the reader), is equally baffling. Maybe Bolano is going after something like Jane Bowles's achievement in “Camp Cataract,” which is also full of symbols that only have meaning to the eccentric protagonist, but whereas Bowles's story builds up to a crisis for her isolated, neurotic protagonist, Bolano's tendency in The Third Reich is to defuse the crises that seem to loom around every corner. It almost seems like the classic writer's error of not being able to bear anything too awful happening to one's characters – combined with a sensibility that supposes that horrors are everywhere, lurking in the most mundane details.

While reading Monsieur Pain I thought of Polanski, again (The Tenant, this time, though only briefly, related to one episode where Pain interacts with the woman next door in his apartment), and of avant-garde cinema generally, especially Lynch. In what I guess can be taken as the novella's climactic scene, there's an episode where Pain encounters an apparition in the labyrinthine corridors of a hospital at night that so strikingly parallels Laura Dern's corridor wanderings towards the end of INLAND EMPIRE and her encounter with a figure there that it contributed to my hallucination that I was reading the work of a ghost writer (writing after INLAND EMPIRE, that is) who was checking off the list of references that make up “the Bolanoesque”: David Lynch, check. And earlier in the novel Pain reads Bolano's oft-mentioned favourite book, Schwob's Imaginary Lives, which also seemed suspiciously on-the-nose. As far as being “overly cinematic” goes, again with shades of INLAND EMPIRE, at one point Pain goes to see a movie that seems to anticipate Rivette's avant-garde deconstructions of melodrama in the 1970s, although the novella is set in the 1930s (and the name “Rivette” occurs separately in the novel); Bolano blends the dream-like, absurdist narrative with his description of the dream-like, absurdist film.

What makes Bolano's writing “cinematic”? All I can come up with for an answer is that his imagination draws on tropes that have been explored by avant-garde and horror films (or both) rather than prose fiction. At least in his minor novels, he seems to be more influenced by film than by other writers, despite having a greater passion for reading than any other contemporary novelist I'm aware of. As for his major novels, 2666 made me think of Lynch, although I couldn't pin it down to more than a “shared sensibility,” and The Savage Detectives employs the documentary form for its middle section. Does this influence mean that Bolano's writing is “overly cinematic”? That – all I can make of Le Guin's comment – he isn't taking advantage of the elements specific to the novel? Le Guin seems to think that narrative or “story” is an essential component of the novel, but Bolano's quarrel with conventional narrative can't be the reason his work is cinematic, since many would make the same claim about film. Unless, again, what she's thinking of is that film has been more open to experiments with narrative than the novel (although, since I know very little about the experimental novel, I don't know whether that's true). And that is presumably because film – like poetry but unlike the traditional novel – can be a (non-narrative) series of images. Since these images are directly visual (not visual images rendered in language, like the images of poetry), many have been tempted into making pronouncements about the relationship between movies and dreams, which seems to make film an ideal medium for surrealist experiment. However, although one may prefer a conventional narrative or a story that plays with narrative (or either, as long as they're done well), there's no inherent reason why a novel, which is to say, a long work of prose fiction, has to have a conventional narrative. Story can be a process of making meaning; or a long work of prose fiction can do something else entirely while defeating our desire for story to make meaning. There is no guarantee that the frustration of the reader's desire for meaning will result in something profound; but then there's no guarantee that the fulfilment of the reader's desire for meaning will, either.

For more on the extremely interesting political background to Monsieur Pain, which I was unaware of while reading it, and which earns Le Guin's grudging respect, see the Quarterly Conversation review by Stephen Henighan, “Fascism, Art, and Mediocrity.” I am, however, taken aback by Henighan's confident assertions about what Bolano has to say about “mediocrities.” I would be hesitant to confidently assert what Bolano feels about anything, certainly based on his fiction; perhaps Henighan is eager to demonstrate to those who feel the way Le Guin does about experimental fiction that Bolano can be interpreted – and easily. But I have no idea where Henighan is coming from when he writes, “Art dies two deaths here: in the form of Vallejo, who is killed (perhaps) by fascism, and in the more painful – literally – death that is suffered by Pain, who fritters away his creativity and enthusiasm in a life of increasing irrelevance.” As though there is some kind of lesson to be learned from the novel, or Pain's (hallucinatory) experience; in fact, Henighan actually speaks of a “lesson” in the last line of the review.

I think all of this is sheer projection on the part of the reviewer, although it goes to show that deliberate, elaborate ambiguity does not necessarily stop readers from feeling that the meaning and interpretation of a story are secure. I think that Bolano is interested in his mesmerists, as he's interested in his Nazi writers of the Americas and war game fan culture, because he's fascinated by fringe figures, interests, and practises. Bolano's eccentric fringe figures aren't failed artists – or, for that matter, for the most part successful ones – but figures for the artist, at once mundane and fantastic, possessed by their obscure obsessions. However, Bolano doesn't do much with Pain's interest in mesmerism; like the Polish curse in INLAND EMPIRE, it's simply there as part of the atmosphere of irrationality and horror. Whatever its political backdrop, the novella itself is a series of set-pieces of surrealistic horror, and Bolano's attempt to bring together the backdrop and Pain's bizarre adventures in his encounter with a Harry Lime-like figure seems halfhearted indeed. Le Guin is far too generous: this really is all a bunch of nonsense, and compared to his best works, which are virtually indescribable in their originality, it comes off as derivative, almost like an homage to capital-S Surrealism. Apparently the hiccups and the intervention of the mesmerist are factual (there was a real Monsieur Pain), which shows the sort of real-life surrealisms – the absurdities and mudanities – that tickled Bolano's imagination in connection with the atrocities of history and the lives and deaths of great poets.