Monday, January 16, 2012

Gender, Misogyny, and Body Humour/Horror in the 70s Films of Elaine May

I had a little Elaine May film festival last week, rewatching Mikey and Nicky and A New Leaf and watching The Heartbreak Kid for the first time. I'd been avoiding The Heartbreak Kid because of its Neil Simon screenplay – a former playwright, I believed the longstanding critical consensus that Simon was a middle-of-the-road comedic playwright, which didn't appeal to me, and gave him a miss. I also have my moments of skepticism about auteur theory and, since I knew May as a writer-director from Mikey and Nicky and a writer-director-performer from A New Leaf, I wasn't certain that she would be able to assert herself over the material as a director alone. In fact, I liked The Heartbreak Kid somewhat more than A New Leaf, though it still has to take second place to her suis generis (although, or because, it's a Cassavetes imitation) masterpiece, Mikey and Nicky. (Regarding what this means to auteur theory, Grodin's account of the filming quoted in the article I linked to above suggests that the director and actors had a great deal of input in what we see onscreen, to the official screenwriter's chagrin.)

I've watched A New Leaf three or four times now, and my problems with it remain: Walter Matthau seems miscast as the main character, an upper-class cad who speaks like a character from Oscar Wilde, occasionally via Joe Orton (as in a line about a hostess's “erotic fixation” with her carpet), although I can't be sure because I've never seen Matthau in anything else. (I may have watched Grumpy Old Men when it came out when I was a teenager.) The movie neither satirizes anything recognizable (what do fortune-hunters mean in the 1970s, and what did fortune-hunters who prey on clumsy, socially inept botanists ever mean?) nor quite succeed in creating its own world. Nevertheless, it has its pleasures (May's physical comedy as the heiress) and points of interest (the Matthau character's repulsion at women and the idea of marriage, and his initially unconscious discovery of a purpose in life as he reluctantly finds himself taking care of his helpless wife), and the subversiveness, suspense, and irony would have been greatly increased if the film hadn't fallen victim to censorship, as Jonathan Rosenbaum recounts in the excellent piece that introduced me to May as a director. (I had previously known her as half of the 50s satirical improvisation-based comedy duo she formed with Mike Nichols, who more famously went on to direct films).

Like A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid is a dark comedy about a fastidious man, whose point of view the audience occupies, who is revolted by his wife – here played by May's daughter, Jeannie Berlin – and wants to get rid of her. The deeply uncomfortable moral dilemma on which the plot turns is that the protagonist, Lenny, meets the woman of his dreams on his honeymoon, even as he is discovering all of the things he hates about his new wife. Does he do the morally and socially conventional thing, or seize his chance and ditch his new wife?

Two things render the direction of The Heartbreak Kid masterful: first, May's neutrality with respect to the characters, which nudges the audience's sympathies but leaves a great deal ambiguous as well; and, not unrelatedly, the marvellous performances she gets out of Charles Grodin as Lenny, Berlin as Lila, and Eddie Albert as the father of Lenny's dream girl (played by a breathy, vague young Cybill Shepherd). May encourages identification with Lenny's disgust with his gauche new wife's tics – her insistence on singing along with the radio loudly and tunelessly, her clingy behaviour, her need for reassurance, her gross eating habits (chocolate bars in bed after sex, egg salad all over her face) – while leaving room for us to wonder whether Lila's really that annoying or whether Lenny is a bit of a jerk with an overwhelming case of post-marital jitters. “Bit of a jerk” becomes “enormous jerk” when Lenny ditches Lila, who's ended up with a horrible case of sunburn after refusing to take his advice and use sunscreen, to pursue Shepherd – a coy, sadistic WASP cocktease in half-Temple Drake fashion, who first appears, epiphanically, above Lenny in a halo of sun and fine blonde hair, hovering above him as he lies on the beach, informing him that he's “in her spot” like a bitchy toddler.

The Heartbreak Kid deals more directly and openly with WASP fetish (still going strong, without self-awareness, in Eugenides' The Marriage Plot of last year) than any other film I know. The dream Lenny decides to chase, thrown into relief by his disillusionment with marriage (which is to say, mundane closeness to another human being, perhaps the theme responsible for the choice of "Close to You" as ironic pop commentary), is that of marriage to the blonde WASP bitch goddess and entrance into her exclusive world. It's not just a question, then, of whether or not achieving his life's dream is worth committing the morally vile act of leaving his wife for another woman on their honeymoon (although that's how he sees it, in the speech he gives Lila), but whether this dream, in particular, is worth the cost. It's not, of course, but that doesn't matter. What matters, dramatically, is Lenny's absolute conviction that he knows what he wants now, which overrides ordinary moral concerns, and his determination to get it – which overrides the objections first of the shallow Shepherd, who understandably thinks he's crazy, and then of her overprotective father. He gate-crashes the WASP elite through the sheer force of his belief that that is what he wants to do; never mind that this world is depicted as satirically, and revealed to be as repulsive in its own way, as Lila. In Lenny's eyes it is, and remains, sheer glamour.

I then watched the 2007 Farrelly Brothers critically derided remake of The Heartbreak Kid (or as much as I could get through before I was too bored to go on), which made May and Simon's achievement seem even more remarkable in comparison. For the record, I thought Dumb and Dumber was hilarious when I saw it as a teenager (and a teenage cinephile, though just getting started) and also liked There's Something About Mary when I saw it the year of its release. I don't recall much about the former, but the latter I remember as spectacular humiliation slapstick given a vulgarized shock-comedy update: to win his ideal (WASP) woman, Ben Stiller has to be subjected to an endless series of excruciatingly painful accidents and humiliations (although in the notorious cum-in-hair scene, the ideal is desecrated – or, perhaps, brought down to the adolescent Everyman protagonist's level – by receiving a humiliation of her own).

Another reason I was reluctant to watch the original Heartbreak Kid is that I generally dislike 70s movies, timebound in a decade whose cinematic and sartorial style grates on my optic nerves (including the few I make exceptions for, mainly horror films like Don't Look Now, Carrie and Videodrome). But May's film has a classicism and restraint that makes it seem timeless, unlike the remake, which seems absolutely bound to its era – which says nothing good about American comedy in the first decade of the 21st century. It's not even the worst of the remake's crimes that the Farrelly Brothers jettison the original's satire of social climbing, although it does render the remake incoherent. The protagonist, now called Eddie, is a 40-year-old bachelor who seems unprepared for the reality of marital life, since he breaks up with women for minor infractions like not sharing his taste for dumb comedy. Whereas the original starts with the Jewish wedding of Lenny and Lila, here we get a bunch of pointless background, including a meet-cute (with a typical gratuitously vulgar twist) where Eddie tries to stop a man from stealing Lila's purse and ends up with a pair of her panties. (The gratuitous vulgarity – designed for instant cheap laughs – continues when Eddie and his dream girl meet cute when she mistakenly thinks he's renting a porn video.)

May leaves it open to the viewer to both sympathize with and feel revolted by both Lenny and Lila. It may be ambiguous whether Lila is really that irritating and disgusting, or whether we're seeing her through Lenny's neurotic viewpoint, but when he leaves her to recuperate from sunburn in the hotel room on their honeymoon while pursuing another woman, there's no way not to sympathize with her. As in Mikey and Nicky, May proves herself a master of creating and sustaining discomfort in the scene where Lenny dumps a shocked and devastated Lila at a restaurant, speechifying at her about the importance of living one's life. May spares the audience none of the excruciation of the outrageous premise. Yet we are never pressured to either condemn or condone Lenny; nor, at the ending, are we decisively guided to think that he'll be either hollowly happy or fittingly unhappy. He's got what he wanted, and if that's what being happy means, he'll be happy – or perhaps “happiness” is immaterial. As he mingles with guests, repeating the meaningless, rote phrases of the unsophisticated Midwestern business elite he's entered (even to a couple of kids he ends up with on the couch at one point), we understand that this world is risibly dull from his New York perspective, as if Hildy Johnson went to live with Bruce in Albany after all, but neither May nor Simon tip us off that his marriage with Shepherd will be either blissful or otherwise. (Despite this comparison of the choice Lenny makes to the choice Hildy doesn't make, I think Jonathan Rosenbaum is incorrect to suggest that Lenny leaves an "overpowering" woman for, presumably, a less threatening one – although he's right that The Graduate must be read this way. I don't think May and Simon suggest at all that Lila is “complicated” or more interesting than Shepherd's character, who is not treated especially unsympathetically, as Lila is not treated especially sympathetically. If Lila is overpowering, it's only in her insistent corporeality, not her personality, which is rather meek when she's not singing. Lenny doesn't leave the right woman for the wrong woman, or vice versa; he leaves a woman for the woman he thinks is the right one – the irony lies not in the fact that she's really the wrong one, but that she's neither right nor wrong. She is also just a woman.)

In the remake, Lila isn't simply gauche and irritating – she's a monster: both stupid and crazy, as well as jobless, with a former coke problem that's left her with a deviated septum that causes liquids to spurt from her nose and scarily aggressive bedroom habits (the cheap homophobia doesn't stop, as everyone from pubescent boys to his new wife in bed accuse Eddie of being a fag, pussy, etc.). Anyone would be within their rights to get an immediate annulment, so why the movie takes time to set Eddie up as overly picky is mysterious. Eddie then falls for a definitely less "overpowering" woman: sporty, laid-back, not-insane Miranda, who, in the movie's sexual subtext, appeals to Eddie because her sexual differentiation is less pronounced. (The movie's adolescent homophobia is due to Eddie's adolescent homophilia: sexually aggressive women make him feel emasculated, whereas what he really wants is a “pal.”) There's no moral dilemma: obviously, Eddie should leave the nightmare and marry the nice girl. But since there's no moral dilemma, there's also no movie – no point to the plot, except as a vastly mean-spirited (to both of the female characters, no matter how negatively or positively portrayed) farce premise. But even describing the movie's plot as choosing a nice, subdued, boyish brunette over a sexual blonde hottie (this version's Lila) gives it too much credit for coherence: Lila is never set up as Eddie's false dream girl; she's just the girl he happens to meet in the street and marry, who happens to be hot and blonde, and then happens to turn out to be crazy.

I gave some consideration to my reaction to the Farrelly Brothers' remake of a classic satire, because I would go to some lengths to defend Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis's similarly maligned loose remake of the Preston Sturges classic The Miracle of Morgan's Creek as Rock-A-Bye Baby. Although Tashlin is widely regarded as a satirist by his revisionist cinephile fans, there's no doubt that Sturges's biting satire of small-town mores, including taking aim at single motherhood and premarital sex, is completely jettisoned in the remake's remoulding of the material into a Lewis vehicle, and a great deal is dumbed down and sweetened up – including going to the length of cutesy songs and broad ethnic stereotypes. But Tashlin and Lewis replace Sturges's satire with something equally interesting, employing aspects of Lewis's persona that Tashlin was even more interested in exploring than Lewis in his self-directed films (with the exception of The Ladies Man): a subversive attack on gender essentialism from a male perspective that predated second-wave feminism by five years (if you date that from the publication of The Feminine Mystique). Lewis's character, Clayton Poole, goes to court to prove that he can take care of female infant triplets by himself, arguing not that a father is as good as a mother but that you don't need to be a woman to be a mother – which brings him up against the prejudice of a small town's biological essentialism on the sacred subject of motherhood. What's more, Tashlin and Lewis don't just tailor the material for Lewis's gender-transgressive persona, but offer an intelligent reading of a neglected aspect of the Sturges film: the problems of a widower raising two teenage girls, which is how one of the girls manages to go wild and get pregnant out of wedlock.

In other words, sometimes it's possible for a remake of a classic comedy to stray from its source and offer an apparent dumbing-down that has its own interest. Maybe 50 years from now, the Heartbreak Kid remake will look like a brilliant, subversive take on gender politics and a shrewd exploration of its source's subtext. Right now, however, at least to me, it looks like the best exploration, or exploitation, of whatever comedic persona Ben Stiller has happened in Zoolander, which played on the Jewish movie comedian's tension between narcissism and self-loathing that Stiller inherited from Lewis, specifically in The Ladies Man. But while I liked Zoolander, it's not half of half the movie The Ladies Man is.

I don't object to gross-out comedy in principle, either. During the 90s, up to and including the first American Pie movie, some gross-out comedies had a sweet charm that shone through the body fluid jokes (a type of comedy revived in the enjoyable Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, in combination with the new stoner comedy that took over in the 00s). Although admittedly, as someone who's idea of great movie comedy is Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, Tati, and the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, the best I can say for any movie comedy of the 90s or 00s is that I didn't hate it. I also didn't hate Meet the Parents, where Owen Wilson stole the movie from Stiller in a performance of daffily winsome charisma reminiscent of the screwball heroines. However, aside from his likeable comedies with Jackie Chan, the case of Owen Wilson proves that no performer has enough eccentric charisma to survive the terrible writing and direction of the standard modern movie comedy – such as the tedious Wedding Crashers. I'm sure I'd be happier with the state of contemporary movie comedy, and the things it gives interesting performers to do, if I could like Wes Anderson, but unfortunately, I find his precious quirkfests at least as unfunny as mainstream gross-out comedy. To be sure, I've only tried The Royal Tenebaums, but from what I've heard it's an accurate sample of what the rest is like. The answer is not quirky indie comedy; the answer is better mainstream comedy.

As someone who's tried, and hasn't always hated, dumb gross-out comedy, I think I've got the cred to say that the obligatory inclusion of crass body humour in mainstream comedy, however necessary it may have seemed to catch up with modern sensibilities, has been detrimental to American movie comedies, which have totally foregone the virtues of subtlety and restraint. In The Heartbreak Kid, May can still get comedic mileage out of the mild exaggeration of traits that provoke disgust in partners, like sloppy eating habits, with the piece de resistance being Berlin's sunburned appearance, covered in blisters and cream. The inclusion of urine, farting, diarrhea, and, since There's Something About Mary, semen jokes hasn't become obligatory yet. And remember this was the 70s, where “restraint” wasn't a trait prized in movies, particularly in the horror genre for which the decade is perhaps most remarkable, where bombast and boundary-transgression flourished in movies like Carrie (which took on menstrual blood), The Exorcist (vomit, snot, and pus), Videodrome (stomach vaginas), and Eraserhead (unidentifiable baby-things).

The 70s was, notably, the decade of horror films based on abject femininity, which, as Kristeva famously argued, blurs the boundaries that separate bodies and categories, as well as the decade of Anglo-American radical feminism. This is the context of May's three 70s films, all of which feature a male protagonist as the primary audience identification figure, although he is a sort of unreliable narrator, whose vile behaviour makes him as repulsive as the female character (or, in Mikey and Nicky, characters) he victimizes. In the two comedies, the female victim is a figure of abjection to whom the male character objects on that basis, and in The Heartbreak Kid, May's combination of classicism and the subject of disgust is faintly reminiscent of the sensibility of Cronenberg in Dead Ringers. Since both deal with abjection and boundary-blurring, a study comparing body humour and body horror would be interesting, and the ur-text might be Jerry Lewis's Nutty Professor, a comedy-horror film that brilliantly examines the unnerving abjection of the Lewis persona, with its source in the unruly body. Female biology is abject by definition, at least from the normative, Apollonian male perspective that Cronenberg deconstructs in Dead Ringers; but the male adolescent body is equally unruly, and the adult male is capable of identifying with it – and the shame associated with it – at any point.

With Mikey and Nicky, May suddenly, violently swerved from comedy, although the film (with its titular allusion to “Mike Nichols”) also seems to be a more direct attempt to grapple with the idea of a friendship so close that it blurs the boundaries of identity than her dark comedies about heterosexual couples. Playing one of the most unpleasant main characters in cinematic history (at least outside the annuls of villain protagonist), Cassavetes gives an uncompromising performance, all edges and jittery nerves; what May does to him, and gets him to do, in this film may be comparable to the tales of “sadistic” male directors getting performances of arresting self-exposure and emotional rawness from their actresses, from Dreyer and Falconetti in Passion of Joan of Arc to Lynch and Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr. and Laura Dern in INLAND EMPIRE. Since the paradigm, or myth, here is gendered, it's worth noting that although he's the most aggressive, volatile, and violent of May's unpleasant male main characters, Cassavetes' Nicky is also the most “feminized,” which is to say pathologized: he's an hysterical, paranoid hypochondriac who's obsessed with, and openly terrified by, the idea of his death. And only in this film does May exhibit no sympathy – through performance, context, or otherwise – with the character who is betrayed and victimized by the person closest to them. The viewer may be magnetized and riveted by Nicky, and the question of who first betrayed whom and how may be left ambiguous, but the ending leaves no doubt that the writer-director, at least, thinks he gets what he deserves – however horrifying the actual act of betrayal remains. In other words, it's only in the film where May imagines herself strictly as a man, rather than dividing identification between a male and female character, that she fully indulges her masochism.

Despite this personal loathing for (and adoration of) her main character, May's direction in Mikey and Nicky, as in The Heartbreak Kid, is remarkable for its neutrality: she unflinchingly records the things that are unpleasant (physically, socially, morally) about her characters and their environments and leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions. (This seems to be the main point of continuity with her prior career: many of the Nichols and May sketches damn the characters with speech that's a mixture of the closely observed and the gracefully stylized.) In Mikey and Nicky, May extends the ambiguity of her direction to the writing: just as we don't know who's really responsible for what went wrong between Mikey and Nicky (only that Nicky has got to be a difficult friend to have, between his sadism and his neediness: Peter Falk's Mikey cares for him maternally, as Matthau does May in A New Leaf), we don't know whether the woman Nicky goes to visit in an extraordinarily uncomfortable scene where he has sex with her over her protests while Mikey twiddles his thumbs in the other room is, as Nicky claims, a neurotic whore, or whether she's a sensitive woman whom he's set up by sending his friends to her to try it on with her (or what his motivations might be in that case). “Who betrayed whom” and “who is the victim of whom” operates on every level of the film.

There's also an extraordinary scene where Nicky goes to see his estranged wife and baby before he dies, in which the actress playing his wife (Joyce Van Patten) is broken down by the end of the brief scene – her only appearance in the film – to a point of acute emotion rarely seen in any film. (Apparently May got the film taken away from her, and released in its unfinished state, after shooting almost three times the amount of film taken for Gone With the Wind. While this is clearly insane, and sounds like she would never have finished it if it weren't taken away, performances like these make it seem like it was worth it.) For a moment the viewer is left to wonder if Nicky and his wife don't “really” love each other after all; maybe she's the one he “really” needs, not his girlfriends or male friends, and this sort of primal bond is worth the anguish of their relationship (which, May indicates, includes his physical abuse of her) for both of them.

It's the extraordinarily intense nature of the emotions in the writing and performances that gives this impression – but the psychological conclusions that begin to form in the viewer's mind are swept away when Nicky next goes back to visit his “girl,” with whom he has a similarly intense encounter. While May (or is it just me?) clearly revels in the unapologetic swaggering masculinity that allows Nicky to go from woman to woman, wife to mistress, treat them both appallingly, and have them end up swooning at his feet, there is an emotional truth to this juxtaposition... the emotional truth that there's no such thing as a fixed, stable emotional truth. Like Lenny in The Heartbreak Kid, Nicky doesn't “really” love one woman, and not another; nor is it as simple as saying he “really” loves both... or neither. “Real love” is a sentimental fiction: one that Lenny uses as a justification for his erotic and social ambition. There is no real love, not even in friendship, only bonds of need with fleeting moments of real emotion. That's all love is, and it's nothing to get sentimental about, although it's also the core of our identities: Nicky is his relationships. He's defined by them, and nothing else has any meaning for him, even if what he seems to demand most of all, with a tyrannical disregard for what it costs the other person, is the acknowledgement that he's loved, the only thing that stands between him and his fear of the absolute obliteration of death. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

First of 2012! Orwell, Calvino, the Anxiety of Reading, and the Danger of Stories

After my shameful report on my year in reading, it occurred to me that although I will never read enough to be a top literary blogger, if I'm going to keep a literary blog at all (if only for the amusement of myself and a few friends), I really ought to read a bit more. As a child and adolescent I lived under the pleasant illusion that I was well-read, which was true compared to both the peers and adults with whom I was surrounded; in university I was disturbed to discover that I was better-read than the average English student. But I'm not a serious or “ambitious” reader (to use the adjective I came across in a literary blog the other day) by the standards of the blogosphere, where bloggers posts lists of 30 to a hundred books they've read in a year. This sort of blogging tends does tend to bleed into bragging, like telling the world how many push-ups you can do at a time, an attitude to reading reinforced by the percentage bar on e-books, constantly informing you how much progress you've made (which, incidentally, puts the emphasis on you and your agency rather than, as with old-fashioned checking how many pages remain, on the book). The difficulty, rather than the pleasure, of reading has moved to the forefront of our experience (perhaps our definition) of it, turning it into an onerous duty alternately on behalf of the Self or the Book (both supreme), and God forbid you should take a lot of pleasure in reading, and devote a lot of reflection to what you've read, without reading a lot of books. In our positivist world we have no time for intangibles like quality of experience, only for measurable tangibles.

Orwell and The Overpraise of Books

Publishers have responded to the modern reader's sense that there's too much to read and too little time with series like Penguin's Great Ideas: little, cheap books of classic essays or collections of essays by well-known authors. I impulse-bought several of these in the last couple of years and then wondered when I'd ever get around to them. Now that I've launched my project of reading The Books in My House, however, I'm starting with these, and I've already knocked down one book in 2012: the Orwell collection Books & Cigarettes. The Penguin series is sure to multiply the number of books I read in 2012, though not necessarily the number of pages (or words, if we can no longer go by pages in the era of digital reading).

I have read – probably in Harold Bloom, who is not an admirer of 1984 – that Orwell's real strength as a writer lay in his essays rather than his fiction. I have only the dimmest memories of 1984, which I read in early adolescence (along with Animal Farm, which went right over my head), but I definitely enjoyed this slim collection, many of whose subjects bear on this problem of Modern Reading, starting with the first, title essay, which laments (in 1946) the willingness of the public (including the author) to spend its money on leisure activities like cigarettes, beer, and movies compared to its reluctance to spend it on books. Nevertheless, Orwell is not sentimental (or, in stark contrast to the literary blogger, bragging) in his attitude to books, which he characterizes, “There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one's mind and alter one's whole attitude to life, books that one dips into but never reads through, books that one reads at a single setting and forgets a week later....” In the second essay, “Bookshop Memories,” in which Orwell recollects his experiences of working in a second-hand bookshop, he writes, “Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening, and in the third essay, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” where he describes the misery and squalor of the life of this instance of the literary professional (“He might be a poet, a novelist, or a writer of film scripts or radio features, for all literary people are very much alike”), “It is almost impossible to mention books in bulk without grossly overpraising the great majority of them. Until one has had some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are.”

Misery, squalor, and Sartrean disgust are consistent presences in Orwell's essays, climaxing in the two longer essays that end the collection, one, “How the Poor Die,” describing his experiences in a French hospital in 1929, the other his childhood experiences in a boarding school. The last, longest essay is a tour de force of autobiographical writing, starting from the personal (and traumatic) to take a wider, sociological and psychological view. The result is interestingly Freudian – especially since a quick google search for Orwell and Freud turns up a 1978 Virginia Quarterly Review essay that claims, based on the biographical evidence, that Orwell considered psychoanalysis quackery and exhibited no interest in Freud.

Nevertheless, in “Such, Such Were the Joys” (written by 1947 and published in 1952, according to the note at the end of the essay), Orwell draws what can only be considered psychological conclusions – and fascinating ones – based on his recollection of childhood experiences and his subjective reactions to them, and writes about childhood sexuality (with reference to a group masturbation scandal) in the frank manner that I, at any rate, associate with the influence of Freud on intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century (and from which I think we've largely retreated). To me, nothing could sound more Freudian than Orwell's interest in the inner life – the alien world – of the child, and his (ultimately scientific) method of approaching it through an honest recounting of his memories, undistorted by sentimentality, moralizing, or projection of adult values.

In fact, Orwell is so unsentimental on the subject of children that he argues (again, based on his experience) that children are not especially loving, and in fact may feel disgust, loathing, and incomprehension towards adults. It makes one wonder – if we do not sentimentalize the child (as Freud didn't, either), why are we concerned about the horrors he suffers due to the values of society and sadism of adults – about the shame and humiliation to which he's senselessly subjected? The only possible answer is that everyone is, at one point, a child; that children are among the class of the powerless and, although the concept is a relatively new one, human beings with rights; and that the experiences of childhood affect the adult one becomes, the society one shapes, and one's treatment of the powerless. The essay also gives the impression that although children are not kinder, more innocent, or more loving than adults, they are morally superior in one respect: they have not yet fully accepted the cruel, ugly, and incoherent values of society. Or rather, they do accept them (children are naturally conformist), but subjectively they know that these values are lies: they are still aware of the conflict between subjective, emotional experience and the consciously unquestionable truth of authority – the basic psychological conflict of childhood in Orwell's essay. Children still know, subjectively, that two and two equal four, whatever they are told; adults are no longer aware that any difference exists at all between truth and lies. (Orwell deals with totalitarian distortion of truth, or destruction of the concept, in the U.S.S.R. and its effect on infatuated leftist European intellectuals, in “The Prevention of Literature,” where he writes, “Freedom of the intellect means the freedom to report what one has seen, heard, and felt, and not to be obliged to fabricate imaginary facts and feelings.”)

Calvino and the Story in Postmodern Fiction

At midnight on January 1st, 2012, I was in the middle of the final novel fragment in Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, making it both my last read of 2011 and my first read of 2012. It seemed like an excitingly fitting way to transition into a new year, reading the protagonist's recounting of an apocalypse that's resulted from what had appeared to be his fantasy of using the power of his mind to obliterate everything he dislikes in the world around him, starting with the surrounding buildings and ending with... everything. When the feat has been accomplished, strange officials (“the men from Section D”) approach him and congratulate him on ushering in a new era that they will control, whereupon he regrets his work but find he can't undo it. To erase is easier than to create.

For those who don't know (I didn't before I started reading it, though I knew of the title), the conceit of If on a Winter's Night a Traveller is that the protagonist, the Reader (addressed as “you”), tries to read the book you are reading, or one called that and written by Italo Calvino, but gets cut off by a manufacturer's defect, and his efforts to get hold of the rest of the book place a series of apparently, but not actually, related books in his hands, each of which he is also cut off from reading for increasingly absurd reasons, at the same time becoming involved in an international conspiracy to replace the truth in books with tricks and lies. The chapters of If on a Winter's Night, recounting the Reader's adventures and the progress of his romance with the Other Reader, alternate with these beginnings of novels, which are pastiches of various genres, from the crime novel to European rural realism to Japanese quasi-pornography. Not straight pastiches, however, but liberally laden with postmodern strangeness (including those hoary tropes to which Bolano pays tribute, the mirror and the void), as well as a lot of kinky sexuality. The broadest pastiche of all, however, is the plot of “the novel itself,” with its conspiracies, Manichean agents and counteragents, and incidental UFO references.

The term “postmodern playfulness” still gets thrown around a lot, even though it's been thrown around so much that its lost all meaning and, therefore, usefulness as a critical phrase, since although it's true that a certain kind of playfulness, or lighthearted self-reflexivity, characterizes a lot of postmodern fiction, not all postmodern playfulness is alike – in fact, the playfulness of any two postmodern authors is distinctly different. Calvino's self-reflexivity and playfulness in If on a Winter's Night could not, for example, be more different from Bolano's in Nazi Literature in the Americas, although inventiveness and the vignette form are central features of both works (and after “postmodern playfulness,” “inventiveness” is the primary quality that comes to mind in reference to both). Calvino's playfulness is untinged by the sinister or any interest in evil, although like Bolano he is fascinated by violence, and he repeatedly returns to the subject of death. Maybe what I mean is that Bolano's playfulness slightly mitigates his sinister subject matter and tone, the reverse is true of Calvino: one's first impression is of playfulness, which is slightly mitigated by encroachments of the sinister and a sense of dread. In addition, while Bolano's inventiveness closes in on itself and gives the impression of privacy and inscrutability, Calvino's opens out towards the reader, issuing in lucid thematics and metafictional discourses on the nature of reading.

As much as I enjoyed Calvino's reflections on reading, especially as they bear on the odd experiment of the novel, this metafiction, and the plot about truth versus lies in novels (or different kinds of novels), were for me the least interesting parts of the novel. (Naturally, they're the things you'd have to write about if you were writing an academic essay on it.) Leaving the pastiches as the most interesting parts. They are not, in fact, much like the beginnings of novels (even allowing for their postmodern elements); rather, they are complete fictions in their own right, albeit with cliffhanger endings, with thematics and protagonist psychology established more thoroughly than they would be and plot developments occurring faster and thicker than they would in the beginning of any novel. They are, in other words, performances of invention and strangeness – of interest – that could not possibly be sustained for the length of a novel. Even if the writer could keep it up, the reader would become exhausted (and, perhaps partly for that reason, partly due to the lack of a single, sustained plot, I found my attention dimming towards the end of the book, as I did with Nazi Literature). And yet we wish writers could sustain, and readers endure, that level of inventiveness; that reading could always have that intensity, without the dull bits that allow readers to rest between dramatic episodes, without lapses of attention even during the most interesting parts.

Like Orwell, writing in 1946, Calvino, writing in the late 70s, expresses the anxiety of reading that has become so oppressive in our age of information-excess and sentimentality about reading and the book. In the first chapter of If on a Winter's Night, Calvino lists the different types of books that must be considered in making the decision to buy one and not another (or many others). In part:

the Books You've Been Planning To Read for Ages,
the Books You've Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You're Working on at the Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With The Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.

Unfortunately for the devoted reader, reading takes not only time but effort: for the average reader, the shortest book (coming in, say, at a little under or over a hundred pages) will take at least as much time to read as it takes to watch an average-length movie (around 90 minutes), and much more effort. If on a Winter's Night seems to anticipate the eroding attention span of the digital era – the reader can't get past the beginnings of novels and constantly switches from one novel to another. This accommodation of my roving attention is probably the main thing that allowed me to read it much faster than I'm usually able to read most linear narratives of the same length nowadays. (Calvino's protagonist, on the other hand, is a traditionalist who is quite frustrated by not being able to follow the stories through to the end. I was reminded of the Sesame Street children's book classic, There's a Monster at the End of This Book, in which lovable furry neurotic Grover breaks the fourth wall, or whatever you call it in a book, and addresses the reader, imploring her not to turn the pages, and each time making greater efforts to construct a barricade that will prevent the progress of the story. The conceit of the Calvino is like that, but in reverse. TAMATEOTB was published in 1971; postmodern literature for adults took until the end of the decade to catch up with the experimentation of Sesame Street products in their sophisticated prime.)

Without knowing much of anything about Calvino, I suspect that If on a Winter's Night (published in 1979) is influenced by structuralism, that is, the idea that all narrative works are reducible to certain archetypal structural elements and therefore constitute (as Calvino has one of his numbered readers give voice to in the metafictional commentary of the penultimate chapter) One Story or One Book (as all protagonists are one, the abstract Reader, and all love interests One Woman, the Other Reader, who also turns out to be the Ideal Reader for whom the Writer writes). Not only the overarching plot but also all of the novels-within-the-novel are, whatever other genre they belong to, also love stories, with at least one woman appearing in whom the protagonist has an erotic interest before the fragment ends. This, I assume, reflects Calvino's conviction, conscious or otherwise, that eros is the basic motivation behind narrative. Towards the end, the protagonists become more aggressive and rapey towards their love interests, with the Writer (a character in both the framing plot and the diary fragments that make up one of the chapters) even attempting to assault the Other Reader when she shows up to confront him. This does not quite achieve the effect of universality that structuralism assumes, since it's hard to imagine a work of fiction that more absolutely assumes a male perspective, and I got a little tired of the identical episodes of priapism, although to be fair, the protagonist of the Japanese fiction pastische, On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon, is the only character who actually does get raped – by an older woman.

Not while I was reading, but now, in analyzing, If on a Winter's Night reminds me Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE, which also uses a framing plot (a couple of actors are making a movie whose script is cursed and at the same time becoming embroiled in an affair) to justify a series of vignettes that draw on archetypal scenarios – mainly involving sluttish women and brutish men – that obliquely mirror each other. Lynch is the least playful of postmodernists, veering even further to the horror side of surrealism than Bolano, although that's not to say that he doesn't have a sense of humour (I found many of the vignettes in the first half of Mulholland Dr. hilarious). I always thought that the premise of INLAND EMPIRE was derived from The Ring (whose premise was a lot more interesting to me than either the Japanese or American versions): instead of a cursed video tape, there's a cursed script. Although perhaps this was simply the zeitgeist, since Lynch had earlier explored the creepiness of video tapes in Lost Highway, which came out a year before Ringu.

In INLAND EMPIRE, the ur-story is ultimately a cursed Polish folk tale (Eastern Europe being the creepiest, most archaic part of the world according to American movies: see also Val Lewton's Cat People). All other stories are simply “adaptations” of this one, and all share its curse: storytelling is dark magic. Northrop Frye, who attempted in Anatomy of Criticism to identify all of the archetypal structures that make up “literature,” of which every individual story is an iteration, saw folk formulas like nursery rhymes, riddles, and charms as the basic units of literature, representing its basic impulses – a theory I once applied, in a graduate school essay, to The Waste Land. As fascinating as the idea of haunted technology is, the idea of the story as haunted is, for me, even more fascinating. It's the difference between thinking of the image as magic – and dangerous – and the idea of thinking of storytelling and literature that way. Perhaps it appeals to me because we are so used to thinking of books (even fiction, which used to be considered contemptible, with few exceptions – a view of fiction that comes up in Orwell's essays) as “good for us,” which is as much as to say that they're harmless, which is as much as to say that they're ineffectual.

To think of stories as dangerous returns their power to them.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Anxiety of Reading at the Dawn of 2012

Tip for Reading this Post: If you scroll down (a little bit more... a little bit more... alllll the way), you'll find lists of books. Those are fun. You might find authors and titles you've never heard of, or feel good that you have.

At least since the publication of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon in 1994, reading has been a source of anxiety in our culture. (Not that I'm blaming Bloom: he was symptom, not cause, though he definitely wasn't a palliative.) The serious reader of the early 21st century is aware of an ever-expanding canon that includes not only the Western classics (heralding from England, America, France, Germany, and Russia, with Spain represented by Cervantes, Italy by Dante, and Ireland by Joyce) but also “world literature,” genre fiction, children's fiction, young adult fiction, graphic novels. And it's not only adult readers; children are now indoctrinated into this relationship to reading. This year I flipped through a parenting book on how to interest kids in reading that set off a quote from a child, apparently citing it with approval, in which he expressed his sadness at the thought of all the goods books waiting to be read.

All of this is by way of prefacing the fact that I didn't finish many books this year: if you don't count books by friends or e-acquaintances (which I haven't for the sake of limiting this long post), it doesn't even average one per month. I read almost constantly, online, when not at work or writing – online versions of print journal articles, literary or political website articles, columns, blog posts, Wikipedia articles – amounting to hundreds of pages. Mainly, though, it's book reviews and “book chat,” which have replaced all the reading of criticism I did, assigned or for pleasure, as an undergraduate and grad student (and even, for pleasure, in high school). (If I didn't force myself to draw the line at reading books about reading, reading about reading could easily replace reading for me – it already sort of has in the fiction I prefer.)

I've never been a speed-reader: I'm too easily distracted by daydreams or anxieties. Or rather, I have no attention span: I can speed-read a 10-page essay or article (or the internet equivalent), but nothing longer. I identify with the first reader in the final chapter of Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, who claims, “If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to me, or a feeling, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue to the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it.” But my identity as a reader was set in childhood and strengthened in adolescence, so that every year I dream of recovering that pleasure in reading that has only occurred in fits and starts in adulthood, and rarely unmixed with pain. The anxiety of reading, as with the wider “100 things before you die” mentality of the early 21st century, has to do with the outraged recognition of one's mortality: in recent years I have tried to face this squarely, and I know that when I make a new list of the books I want to read before I die (always narrower, then expanding again, then strictly sheared back again), it's the closest I come to communing with the inevitability of my death. (This would also be true, I hasten to add, if I were a gamer making lists of all the video games I want to play before I die.)

To try to prevent myself from constantly buying new books to add to my library of The Unread and distract me from what I'm reading at the moment, my book-related New Year's Resolution is to Read Everything in the House (including my laptop, since I've acquired a handful of e-books) before I'm allowed to buy more books. (I permit the occasional exception if something newly published seems really, really, really exciting, but expect that to happen no more than half a dozen times per year. I've also learned to keep the receipt when it does happen, in case I'm not feeling it.) This will also narrow down the question of what to read next, which will also, I hope, make me less of a fidgety, flighty reader. (I expect none of these methods to work, of course. Devising the method and daydreaming over lists of titles and author names is at least half the fun that reading has become for me. I also identify with Calvino's sixth reader, who says, “The moment that counts most for me is the one that precedes reading. At times a title is enough to kindle in me the desire for a book that does not exist.”)

2011 continued the trend of less and less popular culture filtering through to me. It seems to me that the internet has exacerbated this effect of ageing. Endless reading on the internet has replaced mindless TV watching for me. I know the names, since you can't leave the house, even to work, without hearing about them, or seeing their faces on magazines and books: the Kardashians (still not sure what they are), Snooki (still not sure what it is), Glee, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Adele. I couldn't tell you who's singing the songs in the stores, though. Somehow, a few new hipster singers, bands, and shows still filter through to me from younger or hipper friends. In 2011 I found out about of Montreal, Janelle Monae, and The Indelicates, and also bought Florence and the Machine's Ceremonials and Sufjan Stevens's The Age of Adz. None of this especially blew me away except for of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (2007). I was also the target audience for Lana Del Rey's “Video Games” single, which I discovered through the constant airplay on BBC Radio 6 (which I listen to online), and only learned about the controversy surrounding her “manufactured” image after googling her to find out more about her. I will certainly buy the album when it comes out next month, and certainly blog about the experience. As for TV, I watched Battlestar Galactica and the three seasons of Bored to Death. I effectively no longer watch new movies, Hollywood or indie, since both have disappointed me time and time again. For new movies my average is one per year, and that's going down, because this year I didn't watch any (although I do intend to check out Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method). (Will this be the film to make me climb back on board with Cronenberg after a two-decade hiatus, as Mulholland Dr. did for me with Lynch?)

This year I did discover – after encountering him through mutual Twitter friends – Bruce LaBruce's polymorphous political gay male art porn, and I can recommend Hustler White, The Raspberry Reich, and Otto, or Up with Dead People; I intend to acquire and watch more... after I've read The Books in My House. (The last few years, my desultory film explorations have included Jerry Lewis, Cassavetes, Elaine May, Antonioni, Joseph Cornell, and Maya Deren, all of whom I heartily recommend. I will also report that I still don't “get” Godard, with the exception of A Woman is a Woman, which most Godardites hate, and as much as I love Anna Karina.)

The internet, for me, hasn't so much opened the floodgates of Information as acted as a much-appreciated filter for pop culture. It's a quiet murmur of word-of-mouth, and I don't have to find out more unless I want to. Everything that doesn't reach me by this method is over there on the Other Side of Silence, like the books I've resigned myself to never reading. However, this was also the year that I developed an interest in new fiction for the first time in my life, at 36. It started with reading Bolano's 2666, and has continued through following various literary sites and bibliophiles on Twitter, which has kept me alert to all the new names in world literature with buzz and also awakened my dormant interest in The Other European Modernists (that is, the world of European Modernism beyond Joyce, Proust, and Mann). Previously, I'd only ventured as far as Robert Walser. So even as one world – pop culture – becomes dimmer and more distant for me, I have a new area to try, hopelessly, to keep up with.

What follows is the short list of books I finished reading this year and the short list books I didn't (the latter inspired by a post on Biblioklept), with links to reviews where applicable and mini-reviews otherwise, following by a long list of Books I Have in the House that I intend to read (the other ones I have in the house I have either read or have decided not to read) and a long (but partial) list of Books I Want to Read Before I Die. Happy New Year!

Books I Finished Reading in 2011

Short Books I Finished Reading in 2011:

Hard Times (Dickens)
The Rings of Saturn (Sebald)
If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (Calvino)

I'm not a Dickens fan, though I made it through Bleak House at one point and didn't mind Great Expectations. I also didn't mind Hard Times, although it wasn't what I was expecting: instead of an account of difficult economic times which I hoped to relate to the global economic crisis, it was mainly a critique, in the form of broad satire, of rationalistic education. There was some kind of commentary on the plight of the worker in the form a subplot in which an Uncle Tommish factory worker is caught between the evil forces of capitalism and an equally manipulative union, but the relation to present socioeconomic conditions was distant.

I also found myself with nothing to say about Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, although I enjoyed it. An eccentric, erudite author discussing whatever crosses his mind, like a long essay or a series of essays with unusually personal digressions, makes for pleasant reading, but the book didn't strike me on any deeper levels, and little of it has stayed with me. I intend to read Sebald's three other “novels” (if that's what they are), but not for a while.

I greatly enjoyed If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, my last read of 2011, and will be reviewing it soon, probably in the form of a comparison with Nazi Literature in the Americas.

“Filler” Non-Fiction Books I Finished in 2011:

Reality Hunger (David Shields)
Just Kids (Patti Smith)

Every now and then I can't resist picking up a short non-fiction book to read quickly between bouts of fiction-reading, or attempts at fiction-reading, which is more prone to send me down rabbit-holes of daydreaming. I was largely unimpressed with Reality Hunger, which I reviewed here. I largely enjoyed Just Kids, although many things about Patti Smith's memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe left me uneasy. Briefly: despite the modesty of the title and the anecdote it comes from (elderly middle-class onlookers argue about whether the young couple are “artists” or “just kids”), there is no doubt that Smith and, in her account, Mapplethorpe always regarded themselves as Artists (capitalized) and believed that calling was sacred. It's not that I wanted her to have some sense of irony about her practises – there's too much of that around, anyway. But perhaps sometimes she could have used a sense of humour, or the minimum self-awareness to realize how the idea of art as a sacred calling jars against the account of how she and Mapplethorpe achieved success. For instance, she boasts of how, after working part-time at bookstores throughout her early 20s, she got out of that ratrace and never had a conventional job again... when one of Mapplethorpe's rich lovers and patrons gave her busywork cataloguing his collections. Sure, Smith managed to make a living through her art, but only after a period of having her way paid by Mapplethorpe's boyfriends and her own.

Smith likewise sees no irony in Mapplethorpe's social climbing and achievement of middle-class comfort (cut short by his premature death) simultaneously with his personal and artistic exploration of the gay male S/M underworld, although she is ambivalent about both his fascination with high society and his fascination with underground experimentation. I picked up the book with an average hipster's respect for both Smith and Mapplethorpe, based mainly on their reputations rather than deep familiarity with or personal interest in their work. (I knew Smith's better than Mapplethorpe, since I've owned both Horses, on CD, and Easter, on vinyl.) The more I read, the more they seemed not just like hipster heroes but like prototypical hipsters themselves, popularizing the idea of the artist and art as “outside of society” from outside the outsider's experience (or from a dual, conflicting perspective of both insider and outsider in Mapplethorpe's case, but always with the conventional goal of wealth and fame). The memoir worked best for me as a tribute to an important, unusual relationship, founded in mutual aestheticism, and I was moved by Smith's description of her reaction to Mapplethorpe's death. However, even or especially in that final sequence, the lack of any sense of humour or self-awareness creates unintentional comedy at the most serious moments, as when Smith shares this exchange with the dying Mapplethorpe:

“Did art get us, Patti?”

“I don't know, Robert, I don't know.”

I have no doubt that Mapplethorpe was an important late 20th century artist, and Smith an important link between the European avant garde tradition and the new all-American genre of rock and roll (although perhaps even more important as a charismatic androgynous frontwoman), but her understanding of “art” seems to have never evolved beyond that of a kid (which is to say, a teenager), and it creates shortcomings in self-awareness that prevent this memoir from achieving the status of... well, art.

Biggest Disappointment I Finished Reading in 2011:

The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides) Reviewed here

Outstanding Reads of 2011:

The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in Europe (Franco Moretti) Reviewed here
The Savage Detectives (Roberto Bolano) Mentioned everywhere in this blog
Nazi Literature in the Americas (Roberto Bolano) Briefly mentioned at the end here

Books I Didn't Finish Reading in 2011:

Casualties of Distraction:

The Way We Live Now
The Aeneid

Trollope has never been rated highly among Victorian novelists except by eccentric fans and Victorianists, but he got his moment in the sun when someone (publisher or critic, I don't know) got hold of the idea that The Way We Live now served as a satirical commentary on the 2008 recession. As with Hard Times, I was expecting, but didn't get, a description of ordinary people struggling in difficult economic times. A couple of hundred pages in, and the only connection to the recession I could see was a plot about a young man who gets involved in business speculation. I liked the novel well enough, but since it wasn`t on the topic I was expecting, I wasn't in the mood for a Victorian novel of marriage, fortune-making, and publishing-world satire, so I put it aside to return to when I am.

I also enjoyed the first four books of The Aeneid (I even gave it a partial review), but I wasn't in the mood for classical epic poetry, either, so abandoned it, too, for the time being.

Casualties of Frustration:

War and Peace

I bought this volume after getting caught up in the buzz about the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, but when I finally picked it up and started reading, I was disappointed on two levels: first, I hadn't realized that Tolstoy's masterwork was a soap opera; which I wouldn't mind (I like epic soap operas) except that the prose and dialogue were disconcertingly flat. I don't know if this is a problem of translation or authorial style. I don't remember being put off by the prose and dialogue when I read Anna Karenina in some standard translation (probably Constance Garnett's) years ago, although I had big problems with the novel: namely, the monstrously narcissistic parallel protagonists, Anna and Levin. In any case, I put it down and didn't pick it up again about 300 pages in. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood, and I'll certainly come back to War and Peace, and give this translation another try.

The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War

Speaking of disbelief, I couldn't believe anyone could make the sage of the eccentric, artistic, suicidal, probably autistic Wittgenstein siblings this boring, but that is exactly what Evelyn's grandson, Alexander Waugh, accomplishes here. There's a strange mixture of overly detailed writing, failing to create a sense of either external or psychological drama, and omission of essential context, especially when it comes to the star, Ludwig Wittgenstein, about whom the writer seems to assume the reader already knows the basic received narrative of his life. I do – I took a graduate course in Wittgenstein that treated him very much like a star, with as much attention to the man as to his work – but I would have liked to read a fresh take, and one that interwove his biography with the other Wittgensteins featured here. I gave up around page 70, and whether or not I finish it depends on if I feel differently when I pick it up again. I still want to buy The House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family, which does the same thing for the eccentric, artistic, possibly autistic James siblings, to see if this sort of family biography can be done properly.

Little, Big

I had never heard of this classic of American fantasy before seeing the handsome trade paperback edition, with its cover blurb rave by Harold Bloom. I've been meaning to read more (which is to say, any) genre fiction, so this seemed like the perfect place to begin. However, it's a slow start indeed, and I gave up about thirty pages in, just as we start finding out a bit more about the fantasy premise. I will return to it and give it another go sometime.

Biggest Disappointment I Couldn't Finish Reading of 2011:


I bought this in hardcover because of the hype (and beautiful cover design). Before I'd got a hundred pages in, the backlash had started, allowing me, with relief, to exchange it. I've been hearing about Murakami for years and thought this would be the ideal introduction, but even fans admit it's one of his weakest efforts. Due to the author's reputation, even the harshest critiques in the press and blogosphere have been more diplomatic than my own reactions. Forget how interesting the plot or philosophical digressions were or weren't, or whether the description of every female character's breasts were gratuitous; I couldn't get past the prose, which was bad not in the usual, incoherently metaphorical “literary fiction” way but in the amateurish manner of a bestselling thriller. Actually, even most thriller writers know better than to punctuate every line of dialogue with unnecessary physical descriptions of actions like eating and drinking (I remember reading a “How to Write” book aimed at popular fiction writers that sagely warned against this error), or, while writing from character POV, refer to details of characters' expressions that would never, in fact, be noticed in an interpersonal interaction. (For one thing, we spend a lot of our interpersonal interactions not looking at each other, never mind not intently scrutinizing each other for clues to personality and mood, let alone in what appears to be a conscious, lucid manner.)

It's a shame this was my first encounter with Murakami, because I probably won't be back now. This was the novel that was going to decide whether or not to add Murakami to my “to read” list, and unfortunately, it didn't go well. Some authors, however great they may be, have to get booted off that list, with whatever excuse.

Books I Tasted:

The Second Sex

I thought what with the new translation (although naturally there`s already been a backlash against it), it was time to finally tackle this giant work of philosophy that according to my hero, Camille Paglia (and many others), contains all future topics of feminism within it. I dipped into it knowing I wasn't going to read it right away, and the first chapter, a severely abstract treatise on the questionable necessity of the category of gender and the criteria for distinguishing between the genders, complete with zoological and biological examples and explanations, did not disappoint. I'm looking forward to this one.

The Books in My House

I realized in writing these next two lists that they are of no possible use to you, in terms of understanding what point of progress I'm at as a reader, without knowing what I have read. Without that knowledge, these lists look even more eccentric than they actually are (or, for that matter, less, if you think I've read some more obvious choices that I haven't). But that's fine: the only possible interest they could have for you is to introduce you to some titles or authors you might not know. Maybe (probably) you'll read them before I do.

19th Century Novel:

The Charterhouse of Parma (Stendhal)
Pierre, or, the Ambiguities (Melville)
The Professor (Charlotte Bronte)
No Name (Wilkie Collins)
War and Peace (Tolstoy)
A Sentimental Education (Flaubert)
The Princess Casamassima (Henry James)

20th Century Novel:

The Book of Disquiet (Pessoa)
*Remembrance of Things Past (Proust)
Ulysses (Joyce)
The Radetsky March (Roth)
Absolom, Absolom! (Faulkner)
The Last Unicorn (Beagle)
Little, Big (Crowley)
The Loser (Bernard)
His Dark Materials (Pullman) (maybe)
Parallel Lives (Nadas)

Short Stories:

*Lady with Lapdog and Other Stories (Chekhov)
*Collected Fictions (Borges)


The Aeneid (Virgil, trans. Robert Fagles)
*Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (ed. David V. Erdman)
*Leaves of Grass (Whitman)
*Complete Poetry and Prose of Arthur Rimbaud (trans. and ed. Wyatt Mason)
The Road Not Taken: A Selection of Robert Frost`s Poems

Biography and Autobiography:

Confessions of Augustine
The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila
Freud's Women (Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester)
The House of Wittgenstein: A House at War (Alexander Waugh)
*Susan Sontag: Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963 (ed. David Rieff)
James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (Julie Phillips)
Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade (Justin Spring)

History and Politics:

The Revolution in America (Burke)
The Rights of Man (Paine)
The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Toqueville)
The Origins of Political Order (Francis Fukuyama)


The Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle)
The New Science (Vico)
The Varieties of Religious Experience (James)
The Second Sex (Beauvoir)
**Kant: A Very Short Introduction
**Logic: A Very Short Introduction

Theory, Criticism, Essay Collections:

*Essays of Montaigne
Biographica Literaria (Coleridge)
*The Painter of Modern Life (Baudelaire)
*Silly Novels by Lady Novelists (Eliot)
Days of Reading (Proust)
Books and Cigarettes (Orwell)
*The Social History of Art (Hauser)
*On Writing (Borges)
About Looking (Berger)
Gender Trouble (Butler)
Male Impersonators (Simpson)
Regarding the Pain of Others (Sontag)


The Book of the Courtier (Castiglione)

*I have read portions of these collections, notebooks, or multi-volume works.
**I bought these with the intention of refreshing my memory or getting a firm grasp on the subject, as someone who did a minor in philosophy as an undergraduate many years ago now. It remains to be seen if I'll get around to acting on the excellent intention.

Books I Want to Read Before I Die (Partial and Ever-Shifting)

Pre-19th Century:

The Canterbury Tales (Chaucer)
Don Quixote (Cervantes)
The Princess of Cleves (Madame de La Fayette)
Gulliver's Travels (Swift)
Tom Jones (Fielding) (maybe)
Tristam Shandy (Sterne) (maybe)
Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (Goethe)

19th Century Novel:

The Red and the Black (Stendhal)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hugo)
A Harlot High and Low (Balzac)
Dead Souls (Gogol)
Moby Dick (Melville)
Les Miserables (Hugo)
An Evening with M. Teste (Valery)
Imaginary Lives (Schwob)

20th Century Novel:

The Immoralist (Gide)
The House of Mirth (Wharton)
A Room with a View (Forster)
Kristin Lavransdatter (Undset)
The Magic Mountain (Mann)
Confessions of Zeno (Svevo)
The Counterfeiters (Gide)
The Sound and the Fury (Faulkner)
Light in August (Faulkner)
Auto da Fe (Canetti)
Ferdydurke (Gombrowicz)
The Invention of Morel (Casares)
The Man Without Qualities (Musil)
Doctor Faustus (Mann)
Under the Volcano (Lowry)
The Kingdom of This World (Carpentier)
The Recognitions (Gaddis) (maybe)
Explosion in a Cathedral (Carpentier)
The Confederacy of Dunces (Toole)
Next Episode (Aquin)
Myra Breckenridge (Vidal)
Invisible Cities (Calvino)
Life: A User's Manual (Perec) (maybe)
The Furies (Hobhouse)
Infinite Jest (Wallace) (maybe)

20th-21st Century Authors of Interest:

Robert Walser
Thomas Bernard
Peter Nadas
W. G. Sebald
Roberto Bolano
Laszlo Krasznahorkai


Paradise Regained (Milton)
Don Juan (Byron)

Biography and Autobiography:

Apologia Pro Vita Sua (John Henry Newman)
The Naked Civil Servant (Quentin Crisp)
Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (Deborah Solomon)
The House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family (Paul Fisher)

Theory, Criticism, Essay Collections:

A Barthes Reader (ed. Susan Sontag)
Ways of Seeing (Berger)


The Prince (Machiavelli)
The Philosophical Investigations (Wittgenstein)


Shamanism (Eliade)

It's evident from both lists that my reading goals have become modest indeed: only 54 titles in the first, 51 in the second, plus, say, five per author of the ones I listed without giving specific titles, for a total of around 135, ranging in length from around a hundred pages to over a thousand. Generously, I give myself until I'm 50 to clear these, as well as anything new that comes to my attention in that time (generously, I say, although it will mean picking up the pace considerably, or developing some focus). Still, 50 would be young to have your reading conscience clear. That's the dream, now: to get out from under the pile of the clamouring books, to be free and able to read whatever I want to – history, biography, philosophy, anthropology, economics, science fiction. Like when I was an adolescent plucking books from the library shelves based on the curiousity of the moment or eagerly following the footsteps of an idol's reading (in those days it was David Bowie, these days it would be Robert Bolano). It's probably an unrealizable dream. Even if I finish these 200 odd titles, listed or anticipated, in timely fashion, will I be free, or will I have enslaved myself to a new list, rushing in to fill the void? (What about that graphic novels canon, clawing at the corner of my consciousness, demanding attention, even now?)

I have no set list of books that I intend to read in 2012, partly because it would intimidate me, and partly because, among the limited number of books in the house, I want to leave room for whim and mood. But I do want to read Parallel Lives and The Origins of Political Order while they're still hot (I'm missing out on enough hot reading this year by largely restricting myself to the house), so, in my expanded definition, that means in the next six months. I also want to immediately launch on the pile of books I've acquired for novel research, which I will not be blogging about out of a superstitious desire to say nothing about my Big Novel Project. But do remind me, this year, to resist the temptation of Filler Non-Fiction, the potato chips of reading. You think you want it... you think it's gonna be so good... but no, it's just another bag of potato chips.