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. 


  1. In terms of memory with different art forms, do you think it makes a difference if it is your professional medium?? I don't think I could forgive a classical musician for not being able to hum any of the main themes from Beethoven symphonies or a soprano for not instantly recognizing any Mozart aria, but I know I recently watched the new Great Gatsby trailer and honestly did not know what the FUCK any of it was about (yes, I've read it)... And I think only you and Claudia are my only friends that I can actually discuss novels with because everyone else seems to forget them. Which I do too, of course.

    1. I think it does totally make a difference, and, thinking of you, I almost wrote something about classical musicians and their relationship to the canon, but it would have turned into a long post in itself. Classical musicians and writers seem to have a completely different relationship to their canons, presumably because musicians have to play/sing works from it. Although you probably wouldn't forgive a composer (an original creator rather than interpreter) for not being able to hum Beethoven, either. Whereas no one expects a novel to be able to spontaneously quote from Tolstoy.

      And "recognition" plays a different role in music than in literature, too. You "know" a piece of music, or a painting, if you can recognize it when you hear or see it (and if it's your profession, you ought to also be able to name the artist/composer and preferably the title). But although you can play games like that with literature - quote from a poem, play, or novel and see if the person can identify the source - I think it's considered a pretty *weak* test of "knowing" the work.

      It's also a test that, for readers, has little to do with memory. If you quote a crucial section of the work, say something that relates to the theme, the reader may be able to identify it even if they can't remember the plot, and wouldn't have been able to quote the passage a moment before (and couldn't afterwards either). Especially if they've studied it in an English class in terms of theme.

      Interestingly, the GRE subject test I took entirely consisted of quotes from literature (or in some cases literary theory) that you had to either simply identify or identify in order to explain via multiple choice answers. It seemed like a stunningly over-simple way to study someone's knowledge of literature, and my confidence in the test was not increased when I scored in the 98th percentile even though I had only actually read about half the works. The rest I'd only read *about*: what saved my ass on that test is that I read criticism. If I'd been relying solely on my formal university education I would have scored much lower. In one case I got a mark for identifying a novel based on the quote from the first page... and I hadn't actually read much further into it.

      That test treated "knowledge" of literature as though it were the same as knowledge of music: as though all that mattered was that you could identify the work, not *think about it*. Of course knowledge of Beethoven, too, requires more than just being able to identify or even hum his major works. Professional musicians have technical knowledge of a work for which there has never been much of an equivalent in literature (except, to some extent, classical prosody); analysis by "theme" is the weak-assed equivalent. It is, basically, impossible to test a student's understanding of a literary work; you need essays to assess it, and even then it's fucking subjective.

      See what I mean about becoming a post in itself? Apparently I can't even publish the rest of this reply in one box. To be continued.

    2. Anyway, that was a test for English students, not writers. Then, too, whereas there's such a thing as classical musician, there's not such a thing as a classical writer - there's no particular canon that the writer, unlike the English student, has to be familiar with. I'm not even sure if there's much of an expectation that a writer understand literature. If a novelist writes something especially perceptive about another novelist, all that tells me is that he's a good *critic*; it won't necessarily raise my estimation of his novels. There is this division of labour in writing: writers are supposed to write literature, critics to understand it; one person can be both, but insofar as she understands literature, it's as a critic.

      So what I was saying really does only apply to *readers*, not writers. And there's no such thing as a professional reader. That would be a critic. Even then, though, I don't think anyone holds a critic to memorizing the plot of "War and Peace" - unless she's written about it extensively. *Then* it's a professional expectation.

  2. For the love of god, paragraph breaks!