23 February 2006

Cather, Willa. The Professor's House. (1925.) New York: Vintage, 1973.

This might be my favorite Cather book so far, mostly because of the structure of it. Pages 11 through 179 (about half the book) are the story of Professor St. Cloud not wanting to move out of his old house into the new one he and his wife bought, now that their daughters have grown and married and moved away. There's much going on with these daughters and their rivalrous husbands and Paris and patents and other good things. But then the story moves to the diary of Tom Outland, a character that's hovered in the shadows up to now. In a very Catherian way he's been the center of attention and yet never seen directly, just discussed through varying levels of third-person narration. But then the second part of the book is Outland's diary, which is of course written in the first person, and then once this is done we have about 20 pages of this wonderfully elegaic end that takes place almost entirely in the spinning consciousness of the professor. It's amazing how well it works; writing about it like this makes the thing seem terribly flimsy.

Again, here, Cather's got these great moments of precise, yet understated observation. At one point the wealthy husband who always wants to be liked watches the professor leave the room with an acquaintance. Willa treats it thus: "He stood gazing wistfully after them, like a little boy told to go to bed" (43). Because I'm not a good writer and even worse of a teacher, I would have told a student who wrote such a sentence to describe the look more visually, but here it's clear that such a thing would ruin the effect, that the boy does the necessary visual and emotional work at the same time. Later, as this same wealthy husband and his wife (the professor's daughter) are having an argument in the car, Cather suddenly cuts to the back seat: "St. Peter was very uncomfortable" (168). I dunno, am I being pointless? Maybe these need to be read in context, but this book is full of such well-spoken joys. Cather's such an economic writer; that is, a writer of great economy (though she writes often about economics). I'm not always interested in this, but I can appreciate it when I see it.

21 February 2006

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Ed. Pamela Norris. London: Everyman, 1996.

I am glad that books are no longer made in the manner of and on the same material as Jane Austen novels. Chick-lit fans may disagree now, but while the marriage plot might still be in full form, let’s hope the writers of chick-lit have learned from the 20th-century to show rather than tell. Yes, I’m telling Austen to show and not to tell and such a thing is wildly unfair, to read her 18th/19th-century text (finished in 1797 [at age 22!] but not published until 1813) with my 21st-century demands, but not a single action or plot point is dramatized in this novel. Everything is heard about through gossip and correspondence. Indeed, the falling action is little more than an explosion of letters.

Briefly, for those who haven’t read it, he is prideful and she is prejudiced against him. Will it work out in the end for the two? You already know the answer, and I suppose the one credit I have to give Austen is that the intricacies undertaken in the plot of getting them together are admirable in their intricacy. But see above re execution.

I think my professor wants us to read this as a comedy of manners, which "is principally concerned with the manners and conventions of an artificial and )at least apparently) highly sophisticated society [from an handout]. Here it’s the English aristocracy and its courtship rituals. Taming of the Shrew and Wilde’s Earnest are other examples, neither of which I cared for when I read them. What makes me dislike comedies of manners so much (and I’ve really only read these three) is foremost that they’re humorous without ever being really funny (Wilde being only sometimes an exception), and but more so that the societies they set up for ridicule are by now inherently ridiculous, and I don’t think it’s thanks to these comedies. Time itself has enabled this to happed. And then because the comedy of manners must recreate with exacting detail the customs and minutiae of their culture in order to work, I see them as more accepting of this culture than critical of it. It’s like Bushism calendars and Dilbert strips. Laughing with them seems to me an act of complicity. You can agree that our president or one’s office is stupid, but on some level you’re accepting their existence. You’re deeming them acceptable. Dilbert gives people a way to temporarily alleviate the agony of loathing one’s job or feeling powerless in one’s work. What it doesn’t give are any real ideas of what someone is supposed to do about it.

One good thing: Austen refers to the piano (or, rather, the pianoforte), at all times, as simply “the instrument.”

Wasik, Bill. “My Crowd.” Harper’s Magazine. Mar. 2006: 56-66.

I was completely enamored of this article written by the inventor of the flash mob fad of 2003 and about same. Totally rapt and engaged, for two chief reasons. First was the discussion of the work of Stanley Milgram, “the social psychologist best known for his authority experiments” (60). Wasik created the flash mob in order to “study” (as he argues here; the article is structured according to the scientific method) conformity and crowd-following among e-savvy hipsters in New York; creating a scenester event that is, as he says, “pure scene” (58) ends up connecting very nicely with Milgram’s findings—indeed it’s one of the many things that moves the article beyond gloating about duping an entire culture.

What I care most about with the Milgram stuff is the non-FM place it eventually gets to, an analysis of Candid Camera:
[T]he show is managed down to a simple, digestible narrative message—in Candid Camera’s case, for laughs, but the point couldhave been as easily applied to the cheap drama of The Apprentice or the luridity of Trading Spouses. “[T]he viewer is instructed by the narrator about exactly what to look for; comments reinforce the notion that what we are about to see will be funny,” Milgram wrote. “Studio laughter accompaanies each episode as a way of continually defining the actions as funny, prompting the home viewer to experience the scene as amusing, rather than feeling sympathy or compassion for the victim’s plight, or searching to understand it.” It is precisely here that we who would make Milgramite art must keep vigilant: in resisting simple story lines and embracing, instead, the ambiguities of our data (61).
The passage gave me this idea: that if laughter is a balm, laff tracks are a poison. The idea isn’t at all original, but it’s one that’ll serve me well in an essay I’m trying to put together.

Okay, allow me just one more instance of dorkiness and I’ll let you go. Much is said here about hipsters, which Wasik describes as “those hundreds of thousands of educated young urbanites with strikingly similar tastes” (56) who
make no pretense to divisions on principle, to forming intellectual or artistic camps; at any given moment, it is the same books, records, films that are judged au courant by all, leading to the curious spectacle of an “alternative” culture more unanimous than the mainstream it ostensibly opposes (56).
I don’t exactly agree with this last bit—particularly what it implies about the almost magical way that things storm onto the scene—or the general way Wasik reads hipsterism solely as a consumer demographic. One important thing it overlooks is that hipsters can be defined by their ironic stance. Indeed, the products of hipster culture that Wasik addresses (McSweeney’s is a prime example) are fueled by such a stance. Another one is The Onion. I’m reminded of one of its headlines that went something like, “Area Man Surprised Father Likes Johnny Cash.” Also, wasn’t there a story about a tragic horn-rimmed glasses accident at some Yo La Tengo show?

Anyway, what I’m getting at is this: by seeing the above examples of hipsters (which despite their nerdy appearances as seen in The Aristocrats the writers for The Onion unquestionably are) making expert fun of hipsters, and by defining hipsters in terms of their ironic stance, does that make hipsterism the sole demographic where self-criticism makes you more of a member? Where the ultimate hipsters are hipsters that make fun of the idea of the “ultimate hipster?” (J. Foxworthy’s “You Might Be a Redneck” jokes complicate this issue, but for the sake of working this argument out, let’s pretend either that Foxworthy doesn’t exist [heaven!] or that his jokes, in their formulaic, almost mantric delivery, are more celebration or meditation than they are critique.) Wasik admits to owning Strokes and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah records, which makes him a hipster on some level, on the level he focuses on here. But to me what makes him a total hipster is the fact that he invented the flash mob. Who else but a hipster—two parts irony to one part market savvy—could have done it? Something I want to commend hipsters for is that their nature makes them untouchable; any criticism thrown their way will be accepted with a “Yeah, duh.”

I tried to argue a similar thing in my Cather class a couple weeks ago in relation to satire, how, in contemporary satire (say, South Park), everything and everyone is up for ridicule, including its viewers, and that the only thing that saves a person from being seriously hurt by the ridicule is the awareness that one is up for ridicule. But that’s another thing all together, and I’ve already taken up way too much of your time.

20 February 2006

Roberts, Nadine H. The Complete Handbook of Taxidermy. Blue Ridge Summit: Tab Books, 1980.

No I didn't read all of this 319-page book, much of which is step-by-step instruction on how to skin and mount anything from a crappie to a brown bear. What makes Roberts's book such a compelling read is how firmly she believes that anyone can practice "the art of taxidermy" as she calls it, and how life-enriching such an art can be:
When you have some special kind of knowledge, such as the knowledge of the art of taxidermy, you're different. People notice you. How many taxidermists do you know? See what I mean? This is one of the most fascinating things you will ever learn to do (9, my emphasis).
Most of the other taxidermy handbooks I've glanced at are encouraging, sure, but all in a very prosaic, 't'ain't-nuthin'-at-all manner. They're also written—every one of them—by men.

Nadine and I? We have similar theories about taxidermy. At one point she asks and then answers the question: What makes a taxidermist? "Interest. Curiosity. Willingness to work. Respect for nature's creatures. Love of beauty." Roberts's methods are all very careful, very slow in, say, skinning around the tear ducts and lips of a deer head, or scraping the grease and fat from a mallard's skin. She's also careful in her authority; time and again we're reminded that this is her method that she's come to after years of practice, but that we're encouraged to talk to other taxidermists to see how they might go about cooking a skull and attaching antlers to a headform.

Taxidermy as a community of like-minded nature lovers. This is her underlying thesis and it's a nice one. The photos are all pretty shoddy, if I have to say something critical and mean. There's something about the exposed, complicated infrastructure of blood vessels and muscles of a deer's face that isn't well captured in black and white. Many photos look as though someone's cutting into a muddy boot. Pity the good people at Tab Books couldn't have sprung for color printing.

16 February 2006

Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady. 1923. Eds. Charles W. Mignon and Frederick M. Link. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997.

What makes Cather a far more intriguing writer than I imagined she’d be when I signed up last term to take a seminar on her and her novels are her uses of point of view and perspective. Whether she’s working in the first person (My Ántonia, “The Diamond Mine”) or the third (O Pioneers, “Paul’s Case”), she so often uses peripheral narrators to get at her subjects. My Ántonia, for instance, is narrated by a boy named Jim, and Ántonia is only uncovered and understood through his perspective. It’s like Marlowe/Kurtz or Nick/Gatsby, and here it’s working in the form of Niel Herbert, who watches Marian Forrester shine as his small Nebraska town’s perfect embodiment of beauty and ladyhood. Then we come to understand that she has problems with alcohol and adultery, and Niel learns important lessons about appearances and the ethereal nature of most things.

Here, though, the POV gets sloppy as Willa puts us in the perspective of Captain Forrester—the wealthy railroad businessman whose dignity ends up being the couple’s real allure for Niel—from time to time, and also because the straight line deal between Niel and the Forresters limits this book into what’s more a novella than a novel. Niel’s gaze is directed so fiercely on their house that there isn’t much room for any other sideplots, or even self-introspection. All we know about his own life is that he goes to Boston for schooling for a few years. Once the Forresters’ stories have played out, the novel is through in 160 pages.

Cather’s such a great craftsperson, though. At one point, to signal to the reader that there’s more between two characters than simple acquaintance, she has static electricity light a spark between them as a robe brushes against a pair of slacks. There’s a pretty great passage about the erratic flight of a bird after its eyes have been sliced out by a mean boy. Yes, Cather’s good at capturing the life and landscape of the prairie, but I think I like her best for her language in general; her ultra-sharp eye and fantastic word selection. I’ll leave you with the end of “Paul’s Case” as a way to make my own case for reading her:
He felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.

13 February 2006

I Say Hello to You, Good Sirs

And then hello to you, good madams. Return soon for posts on:
  • Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice.
  • Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady.