22 May 2007

Barry, Lynda. Cruddy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Lynda Barry is the lady behind the comic "Ernie Pook's Comeek" featuring Marlys and the beat-poet poodle Fred Milton. I came across this book in an otherwise forgettable interview with Kelly Link on Bat Segundo (does anyone else think he asks paltry questions about nothing interesting? i've only heard the K. Link one...I think my Internet-audio author-interview jones is so thoroughly fulfilled by M. Silverblatt over at Bookworm that I have trouble taking anyone else as seriously), and in fact while listening to the interview I surfed over to AbeBooks.com and bought the thing right away, only because Kelly Link said, in response to something or other, "But what about Lynda Barry's novel, Cruddy? I love that book."

What Link loves is a book about a young girl named Roberta who is ugly and looks like a boy, to the point where her father, called "the father" calls her Clyde and treats her like his only son. There's a kind of old-fashioned treasure-hunt plotline to this story, replete with maps, but what I think makes the novel fascinating is everything it has to say and show about knives. The father comes from a line of butchers and so he's very good with knives and very fetishistically in love with knives, to the point where he gives them all lady names. Little Debbie is like the star of knives in this book.

An analogy— Cruddy : Knives :: Kill Bill : Swords

I hate knives. I'd probably be much more comfortable holding a loaded gun than a supersharp knife. There's something simply unbearable about slicing. But anyway, it turns out Roberta/Clyde is a bit of a natural with knives. She has it in her blood, is the refrain. And throughout the novel she slices up a good number of people. The father does, too. And then there's also the fact that she has a very acute death wish, strongly connected with dodging trains. And so, knowing me, you'd think, Man, what an awful book, all dark and Nineties, surely Dusty's gonna hate it.

I thought so too, but if you know Barry's work, you know that she captures life on the "wrong side of the tracks" with a precise youthful melancholy, mixed with a kind of hope and natural wonder, that makes one fall easily in love with all her characters. I loved watching Roberta attack with Little Debbie. It was like her one defense against all the bad she had to run into, and it's such a good defense.

Plus it's a novel with illustrations, and that makes it better than most books without.

16 May 2007

Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.

Finished! this one, at long last. Now that the semester is done, I'm quite glad not to be reading any books. Quite glad. You'll just have to be patient until I miss books again.

At any rate, because I'm such a sucker for what I think is Aristotelian categorization, and because I like to see connections between the purely aesthetic and the practical, this part of the second half of the book I found pretty great:
John Rawls differentiates [among] three forms of justice: in "perfect justice" we know the outcome we aspire to achieve as well as the procedure by which that outcome can be brought about (food should be shared equally, and we can ensure this outcome by arranging that the person who slices the cake is also the last to select his own slice); in "imperfect justice" we know the outcome we aspire to achieve, and we know the procedure that gives us the best chance of approximating this outcome (persons guilty of a crime should be convicted and innocent persons should go free; a free jury trial gives us the best hope of achieving this outcome, though it by no means guarantees it); in "pure procedural justice," finally, we have no picture of the best outcome, and we must trust wholly in the fairness of the procedures to ensure that the outcome is fair (here equality of opportunity is Rawls's illustration). Aesthetic creation, too, has this same variation: one may have a vision of the object to be created and the path by which to bring it into being; one may instead have a vision of the object to be created and a technique that brings only its approximation into being; or one may have no prior vision and may simply entrust oneself to the action of creating (as in Richard Wollheim's account of the way one learns what one has been drawing only when the drawing is done).
What's nice about it is that while perhaps the variations of justice are set in a hierarchy (perfect justice is assuredly "better" than imperfect justice) aesthetic variation is not.

I for so long thought and probably continue to think that the first variety of aesthetic creation—knowing what I wanted to make and having all the tools in front of me to make it—was the only way writing worked. Or, like, was the way good writers worked. Right now I operate mainly in the second variety: I have the tools to make an approximation of what I originally designed. Revision helps to push this approximation closer toward its model, but never right up to it. What I need to do is get to that third variety: trusting myself that I'm creating well and that what will result will be beautiful and just. Maybe, then, these are set in a hierarchy after all; interesting how it's oriented in the opposite direction from the other.

I always thought that an art-for-art's-sake mentality was at complete odds with a mentality that sought justice in the world. No one was more of an aesthete than Oscar Wilde, and surely he wasn't doing anything to help the misfortunate. Scarry's book, though, does a pretty convincing job of showing that the pursuit of beauty can aid us in the pursuit of justice. In short: beautiful things decenter us. They take us out of ourselves and make us want to work in the service of somebody or something else.

02 May 2007

Scarry, Elaine. "On Beauty and Being Wrong." On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.

This is the first part of a book that was read on the go while eating lunch and drinking a beer at a restaurant and then while walking home from downtown as a way to see if I could connect it with Smith's On Beauty, about which I’m writing a paper. I had to consume it quickly and I did. It’s now 4pm. The paper is due in 24 hours.

I love, love this idea:
Beauty always takes place in the particular, and if there are no particulars, the chances of seeing it go down. [. . .] Proust, for example, says we make a mistake when we talk disparagingly or discouragingly about "life" because by using this general term, "life," we have already excluded before the fact all beauty and happiness, which take place only in the particular: "we believed we were taking happiness and beauty into account, whereas in fact we left them out and replaced them by syntheses in which there is not a single atom of either" (18-19).
It's true this week. I am wrapped up in "writing papers" as some concept that comes around at the end of every semester—arduous, arbitrary, asinine—that I'm not paying any attention to the very wonderful moments in the very wonderful books I'm writing about. Right now I'm "stressed" (by which I mean I live in a temporary stress mode), and so I can't possible enjoy my meals.

I like Proust's idea much more than Carol Bly's similar take: that fiction (and therefore art) exists and operates through specifics. Hers is good and useful, but his is better. More beautiful, I'll say.