30 October 2008

Eco, Umberto. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. Cambridge: Harvard UP , 1994.

From a series of lectures Eco gave at Harvard. His extended metaphor is a lot like Gardner's: reading a text is like getting lost in a forest. Many of the lectures provide readers with a set of notions or tools to help them navigate their ways through said forest. Foremost among these notions is that of the Model Reader, which Eco says every text creates (not, to be clear, every author; which is to say that a Model Reader isn't simply somebody the author has in mind when he writes the book, but more so it's the figure by whom a text intends itself to be received), and which every reader should try—in the act of reading—to become.

This ties into certain other theories I've run across like the erotics of the text, and the way that modernist texts embed within themselves "instructions" if you will on how to read them. Eco's most interesting application of this idea is when he tries to figure out what makes a text a cult favorite.* Turns out "cult" works have a "disjointed" quality to their structures, by which he means that "The Rocky Horror Picture Show [. . .] is the cult movie par excellence precisely because it lacks form, and so can be endlessly deformed and put out of joint" (127). The same, it seems, goes with Hamlet, Casablanca, and The Divine Comedy.


* Along similar lines, Eco has a great bit in the lecture on story time and story duration about how he was able to, like, systematically decide whether a cinematic work was pornographic or not. It has nothing to do with obscenity or even sex acts. Pornographic works allow everyday actions the exact amount of screen time as is required in life. Or, in other words, "[W]hen in a film two characters take the same time they would in real life to get from A to B, we can be absolutely sure we are dealing with a pornographic film."

Although this might not be the case when A=The Bedroom Door, Clothes On, and B=like, Impromptu Threesome. Or Anal.

28 October 2008

Ryman, Geoff. Was. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Ryman's novel is a greatly titled one when you know that it's both a rethinking of the Wizard of Oz mythology and a book both enamored with and troubled by the past. it brings together three (probably more) central narratives: that of Dorothy Gael, who lives in Manhattan, Kan., with her Aunty Em and her Uncle Henry; Frances Gumm, who grows up to become screen star Judy Garland; and Jonathan Lastname, an AIDS survivor who has an obsession with Oz in specific and Kansas in general.

I couldn't understand at first why Ryman fragmented his narrative so much. Well, I suppose I still can't quite figure it out. Specifically, the sections where we're witness to the making of the film, and the life of Frances Gumm/Judy Garland. Yes they're relevant, but this isn't Garland's story in any way, it's this "real" Dorothy's story, and Jonathan's, too. I could find no way to mediate those latter stories through the old-Hollywood narrative. I think maybe Ryman had done a ton of research into Garland's life and needed to find some use for it. She had a gay dad, probably—I suppose that's of interest.

The choice of the Oz narrative by a gay writer is an obvious one. All my life, and certainly all my out life, I've wondered what was going on with gay U.S. men and The Wizard of Oz. They seem to love it so much, and why exactly? Why the euphemism "Friend of Dorothy"? Why the ubiquitous rainbow?

And then reading this book I got an idea: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". There's a clear connection for Dorothy's pining for some place other than Kansas. Some colorful place where magical things happen. Here one can maybe map (clumsily) "Kansas" as "inside the closet" and Oz as outside.

Except this isn't what the story as a whole is really about. Dorothy doesn't live a new, exciting life in Oz. She survives through far more dangerous obstacles there than she had to in Kansas, and eventually it's all too much for her and she pines for the simplicity of home. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" isn't the story's theme, it's that "There's No Place Like Home".

And maybe gay men today have happy memories of home and healthy, productive connections to their families, but could that Friend-of-Dorothy/pre-Stonewall generation say the same thing? What's so great about the black-and-white home Dorothy works so hard to return to?

Ryman does a good job of opening notions of "home" up beyond The House One Grew Up In, but I want to argue that the movie his novel is based on does not. Why this complete embrace of what may be old-Hollywood's most conservative movie?

Has anyone read the original Baum book? Does it have the same No-Place-Like-Home drive as the film does?

21 October 2008

Vonnegut, Kurt. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Audiobook.

I had a friend back in Pittsburgh who was incredibly smart and very kind and funny, but had a tendency toward literary snobbishness. (I know: can you imagine such a person?) Once he had something disparaging to say about Kurt Vonnegut, I can't remember exactly what. Some well timed comment that pretty much wrote him off as a hack, and I recall being almost hurt by it, seeing as how Vonnegut wrote so much stuff I loved as a teen.

And I guess that's maybe the rub. I loved Vonnegut as a teen. Sure I only read Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat's Cradle and the collected stories. Breakfast of Champions. Slapstick? I read like five of his books. Timequake, six. And so when I found this audiobook I thought it would be a good one to listen to on my trip.

It was not good. Vonnegut's Redistribute All Wealth moral is completely overbearing, and so whatever aims for satire seemed to just fall off to dumb and obvious caricature. (Quickest plot summary ever: The scion of a wealthy family is crazy, maybe, but just so crazy that he considers actually helping people rather than using them to create more wealth.) The final scene reads only like a punchline. I could practically hear the rimshot at the end of the book, and this is no way for a novel to end. Maybe a short story, which form maybe Vonnegut should have reserved for this story.

Also, I don't understand why he has such a loathing, in this novel, for dependent clauses joined with anything other than a stupid, belchlike comma. Let me cue up one of the chapters at random and write the first example I hear (okay that took twenty seconds, is how rampant these sentences are in the novel): "Norman Mushari killed the afternoon by driving over to Newport, paid a quarter to tour the famous Rumford mansion."

Am I the only person who reads in such a sentence a downright scorn for the English language? There's like this gross boredom with the actions of the character, as though whatever motivations or mental processes that linked all causal events in the novel were of no concern. One can postmodernly argue these are all myths, but while Vonnegut gets lumped in with the postmodernists he's not that kind of postmodernist. I don't recall this construction in his other novels, but I wasn't as sensitive to syntax I was then, was instead a reader for story.

Man, even typing one out feels like rubbing someone else's feces into my keyboard.

Mishima, Yukio. Forbidden Colors (1953). New York: Perigree, 1980.

Often, when you come to this blog and find the same old stale book "review" sitting there at the top of the page, chances are I've probably read something, and then I've had to go on some kind of trip, or I've actually sunk myself into some "more important" writing project, and as the days go by that I don't write about the book I Finished! my knowledge of that book and the things of interest I think I could say about it wane more and more, to the point where I just wake up in the morning and can barely even spell "blog" much less remember that I maintain one.

For those who don't know, Yukio Mishima is one of Japan's most-revered writers of the 20th century. He committed suicide in 1970 that tragic and noble ritualistic way they have over there, and he was probably gay, though he was definitely married (to a woman). This novel is, above all, a harsh critique of marriage. Like Thomas Mann, the story begins with an aged, single, famous writer (Shunsuké) at the beach, gazing upon the impossibly beautiful body of a young male (Yuichi, much older than Mann's Tadzio). Shunsuké has been hurt, emotionally, and like embittered by two previous women he was with, and so he takes Yuichi under his proverbial wing as a kind of experiment.

Yuichi is to marry a young woman, but confesses that he can't ever love a woman. He feels nothing for the sex as a whole. Shunsuké tells him that women should be treated as stupid animals, easily manipulated, and tells him to go through with it for the sake of power and position. Then, throughout the rest of the novel, Shunsuké basically uses Yuichi's good looks to get him to seduce and emotionally destroy the very women who emotionally destroyed him.

It's, clearly, a pretty angry book. At one point Yuichi is walking with one of his many lovers throughout the book, and overhears a passing woman say something like "Ugh, gays!" He blows up to his companion:
"Them! Them!" Yuichi ground his teeth. "They who pay three hundred and fifty yen for a lunch hour together in a hotel bed, and have their great love affair in the sight of heaven. They who, if all goes well, build their rat's-nest love nests. They who, sleepy-eyed, diligently multiply. They who go out on Sundays with all their children to clearance sales at the department stores. They who scheme out one or two stingy infidelities in their lifetimes. They who always show off their healthy homes, their healthy morality, their common sense, their self-satisfaction."

Victory, however, is always on the side of the commonplace. Yuichi knew that all the scorn he could muster could not combat their natural scorn. (238, emphasis added)
So an angry book, but a pretty wise one. This is the most articulate version I've read of the idea that a gay man's anger or hatred toward the heterosexual order is always limited by the fact that he came from such an order, whereas a hetero can do everything possible to keep homosexuality out of his life all together, making his hatred for it real, powerful, and thorough.

The copy on the back of my copy of the book is not so wise, however. It interprets Yuichi's situation as being "[d]rawn to homosexuality after a loveless marriage," as though gay sex were some logical form of therapy (which for some married men maybe it is...). Mishima somewhat addresses this pre-"gay rights" homosexual dilletantism late in the book, once Yuichi starts sleeping with Kawada, who is some important financial worker:
The homosexual of promise, whoever he is, is one who recognizes that certain manliness within himself, and loves it, and holds fast to it, and the masculine virtue that Kawada recognized in himself was his ever-ready nineteenth-century predilection for diligence. A strange trap for one to be in! As in that long-ago warlike time, loving a woman was an effeminate act; to Kawada any emotion that ran counter to his own masculine virtue seemed effeminate. To samurai and homosexual the ugliest vice is femininity. Even though their reasons for it differ, the samurai and the homosexual do not see manliness as instinctive but rather as something gained only from moral effort. The ruin Kawada felt was moral ruin. The reason that he was an adherent of the Conservative party lay in its policy of protecting the things that should have been his enemies: the established order and the family system based on heterosexual love. (380)
Paging Larry Craig. Mishima's narrator loves to butt in a lot like this with a grand, sometimes-smirking knowingness about his characters, but it always felt more companionable than intrusive. All-in-all a pretty good novel, though I imagine his better-known books—those without, perhaps, so strong a need to delineate their author's desired position somewhere between the code of the samurai and that of the homosexual—are better reads.

Oh and there's this incredible sentence: "Drunker than if he had drunk saké, he was drunk on intoxication" (222).


08 October 2008

Roth, Philip. Indignation. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

As a child, I had sometimes been taken by my father to the slaughterhouse on Astor Street in Newark's Ironbound section. And I had been taken to the chicken market at the far end of Bergen Street. At the chicken market I saw them killing the chickens. I saw them kill hundreds of chickens according to the kosher laws. First my father would pick out the chickens he wanted. They were in a cage, maybe five tiers high, and he would reach in to pull one out, hold on to its head so it didn't bite him, and feel the sternum. If it wiggled, the chicken was young and was not going to be tough; if it was rigid, more than likely the chicken was old and tough. He would also blow on its feathers so he could see the skin—he wanted the flesh to be yellow, a little fatty. Whichever ones he picked, he put into one of the boxes that they had, and then the shochet, the slaughterer, would ritually slaughter them. He would bend the neck backward—not break it, just arc it back, maybe pull a few of the feathers to get the neck clear so he could see what he was doing—and then with his razor-sharp knife he would cut the throat. For the chickens to be kosher he had to cut the throat in one smooth, deadly stroke. One of the strangest sights I remember from my early youth was the slaughtering of the nonkosher chickens, where they lopped the head right off. Swish! Plop! Whereupon they put the headless chicken down into a funnel. They had about six or seven funnels in a circle. There the blood could drain from the body into a big barrel. Sometimes the chickens' legs were still moving, and occasionally a chicken would fall out of the funnel and, as the saying has it, begin running around with its head cut off. Such chickens might bump into a wall but they ran anyway. They put the kosher chickens in the funnels too. The bloodletting, the killing—my father was hardened to these things, but at the beginning I was of course unsettled, much as I tried not to show it. I was a little one, six, seven years old, but this was the business, and soon I accepted that the business was a mess. The same at the slaughterhouse, where to kosher the animal, you have to get the blood out. In a nonkosher slaughterhouse they can shoot the animal, they can knock it unconscious, they can kill it any way they way to kill it. But to be kosher they've got the bleed it to death. And in my days as a butcher's little son, learning what slaughtering was about they would hang the animal by its foot to bleed it. First a chain is wrapped around the rear leg—they trap it that way. But that chain is also a hoist, and quickly they hoist it up, and it hangs from its heel so that all the blood will run down to the head and the upper body. They they're ready to kill it. Enter shochet in skullcap. Sits in a little sort of alcove, at least at the Astor Street slaughterhouse he did, takes the head of the animal, lays it over his knees, takes a pretty big blade, says a bracha—a blessing—and he cuts the neck. If he does it in one slice, severs the trachea, the esophagus, and the carotids, and doesn't touch the backbone, the animal died instantly and is kosher; if it takes two slices or the animal is sick or disabled or the knife isn't perfectly sharp or the backbone is merely nicked, the animal is not kosher. The shochet slits the throat from ear to ear and then lets the animal hang there until all the blood flows out. It's as if he took a bucket of blood, as if he took several buckets, and poured them out all at once, because that's how fast blood gushes from the arteries onto the floor, a concrete floor with a drain in it. He stands there in boots, in blood up to his ankles despite the drain—and I saw all this when I was a boy. I witnessed it many times. My father thought it was important for me to see it—the same man who now was afraid of everything for me and, for whatever reason, afraid for himself.

My point is this: that is what Olivia had tried to do, to kill herself according to kosher specifications by emptying her body of blood. Had she been successful, had she expertly completed the job with a single perfect slice of the blade, she would have rendered herself kosher in accordance with rabbinical law. Olivia's telltale scar came from attempting to perform her own ritual slaughter. (157-161)
I include the all of the this because it's pretty much the whole novel right there, encapsulated. You can see all the conflicts, except also know that most of the action takes place at a small college in Ohio where the narrator, Marcus, meets Olivia. I also wanted to include the all of it because it's some of the best writing I've read in a while. Not because of the gore. I'm about calf-deep in a book on taxidermy and so I've got enough animal dismemberment to fill my hours. No, it's because of the strong plainness of it all.

Here's how a bad writer such as this one would handle such a passage:
As a child, my father would carve time out of the granite of his day-to-day to schlep me down to the slaughterhouses, where I would stand like a pylon in the middle of the killing floor, my father at my side with one heavy hand rested on my quivering shoulder, to watch the ritualistic killing of hundreds and hundreds of chickens. The blood, thin and flowing and orange. A new consistency to an old condiment. It ran like a waterfall to the floor, where it pooled around the feet of the butcher as though he were standing in a kiddie pool. And the animal just hung there, drained of its essence like a post-crystal podling.
I don't know anything about writing, and one thing I don't know more than I don't know everything else is confidence and trust in the strength of my material. Roth knows just to give us the blood and give us the details of the work and we'll make everything happen in our heads. We don't need a "fresh" and "vivid" smashing-up of new words to keep readers interested. Why can't I figure this out?

And it's not a matter of writing transparently either. Roth's sentences don't necessarily call attention to certain aspects of themselves, but they certainly hold my attention. I'm aware, in the above passage, of those deft little moments he switches from the simple past to the conditional tense and then back to the past and then into the present. I'm aware of the careful repetitions.

At any rate, I got this book and read it quickly because every single review I'd come across talked about something unprecedented and incredible that happens around the 50-page mark, and rather than have it be spoiled for me I had to buy it and read it quickly. It's not that earth-shattering, I guess. If you want to know everything there is to know (literally, a nearly page-by-page synopsis of the novella's entire plot from start to finish), just read Simic's review in the NYRoB. Why do they do this? Who wants to read a review of a book that reads like a Cliff's Notes synopsis, with minimal praise at fore and aft?

Oh, and Mr. Roth, if you want to talk about indignation, try charging $26 to what should by all sane people be called a novella. Oh wait, you did.