Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Fifth Thing

There were five things. He is sure of it. But he can only come up with four.

What is he missing? The first two he'd been thinking about anyway, the third he'd recalled easily, the fourth took him a little while, but now he knows what that is as well. What else? There was one more thing. He'd been thinking of it just a few minutes ago. How could he have forgotten?

Could it be...? No, that isn't it. Though, come to think of it, that is another thing. It should have been on the list all along. He may as well include it now. So that makes it six things. But there's still the missing fifth. Let's do this systematically: the first, the second, the third, the fourth....and the sixth. Oh come on!

He should have written it down. But it had seemed so obvious. The most obvious of them all. Of all the things on the list it was the one he was sure he wouldn't forget. Even now, trying to remember what it is, he can feel the familiarity of it, its presence known and meaningful like the silence on the other side of a wall.

He is making too much of this. It will come back to him eventually, unexpectedly. He shouldn't try to force it. Only it's important, it's crucial, it's the one thing he can't afford to forget. He'll remember it as soon as it's too late and then he'll feel like a fool.

Was it...? No. Did it have something to do with...? No, that was number four. What was that other thing he'd been thinking of when it came to him? There was something, wasn't there? No, he couldn't remember that either. Dammit! dammit! What could it be?

P.S. Sorry about this. I know I thought of something else to post about earlier today, but I can't seem to remember what it was.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Like Mindedness? / Ya right

Has it ever happened to you that you're reading the memoirs of someone you really admire and all of a sudden he / she is describing something that you've felt or experienced (although, of course, doing a much better job of it than you ever could), something that you've always assumed was peculiar to you, so that it feels like you're reading your own thoughts on the page, your own voice stolen, by some nefarious means, from inside your head?

It's a strange feeling - part disappointment at learning that you're not as unique as you thought you were, that something so intimate a part of you is shared by someone else; part exhilaration at the idea of a person you've always looked up to being so much like you; part just the eeriness of seeing your most private secrets put down on paper by a stranger's hand decades before you were born.

Take yesterday, for instance. I'm reading Orwell's essay 'Why I Write' and I come across this:

"throughout this time I did in a sense engage in literary activities. To begin with there was the made-to-order stuff which I produced quickly, easily and without much pleasure to myself. Apart from school work, I wrote vers d'occasion, semi-comic poems that I could turn out at what now seems to me astonishing speed...and helped to edit school magazines, both printed and in manuscript. These magazines were the most pitiful burlesque stuff that you could imagine, and I took far less trouble with them than I now would with the cheapest journalism. But side by side with all this, for fifteen years or more, I was carrying out a literary exercise of a different kind: this was the making up of a continuous 'story' about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind. I believe this is a common habit of children and adolescents. As a very small child I used to imagine that I was, say, Robin Hood, and picture myself as the hero of thrilling adventures, but quite soon my 'story' ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw. For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: "He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted onto the table, where a matchbox, half-open, lay beside the ink pot. With his right hand in his pocket, he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf", etc. etc."

and I'm sitting there thinking - dammit! how does he know about all this.

P.S. The full piece is totally worth reading, btw. But then, almost everything that Orwell wrote is.

P.P.S. Also, has it ever happened to you that you've painstakingly typed up something from a book to share it on your blog and then discovered that it was available online all along? Sigh. Note to self: Always Google search before you write post.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The New Girl

Everyone flirts with the new girl. I mean everyone. From those preternaturally single guys in IT to the married-with-children creeps from accounting. Even Sharma, whose wife actually works in the next department for god's sake, is always hanging around, trying to strike up a conversation. And you can't tell me that Mishra's sudden interest in 'team building' has nothing to do with his department's latest hire.

Frankly, it's disgusting. There they are, hanging around her at lunch time like a bunch of limp, wingless pigeons, solicitude guttering from their throats, or stopping by her desk whenever they feel like it to ask how she's settling in. "Don't you have work to do?" I feel like asking them. The bastards. Pretending to be all friendly and concerned when all they really want is a peek down her shirt. Can't they see that she has no interest in talking to them? That when she smiles at them or engages in small talk it's just because she's new and doesn't want to seem impolite? That all she wants is to be left alone? Men, I tell you.

Poor thing. What she really needs is a friend. Someone she can really talk to. Someone who'll understand what she has to put up with, who'll sympathize. Maybe someone who'll even shame some of these leeches into staying away. Hmm. Let me just go over and say hello...

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Musical Chairs

Another weekend, another idiotic article in the NY Times. In a recent op-ed piece, Daniel J. Levitin argues that classical music audiences should be allowed to dance, sing, and generally participate in concerts - citing such spectacularly relevant examples as Ludacris and U2 concerts in his defense.

Dr. Levitin should stick to hip-hop.

Even coming from an academic, this is a ludicrously impractical suggestion. As anyone who's been to a concert knows, the worst thing about live classical music is the audience - between the lovebirds whispering sweet nothings in front of you, the fat lady snoring five seats away, the guy with the hacking cough in the back row and the 243 people who think that the longer you draw out the process of opening a crinkly lozenge wrapper the less annoying it is (not true, people!) it's hard enough to appreciate the beauty of the music when the audience is supposedly silent. Imagine if they had carte blanche to make all the noise they wanted! Never mind the ridiculous image of row upon row of 60 year olds trying to keep up with the percussion in Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps, can you even begin to conceive of the god awful ruckus this would create? How many people would actually be able to hear the music with all this humming and stomping going on (and by music, I don't mean just the overall rhythm or the general tune, I mean the sound of each instrument clear and distinct)? And what about the slow movements? If we're going to let audiences go wild in the more strident pieces, how do we ensure that they stay quiet in the softer ones?

Ironically, Dr. Levitin himself provides the best evidence against his suggestion. Speaking of the naturalness of wanting to dance and sing along when listening to music, Dr. Levitin cites the example of little children, "swaying and shouting and generally participating whenever they feel like it". Have you ever been to a concert where someone had brought little children? They are the most annoying thing ever. They whine, they chatter, they shout in their shrill, high-pitched voices. Typically, they lose interest the moment the music gets even slightly soft / subtle and then they sit about fidgeting in their seats and loudly asking their parents when they can go. I'm opposed to the death penalty, but if bringing little children to classical music concerts were made a criminal offense I might consider changing my mind. And this is the golden example that Dr. Levitin would have the rest of us embrace. Tchah!

Don't get me wrong. I totally empathize with the urge to get up and dance listening to say, the final movement of Beethoven's 7th. But that's why we have stereo systems: so we can indulge ourselves - leap, twirl, wave our hands around, play air-piano or air-conduct - all in the privacy of our own homes. Would it be great if you could do the same thing at a live concert? Sure, if you were the only person allowed to do it. If everyone did it, everyone would be worse off.

As for music as a community activity - sure - but that's what we have nightclubs for, so people can relive their atavistic tribal past [1]. I don't go to concerts to be part of some community, or to commemorate some primal ritual I read about in Anthropology 101, I go to concerts for the music, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let some stupid theory get between me and Mozart [2].
And if we really want to resurrect old customs in order to bring us closer to our roots why don't we start with something less objectionable. Like head-hunting, for example.


Meanwhile, over at Slate, Erik Tarloff has a listener's guide to telling the difference between Mozart and Haydn. Amusing stuff, if only for the way Tarloff bends over backwards to try not to be too partial to Mozart and doesn't really succeed. Also, see the end of the article for a whole new (to me) perspective on Haydn.

[1] There's no reason, of course, the nightclubs shouldn't play more classical music - in fact, I have the perfect piece for any dance floor - the Dies Irae from Karl Jenkin's Requiem. If Dr. Levitin seriously wants more people dancing to Bolero, that's what he should be arguing for.

[2] Fortunately, I think there's little risk of anyone taking Dr. Levitin seriously. Which is the only explanation I can imagine for him writing this in the first place - it's easy to be provocative when you know your views are inconsequential (it's the principle this blog runs on); that, or the man's been OD ing on Schoenberg.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A study in rejection

Her letter comes, telling him it’s all over. He can’t believe it, doesn’t know why. For a while he just sits there, staring at the familiar handwriting, trying to make sense of the words. After a while he pulls out his highlighter, marks the key phrases, then proceeds slowly, methodically, to learn them by heart.

[55 words]

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


He has never seen her naked. Three years of being lovers and she has always insisted that the curtains be drawn, that the lights be turned off; has always been awake and fully clothed by the time he wakes, her jeans and loose kurtas hiding any glimpse of her except her face and feet and hands.

As he walks into the morgue it occurs to him for the first time that this may be a problem. What was it the police officer said? That the face had been mutilated beyond recognition, that the rapist had made off with the clothes. Will he be able to tell whether it's her by the feet and hands alone? He's not sure.

The coroner's deputy hands him and the officer a mask each, then ushers them into the viewing room. It's a scene out of a nightmare. The steel table, the indifferent light. He watches in horror as the deputy draws back the sheet, revealing the body underneath, only the face still hidden. Quickly, guiltily he looks down, focuses on the toes. Did she wear that shade of nail polish? He doesn't know, doesn't remember. With rising panic, he realizes he's not going to be able to make an identification from the feet alone. He glances at her hands, trying not to look at the body in between. These too look familiar, but could belong to anyone. This will not do. There is no room for error, the officer has told him. He must know for certain, must be sure.

Reluctantly, he looks at the body itself, searching for some sign, some hint of the familiar. There is some kind of discoloration between the breasts. He looks closer. It is a tattoo. It says Vivek. For a moment he starts back in relief. So it is not her after all. Then it occurs to him that he doesn't know that, that it might be, that perhaps this is the reason she's never let him see her topless. But who is Vivek? She's never mentioned anyone by that name. When they first met, she said she'd only had two boyfriends before, and neither of them was called Vivek. Was there something, or someone, in her past she never told him about?

The officer is looking at him expectantly. She looks pointedly at the tattoo, then back at him. She's clearly assuming that a mark so distinctive has to be a giveaway. She's probably wondering why he's taking so long. How to explain to her that the tattoo is no help, that he has no idea what the breasts of the woman he's been living with for the last two and a half years look like? And yet, if he says he doesn't know whether it's her, the question is bound to come up.

"Is it okay if I touch the body?" he asks, knowing he has no other choice. The officer and the deputy seem taken aback. They exchange a quick glance, then the officer nods. The deputy steps away for a minute and comes back with a pair of latex gloves, but he brushes them aside. Slowly, methodically, he runs his hands along the body. At first the sensation of cold flesh beneath his fingers makes him hesitate. Surely this can't be her?

Then slowly, against their will, his fingers discover the familiar contours. He shuts his eyes and runs his hands over her, discovering the slightly crooked angle of the knee, the curve of the hip, the familiar sweep of her flank; feeling the exact dimensions of the breasts fitting his palm, the outlines of the nipples just as he's always known them; knowing with every touch that it's her, that she's dead, but unable to stop now, running his fingers all over her hoping for something out of place, some ground for doubt, feeling as though every part of her were disintegrating, coming apart in his hands even as he touched it, trying to hold on to all of her at once.

He opens his eyes. The deputy and the officer are standing to one side, appalled. They obviously think he's some kind of pervert. He doesn't care. Slowly, with every ounce of strength he can summon, he lifts his hands from her, takes a step back. "Is it her?", the officer asks, recovering herself. He nods, his eyes fixed on the floor. "Are you sure?" He nods again. Then, because the officer does not react, he raises his eyes to meet hers, offering her the misery in his face as confirmation. The officer studies him for a moment, then nods, gesturing to the deputy. The sheet is drawn over her again. As he watches it cover her he realizes he is seeing her body for the first and last time. That's when it hits him. That's when he starts to cry.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Wildly off

"old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me."

- Louis MacNeice, 'Prayer before Birth'

Sean Penn's new movie, Into the Wild, is the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who, traumatized by his parent's violently unhappy marriage and having overdosed on too much Tolstoy, decides to break away from the 'system', and leaving behind all the opportunities available to him as a graduate from Emory, become a full-time tramp. It's the kind of inane yet romantic notion that only someone very young and very naive could come up with, and the fact that McCandless takes it seriously only proves that you can get a college degree and still be entirely clueless. At any rate, McCandless, or Alexander Supertramp (as he now styles himself) spends the next year and a half or so wandering about the country, doing odd jobs and camping out in the wild, all the time preparing himself for what he considers the greatest adventure of all - Alaska. All this would seem juvenile if it weren't for the tragic consequence that follows - McCandless ends up starving to death out in the Alaskan wilderness.

Penn's achievement here is the way he manages to suspend judgement while telling McCandless's story - neither idolizing nor making fun of him. The movie takes McCandless's rebellion, and the 'ideas' that lie behind it seriously, but it's also quick to show that the Supertramp way of life is not so much a journey as a flight. At heart, McCandless is a child running away from an unhappy home, with nowhere or nothing to head towards except whatever will put him furthest away from what he's trying to escape. McCandless is too naive to see that blind rejection is just as much an act of conformity as blind acceptance - to unthinkingly swear off everything conventional is to be just as trapped by convention as if you had taken it to heart. McCandless's instincts and ideas are those of a twelve-year old, and the fact that to this is joined the intelligence and charm of an upstanding young man, and the brittleness of ego of an adolescent, only serve to make his fate inevitable. Alexander Supertramp is Peter Pan gone wrong - his refusal to grow up sending him into a spiral of isolation that leads eventually to his death.

Penn is also good, I think, at bringing to life the fatal logic of this spiral. The problem, of course, is that McCandless, stubbornly locked into the self-righteousness of his position, is quick to reject any viewpoint other than his own as the product of blinkered thinking, of unexamined convention. It never seems to occur to him, lost in the depths of his self-obsession, that other people may actually be living genuine, happy lives and may not be the ignorant dupes of social conformity that he takes them to be. As a result, even the people he meets in his travels who genuinely care for him, and see the errors in his ideas, can do little to help him, because even suggesting that he rethink some of his positions is seen as a betrayal, and compromises them in McCandless' eyes. The only guidance this young man will accept is advice that doesn't contradict him, which is why he relies on books - which he is free to misinterpret - as his guides. The last time I saw this kind of obtuse pig-headedness brought to screen was in The Sea Inside, and for all its other problems, Into the Wild's portrayal of this pathology is, I think, the clearer one.

There are a number of problems. For one thing, the film is just too long: the protracted scenes of McCandless's death at the end are particularly tedious, and turn what could have been a powerful ending into something approaching bathos. There's also a great deal of repetition, most of it involving Supertramp smugly delivering his platitudes about life to people with far more experience in the matter than him - which only serves to make him more annoying. If McCandless is tolerable at all, it's because the sympathy you feel for him (both because of the domestic hell he's coming from and the fate that awaits him in Alaska) just about balances the desire to slap some sense into him.

The other problem with the film is that Penn fills its with a whole cast of fascinating and colorful secondary characters. While this does help relieve the tedium of the film, it backfires in at least two ways. First, these characters, with their life stories hanging tantalizingly just out of your reach, make McCandless seem even less interesting by comparison. Every time McCandless leaves one of these people behind and moves on, you can't help wishing the film had stayed with the other character rather than with Supertramp. But the other, more serious problem is that because almost everyone McCandless meets seems so out there (I mean really, Vince Vaughn is the most normal person he comes across), the movie doesn't feel true. You get the sense that you're living in some poorly written fantasy of what a tramp's life is like, rather than in real world America. Only occasionally, usually when Supertramp encounters some form of bureaucracy, do you feel grounded in the everyday world. I realize it's an unfair comparison to make, but the movie I kept thinking about watching Into the Wild was Agnes Varda's brilliant Vagabond - a film that's everything Into the Wild isn't, and a much, much superior film in consequence.

Into the Wild does contain some spectacular footage of the American wild, though again I can't help feeling that Penn overdoes it a little. The performances are adequate. Emile Hirsch does a competent job as McCandless, even if he does have a tendency to look like Leonardo di Caprio when he tries to be 'intense'. William Hurt sleepwalks through his role as McCandless's father and Marcia Gay Harden, who seems to be making grief-stricken mothers her own little cottage industry, is her predictable screen self. Vince Vaughn actually manages to come off as likable - a real achievement - and Hal Holbrook, Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker all do perhaps too good a job of bringing their characters to life. Overall, Into the Wild is an interesting film, one that, if it does nothing else, forces you to define for yourself just why McCandless is wrong, and by making you pinpoint that error helps you to examine your own life a little more closely.


And speaking of Tolstoy, there are apparently two new translations of War and Peace out - one by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and a second 'original' version by Andrew Bromfield. Great. All I need to add to my already overburdened reading list - not one, but two new versions of W&P. As though reading it the first time around wasn't undertaking enough.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Fragment of an unwritten epic

As when a river, approaching its destined sea,
is tempered by sycophant streams and loses its
force, thus our hero, drawing near the fated
moment, finds himself weakened by slow committee,
by a mischief of mouths that do dispel his true
purpose, and bidding him meander in doubtful
channels, blunt the swelling course of his intent.

(and no, this has nothing to do with my dissertation, thanks for asking)

Urf and on

Q: What do you get when you combine my inability to resist a new challenge with my devious plan to take over the blogosphere?

A: Posts like this one on Urf, which is not, as the name might suggest, a piece of fur turned inside out, (or the name of Lars Von Trier's younger, more frustrated brother) but a sparkling new blog, complete with its own mission statement. Go read.

Friday, October 19, 2007

I'm not working on anything

Over at Paper Cuts a whimsical interview with Kay Ryan. Gorgeous stuff.


Meanwhile over at the Poetry Foundation, Paisley Rekdal has a fun piece about trying to read five books of poetry a week.

Personally, I think five books a week is overdoing it a little - I probably average more like 3-4.

Part of the problem, of course, is that 'poetry book' is such a vague term - there's clearly a big difference between reading the collected works of a major poet and reading a new 70-page collection by someone you happened to pick up because you like the Press they were published by.

Plus there's the question of what 'reading' a book means. I probably sample five books of poetry a week, but I'll usually end up abandoning two of them half way because they just don't work for me, and skimming through another two - spending time on the half dozen poems that catch my eye, and just glancing over the rest (somewhat in the way Stephen Burt suggests here). There's maybe one book a week, if that, that I'll really read with anything approaching the kind of attention to each poem that poetry really demands.


Am currently reading the Best American Poetry 2007. Some interesting poems, and some really terrible ones. I quite enjoy the BAP series, but I can't help feeling that 'Best' is a serious overstatement. Frankly, I'm not convinced that you couldn't do a random draw of poems from the journals typically featured in the BAP (for relevant statistics see here) and not end up with a collection just as compelling. And that's without even getting into the loaded question of whether those journals really represent the 'best' poetry being written today.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Notes from a fall colors trip

How does one begin to describe the glory of fall foliage at its peak? It's as though Nature, having finally released herself from the tyranny of green, had chosen, like a child given a new set of sketch pens, to explore every shade of her newly discovered palette. Here she adds streaks of orange to the upper registers of one tree, there she conjures up another in brushstrokes of impressionist yellow or renders a third in pointillist maroon. Every grove is a symphony of color, every hillside a tapestry of warm, woven hues. In Vermont, the hills are alive with ripening tonalities of flame and gold, layer upon layer of ochre and burgundy, crimson and burnt sienna rising towards an azure sky, every sunbeam a blaze of fire across the descending treetops. Driving a narrow forest road, impression succeeds impression with the breathlessness of an art gallery as every turning reveals a new masterpiece to gawk at. One tree blushes, the green base of its leaves giving way to a shy orange at the tips; another flames like a torch kindled in the midst of a dark forest. Spilled patches of sunlight lie like gold on the asphalt highway, and scraps of leaves fall lazily through the air, notes escaped from the fugue of the woods. Even the bare trees, the ones that have already shed their foliage, look like pencil sketches, line drawings added to the canvas of the landscape, abandoned but not erased. There is nothing to hold on to here, no single image to grasp or treasure, just the impression of an incandescent but ephemeral beauty that escapes you even as you stop to look at it, or blurs in your car windows into an abstract celebration of pure color.


What is impressive about fall colors is the way the overall effect is an aggregation of such infinite detail - every glorious tree is an arrangement of thousands of perfect little leaves, each a work of art in its own right; every copse or hillside is an accumulation of hundreds of such painstakingly colored trees, each possessing its own unique pattern, its own individual hue; and every drive is a collection of dozens of such views each of which seems definitive and unforgettable, until you stumble upon the next. To travel amidst this splendor is to appreciate the way the world overwhelms us with its richness, makes our lives a process of constant discovery, of beauty endlessly recreated, relentlessly new.


Driving through upstate New York, flecks of red show through the ferrous green of the forest, as though the Adirondacks were slowly rusting in place.


It's not only Nature that has a hand in creating this beauty. Mankind too has done its part to make the scenery picturesque. Freshly mown meadows sprawl lazily amidst the woods, their innocent yet vivid green providing the perfect contrast for the glorious colors all around. Dilapidated barns dot the countryside, along with corrals of grazing horses and quaint little roadside stalls selling pumpkins and maple syrup. Here a small wooden bridge crosses a gurgling stream, there a small house with its white railings and roof of slate blue adds the final touch of pastoral charm to a landscape already exquisite. Even the villages along the way, tourist traps though some of them are, maintain their air of aloof other-worldiness - a mainstreet lined with charming little cafes and taverns, the spartan beauty of a whitewashed church.


A lone tree in a pasture, proud as a sentinel in the livery of Autumn, knowing that it falls to him, and to him alone, to keep her dominion in the midst of these fields.

Two points in the distance - a church steeple and a windmill - define the horizon between them. The one endlessly turning, the other eternally still.


What we ate. Chocolate chip muffins from a small roadside bakery in the Catskills. Red pepper soup followed by tender chicken steak in a delicious lemon herb sauce washed down with a Sauvignon Blanc at the Old Mill Cafe in Ticondegora, NY. An exquisite dish of mushrooms, sun-dried tomato and grilled salmon on a bed of pasta at the Pot Belly Pub and Restaurant in Ludlow, VT. All helpings large enough to feed a family of three. Four if they were watching their weight.


It is humbling to think that Nature means none of this - that in the scheme of things this beauty is incidental, irrelevant. Acre upon acre of land is swathed in the most gorgeous foliage, but none of it is by design, none of it is meant to amaze the eye or excite the imagination. Nature does not shape itself to our witness, rather it is our sense of beauty, our bedazzlement at the sight of these wonders that is itself an atavistic echo of the awe and wonder our ancestors must have felt, watching the leaves change color above them. Astounding as they are, these images are mere byproducts of a process of annual decay, a process concerned with death and renewal, not with aesthetic achievement.


Discovery 1: The state of Massachusetts has the most arbitrary speed limits ever. The general idea seems to be to divide the highway into one mile intervals and then use a random number generator to assign speed limits of somewhere between 25 and 50 mph (in five mile increments) to each individual mile, without any logic except the thrill of variety. I'm told the Mohawk trail is very scenic - and it may well be. I wouldn't know because I was so busy watching for the next road sign that reset the speed limit for the 3,572 nd time, that I didn't see anything else.


The challenge with going on a fall colors trip is knowing when you're done. It's not like going to see some mountain or canyon or historic ruin, where you can get to a definite place, take a bunch of pictures, and then tick the relevant box. At what point can you claim to have 'seen' fall colors? How do you know that there isn't a more stunning sight waiting just five miles away, which is what 'fall colors' are really supposed to look like, not this pathetic excuse for foliage that you're gawking at now. The question "Have we seen it yet?" is one that looms large in the mind of every fall color seeking traveler.

Which is why Z and I were glad to discover this thing called the Robert Frost trail near Ripton, VT. Apparently Robert Frost lived in a house somewhere in Ripton for a while and used to go for walks in the fields and hillsides surrounding the town, so there's now a 1-mile loop trail that winds through said f. and h. , strategically dotted with plaques inscribed with Frost poems along the way. This can get a little twee at times (at one point, for instance, the path forks, so of course there's a plaque with the Road Not Taken on it) but for the most part it adds a pleasant dimension to the trail - reminding you of Frost poems you'd forgotten or making you experience familiar poems anew, seeing them matched to the countryside that they were meant to evoke. Besides, there's the visceral thrill of knowing that you're walking in paths where Frost may once have trod, and anyway, how often do you see a trail that joins the exploration of nature with poetry? The trail itself was pleasant enough: so thick with fallen leaves underfoot that it felt like walking on a lush maroon carpet, and winding through great stands of yellow, sunkissed trees through which the top of Breadloaf Mountain, it's crest flaming with autumn colors could occasionally be seen.


Discovery 2: Never, ever trust fall foliage reports. According to practically every 'current' foliage report Z and I checked out, fall colors were at their peak through a wide swathe of New England and upstate New York, down all the way to Northern Pennsylvania, with a small chunk of Northern Maine / Vermont being past peak. So we drove out of Philly thinking it was only a matter of an hour or two before we started seeing fall colors. Instead we had to drive all the way up to Albany before we saw anything but green, and even there the trees looked as though they'd just begun contemplating the possibility of changing color, like a 30-year old starting to consider retirement plans. Central Vermont was the only place where fall colors genuinely seemed to be at peak. So much for the Information Age.


Sunday morning, I look out of my hotel window and see blotches of orange and crimson climbing through the maple outside, as though the tree were trying to juggle the sunrise in its branches.


Easily the most glorious sight of all is the country cemeteries that lie on the margins of some of the smaller towns. Tombstones of sombre white arranged in neat rows on a small hillock, with great trees spreading in flame above them, like rustling seraphim standing guard over the bones of the lost. As though Death were a season mellower than any other, as though life blazed more brilliantly in the presence of Death.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Credit Card / Off falling

"Have you ever wondered why they call it a credit card number?"


"Why do they call it a credit card number?"

"Err...because it's a number on a credit card?"

"Yes, but it's the number that matters, doesn't it? The number's what you need to make the transaction. Just think about phone orders. Or stuff you buy over the Internet."

"True, but it's still the number associated with your card."

"Is it? Isn't it, in fact, the other way around? Isn't it the card that's the artifact - merely a convenient way of carrying the number around, in fact? Can you imagine a card without a number?"

"I guess. But so, what's your point?"

"Just that if it's the number that matters then saying 'credit card number', and therefore suggesting that the card is somehow crucial, makes no sense."

"So what do you think it should be called? Just credit number?"

"Yes, exactly."

"But what would you call the card then?"

"A card with your credit number. A credit number card."

"Hmm...a bit awkward that."

"Not at all. It's just habit that makes it seem so. Besides, you wouldn't have to say the whole thing. The seller would say 'May I have your credit number, please?' and you'd reply 'Yes, here it is, on my card.' Nobody but random uncle-jis says 'credit card' anyway - everyone else just says 'card'. The whole thing is perfectly simple."

"I suppose so. So what brought on this new insight?"

"Oh, nothing really. Just, you know."

"You've been shopping again, haven't you?"

"Well yes, but that has nothing..."

"How much did you spend?"

"Not much. Nothing at all really. It's just that there was this sale, see, and..."


Meanwhile, it's another long weekend (it's Fall Break, and unlike certain other PhD students, I am taking time off) and I'm off to make yet another attempt to see these Fall Colors everyone keeps talking about (details of my last attempt to catch Fall Foliage here). Back Wednesday. Meanwhile, you can amuse yourself by checking out a new poem by the inimitable Matthea Harvey (who has a new book out!) on Poetry Daily. Enjoy.

At the Concert

She's gorgeous. Long, black hair, a stylish little cocktail dress matched with a jacket of midnight blue, and a pair of endless, endless legs. What's more, she's alone. And sitting one seat away from me at the Philadelphia Orchestra concert. Life just doesn't get better than this.

As we wait for the concert to start, I sit there, reading my Selected Poems of Seifert, wondering if she's noticed or whether she even knows who Seifert is. Where's that little bubble saying "Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature" when you need it? I race my way through each poem, taking in nothing, waiting till I get to the end before I glance up again, look across at her. She seems engrossed in her program. I wonder if, like me, she's a subscriber. Wouldn't that be incredible? As the lights go down and the music starts I sink into a daydream about the two of us getting to know each other better as the season progresses. I imagine the first awkward conversations, the discovery of mutual favorites, the animated chat in the intermission of the second concert leading to the coffee date before the third, then dessert after the fourth, dinner before the fifth and by the time the sixth concert came along we'd be officially 'a couple'. I imagine telling other people, years later, how our romance began, how the vagaries of the Kimmel Center ticketing algorithm brought us together. It would make such a good story.

As I dwell on our subscription-ticket romance, Berlioz's Carnival Overture is drawing to a close. I glance at the program. Britten next. Sigh. I wish they'd hurry up and get to the Debussy already.

But wait, she's doing something - she's taking out pen and paper, getting ready to write. Does she mean to take notes? Maybe she's a famous music critic of some sort. Maybe she does reviews of concert performances for some magazine. The thought is intimidating - how am I ever going to strike up a conversation with a woman who knows so much more than me about classical music? But come on, there's no way she's a critic. For one thing, would a professional critic be sitting way up here in the furthest tier from the stage? Of course not. Besides, she's too young. She's probably a student. Yes, that's what it is - she's a PhD candidate. In music. She's probably at Penn. Another thing we can bond about. This is great. But wait, if she's taking notes in the Britten violin concerto does that mean she's doing her dissertation on Britten? Or on twentieth century British composers more generally? Hmmm. Not too promising that. Still, all relationships involve some compromise. Besides, just because she's doing her dissertation on them doesn't mean she likes them. You have to pick what's not already been done. Everyone knows that.

The concert goes on. Midori is sawing away at her violin. Almost at the end of the first movement now. There. Wait a minute, what is she doing? She's putting aside her pen and paper, she's raising her hands - oh my god! can it be? - yes, it is, she's...she's...clapping. In between movements! AAARGHH!

Sigh. Another dream snuffed out.

P.S. Please to notice fiction tag. Yes, I was at concert. Yes, I was reading Seifert. No, nothing like this happened.

P.P.S. Oh, and no jokes about 'a dose of clap', please. Thank you.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Over at filthy, funny, flawed, gorgeous, ammani has a new series of '24-hour challenge' posts - the theme for today being 'socks'. And since it's been a slow day and a while since I did any fiction, I figured I'd try my hand at a few variations on that theme (a couple of which I posted in the comments to ammani's post):

Take 1: Darn It!

There it is again. That bit in the story where someone - some doting mother or devoted wife - darns some man's socks. Something about these scenes always annoys her. She knows it's supposed to be all touching and beautiful, but I mean really, who darns socks anymore? She wouldn't even know how to. The most she does for her husband is buy him new socks when his old ones wear out, and even that she gets grief for from her women friends, who claim she's spoiling him and that he should learn to buy his own socks. The only reason she does it is because he never seems to realize that his socks have holes in them, and he goes on wearing them, and eventually she's the one who ends up being embarrassed. But darning them! That's like something her grandmother would have done. She flings the book aside impatiently, picks up a magazine.

Take 2: A sock left lonely

Leo Argyle was a sock in love. Nothing in the world was as precious to him as his mate, Rebecca. They had been together from the very start, as far back as Leo could remember, and even in those innocent days when the world had been all clear and crinkly, it had always felt like a perfect match. Long were the hours these two had spent, folded in each other's arms, deep in the warm, pressing intimacy of the Drawer. And even when work beckoned and they were forced to part, even then Leo had the comfort of knowing that Rebecca was close by, only a few feet away, working side by side with him. The one time the Master had made the mistake of pairing him with some other sock, a stranger, Leo had felt embarrassed, estranged, and had sighed in relief when a friendly hand finally returned him to Rebecca's embrace. Their's was a perfect marriage, a union of equals joined by a common destiny and secure in the expectation of growing old together, the travails of life wearing them down at the same pace.

Which is why it was a shock to Leo when Rebecca disappeared. It happened one day in the wash. The two of them had gone in together, along with four or five other couples, as was the custom of socks on a Saturday following a work-week. Once inside, of course, they had been parted in all the giddiness and excitement, the furious swirling of the crowded wash making it almost impossible to stay together. And so, when the whole thing was over Leo had sat patiently at the bottom of the laundry basket, as he had a hundred times before, waiting for Rebecca to rejoin him.

Except this time there was no sign of her. Sock after sock was picked up and paired with its mate until all the others had been put away and still she did not appear. Even the Master, who normally paid little attention to the socks, was forced to take notice. He went so far as to pull out the other pairs to make sure that Rebecca was not among them (as if she would be disloyal to Leo that way) but of course she wasn't there, and besides, that would still have left one sock missing. She had simply disappeared.

For the longest time, Leo lay limp and griefstricken at the bottom of the basket, unable to comprehend the tragedy that had overtaken him. He had heard of this happening before - of socks disappearing under mysterious circumstances. Some people said it was the ghosts of socks past that waited in the dryer and picked off straying socks, others that it was all some evil design of the Master's to keep them subjugated, still others that it was the shirts and sweaters that kidnapped the socks. But never had Leo imagined that such a thing could happen to him. Eventually the Master, taking pity on Leo, picked him out of the basket and placed him very gently in the Drawer, but the sight of this familiar place without his beloved by his side only made Leo suffer more.

There is nothing in nature more lonely than a sock left alone. As the days passed, Leo felt himself sinking deeper and deeper into a kind of moral listlessness, felt as though the elastic of his soul were growing slack. It wasn't just that he missed Rebecca, though he did - intensely, endlessly - it was that in her absence he felt himself at a loose end, of no use to anyone, abandoned at the bottom of the Drawer to sigh and mope all by himself.

In a few days, once he had got over his initial shock, Leo began to realize that he had other problems. Sock communities do not take kindly to loners. The way they see it, a sock by itself is an unnatural thing, a rogue, whose only purpose can be to disrupt the order of the drawer by attempting to insinuate itself between other pairs, seducing away the lawful mate of some other sock. At best, a lone sock is a scavenger, waiting like a bad omen for some other (preferably some sock that looks like him) to go missing so that he can take his place; at worst, he is a pair-breaker, who will lure away some unsuspecting sock-wife by force or guile. Little wonder then that the other socks, who had always treated Leo with easy camaraderie, now turned hostile. Socks that looked similar to Leo in appearance began to stay as far away from him as possible, as though to highlight the difference between them and him. Other, more belligerent socks balled themselves up into fists, threatening Leo away. It wasn't long before Leo found himself pushed virtually out of the Drawer, lost in the no-man's land between the socks and the underpants.

By himself, Leo would have been quite happy to accept his status as a pariah, for he found the company of other socks galling, their happy pairings only serving to remind him of his own status as odd sock out. Unfortunately the Master wasn't content with this. Every time he opened the drawer and found Leo huddled away among the other underwear, he would carefully restore him to the middle of the sock pile, often with a puzzled air as to what Leo was doing so far away from the others in the first place.

Leo tried to explain to the other socks that this was not his fault, but they remained suspicious. Every night, after the chink-light had disappeared, a small group of socks would seek Leo out in the dark and shout warnings and abuse at him, keeping him awake all night. It wasn't long before the mental and emotional stress began to tell. Leo, once the smartest and most personable of socks, began to look old and worn - his heel was beginning to unravel, his mouth hung permanently slack. Two months of this and Leo looked more like a dust rag than a sock. For a while he managed to live on in the Drawer, crawling into a corner at the very back where he passed unnoticed and the other socks (who in this part of the Drawer were themselves decrepit and full of holes) didn't seem to mind him as much, but one day the Master was groping about in the Drawer and discovered him.

It was clear that the Master had forgotten who Leo was, even though he had once been proud enough of him to wear him on a date. He stared at Leo for a moment, as though trying to remember something, then, with a shrug, carried him over to the dustbin and threw him away in the trash.

Take 3: Exhibit E

Exhibit E: One pair of socks, gray, cotton, showing signs of darning, presumably by victim's hands. Item was found stuffed in victim's mouth, presumably to muffle her screams while she was raped. No fingerprints were found on the item.

Take 4: The Socks of Young Werther (or The Superman also buys Socks)

As he stepped into the store, the young man was keenly aware of the absurdity of his errand. It was a beautiful spring day. The sun had been busy all morning polishing the town roofs and now stood back to observe the effect, beaming broadly. Girls in light dresses walked by in twos and threes, scattering shy glances around them like drops of laughing dew. A fountain tinkled in the square, whispering sweet endearments into the ear of the April breeze. From somewhere far away the strains of a street violin wafted through the streets. It was a day to walk along the avenues, wearing a collar of immaculate white, or to lie in the shade of some great tree, a book of poems open in one's hand, declaiming lines from Rilke to the scented air.

Instead here he was, spending his time buying socks. It was unfair, wretchedly unfair, but there was no help for it. Certain proprieties had to be maintained, and the current state of his socks was deplorable. He had been vaguely aware of this for some time, of course, but it had been brought home to him the other day when his friend Franz dropped by to borrow a book and happened to catch sight of his socks. Franz, ever the gentleman, said nothing, but even so it was a shaming moment. That was why he was out here, looking to buy new socks, even though he'd much rather be spending the time out in the park, or even (if he had to be indoors shopping) in some quiet bookstore. It was a terrible thing indeed to waste an afternoon like this on a chore like buying socks. As the shadow of the store awning fell upon him, he felt as though he were drowning in its gloom.

It took him five minutes to find the sock counter. The first clerk he asked was unhelpful, the second sent him the wrong way, the third made him wait till he was done with an earlier customer, then directed him to the right place. And all the while the sense of suffocation, of being trapped in a conspiracy against his youth grew stronger inside him.

And when he finally got to the sock counter, what did he see? The clerk behind the counter was giving him a familiar, almost mocking smile, as though his arrival here had been inevitable, as though the clerk had been waiting for him all his life. What was meant by this insolence? How dare this clerk - and a incompetent clerk at that, for why else would they have him selling something as undemanding as socks - treat him like an equal? Did it show in his face that the socks he was wearing had holes in them? Surely not. He was always careful to look respectable. What then had given him away?

Instinctively he looked down at his shoes. There they were, opaque as ever, keeping the sorry secret of his feet hidden from all prying eyes. Why then was this clerk smirking at him? It was all quite unbearable! The closeness of the store, the shabbiness of this corner of it in which he found himself, the clerk's offensively superior manner, all this came together like a great weight pressed to his chest, smothering him, taking away his breath.

"Care to see some socks, sir?" the clerk asked, the leer still on his face. For a moment, as he wrestled with his sense of being stifled, words failed him and he could only nod. The clerk turned to the shelves behind him, pulled out a few packages, started to lay out an assortment of socks on the counter. Then, at last, the young man found his voice. "No!" he cried, the word coming out almost as a shout, "I don't want to see the socks. Any three pairs will do. Just put them in a bag and I'll buy them."

At these words, the clerk's eyes opened wider, and he stopped to stare at his young client. The look of surprise on his face immediately made the young man feel better. Yes, he thought, taking a deep breath into his lungs, this was the way. The only way to come through this chore with all his dignity intact. Was he to scrabble about among these arrayed socks like some feeble-minded housewife, trying to distinguish one from the other by some tiny variation in shade or design, eventually picking one pair here, a second there, the way a man at a fortune teller picks the cards of his fate? No! Better to show his scorn for these mundanities, for these petty conventions, these niceties by which the soul of the true intellectual is chained by the bourgeoisie, and leave the choice of which socks to those who cared about such things.

Secure in his intention, he repeated his instructions to the befuddled clerk. Then, turning away before the clerk could argue or question, he walked over to the cashier, feeling noble and a little imperious, imagining the news of his defiance passing among the staff (as indeed it was, for was that not the clerk from the shoe-counter whispering in another clerk's ear, and was this second clerk not turning to stare at him?). At the exit, he handed over his money, took the bag from the still bewildered clerk and without, even now, condescending to glance at his purchase, walked out into the glorious Spring sunlight.

And this is how young Werther came to own three pairs of crimson socks with magenta hearts on them.

Take V: Before the Fireplace

He's getting too fat for this job. He doesn't remember it being this difficult before. Maybe he should consider that diet his wife keeps talking about.

Then again, maybe it's just that the chimney is narrow. That's the trouble with coming to this part of town. He doesn't know why he bothers. It's not like the poor deserve Christmas anyway.

Wheezing and spluttering with soot he emerges from the fireplace, trying not to make too much noise. They probably have thin walls here. Now where the devil is it? Ah there! But what's this? Those aren't stockings. Can't these people do anything properly?

Standing in the pale winter moonlight he stares at the pair of children's socks, their fabric worn thin at the heel, a hole visible in one toe, and suddenly he feels something give way inside him, feels tears in the corners of his eyes. Hastily he unloads gifts from his sack, not bothering to check his list. When the sack is empty, he feels better. "Ho! Ho! Ho!" he whispers to himself, as he slips out the window.

More evidence that I picked the wrong topic for my PhD

Over at Paper Cuts, the NY Times book blog, Dwight Garner has a post about "A Scientist's Eyewitness Report" on Group Sex.

Now there's a research project I could really embrace. "Honey, I'm not sleeping around - it's ethnography." I wonder how many people you would need to sleep with before the findings were considered generalizable? Would you have to rate all your lovers on a) validity and b) reliability? And would you decide on first, second and third authors before you started, or would you just do it alphabetically?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The gifts reserved for age

Philip Roth's Exit Ghost

For surely now our household hearths are cold,
Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.

- Tennyson, 'The Lotos Eaters'
Why is it that a ghost returns? Is it really in order to seek justice for the wrongs done to him, or in the hope of contact with a loved one, or to protect those he loves from harm? Or is it just that, by meddling among the living, the ghost hopes to reclaim for himself some vestige of past excitements, some inkling of what it meant to be alive? Does the torment of the grave lie not in anguish, but in the slow suffocation of the self, the knowledge that all we once were is lost forever?

This is the idea at the heart of Philip Roth's intriguing new novel Exit Ghost. Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's familiar alter-ego, has spent the last 11 years of his life living in almost complete isolation in the New England countryside - a period in which he has become both impotent and incontinent. Returning to New York after his long absence, ostensibly for a medical procedure that promises to restore his bladder control, he finds himself suddenly thrown into the world of the living, and proceeds to seize upon it through a series of spontaneous and unbalanced decisions that he recognizes as madness even as he makes them. Why then does he perpetuate such foolishness? Because he wants to be, in his own words, "back in the drama, back in the moment, back into the turmoil of events! When I heard my voice rising, I did not rein it in. There is the pain of being in the world, but there is also the robustness." It is this doomed attempt to hold on to one's slipping existence, this rage against the dying of the light, that Exit Ghost gloriously celebrates.

Short as it is (under 300 pages), Roth's new novel is really an amalgam of three different books, all rolled together. The first, and finest of these is a moving elegy for the slow erosion of the self that is old age, for the way the process of growing old robs us of all we hold dear - our health, our faculties, our memories, our friends - leaving us only the frustrating knowledge of our own impotence. Incontinence is not Zuckerman's only problem; on the contrary, it is the one he is most quick to acknowledge. It is only later, when the revelation becomes unavoidable, that we are told of a more serious loss: the loss of memory, the inability, so killing to a novelist, of remembering what he wrote yesterday or a few hours ago, the slipping of a talent that he has given all his life to. In Roth's last book, Everyman, it was the imminence of death that was the enemy. In Exit Ghost, death is only the last of many indignities, the coda to a long litany of 'no-longers' by which (Tennyson again) "All things are taken from us, and become / Portions and parcels of the dreadful past".

These are depressing waters, and Roth's commitment to plumbing them to their depths means that Exit Ghost was always going to be an unhappy book. What redeems it is partly the quality of Roth's writing. Zuckerman may be losing his memory, but Roth is still capable of producing some of the sharpest, most considered prose you'll read this year. Describing a phone call to an acquaintance he hasn't seen in half a century, for instance, Roth writes: "I dialed her number as though it were the code to restoring the fullness that once encompassed us all; I dialed as though spinning a lifetime counterclockwise were an act as natural and ordinary as resetting the timer on the kitchen stove."

But more than that, it's the complexity of Zuckerman's state of mind - the blend of compulsion and self-mockery that may be Roth's greatest contribution to narrative - that drives this work. Zuckerman's dreams are impossible, his actions insane. He himself acknowledges as much. Yet his very stubbornness in pursuing them becomes an authentic celebration of the survival instinct, the way we cling obstinately to our lives even though we know they are meaningless and foolish. What Zuckerman is driven by is a kind of magical thinking: if it is true, as Conrad claims in The Shadow-Line (a work that Zuckerman repeatedly alludes to throughout the book) that only young people have rash moments, then surely by committing a rash act we can make ourselves young again. This is ridiculous - as Zuckerman himself puts it, "There is no virility. There is only the brevity of expectation". Yet what can the spirit do but make this attempt, try to reclaim what is being lost? For the all but dead, even the follies of youth can be cause for nostalgia. What Zuckerman is pursuing as he lusts after a woman less than half his age or picks fights with athletic young men is not satisfaction (which it is too late for) but self-assertion.

But Roth's finest achievement in Exit Ghost is not the fleshing out of Zuckerman's state of mind, fascinating as that is. His great achievement here is the addition, to the pantheon of Shakespearian characters in his novels (remember Sabbath as Lear?), of the unlikely and incredible figure of Zuckerman as Hamlet - complete with an unachievable Ophelia, a Gertrude with a brain tumor, a hyper-ambitious Claudius (who may also, one suspects, turn out to be Fortinbras) and a guest appearance by the original Ghost, the short-story writer E. I. Lonoff, as Zuckerman's apparitional father-in-prose. This is a delightful gambit, not least because, in a switch only Roth could pull off, Zuckerman's Hamlet is not impotent because he is troubled, rather he is troubled because he is impotent. The development of this parallel (which we glimpse fleetingly, through subtle hints and clever by-plays) is a master-stroke, especially because Roth, instead of using these connections to comic effect, chooses instead to play it absolutely straight, using the blurred mirror of the Great Tragedy of youthful angst to reflect the quieter, more mournful defeat of growing old.

But Exit Ghost is not only an elegy for aging, it is also, vividly and triumphantly, a Nathan Zuckerman book, one that revives and reinvigorates much of the splendor of our hero's earlier adventures. It's all back - the obsession with confrontation, the long rants, the paranoia, the self-importance, the instinctive defensiveness, the gift for complication and paradox (is Kliman really a straight-shooter totally oblivious of other people's feelings; or is he pretending to be heedless in order to come across as a straight-shooter? Did E.I. Lonoff spend the last five years of his life trying to write a novel about his murky past, or did he spend the last five years of his life inventing a murky past to write a novel about?). Some familiar character types return - Kliman as the antagonist with a gift for getting under Zuckerman's skin, Jamie as the difficult yet fascinating love interest. Zuckerman himself comes across as being true to form. He's self-centered, delusional and full of himself, and seems incapable of seeing women as anything but sex objects, but these are all traits he shares with his younger self from novels like Zuckerman Unbound and the Anatomy Lesson. You could say that Old Nathan Zuckerman is not a likable character, but given who Young Nathan Zuckerman was, how could he be?

It's true that the years have dulled Roth's gifts for verbal comedy, so that his tirades lack the bombast they once had, and often end up falling on the wrong side of bitter, but that doesn't mean that Exit Ghost lacks its comic touches. One of my favorite moments in the book comes right after a three page attack (couched as a letter to the Times written by Lonoff's former mistress, Amy) against the modern proclivity for 'celebrity literature' - the inability to separate the writer from his prose, to distinguish between our opinion of the author's text, and our moral judgement of the author himself / herself - when Zuckerman, having read Amy's impassioned argument, concludes that it "had mainly to do with Richard Kliman."

This argument about not mixing fiction with biography recurs through much of the book and is, in my opinion, a carefully laid trap. At one point in the book, Roth gives us an eight page appreciation of his friend and mentor George Plimpton - a warm and compelling memorial that I have no reason to believe is not entirely heartfelt. Yet by placing these words of appreciation in the mouth of Zuckerman, Roth blurs even further the already thin line dividing Zuckerman from himself. It is almost impossible to read this book without at some point falling into the error of forgetting that the person speaking is Zuckerman, not Roth, so that when Zuckerman (and Roth) turn around to rant against the kind of 'literary lice' who can't take fiction for what it is but insist on making it the basis of speculation about the writer's life, you feel the rap falling on your own knuckles.

Overall then, Exit Ghost is a clever and delightful work, a fitting swan song to the Zuckerman novels, part mournful meditation, part last hurrah, with dashes of political comment thrown in for good measure. This is not Roth's greatest work, it's probably no better than average, but it's an improvement on Everyman, a partial return to form. And average, for Roth, is not something to be scoffed at.

Which is why it's a shame that wrapped up with all this there's also a third book - a series of dramatic scenes that Zuckerman composes describing his (entirely fictional) affair with the 30-year old Jamie which consist of some of the flattest, most cringe-worthy writing Roth has ever produced. I'm not unsympathetic to what Roth is trying to do here - he's clearly trying to make the point that Zuckerman, his powers failing and his wit overwhelmed by a ludicrous infatuation, is incapable of turning out anything remotely good (not to mention the way placing fiction within fiction makes a nice parallel with Hamlet's play within a play), but was it really necessary for him to include the complete transcripts of what Zuckerman writes? These dialogs, that show up throughout the book, marked only 'He' and 'She', are insufferably banal, completely tone-deaf and so devoid of chemistry that they could be written on litmus paper without leaving an impression. If Roth's purpose is to show us 'bad writing' he succeeds admirably, but to see exchanges this wooden issuing from the pen of a past master of snappy back and forth is to experience a misery like no other. Just comparing the He and She exchanges here with that unforgettable opening chapter of Deception is to want to break down and cry.

[cross-posted on Momus]

Most unlikely selling point ever

From the cover of the DVD of Titus:

A film by Julie Taymor, acclaimed creator and director of Broadway's "The Lion King"

[have sudden mental image of Titus Andronicus singing 'Circle of Life']

Monday, October 08, 2007


Five minutes should do it. He punches the buttons, hits START. In the yellow light, the head revolves slowly. Drops of blood bubble on the microwave-safe plate. The mouth hangs open, as though screaming at him from behind the glass. He notices the eyeballs starting to bulge. He forgot to poke them with a fork.

[55 words]

Sunday, October 07, 2007

moar delitefool den cheezbugers. Srsly.

Via Language Log, this hilarious, hilarious link to a translation of the Holy Bible into lolcatese. Some gems (links lead to the King James version):

Job 1.5: And Job wuz liek "Oh noes! Wut if cookies were sin? Gota prey, just in cased."

Psalm 23.4: When I wuz walkin thru dis scary valley Im sayin "me feelz no evil" cuz teh invisible man iz beside me pokin mah side wif hiz stix an it mak me so kumfy

Genesis 18. 10-13:

N sed "Srsly, when we com bak she gonna be teh preggers" Adn Sarah herd this

BTW: Abraham n Sarah wer teh OLD, Srsly, and Sarah waz to old 4 teh babyz

And Sarah LOLed and waz liek "WTF!? NO WAI! WE R TEH OLD!!11 LOL"

And TEH D00D sed 2 Abraham "WTF, Y she LOLed?

Proverbs 13.17: If u brings man his sox, he will gives u treeetz. If u brings a man a treet from teh litterbox, u will not get treetz.

Oh, and don't miss the lolcat version of Song of Solomon, from which the title of this post is taken.

Notes from NYFF - Part III

Okay, so I'm entering Jabberwock territory here, but I have to put on record some of the more wtf conversations I overheard at NYFF:

Conversation 1

[scene] Man in Slacks, Random Art Student Type and Falstaff are standing in queue outside Rose Hall box office, waiting to pick up tickets. Woman enters stage right, eyes the queue for a while then walks up to Man in Slacks.

Woman(W): "Are you waiting for tickets?"

Man in Slacks (MS): "Yes"

W: "You shouldn't have left it so late, you know."

MS (visibly taken aback): "Errr....yes, yes, I suppose not"

W: "Still they might just have tickets"

MS: "Yes, let's hope so."

W: "They do sometimes. Though not always. And today's shows are all sold out online. What will you do if they don't have tickets?"

MS: "Oh, I don't know. I'm sure I'll think of something."

W: "Yes, but you won't get to see the movie, will you? That's why I always get my tickets well in advance."

MS (with minimal politeness): "Yes."

W: "Still, at least you're right in front of the line. So you have a better chance. Not like these other people." (ignores glare from said other people)

MS: "Yes."

W: "So you must have got here really early, huh? And they haven't even bothered to open the box office yet. I bet you've been standing here for a long time. It's just twenty minutes to the first film, you know. You'd think they'd have opened it by now."

MS: *shrugs*

W: "Now, see, if you had already had tickets you wouldn't have to wait like this."

*exits to sound of gnashing teeth*

Conversation 2:

In the line waiting to enter the theater to watch Lust, Caution - a line in which I, my friend T and one middle-aged vaguely East European looking woman are the only non-Chinese speakers.

Man (M) to East European Looking Woman (EELW): "You are watching this film - Lust, Caution?"

EELW (with polite smile): "Yes."

M: "How come you want to watch this film?"

EELW (with polite smile frozen in place): "huh? I'm sorry, what?"

M: "Why you are interested in Chinese film? Are you Indian?"

EELW (polite smile disappears): *mumbles something and turns away*

[T and I spend the next five minutes discussing this little known Indian fascination for Chinese films. We wonder if there's such a thing as an Indian-Chinese film - perhaps a sub-genre of sweet and sour plot lines with item numbers thrown in? We then consider what we'll tell him if he turns to us next. We can't decide whether we want to go with "Oh, we're just here for sex scenes. Asian women - so hot!" or with "Oh, we've always taken an active interest in Japanese cinema."]

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Notes from NYFF - Part II

The Man from London

To describe Bela Tarr's starkly ravishing new film The Man from London as film noir is, I think, to miss the point substantially. It's like describing Hamlet as a murder investigation. Tarr's film is so much more - a celebration of aesthetic possibility, a testament to the unflinching power of the camera's gaze, an uncompromising vision of what film, as a medium, is capable of. Every shot, every frame in this film is put together with the skill and patience of a master craftsman - producing an effect that I can only compare to the best work of Bergman and Tarkovsky. Whether it's a wizened old man crumbling bread into his soup; the same old man balancing a billiard ball on his nose while an accordion plays in the background and a man dances around him with a chair; the abstract image of a ship's prow, the central line dividing the screen into two parts, light and shadow, life and death; the clockwork of figures descending a ship's gangway and stepping into a waiting train, like the souls of the damned arriving in Hell; or just the image of a man standing alone in the gleaming glass cage of a railway switchbooth that becomes a metaphor for man's fundamental isolation - every scene in this film is pure poetry, every scene combines the bleak realism of a Hopper painting with the immaculate lighting of a Cartier-Bresson photograph. And Tarr's shots of the human face reveal a nakedness so severe, so absolute, that you almost feel like his film should be rated NC-17. Bergman, in an interview about Nykvist, says that the greatest achievement of cinematography is that is has conquered the human face. Watch The Man from London and you will see exactly what he means.

Tarr's focus here is on the overlooked, the unobserved. What he is trying to do, I think, is to push the envelope of the seen, defy our expectations of what the camera should focus on. When a man sitting in a chair takes off his shoes and steps away, our instinct is to follow him; when a grief-stricken human face stares out at us, its eyes brimming with tears, our reflex is to look away. But Tarr does not look away - instead he insists on leaving his camera right where it is, forcing us to see what we would otherwise have missed. The result is a kind of a discovered beauty, an apprehension of the luminous glory of everyday objects, of presence transformed into radiance by an alchemy that any still life painter would recognize. Through his rejection of time, Tarr reveals a world of images that are timeless, immutable; fragments of a universal aesthetic that exist independent of the story the film is trying to tell. Admittedly, this can be exhausting, and Tarr demands of his audience the kind of superhuman patience that he brings to the subject himself. This is not an easy film to watch, but it is the artist's right to demand such effort of his viewers, and it is a film that richly rewards those who are willing, in the words of Donne ( the whole poem here): "to feed on that, which to disus'd tastes seems tough".

But Tarr's purpose in pursuing this vision is not entirely aesthetic. What he is trying to do, in using these stark black and white images to portray the life of his protagonist - a railway worker who witnesses a murder and gains possession of a suitcase full of stolen money - is to create a landscape of suffocation, a working class purgatory of narrow streets and defeated horizons whose inhabitants live out their monotonic lives (reflected in the one note accompaniment of an accordion that runs through the film) in an atmosphere of quiet desperation. It is this bleakness, this poverty of hope that gives the film its moral weight. In a world where frustration works as a kind of gravity, holding everything in place, the prospect of great wealth seems like an aberration, an absurdity. Destiny, in the shape of a limping police inspector, sits waiting in the margins of this film, and while Maloin, the film's protagonist, makes a few half-hearted attempts to break free, he soon comes to realize the impossibility of doing so, and like a starving man who chokes on the first bite of food, surrenders himself to his fate. It would be easy to ascribe Maloin's reluctance to use his windfall to practicalities - how does an impoverished switchman living in the shadow of communism spend large amounts of foreign cash without questions being asked? - but the true pathos of Tarr's film runs deeper, and has all the inevitability of Greek tragedy.

But the slow stillness of Tarr's style serves, I think, a third purpose. I said earlier that to call this a film noir is misleading, but for all that it is a suspenseful, gripping film. Very little happens in terms of what we would normally call 'action', but underneath this inactivity lies the growing tension of not knowing how the story will play out. Watching The Man from London is a little like watching a cinematic chess game - the actual moves you see seem trivial, almost random, but behind them lies a mental wrestling match of possibilities considered and discarded, scenarios envisioned and foiled. Much of this comes from the inscrutability of Maloin himself (played marvelously by Miroslav Krobot) - it is almost impossible to tell what this man is thinking, what his plans are, how he intends to get out of the situation he's put himself in. And the suspense of not knowing what's going on inside Maloin's head is the key to the film's dramatic power - a suspense that Tarr, masterfully, leaves unrelieved, with an ending that leaves the question of just how manipulative and / or evil Maloin is open to interpretation.

I could rhapsodize for hours about what a work of genius this film is, but I'll content myself with sharing one last scene with you - perhaps my favorite scene in the film. Towards the end of the film, Maloin goes to confront his rival Brown in a small woodshed where he has Brown locked up. This is the dramatic high-point of the film, the moment that the last two hours have been building inexorably towards. Maloin reaches the door of the hut, unfastens the lock, opens the door a little, says "Brown" once, and then steps in. A lesser director would have followed Maloin into the hut, would have used its dark interior to create a moment of 'suspense' before Brown appeared and made whatever move he planned to make. Tarr, on the other hand, chooses to stay outside, his camera focused unwaveringly on the door that Maloin has shut behind him, all sound drowned out by the plaintive notes of the accordion that has haunted us throughout the film. We just sit there, staring at this Schrodingerian door, trying to imagine what is happening behind it or what will eventually come through it, living through a dozen different scenarios of where this film could go in what feels like an eternity but is really only the minute or two before the door opens again. Hitchcock couldn't have done it better.

[cross-posted on Momus]

Friday, October 05, 2007

Notes from NYFF - Part I

The Romance of Astree and Celadon

The chief virtue of Eric Rohmer's new film The Romance of Astree and Celadon is how faithful it is to its seventeenth century roots. This means that instead of a modern Hollywood-ised version of Honore d'Urfe's novel, we get a production of the book in all its pastoral and amateur splendor, complete with overblown romanticism, wooden 'dialog' delivered by characters who are little more than mouthpieces and a set of inexperienced actors (Andy Gillet and Cecile Cassel as Celadon and Leonide respectively are fairly competent, but Stephanie Crayencour as Astree set my teeth on edge and Rodolphe Pauly as Hylas could have filled an entire butcher's shop with his hamming) who would do any village theatrical troupe proud. It's all very amusing and droll, and the story manages to hold your attention, despite (or perhaps because of) the juvenility of the plot, but you can't help thinking that you would have hoped for more from someone of Rohmer's caliber. To think that the man who gave us such classics as My Night at Maud's and La Collectionuese has been reduced to making a film that looks like it could have been put together by a group of first year film students is depressing indeed. I went to watch this film because it was billed as being Rohmer's last film. Having seen it, I'm not sure this is such a bad thing.

Hamlet (1920)

By contrast, Asta Nielsen's 1920 silent version of Hamlet is a real pleasure to watch. The central conceit of this film is that Hamlet was a woman - Gertrude gave birth to a girl but had her (him?) proclaimed a boy in order to maintain the royal succession. It's a fascinating idea, and one that doesn't get played out as much as it should. What the movie does do is use this gender change to cleverly reinterpret the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia (as well as the bond between Hamlet and Horatio, who now becomes the object of Hamlet's secret love). What it (surprisingly in my opinion) doesn't do is provide an alternate explanation for Hamlet's famous inaction. The existential torpor that grips Hamlet is the same here as it is in the play, so that except for his (her) reasons for spurning Ophelia, the switch in gender doesn't actually alter the logic of the play in any meaningful way.

Still, it's fascinating to watch the action of the play work itself out on screen. There's plenty to complain about, of course - it is a film from the 1920's after all. Everyone overacts outrageously (at least by contemporary standards), gestures are exaggerated, action scenes seem somewhat clownish. There's an added section in the beginning which traces Hamlet's college days, before his (her) father is killed, which is entirely unnecessary; and the finale changes the plot in ways that, even putting aside my purist hat for a minute (you DO NOT MESS with Shakespeare) seem illogical and pointless.

For all that, Asta Nielsen is a commanding and captivating presence, so that it's not hard to see, even almost a century later, just why she commanded the superstar status that she did. A number of the scenes, especially the ones around Hamlet's death, have a timeless and almost operatic quality, so that you feel the power of the moment come through. There's one in particular, where Hamlet comes stomping indignantly into the Great Hall where Gertrude and Claudius are celebrating their marriage, that has all the force of a great painting - a mournful and bitter Hamlet, dressed all in flowing back, advancing down a hall filled with drunk and carousing courtiers like an Angel of Death trailing destruction behind him. Most of all though, the movie manages, especially in its final scenes, to capture the power and spirit of Shakespeare's great tragedy, so that you have only to see a disheveled Ophelia handing a fistful of tangled herbs to a grief stricken Gertrude to hear the "Here's Rosemary, that's for remembrance" line chiming in your head.

It's obviously unfair to judge a movie from a different era by modern production values, so the best I can do is compare this film to the few films of a similar vintage that I've seen. Those would consist largely of F.W. Murnau classics like Faust and Nosferatu, and compared to those I'd say Nielsen's Hamlet more than holds its own.

I also need to give a special shout out to pianist Donald Sosin, who provided live accompaniment for the film. It's always hard to judge the quality of an original score for a silent film, because part of what makes such a score successful is that you don't notice it. But one of the most fun moments of the festival for me was a point when the projectionist was experiencing difficulties in getting the film started. Sosin filled in the time by doing a "Who's Line is it Anyway" style performance on the piano - asking for a genre of film, a setting (time and place) and four composers whose styles to imitate, and proceeding to dash off the score to a 1920 film noir in the style of Berlioz, Bartok, Ravel and Wagner. Hilarious stuff.

The Orphanage

The third film I watched last Saturday as part of the NYFF was The Orphanage. Before I actually say anything about the film, let me acknowledge that a) I'm NOT a fan of horror films and b) I can't properly claim to have watched the film since I pretty much dozed through the second half. Still, from what I did see, The Orphanage struck me as pure hokum - a half-baked mish-mash of familiar horror tropes, patched together into a storyline so predictable you could actually sit in the theater and pinpoint exactly which scene in the first half would come back with added significance in the second. It's bad enough if a horror film puts you to sleep, it's even worse if when you wake up ten minutes later the storyline is exactly where you thought it would be ("Oh, a loud scream! This probably means she's found the bodies of the five dead children. Let me open my eyes and see. Yes, she has. Yawn.") The speaker who introduced the film claimed it was an exciting new attempt to take a genre film in new directions, but aside from a contrived twist that got added in the last five minutes I didn't see (or hear) anything that struck me as remotely original about this film. If anything, it seemed to diligently follow the standard horror formula of old haunted house + dead children + viscerally loud music = scary movie. There's even the obligatory psycho caretaker person and the classic 'scary scene with medium who visits the house'. Tchah!

To be fair, some of the acting is fairly good, and the movie is scary, in a will-the-ghost-be-behind-this-door-or-the-next-one kind of way. You experience your fair share of terrifying shock watching this film, but there's nothing creative about its scary moments - it all comes down to the time-worn trick of setting up a scene where your audience knows something bad is going to happen, but don't know exactly when it'll happen or where it'll come from, and so they sit there, feeling the tension build inside them, until SUDDENLY (usually with a long bang) the bad thing finally happens. You're startled by this not because what happens is unexpected in any real sense, but because you've been sitting there, on the edge of your seat, waiting for it to happen, and not knowing exactly when. This is the oldest cliche in the book - an almost Pavlovian chestnut that you can see any day of the week in practically any horror film on television - you hardly need to attend NYFF to see it. If you like genre horror flicks, The Orphanage is probably not a bad watch, but if you go into it expecting anything remotely new or ingenious, you, like me, may find yourself falling asleep.

The First Poet

In the beginning was the stone.

Round and flat
and placed on the empty page
it said everything,
was the perfect answer.

All the languages of the world
wept in its shadow
knowing they were no longer needed.

But the King was unhappy
because the stone wouldn't fit
in his pocket

so a young clerk was hired
to make a replica of it in words,
something to balance its silence.

This is how poetry was born.

And today, centuries later,
our poems still sift
the dark river-bed of the truth

waiting for the day
when the sediment of our voices
will weigh enough

to be crushed into stone.

Yesterday was National Poetry Day. (Okay, okay, so I don't live in the UK. But any excuse to post poetry no?)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Lust, Yawn

Perhaps the most challenging thing about watching Ang Lee's new film Lust, Caution is managing to remember that it's not In the Mood for Love. It's not just the presence of Tony Leung that brings the parallel to mind - it's the costumes, the lush interiors, the slow, nuanced unfolding of an impossible relationship.

Normally, this would be high praise. Except that the plot of Lust, Caution is so at odds with the quiet mellowness of Kar Wai's masterpiece, that the end result is an awkward, patchy piece of work that tries to be both frenzied espionage thriller and unlikely love story and is convincing as neither.

The story revolves around a college theater group whose members are coming to political maturity in the shadow of the Japanese occupation of China. Driven by overblown idealism, the students plan to assassinate a leading Chinese collaborator called Mr. Yee (Leung). To this end, they stage an elaborate masquerade to infiltrate the Yee household - an effort that results in one of their number, Wang Jizhai (played - brilliantly - by newcomer Wei Tang) catching the eye of Mr. Yee. The (new) plan is for Wang to seduce Yee to his death, but before this can happen Yee moves back to Shanghai (the action so far has been in Hong Kong) and eventually becomes the head of the secret police. After an interval of a few years, Wang, now older and more disillusioned, follows him there, and contact is reestablished, this time as part of a larger underground plot to assassinate Yee - whose security has so far proved impregnable. Eventually Wang does manage to seduce (and is seduced by) Yee, and the two enter into a bruising and fraught emotional relationship, a kind of sexual Stockholm syndrome, establishing a poisonous intimacy that can (and will) only be broken by Death. How this desperate relationship will play itself out is the key point of suspense in the film.

It's an interesting premise, and must have made for a gripping short story, but it doesn't really work on screen. The big problem with the film, I think, is that it's simply too long. Lee seems to be so much in love with his camera work that he edits as little of it as possible, so that every sequence goes on interminably, its visual and emotional power sapped by exhaustion. Some sequences seem repetitive, others unnecessary - Lee seems intent on showing us every tiny, irrelevant detail of the story, and also seems to feel the need to spell out for us what we could just as easily have inferred for ourselves. Not content with showing us multiple interminable scenes of the couple making love, for example, Lee then has his protagonist deliver an 'outburst' to her underground handlers, telling them how she feels drawn into an intimacy with Yee. A more able, or more confident, filmmaker would have let the scenes speak for themselves. As for the ending - let's just say that I think this would have been a much better film if Lee had stopped some ten, maybe fifteen minutes before he actually does.

The end result of all this is a bloated, unwieldy film that could easily have been at least two-thirds as short as it currently is, without losing (and in all probability gaining) in impact. Worse, the stretching of the story into a 157 minute opus only serves to highlight the thinness of the material. I'm not normally one to insist on veracity in a film plot, but when a film seems to revel in an almost hysterical realism, one can't help questioning its underlying logic. Which, as it turns out, is extremely thin. Why does Yee, a ruthless adversary who can spot an assassination attempt a mile away, take a mistress without bothering to run the most basic background check on her? Why does the underground not assassinate Yee as soon as they get the chance? (We are told it's because they want to get some 'information' from him, but this seems like a feeble excuse to keep the movie going so that the intimacy between Yee and Wang can develop). Most troubling of all, while the movie does a great job of bringing Wang to life, Yee remains a confusing and poorly fleshed out figure (all the other characters are mere caricatures) whose motivations and feelings remain obscure.

Don't get me wrong - this is a beautiful film, with scenes and performances that will take your breath away. The first sexual encounter between Wang and Yee in particular stands out as a shocking and explosive moment of pure violence, and at least a couple of the other scenes are brilliantly done. Pared down to these essentials, Lust, Caution would have been a great movie. As it is, there's too much dead air between the moments where it comes alive, and the end result is a film that is at once symphonic and unconvincing.

[Cross-posted on Momus]