Archive for March, 2010

Kevin Smith, Critics and the unreliable narrator

March 29, 2010

I like (most of) Kevin Smith’s movies. I download his smodcasts. I follow him on Twitter. But his recent dust-up over critics not reviewing Cop-Out favorably is a highlight of a general misconception about criticism in general.

And it is something that I have also suffered from in the past. It is something that is hard to work out of the system once it has found a home. Above, where I mentioned “not reviewing Cop-Out favorably” I had begun to type “not liking Cop-Out” before realizing how charged that sentence is and how it reflects the same ignorance Smith appears to have, at least momentarily, suffered from. It doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, matter if critics like a work. There’s been more than a few books, movies, music, etc. that I’ve enjoyed on some level while also believing that they are likely quite crappy with little redeeming value or meaning. Sometimes I just like some mental junk food.  So, despite my enjoying something, I would still stand up and say, “Yeah, it’s crap. But I enjoyed it.”

The thing is, if you’re trying to honestly criticize something, that “Yeah, it’s crap” part has to be there. For instance, see my recent post about Laura van den Berg’s collection of short stories. I liked a LOT about the collection. I say I liked a lot about it. In the end, though, when everything gets tallied up and conclusions have to be drawn, though, I also had to say that I thought it had serious shortcomings that it did not overcome.

It’s this duality that I think is lost in the argument between critic and artist. The artist sees someone “not liking” their work when “like” really has very little to do with it. This understanding of the role of a critic is made worse by misunderstanding of terms a critic uses that an artist, frankly, may never need to know even if they employ a technique the critic perceives.

Which appears to be partly what happened on this blog recently over a review of Pekar’s The Quitter. In a comment to a follow up blog, attempting to illuminate the use of “unreliable narrator” there was a mention of The Screwtape Letters. Which struck me as odd.

It has been years since I last read The Screwtape Letters and, recently, I haven’t had time to go back and entirely re-read it. But I have scanned through it, I’ve scholar.googled it and did a quick glance through some lit journal searches. My immediate recollection was confirmed. The Screwtape Letters is not an example of an unreliable narrator. While why Screwtape isn’t an unreliable narrator is important, it’s not pertinent to this blog. What’s pertinent is that this mistake was made. This isn’t to single out that individual commenter but to use it to illustrate something that is likely fairly common – a genuine language/process gap between the critic, those whose work is the subject of criticism and the audience for whom that work was created and for whom the critic is writing.

The language and backgrounds for becoming a “critic” and becoming an “artist” are inherently different. Many artists have the words “self-taught” somewhere in their biographies. And it’s my opinion that this isn’t just a brave thing, to have struck out to master a craft with little or no fall back plan or option, but a necessary thing for many artists as I’m not sure that all that is necessary to be an artist can be taught or accrued in a classroom. Or maybe that’s just the romantic idealist in me wanting to see the artist, at least in some way, as the woman for whom inspiration must strike to allow them to forge their timeless works. A critic, however, almost certainly has to be in a classroom through necessity. There is simply very few other options for being exposed to the work of other critics, for gaining any sort of understanding of the field, than without the aid of classes and instructors who are already learned of the lay of critical land.

So maybe it shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise when the two sides lock horns over what one writes about the other. It has to be all but inevitable. The training for each can come from wholly different directions, employing language and terms in ways that are wholly different from what the other side employs. Sure, each side can (and do) try to bridge that gap but it’s a gap I’m not sure is always bridgeable. After all, a critic does come off very much as a judge and that’s the sort of eye that no one likes to fall under.

But what role does the audience play in this?

Part of me wants to tie this into our current political climate where intellectualism has become a dirty word.  Language has an inherent political context. Nearly everything said or written can find itself twisted and appropriated for all sorts of purposes. I think it becomes clear that the term “critic” is slipping from our lexicon, too easily associated with “criticize” and all of the negative connotations that word can find itself lugging around. Instead we see this term “reviewer” being bandied about.

And what’s the job of a “reviewer?” Well, it seems their job is to simply review. Now, there are certainly aspects of that word that lends itself to serious critical work. The daily/weekly articles written for movies, plays, books, etc. have long been called “reviews.” In the military the term “review” also has a serious charge to it, a formal retrospection into an event for the purpose to lay a judgment of. Looking into my Webster’s New World College Dictionary, however, and those sort of definitions appear no sooner than fourth under the heading “review.” The first three definitions are far less formal that use phrases such as “a looking back” or a “general survey, report or account.”

Going away from the dictionary, considering personal connotations to the word review, and what I come up with is an expectation for an informal recounting, which is even more relaxed than a “general survey.”

To think of a movie review now, you would almost come to expect a simple recounting of plot with some very basic or rudimentary thoughts about the movie but nothing that would be overly critical (or overly praising). A “review” of Transformers could simply be

It’s a movie about robots fighting other robots,  and some people get involved. It looks pretty on the screen and is, at times, really loud.

I get the impression that is the sort of thing expected of movie reviewers now. Something lacking in actual criticism since it is something that isn’t really implied as part of the process any more. And it’s here where maybe literary criticism is shielded in a way that movie criticism isn’t. While there is certainly a TON of movie criticism, a large number of people who write passionately and knowledgeably  about the movies are burdened with the title of “critic” or “reviewer,” titles that either immediately draw ire or inspire confusion as to role.

Alright, I’ve gone on long enough. Part of the whole Kevin Smith Thing is, I’m sure, just bruised ego. It’s natural. But I think another part of it is the shifting of expectations of society and how language has shifted with those expectations. Maybe we no longer expect a reviewer to be critical and get somewhat put off when they are. When this difference of expectations is met with even greater differences in language, the fire becomes an inferno as one perceives the other as chucking gasoline rather than turning on the hose.

I’m naive, I admit it

March 28, 2010

One of my goals has always been to be published. By a major publishing company. With an editor. And, most importantly, a nice advance that could (maybe) pay my bills for a bit. I also always sorta expect a publishing house to be helpful in pushing me (or any author) in the right direction regarding publicity of said work.

Then I read this blog by Mitzi Szereto.

Then I read this page by Jim Cox at the Midwest Book Review.

Then I talked to a couple of other friends of mine who are knee (well, shoulder) deep in MFA Master/PhD programs.

And I discovered how horribly naive I really am about the whole publishing mess. Any hope that a publisher would help a writer succeed appears blind and destined for failure. Want to do readings? Book’em yourself. Want to get reviewers to read the thing? Send them copies.

Unfortunately, if you’re like me (and you’re probably not, so you’re fine), you don’t really interact well with people. Or maybe you are like me which means that, like me, you have some work to do. for the first time, networking is taking on a clear importance and meaning.  Friends (or at least people who want to remain acquaintances and who may later ask you for a favor) are essential.

But how do you make friends, especially in a world where you are literally a tiny fish in a MASSIVE sea? I come from a small ass town in SE Michigan. I have lately moved to Cleveland.  Not exactly the center of the universe or, especially, the literary universe (Though Dan Chaon lives about 10 minutes away, and I guess Harvey Pekar lives somewhere in this town, so there’s some people whose names are at least noticeable on bookshelves). Given such a situation, it’s easy to look around and wonder how the hell you’re supposed to meet/greet/schmooze anyone.

Well, first, send stuff out. Obvious answer. People like you enough to publish you, on their dime, that’s a great first step in fostering allegiances to call on when needed. Second, use the web. Search for blogs and websites related to your interests/writings/etc. And comment. Say stuff. It’s easy, even if you do look like a naive nit (such as I on Mitzi’s blog). And just know that it’s going to happen. Don’t be an ass. Just be you (unless you are an ass then try to be something less you).

As I crawl, drag, stagger towards finishing the (first) re-write of my first novel I have considered hurling into the world, I’ve started taking these steps. And credit goes to people like Mitzi Szerato and Jim Cox for erecting islands of illumination in the publishing darkness. Eventually, I hope to provide something similar. Until then, I’ll keep plugging away and trying to be a bit less naive.

And I’ll try to shake more hands.

What the World Will Look Like When The Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg – Book Review

March 25, 2010

I wanted to give Laura van den Berg’s collection the same diligence I have already given AS Byatt and am giving David Foster Wallace but I just don’t see a reason to go through each story. They are roughly the same story repeated throughout the book with a young female narrator, some inept/weak guys, searching, and unseen monsters.  Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat. You have a collection of short stories.

Is this overly harsh? Yes. But van den Berg’s collection is frustrating because a couple of stories do show promise (such as the title story, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and Inverness) and you want to like the other stories. van den Berg is certainly a writer adept at using words. Her descriptions are elegant but also repetitive. The first time you encounter her female lead the character is crisp but by the fourth time you encounter her, you already know what to expect from the story. There is a certain level of depth and connection that is simply missing. With the first story, Jean is a woman working as a Bigfoot impersonator and dealing with a dying friend and a family who wants her to give up the acting stuff and move home. There should be some pretty clear connections to be drawn between Bigfoot, her impersonating Bigfoot, people paying to have a run-in with a fake Bigfoot and the pretense her friend can no longer live under because of his impending demise. But they’re just not justified by the text. Next is a story of siblings where the daughter is trying to take care of the younger, mentally disturbed brother after their parents die in the Amazon looking for South America’s equivilant to Bigfoot. Again, there is thread after thread after thread that is begging to be ran together at some point but it never happens.

In the end, the collection feels like a big box of pastry puffs. They look like they should be substantial little bits of goodness, their presentation is bang on, they taste really good but after consuming the box you realize that they were just hollow shells crammed with sweet goodness and empty calories. The moments where van den Berg comes the closest to working are the moments when she either connects the monster more closely to the story or when the monster isn’t a focus at all. With “Inverness,” we follow a woman looking for rare flowers around Loch Ness as another group of scientiest search for the Loch Ness Monster. It works because the woman’s significant other never shows up just like how the monster never shows up. There is a futileness to each quest that is doubled over and balanced by eachother. It is equally paralleled by the story of one of the investigator’s, McKay, and his marriage that is more endured than enjoyed by his wife.

The second story that works well is the title story, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leave Us. A daughter goes on a mission with her mother in search of some lemurs to prove a scientific theory correct. The mother is distant, distracted, inattentive and largely inaccessible. It’s clear that she is more concerned with herself (her studies and her lovers) than her daughter and, to the daughter’s credit, she recognizes this and largely makes peace with it while trying to find her own identity. While her sexuality grows with her being around a colleague of her mother’s (who also happens to believe her mother is wrong in her theory), the daughter increasingly becomes her own person and the story ends with her deciding to head back to NY to pursue her life as a professional swimmer while her mother treks off into the jungle in search of a validation for a theory we are led to believe will be entirely futile. While various monkeys/lemurs are talked about as having once been thought of as monsters, the whole mythical beast angle simply isn’t played up – and it’s a strong suit as the mythical beast isn’t some ape wandering around the forest but the mother’s obsessions that steal her attentions and energies. I think it also works because it creates a tension that is largely lacking in other stories. Where her other works feel malformed or half-formed, this feels like a total work. There is a reason for the events beyond it being five days in someone’s life with Bigfoot. With “What the World…” van den Berg isn’t obtuse with the conflict. A common problem throughout the collection is a vagueness in purpose and in meaning, they become frustrating reads because they continually refuse to offer a reason for having read them or for the significance of the events given to us. There is a profusion of images which the reader instinctively desires to find meaning with but not enough material within the stories to properly make any connections. “What the World…” sets up a dynamic between the mother and daughter and provides the material to support connections drawn within the text.

If van den Berg was more consistent in drawing connections between the use/need of the imaginary monsters and the stories told, or if there was greater variety in her characters or if there seemed a point beyond the stories other than “Five days in my boring life…”…well, if if if.  I wanted to like the stories.  There are aspects of van den Berg’s prose that I really enjoyed but this collection is just too flat and repetitive. Each of her stories has the pieces to be good, just like you can go out and accumulate the pieces to build a car engine. But it only matters if they are put together correctly so that the engine can run. van den Berg’s engines are nearly completed but she seems to be missed a key part here or there, just enough to keep the engines from firing up.

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace – Book Review

March 24, 2010

Alright, the journey is over, Oblivion has been read and I can finally sum it up. First this has been an experience for me. The idea of going through a collection of short stories and reviewing each story while saving a review for the collection as a whole until the end has been illuminating. I found that was giving more thought to the stories as I went, that I was looking at how they were fitting together to form a coherent collection and, in the process of this, I think I got more out of the individual stories. Whereas before I may have missed a point or theme, reviewing each story was helpful in acting as roadsigns for finding different paths to take in each work.

What stood out the most for me was Foster exploring the concept of the narrator and the narrator’s reliability. What Foster does that is somewhat different from other authors is that he finds ways to undermine the narrators in his stories without necessarily making the narrators dishonest. In Mr. Squishy the various eyes we see the story through are proven time and time again to be unable to accurately portray all that is going on. The idea that what we are given are perceptions of what is happening rather than a factual account is contnually reinforced.

This brand of unreliability is explored again in Another Pioneer where we are given a story as told by someone who is hearing it re-told which, in fact, is also a re-telling and on and on and on. The story is told by way of the children’s game of telephone where a rather simple message is relayed through twenty or thirty people and becomes a complex jumble by the end.

With Oblivion we learn at the end that all that preceded it was a dream, again absolving the narrator of being labeled as purposefully unreliable – doubly true when we realize that the narrator wasn’t the narrator at all but just a figment of the dream the actual narrator used to filter her story.

With Good Old Neon we are given a narrator who is openly honest about how distrustful he is but this very openness makes you want to trust him about his deceitfulness. After all, why would he lie about his natural inclination to lie about everything? Other than it would fall perfectly within his nature to lie about it. So is the story we’re told also a lie meant to fit with what we, as readers, would want to hear?

Finally, there is The Suffering Channel which has the most distanced look at a process of skewing narration to fit expectations. Essentially a story about a guy who, literally, craps art work, a magazine attempts to find a way to make it “fit” their image and the expectations of their readers. While the people working at the magazine might not be pushing for outright lies in their coverage of the artful defecator, they are at least bordering on dishonesty as they shift to portray him in a favorable light.

Where does this leave Incarnations of Burned Children? It is the shortest story with the least ambiguity regarding the narrator. Over a few short pages the story is told in almost a misty dreamlike way as a father and mother react to their child being scalded by a pot of boiling water that has fallen on it. Aside from possible negligence by the mother, who we are led to believe was “watching” the child at the time of the accident, we are not given any reason to doubt the veracity of the account.

But every other story in the collection deals with a possible inherent unreliability of narration. Are we meant to assume a certain unreliability to the narration of Incarnations of Burned Children? After all, the mother is shown in a very unflattering (and stereotypical) light in the story while the father is also stereotypically the figure of action and decision and all in all favorable – aside from overlooking the fact that his child’s diaper is soaked with boiling hot water and the child’s genitalia is possibly forever mutilated.

Or is Wallace making another comment with having this story be the least ambiguous in narration?  Another fairly straightforward tale is Philosophy and The Mirror Nature about a man who has a spider fetish and must go with his mother everywhere to ward off her being attacked in public because of being horribly disfigured from a cosmetic surgery to remove crow’s feet.  There certainly appears to be a significance to the fact that the two stories dealing most directly with how a family reacts (and supports itself/eachother) in the face of disfigurement or tragedy appear to have the most reliability.  Is there something about the family dynamic in the face of tragedy that calls for an inherent reliability or, at the very least, honesty? The other stories all deal with story arcs that are either unrelated to the family or are relatively trivial by nature (such as a husband’s snoring interrupting his wife’s sleep).

And when Wallace is talking about the narrator is he also talking about our own perceptions and the reliability of our own thoughts? In The Soul Is Not a Smithy we are shown a man trying to recollect the events of a day when his substitute teacher went nuts and had to be gunned down by the cops but the majority of the facts from that day are given to us by sources outside of the narrator’s memory. We are shown a person constructing his “version” of things from the versions supplied to him from others while, in some way, passing the version off as his own.

So while Wallace continually presents us unreliable narrator after unreliable narrator, is he also bringing into question our own ability to construct the narrations of our lives? It seems to me that Wallace might be saying that we are all inherently unreliable but for moments where reliability (or thought) isn’t an issue, moments where we just act without consideration for appearance or where appearance takes a clear backseat to the necessity of a situation.  There are moments in life where spinning a story is simply inappropriate and, what Wallace seems to be suggesting, is that these are such moments.

Mr. Squishy

The Soul is Not a Smithy

Incarnations of Burned Children

Another Pioneer

Good Old Neon

Philosophy and The Mirror Nature


The Suffering Channel

Assorted David Foster Wallace Material

What it means to be a critic

March 24, 2010

Got this wonderful link from Ebert’s twitter. It’s about a man named Steve Almond lamenting how useless critics are…and critics response to it. In short, it highlights what I have been trying to move toward here, a critical response to whatever I’m reading at the time. The subject might be different (literature vs music) but the basic tenets are the same. The idea of criticism is to try to find a different way of looking at a work and finding greater themes/ideas within it beyond the basic story/lyrics/beat/image/whatever. It’s something I’m still a massive work in progress on but I hope to get better and the responses to Almond’s article, laid out by other critics, are where I hope to one day end up.

Atwood,Rushdie, IPad Stuff, Australia and some other bits

March 23, 2010

Margaret Atwood was the recipient of $1 million from The Dan David Prize. Beyond the ten percent she is required to share through Doctoral and Post-Doctoral Scholarships, she is sharing the prize money with another writer, Amitav Ghosh.

Salman Rushdie has archives on display at Emory University. The Rushdie-specific content is interesting (you can pull up a draft of one of his novels and edit/re-write bits of it, a weird bibliophile’s Eden somewhat analogous to an Air Force fanatic climbing into a military flight simulator) but the issue of preservation. John Updike donating fifty 5 1/4 inch disks shortly before his death is a good example of an author passing on a technology that simply no longer exists (admit it, how many of you have ever seen, let alone used, those big 5 1/4 inch disks?).  At some point, and quite likely in our life times if not within the next twenty years, we will see computing move entirely beyond decides like harddrives with moving parts and possibly even beyond solid state memory (like flashdrives) to lord knows what. are we at risk of losing great swathes of information simply because we’ll no longer be able to access it?

Blogging on demand? Well, maybe. IBM is working on a widget to connect bloggers and readers in a unique way. It’s essentially backwards from how the writer/reader dynamic has been accepted. The writer plugs away at something, throws it out there, and hopes to God someone reads it. Well, IBM is looking to find a way for readers to suggest topics for blogging and for those suggestions to be forwarded to the appropriate blogger to then do with it what he is told to do. On the one hand, as a rarely visited blog writer (unless I criticize illustrators, heh), I can certainly see the appeal. On the other hand, I write about what I write about because it interests me – not necessarily because I want to get a thousand hits a day. My reviews/critiques are dry and not for everyone. And that’s okay.

Make poetry your career and be the best at it. Over night. While it reads as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way of pushing for commercial success and societal significance as a poet, there is also an undeniable scent of truth to the vast majority of it.  I read lit journals, I glance through the annual year end Best Of collections, and am largely unimpressed with the vast vast vast majority of the poetry.  It lacks something. What it lacks is hard to put into words but there is just a gut reaction that is missing when reading it. At risk of sounding melodramatic (or maybe just wistful), it seems as if poetry is too much a way to make ends meet and not a way of life. The idea of Poet as Occupation should be a liberating one. Instead, it seems we may have become Henry Ford’s dream given artistic form. Maybe i’m not taking from it what was meant to be taken from it, but this is what it made me think about. There is a typed version of the same article at Huffington Post.

Finally, Australia is falling behind the EBook revolution. And they’re not happy about it. And they’re trying to figure out how to catch up. And Amazon is selling Kindles there without any real product support. And Apple hasn’t even hired anyone to run their Australian version of the ipad virtual store thing yet. Australia is really just being patently ignored.  And from it all, what really stood out to me, was the attention the IPad is still generating despite it looking like a fairly mediocre blow-up of the IPhone. I haven’t been thrilled with the IPad but if it somehow leads to EBook industry being opened up some more, then it’s done a good thing. Another piece of interesting info was the fact that publishers aren’t just creating digital copies of their novels, but things that are closer to app files than documents. I’m not a huge computer guy, despite the (numerous) IPad postings. But I keep seeing talk of HTML5 coming out in the near future and how it will do away with Flash and whatever else. I think this could also be the avenue for e-literature to eventually head down. Instead of apps, just use a powerful, multip-purpose programming language (as the next HTML appears to be) that allows different e-texts to be opened with a single browser.  Which makes me wish even more that I had any idea whatsoever how to create a webpage strictly through code (and not through those fuzzy point and click editors like Dreamweaver).

My Mom is My Hero

March 17, 2010

Alright, it’s corny, but it’s true. And it’s all because my mom can be a A Level Bitch when she needs to be. She’s always had this quality of being able to stand up for herself against anyone and relentlessly argue a point if she feels she is in the right. Granted, it’s something that has dimmed a bit with age but once in awhile the embers are given a quick puff of air and the flames alight anew. And last night she saved her mother, my grandmother, from death.

Yesterday afternoon my grandmother was taken to the hospital. My mom left work (and might actually be punished for having left work for this by being given a “point”) to be there, as nearly any child would if they knew their mother was being taken to a hospital. Once there the attending physician in the ER aid there were two possible diagnoses. One was cellulitis and the other was a blood clot, as they have similar symptoms.

My grandmother has had cellulitis before. Two christmases ago, my uncle died from complications from cellullitis because an emergency room didn’t recognize how ill he was and sent him home. Last night, the attending physician tried to send my grandmother home. He said he had seen worst cases of cellulitis. That she’d be fine. That modern antibiotics were very strong and would fight it off just as easily there as in the hospital.

Then my mom became a bitch. She argued with the doctor until he finally gave in. they admitted my grandmother. They ran blood cultures. This morning they found that her leg was beginning to go septic. When I say her leg went septic, it means there was bacteria in her blood, or she was beginning to suffer from blood poisoning.  This is what killed my uncle in less than twenty-four hours. Sending my grandmother home last night would have been a death sentence.

What my mom does isn’t in everybody. I don’t know if it’s in me. But I hope that if or when the time comes that I can step up and be a son-of-a-bitch when I’m needed to be.

For more information on cellulitis, here’s the page for it. It says its common but, from the experience with two members of my family, it can be an insidiously dangerous and deadly disease.

The Suffering Channel – Story Review

March 17, 2010

The bulk of the story is just talking about shit. Literally. Brint Molke is an artist on the brink of reluctant celebrity (or infamy) for producing works of art out of his ow shit. The twist is that he doesn’t take his crap and mold it into anything or fling it paintins. Instead, his body just seems to produce shit that is aesthetically pleasing and strongly resembling other works of art/people/objects. For example, as part of authenticating his “abilities” one of the figures he is to reproduce is Marylin Monroe’s iconoclastic image of her standing over a steam vent, attempting to hold her dress down while smiling a smile of envious delight.

This special ability of Brint Moltke is being covered by a “salaryman” named Skip Atwater who writes for a feature in Style magazine called What in the World. (WITH).  He is also supposed to cover a fledgling cable channel called The Suffering Channel which broadcasts, 24/7/365, images of, yes, suffering. Skip himself is a bit of a rube who simultaneously takes pride in his work while searching for exterior buts of motivation and reassurance that his work matters.

Meanwhile, Style magazine seems to be entirely staffed and ran by interns. Which makes Skip possibly the only paid worker we encounter from Style. Whenever the office world of Style is focused on, it always seemed as if it was a less hyper-competitive version of the world in Bret Ellis’s “American Psycho.” Skirts, blouses, bikes and heels get as much page space as dialog and inner office politics. While no one whips out competing business cards, there is still a definite air of personal competition when someone wearing a pair of silk hose that is”so delicate it can only be worn once” is mentioned.

The counterweight to Brint Moltke’s reluctance to step into the spotlight and Skip Atwater’s insecurities, is Brint’s large wife, Amber Moltke. Amber Moltke’s size is continually focused upon and even made into a bizarrely sexual force, especially as she simultaneously cripples a rental car while mauling the less than socially gifted Skip Atwater.  Not only is she physically indulgent, she is fame hungry in a way that is tunnel-visioned and predatory in a way that I’ve only seen approximated by “reality show” contestants as they fight and claw to either stay on the island or in the locked compound.

Against all of this is the reality that none of this will matter and that this article will very likely not be released and the majority of the people at Style will soon be dead. Style’s headquarters are in the world trade center. The date for completing this issue of style is September 10.  We know that on September 11, the towers will be gone and nothing much will be remaining. So all of this work, this conniving, this positioning, is for nothing.

Which seems to be the central thrust of this story. In the end, everything is ultimately for nothing and that the majority of our work will not have any long lasting appeal in the face of greater, more powerful events in human history. So as Amber Moltke shoves her embarassed, near reclusive husband before the cameras, quite possibly doing great emotional harm to him, we already know that nothing will come of it. Despite her repeatedly confessing to Skip that she believes her husband was horribly abused as a child and that this abuse affects him to the present, she willfully pushes  the story forward regardless of what affects it will have on him.

Meanwhile, the Styl e Magazine office hums along with a fascination of the superficial (such as one intern’s bicycle being of competition level and weighing only 8 pounds, allowing her to heft it easily and haul it into the building rather than leaving it padlocked on the street where it would no doubt be stolen) also leaves you with little sympathy for what you know their future will be and how their efforts to churn out their magazine full of thinly disguised tabloid news will be ultimately fruitless.

Even Brint Moltke offers little reason for sympathy as he is essentially forced on a death march towards a public bowel movement to prove the artistic ability of digestive system. At some point, he is just too pathetic to care about, as he sits dumbly while his wife negotiates away his dignity.

If anyone is deserving of sympathy it might be Skip Atwater who is just as bruised by his upbringing as Brint Moltke apparently is but has still managed to carve out a bit of a life for himself while also trying to convince himself that what he does is good for anything beyond that paycheck.

In the end, Wallace seems to be saying that we need to focus our lives less on the pointless shit and find what is truly purposeful for our existence. In the end, all of the Style Magazine-esque stuff is short lived and brushed from the world by larger, more powerful forces. By forces that do have some sort of meaning and purpose behind them, regardless of whether or not we agree or condone the purpose or the force, and that only things guided by purpose leave any significant traces upon our reality.

Dean Haspiel is Talking About Me

March 17, 2010

And it really isn’t very nice.

Upon first reading this, I went back and wanted to edit in some sort of clarification to my Quitter review.  Then part of me wanted to defend myself on his journal but I can’t because I don’t have a live.journal ID and, frankly, I don’t want another ID to keep track of. I even thought of emailing him but, honestly, he probably doesn’t care by now and, if I slept on it, I’d probably just blow it off by morning, too.

But after re-re-reading my review, I think I am clear enough in my calling not Haspiel personally out for his credibility, but the possible credibility of one of the narrators, either the illustrator or the writer. Put another way, it is a question of reliability. Much like how you gradually come to know that Humbert Humbert isn’t to be trusted as a narrator in Lolita, I wondered if the reader wasn’t given reason to not trust one of the interpretations of “Quitter,” either that of the illustrations or that of the words. Here’s the block of text from the review that I think caused the problem:

Considering the visual nature of comics, I wonder if this doesn’t take away from the credibility of one of the narrators, either the writer or the illustrator. The text matches up well with the illustration, but considering the effect small things from facial expressions to stances to shading can affect how a panel is viewed and interpreted, there is a clear possibility for one to provide an interpretation of the story that might be different from the intended interpretation the other half of the story telling might desire to communicate.

Now, I admit, it’s not exactly William Faulkner. But it’s not horrible. And I think the credibility (or reliability) of one of the narrators is fair game. Maybe I was entirely wrong but I thought there was a certain disagreement, at times, between what the illustrations depicted and what Pekar’s words depicted. And that this disagreement could mean that one was slightly more or less reliable than the other. And that such a thing might be entirely purposeful by the writer/illustrator. The idea of two narrators telling the same story but in different ways, at the same time, seems like an intriguing idea to me. Something that makes me think of Last Year at Marienbad, for instance.

I also do not believe his examples of a director/screenplay and singer/lyrics are really fair comparisons. First, they can’t be referred to as “narrators” in the same way the writer/illustrator can (and must necessarily be) referred to as “narrators” in their respective forms. It isn’t a question about the credibility of the artist as a person. It’s simply not, and I think that’s clear. The credibility that is being questioned is the narrative truthfulness of the illustrator versus the writer. they’re telling the same story in different mediums. Each is, essentially, a narrator. If the interpretation of the text ever differs significantly from the interpretation of the images, I think the credibility of one of the narrators has to be called into question.

Just as you question the narrative credibility of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. It’s not a question of Nabokov’s credibility as a writer but of his creation.

Oblivion – Story Review

March 15, 2010

The end leaves you wondering why you read the whole story. While such an ending was a humorous way of conluding a Bob Newhart series, it didn’t work so well for explaining away the biggest moment in the history of Dallas. It doesn’t do a whole lot for this story, either. Finding out all of what preceded was just a dream by the wife rings out as a hollow ending, an attempt to be cute in a book almost entirely devoid of cuteness. On the one hand, it opens up the possibility of the dream being a look into some unconscious feelings towards the marriage.

We are led to believe that the husband has, in some way, been consciously sleeping, perhaps faking his snoring, on some weird subconcious level while actually asleep, to irritate his wife. The bulk of the story is told in the clubhouse at a golf club by the husband to his father-in-law, which seems like an odd choice for a confidant when you’re essentially saying his daughter is nuts and is making their marriage a living hell by her incessant complaining about his snoring.

Honestly, if that’s as far as the story went before the woman wakes up and its revealed that this whole mess was really just a dream, there wouldn’t be much more to write about. What might save the story from falling into its clichéd ending is the little twist revealed just before the turn where you are given a hint that, at some level, the husband is purposefully snoring while asleep, something that should be impossible. This possibility is given an extra little push by a moment in the video from the sleep clinic that shows him slyly opening one eye to look at his still sleeping wife while he is snoring.

Now, by itself this certainly lends a creepy aspect to the husband that may not have been entirely there before. If he is somehow willing himself to snore while in deep sleep, and is weirdly subconsciously/consciously watching his wife to see if he’s effective, it raises a disturbing question over how strong the human subconscious is and how much control is really can assert over  a person’s actions. But what happens when we realize that this is all a creation of his wife’s unconscious mind?

Also, how reliable now is the narrator for the previous story? Finding out that it was all a dream throws the reliability of the narrator into serious question as the very notion of a dream lends a certain fog of uncertainty to it. All readers know that dreams are not reality but can work as representations of something about reality. So now we can no longer honestly look at the majority of the story as any sort of fact but only as some sort of representation of fact. Much of this collection has centered on stories that have passed through a number of filters and we are left to decide what has been filtered out, what has been allowed to pass and why. Part of what this story comes down to must essentially fit into this theme that rears itself in the  majority of the other stories.

Speaking of filters, this story passes through at least three. One is her husband’s, who is the narrator for the bulk of the story. The second is, obviously, Hope’s subconscious mind that we find has constructed the events entirely, and the third is the almost entirely unseen (aside from a few lines of dialog at the end) conscious Hope. At some point, it becomes crucial to figure out the meaning of the story in how it must relate to the conscious Hope’s world,f or her world is the only world that is mitigated by unreality. It’s the only world that’s “real” but the only picture we can draw from it now is from inferences made from the dream world told through the imagined lens of her husband.

Part of me does not believe the story works because it simply doesn’t give us enough information we can concretely say is True. I feel it is entirely safe to say that Hope’s dream must in some way be representational of Hope’s reality but we can’t judge how representational it is or of what it might be representing. At the same time, I would be hesitant to say that determining how/what the dream represents is what matters to Wallace in this story. Perhaps the exploration of narrator and time is what Wallace is looking to explore and the lack of information to encourage a reading of representation/reality is purposeful.  It might be Wallace’s way  of focusing our attention on what he wants it focused on. Rather than having a better story, Wallace may have been pushing for a clearer point.