Friday, February 28, 2014

A Good Look at Death: Comments on A Prairie Home Companion

I watched A Prairie Home Companion with a few friends this week. Hoping to warm them to the subject and approach of the film, I prepared the following introductory comments:

When A Prairie Home Companion first came out, I had never read or listened carefully to Garrison Keillor. I knew about his radio show, but just that it existed and was generally well-liked across generations.

I went to see it because it was directed by Robert Altman, my favorite director. Altman made the movie at the tail end of a career that changed how movies were made. MASH, Three Women and Nashville brought arty, counter-cultural ideas and styles into mainstream movie houses across America. Altman was known for putting microphones on all his actors, placing them in a scene, and roaming with his cameras searching for true and funny moments.

Altman was an unknown director of commercials when he made MASH. He stayed well under an already small budget and shot on a tight timeline to keep studio executives off the set. Some of the actors complained that it was pure chaos. When the movie came out, it was a shock. It delighted and surprised its audience because no one had seen anything like it.

When actors caught wind of Altman's approach, they all wanted to act in his movies. He said of his method, "I insist that they do what they became actors to do. I want them to create something and not just hit marks and say words."

There's an honesty, and a great deal of faith in human truth to show itself in funny and moving ways, throughout Altman's movies. After seeing A Prairie Home Companion in a small, mostly empty theater in Chicago, I felt so excited that I returned to watch it two more times during the following week.

It was the funniest, fullest, most lively movie about death I had ever seen. It was full of oddball characters, roaming plot lines, highbrow symbolism, astounding performances, and lowbrow puns and gags. It didn't derive any of its substance from hip irony or sarcasm.

I felt like it looked at human transience fully, and had a good laugh about the whole thing.

This is the same sort of grace and humor I hope to have toward my own losses, to the unfairness and unpredictability of my own circumstances. To be able to look at the whole mess and say, as Garrison Keillor said through a character in his novel Pontoon, "Life is unfair. That's what makes it so beautiful."

The same year that A Prairie Home Companion came out, Altman received an Oscar for lifetime achievement and died.

While I felt the pain of the loss of a man I admired greatly, his passing seemed, like many of the greatest moments in his films, a beautifully timed, perfectly realized accident.

Garrison Keillor's work on this film is unmistakable, and I went on to read most of his novels, many of his essays, and quite a few of his short stories. I saw in them the same free movement, the same sense of wonder, the same happy fatalism that Altman captured so well in this film.

And if it doesn't mean that much to you, I hope you can at least get a few good laughs out of it. After all, that's pretty much the point.   

Monday, December 30, 2013

On Love and Place: Ian's favorite books in 2013

In my travels and readings this year, I meditated on human communities and their relationships to landscapes. I found tremendous insight in the writings of Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, and the author who defined this year's themes and most influenced my thinking, Wallace Stegner.

Here were some of the books that I found most enriching this year:

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson is a hallucinogenic, skeletal novella. Stegner's thoughts on the transient lives scattered throughout the American West primed me to engage the lyricism and imagery of one of the most powerful stories of the West I've ever read. A train deposits a stranger in a wild land.

The soul of a place is laid bare through a life formed in it. I hope to revisit this novel many times, to relate with the mystery at its core.

What Every Person Should Know About War
 by Chris Hedges is a book that trusts its reader with the bare facts of contemporary warfare. The Q&A format creates a context for surprising emotional impact. The book is not necessarily anti-war. But it does demystify the whole thing, exposing why people go to war and what war does to soldiers and civilians.

After finishing this book, I felt admiration for survivors of wars, and a deep distress at the apparent inevitability of the whole thing. This helped to established a vocabulary that I would explore in conversations throughout the year about war and, later, what it means to be a neighbor.

Lightman's meditation on time and perception helped to shape my experience of the American West during my travels there this year. I wrote about it here. I read this book once a few years back, but reading it communally made a profound difference in how I experienced it, and led me to start gathering with friends to read stories aloud to one another.

I formed a book group to re-read Infinite Jest this year, and the vast, complex novel opened up in interesting ways as a result. I developed a clearer picture of the themes of identity and distraction, the depth of DFW's vision, and the arcs of the tortured characters' lives.

As with the first read-through, there were ups and downs in the reading. The naked desperation of some of the characters, the oblique way in which main events appear only vaguely on the periphery of the narrative, and the dense speech of a great mind in turmoil made for hard work at times, but these things also made the journey entertaining in a really rich way. The despair at the heart of this novel becomes something wonderful in the hands of an earnest, big-hearted artist.

Edward Abbey is not a polished writer or thinker. His extremism leads him to some questionable beliefs. He doesn't always respect form or choose the most constructive approach to conversation like his one-time teacher, Wallace Stegner, or his fellow student, Wendell Berry.

I think these flaws are part of his charm, and his infatuation with desert landscapes consumes them into a furious, impulsive, and lyrical voice, and this voice finds its perfect setting in Beyond the Wall, a collection of essays about deserts. I found this book more interesting than Desert Solitaire, because of its geographic range, and more focused than The Monkey Wrench Gang. The character Edward Abbey writes most fully and to greatest effect is Edward Abbey.

I'd been meaning to read Sherman Alexie for a few years, after reading this excellent interview with Neko Case in The Believer. This year, I finally started, and I was unable to stop. In a period of two months, I read Reservation BluesWar DancesFlightTen Little IndiansThe Toughest Indian in the WorldThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and his first story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

I found a rich, complex kind of life in Alexie's comic sense, his freewheeling narratives, his big-hearted sense of tragedy, and his active rebellion against tribalism in America's social structure. And I know that he was mostly drunk when he wrote his first story collection, but I enjoyed it the most because it was so freely written, sprawling, and funny. He certainly grew as a writer, but there was a unique delight in these unhurried, unpolished early stories that I found surprising and captivating.

My thinking about neighborhoods in relation to their landscapes really took form when I began reading Wendell Berry. While I find some of his ideas irrelevant to urban life or hostile to those who just can't fit in with rural communities, I do feel that he speaks to a deep, human need to live both communally and in harmony with the land that supports us. His clarity of thought and careful speech both influenced the way I read and spoke this year.

Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community packages most of his key ideas in masterful and moving essays. He addresses sales resistance, the relationship between Christians and the earth, local economies, pacifism, and agriculture. His passion and thought culminate in the title essay, in which he calls for community to fill the gap between public and private lives.

Stegner's attention, memory, passion, and intellect are all deeply inspiring to me, and I found a great deal of wisdom in the novels and nonfiction that I read from him this year. I began with Angle of Repose, then continued through his work, reading Beyond the 100th Meridian, Collected Stories, The Spectator Bird, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Remembering Laughter, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, Recapitulation, and Crossing to Safety.

While there were great passages, themes, characters, and stories throughout all of his books (of which The Spectator Bird was my least favorite), I think that his attention to human relationships, context, and memory found their fullest subject in Crossing to Safety. Stegner forgoes the conventional twists to study the life of a friendship between two couples. This approach brings readers into contact with slow and powerful truths about human shortcomings, community, and the nature of love between complex people.

What amazes me about Barry Lopez is not how much he knows, which is truly remarkable, but how many ways he knows. A respected biologist, philosopher, journalist, anthropologist, and artist, Barry Lopez taught me new ways to know a landscape, to regard a life, to contemplate relationships and animals and time. I finish his essays and stories feeling more alert and filled with wonder.

His passions and perspectives find a landscape to match their breadth and depth in Arctic Dreams, a stunning meditation on the arctic and the animals and humans that make lives there. He dedicates a chapter to "Ice and Light," honors the complex lives of narwhals and polar bears, and details the history of exploration of the great northern desert.

I think the highest compliment I can pay an author is that she or he taught me to speak and think differently. I changed my thinking in numerous subtle ways after reading Lopez, but I also began thinking in terms of "landscapes" of interrelated lives and features, and practiced treating animals, people, and places with greater "regard."
My favorite book of the year was a novella from an author who, until this book snuck into the canon of Western literature, was just seeking to understand his brother. Fly fishing provides a metaphor, stage, and movement for the mysteries of love. There's a great deal to say about the author's pacing, technique, insight, and voice, but at this passage, in light of the things that surrounded it, I had to put the book down and wait for my eyes to clear.
For some time, he struggled for more to hold on to. "Are you sure you have told me everything you know about his death?" he asked. I said, "Everything." "It's not much, is it?" "No," I replied, "but you can love completely without complete understanding."
And that's a truth that ties it all together for me.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Cleaning Up the Subjunctive: A Review of Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

Some months ago, I sat in the back of a taxi racing through Kathmandu and listened to an Evangelical leader bemoan contemporary grammar in secular America. "As a writer, you'll appreciate this," he told me, before launching into a eulogy for the subjunctive tense. At the time, I did not have a clear understanding of what that was. I nodded, under the spell of jet lag and wanting to focus on the city passing by my window rather than engage in a conversation on a topic where I had a hunch the guy was misinformed or under some idealogical skew.

The subjunctive, which is basically a hypothetical tense (as in "if there were...") I think he was trying to say, had fallen out of currency because this current generation (my generation, although he probably thought I was in his corner), was unable to imagine or believe in anything but the noise that surrounded them (us).

The conversation lingered in my mind, not because I agreed with what the guy was saying, but because he gave me more credit than I deserved, and then said something that I had a hunch I disagreed with. It was a conversation left dangling, and I rarely let those be.

A few months later, I was reading Thomas Pynchon's historical reimagination, Mason & Dixon, and I noted the use of the word "Subjunctive," and a fairly substantial meditation on it. The word is used a few times in the book, which takes place before the revolutionary war in the colonies that would evolve into the United States, fracture again, and then reunite, leaving some discontented Confederates to echo down through the generations.

It struck me as I read the book that here was a novel from the nineties, mining and critiquing the use of the subjunctive! It was looking back at ideals yet to be formed, when America was pretty much a subjunctive idea, a beautiful hypothesis, an unexplored frontier, an unfought war.

As I plowed through the book and wrestled with the gap between Pynchon's imagined New World and the tumultuous America around me today, I began thinking on the so-called disappearance of the subjunctive. Maybe it is the result of an intentional shift of ideas, and maybe it's not so bad, if we are still aware of and willing to interact with the tense.

This thought sprung out of my reading of the book, and it has yet to be fully formed, but I thought that it would be worth mentioning here: Maybe my generation's failure, or refusal, to speak in terms of imaginations or what ifs comes from the fact that we see a dark cloud of unheeded fact that needs to be dealt with first. And perhaps it is our shortcoming, or perhaps it is a necessary step in the shattering and rebuilding of dreams that did not include the people or movements that we see around us.

I'm not trying to be all gloomy, but Mason & Dixon did a good job of pointing out the fallacies planted in the American Dream from its inception, and many of us are wondering if all the subjunctive terms used to describe our utopia need to be reimagined.

So, in the interest of not sounding like I'm hanging on some generational pendulum, I will say that there is room for imagination, for the subjunctive, in our language today, but as we are all learning (thank the mighty internet) as we connect with those who have been overlooked or even actively abused in pursuit of an imagined future, it is time to do so with a little more care.

To the writers and thinkers of my generation, I say, use your subjunctives with great care, and dream new dreams carefully, knowing that you only have part of the narrative.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

In the Air to Germany: A review of Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

If you must read Gravity's Rainbow, and I think it's a pretty good idea to do so if you're the type that reads a blog like this, I'd recommend you book a plane ticket from wherever you live (like, say, Atlanta, just for example) to some exotic destination (Nepal, if you have the urge to see some crazy Hindu [or "Hindoo" as Pynchon would spell it] stuff and the world's tallest mountain), with a layover in Germany. Here's why: planes serve you coffee all night, you will be surrounded by Germans, odds are in favor of a war movie, and as you lift off, you'll start to get a strange vertiginous feeling that you have lifted away from the rigid immediacy of your surroundings into some unknown cultural void.

In this hypercaffeinated, timeless traverse from Atlanta to Germany, you begin reading. Here's the opening paragraph:

"A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now."

A screaming? you think, as your plane hums, vibrates, eases its way over the Atlantic.

You read on, hoping to learn what screams across what sky, when, over whom, and who the "he" is who flees beneath wherever the story is going.

Then, when Pynchon's characters start using words like, "Kraut," and "Nazis," you really start to squirm. You're in his world now, his war, his America, his London, his raging, spinning, spanning, ejaculating brain. I hope you stay there for a while. It's worth the difficulty.

That opening sense of wonder, of violent mystery holds throughout the book. Some passages are remarkable in their immediacy, their vulgarity, their hilarity, their poignancy. Most of the time though, you'll be haunted by the nagging question of what in Pynchon's world is going on?

I will attempt to summarize. There are a lot of bombs going off, and there's rumor of one particular bomb that's the sort of platonic bomb, the ultimate design. The perfection of bombness. And almost everyone in the story is after some variation of this ideal.

Once you get to Nepal, assuming that you stayed with it for the bulk of the trip, only taking breaks to drink coffee, watch The King's Speech, which actually connects to parts of Gravity's Rainbow in surprising ways, and talk to your neighbor, the book will stay with you, since it is so fiercely entertaining, in the highest sense of the word. It engages. It truly, deeply entertains. It haunts you and flares up, even among the lurid, grainy streets of Kathmandu.

Only in the last pages, which you read somewhere in the jetlagged days after you return to the States, after he has rattled, shocked, confused, teased, aroused, dodged, lost, riddled, and ensared you, does he begin to unravel his symbols. And when he does, you realize that the math is deeper than you thought, and that it was easier not to understand than to do the work to follow the trails that his expositions offer.

It's one of those books like Ulysses or Infinite Jest, where you can't always be sure who is saying or doing what, where, and to what end. However, since you were disoriented by the trip anyway, and had a lot to think through upon your return, why not toss this masterpiece into the mix? It has a lot to say. It seems to ring out with a lot of the other madness you see in this strange place you've returned to where everyone seems to be chasing a vaguely defined, incinerating dream for reasons ranging from its inscrutability to its platonic perfection to its raw unattainability.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Highbrow Historical Pulp Fiction: A review of Them by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is the Tom Waits of highbrow pulp fiction.

My friend Jonathan Kotulski made the above statement, mostly in jest I think, during a recent phone conversation.

We had been talking about Kafka, Musil, Borges, and David Foster Wallace, then I mentioned that I was still feverishly reading novels and short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, and that I didn't completely understand why. The Tom Waits comparison came from the fact that she has produced a huge catalog, and managed to stay consistently challenging over the course of several decades.

My most recent JCO book is actually one of her earlier works. As illustrated boldly in the picture above, it is named Them. The title, which actually does help in the interpretation of the book, does very little to tell you what you are about to read. Nor does the illustration. Nor do maybe the first 400 pages, over the course of which a quarreling, unlikable family staggers through two generations of rapes, murders, beatings, racism, domestic violence, abandonment, bereavement, rebellion, infidelity, alcoholism, obesity, and cancer.

In general, I found the book to be melodramatic, overdrawn, miserable, and taxing. However, there are two tricks JCO pulls, which although they struck me as a little cheap at the time, in retrospect help to tie the thing together and make its reading worthwhile.

The first trick she plays twice. In her intro, she bills the story "a work of history in fictional form." Later in the novel, she prints several letters written by one of the protagonists to herself. She artfully pleads with her readers to accept that, "This is the only kind of fiction that is real."

The second trick, which is complicated by the first, is a bit of a deus ex machina, but in my opinion, it works. The history of the minor characters in the novel is, without much set-up or warning, suddenly linked to major historical events, and everything changes. Which I guess is how major historical events interact with the urban poor, striking without warning. The whole book, the characters seem like anonymous cogs in a big, crushing wheel, then without much warning or setup, the axle breaks.

So at the end of Them, readers are confronted with a story that seems too bad to be true, with a twist that seems too big to be true, yet the author repeateadly claims that the badness and bigness are both historical fact.

As a reader, I love stuff like this. It places me on a precipice. I am cynical, but as P.T. Anderson reminds pomo cynics in Magnolia, "These things happen."

I rarely encounter books that engage me in a struggle, that effectively prod me to reframe, or restate, how I think about the world, its workings, and my connection to them, but Them is one such book. And that doesn't mean I like all the grand gestures, the melodramatic sexual drama, the barrage of tragedies, or the absorption with violence and tension, but like they do in all JCO books, these things fill a space worth exploring, even if they leave me feeling ambivalent and more than a little disturbed.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Japanese Tourist: A review of Arresting God in Kathmandu by Samrat Upadhyay

Let's imagine that the literary scene in America was pretty quiet, and that Japanese was the international trade language, so Ray Carver learned Japanese and did his writing in Japanese.

You with me? Now, let's picture a Japanese tourist wandering into a bookstore in Los Angeles, wide-eyed about the glamour of Hollywood, the clash of ethnic groups, and the beautiful beaches and deserts he has seen. He loves how crazy America seems andwants to get a little more understanding of the country. He sees a copy of What We Talk about When We Talk about Love in his native language. Our tourist reads the rave reviews on the back, reads how well Carver captures American life, and purchases the book to read on the plane ride back to Tokyo.

What he discovers while he's in the air over the pacific is that Carver is pretty much copying some great Japanese writer with whom our tourist is already familiar, that the stories are about themes that have nothing to do with the America he witnessed during his travels, and that these themes are pretty much the normal day-to-day concerns of your average Japanese short story anyway. Disgusted, our Japanese tourist hurls the book out of the window of his plane (picturing this may require a little suspension of disbelief, but stay with me).

Now, let's assume that this Japanese tourist has a blog not unlike this very blog, where he responds in various ways to books, music, movies, and sumo wrestling matches. And he has been tasked with writing a review, and, upon further reflection, he wonders if maybe he should have given Carver a chance to do what Carver wanted to do, instead of reinforcing the wonder that this tourist felt about America.

My friends, after reading Arresting God in Kathmandu, I find myself in a very similar situation to this imaginary tourist.

I traveled to Nepal recently, and I spent a few days in Kathmandu before and after trekking to the base camp of Mount Everest. While in Kathmandu, I sought literature to help me understand and enjoy the culture I was witnessing. Samrat Uphadyay's collection of short stories seemed promising. However, in the air on my way back to Atlanta, I found the stories to be mostly like Carver's, except a little less good.

The writer spends very little time on the context for these characters. Absent are the lurid descriptions of Pashupati Temple or responses to the smog or the litter or examinations and riffs on the vibrant cultural whirlwind that I witnessed over there. Instead, I read straightforward accounts of Nepali people adrift in the face of sexual, family, and relational concerns.

Now, upon revisiting AGiK, I have to admit that I broke a basic rule to reading and responding to literature, which is to let it speak on its own terms first. I drowned the book in my own expectations, then discarded its breathless corpse.

Upon further review, I found stories which had a quiet kind of power to them. Upadhyay's tales rarely tell you what they are about. Instead, they paint understated portraits of characters suffering under massive emotional currents. I still found the writing style weak, but the characters and content took on new life once divorced from a tourist's expectations.

That said, I still don't really like these stories. But now for different, less prejudiced reasons. There are moving moments and keen observations, but overall, I just don't find the work that well-written or the stories particularly interesting.

Either way, I was glad for this book and the way it revealed the blinding power of my own context and expectations. I hope to find a book about Nepal that does the same thing, except leaves me more touched, challenged, and impressed at the end.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Classism vs. The Caste System: A Review of Fatalism and Development by Dor Bahadur Bista

While I was in Kathmandu on vacation, I asked the president of a local university if he could recommend any books. I felt enchanted and a little baffled by the social movements I saw around me. And the varieties of skin tone, appearance and religions suggested a storied history. Without hesitating, he offered me only one title. I immediately found the book, and as I asked other translators, missionaries, and teachers what I should be reading, they all recommended the same book.

You know that a book has something to say when the author disappears under mysterious circumstances soon after its publication. So it is with Dor Bahadar Bista's little critique of his homeland. In Fatalism and Development: Nepal's Struggle for Modernization, Bista searches through Nepali history to find the influences, patterns, and ideologies that make it so difficult for Nepal to meet the numerous challenges of adapting to a changing world.

What he turns up is fascinating. Bista suggests that despite numerous attempts by Indian immigrants, Nepal never fully adopted the caste system. Instead, it created a permeable set of classes with its own set of disadvantages. The main one being that once a Nepali makes it into political or economic power, he/she is taught to disdain work. So the resulting society has a group of wealthy leaders who, through a set of cultural loopholes and customs, don't do much work.

A lesson learned on this very blog in my review of Overnight suggests that when we receive our titles, when we get public approval, that's when we really need to get to work.

I am a fan of Nepali culture. I love the people of Kathmandu. But, as I read bits of this and other books by the light of my headlamp because of yet another power outage, I had to agree that the administration of the country could use some improvement.

I can't confirm or deny much of the material in the book because my entire time in Nepal consisted of about three weeks, but the study seemed to resonate with the patterns I saw around me. There may not be much here for your average reader, but for culture and history geeks, Nepal's developmental and political structures offer some compelling tensions.