Saturday, December 26, 2009

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro

"Nocturnes" opens with a haunting short story, "Crooner," which for me is the best of this collection. "Crooner" gives us vividly what is best in Ishiguro's fiction - his ability to draw characters and his use of carefully concealed information - sometimes from the reader, sometimes from his characters.

The narrator is a musician in Venice who grew up in Eastern Europe under communism. During a set, he sees a popular cabaret singer whose career has seen better days sitting at a table. The narrator introduces himself, expecting a hasty greeting followed by a tactful exit. Instead, he finds himself invited into the singer's life and, subsequently, his troubled marriage.

In "An Artist of the Floating World," Ishiguro gave us the portrait of an artist recounting his life, artfully and obliviously concealing his involvement in wartime Japan's martial culture. The artist's spiritual twin is Stephens, the butler of "The Remains of the Day," who is unaware or unwilling to admit his employer's complicity in appeasement with the Nazis or his love of the head housekeeper. Ishiguro's characters are human beings who live by, because of, and imprisoned in their own illusions.

The narrator of "Crooner," however, draws a few conclusions, as does the reader about Tony Gardner, our seemingly forgotten singer who dreams of a Tony Bennett-like comeback. The narrator also gives a few words of encouragement as he assists Gardner in a midnight serenade of his wife from a Venice canal. But not everything is what it seems. Just as the narrator's mother was a "prisoner" of communism and lost love, it is apparent that either Gardner or his wife Lindy too are prisoners of something, whether it be lost fame or love. Figuring out which is left up to the reader.

Ishiguro's characters in this story, as in the other stories of this book, are adequately described in one story as "well-intentioned mediocrities" - people who are in the grip of music and hover just on the borders of notoriety or popularity. There is an appreciation both for the arrogance of the musician, and the humility playing music demands from its practitioners. As in the final story, "Cellists," we hear from the same narrator as "Crooner," who tells of another friend in a relationship that is not quite love. A cellist meets a woman he believes to be a virtuoso, but instead is someone who hasn't played in years because she doesn't wish to "damage her gift" with the well-intentioned mediocrity of a teacher. What in another writer's hands would be a tiresome crank becomes a character of beauty and, of course, blissful ignorance.

Ishiguro's other stories toy with humor giving action that sometimes feels forced but entertaining. When a character begins describing a fascination he has with a female dentist, the explanation made me laugh for several minutes uncontrollably. It is good to see him occasionally straying out of the darkness, but it is there that he, like the crooners of old, is able to work his old black magic.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Twilight: New Moon by Stephanie Meyer

Fall in love with someone, and you fall in love with them in time. Whatever they experienced in the past makes up who they are. The present is wrapped up in the life of the other. The future, presumably, is about the constant renewal and tending of that love. Even a temporary relationship entails a marriage of sorts - circumstances and ambitions bound together, for whatever reason, for however long.

Having spun out a love story in "Twilight," Stephanie Meyer then has to necessarily expand the universe she created into a larger world. Simple stories, like simple organisms, must at some point grow in order to survive. A love affair between a teenage girl and a vampire caught forever between his teen and adult years may go on, but for how long? When Bella, the teenage narrator of "New Moon" asks early in the novel, "What's so great about mortality?" she is angry that her love, Edward Cullen, will not transform her into a vampire, presumably to share immortality with her. Her ambition is that the love she feels for Edward go on, and not be tainted by age or circumstance.

But an unwelcome reminder of Bella's humanity drives Edward to leave - for her sake - and unwittingly triggers the next step in the story: Bella's association with Jacob, the werewolf guardian. Jacob appeared briefly in "Twilight" and planted the seed of the enmity between the werewolves and the "cold ones" - the Cullen vampire clan. Bella, caught between Edward and Jacob, of course chooses Edward. But this sets in motion her meeting the Volturi, an ancient group of vampires who require that she eventually become one of the undead.

Confession: I did not enjoy "New Moon" as much as "Twilight," frankly. Bella's birthday party, cut short by the accidental spilling of her blood, seemed forced, in light of "Twilight's" climax when Bella's blood was everywhere. The extended period during which Bella sleepwalks through life after Edward's departure went on much too long, and was wisely cut short by the makers of the movie. (They also introduced an e-mail correspondence between Bella and Alice which helped move the story forward.) The writing also seemed rushed - it would be nice if Stephanie Meyer could find some other word to describe Edward besides "beautiful," over and over and over. Word choices are often overwrought and overly dramatic. I also was put off by the almost camp attitude of the characters toward their supernatural surroundings. "Sure, I had a lot on my mind - revenge-obsessed vampires, giant mutant wolves..." Bella observes, before asking:

"What kind of a place was this? Could a world really exist where ancient legends went wandering around the borders of tiny, insignificant towns, facing down mythical monsters? Did this mean every impossible fairy tale was grounded somewhere in absolute truth?...Wasn't one myth enough for anyone, enough for a lifetime?"

It's in the best interests of a writer of the fantastic not to ask a question like this, not to point to the zipper down the monster's back and ask the audience not to notice.

Having said that, there was many things I enjoyed. As I said, for this story to go on, it has to grow. And Meyer gives us a higher vampire hierarchy and the idea of something even beyond immortality. When Bella and Carlisle begin to speak of the hereafter for vampires, she reminds us of why we were originally spellbound by Edward - his fallen angel character, the idea that he might be redeemed, presumably by Bella's love. We also have Jacob, a reluctant (teenage!) werewolf who takes on the guardianship of his people, and presumably, Bella.

Reading these books, the phrase that pops to mind is courtly love - and it probably comes from the inspirations for these two stories - "Pride and Prejudice" and "Romeo and Juliet." Passion burns sweetly, but only so long as it is passion and nothing more. Bliss is eternal, if not confused with the day-to-day business of love. Anyone can look like a god as long as you don't have to watch him pick his teeth after a meal. Which is why these books have attained their status in culture - they're safe. Vampires who hunt animals and only attack other vampires, werewolves who attack vampires and not humans, and a woman caught between the two of them. "Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds..."

It is also a mark of the author's ambition when she tackles the eternal, as she does in the words of Carlisle. "But never, in the nearly four hundred years now since I was born, have I ever seen anything to make me doubt whether God exists is some form or the other. Not even the reflection in the mirror."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov

The subtitle of this posthumous novel is "Dying Is Fun," and one senses the sarcasm even from beyond the grave among the bones of this work. Nabokov, as he succumbed to a host of ailments toward the end of his life, left "The Original of Laura" with his family to destroy - the first draft of a novel scrawled on 138 index cards, which are faithfully reproduced for the reader after decades of indecision by Nabokov's family. Index cards, we are told, because Nabokov liked to arrange and rearrange his passages as the mood hit him.

One sees, upon a first reading, why Nabokov might have wanted to spare the public this work in progress. It is hard to divine just where he was headed, what he might have changed, what he might have expanded upon. What is here is only the barest outline of a plot - a young woman named Flora becomes the subject of a novel as she is prisoner in a lifeless, loveless marriage. Beyond that, it's difficult to judge where he intended to go. Scenes are only barely sketched in. Extended dialogue is scarce. This is only the beginning of birth pangs.

What is here is interesting, nonetheless. There are typical Nabokovian puns and putdowns - observations such as how people seem to stare with "nasty compassion," or how an aging child molester died of a stroke in an elevator - "going up, one would like to surmise." We get the opinion that Malreux and Mishima, among other writers, "could get away with the most excreble writing, provided they represent their times." The introduction proves that this kind of literary snobbery did not die with the author but is alive and well with Nabokov's son, Dimitri, who wrote the forward.

And that makes the whole business tantalizing enough. I found myself wishing there were just a little more flesh here among the bones. It is nearly impossible to see what Nabokov meant by some of this. For example, would he have retained the name Hubert H. Hubert for one of his characters, which seems such an uninspired homage to "Lolita?" While Nabokov's style is evident here, it is not fluid and not constant throughout. The total is occasionally as indicipherable as his handwriting.

But this is clear: much of the book deals with self-destruction. From what we know about the state of his health just before his death, this would have been a welcome subject for Nabokov, as it is for his narrator. What few observations are intact among these pages deal with losing toes, limbs, and the welcome effects of oblivion:

"I hit upon the art of thinking away my body, my being, mind itself. To think away thought - luxurous suicide, delicious dissolution! Dissolution, in fact, is a marvelously apt term here, for as you sit relaxed in this comfortable chair (narrator striking its armrests) and start destroying yourself, the first thing you feel is a mounting melting from the feet upward...(card ends)."

Christianity, critics often charge, has been too obsessed with the body, or its negation. Those who take it too literally, we are told, pay too much attention to covering up the body in unseemly modesty, or placing too much hope in the promise of resurrection and not enough on the here and now. Explanations for everything from the rise of obesity in America to perceived Republican indifference to the hungry and poor have been wrapped up in such criticisms. Nabokov's novel (and the circumstances under which it was written) reminds us that the inescapable fact of life is that it is not eternal, in this reality at any rate. The very fact that this novel is not finished, that the intelligence that created it has been gone for thirty years, is enough to drive that point home.

But much of who we are is wrapped up in our bodies, and warped by them. When we are most beautiful, we may be simultaneously powerful and vulnerable. Age showers us with the wisdom of experience at the exact moment we become spectators instead of actors. Bodies break, and the spirits within them do as well. Shuffling the cards may change the organization, but the ending is always the same, written or unwritten. This is an unpleasant truth, but it means that unlike another posthumous author's work - Dickens' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" - the ending, and the culprit, has already been divulged.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

Much of the first book in Meyer's vampire romance series, strangely enough, is concerned with images of imprisonment and living up to expectations. From the very beginning of "Twilight," Bella Swan is happy "to be left alone, not to have to smile and look pleased" around her father. Later on, she remarks about her new hometown of Forks, "You could never see the sky here; it was a like a cage."

There are several reasons for this, of course - Bella is a teenager, the new kid in a sleepy, dreary town who feels abandoned by her mother, and misplaced with her father, who never has recovered from his broken marriage. But as we will soon find, Bella is the hunted, the prey "staring into the dark eyes of the hunter," her love, the 100-year-old vampire Edward Cullen, forever sentenced to be a teenager.

I was suspicious of "Twilight" for several reasons, not the least of which its omnipresent nature in the national consciousness. Every trip to the bookstore means passing a massive table with all four of the Twilight novels as well as their movie spawn, Meyer's "The Host," and teen picture magazines with Robert Pattinson. But also, the book's premise made me slightly suspicious. The vampire in literature- Dracula, obviously - represents evil. Not merely in the creature's bloodlust, since that equates the vampire with the animal outside of human morality, killing for survival. But the vampire represents a perversion of nature - the undead, apart from salvation. The idea of a teenage romance with a vampire, on its face, made me think on our culture in general, shaking hands with evil and attempting to "understand" it, even excuse it. We live in a world where Hitler's self-serving stories of beatings as a child are sometimes used to illustrate the dangers of child abuse, as Ron Rosenbaum remarked. Such easy explanations not only seem to wish for an understanding of evil, but offer it an excuse.

But "Twilight" is closer to romance than the supernatural; a redressing of the standard teenage narrative of the girl who tries to "save" her dangerous boyfriend. The characters are sometimes obvious but just edgy enough to be interesting. Bella is a snarky but basically good girl with a few cynical observations thrown in for depth. Edward is a vampire, but he's a "good" vampire who lives off the blood of animals rather than humans. He's environmentally conscious. He tells Bella she is better off staying away from him, yet saves her life. His warning - "What if I'm not the super hero? What if I'm the bad guy?" - points to something else. All of these qualities are sometimes ludicrous and amusing but necessary for the story to work.

I could have done without the multiple reminders of how "beautiful" Edward is, but Edward Cullen is a close cousin to Milton's Lucifer, with a little of Anne Rice's poet vampires mixed in. But whereas Lucifer is a beautiful being who chooses rebellion against God, Edward awakens during the influenza epidemic of the 1910s to find his life transformed into something immortal and infernal. There is an absurdist quality to it, since Edward feels he should have died nearly a century earlier; The vampire who asks, "Why am I still here?" is also a prisoner, though of something much worse than teenage angst. This self-loathing makes Edward tragic and interesting enough to keep our attention as he and Bella go through the usual steps of teenage infatuation, even as they threaten to bring the book's narrative momentum to a standstill.

But toward the book's close, when Edward is forced to drink Bella's blood, he arrives at the moment he has dreaded - since he is drawing out the venom that would turn her into a vampire. He loves her but does not want her to join him among the world of the undead. Sacrifice? On many levels - in love, in consciousness, in existence. The dangerous guy narrative usually exists with the girl attempting to save her man with her love. Salvation, through love, a Christian idea but one which replaces Christ with the redemptive quality of passion. But the dangerous guy narrative usually ends when he lures the girlfriend, against her will and sometimes his, into destruction. Only Christ can redeem with love, because danger is stronger than passion.

This story, which seems absurd on the surface, could only succeed with a vampire who sees the absurdity of life. An immortal character, who strangely enough, longs for something enduring. "Twilight" succeeds because of this.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dickens'...uh, Disney's...A Christmas Carol

It says something about the imagination of Charles Dickens that only in 2009 could technology finally give an adequate expression of the artistic vision encompassed in a story he wrote in 1843. The Disney movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis, (Forrest Gump, The Polar Express, Beowulf) is only the latest cinematic expression of "A Christmas Carol," but it also shows technology can only do so much to compete against the ghosts of Scrooges past.

First of all, Zemeckis' movie is slavishly faithful to the Dickens original. Moments that are sometimes excised from the narrative - for example, the twin children Want and Ignorance hidden in the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present - live in this version. Zemeckis, who wrote the screenplay, uses Dickens' dialogue almost totally, and when the text does stray, it still manages to remain faithful. For example, Gary Oldman's Bob Cratchit pronounces the verdict of the book's narrator, that Scrooge in the end was "better than his word." This is a sensible artistic choice, given that Dickens' narrative is not only perfectly suited to the constrains of a two-hour movie but that the dialogue still crackles with life and a familiarity that can only be compared to Shakespeare.

Jim Carrey's Scrooge is surprisingly restrained. I expected it to veer into broad comedy and pratfalls but the old miser keeps his dignity much longer than I would have guessed, even as the three spirits strip the last vestiges of his pride away from him. I wasn't sure if it was the computer animation, or the quality of his performance, but I found myself wanting some of the nuance I remembered from previous performances by George C. Scott, or Albert Finney, or the great Alastair Sim. By giving such an understated, and faithful, interpretation, it allows the more sentimental aspects of Dickens story to show themselves. Scrooge is revealed as a surprisingly easy touch - his brutishness, so clearly displayed to the charity men who accost him in his office early on - wilts depressingly easy once he is carried through the events of his early life.

The movie also reminds us of why "A Christmas Carol" continues to grip our imagination - much like its American cousin, "It's a Wonderful Life." That's because it has the ability to scare the Scrooge out of us. When Marley's ghost appears in all his morbid glory, he is there to remind Scrooge - and us - that life is not an endless proposition. When the Ghost of Christmas Past bids Scrooge return to the still-familiar corners of his forgotten life, we see the choices he has made and the life he unconsciously created in the pursuit of wealth. But Marley's epitaph for himself - "Mankind should have been my business!" - rings in the air.

Even the relatively saccharine scares of the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present have teeth - Past is unafraid of showing Scrooge the great failures of his personal life until Scrooge forcibly ends the journey. Present, with a booming laugh and an image of endless gluttony, propels Scrooge to every stop where his name is cursed and ridiculed. Both ghosts seem to exist to remind him of the terrors of life; of failure and waste, want and cruelty, the sorts of things that make the joys of Christmas ring hollow in our hearts.

All three ghosts are not at all inviting - which gives us a contradiction at the heart of the celebrated Christmas story. Christmas can be a terrible thing, as Scrooge himself observes at the beginning, a time "for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself another year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?" One presumes that if the ghosts appeared to another, they might take on other forms, but they seem to exist with the idea of torment in order to remind a twisted heart of the season's - and life's - meaning. At Christmas, we look around and measure it against its previous incarnations - who is alive, who is dead, are we better off than the previous year, did we get everything we wanted, were we able to provide what others wanted. The ghosts serve almost the same function as Christmas, with its mental balancing of life's books at the year's very end - both for good and ill.

Only Tiny Tim, the object of so much of the audience's fear, can inspire hope. Tim Cratchit's presence, so appallingly sentimental - a lame, brave, good-hearted child ("good as gold") who hopes to inspire church-goers to remember "who made lame beggars walk and blind men see" - points the way to the hinted-at end of the story. Tiny Tim, whom the narrator assures us "did NOT die," gives Scrooge a tangible life for his money and newfound benevolence to save. And Dickens, who leaves the figure of Christ carefully off-stage in this Christmas pageant, indicates that perhaps this lame beggar did walk because a blind man - Scrooge - finally was able to see something besides the coins he had striven his whole life to hold.

One of the strengths of Dickens incredible art is that no technology can adequately show the change wrought in a life by hope - even terrifying hope.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow

So many of E.L. Doctorow's novels resemble the home of the two Collyer brothers - vast rooms of antique splendor littered with what some might consider refuse, seemingly preserved for a reason known only to the assembler of the vast collection. Then, when one arrives at the end, one is left with a satisfying appreciation of what remains and how it was assembled.

Doctorow is sometimes erroneously called a historical novelist, but his work merely uses history as a starting point. To tell his story, Doctorow feels no inclination to "stick to the facts." "Homer and Langley" is a prime example of this. The story seems a natural for Doctorow, which his love of Old New York and the passage of American life. But Doctorow takes the tale of the infamous hoarders and moves it from Harlem to Fifth Avenue, extending the lives of the brothers into the seventies.

The story is told through the eyes of Homer, which is interesting since Homer is blind. The novel begins when the brothers' parents are still alive, taking us through Langley's return from World War I forever changed. As Homer loses his sight and becomes more dependent on his brother, he also begins to witness - from a distance, emotional and visual - his brother's decline into madness.

Over the decades, the Collyers turn their home into a safe house - for musicians, a Nisei family enduring suspicion during World War II, a gangster, hippies. And of course, for the wretched refuse of New York; chiefly, the newspapers Langley hordes in his attempt to create a one-time newspaper for the ages cataloging the times of their lives.

Langley fancies himself as a rationalist, unable to believe in anything except the absurdity and cruelty of life. When the brothers receive a letter from a missionary friend, he observes that it is "interesting that someone in the grip of such a monstrous religious fantasy - believing she is doing the Lord's work - is doing the work that the Lord would be doing if there was a Lord?" When they are left alone by a gangster on the lamb, Langley remembers how, as a boy, he decided he wanted no part of Heaven. "And if God is there after all, we should thank Him for reminding us of His hideous creation and dispelling any residual hope we might have had for an afterlife of fatuitous happiness in His presence."

All we need know of Homer is his response to this: "Langley was always able to life my dark moods for me." Homer trusts his brother, even as he seems him sink deeper into disconnection. Homer cries out for a companion, a protector, especially a female presence. His existence is a reminder to Langley that life is unfair and some things are beyond our control. But the brother nevertheless forges on with his quest to remain aloof from the world, untroubled by it, passing judgment from behind their shuttered rooms, choked floor to ceiling with clutter.

Much of this novel deals with the illusion of control, and the worlds we construct in order to flee the one outside our doors. But Doctorow's story, which could easily have been absolutely dark, instead brims with comedy and warmth. He lingers predictably over the familiar baby boomer touchstones of the sixties, but the journey is never obvious or heavy-handed. Instead, one feels some admiration for these brothers, each blind in his own way, viewing their lives through the yellowing headlines of a lifetime's collection.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Conquest of the Useless by Werner Herzog

Anyone who has seen the wild-eyed, white suited Klaus Kinski gesticulating wildly into the South American jungle in Herzog's film "Fitzcarraldo" knows what obsession is. The motion picture tells the story of a European who decides to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle in order to lure Enrico Caruso to perform there. But after a boat trip down the Pongo, our hero decides his multi-ton steamboat must be towed over a mountain to the other side of the river to complete the trip. Only his faith in his own lunacy, and the help of scores of inscrutable Indians, are able to make the dreams of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald real.

"Conquest of the Useless" is a journal kept by the director, Werner Herzog, during the making of this ill-starred production. Though they are notes kept contemporaneous with the filming of the movie, they are by no means a diary of the production. Those hunting set gossip will find all too little within this book. Instead, one samples Herzog's daily observations on the jungle and the collision he creates between the modern and the primordial. In the process, he creates a modern-day rendering of "Heart of Darkness," with Herzog not sure whether he is Kurtz or the tale's narrator, or both at the same time.

There's no small humor that at the beginning of this book, Herzog is at the home of Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the Godfather films who is wrestling with is own obsession - "Apocalpyse Now." It too deals with a "Heart of Darkness" theme, and it's production history was perhaps even more infamous than that of "Fitzcarraldo." By the end of Herzog's production, he would have to recast key scenes in the film and refilm some of its most grueling passages.

One appreciates Herzog's language as he struggles to describe what he sees in the Amazonian jungle. There is a sense that nothing has changed in centuries out there in the water and vines. The jungle is the book's largest character - a steamy, sweaty, malevolent, amoral presence which does not value human life and corrupts it just as it rusts the equipment brought into it to record its excesses. This is a land where babies die in their mother's arms, where soldiers' bodies come bobbing down the river and are left to drift further, where the loudest sounds are the snapping and falling of trees alive since before Columbus crossed the ocean:

"The jungle is obscene. Everything about it is sinful, for which reason the sin does not stand out as sin. The voices in the jungle are silent; nothing is stirring, and a languid, immobile anger hovers over everything."

Herzog struggles to hold himself together, even as his life seems to him nothing more than an invention "with its pathos, its banalities, its dramas, it's idling." His film, which threatens to spiral everything out of his control, eventually gets made but that story seems strangely secondary by the end. He is merely trying to survive. That is what this diary is about - the survival of aspiration. "Is the desire to fly innate to all creatures?" the director asks, even as he lugs his own great ship up into the clouds.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mad Men: Shut the Door, Have a Seat

"It's going to be temporary," says Don Draper to his two children, as he begins to explain to them that his marriage to their mother is ending. Betty shakes her head silently. The truth, ever elusive in this drama, hurts too much for childish ears. Don, an eternal childman, is suddenly forced to grow up, but cannot bring himself to admit it to other childish ears.

This was just one moment of the season three finale of "Mad Men," "Shut the Door, Have a Seat," wherein Don's advertising agency, Sterling Cooper, suddenly finds itself without its partners as they break off to form their own firm in December 1963. When we saw Don a week ago, he and his colleagues were all dealing with the calamitous events of Nov. 22. When Don's children asked him what would happen after the murder of President Kennedy, he assured that all would be well after a little mourning. But Betty, his wife, wants a divorce, after having discovered the secret that Don has kept from them for their whole marriage - that he is in fact Dick Whitman, living on a borrowed identity from the Korean War.

"It's going to be temporary." One remembers Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous valediction on the Kennedy years - "We'll laugh again, but we'll never be young again." The sixties are humbling Don and the other characters with change - massive doses of it. Roger Sterling embraced change in the form of his 20-something wife, and now seems to regret it. Joan Harris married a man she should have known would disappoint her, but she quit her job nonetheless. Pete Campbell, so desperate to get ahead, looked for any way out of what he perceived a dead-end job. Price, the British executive, found his faith in the company betrayed when it seemed happy to jettison him. As Don tells Peggy Olson of the people their ads reach, "The way that they saw themselves is gone."

But Don Draper, the show's hero, has been humbled this season. He was maneuvered into signing a contract, beaten by drifters at one point and forced to confront his real life as his marriage disintegrates. When Conrad Hilton saw Don's desk earlier this season, he observes that Don has no Bible nor any family photographs on it. In doing so, he sums up Don as a man who believes in nothing but himself. The truth is only what will get him through the day. But the certainties - his abilities, his charm, his bullying power - are going. Even as Don tries to assure himself it's only temporary, he knows it isn't.

It's interesting that after so much drama, the finale should end on a light, hopeful note - Sterling Cooper reborn in a hotel room, the secretarial pool and its thuggish office politics seemingly wiped away. Sharing smiles over sandwiches, the new partners look on their new horizon at a time when the nation was still in a deep funk over losing a symbol of the best parts of itself.

One of the reasons television comforts us is that it gives us situations that we can return to where change can safely be held at bay. We live our lives with the illusion of status - that routine and tradition are unshakable and will hold us no matter what happens. We depend on them, and we do so at the risk of great disappointment. When Don tries to tell his children how things will be apart from them, he tells that wherever they go will still be home. "It's just a different home." That elusive home that Don has always been looking for - that he never had as a child, that he is now deprived of both personally and professionally - lies in the future.

Perhaps, armed with a new understanding of what he can do, he might find it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Brilliant Disguises - The Soundtrack

Since the narrator of "Brilliant Disguises," Cameron Leon, is posing as a Christian, I began looking for songs by "secular" groups which either mention Jesus, or use Jesus in the title, or have a slightly Christian theme.

Imagine my surprise when I found how extensive a list that is! However, after some careful pruning, I have come up with a playlist you may enjoy while reading the novel. If you have a suggestion, e-mail one in.

1. The Word - The Beatles/Rubber Soul
2. Reach Out To Jesus - Elvis Presley/Ultimate Gospel
3. Spirit In the Sky -Norman Greenbaum/The Definitive Anthology
4. Personal Jesus - Depeche Mode/Violator (there's also a very good Johnny Cash version)
5. Jesus Just Left Chicago - ZZ Top/The Best
6. Jesus - Queen/Queen
7. The Cross - Prince/Sign "O" The Times
8. Property of Jesus - Bob Dylan/Shot of Love
9. They Laid Jesus Christ In His Grave - Woody Guthrie/The Library of Congress Recordings
10. Gloria - U2/October
11. I Have Forgiven Jesus - Morrissey/You Are the Quarry
12. Loves Me Like a Rock- Paul Simon/Negotiations and Love Songs
13. Jesus to a Child - George Michael/Ladies and Gentlemen
14. Jesus Is Just Alright - The Doobie Brothers/Best
15. Jesus Walking On the Water - Violent Femmes/Hallowed Ground
16. Jesus Was an Only Son - Bruce Springsteen/Devils and Dust
17. Jesus - The Velvet Underground/The Velvet Underground
18. Beatitudes - Sweet Honey From the Rock/Gospel Live from Mountain Stage
19. I Just Want to See His Face - The Rolling Stones/Exile on Main Street
20. Are You Gonna Go My Way? - Lenny Kravitz/Greatest Hits
21. The Lord's Prayer - Frank Sinatra/Christmas Songs by Sinatra

And now, a word from our Sponsor…

I began writing the novel “Brilliant Disguises” in March of 2007. Kurt Vonnegut had only died a few days before, if memory serves, and his widely quoted passage from “Mother Night” was still probably ringing in my head - “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In Vonnegut’s work, however, he had been talking about a man pretending to be a Nazi, who perhaps might be one, though he isn’t even sure.

I can remember a distinct moment of inspiration. I was in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Birmingham, AL looking through the stacks and saw “The Double,” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I had never read it, and bought it instantly, going on nothing but the title. A man who looks like another. But beyond anything I might have found in between the covers, I had been bitten instantly by another idea - a man pretending to be a Christian. Immediately, I had a few questions about this proposition - why would he do so? How long could he keep it up? How hard would it be to fool anyone around him? Or, more importantly, how does one pretend to be a Christian?

The more I thought over the idea, the more I began to warm to it, and so the character of Cameron Leon was born. I soon began assembling him from conversations I’d had over the years with women and men who have spent lives in churches as pastors, deacons, volunteers, teachers, etc. As teenagers, they never could have foreseen themselves occupying those positions of spiritual responsibility, and suddenly, they found themselves feeling like imposters, waiting for their cover to slip. “What? Me a Sunday School Superintendent?” I understood that, in some ways, these are merely feelings of personal inadequacy, or doubt, or even simple amusement at the gentle ironies of life and faith. There are even those people who spend lives in churches, assuming great responsibilities, casting long shadows and leaving great reputations, only to step forward one day and ask for salvation, claiming they had never known it before. Whether or not they are, or were saved, is between them and the Lord.

But what about someone who really is an imposter?

I should also mention that, for some time before that, I had been fascinated with the idea of impersonation. The idea of assuming another name, for example, or attempting a slight or even major change in appearance, is something I’ve looked for in books and movies. I had tackled this several years before in a short story about a man who is able to mimic other people’s voices. He takes a silent pride in this ability, until one day he receives a desperate telephone call from the widow of his recently deceased brother. She wants to hear his voice again, and she knows the brother will be able to provide the correct impersonation.

And so, resurrecting this premise and marrying it to the one already on my mind, I began the novel. I was about halfway through one day when I was driving to work listening to one of my favorite songs - “Brilliant Disguise,” by Bruce Springsteen. I realized I had a title when he ended this moody, enigmatic song with the words:

Tonight our bed is cold
Lost in the darkness of our love
God have mercy on the man
Who doubts what he’s sure of


But where Springsteen’s anonymous narrator was troubled by the idea that his lover has another face unknown to him, Cameron Leon isn’t sure how many faces he has. Or how many are needed from him. Or which one may be his own, if one really exists.

The novel also gave me a chance to try something out. Though it wasn’t a model at the time, I can see looking over it again that Arthur Miller’s only novel, “Focus,” played some inspiration. In it, the hero Newman, a WASP, acquires a new pair of glasses and begins to be mistaken for a Jew. He, and the reader, experiences anti-Semitism as a case of mistaken identity.

Christianity itself, hinges on this idea of mistaken identity. We are called by Christ’s name to exhibit Him - His attitudes, His love, His caring, His anger at sin, His blessings for mankind. If someone sees something good, there’s often the question of whether they understand its source. If someone sees something else, will they attribute the negative to Jesus or to us?

But what Miller did - just as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and countless other Jewish-American writers of their generation - was make the Jewish-American cultural experience discernable to both Jew and Gentile. I decided that any novel I wrote from the Christian perspective should attempt something similar. Intellectually, there is much about the evangelical Christian in America’s cultural experience that is alien to the rest of the country. Some of that is understandable, given the political climate and the tenor of the times. But it is also a void that fiction can in part address. What is it about the evangelical that makes Jesus’ life an imperative for him or her? What can that mean for the faith? For the country? For the individual?

But Cameron Leon, our narrator, is not a Christian. How do all of the situations that the evangelical knows - prayer, church, volunteering, counseling - appear to an outsider? Indeed, on outsider who wants to remain so, even as he is inside? A mimic, who can’t even live his life without relying on the quotations of famous people and thoughts of others? Is his life his own? Is anyone’s life truly their own? Who really knows you?

I invite you to find out, though the life of an invented man, and the lives he invents for himself.
 

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nazi Literature In the Americas by Roberto Bolaño

This novel? short story collection? pastiche? served as my introduction to the work of Bolaño, the Chilean novelist who died in 2003. Taking the form of a series of what pass as encyclopedia entries, Bolaño documents the lives and works of various fictional writers who found their voices in the service of fascism. One review referred to these made-up lives as a "parade of monsters," but more accurately "Nazi Literature in the Americas" comes off as a parade of cranks.

Grouped by family, associations, or by subject matter, these stories document not only the lives but the works of poetry and prose these Nazi sympathizers put forth in Bolaño's imaginary world. In Bolaño's vision some of these lives extend into the future, where their deaths are documented. Indeed, all of these figures meet death, some in spectacularly grisly fashion, silencing their literature forever. Yet Bolaño's authorial voice documents how their words survive, however long, in obscure journals, zines, and scholarly studies.

The stories of this book never deviate from their sort of Wikipedia style, sometimes tantalizing us with just enough information about some controversial work in the author's oeuvre, but never actually letting us read the words for ourselves. Buried in the material of their lives are various hints of obsession and style, often as hilarious as they are laconic. For example, the career of Argentino "Fatso" Schiaffino, 1956-2015, includes the information that during the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Schiaffino "expressed a wish to meet with the British hooligans" he had earlier encountered "for a reconciliation ceremony consisting of a mass for the casualties of the Falklands War, followed by a barbecue." Later, the anonymous narrator remarks of one of his books that it "left all but a few readers wondering why he had written and, having written, published it."

And what is the sum of these stories? Our writers achieve various levels of mediocrity instead of acclaim, and while they encounter actual flesh and blood writers they either rebuff them or are unimpressed by them. Nothing touches the perceived brilliance of their personal dreams. The passion of their love affairs and the quality of their works do not seem to say as much to the narrator, at least, as the simple facts of their lives. As noted with one subject, he "practiced the art of the novel, which stubbornly declined to yield its secrets to him." In the end, "his manuscripts were probably thrown out with the trash or burned by the orderlies."

The stories are followed by a list of "secondary characters" from the stories, their birth and death dates dutifully noted along with facts such as "a pathetic loser, in the opinion of his family," or "for more than twenty years he fooled his colleagues into believing that he could speak Russian." Following that is a list of Bolaño's fictional magazines and publishing houses, among them "Iron Heart," a "Chilean Nazi magazine which survived for a number of years not in an Antarctic submarine base, as its ardent instigators would have preferred, but in Punta Arenas."

Bolaño's work often deals with forgotten or obscure works of literature, and the politics of the writer are not so much ideological as how much the writer is willing to risk for the ideas he so fiercely clings to. In interviews, Bolaño said he was mainly holding up a mirror image of leftist writers in creating the lives and works of these fictional double images. Instead, he creates a vast world of forgotten literature and the forgotten lives that produce it for its own consumption and understanding. Acceptance is a human longing, and the heart curdles at the lack of it, or curdles when the wrong kind is given. As Bolaño remarks of one of his creations, "real life can sometimes bear an unsettling resemblance to nightmares."

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fasting by Scot McKnight

An entry in Thomas Nelson's series "The Ancient Practices," this book examines one of the least spoken about practices in Christianity - the denial of food for spiritual growth. "Fasting" is an effective short primer on the subject, which not only gives the Biblical background and its theological underpinning but the practical side of this discipline.

One might be tempted to ask - as I did, picking up this book - what the advantages are to be gained by fasting. McKnight makes a simple, elegant and eloquent case that fasting not only works as a way to focus the mind and body on spiritual matters but also functions as an act of faith itself - relying on God for spiritual sustenance. He also states what fasting is not - a magic formula for getting God's attention when seeking the answers to prayers. McKnight also understandably covers the medical drawbacks to fasting.

To make his case, McKnight puts forward a definition for fasting - "Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life." By doing so, he immediately demonstrates not only that fasting is not some aberration left over from some dark, shared human past, but a normal biological response, and even a wholesome one. He did this to also repeat how fasting can be misused or substituted for the act which is paramount - understanding and responding to God's leadership and Lordship.

He also connects the reader to the rich history of fasting within the church, and its antecedents in Judaism. In today's world, full of distraction and competition for every moment of consciousness, when consumer society is geared toward satisfying not just hunger but cravings, nothing focuses quite like the denial of food. In the absence, the believer replaces prayer needs, items of spiritual turmoil and thanksgiving, trusting that what is needed will be provided.

For my own part, the book persuaded me enough to try it for myself. Going without one meal - just one - was enough to convince me that the subject bears further study and practice, which is probably all one could ask of this brief and ultimately very satisfying book.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon

I've been a fan of Michael Chabon's since his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," and subsequent novels such as "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" and "Gentlemen of the Road." He's been very busy of late, producing two novels, a collection of essays entitled "Maps and Legends," and this latest work, a hybrid of memoir and essay and meditation on the creative processes in fiction and families.

"Manhood for Amateurs" sheds plenty of light on Chabon's biography, much as "Maps and Legends" did. "Manhood" is a sort of cousin of the earlier work, covering topics such as Chabon's first marriage, his early childhood, his maturation as a writer, and his fascination with science fiction and fantasy, comic books, baseball, etc. with each genre and sub-genre listed dutifully. It also covers his marriage to Ayelet Waldman and their lives with their children. Chabon marches through the passage of time, the expectations of fathers and mothers, and the nature of the universe with the same gentle humor and wonder that he marshals in his fiction.

I should say I did not want to read this book at first. I'm noticing too many of the novelists I follow suddenly giving me books about their lives and observations in place of the fictions I crave from them. Whether it be creative nonfiction or memoir or essay or whatever, I find myself losing patience when someone I admire thinks I'd rather read their all-too-predictable thoughts on the 2008 election or depression or, you name it. I realize this is part of the writer's mystique... after all, it's all about you, even if it isn't. But Chabon manages to make this journey pleasurable because of his beautiful prose and the gentle wisdom in his observations. Yes, he does talk about the election, but you're willing to forgive it because he doesn't dwell there for too long or indulge in the expected.

One piece in particular bears scrutiny here: "Xmas," a piece toward the end about Chabon's childhood as a Jew in the land of Christmas, and his reaction then and now to the Christ story. Chabon rails against the denatured Christmas as a holiday shorn of its inspiration, the birth of Jesus. Make no mistake, Chabon spends just as much time making clear he is no fan of what he refers to as religious fundamentalism. He is dubious, it seems, of religion in any stripe, and describes himself as agnostic but mildly observant. But he does find himself remembering the words of Luke's gospel, quoted in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," by Linus, and being inspired:

"I still know that chapter and verse of the Gospel of Luke by heart, and no amount of subsequent disillusionment with the behavior of self-described Christians, or with the ongoing commercialization that in 1965 had already broken Charlie Brown's heart, has robbed the central miracle of Christmas of its power to move me the way any truly great story can."

Chabon, though he considers the story of Jesus to be basically "a lie," says that it offers us a way to see the Truth. He's not far from the Kingdom of God, here, and actually sounds a lot like C.S. Lewis, if you ignore the pop culture references and occasional profanity. And he's able to summon up a great deal of wonder that I'm not sure Christians are able to tap into while they flit from store to store, trying to find the perfect gift for their imperfect budget.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose

I might never have bought this book except for a tiny item on the New York Times web site - a link to about 12 seconds of video on You Tube - the only known existing moving picture images of Anne Frank. There, in just an instant, is the young girl looking down from a window on a newly married couple. I sent a link to a few people, and the ones I heard back from responded with gratitude. It was like hearing from an distant old friend, or discovering a memento of a departed family member.

Unlike others, I did not come to Anne Frank as a child. It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I read "The Diary of a Young Girl." I had just finished Philip Roth's "The Ghost Writer," about which a major plot point revolves around the life of Anne Frank. I approached it with a bit of trepidation - thinking it was probably one of those books that gets assigned to schoolchildren for being easy to read, and from which a close reading leaves one underwhelmed. I was probably 10 pages in before I realized what an idiot I was to be so skeptical.

Francine Prose's book examines the phenomenon of the diary through Anne Frank's life, how the book came to be, and what has come since. Among the book's highlights is how much time Prose spends recounting how the book was "crafted" - for example, I had no idea that Anne began revising her diary in the Secret Annex (the space she and her family shared for two years during World War II) nor that the publication of the diary set off interesting stories of obsession among those who had helped it to success. Prose touches on some of this in her own response to the book:

"I understood, as I could not have as a child, how much art is required to give the impression of artlessness, how much control is necessary in order to seem natural, how almost nothing is more difficult for a writer than to find a narrative voice as fresh and unaffected as Anne Frank's. I appreciated, as I did not when I was a girl, her technical proficiency, the novelistic qualities of her diary, her ability to turn living people into characters, her observational powers, her eye for detail, her ear for dialogue and monologue, and the sense of pacing that guides her as she intersperses sections of reflection with dramatized scenes."

And to think, she did all this without knowing how her story would end. And it is the story's end, off stage but ever present, which gives every page of the diary its power. Prose asks the question that others have - would we care about the diary if Anne had survived the Holocaust? And how, exactly, does the story end? Does it end with Anne's affirmation that "people are basically good at heart?" Or does it end with her in the camp, weak and emaciated, the part we never see in the diary but are aware of? Does one ending cancel out the other? Do we cheapen the diary's power when we wish for some kind of happy ending for this little girl, something that affirms the human spirit, when we all know she died as a victim of a movement that dubbed itself "a triumph of the will?"

We are drawn to Anne because she is a child - not innocent at all to what happens, for she makes her neat marks in the book at night as she hears the bombers overhead. What is essential within a child is within the pages - the part of ourselves that we want preserved against the part we wish to destroy, and which wishes to destroy us. The nature of time makes the essential nature of any moment disappear, so that we never again see it as it is, but only how it appears reflected through another now. The original moment itself is irrecoverable, just as the next one is, and the next one. Prose's book reminds us of this, and by examining the diary and the life it came from, she reminds us that Anne's words will forever mean things to us that she never could have guessed at, as it touches generations she never lived to see.

Perhaps eternity is the indestructible moment, in all its power, never growing dim, never growing weary, never growing old.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Humbling by Philip Roth

Not too long ago, I was in a bookstore speaking to the owner about Philip Roth. "Do you ever finish one and start another one and feel as though you're reading the same book?" he asked. This is the 15th Roth novel I've read, and "The Humbling" feels indeed like familiar territory, though perhaps not for the same reason my friend spoke of.

Simon Axler is a well-known actor in his sixties who suddenly experiences stage fright and retires from performance. From the moment he leaves his familiar life, he struggles toward understanding who he really is. Suicide begins to appeal to him. He finds himself in a recovery program:

"Everybody else would be sitting there gloomily silent, inwardly intense and rehearsing to themselves - in the lexicon of pop psychology or gutter obscenity or Christian suffering or paranoid pathology - the ancient themes of dramatic literature: incest, betrayal, injustice, vengeance, jealousy, rivalry, desire, loss, dishonor, and grief."

In the process, Axler has an unlikely reunion with Pegeen, a young woman whom he has known for all of her life, since she is the daughter of a couple he has known since before she was born. Pegeen has been living as a lesbian, but she forms an attachment with Axler and begins transforming herself into a compliant, feminine companion for him. But there is something artificial about Pegeen, just as there has been something artificial about Axler before he lost the ability to be someone else on stage.

Reading Roth one gets a sense of secrets revealed, writ large, magnified to a staggering power, so that the characters stagger under the weight of them. Like many of Roth's later protagonists, Axler is dealing with the effects of age, or "the panic that comes with age." While Axler feels something with Pegeen that he hopes is genuine, he also suspects it too is an act. He is struggling against time, and against reality, as we all do. This makes him a paler cousin of Nathan Zuckerman, without the writer's prolific and poetic disgust.

As with his last book, Roth sets all these meditations down in a spare prose, barely sketching in some details and letting his characters flail about against themselves against tragedies that are foreordained as much as Oedipus'. Toward the novel's end, Axler is attached to Pegeen and goes wherever she takes him, which inevitably leads to his "humbling." What makes this novel unsettling - and somewhat unsatisfying - is the ending that is telegraphed from the beginning, which doesn't seem to affirm anything other than the luckless and loveless nature of Axler's life, and one assumes, life itself. "The failures were his, as was the bewildering biography on which he was impaled." So in the end, one senses that the despair Axler feels is really Roth's, and that Roth says it should be our own.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Chiefs by Stuart Woods

The one calling card of civilization is murder. For as long as human beings have lived in communal groups, villages, towns, cities, urban areas, they have killed each other for varying reasons, and the nature of those crimes tells us much about the culture and lives of those involved.

For the past 25 years, Stuart Woods has made a very good living pumping out entertaining murder mysteries, but his career began with "Chiefs," a novel revolving around a series of unsolved murders spanning forty years in a small town in Georgia. I am not a regular reader of Woods' work, and I became familiar with "Chiefs" first as a three-part miniseries that aired in the eighties starring Charlton Heston, Wayne Rogers, Brad Davis and Billy Dee Williams, among others.

In the early 20s, the small milltown of Delano sprouts up southwest of Atlanta and anoints Will Henry Lee, a farmer wiped out by the boil wievel, as its first police chief. Lee is honest, dependable, a fatherly figure who gradually grows into the job of small-town lawman. But he is haunted when the nude, tortured body of a teenage boy turns up at the bottom of a ravine. Over time, Lee begins to believe that young runaways are disappearing somewhere in his town, murdered by someone who sits in the town's church pews and frequents its shops.

The story later leaps forward into the 40s, following Lee's son Billy, an up and coming politician, and Sonny Butts, the returning war hero who becomes police chief. Sonny is a classic Southern thug cop, a closeted Klansman who extorts money and beats confessions out of innocent people. But he latches onto the missing boys as a way of saving his job. The book ends with Tucker Watts, the town's first black chief, who looks for a solution to the case even as he battles the state's racist law enforcement apparatus.

Briefly stated, this is not Faulkner or O'Connor. "Chiefs" is a page-turner, and it is unabashed in its status as an entertaining story, not social comment. The characters have some complexity, just enough to keep the reader hooked. No one is overly repugnant except the villains, the scoundrels are kept interesting, the heroes are suitably and predictably heroic. But Woods isn't just interested in a nice beach read here. He manages to work in an engaging story of the growth of a small Southern town and the inexorable pull of history. Deep into the book, the town's ancient banker, Hugh Holmes, observes:

"I never thought I'd be afraid of change - not change I could control. That's what bothers me. This thing has begun to control us, instead of we it. It's the first time in my life I've had the feeling of having to run to keep up."

C. Vann Woodward and W.J. Cash, among others, have observed that the idea of the South as an unchanging monolith, a preserve of tradition and order, is a lie. The traditions that Southerners cling to are often less than a generation old, or merely shadows of former traditions that are themselves built on previous ones. Holmes represents the Southerner who appeared at the turn of the last century, bent on rebuilding the South's material wealth and influence. Those dreams, eventually, helped drag the South into modern America just as much as Martin Luther King Jr. In the end, the lust for money killed segregation just as much as the courts, as when Delano hires Tucker Watts in hopes of attracting Northern industry. It was the genius of King, though, to realize that it would take something beyond law and order or money to change the soul of a nation.

But order is much of what "Chiefs" is about. The town's mysterious murderer is actually revealed early in the book, but it is the path to ending his spree that makes the journey interesting. The killer himself seeks a kind of order, imposing it on victims who have no idea what he seeks or what kind of impulses he longs to satisfy. The police chiefs who people the story seek order by their own definitions, honest and dishonest. Murder, the ultimate crime, comes to define their lives and give its own order.

In the end, Holmes is heart broken at the prospect that the town he has nurtured for half a century will become "a synonym for perversion and death," but similar realizations happen to many of the characters in "Chiefs." It is this touch, frustrated hopes and ambitions, which gives the novel a heft it might not otherwise carry. Its people are sometimes denied the ends they wish, and instead have to find meaning in what is left. The world it sketches out may be an idealized fiction, but it is not that far from the worlds we create and cling to in order to survive in the real world.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Michael Jackson: The Pain Is Thunder

By now, the image has been touched and retouched so much that it seems hard to remember where it began.

For me, the past week has been a rediscovery of sorts, as I suddenly had my teenage years resurrected before my eyes with the death of Michael Jackson. Words are not sufficient to describe the absolute saturation of his image in the early 80s. No star - not even Elvis or the Beatles - ever had the same kind of domination displayed for two or three years over the pop music world. Their reach may have been greater, but the very nature of technology dictates that Michael Jackson's accomplishment ran deeper and more vividly for its time. History, as it always does, will judge who had the greater impact.

His was the first cassette I ever bought with my own money. When he and his brothers came to Birmingham, Alabama to rehearse for their world tour, it seemed inconceivable to my friends and I that he wasn't coming to all of our homes to speak to us. Even now, 25 years later, I can remember the half-second he waved to a crowd waiting hours to see him emerge from the top of a hotel portico near a busy interstate. It didn't last very long, though, the wave or his fame. Within a few months, his star was overtaken by others who some would argue outstriped him in creativity and popularity. (It's worth recalling that when Michael Jackson had a son, he named him "Prince.") But little did we realize that the central image of his life and career was contained in his most ambitious artistic project - the 15-minute music video for Thriller.

It's important to remember the circumstances of the work. At the time Michael Jackson sank more than $1 million into the video, he was a former child star who had made the unheard of leap into adult longevity. He had more or less shed the image he entered the public conscience with - a smiling, soulful prodigy - and replaced it with a mature, hip, accomplished performer. No one remembered ABC by the time he finished his first moonwalk across the stage of the Apollo Theater. He was, at that time, an R&B crossover performer who stunned with his dance moves and had showed himself a shrewd showman with limitless ambition. His two videos had finally broken a color barrier on MTV. His album had probably peaked by this time, as his record company judged when he went to them looking for money to make the video.

From the moment he finished the video for Thriller, he officially crossed the threshold into phenomenon, the album going on to regain its footing and hold its position at the top of the Billboard album charts for the better part of a year. He convinced millions to buy VCRs so they could watch the Thriller video on videocassette. He brought the nation to a standstill one evening when he burned his hair filming a Pepsi commercial. When he penned a song with Lionel Richie for Ethiopian relief, a who's who of American popular music turned out to sing the lyrics. And he had begun, what now seems inevitable, his long slide from maturity back into a stunted, artificially prolonged childhood before succumbing to the perversity of stardom.

But the video itself begins with Michael in vintage clothes that recall a idyllic, pseudo-50s background - the high school boy in the car that runs out of gas, just as he's got the good-looking girl with him. We sense his innocence even as we laugh at his less-than-honorable intentions. He takes the opportunity in the moonlight to tell her he wants her to be his girl. Then he breaks the news to her - he's not like other guys, in that weird falsetto of his. She protests that this explains her love for him, but she doesn't understand. When the moon emerges from the clouds, he suddenly begins to transform into a monster that will hunt her down.

But wait! All of this is an illusion. Suddenly, we're watching Michael on a screen, and he's in the audience, just like us. And he's singing! By now, we are too because we know the words. But the danger isn't over. Other monsters are now surrounding them, and about to devour them, when suddenly, Michael is one of them. He's some kind of monster though. You can't take your eyes off him. Then, at the chorus that's been held for our anticipation, he turns to reveal he's Michael again, singing with a vengeance, just before he and his zombie horde once again chase the heroine - and us - into an abandoned house were it seems that this is really the end...

But wait again! It's Michael. "What's the problem?" he asks. "I'll take you home," he reassures, in that falsetto again, just light enough to tickle the spine, as they walk out. And Michael turns to the camera, and we realize that maybe just a little of the monster still lies within him. Only this time, he's smiling. Maybe it's a joke, maybe it's not, but he's enjoying it, and funny thing, so are we. It's the sort of scene - Hollywood kitsch meets Freud - that permeates every page of, say, West's "The Day of the Locust."

Thriller was a turning point, in more ways than one. The early arc of Michael Jackson's mature career is marked by a string of generally positive, upbeat anthems, stretching from his time with the Jacksons to the height of his popularity - Can You Feel It?, We Are the World, Man in The Mirror, Heal the World. Even his album titles with the Jacksons and on his own reflect this - Destiny, Triumph, Victory, Thriller, Bad, Dangerous, HIStory - one word titles with pretentions of forces beyond commerce and art to life and death. But from the moment he was accused of child molestation in the nineties, Jackson's artistic world became a much darker, more defiant place, a retreat he stubbornly fled to from which to pass judgment on those who judged him - Leave Me Alone, Scream, Invincible. His songs then frequently gave the voice of a man who felt threatened by his fame, betrayed by those he thought had loved him, alone.

The speed with which the media world that craved every lurid story about him has suddenly taken to celebrating his life and work would probably shock him, were he still alive to marvel at it. The ability of the public to forgive him for what he might have done is yet another example of the power of entertainment, obscuring the facts and replacing them with fantasy. In some ways, he understood this. He may not have wanted this kind of ending, but I believe he expected it, just as he might have expected his music would obscure the unanswered questions of his life, at least for the time being. A month ago, his work presented embarassing problems and nagging questions. Now, it inspires awe.

It's interesting that when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, the prohibition against fashioning a graven image is one of the first. Yet we obviously didn't pay much attention, because in several thousand years' time we've managed to migrate from setting up stones and golden calves to anointing various odd personalities to virtual godhood based on their ability to perform a very narrow set of skills - sing and dance, pretend to be others, throw, catch or hit a ball, or promise us endless miracles from behind a podium or in front of a seal. We invest a multitude emotions in them, and it breaks our collective hearts when we learn, as we inevitably do, that they are just like us. In every case, these people either never sought the level of fame they achieve, or quickly try any way they can to divest themselves of it and reclaim some measure of themselves when they sense their own destruction approaching.

Only Christ, personally, calls on the individual to take on His guise, learn by His example, follow His lead. His call is personal, and individual, and it is the kind of call that no sane man would make unless he could pull it off. All of our heroes tend to be crushed under the weight of our adulation, our dreams too great a burden for their backs. Our dreams tend to claim victims, both us and those we give them to. Jesus is the only one who emerges from the wreckage and shows us our dreams for what they are.

The image of Michael Jackson, of course, never remained static during his life. His skin color, face, maturity, safety, all seemed beyond definition. But which image is it that he leaves us with? The innocent boy who becomes a monster? The canny performer who emerges from the audience, singing his song before bending the monsters who surround us all to his own rhythm? Or perhaps it is the smiling figure who will take you home, smiling because he knows a secret that you may or may not find out, but a secret powerful enough to keep you coming back for more.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Damned Utd By David Peace

Occasionally, it's a good idea to pick up a book for which you have no frame of reference. It can serve as an education, a corrective to bad assumptions, or just a nice diversion from your usual reading. I know very little about European football (soccer) and have virtually no knowledge of the English leagues, which was why David Peace's novel was not only an introduction but also as something much deeper. It also serves as the basis for a movie starring Michael Sheen.
Peace, more well known perhaps for his crime noir Red Riding quartet and his reputation as a British James Ellroy, takes as the novel's subject the short, turbulent career of football manager Brian Clough heading his long-time nemesis, Leeds United. The story is told from Clough's point of view, in short, clipped, often vulgar stretches of self-flaggelation and rage. It isn't necessary to know the backstory to appreciate very early on the stakes.
Clough, a footballer whose career ended prematurely due to injury, becomes the manager of Derby County and quickly gains a reputation as a brilliant manager. His nemesis, though, is Don Revie's Leeds United, a championship club he holds in the utmost scorn for what he perceives as their dirty play. He is publicly critical of them and their manager while at the same time building his own legend in Derby. When he is forced out in Derby, he becomes Leeds' unlikely hire after Revie takes the England manager's job.
From there, Clough embarks on a whirlwind 44 days as manager, trying to change the character of the team while at the same time hating what he has inherited. It is Peace's achievement in this novel to tell both stories of Clough's rise and fall simultaneously, showing the seeds of his downfall in his rise. Constantly, Peace's Clough understands it's not his team, but Revie's. There is no changing them, and even as he tries to lead them, he still hates them. Even a reader with no interest in soccer can appreciate the humanity in the observation, "They love me for what I'm not. They hate me for what I am."
Clough does not believe in God, but he does believe in sport, which makes him believe in himself. It's easy to recognize the familiar egotism that runs through virtually every athlete. The idea that particular teams can be cursed, that the game can help one overcome life, that to beat an opponent is in some ways a moral exercise. "You believe in football; in the repetition of football; the repetition within each game, within each season, within the history of each club, the history of the game - "
But again and again, life intrudes to recalibrate what Clough feels about himself and the game, and the games outside the game. The turning point comes when Clough's mother dies. She isn't really a character in the novel (indeed, characters in the novel mostly serve as foils for the portrait of Clough that emerges) but it is her death which begins the descent that eventually carries him to Leeds, "The end of anything good. The beginning of everything bad..." Clough doesn't believe in an afterlife, no heaven, no hell, no God, nothing, but after her death, "for once in your life, just this once, you wish you were wrong."
Clough, in real life, went on to once again achieve success with Nottingham Forest, becoming the sort of sports figure for whom statues are erected. Peace's novel though reminds us that even the worlds we create within our world -entertainment, sports, business - all seek to operate outside life according to rules of effort, and fairplay. Rules we devise. And yet, even there, the ball seems to bounce against us, no matter what strategies we devise, what defenses we deploy, whatever trophies we think we may capture.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez by Selena Roberts

Last night, Alex Rodriguez returned to the New York Yankees' lineup after recovering from surgery. He took the first pitch he saw from the Baltimore Orioles' starter and parked it in left field for a home run, thereby demonstrating several things - his credentials as a major leaguer and why he should be the subject of a controversial biography, and the ability of a crowd to forgive a man who can hit a baseball over a fence.

"A-Rod" is not really a sports biography in a real sense, any more than Kitty Kelley's biographies were history. "A-Rod" is a celebrity biography, a beach read that gives a superficial dusting of biographical facts for anyone curious about its subject. It was in that spirit that I came to the book. It would be impossible to ignore the obvious hype around its speculations that Rodriguez may have used steroids as early as high school to gain an edge on the diamond, that he "tipped" pitches to opposing teams, that he has alienated his teammates over the years with prima donna behavior in various clubhouses.

I say speculations though - not revelations - because Roberts relies so heavily on speculation and innuendo as to undercut the case she makes. Anonymous sources carry the heavy lifting in this story, and Roberts places the greatest weight in the narrative on what they have to say. The prose is replete with loaded words and exclusionary thinking, all focused on Roberts' premise - that there is no real A-Rod, just an amalgam of shifting personalities tuned to whatever the demands of the moment are. Rodriguez can be humble when talking to a reporter and monomaniacal when dealing through his agent. He can be humble at the All-Star Game when giving up his position to Cal Ripkin Jr., or selfish in announcing new contract demands during the final game of the World Series. "The truth was that Alex's baseball career and almost every other part of his life consisted of one artifice atop another," Roberts writes.

That sentence illustrates the problem with this book - those are Roberts' conclusions. She finds others who will back them up, but not enough to successfully convict. She shouldn't be making those conclusions as the author, but quoting someone else who will. The narrative voice has "inside" information that we doubt she could know - many times we are treated to A-Rod's "thoughts" when we know she can't possibly have them (how can she, if Rodriguez is the shape-shifter she says he is?)

That's not to say the entire book is a fabrication. Obviously not. Alex Rodriguez has long been dogged by accusations that he is too selfish a player, too needy, too focused on statistics to ever gain the fan acceptance and reputation he would need to accomplish what he longs for - a world title. And in light of the Manny Ramirez suspension, the idea of A-Rod relying on performance enhancing drugs isn't at all implausible. In that, he seems the latest example of his species - the modern professional athlete, with otherworldly talents but all-too-human frailties. But that should engender a measure of disappointment, not the kind of personal distaste that Selena Roberts revels in between the pages of this book. This is a nasty book, a vicious, personal screed where the author seems to think her subject guilty of much more despicable things that one can find between its covers. Leaving its journalistic integrity aside, one wonders what might have inspired it. If there is more to this story, it should have been nailed down more precisely than it is here.

On the issue of steroids itself - it is now obvious that both the owners and players of Major League Baseball colluded, whether by design or accident, in the steroid use of the last 20 or so years. We have now entered a climate where sports journalists, using sources of varying veracity, are seeking to expose the users and thereby render judgment on whether their accomplishments are "real." This is an endless, ridiculous quest, and it won't result in any kind of satisfaction if any end is ever reached. The records, broken and set by steroid users, are there. They happened. To decide which ones we will recognize and ignore after the fact is to render a moral judgment that I think is outside the bounds of the discussion, especially since it's being rendered by journalists who are not exactly disinterested observers, as this book proves. The athletes who are the subject of sports journalism are, unfortunately, human, and while undeserving of the salaries and adulation they garner, they also don't deserve a witchhunt which won't punish fairly or totally and will only diminish both the games journalists cover and the profession they practice.

One last point - Roberts, in the act of telling this story, renders a moral judgment on Rodriguez's life. That's obvious. That's why we - and Roberts - pay attention when A-Rod courts Madonna or when he indulges in celebrity Kabbalah clinics. It's an old story. It's the nagging feeling that being the highest-paid player in the history of the game isn't enough, and will not satisfy. When A-Rod's trainer tells him he's leaving, fed up with the celebrity behavior, Rodriguez asks him what he wants. "I'll give you whatever you want," Roberts tells us A-Rod said.

We shouldn't be surprised when the trainer, who has worked for Rodriguez for 10 years, hands him a slip of paper bearing the words - Find Jesus.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Frost/Nixon vs. Frost/Nixon

What would a previous generation think of our obsession with the ghost of Richard Nixon, which now goes on in the artistic world? He was castigated in his lifetime as a plastic man, incapable of human emotion; a bloodless, small-minded crook who cheapened the nation's institutions, seemingly out of frustrated resentments going back to high school? Yet he appears in movie after movie, is a constant laughline, has even been animated in "Futurama," has remained in our consciousness in a way no one might have guessed back in 1974. Perhaps we miss him still.

The latest example is the Ron Howard movie "Frost/Nixon," starring Frank Langella as the latest screen incarnation of the thirty-seventh president of the United States. It's based on a Peter Morgan play, which also starred Langella and his opposite number, Michael Sheen, as the interviewer David Frost. Peter Morgan, who also produced the screenplay, is the screenwriter of "The Queen" and scripted "The Last King of Scotland."

A series of television interviews might not make for gripping theater, but the Nixon/Frost interviews (as they were previously known) were theater of their own, and they were gripping. What Morgan did was take the obvious story - of Nixon's first attempt at rehabilitation - and marry it to the story of Frost, as a frustrated entertainer angling for respectability, fame, and what our current age refers to as "gravitas." By putting Frost's name first, he shows us the entertainer, the one asking the question, is now more important than the one who is being questioned.

Langella does a serviceable Nixon, giving the gentle side of Nixon in ashes, though I think the definitive screen Nixon was provided by Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's movie. Langella's Nixon at times lapses into a bellicosity and plainspoken rhythm that seems false when compared to the real man. The real Nixon, strangely enough, presents a dilemma for the dramatist. Viewed in retrospect, the many aspects of Nixon's legend - the sweaty upper lip, the shifty eyes, the anger - were much more subtle in real life than a motion picture is capable of showing. Hopkins wisely chose to give us an outward picture of the internal soul wrestling we could distinguish in the real Nixon. Langella's Nixon is already broken, but he remains a proud man who isn't yet ready to bow to the demands of the historical record.

The Frost character undergoes the biggest transformation from play to movie. In the play, Frost was the other boxer in the ring, a Rocky who gets his unexpected date with the prize fighter and bests him. This survives, but Frost's "lightweight" credentials, his fecklessness, come forward more and somehow make him less of an adversary. He seems more of a spectator in the film. The boxing metaphor, which survives, feels inadequate, at least until the end, when we have the inevitable montage of the previously disengaged Frost suddenly cramming the night before the final Watergate interview like Sylvester Stallone on the heavy bag.

The play, I think, is superior to the movie because of its brevity. The movie also feels the need to quickly dismiss Nixon from the stage after a final meeting between the two, giving him a dismissive ending that doesn't quite match what comes before. The film has spent two hours convincing us of a certain amount of grandeur in this frustrating man, but he receives an unsatisfactory epitaph. Frost goes off to renewed celebrity, but he need only look at Nixon to understand how long it may last. The play was tight, while the film wants to be about more than it is.

The reason we're treated to Nixon yet again, of course, has more to do with the present than the past. As several extras on the DVD make clear, "Frost/Nixon" has direct bearing on our own late political age, the age of George W. Bush. As one of the participants in the real "Frost-Nixon" interviews observes, Nixon's defense that "when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal" is just as relevant in the shadow of waterboarding, Abu Gharib, and warrantless wiretapping. There's a fundamental problem this this logic.

In the play, Reston, one of Frost's researchers and one of Nixon's harshest critics, laments his time in a California hotel room, trapped with a television constantly replaying the same skin flicks. "Is there anything more depressing as a porno the second time around?" he asks. Watergate, in effect, was porn for all those who hated Nixon. It paraded his worst character flaws and transformed them to national legends, and it cemented the worst suspicions about Nixon's party in the national consciousness.

With Bush, the skin flick seemingly gets a second national viewing. But the audience at the end of "Frost/Nixon" probably feels some sympathy for the fallen president who gropes toward an apology at the end. Morgan wisely avoids the kind of demonization all too evident in the last eight years. By replaying Watergate and reexamining its chief actor, we are reminded that our national obsessions only reveal for us that the monster in the palace often looks a lot more like us than we want to admit, and the hatred they engender is because they remind us of the fallacy of faith in heroes. We question them, but the answers don't seem to ever satisfy. It's a point worth remembering as the hysteria fades and we embrace another leader with ever more urgent needs for a savior.

Crash by J.G. Ballard

Last week's news of the death of J.G. Ballard focused inevitably on his most famous work, "Empire of the Sun," made popular by the movie version directed by Steven Spielberg. That work dealt through fiction with Ballard's experience in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, a nightmare vision he carried with him into the rest of his works. But obituaries also dealt with easily his most infamous work, the 1973 novel "Crash," which was also famously made into a movie by David Cronenberg.

Ballard was famously pessimistic about the ability of technology to improve the human species, as well as any hopes he might have harbored about the moral improvement of man. This view becomes abundantly clear with "Crash," a book in which Ballard said he "wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror." The anger of that statement shines through on every page. Ballard supposedly submitted a much longer manuscript which one publisher rejected, saying the author was beyond any psychological help.

It's easy to see why. "Crash" is a hard book to read, even now, more than 30 years after its publication. The story is told by a man in an open marriage who falls under the influence of a man sexually obsessed with car accidents. One may draw his own conclusions when one learns the narrator's name is James Ballard. The collision of cars serves as a metaphor for the unexpected consequences when individuals unite sexually. In its short 200 plus pages are crammed drug use, adultery, homosexuality, and a host of unhealthy fetishistic behaviors. A cast of numb characters rehearse a number of liasons in junked cars, with Ballard's prose flitting back and forth between their limbs and glands and the instrument panels of the automobiles they occupy, without any detectable difference between the living and the inanimate. Characters do not seem to be living and breathing as much as so many orifices and body parts to satisfy urges they cannot understand or articulate. They are objects, supposedly for satisfaction, though no one seems satisfied by anything.

Every accident is unique, with its own trajectories, vectors, circumstances, outcomes. The fictional Ballard's mentor Vaughn plans in intricate detail his hoped-for fatal crash - that of Elizabeth Taylor. He drives a Lincoln Continental, the same car President Kennedy rode in when he was assassinated. When Ballard is involved in a car accident, he is shaken to discover there is a victim, a man who dies sprawled on the hood of Ballard's car. Ballard then takes up with the dead man's wife. You get the picture. Ballard, the real one, may have wanted to make a statement about human depravity and how technology facilitates it, but he seems to be enjoying himself too much in the seemingly endless cataloguing of bodily secretions, wounds and deviancies, as when the fictional Ballard reveals, after his own crash, thinking of other disaster victims, "the injuries of still-to-be-admitted patients beckoned to me, an immense encyclopedia or accessible dreams."

What struck me the most about this book was its artificiality, which I suppose is the point. Ballard, Vaughn, and the other characters are survivors of car accidents, yet their lingering on the accident scene isn't so much a longing for the accident as the idea of it. It's worth considering that, much like society's current obsession with the virtual world of the information age, these characters live in a fantasy world divorced from the reality of what their obsessions really are or mean. We are a society that talks a great deal about love, but the love we seek is often not love at all but a biological urge that becomes warped by our own inarticulate, misunderstood urges. When our fantasies are placed side by side with reality, or perhaps compared with the ideal of what we seek, we quickly understand the great distances the human imagination can quickly travel and how inadquate its sense of direction is. This became abundantly clear to me yesterday when I witnessed an actual car accident.

I was driving north on the Interstate when I noticed a dust cloud in the median. I looked in my rearview window and saw a rising cloud on the opposite shoulder of the southbound lane and dozens of cars slowing down. I got off at the next exit and quickly crossed over to the other lane to see if help was needed. At the foot of a steep hill, an SUV laid on its side, smashed and smoky after tumbling several times. Hand tools, CDs, clothes, and other articles lay strewn in the tall grass. Standing amidst onlookers was the driver, a thin trickle of blood coming from his forehead. He was shaken, but alive and intact. And grateful. When I asked him what had happened, he gave a vague explanation, what shock would allow of an instance that lasted perhaps 10 seconds at most.

Accidents remind us of the random nature of life, and the reality that technology can only do so much to save us from ourselves. A wrong turn at too great a speed can be deadly, or exhilirating if survived. As we've observed here before, it is the danger inherent in sin that makes it attractive, regardless of how vivid the consequences may be in our minds. Just as the characters of "Crash" know what the outcome of a car collision might be, we continue to take the curbs of our lives too fast, our foot a little too far from the brake, our eyes straying from the path ahead.