Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Journey on the Silver Screen

There is a “through the looking glass” moment deep into the final hour of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II.” Moments after Lord Voldemort has slit his throat, the dying Professor Severus Snape urges Harry Potter to collect one of his tears. Harry needs to do this, as he will feed the tears to the Pensieve, a device which allows him to see the past, like a movie. We need this moment to understand all that his life has meant, not only to Snape, to the dead Professor Albus Dumbledore, to his archenemy Voldemort, but also to himself. We as the audience need this if we are to understand what may happen once Harry walks into the Forbidden Forest to face his nemesis, presumably for the last time. The movie becomes a movie about a movie which tells those in the movie what the movie has been about. A story, if it goes on long enough, ultimately begins to tell another story, which is itself a story about the story it sprang from.

We have grown together, the Boy Who Lived and his audience, first as readers and then as viewers. The last 10 years have brought eight installments of the Harry Potter series, the most successful “franchise” in the history of motion pictures. The Harry we were introduced to in the pages of the J.K. Rowling’s series is, in some ways, very different from the one Daniel Radcliffe embodies. And the movies have created something else, as they usually do, a country of their own out of the universe Hogwarts and the Death-Eaters inhabit.

It’s become commonplace to say that the first two Potter movies are the weakest of the lot. A frequently heard criticism is that they are slavish to the books and try too hard to satisfy the reader without creating a magic of their own. By the second movie, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” there are glaring “Ten points for Gryffindor!” moments that seem to beg for cutting. But the overall criticism, I think, is on the whole ungenerous - the filmmakers were still trying to figure out what they had. By the time the first film made it to the screen, there were only four of the seven promised books available. It was important to establish the world, especially if they didn’t know where the story was going to end.

Looking back on those first two movies, directed by Chris Columbus, the sets and costumes once Harry enters the magical world evoke memories of Dickens and Victorian England, or an England at home with our cultural knowledge. We may not know exactly what “Oliver Twist” is about, but we recognize the capes and hats and long tailed coats of an earlier age. We understand the charm of a hearth, and appreciate how it can just as easily be the portal to another place.

With the third film, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” the tone changes to something else. Most critics favor this installment, directed by Alfonso Cauron, over the others. It’s worth remembering that “Azkaban” is the only film which does not feature Voldemort as a character. In it, the (perceived) threat is from the escapee, Sirius Black. But the children are teenagers now, and a little wiser after a few brushes with death. This is still mainly a child’s story, but there are hints of what is to come.

Rowling’s “Goblet of Fire” is much longer than its predecessors, much more sprawling in its imagination, and the beginning of the series’ slide into a sometimes stifling darkness. This is not a criticism - too often stories opt for a rose-colored threat which can easily be dispatched, rendering their heroes hardly worth celebrating. But here is another point where the movies differ from the books - the appearance of a fully-embodied Lord Voldemort, back from the grave, played perfectly by Ralph Fiennes. The movies give us, I think, a better Voldemort than the books.

The two books where Voldemort figures heavily - “Chamber of Secrets” and “Half-Blood Prince” - show us that Voldemort is a much more vivid character when we discover his backstory than the hissing murderer who pursues Harry in the present. When Fiennes appears, his Voldemort has a grand malevolent intelligence which convinces us that Harry could perish before the story is over. For that matter, Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry is nicer, more obedient, less rebellious and less arrogant than the Harry of the books. The absence of these qualities is necessary - after all, this is still a Hollywood production. We like less-complicated heroes on the screen.

The Voldemort appearance at the end of “Goblet of Fire” helps that episode immensely, as it is the weakest of the eight pictures. Because the story had so many diversions, (Harry and Ron, the Tri-Wizards Tournament, Mad-Eye Moody) the filmmakers had a hard time keeping a cohesive narrative. They righted themselves with “Order of the Phoenix,” the shortest film from the longest book. The appearance of director David Yates also signaled another change in tone. The next three Potter movies slide us out of the Victorian magical background and into something that looks more like the modern world. The Ministry of Magic, an immense set, give us something that looks like an office building, creating the bureaucracy of spells. Harry, Ron and Hermione are becoming adults, and the magic of their childhood is becoming darker, more threatening, and closer to reality.

In “The Half-Blood Prince” and the first part of the final installment, Yates gives us quiet moments instead of the busy music of the earlier films. He trusts the material to work the magic, and instead of a childish fantasy, we begin to see some of the larger themes of Rowling’s work. Those themes arrive full-blown in the final film, where we are once again in the magical world of the first two films, full-blown action, wands and wizards flying past us as Harry learns what his journey means.

When Harry dips Snape’s tear into the well of memories, he sees that Dumbledore has been in effect “using him,” knowing he would have to die in order for Voldemort to be destroyed. But death in Harry Potter’s world, as it can be in ours, is not totally the end if one inspires love. Dumbledore has been preserving Harry’s life, but so has Snape, so long the bane of Harry’s existence. Thankfully, the movies did not attempt to water down this part of Rowling’s story, which is almost Biblical in its subtlety and power. We, like Harry, are shaped at a distance by the power which watches over our lives. The power that protects does not always shield us from danger, and the spirit which corrects and humbles is not always against us. In the figures of Snape and Dumbledore, the “two bravest men” Harry ever knew, we see a picture of the double qualities of Providence, protecting and preparing us for the eventual journey to the Forbidden Forest.

On the page, Rowling’s coda showing Harry at the train station to see his own child off to Hogwarts reads awkwardly at first, as though she was unwilling to lead the story finally end. But on the screen, it fits. We are reminded of how we first encountered Harry, as children, our bundles ready for a journey that will take us into a world prepared for us, where we will learn through hard lessons the best parts of ourselves.

You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Read a story for Village Living here.
Read a story for Fox6 here. 
Read a story in The Gadsden Times on the book here.
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Aeneid by Virgil - Translated by Robert Fagles

Perhaps the most affecting portion of Virgil’s great masterwork on the founding of Rome is its namesake’s visit to the Underworld, which comes at the midpoint of the story.

After a trip to Sicily to honor the memory of Anchises, his father, Aeneas ventures to the land of the dead to see the man one more time. It is there that Virgil shows us the wandering souls of the dead - ‘numberless races, nations of souls/like bees in meadowlands on a cloudless summer day/that settle on flowers, riots of color, swarming round/the lilies’ lustrous sheen, and the whole field comes alive/with a humming murmur.”

Here is not only a trope from the ancient world - a hero among the living momentarily steps across the curtain to visit the departed, safe himself from the sting of death - but the poetic inspiration for Dante’s Divine Comedy, which will employ Virgil as a guide for its first two-thirds. Here are the heartbroken who have gained the knowledge that Virgil lacks. His father, by virtue of this home, reveals to his son the glories of Rome that will follow Aeneas once he leaves to fulfill his destiny.

Robert Fagles’ translation of “The Aeneid” is a worthy successor to his excellent translations of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” Most of what I could say about these three works has been said many, many times. Though “The Odyssey” is the more well-known story and the most easily copied, the “The Iliad” is a more satisfying story on a much broader canvas. While Odysseus is the obvious star of the later work, there are so many personalities in “The Iliad” beyond just the angry Achilles that one can quickly lose, regain and lose himself again in its rich maze of action and character.

But both of Homer’s works were meant to be performed, declaimed, shouted even. There is an academic polish, a host of page-bound flourishes in “The Aeneid” that mark it as different in tone and spectacle. Though Virgil was obviously following the style of the two earlier epics, “The Aeneid” is its own animal. Though it takes up the story from the Trojan War and involves the Olympian gods in the affairs of men, there are several voices present here which were absent earlier.

Anchises’ prophecy, for example, points to “The Aeneid’s” main difference - the sense of destiny. That exists in the Homerian epics as well, but not the extent as Virgil’s work. Where Homer was concerned with the fate of individuals, the warriors who bled outside Ilium and on the waters back to Ithica, “The Aeneid” is chiefly concerned with the empire that will flow from the point of Aeneas’ sword. There is about his shoulders the flourish of history, the sense of fate.

“Others, I have no doubt,
Will forge the bronze to breath with suppler lines,
Draw from the block of marble features quick to life,
Please their cases better, chart with their rods the stars
That climb the sky and foretell the times they rise.
But you, Roman, remember, rule with all your power
The peoples of the earth - these will be your arts:
To put your stamp on the works and ways of peace,
To spare the defeated, break the proud in war.”


When the Fire God forges Aeneas’ shield, we are told he takes delight in the images he forges there - images that for Virgil are Rome’s glorious past, but for Aeneas will be their future - but even the Fire God knows nothing of what these events mean. He only knows that these images give him pleasure.

While Virgil wants his readers to feel the swell of martial pride at the thought of Roman arms, he also takes another cue from Homer - the terrible cost of war. At the end, when Aeneas has conquered a portion of Italy, he stands over the defeated Turnus, who yearns for his life. Aeneas shows him no mercy and stabs him with his sword after he sees Turnus is wearing the belt of the dead Pallas. The foe is sent to join Anchises in the realm of the dead. Aeneas has a nation to build.

It is hard to tell, two thousand years later, whether Virgil is decrying the same war he is glamorizing in his lines. Some of this confusion may be simply to what our modern ears expect to hear, and some of it may be the dimly perceived reminder that even destiny entails death and pain.

We get from Virgil a sense that there is ultimately meaning - for all time - in the struggles of Aeneas and his men. They are the inheritors of a proud tradition from Troy, while the home that they knew is gone forever. Their quest to build a new home, and their fortitude in doing so builds a great empire.

What we don’t know however, much like anyone who feels a personal sense of destiny, is what is to become of us and our dreams. It is Aeneas’ memory of the whispered prophecies of his father in the land of the dead which drive him onward. Like Orpheus coming back from a similar trip, his steps are deliberate, but he looks forward rather than back, because he knows nothing will bring back the home he knew. It is not worth the effort. Instead, there is only the kingdom that has been prepared for him, a kingdom for the taking.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Of Salesmen, Living and Dead

On Tuesday, December 8, 2008, the Wall Street trader Bernard Madoff had a meeting with his brother Peter, in which it is believed he revealed for the first time the extent of his billion-dollar, multi-decade Ponzi scheme. Over the previous months, it had become increasing clear to Madoff that the economic cataclysm of the previous September and October had taken him down as well, and it was time, reluctantly, to come clean on the biggest fraud in American financial history.

In Diana B. Henriques book, “The Wizard of Lies,” she writes of the moment when Peter came to learn that most of his and his brother‘s professional lives had been built on lies. It is more likely, she says, that Peter’s mind just stopped and tried “ to rewind an entire lifetime in a split second, to get back to something real and true.”

Madoff was a salesman, who made an illegitimate fortune on an uneasy mountain of mendacity. He sold himself, in the classic American fashion, by appearing to succeed.

In David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic “Glengarry Glen Ross,” we are introduced to an office full of men who would be Madoffs, if they had had a few more connections. In the course of one evening, five real estate salesman are introduced to the realities of success and failure.

Levene is an aging salesman in his fifties, assuring his boss Williamson that he has been hot in the past and will be again if he is simply given better leads toward clients. Shelley “The Machine” Levene will take on the world, if he can get just one good sale in the midst of a bad streak. He attempts to bribe his way back to success, which is better than his colleague Moss, who decides it’s better just to steal the leads and give them to a rival for the promise of a better job.

Commenting on this indirectly is Roma, a charismatic salesman who desperately wants to close a deal with Lingk, a man whose wife has understandable second thoughts about the soundness of her husband’s newly purchased land deal.

Interspersed among the various and florid profanities of Mamet’s excellent dialogue is a depiction of the desperation of men whose worth comes from their ability to legitimately rob others through their personal magnetism. Levene is haunted by his past, and what he perceives is his lost ability to beguile someone out of their money. Moss is frustrated by the inability of his office to see his potential, or the potential of the market. Even in Levene’s desperation and Moss’ woebegoneness is a shared arrogance.

“What is our life?” Roma asks Lingk, in the act of seducing him into a deal. “It’s either looking forward or looking back.” Roma looks forward. He is momentarily frustrated by Lingk’s cold feet, but there will always be another sale. He has none of Levene or Moss’ angst.

Mamet’s salesmen share a common bond with the most famous salesman in American drama, Willy Loman. Arthur Miller, in his memoir “Timebends,” recalls that he wrote “Death of a Salesman” just after the end of the Second World War and the start of what he calls a new American Empire. “I wanted to set before the new captains and the so smugly confident kings the corpse of a believer,” he said, a “pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last.”

Willy Loman is that man, disintegrating even as he spouts the repeated platitudes of a lifetime, extolling the rewards of personal likability, connections and moxie, even as he contradicts himself in the next breath. It is mildly amusing that Miller saw Loman as an American and not universal character, which he absolutely is. In him is the pent-up bitterness not of capitalism, but of stubborn humanity requiring a positive score at the end of life, hoping for some validation to the slights and shattered dreams. “A man has got to add up to something,” Willy tells the ghostly memory of his brother Ben.

Mamet’s Roma, railing at his boss Williamson, roars out the question, “Whoever told you you could work with men?” Again and again, in both plays, there is the invocation of the characters’ masculinity, that a man who strives must be respected. It is Willy’s wife Linda who gives the memorable command that “attention must be paid” to Willy, because he is a human being and he is exhausted by a life of seemingly vain toil. And Linda’s presence amongst the men of the play identifies her with their dilemma as well, because all of Miller’s characters live by a personal sense of honor. Just as Willy has given his life for his business, so Linda has given hers in defending and defining and deifying her husband. All of that toil must amount to something, because it defines her too.

Levene though, is a man, and he eventually must pay for his desperation. Roma, who observed that Levene wasn’t really a machine, but a man and thus part of a dying breed, still wants Levene’s stuff, his commissions, as he is carted off. Whatever legacy he had will not survive even a day. Willy’s crime, in the eyes of his son Biff, is the unfaithfulness he was guilty of years before. All of his borrowed wisdom and surface integrity was shown to be a fa├žade. If this is an unfair judgment, we sense in Willy that his mental deterioration is his own verdict, that he too believes he has failed fundamentally. Willy has a Pyrrhic afterlife following his suicide, his memory a pall over his two sons and wife, his debts paid but little remaining.

Miller’s assault on the senselessness of acquisition and ambition is of a different plane than Mamet’s examination of human greed, mostly because Miller is writing a grand tragedy, and Mamet has created a melodrama. Miller wants to show capitalism’s moral bankruptcy, that it is a tragedy worthy of humanity’s collective tears when one small man dies the desperate death of a Willy Loman. Mamet shows a capitalism where survival is all-important, and exploitation is merely self-preservation.

Roma, in his sales pitch, gets at this, giving an altar call to both the spiritually needy and the greedy: “There’s an absolute morality? May be. And then what? If you think there is, then be that thing. Bad people go to hell? I don’t think so. If you think that, act that way. A hell exists on earth? Yes. I won’t live in it. That’s me.”
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Doubt by John Patrick Shanley

In Scene VII of John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt," Father Flynn admits to Sister James that he fabricated a story he told in a sermon on gossip. "What happens in life is beyond interpretation," he tells her. "The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion."
"Doubt," which was later expanded into an excellent movie, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama in no small part because it adheres to these words.
Father Flynn's is the first voice to confront us, giving us a short sermon on doubt. We immediately like him because his voice is familiar and modern, even though the play's action takes place in 1964. He reassures us that to doubt makes us part of a larger community, struggling to make sense of all around us. Doubt obscures the truth we strain to see, but it bids us on further, changing who we are in the process. The community hearing these words beyond the church likes their easy comfort. There is no reason to take tough stands and make hard choices. Salvation is free and easy, just as God is.
We then encounter Sister James, a bright, enthusiastic teacher with the Sisters of Charity in the Bronx. She is speaking to the school principal, Sister Aloysius. We like Sister James also, because of her sunny enthusiasm and zeal for her students. She is eager and loving and quick to forgive and forget, just as God is.
Zeal describes Sister Aloysius also - but zeal of a different sort. We don't necessarily like her. In a few words of dialogue, she comes off as judgmental, unnecessarily rigid, callously traditional and authoritarian. She warns Sister James not to let students use ballpoint pens as it destroys their penmanship. She chides her for "performing" rather than teaching. And she criticizes her as overly innocent, not only to her students but to the dangers around them. "Innocence is a form of laziness," Sister Aloysius says.
There is something in us that does not like Sister Aloysius, but this feeling diminishes the longer she talks. She is vigilant, just as God is, because the world is not on our side. We recognize her as the stereotypical Catholic school nun who rules over her charges with an angry kind of devotion and puts the smell of brimstone in their nostrils. But the longer she talks, the more we perceive why she is this way. She tells Sister James to think less about herself and observe what is around her. This is sound Christian advice - after all, the sisters are there to serve. In doing so, we can perceive what follows in two different ways.
Time passes, and Sister James returns to indirectly report what Sister Aloysius suspected - Father Flynn may have had inappropriate contact with Donald Muller, the school's only black child. Did Sister James perceive something because Sister Aloysius inspired her to, or did she actually see something she wants to discount because of how she feels about the sister?
The backdrop of "Doubt" - the Catholic sex abuse scandals of the last decade - gives us reason to draw conclusions from the action. But Shanley's characters cannot be so easily pegged, nor is this play simply yet another indictment of the Catholic Church. Flynn may indeed be innocent, but there is something in his quickly offended manner that feels guilty. Sister Aloysius may be a martinet with a vendetta against a priest she sees as overly accommodating, but we are willing to go along with the behavior if she is right about Father Flynn's guilt. We want to think the best of Sister James as she struggles between the two poles of opposition, but we see her partially in the same light as Sister Aloysius, and in the same way we see ourselves. Sometimes doing the right thing is not as important to us as appearing to do the right thing. The stakes in this - the life of a child - can easily be ignored so long as our lives continue and our self-images remain. It is this climate that allowed many guilty priests to survive in parishes for so long, with so many lives destroyed.
But Shanley doesn't construct an easy dragon for vanquishing, on either side of this contest. Just consider, for a moment, how "Doubt" could have ended. If Father Flynn, for example, had been proven to be guilty, then Sister Aloysius' determination would have been justified in our eyes. We might have drawn a conclusion that her traditional ways are superior to the more modern teaching and social styles of Flynn and James. If Father Flynn had been proven innocent, then we would see Sister Aloysius as the play's villain, the forces of openness and virtue having triumphed over the church's long catalog of overzealous homegrown persecutors.
But the play is about doubt, which means that neither outcome will happen. Indeed, no real accusation is ever fully stated. The worst intimation is that Flynn gave Donald wine. When Sister Aloysius confronts Flynn about what may have happened, he responds, "What exactly are you accusing me of?" This is to be expected, and it may be calculated on Flynn's part. He could be goading the sister to either make an accusation or retreat, gambling perhaps that she will retreat. She instead reminds him that she hasn't accused him of anything, but merely asked him what happened. The accusation is one he perceives - but he is right in assuming there is one.
The audience will side one way or another, but they will see that perhaps a traditional nun, no matter how dictatorial, may have been that way for a reason. They may see that a man accused cannot necessarily prove himself innocent without losing something, or everything, in the process. They will see that choosing sides is never so easy as rallying to a cause against this or that irredeemable force.
Shanley throws another wild card into the works with the entrance of Donald's mother into the play, who is summoned for a conference with Sister Aloysius. Nothing is ever spelled out, but Donald's mother is clear on one thing - Donald is different. Does this mean he is receptive to what Sister Aloysius believes are Flynn's homosexual advances? We aren't sure. We do know that Donald is different enough to spark angry beatings at the hands of his father. The mother tells Sister Aloysius plainly that she is willing to put up with whatever attention Father Flynn gives, because it will only last until the school term is up. Donald needs this education. She is willing to ignore the rest. As with much of this play, we suspect what is going on- but we don't know for sure.
This adds another layer - not of race, though Donald's blackness adds to the tension. Father Flynn is a man, and still in a position of authority in 1964. (It is interesting that this play takes place just before the Sexual Revolution.) Sister Aloysius, Sister James and Donald's mother have to navigate their powerlessness. Even Sister Aloysius must be circumspect in how she proceeds with her accusations, knowing that they could be easily ignored by her male superiors within the church. Donald's mother doesn't care about the sister's concern - she will side with her son "and those who are good to him," meaning Father Flynn.
The mother also offers this judgment: "You can't hold a child responsible for what God gave him to be." In the current environment, this sounds like an defense of what we perceive is Donald's homosexuality. But what of Father Flynn? Did God make him a child predator? Is he a child predator? What is Donald? We are never sure. Even this statement, which appears to be a defense, cannot be digested whole.
Shanley is not content to give us an ending with Father Flynn quietly removed from the parish. Indeed, he is promoted, and even the rock solid Sister Aloysius is left to doubt whether her suspicions were ever correct.
But there is also the layer of faith to all of this. We must never forget these characters are devout and carry on their lives in a community of belief. Does Father Flynn's promotion mean that God has protected him from a false accusation, or is this ironic comment on the protection the church provided predatory priests for decades? Does the fact that such things happen give us serious doubts about the justice of God, or even His existence? That feeling of emptiness, where something has occurred but we are not sure of its exact nature, readmits us to the community of doubt where we began the play. There is no last word, Shanley says, not even in a church, an indeterminate distance short of Heaven.


Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Gilgamesh Translated by Stephen Mitchell

The dawn of narrative fiction and epic poetry gets a suitably spectacular treatment in Stephen Mitchell's wonderful English translation of the epic of Gilgamesh. What Mitchell calls "the oldest story in the world" tells the tale of a king who befriends his nemesis, watches him die, and then travels to the ends of the earth to demand of an immortal the secrets of final victory of death itself.
Gilgamesh is a tyrannical king, two-thirds divine, whom the gods frustrate with the creation of a twin - Enkidu. They do this in answer to prayers from Gilgamesh's people that he has crossed over the bounds. Enkidu's coming is in order to "let them balance each other perfectly," so that the Kingdom of Uruk can have some peace. Enkidu is a wild man, living like an animal in the wilderness. He is eventually tamed by the sexual enticements of Shamhat, Ishtar's priestess, who tells him of Gilgamesh's existence. Enkidu sets out to confront the king, but the two soon forge a friendship. They best the fierce guardian of the Cedar Forest, Humbaba, and then vanquish the Bull of Heaven before the gods demand Enkidu's life.
The death of his friend drives Gilgamesh to contemplate the mystery of death, and the possibility of the passing of his own life and the end of his kingdom. This fear drives him to travel to the edge of the earth, to confront the only survivor of the Great Deluge, Utnaphistim. Though the old man is immortal, he whispers a secret- Gilgamesh need only retrieve a plant from the deep that will give him victory over the fear of death. But carelessly, he loses the plant to a passing snake, and then returns home to record his story in verse.
The biggest change in Gilgamesh's life occurs, obviously, with the death of Enkidu. Consider that when the two heroes decide to confront Humbaba, it is Enkidu who is fearful. Gilgamesh reminds him that they are not gods, and that only gods live forever. "Why be afraid then, since sooner or later death must come?" These are brave, even reckless words, but we somehow feel that Gilgamesh, though he is mindful of death, does not expect to die. It is later when he sees his friend dead, not in battle, but by the hand of the gods, that darkness falls over his life. He wanders in mourning, asking, "How can I bear this sorrow that gnaws at my belly, this fear of death that restlessly drives me onward? If only I could find the one man whom the gods made immortal, I would ask him how to overcome death." It is only after Utnaphistim is convinced that Gilgamesh has suffered that he offers the stricken king the secret of life.
Here, in stark terms, is the world of the Babylonians. The gods are vengeful, spiteful, lustful, and arbitrary in the prayers they listen to and answer. They oppose the proud only fitfully, and reward the meek hardly at all. Life is mean and cruel and that is its way. What is a man to do who is not a Babylonian superman? The ancient Utnaphistim, who remembers the world before the flood, had to endure the death of all life before he could see his way to conquering its end.
But this is a world where man must suffer, and whatever knowledge or grace he gains is earned at extreme cost, if anything is gained. The gods take - they do not give freely. Gifts come with incalculable price.
My biggest gripe with this book is not the translation, which is exquisite, but the stupendously silly essay that accompanies it by translator Stephen Mitchell. In a ham handed attempt to make the text "relevant," he ties it to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and finds in Gilgamesh and Enkidu's slaying of Humbaba a dark parable on the dangers of "preemptive attack." These are but two aspects of the work, which strain mightily with the text to draw conclusions and make inferences that simply are not there.
One of the problems of Mitchell's interpretation is that he is projecting backward rules of drama and narrative fiction that Gilgamesh predates. He praises the economy of the poet for passages that simply were important to the narrative demands of the time. He constructs an internal narrative logic for Gilgamesh that does not exist, and looks for Greek notions of drama and storytelling which the Babylonians didn't realize they were supposed to provide for our modern eyes. For example, the attack on Humbaba, Mitchell says rightly, is the sort of daring-do heroes are supposed to risk.

But one can make a case that our heroes pay not for the slaying of Humbaba, but because they killed the Bull of Heaven. The gods, which assisted in the death of Humbaba, must be appeased after the insult of killing the bull.
Another problem is that Mitchell also projects backwards in time a flimsy humanistic philosophy with traces of suitably secular spirituality. He finds much that is commendable in Gilgamesh's refreshingly sexual frankness, which predates Judeo-Christian morality, but ignores the obviously exploitative nature of temple prostitution worship rites. He is simultaneously celebratory over Gilgamesh and Enkidu's pretensions of male superiority, but squeamish when they behave as Babylonian alpha males and not as humanistic milquetoasts. He appends at the end of the text the idea that Gilgamesh is somehow wiser for his travels, with "a wisdom that is impartial, humorous, civilized, sexual, irreverent, skeptical of moral absolutes, delighted with the things of this world..."
Where to begin with this? What about Gilgamesh's own words, upon losing the plant of renewed youth, the antidote to the fear of death, when he tells Urshanabi that "I have gained no benefit for myself?" Of course Gilgamesh is sexual, but it is not a self-satisfied modern enlightened sexuality of equality but one involving the will of the king, who at the poem's beginning was a tyrant. Skeptical of moral absolutes? One wonders if Mitchell means those inconvenient Judeo-Christian morals, through which we tend to see everything in modern life, or the moral absolutes of the poem's era, which largely deal once again with the will of the king and the capricious will of the gods. I don't know Mitchell, but I might take a guess that his conclusion says more about how he views himself than the wisdom Gilgamesh has gathered as a result of his travels.
Herbert Mason's translation of Gilgamesh, for example, ends with the monarch's return to Uruk and his realization that the people will not share in his sorrow. When he asks a blind man if he had ever heard the name Enkidu, the man shrugs and turns away. This is the bleak wisdom of Gilgamesh and the world he documented, a world without Christ, where life is fleeting, as is glory, as is hope.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Ghost, The Ghost Writer and Tony Blair's Journey

Rarely is a writer's own autobiography "scooped," but such a thing happened to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. When his book, "A Journey," landed in stores last year, readers had already had three years to chew on Robert Harris' "The Ghost." A thriller involving a figure much like Blair, Harris' novel was also the basis for Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer."
Harris' novel is told by an unnamed writer who has specialized in quickie celebrity autobiographies, brought in to ghostwrite the memoirs of former British prime minister Adam Lang. The "ghost" gets his job because of the untimely death of the previous ghost, a staff member of Lang's named Mike McAra.
Lang's memoirs are in need of pruning and shaping into a coherent narrative, and the Ghost gets to know, among others, Lang's brittle and ambitious wife, Ruth. But in the course of the assignment, Lang learns he is being pursued for war crimes due to his assistance in the capture of four suspected Pakistani terrorists. The four were later taken to Guantanamo for rendition, with one dying, presumably of heart failure.
The ghost has more than a few problems keeping his subject's mind on telling his own story. He also develops a relationship with Ruth, but his biggest problems come from his own ghost - the notes left behind by McAra, which point to Lang's shadowy association with the CIA. The truth that McAra uncovered - that probably killed him - is hidden in the horrendous first draft of Lang's book. It is only at the book's end that the Ghost discovers the actual truth.
But "The Ghost" is about more than war crimes. It's true subject is the leader away from power. Lang, as Harris draws him, was an aspiring actor when he was plucked from the stage and drawn into the life of Ruth. It was Ruth's drive which eventually resulted in his political career - a sequence of events which makes Ruth bear more of a resemblance to Hillary Clinton than Cherie Blair.
But like Blair with his "third way" politics, Lang is a cipher to those around him, leaving a mystery in his shadow, his intimates wondering just who he is and what he aspires to do. When the unnamed ghost writer says he does not know Adam Lang, the former defense minister Rycart responds with a laugh:


“Who does? If you met him on Monday you probably know him as well as anyone. I worked with him for fifteen years, and I certainly don’t have a clue where he’s coming from.”

Blair’s memoir, “A Journey,” is a remarkably candid, well-written book that nevertheless renders the self-portrait of a cipher. We learn several times of Blair’s passion, surpassing politics, he says, for what he vaguely refers to as religion. We read this several times, but with no elaboration at all. We assume Christianity, of course, but we wonder why there isn’t even a hint of what he means. Is he talking about a specific faith, or the study of religion in general?

What the book does reveal about him, though, is a soul who isn’t afraid to question himself, his motives, the way he saw the events of his time in office and the efficacy of his decisions. Blair - the real Blair - chose to end his book on this note:

"My conclusion, strangely, is not that the power of politics is needed to liberate people; but that the power of people is needed to liberate the politics. An odd thing for a politician to say; but then, as you will gather from this memoir, it has never been entirely clear whether the journey I’ve taken is one of triumph of the person over the politics, or of the politics over the person.”
There are many human moments, rich in humor and irony, which present a much better portrait of Blair than any contemporary journalism. The Blair in these pages is not necessarily a man who can win over those who opposed him, but one rendered a little more easily understood. That makes him different from Lang, who resembles a caged animal, impotent against the forces conspiring against him, embittered that he is being pilloried for making difficult decisions in difficult times.
But Harris doesn't make him a villain any more than he makes Rycart, the minister now trying to get him prosecuted, into a hero. The ghost sees Rycart as an intellectually vain man who is “as hell-bent on revenge as any discarded lover.” Rycart eventually double-crosses the Ghost into working for him, to get something tangible that can be used against Lang in court.

“Look,” said Lang, “I don’t condone torture, but let me just say this to you. First, it does produce results - I’ve seen the intelligence. Second, having power, in the end, is all about balancing evils, and when you think about it, what are a couple of minutes of suffering for a few individuals compared to the deaths of - the deaths, mark you - of thousands. Third, don’t try telling me this is something unique in the war on terror. Torture’s always been part of warfare. The only difference is that in the past there were no ****ing media around to report it.”

These responses do sound much like Blair’s, right down to his exasperation with the media reaction to every decision, every hint of scandal. Blair relates a similar set of fears following the July 2006 London Underground bombings, which occurred directly after London was awarded the 2012 Olympics and the UK hosted a G8 summit. Blair returned home to his family, his thoughts a blur:

“I reflected on the awesome nature of the weight on my shoulders; the pain and the excitement. Politics: noble causes, ignoble means; the plans you make and the events that turn them upside down; the untold misery and the imperfect attempts to alleviate it…”
Blair is overwhelmed by the responsibility of his decisions, and where the fault lies for the mothers and fathers mourning their children, dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, the horror of snuffed out lives. He also tackles the question: Was the war, and Blair, responsible for homegrown deaths at the hands of terrorists? Blair fights the notion because, he says, “if you give even a sliver of credence to the argument, then suddenly it’s our fault, not theirs, which is, naturally, the very thing they want.”
But what distinguishes Blair from Lang is that Lang accepts the opposition's definition of torture, as if to say that though a moral wall has been breached, it was worth it so that his people could be protected. Blair has denied the torture allegations, and reserves some of his harshest criticisms for the terrorists and for his own critics, such as those who opposed the UK's entry into the Iraq War:
“(The Iraqi terrorists) conducted this attempt at destroying a nation with a wickedness and vicious indifference to human life and human suffering that almost defies belief. Suicide bombers sent into markets. Worshippers targeted at their place of prayer. Soldiers and police, there to help put the country on its feet, assassinated. UN officials, NGOs, civilian workers trying to assist the Iraqi people to a better life, gunned down, blown up, kidnapped and killed. Yet after saying all this, my conclusion does not concern the bombers’ attitude to this carnage…but ours. When was there a single protest in any Western nation about such evil? Where was the moral indignation? ..Where was the focus of criticism?”

Lang defends his actions by reminding Rycart that he is, in fact, just a man. After all, Lang says,
Jesus was unable to solve all the problems of the world, despite being the Son of God, so wasn’t it unreasonable to think he could in ten years time?
At the book's close, Lang is killed by a suicide bomber - in the film, he is shot while exiting a private jet. His nemesis dead, Rycart joins those paying tribute to him, his opposition a conveniently forgotten memory.
The ghost remains alive to tell the story, at least, for the moment. In this way, the ghost functions as the stand-in for the reader and the conscience of the book. If Lang did what he did because he believed it was right, Harris seems to be saying through his characters that those beliefs were much more complicated than the citizens who voted for him were led to believe. The ghost is the only innocent in a political world spinning out of control, a man entrusted to tell a story that seems simple on the surface but challenges the beliefs of both left and right about what is good and evil.
Make no mistake - Harris' Lang is guilty of something, no matter how much he rages. The wrongness of his involvement eventually undoes the ghost himself, as evidenced in the film. The nameless writer disappears off-screen carrying the manuscript full of secrets, with a car pursuing unseen. The viewer hears a thud, and pages billow in the wind, an indictment that is no longer valid but will remain unanswered forever.
But the questions of "The Ghost" and of Tony Blair remain. How far can a free society go in defending itself without compromising its essential nature? What is too far? How far can a leader go in making difficult decisions before his people no longer see him as a visionary and instead see him as dangerous? Where is prudence and where is compromise?
The Ghost reminds us, in the last line of his story, “I’m afraid in life you can’t have everything.”

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Pale King and the Apostle Paul

The sixth chapter of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous, unfinished novel “The Pale King” features a character wrestling with the consequences of his actions at the same time his mind keeps summoning up quotations from Paul’s epistles.

Lane A. Dean Jr. sits with his girlfriend Sheri by a lake in a park. They appear to be clean, well-scrubbed kids in a wholesome setting, but something unspoken hangs in the air. By indirect language over the course of the chapter, the reader is left to assume that Lane has gotten Sheri pregnant. The couple met in “campus ministries,” and Lane has been praying, chewing on the moment. The idea of a child in their future forces Lane to realize that, while he likes Sheri, he doesn’t love her enough to want to marry her, or even perhaps to see the child born. Over seven pages, no dialogue is ever directly quoted. The two sit side-by-side, with the narrator wholly in Lane’s mind. Even when we hear Sheri, we must be conscious that this is Lane’s projection of what she might say, what he hopes she will say, what he fears might happen. He is contemplating an abortion for her.

But his larger fear - even more than an abortion, or the fact that he doesn’t love her - is that he might be, in fact, a hypocrite:

“He was desperate to be good people, to still be able to feel he was good. He rarely before had thought of damnation and hell, that part of it didn’t speak to his spirit, and in worship services he more just tuned himself out and tolerated hell when it came up, the same way you tolerate a job you have got to have to save up for what it is you want.”

Lane reveals himself as a little more self-centered than he wants to admit, not as careful as he would like to believe. And while he doesn’t necessarily believe in hell, he suddenly understands why what some might feel are archaic Biblical rules of sexual conduct suddenly make sense. Yet he still wonders if he is a hypocrite “who repented only after, who promised submission but really only wanted a reprieve.” He keeps thinking, the narrator tells us, of I Timothy 6 and “the hypocrite therein who disputeth over words.”

What he is referring to is an extended discourse in Paul’s letter to Timothy which deals with how “the Man of God” must conduct himself in a sinful world. Paul is warning, specifically, about false teachers within churches who stir up controversies out of their own conceits. False teachers, he is saying, create strife and constant friction because of their corrupted minds, displaying an obsession over terminology instead of truth. Paul’s contention is that this is godlessness, a self-centered delusion that makes the other person feel their false gospel is more true than the real kind. He goes on to warn of those who use the Gospel for financial gain, leading to the summation that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Considering that “The Pale King” deals in part with the Internal Revenue Service, there is a flash of irony.

So what is Lane saying? Considering that his lack of belief in hell is, in fact, heresy, is Lane a false Man of God? Of course the dispute in this chapter of the novel isn’t doctrinal on the face of it, but having more to do with his behavior. However, the Apostle Paul would state categorically that one goes with the other - that you can’t have a watered down Gospel without making other compromises in your life which eventually catch up to you. Lane may believe in a “living God of compassion and love” and not of a burning lake of fire, but even he sees the hellish vision of “two great and terrible armies within himself, opposed and facing each other, silent.” The reality of hell is only a whisper, but enough to make him realize what he carries within.

Still later, though, he imagines that Sheri will tell him that she cannot go through with an abortion, that she will carry the child to term, and that he need not worry because she will make no demands on him. In a vision, Lane has seen them both, and himself not as a hypocrite but as just another foolish fallen man. Don’t worry, he imagines her telling him, but he also imagines that even this is a lie, a desperate lie she might tell him to force him into caring for her, that within herself she knows she cannot care for a baby or put her family through the shame. She is gambling, in this imagined scene, that he really is the good man she believes. But his imagination, which has brought all of this out, quotes half of Galatians 4:16: “Have I now become your enemy?”

In this letter, Paul is appealing to the Galatian church against what he sees as the corrupting influence of what has come to be called the Judaizers - a sect believing that one must first become Jewish and observe a Jewish diet and cultural customs as part of, and as a prelude to, becoming a Christian. Paul, who previously had been an observant Jew and a well-educated one, had particular invective for the Judaizers, appealing instead to a Gospel of grace and faith instead of one of supposedly earned salvation through works.

But the full quotation is telling - “Have I now become your enemy because I tell you the truth?” Paul is reminding this church, which he helped create, that God’s salvation cannot be earned through works. We were once together and one, Paul says, so why are we now at odds? You trusted me once with the Gospel, so why have you changed into believing I am dishonest?

This is an interesting juxtaposition when we fold it back on Lane and Sheri. Lane wants grace - in that he wants to not have to face the consequences of his choices with Sheri. Sheri has faith - faith that Lane is not the kind of man who would get a woman pregnant and then abandon her, all the while talking of Jesus. Neither of them have earned any kind of salvation through their works, unless by salvation one means love. And yet it’s obvious that the love they share isn’t really love at all, but the fading colors of a passing and passionate lust. And lastly, they are both struggling against the truth - that they have many troubling decisions to make, not just about their circumstances, but about who they are, or who they might think they are. Will they become enemies if they are simply honest with each other?

The truth, Wallace’s narrator leaves us believe as the chapter closes, is that Lane only lacks courage to be able to confront the issue at hand and trust that his heart will make the right choice. One can see that God working in catastrophe forces upon us our truest and most terrible reflections. And as the Apostle Paul knew, that is when we not only are ready for forgiveness, but we long for it, with all our hearts.

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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Seventeen by Kenzaburo Oe

Earlier, I wrote about Yukio Mishima's "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion" and the way the novel documents "the angry loner" who often seems the source of political terrorism and myriad acts of motiveless violence. Mishima's novel grew from a real event in Japanese history, much as did "Seventeen," by Kenzaburo Oe. The winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, Oe creates a character that seems at times a caricature and an accurate depiction, which says something about the nature of his art and his subject.

Oe stands, uneasily, at the other end of the spectrum of Japanese politics from Mishima, who died in what is often termed an attempted rightist coup. "Seventeen" was based on the case of Otoya Yamaguchi, a teenaged rightist who assassinated the Socialist leader Inojiro Asanuma on live television during a speech in 1960. Yamaguchi went on to commit suicide in prison.

Oe wrote two works based on the story, the first being the novella "Seventeen." Its sequel, "A Political Youth Dies," has never been translated outside Japan and deals with the actual assassination its storyteller carries out. In reading "Seventeen," one feels like the narrative is interrupted at the precise moment in which the character has arrived at what he perceives to be his destiny. It is like someone has excised about a third from Don DeLillo's "Libra" and left a novel about Lee Harvey Oswald which ends with his misadventures in New Orleans in the summer of 1963.

Oe does not name his storyteller, whose story begins on his seventeenth birthday. From the first page, the youth's self-loathing is understood and reinforced with every sentence. He is obsessed with his inconsequentiality. He feels unobserved, and fears his life has already seen its happiest moments. To illustrate this, Oe has the boy describe over and over in detail his habit of masturbating. For half of the novella, in fact, which grows tedious early on. It is tempting to think that Oe is merely offering commentary on the political thoughts that will later seize the boy - that they are a sad, lonely exercising of the same ideas, over and over, with the same result each time, only growing smaller and less satisfying. Such an explanation redeems the book for a point that more probably is meant to insult the rightist politics the boy later embraces.

At the same time we learn about his lack of sex life, we witness multiple embarrassments and humiliations. The boy makes a mild embrace of leftist politics in his home and is dressed down by his older sister. He loses a foot race at school. He is left with a blood lust he indulges in the privacy of his room, with his hidden sword. We realize with the hand-me-down leftist phrases he parrots back to his sister, the boy isn't interested in politics so much as feeling the satisfaction of being right about something. He wants to make someone pay for the way he believes his life has turned out.

The turning point comes when he is recruited to go stand and applaud during a rightist rally. The boy embraces the idea and the occasion, and even as he sees through the speaker, he identifies with his anger and impotence, a word and attitude that figures heavily in "Seventeen" and in "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion." Impotence can be seen as the natural outgrowth of a man robbed of his own importance, or of Japan following its defeat at the end of the Second World War. And as in Mishima's earlier work, Oe's "hero" makes various mentions of hell - the hell of surrender, not on a national but a personal level.

"Unconditionally, I forgive myself," the boy thinks at the rally, and the underpinning for all his future work has arrived. His loathing is now held in check, and a sense of destiny and superiority rises within him. His family now is glad to see him involved in something to give him self-worth, and his friends see some of his inexplicable behavior in the past as having had a covert, political edge. His identity is now set as well, and the shame he felt and perceived among others - or The Others, as he referred to them - is gone. His political arguments are only weapons he trots out for power. He is transformed. "To my golden vision I promise a bloodbath," he vows, at the story's end. As with Mizaguchi in Mishima's work, the angry loner doesn't care what philosophy he clings to as long as it gives him a feeling of being someone of world historical importance, a feeling that cannot be taken away and is only reinforced by the insults and retaliations of others.

The wholeheartedness with which he embraces this destiny is explained in a short, earlier section, wherein he confesses his fear that death, will not, in fact, be the end:

"The death I fear is like this: After this short life, I'll have to endure billions of years in unconsciousness, as a zero. This world, this universe, and all the other universes, will go on being for billions of years, and all that time I'll be a zero. For all eternity!"

In receiving his own forgiveness, he extends to himself grace to do whatever his will imagines, with disastrous consequences. Our hero feels singled out at both ends of his metamorphosis, by a higher power that seems both to designate him for punishment and then for distinction, with the reader to assume that the later end will also lead to the former, and just whom that higher power may be.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky

Among the many factors that can determine the longevity of an artist's career beyond his lifetime is a compelling life story - one that adds the barest seasoning to an already intriguing catalog of work. Because of this, David Foster Wallace is well on his way to becoming the transcendent American author of our times, judging by David Lipsky's recent book, "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace." The book is equal parts mythmaking and mythbusting, allowing the reader to engage in whichever feels right.

With the release of David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel "The Pale King" only weeks away, I thought it was time to tackle this work, which frankly cries out to be made into a movie. It's an obvious road picture, as Lipsky transcribes the running dialogue he recorded between himself and Wallace during the book tour for "Infinite Jest." Lipsky taped their conversations as part of a profile he was preparing for "Rolling Stone." Wallace was flush with success, his likeness gracing news magazine covers, the words of his cult sensation essays gratefully quoted, his abundant ambition evident in his newly published 1,000 page novel. He arrived in the popular consciousness like a thunderclap, and twelve years later was dead by his own hand following his surrender to clinical depression.

Because of Wallace's tragic end, it is impossible to read these conversations without feeling various emotional tugs - poignant appreciation of how talented he was, a mournful anger when considering what was ahead of him, a knowing laughter at some of his opinions, seasoned with humor. What grabbed me in reading it was the spiritual dimension to many of his observations.

When reading, it's necessary to remember that Wallace is not offering his opinion out of a need to express himself. He's selling a book, and its a book that he knows is good and will forge his reputation as a serious American writer. Moreover, he's responding to questions designed to ferret out his opinions on life, his background and what he's hiding about his nervous breakdown and drug use, and his answers (and off the record comments) are calibrated to satisfy a reporter's curiosity.

The book is overflowing with his particular persona, right down to the awkwardly structured, overly long title, which comes from one of Wallace's statements. It's amazing how vague the dialogue is. Wallace is hesitant to make a definitive statement, so he qualifies his statements, and sprinkles them with mitigating phrases, and kinda, sortas and maybes, like, abound. This is a painfully self-conscious dialogue, as the interview is self-conscious when the interviewee is overly conscious of what he perceives are his own inadequacies to the moment itself. But he is also refreshingly honest about some aspects of his career, such as how unsatisfying he thinks the ending to "The Broom of the System" was. He both praises and savages John Updike, and points out the flaws of Stephen King while at the same time lauding him. He believes that the death of serious reading will mean that identity has also ceased to exist. He sees the flaws in experimental writing. He has endless riffs on movies. All of these observations are laid out in caffeinated, postcollegiate patois, complete with all the you knows, uhs, and likes that we all struggle against in our own daily speech. Some of this is superficial pedestrian woolgathering masquerading as philosophy, and some of it is brilliant observation. The distance between the two isn't all that great.

Wallace also lays out some of his theories on what it will take for the writer to grab the attention of his over-stimulated, undereducated, 24-hour-news cycle audience. As Wallace is talking, we are pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, with the Internet only just beginning to grab the attention and time of the public. What strikes Wallace, again and again, is the "loneliness" of modern life - how little connectivity has actually connected anyone. And upon reading, the horrifying reality is that this condition has only worsened since these interviews took place.

But Wallace also believes that human beings are "absolutely dying to give ourselves away to something." He believes this, but he also believes it is virtually impossible to write in a contemporary voice about God:

"I mean the culture, it's all wrong for it now. You know? No, no. Plausibly realistic characters don't sit around talking about this stuff. You know? So...I don't know. But the minute I start talking about it, it just, it sounds number one: very vague. Two: really reductive. And the whole thing to me was so complicated, that you know it took sixteen hundred pages of sort of weird oblique stuff to even start to talk about it. And so feel stupid, talking about it."


Of course, the real characters of this book are talking about it, and neither sounds like Dostoevsky. So why does he feel uncomfortable talking about it? "Because I don't have a diagnosis. I don't have a system of prescriptions," he says. Yet later, he and Pinsky understand that modern America and their generation is growing up in "the rubble of the old system" - that is, the "ridiculous and hypocritical...old authoritarian...don't-question-authority stuff." But, like Jonathan Franzen, Wallace has nothing to replace it with, no direction to point to, no diagnosis, no prescription. He knows enough to know that the same generation is "dying...on the toxicity" of the idea that pleasure and comfort provide the ultimate meanings for life.

"I'm talking about the number of privileged, highly intelligent, motivated career-track people that I know, from my high school and college, who are, if you look into their eyes, empty and miserable. You know? And who don't believe in politics, and don't believe in religion...And who just..who don't believe in anything. Who know fantastic reasons not to believe in stuff, and are terrific ironists and pokers of holes. And there's nothing wrong with that, it's just, it doesn't seem to me that there's just a whole lot else."


But reading this, it's evident there is indeed something wrong with that, and Wallace knows it. One wonders whether he did have some idea of what was wrong, but didn't feel comfortable providing an answer. I'm not suggesting a Christian answer, though it is interesting that Wallace leaves Pinsky to go to a church where "everyone more or less wants to leave each other alone." Much of Wallace's work deals with the loneliness, the lack of meaning, the aimlessness of existence, and the search for meaning, or just, how to kill time. But a writer with the ambition to write an epic novel, with the courage to look at the hole in modern existence, is also mature enough to recognize that he doesn't have all the answers. The question of existence remains. Being able not to believe in something isn't necessarily a strength, when one ultimately doesn't believe in anything at all.

In the book's forward, Franzen provides an observation: "Does it look now like David had all the answers?" In retrospect, we can see that he at least was on to the right questions. But Lipsky's epitaph resounds: "His life was a map that ends at the wrong destination."
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