Monday, January 29, 2007

A not so novel idea

While rummaging through back issues of the Virginia Quarterly Review (interesting how I'll spend two hours doing such things, then whine about having to write a 200 word reading response), I came across an excellent piece by Brock Clarke called "The Novel is Dead, Long Live the Novel" that critiques the media's prophecy of the "Rise of non-fiction" and the "Failure of the Novel." Having spent a summer interning in publishing, I can attest to the commercial veracity of this appraisal; philosophically, it brings up Big Questions about genre, politics, and the value/efficacy of artistic media that are worth considering.
"One pictures the lamest booth at the fair, with novels struggling to raise the big hammer, to hit the lever, to ring the bell, while the muscular nonfiction books stand to the side in their strongman singlets, holding their already-won stuffed animals, flexing, asking the tube-topped girls passing by if they’d like to feel their biceps."
Clarke--who is, naturally, a fiction writer--structures his analysis around a discussion of two novels, Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities (which I read in high school) and Heidi Julavitz' The Effect of Living Backwards (which I'd like to read now). Clarke's evaluation of the former is hardly favorable: After mocking Wolfe's self-importance in a 1989 "literary manifesto" he wrote about the Death of the Novel, "Stalking the Billion-footed Beast," he goes on to question the claims of verisimilitude that Wolfe ascribes to his own literary style, the "big, realistic novel."

Verisimilitude, a concept as context-bound as ever, is now complicated by new phenomena--globalization, the spread of information, postmodernism, etc. As Clarke writes, "We want literature to capture our troubled times." The valuation he's drawing into question isn't an aesthetic problem in the formal sense, but in the realm of social determination; the point of contention is relevance.

In claiming to write a big, realistic novel that takes advantage of the rhetorical facilities he perfected as a reporter, Wolfe promises a book that is more than a house of words: Like a piece of literary journalism, The Bonfire of the Vanities hopes to impress upon us the prescient concerns of its time and place--bloated, moneyed 1980's New York--and assert its value as a socially relevant work. This hope, argues Clarke, is irrevocably hampered by the text's flat characterization, empty symbols, unrealistic dialogue, etc.
"My point here is not that every journalist is doomed to write bad novels, or that fiction is superior to nonfiction, or that realism is inferior to whatever we choose to label its opposite, but that if one is going to write a novel, then one had best emphasize and pursue its virtues as fiction and not try to make the novel more like nonfiction."
His counter-example is The Effect of Living Backwards, a compressed, surreal work about (but not claiming to encapsulate) hijacking and airplanes and sisters that poses "a complete antithesis" to Wolfe's sprawling, "realistic" saga. Julavitz, according to Clarke, absconds thematic authority, instead opting to place a thin cross-section of humanity under her authorial lens, producing an indirect gaze that--paradoxically--evokes the Big Questions in a way that Wolfe fails to do with his reportorial approach.
"Wolfe means that fiction best approaches its big subjects directly, head-on, which—to use Wolfe’s rhetoric—is the only effective, honorable way of wrestling the beast. It might be true that nonfiction profits by approaching its subjects directly, but it is not true of fiction..."
Clarke's assessment of what fiction can do locates its efficacy in the very properties of genre: Art and society exist dialectically (as in, they have the ability to mutually determine each other), and literary works that are aware of their formal properties can demonstrate this relation. Aesthetic representation, then, is not only, per Kant's estimation, an "ontological vacation place" in which existential interests do not interfere, and its value transcends the detachment of the arts from the causal order of life. If non-fiction is like an enormous, detailed mural, venturing to simultaneously display all of the intricacies and relations of a varied situation, then a novel can endeavor to act as a simple portrait, whose focus on the complexities of a singular existence draws attention to the looming absence of all that cannot be represented.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Risky Business

A few nights ago, a group of friends and I decided to road trip (re: drive 45 minutes north of Yale) to North America's largest Casino/hotel/parking garage, Foxwoods Casino in Ledyards, Connecticut. Of all the "firsts" I've experienced at Yale, this was perhaps the most ironic, as I went to high school in Arizona. Let me put it this way: Connecticut is to country home as Arizona is to Indian Casino. Connecticut is to apple pie as Arizona is to fry bread they serve at Indian Casinos. Connecticut is to preppy, WASPy mother as Arizona is to wrinkly, sullen Grandma who goes to Indian Casinos and stuffs poker chips into her fanny pack.

Anyways, the closest I came to visiting one in Arizona (before they hiked the legal age from 18 to 21) was my junior prom, when my then-boyfriend took me to the dog tracks. So I was thrilled to experience Foxwoods, and to hopefully witness some sort of Oceans 11-type heist.

In many ways, a Casino is like a mash-up of the nice parts of a retirement home and the crappy bits of Disneyland. Everything is strategically designed to trigger your slot finger: You receive free drinks if you sit down and gamble, there's a lot to see but very little to do outside of gambling, and, to get anywhere, you have to walk through the gambling centers. I also learned:

1. People who patronize Casino's are mad weird. This is a photograph covertly snapped in a Foxwoods bar called Atrium, conveniently located at the epicenter of multiple Gambling Centers (the website: "Atrium wants you to find it"). Outside of the anomalistic group of condescending Yale students, Casino Patrons are either creepy thirty-somethings determined to enjoy the Nightlife, Japanese businessmen, and withered elderly people slumped over penny slots.2. Horseplay is not encouraged. Here, my friend Andrew and I are making fox symbols with our hands, evoking the name of the Casino and preparing for the evening. Um, I don't remember why the shoes are there. Anyways, Casino Employees do not smile on rambunctious youth, as I was asked for my ID at every venture possible--even leaving one of the Gambling Centers. Also, for Employees of a Casino that proudly displays a giant faux-ice sculpture of a half-naked Indian crouching with his bow and arrow whose loin cloth lights up in different colors, you'd think the would be more tolerant of being called Squaws.

3. Losing sucks. It turns out that erc's "Yale-smarts" have no effect whatsoever on the random output of a computerized machine. Actually, I spent 2/3 of my change trying to figure out how the game worked.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

scurrrcrows

A nice piece in The Chronicle by Robert Soloman about the misrepresentation of the word "existentialism" in popular and contemporary culture, centered around a review of a new book on Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Camus called Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit. Sounds like the subtitle to my life story! (ha ha...sigh).

Uh anyways, Solomon agrees with the author's evaluation of pessimism as an "appropriate and realistic philosophy," but disputes his conflation of the term with existentialism. He admits that the assertion of the meaninglessness of human life and the "death of God" (Kierkegaard was, of course, a Christian) provokes anxiety, then adds that such notions are not necessarily nihilistic: The recognition of indeterminacy permits the valuation of subjective positions, an outlook that produces a more situated,* and, inherently just, conception of human experience.

Having read very few existential texts but a healthy amount of postmodernist criticism (and opposition), it's interesting to observe the manner in which both terms (the former being a precursor to the other) are so often exploited as straw men; existentialism is misrepresented as pessimism, postmodernism is portrayed as a product of the descent of traditional values and the rise of consumerism, deconstruction is written off as destruction, and multiculturalism is conflated with relativism. Which leads to the Big Question: Why are philosophical systems that privilege individual agency so often treated as scarecrows by the media?

*I know it's kind of obnoxious that I linked my own posts here, but they're revealing of my biases.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Yale Post Office: Hating Yale students Since 1701

Being a Yale student in the post office is like being Britney Spears in a town populated by Kevin Federline's posse. Except for the mustachioed employee who always whispers to me, "I didn't know Ashlee Simpson was coming in today." I think that makes him Paris Hilton in this analogy.

Yale Post Office, 1/22:
Me: Hi. (places package slip on the table)
Surly Postal Worker: You gonna sign that or what?
Me: Whoops, sorry.
SPW (shakes head and waddles away): Linda, did you watch Raymond last night?
(loud laughter, muted discussion for seven minutes)
Me: Hello?
SPW: (loud whisper) JESUS.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

my fair zadie

I wanted to dislike Zadie Smith’s piece in the Guardian, “Fail Better.” She begins with a device I loathe—a parable of a hypothetical character--then endows him with qualities of her literary peers, a tactic that forewarns a lack of self-reflexive criticism. She takes a pot shot at lit theory—“those elegant blueprints for novels not yet built”—suggesting that theorists perceive such works as “houses of words” (echoing, perhaps unwittingly, Jameson’s critique of the “prison house of language”). The subtitle alludes to things like “duty” and the “self,” which promised to irritate my aversions to humanist backlash.

But the piece is really…good.

The moralizing tale that opens the story is an account of an over-intellectualized wannabe writer (“Clive”) who, in pursuit of his first novel, betrays his "self," or his ideas and intentions. Writing fiction, it turns out, is, well, hard: The conveyance of one’s mental notions (ideas) and experiences (material perceptions) necessitates a technical skill that Clive doesn’t have. Fumbling for a solution, he patches the suture between the grandiose concepts of his “platonic novel” and his literal abilities with theoretical pretenses—things like heavy handed symbolism. Nevertheless, the novel succeeds, Clive is “satisfied and vindicated,” and Smith implicates all players in the economy of artistic production—writer, publisher, and reader—as participants in the hypocrisy of literary success.

A bit tangentially, she then proffers her own definition of authentically good fiction: “the refinement of a consciousness.” This concept emerges from a critique of Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that bastion of New Criticism that called for the segregation of personality/intention and literary value, locating the latter in one’s expression of literary ancestry.

Smith, while acknowledging the influence of culture and history upon the text, argues that the writer, too, inflicts his or her influence upon the “tradition.” For her, the tradition and the individual talent are dialectical; “the self,” she writes, “is like platinum—it leaves traces all over the place.”

In Zadie's eyes, “literary failure” isn’t produced by inauthenticity in the representational sense, or even in the ascription of genre—in lieu of contemporary culture’s obsession with the bounds between biography and fiction and non-fiction, this poses a fascinating challenge to the significance of such labels—but rather in writing that betrays the self. The “duty” she alludes to isn’t the need to entertain, to mimeograph reality, or to present complex or political ideas, but to “express accurately (the writer’s) way of being in the world.” Thus, the 8th grader who writes a shitty, emo poem about his feelings and posts it on myspace fails better than, say, the Houellebecqs of the world.

Which is not to say that literary valuations exist on a “free to be you and me” spectrum of textual relativism: Smith argues that the determination of this authenticity—the ability of the writer to earnestly convey his perceptions and thoughts, others’ existences, his own subjective truth—necessitates a reader attuned to ideational theatrics and true verbal brilliance. Herein, I believe, exists the transformative power of great literature: The earnest conveyance of a singular existence can fire up the sympathetic imagination, transmitting ideas and beliefs more successfully than any other form of representation. Now that's communication.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

glorious

It's a rare romance story that brings a tear to my eye, but this "Vows" in the Times, about a neurotic misanthrope with a double chin who lands a Carrie Fisher look-a-like, was truly fantastic. A sampling of quotes and descriptions that characterize the rosy-cheeked groom:
“I don’t like human beings,” he said, only half in jest. “I’m bothered by real and perceived slights, and I hold grudges for billions of years.”

Over their first summer break he sent her newsletters and mix tapes. But she didn’t get the message.


He gave her the silent treatment, for the next four years.

Mr. Mandel’s response was to write “a ‘Seinfeld’ episode about her,” he said. “It’s the modern equivalent of a Shakespeare sonnet.” He explained that in the episode, called “Bizarro Jerry,” Jerry Seinfeld dates a woman with “man hands.”

Essentially this man is me, give or take a few hundred pounds. Which means there is hope for erc yet...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

bonding time with mom

The other day, my mom decided that she and I should spend some quality female time together while the manlier half of erc's family went kayaking. Since I have refused to kayak since 1997 (when my feeble arms cramped, the tour guide had to hitch my boat to his with a bungee cord and drag me for miles like a carcass), I gladly obliged to some Q.T with Mom.

Our day began with a trip to an outdoor shopping center: Imagine the most depressing strip mall on earth, then substitute the 99-cent acrylic nails with ugly puka shell jewelry and tacky wooden souvenirs. While Mom wandered amidst the other visor-bedecked ladiez, I looked for a crossword puzzle, coffee, and a shady tree. The stoner guy making the coffee told me that I was "way tense," "clearly from the mainland," "wearing a "manly shirt," and needed to "find a dank beach to chill at."
As you can see, the two girls behind me are staying thirty feet away so as not to catch my "mainland" vibes. That shirt does look kind of manly.

After Mom found me, the next gals-only stop was the Wailea Mall, sort of a deserted luxury mecca for bored tourists. After half-heartedly looking for a business suit for my upcoming Professional Life and disagreeing over the cut and color (apparently cocaine-white linen screams "Mexican druglord" to everyone but me), we sat down to do a little catching up. Readers with Asian mothers know what "catching up" really means:

Mom: You need to do some teeth whitening. Maybe the white strips? So yellow, because you drink so much coffee. You need to drink less coffee, and less soda, too. How many cups? You need to get it fixed before your interviews. Unless--(laughs cruelly)--the interview is at Starbucks.

Mom: You know, people looking at you can tell you don't put time, money into your hair. (Pause). That's good, boys
like women who are cheap like you.

Mom: Be more careful in the sun. Are you wearing sunscreen right now? Although...all of those freckles on your face are not so bad. Actually, you look very nice now, but--(Taps the bridge of her nose)--just let me know if want to get this fixed.
erc: WHAT?
Mom: You know, the bump (taps nose again, then whispers). We don't have to tell anyone.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

erc on break

Friend (5:40:57 PM): have you been all around hawaii?
minafosho (5:40:36 PM): no, Im a lazy slob
minafosho (5:40:43 PM): every day I get up, eat breakfast, work out, lie on the beach until 2 or 3
minafosho (5:40:54 PM): then sit at the computer and read articles online for three hours
minafosho (5:40:55 PM): then eat more
minafosho (5:40:57 PM): then watch a movie
minafosho (5:40:58 PM): then go to bed
Friend (5:42:12 PM): dude, that's pretty much my MO too
Friend (5:42:26 PM): mix in some arguing with parents, random household tasks, and spending on things i dont need, like things from cvs
minafosho (5:42:16 PM): yeah, me too.
minafosho (5:42:35 PM): ooo mrs doubtfire is on
minafosho (5:42:35 PM): gtg

Monday, January 08, 2007

An Inside Job

Here's a sorta fun New Republic article by Christopher Orr about movies that "send mixed messages" by broadcasting contradictory themes; the two self-negating films he discusses are Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly (which I saw) and Robert Altman's A Praire Home Companion (which I didn't see). While Orr points out that A Scanner Darkly was conceptualized as a "stern moral lesson" on the evils of drug use from former addict Philip Dick, he argues that the D.A.R.E bulletin, or the film's overt content, is undermined by its form--the implicit playfulness of the actor's performances and the "giddy, trippy feel" of the animation. I skipped the part about Prairie Home, but I'll assume that Orr contends that the "mixed message" is casting Lindsay "Ho"han in a wholesome family film.

To be honest, I'm unconvinced that an animated film could truly convey the proper tone of any serious issue, or at really convince me of anything (except for Waking Life, which convinced me that armchair existentialism sucks). But then again, I know next to nothing about "serious" animated films, other than the fact that The Chipmunk Adventure was seriously epic. Please, no one leave comments about "really high quality" anime.

So what sort of work do "mixed messages" do? Louis Althusser has one answer: In his response to Andre Daspre's La Nouvelle Critique, where Daspre accuses him of depreciating art by including it in his definition of ideology (for Althusser, ideology encompasses the very mediated relations that constitute our subjectivity, both imagined and real), he responds with a counter-example not unlike Orr's critique:
"Balzac and Solzhenitsyn give us a 'view' of the ideology to which their work alludes and with which it is constantly fed, a view which presupposes a retreat, an internal distantiation from the very ideology from which their novels emerged. They make us 'perceive' (but not know) in some sense from the inside, by an internal distance, the very ideology in which they are held."
So for Althusser, it is the discrepancies between form and content, what Marcherey calls "decenteredness," that makes ideology visible. This follows the Freudian model: Just as transference, displacement, condensation, etc. are the true objects of Freudian dream analysis, so too are mixed messages--those "internal dissonances" that Marcherey imbues with significance--the objects of artistic analysis that often prove the most compelling, or serve the greatest political purpose.

But while it's easy to identify the subversive intent of the device in, say, Balzac's satire, identifying internal distantiation (what a word!) in films such as Natural Born Killers (Ridley Scott's hypocritical criticism of the bloodthirsty spectator culture in the ultra-violent Gladiator also comes to mind) raises the question: For modern-day directors, is such conceptual dissonance satirical or simply accidental?

Not Yo Family

Just days into vacation, the intensity and proximity is beginning to wear on my family; as of late, small instances of bickering have exploded into full-scale battle royales, mainly triggered by an unnamed sibling who reads this blog. Most of these clashes have arisen in front of the refrigerator: While everyone has learned the brutal consequences of stealing from erc's stash of diet coke/gum, it seems that all members of the family share a special affinity for the same product--Yoplait Light Yogurt.

Tonight, after dinner, we headed to Safeway with a grocery list of staples. But it was clear from the beginning that everyone had the same thing on their mind:

After we split our separate ways, we were all "surprised" to find each other in the dairy aisle. We crowded around the Yoplait section and things turned ugly:

Mom: Hands off the Boston creme pie! And the Vanilla! And the Berries n' cream!
Isaac (dumps fifteen yoplaits into basket): Whatever, Key Lime Pie is the best anyways.
Dad (disgusted): Ugh, I think you've had enough. Hey, is that Apple Turnover??
Isaac: I'LL EAT THEM ALL TONIGHT.
Mom (slaps away the hand of passing little girl): I"LL EAT ALL MINE TONIGHT, TOO.

Embarrassed that my family wasn't more (or should I say less) "cultured," I hung back and played it cool. As soon as we got home, though, I ripped open a pair of Boston creme pie Yoplaits and dumped them into a bowl, only to be caught by Mom, ever eager for a photo op.Damn, I didn't even have the composure to throw my gum away first.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

pool partay

This afternoon, I swam laps for the first time in over five years. Actually, it was the first time in as long that I have waded into a swimming pool beyond chest level; putting my head underwater felt wonderful, but I was too afraid to open my eyes. Swimming in a bikini is difficult.

Since I've been out of the pool-loop (see what I did there?) for so long, I experimented with all of the ways I used to swim: the backstroke, the freestyle crawl, the breast stroke, the side stroke. I must have looked like a blind, mentally disabled puppy that had been thrown into the water. The only other people in the entire complex were a Japanese mother and her six year old son, who was wearing tight blue leggings and had a matching flotation device strapped to his back. We raced across the shallow end, and I won handily.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Four haikus about my favorite actress


Your luminescence
Has driven many a man
To Depp-ths of remorse.

In that new flick by
Phillip Dick, your voice led me to
Rent Heathers that night.

I watched Beetle-Juice
As a Girl, Interrupted
When Mom changed channels.

Oh Lelaina, Pierce
Through my heart, the only thing
You truly did steal.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

How Richard Rorty learned to Stop Worrying and Love Harold Bloom

So back to Rorty's "The Inspirational Value of Great Literature." My recent posts on what makes great novels great--perhaps summarized as "The Technical Value of Great Literature"--have gotten me thinking not only about literary value, but also literary pleasure, which has gotten me thinking about Richard Rorty again. Looking back on the essay, which targets many of the theoretical positions I've inhabited, has crystallized a question I've asked myself: Have my studies of literature inhibited, affected, or enhanced the pleasure I take in reading?

Rorty begins the piece by taking a jab at Jameson's Postmodernism, which he accuses of being--gasp--"unromantic." The postmodern perspective, he argues, assumes a smarmy air of "knowingness"--a theoretical 'tude that precludes the ability to enjoy reading. Citing Bloom, Rorty claims that contemporary critics (re: post-structuralists) have sullied the humanities, mutating the study of literature into a lowly social science. He compares the dilemma to one he feels has already stagnated philosophy, a field that has, he believes, become culturally irrelevant, "derived of romance and inspiration" because of the analytic tradition.

Rorty offers a detailed lamentation of what he claims has been lost. Inspiration via reading, he states, is garned through the realization of of "someting greater to hold onto," "something more to this life" that cannot be manufactured mechanically or similarly excavated, something that necessitates individual genius (are we starting to see why he gets along with Bloom?) to write or understand. More succintly: sublimity through humanism = a good read.

For a philosopher, Rorty makes some pretty illogical equations; to locate literary value within the ability to inspire is one thing, but his claim that inspiration necessitates hopefulness belies a more problematic conflation of hopefulness and willful ignorance. By Rorty's reasoning, it is impossible to derive inspiration from a text when one's "righteous indignation and social hope" have led him or her to constantly hunt for the cultural machinery that has fabricated its ideology. The notion reminds me of a photograph we saw in Brain and Thought, of a mouse whose mutated, oversized cortex bulged out of its skull and impeded its ability to survive.

Which brings me back to my initial question, which leads to a conflict that has plagued the focus of my studies at Yale. After focusing my academic work on postcolonialism, postmodernism, the dangers of identification and the cultivation of resistant reading, I've found that--while I do derive pleasure from Rushdie, Naipaul, Kincaid, et al--my favorite novels are those produced on the wrong side of the ocean. And herein lies the hole in the sheet Rorty is casting over the post-structuralists: A reading that induces inspiration--wonder, pleasure, catharsis--can coexist with a critique of the structures that have shaped the text.

The romantic magic whose depletion Rorty bemoans, then, does not evaporate when the author's context is examined and when his or her words are deconstructed--it is aroused in their reception. Sublimation is not, as perhaps Bloom would wish, achieved in the deification of the genius; it occurs when the genius' words induce the reader to reflect on the process of reading, to consider his or her dis/identification with ideas, language, tropes, and to see the world in a different light.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

the top shelf gets a little heavier

After three nights of sleeping on my grandparents' couch and twelve hours spent in airplanes and terminals, I finished Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men. It is a revelation, and I feel oddly disinclined to wonder why; I'm reminded of Rorty's words in The Inspirational Value of Great Literature (an essay that I have repeatedly critiqued in my own writing, and a piece that merits your reading and its own post).

"If it is to have inspirational value, a work must be allowed to recontexualize much of what you previously thought you knew; it cannot, at least at first, be itself recontextualized by what you already believe. just as you cannot be swept off your feet by another human being at the same time that you recognize him or her as a good specimen of a certain type, so you cannot simultaneously be inspired by a work and be knowing about it. Later on-when first love has been replaced by marriage-you may acquire the ability to be both at once. But the really good marriages, the inspired marriages, are those which began in wild, unreflective infatuation."

So I will limit my analysis to a hefty admission of inspiration and a small dose of reflection. Reading a novel like this is like wending through a museum when you only have an hour: You race to see the masterpieces, but you're paralyzed by the things you pass along the way. You're awestruck by works you've only seen imitated before, astonished by feats you've never imagined.

Monday, January 01, 2007

on beauty

The prettiest [girls] are almost always the most boring, and that is why some people feel there is no God.
-Woody Allen

I have an alternate theory about the correlation between attractiveness and intellect (when used in the same way, is there a semantic difference between "intellect" and "intelligence?"). I am convinced that one's most influential years, intellectually, transpire in junior high. Junior high hotties grow up to be Danielle Steele enthusiasts and Nascar fans; awkward-looking middle schoolers grow up to be awkward-acting nerds.

Unrelatedly, a picture of erc at the tender age of 13, not yet a girl, not yet a woman:

Yes, I was at the cusp of my teenage years--my resemblance to an eight year old belies the countless hours of reading science fiction I already had tucked under my belt. I wish I could travel back in time and tell little erc to stop wearing those Fila socks to school.