… This will be my song of the summer. What’s going to be yours?
Best Coast, “When I’m With You.”
… This will be my song of the summer. What’s going to be yours?
Best Coast, “When I’m With You.”
The Tonsil Blog’s One-Man Book Club is back together, this time at Hank’s place. (Okay, every time at Hank’s place. Isn’t a book club so much nicer with one member?)
It’s been long enough since the last meeting that the beverage of choice has switched from a wintry red (malbec) to a nice, crisp white (vinho verde). Although it’s been a long time, the club has been busy reading a buncha new books.
I’ve admonished the One-Man Book Club to try to be more capsule-y this time, but no promises. If it goes too long, that’s the vinho verde typing, I want you to know.
The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte. I was gobsmacked on just about every fucking page by some painfully beautiful or hilarious or otherwise perfect sentence in this novel. I loved Home Land, too, and The Ask did not disappoint me — in fact, I feel like it surpassed Home Land.
Any writer who’s plumbing the aging issues of so-called Generation X (or wishes to observe our already-very-observed monster-stroller, overpriced-coffee, real-estate-yuppie-envy era of almost evil self-interest and hurt) will read this and want to just give up. It’s that good.
It’s about a guy, Milo Burke, who works in the development office of a mediocre college (which Milo actually refers to each time as Mediocre College). He loses his job because donations and big gifts are way off in the recession and he’s not producing any new “Asks.” Also they don’t like him. But they bring him back to facilitate a big gift from a wealthy donor (aka “the Ask”) whom he went to undergraduate school with. This is a very dark satire more than a nuanced novel — Lipsyte skewers marriage, aging, money, Internet culture, selfish elderly parents, and the way that Gen Y’s utter swiftness and hipness can get under the skin of guys my age. Oh, and there are so many wickedly uncomfortable scenes. Such as when you wake up and your wife is breast-feeding your 4-year-old, who is kicking you in the chest while he slurps away:
“Baby,” I wishipered. “What the hell are you doing? You weaned him. He’s weaned.”
“I know he’s weaned.”
“What are you doing?”
“No, he’s not.”
“I’m not,” said Bernie.
“Maura, come on, stop it.”
“It’s okay. It’s just a little regression. It’s normal. I read about it. I don’t have any milk anyway.”
“That makes it worse.”
“Go back to sleep, Milo.”
“Yeah, Daddy, go back to sleep.”
Chilling, awkward, hilarious, sad, and extremely well-crafted. A One-Man Book Club Top Pick.
• • •
I don’t have a whole lot specifically to say about Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, by Melissa Milgrom. But I should say that it was co-edited by Amazing Andrea, who edited my book, so that right there made me want to read it.
It’s exactly what it says it is, though I’m not convinced the “adventures” label quite applies. The adventure sort of finally comes near the end, when Milgrom attempts to stuff a dead squirrel and see if it’s anywhere near the standards of pro taxidermists. Still Life is one of those books that tries to get a handle on a broad subject by traveling to and writing about a lot of examples of the subject and people who are obsessed with the subject, which can wind up seeming like a series of magazine articles on the subject.
Critics have given Still Life pretty good notice, but it seems like everyone (including the One-Man Book Club) was hoping to read more of Milgrom’s deeper thoughts about the allure and mystery of taxidermy. The writing and sense of voice is always trickiest part of a book like this. It’s a lovely book to hold and look at, though — what a terrific cover and paper stock, all around. It opens with Milgrom’s profile of David Schwendeman, the last official taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History, and his son, Bruce, who run a taxidermy shop in New Jersey. Milgrom could have stayed put and built a book around them, perhaps. Instead, the author is off in different directions: to England to talk about all that Damien Hirst stuff (haha, no pun intended) and then follow the auctioning off of a bizarre, Victorian menagerie of taxidermied creatures that have been assembled into 19th-century domestic scenes and dioramas. She also goes to the world taxidermy competition. (Of course there’s a world taxidermy competition. In these sorts of books, there’s always either a world competition of the [insert Weird Subject Matter here], or an annual convention of [People Who are Obsessed by the Weird Subject Matter].)
The facts and quotes and history and scenes start to stack up, and it’s really up to the writer to either do something entirely new or stylistically provocative with the prose. For all its reporting and research skill, I didn’t feel like Still Life quite did that kind of thing, but I did keep thinking it was tightly sewn, which seemed metaphorically apt.
This isn’t Still Life‘s fault, but reading it made me think of countless other books that are shelved in “cultural studies” (hello, make room, I’m squeezed in there too) that each try to be a broad survey of something Big and/or Odd, in order to prove that it is … Big and/or Odd. I’m thinking here of that disappointing Rebecca Mead book a few years ago about the wedding-industrial complex — One Perfect Day — where she went all over the world and gathered examples of the Bridezilla culture and then didn’t say anything. Mead’s book had an amazing cover (it was a receipt stapled to an engraved wedding invitation, see?) and yet it just fizzled and pooped all the way through. It was about something outrageous and bizarre and hilarious and heartbreaking and yet it was no fun.
These are books of reportage. Most of them lack full narratives, and instead provide glimpses and partial narratives in the form of topical profiles. They always look like they might be absorbing and strange and then often aren’t. They’re always coming out, though — books about NASCAR, about garbage, about sushi, about Chinese food, about poker, about competitive-eating contests, about beauty pageants, about spelling bees, about toilets, about interstates, about everything. My friend Mike Schaffer did a very good one about the pet industry. I maybe could have done my book about America and Christmas that way — traveled the country more, given shorter glimpses of more examples, hopping from here to there for a more “complete” and straight-journalistic picture of the holiday industry and economy. Instead, I chose to hunker down in the same place with a few people and do the story that way.
I don’t think a case can be made that one way is more right or not, because it really depends on the book. But I do wonder what convinces publishers to greenlight these sort of “a journey into the world of …” or “dispatches from the strange world of …” proposals from authors, which are basically built around a writer hitting the road to explore a subject in a survey approach. If I was an editor considering those kinds of proposals, I’d want to know what the underlying thread will be. I’d want point of view — which is different from and more nuanced than a book that will be opinionated. It’s about voice. When people pay $25 for a book (or $10 for the e-book), I feel like they’re giving you permission to write the hell out of it and have something to say.
• • •
All right, everything I just said? About books needing more style, more voice, more viewpoint, more artful writing? And what I posted on this blog earlier this month, Michael Brick’s screed about those readers and editors who complain about something being “overwritten”? Well, get ready for the radioactive blast of my contradiction bomb. Get ready for About a Mountain, by John D’Agata.
Oh, how I scowled while reading this PATHETICALLY OVERWRITTEN book, all the way to the very end. (It’s not very long. I kept throwing it across the room in disgust and then had to go retrieve it, so I could continue not liking it. So that’s actually kind of a compliment.) I am fascinated by John D’Agata’s writing, and, clearly, so is John D’Agata.
Also, there is a blurb on the front, transmitted from the grave of David Foster Wallace: “John D’Agata is one of the most significant U.S. writers to emerge in the past few years.”
One of. The past few years.
Well, I don’t think so, but I do think he is one of the most egregious Joan Didion imitators I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something, because it takes one to know one. (He who smelled it, dealt it. Smeller’s the feller. Etc.) And I don’t mean the ’60s-style “Goodbye to All That” kind of Didionesque prose that everyone equates with “writing like Joan Didion,” but the later Didion; the post-Miami/pre-Magical Thinking Didion; the ’90s Didion of all those dense New York Review of Books articles, who piles up statistics and figures and half-quotes taken from deep down in news articles or beneath layers of official reports and sculpts it all into long, lush sentences of ominous doublespeak. That’s the Didion that D’Agata is mimicking here. Really, this whole book is Didion karaoke.
The mountain in About a Mountain is Yucca Mountain — the much maligned, questionably unsafe, and recently derailed Nevada site chosen to house the nation’s nuclear waste into eternity. Yucca is always an interesting subject, I guess, but this is more about how D’Agata learned about it, read it about it, visited it, and then wrote 200 pages of dreamy, spooky, I-just-discovered-the-West, essayistic words about it.
D’Agata teaches creative writing at Iowa. He’s part of that wide world of “creative nonfiction” that I know very little about. Since I’ve worked in newspaper journalism all my life, I’m usually surrounded by people who get grouchy and prickly around the idea of “creative nonfiction,” where the rules of reporting and attribution appear to be looser, because adhering strictly to the “facts” has a way of inhibiting the art of fluid prose. I sort of straddle the fence. I like nonfiction that is diligently reported, cuts no corners, and is as accurate as humanly possible, and THEN has the courage to be imaginatively written and provocative in form and structure.
About a Mountain has, if nothing else, helped me decide where to draw the line. Here’s what you learn from D’Agata, once you get all the way to the “Notes” at the end:
“Although the narrative of this essay suggests that it takes place over a single summer, the span between my arrival in Las Vegas and my final departure was, in fact, much longer. I have conflated time in this way for dramatic effect only, but I have tried to indicate each instance of this below [in endnotes]. At times, I have also changed subjects’ names or combined a number of subjects into a single composite ‘character.’ Each example of this is noted.”
Why he had to do all this, I’m not sure. Why he chose this subject, I’m not sure — other than he had to help his mother move to Las Vegas and the place creeped him the fuck out. Clearly he was somewhat interested in the unsolvable dilemma of nuclear waste, but not too terribly much. Why he thought it would be a good idea to bother the parents of a teenager who jumped to his death off the Stratosphere hotel, so that their son’s death could work as some clumsy metaphor for Yucca Mountain, I don’t know.
I keep hearing that we’re leaving journalistic diligence behind; that creative nonfiction is really where it’s at in this era of Truthiness. It’s starting to feel more uppity and old-fashioned to complain — and anyhow, just look at all the kids who still, 40 years later, wave Hunter S. Thompson around and claim his hallucinogenic journalism is the truest thing ever written.
About a Mountain did fascinate me in its later-middle chunk, which artfully rehashed the ongoing debate among linguists, artists, and scientists about how to design a way to warn humans or other future beings to stay away from the Yucca waste tunnels. Maybe they should leave a quote from David Foster Wallace on the lid?
• • •
We’ll there’s more, but not tonight. I hogged all the time and drank all the wine. The One-Man Book Club will be back soon for one-sided discussions of the following: WILSON by Daniel Clowes; NOTHING HAPPENED AND THEN IT DID by Jake Silverstein; THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot; and THE BEDWETTER by Sarah Silverman. YES, all of those, plus three books that failed to pass the 50-page test!
And anyhow, what are YOU reading? Give me some good recommendations. Nothing written by anyone named Stieg.
I only thought I’d typed my last words about Lost for The Washington Post. This morning, post-finale, it turned out we really needed someone to make the case for purgatory, amid all the other theories we were posting, either by Liz Kelly and Jen Chaney (our in-house “Lost” PhD’s), or from lots of devoted readers. Here’s what I wrote, which is getting me lots of argumentative e-mail in return. It’s online only. (We’ve decided that we’ve killed enough trees trying to elucidate Lost.)
IT WAS PURGATORY, PEOPLE
By Hank Stuever / (c) The Washington Post / posted on May 24, 2010 (updated version)
In the fall of 2004, when “Lost” was amassing what turned out to be its incredibly dedicated audience, there were viewers (I was among them) who said: Maybe the island is just purgatory. Maybe everyone on Oceanic 815 is really dead (killed in a plane crash, obviously) and they are trapped somewhere between a dark place and a heavenly afterlife. This theory made the most sense, and it didn’t lessen the show’s best qualities one bit.
But the more-involved fans hated the purgatory theory. No, no, no, they said. It’s a real place — and look, see? It was a science experiment. There was a hatch and a series of numbers being entered into a computer! If it’s purgatory, then how come people actually die? There are “Other” inhabitants. This story goes way back to Egypt, dude!
But can’t that all be purga—
No! See? The flash-forwards? The six survivors who go back to the real world?
But what if that world is also purga—
No! Because look, they set off a bomb that split everything into two realities, one on the island and one in an alternate sideways world!
But maybe that’s because it’s purga—
I don’t know what the rest of you 13 million people were watching Sunday night, but in the last five minutes of “Lost’s” insanely overlong finale, I realized that the purgatory camp had been right all along, that Occam’s razor (the simplest solution is usually the correct one) had worked. “Lost” was a story about purgatory.
Yes, the show’s creators vehemently denied all along that the island was purgatory. Fans, being fans, took them at their word — which, by the way, one should never do. Snap out of your Comicon-style “ ‘Lost’ community” daze and realize that this is showbiz and the customer base must be sustained and strung along. “Lost” frequently abused its viewers’ time and patience and, masochistically, its core viewers stuck around and asked for more. What is purgatory, after all, but a series of torture devices?
Maybe the word “purgatory” is the problem. What about limbo? (It’s been too long since Catholic school for me to fully recall how purgatory is different from limbo. We used to pray for the souls of dead babies in limbo, whom we felt sorry for, because they didn’t have television. Maybe saying the word “purgatory,” for “Lost” diehards, feels too much like finding Bobby Ewing in the shower (“Dallas”) or listening to Dorothy babble about Oz after her barnyard concussion. One thing people despise is an “it was all an illusion” ending, but tell that to “The Twilight Zone” or Ambrose Bierce. This much I know: ABC is counting on us to argue about this forever, so they can somehow show us even more commercials than the ungodly number they showed Sunday night.
Now let’s broaden the definition of limbo or purgatory, to allow that the all of the people who came and went from “Lost’s” island were technically corporeal — alive. They hungered, fell ill, needed shelter, had sex. You could die on this limbo island, which only makes it worse for your soul. This allows the island to be sorta-real. Some people in “our” world know it exists and seek to get there, to unlock or exploit its energy. Others just wash up there. Everyone who is there belongs there. Maybe for a while, maybe forever.
Jack Shephard and his fellow travelers were unwittingly brought there to resolve a number of problems between heaven and hell. They were fresh souls, there to address a few too many anomalies and broken-machinery issues in some sort of working universal order.
During their time in purgatory, the Oceanic people (helped by other lost souls, such as Juliet and Desmond and Faraday) brought parallels together and eventually they prevented the devil’s meddling attempt to return to heaven and destroy creation. They blew up the Dharma Initiative in the 1970s, because it also threatened the island’s energy. They killed the Smoke monster. They altered time/space without killing the rest of us. Big jobs.
This limbo followed them backwards and forwards and sideways into a tangle of past, present and alternate future. The characters finally fixed it. Their reward was the hereafter.
People in “Lost” died multiple times in a lot of ways. Jack’s exit in the final minutes of “Lost” was the death that got him to heaven, but the 815 crash was the death that got him busy on what he was meant to do. That’s why the finale takes Jack back to that same bamboo field — where he snapped awake in 2004 (dead, but not technically) and where, now that he is fully cognizant of all that has happened (and un-happened), he lays down and experiences a final peace. His work is done.
I know some hardcore fans don’t want to believe it was purgatory all along, perhaps because they worked so hard to decipher “Lost’s” layers of pointless mythology and whatnot. This is not an “it was all a dream” ending. It was about another realm that is like a dream, which explains why everything had to be so frustrating, complicated — like a dream where you can’t solve a problem.
But not a dream. An actual place — a purgatory. Or for people who hate that word, an in-between. You don’t go there simply because your soul is stuck. You go there because you’re needed.
This is an interesting idea for a documentary (h/t the New Yorker’s Book Bench Blog), which is making the rounds … A guy found all of the poems he wrote as a teenager, when he was convinced that he would become the world’s greatest poet. Years later, he unearths them and realizes how bad the poems were. So he takes them around to real writers (Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris, Steve Almond, etc.) to not only confirm that they are bad, but get at the elusive mystery of Bad Writing.
I like the concept. Would love to see someone do this project with something more vulnerable than bad teen poems written years ago. Like maybe someone who takes his self-published novel around to writers or critics and asks them to give it to him straight.
Here’s something I wrote for the paper about the end of (perhaps meaning of) Lost. More important, here’s the Owen Freeman illo that went with it. Only, when it came time to run the essay, the powers that be decided to run it on A1 on Friday, where we would just never ever run an illustration. (Then again, who would have ever thought deepish essays about TV would ever be on the front page of the Washington Post, either?) So, Owen’s art went with a “Lost”-releated story by Jen Chaney on Saturday’s Style front instead. The best laid plans, etc. — I’m glad it saw print.
But now I’m bringing my piece and the art back together the way that we intended.
‘Lost’ or not, we’re still at loose ends
By Hank Stuever
The Washington Post / Friday, May 21, 2010
“Lost” exhausts. It was a vacation in hell, our own wonderful hell, a “Gilligan’s Island” getaway for our nervous, crisscross-wired culture. A bunch of fictional characters clad in grimy gray Gap T-shirts tromped all over the hills and jungles of an illusory, magical isle — a place that represented about a thousand different metaphors. America, it’s so obvious: Millions of you loved “Lost” because you feel lost.
It’s been a long six years of goose chases and mash-up mythologies. It was filled with ultimately irrelevant numerology and hieroglyphics that mostly turned out to be set decor. It was tall pirate ships and utopian VW buses; literary references to everything from 19th-century philosophy to “The Empire Strikes Back” to Holy Communion wine.
As it lugubriously ends Sunday night on ABC, “Lost” leaves us more or less where it all began, but also with a spooky idea of the 21st century thus far. It was the perfect show for our frustrated ’00s era, in which no one had to answer for anything much — not for the real estate and Wall Street busts, the levee floods, the bad war intelligence.
While we fought elusive enemies in distant lands; while we vanished down our personal, broadband rabbit holes; while we doubted our elected officials; while we spent ourselves into impossible debts, “Lost” was along for the ride, with its unsolvable puzzles and its exhilarating but dorky extremes of fandom culture.
Though ratings steadily declined since “Lost’s” debut in 2004, the show held a firm grasp on some 10 million viewers (roughly half of the average viewership of the two most popular shows on TV, “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars”). Like anything these days, it survived on the passion of its niche audience, which skewed young and tech-savvy.
” ‘Lost’ is in a class by itself,” ABC’s programming chief, Jeff Bader, said this week. “It is the most successful cult show ever.”
But enough now. Enough with the instanalyses blogged and updated and tweeted late at night — or, more fittingly, during the next afternoon in cubicles all across the so-called American workplace. This is not one of those “Lost” farewells that goes over it and over it one more time. No charts, no diagrams, no last-minute theories.
Instead it’s a farewell to a feeling.
Read the rest here!
Well, it remains to be seen if my time is well-spent on an SNL Homowatch or not, but hallelujah, the season is over. If anything egregiously gay-obsessed comes up in the summer reruns, I’ll hork up a blog item about it. If not, I’ll think about reviving the SNLHW (hey, if everybody can abbreviate everything nowadays, so can I) in the fall.
This week was pretty light on the gay jokes …
Air date: May 15, 2010
Host: Alec Baldwin
Musical guest: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
First of all, anybody know why Baldwin is dying his hair black? I hope for some movie role. I noticed, so that means everyone else has too.
Stefon is not as funny the second time around. Maybe it worked so well the first time because Bill Hader almost lost control entirely? I think this one has set a new landspeed record for sketch-character fatigue, though “human bath mats” is pretty freakin’ funny.
In the sniper training sketch (“tate da shaaaaaa”), the script seemed to call for some man-on-man chortles when Alec Baldwin was laying on top of Jason Sudeikis. (“You must be addicted to doing squats.”) Audience forgot to laugh and that was that, though the idea of Alec Baldwin laying on top of Jason Sudeikis is … I’ll just say interesting. (To me. Maybe not to you.)
The band’s playing that slow intro now. Show’s over. Thanks to Lorne, the cast, the band, I had a great time, and thanks to– [cut]
Big hailstorm Sunday back in the land of my birth. The wind comes right behind the plain … and fucks shit up. I feel bad for everyone’s car. I also feel bad for watching these over and over. I love the people and their acksints. Sounds like home; looks like it too. I can almost smell that wonderful ozoney storm smell.
Here’s a video somebody shot inside Penn Square Mall in Oklahoma City. Wait and see what happens around the 4:15 marker…
Who here remembers when Penn Square didn’t even have a roof or a second floor? (Back in the John A. Brown’s and Rothschild’s days.) Good thing it did here. And whoever built that roof in the late ’80s? Nice work — seriously.
This one’s great, because it looks like it’s one of them richie houses out in Edmond. (“Oh, no. Look at Mom’s orange tree.”) The pool really tells the story — watch at least until 1:45.
And this one’s great because it’s not in McMansionville. (“Yew had a nice car fer about a munth…”)
I got into newspapers in high school because I liked the way they look. In college, I chose writing and editing over design, but two decades later I keep wondering if I made the right choice.
We’ve been attempting a bit of visual branding with some of my longer reviews/essays about television in the Style section. This means deeper thoughts (haha) and most of all, Better Art. I’ve been loving these illos that we hired graphic artist Owen Freeman to do for Treme, Betty White, and my piece on mockumentaries. They give off a bit of an Alex Ross graphic novel realism …
What do you think? I think they’re sharp and nicely distant, almost spooky. Anything is better than canned art from wires and network publicity depts. Freeman is 5,000 x better.
This is one of the great benefits of the print product. For a variety of technical issues (and excuses) and freelancer legalese (I think?), these illos don’t ever make it online. I know the iPad age is upon us, so I hope to actually live to see the day when the Washington Post website (or app) is anywhere near as elegant to look at as the newspaper is.
Right on schedule, I’ve become one of those tedious people who measures the passage of time in varying degrees of disbelief and iPod playlists.
According to reunion literature that came in the mail and which I tossed in the trash, it’s been 20 years since I graduated from Loyola. (Bachelor of Arts — major in journalism, minor in religion.)
Thanks to Mary Degnan, who took several rolls of film of me and so many other people back then, I have pictures like these, taken before baccalaureate Mass on that rainy, frizzy, swampy New Orleans Sunday afternoon — May 13, 1990.
Graduation was held was held the next afternoon at Municipal Auditorium. Martin Sheen, a radical Catholic of the sort who are no longer invited to give commencement speeches at Catholic colleges, gave the commencement address.
The oh-so-sure-of-himself 21-year-old mugging it up for you here is, in fact, me. In a matter of days, I’d be packing up clothes, cassettes, an Apple Macintosh Plus com-poo-tor, a bunch of books, and making my way to Los Angeles with about $650 in my checking account, to look for an apartment, start a summer internship, and get my officially grown-up life started.
Even now, I still have that cliché anxiety dream, about twice a month, where there’s a class or final exam I forgot about, and I run around in a panic trying to correct my transcript. Diploma revoked! Oh no! The dream usually ends when I accidentally step in front of one of these.
The glasses and the hairdon’t? I’ll just have to own it. Though in my defense I would like to submit to the court a few issues of the old, original Details magazine. I would also like to play Depeche Mode’s Music for the Masses, the Smiths’ Louder Than Bombs, They Might Be Giants’ Flood, and XTC’s Oranges and Lemons for the jury, while also pointing out to them that the No. 1 song on the charts this particular week was “Vogue,” and then see if they’re not with me.
What the kid in this picture doesn’t know about life could fill several cardboard boxes — boxes he doesn’t have room to take anyhow. Long story short, everything seems to have worked out okay.
In that circular way the universe has of bringing it all back around again, my niece and nephew (the twins), who were fussy toddlers at my graduation (sorry for the noise, Martin Sheen), are graduating this week from George Washington University here in D.C., and from Goucher College, up I-95 in Towson, Md.
[Insert tedious and unlistened-to lectures about life and dreams here.]
I’m sure I’ll get a nice long dose of inspirational wisdom this week, between various baccalaureate and departmental ceremonies at both colleges. One of the commencement speeches will be from some lady.