Mrs. Millions and I don’t get to the theatre that often, but we went to see a play on Friday that I recommend to anyone in Chicago right now. The play is called “Recent Tragic Events” and it looks at the mundane – in this case a blind date – through the lens of tragedy and shock – this blind date is taking place on September 12, 2001. I recommend the play for three reasons. First, and this is the least of the reasons, I went to high school with the director, Mikhael Tara Garver. She helped start Uma Productions in 2001, and she does a really great job putting on this play. Second, the play was penned by Craig Wright who has written for the HBO show, “Six Feet Under,” and he brings that same sensibility to this play. Mixing death and banality, he is unafraid of both the seriousness and the humor that arise in such situations. Finally, and this is where the literary relevance comes in, I recommend this play because that most prolific of authors, Joyce Carol Oates figures prominently in the production. The play’s main character, Waverly, happens to be Oates’ grand-niece, and at one point all of the Oates books on Waverly’s shelves and stacked on the floor in a pile that reaches several feet high before tipping over. For some reason I always get a kick out of pokes at Oates’ prodigious literary output. But then, Oates herself appears, played by – get this – a sock puppet, and, while I know it sounds ridiculous, it’s somehow perfect hearing this bespectacled sock name drop Salman Rushdie and John Updike. The play runs through next weekend at Chopin Theater. If you’re in Chicago, check it out.
NB: I wrote the following post a few hours ago, and I’ve been letting it simmer a bit. I’ve since visited the blogs of several other folks who were at BEA, and it made me want to point out that despite what I’ve written below, BEA was a very fun event and that it was possible to get a lot more out of it than I did – for proof check out Mark, Written Nerd, and Pinky to name a few.As previously noted, it wasn’t really possible to do the sort of quick hit blogging that I wanted to do at BEA, but I’ve had the chance to cobble together my scattered thoughts on my overall impressions of the event in a post that will hopefully be better than a bunch of smaller ones would have been.First, I don’t think I’ll ever go again. The event obviously serves a purpose as the yearly trade show for the publishing industry, and BEA embraces the promotional atmosphere that is integral to such shows. Along with the hundreds (thousands?) of booths there are also dozens of panels and talks that address many aspects of the industry and allow for people to stay up to date on various topics. Some of the topics have a literary feel – there was an emerging voices panel, a panel on the short story, and the now infamous Sam Tanenhaus best books of the last 25 years panel – but many more were about salesmanship and other commerce-related topics (as there probably should be.) There was also the well-done, but poorly titled talk that Sarah of GalleyCat gave. It was called Syndicating LitBlog Book Reviews (Sarah didn’t come up with the title), in which Sarah gave a nice little overview of the LitBlog culture. The unfortunate part was that there were only about 25 people there, half bloggers and half people trying to get bloggers to notice the books they were trying to promote. The question and answer period evolved into an off the cuff conversation where, essentially, we told these people how they could get at us. It hearkened back in a way to the pre-BEA topic that came up on several litblogs, the awkward relationship between litblogs and publicists (scroll down to the bottom of that post for links to what other bloggers were saying.) By the end of BEA I came to realize that the relationship between litblogs and the publishing industry as whole is ill-defined.At the heart of it, both sides want something. The publishers see blogs as a venue of growing importance, and, while perhaps overstating our influence, many are starting to see mentions on litblogs as a crucial aspect of bringing a successful book to market. Meanwhile, and forgive me for painting with a very broad brush, litbloggers want some grouping of the following things: we want free books; we want (often in a fanboyish way) access to authors and important publishing industry personalities; we want to be noticed and widely read, we want to feel that our devotion to book culture is filling the void left by the shrinking book review sections in newspapers and magazines; and finally – I’ll admit it – some of us want to make a little coin (if litblogging isn’t a dream job, I don’t know what is).At mainstream publications, the rules of engagement are well-defined. Journalists are forbidden to accept freebies beyond just review copies. Popular reviews and interviews bring prestige to the publication for which the reviewers write as much as they do to the reviewers themselves. But we bloggers don’t have ethics committees, and when we write something that becomes popular, all prestige (and a flood of readers) flow to the name on the blog. Publishers seem to know this, and the sense I got at BEA is that they see us as easy targets, venues for publicity that can be bought by playing to the vanity that anyone who blogs seriously must necessarily have. In the end, I’m not calling for a code of ethics for litbloggers or anything like that, it’s just that being there in the center of the publishing industry’s profit-driven heart, where books are flogged loudly and in a mind-bending number of silly and obnoxious ways, I realized that I should put a little more thought into my relationship with the publishing industry.
This Guest post comes from Laurie Anderson. Laurie is a publicity assistant for a large Southern university.A Performance Comparison, Not a Literary CritiqueUmberto Eco gave three free lectures at Emory University in Atlanta October 5 through 7, and also did a reading and signing. All three lectures will be released in print form sometime next year; I’m not sure through what publisher. Although I have yet to read any of his work (except for a very short children’s picture book he wrote many years ago, The Bomb and the General), I attended his final lecture Tuesday afternoon, then the reading/signing that night. The lecture, titled “On the Advantages of Fiction for Life & Death”, was full of wit, but also full of phrases like “otorhinological legitimacy” and “epistemological proof” and was difficult for me to follow. (I’d say “was difficult for everyone to follow,” but the audience of approximately 400 people applauded loudly at the end, so maybe everyone else in the auditorium understood what he was talking about). The gist of it seemed to be that since a fictional story is complete and fixed, unlike history (from which facts and the complete picture are always missing), fiction serves the useful purpose of (a) helping humans put order in their world, and (b) confronting death with a framework of meaning (that is borrowed from stories, including the Bible, that people are most familiar with). I could be wrong; it’s just a guess that that’s what he was saying. For what it’s worth, some of the simpler quotes from his lecture:One of the main functions of literature is to clarify our notions of the truth… It is unquestionably true that Superman is Clark Kent. That Hitler died in a particular bunker can be cast in doubt… If fictional characters are not real, why do we cry over them?… I know Leopold Bloom better than my father. History creates ghosts; fiction creates characters of flesh and blood… [A survey conducted in England awhile ago indicated that] 25 percent of Britons believe that Sherlock Holmes and Eleanor Rigby are real people… When we cry over fictional characters we cry for peculiar but real persons… These fictional characters exist as a form of cultural habit, as real as the Holy Ghost was for Christians… Fiction suggests that perhaps our view of our world is as unrealistic as that of the fictional characters. The fictional characters cannot know their fate… Stories that we cannot change — because Superman will be Clark Kent forever — also tell us how to die.The reading (from Foucault’s Pendulum) was more enjoyable. Eco was understandable despite a thick Italian accent, and read with verve. He chose a lengthy section about a young boy who volunteers to play for a partisan funeral in a small Italian town. (“It really happened to me,” he told the audience. Like the boy in the story, Eco said that as a youth he and his family escaped the bombing of their city during WWII by running to a small Italian town in the mountains, where he joined a music band organized by the local priest. Unfortunately, Eco was obliged to play “the boomba-doo” (the tuba?) when he really wanted to impress the girls by playing the trumpet. The boy in Foucault’s Pendulum cares nothing for patriotism, only the romance he hopes his playing will inspire.) Eco has a slightly gravelly voice, enunciates consonants crisply (“clutched” becomes “kalucht”) and knows the wise use of pauses and tonal variance. If you were a kid, you would want this guy to read you a bedtime story.Eco’s lecture and reading came to mind when NPR recently broadcast (mp3) an interview with Junot Díaz. Díaz spoke about his life and writing, and read a section of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao involving the characters Oscar, Oscar’s sister Lola and their mother Beli. It’s a terrific book; a virtuoso mix of bilingual/bicultural puns and acid observations that use obscure Dominican Spanglish slang and geek culture references (comic books, science fiction) with whirlwind dialogue and narrative that can leave the reader breathless. You can’t help but want to hear the characters speak aloud, or hear the author speak for them. Díaz’s thoughts on literature were clear and interesting (not opaque and academic like Eco’s), but when it came time to read an excerpt from his novel describing an emotional reunion, full of screaming and crying, Díaz conveyed it in a deadpan monotone. The novel’s language and emotion are complex and visceral; hearing it read so simplistically was like hearing Beethoven’s Fifth symphony performed with a kazoo. (Penguin Audio hired actors Jonathan Davis and Staci Snell to read for the unabridged cd version, thank goodness.)Perhaps it is unfair to compare the two writers this way. Eco was expected to deliver a scholarly lecture. If he had been interviewed about his life and work like Díaz, he may have seemed more accessible. Maybe Díaz would have seemed opaque, too, had he given lectures; maybe no one can make academic literary analysis easy to comprehend (Eco tried; his talk was full of references to pop literature). Reading out loud however, Eco beats Diaz all to hell.What does all this mean? Author presentations are a crapshoot. Go for interviews and Q&A sessions; be wary of lectures and readings unless you’re prepared for the worst, or the writer is a humorist.
There is a wonderful exchange in the documentary Moving Midway between the descendant of a North Carolina plantation owner, and the grandson of that same plantation owner’s mixed-race son. The documentary follows the moving of Midway Plantation, which sat across the road from a strip mall, to more secluded acreage. Godfrey Cheshire, the filmmaker (also a descendant of the plantation owners) starts looking into the history of Midway, including its slave families, which is why Abraham Lincoln Hinton, a 96-year old man from Harlem, is invited to the house’s re-opening party.
As he stands in the front hall, Godfrey tells him that the house had originally been built in 1848. “This house?” asks Hinton, “built then, and stood up like this?”
“That’s because your family built it,” says his host.
Everyone relaxes, including the viewer, with sheer relief that someone has said something candid. These two men, who are connected by a long, ugly history, but who weren’t personally involved, and both seem very gentlemanly, have such a strange, limited space in which they can relate to each other. Engaging the history of the South would be too sober a task and, quite frankly, not their responsibility, but acting as if they’re just two guys meeting on a porch is too flippant. The resulting atmosphere is cordial but constricted.
This is how I felt for the entire three days I recently spent in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Just being there reminds you that, had you been born in a different time or place, there were people you would be expected to hate. Not everyone chooses to travel to the physical embodiment of racial and sectional conflict, but then I am a history fan. And, as I wrote in March, I’m in the process of reading a biography of each American president. Having recently arrived at the Civil War, I decided to celebrate, if such a word can be used, by visiting Gettysburg.
Along with everything else, Gettysburg is beautiful. The three-day battle spread itself for miles around the town, and because the battlefield is now a national park, Gettysburg is surrounded by woods and fields that have remained untouched except by monuments. As Kent Gramm writes in the opening of his book, Gettysburg, “It is the most beautiful place on earth. But death is everywhere — in every meadow, along every Virginia rail fence, all over those quiet, rocky hills at sunset.” My friend Kara, who traveled with me, and I spent our time learning and relearning the story of the battle. A topographically-based battle is remarkably easy to grasp, especially when the topography is preserved, and you are walking around on it.
There are two long, parallel ridges – Cemetery Ridge and Seminary Ridge – that extend southward from the edge of town and frame the second and third day’s fighting. Then there are the contested hills – Culp’s Hill, Oak Hill, Little Round Top, and Big Round Top – that provided more brief, concentrated action. The major events of the battle – Buford’s stand on the first day, the Wheatfield and the Little Round Top bayonet charge on the second day, Pickett’s Charge on the third day – cluster around these high grounds.
We spent the first day at the Gettysburg visitors’ center and museum, plus a visit to the room-sized diorama. The next day we went on the self-guided auto tour, for which you listen to a CD in your car that tells you what points to drive to and what to know about them (usually: the next stop is a spot where many brave men died), and walked in the National Cemetery in the evening. The third day I went on a horseback ride along the Confederate encampment lines with a Robert E. Lee impersonator. As Kara said, you can’t throw a rock in Gettysburg without learning a historical fact (did you know Union Major General Daniel Sickles shot and killed Philip Key – son of Francis Scott Key – for sleeping with his wife, and was one of the first people to be acquitted of murder via a plea of temporary insanity?). By the end of the trip we knew the narrative of the battle like the backs of our hands.
The town of Gettysburg is entirely dedicated to teaching you what happened there 148 years ago, but it avoids interpreting itself. The museum’s 15-minute orienting film introduced me to the Gettysburg gaze — a particular brand of narration (in this instance supplied by Morgan Freeman, impartial as the voice of god always is) that pervades the town, describing every skirmish as good vs. good. Good wins.
Michael Shaara’s Gettysburg novel The Killer Angels, which we listened to on our drive, is the champion of the Gettysburg gaze. Its film adaptation, Gettysburg, takes it even further. Scored like NBC scores the Olympics, the film features commanders in freshly dry cleaned uniforms who philosophize more than they command. One Union commander, marveling at General Lee’s success, says “It’s amazing what one honest man can do.” “One honest man,” his superior replies, “and a cause.”
This is freakishly off point. The Southern campaign for independence was not one honest man and a cause. It was the culmination of near a century of sectional conflict which, among others, The Missouri Compromise, The Wilmot Proviso, The Compromise of 1850, the repeal of The Missouri Compromise, popular sovereignty, and The Kansas-Nebraska Act all in turn failed to assuage, and finally escalated into a fury. Sure, it all started as Jeffersonian democracy versus Federalism, but those were hardly the rallying cries of the armies as they shot at each other.
The auto tour ends on the Union side of Pickett’s Charge, the foolhardy press of 12,000 Confederate soldiers towards the better-situated Union line, which decimated Lee’s troops, ended the three-day battle, and turned the tide of the war. You stand on Cemetery Ridge, looking at Seminary Ridge on the other side of town, and you try to imagine two armies watching each other across that distance, preparing to fight each other because the Constitution didn’t explicitly prohibit slavery. Your brain tries to fill in all the steps in between and obviously falters. In Gettysburg, Kent Gramm argues that the Civil War was fought for opposing abstract ideals — union and independence. As you stand on Cemetery Ridge, picturing 7,000 dead bodies scattered in the valley before you, it’s hard to comprehend that they got there because of opposing abstract ideals. So you stand with furrowed brow for a bit longer — that bizarre requisite time you spend standing silently at complicated historical locations, usually about two minutes — and go back to the car.
All our days ended this way. The stories and statistics would build up until it was impossible to grasp, so we’d go back to the hotel and collapse on the beds to read the AV Club and update our Facebook statuses. This is when the Gettysburg gaze comes in handy. Everything turned out fine, you tell yourself, everyone involved was brave and good and civil rights were just around the corner. (That sounds ridiculous, but one narration we heard drew a direct line from Gettysburg to Jackie Robinson.)
The closest encounter I had with partisanship during my visit was talking with the Robert E. Lee impersonator on a horseback tour of the battlefield. He bemoaned the fact that I was from Indiana, preferring to socialize with his fellow natives of “God’s country.” I told him, though, that my family had lived in North Carolina before settling in Indiana in the 1850s, and that the relatives who remained behind served for the South. He praised the brave deeds of the regiments from that state, to which I assured him he was welcome. Eager to use my outsized knowledge of 19th century politics, I chatted with him about George McClellan and John C. Calhoun, the presidential elections of 1852 and 1856, and the Mexican-American war (which he fought in, although he disagreed with policies of James K. Polk, who is a long distant cousin of mine, and this caused some tension). In all this he avowed Southern partiality, but in a passive, melancholy way.
The New York Times published an editorial in 1867 that read: “The contest touches everything, and leaves nothing as it found it. Great rights, great interests, great systems of habit and of thought disappear during its progress. It leaves us a different people in everything from what we were when it came upon us.” The greatest mercy of Gettysburg is that it releases you from culpability. It’s the American Mordor. Whatever the sins of the past, they were destroyed there in fire. Surely we continue to read about and visit Gettysburg to learn what happened, but just as much to confirm that it did.
Image credit: The stone wall on Cemetery Ridge, via the author
It was raining last Thursday (because it is always raining in New York) when I went to the CUNY Graduate Center to hear a panel called “Language in New Forms: The Work of Andrey Platonov.” I’m glad I braved the weather, however. The panel featured four of the most mellifluous voices in Anglo-American letters – Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Threepenny Review editor Wendy Lesser, and intellectual historian T.J. Clark. I could listen to Ondaatje read the phone book. Even more remarkable, though, was Platonov himself. Indeed, this Russian writer of the Soviet epoch turned out to be my big discovery of this year’s festival.Edwin Frank, whose NYRB Classics imprint has brought Platonov’s fiction back into print, opened the proceedings. Reminding the audience to turn off cellphones, Frank had a kind of Woody Allenish mien, but he waxed eloquent as soon as he began discussing Platonov’s complicated publishing history. Platonov’s “pressurized, contorted. . . lyrical” style made him “the most inventive writer of the revolutionary era,” Frank suggested – a Slavic peer of Beckett and Kafka, only with a desire “to bind up [the world’s] wounds” in addition to probing them. His admirers and champions included Yevtuschenko and Gorky, and like the latter, Platonov truly believed in the revolution. He had the utopian spirit. And yet, perhaps detecting the negative capability that is always hostile to ideology, Stalin’s functionaries suppressed Platonov’s best writing.After this fulsome introduction, the panelists let Platonov’s work speak for itself. Ondaatje read from an early short story. Then Lesser undertook a mash-up, reading half of “Fro” from the recently retranslated collection Soul and half from the “barbaric” older translation (which NYRB published in 2000 as The Fierce and Beautiful World). Apparently, publishing complications have followed Platonov even into English, and Lesser’s reading made clear why. Platonov is an intensely unusual stylist, blending modernist subjectivity with futurist, revolutionary diction and visionary mysticism. Francine Prose’s reading from “his finest story,” the eponymous “Soul,” revealed an animist sympathy with trees and rocks and buildings. “After reading him for a while,” she said, nodding toward her bottle of Aquafina, “you start to wonder what the water bottle might think of this evening’s proceedings.”The most spirited performer of the night, however, turned out to be T.J. Clark, who read a remarkable excerpt from the newly reissued novel, The Foundation Pit. Clark “did all the voices,” as the third-graders I used to teach would say, and drew the audience into a story remarkable, above all, for its sensibility: passionate, tender, absurd, and tragic. It’s a sensibility I look forward to reading much more of in the coming weeks.