I have read only a very few graphic novels, but the ones I have read all seem to tread the same emotional ground. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and now I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. Their stories center on a sort of teenage emptiness that inspires a combination of pity and fascination in me. Visually, however, the three are quite distinct with Brown’s artwork being far more spare than the other two. Brown’s jagged panels placed asymmetrically on the page are surrounded by black, drawing the eye to his simple lines. (Unfortunately, later editions of the book have replaced the black pages with white.) His panels are devoid of details and instead focusing of the setting, the reader dwells on the characters, primarily young Chester himself. Brown’s picture of himself is both funny and sad, and while the book touches on his mother’s death, the focus is on his interaction with girls. He tells his friend Sky that he loves her but doesn’t know what to do next. His neighbor Carrie has a crush on him and they engage in this strange wrestling ritual as a stand in for actual communication. Girls are drawn to the odd, artistic boy but they are also repulsed by him. In the end, the book is about Brown’s inability to engage emotionally – with these girls, with his mother, with the rest of his family. It’s a poignant and quick read (it took me about an hour), but Brown’s dreamy artwork will stay with you.
Nathanael West’s classic novel The Day of the Locust, unsurpassed in the writers-writing-about-Hollywood genre, ends with West’s would-be painter protagonist Tod Hackett in the back of an L.A. police cruiser, attempting to determine whether the noise he hears is the squad car’s siren or his own voice bellowing out a plaintive, animal howl. For eighty years now, Hackett’s death-rattle screech (“tod” is German for “death”; he’s literally a dead hack) has stood as an emblem of the silent but no less maniacal inner wail of every true artist that has wound up as collateral damage in the Hollywood carpet-bombing of the ancient territories of drama and storytelling. When I recently picked up John Domini’s Movieola!, which pitches itself as a story collection but really isn’t for reasons I will explain in a moment, I figured it would add a new wrinkle to a well-established sub-genre. Anticipatorily, I thought back on several recent additions to the HollyLit tradition. First I recalled Stuart O’Nan’s West of Sunset, which chronicles F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Zelda-less time in Tinseltown, his loneliness a triangulation on the city’s institutional mandate to suck souls. Next I thought of Woody Allen’s latest anti-film film, Café Society, which resurrects the Studio Era in all its glorious finery only to crucify it, and makes its most pointed statement when a man at a glittery soiree is introduced as a two-time Academy Award winner, but warns, “You haven’t heard of me -- I’m a writer.” And last, digging back a bit this time, I recalled Charles Johnson’s “Moving Pictures,” a wonderful little meditation on books-turned-into-films that is eclipsed by several even better stories in Johnson’s much-undervalued collection, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Of these, Movieola! is closest to “Moving Pictures,” but Domini’s offering is no mere twist or turn on a trajectory you already know. Rather, it’s an amplification of Tod Hackett’s mournful scream – a new shriek for a new century. * There are two kinds of short story collections, both of which have merits. The first is simply an assemblage, a sampler plate of an author’s various experiments or momentary preoccupations (e.g., The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and it is perhaps this sort of anthology that John Cheever was thinking of when he described his own collected stories as “a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.” The second kind of story collection -- the so-called “connected” stories -- may come in two versions of its own: first, stories connected by plot and characters; second, stories connected by theme. It may be a mistake to call either version a “collection,” as the word suggests an absence of an overriding book-length idea. Stories that are connected by character, however, certainly have some of the same goals as novels (e.g., Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid), and stories connected by theme can sometimes seem quite treatise- or manifesto-like (e.g., Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried -- sure, there’s lots of character in there, but the book’s true purpose is its philosophical thread on truth and storytelling). Movieola! is a volume of the latter sort, a compilation of pieces first published here and there, but which adds up to a whole lot more than the sum of its parts. Of course that was the goal all along. The book borrows its structure from its subject, launching with a meditation on movie trailers, and ending with another on closing credits. In between, Domini offers a range of visions and voices that reflect anew, each in their own way, on what Hollywood has done to storytelling and culture. For example, there’s “Wrap Rap Two-Step,” the monologue of a weary script guru at the end of a weekend-long concept seminar (tailor-made for NPR’s “Selected Shorts,” if anyone is listening…), and this piece, along with several others, emphasizes that to write for the screen, these days, is to set up shop at the unholy intersection of Hollywood and self-help (i.e., the secret of The Secret is that you don’t have to “read” it). As well, there’s “Home’n’Homer, Portmanteau,” in which a latter day Norma Desmond, preparing for her scream rather than her close-up, wanders home to find all her anxiety and regret channeled into the vision of a creepy little bugbear sprung not from a nightmare but from something more like DreamWorks SKG. Hence, à la West, Hollywood generates madness. These are two of the more traditional pieces in Movieola! Others include disembodied dialogues; pieces sunk so deep into the free indirect thing you sort of forget they’re in the third person; and meditations in a royal “we” that reads likes the dark twin of the critical “we” that pollutes scholarship. This last comes off almost like an intrusive narrator, the sort that long ago forsook the novel, and the suggestion of this voice -- which we hear bantering about story ideas as stories unfold -- is that we really, finally have become Roland Barthes’s “scriptors,” compiling readymade snippets into tales that please with familiarity rather than novelty. The deep-down message of Movieola!, then, is that stories no longer emerge from communion with a nubile muse curling her finger from the other side of a lacy partition of consciousness, but rather from a much lewder encounter with our own corrupt souls. * Introducing a mid-eighties edition of The Day of the Locust, critic Alfred Kazin noted that the truly horrific days of Hollywood were over. It was now possible to make films outside the studio system; the monopoly was ended, the trust busted. Today, they say, we’re in a golden age of television, the vast free market of cable opening up new avenues for how moving picture stories come to be. So is the crisis averted, then? No. Part of the thrust of Domini’s argument is that big screen filmmaking now finds itself threatened by its own creation, all those little screens like an army of ants taking down an elephant. One monster replaces another. And that such a thing can even be claimed about a book pitched as a collection of stories reveals that Movieola! is much more than just that. This is made most clear in the conclusive “Closing Credits Fun & Counterforce,” an address to a movie viewer still plopped down in his seat: You risked a doddering and fusty entertainment based on how long a person can go without having to pee. The flicks themselves have long since run out of surprises: if the assassin doesn’t fall in love, the bookish girl in black whoops it up in a candy-colored romper room. There never was much opportunity for surprise, in ninety minutes or a hundred, and there’s even less these days, when you need a multimillion-dollar urban-renewal package just to save the downtown moviehouse. The star-studded American shebang, winding up through the coming attractions and down through the credits in their grave-rows, that’s long since been squeezed dry and shoehorned into smaller screens. There is no character here, no story at all. Thus, Movieola! is not aptly described as a gathering together of fun tales. Rather, it’s a concise and intelligent assessment of the state of modern storytelling, and its joy -- it’s edge-of-your-seat, cliff-hanger thrill -- stems from what it offers by way of philosophical critique.
I'm not ready this month.Seriously. I've only had 28 days of reading, a good number of which I spent failing to write a short story and traveling to Minneapolis. I've only read two books. And one of them took me three weeks. I'm just not ready for February to be over.I shouldn't complain, though - both books I read were fantastic and both dealt with much stronger versions of my current problem: running out of time and being dropped into situations without the proper preparation.Of course, in both What is the What (David Eggers) and The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood) this lack of preparation was life altering. My problem is that my simple blog post isn't being started until the eleventh hour. Big difference.What's intense about both of these books is the idea that there are authors who can so perfectly get inside the head of someone and spell out the anxieties involved in being relocated - in being thrown into a new situation with little, if any, warning, forced to live life under the gun, subservient because they don't know any different and are afraid to do otherwise. Who knows what lies outside of their life? Who knows if they'd even live to find out.In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood creates a dystopian masterpiece - a country so frightened of itself that it has no choice but to obey. It's a breakdown of the social hierarchy, a primer into what could happen with information control and women's rights in a future that doesn't respect either ideal. It's frightening in its own right - women forced to be subservient because that's the only way they can figure out to keep lust on the backburner. The Handmaids are there to have their wombs occupied, but not to enjoy any second of it. It's scary.And, at times, it seems so real. But the brilliance of the story isn't the science fiction aspect - it's the loss that the protagonist feels. It's a powerless struggle against an old life - a women's lib upbringing filled with lesbian friends and understanding husbands. Imagine being stripped of all identity, separated from your spouse and child, forced to watch as people were sent away for not obeying, struggling to understand how to escape, how to continue living. How things got this bad.That's what Atwood really does in this book - she illustrates the internal struggle, between a physical life and a mental stability - the mind and the shell, the womb and the woman.Of course, not all displacement is fiction. David Eggers' What is the What chronicles the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who experiences his own type of sudden movement, from the gentle village he grew up in to the front lines of the war to the confusing spectacle of the United States.This is real. The story has been fictionalized to a slight extent, but for the most part Valentino's Sudan is real - a true to life picture of what can happen when the wrong people are in power. It's vividly recounted but not flowingly so. It's written in Valentino's voice, using Valentino's visions and painting Valentino's picture.What a picture it is. A young boy is forced to flee his village, his mother, his father, and join a walking group of other young boys - the Lost Boys of Sudanese lore. He's brought in as a soon-to-be Army boy. He's placed alongside the resistance forces. He's forced to find his place in a refugee camp, living in temporary shelters for a permanent amount of time. He's miserable. And he's got no escape. After all, where could he go?The story is interspersed with quips from his current American life. He eventually makes it to the United States, so you know the ending will be somewhat happy. But he finds the U.S. to be just as difficult, just as dangerous - just as utterly confusing as any war torn village outside of Kenya.I'd call it a coming of age story, but Valentino never had a chance to come of age. He was forced to grow up at the age of eight.So when I complain about not being prepared to write a simple book article, I can't really be taken seriously. Especially when my month of reading was filled with the type of stories that create cold chills and boiling blood - words that piece together the horrors of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Sure, I had to jump head first to meet deadline. But my consequences were slight - an e-mail from Mr. Magee, a personal disappointment, a rushed article that's a few days late.I mean, my life wasn't on the line. That's pressure. That's displacement.Corey Vilhauer - Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb.
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Zach Brennan is staff writer for two health publications in Washington, D.C.The storyline is simple: a Portuguese physician and occasional poet, Ricardo Reis, returns to Portugal after sixteen years in Brazil. First he lives in a hotel and then he moves to an apartment. He loves two women, one is a chambermaid and the other is a virgin with a limp arm. The beginning of the Spanish revolution, and rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar are set in the background. That's about it for plot.Jose Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, instead, centers The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis on the memories and tangents of the wandering, flawed, bored Reis and his meditations on art, sexual fantasies, and conversations with the ghost of his dead friend and fellow poet, Fernando Pessoa. The tension between storyline and uninhibited details and thought processes of Reis create questions that will not be answered directly by him or the narrative.The book begins with a quote from the title character:"Wise is the man who contents himself with the spectacle of the world." -Ricardo ReisI thought it was unorthodox to begin a novel with a quote from the title character, so I looked up Reis and found that he was actually a heteronym (a poet develops an imaginary character and personality in order to write in a different style) for the real Fernando Pessoa, an early 20th-century Portuguese poet.So it's not surprising that the poetic conversations between Reis and Pessoa, now a ghost in Saramago's novel, concentrate on the metaphysical relationships between the living and dead, the artist and his art, and also parallel what could be Saramago's own apprehensions about his creative progeny.Pessoa says to Reis, his creation, "We mourn the man whom death takes from us, and the loss of his miraculous talent and the grace of his human presence, but only the man do we mourn, for destiny endowed his spirit and creative powers with a mysterious beauty that cannot perish."The conversations mix seamlessly with Saramago's aphorisms, without paragraph breaks or chapters or standard quotation marks or even line breaks for speaker transitions. The sentence structure is similar to the Chilean author Roberto Bolano's and is easy to wander in and out of like a dream.Reis, like Bolano, is a wanderer who doesn't seem content trying to describe his reasons for returning to Portugal, nor his relationships with two women, nearly his only contact with the outside world beyond his discussions with Pessoa. This failure of explanation also seems reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose characters don't quite understand or question why they've initially interacted and then fallen in love.The novel takes patience but rewards careful reading, and can be supplemented with a reading of Pessoa's poems, written as Ricardo Reis, as well as an understanding of Reis' motto:See life from a distance.Never question it.There's nothing it canTell you. The answerLies beyond the Gods.
"I think I've been had," John Huston remarked when he finished filming his adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, which was just released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. Or at least that's the story the screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald tells. Huston's take was that the film had a darkly comic heart, dressed in religious trappings. He was not convinced that the main character, the staunch atheist Hazel Motes, finds God in the end. That is, until the Fitzgeralds persuaded him otherwise.If anyone other than O'Connor was aware of her intentions, the Fitzgeralds were. Robert and Sally Fitzgerald provided her with a room for two years while she wrote the novel, parts of which she shared with them. Robert became the executor of her estate after she died and Sally edited volumes of her letters and nonfiction. Wise Blood stayed in the family, so to speak, when their sons, Benedict and Michael set out to turn the novel into film, for which they recruited John Huston as the director. The brothers and their mother were present on location during the filming in Macon, Georgia, and among other things, made sure Huston's depiction remained faithful to O'Connor's vision.If Huston was had, it was only because Hazel Motes was too. Haze wants more than anything to out Jesus as a liar and false prophet and to found his own religion, the Church Without Christ, as a response to the evangelism that he grew up with and has thrived around him. The grandson of a circuit preacher who would park his car, climb atop the hood, and start preaching hellfire and redemption, Haze determined early on to become a preacher too - but one who speaks against belief, who disabuses its converts of the false notions, needless guilt, and notions of depravity.After a stint in the army, Haze makes his way to a small southern town called Taulkinham, where he finds a whore, buys a ramshackle car, and sets out to start the Church Without Christ. As O'Connor explained in a letter to the novelist John Hawkes, Haze's striking out against Jesus was a rebellion against a deep-set faith within him: "There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would ultimately be possible or not." With the same fervor that Haze rejects Christianity and the street preacher's refrain, he crashes into it head-on.So it goes with Haze, that in spite of his valiant efforts to discern what is true, he's often unable to see what lies directly in front of him. And he's not the only one. Much is made of eyes and vision in Wise Blood; appearances are often merely facades. The blind street preacher, Asa Hawks, who Haze follows when he first arrives in Taulkinham and later becomes obsessed with, isn't really a man of God and isn't really blind. Asa's bastard daughter, Sabbath Lily, gives Haze "fast eye" when they first meet, and of course there's Haze, whose penetrating eyes, according to Sabbath, "don't look like they see what he's looking at but they keep looking." That Haze continues to look becomes his saving grace. When Wise Blood's characters believe they have clarity, it's often the point where they're led most astray. Take Haze's car. He has great pride in his decrepit jalopy with one door attached by a rope; even when it breaks down, he claims it's as fine as any. And as they're sputtering along, Sabbath corroborates, telling Haze it runs "as smooth as honey."In this vein, Huston's partial blindness to O'Connor's ultimate vision while filming Wise Blood may help explain why the film stays so true to the novel's tone and intent. The Fitzgeralds' guiding hand made sure Huston didn't stray too far from the course, but the eccentric characters and the humor of their foibles could easily have slipped into caricature. Instead, they strike O'Connor's unique pitch. Thanks to Benedict Fitzgerald's screenplay, many of the best lines remain untouched, such as Enoch Emery's description of his foster mother whose hair was so thin "it looked like ham gravy trickling over her skull." Perhaps the only off note is the musical score, that inserts a punchy banjo riff a la the Beverly Hillbillies during interludes and whenever the town's desperate newcomer Enoch Emery appears, as if to cue laughter. In contrast, Emery's on-screen presence - disheveled, lonely, and naively enthusiastic - is nuanced and pitiably comedic. Had the director been more attuned to O'Connor's religious vision, the depictions could easily have become more-heavy handed, and lost some of their comic potential if not their humanity.To speak of O'Connor without touching on religion is missing the point, but to focus so intently on religion that the story is sacrificed would be the greater loss. O'Connor's genius was that she could perform the balancing act and execute it with near perfection. As she confided to John Hawkes, "I don't think you should write something as long as a novel that is not of the greatest concern to you and everybody else and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe with the air of our times." That O'Connor's characters so believably grapple with disbelief makes them more human, and their struggles more profound. In the best sense, Huston's film breathes life into O'Connor's characters, with a single-minded Hazel Motes, a befuddled Emery Enoch, and an elfin Sabbath Lily, along with a host of characters from this small southern town, trying to find their way as best they can.John Huston's Wise Blood was just released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. Bonus goodies include John Huston interviewed by Bill Moyers, an essay by Francine Prose, and an audio track of O'Connor reading her story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."