Essays

Mad Men: It’s All About Family Values

1. The other night, four of us sat around the table in an airy, sparse loft apartment in the Marais: J -- my non-marital male partner of 10 years; S -- Paris resident and J’s oldest friend, for whom he stood as best man when she married a woman 20 years ago; M -- S’s current non-marital partner (male); and me.  M speaks not a word of English, only French and a bit of Arabic, but is gregarious no matter the company; S speaks accented English and French (native language = Taiwanese); J speaks and understands only English; I speak English and decent French, some infantile Korean.  S and J are both significantly older than M and me and are great cooks; S and I earn most of the income these days and both travel regularly for work.  Only J has children. We dug in to a giant communal bowl filled with three kinds of shellfish, a plate of white asparagus, and a platter of oysters.  The dinner cost 15 euros total, plus a bottle of 5-euro wine.  We talked about S’s recent stomach-removal surgery, after a late cancer diagnosis, and the French healthcare system; J’s daughters and our new puppy; the grapevines growing from a pot on the windowsill, finally bearing raisins after three years; tennis (playing and watching) and taekwondo (M is a brown belt); S’s upcoming sci-fi film project in Berlin and the book that I am researching this summer in France. It was Sunday evening in Paris: family supper.  In the moment, the rather odd details and dynamics of our group were quietly subsumed and absorbed; we were just being together, enjoying our time, without much thought. J and I came home to our tiny AirBnB rental in Belleville bearing leftovers and in good spirits -- much better spirits than after other dinners we could remember, dinners with the families we refer to as “real.”  It was late, but J pulled up Netflix on the laptop, and we crawled into bed. We’d been churning through old seasons of Mad Men -- partly because we can’t get enough, and partly because I was trying to write something about the current season.  The opening sequence came on, that pulsing, percussive theme, and just as it started beating toward its diminuendo, I hit pause. “I’ve got it,” I said, “I know what I’m writing about.”  I’d been brainstorming out loud for a week, since the half-season finale.  I clicked onto our video library, found “The Strategy,” the penultimate episode, and scrolled to the end. There they were: Don, Peggy, and Pete, supping together at a Burger Chef -- “a clean, well-lighted place” -- the image saturated in rich turquoise and red.  At this point, Don and Megan have quietly called it quits, Pete just fielded Trudy’s You’re no longer part of this family, and Peggy has lost the only steady in her life, Julio, the neighbor boy who comes by to watch TV. “What if there was a place where there was no TV and you could break bread and, whoever you were with, that was family?” Peggy had asked, happening upon her brilliant pitch for their newest potential client during a late-night work session with Don.  They both knew her concept was good; they needed Pete to get on board.  And so they gathered. Two weeks before, I had beheld this image, actually shaking my head in awe. This is it, I thought. The whole series in a nutshell.  This is what it’s about.  The image -- the moment -- was both surprising and inevitable; in other words perfect.  And after our beautiful makeshift dinner with our motley family-of-choice, the poignancy of that moment crystallized. If Mad Men is itself a kind of advertisement -- a reflection and dramatization of our deepest desires, the ones we didn’t know we had -- then its message is both timeless and markedly modern: family is everything; we are hungry for family; your “real” family are, simply, the people who actually know you. 2. We’re in a golden age of TV; we all know this.  There is so much good TV to watch -- just look here and here and here.   Today’s best dramas are serials, requiring, thus, commitment. If you are a person with, you know, other obligations -- you have a demanding job or small children or like to read books (maybe you’re even writing one) -- it’s impossible to keep up.  You must prioritize. Of all the great TV to choose from, what grabs you and won’t let go?  What must you make time for, week after week? I have watched six-and-a-half seasons of Mad Men, now twice through; that’s nearly 8,000 minutes, or 130 hours.  Evidently, I’ve established my TV priorities.  But next comes the inevitable question:  Isn’t this really a colossal waste of time?  “It’s great entertainment” may cut it for 100 minutes of The Hangover, but the demands of serial TV these days call for deeper justification -- a substantive understanding of value.  And if you are a literary person, there is that nagging additional requirement: your TV shows must do all that literature does; must do it even better. Mad Men is far from perfect; despite the show’s popularity, the case for a favorable value-to-time ratio is not necessarily self-evident. On the interwebs, critical chatter spins endlessly: Don is an asshole, Don is boring, Don is getting old and fat; plot lines are riddled with non-sequiturs and inconsistencies, too frequently straining credibility; back stories are overly foregrounded, or confoundingly obtuse; the scripting of politics and racial dynamics is clunky, smug, and sometimes offensive (not in an ironic way); the hairstyles are over the top! There is truth in all these criticisms.  Like all ambitious, voluminous work -- like an epic novel -- there is bagginess, missteps.  But also like a great novel, each viewer is grabbed by something different: a particular through-line keeps her watching, crowds out the shortcomings; a specific narrative or emotional thread compels devotion. One could argue that an artist aims for this, prefers not to think about “overall audience appeal,” but rather to focus on creating a captivating world, characters, ideas -- hoping that a great wide audience is responsive by virtue of depth and universality.  Matthew Weiner confirms this idea: What I mean and what it means to people are not related to each other and none of my business. All I have to do is get my house in order when expressing it, but when people get it and own it, that’s your dream...Sometimes, you put down a steak and they think it’s pudding, and that’s all you can do. Roger Sterling could not have said it better. 3. It’s all about family.  About knowing and being known. Real family.  Once I saw it, I couldn’t un-see it. J hrrmphed.  The idea wasn’t coursing through him like a current, and I couldn’t imagine why not. It’s true that Matthew Weiner would hate the idea of Mad Men having some overarching “message,” and yet, I am convinced that the creation and dissolution and re-creation of families -- literally and conceptually -- is Weiner’s steak; no way it’s pudding. In gathering for family dinner, the Don-Peggy-Pete triumvirate enacted a Great Convergence -- of three physical bodies, along with a clan of invisible secret selves.  Their so-called “real” families were also present -- specters of dysfunction and failure, but muted in the wake of Technicolor clarity. Has it been a colossal waste of time?  For me, the Burger Chef scene was pay-off, big time.  There is so much that ties these characters, inextricably, to each other, so much that has evolved.  It seems inconceivable that Peggy was once Don’s wide-eyed secretary and that she mooned over Pete, all the while carrying his child; that Don once fired Pete and that Pete threatened to reveal Don’s identity as the army deserter Dick Whitman; that Pete once said to Peggy, "You know me, you know everything about me, and I know you, and I think you’re perfect."  Among them, they’ve inflicted cruelty and betrayal all around; and they’ve shared just as many profound moments of recognition and mutual respect.  For those of us who’ve lived through the complexity of these intimacies, all of it culminates perfectly at Burger Chef.  It’s true that the show’s infamous opening sequence evokes solitary free-fall, and the characters themselves express feeling alone; but we know different. Don, Peggy, and Pete have each survived much, and they’ve done it, despite themselves, together.  They’ve been there, for and alongside each other -- not just like family, but in place of. (Notably (J reminded me), Peggy has never been explicitly apprised of Don’s alter-life as Dick Whitman; and Don never asked about the father of Peggy’s baby.  Not on screen, anyway.  But such is the nature of the trust and familiarity among them: there is a feeling that all is known, even if not spoken.  Put another way: if it were spoken, each would feel that he/she had already known.) It seems at times implausible that these characters go about their days in such close proximity, pitching and collaborating and strategizing around conference tables, smirking and drinking scotch with their feet up.  How is it that these subtexts matter so much and at the same time not at all?  Is this how life is really lived?  I would say, No, not really.  In our world, one wouldn’t work side by side, year after year, with so much water under the bridge; the bridge would have flooded and collapsed long ago.  Again, these are the behaviors of family, not co-workers.  But Weiner and company achieve believability, to my mind, by virtue of a quality that these three characters share absolutely: ambition.  The subtexts are functionally subsumed because, for Draper-Olsen-Campbell, more than any of the others, the work matters.  Success matters.  From the beginning, it is for these three that this craven, insipid business has truly meant something.  Advertising -- and winning at advertising -- is their blood tie. 4. The extended family equally enthralls.  Roger and Joan are the more jaded and battle-wounded big brother and sister to their entitled younger siblings Don and Peggy; and they share yet another unspoken family secret (baby Kevin). Young Sally comes of age, prevailing over Betty’s attempt to use her as a tool of revenge by acing her family tree project -- “Daddy’s first wife” Anna Draper included -- and by seeing something authentic in her father’s love for this mystery ex-wife.  On the topic of Anna’s terminal cancer, Anna’s sister tells Don that he has “no say in the affairs of this family,” but the viewer recognizes her villainy: Anna and Don exemplify pure family, agape -- unconditional love between the strangest of bedfellows, their kinship born of deceit and a peculiar mutuality. Sally and Glen nurture their close-cousins bond, battling disapproval all the while (Betty, boarding school, adolescent peer pressures), and yet we see in them a version of the same powerful knowingness shared by Peggy and Don. On the flipside, “real” family falters, again and again:  after announcing over dinner that she and boyfriend Abe are moving in together, Peggy says to her mother, “It’s important to me that you understand what we’re doing...I want you in my life” -- to which her mother replies, “I need my cake...because I’m not giving you a cake to celebrate yas livin’ in sin.”  Pete’s old-money/squandered-money parents, while alive, are stingy and cold, through and through, and when his father dies in a plane crash in Season 2, he goes straight to Don: “I don’t know what to do...What does one do?...Am I going to cry?...Everything’s exactly the same.”  And of course we know more than we ever wanted to about Don’s whorehouse boyhood.  We’ve also seen divorce after divorce after divorce: Don (twice), Roger (twice, plus daughter Margaret estranged), Joan, Pete, now Harry Crane (always late to the party, but still finding a way to crash).  Remember when divorcée Helen Bishop was such an anomaly?! My favorite moment of traditional family gone awry is the closing shot of "At the Codfish Ball" in Season 5, when Megan’s parents join Don and Roger, along with Sally, at an advertising awards ceremony: the Calvet’s are on the outs, and Sally has just walked in on Megan’s mother Marie fellating Roger; Megan is pissed because her father has just accused her of “skipping the struggle” and giving up her dreams; Don, for once, is clueless.  The family members take their seats around the table, awkwardly sipping drinks and staring into the What-the-hell-am-I-doing-here unknown. The one core relationship that currently puzzles me is that between Joan and Don: Don respects Joan and has been nothing but decent towards her (Season 4: he takes her for a joy-ride and drinks after her loser husband serves her divorce papers; Season 5: he tells her not to sleep with the skeezy Jaguar exec in order to get the business).  In Season 7, she votes him out of the company -- twice.  “I’m tired of him costing me money!” she shrieks.  Perhaps Don deserves it, but I find myself wanting him to make Joan feel like shit about her lack of loyalty, to the family. There is something regressive about Joan in the end -- she is Colette’s bohemienne dancehall girl, always orderly, her garments pressed and hung, her gold hidden in a secret compartment in her purse.  Some interpret Joan’s Season 7 refusal to be Bob’s sham wife (we all know by now that the handsome upstart is gay) as a show of self-determination; I read it as precious and fundamentally conservative.  Why can’t Joan have both love and a benevolent provider?  Bob sees that these are not mutually exclusive, which is why he offers it, no strings attached.  But Joan hasn’t understood yet about real family; she’s still trying to configure herself into the conventional formula. 5. And now I can add another 500 minutes to those 8,000 -- more time spent thinking and writing about what all this mental investment means. In an interview with Salon, Matthew Weiner said: I try to make it so that every season finale could be the end of the series. I plot the story out that way and deliver it that way. Had the Burger Chef snapshot been the end of the series, I would have been thoroughly satisfied.  This tells me that, given the unsavory horribleness of so much of what happens on Mad Men -- the lies, the pettiness, the violence and despair and random acts of betrayal -- I need to sense some sort of moral vision when all is said and done.  By “moral” I simply mean endowed with meaning, somehow adding up (even if 2 + 2 = a flying unicorn, or pudding, for that matter).  For there is no value without meaning, and it’s value that I’ve set out to uncover here. It doesn’t much matter whether Weiner intended this meaning or not: he rendered it so -- patiently and in fine detail, I would argue -- even as he goes about writing merely “what interests me and what I’m feeling.”  His vision is moral -- it invokes questions about what matters in this life, and whether those things are attainable -- but certainly not deductive or conclusive. The family supper at Burger Chef is filled with longing, mostly unfulfilled, and fear -- “that I haven’t done anything, and I have no one” -- as Don put it.  The visual image evokes the haunting solitude of an Edward Hopper painting, the verbal reference is to Hemingway’s story of aging and the great void (nada y nada y nada).  Loneliness and disconnection are diseases of the human condition; the many variations of family that we construct seem to reflect this chronic, sometimes fatal, condition. And, of course, “The Strategy” was not the final episode; that there are seven episodes to come in 2015 is for me both exciting and worrying.  What will happen to my cherished, epiphanic through-line?  My Technicolor image of convergence and poignancy?  What shenanigans will Don commit, how will the vectors of trust and intimacy shift? 6. M and S do not have a television in their apartment.  This is Paris, small-dwelling capital of the world, and a TV would dominate the room. They’ve been discussing it, though -- how much to spend, how big the screen, where to put it -- in preparation for the World Cup. “But don’t you want to watch it down at the café with other people?” I ask, channeling Peggy. “Isn’t it a kind of communal thing that brings Parisians together?”  S nods, M shrugs.  I realize that behind the decision is a desire to spend more time together, at home, given S’s health.  Will they buy this television?  How will it change their life?  Perhaps they will host more Sunday dinners around the table at home.  In a year, we’ll be back in Paris, and Mad Men will have concluded.  As they say, stay tuned. Image courtesy of the author.
Post-40 Bloomers

Paolo Sorrentino: Old is Young, and Late is Late

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. “Most atrocious words; most beautiful words,” says Aloise Lang, a former Nazi prison guard, in Paolo Sorrentino's 2011 film This Must Be the Place.  Lang is referring to the letters that a survivor of the prison camp wrote to him for years and years -- a fixated expression of rage in response to a particularly demeaning incident involving Lang.  “I hated your father,” the nonagenarian Lang says to Cheyenne, the has-been rockstar protagonist of the film, “because his obsession with me made my life impossible.  But I have to say that he completely won me over: the unrelenting beauty of revenge; an entire life dedicated to avenging a humiliation.  That’s what I call perseverance.  Greatness, even.” Greatness and beauty. Sorrentino -- a Naples-born university drop-out who made his first feature film when he was 31, and who at 43 won last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar -- is himself obsessed with these two driving forces of life: his most recent film is in fact called The Great Beauty.  And, as Lang’s words imply, Sorrentino is interested in churning up the strange and unexpected ways that beauty and greatness are achieved, discovered, expressed.  His films are filled, for example, with close-ups of faces—sagging, leathery faces, often caked on with makeup and lit brightly -- aging, lumpy bodies, baldness and bifocals, bad teeth and stubby hands.  For Americans, Sorrentino’s images work like reverse brainwashing, antidotes to Halle Berry-esque perfection.  Even youth (e.g. a fat kid singing The Talking Heads’s “This Must Be the Place” painfully off-key) is portrayed as “ugly,” or, in Sorrentino’s vernacular, strangely epic and beautiful. I mention Sorrentino’s age -- his relative youth, for an artist so accomplished -- because what I have found most intriguing in his work is the character vehicle he’s chosen, time and again, for his explorations: the aging male in his unlovely twilight.  There is the washed-up pop singer Antonio Pisapia in Sorrentino’s debut feature One Man Up; the apparently imperturbable, heroin-addicted exile Titta di Girolamo of The Consequences of Love; the reptilian usurer Geremia in The Family Friend; the compellingly creepy politician Giulio Andreotti -- aka Il Divo -- in his final act after 20 years in power; goth rocker Cheyenne (played by Sean Penn in red lipstick, black-kohl eyes, and Elvira hair), estranged from family, self-exiled in Dublin; and finally Jep Gambardella, the 65-year-old bachelor journalist from The Great Beauty who published one acclaimed novel in his 20s but then never wrote fiction again.  All of these protagonists (three of whom are played by the inimitable Tony Servillo) are in danger of withering or sputtering out, and none too gracefully.  In most cases, hard and ugly living has caught up with them, one way or another, and melancholia is setting in. It may be worthwhile at this point to consider Sorrentino’s sense of tragic irony: there is a scene in This Must Be the Place where Cheyenne tells the granddaughter of Aloise Lang -- a pretty waitress who has just informed him that his burger is overcooked and that, well, That’s life -- You know what the problem is, Rachel?  Without realizing it, we go from an age where we say, “My life will be that” to an age where we say, “That’s life.” Inherent in Sorrentino’s fixation on old age -- from the perch of his own comparative young age -- is a fundamental irony, cruel and comical: if you can figure out how to grow old, how to face your deterioration and eventual death, then you will have figured out how to live.  The irony being, of course, that by then it’s too late.  “Better late than never,” says Rachel to Cheyenne, after he shares the revelation that his recently deceased father probably did love him after all. “That’s not true!” he shouts in response (one of the few moments in the film when the depressive, whispery Cheyenne raises his voice).  “Late is LATE!” 2. But it wasn’t too late for Sorrentino, at age 40 and on the heels of his breakout international success Il Divo, to publish his first novel.  Hanno tutti region -- published in 2010 and translated, in 2011, as Everybody's Right once again features an aging male musician, Tony Pagoda, at its center.  The novel opens in 1979: Tony, 44 years old, lounge singer extraordinaire, is performing with his band at Radio City Music Hall.  Frank Sinatra himself is in the audience and comes backstage. The meeting is anticlimactic and mildly humiliating, and Tony, already on the road to drug-addled disillusionment, goes on a particularly bad bender, which leads to a full-on mid-life crisis and much high-octane philosophizing.  And off we go along with him. Fans of Sorrentino’s films know them for their stylish visual density and inventiveness.  It seemed unlikely that such technicolor exuberance would translate verbally, but ultimately it does -- like in this description, which precedes Tony’s wife Maria asking for a divorce: This is a fantastic period in terms of work, I’ve just made it back onto the long wave of positivity, success is snuggling around my hips like a hula hoop that just won’t stop spinning, I feel like a Texas majorette, radiant with a gleaming smile, an epitome of vivacious well being, the cupola of my cathedral, the central nave running broad and straight to the main altar of joy and before long the big tour’s going to kick off and I’ll be seeing even less of this little house of terror than I do right now. Or this one, which I quote in small part (it continues for two full pages): I have made love underwater with at least sixteen female creatures, I’ve gone at it hot and furious in a rubber dinghy in Force 6 seas, I’ve enjoyed kept women, shopgirls, whores, second-rate novelists, lesbians, swarms of coeds studying accounting, a few students from classical high school, red armies of hotel chambermaids, a Czechoslovakian gymnast, more than one Danish farm girl, mothers on unemployment unencumbered by any interests amidst their vast boredom, pharmacists with an unhealthy enthusiasm for cocaine, and vegetarians who came close to unnerving my erection with vaporous clouds of incense scattered throughout the apartment, I’ve fucked the wives of everyone I know and even a stunningly vulgar helicopter pilotess, as well as two nursery-school teachers at the same time during playground time... Throughout the novel, Sorrentino indulges in similar over-the-top maximalism -- in some ways surprising for a filmmaker whose scripts lean toward laconic and aphoristic, but not so much when considering the ways visual energy might morph into verbal. Tony’s story is excessive and vulgar and violent and often funny, and, at surprising moments, profoundly moving.  We meet Tony when he is jaded and knowing; everything is familiar, and fake, and cliché: Now they’re talking about why a calzone is better than the classic Margherita pizza...You work like a mule to transport your music outside of a certain narrow parochial regional context, and then it’s the Neapolitans themselves who are the first to roll around on the floor wrapped like fashion models from the seventies in a transparent veil of the worst stereotypes. It’s the ability to be surprised -- to perceive and experience the unexpected—that Tony can’t afford to lose, lest his life become utterly predictable and meaningless. Whether it’s the delightfully shocking way that a prostitute positions herself, or the gentle way in which a drug kingpin rescues him from crossfire, or a glimpse of his own ability to feel compassion and tenderness, Tony needs to be regularly knocked off of his ironic, been-there-done-that perch.  These small moments throughout the novel keep both Tony and the reader hopeful, the narrative energy fueled by bits of subversion that Tony doesn’t see coming. And in this way, Sorrentino continues to play with his theme of life’s cruelty: in middle age, Tony often thinks he’s experienced and wise, but in fact it’s this confidence in the ironic perspective that betrays his youthful foolishness.  The ability to change, to doubt oneself and see things anew -- an idea that risks sentimentality -- is something Sorrentino cares about: “When you’re a kid,” Cheyenne muses thoughtfully in This Must Be the Place, “it’s very hard to back off of your decisions.” It’s this tug-of-war between the ironic and the sentimental -- style and emotion, expression and moral imagination -- that characterizes all of Sorrentino’s work.  Sorrentino wants it both ways, and I personally love that about his vision: young and old, feeling and knowing -- we want the whole human experience, all the time, don’t we?  In his response to a bit of speechifying from Gegè, an elderly friend, Tony says: You just have to know how to say things...You have to know how to say them, either to scare people, or to move them to emotion.  That, to my mind, is the gift that Gegè had given us: fear and emotion, without distinction. Through his visual and verbal styles alike, Sorrentino works hard at both scaring his viewers and readers -- with ugly living and old age, melancholia and violence and death—and at making them feel something.   In an authorial wink to the reader, Tony says: I never go to the movies.  When the show is over, outside the theater the fragility of normal existence awaits you.  This brutal, violent acceleration makes me suffer like a poor man among poor men.  It makes me feel as if I’m outside of the life I’d like to belong to for good.  The life you see in the movies. Outside, it’s all just one huge rape. Scary, indeed.  If the movies, if a novel, can scare you this much, then perhaps they can awaken you from the safe slumber of know-it-all irony and encourage you toward living, feeling, being open to wonderment and change. “There are at least three lives, maybe four,” Tony says to his wife.  “It’s the only concept that’s going to help both you and me stay alive.” 3. In an essay on Sorrentino’s oeuvre at The London Magazine blog, George Hull argues that Sorrentino’s otherwise accomplished films are marred by the filmmaker’s “persistent failure of nerve.”  In Il Divo, Hull argues, “Sorrentino seems to capitulate to conventional wisdom at the last moment, falling in with the dismissive attitude to Andreotti which the rest of the film shows is too simplistic.” In The Family Friend, he “plucks a hideous but fascinating truth from the undercurrents of moral awareness” but then “his hand falters, and he throws it back.”  And the final scene of This Must Be the Place, according to Hull, is “emblematic only of Sorrentino’s last-minute capitulations to conventional wisdom.”   In other words, Sorrentino is not afraid of moral ambiguities and existential darkness; but he seems to delve in already determined to find his way out.  The question, I suppose, is whether Sorrentino -- via his characters -- earns his way out, or whether, as Hull implies, there is too much of the artist imposing his will upon the works’ final minutes. In the case of Il Divo, I think Hull has it exactly wrong: the fact that “the last words are given to Aldo Moro...a striking phrase describing Andreotti [as] ‘indifferent, leaden, absent, cocooned in his dark dream of glory,’” does not negate the fascinating portrait, rendered in Sorrentino’s densely exuberant signature style, over the course of the previous 100 minutes.  It seems to me that it is not Sorrentino, but the viewer, who may choose to walk away from the film interpreting the ending as a simple either/or position—either Andreotti was a good man, or a bad one -- as opposed to the extravagantly destabilizing both/and experience that Sorrentino has crafted.  As A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times, Sorrentino has specialized in “character studies of specifically Italian dysfunction, in which surrealism becomes a form of verisimilitude in its own right...hyperbolic, garishly theatrical and rigorously faithful to the historical record -- completely unbelievable and pretty much all true.” With regard to This Must Be the Place, on the other hand, Hull may have a point: in Sorrentino’s English-language debut (produced by the Weinstein Company), there is a disappointing feeling at the very end of the film that he has made an American movie, about an American rock star, going on an American road trip, and in the end having a good old-fashioned epiphany demonstrated via hair cut and costume change.  (As for The Family Friend, I regret that I have not yet seen it: pre-2008 Sorrentino films have yet to be released, in any watchable form, in the US.) But in the novel, Sorrentino returns to his mode of hyperbolic verisimilitude: having fled Italy and his life of debauchery for Brazil, Tony passes 20 years in a kind of cartoonish fast-forward. By some absurdist Rip Van Winkle-esque quirk, when he returns, Tony literally has no idea what’s happened in Italy over the past two decades. His former bandmates fill him in on what’s happened to Rita, an acquaintance with whom he had shared a complex and authentic moment, years before: That pokered-up rummy playing friend of yours, Rita Formisano, one day she opened the window and threw herself out of the fifth-floor window in her housedress.  The awning of the fruit vendor downstairs broke her fall, so it didn’t kill her, but now she’s a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair for life...Her son, Alberto, isn’t even thirty years old and he’s been arrested three times: pandering and procurement of prostitution. And, when he goes to visit the last truly beautiful woman he knew and loved, Antonella, he finds her: deranged and delirious, bucking and tossing the words she speaks in a rodeo of some new and incomprehensible grammar, scattered headlong by psychopharmaceuticals, swollen like a weather balloon, ravaged by irregular corpulence, humiliated by varicose veins and stretch marks that look like stab wounds... Rita, Alberto, and Antonella meant something to Tony, and the reader has come to care about them; the delivery of their brutal fates feels perfectly nervy.  There is beauty, and there is sorrow, vitality and deterioration.  There is really no such thing as better or worse, no use in being sentimental. Late is not better than never, late is late. And, as it turns out, youth and age -- like beauty and ugliness, greatness and relentlessness --have a lot in common. I discover in the night that old age and youth possess extraordinary, unexpected points of contact.  Like all great pains and sorrows.  Old age and youth focus relentlessly on sorrow and melancholy.  With the same intensity.  With blind vigor. Through Tony, and through all his unlovely aging males, Sorrentino seems to suggest that no matter where we are in life’s journey, there is the extraordinary, the intense, the relentless, the unexpected: for the old and for the young, greatness awaits us.
Curiosities

Emerging Writers Fellowships — Asian American Writers’ Workshop

Emerging writers, check it out: the Asian American Writers' Workshop is accepting applications for TWO emerging writers' fellowships (fiction and nonfiction), $5000 plus mentoring and work space.  May 16 deadline, more info here.
Post-40 Bloomers

Sergei Dovlatov: Gravity, Levity, and Love

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. In response to being dubbed “troubadour of honed banality,” Sergei Dovlatov wrote, in 1982, to his friend and publisher Igor Yefimov: “I am not offended.  For truisms are in unusually short supply these days.”  Of his childhood, he claimed, “I didn’t collect stamps, didn’t operate on earthworms and didn’t build model airplanes.  What’s more, I didn’t even particularly like to read.  I liked going to the movies and loafing.”  On the relationship between body and soul, he wrote: “It seems to me that it is precisely the physically healthy who are most often spiritually blind...I myself was a very healthy person, and don’t I know about spiritual weakness!” It is typical of Dovlatov to riff on his all-around underachievement. In a chapter in his novel The Suitcase called “The Finnish Crêpe Socks,” about his student years in Leningrad, he wrote, “The university campus was in the old part of town.  The combination of water and stone creates a special, majestic atmosphere there.  It’s hard to be a slacker under those circumstances, but I managed.”  In relation to Soviet bureaucracy, he affected a remedial disconnect from reality: “No point in arguing.  But of course I argued.’’  Time and again throughout his nonfictional fiction, Dovlatov’s stand-ins deprecate the writer’s path: “As for me, it’s never been clear, exactly, just what my occupation is”; “I gave [my books] out to my friends, along with my so-called archives”; “Generally speaking one should avoid the artistic professions.” And in the family-life realm, he describes his relationship with his wife thus: “We were both chronic failures, both at odds with reality” and “We didn’t raise our daughter, we merely loved her.” This last comment is perhaps most revealing of Dovlatov’s modus operandi: the “merely” is both superciliously ironic and earnestly regretful. A few years ago, when I first starting reading and writing about Dovlatov, I focused on the wickedly humorous side of Dovlatov’s deadpan -- “a Russian David Sedaris,” as David Bezmozgis put it.  But a few years later, and a few more books into his body of work, I find myself more interested in that earnestness and regret -- in Dovlatov the evolving man and artist, who crafted and, yes, honed a version of himself in his fiction that was just distorted enough to be true.  And truth -- moral, spiritual, artistic -- was in the end for Dovlatov no laughing matter. As easily as he mocked the writer’s profession, for example, writing for him was both a matter of compulsion and survival, born -- as we learn in The Zone, his autobiographical novel about working as a prison guard in a Soviet camp -- out of near-despair: Awful things happened around me.  People reverted to an animal state. We lost our human aspect -- being hungry, humiliated, tortured by fear. My physical constitution became weak.  But my consciousness remained undisturbed.  This was evidently a defence mechanism.  Otherwise I would have died of fright. When a camp thief was strangled before my eyes outside of Ropcha, my consciousness did not fail to record every detail... If I faced a cruel ordeal, my consciousness quietly rejoiced.  New material would now be at its disposal... In fact, I was already writing.  My writing became a complement to life.  A complement without which life would have been completely obscene. 2. With the release this month of the first English translation of Dovlatov’s 1983 novel Pushkin Hills, it seems especially important to have read The Zone -- to retain a sense of Dovlatov’s more direct tone, uninflected by irony or absurdism, in one’s “consciousness,” to use his own word.  “Like everything Dovlatov wrote,” James Wood writes in the Afterword to the new translation, “Pushkin Hills is funny on every page.”  This is certainly true of Pushkin Hills, but The Zone, I would argue, is an exception.  The absurdity of life in a Soviet prison camp is reported via Dovlatov’s signature sharp eye and ear but is markedly absent the levity.  Constructed as a metafiction in which Dovlatov the author, now an émigré in New York City, delivers the novel to the publisher Igor Yefimov piecemeal, as a result of censorship (“a few courageous French women...were able to smuggle my work through customs borders”) -- The Zone alternates between camp narratives and personal letters to Igor; and in it, we find a level of existential seriousness unmatched in his other work.  In a letter to Igor about halfway through the book, he declares: I am sure now that evil and good are arbitrary.  The same people can display an equal ability for virtue or villainy... For this reason, any categorical moral position seems ridiculous to me... Man is to man -- how shall I put it best? -- a tabula rasa To put it another way -- anything you please, depending on the conjunction of circumstances. For this reason, may God give us steadfastness and courage and, even better -- circumstances of time and place that are disposed to the good. In the most chilling, and in my opinion most personally revealing of the narratives in The Zone, or any of his work for that matter, Dovlatov (the character is called “Bob” by the other guards) encounters a prisoner named Kuptsov, a tough-guy drifter. Dovlatov is both enraged by and drawn to Kuptsov: “You’re going to work, or you’ll perish in the isolator.  You’re going to work, I give you my word.  Otherwise, you’ll croak.” The zek looked at me as though I were a thing, a foreign car parked across from the Hermitage.  He followed the line from the radiator to the exhaust pipe.  Then he said distinctly, “I like to please myself.” And that instant: a mirage of a ship’s bridge above the waves. Then later: “You’re one man against everyone.  Which means you’re wrong.” Kuptsov said slowly, distinctly and severely: “One is always right.” And suddenly I understood that this zek who wanted to kill me made me glad, that I was constantly thinking of him, that I couldn’t live without Kuptsov...that he was dear and necessary to me, that he was dearer to me than the camaraderies of the soldiers which had swallowed the last pitiful crumbs of my idealism, that we were one.  Because the only person you could hate that much was yourself. And I also felt how tired he was. The story ends with Dovlatov encountering an emaciated Kuptsov yet again, squatting by a campfire, not working.  By then, Kuptsov has been in extended solitary confinement.  Dovlatov browbeats him again about working, then forces him to hold an axe and swing at a tree trunk.  Instead: Kuptsov stepped to the side.  Then he slowly got down on his knees beside a tree stump, set his left hand on the rough, gleaming yellow cut wood, then raised the axe and let it fall in one swift blow. The story ends with a prisoner shouting at Dovlatov: “What are you standing there for, you dickwad?  You win -- call the medic!”  Dovlatov is stunned by his own capacity for sadism as well as Kuptsov’s purity of conviction, “one man against everyone.” Who is prisoner, who is guard?  Who is protector, who is criminal?  In a letter to Igor, he writes, “Anyhow, I don’t write about prison and zeks.  What I wanted to write about was life and people.” Ridiculous things do happen in prison camp, but in The Zone, Dovlatov is more interested in the poignancy of that absurdity than the humor. 3. All this is crucial background to Dovlatov’s more humorous work.  In the story “The Driving Gloves,” Dovlatov is recruited by a second-rate Swedish journalist to perform the role of Tsar Peter the Great in a satirical underground film.  At the film studio, the props guy turns out to be someone who remembers Dovlatov from the camps. “Remember the isolation cell in Ropcha?” “Yeah.” “Remember the convict who strung himself up on his belt?” “Vaguely.” “That was me.  They pumped me for two hours, the bastards. “ The former prisoner furnishes Dovlatov with a kitschy Tsar outfit, and then as they part ways, he says, “When I was inside, I wanted out.  But now, if I have a few drinks, I start missing the camp. What people!  Lefty, One-Eye, Diesel!” Out of context, it’s a quirky one-liner delivered by a ridiculous minor character, but as readers of The Zone, we feel the chilly implications:  what is freedom, anyway?  The film intends to take up the same question, its climax showing Peter the Great melodramatically dismayed by modern Leningrad: “What have I done?...Why did I ever build this whorish city?”  And Dovlatov himself is contending with his own post-prison imprisonment: his agreeing to the role in the first place has to do with his aimless ways, his alcoholism, and his wife’s perpetual disapproval. Dovlatov’s darker experiences and depths also help us to understand his “bloomer” journey. If his comfortable childhood made him a loafer, and his years as a prison guard woke him up to his writer’s call, then the years following unfolded as a period of delays and false starts as he struggled to make good on that calling.  These were years characterized by heavy drinking and lack of money, piles of unpublished writing, and eventually “intense harassment” by Soviet authorities.  Finally, at age 40, reunited in Queens, N.Y., with his wife and daughter who had emigrated without him, The Compromise was published in the U.S., by a small Russian émigré press. In the mid-1980s, The New Yorker ran several of his stories in English, and English translations of his books began appearing, including A Foreign WomanOurs: A Russian Family Album, and The Suitcase.  None of his work was published in Russia until after his death in 1990 (after the fall of the Soviet Union). 4. But I don’t mean to be a killjoy.  The “sparkling” humor that Wood references, “jokes, repartee, and this writer’s special savage levity,” are what excited me about Dovlatov’s work in the first place. Indeed, hilarity -- in the form of both drunken and sober dialogue, along with deadpan one-liners -- splashes every scene in Pushkin Hills.  I only want to alert readers to the additional dimensions of Dovlatov’s oeuvre, numerous and equally rewarding.  There are, for example, his powers of physical description -- most often in the form of short, clipped sentences, wry and sharp. But then every so often we get a feast of Dovlatovian observation: He had taken a seat in the way police officers, provocateurs and midnight guests do, with his side to the table. The lad looked strong. A brick-brown face towered over a wall of shoulders.  Its dome was crowned with a brittle and dusty patch of last year’s grass.  The stucco arches of his ears were swallowed up by the semi-darkness.  The bastion of his wide solid forehead was missing embrasures.  The gaping lips gloomed like a ravine.  The flickering small swamps of his eyes, veiled by an icy cloud, questioned.  The bottomless, cavernous mouth nurtured a threat. The cousin got up and extended his left hand like a battleship. There is also his fine attention to the natural world -- the ways in which nature both enacts and reflects human fate, simply, directly -- which I noticed especially in Pushkin Hills: Morning.  Milk with a bluish skin.  Dogs barking, buckets jangling... and Jackdaws flew through the clear skies. Fog spread over the marsh, at the foot of the mountain.  Sheep reposed in grey clumps on the green grass...Yellow sand stuck to my boots, wet from the morning dew.  The air from the grove carried chill and smoke. Last but not least: the more you read Dovlatov, the more you appreciate his particular romanticism -- most frequently expressed in his obsession with his wife, Lena (pronounced “Yenna”).  In Pushkin Hills, the Dovlatov persona, Boris Alikhanov, has become confused about both his family life and his writer’s vocation. He drinks too much and his debts have piled up, so he escapes to the Pushkin Hills Preserve, where he works as a tour guide, paying (humorously false) homage to the great poet Alexander Pushkin for the benefit of pilgrimaging tourists.  The place is a sort of island of misfits, replete with memorably eccentric characters (including a depressive tour guide whose storytelling is so robust that “tourists fainted from the strain”), and Boris begins to settle in nicely. But just as he begins to return to his writing, own up to his creditors, and detox from vodka, his wife (technically former wife, but it matters little), named Tatyana in this version of events, shows up. By “this version of events,” I refer to Dovlatov’s notable revisiting and revising, through his metafictions, of the story of how he met his wife; how they came to be married; and the ways in which her almost supernaturally unflappable temperament, and their life together, perplex him utterly.  Pushkin Hills offers yet another version of their relationship -- two others appear in “The Colonel Says I Love You” (from Ours) and “A Poplin Shirt” (from The Suitcase) -- in which they meet at an artist’s party.  Here’s how Boris tells it: Tatyana rose over my life like the dawn’s morning light.  That is, calmly, beautifully, without encouraging excessive emotions.  Excessive was only her indifference.  Her limitless indifference was comparable to a natural phenomenon. They leave the party together, she invites him up to her apartment, they talk, she serves wine. There was a pause, which in a situation like this could be fatal... As strange as it may seem, I was feeling something like love. Where did it come from?  From what pile of garbage?  From what depths of this wretched, miserable life?  In what empty, barren soil do these exotic flowers bloom?  Under the rays of which sun? Some art studios full of junk, vulgarly dressed young ladies… Guitar, vodka, pathetic dissidence...And suddenly -- dear God! -- love. Tatyana suggests they “just talk.”  Boris says, “In theory, it’s possible.  In practice -- not really.”  And then, we get: Then it was cramped, and there were words that were painful to think about in the morning...And that’s how it all began. And lasted ten years. In “A Poplin Shirt,” Lena appears on his doorstep as an election canvasser.  He invites her in for tea, then they go to the movies (neither feels like voting), and then off to meet some writers and eat dinner. Elena Borisovna astonished me by her docility.  Or not docility, exactly -- more a kind of indifference to the realities of life...Deciding that Mother was asleep by now, I turned home.  I didn’t even say, “Come with me,” to Elena Borisovna.  I didn’t even take her by the hand.  We simply found ourselves at home.  That was twenty years ago. And finally, in “The Colonel Says I Love You,” Lena appears in his life almost magically.  He wakes up in the middle of the night after a drunken evening and finds someone sleeping on his couch: “Who’s there?" “Suppose it’s Lena.” As it turns out, one of Dovlatov’s buddies had brought her to the communal apartment and then forgot about her.  Dovlatov showers, Lena gets dressed, they have breakfast.  Lena leaves, but first she says, “I’ll be here around six.”  She returns that evening; and she never leaves. In all three versions, his wife’s “limitless indifference” (also referred to as “extreme imperturbability”) puzzles him to the point of exasperation and sometimes rage.  But then there are moments, mysterious and ecstatic, like the “dear God!” revelation above, or in “A Poplin Shirt,” when he finds a picture of himself in her photo album: I suddenly realized the seriousness of everything.  If I was only now feeling this for the first time, then how much love had been lost over the long years? I didn’t have the strength to think it through.  I never knew that love could be so strong and so sharp. There is just one instance, a real-life event that is also repeatedly revisited in Dovlatov’s work, when his wife sheds her indifference: she decides that she and their daughter must emigrate to America.  In Pushkin Hills, when Tanya announces this to Boris, it undoes him. Boris drinks alone in his locked room for 11 days.  He begins to hallucinate; then runs out of money and booze; then pulls the blankets up over his head.  Finally Lena calls, from Austria, saying they are fine.  Boris asks if they will see each other again, to which she replies, “Yes...if you love us...” Dovlatov ended “The Colonel Says I Love You” with essentially the same exchange. And in both endings, both stories, the same rejoinder from Dovlatov:  “What has love got to do with it?  Love is for the young...It’s beyond love.  It’s fate...” Lena remains mysterious to both Dovlatov and to the reader. And yet the reiterations and re-explorations of her presence in his life speak to something as real as a jackdaw in the sky, an exotic flower, or even yellow sand stuck to a boot.  Lena keeps Dovlatov both honest and on his toes: “You can’t be an artist at the expense of another human being...These are just words. Never-ending, beautiful words...I’ve had enough.” (Pushkin Hills) Lena was not interested in my stories. I’m not even sure she had a clear idea of where I worked...My wife would just pick up the nearest book and read from wherever it opened.  That used to anger me.  Then I realized that she always ended up reading good book...(“A Poplin Shirt”) “To love publicly is obscene!” Dovlatov shouts at his colleague on the Preserve, who is needling him to explain why he loves Pushkin. And while Dovlatov does not attempt to “explain” love, his efforts to understand it -- not to mention the novel’s epigraph, To my wife, who was right -- evidence a singular and permanent homage to Lena. 5. Comparisons to Hemingway are not unfounded: Dovlatov was a big, burly man, dark-haired and mustachioed.  He was physically driven (a boxer in his younger years), a heavy drinker, a journalist.  Both served in the army and saw unimaginable violence.  “With your vices you should be a Hemingway at the very least…,” Tanya says to Boris in their last argument before he heads for Pushkin Hills.  Boris claims to disdain Hemingway’s writing, and yet, among his very few possessions is “a picture of Hemingway.” [caption id="" align="alignright" width="98"] Hemingway.[/caption] [caption id="" align="alignright" width="102"] Dovlatov.[/caption] But the differences are marked: to my mind, those years in the prison camp -- where he confronted (and eventually recorded) the humanity he found in the darkest corners of existence, including his own -- along with his lifelong union with the imperturbable Lena, set him apart from the more unmoored Hemingway.  By the time he produced the work that brought him critical acclaim, Dovlatov’s moral center -- that is, his way of seeing and rendering human failure -- was fully developed: he knew what he was capable of, and he knew his limitations. He had a closeknit community in Russian American New York, and a family he did love.  Perhaps, like Boris, he wrestled with spectres of “unrecognized genius,” but he was also able to poke fun at the idea of genius itself, along with the rest of life’s disappointments and absurdities.  Hemingway grew darker and more tormented in later life; Dovlatov died young, of heart failure, but he wrote 12 books in the last 12 years of his life. A more apt comparison would be Chekhov, from whom some critics say the clarity and detachment of his narrative voice was descended. If Chekhov believed that “Man will become better when you show him what he is like,” Dovlatov was perhaps murkier on what “better” meant or looked like. Yet still he observed and rendered his fellow man with the same unflinching equanimity: whoever you are, whatever you’ve done or will do, you are worth my attention, my consciousness, on the deepest spiritual level. And what has love got to do with it? In an interview at the Paris Review with Dovlatov’s daughter Katherine -- “Katya,” who beautifully translated Pushkin Hills -- she reveals: It had to be perfect. And my English is nowhere near my father’s use of the Russian. He honed his craft. He wrote slowly and painstakingly...It was a huge responsibility. I did not want to let Dad down. As for Lena, her mystique remains intact.  When asked what her mother thought of the translation, Katherine says: “She tells me she liked it. She thought it read well and was funny.”  You can just see Lena’s face: in Dovlatov’s words,  “untroubled as a dam,” serenely holding back the flood of lives lived.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung

Marguerite Donnadieu, known as the writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, was 70 years old in 1984 when her autobiographical novel L’Amant (The Lover) won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt.  (The popular film version, written and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, was released in 1992.)  Duras was a sort of writers’ writer in France, and her 1960 film script of Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour had become a cult classic, but it wasn't until The Lover that she became internationally acclaimed.  Prior to The Lover, Duras authored some 30 works of fiction (her first novel, Les Impudents, was published in 1943 when she was 29 years old), directed 18 films, and wrote screenplays, plays, journalism, and essays.  She is typically associated with the nouveau roman -- a post-World War II approach to fiction developed and practiced most notably by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and Michel Butor -- whose signature features Fernanda Eberstadt described in The New Criterion as such: ...addressed to the reader in the second person singular ...in the present tense; what action there is transpires in cinematic, non-chronological quick-takes; the thought, often tinged with Marxist ideology, tends toward an inscrutable abstraction, a tricky relativism, a fretwork of paradox, in which life is found to be a death sentence, or silence a more telling form of speech... the deliberate banality of tone and obliqueness of narrative are used to describe bloodcurdling violence and extremes of sexuality….the nouveau roman -- which has been called by some the “anti-novel” -- served after the War as an eminently appropriate literary form for a demoralized nation. Duras’s vision was indeed dark, and tragic.  She was interested in the inextricability of eroticism and death.  Her best-known works -- The Lover (and its follow-up The North China Lover), The Ravishing of Lol Stein, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Moderato Cantabile -- explore passion in the extreme, its origins in madness and violence, and its ultimate unsustainability.  In an earlier short novel, Ten-thirty on a Summer Night (1960), for example, the alcoholic protagonist Maria becomes obsessed with a murderer-on-the-run while vacationing in Spain with her husband and his (eventual) mistress.  Maria fantasizes about harboring and carrying on an affair with the murderer (whose victims were his wife and her lover), only to be deeply disappointed when he commits suicide.  In Moderato Cantabile, the violent murder of a woman by her husband prompts another woman near the scene, who is also married, to take up with a stranger in a café. When asked by Leslie Garis in a NY Times interview about the allure of the criminal, Duras responded, "It exerts a fascination for me -- all the people who abandon the golden rule of good conduct. Criminals are heroes for me.” That Duras would even mention “the golden rule of good conduct” might surprise her readers: both her life and her work are made of such drastically different stuff from anything polite society might encounter, let alone comprehend or embrace.  She was born and spent her childhood in French Indochina, raised by her widowed mother, nearly destitute; Marguerite and her siblings roamed more or less freely. At age 15, she carried on an intense love affair with a 27 year-old Chinese man (the story of both The Lover and The North China Lover). She passionately loved her younger brother Paolo, who was mentally challenged, and consummated that passion sexually. She was a member of the Communist party and participant in the French resistance; a sometimes outrageous social commentator; and a serious alcoholic for much of her adult life. I came to Duras as many Americans do -- through Hiroshima Mon Amour and The Lover. All that darkness, tragedy, and indelicate conduct is, unsurprisingly, both captivating and exhausting. In these works, it is as if all was lost well before the dawn of humankind, and what remains is only to languish, albeit gorgeously (especially when it’s Jeanne Moreau or Emmanuelle Riva in the film version) and with a kind of sacred devotion.  I love Duras for the sumptuous beauty she knew to be inherent in the starkest of suffering; but the Durasian experience I encountered and became enamored of this year is an atypical one, pre-Duras in extremis: the 1955 short novel The Square. In 56 pages, a young woman and an older man, both poor and alone, meet on a park bench in a Square and do little more than talk.  The woman is a maid to a wealthy family, and she has come to the park with the little boy in her charge.  The boy announces to his young caretaker, who we learn is 20 years-young, that he is hungry.  Duras’s objective narrator then informs us, “The man took this as an opportunity to start a conversation.”  And off we go. What do they talk about?  Well, everything.  The girl is isolated, and miserably overworked; as the two begin to talk about their lives, she declares that she is “full of hope,” waiting for a change, that change being only one possibility, and that is marriage.  “One day someone must choose me,” she says.  “Then I will be able to change.” The man, a travelling salesman, begins to tell her that he is beyond the possibility of change and doesn’t either imagine or hope for it: at first he says that marriage couldn’t possibly bring him the sort of change that she imagines for herself, but then it becomes clear that what he really means is that any sort of change is impossible for him. You will change but I don’t think I will, or rather I don’t think so anymore.  And whichever way you look at it there is nothing to be done about it...I mean a life can begin anyhow—a fact we do not appreciate enough.  And then time passes and we discover that life has very few solutions: and things become established until one fine day we find that they are so established that the very idea of changing them seems absurd. As with all original and arresting fiction, it is difficult to accurately describe the experience of their exchange; one simply must read it. Duras has rendered the conversation directly, providing little narration or stage direction, and no interior exposition at all.  In other words, the characters develop solely through their spoken words, and the reader both apprehends and feels the “happening” of the encounter through speech and speech alone.  It’s a style she became known for -- long dialogue scenes with little commentary --but The Square exemplifies this form even more strictly than later works like Moderato Cantabile and Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night. What’s also distinct about this early work is that these characters do have a sense of “good conduct” -- each is genuinely curious about the other’s feelings of hope and hopelessness, their contrasting experiences of despair and survival.  Repeatedly each apologizes for mis-expressing his or her own station, or mis-apprehending the other’s; and each kindly, but desperately, attempts to nudge the other toward a different way of living and seeing, while at the same time recognizing the presumptuousness of doing so: “I wanted to say...that I would be very unhappy if you thought, even for an instant, that I was trying to influence you in any way.” We feel, gradually, and then acutely, the stakes that these lone souls develop in each others’ transformation: the man somehow needs for the young woman to change her stance on the necessary misery of her housework, and also on her resistance to travel, and change, and independence; the woman is desperate for the man to believe in the possibility of change in his own life, frightened by his apparent apathy and resolve: “But you, what will happen to you?...Something will happen to you or else it will only be because you don’t want anything to happen.”  What’s revelatory as we journey through their conversation is how clear and muddled at once is the human necessity for both generosity and self-preservation: in their encouragements, urgings, and questioning, each reveals simultaneously how terrified she is to have her own worldview, her very survival strategy, shaken; and how gradually is his isolation beginning to open up toward something like hope -- genuine, terrifying hope for someone else’s fate, and by extension one’s own, which, in the world of The Square, is the essence of love. Some critique Durasian dialogue as wooden, and her characters as more representational than human (contra the lovable messy-ness of two other talky-talks that may come to mind, i.e. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy).  The “flatness” of speech is indeed a trait of the nouveau roman, a re-fashioning of human beings as abstractions -- as talking heads, disembodied and uninflected.  The act of talk itself becomes a subject of both the dialogue and the novel -- talk as loneliness’s antidote, and then as its cause: “Time seems shorter when one is talking,” said the girl. “And then afterwards, suddenly, much longer.” When stylized dialogue draws too much attention to itself, self-congratulatory in its coolness and minimalism (Brad Pitt hocking Chanel No. 5), it’s irritating, it puts one off.  There are other scenes in Duras’s oeuvre that have struck me this way.  But in The Square, the characters express the real thing; they are humanity stripped down to profound simplicity.  In this reader’s experience, it is Duras’s great accomplishment that, by the end of The Square, I am convinced that these two minds and souls are not only fully real, but that they are me. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Curiosities

Interview With Charles McNair

Over at Bloom today, a lively Q&A with Charles McNair, whose Pickett's Charge was the subject of Kevin Hartnett's recent review here.  In particular, McNair takes us through the harrowing blow by blow of his road to publication, the "sophomore jinx story" from a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author.
Curiosities, Post-40 Bloomers

Audio Conversation With Paul Harding

At Bloom this week, a spotlight on Pulitzer-Prize winner Paul Harding, whose second novel Enon has just been released.  Plus a special treat: Joe Schuster speaks to Harding by phone in this two-part interview.
Essays

These Boots Aren’t Made for Walking

1. So I have these boots. I bought them a few months ago for $1.50. Yes, that’s a dollar-fifty, not one hundred fifty dollars; 50% off, on sale from $2.99, at the Salvation Army Store. I (naively) thought that they were leather, but they are not leather, they are whatever boots are made of when they are not made of leather. Square-toe, mid-calf, 4-inch all-rubber chunky heels. Red. The kind of dark red that reminds me of a certain Chevy station wagon that was popular in the late ‘80s (and that my sister and I, rebellious and sullen at 15 and 13, took out for a ride once, when our parents were away). Four-inch heels. That’s pretty tall. Taller than any other shoe I own. I didn’t think much about why I was buying these boots, or whether I would actually wear them. I just thought Hm. Big red boots. Good condition. My size. A dollar fifty. Cha-ching. As it turns out, for the month of August, these have been my writing boots. No, not riding boots, writing boots. What: don’t you have a pair of writing boots? 2. Sorry to have been out of touch, I find myself repeating in emails and text messages lately. I’ve been on Planet Novel. I’ve never quite found comfortable words for describing what submerging yourself in long-form fiction-writing is like; my attempts always feel, and likely sound, pretentious. “Planet Novel” may not be any better, but the metaphor, at least, is not bad: there is indeed something otherworldly, far from one’s earthly life, that one experiences when deep into a fiction project over a continuous stretch of time. Mornings, I put on my space suit and launch into orbit; in the evenings, I need to “come back to earth,” reacclimate to the differences in altitude and atmosphere. I shed my space suit gingerly; regular life feels muffled, unfamiliar, potentially toxic. By sheer virtue of hours clocked, Planet Novel becomes more real, vivid, and immediate; planet earth feels weirdly monochromatic, floaty. This summer I landed on Planet Novel in mid July. It took a couple of weeks to get my space legs. A carrel at one of the university libraries has served me well in the past, so there I went again, early mornings when it opened. A double espresso, with just a little hot water added (boiled at home, carried in a travel mug), became the best takeoff beverage. I started bringing a tea bag for the rest of the hot water, along with enough snacks, packed in Ziplocs and plastic Chinese food containers, to last me through late afternoon. My library carrel started to resemble my own little bodega. (Ah, well: some people need cigarettes. I need snacks.) The work was coming along. I had set goals. I was more or less meeting those goals. Things were amping up, the characters deepening, the plot lines and ideas converging. The uninterrupted work time was paying off, in the sense that this thing that I have been hesitant to call a “book” or a “novel” during the year that I’ve been working on it was starting to feel like a Something. A title came to me. I tried it on for a few days, a week, said it out loud (only to myself). It stuck. I could feel myself turning a corner — braking before going into the turn, then accelerating — the Something accreting substance and life. But I needed to up my game. Fatigue was setting in. Long days, almost three weeks straight. My head felt heavy and crowded. There was still so much mushiness that needed sharpening, loose ends that needed tightening or chopping or restructuring. The new goal was to push past this baggy, raggedy stage. So I put on my boots. 3. I could include a snapshot here, but what would be the fun of that? (Please conjure, if you haven’t already, your own vision of big red boots to accompany you through this reading.) I‘ve been wearing them with shorts and t-shirts, ankle socks that don’t show. Four inches: that turns a 5-foot-2 girl into a 5-foot-6 girl. The library is four blocks away, mostly uphill. These boots are not easy to walk in, and that has turned out to be a good thing. I have to walk slowly, mindful of each step — as opposed to booking it, urban-commute-style. I have had to re-learn how to walk. My daily journey to the library has been a thoughtful, deliberative one: I’ve become aware of not just my feet and legs, but the swing of my arms, my posture. In line at the coffee shop, I feel tall, and grounded. And by the time I get to my carrel, my brain and body have already started working together; I am ready. There are more practical advantages as well: the library is freezing cold. Along with my mobile bodega and travel mug, I pack a sweater and a shawl every day. The boots have kept my feet and lower legs warm. They’ve also greatly improved the ergonomics: there is no desk-and-chair combination out there that supports the anatomy of a 5-foot-2 long-torsoed girl, not without props. These boots work much better than phonebooks, or yoga blocks. At midday, I take a break, go outside, get some air and sun. I stroll around the block — still slowly, still bootfully aware. The idea is to both rest and recharge. The streets are crowded around this time, everyone on lunch break; and last week I started to notice that not only do I feel different in the boots, but that I am being perceived differently. At first I thought maybe I was being paranoid and narcissistic, imagining that my big red boots were all that conspicuous; but over the days, I’ve seen that, in little ways, my boots are making an impression. I’ve thought about how I myself perceive others while walking down the street: I notice things, small things, and they register, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. Think of Bill Cunningham, registering fashion patterns and trends, his eye both noticing and curating. We’re not all Bill Cunningham, but we are all, I think, visually impressionable. My boots have been acting upon the world in a way that, say, my gray sneakers, or my brown sandals, don’t. People are looking at them, that’s for sure. The other day, a man walking by — suited, middle-aged, bespectacled — affirmed for me that I wasn’t imagining all this. “Nice boots!” he said. For those of you who are already relatively bold in your fashion sense, none of this is revelatory, I’m sure. For me, it is. I have felt newly endowed, existentially powerful — like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings, at a different frequency. Who knows what the ripple effects might be, miles and years away? When you are on Planet Novel, a little existential potency doesn’t hurt. So I’ve worn the boots, and I’ve worked intensively, fruitfully. I needed to bring it up a notch; me and the boots met the challenge. And it’s not just that I’ve felt not-myself, like a boot-wearing interplanetary super-heroine; it’s that I’ve also felt like my hyper-self. Whatever it is that might keep me from wearing big red boots normally — from wearing, or doing, or saying, anything that draws attention, positive or negative — I let it go. I had work to do. I needed all the help I could get. The girl in the boots is Me; Me is working at something that feels very difficult, and Me needed to engage this particular habit to achieve what was most important to Me — to turn a Something into a Book. What I’m saying is that we access our real writing stuff when we can push through our own bullshit fears and hesitancy and self-consciousness. We need true courage, and maybe a little manufactured swagger can help get us there. I’m wearing these fucking boots, and I’m writing this fucking book. 4. This is the last week of the red boots (and the last week, for now, on Planet Novel). I am walking better in them. Still slow, still deliberate and aware, but also more naturally. The cheapness of the boots has started to show, however: the synthetic red has cracked and peeled, the stitching and seams have loosened. Surely I’ll wear them again, but probably not every day for a month. It’s okay, though; I’m a romantic (I’d have to be to believe in the power of red boots, wouldn’t I?), which is to say I recognize that nothing lasts forever. These boots have served me well.  Even without them, I’ll be walking up the hill a little differently from now on. My title is still sticking, and I’ve started calling the titled thing a novel. What happens next is yet still uncertain, but what I do know, what I knew from the beginning when I started wearing my dollar-fifty boots, is that it’s not the boots, nor my wearing them, that needs to last, but the work that we accomplished.   Image via Monceau/Flickr
Curiosities

Neuroscience and Creativity

Over at Bloom, Dr. Francine Toder—a retired psychotherapist and author of The Vintage Years, who learned to play the cello in her 60s—writes about the neuroscience studies that support creative blooming in later life.  Check out also this excerpt from The Vintage Years.
Curiosities

The Common in the City Party

Tonight!  Celebrate 3 years with The Common.  You can still buy tickets to this elegant lit party here.  André Aciman reads from his latest novel Harvard Square.