Thursday, March 23, 2017

"The Tree of Knowledge" (1900)

Read story by Henry James online.

Just when I think I've figured out how to read Henry James, along comes a narrative that somehow stops me cold. For all its virtues—chiefly, it's funny, but also carefully constructed with its ends in sight—I found this mostly a slow-going hard-parsing affair. There's a sculptor, Morgan Mallow, known as "the Master," and his wife, his son, and his best friend, Peter Brench, who is the focus and primary point of view. The Master is highly lauded as a great talent, at least in the minds of himself and his family, but Brench does not think so. He keeps it to himself for the sake of their friendship, he genuinely likes Mallow, and also because he is in love with Mallow's wife. Not altogether the most sympathetic situation in the first place. There is some implication that the Master is neither as gifted nor as successful as he thinks himself, but his son and especially his wife are staunch supporters. Brench is godfather to the son and practically family himself. When the son decides to throw over a practical education in favor of pursuing his own talent, the rest of the household is delighted. Except for Brench, who feels it's his duty to warn him off. This leads to bruised feelings, ultimately propelling the young man to pursue his art in defiance. In many ways the story proceeds like situation comedy. Because no one speaks to anyone honestly and forthrightly, they are all husbanding their secrets. Toward the end it turns out to be the same secret all around. Relieved chuckles. First the son comes clean to Brench that he thinks his father is talentless and deluded. Later, it turns out Mrs. Mallow feels the same. They are all looking to protect the Master from the reality of his delusion. It becomes a complicated situation at that point, even as the story is ending, and requires further unpacking. Brench had thought he was sparing them all the pain, but the fact that the woman he loves was doing the same for the Master all along inevitably changes his view of her. She has been deceiving him, in a way, in much the same way he has been deceiving her, for the sake of the feelings of a deluded hack. In the end, it's unclear what Brench is going to make of it, or what he will do next. There's a suggestion he may no longer love Mrs. Mallow, but there's no suggestion the situation is going to change significantly, except they all know a little better where they stand now. Well, they all do except for the Master, who remains as beatifically self-satisfied as ever. That's a funny image, but it's a lot of work to get there.

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 17 pages

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine (Library of America)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

What Maisie Knew (1897)

Behind all the typical crosshatchings and shadings of language in this Henry James novel is something at once so homely and such an example of social realism that it's almost hard to believe he wrote it: the story of a girl who only serves as one more item to fight about between two divorced parents. It's surprisingly modern too, given that widespread acceptance of divorce would not begin to occur for the better part of another century—even maybe a little daring (or "European"). Somehow, James manages to pack some humor around a tale that is otherwise nearly appalling. It's funny and tragic and stupefyingly complex, as relations between the parents shift from fighting about who gets to have Maisie to fighting about taking her off one another's hands. Over the course of the narrative, each takes multiple lovers—indeed, at one point, former lovers begin to be involved with one another, and sometimes they have responsibility for Maisie awkwardly thrust on them. Governesses come and go, loom large, depart, return again. Maisie grows from a toddler to adolescence. She is so guarded and low-key it's hard to see the effect of all this, except that she is so guarded and low-key. We rarely see her in notable pain, but the litany of detail piles quite high, forcing us to consider, how can she not be in pain? It's impressive all the things James manages here, keeping the focus on the child's-eye view, the way cat and mouse cartoons only show the knees, shins, and shoes of grown-ups. Yet the madness swirling around her could not be more apparent, as we repeatedly see adults lying or exaggerating to the child for their own gains. It's impossible to miss how much harm and damage are being done over and over. The best here are weak, the worst unspeakable. Maisie is merely an innocent cipher. It's true James might have had more open compassion for her—as an element in this story, it's notably missing. The humor derives from the painful clarity of each adult's particular style of weakness, their vanities and repeated foibles, with all their transparent psychological sources. Ultimately these laughs, such as they are, provide no relief from the situation. But as nothing is much of a relief here—again, perhaps the problem of the missing compassion—one is grateful for the light even as the downward spiral only worsens by the page.

"interlocutor" count = 3 / 272 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Friday, March 17, 2017

Ikiru (1952)

Japan, 143 minutes
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Photography: Asakazu Nakai
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Editor: Koichi Iwashita
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Nobuo Kaneko, Kyoko Seki, Miki Odagiri, Yunosuke Ito, Nobuo Nakamura

"Ikiru" is a Japanese verb that means "to live, to be alive, to exist," but somehow that translation has only occasionally been tried for the title of one of director and cowriter Akira Kurosawa's greatest movies. Perhaps Kurosawa's status as the most Westernized of Japan's famous midcentury film directors, with Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, had to be compensated with the most Japanese-sounding titles in the West—Rashomon, Yojimbo, and Kagemusha are among his most famous.

Ikiru is also something of a departure in that, as with most of Ozu's work, Kurosawa has set the action of this picture in modern-day rather than historical samurai times. Long-time Kurosawa trouper Takashi Shimura takes the dominating lead role of Kanji Watanabe, a middle-aged widower and Japanese government bureaucrat for most of his adult life, who has learned—well, figured out really, as the Japanese medical system as shown was remarkably evasive about it—that he has inoperable stomach cancer and at most a year to live. It might be Shimura's greatest role, bearing the largest burdens of a man in extremis, facing down his own death. The picture follows the arc of his coming to terms with his condition, with the last hour reserved for an unusual show of consequences.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Charles" (1948)

Read story by Shirley Jackson online.

SPOILER ALERT. "Charles" is a very short story with a twist ending in the O. Henry vein. I had it figured out on the first page, but I had read it before. I can't remember if it fooled me the first time. It might have. Wikipedia comments: "This story is a prime example of dramatic irony where many times the reader can figure out——" Ah ah ah, Wikipedia. You just might have given it away without even a spoiler alert. Between my figuring it out quickly, and Wikipedia giving it away just like that, there's probably no harm in discussing it candidly, but I'll be scrupulous just in case. It's right there online for you and it's very short. By the evidence of this, "The Lottery," and other stories by her, Shirley Jackson was often in the surprise ending business, which was very popular in short stories for much of the 20th century. Jackson's work has value beyond this entertainment aspect, and reasons can be glimpsed here, though this story is mostly focused on its surprise business. Jackson is really good at midcentury American suburbia with malevolent overtones. "Charles" turns on a young couple sending their first-born off to kindergarten and dealing with what comes of it. There are profound moments in terms of child development and the bemusement and wonder of the parents. At a length of only five printed pages, this story verges on being a "short short." I understand it gets hard making these distinctions—short short and short stories, novellas, novelettes, etc.—and maybe it's not even worth it. But they seem to have some shadings by size. A short short (three printed pages max and as short as two sentences) almost always has a twist or multiple twists. Otherwise we're in the realm of prose poetry and frankly I don't want to go there. "Charles" is long enough to establish a narrative sequence, even though it deliberately dances around a key plot point that is saved for a "reveal" (that new noun). It's not purely a stunt, as Jackson's crisp jokey rhythms and suburban detail are worth the quick ride—her characters can be real in surprising ways. Still, it's mainly a stunt, or at best occupying the form of a stunt. "The Lottery" is a better story, but mostly because it's longer and thus there is more of Jackson's writing. It's also a stunt. But both are also more than that.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

Monday, March 13, 2017

Get Out (2017)

Like most thrillers or horror movies, the first half of Get Out—when the sources of tension are not yet clear, and all you know is there are intriguing and unsettling things to worry about—is better than the second half, when all unlikely ramifications must play out. Get Out also indulges today's too easy bent toward super-heroics to connect plot dots. Catherine Keener gets the honors here for powers beyond our mortal ken. Still, these weaknesses are a matter of the film's chosen form as much as anything. As a so-called comedy / horror movie, nervous laughter is what it's all about. Director and writer Jordan Peele, who I don't otherwise know, established himself first as a comic actor. This is his first directing job though not his first screenplay and it's solid, its chief strength being the peek it provides into the simmering anxieties of African-Americans attempting the post-racial thing when the only people around are white. The nightmare fantasy behind the friendly show: these smiling faces ultra-privileged whites still want to hold blacks in bondage as slaves and secretly that's exactly what they're doing. Daniel Kaluuya is Chris Washington, a young black man. Allison Williams is Rose Armitage, his white girlfriend. Rose is taking Chris home to meet her family for the first time, though she's neglected to mention to them that he's black. That wouldn't be post-racial. Understandably, that's cause for concern for Chris. More troubles: on the drive to the country estate, they accidentally hit and kill a deer, though it doesn't die right away, which shifts the picture in an instant to unpleasant realms. When the responding policeman asks for Chris's ID, Rose kicks up a stink. He wasn't driving, she says, and has no obligation to show his ID. When Chris meets the family these problems only get worse. The father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), turns unnaturally slinky and hep when he meets Chris. He wants to know how long this "thang" with his daughter has been going on. Later he tells Chris he would have voted for a third term for Barack Obama if he could have. It's one cringing moment after another, which is only complicated by the fact that all the Armitages' servants are black, and furthermore, they're acting kind of peculiar. Catherine Keener is Missy Armitage, Rose's mother and a psychiatrist who specializes in hypnosis therapy. Dean is a neurosurgeon. But all is not as it appears in this lush exurban enclave. Something is not right. That's what the movie is about and those are the scary parts, and they are better left to be discovered on your own. It's worth seeing, especially for the insights on black anxieties, as far as they go.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Going Into the City (2015)

From the reviews, long-time Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau's memoir sounded like it might be some sort of sexual tell-all, but it's actually more sedate than that. Though a vague tone of lasciviousness hangs like a miasma over certain paragraphs and sentences, and now and then it is explicitly about sex, that aspect of it was way overstated. Christgau himself has claimed more than once, inside and outside of the book, that much of the project is about reclaiming the validity, nay the very utility, of monogamy, even as it explores what a memoir is at all. Those aspects—monogamy, and the memoir as artifact—are more the reasons for this book's existence than anything about a) the Village Voice, b) celebrity gossip, c) rock criticism theory, or d) specific rock critics (with a few exceptions, notably Ellen Willis). It is packed full of opinions, which is only natural, but those opinions range far afield of the rock scene as such. Indeed, the great pleasure I got out of this—beyond Christgau's typically etched language, as he remains as always a pleasure to read—was in his ruminations on literature and film. Crime and Punishment, Jules and Jim, Sister Carrie, and Marquee Moon, among a good many others, get equally thoughtful treatment here. Many of the usual problems of memoirs occur, however, such as obvious gaps and elisions. If I'm going to second-guess Christgau, like all the other reviewers, I wish he would have stayed closer to the Joycean spirit of the subtitle ("Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man") and ended the story in his mid-20s, say with the publication of "Beth Ann and Macrobioticism" in 1965. There could have been more about his college career and intellectual awakening, which is where it started to get a little more sketchy and I thought I was missing things. But maybe Christgau needed to go beyond that for the sake of a book proposal or because he thought it made a better book. It's his book, so it's his choice. But in this story, once Christgau is established as a writer, the gaps only become more and more obvious. He deliberately lands on isolated points in his life and leaves out others. It's not as if the anecdotes he offers aren't compulsively readable—how he got his calling card as the "Dean" of American rock critics, along with scenes from his work at the Voice, his life in New York, his ridiculously happy marriage to Carola Dibbell, his parenting and his daughter. No doubt they are main attraction for many who wanted to read a Christgau memoir. So fair enough. I also appreciate that he consciously studied the literary form of the memoir so closely as part of undertaking this. For fans mainly.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Over and Thru the Night (1980-1987)

Steve Fisk is better known as a producer and foundational figure in the Pacific Northwest grunge moment. His credits include Nirvana, Soundgarden, the Screaming Trees, Low, the Wedding Present, Negativland, Boss Hog, and, more recently, Car Seat Headrest, among many others. By the evidence of this album, his own interests may lie more in the direction of ambient musique concrete, combining everything that is available to anyone to hear. Or, as he puts it, "Copyright infringement is still your best entertainment value. More noise please." As if to make the point, this compilation of fragments and long concatenations, released in 1993, casually usurps some of the most fiercely protected copyright golden calves in existence, namely the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival (and the Dallas TV show too, though no sign of Led Zeppelin and probably too early to be tweaking Prince). In some ways it works like a comedy album, in that the spoken word fragments and their repetitions often dominate, and memorably so. "Can't somebody out there who knows the words to the song call in and tell 'em to us?" a radio announcer implores. "I don't deserve to live," says a Deputy Dawg voice in the short framing tracks at start and end, "I Wish I Were Dead," parts 1 and 2, which I kept hearing alternately as "I've lost the will to live." "Government Figures," a relative shorty at 1:36, features a voice that sounds like Lionel Barrymore running down statistics about life expectancies. I have grown to wait for a certain particularly satisfying vocal "but" on which the track turns. That's shorter stuff. Some of these tracks are very long too. Potentially they could have been broken up into constituent parts, but enough has grown on me with this album that I trust Fisk's sense for keeping some elements together and others separate. The longest track, "You Used Me," clocks in at nearly 13 minutes, defers in substantial passages to CCR's "Keep on Chooglin'," and right in the middle opens to a gray barrage of floating white noise, like an old-fashioned empty TV channel, that briefly somehow offers a kind of unmediated ecstasy, if you're in the right mood. (To get there, let me hasten to add, you may have to listen to it a few times. You know how I feel about that advice, but there it is.) Much of the found speech is from radio and TV, with potentially multiple sources in Dallas, which I don't know, but there are clues here. My favorite track, and the one by which I suspect you can judge whether or not this is for you (hey, it's even on Napster), is the six-minute "Lying in Texas," which comes late in the album and is likely from Dallas. A whirring buzz saw accompanies an unearthly conversation between a man and a woman about a deception, a hoax, played on the woman. The man participated in it but now he is coming clean with her. The woman can't believe what she is hearing and audibly starts to fall apart. The man is cool, cruel, deadly unimpassioned. Suddenly a long break, an open stop of several seconds which produces anxiety like tripping and almost falling. Then moody keyboard swirls play and now the voices run backwards, as if whipped in high winds. An ineffable sadness overwhelms it. The musical figure plays again, and again. J.R. Ewing's name clarifies, and repeats. The whole thing plays like '40s noir to me, with dark currents and mystery. I love it the most and the whole album is pretty good that way too.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Pickpocket (1959)

France, 75 minutes
Director/writer: Robert Bresson
Photography: Leonce-Henri Burel
Music: J.B. Lulli
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Models: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Cesar Gattegno, Pierre Leymarie, Jean Pelegri, Pierre Etaix, Kassagi, Dolly Scal

All movies by director and writer Robert Bresson are at least a little odd—austere, slow-moving affairs, marked by confounding editing rhythms and unnatural performances from stunningly beautiful people. In line with the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, I probably like Pickpocket second-best of all his movies, after Au Hasard Balthazar. It attempts to do a few things at once: retell Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment story, demonstrate the grace and practical realities of pickpocketing (the movie was actually banned for a time in Finland as too instructive), and, as ever from the deeply spiritual Roman Catholic filmmaker, ask us to ponder the eternal mystery of living. The question Bresson forever pursues is how to show the movements of the soul. I have mixed feelings about that, but I don't doubt his sincerity, for all the obvious potential for pretension and all he may be held responsible for.

Frankly, in Balthazar, I'm more interested in the donkey, and in Pickpocket, I'm more interested in the tricks of the deft criminal trade. Pickpocket is not exactly documentary, and not really that informative either (Finland notwithstanding). But it's typically clinical, with appropriate numerous close-ups on hands in action. As criminal skills go, pickpocketing is arguably one of the most theatrical, involving close work with blind hands and fingers and a magician's ability to distract coupled with a skill for going still in a crowd to become invisible. I've seen footage of stage magicians picking pockets and removing watches and belts from apparently oblivious audience volunteers. Among other things, Pickpocket validates that incredible spectacle with examples of intricate wallet lifting (solo and in teams) and even watches removed from wrists with their owners unaware.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

"The Devil and Tom Walker" (1824)

Read story by Washington Irving online.

Washington Irving's tale is a 19th-century American update on the Faust story. It's a good story structure, a classic, and Irving makes the most of it. It starts with buried pirate treasure in the deepest Massachusetts forest, and then introduces Tom Walker and his wife, both bitter misers. They fight constantly, and one is always trying to cheat the other out of shares in their meager wealth. In the woods, Tom Walker happens to encounter Old Scratch himself, who offers knowledge of the buried treasure in exchange for the usual: one (1) immortal soul. Tom Walker says he'll have to think about that. It's such a momentous offer that he lets his wife in on it, who scolds him for not accepting it right away and then immediately leaves for the woods to cut her own deal. She's never heard from again, except later, when Tom Walker sees her apron hanging from a high branch in a tree, guarded by a large vulture. When he climbs up to recover it he finds only a heart and liver bundled into it. This is probably my favorite part of the story—dark and spooky, reminiscent of scenes from The Blair Witch Project or the more recent The Witch. Her absence is final. Nothing is heard from her again. Time passes, and Tom Walker gets to thinking about that buried treasure again. He returns to the woods, looking for the devil, who finally after some time reappears. They bargain and hash it out, in somewhat vague terms. Eventually they agree that Tom Walker will do very well as a banker—or "usurer," their preferred term. Tom Walker moves to Boston and indeed does very well. His duties: "extort bonds, foreclose mortgages, drive the merchant to bankruptcy." Tom Walker attacks with relish and before long he is as rich as he ever could dream. Now comes the time for second thoughts and attempts to get out of the contract. Foolish mortal. All his plotting and scheming come to nothing, of course, except spoiling the time left to him. In the end the devil takes his due, in fairly dramatic fashion. Washington Irving is one of those early American writers I haven't actually read much, and this story was new to me. It comes from the collection Tales of a Traveller. His most famous stories, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," come from a collection of a few years earlier. My main concern with some of these early American writers I've neglected (James Fennimore Cooper is another) is that the language will be deadly dull and/or tricky to unpack, but that's not the case here at all. "The Devil and Tom Walker" is quite well done, though it starts slow on a lengthy description of the woods. Once we get to Tom Walker and his wife, it clips right along.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Native Son (1940)

Native Son is a remarkable American novel, with Richard Wright mixing up two oppositional elements. The first is a novel of social realism, by one more 20th-century writer influenced by John Dos Passos, reminiscent of, say, The Grapes of Wrath for fitting its narrative into the stream of great American stories. The context is Chicago, decades after the Civil War and the great postwar migration to the cities of the North. Wright expertly details the realities of life in Chicago, the de facto racism which Northerners have always specialized in, using the blunt force weapon of the police (and the National Guard as deemed necessary ... watch Donald Trump on this one) to intimidate, ghettoize, and segregate Negroes and whites. Within this nicely worked out context, however (including lucid observations on how "Communist" efforts toward change fit into the social and political milieu), Wright has inserted phantasms of horror: huge rats infesting tenement apartments, unimaginable poverty and violence, and finally a crime that goes ludicrously over the top. This is a great novel, a really great novel, with narrative currents like a flooding river. The first of its three long sections (named "Fear," "Flight," and "Fate") is best for the shock and awe impact Wright pulls off here, over a hundred pages uninterrupted even by line breaks, unfolding unbelievable and horrific events of a single day. Bigger Thomas, our hero—bearing one of the great names in American literature—commits the worst crime possible for a black man, the murder of a white woman. (The murder of his girlfriend Bessie is actually much more heinous, but Wright obviously knows black on black crime holds little interest for white majorities.) Not to go white on you with the comparison, but this is some clear forerunner to Eminem's "Kim," a fantasy adventure that travels deep into the interior of a brooding vengeful mind, where what we experience is shocking in a casual, almost light-hearted way even as it throws a spotlight on our worst taboos and sometimes seems to be laughing about them. Bigger Thomas is no thug, he is one of the most complicated characters in American literature, probing at the perceived limits of assimilation, racism, American justice, and the soul of a human being. Indeed, Thomas's crime is so terrible, so extreme, it is hard to have sympathy for him. But it's not hard to understand him. One of my great struggles with Native Son is how exactly to take Thomas. This novel cries to be read more than ever. Fresh and powerful and still amazing.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Thursday, March 02, 2017

"The Ransom of Red Chief" (1907)

Read story by O. Henry online.

O. Henry's comical kidnapping story has less of a twist ending and more of a punchline to a joke and there should probably be a rimshot too, with a sad horn. In that way it's not as typical for Henry as, say, "The Gift of the Magi." But it seems typical enough for its time, reminiscent of the wry American work of Mark Twain or Booth Tarkington. It features two would-be professional criminals: Sam, the first-person narrator, and Bill, his sidekick, who is more or less the straight man. They are in Alabama and decide to kidnap a boy to raise some quick and easy money. The story predates by decades the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby, which took a lot of the fun out of such crimes. It's also way ahead of the kind of legendary desperate outlaws who showed up in the Depression years, hunted by the FBI, although Jesse James and other cowboy bandits were in Henry's recent past then. It's marked by a kind of slangy criminal lingo that Damon Runyon and, even later, Nelson Algren would use just as extensively. I read this in junior high or maybe even grade school, and it surprises me a little that anyone thought kids that age would get something out of it. Maybe because it features a boy of about that age? Anyway, Sam and Bill can't control him—Bill especially is regularly made a victim by the boy. Let's say it doesn't seem very realistic and leave it at that, especially in this era of elaborate ultraviolence. I guess you could say it's an antecedent to the Home Alone movies. I actually found it charming and comical, opting for conscious suspension of disbelief. It's funny what the kid gets away with and the repetitions with Bill as the eternal victim are pretty good too, some very neat ba-da-bings. In my childhood travels with O. Henry it seemed like guessing the twist was all part of the fun and the challenge. But what surprised me most about this story is how well it's done, a frothy little delight with no regrets, and all elements played well.

By the way, I found this story in a top 10 list of most popular Library of America Story of the Week selections, which came in an email newsletter. Story of the Week has been a worthy project of five years or more now. I decided to add all 10 to the stories from the three anthologies that are providing the bulk of my long short story project. Then I felt like even more needed to be added—no Chekhov anywhere? that didn't seem right for a look at short stories—so I sprinkled in a few more (many cherry-picked from the upper realms of this great list of most-anthologized stories), to get to a grand total of 125. This might not seem like a particularly round number but it's actually a very good one: five cubed, which means it produces most satisfying numbers when I go to measure my progress. For example, with this story, I am now exactly 41.6% through this project. Only 58.4% to go!

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)