November 11, 2009
This place has a lot of stuff in it but it feels like there is too much sometimes or often and lately for various serious reasons I just don’t want to have the kind of thoughts that I have to have to write the kind of things I feel like I am supposed to write here. Still, the need to write something and have people besides myself and my pen pals read it has not gone away and so I am trying a new thing right now at this place. I don’t know how long I can sustain it (and I don’t know if I’m done with this blog), but the new one is being updated right now and this one is not, particularly, so there’s that, if you’re interested in new content and everything. Up until recently, I was very passionately opposed to the theory and practice of the Tumblr blogging platform, so much so that I may have even written an absolutely and completely insane multi-thousand-word anonymous rant about it in the comments section of another blog, but then I realized after taking a break from the Internet and talking things over with my therapist that it is probably not a good idea to have strongly held beliefs about a blogging platform (just kidding, I can’t afford a therapist and will probably never, thanks John Boehner). Anyway, if you’d like to read what I’m writing now, I would like for you to read it. So far, I have written about topics including Lydia Davis, Gideon Bibles, Soap Opera Digest, obstructed expressionism, and health care reform. I am also going to start posting the songs from an album I recorded recently. If you’re still out there, feel free to subscribe.
October 9, 2009
I can’t go to Rome because I don’t have a time machine. Of course, I could take a combination of taxis and airplanes that would, after a certain number of hours, physically place me inside the geographical area that the rough guides and googled maps classify as “Rome, Italy”; I could go to that place and walk up and down the narrow streets and look at the ancient ruins and drink espresso and say “grazie.” I could do all those things but all those things wouldn’t really do it for me because I can’t go to Rome without a time machine, I can only go to “Rome, Italy.”
Even if I had a time machine, I still couldn’t go to Rome, actually, because a time machine, however advanced it might be, wouldn’t emulsify the air and turn the world black and white, it wouldn’t light every scene with perfect chiaroscuro, it wouldn’t make me look like Marcello Mastroianni and it wouldn’t make you look like Anouk Aimee; it wouldn’t slow life down to twenty four frames a second, which is the speed at which the only Rome I know moves.
I can’t go to Rome because the Rome I want to go to is a fantasy and however beautiful and artistic a fantasy can be, however well it can convince your mind to believe in it, in the end, it’s not real, fantasies aren’t real, they’re just pretty lies. There’s this story by Ann Beattie about fantasies and Rome and it begins with this paragraph:
Some time ago, when my husband went to stay at the American Academy in Rome in order to do research, I accompanied him because I had never seen the Roman forum. I had a book Harold had given me for my birthday that showed how the ruins looked in the present day, and each page also had its own transparent sheet with drawings that filled in what was missing, or completed the fragments that remained, so you could see what the scene had looked like in ancient times. It wasn’t so much that I cared about the Forum; in retrospect, I wonder whether Rome itself hadn’t seemed like a magical place where my eye could fill in layers of complexity–where I could walk the streets, daily performing my personal magic act.
The fantasy about Rome that the character has in Ann Beattie’s fantasy about Rome is magical and charming and is ultimately shattered by reality, broken into tiny jagged shards like the way they break glass to make mosaics. Another fantasy about Rome is in the Fellini movie which is named after the city, a scene in which workers building a subway under the city break through a wall into an ancient villa. The room is covered in beautiful frescoes which have been held in a vacuum and perfectly preserved; however, exposed to modern air, they very quickly break down and the beauty and history they hold in their pigments melt away. There’s a scene in the movie Lost in Translation where the main character visits this picturesque Japanese temple and then breaks down because she doesn’t feel anything about it. When I lived in Korea, I visited this Buddhist temple that was centuries old and built into the side of a steep cliff overlooking the sea and after I had made my offering like everybody else on the tour, I stood there outside the gift shop and stared out at the frothing waves under the dark sky and all I could think about was that movie, all I could experience was someone else’s fantasy.
So I can’t go to Rome. That’s really okay with me because I never enjoy vacations anyway. However great a vacation is, however much fun I have, in the back of my mind I’m always thinking of the fact that it’s going to end. Knowing when your vacation is going to end is, in some way, kind of like knowing the date of your own death. Some people can reconcile this and enjoy their fantasy while it lasts; personally, I have trouble staying in the present moment and believing in something so deeply, which is one of my deepest personal flaws, I think. I’ve felt like this for a long time, but I was never able to express it or understand it until I watched this week’s episode of Mad Men, which was in part about a trip to Rome. I’m at a point in my life where looking for revelations and epiphanies in a television show seems sad to me but I’m also at a point in my life where I am sad and so I will take revelations and epiphanies from wherever I can get them.
In this week’s Mad Men, Betty Draper goes on vacation and for a moment she is able to give herself over completely to this fantasy of how her life could be. When in Rome, you do as the Romans, and by changing her hair and wearing a pretty dress and speaking nella lingua italiana, Betty, by the sheer force of her belief in a dream, almost seems to become a Roman; it’s as if her trapped soul has been freed and she has been made anew. It feels so real and wonderful and powerful and then it’s over and she is back home and all she has is this gaudy piece of costume jewelry as a memento and she is so sad, she’s sad because she was promised this perfect vision of what her life could be and she let herself be seduced by it, she put her guard down and believed in the fantasy, and then of course it was revealed that the promise was a lie, that her life is no different than it was before, that nothing has changed, and she is just tired and sad and sick.
Which is kind of how I feel after I watch Mad Men. I watch Mad Men every week and I think it’s a really good television show but I don’t know if that means I should love it or hate it. This is the thing about advertising; the very best advertising is actually the very worst, because the more seductive and beautiful and perfect a piece of advertising seems to be, the more insidious and evil and awful it actually is; the best and most amazing pieces of advertising are powerful deceptions and cruel fantasies; they feel like they’re building us up but they’re really just breaking us down.
Of course, it’s not really fair for me to judge Mad Men in this way, since Mad Men is art and not advertising; the difference between the two is that art exists to give something and advertising exists to take something away. It’s obviously more complicated than that, though. I think the creators of Mad Men are trying to create a work of art with their show, but sometimes I worry that the end result, whether by their fault or ours as viewers, is actually just product, is actually just very well made advertising for a fantasy which maybe was never real and certainly isn’t real now. Sometimes I feel like the much heralded attention to historical detail and production design are not artistic high points of the show but are only opiates that let us dream this dangerous dream more deeply, that let us ignore whatever unpleasant truths the show may reveal because hey look at that gorgeous dress and isn’t that lamp beautiful and imagine if we had a coffee table like that one that we could rest our martinis on, imagine if we could live in Manhattan and dress fancy every day have interesting and creative jobs like those people do, imagine what it would be like if cars still had fins and smoking pot was an adventure and television was exciting and brand new and all the days of our lives were just so, imagine imagine imagine. You watch it and the smoke gets in your eyes and all you see is beauty and fantasy, I worry that happens sometimes, I know it happens to me. Some people might say that this kind of fantasizing is harmless and even necessary and I think I agree with this and believe in it to some extent, but then isn’t wanting to live in our fantasies one of the root causes of the mess the country is in right now? Isn’t the American dream, a fantasy if not created then nurtured and inflated and burnished by genius American advertising, isn’t that the reason why we’re all so fucked now?
The best scene that will ever take place on Mad Men is the scene in the Season one finale in which Don Draper pitches his campaign for the Kodak rotary slide projector, which the Kodak executives had been calling “the wheel.” To describe all that happens and is said there seems stupid, just watch it if you haven’t seen it and remember it if you have. In the scene, Don goes off on this wistful monologue about nostalgia, and the whole time in the background he’s showing pictures of his own family. The scene is so perfectly rendered and deeply felt that it’s almost like Don Draper has done a magic trick and transcended advertising, like he’s not doing a pitch for this brilliant advertising campaign for Kodak but is just talking about essential things like love and family and memory, that he’s telling us something true and important. He says:
This device… isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine.
It goes backwards, forwards.
It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.
It’s not called the Wheel.
It’s called the Carousel.
It lets us travel the way a child travels.
Around and around and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.
It’s maybe the most beautiful and powerful scene I’ve ever seen on a television show and after the episode was over I just sat there in front of the TV and I wanted to live in it forever, I wanted to stay there, I didn’t want it to ever end. It did end, though, as all things do and must do, and I turned off the TV and the screen went black and I had to go on with my life and that was so hard because the fantasy that the show had created for me was so beautiful that, by contrast, the reality I had to return to seemed like a waste of time, like a burden, like a pain. What had felt like a magic trick now just felt like a trick. For a couple of minutes, the show was so good that it made me believe this lie was the truth, the same way Betty Draper allowed herself to believe she was a Roman instead of just a tourist in this week’s episode. For a couple of minutes, I felt like I had gone back in time or had moved through space, like I had traveled by the force of my belief to this place of beauty and perfection, this platonic ideal, and it was warm there and the light was soft and nothing would ever go wrong and I could live forever.
Of course, those feelings were just a wonderful lie, a little fantasy about advertising, a daydream, and when I realized this and snapped out of the trance, I kind of felt like I had just gotten off of a carousel, since sometimes the carousel isn’t a time machine or a spaceship and sometimes it doesn’t take you to a place where you know you are loved. Sometimes it just spins you around for a while and you get off and you feel dizzy, sometimes in a pleasant way, sometimes not.
September 17, 2009
Sorry for the lack of updates lately; I am COMPLETELY LOSING MY MIND dealing with graduate school applications; trying to get into a writing program seems to be seriously inhibiting my ability to write. Since I can offer you nothing new to read, which is the reason you are here, I am instead going to recommend two TV shows which began new seasons this week and which I really and truly hope you are watching.
If my long essay “Triumph, Will,” did not convince you that NBC’s The Biggest Loser is worth your time (which is a likely enough proposition, considering the very misguided use of Leni Riefenstahl clips and/or my weird personal revelations about my own body image contained therein), and if this amazing photo, which shows host and soap actress Allison Sweeney holding an umbrella over the body of a new contestant who literally almost died while trying to run a mile during the first challenge, still does not convince you, well, it is worth your time, okay?! On the first episode, when a forty year old father of two struggled to do lunges and squats and kept falling onto the floor and staying there, his trainer Jillian screamed at him, “When you lay there, all I see is DEAD FATHER, DEAD FATHER, DEAD FATHER.” The continuing existential drama and Sisyphean suspense combined with regurgitated self help dialogue and intense product placement make The Biggest Loser simultaneously the most heartwarming and most completely annoying television show on the air.
In a similar vein, I was very pleased last night to see Lauren Conrad judging a competition in “smiling with your eyes” on the second episode of this cycle of America’s Next Top Model. Longtime readers will know that my brain basically came in its pants at the idea of Lauren Conrad (the Maria Falconetti of reality TV) judging other people’s forced facial expressions and offering aesthetic criticism and modeling tips. They may also remember that a few months ago I recorded a ballad about LC and the reality industrial complex and parasocial relationships, a song which was called, coincidentally, “Smiling With Your Eyes.” Therefore, in many ways, this convergence on ANTM was highly satisfying for me, as I hope it was for you. Tyra Banks is one of the few true visionary auteurs still working in broadcast television today and though, like her continental contemporaries Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke, she often does crazy and annoying and offensive things, they are usually extremely interesting and entertaining crazy and annoying and offensive things, and a lot better than whatever other crap is on, anyway. (If you don’t want to watch these important and culturally relevant shows but still need some way to kill time today, then you can read the best post in the history of blogs.)
September 14, 2009
This is a song I recorded last weekend called “Lose Control” which is about losing control and how I can’t ever seem to do it in the way I want to even though I really want to sometimes and also the ephemeral and powerful and confusing nature of feelings in general. The idea for the song, as usual, came out of “control,” out of the formal constraints I used to make myself write it; I decided that I had been playing too much guitar in my recent recordings and that my sonic aesthetic was getting tired because of this choice and so I wasn’t going to allow myself to play any guitar on the song. This is kind of hard for me because I’m much worse at playing keyboards than guitar and also I only have a 25 key MIDI controller, which, playing it is like playing a three string guitar and trying to make it sound like a six string. In the end, I “lost control” and cheated on my “no guitar” rule a little bit (the falling star accents in the breakdown, some fake bass playing), but overall I kept to it pretty well. There were originally more verses but I cut a lot of the lyrics (i.e. exerted “control”) because the song was just too long (it’s still too long) and anyway the best parts are the parts without words, I think. The little biographical vignettes about Dante and Casanova in the second verse were inspired by parts of the Kenneth Koch poem “So You Want A Social Life, With Friends,” a poem which I saw in this Youtube video a while ago and thought was so sad and funny and good and relevant that I bought his Collected Poems off of Amazon right after I saw it. His collected poems aren’t so great, in my opinion, but I’m still trying to read and enjoy them anyway; I will say if you want to read something of his you should really look for a used copy of one of his old books and don’t get the paperback of the collected poems that I got because there is this painting on the cover of the book (above) that might look neat at first but will make you embarrassed to carry the thing around in public because you feel like you are an extra in a Wes Anderson movie or something. There was a long part here where I talked about Kanye West’s concept of “real pop culture” as enunciated in his post-”incident” blog post last night and the distinction he draws between Taylor Swift (the teen-pop auteur) and Beyonce (the dance diva), extrapolating this in my normal bloggy way into a bitter takedown of Ellen Degeneres and how her being chosen as a judge on American Idol represents the death of criticism and the triumph of the middlebrow, but, you know, who really gives a shit, I just can’t be bothered today, I already made you a song.
September 9, 2009
“We’re more popular than Jesus now,” John Lennon once famously said about the Beatles, talking in an interview about their popularity in relation to that long dead and long-haired holy figure who so many people worshipped and loved way back when, and, you know, it’s kind of weird that that quote he gave back then works just as well now, today, in much the same way, actually, except of course that now we’re not talking about life, like John was back then, now we’re talking about video games, about simulations of life, and when we talk about Jesus today, we’re not talking about the Christian guy who was killed by the Romans in 30 AD and was worshipped by many people long after his death, we’re talking about Kurt Cobain, the rock Jesus who died in 1994 for your collective cultural sins or maybe just because he was really depressed and sad but either way has been long worshipped by many people in his absence and has just now been digitally resurrected in Guitar Hero 5, this video game where you can choose to play as Cobain (as well as other dead gods like Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix), where you’re able to reanimate his body and make him do what thou wilt, make his fingers make miracles on the strings and cause his virtual voice to scream out in tortured melody once again and it’s like in that song about a personal Jesus where the chorus goes “reach out and touch faith” except now we touch our faith by pressing plastic buttons on a fake guitar to make your grungy savior move his digital flannel-clad arm in a certain pre-programmed pattern,
and yet Kurt Cobain’s recent second coming in Guitar Hero 5, however monumental and important an event in the history of music simulation that it may well be, has of course been completely overshadowed by the contemporaneous release of another video game, The Beatles: Rock Band, the carefully choreographed resurrection of the Fab Four, this new video game for all popular platforms in which you can inhabit the body of John, Paul, George, or Ringo and “be” them as they “play” their songs, and the thing is, John was right about Jesus, this Beatles game is definitely more popular than Guitar Hero with its Cobain and Cash, it’s a huge commercial and cultural event which Fimoculous recently joked has gotten “more press than Ted Kennedy’s funeral,” a statement which seems (sadly) true but which also seems pretty natural, since rebirth is a much more hopeful and fun “lighter side” story than death and this summer of death of ours has been so long and draining that maybe the programmers and editors of the mass media are deciding we need a change in the narrative, that maybe we can have a new theme, that ours can be a fall of resurrection,
but maybe that’s not true and maybe these new fall games aren’t about renewal and growth in anything other than the fiscal and economic senses of those words, maybe instead they represent the fall, the fall from grace of something vital and important in the culture, the fall and the possible loss of something, like, I’ve noticed a lot of people have expressed feeling creeped out or offended or disturbed by the sight of the digital Kurt Cobain in the new Guitar Hero game, personally hurt by the sight of their once and fallen king risen again in his new, strange artificial skin, this figure of Him painted from light in a box in the center of the living room, and of course the Bible has an awful lot to tell us about “false idols” and “graven images” and how bad they are and in many ways this seems to apply to the new Kurt, even if his Daniel Johnston t-shirt is very well and accurately rendered, there’s something just not quite right about him that goes beyond the uncanny valley, even, like there’s this joke video going around the internet of the digital Him on a virtual stage singing, among other things, “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi, like in the video a skeleton is playing the drums and Kurt is standing in front of him at the mic howling those cheesy lyrics about you giving love a bad name and even though I’ve never personally loved (or even really liked) Nirvana or idolized Kurt this video just feels wrong somehow, sacrilegious, like the stupidest fringe of “experimental” art where people think creating an object just to be “controversial” is in this day and age a worthwhile or innovative pursuit, I remember when I was a senior in high school I considered myself for a brief period of time to be a “conceptual artist” and I remember that I was at the time “offended” by the Catholic church’s stance on contraception, not that I was having sex with anyone Catholic or otherwise at the time or anything, but that anyway, because of my “beliefs,” I once did an art project in which I took a big grocery store balloon and punched a lot of tiny holes in it, all over its surface, and then I put one of those Virgin of Guadalupe candles inside and surrounded the thing with a package’s worth of wrinkled up Magnums which were supposed to be like flowers around a grave, I called my “piece” the “Holy Condom” and (obviously) it was really pretty stupid, it maybe might’ve been better if I could’ve lit the candle so that the light would shine out through the holes but that probably would’ve burned the balloon and started a fire and I couldn’t figure out how to not burn it and not start a fire, I had no craft ability and wasn’t really much of an artist, “conceptual” or otherwise,
but luckily back when I was a senior in high school I had other hobbies besides conceptual art, one of them being playing the electric guitar very badly, a hobby that I had started my junior year of high school when my family moved to a different state and I had to start at a different school and I wanted to be someone and something different, and I wasn’t different, of course, but playing guitar allowed me to feel like I was, at least, and the first riff I learned to play on my first guitar on the night that I got it was the Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” it was written in out in the little booklet that came with my crappy ten watt amp-and-Strat-copy combo package, I used the overly thick pick and plucked at the big bass strings and, after what felt like a lot of practice, I could do it, I could play the intro riff, it was amazing, and then a little later I realized all I could do was play the intro riff and that I couldn’t actually go anywhere in the actual song or sing along or add the other parts but honestly I didn’t care so much, it was enough for me just to be able to play this little thing on the guitar which didn’t really feel little at all at the time, I remember the second riff I learned was, of course, “Satisfaction,” and I remember after I got it down, I played it for my dad, unamplified, and he said, “That’s pretty good, when are you going to learn the rest of the song?” and I looked at him kind of crestfallen and horrified, since I had believed in my musical ignorance that this was the whole song, that the riff was all I needed, and as time passed and I played more and got better and could do whole songs, I tried to learn, of course, Beatles songs, and the Beatles songs I liked best were complex enough that they were always really hard for me to play and sing, honestly I still can’t play some of them in the “right” way to this day, but I tried to play them anyway, because, well, because the kind of teenager who really loves The Beatles is the kind of teenager who picks up a guitar and plays their songs in tribute, in worship, in communion,
or at least this was once true but I worry that things are becoming different, now, with the Beatles Rock Band and Guitar Hero 5 and all of the games like them, that some or a lot of “kids these days” will stop picking up real guitars because they’re too busy with their fake ones, that they’re being trained by the games to believe that simulated happiness and simulated expression are just as good as the real thing, or, if not just as good, then “good enough,” and easier and faster to enjoy, anyway, and that kind of worries me on a pretty deep level, this simplification, this translation, it’s like the way the King James version of Romans 12:9 begins “Let your love be without dissimulation” and then this statement is smoothed out and dumbed down in the New International Version, in which the verse is rendered, simply, “Love must be sincere,” and you know, it really loses something from the one translation to the next, it does, something important and true, like in the King James, there is the elegant and personal character of that phrase “Let your love _____” and then the chewy beauty of that big and strange word “dissimulation,” but then in the NIV version, all that is gone and it’s not really poetry anymore, I don’t think, it’s just a rule, it’s just a pop song platitude like “all you need is love” or some bullshit like that, Campbell’s chicken soup for the soul that has no meat in it, just picked over bones, and all in all I am left with the feeling that something significant has been lost and that people aren’t noticing it and they’re forgetting how things once were,
in John 1:14, the coming of Christ into the world is described as “the Word…made flesh” and in a way, this is how as a musician playing a cover of a song you love works, too, like there is the word (the text of the song) which is like a promise, this promise of beauty that you make real by playing it aloud with your hands and your voice, with the will of your body and mind, this promise you keep by caring enough about it and giving enough of yourself to make it sound and ring and sing, and with regard to this, I kind of think that games like Guitar Hero are false promises, bad faith experiences, because they let people feel something like they’re being creative without having to do any of the difficult and long and soulful work that it very often takes to truly create something, not that playing a cover song is always entirely “creative,” as anyone who has heard an acoustic rendition of the song “Wonderwall” can certainly attest, but when you’re a musician playing a cover song it very often leads you off in different and unknown directions, you see how two chords work together and you want to find a third, you start unconsciously humming a melody over those harmonies which before did not exist, you begin to make something of your own that you can be proud of, and you just can’t have that same creative experience with The Beatles:Rock Band, I don’t think, and it seems redolent of this kind of scary change in the culture as a whole, you know, like in the sixties people who tore their minds apart with drugs talked about getting to “the next level” but they were talking about something serious, about reaching inside themselves to find essential and important things about consciousness and knowledge and the soul, they weren’t talking about getting blazed and eating Doritos and unlocking another playable character in Guitar Hero 5, not that drugs are (always or ever) great teaching tools that actually let you get to these higher levels and not that there weren’t people in the sixties just as lazy and stupid as people today, but still, the one thing seems so shallow compared to the other,
and maybe I’m wrong about all this, maybe I’m just bitter because even though I play and record rock music on multiple instruments almost every single day and have done so for years and years, I’m absolutely horrible at all these “rock band” games and I don’t want them to be popular because I’m not good at them, like I remember the first time I played Guitar Hero, at a “party,” my college roommate, who had no musical talent at all (once, at the guitar store with me and our other roommate, he asked the teller, completely seriously, how you could tell what key a particular kazoo was in) completely and totally schooled me at the game in front of a decent sized crowd of people and I was embarrassed so maybe I am just kind of bitter about this, annoyed that my real talents don’t translate into the virtual world, and, you know, maybe I’m wrong about all of these music video games and am just being totally silly and fogeyish, not open enough and appropriately receptive to new wonders and innovation and changes to the world, there are examples of people with similar attitudes being completely wrong throughout the history of popular music, like the obvious one I can think of (besides the stupid demonization of the synthesizer) is when Bob Dylan picked up an electric guitar and started jamming with his band at the Newport Folk Festival and he suddenly wasn’t the hero of his time anymore, the crowd hated him, they called him “Judas” and threw things and spit and screamed, but he kept playing and went on to show them that he was right, he made the best music of his career with that electric guitar, much better than the earlier stuff, in my opinion at least, and so I can appreciate that maybe the concerns I have about the difference between Rock Band and a rock band are wrong and stupid but I have them anyway, I’m still concerned, and though I am not generally a conservative or a traditionalist in most matters cultural or otherwise, though I don’t consider myself a “rockist” or belong to any church of that sort, really, my feeling is that we are losing something vital with all this dissimulation that we’re doing, with all this “playing,” and that even if a genuine love of music is involved in all these musical simulations, as it really does seem to be, that the love we’re taking is not equal to the love we’re making and that, before it’s too late, we should try if we can to get back, get back, get back to where we once belonged, that this is the only way we’ll be saved.
September 8, 2009
I’m in the middle of reading the book Cultural Amnesia by Clive James while I’m lying on the beach right now writing this. There’s no real need to mention that I’m on the beach right now while I’m writing this except that I’m on the beach right now while I’m writing this and the sun is out and the big, fluffy clouds are drifting through the sky and the blue water looks ray-traced, almost, and it’s just generally fairly lovely with a slight chance of late morning showers and all of that seems worth mentioning to you. To the right of my towel, a mother is helping her young daughter find pretty shells among the clumps of dried seaweed and driftwood and other trash and detritus littering the beach. To my eye, there aren’t many pretty shells on the beach and this beach isn’t really known as a particularly pretty beach (it isn’t really known at all), and yet despite all of this the little girl is not seeming to have any problem at all finding pretty shells in the sand. She picks them up by the handful and puts them in a bucket; she’s collecting them.
Cultural Amnesia is a book of around eight hundred and fifty pages which purports, according to the cover, to offer “necessary memories from history and the arts.” The author says that he will offer the reader “a sum of appreciations that includes an appreciation of their interdependence…If I could put it into a sentence, I would say that it relies on the conviction that nothing creative should be excluded for the sake of any other conviction.” The way these apparently necessary creative memories and appreciations are arrayed through the eight hundred and fifty pages is inside a series of short (7 – 10 page) essays about important writers and artists and people (mostly people from the twentieth century, it seems like). These essays are arranged alphabetically, from the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova through Stefan Zweig who, well, who I don’t know who he is yet because I’m not actually in “the middle” of the book, I’ve only read the entries for the letters A and B so far (I’ve stopped before the entry for Camus in order to reapply sunscreen and write this). Each essay begins with a perfunctory nod to biographical fact (“Born in Odessa, educated in Kiev, and launched into poetic immortality as the beautiful incarnation of pre-revolutionary Petersburg, Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) was the most famous Russian poet of her time…”) but they then quickly veer into strongly-held opinion (“…but the time was out of joint.”) and then often explode off into arcades and avenues of digression, not in an ostentatious or pretentious way but in the way a clever and passionate friend who is telling you a story as the two of you walk from one place to another or sit at a cafe nursing refills might slip away from her narrative for a second to tell you any number of entertaining anecdotes or theories that she holds inside of her. If this is not the kind of friend (or writer) you want, then this is not the book for you (also you should probably stop reading this essay, as it will not make you happy). James’s diaphanous connections and intellectual high wire walks between thoughts are sometimes embarrassing (like when, in the essay about the French sociologist and writer Raymond Aron, he includes a brief parenthetical reference to a Kate Bush song and then returns, in the same sentence, to delineating the distinctions between various leftist positions on genocide and nuclear weapons during the Cold War) and are sometimes strikingly, bitterly contrarian (his takedown of Walter Benjamin is so devastating that you start feeling bad for old Walter, even as you find yourself mostly agreeing with the reasons for his evisceration) but are never boring and always well wrought, gilded with beautiful cadences and turns of phrase.
This is not about Cultural Amnesia, though. To my right, the little girl’s mother is asking her doesn’t she want to go back to Daddy, down the beach? Actually, what the mother is doing is not so much asking as the gentlest possible form of telling, but the little girl says that no, she wants to keep looking for shells, she doesn’t want to go back. The mother sighs and plops down onto the sand, telling the little girl that when she fills up her bucket (which will not be so long, anyway), they’ll have to go back to Daddy in order to save all the pretty shells that she’s found. The little girl doesn’t seem to say anything to this but just continues hunting for glistens and gleams. To my left, a Latino family has set up shop under an enormous multicolored umbrella. The beach is getting more and more crowded as the morning goes on because it’s a holiday. At one point, I look up from my notebook where I’m writing this to try to catch a glimpse of the light in the water but my view is obstructed; two little boys are standing right between me and the ocean and digging a hole with small plastic shovels. One of them looks at me and I say “Hi” to him and then their mother (I’m assuming) yells something at the two of them in Spanish and they go away. I think the mother thinks they’re disturbing me because she’s called them back to the umbrella and when I look over, she’s looking at me. I say, “Oh no, it’s okay, they’re really fine,” but she doesn’t nod or smile or say anything back so I’m not sure if she’s understood me at all, what was lost in translation. The boys stand under the umbrella and the one looks at me again, looks at me looking at him. None of these children are symbols for anything.
In his entry about Louis Armstrong in Cultural Amnesia, after some musings on the (mostly negative!) racial aspects of the American cultural machine in the twentieth century, Clive James turns to an autobiographical account about how he came to love jazz as a university student in Australia, discussing how a Bix Beiderbecke solo on a song called “I’m Coming, Virginia,” came to represent to him “what popular art should be like.” “I wanted to write prose sentences that way,” he writes, “and lines of poetry; as a shining sequence of desolate exuberance, of playful grief…a generosity of effects on a simple frame.” Riding along further on this train of thought, he writes, in the next paragraph,
“Mechanisms of influence are hard to trace. Writers tend to think that the way they write was influenced by literature, and of course scholars make a living by following that same assumption. But a writer’s ideal of a properly built sentence might just as well have been formed while he was still in short pants and watched someone make an unusually neat sandcastle.”
The little boys are now digging a new hole in front of the big umbrella with their little plastic shovels; I push my toes into the packed sand behind my towel and break it up into grains and clumps of grains which stick to my feet and won’t come off. Clive James goes on in his paragraph about artistic influence to describe some more ideas about quotidian inspiration, like how he learned “a lot about writing” from watching somebody sand down the paint on a motorcycle and re-paint it (?). He then goes on to describe further how jazz music has deeply influenced his writing. This is, of course, no new thought or insight, but something we’ve seen throughout the history of literature, from the rhapsody of Vinteuil’s sonata in Swann’s Way to Kerouac’s sloppy, poppy bop prosody through Kathy Acker’s post-punk riffs and elsewhere and all around. Still, the description of jazz’s influence on Cultural Amnesia is clear and sweet and beautiful, a pure-toned paean that seems worth quoting, if only for the sake of experiencing its contours. James writes,
“…for the way I thought prose should move I learned a lot from jazz. From the moment I learned to hear them in music, syncopation and rhythm were what I wanted to get into my writing. And to stave off the double threat of brittle chatter and chesty verve, I also wanted the measured, disconsolate tread of the blue reverie. Jazz was a brimming reservoir of these contending qualities…”
The author goes on at the end of the paragraph to describe, in a way that marks him both literally and metaphorically as someone of a different generation than me, listening to Marvin Gaye on a jukebox and wondering if there will ever been anything “quite so addictive as the triumphal march of a Tamla anthem,” and a little later there is a predictable postmodern epiphany about how the Lester Young quintet and a string quartet by Ravel are “comparable events” with “no incongruity,” but honestly I’m not really reading the book anymore at this point (this is not about Cultural Amnesia, after all, I told you), not the way I was before, because now I’m dusting the sand off the headphones of my MP3 player and sticking them in my ear holes so I can listen again to The Blueprint 3, the new Jay-Z album and the only music I’ve listened to when I’ve listened to music for the past five days, since I got it. I like to think that, if he really gave him a chance, Clive James might like Jay-Z the same way he likes Marvin Gaye or the charming and little-known Viennese rake Peter Altenberg, but I’m not really sure that he would; in the introduction to Cultural Amnesia, he writes that “recently there have been rap lyrics distinguishable from the “Horst Wessel Song” only in being less well written.” He writes, a few lines before that, um, “thoughtful” criticism, “I loved popular music” and it is important to note that this is in the past tense, “loved,” not “love.” This is a difference between the two of us, a big one, since I love popular music in both the past and the present tense, the two of them intertwined together and forever in my mind.
At least I hope they are. I said that The Blueprint 3 is the only music I’ve listened to for the last five days, but really, at this point in my life, the only time that I listen to music is while I’m running or walking the dog; listening to music is merely a function of being mobile, an accessory to motion. I remember being sixteen and lying on my bed in the dark with my eyes closed and headphones up, listening to Live at Leeds and Beggars Banquet and thinking music was the most important thing in the world and now I’m a young white male who doesn’t care as much about music as he used to at other times in his life and listens to hip hop while doing physical activity because hip hop makes him feel strong, confident, and happy in a way that other pop music doesn’t make him feel anymore. This is an impulse which has been somewhat ruined in the popular imagination by a simple scene in the stupid movie Office Space, a simple scene featuring a young white male listening to a hip hop song which is no less painfully true for its simplicity. “Damn it feels good to be a gangsta,” I think, or something like it, as I pound down the trail in my Nike Frees, feeling, well, “free” because of the voice and beat pushing me forward. It’s impossible for me to talk about all this without some sense of irony, it would be rhetorical suicide, but when I’m listening to the rhymes and running there’s no irony involved at all.
I’m making it sound like I’m an expert on this “ish,” though, like I’m some kind of “head” or whatever, which isn’t true at all. There was a brief time during college when I thought it was important to know as much about music as possible and to be familiar with every new group that came out and had ever existed for all time and, since catholic taste was important, this meant that I tried to learn as much I could about hip hop, its history and its future. All things must pass, though, as somebody said in a song once, and I lost a lot of my interest in music. This year, the only other new hip hop I’ve listened to with any attention besides The Blueprint 3 is Rick Ross’s album Deeper Than Rap (a pretty good record I would recommend, if you’re interested). Therefore, when I say I listen to hip hop while I exercise and walk the dog, I basically mean that I listen to Jay-Z, I listen to his old songs from The Blueprint(s) and The Black Album over and over and they’re still great to me; they’ve resisted overplay unlike anything else I’ve ever loved so much. I don’t really keep up with hip hop as such, I just really like Jay-Z; this is akin to saying I don’t care about tennis but I love to watch Federer play (also true) or that basketball basically bores me but I’ll still watch any of MJ’s weightless, slo-mo triumphs just because, well, how could you not appreciate that? Well, “if you haven’t heard,” Jay-Z is “Michael, Magic, and Bird, all rolled into one / cause none got more flows than Young / plus got more flows to come.” This is how I feel about him, that he’s a lexical and musical virtuoso and a genius, basically, and that’s how I treat him, with the respect I think such an artist commands. When I covered his songs “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “Hola Hovito,” both off of the Blueprint, I realize in retrospect that I didn’t try to reinvent the songs or make them my own to any real extent, the way, for example, that I covered E-40’s “Tell Me When To Go.” I guess I just wanted to take the words he’d spit and chew them up and spit them out myself, in imitation and sincere flattery.
This is all to say that when I began to listen to The Blueprint 3 for the first time, during a light evening run (I had already run that morning but when I downloaded the album, I decided to go again, to get the full experience), I was really disappointed with it. It’s hard to be disappointed when you’re sweating and breathing hard and moving quickly through space, but I was disappointed nonetheless, the way you’re disappointed when you open the first pages of a new novel by your favorite writer and they don’t grab you right off the top. The opening track on the album, “What We Talkin’ About,” is a drab and ugly song with an electronic chorus that literally makes my ears hurt; it’s a far cry from the regal string and horn samples that make up “The Ruler’s Back,” the first track on the original Blueprint. The second song, “Thank You,” with its weird vocal intonation that is somewhere between Shady-era Eminem and Mick Jagger’s sneering faux-gentleman on some lost Between The Buttons b-side, has some bright spots (on which more later), but mostly is kind of a yawn of a jawn, honestly.
Then, with “D.O.A.” it starts to come alive and get better. To speak generally, most songs by young rappers are about trying to create a myth and most song by older rappers are about trying to keep that myth alive and the songs by the oldest rappers are just dust cloths to polish their antique myths and keep them fading too quickly. This is natural, this is the way things go, this is what we’re used to, the way artists mature, like the Rolling Stones playing their best songs from forty years ago on a stadium tour. For Jay, though, who’s still at the top of his game lyrically, the myth is now something to be flipped and reversed, to be chopped and screwed, to be deconstructed and put back together again. Mos and Talib may be conscious, but Jay-Z (like Kanye) is first and foremost self conscious, which may be less righteous and good but in my opinion tends to be a lot more artistically interesting.
To observe in small the evolution of Jay-Z into a more self-conscious artist, from the early period to the late period, maybe just witness the difference between the “rock” song on this new album and the one on original Blueprint. “Takeover” from The Blueprint, which sampled The Doors (a ghostly, drunken Jim Morrison backing vocal) and David Bowie (the massed shout of “Fame”), was a battleship of a battle rap, a massive war epic in which Jay took down, most famously, Nas (“So, yeah, I sampled your voice, you was using it wrong / You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song”) as well as, in a genius closing couplet, every other rapper in the world who didn’t like him (“And all you other cats throwin’ shots at Jigga / You only get half a bar – fuck y’all niggas). At the same time that it was so good, it was still really just a diss track; a mindblowing, thermonuclear diss track, of course, but formally it was completely ordinary and something you could really find on any other hip hop record.
On The Blueprint 3, “D.O.A.,” though as a song I don’t think it’s as good as the “Takeover,” and when I heard it as a single I didn’t like it that much, represents a fundamentally different reason for song making, an evolution of artistic consciousness. Jay-Z’s enemies aren’t people anymore, they’re aesthetic ideals, they’re trends and fads. He’s not fighting in the streets; he doesn’t want to kill anybody, he wants to kill “Auto-Tune,” a computer program, an aura-reducing stylistic signifier. He’s given up on playing the old school gangsta authenticity game (“Give this to a Blood, let a Crip walk on it”) even as he’s concerned with artistic authenticity (how lets us hear his dissonant, ugly untuned voice in the chorus); he’s self conscious about people doing the kind of hood myth-making he once did himself (“I don’t be in the project hallway / talking ’bout how I be in the project all day…”); instead, he’s now all and only about the crafting of rhyme and the art of verse (“…that sounds stupid to me / if you a gangsta, this is how you prove it to me”). Whereas before he might’ve talked (cleverly, but fairly literally) about killing someone, now he’s metaphorically describing his song as a killer (“Hold up, this ain’t a number one record / this is practically assault with a deadly weapon”).
The Blueprint 3, as it goes on, is not a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination, but in its imperfection, it’s so much more interesting and amazing than anything else I’ve listened to lately (though like I said I don’t listen to a lot of music and obviously I am also pretty biased toward liking Jay-Z albums, although I didn’t love Kingdom Come or American Gangster). This record amazing to me, though; even on a song I find I don’t really care for, like the aforementioned “Thank You,” there is still always something incredible to it; in the case of that song, it’s a crazy post-Sisyphean diss of a third verse in which Jay describes how he doesn’t kill other rappers anymore, he just makes them “9/11″ themselves:
“So not only did they brick, but they put a building up as well,
then ran a plane into that building, and when that building fell,
ran to the crash site, with no mask then inhaled
toxins deep inside their lungs until both of them was filled,
blew a cloud out like an L into a jar, then took a smell
because they heard secondhand smoke kills.
Thought they was ill, found out they was ill (ew)
and it’s like you knew exactly how I wanted you to feel”
Before you get offended and start fucking with Jay for fucking with September 11th like people blew up at Amiri Baraka after somebody blew up America, though, he gives you his love, just two tracks later, on “Empire State of Mind,” a warm and comforting slice of polyglot, melting pot, (Big) Apple pop pie, a wistful ode to his home city built around a sped-up old soul sample the same way so many of the best tracks on the original Blueprint were. The Alicia Keys chorus seems almost tailor made for a multitude of cheesy New York movie montages (“New York…these streets make you feel brand new / their lights will inspire you”) but at the same time, in its richness and simplicity, it seems completely sincere and beautiful and sincerely beautiful. It’s really about the verses, though. Even seemingly thrown off lines throw you off with their clever allusions (“Welcome to the melting pot / corners where we selling rock / Afrika Bambaataa shit / home of the hip hop” – note the poetic jump from crack rocks in the second line to an unspoken (but felt) allusion to “Planet Rock,” Africa Bambaataa’s landmark hip hop single, in the third) or the sheer force of their moonwalk wordplay (“8 million stories out there in the naked / city, it’s a pity half of y’all won’t make it”), so that you keep rolling with the verses even when they’re maybe a touch too trendy (“Caught up in the in crowd / Now you’re In Style / Anna the Wintour (and the winter) gets cold / en Vogue, with your skin out”) or kind of misogynistic (“Mommy took a bus trip / now she gotta bust out / everybody ride her / just like a bus route”). It’s just this roller coaster ride of a rhyme that you never want to end.
But it does end and so now forget all of that shit, let it drop out of your mind, that ride’s over, motherfuckers, now you gotta get in line for the real stuff, the main event. The two most important tracks to the essence of The Blueprint 3, the keys that unlock its meaning are, I believe, a song at the very center of the track list (“On to the Next One”) and then the one that closes the proceedings, the big finale (“Forever Young”).
When I first heard “On to the Next One,” I was kind of disturbed by the sound of it, at least as much as a youngish person can be disturbed by the sound of a mainstream pop song while jogging at a brisk pace. The production is really abrasive, though; it’s a grinding, grimy electro-dance hop with an annoying, post-“Swagga” vocal bed apparently sampled from a remix of a song by the French dance pop DJs Justice. It’s all so dissonant and noisy at first, but at the same time, as you listen to it progress, you have to admit that, for what it is, the production is very well done; it bangs and crashes nicely, with a fun cascading drum break before every verse.
Forget the sonics, though; lyrically, it’s one of the strongest statements Jay makes on the entire record. Throughout the whole album, Jay is constantly talking about the influence of time and age on the creative process; he’s seemingly always looking backward and forward at the same time. In “D.O.A.” he describes himself as the “only rapper to rewrite history without a pen” but, despite all that history he’s made, he wants to “let the story begin” now, in the present, not back then. In the (sonically) very weird but (lyrically) pretty good “Reminder,” he begins, “All rhymers with Alzheimer’s line up, please”; he wants to see if he can “kill their amnesia before he leaves.” The chorus is all about the state of memory; it goes, “Reminder, reminder, I got if you need it, a reminder”; a reminder of how great Jay is, in case you forgot in the time since the last Blueprint. All over the album, he’s making references that jump through time, past, present, and future; he’s playing with memory so much that he’s worried we’ll get disoriented just listening to him and that we need help to get through it; he describes inscribing his words on us with “indelible ink,” “verses permanently tattooed” that “serve as Mementos.” In “Off That,” one of the lamest songs on the album, over a Timbaland beat that wouldn’t have sounded futuristic even way back in 2001, Jay says, his voice all echo-y, “Welcome to the future” and then describes, derisively, how he’s already done and owned all the superficial things other rappers brag about doing and owning (“the only time I deal in the past tense / is I’m past rims and I’m past tints / If you driving it, I drove it / you got it cause I sold it”).
This is a fundamentally different feel than the original Blueprint, which was mostly built around metaphorically and sonically warm invocations of the past in the form of the seventies soul samples that were the basis of most of the tracks on the album. One of the most nostalgic songs on that album was a track about Jay’s past and his background and how even though he was big now, he wouldn’t forget and he wouldn’t leave it all behind, a song called “Never Change.” This looking back to home is a common trope in both hip hop and country music (as opposed to rock, in which leaving home and the community is always the aspiration and the dream) but Jay does it so well that it doesn’t feel cliched at all; how could it with quotidian details about his childhood like “What, the streets robbed me, wasn’t educated properly / Well fuck y’all, I needed money for Atari / Was so young my big sis’ still playin with Barbie” and allusive flips and reverses like “Old heads taught me, young’un, walk softly / Carry a big clip that’ll get niggas off me”?? At the end of every chorus of the song, over a beautiful old soul sample, Jay says, over and over again, “I’ll never change / I’m too stuck in my ways.”
Well, that was then and this is now. In the chorus that opens “On to the Next One,” we find that Jay has apparently had a little attitude adjustment in the intervening eight years, that he’s changed. The chorus describes Jay as someone possessing near infinite creative energy and inspiration (“I’ve got a million ways to get it”) so that, for him, making a hit song is as easy as picking up a grain of sand off the beach (“Choose one” of the million) and then just putting it out there and getting even richer than he already is (“Double your money and make a stack”). After the intro chorus and the break, he drops into an effortless, swaggering first verse, a verse which begins:
“Hov on the that new shit, niggas like “how come?”
Niggas want my old shit, buy my old album
Niggas stuck with stupid, I gotta keep it moving
Niggas make the same shit, me, I make the blueprint”
In other words, he’s questioning the motives of his fans, many of whom predictably want a predictable sequel to the first two albums, with the sped up soul samples and the battle raps and et cetera. Jay jokes that if they want something like his old records that they should just buy them over again, making him more money, but notes that personally he has to keep moving, that while everybody else is making the same old boring shit, he’s making “the blueprint,” the “map” for the future of hip hop, and he’s making it right now in this song you’re listening to. Jay has expressed similar negative sentiments about the taste of his audience since at least as far back as the The Black Album, when he said, during “Moment of Clarity,” in a verse which is echoed in the chorus of “On to the Next One”:
“I dumb down for my audience
And double my dollars
They criticize me for it
Yet they all yell “Holla””
Now he’s not going to dumb it down for you or anybody anymore, though, cause he’s on to the next one, this is the new stuff. Continuing in the present, he goes,
“Used to rock a throwback, balling on the corner
Now I wear a teller suit, looking like a owner
No I’m not a Jonas, brother, I’m a grown-up
No I’m not a virgin, I use my cajones”
The line about the Jonas brothers is funny and everything but this verse is really all about the losing the throwback. In “Jigga That Nigga,” one of the best and most popular songs on the original Blueprint, Jay mentioned at the outset that he was coming on the track “with a throwback jersey and a fitted.” In that context, the invocation of the throwback was just sartorial posturing; the jersey was really no more important than his “Gucci flip flops” or “Hermes boat shoes.” Now, though, in “On to the Next One,” the throwback is invested with poetic weight and symbolic significance. In this context, its true essence is revealed; it’s an item of clothing which is knitted from nostalgia and lined with old dead dreams. With his lines (in the first verse) about how he “used to rock a throwback,” but these days (in the second verse) “fuck the throwback jersey,” now he wears a suit, he’s talking to the listener, saying, yeah, I know you want me to go all retro, to do that comfortable, lived-in sound you used to love, but nah, I’m not going to give you that, I’m an artist; if you want that stuff, well, you can “buy my old album.” In the second verse, in one of the best lines about his new artistic persona, he tells the audience, “Niggas, don’t be mad / cause it’s all about progression / loiterers should be arrested.” In other words, he has to keep going and trying new things, even if that’s not what his fans want from him and even if he’s not making songs as good as he used to, he has to keep trying to innovate because that’s what a real artist is supposed to do. As he says at the end of the first verse, “I move onward / the only direction / can’t be scared to fail / search and perfection””
To put it another way, we all want Jay to give us Abbey Road but he wants to do, like, Sgt. Pepper’s part deux, with a pretty big splash of the weirdest, most tripped-out shit off Magical Mystery Tour. We want something retrospective and warm and soft like All That You Can’t Leave Behind and he’s saying, “nah, y’all,” and instead he gives us something that is like part Achtung Baby but is at the same time (sorry Tim, sorry Kanye, sorry guest vocalist “Luke Steele” of “Empire of the Sun”) Pop or Zooropa. The album is littered with formal and lyrical and sonic experiments; some work well or at least kind of okay (“Venus vs. Mars,” has an interesting structure and atmosphere and some pretty good lines, although it has a weird, creepy chorus); others are just annoying (that Kanye beat on “Hate” and the cut-time rhymes that open it are both annoying as shit, to me at least; I can’t even listen to it). This is an album which to my mind has at least as many failed or mediocre tracks as it has instant hits, if not more.
The last song on the record, “Forever Young,” though, it makes you forget all that shit, it’s so beautiful that it makes everything that came before it better by association. It’s the A side to “On to the Next One”‘s B side, it’s the yin to its yang, the other side of the coin, and it made me cry the first time I heard it, while I was running back toward the apartment along the beach in the wind at sunset and I’m not a person who cries easily, really. The song begins with these big, thick string pads playing out a pretty simple but still catchy chord progression. After the synth riff plays out an intro verse, a voice comes in, a white boy singing over the synths, in a sort of post-Chris Martin intonation (not unpleasant), a bunch vague lyrics like “let’s dance in style, let’s dance for a while” and “let us die young or let us live forever” and then, after the bass and drums kick in, crooning how he wants to be “forever young,” “forever young.” It seems like a song we’ve heard before and yet it’s not, it’s something else, it’s the last new Jay-Z song on the new Blueprint. The British white guy sings ethereally about being forever young for a while and Jay offers us a prayer, that “the best of our todays be the worst of our tomorrows,” and then the rhymes start.
In the first verse of the song, Jay describes living in an eternal, celestial rap video, as if Heaven gets shown late nights on BET. In this life “like the video,” “the sun is always out and you never get old” and there’s always cold champagne and good loud music and “pretty girls who stop by in the hood” and sit their pretty asses “up on the hood of a pretty ass car” but who never wrinkle even a little, because “there’s no tomorrow,” there is only friendship and love and communion (“smoking weed, drinking wine”), there is
“just some picture perfect day
that lasts a whole lifetime
and it never ends
cuz all we have to do is hit rewind”
In the second verse, his rhymes go double time and, if you weren’t convinced he was being serious yet, he starts straight-up invoking the Bible, a fairly rare reference for him, I think, with one exception. Here it might be good to remember the exception, that one of Jay’s nicknames is Young Hov, Hov being a part of another of his nicknames, Jay Hova, which is Jay’s personal, branded mutation of “Jehovah,” the old and archaic transliteration of the unutterable name of God in Hebrew. Jehovah’s Witnesses like, for example, the late Michael Jackson, translate the name Jehovah to mean “he who causes to become,” i.e. the ultimate creative force, the one who can make anything and everything; Genesis and not the one with Phil Collins, either. Thus, when Jay keeps talking about being forever young, it’s maybe instructive to think that he might not be saying “forever young” in the temporal sense of the word, he might be saying “forever Young,” i.e. forever Young Hov, forever Jay Hova, and therefore simply forever himself, forever a creator. As the second verse begins, he says, “Fear not when, fear not why / fear not much while we’re alive.” “Fear not die,” he goes on, because he personally knows he’ll be “alive for a million years, bye bye.” We quickly come to realize that now he’s not really describing being physically alive in his body, he’s describing his legacy as a hip hop God living on forever. His “name shall survive” through the darkest times of history by being “passed down to generations by debating up in barber shops.” He again invokes the oral tradition (“As the father passed the story down to his son’s ears”) and, at the end of this verse about how his artistic body can be preserved, his voice getting hoarse and running out of breath, he tells us,
“If you love me baby, this is how you let me know,
don’t ever let me go, that’s how you let me know, baby”
In other words, after the (literal or theoretical) death of the author, only the reader can keep his breath alive, only the listener can keep Jay’s voice springing eternal by keeping it springing eternal from speakers and headphones and stereos, at parties and on corners and through car windows, letting it vibrate through the air and live in that way. We keep his memory by keeping it in our memory, in our minds and on our iPods and hard drives, in our webbed consciousness.
Then, after a comparatively weak third verse which involves the transfiguration of certain luxury automobiles and other flashy miracles, Jay breaks out of his rhyme and asks us, finally, “Did you get the picture?” Then, a beat later, assuming that we didn’t get it, he says exactly what this song is all about to him, what it means. “I’m painting you a portrait / of young,” he tells us. The thing is, this portrait of the artist as a young man is of course being painted by the artist as an older man, all grown up and blown up and fully formed. It’s not the kind of portrait that a young man could do of himself because that kind of nostalgia doesn’t really exist for a young man, those feelings haven’t yet sprouted and risen. Jay doesn’t actually want to be temporally “forever young’ the way he says he does, in some magical realist sense, he doesn’t really want to go back in time to slinging bricks and living in the projects and running from the cops, I don’t think, he doesn’t want to lose the cars and the penthouses and the vacay homes and he doesn’t want to lose the respect, he doesn’t want to stop being the hip hop Sinatra, the older statesman who’s still on top of his game. What he really wants, instead, is to live forever, in body of his young self, maybe, or maybe just in spirit and in memory, and to do this while still having the all the mind and money and rhymes and fun that he’s made and lived over his lifetime and still continues to make and live now, as he speaks; he wants to be old and young at the same time, to be both simultaneously, to be eternal.
He can do just that because the song is allowing him do it, because the form of the music is making it possible. Just like in “Song Cry” on the original Blueprint, in the chorus of which he said, “I can’t feel it coming down my eyes / so I gotta make the song cry,” and the sampled strings wept all around his voice, a song in which the music allowed him to do something that he couldn’t do himself, in this song, the power of art is allowing Jay to time travel. “Forever Young” samples its beautiful synth pads (and the lyrics of its chorus) from, of course, the eighties song of the same name by Alphaville. This is important because a hip hop song which holds a sample within its body is music that is concretely in the past (the sample) and in the present (the rhymes) at the exact same time; it straddles dimensions and folds over the line of history, it rolls a joint from the papers of record. On “Forever Young,” the Alphaville sample is allowing Jay to trip back to when he was a young man coming up and everything was new and fresh, when it was actually fresh to say “fresh” and when hip hop was hip instead of just the norm, the status quo, but at the same time without him having to give up all the gains that he’s made in the present, without him having to stop loving his girl B, without him having to step down from his throne as the King of the Roc(k). It’s the best of both worlds because it is both worlds, simultaneously, because it’s existing in your head while you listen to the song. As Jay says in the first verse of the song, “forever young is in your mind” where there is neither “space nor time,” where anything can happen. In a recent interview with MTV, Jay said that the next album he’s working on (the one that will be released after The Blueprint 3) will be “the most experimental album he’s ever made.” Whether it’ll be a hip hop Ulysses or maybe just another sad Kingdom Come still remains to be seen, of course, but, well, that’s just it, it remains to be seen, we’ll get to see it (or hear it, rather); barring some unforeseen tragedy, this new musical kingdom of his will come in our lifetimes, maybe sometime very soon, and when it comes, we’ll once again allow Jay to please reintroduce himself, if only because he’s alive and we’re alive and we both want to make each other feel young again while being old, to be in the present the way we once were in the past, to do both at the same time.
The ocean that I’m looking out at right now from the beach is the one natural thing I know which is eternally in both the present and past tense the way that Jay describes being in “Forever Young”; it’s a sample that’s constantly sampling itself and being replayed. The ocean is as old as time and life and yet it’s also always being restructured and recycled and made anew. The parts evaporate and condense and rain down into the whole again; the waves are perpetually breaking in rhythm, with a certain form, and yet never in a million years the same way twice, always different somehow. I watch the breaks from my towel on the shore and they come again and again in beats, crash, crash, crash, like sampled cymbal hits in a hip hop song. At some point, when I’m so hot I just take it anymore, I get up from my towel and run towards the surf, past the little kids collecting shells and building sandcastles; I get to the water and dive in and swim through the breaks and the crashes until I find that I can’t put my feet down anymore, until I’m in deep, and then I stop and float there in the water, hanging in slow motion, pushing against the tide with lazy, playful strokes of my arms and legs, in my reverie half-remembering flashes of faces I once saw and and movies of moments I once lived and fragments of the songs I’ve heard since I was a child.
Nah, not really, I’m just swimming, motherfucker. This is not about cultural amnesia (what, had you already forgotten where we started? “All rhymers with Alzheimer’s line up, please / see if I can kill your amnesia by the time I leave”), but lets rewind back to that for a second, anyway. At the end of his book’s preface, discussing the everlasting importance of memory and thought, Clive James writes,
“We could, if we wished, do without remembering and gain all the advantages of traveling light, but a deep instinct, not very different from love, reminds us that efficiency would be bought at the cost of emptiness. Finally the reason we go on thinking is because of a feeling. We have to keep that feeling pure if we can, and, if we ever lose it, try to get it back.”
If you ever lose it, if you ever forget, you have to try to get it back, the feeling, and keep it pure, make it like it once was. Sometimes it seems hard but there are a lot of ways to do it and this is one of them, this album, this song, a way to feel young. I’m painting you a portrait.
September 4, 2009
As the Senator from Massachusetts was memorialized in front of family and friends and presidents and representatives and lots of cameras and therefore probably also millions of ordinary, regular people around the country watching at home, I started reading a book because there was nothing good on TV. I mean, there was the coverage of the memorial, of course, but it seemed to me like the coverage of the memorial had been going on for days and days already and I just couldn’t really make myself watch any more of it, I was by this point pretty tired of hearing about the Senator and his life and work; no matter how great he might have been and what he might have represented when he was alive, my feeling was he was dead, okay, he was gone, so let him die, let him go, please return to regularly scheduled programming. I liked and agreed with his liberal voting record; I thought the cultural myth of his family was fascinating; I hoped that the force of his memory in the political consciousness would be enough to help push through real, good healthcare reform, I felt all of these things, sure, it was just that I personally didn’t want to hear about any of it anymore, it was enough already. When we tuned in on Saturday evening, while dinner simmered on the stove, the (physical) memorial was just ending. “It’s pretty clever of them to time it like that, with the news,” my dad said. Amid the live coverage of the post-memorial events, a video package was repeated over and over again which featured the requisite soundbites from the eulogies given by President Obama and a cute little blond girl and the Senator’s son who has one leg and who the Senator helped up an icy hill once when he was a child, all of this interspersed with shots of the big casket draped in white cloth center stage. When the video package wasn’t playing, Brian Williams was seemingly reporting from inside some sort of boat or something, with big geometric windows behind him overlooking the sea and the sunset. On MSNBC, there was a roundtable with Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews and maybe some other guys, I’m not sure, and they were having a real old school bull session replete with all the wistful, sepia-toned inside baseball kind of stuff that you would expect; as the hearse rolled along past onlookers and monuments, Chris Matthews told us all a story about how Jimmy Breslin had interviewed John F. Kennedy’s gravediggers instead of covering the funeral story in the normal way like all the other reporters did. That’s real journalism, he said, that stuff, he said, as he sat in an air-conditioned studio and watched the hearse move through the streets like all the rest us of at home.
I was tired of this news crap myself so I picked up a novel from the bookshelf in my bedroom and sat down on the couch and opened it. My dad was on his laptop writing an e-mail to a friend and half-watching; across the living room from us, the screen continued to show the telephoto procession of the big black hearse’s trip through the city, the scene filmed from rooftops and cranes and helicopters hovering carefully in the air above everyone. I turned down the volume on the TV (to just turn it off altogether seemed wrong and besides is not something we really do in my family’s home as a matter of principle), opened my book, and began to read. The first chapter of the book began with the first person narrator making some vague statements to us that don’t make any sense when we read them but will obviously become VERY IMPORTANT in retrospect; this is the MYSTERY of reading the novel. “When you’ve been involved in something like this, no matter how long ago it happened,” the first line of the book goes, “no matter how long it’s been absent from the news, you’re fated, nonetheless, to search it out.” We readers don’t yet know what “it” is and we won’t for some time, but we learn fairly quickly and efficiently that our narrator is a higher-up at a local daily newspaper in the Northeast, the “Speaker-Sentinel,” something he is eager to tell us about in his thoughtful and self-serious way: “We’re the last of the local dailies not to have sold to McClatchy or Gannett or Murdoch, and though we recently stopped publishing on Sundays we still put out a very good morning edition the other six days of the week, a paper that we write ourselves and have for a hundred ten years. Though I suspect that it too is coming to an end.”
In between vague ruminations on life, the universe, and everything (“if children don’t make you see things differently–first bringing them into the world and them watching them go out into it–then God help you”) and notes on the death of newspapers (“we like to send our own people on stories, even if the wire services have us bound and tied”), the narrator sets the scene for us. It’s a “Saturday in late September…a heat wave had killed lawns all across the state and the smell of rotting apples was drifting up from the meadow.” In this heat, “crowded beneath the shade of the great bur oaks,” a great number of people are gathered for a funeral, “probably six hundred people at the morning eulogy…at least a thousand at the burial, which was open to the public.” The funeral, it turns out, is for Senator Henry Bonwiller, “the greatest liberal member of the United States Senate since Sam Rayburn and a defender of all the causes that poor people and working people and unions have ever embraced.” This is a big media event; the narrator notes that “The New York Times gave the news an above-the-fold headline on page one and a three-column jump in the obituaries…The Boston Globe ran an editorial in the right-hand front column, under ‘The Country Mourns,’ and ended with ‘this is the close of a more beneficient era.'”
After the funeral ends and almost everyone has left the cemetery, the narrator, who has some mysterious connection to Henry Bonwiller which will not be explained explicitly for a couple of hundred pages yet but which you will probably put together anyway way before that (hint: it involves the shadowy car-accident death of a young woman named “JoEllen Charney”), sticks around. He stands there and watches as the grave diggers go about the ritual of the burial, just like Jimmy Breslin did when JFK was buried. “Even when they’re burying a senator, grave diggers swear and spit and ash their cigarettes onto the grass,” he tells us. I read this line and looked up from my book at the TV and saw the hearse continuing to slip in slow motion through the empty streets of Boston, heard Matthews and Olbermann intoning about how the Senator’s death represented the end of an era; I looked down and read about the burial of this fictional Senator who “was a complicated man, to say the least,” but “a man who, if certain chips of fate had fallen certain other ways, might once have been president of the United States.” I looked up, I looked down, I didn’t know where to look.
This is not some forced coincidence I’ve created here, I swear to you and God and anybody else, I’ll swear on a Bible like a real life elected official if you want, I am not inventing this scene for the sake of literature or because it neatly ties together disparate fragments of experience in order to create meaning and form, this is just literally what happened to me on Saturday evening (I know, I’m a real party animal), I was watching the memorial of Ted Kennedy and then, completely by chance, I started to read a novel about a character modeled very closely on Ted Kennedy, a novel which begins with a description of his funeral, a fictional version of the same funeral I was still half watching in real life at the same time. I guess if I want to make you believe something unbelievable like that, I should explain the circumstances surrounding it, that’s what’ll make you trust me, right? Well, I didn’t pick up the novel for some kind of ready-made resonance or so I could write something like this or even because I wanted to read it in particular, I just picked it up because I didn’t really have anything else to read and I wanted to read something so I could stop watching the funeral on TV. I didn’t have any new books of my own to read at the time, I don’t have the money to buy any but the really important ones, but luckily there were still a few galleys that I hadn’t looked at on the shelf in the bedroom and so that’s where I went. When I was in high school and college, my mother worked at a small bookstore in order to help our family make ends meet and the real bonus of this particular job was that, because of the beneficence of her boss, the two of us were allowed to bring home as many galleys and Advanced Reader’s Copies as we wanted. We carried piles of these books home every couple weeks in big paper grocery bags; the cost of the amount of literature we consumed in this way over the years would probably easily total in the thousands of dollars if tabulated accurately. This was how that I became acquainted with some of my favorite authors and books, since books, especially new books, were so expensive and my family had plenty of other things to spend our money on. My mother hasn’t worked at the bookstore for about a year and a half, but we still have a small cache of galleys and Advance Reader’s Copies on a shelf in my bedroom and though they’re old and therefore “advanced” in a different way than they were before, they still yield certain pleasures, if only the pleasures of reading something new without having to buy it. One of these galleys on the shelf is and has been for a while America, America, a story about the impact of politics and money on a young boy’s life in the nineteen seventies which was written by Ethan Canin and released by Random House in the summer of 2008, just after it was announced that Ted Kennedy had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Since moving back in with my parents earlier this year, I had seen America, America there on the shelf in the bedroom many times, but had never been interested in reading it until Saturday evening, when I started reading it for whatever reason, probably just because I’d read almost all the other books on the shelf and, like I said, I needed something to read, the way you might need a beer or a sandwich or a hot shower. The back cover of the book says “These are uncorrected proofs. Please do not quote for publication until you check your copy against the finished book.” Oops.
In July, I got this e-mail from a former student of mine who I hadn’t talked to to since I left the the country where I taught him last year. When I left them last year, I gave all of my students my e-mail address so they could write to me if they wanted to; none of them ever did besides this kid. I was not at all hurt or offended by the fact that they didn’t write me, although I guess I can see where a more sentimental or emotional person might have been. It’s hard to take it personally, though. My students, even the youngest ones, were overworked and busy to the extreme and this was not a thing which was probably ever going to change for the better in their lives but only get worse until they graduated, so however they might have felt about me and however they might have cried and hugged me and said they would miss me the day I left, and however much they might’ve wanted to write me, they simply wouldn’t have the time to do so and in fact probably already their memories of me have receded into dark and unused corners of their mental space, the same way my memories of most of them have. This is all perfectly fine, of course, it’s just a natural process of aging and growing up; you move on, you forget things and people which were once a part of your life. Besides, I know that I’ve never written any of my old teachers, even teachers who meant a lot to me, unless there was some occasion where I needed something from them, when I had some concrete purpose for writing them. There’s something gross about that which has always made me uncomfortable and yet I’ve never done anything about it. Anyway, here is the e-mail that my student sent me:
I thought the e-mail was pretty funny and adorable and I was happy to do this small favor for him (the speech was only two paragraphs long), so I quickly edited the text and sent it back his way and completely forgot about him again for a while. A little over a month later, the student sent me another e-mail requesting another edit of another Model UN speech, the message in the same cute, funny voice. This time, maybe because the speech was longer or maybe because I was doing it for the second time or for whatever reason, I thought about it a little more, whether it was really right for me to be doing this, whether I should continue to help him. When I had been a teacher, I had done things like this for my students all the time, things which fell in the gray area between “helping them do it themselves” and “doing it for them,” but the practical fact that it was my job to do such things then and that I would have been fired if I hadn’t done them helped me not think too hard about the ethics or morality of my situation (also, back then I almost always did this kind of “editing” in the same room with the student sitting beside me and participating so there was at least the pretext of “teaching” to the situation). On the first day of my job at the academy where I taught, I was asked to “edit” the applications to elite prep schools in New York and Connecticut for another student, the son of the CEO of a large alternative energy company, I soon realized based on the kid’s English ability that “edit” basically meant “ghostwrite”; I had a twinge of guilt about doing this (not only for myself, but for this kid I was sending to a foreign school he was probably not prepared for) but again, I had to do it because if I hadn’t, I would’ve been out on my ass in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language or have any money. Now, though, I was wondering whether it was right or fair for me to be helping this kid do something that he was supposed to do himself when nobody was forcing me to do so. The student was never one of the most devoted or hard-working kids I taught and, at the fantasy model UN I saw in my head, I imagined his speech beating the speech some other kid, some smart kid who had spent a lot of time and worked really hard to write a good speech but didn’t have anyone to help him do it because his parents couldn’t afford that kind of help. That didn’t seem right.
But. you know, fuck it, whatever, how could I say no to someone who put an ellipsis in the middle of “desperate” and coined the word “thankness” and spelled my name incorrectly in a letter asking me for help? When I taught this student, it wasn’t a normal class but a private test prep lesson that he took with this other girl his age (eighth grade) several times a week. His name was Min Woong and her name was Min Ji and they looked maybe a little alike and I, for some reason or another, could not for the life of me remember which one was which at first, I just couldn’t get their names right. These names are comparatively easy to pronounce compared to some of the others I had to learn to try to say, but even though I could say the names, I couldn’t manage to attach to them to the correct person. After a couple of sessions worth of awkward stumbling around this subject by me (“Okay, now you…no, you, you), the two students graciously offered, as many foreign students with stupid and underqualifed American teachers do, to go by English names in class. Min Woong thus became “Superkiller” (his online gaming tag) and Minji became “Hermione” (her favorite Harry Potter character). This was much easier for me to keep straight, for obvious reasons. “Superkiller,” I would say, “please listen and then respond to the prompt about Michelangelo.” He would listen to the prompt and then begin: “The sixteen chapel is a beautiful art in Italy. It has many big pictures…”
All this is to say that I couldn’t really turn Min Woong down, whatever my ethical qualms, and so I started to edit the speech for him. As I went through it, basically restructuring every single sentence, I found that my problem wasn’t ethics or morality, it was something else entirely. My problem was The West Wing.
At the time when I got Min Woong’s e-mail, I had been having a lot of anxiety attacks (really, more like one long, chronic anxiety attack) which made me feel, among other things, like I couldn’t breathe, and the bad feelings that I was having were often the worst when I was trying to go to sleep at night. One of the things I would do at night if I felt so bad about the progress of my breathing that I couldn’t go to sleep was listen to episodes of The West Wing, a show that I hadn’t watched when it first aired but had consumed in the manner of an addict for two hours a day every day on Bravo the summer after my sophomore year of college. I hadn’t seen or thought about The West Wing much since then but when I came across it by chance this summer, I was reminded of how good it had been and soon began watching an episode every night before I went to sleep, a process which soon became just listening and not watching. This is because, despite the directorial chops of one Thomas Schlamme and the, you know, acting of the actors on the show and everything, once you know what the characters look like, The West Wing functions perfectly fine as a radio play, probably as well as it does as a television show if not better. It’s all about the dialogue, of course, that rapid fire Aaron Sorkin back-and-forth which is like, I don’t know, if every tennis match was the Wimbledon Final. The dialogue is so freakishly perfect and sure of itself and so completely alien to the dirtiness and ugliness and just plumb dumbness of most real world talk that you and I do every day that it’s comforting and soothing in some way; you always know that whatever bad things may happen in the episode you’re watching that nothing will really go wrong where it counts, that all conversation will be free of doubt or fear or the possibility of even a single flub or misstep, that the words will sparkle and dance.
My problem with editing this kid’s Model UN speech after listening all these episodes of The West Wing was that I was making it really, really good, like a million times better than even what I (a native English speaker) could have done when I was his age. Besides grammatical errors, the kid had made some ridiculous points and absurd leaps of logic (basically his thesis was that his success as an individual would completely and totally make or break the success of the entire country where he lived) but I cleaned all these up and added idioms and rhetorical feints, glossed it up so much that even the stupid parts sounded smart. After I finished my edit and read over the thing, I was so proud of myself and what I had done to his words, how I had made them right and strong. I felt filled with energy and light and power, like I could do anything, I felt the way that characters on The West Wing look after they do something serious and important with words and rhetoric and language and they stand there smiling silently at one another as orchestral strings swell around them playing that familiar, faux-patriotic theme music. I felt so good. Then, just before I sent the edited speech back to Min Woong along with a note wishing him luck in Seoul, I realized that if he read the speech I had given him in front of the Model UN that there was no possible way that anybody would ever believe he had written it, that even if somebody did they would realize he hadn’t after about a minute, that I had gone too far. I went back over the original draft of the speech and quickly edited it again, this time just for grammar and basic usage stuff, and then sent it back to him along with a few suggestions about how he might improve it.
How much do you forgive a book its faults before you give up on it, where do you draw the line? Also, how do you decide which of these faults are problems with the book and which faults are actually yours as a reader? I’m on page 364 of America, America and it hasn’t really been smooth sailing between the two of us, not by a long shot, but I’m not quite sure who to blame or what the answers to these questions are. It’s a book that annoys me in so many ways and yet I keep reading it, page after page. The basic structure of the thing is that there are two narratives; the present day story in which the old newspaper man narrator muses on family and life and culture and then the historical narrative of his coming of age in the nineteen seventies amid cultural change and political intrigue. The main problem with this structure is that there is absolutely no plot or drama or anything really to the present day narrative at all and the two characters who inhabit it are completely infuriating and annoying; the narrator is obsessed with CHANGE AND TIME PASSING AND THE DEATH OF THE OLD WAYS, which in his mind mostly manifests itself in tedious and painfully serious discourses on things like how people don’t have farms anymore (“Our poor dike-building settlers at the turn of the eighteenth century thought they’d find a miracle soil. There was even a land rush. Muck farming, they called it…”) and how old brands and stores have been replaced by new brands and stores (“And that was the beginning of the way things have turned out now, with our Crate & Barrel and our Lowe’s and the news of an Ikea opening by spring”…”Although dusters have become a status item around here lately–you see them in plenty of Toyota Highlanders parked at the upscale malls–they’re also as utilitarian a piece of clothing as has ever been stitched by man”). The narrator, over the course of his monologue, gently pelts us with various well-worn homilies and vague platitudes about what he has come to learn about FAMILY and PARENTING but never actually explicitly describes or shows in scene the sacred and beautiful children he has learned these LESSONS from or how he has learned them outside of one (actually pretty good) scene two-thirds of the way through the book. The other character in the present day story, not even worth mentioning by name, is a plucky pseudo-hippie autodidact who infuriatingly overuses the word “sir” (which I think is supposed to make us like her?) and spends almost all of her time engaging in these painfully unfunny faux-screwball expository dialogues with the narrator. Here is a fragment of the illuminating scene in which he describes to her the difference between the old ways of reporting the news and the new ways of reporting the news:
“Things were different then, Trieste. There were no computers. There was no Internet and no e-mail. Reporters used the phone. And teletypes. I don’t know if your generation understands that. I don’t know if your generation even knows what a teletype is.”
“Of course we do. Or I do.”
“Then you’re unusual.” I went to the window, where the rain glittered in the streetlamps. “Editors felt they had to verify stories,” I said, looking out into the dusk. “Before they ran. There was a whole filtering process. Interviews. Witnesses. Checks. Rechecks. And the question–is this relevant? Is this news? It was still asked.” I turned back to her. “Believe it or not.”
“You don’t think it was relevant?”
“Of course it was relevant. But in those days all the papers had their own reporters. Not just the Times. They sent them out to do their own stories. It took a combined effort. And a combined effort takes time.”
She buttoned the duster and pulled the collar up around her neck. “So that’s what you think it was, Mr. Sifter?” she said finally. “Editors checking their own reporters’ sources?”
“As I said, Trieste–there was no Internet then. No Matt Drudge. No Daily Kos. No Andrew Sullivan. No blog-world.”
“Blogosphere, Mr. Sifter.”
The other narrative, the story of the 1970’s, is a lot better than all this but is still wracked with annoying tics and flaws. There are the standard Boomer historical fiction problems, like the annoying need to constantly reassert where we are in the timeline by using needle drops of old pop songs and clichéd newsreel images as historical markers (one of a number of chapter openings using this technique begins: “1972 was a year of change for the Democrats. The Chicago convention in 1968 had left bitter memories. Mayor Daley’s cops swinging truncheons in the crowds National Guardsmen pointing grenade launchers off the Congress Street Bridge…”) But more than this, as the narrative progresses and the story holds more and more things, there is just the general sense that this is a book that is describing unreal people in an unreal world, however much at the same time the resonances of the story with Ted Kennedy’s life push the narrative up against fact and imbue it with stolen authenticity. Of course, my beloved West Wing (to break down for a moment the thin walls between the fragments of this essay) is pretty damned unrealistic and ridiculously earnest and over-sincere, too, but Ethan Canin just doesn’t seem to be able to muster enough authority to make me believe in these people in his novel the way I believe in the characters on that show. There is a patently absurd scene fairly early on in which the young working class narrator and the patrician industrialist who has taken a shine to him go out together and shovel a path through deep snow in the twilight and, as they do, the old man describes for several hours (!) the history and philosophy and major quotations associated with each and every single president, a scene that even Aaron Sorkin at his very best could not hope to render plausibly, much less powerfully. There is also this incredibly broadly painted salty old journo named Glenn Burrant who calls people “kid” and drinks a lot of brown liquor and in one moment in one scene completely changes the entire trajectory of the young narrator’s life by suggesting that he…wait for it…hold on…read a newspaper. One reviewer who was generally positive about the book still noted that the main story is “steeped in an elegiac nostalgia for a lost innocence that never was.” Even as an optimistic and hopeful person who generally and genuinely wants to believe the best in everyone, including politicians (however impossibly hard most of them they may make it for me to do so), the way these people talk and think and behave often seems completely ridiculous, and though I think this is a book that is probably written for an audience older than me, I doubt that many of them would find it particularly true, either.
Yet even after I have described all of these problems that I have with it, I still keep reading the book, and as I keep reading, I worry more and more that the real problem is not the book at all, it’s me. I’m scared that I’ve lost something and I don’t know how to feel right about a book anymore, that I can’t give myself over to a story the way I once might have been able to, before I had read so much and so deeply and become so jaded and demanding about what literature was supposed to give me, what I wanted from it. America, America is not a great American novel by any stretch of the imagination, I don’t think, but it’s still at least a fairly good one born of the sort of ambition and passion which probably should be rewarded, if not with money or critical accolades then at least with the movement of eyes over its pages, and yet I can’t imagine recommending it to anyone or telling them they should read it, it’s just not a thing I would do. My personal model for the great American novel is probably Underworld, which is a book that I don’t think is any less serious or earnest or concerned with CHANGE AND TIME PASSING AND THE DEATH OF THE OLD WAYS than America, America. Underworld, though, is full to bursting with the kind of word magic and poetic beauty that Ethan Canin in this book I’m reading now can never really seem to create for me, though not for lack of trying; in a scene late in the novel which I have to read as (perhaps unconsciously) meta, the old narrator tells us that, though he has always worked really, really hard and tried to learn as much he could, he doesn’t have and hasn’t had and never will have the kind of true genius and brilliance that the young intern who he is mentoring already seems to possess. All this said, Underworld is a novel which, despite being very readable and not particularly “difficult” in the way that other “big books” can be, was still so frustrating at times that it took me like three tries over as many years to actually read the whole thing, whereas right now I’m finishing America, America in just a few days, quickly turning through page after page to get to the end. These two books I’ve chosen share a fair amount of things in common — both try to tell a big, serious American story using cinematic techniques and multiple voices and point of views and jumps back and forth through decades of time — but they’re also different in just as many ways. When America, America came out, Heller McAlpin wrote, in the Los Angeles Times
“It’s refreshing — and almost quaint — to see someone try to write a Great American Novel in the 21st century. These days, writers are more apt to pursue the Great American Screenplay or the Not-So-Great American Ironic, Postmodern Fiction. But Ethan Canin’s sixth book, with its flag-waving title, America America, is a big, ambitious, old-fashioned, quintessentially American novel about politics, power, ambition, class, ethics and loyalty.”
These categories are obviously absurd but even in their absurdity contain at least some truth, I think, just Ethan Canin’s book contains some things which make it worth reading. A few hundred pages into America, America there is a letter from a mother who knows she is dying to her son who is far away from her at boarding school, a letter which is one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful things I think I’ve ever read in my entire life; I literally kind of wish I hadn’t read it at all if only because of the wave of sadness that is washing over my heart right now just thinking of it is still almost too much for me (the fact that there is a patently stupid scene later on in which the narrator has an imaginary conversation with his dead mother about ironing does not even really diminish the power of the letter, that’s how good it is). Underworld, though it offers so very many emotional and aesthetic and sensual pleasures, though I think it is in many ways the “best” book I’ve ever read, never once hit me in the gut as hard as that letter did, I don’t think, even as DeLillo’s prose was crackling with electricity and fire and singing impossible songs right into my ear.
Really, though, I don’t want to keep talking about which novel is “better” or more worthwhile or get into any kind of status/contract or language/story debate or anything, because it’s a lot more complicated than that but also because I don’t care about that shit, what I care about really is me and how I can’t seem to read the way I used to, how I can’t seem to feel fully the force of words and literature the way I once did. America, America is the first book I’ve read in a while that’s really made me feel (if only in bits and pieces) anything like I used to feel about reading when I was younger and yet, as I read it and feel things because of it, I can’t stop my brain from thinking what a weak book it is and how many bad and ugly choices it’s filled with. I just can’t seem to read it right, I can’t stop seeing the flaws, I can’t put on my blinders. Inside of me, I feel this abstract and mysterious and yet very real loss of my ability to read the way I want to read and feel the way I want to feel and I don’t know where to lay the blame for this, if blame can even be laid, whether it’s the hardening of age and experience or the influence of the Internet on my attention span or if I’ve read too much or not enough, I don’t know what it is that’s keeping me from really and truly reading a book the way I feel it deserves to be read, the way I used to be able to. I don’t know what the problem is, I really don’t, but I just feel this deep loss as a reader because of it and the fucked up thing is I’m finding I can only describe it to you in vague generalities and abstractions cut together in cinematic fragments, that I can only talk about it in the way that the annoying, self-important narrator of this book I’m reading about America keeps doing. I keep feeling like I am him but him is not the he who I want to be inside and, like, what I do about this, do I embrace his ugly language because it comforts me and holds me or do I criticize it because I know that somehow it could be better, that I could be better, and how do I resolve this paradox? I don’t know so I keep reading or at least trying to.
When I was teaching literature and composition in another country, one of my favorite lessons to teach was about Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric, or at least a very basic version of what I thought that I knew about Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric which was mostly based on a paragraph in David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” and a section in a college English textbook I was cribbing lessons and photocopying stuff out of and some various other crap I had Googled and thrown together. On our whiteboard, in fading blue marker, I described the logical appeal, the ethical appeal, and the emotional appeal, these different ways of trying to convince your audience to agree with you or support you or believe what you believe. After this short lecture, in order to make these abstract and theoretical ideals more concrete and also in order to show my students how pervasive this stuff is in every form of speech and writing, how all utterance involved rhetoric in some way, I did an exercise in which the students had to try to convince their mother to give them more pocket money using only the logical appeal (“I’ve done a scientific study of the amount of pocket money that all my classmates receive by interviewing a group of my friends and I’ve figured out that I get 18.3% less money than anyone I know. That doesn’t seem very fair and equitable to me, does it seem that way to you, Mom?”), the ethical appeal (“I just feel like I’ve been working really hard around the house, Mom, you know that, you’ve seen me helping clean up in the kitchen and stuff, and, well, my grades are really good, of course, I’ve been doing extra violin practice every day, and I just feel like I’ve really been trying hard to be a good son to you and dad and I was wondering if you might be able to give me a little more allowance”), and the emotional appeal (“What? Oh, I’m fine, I’m just a little sad today, I guess. Why? Well, I went out to lunch with my friends today and everybody ordered their food and everything, but, um, I didn’t have enough money for anything so I just kind of sat there and watched them as they ate, it was just kind of depressing and I was really hungry and wished that I could eat with them, too.”)
“Why don’t you tell the truth to her?” I remember a student asking me after we did this exercise once. “Why don’t you only say the truth?” she asked again, pushing her glasses up on the brim of her nose. She looked confused.
“Yes, you should tell the truth” I said, “you are telling the truth, but the question is how will you tell it to her, how will you say it, what can the truth get you?”
To tell you the truth, actually, this little exchange I just described may not have really happened in so many words, I may be embellishing some event that actually did happen or I may, you know, have just invented it right here our of nowhere for the purpose of this thing, to express an issue I feel inside about rhetoric and the truth, about the invisible line between the use and abuse of language, I may have just invented it, but I guess felt like I’d built up enough credibility with you so far by telling you all these true things I already told you about that you would believe me even when I wasn’t telling the truth and now as I tell you about all this stuff and reveal that I wasn’t telling the truth I’m rebuilding that credibility again, like, you know, that lie wasn’t even really a lie, no, it was a private joke between us, it only existed to bring us together (hopefully), not to tear us apart.
After our class exercise in rhetoric, we would always watch one of two videos as a demonstration of political rhetoric, sometimes both, this distinction depending on if I had a headache or if my students were talkative and participating a lot that day or if there was a much time left before the bell rang. Since I was teaching this class in 2008, one video was always one of Barack Obama’s big campaign speeches. At the time, I was very excited about Barack Obama, as excited as someone as generally apolitical and jaded as I am can be, and I think I managed to communicate some of this excitement to my students as I described the various ways he was trying to sculpt the truth and manipulate them with his words, the way he used his language to make his points and create feelings. My students were generally interested in Barack Obama and attentive to his speeches, maybe because he was all over the news they were forced to read and write about every day for homework or perhaps only as a response to my interest in him, to be good students. Personally, watching those speeches now that the heat of the moment is over, I’ve come to feel that Obama, though he is a very good speaker, is not really a great one, and I think I was more in love with what he represented to me than what he actually said or how he said it (I still sometimes feel this way). In class, we would kind of watch part of one of his speeches but we wouldn’t really talk about it in and of itself, we would talk about the campaign and policy and American culture. This might not have been the best lesson in the world or anything, but to the students I’m sure it was better than reading some boring old book about rhetoric, at least.
The other video we watched was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. When I first started teaching this lesson, I would always preface the viewing of the “I Have A Dream” speech (or occasional readings of “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”) by saying something like “I know you’re probably tired of hearing about Martin Luther King, but you know what, he’s important and so we’re going to watch this video anyway.” This was, of course, a rhetorical feint (here, take this medicine, yeah, I know it doesn’t taste good, but you need it), but it also expressed basically how I felt about Martin Luther King, how when I was a child in school I kind of felt like he was force-fed to me year after year and I had had too much of him and I didn’t really need anything he had to offer anymore; I felt like he was kind of used up and gone, that his aura had dissipated. I’m not saying that MLK was useless or unimportant, of course, I’m just saying that when I was growing up and learning about a very simplistic image of him that he didn’t seem to have anything to offer me, which was fine, maybe I wasn’t the person he was supposed to offer things to anyway. There is some pithy and aphoristic saying about education about how if a teacher calls something a “classic” that immediately students want nothing to do with it (I don’t know the actual saying) and this is basically how I have always felt about Martin Luther King, that, yes, he was important and that, no, I didn’t care.
But now I was the teacher and it was my job to teach the classics and try to make them interesting and important and so I was doing it the best I could (it turned out that all the students in the country where I was teaching had had no real exposure to MLK , so they weren’t all burnt out like I was). The way we watched the “I Have a Dream” speech was projected onto the whiteboard at the front of the class by an overhead projector hanging from the ceiling and connected via a wire that ran along the wall to my computer. Before class, I had pre-buffered the speech on Youtube and so, when I told her to, the student closest to the door would go over and turn off the light and then we would all sit there in the dark together, in the glow of the white screen, and I would press play, instantly animating the black and white image hanging above us.
As the speech went on, I would occasionally pause the video and offer whatever knowledge and understanding I had to my students. “This is an extended metaphor,” I would say, freezing the big face stretched across the screen as my students underlined or highlighted the sentence in the written text they were following along with. “This is alliteration.” “This is Shakespeare, this is from the Bible, this is an old song.” “This is repetition, this is a poetic image.” “This is the logical appeal, this the ethical appeal, this is the emotional appeal.” “This is a shift into a new idea, this is a change in tone.” “This is beautiful.” I would say all these things and not just in the stark and detached way that I’m saying them to you now, I would explain them to the kids in plain and simple language they could understand, would talk about how an image made a stronger feeling than a statement, how the cadence and melody of the voice rose and fell and with their trajectory underlined words and phrases with pauses and stress, how the repetition worked like a chorus in your favorite song, how you just wanted to keep hearing the chorus over and over again, I would say all these things, I would explicate and annotate every word and phrase I could. I would say all these things to the kids and try to teach them what I thought I understood, try to reach them somehow, but eventually I would get to a point where I wouldn’t be saying anything at all anymore, where I would just be sitting there at my desk like all the other students at their desks, sitting there in the dark and watching and listening to something I could believe in.
August 28, 2009
This is a song I finished recording last night called “Pale Fire.” I’ve had most of the instrumental elements of it sitting around for a while, looping themselves along, but I just couldn’t figure out any lyrics for the life of me. I finally decided that, as usual, I needed some kind of device to help me actually “write,” so what I decided was I was going to do was make the lyrics be solely from the titles on The Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list and so try to make like a standard indie rock love song but one which was a collage completely composed of these titles of important old books. As it turns out, this is actually kind of a really, really difficult thing to do, so after expanding my list to include the Time 100 and “composing” some torturous “verses” like “It’s An American Tragedy / that you won’t fall in love with me” and “We’re in the Tropic of Cancer, you’re a capricorn / let’s go To The Lighthouse and eat buttered corn,” I basically gave up on that shit and just scrawled out another pseudo-ironic song about not being able to express myself adequately. At this point, I have basically done a kind of indie rock Exercices de Style of songs about not being able to express myself adequately (witness: bricolage, lipogram, the Artist’s Way, cool love, and meta-summer-jam; there are others). The only things that remain in this version from the original concept are the chorus (which invokes Play It As It Lays, The Remains of the Day, Tender Is The Night, Heart of Darkness, as well as Pale Fire) and the half-whispered breakdown.
I’ve never actually read Pale Fire, just in case you think I’m getting too smarty-arty or fancy pants or whatever (somewhat embarrassingly, I realize actually haven’t read any of the books that I shout out in the chorus, although I think I skimmed the Sparknotes of Heart of Darkness for AP English). When I lived in Korea, I had a real problem with finding books; there was only one bookstore in my city with a decent English language section and this selection was “decent” at best. People who read English language writing in Korea apparently really love Paulo Coehlo, in addition to approximately one billion books on Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Warren Buffett and success in business. There was the occasional surprise and I was forced to read classics which I might never have enjoyed otherwise, but mostly buying books there was kind of a bust. So what I ended up doing was listening to a lot of audiobooks I downloaded off the internet; I listened to The Trial and The Castle, I listened to On Beauty, I listened to My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, I listened to No Country For Old Men, as well as many others (to be servicey for a second, the only decent blog for bootleg audiobooks is Audiobook Corner; although their selection is way too fantasy/sci-fi for my taste, they occasionally have something lovely or just weird. The best place I’ve found is The Pirate Bay, where you can get stuff like Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce or a valu-pack of Orlando and To The Ligthouse as well as a lot of more contemporary and popular stuff. If you are more legally inclined and moral (good for you!), Audible always has some introductory offer where they will give you a book or two for free if you cancel before the trial period’s over). Anyway, my favorite audiobook I’ve ever listened to is Jeremy Irons’ reading of Lolita. Early last fall in Korea, when I was working evenings, I was into this routine where every morning I would get up at eight o’ clock and hike along this quiet two-lane road through these rolling and twisting verdant and sun-dappled hills for 45 minutes to get to this little local beach where I would usually be the only person around and then, after having run and swum and tanned there for a while, I would hike back for 45 minutes. Along the way, I listened to Lolita, which was one of the better reading (er, listening) experiences I’ve ever had.
Though I haven’t read Pale Fire, earlier this summer, having loved Lolita so much last summer, I tried to read Ada. This was an experience that was at first extremely frustrating (the information overload of the first thirty pages), then somewhat pleasurable (getting used to the language play and kind of beginning to enjoy it), then extremely pleasurable (the beautiful imagery and metaphor used to detail Van and Ada’s time together), then kind of whatever (progression and extrapolation of narrative), then kind of frustrating again (weird science fiction elements and plot meandering), then incredibly frustrating (just insanely punny and dense paragraphs for seemingly no reason at all) and then I gave up and read a Tom Perotta novel, I think. Writing this, I just dug my Ada out of the bottom of my laundry basket, where I hid it because I was mad at it, and I see that I have marked the exact paragraph where I gave up on the book; it’s this one, from page 379:
“–I got stuck with six Buchstaben in the last round of a Flavita game. Mind you, I was eight and had not studied anatomy, but was doing my poor little best to keep up with two Wunderkinder. You examined and fingered my groove, and quickly redistributed the haphazard sequence which made, say, LIKROT or ROTIKL and Ada flooded us both with her raven silks as she looked over our heads, and when you had completed the rearrangement, you and she came simultaneously, si je puis le mettre comme ça(Canady French), came falling on the black carpet in a paroxysm of incomprehensible merriment; so finally I quietly composed ROTIK (“little mouth”) and was left with my own cheap initial. I hope I’ve thoroughly got you mixed up, Van, because la plus laide fille du monde puet donner beaucoup plus qu’elle n’a, and now let us say adieu, yours ever.”
So, um, yeah, that is a really complicated way to describe little kids having sex! This thing I did right here, my “Pale Fire,” is just, like, a rock song, you know, with guitars and drums and stuff, it’s not really all that complicated, despite whatever meta-underpinnings may be present. It’s too trebly and overdriven, like a Times New Viking outtake or something, but I printed the effects when I recorded so there wasn’t much I could do about it besides try to soften things up after the fact with reverb and EQ. I watched Miley Cyrus on the Today Show this morning and I would say she rocked about 35% harder than this song, which, you know, good for her! In her interview with Natalie in the Plaza, Miley said she is going in an “edgier, darker rock” direction on her next record, so maybe I will head the other way, just to stay competitive.
August 27, 2009
Today while I was eating lunch, I finally read Michael Pollan’s New York Times Magazine essay “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” which I think probably everybody who cares about it at all has already read and talked and forgotten about by now, but whatever, I’m behind on things lately. I will just start by saying that I am not predisposed to like Michael Pollan very much; in fact, I kind of sort of really hate him and actually just hearing his name makes me slightly tweak in reflexive annoyance, the way other people react when they hear a name like “Heidi Montag” or “Chuck Grassley” or whatever. This is really not directly because of Michael Pollan or anything he has written or said or done; I don’t so much dislike Michael Pollan (who I’d never even really read before yesterday) as much as I dislike what he represents (to me, at least) and, especially, who he represents. What Michael Pollan represents to me is yet another blockbuster example of the most salable strain of the new American narrative nonfiction, these “big idea” books which are concerned with using clever structural and rhetorical tricks to “prove” and “explain” things about “important” topics that could “change your life” and/or “the world” (see also Gladwell, Malcolm), very often doing these things at the expense of beautiful English prose and deep examinations of the soul and spirit and general delight in the aesthetic pleasure of reading and writing and language. While I (obviously) find this sort of stuff to be offensive and bad, I could get over this aspect of my hatred pretty easily, partially since it’s just my own petty personal taste to prefer Play It As It Lays over Lay It, Play It: The New Californian Style of Choosing Your Own Adventure, but mostly since I have no idea how true any one of these vague and mean criticisms that I’ve made of Michael Pollan’s work actually are, having not, you know, read any of it.
No, mostly I kind of hate Michael Pollan because a lot of people in my cultural class and in the areas of the internet and media that I read love him and love even more to go on loudly and annoyingly about their self-important ideas about various gastronomical causes and concerns, to espouse their foodie manifesti and harangue and meringue me to the point where I become so nauseous that I have to induce vomiting. I mean, god, if I hear one more nouveau-gourmand or culinary life hacker repeat that fucking Pollan t-shirt slogan “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” just one more time, I swear, I’m just going to fucking kill his ass and eat him right there on the spot, I’ll shoot him in the head (to avoid contaminating the bulk of the meat with bitter, acrid gunpowder) and then carefully butcher him into cookable chunks (I basically learned how to do this from reading the Tuscany section of Heat, I think) and finally roast his corpse over dry cedar chips in a large, rustic, wood-fired oven; when the skin of his belly is crispy and succulent, I will serve all his various loins and filets on a bed of arugala and radicchio and some ridiculously named hydroponic designer micro-greens that I will buy at Whole Foods; I will make a thick, dark demi-glace of his blood.
But I digress. Um, what I’m basically trying to say is that when I started to read the Michael Pollan thing in the Times Magazine, I was not coming at it from a very nice and loving and receptive place, okay? As I read his essay about how people watch a lot of cooking shows on television and don’t ever cook themselves and instead eat unhealthy processed foods while they watch cooking shows and how this is a bad thing, mostly, I was sitting on the couch in my boxer shorts and watching the Food Network and eating my lunch, which today consisted of one and a half pop tarts (strawberry, uncooked, fiber-added), a banana (yellow, of South American origin), and a large glass of milk (organic, fat-free). My lunch was delicious and filling and eating it was making me very happy and full and satisfied, the way that food is supposed to make you feel, I think. On the giant television which hangs on our living room wall in the place where people might once have kept a painted portrait of their family, Giada di Laurentis’s breasts were making pumpkin ravioli in wide-screen HD. As I ate my strawberry pop tarts and scanned the first few paragraphs of the Pollan thing, I kept getting distracted by le visioni della bella donna out of the corner of my eye and watched her as she kneaded dough, dusted things with ephemeral coatings of flour, licked her thick, plump lips.
As I finished eating, the television now on CSPAN and muted to help me concentrate, I continued to try to read “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch.” Despite my aforementioned inherent distaste for the material, I made myself read it, the way a child who forces down some disgusting vegetable because his parents wont let him leave the table until he’s eaten it all. As I read and as time went by, a very curious thing began to happen to me; I began to feel this wonderful warm feeling throughout my whole body, in my heart and my skin and my brain, this cellular electricity, this tingling of the nerves, this strange sensation of satiety. At first, I thought this was just my blood sugar skyrocketing because of the pop tarts I had eaten and all of the partial hydrogenated high fructose corn-syrup they contained, perhaps even the effect of some new and innovative chemical additive in them that my body had not yet built up a tolerance to, but I soon realized, though, that, no, that wasn’t it that at all — what it was was that I was actually enjoying this Michael Pollan essay, that actually it was, you know, a really good and smart essay that was also really nice and fun to read. “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” though it advances various arguments and makes various points which I variously either disagree with or just don’t care about at all, and though it no doubt will add more fuel to the foodie fire that often frustrates me, is also a really thoughtful and belletristic piece of long-form nonfiction writing which, as it goes on, raises a lot of fascinating, non-polemical ideas about food and television and culture and is even garnished with some nicely rendered personal memoir for good measure.
Part of me wonders why I was so surprised by this, by how much I liked it, by how easily I forget good things that I’ve enjoyed in the past, the way you might forget a wonderful dish if you don’t eat it for a while. Though it would probably never come to mind if you asked me to name my favorite book of all time or what book I would take to a desert island with me or whatever, probably one of my favorite books I’ve ever read and one I return to again and again is The Man Who Ate Everything, a collection of Jeffrey Steingarten’s food writing for Vogue magazine, a book I’ve read probably ten or fifteen times, maybe even more. When I first read it, I found that his voice in those essays was exactly the sort of voice I wanted from a writer; funny yet serious, learned yet ever receptive to learning more, a smart and friendly and cultured person sitting across the table from you who was going to tell you some interesting things in an interesting way you would enjoy. I liked that book so much that one day when I was in college, I went to the library and spent hours tearing fruitlessly through piles of back issues of Vogue in the hopes that I could read something new of his that I hadn’t read before, some uncollected gem. When I come to think about it, I’ve actually read a decent amount of food and cooking writing over the years, though it has never been something I’ve focused on. I read Heat (mmm), I read Julie and Julia (yeah), I read the book by the guy who writes the the blog The Amateur Gourmet (eh), I read about a third of Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires (overcooked). I will take any Calvin Trillin I can get my hands on and devour it hungrily, licking my fingers afterward to get at any the excess sweetness. In the newspaper every week, I used to read Bruni and continue to read Bittman and Sifton; on the blogs, I occasionally check in with Ruhlman and Knowlton, though they aren’t really part of my regular reading. On the counter in her kitchen, behind a fruit bowl, my mom has The Art of Eating, a biblically-proportioned collection of MFK Fisher essays that I occasionally and very pleasurably dip into when I’m standing around in there waiting on something or someone, often while I’m waiting to eat.
All of this reading is despite the fact that I really could just not give a shit about food or cooking at all. Don’t get me wrong, I like eating and I like cooking and I do both fairly often, I just don’t really care about either of those things, neither of them is all that important to my life or thought or identity, the way they seem to be for a lot of people; food for me is pleasure and fuel and maybe a social binder but not much more than that, it’s tasty gasoline and crunchy coal for my internal furnace. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong at all with being interested in food on a deeper level; I’m just saying that, personally, I’m not. I cooked a lot of my own food in college, much more than anyone else I knew, but this was not out of some ideological agenda or deep moral purpose, it was just because I didn’t really have any money and because my mother had always cooked most of our meals at home when I was growing up (because we didn’t really have any money) and because of this, I knew that cooking my own food was a generally pleasurable and economical and healthy way to live and the way that I had always lived and so so I lived that way. My favorite thing to cook is roast chicken, which I like to cook because it’s easy and cheap and really fucking good when it’s hot out of the oven. There is something kind of amazing about eating the crispy, crackling skin off the steaming bird, but at the same time I don’t really see it as “a minor miracle of transubstantiation” (Pollan’s phrase), I just see it as some good fucking chicken I’m eating. Michael Pollan discusses these primal, magical memories he has of watching his mother cook and I have plenty of those, too, but they’re not really any more special than the memories I have of playing with her or going places with her or watching television together. I mean, I’m not a chef or gourmand or even a very good cook; I have my rotation of regular dishes that I make and I make them well enough, which is good enough for me because, as I’ve established, I don’t care that much about food above a certain standard of quality and satiety. When I lived in Korea, where a great many exotic and wonderful culinary delights were available for me to avail myself with whenever I wanted, I ate basically the same thing for lunch every day for weeks at a time: tuna gimbap, curry ramyeon, a piece of fruit, a small chocolate bar. There were probably fifty different restaurants within a two block radius of my apartment, all with unique and special and home-made dishes and preparations which I couldn’t get anywhere else and I ate the same thing for lunch everyday because, well, I liked it and it tasted good and what else did I need to think about? That was all I cared about re: food, to be satisfied.
So why do I read those books, then, why do I keep reading about food if I don’t care about it that much? Why do I watch Top Chef and Chopped and Iron Chef and et cetera if I have no interest in cooking like the chefs on the shows, if I will learn nothing from them, the way women once learned (or at least tried to learn) from Julia Child? Michael Pollan advances a couple of interesting ideas about this in “Out of the Kitchen…” One of these ideas is that what much of the audience in middle class America is taking from food shows are not lessons on cooking but a kind of cultural capital, a way to feel and seem more sophisticated than maybe we actually are, to improve ourselves, a way to not be intimidated by the foods of our economic betters. I find this is probably somewhat true of my own experience with food culture; even though I’m perfectly happy making and eating a simple salad from pre-washed lettuce out of a plastic bag and basic vegetables I buy at the supermarket, there is something I like about knowing the names of various gourmet ingredients and preparations and Wikipedian factoids about technique and style and food culture; it does make me feel slightly richer and more upper class to speak of sriracha and vichyssoise, as if my culinary vocabulary were currency that I could actually spend somewhere.
The other thesis that Michael Pollan goes on about, the more interesting idea, I think, is that “the reason we like to watch cooking on TV is that there are things about cooking we miss. We might not feel we have the time or the energy to do it ourselves every day, yet we’re not prepared to see it disappear from our lives entirely.” Pollan argues that we watch food shows to create this simulacrum of what it feels like to cook, to regain some of the joy of cooking without actually taking part in the act of doing it, which is something that he says changes in our society have kept us from. He talks at some length in the later parts of the essay about how cooking is tied very deeply (biologically, socially, culturally) to human identity and so, in this country we live in where we don’t cook anymore, watching food shows is this way of sort of unconsciously yearning for this animistic, physical, familial something from our past that we miss without even knowing that we miss; he says that “we might not feel we have the time or the energy to do it ourselves every day, yet we’re not prepared to see it disappear from our lives entirely.” Faulkner has this phrase about using language to describe sadness, that it’s “a gap to fill a lack,” and I think this is kind of what Pollan is saying about how we watch Rachel Ray and Ina Garten and what they mean to us, these fake mothers in their Potemkin kitchens who are trying to remind us what love used to be.
“What?! You’re telling me Bobby Flay strikes deep emotional chords?” (this is the one really annoying stylistic tic of Pollan’s essay; he keeps talking to this fake audience surrogate who is meant to represent us but who is just dumber than life itself). Anyway, the whole argument that M.P. makes about our yearning and desire for something important and almost lost from our identity is a very compelling and complex and also really just kind of poetic and beautiful thing, an argument that I have trouble completely refuting in part because I think that it’s very likely true in some ways but also because even if I could prove it wrong, I wouldn’t want to because I think it’s beautiful, the same way I don’t want to argue with a poem or get pissed off at the way sunshine feels on my face. While I think the argument is valid enough, though, I just think that maybe there’s a simpler explanation for why people are tuning in to all these food shows on television, which is just, you know, that they’re good and fun and entertaining to watch.
Like, I think I watch a good food show on television because it’s a good television show, first and foremost, not because of its nutritional content or because I think it will “teach me something” or because it’s reaching deep down to some primal ur-cook residing inside of me and trying to claw his way out. I don’t watch Barefoot Contessa or Giada at Home because I care about the recipes or techniques contained within them or because I feel deeply that Ina Garten is some sort of living Venus of Willendorf, I watch them because the HD photography on those shows is absolutely exquisite; I watch the dishes in those shows the way I would look at a beautiful still life of a bowl of fruit on the wall of a gallery or museum. Maybe I watch Good Eats to learn a little bit about food, but mostly I watch it because it’s pretty rare to see a clever and quirky and formally inventive, auteur-driven show like that anywhere else on television. I watched the original British Kitchen Nightmares because it was a beautifully made, touching, kitchen sink (pardon the pun) docu-drama; I watch the new American one because it’s a white trash car crash. Anthony Bourdain’s shows have always been really strongly-voiced first person autobiographical television memoir of the type which just doesn’t exist in many other manifestations in the medium. These are the reasons I watch these shows above all else, because they’re good shows. My dad noted the other day while we were watching the first episode of the new Project Runway that after watching however many seasons of the show that he’s watched, hours and hours and hours of television, he still doesn’t have the first idea about how you would go about making a piece of clothing, he doesn’t understand any aspect of how any single step of the design or garment construction process would even work in theory or in practice. I agreed with him, that he was right and that I didn’t have a clue either and we hadn’t learned anything at all and wasn’t that weird? We mused on this for a second and then we watched the rest of the show anyway and it was entertaining and we enjoyed it and I’m so glad that spacey hipsterina got voted off right away. My dad and I don’t watch Project Runway because we’re deeply invested in the idea of making and wearing clothes as a basic facet of human life and we don’t watch Top Chef to soothe the phantom pain of some lost deep and primal connection to our food; we watch them because they’re fun, well-made, dramatic and entertaining shows with captivating characters and interesting plots.
In the same way, I read good food writing not because I particularly care all that much about food but because really it’s just good writing and I like to read good writing, no matter what it’s about. I read and reread Jeffrey Steingarten not because I particularly care that much about food (I’ve never cooked or thought about cooking one of his recipes) but because he’s a good writer with a good voice who’s so good that he makes me care about food at least for the span of his essay. If Calvin Trillin decided that instead of eating and food he would rather write about nuclear reactors or plumbing or calculus, I would happily read any of that stuff; for me personally, the subject is irrelevant, I just want the pure pleasure that a good literary artist can offer me. One of my very favorite things to read, the thing I look forward to every week, is a regular online New York Times column called Scent Notes. Scent Notes, written by “professional perfume critic” Chandler Burr, is a weekly review of a new fragrance from Yves Saint Laurent or Givenchy or [insert famous and expensive designer here]. I have never personally worn perfume in my life; I have never bought perfume for anyone in my life; I have no real interest in doing either of those things in the future of my life and even if I did do one of those things (most likely the second one), I would probably never be able to splash out the cash necessary to buy one of the fancy perfumes reviewed in Scent Notes. Yet despite all of this, Scent Notes is one of my very favorite things to read and I love to read it and I think it’s so good and I look forward to it every week (though Burr seems to be on sabbatical now?!). Every column is like this incredible post-Montaigne spritz of charm and elan and gossip and knowledge, this distillation of criticism and poetry into a tiny bauble full of linguistic essence. A recent review of a new fragrance by Clinique began:
“The single most persistent and complex problem with criticism of art, in any medium, is arguably the problem of historical context. In what era and under what aesthetic was the object created? And how, then, can we critique it, given that it was conceived for people whose sensibilities differed from ours? Is it successful because it speaks to us now or because it spoke to them then?
Any number of classic perfumes pose this problem. Exhibit A: the prewar Guerlains. If the classics are, to use the industry term, “re-orchestrated” (updated to fit contemporary olfactory style in order to sell better in 2009), then all bets are off. These scents are the equivalent of Beethoven sonatas done as a Jay-Z-produced mash-up. Which is fine — they appeal to the kids and move product — but they’re no longer Beethoven.
On the other hand, to the degree to which these works of scent art are still faithful to their 19th- or 20th-century originals, the historical context problem surfaces. Let’s say we take them on their own terms today, and let’s use Clinique’s Aromatics Elixir as a case in point.”
This is all for a review of this liquid stuff that you spray on yourself that smells good! I consider myself pretty articulate and that’s about all I could every say about a perfume, I think, yet here Chandler Burr has written this vibrant piece of prose about it which involves and invokes history and music and poetry in ways that I couldn’t imagine, which takes me somewhere that I hadn’t been before and exposes a new world to me, an essay which is as interesting a piece of criticism as anything I’ve read lately in Bookforum or the LRB (okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but it’s still really good!). I found reading his column to be an amazing experience, maybe as amazing as I found reading Harold Rosenberg when I was studying art history in college and maybe even more amazing, in a way, because I could look at a Rauschenberg or Pollock the way that Rosenberg did and I could see and understand some of what was there and what had happened to make it without his help, I had some grounding in why it was important and good and could give you some fairly educated thoughts on it of my own. However, I bet that if you sprayed some of Clinique’s Aromatics Elixir in the air in front of me and and asked me step through it, though, and tell you what I thought of it, I would say, “Um, yeah, that smells pretty good” and that would be about it, and yet here is this person who can take something as simple as a smell and weave all these gossamer threads of thought together around it into a little tapestry for me and you to witness every week, this paean to perfume.
There was a great deal of Internet controversy recently over one of Cintra Wilson’s Critical Shopper columns in the New York Times Styles section; if you’re reading my blog, I’m pretty sure you heard all about it, but for the purposes of writing this essay I have to summarize it anyway, I guess. In the column, Cintra reviewed the new JC Penney store which opened in Manhattan, in the process of which review apparently offending a great many women by making comments which they interpreted as being snarky and “New York elitist” and very offensive to those who are overweight. While I am suburban, Southern non-elite on record as thinking that Cintra Wilson is a funny and wonderful writer, I would agree that maybe this particular column wasn’t her best work or whatever, although I find some of the criticisms of it to be a little absurd. First of all, I think it’s kind of ridiculous to expect a fashion critic for the New York Times to give a positive critique of a place as inarguably dowdy and downmarket as Penney’s; as I discussed the other day with a fellow blogger, this would be like expecting Sam Sifton, when he becomes the the new Times food critic this fall, to hand out glowing and eloquent reviews of the menu options at Hardee’s and Wendy’s, since that’s where “real people” eat in “real America,” you know, and, then, if he dared to criticize the crudeness of the flavors of the Chili Cheese Thickburger or to note that repeatedly consuming fast food like this would probably make you fat, the bloated massses would rise together from their couches and potatoes to leave comments and blog entries calling him “an arrogant New York bastard” who didn’t understand anything about this country or the way “we” live here. After the JC Penney Critical Shopper was published, the blogs boiled over with passionate populist epistles about the importance of stores like Penney’s to the people who shop there, the affordable fashions that they offer to people around the country who can’t afford anything else and who still, of course, need clothes to wear, the public service that this store provides. I don’t disagree with any of this, it’s all very true, but, you know what, Hardee’s offers lots of people around the country affordable food that keeps them going every day, too, that keeps them from starving; they too do a service for this country that can’t be denied. Does that mean that they should be heralded by the esteemed critics for the most important cultural arbiter in our country? I don’t think so, personally, I don’t really think the Charbroiled Chicken Club sandwich is worth that, although I guess that might make me an elitist.
The reaction to this one specific column, though, is really just a representation of something much larger, I think. I’ve talked about this previously at length, but the Critical Shopper is one of my favorite things in the entire New York Times every week; it’s part of the Styles section, which is my favorite section of the Times and which basically every media blogger finds some way every week to deride as “irrelevant” or “ridiculous” or “worthless” or “stupid,” criticisms which have, of course, intensified exponentially in the wake of the JC Penny piece. These criticisms, while overly snarky and very easy to make, are often valid enough in their own way. When Chandler Burr was hired as the New York Times‘ perfume critic, the Columbia Journalism Review was one of many news outlets to do a story about how ridiculous it was for a newspaper to have a perfume critic “in this age of newsroom cutbacks and insufficient coverage of “gathering threats” overseas and at home.” That was back in 2005, when newspapers still, you know, had money and stuff, and this tension felt between “real journalism” and “unnecessary and frivolous” criticism has only intensified since then. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the argument that says if we only have a certain amount of money for our media that our priority should be to spend it on “important” things like government oversight and hard news and what have you, I get it. If you held a gun to my head, I would agree with you that, yes, of course, covering health care reform is much, much more important than publishing a review of a new fragrance by Dior (actually, I would probably insist on intense, round-the-clock coverage of the gun you were holding to my head, to be honest).
At the same time, though, I don’t think a world without poetry and art is really a world worth living in. Yes, something like perfume criticism or even critical shopping is completely and totally unnecessary and irrelevant, but it’s kind of wonderfully unnecessary, it’s gloriously irrelevant, it’s this great privilege we’re given to watch a very clever person’s mind deal with a stupid and frivolous thing and it’s a privilege I don’t really want to live without. You can say that makes me shallow, you can say I should care about more important things in the world, more serious things, and you’re right, I can’t argue with that, but I also can’t change how I feel, I can’t change what gives me pleasure and what doesn’t, and the Critical Shopper column is one of the most pleasurable reading experiences available to me every week. In the most recent Critical Shopper, Mike Albo describes the experience of visiting Hollister, another chain store that any mall denizen of a certain age is familiar enough with. Here is just one paragraph of his critique:
“On the way down I stopped in the fragrance room and sampled the Laguna Beach body mist. It smelled like Jolly Ranchers being breathed on my face by Hayden Panettiere. Here the store also sells its California fragrance, which is spritzed on the mannequins every hour; it’s a noxious concoction that, I assume, is distilled from mink sex glands and the tears of broken-hearted teenage girls.”
I had been enjoying the essay up until that point but this Hayden Panettiere simile was the thing that really drove me over the top, pleasure-wise, the cherry on top of this sundae of an essay. You could go back through the archives of the Critical Shopper and find at least a couple shining sections like this in every single piece and very likely a whole bunch more, gleaming gems of sentences and haute couture phrasings, ginned-up descriptions and fizzy, ephemeral tones, clever voices and news ways of thinking and feeling about the world all centered around and focused on something as ordinary as clothes, these patch-work bits of prose that serve to defamiliarize and recontextualize the simple pieces of fabric that we wear on our bodies every day to cover up our nakedness.
It’s funny, because all these Critical Shopper essays are, in a way, like science fiction to me; they describe a world which is almost completely alien to my own, like a distant planet I can see up in the sky on a clear night. I don’t come from a ton of money and I will very likely never have a ton of money because I live in a world short on money and I’ve chosen a life that will not logically lead me to having much money in the future. Whatever, this is not a poverty pissing contest, there are many people who have lives that are much, much harder than mine, I’m not complaining at all. Besides, I think not growing up rich has been really good for me in all the obvious ways; I was raised by my parents was to not define myself by how much stuff I had, what I wore or how I looked, that it was what I did and thought and learned that was really important. As a result of my upbringing, though, I’ve never spent much on clothes. When I was a kid, I remember shopping at Belks and Walmart and JC Penney, which I think Cintra Wilson rightly derides for being ugly and provincial, even though it provided the clothes of my childhood; when I was an adolescent, I moved on to Old Navy and the Gap, those faux-cool arbiters of lower middle class un-style; when I was in college, I went to thrift stores and vintage stores and back to the mall again; when I lived in Korea, where my dollar counted for more than in the states, I went to Uniqlo and shopped from cramped, small stalls in underground markets and malls. I can think of exactly one time in my entire life that I have spent more than seventy five dollars on an article of clothing (a perfectly fitting suit jacket in a Japanese department store which I spent the equivalent of $200 on, holding my breath as I handed over the cash; a button fell off the first time I wore it). I’m kind of a little embarrassed to admit all of this, worried what you’ll think of me, what some random stranger in “New York” might think about me and my sartorial poverty, and then I’m embarrassed to be embarrassed, that I’ve so internalized these silly notions of class and worth and beauty that I even care about them, that they take up space in my head that I could devote to more useful stuff. The truth is, I would be anxious and afraid to even just walk ino the stores that are reviewed in these columns I read every week, scared that the people inside of them would be able to instantly tell that I didn’t belong, that I wouldn’t buy anything, that I couldn’t really afford to be there. The glittery, shimmering objects that are described in the Critical Shopper are things which are very literally out of my reach; I will probably never touch, just physically touch any of the things I read about there, much less own them or maybe even be friends with the kind of people who own them. I can’t buy any of these stupid, expensive things because I don’t have that kind of money, the money it takes to buy them.
But all that doesn’t matter so much to me because I what I can do is read beautiful sentences about them written by great writers and imagine the things for myself, see them in my mind’s eye, inside. Because in the space of imagination anything is possible, I can do all that for free, it doesn’t cost me anything but it still gives me something for my nothing, some nice feeling inside that I can enjoy for a moment, a gap to fill a lack. All I may be doing by doing this kind of Styles section reading is empty consumption, taking in worthless words about worthless things that don’t help me improve myself or improve the world around me in any way, empty thoughts about stupid possessions in pursuit of pure, frivolous pleasure, but, you know, whatever, I don’t care, these words make me and other people happy and if they make us happy, that means they have some worth, even if they don’t discuss the intricacies of important contemporary issues or are perfectly politically correct and socially responsible or are even completely cruelty-free, as Cintra Wilson’s last column probably wasn’t. I’m looking at the Wikipedia page on Michael Pollan and thinking now after reading it and his wonderful article that maybe my impression of him was stupid and wrong; the summary of his latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, describes arguments “that the reductive analysis of food into nutrient components is a flawed paradigm.” Apparently, in the book, he “questions the view that the point of eating is to promote health, pointing out that this attitude is not universal and that cultures that perceive food as having purposes of pleasure, identity, and sociality may end up with better health.” I agree with all this reductive simplification of his ideas that I’ve pasted from Wikipedia, I really do. Sometimes food doesn’t have to be nutritious and healthy, sometimes it doesn’t have to be ethically sourced and fair trade, sometimes it doesn’t have to fill you up and make you stronger and better and healthier, sometimes it just has to taste really good and make you happy to eat it because it tastes so good, make you so happy because of its good taste that you want to share its goodness and happiness with another person, the way I’m sharing this Michael Pollan essay with you, the way it’s on the table between us and we’re talking about it and enjoying it together, you and me. These words taste good and sometimes that’s all we need.
August 25, 2009
“So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience which is a leading motif of modern art, with its tireless commitment to the “new” and/or the “esoteric” Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture; by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, audience, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.
– Susan Sontag, the aesthetics of silence.
“I say catastrophe is an answer because I believe cliché is a question. We resort to cliché because it’s easier than trying to make up something new. Implicit in it is the question, Don’t we already know what we think about this? Don’t we have a formula we use for this? Can’t I just send a standard greeting card or paste in a snapshot of what it was like rather than trying to come up with an original drawing? During the five months of her trial Joan persistently chose the term voice or a few times counsel or once comfort to describe how God guided her. She did not spontaneously claim that the voices had bodies, faces, names, smell, warmth or mood, nor that they entered the room by the door, nor that when they left she felt bad. Under the inexorable urging of her inquisitors she gradually added all these details. But the storytelling effort was clearly hateful to her and she threw white paint on it wherever she could…”
“We are surrounded by seemingly innocuous clichés…whose repetition deadens language…We’ve gotten used to sounds too meaningless to be truly numbing but too common to remain constant irritants; such formulaic phrases are the trash of language, a byproduct of failed thought, an attempt to give the appearance of saying something while generating verbal anonymity.”
– Ann Beattie, ambient sound in fiction. (audio)
– Nina Simone, time in music.
– Me, making a stupid, tired joke.