16 March 2014

Goodnight cruel moon!

The strain of doing such fine reporting on global warming may be showing on Elizabeth Kolbert.

I suppose there's only so much Bush Administration dormancy and mendacity you can absorb before your assignment editor asks you to review a classic children's book and you, um, turn it into a nihilistic meditation on death.

Her ultimate paragraph in "Goodnight Mush," from the December 12 issue:

"Time moves forward, and the little bunny doesn’t stand a chance. Parent and child are, in this way, brought together, on tragic terms. You don’t want to go to sleep. I don’t want to die. But we both have to."

Reaction from the blogosphere:

Lance Mannion: "I've read Goodnight Moon a thousand times, in a myriad of moods, and not once, not once, did I come away with an interpretation as dark as this."

Three Dot: "I thought I had a knack for reading disturbing messages into children's books, but I doff my hat to Ms. Kolbert."

Elf Sternberg: "Whoa. Heavy."

Play Library: "Ms. Kolbert’s piece is bizarre to say the least as well as overly analytical with a bitter taste."

Is the death fable a philosophical statement for Kolbert? She's gotta be an existentialist—the unfathomable universe, the human reponsibility, the slow, sweet march to a permanent void.

Consider the tone of her article beside the last paragraphs of Albert Camus's "Irony," his 1937 reflection on youth and death.

"None of this fits together? How very true! A woman you abandon to go to the cinema, an old man to whom you have stopped listening, a death which redeems nothing, and then, on other hand, the whole radiance of the world.

"What difference does it make if you accept everything? What you have here are three destinies which are different and yet alike. Death for us all, but his own death to each. After all, the sun still warms our bones for us."

And on that note, time for Multiplatform.

Originally published on Jan 18, 2007

15 March 2014

On the Road

Cup of mint tea at my left hand and waiting for my diphenhydramine hydrochloride to kick in. Just finished Louis Menand's look back at Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." His piece ends with this lovely little Kerouackian riff:

It's fairly high above sea level there, in the lower ranges of the Berkshires, and I would stand at the pump in the dark looking at the stars in the cold clear sky as the semis roared past and with the wind in my hair, and I liked to imagine that I was a character in Kerouac's novel, lost to everyone I knew and to everyone who knew me, somewhere in America, on the road.

Then I would get in the car, and, bent over the wheel, while the trucks beat on past me, and the radio crackled, the sound going in and out, with oldies from the seventies, I began the long drop down to the lights of Boston, late in the night, late in my life, alone.

Nice, isn't it? Reminds me of when writing was easier, less an exercise of form and structure and grammar than of sustaining an impulse and going back to fix up the egregious errors later.
According to Menand, the book isn't about hipsters looking for kicks, or about subversives and nonconformists—rebels without a cause who point the way for the radicals of the nineteen-sixties. And it's not an anti-intellectual celebration of spontaneity. It's a sad and self-consciously lyrical story about loneliness, insecurity, and failure, which I think he captures lovelily in the last line.

It's also, as he says, a story about guys who want to be with other guys. I didn't get the homosexual bent (no pun) of "On the Road" at first, and I remember being shocked when I heard the theory propounded by a kind middleaged American backpacker woman, on a ferry chugging toward Gili Trawangan, in Indonesia. I was 22, reading the book at the time, and momentarily embarrassed for being enthusiastic about it.

Props also to Menand for working one of my favorite albums—Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely—into his lede. Anyone know where I can download it? I lost my cassette years ago.

(Click Jack's photo to see him reading from "On the Road" and here for a silent film of he and Ginsberg loafing around NYC, circa 1959.)

Originally published Oct. 1, 2007

Describing: Paulo Coelho

 Describing Paulo Coelho

"Coelho is almost sixty. His name, bestowed upon a suite at the Hotel Ambasciatori in Rome and a hot-chocolate drink at Le Bristol hotel in Paris, is pronounced CO-el-you. He is solid and short, with the capable, roughened look of someone who makes his living out-of-doors, and he dresses in black cowboy boots, black jeans, and black T-shirts. 

"His hair is white and shaved short, except for a little ponytail that sprouts from the back of his head. On his left forearm is a crude tattoo of a butterfly, which he and his wife...got in 1980, as a "wedding ring."

—Dana Goodyear, in "The Magus" (May 7), a profile of the Brazilian novelist who has sold almost 100 million books

* * *

Goodyear does a good job here. She never condescends to her subject, although, amusingly, she includes this quote by Mario Maestri, "one of the few Brazilian critics who does not reflexively dismiss Coelho" (italics mine):
In spite of belonging to different genres, Coelho's narratives and self-help books have the same fundamental effect: of anesthetizing the alienated consciousness through the consoling reaffirmation of conventions and prevailing prejudices. Fascinated by his discoveries, the Coelhist reader explores the familiar, breaks down doors already open, and gets mired in sentimental, tranquilizing, self-centred, conformist, and spellbinding visions of the world that imprisons him. When he finishes a book, he wants another one that will be different but absolutely the same.
I have a new favorite Brazilian literary critic.

The subject aside, my only criticism is the second sentence of the article. I kept getting lost—and still do, now a dozen times in—in the syntactical chasm between 'story' and 'of.' Give it a try.
"It is a story, told in 'A Thousand and One Nights' and in Rumi's 'Masnavi' and later adapted by Jorge Luis Borges—the version that Coelho, who is Brazilian, first read—of a man who dreams that he must leave home to find a treasure, and upon arriving at his destination, discovers that the treasure is in fact buried in his native land."
Hmmm...easier to follow with the wide margins, but as exposition a trifle impatient.  

Originally published on May 3, 2007

Platform agnosticism

A new piece of nomenclature that—like "backstory," perhaps—will rise from obscurity to common use in two weeks flat: "platform agnostic."

I first saw the term in David Denby's January 8th article on the future of Hollywood films. He uses it to refer to the viewing habits of kids, who will "look at movies on any screen at all, large or small."

(Photo: Thomas Huxley [1825-95], a great defender of Darwin, who coined the term 'agnostic' to describe his belief that it cannot be known whether or not god exists. The word comes from the Greek—'a' [not] 'gnosis' [knowledge].)

Denby, like most cinephiles (and old people), is not a platform agnostic. He doesn't like how the iPod rides up and down on his stomach when he's watching a movie. And holding it away from his body makes his arm tired. And his eyes hurt to focus. Besides, he's got better options.
"At the house of my friend Harry Pearson, I watched movies on what must be close to the ultimate home-theatre system, a setup priced at two hundred thousand dollars."
So, Mr. Denby, when I start my internship, I'm going to be polite at first. I'll swing by your office and be, like, yeah, no frigging way can we dispense with the Western canon. Nothing about Anthony Lane being funnier. But then...I'm going to get a little more insistent.

Let me put it out there right now: I'll watch whatever you guys are watching. I'll be really quiet. And I will bring the Stroh's.

Talk of platform agnosticism at journalism school is appropriate: the newspaper god is ailing, and journalists have begun to hedge their bets. We take something called Multiplatform Journalism (the 'multi' means print, audio, video, and online), which will help me a tonne when I give up on slackjawed Joe Public and go into advertising.

Dorky Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who carries a stuffed toy moose around, also describes himself as a platform agnostic.

Still working on the link between the two.

Originally published on Jan 22, 2007

13 March 2014

New do for summer

Is that hairline getting a little high on the sides? No—can't be.

That's me with Aeisha, my Iraqi barberess. Her shop on 4th Ave. (not a salon, as you can see by the Barbasol receptacle at bottom right) is one of the few places in Vancouver where you can still get the hot-shaving-cream-and-straight-razor treatment, although, to be honest, you can do better in five minutes with your Sensor and some intention. She says some guys make jokes about Iraq while she's scraping their throats with the razor. Reckless, say I.

The reason for the grooming is my temporary leap up the blogging food chain. Today I—drum roll set off in em dashes, please—started a summer internship at Emdashes, which is, as I explained to my family, the Internet's première site about The New Yorker. In no time, I'm sure, Mom will be telling everyone at work that I got a job at the magazine, an elision we should discourage.

I'm working from Vancouver, so the haircut isn't strictly necessary—Emdashes is based in NYC—but with a Kerouackian huzzah and a fit of '20s optimism I decided to make an offering of sideburns to the writing gods. You'll be the first to know how it goes. God, 'Kerouackian' has got to be my favorite name-based adjective.

I spent way too long labouring over my introduction, which, it's not hard to see, comes over as a weak slider for a ball. Give me time, though; it's a comfort zone thing.

Extra listening
Now that we're on the subject, Jack Kerouac reading from "On the Road," in a way both cool and strangely not—your call.

Harry Crosby reading John Updike's "On the Sidewalk," a spot-on Kerouac spoof first published, I believe, in The New Yorker. (I've got it in "Fierce Pajamas" a humor anthology edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder.)

Originally published on May 10, 2007

Into the chalk

John McPhee, who inadvertently screwed up Tom's writing career, returns this week in an absorbing wander through the Cretaceous chalk of England, France, and the Netherlands: "Season on the Chalk" (March 12).

McPhee is considered one of the pioneers of 'creative non-fiction,' a genre Wikipedia defines, flatly, as "using literary skills in the writing of non-fiction." I haven't known about McPhee for a long time, but the magazines containing his stories about river barges and coal trains were some of the few possessions that made it back from Asia with me.

The first paragraph of "Season":
The massive chalk of Europe lies below the English Channel, under much of Northern France, under bits of Germany and Scandinavia, under the Limburg Province of the Netherlands, and—from Erith Reach to Gravesend—under fifteen miles of the lower Thames. My grandson Tommaso appears out of somewhere and picks up a cobble from the bottom of the Thames. The tide is out. The flats are broad between the bank and the water. Small boats, canted, are at rest on the riverbed. Others, farther out on the wide river, are moored afloat—skiffs, sloops, a yawl or two. Tommaso is ten. The rock in his hand is large but light. He breaks it against the revetment bordering the Gordon Promenade, in the Riverside Leisure Area, with benches and lawns under oaks and chestnuts, prams and children, picnics under way, newspapers spread like sails, and, far up the bank, a stall selling ice cream. He cracks the cobble into jagged pieces, which are whiter than snow. Chalked graffiti line the revetment have attracted the attention of Tomasso, who now starts his own with the letter "R."
McPhee is one of the few writers who can take three delicious pages to describe a chef making a hamburger. I know what Tom means, though: You get sucked into a McPhee article, and, bright with admiration, you start affecting his style. But you lack his skill, his ability to fashion a garment from the pretty weave of detail and character. First your editors denounce you, then your readers leave you. And then you're not a writer anymore.

I had a similar brush with J. P. Donleavy a few years ago. All about dropped pronouns.

Enter the McPheeniacs:

Knight Science: "The profligately verbose John McPhee brings his usual, distinctive, mesmerising goulash of facts, asides, rambles, sketches, and odd rhythmic use of science jargon to a fixating tour of Europe’s Cretaceous chalk.

Branner: "I don’t know who else could mingle geology and terroir, geography and genealogy, the personal and the historic, all the while namedropping geologic time periods and stages like they’re a-list celebrities arriving at the Oscars."

NewMexiKen: This week’s New Yorker has an article by McPhee. What’s it about? you ask. Who cares? It’s by John McPhee.
Say 'profligately' three times fast. It's impossible.

Feel free to have a run at his first graf, too. I'd love to hear some dissenting voices.

Originally published on Mar 13, 2007

Dept. of Telecommuting

The astute among you will recognize that 'telecommuting' is a misnomer. I'm not at home here, but, instead, at UBC, which is empty save for me, the iMac upon which I took this picture, and the second-year guy who's taking the summer to write his thesis because that's the way his scholarship works.

My expression is intended to convey the pain of telecommuting, as least for me, an ENTP terribly suited to working in boxers, next to an open window, checking e-mail every ninety seconds, with a fridge of food downstairs and a million uninvestigated Web nodes spread out before him.

What's your Myers-Briggs type? I don't know. Why don't you take the online test?

Originally published on Jun 5, 2007