Saturday, May 27, 2006

What do we talk about when we talk about a classic?

I had read the story years ago, but I wasn't even sure I remembered it clearly, because texts can take on a life of their own. First impressions become colored by all the interpretations, references and reinterpretations the work undergoes over the years. Teachers teach, critics deconstruct, and biographers gossip. The original work disappears into its image.

I wanted to read it again, but I also wanted the experience to be as fresh as the first time, before the story was labeled a masterpiece. I wanted to make it new. Easier said than done. The "Collected Stories" on my bookshelf carried its own aura of beatification, and I was afraid I'd be right back where I started, reading a classic through the screen of fame, received opinions and all the other detritus I was trying to avoid.

I was looking for a trick that would let me outwit my preconceptions by seeing the story in a different form, stripped of its associations. What about the way it might have looked in manuscript? Just plain old double-spaced typescript on some cheap bond paper, with nothing else between me and the story? How would it stand up?

I decided to find out. It didn't take long to copy and paste a clone of the story from the internet into a word processor and reformat it. I typed in the familiar title at the top of the page and the author's name under it -- altered slightly, in the spirit of my little experiment, to "Dead White Male." I changed the default font to ugly, clunky, character-spaced Courier and printed it out double-spaced. It definitely looked like a manuscript.

I began reading.

The story starts simply enough, with a few lines of exposition. "The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white." A man and a young woman -- identified only as "the American" and "the girl" -- are waiting for a train somewhere between Madrid and Barcelona, passing the time, talking, sharing some drinks. The merciless sun bleaches a dry and sterile landscape.

"'They look like white elephants,' she said."

She is trying to amuse him, to divert him with a metaphor about the white hills in the distance. They talk some more, and order another round of drinks. There's a tension between them. She returns to her organic metaphor about the hills, so seemingly bleached and lifeless. The two of them have different ways of seeing and being, and as their apparently aimless talk continues you realize it's not aimless at all. They're facing a test, their futures in the balance. Everything could be fine, but the moment passes, and it's not fine and never will be. They're talking to each other and past each other - short, simple, painful sentences. She's the first to acknowledge they've crossed a point of no return. She looks out at the desiccated landscape and picks out signs of growth, a river through the trees and fields of grain, and says what she feels.

"'And we could have all this,' she said. 'And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.'"

He still can't acknowledge what has happened and blathers on. She asks him if he'll do something for her now, and he says he'll do anything for her. Unaware, still not getting it. All her pent-up rage and frustration come out, and the minimalist dialogue explodes into wild verbal excess. Over and over again, the words lash like whips across the page.

"Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?"

He is still for a moment, backs off and then starts to say something, she says she'll scream, and then the train is coming and they get ready and smile and the emotional gap between them has already become a gulf that can never be bridged.

"'Do you feel better?' he asked."

"'I feel fine,' she said. 'There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.'"

Two lives vividly and sympathetically sketched in less than 1,500 words. Yes, Dead White Male could write. That's what sometimes gets lost, I realize. He would go on to become a posturing bully, a hard-drinking macho asshole, his own best parody, so concerned with proving his masculinity that later generations could only wonder in amazement what he feared, what he must have been trying to hide. Trapped in his white beard and his legend, he spent the last decades of his life unable to write worth a damn, basking in worldly acclaim and inner contempt.

He went to Mayo, complained of FBI agents under the bedposts, had shock treatments and went home to Utah and blew his brains out. (Only much later did it become clear how much Hoover hated him and his lefty sympathies, how there really had been agents at Mayo, talking with his doctors, and doing god knows what.) He had been greatly renowned, if not for the wrong reasons, mostly for reasons that had little to do with his art, and after his death, the renown faded quickly, again for reasons that had little to do with his art.

The artist had long since disappeared into an image -- one that continues to hold the stories hostage.

That's why the best of them always come as such a revelation when we find a way to let them speak for themselves. You don't need to play games with your computer; there are other ways to take a fresh look. What matters is that you'll be amazed when you do. He did things with the American language that no one had ever done, that remade American prose into a new, more supple instrument. A voice that remains strangely new. His short stories were his best fiction, and in them we find his best self. Unlike the novels, they scarcely date at all.

Like Raymond Carver -- whose "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" is so clearly an homage -- he was often parodied but never successfully imitated. Vain and self-deluding in his life, Ernest Hemingway put his soul into his short fiction, with absolute integrity and lucidity, with vast sympathy for his characters, and with a mastery of language that can take your breath away.

Everything Goes White

METAFICTION ALERT AND READER ADVISORY: Some of the stuff that follows once happened on the way to work. Some of it did not.

Up ahead, I see something that jolts me out of my commuter’s trance. A white swan is flying just above the median, a spectacular and mysterious sight. As I drive by the landfill, the bird's broad wings beat in slow motion, and it hovers just above the ground, scarcely moving forward at all. It’s eerie. What is it doing? And why here?

I’m driving past Mount Trashmore, which has been expanding upward for years and now towers over the containment fence and shrubbery screen. Far up the hill, yellow machines smaller than toys in a sandbox move trash around, scattering gulls and pigeons into startled flight. They’re joined in the air by scraps of paper and plastic, whirled by the breeze across the fence. Some transparent kitchen wrap floats free and dances on the wind, swooping and swirling in the slipstream of the passing cars.

Now, as I draw closer, I see it’s not a swan at all. One of the landfill gulls has entangled its right leg in a white plastic bag, and it was this, waving behind, that made me think I saw the wings of a swan. The bag is actually trailing the gull like an open parachute, creating an impossible amount of drag. The gull beats its wings as hard as it can into the headwind, but it’s no good. It flops wearily to the ground.

I imagine it crushed by an oncoming car, or even worse, avoiding the traffic but remaining unable to fly or fend for itself. I stop the car and run back to the gull, which -- more dirty gray than white, really -- looks up at me with tiny, frightened eyes and tries to hop away, off-balance. It doesn’t know I’m trying to help.

It tries to fly off, but the bag quickly parachutes out again. The gull starts hobbling away from me. Suddenly, it lurches toward the road, its scrabbling legs peppering my legs with gravel. Hearing cars coming, I visualize an explosion of feathers, white fluff scattering in every direction and then settling soft as snow.

Everything goes white as I lunge for the bird.

But it’s just the plastic bag, which has flattened itself across my face, blocking my view. At the same instant I somehow manage to grab one of the gull’s frantic legs. The bird is surprisingly strong. In a total panic, it tries to throw itself into the onrushing traffic.

Blinded by the white, I hold on as best I can, but eventually the gull frees itself. But there's a sudden break in traffic. I pull the bag away from my face just in time to see the gull winging back to the landfill. Soon I can’t tell it from the others.

Friday, May 26, 2006

If George Bush wants to show that his contrition is real, he could start by apologizing to Captain Yee

“Bush, Blair Concede Missteps on Iraq” reads the WaPo headline about their joint news conference. Both facing growing opposition at home, the two leaders seemed to be heeding PR advice to try a little contrition.
President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair last night acknowledged a series of errors in managing the occupation of Iraq that have made the conflict more difficult and more damaging to the U.S. image abroad, even as they insisted that enough progress has been made that other nations should support the nascent Iraqi government.
Nice try, but actions speak louder than words, and neither of these guys seems to have really learned anything yet.

They made such a terrible mess of Iraq that it’s doubtful anyone could fix it right now, but even a small gesture would be a start. For example, the President could apologize to Captain James Yee. The West Point graduate and Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo was a true patriot who came from a military family -- his father served in WWII, a younger brother also graduated from West point and another younger brother was an Army doctor. All that was forgotten when some of his superiors began to worry he would blow the whistle on what was happening to prisoners. Here’s how he described what happened to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now recently. (Read transcript, download audio, or watch video here.)
I was arrested in secret, held incommunicado. I never showed up at the airport in Seattle like I was supposed to have, where my wife and daughter were waiting. They didn't know what happened to me. My parents in New Jersey had no idea what had happened. I essentially disappeared from society, from the face of the earth. But my family would learn of what happened to me ten days later, when government leaks to the media were then reported, first by the Washington Times, that I was now arrested and charged with these heinous crimes of spying, espionage, aiding the enemy, and mutiny and sedition, which is like trying to overthrow the government. All of these capital crimes, and, yes, I was threatened with the death penalty days after my arrest by a military prosecutor.
After the government dropped those charges, they vindictively added insult to injury by smearing his character and trying to destroy his marriage. Eventually he received an honorable discharge and a commendation. But no apology.

How about it, Mr. Bush? It wouldn’t fix Iraq, or even solve the Guantanamo problem. But it would be a start.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Elmhurst leads the nation in using Google to search for sex, but in Madison we'd rather find a good brat


The Chicago Sun-Times was blunt: "Elmhurst leads nation in Google search for sex." Grant Miller paints a rosier, more romantic vision than may strictly be warranted by the data, but hey, it's his hometown: "Elmhurst Is For Lovers." (Warning: Beneath the cutesy tourist bureau headline, his post and comments strip away the veneer of respectability. They're not for the faint of heart.)

But what about Madison? Ever since I got hold of the new toy, Google Trends, I've been trying to find out what my fellow citizens are searching for in greater proportion than the residents of any other city. I was having a hard time finding anything. Madison seemed to have disappeared into an information age haze of comparatively unfocused searching. But if we can't compete with Elmhurst directly in their favorite search behavior, isn't there something we can call our own, something we look for more than anyone else?

Finally I found a category in which we lead by a large margin, as the chart indicates -- "brats." For non-natives, we're not talking little hellions, but genuine bratwurst sausage. Brats as in "rhymes with hots." Brats as in "tailgating." Of course, the intensity of our searching may have something to do with the Memorial Day weekend's World's Largest Brat Fest.

See you there. And remember, they now have those cool veggie Boca Brats, as well.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Our challenge has been accepted, and a new language blog takes on the cause of the well-placed apostrophe

Founded, like it's parent, The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, on the principle that there's no better example than a good bad example, The Blog of Badly-Placed Apostrophe's launched yesterday, taking up the challenge we posed in our recent Lands' End post. We hope that legions of punctuation mavens everywhere will respond to their appeal.
Like public television, though, we rely on viewer's* like you. Send in your examples of misplaced apostrophes**; pictures are preferred to text, but in a pinch, text will do.

*Yeah, that was intentional.

** You're/your mix-ups are definitely fair game; so too are they're/there and it's/its. Too, to, and two, though, are right out, because none of those words have apostrophes.
After all, its all about keeping the apostrophe in it's proper place, isnt it?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Mad about reading? Go join the conversation at MADreads

Looking for a good read? Want to share a book you enjoyed with others in the community? Wander over to MADreads, the new group blog at the Madison Public Library's website. One of the best free resources in town just got that much better -- every day there's a new book post by a librarian at one of the branches. These are no stuffy reading lists, but rather real, live, idiosyncratic and personal blog posts -- real books for real people. It's a well-organized site, with posts scrolling down chronologically but also categorized by subject matter on the side. There's also a handy LINKcat link, so you can reserve a book that catches your eye in an instant

Read a good epistolary novel lately? That's the subject of today's post, complete with a Wikipedia link about this unique form written in the form of documents such as letters, diaries, clippings, or whatever the novelist devises. Sarah from the Alicia Ashman branch weighs in with a couple new ones, and readers add some additional recommendations in the Comments. Join the conversation. Add your comments -- they're trying to start a conversation.

"Sparkling pod of snippets"

The WaPo reports that John Updike spoke at BookExpo America, the annual publishing convention that brought roughly 25,000 book people to Washington over the weekend. The assembled throng was still buzzing about Kevin Kelly’s recent NYT Times magazine cover story about the impact of the digital revolution on book publishing, “Steal This Book.” (Times Select archive.) Post reporter Bob Thompson characterizes the battle lines this way.
The clash is between what you might call the technorati and the literati. The technorati are thrilled at the way computers and the Internet are revolutionizing the world of books. The literati fear that, amid the revolutionary fervor, crucial institutions and core values will be guillotined.
Rather than plugging his new novel, “Terrorist,” Updike jumped right in and defended the sharp edges of books against the shape-shifting world without boundaries we call the internet.
Unlike the commingled, unedited, frequently inaccurate mass of "information" on the Web, he said, "books traditionally have edges." But "the book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod of snippets.

"So, booksellers," he concluded, "defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity."
But I wondered: Is individuality really that clear cut? Are book boundaries really that inviolable?

I forget so much of what I read, even the work of my favorite writers—especially my favorite writers. Sometimes I’ll go to retrieve something from the library stacks of my mind, and that’s when the fuses blow and the lights go out. More often, I’ll emerge with what I’m looking for, but in a form that bears only a passing resemblance to the original. Is this normal, or should I be seeing a neurologist? I used to worry a lot about this.

I became more accepting of my literary amnesia after I happened upon a sly 1970 essay, “My Recollections of Kafka,” by John Fowles, in which no less a literary light than the author of “The Magus” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” makes what he calls an “appalling confession of ignorance”—that he has forgotten almost everything he ever knew about Kafka and his work, which he had read while at Oxford. “What I think I know well is his spirit, his tone of voice, his coloration (or lack of it), his drift, his one brilliant metaphor,” writes Fowles, and that’s about it.

As an Oxford graduate and former schoolmaster, Fowles may have been gently mocking the academic assumption that the more you can accurately recall of a work of literature, the better. But we don’t have to prove anything to ourselves when we read for pleasure. Outside the classroom and the pages of literary journals, you could almost view literature as the residue that remains after all the details have faded, living on in a kind of twilight zone of the dimly remembered and half forgotten. No sharp edges at all, just a big blur, really.

Updike’s work, perhaps not so coincidentally, figures in an example of this -- rather like the “sparkling pod of snippets’ he talked about over the weekend. It’s Nicholson Baker’s often hilarious and occasionally poignant minor classic, “U & I: A True Story,” a book-length memoir/essay that dissects his love-hate relationship with John Updike and his work, which was what first inspired him to become a writer.

It’s a small comic masterpiece, a self-deprecating look at just how messy the process of engaging with a favorite writer really is. Time after time Baker recalls some favorite passage from Updike, thrilling at the memory of the first time he read it, only to report dutifully to the reader that when he actually went back and checked the passage—if he could even find it, since some passages his unreliable memory seemed to have made up out of whole cloth — it was nothing like his memory of it. His mnemonic perversity doesn’t just distort Updike’s lapidary descriptive passages, but it also subverts entire plot lines. Sometimes, as it turns out, Baker prefers the author’s version, sometimes his own.

Isn’t it precisely this twilight zone of imperfect memory that allows us, as readers, the freedom to bring our own creativity and imagination to the conversation with an author we call reading? And why shouldn't we be able to extend that conversation digitally, just as we extend our musical experience with the iPod?

Monday, May 22, 2006

We're from the government, and we're here to protect you


This telephone thing? Don't worry about it. There's Evil out there and we intend to stop it before it strikes. Besides, our lawyers tell us it's perfectly legal. We're not eavesdropping -- no, we're just building a database to look for terrorist patterns, nodes, networks, anything. The details are classified, but don't worry, we built it for you, and your safety is our only concern. You want to be safe, don't you? We've kept you safe ever since 9/11, right? Your security is our only concern, really. We're from the government, and we're here to protect you. Nobody who hasn't done anything wrong has anything to fear.

Yeah, right. Paul Soglin is among those who are not buying it.
They're not looking for terrorists; they're trying to protect the dirty secrets of the coup d'etat. This will frighten some of the good folks in federal offices and some of the press. But there are too many of both for the information not to escape, and today's trickle will become a flood.

Once we change Congressional majorities in this fall's elections, the details that will all come out will make Watergate look like the "second-rate burglary" it actually started as. Let's just not let the hunta steal the 2006 election as they did in 2000, and in 2004.
What boggles my mind is easy the easy acceptance of Bush's surveillance society by many (if not all) on the right who would have completely flipped out if it had happened under Clinton. What's with that?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

This is what was left after they tore down most of the block to build the condo magnet

This is what the wreckers left five years ago. For some reason, I've always thought the green structure came from the roof of Yost's department store, but I can't identify it in any old pictures of the 1923 Madison landmark, so maybe that’s just wishful thinking. Anyone know what it is, where it's from, or where it went?

You’ll recall Yost's was totally gutted, leaving only its facade, which became the main entrance to the condo magnet known as the Overture Center. To the boosters, architect Cesar Pelli’s appropriation of Madison history as architectural stage set seemed ingenious, eclectic and postmodern. To more skeptical observers, it seemed both patronizing and political, a sop to mollify those who wanted to preserve the Yost’s building. And what about the awkward glass dome plopped down on what remained of the former department store’s mansard roof? Yes, you could say it alludes to the nearby Capitol dome and reflects its form, but what would that really say? Does a paraphrase in prose reflect a poem?

Did it have to be this way? Local blogger Tom Bozzo stepped back from the hype and expressed some well-linked misgivings in Marginal Utility last fall.
Quite simply, if I were the Archduke of Madison, the concert hall would have been located elsewhere — probably in the 300 block of East Washington Avenue, where a surface parking lot presently anchors the southwest end of the East Wash corridor's post-industrial blight. This crackpot view was reinforced by taking in fire truck parade from a vantage point across State from the old Capitol Theater/Civic Center entrance. From the historic Capitol facade to the glassed-in wedge "icon" where the Radical Rye used to be (the Radical Rye of Light?), Cesar Pelli has given us a rather sterile and over-tall stretch of wall for the not overly broad State St (visible behind the Fitchburg ladder truck here; compare the rosy-looking drawing on this Overture Foundation page). Plus, in my fantasy world, Dotty's, the Radical Rye, and whatever was in the old Deb and Lola's (sniff) space would never have been displaced.

What of the broader development issues? I had been somewhat boggled back in the death throes of the Fairchild St. Dotty's that, having been graced with a State Street that could survive the best efforts of the urban pedestrian mall fad to kill it, the city would knock down perfectly good businesses in the name of the arts — or at least the somewhat misguided notion that what the street really needed was more Symphony patrons.
Some of us are still boggled. Some of us still think of white whales when we pass by on the way to the Farmers’ Market (Pelli’s huge, not entirely beloved Pacific Design Center in LA is called the “blue whale” by locals). We promise our loved ones we’ll stop ranting, but we keep breaking our promise.

UPDATE: Thanks to Nadine for pointing me to the Angus McVicar photo of "the green whatsit," right on top of the original Yost's building. I knew I had seen it before. I can see why they had to take it down. It just didn't fit in with the sterile postmodern artiness.