Nell Zink’s Doxology is a longitudinal study of punk rockers from lower Manhattan in the 80s who manage to coax out fairly middle class lives while trying to be true to the indie ethic that dominated that scene. I spent some time in memory lane while reading this one, but it is far more Franzenian social realism than it is High Fidelity or Bright Lights Big City.
- Pam and Daniel are an idealized couple, but even my awareness of that didn’t make them less likable. They mesh in interesting and fun ways, and they share a world view without either one crushing the vision (and emotional freedom) of the other.
- Zink’s command of dialogue, especially between these two, led to some very funny exchanges of the sort that show the sort of mutual respect and understanding that I hope everyone finds in their relationships (whatever shape those take).
- Joe is fascinating – he’s this child of nature who treads lightly through the world until he mysteriously becomes a mega-star, until a girlfriend (who loves him in her own sort of selfish way) shoots him with heroin one time and watches him die out of sheer incompetence.
- That girlfriend then becomes a professional grieving rock star widow, and while I think we’re supposed to hate her even Zink’s narrator can’t do that…
- Speaking of the narrator, this one is wise and funny and an astute observer of the indie music scene. Jes’ sayin’.
- Pam’s relationship with her parents is interesting, as she essentially runs away and doesn’t contact them for years until she and Daniel decide they need to get Flora out of New York after 9/11. Flora then moves in with her grandparents and becomes a child of two cities, New York and Manhattan, and knits the two families back together even while she goes her own way.
- This novel is definitely centered on something that’s not very punk rock – child-rearing. My guess is that that centering device, along with the title, speaks to the not-very-monolithic nature of the indie music movement, just as Joe’s becoming a star in EDM (rather than as a punk or post-punk musician) is another perspective on the branches that grew from that scene…
- My reference to Franzen is not an accident. I guess that Franzen was one of Zink’s early adopters, and his advocacy helped get her published.
- This novel felt Franzenian in its longitudinal study approach, but what felt different was the competence of the characters, and their abilities to dig themselves out of holes in ways that Franzen’s characters never seem able to do.
I think Doxology is pretty brilliant, and I enjoyed the recreation of the music scene in lower Manhattan at a time when some pretty amazing bands were playing there. The narrative move to post-9/11 New York lent some gravity to the novel in a way that helped it leap from a self-indulgent reminiscence of the underground-yet-sorta-privileged music scene to the weirdness that resulted from an attack on our own soil. Even for people who knew the damage our benevolent and not-so-benevolent imperialism has done (and continues to do), 9/11 caused us to rethink our own attitudes, and to reconsider our place in the world.
I’m pretty certain that we’ve taken the wrong lessons from it, but that’s a post for another day.
Parasite (dir. by Bong Joon Ho) had me far closer to the edge of my seat than I would have imagined. It’s not billed as a thriller, necessarily, but I guess that the borders between classes are fraught with this if played right…
- These types of films are often used to highlight the inherent virtue of being able to obtain lots of money – Taxi Driver and Cape Fear are ancient examples that come to mind immediately, with the lower class guy who can’t get rich by legitimate means (define legitimate how you will). If you are a member of the one percent in this configuration, it’s because you deserve it.
- The rich family in this film – the Parks – are not evil, and they earn their money legitimately I would guess, but they are also somehow (perhaps if I understood South Korea better I would know how) to lots of money, while the Kims have a son and daughter who are college and art-school educated but who cannot find jobs, much like their parents.
- My guess is that this film condemns the crazy economic system that exists in South Korea – at one point the dad, Kim Ki-tek, says that 500 people with college degrees apply for jobs as drivers, like the one he used to have. I have no idea how accurate that is, as according to at least this site unemployment there is around 3.5 percent, but perhaps that rate hides a gig economy with insecure employment.
- The interaction between the Parks and the Kims is always fraught with danger. The Kims take full advantage of their scam and get all family members ensconced in the house, only to see things go horribly wrong.
- As a viewer, I get nervous for the Kims as I watch them flout class conventions. At one point while the Parks are camping they take over the house, drinking the good booze, eating their food, enjoying the view, only to have the night come crashing down on them when the Parks return early.
- The Parks will be able to bring the institutional power of the state on the Kims, and the narrative that will result will reify the power of wealth.
- The other theme is the blindness of the Parks, a blindness derived from their class advantages. Mr. and Mrs. Park have sex while their staff (having been busted in the house, and now hiding) lie silently under the huge coffee table, waiting for their chance to escape. Mr. Park talks about how Mr. Kim, his driver, gets too comfortable at times, and how he smells bad, all while the Kims are lying there trying not to breathe loudly.
- We know that the Parks do not have to live by their wits in the same way, as they are able to simply be blind. The film is not that simple – we see through the eyes of Kim the chaos that is Park’s workplace, and he seems stressed even if he is sort of bland – but the Parks have a lot more margin for error, and we know that the full powers of the state will be brought to bear against the Kims for their transgressions.
- The blindness even goes to the news media – we see multiple reports trying to explain what happened, and all of the official outlets say they are baffled as to what could have gone wrong.
- The final scenes, in which all the Kims are driven once again underground, make the class delineations visceral. These distinctions make the film a powerful one, and I’d happily watch it again…
Lila Savage’s Say Say Say immerses us as readers in two very tightly-delimited spaces, and she does so in a way that illuminates and heightens the intensity of both those spaces and our own worlds. If this is Savage’s debut novel, her future looks pretty bright…
- Both spaces we are immersed in are domestic – the protagonist, Ella, is a home health care worker who works with the elderly, and we spend time in the apartment where she lives with her partner Alix in a happy marriage. We spend even more time in the house of Bryn and Jill, so much so that Ella gets nostalgic for the ways that the dust motes hit the afternoon light after her job ends when Jill is moved to a residential care facility.
- We are also immersed in the world of home health care, particularly as we see what Ella does while working with Jill. The title is the product of Jill’s dementia, as she often repeats herself three times – say! say! say! is the way Savage characterizes this speech pattern in the novel – although it also provides a sense of the novel’s tone.
- Ella could be sort of Disneyesque – she feels like a lightweight in a lot of ways, but my guess is that that’s just the way she tries to understand her world, as Jill’s case, with its unstoppable plunge towards the ending that we all face coloring every scene.
- Bryn’s grief is horrific. He’s a retired carpenter, and he’s the one who hired Ella (she’s experienced at this, but Jill is a particularly trying case), but he flits in and out of scenes almost like a fly or bee. He doesn’t know what to do with the sheer exhaustion of his life, and he’s constantly grateful to Ella for the amount of time she’s there, even if she’s being paid.
- In a sense grief boomerangs from Bryn to Ella (and perhaps back), as they try to prevent Jill from hurting either herself or the house, and Ella gains brief glimpses into just how badly this hurts Bryn to watch the woman he has shared his life turn into something he doesn’t recognize.
- And there is no redemption or transformation – Ella doesn’t use this experience to paint more effectively or more fiercely (she’s an on-again, off-again artist), and Bryn doesn’t find happiness ever after – it all just is.
- There’s a lot going on here with the sudden immersion of a paid stranger into families, the dispersal of work that used to be done by a family or a community and that is now handled through a monetary exchange, and so on. The gig economy for the win…
- We also see Jill’s world in the only way we can in novelistic form – through those who observe her.
- I’m tempted to compare this to Butler, Moshfegh,Emezi, Eisenberg, or Berlin, all women who write intensively and unforgivingly about domesticity and mental health, and the comparison is fair, although Savage is much less interested in the point of the view of the patient than she is those who watch the decline.
- And, like all these authors, Savage is capable of achingly beautiful prose. A couple of quick examples:
Jill no longer carried herself with the burdensome knowledge of continual assessment womanhood so often brings. (35)
Was Ella naturally kind and gentle, or had the culture made her so, worn her down like beach glass, pushed her to her knees, forever eager to please? (68)
Their roles were stripped genderless through a wildfire of loss, standing stark where lush growth might have hidden predators, there was only charred and shivering sufferer and co-sufferer, lover and beloved. (69)
The strength it must have taken to contain that suffering, so that only the edges showed, so that a stranger’s glance wouldn’t exactly read them but might snag on something ambiguously raw in his bearing or his voice, it amazed Ella. It also put her in the peculiar position of being able to let the whisper of it fall into the background when she didn’t have the energy for empathy. (91)
It was love as anticipation of loss, it was love as shared burden of pain and embarrassment. It was pain transformed into gratitude, for without the ache, a stained tablecloth was merely flawed, merely unlovely, but the ache was like a caress on her grandmother’s wrinkled cheek, a comb straightening the crooked part. (153)
There are many more.
Despite my love of sci-fi and fantasy, I’m starting to think that I have a thing for novels that simultaneously inhabit and explode the limits women find themselves bound by…
Whitehead’s novel about his avatar Jonny Appleseed strikes me as a sorrow-filled yet full of resilience look at the issues of growing up gay on the reservation. More thoughts below…
- The heroes of this novel are the women. Men rarely provide support for Jonny, but the women in his life – ranging from his kokum to his mom – are there, even while they fight through their own issues.
- Whitehead’s use of the journey back to the reservation to attend a funeral provides another perspective on the path that Tommy Orange said he wanted to document in There There. Orange argues in There There that culturally in the US we prefer to imagine Native Americans on the reservation, away from those “polluting” influences of the big city, locking them in a nostalgic view of the American West that helps us atone for the sins of pursuing manifest destiny.
- Jonny Appleseed pretty straightforwardedly does the opposite of this, showing the narrator moving away from the reservation in order to find alliances as he struggles with the consequences of being gay in a society that hates gay people. He does not leave his ethnic identity behind – as the spoon boy in The Matrix says “that would be impossible” – but he finds some affirmation in the city (Winnipeg) that the men on the reservation cannot or will not give him.
- The narrator tells us through his grandmother of the concept of the second skin, which I guess is something that some Native American tribes acknowledge. There are issues with this, but my guess is that in some ways it makes members of the tribe who are LGBTQ+ feel less alien.
- I am gradually starting to become aware of just how many identification labels Native Americans have – in this book I was introduced to NDN and Nate. NDN makes a lot of sense, and my best guess about Nate is that is connected to Native Americans who live in the city.
- For a peak at the joyful space that is often found in Urban Dictionary, check out this entry for Nate.
- I love the buffalo on the cover – its red and white makes it look skinned, but it’s also embroidered, complicating a symbol that is often connected with masculinity (and hyper-masculinity1 at that).
- Finally, Whitehead’s appropriation of the Johnny Appleseed figure calls attention to just how problematic Appleseed is as a figure in US history, representing as he does a pastoral, uncomplicated, idealized version of the European settler, one goofy enough to wear an iron pot on his head and yet savvy enough to own property on the border.
I recently read Newitz’s Autonomy, and I wondered how she could so accurately describe the paths that our technological development might follow. Having read Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans will Survive a Mass Extinction, I now understand, because as a science writer and editor of io9, she has been in this conversation for a long time and knows a lot about scientific trends. She extrapolated some fascinating ideas based on that knowledge…
More thoughts below:
- Newitz’s approach is far different from most who write about our future destruction – she thinks humans, as agile, problem-solving, incredibly smart creatures, should survive. She does not ignore the problems we cause – she links us to cyanobacteria as the only organisms to negatively impact the planet enough to bring about a mass extinction – but she thinks that ultimately we are worthy of moving onto the next step in our development.
- As if any of this is linear, of course…
- In the book she charts both mass extinctions from the planet’s geological history *and* stories of how humans have scattered, adapted, and remembered, and thus survived.
- Her description of the ways that Jews have survived is particularly interesting, as she talks about the importance of culture, narrative, and story.
- Her view is remarkably non-anthropocentric – by positing humans in what she argues (with help from a bunch of scientists) is the beginning of the next large mass extinction, she identifies our place in the universe as a little smaller and more fitting than how we ordinarily think of ourselves.
- The last section of the book is probably too short, but it was fascinating as she discussed how humans will probably adapt (breathe methane, have skin that can survive acid rains on other planets, and so on) and the immediate technological developments we will pursue (algae-derived energy, space elevators, and so on).
- She doesn’t simply talk about all this from her own “research” as that is defined now – glorified Google searches. Instead, she shows us what powerful science writing is by incorporating interviews (that she’s done) and research from the scientific communities involved in this discussion – disaster preparation as well as well energy derivation and space exploration.
- As someone who occasionally thinks that maybe a meteor strike wouldn’t be a bad idea, I appreciate her rational, pragmatic, and organized look at ways that we might actually survive (and heavens forbid learn from) the coming destruction we are doing to the planet…
Tommy Orange’s There There feels drenched in the violence that Native Americans have experienced since the arrival of Europeans, and that immersion feels icky to someone like me who has benefited from white privilege.
That’s how it should be.
More thoughts below:
- This novel feels related in a familial way to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, in both the brutality of the narrative and its multiple-perspective form. One of the key differences is that Orange does not try to recreate language patterns like James does, and he can pull this off since his narrators are not often first-person.
- Another key difference is the mini-essay that Orange begins There There with, a meditation of sorts on the Indian head from US-issued coins. I’m assuming that the essay is as close to Orange’s voice as we will get, and it is apologetic (to the reader at least) for the material that it covers while also setting out clearly what the novel hopes to accomplish. The directness of this felt refreshing, especially since Orange argues that the best way to communicate the disruption and violence that the Indian community is subjected to is through a disrupted narrative, and yet he wants readers to not be discouraged from reading it by his approach.
- The storyline kept me reading as much as did the narrative approach. It clearly builds to a climax that is both tragic and seemingly inevitable. It also points to the smallness of the circle that is the Native American community after generations of degradation at the hands of white America, as at the powwow this convergence leads to long-separated family members suddenly recognizing each other, often in uncomfortable ways.
- Orange makes transparent his desire to broaden the perspective of what we think of as the Indian experience, introducing his audience to both the “Urban Indian” and the Native American who looks white. In this sense passing becomes a strange phenomenon – a couple of his characters are enrolled members of tribes, and yet they look white enough to find trouble in being accepted into the native community. Passing as white is not something that they desire.
- The references in this are polyglot in all the best ways. The novel’s title comes from a Gertrude Stein diss of Oakland – “there is no there there,” but it also could be a way that we try to comfort children through language. The novel itself references Plath and Stein, and also Erdrich and Alexie, but Orange is comfortable enough with pop culture to include films and music, including Native American rap…
- Orange’s interest in sound is clearly portrayed in this novel, both in the rhythm of his dialogues and the power in the powwow as well.
- As with many of these novels, it feels most clearly the absence or lack – Orange early on describes cities as doubly-fraught-with-tragedy spaces for Native Americans, since they both represent a place that is difficult to survive in and a landscape that used to be far different before whites arrived. The lack is a powerful metaphor, and one that dovetails jarringly with the fascination that canonical Western texts have with wide open spaces as lacking civilization (and thus better proving grounds for masculinity or for reclaiming some lost utopian primitive space).
- Read it. The novel makes the occasional difficulty in identifying which character is which well worth the trouble.
The New Me feels like the ultimate gig economy novel, a The Devil Wears Prada without the pretension, redemption, or hope. I enjoyed it, from the manic narrator and her constant wild mood swings to the step-back chapters that featured how those who work with or know Millie look at her from a third-person perspective.
- My expectations of Millie actually shrunk as the novel progressed. I felt certain that this would progress like a McInerney or Jamowitz or Easton Ellis, with characters who are ultimately lovable and redeemable by the end of the novel despite the stuff they have done and big city settings that feature young people trying to figure stuff out.
- Butler doesn’t do that – I won’t spoil it, but the novel ends far less redemptively or with the narrator having some newfound sense of intentionality than those novels did. The narrative voice moves to third-person even for Millie, and the frantic, desperate, and hopeless tone becomes one of calm resignation. The sense of having given up struck me, hard.
- I’m struggling trying to reconcile the narrative voice with these usual narrative arcs, or with my idea that gig economy texts need to somehow be either redemptive (the protagonist reconciles their place in a messed-up system by doing some sort of relatively good work, like Rob Lowe’s character in About Last Night gentrifying Chicago (but in a good way), or they fight the power as happens in a Cory Doctorow novel. I much prefer Cory Doctorow, by the way.
- Instead, Butler’s novel lets the anger and despair seethe below the surface, never letting either Millie’s intelligence or self-loathing completely go away.
- Butler seems to be compared to Otessa Moshfegh, but that comparison does neither a lot of good. I’ve read a lot of Moshfegh, and this is the first novel of Butler’s that I’ve read, and Moshfegh is much less willing to take responsibility for her characters, much less likely to inhabit them and make them autobiographical. Both methods work, I hasten to add, but the comparison seems misplaced to me.
- I also admire the way that Butler has Millie absorb the idea of the new me, as she is completely enmeshed in the language of self-improvement, occasionally awakening from her spiral to berate herself for not following the new methods of making herself better that she has pulled from the Intertoobz.
- The socialization of women into this culture feels to me like a critical element of imbibing us all in the joys of the gig economy.
- Finally, in my mind both Butler and Moshfegh (as well as many others of course) offer valid strategies for trying to understand contemporary lived experience. We seem aeons away from James Wood’s critique of Pynchon, DeLillo, and mostly Zadie Smith (see Wikipedia’s page on hysterical realism for a primer), and closer to the Beats (who both lived and foresaw where we were going), the frantic energy of the eighties, and a zeitgeist that feels real to me, one in which we try to create filters that enable us to make a modicum of sense of the constant bombardment that we have created and now face.