My quick tour of Lucia Berlin’s prose is complete as I have now finished A Manual for Cleaning Women, and I’m struck (again) by the intense clarity and pain that she invokes solely through language. My thoughts follow…
- Every single story is amazing, and can stand on its own. One of the most fascinating parts of her work in my mind though is how seemingly seamlessly (although not unjarringly) she moves through a whole series of approaches that should feel annoyingly crafty and calculated – telling the same story through a different narrative lens, revisiting scenes (a narrative device she will use in Evening in Paradise as well) and adding characters, leading us as readers to believe (against all evidence) that this time the story will end well (only to be gut-punched again at the end).
- Spoiler – these devices all work. I’m not sure I’ve read fiction that had me verged on the edge of tears so often…
- Part of the way she accomplishes this is through the casual ways she moves through class, ethnic, and gender lines. These stories move from remote mining towns in New Mexico and fishing villages off the coast of Chiapas (I think) to the hoipolloi of Santiago and El Paso to the ghettos of Oakland.
- Her narrators move with her, along those same usual suspect lines, with gender and class predominating – stories get told from the perspective of a white male civil rights attorney who defends a reasonable facsimile of Berlin as well as a teenage girlfriend of a drug-runner who has snuck across the US border from Mexico, with a whole range of voices in between.
- The voices form a chorus in the best Greek tradition, even as they speak from their own reality.
- They also stomp all over the border between classes, as Berlin herself worked in a wide range of jobs and can speak coherently and movingly about a dozen of them.
- I’m not going to try to write about each story – I hope to get thoughts down about them all later – but I can’t help but think about the ways in which her language grounds me in human experience that somehow doesn’t ignore subjectivity. I usually prefer reading prose (I’m better at reading poetry that is unstinting) that while acutely aware of the misery around us is either surreal or farcical enough to feel sort of light (I’m thinking of folks like George Saunders and Karen Russell, both of whom I love as writers as well). Her prose is never light; even when she’s funny the humor is thoroughly entombed in a graveyard.
- It’s not that her prose can’t be beautiful in any number of ways that we often think of as literary aesthetical gorgeousness – it’s just that she is hyper-empathetic and constantly aware of the sheer fuckery that most people go through as they try to combat what often seem to be intensely difficult mountains to climb.
- In Berlin’s world the panopticon is as fiercely internal as external – cultural forces and biologies combine to create pressures that crush all of us, albeit sometimes in subtle ways.
Caddyshack has reappeared in my life a couple of times recently. It was released the year I graduated high school and left for college, and it played on the midnight movies a lot, so I saw it (a lot). I’ll not swear that I saw it in any clear-minded state, but oh my word I laughed a bunch, every time, so the fact that it has reappeared makes me happy, and makes me wonder…
I haven’t watched it in its entirety for several years, but when I saw it was on an option on a recent flight I didn’t hesitate. I giggled quietly and hysterically to myself for the next two hours, and since then I have sat down and watched it again. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this but I laughed at all the same places, most of which are here.
However, what makes me want to write about the film is what it satires. There are recent films (and series) that poke fun at the rich (the first two seasons of Arrested Development are genius, I think), but they seemingly can’t end without the rich people being either proven to be evil in some fundamental way or finding a way to redeem themselves. The idea that they have taken advantage of structural, systemic advantages in a skewed, unequal system seems impossible for contemporary Hollywood to comprehend, and the resulting cultural work that is done seems predictable – it justifies the rich and their place in our culture.
I’m not arguing somehow that the 80s films were better in a more socially conscious way – saying that Caddyshack is some sort of hyper-intentional shredding of the way that the rich function in our culture is a hard argument to make, and there are definitely indie films that satirize the uber-wealthy in funny and useful ways. Coming hard on the heels of the hyper-earnestness of the Sixties, films like Caddyshack got shredded by the left for reducing the debate about wealth accumulation to ridiculous levels and thus invalidating the entire discussion. There’s something to be said for that argument, of course. Continue Reading
One of the fascinating things to me about the Presidential race this year is the fact that the candidates themselves are calling attention to the machinations behind politics. And this is happening on the Republican side, long the party that favored getting the adults in a room and working out deals (in comparison to the image of Democrats as ideologues).
First, Trump calls out super-pacs. This in itself isn’t that revolutionary – candidates often decry each other’s reliance on big campaign financiers, and how this reliance is a flaw of the American system. In Trump’s case, however, he said exactly what this money buys: direct access and influence. He talked openly about how he could simply call one of the politicians he gave money to, and (in essence) get what he wanted done. That next step, I think, broke a lot of unwritten rules and made some folks wonder if Trump is trolling the Republican Party.
The next episode was Chris Christie’s attack on Rubio in the last debate (Feb. 6). Again, the initial argument is to me a routine one – one candidate attacks the other on an issue that makes sense – does the attackee have enough experience? What’s interesting is the next step that Christie takes, when he calls out directly how Rubio’s answers are tailored, noting the 25 second soundbyte “written by his advisers” and the inability to move beyond that point. And Christie doesn’t just note the first time that Rubio does this: he calls Rubio out each time.
I wonder where this sudden desire to point out the man behind the curtain is coming from. It might simply be that Christie is a bit desperate and is angry about Rubio’s teflon qualities. It might also be the ways in which Christie is trying to portray himself as the ever-popular Washington outsider. In any case, it’s a fascinating reveal into parts of the process itself.
I’m curious, though, if any of this sort of exposure happens without this new world of digital culture. I am guessing that watching Rubio choke on stage is good theater and spectacle, and that in itself would have been pointed out in any era. Does the need for tweet content and clicks, though, somehow drive this process in ways that exceed what we have seen in the past? The answer to me seems obvious (yesyesyesyesyesyes)…
Dunham’s poetry is amazing (the book I own is “The Flight Cage”, available here), and this poem struck me tonight as I contemplate the nuances between gender that I can struggle to get…
“Bless her little heart! She shall be as sick as she pleases!” – Charlotte Perkins Gilman “The Yellow Paper”
She looked like a precious doll, the mortician
said. Here in bed, I arrange my limbs
thusly, as if hinged. I will be
Incorruptible: body intact as the living,
as Maria Regina, dead at only 33
but exhumed four years later to no sign
of decay, wreathed and sweet as it smells
on high (though faded by the slow-turning
sunlight). Come winter, I will petal
the air a spray of daffodil. Yellow is
earth, orpiment, saffron and gold – most
holy metal. Coat my face with wax.
I refuse the journey forward, or back.
Figures she’d teach me a new word as well…and I’m fascinated by the movement in this poem, movement from the artificial to the no-longer-living to the organic and back to the artificial. That movement ends, abruptly, controlled by the narrator, no longer allowing herself to be manipulated at the hinges, or to be defined by men saying ‘bless your heart’.
I saw one of our alums read his poetry last night, and I was fascinated by his own personal trope – he kept talking about what motivates him as a poet is the idea that he has failed and hurt several of the people he loves most. He didn’t talk about redemption, necessarily, although one poem hinted at that, but this idea fascinated me, especially as I think about the ways in which we construct masculinity…
As male citizens of the US we sure as hell don’t want to admit that we have failed, and especially in something as critical to our identity as protectors as what TJ discusses. Perhaps, just perhaps, this sort of admission takes us to a place where we can all be more honest about our own weaknesses (as in admitting we have any at all)…
I recently finished The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson, and boy was I prepared to hate it. Let’s see…
- about a part of the world that the author cannot know much about – check!
- uses clever literary devices of flashback and mistaken identities – check!
- features the poorest of the poor to tell a story of redemption – check!
Happily, I’m very wrong, and this novel felt sad in all the right places, pressed emotional buttons that it had no right to press (but did so successfully), and somehow gave a feeling for just how fucked-up The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea is (and how evil, and how banal evil truly is). The use of a poor kid with a skill for survival, living in the dark, and languages as a cipher for the misery and hopelessness and pervasiveness of propaganda and state control should not have worked, but I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough towards the end.
I think that the device works particularly well because of the way that the orphan master’s son is known by all, and yet the regime can’t let the rest of the nation know that this hasn’t been all planned out. They even try to control his death at the end, but his own interrogator takes that power away from them.
Two thumbs way up!
This job posting came across one of the listserves I read last night. It lists a tenure-track position in media studies, big data, and health care, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t want to apply for it myself. The job seems to be a beautiful clashing of discplinary walls that offers to do what universities, ideally, do best – research, reflect, plan, create, gather resources, and analyze.
Coupled with an article like this one from Forbes, it also hints at the types of collaborations that are necessary, I think, if we are to create the sorts of structures that new economic development can come from. Billy Beane is a believer in data (despite the fact that the A’s spent a month crashing to reality without Cespedes), and yet he deals in a game that has always been as much about touch and feel as any hard science. I don’t want to romanticize Beane – there is more than a bit of arrogance in him that comes with the job – but his ability to navigate two seemingly disparate geographies points to a place of intersection or interruption or disruption that digital humanities can provide, if we are smart and quick and flexible enough. As much as we might think otherwsie, we do not have a monopoly on ethics, but our different perspective (and ability to look at problems from many different directions) should be an invaluable component of any collaborative efforts to address the types of questions that MSU is asking the person who takes that job to look at.