I’m Not Here to Tell You About Jesus

Do you think that God exists? If you had to choose, would you describe yourself as a believer, an atheist, or an agnostic? Now, the first thing I should flag about this question is that for most people it yields a firm answer. For thousands of years, erudite scholars have made argument after  argument on all sides of this question, but I bet that, whichever one of these options you choose, your choice is an unreserved one: you don’t tend to qualify it with “well, I could be totally wrong: there’s a lot on each side.”

Now maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way, and actually agnosticism is just the box to check for “there’s a lot on both sides.” But I think agnostic means a bit more than that: it’s a term that describes a range of people running from atheists-in-sheep’s-clothing to those who think it is truly an unknowable question and either side could be equally right. In my personal experience I tend to find more of the former than the latter, but your mileage may vary.

More importantly, though, is that the agnostic is not someone who is half a religious believer and half an atheist, she doesn’t just sit astride the midpoint of that spectrum. There is an entire type of religious experience the believer has access to that the agnostic forsakes. She doesn’t worship in temple on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then stay home in disbelief the rest of the time*[1]: the act of worship is totally cut off by her self-designation. This is not because she has doubt – the religious believer also has doubt (indeed it’s the very crucible of faith). The agnostic’s doubt is different because it leads her to rationally designate herself as removed from the concept of God. And that is something a believer can never truly do. Continue reading

Rabbit, Run

Rabbits are stupid creatures. They’re grazers, chewing on pasture; their huge eyes scan the sky for danger (just about any predator is bigger than them and far more imposing).  They run fast but not far, dashing away when threatened yet incapable of aiming at any lasting end: they don’t roam far. Rabbits don’t just run; they breed incessantly, fucking furiously is their path to immortality. Maybe it’s this oblivious helplessness, the gentle hedonism, that makes them so appealing. Maybe it’s that they’re just puffs of white fur with cute ears. Either way, they’re just so darn cute and we can’t help but love them.

The rabbit is a rather unheroic beast, yet that’s the spirit animal John Updike chose for Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the main character of Rabbit, Run. Harry was once a high school basketball star. He set his school’s scoring record as a junior and then broke it again as a senior. It took four years for someone else to break it in turn. Now (as of 1960 in Rabbit, Run) he’s a twenty-five year old father of one and husband to a pregnant wife. He’s a salesman of the Magi-Peeler kitchen appliance. He’s also basically a rabbit.

Ok, not really. This isn’t Watership Down (or Redwall: funny, the continued anthropomorphism of rodents in fiction). Harry’s just a person with strangely-rabbit like qualities. Updike revels in the sheer wit ofmatching Harry’s characteristics to his rodent namesake’s special traits, delighting in rabbit-like mannerisms (“Now, Harry, don’t wrinkle your nose.”) as well as his rabbit’s soul. Harry, you see, shares all of those qualities I wrote about above. He’s obsessed with sex; he instinctively runs from adversity. He shares the rabbit’s wide-eyed appreciation of nature, is a grazer rather than a predator, his inner gaze somehow always half-turned towards the sky, towards finding the deeper meaning in the brutal ordinariness of life around him. He’s a sensitive creature but not a strong or imaginative one. When he feels the oppressive ordinariness hemming him in, the only thing he can think to do is run away. Ignorant of destination, he never wanders far. He’s a domestic animal at heart. Continue reading

Tiny Furniture

            Is Lena Dunham an exhibitionist by nature or does she just play one on TV (and in her movie and on YouTube)? By this, I mean, does Lena Dunham just like showing herself off or does she think boldly putting her self in self-expression is the best way of achieving her artist’s vision? Weirdo or a hero? You decide, but all appearances point to the latter.

            Not that it matters, I suppose. Her work is her work, no matter its motivation (great fiction is not created just by the pure of heart). Nevertheless, it’s tough not to speculate when, in her first movie, Tiny Furniture, Lena casts her mother as her mother and her sister as her sister. Lena herself plays, of course, the star, Aura, a wannabe film-major daughter of an artist (guess what Lena’s mom does for a living).

            This seeming autobiographical mode poses a problem: How do you play yourself sympathetically if you’re staggeringly successful at an extremely young age, if you know you’re absurdly privileged, if your subject is “how hard and weird it is to be alive even if you’re middle class and your parents were pretty loving”*? By being absolutely vicious to yourself, Dunham answers. Dunham the director portrays Dunham the actress in the least attractive manner possible: without makeup, in various stages of unattractive undress, having sex doggie-style in a metal tube on the streets of New York, etc.. Dunham’s not really fat but, flouting actorly norms, she consistently makes herself look fat by broadcast standard. She makes Aura in Tiny Furniture as unappealing as possible: she’s whiny, entitled, dishonest, and unwise. One would say Aura’s unlucky in love but that would imply some possibility that her choices might work out better than they do. An audience could be forgiven for giving up hope in her, but she seems too immature to even be a lost cause.

            Yet Aura comes wrapped in a nice, earnest, Lena-Dunham-shaped bow meant to maintain a hold on our good graces, and as you watch the movie you don’t notice the unlikeable details piling up. This triumph, such as it is, is perhaps enabled by a reversal of typical indie-movie structure.  Usually, such movies start by making their protagonist unlikeable as possible and then steadily softening them up throughout the film. Tiny Furniture flips the script, backlogging Aura’s self-destruction mostly till the end. We grant our love at first sight; it’s only later events that force us to question our sympathies.

            This unconventional plot structure slots Tiny Furniture into the category of character-centric mood piece in the vein of Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces or Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson. Like those movies, Furniture denies us the opiate of conclusion delivered by the climax of more conventional works. Here there is no climax. Such dramatic satisfaction as we receive must be awkwardly tantric: a prolonged awareness of mood and character that fades only as we move on from the movie to other things. I find this feeling unpleasant, and I suspect many audience-members will enjoy Furniture’s beginning more than its end, the pleasures of its initial uber-realistic dialogue over its finale’s quiet, contemplative emptiness.

            But are we being fair to decry this a weakness? Isn’t the demand for conventional dramatic structure a sacrifice of art for entertainment’s sake? After all, real life doesn’t always provide resolutions, and certain experiences may require a wider palette to be successfully painted. The condition of being no longer a girl but not yet a woman** doesn’t need to be one that ends triumphantly. This of course begs the obvious question of why Dunham couldn’t have pushed her character a little further, couldn’t have ended her movie with Aura achieving for herself some steps towards the successful adulthood where she seems to be heading?

            We could look at stopping short as a weakness on Dunham’s part, but I prefer to project a little, use my imagination, and take it as an occasion to admire her honesty as an artist: She was 22 when she made this work; she may just not have felt ready to successfully portray her character’s successful ascent to responsibility. Now, many directors in that situation would have just shrugged and jammed a happy ending in anyway. It’d be easy enough to write: you just switch a few plot details towards the finale to put the movie on an upbeat trend rather than an ambiguous one; problem solved. Who’d know the difference?

            Dunham would, for one. She’d know that some of the movie was good and reflected her best expression of what she felt was true about the world and some of it was just meant to make other people like it. And maybe the audience wouldn’t know per se; maybe, in fact, they’d enjoy the movie a little more, but the ideas they’d get from the film, what they’d perceive about their own lives as a result, would be hopelessly tarnished: the message of post-college adolescent angst muffled by a smiley-face of everything’s-always-going-to-be-ok.

            I remember watching the James Bond movie, GoldenEye, when I was thirteen. Spoiler alert, James gets the girl in the end. As I watched he and Natalya rolling idyllically through the grass, so in love after the world (or a football-sized-satellite dish) had exploded around them, I wondered what her fate would be after the movie was over. Did they remain in love and get married? Even then, I knew better, but one of the reasons that GoldenEye, while a tremendously fun movie, wasn’t exactly a serious contender to win Best Picture in the 1995 Academy Awards is that it was fundamentally a fantasy, its romances imitating real romance with an aim not to reveal something true but to obscure something fake. We never see James drunkenly stopping by Natalya’s Moscow apartment a few times and then failing to return her calls. The movie wouldn’t be better for doing so, but that’s just because it’s not exactly all that deep.

            Even for very good movies that aim to do more than pleasantly imitate, the temptation to cut corners and succumb to easy sentimentalism is often too strong to resist. Dunham deserves credit for abstaining from this easy satisfaction, praise for the maturity to tell the best story she was capable of, admiration for making something not as satisfying as we would have wanted her to create.   


* a quote from another HBO show, not Girls. Two points to any reader who got the reference.

** Sorry, but no points for getting that reference, which I’m basically ashamed even to have made.

The Art of the Goon Squad

 This is the second of two posts about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad

            Yesterday I mentioned that Egan’s novel lacked moments of joy as if it were a critique. Now, of course, the experience of joy is just one of many emotions that come upon us in life, and it’s no artist’s obligation to depict every feeling in every work (“I don’t like Radiohead because they never just, like, chill out.”). So is it fair for me to (sort of) mark her down for failing at something she didn’t really attempt? Perhaps not, but while I’m here I might as well make another possibly unfair attack, which is the way she deals with the value of art. Goon Squad is a book about a constellation of people involved in punk rock written by someone who seems to despise punk and everything it stands for. Now, contempt is not always a barrier to understanding (see the poisonous attitude the Sopranos had towards its characters; unsurprisingly that show greatly influenced Egan’s work on Goon Squad), and in many ways Egan’s opposition to the “never-grow-old” theme of punk does a fantastic job of illuminating the essence of the genre. By setting the bulk of her story after the end of punk, she draws out the sterile echo of the electric Fuck-You punk screams at death. Who’s to judge hers as an unfair attitude to take towards such music?

            Indeed, Egan seems to lump music in nihilistically with the whole pile of vanities, trivialities, and general bad shit that her characters misguidedly cling to. For Bennie, music is just a way of reliving his mediocre high-school band (same with Scottie, I think). Lou likes it because it keeps him around young people. Rhea (a young person) mostly wants the excuse to hide because “how can anyone call me ‘the girl with freckles’ when my hair is green?”. When we see the much-talked about band Conduit (who made Bennie’s career) in concert, the character’s attention is elsewhere, Rob (chapter 10, 2nd person) simply notices the feel of lead-singer Bosco’s flinty, crowd-surfing back as the rest of his life crumples in around him.

            I can think of really just four moments in the book where we see art’s potency: in the first, the anger of the crowd at a Flaming Dildos concert feeds back into Scotty’s furious performance, creating an electric screech of disappointment and nihilism; years hence, a late-period, sagging Bosco explains his idea for a “Suicide Tour” to the dissatisfied housewife who doubles as his publicist (chapter 7). It’s a comeback where his on-stage antics will inevitably lead his cancerous body to collapse and kill him; – the novelty of the idea sends an unhappy charge through her as she recognizes its immediate appeal while struggling to be repulsed by it; my favorite potent moment describes a “slightly-autistic” thirteen year-old’s loving catalogue of the silences within different songs (“The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.”) – songs becoming just the beat that reminds us we’re still alive and that that’s something.

            The book ends with the final such moment: a concert that was conceived impurely, its audience summoned through corporate tricks to see music meant to appeal to infants. Nevertheless, the music, its artist shaky and in declining years (as if he ever had lofty years from which to fall), broadcasts a signal to which the audience is tuned: “And it may be that a crowd at a particular moment of history creates the object to justify its gathering…. Or it may be that two generations of war and surveillance had left people craving the embodiment of their own unease in the form of a lone, unsteady man on a slide guitar…. Gazing … with the rhapsodic joy of a generation finally descrying someone worthy of its veneration.”

            Here we see most clearly the meaning of art according to Egan the artist. Whereas writers so often romanticize art itself as hallowed, as providing meaning and beauty in a world with too little of it, to Egan, art simply extracts more purely ore from the world as it is. Purifying the essence of the world to make it visible fails to render it more pure, not truly: it’s just the same shit as life, this time in a more obvious shape. While most artists pride the quest for artistic success as inherently dignified, as more heroic than the pursuits of others, to Egan, it’s just another vanity, another way to forget the ticking clock you can’t ignore grinding away at the base of your spine. Art isn’t some universal end, some capital word Truth or Beauty. it’s just the same as everything else, only moreso. 

Visit From the Goon Squad (Part 1)

This is the first of two posts about Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning work- Visit From the Goon Squad:

Meet Sasha (from whose vantage we see the first chapter): she’s a 30-something kleptomaniac formerly employed by music industry executive Bennie Salazar. Now (2nd chapter) meet Bennie, divorced, sold-out to a mainstream label, his best days behind him, trying to find in music the spark of youth of his high-school band (The Flaming Dildos). Flash back to meet Rhea (3rd chapter, first-person), the overly-freckled girl who loves high-school Bennie (who in turn loves rich Alice, who loves Dildos lead-singer Scotty (6th), who loves Jocelyn (5th), who loves Lou, a 40-something record executive who will turn out to one day be Benny’s mentor). Maybe twenty-five or so years later Lou dies, largely alone, mostly forgotten. Even as he rises towards death he tries to pull himself back to a youth misremembered, clutching to two 40-something women, one of whom he fucked while she was a high-schooler (see above). She thinks he ruined her life. He doesn’t want to remember that. He just wants to be young. That’s all he ever wanted.

Sorry, you probably think I’m spoiling the book for you. I’m not; I swear. A Visit From the Goon Squad doesn’t have a plot as such: Egan takes Proust for her epigrapher, then jumps back and forth in time, eschewing the common conceit of suspense by often mentioning, as an aside, the outlined future of her characters. Here’s an example:

“The warrior smiles at Charlie…. Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions)….”

The goon squad of the title is time. Every character in the book dies, if not on-screen, then certainly off, at least eventually (we don’t see most of them, but we know where they’re heading).  I’d apologize for ruining the surprise, but of course that’s the point: every character in every book dies (if only off-screen), because every person dies. The goon squad’s visits remind us that our whole, piteous lives must be measured against the vast vacuum in which they take place. Many (most?) of Egan’s characters try to scrabble back up the vine of their memory, hoping to climb to a moment of youth too remote for the abyss below to be visible. They never succeed.

Nobodies and failures populate the novel. Even those outwardly-blessed by success – Bennie, Lou, rock-star Bosco of the Conduits, publicist La Doll (or, by the time we get to know her, Dolly) – have been beaten up and left disfigured by time. Unfortunately, it can all get a bit numbing after a while: Egan structures her book as a series of swirling viewpoints, surrounding two or maybe three lives (Bennie, Sasha, and, to some extent, Lou). Each chapter takes up a different character’s point-of-view. The book spins forward and backward throughout time but has perhaps a general trend-line stretching from Bennie’s teen years in the early 80s towards a future maybe ten-fifteen years distant from our own.

The lack of structure (is the book a novel or collection of related short stories?) combined with the thematic similarity of the characters and their stories, can make Goon Squad feel at times a bit more authorial hammer than writerly laser. Egan’s commitment to portraying a host of characters is impressive. Her 274-page book peeks into the interior life of more than a dozen characters, nearly as many (by my guesstimate) as Tolstoy’s 1350-page War and Peace, not a book known for its narrow focus. That’s a formidable task for any writer to undertake, and she deserves credit for her bravery. Moreover, her characters, male and female, are sturdily-drawn and fairly convincing. She has a particular faculty with teenagers and children, whose voices often illuminate the best parts of the novel, including a stunningly good PowerPoint diary drawn up by a 12-year old of the future. It brings the book to an emotional crescendo and was, to me, by far the most powerful thing in it.

And yet, looking back on the book, I have to say that for me its expansive gaze may have ended up as a weakness and not strength. Peered back at from a distance, the stories of all of these sad people start to blend together. You lose their individuation in the mist of their common regret and loss. Oh, of course you remember that one’s a journalist, another a publicist, a third the freelance publicist turned dissatisfied-housewife, a fourth’s a legal secretary-turned stay-at-home dad. And yet, what really makes these people individuals rather than clones of one another? Are they just melancholy dolls differentiated through their genders, ages, and background stories (this one born rich, this one poor, that one did coke, the other heroin)? The answer to that last question is probably no: many of the characters do stick with you and feel memorable. At the same time, though, because the emotional range of the novel is so limited (I can’t remember a single moment of real joy in the whole book), it’s easy to let the Goon Squad’s individuation recede into a murky fog. Add to this the fact that Egan’s characters, stared at individually, are well-done, a competent, decent job, but that she only rarely if ever plumbed the level of psychological depth that some of the greats are capable of: your Tolstoys, Updikes, and Franzens, each of whom can at times break through an outer shell of character that Egan rarely pierces into a vast interior life of which we see here only a glimpse. When you combine the commonality of Goon Squad circumstances, they become a people-cloud rather than a set of individuals.

That all said, Goon Squad was a book I enjoyed less while reading it than I do as I recount it. One reason might just be that it’s a generally pretty depressing book. Such characters as find happiness do so off-screen and in ways that suggest the hard-work of a meaningful life following one’s prosaic passions: one character becomes a dairy farmer, another sells cheese, a third goes back to get her PHD at 45 and venture out into the African wild for decades hence. The difficulties of stolid motherhood get special mention as particularly valuable. These are all recounted quickly, and the bulk of the book is devoted to sadness. This is not a flaw, just a reason that I may not have enjoyed the experience of reading it as much at the time as I do in retrospect. Like I said, not much joy here.

I’ll also say, and perhaps this is harsh, that I found Egan to be a very good writer, but just not a prose stylist on the same level as a Nabokov or Diaz or Roth. That’s admittedly an extremely high bar to judge her against, but reading it tended to have fewer “Wow” moments than some other books I’ve loved. That said, one test of a work’s worth is whether it makes you feel something and for how long. Do you just forget the book after you read it? By that standard, I’m finding Goon Squad to be a work that makes an impression on me, if not forever (because what lasts forever?) then at least for a worthy stretch of time.

Attention Deficits

Justified’s pursuit of excitement and non-stop action at the expense of story fits something broader that troubles me about the future of high-end TV. For years, great novelists like Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, and David Foster Wallace have all complained about what they see as the rapidly-declining attention span of the American reader (and indeed of readers of works by people like the authors above, the very type of people whose attentions we might think are most sustained). I worry that a similar thing can be seen in television. The genre that I’ve referred to as “high-end TV” was basically originated by The Sopranos (with some initial influences of things like Oz and The Larry Sanders Show) and then quickly followed by innovators like: The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and The Shield.[1] Those shows were serialized rather than episodic in nature, more graphic than previous critically-acclaimed entertainment, and produced 13 episodes a season rather than 22. Contrasting those against previously-acclaimed pieces like ER, L.A. Law, or (to a lesser extent) NYPD Blue is like night and day in terms of their critical ambitions or quality.

But now, after the initial wave of innovation, this brand of show has entered a more mature phase; some general-interest syndicated networks aspire to put out lighter entertainment (Burn Notice, Leverage, Royal Pains, Monk, White Collar, etc.) but FX, Showtime, Starz, IFC, SyFi, AMC and PBS (Justified, Dexter, Magic City, Portlandia, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, and Downton Abbey among numerous others) have all followed in HBO’s footsteps and have made shows in the roughly 13-episode, more explicit, more loftily-aimed footsteps of the innovators named above.

As the industry has become more mature, though, I worry that it has also become more commercial and less artistic, seeking to project the excitement and thrills that keep the audience coming back for more, letting the backstory and subtlety drip out to feed the climax addiction, to give the viewer more of what they want. Thus plots of shows like True Blood, Justified, and (perhaps) Game of Thrones gain more and more forward-momentum, snow-balls rolling down a hill, while ignoring the contemplation and artistic boundary-pushing that set apart their earlier peers. It’s no coincidence that the more recent shows in this genre that have been produced and stayed on the air[2] have not reached the heights of earlier works. While they’re all good, the best two shows on TV now are each in their fifth season (Mad Men and Breaking Bad). While admittedly some great shows improve a bit over time, there’s nothing new on air now as good as those earlier works, and there’s not a lot in HBO or AMC’s pipeline that gives grounds for hope.[3]

The fast-pace and thrill addiction of Justified makes me concerned that episodic TV – a genre whose works are as lengthy and protracted as a Russian novel – is being damaged by the supposedly limited attention-span of its viewers, and that work in the slow, steady, brilliant vein of a Sopranos, Wire, or Mad Men would not be easily created today on TV. Hopefully this worry is baseless, though, and I eagerly hope for Justified to right the ship and prove me wrong.

[1] Freaks and Geeks is a tremendous show that was a network show and sort of falls outside of this genre.

[2] With the possible exception of Homeland which I haven’t seen.

[3] With the possible exception of Girls, which will never have the scale of the hour-long dramas.