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Perfect Medium

Henri Robin and a Specter by Eugène ThiébaultIf I lived in Manhattan, I would have seen the Met’s exhibition of spirit photography by now—indeed, I might have already seen it a few times. I’m intrigued by the show because I enjoy the macabre, but these images aren’t just Goth kitsch. Even if the ghosts made manifest might be fake, the desires—for reunion with the dead, for proof of an afterlife, for a trace of wonder—that conjures them forth isn’t.

October 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Ghost Stories

Well, I’ve got my Halloween reading all stacked up on my bedside table. Right now, I’m reading Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and I intend to start Mary Roach’s new book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, soon. Once I’m done with Coraline, I’ll move onto Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck—it’s a book I remember reading and re-reading in grade school—and that should take me right through All Hallow’s Eve.

If you’re looking for a seasonal tale or two, I’ve got a few suggestions for you…

The Haunting of Hill HouseAs I explained when I reviewed The Haunting of Hill House last year, my young students were not overly impressed with this book when I made them read it—they thought it was pretty good, but they didn’t find it all that frightening. Well, it certainly frightens me, every time I read it. I kind of get the creeps just thinking about it. Shirley Jackson strikes a perfect—and thoroughly chilling—balance between psychological suspense and supernatural horror.

More Than You KnowA tale of young love told in retrospect, Beth Gutcheon’s More Than You Know seems like it’s going to be a nice little work of what is commonly known as “women’s fiction”. What it is, though, is a really freaking scary ghost story. It’s also wonderfully well-written—lyrical, but unostentatious, and completely absorbing. For a more detailed endorsement, please see my full review.

Beyond BlackIn the very excellent review of Beyond Black she wrote for The New Yorker, Joan Aocella described Hilary Mantel’s work as “eschatology crossed with comedy”. That about sums it up, I think. Many of her books—Every Day Is Mother’s Day, Vacant Possession, Fludd, even her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost—take place in the same fictional universe, and it’s a universe in which the truly terrible coexists with the truly hilarious. Mantel believes in evil—she believes in a personal evil; that is, the devil—but this doesn’t make her a Puritan or a scold; rather, it makes her sense of the absurd seem like a kind of existential wisdom, and it imbues her work with an almost saintly sympathy.

Everything I’ve just written is even more true in her latest novel. Beyond Black is filled to bursting with malevolent spirits and demonic trauma, and, from this witch’s brew, Mantel conjures a story that is not just alarming, but also very funny and even—ultimately—strangely uplifting.

October 24, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

An Open Letter to Us Weekly

the significance of a marital photo op

Dear Us,

You know I luv you. When first I laid eyes on you, with your breathless devotion to celebrity gossip and total lack of human interest stories, I turned away from People and I’ve never looked back. I never left you for Star, even when Bonnie Fuller did, nor has my head been turned by that tacky limey import, OK! I don’t even mind that “Who Wore It Best” is grammatically sloppy—since there are only two contenders, it really should be “Who Wore It Better”. The feature remains a highlight of my week. Nevertheless, I must take issue with your latest cover story.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not coming to the defense of Nick and Jessica. I have never watched a single episode of their marriage, nor, to my knowledge, have I ever heard a Jessica a Simpson or 98˚ song (I know there are people who won’t believe this, but I never, ever listen to the radio, watch videos, or hang out with the young people). I also feel that a couple who sold their marriage to MTV has no realistic expectation of privacy when that marriage falls apart. And, I’ll be honest with you: I never read a single “We’re so happy!” you ran on the couple, but I have read the unfolding story of their demise. So, it’s not the substance of your article that bothers me; rather, it’s the tone.

Mara Reinstein begins her coverage of the break-up by reporting on Nick and Jessica’s recent trip to Europe, where the couple walked hand-in-hand through Heathrow. Here’s Reinstein’s opening sentence: “Never let it be said that Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson do not understand the significance of a marital photo op.” The rest of the article proceeds at a slightly scandalized pitch, as Reinstein wonders why the couple doesn’t just “come clean about their problems” and registers some dismay at the idea that Nick and Jessica would stoop to faking it for the cameras.

Please. If the Lachey-Simpsons understand the significance of the marital photo op, so does Us. You, my dear weekly, are as responsible as anybody for creating the construct that we call “Nick and Jessica”. If you showed them the power of the well-scripted image to promote their multitudinous entertainment products, they showed you the power of their well-scrubbed cuteness to generate outstanding newsstand returns.

How quickly you have turned. I really couldn’t figure out why you had turned so ugly—Reinstein’s article is equal parts naïve dismay and pure nastiness—until I got to this parenthetical sentence: “(Simpson is currently under paid contract with OK! magazine.)” Then everything became clear: You’re jealous! You’re afraid that Simpson is going to sell the story of her break-up to another mag instead of spilling her guts for you. And after all you’ve done for her, too! You’ve given her and her less-successful half the opportunity to celebrate their love every time rumors of trouble have surfaced. And that bitchy little sidebar about celebrity couples who tried to keep their break-ups secret? That’s a none-too-subtle threat: “Give Us the exclusive, or we’re running ‘Jessica Does Jackass’”.

Here’s the thing, Us: I don’t mind if you dig for the dirt—I am, after all, a subscriber—but, for goodness’ sake, drop the righteous indignation, and please quit playing innocent. It’s not just ridiculous; it’s actually unseemly.

Your fan,
Jessica

October 17, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

School Days at Night: Three Subconscious Scenes

I.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been working on an oral presentation for Spanish class. It’s been stressing me out a little, and, last night, I dreamt that I got to campus on the day of the presentation only to discover that I had forgotten to bring an important component of my presentation—the batch of Aztec cocoa I made to demonstrate the difference between contemporary chocolates and ancient Mesoamerican chocolate. I woke up nervous, but then I thought to myself, “Well, at least the shock of that dream will make me extra-vigilant when I’m getting my things together for the presentation.”

Today was the day of the presentation. I was a few feet away from my Spanish classroom when I realized that I had forgotten my bottle of Aztec cocoa.

I only live a few blocks from campus, but still, this was a pain in my ass. It would have been nice if—just once—a stress dream worked for me instead of against me.

II.

I dream about school a lot. Bryn Mawr is the venue for my most interesting, evocative dreams, and, occasionally, my unconscious mind stages some primal scenes at Woodland Elementary. Stow High is, by far, the most popular setting for stress dreams. Thus, it is the most popular setting overall in the theater that is my brain at night.

Most of the time, in dreams, I am both illiterate and innumerate. Thus, forgetting my locker combination is a common trope. For the first time in a long time, I actually have a locker. It’s outside the studio where I’m taking a printmaking class, and I keep my tools and supplies in it. I don’t seem to be having any trouble with the combination, but, because my only locker-related experiences of the past several years have been in dreams, using my locker makes me existentially woozy—like I’m not sure whether or not I am, in fact, using my locker. At those moments, I’m not sure whether or not I am, in fact, existing.

III.

Often, in my dreams of high school, I find that I have arrived at school naked. Or, at least, half-naked: Sometimes I have a shirt, but this has always seemed more naked than naked to me (as a child, I was always a little disturbed by Porky Pig), so it’s actually worse than just being naked.

Anyway, I’ve been back in school for a semester and a half now, and, so far, this hasn’t actually occurred.

So, I’ve got that going for me.

October 11, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Miu Miu Has Writer’s Block

Miu Miu Has Writer's Block

October 7, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Archival Interview, or, I Just Couldn’t Read Rick Moody’s New Novel but This Old Q&A Is Still Pretty Good

When Dale Peck wrote that Rick Moody was “the worst writer of his generation”, we all knew that he was exaggerating—and I include Peck himself in that “we all.” And, unlike the famously caustic reviewer, I thought The Black Veil was pretty great. Having tried and failed to read The Diviners, though, I begin to think that maybe Peck was on to something.

As you probably know by now, the book begins with an 12-page paean to the dawn, beginning as the sun rises over Los Angeles and following the new day as it travels westward around the globe. Moody takes 2 whole pages to get from the Khyber Pass to Cyprus—this should give you some idea of the pace—but I stuck with him, as I much prefer an author who makes outrageous demands of his reader than one who assumes that his job is pretty much done as soon as he has my $25.95. This does not mean, however, that I don’t expect some kind of reward for my effort, and I was prepared for the story to begin in earnest as soon as the opening hymn was finished. I was not, then, prepared for what followed: a similarly exhaustive—and much more exhausting—litany of an old woman’s physical complaints rendered in singsong pidgin English. What really pissed me off, though, was this: After reading page after page of

Light upon the open sea, the Winslow Homer green of the North Atlantic, upon the blue whale, the right whale, the songs of North Atlantic whales, light upon the fish coming up to the surface, light upon the currents of this well-traveled sea, light upon the circulations of the Gulf Stream, the North Equatorial Current, clockwise, into the light now…

I turn to Chapter I to find the words, “Rosa Elisabetta Meandro, in insubstantial light...” [emphasis mine]. That’s just obnoxious.

The Black VeilAnyhow, I gave up on The Diviners at the top of page 17. It might get very, very good after that (not that the critical reaction thus far offers any indication of that), but I just don’t care. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart was on my nightstand, waiting for me, and I’ve moved on. I can, however, recommend the interview I did with Rick Moody in 2002. It remains smart and funny and interesting, and, if I try reading the author’s next novel, it will probably be because of this very pleasant conversation.

Reading The Black Veil was not unlike reading the King James Bible—all the italics, the sometimes very formal language. How did you decide to write in such a heightened, almost antique style?

Rick Moody: One of the subtexts of the book is the puritanical philosophical worldview of people like Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather—that stuff’s kicking around underneath the contemporary material. I’ve abused italics, certainly, in other books but it definitely reached a new crescendo in The Black Veil. I didn’t try to restrain it because, as I was doing research and getting acquainted with those early American writers, I realized that—especially in his sermons—Mather italicized like that. So, what began as a natural inclination for me—and, really, a result of using Microsoft Word for the first time because it makes italicizing so easy—became coincident with the material itself.

Visually and verbally, your style makes it clear that the reader is in for something a little out of the ordinary. Thomas Pynchon used a similar technique in Mason & Dixon, using capitalization in an explicitly archaic way.

RM: I wouldn’t object at all if it looks a little bit like the King James on the page. As for Pynchon, he took a lot of shit for the caps, but I feel like he was doing it in a reverential way—like he really knew that 17th-century material he was working with, like he wasn’t kidding around. There’s something genuine and enthusiastic about it, and I hope my italics come off as, you know, an homage to the works I was reading as I wrote.

By the end of your book you’ve decided that concealment is necessary to identity. You also point out that most fiction is at least semi-autobiographical, regardless of whether or not the author intends it. Why, as someone who writes fiction, did you decide to write this story as a memoir?

RM: I had this book of stories, called Demonology, which came out before The Black Veil. One of the stories in that book is a frankly autobiographical story about something really horrible that happened in my family: my sister’s death.

That story was anthologized both as a short story and as an essay in various places. I did nothing to stop that from happening, to define it either as fiction or as autobiography. In fact, I tried to capitalize on the generic ambiguity. I think it’s an interesting moment in American fiction: There’s a fair amount of work out there that’s really making use of the energy thrown off by the fusion of fiction and nonfiction. That’s true in European literature, but, in America we’re especially preoccupied, usually, by generic definitions, by the difference between fiction and nonfiction.

Anyway, I had written this story and it was extremely popular. It’s probably the most popular, most widely anthologized short story I ever wrote. When I was done with it, I sort of felt like novel writing was so hard—and it depletes you so terribly—that I didn’t know if I could write another novel. After Purple America, my last novel, I thought I needed a break. So, I thought, “I’m going to take this ambiguous literary style and see if I can inflate it into an entire book.”

You bring up an interesting point: the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. I think the American obsession with that distinction might stem from a Puritan zeal for “the truth.”

RM: Yeah. I like reading stuff that caters to that subliminal need of readers. I remember when John Cheever’s diary came out in the ‘80s in the New Yorker. I was in grad school then, and everyone was electrified by it. We had all read Cheever’s stories, and everybody liked Cheever’s stories. He was a great writer and people admired him. But then we read the diary and it was just, you know, like going from the third dimension to the fourth dimension. I like the risk associated with books that seem—suddenly—to be telling the truth. I like that stuff, so I guess I wanted to be a part of it. I mean, I’m not going to give up being a fiction writer—I’m starting a new novel now—but, you know, I wanted to be where the action is.

As memoirs go, yours very explicitly conceals as much as it reveals. At the very end of the book, you even have a list of all the things that you didn’t say about yourself. Do you think that readers can learn anything about you—anything essential—from The Black Veil that they can’t learn from your fiction?

RM: Oh, definitely. That section in the last chapter is meant really to be a critique of the memoir as a form—especially the kind of memoir that’s kind become relatively hip in the last five years, the triumph over adversity thing, or the literary equivalent of Behind the Music.

I mean, in that kind of memoir…. We’re really having the wool pulled over our eyes in those texts. Those writers are always concealing, in that they’re always trying to take the unshapely form of human life that we all live and jam it into some preexisting narrative structure. There’s a rudeness to doing that, the way they’re always cutting out stuff. I wanted to make it clear that I’m telling a story that’s really true about my time in the psychiatric hospital and all that. Most people don’t know that about me, and they don’t know that that experience informs my novels. So, readers are getting something true about my life—the kind of truth that people seem to find galvanizing in memoirs. But at the same time I also wanted to say, “Hey look, you’re getting this much, but don’t kid yourself.” There are huge amounts of material that didn’t get into this book, so it’s not an exhaustive account of my life by any means.

The list of what’s missing is interesting, too, because it includes things that are, presumably, very important, but also items that are personal without being intimate. You point out, for example, that you have chosen not to mention what kind of shampoo you use. There is an ironic, cool school of memoir that seems to suggest that a massive accumulation of minutiae and pop cultural references equals a life story.

RM: Yeah, I really wanted to avoid that. I’m so not interested the detached writer. My goal now as a writer is to make sure that at least a few people cry while reading my book. I’m just not satisfied with a breezy, light reading experience, you know, with several rock ‘n’ roll bands named. But, by the same token, I will say that I’m glad that, by saying the following things are not included in the book, I can actually include them. [Laughing.]

Since memoirs are kind of hot, it’s a tricky time to be writing one like yours. Publicists can mention drugs and alcohol and your time in the psychiatric hospital, because all that sounds sexy, but your book is so much more than sensational. I think that anybody reading The Black Veil for cheap thrills is going to be disappointed.

RM: I’ve already gotten some of that reaction. Some of the early reviews have been from readers who were expecting more along those lines. My attitude toward that readership, is, you know, “Tough shit.”

I know that there are people who will skip chapters in this book, and that’s all right. A friend of mine—one who’s a minor player in it—she read the book and said, “I skipped all the Hawthorne chapters.” My response was, “That’s okay. That’s what chapters are for.”

I think I would rather people have the deluxe experience of the book, the complete book, but…. If they’re only going to read half, I guess I would prefer they read half of each part of the book—the Hawthorne criticism and the more obviously biographical material. Whatever. That’s the thing about writing a book: When you finish writing it, you turn it over to the readers and then they’re the ones who enact the book, in a way. The book isn’t done until somebody reads it.

Interview © 2005 Borders, Inc. All rights reserved.

October 5, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

5 Fun Facts about Debby Jernigan, My Mom

She speaks fluent Spanish, and her French isn’t bad, either.

She keeps little bottles of Asti Spumante in the fridge for semi-special occasions—and by “semi-special occasions” I pretty much mean any and all occasions that might be made semi-special with the addition of Asti Spumante.

When she sees shoes she likes, she buys at least one pair in every color.

Her motto: Nobody ever said life is fair.

Today is her birthday.

October 4, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Mi revista de Diarios de motocicleta

So, last week, in Spanish 102, we watched Diarios de motocicleta. We’re going to talk about the movie today, and our homework assignment over the weekend was to write a sentence or two to express our opinion of the movie. I have some thoughts about the picture, but, basically, my views boil down to this:

La película es larga, pero esto es bueno porque Gael García Bernal es muy, muy bonito y me gusta verlo.

 Gael García Bernal es muy, muy bonito.

October 3, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack