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The Unhinged Celebrity as Economic Engine

I worry about the economy of the future. I worry about it because it seems to be based not on Americans making things that other Americans need and will, therefore, buy, but on Americans providing other Americans with pedicures and restaurant meals. This is to say, it seems to me that the economy of the future is not based on anything real and that it will all fall apart if one day everybody wakes up and cancels her appointment for a hot-stone massage. (And, of course, now that I’m a parent, my anxieties about the future have taken on a whole new terrifying urgency.)

Now it seems that, in addition to personal coaches and women with exotic accents who specialize in shaping eyebrows, a new class of service-providers has entered the unreal workforce: the celebrity scapegoat. This person does not need to produce music that we want to hear or movies that we want to see. She doesn’t even have to sell her name to clothing manufacturers or cosmetic companies. Rather, she graces us with the spectacle of her personal derangement. I am, of course, referring primarily to the Britney-Industrial Complex, but I can foresee a whole class of semi-famous lunatics who entertain us with their antics while providing us with a rock-bottom example against which to favorably compare ourselves. I can foresee it because, while I have never purchased a single note of music by Ms. Spears, nor have I even smelled her perfumes, I did buy Us Weekly, People, OK!, and Star last week when she was on their covers.


January 21, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Reading Aristotle While My Sick Baby Naps

I have a daughter. She’s eighteen-months-old. She has a runny nose and a terrible cough, and she’s had then for awhile. She’s sick. Her illness is not life-threatening, but it’s serious, and it might be the start of something chronic, something persistent and time-consuming and sad. It requires multiple medications. It leaves me weary and worried—by which I mean more weary and worried than usual.

While she naps, I read Aristotle. I read the Poetics. As Aristotle describes the qualities of good poetry, he demonstrates many of them in his text, and just as pleasure is one of the effects of good poetry, so do I find that it is one of the effects of reading the Poetics. Learning, as Aristotle argues, is gratifying, and it’s simultaneously humbling and uplifting to recognize that the features of compelling narrative that the philosopher identified more than two thousand years ago still pertain today. This treatise is large enough to be grand in scope, but the whole is still comprehensible. Aristotle arranges the elements of art neatly by genera and species, and one thought follows logically from the one preceding it.

The world of the Poetics could hardly be more different from my own world when my daughter is awake. At the best of times, life with Frances is one of barely contained chaos, and, while her illness has added regularity in the form of medicines to be administered at set intervals, it has disorganized her sleep and her eating and, certainly, the schedule that my husband struggle to maintain so that we can get some work done. And there’s snot everywhere. Everywhere. To read the Poetics is to be released into a type of harmonious order that does not exist elsewhere in my life.

It occurs to me, while I read, that my daughter and I do not make for good poetry. The relationship between mother and child can be an appropriate subject for drama, but the boring fact is that I love my daughter, and her illness has not tested or transformed that love. It has not twisted it into something dark and deadly. There is an inescapable hopelessness to mother-love—it is never perfectly requited—but, thus far, my love for Frances is not suitable for tragedy.

It occurs to me, also, that, our lack of artistic appeal is just one aspect—and hardly a vital one—of our general imperfection. It occurs to me as I write about my daughter and the Poetics that the fact that I have given birth should, as Aristotle has argued elsewhere, exempt me from assaying his work at all. My child is the sign of my permeability, my changeableness, my incompleteness, my lack of reason. Just as a good poem must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, so must the ideal human be finished, self-contained, and well-ordered. I think about Frances’s incessantly runny nose and I think about our pitiable wetness, our lack of vital heat. I think about the mess a child creates, and the bodily excrescences are the least of it: Frances and I are entangled in an emotional mess, too, an intense interdependence that will never be resolved and that is, by all the aesthetic metrics that Aristotle defines, grotesque. It is, if I’m being honest, appalling to me, too, sometimes, and, even though my thoughts on the Poetics no longer echo Aristotle’s stately calm, I can return to the text and find that it is still as soothingly rational as it was when I left it.

My daughter wakes up, and I leave the Poetics with a pang of longing and a brief flash of annoyance. And I realize that the Poetics is so appealing to me—at least in part—because I can, in fact, leave it. The Poetics exists outside of me. It exists without me. It doesn’t need me, and, really, I don’t need it. My daughter, on the other hand, exists because of me, which means that, now, I exist for her. I hear her cry, and I go.

January 14, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

My Favorite Books of 2006: Reader, I Married Him by Michèle Roberts

NOTE: I read a lot of great books in 2006. I also had a baby, which is why I never got around to writing up my favorite books of the year. I trust that these books continue to retain their goodness, though, and I believe that there’s actually an upside to reviewing them so long after reading them: My comments will be brief and incisive, concerning only what remains deeply etched in my memory. Also, these books are available in paperback now, which means big savings for you if you feel compelled to buy any of them.

Reader, I Married HimA couple days before my daughter was due in July 2006, I started reading John Crowley’s Little, Big. It was a book I had been meaning to read forever, and a sweetly weird fantasy epic seemed like it would set the right tone for bringing a child into the world. It’s a fat book, so I figured it would get me through my last few days of pregnancy and a labor of medium duration.

Well, Frances took her time getting born, so, when I actually went to the hospital, I had to pack the next book on the pile. That book was Reader, I Married Him by Michèle Roberts. As it turns out, very little about Frances’s birth went the way I had planned, and this darkly comic tale of romantic suspense, told by a wholly unreliable narrator, was probably better suited to the birth experience I actually had than Crowley’s wistful magic.

January 9, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

My Favorite Books of 2006: Bitchfest, edited by Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler

BitchfestBitch will always have a special place in my heart. Not only did this fine magazine publish my very first feature article, but they continue, on occasion, to print my thoughts on such topics as guilty pleasure, beta males, and hair-removal products and, when they do so, they send me a check for a small—but gratifying—amount of money. But I loved this magazine even before they started paying me. Bitch takes feminism seriously, it takes pop culture seriously, and its editors and contributors understand that it’s quite possible to maintain a high level of discourse and a sense of humor at the same time. Bitch makes me think in new ways, it makes me laugh out loud, and this compendium is a grand celebration of the publication’s first decade.

January 8, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

My Favorite Books of 2006: The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis

The Thin PlaceOf all the books by Kathryn Davis that I’ve read, this one is probably the second least strange (The first is The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf). This is not, however, to say that it’s not strange. Davis gives everything in her universe a voice. When the narrative perspective swoops from a human character, to a family dog, to lichen, the experience is not unlike dreams of flight.

January 7, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

My Favorite Books of 2006: Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann

Measuring the WorldThis is the story of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, two paragons of the Enlightenment. The former is a naturalist and an explorer who lives to take measurements. The latter is a mathematician and astronomer who knows that space is curved and who becomes filled with rage after a long, bumpy carriage ride because he knows that, in the future, travel will be swift and comfortable. Both men are at once exemplars of their time and true oddballs, and, in relating their stories, Daniel Kehlmannn demonstrates how medieval superstition and the gothic tendencies that eventually burst forth with Romanticism were always seething away just beneath the surface of the Age of Reason.

Kehlmann, an Austrian, has been heralded as a new kind German writer. I don’t know anything about that except to say that I’ve never been able to finish anything by Günter Grass, while I found this book delightful and exhilarating. It’s my favorite kind of fiction, really: A novel of ideas that’s also elegant and playful. It kind of reminded me of Mason & Dixon, but it was a lot less work. Measuring the World was well reviewed in its original language, but I think Kehlmann’s English translator, Carol Brown Janeway, deserves a nod for rendering such fluid and delightful prose. Aesthetically and intellectually, Measuring the World is a pleasure.

January 7, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack