Monday, December 31, 2007

"Lost chapter" from "Guided by Voice-Overs"

IV. The Empty Orchestra and the Drowsy Chaperone

“Karaoke makes no one marginal,” write Zhou Xun and Francesca Tarocco in their recent book Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon (Reaktion). As opposed to the godlike quality of voiceover (or in-the-know DVD commentaries), then, karaoke (literally “empty orchestra”) sounds a little like democracy. (On Broadway, the musical The Drowsy Chaperone is introduced and narrated by “Man in Chair,” a devout fan of the gleefully formulaic ersatz-’20s entertainment we’re about to see—but essentially a spectator like us.)

Xun and Tarocco turn up some curious facts (Japanese magazines feature karaoke etiquette columns; “90 percent of Filipinos are good singers,” according to one leader) as they dutifully chart the phenomenon’s rise worldwide, but too many dull anecdotes clog the narrative, and the authors lack Dolar’s incisive way with connections. Karaoke is both exhaustive and already out of date. It doesn’t cover the hypersuccess of a program like American Idol (essentially karaoke to the millionth power), which has found a strange mutation in two new television programs, The Singing Bee (CBS) and Don’t Forget the Lyrics! (Fox). Unlike Idol, these shows emphasize knowledge over emotion; contestants need to sing the right words to chestnuts of various genres.

Passionate vocalizing adds entertainment value—but then so does out-of-tune wailing. Neither determines whether you take home the purse. (You could probably just recite the lyrics.) A flubbed line in Idol can be salvaged by inspired improvisation, but on these shows you get sent home. Interestingly, though these contests would seem to eliminate the hierarchy of voice over writing (which [Mladen] Dolar asserts in his “Voice of Ethics” chapter [in A Voice and Nothing More]), in the end they maintain the status quo. Though logically the challenge would be the same if competitors wrote out the words to “Fortunate Son” or “Have You Seen Her?,” few televised challenges outside of Final Jeopardy have a written component. The title of The Singing Bee alludes to its spelling-bee format, but this reminds us that a spelling bee isn’t simply a spelling test. The vocal component is theater—but theater is the only thing worth watching.

When words elude the contestants of Don’t Forget the Lyrics!, they try to commune with the collective memory by riding the rhythm, searching for the great jukebox in the sky or their own internalized iTunes playlist.

—Deleted from "Guided by Voice-Overs," Modern Painters, December 2007/January 2008

Thursday, December 6, 2007


The Year of Endless Sorrows
by Adam Rapp
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 403 pages. $15.

In Here Is New York, E. B. White discerns a trio of invisible cities overlaying Gotham: that of the native, the commuter, and the outsider who comes in search of fame, fortune, or freedom, Everybody in this last, romantic category “embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company.”

Tell that to the Midwestern transplant who narrates playwright Adam Rapp’s debut novel, The Year of Endless Sorrows: “Eventually, Con Ed shut off the electricity in the common area, so coming home at any hour of the evening turned into a kind of silent horror film. We anticipated rapists and stranglers and giant kidnappers on every landing. . . . Stepping safely into the apartment carried with it a historical, emotional weight.”

The unnamed young protagonist—a fledgling fictioneer with an entry-level job at a Viking-like publisher—fits White’s description of “a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart,” except that he keeps his slowly growing manuscript in the empty freezer of his East Village walkup, and his main wound is the gnarly result of a hoops injury. Limping becomes “a kind of personal theatre,” and he tells anyone who asks that his book-in-progress is about “acute knee pain and the end of the world.” It’s a heartbreaking work of staggering.

Rapp immerses his wide-eyed scribbler in the mundane urban despair that White’s template leaves out: daily office inanities, bad roommate situations, and the less hygienic aspects of la vie bohème. (A small river’s worth of bodily emissions courses through the chapters.) Humming with verbal energy and anchored by a wry, melancholic narrator (think Murakami), The Year of Endless Sorrows manages to be several things at once: an overstuffed Künstlerroman, a pungent lit-world satire, and a backhanded valentine to the New York of the early ’90s. Set in roughly the same era and neighborhood as Rent, it depicts the artist’s life as one of resignation, status anxiety, if not so many dance numbers.

In fact, Rapp’s brother, Anthony, played the scarf-wearing painter Mark in Rent’s original and film versions. He’s reimagined here as the narrator’s younger brother, Feick, an actor whose swift rise to fame (via a dreadful-sounding Off Broadway smash) is the glittering reverse of his sibling’s descent into obscurity. The novel’s title initially scans ironically, amid the first-person-plural declarations of milk-fed normalcy (“We generally look like the people walking through the Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport on any given day”) and caricatures of East Coast literocracy (“I had to protect myself from the arch, homogenized pitch of her speaking voice and the predatory cut of her editorial pantsuit and her English degree from Brown with its concentration on the late twentieth century novel”). Surviving in the city on a tiny paycheck is rough, and Glenwood, best friend and fellow hinterland escapee, devises a mantra to help them stay put: “No westbound buses.”

Of course, the endurance test is completely self-imposed; our hero’s mom would be thrilled if he pulled up stakes and came back home. But when the downhill slide starts, and the city rapidly becomes more prison than promise, The Year of Endless Sorrows fulfills its title in earnest. It’s that rare first novel that finds its inspiration and grandeur in failure.

Though we never read a line of the narrator’s novel in progress, Year itself has a bracing purity to it, as a chronicle of time wasted, as the history of an abortion—as the sort of groping epic one imagines buzzing on the laptops of a thousand of his real-life Village (or Brooklyn) counterparts today. Even the occasional missteps feel right: The reach of a massive first novel about someone laboriously pounding out his massive first novel should exceed its grasp. Rapp’s maximalist style spins out lists and similes and variations at every opportunity; he means to dazzle us, and for the most part he does. The wit works best when hammered into the precise lunacy of early DeLillo: “Our dumbshow took on a strange Eastern European theatre quality when Lacy started meowing,” runs the description of a particularly memorable roll in the hay. Someone on the phone emits “a kind of Las Vegas jackpot laughter that kept topping itself as though she were being continuously and lovingly goosed with a pencil by a good pal.” And preserved for the ages is a conversation we’ve all had. Here our writer (not having known Feick was gay) meets his brother’s boyfriend—in the middle of a blizzard, no less:

“I’VE HEARD A LOT ABOUT YOU,” Ruben screamed.
“OH, NO,” I said.
“ONLY GOOD THINGS,” he assured me.

In Rapp’s electrifying 2003 play Stone Cold Dead Serious, the lead character in the first act hitchhikes from Illinois to New York to participate in the brutal, live-action component of a video game competition; he spends the second act immobilized and mute. The Year of Endless Sorrows features a cautionary tale in the form of a monster of inertia who insists that his roommates call him “the Loach.” Ostensibly a stand-up comic, this character is only funny in his appalling laziness and squalor. He claims he’s “too busy working on his material,” when “in reality he was too busy sleeping and farting and eating our food.” Forever marooned on the couch, he eventually loses the power of speech. Our narrator toils over his novel (an editor at his company is “enthusiastic”) but in the end it’s as though the malodorous settings and bad vibes of the city itself that loom up to silence him. Here is E. B. White’s New York with the seams showing, with the toilet backed up, with the incessant siren call of wherever it is you came from. —Ed Park

Bookforum, Feb/Mar 2007


Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists
By Margot and Rudolf Wittkower
New York Review Books, $18.95

“Painting…was first invented, saith Patricius, ex amoris beneficio, for love’s sake,” writes Robert Burton in his 17th-century bestseller, that massive headrush of contradictions known as The Anatomy of Melancholy. “For when the daughter of Dibutades the Sicyonian was to take leave of her sweetheart now going to wars, ut desiderio ejus minus tabesceret, to comfort herself in his absence, she took his picture with coal upon a wall, as the candle gave the shadow, which her father admiring perfected afterwards, and it was the first picture by report that ever was made.”

The passage appears in the Anatomy’s final section, “Love-Melancholy,” and it’s a pithy template for the emotional component of the creative drive. Burton ransacks a library’s worth of classical reading for his treatise on the malady, though few painters appear in his pages. Nevertheless, his conception of melancholy, as well as his example-studded narrative technique, inform Margot and Rudolf Wittkower’s Born Under Saturn.

First published in 1963 and currently reappearing thanks to New York Review Books, the Wittkowers’ micro-informed study entertainingly dissects the pervasive image of the moody, alienated artist. Cautious and provocative, presuming to balance theory and anecdote but happily indulging the latter, Born Under Saturn reads like Vasari’s Lives of the Artists rewritten as an appendix to Burton—a colorful tour of eccentricity and genius, populated by all manner of rogues, gentlemen, penny-pinchers, hypochondriacs, and enduring masters. Every page has a diverting tale, and the cumulative effect is to set the reader’s mind reeling.

The stereotype of the artist as an emotional outsider—brooding or batty or what we would now call bipolar—was cemented in the Renaissance, as the profession detached itself from the sphere of craftsmen. But the book’s title (astrologically, Saturn was thought to preside over the birth of homo melancholicus) is a misnomer. For every account of a Piero di Cosimo boiling 50 eggs at a time while simultaneously heating his glue for practicality’s sake, or a Silvio Cosini, wearing a jerkin of human skin, the Wittkowers process all the available data to show that, in fact, artists were likely no more saturnine—or bizzaro—than anyone else. Burton implicated everything from solitariness to onions as a cause of melancholy, to the maniacal degree that it became a metaphor for the human condition. Similarly, Born Under Saturn, for all its lurid scenes, ultimately points to commonality, showing that artists behave as well or as badly as their noncreative counterparts.

Wittkowerian analysis can be thrilling. Elucidating how a famous line from Seneca (“there never has been great talent without some touch of madness”) has been misinterpreted by everyone from Dryden to Schopenhauer, the Wittkowers reveal how its meaning warped to suggest general insanity rather than the more limited Platonic furore of artistic inspiration. Nevertheless, as the authors write at the book’s close, “Misinterpretation is one of the great stimuli for keeping the past alive.” Though convincingly debunking the “mad artist” ideal, they recognize that “the notion…is a historical reality and by brushing it aside as mistaken, one denies the existence of a generic and deeply significant symbol.”

According to Joseph Connors’s introduction, Margot Wittkower wrote Saturn’s first draft, and Rudolf crucially “pulled it to pieces and put it back together again.” When he urged her to publish the book under her name alone, she reasoned that his stamp (he had been at the Warburg Institute and was a Columbia professor) would increase its stature. Nearly all the artists anatomized here are men, but per Burton, the origin of painting—a collaboration between the sexes—began with a woman’s sketch. It’s doubly fitting, then, that this new edition reverses the book’s bylines to give its primary writer her place in the sun.

––Ed Park

Feb. (?) 2007, Modern Painters

Review of Adam Roberts's GRADISIL

Kinbote in Space
Astral Weeks/Ed Park

Sitting on the bookstore shelf, Adam Roberts’s new novel, Gradisil (Pyr: $15, 551 pp.), makes few appeals to the general reader. The title, in a hard-to-read Transformers font, suggests an epic story centering on hair-regrowth formula, and the curiously cropped cover illustration manages to make an explosion soporific. But if you just pick it up—perhaps with a furtive glance down the aisle—and read the first paragraph, something interesting happens:

Take this printed page, the very one you are looking at now. Take away all the letters and all the commas and the dashes, and take away the apostrophes, and leave only the full stops, the colons, the dots over the “i”s. You will have a star map, cartography that describes precisely the sky of my imagination. I want to go there, you’ll say. So do I.

That’s as elegant as invitations come. Roberts starts us off in the sky—in that blank canvas of so much science fiction—but simultaneously grounds us by evoking the visual, nearly tactile experience of reading. By the three-word finale, you might find yourself hooked.
Additionally, close readers of Vladimir Nabokov will detect a nod to VN’s late quasi-SF tale “Lance,” whose narrator sees his story’s “every dot and full stop” as describing a “kind of celestial star chart.” Coincidence? Maybe. But consider that, on Gradisil’s acknowledgments page, Roberts not only references a 1959 book called Theory of Wing Sections, Including a Summary of Airfoil Data but thanks, amidst the names of friends, one “Charles Kinbote”—the mad annotator who turns Nabokov’s Pale Fire inside out. (Near the novel’s end, Roberts swings a double reference to Look at the Harlequins!) Which is to say that Gradisil operates on multiple levels, and that its pleasures lie not just in its densely plotted particulars but also in its unconventional, playful construction.

Where Pale Fire features Kinbote’s commentary and other textual apparatus wrapped around John Shade’s 999-line poem, Gradisil gives us two heart-pouring memoirists, the adrenalized thoughts of a soldier freefalling thousands of miles from space (as his unprotected left hand withers away), 22nd-century pop song lyrics in three languages, and passages crafted using a futuristic argot in which the letter “c” has apparently been outlawed. And for all the seriousness in conception and technological accuracy (see Theory of Wing Sections, above), Roberts, the author of numerous parodies, including something called Dr. Whom, or E.T. Shoots and Leaves (“about a grammatically correct time lord”), leavens the proceedings with a wicked satirical thumbnail of a mumble-mouthed, war-mongering president, “tailored books” (classics in which the reader’s name is inserted), and awful poetry that could give the Vogons a run for their money.

At well over 500 tightly printed pages, the sprawling Gradisil has its longueurs, but for the most part Roberts (a professor of 19th-century literature at the University of London) keeps the pages turning with a skill for richly characterizing his generations-spanning dramatis personae. The title refers to the charismatic de facto president of the Uplands, a loose aggregation of Earth-orbiting homes. Gradisil Gyeroffy is a shrewd, three-steps-ahead politician and matter-of-fact maneater (in one case, almost literally), who motivates the freedom-loving Uplanders to provoke a galvanizing, seemingly unwinnable war with the territory-hungry Americans. (In a mind-bending touch, Roberts notes that one postbellum lawsuit “disputes the term ‘territory’…on the grounds that vacuum and emptiness is not territory.”)

Gradisil is heroine of the book’s long middle section, and even after death she generates much of the book’s drama. Perversely, she’s never a narrator: Most of what we know of her is via Paul, her rich husband (and former homosexual), whose admiration for his wife gets pushed to the edge by her adulteries and messiah complex; and Gradisil’s mother, Klara, who authors the novel’s compulsively readable first part.

It’s Klara, of course, who gives Gradisil her medicinal-sounding name; the odd word stems from her own youthful mishearing of Yggdrasil, the world-tree of Viking mythology. As a 13-year-old she listened to her father, one of the first homeowners in the Uplands, describe the Earth’s magnetosphere as a version of Yggdrasil, “its branches reaching into space”: “Then we could climb up, couldn’t we?” He’s seen as mildly nutty for championing the use of electromagnetic fields (rather than rocket power) to get into orbit, but history will vindicate him.

When her father is cold-bloodedly murdered by Kristen Janzen Kooistra, a grotesquely fat serial killer, teenaged Klara vows to avenge his death—think True Grit in space. This purest of motivations, coupled with the relative simplicity of the Uplands frontier at this point in the future (about 50 years from now), makes for an engaging novel in itself. (The similarity to Charles Portis’s classic Western resonates all the more when we realize Klara is penning her story as an octogenarian, just as Mattie Ross chronicles her youthful adventure from a distance of decades.)

It’s fun to watch Roberts build his universe, describing the outsider culture of the Uplands and conveying the exquisite sense of being out of reach, above it all. At the same time, he describes the hassles of housekeeping so far off the ground, and spacewalks have rarely been less romantically described: “[A]fter half a day you developed a form of habitude that enabled a sort of progress around the Station in a weirdly dangling-zombie style of perambulation.”

Klara’s section of Gradisil is a revenge story, but then so are Parts Two and Three, and the entire saga portrays bloodlust as an unquenchable but wearying human condition, like a futuristic version of Park Chanwook’s “Vengeance” trilogy. The moral quandaries multiply as political intrigues and death wishes snap into place; the Uplands become developed, just like “downbelow,” becoming just another field for commerce. By book’s end, the Gyeroffy family tree, for all its greatness, has grown into a twisted version of Yggdrasil, whose branches once promised so much possibility.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Review of Brian Aldiss's HARM and Nick Mamatas's UNDER MY ROOF

Fifty years ago this month, the seminal British science fiction magazine New Worlds published a story emphatically if enigmatically titled “O Ishrail!” On board “the mental health ship Cyberqueen,” psychiatrists examine a man named Ishrail, who claims to be from a different part of the galaxy, although he looks and speaks like a human being. Ishrail once commanded a fleet of “interpenetrators,” starcraft made “not of steel but of mentally powered force shields” that somehow ride the “maze of stresses” (what the benighted still call outer space). He is a de facto prophet of things to come, an exile from a more advanced civilization — or else he’s just plain nuts. “Quite candidly,” one doctor explains, “there’s hardly a disorder in the book that isn’t present to a greater or lesser degree.”

Brian W. Aldiss, the author of that 1957 story, is now in his eighties, with dozens of books to his name. He vigorously remixes the old Ishraili conflict in a short, sharp new novel, “HARM” (Del Rey: 224 pp., $21.95). The title is an acronym for Hostile Activities Research Ministry, which you could call Orwellian if its operations didn’t seem so close to our paranoid present, drawing dark inspiration from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

“This was the time for seriousness,” Aldiss baldly announces, “for a war against terror.” In a Syrian hellhole, or possibly some isolated house in London, “HARM” tries to extract information from “Prisoner B” — full name Paul Fadhil Abbas Ali. He’s a comic novelist of mixed Indian ancestry, a second-generation Londoner with an Irish wife. (“I was born in Ealing,” he helplessly tells his interrogators.) He has Brit-lit bona fides: His first story was published in Granta and his latest book is intended as a Wodehousean amusement. But it contains a passage in which two tipsy lovers joke about assassinating the prime minister — enough to land Paul before his implacable torturers.

“HARM” reverses the formula of “O Ishrail!” Instead of wondering whether the hero is mad, we see how the Ministry’s absurd and hair-raising treatment opens a psychic fissure in Paul, causing him to imagine that he is on an entirely different world as a release from his wretched state.

Shortly after the imprisoned character recalls some lines from “Paradise Lost” (“The Stygian council thus dissolved; and forth / In order came the grand infernal peers …”[10]), a planet called Stygia blooms full-blown in his mind. This is the far future, when refugees from a wartorn Earth are deconstructed into molecular form to facilitate space travel. Once on Stygia, however, reconstitution goes awry; those colonists who survive lose their original identities and social relationships. Life on the new planet (with its six fragmented moons) becomes a grim, primitive mess of religious fundamentalism, political intrigue and the decimation of the native race, like a perverse mirror of our own world.

Aside from a few bursts of Joycean wordplay, “HARM” isn’t a book to enjoy. Indeed, Paul’s escapist fantasy sours from the start, with his Stygian alter ego, the thuggish Fremant, jailed and maltreated throughout. Aldiss deliberately brutalizes his prose to shatter any possibility of redemption, let alone beauty. The novel seethes with ugly set pieces (not just the torture scenes, but the sex scenes — even the loving ones), toggling between its earthly and alien settings with a horrifying seamlessness that gives the whole enterprise the shape of a fable.

Our daily news reports already seem like dystopian dispatches; instead of trying to trump the outrages, Aldiss uses science fiction to dramatize a mental meltdown. It’s no coincidence that the name of the spaceship bringing humankind to Stygia is New Worlds — the same as the magazine where many early Aldiss tales found a home. Like those future travelers, the decades-old conceit of “O Ishrail!” gets boiled down and hurled through time, and lands like a fresh insanity.


In his third novel “Under My Roof” (Soft Skull: 152 pp., $12.95 paper). Nick Mamatas works off a slightly different set of War on Terror jitters than Aldiss, aiming for humor rather than horror.

Here, Sept. 11 has been renamed Patriot Day; footage of the World Trade Center attacks, suppressed for years, is finally being broadcast. The collective tension has taken Daniel Weinberg, an unemployed Long Island autodidact, to the breaking point. “With every war,” Mamatas explains, “Daniel got more frantic … stay[ing] up all night and just walking around the dark kitchen and smacking his fist against the table.” Perhaps less ambitious than the planet-hallucinating Paul, Daniel declares his house and yard “free and independent from all law or governmental incursions of the United States of America.”

Daniel’s proclamation has some teeth: He’s managed to construct a nuclear warhead by harvesting the element Americium-241 from thousands of broken fire alarms heaped in the junkyard. Soon, the media, National Guard, and Homeland Security get interested in Weinbergia. The small Pacific island nation of Palau recognizes the new country’s sovereignty, and assorted dissatisfied Americans make the pilgrimage to 22 Hallock Road — hippies, nerds, “tax cheats, college kids who made up their own languages in their spare time, a woman who called herself Doctress Arcologia who wanted to build a treehouse outside my window.” Microstates spring up all across the country; “Brown University,” Mamatas writes, “was supposedly planning to secede next.”

“Under My Roof” is accurate, fast-moving satire that transcends mere target shooting by virtue of its narrator, Daniel’s 12-year-old son Herbie. The novel affectionately captures his age-appropriate cynicism and insecurity; at times, he’s a kindred spirit to the awkward protagonists of Daniel Pinkwater’s young adult novels. There is, however, one essential difference: Herbie can read minds. Mamatas lucidly and hilariously deploys his telepathy, allowing him to know all, see all and eventually transmit helpful information to allies in need.

It’s a parody of the surveillance and interrogation mania of the post–Sept. 11 era — the exact opposite of the excruciating and ultimately useless methods practiced in “HARM.” The scary thing about “Under My Roof” is that some readers might feel more secure being ruled over by a telepathic adolescent than by anyone currently in power.

[Originally appeared April 2007,]

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Interview with Gina Kim, director of NEVER FOREVER

Sophie's Choices
By Ed Park

Gina Kim’s NEVER FOREVER, a hothouse of italicized emotion and pregnant pauses, received its world premiere at Sundance this year. Star Vera Farmiga, best known for her role in THE DEPARTED, told the New York Times it was “one of the most visceral love stories I’d ever read;” intensely present in nearly every frame, she’s as compelling a wit’s-end heroine as you’ll see on screen this year. Ed Park interviewed Kim via e-mail.

Cinevue: NEVER FOREVER’s "plot keyword" on IMDB is "interracial relationship"—a label that's pretty reductive and yet right on the money. On the one hand, you have the story of a well-to-do woman (Sophie, played by Vera Farmiga) whose successful, infertile husband (Andrew, played by David McInnis) has become suicidal and withdrawn, complicating her desire to become a mother. This leads her to hire someone to inseminate her, a situation that could certainly work as drama, without the element of race. But the story is deepened by the fact that Sophie is white and both her husband and her lover (Jihah, played by Jung-woo Ha) are Korean. (When Jihah tells her that Andrew resembles him, there's a little VERTIGO frisson.) Was the issue of race integral to the film’s conception, or did you have the dramatic kernel of the story first?

The race element was definitely one of the jumping-off points for NEVER FOREVER. The story came along when I started to teach at Harvard University. I had never lived on the East Coast before and was struck by how Boston lacks ethnic diversity. I became more conscious of my own race than ever before (having been born and raised in Korea, I had very little awareness of race). I became intrigued by how Asian people are perceived in the mainstream culture. I was always aware of how Asian women are overtly sexualized in American pop culture, but had very little knowledge about how Asian men are perceived. Most of them are completely de-sexualized, and are very rarely portrayed as subjects of desire. But of course there are exceptions, who often “happen” to be good-looking, successful professionals (lawyers, doctors etc.) who went to ivy league schools. When I investigated the distinction, I realized that it is a class issue more than anything else. Asian working-class men, who are poor first-generation immigrants, are often completely desexualized—unlike, say, Latino laborers. On the other end of the spectrum, the upper-class Asian men are the ones who are supposed to be desirable enough to get Caucasian women. I wanted to subvert this stereotype. Jihah is the poor immigrant, but I wanted to portray him as a sexually-charged man. Andrew is the perfect sexy Asian man but his sperm is weak and therefore, he is de-sexualized on the most basic level.

Cinevue: Were there films that influenced you in terms of tone or subject matter? Given NEVER FOREVER’s thorough melodrama and engagement with race, were you thinking of films like IMITATION OF LIFE or FAR FROM HEAVEN? Given the "secret patrimony" angle, were you giving a nod to all to the Korean soap operas that are so popular around Asia and the diaspora these days?

Douglas Sirk’s films influenced me greatly, as did some European films such as BELLE DE JOUR. But the most inspiring ones for me, in writing NEVER FOREVER, were Korean films from the 1960s. I was teaching Korean cinema at Harvard when I first conceptualized NEVER FOREVER. I was fortunate enough to get some 35mm prints of classic Korean cinema for the class screenings. I of course had seen all of them long ago, but when I watched them again to teach, I was impressed with how subversive they were, both aesthetically and thematically. Films such as MADAME FREEDOM (Han Hyong-mo, 1956), THE HOUSEMAID (Kim Ki-yong, 1960) and THE HOUSEGUEST AND MY MOTHER (Shin Sang-ok, 1961) moved me deeply with their vivid depiction of female characters. Each one is driven by her own desires and struggles for them. The endings of these films are often less than satisfying, but they inspired me nevertheless. I started to wonder what would happen if I put the same woman character in contemporary cinema without sacrificing her integrity at the very end. The result was a melodrama that strictly focuses on the psychology of a woman character, rather than the plot of a love affair itself.

Cinevue: This is a great role for Farmiga—she's in practically every scene, most of them intense if not downright traumatic, and we live for those few glimpses of her smiling. How did she come to be in your movie? What was it like working with her and with your other actors? (How did you find Jung-Woo Ha, who plays Jihah?) Often, she's plunged into scenes where every other actor is Asian/Korean—during the scenes with church members, was she aware of what was being said in the script?

NEVER FOREVER is not a dialogue-heavy film, so I was desperately looking for the right actor for the role of Sophie, someone who not only could ‘play’ the role but also ‘become’ the role. I first saw Vera in DOWN TO THE BONE and was blown away by her performance. She has the ability to disappear into the character she plays. So, I sent her my script and we met at a small café in Soho. I was convinced that Vera was the Sophie that I’d been looking for the minute she walked into the café. Vera is both transparent and mysterious. Her body always creates a cinematic tension within a frame. Her face is like a map with which we can explore a character’s heart. Thanks to her tremendous cinematic presence, I had a relatively easy time creating the Sophie character without having to explain much with dialogue. The chemistry between Jungwoo and Vera as two actors and fellow artists were beyond belief. They actually didn’t want to meet each other before the shoot so that they could retain the mystery until the first day of shoot. I wanted to shoot the sex scenes in a sequential order, so that we could exploit the awkwardness and tension in real life. Of course, it was extremely risky but it ended up beautifully working out. I could tell the intimacy growing between the two actors from one scene to another!

Cinevue Though Jihah is from Korea, he lives in Chinatown (rather than somewhere else in the metro area with a greater concentration of Koreans). Was this simply a practical matter, or a comment on Sophie's perception of "Asianness"?

It was to portay Jihah as a total outsider. He, of course, suffers from extreme isolation in the U.S. since he is an illegal immigrant. But he refuses to be part of the Korean (or Korean-American) community as well, and chooses to live in Chinatown. Things can be easier for him if he chooses to compromise. But he stubbornly goes his own way in terms of pursuing his American dream. I wanted Jihah to be a man of strong will, who is not afraid of loneliness and not willing to compromise his integrity by pretending to be someone other than himself.

Despite the full-bore melodrama, the film subtly shifts our sympathies, and even the plot is left with an erasure of sorts. The title is evocative and yet elusive; the delicate ending is fascinating in its ambiguity. In your mind, is there a clear narrative connecting what's happened in the movie to this final scene? (Semi-spoiler alert—maybe read this after you see the movie.)

I think it is quite clear that the baby in Sophie’s belly is Jihah’s, but I didn’t want to show Jihah, because it would diffuse the real question. For me, the real question was “Is she happy? Did she achieve what she wanted?,” not “Who is she with?”— which differentiates this film from the typical melodrama. (End spoiler alert)

In NEVER FOREVER, who Sophie ends up with really is not the point. In this context, NEVER FOREVER can be considered a coming of age story —a bildungsroman—more than a melodrama. For the ending, I wanted to make it clear that she fulfilled what she longed for, and therefore achieves happiness at the end. The best way to imply that is to make her pregnant again, since pregnancy has a different meaning for Sophie than it does for other typical female melodrama characters. For Sophie, the fetus is an agency that makes her realize what she really wants out of her life. It is her desire, dream, and ultimately, her life.

So, in the climactic confrontation scene with Andrew, when Sophie says, “This baby is mine,” she is not talking about motherhood but rather is explicitly expressing the desire to live her own life. The irony is that it all started as a sacrifice for her husband, but ended up becoming her self-fulfillment. In a way, Sophie became a whore by becoming a mother and ultimately, blurs (and hopefully negates) the boundary between the two stereotypes of women: the mother and the whore.

Ed Park is a founding editor of The Believer and a former film critic at The Village Voice. He blogs at The Dizzies. His debut novel, Personal Days, is forthcoming from Random House next year.

(Originally appeared on Cinevue, the blog for the Asian American International Film Festival, July 15, 2007)

Friday, September 28, 2007

Piece on Sebald, Gaddis, and Bernhard

On the Posthumous Trail of W.G. Sebald and William Gaddis

Asked last October why he didn't translate his own books, the German-born British writer W.G. Sebald told an audience at the 92nd Street Y, in his meticulous English, Well, the main reason is that I started writing very late, in my mid forties, and I haven't got the time. Because I can already see the horizon looming. . . . Warm laughter met the typically Sebaldian reply: considered, droll, and ever with an eye to the end. But one could scarcely imagine how low that horizon hovered. Two months later, Sebald died in a car accident in Norwich, England. The news came down like some arcane punishment, ending the strange gifts that had appeared here at a steady clip since 1996. The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, Austerlitz: To reread them is to witness that immaculate style, those vast and intimate paragraphs as unpredictable and inexorable as nature. He discerned so acutely the mortal lining in things that any page of his oeuvre could have supplied his epitaph, or at least an epigraph for this piece. All his work is designed as a visit to the dead, he said of the writer and painter Peter Weiss. His own books were like paper reliquaries, admitting photos, news clippings, sketches by Stendhal, pizzeria receipts—everything save a single false step, even though one of the quiet anxieties of his sui generis creations is the implosion, under a drizzle of memory, of story and source. In German his title for Vertigo (Schwindel. Gefuhle.) conveys not just a feeling of dizziness but the swindle that shades all negotiations between the real and the imagined; the three long poems in After Nature, his newly published opus posthumous, anatomize the correspondence between the life and the work, the work and the world, the world and the life. Wary of abstraction, alert to history's detours and infernal turns, Sebald had the ability to consort with the unspeakable, such as the contention in Austerlitz, published last October and the last of his novels we will have, that somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins. In New York, half a century ago, in William Gaddis's The Recognitions (1955)—a debut novel dizzy with swindles artistic, monetary, and otherwise—a character wondered, Who could live in a city like this without terror of abrupt entombment? Almost exactly three years before Sebald's death, Gaddis passed away at age 75 at his home on Long Island. His career was the inverse of Sebald's late but meteoric rise, his four novels—the others are JR (1975), Carpenter's Gothic (1985), and A Frolic of His Own (1994)—surfacing every decade or so. They remain more revered than read, promising unknown ratios of frustration to amazement and setting the bar for authorial ambition. Stephen Dixon, himself a daunting if rewarding fictioneer, reveals in his latest novel, I., the mixture of awe and ambivalence Gaddis (ą clefed Fels) could provoke in budding penmen: A fantastic writer even though I only understand every other line he writes and am not even so sure about that. The Recognitions drew hysterical notices—called foul-mouthed and disgusting and evil (according to fire the bastards!, Jack Green's 1962 Gaddis defense). Since we've always hated failure in America, Gaddis went underground, making ends meet with corporate PR jobs for everyone from the army to Pfizer. Twenty years passed before his next novel, the even more audacious JR, which won the National Book Award; at 53 he was both advance guard and éminence grise, or greasy eminence, as that book's titular hero, an 11-year-old tycoon, would put it. JR's concerns about the impossibility of art under the sign of commerce float on an ocean of cranky, exuberant, anthropologically precise dialogue, unfolding in real time and elevating the comma splice to an art form, sometimes forgetting the comma for good measure. The result can verge on madness but never without music—viz., No no wait Major you're Vern wait you're knocking over the Dan Dan wait—and all of it ends with the acquisitive prepubescent's voice leaking out of an unattended phone: Hey? You listening . . . ? These days, it can be hard to tell. Jonathan Franzen recently revived the tradition of public hostility toward Gaddis in "Mr. Difficult," a self-aggrandizing New Yorker smackdown, shredding every Gaddis novel save The Recognitions and dismissing in a paragraph the long-awaited posthumous work Agapē Agape. (The Rush for Second Place, a new collection of occasional nonfiction, fares even worse.) He confesses to sounding a little Freudian in condemning the writing as anal-retentive, yet seems blind to what might be his own oedipal urge to dethrone postmodern literature's most imposing father figure. Like B.R. Myers grimly dissecting White Noise, Franzen turns a tin ear to JR's abundant humor, resorting to emetic formulae like Think of the novel as lover. As one of JR's lazier characters says of a work in progress vertiginously titled Agapē Agape: Hate it man like how can I hate it I mean I don't even know what it's about. It is hard to say whether Franzen even finishes the book; he gloats that he can't get past page 523 of JR's 726, then blithely dismisses the last ten pages. There are 956 pages in this book, wrote a Chicago Tribune hack of The Recognitions nearly half a century ago (quoted in Green), and I must confess that I did not stay until the last had been turned. Gaddis once remarked that Timesman Christopher Lehmann-Haupt admitted in his Carpenter's Gothic review to not having read JR, a book he had reviewed a decade earlier. (He actually called it virtually unreadable.) Little has changed, then; but this state of affairs may be appropriate: Gaddis's last blast, Agapē Agape, ultimately leads the reader back to The Recognitions itself. The new book, completed before he died, is as difficult and pleasurable as its title. It is many things: a gloriously messy précis of his decades-long obsession with the player piano and the sundering of the communal love (agapē) he believed it signaled; the materialization of a book by the same name that JR's Jack Gibbs toils over; and a feedback-leaking cover version of Concrete, a 1982 novel by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, whose novels Gaddis started reading late in life and whom Sebald acknowledged did mean a great deal to me, in more than one way. With one final draught of inspiration and a holy breath, Gaddis's ailing narrator abandons hope of writing his great scholarly treatise and instead fashions an address to his detachable self, a Greek notion of the soul that here turns out to be something very much like the reader, to whom he thrice implores, I've got to explain all this, because I don't, we don't know how much time there is. It unfolds as a single 96-page-long paragraph, a nod to Bernhard's similarly seamless novels. Our nameless American even takes the same mania-inducing medicine (prednisone) as Concrete's Rudolf, who is himself unable to finish, or even effectively start, his important study of the composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Agapē Agape may seem to reach us too late, after its author's death, but it actually comes at the proper time: posthumously. Player pianos required minimal input from the living: Their phantom hands could play back rolls perforated with the performances of composers now dead. Agapē registers, with similar fidelity, the contents of a frenetic mind. Some stretches pass so rapidly they read as palimpsest, with references ranging from Vaucanson's Duck to du Maurier's Trilby; the remnants of a triple-daughtered Lear plot are discernible. Though the piece swarms with the ghosts of a lifetime's research, Gaddis cuts back at the proper time. When one passage threatens to devolve into a gloss on Walter Benjamin's and Johan Huizinga's theorizings on authenticity, he spins it into a comic dialogue: Choose the fake, Mr. Benjamin. Absolutely, Mr. Huizinga!, ending with Positively Mr. Benjamowww! as the narrator accidentally sticks himself with a pencil, returning to the grim real world. The book's ceaseless motion suits its central obsession, the player piano, with its punched paper roll at the heart of the whole thing; an endnote in Gitta Honegger's recent Bernhard biography provides the term Rollenprosa, rolling prose—Hermann Beil's coinage for the Austrian's later style, also apt here. It all turns into what it's all about, prednisone turns his skin parchment-thin, and one can follow the paper trail through Gaddis's previous fictions: in The Recognitions, the currency counterfeiter Sinisterra's suit of paper and composer Stanley's cardboard practice keyboard; McCandless's note-swamped room in Carpenter's Gothic; the paper kingdoms of finance and law elaborated and epitomized by JR and A Frolic of His Own. Agapē rolls to a stop with a piercing sense of time running out—an emotional look backward, across the years and the thousands of pages, at the works of arrogant youth and the book I wrote then, my first book. Call it The Recognitions, which bore on its title page the alchemical ouroboros, the serpent devouring its own tail. A breathless epilogue to an immense body of work, an acid tirade all too human with sentiment, Agapē Agape could not have cut a more affecting path back to the source, a nearly 50-year course that affirms the ideal of the opus alchymicum, the work as self-generating recirculation. The Gaddis canon has gold, not paper, at its heart. — Right before his death, Gaddis incarnated his ever-mutating Agapē Project as a play for German radio titled Torschlusspanik, the fear of missed opportunities—literally, of closing doors. Sebald's After Nature begins with a bit of Torschluss, informing us that Whoever closes the wings/of the altar in the Lindenhardt/parish church will see Saint George, painted by and resembling the German artist known as Matthias Grünewald (1475?-1528). In the first of the book's three narrative poems, Sebald enumerates Grünewald's other self-portraits, and etches the known and envisioned contours of his shadowy life, from his wife's Jewish-Catholic conversion to his doppelgänger, a young waterworks artist named Mathis Nithart. The longest section, devoted to the Isenheim Altarpiece, Grünewald's masterwork, joins history and deft ekphrasis for an apocalyptic worldview that seems to bend time, extending from the early Christian era to the end of the world. The poet locates his second subject two centuries hence: Georg Wilhelm Steller, the gifted, arrogant German naturalist attached to Vitus Bering's Russian expeditions to Alaska. He would expire in the most remote geography, and his detailed descriptions of Arctic flora and fauna would be perverted into travel charts for hunters,/blueprint for the counting of pelts. When Sebald himself comes into view for the final poem, his restless, saturnine nature has been prefigured. Birds and mills, sickles and Saturn, forge connections between him and his surreptitious self-portraits, but the most significant recurrence is the town of Windsheim. Here Grünewald visits a workshop in 1525 (and meets an artist named Sebald Beham); here Steller is born in 1709; and here, in 1943, Sebald's mother takes temporary refuge—her husband off to war, and Nürnberg burning—realizing, for the first time, she is with child. Sebald, or the idea of Sebald, has entered the world. Though in his books he comes across as a modern nomad, abandoning (in Vertigo) a trip to Vienna for a sojourn to Venice and then Verona, Sebald was in fact a career academic in England long before his writing life. It was a state of affairs from which, at one point, he needed some way out, as he told an interviewer. He found the cure to this Torschlusspanik quite by chance in a German book called The Head of Vitus Bering. In a footnote he discovered Steller, with whom he shared Windsheim and initials. Favored to become chair of botany at Halle, Steller instead made for Russia, and perhaps his escape, as much as private coincidences, resolved Sebald to stray from purely academic writing. After Nature is in fact his first book (published in German in 1988), and though the patient verse approximates his later prose, the shattered lines and the lack of graphic material (photos, etc.) deepen or (we convince ourselves) anticipate his absence, and even the title takes on a calm prescience: To be after nature is to be dead. Fragments and images will land in his other works, such as the Chinese woman optician, whose gentle touch profoundly unsettles him, later immortalized in Vertigo. This dispersal and deepening over time suggests some private alchemy, and indeed throughout After Nature, as in The Recognitions, one encounters traces of that abandoned and derided science. Among the rare paints in Nithart's workplace is alchemy green. Steller, to comfort his dying patron, speaks of the light of nature, an alchemical conceit known as lumen naturae; his friend responds, all things, my son, transmute into old age. In Manchester, where Sebald studied, and where in 1966 he was appointed to his first academic post, the poet spends days on end reading the alchemist Paracelsus. The city itself, a husk of its 19th-century industrial might, separates elementally, smoke and sulphuric acid, salt and ashes, and becomes an alembic from which can only emerge a stunted Mancunian race. No, here we can write/no postcards, can't even/get out of the car, he says of the land near a nuclear power plant, where, in a new alchemy, slowly/the core of the metal/is destroyed. An engineer tells him, one thing always/the other's beginning. For the English-speaking world, After Nature is Sebald's alpha and omega, at once the first and last of his literary works, and a seedbed for his later projects. (On the Natural History of Destruction, his critical inquiry into post-war Germany's literary consciousness, will appear in 2003.) Gaddis, who began one novel with Money? and another with Justice?, once ended a film treatment (for IBM) with Gertrude Stein on her deathbed, where she asked "What is the answer?," and her friend professed ignorance. "In that case," she said, "what is the question?" Sebald, near the end of After Nature, under a lowering sky, writes, What's dead is gone/forever, then a shard from Lear: What did'st/thou say? More questions follow, and the section dissolves into Water? Fire? Good?/Evil? Life? Death? It's the one moment in his entire body of work where he gives the impression of losing control, and the effect is liberating and haunting. No elaboration of a metaphysics, just a helpless irresolution. These questions carry me/over the border.

—VLS, Fall 2002

Friday, June 29, 2007

Review of Linda H. Davis's CHARLES ADDAMS: A LIFE and Edward Gorey's Amphigorey Again, LATBR

By Ed Park

Charles Addams

A Cartoonist's Life

Linda H. Davis

Random House: 384 pp., $29.95

Amphigorey Again

Edward Gorey

Harcourt: 264 pp., $35

What could be more preposterous than the cartoonist as babe magnet? In a one-page riff by “Ghost World” creator Daniel Clowes, a lovelorn words-and-pictures man hopes that rebranding himself as a suave “ink stud” will change his luck with the ladies. Oddly enough, would-be ink studs have a real-life model in Charles Addams (1912-1988), the legendary New Yorker artist responsible for indelible scenes of blackly comic menace (and possibly Christina Ricci's career). As recounted in Linda H. Davis' new biography, “Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life,” the thrice-married penman had numerous affairs (with women who mostly indulged his concurrent flings and spoke fondly of him afterward), even romancing the rarefied likes of Greta Garbo and Jackie Kennedy in the '60s. “I love Pugsley and Lurch, but my favorite is Morticia,” the latter said in 1964 about the Addams Family, his popular clan of grotesques, which had just been translated to television. “She and I have a lot more in common than you might think.”

The family's raven-haired, pale-skinned, perpetually slender matriarch was Addams' erotic ideal. His first two wives bore a striking resemblance to her, and in 1943 he told an interviewer, “I think maybe I'm in love with the young looking witch,” whom he had introduced to New Yorker readers five years earlier.

Perhaps the attraction to her flesh-and-blood avatars wasn't just physical: Morticia is one letter away from the person who sees you to your grave -- death and sex in one neat bundle. The former First Lady shared details about her husband's assassination. (“Do you know, she had his brains in her lap?” he marveled.) The day after Nelson Rockefeller expired in the arms of his 26-year-old assistant, Addams (who lived in a neighboring building) bedded her and began an affair, despite the 41-year age gap. (Devotees of Anthony Powell's “A Dance to the Music of Time” might here recall Pamela Flitton's rumored deathbed romp, but the connection is in fact even more direct: Addams had an affair with the pale, dark-haired Barbara Skelton -- the British writer and “femme fatale of the first rank” on whom Pamela is thought to be partly based.)

Addams' colorful love life suggests an unruly force at odds with Davis' respectful tone. She catalogues his conquests and his collection of antique weaponry but emphasizes his warm side -- there are a few too many interludes in which Addams is shown to be good with kids. She avoids psychoanalyzing her subject, who attributed his own lack of therapist gags -- that New Yorker staple -- to his “arrested intellectual development.” Addams claimed to have had a happy childhood; one admirer said the cartoonist had “more friends than anybody I've ever known.” Davis doesn't hazard a guess as to what might have linked his serial womanizing, taste for fast cars and the gift for the sinister he distilled in nearly 5,000 drawings. Nor does she explicate, in any revealing way, why Addams' work stuck in the mind, then and now.

Nevertheless, the biography engagingly details Addams' meteoric rise (he sold his first illustration to the New Yorker at age 20 and was soon in the fold), and his working method comes to life in the early chapters -- his preferred brand of drawing paper, his extraordinarily supple “wash” technique. Most captivating is the glimpse of the magazine's communal spirit: Cartoon ideas often came from other staffers, and the vetting process could be impressively specific. (“[Put them] all in robes;…fix bulging eye; not all bald; suppressed merriment,” read part of one elaborate editorial critique.)

Addams' only flaw, as Davis sees it, was his masochistic relationship with his second wife, Barbara Barb, whom he married in 1954. (His third wife referred to her as “Bad Barbara” to distinguish her from her predecessor, “Good” Barbara Day). An aggressive lawyer who looked like a “bimbo,” Barb circulated a fictitious snooty pedigree, lied about her age and could become physically violent with Addams (an African spear once came into play). She rapidly took over Addams' financial affairs, to the alarm of Addams' lawyer, and acted as agent for his artwork , an arrangement that would have repercussions long after their 1956 divorce. This hopeless entanglement, this “terrible dark passion,” is a disturbing but invigorating counterpoint to the sunny portrait Davis otherwise paints. One finishes the book entertained but with the nagging feeling that another narrative wants to emerge, like the Addams cartoon in which a pumpkin is being carved, creepily, from the inside-out.

Along with Addams, Edward Gorey (1925-2000) is the last century's great American illustrator of the macabre. Though they share the same terrain and have enjoyed continued posthumous appeal, no one would confuse their work or approach. Addams was wedded to the single-panel format that was the hallmark of his employer, and each drawing had to score a direct hit as the reader encountered it amid the magazine's myriad attractions. Gorey's productions, full of mystery, were themselves mysterious -- an idiosyncratic array of small-format books, some published by his own Fantod Press, ranging from the 30-page novel “The Unstrung Harp” (his droll 1953 debut, in which an author endures compositional agonies) to “The Awdrey-Gore Legacy” (1972), a thoroughly deconstructed ersatz Agatha Christie novel. Fed by silent movies, eclectic literature, ballet and Surrealism, Gorey conjured topsy-turvy moral tales and inconclusive adventures, conceived of certain works as installments in nonexistent series and wrote ingenious poetry and prose that tasted of a much earlier vintage.

“Amphigorey Again,” the fourth gathering of Gorey's numerous books and occasional jeux d'esprit, has weaker material than the earlier collections: “The Raging Tide's” Max Ernst-meets-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure vibe somehow flags before its 30 scenes are digested, and the 36 contortions of an enigmatic, eyeless creature that comprise “Figbash Acrobate” will try even the hardcore Gorey fan. But most of what's here is worth having. “The Other Statue,” purportedly part of something called “The Secrets,” is a classic Gorey mood piece. The meticulous draftsmanship crowding every frame, along with the hilariously overloaded cast of characters, contrasts with the void that is the story's central mystery: not the disappearance of a cherished heirloom (a wax thingy known as the Lisping Elbow) but the absence of a coherent plot. A seemingly linear narrative reveals itself as a string of evocative non sequiturs. There's rarely a punchline in Goreyland, just an elegant withdrawal into artifice -- here, a title card touting the next installment of “The Secrets,” “The Night Bandage.”

Though it's the drawings that hold us -- the theatrical poses, the bespoke furniture in penumbral mansions, the malicious topiary -- Gorey was also a unique literary stylist. He recounts the escapades of stand-in Edmund Gravel (“the Recluse of Lower Spigot”) first as a parody of “A Christmas Carol,” then in quatrains. He returns to the abecedary form twice in “Amphigorey Again” (not counting the suitably unfinished, Z-fixated closer, “The Izzard Book”), with rewarding results: “The Deadly Blotter” is a tiny detective tale of exactly 26 words. (“Alarming behavior. Corpse. Detective enters.”) The “Neglected Murderesses Series” of postcards by one Dogear Wryde features deadpan one-sentence bios that mix precision and whimsy for maximum tension.

“Dogear Wryde” was one of Gorey's many pseudonyms, and “Amphigorey Again” is dedicated “in fond collaborative memory” to 30 other such alter egos he employed over the years. A good portion of these noms de plumes, male and female, are anagrams of “Edward Gorey” -- Ogdred Weary, Regera Dowdy, et al. This pseudonym business could simply be silliness. But it could also be that Gorey, a lifelong bachelor and presumed celibate -- the sexual antithesis of Charles Addams -- collaborated with phantoms drawn from his own private alphabet because he had no one with whom to share his most intimate life.<

Ed Park is a founding editor of The Believer.

Review of Philip K. Dick's VOICES FROM THE STREET, Los Angeles Times Book Review

By Ed Park

Voices From the Street

A Novel

Philip K. Dick

Tor: 302 pp., $24.95

In “Search for Philip K. Dick” (1995), Anne R. Dick (the third of the visionary science-fiction writer's five wives) recalls a potentially life-changing response to “Confessions of a Crap Artist,” a mainstream novel he had finished in 1959. “Alfred Knopf, himself, wrote Phil a letter saying he was interested in publishing it if Phil would rewrite the last third making the female character more sympathetic,” she reports. “He compared the quality of Phil's prose to that of Salinger, Roth, and Mailer We were both thrilled with this letter. But Phil said, 'I can't rewrite this book! It's not that I don't want to, it's that I'm not able to!'”

In an alternate universe -- of the sort that Dick fluidly conjured in novel after novel -- Phil can do the rewrite. Encouraged by critics, he happily departs the precincts of science fiction, which had nurtured and released 10 of his books, and has a successful career producing highbrow, gently experimental fare. He reworks the territory of soured domesticity (à la Richard Yates and John Updike) in a working-class milieu anticipating Raymond Carver. Decades later, his oeuvre (like Philip Roth's) is lovingly enshrined in our national pantheon.

None of this happens in the real world, of course, save for that last outrageous twist: This spring, four of his best novels will appear in a Library of America volume edited by novelist and stalwart PKD champion Jonathan Lethem. Lauded in science-fiction circles, Dick (1928-1982) gained mass exposure after the movie “Blade Runner,” based on one of his books, was released the year of his death. His carpet-yanking virtual realities have been film fodder ever since -- most recently, Richard Linklater's stunning 2006 adaptation of “A Scanner Darkly.”

But mainstream acceptance was Dick's first novelistic ambition, one that took years to dispel. An early fan of “scientifiction” stories, Dick also read widely outside the genre. In 1940s Berkeley, beginning at age 19, he roomed in a converted warehouse occasionally occupied by literary figures like poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, with whom he struck up friendships. During this time, according to biographer Lawrence Sutin, he was inspired to steep himself in the classics (“I gained a working knowledge of literature from the Anabasis to Ulysses,” Dick wrote in a 1968 “Self-Portrait”), with special attention to modernists like Ezra Pound and John Dos Passos. Sutin notes that from 1951 to 1958, Dick wrote dozens of science-fiction stories and six science-fiction novels, all of which were published, and seven mainstream novels, none of which found a publisher in his lifetime. “Confessions of a Crap Artist,” written in 1959 and published in 1975, is a lean, semiautobiographical divorce drama that nimbly shuttles between points of view. The other surviving mainstream manuscripts gradually found their way to print, and with the publication of “Voices From the Street,” finished in 1953, we have a complete view of the path not taken.

At the center of “Voices” is Stuart Hadley, a handsome, New Yorker-reading 25-year-old and amateur painter who is languishing as a repairman at Modern TV Sales and Service. Called “Stumblebum” by his boss, Jim Fergesson, Hadley is a dreamer with unclear dreams. His marriage leaves him cold, and his wife's pregnancy intensifies his feeling that life has trapped him. (His solution: memory-obliterating pub-crawls.) Taking note of a natty young man, Hadley imagines that his bookcases hold “French novels in French paperback editions. Gide, Proust, Celine”[30] A liberal sort with socialist Jewish friends, he's simultaneously attracted and repulsed by a group of holy rollers led by Theodore Beckheim, a charismatic black preacher -- and also by the “strong, calculating, ruthless, efficient” Marsha Frazier, who runs a haphazardly produced magazine called Succubus that turns out to be anti-Semitic.

Whereas “Confessions” had both a wrenching, violent climax and a sense of humor, “Voices” is obsessed with rage and race and is unremittingly bleak, a mood intensified by its chapterless format. The title suggests James Joyce's polyphonic “Ulysses,” but Hadley is a dominant, unifying presence. Though an early story line centers around an avuncular character named Horace Wakefield, hints of a Bloom-Dedalus dyad get snuffed early. The only deviations from Dick's patient, observant style are Beckheim's tour de force of a sermon and Hadley's violent, drunken ramble, reminiscent of Joyce's hallucinatory “Nighttown” chapter. (At times the novel reads like a hazy, low-rent version of Ayn Rand's “The Fountainhead,” with Hadley's inchoate ambition as above reproach as Howard Roark's will to power; Hadley's one-night stand with the fearsome Marsha is, troublingly, a more vicious version of Roark's rape of Dominique.)

The word “primordial” pops up frequently in “Voices,” and it's tempting to read this early book as a Dickian ur-text. Most fascinating is how Dick's major theme -- a playful, terrifying disjuncture between realities -- has leaked into this seemingly solid, realistically rendered setting. The book begins mock-epically, with store owner Fergesson opening up shop in Old Testament fashion (“his seventh day -- a cup of black coffee”). Promoted to manager, Hadley grapples with the dark thought that “he might suddenly blindly, burst out and destroy the safety of his microcosmos. In his archaic fury he might smash, demolish, pull down the only world in which he could exist.” He quickly becomes accustomed to “the permanent reality of the retail store,” but those dark forces swarm in and destroy the status quo. By book's end, he is carving out a second life, starting a whole new world from scratch.

Dick completed one other novel in 1953. “The Cosmic Puppets” (published a mere four years later) is a slim, intermittently spooky book, a minor entry in the PKD canon but one that functions as a mind-bending footnote to the gargantuan “Voices.” In it, New Yorker Ted Barton returns to his Virginia hometown to discover that everything has changed -- street names, houses, inhabitants. The local paper reports that he died as a 9-year-old, and he discovers that the current townspeople operate under a mutual, sustainable delusion. All Barton wants is to get back to the status quo -- a return to normalcy. What follows is a Zoroastrian freakout-cum-battle featuring golems, spiders, moths and gods. If “Puppets” is a lot more fun to read than “Voices,” that shouldn't diminish the real struggle suffusing the longer, lonelier shadow of a book. The struggle lies not just in Hadley's losing bargain with the real world but in Dick's changing notion of what sort of writer he needed to be.<

Review of POPEYE Vol. 1, Los Angeles Times Book Review

By Ed Park


I Yam What I Yam!

E.C. Segar

Fantagraphics Books: 182 pp., $29.95

“Be adequite,” wrote Lindsay Lohan, signing off on her heartfelt missive reflecting on the death of Robert Altman, her director in “A Prairie Home Companion.” The misspelling caused titters in the usual gossip venues, but for a reader of the new collection of E.C. Segar's original Popeye comics, Lohan's variant has its charms. From the start (1929), Popeye has entertained us as much by creatively mangling the language as by drubbing a wide variety of his opponents. Few sentences emerge from the mouth of the weirdly muscled old salt in anything close to standard English: “Insinuate” is “incinerate,” “coincidence” becomes “coincerdents,” and m's and n's tend to cross-migrate if they find themselves in the same word. In a pinch, Segar activates Popeye's most bewildering speech impediment, the replacement of t's with k's. Thus we have “personaliky,” “fisks,” and the oft-repeated “evil spiriks.” (Lohan could rent her idol's 1980 film adaptation for an effective audio version.) These deviations aren't especially funny the first time around or even the tenth, but by the hundredth you might find yourself marveling at this near-mythical sailor's odd charisma and the brisk inventiveness of his creator.

The genesis and success of Popeye, who still appears in newspapers, are as fascinating as his garbled speech. Elzie Crisler Segar, born in 1894, grew up in small-town Illinois, often working as a sort of backstage entertainer, accompanying silent films on the drums or operating the projector. After completing an 18-month comic-strip correspondence course, he went to Chicago to seek his fortune. A meeting with Richard F. Outcault -- creator of “The Yellow Kid,” the first comic-strip character -- led to a short-lived Charlie Chaplin-based comic strip in 1916. Segar followed this with a strip starring a diminutive WWI doughboy and a local feature called “Looping the Loop.” By the end of 1919, he was drawing a strip called “Thimble Theatre” for William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. This theater was to feature performances by a cast of thespians including Olive Oyl, but Segar shortly abandoned the conceit in favor of depicting the actors' offstage lives. The focus settled on Olive Oyl and her family -- father, mother, and stubby, money-mad brother Castor -- and Ham Gravy, her nondescript suitor. It took nearly a decade, or some 3,500 strips, for Popeye to swim into view.

Thus he doesn't appear in the first 100 or so strips in this gratifyingly dense collection (which kicks off a six-volume reprint project). The initial story line centers on Castor's unwanted pet -- the rare, doting “whiffle hen,” Bernice. She's boxy but endearing, looking like a displaced resident of Segar contemporary George Herriman's “Coconino County.” For a long stretch, Castor Oyl tries to kill off Bernice in nearly every strip, like a more murderous Ignatz Mouse. Once he's made peace with the indestructible fowl, Castor is offered dizzying sums of money for her by various competing agents. It turns out that stroking her head bestows gambler's luck, and Castor prepares to fleece a casino on distant Dice Island.

The date is Jan. 17, 1929. Castor spots Popeye and asks if he's a sailor. The one-eyed, rolled-cuffed, astonishingly ugly figure responds in five feisty words (“ 'Ja think I'm a cowboy?”) that perfectly announce his unshakable identity and suggest an entire lifetime already lived -- and lived hard. The menacing slouch, the anchor tattoo on a stubbly arm, the rather alarming puckering at the crotch of his pants -- Segar could be forgiven for not realizing that this grotesque whimsy would be his ticket to pop-culture immortality. (Segar would have less than a decade left to manage “Thimble Theatre”; he died of leukemia in 1938.)

Though Castor is calling the shots, Popeye proceeds to steal the show in the following episode, when Snork, a disgraced casino employee turned deranged pursuer, unloads 16 bullets into the stout seaman. “Snork at Sea” is a furious, page-turning tale utterly different in tone from the light-hearted adventures of Bernice or the subsequent pair of mystery stories in which Castor and Popeye play detective. It's a good indication of the flexibility that “Thimble Theatre's” format afforded Segar. As Coulton Waugh noted in his 1947 history “The Comics,” the bulletproof interlude “is the first hint that Popeye has entered the company of Paul Bunyan and other folk heroes invested with supernaturalism,” yet curiously he remains (unlike Superman) identifiably human. In his next appearance, after an absence of nearly six weeks, he's seen shooting craps, and he regularly gambles away anything he gets.

Perhaps the very name held the seeds of the hero's success: popular “I.” A man of little patience, immune to education and allergic to introspection, he nevertheless has an irreducible personal philosophy, one that removes the pesky cogito bit from Descartes and triples what's left: “I am what I am an' tha's all I yam!”

But what is he? Segar establishes Popeye as both an unbeatable warrior and a magnet for verbal abuse, thus granting him an instant moral dimension. He's called everything from a “shipwreck in the face” to a “dishfaced mud fence,” and if you scrutinize his features, you may start to see things you wish you hadn't. But his sheer ugliness becomes part of his appeal: There's a moment of comic-strip satori, several dozen pages in, when you realize the depth of emotion that's somehow conveyed by that perpetually sour, nearly immobile face, with the pipe jammed in at a fantastically steep angle.

Reading the saga from the start, it seems likely that the imminent Depression became a crucible for fans' ardor. Popeye is self-sufficient, at times fatalistic; he's a survivor, an admirable figure, with or without money. It's a strange experience to see Castor's Dice Island scam giddily unfold in the strips of March 1929, sacks of cash flying out the window as quickly as he can win them. And this is the beauty of such a comprehensive project: In the strip that ran on Black Tuesday, Castor and Popeye learn that they've invested all their Dice Island millions in a nonexistent “brass mine.” Popeye's reaction -- his mantra -- seems entirely appropriate: “Well blow me down.”<

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Reality hunger

*Sloane Crosley, copyright page, How Did You Get This Number