Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dave Eggers, The Wild Things

Meekly, I disagreed a few weeks ago when a friend and fellow blogger used the film version of Where the Wild Things Are as the starting point for comments about How Hollywood Ruins Everything. He's not wrong in principle, in fact I've been saying much the same thing to anyone who'd listen since I first shaded into feckless adolescence, but I think he's wrong in this specific case. I want to talk here about the Dave Eggers novel The Wild Things, but I need to start with the movie anyway.

Where the Wild Things Are, by Spike Jonze, from a screenplay by Jonze and Eggers, made with the blessing of Maurice Sendak, is not a movie version of the beloved children's book. It's a return to the book by adults who loved it, who look back with mixed fear and amazement at their childhood selves, and who reflect anxiously on the relations they imagine between themselves (or other former WTWTA kid readers) and their current, future, or imagined children. It's not about childhood at all, in other words; it's about parenthood.

(And if you've got proof otherwise, I don't want to hear it. I do literary studies -- don't muddle me with what the author might have meant for me to understand! Plus an unofficial transcript of the movie is here, if you want it.)

Peter Travers disagreed with me in Rolling Stone, seeing it (I think) as a kids' movie like no other, but still a movie for and about kids: he loved it, though, in some of the same ways that I did, which was reassuring.

But then there's also this novel, released by McSweeney's initially in a genius fur cover. It could have been a novelization of the movie, since it was written after the movie was filmed, or of the Sendak book, since that's Eggers' primary textual reference point, but it's neither of those things. It's a novel, with pre-existing analogues in the forms of the movie and the children's book.

Given Eggers' involvement with the screenplay, it makes sense that there'd be close parallels with the movie, and indeed there are, but there are also some useful divergences, such as in terms of the narrative arc and of the described setting. Max is in the boat for longer in Eggers' novel, lava flows just under the ground in the novel (not in the movie), and Eggers gives you all sorts of fantasy nature elements in the novel, such as "a many-colored meadow. The grass there was long, soft, and arrayed in a patchwork of clashing colors--ochre and black and violet and fuchsia" (p.176). In most cases, I thought these extended and intensified the movie experience of defamiliarization, where I recognized my own childhood and world as profoundly different from what I thought at the time they were.

The complicating factor of the novel, though, is that (like the movie) it's simultaneously for kids and NOT AT ALL for kids. The language is mostly simple, the characters' level of self-reflection is mostly pretty low, and the storytelling is mostly of the "and then, and then" variety. But the events are at times horrifying, the implications are philosophically dense (though merely, if that's not the wrong word, about childhood experience), and there's only some hints at resolution. An unfriendly adult reader will not enjoy this novel, because it's too childish for an adult reader and too prickly for a kid; an unfriendly kid reader will not enjoy this novel, because it's neither formulaic nor productively unconventional.

Everything Eggers does (can I say "everything"? Hmm) seems to come from a good heart: his TED Talk about schools; his volunteer program for student writing, 826 Valencia; even his fund-raising pirate supply store. Hipster irony, maybe that's one of the things that infuses his books, even if he's been insisting ever since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius that it's not irony: "to refer to everything odd, coincidental, eerie, absurd, or strangely funny as ironic is, frankly, an abomination upon the Lord. (Re that last clause: not irony, but a simple, wholesome, American-born exaggeration)" (Mistakes We Knew We Were Making, p.33). What was I saying? Oh, right. Hipster irony, maybe that's part of the schtick: but it's also an intimate, feeling-filled book. I don't know whether you'd like it--certainly there are some people I expect to dislike it--but would the kid you once were want to take a chance on something that might be amazing?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Reinhard Kleist, Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness

On a recent trip to Seattle, my first in more than a decade somehow, I dropped into the EMP gift shop to see what was there. Mostly I was there just to admire/goggle at the outside of my first Gehry fantasia (to which I responded both "whoa..." and "srsly? wtf?!?"), but museum gift shops are always cool places.

And a treasure did I find, too, in German comic artist Reinhard Kleist's graphic novel biography Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness. Now, I'm hardly going to be uninterested in this book, because I'm a sucker for anything to do with Johnny Cash; in fact I also bought a belt-buckle in Seattle featuring a photo of a young Cash inside Sun Studios, which I'm wearing as I write this. I'm not sure that I could ever be a properly critical reader of it, since Cash provided a large chunk of the soundtrack to my youth in the BC interior through the 70s and 80s, so I'm reassured by the warmth with which Kleist's book was immediately received when it was first published (which was in German, in Germany, much to my surprise!).

As other reviewers have said, like Marc Sobel or Michael Faber, this is a biography that's short on facts, long on impressions, and echoing with the half-remembered half-truths that've been so important to Cash fans through the years. After all, Cash went for long periods without much success, and his voice was almost from the beginning more iconic than genuinely popular. Kleist's version of Johnny Cash draws heavily on the image cultivated by and for the brilliant albums produced by Rick Rubin, and for me that's a very good thing. Rubin understood better than anyone, except possibly Cash himself, how potent an image Cash could be simply as himself, and their American Recordings albums are (for all their occasional and shattering clunkers) utterly remarkable documents of a musical legacy. Rubin's Cash is a tormented, driven, darkly complicated figure, exactly what we've always thought Cash was but more so.

Kleist's artwork is wonderful, interspersing scenes from Cash's life with depictions of song lyrics that feature Cash himself as the boy named Sue, or young Bill who gets shot for taking his guns to town, or the cocaine-injecting wife-killer Willie Lee. There's not much gray in Kleist's images, almost everything starkly black/white, which contrasts very effectively with the great attention to detail in Cash's represented physicality (the hunched shoulders, the slightly hanging head, and so on). In a sentence? Kleist runs the Rick Rubin Cash through the early days of Cash's career up to his Folsom Prison concert, 1956-1968, backwards-engineering the iconic rebel that Cash has become after his death -- and as a Cash fan who knows that this isn't anything like the full picture, I couldn't be happier with the book that results!

Mind you, I'm dissatisfied by the portrayal of June Carter Cash: she was a different-looking woman, and either Kleist had trouble with her facial structure or he wasn't as exercised by this part of the job. Reese Witherspoon managed to portray June's vibe nicely in Walk the Line, though they looked almost nothing alike. Kleist's June is unattractive, like an anti-Witherspoon, but in reality her unusual appearance was waaay appealing for a lot of men in her day -- plus the young June was a whole lot less square-jawed and wild-cheekboned than the older one. Not the first time that a comics artist misrepresented a female character, though!

And also, do yourself a favour, and watch Johnny Cash sing the gorgeous "Man in Black," live from 1971 on his TV show. I get the shivers so hard sometimes with this song that I've been known to tear up from it. Up front, seriously, there always ought to be a man in black.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Paul Torday, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Now, if I was the same Brit that I am a Canadian, I wouldn't have picked up Paul Torday's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen the other week at Munro's Books: the little "Richard & Judy's Summer Read" sticker would likely have put me off, the same way that the Oprah sticker gives me pause, but more so. (And it only gives me pause: I've read Oprah books before and enjoyed them!)

But honestly, who wouldn't want to read an inside-the-bureaucracy faux-documentary novel about the mad project of reengineering a Yemeni wadi to support salmon transplanted from Great Britain, so that Yemenis could fish for them there as Scots might in a loch?

Plenty of people, you say? Hmm. I don't think I know them.

This was a fast read and a pleasant one. Blurbed by Marina Lewycka, author of the equally improbably titled A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (reviewed ungently here), Torday's novel won't attract the same attention Lewycka's did, but was a better book regardless.

Middle-aged fisheries scientist Dr. Alfred Jones, married though not quite happily so, and settled in a competent but to him vaguely unsatisfying career, finds himself dragooned into supporting the above-described quixotic project, entirely funded by a wealthy Yemeni, to shift UK salmon into a river on the Arabian Peninsula. Featuring odd characters who interestingly blend the stereotypical with the unexpected, the novel doesn't follow the traditional faux-realist path of a seamless retrospective narrative; instead it takes a faux-documentary approach, telling its story through emails, journal entries, newspaper stories, etc. You don't ever know everything about any one event or character, but you've got several perspectives on everything, and for me the approach worked swimmingly.

Torday's Jones reminds one of numerous other British not-quite-heroes, who reached a recent pinnacle (nadir?) in Julian Barnes' decent but enthusiastically received A Sense of an Ending (also reviewed here a little ungently). Rather than a weakness, though, as I said it was for Barnes, this predictability seemed to me a strength for Torday. (Hear me out, Fraser!) In brief, the novel's fragmentary approach - emails, interviews, etc. - meant that I wasn't trapped in Dr. Jones' head, and so he exists in a comparatively rich contextual environment: I know Barnes' Tony ridiculously well, including how he fears/thinks others see him, but I don't know how he's understood by others, and Torday's Dr. Jones has some extra dimensionality.

Barnes' The Sense of an Ending is wiser and sweeter and deeper than Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, but I enjoyed Torday's novel more, and it's closer to my heart than Barnes'. Still, I won't be teaching it, even if it's a declaredly environmental novel, both in form and in content, because in the end it's all too predictable (except for the ending, which I really did NOT expect to turn out that way). If you like David Lodge, or Stephen Fry for that matter, or if you've got an interest in environmental fiction, then this book should work well for you.

But I'm still not going to trust Richard & Judy next time I see one of their labels.

Friday, February 17, 2012

CrimethInc., Work

A new contender for my favourite bookshop: Left Bank Books, which I visited a couple of times last weekend on my first tourist visit to Seattle in more than a decade. It describes itself as a "collectively owned and operated, community-based, not-for-profit project," with numerous specializations based on the interests of people in the collective. I managed to bring home only a half-dozen volumes, but it would've been more if they'd been prepared to ship things back to Canada for me. First book finished: Work, by the CrimethInc. Ex-Workers' Collective.

Colour me (re?)energized, and impressed.

Basically, Work starts from the position that economists don't deserve the privilege accorded them to comment on social structures: maybe on the economy, though CrimethInc. doesn't think so, but definitely not on society more broadly. Society is richer and more complex than merely its economic facets, no matter how intensely the economic order attempts to reduce society's richness, and how painfully successful such attempts have been. Work thus represents a lengthy sequence of sector-specific analyses of how work, capital, and economics have variously corrupted distinct elements of human experience. The writing is direct, sociable, committed, and -- most importantly -- accessible.

Case studies in how to steal from an unjust employer, how to organize a workplace for subversion without bothering with unionization, how to resist disciplinary technological surveillance: there's tons of praxis here, with a carefully philosophic underpinning. This doesn't mean I'm fully on board with all the details, but being in full agreement isn't what I take to be the point of CrimethInc.

Take their attack on gentrification, for example. The sequence of events genuinely does occur as they lay it out: an area falls out of social favour, and as rental or house prices drop, its demographics become less white and go down-market; once the prices get low enough, the gentry start buying it up and redecorating; once the redecoration is in full swing, the existing community gets pushed out the door. I'm not sure about their response, though: "the only way to protect your neighborhood from gentrification is to wreck it. You want to make it a place no one wealthier than yourself -- no one who had any other options--would ever choose to live" (p.289). If you make a lower-cost area nicer, you're making it more attractive for the exploiters to take it away from you. While I agree with that bit, and while I agree that the whole issue of aesthetics is hopelessly muddled by unacknowledgeable group-based self-loathing, I'm more than a bit reluctant to accept that one shouldn't paint a wall, or put herbs in the ground, or have a lawn that your neighbours can use for croquet.

But then I'm more about cooperation than obstruction at this point, as befits a middle-aged, middle-class academic like me. I'm still seeing cooperation as itself resistance, as well as a potentially effective tool in a resistance movement, so fouling my own nest feels like fouling the nests around me, of my comrades.

So no, it doesn't seem to me that CrimethInc.'s point is that I need to agree with every angle in Work. The point is that you start from where you are, with what you can do and what you know, and you work toward the world you wish you lived in: the point is that we all must start. Take the material world seriously, and reject economic arguments: capital must be stopped.

And hey, it's nice that they go so far as to admit that "Even lawyers and professors can play an important role if they can get over themselves" (p.349)! I'll get over myself, I promise, and I'll play a role. It'd be nice if I was tenured, since that's useful for an academic who wants to speak out or act out, but some things can't be helped. Certainly I thought immediately of some things on campus the last couple of years that I'd respond to differently now. Knowing my university's students as I do, I'm confident I'll get the chance to rectify some of those failures. Bring it on, guerrilla gardeners (and their haters), and the rest of you!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Charlotte Gill, Eating Dirt

Why do bad things happen to good people? Not a relevant question in these parts lately: this year's recipient of the BC National Book Prize for Nonfiction (and a cheque for $40,000) is the talented, smart, and very cool Charlotte Gill, for her wonderful book Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe.

The gist of the book is that Eating Dirt portrays a single tree-planting year, one of the seventeen that Gill put in, mostly in a few areas on the British Columbia coast. In this portrait, she has to cover a lot of ground: the camaraderie of shared physical labour, the isolation of the job, the beauty of the forest, the hopelessness of the task, the idiosyncratic characters, the resonance of BC-coastal character types. To her enormous credit, the book is similarly accomplished in each area she addresses. It's an environmental(ist) text, a labour text, a coming-of-age text, an approaching-middle-age text, and all sorts of other things to boot.

Content aside, too, Gill's prose is terrific. The persistence of fragments, for example: she says that that's just her style as a writer, but her style's wonderfully adapted to her subject, in that she keeps using sentence fragments in her evocation of the one-damned-tree-after-another life of a tree-planter. Or the superabundance of often unusual metaphors (her first planting gloves smelling, when she put them on, "like new skateboard wheels," p.57), so appropriate for the superabundant fecundity of a coastal rainforest -- and the intensely tangled wreck of life that is a recent clearcut.

A joy to read, Eating Dirt, and I'm pleased now to have met its author. Gill did a reading at UVic last week that concluded with a generous, thoughtful Q&A -- in spite of some questions that just weren't as clever or insightful as they'd sounded when I was prepping for the event. If she appears in your town one of these days, do yourself a favour and show up for the event!