Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Let me tell you about a lovely little book I picked up yesterday morning, and have just finished this evening: the collection of debut nonfiction from Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends.
Chabon, for those of you unfamiliar, is the author of, most notably, the novels Wonder Boys, the Pulitzer Prize winning The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and most recently, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.
I was introduced to Chabon by my beloved, long-lost high school boyfriend, who is almost single-handedly responsible for my induction into the literature of coolness. I had seen the film adaptation of Wonder Boys, but I was skeptical about his rants on Chabon’s most recent work at the time, Kavalier and Clay. I even remember buying him his copy in Barnes and Noble during a birthday gift exchange—I bought him the Chabon, he bought me Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. Both novels are very dear to me, for several reasons. Now I work for the company that published Middlesex, and although said ex-boyfriend refuses to speak to me, I cannot discuss Chabon without thinking of him.
In fact, Chabon’s first collection of nonfiction is largely about nostalgia and its effect not only on our literatures but our day-to-day existence. There are several themes present here: the Golem and Jewish mysticism, the state of the genre novel, the short story, the act of writing, and of course, comics. It feels appropriate that Chabon chooses his essay on “entertainment” as the first in this book, as I have often described The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay as “one of the most entertaining novels I have ever read.”
Here. He puts it much better than I can:
“Yet entertainment—as I define it, pleasure and all—remains the only sure means we have of bridging, or at least of feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else. The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it is not to disparage or repudiate but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences, a two-way exchange of attention, experience, and the universal hunger for connection.”
This connection, between author and author, reader and author, reader and reader, is exactly what makes reading one of the most pleasurable activities for the active mind. Again, Chabon: “Through parody and pastiche, allusion and homage, retelling and reimagining the stories that we were told before us that we have come of age loving—amateurs—we proceed, seeking out the blank places in the map that our favorite writers, in their greatness and negligence, have left for us, hoping to pass on to our own readers—should we be lucky enough to find any—some of the pleasure that we ourselves have taken in the stuff we love: to get in on the game. All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.”
Chabon speaks frequently throughout these essays about an aching feeling of homelessness and loneliness that drives his compulsion to write. His identity as a Jew ties him to a tradition and to a people who have struggled to maintain their existence. Chabon, in his loneliness, claims to feel tied to historical events and people that occurred and existed many years before his birth, as if his feeling of nostalgia reaches far back beyond his childhood and into history itself. And not only is Chabon’s love for all things Jewish is similar to my obsession with Judaism (someday I will write about my Jew fetish on this blog, I promise), his is a description of an emotion that I have grappled with my entire life. Chabon, in 222 pages, has articulated both its nature and its necessity through a range of literatures almost anyone can enjoy. No small feat.
The collection closes with a memoir, which, according to Chabon, is nothing more than a pack of lies. What else, then, is fiction, if nothing but a pack of lies, a false communication between other minds and even ourselves, a imagining of what-could-have-been or what-will-be? Literature, then, is the most pleasant (or most cutting) form of nostalgia. Its glow follows us everywhere, in the stories we tell, and in others' stories that we decide to keep.
Monday, May 05, 2008
In terms of superheroes, my loyalty has long lain with Batman, the greatest superhero of all time. I love Batman because he isn't technically a superhero, he's just a rich guy who watched his parents get murdered and decided he'd like to try and make the degenerate world a little better. The beautiful thing about Batman's plight is that his efforts don't necessarily make much of a difference. But the effort, the action he takes is the only thing that keeps him from going insane.
So when Iron Man opened last week and threatened to steal the Bat's thunder this summer, I was skeptical. Iron Man? Really? What's the premise, anyway? I pictured lots of cars blowing up and Gwyneth Paltrow's stilted smile and would've much preferred to have watched another episode of "The 15 Most Violent Acts," on E!
But I was persuaded by my male company last night, and A.O. Scott's favorable review in The New York Times. At ten o'clock I was queuing up outside the theater, milk duds in tow.
To some extent, all superhero movies (especially those released in the summer) ride the surf of hype and excitement oftentimes into success. The theater was packed, everyone was talking about what they had heard about the movie, both men and women were discussing their love of Robert Downey Jr. The previews aid to the success of the film as well: the new M. Night, "The Happening," the new Indiana Jones, and of course, "The Dark Knight." You could almost here the audience sigh when Heath Ledger's ghoulish joker danced across the screen.
And finally, the movie begins. In Afghanistan.
Afghanistan. Immediately I tensed up. Who will Iron Man be fighting, the Arabs? Is this a Republican made film? Where am I? The movie spends a good bit of the first hour avoiding the answer to any of those questions, just like Tony Stark (Iron Man's real guy persona) avoids any accountability in his family's weapons business. But that will all change, for Tony, and for us.
The success of this film is largely due to Jon Favreau's directing and Robert Downey Jr.'s acting. Tony Stark is not a caricatured excuse to get to the real deal, the hero. Downey's Stark is embedded in everything about Iron Man, down to his heart made of . . . well, here I would say steal, but I'm not entirely sure what his heart is really made out of. Robert Downey Jr., in many ways, is the only actor I can see in this part, because he embodies the anti-hero, both in his career choices and in his personal life. As a reformed bad-boy, Downey has the chops to feel this transformation from selfish prick to "hero" in a believable, genuine way. There is a scene where he tells Pepper Potts, his assistant (Ms. Paltrow), that he hasn't lost his mind, he just suddenly knows what he needs to do, and he knows it's right in his heart. I imagine this is what RDJ must have told himself when he finally decided to kick his long-standing drug habit for good.
Iron Man is the perfect balance of action and emotion. In some ways, it cow-tows to the standard super-hero flick, but in many ways it veers off course, allowing its hero to make very human mistakes. The supporting cast of characters do a great job billowing about Robert Downey Jr., giving him the space to steal the show. (For instance, some of the funniest moments are between RDJ and his technology. Think Luke Skywalker and R2D2). And, interestingly, Favreau almost completely avoids the over-the-top lady friend element with Pepper Potts. Pepper is no Vicki Vale, that's for sure. Paltrow's Potts is as bland as burnt toast, and, in my opinion, the only failure of the film.
But in conclusion, Iron Man was surprisingly well done. It was everything a superhero movie is supposed to be but just a little bit more . . . I found myself laughing and falling in love with Tony Stark. His sense of right and wrong becomes clearly defined by the end of the film, unlike many of his fellow superheroes, who find themselves confused and misled to the dark side. While others might find this kind of optimism repellent, it felt almost revolutionary to me . . . as if Favreau, in turning the tables on what classifies a hero, has invented a separate genre for a thinking and feeling cad who, when running into goodness, decides to commit. Now, there's an idea.
Thursday, May 01, 2008
Once again, the editors at More Intelligent Life have honored me by publishing my piece on the recent retrospective at Centre Pompidou of the brilliant artist and living legend Louise Bourgeois. The piece also concerns the Gustave Courbet exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum until May 18th.
If interested, you'll find it here.
Cheers, and thanks for reading,