Dyspeptic, funny writer Sam Lipsyte, author of the vicious satirical novel Home Land, meets his match with über-curmudgeon writer Michel Houellebecq. At least, he thinks he will until he actually bothers to meet the man. It turns out that two satirists—one French and famous, one American and damn near unknown—on a California book tour can lead to hilarity but also low-key adventures:
We drive a few more hours and Houellebecq seems to nap through a lot of it. He has this uncanny ability to appear asleep and then rise up out of his slumber with some bon mot, as though he’s been listening to the conversation the whole time. It’s his M.O. in a wider sense, too, this disheveled, seemingly discombobulated man, an establishment outsider who looks like easy pickings until he opens his mouth (or laptop) and starts hurling thunderbolts. It’s hard to tell whether it’s all a big game or he’s some kind of narcoleptic savant. I’m beginning to think it’s a bit of both, but that his glue is a sometimes charming, sometimes grating, semi-autistic geekiness. He’s not a conversationalist, and he’s none too curious about anything or anybody that doesn’t directly feed his observational mechanism. He may be an artist for our age, but he’s got none of the media-ready gabbiness or false compassion that goes with it. Even his narcissism doesn’t seem to stem from the usual brew of selfishness and insecurity. It’s a cold, glittering thing. Life is painful and disappointing. And then you die. He may be a major writer, I tell my friend on the phone one night from my hotel, but you wouldn’t want him, say, running a country.
“Are you kidding?” says my friend, a Houellebecq fan. “You wouldn’t want that guy running the local gas station.”
Lipsyte also wrote a critical appreciation of Houellebecq’s fiction.
Whether or not they’re working in a conventional narrative context I think it’s important to understand that [storytelling] function of a narrative form like comics. Because the non-narrative option, the experimental comics, the nonfiction comics still grow out of that culture. I make the comparison in the book, and it’s not a facetious one, to sex and how sex has so many different forms and interests us in so many different ways and much sexual activity has nothing whatsoever to do with reproduction. But if you want to understand sex you have to start there. You have to start with the reproductive system and you have to begin by understanding this function that this whole panoply of activities include.
And so it is I think with comics, that comics originated in narrative and story. And mastering that aspect of comics helps you to understand all aspects of comics.
One short-story genius writes about another: Lorrie Moore on Eudora Welty:
Welty’s occasional relationship with black people, as glimpsed in her stunning collection of Depression-era photographs, One Time, One Place (1971), was warm and interested, the gazes of her subjects often meeting her halfway, in the middle distance between the camera and the photograph, as if to say they understand this strange white lady with her camera, that she is not just benign but perhaps in her open curiosity good-humored and good-hearted as well. There is mutual trust, no mutual fear.
Speaking of politics, the great Daniel Mendelsohn (and when will we see a collection of his essays?) writes about how 9/11 has been portrayed in the movies, and what this says about us. As expected of Mendelsohn, Greek tragedy, high wit, sobering reflection, and scintillating, just-so descriptions are all present:
Using the real-life people in [United 93] is a showy but ultimately hollow gesture; it advertises a certain kind of solemnity, even piety, about “authenticity” that has great currency in an era in which, in so many popular entertainments, a great premium is placed on getting as close as possible to “reality”—although in such entertainments the reality, of course, is an artfully constructed one. (An apparently growing confusion in mass culture about the differences among reality, truth, “truthiness,” and fiction has, as we know, had effects beyond the world of entertainment. An artful admixing of reality and invention, never acknowledged as such, has characterized the government’s attempt to “sell” its response to the events of September 11.)
There can, therefore, be no useful aesthetic value in the decision to use real people, only a symbolic and perhaps sentimental one: by emphasizing such authenticity and realism, the film reassures its audience—which may well be anxious about its motives for paying to see a film about real-life violence and horror—that what they’re seeing is not, in fact, “drama” (and therefore presumably mere “entertainment“), but “real life,” and hence in some way edifying.
The problem with all this realness is that the film itself—like reality—has no structure: and without structure, without shaping, the events can have no large meaning. When United 93 first came out, I was struck by one enthusiastic critic’s glowing comment, in a review entitled “Brilliant, Brutal and Utterly Real,” that Greengrass’s movie was “gripping from first to last, partly because, like a Greek tragedy, we are only too aware of where everything is heading.…” But what makes Greek tragedy significant as art is precisely the way in which the foreordained trajectory of the events that take place on stage is made to seem part of a larger moral scheme; when (for instance) we see the horrible spectacle of the humbled king at the end of Persians, we know why he has been humbled (his greedy overreaching) and who has humbled him (the gods, the moral order that obtains in the cosmos).
All that United 93 can tell us, by contrast, is that many people are brave and some people are dastardly.
And, oh hell, one more quote:
There’s no question that that day was also a story of heroism and bravery; but the fact that people were forced to be so heroic that day was the result of a vast and complicated network of political, social, and historical forces which, five years later, it is irresponsible not to want to acknowledge. The pretty much exclusive emphasis thus far on the “good”—the heroism and the bravery of ordinary Americans—in these entertainments is noteworthy, because it reminds you of the unwillingness to grapple with and acknowledge the larger issues, the larger causes and effects that culminated in what happened on September 11, which has characterized much of the national response to this pivotal trauma. That [United 93 and World Trade Center], like so much we have seen on various screens over the past five years, clothe their fictions and their editorializing in the pious garment of reverence for authentic reality—a pose that will elicit tears, if not serious thinking—should be cause for alarm rather than applause.
The Self-Styled Siren, who has quickly become one of my favorite film writers, also has politics on the brain. Apparently, the boyos at Libertas got their panties in a twist over the trailer—the trailer, mind you, not the actual film, which they haven’t seen—for Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers:
Why this bizarre insistence that any attempt to show any World War II leaders as less than stainless somehow represents an insidious left-wing all-American-wars-are-imperialist agenda? After seeing a trailer, for heaven’s sake. Well, Mr. Apuzzo pretty much tells you what he is basing his assumptions on—screenwriter Paul Haggis. Haggis, you see, is a liberal, and that’s enough: “My concern was that Haggis would try to smuggle his politics into Eastwood’s Iwo Jima melodrama, and it appears that my concerns were justified.”
There’s a whopping big assumption in that sentence, that Haggis could somehow work in his agenda without Eastwood, a meticulous director and one tough hombre to boot, either noticing or saying “Hey Haggis, what is this pantywaist crap you’re putting in my movie, punk?” But no matter. Haggis is vocally liberal, therefore he will always try to make a certain type of movie, even to the point of trying to hoodwink Eastwood, whose politics skew conservative.
And now, for film as pleasure and edification, as opposed to political rabble-rousing. Michael writes about his first time attending the Toronto International Film Festival, in two parts. Girish—an old hand at TIFF—riffs on it as well.
And, at long last, Chicken Spaghetti shows us her chicken spaghetti recipe.
That is all.