Out and about (Christmas 2008 edition)

An early Christmas gift to my readers–all 34 of you. Fair warning: There will be another set of gifts on Christmas Eve. Okay, let’s go.

The mighty Sheila O’Malley declares her love for Mickey Rourke:

He was captivating in Diner, and the 50s seemed to me to be his proper milieu. There was something old-school about him. He belonged in diners at 3 a.m., with a cup of coffee and a crumpled newspaper and some floozy dame crying about him across town. He was not a modern man. He was unashamedly masculine, yet with that undercurrent of softness and vulnerability that all of the great old movie stars (Bogart, in particular) had. He would be completely at home in Only Angels Have Wings, or Dawn Patrol or The Big Sleep. His manliness was not a pose or anything ironic. It was not defensive or postured. It was authentic. He was a throwback, but it just goes to show you that that kind of energy is always in style, and it went a long way in describing his appeal. [Russell] Crowe had it too in L.A. Confidential. A pre-“enlightened” man. Robert Mitchum is another actor Rourke reminds me of. Rourke had the same drawling easiness, the same tangible potential for danger and violence, but also the same sizzling sex appeal that turn women movie-goers into puddles in the aisle. Rourke’s sense of humor is wry, a little bit pained, he is always distant from events in some way, there is some long horizon he always seems to be looking at which keeps him from full involvement. Perhaps it is an awareness of death, of failure, of the foibles of mankind. His cards are held close to the chest. He is tough, but he is not dumb. You can see this at work in Rumble Fish, where he plays the mythical Motorcycle Boy, one of his loveliest performances. He belongs in black and white. Even his color films seem like they should have been in black and white.

Mark Anthony Neal waxes scholarly on Kanye West’s new 808s and Heartbreak, an album that features a preponderance of that annoying Auto-Tune technology. Still, Neal finds a few ghosts in the machine:

West’s decision to embrace the technology for a full-fledged project suggests more than simply an attempt to cash in on a profitable trend. Indeed, Auto-Tune references an older tradition within popular music, the use of the vocoder. In the 1970s, the vocoder became a popular tool for musicians including Kraftwerk, Pink Floyd and the Electric Light Orchestra. The late Roger Troutman and Teddy Riley are perhaps the best known black performers to rely on the vocoder. In virtually all of these cases, the use of the vocoder was less about obscuring the imperfection of a vocal performance, but more about expanding the range of the human voice. The bridging, if you will, of the human voice with the non-human world. Couple the use of the vocoder with technological staples like the TR-808 drum machine, and one can gather the extent that black performers have been wedded to emergent technologies. In this context, the use of Auto-Tune shouldn’t seem unusual. West's use of Auto-Tune is not so much of a departure from his creative sensibilities. His bread-and butter production style relied on changing the pitch of old soul recordings to create what critic Martin Edlund described in the New York Sun as a sonic landscape where “men sound like women and women sound like chipmunks.”

Speaking of, um, academic takes on hip-hop, “ Staten Island Historians Piece Together Genealogy Of Wu-Tang Clan.” I don’t know what’s funnier: 1) that Russell Jones really did record, for posterity, under the names Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Dirt McGirt, Big Baby Jesus, Osirus, Dirt Dog, and Peanut the Kidnapper; or 2) the photograph of a strip-mall parking lot that’s accompanied by this caption: “There was a time when the clan could look across the Staten Island horizon and know that all of it was theirs.”

Some people consider James Wood the world’s finest working literary critic, but I don’t think he’s even the finest one from England. Exhibit A (again): Zadie Smith. Back in 2000, Wood’s in/famous essay on “hysterical realism” and metafiction targeted specifically Smith’s debut novel White Teeth and, due to Smith’s shy nature and excessive self-deprecation, most readers assumed (wrongly) that Smith has conceded the argument. In this critique of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, however, she comes out swinging and lands some hard uppercuts. The essay is one of the best pieces of literary criticism I’ve read in years:

Critiques of [literary Realism] by now amount to a long tradition in and of themselves. Beginning with what Alain Robbe-Grillet called “the destitution of the old myths of ‘depth,’” they blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental the metaphor, and go “back to the things themselves!”; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy. They all of them note the (often unexamined) credos upon which Realism is built: the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.

Yet despite these theoretical assaults, the American metafiction that stood in opposition to Realism has been relegated to a safe corner of literary history, to be studied in postmodernity modules, and dismissed, by our most famous public critics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart. Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, David Foster Wallace—all misguided ideologists, the novelist equivalents of the socialists in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. In this version of our literary history, the last man standing is the Balzac-Flaubert model, on the evidence of its extraordinary persistence. But the critiques persist, too. Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?

Smith has another essay out that’s worth your serious attention. Ostensibly, the New Yorker piece concerns the death of her father but that description is far too reductive. It’s an exploration of how and why we use comedy to make sense of the world, how family shapes who we become, and how stand-up comedy is created and refined. Oh, and it’s quite funny itself–along with being absolutely heartbreaking.

Smith’s not the only one with Wood problems. In a long essay, William Deresiewicz nails some essential problems with Wood’s style, circumscribed tastes, and (most importantly) his methods, which lead the esteemed critic to blind spots and just-plain-wrong assertions. There’s a lot to argue with in Deresiewicz’s piece–I don’t think criticism would be greatly improved by a return to the New York Intellectuals’ emphasis on the “public sphere,” for instance–but here’s a characteristic home run he hits on Wood:

Wood knows, of course, that realism is a set of conventions, but like a liberal Catholic who understands that Jesus wasn't really divine, he would prefer to forget it. Hence his discomfort with the artful distortion, the allegorical dislocation–the bank shot, the knight’s move, the indirect approach.

Too much is sacrificed on the altar of this aesthetic theology–too much in fiction that is fine; too much, finally, that is true. Magical realism is indeed unconvincing in Rushdie and Morrison, as Wood says, but what of García Márquez, who integrates it into a seamlessly imagined world? Does it matter that Borges doesn’t create realistic characters? Nabokov’s characters may be “galley slaves,” as the novelist boasted, but he is still able to use them as, in his words, “a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion.” To Roland Barthes’s charge that realism is merely a collection of effects, Wood correctly replies that “realism can be an effect and still be true.” But so can antirealism. Wood defends realism, justly, from accusations of naïveté, but the terms in which he does so make him susceptible to the same charge. “Almost all the great 20th-century realist novels,” he says, “are full of artifice,” which makes artifice sound like a kind of optional ingredient, sort of like sugar, that novelists are free to add in greater or lesser amounts. Of course, everything, in every novel, is artifice. The only distinction to be made is between artifice that is flaunted and artifice that is concealed.

Wood’s unwillingness to confront the contradictions in his thinking about these matters–to distinguish between realism and reality, artifice and experiment, character and person–points to a larger problem. Wood is a daring thinker, but he is not a particularly rigorous one. His powerfully associative mind tends to run him into logical cul-de-sacs that his supreme self-assurance prevents him from noticing.

I’ve been meaning to link to Joseph Epstein’s sharp-tongued essay on the excessive love of children by their parents for a few months. So now I have.

Finally, the Onion A.V. Club’s critics discuss the year in cinema.

That is all.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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