a suburban tragedy

I might have mentioned before that I don’t believe in spoilers. As a matter of fact I sometimes read the last pages of a novel first just to see what to expect. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been able to read detective novels, I simply don’t care who did it, I’m more interested in the criminal’s every day life, how they like their coffee and what they think about in a crowded bus (well, this part isn’t very hard to imagine). After watching Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road twice, I decided to give the book a try too. There’s nothing more thrilling for me than a psychological suicidal drama; the more depressing and hopeless and with a more predictable ending, the better. I guess it’s a cathartic thing, like the effects of a Greek tragedy. You watch somebody suffer, identify with them, with their terrible trials and tribulations and somehow get purified in the process and can get back to your own (possibly troubled) life with a clearer head and a slightly braver heart.

At first glance the ancient Greek hero’s tragedy seems a great deal more purposeful and dignified, it’s all in the name of an ideal, a tradition or duty, or it’s a punishment for hubris. A housewife depressed in her spotless suburban home seems far removed from any such thing. Still, hers is also a tragedy of hubris, it is the tragedy of the modern man that tries to live up to his or her own illusions of what life is supposed to be like and never giving up on the dream that life holds extraordinary promises. April, one of the main characters, is the tragic heroine of this novel, who wants to live up to the dreams of her youth and cannot conform to a numb suburban life, but, like Jay Gatsby before her, she is chasing an illusion and dies a ridiculously unheroic (to say the least) death, doing that. Not incidentally she bears the name of what T.S. Eliot called “the cruelest month”. She is beautiful and smells like fresh lemons and, like the month she is named after, she both represents and reminds all the other characters of their youthful aspirations, of the promises of life that remained unfulfilled as they all settled for the comfort of routine and the ordinary. Her presence both stirs them back to life at times, for brief interludes, and painfully reveals to them their failure, mediocrity and weakness. Like any tragic figure she has to die consumed by her own impossible dream, letting the rest of the characters continue on with life as we all know it. Her death is both painful and a relief to them. There’s a beautiful scene after her death when their family friend (with whom April has had a brief affair) looks at his wife who wears a torn bathrobe, has tangled hair and smells like cooking and, comparing her to the beautiful April, he is no longer struck by her ordinariness in a negative way, but sees it as a metaphor for the life that goes on and is thankful for what he has previously perceived as something negative.

There’s something beautifully old-fashioned about this drama; I guess the irony of post-modernity has made us less sensitive to the modernist tragedy of mediocrity and it’s harder to take it so seriously. There’s almost a vintage allure to the image of the suicidal housewife; they don’t make housewives like that anymore…

academic rock’n’roll

I’m not sure I trust Terry Eagleton, but I do like him. You gotta love a self-proclaimed Marxist that defends religion; there’s something in this combination that is so contradictory that it might actually produce something honest. On the other hand, the missionary “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (whom Eagleton groups together under the nickname Ditchkins) has always smelled a bit funny if you ask me. I’m not a believer, but their dismissal of religion has seemed to me as dogmatic as the subject of their rebuttal. And, to over simplify it, that’s pretty much the main point of Eagleton’s critique in his lectures, published under the title Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. He points out the incongruity and inaccuracy of their criticism of religion and the fact that they are just trying to replace one ideology with another, which, incidentally, functions quite similarly. The most spectacular part of these lectures is his reading of the bible, which he calls conventional, but which points out the radicalism and revolutionary content to be found particularly in the New Testament, embodied in the figure of Jesus who appears to be a radical socialist, semi-anarchist in his portrayal. He does not defend any religious denomination or current church of any kind, quite the contrary, he emphasizes their role in corrupting the message of the bible. All in all it’s a fascinating take on religion and understanding of freedom and human limitations that he expands upon and his lecture like style is extremely charismatic and often tongue in cheek. It made want to read the bible again (completely this time) and make up my own opinion about this Jesus guy and the role of religion; unlike the works of Ditchkins, which have made me suspicious of the term atheist and afraid to call myself one.

An article about the Eagleton-Ditchkins debate here and an interview with the man here

the future is weird

I want to hate Miranda with her theatrical weirdness and hipster clothes, I want to yell at her “man, put yourself together, get a decent fuckin’ haircut and some normal clothes so I can enjoy your damn movies” (and she actually does for half of the movie). She manages to capture things that preoccupy me and are so real and poignant, but I can’t concentrate on that because of her damned ridiculous cutesy weirdness. If I manage not to get pissed off and continue on, I’m always surprised and she manages to provoke questions, epiphanies and emotions that haunt me for days. I’m trying to look at her differently and think of her need to put her filmic persona in the movie as something similar to Charlie Chaplin or Woody Allen, but maybe because she’s a woman her self-irony sometimes strikes me more as ridiculous rather than comedic, narcissistic rather than brave. I’m still trying to figure out what it is about her that bugs me and so many other people I know and how much of it has to with my own fear of ridicule more than with her.

But anyway, The Future is probably the best film about the state of this generation that I’ve seen so far. And yet I’m somehow ashamed to admit it. It’s weird, sometimes funny, but mostly sad in a very strange way, not in the heroic tragic way, not in the suicidal way, but in an accepting and very nihilistic way. The image of a couple, each with their own laptop in from of them, physically near to one another, but mentally in parallel worlds, is like looking in a mirror reflecting my own life and its strangeness. The TV as a means of brainwashing is already a cliché, but we are still discovering what it means to spend half of your life in front of a computer, connected to the world. With the TV you had limited access to some channels you could choose from, but with the internet you have access to unlimited information, entertainment, shopping, the lives of others, dating, anything really, it’s like a portal to infinity. This flood of information is the power of the internet both in a positive and in a negative way, it democratizes information but it also causes a paralysis of the spirit and of initiative. It’s easy to see the internet as an immensely positive invention, our access to knowledge is so easy and immediate. Still, whenever my old father asks me how exactly the internet works, I find that I cannot explain, which creeps me out somehow as it shows me that unlimited access to information creates a lot more guilt with regard to the things that you do not know, or as Miranda July’s character says in the film, one day you realize that you are so far behind with the news that it makes no sense even trying to keep up.

Then there is our generation’s relationship to time. I found myself often talking to my friends recently about how time seems to just speed by us and that strange feeling of seeing days, months, years go by without even noticing and what’s worse without really doing anything, growing up, creating something, becoming wiser in any way. The other big elephant in the room is the strange uniformization of the bullshit-apple-“think different” generation, which made us all believe we are unique and special and potentially great artists of some kind. And what happened with the internet is that you realize there are billions of people just as special as you are.

If you want to kill a great idea that passed through your mind, well all you have to do is google it and realize it’s out there already. Someone said that this is a generation of designers, not of artists and somehow consumer culture is bringing art into our mundane life in a way that kills its aura. You get a Picasso printed table cloth and everyone is writing their life stories on blogs, everyone’s a photographer, a singer, or an artist of some sort and if they put it up on the internet they get an audience. A panda sneezing got millions of views and that’s not even the worst thing out there, heck, I might have been responsible for at least 5 of those views.

I was always against elitism in art, but lately I find myself craving those old elitist days, when art was something you felt privileged to have access to, not something you can download in 30 seconds and then forget all about in the next 30 seconds, and when you had to find more elaborate ways to express your opinions about someone’s creation than a thumb up or down. There’s something about this new power of the masses that makes me feel powerless. The same as the character in the movie that sets herself the task of creating 30 dances in 30 days, but ends up paralyzed in front of her laptop watching youtube videos of other women doing the same thing. Well, she’s the artsy contemporary ballet type and they’re more the pole dancing, hip-hop types, but the distinction becomes irrelevant when they are competing for views on youtube.

But the film is not just about these cultural issues; there are also the essential questions about what it means to be human, the constraints, but also the comforts of civilization, human relationships and the point of it all, living while being conscious that we are gliding away towards death every day, the things we put ourselves through in order to fulfill our idea of ourselves only to be bitterly disappointed, the numbness of daily routine and the trap of thinking we can escape it, the desire to feel alive and important, living in a time when we know we are at the end of our rope in so many ways, living with no higher outer guidance and this vague dictum of fulfilling ourselves. All these big questions are raised through the most mundane scenes possible, with nothing noble or dramatic about them. In fact it’s all anti-dramatic. Just like life, perhaps even a bit more ridiculous.  And that cat talking so poetically about time, entrapment, civilization, love and death is the clearest example of the ridiculousness of her genius; we’re all that cat: taken from the wild put in our cages where it’s nice and warm and it’s no longer all about survival, we can rejoice, we get love, but also a hightened self awareness and a tragic sense of the passage of time.

the power of power-point

Time is not on our side, sneaking up on us and grinding away our souls and bodies. “Time’s a goon” says one of the characters in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time. Encompassing past, present and future, a whole lot of nostalgia and innumerable character points of view, the novel is a self-declared proustian endeavor for the 21st century. Since I’ve never really managed to warm up to Mr. Proust, I’ll have to take Egan’s word for it, but it did give me renewed bouts of shame for not having read the frenchie classic and maybe even the push to do so during up-coming long cold winter nights.

Aside from the nostalgia and the all encompassing theme of the past’s shadows over the present, there is little else of the self-absorbed proustian streak. It’s a novel about no one in particular, but about many characters whose paths cross more or less delicately: a kleptomaniac redhead, a punk-rock producer, a bunch of punk teenagers, children, spouses and lovers of other characters, friends, a late blooming, recluse guitar-player, a middle-aged art professor, a suicidal unrequited lover, a PR specialist with a ruined reputation and so on. The time frame is scrambled and ranging from sometime in the late 70s to 2020. This all sounds pretentious and complicated, but it somehow falls effortlessly into place. Despite the obviously experimental prose, it has a surprisingly classical old-fashioned tinge to it. It may be because of the whole nostalgia permeating it. It’s like Proust for the digital age. I’m getting the feeling that the sex drugs and rock’n’roll self-destructive thing is becoming vintage material for this squeaky clean, technologically savvy and paradoxically eco conscious, slow food cooking, domestic new generation and the novel definitely carries some sort of heroin nostalgia.

Some may find it tiring that each chapter starts from an entirely new perspective that one needs to get accustomed with, but the effort pays off in the end as you start to see the fine lines tying all of them together. They are all almost poetic and despite their shortness, you get a deep insight into each character and an uncanny sense of how the passage of time is altering them. My favorite chapter belongs to a former teen-age guitar-prodigy, now toothless recovering heroin addict turned bum, who spends his time fishing in New York and one day brings a big catch to his now big shot producer former childhood friend, leaving a big stinky fish wrapped up in newspaper on his fancy desk in  an equally fancy skyscraper office building. It plays beautifully with the ambiguities of success and how sometimes reaching rock bottom is not very different from achieving what society would refer to as success. And how success is always tinted by the fear that you are nonetheless always one step away from hitting rock bottom. There is also a touching chapter written in power-point slides, not my favorite, but definitely an achievement keeping up with the connection between the passage of time and ever changing media theme, in an eloquent way. It got me looking back at my own life and what the passage of time has done to it and I found myself already missing the characters while I was done with the last pages.

a cure for ADHD

Just when I thought that I was getting too old and that there were no real page-turners left for me in this world, I find a quite unexpected one, a novel inspired by and half the size of War and Peace. I had started reading Freedom almost a year ago, but the realist gossipy opening seemed like a drag, so I abandoned it. Deciding to give it another try recently, I’ve gotten so engrossed that I devoured it in a couple of days. It really made me forget about emails, facebook and all the time eaters, just like the author intended (he said that in an interview), I barely even turned my laptop on while I was sunk into the story of the Berglunds, a middle class family dealing with the usual personal problems, in the first decade of the 21st century. It shows the cycles of the generation gap, the dynamics of rebellion and conformism and how conformism is also a means of rebellion, it’s also about the mistakes we make, the complications of love and sex, ambition, but also selflessness, about youth and the sad, but sobering revelations of adulthood, but most of all about freedom and its entanglements. Freedom has become a commodity too much taken for granted by the Western world in the 21st century and the entanglements, paradoxes and limits of it become subtly evident in the everyday drama of the characters whose main struggle with themselves is to be “good”, each in their own different understanding of the term. Without being pretentious or too didactic, the novel shows the inescapable contradictions we are facing nowadays as citizens of the so called “civilized” world and how our best intentions are turning against us in the long run, how on a personal level we abuse our freedom and how that same freedom tears us apart draining us of ambition and drive, how the whole globalizing process of “making the world safe for democracy” by spreading the free market, middle class prosperity, liberal ideology is draining the world’s resources at a staggering pace, how we focus on petty struggles for power, while the environment we all depend on is dying out before our blind eyes. The most amazing achievement of the book however is that it manages to weave these huge themes in a very intimate story of love, marriage, friendship, adultery, betrayal and coming of age, very discreetly. While you’re turning pages to see who’s gonna sleep with who and whether some character is gonna kill himself or not, you’re also pondering the future of this planet and the legitimacy of the social order you inhabit to claim supremacy over others. It is a love song for the middle class family that also shows how disfunctional and destructive a model it can be, how we’re all gradually going to hell, but might as well love each other and try our best till that happens. It’s also a laugh out loud funny and heart-breathtakingly sad story, it’s both a dead serious and a deliciously self-indulgent read. I might have to get back to it with a clearer head later, but for the moment I’m still enjoying being under its spell.

the other side of terrorism

There are some books that I root for, I want them to be good because they seem to carry an important message that might get lost due to too little or too much artistry. The premise of Jasmina Khadra’s novel The Attack is enormous, it deals with the causes of Islamist terrorism from a Middle Eastern perspective. The author is an Algerian army official writing under his wife’s name. The novel itself is like bag full of good and bad beans that have been mixed together and it takes so much effort to separate the good beans that you just want to set the whole thing aside. The writing is seeped in linguistic cliches and melodramatic, I wonder if the translation had anything to do with that, and the first person narration in simple present was quite awkward, it felt like reading a bad movie script at times. But still, the topic itself drew me in and despite its lack of artistry, the novel manages to capture the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the type of terrorism that is fostered in this vicious circle of violence and retaliation on both sides and of two ways of life that threaten each other’s existence. Unlike Western authors like Don DeLillo, John Updike or Martin Amis who wrote from the perspective of a terrorist, Khadra uses an in-between narrator: the clueless husband, a successful Palestinian doctor working in Israel, whose world is turned upside down when he finds out that his wife is a suicide bomber. I was quite disturbed by the Western authors’ ease when claiming access to the mind of a terrorist and I think Kahdra’s more indirect approach, the investigation the husband gets involved into after the shocking event, is a lot more effective and politically correct. It showcases the difficulty a non-terrorist person encounters in his effort to understand a phenomenon that is so foreign to most of us. The same effect is achieved by Orhan Pamuk in Snow, a novel that is beautifully written and constructed at the same time.

the power of crowds

There is something about a crowd with an apparent common goal that is extremely moving and it triggers some kind of unconscious solidarity in me, like the Tahrir Square movement in Egypt that got me following the news with an interest I haven’t had in a very long time, but there is also the violent mob, the group dynamics that lead to an escalation of destructive violence, like the recent still unexplained phenomenon in Britain, which makes me cringe.

Two striking images supposedly stand as the starting point of Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II: one depicts a Moonie wedding, hundreds of identical couples getting married on a huge stadium and the other is of J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author ambushed by the paparazzi after a long period of absence. The first is an image of absolute conformity and the other of extreme individualism and it is these opposing ideologies that are both paradoxically part of what it means to be human and the tension between these two inner tendencies of belonging and of setting oneself apart that DeLillo deals with in the novel. I remember a critic dismissing DeLillo as a novelist by calling him something like “a Frankfurt-School entertainer”, meaning that he is representative for a type of novel that is idea driven, rather than character driven, that he deals mostly with socio-political phenomena rather than the complexities of human psychology like, say, Henry James would. To me asking DeLillo to be James is just plain pointless and the reason why I keep going back to DeLillo is precisely because he writes idea novels. Falling Man for instance is character driven, but Mao II is an idea novel and aside from Underworld it might be DeLillo’s best. It is prophetic in so many ways and it somehow prefigures, at the end of the Cold War (it appeared in 1991), the next big conflict, the rise of terrorism.

Despite his macho author image, I think DeLillo’s female characters are actually much more interesting and powerful than the male ones. It is of course easy to identify the voice of the novel’s protagonist, the recluse cult novelist Bill Gray, with that of the author himself, but that would be a trap. Bill enunciates some of the most quoted of DeLillo’s ideas, namely that there is some parallel between the work of a novelist and that of a terrorist, as they both conduct “raids on the human consciousness” and that in recent history the novelist is losing most of his power of influencing the public mind while the terrorist takes over it. This parallel only holds when one has a modernist conception of art, in which the artist is the genius that revolutionizes the way we perceive the world by making us look at it from a new and often times uncomfortable lens. A revolutionary work of art is in a way an act of violence. Another, more modest way of looking at art in the novel is embodied by the photographer Brita, who is commissioned to make Bill’s portrait after a very long absence from the public eye. She is an artist too, but of a different type. Unlike Bill she is not a tormented one that wants to change the world and tragically aware of the limits of this approach, but rather a witness to the wonders of this world, who modestly tries to capture all the beauty and pain and contradictions in her work. These might not be literature’s most psychologically complex characters, but who cares. I haven’t had such a thought provoking read in ages…