State of Wonder

I found out yesterday that a high school classmate of mine passed away last week. We had all been 10-year-reunioning right around that time, too, wondering where she and many others were, and what they were up to, and if they were okay. Turns out “yes” is not always the answer to that innocent question. We had no idea.

I didn’t know Katherine well. My clearest image of her in my head is of her raising her hand a lot in class, striving for academic perfection — and usually reaching it — while the rest of us joked around and/or settled for the A- or B+ that we were destined to get anyway. My high school was filled with overachievers, but she was always a step above. She was an incredible artist, too, I remember that. I believe she went to Princeton.

I’ve been sitting on this review of State of Wonder, a delicious book by Ann Patchett, for some time now, trying to work out an angle in my head. It’s one of the best reads I’ve experienced in a long time, but even despite that, it was a stressful one, too. One of the main characters, Dr. Swenson, always left me agitated every time I read a scene that contained her. She was too three-dimensional — demanding more from me as a fictional character than most humans do when I interact with them in real life. And then it hit me. Dr. Swenson is a lot like how I remember Katherine. Witty when she wanted to be, but mostly unrelenting. Striving for the best in herself and, as a direct byproduct, causing the rest of us to strive for the best in ourselves. Extremely difficult to impress. I don’t want to speak for the rest of my classmates, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that this news has hit me hard. I had been looking forward to seeing her at the reunion to find out what she was up to, to see if she was happy, and to — as weird as this sounds — to get her approval. She had this wisdom about her, even at age 15, that none of us came close to at the time. I can only imagine how it developed over the years. Again, I didn’t know her well. But I’m going to miss her. I hope we’re all making her proud, somehow.

In reviewing this book, it would seem that a lot of people have a similar figure in their lives at one point. Patchett certainly did — her inspiration had to come from someone, right? The Dr. Swenson character is a mentor for the other main character, Marina, but even “mentor” is a strained word. She provides inspiration, but without encouragement. She lives her life without much thought given to the lives of others — not out of ignorance, but out of complete security. She has her priorities in line more than anyone else, and she knows her relative place in the world. The conversations between Marina and Dr. Swenson always felt like video games (at least in my rudimentary understanding of them): If you don’t reach the next level, you plummet down a few and have to start over.

The premise of State of Wonder is very specific: A doctor, Anders, ventures down to Manaus, Brazil, to check up on Dr. Swenson and the status of a fertility drug that she’s been researching for years. Anders dies. Marina, another doctor who worked alongside Anders and once studied under Dr. Swenson, is sent down to Manaus to figure out what the hell just happened. Marina also happens to be in a relationship with the guy overseeing the drug development — the Big Pharma guy.

I’m not sure how Patchett managed to reach this level of specificity and nerdity in her writing, but I’ll take it. It’s a lesson in literature. The more specific you are, the easier it is to suspend the audience’s disbelief in the details. Of course, I’m certain that Patchett did her research, and that at least 90% of the science in the book is correct, but as you can see, I have no intention of fact-checking it all. I believe her. I suppose I was in my own “state of wonder” once I turned to page 2.

The real achievement here, though, is in making something so incredibly specific — the tropical setting, the occupations of the main characters — feel so universal and so exciting! She has a beautiful way with words, both tonally and creatively, and she knows how to upend a plot and take it in a completely unexpected direction. Here are a few passages that stood out to me in their universal depth — passages that she was also able to mine for interesting backstory details, too:

p. 8, on Anders’ widow // “And Marina did not forget her, but what was important between them was so deeply unspoken that there was never the chance to defend herself from that of which she had never been accused and was not guilty. Marina was not the kind of woman who fell in love with another woman’s husband…” Right away, she quashes the reader’s inclination to think that there was an affair happening.

p. 39 // “Things that had happened to Marina, the memories she saw as the logical candidates for nightmares, never entered her sleeping life, and she supposed that for this she should be grateful.”

p. 57 // “She no longer traced the events through the map of her memory, studying the various places where she had been free to make different choices.”

p. 146, on Anders // “She wondered how long it would be that she would think of him every day, and what it would feel like to realize that days had passed and she had forgotten to think of him at all.” Don’t we all think this, when someone dies? It’s heartbreaking.

p. 292, on the prospect of staying in Manaus // “The terror of the jungle was now redefined by the work it could dream up for her.” The longer she stayed in Manaus, the more important her role became.

p. 296, on befriending Easter, a deaf boy // “She had gotten very used to spending her time with someone who said nothing at all.”

There are also moments of quiet, creative, literary humor:

p. 13, on Anders’ widow’s dog // “Pickles leaned up against Marina now and he batted her hand with his head until she reached down to rub the limp chamois of his ears.”

p. 85, on meeting Dr. Swenson’s house-sitters // “She had pictured the Bovenders as being closer to her own age, without any of the drama inherent to so much bony attractiveness…”

p. 224, quoting a fellow researcher in Manaus // “‘I never rely on my memory when I’m drinking,’ was what Nancy Saturn had said.”

There’s not a particular flourish to her writing — Patchett doesn’t feel the need to embellish with fancy adjectives or flowery descriptions. And yet, in each of these sentences, she packs such a wealth of feeling and meaning. There’s such a beauty in that simple elegance. I’ve no doubt that the Marina character, who isn’t the narrator but is definitely the dominating presence in the book, contains a large part of the author herself. And there’s this naive, overly-simplifying, dreamy part of me that thinks that Katherine would have really enjoyed this kind of writing. It encapsulates art and logic perfectly.

I’d rather not get into more specifics of the plot. It’s too much work, yes, and it’s not worth it. The book itself is worth it — be it as an exciting summer read, a preview for visiting rural Brazil, a lesson in assimilation, or a coping mechanism. For me, it was the former initially, and the latter retroactively.

I’ll leave you with this quote, spoken by Dr. Swenson towards the end of the story, on p. 345:

No one tells the truth to people they don’t actually know, and if they do it is a horrible trait.

Katherine would have said something like that. With a wry smile on her face. I know it.

Rest in peace, K.D.Y.

Friday Night Lights, Season 5

Done. Finally done. Texas Pennsylvania Football forever.

Watching this show after such a long break inbetween seasons really made me question the depths of my cynicism. Why do these people care so much about football? Why do decisions take so long to make in this town? Why do people even come back here? Oh, right. It’s television. And Texas!

Honestly, watching Amy Schumer parody the shit out of this heartfelt show almost ruined its sincerity for me. As beautiful as FNL is and was, it took itself so seriously. Each emotion was felt by each character in an almost too-profound way, and I had a hard time jumping back into that world. Especially when I had just been immersing myself in the aforementioned World of Schumer.

But I can’t deny the power of the actors. Seeing Connie Britton kill it as Tami Taylor, and then seeing her kill it harder as Rayna James on Nashville, makes me think that her best work is yet to come. She’s not a movie actress — nor is someone like Julia Louis-Dreyfus — because her strength is in her subtlety. Pretty soon she’ll nab a role on an HBO show and cuss and brood and shock us again. Anyway, I think her storyline this season is the most superior, between dealing with an overly-stubborn Coach (Kyle Chandler) and an overly-problematic Epyck (Emily Rios) and an overly whiny Julie (Aimee Teegarden), because that subtlety I mentioned before is manifested in powerful patience. She’s the backbone of the show, as obvious a statement as that is, because without her, none of the characters would be able to stand up. She picks up their slack. She keeps them functioning because no one else will.

Let’s go back to Coach for a second. In this final season, Coach was a real toolbag. The internet is full of praise about their marriage, about how realistically it’s portrayed and how fair and balanced it is. But Coach spent basically an entire season being unrealistically resistant to Tami’s desire to develop her career. Now, maybe I’m used to seeing big life decisions being made in the span of a single episode on most other TV shows, so the fact that this one was a season-long arc seems painfully drawn-out. But as each episode wore on, and as his ego grew, I wondered where all the Coach Praise could possibly be coming from. Tami’s patience was next to godliness for 13 long episodes.

Then again, a lot of plot points came out of nowhere in this final season. It’s not out of the ordinary. Shows that are wrapping up also need to step it up, drama-wise. Buddy Jr. (Jeff Rosick), for example. Great casting, as he looked a lot more like Brad Leland’s son than Minka Kelly did his daughter. But where the hell did he come from? Same with Vince’s father. Ornette (Cress Williams). He appeared out of thin air, took over Vince’s life, almost fucked it up again, and faded away into the abyss. I wish we had met him in the previous season, even in just the last episode of Season 4. He clearly had had an influence despite his absence. Somehow adding a father figure makes strong characters like Vince (Michael B. Jordan, the most likable person ever) and Jess (Jurnee Smollett, wise beyond her years) completely helpless.

And Tyra (Adrianne Palicki)? As nice as it was to see her, I can’t really imagine Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) being worth coming back to Dillon for. Riggins himself had quite the brooding storyline, too, with his passive-aggressiveness explained only by “spent time in jail.” I wish we could have known more about his time in the slammer. And then, the whole budget cuts thing. Budget cuts, I’ve decided, are to FNL as regionals were to Glee. An intangible, insurmountable enemy that keeps the story going somehow. By the time we reached the last episode, we were drowning in hopeless rumors.

Yet the instant I see Matt Saracen’s (Zach Gilford) face, I am comforted. Julie probably was, too. Despite the fact that she “acted out” (read: experienced college), and we saw this bratty, uncomposed side of her, we also got to see the completely mature, accepting, post-Dillon side of Matt. His chemistry with her — and with Landry — remains, but his confidence is inching out. When he and Julie embrace each other in the alleyway after she visits him in Chicago, blocking traffic, I felt like the show reached a mini turning point. That moment stood for what seemed to be happening throughout the season, and maybe even the series — that love between A and B can inconvenience C, D, E and beyond. It’s not perfect, and it can’t be. But A and B have to make it work because it’s best for them. I’m glad they ended up together.

So, I’ll end this review on a happy note, because the show itself is happy and beautiful. It’s about enjoying the simple things, like barbecue and football and people you’ve spent your whole life with, and my cynicism ran pretty deep into this season. Of course I enjoyed watching it. Frankly, I just got jealous of the small-towniness, and let my big city smog brain cloud some of my judgement. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

Magic Mike XXL

I feel like I’ve recapped this movie to everyone I’ve spoken with in the last month. So, if you’re one of those people, and you read this, and you say to yourself, “That’s exactly what she said to me when I talked to her,” I’m sorry. (There’s probably an overlap of precisely one person who both talks to me in person and reads my blog, so actually, this is a very targeted apology. Just wish I knew who the target was.)

OK, enough with the self-indulgent bullshit. This sequel was very good. Not great! But good. Not great, because Tanning Chatum and his screenwriting partner, Reid Carolin, had to account for a bunch of MIA characters — Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), Adam (Alex Pettyfer), Brooke (Cody Horn) — and the exposition-heavy dialogue got very deliberate and awkward. Not that anyone else could have done a better job; those aforementioned characters were pretty essential to the tone and plot of the original sauce Magic Mike. Mostly it’s just a shame that none of them returned for this movie. McConaughey was the best part of what was a great movie, and Pettyfer and Horn gave said movie a certain innocence and certain natural stakes. In XXL, the stakes are forcibly high. The tone is different. It screams “ROAD TRIP!!!” It’s not the same, but it’ll do just fine.

I won’t even tell you what the excuses were for those three characters not being there. You’ll dwell on them instead of thinking about the dancing, which is truly incredible. It’s not even that I was turned on by all of them — though I will get to that part later, briefly — it’s that these guys worked hard to choreograph pieces of visual art. Charming Taters’ allusion to his previous masterpiece in the sequel is so incredibly creative and, dare I say, beautiful. He winds around his workshop table so nimbly and gracefully, and the physical feats he achieves seem nearly impossible. The scene is also a subtle nod to the previous movie’s subtle humor and dark tones, which lighten considerably once he’s through with his dancing dalliance.

This road trip, however weak it may be plot-ually, gives Da Boyz far more opportunities to work their bromance magic, to exchange witty banter, to be comedic actors, and they deliver on these counts. Joe Manganiello, in particular, as Big Dick Richie, dances for a rest-stop clerk in a fashion that can only be described as “comedically sexual.” It’s brilliant. He’s so funny, and so adorable, and so hot in it, but in a completely non-trivial way. It’s charming and dirty at the same time. It’s a piece of acting that begs to be taken seriously, but probably never will because it’s about sex. Oh, well. At least we can all enjoy it because it exists forever in digital form. And later, when the group lives it up for a night at a drag bar, their personalities really emerge in ways that we hadn’t seen before. I always admired in the first movie how the occupation of being a stripper imbued this rag-tag group of straight guys with complete and total comfort in their sexuality. There are no “no homo” jokes there, because they’re above that. It never comes up. And in XXL, they further underscore that sentiment in the drag bar, up on stage, out-doing each other in feather boas and pursed lips, never once feeling self-conscious that girls might not dig it. They’re into it just as much as everyone else, and it’s glorious.

One thing that XXL actually did better than its precedent was the romance stuff… or, really, didn’t do. Nancy (Andie McDowell, in a probably unnecessary cameo) — nevermind how the boys meet her, the plot stuff will just drag you down, you see? — is a Southern Belle who, ahem, is a perfect fit for Big Dick. It’s as straightforward as that. Rome (Jada Pinkett-Smith, who is too old to play Mike’s ex, but she’s still got it!), who owns a brothely strip club, exchanges favors with Mike but their supposed former flame never rekindles, because really they’re just doing business together. And Zoe (Amber Heard), a girl Mike meets at Nancy’s, and somewhere else, I don’t remember, reveals that she’s into women, and Mike doesn’t push it. She looks exactly like Brooke, but she is not Brooke. She’s a friend. That’s it. This movie about sex shows that not everything has to be about sex.

Except, wait. The sex part. New and old hotties abound. Donald Glover croons as Andre, Stephen “tWitch” Boss accompanies Tatum in a mirror dance that I hope will get nominated for choreography for something, Matt Bomer still exists and we can stare at him and listen to him, and then, there’s Michael Strahan. You know, the guy who replaced Regis Philbin on the morning show and has the ability to sit next to the perkiest person in the world and appeal to the masses by being nice and bland.

Turns out he can BRING IT.

His dance is the absolute, 100% best part of the movie. The sexiest. The filthiest. The most focused. The most intense. The most embarrassing to watch with other people. The best to watch with other people. The one you want to happen to you. The one you don’t want to happen to you. If nothing else, this movie is worth seeing for his time on screen. Bring a fan.

I’m proud to say I saw this movie on July 4. Celebrating America’s birthday by watching a movie about objectifying men — and men who dig being objectified. What an independence day.

Modern Romance

Everyone my age, and younger than I am, and older than I am, should read this book.

Everyone should read this book.

Full disclosure here: I’m a little biased. I pre-ordered Modern Romance a few months ago, because I’m on Aziz Ansari’s mailing list, and he advertised a potential meet-and-greet situation to those who pre-ordered. So I pre-ordered. And I won! It wasn’t actually a meet-and-greet, but it was a sit-down with Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who co-wrote it with him, at the Rare Books Room at the Strand, and it was fantastic. The two talked a lot about the different focus groups they held, the places they traveled, the research they did and didn’t do. It gave the book a nice, full context to dive into. And it was pretty darn neat to be in the same room as Tom Haverford. But what really struck me about this sit-down was when Ansari talked about why he did it. That’s what pulled me in. He didn’t want to do what every other comedian did who’d been offered a book deal, because he knew his work was better said out loud than read on a page. I respect that so much. He also took the time to make the book less about himself — though inspired by his own frustrations — and more about the movement, or the shift, or whatever you want to call it, that is happening in the dating world. See, this is where my other bias lies. I’m in that dating world, too, and much of what was described just in the sit-down rang so, so true for me. It was a relief to hear it coming from Ansari, because even though he’s obscenely famous and rich, he’s got a certain appeal about him that makes him feel like a peer. As he spoke about his own experiences and those he had heard about as he compiled the materials for the book, he underscored to all of us that we’re not alone, and we have concrete evidence proving it.

I haven’t dated much. And I’m not going to explain why. But I will tell you that I’ve gone on about as many dates in New York since moving here six months ago as I did in the previous 27 years of my life. I’ll tell you that I’m doing it as a 3/4-assed attempt to establish myself here, to start over. It’s not really working. I miss California a lot. The greatest people I’ve ever met live there. I don’t particularly enjoy dating, and I don’t really want to do it, but I feel like I have to. I’ll also tell you that all except one of the dates I went on in NY originated on OKCupid, whereas only one of the CA dates originated on that site. Of the fellas I’ve gone out with from OKCupid, precisely none of them have been crazy or creepy. They’ve all been perfectly pleasant. I went on a second date with a couple of them. Not a third. And that’s it. I’ve never been on a third date with someone I didn’t already know. With the internet guys, I found something small I didn’t like about them, or I didn’t particularly notice any sort of spark, and I decided not to contact them again because I could always just go out with someone else instead. It hit me not too long ago that that was probably part of the problem — anyone I’ve seriously liked in my life has been someone I’ve interacted with very often, likely every day. Face time is key in developing feelings, good and bad, for another human. Ansari makes this very point in hilarious, blatant terms on p. 247: “In a sense we are all like a Flo Rida song: The more time you spend with us, the more you see how special we are.”

But we in the dating field are, quite simply, not giving each other a chance, because we have the entire internet to browse through and attempt to find someone better. He says on p. 125: “That’s the thing about the Internet: It doesn’t simply help us find the best thing out there; it has helped to produce the idea that there is a best thing and, if we search hard enough, we can find it. And in turn there are a whole bunch of inferior things that we’d be foolish to choose.” I’ve experienced both sides of this. One evening, I went out with a guy from OKCupid and had a great time. The best internet date I’ve been on thus far. We didn’t even get a drink, we just walked and talked and Sorkin’d it up. At the end of the night, he asked me for my number, and then I literally never heard from him again. The next night, I went out with another OKC dude — after considering cancelling, because I’d had such a great time the night before with the other guy — for the sake of keeping my options open. He was really nice and sweet, and I enjoyed talking to him but I just wasn’t attracted to him. So I said goodbye without giving him the chance to ask me for my number, and that was that. Maybe the guy from the first night felt the way about me, the way I felt about the guy from the second night. We’re all just a bunch of shitheads who can’t give each other that glimmer of hope.

That insecurity, that FOMO, that judginess is absolutely rampant in my generation, and it’s only going to get worse. “Younger generations face immense pressure to find the ‘perfect person’ that simply didn’t exist in the past when ‘good enough’ was good enough” (p. 25). We need to hear that. We need to have someone who’s our age tell us that, because it makes us realize that we’re taking it way too seriously. We’re putting perfection on a pedestal when it only exists in fiction. Ansari goes on to quote Dan Savage several times, and this sentiment (p. 232) of Savage’s struck a chord with me, as I realized how misaligned our society is with its own morals: “When a nonmonogamous relationship fails, everyone blames the nonmonogamy; when a closed relationship fails, no one ever blames the closed relationship.”

Along those lines, a good portion of the book is devoted to discussing courtship and marriage across generations and cultures, and it’s a wake-up call. Women in our grandparents’ generation had to get married to get out of the house! Many men in Japan aren’t even interested in sex! We should be thanking our lucky stars that neither of these problems exist anymore, but instead, we’re hopelessly lost in the spiral of internet dating. This is another aspect of the book that Ansari covers well, the spiral, because he includes actual text and OKCupid interactions from real people to prove just how shitty this whole situation is for us, and how we’re perpetuating that shittiness. On p. 240, he proclaims, “Treat potential partners like actual people, not bubbles on a screen.” You’d think we wouldn’t need that kind of advice, but we do. When an emoting, three-dimensional face isn’t in front of us to add a layer of infinite guilt to the situation, we can — and do — say whatever we want.

Reading this book actually convinced me to reactivate my Facebook account for the sake of giving Tinder a shot. Though I hadn’t been on many OKCupid dates, I was starting to get fed up with the amount of time it was taking up, and hearing those sentiments echoed in print, as well as a decent amount of praise for the Tinder experience, was enough. And Ansari made a great point about the very old-fashioned aspect of Tinder. It’s rooted in proximity, just like romance was when our grandparents were in their teens and twenties. Rarely did they date and marry anyone outside their geographical or social circle. Now, with Tinder, “In a world of infinite possibilities, we’ve cut down our options to people we’re attracted to in our neighborhood” (p. 118). Or so it seems.

I’ve only been on it for a week, so I definitely need to take more time to figure it out, but I’m already frustrated. I thought the point of it was to get offline quickly and meet in person. To waste less time. To not think of the other party as a set of text bubbles. Instead, I’m finding out that Tinder is akin to texting — something I’m terrible at with people I don’t know — whereas OKCupid is like email. I didn’t have the OKC app on my phone, so I treated it as a once-a-day check-in, like email. I’m better at emailing people I don’t know because I like to consider my words, and I like to explain what I mean. When humor hasn’t been established yet, word count is valuable. I’ve messaged with a few guys, and almost met up with one until, I can only assume, he was put off by how “far away” I live. (I don’t live in Brooklyn, the horror!) But mostly, it’s just been an occasional match, followed by zilch. Crickets. The options are so abundant that it’s overwhelming, and it’s almost not worth putting the effort into messaging any of these people, because they’re just faces and they probably won’t respond anyway. I never thought I’d say this, but meeting someone in a bar sounds pretty great right now.

I don’t want to end on a pessimistic note, for my own sake. In this incredibly daunting world of internet dating, you have to force yourself to be positive because there really isn’t another option. And knowing that there’s a term for this stage of life — emerging adulthood — because it’s a stage that didn’t exist before. That’s certainly encouraging. On p. 29, he uses a great door-opening metaphor to describe it, which concludes, “Today we want a bunch of doors as options and we are very cautious about which ones we open. The emerging adulthood phase of life is basically a pass society gives you to hang out in the hallway and figure out what door is really right for you.” No one older than our parents got to do that, really. I guess I’ll go thank a few more lucky stars.

I think our parents should read this book so they know what to expect — or not to expect — from us as we age. I think our younger brothers and sisters should read it to gain an understanding of this aspect of Life Before Facebook. And I think people my age should read it because their — our — mistakes are made abundantly clear. Aziz is right. We’re all just Flo Rida songs playing on the radio, waiting for someone not to change the station for awhile.

The West Wing, Season 3

After spending some time away from these incredibly idealistic characters, and then spending a really long time getting to know them again — I think it took me over 6 months to get through this season, and not because I wasn’t interested in it! — the changing face of television really came to light. We don’t have characters like Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) on television anymore. We certainly don’t have Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen). Of course, I’m grateful for this work of art that Sorkin threw together, and I still have a hard time believing it was compiled under the influence of drugs, even though I know it’s true. Maybe I’ve gotten more cynical. Maybe television’s gotten more cynical. Maybe we’re all more cynical than we were when this came out. If it were on the air today, it’d probably get chewed out by the A.V. Club for how pearly-white it is.

This season had so many great moments. Really gut-wrenching, serious, beautiful moments. C.J.’s (Allison Janney) doomed romance with Simon Donovan, a.k.a. Gibbs from NCIS, a.k.a. Mark Harmon, was truly something. Watching Donna (Janel Moloney) stand up to Josh throughout the season was truly something. Watching Toby (Richard Schiff) soften up was truly something. Those three actors, in particular, delivered the goods. They made us understand why they’re worth rooting for. In fact, more so than the politics, this season really stood out because it was wrought with emotion from the characters that we wanted to see vulnerable. Everyone seemed to take a risk in their personal lives, only to have it fail, which grounded the otherwise (aforementioned) idealism rampant throughout the series. As I said, C.J. gave it a shot with her bodyguard — and then he died. Donna tried to make it work with a lawyer opposing the President. Toby hit on the Poet Laureate (Laura Dern, in an impossibly, stupidly free-spirited role). Josh hooked up with an uber-feminist (Mary-Louise Parker). And Sam, for the first time, really railed on people. He started showing some ‘tude, especially in the episode “100,000 Airplanes.” It may have been Rob Lowe’s actual attitude emerging, or the inklings of him wanting to leave because being first-billed on the most popular show at the time was not enough for him.

Yet, when I put all of this emotional risk-taking in perspective, it’s hard not to recognize that Bartlet’s White House is made up of versions of the same person. (Except for Leo. Leo is a rock.) Everyone is a slight variation or alternate reflection of Sorkin’s own personality. Sorkin managed to figure out that he and his impulses were interesting enough to cloak with a story about American government. And it makes for exciting television — the lingo is all believable, the scenes are high-stakes, the music is perfect. You can’t watch this show and not be emotionally invested. I want to see Josh stop being an asshole to Donna and realize that she runs his life. I want to see Bartlet feel confident in a decision he makes. I want to see Toby and C.J. hook up, for some reason. And I want to see more of what made this show visually interesting — what’s unsaid on Toby’s face, what’s in the background during the walk-and-talks. I want more stunning episodes like “Two Bartlets.”

But I doubt that I’ll be able to lose myself in this world anymore, knowing that it’s too good to be true. Knowing that the overwhelming white male majority of characters is infuriating, but also probably an accurate reflection of Washington. Knowing that titles don’t really matter; they’re all just advisors to the President in some capacity. Knowing that politics can’t really be about qualifications anymore. Knowing that, after the “special episode,” which featured talking-heads moments from the likes of Bill Clinton, Leon Panetta, Dee Dee Myers, and many more, things got really prime-timey and soapy and suspenseful and atonal. Knowing that the next season will be the last one I’ll remotely enjoy, because Sorkin will have moved on thereafter. Knowing that it’s not an escape, but a distraction. It’s time for another long break from the good guys. Here’s hoping the cynicism will fade by the time I get around to Season 4.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A few pages into Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I was worried I was going to be very annoyed for 400+ pages. My naive thoughts ranged from “What a boasty title!” to “Will he ever shut up?” to “This guy needs an editor with a strong command over punctuation.” And then it hit me: All stream-of-consciousness work since 2000, when AHWOSG was published, including my own without realizing it, can be traced back to this, for lack of a better term, heartbreaking work of staggering genius. It’s just that. It’s brilliant. And we’re all trying to be Dave Eggers, and most of us are failing miserably.

Is it possible to be in love with a book? If so, I might be. The feeling extends a bit to its author, of course, the brain behind it. But I feel something very strong for this book because, even though I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience the incredible, daunting challenges that 22-year-old Eggers had to face—watching both his parents die and assuming the responsibility of raising his much-younger brother—I connected with it on a level I’ve not really reached with a book before. The way he writes just makes sense to me, even though he alternates time periods, pens fake interviews where he’s both the questioner and the answerer, and speaks to himself as the voice of reason he hopes to impart onto his younger brother. Maybe my brain is structured similarly to his. (I can dream, anyway.)

Let me start with one of his jokes. Eggers is hilarious in a very observant, intelligent way. Here’s how he describes President Clinton (p. 288): “He speaks like a president, not always authoritative or anything but he can form sentences, complex sentences with beginnings and ends, subordinate clauses—you can hear his semicolons!”

The book is brimming with lines like that, lines that make you reevaluate your own observational skills. With each of Eggers’ subordinate clauses, he adds a more obscure vocabulary word or a clearer description or a more creative metaphor.

It’s also brimming with one-liner truths so profound that you wonder how you got through life not thinking about them before. (Maybe that’s just me.)

  • On the babble his mother spoke in her dying days :”All words will be considered her last, until they are followed by others.” (p. 43)
  • On the view from his rental in Berkeley: “From our windows, from our deck it’s a lobotomizing view, which negates the need for movement or thought—it is all there, it can all be kept track of without a turn of the head.” (p. 51)
  • On the types of people with stories worth telling on television: “…my feeling is that if you’re not self-obsessed you’re probably boring.” (p. 201)
  • On the types of people that end up impacting your life: “The only people who get speaking parts are those whose lives are grabbed by chaos…” (p. 424)

Incredible, right? His elegance is so effortless. And so is his verbosity, for that matter. His mind must be constantly cluttered with words, though he clearly has a successful organization method in place. Of course, Eggers is aware of his own tendency to exhaust, verbally, and he anticipates all possible iterations of negative feedback with a section in the (lengthy/100% worth reading) introduction, entitled “The Knowingness about the Book’s Self-Consciousness Aspect.” Here’s an excerpt:

While the author is self-conscious about being self-referential he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referentiality… Further, he is fully cognizant, way a head of you, in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all this, and will preempt your claim of the book’s irrelevance due to said gimmickry by saying that the gimmickry is simply a device, a defense, to obscure the black, blinding murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story…

He’s also aware of how self-indulgent he is, particularly with that aforementioned Q&A narrative style. He employs this while describing his interview for The Real World (p. 197).

This is a device, this interview style. Manufactured and fake.
It is.
It’s a good device, though. Kind of a catchall for a bunch of anecdotes that would be too awkward to force together otherwise.
Yes.

Pardon the contrived, shaky metaphor, but Eggers opened a window on a perfectly sunny day. He wrote something that needed to be written—the audiences and the market were craving something like this, someone who could be brutally honest a voice no one had ever heard before. It’s truly inspirational. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said to myself, “Today’s the day I start writing my book.” As an aspiring writer, it’s easy to compare yourself to published authors and feel instantly inadequate. But Eggers doesn’t make you feel that way at all, despite his immense, insurmountable literary talents—he seems just like one of us, except he had the fortitude to motivate himself on the most opportune days—to open that window on that sunny day—and let the light in. The result was a radiant beam, AHWOSG. This passage (p. 269) in particular, where he’s at the hospital dealing with a friend’s overdose, captured that attitude perfectly. He knew he could write something great, but he knew he’d have to be aware of it as it was happening in order to make the finished product truly staggering:

I’ll convey that while I’m living things very similar to things I’ve seen happen before, I will be simultaneously recognizing the value in living through these things, as horrible as they are, because they will make great material later, especially if I take notes, either now, on my hand, with a pen borrowed from the ER receptionist, or when I get home.

That’s something I’ve thought about a lot, too. I take those same notes, mostly in my phone, and I constantly question their significance. Are they worth writing about? Will anyone care about my story? Before all of his family tragedy, Eggers was just a guy. He didn’t choose to experience trauma—it overtook him and it changed the course of his life. 22 has come and gone for me, and I’ve experienced light trauma at worst. I’m lucky. I have a choice. But I still haven’t opened that window on the sunny day, because I’ve allowed myself to believe that enough light is shining in without going through the effort of getting up and heaving it open. Eggers is actively inspiring me to write my own story, even if it undoubtedly pales in comparison to his.

Another reason why he inspires me is because he spent his 20s exactly where I spent mine. Roughly the same age range, too. At 22, I was 4 years into my stint in the Bay Area, and ready for a change of scenery from the shitty Berkeley apartments I’d been hopping around. I spent the next 4 in San Francisco, and one after that in Oakland. I didn’t have a little brother in tow, but I did always have some intangible force holding me back from truly enjoying the place. Eggers says something about the landlord for his workspace on p. 169 that I think applies to much of my nine years there: “But it’s not like anyone here, in San Francisco, in this building, is going to tell you you’re wasting your time.”

Pulling that quote out might make me sound ungrateful. I’m not. Without San Francisco, I wouldn’t have any friends, really. Maybe one or two. The Bay Area made the list of people I care about frustratingly long. But it also is, and always will be, the backdrop to a time that I wish I could do over. Dave and Toph [spoiler alert] leave the Bay at the end of the book, and I completely understand why. It’s the same reason why I left, too. As long as you’re surrounded by reminders of your past, you’ll never be able to create a future for yourself. Even though D & T used Berkeley and San Francisco to escape the pain of their parents’ deaths, the Bay was riddled with memories of their adolescence and emerging adulthood. There’s pain there, too.

I’m going back to the Bay for the first time since January in August, and I’m trying to come up with a list of things I want to do. Dave had a similar experience (p. 359) when he returned home to Chicago for a few days, a while after his parents passed:

The idea, I suppose, is the emotional equivalent of a drug binge, the tossing together of as much disparate and presumably incompatible stimuli as possible, in a short span, five days, together constituting a sort of socio-familial archaeological bender, to see what comes of it, how much can be dredged up, brought back, remembered, exploited, excused, pitied, made known, made permanent.

So far my list is 0 items long. The list of people, though, is long and possibly unmanageable. And I have no doubt that there will be a multitude of memories dredged up, reminding me why I left, convincing me to stay, implying that I made a mistake moving. But I’m comforted knowing that Eggers voiced his conflicted thoughts about this experience and wrote the best blueprint imaginable for experiencing it, which is to say, there is no blueprint. And, go figure, he ended up back in San Francisco. I’m not saying I will, too, but after reading AHWOSG and after being away from it for 6 months, I sure do miss it. Whatever “it” is.

As I Lay Dying

And so the quest to consider myself well-read continues.

This was my first foray into Faulkner territory, and after crossing the threshold, I actually wish I’d had the opportunity to read this book in high school, with some good old-fashioned AP English over-analysis ready and waiting. (Come to think of it, I believe I did have the opportunity in that class. We had to pick a book from a list and write a paper on it. I chose Hemingway.) Anyway, despite the superficial “simplicity” of each of the characters, their stories and emotions are profoundly complex. I got lost a lot. The timeline felt disjointed, with so many perspectives at play. And speaking of perspectives at play, ’twas nigh impossible to find one steady enough to trust. It wasn’t until Samson, a farmer who takes the family in overnight, appeared about halfway through the book that I started to gain some true perspective on Addie and the people at her beck and call.

I’ll back up a second. For the uninitiated, As I Lay Dying isn’t so much a story as it is a fictional talking-heads documentary. Shows like Parks and Recreation would not exist without this book, which switches chapters and narrators every few pages. It follows the dying days of Addie Bundren, the demands she makes on her family, the toll her death takes on her family, and the extreme measures her family takes to bury her properly. I was under the impression that the book would be kind of like The Grapes of Wrath, a long journey of sorts; in reality, the majority of the action took place in the build-up to the journey, the construction of the coffin, the planning of the trip, the passive-aggression between siblings and family members. The book takes a very long time to arrive at the start of the journey, and by the time it does, most evidence points to everyone slowly going insane. The entire family seems to know from the start that their matriarch is dying, and yet they all seem lost and wholly devastated when it happens. Their coping mechanisms are almost childish. It’s heartbreaking to witness a group of helpless people continue to be helpless, and be able to do nothing about it, even if they’re fictional. As Cora, the Bundren’s neighbor, says on p. 7, “Those rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks cant.” The Bundrens are stuck fulfilling Addie’s wishes and upholding societal norms, and the saddest part is, it doesn’t really matter anyway. No one outside of their small town knows them, but they take decorum so seriously that it controls their lives. A unique, slow-burning kind of tragedy.

With a title like As I Lay Dying, it probably comes as no surprise that the book is morbid. The characters often talk about death, wax poetic about it, justify why things happen the way they do. Despite their dire circumstances and limited education, they uncover some deep truths about the great unknown. Whatever Faulkner’s own thoughts about death were, he made them even more powerful by speaking through his characters, and puts death right up on the mantlepiece for everyone to deal with.

  • “I can remember how when I was young I believe death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind—and that of the minds of the ones who suffer the bereavement.” (Peabody, p. 42)
  • “My father said that the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead.” (Addie, p. 167)
  • “Life wasn’t made to be easy on folks: they wouldn’t ever have any reason to be good and die.” (Moseley, p. 192)

Darl says something similar, with some added imagery, on p. 217: “Life was created in the valleys. It blew up onto the hills on the old terrors, the old lusts, the old despairs. That’s why you must walk up the hills so you can ride down.” Oh, Darl. I think it was your fault that I got so confused. See, Darl gets eloquent sometimes, like in that above quote, or like on p. 139: “It is as though time, no longer running straight before us in a diminishing line, now runs parallel between us like a looping string, the distance being the doubling accretion of the thread and not the interval between.” An incredible thought, and an incredible piece of writing by Faulkner. But even with that eloquence, Darl didn’t earn my trust because he also speaks nonsensically and ungrammatically for long periods of time. I’d quote an example here, but these passages go on for paragraphs without an entry point. If you have a copy, turn to p. 76 and you’ll see what I mean. He’s blurty and inconsistent, and this behaviour runs in the family, because his little brother, Vardaman, does the same thing. Throughout the book, Vardaman is fixated on the idea of his mother being a fish. I completely missed that metaphor, and I know I could read up on it, but the fact that I couldn’t grasp this imagery was incredibly frustrating. Maybe it’s just that the Bundrens operate on a completely different logical plane than the rest of the world, and maybe that’s why they’re doomed. Anse, the patriarch, says on p. 35, “When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it longways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man. And so he never aimed for folks to live on a road, because which gets there first, I says, the road or the house?” Hard to argue with that logic, because there’s really nowhere to start the argument.

Even though Addie was the only one who died, she brought down her whole family with her. By the time I finished As I Lay Dying, I was ready for a change, not so much in subject matter but in character ties. Watching a family unravel—and reading about it in the disjointed form Faulkner intended—is very discouraging. I’m so glad I read it, and I intend to keep the book to read it again in many years, if only to serve as a reminder that familial unity can get you through the direst circumstances. Cheesy, but true.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 890 other followers