Archive for December, 2013

Naked with Nunez

Posted: December 31, 2013 by Jollymore in On Books
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Have I ever been so happy to have caught a cold? Well, let’s not go too far in the pursuit of good writing, but I will say that had I not worn myself thin with Stewart’s graduation and slaved over cake and pie making for the celebration, I might not have finished The Naked Sleeper, Sigrid Nunez’s second and most satisfying novel. Perhaps Nona, the story’s protagonist, would attest to the stress piled on by brief interactions with “the ex,” but like Nona’s various places d’angst, it was suppression of interior torment not the difficulties themselves that brought on my disease.

 

Howsoever, I was glad, forty pages in to fall ill, to wrap my legs and torso in a fleecy blanket and to settle into my big leather chair – the one I have sat in maybe six hours total in ten years – to spend healing time with Nona, her latently gay, cross-country lover, Loren, and, Roy, her all-to-decent husband. No Nunez novel, though, would be complete without the odd-ball mother, Rosalind in this incarnation, and stories of absent, failed fathers, in Sleeper an in-the-closet, misunderstood, tormented painter. For over a week prior, I had been stuck on Rosalind and didn’t want to know more. Viruses pushed me over the edge of page 40, and I glided home that week on what Time had called “some impressively elegant writing.”(By way of complaint: All my writing buddies tell me to drop most adjectives and to forget about adverbs altogether. That rule obviously does not append itself to critics, especially the impressively elegant ones).

 

What drew me in to this second novel? Why is it Nunez’s best? Characters. I liked the characters, though not always. These were different in that they grew – perhaps out of sight of the reader much of the time – and eventually came to terms with the life they chose.

 

First, why isn’t this true of the character’s in A Feather on the Breath of God and The Last of Her Kind? Now, both these stories are first person, told by the female protagonist. Though both women progress in their New York lives, each carries with her an emptiness at her core, especially notable in George’s final words of The Last, “Choose me,” which echo the sentiments of each of the three protagonists (adding Nona to the pair). Each depends on being wanted by a man. Nothing strange there except being a push-over always violates the woman’s self-worth and often courts or brings about disaster as well as love’s agony.

Note: In Feather the narrator’s affair with her Russian-émigré student brings an otherwise innocent teacher within a criminal orbit. Like most affairs it is wrong: The immigrant wife objects. The liason violates student/teacher protocol. His practice and history as a pimp denigrates her character – it is a straw finally discovered and piled atop an already lugubrious (and obvious) load of wrong.

In The Last of Her Kind, George(tte) has little use for a man other than rut and procreation until she falls in love. It is an affair only because it is hidden. The lovers are both single, but the potential for damage, as sister-in-law, Edie rightly points out to George’s lover, is enormous.

Now, Nona in Sleeper is no different (She is, though, the subject of a third person narrative and that is different). She complains about being easy and being love-obsessed. She is both, but oh how she struggles. She works against her obsession with Loren. Finally, she breaks. Then she really suffers because she will not, like her mother, Rosalind, did, run from her husband. She fights to right her life. She entertains options. (At one point I wondered if she would make a lover of Tim, her father’s original conquest years before). Her decision, coming on the wings of catastrophe, differentiates Nona from her sister protagonists. Alone, she chooses her course; she changes her course. It seems to me that she fills the void that plagued her life (perhaps presaged by the completion of her father’s biography).

 

So, Sleeper’s heroine, Nona, transforms, or promises to transform. That I liked. I also liked the other characters both women, who were intriguing portraits, Rosalind whom I suspected at first among them, and men, the ever patient Roy and long-suffering Tim. Loren? No, he is a self-deluded shit, plain and simple.  Among the main characters, unlike those in The Last and Feather, there is change and a deepening of relationship. Note: Dooley Ann Drayton (The Last) never wavers. Georgette fulfills her prescription for a better life (a boy and a girl, a successful and close sister, and a home in New York) but to the end is haunted.  The husbands and lover are nobodies, part of the set. The sister, Solange, remains damaged but does transform outwardly (a successful poetry collection). The deeper relationship with family is implied. But where will it lead Georgette?  In similar fashion in Feather, mother and father change not at all. I admire the mother’s talents and sympathize with her strictures. But Rosalind in Sleeper turns a corner that the earlier mother character cannot manage.

 

It is fascinating to see Ms. Nunez develop and examine her themes in these three books. Even if New York is not your favorite town, you can love the city Nunez paints – its streets and buildings, its arts, its restaurants and waiters, its people and the affairs they conduct.  Nunez tells the story of damaged childhood leading into and surviving the whirling life of New York in ways of which I have not tired.  That I approve more of the characters in Sleeper does not mean The Last of Her Kind is not a bigger, fuller, more complex book. It certainly is. Still, Nona, her family and friends are people I might like to meet again.

 

 

 

 

 

Travers, Disney and Jollymore

Posted: December 28, 2013 by Jollymore in Uncategorized

Disneyland ~  A California Adventure

I won’t  denigrate Carol’s generosity or sweet naïveté. For my 65th birthday celebration she took me to Disney in Anaheim. That we both taught at the high school that fostered Tom Hanks – currently playing Walt Disney against Emma Thompson’s P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins – had little to do with it, but the film did emphasize my thoughts on our visit. It was more Carol’s enthusiasm for whisking off on adventures of the packaged kind than anything Disney.  I have to admit, I would never have done this on my own.

So, I am going to have a good time. I renounce cynicism and grouchiness for the trip – a full day at the theme park. I will be open to charm, should there be any, and will not just act but be the good sport. After all, this is a special day.

This is not to say I kept my eyes shut. No, I wanted to see everything that was going on.  And this is what I found:

  • The complex (Hotels, Downtown Disney, California Adventure Park and Disneyland) is tidy. For every person tossing his trash around (and there are few), there are two more picking it up and sweeping the spot.
  • It is white. Not the color, the race. Visitors resemble suburban demographics of America in general (from 1960)  more than they do those of California, especially, Los Angeles County.  Employees, excluding housekeepers, are nearly as white as the visitors.
  • It is controlled. Rules like passive restraints abound. Order is kept whether of the pool towels, of merchandise, or of ride-goers in or out of line. A feeling of free passage belies the regimentation that is formed by structures, routing, and limited offerings. There is a palpable sense of “in here” versus “out there” that is beyond the resort.
  • It is promotional. Everything is Disney with exception for the Disney partners (brand names appear here and there: Starbucks and Peets, Fossil, Sephora et alius).  Mickey’s head and ears silhouette is woven into the carpet, is found on wall sconces and lampshades; his smiling face beams from the axis of his Ferris wheel and appears on two million different pieces of merchandise offer throughout the park. One could play a version of “Where’s Waldo Now” substituting the mouse for Waldo.
  • Disney is costly. “Don’t ask. Don’t tell” was our tacit agreement, but extravagant is not close enough to be descriptive.  Call it the House of the Five Dollar Bagel, if bagels are even allowed.

So what does cost + promotion + tidiness + control + whiteness add up to? They say, “The Happiest Place on Earth.” I say, “gated communities, colleges priced out of reach, mega-malls sporting and supporting private security firms, and NSA-like surveillance camera corporations.”  Even if all Americans, all the world’s people, could enjoy these things, maybe “these things” are not good for them.

Incidentally, the film Saving Mr. Banks belied nothing I saw or claim for the trip. It was as faithful to the illusion of happy as Disneyland et alia themselves, perhaps just a little bit more by contrast with P. L. Travers character as interpreted, of course, by Disney (Inc.).

Is this what America aspires to? Or is it a reflection of the direction we move in? Yes, it is, both, but only as long as it (our aspirations and accomplishments) can be controlled and “properly” channeled.  Of the big five (cost, promotion, tidiness, whiteness and control), control is the most important. It keeps them out; it contains the happiness, that it might be commodified; it perfects branding, hence, promotion; and being exclusive, or at least selective, is easily kept clean.

It isn’t just right wing, but it is right wing. Disney – not the kindly middle-aged gentleman Tom Hanks portrays (a man, after all, who suffered the strictures of his 500 delivery paper route – “oh, the frozen feet” – but still saw his tyrannical, route-owning father as a “good man”) – testified before McCarthy commission and publically, righteously,  gave names. I wonder how many more lists of names were handed over in private. No, this world, this tidy kingdom is not for us all.  Like the process of saving Tinkerbell, we all have to believe, believe very hard before the miraculous can happen, before we ALL can live in the happiest place on earth.

The film, and perhaps the real-life, version of P. L. Travers could be all right. Yes, she openly vilified the Disney model – hated cartoons – and fought bitterly to preserve the Britishness of her story, but she is fine (if you ignore her real-life oddities, like studying yoga and Buddhism, and real-life foible like loving women – odd and foibily only from a Disneyesque or right-wing view) because she is just like kindly uncle Walt. She fights to preserve an illusion she deeply believes in: the goodness of her father, Travers Goff, from whom she penned her own name.

Can’t say he wasn’t good, wonderful even, or loving. But no one is that good except through the eyes of a child. Like Disney, Travers would transform the world into a place safe for children, a world where make-believe has to be real. That gets the Disney stamp of approval.  But for most of the world’s children believing does not make it so. To believe in a source of potable water does not make it flow, at least for most kids.

So, what did I like? Well, everything in both the place and the movie. It is enchanting:

  • The Disney Grand California was an adult dream. The same dream the Gambles of Pasadena fulfilled in their Green and Green designed home, an artisan home crafted with warm detail on a human scale. Very nice. We rented a piece of that 1905 dream.
  • It was my birthday; I wore a Disney birthday button. Each “cast member” (employee to you) wished me “Happy Birthday, Tim” when they saw the button. Never mind that I didn’t know a one of them, after nearly a hundred people celebrate you (for what? Being born?) you begin to feel pretty good, somewhat special. Never mind that anyone can get a button: no ID or proof of age necessary.
  • I like clean. I like cute. I like clean-rustic.  I’ve been depositing trash properly for over a half century (mine and others, too).
  • When I lived far away in dark and cold Minnesota, the newly opened Disneyland – promoted by kindly old uncle Walt himself through the television and the Mickey Mouse Club – charmed my eight-year-old self, leaving sleeper cells of commercial wonder and delight. You might say I had been programmed. (No one told me Disney was bad. How could that be said?) Now in the palmy verdure of Southern California those cells activate, exude wonder and delight.

 

If that sounds like excuse, it’s because it is. We knew, we have known, and we know the picture isn’t real, cannot be sustained, and is not a picture of health. No matter what it looks like, illusion plaited against the human reality such as it is cannot stand. One’s own belief in fairies make them real only for one’s self, for no one else. Sorry Walt, sorry Ms. Travers. Sorry, Carol. And, most of all, sorry, Timmy, but “Happy Birthday.”

Nebraska

Posted: December 18, 2013 by Jollymore in Uncategorized

I grow weary of American films.  The promotional apparatus is such, though, that I continue to go. Never do the movies live up to the hype – this one touts a Bruce Willis tour de force but the hair is true to the advertisements. Seldom do the films capture the intensity of the trailers. Sometimes, though, they deliver a modicum of artistic (always cinematographic, which is always well done) skill and storytelling art.

With notable exceptions Nebraska is one of the last group, a film that develops strong theme, a degree of social complexity, and clear tale-telling.

I suppose the Baby Boomers are the target audience. If the question posed is how does one develop dignity in old age, though, it remains unanswered. Like too many American films it is an outside story. Who cares if Bruce Willis combs his hair? Or if he laces his boots, uses toilets, zips a jacket or listens attentively to anyone else. Hey, he has his pension and can, like more than a few Americans, do what the hell he pleases. What he pleases, unfortunately, is not much but obsessive.  He is iconic of what is wrong with American society: self-centered, entitled, devil-may-care, and rough. The tender moments are few here and belong mostly the his caring but socially inept younger son.

And what does this younger son do? What any caring American, especially at Christmas time, would do, buy expensive gifts to solve Dad’s problems. It does show respectful attention, surely, but is that what we are about? Just give me a truck and a compressor, and I will be all right.

What is missing from this movie is internal complexity.  Most everything is on the outside. Come on old man care about your sons. Show some interest in life. Take that fire-plug of a wife out to dinner and, for Christ’s sake, comb your hair. It is surprising what a little self-caring and grooming can do for relationships. If I were her, I’d be barking at you too.

The premise, I like. There was just too much repetition: too much medical attention, too many brothers, too many watching TV shots, too many shuffling-down-the-highway events.  The truth of the matter is that families whose senior members start hoofing it to far off places along highways usually place the wanderer in a home. The confusion on this point is tedious and stupid.

Jane Squibb gives decent support. But the role, again, has little understandable internal development. Mom (Squibb) repeats, too often, “I can’t stand it anymore.” Then she stands it more.  Mid-plot she turns into a family historian. I don’t know about you, but I’m with her son; I don’t need to know this, Mom. Too much information.  Her tender moment comes as she brushes her husband’s wispy hair back. It takes two seconds.  Lucky he is oblivious, asleep in a hospital bed. So much tenderness might give him the wrong idea!

Forte’s younger son character expresses  inept social skills and pathetic efforts at communication. Spineless, under-employed, plagued by indecision, he is everything mom and dad are not. He is balanced with is soulless, ambitious brother who barely has time to spend outside his TV career. The two sons, perhaps, are emblematic of the film itself, comic but shallow, appropriately shot in black and white.

Don’t get me wrong. The film was fun, but, please, give me something besides one-liners and comic situations to build a story.