Posts Tagged ‘Criticism’

Cosmos trying too hard.

It all makes me wonder who the audience is. 

Yes, Cosmos starts with a bang, a big bang—President Obama introduces the program (it makes me wish he were promoting NASA more)—and as it rushes on, the bells and whistles never cease to ring and shrill. Big bangs turn me off.

I’m not a TV watcher, but the Neil de Grasse Tyson, Phd. interview on public radio made me jump to watch the new Cosmos. On radio the astrophysicist seemed personable, well-bred and educated, but sharply critical when he needed to be (vis-à-vis his public school education). On Cosmos he resembled more a stand-offish, dumb-it-down sycophant-for-science. On the tube, he did not win me over.

The homage to his meeting at age 17 with Carl Sagan came too late in the hour to soften the initial image presented—Dr. Tyson standing alone where ever, you name it: California Coast, outer space, on top of the galaxy, or on a huge checker-board calendar of cosmic time. I understand the purpose may have been to demonstrate how alone and remote we really are in the cosmos, but his appearance on the bridge of starship-Tyson and in a seedlike, flying space capsule did not make me want to sit down and chat. He was a remote, impersonal, and over-dramatic.  The still clips of Carl Sagan—intimating with a young student, interacting in his classroom, sitting, relaxed with Johnny Carson—did more to contrast with Dr. Tyson than to tie him to that popular lineage.

The “whoo-whoo-look-at-this” tone intensified when Dr. Tyson emphasized one of his overwrought points: we are small, insignificant in this universe.  “Hey, tell me about it. We know. We know.” The emphatic deep-throated proclamations had the opposite effect of that intended. Rather than enlighten, they dumbed an interesting topic right down to earth and into the ground.  In much the same way—let me not rush to reveal my generation here—the glitz, the sizzle, and rush of special effects made Cosmos difficult to differentiate from the Fox commercials (a couple decibels louder than they need to be).  Give me a fireside chat, not a fireworks show. Too much, way too much cosmic bling.  Any student, including Dr. Tyson, who has really learned from a professor will tell you that it was the personal touch (usually outside of class), not the proclamations from the lectern,  that taught him best. The personal touch was lost in this blitz.

Dr. Tyson’s critical side came out in ways unlikely to win approval of the Vatican or creationist “thinkers” in the USA.  For his courage, we must commend him. He is a man of science. But presenting Giordano Bruno as a cartoon did not do the trick for me. The Inquisition is too serious to be animated.  Maybe that is why it was done that way, but something about the euphoric, apostate monk twirling amongst the planets and sun does not inspire the young to explore outer, rather inner, space. Still, the program presents Bruno as courageous.

 One more gripe.  After waiting thirty minutes to learn something new, things of interest were glossed over or lost in the inarticulate, drooping tone at the end of a sentence.  Dr. Tyson passed one item—the idea that the moon was once much closer to Earth and was driven back by what?, tidal forces?—I wanted to know more about. Was it a tickler for future programs? I’ll check other sources first.

I want to like the host.  I want to give Cosmos another chance. The program deserves that. It is a noble idea, but better ideas, than inspiring new generations through glitz, special effects accompanied by cartoonish and undignified overkill, is to go to Mars, establish a base on the moon, expand a space station. Cut the talk and do it. That is inspiration.

 

 

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Thank God it’s over.

But wasn’t it fun.

I have to admit it was though it goes to show that political correctness and inclusivity go further than absolute merit. For an organization that has to bring forth nine contenders for Best Picture award because it keeps the audience tuned in—why not 16? Oh, college football already does that one—you can expect anything but rigorous honesty. Still, political correctness and inclusivity have a place and, for some like my brother and my girlfriend who tied for the forecaster’s prize (16/24 correct), are readable commodities. What do they tell me on the morning after?

  1. Despite the hype and promotional fortune spent pushing Gravity as a great, well-acted film, it was denied but one of the Big Six (Best picture, actor, actress, director (which it won), and supporting roles). Because of the hype and promotional fortune spent pushing Gravity as a great, well-acted film, it was granted eight “minor” awards – all earned, but who cares? Well, Gravity’s loss in Best Picture category frees me from my vow to boycott George Clooney films. And where was he last night?
  2. Best picture? 12 Years a Slave deserves the award, but the choice—over American Hustle and, especially, The Dallas Buyer’s Club—shows how P.C. and the big I work.  The voting may have easily gone to The Dallas Buyer’s Club but AIDS and sexual identity play less well (as do sexy shysters) than does the plight of Blacks in America, a condition far graver for the numbers and persistence of their difficulties. There is little argument there. So, to remain correct and open, spread the joy around: 12 Years a Slave gets Best Picture and Supporting Actress awards; The Dallas Buyer’s Club gets Best Actor—let M.McC. thank God—and Supporting Actor (a hands down favorite, earned). What about American Hustle? Go to the box office.
  3. P.C. and I., again. How can you give awards to someone whose agoraphobia and arrogance will not let him leave the Big Apple? You cannot. But how can you deny, hands down, the best performance by an actress? You cannot. Cate Blanchett had no real rivals and presented herself as the consummate actress she is.  (Applause).
  4. Now for the screen play, which Ms. Blanchett touted. No doubt Woody Allen wrote it, but am I alone to decry the so obvious, shameful, and deceitful “borrowing” from Tennessee Williams’s A Street Car Named Desire? Do so few Americans read from their literature or pay attention in high school English classes that they do not recognize this unacknowledged literary debt? Does the Academy know the difference between Original Screen Play and Adapted? This is no allusion. This is not just influence. Mr. Allen has taken, and taken liberally, without a word of credit I know of, from an original, iconic work. Now, what do we call that?  No one says a word. I hoped Ms. Blanchett at least would acknowledge her inheritance from Blanche DuBois, but nothing. Well, those who complain about the Genius of 42nd Street have to be classed with the Farrow clan, shrill detractors to the modesty and integrity of an American icon.  Please, at least, when you set San Francisco, do it, not New York. (Apple sauce).

Last word? DeGeneres: let’s have her back again.

Naked with Nunez

Posted: December 31, 2013 by Jollymore in On Books
Tags: , , ,

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.

 

 

 

 

 

I will go from memory here, memory of the Picaresque: a story told, more or less, while traveling. Tom Jones is one. As the hero, and perhaps heroine, travel along, they meet folk who tell them their life stories. What is learned from these folk by the hero might be less important than the entertainment they provide, but the stories are usually linked thematically at least.

If one accepts my loose definition, she might begin to think of Sigrid Nunez as a picaresque novelist. What is different here, though, is that a central narrator – in the two books I have read, The Last of Her Kind and A Feather on the Breath of God – relates the stories to her reader. Usually, they do not speak much for themselves except through the narrator’s retelling. The sources are varied and believable:

Solange’s story is told mostly from her sister’s perspective: her longings for her sister, her worries, her suppositions (many of them true), the stories (of Solange’s travels, loves, and delusions), and what the reader “overhears” Solange saying to her sister. Occassionally, we get to directly see Solange in action, during the acid trip for instance.

Turner’s story is notable in that we learn much from daughter Ann, who is certainly not an objective source, then later from his own words/actions related by the narrator, and words shared with Edie, his sister-in-law (some of which were memorized by the waiter – see “Indulgence” or the post, “Marries”). This last piece leads to what is less of a criticism than a characterization. It starts with a question: How can that conversation between Turner and Edie be known to the reader? Easy. Magic.

The magic comes through Nunez’s picaresque point of view. Most the The Last of Her Kind is told from the first person, in Georgette George’s voice. Within this narrative Georgette speculates, for instance about what Solange is up to, whether or not she went to Woodstock, then later confirms what she has wondered as fact. Sometime she varies the speculation to fit later revealed facts. It is a wonderful way to weave what she cannot see or know with what she can. Nunez keeps narrative control in that way.

But what about that which she cannot know? Like the luncheon of Edie and Turner?

She prepares us for this revelation by switching to third person: “Trial and error has shown that I cannot accomplish this difficult thing – the trick is to be cold about the hottest thing there is: love – unless ‘I’ becomes ‘she.’ “ And with that she ends Part Four and begins to relate the love between Georgette and Turner. Now in the third person the narrative can become omniscient enough to tell us what happened between Edie and Turner (and to have the fun of the waiter noting parts of the conversation). Nunez returns briefly to first person in Part Six, but her foray into third person prepares us for another story, Orphan Annie and the Hand of God.

It is possible to form objections about some of this, but it is hard not to accept it and like it too.  Objection: the lapse into third person means Georgette is going to reveal something, but it isn’t going to be as intimate as we would like.  In some ways, Georgette’s readers are treated like her children, “I lie about the symptoms . . . I keep the pills out of sight.” The reader, even within the first person narrative, does not experience that which Georgette does, but is told about it much in the same way we are told about Ann, about Turner, about Solange. Keep us at a distance, like a stranger walking down Fifth Avenue. It feels New Yorky.

How will Nunez tell us what we want to know – or do not want to know – about Ann after she disappears behind the walls of Marysville State Prison? Since George is not one to really be the friend she could have been, we won’t be going up there to visit Ann.  Instead of doing this George is busy doing other things she never shares with Ann (thanks heaven). So, how to tell the reader? Enter Olympia Underwood.

Here is a first person narrative feeling like a third person narrative.  The resemblance in feeling if not style of this narration to the story George tells promotes the suspicion that this is not another voice but simply a narrative-rouse. Would the reader prefer a firsthand account – replete with emotive sentiment and honest feeling – to this supposed prison-story that gives us a window into Ann’s life after Kwame? Would George’s children be better to know of their mother’s illness? It is difficult not to be thankful for a peek through the prison wall – perhaps a shorter one – but it is equally hard not to wish for a more intimate and extended account from our main narrator. To be kept at a distance feels incomplete, like we will wake the next morning finding our Picaresque story-teller already beyond the crest of the next hill.

 

 

Let’s allow the writer, Sigrid Nunez, some slack. After all, we’re on the same side, and she is that good. When the payoff is big enough, much can be forgiven.

Take the scene at Edie’s and Turner’s lunch meeting. Edie is there to caution her brother-in-law about his affair. Turner is there to announce his intention to marry said affair. Here it comes: waiter “hovers” taking mental notes on what he considers a great line to use in a screenplay, “Marrying each other won’t do what . . . you may be subconsciously wishing. She can’t replace your daughter, and you can’t replace the father who abandoned her.” It is a writer’s (intentional) faux pas, but one you have to love it.  We forgive the author having a little fun because it tickles us and it fits with the Manhattan we all know, whether or not we live there. The City is the human drama publicly playing out before strangers’ eyes.

Sometimes, Nunez too heavily taps the 1960’s and ‘70’s. It is all there: Manson, the SDS, Weathermen, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, the pantheon of drugs, Altamont and Woodstock, the Black Panthers, on and on. It’s review for a child of the ‘60’s, perhaps tutelage for the later born. Sometimes it warms, sometimes makes one turn away. It was convincing though just for support of the story there was too much. For instance, Nunez appropriates the de rigueur acid trip George and her sister Solange take to establish George’s deep desire to have a child. Well, apparently, all acid trips are not equal. That one, I am not buying.

It is as clear as it is daring that Nunez invites comparison of one main character, Ann, with Jay Gatsby, yes, of The Great. Early in the book George(tte), the narrator,  gasses up on speed to write her pan of Fitzgerald’s novel. That scene along with her paper’s reappearance in her daughter Zoe’s hands at several points notably at the end of the novel, elevate this book as literature rather than just story.

That’s not saying Nunez is a Fitzgerald, though why shouldn’t she be? Rather like Manhattan itself – and the many sites of George’s life in the city – the connection builds upon what had been there before. If Jay Gatsby was the great American idealist of the 20’s, Dooley Ann Drayton is the same for the 60’s. Both rejected their upbringing. Both failed. Both were too inflexible. Both were culpable and tragic. And each has a narrator that is none of the above.

If Ann is Gatsby, George is Nick Carraway. The class switcheroo should not be a bother. Ann is monied, Jay Gatz poor. George is as “rural class” as Nick is “well-to-do.” But otherwise, the comparison instructs.  For all George’s misadventures in the book (spoilers: dropping out of school, suffering rape, escaping rape, drugging, marrying the unloved, loving the unmarriageable and on) she is nearly as priggish as Carraway. Nor, like old Nick, does she change. Forever the observer – even in her great love affair, she may well have stayed on the side lines as the “she” of that part of her story – George seems to float along, bumbling her way to what she hoped would come: family.  Over on Ann’s side of the dorm room, she is feverishly working for the betterment of the races, while George lets come what may. And the result?  Ann gets less than nothing (like Gatsby). Of course, George gets the girl and the boy as well as reclaiming the prodigal sister. Well, I always liked Nick Carraway, but I have to say, he didn’t accomplish much either. At least, thank God, George didn’t tell Ann about her affair. Such self-indulgence, even for her, would be damnable. But Nunez doesn’t let her off the hook even to the end where she has George meeting Nick in an imagined Fifth Avenue saying to him “Pick me, pick me.”

All things George and Zoe say about The Great Gatsby feed our understanding of of The Last of Her Kind:  Mencken’s critique: “‘No more than a glorified anecdote;’” George’s recapitulation of Fitzgerald’s worry: “‘I guess I just like my love stories to include some important woman character’” compared to her love story which included herself as a deluded, ungracious, and reckless woman, hardly an important one; and Zoe’s new-generation take one the book: “How can you not see that it’s a great love story?”

Nunez includes in that final section on Gatsby the schoolteacher’s assignments, inviting the comparison: “Compare and contrast: East Egg / West Egg. Jay Gatsby / Tom Buchanan. New York / The Middle West.” We could add “the 60’s / the 00’s” and say “speculate” to go even further.