At the Paris Review Daily, I reminisce about my pronoun trouble and my fondness for Elizabeth Bishop’s paintings.
I review a book without meaning to
I'm tempted to do something I don't usually do: write critically of a book that I have no intention of finishing. The book in question bothered me. I've been tussling with my botheration, trying to figure out what exactly I disliked, and I wonder if it will clarify my objections if I try to put them into words. Since it doesn't seem quite fair to the book to judge it without finishing it, I'm not going to name it or its author. This disguise is not meant to be impenetrable. Please understand the anonymity as a polite veil, not at all hard for an internet user of average resourcefulness to tear away.
As a reviewer, I'm sent a fair number of books by publishers, and I don't remember whether I happen to have requested this one, though I suspect I didn't. It arrived while I was suffering from a mild fever, a condition that's relevant because I won't be able to get to the bottom of my final dislike of the book unless I start with its initial appeal, which was considerable. I was feeling muzzy, bored, and a little vulnerable. My attention had been tenderized by a sick-day's indulgence in Twitter. The book in question is a novel, written in the first person. In the first few pages, in simple and declarative sentences, modestly spiced with British slang, the heroine-narrator lets herself be seduced into a risky sexual encounter. She enjoys herself intensely—the experience seems to fracture an idea of herself that she has—but she doesn't seem to have done this kind of thing before, and it isn't at all clear that she's going to be all right.
I kept reading, conscious that the plain grammar (subject-verb-object) and the explicit sex suited the debilitated state of my mind. The sentences practically read themselves. Sometimes, as a writer, one is aware that one also has the specious motive of doing something so as to be able to write about it later, and my conscious rationalization for continuing the novel included the somewhat recursive notion that if I did continue to read, I might be able to mine the experience for an essay about the kind of book that appealed to people who were spending too much time on Twitter and whose brains were befogged by toxins, viral or otherwise—about the limitations that the novel as a genre might have to accept in order to seize and hold attention in the current environment.
Less consciously, I had perhaps identified with the heroine, as someone who, like myself in an earlier era of my life, was putting herself in danger through a sexual responsiveness that she didn't understand.
My resistance to the text first became conscious to me in questions of style. Though technically written in the past tense, the short, plain sentences and their narrow time-focus gave the impression of a story unrolling in the present tense only. The heroine never thought about her past, though visits with a grandmother and with parents suggested that she did have one. She never reflected on how she had come to have the career that she did, or what had drawn her to her best friend, let alone on how she had become so cut off from her inner life that she could only return to it through episodes of violent, near-anonymous sex. This limitation in the telling of the story seemed one, however, with the urgency of the story's appeal. The narrator was Everywoman; the reader was not put at a distance by any details of her past or by any elements of her personality that the reader might not happen to share. On the contrary, the reader was constantly being invited to join in a fantasy: What if I were to have an irresponsible fling? What if I were to antagonize my friends? What if I were to mess up my safe but boring job? There was no awareness of anything in the heroine's life or mind that might hold her back. She was completely free. Or, to look at another way, her vanity and neediness were uncompromised by any consideration of other people as beings just as real as she was. The book began to remind me of Jay McInerny's Bright Lights, Big City, which I read twenty years ago when I was under the impression that I ought to keep up with best-sellers; the transgression began to seem monotonous in a similar way.
Because of the narrow focus—limited to the narrative's present, and to the perceptions of a narrator not motivated to understand anyone around her—a number of scenes had the flat feeling-tone of a certain kind of comedy routine, which depends for its success on the audience's collusion in a sadistic ridicule or dismissal of embarrassing feelings. Some of these scenes "worked" as jokes, but on second thought, seemed unlikely to be able to "work" in the real world. In one such scene, the heroine half-jestingly hits some children that she has been asked to take care of, and the children respond by precociously and coldly turning against her and voicing their hatred of her. I found myself thinking, well, in fact it is kind of awful of the heroine to have hit the children, but I doubt that real children would be able to find on such short notice sufficient insight and sufficient confidence to punish a faulty caregiver. In another scene, the heroine undresses while drunk for a man who is disgusted by her drunkenness, and I found myself thinking that if this character was charming enough to hold my interest as a reader, she probably wouldn't be the sort who, even drunk, would so badly misjudge the responsiveness of a potential suitor. In real life, she would have noticed his recoil, even through the haze of alcohol, before going quite so far.
I stopped reading when I found myself resorting to diagnosis of the characters. The heroine becomes obsessed with the man she has the sexual encounter with, despite his commandeering, abusive manner, or maybe because of it. He is portrayed as someone at ease with himself—at ease with his sadism and manipulation. Oh, I thought, a sociopath, charming and dangerous. And the heroine's focus on connection with him as the only source of meaning in her life: Oh, I thought, she's a borderline personality, who disintegrates unless she maintains contact yet needs the drama of always falling out of contact. It occurred to me that in real life the story of these two people would be so exhausting to hear about that it would be hard to stay focused, while listening, on how sad it was. In real life, it would end badly, unless disrupted by care and insight. It would probably end badly even if it were disrupted by care and insight. One way for it to end would be by his killing her. I thought of a book with a similar setup (whose plot and ending I will implicitly be giving away, in order to make my analogy, so look away if you need to), Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat, though Spark's heroine understands herself in a way that this novel's heroine does not seem to. Though I admire Spark and would be happy to re-read her Girls of Slender Means or Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I didn't enjoy The Driver's Seat and have no intention of ever re-reading it. Once I made the comparison, I couldn't bear to keep reading the novel at hand—the thought of having to sit through the tedium of a borderline's relationship with a sociopath, only to be punished for my patience with an unhappy ending, was too much.
Does he kill her? I flipped to the end. (Spoiler ahead, obviously; if you think you might track down this book and read it despite me, stop reading now.) It turns out that the author—in a reversal of expectations that to my eye again functions better as a joke than as a plausible rendering of human experience—gives her heroine the opportunity and the strength of purpose to kill her beloved torturer. I don't think this is really a happier ending than it would be if he killed her; it certainly wasn't an ending that I wanted to spend any amount of time or effort reaching, once I knew it. What keeps Spark's Driver's Seat interesting (though it remains unpleasant) is that the borderline personality in that novel fails to find the sociopath she's looking for and has to make do with another personality type altogether, by blackmailing him. There's no such complexity of motive and outcome in the new novel. I don't think the unexpected reversal would have any chance of convincing a reader if it weren't for the stylistic constraints on its telling, which make it harder to see how unlikely it is—if it weren't for the impairments that also function as appetite stimulants.
Admittedly, I broke the rules of the reader-writer contract. It's possible that if I read every word of the novel in sequence, I would find the reversal of roles at the end psychologically plausible. I doubt it, though. I suspect that if such "funny," impoverished consciousness—the final triumph of "showing" over "telling," in the specious language of writing instruction—is the only way to hold attention in a splintered world, the novel is in trouble. If the novel must always be recapturing the reader's attention, by prurient means, the novel is in the plight of a needy borderline, doomed to tedious pursuit of the cruel, elusive reader, who alternates between taking his pleasure from the book and dropping it for more compelling pleasures elsewhere. My own reading pattern here—beginning to read almost in scorn for the book, finding itches scratched by it almost despite myself, ultimately dismissing and abandoning the book—is weirdly complicit. I've even kept my encounter with the book, like the heroine's with her sociopath lover, anonymous, as if my meeting with this book were somehow disreputable for both of us. I must have fallen more under its spell than I realized. For the sake of disenchantment, then, maybe I should reveal the name of the book after all: True Things About Me, by Deborah Kay Davies. It comes out next week in paperback from Faber & Faber.
An introduction to “Paprika”
[The Rubin Museum of Art asked me to introduce the movie Paprika on March 4, 2011, one of a series of dream-themed films that the museum is showing this month. Here's what I had to say.]
Paprika, the movie we're about to see, is based on a fictional technology that allows people to share a dream. In fact, though, such a technology does exist. Several such technologies do: A poem can share a dream. A novel can sustain the sharing of one for weeks or even months. Movies may be the most vivid means of dream-sharing. Their power is acknowledged every time a timid viewer like me says, of a particularly gory or scary-looking one, that he can't go see it because it would give him nightmares.
Suspend your belief in poems, novels, and movies for a moment, however, and imagine that dream-sharing is something completely new in the world. How will society react? Will people use the technology to reach a new understanding of themselves, extending the insights of psychoanalysis and philosophy? Such a development would require a great deal of attention to people as individuals. It would probably be easier and more profitable to use the new technology for entertainment. A dream that flatters or pleases dreamers could be mass-distributed. Corporations could hire its distributors to spike it with appetites for products; governments could pay for inducements to passivity or simply for distractions that camouflage what is happening to citizens in the real world. Plato would almost certainly have banned dream sharing from his republic.
In animated movies, and in live-action movies enhanced by computer graphics, the few constraints that everyday physics once imposed on moviemaking are overcome. The takeover of animation by computers, in the last few decades, may have intensified anxieties. What is the fate of creativity in an electronic age? Will it be the handmaiden of liberation or slavery? Like all great artists, Satoshi Kon, the director of Paprika, seems to have harbored a certain ambivalence about his chosen medium. Though computers have made it possible to automate much animation, Kon liked to draw storyboards for his movies himself, by hand, and in none of his movies did he shrink from challenging the conventions of the genre.
Kon seems, in fact, to have seen himself as a little bit at war with the conventions of mass-produced Japanese animation, making them the butt of a joke in the first scene of the first movie he directed. Kon's Perfect Blue, released in 1997, begins with an action sequence by costumed superheroes, set to blaring, triumphant music, but the superheroes are almost immediately revealed to be no more than the mediocre opening act at a rinky-dink outdoor theater. (The joke is reminiscent of the melodramatic action-movie "conclusion" that begins Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels.) Perfect Blue is really about the next act at that rinky-dink theater, an all-girl pop group, and in particular, about the identity crisis that the group's lead singer suffers as she transforms herself from an inoffensive teen idol into an actress with roles that are emotionally painful and sexually mature. Kon imagines the young actress being haunted by her pink-tutu-wearing younger self, and it soon becomes difficult for the viewer to distinguish between the actress's real-world agonies and the imaginary ones that she is portraying in her first movie, whose title is, tellingly, "Double Bind." The transitions between reality and fantasy are dizzying. "The real life images and the virtual images come and go quickly," Kon explained in an interview.
When you are watching the film, you sometimes feel like losing yourself, in whichever world you are watching, real or virtual. But after going back and forth between the real world and the virtual world, you eventually find your own identity through your own powers. Nobody can help you do this. You are ultimately the only person who can truly find a place where you know you belong.
In Kon's second feature film, Millennium Actress, released in 2002, he explored a similar confusion, this time by imagining a documentary about an elderly actress who can no longer tell the difference between memories of her life and memories of the movie roles she played. Her love story hopscotches through a century of Japanese film history and several centuries of Japanese history simultaneously. In his third film, Tokyo Godfathers, released in 2003, he defied convention in his choice of subject matter: three homeless people—an alcoholic man, a transvestite, and a runaway teenage girl—find an abandoned baby while rummaging through garbage on Christmas. Trying to do the right thing by the baby, each character must re-examine a melodramatic fantasy that has taken the place of his true life story.
Paprika, released in 2006, reprises these themes: doubles, the misapprehension of the past, the risk of sexuality, the confusion between reality and fantasy. Kon imagines his movie's dream-sharing technology as a small, bent, white wand, shaped like a question mark or a miniature shepherd's crook, with articulated teeth, the size of grains of rice, that glow a soothing robin's egg blue. The DC Mini, as it's called, is cute and menacing at the same time, like the many handheld devices that one nowadays sees people plugged into on the subway. Its inventor is a childish, absurdly overweight man named Dr. Tokita, whose talent everyone envies. The pioneer in its therapeutic use, however, is a stylish black-haired research psychologist named Dr. Atsuko Chiba, who, since the technology is not yet legal, treats patients only while disguised as red-haired, freckled girl named Paprika.
In the movie Inception, which some of you may have seen, there are clear rules about the mechanics of entering dreams. In Paprika, there aren't. There is a mechanism for awakening dreamers, but its function isn't certain. One can never be certain whose dream one is in; in fact, control of a dream may change from moment to moment. The conceit of Inception is that it takes great cunning and much effort to implant an alien idea into someone's mind. In Paprika, such an implantation is distressingly easy. The difficult thing is to learn through dreams how to become oneself.
Be patient, Paprika several times advises one of her subjects. Much of the movie is devoted to the interpretation of a single dream, with an attention to detail and a willingness to defer understanding that Freud would not have been ashamed of. But not all the dreams in the movie prove susceptible to analysis. In a particularly dangerous one, we seem to see capitalism run amok—commodities themselves on the march, as if toward an Armageddon or a coronation. The philosopher Martin Buber once warned of "the despotism of the proliferating It under which the I, more and more impotent, is still dreaming that it is in command." Will this someday be humanity's only dream?
Kon died of pancreatic cancer in August 2010 at the age of forty-six. A posthumously posted letter to fans suggested that he had completed storyboards for The Dreaming Machine, a children's movie that may be released later this year. One suspects, though, that Paprika is his masterpiece, and his early death makes more poignant the rich dream at the movie's start, in which one hears the slowing clicks of a movie projector that has come too soon to the end of its reel.
Thanks to all of you for coming out to see the movie, and thanks to Tim McHenry and Brendan Hadcock of the Rubin Museum of Art for inviting me and for arranging the screening. Enjoy the greatest showtime.
Not being there
Over at the Paris Review Daily, I argue that in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, capital dreams of abusing itself.
Melville’s Secrets: The Walter Harding Lecture, 2010
Yesterday afternoon I gave the 2010 Walter Harding lecture at SUNY Geneseo. The lecture series is named after Walter Harding, who taught for decades in Geneseo and was the preeminent twentieth-century scholar of Henry David Thoreau, and I felt it was a tremendous honor to have been asked. I talked about Melville’s secrets—in particular, about a distorted Platonic myth that I suspect may be present in Moby-Dick. “Ishmael,” I claimed, “might be considered a final, uninvited guest to Plato’s banquet, and his tale a postscript to Diotima’s.”
SUNY Geneseo has already uploaded a video of my talk (perhaps also embedded below, if I’ve coaxed the html sufficiently); a downloadable audio is forthcoming. I’m not going to post a transcript, because I’m hoping to revise the talk into a scholarly paper in the not-too-distant future. To that end, if any of you who heard the talk yesterday or who listen to it online have suggestions, corrections, or comments, please get in touch.
I had a great time at SUNY Geneseo. Many thanks to Marjorie Harding, for the gift that made the lecture series possible; it was an honor to meet the Harding family. I’m very grateful to Geneseo’s English department for their hospitality and great questions. I’m especially grateful to department chair Paul Schacht for his support and guidance, to associate professor Alice Rutkowski for a very kind introduction, and to the college president and English professor Christopher Dahl and his wife Ruth Rowse for a lovely dinner.