Monday, July 18, 2005

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close takes place in the enormous space between loss and recovery. It's about the efforts we make to reconnect, to bring back some semblance of our relationship to that which has gone missing. While the central loss in the novel -- that of a 9-year-old boy, Oskar Schell, whose father perished in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Centers -- provides a framework for the plot, the losses in the novel are many. Fathers, children, wives, husbands, lovers, grandparents and grandchildren have all gone, and each character in the novel is the victim of loss.
The author, Jonathan Safran Foer, makes it clear that recovery is not possible, but the effort to recover is the stuff of life. Young Oskar searches the five boroughs of new York City for a lock that he believes might open with the mysterious key he has found in his father's closet. His only clue is the word "Black" written on the envelope in which the key was discovered, and he systematically attempts to locate and question every New Yorker with the surname Black.
All around him, others deal with their own losses. His mother and her new "friend," his grandmother, the 103-year-old man in the apartment upstairs, who hasn't left his apartment in the 20 years since his wife died.
Some things have left abruptly and unexpectedly, like Oskar's father, on "the worst day," and another character's wife and daughter, who perished in a car accident. Others drift away little by little, like the grandfather's ability to vocalize words and the mythical sixth borough of New York, an island that drifted slowly away down the Hudson, severing its connections to Manhattan one by one. And yet they all leave behind vestiges, and with those the hope of reconnection.Several of the figures in the novel write, and their writing are interspersed with Oskar's, as are letters written by his absent grandfather, who disappeared more than 40 years ago, before his father was born, after having lost his ability to speak, dropping the ability to say words one by one. His last word, uttered before he met and married Oskar's grandmother, was a lonely "I".
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn't subtle. Despite its structure in the form of private diaries and secret letters, it isn't really about interior thoughts. It's openly and painfully about the need to connect, and to try to bring back connections that have been broken.It's realistic about the futility of these searches; our hopes are raised and then dashed repeatedly on behalf of the characters, and the characters go on struggling. None of these failures brings closure. Even the plotlines that appear to be resolved turns out not to provide finality.
The search for reconnection is really a futile effort to turn back time (Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time figures prominently). But it is what keeps the characters going. At several points, characters explicitly acknowledge that acceptance of loss would mean the end of living.
The book is an achievement, not least of all in the creation of young Oskar, who is funny, surprising, tragic and very much real, despite his odd collection of quirks: The all-white wardrobe, the endless inventions of his fertile mind, the erudition that seems years beyond and yet entirely appropriate for this urbane child of urban parents.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

The climactic light-saber battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and the newly emergent Darth Vader has an operatic grandeur appropriate for the culmination of this six-film cycle, but director George Lucas undermines it by cross-cutting to a simultaneous battle between the elfin Yoda and the evil emperor.
Yoda, basically an animated squeeze toy, is exactly what is wrong with this overburdened series. He's a character that was cute and clever in his initial appearance in 1980's The Empire Strikes Back but who has shown no growth, surprises or shades in his subsequent appearances. He's still a freak creature from the legendary Star Wars bar. George Lucas had the good sense to reduce Jar-Jar Binks to a cameo in this episode. Why give so much attention to the equally irritating Yoda?
Much has been said about Hayden Christenson's lack of acting chops, but he glowers effectively in this final episode, and that's pretty much what's required of him. I didn't have many complaints -- although my daughter thought he was ridiculous when he had to express anger verbally rather than through a smoldering look.
As for the rest of the movie, it's pretty much what you would expect: Excellent animated special effects, a plodding story, unsurprising tying up of loose ends. There are worse ways to spend a summer evening.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You

On the last page of this early collection of stories, Alice Munro reveals a little bit of the secret of her magic:
"If I had been making a proper story out of this, I would have ended it, I think, with my mother not answering and going ahead of me across the pasture. That would have done. I didn't stop there, I suppose, because I wanted to find out more, remember more, I wanted to bring back all I could. Now I look at what I have done and it is like a series of snapshots, like the brownish snapshots with fancy borders that my parents' old camera used to take."
Alice Munro's stories are not "proper;" they refuse to obey the rules of short stories, to confine themselves to a single moment, a single incident. As I have written with regard to a couple of her other collections, her short stories have the sweep of novels, spanning years and great distances, in some cases.
She always wants to "find out more, remember more," to flesh out where others in this form leave tantalizing gaps.
Actually, in Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You, from 1974, Ms. Munro hews closer to the rules than in her more recent, glorious collections such as Open Secrets and Runaway. These early stories are less expansive than her later ones, but nevertheless begin to break away from the conventions of the form. So we get small digressions from the main plot line, a bit of filling in of characters' backgrounds and peculiarities, a side story here and there that clarifies the main thread.
Read in the light of these recent masterworks, Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You reads like a practice volume. You can perceive the author honing her craft in these 13 tales. There are many pleasures here in these stories of messy relationships, familial and marital. As always, Ms. Munro makes you understand what the characters believe should have happened in their lives, in contrast with what really did.
Alice Munro is a treasure.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Open Secrets

When I read Alice Munro's newest collection of stories, Runaway, earlier this year, I was very impressed by this writer who had previously been only a name to me.
Now, having just finished her 1994 collection, Open Secrets, I am convinced that Ms. Munro is one of the greatest living writers.
Like many writers, she builds a world of allusion and cross-reference, with recurring characters and locations -- the towns of Carstairs and Walley in Ontario, the Doud family and their piano factory.
But Ms. Munro's short stories are like no others I have read, spanning decades (nearly 100 years in the case of "A Wilderness Station" in this collection) and encompassing multiple, momentous events in the lives of the characters as well as acts of shocking violence.
I may be narrow in my knowledge of the short-story form, but to me Alice Munro seems to stretch the boundaries of the short story form as surely as Borges does.
"The Albanian Virgin" may recall Singer in its telling of an other-worldly old-world village tale. In "Spaceships Have Landed," Ms. Munro includes a science-fiction moment. But in overall effect, her work is unique and extraordinary. I can't wait to read another collection (the one I have selected from my local library is Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You, an early collection from the mid-1970s. More on that later)

Saturday, February 26, 2005

It's My Party Too

Christine Todd Whitman's political memoir contains so much good, common-sense thinking that it's a crying shame she balances it with so much whiny, partisan apologia. She correctly identifies the enemies of moderation -- the "social conservatives" and "ideological zealots" who have taken charge of the Rebuplican party's agenda for more than 20 years now -- but then excuses herself and the rest of the shrinking band of "moderate" Republicans who have subordinated themselves to this crowd, and further has the audacity to argue that Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney somehow represent moderation.
Ms. Whitman looks back to the Republican party in which she grew up -- the party that produced Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, Lowell Weicker, Charles Mathias and others, and laments that this is no longer the party in which she finds herself today. She rightly points to fiscal responsibility, a strong national defense and small government as "bedrock" issues that could attract a significant majority of voters and understands that the right wing, fueled by the rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh, could lead Republicans to an increasingly marginal position.
But where is any sense of mea culpa for putting her own positions on the back burner to support candidates like the two Bushes who embrace the intolerant, anti-feminist, racist positions of the radical right?
When she argues that the Republicans must re-assert themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility, she conveniently ignores the Reagan-Bush records of profligate spending coupled with tax cuts, blaming the whole deficit problem on the lack of a line-item veto.
While she makes an intelligent argument that Republicans must find a way to appeal to African Americans and other minority voters, she finds nary a word for the damage done by the Willie Horton ad campaign or Reagan's ugly characterizations of Cadillac-driving welfare queens and the willfully homeless.
She understands how much damage was done by the coupling of rejection of the Kyoto accords with questioning of the scientific basis of global warming, but fails to hold Bush accountable for betraying her on this issue (he was poorly advised) and in her defense of the environmentalist positions of Republicans neglects Reagan's claim that trees cause pollution or Bush's embrace of Ken Lay and the price-fixing Enron.
It's My Party Too is clearly an opening shot in a 2008 campaign for a place on the Republican ticket (I'm not sure if she wants the top spot, but she is obviously positioning herself as a logical choice for the vice presidency).
Ms. Whitman tackles a number of interesting issues -- the environment, civil rights, feminism -- and her own positions seem quite reasonable. If all I had were her position papers, I might be able to vote for her.
But when I read her description of Dick Cheney as "intelligent, insightful and understated," I am stopped right in my track. She doesn't seem to understand what a vile joke it is to describe Newt Gingrich as a fellow moderate, or how strange it was that Donald Rumsfeld was running the Office of Equal Opportunity in 1969. And while she mentions Arnold Schwarzeneggar's "girlie-man" remark in passing, she doesn't pause for even a momentary reflection on what it says about him.
In fact, that last statement pinpoints what is wrong with this book. While it fairly states a number of reasonable political positions, it fails to hold Republicans accountable for their opposition to them -- other than a nameless band of "social conservatives."
On the other hand, I found not a single positive reference to a Democratic politician in the entire book. We see Robert Byrd described as an ex-Klansman in a passage defending poor Trent Lott for his warm look back at the 1948 Strom Thurmond campaign. Of course, she fails to mention that Byrd has called his Klan membership his "greatest mistake" while Thurmond never either repudiated his segregationist views or even acknowledged his mixed-race daughter.
She smears her predecessor at the EPA, Carol Browner, as tolerant of racist policies; describes her one-time opponent for the U.S. Senate as sexist; and finds time to trash Christopher Dodd, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and numerous other Democrats.
There was a time when I felt somewhat sorry for Ms. Whitman for her humiliating experience as EPA administrator. I believed that she entered the job feeling she could make a positive difference and, like Colin Powell, found that too many forces were lined up against her. That may be true, but her failure to put the blame where it belongs cheapens her own positions.
In It's My Party Too, Ms. Whitman makes it clear that she is part of the problem, not the solution.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age

The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age makes for a very pleasurable read, even though I have trouble with its central thesis -- that contemporary modes of literary criticism are damaging to the act of reading itself.
Robert Alter, a biblical scholar who has recently published a new translation of The Five Books of Moses, takes on the post-structuralist crowd in this volume, arguing that students are spending too much time these days (the book was written in 1989) reading Derrida, Foucault, Lacan and other French literary critics, and too little time reading Dickens, Tolstoy and the Bible. He may be right in terms of what is being taught in universities, but I think he's wrong that contemporary criticism should be blamed. I'll concede that people may be misusing the French critics, but I would argue that they have provided useful new insights into the ways that texts (a term he despises) of all sorts are perceived by readers.
There's a long argument to be engaged in here, and I'm not sure I feel like getting into it.
Let's just say that Alter's disagreement with contemporary critics takes up only parts of the first and last chapters of his book. The rest of the volume is, fortunately, full of his thoughts about great literature, and it has the pleasurable effect of an afternoon spent flipping through a library, reviewing and reflecting on passages from Anna Karenina, The Aeneid, Tom Jones, The Sound and the Fury, Moby Dick, and other great works of fiction and poetry.
In successive chapters he considers the issues of Character, Style, Allusion, Structure and Perspective, showing how value can be
I love books like this. They conjure up warm memories of days spent with great literature, and open our eyes to literature we've missed. The book this one most reminded me of is Mary McCarthy's Ideas and the Novel, another tome whose thesis may be questionable but whose value is in the insights provided into great books.
It's a book worth reading, owning and using for suggestions on expanding your literary horizons.

Monday, February 21, 2005


I watched Sideways on an airplane, which is a terrible way to see a movie, but it seemed somehow appropriate for this one in its tininess.
Sideways is a wee thing, an extremely slight but nevertheless smart and enjoyable comedy about the messiness of attraction and affection. It's very well-written and performed, and yet having seen it -- albeit in the usual chopped-up and -down edit for airplane audiences -- I can understand why it has engendered something of a backlash from those who believe it has been overpraised.
When a cinematic work is deliberately kept small and within strict confines -- a "short story" as opposed to a novel on film -- it can inspire a "so what" response in a culture that responds to size and special effects.
But Sideways would be terrible if it were bigger. A cast of stars and a big budget might overwhelm and cheapen its quiet pleasures. Imagine it recast with Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts and you'll see what I mean. They're all fine actors, but much too recognizable and baggage-laden for this charming, sad, yet ultimately hopeful story about two buddies on a rambling, wine-drunk trip through the Santa Barbara wine country, and the women they encounter.
Sideways kept reminding me of Breaking Away, the small 1979 feature about a teenaged bicycle racer that received similar praise -- and a similar Oscar nomination for Best Picture -- before being mostly forgotten. That is not small praise. I loved Breaking Away, and I expect I will harbor similar fond memories of this one. Especially if I can manage to catch it on a better screen and in its full edit.