Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In Memoriam: John Updike (1932-2009)

A master has left us.

John Updike< was, for me, the great American novelist of my lifetime, and the Rabbit tetralogy is the great achievement of contemporary American fiction. No other books have depicted the realities of contemporary working-class and middle-class people (emphasis on the former) with such eloquence or grace. The United States is a country where people live on pride--pride of achievement, pride of maintaining what one has, pride in the belief that no matter low one may be, there is always someone beneath one's station--and Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's world, seen across the decades, dramatized and interrogated that like no other work. Updike was the rightful heir of Henry Miller: the voice of the man on the street, in the factory, or at the car-salesman's desk. In the Rabbit novels, Updike wrote about how life is lived on the ground, where men were "uncomplaining with their bellies and cross-hatched red necks, embarrassed for what to talk about when the game is over, whatever the game is."

Ironically, Updike is seen by many as the epitome of the patrician, northeastern establishment novelist--he was Mr. New Yorker magazine. There is something to that, mainly in that he was the most wide-ranging major figure in American letters over the last fifty years. In addition to his novels, he was a first-rate short-story writer, a fair poet, and the preeminent "Common Reader" literary critic of the era. It left a false impression with those who don't know his work. But for those who do, it spoke to how incredibly engaged he was with all aspects of writing and literature.

His most famous line (from Rabbit Is Rich) was, "The great thing about the dead, they make space." Maybe for some, but not for all, and certainly not for John Updike. I'll probably spend the rest of my life catching up with his immense legacy of work. His departure makes space for no one.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Fiction Review: "A Game of Cards," Rose Tremain

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Rose Tremain’s “A Game of Cards” is a study of lonely, wasted lives, presented as a confessional account. The narrator, Gustav Perle, is a hotel owner in Switzerland. He reflects on his life, particularly his friendship since childhood with Anton Zweibel, a local piano teacher. The portrait Tremain paints of Gustav is a profoundly sad one: he is incapable of intimacy and devoted to routine. His relationship with Anton seems more a pretense of a friendship than an actual one, and it too becomes defined by a routine--Anton exists for Gustav as a partner in daily gin-rummy games. Gustav has no family of his own and no dreams; his moment of crisis comes when Anton, late in life, is offered a chance to move into the world of recording and recital tours:

The prospect of Anton’s departure, the appalling idea that he would become famous, made me feel so utterly cast down that I found it impossible to move from my armchair. In this godforsaken hour, my life as a hotelier--from which it was far too late to escape—suddenly appeared to me as irredeemably mundane, shallow, and pointless.

This is an off-putting moment of self-absorbed reflection. There’s no happiness at the prospect of Anton finding fulfillment; the situation only serves to remind Gustav of the absence of dreams and ambitions in his own life.

This moment reveals the exact nature of the relationship between Gustav and Anton. They exist to reinforce the other’s justifications for refusing to engage with life. Both are anxious at the prospect of ever leaving Switzerland, and, as such, they stay put. Both feel threatened by the prospect of sharing and sacrifice that comes with marriage and raising a family; Gustav is even repelled by physical intimacy--he describes being French-kissed as a young man “as though some newly hatched blind eel had slithered its way inside my mouth.” The totem of their friendship is their constant gin-rummy games, and one comes to recognize the games as a shared means for Gustav and Anton to deny how lonely and empty their lives are.

The story doesn’t seem as affecting as it could be. Tremain structures it well. She firmly establishes Gustav’s feelings of anxiety about the unknown, carefully developing it from his trepidation about life outside Switzerland to his rather startling aversion to women and the prospect of starting his own family. (One infers from the story that Gustav is a lifelong virgin.) The “crisis” of Anton pursuing his musical dreams is also effectively developed. The problem may be that Gustav is too passive a character to keep the proceedings compelling. Anton seems a much more dynamic personality. If Tremain had told the story from his perspective, showing how his anxieties are confirmed and his aspirations are brought down by his relationship with Gustav, the story might have been far more dramatic. However, it must be said that making Anton the narrator might pose its own set of problems; his hanging around with Gustav--a wet blanket if ever there was one--might strain a reader’s patience. Loneliness and failure in life--particularly failure borne of the anxiety of making the attempt--are difficult subjects to tackle for a storyteller, particularly without resorting to the sensationalism that Dostoyevsky, for one, would have brought to such material. One can admire Tremain’s restraint, as well as the considerable craftsmanship she displays in this piece, but one can’t help but wish for something more dynamic.

”A Game of Cards,” by Rose Tremain, is featured in the Summer 2006 issue of The Paris Review. It is also included in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008, published by Anchor Books.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Poetry Review: "Listen," Charles Simic

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Charles Simic's 2007 poem "Listen" is bewildering at first. One doesn't know what to make of the key simile, which at first glance seems both eccentric and undeveloped. It reads:

We are like a couple
working the night shift
in a bomb factory.

One doesn't see the relevance to the rest of the poem. The succeeding stanzas describe a couple going up to a rooftop late at night to view the city from above. They can hear a fire truck in the distance, its sirens blaring, but they cannot see or hear the fire or its victims. Simic's notion of the couple seems odd as well. One infers that they are a man and a woman from the rooftop passage, but the poem's opening line identifies them with the paradox "make-believe and real."

Upon reflection, though, one realizes that the couple is a metaphor that builds upon the simile of the bomb factory. The experience of working in the factory is analogous to the couple's experience on the rooftop. The poem then begins to make sense. Simic is likening working in the bomb factory to being aware of a fire without seeing it or its consequences. An employee in a bomb factory knows, at least in theory, what bombs are used for, and that people in the midst of a war are grievously injured or even killed by them. But the awareness of a conflict and its attendant casualties is entirely abstract. It has nothing to do with the direct experience of making the bombs.

In short, consciousness is divided between abstract awareness and the knowledge of direct experience--the "make-believe and real." One's sense of this dichotomy is heightened by tonal contrasts in the poem . The opening sentence has the air of a romantic pronouncement, and the feeling of romance--a state of mind shared between two people that excludes the surrounding world--is further emphasized by the nighttime visit to the rooftop to look out upon the city. In a place like Manhattan, if one is high up enough, the feelings the view gives are ones of awe and delight; the spectacle overwhelms one's consideration of the human dramas the city provides a stage for. And those dramas can demand one's engagement; it's hard to imagine anything that could demand one's attention more than Simic's image of a child in burning bedclothes. There's nothing more difficult for most than idly standing back in response to such a thing. However, unless one is right there, the situation becomes less real, and one can be so far removed that one's only awareness of it comes from the metonymy of a fire truck's sirens. It's a trope that, for Simic's rooftop couple, lacks a tenor. And a trope without a tenor means nothing.

Simic highlights, but he does not judge. One might think there would be a question of complicity on the part of the factory worker with a bomb's devastation, but Simic doesn't develop it. The worker seems as innocent of the bomb's destruction as the rooftop couple is of the suffering of the fire's victims. The poem appears to ask that one simply be aware that there is a larger world beyond one's immediate concerns. One needs to recognize that life is a marriage between what happens in our mind and what goes on outside it. What people do with that knowledge is up to them.

"Listen," by Charles Simic, was originally published in the May 14, 2007 issue of The New Yorker. It is included in The Best American Poetry 2008 anthology, and in Simic's book collection That Little Something. Click here for the poem's text.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Comics Review: Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Alan Moore & Curt Swan, et al.

If there was ever a story that Alan Moore could be considered a pair of hands on, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? may be the one. By all accounts, the story concept was worked out in advance. In the mid-1980s, DC Comics had hired a popular cartoonist to reboot Superman, and the outgoing editor, Julius Schwartz, decided to leave with a bang. His final issues of the two ongoing Superman series, Superman and Action Comics, would feature a two-part series finale. The story would tie off every continuing narrative thread in the strip. Superman's relationships with Lois Lane, his friends, and his assorted enemies would be resolved once and for all. According to Schwartz, Moore, whose quality scriptwriting was fast making him an industry darling, lobbied hard for the assignment and received it. It was a story written to specifications, and given Schwartz's reputation for hands-on editing of scripts, it was may have been substantially rewritten after Moore turned his draft in.

As such, the story is not a piece one comes to with high expectations. The likely writing-by-committee aspects of its creation aside, it was intended as a going-away present to fans of Schwartz's run, and that sort of thing usually has an in-group quality that makes a story alienating, if not incomprehensible. The surprise of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is how accessible and affecting it is. One may not be familar with many of the characters, or the assorted references to preceding stories, but one finds it doesn't matter. Schwartz and Moore quickly and deftly lay out the relationships of the various characters, and they find the pathos in the material as well.

The story begins with Lois Lane, now married and with a baby boy, giving an interview to a reporter. It's several years in the future, and she's asked to recall Superman's last days. The events she describes are a whirlwind of tumult and death. Superman is revealed to the world as Clark Kent, both friends and enemies turn up dead or are killed, and Superman must face the realization that these are his final days. He soon discovers that everything that has happened has been manipulated by his most dangerous enemy, and their final confrontation forces him to make a choice: abandon his principles as Superman, or see Lois Lane die. He saves her, but Superman can be no more.

As can be seen in another story, "For the Man Who Has Everything..." (review here), Moore sees Superman as an odd, even unhealthy personality. He's incapable of embracing happiness or becoming close to others. His emotional commitments are to abstractions, such as the legacy of Krypton, the homeworld he never knew, or the "ideal" of Superman. He's all about aggrandizing himself, not finding fulfillment, in his relationships with others. The drama in Whatever Happened comes from the conflict between the two impulses. It's implicit that Superman has always fancied himself as a savior to others, but the events in the story challenge this view of himself, and he has to face the fact that being Superman has opened his loved ones to the danger they presently face. This leads to him acknowledging the emotional pain he's caused by keeping them at arm's length. In the story's most poignant moment, he calls himself a coward, berating himself for letting others waste their love on him and messing up their lives. He's chosen the ideal of Superman at their expense. It's a powerful set-up for the climax, where he chooses to save Lois, the person he loves most, at the price of that ideal. Schwartz and Moore give the character a fittingly ironic ending: his heroism comes when he casts the ideal of Superman aside.

It's a remarkably subversive treatment of the character, and it may seem more typical of Moore than Schwartz, whose approach to costumed superheroes was about as traditional as they come. (Schwartz was a key definer of the traditions.) But if I had to choose between Schwartz and Moore as the principal author of the story, I'd choose Schwartz. The plot-heavy, first-this-then-that story structure is a Schwartz hallmark, as is the elegantly composed, cleanly rendered art (provided by Curt Swan with inking by George Pérez and Kurt Schaffenberger). The only thing about the story that's typical of Moore is the against-the-grain treatment of Superman, but Schwartz was too fastidious an editor to let something like that through if he hadn't been sympathetic to it. He certainly wouldn't have otherwise let a character say, without challenge, "Superman? He was overrated, and too wrapped up in himself. He thought the world couldn't get along without him." The story was conceived as Julius Schwartz's swan song, and that should be its legacy.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fiction Review: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," F. Scott Fitzgerald

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a minor though entertaining short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is enjoying renewed interest because of the film adaptation directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt. (The late Pauline Kael once wrote that if one is going to see a movie based on something one thinks might be worth reading, read the source material first. Following that dictum, I’m reading “Benjamin Button” and writing about it before seeing the film.) Fitzgerald’s story features the characteristic elegance of his prose, and it has a rather gaudy conceit: it presents the life of a man who is the equivalent of about seventy years old when he is born, and who ages in reverse. The tone successfully shifts from the farcical to the romantic to ultimately one of pathos, with Fitzgerald hitting the notes of laughter and sadness with the various characters’ preoccupations with appearances. Everyone confronted with Benjamin’s incongruous aging pattern treats it as a joke, and those who must accept the truth of the situation, such as his father, wife, and son, treat it as a black joke on them. Benjamin’s only happiness comes as an adult, the one time when looking older when one is younger and looking younger when one is older is an advantage.

Fitzgerald handles the shifts in the story with remarkable skill. He begins with a terrific comic set piece, as Roger Button, Benjamin’s father, is faced with the shock of discovering his son has been born an elderly man. And Fitzgerald makes full use of the comic possibilities in having a child look and act like a man of advanced years. There’s one fiasco after another: in the nursery, in kindergarten, and even at the Yale registrar’s office when the eighteen-year-old Benjamin attempts to enroll. But Fitzgerald also prepares one to anticipate that Benjamin’s adult life will be a disappointing one, which is all the better to heighten the sense of happiness those years actually hold. He makes the transition with an observant irony: Hildegarde Moncrief, the town beauty who becomes Benjamin’s wife, is attracted to older-looking men. Their marriage is the icing on the cake of the first part of Benjamin’s adulthood, in which he sees the family business become more prosperous than ever, and he even becomes a war hero.

But where irony leads, it leads away from as well, and the pathos of Benjamin’s growing younger takes over. As time passes, Benjamin and Hildegarde’s relationship becomes increasingly strained. In both appearance and temperament, Benjamin becomes more like the bon vivant young men Hildegarde expressed disdain for when they first met. She ultimately deserts him to live abroad. And other disappointments follow as time goes by. He becomes too “young” to enjoy what life offers him. His second try at attending college fails because his intellect is losing the sophistication necessary to do the coursework. He can’t accept a senior officer’s commission decades after his war service because the brass can’t believe this apparent teenager is the same person. His only happiness comes when he joins his grandson in kindergarten, when his mind and body are such that he can enjoy the activities he shunned when he was five. His life ends in the senility of infancy, when he becomes increasingly unable to remember anything, even the smell of food. Fitzgerald never makes it explicit, but he suggests that the old end where the young begin. Losing the knowledge of one’s experiences, and with it one’s identity, may be the saddest pathos of all.

It’ll certainly be interesting to see how David Fincher and the screenwriters, Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, handle Fitzgerald’s material. From the trailer clips, they’ve clearly modernized the story. Brad Pitt is shown riding around in a motorcycle looking like an ‘80s or ‘90s yuppie, so the character probably ages to infancy in the present day. (Fitzgerald’s story begins in 1860 and ends in 1930 or so.) And unless Cate Blanchett agreed to make an extended cameo, the love story between Benjamin and Hildegarde (or her equivalent) has been heavily altered and/or expanded. (The Blanchett character is shown to be fascinated by Benjamin’s condition, not repelled by it the way Fitzgerald’s Hildegarde ultimately is.) I’ll also be curious to see if the film maintains the comic tone of the first half of the story; Fincher, best known for Se7en and, more recently, Zodiac, is not a director I associate with comic material or the deft sense of pace required to pull it off. However, he does have a feel for the sort of darker ironies that Fitzgerald presents in the latter sections, and I do expect that, whatever liberties are or aren’t taken, his attention to detail will be obvious in every shot. The man does not skimp.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Comics Review: Batman: The Killing Joke, Alan Moore & Brian Bolland

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Batman: The Killing Joke is perhaps the most famous of Alan Moore’s shorter adventure comics efforts. It was first published in 1988, when Moore’s post-Watchmen stardom was at its height, and it certainly rode the crest of that wave to commercial success. It enjoyed an even bigger sales boost the following year, with the release of Tim Burton’s first Batman film. The Batman and Joker characters became phenomenally popular with the general public, creating an enormous demand for anything and everything featuring them. The hype surrounding The Killing Joke as the definitive Batman-Joker story was still fresh, which made it the go-to Batman comic for fans of the film. And the book didn’t make those readers feel like they were slumming. One reason was that the level of violence in the story made it completely inappropriate for children. Another was that the book’s artwork is nothing short of outstanding. The book's artist, Brian Bolland, successfully combined bravura draftsmanship with nuanced dramatizations. It deservedly established him as one of the finest illustrators in the history of adventure comics. A special hardcover edition, featuring new coloring by Bolland, was released last year, and the more restrained palette makes it look better than ever.

But despite The Killing Joke's success, both Bolland and Moore have publicly taken an ambivalent and even disdainful view of it. In the new edition’s afterword, Bolland expresses discomfort with several aspects of Moore’s script, including the decision to include a back-story for the Joker, as well as the extremes of the violence. As for Moore, he looks back on the book with embarrassment. In an interview published in the October 1990 issue of The Comics Journal, he said:
I didn’t think The Killing Joke was a very good piece of work; I think it was a very bad piece of work in some respects. Not Brian [Bolland]’s artwork; Brian’s artwork was as flawless as ever, but my storytelling wasn’t very good. It wasn’t a very good story. The meaning was too slight to merit the nastiness or brutality of the approach. There were lots of things wrong with it.

Moore is right, although one is tempted to say his assessment of his contribution to the book is too kind. The Killing Joke is a poorly crafted and remarkably ugly effort on his part. It’s perhaps the worst story he’s ever put his name on.

The book begins with Batman arriving at the insane asylum where the Joker is imprisoned. He’s haunted by the possibility that their perpetual conflict will someday end with one or the other dead. He wants to talk things over in an effort to avert that outcome. The Joker, though, has escaped. His scheme this time out is an effort at self-justification. As he sees it, the only difference between him and sane people is one bad day. So, to prove his point, he kidnaps police commissioner Gordon> His goal is to drive the commissioner mad. Gordon is subjected to all sorts of torture, with the worst of it coming from what the Joker does to his daughter. The Joker had shot her through the spine, leaving her paralyzed, and then stripped naked for photographs to assault the commissioner with. The story, though, ends with Gordon safe and still sane. Batman captures the Joker, and he has the conversation with his nemesis that he sought at the beginning. But the Joker rejects Batman's offer to help rehabilitate him. He and Batman then share a laugh over a dumb joke about trust, their laughter signifying their acceptance of where their antagonism may lead.

The most immediate problem with the story is the absurdity of the ending. Batman is shown to be friends with both Gordon and Gordon’s daughter (she even knows he’s Bruce Wayne), but he responds to their being maimed, tortured, and sexually assaulted by treating the perpetrator with sympathy? One would think Batman, after witnessing the depths of the Joker’s depravity, would regard him as an irredeemable monster. Batman might even regard killing him as the only sensible option. It’s implicit in the story that the main question about incarcerating the Joker is when--not if--he’s going to escape again. What’s worse, having his death on one’s conscience, or the brutality and deaths that will inevitably result from letting him live? The question would be especially stark for Batman given how people he cares for were the victims this time around. But Moore never raises the issue. The Batman of the story is a completely undeveloped character. There are no tensions in his attitude despite a situation that demands them. Unbelievably, he’s the same at the end of the story that he was at the beginning.

The Joker isn’t effectively developed, either. Moore works hard to make the character sympathetic through flashback scenes that show his life in the days leading up to his disfigurement and breakdown. Moore even takes the step of incorporating autobiographical details in the portrayal. The man who becomes the Joker starts as someone very much like Moore himself: an aspiring entertainer who quits his day job to pursue his dreams when his wife becomes pregnant. But unlike Moore, financial stresses drive the character towards crime: he agrees to help some mobsters burglarize a company adjacent to the chemical plant where he used to work. The day of the burglary turns into the worst day of his life. His wife and unborn child are killed in a freak accident. The burglary is foiled, and during his escape, the future Joker ends up immersed in chemicals that permanently bleach his skin pigment and turn his hair green. This disfigurement, coming when it does, proves one more defeat than he can take. He suffers a psychotic breakdown and becomes the cackling maniac known as the Joker. However, for all the pathos of this, Moore neglects one crucial thing: he doesn’t create a significant link between the present-day character and this flashback figure. There’s nothing about this fellow that suggests he’s capable of the sadistic violence the Joker inflicts on others. They might as well be two different people.

Moore also doesn’t develop the flaw in the flashback figure’s personality that leads to his breakdown. During their fight, Batman taunts the Joker with the fact that Gordon, despite the torture, is still sane. He says, “So maybe ordinary people don’t always crack […] Maybe it was just you, all the time.” That’s a perfectly reasonable point to make with the story, but Moore doesn’t give it any weight. He doesn’t dramatize that going insane was a path peculiar to the Joker. The story doesn’t take the time to develop any significant contrast between the flashback figure and Gordon, either. We never see what it is about Gordon’s personality that enables his sanity to survive the “one bad day” that pushed the Joker over the edge.

The overwhelming problem with The Killing Joke is that Moore didn’t find a fresh angle on the material. He started with a basic good-guy-catches-the-bad-guy story, and that’s all he ends up with. There are no significant ironies, reversals, or counterpoints; the epiphany the characters share at the end--the preposterousness of the scene aside--is banal. Yes, Batman and the Joker will be antagonists to the very end. That’s not much of an insight. In fact, it’s an assumption one makes going in. The only substantial irony to be found with this disjointed piece of nastiness is its commercial success. Moore’s muse failed him, but he ended up with what may be his most widely read work. The best thing to be said about The Killing Joke is that, in the context of his career, it proved a tangent instead of a sign of things to come.