31 December 2014

2014: Books and Stuff

Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall by Joseph Cornell

I was going to write a long account of all the various things I read, saw, listened to, etc. this year, as a way of preserving some of the experience of the year for myself, and maybe offering some amusement for the occasional random reader ... but the drafts became unwieldy, and nobody, including me, wants to read all that.

(I did the math and figured out that I was assigned to read about 50 books this year by teachers in classes I took, and then I read gazillions more both for my own research and to prepare for the Ph.D. general exam, for which I needed to be ready to answer questions about any English and American lit from Beowulf till now.)

Here, then, are mere glimpses at some things that stick out for one reason or another....

27 December 2014

The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs by Damon Galgut

For years, I've said I like novels to be x, y, or z; often that x, y, or z meant (in some way or another) unsettling, challenging, surprising... But those words feel inadequate, because inevitably there are things that are, for instance, unsettling in unproductive ways — a pulpy, detailed story of child molestation is probably unsettling and disturbing, but also plenty likely to be worthless, exploitative crap that aims primarily for the reader's gag reflex and puts the writer in the obnoxious position of nudging us endlessly with the question, "How much can you take?"

As I thought about why Damon Galgut's 1991 novel The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs worked so well for me where so many other books I've tried to read recently did not, I started to feel like I was finally moving toward some understanding of what the word disturbing, as praise, meant to me. It ties in with something Galgut himself said in an interview with Kianoosh Hashemzadeh for Web Conjunctions a few years ago:
...it seems to me, if you provide answers—the usual forms of literary catharsis are a kind of answer, things tie up and all the elements of the plot are neatly knotted at the end—you might have a good experience when you’re reading that book, but when you close the book you basically have closed any moral problems that the book raised and that’s it. Whereas if people are disturbed and unsettled, things have been raised and not resolved, people have to carry that around and work it out some way.
This is similar to things I've thought for a long time (I am, after all, a devotee of Chekhov, who famously said the job of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them), but Galgut's formulation there feels like it captures many of the qualities I value. The usual forms of literary catharsis is an interesting phrase, for instance, and makes me think of the thousand stories launched by Raymond Carver's example, stories that mistake bathos for epiphany. I think too of what Tom McCarthy called "the default mode dominating mainstream fiction and most culture in general: this kind of sentimental humanism" that wallows in "a certain set of assumptions, certain models of subjectivity – for example, the contemporary cult of the individual, the absolute authentic self who is measured through his or her absolutely authentic feeling."

19 December 2014

Mr. Turner and Mr. Turing

Two new biographical films give viewers an opportunity to see diametrically opposite approaches not just to biography, but to film narrative itself.

A warning: I saw Mr. Turner and The Imitation Game months ago (as part of the annual Telluride at Dartmouth festival), and my thoughts here are based purely on memories that are getting ever dimmer. Nonetheless, the differences between the films are so striking that I couldn't help but keep thinking about them, to keep reading about the stories' subjects, and to keep coming back to the idea of how information is conveyed through moving pictures.

I went into both films with relatively high expectations, since I adore Mike Leigh's work and I had very much enjoyed Headhunters, the previous movie directed by Imitation Game's Morten Tyldum. And overall I did like both Mr. Turner and The Imitation Game; however, "like" is part of a broad spectrum, and for me, Mr. Turner was a powerful emotional and aesthetic experience that made it among the best movies I've seen in a long time, and The Imitation Game was an entertaining way to spend a couple hours.