Posts Tagged ‘T.S. Eliot’

Who Knew You Could Dance to T.S. Eliot?

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

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As processed through Songify using musical accompaniment of “Deluge” by Khush:  The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Opening Lines)

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Shakespeare suffers the same treatment, here: Sonnet 18

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“We Others: New and Selected Stories” by Steven Millhauser

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

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Are you wondering the same thing I’m wondering? Would you like to call the senior editor at Knopf to the witness stand to answer a few questions starting with this one: Why this book?

The “New Stories” half of “We Others: New and Selected Stories” by Steven Millhauser occupies just 144 pages. Does the publisher view us readers of Millhauser as an impatient lot, unable to wait the few years it would take this methodically productive author’s backlog of unpublished stories to grow from the seven found here to a total of, say, a dozen? Why not wait for enough material to satisfy our expectation for a hearty, stand-alone book of new stories? And what about the back half of the book — the “Selected Stories” compilation? Does this indicate Knopf considers Millhauser undeserving of a “Collected Stories” compilation (the treatment respectfully accorded Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel, Grace Paley, Deborah Eisenberg and others)?

The 14 previously published stories, which come from Millhauser’s four books of short stories, are:

From “In the Penny Arcade”:  A Protest Against the SunAugust EschenburgSnowmen. From “The Barnum Museum”: The Barnum MuseumThe Eighth Voyage of SinbadEisenheim the Illusionist. From “The Knife Thrower”: The Knife ThrowerA VisitFlying CarpetsClair de Lune. And from “Dangerous Laughter”: Cat ‘n’ MouseThe Disappearance of Elaine ColemanHistory of a DisturbanceThe Wizard of West Orange.

Millhauser explains in his “Author’s Note” how he worked past initial trepidation to pick these pieces: “I chose stories that seized my attention as if they’d been written by someone whose work I had never seen before.” Millhauser fans may object to the omission a favorite or two from his inventory, but I think he generally made good choices. This compilation will allow a new reader to get an honest perspective on Millhauser’s work. So: the book may be an excellent gift idea.

Part of the pleasure of reading Millhauser (who is on the faculty at Skidmore College’s Department of English) is to enjoy the ways in which his literary inspirations flavor his writing. Even when his plots are ensconced in late 20th or early 21st century settings, something in the atmosphere, some note or tone, will harken back to 19th century American writers, especially Hawthorne and Poe. When a protagonist proclaims that “anxiety’s our pastime, desperation our sport,” one is reminded of the restlessness, the fevered unease (nay, panic) that seizes so many narrators of that period. Then, too, there is the author’s infatuation with T.S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. Most boldly, in the story Klassic Komix #1 (collected in “The Barnum Museum”) Millhauser re-conceived Prufrock’s anxious meanderings in the form of a 44-panel comic book. Now, in one of his new stories, we read of a similarly drifting character emerging from his lonely room with desirous thoughts — thoughts that parody Eliot’s lines (note, for example, what happens to Prufrock’s final fantasy of becoming a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas):

“. . . one has come down from the attic in search of — in search of what? Shall we say, a pleasant encounter between two like-minded souls, in a suburban living room, of a September eve? And yet the craving to reveal ourselves spreads in us like a disease. It’s also true that we long not to be seen, never to be seen, to live out our existence — our existence! — like growths of mold in the depths of forests.”

While Millhauser is not breaking any new ground in the seven new stories, I perceived a heightened emphasis on what in one story he calls “a savage loneliness of which you can know nothing.” Opening with “The Slap” in which a quiet suburban community attempts to fathom the meaning of a stealthy stranger who randomly approaches residents and delivers a slap to their face (“we had been violated in some definite though enigmatic way”) and ending with “We Others” which is narrated by the ghost of a recently-deceased doctor who self-examines his attraction to a couple of lonely women (“our desire is infused with a darker, more ferocious longing: the desire for all that we have ceased to be”), these new tales are a continuation of Millhauser’s hallmark obsessions played out within solidly crafted surreal worlds — worlds which mirror what we understand, perhaps mistakenly, to be our real world.

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An abbreviated version of this review is posted on Amazon, here.

“Sempre Susan” by Sigrid Nunez

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

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In her short novel, “Mitz” (1998), Sigrid Nunez imagines the experiences of a pet marmoset who became an affectionate companion to writer and editor Leonard Woolf, husband of novelist Virginia Woolf. During the course of the story, little Mitz becomes an eye-witness to the ups and downs of the couple’s Bloomsbury household during the period when Virginia descended into depression. Based on actual events (Leonard really did own a marmoset in the mid- to late-1930s), the book is enlivened by the author’s imaginative scene-setting, and her exploration of a three-pointed relationship, sadly destined to last but a few years.

I read “Mitz” a year ago and reviewed it positively, here. I still remember the pleasure of its warm tone and modest charms. Within a slim frame, “Mitz” accomplishes many things. It is a playful writer’s holiday; a recreation of a time and place in history; and a deft exercise in stagecraft requiring the author to direct the movements of significant personages, among them T.S. Eliot, John Maynard Keynes, and Vita Sackville-West, as they intersect with the quintessential literary power couple — known affectionately among friends, and referred to none too kindly by enemies, as “the Woolves.” In Nunez’ hands, “Mitz” becomes a window into a storied household and the quotidian pleasures — reading, writing, eating, talking — sheltered therein. Nunez’ touch is light as air as she anatomizes domesticity via the device of a domesticated (well, mostly domesticated) pet. The book charts the breathing in and breathing out of a successful marriage. It offers lessons in patience and protectiveness and love.

CLOSER TO HOME

Now Nunez has written another story of a three-way relationship. The just-released “Sempre Susan: a Memoir of Susan Sontag” and “Mitz” both weigh in at about 130 pages. This time, however, the author has a long-simmering personal agenda to get through — and a volatile mix of objectives to achieve. That Nunez somehow pulls this off, and in such short order, is a testament to her talents as a writer.

In “Sempre Susan” Nunez reminisces about her  experience at the start of her writing career when, for a brief period starting in 1976, she lived and worked in the household shared by the older and notorious writer Susan Sontag and her son, Philip Rieff. The relationship that developed took the form of an unstable trio, a love/hate triangle as it were. Inside Sontag’s apartment, Nunez shared a bedroom with David, who quickly became Nunez’ boyfriend soon after Nunez first came to the apartment to assist Sontag in managing her correspondence. Nunez reveals that Sontag usually thought of David more like a brother or best friend, and it was not long before a tense current encircled the three. The travails of this arrangement, Nunez writes in “Sempre Susan”, were aggravated by Sontag’s mental instability.

The first hundred pages of “Sempre Susan” are filled with observations about Sontag’s strong character. Her quirks were legion. She was alive in the city and had no appreciation for nature. She had never heard of a dragonfly. She wore a men’s cologne, Dior Homme. At the cinema she always sat in the first row. Her favorite words were: servile, boring, exemplary, serious, grotesque. Her credo: “Security over freedom is a deplorable choice.” She had, Nunez says with what I take to be approval, “the habits and the aura of a student all her life.”

The reader is never far from another anecdote involving New York literary life, as luminaries pass within Sontag’s orbit (Joseph Brodsky, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jean Genet). Her love life gets full attention. Nunez reports her resigned sigh: “Mean, smart men and silly women seem to be my fate.”  Nunez pays attention to how Sontag approached the challenge of a being woman writer, a female intellectual, in 20th century America.

ROUGH JUDGMENTS

The thrust of Nunez’s initial cuts may be unkind (she observes at one point how Sontag dressed like a “prison matron”) but they are not vicious. Yes, Sontag had a high-maintenance personality, but what of it? If, after pages of anecdotes, you may perceive a growing tension between mentor and protégé, Nunez still conveys her respect for her teacher. For example, Nunez writes:

“She also believed that how other people treated you was, if not wholly, mostly within your control, and she was always after me to take that control. ‘Stop letting people bully you,’ she would bully you.” (p. 72.)

Though irony may mask hurt, Nunez’ temper is jocular. And even as you pass the halfway mark the author remains appreciative for what Sontag gave to her young charge, even down to the transfer of mundane habits:

“Because of her, I began writing my name in each new book I acquired. I began clipping articles from newspapers and magazines and filing them in various books. Like her, I always read with a pencil in hand (never a pen), for underlining.” (p. 85.)

Then things change abruptly. In the book’s final third, magnanimity departs. Long-harbored resentments are let lose. You can almost hear the snap! of a breakthrough epiphany, as in therapy, when Nunez recalls how Sontag –

“. . . reminded me to a remarkable degree of my German mother — another touchy, chronic ranter who thought she was surrounded by idiots, who practically lived in a state of indignation, and who happened also to share Susan’s contempt for American superficiality and American ‘culture.’” (p. 96.)

And so, for the remainder of the book, the text is overtaken by Nunez’ blunt, relentless portrayal of a sick woman, a person oblivious to the feelings of others, a monster. Nunez reports that, as a mother to Philip, Sontag was an idiot from the get-go: “From the time she knew she was pregnant until the day she went into labor, she never saw a doctor. ‘I didn’t know you were supposed to.’” (p. 103.) Nunez’s rough judgments are swift and stark: Sontag was depressed (p. 114), paranoid (p. 115), narcissistic (p. 116). She was, in the final analysis, “a masochist and a sadist” (p. 118.)

AS FIRST INTRODUCED IN THE NY TIMES

You may be coming to this book after having read an excerpt published in the New York Times’ “Style Magazine” (February 25, 2011). That article was titled, “Suddenly Susan” and carried the tag line: “When the author shacked up with Susan Sontag’s son and his brainy mom, in 1976, three was not company.” If that was your initial experience with the book, please know this: What you read was misleading. The article may have struck you as mildly critical of Sontag, mildly bitchy in tone, mildly voyeuristic. Some readers who posted comments online have said as much. And here’s how the magazine’s editor, Sally Singer, described its appeal:

“I want a good, sexy, neurotic story about New York literary life in the Seventies. I want the New York Review of Book parties. I want a little Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. You have that literary dream of New York. It’s got it all.”

But what Singer edited, for placement in the New York Times, was not representative of the content and tone of the actual book released to the public this month. True to its code (the “Gray Lady” shallprint only what’s “fit”) the NY Times altered Nunez’ text for its readership. Whether this was accomplished with Nunez’s input and approval is not clear. It is significant, however, that the material published in the Times Style Magazine is described not as an “excerpt” but instead as a new product “adapted from” the book.

To give an example of the alterations, consider how Nunez herself treats the salacious rumor of incest between Susan Sontag and Philip Rieff:

“That there was feverish, prurient interest swirling around 340 [Riverside Drive -- the Sontag apartment] was something I already knew. Before I ever met Susan or David, I’d heard the talk. Now people came straight out and asked: Is it true? Have they had sex together? Sometimes, rather than being asked, I was told: They must have had sex together.” (p. 100)

Here, as throughout the book, Nunez uses her skills as a novelist to lead the reader toward a tentative — if still uncertain — conclusion. In the pages leading up to that point she has built the platform from which to launch her heaviest character assaults. She has offered vignettes of Sontag’s disdain for convention (“What did it matter what other people said?”), her outlaw instincts, her transgressive behaviors. Then, as the reader absorbs the implications of her flat presentation of the incest rumor, Nunez simply moves on to other aspects of Sontag’s foul reputation. Nunez neither confirms nor denies the rumor, leaving the reader exactly . . . where?

Compare how the New York Times handles the text:

“Before I ever met Susan or David, I’d heard the talk. Now people came straight out and asked the absurd: Is it true? Have they had sex together?”

With the clarifying addition of two words — the thing some ugly people were wallowing in was the absurd — the editor steers the reader away from the rumor. Pay it no heed, consign it to the category of lies. A valid question for the author: Which of the two presentations is preferred?

THE “MEMOIR DEFENSE” OF OFFENSE

Then there is the question of the reliability of Nunez’ memories. Rare is the page of “Sempre Susan” that lacks one or more quotations from the mouth of the loquacious Sontag. Presented as transcribed conversations, Sontag’s words add punch to the proceedings. But consider: most of these are words Sontag uttered 35 years ago, and they are not commonplaces, not throwaway lines, but language with exactness, with pungency, with meaning. In short, character-defining utterances. This material Nunez then leverages to construct her brief against Sontag. Yet, as Nunez confesses early in the book, she kept no contemporaneous notes: “I didn’t keep a journal then — or if I did, it has long since vanished.” (p. 24). How, then, can the reader have confidence in the accuracy of her reconstructed conversations? Is Nunez’ memory of conversations supported by contemporaneous letters, notes, journals kept by Sontag herself, or by David Rieff? Did Nunez review that related material as part of her research and fact-checking?  Does “Sempre Susan” conform to professional and ethical standards of journalism, biography, history writing? Should we expect it to? Does the book’s presentation as a “memoir” shield it from those norms?

Some will argue a “memoir,” especially one from the imaginative mind of an author whose métier is the novel (Nunez has published six novels; this is her first published book of non-fiction), ought to be evaluated through a different lens. But even if that were the case, shouldn’t the author at least provide us with an Introduction, an Afterward, an Acknowledgments page, or a section of Notes explaining and supporting the book’s content? Nothing of the sort accompanies “Sempre Susan.” Regrettably, at its close, the book simply peters out with the author’s wistful sigh of disappointment. There is self-pity and nothing more.

The reader is apt to remember how, earlier in tho book, Sontag admonished her future profiler: Stop letting people bully you! And a reader inclined to armchair psychologizing may very well recognize the defensive posture Nunez adopts: the passive-aggressive mode. Consider, for example, this admission:

“But, to be honest, I often played dumb with Susan, and if there was one thing that could drive her insane, it was that.” (p. 131.)

I was reminded how the three-member household that Nunez lovingly recreated in “Mitz” (Leonard, Virginia and the marmoset) was so alive, so charmed, so pleasurable, that I — and I suspect the author as well — longed to trade places, if only for a moment, with the privileged position of guest resident. The reader will find that in “Sempre Susan” Nunez often pauses to compare Sontag to Virginia Woolf, each time to Sontag’s detriment. With undisguised bitterness Nunez remembers Sontag referring to the trio — David, Susan and herself — as “the duke and duchess and duckling of Riverside Drive.” (p. 105.) Nunez knew the duckling part wasn’t good. She felt cheated.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

It  is disappointing to realize how little of lasting importance the “Sempre Susan” accomplishes. The missed opportunities are many.

Nunez, a serious and accomplished writer in her own right, offers few insights into Sontag’s writing (although she makes very clear her disdain for Sontag’s attempts at fiction). She offers no serious critical analysis of Sontag’s thought or ideas, mentioning but glossing over the actual content of her ground-breaking essays. There is nothing about the genesis or evolution of Sontag’s political views during their years of intimacy. The reader searches in vain for Nunez opinion on the question uppermost in most minds: Was Sontag a thinker of importance? You are left with the impression Nunez is simply not interested in the play of ideas that was the essence of Sontag’s breathing in and breathing out.

During the time Nunez lived with life, Sontag was assembling the essays that would become “On Photography” (1977). Although present “at the creation” of that seminal work, she offers us nothing at all about its formation: only a single short paragraph mentions the book, and it is unenlightening. For many readers, surely, this is frustrating. Nunez must have seen or overheard something of interest. If you are a reader who likes to the hear about the “Eureka” moments that seize a creator, or who wants the vicarious thrill of being a fly on the wall of the ugly/beautiful creative process, “Sempre Susan” will leave you starved.  So too will be readers expecting to experience at least something of Sontag the intellectual, some glimpse into her mind at work. This is a service those persons who were her assistants, and those who shared even greater intimacies, can and ought to tell us now: What was the source of  her vaunted brilliance? What signs did you see? Yet, in response to the curious reader’s desire there comes, from Nunez, silence.

FINAL THOUGHT: THE “WHY” OF THIS BOOK

I understand why Nunez wanted to — needed to — write this book. The exercise was therapeutic, for sure. Nunez’ reminiscences — however flawed — also have potential value to history, if time grants Sontag status as a durable contributor to American literary and intellectual history. At their most basic, Nunez’s pages are evidence, are material to be sifted through critically by future biographers. Nunez’ memries join the remembrances of Sontag colleagues, friends, editors, and other intimates. I was please to discover a former personal assistant to Sontag, Karla Eoff, has written a piece for the Winter 2011 edition of the online literary magazine, blipmagazine.com, here. In a very brief space, Eoff describes the creative process that produced Sontag’s celebrated novel, “The Volcano Lover.” It is valuable evidence. Another reminiscence by a former aide-de-camp, this one painfully open, especially on the subject of Sontag’s sexuality, is provided by Terry Castle, here.

If the writing and preservation of Nunez’ has value, a separate question attaches to the publication of the text at this time. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that Nunez would have been better advised to have kept the completed manuscript of “Sempre Susan” under her lock and key. Or, she should have donated it to a suitable library for preservation and use by scholars (a good choice would have been UCLA Library which houses Sontag’s papers).

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UPDATE: An adaptation of this review appears on Amazon, here.

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“Mitz” by Sigrid Nunez

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

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Sigrid Nunez is a contemporary American novelist with a quiet reputation as a writer’s writer. She’s caught my eye. September will bring the release of her latest novel, “Salvation City.” It is set in the near future after a flu epidemic has devastated America, leaving too many orphans for society to absorb. The book is on my must-read list. In the meantime, in preparation for that upcoming heavy meal, I thought I’d try an hors d’oeuvre, a smaller piece (of an entirely different flavor) by the same author.

“Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury” is a small book Nunez wrote in 1998 that takes as its ostensible subject the life of a household pet of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Some readers might consign the narrative to the facetious genre of pet biography. I place it, instead, securely within the category of terrifically enjoyable reads. This is not because I am a fan of Bloomsbury (I am in fact suspicious of the durability of that circle’s artistic output), but for the reasons expressed below.

In 1934 a sickly marmoset — “a mere scrap of a monkey; you could have balanced her on your palm, like a fur apple, a head no bigger than a walnut” — came into the care of Leonard Woolf, who gained the animal’s affection and nursed her back to health. For the next few years Mitz was a ubiquitous presence in Bloomsbury society, surveying the world from atop Leonard’s shoulder (when she was not resting warmly in his waistcoat pocket). Mitz moved with the Woolfs between their homes in London (at 52 Tavistock Square) and Sussex (in the village of Rodmell, a seventeenth-century cottage called “Monk’s House”). The animal once traveled with them through Europe — a journey that saw the trio caught in heart-stoppingly slow car ride through a Nazi rally in Bonn. Mitz died on the eve of World War II, one snowy December night in Sussex, far from her South American birthplace. Nunez takes the references to Mitz found in Bloomsbury records (letters, diaries, and memoirs) and blends them with her own sure imagination, to reconstruct the wee creature’s brief yet full life.

Nunez’s writing style is simple and self-effacing. She prizes clarity above all. Hers is a very American voice, in the way E.B. White and F. Scott Fitzgerald are American voices.  One reviewer of “Mitz” noted how the novel unfurls its prose in so relaxed a manner as to resemble, at times, a children’s book. Indeed, Nunez has since mentioned that this was the original plan for the tale.

Amid the book’s anecdotes and antics, the dominant theme is the nature of — and quest for — a well-lived life.  Gently, the reader is reminded that a marmoset is predestined to live only 4 or 5 years, and that Mitz’s time in the cold foreign clime of England will be especially stressful. Yet, despite the pain, what a life she led!  It was a life not to be pitied but celebrated.

Among the subtle triumphs of this book is Nunez’s avoidance of traps that otherwise would sink its quiet message and its quiet charms.  Yes, through the marmoset Mitz (a stranger in a strange land) the reader is led to witness human folly in a sober light. But Nunez measures out this message (the objective strangeness of mankind) winsomely, so as not to turn the book into a clichéd satire.

Within its slim frame the book accomplishes many things.  It is a playful writer’s holiday. It is a recreation of a time and place in history.  It is a deft exercise in stagecraft as the author is called on to direct the moves of heavy-weight actors, among them T.S. Eliot, John Maynard Keynes, and Vita Sackville-West — not to forget the quintessential literary power couple known affectionately by friends (and not so affectionately by enemies) as “the Woolves.”  The book is a window into a storied household and the quotidian pleasures sheltered therein: reading, writing, eating, talking, quarreling. Nunez’s touch is light as air as she anatomizes domesticity via the device of a domesticated (or, for the most part domesticated) pet. “Mitz” charts the breathing of a successful marriage. It offers lessons in patience and protectiveness and love.

In its final dozen pages the book takes a breathtaking turn. Nunez gambles that her simple and, up to that point, dispassionate prose will satisfy a new challenge:  recounting the young Mitz’s expulsion from the paradise of her tropical rainforest home in South America, as men arrive to seize her and dozens of her fellow creatures for exportation. It’s a winning gamble on Nunez’s part. The reader feels the harrowing experience of forced dislocation, of becoming a refugee, broken and condemned to live out one’s life far from home.  The parallels to the devastation that Europeans were about the face is unmistakable. A shared sadness also comes to Bloomsbury: just as nothing can hold back Mitz’s swiftly oncoming date with death, so too can nothing stay the inexorable decline in Virginia Woolf’s mental state.

Nunez is a wonderful writer. Here is how she describes Virginia visited by her muses:

“One morning while she was working in her studio in the basement of Tavistock Square, Virginia put down her pen, aware of a faint vibration, as of some deep nerve being plucked. She leaned forward; she held her breath. The eerie and rapturous feeling that something was about to be communicated to her, as from another world. She half closed her eyes and she waited. What came: a muffled music, like distant horns; a soft rising and falling, a rhythm to which she matched her breathing when she breathed again. Looking around her studio, she saw a kind of haze over all — and the next instant her mind took flight: people, houses, streets, landscapes, weather, seasons, friendships, passions, fates, patterns, necessities –

A new novel. ”

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Notes:

1.  Nunez was inspired to write “Mitz” by Virginia Woolf’s “Flush,” her biography of Elizabeth Barrett Brown’s cocker spaniel, published in 1932.  That book is currently out of print, but its full text (E-Text) is available online, here.

2.  52 Tavistock Square, London, which Virginia and Leonard Woolf occupied from March 1924 to August 1939 (and was home to Mitz as well), was bombed in October 1940 and replaced with a Hotel in 1951.

3.  A version of the above review is posted on Amazon, here.

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“Noir” by Robert Coover

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

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To borrow the second person voice (“you”) that controls the narrative of Robert Coover’s new novel, “Noir”, let it be noted at the outset that you fall within one of three groups.

1 -   You are a Coover aficionado and have read most or all of his output to date. You will buy or borrow the newly released “Noir” and read its slim 192 pages in a feverish swoon, critics be damned. If, at some point, you find yourself reading reviews of “Noir”, it’s because you’ve finished the book and want to relive the experience or compare your reaction to others.  For you, there are comments further below.

Or:

2 -   You have read one or two Coover books (maybe as part of a post-modern lit course) and want to catch up with what the 78-year-old author is doing nowadays. Is he still in the game, you wonder?  The news is positive. You will find the pages of “Noir” spellbound by Coover’s signature mordant wit and claustrophobic worldview. Elsewhere you may have come across the much repeated statement by NY Times book critic Michiko Kakutani: “Of all the post-modernist writers, Robert Coover is probably the funniest and most malicious.” So, yes, you’ll find “Noir” fitfully laugh-inducing — especially if you’re in the mood for a relentless, demented, hallucinogenic parody of crime fiction. If at its end you are still ambivalent about the book, well, that it not uncommon with Coover. At its close you may place a hand on your belly and think to yourself, that was not so much a satisfying meal as a bitter entrée. Or, you may be so delighted by its denouement, incorporating street philosophy, word play, puns, double entendres and all-around cleverness, that you will forgive being dragged through some slow sections.

Or:

3 -   Coover is entirely new to you. If so, you are wondering how do you get a good sense of what “Noir” will mean to you as a reading experience? You’re finding most reviews of the book are frustratingly un-useful to a novice reader.  (There seems to be a jargon-loving Coover clique that luxuriates in the cryptic.) Well, you might consider first checking out a short interview in which Coover himself explains the style and themes of “Noir”. This is available online (use these three words in Google search: Coover bookslut interview). Consider also spending a few minutes watching Coover in action, as he reads an early scene (and arguably the best pages) from “Noir”.  The video is available using four terms in Google search: Coover Penn Reading Video.  (His reading from “Noir” occupies the final minutes of the QuickTime video).  If the interview and video generally pique your interest, and if you would not be put off by what is essentially a light entertainment somewhat burdened with down and dirty stretches of bleak pessimism and erotic haunting, then by all means read “Noir”. Or, consider one of the following alternatives to “Noir” as a better first experience of Coover: “Pricksongs and Descants”, his ground-breaking short story collection; or “The Origin of the Brunists”, a conventionally generous and very American tale of the spawning of a religious cult in a mining community; or, if you can find a used or library copy of  “A Political Fable: The Cat in the Hat for President” (unfairly, it is currently out-of-print).  “A Political Fable” may very well become your favorite piece of zaniness by any author ever.  It is mine.

Finally, here are a few stray perceptions of my own to share with Coover fans who have finished the book.

Coover is nothing if not quotable. Wherever you are in “Noir” you are not far from coming upon yet another comment on humankind’s bleak condition. Coover spins endless variations on an astringent melody whose lyrics tell of “your incorrigible weakness in a meaningless universe” (page 103), a ballad “meant to provoke reflections upon life’s brevity, and its thin sad beauty” (page 108). Other examples: “It’s not the story you’re trapped in but how you play it out … your style … steppin’ round the beat … How long does that matter? As long as you live, meaning, no time at all.” (page 52).  “What’s the connection? No idea. Connections [are] probably an illusion in such a fucked-up world as this. Why you’re down here. Illusory connections” (page 113). “The city was as bounded as a gameboard, no place to hide in it, no way but one to leave it, you alone defenseless in it, your moves not even your own” (page 175). Most Hobbesian of all is this: “The body has to eat and drink so it can stay healthy long enough to enjoy an agonizing death, and the mind, to help out, has to know where the provisions are and how to get them and who else is after them and how to kill them” (page 159). The novel’s close brings a softer tone: “You can’t escape the melody but you can make it your own.”

Especially at the novel’s climax, borrowings from films are abundant: the shifting cityscape of “Dark City” (page 163), the mirror room scene in “The Lady from Shanghai” (page 181), and the false-identity caper “Catch Me If You Can” (page 186).

At one point Philip Noir tries to recall who once likened an odd juxtaposition to “a pearl onion on a banana split.” This is a line used by Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe. When another character advises, “Plant you now, dig you later, man” (page 111) , this is a twofer or maybe a three-way: its source is the jazz world of the 1920′s/30′s, but the phrase also was used as a title of song in “Pal Joey” and later as the title of a “Gilligan’s Island” episode — facts surely not lost on pop culture maven Coover. Other more careful readers (with or without benefit of Google search) will best me in this endless game of spot-the-allusion, but final mention should be made of one “high culture” reference I spotted, a reference that informs the musical ambiance of the book. Philip Noir notices a few words carved into the wooden tabletop at a jazz joint: “You are the music while the music lasts.” This is a line from “The Dry Salvages”, the third section of “Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot.

I wonder whether the sympathetic character of Michiko (“she’s a work of art”) is Coover’s homage to the sympathetic critic of his work, Michiko Kakutani. But, given the fate Coover confers on the fictitious Michiko, I’m thinking maybe this is best left unexplored. As the author himself cautions:

“It’s all quite simple. But sometimes not knowing is better. It’s more interesting.”

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One final observation (to be filed under “Annoyances, Petty”):  The covers of both the American and French editions of the novel sport photos that are at odds with the story. Both photos are of daytime scenes of a walker in a city. But the perambulations of Philip Noir take place entirely at night. Does the discrepancy matter? Probably not, but wouldn’t it be nice if the photographer, or the editors who selected the final images, had actually read the book?

(A version of this review appears on Amazon.com, here.)

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The Manifesto of Thompson Hotels

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

A mission statement spells out a company’s overall purpose and provides a sense of direction to decision making.  Among other things, it defines what the organization aspires to be.

The other day a friend sent me a link to a curious document that fits the general notion of a mission statement, although this one is labeled a “Manifesto.”  It also fills up an entire page, making it wordier than the run-of-the-mill mission statement.

The Manifesto was generated by Thompson Hotels, a wholly owned subsidiary of a privately held real estate development firm named The Pomeranc Group.  In 2007 the New York Times profiled the company’s entry into the world of boutique hotels.  The firm’s growing portfolio now includes nine hotel properties.

If you go to Thompson Hotels’ black-backgrounded homepage at http://www.thompsonhotels.com you’ll be faced with a flashing series of quotations.  Featured are the words of luminaries such as Che Guevara, Bob Dylan, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Oscar Wilde, and Jean Baudrillard.  I noticed that in the hotelier’s talky firmament, the French post-structuralist Baudrillard’s star shines brightest.  Two of his bons mots are offered for your delectation.  Meanwhile, in the background, hip music is heard.  An infinitely repeating loop plays a medley of eight instrumental selections, each abbreviated to 30 seconds.   The overall mood?  Retro groovy.  I felt smothered by an über trendy ooze.

If you visit the homepage, and I recommend you do, be sure to click on the word ”MANIFESTO“ found in the top border.  Or access the manifesto directly, here.  On that page you’re invited to test whether your personal identity matches the profile of an ideal guest as conceived by the hotel owners.  Here is the text of the Manifesto:

_________________________________________________________

Dear Guest,

In a world full of choices, we all need to question who we are and where we belong.

We set out to create a group of hotels that are effectively sophisticated and classically cool but small enough to provide personal service. Thompson Hotels are contemporary and elegant with an element of edge and surprise. At Thompson Hotels we believe there’s a place for refined, intimate style in a world of overly dressed up mega brands. We are not trendy boutique hotels. Our style is simultaneously timeless and avant-garde.

Who are our guests? Bohemian chic meets art-house-wise meets quiet yet radical elegance; really more of a mind-set than a demographic… “good looking revolutionaries.”

We wish we had known: Steve McQueen, Bobby Kennedy, Mick Jagger in 1973, Grace Kelly, Jean-Luc Godard, Edie Sedgwick and the fictional Royal Tenenbaums.

You’ll find us watching Darko, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Coffee and Cigarettes, Badlands, Blow Up, Le Mans. Or listening to The White Album, the Sex Pistols, Sinatra and we don’t pick sides between the East Coast and the West Coast.

We collect Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs, vintage Zippo lighters, matchbooks from cafes, quotes and one day, Basquiat.

We are a tribe, nomadic in nature joined by common threads. We are driving up the coast to a life of epic adventures… “It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow… but no matter the road is life”: Jack Kerouac.

See you soon,

TH

p.s. we will keep all your secrets and promises.

________________________________________________________

The term “fisking” is blogosphere slang for a point-by-point criticism of a statement, article or essay.  The fisking process involves questioning the analytical framework of the text and highlighting perceived errors.  It values close scrutiny, so the dissection usually proceeds sentence-by-sentence or paragraph-by-paragraph.  After reading the Thompson Hotels Manifesto, I thought, “Now there’s a document begging for a good fisking!”  I’m not sure I’m the man for the task, but what the heck, it’s worth a try.  Below is my token gift to art-house wise-asses everywhere.  Especially those who, due to their good judgment or bad finances or both, are destined never to find themselves embedded in a Thompson Hotel.

Caveat: It is possible the Manifesto is a small hoax, a put-on, a tongue-in-cheek bit of cheekiness designed to separate those who get it from those who don’t.  By the same token, maybe my text below is too.

So.  Now vee may perhaps to begin.  Yes?

In a world full of choices, we all need to question who we are and where we belong.

Come on, confess.  When you read that first sentence, sounding so eerily like an invocation, an invitation to prayer, you sensed a spiritual touch, did you not?  Maybe a tingle of  déjà vu ? Oops!  Lo and behold, the sentiment does fit nicely on a Church Sign:

church-sign1

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We set out to create a group of hotels that are effectively sophisticated and classically cool but small enough to provide personal service. Thompson Hotels are contemporary and elegant with an element of edge and surprise.

Having established in the reader’s mind the notion of sanctuary, of a time and place for spiritual self-evaluation, the authors of the Manifesto decided to drop that idea cold.  Instead, it’s full steam ahead!  On to a relentless chug-chug-chug of words!  The modus operandi is simple.  Throw down words and phrases in hopes that something coherent will emerge.  The document becomes an onslaught of adjectives, adverbs, oxymorons and proper names.  Scatter shot onto the page, you watch them pile up into an enervating mass.  You encounter novel compounds (“effectively sophisticated”) as inert as the arbitrary pairings formed when kids fiddle with Magnetic Poetry words on a refrigerator door.

But let’s move on to the next bit of nonsense.

At Thompson Hotels we believe there’s a place for refined, intimate style in a world of overly dressed up mega brands. We are not trendy boutique hotels.

I like how a simple declarative sentence (“We are not trendy …”) stands out amidst the lazy mush (“overly dressed up mega brands”).  It turns out this defensive crouch (“We are not!”) has a back story:  one of Thompson Hotels’ co-owners has been quoted elsewhere as saying, “If you call us a boutique hotel chain, I’m going to scream.”  He prefers the term, small luxury hotel group.  The reason has something to do with branding and status.  But I am not Winston Smith (nor was meant to be) and shall not revise my text.

The term “Boutique hotel”  is commonly used to describe intimate, usually luxurious or quirky hotel environments — exactly the environment the Manifesto, however clumsily, purports to describe.  Check out Wikipedia’s article on the “boutique hotel” phenomenon for a consensus understanding of the term. The unavoidable fact is that these hotels are inherently trendy, occupying a segment of the industry characterized by constant churn, where players forever chase the next wave.

Historically, boutique hotels (sometimes also known as “design hotels” or “lifestyle hotels”) began appearing in the 1980s in trend-setting neighborhoods of London, New York, and San Francisco.  Typically, boutique hotels are furnished in a themed, stylish and/or “aspirational” manner.  The mission, the raison d’être, of Thompson Hotels is to participate profitably in this trend.

When responding to an absurd assertion, I often find it useful to summon the the clarity of the French.  What’s the best way to view a trendy Manifesto eschewing trendiness?  Comme ça:

magritte-ceci-nest-pas-une-pipe-1

Though not as deft as Magritte playing with the way we attribute significance to images, the Manifesto does serve the purpose of highlighting a complicated relationship between the company’s self-definition and reality.

Our style is simultaneously timeless and avant-garde.

Reading this sentence, I was momentarily intrigued.  I like timeless.  On occasion I also like avant-garde.  The Manifesto brings them together again for the first time.  What’s not to like?  Should I worry about how stable the marriage is?  No, for the moment I’m willing to play along, especially since the sentence sparks a frisson. There’s an echo of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.  In ”Burnt Norton,” the first segment of that magisterial poem, Eliot posits:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present,

All time in unredeemable.

Along those lines, did you notice the verse from Hebrews 13:8 on the Church Sign, above?  Jesus is the same yesterday and today and tomorrow.  The Manifesto promises your stay at a Thompson Hotel will be just like that too! Heavy, man.  Could be heavenly, too.  But this has got my head spinning.

I know once reason returns I will understand there is no way to halt what The Bard called “time’s fell hand” — especially not in the trendy business of boutique hotels.  After all, we’re talking about an industry in which a Thompsons Hotels co-owner cited with amazement the extraordinary “longevity” of an employee who’s been with the firm a whopping six years!  There are reports the company’s Gild Hall location in lower Manhattan (open for less than two years) is slated for a style makeover, as its star restaurateur is being replaced.  The company used to boast about its free Wi-Fi, but this year reversed its stance in favor of charging guests an extra $10.00 a day.

Timeless?  I report, you decide.

But take heed.  Clouds approach.  Pretentious gobbledygook lies straight ahead.

Who are our guests? Bohemian chic meets art-house-wise meets quiet yet radical elegance; really more of a mind-set than a demographic…

I was going to point out hyphenation flaws and other nits throughout the Manifesto (for those interested, a useful hyphen guide is found here; don’t say you’re learning nothing from this post).  But the prospect of correcting wrong notes in this Bohemian rhapsody reminded me of the scene in Basic Instinct when Michael Douglas (Detective Curran) comes upon the injured George Dzundza (Gus), who’s been attacked with an ice pick.  Curran tentatively applies a finger to block the bleeding from Gus’s neck.  But then he notices, in a growing panic, the full extent of the punctures.  He quickly runs out of fingers to stanch all of Gus’s fatal wounds.

I know, I know — you’re still wishing that the chain of “blah-meets-blah-meets-blah” would meet up with a meat cleaver.  And I’m reminded that the “fisking” process compels me to propose a remedial measure.  OK, then.  Let’s add one more hookup to the chain: Bohemian chic meets art-house-wise meets quiet yet radical elegance meets Freddy Krueger.

(Really more of a cathartic comeuppance than in your fondest dreams.)

“good looking revolutionaries”

Yes, Thompson Hotels defines its preferred clientele as persons who qualify as good looking revolutionaries.

Where to begin?  Smug, self-satisfied, and fatuous, this loose phrase sinks into a swamp of cynicism.  The concept of “good looking revolutionaries” belongs to a place where prices are known and values ignored.  Where everything is superficial, cosmetic, trivialized, reduced to fashion.  As for the not pretty faces and imperfect bodies of today’s equivalents of, say, Emma Goldman, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Francis Crick, Betty Friedan, Balzac, Gandhi?

Oh for God’s sake, we don’t want the likes of them spoiling our hotels.

We wish we had known: Steve McQueen, Bobby Kennedy, Mick Jagger in 1973, Grace Kelly, Jean-Luc Godard, Edie Sedgwick and the fictional Royal Tenenbaums.

These appear to be the hotelier’s picks for the class of good looking revolutionaries.  The introductory clause (“We wish we had known …”) sets up the sad premise that these are folks no longer available to be known.  They’ve passed on.  They’re now guests at the Celestial Hotel.  Or, in the case of the still prancing Mick Jagger, his 1973-vintage incarnation (beautiful at age 30) cannot stroll through a Thompson Hotel lobby in 2009.

The prefatory language also presupposes that the persons cited were all once capable of being known, i.e., their feet once trod the earth.  News Flash:  Fictional characters, such as members of the Tenenbaum family, the clan given cinematic life by writer-director Wes Anderson, were never in fact alive.  Trust me on this.  If “we” harbor a desire to commune with fictional beings, the first thing to do is to express that desire using different rhetoric.  For example:  ”I wish Holden Caulfield were a real person so that I might have a chance to talk with him.”

The second thing is, “we” need to schedule an appointment with a therapist.

You’ll find us watching Darko, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Coffee and Cigarettes, Badlands, Blow Up, Le Mans. Or listening to The White Album, the Sex Pistols, Sinatra and we don’t pick sides between the East Coast and the West Coast.

An orgy of mid-cult name-dropping, these selections sound like a basket of DVD’s and CD’s that Charlie the Tuna might gather for his undersea lair.  To prove his eclectic good taste.

Note the strangely truncated name (“Darko”) applied to writer-director Richard Kelley’s 2001 film, Donnie Darko. A Google search uncovers no evidence of actual people — whether they qualify as good looking revolutionaries or not – using the name “Darko” when discussing that movie.  Maybe Thompson Hotels is trying to start a new trend?  Say it ain’t so.

Next, notice the boast, ”You’ll find us watching . . . Blow Up.”   Hmmmm.   It’s at this point that the needle on the Creepy-o-Meter starts to dance.  Remember, this is a Manifesto presumably concocted by sophisticated advertising copywriters (correction: make that effectively sophisticated copywriters), then reviewed and approved by company management, one of whom promises to “scream” if confronted with words or terms he finds inaccurate.  This means the Manifesto cannot be referring to the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni film, “Blowup”.  As shown in the screen credits (one frame of which is below), the title of Antonioni’s film is one word.  While it is true the title appears hyphenated on some promotional and packaging material (as in the poster further below), it is never correct to render the title as two separate words.

blowup-screen-credits

blowup-antonioni1

blow-up-dvd-cover

Assume, then, that the Manifesto’s reference to a “Blow Up” signals something else.  What might that be?  One clue is that this “Blow Up” is something that can be “watched.”  More particularly, it is something that you will find “us” watching.  So let’s take a step back and ask, who are the “us”?  Remember, the Manifesto is addressed to an anonymous “Guest” and is signed by ”TH.”  So ”us” likely is the hotel itself, as represented by its owners, managers and staff.  Or does “us” refer to the hotels’ guests?  Or to both groups?  What are they watching when they watch this thing called a — or the– Blow Up?  An act of violence involving an explosion?  A sex act?  Both?  Maybe posting a third quotation from Baudrillard would help readers solve the puzzle?  We must work through the night to find the answer; otherwise, I fear grave consequences.  Dawn may expose a pale, naked Manifesto, shorn of its raiments of erudition; a document written, edited and approved by a cadre of folks who, notwithstanding their air of knowingness, in the final analysis are (yes, it pains me to type the sentence’s final word, even though its etymology is French) poseurs.

We collect Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs, vintage Zippo lighters, matchbooks from cafes, quotes and one day, Basquiat.

More trendy brand names and other detritus.  Spare me.  This recalls a short-lived literary trend of a few decades ago, led by a set of young novelists.  They wrote prose with copious references to trendy high-end consumer goods, discos, real life celebrities, and other pop culture stuffing.  Their theory was that in our consumerist society, what you eat, wear, listen to, where you go clubbing, how you furnish your apartment, the famous people you encounter — all of that stuff taken together equals your identity.  Therefore, a list of a fictional character’s recent purchases would be a valid shorthand way to construct in the reader’s mind a fully-formed fictional personage.  The Manifesto shares this bleak and shallow world view.  It tacitly endorses the notion that you are what you consume.

In the present text, I was glad to find a soupçon of wisdom hidden in the final words of the sentence:  “… and one day, Basquiat.”  Implied are the principles of connoisseurship and deferred pleasure.  Collecting the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat demands maturity and a lot of groundwork.  Accumulating money, of course.  Finding a house or apartment with tall ceilings.  Most critically, developing a discerning eye – something especially important with an artist like Basquiat whose output was of notoriously uneven quality.  Assuming I’m not reading too much into those four words, the author deserves kudos for that little grace note.

We are a tribe, nomadic in nature joined by common threads. We are driving up the coast to a life of epic adventures… “It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow… but no matter the road is life”: Jack Kerouac.

True to form, a return to folderol.  I’m hoping you, dear reader, will join with me in announcing that we are growing bored by all the silly talk coming from this other “we.”  It occurs to me that you and I together are a ”we” superior to the Manifesto’s “we.”  We possess largeness; the author of the Manifesto’s gotta wee “we.”

(The silliness is spreading.)

As for the tribal and nomadic references, I defer to another reader of the Manifesto, a person known as “jr”.  He (or, if “jr” is initials, maybe she) left a comment back in May, 2008, on a blog named Harry’s Place, in response to a piece about the Manifesto.  The commenter looked at the document as a marketing effort:

I suspect the purpose of the marketing is to make you think you will be more lucky to fuck an equally desparate fellow guest at this hotel and not feel too seedy afterwards.  “We are a tribe, nomadic in nature and joined by common threads” means “we want some casual nooky and we’re not thinking too much about herpes.”

Was “JR” weirdly prescient?  In 2009, Alexander Wang’s limited edition designer condoms became available for purchase exclusively at Thompson Hotels properties.

p.s.  we will keep all your secrets and promises.

My secret, which is not much of a secret, is that I have never been mistaken for a good looking revolutionary (alas).  If you ask what I myself will keep, the answer is, I will keep my money — far away from the hands of Thompson Hotels.

That I promise.