Monday, August 04, 2014

The Circle by Dave Eggers

By Wendy
           
The Circle is a satire by Dave Eggers that describes how a private Internet company morphs into a totalitarianism monopoly in the United States. Unfortunately, Eggers chose to serve his point, rather than the story, so this novel is not his best work. (If it’s your first encounter with Eggers, give him another chance with his earlier books.) However, for all of its literary missteps, The Circle is worth reading, for its point is relevant and worthy of consideration and conversation.

The novel tracks the rapid rise of Mae, a bland twenty-something woman, from entry-level Circle employee to a person of power and celebrity via her willingness to first broadcast her life in real time and then share her idea of how to “perfect” democracy with those able to implement it. Unfortunately, what makes Mae a great candidate to promote the vision of the Circle and its founders (i.e., a vapid cheerleader who is all-in for everything the Circle does, including surgically inserting a chip into a child’s bone in order to track his or her whereabouts, therefore, preventing abductions) makes also for a rather vapid character. She comes across as a rather naïve, lusty, and not terribly intelligent 16-year-old, especially in her romantic relationships. She’s quick to trust, quick to disrobe, and quick to forgive when her nerdy love interest films his climax on his phone and publicly analyzes her suitability as his mate during a corporate presentation of LuvLuv, the company’s dating site creation. Her other love interest is a mystery man, whom, despite not even knowing his last name, she not only trusts but thinks is a savant. She also comes across as part Valley Girl, speaking in superlatives (things are “astounding,” “like heaven”) and part pathetic high school wannabe, so desperate to be “in” that she puts up with a prank and insults at the hand of her so-called bestie, Annie, a bigwig in the Circle. Completing this characterization of Mae is the additional insult of adding stereotypical traits, such as overreacting (she says her friend Annie has gone “haywire” for volunteering for a program that will digitally track, record, and make available to all one’s genealogy—although it was perfectly rational for Mae to become “transparent,” wearing a camera nearly 24/7 for the amusement of her followers) and buying shoes (twice a month, really?).

Yet this is the woman in whom Annie, the mystery man, and Mae’s former boyfriend, an outlier opposed to everything Mae and the Circle represent, confide in. And this drone is the one who comes up with the grand ideas for the Circle at the close of the book.
           
Just as Mae’s character and the implausible trust others put in her conveniently serves the plot, there are some events that don’t ring true in order to do the same. For example, although Mae doesn’t remove her camera while it records yet another Francis climax, her followers never comment. And, Stenton, one of the founders or Three Wise Men as they are called, who justifies the broadcasting of everyone’s private events, including death, inexplicably cuts the video feed of an arrest of a fugitive “in the interest of allowing her some dignity.” I think, too, some logic is missing with the Circle’s concept that transparency via the placement of cameras everywhere—on people, on location—will eradicate crime, for isn’t it true that some criminals commit crimes for the publicity? And would imbedding tracking chips in children’s bodies really keep them safe from sick, sick people? (Consider the true story of the thief who couldn’t wait long enough for his victim to take off his watch, so he simply cut off the man’s wrist and hand.) You would think the characters in this novel would be logical enough to consider these problems.
           
The Circle was a quick, easy, absorbing read. More importantly, its message that a sheepish lackadaisical acceptance of evaporating privacy at the hands of a private corporation via its takeover of the Internet, social media, and any other means or methods of recording, following, tracking, broadcasting, and digitizing people’s lives leads to a total relinquishing of  privacy and authenticity (or unscripted reality) might be better digested in a piece of fiction than in an essay. The extremes to which the Circle pushes its influence and harnesses the privacy of its characters will never come to be. But could we come close? Consider the privacy issues with Facebook and other social websites (not to mention the government), the tracking of our purchases online and offline (Do you have a Smartphone? You’re behavior is being tracked.), and the compilation and sharing of data that we don’t always agree to have compiled and shared. And scripted reality? Yeah, we know how real those reality shows and Match.com profiles are.
                 
As for the mantras of the Circle: All That Happens Must Be Known, Secrets Are Lies, Sharing Is Caring, and Privacy Is Theft, would we really be surprised if these popped up as taglines for a company? More frighteningly, would we care?
                
  

Monday, July 14, 2014

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins

by Wendy



As most of the poems in Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems were previously published in other collections, which have already been reviewed by others, I will limit the focus of this review to Billy Collins’ fifty-one new poems.
I respect Mr. Collins, integrated his poems in college literature classes I taught, and recently enjoyed listening to a 2002 recording of his guest appearance on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Listening to his poems (all poems are meant to be read aloud to fully appreciate them) is really the way to go with Collins, and I think I would have enjoyed this book far more if I had listened to it, rather than reading it. If you’re unfamiliar with Collins, treat yourself to a few minutes of listening to him read his poetry by searching YouTube or watching his “Everyday Moments, Caught in Time” at http://www.ted.com/talks/billy_collins_everyday_moments_caught_in_time#
Collins’ new poems are likeable. But most are rather light, like snacks: a pleasure to eat at the time, but not terribly filling. Where the poet shines is in his humorous poems that go beyond just the wit or the laugh to say something broader and deeper. My favorite (and one he reads on the TED Talk) is “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl.” Here he compares a typical American teen to Judy Garland, Joan of Arc, Franz Schubert, and others who were quite accomplished at a relatively young age. Collins ends the poem as follows:

Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?

We think you are special by just being you,
playing with your food and staring into space.
By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,
but that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.

The poem is funny on the surface, but I believe that Collins was after something deeper: the disconnect between the standards, abilities, and expectations of the youth of the past and the Millennials of today.
Collins is an observant guy, as most poets and writers are, and turns his observations of waiters, Cheerios, eating apples, and other mundane things into poems. Some poems, though, seem like he took his notes of something he observed and merely broke them into stanzas, as opposed to using a poet’s tools to craft a poem that succeeds on many levels. Read “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke to see a poem that could not be anything but a poem. Turning it into prose deflates it, while turning some of Collins’ poems into prose really doesn’t change them.
Here is the opening stanza to Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
And here it is written as prose: “The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy; but I hung on like death: such waltzing was not easy.”
Here is the opening stanza to Collins’ “Dining Alone”:
           
I would rather eat at the bar,
but such behavior is regarded
by professionals as a form of denial,
so here I am seated alone
at a table with a white tablecloth
attended by an elderly waiter with no name—
ideal conditions for dining alone
according to the connoisseurs of this minor talent.

And here it is written as prose: “I would rather eat at the bar, but such behavior is regarded
by professionals as a form of denial, so here I am seated alone at a table with a white tablecloth
attended by an elderly waiter with no name—ideal conditions for dining alone according to the connoisseurs of this minor talent.”

It’s not just that the former poem rhymes and the latter doesn’t (for poems don’t have to rhyme, of course), it’s that there are so many elements—the rhythm purposefully matching that of a waltz, the hyperbole of whiskey strong enough to make one dizzy, the comparison of the boy clinging to his father’s shirt to that of death’s grip—that “My Papa’s Waltz” must take form as a poem. “Dining Alone” does not. A poem such as this makes me wonder if it had been submitted to a publisher under the name of an unknown instead of by Collins, would it have been published?
The collection also includes poems that are nostalgic in tone or cover the subject of aging, which makes sense for a man now in his seventies. The collection, though, ends on a heavy note, “The Names,” a poem written for 9/11 victims. In addition to it being out of step with the tone of the preponderance of the new poems, it was written in 2002, so it’s unclear why it appears in the “New Poems” section.
As a poet myself, though, I certainly appreciate this “people’s poet,” not only for his ability to make poetry accessible and likeable, but his ability to actually make a living writing poems.  Collins certainly makes one’s first foray into poetry an easy one, which opens the door for readers to explore other poems and poets. And that’s a good thing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

An Unnecessary Woman: to write is to know you are not home

When things turn out as you expect more often than not, do you feel more in control of your destiny? Do you take more responsibility for your life? If that's the case. why do Americans always behave as if they're victims?

Hear me on this for a moment. I wake up every morning not knowing whether I'll be able to switch on the lights. When my toilet broke down last year, I had to set up three appointments with three plumbers because the first two didn't show and the third appeared four hours late. Rarely can I walk the same path from point A to point B, say from apartment to supermarket, for more than a month. I constantly have to adjust my walking maps; any of a multitude of minor politicians will block off entire neighborhoods because one day they decide they're important enough to feel threatened. Life in Beiruit is much too random. I can't force myself to believe I'm in charge of much of my life..

Does reliability reinforce your illusion of control? If so, I wonder if in developed countries (I won't use the hateful term civilized), the treacherous, illusion-crushing process of aging is more difficult to bear.

~~~~~~~~~

If this were a novel, you would be able to figure out why my mother screamed. Alain Robbe-Grillet once wrote that the worse thing to happen to the novel was the arrival of psychology. You can assume he meant that now we all expect to understand the motivation behind each character's actions, as if that's possible, as if life works that way. I've read so many recent novels, particularly those published in the Anglo world, that are dull and trite because I'm always supposed to infer causality. For example, the reason a protagonist can't experience love is that she was physically abused, or the hero constantly searches for validation because his father paid little attention to him as a child. This, of course, ignores the fact that many others have experienced the same things but do not behave in the same manner, though that's a minor point compared to the real loss in fulfilling the desire for explanation: the loss of mystery.

Causation extraction makes Jack a dull reader.

~~~~~~~~~~~


We all try to explain away the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, or the Sabra Massacre by denying that we could ever do anything so horrible. The committers of those crimes are evil, other, bad apples; something in the German or American psyche makes their people susceptible to following orders, drinking the grape Kool-Aid, killing indiscriminately. You believe that you're the one person who wouldn't have delivered the electric shocks in the Milgram experiment because those who did must have been emotionally abused by their parents, or had domineering fathers, or were dumped by their spouses. Anything that makes them different from you.

When I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved.

I am Raskolnikov. I am K. I am Humbert and Lolita.

I am you.

~~~~~~

I like men and women who don't fit well in the dominant culture, or, as Alvaro de Campos calls them, strangers in this place as in every other, accidental in life as in the soul. I like outsiders, phantoms wandering the cobwebbed halls of the doomed castle where life must be lived.

David Grossman may love Israel, but he wanders its cobwebbed halls, just as his namesake Vasily wandered Russia's. To write is to know that you are not home.

I stopped loving Odysseus as soon as he landed back in Ithaca.

--Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman

Monday, June 09, 2014

Trashing your hometown to market your book

Katherine Faw Morris allowed last Friday in a Buzzfeed article that she can go home again, to Wilkes County, but only out of guilt, at Christmas, and that it causes her to suffer anxiety attacks and to black out in Mexican restaurants, either in her hometown or back in New York once she's made it safely back to LaGuardia.

Plus her apartment in New York is in bad shape and we are supposed to infer that growing up in Wilkes County is to blame for her don't-give-a-shit throw-bleach-at-it attitude.

Joan Didion covered these issues back in the 60s, but I guess you can't fault Morris for mainlining her like black tar heroin and reassembling her ideas now as a means of marketing Young God.

People in my hometown are very offended by the Buzzfeed article, however. The subtitle, which of course she didn't write, doesn't set well with them since she didn't grow up in an impoverished home; she and her friends went slumming way out in the sticks to score drugs.

Today Pietros Maneos has a rebuttal in the Huffington Post designed to make the locals happy (early verdict:: He's classy! He writes in complete sentences!) as well as to send some business to his vineyards and promote his own novella (you couldn't pay me to read Maneos for less than a million dollars and even then I bet you I'd skim).

I'm having a grand old time trying to keep up with it all: My mother-in-law who quit reading the book after two pages (I warned her before I ordered it that it wasn't going to suit her tastes). The classmates who feel she's skewing what the people of the county are really like. The enthusiastic reviewers and the ones who hate it because it's so dark.

So, just a few quibbles. Because Wilkes still hasn't produced enough writers for me to just say eh, and go about my business.

Morris's opinions on our hometown are her own and she can espouse them all she wants, as far as I'm concerned. I left and I'm glad I did. I'm recommending that my teenage niece get out just as soon as she can. Nevertheless, I don't hold everyone who still lives there in contempt and I don't know that she needed to go as far as she did to sell the book. I know people Morris's age back in Wilkes who don't talk like her friends, who don't use drugs, who make a total mockery of her portrayal of them.That is not to say there are not people like Morris's friends there.

I'll just clarify a few factual matters from the Buzzfeed piece. It's the former reporter in me.

Wilkes County is not a three-hour drive from "the airport." It may suit her narrative to make it seem that way, more backwoods, but anyone else would take a flight from New York to Charlotte or Greensboro and then have a 90-minute drive to Wilkesboro. Maybe she wanted to be assaulted by the smell of the paper mills outside Asheville before she smelled the chicken litter? It's not spread around as fertilizer in December, anyway.

Tom Wolfe ate with Junior Johnson and his fiance Flossie Clark "at one of the new fine restaurants in North Wilkesboro, a place of suburban plate-glass elegance."  They were seated at the very best table, according to Wolfe. What I find hard to imagine is that he had to stay at the Lowes Motel; maybe it was a nicer place back then.

Every county in the state except for eight out of the one hundred can be called "a county of murderers." Wilkes County's violent crime rate seems to be somewhere in the middle.

Morris's personal stuff is her personal stuff. It's hard to believe that she doesn't know if her best friend from high school has internet when she knows the current contents of her medicine cabinet, but she's marketing her book and she's doing what she needs to do to sell it; maybe her friend knows all about this story and not one word of it is true. Maybe the essay is mostly fiction, same as Young God.

Or maybe she's selling out everybody so that she can't go home again.

Until she has nowhere else to go.

And then she'll write about that.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Some Dark Holler Project: Young God by Katherine Faw Morris

I am making it a priority to read-- and blog about (there's the rub)-- the Wilkes County component of my Some Dark Holler project this summer.

First up, because it's already generating so much buzz back in Wilkes that my mother-in-law asked me to buy her a copy, is Katherine Faw Morris's just-published Young God.

Typically, Young God would have found publication as "Young God." It's not quite 80 pages worth of words spread out over a little less than 200. It would have been the long story/novella in a collection that I could imagine easily evolving into a kind of Mary Gaitskill-ish Bad Behavior of the Appalachian foothills.

But take a crack literary agent from North Carolina whose business card Morris managed to secure during her MFA days at Columbia and a writer/husband team team who--pre-book deal--thought to set up a website for Morris that consisted of just an image of a morphine pill on her tongue and you can see why a less conventional approach to publication might have cramped the style of the whole thing: the showcasing of the contemporary druggy underbelly of the former moonshine capital of the world by a stylish, hip young Brooklynite who takes care to control her image and describes said image as "trashy Russian mistress."

I have to admit it's been a genius marketing campaign so far.

The story itself is this:

Nikki Hawkins' mother, presumably while high on Roxies, falls from the wrong side of a waterfall she intended to dive from and dies. (I have no idea why some reviewers are saying she commits suicide; she's laughing and in mid-conversation with her boyfriend when she falls.) The boyfriend grabs 13-year-old Nikki and his bookbag full of pills down at the swimming hole below and they hightail it to his camper, where, mere sentences later, Nikki initiates sex.  Sleeping with Mamma's boyfriend doesn't secure Nikki first-place status when a new redneck girlfriend shows up on the next page, so Nikki steals Wesley's car and his pills and takes off to her daddy's trailer.

Her daddy is Coy Hawkins, the county's top coke dealer, now out of prison after turning rat--his sister Crystal's still doing time. To Nikki's chagrin, Coy Hawkins has quit dealing drugs altogether and is now pimping out Angel, a 15-year-old Nikki used to know at the group home in town. Since Nikki doesn't want to go back to the group home and she also wants to figure out a way of getting money that she believes Coy Hawkins has buried back on the deer run behind the trailer, she knows some adjustments must be made if she is to remain with him.

So Nikki adjusts. Nikki is willing to lure a virgin away from the group home so that Coy Hawkins can make the big bucks off of her (It's even her idea). Nikki uses drugs, participates in armed robbery, and helps dispose of a murder victim's body. Then, when she sees that Coy Hawkins is becoming too strung out and paranoid to handle matters, she takes over the resumed drug trade, one now based on black tar heroin.

It's minimal and sometimes elliptical, and as you can imagine, as dark as a dark holler is likely to get. Supremely effective as a story, but it's hard not to feel that the reader's been some con artist's mark when it's marketed and sold as a novel: Karen Russell's 110-page novella Sleep Donation is only $3.99 as a Kindle single. Or maybe I'm just super sensitive since it's set in Wilkes and there are so few that are: give me more! (Morris has said her next novel's set in New York.)  We're left with a sense that Nikki has mourned her lost childhood, although we've really had only one brief image of a moment that hasn't been brutal or depraved, and that she feels capable of seizing the future. I can't help but find her horribly misguided. The type of man she's dealing with is going to readjust her thinking for her if it takes killing her to do so.

At any rate, here's my favorite section from Young God. I like it because it's a brief interlude from all the sordidness and because the characters are taking a drive that I made every day of my life before I moved away and still make on trips back; I grew up near the "big cemetery," although I've never heard anyone call it that. Poetic license stuff I still feel compelled to quibble over: most of the split-off churches wind up brick, same as their predecessors; Morris has shuffled her landmarks; there are actually two towns cut by the river instead of one; and the gun and ammo shop's still in business. Sue me; even Jesus himself couldn't work miracles in his hometown.

At the other end of the bottom road is the highway. It's a long-looping highway. It's really just a road that's always tar. It leads to town. It takes forever to get there: twenty minutes. The whole time is dropping down but gradually. Nikki hardly feels it.

Along the way it's mostly churches. The old ones are brick. The ones that got pissed off and split off from them are in store-fronts. The ones that got pissed off and split off from them are in abandoned gas stations.

Very close to town there's the twenty-four-hour Coffee House and the Food Lion and the big cemetery. Otherwise it's trees.

Right now it's dark. The trees fly by as inky fringe. In Nikki's mind there is a certain glittering blackness.

The town is cut by a river. Not the yellow one but what it flows into. The south side of the town is flatter. It's where Wal-mart is and the people who just got money live. The north side of town is steeper. It's where the people who've always had money live and also all the black people. There are Mexicans everywhere now.

On the north side of town, at the stoplight that turns for the group home, Nikki doesn't breathe. Coy Hawkins gases it as soon as it goes green. Past an empty building where a gun-and pawn used to be he makes a left onto another highway. He heads back into the county. The county is anywhere that's not town. Nikki turns to look at them. Angel's chewing gum.

"Where are we going?' she says.

The highway spits them out to the southeast, into a different county. Nikki clutches the door handle as the pickup merges, rattling, onto an interstate. Tractor-trailers whip by. Headlights spot her eyes. It is six lanes, stick-straight. Nikki stares at everything. Sometimes she flinches. The road signs say CHARLOTTE.


Monday, March 31, 2014

The Odd Testament by Randolph Bridgeman



by Wendy



If you think of poetry as relegated to either Valentine’s Day greeting cards or to literature class textbooks understandable only to literature professors, then you haven’t read a Bridgeman poem.  The Odd Testament is Randolph Bridgeman’s third collection of poetry, and here he continues to deliver poems that are neither sappy nor inaccessible. Bridgeman’s poems are for and about the everyman—around us and in us, whether we acknowledge that everyman or not.

He writes of the people from whom we turn away, superior in the knowledge that we are not like them: the child with OCD, the homeless man living in McDonald’s, the depressed man shooting his ex-lover’s Beanie Babies. And he writes of the people we sometimes become and probably don’t admit to being: the spectator watching one dog hump another, the teen driven to amoral behavior by lust, the  person who loses everything “because this was just one more/thing in a long list of stupid shit/that he’d done.”

Bridgeman’s portrayal of the characters in his poems is frank, and as stripped of pretension as his language. His poems aren’t lengthy; he uses simple, often profane, language; and he limits capitalization and punctuation. Actually, Bridgeman sums up a lot of his own poetry in his poem “poetry readings,” where the narrator states:

i want to hear poetry that comes
shooting out of you like the beer shits

i could give a rat’s ass about the
good ole boys in letterman sweaters
i want to hear about that boy you dragged
home from a single-parent home
in government subsidized housing
on the other side of town

Even the poems that are based on the Bible have that unique Bridgeman everyman bent. For example, in the poem “the odd testament,” he takes the stories of Adam, Abraham, Jonah, and Lazarus and gives us a decidedly mortal spin, comparing God to a single parent:

god was the first single parent but
certainly not the last to be out there
bustin’ ass to keep the lights and water on

and giving us the innermost thoughts of a surprised and pissed Lazarus who finds himself resurrected “after he’d confessed to/family he’d wronged/been forgiven his debts.” The treatment of the stories of Abraham and Jonah broaches the topic of the divide between father and son that surfaces in later poems such as “a brief conversation with my father about classic greek literature” that ends with “i can’t have an intelligent/conversation with you about/anything he says slamming/the door on his way out.”

Even though Bridgeman’s approach is one of simplicity, most of his poems demonstrate the poet’s command of language. For example, in “lessons,” Bridgeman compares a son who bucks his father’s mold to “that stripped screw he couldn’t back out/that bent nail that cracked his wood/that rounded nut he couldn’t tighten,” and describes the heat of a summer night as “summer’s air slides down/like a tight skirt” in “in the woods.” Not every poem is equally strong. A few are more clever than insightful, proselytize, merely eavesdrop, or simply report on some of the more grotesque attributes of people.

Some poems in the collection are tender, some are funny, some are un-PC, most invite us in and let us know that we are all Adams and Eves in our own way, but damn it, someone loves us anyway. A good many are written in first person. Whether they are confessional only the poet knows, but it doesn’t really matter, for one man’s confession may very well be our own. Which, I think, is the point.