Sunday, March 22, 2009

Review: When the Messenger is Hot

Theater Schmeater's production of When the Messenger is Hot is a very enjoyable bit of theatre. It is one of the funniest performances I have seen. The humorous insights come from the three faces of Josie. The main character is played by three different people (Marty Mukhalian, Teri Lazzara, and Julie Jamieson). They are all on stage at the same time. As the show progresses, they each take turns being the "real" Josie and playing the part of the voice of her own consciousness. This trick is pulled off superbly, leading to an effective depiction of a character's inner thoughts without resorting to soliloquy.

The 3-actors-one-character idea is balanced by Frank Lawler, who humorously portrays all of the male characters in the production, including all of Josie's different boyfriends.

In some ways the basic outline of the play is nothing special (it deals with dealing with the death of a parent), but the production moves beyond that making this a fun, enjoyable, and worthwhile piece of theatre.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review: The Class (Entre les murs)

The Class (Entre les murs) is an unusual film. It bridges documentary and drama. It is based on an autobiographical book by François Bégaudeau recounting a year teaching French in an inner city Paris school. Bégaudeau also stars in the film, which features other students and was apparently shot over a year. In some ways the story moves along slowly, but it trods familiar grounds of class, race, culture, and identity. Familiar grounds, but seen through the slightly different lense of the French immigrant experience. Discussions of "proper French" and verb usage echo American struggles with the role of ebonics.

The classroom systems are different from those in America. Some of the finer points on French usage were lost on me. But the basic search for self and meaning in a changing world rings true. Marin's struggles to relate the meaning and importance of writing proper French reminded me greatly of David Foster Wallace's opinions on the politics of Standard Written English.

I'm not sure the the Marin, the teacher, really has a style worth emulating. The opinions of the other teachers and administrators about Marin could have been explored more. But, this film does remind me of that the challenges (and opportunities) of a complex, integrated, global community are topics that many societies are dealing with.

Review: Consider the Lobster

My obsession with the writing of David Foster Wallace continues. Consider the Lobster is the second collection of Wallaces's non-fiction essays. Before getting into the specifics of this collection, I think is worthwhile to elaborate on why I am so enthralled with Wallace.

First, of course, is his distinctive style. The foot notes and asides and information dumps appeal to me. They are like hyperlinks on a page (see below). When reading online, I often take trips through Google and Wikipedia to go into more detail on specific topics. Wallace's foot notes often serve a similar purpose. But, rather than a motley collection of disparate sources, the foot notes all have the same distinct tone and quality. In addition to info-dumps, Wallace's asides often highlight his own opinions. The conceits of the author are explicitly displayed--a tactic that allows Wallace to advance his own stances without having to subjugate himself at the altar of impartiality. Of course, in some ways this could be viewed as a subtle but highly effective rhetorical trick. By setting off his own opinions in flashing lights, the underlying biases in the rest of the work may go by unnoticed.

Second, Wallace is an elitist in the best sense of the term. He deems it worthwhile to think about difficult and uncomfortable subjects. He sees value in information and understanding. His essays are bursting with facts (thus the need for the footnotes to squeeze it all in). Wallace' s best essays involve him going off to learn about a topic or gain some experience, and then reporting back on the meaning of the events. Such reporting deals with meaning on multiple different levels, seemingly without worry about losing the reader in a see of details. He trusts and respects the reader. Things are not dumbed down. Like the real world, they are complicated, contextualized, and often slippery.

Of course, Wallace is able to accomplish all of this largely because of the sheer power of his command of language. He successfully adopts a conversational tone while dealing with complex and esoteric topics. I see myself trying emulate this style, however poorly, in my own technical and expository writing.

I've read several criticisms of Wallace's essays (just google some of the titles below and many will pop up). It can be argued that in some cases Wallace uses his writing skills to mask the fact that he subtly takes sides in contentious topics. Although his breadth of research is astounding, Wallace is not a real expert in many of the topics he writes about. No doubt, he gets some things wrong in a range of important and unimportant ways. Such is the burden of this type of writing, and that is a fair and valid criticism to make. But, much of the time at least, it (the sacrifice of complete and expert nuance and fact for a well presented and informative summary) is a trade I'm willing to make.

This collection includes 10 essays of various length and topic:

Big Red Son In this essay Wallace recounts his experiences at the 1998 Adult Video News awards. The AVN awards are basically the Oscars for pornography. Few do grotesquery as well as Wallace. He's willing to plumb the depths to reveal the root causes of depravity, causes that often have to do with something that may be deep in our own psyches. This essay is now a decade old, and one of the striking things is how the industry was completely unaware of the future explosion in armature pornography. As Tom Johansmeyer reports in The Atlantic, the fact that websites now give it up for free is a huge threat to the commercial viability of the industry. As in other fields, the problem is now how to successfully make money through the internet. Apple did it for music. Newspapers have yet to figure it out. Big Red Son, of course, does not deal with any of these issues, but it is interesting how things have changed in totally unanticipated ways. (NB: it was extremely tempting to drive up hits by including links to all sort of NSFW and adult websites in this review. I think that I'm proud of myself for resisting that urge).

Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think (Re John Updike's Toward the End of Time) is Wallace's review of a John Updike novel. But, really, it serves as an excuse for Wallace to opine on the "Great Male Narcissists" who he feels have dominated American fiction writing. This piece is a worthy companion to the reviews that have come out since Updike's death. I have not really read any Updike. This is something that makes me feel like a shallow, unread impostor.

Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed This short essay is the text of a speech Wallace gave on reading and teaching Kafka. The main point is that the beauty of Kafka's writing lies in its humor, but that the best way of ruining a joke is to explain it. Thus, how it is unclear how to successfully teach Kafka, particularly to a collection of undergraduate students dealing with their own set of philosophical crises.

Authority and American Usage (or: "Politics and the English Language is Redundant") Wallace uses writing a review A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner, as a spring board for explaining the importance of of Standard Written English in society and summarizing the struggles between the descriptive and proscriptive schools of linguistics. This is my favorite essay in the book. It includes an even handed take down of Political Correctness as well as a nuanced discussion of the role of language in society. The essay, which is 60+ pages, is funny and enlightening and provocative in all kinds of ways that are difficult to summarize. You should read it.

The View From Mrs. Thompson's In this essay, Wallace recounts his experiences during 11-13 September 2001. At the time, Wallace was living in Bloomington, Illinois. It includes a self-awareness about his Midwestern roots that this slightly over-educated person from the Midwest finds provocative.

How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart. Tracy Austin was a star tennis player. Wallace found her autobiography deeply disappointing.

Up, Simba. Seven Days on the Trail of an Anticandidate. This essay, originally published in Rolling Stone, recounts Wallace's experiences as a reporter for a week during John McCain's 2000 presidential primary campaign. By chance, Wallace was on the trail during the critical week leading up to the South Carolina primary. I'm a fairly well informed follower of politics, but Wallace's reporting offered a fresh take on the dynamics of a campaign. Also, his unraveling of the role of negative campaigning and cynicism in politics is brilliant. The portrayal takes on a new meaning because of McCain's recent 2008 campaign. Any curious observer of the American political system would be well served by reading this account. It is striking how, in hind sight, Obama successfully pulled off many of the rhetorical and positional appeals that McCain tried to adopt back in 2000.

Consider the Lobster Wallace visits the 2003 Main Lobster Festival. This article was written for Gourmet magazine, and the striking thing is how Wallace presents concerns about the suffering of lobsters to that readership.

Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky presents Wallace's review of Joseph Frank's multi-volume study of Dostoevsky. Frank's writing, and Wallace's review, focus on the relationship between the ideas and themes of Dostoevsky's writing and the times and culture in which he lived. Many interesting aspects of Dostoevsky's personal life are revealed. Running throughout the review is the notion that Serious Writing of today cannot deal with Important Topics in a direct, non-ironic fashion. This is a position that animates much of Wallace's views on literature. Interspersed throughout the essay are short segments of a monologue trying to seriously deal with notions of meaning and existence. The fact that these segments seem so out of place proves Wallace's point that modern readers are simply not used to dealing with such topics head on.

Host This essay relates Wallace's observations of talk radio host John Ziegler. It attempts to explain the popularity of right-wing talk radio, while explaining the business aspects of the medium. And make no mistake, talk radio is a business. It also deals with all sorts of important topics like the meaning of "information" and "entertainment" and "objective." Talk radio is not changing or going away any time soon. This essay offers a nuanced peak behind the curtain into the personalities, calculations, and economic realities that drive this mode of communication.

Re: hypertext. I should note that this comparison is one Wallace would likely reject. This point comes from D. T. Max's recent portrayal of Wallace in the New Yorker. Having never read any of Wallace's fiction, I'm struck by how he could think that his nonficiton (which is so brilliant) is easy and without depth.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Review: The Way We Live Now

I did not enjoy The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. Don't get me wrong--I read the whole thing, enjoy discussing it with my friends, and was curious to see how things turned out for some of the main characters. My disappointment is deeper and more substantial. I don't think that Trollope understands how the economy of the 1870s works. As a result, the book is shallow and opaque where it should be insightful and illuminating. I hope that this novel would be newly relevant in our troubled economic times. I was disappointed.

The action of the novel revolves around Augustus Melmotte, a foreign and social-climbing financier. He gets involved in floating stock in a trans-Mexican railway, tried to marry off his daughter to a titled Englishman, and generally runs all sorts of financial games. This is all well and good, but Trollope never gives us the details on exactly how these financial dealings go down. There is no discussion of the London stock market, of how banking and loans and credit worked, of the rules of the system could be bended or utilized and broken for gain. There are some hints, but no details. The inclusion of these wonkish details would have resulted in a much stronger novel.

I think that Trollope did not really know these details. Also, he did not really care. The title refers not to the complex workings of a financial system that allows a select few to reap imense profits from a speculative bubble and play lose with the rules for mortgaging property to further increase their position. This is a Victorian novel--the title refers to the social rules of the time, and the changing way people act towards money and relationships.

Even in terms of relationships and action the novel falls flat. Surprisingly, Trollope throws out major plot points seemingly at random. Instead of showing us an action as it happens, Trollope seemingly invents past events as needed. Events crucial to the plot (such as the supposed forgery) are referenced after the fact, instead of being included in the narrative while they were occurring. I don't know if this is poor style or if Trollope was just making it up as he went along. But it is not Good Writing.

Like many novels from the time, The Way We Live Now offers some interesting insights into the societal and mental norms of the time. The depiction of Americans is interesting. As are the conflicting feelings about Romantic Love vs a purely transactional marriage expressed by several of the characters. Sir Felix was annoying, but the indulged frat-boy type is not a character we usually hear about in Victorian times. Much can be written about these ideas, but such thoughts are not novel to Trollope, nor are they particularly well illustrated. The relevant thing for today's readers is the depiction of finance and the effects of speculation in 1870s England.

Maybe I have been reading too much about credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, leveraged investments, balance sheets, massive bonuses, socialized risk with privatized profits, and the politics of the bailout. Still, a novel about the social consequences of our most recent economic bubble and resulting destabilization would have to engage with these concepts in a realistic and meaningful way--both to be realistic, and to provide future readers a rooted sense of time and place and circumstance.

I am not demanding that novelists be technocrats, just that they be conversant in the underlying basis about which they write. I contend that a fully fleshed out structural picture would add depth and realism to the societal, moral, and emotional intricacies of the underlying story the writer is attempting to tell. Trollope's failure to do this is the main reason I did not like this novel.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Review: The Mistakes Madeline Made

Washington Ensemble Theatre's production of The Mistakes Madeline Made has been pushed hard by the Stranger. I expected the production to fall short of my sky-high expectations. Parts of the script did not ring true to me, but that was made up for by the rest of the story. Coupled with an amazing cast, this is a rewarding piece of theater.

In some ways that plot is rather straightforward and relies on symbolism that is rather simplistic. After all, a whole play about a shower as catharsis is a tad 8th grade language arts-ish. The role of the handywipes add a nicely modern touch to this though, and something that could easily have fallen into kitsch is safely executed. The entire cast works wonderfully together, but Elise Hunt's performance carries the play beyond the limitations of the script. The artistic vision of the directors and actors at WET has been amazing this season.

Two aspects of the script seem weak to me. First, the hinted romance does not ring true. I need more from Wilson before I'm willing to accept that. Second, I think the play skirts around the issue of what exactly is the dirt and guilt that is on Edna's (and our own) hands. More is hinted at but not explored. Protests to the contrary, horrible things were (and are) done in our name. As a society, our hands are not clean. A shower alone cannot cleanse the moral stain, and it seems that we must acknowledge this before we can forgive (or forget) ourselves.

Of course, Meriwether wrote this play a few years ago. Perhaps at a time when we have seen the images from Abu Ghraib, followed the causal chain from Guantanomo, and read of the treatment of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri the need for penance is clearer before we can even dream of absolution.

The play is not perfect; its message is a little muddled. But that which is great need not be perfect. And flawed notions can definitly still leave their mark.

As for this production I agree with Mr. Schmader. Go see it.