Friday, June 29, 2007

Everything is Derivative

(BE YE WARNED! This post contains some sexual descriptions that might make the sensitive Mormon set uncomfortable)

I’m not sure where to start really. I’ve just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated and I want to describe my reading of it, but I don’t know where to begin.

The novel has flashes of genius and sustained periods of highly enjoyable reading. The chapters comprising the Ukrainian “translator” Alex’s letters to Jonathan about the novel are wonderful to read, and some of the most ingratiating fiction I’ve read in a long while. However, the chapters dealing with the history of the protagonist’s ancestors in the small town of Trachimbrod annoyed me to no end. Let me explain.

When Gabriel García Márquez (GGM) won the Nobel for Literature in 1982, the book that crowned his amazing oeuvre and won him the prize, was One Hundred Years of Solitude (OHYOS). One of the most important books of the 20th Century and the masterpiece of the Magic Realism literary movement, the book centers on a small town where incredible things happen that seem a commonplace, and yet ordinary things seem absolutely fantastic to the characters. A gypsy bringing flying carpets to town is interesting, but a player piano or an icemaker, both with provable scientific processes, are marvels that only a wizard could conjure.

GGM will not let anyone adapt OHYOS for the screen. He won’t let anyone adapt any of his writing into films unless he writes/approves the screenplay. Although he is a gifted author, the film adaptations of his work have been abysmally rendered (low budget, bad acting, etc.). I believe that he limits these adaptations due to his fear of clashing with his readers’ mental texts.

The reader of any text responds to the chains of signifiers in a subjective way based on his or her understanding of the words, impression from the reading, mood, intelligence, life experiences, previous books read, knowledge of the material contained in the text, access to search engines, and any other myriad combination of semiotics and signifiers “through which [one] forms the ‘gestalt’ of the text” (Iser, The Implied Reader 283). Traditional thought maintained that the author has exercised a patriarchal hand over his or her readers and basically controlled their response by his or her construction of the text. Well-written comedy could elicit laughter from an audience; tragedy could bring them to tears. Melodrama could cause any number of emotional responses, and erotic literature can cause a physical response.
[i] It comes as no surprise that the traditional view of the author was essentially one of awe and reverence, as the author was seen to exercise a God-like control over his or her characters. The personages were considered pawns at the whim and caprice of their invisible creator, similar to Jorge Luis Borges’s chess player and pieces in his poem “Ajedrez.”

No author, no matter how adroit with words, can completely control the reader’s mental text, the mental response to a text. In the case of erotic literature, the authorial intent might be to cause a stimulus response to the text. This may be accomplished, but the author cannot control the mental images, the express content of each reader’s mind, something we can term “the mental text” or, along with Wolfgang Iser, “passive synthesis” (The Act of Reading 135). One reader’s mental text upon reading the multiple sexual encounters in the novel will differ from another’s. Each individual can rightly claim to have read, visualized, and understood the novel, to have felt the same erotic stimuli, and even to have later indulged in the memory of those stimuli while engaged in erotic behavior, but the mental text that they construct while reading the work and revisiting the experience, is their own.

Each reader’s vision of Alex, Grandfather, Augustine, and Jonathan Safran Foer will be different. One reader might picture the protagonist just as he appears in the photograph on the novel’s cover, and another will envision him in a different way. I see him as always looking like one of my best students ever, a brilliant young man from NYC named Jonathan Katz. Is your vision of the author the same as mine? It cannot be expressly the same JSF in Reader A’s mind as it is in Reader B’s because both have received the text and produced their own version of it in their imagination. Though their creations may only slightly differ, they will be unique to the individual.[ii] There are now two JSF, each dependent on the mental text of their receiver/reader. This mental text adds the reader into the creator/created mixture by their ability to claim pseudo-authorship of the work they see in their mind.

For example, Gabriel García Márquez wrote the screenplay to “Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes”, made into a movie by Fernando Birri in 1988. Having read García Márquez’s short story of the same name previous to my viewing of the film, the version that I had constructed in my mind had nothing to do with the version I saw displayed on the screen. Though the plot and characters were the same, I found this filmic version an intrusion into the mental world I had comfortably built. The result was unsatisfying and left me feeling that I preferred the book to the visual work.

I mention GGM because he has been very influential in literature. Oftentimes we emulate others that we find interesting. Yet, it is incredibly difficult to define the boundary between inspiration and derivation and tedious repetition of that which has already been done. JSF takes pains to even claim that God plagiarized when he made man in his own image. To me the novel reads like a Jewish-American version of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Only instead of leaving me filled with the beauty of the human experience like I felt at the end of GGM’s novel or the closing scene of the Shawshank Redemption, JSF’s novel leaves me feeling like I just got a Pepsi when I asked for a Coca-Cola. Sure it’s sweet and refreshing, but it cannot, and never will be original or as good as the other thing. Remember the first time you heard Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” Sure, you might have bounced your head along to STP “Moderation”, Soundgarden’s “Black Days,” and Candlebox’s “Maybe,” but you knew that nothing would or could (to rob a line from Everything is Illuminated) be as good as that first time you heard Nirvana. And that’s not saying that other songs can’t make you feel that way: Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” and “Alive” had the same effect on me.

That’s the problem with a movement, and then the subsequent revisiting of it. Right now the Killers and Jimmy Eats World are making 80’s inspired rock-and-roll, and doing it well. There are countless others that are bombing. And then there are the shameless people that just copy and give no credit. This is how I felt when I watched that Kevin Spacey movie K-Pax. The entire time I’m screaming, repeat, screaming at the screen, “How can you not give at least an ‘inspired by’ credit to Hombre mirando al sudeste?” It was as if the director of the Spacey film thought that by translating the movie, it was something new. I had this same level of revulsion of unabashed ripping off when I read Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits. Her novel is an onion skin away from being called One Hundred House Spirits of Solitude. Even before she became an Oprah Book Club denizen, I despised her “work,” because, to me, it feels like I’m reading someone else’s novels and stories when I read ones with her name on the spine.

While I don’t think that JSF was plagiarizing, even indirectly, what I do see in his writing is a postmodern attempt to renew the magic chemistry of the original magic realism. It’s like those new Mustangs Ford is making. They are hybrids of the old design, but with new technology. At the end of the road however, you are still driving something that pales by the original. His attempt falls flat, not because it is wholly derivative, but because it is tedious, and well, perhaps I’m not the target audience.

There are several target audiences for this book:

1. People that can’t get enough stories about the horrors of the Holocaust. Edna Aizenberg has written about the difficulties of representing the catastrophe of the Holocaust in fiction. She mentions the oft-cited Theodor Adorno quote that writing poetry after Auschwitz is “barbaric” as she explains that “certain apprehensions do, however, exert pressure on imaginative writing and account for some recurrent themes of Holocaust fiction” (Books and Bombs 133). She goes on to explain that the “incorporation of historical discourse as a means of underlining truthfulness” along with an “allusive or distanced telling with gaps” are both present in the “precise historical anchoring” that marks tales about the Holocaust (133). This melding of fact and fiction becomes a species of God-is-in-the-details approach to coming to terms with the reality of the Holocaust.

2. JSF’s psychologist. If he ever needs counseling, he should just present this novel to the shrink and insist that she read it. That should clarify what his hang-ups and issues are.

3. Young men (Ages 15-36). If you like erotic literature, these pages (164-168) will certainly get a rise out of you.

4. Old Men (Ages 55+). ED got you down? Read pages 169-177.

5. Middle Aged Married Men (Ages 37-54). Keep the book by your bedside. You’ll become physically aroused several times while reading it. When this happens, wake your wife and make love to her, and try and not pretend you’re the Kilker or Safran and that she is the Gypsy Girl, or Brod, or any of the other 132 “other mistresses” the novel so vividly describes.

6. God (Prove to the author that You exist)

7. JSF’s family, save his grandmother.

8. Those that from a long way off look like flies.

9. The present classification.

10. Teenaged boys (puberty-15). This book may not be read in the bathroom!

11. Other writers. The novel is dying in the First World.

12. Future female sexual partners of Jonathan Safran Foer. You should read the novel to know your partner better. He obviously likes big-busted women, so take care to use pushup bras and low-cut tops. His preferred sexual positions are (in order):

A. Blowjobs
B. From behind
C. 69

Be sure to remain faithful; you should know that he is a touch misogynistic when betrayed. He will exact his revenge by making you let him orgasm all over your body, like some dog pissing the borders of his territory to reclaim his turf (don’t believe me? Read page 200). Oh, and he will castrate the offending Other too.

As you might have guessed, the novel contains no small amount of sexual imagery, dialogue, etc. It reads like the fantasies of a virgin, or whose only experiences were so tainted by porn imagery/culture that it leaves him insatiable for that desire that cannot be quenched. Notice how the ancestors can never love? The Safran grandfather has sex 2,700 times before he ever orgasms. And he does this because he is “in love,” not with his partner (his wife), but with the daughter that his ejaculation produces. The narcissistic guarantee that he will live on in that generation is the only thing that can arouse him to the point of climax.

The book ends with me feeling ultimately dissatisfied, leaving me asking myself “I just spent three days reading that?” It plays in stereotypes and all the things one would expect from a “first novel” by a young Jewish-American writer, meaning that the climax that “will break your heart,” as Joyce Carol Oates is quoted on the front cover, of course, centers on a Sophie’s Choice-type decision that leads to the death of a Holocaust victim.

Jonathan Safran Foer is a gifted writer, there’s no doubt about it. I could not have produced anything even remotely close to what he has done. No matter. If the end result in this reader is a negative one, no amount of artistry in the crafting of prose, no amount of subtlety and nuance of inventions with the language of Alex’s translated Russian-Ukrainian-English is enough to make me think highly of the book.

Remove the back story chapters, remove all the wondrous schlock about how quirky, blah blah blah, the Trachimbrodians were, and the novel could, would soar. I just don't buy into the notion that everyone's ancestors were quirkily cool, and that ethnic minorities have to always be painted as magically real and a touch neurotic. It gets old.

The book is composed by a hero who decides himself a premium person, who wishes to be carnal with many womens, who wishes many currencies from the publication of his autograph, and who would be much spleened by my overview of his love labor.


[i]. Robert Holub would argue that “the literary work is neither completely text nor completely the subjectivity of the reader, but a combination or merger of the two”. In this case, the various physical or emotional responses in the reader to the text can be theorized into feeling that the reader would most likely not have experienced those same things had they not first received the text. (Holub 84)

[ii]. It is also entirely possible that two readers or even two historical authors might conceive of the same or very similar story at the same time or at different times. There are always lawsuits after a hit movie because someone will claim that so-and-so lifted or plagiarized material from their screenplay, when oftentimes, the one had never been aware of the other. John Lennon insisted this was the case with his use of the line “Here come old flattop” in the song “Come Together” in spite of Chuck Berry’s insistence in his legal claim against Lennon that the line was from his song “You Can’t Catch Me” (Turner 173).

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Blue Laws and Remembering the Sabbath Day

One of the oddities of living in Hartsville, South Carolina is that we still have blue laws being enforced. For those heathens that don't know what blue laws are, well they are laws that forbid businesses and individuals from merchandising on a particular day, in almost every instance, on Sunday.

I remember in Cherokee County, Georgia in the 1980's, my dad and I would sit in the parking lot of K-Mart until noon on Sunday waiting for them to open so we could buy our home improvement stuff. Nowhere was open in the south end of the county save the Dunaway Drugs, 3-Way Grocery (I swear that's its name and it's still there), C&W Bait and Tackle, and the Amoco convenience store at the corner of Bells Ferry and 92. Keep in mind that there wasn't much there back then either. We weren't church going folks so keeping the Sabbath was never an issue for us---we didn't do it.

I remember my teacher, Sally Sutton, in the 4th grade in 1984, pulled me aside at the beginning of the school year and said something like "Mac, the other kids all said that none of them have ever seen you at church. Do you go somewhere?" I answered, "No ma'am. We don't go to church." She sweetly said, "Well if you ever want to go, just let me know." I think she said that she'd ask my Mom, but I can't remember; it's been too long now. If a teacher did that nowadays, people would freak out, but I think it's nice. Her heart was in the right place. The was no judging.....anyway, back to the blue laws.

As a Christian (no matter what some of my Protestant brethren might call me), I try and keep the Sabbath day holy. For me this means that I refrain from merchandising on the Sabbath. I try not to spend any money unnecessarily. When we go on vacations, I plan to eat as many meals as is possible in my hotel room by bringing food with me, or going shopping beforehand. I don't shop on Sunday. If I am travelling and must purchase fuel, I use the automatic pump. I've had to buy things on Sundays before, and I always make sure to thank the person for working on the Sabbath, and I apologize for making them work. They usually look at me like I'm nuts, but I still do it.

This also means that I refrain from doing work on Sunday that I could've done the day before, or that can wait until the next day. I only studied on Sunday a handful of times in my 12 years of college. My department at Tulane was considerate enough to let me take my PhD exams over a Monday-Tuesday instead of Saturday-Sunday (Tulane is the most responsive and tolerant place I've ever been; I absolutely loved it there). There's a saying that goes around about the Sabbath which goes something like, "Don't wait to pull the ox out of the mire on Sunday when you pushed him in Saturday night." A little planning can keep the Sabbath free from labor, as a day of rest. However, while a nap is an excellent Sabbath activity, I don't think that lounging around all day is keeping it holy. The Sabbath is made for Scripture study, church attendance, visiting family, friends, the sick, shutins, etc. There are many things we can and should do on the Sabbath. Having a rest from our secular labors allows us one day to concentrate on matters spiritual. I can't say that I'm a perfect Sabbath observer. I do love to watch movies on Sunday afternoons, and I love cooking big meals on Sunday because I have time....yet somewhere I feel that this is not what God intended.

So the blue laws here make it so that nothing can be sold before 1PM on Sunday. There are a couple of reasons why the laws were enacted. To make sure that people went to church, to protect workers that wanted to go to church from having to work, to allow some businesses a day off when they could be sure their competitors were also closed, to have one day where the streets were calm and quiet. I like the blue laws in principle, but in practice, I don't. Let me explain.

While I wish Utah, of all places, had blue laws, I don't think Hartsville should have them.

#1 They are a relic of bygone years.
#2 They are most likely unconstitutional as presently written.
#3 Most importantly, people should keep the Sabbath because they want to, not because the law says they have to do so.

I do think that the laws serve a purpose. When I lived in Provo, Utah, the freaking see of the Holy Mormon Inquisition, I had to work on Sunday at Pizza Hut. The area coach decided that we must remain open on Sundays even though revenue was abyssmal, and every other pizza chain was closed. Because almost every single employee was Mormon, we all had to rotate shifts to work on Sundays. If we had had blue laws in Utah, we would've been protected from Yum! Brands corporate policies (All stores must be open!). I like the blue laws here because it protects workers rights....but, I think that people should want to keep the Sabbath because the love God, and not because the law says they can't.

If you must be commanded in all things, you need the law of Moses hanging over you, which Jesus fulfilled.

Also, people who aren't Christian should be free to shop on Sunday. That is, unless we can come up with some secular reasons for not merchandising on Sunday, like Bergen, New Jersey has done.

Blue Laws will be a thing of the past in about 30 years, if not sooner.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Assassination Watch

Due to recent headlines, I get the inkling that an assassination is on the horizon. I truly hope not, but there are too many people making statements and decisions that could cause others to want them dead.

For example:

1. Hugo Chavez. He has just angered ExxonMobil and ConocoPhilips by nationalizing oil fields in the Orinoco Basin that those companies paid to develop. They each spent billions of dollars. Now that both companies have walked away from the negotiating table by refusing to agree to Chavez's terms, I'd be very very concerned if I were one of his bodyguards. People that anger energy companies have a way of dying nasty deaths.

2. Salman Rushdie. Praise to the British Crown for having the courage to knight such a deserving subject. Unlike the spineless wimps at the Nobel Academy who haven't the courage to award him the prize he so obviously deserves (they might impact their butter exports to the Middle East), the British have decided to beknight one of the best authors of the 20th Century. With that said, the infantile Muslims that cannot tolerate free speech and democracy, are once again calling for his death. Hell, even the Pakistani Minister of Religion claimed that unless the Crown renounced his knighthood, a suicide bomber was justified in killing Rushdie and himself. If I were Sir Salman, I'd be very cautious for the next little while. You never know when some dimwit might decide that he is Allah's tool and take you out.

3. George W. Bush. Frankly, with as many radicals as there are that despise Bush, I am amazed that no one has really tried to assassinate him. Perhaps the real reason is that if you kill the president, then Dick Cheney would be next in line, and THAT would be even worse. Thankfully, our executive leaders are protected from wouldbe assassins by some of the best bodyguards around. The Secret Service are willing to take bullets for those they protect....amazing. Killing our president, any president, would have disastrous effects on the economy, the national psyche, etc. I am glad we live in a society where political differences don't mean that your rival will try and kill you. Even crooks like Nixon can be pardoned and forgiven. A lasting reminder of our national ability to forgive our enemies is that Jefferson Davis and R.E. Lee were not executed after their surrender, but were allowed to live out their lives at home.

I pray that no one gets assassinated!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Optimal Primer

So, as I was applying what would be the fifth coat of yellow paint to the walls of my daughter's new room yesterday , I began to cuss myself for not having used a primer. No matter what I do, you can still see the blue through the yellow. Primer is a good thing. This use of "prime" made me think of my good friend Norman Sandridge's love of the original Transformers (1986) animated theatrical release, and how his eyes would light up as he re-enacted the battle scene in Autobot City between Optimus Prime and Megatron. He would set up the scene, and then stand up as if he were blocking a doorway, and then in his best booming voice he would say "NO MEGATRON!"

As a stockholder in Hasbro, 50 shares that I bought at around $14.50 a share, I am very excited about the prospects of this movie from a capitalist point of view. Hasbro did not front any of the money, so it won't reap any of the box office, but it does own all the toy, video game, etc. sales. I am very excited.

But, I am even more excited about the movie itself. Now even though Michael Bay is the director, he of the Pearl Harbor and Armageddon train wrecks, I still think the movie has huge potential. It just plain looks cool. I wish there were some way that Norman and I could go see it together in the theatre. I don't know if we would have the same excitement as we did for the old one, but damned if it wouldn't be just good to see him.

Norman, wanna meet me in North Carolina or something?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

ABC Family: You've GOT to Be Kidding Me!

ABC Family, formally Fox Family, has a new slogan: A New Kind of Family.

With a name like ABC "Family" you would expect that the shows would be at least moderately wholesome and age appropriate, at least PG. Right?

Tonight I saw this promo for their new show Greek. Check out the video for a jaw-dropping display of what now constitutes "family" programming. This looks like a watered-down version of Entourage meets Blossom: