Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Leave It To Pnin

You are calling my phone again, but you never call twice, and I miss your call. I always seem to miss your call, and when you do not call me, I miss you calling me. The cellphone is flashing again, on the corner of the pale ceramic counter which floats in the shadows on either side of the sink, and I reach for the phone, but I have missed your call again. Call me again. I am standing in line with a loaf of French bread in my hand, a plastic bag of frozen peas, vine-ripe tomatoes, a jug of cranberry juice, I am fumbling for the phone in the pocket of my jeans, but I miss the call. You are calling me. You are calling me from your philosophy class and the labyrinth of the categorical imperative. You are calling me from the sale at the music store in the mall, from a clothes rack at H&M, you are calling me from your car and I am at the bus-stop, it is raining, it is snowing, it is sunshine and blazing, and you are calling me. I spill my thin styrofoam cup of chai, I drop my phone in the gutter by the wheel of the bus, I have missed your call. Call me again, call me, please. Call me, please, again.

"Umbrella" + Scott Simon Searching for illScarlett's version of Rihanna's hit single, I came across this version on some blog or other—and apologies to that blogger, whoever you are, because I can't remember where you are, anymore—the internet is wide. Anyways, this is Rihanna covered by a clean-living lounge singer, a man who has only one white blazer but carefully irons the lapels a couple times a week. He lives alone, in a small brick walk-up, and there are autumn leaves on the cobbled road outside. He waters his one plant, a large Boston fern he has had since he graduated from that university, and all his friends live in different cities very far away. This song, which was her song, he has made into a different song, not better, not worse, piano instead of hi-hat, him instead of her, and wonderful, of course. For when he opens his mouth, some see song, but others hear an intricate and ancient tapestry of rich hearts and longing hands, soul wide open to bare blue sky and the hail of life's clothyard arrows. No matter, the voice keeps singing, not an impersonal singer in some piano bar on the west side of the city, but a human heart full up to the brim with loving intention, lyrics, voice, hands and heart all saying, "I am here."

Vladimir Nabokov + Pnin This book reads like a Wodehouse novel without the shenanigans or the ridiculous demotic. That is, if Wodehouse's plots get a little bit fishy, then this novel's arc is a fish out of water, ill-at ease, a dead perch on the muddy beach of some Algonquin lake, and with about as much life. Of course, I spent years trying to land yellow perch, smallmouth bass, fresh water ling, anything, really, out of those small dark lakes which cut holes through the floor of the forests north of Toronto. And never got one, not even a pike. Which is to say that I appreciate having read this novel, and that I think Nabokov's subtle use of narrative flatness, his concious uniformity of tone, is a wonderful if rather extended exercise in prose. He's got some whistle-bait bits in here, and the required academia-bashing (Nabokov was a professor, after all) is lovely—

Tom thinks that the best method of teaching anything is to rely on discussion in class, which means letting twenty young blockheads and two cocky neurotics discuss for fifty minutes something that neither their teacher nor they know.

This novel was first published in The New Yorker of the 1950's, and if that doesn't tell you what kind of book this is around the gills, nothing will.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

It's Alright, Andy! It's Just Bolognese!

(a) Three hundred years of books and the English language has produced only two perfect novels—Wuthering Heights, yes, and The Good Soldier. I'd like to read something a little more modern, plz.

(b) Baseball was put on television so that people would have a reason to get off the couch and go to work and never complain about anything ever again. Ever.

(c) Nicholas Angel is the best dressed character in a film this year and I'm not talking about him wearing that police uniform, I'm talking about those button-up shirts and that rigorously-focused fashion sense.

(d) "SWAN!"

(e) My brother is maybe getting a big white super-dog, a Great Pyrenees, and what I have to say is that I wish I was getting a dog. That I didn't have to walk twice a day. Or spend $100 a month feeding. And the whole plastic bag clean-up thing. I just remembered why I don't have a dog.

(f) Hockey is great. Let's have it begin sooner. And, John Ferguson, plz, for the good of the greater good, and lest I call in the League Of Shadows on you, resign.

(g) And then there is MINESWEEPER: THE MOVIE.

Mark Twain + No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger This is a hard book to nail down, not least because of its convoluted history. To be precise, this particular story under this particular title concerns the encounter between a young boy who calls himself 44 and the protagonist, a young printer's-devil named August Feldner. 44 turns out to be a bit of an amoral genie-like creature, able to conjure up anything, including breakfast from the Civil War era southern United States. Which is peculiar, because August Feldner lives in the middle of the Middle Ages. As 44's powers are revealed, the novel takes an existentialist turn not normally associated with the work of Mark Twain, and 44 declares himself to be merely the flipside of August Feldner, a sort of duplicate or dream self of the protagonist, a being which can do whatever it wishes, since, in a universe where nothing is real, all experience and objects are equally unreal, equally accessible, equally had, done, and disposed. The book ends with a clanging declaration from 44:

It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream—a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!

Which is all very well, but how did the thought among eternities called August Feldner imagine the typical conveniences of the antebellum Old South? The book ends up playing a little fast and loose with its own rules, which is probably why Mark Twain, a stickler for integrity himself, refused to publish it, though he wrote three versions (and one of them wildly divergent) around this theme. No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger reads like an especially bitter redaction of Twain's earlier and masterful (though flawed) A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court. But whereas the dialect of that novel's protagonist served to illustrate his character and create humour and incident, the same dialect in the mouth of August Feldner is jarring at best, and, at worst, nearly inexplicable. Where the older novel successfully attacks religion, but recognizes the need for its replacement in the hearts of men, the newer novella merely dismisses religion and refuses to offer anything in its place. And where the older novel explored a rich if somehwat brutal two-way satirical effect, caustically delineating the negative effects of religion and humanity's mythologizing tendencies AND the short-coming of modern technology and its negative usage, the newer more bitter novel discredits not the teaching of religion, but its clergymen, and the resulting credulousness of the populace. Note, by the way, that while 44's magical activities are always validated, so, too, in the beginning of No. 44 are the either miraculous coincidences or flat-out miracles witnessed by the Church. I get the point that Twain is making, that the miracles are frauds, because nothing is real, and everything is therefore as real as one wishes, but, then, why does such clarification even matter as long as everyone gets whatever reality one wants, including the miraculous? And even getting what one wants does not matter, not, since what one wants is an illusion according to 44 and according to Twain's estimate of religion and the Church. This book is bitter and without true substance, and should probably be read only by hungry English majors in search of a thesis to ground some fairly barren existential observations.