Okazaki Read A Thing: Night Film

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Warning: Very Vague Spoilers

I wanted to like this book. I really did. I waited behind an electronic holds queue of 50 people to check it out of the library. I forgave the publisher’s vulgar, gimmicky, and frankly classist decision to fill the book with “easter eggs” the reader can access with an iPhone app. I rode the bus to the library in the bleak November…okay, that’s overdoing it, but you get the idea.

Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, made a big impression on me a few years back. In fact, I reread it twice. Special Topics is dark and precocious, with the kind of awesome twist ending that explains what came before without providing improbably perfect closure for the characters. It is a wonderful rainy day mystery/bildungsroman and it comes highly recommended. So when I heard that young Pessl finally had a new book out after seven years, I was thrilled.

Night Film begins cinematically when Scott McGrath, a disgraced journalist, encounters a strange red-coated woman during a jog through Central Park. He later learns that she was Ashley Cordova, the daughter of reclusive movie director Stanislav Cordova, and that she committed suicide soon after the sighting. McGrath seeks both professional redemption and abstract truth as he launches an investigation into her and her father, an investigation that will take him into the dark heart of artistic expression and to the very limits of human understanding. It’s a great highbrow-mystery premise, and if I didn’t admire many aspects of this book I wouldn’t have kept reading. Many of the book’s setpieces are wonderfully chilling, and the descriptions of Cordova’s films were so enthralling that I wished they were real. I also enjoyed Pessl’s insights into creativity and how the internet age might affect it:

I know it’s hard to fathom today, but a true artist needs darkness in order to create. It gives him his power. His invisibility. The less the world knows about him, his whereabouts, his origins and secret methods, the more strength he has.

So yes, a book worth reading, a book better than most of the flotsam that issues from our publishing houses. But also a book with flaws. Pessl built a well-oiled machine of a plot, but the human element often eludes her; I fear that at this point in her career, she is one of those authors who can’t write the opposite sex.

Pessl’s method as a prose stylist is to fire similes at the reader and hope that her talent can make most of them stick. A maltese strides across the floor “like a tiny Thanksgiving day parade float”; a woman ducks into a car “fast as a burrowing mole.” Many of these similes charm, but others confuse: “The place felt clinical and claustrophobic, like a train compartment.” Of course train compartments are claustrophobic, but since when are they clinical? This hit-or-miss strategy worked well in Special Topics, when the narrator was a gifted college student who might realistically write her memoirs in such a fussy, affected, occasionally brilliant voice. In Night Film we are listening to a middle-aged male investigative reporter, and the avalanches of twee similes come across as clumsy and odd. They become downright uncomfortable when Pessl must describe secondary characters who are not white – a Japanese doorman is “The Last Samurai,” while a hispanic man in a green shirt has “a certain tropical authority.” The reader is left unsure as to whether this is meant to suggest that McGrath is mildly racist or whether it’s just pulpy, outdated writing.

The prose reflects a more general problem with characterization. McGrath is meant to be a hard-boiled investigative reporter in the tradition of film noir, but even reporters have to have feelings at some point. They have to get horny when an attractive woman flirts with them, they have to get pissed when a lead goes nowhere, they have to fight back tears when their child is taken away. They definitely have to laugh – growing up, I spent time in the newsroom where my dad worked, and I learned that journalism is one of the laughing professions. McGrath snarks but never laughs, like Daria. He only demonstrates a realistic degree of vitality when he or another character is in physical danger; otherwise, he comes across as a robot who generates sarcastic similes, stalks the Cordova family, and burns through endless disposable income (the book’s true mystery.) McGrath’s two twentysomething sidekicks, Hopper and Nora, are also underdeveloped, with the additional traits of being annoying and speaking in long, complex paragraphs.

Also, Night Film has a problematic ending. Without giving too much away, it has a Life of Pi ending, one of those choose-your-own-worldview monstrosities that think they’re saying something profound about science and faith when they’re really the “And then I woke up” of the 21st century. If this were a starred review, I would remove an entire star for this. Then again, Life of Pi endings may be a personal pet peeve. If you don’t mind them, then you’ll probably find this to be a B to A- novel. Pessl is a remarkably inventive young writer who is still finding her voice; even though I was somewhat disappointed in Night Film, I still want to read her next book, which will hopefully come out in less that seven years.

I have a crush on Bartleby

 

 

I want to sail the seven seas with you...

I want to sail the seven seas with you…

 

“I would prefer not to.”

These words, uttered again and again by the titular figure in Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener,  comprise a riddle that torments today’s literary critics just as surely as they torment the Manhattan lawyer who serves as the novella’s narrator. According to Professor Arnold Weinstein, whose Coursera offering I have been enjoying very much these past three weeks, the postmodern consensus is that Bartleby isn’t even a character – the copyist who would prefer not to is either a metaphysical challenge to a lawyer’s humanity or a symbol of the death of storytelling. These readings are certainly justified. One cannot behold Bartleby standing inert in the middle of the office “like the last column of some deserted temple” without imagining him as an object or a symbol; this is a person who cares so little for himself that he starves to death after deciding that he would prefer not to eat.

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My book club is the best book club

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Welcome to yet another installment of my semi-weekly series “The Things I Do On Sunday Instead of Church.” Previous installments have concerned birding, but this week I get to share some thoughts on what has become the highlight of my month: book club.

I attend book club with my aunt, who was part of the original group that formed around a grand effort to read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – members still call it the Proust Book Club, even though the original group finished In Search of Lost Time years ago. We meet in a Panera Bread, among earnest college students fiddling with laptops. Meeting in a dry establishment is perhaps our noblest and most fruitful innovation as a book club. We are trailblazers for temperance.

I joined less than two years ago, when the club decided to tackle the works of Thomas Mann. My membership didn’t make sense in light of the demographics of the club – it’s mostly older, highly educated women and older, exquisitely cultured gay men – so I had to do all the reading, speak up often, and take risks to prove myself. This was ultimately successful and more than worth the effort. I’ve become a bit of a class clown, though – I’m the sprightly, irreverent millennial who can be depended upon to say things like “He puts the bi back in Bible!” That’s fine, as these people are my friends.

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An awkward shiksa’s encounters with Holocaust literature

Too painful to read more than once a year.

This book is too painful to read more than once a year. Trust me, I’ve tried.

I love Holocaust literature. It seems a little weird, to declare one’s love for something so unenjoyable, but there you go. I’d say it’s a combination of the thoroughly fascinating history (I read nonfiction about both World Wars as well), the high literary quality of many works I’ve found, and certain personal factors which I shall explore here. Note that this is not a strictly informative post. Strictly informative posts may be forthcoming, however.

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Grandiose suicide in France

Wow.

Dominique Venner, a 78-year-old French historian known for his right-wing views, shot himself at the altar of the Notre Dame cathedral today. His manifesto states that he was protesting the legalization of same-sex marriage, which he believes will make Europeans too dissolute to face up to radical Islam:

New actions, both spectacular and symbolic, are needed to shake us from our sleep-like stupor and reawaken our sense of tradition. We are entering into a time when talk must be supported by actions

This is one of those news stories I wish were a novel, because I want to sit by my window on a rainy afternoon and tease out the motivations, rationalizations, and secret miseries of the people involved. Venner was an old man, not exactly an idiot, living in a culture he felt had left him behind. Gay marriage was the straw that broke the camel’s back – but why? I remember the monk who self-immolated to protest the Vietnam war, and I can easily imagine a very intense Catholic doing the same to protest abortion (which very intense Catholics believe to be a form of genocide), but there is something so pathetic, so neurotic, so wretched about killing oneself over gay marriage. There had to be some deep unhappiness spurring him on. I wonder if this was a case of a man too educated and intelligent to realize that he was suffering from clinical depression, or if he was secretly gay, or if he was so terrified of dying an average, meaningless death that he decided to take the nearest shortcut to martyrdom.

It reminds me of the suicide of Yukio Mishima. Yukio Mishima was the brilliant author of such works as The Sea of Tranquility, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and The Sound of the Waves. In 1970, he attempted to overthrow the democratic Japanese government and reinstall the emperor as the unquestioned god-ruler of Japan, and he committed ritual seppuku when the coup failed.

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Mishima at the height of his beefcake period

Mishima was a reactionary dreamer who struggled to live by the code of the samurai in the modern world. His grand, philosophical novels, even those written years before the failed coup, dwell on themes of suicide and the value of violent, seemingly irrational public gestures. His private life was bizarre; he was clearly gay even though he married and had two children, and he founded a militia (filled with attractive young men) based on traditional Japanese values. His suicide begs the question of whether smart, politically engaged people have more complex reasons for destroying themselves than the average person, or if they give that impression because they provide wordy, obfuscating explanations for their simple fears, numbnesses, and griefs.

Will France be overcome by nationalism and religiosity after bearing witness to Venner’s spectacular, symbolic act? Probably no more than Japan was after Mishima’s death. A headline already frames it as a waste: “Suicide Closes Notre Dame in Paris, Saddening Many Tourists”

Death By Freud: The Top 11 Lessons Books Taught Me About Sex

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If you grew up anywhere in the world besides an tiny, experimental Swedish boarding school run by sex researchers, it’s likely that the cerebral (that is, non-experiential) side of your erotic education was cobbled together from any number of unreliable sources – peers, media, strangers on the street, and, at rare intervals, your perpetually embarrassed and terrified elders. For most Americans my age, “media” meant music, the Internet, television, and movies, but a few of us were old-school nerds who learned – and would later have to unlearn – a great deal from books.

I hate to think I might be fanning the flames of censorship by writing this, but books can be just as bad a source for sex education as Jay-Z songs and RedTube. Sex scenes in novels tend to be idealized, disturbingconfusingly symbolic, or some combination of the three. Nonfiction is no panacea either: you just don’t know if a voracious, independent reader is going to end up in the attic with Ready, Set, Grow!or a biography of Caligula and a box of Freud’s old case studies. What’s more, the philistinism of American society encourages parents of bookish teenagers to adopt policies of either blanket censorship or a total lack of oversight and discussion. The “My Weird Early Experiences With Sexuality In Literature” post has now become a staple of book blogs, and get ready because I’m about to jump on that crazy train.

1. Suicide as Afterplay: Madame Bovary, Sophie’s Choice, The Virgin Suicides, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Anna Karenina, etc.

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