Friday, May 15, 2015

Is this where... we came in?

I wrote this piece for another project, but I had this class in mind while writing it. It is a nice summary to my blogging for this class, so I will review it and post it below. 

Didactic Paint Smears

From the position of someone undergoing the process of “coming of age”, writing about “coming of age” presents several pitfalls that must be avoided if the work presented is to come across as anything less than pretentious (there is irony here that such a proposition may itself be a pitfall I am tumbling into blindly). The main difficulty for a younger writer when exploring the general coming of age theme is to refrain from writing about it in any semi-analytic, intelligent way. There is a reason that all the great coming of age novels (which are all as semi-analytic and intelligent as other classic fiction novels) are written by adults who are looking back on their youth. From the vantage point of having come of age, one’s “coming of age” years can be held in a more objective light, accessible to the general public. However, the raw emotion, generally unfiltered personality, and cruder style found in younger writing can still provide insight into universally relatable human emotion--into the human experience.  

I can’t define what the human experience is. To do so would take something away from it. I can only understand and explain the human condition in the form of pictures. Snapshots. Vignettes of a collective human culture and collective emotion. These pictures can be found in old folk songs or stories your grandparents tell you. They make your stomach feel heavy. They make you feel alive.

I see a man alone in a smokey blues bar, sipping gin and staring into nothing. Click.
I see my great grandmother’s old maid: a hundred year old black lady named Ruthie who makes the meanest biscuits around and drives a red cadillac. Click.
I see a shuffling shrimp boat captain with his bible tucked away for whenever the rain lets up. Click.
I see myself waking early in the morning to hold someone I love, wrapping my arms around them, watching them wake. Click.

I want to live these pictures. Breathe them in like air. All the food, the music, the work, the heartbreak, and the love. I want to translate these experiences into words, paintings, songs. Before you know it, snapshots of the “human experience” are piled up in front of you like stacks of dirty dishes. Our brain is wired to filter a myriad of raw data and translate it into images and sensations that are easier to work with, but when confronted with the task of choosing a degree to study, a place to move to, a profession to learn, and a life to live, I freeze up. A lot of us do.

In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the narrator, Esther, uses a different metaphor to explain her idea of the “human experience”. She equates each experience--each snapshot--to a fig:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Esther’s indetermination is one of the defining characteristics of a “coming of age”. The dangers of not picking a path to walk down are more potent than the dangers of picking the wrong path.

I want to bite every fig; live every picture. But what happens if you do? Do you ever really taste any of the figs? I could work on an Australian cattle ranch for six months, study Italian in Milan for a year, and then spend a few months in Nigeria writing a novel or banging around on a drumset, Ginger Baker style. But at the end of it, would I have really lived any of those experiences? It seems fake. Like trying to understand a culture during a vacation. And writing about it seems even worse. You wouldn’t just be fake, but a sort of literary minstrel as well, pretending to be these people you aren’t, for the sake of your work. Showcasing their entire life in a poem or song, pretending that you understand them with a few months of their life under your belt.

But then what does that leave me to write about? What other choices are there but to grab onto a few figs and miss out on the rest, or to try to grab all of the figs and miss out on the substance of any of them?

Maybe it won’t seem fake in a few years. Or maybe it will seem impossible in a few years. But my feelings now are as real as my feelings then will be in the future. Not confronting the problems of coming of age--of finding happiness and meaning by exploring  and adding to the human experience-- in the hope that things will make sense in the future when I develop a pre-frontal cortex and get a degree and a job (essentially randomly letting a few figs hit you in the head), is in itself a failure of the coming of age process.

We have to wrestle with these questions. Think about them, dream about them, and write about them. Then we can learn who we are, what we need, and where to go to find the figs that make us happy. And at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.

Thoughts about the Beach

The setting of Sag Harbor immediately grabbed my attention, and throughout my reading it has remained my favorite element of the novel.

My great grandfather built a house on the South Carolina coast in the 1960s, in a small commercial town called Garden City. Located on a peninsula, the "Beach House" as we all call it (original, I know) has remained a staple of my childhood. I've been able to compare my own experiences at the Beach House to Benji's, and contemplate how it has played into my own coming of age.

The most noticeable difference between Sag and Garden City is that Sag Harbor is a group of families that own their houses and come out every year for months on end while Garden City is mostly rental houses that flood with all sorts of folks every... Saturday? I think Saturday is the "move in" day. Wait, maybe it's Sunday. In any case, those are very different situations. For most of my life, trips to the Beach House have been very family orientated. Whether it's play Axis and Allies with my dad, lugging over beach equipment with my family in a grotesque caravan of poking chairs and prodding umbrellas, sandy and salt stained books and nearly empty sunscreen bottles, torn bags and sloshing coolers, rusty shovels and the blister-inducing boogie boards, or going out to eat at the K&W Cafeteria (best roast beef on earth I swear... good coconut cream pie as well), I was with my family. Benji, on the other hand... is without his parents for the majority of the novel (and for the majority of his summer vacation). I'm certainly envious. Having a group of friends down there would certainly be more fun, but I'm not sure how it would influence my coming of age. It might work on it in a different way, with less of an emphasis on philosophical values and a greater emphasis on social values. Benji also spends way more time at the Beach. Months instead of weeks. Without a social group that would be terrible!

Recently though that family dynamic has changed for me (a natural product of coming of age, as I'm sure many of us can relate to). Last winter break I was prone to long walks on the beach (down to the "point" of the Garden City peninsula--where you can hunt for bird bones in the dunes and watch the point where the harbor empties through to the sea--or operating a four-fishing-rod solo operation out on our dock (no luck... no damn luck...just lost bait!). I did had my music. Dark Side of the Moon and Dylan were usual company out on the--sometimes frigid--beach treks (even in South Carolina, January is pretty damn cold), and Lightnin Hopkins was out there fishin' with me. And honestly there aren't better places to think and reflect than out on an empty beach with some Pink Floyd or fishing in the rain with Lightnin Hopkins. Trying to pin down how these two weeks influenced my coming of age would be difficult, it's not something you "unlock", but a gradual evolution to the way you think and appreciate things. You approach things differently. You feel older, possibly more melancholic, certainly more careful, like you've been stomping around all the time and have just became conscious of how loud you've been. The sights and smells of the beach--Yum Yum's ice cream, the salty breeze, waves battering the shore, dune grass waving in the sunlight... you notice them all more. It's not a Stephen Daedelus level epiphany, but it is a change. I'm not sure you would get the same effect if you're around others a lot. That is, if I was out having BB fights with friends I certainly wouldn't have been staring at my motionless bobbers, noticing the fractals in the water and studying a crane try to find a fish to eat for half an hour. One's not better than the other, they're just fundamentally different situations.

I can't really say that I relate to Benji's experience. It's much easier to contrast my own experiences to his, because they are very different, but take place over the same "backdrop".

Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time,
Far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, 
Out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, 
Circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate,
Driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today
Until tomorrow.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Madam Crommelynck

I think one reason that Mitchell painted Jason's schoolteachers as extremely nasty is so they would later act as a contrast to the person who turns out to be a much more better teacher than any of the school teachers: Madame Commelynck. Her advice in regards to poetry, literature, and language have immediate impact on Stephen (translating that French book for example). Furthermore, like Hugo, she acts as a character that shows Stephen that its OK to write poems. Hugo does it by liking poetry *and* being cool. Madame Commelynck simple says screw everyone else, if they think you're gay for writing poems they're bafoons.

She's an interesting character because, while she seems very cultured and knowledgeable, when she started talking about living next to Charlie Chaplin and all those other famous people I felt a hint that she might not really be everything she makes herself out to be. I don't really have any concrete evidence... the whole situation just seems really weird. And then, to make things weirder, she gets extradited. Are you kidding me? Mitchell is totally playing with us.

"Hey, here's this cool character who's helping Jason with his poetry and overcome his inhibitions aaaaand she's extradited"

All in all, Solarium is kind of a weird chapter. We'll have to see how Jason responds to his short experience with a great teacher and how this effects his membership with the Spooks

Friday, April 10, 2015

What did you bring me to keep me from the gallows pole?

Jason's personification of his stammer, Hangman, is another element of his colorful imagination (Millennium Falcon, ghost boy on the lake, etc.).

The personification is sort of haunting. The Hangman makes cruel decisions on his own, has his own commandments, and comes and goes as he pleases. He's almost biblical... When he's temporarily defeated by Ms. de Roo, she beats it using her "white magic". He seems to come at the worst times, and recedes when Jason's with Ms. de Roo. It's like... he knows. All of this is almost comical from our perspective, but from Jason's perspective this really is a haunting figure due to both how dangerous the Hangman can be socially and also probably just how annoying it is to have to change words so often.

We talked in class about how it was hinted at that Jason can't full suppress the hangman. When he is excused by the teacher from doing his vocal presentation, a classmate disappointingly asks if Jason will be doing a presentation the next week. The guys are just waiting for him to slip up and really screw up (rather than a short pause) in public. Later we see the hangman strike again in math class, where Jason has to look stupid in order to not stammer (this again shows how important social status is and how damaging stammering would be). All of this contributes to a sort of looming impending doom that this social situation presents.

The hangman presents a problem that must be solved. What will Jason bring to keep him from the gallows pole? 

Also, an interesting fact... The Hangman comes from author David Mitchell's person experiences. "I try to cultivate a conviction which states this: "I may stammer on this word, yes, and I may look like I'm being strangled by an invisible man, but if that makes you uncomfortable, then that's 100% your problem and 0% mine."  

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


The character of Sylvie is unique among any of the characters we've encountered so far in the sense that she doesn't explore philosophical or coming of age concepts (like Holden, Esther, etc.) but rather embodies some of those concepts herself.

Chapter 8, when Ruth is put in the position to experience Sylvie's world, and the subsequent fallout of that night, forces us to address how we feel about Sylvie--a detached transient-- raising two children. In doing so, Housekeeping forces you to think about your views on the nature of transience in the context of a rather rigidly formed society.

The question of where these transients fit into society, especially into the role of raising kids, is more difficult the more you attack it. On one hand, if children are raised under a strict "Home Ec Teacher" discipline, could this way of life be damaging to those children who are naturally "transient"? And if children are raised under a Sylvie discipline, could this way of life be damaging to those children who will find greatest happiness in order and stability?

Housekeeping might make the case that such questions are irrelevant. Sylvie did, after all, grow to live a transient lifestyle after spending her whole childhood. And Lucille did, after all, escape from Sylvie to find a more stable life. In fact, the grandfather could be another example, running from his childhood stability Iowan homeland. Perhaps, if the nature of transience (or lack of transience) is a natural part of a person (as the novel seems to imply), it doesn't really matter who raises you.

However, someone pointed out in class (I think Coleman) that it's easy to have transient people in a heavily structured world (a world where most people are "stable" or whatever), but it's harder (or impossible) to have structure in a world where most people are transient, because society relies on a vast network of people subscribing to the same set of ideals and such, but transience doesn't. Maybe that's part of where most of our inner uncomfort comes from the idea of Sylvie raising children. But mostly, I think it's because wasps and leaves in the corner and moldy, dripping couches is just kind of gross.

"It's about the immensely resourceful sadness of a certain kind of American, someone who has fallen out of history and is trying to invent a life without assistance of any kind, without even recognizing that there are precedents. It is about a woman who is so far from everyone else that it would be presumptuous to put a name to her frame of mind." -New York Times article on Housekeeping

Does Housekeeping really portray Sylvie (or Sylvie's type of person--a transient) as a sad concept? I suppose the whole letting the soggy couch dry on its own and sweeping leaves into the corner of the house might be there simply to make us go "ARG look at this sad was of living!", but classroom discussion on these subjects was generally much more forgiving and I certainly didn't feel that Housekeeping tried to completely paint transience in a negative light.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Writing Styles and Other Stuff ("Another ramble")

The more I read Catcher in the Rye, the more I understood why it is seen as one of the great novels of the 20th century, specifically in American culture. It deserves all the credit it is given. I found Holden to be the most relatable character I've ever read. I also "understand" Holden better than just about any other character I've ever read (the only character I feel I understand more is Bob Slocum from Joseph Heller's "Something Happened", and that's probably because its 600 pages of stream of conscious instead of 250 pages of personal narration).The prose of Catcher is what makes it such a genius work. The story/plot itself isn't top-tier, and it shouldn't be. However, I think critics of Catcher may dismiss the plot too quickly. It's not like Holden is going to school for 200 pages. He's doing some pretty crazy things for a teenager. Going to bars, walking the streets alone, paying a prostitute, etc. If we had a book with a page turning, mechanically calculated, precise and stunning plot (Great Gatsby comes to mind as well as several Stephen King novels and some Fantasy novels), we would lose what makes Catcher Catcher.

I think if most authors tried to write the plot of Catcher, it wouldn't be that great. However, one of my favorite quotes by my second favorite Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson is something like "a terrible writer can take a genius plot and make it suck. A great writer can take a terrible plot and make it great". (Warning: slight tangent!) For an example, he used the fact that his friend got into an argument about what makes a great author. His friend's basic argument is that writing is mostly about mechanical skill, not crazy epiphanies and seemingly divine inspiration (sort of contrary to Stephen Daedelus, eh?). His friend then said something similar to the above quote, that great writers could turn a crappy idea into a great novel. The person he was arguing gave him a challenge: write a decent novel who's plot was based on two things: (1) Pokemon (2) The Roman Empire. Sanderson's friend took the bet and tried to write a novel. And he got published. I'll try to find the novel (I've found it before but have never got around to reading it).

I think JD Salinger is a perfect example of a great writer. This guy could literally narrate a baseball game in Holden's voice and I would love it (and so would millions of other people). He achieved a state of both commercial success and academic legitimacy, which I think is the hallmark of a great book (something that's not pulp fiction or purely academic jargon).

Plath's and Joyce's writing styles are also very good, but I don't think they're as universal as Salinger's. Well, maybe Joyce's was in his day. Ulysses, for example, still has some amazing lines.

Check out these two, for example, and see if they resonate with you.

The first is when Leopold is riding along in a carriage to a funeral, and there's this really awkward moment where another guy is talking about how bad suicide is (very bad for catholics) and he doesn't know that Leopold's dad killed himself. Anyways, during the ride Joyce drops this on us (it's a memory of Leopold's):

"That afternoon of the inquest. The redlabelled bottle on the table. The room in the hotel with hunting pictures. Stuffy it was. Sunlight through the slats of the Venetian blinds. The coroner's ears, big and hairy. Boots giving evidence. Thought he was asleep at first. Then saw like yellow streaks on his face. Had slipped down to the foot of the bed. Verdict: overdose. Death by misadventure. The Letter. For my son Leopold. No more pain. Wake no more. Nobody owns." 

Jesus christ that's almost as emotionally heavy as Plath!

And an example of how he makes a newspaper machine interesting (and somewhat deep):

"Sllt. The nethermost deck of the first machine jogged forward its flyboard with sllt the first batch of quirefolded papers. Sllt. Almost human the way it sllt to call attention. Doings its best to speak. That door too sllt creaking, asking to be shut. Everything speaks in its own way Sllt." 

Plath also has amazing prose for her heavy hitting, grey style. But I'm not sure if she's as universal of an author. I definitely wouldn't want to watch a baseball game narrated by Esther. It would probably just depress the hell out of me (GO AWAY HOLDEN!). The thing I like about Plath's prose it that it really does feel poetic. There's lots of imagery, colors, etc. I find it somewhat similar to White Boy Shuffle in that sense (although the tones are very different, I find the prose to be very poetic in both). Bell Jar definitely has a more complete plot than something like Catcher though.

So I'm not really sure what I'm trying to say with all this. Just that JD's prose is amazingly universal and that I think that the ability to write good prose and turn anything (such as pokemon in ancient rome) into good fiction is the defining trait of a good author.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Lady Lazarus Analysis

This is not a strict analysis but just some dotted thoughts. Feel free to comment your own thoughts or disagreements on any points I make.

Lady Lazarus feels like it belongs with Daddy. I don't mean that they cover the same subject, but that they feel like chapters in the same book. While Daddy illuminates facts about the narrator's life through the lens of talking about another person (her father), Lady Lazarus takes a much more direct approach.

It's mostly about suicide.

At the beginning:

"I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it--"

What has she done again? A suicide attempt.

And then we have a few stanzas which show how... uneasy she is about herself? About life?
Lines such as: "A sort of walking miracle, my skin / Bright as a Nazi lampshade" Are certainly not positive feeling images. Sour breath, peeling skin, it all has a quality of death and uneasiness. Then she says "soon, soon the flesh / the grave cave at will be / at home on me", basically saying she's close to attempting suicide again. The "peanut crunching crowd" feels like it's Mr Gordon, "unwrapping" the narrator.

There's some dark humor halfway through: "Dying / is an art, like everything else / I do it exceptionally well". Of course we know she doesn't do it exceptionally well.

Crudely, in the second half of the poem the narrator talks about how she dreams(?) of committing suicide: burning herself alive ("Melts to a shriek / I turn and burn") and letting others find nothing left of her but ash and the jewelry she was wearing.

The last stanza also seems very important:

"Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air"

This sort of resembles the discomfort Esther has for men in a more extreme way. It feels like the whole red hair rising out of ash could be a allusion, or maybe she just used red hair because it relates to fire.