If you don’t have a purpose, pick one for yourself

The New Yorker‘s “Briefly Noted” book review section (behind a paywall, but check here if you’re curious) has a review Very Recent History that displays all the telltale signs of pointlessly plotless modern novels: adrift protagonists; problems with few or no important stakes; expecting the world to be automatically interesting, instead of you being interesting to the world; consumption for its own sake rather than for the sake of pleasure. Even the language of the review is stupid, saying that Very Recent History “serves to underscore the sense of trauma that is daily life in a late-capitalist moment.”

What? How do we know this is “a late capitalist moment?” Assuming capitalism as such dates to the 18th Century and, say, Adam Smith, and is the dominant organization of successful societies in 200 years, this is a “mid capitalist moment.” And there is little or no “sense of trauma” in “daily life” for most urban dwellers: If you want fucking trauma, try getting gassed in Syria, or AIDS in much of Africa, or live as one of hundreds of millions of people without electricity or running water in India. Get some fucking perspective people. Being laid off from a white-collar job is not the same as being shot by the regime’s uniformed thugs.

The other funny thing, as a friend mentioned in an e-mail, is that “no novelist who manages to write an entire book and get it mentioned in the major media is anything like those adrift protagonists; that’s someone with purpose.”

There’s a whole genre of these novels about people who behave stupidly in transparent ways. My favorite example is Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, because it helped crystallize the problem for me, though there are many others examples. It’s also not a badly written book. These kinds of novels can actually be fabulously well-written, and have all sorts of brilliant micro observations. Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children fits this designation. All those wonderful sentences about a bunch of boring fools leading unimportantly literary lives in New York. I wanted one of them to get a job as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan instead of debating about whether they should Follow Their Muse or sell out.

The Emperor’s Children is an example of the apparently growing number of people who have no direction or purpose in life and choose not to have one. Call it the Girls problem, which is not having real problems while simultaneously not trying anything and not knowing about anything.

About the TV show Girls: it has probably engendered more essays about it than viewers, but my fiancée and I watched the first couple episodes and the beginnings of a couple episodes after that, but it was too dumb to keep going: the characters were privileged morons. I wanted to climb in the TV and say, “Hey! There are real problems out there! People are starving in various places! Science is finding and doing all kinds of awesome stuff. Programs need to be written. There are sick people in hospitals and children who need education. Why don’t you all get real fucking jobs?”

I would love to see one of the girls on Girls get a job as an ER nurse or doctor. They’d learn a little about what’s fucking important. Or they could be working on democracy in Guinea. None of the characters in Girls appear to be learning how to paint, draw, write education grants, keep tropical fish, hack, solder, cook, sew… the list goes on. None seem to appreciate that SpaceX is sending rockets into space and is probably our best collective shot at visiting Mars in the next 40 years. Wow!

Whole industries are being shaken and rebuilt all around us (publishing, for example, by the colossus in Seattle).

Their collective response to this, however, is to continue to gaze lovingly at the lint gathered in their own navels, and to wonder why people aren’t beating a path to their door to offer them fame and fortune. Hell, they can’t even make the bad sex they’re sometimes having into a politically or intellectually interesting act, as someone like Catherine Millet or Toni Bentley can. They have no sense of the past. They have no sense beyond the most rudimentary knowledge of other cultures. They’re not trying to be an amazing novelist like Anne Patchett.


Warning: spoilers ahead.

Normally this blog focuses on books, but Cloverfield is the rare film with sufficient depth and impact to make it worth a full post, with the second viewing more profound than the first. Cloverfield speaks to modern anxieties about fear, terrorism, and response more effectively than most movies, full stop, let alone horror movies.

The monster itself in Cloverfield is unexplained, much as 9/11 took the vast majority of Americans by surprise—even those who were nominally supposed to guard against such events. The only hint regarding the title comes at the beginning, with a brief video indicating that we’re about to watch a Department of Defense video related to “Cloverfield,” but with no other sign of the name’s meaning, if any. The shot functions like a false “translator’s preface” or statement of authenticity at the beginning of many older novels that claims historical authenticity. Still, it reassures us that civilization—or at least the Department of Defense—has survived the attack long enough to create the video.

The first twenty minutes are a party like too many I’ve been to, except, this being Hollywood, with more attractive participants. Filmed chiefly by Hud, a character notable chiefly for his passivity and lack of character, the movie really begins with reports of the monster and then the lights being extinguished. On the Manhattan streets, a wall of dust rolls toward people—like in videos of the World Trade Center’s collapse. The head of the Statue of Liberty rolls through the street, indicating that perhaps liberty itself has died, or at least has within the monster’s zone. A character says, “I saw it. It’s alive,” leaving the “it” floating in space, imagination filling in the details.

The monster’s purpose, aside from terror, if any, is mysterious, and the response to the unnamed monster becomes steadily more draconian as the movie continues. Over time, the responses to 9/11, especially regarding air traffic and civil rights have become more draconian, culminating to the point that airports, flying, and foreign travel are now burdens that grow more onerous over time (see here, here, and especially the discussion of the apt phrase “security theater” in Bruce Schneier’s philosophical book concerning the modern age, Beyond Fear, which is available free here). Books like The Lucifer Effect demonstrate the effects of systems designed to dehumanize people—and such books are, for the moment, mostly ignored, like distant shooting in a war zone. As Cloverfield continues the constant drone of war in the background becomes like modern cable news. I recently started teaching college freshmen, and the other day I was talking to a guy who made an offhand comment that in turn made me realize that, to him, we’ve virtually always been fighting wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.

In this atmosphere, movies are beginning to reflect the larger world, as art always does. Ross Douthat wrote wrote an excellent piece on contemporary movies called The Return of the Paranoid Style, which analyzes movies as a rerun of the 70s:

Conservatives such as Noonan hoped that 9/11 would bring back the best of the 1940s and ’50s, playing Pearl Harbor to a new era of patriotism and solidarity. Many on the left feared that it would restore the worst of the same era, returning us to the shackles of censorship and conformism, jingoism and Joe McCarthy. But as far as Hollywood is concerned, another decade entirely seems to have slouched round again: the paranoid, cynical, end-of-empire 1970s.

We expected John Wayne; we got Jason Bourne instead.

The essay is not easily excerpted, and is worth reading in full. Cloverfield doesn’t fit well in its thesis: the movie contains little in the way of overt politics, but whether intentionally or not, its manifestations of current fears about monsters that don’t die when we attack with airstrikes or even ground forces. Although Cloverfield is symbolic of fears regarding attack, one of its strengths is its refusal to be partisan. The military is depicted heroically, and there is little in Cloverfield that indicate self-flagellation. It is all immediate reaction and fear, and, like terrorism, tends to leave us with more questions than answers.

An essay in Terry Teachout’s Reader called “Beasts and Superbeasts” observes “nothing thrills us more than stories implying that there are dark forces in the world too powerful to be tamed by human hands.” This was in 1999; he also wrote that “Of late […] cinematic horror has entered a decadent phase in which vampires have mostly given way to serial killers whose murderous frenzies are coolly explained away by psychiatrist-sleuths, while semi-satirical movies like Scream openly spoof the all-too-familiar conventions of the genre […]” Maybe 9/11 has allowed us to return to the mystery of devils walking among us, the unexplained or poorly explained, and the terrifying unknown. It’s not the monster that scares us in Alien, but the fact that we don’t know where the monster is, don’t know why it operates as it does, and can’t reason with it. In Cloverfield, the monster scares us for our inability to understand it or attack it with bullets and bombs.

The impetus for “Beasts and Superbeasts” was The Blair Witch Project, a movie that, “[…] though hugely entertaining, is not especially scary, no doubt because it was all too clearly made by people who do not believe in the demons whose presence they have so cunningly implied.” Although Teachout overstates the case against The Blair Witch Project, as it is scary in more than a “gotcha!” way to me, recalling as it does those times in the woods, his general principle is true. If The Blair Witch Project reflects the decadent 90s in that respect, Cloverfield aesthetically and artistically benefits from the opposite in the 2000s, as the idea of an attack against New York isn’t a fantasy or goblin any longer. That’s bad for the United States but can lend heft to movies. Cloverfield takes its subject seriously, as Teachout argues The Sixth Sense. That’s not to say it has no jokes, usually relating to Hud’s obliviousness, but it has more emotional power thanks to its resonance with events.

Too many recent novels and movies take the first twenty minutes of Cloverfield and extend them onwards and upwards. The bored lassitude of 20-something partiers captured so well by Claire Messud in The Emperor’s Children is evident in the first fifth of Cloverfield, and its cameraman never escapes from the semi-hipster attitude of overgrown children. The characters are smaller-than-life, and their own motivations are barely more articulated than the monster’s—their inchoateness is itself a commentary on the kinds of unexamined lives that seem not uncommon. The difference between Cloverfield and its competitors, and one reason it passes Teachout’s “Beast and Superbeasts” tests, is that it is about something beyond itself, unlike, say, Garden State or London, the latter a smaller movie like Cloverfield but without the monster.

This essay has a central weakness built into its reading of horror and politics in that those who flew planes into buildings were human, as are those who order bombs dropped on cities from 20,000 feet. The motivation for either may appear foreign to those on the receiving end, but it is not wholly un-understandable; Al-Queda regularly posts video haranguing the West, however illogically or unfairly, and the toxic conditions of Afghanistan were a product of a long line of cultural and historical developments. As Charlie Wilson’s War observes, we did to aid in the construction of our Frankenstein’s monster, though we didn’t notice until after the fact. We blundered in Baghdad, as James Fallows argues, though Iraq might eventually become stable. We feel as if 9/11 came from nowhere, like the unnamed monster does in Cloverfield, whose very lack of identifier is appropriate: 9/11 has stuck to the event and day, but it’s an odd moniker, almost by default, especially compared to other infamous events that come with location signifiers (Pearl Harbor, Gulf of Tonkin). Still, it’s worth remembering the danger of creating an unknowable other who is easier to demonize in a Lord of the Flies style. The markers tying Cloverfield and terrorism are still there, however, and its warning of the dangers worth remembering.

It’s presidential campaign season, and candidates in both parties are eagerly trying to avoid being associated with the foreign policy snafus of the last five years that are the equivalent of shooting missiles that aren’t effective, as America veers dangerously between wanting to pull out altogether from our “adventure” in Iraq and the temptation to continue striding about the world without paying enough attention to whether we’re about to step on an unexpected landmine. Countries we should be paying more attention to, like many former Soviet Republics, get short shrift, as Douthat says in a blog post, while Iraq and Afghanistan pull more than their weight thanks to the relative size of our commitments there. The worrying thing is that the total focus on Al-Queda and Iraq might let another Cloverfield event occur, seemingly out of nowhere, in which a purely military response will be ineffective when we’re left confused and reacting instead of lifting our eyes from the collective party long enough to see the punch before we land, disoriented, on the floor.

In Cloverfield, to save us, we have to destroy Manhattan, and the ambiguous moral calculus remains just that: ambiguous. The most startling part of Cloverfield is its lack of conclusion or certainty. Characters constantly ask each other, “What was that?” and find no answers. The Brooklyn Bridge is destroyed by the monster, with an American flag falling with it. A TV monitor shows “Manhattan under attack,” followed by an image of military trucks responding to the carnage. But will the military be effective in this situation? At least using conventional, World War II-style tactics, the answer appears to be no. But the thing must be fought anyway, as it’s in Manhattan. Maybe if we can ask the right questions, we’ll eventually learn how to fight it—otherwise, we might have to destroy villages in order to save them.

While on the topic of movies, I was going to also pan The X-Files: I Want to Believe, but Slate provides such a solid hit that I’m left with nothing worth discussing:

The nefarious plot behind the agent’s abduction is so far-fetched I’m itching to spoil it. But I’ll limit myself to observing that, if ever I’m dying of a rare brain disease, I hope my surgeon won’t go home and frantically Google treatment options, as Scully does at one key moment. (Couldn’t she at least log on to Medscape?) The problem with the movie’s semisupernatural crime plot, though, isn’t that the resolution is completely outlandish; it’s that the outlandishness is insufficiently grounded in pseudoscience. If you’re going to posit stuff this crazy, you’d better have some solid-sounding bullshit to back it up.


I’m not quite of a mind with Slate’s Troy Patterson in finding the new movie “vomitously stupid”; rather, it’s a gorgeous, lulling, thoroughly unnecessary exercise in high-minded Anglophilia.

Renting Cloverfield and watching it even for the third, fourth, or fifth time is infinitely preferable than the second X-Files movie.

Lush Life and Richard Price in Seattle

Richard Price’s Lush Life is a study in power—who has it, who doesn’t, who is trying to get it—and dignity, which, sooner or later, almost every character loses. Those who have power and dignity in one sphere, as detective Matty Clark mostly does in the police world, lose it in another, as Matty does at home. He is uncomfortably close to a stock genre detective, but the lush language of Lush Life gives Matty others such life that they are people, and people who reflect their social and media environment.

Lush Life begins not with a murder but with the “Quality of Life Task Force,” a group of four white cops who are lowering, not raising, the quality of life. The idiotic speculation of one is juxtaposed with an image representing one of the book’s central concerns:

“Who the fuck puts a Howard Johnson’s down here?” Scharf gestures to the seedy-looking chain hotel, its neighbors an ancient knishery and a Seventh-Day Adventist church whose aluminum cross is superimposed over a stone-carved Star of David. “What was the thinking behind that.”

Groups overlap in Price’s Lower East Side, with the influence of the earlier group never fully erased, just as the Star of David is still faintly visible. People linger, which Price spoke about when he visited Seattle in March, saying that there are “six groups of people who don’t realize they’re not there anymore.” Moreover, as he says, “nobody knows anybody, nobody sees anything,” especially relating to crime, which leads to the perceived necessity of the Quality of Life Task Force and the real necessity of detectives like Matty.

The intersection of two particular groups leads murder, one group being the relatively wealthy suburban kids—I think of them as kids though one, Eric Cash, is a 35 waiter and would-be screenwriter—who move back to the areas their grant parents fled and provide the victim. The other group is the poor urban kids who might have provided the perpetrators. None come off well. Nor do their parents, who range from uninterested in actively hostile. The murder of Isaac Marcus, for example, inspires his divorced parents to shack up again in a hotel, and when Matty arrives afterward and opens a curtain, “both of them staring at him with the unself-consciousness of animals, with unblinking pie-eyed shock.” But are they in shock at the light, Matty, themselves, or the situation? I’m not sure, which is part of the novel’s beauty.

Ambiguity is everywhere, as characters hope and dream of higher places. Eric is a friend, loosely defined, of Isaac Marcus, his desire to get into the movies is a much lighter version of Sean Touhey from Clockers. Lush Life in general is a better, subtler, richer version of Clockers, which is a tremendous compliment, for Clockers itself is a strong novel. But Lush Life goes beyond it, artistically and socially. Where Clockers is all cops and robbers, Lush Life encompasses everyone from the rich kids and the nominally upper echelons of society to the street dregs. It captures the former better than, say, Claire Messud’s good if indulgent The Emperor’s Children, which also focuses on them, and the latter with the skill Price has already established. You see a fantastic collision on page 92, when Eric tries to describe his work, of which he is vaguely ashamed, especially in the face of the skeptical cops. And with good reason: Matty belittles him, the scene is so effective I a) hesitate to quote it and yet b) want to so badly*. The scene works so well because you know Matty’s description is what Eric thinks of himself if he’s being intellectually honest.

To the extent there are novelistic rules about plot, characterization, movement, motion, and the like, I don’t think Price breaks them—he simply wields novelistic conventions better than almost anyone else and uses his talent on language itself. One dangerous thing about writing a long post and then leaving it till much later for proofreading is that you never know when James Wood is going to come along and preempt you. But his discussion of Price’s dialog is worth reading, and I note that he also found the excruciating interrogation scene and quoted the same scene. Wood focuses on the dialog, but the brilliant descriptions and contrasts also help:

Despite its stark opulence, the place was the size of a shoe box, with barely a foot clearance between that huge bed and the three-sided terrace, which offered an imperial overview of the area: a sea of cramped and huddled walk-ups and century-old elementary schools, the only structures out there aspiring to any kind of height the randomly sprouting bright yellow Tyvek-wrapped multistory add-ons, and farther out, superimposed against the river, the housing projects and union-built co-ops that flanked the east side of this grubby vista like siege towers.

All that in one endlessly rolling sentence: by the time you’re at the end, you’ve forgiven him for using the shoebox cliché. Notice the missing verb between “height” and “the:” but it’s okay, the verb would only interrupt the flow of the speech, and I hadn’t realized its absence until after I quoted it here. The sentence tells you how the landscape reflects the people, with the age of it providing a backdrop of substance in lives that often seem to lack it.

Imperfections in Lush Lifeare minor: Tristan is flat, which is perhaps appropriate given his youth and the cruel environment in which he lives. Some allusions are improbable; would Eric or the third-person narrator mention the dancing of Tevye? Maybe, but despite Eric being Jewish I’m skeptical. Two pages later, though, and Price is hitting the high notes again, hiding and eliding and showing: “Seated with Minette on the front steps of the now deserted Langenshield, Matty went through the motions of rattling off a cursory progress report, omitting, of course, the continuing press gag, the scuttled seventh-day recanvass, and the unreturned phone calls.” We get a picture of the bureaucracy, are reminded of the plot, and learn about Matty in his role of cop in one swift, seamless recap; a page later, Matty’s lack of enthusiasm about his children is obvious: “He said, ‘Yeah,’ but Minette read the tell, searched his eyes for what he wasn’t saying.” As previously mentioned, Matty does fit the template of emotionally wounded but dedicated cop too well, just as his sidekick, Yolanda, is too close a fit to the wisecracking assistant, but these are things only recognized afterwards, as I discovered that the characters lead lives of what appear to be squalor from the outside. But Lush Life gives the sense that maybe their lives are redeemed by moments of happiness or small success. As the conflicts between cultural and social classes, law and desire, and power and language play out, Lush Life brought me along like a literary but streetsmart guide. I mentioned how few novels have moved me recently, and it’s a pleasure to find one that does so with such panache and skill.

The crowd at his reading, or at least the verbal part of it, seemed less interested in discussing the novel itself and the aforementioned panache and skill than the Lower East Side. A number of older transported New Yorkers came to talk, apparently, about geography and places.

But Price talked about ideas, too—about the residents who don’t want to complain too much because they’re immigrants, the families who came to the Lower East Side as immigrants and fled as soon as possible, and the ones now going back because of the real estate costs elsewhere in New York. One thing Price avoids is The Wonderful Past, as he said the Lower East Side “has always been a hellhole,” and sentimentality about it is only useful for the preservationists and such. One ironic point Price made is that a tenement museum exists not far from actual tenements, which I can believe.

I asked about the connection between Tom Wolfe, whose The Bonfire of the Vanities bears many similarities to Lush Life, and his own work. Price thought I referred to “Stalking the Billion-footed Beast” as mentioned here, but I said I meant that or Wolfe’s fiction. Price said it wasn’t explicitly on his mind but that Tom Wolfe had a point with his essay, and that there’s a whole world out there and you’re not obligated to make yourself its center. Instead of searching one’s interior, Price said “you can find yourself by getting lost,” and that’s been doing so for 15 years by following his gut wherever it takes him.

I got the impression that Price doesn’t really like Wolfe but respects him; in Lush Life, Price is a more consciously literary version of Elmore Leonard, which is a very good thing. Regardless of literary influences, however, Price has written as good a book as I’ve read recently and one that will, I imagine, prove even more resilient than Clockers.

* Okay, I can’t resist, but you’ve been warned that I recommend you skip it so the passage blows you away in the context. Matty tells Eric: “I have listened to your shit in here all day. You are a self-centered, self-pitying, cowardly, envious, resentful, failed-ass career waiter. That’s your everyday jacket. Now, add to that a gun and a gutful of vodka? I don’t believe that shooting last night was an accident. I think you were a walking time bomb and last night you finally went off.”

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