When I was a kid, I used to sometimes stay at my grandma’s house, and she would always stay up until 9 or 10pm (big-kid bedtime) watching Japanese language TV. My grandma was born in the United States to Japanese immigrants, and speaks what she calls “pidgin-Japanese” to our Japan-based relatives, but still enjoys Japanese media, as long as it has subtitles. Sometimes, when I couldn’t sleep, I would watch Japanese TV with her.
Mostly it was soap operas, set in feudal Japan. But we also watched Iron Chef. As I did, later, with my parents. Featuring Iron Chefs Sakai, Morimoto, Chen– and, of course, over-the-top master of ceremonies Chairman Kaga, who would start every episode with a montage of self-satisfied ingredient-sniffing and imperious surveyings of his game show set domain.
Watch this for classic Kaga (plus inexplicable Pirates of the Caribbean music):
Now everyone knows American media really likes to import and translate foreign TV shows and films, and the extent to which the original cultural imprint remains can vary. The Departed gets transplanted from Hong Kong to Boston. The Ring moves to Seattle with a little white girl as evil ghost and blond lady Naomi Watts as terrorized protagonist, while The Grudge stays in Japan with a Japanese woman and little boy as evil ghosts and blond lady Sarah Michelle Gellar as terrorized protagonist. In Europe/Scandinavia, Let the Right One In is redubbed Let Me In and moved to middle America, while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo keeps the exact same Stockholm setting and story and just switches to English (with some Swedish people having British accents, and some having Swedish accents, both equally inexplicably).
But maybe I can’t compare Iron Chef USA to these transplanted movies. Maybe a better point of comparison is “Wipeout,” which re-creates the zany Japanese game show obstacle course antics of “Takeshi’s Castle.” While the Japanese game show influence is obvious, there are otherwise no representations of Japanese culture in the American show. It’s more of an opportunity for us to see people get hurt by falling off of really ridiculous, brightly-colored things. (A universal pleasure.)
Iron Chef USA, however, has kept the Japanese-ness of its origins alive in two ways. First, by employing Iron Chef Morimoto, one of the original Japanese Iron Chefs. Cool. Fine. Second, by employing Mark Dacascos as the host and “nephew” (because all Asian people are related! Is that it!!) to Chairman Kaga.
Every time I watch Iron Chef USA on Food Network, I cringe at Dacascos’ performance. His studied, self-consciously clipped “Asian” accent. His theatrical overextensions, jumping between a serene arms-at-sides position to the exaggerated arms-sweeping of secret-ingredient-announcing. The little “whoosh” sound effects that accompany the piercing glances he throws at each of the contestants before said arms-sweeping secret-ingredient-announcing.
Before landing his Chairman Kaga Lite gig in 2005, Mark Dacascos made a career as an actor and martial artist. He appeared in Double Dragon alongside Scott Wolf (I know I was like WHOA!) and in a CSI episode as a Buddhist monk named Ananda who is a murder suspect (with that same bewildering “Asian” accent—discussed below). He is originally from Hawaii, according to Wikipedia, born to a Chinese-Filipino-Spanish father and an Irish-Japanese mother. In his own way he is pretty pan-Asian.
But as he stands there on that Iron Chef USA stage, speaking in English, surrounded by mostly white people, enacting that bizarre ritual which kicks off every show which is based on Chairman Kaga’s original routine but here feels unnatural, exploitative, and like an attempt to capture a “mysterious” Eastern vibe using this inscrutable Chairman Kaga’s nephew character, as he shoots kung-fu glances at the contestants and then says in a kung-fu voiceover voice, “Today’s… secret… ingredient… is…” and then fog machines are unleashed and the ingredient is unveiled with Kaga Lite dramatically lifting his arms like a symphony conductor via a magician pretending at the ability to levitate objects, and whatever it is—let’s say it’s oysters—he then, wide-eyed, rolling his head in a kung-fu flourish, announces in the most melodramatic, Asian-y way possible, “Ohh-OYY-sterrs!!!” And the white people stand around and clap at this silly little spectacle. Then he yells in machine-gun Japanese-style French: “ALLEZ CUISINE!” (Something Kaga did too.)
Well. And as he does all this. I cringe.
Here’s a montage of what I can only imagine is every ingredient announcement ever (click here if video doesn’t work):
First off, Mark Dacascos is Asian-American. Yet every episode, he pushes his American subjecthood down under the surface and puts on this weird throwback Oriental act. And maybe because it’s done in such earnest, and maybe additionally because there’s such a disconnect between his Asian caricature and his own, clearly American, mixed features (this shouldn’t make a difference, but just seems to call more attention to it— not to mention the palatability/marketability of a conventionally handsome American Asian with tan skin and large eyes vis-à-vis a more traditionally featured Asian man), and the knowledge that this disconnect might be much less apparent to people who live in parts of the country without any Asians, such that they’ll be like, “Asians! That’s what they’re like!”—that it all feels, you know. Offensive.
Plus, there are hardly any Asians in TV/film, period. And what often happens when they ARE there, is it’s Asian-Americans playing Asian Asians. Like they’re not from here.
People might say that this act is harmless, that it’s just an homage to the over-the-top theatricality of Japanese television, and that might be true. But when analyzing pop culture (no seriously I wish there was a job just called “pop culture analyst” and that someone would hand it to me) I tend to take a multitude of factors into account: intent, performance, reception, broader impact. What you do in your living room when you’re joking around with your friends is going to have a different reception and impact than what Mark Dacascos does on the Food Network. In effect, it is at the very least a reproduction of Orientalist tropes of “the Asian” as mysterious, impersonal, and ultimately foreign.
Note on the “Asian” accent: What I mean by this isn’t your standard Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese et al accent. It’s more like what I referred to as the “kung-fu voiceover”: no traces of mispronounced words, all American-accented, but with a clipped, self-conscious quality that may or may not have originated in the kung fu dubbings of the 1960s and 1970s as an American voice actor’s attempt to sound “Asian” without effecting an actual accent. I have no sources to back this up. This is my impression. “Sau-SAGE!” “Pitz-a-doh!” “TO-MAY-TO!” Suffice it to say, it emphasizes a “foreignness” in the Asian figure that is divorced from any ethnic, cultural, or geographic reality.
Which is just what we need. More “Where are you froms?” More Asians-as-foreigners discourse. More Julie Chen-style desperate playing up of Asian stereotypes to a largely white audience.
For more on the above, listen to Andrew Ti’s very funny podcast from this week, about “Where are you from?” I’m already devising responses in my head to what I anticipate to be an increase in such inquiries when I move inland. (where am I from? California. where are my parents from? England, and Michigan. where are my grandparents from? England, Canada, and California. STRAW MAN MIND BLOWN.)
Travel Writing and the American Gaze: The Best American Travel Writing, edited by Anthony Bourdain and Jason Wilson
(Disclaimer: I feel super obsolete writing a review of a 2008 collection. In fact, I even felt obsolete reading this book in public. The downside of including years in collection titles [as opposed to, I suppose, big Roman numerals, or even Arabic numerals; see the “Now That’s What I Call Music” CD series]. I’ll just pretend that 2008 was a good year for wine and travel essays.)
I would never have read this book, but my mom happened to have it and was no longer interested in reading it. My mom regularly checks out plastic-coated hardcovers from the library that some American woman or British man or vice versa wrote about their lovely summer or decade in Tuscany or the south of France or Venice or where-have-you. She thought this would be in keeping with her reading proclivities, but no— the book is instead filled with reporter-at-large type essay dispatches from Chad, Cambodia, northwest Pakistan, Turkmenistan. Full of danger and discomfort; not stories where you necessarily want to trade places with the protagonist. She blamed series guest editor Anthony Bourdain, whose brand is after all titled “No Reservations.”
She thought it would be my thing though. And I guess it kind of is.
The diversity of the stories and the journalistic clarity of the writing (the most-represented major publications here are The New Yorker and Travel + Leisure, with some Harper’s and Slate thrown in) made for consistently interesting, entertaining reads. I’ve never followed travel writing as a genre, but there’s something to be said for getting the opportunity to be thrown into a far-flung place for 6-12 pages at a time, learning minutiae about a country or city or neighborhood you’d maybe never have thought of otherwise, much less visited.
But I have my complaints. And I don’t know if I should lay these complaints at the feet of individual writers and editors, or upon the shoulders of the genre as a whole.
The first thing that struck me, several stories in, was that most of the writers were men. Four out of the twenty-five essays were written by women. It took about ten essays to get to the first woman-penned story, and, lo and behold, it was a super-short, semi-humorous, quasi-poetic reflection on a bathroom hookup with a hot Israeli in a Brazilian youth hostel (“Mr. Tingler,” by Emily Maloney). Not exactly comparable in gravity to, say, the embedded reporters in African war zones (see: “African Promise,” by J. Malcolm Garcia; “The Border,” by Peter Chilson).
I get that this is largely a question of access. While women can and do travel most of the world, there are places and contexts where they aren’t quite as welcome, and spaces that are not as easy to penetrate and move freely in. (Exceptions, maybe, can be found in Kristin Ohlson’s “Kabul Nights,” in which she visits secret restaurants in the Afghan capital, and Annie Nocenti’s “The Most Expensive Road Trip in the World,” in which she and a female documentarian ride along with Qatari princes and real estate magnates on a falconing trip through some of Pakistan’s least hospitable parts.)
This lack of representation makes sense, but it’s still disappointing. It’s like living in a little world where, superficially, women have every opportunity that men do, but then zooming out and remembering that they don’t, that the outside world is even farther from a liberal paradise than America is.
When I went to Lebanon solo (I swear, I’ll shut up about this some day), I felt extra apprehensive because of my gender. My fears proved mostly unfounded, though I definitely attracted strange looks wandering the streets of Beirut by myself, taking pictures. When I arrived in Paris, before my (male) friend met up with me, I was hassled by two separate panhandlers in front of Sacre-Coeur within two minutes; after he joined me, there was no similar incident for the remainder of the trip. When a female friend told me about her solo travels in Eastern Europe, she recommended attaching oneself to older local women to safeguard against creeps. Shit, even here, when I walk home from BART at night, I have my spidey senses on for the entire walk home (it’s generally a pleasant enough suburban neighborhood, but there is the occasional crime in the area and there’s almost no street light, which turns every shadowy passerby into a potential misogynistic psychopath).
So maybe there are problems in other parts of the world, presenting us with a stark dichotomy of gender access, and this isn’t the fault of the authors or editors of any one travel volume. But my other complaint was the way the writers themselves, these American men, talked about the cultures they visited, in particular foreign women, their interactions with them and how they are treated by their countrymen: what I like to call the American gaze.
In particular, two stories rubbed me the wrong way. The first was “The Woman in the Kuffiya,” by Jeffrey Tayler. You might already be apprehensive because of the title. I was too.
“The Woman in the Kuffiya” is a short, three-page personal anecdote originally published on WorldHum.com. In it, Jeffrey Tayler retells a brief encounter he had with an Arab woman in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border, in a town called Harran. He is walking along a road by himself, “lost in thoughts about history and the Bible.” Then, the young woman in the kuffiya, or red-and-white-checked Arab scarf, pulls up her horse-drawn cart and offers him a ride. She speaks no English, and he converses with her in his limited Arabic. Her name is Hawa’. He asks if she is married, she is. She offers him fresh baked bread. She complains about the men in her village and how lazy they are.
But mostly, Tayler is captivated by her beauty. When she first releases her kuffiya, it unmasks “a comely, full-lipped mouth and clear bronzed skin.” Aware of the fact that he is in an Islamic country, he tries to avoid staring, but “she was just too beautiful.”
When they reach his destination, he turns to say goodbye, and they share a charged gaze filled with a shared “repressed lust.” Then she readjusts her kuffiya and moves on.
Tayler ends by contemplating the strength of his attraction to this woman. The last two lines:
“The oft-maligned Islamic custom of purdah does much to preserve passion in its most urgent and ineffable form. No topless beach has ever, to me, looked the same after Harran.”
I’m really not sure how to take this. On the one hand, he could be commenting on the paradoxical tendency of sexual repression to perversely promote sexuality and bring it to the forefront of thought, something Foucault wrote about and Russell Brand adapted in a bit to apply to the Jonas Brothers’ purity rings, which I don’t disagree with. But what else is happening here? Is he Orientalizing/fetishizing Islamic womanhood? Is he placing an entire culture and its participants within the context of his own male, desirous American gaze? (“Gee whiz, I don’t really believe in women covering themselves, but now that you mention it, it’s pretty awesome for my libido.”)
Admittedly, it’s a brief, subjective piece, and it’s Tayler artfully, un-self-consciously reproducing the experience exactly as he lived it. But sometimes the way we live things doesn’t deserve to be transferred unfiltered from head to page, where it can sit with an undue sense of its own weight and authority.
The second story was “Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World,” by Seth Stevenson, originally published on Slate.com, about the author’s through-the-looking-glass trip to Dubai. This one I was a little more ambivalent about, because in some ways it feels like it could have been written by the male me. Like “The Woman in the Kuffiya,” it’s more overtly subjective than most of the other essays in this collection, and the dude doesn’t try to hide his insanely American and Western worldview. In fact, he comes off sounding like he’s never even been a travel writer before this moment—there’s a sense of innocent wonder in his story lacking in the work of the other writers, who tend to favor feigned objectivity or, at the very least, wry appreciation.
On the flip side, Stevenson’s naïveté also means he seems to have embarked on this little journey with only the shallowest understanding of Islam and the Arab world, likely gleaned from cable news channels and newspaper headlines. His mission: to understand the bizarre spectacle of capitalism in the middle of the Middle Eastern desert that is Dubai, and to extrapolate that to grandiose statements and solutions on the East-West cultural divide. For him Dubai is confounding: how can the Arab world have its own answer to Las Vegas? How can a religion so often at odds with Western civilization enjoy the fruits of our decadent, consumerist system?
For the most part he tackles these questions with humor and levity, and for the most part that’s fine. But at one point, he goes into a little “aside” in which he lists three bones he has to pick with the way women are treated in the U.A.E. He puts these “bones” in list form, which was such a total me move that I almost liked him for it—but then, the content of this aside was stunning in its ignorance (not me, I hope):
“1. It seems horribly unfair that the men’s dishdashas are white, while the women’s long cloaks (called abayas) are black. I ask you: Which would you rather wear beneath a blazing desert sun? If Arab culture weren’t otherwise so progressive on gender issues, I might say this was a clever means of discouraging women from leaving the house.
2. The unfairness becomes crystal clear when you go to the beach here. The Emirati women keep their abayas on. Meanwhile, their husbands strip down to tight, short bathing suits—exposing their flabby stomachs and hairy backs.
3. I’m fine with the headscarf that covers the hair. (This seems not unlike wearing a yarmulke.) But the face veil is fundamentally different and, in my view, not okay. One cannot happily contribute to society when one has no face. The veil transforms women into a pair of downcast eyes. And again, it seems, more than anything else, like an enticement to stay at home.”
Oh. Kay. So. Many things wrong. Here.
…Let me respond with my own mini-listicle.
1. Seth, you’re speculating. Nothing else in this fun little story gives me any confidence that you’ve studied Arab history, social or sartorial, so I’d be careful about making any bold hypotheses on the development of gender practices, lest you influence a young mind as impressionable as your own. Read: Your one visit doesn’t make you an expert. And that whole “progressive on gender issues” line? Just snarky. Especially because I feel like you’d be one of those people who’d ask me how much I had to cover myself in Lebanon and how hot it was in the desert there. (For those people: No more than here, and Lebanon isn’t desert.)
2. Considering your #1 and #2 make the implicit assumption that these hypothetical beachgoing couples are Arab, your observation on the hairy backs sounds vaguely racist.
3. Oh, so we’re starting from the place where all things associated with Jewish culture or religion are deemed “good” and a Western-sanctioned benchmark as to what types of head coverings are acceptable? Alright, so with that potentially flawed premise, let it be known that Seth is fine with the headscarf, but he draws the line at the face veil (as he calls it). “Not okay,” says Seth. Those women are oppressed, those men are bad, and Seth is standing by shaking his head. It’s just that simple, people.
Anyway. Believe it or not, this wasn’t the part that gave me the most pause. The pausiest part was later, as Seth tries to wrap up all of his uninformed observations and cultural aggrandizement in one neat little bow, if that bow were a horrible anecdote that somehow managed to be offensive to both Western and Eastern sensibilities at the same time.
It happens when he and a friend go to a club called Cyclone, which is full of prostitutes. The scene disturbs him: young, attractive women playing up to old, bald men, as security looks on to make sure “transactions” are made outside of the club and not in. He even notes the “desperation” in the air, as strong as the scent of one of the Hungarian hooker’s perfume. After scurrying out:
“Let it be said: I have witnessed sexual deviance being tolerated—or at least ignored—within the borders of a Muslim country. And I’m declaring it a promising sign. If there’s one thing the West and the Middle East can come together on, it’s a Hungarian hooker.”
Whether or not this was slightly tongue-in-cheek (it may have been, but still ultimately fit with the overall earnestness of his article), this sentiment kind of took me aback. Coming together over the shared notion of women as prostitutes? Hookers as preferable to women wearing veils? Middle Eastern society being viewed as “progressing” no matter what attribute of Western society it adopts/shares? So creepy in so many ways. (And really: you witnessed sexual deviancy in an Arab, Muslim country? Do tell! …This is kind of like the moment when you’re a certain age and you realize your parents had to have sex to have you.)
Note that the entire essay was written from the point of view of someone who clearly deemed himself a progress-minded liberal, who ended his little story by criticizing some British teenagers who called the Arabs backwards. Racist teenagers. Always easy bait. (See: Twitter.)
These were the two stories that I found the most problematic, maybe in part because of my own focus on the Middle East. But there were others, other stories that produced uneasiness about the nature of the white, male, American gaze, activated in a foreign land. “African Promise” by J. Malcolm Garcia, which unquestioningly adopts the ironic phrase of the title. “Dark Passage” by Peter Gwin, which comfortably revisits Heart of Darkness for the 21st century. “Wheels of Fortune” by Peter Hessler, which basically talks about how much everyone sucks at driving in China.
Travel literature by its very nature must be subjective, a reflection of the society the writer represents entering the society the writer visits. For the American traveler, the American gaze is unavoidable. But I wonder—as a newcomer to the genre—can you write around it? Can I take the scribblings in my travel journals of yore, which admittedly contain signs of my own American gaze, and translate them into something I’d be comfortable publishing? Do Americans have to encounter the world this way—so limited, yet so assured?
I’d be interested to know. Because I kind of want to be a travel writer.
In the grand tradition of the family saga which includes Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and, to a lesser extent, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury comes American author Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which follows the Greek-American Stephanides family over three generations culminating in the biological and spiritual identity crisis of the narrator, one Calliope “Cal” Stephanides.
Ever since this novel came out a decade ago, I’d been under the impression that it was primarily about the experiences of a sexual hermaphrodite, as evidenced by the title. Calliope starts life as a girl, and spends thirteen years believing she is female until, upon hitting puberty, she discovers she is actually a boy. She has a rare condition that results in a not-quite-penile “crocus” which doesn’t fully show itself until adolescence. And so at age thirteen, Calliope becomes Cal.
Serendipitously, the Stephanides family lives in an ultra-modern multi-level house on a street called Middlesex, which becomes a metonym for this period of Cal’s life. This is one of several heavy-handed devices Eugenides employs that, in my opinion, keep this great book from being truly genius.
More on that—but as I said, despite my first impressions, Cal’s condition and sexual identity are not necessarily the most important part of the book, though they contribute an intriguing backdrop. It essentially is a family saga; more precisely, an American immigrant family saga. With Cal leading the way, we start in Bithynios, a tiny Greek village in that netherland that has historically alternated between being part of Greece and being part of Turkey. This is where Cal’s grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, are from. The Greco-Turkish War is on. After their village is destroyed by Turkish troops, they escape to America with a bereaved Armenian doctor in tow.
Everything about this novel is inexorable. Cal never lets us forget that all of this history results, ultimately, in him. Overtly, this means that his grandparents’ incest (clearly a prerequisite to any family saga), his parents’ lesser incest (first cousins), and the eighty-something Armenian doctor he gets stuck with as a child because of family loyalty contribute to his abnormal condition and the belatedness with which it is discovered. Less overtly, this novel is about the immigrant experience, about coming to America, about being in America and belonging elsewhere and always having that somewhere else inside you. And so here also does his family’s story constitute his own identity. Everything is teleological.
Middlesex is also hugely informed by Eugenides’ own experiences. First of all, Eugenides… Stephanides. Same number of syllables. Second, Greek. (Jeffrey E. is half.) Third, growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, as he did. Cal spends his early childhood in Greektown in Detroit until the city’s auto boom begins to bust, at which point his father’s restaurant fails and then the race riots occur. One thing I liked: in a subversion of textbook-American history, Cal portrays these as a legitimate revolution:
“So was it a riot or a guerilla uprising? Let me answer that question with other questions… Why had General Throckmorton deployed his tanks on the East Side, miles from the rioting? Was that the kind of thing you did to subdue an unorganized gang of snipers? Or was it more in keeping with military strategy? Was it like establishing a front line in a war? Believe whatever you want. I was seven years old and followed a tank into battle and saw what I saw. It turned out that when it finally happened, the revolution wasn’t televised. On TV they called it only a riot.” (250-251)
Also, Eugenides spent time in Berlin in the early 2000s, which is where we find Cal as a forty-something man as he narrates his chronicle.
I’m always interested in the ways authors have or have not lived the experiences of their protagonists—the geography, the chronology, the demography, the education, career, relationships. Like my favorite WWII authors: Joseph Heller was stationed in Italy as a pilot who had to fly missions, hence Yossarian. J.D. Salinger served in Europe and afterward dealt with stress and emotional trauma, hence Seymour Glass, and also the narrator of “For Esmé.” Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when the Americans firebombed it, hence Billy Pilgrim and Slaughterhouse-Five.
This, in turn, makes me wonder if one can truly write about something they haven’t lived. How do you fabricate something out of nothing? How do you write honestly about a place, a time, a person you never were? Makes me think of a quote from Angels in America– another work about this great land of ours– by (best character) Harper Pitt: “Imagination can’t create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions… Nothing unknown is knowable.”
(And this is why I can’t write fiction.)
Eugenides has written three novels, and while certain elements of his life undoubtedly informed The Virgin Suicides (growing up a boy in 1970s suburbia) and The Marriage Plot (I haven’t read it yet, but probably being an English grad student in the 1980s), Middlesex feels the most like it very closely follows his own life’s trajectory. Besides, of course, the hermaphrodite part, though who knows if this isn’t some vague externalization of an inward gender struggle.
Also, like any family saga worth a darn, the genealogy is stretched and overlaid onto the macrohistory that is occurring in the background, in the real world, like a less silly Forrest Gump. Henry Ford makes an appearance, because Lefty works in his factory. (An awesome scene where Lefty’s English class puts on a “melting pot” pageant at which Ford is in attendance, complete with the students in ethnic costumes climbing into a fake pot and changing into red-white-and-blue, as teachers stir with giant spoons.) The riots. Cal does LSD in San Francisco. Bigger things are happening; the family’s story is bigger than itself.
This is a beautiful book, and it contained moments of brilliant honesty, but I found myself a little disappointed in what occasionally felt like a simple lack of originality. Some of the more florid passages seemed ripped from a Creative Writing 701 course at Stanford (where Eugenides earned his M.A.), wonderfully executed but missing a soul. The devices were occasionally too clever, the prose too self-aware.
It may be that I was disappointed following my reading (and re-reading) of Eugenides’ 1993 debut novel The Virgin Suicides, which was dazzlingly original: an entire novel told from the point of view of no one in particular, a mass of “neighborhood boys” who witness from afar the tragedy of the Lisbon sisters, in the style of a Greek chorus. The whole narrative of that book felt heavy, dreamlike, unlike anything else I’ve come across. As wonderful and engaging as it is, Middlesex just wasn’t as revolutionary.
“Why should I have thought I was anything other than a girl? Because I was attracted to a girl? That happened all the time. It was happening more than ever in 1974. It was becoming a national pastime. My ecstatic intuition about myself was now deeply suppressed. How long I would have managed to keep it down is anybody’s guess. But in the end it wasn’t up to me. The big things never are. Birth, I mean, and death. And love. And what love bequeaths to us before we’re born.” (388)
Henry Miller is a genius of words. I’ve read two of his books thus far, Tropic of Capricorn (companion piece to his most famous work, Tropic of Cancer) and Sexus (first novel in The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, through which I will endeavor to persevere). There’s no denying his singular talent, the joyous, passionate, often transcendent passages his pen produced, the meditative soliloquies on life, universe, the human spirit, and, also compelling, insight into the tortuous life of a self-doubting writer in 1920s Paris and New York.
But he’s also a huge fucking prick, and I’m not sure I can get over that.
Granted, there’s no 100% guarantee that the thoughts and opinions contained within the narrator—a semi-autobiographical “Henry V. Miller”—are 100% the thoughts and opinions of the author. In fact, one of the more interesting things about Miller’s prose is that he often refrains from making value judgments on anything, and rather observes the people around him, the scenes he encounters, and extrapolates from these what are often grandiose philosophies on life and the self. Yet there’s no denying “Henry V. Miller” is a prick, and it’s almost impossible to not by extension grant Henry Miller the same designation.
I noticed it first in Tropic of Capricorn. Miller’s novels were extremely controversial when they were first published– Sexus and its sequels Plexus and Nexus were actually banned for about twelve years in the U.S.– because of their graphic content, mostly explicit sex. From detailed descriptions of genitalia and sex acts to the proliferation of extremely casual encounters, extramarital affairs, illicit group sex and queer trysts, he’s not for the faint of heart. The narrator is an insatiable womanizer and, I mean, kind of a sex addict. Literally every woman he sees is fair game. And almost every woman who becomes game is objectified, an assortment of erotic parts that he makes use of and then moves on.
On top of being a misogynist, he’s also a bigot and a racist and a xenophobe, at the risk of judging the past by the present’s standards and labels. One of his favorite female sex objects in Tropic of Capricorn is a part-black woman named Valeska, who he frequently refers to with uncomfortable epithets and in dehumanizing language (on top of the fact that by the end of his books I am completely desensitized to the C-word, which he liberally uses to refer to both the anatomy and metonymy of women). He also makes comments about Jews and foreigners, often reducing them to strange, inscrutable figures with stereotypical traits.
There’s even a moment in Sexus where he gets, well, sexual assault-y. Most of his women sex objects are uncommonly willing to oblige him in any way, any place, any time, leading me to wonder if he’s disgustingly attractive (but we don’t really know what he looks like; his intense, laser-focused selfhood precludes any consideration of his own appearance since that, ironically, would necessitate considering other people’s subjectivities as observers-of-him). But one woman, a fellow party guest who walks in on Henry in the bathroom, says things like “no” as he puts hands in weird places, which made me really uncomfortable; though when he encounters her later, her promiscuity suggests that consent in the earlier situation was given. Was it? Did it matter?
Three more complaints before I try to turn this around a bit:
1) He chronically, chronically borrows money from people, even though he has a job, and he acts like that’s normal and relatable, but I’m like, what’s up with that? He’s like a character in an Archie comic.
2) He has a wife and daughter through most of these two books, but basically acts like they don’t exist and isn’t really concerned for their welfare at all. The fact that this is #2 on my afterthoughts-list of his bad traits, when it’s really so freaking terrible, just shows how little focus they occupy in his books.
3) Though a brilliant writer, he could, maybe, use a better editing process. Sometimes the same descriptive word shows up in what I consider too-close quarters (same sentence, adjacent sentences) and shit if his soliloquies don’t go a little too long sometimes.
In Sexus, however, I was the least bit pleasantly surprised to discover that he actually cares about a woman beyond her status as a sex object. Mara, who becomes Mona, who is actually in real life his second wife June, is rather the object of his affections, love, obsession for most of the book. (Disregard, though, the fact that he remains married to his first wife for most of the book as well.) Though dysfunctional, that he is able to care significantly about another human being, a woman no less, is reassuring.
Also, consider this lovely little passage about his chaste youthful love for a girl named Miriam:
I never had an impure thought about her; never desired her, never craved for a caress. I loved her so deeply, so completely, that each time I met her it was like being born again. All I demanded was that she should remain alive, be of this earth be somewhere, anywhere, in this world, and never die. I hoped for nothing, I wanted nothing of her. Her mere existence was all-sufficing. Yes, I used to run into the house, hide myself away, and thank God aloud for having sent Miriam to this earth of ours. What a miracle! And what a blessed thing to love like this! (209-210)
I concede, then, that the novel is by its nature subjective, that Miller’s own, often mundane experiences (working in telegraphic HR; hanging out with friends; screwing) don’t have to be important or earth-shattering, that rather he writes to write and to extemporize and to philosophize and write his thoughts large over the world and existence. You don’t have to like a main character to appreciate a novel. You don’t have to relate to or approve of his lifestyle to find commonality and profundity in his experiences.
Take it away, Henry.
Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heart-ache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. (35)
It took a couple of friends to bring Ms. Moore to my attention, and I’m extremely glad they did. Recognizing her name in the fiction stacks at Pegasus in downtown Berkeley, I began to thumb through the first short story in Self Help, called “How to Be an Other Woman,” and was instantly awed and amazed—the entire story was written in the second person! And the second person command form, no less! As in a series of narrative instructions. “Self help,” it seems, is a designation semi-literal.
Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night. Like a detective movie. First, stand in front of Florsheim’s Fifty-seventh Street window, press your face close to the glass, watch the fake velvet Hummels inside revolving around the wing tips; some white shoes, like your father wears, are propped up with garlands on a small mound of chemical snow. All the stores have closed. You can see your breath on the glass. Draw a peace sign. You are waiting for a bus…
“What weather,” you hear him sigh, faintly British or uppercrust Delaware.
Glance up. Say: “It is fit for neither beast nor vegetable.”
It sounds dumb. It makes no sense.
But it is how you meet. (3-4)
Many of the stories take on this second-person perspective, but it’s not merely novelty. Somehow, the subject “you,” though ostensibly coming from someone else’s experience, draws the reader deeper into the story—its repeated insistence in all its forms (“you,” “your,” “yours”) burying in your subconscious and multiplying the impact. Throughout the collection, Moore makes small, quietly devastating observations about modern women’s daily lives, and whether it was the format or the content or the perspective or a combination, I can personally attest that at least a few stories hit very close to home for me, more than almost any work I can remember reading in recent years. My most lasting impression was lying in bed late at night (when I read), just being, well, quietly devastated at 1 AM. And then, my mind busy with parsing out the emotion of what I just read, trying to go to sleep.
I suppose this is part of the power of contemporary, realistic fiction. I’m so used to working my way through the mid-century classics, with occasional visits to the nineteenth century, that striking upon a more modern outlook—even one from back in 1985 (only a couple references to obsolete things like TV Guides draw attention to this fact)—is like reopening my eyes to the power of fiction to powerfully affect you. It’s not that I don’t relate to the characters in earlier works. In particular, though shrouded in strange customs and language, I empathize strongly with many of Jane Austen’s heroines, Elizabeth, Eleanor, Marianne.
But perhaps that’s just it. Without the shroud of strange customs and language, the decades of historical difference—instead, with a completely familiar idiom in a completely familiar universe with completely and specifically familiar problems—it’s all so immediately, entirely relatable. There’s nothing standing between you and absolute identification with the protagonist, provided of course the writing does its job.
And Lorrie Moore is a particularly gifted writer. Dysfunctional relationships in all of their mundane and undramatic glory are her specialty, mostly romantic relationships and parent-child relationships.
In “Go Like This,” a woman who rationally plans to commit suicide before her cancer takes over continues to face communication issues with her husband, who never quite looks sad and who she worries will take up with a female friend once she’s gone. In “How,” a woman agonizes over how to leave a man who loves her too much, who insists on reading the same books that she does. In “What Is Seized,” a woman observes the tragedy of her parents’ marriage, with the opening line, “My mother married a cold man.” As her mother approaches death, she muses:
“You reach a point where you cannot cry anymore, and you look around you at people you know, at people your own age, and they’re not crying either. Something has been taken. And they are emptier. And they are grateful.” (44)
The stories are beautiful but not overwrought, emotional but not weepy. The author strikes that ideal balance between keeping the reader at a distance and going for the easy shots (like, I don’t know… dead puppies, 9/11 specials, Steven Spielberg trailers). It’s nothing so dramatic. No, her stories brilliantly hang in the balance, divulging just enough detail, provoking just enough empathy, to, just, you know, quietly devastate you. I’m writing a Lorrie Moore letter of recommendation, and I give her my highest.
This past weekend, Diesel Books in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood (the independent chain has two other locations, both in Southern California) “transformed” into a record store to celebrate the debut of Michael Chabon’s new book, Telegraph Avenue, a novel set in a record store on the historic street just a few blocks away. They also held a party with Chabon himself last night, where the entrance fee was the cost of one autographed copy of the book. Conveniently, Chabon, who I read for the first time earlier this year, lives in Berkeley. We’re pretty much neighbors who’ve never met.
My friends and I popped by on Sunday, and I’d hoped to pick up a copy, but they were apparently sold out for the party. Still, it was kind of a treat to see the cute independent bookstore partly decked out in record store logos, complete with some records to sift through when you walk in the door. Mostly jazz. If I had a record player, I would’ve walked out of there with a nice Monk compilation. Thelonious, not Adrian.
Instead of Monk or Telegraph Ave, I walked out with a lovely hardcover Mansfield Park to add to my growing Jane Austen collection. And then– in part because it was $20– I declared a moratorium on book buying for a month. We’ll see how that goes.
I’m not at all acquainted with the genre of this title. Ever since early college, I’ve been on an off-and-on mission to read everything I should read, which is to say, old, famous stuff, and in the midst of pursuing the fogey classics it gets hard to keep up with what’s new and good and recommended. Besides for looking at “New & Recommended” sections in bookstores or reading reviews on the Rumpus.
So recently, I read two short story collections by reputable, living authors, How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers and Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, and I gave both 5 stars on Goodreads. High praise, compared to my 4 stars for mega-classic Jane Eyre.
(I should also qualify that Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help was actually written the year I was born. So, not new at all. I just didn’t discover her until like three months ago. If I haven’t read it [and it’s at least set in the post-VCR age] it’s new to me!)
Anyway, as much as I like the sense of accomplishment that comes from getting acquainted with literary giants—people like Faulkner and Austen and Orwell—there’s something doubly inspiring about reading something recent. New fiction. It’s more accessible. It’s more relatable. It almost feels like something I could write, if I was just as splendidly observant and marvelously eloquent as people like Eggers and Moore.
Today, Dave Eggers. Broke down and read him after what felt like years of 826 Valencia press and McSweeney’s FB article shares and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius references (I can’t get over that title and its fabulous superlatives), not to mention the fact I know at least two people who have worked with him (starstruck!). This short story collection was to be my introduction to Eggers because, in my opinion, short stories make great introductions. They’re short.
What Dave Eggers lacks in simplicity of titles (see story #2: “What It Means When a Crowd in a Faraway Nation Takes a Soldier Representing Your Own Nation, Shoots Him, Drags Him from His Vehicle and Then Mutilates Him in the Dust”), he makes up in simplicity of prose—not too simple, just spare, and often lovely.
The collection, as far as it has an ongoing theme, is a compare and contrast between human and animal nature, except that thirteen stories are about the former, and only one is about the latter. In the first thirteen stories we meet numerous characters who agonize and equivocate, who live cerebrally and try to fix careers and relationships or plan the minutiae of a perfect life or death (“Notes for a Story of a Man who Will Not Die Alone”).
My favorite of these is also the longest: “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” about Rita, a woman who has let life happen to her, including giving up custody of two foster children that she wanted to adopt because it was just easier; and Rita’s uncertain, somewhat reckless resolution to climb Mount Kilimanjaro on an adventure tour for Western yuppies. The story arc is unexpected— after the trials and travails of climbing the mountain, which take up most of the narrative, there is a brief, transcendent moment at the summit where Rita’s life seems to make sense and the world seems to harmonize. This could have been the end of the story. But the harmony abruptly breaks apart when she learns from her fellow travelers that, unbeknownst to her at the time, three native luggage boys had perished in their sleep the night before due to wet weather conditions and a faulty tent. Suddenly, everything is terrible:
“Yesterday she found herself wanting something she never wanted. To be able to tell Gwen that she’d done it, and she wanted to bring J.J. and Frederick a rock or something from up there, because then they’d think she was capable of anything finally and some day they would come back to her and—oh God she keeps running, sending scree down in front of her, throwing rocks down the mountain, because she cannot stop running and she cannot stop bringing the mountain down with her.” (199)
In this way, each of the thirteen stories is messy and inconclusive and the protagonists flawed, indecisive. But the fourteenth story is about a dog. “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned” is told from Steven the pet canine’s point of view. He loves to run. He doesn’t like squirrels. This is his story.
“When I run I turn like I’m magic or something. I can turn like there wasn’t even a turn. I turn and I’m going so fast it’s like I was still going straight. Through the trees like a missile, through the trees I love to run with my claws reaching and grabbing so quickly like I’m taking everything.
“Damn, I’m so in love with all of this.” (206)
As foreshadowed in the title, Steven dies at the end of the story. On a race through the forest with his doggie friends, he slams into a low-hanging branch and falls into the river. His spirit sleeps for six days before he wakes up in heaven, an experience he embraces with as little apprehension as he did life. It’s not complicated at all.
It’s a little gimmicky to tell a story from the point of view of a dog, but Eggers’ gleeful manipulation of the prose—like a child’s, but commanding, and never sacrificing clarity—makes the story a joy to read. He also takes a somewhat clichéd premise—basically, that Steven the dog has it all figured out, so what the hell are we doing?—and still makes it feel like a worthwhile life lesson. Especially set in opposition to the previous story and Rita’s halting quest for an undefined happiness.
Eggers has moments of pretention, with his long titles and his funny forewords and whatnot, but he’s such a brilliant writer that it doesn’t matter much. I’m still a little daunted by A Heartbreaking Work’s sheer size, but I plan to continue to pursue his oeuvre.
In the meantime, I’m regularly checking out Eggers’ 90 Days, 90 Reasons, a project he co-founded to recount the reasons to re-elect Barack Obama. Occasional McSweeney’s contributor and Zuckerberg evil twin Jesse Eisenberg’s essay wasn’t up to par with some of his other work (see: Jeremy Lin Has Helped Me Through Some Pretty Tough Times, written at the height of Linsanity), but I really enjoyed Reza Aslan’s and Roxane Gay’s, on world engagement and hope, respectively. Eggers is a literary rock star.
Subtitled: America must be especially beautiful to people from other countries, but does it mean the same thing to them? Also, what’s the true meaning of the roadside attraction?
Four years ago my friends and I went to see Neil Gaiman speak at a local high school. He was charming, funny, and erudite, as I expected him to be, and as he continues to be on Twitter (1.7 million followers! What!). He showed us a sneak preview of the film adaptation of his children’s novel Coraline (a totally enchanting movie if you haven’t seen it). He read from his newest children’s novel, The Graveyard Book. I bought a signed copy.
Neil Gaiman is British, but lives in Minnesota, of all places– not New York or Los Angeles, but Minnesota. To me, that means he must know, and maybe love, America, because Minnesota is too remote and not-Britain to be ambivalent about. It’s the American heartland forgoodnesssake. I’ve always found that interesting, and American Gods, I feel, gives me a little more insight into how that residential paradox works.
American Gods is kind of a slow burn of a novel. I actually bought it for my boyfriend, on one of my first trips to Borderlands in the Mission (a totally enchanting sci-fi/fantasy bookstore on Valencia if you haven’t been there), because I knew he’d been wanting to read it. He started it, never finished it, said nothing was happening. It’s true that most of the story feels like a preparation for some big event (a war between the gods, incidentally), but after you stop waiting for the war to start, I think you can appreciate the burning.
Our hero is named Shadow, and he’s just gotten out of prison. There’s something special about Shadow that, being inside his head most of the time, we never completely understand. He doesn’t talk much, he doesn’t moralize much, he’s good in a fight and he accepts jobs from strange, potentially sinister men that he’s just met. But we know, from the little choices he makes, that he’s a good person anyway.
Part of Shadow’s disconnectedness from the world is because of the years he spent in prison. Part of it is because, right after he is released, his wife is killed in a car accident along with his best friend, who she had been having an affair with. So he starts his post-prison life in a kind of vacuum. No connections, no home, nothing and no one to care or live for.
He falls into a weird work relationship with a man he meets on the plane home, an older, bearded gentleman by the name of Wednesday. At this point, if you know anything about Norse mythology, you know who the guy’s supposed to be. I mean, the name of the book has gods in it! But while we might know who Wednesday is, we don’t really know what he’s up to—just that it has to do with a war, a coming storm (oldest metaphor in the book, am I right?!? e.g. “there’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne”), that it’s taking place in America. Also, that it has to do with the gods of the Old World (including the Old New World) and the gods of the millennium (read: technology, drugs, tabloids, etc).
Add to this the fact that Shadow is being followed around by his dead wife, and the fact that the small town Wednesday stashes him in between jobs is hiding a dark child-abducting secret, and there’s enough to keep your reading interest even if the storm takes forever to come.
One of my favorite touches in the novel is the way Neil Gaiman makes subtle observations about the American landscape. It’s something I like to do too, when I’m on the road: observe all the little idiosyncrasies, from road signs to billboards to store windows to restaurant decorations. When I feel like I’ve seen something special, that couldn’t be anywhere else in the world, it’s like a little, private victory to add to my collection.
The epic nature of the mythological landscape feels special because it’s grounded in the real America. It feels like all of these places really exist, and that Neil Gaiman has probably been to them. It makes the book feel bigger than itself.
“They spent the night in a Super 8 motel south of La Crosse.” (234)
“They ate their Christmas lunch late in the afternoon in a hall-like family restaurant in northern central Wisconsin. Shadow picked cheerlessly at the dry turkey, jam-sweet red lumps of cranberry sauce, tough-as-wood roasted potatoes, and violently green canned beans… [The waitress] wore a bright red-and-green skirt edged with glittering silver tinsel.” (234)
“Main Street, which they were on, was a pretty street, even at night, and it looked old-fashioned in the best sense of the word—as if, for a hundred years, people had been caring for that street and they had not been in a hurry to lose anything they liked.” (252)
“In America everything goes on forever, said a voice in the back of his head. The 1950s lasted for a thousand years. You have all the time in the world.” (537)
On my road trip, I was everywhere looking for the real America. I thought I might find it in those same types of ephemera: signs, windows, décor. Nevada and southern Utah felt, in passing, like home—strip malls, gas stations, highways and Starbucks. And home for me isn’t special; it’s where I live, it’s home. I thought I found it, for a little bit, on Route 66 in Arizona. But I realized that to an extent, the tourist kitsch of Williams and Seligman were parodies of the real America, created in dialectic response to the expectations people have when they arrive. Looking at the droves of European tourists, I wondered if they could tell the difference. Of course, maybe all this time I’ve been living in the real America, and I’m the one who can’t tell the difference.
My other favorite thing that Neil Gaiman does in American Gods is meditate on the nature and power of belief. The “gods” that are featured in the story are less like big-G gods who control the winds and the oceans and the fates of men, and more like beliefs made manifest who strengthen and weaken with people’s changing faith in them. To that extent, it’s unclear if these “gods” retain the core essence and identity of the actual god, or if they’re more an image, a shadow, a representation. (A question I had after the book: if these Old World gods were brought over by immigrants to America, is there a different, similar copy that remains in the Old World?)
Ancient mythology is referenced and re-lived, as when Shadow agrees to hang from the tree of life—Yggsdrasil or its Virginian farmland equivalent– for nine days and nine nights, something Odin does in Norse myth. Meanwhile, the Egyptian god Anubis works at a mortuary and eats slices of organs from the bodies he embalms.
But even more interesting, to me, was the way American mythology was identified and lived. The gods Shadow runs with are stronger, able to puncture dimensional fields, only from locations of deep significance. In America, these are tourist traps in remote places, where people make pilgrimage every vacation season. Most prominently:
1) The House on the Rock near Spring Green, Wisconsin, is where Shadow first witnesses the supernatural powers of the gods he is accompanying. They walk the tree-lined, Victorian-themed Streets of Yesterday, purchase fortunes from a machine using branded House on the Rock coin tokens, and ride an antique carousel to the strains of a slightly off-key Strauss waltz, which transports them to a separate dimension where they hold their godly council.
2) The center of the United States near Lebanon, Kansas, is where the Old gods hold a ceasefire meeting with the New, because neither has much power there—it’s a place of “negative sacredness”. This point was determined to be the U.S.’s geographic center in early 20th century, though the plaque had to be erected a few miles from the exact spot because a farmer didn’t want it on his land. The monument and the park and the hotel were meant to attract tourists, but never really did. Thus, the lack of power.
3) Rock City near Chattanooga, Tennessee, is where the final showdown takes place. The gods do battle over this mountain lookout that also has animatronic attractions and a seven-state vantage point.
I really like Gaiman’s ideas: that people’s beliefs have power, that places have power, that whether it’s a totemic and totalizing religion like Christianity, or an unshakeable positivistic belief in science; whether it’s fairy tales or animism or origins stories; or whether it’s just a lifestyle, a set of behaviors, an absorption in modern technology; it all means something because it requires some kind of faith, and because we are always searching someway somehow for something transcendent.
“The paradigms were shifting. He could feel it. The old world, a world of infinite vastness and illimitable resources and future, was being confronted by something else—a web of energy, of opinions, of gulfs.
“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.” (536)
Note: Rumors that this will be an HBO series as early as next year. Confirmation?
Subtitled: America, like it or not it’s beautiful, even if patriotism isn’t in vogue, because I haven’t been patriotic since post 9/11 pickup trucks turned me off the idea ten years ago, but I think I still love America, kinda
Having recently completed a five-day road trip across the American Southwest, I found myself reflecting on the soul of America.
I don’t know how much I, personally, can speak to it, not having been to the Midwest OR the South which are America’s proverbial heart(andsoul)lands. But I’ve been to three corners and three islands of the contiguous country—15 states—besides myself living in the West — so that’s a pretty good chunk of it eh? And not one but two books I’ve recently read—Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, and American Gods, by Neil Gaiman—deal with the topic of traveling the road in America, as does one of my favorite books of all time, Nabokov’s Lolita. And with the American road trip, intentional or not, comes the search for the meaning of America.
Into the Wild is a nonfiction work by outdoors journalist Jon Krakauer that chronicles the life and death of Chris McCandless, self-dubbed Alexander Supertramp, focusing on the two years he spent living out of his backpack in the Western United States in the early 1990s up to his untimely death. He perished in the summer of 1992 after months of living out of an abandoned bus near Denali National Park, at the edge of the Alaskan wilderness. He probably starved.
In terms of what drove him on this crazy quest: Chris was from a fairly well-to-do DC-area family, but had a difficult relationship with his parents, who he seemed to see as Caulfieldian phonies. As an honors student at Emory University he experimented with asceticism and grad-student theory, growing increasingly disillusioned with his privileged lifestyle and fantasizing about throwing all material possessions and former-life connections to the wind, and instead just existing, body and nature and no commitment to the corruptions of modern human society.
A lot of people think he was stupid or crazy, or at least arrogant, and there is definitely an argument to be made in that vein. But Krakauer’s portrait is deeply sympathetic. He interposes a personal story of his own foolhardy attempt to climb a glacial mountain in Alaska as a youth, solo, as well as the stories of many others who have wandered off into the wild for various reasons and, in most cases, not survived. McCandless, Krakauer implies, was not some loony but rather an idealistic young man following the time-honored tradition of looking for meaning and fulfillment in nature.
On my own road trip, my path twice crossed Krakauer’s and McCandless’s, once in the physical sense and once in the narrative sense. McCandless lived and worked for a time in Bullhead City, Arizona, which sits just across the river from “Las Vegas for families” Laughlin, Nevada. We stopped at this hokey casino town on the Colorado River for a very hot, very dry, not entirely interesting night.
Say what you will about Laughlin, but it truly is an American place, down to its classic American origins story of pluck and business know-how. Don Laughlin (b. 1931) worked in Vegas and attended card dealing school, teaching himself all the tricks of the casino trade, before buying an old hotel in this rundown little community across from Bullhead City. This he gradually grew into a mini-gambling empire that was later named for him. “What you’re looking at is the realization of one man’s dream,” the tour boat guide (a recording) told us. The American Dream, right?
For many tourists, it’s a weekend trip from their nearby Arizona, Nevada, or California hometowns; for (less fortunate) others, it’s their vacation destination of the year. For me, it was a pit stop on a road trip and nothing more, a mere geographic location, something that wasn’t made for me and that didn’t really welcome me in the physical or metaphysical sense. For McCandless, it was also just a stop: a stop on his cross-Western journey, where he put in hours at a part-time food service job to help pay for his ultimate destination, Alaska.
“Bullhead City is a community in the oxymoronic, late-twentieth-century idiom. Lacking a discernible center, the town exists as a haphazard sprawl of subdivisions and strip malls stretching for eight or nine miles along the banks of the Colorado, directly across the river from the high-rise hotels and casinos of Laughlin, Nevada. Bullhead’s distinguishing civic feature is the Mohave Valley Highway, four lanes of asphalt lined with gas stations and fast-food franchises, chiropractors and video shops, auto-parts outlets and tourist traps.” (p. 39)
The second time my path crossed McCandless’s was when we browsed a tiny espresso ‘n’ books ‘n’ outdoor gear store near our hotel in Kanab, Utah, a small town located just north of the Arizona border and south of Utah’s grandiose national parks. The subject of several of the display books was young Everett Ruess, one of those other foolhardy youths that Krakauer speaks about in his book.
Everett Ruess (b. 1914 in Oakland, CA– a fellow East Bay Areaite!) left his family and friends at age 16 to hitchhike around the West and live out of his backpack. This he managed to do for a few years, until somewhere between 1934 and 1935, in the Utah wilderness near Glen Canyon Dam, he disappeared. All that was left of Everett were his packs and his mules. They never found out what happened to him; it’s surmised he probably fell off a cliff. Whatever the case, the mystery surrounding his wanderlust-fueled death transformed him into a local legend, if the proliferation of Everett Ruess-themed books in the area gift shops is any indication.
For all the times that McCandless seems like an idiot who didn’t plan ahead—kind of like Aron Ralston of 127 Hours fame, except that dude pulled through—there’s this flip side of empathy because he did what maybe a lot of us have thought about, even just for a brief second. Maybe he lived in a way that none of us ever will: with no earthly connections, existing in nature and outside the bounds of society, being completely self-sufficient. There’s times when I’ve gazed out a car window and wished I could just hop out the door and run out into a particularly beautiful landscape (kind of a comical image, I know) but reason and logic and practicality and fear of bugs and all these other societal values and inhibitions forbid me. Sometimes I want to make snow angels in a dry meadow. Grass angels.
The search for the transcendent, the desire for life to have meaning could undoubtedly be considered universal sentiments. So could the desire for absolute freedom, particularly as the conditional freedoms of technology bind us, as we are ever more connected and ever more restricted by our connectedness. Even more, though, the special brand of McCandless’s search could, I think, be considered an American sentiment: a messy mixture of rugged individualism and self-reliance and reverence for the natural world that McCandless found in American writers like Emerson and London and Muir. (He also loved Tolstoy.) That these values ultimately took precedence over self-preservation (even before his sojourn to Alaska, McCandless put himself in danger several times) says a lot about their power.
For what it’s worth, I don’t have a lot of patience for people who profess or attempt to live lives of utter self-sufficiency. I think it’s a uniquely American fantasy that’s incredibly indulgent, manifested politically in Ron Paul-style libertarianism. The rejection of society—the societal fabric, the society of others—is a lie unless it is undertaken to its utmost extremes (I’m thinking, hermit on an island?), and anyone else who claims it is a hypocrite who doesn’t appreciate that society does so much for them, that society made them.
McCandless was probably indulgent; he was a privileged kid who hadn’t really experienced hardship; he undoubtedly failed to live completely independently, whether or not he thought that he had. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t succeed to a greater extent that most people ever will; and it definitely doesn’t mean there isn’t value in his story. Even as I shake my head at him, I admire him.
(The film version of this book, by the way, is lovely. Sean Penn directed it and Eddie Vedder wrote a perfect, rambling acoustic soundtrack, and Emile Hirsch was a very fitting and earnest McCandless. Ironically, the relationships McCandless made on the road while trying to escape society were unnaturally deep and meaningful for their short duration—he made an impression on everyone he met, and the film captures this beautifully. Most touching is the scene when Hal Holbrook’s character “Ron” [name changed from real life], who lost his wife and kids in an accident decades earlier, asks to adopt McCandless as a kind of grandson. McCandless demurred until he got back from Alaska, which of course he never did. I openly wept. Holbrook was nominated for his first Oscar.)
Into the Wild is compelling because from the very first page we know what happens in the end. Yet despite the inexorable direction of the story and McCandless’s sensational death (I was too young to follow the news in 1992, but my mom tells me it was a big story), the real value of the narrative is the journey– which in an ironic-but-oh-so-expected twist is ultimately and chiefly life-affirming.
Let’s start this off: Yes, I watch America’s Next Top Model. It’s so entertaining. I love it. The format is concise, the pictures are easy to judge and alternately beautiful or terrible, and the girls are from all different backgrounds and their inevitable clashes make for awesome TV. Let’s just start off by buying into this basic premise, that I watch this ridiculous show.
Now we can continue. So this past season was marketed as “British Invasion,” meaning half of the contestants were from Britain (and had previously competed on Britain’s Next Top Model) and half were from America (and had never competed). On average I liked the British girls about 95% more than the Americans, and not just to be contrary but because they were honestly funnier and cuter and more interesting than the “Yanks,” but that’s neither here nor there.
Amidst all the manufactured competition between Britain and America, which included repeatedly dividing them into teams along national lines and having them wear flag-print lipstick (to really gross effect), there were a few much more interesting things going on that had less to do with nationality and more with race. Despite the fact that two white contestants ended up in the finale, the show had a fair representation of black contestants as well as one Native American (much-hyped as “the first in Top Model history” for the two episodes she lasted). But inevitably some questionable shit went down, some of which has been nagging at me, so I want to break it down for you into a Top 3 countdown.
3) Mariah as Pocahontas. The very first challenge involved all of the girls dressing up as a historic figure from their (two) respective countries. “Historic” was taken pretty liberally, as characters ranged from George Washington to John Lennon to Michelle Obama to Princess Di. For the most part, the girls’ roles traversed racial and gender lines, but guess who (token) Native American girl Mariah was assigned! No, really, guess. You’ll get it right.
POCAHONTAS. Obvi. So she’s there, jumping on a trampoline in fringe, doing her best model-y Pocahontas. It’s ridiculous, but it’s not the worst part. At the judging, her picture was a little lifeless, and the judges gave her an especially harsh critique and almost sent her home because (I’m paraphrasing) she should know how to do Pocahontas because she’s Native American. What this means (what a lot of modeling speak means!) I have no idea, and why little 18-year-old Mariah from Pendleton, Oregon doing a modeling competition in 2012 should be any better than any of the other girls at channeling a 17th-century Powhatan princess, while jumping on a trampoline, is completely lost on me. I’m pretty sure the judges had only ever met one Native American, and they’d also only ever heard of one other Native American, and so the two just kind of, you know, made sense together and must be, kind of, pretty much the same thing.
2) Analiese in bananas. Perky presenter-type Analiese from England makes it to the final three, the last black girl standing (as she herself points out), and along with fellow finalists Sophie and Laura (both white) is sent out on go-sees with designers around Hong Kong. One particularly zany designer whose name I forget, and who happens to be white (British? Australian?) has the girls walk in his costumes; and they really are costumes, in the sense that they’re theatrical and ridiculous. He takes one look at blond Sophie and says, “I’m seeing Marie Antoinette,” and gives her a giant 18th-century gown to wear and walk in. Later, Laura is dressed in a red-sequined dress that he likens to a disco ball.
What does Analiese get? Basically, a fuzzyish bikini to which dangly plush bananas are attached. She’s psyched, she loves it, she gives a great walk, he loves her, he thinks she’s great, he books her. All of this is fine, except, what? What the hell kind of costume is this? I don’t know if it was supposed to be Neanderthal, or native, or jungle set piece, but whatever it was, it was certainly a far cry from what the other girls were dressed in, and in the worst kind of way. I’m willing to bet that whatever this zany Anglo HK-based designer was “seeing” was rooted in some kind of unconscious sartorial-cum-historical/cultural-institutional racism.
1) Kyle as the girl next door. Finally, my favorite not-favorite moment. A Swedish guy who does branding advice for a living comes in to help the girls develop their individual “brands.” To see how audiences react to their brands (e.g. “regal,” “youthful,” “rock ‘n’ roll”), they are each assigned to do an informal 30-second commercial talking about some silly product. Then, they are surprised to find out their commercials are being shown to a focus group, and the girls, along with delightfully over-the-top gender-bending series staple Miss Jay, watch the focus group from another room.
A few of the girls clearly did a good job, including Alisha, one of my favorites, a dark-skinned long-legged girl from South London. A few clearly didn’t, including Kyle, one of my least favorites, a bland dark-blond girl from Texas, whose delivery was stiff and uncharismatic, though well-enunciated. But here’s what the (American, mostly-white) focus group had to say:
On Kyle: “Love her. She’s great. She’s got this great girl-next-door look.”
On Alisha: “I don’t like her, uh…. African accent.”
(Note: Alisha is from South London. She has a South London accent.)
After that last statement, there was visible, audible shock in the models’ room. Alisha’s jaw drops, and Miss Jay utters something in surprise, and no one seems to know what to say. The focus group then votes on their favorites, and one of the top three is Kyle. (Lest you think these focus folk are flat-out racists, they also chose Analiese for their top three, who as noted before is perky and cute and also has actual presenter experience.)
Later, tensions break out between the models. (This sentence is necessary in any Top Model recap.) Ebony and Alisha can’t help but point out that Kyle didn’t do that well, but was still chosen by the focus group. Race isn’t explicitly mentioned, but there is clearly resentment around this idea of who can be a “girl next door.” Kyle, feeling attacked, breaks down and cries and says she wants to go home. Yes, this is typically how Top Model fights go.
What Kyle doesn’t understand is that Ebony and Alisha had a point. While she didn’t do anything wrong, personally, she also didn’t do anything right that merited her advantage over those girls (or, at least, Alisha; Ebony’s commercial was pretty bad). That’s kind of how the P-word works (rhymes with “divilege”). Being a “girl-next-door”—and hence, automatically likable– is an available option only to certain girls. Unfortunately, that’s also kind of how branding and marketing work, so in a really sad way the focus group also had a point, depending what your ultimate goal is. To perpetuate the system or not to perpetuate the system?
Honorable Mention: Not a racist moment, but just a nice honest moment that I appreciated. The models are paired up with young girls who have been bullied, to work together on an anti-bullying PSA. Alisha’s little girl, who has tan skin and curly dark brown hair, says she doesn’t feel pretty, and Alisha asks, whyever not? The girl says her hair, her eyes, her skin are the wrong color. Alisha gets emotional, saying she has felt the same way, but never to let that get you down because you are beautiful. Empowerment, encouragement, etcetera. (Camera zooms in on tears like sharks to blood in the water.)
And I understood too, because there was a point in my childhood where I sincerely wished that I had white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, because that’s what I thought beauty was. There are ethnic Barbies, but you always know what Barbie is supposed to look like. While it was never a deep-seated issue for me, it still came up, and it could definitely be addressed more often to help divorce our notions of beauty from ethnic chauvinism, for both girls and women. Though admittedly, if we want to start getting into our notions of beauty, there’s a lot more there that needs to be fixed, even right here on Top Model…but one thing at a time, right okay.