the kafkaesque k

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Read the Book

Just before I moved to New Mexico, the film adaptation of The Hours came out. I should have known better than to see the movie, but a good friend of mine wanted to see it, and I wanted to spend time with her before I moved. Also, I hadn’t seen a movie adaptation of a book in a long while. And I do enjoy Nicole Kidman, though I’m not sure why.

When we left the theater, my friend swore she’d never go see another movie adaptation of a book with me. I spent the whole 2 hours drilling my foot into the floor and mumbling “This isn’t how it happened in the book.” When Nicole Kidman/Virginia Woolf had her meltdown at the train station, I had to suppress the urge to walk out of the theatre. There was no reason to invent that scene. To this day, I’ll argue that the movie version of The Hours takes the book’s subtle, rich, compelling female characters and reduces them to one-note emotional train-wrecks.

As you can guess, I will not be seeing the new Sean-Penn directed, mostly stunt-casted movie adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s near-brilliant Into the Wild. I hadn’t heard about this movie adaptation until my husband mentioned it to me in passing, and I’ve been Googling information on the movie all afternoon. I love Krakauer’s book—it’s one of the few books I’ve read multiple times. Every time I read the book, I’m struck anew by both the mystery of Chris McCandless—who was this man, and was he daring or crazy?—and also by the mystery of what he represents in our larger culture. The literary loner, the hero who rejects society for grander schemes, the zealot made largely in America—Krakauer’s exploration of these topics is near perfection.

Now, I understand (on some level) that movies are not meant to be mirrors of the book—that the different medium requires by its very nature changes to the original text. But when I stumbled across the following description on a page promoting the 2007 Live Wild Tour this morning, I began yelling at my computer. Here's how they describe the movie version of McCandless' journey:

"INTO THE WILD is based on a true story and the best selling book by Jon Krakauer. After graduating from Emory University in 1992, top student and athlete Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) abandons his possessions, gave his entire $24,000 savings to charity and hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of characters that shape his life."

We'll skip over, for starters, the inattention to verb tense. There’s no mention here of the danger in what McCandless did. In fact, it would seem to make McCandless into that same literary loner hero that the real life Chris so misunderstood. Sure, the people he met "along the way... shape[d] his life"—but he was also on an ill-advised, ill-equipped trip that ultimately led to not only his death, but to deeper, more complicated losses for his family and friends. And now Paramount Vintage Films is turning this into the 2007 Live Wild Tour, and encouraging readers to share stories of their own adventures? Have they read the book? Do they know where “living wild” ultimately led Chris McCandless? Do they even want to touch upon the deeper questions inspired by the book? Let me answer that last question: no, they don’t, because there’s more money to be made from simplifying a moral into the story. And we all know how adventure sells these days! Chris went on an adventure and met people who changed his life=money in the bank. Chris as a complicated man guided by forces that can be speculated upon but not always entirely understood=not a very good marketing scheme.

Rather than go to the movie, I'm going to re-read the book. And I'm encouraging everyone I know to do the same.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007


Last week, I began my 8th semester of teaching college writing and composition courses. For the first time, I walked into the classroom feeling confident and ready. Maybe it’s because I’ll be teaching the course’s first topic for the third time, and have an ingrained sense of the material. Maybe it’s because this topic—visual argument—is one that I find compelling and relevant, and, dare I say it, fun to play with and discuss in class. Maybe it’s because I’m finding that talking about writing fuels my own work—dare I say it, my students, if they don’t teach me something new, at least force me to stop and think about what I’m saying. Maybe it’s because I’ve been teaching for four years now, minus one semester, and it’s about damn time I realize that I’m not exactly a novice.

One thing I don’t often stop to consider, though, is my student’s p.o.v. They shuffle in and out of my classrooms, girls in pony tails and pearls and boys in baseball caps, and I give them grades and (I hope) insights into how to write good essays. It’s not exactly that I see my students as all together homogenous—every class has its surprises, and I can still list the names and interests of kids I taught several semesters back. But the same themes seem to repeat themselves over and over: the students who fill out the crossword rather than take notes, the ones who tell jokes just loud enough to reach the six others around them, the ones who live in an inexplicable constant state of tragedy (Freshman English, my husband likes to joke, is fatal for some students’ families), the ones who stumble in hung over, the ones who can’t seem to follow what I think are very clear instructions. The past few semesters in particular, I’ve been on a mission to erase bad habits: every semester I add a new course policy meant to force them to pay more attention to ME. I’m like a two-year-old, only smarter about language.

This semester, there’s a small girl with cropped blond hair and dark-framed glasses who sits near the front of one of my afternoon classes. On the first day of class, I asked her class to get into small groups and create a visual argument. They had to answer questions about their design decisions, and define the context for the argument. I’d left that question about context deliberately vague, both to give them the freedom to be creative in their definition, and also to help me figure out how well they understood the concept.

The blond girl was the speaker for her group. She seemed more nervous than I would expect: as she spoke, she blushed and looked around the room between answers. While she spoke I focused on what I wanted to address—why they’d chosen the color red, how their font might work in other rhetorical situations. I almost missed her point about context.

“The context,” she explained, looking quickly at me and then at her fellow students, “is that this is the first assignment in this class, and we’re all kind of nervous. We don’t know what to expect.”

Because I do know what to expect—I know that within the next week, at least four of her classmates (maybe even she) will e-mail me & ask me to repeat something I’ve said in class. And I’ll get annoyed. I know that many of them will truly be confused about the first writing assignment, that few of those confused will ask questions, and so a large chunk of them will get the lowest grades they’ve ever gotten on a writing assignment. I know that they’ll try to argue those grades by explaining how their high school teacher gave them all “A”s. And I’ll get annoyed. I know that no matter how many times I go over the importance of formatting and provide them with examples, I’ll inevitably see papers in Comic Sans font, or with margins as wide as my hands, or without any proper heading. And I’ll get annoyed. Why haven’t they figured this out, I keep asking myself.

Because this for them is new, and that’s easy to forget when you’ve been encountering issues that never seem to change. It doesn’t matter that I’ve said this for eight semesters times who knows how many sections now, these kids haven’t been to college yet. For many of them, entering the college classroom is more akin to entering a foreign country. All the familiarity of high school—the teachers they knew, the kids they knew, the activities they knew—none of them are here. Everything that’s familiar may be hundreds of miles away. No wonder they can’t remember—hell, my freshman year is nothing but a foggy memory, and not because of alcohol. Beneath all of my excitement about finally getting out of my mother’s house and moving seven hours away from the kids that sang songs about my frizzy hair & mimicked my high-pitched high school giggle, I was scared shitless. Take care of myself? What was that about? Solve problems on my own? What? There are still problems to solve when you move away from a place you hate? College blew my eighteen-year-old mind.

I’m not saying I’m gonna go any easier on these kids—anyone who didn’t take notes in class last week just cashed in on lost quiz points—but maybe I’ll take a stab at being a bit more patient, and a bit less annoyed. For all my insistence that they consider me when evaluating the rhetorical situations for their papers, the least I might do is more deeply consider their context.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Another Reason to Love Joan Didion

"The peculiarity of being a writer is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one's own words in print." ~Joan Didion, "Last Words"

I haven't written seriously in over a year. On occasion, I've sent out a long and descriptive e-mail, and thought to myself, "There. That wasn't so hard." But when I sit down to write, like I am now, I get stuck. I'll tinker with some sentences, move around a few paragraphs, make a general mess of a draft, if I create anything at all, and then I'll panic and walk away.

Didion's essay "Last Words," which I just read in The Best American Essays 1999, is a great read for anyone like me. She looks at the posthumous publication of Hemingway's last novel, but more than that, she explores how hard it is to write--not just novels, but letters and correspondence--knowing that you'll be read.

When I e-mail, I imagine a very specific reader, and it's mostly easy to write, when I'm in the right mood, because I mostly know what they'd like to hear. (Though even with e-mail I struggle, which is why most of my friends would rightly describe me as terrible at keeping in touch.) When I write, I find that reader elusive, mainly because I'm afraid of what--or who--I don't know. This fear and self-consciousness have got to go--I've got to find a way to plow through them.

Another reason to love Joan Didion: she knows it's hard to plow through, but her writing is so graceful and elegant that I feel understood, comforted and encouraged. Nothing beats reading an essay written by a master, and thinking that maybe I can do this. Maybe not as well as Didion, but better than I'm doing it right now.

(Really, though, there aren't many ways to do it worse, unless you count not writing at all.)

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Friday, August 25, 2006

What will my very eager mother just serve us now?

With absolute disregard for the importance--and the permanence--of mnemonic devices, the International Astronomer's Union has taken away Pickles. I mean Pluto.

There goes everything I can remember from the 4th grade.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Now That's What I'm Talking About

I stand corrected. Deadwood does surprise. Or, I should say, Al Swearengen, masterfully portrayed by Ian McShane, surprises.

I finally got around to watching episode 10, "A Constant Throb." Most of this season we've seen Swearengen, usually Deadwood's main bully, being bullied and beaten by George Hearst. And as complicated as such matters get, Swearengen just hasn't been able to figure out how to solve the puzzle of Hearst. He's seemed, as the season has progressed, to become more and more powerless.

In "A Constant Throb," Hearst sends Barrett, his main enforcer, over to the Gem to deliver Swearengen a message. This meeting plays out the way Hearst would like--Barrett swaggers with his power over Al. Swearengen still seems muddled, like he's trying to figure out exactly how to handle this situation, but is still far from reaching any sort of decision. As Barrett stands to leave Al's office, he says to Swearengen, "You don't seem halfway like such a halfway bad fucking person."

The absolute beauty of this line is how thoroughly convincing McShane's performance has been in every episode leading up to this moment. The evolution of the confused, frayed Swearengen has played out to the point where, until the second Swearengen's knee makes contact with Barrett's crotch, beginning one of the show's most brutal shit-kickings to date, I'm ready to agree with Barrett's estimation. But no, Swearengen is a surprising character--thanks to both good writing and to McShane's stand out performance.

I'm still tired of the Jane & Joanie love connection, but I can't be bothered to care as much about that anymore. Sure, they're predictable. But as long as Swearengen's around, Deadwood is pure fucking magic.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

If She Wears Pants, She Must Kiss Girls

HBO's Deadwood is one of the finest shows you'll find on TV right now--possibly one of the finest shows ever made. But in the case of Calamity Jane, the writers appear to be taking the easy way out. In a manner of speaking.

Calamity Jane is, without a doubt, one of my favorite characters on the show. She's almost always drunk and dirty, and her mouth is among the foulest. She cares about Wild Bill Hickok, nurses the cocksuckers who suffer from small pox in Season 1, and generally does things of good fucking will. When she's not on a bender, of course.

Margot Mifflin, in a review of a 2005 biography about Calamity Jane, writes, "Like so many pop culture icons, [Calamity Jane] lived fast, died young and was quickly canonized, yet her fictional self so quickly preempted the real one that it's almost impossible to say her legend is anything but fiction." Any internet search of Calamity Jane will give you a mishmash of facts about her life; few of those facts seem to be certain. And so her character is a gold mine for the writers of Deadwood.

Many of Deadwood's characters are based upon real people--if not upon an actual person who once lived in Deadwood, then upon an actual type of person would have lived in Deadwood. And a few of the characters based on real people get a bum rap. The rascally E.B. Farnum, for example, who no one in the HBO town seems to take seriously? In real life, Farnum was a husband, the father of three children (all of whom lived in Deadwood with him), and a much better businessman and councilman than the HBO show would have us believe. But because Farnum makes such an excellent foil for Swearingen, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief.

But I'm not willing to suspend my disbelief with the turn Calamity Jane's character took in the recent episode "Unauthorized Cinnamon." In this episode, Jane finally kisses Joanie Stubbs. I write finally because when this happened, I let out a sigh of disgust, prompting B to say, "Like you didn't see that coming?"

That I saw it coming was precisely the problem. Here's the deal: in all of the bios I've read online about Calamity Jane, none have asserted that she was a lesbian. They've mentioned her claims to an affair with Wild Bill Hickok, her possible crush on Charlie Utter, that she was (at times) a prostitute, that she had, later in life, a daughter. All of these are, more or less, hetero-normative activities, correct? Right.

But Jane, you see, doesn't (and in real life, didn't always) act lady-like. She wears pants, sleeps in the street and drinks so much that she pisses herself (although the book review on claims that Jane mostly wore dresses). She lives on the frontier and she likes guns. She talks nothing like a lady--even the prostitutes of Deadwood speak in a (relatively) more refined language than Jane. So what do we do with the woman who does hetero-normative things but who doesn't outwardly present as hetero-normative? If we're the writers of Deadwood, we take the easy way out with her character. We make her the lesbian, because our idea (or the idea that a broader audience would have) of the way a lesbian performs her sexuality is as follows: she acts like a man.

The choice of portraying Jane as a lesbian is not surprising, and the reason I've fallen in love with Deadwood is that, more often than not, the show surprises. Which is why I'm wondering why the writers didn't pair Jane up with Charlie Utter, or some other male character. Why not really play around with the options history presents? Sure, a little girl-on-girl action can be good times, but why not a little man-and-woman-taking-the-pants-and-cowboy-hats-off-one-another action? Why not challenge the audience's desire to pigeonhole the pant-wearin woman? Even better--why not let Jane have it all--give her a love scene with Charlie Utter, and then give her one with Joanie. If you're going to make fiction out of history, why not just go full fucking tilt and make of these cocksuckers complicated characters?

Making Jane a lesbian is too easy, and I think it speaks to our struggle as a society to accept sexuality (and also, in many ways, gender roles) as anything other than a black-or-white, either-or concept. Jane can't have any kind of combination plate in HBO's Deadwood, because at this point in history, neither can we.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Non-fiction and the Peace Corps Problem

I've finally gotten around to reading the essay that won The Missouri Review's Annual Editors' Prize. Since I'd also entered the contest, I admittedly read the essay with a more critical eye. Do I wish I'd won this contest? Yes. (The prize was $3,000. You wish you'd won, too.) Do I think that Erica Bleeg's essay "Obedience" deserved to win? Absolutely.

Bleeg's essay paints a startling portrait of a moment in time. She describes her training as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Benin. We're introduced to her first host family, the landscape of the country and of the city of Cotonou (where Bleeg is being trained), as well as to information about the history and culture of Benin. Bleeg does an excellent job of re-creating the sense of strangeness she encountered as a American in a foreign land: "All around us, humidity drenched the hours in a rich haze such that everything in view seemed temporary, like a mirage, while at the same time my awareness of every action as a means to stay alive became much keener" (95). Every sentence is meticulously constructed and rich in detail; Bleeg knows well how to take her time in telling a good story.

But. I can't help but put the essay down and think, Great. Another privileged, well-intentioned white girl goes to Africa and is confounded by the role of women there, and finds herself implicated in the process. And then she writes about it.

Perhaps I'm jealous because I haven't produced any writing from my AmeriCorps experiences, or because I haven't been published, or because I didn't attend as prestigious of a graduate writing program as Bleeg. (Though, to be fair, a woman from my program won TMR's Editors' Prize just a few years ago. Her essay was also about an experience she had in the Peace Corps.)

But I think I really am tired of reading this same essay. Because I haven't yet found a writer that really addresses, head-on, what I think is the most compelling issue to be found in such essays: white guilt. Or maybe not white guilt, but the kind of guilt that sends us out into the world to do this work, and then return and wear it as some kind of badge of honor. Because I don't believe in this work as being altruistic. Although, with very few exceptions, I simply don't believe in altruism. We do good things because we want something--an object, a feeling, a currency, a favor--in return. I joined AmeriCorps because I wanted to gain job experience without actually finding a real job, and because I wanted to move and AmeriCorps pays volunteers to relocate. Sure, I wanted to help the community as well. But would I have been as eager to help without the incentives of a few lines for my resume and a little money for my education?

To be fair, Bleeg touches on this issue in several places. She writes, "Having just arrived from a country torn by racial hatred and rife with racial epithets, whenever I heard [the term Beninois used to refer to white people], what I saw in my mirror eye, looking back at me, was a White Exploiter" (94). But what, I want to know, does she think of being a white exploiter? Or, does she even think she's white exploiter? How does she view the presence of the Peace Corps in countries such as Benin? What are the unique problems faced by volunteers who have so much history bearing down upon them?

Bleeg, though, attempts to immediately divert her readers' attention from such questions--she writes that she isn't sure if her presence helps, but that "there was nothing we could do to erase who we were" (94). Right enough, but if you've gone over to Africa as a white, American volunteer, isn't it your responsibility to begin teasing out and speculating upon some answers to those really large questions? Other readers may want to move on to the next sentence, but I want Bleeg to stop and explain.

But Bleeg also makes clear that her motive for joining the Peace Corps wasn't to tease out racial tensions and the impact of hundreds of years of exploitation. She tells us early on that she wanted to go to Africa because of what she knew of the poverty there. Television images of Africa--particularly of women--linger in Bleeg's memories of childhood. "It was women I wanted to understand. I wanted to help where possible; I wanted to deepen my life with hard labor, and I believed African women could show me how" (92).

Ok, I'll start by being snarky: no one wants to deepen their lives with hard labor. Go to any demanding job--find someone in construction, find someone working long hours in a field, find a fisherman or woman--go find someone in one of those jobs, and ask them: would they like a break? It is only those who can afford to be idle that romanticize hard labor.

My point: this sentence is a landmine in Bleeg's essay. She's so careful--her pages of prose about history and geography are, I think, a carefully traced path around other sentences like "I had grown up in a corporate family"(93). I wonder: how corporate? And I think that question is important. A woman traveling to Benin from an upper class family, for example, will have a wider gulf of differences to navigate than, say, someone traveling there from a poverty-stricken family. But, to keep our attention on the story she wants to tell (which is, ultimately, a story about her own inaction), Bleeg keeps details about her life to a minimum.

In the end, I think Bleeg wrote the wrong essay. She wrote the essay we've been taught to write since grade school: the "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" essay. She wrote the essay well, to be sure. But I can't help but wonder who much better it would have been if she'd written the essay "Who I Am And Why I Went On This Summer Vacation."