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Posts Tagged ‘Arts’

The Other Side of What

Saturday, July 24, 2010 @ 10:07 AM  posted by Mark

Shannon Yarbrough’s first novel The Other Side of What, a languid coming-of-age story with vivid characters and memorable descriptions of its Memphis setting, mimics the process of growing up that it describes, becoming more confident as its story progresses. Ultimately, though, like its narrator, it clings to a naivete that doesn’t quite allow it to mature.

The novel begins as the gay narrator Matthew moves from a small Tennessee backwater to Memphis, the metropolis of his youth, and his search for love in his new home forms the meat of the story. Through the course of several deftly described romantic relationships of increasing seriousness, Matthew maintains a personal detachment from his new friends and lovers, keeping key elements of his past and identity hidden—partly out of embarrassment about his hicks-in-the-sticks family and partly in an effort to shape his friends’ perceptions of his still-developing new persona. The Other Side of What explores the emotional impact of Matthew’s secrets, both on himself and the people around him, who all have secrets of their own. In Yarbrough’s story, the human heart is the ultimate secret, and the struggle to reveal the heart’s secrets is the whole meaning of human relationships. Though the content of the story is not religious, its structure follows a classic Original Sin thesis: we all have secrets because we’re human, and to the extent that we can unburden ourselves of those secrets and live honestly, we achieve redemption and become worthy of love.

The Other Side of What gains its strength from a combination of glibness and meditative reflection. The matter-of-fact debauchery of Matthew’s introduction to the Memphis gay scene, which is also his introduction to the Memphis drug scene, adds grit to Matthew’s otherwise ingenuous, naive and self-deprecating narration. The colorful characters he meets as he navigates and then rejects the drug sub-culture remain friends throughout, and a spitfire art dealer named Zoe befriends Matthew and becomes his confidant. Through sharp dialogue, Matthew’s relationships develop intimacy and snappy camaraderie, and the three intersecting secrets that weave together Mathew’s lover Seth, his brother Ethan, and his friends Jacob and Vance illustrate common, even archetypal tendencies that we all share and that subvert our attempts to fully trust each other.

However, the novel itself suffers from an inability to be completely honest with the reader, so that its story remains unredeemed and its narrator doesn’t fully earn our trust. This is especially true of the story’s climax, when the novel changes narrators suddenly and inexplicably, alienating the reader and casting doubt on much of what has come before. Specifically, the novel switches from reliable first-person to omniscient third-person to unreliable first-person back to reliable first-person narrators in the span of just a few pages at the story’s most critical point, betraying an unwillingness to face the implications of its own plot. This narrative waffling is the more unfortunate because of the charm of the narrator and story up until that point, and because of the potentially explosive conclusion that the story shies away from, involving a love triangle, buried family secrets and the kind of gothic horror found almost nowhere else but in Southern fiction.

Yarbrough’s descriptions of a snowy Memphis, his clever mistaken-identities plot, and his tender handling of the first blush of romance between Matthew and Seth are all admirable and recommend the novel, but these virtues are mixed with an ending that settles for the comic instead of exploring the deeper emotional complexities of its plot and that becomes confused in its execution as a result. A good first novel that points toward Yarbrough’s more mature later work, The Other Side of What still leaves the reader wanting more.

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Romeo & Juliet Make an Omelet

Sunday, February 14, 2010 @ 11:02 AM  posted by Mark

The classical idea of romance is tragic—the lovers want something they really can’t have in this lifetime, and so someone must ultimately be sacrificed to the idea of love. Romance survives as an ideal precisely because it can never quite be realized in this imperfect world, where a collicky baby keeps Juliet up half the night and then Romeo prattles irritatingly at the breakfast table about the Veronese government. Imagine Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after, surrounded by a brood of yammering children, Romeo with a paunch and baggy eyes, Juliet with stretch marks. Their days are filled with the (possibly happy) tedium of everyday life, but happy or sad, the idea of eternal union was not what Shakespeare was going for—that’s not romance—it was the ideal of eternal longing.

Romance has a tough time in this modern world because of our many freedoms: we are free to marry or not, to sleep with our lovers or not, to divorce and remarry without censure, and no one really believes in immortal damnation for the soul who commits adultery or divorces or defies the will of the parents by eloping with someone from another kingdom. In our individual lives, the barriers to love that once inspired romance have disappeared, and without real obstacles, the ideal of romance simply does not apply. That’s why there are so many absurd, unbelievable obstacles thrown in the way of modern lovers, which make both their romance and their union ridiculous (How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, anyone?). But does the ideal of romance survive today?

Happily, yes.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is not, in its main concerns, a romance. It asserts the redemptive value of art in a world where not all mistakes can be confessed or forgiven. However, the romance around which the major action revolves is classically romantic with a modern twist—not only are the lovers sacrificed for the ideal of Love, their romance takes place only after the lovers are already dead. It’s an ingenious way for us to eat our cake and have it to: by displacing the romance with a metafictional device, McEwan creates a satisfying romance in the classical sense and uses it to make a statement about storytelling itself. One of the best novels of the aughts.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient features a straight up classical romance, with real obstacles of class, adultery, enmity and the lure of Impossible. The fact that it won the Booker Prize indicates how much we still long for the classical myth of Romance in our fictions and that, however self-aware and detached our modern attitude toward love, compared with earlier eras, we’re not beyond believing that our feelings are more important than life itself. The tragic sacrifice of the lovers in this novel return us to a conception of romance as ethereal, impossible and desirable.

Alain de Botton’s charming novel On Love is a prime example of what happens to romance in modern times. Witty and deft, the novel nevertheless replaces all the tragedy of classical Love with mathematical calculations, the exaltation of the everyday over transcendent passion, and the acknowledgment that any particular romance is just one in a string of romances that you will indulge and that will fail before you settle into marriage. A delightful book, with its share of surprise, discovery and romantic gestures, On Love captures the true-life experience of love for many of us moderns: engaging, essential but not transcendent. The One True Love has been replaced by the one you happen, by luck and effort, to work out all the details with. No lightning strikes or love potions here.

Finally, I would like to recommend the tale that started it all, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. Quite a few versions exist, with minor variations, but this is the Bedier version. It’s a medieval story, so it has a fairy tale ring to our modern ears, and it has everything you want in a romance: passion, longing, adultery, battles with giants, dangerous voyages and most of all, a love to die for. As the model for all romances that came after it, right down to The English Patient, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult is still the best tale of love you can find: quick-paced, moving and tragic, it will make you long for the days when everyone knew what romance was and knew how to make real romantic gestures.

On a personal note: though the story of romance has been degraded by modern freedoms, I would still say that it’s possible to use the old, tragic gestures to express true love. Today, Valentine’s Day, my wife and I will be attending a matinee of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, after which I will make her favorite dish for dinner, which we’ll eat by candlelight. Is that romantic??

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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During this Valentine’s Week survey of Romances, we’ve noticed that a lot of characters in literary romances kill themselves for love. So we’ve invited some of the most notable lover-suicides here today to discuss their choices, along with Lucy Moderatz, the main character of the 1995 film While You Were Sleeping, who does not kill herself for love but lives happily ever after. This discussion is open for anyone’s comments, but let’s begin by asking Emma Bovary, wife of a successful doctor in a quiet town—why? Why kill yourself?

Emma Bovary: Of course, my first thought was to kill Charles, but he’s so boring he probably wouldn’t have noticed, and then I’d still be stuck in that backwater Tostes with all that debt! Then I thought of killing Rodolphe, who wouldn’t give me any money—you’d think he’d owe me something, after what he did. Honestly, I thought of killing everyone—Leon, the priest, even the butcher—but I was really, really depressed at the time, and flat broke, so I just got tired of it all and took the arsenic. I mean, if Rodolphe had just eloped with me in the first place, like he said he would, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, so maybe you should ask Rodolphe why he killed me!

Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary

Lucy Moderatz: But why not just get a divorce, declare bankruptcy and move to Rouen? There must be lots of nice guys in Rouen.

Emma: Divorce? Not possible! Bankruptcy? And go to prison? This is 19th Century France, you nitwit!

Lucy: Hey!

Bookmarkzero: Anna, can you relate to Emma’s suicide? Were you motivated by the same concerns?

Anna Karenina: Of course, I can relate. When divorce is not possible, and you can’t express your true love—

Zero: But Anna, did you kill yourself because of Karenin’s refusal to grant a divorce, or because Vronsky was cheating on you?

Tatiana Samoilova as Anna Karenina.

Tatiana Samoilova as Anna Karenina.

Anna: First of all, there’s no proof that he actually was cheating on me. So there’s that. And it’s true, everything just got to be too much. I mean, even if I get a divorce, I’m out of society, and I’m done for. I couldn’t have gone to the balls or the races, I had no friends, and I obviously couldn’t hang around with peasants all day. It was horrible—if I had gotten the divorce and then Vronsky had left me, it would have been the end of me. I don’t know—I think the morphine was messing with my head, too, but I honestly didn’t see any way out.

Lucy: But what about your children, what about Seryozha and Annie? Didn’t you think of them?

Anna (stares at Lucy): Annie didn’t like me anyway, and Seryozha. . . well, obviously, I didn’t want things to work out like they did. I killed myself—I’m not proud of it!

Lucy: But why not just demand a divorce, get the alimony and take the kids to Moscow? You could get a job! What were you good at?

Anna (to moderator): Who is this bitch?

Zero: Let’s bring in Juliet Capulet, who killed herself at her dead lover’s side. Would you do it again, knowing what you know now?

Claire Danes as Juliet

Juliet: What do I know now? My one true love is still dead. What did I have to live for?

Emma: That totally makes sense to me. If Rodolphe had died in my arms, I would have killed myself, too.

Anna: Me, too. You go, Juliet!

Emma: Right, better to get it over with early. No offense, but if he had lived, Romeo would probably have turned into a jerk like every other man.

Juliet: What! Take that back, you fusty baggage!

Zero: All right, let’s keep this civil. Lucy, did you ever think of killing yourself for love?

Lucy: Well. . . (thinks). . . not really. I mean, it was sad that Peter was in that coma, and then when he woke up. . .and Jack found out about everything. I mean, I quit my job—does that count?

Anna (bewildered): Quit your job?

Emma: This bitch doesn’t know anything. She has a job, she can sleep with anybody she wants and nobody cares, she can have a kid by herself, get divorced and remarried and divorced. What the hell does she know about love?

Juliet: That’s right! My family would have slain me in an honor killing if I had slept with Romeo out of wedlock, and then they would have killed Romeo and half his family. Marriage and sex and fidelity obviously mean nothing to you!

Lucy: Hey, that’s not fair. All I ever wanted was to be married.

Sandra Bullock as Lucy Moderatz

Anna: Sure, but you have choices. You can vote. You can sleep with that guy down the hall and who cares? No one ostracizes you from society, if a peasant like you could be said to have a society.

Lucy: You know, just because you lived in different times, that doesn’t give you a right to judge my feelings. I feel just as deeply about love as all of you did.

Juliet: Oh yeah?  (withdraws a dagger from her skirts and offers it to Lucy) Prove it.

Emma: Yeah, prove it.

Lucy (recoils): But I’m not going to kill myself. I’m happily married.

Emma (to moderator): Why did you invite her? What does she know about anything? (turns to Juliet) Give me that dagger!

Lucy: I’m getting out of here! (jumps up and runs away, followed closely by Emma, Anna and Juliet)

Zero: I guess we’ll have to resume this discussion at another time. Until then, let me leave you with this final question: Would you kill yourself for love?

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Valentine’s Week Romances: Pride & Prejudice

Wednesday, February 10, 2010 @ 12:02 AM  posted by Mark

Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice has been adapted for television, film and stage eleven times, and now a series of derivative novels adds vampires and zombies to the basic story. What fascinates us about this book?

The novel has endured because of its multiple layers of satire (largely downplayed in film adaptations); but the story holds our attention to this day because Austen did something revolutionary—she domesticated the Myth of Romance for the first time, and both the myth and the taming of it still speak to us. Pride and Prejudice exchanges the original myth’s Yearning for the Impossible for something much more modest: a Longing for a Not-too-Repulsive Guy with a Decent Income (still a commodity in short supply, and something we all can relate to).

The story of Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s union has become a Just So Story for modern middle class girls who are sure that their boredom is unjust and not their fault: the Happily-Ever-After ending entices women of all attitudes—debs, riot grrrls and post-post-feminists alike. Austen takes the basic story of love—unbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart—and puts it into a quaint country drawing room. In the Bennets’ circle, among the nattering nabobs of nuptiality, romance is more calculation than consummation. The risk of romance is social humiliation, and failure means lifelong economic dependence on your own relatives; the reward, should you land your beau, is a settled life with a modest income. True Romance, on the other hand—the Romance of the original myth—carries the risk of immortal damnation, and failure means a prolonged death of a broken heart; the reward for success is also death, but a quicker, more violent one.

What? Death or Death? What kind of lame choice is that? That’s not a nice myth for genteel drawing room girls, to be sure, who prefer Matthew Macfadyen‘s tousled hair to the Grim Reaper‘s pitchfork.

Grim Reaper or Mr. Darcy? Which would you choose?

But wait. Exactly what is the Romantic Myth that Austen domesticates?

The basic story of Romance is: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back and then someone or everyone dies. Hooray!

The same pattern shows up in Tristan & Iseult, Romeo & Juliet, Guinevere & Launcelot, Don Giovanni, Faust & Gretchen, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Catherine & Heathcliff, Gatsby & Daisy—the list goes on and on. The contexts of each love affair change with the times, but the setup is always the same. The love is uncontrollable; the lovers are unavailable to each other, often already married to someone else; and indulging love means defying God, the government and/or the lovers’ families. Nothing ends well for lovers in the classic myth, and that’s part of the point: Romance, at its heart, is the longing for something that we simply cannot have until we die—the enveloping embrace of eternal, unconditional love—which we taste through our beloved but consume fully only when we can no longer desire anything any more.

(This attitude of Romance is clearly a heresy against the Christian church, since in Christianity God is the One who offers eternal unconditional love, just for the asking—the problem is, He won’t make a Valentine’s Day reservation for two at your favorite restaurant. What’s a lonely girl to do, then, on all the days between Sunday and Sunday? Pray? Join a convent? But what about my. . . needs. . .? Chastity, family and duty? Oh where oh where did I put Romeo’s cell number?)

“In living I die and in dying I live. I hunger to be united with Love.”—Jacopone da Todi (a contemporary of Dante)

What then of Pride and Prejudice (sans zombies)? Why is it an enduring work of Romance?

Rachel McAdams, non-Wedding Crasher, longs for a man with £2000 a year and a cottage.

Pride and Prejudice endures because it personalizes the myth of Romance for the first time, makes it safe and attainable for your average Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams (and you!), makes it something we can relate to and long for and actually get in our own lives (maybe). The Romance of Romeo and Juliet is nothing you’d want, but Darcy and Elizabeth? Why not? Love, stability, a nice cottage, no real risk. . . who needs “Th’ exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2), if all you really get in the end is a dagger in the gut?

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Today in the Holocene: Valentine’s Week

Monday, February 8, 2010 @ 04:02 PM  posted by Mark

All this week, leading up to Valentine’s Day, I’ll be writing about romances, so I thought it best to kick off the series with a little background. By romance, I don’t mean the quasi-pornographic bustier-busters you see at grocery store checkouts or the heroic medieval verse narratives of knights like Gawain and Orlando; instead, I mean the middle ground that romance has settled into for most of us, the novels and movies of mainstream Western culture, which form the very heart of what we consider romantic love today. The novels I’ll be discussing—ranging from Pride & Prejudice through Atonement, with stops along the way at Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville, Flaubert and Turgenev—have so thoroughly shaped our personal, individual ideas of “falling in love” that it’s easy to forget that romance is just a Western European invention.

To start Valentine’s Week, I’d like to recommend three entertaining critical books about what romance is, how it developed and how its earliest forms continue to influence our lives. Sandra Bullock‘s romantic comedies, the novels we read to forget our often unromantic lives, and the very assumptions we unconsciously make about our lovers, wives and husbands all began as radical new ideas in the early Middle Ages, though now those ideas are so familiar that they’re nearly invisible.

Paul Zweig’s The Heresy of Self-Love: A Study of Subversive Individualism looks at how Narcissism influences our ideas of love, religion and society. Ever been with someone you’ve just fallen in love with and get the feeling that, when they look deeply into your eyes, they might actually be seeing themselves and not you at all? You’re not alone. Zweig analyzes the work of the medieval authors of Romance (Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Chretien de Troyes) to show how Narcissism is built into the very idea of romantic attraction. He also explores how the romantic exaltation of the individual affects our ideas of God, government and art.

Denis de Rougement’s classic study of the origins of Romance, Love in the Western World, describes how all the traditional elements of love came together: the damsel in distress, the shining knight on the white horse, and the forbidden desires that must be hidden from the lovers’ families. He covers everything from the Iberian poetry of Sufi mystics in the 9th Century to the screwball romantic comedies of the 1940s. He also discusses how the basic ideas of love solidified in the popular imagination with the real-life love affair of Heloise and Abelard and the fictional tragedies of Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet. Engaging and polemical, de Rougement occasionally makes leaps that other historians have disputed (he connects the chansons of Provençal bards to the Catharist heresy that inspired the first Catholic Inquisition in a way that evidence does not entirely support), but the originality of his insights is impressive and his thoroughness in exploring the implications of his thesis, in literature and in everyday life, ultimately convinces.

Finally, to get even more “meta” on the lit/crit side of things, Northrop Frye‘s The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance offers a free-wheeling study of the different forms Romantic literature takes and why the form (epic verse, chanson, play, opera, novel, pop song) matters to the meaning of the work. Our ideas of what Romance means change when the forms of the stories change, and his wide-ranging discussion includes Classical Greek and Roman drama, the stories of O. Henry, William Golding, Benjamin Franklin and The Magic Flute. Frye’s digression into the differences between the erotic and the pornographic is entertaining.

Romance is a complex myth, one of the founding myths of our modern culture, and Valentine’s Day has reduced it to flowers and chocolates and happily-ever-afters. But Cupid still has some poisoned arrows in his quiver, and if you see him coming, you might just want to run for cover.

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