Wednesday, June 16, 2010

'Lennon' versus 'McCartney'

Getting back to the Gilmore book, an interesting aspect of its citation of “Heart of Glass" as an indexical citation of the time period was that, if polled at the time, everybody would have chose that as just the song to be so employed; it was indexical of its time as a  past time even as it was current!

Thinking of this period also reminded me of a minor vexation that has stuck with me all these years, though most recently occasioned by seeing McCartney at Citi Field last year: the theories of canonicity proposed by the way teenager so that period valued the solo, post-Beatles work of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. This valuation was one-way and total: Lennon was cool, McCartney was not. (This was before Lennon's murder, which of course changed things, it was understandable afterwards why Lennon, for a time, would be more highly regarded, but I am skipping of the time before). That McCartney sold more records, that the people involved actually knew most solo McCartney (I e. Wings) songs than they did solo Lennon songs, did not move them; nor was the preference made on the basis of n sort of musicological or aesthetic criteria. Lennon was cool, basically, because the adults, or the elder siblings, in their lives told them this was so; there was no autonomous judgment, no heart-swell of an incipient generational cri de coeur. 

To put it in theoretical terms—and, en passant, I might indicate my Theory book is mow definitely published, a copy is by my desk as I type this—one might use this to say something like: usually, the debate over pop culture is framed as a contrast e g. between Adorno’s wholesale rejection of it as conformist instinctual trash, and corporate versus Hebdige’s defense of the proliferation of subcultures and consciously styled practices in the aftermath of rock, punk, etc. But what if one has the conformism Adorno castigate manifested itself in a minor snobbery that seems to be Hebdigean in savvy but is in fact totally ersatz and handed-down? Or, to put it another way, when high art is no longer used as cultural capital, when a mass phenomenon is used in just the way Bourdieu discussed avant-garde painting being used as such, how does that affect the frame? (In a sense this question continues the thread I started with my Caillebotte post on this blog of spring 2009).  It may well be that the solo work of John Lennon was better than that of Paul McCartney; at this point, to make that judgment I would have to listen to their entire oeuvres and probably write on them. It is not the judgment that was the problem; it is that the people who made it had no adequate criteria of reaching that judgment.

Additionally, the unthinking preference for Lennon had these problems:

1)  -- It branded itself as the consensus of a new generation-that later to be called Generation X—yet not only was the valuation in question made of artists of a previous generation, the critical judgment and valued were totally those of elders—if was as if something manufactured in one country was relabeled as being made in another than marketed as echt indigenous to the second country.
2)   -- It had nothing to do with msic-0evne the most atavistic, instinctual, un-cerebral response to music, It had totally to do with wanting to be cool and in with the in-crowd. The only lessons about aesthetics that were relearned were the lessons of canon-making.
3)   --It used a form originally liberating, and intended by both Lennon and McCartney in their different ways, to still be liberating, as a mode of confirms and oppression, of a herd mentality that was precisely hegemonic because it presented itself as a sophisticated cutting-edge judgment.
4)  -- It used a potentially critical perspective—of not just supposing McCartney’s larger sales made him a better artist—to foster a stupid consensus. And it made somebody who took risks with his life and art—John Lennon—into an organ of cultural policing and of social authoritarianism. McCartney deserved better so did John Lennon. In addition, this attitude used the semantic and emotional vocabulary of critical judgment, without the actual presence o fit. This was even worse than just not being critical at all, merely being enthusiastic or consensus-driven, because this attitude had the aura, the aroma, of a critical mentality without its real presence. This led to the assumption, vis a vis critical thought, that this generation had ‘been there, done that’ and that, for this generation, such critical frames as e. g. literary theory of the 70s and 80s provided were supernumerary. Much of the backlash against theory in the 1990s and 2000s can be traced to this perception that a critical stance had already been canvassed and integrated when in fact it had been only glimpsed.
       I pledged not to get into the McCartney-Lennon debate, and John Lennon is profoundly important to me in a way I cannot even get into here,  but I can’t resist throwing this out—if Lennon had lived, would he ever have collaborated with Michael Jackson? 

Spies of the Balkans

A few books later, I read Alan Furst's Spies of the Balkans. This presented a contrast to Gilmore’s book in several ways:  an older, established writer as opposed to a young emerging one. anemone who writes consciously as a genre writer as opposed to a high-literary novelist; and, perhaps most crucially, a setting not that far away--just forty years back from Gilmore’s--but one which mandated s a very different approach to detail. Giving away the plots of Furst's spy novel would be even less productive than with Gilmore’s .What I want to think about here is how his approach to detail is both similar and different. Gilmore is writing about a past time, but, most immediately, a similar place: she assumes most of her readers will be culturally savvy residents of the Northeast Corridor, with the faraway reader, who happens to come into contact with the book, finding it more exotic but perhaps needing more help to navigate the cultural patterns. For Furst, both time and place are different he not only writes novels of the World War II era, but novels of that era without English-speaking protagonists: his point of view characters have ranged from the French to the Polish to, in this book, the Greek. Not only does Furst give the reader a mixture of the familiar and alien--they may know that Germany invaded Greece but have forgotten that Greece at the time was under the quasi-Fascist dictatorship of Ion Metaxas, they may know generally what clothes people wore and what customs the practiced in the 1940s, but not known a Greek police officer would drive a Skoda 420 car or smoke a Papastratos No. 1 cigarette--but he has to let the details do the vast majority of the work. Whereas Gilmore can assume a background--one that can be adjusted to fit the experience of relevant generations of readers--even the oldest of Furst's readers would know World War II as foot soldiers and not grand strategies, and so Furst is in a sense engaged in what Peter Carey (whose latest, Parrot and Olivier, I highly recommend),  has called 'writing science fiction of the past".
    Gilmore is able to have her details and plot dovetail; they generally complement, vouchsafe one another. Furst cannot do this; if he did, there would be no action, and his books would simply be catalogues of lost time. That they are not is due to his ability to render suspense and action, but this has to run counter to the detail; as a writer Furst zigzags, diligently constructing detail with one hand, cross-cutting against it with suspense and action with another. This to-and-fro means his novels are fascinating not just on the narrative but on the architectural level, and why they are so reread able.
Intriguingly; Furst's books, like Gilmore’s novel, are, in many ways, post-1989 fiction; they are fiction rendered conceptually possible by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gilmore’s sense that Communism is an utterly ludicrous option would not have seemed so apparent to the literati before then (see my previous post on the deutero-Katyn tragedy of last April, which in a sense was an occasion for the first Katyn tragedy to be fully ventilated in the Western press for the first time). And Furst's detailed exploration of the small countries of central/eastern Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s would have seemed beside the point before 1989, not so much, for the most part, out of pro-Communist prejudice but because of a sense that the countries involved were simply not 'players' on the international power scene. After 1989 this changed; and the map of wartime Europe Furst provides has some features, such as an independent Slovakia, that would mirror today’s.
     Yet his map is not just of the wartime Balkans as such, but of an escape route through them--before Yugoslavia and Greece were in the war, one could escape from German-occupied Austria through pro-German but neutral Hungary down through Serbia and to the Aegean at Salonika--and this calls to mind an even more important facet of Furst's books: they are often either literally about neutral countries in wartime or people in neutral situations who are jostled by events into having to commit. Even amid total war, there is neutrality some countries (Sweden, m Portugal, Switzerland, Ireland) stayed neutral for all of the war or (Turkey) for most of it; and Furst is superb at working out with an almost mathematical precision how people could take advantage of these suspended neutralities to navigate to and for, in covert service to one side or another or trying to evade both on their personal odysseys. Furst thus sees wartime through a second, reflective level, and it is this, as much as in his understatement and ability to skillfully evoke a fully rendered scene with a few storks, that the profound influence of Anthony Powell is apparent. Furst has spoken of his admiration for Powell often and made a bravura and generous contribution to last year’s Powell conference in Washington, DC, which I co-convened. Like Powell, Furst can treat the war as, on the one hand, an unabashed struggle of good versus evil, and, on the other, a tableau with all sorts of interstices, contradictions, banalities. perhaps Furst’s most impressive display of this was in Dark Voyage where the sheer skill of plotting a trajectory of a neutral ship from the Mediterranean to the Baltic required as much ingenuity as the plot itself. This sort of cerebral dobbing of the books' action in its mental planning has all of Powell's nuance and precision. Powell himself was also keenly interested in the lesser-known countries of Europe during the war, and Furst's cycle in many ways is the latter-day fruition of this interest.
     Greece and adjoining areas are new territory for Furst, but he handles them well. Where will he go next?  Albania, though interesting, would be almost too recondite, The Baltics? he has touched on them in Dark Voyage but never a full-scale treatment. Tere öhtust, as they would say in Tallinn. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Something Red

One of my first readings of this summer was my colleague Jennifer Gilmore’s novel Something Red. I had heard Gilmore read an excerpt from it in a faculty reading series and was intrigued  by its portrait of three generational of a Washington, DC intellectual Jewish family in 1980, at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the grain embargo, Olympic boycott, etc. What I expected, and received, from the novel was a sharp, provocative portrait of our country at a crucial liminal time in its history. To do what Gilmore attempts a risky step for the author to take as there is still not a consensus about what this era meant or who were the good guys or the bad guys in it, and even her citations of popular songs such as Blondie’s Heart of  Glass or (of a moderately earlier vintage) the  Starland Vocal Band’s Afternoon Delight will not only mean different things to those who originally heard them on the radio versus those too young to know them or having encountered them as part of the  archive of the past, but no tow people ‘old enough’ to ‘be there' may well agree on what the tonal/political valence of those memories are. This aspect was as I expected, although Gilmore's achievement is to make the two elder generations-those in their forties and in their seventies in the represented time of the novel—as or more interesting than the teenagers whose manners and bearing most incarnates what we now remember as ‘typical’ of the time.
   This is what I expected from the book, and received. But what I did not expect—and what makes me not just suggest but insist that anyone who likes contemporary fiction read this book immediately—is the spectacular nature of the ending, which I am not remotely going to give away because experiencing it is such a convulsive treat.   The ending so bravura, so striking that it conveys a pleasing element of fantasy, pleasing because in a generally realistic book it supplied the element of cognitive fantasy—one felt one was not just  in the ‘real world; of 1980 but in your own fictional world, and, paradoxically, , as someone who remembers the era I wanted fiction, I wanted something autonomous, within the frame—and the dénouement gave it a hundredfold. What courage Gilmore must have had to do this, and what a great result—to have both the collective base of memory that draws the reader initially to the novel, and to then have the train of plot events which gives the novel its own subjectivity, its autonomy, makes its world one of its own interior integrity not dependent on any externals.

Without, though, knowing this was in store, I decided, as a readerly exercise, to cut out my own memories of the time period, to read it in a more abstract way; Interestingly I think even had I not done this by page 80 or so I would have extrapolated myself from my own awareness of the context (which can be both enabling and debilitating). Really the only character the context is intrusive with is Vanessa, though since she is the primary register of the indexical aspects (the pop songs, teenage fads etc.) of the item, this is probably necessary and won’t be minded by the younger reader.  But as it turned out the novel went so far beyond its premise I did not need to do this.

Detail is very important in this book and I identified,, roughly, three kinds. The main mode of narrative detail, e..g. the mother Sharon's meals (hilarious and pitch-perfect) in terms of rendering the 'gourmet’ cooking; of the time  Sharon’s musings on e.g. page 28. This is for me where the novel is so outstanding, as it is everyday detail but it is replete with a panoply of feelings, reverberations, sensory perceptions—the ordinary flow of detail is as rich as those on subjects that are the products of expertise; (the DC geography, the time period. Etc.). Then there is e. g. the kind of detail linked with Dennis, the father, , his memories of his own  father’s Leftist organizations, where he is very aware of his own cognitive dilemmas, the details are background to these, but where his mind is stands out independently from the details. Then we have detail with Vanessa, and I have to say (again with the caveat that the younger reader, one who cares less about the time per se, won’t mind this) that I feel  Vanessa is overly enmeshed in detail, she sues detail to constitute her identity, it’s Jimmy Carter, punk rock, whatever is around, with little judgment or filter. Part of this is because she is the youngest most undeveloped character, but I began to see her as oppressed by her immersion in detail, and hoped  that when she became an adult she acquired more agency and perspective—she almost becomes a ‘camera’ at times, a passive recorded of data. The characters whose relations to detail did not have to evoke the period as such were actually much more captivating.

Vanessa’s elder brother, Benji—who would no doubt ask that I call him Benjamin—on the other hand I really enjoyed, and was very comfortable with him, his reactions to Brandeis, his relationships. In the end his relationship with his girlfriend Rachel was the most admirable one in the book, I felt there was real love there, and he also showed the greatest self-awareness—the urge to go out West with Rachel and get away from his family’s tangled dysfunctionality, even if utopian like his father's, Dennis's excursion to the West with his best friend' Len when young, still speaks to a diagnosis of the uncivil state of the family which lurks beneath its placid, liberal- bourgeois surface. . At first one thinks Ben is a hippie--come-lately, pathetic in coming to the party after it is over; in the end though he is a character of real discernment and offers hope for the tableau It is interesting how Ben’s sex with Rachel seems at least somewhat wholesome, whereas Sharon’s adulterous sex with the ‘social activist; Elias is tawdry—though here is a moment where Sharon thinks that after sex, he is either going to pay her or SHE will have to pay him is laugh out loud hilarious! In general, the men in this book seem healthier than the women, I think that is true in all three generations. In a sense it can be said that all three women are too passive, tether themselves to ideologies—Tatiana to the pieties of the Old Left, Sharon to the LEAP program, a nasty self-improvement cult  which she admits is a displacement of her lapsed religious faith, Vanessa to consumer culture and sex she is too young to comprehend. I feel the men are at least aware of their shortcomings and try to get out of their debilitating circumstances ;I do not mean to overly psychologies the characters but this gender difference was pronounced., and even the writing of the genders was different.

Despite this, though,  Sharon—the character furthest from me in terms of ;who she is’--was the character I most identified with in terms of her subjectivity, it is a very vividly rendered character, as is Dennis—the ultimate in-betweener, in-between ideologies (Washington and Moscow) , generations, and what he wanted to do with his life versus the reality of what he did with it. But Sharon one saw from the inside,--somewhat surprisingly because at first one thinks Vanessa is the main point-of-view  character and Sharon is ‘the mother’) whereas Dennis was meticulously sketched from the outside—his uncertainty, unrealization, is fascinating and is itself extraordinarily realized.

Yet for all the presence of Sharon’s personality, I felt the men came off better than the women, act with more integrity. That in this case the author was female, and the reader male, indicates that, again what was achieved here was firstly an exciting plot, secondly a compelling setting, but thirdly and most importantly real fictional autonomy, fiction that in the end operation its own steam….

As a kind of ironic coda to a book preoccupied by various iterations of the Left--Gilmore’s portrayal of a kind of vestigial radicalism on the Brandeis campus, the very tail end of 60s-70s protest, is well rendered, though curiously this man was Brandeis’s most famous graduate of the period.