Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Way of the Glass

“Everything everybody does is so-- I don't know-- not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way.”

Nowhere near as beloved as J.D. Salinger's most famous novel, Franny and Zooey is nevertheless a fine follow-up to Catcher in the Rye, once you've finished university, talked a good game, enjoyed a few wild streaks, got a good job, and have come to the realization that for all your good fortune, your education, your friendships, and your loves loved and lost, there is yet something amiss, intangibly off, and the anxiety that this might be all there is. Luckily, I have never suffered the nervous breakdown that strikes the titular Franny, who for all her beauty and intelligence has an acute Holdenesque disconnect from the physical world, leading her to chant “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” a mantra she's learned from a story about a Russian peasant seeking God called Way of the Pilgrim, a book handed down from her older brother, Seymour, the famous suicide in Salinger's short story, “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish.”

Franny's existential dilemma is the thread between the two stories (originally published within a few years of each other in The New Yorker in the 1950s), the short “Franny” and the novella-length “Zooey.” The former concerns Franny's disastrous date with her long-distance beau, Lane, on the eve of the big football game with Yale, the latter story with her brother Zooey's attempt to prod Franny out of her misery. Both pieces are dialogue-rich and easy to imagine as theatrical productions, especially as both Franny and Zooey are actors and have an air of the performer, charisma, and a genius for wit (the reader senses the impact such a family drama, especially one so connected to disillusionment of the adult world, would have on contemporary artists, most especially the filmmaker Wes Anderson). As much of a legend Holden Caulfield is, Salinger seemed much more interested in the Glass family, its vaudeville parents and seven children, all of whom were once regarded as child prodigies on a radio program called It's a Wise Child.

Lane, over martinis and snails at a lunch date in an upscale bistro, just wants to talk about some “goddamn” paper he wrote about Flaubert. Franny, chain-smoking and not even looking at her chicken sandwich, recognizes in Lane the supercilious mannerisms emblematic of the culture she is from and which she has begun to despise. It leads to several remarkable outbursts, flabbergasting Lane: “I'm just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else's. I'm sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting.” Living on nerves and Marlboros, Franny faints in the ladies' room.

In the follow-up novella, Franny is back at the family loft in Manhattan's Upper East Side, refusing to eat Bessie Glass' chicken soup, smoking cigarettes on the sofa, and mumbling sotto voce the Pilgrim's chant. Zooey, her older brother (the two are the youngest members of the Glass family), is a successful TV actor who knows nevertheless that television is a waste of time (and arguably his talent). Like Franny, he has an overactive bullshit detector and some keen legacy childhood interest in spirituality, courtesy of Seymour and Buddy (the oldest of the Glass children), who had evangelized ideas about Buddha, karma, dharma, and the like to Zooey and Franny when most kids their age were engaged in hide and seek. “We're freaks,” Zooey reminds Franny. He too had had his ordeal when the Jesus prayer had overwhelmed his sense of being and he'd considered abandoning his worldly possessions to live as a wandering mendicant. Even at 25 when you're old enough to know how the game is played and play it well, Zooey can't help calling bullshit on his peers, his friends, and even his mentors: “I make everybody feel that he doesn't really want to do any good work but that he just wants to get work done that will be thought good by everyone he knows-- the critics, the sponsors, the public, even his children's schoolteacher. That's what I do. That's the worst I do.”

J.D. Salinger

Elegantly written, a tad whimsical, and bolstered by strong personalities, Franny and Zooey is not so much about questing for the meaning of life, but a means for getting by spiritually in a secular, consumeristic society. It is well-documented that Salinger himself was exploring oriental philosophies, likely in order to better cope with the horrors he witnessed in Europe during the Second World War. And no doubt it wouldn't have taken very long for someone as sensitive as Salinger to weary of the fame he'd become associated with in Holden. (I wonder if he had a stock answer for when daft strangers queried whether Catcher was autobiographical...) In all likelihood, Salinger had been socially paralyzed by fame and its inevitable protocol, dramatizing an explanation for his own withdrawal from the world. It's possible to conjecture as well that the tepid response to his publications following Catcher caused him to resent the reading public for expecting multiple masterpieces. Or maybe he just didn't really love people. The same loathing of “phonies” found in Catcher is obviously here in Franny and Zooey, only more measured and restrained. No one thinks of Salinger as a people's person, but we don't want to think of him as a misanthrope either; 'troubled genius' is a nifty fit. It will do well to remember that no one is perfect and no one is more aware of that than the sort of mind that might conjure the Glass family and Holden too. Salinger, via Zooey Glass, reminds us (lest we forget): “An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's.” In the end, it's good enough to help Franny get through her funk and sage comfort for the rest of us when, inevitably, into a void, we ask ourselves what are we doing all this for...?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

The intimate time and space of a single human being had been fossilized forever in this web of chromium knives and frosted glass.”

I should, I mean, I really, really should like British writer, J.G. Ballard. His stories are based on fascinating premises, narrative hypotheses that tackle the underlying savagery of modern society, particularly, the bourgeois everyman. Nevertheless, I find the dramatization of his dystopian ideas farfetched and silly, wholly unbelievable, and generally perverse without the cold satisfaction of having engaged with something genuinely cathartic. Moreover, his signature prose, celebrated by so many, is clinically detached to a fault, a pallid language bled pale of color or dazzle (all his sentences are competent, occasionally good, but none of them are wonderful). Then there is the trouble with his narrators: careless, diffident, self-absorbed professionals who bed down with numerous attractive women, more than they deserve, considering their absence of beguiling qualities. His most famous novel, Crash, regarding the sexual fetishism of car crash victims, is the ne plus ultra of stylized unpleasant Ballardian narcissism, not very enjoyable but readable as a psychopathic, amateur armchair Freudian excursion.

Crash concerns a certain James Ballard (I'll leave it to the Freudians to handle the author using his real name for his narrator), a successful TV commercial producer living near London's airport in Shepperton (yet another real life connection to Ballard) who suffers a head-on collision, injuring a woman, Helen Remington, and killing her husband. Recovering in the hospital he meets Vaughan, an uber-creepy pathological psycho in a white lab coat and dark sunglasses with a sinewy body and bad complexion. Vaughan introduces Ballard to the underground world of car accident fetishism. Together they steal decent model makes, go joyriding, hire hookers for backseat fellatio, smash fenders while dropping on acid, and fantasize about some ultimate car accident in which Vaughan collides his Lincoln Towncar with Elizabeth Taylor, marrying their flesh with the catastrophic debris of the crash, to wit, “a mysterious eroticism of wounds: the perverse logic of blood-soaked instrument panels, seat-belts smeared with excrement, sun-visors lined with brain tissue.” It might sound a bit much, but hey don't you know these are “the keys to a new sexuality born from a perverse technology.”

The somewhat unholy trifecta of sex, violence, and technology is hardly a frontier; rather it is an arrangement long explored by artists, philosophers, and sophists, either intuitively or intellectually, for a long time. Ballard's vision is just an extraordinarily extreme and narrow echo of others' and he can be quite literal about it: “Television newsreels of wars and student riots, natural disasters and police brutality which we vaguely watched on the color TV set in our bedroom as we masturbated each other.” Since Ballard has no heart to wear on his sleeve, the outcome of his explorations is a technocratic orifice to be twaddled by numbed phallic instruments. In other words, there is no meaning, no satori, in all this masturbating over the steering column, or in his words: “a marriage of my penis with all the possibilities of a benevolent technology.”

Our narrator, not a very decent human being, is absolutely prolific in describing his titillations. A peripheral character, Gabrielle, car crash victim-turned-pervert “held the chromium treadles in her strong fingers as if they were extensions of her clitoris.” (have I mentioned that Ballard never met a metaphor he didn't like?) Ballard, our reliable fiend, discovered that “her crippled things and wasted calf muscles were models for fascinating perversities.” But why, Ballard, why? And all right, you might get a hard-on from her crippled thighs, but why should she get off on her mutilated body, a body that can never run, swim, or dance again? Not all your readers are freudian know-it-alls. Is she making lemonade out of lemons or does paraphilia (intense excitement or affection for atypical objects) not need an explanation, existing inexplicably in a vacuum all its own? But it doesn't seem so since for all the actors in this pitiful drama it is the trauma of the automobile accident that activates their bizarre peccadilloes.

James Spader as Ballard-- about to be rear-ended and turned on?

The main problem with fetishism (besides its inscrutable provenance) is it's very much a one-note tune (the same is patently true of David Cronenberg's adaptation of the book in 1996, set in Toronto and starring James Spader as Ballard). It's the same carnal obsession, repeated ad infinitium: “The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.” (Does that sentence sound familiar, just slightly reworked and tinkered?) Occasionally, the prose gets out of hand to a level of extreme nuttery (“her swollen breasts spurting liquid feces”) but Crash for all its shocking material and complete lack of morality is actually a boring book, just as fetishism, lacking dynamics, is often just a tool's way of ejaculating his weird energy. The most fascinating aspect of Crash, in fact, is James Ballard's decision to name his doppelganger, James Ballard. Is the novel then some sort of confession (not just of fetishism but what of the story's tremendous homoerotic energy)? It takes tremendous effort to create a novel, even something as one-dimensional as Crash. Why then did Ballard bother to write it? What was he trying to tell us? What exactly did the real-life Mrs. Ballard think of the following sentence, “I visualized my wife injured in a high-impact collision, her mouth and face destroyed, and a new and exciting orifice opened in her perineum by the splintering steering column, neither vagina nor rectum, an orifice we could dress with all our deepest affections.” For that matter, what did Elizabeth Taylor make of being the locus of his vicious starfucking fantasy? What did she ever do to Ballard besides in all probability provoking in him an adolescent hard-on way back when? Ballard's novel is not morally objectionable so much as it is breathtakingly insensitive. The author's absence of human empathy is nothing short of astonishing. A good companion piece to the novel (or Cronenberg's film) is Warner Herzog's public service short  From One Second to the Next, which addresses the dangers of texting while driving by showing very personal stories of both victims and perpetrators of accidents caused by yet another accoutrement of technology. There are no erections or bodily fluid expulsions here, merely heartbreak, tears and regret, and the sadness of what was to what has become.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Lady Is a Tramp (of the Traveling Variety)

“I had wanted to know how it felt to be a hobo, a radical, a prostitute, a thief, a reformer, a social worker, and a revolutionist.”
--Bertha Thompson

No doubt the most famous book on American wanderlust was written by Jack Kerouac, who might have had a case of dromomania, that is, a psychological need to wander without real purpose or intention, as in (utilizing the lexicon of the times) “just for kicks.” America has always been a huge land, seemingly endless, and there is nothing more American than reinventing oneself in a new town, either legally or dubiously, and starting over. Dromomania is embedded in American DNA, striking the odd native child and setting him or her on a journey-- all Kerouac did was place our cultural pastime in a mythical, romantic context accessible to any sort of dreamer, the young, the penniless, the damned.

Little known today, Boxcar Bertha is the autobiography of one Bertha Thompson, her life story as told to and recorded by Dr. Ben Reitman. Bertha is a plainspoken narrator with immense curiosity, a terrific sense of adventure, and deep roots in the social justice moments in the first half of the 20th century, involving herself mostly in women's issues and the labor movement. She criss-crossed the country, a la Kerouac, but instead of riding shotgun with a madcap pill-popping drag-racing pothead, did most of her traveling hopping freight cars, sometimes alone, often partnered up with a social agitator beau, or conspiring among other “sisters of the road.” (Last night I watched the Martin Scorsese adaptation of her life's testimony, Boxcar Bertha, from 1972 and starring Barbara Hershey as Bertha-- I was shocked at the fictional liberties the filmmakers pursued, basically ripping off Bonnie and Clyde, turning Bertha into a hayseed moll in a bankrobbing Depression-era gang, ignoring the progressive do-right spirit that marks Bertha as a genuinely selfless champion of workers' and especially women's rights.)

This was in the 1920s and 1930s, a period of labor “agitation,” when workers often martyred themselves against police and a punitive justice system so that future generations might have better contractual rights, fairer pay, insurance benefits, and a decent pension. Bertha participated in these movements firsthand, but her real gift was her engaging, disarming personality, and either with a steeltrap memory or assiduous notetaking, became a reservoir of anecdotal biographies of wandering women from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds. The odd (or dangerous) jobs aside, Bertha worked with researchers, incorporating her firsthand knowledge of the hardships of the road and her encounters there, compiling them into an account of anthropological provenance-- a 35-page appendix presents Bertha's findings on the sociological factors inspiring women to live nomadically, among them the specific differentiation between “hoboes” and “bums” (the former looking for work, the latter all-around ne'er-do-wells).

There is no shortage of characters coming into Bertha's life on her travels-- hopheads, murderers, anarchists, lunatics, punks, and wobblies. She wanders from rustic communes to firebrand union halls, runs with a Midwestern gang of thieves and parties with lesbians, poets, and “spittoon philosophers” in Greenwich Village. In New York City she encounters her father, a middle-aged philanderer running an unsuccessful radical bookshop. It is her first time meeting this wayward man, whom she chastises for failing to take on his parental duties. Defending himself, he identifies two different kinds of men, “'the uterine type'... the good father, home lover, monogamist” and the “phallic type” who “needs women. Any women would do.” He goes on: “there are no solutions to the problems of life. There are no goals. You just go on living and loving and doing the best or the worst you can.”

As much as Baby Boomers like to take credit for the sixties-era sexual revolution, all they'd really done is enjoy mainstream social acceptance of a promiscuous lifestyle. And though Bertha enjoyed numerous partners in “free love” hook-ups, she'd learned early on from her mother that the human body was not a vehicle for sin, but an instrument of pleasure, sharing, in fact, sexual liaisons with men who'd loved her mother. But it is one thing to have an open attitude towards sex, a whole other to be pimped out to “Johns,” which is something Bertha does in order to better understand this underground lifestyle. In a Chicago whorehouse, she turns forty tricks a day, seven days a week, sleeping with several thousand men in six weeks. Nearly all her money is confiscated by her “man,” she contracts syphilis and gonorrhea as well as becomes pregnant! She bears this child of an unknowable father, and her wayfaring instinct stronger than her maternal one, she makes the same choice of freedom over duty that her father had, dropping off her newborn daughter with her mother in a Seattle commune and hitting the road: “There's something constantly itching in my soul that only the road and the box cars can satisfy. Jobs, lovers, a child-- don't seem to be able to curb my wanderlust.” The road is a long one, but eventually for nearly all of us, it has a destination, even for a vagabond as mobile as Boxcar Bertha. But that tired platitude about the journey is true: it really does matter how you get there, and it was the lives of women like Bertha Thompson's that, cumulatively, have made the world a better, freer, more compassionate place.