Sunday, February 26, 2006

On watching Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings followed by Boz Skaggs in concert

To save money Trev and I get most of our DVDs these days from the library. The collection is a tad random, which makes for some surprises, often positive or at least noteworthy. Strangest double-feature so far: Ralph Bakshi's 1978 attempt to animate The Lord of the Rings (he didn't finish, nor did we), followed by a DVD of Boz Skaggs in concert in 2004. Unlike Boz Skaggs in concert, the Bakshi film combines hand-drawn animation and rotoscoped live action, creating some pretty interesting effects. In some ways the ring-wraiths and orcs are scarier in rotoscope than in Peter Jackson's film, which relies perhaps too much on slow motion and pounding music. The Skaggs concert looked like one of those PBS pledge-drive specials with the Bee Gees or Peter Paul and Mary. The audience was clearly tote-bag inclined. The music was toe-tapping rather than pounding, and there were no orcs. In fact I can't think of a single point of comparison between these two DVDs.

I might add that I was sick on Saturday night (Robitussin: Don't let anyone tell you it doesn't work), otherwise we would have been "out clubbing" at the latest "hot" night spots, where we are immediately ushered to the VIP table, past the riff raff clamoring outside the door, because we know the owner.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Jury duty blues

I had to go in for jury duty yesterday, and like everyone I yelled and cursed when I found out. I made sure I dressed like the aggressive intellectual hipster that I am, and even considered ostentatiously reading Lolita if I had to sit in the courtroom. That would have been effective because it turned out the case was about child molestation. However we all got dismissed about an hour after we got there because the judge had a family emergency. Yay, a family emergency! And there's the horror of the jury duty experience. Thinking about reading Lolita to get out of a child molestation case. Being glad that someone in the judge's family might be hurt or sick or worse. And most of all thinking that not getting further behind at work is more important than helping make sure someone accused of a crime gets justice. Whenever I get dismissed I feel a little sad for all these reasons. I think, wait a minute, I really do want to serve. Someday, but not today.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Reminded in Ohio

We went to Ohio last week for my mother's birthday, and I remembered two things about living there.

1. Snowflakes. Not snow, which I've seen a fair amount of in California, but snowflakes. The ones that fall in loose clusters of about dozen or so and you can see the individual crystals. No two are alike, they say; well, there's no way to prove that. Falling snow also silences everything. It happens whether you're indoors or out. I'm not sure why. The one sound you do hear, which of course you're imagining but can't help imagining, is the sound of the snowflakes themselves. They make a little ssth as they land on a pile of their fellows.

2. In Ohio you can still smoke in restaurants. People toss their heads and shoot jets of smoke from their mouths and noses like horses.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Reading with trauma

I taught Reading Lolita in Tehran last year for the first time, and it bombed. Unexpectedly. I thought the students would love it as I did the first time through...but the second time I found myself really irritated by the style, the labored efforts to create a feeling of coziness, and the way it let western or non-Muslim readers completely off the hook. Look how great your culture is, your classics. You're absolutely right to find Iran backward and scary. Well, of course it is, these days more than ever. But still I expect literature and literary memoirs to challenge my assumptions in some way. In RLIT Azar Nafisi tells us to curl up with our steaming mug of coffee and our girlfriends and our book and pat ourselves on the back. She invites us to take her and her students' brave act of rebellion--meeting in secret to discuss books not sanctioned by the state--as our own. The coziness in her world is a pocket of safety in a system that's actively seeking to destroy women. Our coziness could just be laziness. Or not. Even one year later I feel much less safe as a woman in the U.S. But I don't think it's yet time for us to retreat and form our own country of imagination. Not only that, anyway.

Which brings me to Lolita itself. Is there a less cozy book in the world? Nafisi and her students, from inside their cocoon, read the book as an allegory for totalitarianism and a literal chronicle of child abuse. I suspect this is how Oprah would read it (especially the second way), and therefore one--and by one I mean myself sometimes but not always--is inclined to discount it. But why? Can we really tell readers from a traumatized place that their take is less sophisticated? That they need to get well or get safe before they can properly understand literature? That literature only works when you're comfortable? Cripes, I hope not. That would be totalitarian.

Think of all the people who adopted James Frey's memoir and clutched it to their hearts even as Frey was revealed as a psychopath (exploited by the publishing industry). These were traumatized people, recovering addicts who sought and found help in the story. But sophisticated types mock them, first for liking Frey's lousy prose (maybe a sign of his authenticity, his real suffering) and then for standing by him when he was found inauthentic. For caring about authenticity on one hand, and for not caring about it when it no longer served their needs. But judging whether people's readings are proper comes close to judging whether their emotions are. And you'd have to know an awful lot about each person to be able to tell.

In Lot's Daughters Rob Polhemus says Lolita ushered in the whole confessional genre that started in the 60s and culminates in the types of books Oprah chooses for her readers. In other words you can trace a direct line from Lolita to Oprah. But that's as long as you identify with Lolita, as Nafisi and her students do, and not with Humbert. Maybe you can risk identifying with Humbert if the rest of your life isn't in much danger.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Writing as faith

I am not religious, but writing a novel has to be the first time I have seriously attempted to have faith. I don't mean faith in a god--unless that god is so vaguely defined as to be unusable as a concept anyway. And I don't want to say "faith in myself" because that phrase has become revolting. I want to rescue the word "faith" from the mental image it now gives me of a pale and pudgy person looking heavenward (or navelward) with dewy eyes. It's almost too late. But faith, I have heard some serious religious people say, is rigorous. It means moving forward even when you have no idea where your next step will land. Maybe in a hole, a pile of shit, grass which is lovely but you're allergic to it, the beach, etc. You get up and keep going. You promise yourself you will fix the mistakes, you can go back and fix them, not now goddamn it because you have to keep moving instead of obsessively tweaking something that isn't going to matter by the end anyway--you will fix them, and besides the further ahead you go, the more the past mistakes will sort themselves out. My whole personality is based on obsession with mistakes. I can't be that way and write novels.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Mars rovers

This month's meeting of the San Mateo County Astronomical Society featured Dr. Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary geologist and SETI researcher at NASA Ames. NASA Ames is full of people with unbelievably interesting jobs. Why isn't the government doing something about this? Do they know? Anyway Cabrol is part of the team that designed and now controls the Spirit rover on Mars. There's a little rivalry between the Spirit and Opportunity teams. Opportunity is known as "Miss Perfect" because she (they are female, though I always thought of them as boys) hit her landing site exactly after bouncing off a rock that turned out to be an important geological find. Spirit landed hard and nearly disastrously, gets dirty and had to drive backward a good part of the time because of a gimpy wheel. It turns out the rovers were designed to provide a human-eye view of Mars: the cameras are set the same distance apart as human eyes to provide stereoscopic vision like ours, and they're set at an average human's height. Maybe that's one reason the researchers are so attached to them. Cabrol said she doesn't go to work every day; she goes to Mars. They must have a strong sense of really being there, not only because of the eye-level photos but because the rovers' tools (like the RAT, or Rock Abrasion Tool) function similarly to human hands.

Poul Anderson's story "Call Me Joe" (from 1957) describes a remote exploration of Titan in which a human operates a lizard-like artifical life form on the surface through mind-to-mind transmissions. The operator is a quadraplegic; Joe is a fighter who swigs liquid methane. Eventually the operator's consciousness gets sucked down into Joe, swapping white-collar emasculation for macho, scaly freedom. Spirit and Opportunity are female and (perhaps not coincidentally) they're servants, cute and plucky. But their operators and observers on earth clearly endow them with life. In exchange for being our eyes, hands, and feet on Mars, the rovers get to borrow human consciousness--even if they're not aware of it.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

First person

I have switched my novel from third to first person and have been writing torrents ever since. I know why I've resisted first person for so long--it seemed like cheating because it's always felt so much easier. I still find it awkward to write about myself in autobiographical mode (maybe a reason for starting this blog), but I have little trouble inserting myself into a character and yammering on. I wonder if that's true for other writers, or if it's especially true for me because of my academic background. Third person offers a distant and therefore analytical stance, meaning I feel compelled to come up with astonishing metaphors and grandiose claims because I'm the voice of god. And the language turns to kudzu. In first person I write the way I think the person would talk, and that makes the language more linear. The character's not trying to impress the readers, or if she is, it's a joke that I can play with. Less is at stake for me in playing a character. So while first person is more limiting in scope, it's freeing in language and perception.