Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Dr. Oppenheimer

I am nearly done with the Oppenheimer biography. I read it over Memorial Day weekend instead of writing, which I had time to do. I found out the following:

--The H-bomb is a "Super" version of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; they tested it and it vaporized an island. Oppenheimer planned the drop on Hiroshima, muttering "those poor people" in the days ahead, but never understood why Nagasaki...and he was against the H-bomb. The H-bomb is more or less the Doomsday device from Dr. Strangelove, and it exists.

--Truman was George W. Bush before George W. Bush was. We have elected mind-blowingly weak and stupid presidents before and made them out to be heroes. I hope history treats Bush more truthfully.

--The McCarthy era was just the same as ours. Just substitute terrorism for communism. Dissent was considered treason. Science was suspect. Power-mad, resentful bullies ruined thoughtful, intelligent people's lives.

--Oppenheimer named names; his brother didn't. His brother Frank founded the Exploratorium.

Friday, May 26, 2006


I'm one.

Paul Krugman, today in the NYT:

But can the sort of person who would act on global warming get elected? Are we — by which I mean both the public and the press — ready for political leaders who don't pander, who are willing to talk about complicated issues and call for responsible policies? That's a test of national character. I wonder whether we'll pass.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Writing again

For the first time in about a month, I've worked on my fiction. Twice in the past three days. But I am not back in the groove. It feels strange; it is so easy to get used to not writing, although I think it's been depressing me. Clearly it's impossible to write and work full-time, impossible for me anyway. I haven't had the energy, and it's become a downward spiral in which not writing makes me depressed, giving me less energy, etc.

On the plus side, I've gotten some real distance on a story that I didn't like much when I was working on it regularly. Having reread Olesha's Envy again in order to teach it, I came back to my own writing with an edgier voice. I am more willing to make my main character seem like a lunatic. I am more willing to chop out whole sections, even though they seemed integral to the plot. I think you have to give up the plot--just chop out everything you don't like, regardless of whether it's holding the story together. Then string the good parts together with a few more good parts and you're done. So how to get this distance on work on a regular basis without stopping writing for a month? I have to have several projects going at once, I guess. That doesn't seem like the usual advice, but there's no other option.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Could I read Houllebecq?

After reading John Updike's piece on Michel Houellebecq in the New Yorker (oh, how upper-middlebrow can you be?), I am wondering whether I would be able to read Houellebecq. I have been asking my students over the years whether they think it's possible to write a "good" novel with either a loathesome protagonist or a loathesome moral message. Michiko Kakutani (descending into middle-middlebrow territory) would simply say no; end of discussion. I find that tedious. Updike gives Houellebecq a little more leeway, giving him credit in his latest novel for an interesting concept and vivid if incredibly bleak ending (a man living out his scientifically lengthened lifespan as, essentially, an oyster). Yet from all I read about Houllebecq's writing, the incredible misogyny, racism, and meaningless violence...well, he would be the best test case for the problem of the good novel about bad things. But what if you can't stand reading the book? Isn't some form of pleasure essential to the literary experience? I suppose his work must be pleasurable to some people, since he keeps publishing and being reviewed, and even being invited to speak at real venues. And I don't know that we can assume all the readers who like him are depraved. Perhaps they like the extreme challenge, like people who bungee jump or something. X-Reading. I'm not sure I can do it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Midwestern alcoholism

Watching American Movie (a documentary about a mulleted independent filmmaker from the Milwaukee suburbs), I was reminded of the phenomenon of Midwestern alcoholism. Supposedly the Midwest is the home of traditional values, but having grown up there, and left, I've realized that a large percentage of these folks are pickled most of the time. Usually it's the sixpack+ of beer after work, but there's also hard liquor, glue, coke, meth, acid, hairspray, whatever. Whatever distracts from the bleakness of forced conformity and the end of youth with thirty more years of crappy jobs and a disintegrating marriage ahead.

I am being hard on the Midwest. But this is just to counter the myth of cleanliness, happiness, and religious piety surrounding the vast center of the country. The heartland is tripping, folks.

In the DVD commentary it sounded like both the main characters in the film had gone straight, so good for them. Maybe seeing themselves on film did the trick. They seemed like intelligent and interesting people, even though the filmmakers made fun of them. Who knows what they could have done in a different place.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The bad novel

"The bad novel aims to please by flattering, whereas the good one is an exigence and an act of faith." (Sartre)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Nafisi strikes out again

Well, it's two for two. This year's students disliked Reading Lolita in Tehran as much as last year's did. Is it something I said? I tried pretty hard not to give away my lukewarmness, though I did suggest the book might somehow let Western readers off the hook. (Isn't Iran bad? Yes, it is. But it is bad, you see, so why should reading that piss us off?) The first discussion was a little sluggish, but I didn't detect universal distate. Today they piled on with glee. They hated her pastries and ice cream. Why is she always talking about her problems over pastries or coffee ice cream? Last year it was the strawberry-covered coffee mug that set people off. Should she have suffered more, we asked? Do we dislike her for not having it "so bad"? For being rich and educated? Or does she just not write very well? No one seemed able to empathize with her (although at least it wasn't like last year, when I suspected that was because she was "middle aged"). The students seemed to conclude that her prose didn't move us; she told us instead of showing that she suffered; we didn't feel anything out of the ordinary. That was the most interesting point for me. It wasn't that she was depicting a fairly ordinary (if privileged) life amid the horrors, but that she didn't make us feel other than ordinary feelings about it. And besides if the road to hell is paved with adverbs, as Stephen King says, then she is knocking on Satan's door.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Dr. Baltar

I have been reading Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's biography of Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus. I somehow love reading books about atom-bomb physicists; I read James Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman at least twice, and I am not a re-reader. Maybe I'm drawn by the fact that I don't understand much about the science, so there's less at stake for me than, say, reading about a famous author. I can still admire the scientist's passion and dedication without feeling inferior. I seem to be able to suspend judgment on what it meant for these guys, often like Oppenheimer politically and socially liberal, to work on the bomb. There's something thrilling about the name Los Alamos (and we've visited this lovely, oddly sterile community), even though what came out of it is appalling.

Trev says Oppenheimer reminds him of Dr. Baltar on Battlestar Galactica--a brilliant, chattery, occasionally crazed, basically good guy who ends up bringing great evil into the world.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Kubrick's Lolita film

I'm teaching Kubrick's film of Lolita (1962) and I must say I'm liking it a great deal. Nabokov didn't like it very much (although he praised the acting) and it's obvious that the filmmakers tamed the story. Sue Lyon does look much older even than her 14 (or 15?) years, and as one of my students pointed out, they really glamorized her. The novel's Lolita is something of a tomboy. Yet Sue Lyon is very childish in her mannerisms and speech, so she presents a sort of puzzle. In some ways she represents the "problem" of Lolita by being a different sort of problem. In the novel Lolita is sexually experienced (as she is in the film) and clearly lusts after Humbert, without realizing quite what she's getting into. The film's Lolita looks like a woman but is actually not much older than the novel's Lolita--so even if viewers thought she was older, she really was something of a kid herself (though there seems to be some sort of dividing line between OK and not at age 14...go figure). James Mason was about 10 years older than the novel's Humbert. Quilty's omnipresence in the film is a sort of visual catch-all for the many literal and existential threats that Humbert faces. I find Humbert more sympathetic in the movie, but many of my students have felt the opposite so far. They think he's too mean to Charlotte (Shelley Winters)--but I thought she was meant to seem unbearable, almost blamed for driving Humbert into Lolita's arms.