Monday, October 30, 2006

Hilmar Cheese Factory

If you had told me on Friday that on Saturday I would find myself at the Hilmar Cheese Factory just outside Turlock, CA, watching an industrial video on how wonderful gigantic dairies are for animals and the environment and our health, I would have been amused by you. However, it happened. Through the miracle of CGI, the real live cows in the video stopped eating hay, raised their heads (as much as they could between the bars) and smiled to say they were happy. Indeed, the host of the video, a fully animated cow, asked them several times if they were happy and they assured us they were. Also we learned how clean and environmentally friendly the whole process is. They use waste water from the cheesemaking process to hose down the factory floor. We then went upstairs to view a corner of the actual factory. On the wall next to the window there were two sets of hard hats that children--I guess--could wear while viewing: the white one said "I work in the cheese factory" and the green one said "I work in maintenance." We only saw white hats on the floor. The process did seem very clean and efficient, with gigantic blocks of cheese dropping out of "towers" and the white-hatted workers skimming the excess off with a shovel.

However, up near the ceiling where we were standing, we saw something that looked like bird crap.

I could be a vegan.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

MLA conference program

Just received the MLA convention program for this winter's meeting in Philadelphia. The address label says "POSTMASTER: DESTROY IF UNDELIVERABLE." What is so dangerous about the PMLA and the conference program, if it should fall into the wrong hands? Perhaps that people will realize that things are, in fact, as bad as they seem in literary studies today.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Don't worry, Stephen King is still not a real writer

It appears Stephen King has written a "Joycean" novel, according to Janet Maslin in today's NYT. She hastens, twice in the first two paragraphs, to assure us that this does not mean King is a real writer:

This is no occasion to make great literary claims for Mr. King, or even to exalt his linguistic experimentation. His use of language in “Lisey’s Story” is so larded with baby talk that it borders on the pathological. Here is a writer who has a thousand ways of naming a toilet, and whose work can thus be an acquired taste. But “Lisey’s Story” transcends the toidy-talk to plumb thoughts of love, mortality and madness — and to deliver them with gale-force emotion. When Mr. King writes in a coda to this blunt but stunning book that “much here is heartfelt, very little is clever,” he is telling the truth.

I have not yet read the novel in question, but is this a case of one's reputation preceding one? Has Joyce not written his own encomiums to workings related to the toilet? How about other "real" novelists (Pynchon, DeLillo)? Is it even possible to judge King's latest work in light of everything he's done before? And could we have asked this question about some of his previous offerings?

What is the big risk of suggesting that King has "crossed the line" into literature? There must be one, for Maslin, anyway.

Friday, October 20, 2006

As seen from everywhere

...the house itself is not the house seen from nowhere, but the house seen from everywhere. The completed object is translucent, being shot through from all sides by an infinite number of present scrutinies which intersect in its depths leaving nothing hidden...


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Ghost World

We watched Ghost World last night, thanks again to the always surprising San Carlos Library DVD collection. It's been five years since we saw it in the theater, which is depressing. (I just noticed that I say we "watched" GW on DVD but "saw" it in the theater. Is one verb more active than the other? Does "watched" imply the smaller screen? "Saw" perhaps implies more of a spectacle, a shrinking before the awesome sight...or more of a chance happening.) Anyway. I liked it even better this time. I hate to say this, given the way I'm trying to get past this very statement in my research on character, but: the characters were so real. Scarlett Johansson's character was a little flatter this time around, more minor--but Thora Birch's character, Enid, was spectacular. And so was Steve Buscemi as Seymour. They didn't seem to be acting at all, but inhabiting...being. Perhaps it's easy even for successful actors to portray clinical depression. Or maybe it's because the characters are already acting, clearly putting on a front--at least Enid does--so any artificiality in the portrayal works for the character. There are one or two outsize characters, like Doug, the guy with the nunchucks in the convenience store.

Actually it's a textbook case for Alex Woloch's theories on major and minor characters, which I'm reading about now. And maybe for Stanislavsky. Maybe I should teach it...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Franzen redux

Jonathan Franzen is really taking a beating for his new memoir-ish thing, The Discomfort Zone. First Michiko Kakutani (not surprising) and now Daniel Mendelsohn in the Times Book Review. Mind you I haven't read the new book, except for the piece on birdwatching in the New Yorker, which I thought was pretty good, if not *so* interesting about his personal life. But these critics are just piling on about his self-centeredness and overall "loathesomeness." And it is clear that the essays have led them to believe that Franzen himself is loathesome, not the author persona he's created. Moreover, Kakutani and Mendelsohn both say that pretty much all the characters in The Corrections are loathesome. But here's the thing I really don't get. Mendelsohn says:

This project is, however, fatally marred in Franzen’s nonfiction by a flaw that readers of Franzen’s fiction are already likely to be familiar with, which is the author’s total lack of humor — a quality without which, as every stand-up comedian knows, obsessive self-exposure is tedious rather than entertaining or edifying. It’s hard, indeed, not to be struck by the almost willful refusal to consider the humorous — and, indeed, the amusing, the pleasurable, the beautiful — in Franzen’s work: a body of writing in which every landscape is a landfill (all three of Franzen’s novels are, in fact, filled with surreally detailed descriptions of blighted cityscapes), every season is rainy. “There was something dreadful about springtime itself,” the author recalls here, somewhat astonishingly, of a season in his childhood. But then, what else do you expect from the son of a man (now clearly revealed as the model for Al Lambert, the dyspeptic paterfamilias of “The Corrections”) whose reaction to the sight of his child enjoying himself — reading a book or playing with a friend — was the disdainful exclamation, “One continuous round of pleasure!” If anything, Franzen’s new book, whose title refers to the heavily symbolic setting on a thermostat that the author’s parents continually argued over, sheds light on the extent to which the author seems to have internalized rather than rejected his father’s awful severity and lifelong resistance to pleasure, and to have responded to this psychic squashing by embracing a clever, superior, smarty-pants persona.
OK, I get the smarty-pants, and maybe the ultimate resistance to pleasure; I'll have to think about that. But humorless? The Corrections is hilarious--not all the way through, but there are plenty of scenes that are so funny I can't quite believe it. Does Mendelsohn mean something different by humor here? He seems to be eliding a sense of humor with senses of pleasure and beauty, which I don't think are the same thing. Isn't our world full of dyspeptic humorists, and aren't they funnier than, say, the Dalai Lama?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Bartleby film

The film of Bartleby, starring Crispin Glover, is pretty great. You have to admire someone for actually trying to film Bartleby, and the story's been updated in a pretty smart manner--to a terrifying office building overlooking the freeway. The design is really interesting, sort of Jetsons / 70s. The one part I thought didn't work was when the boss (David Paymer) notices aloud that everyone in the office has started using the word "prefer," as Bartleby does. I thought that was too obvious. But Melville has his boss point the same thing out, in the same language.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Representation / simulation / model

Pointed out by Allen Liu, in a workshop on digital technologies and humanities research: What are differences among a representation, a simulation, and a model? In literature we're used to working with the concept of "representation," while computer scientists look to simulations and models. Simulations, as Liu put it, have a "truth status" and a "predictor status" that representations don't--at least in the way we're used to thinking about them.

Seems like an important question for thinking about literary character in the digital age...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


I'm reading Stanislavksy's Building a Character, which is the second book in his complete how-to-for-actors trilogy. Step one of building a character turns out to be tearing down the actor. Stanislavky breaks down everyday actions, such as walking, into minute detail, including the functions of various toes. I'm surprised he didn't have his students take an anatomy course, or maybe he did. They definitely did acrobatics. You also have to know grammar like a linguist, and take singing lessons to learn to control your voice--thoroughly understanding the mechanics of the tongue, of course. He writes from the point of view of one of his students (a young version of himself), and describes staggering home after the walking lesson. I haven't gotten to the part where the actors are rebuilt, better, stronger, faster.