Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

changing-my-mindTo illustrate what Zadie Smith is good at, what I enjoyed most about these essays, I will begin with what I did not like: the personal and the morally / socially critical. Smith has an interesting family — older white father, black mother, rapper and comedian brothers — and she writes a few essays on family, specifically her father. She sketches a serviceable portrait of her father, barely touches on her brothers and her mother is utterly absent. The focus of these essays, the connection between Zadie Smith and her dad feel, for lack of a better word, constructed. Like these are the feelings an overeducated writer should have about her working class father. Not that she didn’t feel these things, but the writing does not convey real poignancy. It feels guarded, sanitized, and frankly dull. Along similar lines follow the Praising Obama essay, which may suffer more from reading five years after writing than any authentic emotional lack.

The latter flaw (social criticism) is exhibited in Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend, a piece that attempts to flay American celebrity worship and the absurd hullabaloo of Oscar weekend. It is written impersonally but implies a morally present writer. The epigraph to this book is by David Foster Wallace. He’s also the subject of perhaps the best essay in the collection. DFW, like Joan Didion who is also namedropped in the Oscar essay, could effortlessly dissect, censure, and simultaneously be deeply disturbed by many aspects of contemporary culture. Smith has these writers in mind while penning this essay, but she cannot pull it off. She isn’t like Wallace and Didion who come off as fragile, vulnerable people. When David Foster Wallace prefaces an article on American cruise culture with “I filled 3 Mead notebooks trying to figure out whether it was Them or Just Me.”, you believe him. Smith is too strong, too confident. She seems above it — not in some snobby English way, but I just can’t see her amongst the people, distraught by the people.

By contrast are the generous amount of film and literary criticism in this collection. When Smith is being serious and specific and the topic is something she clearly loves, the result is stellar. There’s an essay juxtaposing the hardline author focused literary perspective of Vladmir Nabokov versus the free-floating borderless version of Roland Barthes. And it feels important. How much should we interrogate what we read? How important is the author’s intention in this interrogation and analysis? She nails a similar topic again in her longest essay — a moving eulogy of David Foster Wallace via an analytic piece on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Self, solipsism, our consumption and immersion in media and advertising culture. The voracious reach of capitalism in her (our?) generation. It made me sad for DFW all over again.

This collection has increased by reading list. I feel mildly embarrassed for not having read any Henry James (who expressed similar sentiments to DFW for his time). Smith’s tribute to Zora Neale Hurston as a meditation on how, if it all, we might identify with writers or their protagonists and what this means to the work overall was enough to make me add Their Eyes were Watching God to my to-read pile. I am generally hostile to the notion that one must “identify” with the protagonist due to features like race, gender, class, but I guess that’s easy for me to say when my specifications (white/male/middle) fit the dominant cultural narrative. The film reviews are good too. A paragraph about Grizzly Man saying things I already knew still made me happy.

So wait. I have to rescind my earlier point about a lack of pathos or emotional oomph. When writing about literature and film, Smith nails it, concretely and via personal authorial voice. When she mourns Alyson Flannigan’s fall in her review of Date Movie, and describes feeling disoriented and weepy afterwards, I believe her. The connection and love she has for her father is not communicated nearly as fully or believably as her connection and love for Katherine Hepburn. Or Nora Neale Hurston. It reminds me of all time NBA great Larry Bird, when confronted by a kid telling him he was his (the kid’s) hero, replying when I was a kid, my dad was my hero. I hope I am not coming off as overly sentimental or critical here. I just think it’s funny. I am sure many of us, including myself, would be similar. Does this speak to Smith and Wallace’s distrust of our deep and concupiscent investment with media culture? Maybe. Probably.

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League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

league-of-denialSo here goes: my favorite sport is barbaric; it is destroying its players brains; Its prime pro league is doing everything it can to champion wealth above health; it may not be fixable.

The crux of League of Denial is that an increasing amount of dead football players appear to have brains riddled with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. An unfortunate amount of those deaths were self inflicted or premature, due to the disease. Worse, it does not seem that CTE is linked to one big hit, but to repeated small-medium-large hits and improper diagnoses or insufficient recovery times leading to players returning to the field before they are healed. Worse still, due to the huge amount of money on the line and the hyped up over-the-top machismo of football culture that demands a man be able to take a hit or give one (lest he take an unassailable hit to his manhood), the players falsely report their symptoms as much as possible and clamber to get back into the game.

This would be bad enough, especially the notion that it is merely repeated hits as the cause, an unerring staple of the sport, that is leading to broken brains. But on top of all this, the NFL, in a modern day bid to mimic Big Tobacco, is refusing to admit that football causes brain damage. They have been discrediting legitimate scientists, publishing propaganda, buying out dissenters, burying evidence, and propping up false science committees with silly names (the mild traumatic brain injury committee) for decades. Their efforts have had cascading effects; skewed studies have led to equipment manufacturers scamming high schools with “concussion-lessening” helmets that do not change a thing. The players recently settled a 765 million dollar suit with the NFL, which was tragic and foolhardy, because now we will never know just how much the NFL covered up.

SI.com has published an article written by Seahawk’s cornerback Richard Sherman where he proclaims that football is a dangerous sports but the players know the risks and he complains about newer rules like not being allowed to hit a defenseless receiver. It’s sadly ironic because shortly before he shot himself in the chest (to preserve his brain for study), Bear’s great Dave Duers was on his radio show railing against the same rules, whining about the “wussification” of the NFL. Prior to ending his life, Duers typed out a treatise explaining the dementia and madness he felt in his later years, where he was described as a “different man” by friends and family. His deathnote / final text messages urged his ex-wife and fiancee to donate his brain to the NFL for study. On top of that, Sherman (and everyone else) does not know the true risks of football because the NFL still refuses to admit to brain damage and study.

Brain damage is horrifying, regardless of its source. You would be right to condemn a man who shoves his wife, who explodes into inexplicable fits of paranoid rage at the drop of a hat. Yet how do we account for it, how do we address it when these are sudden changes in middle age, when there is a very high chance they are a result of brain damage due to playing football? These aren’t outsiders, they’re endemic. Of fifty four brains of players that neuropathologist Anne McKee has studied, fifty two had signs of CTE.

I love football. A great game is intoxicating. Acquaintances or people who have otherwise known my company only outside of football games express shock and bemusement at my change of tone, demeanor, and frenzied enthusiasm when first watching a game with me. The book goes at lengths to show that the vast majority of the dissenters, the people raising a stink about safety and combating the NFL, are like me. They love football too.

“The game was part of him, part of his American story. That’s the thing about football, why it’s different from cigarettes and coal dust and not wearing your seat belt and a whole range of other things that have been proved bad for us. We love football. Americans by the millions are complicit in making this sport what it has become, for better or worse. The outcome of the NFL’s concussion crisis will affect the country. But it will be determined not by the “enemies” or “opponents” of football but by those in love with the sport; the players, the fans, the advertisers, the book writers, the moms and dads and kids. Even the scientists.”

It’s true. Football props up entire communities in America — the sole recreation other than substance abuse to many economically depressed areas. It sits upon a pedestal with God and Church as the only escape to youth in some urban communities. And like the protagonists of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Rajesh Parameswaran’s I am an Executioner, We the People, are responsible in part for the violence and brain obliterating nature of football. It exists as it does today because we willed (watch) it. And it will only survive if the fans push for safety and brain damage to be acknowledged and addressed. And that is hard. There is no simple fix like banning horse collar tackles or chop blocks. Even after reading League of Denial, I’m still pissed a few days after my Patriots lost to the Jets in OT due a stupid new rule. A stupid new rule amended to the rulebook to help player safety. What is wrong with me?

And not being able to push your fellow linemen on field goal attempts (the new rule) is hardly going to solve the concussion crisis. There will need to be more drastic changes, and the question is: can you maintain the essence of the sport with whatever needs to be taken out?

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

childhoodofjesusJ.M. Coetzee is a master at creating allegorical worlds that feel grounded and real, while remaining ethereal and dreamlike. Here in Novilla, everyone speaks Spanish, but it is never their native tongue. Bread is the course du jour, and every other meal. Everyone is polite and benevolent but spiritless and fleeting.  And the government will give you a house, but it will be spartan and drear.

To this world, which may be heaven or purgatory or simply another world in an endless stretch of possible worlds our soul travels through, our protagonist, Simón, and his adoptive child, David, arrive after their refugee ship sinks. For the first half of this novel, as Simón searches for David’s mother and the characters explore the bland and frankly sinister world, the novel is pretty good. Coetzee is an excellent writer. Most of the book is dialogue. I was invested in the mystery of what was going on — were Simon and David dead? Was David’s “mother” abusive? Why is Simón seemingly the only character in the novel who can feel sexual attraction? Where is this book going with its endless prattle on the importance of mothers versus fathers?

Then I reached the point where I was far enough in the book that I became certain none of the mysteries would be unveiled nor many questions answered. This is perfectly acceptable in some novels. Sometimes, the writing is stellar and the novel is constructed, either thematically or structurally, in such a way as no conclusion or denouement is necessary. While the writing is indeed good, The Childhood of Jesus is otherwise not that kind of novel. The symbolism is murky, the connection to the biblical title tenuous at best. Honestly, I’m not sure what Coetzee is trying to say. There’s a philosophical streak running through the book that wonders what is real? How do we know two plus two really equals four? But it’s basic and amounts to very little. The narrative begins to flounder about two thirds in and the novel becomes nearly as bland as the world it describes.

(I won this in a goodreads giveaway)

Life a User’s Manual by Georges Perec

lifeIn the preface to Infinite Jest, at least in my copy, Dave Eggers writes:

We’re interested in writerly ambition. We’re fascinated with what can be made by a person with enough time and focus and caffeine. […] We have an obligation, to ourselves, chiefly, to see what a brain, and particularly a brain like our own — that is, using the same effluvium we, too, swim through — is capable of.

This whole notion of writing as accomplishment, of watching a very skilled person taking an enormous amount of effort to do something strange, epic, and mystifying lies at the heart of what makes Life a User’s Manual so compelling. For it is a dense, ninety nine chapter novel (of sorts) detailing the human and animal inhabits, all of their worldly belongings and apposite life stories, and the physical and metaphysical detritus of the ninety nine rooms — from basements to bathrooms to stairs to hallways — of a Parisian apartment block at an exact moment in nineteen seventy five. The order and contents of the rooms is not arbitrary, but formally structured under an arcane scheme of Perec’s construction.

Each chapter is not merely a list of every item and person in the room*. It’s full of histories, existential journeys, genre detective stories, puzzles, sordid tales of revenge, interpersonal drama (both petty and dire), word games, print cutouts, and a rather copious amount of paintings described in minute detail.

The theme of Life is encapsulated in the sojourn of one of its principal inhabitants — the wealthy Englishman, Bartlebooth. Long before the time of the novel, Bartlebooth decided to use his immense wealth to learn how to paint watercolors and subsequently spend twenty years traveling all over the world painting ports, both major and obscure, across the world. Whilst traveling, he sent every painting back to another tenant, a master puzzle maker, to turn the paintings into wood-cut puzzles. A good deal of the novel, including the very beginning, middle, and end, is spent meditating on puzzles. Upon his return, Bartlebooth began reassembling the puzzles and sending them to a special craftsman to reconstitute into an unmarred painting to be sent back to their port of origin to be summarily destroyed.

So, life? Like Bartlebooth’s quest: weird and grandiose and beautiful but ultimately kind of pointless. Despite these continent criss-crossing adventures and heaps of possessions collecting over generations, despite fortunes being made and swindled, and despite birth and love and murder and death, the life of everyone in 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, and everyone else– ends. But the rest of the world, like a rickety old horse-drawn cart, continues to trundle and bounce and roll along.  Valéne, an aging painter and near lifelong resident, yearns for something different as he approaches his own death:

Sometimes Valéne dreamt of cataclysms and tempests, of whirlwinds that would carry the whole house off like a wisp of straw and display the infinite marvels of the solar system to its shipwrecked inhabitants; or that an unseen crack would run through the building from top to bottom, like a shiver, and with a long, deep, snapping sound it would open in two and be slowly swallowed up in an indescribable yawning chasm; then hordes would overrun it, bleary-eyed monsters, giant insects with steel mandibles, blind termites, great white worms with insatiable mouths: the wood would crumble, the stone would turn to sand, the cupboards would collapse under their own weight, all would return to dust.

But no. Only these shabby squabbles over buckets and tubs, over matches and sinks. And behind that ever-closed door the morbid gloom of that slow revenge, that ponderous business of two senile monomaniacs churning over their feigned histories and their wretched traps and snares.

This reminds me of the late Christopher Hitchens commenting that the moment of his death did not frighten him, but the knowledge that the newspaper would still be delivered the day after was terrifying. The adage life goes on is obvious, but it is difficult to accept that at some point, it will go on without us.

*Mostly. If I have a problem with the book, it is this: a handful of chapters simply are an inventory of everything in a room, written by a man obsessed with lists. See an entire page or two detailing every variety of wine in a character’s wine cellar. Yeah, yeah, you get a great idea of a person via their possessions, but this gets pushed too far at times.