sábado, 30 de abril de 2011
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terça-feira, 26 de abril de 2011
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Meg Wolitzer’s ‘The Uncoupling’,
Book review by Ron Charles
As our 10-year-old wars in Afghanistan and Iraq bleed into a new conflict in Libya, maybe we could use something more creative than “the surge” to bring peace. For the weary women in Artistophanes’ ancient comedy “Lysistrata,” the answer was an anti-surge: a sex strike until the men lay down their arms. It worked 2,400 years ago — in the bawdy Greek play — but in the theatre of foreign policy, America has perfected a method of prosecuting foreign wars without inconveniencing most of its citizens. If we’re not going to give up shopping, we’re certainly not going to give up sex.
Those distant wars provide the faint political backdrop for Meg Wolitzer’s romantic comedy “The Uncoupling.” It’s set in Stellar Plains, N.J., a stellar suburban community where the new drama teacher is directing a production of “Lysistrata.” For a first-year teacher at a public high school, that seems about as likely as a sixth-grade production of “Hair.” (In my high school, we had to change the lyrics of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” to “Propane,” but that was the Midwest.) In any case, this isn’t the only element of magic that Wolitzer introduces into her charming novel about love gone stale.
In the opening pages, an enervating spell falls over the women of Stellar Plains, sapping their libido and making them realize they never want to be touched again. “The spell had started to come over all of them,” Wolitzer writes, “seizing them in their separate beds, changing them in an instant. Starting that night, and continuing for quite a while afterward, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped and the windows shook like crazy in their frames, and all over that town, you could hear the word ‘no.’ ”
Of course, nice suburban people don’t talk about their sex lives, so even as rehearsals for “Lysistrata” continue through this long, cold winter, nobody makes the connection between Aristophanes’ comedy and the little tragedies playing out in bedrooms all over town. For Wolitzer, though, it’s a chance to eavesdrop on what’s not gettin’ down, and she uses these boudoirs of quiet desperation as a way of framing her witty commentary on the challenge of keeping romance alive.
At the center of the novel are Dory and Robby Lang, happily married, popular teachers whose sex life has evaporated like a summer puddle. “Under the power of the spell,” Wolitzer writes, “all Dory could think was that sleeping with your husband after so many years was not at all like sleeping with him when you were young. It was no longer effortless; it was full of effort.” Robby and his wife never talk about it — the change comes on so suddenly — but the whole structure of their marriage begins to strain. “Sexlessness had awakened some churlishness in him,” Dory realizes. “Was this all it took in order to find a bad side of a man? Was it like depriving him of an essential nutrient?”
Wolitzer moves through the lives of other women at school, filling out the range of romantic experiences, maybe just a little too schematically. There’s the chubby college counselor whose husband cruelly notes, “You’ve really let yourself go”; the gorgeous school psychologist, who enjoys juggling several partners at once; the ex-lesbian gym teacher, who’s raising three demanding boys; and Dory’s shy teenage daughter, who’s experiencing the first stirrings of love. Under the cold hand of this strange spell, they all realize they’ve had enough. One by one, night after night, young and old, they turn aside, like “Manchurian Candidates of midlife married abstinence.”
The drama teacher tells her students that “Lysistrata” is “a comedy, yes. But what it’s about is something quite serious,” and the same thing might be said about “The Uncoupling.” In the light patter of her novel, Wolitzer diagnoses the troubles that ruin so many marriages, break up so many families. Although she can satirize the bland advice of women’s magazines with perfect pitch, she’s not above dishing out her own Oprah-approved admonitions: “The most well-meaning and loving couples in the world started to let everything get too familiar and erode,” she writes. “They let everything fall into comfort or indifference or chaos or disrepair. They’d had no innate sense of how to protect the thing they claimed to care about above all else — and instead they’d found many, many ways to let it rot.”
“The Uncoupling” offers a lot more foreplay than climax, but Wolitzer is a tender, engaging narrator. Amid her amusing riffs on suburban sexuality, some of the best passages reflect on parents’ befuddlement with contemporary teenagers, these precious young people who seem so easily aroused and yet so easily distracted. “How could you make love,” Dory wonders, “if you couldn’t pay attention?” School administrators find themselves charged with protecting children in a values-neutral climate they can’t understand. The college counselor thinks,“In the past, sex just seemed like it was so much more extracurricular. It was almost like Model U.N. — something that a number of them signed up to do after the school day was over. It served no actual purpose, but they enjoyed it.”
This is the suburban comedy of Tom Perrotta in a flannel nightgown. “The Uncoupling” provides the charm of recognizing your own nervous tics and anxieties laid out by an author who’s not out to get you. It’s all quite endearing, but I couldn’t help wish that the novel’s political prick were a little sharper. Despite the military theme of the play at the center of “The Uncoupling,” our battles in Iraq and Afghanistan remain mere backdrops — like hearing the Muzak version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” at the grocery store. At one point, Wolitzer seems about to explore something tough and complex about war, our responsibility for it, and the relationship between desire and combat. But then, suddenly, that line of inquiry goes AWOL. With the arrival of a deus ex machina that only Euripides could love, our ongoing wars pass entirely out of the story’s attention, and “The Uncoupling” snuggles back into the downy comfort of its domestic concerns, becoming more an example of America’s self-absorption than a critique of it. All is healed in the bedroom, harmony reigns again in Stellar Plains, and if our soldiers keep dying in faraway places for nebulous reasons, well, that’s something to think about, but not tonight, dear. Let’s just pamper ourselves.
Charles, The Post’s fiction editor, reviews books every Wednesday.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 16:28
Geoff Dyer’s ‘Otherwise Known as the Human Condition’: Witty essays on life Book review by Michael Dirda
Geoff Dyer’s ‘Otherwise Known as the Human Condition’:
Witty essays on life
Book review by Michael Dirda
According to publishing wisdom, readers don’t buy collections of anything, least of all collections of essays and occasional journalism. I’ve never understood the reasons for this, since I know that many people turn to the essays and reportage in magazines before anything else, except the cartoons. A good review or article opens our eyes to some new subject, while the author’s tone, voice, style — call it what you will — carries us along. What we value, in particular, is contact with a well-stocked mind and an appealing or provocative personality.
Geoff Dyer belongs to that seemingly never-ending line of smart and witty Englishmen and -women of letters. He himself might point to D.H. Lawrence — the subject of his most famous nonfiction book, “Out of Sheer Rage”— as his mighty progenitor, especially the Lawrence of the essays and travelogues. Yet there’s a tubercular austerity about Lawrence that is alien to Dyer, who during the 1980s and ’90s was very much into sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. Like other hedonists of letters, such as Cyril Connolly and Kingsley Amis, Dyer is more than just a good critic; he’s also extremely funny, passionate about women, drink and life’s varied pleasures, a bit of a show-off and immensely enjoyable to read.
“Otherwise Known as the Human Condition” draws on the past 25 years of Dyer’s journalism, selecting material from “Anglo-English Attitudes” and “Working the Room,” two retrospective collections published only in Britain. The 65 or so pieces are divided into cleverly titled sections: “Visuals,” “Verbals,” “Musicals,” “Variables” and “Personals.” As this suggests, besides books, Dyer’s passions include photography, music and, not least, his own sweet self.
Like many other writers, Dyer finds in photography an impetus to philosophical and erotic reverie. He falls in love with a sunbather photographed by Jacques Henri Lartigue and imagines the conversation between an Italian soldier and a woman with a bicycle in a picture by Robert Capa. A chapter on Richard Avedon deconstructs the “contrived naturalness” of that artist’s many images of celebrities: “In one of his most famous portraits, [writer] Isak Dinesen looks like she was once the most beautiful woman in the world — about two thousand years ago.”
Dyer includes his deeply moving, yet scholarly, introduction to “What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney,” who died of AIDS, then follows with a sharp appreciation of the outsider art of the Czech Miroslav Tichy, who worked with a cheap Russian camera and jury-rigged hardware, scavenging and “building his equipment with whatever came to hand: a rewind mechanism made of elastic from a pair of shorts and attached to empty spools of thread; lenses from old spectacles and Plexiglas, polished with sandpaper, toothpaste, and cigarette ash.”
Surely, such a determined artist went on to surreptitiously chronicle political atrocities or social injustice? Not at all. Tichy crept around swimming pools and secluded parks snapping pictures of women, preferably with as few clothes on as possible. Dyer shrewdly likens him to the leering British comedian Benny Hill.
In the middle of “The Awakening of Stones: Rodin” — a meditation on the French artist, the sexuality of his sculpture, and Jennifer Gough-Cooper’s photographs of his work — Dyer refers to his essay as “this ragbag of quotations.” In just a few pages, he cites Milton, Blake, Rilke, Baudelaire, Yeats, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” a late novel by John Updike, and several contemporary art critics. Is this too much? Maybe. At times, Dyer sounds as if he were data-dumping or name-dropping — or just channeling his inner George Steiner.
In the “Verbals” section, Dyer offers essays on more than a dozen writers ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Don DeLillo, Lorrie Moore and James Salter. In a particularly neat phrase, he both sums up and mildly criticizes Salter’s great novel “Light Years” as being “saturated with its own intensity.” He also reprints two superb introductions: to the gossipy “Goncourt Journals” and to Rebecca West’s magisterially digressive “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.” Of the latter, a two-volume travel book about 1930s Yugoslavia that is “one of the supreme masterpieces of the twentieth century,” Dyer tellingly observes that its rambling pages are held together largely by tone.
He adds that West’s best work “is scattered among reportage, journalism, and travel — the kind of things traditionally regarded as sidelines or distractions.” With similar approval, Dyer underscores that the distinctive appeal of journals, like those of John Cheever, lies in “the way that the incidental and irrelevant do not get pushed aside as must happen in the course of more streamlined narratives.” Like the genre-bending Dyer, many of his favorite writers — another is W.G. Sebald, revered for autumnal masterpieces such as “Austerlitz”— aim to meld essay, fiction and reminiscence.
Given the contents of the other sections of “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition,” Dyer must surely rival Clive James and Christopher Hitchens in “intellectual nomadism.” To use his own term, he is “a literary and scholarly gate-crasher, turning up uninvited at an area of expertise, making myself at home, having a high old time for a year or two, and then moving on elsewhere.” Thus, besides all I’ve mentioned, this hefty collection contains a survey of books about the war in the Middle East, a report on a Paris fashion show, a visit to Albert Camus’s Algeria, an analysis of all the John Coltrane versions of “My favorite Things”— Dyer’s attention to detail rivals that of an opera queen discussing bootleg recordings of Maria Callas — and musings about the sexual charge of luxury hotel rooms.
He closes his book with the “Personals” section, which should more accurately be called “Even More Personals” because everything in these pages is suffused with the author’s wry and brazenly honest self. Among the “Personals” are accounts of a youthful passion for Spider-Man comics, a portrait of Dyer’s working-class family, the dazzling “On Being an Only Child” and several short memoirs of a young manhood spent taking drugs, living on the dole and chasing girls. Not least, the book’s title piece, “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition,” gradually builds to a virtuoso dissertation on routine, obsession and the quest for the perfect doughnut.
Years ago, Geoff Dyer’s dad gave him a bit of worldly advice: “Never put anything in writing.” As always, it’s a good thing that sons never listen to their fathers.
Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 15:58
David Foster Wallace’s ‘Pale King’: Plot takes back seat to mood and ideas Book review by Jeff Turrentine
David Foster Wallace’s ‘Pale King’:
Plot takes back seat to mood and ideas
Book review by Jeff Turrentine
David Foster Wallace
After David Foster Wallace took his life in 2008, his editor, Michael Pietsch, traveled to the author’s home in Claremont, Calif., to go through what remained of his unpublished writing and to see what kind of shape it was in. It would have been surprising had the prolific Wallace — who wrote essays, short stories and journalism in addition to novels, and whose previous novel, “Infinite Jest” (1996), was more than 1,000 pages long — not left something behind for his friend to retrieve.
As it happened, before he died Wallace had placed on his desk a neatly stacked manuscript: one dozen chapters of a work in progress called “The Pale King.” Pietsch took those chapters (along with others that were eventually discovered) back to New York, as well as hundreds of pages of “notes and false starts, lists of names, plot ideas” and other relevant material. Wallace’s publisher, Little, Brown, organized and edited it into a 548-page book that has now been released under the title “The Pale King” and is being billed as Wallace’s “unfinished novel.”
Given that Wallace was working on this material at the time of his suicide, it’s difficult for a reader to avoid indulging in what critics call “the biographical fallacy,” i.e., the unfounded conviction that the ideas, emotions and beliefs present in a literary work are necessarily held by the author. But it seems highly unlikely, to say the least, that a story set among Internal Revenue Service employees at a regional examination center in Peoria, Ill. — chronicling the tax-collecting agency’s shift from hand-processing data to increased automation in the mid-1980s — could offer anything resembling profound insight into the human condition, much less into the existential conundrums that have vexed thinkers from Augustine to Kierkegaard. In Wallace’s hands, however, this tale of nervous bureaucrats becomes a potent extended metaphor for how we’re able to withstand the crushing tedium of modern life and still derive meaning from it.
It’s a little unfair to speak of the “plot” of an unfinished novel whose action unfolds so disjointedly that the whole notion of story ends up taking a back seat to mood, tone and ideas. But based on what we have, we can deduce that “The Pale King” was to have followed the battle over control of the Peoria REC between two titanic and philosophically opposed senior bureaucrats. One views the IRS as a collection of virtuous public servants; the other wants to remake the agency in the mold of a value-neutral, for-profit corporation. These men make brief appearances, but for the most part their ideological battle is waged by subordinates, including a dutiful deputy whose lifelong policy of selflessness and generosity has made him a freakish pariah and a “fact psychic” whose paranormal flashes of insight are, alas, “ephemeral, useless, undramatic, distracting . . . like having someone sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in your ear while you’re trying to recite a poem for a prize.”
Chapters that may have been little more than extended character studies vary, unsurprisingly, in their effectiveness. The best of them tend to be self-contained vignettes that are, mostly, untethered to the underdeveloped main plot. In one, a mid-level employee who believes he is being interviewed for an IRS recruitment video basically relays the story of his entire adult life, including the death of his father, his mother’s discovery of her homosexuality and the bizarre classroom epiphany that compelled him to turn his dissolute life around and pursue a career reading other people’s tax forms. In another, a high school-age boy who suffers from excessive sweating gets trapped in an ontological feedback loop upon realizing that the fear of his condition is the cause of his condition.
And then there are those chapters recounting the hilariously picaresque IRS adventures of the author, who pops in from time to time to assure readers that the book he has written is not a novel but a memoir — one that his timid publisher, for various legal reasons, has insisted be marketed as “fiction.” Here we find Wallace at his loosest and funniest, as he describes the year he worked at the Peoria REC during college. In the same chattily observational but erudite voice that made his essays on state fairs, cruise ships and lobsters so engaging, he writes of the unfortunate circumstances that got him kicked out of school and of his very strange first day on the job.
But even these broadly comic chapters are haunted by a poignant refrain, what must surely qualify as the whole point of this whole sadly unfinished business. Each of these characters operates in a workday universe of almost unbearable monotony; they are awash in a never-ending flood of data whose ultimate meaning is never made clear to them. Despair is an occupational hazard. At one point, an oracular professor suggests that “enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism.”
At the end of one of Wallace’s memoir chapters, he zeros in on how boredom can produce in us such fear and trembling as we go about — in the “confined space” of our bodies — managing life’s dullness. “Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain,” he writes, “because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.”
The American author who will surely be remembered as one of our era’s most distinct literary voices knew that all the noise of modern life, including its literature, is really just our collective attempt to stave off “this terror of silence,” as he puts it — the same terror that tormented Beckett’s tramps, waiting there by the tree. “I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information,” David Foster Wallace wrote before he took his own life, in the last novel that would be published under his name. “Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”
Turrentine is a writer in Los Angeles.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 15:43