Sunday, February 27, 2011

I read a lovely book: Wading Home

While some white men make offensive art and win fame, acclaim and riches (see previous post), many women and people of color keep making beautiful, original, meaningful art that the marketplace never rewards, or even notices.

I had had the novel Wading Home by Rosalyn Story on my to-read list for a little while when, earlier this month, I heard that the novel's publisher, Agate, had announced it was making the e-book version available for free for the last two weeks of February, Black History Month. Why would a publisher take such a drastic step, a step that denies it any income? Agate's Doug Seibold has a lot to say about the injustice of the treatment of books by and about African Americans in general, and of this novel in particular.
In fact, to its publisher’s embarrassment, Wading Home has gotten hardly any attention at all--despite the hundreds of advance reader’s copies we distributed months before it was published, despite the efforts of PGW’s excellent sales force, despite the author’s appearance at BEA, despite how the book’s publication coincided with the fifth anniversary of Katrina. And despite the fact that I’ve had a hard time finding any other such novels from trade presses--novels by black writers addressing this event, which had such a huge impact on how both black people and others think about the lives of black people in this country today. Next to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Katrina and its aftermath may have been the most consequential event of the last decade. You wouldn’t know it by the response of the book publishing industry.
Please go read the full statement on the Agate website, because this is an impassioned, thoughtful, cogent, angry piece that deserves to be read. It contains much truth about the racism of the publishing industry.

 As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I don't own an e-reader and, for now, at least, have no interest in getting one. So I couldn't take advantage of Agate's offer, but it did spur me to move Wading Home to the top of my to-read list. It wasn't easy to find a copy, but I finally did, at the Strand, and I read it last week.

This is a lovely, moving, accomplished piece of fiction about one of the most important events in U.S. history, the greatest single catastrophe in U.S. history--Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans, a catastrophe suffered mostly by  African Americans and yet one whose stories so far have mostly been told by white writers. The stories that find their way to publication, that is, or to be more precise as Mr. Seibold points out, that are published and reviewed and spotlighted. A couple of years ago I read the novel City of Refuge by Tom Piazza. I liked it very much, in fact I listed it as one of my best reads that year, and I wasn't the only one. It got a lot of play, a lot of attention. Unlike Wading Home.

Was City of Refuge, by a white author, a better book than Wading Home? Now that I've read  Story's book, I can answer: absolutely not! Of course not! It is an absolute injustice that it's the Black writer's book that remains relatively obscure.

And what an excellent, deeply felt and beautifully written book this is. I was swept into it from the opening pages. I cared about the characters. I wept in several places. There is a humanity here, a compassion, a sweep in its view of family and community and history, that resonated for me. And there is political consciousness, truth telling, honesty. All the qualities I value in fiction.

Wading Home also contains some of the finest writing about the natural world that I've read in a long time. Much of the plot has to do with a Black family's land in rural Louisiana, its history down the generations back to slavery times, the risk of losing it, and what this land means for those alive after Katrina. Usually, as a reader, I'm not big on nature descriptions. For some reason they tend to bore me, I tend to gloss over them. That wasn't the case with this novel. Somehow, Ms. Story's depiction of Silver Creek, the vegetation and wildlife, the smells, the sounds, the feel, gripped me in a way such passages rarely do. I really felt transported to that precious place. Which in turn drew me even deeper into the story, the stories of Julian and Simon finding their way home after Katrina.

This book deserves a large audience. It is an indictment of capitalism, of all the ways this racist system distorts and damages everything in this society including the arts, that it remains largely unread.

I saw a misogynist movie: Black Swan

The other day I relented on my bedbug ban on NYC movie theaters and went to see Black Swan. My my what a swamp of sexist--no, I've got to go further for this film is not merely sexist, it is full-on misogynist--ideas and imagery. What wrecks, what weak sad pathetic wrecks, and not just that, what vicious competitive violent destructive self-destructive confused insane and sexually lunatic yet frigid barely human beings we gals are, according to screenwriters Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and director Darren Aronofsky. As artists, we're not nuts in the standard way male artists are permitted to be nuts in the movies, the Agony & Ecstasy/Lust for Life/Pollock way. No, for us it's our very femaleness that predetermines our downfall. To drive the point home, they made sure to include a hot lesbian sex scene, an overwrought masturbation scene, a standard-issue monster mother, lots of blood and crazy red eyes and on and on, climaxing in attainment of artistic perfection achieved only and simultaneously with death.

This makes me tired. This endless onslaught. And reminds me why I've nearly given up on the movies. This is the best Hollywood can do. This is what passes for cinematic art in this country. Black Swan and Aronofsky are nominated for Oscars. Don't even get me started on the whole list of nominees, at least one of which, The Social Network, is a deeply sexist movie about a bunch of millionaire misogynist assholes; one of which, The Kids Are All Right, shows how all lesbians really need is a good male fuck as all it takes for a lesbian in a longterm committed relationship to lunge for heterosex is for a heterosexual male to stroll into her life; one of which, The King's Speech, asks us to empathize with the multibillionaire head of state of British imperialism; one of which, Inception, is so laughably moronic, vapid, unimaginative, derivative, flat, shallow and all-around uninteresting, that is, the exact opposite of its hype, that when I watched it with some friends a few months ago, we kept asking each other if this could possibly be the same movie about which we'd read all those rave reviews.

I was left similarly nonplused after seeing Black Swan. Could I be the only one who found this movie offensive and misogynist? I'm glad to find I'm not, having googled the title of the film and the word "misogynist" and found quite a few articles accusing it of same. I suppose there's some small comfort in that, though I'd much prefer not having to wade through this swamp in the first place.

Ah Aronofsky. I loved his first two works, Pi and Requiem for a Dream. I found The Fountain, while weirdly fascinating for its utter over-the-top madness, a stunningly hot mess of a movie, a failure in every way, and politically reprehensible to boot with its portrayal of a conquistador as a hero and its weepily Victorian female swoonily romantically dying throughout the whole long slog. The Wrestler was unoriginal, predictable, sentimental claptrap, albeit watchable since, admit it, who can turn away from what has become of Mickey Rourke's face, but that didn't save the movie. I doubt I'll ever give another Aronofsky movie a chance. He's insulted me, as a viewer, an artist and a woman, once too often.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Politically correct

Rising out of the drear 1950s, led by the civil rights movement which in turn gave rise to the anti-war movement and the women's movement and the gay movement, inspired by the anti-colonial uprisings and wars for national liberation in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Pacific islands, on through the 1960s and into the 1970s, there was in this country a flowering of political consciousness. As we all know. It is now most often referred to with the all-encompassing term "the 60s." To the bourgeoisie and all those in the grip of that class's ideology, which most definitely includes the liberal intelligentsia, "the 60s" is now a term of opprobrium. To those of us who are partisans for the class struggle and against racism, sexism, LGBT oppression and all forms of bigotry and exploitation, "the 60s" is or should be shorthand for everything righteous—rebellion, revolution, activism—for rejecting the norms of capitalism and fighting toward a new way of organizing society. This latter, our view of the 60s, is also known by another term, especially as regards education and the arts: politically correct.

Those of us of the 60s/70s generation of activists did indeed come to understand some things as correct and some other things as incorrect by the lights of our politics. That which seeks to advance the struggle, that which conveys the reality of oppression and exploitation, that which upends the old hierarchies and gives voice to those whose voices were heretofore suppressed, this is correct. The old ways of seeing, doing, explaining, steeped as they are in bourgeois consciousness and backward, reactionary ideology, are wrong. Incorrect. Offensive. Above all, untrue. Based on all the false old assumptions, all the lies and justifications of the chattel-slavery-subjugation-of-women system that built the wealth of this country's capitalist class. By our lights, all this needed, and of course still needs, correcting. This is a noble and necessary endeavor.

It is also a frightening challenge to the status quo and for that reason has been subjected to a 40-year-long onslaught of taunts, derision and every other possible means to flip the truth into its opposite. The problem isn't racism, sexism, oppression, exploitation, we're told. The problem is all these uptight rigid purveyors of the whip of political correctness, which is portrayed as an assault on freedom of expression. How dare these people—and for these people read people of color, women, LGBT people, workers, the disabled—how dare anyone trespass on anyone else's freedom to be as incorrect as they please? Is this a free country or what? And so they've managed, the bourgeoisie and its witless mouthpieces, to turn reality on its head with the well-worn Big Lie tactic of endless repetition. And so "politically correct" joins "the 60s" (and especially its literary sub-genre "the madness of the 60s," which I've ranted about before) as A Bad Thing. None of this is surprising. Not the ruling class's efforts to shore up its image and beef up its propaganda; not the bosses' vicious, mendacious attacks against any and all who do try to tell the truth; and, saddest of all, not the efficacy of these efforts. Hardly anyone proudly, boldly claims the mantle of politically correct anymore. Most run scared of being so named, and if so named turn somersaults to defend against the accusation.

Which brings us to the latest round of doings in the literary world. First, by way of noting that "the 60s" is a broad term and can be stretched decades to make a point, I must quickly mention a book I read about in this past Sunday's New York Times Book Review. It's a "madness of the 60s" memoir—set in the 80s! Apparently it tells the poignant tale of a young woman who was so misguided as to travel to Central America and join a bunch of wacky internationalists doing solidarity work in support of the anti-imperialist struggles there. The men she worked with were of course louts. The women were, like her, naïve and confused, and motivated by their pitiful devotion to the loutish men rather than any of their own opinions or political ideas. None had the slightest inkling of what they were doing, and all were completely misled by the Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans fighting the Reagan administration's overt and covert military intervention. The reviewer loved it. I expectorated onto the review.

But the main event I want to point to is a bold, courageous initiative by poet Claudia Rankine, begun at the AWP conference in D.C. earlier this month and still under way online. AWP is the big daddy of literary conferences, put together by the organization of college writing programs and attended by many thousands of poets and writers, almost all of them associated with a writing program in one way or another. I went once, a few years ago when it was here in NYC and the staff very kindly allowed me to attend for free as a worker, rather than student or faculty, at a university. That once was enough, for the whole thing was far too drenched in academia for me. Not my scene. Still, thousands of folks attend, and in a literary culture where it's virtually impossible to be published without an MFA and the only way for writers to make a living is by teaching, I can understand why they do. Once in a while something noteworthy occurs, as it did this year.

I've read a number of accounts of it and I'd urge you to do the same. Basically, at one of the poetry panels, Claudia Rankine's presentation consisted of having Nick Flynn get up and read Tony Hoagland's poem "The Change," then her reading her response to the poem, then her reading his emailed response to her response. Google the key names and you'll find lots of blog postings including several that have the full texts. You'll find that Hoagland's poem includes blatant racist language and imagery. You'll find that Rankine's response is deep, incisive, painful, and so full of truth that … that, yes, sure enough, in his response, Hoagland accused her of "political correctness, with its agendas of rightness, perfection, enforcement, and moral superiority." He also calls this brilliant African American poet "naïve," explains the nuances of U.S. racial history to her, and avers that his poem "is not 'racist' but 'racially complex.'" Hoagland's stunningly, yes, racist and sexist condescension becomes even more breathtaking when you reread and think again about Rankine's thoughts, which are nothing if not complex. "Who let America in the room?" she asks. She says she "could taste the vomit of Reconstruction and slavery in the back of my throat"—but only after acknowledging that she knows what she's opening herself up to by daring to speak up about any of this.
I don't like using the word racist because of you use it it means you are an angry black person. Angry black people are the old black and everyone knows that's pathological. … The old black is positioned in a no-win situation where to express an opinion based on what you see, experience, feel or deduce rsisk falling right into some white folk's notion of black insanity.
This is one brave truth-telling artist. Further, in the wake of all the commentary that's been swirling since AWP, she is not shying away from pursuing the issue. She recently posted an open letter on her website, calling for people to submit their own "thoughts on writing about race." She poses a series of provocative questions as "a few possible jumping-off points." They include:
  • If you write about race frequently what issues, difficulties, advantages, and disadvantages do you negotiate?
  • If you have never written consciously about race why have you never felt compelled to do so?
  • Do you believe race can be decontextualized, or in other words, can ideas of race be constructed separate from their history.
Rankine will post responses received by March 11 on her blog.

Finally, one other item under the Politically Correct rubric. I was planning to write about this but I've gone on too long as it is so I'm just going to point you to this article. Headed "Let's say goodbye to the straw-feminist," it's Cordelia Fine's response to a slew of reactionary reviews of her book Delusions of Gender. In that book, which I've now added to my to-read list, she dismantles the sexist underpinnings of the increasingly dominant strain of evolutionary biology and psychology, the Steven Pinker school of biological determinism as regards innate sex differences, i.e. trucks vs. dolls or, as per Lawrence Summers, home ec vs. science. These reviewers to whom she responds in this piece accuse Fine of political correctness, that most dreaded of offenses. Kudos to her for taking them on.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Last week I read another old book and hit another home run. (I'd just read Great Expectations and loved it and now plan to read more Dickens soon, perhaps reread some because I'm not sure which I read in high school.) This time it was The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. It's embarrassing to admit I'd never read it, or any of McCullers' work. I don't know why that is, it's just one of those weird lacunae in my reading resume, but boy am I glad to have corrected the omission and boy now do I ever want to read her other books.

For this is a magnificent novel. So humane, so political, so full of consciousness about oppression, rage at this society, yearning for liberation. Wow. It's not the writing, for sentence by sentence, word by word, McCullers is not a dazzling stylist. It's what the words add up to. What she says with them.

How could I not love a book that devotes several pages to a Depression-era African American doctor's soliloquy on Marxism and the need for revolution? That depicts the soul-weariness of a would-be union organizer who can't get anyone to listen to his radical message? That shows a poor teenaged girl's constricted options and wide-open dreams?

From Richard Wright's 1940 review:
Tto me the most impressive aspect of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politcally; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.
And from May Sarton's:
This book is literature. Because it is literature, when one puts it down it is not with a feeling of emptiness and despair (which an outline of the plot might suggest), but with a feeling of having been nourished by the truth. For one knows at the end, that it is these cheated people, these with burning intense needs and purposes, who must inherit the earth. They are the reason for the existence of a democracy which is still to be created. This is the way it is, one says to oneself - but not forever.
I'm going to try to swing by the Strand soon, to pick up a used copy of The Lonely Hunter, Virginia Spencer Carr's biography of McCullers. I've just got to know more about the artist behind this masterpiece of working-class literature.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

From Hubert Harrison, for Black History Month

Last month I noted a new book I wanted to read, the biography Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 by Jeffrey B. Perry. I've got it in my hands now and I hope to read it soon. I was leafing through it, fondling it in that excited way I do with new books, and found in the front matter some quotations from the works of this great but sadly now little remembered leftist leader. Here are a couple of them, in honor of Black History Month.

On U.S. "democracy":
As long as the Color Line exists, all the perfumed protestations of Democracy on the part of the white race must be simply downright lying. The cant of "Democracy" is intended as dust in the eyes of white voters. ... It furnishes bait for the clever statesman.
On imperialist war:
During the war the idea of democracy was widely advertised, especially in the English-speaking world, mainly as a convenient camouflage behind which competing imperialists masked their sordid aims. ... those who so loudly proclaimed and formulated the new democratic demands never had the slightest intention of extending the limits or the applications of "democracy."
I was stunned by one other page in the front of the Harrison biography. It has a photograph of Harrison's gravesite, which has no marker and just appears to be a mass of untrimmed dry grass. The caption notes that this great leader "lies buried in an unmarked shared plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx." Woodlawn Cemetery! This is the site of a current struggle by a group of workers, all Black and Latino men, fighting against unmitigated, brutal, vicious racist treatment by the bosses--just the sort of struggle Hubert Harrison would have been in the thick of. This struggle has been going on for some time but now it's hit a new, urgent stage. The members of Teamsters Local 805 are fighting for their very jobs and right to union representation. There's been a lot of community support for the Band of Brothers, as the Woodlawn workers call themselves, with a series of solidarity marches and rallies. Last weekend, the Latina group Mujeres por la Paz visited the Woodlawn gravesite of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and, styling themselves the Band of Sisters, demanded a union contract and no layoffs for their brothers the Woodlawn workers.

The next action for the Band of Brothers is this Monday, Feb. 21, when supporters will rally at Woodlawn to show the cemetery bosses that these workers are not alone. I'm going to pass along the information about Hubert Harrison and his unmarked grave to the Woodlawn workers.

Victory to the Band of Brothers! Hubert Harrison presente!

Could this be the start at last of labor's upturn?

Tens of thousands of workers and students have been demonstrating outside and staying inside, occupying the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison to stop the governor's move against collective bargaining rights for public employees. We can never know what's to come, we none of us have a crystal ball, but I do know that they're calling the plaza outside the Capitol "Liberation Square" in honor and emulation of the sisters and brothers who rocked Egypt--and that, just as in Egypt, there is no turning back.

The current round of attacks on government-employee unions, especially on the teachers' unions, should be understood as an assault not only on the working class's right to public services, the services to which we are entitled and for which we pay with our tax dollars, or toward which our tax dollars should be going instead of to the Pentagon and to bailing out the banks--not only as an assault on our right to services, and not only on the labor rights of public employees, especially teachers who are being outrageously scapegoated when they ought to be national heroes--not only all this. But more specifically, the current wave of assault on public-employee unions is a racist and sexist bludgeon. Most government employees, especially teachers, are women. A great proportion of these workers, especially city and federal employees, are Black.

With this reactionary, cynical and, by the way, completely bipartisan political rampage against public employees, from California to Wisconsin and Michigan to Florida and New York, the bourgeoisie might finally have gone too far. Labor, the sleeping giant, might finally be forcibly awakened.

On Wisconsin!

Friday, February 11, 2011


That means revolution in Arabic, and all over the world today the workers and oppressed  are hailing the sisters and brothers who are making revolution in Egypt. This is a beautiful day for the class struggle. No one can say where it will go from here, but it's for sure that no one can undo what has been done. The only direction is forward. The Arab masses are in motion. With their courageous action they have won a great victory by overturning the U.S.-puppet Zionist-aligned Mubarak regime. My heart is full of joy and gratitude to them. Long live Egypt! Long live Palestine! Onward to revolutionary victory! Thawra thawra hata nas!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Should a socialist indulge in schadenfreude?

Of course she should, can and does, in terms of big important events on the stage of the worldwide class struggle, for example the impending doom of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Anyone whose allegiance is with the workers, the poor, the oppressed, anyone who stands in solidarity with the fight for national sovereignty and against imperialism can't help but derive great joy from the increasing misery of the U.S.-puppet regime and the class of thieves and murderers it serves.

But hereabouts we're supposed to be about the arts. It's on not the world stage but the actual stage—the Broadway boards—that the events occasioning my question are unfolding. I'm talking about the ever unraveling travesty that is writer-director Julie Taymor's latest work of musical theater, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. As anyone who follows the theater even a little, and everyone who lives in New York where the whole mess has been front-page news for months, knows, this musical has major-league tsuris. The elaborate production design and attempts at unprecedented special effects make this the most expensive show in Broadway history. Trouble is, all the high-tech gadgetry, all the spectacle, can't compensate for an essentially lousy play. Even if they somehow could, the gizmos and doohickeys don't work. The whole months-long saga of tryouts, of rejiggering the book and music and choreography, which in this case means acrobatics more than dance, has been marked with repeated serious problems, especially mishaps with the flying contraptions including several injuries to actors, at least one very serious.

About that—worker injury, worker endangerment—I feel nothing close to schadenfreude. I feel rage. At Taymor and at the deep-pockets producers who've sunk $65 million dollars into what from all accounts (more on that in a minute) can scarcely be termed a work of art yet who, for all their money, can't manage to make it safe for the people doing the on-stage work. I'm enraged, too, at OSHA and New York state and city worker-safety officials, who should have long since stepped in to force the profiteers to fix this thing or shut it down. And I've got, if not rage, a lot of disappointment in and questions for Actors Equity and the other stage workers' unions. The Broadway unions, like the rest of the labor movement, have been under siege for a long time, and it's hard not to see their apparent inaction here as evidence of the state of their decline. Granted, they may be working behind the scenes to push for better on-stage safety. They should have been doing much more, much more publicly--mounting picket lines, making demands, building a solidarity movement, reaching out to the huge New York population of workers, union members and theater lovers. Instead, as unions in other industries have done for the last 30 years since the UAW's original Chrysler give-back contract, they seem to see their duty as supporting the bosses' profit-taking in hopes of keeping the enterprise open and saving jobs.

As to those jobs, all of them, onstage and back: I have only sympathy, fellow-feeling for the actors, singers and dancers subjected to these conditions. Conditions—unsafe physically and debased artistically—that theater workers feel compelled to grin and bear, grateful to have any job at all. This is a terribly unstable industry for its workers. There is no joy like landing a job, whether it's a lead role, in the chorus, downstairs sewing and mending costumes, up in the rafters working the lights, or in the box office selling tickets. Once you've got a show, you want it to stay open, naturally. On Broadway as in a coal mine or any other site of wage labor, no matter how dreary, how dangerous, you need that job. Oh god, as they sang in A Chorus Line, I need this job. At what cost, though? It might not hurt a theater worker's future prospects to have Spider-Man on the resume, but there will be no prospects after a broken neck from a fall due to defective equipment. On Broadway as in the mines, the bosses will always stint on safety in favor of profits.

Here's where schadenfreude comes in. I do take pleasure from this week's round of uproariously bad reviews for the Spidey musical. I am glad that these profit-takers in artist ("pardon me, I mean artiste," as the Times' critic Ben Brantley purred) garb are being humiliated. They should be ashamed.

Now, I'm not utterly starry-eyed about Broadway. Lots of shlock has passed that way. Much, maybe most, of the musical theater is mediocre, unmemorable. Much is objectionable from my political viewpoint. Hardly any, including a lot of the old musicals that I'm still sentimentally attached to and whose music still stirs my corny old heart, meets the mark for the best of what I wish from any art. In recent decades, the whole industry has become such a pure profit monster, with ticket prices rising so out of reach of most workers, that I guess it'd be silly to hope for something true and good and beautiful, new and creative and with, god forbid, something to say about society. All that said, though, this derivative cartoon cardboard cutout stunt is a new low for the New York stage and I'm glad for whatever potshots are thrown at its perpetrators.

Earlier I referred to "all accounts" because I base my broad characterizations of the awfulness of this so-called musical on what I've read in various reviews and commentaries. I have not myself seen it (even if I wanted to I couldn't afford a ticket) yet I feel safe, and justified, in the conclusions I've drawn about this stinker. I've made a long study of reading reviews, of books, movies and stage productions. It's more art than science, I suppose, but I think I've got it down, how I take into account the source, class slant, artistic standards and so on, breaking it all down so that I'm generally able to get a pretty good sense of the piece in question and what I'd think of it. Often I conclude that a negative review is wrong or am intrigued enough to want to see for myself. Or the opposite, I read through a rave and know to stay far away. I'm sure I'm not always right but one thing I have to admit is that the mainstream critics are not always wrong either, even if they're right for the wrong reasons. Such is the case, I believe, with the Spiderman musical. I'm sorry for the workers whose jobs—and safety—depend on its success but I'm not sorry for the miscreants whose worship of commerce over art are responsible for its becoming, already, a legendary failure.

I want to say one more thing about what Broadway can do. You might think that it's so in the grips of big money and old thinkers that it's incapable of mounting any but the most conventional works of musical theater. That we must look elsewhere for innovation, particularly politically conscious work. And mostly I'd say that's true, that exciting new work, in the musical theater as in drama as in books or movies or any other art form, is doubtless being created in countless corners by impoverished unknowns, and that most of it has no chance of ever seeing the light of day, at least as long as art remains locked down under capitalism. Once in a while, though, somehow, a bright light shines through.

Such was the case with Caroline, or Change, which I was lucky enough to see in early 2004 before it closed after an all too brief run on Broadway. This musical by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori was unlike any I've ever seen. Innovative—hell yes, with talking washing machines, and scenes that conflate and compress time and space. Musically successful—OMG yes, with a near-operatic score that ranges wide and strikes deep. Artistically challenging and politically meaningful—since seeing this show I know that there is no topic that the genre of musical theater could not take on, no subject that is out of bounds, no approach that is out of reach. As I've admitted before, I'm a corny old sucker, and many's the old-school musical that reduces me to tears, but they're sentimental tears, triggered by various varieties of shtick. At the end of Caroline, or Change, by contrast, I was shaken deeply, to my core, by the important story it told, the profound issues it raised—and, not least, by the unbelievable and shamefully underappreciated brilliance of Tonya Pinkins in the starring role. I remember that as I rose and walked down the stairs from the balcony and out onto the street and over to the subway, as the minutes after the final standing ovation during which I'd sobbed my eyes out passed, as it turned into five minutes since the end, then 10, then 15, I was still trembling, I still felt undone. That it was the last thing I thought about as I fell asleep that night, and the first when I awoke next day, and for many days after that. That it haunts me still. This is what the musical theater can do.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Great Expectations

Yes we remain enthralled by the uprising of the Egyptian workers and students and have the greatest expectations of where it will all lead. My confession, though, is that I haven't yet been to any of the street demonstrations here in solidarity with them because I'm down with the flu. And that, while I have been following the news, I've also been doing what I do when sick, which is read and watch junk TV. As for the junk TV, um, don't ask and I won't have to tell. As for what I'm reading, it's an oldy but goody that I've meant to get to for some time: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. It is tremendously entertaining, a rip-roaring good story told with wit, charm and marvelous language. Who knows, this may set me off on a Dickens phase. Most of his books are available in cheap paperback editions--this one in my hand cost $4.95--and I could certainly do worse when in need of a good read.

Leading in to the Dickens, and as I was nursing my lover Teresa through and thereby catching her flu, I made my quick way through two volumes provided by their publishers as free review copies. (There, I've met my legal obligation.) The first is a slim volume of tiny poems by Andrew Rihn titled America Plops and Fizzes. There are 50 of them, two or three to a page, each page faced with an illustration by David Munson, most of them unflattering images of the bosses and bankers. It's all to my liking--the take, the quirk--but, unschooled poetically as I've confessed myself to be, I feel ill equipped for any meaningful comment. In lieu of my own, then, let me commend you to the publisher's comment, following, and then to a recent interview with the poet.
When Jack Kerouac deviated from the traditional haiku form, he began calling his poems "pops." Andrew Rihn deviates even further, to the edge of formlessness, adding a new entry into the rubric of "American pops." With short, sudden flashes, the reader is given glimpses of pop culture--the celebrity, the sloganeering, the fetishism. These poems remind us that we are all tethered to something dark, violent, and absurd that lies hidden below the surface of late capitalism.
Next I read Wingshooters, the new novel by Nina Revoyr. She is a favorite of mine; I loved all three of her previous novels. This one continues her exploration of issues of racism, identity,  the clash of communities, but far afield from her previous usual setting of Los Angeles. The story takes place in rural Wisconsin, in 1974. I'm not sure why it didn't quite grab me the way Revoyr's other work has--it may simply be that I was getting sick--but it's an important story and I'm glad to see that it's getting stunningly good reviews all around. What I found most interesting was the way this novel forced me to view that time and that place in a new light. I'd never have thought of Wisconsin as a backward place, especially not that late along in the 20th century. Somehow I had a vague sense of it as a more enlightened spot, no doubt substituting Madison and Milwaukee and the Progressive Party and Father Groppi and other flotsam of information and misinformation lodged inside my brain for the more various, complicated and nuanced truth of the whole state, whose rural precincts, as Revoyr portrays them here, were redoubts of backwardness and racism. This is a terrible tale that culminates in horrid violence--what amounts to a lynching and its aftermath--and Revoyr makes the reader see how all of it is perpetrated by solid citizens who are roundly respected, admired, loved. It made me think of the assassins of Medgar Evers and others of their ilk in the 1960s South, of how an apparently benign paragon can at the same time be a racist terrorist murderer. That this is 10 years later and many miles to the north shouldn't make the story all the more shocking, but it does, and it's a good contribution that Revoyr brings it to light with Wingshooters.