Review Of Marina Julia Neary’s “Saved By The Bang”

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Saved By The Bang Marina Julia NearyA few weeks ago, I came across Marina Julia Neary’s Saved By The Bang, an interesting (albeit flawed) novel that takes what might very well have been a PC disaster- a family saga set during the Chernobyl meltdown- and manages to avoid the typical pitfalls one associates with such. Just think, for example, of the childlike way Octavia E. Butler once dealt with slavery, or Steven Spielberg’s twee, hamfisted treatment of the Holocaust, or the multitude of journals- poetry, prose, and everything in between- that opine on war and suffering and evil all the while excluding the art itself in favor of agitprop. Of course, it is quite easy to express fear or sadness or hopelessness, for these states are simply part of the human condition. They are built into us from so many access points that the smallest thing will tap into them. Yet it’s much harder to slip into their interstices, to get at things less obvious- more difficult to come by- which is why most ‘artists’ don’t really give a damn about their own craft, favoring, as they do, the fluff extraneous to it.

Saved By The Bang implicitly knows this, side-stepping the above dilemma by turning a drama into a kind of comedy, thus obviating any ‘need’ for bathos- the same sort of inversion, in fact, that helps polish and define Liev Schreiber’s wonderful Everything Is Illuminated (2005). But while the book has a number of strengths that easily put it in the top 5% of published writing today, it also lacks the sort of ‘highs’ that define the best works: it is more or less a solid book that has as many bad moments (3 or 4) as truly excellent ones (likewise 3 or 4), and an interim that merely floats well- for good or ill. In short, there are simply too few memorable passages or lines that work on the mind after the novel’s done, and while the characters’ lack of genuine depth might be unimportant, in some tales, the lack of highs- spoken by or narrated around these characters- keeps it from better company. Being a Chernobyl survivor, myself, I’ve long wanted to write a book about the incident, and I’d have surely done quite a few things differently. But that is neither here nor there. My desires and my way of doing things are and should be irrelevant to criticism, which needs to consider what a thing is rather than filtered through what’s always wished for. So let us focus, instead, on what the book does well, does not do well, and- I guess- does not quite do at all.

Saved By The Bang begins with a comic look at the Belarusian intelligentsia, starting at the height of an affair between the protagonist- Antonia- and a well-known tenor, a nice touch that avoids the oft-silly, moralizing, and clunky buildups towards such by immediately casting some doubts on the book’s (initial) lead. It then moves on to Antonia’s marital woes, … Continue reading →

The Red Pill, Feminism, & The Missing Synthesis

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The Red Pill Reddit

“Perhaps all philosophy boils down to the simple fear that the universe has no need for us: men. I mean, because women are, in a strange sense, more essential to Being than we are…We build machines, create tribal languages in philosophy — like little boys with secret codes in their clubhouse — to get back at the universe because she has failed to give us a function. All our works, male works, will perish in history — history, a male concept of time, will vanish, too, but the culture of women goes on, the rhythms of birth and destruction, the Way of absorption, passivity, cycle and epicycle.” – Charles Johnson, Oxherding Tale

“The weakness of men is the facade of strength; the strength of women is the facade of weakness.” – Lawrence Diggs

“I believe every word that man said because it’s exactly what I wanted to hear.” – Space Ghost

Introduction: ‘The Red Pill’ In The Feminist Context

Of all grating human tendencies, I’d argue that the wont towards simplification to be among the most retrograde. Forget violence- it’s been on the outs for thousands of years now, and will be quite unrecognizable in the next few centuries. Forget bigotry- it’s little more than personal immaturity made visible, and at times rewarded. Forget whatever -ism that happens to be ‘in’ right now, for people are too fickle — and their attentions too limited — to celebrate or deride a cause for more than a few decades at a time. Yet simplification is a human constant, splitting, as it does, political spectra into a neat (and illogical) 50/50 divide, corralling ideas into contrapuntals, and apportioning the whole world, really, into the dullness of ‘sides’. To get this to work, you only need one thing: myth. And to get it working for a while, you need to have myths on both sides, as well as people dumb and insecure enough to believe them.

Just think, for a moment, of all the deeper truths such systems occlude: how the vast stores of human ignorance have kept the big picture (whatever it may be) from materializing. This is to be expected, for there’s something in the brain — a survival mechanism, perhaps — that encourages human beings to simplify even when it’s inappropriate. Sure, black and white is great for the jungle, where quick decisions rule, but consciousness did not evolve for higher-order thinking: this is merely our proximate use of something with far more distal causes, thus entangling logic, instinct, and emotion into thinking patterns that have the imprint of none of these things, but share, by being so diluted, all their weaknesses. Thus, in recent decades, there’s been a backlash against the least credible of these innovations. And, unsurprisingly, one of these is the excesses of gender/sexual politics, and the odd, asymmetrical demands this has placed on human conduct.

So what’s the problem, exactly, and what have been the proposed solutions? It’s simple, really- to borrow that abused word. Feminism … Continue reading →

On Countee Cullen’s “Heritage”

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Countee Cullen Harlem Renaissaince

Countee Cullen. Image via FindAGrave.

After a LONG time out of print, Library Of America finally released Countee Cullen’s Collected Poems a couple of years ago. To those who know literature, this was a big deal- mostly because Cullen is one of the 3 or 4 greatest black poets to have ever written, even as (as per all great writing) he was quite free from the stereotypes of ‘blackness’, or whatever other limit artists typically impose upon themselves. An almost Constantine The Great-like Christian- just note the syncretism of the titular poem- he never gave a simple answer on politics, religion, or race, even arguing with Langston Hughes that he was above all a poet, first, and a black man second. In other words, while Hughes would sometimes dip into mere agitprop, Countee Cullen was less interested in canned answers- nor did he think that he necessarily had them in the first place. This made for mysterious sonnets, strange messages, and of course- having modeled himself on the Romantic poet John Keats- great lyricism, witty lines, and memorable inversions:

For John Keats, Apostle Of Beauty

Not writ in stone, nor in mist,
Sweet lyric throat, thy name;
Thy singing lips that cold death kissed
Have seared his own with flame.

Although I’d argue Cullen had a number of truly great poems, it is really “Heritage” that is special- on a deeper level- in my own life. I recall how, as a kid, after I’d decided to start reading with purpose, I first came across Countee Cullen’s work in a Harlem Renaissance anthology. I was 16 at the time and really had no knowledge of what made for good writing. Yet there was the feeling that Cullen’s work was somehow better than most of the pieces being represented. It was more subtle- it took quite a few readings to really know what was going on, even when the poems felt simple. The book featured small pieces, mostly, and while they ranged from good to great, it was really “Heritage” that made me want to UNDERSTAND poetry- as well as learn how to craft my own. My guess is that it simply came at the right time. I was intellectually maturing, I was getting ready to leave my Orthodox Christian faith, and I was- by way of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, among other works- diverging from the limits of ‘my’ world into the boundaries of another’s. And while there were many poets greater than Cullen that I’d initially sampled- John Donne, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane- they were completely inaccessible to a child. They are, for lack of a better term, more or less useless when first learning the craft- unless one realizes that their work is something to be conquered in time, and not merely put aside. Yet Cullen didn’t need to be awaited. He was always there:

Heritage

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed … Continue reading →

“Mattress Girl” Emma Sulkowicz Goes Off The Deep End

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"Mattress Girl" Emma Sulkowicz is now THE dominant narrative, rather than 'a' victim.

Image via Wikipedia.

A few days ago, I was Googling around to find some information on the Emma Sulkowicz (“Mattress Girl”) rape case when I realized that the first result referred to a sex video. Now, I already thought she was psychotic, and entitled, and selfish, and that- despite the overwhelming evidence of Paul Nungesser’s innocence- I’d always be in the liberal minority for such views. Yet if I had even a phantom of a doubt re: Mattress Girl’s inner troubles, it was lifted when she decided to make this video and pass it off as something other than what it is: a re-renewal of the attention she’s craved for well over a year now, waning ever since the two students graduated and went separate ways.

Officially, I guess, the video is called an “art work,” but let’s be real. It’s nothing more than a sex tape. Adding a little history to it- as well as a pinch of psychosis- does nothing to change the fundamentals of what happens when you sit down, push a button, and wait for the pixels to light up. In short, look at it for what’s on screen rather than what you wish to project upon it- what isn’t there. There are 4 frames to show a series of sex acts (some of them violent) filmed from 4 different angles, with a French title- Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol– meant to obscure the hollowness of the actual ‘film’. It’s ridiculous that I even have to argue such a point, but this is little more than a reflection of what people deem to be serious.

It gets worse. The video was time-stamped 8/12/2012 (the date of the alleged rape) to ‘deepen’ her original claims, as well as further needle Paul Nungesser. Of course, given that Nungesser has a lawsuit pending for his gross mis-treatment, the date was promptly removed during a several-hour stretch that Sulkowicz claims was a hacking attack on her website. More likely, however, Sulkowicz wanted to retain whatever bit of plausible deniability that she has left. For the facts of the case have not changed:

1. Paul Nungesser was accused of rape many months after the alleged incident.

2. Nungesser and Sulkowicz continued to exchange pleasantries- including flirtations- into the winter.

3. The accusation came AFTER enough months had passed to ‘establish’ an odd case re: Nungesser’s character. “Josie” claimed he tried to kiss and grope her without permission– then sent fun, sexual e-mails to him later, mirroring Sulkwociz’s own behavior. “Natalie” more or less claimed he was a bad boyfriend rather than abusive– yet had just come out of an abusive relationship, herself, was suffering from depression, and still agreed to meet up/make plans after their breakup.

4. Columbia investigates Nungesser and finds nothing- even though an investigator admitted to really wanting to find fault with him, only to conclude that Sulkowicz was lying.

5. The police might have investigated, but Sulkowicz declined due to the emotional battery … Continue reading →

“Mr. Robot” And The Golden Age Of Television

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Mr. Robot Golden Age Of Television

The silly, ham-fisted poster for Mr. Robot. Image via IMDb.

The word ‘re-action’ implies that something has already come. Let’s ignore, for a moment, what that something is, and just focus on the final knot of the rope:

Appraisal. Or rather, what the act of valuation does and does not entail — at least in the long run — for an object. Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot (2015), for instance, has been praised virtually without exception, with much of it revolving around the show’s technological accuracy. In fact, while the harshest critics nit-pick this very thing, few mention ‘frills’ like narrative, visual depth, and writing, as if the world begins and ends with their desires, first.

Look closer, however, and Mr. Robot is stuck between a cliche at the show’s start (“What I’m about to tell you is top secret…the top 1% of the top 1%…the guys that play God without permission”), and a predictable narrative arc at the show’s end, with a riddling of bad moments in between. It is pointless to dwell on every mis-step, but there’s the ripping off of the Enron logo for the show’s monolithic E Corp (“they’re everywhere…the ‘E’ might as well stand for ‘evil’”); the stereotype of the Indian pervert, who gets busted — surprise, surprise — for child porn; the stereotype of the ‘prophetic’ homeless man who quips on things others will never understand; the lonely, disaffected youth who is in fact ‘better’ than everyone around him; a Fight Club-level rant against Facebook, prescription pills, and consumer culture delivered to a therapist too stupid to really get it; and, of course, the laughable, clunky shift from Mr. Robot’s use of E-Corp to ‘Evil Corp,’ thus cementing the idea that much of this is happening in Elliot’s mind, and ONLY Elliot’s mind. So much, I guess, for being a ‘psychological thriller,’ as you’re given the key so early that you can’t help but turn.

Yet the mainstream valuation is still there, for just as my words will not change others’ reactions to Mr. Robot, these valuations, in turn, have little to do with the show itself. They bring in too much of the percipient, then assume the perception — whatever it may be — is the outgrowth of something bigger.

To see this in action, one merely needs to go back to the original assertion: that there’s a ‘something’ that’s already paved the way for Mr. Robot and many shows like it. After all, the last few years have been termed a Golden Age Of Television, on par with the last half-century. And while it’s good, I guess, to see that folks aren’t merely pining for the world of yore, let’s review the evidence, piece by piece, so that we’re not merely adding to the noise:

Breaking Bad (2008) was a mere assemblage of cliches rounded off with the sort of camp irreality that could have only hoodwinked (and did!) the very … Continue reading →