100 Best Novels

Thanks to Restless Reader (i.e. Molly), I found Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Best Novels (published after 1923).

Of the 100, I have read 17… not too bad, but not great either. But then again, these lists are sorta silly and whatnot anyway. I have read:

  • Animal Farm
  • Beloved
  • The Blind Assassin
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • The Corrections
  • The Crying of Lot 49
  • Gravity’s Rainbow
  • The Great Gatsby
  • The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
  • Lord of the Flies
  • Mrs. Dalloway
  • Neuromancer
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Slaughterhouse-Five
  • Things Fall Apart
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • White Noise

I am surprised to see that two Thomas Pynchon books (Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49) were on the list. Gravity’s Rainbow is a great read, but it’s also one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read and not very accessible. Does that make it one of the best books? I’m not sure.

I cannot think of any books that I would add to the list. My favorite book, Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis is hardly a “best” book — I love it because it’s a fun read more than anything else.

Nonetheless, these lists are always fun and it’s neat to compare what I’ve read compared with what I “should” read in order to consider myself a well-read person. I will say, there are a few books I’m embarrassed that I haven’t read: Catch-22 (which I own but haven’t read), Infinite Jest (which I own and have started reading twice but have given up both times), Invisible Man, Lolita (which, again, I own, but haven’t read), 1984 (which I always forget that I need to read), and Tropic if Cancer. Now I have ideas for next time I need books!

From Our Youth

And now today’s For They Know Not What They Do quote of the day from Slavoj Zizek:

We all remember from our youth the sublime dialectical materialist formulas of the “subjective mirroring-reflection of the objective reality”; (15)

Ahhh yes. Our youth and that silly sublime dialectical materialist formulas! How can I forget!

Thank God For Atheism

Over at The Huffington Post, a guy named Sam Harris has a succinct, and convincing (well, for me he’s preaching to the choir, so maybe I’m not the best to judge) defense of atheism and argument against belief in God, etc. titled “There is No God (And You Know It).”

At the same time, the current book I’m reading (For They Know Not What They Do by Slavoj Zizek) has raised some interesting points about Christianity as well.

So far, both works have suggested the same thing: (if he exists then) God is impotent.

From Harris’ piece:

Of course, people of faith regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. But how else can we understand the claim that God is both omniscient and omnipotent? … If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil.

From Zizek’s book:

So what is revealed in Christianity is not just the entire content but, more specifically, the fact that there is nothing — no secret — behind it to be revealed … Or, to formulate it even more pointedly, in more pathetic terms — what God reveals is not His hidden power, only His impotence, as such.

I just find it really interesting that within 24 hours, I’ve read this twice.

As for Harris’ argument, I want to highlight some other very convincing points:

… “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma. The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (eighty-seven percent of the population) who claim to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence — and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day.

What I really like about this point is that it refutes an argument against atheism that a religion professor I once had made. She said that atheism was a paradox because it had to acknowledge the existence of the thing it rejected. That is, atheists had to admit that God existed — or maybe the idea of God — in order to say that God didn’t exist. Or, in my more psychoanalytic Hegelian terms: they had to acknowledge the presence of an absence. Harris’ argument here, however, places the burden on the believers. I think that is much more justified.

Another commonly-made argument against atheism that Harris makes is that of arrogance/narcissism. I’ve had believers accuse me of being too full-of-myself for believing that I am the one solely responsible for my life and my existence and for thinking that the world revolves around my perception of it rather than believing that there is some God somewhere that is pulling strings and making everything happen. Harris rightfully calls the believers on their narcissism for thinking that they, as believers, earn a special status in the world that makes them better/luckier/worthy:

Only the atheist recognizes the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. Only the atheist realizes how morally objectionable it is for survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Because he refuses to cloak the reality of the world’s suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is — and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all.

Bringing some literary/historical arguments into the picture, Harris suggests something that I’ve been saying ever since I first went to church: Why is it that people assume that the Christian God (or whatever modern religion God/deity/etc.) is any different than “mythological” gods in ancient religions. When I asked this in Sunday School once, I remember the leader answering that it’s very likely that what the Greeks and Romans thought of as gods were actually the Christian God — that they just didn’t understand Him as well as Christians do. Okay, that makes sense — but if we allow for that possibility, shouldn’t we also acknowledge that maybe it’s the other way around — that the Christian God is really Zeus? That didn’t go over so well.

And finally, Harris makes my favorite point: that atheists, because they don’t have this “well everything is better in heaven and Earth is just a place to suffer” attitude, are far more compassionate than any “compassionate conservative” would ever hope to be:

Consequently, only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world’s suffering at face value. … That so much of this suffering can be directly attributed to religion — to religious hatreds, religious wars, religious delusions, and religious diversions of scarce resources — is what makes atheism a moral and intellectual necessity.

It is for these reasons, and many others, that I continue to call myself an atheist .

Gender Studies 101

Strangely enough, two of my daily reads, Salon.com and Slate, featured some “gender studies”-related articles yesterday. Reading them really made me miss college (which isn’t to difficult for me) and reminded me why I really should’ve been a women’s studies minor (which, it appears, my school has renamed to “gender studies”… there was a discussion we had during my senior year and it sorta of bothers me that it was renamed and may require a blog post in the future).

The Salon.com article, “Attack of the listless lads” is an interview with Benjamin Kunkel, who recently wrote a book called Indecision. Surprisingly, the interview was less about Kunkel’s book and more about Rebecca Traister’s (the writer of the story) desire to find out “what’s wrong with young American men” (and no, I do not take offense to that question).

Kunkel made some terribly fascinating points:

He suggests that dating around with the thought that it should lead to marriage (and doesn’t more than it does), has perhaps got men stuck in a vicious circle:

The idea is that dating should lead toward mating, and spread out before us is this array of choices that should lead toward a choice you can feel secure in. But I think the opposite happens. You become familiar with disposable relationships. So though they seem to be conducting you toward permanence and mating, in fact they’re just inculcating a habit of serial monogamy.

He also suggests that because women have made such gains in the workplace, that men feel inadequate and “unworthy” of dating the due to the “super-abundance of attractive, intelligent young women”:

I think men inherit — if from nowhere else than from the movies — the impression that in order to win the respect and love of a woman, you ought to be doing something meaningful in the world. And if you can’t hold your head up high in that sense, then why ask somebody to love you?

What I thought was the most interesting point he made had to do with consumer culture and the desire to always have something better. Instead of viewing love as a destiny, nowadays love is seen as a goal — a goal that can always be tossed aside once it has been achieved.

Kunkel explains:

Partly, a model of shopping has overtaken our experience of romance. Love, historically, has been associated with a sensation of destiny. It’s very difficult for us to attain a sensation of destiny where love is concerned anymore, because we think we can always look for something better, which is essentially a shopper’s mentality. There’s no destiny when it comes to buying pants or shirts or a dress. There’ll be the nicest thing you can afford this season. But then a new season will [bring] more attractive styles and you’ll actually be able to afford something better. I think that tremendous passion that we feel other generations had and that we missed was attached to a sense of destiny, and of permanent love that would survive changes in station and opportunity and fortune.

There is a bunch of other interesting cultural criticism in the piece dealing with things like bureaucracy, the “crisis of masculinity,” and “some mild sort of institutionalized promiscuity.” I’m not sure the interview makes me want to read Indecision, but it does sound like this guy has done a lot of thinking and has a fresh view on the male side of gender studies.

As for the Slate piece, what’s going on there is one of their Book Club discussions about Pornified and Female Chauvinist Pigs. (Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families by Pamela Paul and Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy.)

Discussing the book are Wendy Shalit of ModestyZone.net, Meghan O’Rourke of Slate, and one of my favorite authors/cultural critics, Laura Kipnis (who wrote the amazing Against Love: A Polemic. Kipnis also wrote Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, which I read parts of for my Advanced Media Studies class, so I feel confident in saying that she knows her porn! Also, she’s somewhat of a Freudian Marxist — two of, I think, the most impactful thinkers on the 20th century.

(Note: The second day of the book club discussion has already been posted, but I haven’t read that yet, so this will just highlight parts from day one.)

Kipnis, of course, makes the points that I agree with the most.

In her brief introduction/synopsis of Pornified, she makes this extremely witty remark:

… she’s utterly blinkered about the rest of society, or history, or politics; it’s as if sexuality occupied some autonomous world of its own. (Like a porn set.)

I just love that she compares the “world of its own” vacuum of Pornified with the porn sets that, undoubtedly, Paul criticizes. So smart!

I also like how Kipnis immediately kills the suggestion that porn has caused men to treat women badly. She notes that well before porn men were pigs. Kipnis dares Paul:

So, when exactly was the golden age of relationship bliss that Paul thinks porn has torn asunder?

She also channels some Foucault by suggesting that the more we rally against porn and sex, the more prevalent we make it in society:

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the two [mainstreaming of porn and abstinence-only sex education] aren’t exactly unrelated: They’re both products of a culture that’s deeply conflicted and hypocritical about sex… What comprises the majority of Web sites, aside from porn? Religion and shopping. A seething cultural compost of sexual prohibition and compulsive consumption… Public virtue and private lechery are also long-standing features of American sexual culture… We’re a culture that hates and fears sex, but can’t get enough of it.

Another assertion that Paul makes that Kipnis totally blasts is Paul’s suggestion that pornography is ruining men’s ability to have relationships with their girlfriends. Apparently Paul interviewed a number of men with girlfriends who claimed that, if they had to choose, they would take porn. This reminded me of some documentary/20/20-like show we watched during my media studies course in which a bunch of men sat around comparing stories about how porn ruined their lives. Please. They ruined their own lives, and if porn wasn’t the “poison,” I’m sure something else would have been. Similarly, Kipnis asks:

Yet Paul seems convinced that minus porn, somehow these guys would be fulfilling all the intimacy needs of their partners. Sorry, but who’s the compulsive fantasist?

Shalit makes some interesting points about the potentially self-destructive and self-hating nature of the “female chauvinists” (of Girls Gone Wild, etc.). She compares these women’s behavior with that of immature, sexually-driven, young men:

True, there have always been men who objectified women, but society also encouraged them to grow up at some point. But today, even grown women are taking their cues from the most immature males.

When she re-tells some of Paul’s stories of husbands who ignore their children while watching porn and a 21-year-old who wants to dump his 16-year-old girlfriend because she won’t get as kinky as he wants, I just cannot see how this is porn’s fault — yes, porn may make the problem more visible, but there is obviously something else wrong with these guys. To reiterate the point earlier, if porn didn’t exist, the dad would still be a bad father and the 21-year-old would still be objectifying his jailbait girlfriend.

Shalit seems to agree with this, and reiterates what Kipnis notes earlier:

As porn consumers become increasingly desensitized to viewing sex online, Paul shows how their tastes turn to the odd, the young, and the violent… I read Paul as saying that the availability and intensity of Internet porn is what’s new, and that because porn desensitizes us, we’d better wake up and pay attention… Is she implying that without porn, these men would be perfect partners?

But then Shalit falls prey to Paul’s horror stories and suggests that porn is indeed the problem:

I thought she was saying something far more reasonable: that if men weren’t learning about sex from pornography at age 8, or 10, or 13, then at least they’d have more of a chance to forge real intimacy with women.

… Yes, if it weren’t for porn, these poor men who were exposed to porn at an early age might have a fighting chance to forge real intimacy. Yes, these poor men who just need a chance! (Ugh!!)

Without reading Paul’s book, I shouldn’t comment, but it sounds like she is definitely trying to scare people into hating porn, and obviously it works. Shalit even admits:

At any rate, I found Paul’s stories quite shocking.

Nonetheless, I did find this statement by Shalit to be frightening and potentially true:

It’s like some big cosmic joke: The people who are supposed to be “sex positive” and enjoying their cultural freedoms are actually lonely and having terrible sex, whereas studies have shown that religious marrieds are the ones enjoying themselves the most. What’s happened? Perhaps without emotions involved, sex becomes boring.

I do see this happening — but again, I don’t see porn or being “sex positive” as the problem. I agree with Kipnis that it has more to do with hypocritical attitudes toward sex and the feelings of shame, excitement, perversity, etc. that they cause.

O’Rourke enters the debate as a moderator, or so it seems. She immediately (and rightly, I think), points out:

What I was struck by in each was how difficult it was for the authors—for all of us—to get past their (or our) own assumptions about porn and sex… There are murky issues just beneath the surface of each book. Yet those of us reading them quickly split along ideological (or gender) lines.

She also makes a rather bold suggestion that when it comes to the porn debate, perhaps women are the ones trying to force unrealistic fantasies on men. She asks:

Is men’s use of porn necessarily destructive, or is it simply women’s relationship expectations that make it seem destructive? Reading Pornified, I sometimes thought the women were simply allowing an unrealistic dream of imaginative fidelity to shape their response to their partners.

Additionally, she plays the devil’s advocate (or maybe not?) and asks whether porn is really as bad and degrading as conventional wisdom suggests:

I’m merely questioning the conviction that pornography is inherently degrading. Likewise, what if women who flash their tits on Girls Gone Wild are enjoying themselves—if not all of them, then a select few? What then?

She also tries to find a middle ground between Kipnis’ social/consumerism as the root and Paul’s pornography as the root argument. O’Rourke notes that porn is becoming so much more prevalent and so much more intense, that it cannot be ignored, as Kipnis vaguely suggests:

Porn doesn’t exclusively produce the relationship woes and female insecurities she describes. But in its new form it presumably contributes to the ongoing shaping of how we see the world and affects the behavior of those who use it.

Between the Salon interview and the Slate discussion, there is a lot to digest here, and I think it’s interesting that there is overlap between the two. How are relationships between men and women changing? And even how is sexuality changing?

My major critique of both of the pieces is that they are extremely heteronormative. I know from Against Love that Kipnis’ argument encompasses all sexual orientations, but in the Slate piece it is very geared toward men/women relationships. Where do same-sex couples fit into this? And how is the consumption of porn different for lesbians and gay men?

Lots to think about. Makes us all wanna be gender studies majors, eh?

An American Psycho

Me and author Bret Easton Ellis
On Tuesday I had the unique pleasure of meeting one of my favorite authors, Bret Easton Ellis (author of Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, Glamorama, and the recently published Lunar Park).

I first read Less Than Zero during my freshman year of college. For my Argument and Debate class, my group chose our final debate/project to be about whether “90210 harms youth’s self esteem” (no, I am not joking — we really debated this and it was quite awesome…). I argued the negative — that 90210 was actually beneficial television viewing.

During my research, I came across paper by a woman named Crystal Kile, a graduate student at Bowling Green University in Ohio (I can’t find anything more recent on her… not sure what happened…), titled “Recombinant Realism/Caliutopian Re-Dreaming: Beverly Hills 90210 as Nostalgia Television.” In the paper, she noted that unlike Less Than Zero, the idea of California youth presented in 90210 was fairly traditional and not necessarily setting a bad example. Kile’s brief description of Less Than Zero intrigued me:

The milieu of Less Than Zero, like that of 90210, is upper-upper middle class Los Angeles youth culture. But that is where the resemblance ends. The world that Ellis’ so numbly and plotlessly conjures is one of cocaine, anonymous bisexual promiscuity, the best brand name goods, ritual murder, absent families, and young men prostituting themselves to pay off drug debts. In the best tradition of the ‘L.A. literature’ from Nathaniel West to Joan Didion to Black Flag, it is apocalyptic. As a cult youthcult text, it elicited alarm among certain literary critics. In what was perhaps the most extreme panic response to the novel/this genre, University of Georgia professor Sanford Pinsker’s wondered in a 1986 Georgia Review article, ‘The Catcher in the Rye and All That: Is the Age of Formative Books Over?’

I’m sure Kile’s intention wasn’t to get readers to go out and read Less Than Zero, but that was the effect she had on me. My freshman year was the only year of college when I actually had time for leisure reading, and I breezed through Ellis’s debut novel. I loved it, and I read American Psycho during winter break. I was hooked.

Of all his books, Glamorama remains my favorite — I’ve read it twice now, and am considering turning it into one of those novels that I read every year (which I have none of, yet, so Glamorama would be my first). I love the way the book morphs from an US Weekly-type exposé into a self-reflexive “metafictional” novel about models who are terrorists. It amazes me every time I read it, and I honestly think that the superficial superficiality that probably turns most people off or causes them to write it off as nothing extraordinary is what makes it such a deep and complex book.

As for the Tuesday event, it was a book reading, Q&A session, followed by book signing (see the pic above for BEE signing my book). He read from the first chapter of Lunar Park (which explained what the book Lunar Park was going to be about and how it all came about).

Here are my notes from the Q&A:

The Less Than Zero Film

BEE recently re-watched the film about 4 months ago. He originally did not like it and felt it was despondent. He noted, “There was not a single scene from the book… which was a problem.” But after re-watching it, he changed his mind and felt the film was beautifully photographed and “captured the LA youth culture lovingly.” He especially liked Robert Downey Jr.‘s performance. Overall — he has changed his mind and doesn’t hate it anymore.

American Psycho — Lots of Research Or Is the Author “Screwed Up”?

The person asking the question wanted to know if BEE did lots of research to write American Psycho or whether he was just “screwed up.” BEE responded, “Both.”

BEE was afraid to re-read American Psycho after it was published because he worried that all the criticism of the book (excessively violent, misogynist, etc.) would turn out to be true. He decided, however, to re-read it in the summer of 2003, however.

Upon re-reading, he was really impressed with “the compelling voice of Bateman.” He hadn’t understood the book’s initial popularity, but now thinks that the voice of the narrator (i.e. Pat Bateman) probably added to the book’s appeal.

He also noted that the violent scenes disturbed him more and that he was no longer the “punky, nihilistic kid” who wrote it. When he wrote American Psycho he was “freaked out about finishing college” and realizing that “this is society” (i.e. “the real world”). He also explained, that is really obvious after reading Lunar Park, that Pat Bateman was based on his father.

Surprisingly (to him), BEE also mentioned that he sympathized with Bateman more than he expected. He agreed with Bateman’s disgust for the world and felt that Bateman’s misery was somewhat justified.

BEE’s “Apology” for American Psycho

BEE does not feel the same way that the “Bret Easton Ellis” of Lunar Park does about American Psycho. In the novel, the author is worried that a fictional character he created escaped from his story. He has anxiety about this fact and anxiety about the book, in general. BEE does not feel the need to apologize for it, unlike the character of the book who gives a little apologia to the detective.

BEE does, however, like the “BEE” in Lunar Park, feel some resentment toward the book. BEE admits that more than any of his other work, American Psycho “defines” him among critics and readers. Because it is his most popular book, the other works are somewhat forgotten or brushed aside. This resentment of success, BEE says, is played out in Lunar Park as a metaphor.

Also, American Psycho didn’t “write itself” the way described in Lunar Park.

A Movie Adaptation of Glamorama?

Roger Avary is in the process of looking for funding for the film. He has written a screenplay, so the first step is down. Finding money, however, is proving difficult because the film is about “young Americans committing terrorism in Europe” (imagine why that’s a tough film to finance…).

Furthermore, Avary has about 70 minutes of footage that was filmed for the 5-or-so minute Victor Ward interlude of Rules of Attraction (which Avary also write the screenplay for and directed). Apparently it’s just Kip Pardue going around Europe doing drugs, fucking, and hanging out with famous people. BEE made it sound like “reality” footage (i.e. Kip was really doing that stuff), so who knows.

I must interlude here: BEE mentioned that he really liked the movie adaptation of Rules of Attraction, despite the fact that few people saw the film and those that did tended to think it was awful. I gotta admit that I love it to. In my opinion, it’s one of the best book-to-film transformations ever. It totally captures the style of the film (including backward narration, stream-of-consciousness narration, and overlapping/alternative explanations for the same event). I really hope that Avary and Pardue can get the funding for a movie version of Glamorama. According to the IMDB entry for Glamorama the film is in production and has people beside Pardue cast. Let’s hope something comes of it!

Introduction of Patrick Bateman Character in Rules of Attraction

When BEE included the scene when Sean Bateman (one of the main characters of Rules) meets his brother Patrick, he had no intention of using him as the main character for his next book.

Reoccurring Characters

Mitchell Allen is the only “real” character in Lunar Park that has appeared in previous BEE novels. (Most of BEE’s novels include characters from previous or future works — thus creating an entire alternate universe that spans multiple stories.)

BEE pondered the question for a bit, but joked, “I’m not going to make up an answer” as to why Mitchell Allen is the familiar character to make his way into Lunar Park. It just happened.

Is Lunar Park an Apology for American Psycho?

(In case you cannot tell, this issue came up a lot…)

Lunar Park was outlined by 1993/1994. American Psycho was finished in 1989. Lunar Park was intended to be BEE’s “fun book.” He wanted to write a genre story in the style of Stephen King.

Initially, Lunar Park was going to be a haunted house book. But then between the time he outlined it and when he started the draft (in the meantime his disgust of celebrity culture forced him to write Glamorama), his father died and he realized that there were lots of unresolved surrounding him and his father.

As he was working on more outlines/drafts, he got writers block when trying to figure out who the fictional character would be and trying to develop the history of the writer. Then in 2000 he decided to make himself the main character and use Patrick Bateman as the “Frankenstein-like” fictional character.

The book was always going to be about a writer and a house, but it wasn’t until later in the development of the story that it turned into a pseudo-autobiography.

… and that is how he answered the question about whether Lunar Park was an apology for American Psycho. (No, it is not.)

Does BEE Consider Himself To Be a Writer of “Metafiction” Like His Contemporaries?

He does read and know (and is friends with) a lot of his contemporaries. He doesn’t, however, feel that he fits into any group. While some compare him to David Foster Wallace and Chuck Palahniuk, he doesn’t really see the connection. Plus, BEE publishes much less frequently than most authors.

Drafts

Surprisingly (to me, at least), BEE is really into writing drafts. I guess I have this romantic notion that my favorite authors are just imbued with some gift of writing that allows them to write perfect prose on the first try, but apparently that isn’t true.

For each book, BEE estimates that it goes through four or five major drafts followed by a really heavy polish at the end. He also outlines his stories before writing them and is a very slow writer.

This really impressed me and, not that I didn’t take him seriously as an author before, really shows that he takes his work seriously and considers himself to be a working author rather than a pretentious artist.

How College Students Can Get Published

Less Than Zero was published and had become a best-seller before BEE even graduated from college — a pretty impressive accomplishment. Apparently one of his college professors really liked his work and this particular professor already had an agent and editor and submitted BEE’s work on his behalf.

The person asking the question wanted to know if BEE had any advice on how other young writers can get published.

BEE’s main point of advice was to use/find connections. Submitting unsolicited work just doesn’t work well — you need a connection to really have a chance. BEE recommended going to summer writing workshops and meeting people there.

“In What Spirit” Was The Informers Written?

(The Informers is a collection of short stories published after American Psycho and before Glamorama.)

All of the stories in The Informers were written during college between the years 1982-1986. Since Glamorama was behind schedule and he owed some work to the publisher, a collection of short stories seemed to make sense.

BEE said that the “spirit” of their writing was: “dejected.”

Overall, BEE is personally very glad about the project and considers it one of his best works. They are the only short stories he has ever written.

He had about 23-24 short stories to consider and ended up going with only 13 of them. (Maybe there is another collection waiting to be published someday???)

Author Influences

BEE cited two main influences: 1. Ernest Hemingway and Joan Didion. When he set out to write Less Than Zero he thought only two major influences were enough.

He explained that when writing the following works he could see the influences by the following authors:
Less Than Zero — Hemingway and Didion
Rules of AttractionUlysses by James Joyce
GlamoramaDon Delillo
Lunar ParkPhilip Roth and Stephen King

How Did BEE Develop His Unique Style?

BEE: “I don’t know how.”

He further elaborated that he started copying other authors’ style, which got boring, so then the copying starting morphing into a new sensibility that eventually becomes an author’s style.

What Was Exciting About Writing Lunar Park?

BEE strongly feels that writing should be fun — not a painful, laborious, traumatic thing. He thinks an author should be wanting to write no matter what. That is why he has written so few books.

As for Lunar Park, it was a rewarding experience because he realized that he would be able to resolve his feelings toward his dad by writing the book. The act of writing was more therapeutic and therapy or long talks with his sisters about their father. As a writer, he worked out his issues through his writing.

Once he finished Lunar Park, he felt “something definitely lifted off me” and considered it to be “an exorcism of sorts.”

… My Impressions

Overall, it was a great event. I totally expected BEE to be cold and pretentious and somewhat of an asshole — but he was totally the opposite. He was extremely friendly and made lots of jokes during the Q&A section.

During the book signing I asked him briefly if he was familiar with the Gregg Araki movie Nowhere (one of my favorites!) because some of the dialogue and situations were totally ripped off from Less Than Zero. (I’ve always considered Nowhere to be a loose adaptation — unofficially — of Less Than Zero so I can forget that the “real” Less Than Zero movie exists…) BEE said that he had seen the film and that lots of people had recommended it since it kinda did rip-off Less Than Zero. I thought that was cool.

Upcoming Fall Goodness

Within the next few months there are going to be a lot of exciting things for me to buy. I keep forgetting what comes out when, so in an effort to remind myself, I am posting the dates that these exciting things are being released to I can head over to Best Buy (or wherever else) and get them hot off the shelves.

Month Day Exciting Thing
August 9 Dallas season 3
August 16 Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis
August 30 Plans by Death Cab For Cutie
August 30 Nip/Tuck season 2
September 6 Millennium season 3
September 13 Goo deluxe reissue by Sonic Youth
September 13 Takk by Sigur Rós
October 11 Arrested Development season 2

Going Mad

Michel Foucault

… madness is the punishment of a disorderly and useless science. If madness is the truth of knowledge, it is because knowledge is absurd, and instead of addressing itself to the great book of experience, loses its way in the dust of books and in idle debate; learning becomes madness through the very excess of false learning (25).

— Michel Foucault in Madness and Civilization

Review: Mysterious Skin

Neil in Mysterious Skin
The film was great. It definitely ranks up there with some of the best book-to-film adaptations ever. The acting was superb. The music was haunting. And the message was preserved.

I’ve always thought that The Virgin Suicides was the best book-to-film adaptation ever. The light, ethereal cinematography combined with the amazingly ambient score by the French band Air really enhanced the content of the book, elevating the film version to something greater than just a stand-alone movie. I also thought that Requiem for a Dream surpassed the novel (which was rather difficult to get through due to its lack of punctuation, etc.), not only because it made the material more accessible, but also because the jerky and oftentimes experimental filming style really captured the feelings of the characters and their situations. Most of the time, I’ve noticed, when I enjoy a movie better than a book (or think the movie is as good as the book), it is because the filmmaker did something unique to express an idea in the book that can be done better visually.

Surprisingly, that was not the case with Mysterious Skin. The movie is pretty much a one-to-one adaptation of the book. Some of the major differences/exclusions I noticed:

  • During the Halloween part (when they were eight years old), as Brian is entering the haunted house, him and Neil make eye contact.
  • In the movie, Neil doesn’t discover the Playgirl magazines stashed under his mom’s bed.
  • The movie doesn’t explain that Brian’s dad leaves the family and divorces his mom.
  • The book has a scene before Brian and Mrs. Lackey watch the World of Mystery television show where they go fishing — I thought it was cool to see them bond.
  • The scene where Neil, Neil’s mom, and Eric go to the white trash diner and then the nature reserve (where they eat cheese and drink wine) was removed.
  • Neil gets a got at “Subz” in the film and it is after leaving there that he meets the guy who rapes him. In the book, the guy is waiting outside of the hustler bar (one of the “cheap ones” who doesn’t go in the bar but waits for the hustlers who can’t get business that night).
  • In the book, Neil sort of makes a friend at the hustler bar.
  • In the book, after being raped, Neil makes a comment about never wanting to touch his ass again — I thought this was really significant, but I can see how it would be tough to translate into film.

Despite that (somewhat?) long list, the movie really was extremely faithful to the book. In a Q&A after the film, Gregg Araki explained that ever since reading the novel, he has always wanted to basically translate it to the screen. I think his careful adaptation preserves the importance and delicate subject matter of the book without adding the director’s own flashy trademarks. As someone who just finished reading the book a few days ago, I was very pleased.

As for the acting, of course, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil (the gay one who is a hustler) was great — and he had the perfect body for the part (dark hair, dark eyes, waif-thin, etc.). What blew me away most was the acting of Chase Ellison who played Neil at age eight. The kid totally had me convinced that he was a horny and somewhat manipulative (not to mention confused and rather messed-up/abused).

One of the things Araki discussed at the Q&A was the fact that it was very important to him and the crew that the young actors were “shielded” from the content of the film. I am guessing that this meant that the young actors basically didn’t know what they were doing — they were just acting however the director told them to act (“look sad”, “look shocked”, “look uncomfortable”, etc.). Araki said that with young actors, you don’t really tell them about their character by giving them back story or explain what is going through that characters head — instead, you just tell the kid actor exactly what to do, and that’s what they do. I thought this, while pretty intuitive, was interesting and seeing how well it worked in Mysterious Skin is really, I think, a testament to how skilled Araki is as a director.

My only qualm about the acting/characters is that we didn’t see much Elisabeth Shue. Granted, her part in the book wasn’t much bigger, but I would’ve loved to see her on-screen more. Oh well.

When it comes to the music, there is where I think my love for Greg Araki really intensifies. As I recently mentioned, I became rather obsessed with the music of Nowhere and The Doom Generation. While the music for Mysterious Skin wasn’t as random/”pop” (as in “pop” as opposed to classical/arranged/score music), it was still just as appropriate and moving.

Robin Guthrie, of the Cocteau Twins (who Araki has used extensively on soundtracks in the past and who are one of the major players in that whole shoegaze music movement), worked with Harold Budd (who worked with Brian Eno back in the day) to create an extremely ambient and moody soundtrack. Araki mentioned during the Q&A that he has the soundtrack album and listens to it constantly. He also noted that shoegaze music was influential on both him and the writer of the novel (Scott Heim).

In addition to the score, I also remembered hearing “Dagger” by Slowdive, a song or two by Cocteau Twins, a song by Medicine, and a song by Sigur Rós. During the Q&A, Araki mentioned that there was a song by Curve, but I don’t think so — though I know he used them in The Doom Generation and Nowhere.

Overall, I, of course, gave this movie 5/5. It was touching and very well-done. And I was also impressed with Araki’s ability to break from his trademark style (“satirical, postmodern, and ironic” — I think is how he described it last night) to something more subtle and serious.

Gregg Araki Tonight

Gregg Araki
In a super exciting turn of events, it appears that Gregg Araki (the director) will be at tonight’s showing of Mysterious Skin. This is really awesome, and the fact he will also be at Saturday afternoon’s showing makes me want to go see it again (depending on how much I like or dislike the film tonight, I may buy a Saturday ticket).

Back during high school there was a time when he was probably one of my favorite directors. Movies like The Doom Generation and Nowhere really sort of, I don’t know, inspired me? as a high schooler in Minnesota. The films were totally about a world and life so far away (Los Angeles) but at the same time sort of gave me something to fantasize about and all that? I don’t know exactly. I just remember watching those two movies, in particular, and wishing that I could hangout with the characters.

I also remember loving the music in both of the films. I, of course, have the soundtrack to both Nowhere and The Doom Generation, but there were also tons of tons that were not on the soundtrack. I specifically remember spending a weekend watching Nowhere over and over again, identifying each song and writing a little description about when it played then going on to Napster or some file sharing program to get that song. I actually still have the yellow legal pads where I recorded all of this information stashed away somewhere in my apartment now.

The soundtracks featured groups that were somewhat obscure but that I still loved like Slowdive (where I first heard the song “Avalyn I” [as Dark played by James Duvall masturbates in the shower]), Catherine Wheel, Lush, Cocteau Twins, Sonic Youth (the b-side “Hendrix Necro” even!!), Curve, Blur, Jesus and Mary Chain, Portishead, Love and Rockets, Wolfgang Press, Ride, Medicine, Pizacatto Five, Belly, and many more. Basically, the soundtrack was very 4AD (record label) and shoegaze -heavy. I can honestly say that the music of Gregg Araki’s films have greatly influenced my taste in music in general.

Further, there is a line from Totally Fucked Up (somewhat of a pseudo-documentary about gay and lesbian kids living in Los Angeles dealing with issues such as gay bashing, cheating, artificial insemination, random hooks, and bootleg Nine inch Nails concert videos) that inspired a paper I wrote about AIDS/HIV. The quote comes from one of the lesbian characters during an “interview” part of the documentary:

It’s a born-again Nazi republican wet dream come true!

As I wrote in my paper AIDS: Abjection, (body) Image, (self) Destruction, Sex,

Ever since I saw that movie, I have been unable to shake the thought that something about whole HIV/AIDS phenomenon seemed too “perfect” from the perspective of those born-again Nazi republicans.

As for Mysterious Skin, I have finished reading the novel and have started writing down my thoughts. I am determined to finish before I watch the movie so that my perceptions after the movie don’t influence what I thought of the book. Nonetheless, I am totally excited for the film tonight.

Now we’ll have to see if I can muster up the courage/desire to actually ask Araki some questions during the Q&A session which, I hope, will follow the film tonight.

Mysterious Blue Skin

A U.F.O.
Mysterious Skin is broken down twice: First by colors (I just finished the “Blue” section), and then by characters (“Brian Lackey”, “Neil McCormick”, “Wendy Peterson”, and “Deborah Lackey”).

So far, this book is amazing. I’m usually not a fan of “gay literature” (and I wrote about why a few times during my Lesbian and Gay Literature class — I should post those journal entries sometime soon), but this book is different… it’s more “queer” than “gay” (again, something I theorized about in my journal entries).

Often times, marginalized literature tries to show people who aren’t in that marginalized group that the marginalized people are just like everyone else — they fall in love the same, they have the same hopes and dreams, etc. Mysterious Skin seems to be playing it both ways.

Brian Lackey is the “acned, bookworm” (96) who, within the first pages of the book, blacks-out during a Little League game. The same summer that the black-outs begin, Brian, his sister Deborah, and his mother witness some strange lights that they assume to be UFOs. The initial encounter propels Brian into a UFO obsession.

The black-outs, the obsession with the paranormal (Brian receives a book about the Loch Ness Monster for Christmas), and dropping-out of Little League creates tension between Brian and his father (who is obsessed with baseball and plays on a local team). Brian’s dad doesn’t think he is manly enough and somewhat girly.

Although it hasn’t been explicitly stated yet, it’s fairly obvious that Brian is gay. In addition to his awkwardness and shyness (which could also be due to his nerdiness, though), when him and his sister are watching a baseball game, he explains:

We watched the players’ bodies (7).

I once wrote a paper about the obsession with bodies within gay literature. I found it really significant that Brian noted watching the players bodies — not the players themselves or their swings or anything like that, but the players’ bodies. Additionally, Brian notes that other kids tease him by calling him “four eyes” and “pansy” (49). Pansy is pretty gay, yeah?

So far, the most striking incident from Brian’s childhood (to me) was the “initiation into manhood” that his father put him through. After returning from somewhere (church? a ball game? I cannot remember…), Brian’s family comes upon a large snapping turtle in the middle of the road. Brian’s dad gets excited about the idea of of turtle soup, so he manages to get the turtle into a bag in order to bring it home. Once home, Brian’s dad tells Brian that he wants Brian’s help with something — killing the turtle. Brian notes that he had carved fish before, but nothing had been as gruesome as killing the turtle. The whole scene comes across very violent and brutal. I kept thinking, “This is a very masculine thing to do — father and son slaughtering a snapping turtle.”

So basically, Brian is a nerdy, shy, quiet kid who loves UFOs and has a tense relationship with his mother and gets along really well with his sister (who ultimately moves to San Francisco after high school graduation). Although he seems like a nice kid, he seems pretty “normal” and ordinary. If he is indeed gay, he’s one of those “gays are just like straight people”-types, it seems.

Neil McCormick, on the other hand, is totally different. When he narrates there is a certain edge to his language — shorter sentences, more profanity and slang, etc.

Neil realizes pretty quickly that he is gay. One night during an intense storm, he crawls under his mom’s (who is single and dates a lot of different men) bed and finds a Playgirl magazine. He begins to fantasize about having sex with men (men with mustaches, hairy chests, etc. — which I find somewhat funny and gross at the same time).

Shortly after Neil figures that he likes men, the coach of his Little League team (which his mom signs him up for so she can spent more time with her boyfriend) takes interest in him — in a very sexual way. Neil notices this the first time they meet and it excites him — he likes being looked at and objectified as an object of desire:

His gaze paused on me. Desire sledge hammered my body, a sensation I wasn’t sure I had a name for (22).

The coach’s desire for Neil is realized pretty soon thereafter. The coach tells Neil that the team is going to watch a movie together. It turns out, however, that the coach lied and it was just him and Neil. The fact that the coach deceived Neil’s mother seems to turn him on:

It surprised me that he would like to Mom, but more than that, it excited me (27).

After the movie they return to the coach’s house, which is a total kid heaven (bean bag chairs, Atari, travel-sized cereal boxes [the kind that parents never buy], candy, etc.). The coach manages pretty quickly to get inside Neil’s pants and sex ensues:

I knew what was happening. Half of me realized it wasn’t right. The other half wanted it to happen (35)… It happened, I told myself; it happened. And I had liked it (37).

The book almost dares to ask: sometimes when a child is molested, does he/she enjoy it/want it to happen? Besides all of the potential issues of power and creepiness, it is something to ask (and something Foucault touches on in The Use of Pleasure. Of course, their relationship doesn’t last because the coach transfers to another Little League team (and then leaves town amid suspicions of his behavior). Neil longs for him, nonetheless. Oh, and every time the coach did something to Neil, he gave him a $5 bill.

The introduction of Wendy, Neil’s best friend, brings an interesting perspective. She basically fetishizes Neil as a gay boy and loves him because he is different. She sees him as something exotic that will spice up her life. Even the way he talks excites her:

From Neil, all those fucks and shits were more than just throwaway cuss words. They adopted some special meaning (55).

My favorite story that Wendy tells is about a “séance” where Neil makes a move on another (straight) boy. After Neil seduces/”hypnotizes” the kid, he gets on top of him and basically dry humps and then kisses him. This, of course, freaks the boy out. Despite being all macho, though, the boy cries. I just love the irony of it:

“Queer,” Robert P. said, plus something in Spanish. He was crying (57).

As for Wendy’s strange obsession/exoticization of Neil, at least she seems very aware of it. When she finally musters up the courage to talk to him, she recalls:

“You are a queer, aren’t you?” I said the Q-word as if it were synonymous with movie star or deity. There was something wonderful about the word, something that set him apart from everyone else, something I wanted to identify with… I was falling in love. Not so much with him, though, as with the aura of him (59).

I also loved the way Neil reacted (as explained by Wendy) to sex education in class. I’m also impressed with the fact that Neil knows he’s gay by fifth grade and isn’t afraid to be vocal about it:

“Ridiculous,” Neil whispered. “Not everyone fucks like that.” Some kids heard him, glared and sneered. “Some people take it up the ass” (62).

The story about Halloween is pretty traumatic. Neil and Wendy “kidnap” a retarded kid and nearly kill him when they put firecrackers in his mouth and light them off. When Wendy freaks out (rightly so) about the kid telling his parents about what Neil and Wendy did, Neil remedies the situation by giving the kid a blowjob. Neil explains:

“When I was little,” Neil said, “a man used to do this to me” (71).

That revelation disturbs Wendy:

Where had [Neil’s mother] been when the man from Neil’s past had put his mouth on her son like this? (72)

But ultimately she realizes the risk Neil took by revealing this to her:

Neil had shown a part of himself I knew he’d shown no one else. I reckoned I had asked for it. Now I was bound to him (74).

Deborah (Brian’s older sister)’s chapter mainly involves her observations about her brother (shy, no friends, etc.). It also tells their parents got divorced. Neither Brian nor Deborah seems too sad when their father leaves.

The final Neil chapter of the “Blue” section finds Neil becoming intrigued with the idea of hustling.

The idea of money for sex thrilled me like nothing before (85)… The idea of their wanting to pay for me rendered me breathless, thrilled, delirious, flustered (86).

When Neil manages to find a client, he can’t forget the coach, who treated him better:

While Coach’s fingers had “caressed” me, Charlie’s merely “touched” (88).

As Neil cums, the man swallows his load. The man notes that it wasn’t safe for him to do, but that since Neil was a kid it didn’t really matter since he knew Neil would be clean. Neil notes:

It was the first time I’d heard a man say that, but it wouldn’t be the last (89).

I can’t help but think this foreshadows, but who knows. Neil later discovers that when the guy swallowed he sorta bit his dick a little, causing it to bruise.

… so as the “Blue” section ends, it’s not at all clear how Brian is related to Chris and Wendy. We also don’t have any explicit proof that Brian is gay, but it seems rather obvious. I totally love this book. I haven’t been this excited/enthralled with nonfiction for quite a while (I loved The Handmaid’s Tale, but it didn’t get me excited and happy like this one does — it wasn’t joyful and funny like Mysterious Skin). I can’t wait to get further into the book and finally see how Greg Araki translates it to film.