Tuesday, September 01, 2015

2112

Despite having a near-equal love for both science fiction and rock music, I somehow got to be 36 years old without ever really hearing this song. Which isn't to say I'd never heard it, but rather that until a day or two ago I'd never paid much attention to Rush, or understood that their flagship song was a 21-minute standalone sci-fi epic. I've been listening to it obsessively all weekend and, like Shakey Graves' "Dearly Departed" last year, Rush's 1976 title track from the album of the same name "2112" is shaping up to be my back-to-school song of 2015. Roaring guitar riffs? A funky opera-style length and organization? A freaking 40 page graphic novel based on the original album liner notes? Jesus, what's not to love? In a summer spent rediscovering all of the things that made me love writing, I'm happy to report that I finally wised up and discovered something I'd been ignorant of literally my entire life. I can only imagine how much I'd have geeked out over this when I was a teenager...

Click here to play the song, and then here to open the graphic novel in another window and follow along.

Air guitar and throwing up the sign of the horns optional, but highly recommended.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Learning, Relearning

It's been almost a year since I've written anything here, and a big year. Like many other things in my life, this blog has been patiently waiting for me, largely neglected since 2011 when I went back to graduate school. Last summer I cast off Facebook for my own mental health, and in hopes that I could find better things to do with my time, but, like Michael Corleone, every time I try to get out they pull me back in. I came to a sort of disappointed peace with the idea this summer that I would never be able to completely extract myself from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Eventually I'll need to promote something for work and reach out to a list of friends and professional contacts that I maintain primarily on social media, or someone will text or email me in frustration demanding that I log in and view their pictures, articles, or other digital flotsam.

But this summer, the best summer I can remember, I moved away from all of that as far as I plausibly could. I let my Twitter feed, which I never really cared for in the first place, rot, turned off all notifications from my LinkedIn account (one of the worst junk mail offenders) and I deleted the Facebook app from my mobile devices. I logged in to Facebook on my computer whenever I was bored or curious about something specific, rather than habitually every time the little glowing, buzzing apparat in my pocket beckoned me. It made my cellphone a quieter, somewhat less compulsive device to own, which was a relief; More like a Spotify-enabled iPod with the capacity to send emails and text messages instead of a non-stop hub of demanding information. I still do text people a lot, but texting, as I explained to my students last week in their first class of the term, at least has exclusivity and temporality on its side, in terms of replicating the experience of communicating with someone.

But this was a quiet, warm, and connected summer in a different sense; I taught my son to swim. I don't mean doggy-paddling or floating on his back rescue-dog style, I mean I taught him to really swim. When the summer began and we lined up outside of Centennial pool with our one big splurge for the summer (our season passes to the enormous water-park-like pool), John was unable to dive, cannonball, swim without goggles, swim underwater at all, retrieve objects from the pool's bottom, jump off of diving boards, use the bigger grown-up slides, or really do much of anything except dog-paddle, float, and splash people in boredom. At the end of the summer, the week before school started for him, he could do all of these things, and more. Underwater flips, sitting on the pool's bottom, handstands, jumping off of my shoulders, swimming 20-30 feet underwater at a single breath. I went with Beth and John to St. Louis, exploring the surprisingly pleasant and livable city, and making a mental note that if a job opportunity arose when I finished my PhD that took me there, that would be just fine with me. I took John on a father-son road-trip to northern NY to visit my family, including my niece and nephew who I do not often get to spend time with. We spent a week there, and plenty of time on the road, bonding, playing games, listening to rock music, and reading Calvin and Hobbes.

I began the summer determined to make the most of having extensive stretches of free time, something that's sharply reduced the moment I set foot back on campus in the Fall and Spring, and which evaporates almost entirely during the busiest parts of the term. I had some success; I wrote most of a chapter of my ongoing critical book project, and I researched another, not writing it yet, but doing most of the background legwork. Once I'm back to academic speed, this will give me a firm boost toward finishing the companion piece to my dissertation novel. I tried to work on my novel as well, but found that I needed some time and distance to reframe what I thought of it, especially since it will represent the bulk of my work as a doctoral student when it's finished.

I've had a hard time getting this particular novel out and finished. It's not writer's block, exactly; a better way to describe it would be that my newfound PhD-level ability to be critical of things has squashed my ability to enjoy the process of writing. When I'm immersed in heady, postmodern texts that seem to make no sense and then perfect sense in turns, and the mental gymnastics necessary to understand them at all, it becomes very easy to lose sight of what exactly I enjoyed about writing in the first place. I had several points this summer, surrendering to the soft, warm happiness of a poolside lawn chair on a sunny day, where it occurred to me that I couldn't remember why I even liked writing. Creating something fragile, instinctual, reflexive, and intuitive, and then feeding it through the hateful buzzsaw of "critical inquiry" or whatever it's being called at the moment, seemed like the very definition of self-defeating behavior. My critical work tends to admire while it synthesizes, to build while it catabolizes, but mine is far from the only, or most common approach. I was re-reading one of the earlier entries here about how I'd learned to hate Cormack McCarthy's No Country for Old Men simply by virtue of sitting through a three-hour class where everyone else seemed obligated to trash it in the name of '"critical" thinking. Looking back, what I hated wasn't the novel, it was the schooling, the suffocating overly-critical academic atmosphere, that was so off-putting to me. None of the writers in that class had any business turning their noses up at McCarthy's novel, which was, and is, a masterpiece, and I could sense that even during the actual critique some of them felt the contradiction therein. Criticize because it is expected, we are not getting PhD's in order to like things.

An informational packet that is handed out at the beginning of every term suggests that the winter and summer breaks of a PhD program should be spent reading and writing as much as possible. This is a cruel, quasi-impossible exhortation; an extension of the already-unreasonable level of academic "rigor" expected by the program during the school months, where my colleagues and I digest a novel's worth of written material approximately every 72-hours for four straight months. Reading and  writing become nauseating by the end of the term, the written word on a white page can literally make me feel queasy, my head will throb and my eyes will blur. Last summer I read Dracula, most of which I actually listened to as an audiobook rather than drag my tired eyes across, and that was the extent of my reading and writing for the entire summer. I felt incredibly guilty about that for most of this year. Hadn't I just shot myself in the foot? My colleagues were probably locking themselves away in some writing-retreat and crafting the latest paper to submit, to present, to publish, while I, who could barely stand to even look at a book, played stay-at-home dad during the day, and World of Warcraft at night.

This summer was different. There were still plenty of video games, to be sure: I played through The Last of Us for what must have been the fourth or fifth time, Knights of the Old Republic I and II, and Hitman: Absolution, but I tackled some more serious texts as well. I read critical work on Spike Jonze's Her, and I read Peter Paik's From Utopia to Apocalypse. I wrote a critical chapter and made notes for more chapters and revisions to chapters. I revised chunks of Passbook and came to some new ideas of how to proceed with the book in a way that could salvage my problematic protagonist. It wasn't as much work as I'd have liked to get done, but it was something rather than last summer's nothing.

But this is misleading. Saying I accomplished "nothing" or "very little" is selling myself very short. What I accomplished is marshaling the will to continue this grueling graduate program, a program that has so far done little to change the way I write, but has permanently damaged my net worth, my physical health, and my relationship to my social circles. These are all things, mind you, that I signed up for, and realized were part of the deal when I enrolled; I wasn't despairing about this feeling, but I recognized approximately halfway through this summer that a revision of my expectations was in order. I had taught my son to swim this summer. That wasn't nothing. I had lost almost 30 pounds, and improved my health largely through reducing my stress level. When the term is in full swing, I can almost predict my own blood pressure from minute to minute, so sensitive am I to changes in day-to-day stressors. This summer I remembered how to do an (admittedly less graceful) swan dive, and returned to the world of immediacy, physicality, and dynamic interaction with he world, rather than the world of scholarly interactions in an imaginary inner-space of academic prestige, largely accomplished through reading, writing, and sometimes teaching. The division between who I am during the school year and who I am when left to my own devices had perhaps never been so stark.

But I was still disappointed when, after going to the library and borrowing Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge, I discovered that I just couldn't bring myself to read them. I got 50-100 pages into each and just abandoned them. This was bad, my critical self insisted, these are important texts that I'll need to read, understand, and be able to write about for my degree, and in my field. If I can't read them when there's very little other stress in my life, how's it going to work when I'm trying to read them, say, during the term I prepare for my prelim exam? Fine, I thought, don't panic, I'll just switch gears and leave that for later, and work on my novel instead.

Except that didn't work, because I also discovered that I didn't much relish the act of writing fiction, either. Was it that I had just burned out and needed rest from writing to get back to a place where I could do it? Had I lost the train of thought or the internal drive to finish the novel because I had created a plot that no longer inspired me? Did I even like writing anymore at all? This was even more troublesome as recurring thoughts go, paired with my mounting educational debt. Would I come through this program, in the end, having paradoxically lost the ability to enjoy something I've loved since I was 12 years old? The idea was frightening, to say the least.

So instead of Gravity's Rainbow I threw my copy of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash in my pool bag, and happily re-read it. Then I re-read Mario Puzo's The Sicilian, discovering that my memory of really liking Puzo's work before I went back to grad school hadn't been just the uncritical eye of an unschooled fanboy. It really is a delightful, readable novel that makes a modest promise to entertain, and then transports me. I rented the original Mad Max trilogy and then saw Mad Max: Fury Road in a crazily-equipped high-definition theater with speakers so loud that they shook the floor when the Doof Wagon's drummers hammered out their tune. It was something I hadn't felt in a long time: wonder, bliss even. I fired up the video game Fallout 3 and played through it again, while re-watching the entire series of David Chase's The Sopranos, re-experiencing these "texts" as something I'd enjoyed once, before all of the demands and quality strictures of graduate school took over. I built dozens of sets of LEGOs with my son, Star Wars spacecraft and medieval castles, ninja temples and space shuttles, even robot mecha reminiscent of the old BattleTech tabletop board game. I re-read Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, delighted that it was every bit as good as I remembered, and then some, delving into the more obscure geek ephemera that he touched on in the novel, and discovering, among other things, Rush's epic sci-fi rock song "2112" from the album of the same name, which I've been listening to obsessively for days. I bought my first Blu-Ray disc: the classic dystopian anime film Akira, and I remembered some of the imaginative glory of 1970's and 1980's sci-fi that fueled my drive to write to begin with. I finally watched The Plague Dogs which Amazon Prime helpfully offered this season, a very obscure, Ralph-Bakshi-like grown-up cartoon from the 80's about a pair of partially vivisected dogs who escape from a research center and go on the run in a remote rocky wasteland. My best friend Jeramy Gee, himself a recent doctoral graduate, visited for four days and we spent almost the entire time in my apartment sharing stories and showing each other all of the fun, interesting crap we'd run across in the three plus years since we'd seen each other.

And so that's what brought be back, finally, from this weird place of writerly anomie: I had to reach into the past, a place I'd long since learned to mistrust after reading about the existential dangers of nostalgia in some of the more brilliant critical theory I'd encountered, and some particularly unkind revisionist criticism of the work itself in some cases. After reading and re-reading these old and new texts, I remembered what it was that I liked about writing: that I could experience, through texts, delight, cleverness, even awe. The part that was missing for me, across years and genres, in the academic consumption of hundreds of texts, was the ability to enjoy the connection between myself and the author that can only show its modest face when I'm willing to let myself be awed or even just simply touched by something, instead of immediately jamming it into an emotionless, cosmically-complex and unforgiving wood-chipper of critical inquiry. When I took Gravity's Rainbow back to the library, unfinished, and with a sense of unshakable disappointment, I tried to remind myself on a conspiratorially non-scholarly level that anyone who would write something so insufferably dull and impenetrable was mostly doing so to bait the sort of academic inquiry that I was trying to apply to it, and not to connect or communicate with me in a writerly way. Have it your way, Thomas Pynchon, I thought to myself, and gratefully fed the book into the steel return slot.

And so once more, the Fall term begins with a syllabus that demands I write every day; a worthy goal, if a somewhat needlessly compulsive one. Last year, the demand came in the form of social media, which I neither enjoyed nor particularly wanted to return to. This year, I get my pick of how to accomplish it, with the caveat that each week I need to devote some time to reflecting on my writing, and I think I may just go ahead and leave those thoughts here, starting now. What I realized, at some point during this blissful summer, is that even though it felt cleansing and right to be rid of Facebook, what I missed was an older version of the internet; one not so tied to instantaneous, always-on communication. I missed an earlier, earthier internet that you could access when and if you had time; an internet where the "content" (God, I hate that term) you read would occasionally have some sort of beginning or ending, ideally both. An internet for writers instead of talkers, and for thinkers rather than disinterested or compulsive grazers. I longed, in a sense, for the internet of message boards and blogs, for community instead of "reach" and "data" and "stats."

I'm as much to blame as anyone, really, for this. I don't read blogs anymore, either. I check half a dozen sites regularly for updates, but even these are largely subsumed by the big FB these days. So what chance does this little blog have, I wonder, to garner attention from anyone? I'm starting to feel like maybe I don't care who reads it, and that just writing it is, as James Tadd Adcox puts it, "a good in itself."

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Best of 2014

It's that time again! What time is that? you ask. The time when Mark shares all of the best stuff he came across this year, most of which is actually last year's stuff because he's a graduate student and luxuries like being culturally cutting-edge are for actual real people with lives and money. Nevertheless, even in an otherwise dogshit year like 2014, I found some pretty rad stuff you should check out. Here it is! On with the stuff!


Films
The best film I saw this year:

Her (2013) - I've often thought that there have been only three truly great science fiction films of the 21st century so far: Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, and Lars Von Trier's Melancholia. This year, though we got a fourth. Spike Jonze's Her isn't just an amazing science fiction film, it's an amazing comment on the world we live in, period. The best way to describe it was that watching it the first time made me feel the same way I did the first time I saw Fight Club. For some people, this will either mean nothing or will mean something negative, but for those GenX/Millennial cusp-ers like me who know what I'm talking about, this film interrogates the world in a way that almost no film ever does. A brilliant script, terrific acting by Phoenix, Johanssen, and Amy Adams, and a premise that manages to say something profound about the loneliness of a digital world in perpetual Recession, while simultaneously providing the best critique I've ever seen of the Millennial generation. A once-in-a-decade film, and a must-see.

Other excellent choices:
Under the Skin (2013) - I almost gave Under the Skin a tie-spot with Her but I decided not to for one very good reason: Whereas I've seen Her about 20 times, I'm not in a hurry to re-watch Under the Skin. Not because it isn't brilliantly acted (it is) or incredibly well-directed (oh baby, is it), but because it's absolutely terrifying. Not in a horror-movie sort of way, either. Have you seen, for example, Lars Von Trier's Anti-Christ? It's that level of terrifying. It makes you want to crawl out of your skin to make that deeply unsettling feeling it generates stop. Very few films have this effect on me, and comparisons of Jonathan Glazer to Stanley Kubrick are not at all unwarranted. See it, because it's incredible, but be ready for it to unnerve the shit out of you.

The Wall (2013) - A gorgeous adaptation of Marlen Haushofer's book Die Wand, which I also discovered this year and included here below. It's not a perfect adaptation of the book, but this doesn't in any way take away from the brooding and innovative photography, and the tremendous acting by Martina Gedeck. While a dark and slow meditation on solitude and connectedness with the world, it still manages to somehow feel light and enjoyable alongside Under the Skin. If you're a fan of Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler but you're sick to death of wading through the endless sludge of rah-rah YA dystopias and their mediocre film adaptations, this film (and especially the book it's adapted from) will be a breath of fresh air to you.



Film that was way better than it had any right to be:
Europa Report (2013) - I was pretty sure I was in for another generic low-budget crap-fest when I queued up Europa Report on Netflix about a week after I wrote last year's "best-of" list, but I was very wrong about that. It is sort of low-budget in a hard-to-define way, but it's also incredibly smart, claustrophobically thrilling, and succeeds aesthetically far beyond the quiet release it got. Everyone raved about Gravity which I thought was a fluff-heavy and forgettable film, but Europa Report I will watch again for sure. I won't ruin the plot for you but if you want to watch something smart, different, and with some genuine bite, Europa Report delivers.




Books
The best books I read this year:

(NOTE: So this was an unusual year for me. With almost every good novel or short story I read being written before 1900 there's only a few of note that you either haven't already read or, as in the case of things like Dracula, need my recommendation to go ahead and pick up on your own. I DID read a few particularly great books this year, though, and here they are.)
Ignatius Donnelly’ Caesar's Column (1890)
Just when I thought I'd read every (or even most) of the early American dystopian novels, I finally had a chance to read Caesar's Column which had been on my reading list for years. It's a little bit hokey, a little bit scary, a heaping dollop of satirical, and surprisingly a whole lot of good plain fun. Doomsday airships, poison-knife wielding revolutionary sex slaves, secret societies of unselfconsciously racialized everymen, and an apocalyptic distaster-porn ending that puts Stephen King to shame. What's not to love? A novel just as crazy (and crazily awesome) as its author, and definitely worth your time.




Cormack McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2005)
This book as the distinction of being one of the few novels which have actually endangered my personal safety. I was listening to it while driving to Milwaukee and I was so engrossed, hands on the steering wheel but mind a thousand miles away, that I very nearly ran out of gas in the middle of Route 94. I mean the gas light was blinking and the car was dinging and trying to flash and get my attention and I noticed that the gas pedal suddenly didn't accelerate the car anymore. I was literally running on fumes. You will be too. You were warned.



Ben Tanzer's Lost In Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again (2014)
People who know me know I had a bumpy Spring term at UWM; personal stuff, financial worries, anxiety over high-pressure hoops to jump through for the program, a bottomless reading list, etc... Anyway, after Spring term I found I could barely stomach even looking at a book for about three months, and one of the few things I did successfully read over the summer was Ben Tanzer's new book about fatherhood. It's a fast read, and a humanizing one, and what father-slash-overworked grad student couldn't use a dose of that? If you liked Ben's other work, you'll love this.


Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903)

I had read this book before as a kid, but I discovered on re-reading it this year that it actually does hold up to the hype that it continues to generate 112 years later. I remember reading once that Junot Diaz said Octavia Butler was his favorite author because she'd written three "perfect" novels. I'm not sure if such a thing as a "perfect" novel exists, but if it does I'd be inclined to hesitantly point to The Call of the Wild as a candidate. "The pride of trace and trail were his, and sick unto death he could not bear that another dog should do his work." Amen, Jack.


Marlen Haushofer's Die Wand (The Wall) (1963)

A novel with a very simple premise: a woman visiting friends on top of a mountain discovers that a transparent wall now separates her from the rest of the world, which appears, from what little she can see through the wall, to have ended. A deeply moving meditation on human-ness, solitude, aging, stewardship, and responsibility. This one will stay with you for weeks after you read it. Like I mentioned above, if you're as bored as I am with YA dystopian novels but you've already read everything Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood have written, this book is for you.

Other excellent choices:
Herman Melville's Typee, Robert E. Peary's The North Pole; it's discovery in 1909 under the auspices of the Peary Arctic Club. Frank Norris's McTeague. Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower. William F. Nolan's Logan's Run, J.M Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: Why we Expect More From our Technology and Less from Each Other, and Margaret Morganroth Gullette's Aged by Culture, Wolfgang Schivelbusch's The Railway Journey, and Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Theater
Favorite stage show of the year:
It isn't a new play, and it was one of the only plays I saw this year, but This is Our Youth directed by Anna D. Shapiro (full disclosure, I'm related through family to Anna) was nevertheless a wonderful trip through a very Generation-X-friendly postmodern wasteland. Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin have long been favorite actors of mine, and they didn't disappoint live, though the Chicago-native firecracker Tavi Gevinson positively lit up the stage and gave them a run for their money. Highly recommended.





Games
Favorite video game of the year:
I toyed with the idea of reducing this annual list to just two things, because those two things more than any other had the biggest impact on me this year, the film Her and this video game, Naughty Dog Studios' The Last of Us. If you play one video game this year, you MUST play The Last of Us. The story concerns an aging smuggler/killer and his adopted daughter Ellie as they traverse a long-collapsed United States thirty years after a super-virus kills most of the people on earth. They trek through the burned out and overgrown wreckage of 21st century suburbia, trying to scavenge to stay alive, but more importantly, trying to bridge the gap of age and era that separates them and the horrific demons of their pasts. Be warned that this game is incredibly, almost unrelentingly bleak, and the first twenty minutes will have you sobbing with the horror of everything these two have to deal with. If you've ever read Cormack McCarthy's The Road or you know why Carol tells Lizzie to look at the flowers in The Walking Dead, you will find more, much more, of the same here. There are no easy "good" or "bad" characters, just a world of desperate, awful collapse as inevitable as it is terrifying.

Many things about The Last of Us are utterly groundbreaking: the game is easily the most photorealistic video game I've ever played, with environments, objects, and characters rendered with such care that they outstrip even the heart-stopping visuals of games like Skyrim, and all but the most recent Pixar films. The Last of Us feels incredibly real, from the curve of a beanbag in the corner of a forgotten teenager's bedroom to the way that the controller vibrates heavily when your character falls or punches something. It is a visceral, violent, and gripping game that you will want to play in the dark in the middle of the night with the best sound system you can get your hands on. Immersive doesn't even begin to cover it. It can be loud, frightening, and cacophonous one moment, and then hauntingly silent and intimate the next; The Last of Us is a milestone of modulated storytelling for the medium of video games, and one whose major downside is that it makes all other games seem instantly shallow, obsolete, and one-dimensional in comparison.





I was so blown away by Joel and Ellie's story, and this game in general, that I immediately made plans to include it in the book of critical essays I'm working on regarding narratives of parenting in austere times. More on this soon, but it suffices to say that the subtexts in play include biting comments on fatherhood, stewardship of civilization, and what it feels like to inherit the ruin of a once-great civilization, ideas spectacularly relevant and timely just now, and presented here with a narrative flair unlike I've ever seen in any other video game. I can't stress enough how amazing this game is, and I would almost go so far as to say it's worth purchasing a PlayStation console solely for opportunity to play it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

779 Research, Week 11

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 11: Daring to be Uncritical

I finished Caesar's Column shortly after I posted my last update, and I immediately tweeted something to the effect that even though I enjoy utopias (eutopias), it's dystopias that my heart truly beats for. I realized distantly that in doing so I was committing the cardinal sin of PhD coursework: I was approaching a text uncritically. I "liked it" in other words, a characteristic which is next-door to anathema in academic terms. Liking something implies that it has penetrated your consciousness in a way that has bypassed your critical gaze, a sort of defensive/intrusive contagion-like metaphorical figuration which weirdly blames the like-er in a condescending, almost pitying, way.

I spent some time thinking about this while I was driving home this evening and what it meant. I can't deny I've adopted and mostly internalized the "always-on, broad-spectrum, critical gaze toward nearly everything" that the program seems to demand of me, but despite some embarrassing over-identifications with this approach (being too eager to criticize things I didn't yet completely understand just out of pure reflex), and how dour, off-putting, and tiresome it can sometimes make my coursework seem, I have somehow managed to retain the capacity to occasionally enjoy something.

Caesar's Column was one of these things. The film Her, and the novel and film of The Wall were three more. And while I immediately wanted to discuss them, I found myself wanting to almost mentally shelter these "texts" from my ever-sharpening critical gaze. Unlike other texts I've slogged through this term, I didn't immediately look up reviews, articles, or other critical impressions of them to compare my own impressions to. In fact, I made a point of avoiding them. 

Earlier this week I was part of a group that subjected Cormack McCarthy's No Country for Old Men to this treatment in an excoriating, viciously-critical, three-hour roundtable about every potential or glaring weakness of what I had considered easily one of the two or three strongest and most effective novel-reading experiences I've had in the past year. I left the class vaguely hating the novel, firmly hating the pedagogical format, and sharply hating the disintegrating effect that I perceived the critical gaze had on the text. I became immediately protective of my other favorite recent textual discoveries. Instead of wanting to say Hey, did you guys see Her? What did you think? I wanted to say, If you saw Her, I don't want to hear about it; I desperately want to know that there's a piece of literature or a movie or an idea out there that I can admire for more than ten seconds without someone pointing out how it manifests some abstract philosophical bias. I felt, in short, incredibly defensive of my prerogative to subject a text to critical analysis when and how I choose instead of uniformly, habitually, and compulsively.

So how do I reconcile this? Scholarship is about critical thought. Scholarship may even, on a reductive level, be critical thought. I'm not here to "like" things, which I could do for free with a decent library card and a lot of free time, I'm here to study them. Is there any benefit to uncritical approach toward texts in the greater effort to parse, examine, and explain them? I think the answer to this is yes, but how does one use an uncritical approach in a scholarly fashion? 

I often wonder what it means that I was a creative writer first and an academic second. My primary interaction with literature before graduate school was a wide, self-directed reading list which was shaped almost wholly by what I "liked." I would give texts that didn't speak to me a chance if someone urged me, but aside from that my aesthetic and critical gaze were one in the same for decades before I ever separated them and sheepishly stuffed the former into a sock drawer for the duration of my degrees. I gained a new perspective on the texts I didn't like, for sure. I can read and evaluate almost anything now, with some degree of clinically-detached critical success, and I have access to a toolbox of analytical ideas that I had only the barest skeleton of before. But I feel like I lost something when that change happened, too, and if possible I'd like to get it back. When I look at the authors whose work I most admire--George Saunders might be a prime example--I can't imagine him subjecting every text or phenomena or idea he encounters to a withering battery of critical analysis. I suspect, like I used to, that he uses aesthetics as his guide far more than academia suggests is healthy for creative writers who are also academics.

I want to find a place for this sort of evaluation of texts among the new strategies I'm being constantly nudged to deploy. I want to believe that some toys are best left unbroken, at least for a while, even if you can see how they work when you break them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

779 Research, Weeks 9 &10

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Weeks 9 and 10: How Do I Even Finish This?

Until last week I was working under a cloud of pretty thick anxiety about how I was even going to be able to successfully complete the coursework left for the term in the time I had left. This term has gone by blindingly fast, despite the relentless workload, and the closer we rocket toward the term's end, the more panicky I had become about being able to execute two large term-projects in the remaining five weeks of class. 

Let me back up: there are a couple of factors at play here. 

1) I am a terrible multi-tasker. I can listen to an audiobook of a text while I commute or while I play video games with my son in order to accelerate my reading of a text or to keep using my brain while my body is required for things like washing dishes or folding laundry, but this is about the extent of what I can do. I can't, for example, write a lesson plan and listen to an audiobook at the same time, or read more than one text or draft more than one paper. I can't, for example, be listening to an audiobook of one text on my commute while reading a physical copy of a different text once I get where I'm going. The crosstalk is just too much; I lose focus instantly and details start to blend together. I've always been aware that I learn best when I could focus on a single task at a time.

2) I'm an incorrigible perfectionist and completist. I abhor "skimming" or "speed reading" texts, and I'd prefer foregoing meals or sleep in order to be assured that I haven't missed some important element of a text I'm supposed to read and understand. This is something new for graduate school. I was not like this in undergrad.

3) PhD coursework is fundamentally incompatible with these two characteristics. It frequently utilizes texts that are multi-dimensional, methodologically dense, and abstract. These texts defy a "complete" reading, in other words, and often repeated readings only further expose how impossible they are to encapsulate. Also, the texts we encounter are typically from a very different historical period than my own, and their interpretive history is often as deep and conflicted as their meaning. These texts are set into a reading schedule with a tempo that borders on the absurd. I've read, for example, five entire books in the last ten days, and half again as many loose theoretical and critical texts in the form of printed one-off articles. This is about as fast as my body will allow me to read, and I cannot do it indefinitely. Eye strain, postural stiffness and pain, and sheer exhaustion from too little sleep, too much driving, and too much caffeine will eventually catch up with me. But now I'm getting away from the point, which is simply this: the course readings aren't meant to be read in a binge-y, completist way and the format favors skimmers and multi-taskers, neither of which describe me as a scholar.

So what am I supposed to do? Crawl into the floor of my closet and pretend the end of the term isn't barreling at me faster than I can keep up? Okay, done. NOW what am I supposed to do?

Fortunately, one of my instructors took pity on us poor hopeless scholars and saw fit to remove a book from the reading list we had left, and I knew, before class was even over, how I was going to make all of this work. There were five books remaining between both classes for the rest of the term. Which I wouldn't even blink at normally, but were plenty worrisome considering I was expected to read them while also writing and creating two extensive research projects that need to be started as soon as possible. I knew that if I postponed my research for one more week I could buy myself enough time to finish all five novels and their associated critical readings in one week-long binge. Unhealthy? You should see the bags under my eyes. Sub-optimal learning experience? Eh, to some extent. Bellamy's Looking Backward and Wharton's House of Mirth didn't stick very hard in my consciousness, but it's difficult to say whether it's because I was reading them the way competitive eaters inhale hotdogs or because they just weren't all that memorable or relevant to my work. In either case, I've made my play to "defeat the reading list," which I'm coming to realize is a standard unspoken structural hurdle PhD students are expected to clear each term, and now I've got most of five weeks left to complete the two projects I'm working on. This still terrifies me, make no mistake: I'm very nervous that I've waited too long to start them and I probably couldn't do these subjects adequate justice if I had ten weeks left to work on them, but at least now I can see some path to the end of this sequence of coursework.

(On a related note, this is my 700th blog post! Holy smokes!)

Friday, October 24, 2014

779 Research Weeks 7 & 8

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Weeks 7 and 8: Hawthorne Malaise, Pirated Study Time, and The Wall

This is the part of the term where I start to inwardly rebel against the coursework. It isn't just that there's so much of it, or that I'm exhausted from the forced march of reading and writing (there is, and I am), but this is the point, about halfway, where I start to discover tangential things to research and learn about that seem suddenly very tempting to spend time on rather than the material with due dates and grades attached. This is an enormously challenging phase to get through because books like Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty First Century and Marlen Haushofer's Die Wand seem to come out of nowhere and beckon to me right at the point where my ability to read, integrate, and respond to texts has been honed by the semester to its keenest point.

This wouldn't be as big of a problem if I had a less airtight schedule for work completion that could tolerate 10 or 20 extra hours of work on something of my own choosing, or if it coincided with equally entrancing coursework like Frank Norris' McTeague or Herman Melville's Typee, but every once in a while I find myself trying to focus on more difficult texts like Frank Norris' The Pit or Nathaniel Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance and I cave.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as fascinating as it promises to be, is a doorstop of a book, so I decided to put that one off for now after reading just the introduction and part of the first chapter, and I allowed myself to read Marlen Haushofer's Die Wand and watch the 2012 film adaptation. Both of these, as my mentor Pete Sands pointed out, are absolutely worth your time if you haven't read/watched them.

The novel has a very simple premise: a woman goes to visit friends and stay the night in their cabin atop a mountain in Austria. She awakes to discover that the mountaintop has been surrounded by an unbreakable transparent wall. The wall doesn't seem to prevent air or water from passing through it, but all of the other physical things, including her and a mountain's worth of domesticated and wild animals, are trapped inside. Outside, the world has apparently ended. There is no apocalyptic destruction or wasteland, only a stark, crystalline stillness. People in nearby homes and villages (which she can see through binoculars) are frozen in whatever position they were in when the cataclysm occurred. Not only is the wall transparent, but it almost seems to make the narrator's vision of the outside world sharper. She can see far-distant buildings and birds which fell frozen from the sky lying on the ground in mid-wing-flap. The grass continues to grow, and weather continues to fluctuate, but there is no sign of any other living thing outside the wall. The narrator explores the rather large area enclosed by the wall and collects a series of animals, a dog, a cow, and a cat, and progresses to write a diary for several years while doing everything she can think of to stay alive and keep her animals alive.

Most of the book is concerned with slow meditations on what all of this means, and what sorts of emotional challenges the narrator faces during various phases of grief and acceptance of her new life. She becomes quite close to the animals and dependent on them to survive, and she battles constant emotional and physical exhaustion that threaten to overwhelm her. She begins to lose track of time and her memories of the world before the wall start to blend together, heightening the sense of estrangement she attains from the world, though she is ironically more intimately tied to the physical world for survival than ever in her life. Without ruining the ending, it's worth mentioning that the entire narrative builds, I thought quite brilliantly, to a single question that she poses the reader--a reader that she is not certain will ever encounter her diary. And here I am, four days later still mulling over that question and trying to piece together what it, and the rest of the book, means.

I finished the film last night as well. While a visual and auditory treat, and harrowing in its own way, was a more or less straightforward and faithful adaptation of the novel. Which is to say that it didn't, I felt, substantially improve on or remediate the narrative. The photography and sound design are both haunting and spectacular, and it plays with motion and texture like very few films I’ve seen from the last ten years. I could have done without the voiceover, and especially the constant intercuts back to the diary-writing present, but the Wall itself and the mountain, and the animals, and Martina Gedeck's performance, were all great. The novel is so meditative at times in the naturalist tradition that I think some part of my brain was looking for a film treatment similar to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or There Will Be Blood. Instead of one particular slow-motion scene with a violin overture, I was expecting something distressingly quieter, and aesthetically blunter and more profound somehow. I’m not sure the film captured how frail and fragile the narrator seems for most of the novel, being constantly hungry and sick and exhausted to the point of immobility, and it doesn’t quite capture how intimately dependent she is on the animals the way a film like, say Into the Wild does. But these are minor complaints, it’s still easily better than 95% of the 21st century speculative fiction films I’ve seen, and aside from the intercuts and that slo-mo scene it seems as unwilling to indulge itself in formal tropes as the novel, which I loved.

I’m also feeling a little conflicted about the film because the more I ponder the novel, the more I think it has something to tell us about emotion in the years when generatively (motherhood, fatherhood, housekeeping, family-making, etc) starts to wane and reveal a less-satisfying second phase of life. The argument could be made that the narrator is variously a divorcee, a spinster, or especially an empty-nester, but I think these are all overly-simplistic readings. No one talks about this but a lot of people, even young people, go through acute phases where parenting and family-making become a deep, searing, un-shareable, and shame-inducing disappointment. They realize that they’re not as good parents as they thought they’d be, or that once their children are no longer helpless babies that they’re not as interested in them, or they may even secretly think at various times that their own children are despicable. I think there’s a special intense sort of estrangement that happens when the narrator admits that she has an affinity for birth and some varieties of care-taking, but that when things grow she starts to care less about them. She goes on at great lengths about the personalities of the random pets she accumulates over the course of the novel, but admits that she did not like or care for her own children and cannot remember much about them beyond the fact that they grew into difficult and unrewarding elements of a life she'd rather forget. I found this to be a highly complex and powerful psychological character study and the film doesn't touch on it at all, and that's a shame because I think if I had to say critically what the novel is "about," this estrangement is at the very heart of it.

She never says so, but I think it's clear that this disconnect causes the narrator unendurable pain, so much so that she transfers what passes for a stewardship instinct onto Bella (her cow) and especially Lynx (her dog). Is she making a bid for a second chance at motherhood? I don’t think that’s exactly it, and nor do I think she’s trying to anthropomorphize the dog, necessarily. The note at the end of the novel from the filmmaker mentioned the narrative keenly describes clinical depression, but I don’t think that’s precisely it, either. I think the crystalline “outside” is the key to it all somehow; that the novel is trying to emotionally dramatize the moment of realization that the first phases, the generative phases, of one’s life are over, and that a new, existentially distressing phase has begun, where boundaries permanently solidify in a way that seems unfair and abrupt, and during which many of the promises and hopes of the first phase are pushed beyond these boundaries where one cannot reach them but can only watch them persist and slowly decay in wrenching distance but tantalizing clarity.

And now, as you are very right to remind me, it's time to stop dallying around with The Wall and get back to Hawthorne and my other research.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

779 Research Week 6

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 6: Never Forget how Lucky You Are

A friend and former DePaul colleague asked me the other night to talk to him about pursuing a PhD. He had applied to a number of programs, including the program I’m in, and wanted to know more about what my experiences have been. I was honest and fair with both him and myself, and I tried to give him a balanced description of what the challenges and rewards of a PhD are. This was an interesting exercise in and of itself because as I was describing the process of beginning a PhD I realized just how many things had to break my way in order for me to find myself where I am right now. There was a complex 100+ page application to complete, scarce and uncertain funding to secure, an innocuous but secretly terrifying academic review to successfully pass, a new community of intimidatingly brilliant colleagues to join, a family to continue to be a part of, bills to attempt to pay, teaching to become familiar with, writing-career work of my own which pre-dated school to continue and, as we’ve seen here on this blog, mountains of research to complete and shape into original scholarship.

In the broadest sense these things are continually and sometimes oppressively daunting, but even on the scale of the completion of a week’s or day’s work, they depend more heavily on luck than I usually prefer think about. For example, Typee the novel we read this week for ENG779, happened to be available in a free and high-quality audiobook. This allowed me to read ahead by about ten days on the course calendar, off-setting Frank Norris’ The Pit and the second half of Siegfried Kracaur’s The Mass Ornament which I also had to read and for which there exist no audiobooks. Last week, we read Norris’ McTeague and Poe’s A Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, both of which were available on audiobook. By using the 30+ hours I spent in the car over those last few weeks, along with the time I spent washing dishes, driving to and from my teaching job in Chicago, folding laundry, and the two or three hours each night after my wife fell asleep, I was able to gain just enough ground on the relentless reading schedule of this term to carve out six or seven hours of time the week before last for research and again today to work on the first draft of my paper. These blocks of time were incredibly contingent; if even one minor thing had gone wrong, I could have easily lost my best (and maybe only) chance to spend a significant chunk of time accomplishing these critical and tricky tasks. If my son got sick, or if my phone died in the middle of a book, or if my computer crashed, or if we happened to hit a week in which none of the books were available as audiobooks, it could have had serious consequences to my workflow.

On an even smaller scale, just a single day, luck has to be on my side for me to succeed. I’ve been struggling with headaches, eye strain, and back pain since about the third week of class from all the sitting, driving, and reading, and lately they’ve been particularly acute. I’ve had to change my contacts regularly, rest my eyes as much as possible, use hot and cold packs on my back, stretch on a yoga ball, and consume a never-ending stream of caffeine and anti-inflammatories to power through the avalanche of reading and writing and the endless commuting. Even with today’s six or seven hours on offer, if I’d had a nasty episode of back pain that drove me to my couch or away from my computer, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish as much as I did (which turned out to be quite a lot—an entire draft, in fact). If some emergency at my teaching job had pulled me away or some other pressing thing intruded—if anything happened to go wrong today—I’d be in trouble. But somehow, nothing did. Somehow I continue to live a just-charmed-enough life that I can continue to plow ahead with this program and make it happen.


This is the sort of thing you can’t explain to someone when they ask you what PhD research and coursework is like. It’s like becoming a parent, full of pride and wonder and self-growth bookended with grinding work and random outbreaks of panic, but it also involves a difficult-to-fathom quotient of luck that I try to remain continually thankful for and conscientious of in the moments when the workload threatens to overwhelm.