“Every intimacy engenders expectation and every expectation some unknown disappointment.”
— filmmaker Hal Hartley
“Every intimacy engenders expectation and every expectation some unknown disappointment.”
— filmmaker Hal Hartley
“What is the past, after all, but a vast sheet of darkness in which a few moments, pricked apparently at random, shine?” — John Updike
A few years ago, I did something harebrained: I joined Facebook.
Mere hours later, I quit the network, deleting my profile in its gurgling infancy. I joined right around midnight. I hit delete early the next morning. I did so with a massive sigh of relief: What was I thinking?
What was I thinking?
I was thinking, gee, maybe, as all my friends tell me, I’m missing out on some electronic fun, unfettered 24-hour socializing, photo and content sharing. I could post my marvelous travel pictures. I could see what long-lost pals are up to. I could crow about my fabulous life, crack wise and click the “like” icon with fulsome abandon. I was feeling adventurous.
Before, none of that had sounded attractive in the least. For some reason, in a momentary lapse of sanity (was it the pinot noir?), it did. And then it didn’t again. Cue the cold sweat the next morning. Cue the get me the hell off this thing panic.
During my rash registration I invited several friends to “friend” me, or whatever it is one does to connect on Facebook. By the morning I had a small tribe of friends, cyber-pals, some of whom, to my horror, had posted pictures of me on my page. I felt exposed and mortified. My instincts were spot-on: Facebook wasn’t my bag.
It’s all about sharing, and I’m not a big sharer. I don’t really want oodles of people to know what I’m up to. I certainly don’t want to see someone’s family photos snapped at Disneyland. I also don’t want to hear about so-and-so’s chronic illness. And that endless stream of (totally unreliable) information trickling down the page smacks of so much irksome spam.
Facebook and its ilk, from Twitter to Instagram, I think, are for people who like to share, show and showoff. They must be connected to feel alive, validated. There’s a boastful, presumptuous strain at work. Obsessively scanning their phones, staring in a locked zombie state, I see inborn extroverts, the gabbers, those tautly comfortable in their skins, the socially amenable and acutely people-ly. I see the FOMO syndrome. I see neediness.
What is this blog if not a way to connect? you might ask. It’s really just a billboard on which to write stuff. It’s far from a network. Any connections are stubbornly vague and mostly through distant “likes” and the rare comment. It’s written largely behind a scrim of anonymity. My last name is nowhere to be found and, save for the picture of me as a kid on the “About” page, there are no photos of me. I can be irrationally shy.
Facebook is even less alluring amid current reports of vast security breaches plaguing the network. The data and privacy of 50 million Facebook users have been compromised, prompting a social media backlash, a call to #DeleteFacebook. People from all walks (even Cher!) are deleting their profiles with great, groaning exertion, extracting themselves from what is arguably an addiction for many. (Unfortunately, some Facebook accounts represent charities and small businesses that can’t afford to nix their profiles.)
Party-pooper, anti-social, misanthrope, grandpa-grumpus — call me what you will. I connect in my own ways — email, texts and calls: perfectly efficient — without waving my arms in the air to get attention and unloading my life on fellow Facebookers. I share things on this blog, of course — it sometimes reads like a journal — but reading an entry is not a social transaction. It’s smaller than that.
We’re told to live out loud. Some of us prefer to turn it down a notch. Not to put it on mute — where’s the fun in that? — but at a setting more like a conversational nudge, not a bullhorn.
“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach — that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again. It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from oneself and one’s history.”
— Philip Roth, “American Pastoral”
I know a handful of adult humans who, without a whiff of shame or embarrassment, blithely admit they don’t read. This is not only startling to me, it’s seismically appalling.
They (our president included) don’t get the appeal, they have no use for words or language or a particular type of storytelling that is expressly non-passive, that’s indeed near-immersive. I’m trying hard not to sound snobbish about this. It’s like the sports fan whose passion eludes the non-sports fan or the punker who has no interest in Bach or Bartok. We are who we are.
This bibliophile will never understand, and trying to understand the bookless simply exhausts me.
What I am — and here I quote one of the most apt descriptions I’ve seen — is “a person who considers reading an emotionally instructive and intellectually legitimate form of lived experience.”
That’s Alice Gregory reviewing Lisa Halliday’s new fiction “Asymmetry,” which I plan to grab once I finish Evan S. Connell’s smashing 1959 novel “Mrs. Bridge.” Gregory’s account of the serious reader made me even gladder to be one and sadder for those who are not.
What they are missing is incalculable.
Good essay at Slate today titled “The Reviewer’s Fallacy,” which includes the subhead: “When critics aren’t critical enough.” When I read that line I let out a resounding if whispered Hallelujah!
The article, by the terrific Ben Yagoda (see his knockout book “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing”), discusses the rankling discrepancy between the opinions of professional critics and regular consumers of books, movies and music, and wonders why so many critics exalt so much art that just plain bites.
“Critics,” Yagoda writes, “have been charged with being offenders of a few specific types:
I know the types. I reviewed films at a major daily newspaper for 12 years, and, despite some very kind accolades, I wasn’t the most popular guy in town. To many readers, I was a naysayer, a contrarian, a hard-ass (and, yes, an asshole). To me, I was simply honest, discerning, discriminating. When you saw as many movies as I saw — about 10 a week — it gets easy to winnow the wheat from the chaff. Your crap-detectors become sharper, more attuned, and your patience for mediocrity and flat-out bilge shrivels and dies. You get tough. Compromise is the critic’s kryptonite.
“It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap,” Yagoda quotes sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon as saying, promptly agreeing with him: “It’s inarguable that the majority of what comes down the pike, in any medium, is mediocre or worse.”
As a persnickety reader, finicky TV watcher and choosey filmgoer I emphatically concur with Sturgeon and Yagoda’s furrowed-brow attitude, which is one of frequent disappointment, confusion (people actually like this rot?) and exasperation. Being a Negative Nelly can be a lonely spot. For instance, I’m not crazy about the acclaimed series “Stranger Things.” The stance has made me few friends. I think even the dog is angry at me.
Critics, Yagoda argues, are often suckers. They “fall prey to a sort of hermeneutic Stockholm syndrome. They experience so much bad work that they get inured to it. They are so thankful for originality, or for a creator’s having good or arguably interesting intentions, or for technical proficiency, or for a something that’s crap but not crap in quite the usual way, that they give these things undue credit. You see this in reactions to Coen brothers films.”
Love that Coen brothers dig. Yagoda’s article is well worth a look — the link is in the opening graf of this entry — and includes trenchant quotes about softball criticism from George Orwell and Elizabeth Hardwick, who says — and “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.”
It pains me to stop reading a book I’m not fully enjoying, not wholly invested in, but I do it so often it’s hard to make a case for any actual suffering. So, OK then: it doesn’t really pain me to put down a book I’ve already read 100 pages of. What pains me is the time I wasted on mediocrity, which — mediocrity, that is — is about the worst thing ever.
So onto books I recently sealed shut far before they reached the final page — all of which are highly acclaimed novels, and some are even scorching hot titles of fall 2017. My credo: Never trust the bestseller list, and feel no guilt spurning award winners.
I waited long and pantingly for Jennifer Egan’s new historical epic “Manhattan Beach,” because: 1) I’m a fan of her earlier novels “Look at Me” and the Pulitzer-winning, unfortunately titled “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” and: 2) the new book marched in on a drumbeat of salivating hype.
Fail. “Manhattan Beach” isn’t bad, it’s just not great. This is Egan’s first foray into a more stately, time-tested form — the historical novel — and it’s a bit of a trudge. She’s usually more the bouncy stylist, a lot more fun, orange zest. She’s a maestro, sure, but I had to put down this eye-glazer about a third of the way in. Want a synopsis, raves, an excerpt? Go here. I can’t deal.
Two other much-exalted novels I couldn’t cozy up to due to their overarching tepidness were Celeste Ng’s family drama “Little Fires Everywhere” and Elif Batuman’s girl-goes-to-college dramedy “The Idiot.” The stories are undercut by soft, cooing voices, a bourgeois middle-brow blah, despite daintily turned phrases and surgical control. Fatally, they are short on wisdom, philosophy and epiphany. There’s no crunch.
Slightly better is Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award winner “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” a tough, Faulknerian, mixed-race odyssey through rural Mississippi that’s very much of this racially attuned American moment and all that. Yet I found the drama ordinary and obvious. “Sing” didn’t sing.
So I picked up — and soon put down — “The Group,” Mary McCarthy’s celebrated 1963 novel about a bevy of privileged young white women making their way in a gilded New York City (it was a huge influence on Candace Bushnell, creator of “Sex and the City”). It’s a period piece, set in the 1930s, and it feels dusty. Cluttered and clammy, the fine stylist McCarthy’s tale is a dense compendium of social mores, money, neuroses and debutante gleam. It’s claustrophobic with cattiness.
Looking for another book, I considered reading Murakami’s “Kafka On the Shore.” And then I remembered how precious and irritating his “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” was in its forced, flatulent fancifulness.
I soon stumbled upon a suggestion, the high-flying 1990 British satire “The Buddha of Suburbia” by Hanif Kureishi, which has been called “raunchily, scabrously brilliant.” I’ve cracked it and I am happy to report I’m enjoying its comic kineticism just fine.
Yet I don’t think it will outclass the last book I finished, about a week ago, the short novel “LA. Woman” by Eve Babitz, my go-to gal last year for swooning fiction (I polished five of her books in 2017 with swooshing alacrity).
Soaked in sunsets and squalor, glamor and grit, “LA. Woman” traces the squiggly trajectory of a young Jim Morrison groupie through the titular city with a constant stream of poetics and epiphany. It’s funny and mean. It’s about Los Angeles. And life.
I gobbled it up in a gulp, like a gumdrop.