Friday, January 13, 2006

Where I'm Blogging From

With apologies to Raymond Carver, and to any of you reading, my wee but loyal party of chums. I am neither a) dead, b) near-dead, c) undead, nor d) trapped under something heavy. I am just finishing my last night of a three-week stay at my mother's house, helping her convalesce from a recent illness. Happily, all signs are looking good for her at present. Meanwhile, through diaphanous spiritual algorithms possibly unique to middle-class suburbia, it seems that a woman's health improves in direct proportion to how many household chores you can do in her stead and how much yard work you can perform at her behest. Helping to prepare meals and outfits, encouraging her through physical therapy workouts, etc., were helpful at the time, but appeared positively minuscule compared to the moment on New Year's Day when two fellows appeared unsolicited at our doorstep and volunteered their services to clean and flush the gutters surrounding the roof. This event was greeted as something akin to a cracking open of the heavens. And nothing apparently says I love you like raking a backyard that has, of necessity, gone untouched throughout a heavily deciduous autumn. Having spent an entire two days filling 68 of those 30-gallon Glaad bags—the ones with the plastic yellow drawstrings that look like police-emergency tape—I finally attained something of The Zone described to me by certain marathon-running acquaintances. Call it a raker's high.

All of this plus a last-minute job interview that went deliciously well (Chicagoans: prepare for a long-in-coming visit!), a bout with a nasty bronchial cough, an 81-year-old grandfather undergoing sudden surgery (he's fine), the delicate choreographies of post-divorce Quality Family Time, a worrisome addiction to my older brother Nathan's PlayStation version of Galaga, and a household where dial-up is the only internet option but the phone-line has to stay clear all day for doctors, well-wishers, and pinch-hitters from the office.... all this and no broadband makes Nick a dull blogger.

You can see on the sidebar that I did at least squeeze in some movies, mostly with Nathan. Syriana, a film which I felt I had no need to re-visit, actually got much more legible and more interesting on a second viewing, and I'm wondering about the degree to which I might have undersold it. I'm considering an upgrade to B+. Werner Herzog's indifferent documentary The White Diamond only throws into further relief the superior qualities of Grizzly Man; Graham Dorrington's tetchy inner conflicts aren't a patch on Timothy Treadwell's flamboyantly embodied contradictions, and The White Diamond is diverting without raising any great questions. Most recently, Woody Allen's Match Point proved to be a weirdly anaesthetized experience, creepily absent of ambient noise, and marred by bovine lead performers who repeat lines and looks quite frequently. Altogether, the film tends to steep almost everything that works or almost works in a thin tea of everything that doesn't. I'm doing my best to extend benefit of the doubt, but I still think Tim R. has nailed it here.

I've also been reading. Ed Bullins' We Righteous Bombers, a pseudonymously written adaptation of Camus' The Just Assassins into the militant idioms and cultural contexts of late-60s Black Power politics, is a sprawling and complicated play, fertile with a kind of theatrical imagination that excites even on the page, though its multiple characters, layered realities, projected images, and Genetian betrayals would be most absorbing in performance. Look for it in Bullins' own anthology New Plays from the Black Theatre. I'd love to say the same for August Wilson's Radio Golf, the last play in his famed 10-part cycle devoted to the 20th-century social history of African-Americans, especially in Pittsburgh. Read it for yourself in the November '05 issue of American Theatre magazine, but—as much as one hates to speak ill of the recently deceased—it's a sadly disappointing piece, limned within very proscribed arguments about ownership, political viability, and preservation of traditions within an upwardly mobile segment of the black middle class. The characters, unfortunately, just don't convince, the scenario pales beside the messier but more confident yarns of the other plays (Jitney is the only other clunker), and one can't help feeling, or at least I couldn't, that the ailing Wilson had to finish this play too fast if he was to finish it at all. If the play gets you down, hop back into Ma Rainey's Black Bottom or Joe Turner's Come and Gone or Seven Guitars and feel better.

Finally, I'm a little over 100 pages into Zadie Smith's On Beauty, and on balance, I'm really enjoying it. I am not much buying the dialogue that issues forth from any of the younger characters, and the Howards End parallels often feel too forced; the transliteration of Leonard Bast's unintentionally nicked umbrella into a brief wrangle over swapped Discmans creaks like a poor transmission. But there's wonderful and quite funny narration throughout, the unfolding of extra- and intra-marital intrigue is succulently paced, and as much as it irks me that novels about academia are almost inevitably satires (does no one really believe in it anymore?), Smith's comic observations are trenchant and specific instead of just twee. She's particularly good at the absurd frictions between intellectual solipsism and the worlds outside that tower: "The flight from the rational, which was everywhere in evidence in the new century, none of it had surprised Howard as it had surprised others, but each new example he came across—on the television, in the street, and now in this young man—weakened him somehow. His desire to be involved in the argument, in the culture, fell off. The energy to fight the philistines, this is what fades."

I admit, though, that these later sentences froze my blood a little: "Christian, under [the wine's] influence, looked properly young for once. You could see him permitting himself some partial release from the brittle persona that a visiting lecturer of only twenty-eight must assume if he has ambitions of becoming an assistant professor." Now, technically, I am a visiting assistant professor of only twenty-eight, but still, I am now going to be so on-guard against brittle party behavior that I am probably doomed to exhibit it. Thanks, Zadie.

More to come from that book on the train tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, in a few days' time, I'll be back at my normal station, ensconced in Hartford and glued to my laptop. More to follow then—just in time for this blog's one-year anniversary on Wednesday. À bientot!

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Blogger Dr. S said...

I remember exactly that moment in On Beauty, and I also remember thinking, "Pish." But then also checking my back to see if I had been brittle at any point in my memory last year. It felt to me a little like some of those early moments in The Corrections, when a weird almost-true parody of the profession pops in for, well, much more than a cameo.

I'm so excited you're taking a trip to Chicago, if I'm reading that sentence correctly. Excellent.

9:15 AM, January 13, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My favorite art historian had negative things to say about Smith's portrayal of art history and American academia, but on the whole she enjoyed it.

Galaga! I have post-hypnotic implants, I think, that cause me to drop everything--conversations, plans, etc.--and play a couple of games whenever I see a Galaga machine.

Meanwhile, I'll go buy some ticker-tape for your welcoming parade...

11:57 AM, January 13, 2006  
Blogger tim r said...

Zadie made a cameo at the Munich screening I just returned from! (Pretty sure she stayed for the whole thing, actually, but cameo sounds much cooler.) She's doing a stint reviewing films for the Sunday Telegraph, so we're technically rivals, you know. Natascha McElhone was sitting right in front of us too, making the room far too full of distractingly beautiful women.

And, to my surprise, I liked the movie! Quite a lot! Scarred, definitely, by some weird decisions at the editing stage, and one friend I was with argued that the final shot of the Twin Towers was sufficient to wreck it for her, which is an interesting point of view. It's a confounding way to end the thing, really. But I thought it grappled manfully on the whole with its own implications, and it had a shrewd, agonised human focus that really went places.

Back into On Beauty now. Would be churlish not to finish it really.

6:07 PM, January 13, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hope you're going to make it to Chicago sometime soon!!! Love & more best wishes to your mom...
xoxo jenn

7:17 PM, January 13, 2006  

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