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Author Archives: Alex

Alex is a would-be writer and minimum wage toiler from Ann Arbor, now living in Portland. He is a co-founding member of Speaking of Art..., but will never abuse the privileges that entails. Alex is interested in speculative fiction of any brow and has a special place in his heart for space opera. When he grows up, he wants to be a book.

Generally speaking, the concepts of ‘literature’ and ‘current events’ aren’t very likely to collide. There are exceptions: Harry Potter selling a bajillion copies, Dan Brown getting sued for hack-jobbing someone else’s hack-job, Salman Rushdie pissing off Muslims. But there’s also a new genre of literary news that has proliferated over the last few years, and it’s my least favorite yet.

I came across its most recent iteration in today’s New York Times. The headline reads, New Stage for a Private Family Drama, and the piece is about the revered playwright Arthur Miller’s treatment of his son, Daniel, who was born with Down syndrome. It is a reaction to a recent article in Vanity Fair detailing, and to an extent criticizing, Miller’s having essentially ignored Daniel’s existence after sending him off to a mental institutional. The possible implication that Miller’s work, and his status as a literary titan, should be reevaluated in light of this element of his personal life is teased by the author, and more directly stated by quoted sources.

This is just another outcry in the James Frey vein of literary newsworthiness. Though I do cringe to place Miller’s name so close to that dubious memoirist’s, and there is the added difference that some of the anger over Frey’s case from the fact that the book was marketed as memoir, not fiction. But it’s the same in both cases, really. Readers of a writer’s work feel offended, scandalized, betrayed when it turns out that the author is in some way not what they were supposed to be. It happened with J.T. Leroy, and Günter Grass too. James Frey was publicly scolded by Oprah, a fate I can’t even begin to imagine lameness of. That’s got to be one of those things that makes a guy want to sob and laugh hysterically at the same time.

But the question is, why should anyone care about the life behind the works? Is this just a product of a culture that’s seen too many reruns of VH1’s Behind the Music? Or that wants to make a celebrity out of anybody that does anything noteworthy, and then hold them to some weirdly assumed common moral code? Why the outrage?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I have no idea. To me, a writer or artist’s prime directive is to make art. Preferably, to make good art, but even that’s not essential. Hence the designation, ‘artist’. It’s what they do, and if they’re good at it, I applaud. I experience their work and I learn to see the world in a more nuanced way; I am made better by their toil. I can’t picture a circumstance under which I would feel this experience diminished if it turned out the writer or artist was a dick.

In fact, thinking back on it now, many of the people who I most respect for their work were probably reprehensible in one way or another in their personal lives. Picasso was a douche, Heidegger a Nazi, Wittgenstein a major a-hole, and Faulkner a faithless and prolific philanderer. And even if I got backstage at a Bob Dylan concert, and found him cuisinarting baby otters, I’d still think John Wesley Harding was a damn fine album.

Somewhere, William James has a quote that what we call ‘genius’ is really just an intensity of focus (he used the metaphor of a light focused to a burning point) on something that excludes everything else as irrelevant. This seems pretty right on to me. I found it amply illustrated when I once tried to read a biography of Borges, getting a couple hundred pages in before I realized I was reading a book about the life of a man who pretty much read during every waking moment in which he wasn’t writing. Not exactly material for a John Le Carré novel, I tell you.

Anyway, in the other direction, what makes Arthur Miller a genius, what makes him great, is his writing, is his sheer mastery of his language and human conditions. His greatness does not care about his ability to dance a jig, and it doesn’t care about his child-rearing sensibilities either. In fact, it seems impossible that there wouldn’t be some fairly glaring deficiencies in a life that was given almost wholly to crafting the written word.

This is not to excuse him, or to deny whatever ill effects his attitude might have had on his son (though, by the given accounts, he’s lived a very happy life without his father’s presence). But it is to say, to anyone who thinks that said attitude should be reflected in treatment of Miller’s work, get over yourself. Go stress out over Shakespeare-authorship conspiracy theories, or something.

Anyhow, let me apologize for this half-baked consideration and get back to the issue raised above: I’m still left wondering what makes people so morally outraged when a work’s author doesn’t live up to their expectations. Any ideas?

Who is Mario Incandenza?

In one sense, he’s the lovable middle child of the Incandenza clan, the dysfunctional set at the heart of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. In another, he’s Wallace’s proposed ideal human and savior of authentic sentiment in literature.

Mario’s physical demeanor is sad/funny; his

“incomplete gestation and arachnoidal birth left the kid with some lifelong character-building physical challenges. Size was one, he being in sixth grade about the size of a toddler and at 18+ in a range somwhere between elf and jockey. There was the matter of the withered-looking and bradyauxetic arms, which just as in a hair-raising case of Volkmann’s contracture curled out in front of this thorax in magiscule S’s and were usable for rudimentary knifeless eating and slapping at doorknobs until the sort of turned just enough and doors could be kicked open and forming a pretend lens-frame to scout scenes through, plus maybe tossing tennis balls very short distances to players who wanted them, but not for much else…” (313)

On top of this, he can’t really stand up by himself and requires a body-brace and weighted tripod-like apparatus to anchor him in place, and he’s a homodont (every one of his teeth is a bicuspid).

He’s also the most unequivocally likable character in this book, and maybe in any book I’ve ever read. It’s almost too much to handle, really. The guy is entirely devoid of guile, self-consciousness, cynicism, judgmentalism, and smarm. And irony. Here he is, super-nice, über-deformed guy with a head-mounted movie camera, and he is so unironic as to be almost heart-rending in his sincerity.

But why should sincerity be so striking? Why should a character that isn’t cloaked in hip cynicism be noteworthy? Embedded in this consideration is, I think, Wallace’s comment on contemporary American literature.

Surveying the field of “postmodern” fiction, some of the hallmarks one sees are irreverence, shock-value, obsession with technical experimentation, cynicism about received narratives, and an ironic way of dealing with the past. Wallace is of the next generation, the one that grew up reading Barth, Pynchon, and Coover. But what happens after the critique has been made? In getting his generational pendulum on, Wallace says NO to glib irony, and seems to want to reclaim prominence for human emotion in high-brow literature.

And so, enter Mario Incandenza as the incarnation of Wallace’s anti-irony. Contrast him with his younger brother Hal, one of two ostensible protagonists in the book, the tennis whiz and lexical prodigy. Hal seems so jaded as to almost disappear as a force or will as he ages. He’s not without insight into his condition, though:

“Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human…One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.” (695)

A mask of course would be silly on Mario, who’s entire body is a strange, almost abstract representation of human form. He’s anything but hip and irreverent; he’s unwaveringly loyal, honest, and has a physically permanent smile fixed on his face.

Mario is also given the only glorious finale of all the characters in the book, a reviver of faith-in-humanity, as he comes across a bunch of homeless people outside the T-station pleading for anyone to touch them, just simply touch them: “and Mario, being alone and only fourteen and largely clueless about anti-stem defensive strategies outside T-stations, had had no one wordly or adult along with him there to explain to him why the request of men with outstretched hands for a simple handshake or High Five shouldn’t automatically be honored and granted…” (971) If not precisely Christ-like, Mario does carve a singularly optimistic and purifying figure (like a handicapped Socrates) against an oftentimes bleak themescape of consumer America.

So, who is Mario Incandenza? He’s unhip, unwordly, and embarrassingly sincere. And we should all try to be more like him. So, I plan to remember this catchy thought-experiment next time I’m in a jam: What Would Mario Do (WWMD)?

500 Years of Female Portraits in Western Art

By Eggman913