Friday, August 22, 2014

Tune: Vanishing Point by Derek Kirk Kim

The book is available on Amazon and hopefully at your local bookseller, but you can also check out the Webcomic of the story located on Derek Kirk Kim's Tune Website!

Original image is a page from the book that can also be found HERE on the Tune Website.

I arrived at San Diego Comic Con without a book. A terrible tragedy that's easily fixed. I found a bookseller on the floor and told the hipster behind the counter that I liked young adult lit and sci-fi. She handed over three that were not at all what I said I wanted, and then as a last ditch effort handed me Tune before she found someone more important (someone who knew enough people that he didn't have to pay for silly things like books) to talk to. I finally found someone else to pay attention to me long enough to take my money and proceeded to devour this graphic novel.

If you like comics along the lines of Questionable Content or Gunnerkrigg Court, then you'll love Tune. They all share a world filled with people that we've all met (the not-doing-anything-with-his-life-but-wearing-obscure-T-shirts Marten from QC, the over-achieving-science-nerd Kat from GC) in the sci fi settings that we wished we lived in (who doesn't want a cute little porn obsessed AI companion a la Pintsize?!?)

Tune's main character is Andy Go, the art school dropout featured above who believes that he can find a well paying drawing job (haha) and finally just tries to find ANY paying job (in today's economy? haha). His art school friends, the female friend he has crushed on forever, (stereo?)typical Korean parents, and aliens make up the rest of the cast. 

The book is so funny because it is so real. Who can deny the power of Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, reruns of Grey's Anatomy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer when there is actual work to be done? Not I - and probably not you. 

Chapter 3 begins with a dictionary definition of "aigoo" (interj.) 1. Korean cry of lamentation. Often repeated in an unending cacophonous loop when one's child fails to become a doctor. 2. Korean cry of lamentation. Often repeated in an unending cacophonous loop when one's child is discovered to be a homosexual.

Andy's mom lets out a steady stream of Aiiii-gooooooos along with things like "Why you not major in computer?! Huh!? Why you not major in computer?! My friend's son, he go to med school - be doctor!! *sob*"

I texted fotos of these panels to a friend whose parents are Korean immigrants to get her take on the realism. She LOL!!ed several times and was like "Oh yeah, that's real."

Amidst all of this realism is the sci-fi adventure part of the book. Andy is approached by aliens to take a very special very well paying job with weekends off, vacation time, health insurance, and a retirement. 

My only critique is that the first installment is too short and the second installment isn't out in print yet. Fortunately, it is available on the Tune Comic website (where there are no banner ads? I hope Kim is making money off of it somehow!), where I will probably click through the rest of the story when I should be sleeping, lesson planning, or grading papers. 

Hyperbole and a Half: unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened

It's weird for people who still have feelings to be around depressed people.  They try to help you have feelings again so things can go back to normal, and it's frustrating for them when that doesn't happen.  From their perspective, it seems like there has got to be some untapped source of happiness within you that you've simply lost track of, and if you could just see how beautiful things are...

Of course, I've read Hyperbole and a Half before, and I've always enjoyed it.  This book is simply a collection of some of her work (much of it overlaps with her blog, but for all I know some of the content is original).  

Brosh's comics on depression (available here and here) are her at her best.  She writes frankly about her depression and how unhelpful the people around her in a way that is both hilarious and heart-breaking.  

She is also hilarious describing less heavy topics, like the time her mother, her, and her sister got lost in the woods.  Her and her sister did not understand they were lost because, not wanting to scare them, their mother acted like she wasn't ready to go home.  Trying, to solve the problem, Brosh describes her attempt at convincing their mother they should go home:

I imagine it would be pretty terrifying to be wandering through the forest at night when, out of nowhere, your eight-year-old child begins describing the plot from the horror film you watched the other night, which, as far as you know, she hadn't seen.  but my mother maintained her composure very well--until a twig snapped, at which point she whirled around shrieking, "WE HAVE A DOG!" As if Murphy's presence were enough to deter a homicidal maniac with a chainsaw.

I find the style of Brosh's comic interesting: they're not straight panel-by-panel comics and (obviously) they're not straight narrative.  She combines the two, going back and forth as it suits her.  This works because she uses the narration to move the stories forward and weave in context between panels.  She then uses the comic panels to depict things, as above, like facial expressions or silence.  As novels and entertainment in general, become more multi-media, I wonder if this is an early example of mixed-media writing.  With things like Kindle and other pads/e-readers, it's only a matter of time before a novel can incorporate music, film, and other forms of media.

Hilarious and worth reading.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray.  While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher--shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue.  Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

"They're such beautiful shirts," she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds.  "It makes me sad because I've never seen such--such beautiful shirts before."

Listen, you want to know how to incorporate symbolism into your work?  You couldn't do much better than the scene above, one of my favorites from The Great Gatsby (and one of the better scenes in the Baz Luhrmann film, I'd say).  There's the most superficial symbolism, that of Gatsby throwing his newfound wealth in Daisy's face, piling it up beyond taste or reason in the same way that he has been piling up wealth for years, all in the name of getting back into Daisy's graces.  But there's also the strange intimacy of it, the many shirts giving the reader the impression that Gatsby is actually disrobing, revealing himself--but there's no end to the shirts, because Daisy isn't actually capable of seeing Gatsby as he truly is.  The one person who is capable of it--or thinks he is--is Nick Carraway, the peeping tom they won't let get away, present during Gatsby and Daisy's liaisons for no very sensible reason.  And then why is Daisy crying?  Is it because the shirts represent an entire life that Gatsby's built up that she's had no share of, and the deep, unspeakably knowledge that she can't really share in his life now, after all of these years?

What a great, layered scene.  It seems crazy to say it, but I was surprised, re-reading it, how good The Great Gatsby is--I hadn't read it in years, and remembered it as being a little over-written, and my last experience with Fitzgerald was decidedly underwhelming.  I also remembered being a little put off by the immense man-crush that Nick has for Gatsby, and that much at least is true:

He smiled understandingly--much more than understandingly.  It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.  It faced--or seem to face--the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.  It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

Jeez, Nick.  But not only is the writing almost perfect--and the book is short enough that it doesn't overstay its welcome with floweriness, as it otherwise might--I was really surprised on this reading at how well drawn the characters are.  Gatsby does in fact "believe in you as you would like to believe in yourself," with Nick and Daisy at least, but that's part of the problem: Gatsby's endless devotion to Daisy and unflagging hope for their reunion cannot see how awful Daisy is.  He cannot see what Nick sees, that she and her husband Tom are "careless people... they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made."  He's so smart, but so foolish, and his dedication to the impossible is both his tragic error and the very thing that Nick wants us to admire so much about him.

But Daisy's the better character, in a literary sense.  I really enjoyed her disaffected sarcasm, and her aimless wealth--something about it rang truer than anything else in the book.  She tells Nick that she always waits for the longest day of the year and then misses it--so perfectly the statement of someone so utterly bored with their own existence, but somehow also too busy with money and dinners and polo matches and whatnot.  When she says she wishes her daughter will turn out to be a "perfect little fool," what is she getting at?  Is it sarcasm, reflecting on her foolishness for marrying Tom?  Or a sincere, perhaps half-sincere, admission that she has foolishly stumbled into a situation she tells herself is what she wants?  She doesn't seem to mean half the things she says--though perhaps when she's with Gatsby she means three-fourths.

If anything strikes me as off, it's the giant glasses of T. J. Eckleburg that are watching in the Valley of Ashes when Daisy, driving Gatsby's car, mows down Tom's mistress, Myrtle.  (I haven't really bothered to outline the plot--hope you'll forgive me.)  Apparently they were written in when Fitzgerald saw what is now the book's iconic cover, and loved the image.  But the symbolism--the eyes of God--is too heavy-handed when compared to everyone else.  Besides, we already know Gatsby's being watched; it's Nick that really has the eyes of God in this novel.

Is it the "Great American Novel?"  If so, it has a particularly jaundiced view, I'd wager, of America, and of the "American dream"--which I'm sure will be thrown around about a kajillion times when I teach this book later this year.  If for no other reason, it's about a bunch of people who are wildly wealthy, and are deeply, deeply miserable.  Gatsby's quest for wealth is perhaps something nobler, imbued with the hope Nick pushes on us, and tinted with his love for Daisy, but it destroys him in the end.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens.  They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha, candles, grease pencils, The Stars and Stripes, fingernail clippers, Psy Ops leaflets, bush hats, bolos, and much more.  Twice a week, when the resupply choppers came in, they carried hot chow in green mermite cans and large canvas bags filled with ice beer and soda pop.  They carried plastic water containers, each with a 2-gallon capacity... They shared the weight of memory.  They took up what others could no longer bear.  Often, they carried each other, the wounded and the weak.  They carried infections.  They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards, imprinted with the Code of Conduct.  They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery.  They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds.  They carried the land itself--Vietnam, the place, the soil--a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces.  They carried the sky.

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is probably the most famous literary book about the Vietnam War, of which there are surprisingly few.  (Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, a vastly different book, comes to mind.)  Is it that the Vietnam War was so psychologically injurious to so many that it became difficult to write or talk about?  O'Brien is clear throughout this series of connected, semi-fictional stories, that he feels as if writing about his experiences in Vietnam saved him from the kind of rootless madness that destroyed so many of his friends after the war--like Norman Bowker, whom he describes driving around his Iowa hometown, wanting but unable to tell his story to anyone he sees.  Bowker, we learn in a subsequent chapter, hanged himself shortly after.  But we also learn that one of the linchpin moments of Bowker's story--his inability to save his friend who is dragged down and suffocated in a feces-filled river, where they had mistakenly set up camp--is O'Brien's own, grafted onto Bowker's experiences.

So what's the deal?  Are these stories fiction, or non-fiction?  O'Brien writes:

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a life-time ago, and yet the remembering makes it now.  And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever.  That's what stories are for.  Stories are for joining the past to the future.  Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are.  Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

Norman Bowker is no more, but O'Brien's appropriation of him, in a way, I think, is meant to keep him alive, to subsume his own story into O'Brien's in a way that justifies what he must have felt was the sad wastefulness of his life.  In other places, O'Brien is cagey about what "really happened," as when he hedges on whether or not he was actually responsible for the death of a young Vietnamese man.  The death rattles him; he sits in shock over the man's body and imagines a life in which he has a girlfriend, wants to teach math--not a true story, of course, he knows nothing of the man, but a story which serves an important purpose amid the abject purposelessness of war and death.  In the same way, O'Brien suggests that it doesn't matter if he pulled the pin on the grenade which killed the man; he must take responsibility for his death in the same way that, writing his story, he takes responsibility for his life.  (It reminds me also of the scene in All Quiet on the Western Front when Paul Baumer kills a man in his foxhole, and then has to stare at him for hours until he goes nearly mad with regret.)

Still, there's no doubt the details are rooted in fact.  The Vietnamese who died died, the man who drowned in shit drowned in shit.  The bullet in O'Brien's rear was real.  Even in their slipperiness, these stories make the reader face the really awful reality of war, as well as any book I've ever read (with the exception perhaps of The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front).

This, like the next few books I'm going to review, I read because I'm supposed to teach it next year.  That's going to be hard.  Partly because it is graphic, and so horrific, but I expect my students will be frustrated also by its anti-realistic elements, too.  It'll probably be good for them.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

At Freddie's by Penelope Fitzgerald

'If you choose to go on the stage,' he said, still pondering, 'you pass your life in a series of impersonations, some of them quite unsuccessful.'

'Of course they're bound to fail sometimes.'

'They earn their money that way, and in fact they want to earn it that way.  Do you know Hannah that causes me some astonishment.  It seems to me a sufficient achievement to be an individual at all, what you might call a real person.'

Man, I love Penelope Fitzgerald.  She draws characters so minutely but so perfectly.  At Freddie's barely cracks 150 pages but in that space it manages to pack in five or six really memorable, quite human characters and the complex relationships between them.  Ford Madox Ford called it "getting a character in," and I can think of few writers who do it better.  There's Freddie, the proprietor of the Temple School that provides the theaters of London with a steady supply of child actors.  A charismatic older woman, she's one of those people who somehow always get what they want:

Certainly she could create her own warmth, a glow like the very first effects of alcohol.  As to what she wanted, no mystery was made.  She wanted to get the advantage, but on the other hand human beings interested her so much that it must always be an advantage to meet another one.  When she smiled there was a certain lopsidedness, the shade of a deformity, or, it could be, the aftermath of a slight stroke.  Freddie never tried to conceal this -- Take a good look -- she advised her pupils -- I'm not nearly so amusing as you're going to be when you imitate me. -- But the smile itself was priceless in its benevolence, and in its amusement that benevolence could still exist.  One had to smile with her, perhaps regretting it later.

There are the child actors themselves, especially Mattie and Jonathan, who Freddie points out as the difference between talent and genius.  Mattie is highly successful, snagging several high profile roles, but is fascinated by and obsessed with Jonathan's mercurial genius.  Their relationship is defined by Mattie's mix of love and resentment, and Jonathan's indifference:

He could not be satisfied until Jonathan had got into some sort of trouble.  Then would be the moment to rush luxuriously to his assistance.  But there were so few opportunities, one must be continually on the watch.  Prompting, for instance, was never needed.  If Jonathan didn't know his lines (and he was not a quick study) he smiled, and read them from the book.  If he had no dinner money, the girls gave him Fruity Snack.s  Once or twice, however, he complained of a stomach ache, although in a detached way, as though the pain was the responsibility of someone else.  Then Mattie was in his glory.  Lay him down near the radiator, Miss, and keep him warm.  I know just what he has to have, I'll go down to Miss Belwett for the Bisodol, you want to be careful, he might get a lot worse quite suddenly, we had to get a stomach pump to one of the cast on Saturday. -- He was thanked, of course, but never enough.  He could not master the half-sleepy mysterious gum-chewing little rat of a Jonathan, or exact the word of approval he wanted.  Later he rolled him over on the washroom floor and banged his round head on the concrete as though cracking a nut.  'Has that cured your bellyache?' -- Jonathan considered, and said he would tell him later.  Mattie was outraged.  And yet his dissatisfaction showed that he was not quite lost.  It was the tribute of a human being to the changeling, or talent to genius.

I especially liked reading about these two, and the other child actors, because I have a lot of students who fancy themselves actors, and though mine are much older than Mattie and Jonathan, I recognized a lot of them here: their habit of breaking into impressions, or song, and the frequent theatrical air that suggests they are not being quite sincere.

Then there are the teachers: Hannah, who is attracted to the glamor of the theater world, and Pierce, who is utterly aware of his lack of talent, sociability, or sheer competence, but who approaches his own shortcomings with stolid resignation.  He is a bad teacher, cannot understand or relate to the children, though Jonathan takes a liking to him.  He is, of course, in love with Hannah.  That's him at the top of the review, struggling to make sense of those who can act like any number of people when he is so profoundly bad at being himself.

These characters are so interesting and vibrant that it feels as if, rather than devising a plot, Fitzgerald merely put them together so she might record what happens.  And indeed, there's not much of a plot--Hannah falls for a roguish actor, breaking Pierce's heart; Mattie tortures Jonathan; Freddie charms her way through the financial insolubility of the school.  And yet At Freddie's is always surprising, because people are surprising.  The novel resolves in a way that feels deeply sad, though in such a low-key way that it's hard to pinpoint where the sadness comes from, wringing more pathos out of the everyday than even the final paragraph of The Bookshop, when Florence Green boards a bus carrying the burden of her shop's failure.

The central idea of At Freddie's is a well-worn one: our selves are theatrical performances of a kind, and to be an actor is to master the self in a way.  Pierce doesn't understand it, but is naturally himself in a way that other characters in the book cannot be; perhaps that's why he appeals to the enigmatic Jonathan, whose acting genius is tied up with his aloofness and detachment.  Freddie's charm is a kind of bravura performance, a more comprehensive and assured one than any of her students can conjure.  In the end, she makes a surprising move--deciding to dedicate the school to training students to act in commercials--that seems out of character, but suggests that like any performance, it can be stopped, or changed, if the performer knows what he or she is doing.