Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Him Her Him Again The End Of Him

The title of this novel by Patricia Marx doesn't exactly trip off the tounge. I referred to it, as I was reading it, as "the orange book by that funny lady who wrote for the Lampoon about the guy." A big improvement, eh?

Him Her Him Again, etc etc, is the story of the narrator's obsession with her first serious boyfriend, Eugene Obello. They meet in Cambridge, England, date for a little bit, but most of the novel is about their relations after Eugene has left her for another woman, married and had a baby. This makes the book sound very serious and heart-wrenching. It is not. In fact, it is very very funny.

This novel perplexed a lot of reviewers who felt moved to write comments like, "Why should we care about Eugene and the narrator? He's a total jerk and we can't believe she still likes/and or obsesses over him?"

There is certainly a school of comedy and comedic writing that believes in grounding the material in an emotionally real circumstance. The Lampoon style is not that way - it emphasizes the joke - the artful construction of the joke. In some senses, the joke in the abstract: without using a reference in the punchline or the set-up, without alluding to a current event how do you just make a joke?

Marx is using the format of the resurgent chick-literature in part to satirize this genre of writing wherein successful women search in a bumbling manner for romance and lots of silly things happen to them that you can totally relate to. Bridget Jones was the catalyst for this movement: and that book was hilarious and managed to capture our narcissistic obsessions about finding a relationship that meets our modern demands. The books that have followed Bridget Jones in an effort to capture the large market of women who like love stories that are like their own but with happier endings, have left some of the complexities of character behind and all appear to have put a lot more shopping in. Their covers in bookstores always have titles like "Shopping For Mr. Right" and then an illustration of legs and high heels in bright colors. On the back the description begins "Kelly Marksville thought she had it all: a job in graphic design, a loft in Chealsea and a great boyfriend until blah blah blah blah" - boyfriend leaves (jerk!) she gets over him, turns out graphic design wasn't it, moves, new guy, she starts a store. End. A diluted, sad, place for what could be a generally good, funny genre.

Marx doesn't do that large journey: this is just the focused story of a love affair, told like a friend was telling it to you except with many more hilarious observations and asides. And the narrator is a total neurotic and afraid she is a failure, something I can always relate to.

My favorite moments included the recounting of a pitch session at a faux-SNL type show called "Taped But Proud," and the following few quotes. I'm paraphrasing but bear with me, "Your Mother is right said my grandmother and also tell her I've always hated the yellow table in her front hall." "Good news, he said. I knew enough at this time to know that good news for someone is bad news for someone else. Usually me." And my favorite, "The comment came out the way I meant it: the truth hidden within a joke."


It's fun. It's a short read. Yes, the lack of empathy you feel for the characters does start to slow it down in the last third of the book, but read it as a comic piece and enjoy it.

Fun Picture!

Finally, what you've always wanted: the picture of the cover of the book. And, maybe less rambling about adulthood. I must admit, I felt a little preachy writing the last entry. Or like one of those creepy self-styled moral authority figures. I don't want to be one of those, especially since the public inevitably discovers they sell porn or engage in other vices with wild abandon.

I certainly don't live anything nearly resembling what typically constitutes an adult lifestyle: no settled job, no settled family, no work outfits.

But there's different ways to grow up -inside and outside of our social understanding of guys in suits. I doubt I'll ever really mature into the 20th century concept.

Enough about that.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What's An Adult?

Continuing the query that Barbarians at the Gate brought me to - the NY Times published a very interesting Op-Ed piece last week comparing the idea of an adolescent risk-taking mind-set, with the actual risks taken by adults.

It appears that although society likes to tag adolescent brains as underdeveloped and prone to making stupid decisions, it's the current crop of adults that tend to be making super stupid decisions. Of course, some of stupid decisions I made as an adolescent are things that tend not to pop up as statistics "64% of adolescent girls confess to stupidly telling their crush that they liked them liked them," "Thirty percent of adolescent girls think it is a good idea to serve your younger sisters non-alcoholic beer but tell them its real" but the matter of the instinct to be stupid is with all of us.

So, what makes you a grown up? Your mistakes have more serious consequences? Your choices roil a broader group than your grade? If we're all still dicking around in middle age, then we're all still dicking around like teenagers but with more money and nicer beer.

We all like to watch TV where people act inappropriately -for laughs or for drama. I'd argue that the behavior that makes compelling TV doesn't really scream "adult." Like, do we really want our Doctors banging each other as much as they do in Greys Anatomy? I vote no: I want a doctor who is not interested in boning the other doctor operating on me. Dawson and Joey are not doctors so they can bone all they want.

I think many Americans want our life to be more like our media, even if that includes wild misbehavior. Frat house style partying. Getting in relationship drama.

Is this stuff unavoidable, or are we looking for it? Or, does it, in the current climate, just seem like the norm?

I have wondered -and worried - if all my novel reading has skewed my perspective on my own interpretation of my life's narrative: am I looking for plot points and moments (maybe even subconsciously) that occur in books? I think it's completely possible that if I watched a ton of TV and movies, my expectations and judgements about my personal narrative would change. I think we use these artistic mediums as a foil for our experience.

What does this say about all those Barbarians? If our goals and foibles as adolescents and adults are not dissimilar, I think it makes those Barbarians just like the rest of us, but with crazy money that effects thousands of lives, and, therefore, should create more of a moral imperative to be responsible, sober, reflective adults.

And those adjectives are boring. What's on TV?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Barbarians at the Gate: High School on Wall Street!

I apologize in advance for lack of fun picture. I am on a tenuous internet connection. I will try to add one later.

Barbarians at the Gate is the story of the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco in the late 80's: a time when the roaring 80s were cooling to that nice simmering recession that engulfed my middle school years. It is a fascinating book -probably one of my favorite non-fiction reads of all time.

I picked it up, thinking I would learn a little bit about business and how investment banking and corporate finance works. Because, you know, my sweet $91.76 in savings might allow me to buy a share of something. In the end, I learned a little bit about the quantitative aspects of a transaction such as this one, and multitudes more about the human behavior that drives financial transaction in the rarefied world of Wall Street.

I like nice things. I enjoy things like wine and vacations and traveling. I like nice clothes. Someday I'd really like to own a piece of furniture that isn't from college or was handed down to me by a former roommate. But, fundamentally, I think I'm pretty naive, because, yo, these "barbarians" love money. They sure love money. They love money so much they invent kinds of money that seem to have no tangible relation to econcomic production. It's like the invisible hand suddenly popped up and said, "I also possess an invisible wallet!"

Leveraged buyouts, I gleaned, are a financial tool that management uses when it wants to buy a company back from the public domain. They are so expensive, however, that the purchase of said company inevitably results in massive debt, that the new owners pay off by selling off company assets, leaving the company smaller and "leaner" (argue proponents.) In the case of a company like RJR Nabisco, incredible profits can be realized in this sale/purchase. The process drives up the share price, and the sale of company assets can create more profit. In addition to whatever profits the new owner accrues, the whole process of an LBO can be so complicated that it generates millions of dollars in fees for the consultants, banks, advisers, lawyers, and the literal reams of people that appear on the margins of these sorts of deals.

That sounds dry, but the story of how that process unfolded at RJR Nabisco is wildly compelling. Multiple groups attempted to accquire the maker or Camel Lights, assured by the tobacco profits that it was a stable purchase. The negotiations and bids were complicated by a number of interpersonal relationships, grudges, status issues, hubris, and posturing. My favorite financial love-triangle relation in the book was how the chairman of RJR was buddies with the chairman of American Express, who controlled a financial bank, Shearson Lehman Hutton, that was attempting to help the chairman purchase the company. Meanwhile, the Amex chairman's wife is friendly with their main rival and they call and talk on the phone all the time. Also, they own a horse together.

It made me wonder what it really means to be an adult, because most of this behavior in the book, and many of the actions people took were driven by conversations that I heard on the bus coming back from sporting events in high school.

Typical Barbarians Line: Cohen was shocked at the news. How could Kravis betray him like this? He resolved to increase the bid.

Typical High School after a Field Hockey Game Line: Marissa was super upset at the news. How could Claire so coldly snub her? She resolved not to bring any Zima to the party.

The difference is that these adult males are fighting over money - which is just a token in their larger board game of who appears to be a mover and shaker on "the Street" - and the high school girls are at least totally fighting about a party, which is their status symbol to be a mover and shaker in the junior locker area.

(I am very sleepy right now. I will continue later.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Preppin' For Fall

Today was one of those strange and lovely days in life that seemed marked with a theme, a sense of literary continuity that runs throughout the day, recognized and unrecognized, playing itself throughout. I may have read too many books, but I have those days - infrequent but often enough, when everything is an allusion. Today it was fall.

It started easily - I woke up, and through a violent nose-blowing in the morning, realized that the rain yesterday had broken my hayfeverish dreams. My eyes weren't itchy, my throat was clear, and, best of all, the air outside was crisp. The Chicago dog days of summer, humidity and goldenrod were taking their first step of retreat. Fall! It felt like fall!

When I think of fall I have an idealized version of myself I like to picture: it is something like "carefree, fun, young woman on a bike with cool hair and a nice outift." This is sincerely stupid, but imagine something like this in the late sixties - with a nice bag, maybe she's going to write some poetry somewhere, or take a history class, or just be in a cafe and be doing something productive and cool. In New England, maybe. (This is a cool vision unless I got it from the movie Love Story, in which case I am so screwed.) This young woman, I am not. I get on my bike with a helmet and huge backpack, sweating and grimacing as I slop around to rehearsals. Nothing charming in the bag: just-in-case allergy medicine, pens, gum, a book in case I get bored, a stick of deodorant because of the biking, lots of unorganized sketch scripts, carmex. I am not crisp clean unburdened back-to-school girl, pretty and having a great soundtrack. I am regular mess me.

That reality does not prevent me, though, from on the first day of fall, trying to seize my chance at the dream. Why this dream, though?

I remembered while perusing my friend Dorothy's blog and she mentioned reading the book Prep. This vision of girl on bike is singularly preppy. Am I a total preppy person? Maybe? In the midwest you can only sort of do preppy things. People here do not play squash unless they moved here. People here rarely go to real sleep away boarding school. Until J.Crew became a store not a catalogue, no one had whales on their clothes. Sure, I went to a college with plenty of preppies, but true prep has the lingering scent of a lifetime at vacations on the east coast and a disregard for things that are important to me, like Big Ten football and eating a lot.

I blame the books.

I biked to Border's after lunch, looking for something to take with me this weekend, and they had the new Curtis Sittenfeld (author of Prep) novel on a table with lots of other books like Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace and something about a headmaster and such and such. It was, without even being labeled as such, a table of ultimate prep: boarding schools.

Disclaimer: I did go to a private day school.
Other disclaimer: it ain't nothing like a boarding school - I realized this when I visited Choate a few years ago on tour.

This body of literature has singularly fascinated me - and many of us, I assume, seeing that the people familiar with these books and things like Harry Potter which get a lot of material from the boarding school mapping - did not go to a boarding school. We must all be wondering what the hell goes on there.

And those books tell you: phonies and snogging and sweaters and mandatory fall sports and betrayal and sex. Maybe it's the sex that gets us. I skimmed a few pages in the books and realized: I don't want to read about these people right now. These tumultuous teenage days in the crux of privilege - no thank you. I do not care who loves who. I do not care about curfew. I do not care about coming to terms with your identity because you have some overbearing father who doesn't want you to be an actor.

Okay, I also blame The Dead Poets Society.

So I bought Barbarians at the Gate and, unwittingly, consigned myself to reading a book about where the preppies go: Wall Street.

Those preppies! Those ridiculous problems! Those social mores! Brendan Fraiser in School Ties and leafy changing color trees around an athletic field!

I went to rehearsal.

Biking home, I stopped by a soccer game that a friend was coaching and lost all claim to my scorn. Sitting on the sideline on a nice fall day promptly gave me every sensory input I needed to be struck with how life has changed - the kind of nostalgia where you know you don't want to BE a seventh grade soccer player again, but maybe nostalgia for the kind of person you were, or the innocence you had. The kind of nostalgia that makes you want to write terrible poetry. The kind of nostalgia that reminds you what it felt like to go back to school: the slimmest chance for a new start, a new year, a moment to be the bicycle riding girl.

Maybe, that longing for childhood or innocence or tradition represents more broadly the kind of voyeuristic nostalgia we get from prep lit: a quaint bildungsroman wrapped in rich people. Rich people who do crazy shit.

Or maybe the prep lit is all romance: the romance of the WASP culture of the American 1950s. Which is a strange thing to idolize and return to, because that culture was repressive (and much of the prep lit reminds us of that) - or, really, maybe, because it gave us something to rebel against and take the full measure of ourselves.

Possibly, it is both. Possibly (and this is a NY Times editorial David Brooks type stretch so hate me for it as I dislike him) - these books are back because they are simpler and the world now seems more complicated. Now punch me in the face.

I went home, feeling sweet and sweaty. And then I drank a Miller Lite.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

On Chesil Beach

This is an excellent novel. I've gone back and forth on McEwan - I loved Atonement, but really disliked Amsterdam. On Chesil Beach, however, is a masterful accomplishment with McEwan displaying his passion for juxtaposing the personal and social mores that bring us into conflict with ourselves and others. It's just beautiful and it's heart-rending.

For those of you not up on the plot, here's a brief summary: it's 1962. Two newlyweds, both virgins, approach their wedding night with mixed desires and fears brought on by their social milleu and own neurosis. As their marital union approaches we learn about the history of the relationship up to that very moment.

For those of you who wonder why I am not properly underlining the titles of these novels: I can't with this browser and I am nervous about downloading Mozilla Firefox onto my overtaxed and finicky hard drive.

I am going to write more about this novel very soon, but I want to hold off for a little bit.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities: Not Boring!

Lists, take a break. We've got some head-rollin', Bastille-stormin' action to discuss. It's A Tale of Two Cities! And it's awesome!

For a long time, A Tale of Two Cities in particular, and perhaps Dickens in general, has represented, in curricular battles across the country, the sort of novel that should be replaced by something more contemporary, more diverse, more timely for the lives of students today. Every time I saw it I immediately thought "boring." It just represented boring - something you maybe had to read in 8th or 9th grade, or you missed it because your school decided that it was just too boring and old white man-ish. I didn't have to read it. No one ever made me read Dickens.

And I'm not going to say that it's a damn shame and enter the politically charged battles over what classroom literature should include and exclude...but it's a damn shame. Because Dickens is not an erudite, distracted, or aristocratic writer. He is a masterful social satirist, ingenious at character, and satisfying and exciting at plot in a manner that is hard to find today.

I literally stumbled upon it, coming home very late from a party. I had my 3am pizza and I wanted something to read. Normally I would choose an US magazine at a time like this so I could ogle the lives of those accursed slaves to fame and sort of get interested by what is in their shopping carts....I digress. Dickens was sitting on my bedroom floor. So I started to read and realized - this book is good. When I started again the next morning, I realized it was great.

A Tale of Two Cities deals with the time before the French Revolution in Paris and London, switching back and forth between sets of interconnected characters - connected, in that delightfully Dickensian way, by fateful ties that unfold as chapters progress, giving us new insight into what is going to happen. There's a little bit of a love story, sure, but the love story is perfunctory. It goes to the sweetest, purest characters in the novel, but our interest, like Dickens, lies with the scallywags, the unfortunate, the flawed.

Dickens is the consummate observer of our human behaviors and patterns and reserves no scorn for our bloodthirsty impulses. Part of the genuis of the novel is how he shifts between sympathies for the French underclass, yet slowly turns on them when their tyranny proves to be no more enlightend than that of the Bourbons. Here his the ironic summation of a prosecutor's closing argument, "that they, being a responsible jury, must positively find the prisoner guilty and make an end of him, whether they liked it or not. That they could never lay their heads upon their pillows; they they never could toleratre the idea of their wives laying their heads upon their pillows; that, they could never endure the notion of their children laying their heads upon their pillows; in short that there never could be, for them or theirs, any laying of heads upon pillows at all, unless the prisoner's head was taken off."


Finishing A Tale of Two Cities also led me to crack open my old European History textbook and try to remember something about the mess that was the French Revolution. Reading that chapter (along with struggling past marginal notes and some really committed underlining) made me realize that this is also a fairly radical, committed and populist take on events. The book, as textbooks are, was dry and full of sentences like "the position of the French underclass is understated compared to the influence the bourgeoise brought to bear on events."

A Tale of Two Cities is full of anger, venom, and a barely sustained passion in the face of change. It is redemptive and terrifying, Hobbesian and hopeful.