Apr 092018
 

The poster image for this season is awkward, unattractive, and confused.

I look at it and all I see is that ominous, grasping hand attached to a blank mask surrounded by fire. Call me a coward, but that pretty clearly reads as “RUN! Monster coming!”, no? But when I saw it in wide format versions, I realized this isn’t some faceless thing crawling toward me and reaching out to grab me. It is someone clinging to a ship in space, trying to save themselves. All images are ambiguous, but this one is divided against itself in the worst possible way.

That said, the image actually works pretty well as a representation of the second season of The Expanse because the episodes themselves are pretty confused about what they’re up to.

If I’m generous, the first season’s slow-crawl through less than half of the book it was adapting (and its many pointless changes to the plot) surely threw the second season off-balance. To keep going, the second season needed to pick up the pace and move through a book and a half of material. It also had to push the narrative back in line with its multi-volume source. That’s a big task, and it was rough going.

Actually, I struggled to get through it, quitting for several months after watching only the first half of the season. Eventually I started back and then quit again after a few boring wandering episodes mid-season. Only recently did I watch the last four.

Here’s the odd thing though: the fact that the story does get on track and that it seems to be settling into a steady pace in those last episodes has left me unexpectedly (but mildly) optimistic about what’s to come. (And I do like watching Steven Strait, Dominique Tipper and Shohreh Aghdashloo.)

Still I’m not jumping in right away on the third season. Despite my enthusiasm for Leviathan’s Wake, I found Caliban’s War dull and repetitive. I haven’t read the third book yet and I probably won’t watch the third season until I do, which might take me awhile. For now, it’s deep in the reading pile with a lot of better books sitting on top of it.

Apr 072018
 

I hate the act of watching television: the weekly schedule, the commercials, the hassle of figuring out what’s on, the crappy episodes that fill space and the cliffhangers that try to bring you back once you’re done. It all annoys and frustrates me, and as a result, for long stretches of my adult life I’ve had no television. And when I have had one, I haven’t subscribed to anything beyond basic cable, because cable just makes everything worse by orders of magnitude.

(As an aside, once when I was young—maybe nine or ten—I did something (I don’t remember what) and my father sent me to my room as punishment. Whatever I did must have upset my mom pretty badly though because she intervened and said, “No. He’s going to sit here and watch television with the rest of us.” So for the next half-hour I sat crying on the couch in front of the TV. Lesson learned.)

DVD box sets and now the combination of Netflix, iTunes and Apple TV changed all of this because now I can watch television series without having to watch television. This has been a revelation. Yes, managing multiple subscriptions is a hassle—and I came to Transparent late because I wasn’t subscribed to Amazon Prime—but  it’s worth the trouble.

In general, the shows that appeal to me the most generally reach for a novelistic scale. (And in those cases where a series doesn’t seem to be reaching for it, if I like it, it’s usually because I see an unintentional reach emerging across the episodes.) Concretely this scale usually manifests as seasons of ten or twelve episodes, each of which is roughly fifty minutes long. These episodes develop a complex, multi-threaded narrative which, thanks largely to the recent successes of HBO, seems to have become something like the standard for “quality” television.

Jill Soloway moves this notion of “quality” in a very different direction. Like I Love Dick, the first season of Transparent is built of brief episodes of only thirty minutes each. Each operates something like an overtly incomplete collection of scenes. These scenes develop a story, but they also make visible gaps in the narrative that are filled in only by implication and supposition. Imagined in terms of painting, the series is a careful combination of positive and negative space.

I have two lingering thoughts about the first season.

First, I can’t help seeing Soloway as the true dauphin of 90s New Queer Cinema, a movement of real aesthetic power that I worry will slip away into the past and be lost. Soloway clearly works within its aesthetic. Her concrete treatment of media, her use of found images, her reliance on technique from underground film, and her self-consciousness and deep political commitment are all direct links to that earlier historical moment. Yet importantly, she fuses this heritage with comedic and melodramatic story forms that make her work attractive and accessible in a way so little of the New Queer Cinema was.

Second, there are no gay male characters in this season. Gay men appear—partying unseen but loudly next door early on for example—but they do not matter. Given the self-awareness and political commitments of this very queer series, I don’t think their absence is an oversight. Quite to the contrary, I read it as a kind of calling out: gay men’s lives have been improved immensely by the efforts of legions of queer people, but as the political needle has moved toward accepting the idea that white, affluent, stylish men might be allowed to love each other, the political fire seems to have died out in many of these white guy’s bellies. The fight for all queer people’s rights continues, but, as this series points out, these gay men aren’t around. I think this is a purposeful and powerful gesture.

Apr 062018
 

Carson McCullers is interested in the feelings and the states of understanding of adolescents and other marginal people who are on the cusp of self discovery or transformation. She also writes in slow motion, capturing their subtle emotional variations and incremental changes in perception. She sets the tiniest stages of a thought in sharp relief. As a result, following her narration of a scene takes patience.

McCullers’s novel made me conscious of how—during  important periods of my life, yes, but also in ordinary days and boring weeks, in conversations with others but also when I’m alone—my feelings operate as a process and develop through variation. Yet in memory, the process isn’t retained. I remember my feelings as nouns rather than verbs. McCullers’s novel reminded me of the busy work of feeling that I continue to forget and restored (at least for a moment) the complexity and significance of that work to my sense of the fleeting moments of daily life. (Aciman’s in Call Me by Your Name reminded me of this as well.)

Frankie, the novel’s young protagonist, is difficult and cantankerous. Yet everything about her bristles with life and enthusiasm: she is alive to herself and is working as hard as she can within her limited means to make the materials of her childhood into a Self. She’s fierce, takes risks and is playing for stakes, yet she remains open to being touched by others as she struggles to be different, elsewhere and better, three terms that to her are largely synonymous. How can you not be charmed by that?

Finally, it’s worth saying that McCullers’s diction here is a feat of strength. Without resorting to odd neologisms or showy deep-dives into the OED, she describes subtle difference of emotion and of setting while maintaining a consistent register of lanugage. If this novel were a painting it would be richly monochromatic. The effect is so seductive that, by the end, I found myself nostalgic for a Georgia summer heat I’d fled years ago because her description of it convinced me that I’d somehow missed its beauty. I hadn’t—I’m sure of that—but if you’ve ever endured that heat without air conditioning for any length of time, you can appreciate what a powerful spell McCullers must weave in order to make me think I had.

 April 6, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Apr 022018
 

I experienced this book like a delirium.

This is the Antebellum West, the Civil War and Reconstruction viewed through the eyes of a gender fluid gay soldier who cares less about history than the soldier he loves and who loves him back. Because he’s the narrator, the book follows his lead, never questioning the nature of their affections and presenting the physicality of their relationship bluntly from the outset.

The result is dream-like and utopic and is disturbed only occasionally by outsiders. For example, after meeting with the couple on official business and saying nothing about the narrator wearing a dress, a military official later writes to schedule a second meeting and requests that the narrator come dressed as a man.

Yet however idealized the narrator’s relationship, the world he lives in and the wars he participates in are brutal and cruel. The book draws a great deal of its energy from the narrator’s casual disengagement from this bloody (and often genocidal) violence. I couldn’t sort out the tone of this distance.

Eventually though I began to wonder whether the other people caught up in the violence—especially the Native Americans—were simply wind0w-dressing and whether this was symptomatic of the author’s outside position vis-a-vis the American conquest of the West. Could it be that he set out to write a western, and from across the Atlantic, the detailed historical backdrop appears to serve primarily as a generic (but literary) setting? I don’t know, and find this aspect of the book troubling.

 April 2, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Apr 012018
 

This book is populated by characters that became real to me as I watched them live for forty years or so in New York. They aren’t interesting in any extraordinary or flashy way—which makes the title odd—but I cared about them and became involved enough in their lives to lose track of the fact that the book would end.

Now that it has, I feel torn up and sad the way you do when you lose people.

Update: That last bit surely sounds exaggerated, but it’s not. I miss Ethan, Ash, Jonah, Jules and Denis. There’s no other way to say it, and I’ve been in a funk all day from their story being done.

 April 1, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with:
Mar 312018
 

It’s been a long time since I’ve taught a book where the gap between how much I loved it and how much my students disliked it was as large as it was with Karen Russell’s collection of short stories.

I can say without reservation that these stories are (almost without exception) marvelous. Funny and allegorical, they are a lot like bones: let them simmer slowly over a steady heat and they give up riches. Yet my students, who I thought would be sucked in by the fantastic elements and young adult protagonists, were put off and confused by them. They asked things like “Do the goggles really let them see ghosts?” and “Are the girls werewolves?”—which is fine but only if you’re willing to accept that the answer is “Yes. But maybe not.” And then to think about how “yes” changes your sense of the story, and then how “no” and “maybe” do. For reasons I don’t really understand, my class wouldn’t go there and got hung up on the ambiguity generated by the conceits.

Here’s my dream though: they have read the thing and someday, they are going to be at a cocktail party, trying their best to fit in and to impress but failing and when they leave and become self-hating and say to themselves (or to their significant other) something along the lines of “I’m like an animal and am not fit to attend these things and I don’t understand why anyone would invite me to wander loose among the humans like that,” they’ll remember this book and think “oh, wait, I get it now…”

 March 31, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with:
Mar 312018
 

The idea for this book is straightforward: cull the biographical material for enough details to describe a typical work day for each of the chosen writers.

I know most of the writers here quite well, and yet the resulting portraits turned out to be fascinating. A biography presents a life, but how someone fits the thing it is that they do into that life operates like a windows onto their personality and their sense of who they are.

 March 31, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Mar 302018
 

I was impressed by two things about this book.

The first is that, in an effort to get things right on a large scale by pulling disparate events together and identifying patterns, Harari is willing to risk being wrong by going out on a limb. The cruel irony of higher education is that it teaches most people to play it safe. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know, but you’ve studied dammit and you want to be right about what they’re right about. So listening to or reading informed academics talk is a bit like watching rabbits chew lettuce: it’s all little bites with eyes on horizon, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. Harari isn’t like that at all. He goes out on limbs, sometimes in areas I know a fair bit about. Sometimes I questioned what he was saying in those areas. But in general, I liked those moments of the book the best because they made a claim and trusted I’d take the time to think about it.

The second thing that impressed me was the clarity with which his book demonstrated what anthropology offers as an academic field. I studied history as an undergraduate and continue to read it as an amateur. Somewhere along the line, I’d foolishly decided that anthropology was the historical study of people living without writing (and of cavemen and of the liberal arts version of evolution). Harari’s book makes me realize that this conception of the field is ignorant enough to approach idiocy. Anthropology is a study of Culture and conceptualizes the term with enough sophistication and breadth to make the “Cultural Studies” I’m familiar with seem parochial. This reassessment of the field is the most significant thing I took away from the book.

 March 30, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with:
Mar 222018
 

The first season of this show started out as The Matrix and ends up as Fight Club. As crazy as it sounds, I feel like I should have seen this switch coming several episodes earlier than I did.

The narrative here is gimmicky and the visuals and narration wallow in ostentation. Cramped framing of figures, disorienting jumps over key events, these are, I suppose, thematic. They are certainly expressive. At root though, they are a kind of stunt. And they work.

Someday—and I know what kind of day it will be: rainy or snowy, after a long week, when I’m feeling spent but alert—I’ll surely click “play” on the first episode of season two. But I don’t really feel much urgency about it.

 March 22, 2018  TV Logs Tagged with:
Mar 182018
 

This history of the Antebellum period is complex and breathtaking. The country changed so much in these years that Polk’s administration feels like a different world than Buchanan’s. There are lots of ways to track that change. One of the best I’ve read is actually a novel: James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird.

This history couldn’t be more different from that book. Whereas the novel watched the world from ground level and from a marginal space imagined within central events of the period, this history leaps into the political center without shying away from the details of committee conferences, vote counts, and the back-and-forth of parliamentary procedures. This is a story of power struggles played out in halls of government and across the western territories. Yet, the whole is handled with such a sure hand that the details enliven rather than obscure the developing events.

This book fits nicely across the joint connecting What Hath God Wrought? and Battle Cry of Freedom. Perhaps more unsettling is the way it seems to offer insight into the resentments and risks the States are muddling through today.

 March 18, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,