Arsenic And Old Cake

October 29, 2013

On October 28, 1922, a man named William Wrey Sterrett died at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Philadelphia. He seems to have been the quiet type in life; an accountant for Price Waterhouse, he lived an uneventful life with his wife, Martha Campbell Sterrett, in Devon, Pennsylvania. The couple had been married for eight years and had no children. Nor, apparently, did they have an extensive social life: the friends dredged up by newspaper reporters all had kind words to say about him but most of them centered around how unassuming he was. “A home type,” several friends told the Chester County Daily Local News. In an article printed on October 31, The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted more anonymous friends as having “nothing but praise for the dead accountant … while not a person of the kind that made idle boasts, he was always willing to enter into discussions of various sorts, and his advice was generally regarded as good.”

Apart from these modified raptures, the only other distinctive pieces of information about “the dead accountant” were that he and his wife had just bought a new house and that they also liked to go antiquing on the weekends. So far, so unremarkable — until Thursday, October 26, 1922. That afternoon, Mrs. Sterrett picked up the mail at the Devon post office and discovered that she had received a package “about the size of a pound candy box” (according to the October 29th Daily Local News), addressed with a typewritten label to Mrs. W.W. Sterrett. It had no return address but had been postmarked in Philadelphia. The postmistress, Mrs. (or Miss — the papers differ) Gillies, turned out to be happy to share Mrs. Sterrett’s reaction with newspaper reporters. Under the subheading “NERVOUS AT POST OFFICE,” we learn that Mrs. Sterrett, speaking in an “excited manner” speculated on the contents of the box and said that she would hurry home at once to see what it contained. However, “the box remained unopened until the arrival of Mr. Sterrett on a later train, and when the box was uncovered it was found to contain a piece of brown cake known as `devil’s food’ and it was covered with a pink icing. Mr. Sterrett partook freely of the cake, but Mrs. Sterrett, it is said, did not eat as much.” (Newspaper accounts of the cake would differ: according to The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, both publishing on October 29th, the cake was golden and, as the NYT stated, “had the appearance of having been cut from a large wedding cake.” Later, the Inquirer occasionally referred to the cake as having been devil’s food. One thing was certain: the Sterretts had between them eaten every crumb of it).

“What’s In The Box?”


Disruption and Performance: The John Vanderslice Oregon Living Room Shows, June 2013

August 7, 2013

I don’t pretend to be a person who knows a lot about performance theory; I certainly don’t play one on the Internet. In fact, I know almost nothing about the field besides the few articles I taught, and poorly, in my prior incarnation as an instructor of interpersonal communication. However, I recently had the incredible opportunity to attend not one or two or even three, but FOUR glorious nights of living room concert shows given by the singular John Vanderslice, and I found myself thinking more and more about Goffman’s concepts of front-stage and backstage behavior, as well as about notions of public and private space. 

What constitutes a performance? What is a performance space? How is the distinction between performer and audience built up, maintained, destroyed? What are the benefits to these binary distinctions? How can the artificial or organic distinctions between performer and audience best be disrupted? What are the outcomes of doing so? What does it mean for a private individual to open up his or her home, salon-style, to strangers from the Internet? 

First, before I devolve into any longer digressions than those for which I’m already well known around here, let me explain that John Vanderslice has long been among my favorite musicians, ever since I went to a show at which he was opening for the Mountain Goats in 2004 (and, see here how I revert to the rhetoric of establishing what, for lack of a better term, can be referred to as “cred” – another performance?). Cellar Door had a lot of songs that seemed loosely based on films, and as someone who would shortly ruin her life with the pursuit of graduate degrees in film studies, I really liked the songs; moreover, he was an effusive, friendly human being, and everyone’s into that, except sociopaths. I was so impressed that I ultimately wrote him in for vice-president (of the United States of America) when I voted later that fall (I voted for John Darnielle for president). Un/fortunately, we get the democracy we deserve (Don’t worry. It was a Diebold machine and I lived in Florida, so my vote probably did not count anyway).*


Here is the first of several exhortations I shall make for you to check out his music, because I have great taste in media. Anyway, I’ve gone to many, many shows over the years, though due to circumstances in my life I hadn’t seen him play since about 2009. Thus, when I drove down to Salem for the first show, I was very excited. This proved to be a good strategy.


In addition to not being a scholar of performance theory, I’m also not a music writer – indeed, despite once having had a music-related book shortlisted for publication and ostensibly working on lyrics rights to move it forward with another publisher, I actually loathe most music writing. So I’m not going to try to engage in Music Writing Itself here. However, I will say that just like all of Vanderslice’s albums, 2013’s Dagger Beach really resonated with me in terms of not only its content, but in terms of its production, as it was self-released and funded through Kickstarter. I was proud to be a supporter – even if the record had sucked, which it emphatically did the opposite of, I was really excited to be part of something that subverted tradition, because that’s just what I’m all about.


Here, instead, are my impressions of each show and some thoughts about what the practice of living room shows, especially with this specific performer, do to disrupt people’s assumptions about performance. Here are also my thoughts about damn near whatever else pops into my head. Again, keep in mind I think some of the ideas I’m raising are probably pretty basic to those better-versed in performance theory, and quite possibly rather pretentious to those who are not.

SALEM, JUNE 13th, 2013: I had never been to a living room show before and didn’t really know what to expect, other than sheer awesomeness. Luckily, my expectations were exceeded most excellently. For one thing, the extremely gracious hosts had nearly unlimited cookies. For another, there were only about 20 people, and the “intimate” setting really set the tone for how subversive I think this whole living room show is.


I should mention here that as I was trying to convince a friend to go to these shows with me, I described my interest in Live Music Events™ as rooted in narrative. I always found something beautiful in the fact that a room full of hundreds, if not thousands or even tens of thousands, of strangers would unite for one prescribed event and then disperse. They would always share that short chapter in their lives. This is probably best exemplified by the afterlife of Heavy Metal Parking Lot.


The atmosphere was really more of a salon, as in the 18th century thing (Note: I have never, personally, been party to nor attended an 18th century salon; I’m still working on my time machine). Vanderslice offered not only a lot of great stories and “behind-the-music” type things,  While at a lot of the “club” shows I’ve gone to, performers have occasionally responded to catcalls from the audience, this seemed to be a fluid conversation. Rather than a hybrid dualism created by the heteroglossic audience acting as a mob calling out to the performer, on a physical pedestal of the stage (Something Vanderslice actually mentioned), here everyone seemed to be an individual.

At one point, Vanderslice received backup vocals from the adorable child of the hosts. She was pretty good. The entire evening was warm and beautiful; I personally hope that if there is an afterlife that is not a punishment, it is approximately or exactly like that. I could have stayed forever, but that would have been creepy.


PORTLAND THE FIRST (June 13th, 2013): The next day, I went to a house in Portland, where a much larger crowd attended (of almost 50! It was starting to feel like I was in college again and a “huge lecture class” was like, 25 people). Again, the show was distinctive for how fluid it felt, just like hanging out in, well, someone’s living room, instead of being a Live Music Event with discrete boundaries and definitions. (Here I must add that when I got there, it was like entering the world’s happiest AA meeting [and only AA meeting at which people were drinking beer, probably] because Vanderslice announced to the room, “Hey everybody. This is Miranda and she’s awesome” and everybody was like, “hiiii!”). Although the post-show dance party to synth music never really got started, it was a similarly inclusive and wonderful event.

PORTLAND THE SECOND (June 14th, 2013): This was the first show that I didn’t go to alone. This in and of itself was wildly exciting and rare to me. Here, the audience-performer dichotomy was disrupted by the singing along, the interactions between performer and audience (at one point, Vanderslice stopped and asked my friend what kind of camera he had) and the overall feeling of subversion. We learned of the extremely hilarious true story behind “Convict Lake,” a story improved even more by the fact that I was sitting behind another adorable child, who did not completely understand the narrative, particularly the parts about dropping acid.


MEDFORD (June 18th, 2013): When I told people I was going to Medford for a concert in a stranger’s living room, they acted as though I was maybe selling a kidney to a stranger or something. Granted, I am still new enough to Oregon and still bad enough at general planning to not have realized that Medford was actually further than Seattle would have been, but who cares? I was able to talk one of my best friends into going with me, so I went down to Eugene in the afternoon and she and I drove down to Medford that evening. Everyone in Portland described Medford in a way that I had begun to expect something like this, but let me put it on record again to say that Oregon is so unbelievably beautiful it’s sort of unfair to all those other states. 

 Anyway, this was the smallest of the four shows. It was also the only one in which the audience’s direct participation was invoked for an extra-performative event, specifically, the murder of Mike L. from the Guitar Center commercials, who reportedly lives an empty, vapid life defined by high-interest consumer debt, musical dilettantism, and the total absence of any meaningful personal relationships, other than superficial interactions with the underpaid retail workers whose lives he makes more miserable on a daily basis.

The incitement to Mike L’s murder, to which the audience was extremely receptive, will probably go down as one of the most important events at one of the most memorable John Vanderslice shows, as the audience rose up from their seats chanting “Kill! Kill!” Ruthlessly, Vanderslice exhorted the audience to go forth from Medford, drive to Los Angeles, and destroy Mike L., preferably “with fire.” The long-term consequences of this incitement remain to be seen, but it was observed any violence would clearly constitute euthanasia, as Mike L.’s life appears so empty and meaningless. Despite the fact that as recently as the week before, Vanderslice had said good things about Guitar Center, as they had sold him a cheap capo and some picks, it was clear by Medford that he was out for blood. Regardless, the show still managed to be warm, welcoming, and inclusive. 


I later heard from an informant that the same thing happened at one of the Seattle shows.

I am not sure exactly how to end this; I’m always terrible at ending conversations or monologues. I don’t know what the major take-away here is, I don’t know if this is really a good fit for this blog, and I’ve actually been writing this for more than 6 weeks now. So I guess I’ll just end it with:

I highly recommend this context for shows for the above reasons, and of course I recommend Vanderslice’s music. I think living room shows are about more than the commodification of experience, but instead represent a meaningful and important instance of opposition to the hegemony in an age in which media is increasingly fraught, contested, and corporate. By occurring in spaces that are by definition private, yet by welcoming everyone, and by blurring the rigid boundary between performance and “real life,” whatever that is, living room shows of this nature are a phenomenon in today’s modern music scene.

Stay transgressive, loyal readers!**             

  *In an extremely absurd turn of events, in January 2008, my face was briefly shown on The Daily Show as I explained this to John Oliver. Really.

**Fun fact: transgressive is not actually in the MS Word dictionary. TALK ABOUT PERFORMATIVITY GUYS


Man of Steel: A Thoughtful Film that Gets Superman Right

June 14, 2013

I have attempted to avoid spoilers in this review, but different people have different spoiler thresholds. Caveat emptor.

We all bring baggage of some kind into the art we experience, even if it’s not liking art or never having seen Mad Men because you’re lame. Sometimes it’s an intense identification with a character who’s celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday this year. But maybe you’re in the “don’t like ‘splosions” crowd or the “NO CHANGES!” confederacy or you really just like Batman uber alles. I get that. I’ve been some of those people.

I love Superman. As a kid, I wore Superman pajamas until they didn’t fit anymore, and continued for a while even after my feet burst

Christopher Reeve as Superman

Christopher Reeve as Superman

through the soles of the stocking part. I watched Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie as often as I could, and Terence Stamp was my idea of self-important rebel leaders before I knew what that really meant. I watched whatever the hell Superman III and IV were supposed to be, and they kind of freaked me out (III came out when I was 2, so I probably saw it for the first time when I was 4 or 5. At least one scene in that movie is *intense*). I watched Supergirl, and a not so successful Superboy TV show, and Lois & Clark, a dull show with some inspired performances.

My main takeaway from what I saw in Superman in films and television and a very few comics read in the supermarket while Mom was grocery shopping, is that if we have the chance, we should help people. Even when the bad guy is the one who needs help. Maybe, if you’re the only one who can help but that help may kill you, you still help. Even if it seems impossible, you still try, no matter the odds. Superman does everything, and anything, he can, to help people who need his help.

Superman made sense to me. He has amazing gifts, but he doesn’t use them for frivolity like financial gain or athletics. He uses his powers to make a decent living for himself as a normal guy, and to help other people who wouldn’t be helped if he weren’t there. To make a difference.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve established a more complex view of how Superman’s powers work and should be used, and as I’ve been reading up on the modern era of Superman comics these last few months, I’m glad to see that comic book writers think with greater complexity on these issues, too. Superman is still a good man, who uses his powers to help people, and sometimes entire civilizations. I’m on board with that. But he is also a man: he makes mistakes, and he lives in a world where sometimes, the morally correct choice isn’t between the good and the bad, it’s between the bad and the awful, or the bad and the vaguely worse. He can’t always solve problems by being faster, stronger, or smarter than the bad guys. Stories don’t always have happy endings. Like the real world. I’m happy with this version of Superman: I like the big blue Scout, but a man of his stature surely encounters issues more complex than whether to save a kitten from a tree.

As I entered Man of Steel, I was a man who wears the shield of El as a ring on his finger every day, with the experience of reading thousands of comic books and dozens of graphic novels and a few scholarly essays on the subject of my favorite hero. Can Man of Steel live up to the Superman I believe in, a man who saves the world by helping people, by using his abilities in a good cause, by fighting when there is no fight left in him, while still acknowledging that even the powers of a god can’t solve every problem in a clean, positive way?

Happily, it managed to meet and exceed those wishes, and I am very happy for its success. It is complex, has substantial arcs for each of its three leads (who I take to be Clark, Lois, and Zod), and gets Superman right: he’s a great man. Flawed, but still great. [Warning: there may be spoilers beyond this point. I tried to avoid them, but there are some plot details you might not want to know]

Read the rest of this entry »

The Anti-Immersive Experience: WarioWare Smooth Moves (2007)

June 4, 2013

After co-editing the book Immersive Gameplay, it seems only appropriate that I kvetch a little about the word “immersion.” I’m not the first one to do so. Gamers often see it as their holy grail, just as “entertainment” was seen by earlier media consumers as some sort of objective. The functionality of the term is obvious: people want to distinguish the experience of being “immersed/entertained” within a given media environment versus the monotony of everyday life, with all its setbacks and drudgery.

Yeah, I get it. The “immersion” is that thing you’re paying money for, right? Never mind Jesper Juul’s recent essay The Art of Failure, which depicts just how much we rely on failing and negative emotion to engage us with media such as video games in the first place. Never mind how games consistently play with the boundaries between meta-level and narrative thinking. Consumers fervently believe that game designers are creating responsible playgrounds in which they can lose themselves. Said consumers often don’t realize they’re in the hands of perverse madmen and madwomen, who are incentivizing strange behavior… such as sitting in front of a screen for nine hours on a nice day. Let’s face it: we gamers are usually the subs in a dom/sub relationship, and our presumed “immersion” in a game usually relies on how good that sub position feels. Oh. Yes.

But there’s one game in particular that makes our gamer subbiness self-evident, that offers a Brechtian moment of truly alienating game activity, that maintains consciousness of gaming’s postmodern and metacognitive impulses.

Of course, I’m talking about WarioWare Smooth Moves (2007) for the Nintendo Wii.


Perhaps the total antithesis to a game like Journey (2012), WarioWare Smooth Moves is an anti-immersive experience of the first order. The game consists of over 200 mini-games, each of which require the player to hold the WiiMote in a different, silly fashion. As the player marches through the levels, the tempo of the music and gameplay increases until the player is forced to drop out. This level-based acceleration might be no different from any old coin-op arcade game set-up, but each mini-game is so radically different on an aesthetic level that half the gameplay involves the mere successful assimilation of each new game environment and its surreal contents.

Take a look:

The game has been pitched in many circles as a “crazy party game” or “wack Japanese game,”  but I think it’s more than that. In highlighting the general ADD quality of the videogame environment, its materiality (through the game’s continuous citation of previous Nintendo products and characters), and its almost pointless interaction cues, it is impossible to play WarioWare Smooth Moves without also remaining acutely aware of the fact that this Wii machine in front of you is demanding that you do things. The music is annoying, and nevertheless the player finds oneself dancing to it. The WiiMote moves are deliberately silly and presented ironically, and yet the player must perform them on cue and in under 5 seconds. The visuals make absolutely no sense – even to the Japanese – and yet their druggy surrealism forms a core component of our interaction with the game (similar to the analog game Dixit). As Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) deconstructs the melodrama by way of demonstrating its excesses, so too does WarioWare Smooth Moves offer a mini-game experience so thoroughly excessive as to render the term “game” meaningless. Instead, the player is reacting to a series of disconnected stimuli in an empirical hell only Ernst Mach could have conceived (or WarioWare Smooth Moves creator Goro Abe, for that matter). Abe permits the player to stare into the architecture of game incentives by way of a pointillist archive of mini-games with their own ludic flavors. Each mini-game issues its own command: “Drink!” “Rotate!” “Defend!” “Sort!” But only when the player pauses to observe what bizarre situation the game has presented can he/she coherently carry out this “verb” with the WiiMote.

Our goals as game players and designers should reach beyond “immersion” to that cognitive space beyond the placation of our senses. The new cyber-modernity demands its own forms of alienation, and new cult classics such as WarioWare Smooth Moves have stepped up to the plate. No longer dismissing such programs as “crazy” and “Japanese,” the discerning gamer can now see how the game itself thinks. There, one finds not immersion, but truly new and unusual territory to explore.

You Need to Read My Struggle: Volume 1 A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

June 3, 2013

Book recommendation: My Struggle, Book One

Continuing with my intermittent attempts to blog about the best books I read this year, today I am recommending the first volume of the English-language edition of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s colossal work My Struggle. Yeah, you read that correctly. My struggle. It sounds worse in Norwegian: Min kamp.

Ouch. No, I assure you, the title is not what you’re thinking. 

What is there for me to write, though, other than “go read it?” I feel it might be somewhat within the spirit of the novel to torture you with a hundreds-or-thousands-words-long blog post first. Briefly, the book is the first of a six-volume series concerning Knausgaard’s first forty-odd years of life; the first volume, called A Death in the Family concerns both Knausgaard’s youth and the later death of his father.

But bear with me. Even as the popular media seems to regard with suspicion the institution of books that are difficult and devoid of sparkly vampire romance, I, at least, still strongly believe in the value of those nearly-intractable books that one must work at in order to understand.

And that’s why I think you should read My Struggle. The one-sentence summary, which is by necessity vapid, would describe this work as a six-volume attempt to describe, in almost excruciating detail, his own struggle: with his consciousness, mostly, though also with his family, self, society, etc. There is also an implicit struggle, that of the reader with the text and him or herself, which I’ll discuss later. 

The six-volume series, of which volume two came out in English in early May, has been compared to both Proust and Hitler, which is actually really impressive if you think about it. However, the similarities are obviously superficial. First, the title is, obviously, deliberately provocative and has otherwise nothing in common with Hitler’s prison memoir.  Second, while Proust’s and Knausgaard’s projects are about the – forgive me – struggle to depict the vagaries of consciousness, Knausgaard has little in common with Proust other than the fact that both are European writers whom very few would categorize as minimalists.  

Much has been made in the media of the “Faustian bargain” Knausgaard allegedly struck by depicting in unsparing detail his family. Reviewers, I have noticed, seem obsessed with either pigeonholing the book into the category of overly long, abstruse European books (and this is the only gee-shucks-it’s-long comment I’ll make: it is awfully hard to pigeonhole a 3500-page work into anything) or into the category of autobiography. I feel this reductive assessment does the book something of a disservice. Instead, I’ll do it a disservice all my own!

One of the strengths of Knausgaard’s writing, I believe, lies not on its sheer breadth or depth, but in how by amassing detail on this scale, Knausgaard seems to make his episodic narrative seem effortless. Superficially, it may seem as though the book is an overstuffed exercise in shameful excess, yet considering the authorial choices Knausgaard made regarding what to include – a cat stretching, his own extremely detailed tossing and turning – the book begins to feel almost cinematic. That is, not in the way so much recent fiction has  – by this I mean fiction evoking the cinema, if not cynically with a book deal in mind in terms of pacing, character descriptions, etc., but a fiction that takes its storytelling conventions from cinema more than from the tradition of the written word. But with Knausgaard, that which would otherwise seem a haphazard jungle of detail becomes part of an elegant and strategically-planned opus.

 Instead, My Struggle seems to evoke a dreamy aesthetic evocative of Rohmer or Fassbinder in its lingering, unforgiving gaze, an aesthetic with an inverted time-content curve. The book is far more Jeanne Dielman* than Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I enjoyed so much of My Struggle, but when I started thinking of it as a cinematic book in the style of “European” cinema, I felt something click. So much of the pleasure of the novel resides in being inside someone’s deeply uncomfortable mind and in looking until it becomes uncomfortable. This framework made me feel like I “got” what it was Knausgaard was trying to do.

Much has been made of the affinities the book shares with our culture of oversharing and reality television. We accept now with relatively little fuss the exhaustive celebrity pabulum that passes for news in this culture, and with only the slightest bit of derision do we welcome new trends in social networking and surveillance. Much of asserting one’s identity within a certain socio-cultural class these days seems to revolve around emphasizing one’s non-participation in these phenomena. One could then make an argument about taste politics here: what makes My Struggle interesting is its engagement – as a piece of “high-brow” literature – with the dynamic that functions as an engine of “low-brow” culture (i.e., reality television). In that sense, the title could refer to the struggle felt by the typical overeducated, socially conscious, insufferably liberal reader (i.e., myself). Here one could return to the NYTimes piece linked earlier, of which I’m not a fan (although that is a shambolic rant for another day). How can a reasonably aware, socially and politically conscious, pseudo-intellectual reader struggle with reconciling the basest human tendencies of voyeurism in an oversaturated media culture and attempting to – in a bowdlerization of this very blog’s tagline – nourish one’s mind with challenging literature?

Obviously, my solution to this struggle was to write a less elegantly-planned-but-similarly-overlong blog post. 

I think it could then be said that My Struggle transcends these taste cultures (which themselves might be cultures of social class) in a very subtly confrontational way, and for that reason, I consider it essential reading. But don’t take my words for it. 

Have you read My Struggle (Vol. 1)? If so, what did you think?

(For a full list of everything I’ve read this year, and to be social networking friends, see Goodreads).

* “Plot keywords: meat loaf.” I LOL-IRL’ed

Almodóvar’s Kika (1993) – Postmodern Comedy at its Best

February 13, 2013

The last couple of months have been quite stressful. Strangely enough, I have found the ultimate relief in early Almodóvar films.

Almodovar on the set of Kika

“Almodóvar?” you ask. “Isn’t that the director who makes those flamboyant, disturbing Spanish movies with Antonio Banderas or Penelope Cruz? How can those be stress relief?”

I respond to your rhetorical question with another one posed by A.O. Scott:

“Can there be such a thing as exuberant melancholy?”

No, seriously – Tony’s question is a valid one with regard to Almodóvar’s films. How can he make movies that breathe so well – that can be funny, disturbing and tragic all at the same time without resorting to recognizable clichés? Whether or not one buys into the auteur theory, Almodóvar has an unmistakable directorial signature that nevertheless produces a very different film every time. To quote Tony again, “[his] plots thicken and explode according to their own peculiar logic.” (Which is why I’m s0 excited about I’m So Excited.)


Kika is an uneven, postmodern, self-conscious mess with spectacular pacing and characterization. The film is about an upbeat protagonist in a vicious, cruel society full of the depraved and the depressed, much like in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky (2008). It has all the trappings of a dark comedy, but Almodóvar (as with many of his early comedies) reaches for the bottom of the abyss.


The titular protagonist is a make-up artist who gets involved in affairs with a voyeuristic photographer and his writer/serial killer father Nicholas. The apex of the film occurs when the voyeur son Ramón films from a distant apartment as Kika is raped three times by a randy prison escapee, all whilst Ramón’s father murders a woman in the bedroom upstairs. While any other film would frame this moment in the most misogynistic terms imaginable – emphasizing the voyeuristic affinities between the spectator and the three male perpetrators – Almodóvar manages to play the scene for laughs (i.e., the rapist convict lasts for a ridiculously long time), and our sympathies never stray from Kika and her companions.

And so I got to thinking about HBO comedies and all this long-form television that people so hungrily consume these days… and how all of it could be so much darker and sympathetic toward women, if only Almodóvar were at the helm. Discussions of Bertolt Brecht recall how good the director was at drawing connections between material conditions and the agency of those characters who must endure them. Almodóvar outclasses Brecht by finding endless labyrinths of desire within both the society and characters who maneuver within it, such that we are constantly transitioning between ironic and melodramatic registers in a fashion pleasurable to the astute viewer.

I don’t think it’s on Netflix (OK, it’s on Hulu Plus.) But it’s a gem worth seeking for its total reconfiguration of genre, expectation, and gendered expectations of narrative. An invasive-but-friendly brain massage.

In an age that continuously exalts novelty, I’m suddenly excited to re-watch all the titles from the 1980s and 90s that I seem to have curiously missed.

Recently Read: Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

January 16, 2013

Girlchild, by the improbably-named Tupelo Hassman, is in spite of itself fast becoming my favorite recent novel. I know, how very middlebrow of me. Actually, the technical title is Girlchild: A Novel, but one of the few things I hate more than genocide is when a book feels the need to condescendingly point out that it’s A Novel, as opposed to garden hose or a life insurance policy or a cabbage or something, so I will just ignore that. Today, I will explicate three reasons you should read this book (or four, if “Miranda really liked it” counts as a reason). As a brief summary, Girlchild is the story not only of Rory Hendrix, who grows up in a trailer park community in Reno, Nevada in the 1970s and 1980s, but of the women in her family. It is fundamentally a character study.

1) Girlchild doesn’t shy away from class issues. In America, in literature, we seem to only acknowledge poverty if it’s within the context of someone’s ascent out of it, and yeah, I’m sure there are exceptions that commenters can helpfully list, but Girlchild depicts the underclass in a sensitive, nuanced way that resists simplification or fetishization. A significant part of the novel shows Rory’s early awareness of the divide between her neighborhood and the rest of the world. The life depicted in the Calle (the trailer park where Rory and her mother live) is the reality for the majority of Americans, and this voice is needed in a society that is irrevocably divided between the tiny group of haves and the masses of have-nots. While this depiction is imperfect, delivered as it is through a medium of privilege and made possible by more privilege, I think it’s the kind of story we need more of in order to work for a more empathetic society. Oh, sorry, my Marxist is showing. tl;dr! Let’s go on to –

2) Girlchild utilizes pastiche in one of the most effective ways I’ve seen so far, and this makes for one of the most memorable narrative voices I’ve encountered in recent fiction. One major trope in the novel is Rory’s desire to be a Girl Scout, and this is used to emphasize the tasks and trials she undergoes (as well as to highlight the absurdity of the traditional Girl Scouting program in the face of poverty and semi-neglect). Girlchild incorporates a rich variety of voices and texts, yet the story is Rory’s own, and everything is filtered through her perspective. Too often, pastiche tropes just work like collages or overstuffed casseroles, throwing in a bit of everything until it’s nothing, but Girlchild manages to incorporate a wide variety of styles while still integrating them into one coherent and cohesive voice.

3) Girlchild resists easy answers and simple narratives. I know, what a cop-out, right? That’s the ultimate easy answer in a book review. but hear me out. In some heteroglossic move, Girlchild isn’t just Rory’s story, nor even that of her mother and grandmother. The book has been criticized for a slow-moving plot, when I don’t think that’s as important as the development of the voice and the depiction of a place and time. It isn’t just about Rory’s in/ability to get out of the Calle and follow what the audience would have her do (college! scholarships! rewarding career!). It isn’t just a coming-of-age story. Like other works I greatly admire that incorporate other narratives and voices into a deeper whole, Girlchild is actually the story of many different people, which sets the title at odds with its content. Many of the more critical reviews on Amazon and Goodreads seem to come from those who expected an easy, “Oprah-style” narrative of someone overcoming their past. Instead, Girlchild is terribly human – not novelistic – and while some may hate it for that, I respect it even more. That being said, the book is not without flaws. For example, early in the book, I think that Hassman resorted to what I could cynically call a cliche in coming-of-age / adolescent novels, but what I respect is  that the book is not about discovering that this event occurred and rendering justice (cf. the far-overrated Perks of Being a Wallflower) but instead, its repercussions and incorporation into the larger context of a life.

It’s hard to find any actual information about Hassman, other than the fact that she lives in Oakland, CA (a fact that the Amazon biography mentions no fewer than three times) and has an MFA from Columbia (mentioned twice in the aforementioned Amazon blurb). While the “MFA-ification” of American fiction has been criticized, and rightfully so, I am excited to see what Hassman writes next. In the meantime, I command you to read this book.

(For a full list of everything I read this year or at least until I forget to update, this is my Goodreads 2013 challenge.)