Minor Characters

In life, there are no minor characters: only other people, and if each of us is the protagonist of our own story, we are also the reader of others.

— Emily Allen, Ph.D,
Associate Professor of English, Purdue University

Brilliant. Emily Allen’s lectures make me want to go back to college and study literature.

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FrankenGawker?

Going through my old tweets I came across this one from December 2008:

“Apropos of nothing: Is it me or has Gawker gone from funny to mean, boorish and rude?”

Now, two years after the site was dead and buried, The Guardian is reporting that there are plans afoot to revive it next year.

Here’s a thought: sometimes when something dies, it dies for a reason, and it is better to leave it dead.

The Ides of September: Ebbing Mao, Flowing Mao

The visage of Chairman Mao Zedong has hovered over my own three-plus decades of studying, working in, living in, and writing about China, and I have found myself deeply conflicted in my interpretation of the man. Neither the lickspittle propaganda panegyrics of Edgar Snow nor the splenic vitriol of Jung Chang managed to sway me. There was always something missing in the simplistic interpretations of Mao as either national savior or monster tyrant.

As of this writing, it has been forty-two years since the death of Mao, and four decades since the “reforming and opening” of China that all but refuted his legacy. Yet Mao’s ghost haunts the nation. The generation most scarred by his caprices still lives, and as long as they do Mao will not fade into history. As such, his legacy and the nature of his real remain a matter of contention, and are likely to remain so for decades.

One aspect of his 37 odd years of rule that begs for re-examination is the exact nature of his power over the nation, and how it evolved over time. It is comforting, perhaps, to regard Mao as a static stone who perched himself atop the nation for four decades. It is easy to see Mao as always having been strong, and any of his fears to the contrary being aught more than the paranoid delusions of a man increasingly isolated from any healthy human relationship.

But after sitting through the late Richard Baum’s lectures on the making of modern China, reading the magisterial trilogy by Frank Dikotter, and delving into sheaves of old documents, it seems that reality is much more nuanced.

A truer picture is likely that Mao was never as secure in his role as he seemed. Indeed, Mao’s power ebbed and flowed throughout his tenure. Far from being paranoid musings, his stated and demonstrated insecurities were reactions to real changes in the Chinese polity. Those ebbs and flows became signposts written in gigantic characters across the history of the PRC’s first quarter-century. Indeed, if you want to understand the history of the PRC under Mao, the main events (the Korean intervention, the 100 Flowers Movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightest Campaign, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) were nearly all precipitated by Mao’s reaction to how he perceived the current tidal status of his political power among the Party elite.

Mao knew Chinese history, knew the stories of imperial tyrants unseated by popular uprising, and as one if its craftsmen he also knew the byzantine politics of Communist Party leadership. When his power ebbed, he would incite a campaign or movement to undermine those who had begun to amass power and legitimacy of their own. When his power flowed, he would anoint a generation of underlings who would support him, and turn his attention to placing his stamp upon the nation.

Thus whatever else Mao may have been, he was a deeply insecure leader who pathologically elevated his own sinecure above the interests of the people and nation he led. He overcompensated for his own deep faults as a leader with the bluntest instruments of politics, paying for his failings in the blood or ordinary Chinese. Mao may or may not have been a monster. But anything positive he accomplished in his effort to raise China out of the vortex of neo-feudalism and into the modern world must be weighed against a character flaw that exacted a cost measured in millions of lives.

In Defense of Joy Luck

I read a review in Slate today that quoted a detractor of Amy Tan’s seminal novel The Joy Luck Club dismissing the work as “the Panda Express of Asian-American lit.”

As someone exposed to that particular sub-genre long before Amy Tan inked a deal with a publisher. I found that the more I learned about China and the more Chinese I spoke, the better I understood and appreciated Maxine Hong Kingston and the tiny coterie of Asian-American writers who were finding their voices in the 1970s.

And that’s the problem. Not everyone has the time and inclination to study a culture and language long enough to gain that level of appreciation, and the Asian-American lit written for an Asian-American audience is often so inaccessible to those outside the community that great writing talent and amazing stories go unappreciated.

The lesson is unmistakable: if one wants their unique cultural stories to be told to and understood by wider audiences, one very good writer – or several – need to create the literary onramp that brings the rest of us to the point at which we can thoughtfully engage with that culture in the first place.

Thus, if The Joy Luck Club was the Americanized version of the Asian-American experience, my heartfelt retort is “so what?” Asian-American lit probably needed a Panda Express to get us all engaged, opening the door for more mainstream appreciation of a new generation of Asian-American voices. What Tan did for Asian Americans was on a par with what Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison did for African-Americans; what Sandra Cisneros and Tomas Rivera did for Hispanic Americans; what William Saroyan did for Armenian-Americans; what Sherman Alexie did for Native Americans; and what Chaim Potok, Saul Bellow, and Phillip Roth did for Jewish Americans.

Did each of these writers make artistic decisions that aimed their works at an audience beyond their own community? Without a doubt. Does that mean they sold out, somehow compromising their art and cheapening the experience they sought to portray? Or does that mean only that these authors understood that sometimes, in telling a story, a writer needs to meet his reader halfway, to build a bridge that enables understanding and empathy?

Do not misunderstand: I am as uncomfortable with some of the artistic choices made by Jewish writers who seemed at times more interested in assimilating us into the wider culture than in celebrating our differences. But I would like to think I have always understood the greater value, in the American milieu, of making one of our nation’s component communities a little less foreign, and a little more like the rest of us.

I first read The Joy Luck Club thirty years ago, and it has stayed with me since. It  opened the door for me to a range of relationships life experiences that I might have shunned otherwise. It opened the door to a range of literature I would never have plumbed any deeper than the syllabus required. And it gave me an insight into the experience of my Asian-American hapa child that has strengthened our relationship.

So cast your brickbats, purists. But understand that when the history of Asian-American literature (and possibly of Asian literature) is written, The Joy Luck Club will be recognized as critical juncture in the development of the literature of the Pacific Civilization.

Sunset at the Academy

The Academy is worried about the waning relevance of its signature event. Based on the nominees to come and a way-too-early forecast, it may be right. But are the new changes the right fix?

Source: In the Year of ‘Black Panther,’ the Oscars Are in Panic Mode. Should They Be? – The Ringer

My favorite quote from this:

The Oscars are “not a meritocracy, it’s a subjective popularity contest voted on by a private club.”

The reason that the Academy Awards are irrelevant to me, and probably to a growing chunk of the American population, has nothing to do with their selections. It is the very idea of film awards that have to me become offensive. I don’t know about you, but I did not think my way through a liberal arts education and cultivate my own aggressively middlebrow tastes in order to have the grown-up equivalent of the Drama Club tell me what is good and what is not.

My favorite films include (but are not limited to) The Shawshank Redemption, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Big Lebowski, The Postman, Silverado, Blade Runner, Big Fish, Doubt, Thunderheart, Real Genius, The Red Violin, Clerks, Almost Famous, High Fidelity, Silent Running, The Dark Knight, Elizabeth, The Odessa File, The Right Stuff, The Fifth Element, Grosse Pointe Blank, Twister, A Scanner Darkly, and  anything from the  Star Trek, Star Wars, Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Marvel franchises. (Plus the oeuvres of John Malkovich, David Lean, and Stephen Spielberg. There is a healthy mix of stuff in there, but little of Academy fare. But if I were stuck on a desert island with a single hard-drive full of content, I’d happily pick my selections over the last twenty years of Best Picture nominees.

I do not reckon I am alone, and that is unlikely to change. As such, I have to wonder if there is much that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can do within the scope of its charter to arrest the long, slow decline of the Oscars.

Take Me Out to the Bar Game

“The Dodgers suck!”

He’s all the way across the room, and he says it in a voice loud enough to quiet O’Tooles for a moment. This is a Chicago sports bar. It is Game One of the National League Championship Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers are in the middle of teaching the defending champion Chicago Cubs a lesson in humility. The bar – indeed, the whole city – is wound so tight the air thrums as you walk.

And I am a die-hard Dodger fan with just enough IPA in me to stop caring who knows it.

“The Dodgers SUCK,” he repeats. This time he’s louder, and he is supported by a broken chorus of interjections expressing everything from full-throated support to mild “chill out dude” disapproval.

This is one of those moments when I ask myself what the right thing would be to do. As a guy. As a dude. I think about the thin veneer of civilization. I tell myself that sports is an opiate, and that I have been manipulated into this by a cynical media establishment that thrives on stoking sports rivalries.

And I don’t care. This guy hasn’t just insulted a bunch of grown men throwing a ball at each other. He has transgressed against something both more personal and far larger.

I think about the games I watched growing up. The time we went with Dr. Bing, our baseball coach, sitting so close that my heroes came to life in front of me.

I think about the times my dad took me to watch the guys play, and what it meant for he and I to listen to the post-game show as we drove the old VW van home down Sunset late at night.

I think about the giddy joy of the 1981 World Series, when we showed the most powerful Yankees squad in five decades that grit and determination beats glitz and polish when it counts.

I think about fifty years of admiring a team that prided itself on being the anti-Yankees, the Boys from Brooklyn, Dem Bums.

I think about Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch in a critical World Series game because it landed on Yom Kippur, and in so doing showed the world what it meant to be a Jew.

I think about Jackie Robinson, who with the backing of Dodger management silently suffered innumerable hurts as he forged the path for African-Americans into the major leagues, and in so doing showed the world what it meant to be a man.

I think about Ray Campanella, upside down in his car on a Harlem Street after hitting black ice on a winter night, his back broken, his career over, then spending the rest of his life working in the Dodger front office and showing the world that there was no such thing as “handicapped.”

And I turn to look at the gone-to-seed neck-bearded fuck whose alcoholic partisanship has turned him into a drooling, knuckle-dragging neanderthal.

I think, “‘The Dodgers suck?’ You miserable, illegitimate, Epsilon-minus thick-skulled cretin!”

And I realize that I am about a pubic-hair’s width away from getting into my first bar fight, alone, deep in enemy territory. And I wonder if Blue Shield will cover my heartfelt yet doomed defense of our team, or whether the adjuster will boil the whole thing down to idiocy and refuse to pay on the grounds that the cause of my broken bones, lost teeth, and contusions were the direct result of an uninsured pre-existing condition.

This is the last place I want to be, but the testosterone and adrenaline are pouring into my system, and I start to get up.

The waitress is smarter than all of us. She comes over, looks me in the eye, smiles, and sets down another pint of IPA.

“I didn’t order that!”

“On the house,” she says. “And I’ve got some fresh tater tots on the way.”

I look over at Neckbeard. The bartender just put an order of hot wings in front of him and the boys. I’m betting these were free, too.

I look back at the waitress. She smiles.

“Enjoy the game,” she says. “And welcome to Chicago.”

Free beer and tots?

Manhood satisfied, I sit down again, the anger gone, replaced with a sympathetic good will toward old Neckbeard.

The Dodgers don’t suck, I tell myself. But for the moment, I am happy to let them prove it themselves.

The tots arrive, the Dodgers are winning, and I am left alone to contemplate the madness we – I – have yet to outgrow.

Ah, Q

I have at last finished my extended binge of all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series has aged remarkably well, to the credit of its cast, its crew, and the legion of scribes who ensured an upward trajectory of plot-lines and issues that lasted almost to the very end.

The watch-through gave me a chance to understand and appreciate aspects of the show that I had missed during my spottier watching in the past. One of those aspects was Q, the near-omnipotent being who regularly showed up to toy with the Enterprise crew on the pretext that it was his way of testing the value of humanity as a race.

My revelation: Q was Loki, the trickster of his race, and the Q Continuum a reinterpretation of the Asgard of Norse myth.

Armed with that thought, I went back and re-watched the episodes with Q, including the series pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint.” Q came across as less and much more sympathetic. In the end, Q is a tragic figure, neither of his world nor ours, and doomed to testing the boundaries between the two.

And yet, there was something profoundly sad about how Q was developed as a character.

The Trek universe, at its best, it has been a compelling forum for exploring the larger questions that face humanity. Those questions are rarely resolved, but they don’t need to be – it is in the probing of those questions that we learn about ourselves.

Where no Trek has gone, though, is in an exploration of the unresolvable quandary of whether a higher power exists. The Trek universe has either studiously avoided the debate, or it has engaged in long-winded  plot lines that dismiss the question as a matter of myth, superstition, or the naive misunderstanding of a more evolved being by a less evolved race. We can agree to disagree on many things, Trek tells us, but religious believers are suckers and simpletons.

This has never been enough to warn me away from the Trek universe, because despite this failing I continue to find the ouvre provocative and compelling.

I continue to hope that some wise squire of the Roddenberry legacy will give writers the permission to leave the question of G-d open and on the table. But I will not hold my breath: I know my fellow Trekkers too well, and for them the vastness of the Final Frontier is all the G-d most of them will ever need.

 

Bonfire of the Narcissists

While it is disheartening to watch the hollowing-out of the Great American Journalism machine, especially in these dog days following the passing of an innovator like Tom Wolfe, there are moments when I must wonder aloud whether some of the culling might be for the greater good.

A few moments ago a colleague forwarded to me (and about a dozen others) a notice that GQ was laying off a clutch of editors. On the surface, sad and evocative of much hand-wringing.

Pardon me if I do not join in.

For these were the editors (some of them, anyway) who in the April 19 issue of GQ let loose an anti-intellectual tirade against the Great Books (21 of them actually), suggesting that because these books were, you know, old or boring, they weren’t worth the time and effort of reading, and that there were 20 other hipper, more recent books that should be read instead.

I am all for inclusion, but I take the viewpoint that the answer to adding diversity to one’s erudition is to lengthen the list of the works to be read with other authors of merit, not arbitrarily cull the canon of the stuff that requires effort or that posits ideas one finds objectionable.

In a day and age of hypertext and short attention spans, I believe it lies with those placed in a position to influence the tastes and habits of our nation to make as loud a case for the consumption of intellectual fibre as they do for the ingestion of the dietary kind. I believe a failure to do so is pandering at best, and at worst a betrayal of the greater cause of belles lettres. As our list of periodicals shrinks, any indication that the remaining scribes will be those who fight for intellectual rigor is heartening to me.

Fragment of Fiction: Galaxy Upside Down

Her anger rent the air in our booth like a shockwave, pushing me back into my seat, strangling me. Then, in a moment, the fury abated and it was pain and not evil burning behind her irises.

“Don’t judge him too harshly,” I told her. “He’s just another insecure young guy sucked into a business where fucking over kin for a couple of points is a rite of passage. Hollywood is like the Borg, he’s been assimilated, willingly, throwing himself into it, and trying to extract him will either kill him or make him wish he was dead.”

I paused. That was about as close to profound as I get.

And I waited, trying to remember what I just said, watching her.

She seemed to quiet. She took a deep, sobbing breath, let it out slowly like Lemaze. And smiled at me.

“Still mad,” I asked?

“Every fucking cell of me,” she said, smile widening.

“Good,” I said. “Because we are going to fucking kill him, that shit-demon he works for, and that gutter slut they’re casting as lead.”

From the story “Galaxy Upside Down” by David Wolf

Sparks

My sixteen year-old, ever curious about music and especially my strange tastes in it, wandered into my lair when “Angst in my Pants” was playing and asked me to describe the 80’s dance band Sparks.

“Cross Cheap Trick with Laurel and Hardy,” I told him, “and drop them into the San Fernando Valley in 1979.”

He grinned.

Lord love the kid, he gets it.