Withering Bites

“‘Lucky Jim’ Goes to the Internet”

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives July 29, 2009

Filed under: Courtney,David Eagleman,Sum,Text — noisyhope @ 5:56 pm

Hey everyone, I know we’ve been away.  We’re still sorting out how the site can exist while we have lives and juggle grad school, the real world, and the surprises both carry.  But today I discovered Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, by David Eagleman.  I have an interest in eschatology so it seemed like a good way to kill time, and I’ve had some difficulty putting it down.

The “tales” are short little vigniettes, no longer than four pages a piece, and very engrossing.  I love this book, I have a blog about books, I figured I should share some of that here.  Like this story, called “Adhesion.”

We are the product of large beings that camp out on asteroids and call themselves Collectors.  The Collectors run billions of experiments on the time scales of universes, subtly tuning the galaxy parameters this way and that, making bangs bigger and lesser, dialing fundamental physical constants a hair’s breadth at a time.  They are continually sharpening pencils and squinting into telescopes.  When the Collectors have solved a problem that was formerly mysterious to them, they destroy that universe and recycle the materials into their next experiment.

Our life on earth represents an experiment in which they are trying to figure out what makes people stick together.  Why do some relationships work well while others fail?  This is completely mysterious to them.  When their theoreticians could not see a patter, they proposed this problem as an interesting question to explore.  And so our universe was born.

The Collectors construct lives of parametric experiments: men and women who adhere well but are shot past one another too briefly–brushing by in a library, passing on the step of a city bus, wondering just for a moment.

And the Collectors need to understand what men and women do about the momentum of their individual life plans, when in the rush and glare of the masses they are put together as they move in opposite directions.  Can they turn the momentum of choices and plans?  The Collectors sharpen their pencils against their asteroids and make careful study.

They research men and women who are not naturally adherent but are held together by circumstance.  Those pressed together by obligation.  Those who learn to be happy by forcing adhesion.  Those who cannot live without adhesion and those who fight it; those who don’t need it and those who sabotage it; those who find adhesion when they least expect it.

When you die, you are brought before a panel of Collectors.  They debrief you and struggle to understand your motivations.  Why did you decide to break off this relationship?  What did you appreciate about that relationship?  What was wrong with so-and-so, who seemed to have everything you wanted?  After trying and failing to understand, they send you back to see if another round of experimentation makes it any clearer to them.

It is for this reason only that our universe still exists.  The Collectors are past deadline and over budget, but they are having a hard time bringing this study to a conclusion.  They are mesmerized; the brightest among them cannot quantify it.

I’m enjoying this book immensely, and can’t wait to finish it.  Once I have, I hope to have something more coherent up here.  Thanks for checking back, and I hope Michelle and/or myself will be able to give you guys a regular schedule.


Writing the Cricket Bat and Scene Five February 17, 2009

Filed under: Courtney,Text,The Real Thing,Tom Stoppard — noisyhope @ 10:40 pm

Scene Five is to Art in The Real Thing, as Scene Seven is to Love.

Got it?  w00t, analogies.

It is home to two of my favorite speeches, the first of which I quote in my “About Me” page on this site, and a mantra whenever I find myself with a blank page or screen before me.

I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are.  They deserve respect.  If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a ittle or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.

Sometimes, I find nothing more beautiful than these three sentences.  But they carry even greater weight when taken in the context of Henry and Annie’s argument.

Scene Five is mostly an argument between Henry and his new wife as he tries to “clean up” Brodie’s autobiographical teleplay/manifesto.  Yep, you read that right.  Henry argues that there’s no way to save the script; it’s loaded with cliches, filled with stale and idiotic ideas, and poorly constructed at that.  Annie defends Brodie, and does this by calling her playwright husband a snob, arguing that his concept of “good writing” is warped:

You judge everything as yout everyone starts off fromt he same place, aiming at the same prize.  Eng. Lit.  Shakespeare out in front by a mile, and the rest of the field strung out behind trying to close the gap.  You all write for people would like to write like you if only they could write.

And for half a second, you could listen to Annie and believe it, until you remember that she speaks mostly nonsense, as Henry indicates in the cricket-bat speech, which is so wonderful, and since this isn’t a paper, I’m including the whole damn thing.

This [cricket bat] here, which looks like a wooden club, i s actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor.  It’s for hitting cricket balls with.  If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly… (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we’re trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock it might... travel… (He clucks his tongue again and picks up [Brodie’s] script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits.  (indicating the cricket bat) This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords.  It’s better because it’s better.  You don’t believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on.  [he reads] ‘You’re a strange boy, Billy, how old are you?’ ‘Twenty, but I’ve lived more than you’ll ever live.’ Ooh, ouch!

He drops the script and hops about with his hands in his armpits, going ‘Ouch!’

Did you fall in love with Henry just then?  I know I did.

In this scene, Stoppard does a phenomenal job illustrating the authenticity of art, and what makes good art, well, good, that it is a matter of craft and not opinion.  But, you can admit, Annie does her best to make a good argument.  She’s just no Henry.

Surrounding these speeches, in the scene, and even in the duration of the play, Stoppard invites the audience to question the authenticity of motivation behind these works of art.  At the end of the play, Henry has doctored Brodie’s script and humiliated himself for Annie.  He writes screenplays (quelle horreur!) in order to support keep them living in the style to which they have become accustomed, and never completes his play for her; because that’s one cricket bat he can’t quite master.

And the more I read this play, and the more I think on it, I do believe that Henry believes words are sacred, much moreso than their craftsmen, but I have to wonder if he ever wrote a cricket bat, or feels that he had.


Happy, Like a Warm Puppy: Love and Scene Seven February 9, 2009

Filed under: Courtney,Text,The Real Thing,Tom Stoppard — noisyhope @ 12:03 am

First, I adore this play.  I devoured it one day the first time I read it two years ago, and whenever I’m in some sort of quandry regarding art or love (politics and I cross paths less often than the other two), I find myself picking it up again and finding something I hadn’t noticed last time.  When I discussed it with a professor for a paper, he and I argued about what could be my favorite scene, Scene Seven; when Debbie is leaving to go on the road with her boyfriend and she and Henry try to reconcile themselves to each other, explain how they feel about love, and Charlotte drops her great revelation.

Henry delivers a monologue that (I’ve been assured) looks awkward as hell staged, but, experiencing the words alone, I find it to be one of the most beautiful and articulate descriptions of sexual intimacy:

We share our vivacity, grief, sulks, anger, joy… we hand it out to anybody who happens to be standing around, to friends and family with a momentary sense of indecency perhaps, to strangers without hesitation.  Our lovers share us with the passing trade.  But in pairs we insist that we give ourselves to each other.  What selves?  What’s left?  What else is there that hasn’t been dealt out like a deck of cards?  A sense of knowledge.  Personal, final, uncompromised.  Knowing, being known.  I revere that.

And so he continues on for several more lines after he’s been going awhile, for his darling daughter Debbie to ask him flatly, “Has Annie got someone else then?”

This perfect moment follows several other beats of Henry and Debbie matching wits, she delivers the syllogism “That’s what free love is free of – propaganda,” and he offers that it should be “of love.”  They argue the definition of fidelity and its relation to his last successful play.  However, none of this compares to the conversation that is to follow with his first wife and Debbie’s mother, Charlotte.

Just to step away from the scene for a moment, I want to sing the praises of Stoppard’s description of Charlotte when she is formally introduced in Scene Two: “Henry is amiable but can take care of himself.  Charlotte is less amiable and can take even better care of herself.  . . . Annie is very much like the woman Charlotte has ceased to be.” Just between the x of us, I want to be Charlotte if I ever grow up.

Back to our (totally awesome!) heroine.  Charlotte picks up where her daughter left off, asking her ex-husband about his current marriage with the mistress who ended theirs.  (Did you follow that?  Great, thanks.)  She wonders why he isn’t curious about Annie’s fidelity while she’s away, and confesses to infidelities during their marriage, because Henry didn’t seem to care and surely he must be doing the same thing, only to realize his loyalty too late; it didn’t matter.  She gloats after his inquiry, “look what your one did compared to my nine.”

And she follows this up with a speech, much shorter than Henry’s that I believe is The Big Point (possibly, the Real Thing?) behind the play – what The Real Thing is, with regards to love.  According to Stoppard.

There are no commitments [in love], only bargains.  And they have to be made again every day.  You think making a commitment is it.  Finish.  You think it sets like a concrete platform and it’ll take any strain you want to put on it.  You’re committed.

Charlotte and Debbie make more sense to me, at least with regards to love, than any other characters in the play.  Henry is still learning the game, Annie cheats (I can’t tell if that was intended), Max is a sore loser.  Debbie stands along the sidelines with her mother, but their commentary brings the audience closer to the real thing than any moment spent between Henry and Annie.  And so ends my catechism.

Have a great Valentine’s Day, everyone.


Pride and Prejudice February 6, 2009

Filed under: Guest Blogger,Jane Austen,Mallory,Pride & Prejudice,Text — m. @ 12:01 am

It was my Intro to Shakespeare professor who first alerted me to a kinship between Pride and Prejudice and Much Ado About Nothing, the play we were studying at the time. Beatrice and Benedick, he suggested, were the direct ancestors of Elizabeth and Darcy. The professor was probably trying to elevate Pride and Prejudice in our opinions, but at a women’s college where Austen classes are always oversubscribed even when taught by mediocre professors, Shakespeare probably seemed graced by the compliment.

Much Ado About Nothing would be a depressing comedy, full of disagreeable people desperate to believe the worst of each other, if it wasn’t for Beatrice and Benedick’s merry war, the “skirmish of wits” that erupts every time they meet. In Shakespeare, it is common enough for a witty character to destroy verbally opponents who never fully comprehend what is being said to them. But Beatrice and Benedick are evenly matched in brilliance. Benedick draws blood in the first encounter, only to be utterly crushed by Beatrice in their next scene—and each acutely feels the victories of the other. Until they are tricked into being in love with each other, as one only can in theatre, what draws them together despite mutual disdain is a desire to win, to have the last word, to put the other genuinely out of countenance.

If we look to Elizabeth and Darcy for this kind of reciprocity and oneupmanship, we won’t find it, because Austen seems to have been almost distrustful of witty men. In her first two published novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, her heroes are kind but dull: Edward Ferrars, Colonel Brandon, Charles Bingley. Darcy is hardly kind, but certainly dour. Men who shine in wit are Wickhams and Willoughbys, bounders not to be trusted, their lightness of manner paralleling the worthlessness of their own souls. Elizabeth Bennet is a true latter-day Beatrice, but if Austen ever created a Benedick, it was later, in Emma. Emma and Knightley enjoy a repartee that no one else in their novel could ever dream of sharing; as in Much Ado, they stand alone and are the only possible choice for the other. And yet I have it on as good an authority as the Folger Shakespeare Libarary that Elizabeth and Darcy are the truly Beatricesque and Benedicktine.

If there is an affinity between B&B and E&D beyond initial mutual dislike, it must be in Elizabeth and Darcy’s sense that no one else is worth bothering with. In Much Ado About Nothing, there can be no satisfaction in watching either Beatrice or Benedick toy with a fool once one has seen them lay into each other. Elizabeth is forced to a similar conclusion: no one in her family is even close to being her equal, not even Jane, and she is cruelly disabused of all the confidence she attempts to give others, such as her friend Charlotte or her object of interest, Wickham. Pride and Prejudice is to some extent a story of Elizabeth’s exceptionalism, her growing sense of singularity—felt acutely every time she watches her semi-vulgar family expose itself in public—and her choice to take refuge with Darcy, whose strong sense of superiority at first repulses her but eventually, when tempered with his tenderer impulses, draws her to him.

Unlike Emma, who only accepts Knightley because he allows her to remain with her father, Elizabeth gives up contact with most of her family—the more ridiculous elements—and settles down to live the happy ending set aside for the specially deserving. As she writes at the novel’s close, “I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh.”


Pride & Prejudice and Adaptation: Less is More February 3, 2009

Filed under: Adaptation,Courtney,Jane Austen,Joe Wright,Pride & Prejudice,Text — noisyhope @ 7:57 pm

Apologies for the delay, the common cold with extra fatigue kick kept my brain and I from delivering a particularly promising post over the weekend, so I will do my utmost to give you a double whammy post to make up.

Any interest and/or tolerance of Pride & Prejudice is due, largely, to the 2005 adaptation by Joe Wright, and the promise of my colleagues from SLC to make good on one of my more rash oaths.  That is, that I would never watch it without a bottle of wine.  Once the DVD was out, I was summoned to their house where their flatscreen and a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc waited for me.  And it wasn’t that bad.  (It has also since become a tradition we like to call Pride, Wine, & Prejudice.)

Since then, I have read the book for a second time (for class), and watched the BBC adaptation (due to a mixup when I asked for the DVD myself).  I’ve never seen the Olivier adaptation, so I’m afraid I can’t give my full analysis, but I feel like the film, executed by Wright, easily trumps that of Simon Langdon (the BBC one with Colin Firth).  Why?  Because there is so much to be missed.

Langdon gives his audience every single word of the book — within reason.  Not a single moment or jibe (from the characters) is missing.  Every beat of every act is laid out before you to enjoy.  And I’m sure if you concentrated really hard and limited your distractions and bathroom breaks, you could read the whole of the book in the time it takes to enjoy the iteration featuring Colin Firth’s floating head

Wright remembers (as many of us seem to forget) that Austen’s second work is a comedy.  And you may cut in the interest of time, but you never cut funny.  Not only do you never cut funny, if you can add funny – you keep it.  As a result, characters go missing, time is compressed (as it often is as we only see in the movies), lines are reassigned (Mary takes on some boorish lines that belong to Lizzy in the book), and that which made you smirk in text, can at the very least elicit a chuckle when laid out in plain view.  I shall discuss each of these elements: lost characters, compressed time, reassigned lines/roles, and the visual joke to explain what makes Wright’s vision of Hertfordshire such a success.
The first characters the avid Austenphile would notice missing are Louisa and Mr Hurst.  While Mr Hurst is carried off perfectly by Rupert Vansittart (awesome name, that), best remembered by American audiences as the guy Hugh Grant meets up with in the Boatman right before he meets Andie Macdowell in her room in Four Weddings and a Funeral, in the BBC version, he and his wife are not missed here.  You know why?  They weren’t that funny.  Caroline Bingley can carry on flinging herself at Darcy without their help.  And Louisa’s one remarkable line about Elizabeth’s skirt being “six inches deep in mud,” is carried off so well by Kelly Reilly, best known to American audiences as the prudish girl from England in L’Auberge Espagnole, that personally, this viewer doesn’t miss Mrs Hurst for a single moment.  The Phillipses are also absent, leaving the Bennets with only one family to claim as their extended relations beyond Mr Collins (more on him later).  Again, they are not lost.  While Mrs Phillips proves to be a confidant of both Jane and Elizabeth regarding the men in their life, especially Whickham, she contributes little to the story, and to give them one family, the Gardiners, to both house Jane in London, and take Elizabeth along on their travels, is just more convenient.

Compressing time is another simple “just because it’s easier” move.  Not only that, but it raises the stakes.  While Jane is convalescing at Netherfield, it seems as if she arrives one day, Elizabeth the following, Mrs Bennet and the younger sisters visit, and then their arrival seems to speed Jane’s recovery along quite quickly, reminding the audience just how awkward and off-putting their mother really is.  (Side note: I am so sorry I cannot speak more about her.)  The other great example of this comes at the end of our tale: Jane accepts Bingley’s proposal.  That night, Lady Catherine arrives at Longbourn to tell Elizabeth to refuse any proposal from Darcy and well, we know how that goes.  By bringing Lady Catherine to the estate at such an “unacceptable” or at least, unsociable time, it makes her arrival carry even more weight than when she arrived in the evening and Elizabeth shows her the grounds.  It also makes Darcy’s renewed proposal at dawn all the dreamier.

Where was I?  Line-reassignment.  Personally, I’m a huge fan because occasionally these changes can tell the audience something about a character or situation they would get from a paragraph of very internal text.  When Mr Collins dines with the Bennets and discusses the compliments he pays Lady and Miss deBourgh, the responses from Mr Bennet and Elizabeth are taken from those originally belonging to Mr Bennet alone.  For fans of the book, this can be taken to better demonstrate the kinship between Lizzy and her father, and for those who are watching it for the first time, this relationship is well established through their similar snide remarks.  Mary is a character who picks up many lines belonging to her other sisters.  In the novel, I often imagined these lines (especially those belonging to Elizabeth or Jane), to be delivered with a healthy grain of salt, best illustrated with the line “What are men compared to rocks and mountains!”  You know she means it, while Lizzy would snark.  So much of Mary’s character is written internally in the novel, these moments better illustrate just how boringly pious she is.  (Piously boring?  That could be a six of one, half dozen of the other sort of situation, could it not?)

And finally, that above all else.  The visual.  I’ll admit Wright’s P&P contains so many single moments that convey pages of painstaking emotional upheval, I know I’ll leave some out.  My personal favorite is the moment Elizabeth first sees Pemberley.  The audience is given a shot of a low horizon with the sound of a carriage’s arrival.  It stops.  Elizabeth pops into frame, looking at something beyond the camera, and then lets out a nervous laugh, covering her mouth.  Then steps down.  Her aunt and uncle rise out of the coach, aghast.  In the book this feeling is best described when Elizabeth panics at the sight of Darcy, wondering how best to relate her feelings at seeing his home.  Austen takes time to describe what Wright shows us in a few seconds, the feeling of: “Oh God.  I could live here by now.  What.”

And I’ll offer one final moment of visual brilliance, again featuring our friend Mr. Collins.  He appears in a moment of, what a former colleague would be too eager to describe as: comedy of disproportion.  At the Netherfield ball, he recognizes Mr Darcy as his patroness’ nephew.  He approaches him from behind, and tries twice, to address Darcy.  This works beautifully because Tom Hollander (Collins) is short – average height, while Matthew Macfayden is quite tall.  When Collins attempts to clear his throat, every time, I keep thinking/hoping he’s going to knock on Darcy’s back like a door.  Alas, he only clears his throat and Macfayden turns to stare poor Hollander down.  It’s beautiful.

(Also, I just looked it up.  Hollander and Macfayden are 5’5″ and 6’3″ respectively.)

Anyway, I have more than fulfilled my superpost promise, and apologize for my loquaciousness, lack of clips (I may add in later), and neglect of mentioning “the hand thing” that m’colleague so adores.

Thank God, P&P is over, I’ll be writing more, and on schedule next Monday when we discuss The Real Thing, by Tom Stoppard.


Dixon & Co January 19, 2009

Filed under: Courtney,Kingsley Amis,Lucky Jim,Text — noisyhope @ 8:12 pm

In my last post, we discussed Jim Dixon’s wild fantasy life, and his feelings regarding his surroundings.  Tonight, I say we take a look at how he feels about the people around him, and his impressions remind the reader, once again, that he is too much like us.

Of all the characters with whom Dixon interacts, Christine is the first he acknowledges to have treated unfair.  At the arty weekend, he first decides she’s frigid, and after his own mistake in addressing her as one of Betrand’s other girlfriends, believes she set him up.  He is quick to re-evaluate this decision the following morning when she not only lends assistance to help him cover up the damage done to his guest room, but finds amusement in it as well.  He is completely convinced of her goodness (and perhaps even begins to fall in love) when she agrees to conspire with him to elicit information from her boyfriend, with Dixon calling the Welch household in the guise of a newspaperman.

When the reader is first introduced to Carol Goldsmith, she is at the arty weekend with her husband, a fellow teacher at the college with Dixon.  Dixon’s opinion of her is first altered when he witnesses a private conversation between her and Bertrand, ending in a kiss.  Months later, at the Summer Ball, Dixon offers her a sympathetic ear regarding the affair with Bertrand, and he asks:

‘How have you managed to keep all this out of [your husband’s] way?’
‘You don’t think I haven’t told him all about it, do you?  I wouldn’t dream of doing anything behind his back.’
Dixon fell silent again, reflecting, not for the first time, that he knew nothing whatsoever about other people or their lives. (123)

Margaret is another character who undergoes a radical change, once all the cards are on the table.  For most of the book, Dixon regards her with pity and a little irritation or annoyance, but stays by her side out of a misplaced obligation, believing himself to be the reason for her attempted suicide.  When he ultimately tells her that he is in love with Christine, she dissolves in a fury.  But it is not until Dixon meets Catchpole, to hear a startlingly similar tale to his own with Margaret, that he finds himself completely free and able to leave her for his new life.

And where Amis delivers best is when he offers his readers a chance to reevaluate his hero.  When Dixon reads that he is dismissed from the college due to his atrocious performance at the Merrie England lecture, “Dixon felt a slight stab of conscience at having rather let Welch down over the lecture, and a less-slight one at having spent so much of his time an energy in hating Welch.” (228-229)  This revelation invites the reader, especially if he or she is as fond of rose-coloured glasses as the writer, to re-evaluate Jim, and his possibly misspent hatred.


Lucky Jim: How I… envy(?!) him…? January 12, 2009

Filed under: Courtney,Kingsley Amis,Lucky Jim,Text — noisyhope @ 12:01 am

I racked my brain for the best way to attack Lucky Jim.  It’s a favorite, so I’ll try my best not to get too personal and stick to the facts.  Personal: While Michelle and I both love this book and found it in the nature of the blog to name this our first choice, I feel like this was her subtle way of talking me out of actually going to graduate school.  Fact: After examining the character of Jim Dixon, I get the point.  His character is put through the proverbial ringer while trying to keep up the three-ring circus (to mix cliches) of kissing ass.  It’s really no wonder he fails to display anything close to happiness for majority of the book.

Amis builds a remarkable character in Dixon, giving us glimpses into his more personal insight through the third person limited narrative (a matter m’colleague will discuss further on Wednesday).  This allows us to observe Dixon, but also understand him and his insight – notably his feelings on music, when Welch is whistling to himself, “some skein of untiring facetiousness by filthy Mozart,” and his abuse of Johns’ sheet music can be taken as both an attack on his rival as well as the art itself.

The reader is also given audience to Dixon’s fantasies; usually acts of violence, usually against his superior, Welch.  One includes tying Welch to a chair and beating him about the head, criticizing his ability to run the history department at the college as well as the names of his sons, punctuating his tirade with references to Welch as “you old cockchafer.”  This fantasy takes place while Welch stalls trying to answer Dixon’s plea for an answer regarding his future as a teacher.

While Dixon’s decision to forgo “the cockchafer speech” is for the best in terms of his career (for now), he often opts out of fulfilling his fantasies (even those less violent, involving Christine) out of fear.  He cannot even fulfill the simple desire to avoid a weekend with Welch, instead asking Atkinson to call in for him to return home early.  When he does act on a more violent or destructive fantasy (if it could even be called one) while delivering the “Merrie England” speech and mocking Welch and the Dean, it costs him his job.

However, he finally goes after what he wants, Christine, overcoming all obstacles one would expect in the climax of a romantic comedy where our hero must intercept the love of his life before she leaves, complete with traffic jam.  But he hardly has time to enjoy his victory: winning the girl, escaping the potential life of quiet desperation that would otherwise await him at the college, and a life in the city; he is confronted by the Welches, and does something the reader does not see in the previous 250 pages.

Jim Dixon laughs.