All posts by LARB Blog

LARB Launches the Second Issue of the Quarterly Journal

This Sunday, please join the Los Angeles Review of Books in celebrating the launch of the second issue of the LARB Quarterly Journal. With readings by Geoff Nicholson, Dinah Lenney, Alice Bolin, and Victoria Dailey at the Mandrake in Los Angeles.

The LARB Quarterly Journal is a testament to the fact that print is still thriving as readers continue to have a profound appetite for curated, edited, smart and fun opinion, written by the best writers and thinkers of our time.

We’ve carefully selected these articles, poems, interviews and essays—all written exclusively for this publication—for readers of just about any interest. The new issue of the LARB Quarterly Journal includes:

  • Victoria Dailey tells a true adventure story of how the two most famous escapees from Devil’s Island made it to Los Angeles.
  • Bruce Robbins considers the connection between reading novels and falling in love.
  • Dinah Lenney braves the cultural mores of cell phone behavior.
  • John Rechy juxtaposes fictional characters and real life.
  • Featuring James Welling’s artist portfolio.

Including articles, shorts and original poetry by Geoff Nicholson, Francesca Lia Block, Laila Lalami, Leo Braudy, Alice Bolin, George Prochnik, Jack Pendarvis, Colin Dickey and more.

Equatorial Guinea’s Most Important Living Writer Forced Into Hiding

By David Shook

Juan Tomás Avila Laurel is Equatorial Guinea’s most important living writer, but he’s often been persecuted by his own state for his outspokenness regarding their blatant disregard of human rights. This week that disregard has turned dangerous, as Malabo’s infamous security forces have forced Avila Laurel, 48, into hiding for his work as activist. Avila Laurel had planned a sit-in protesting a recent wave of police brutality, and had requested official permission to stage the event, as required by national law. Soon after being denied the requested permission, Avila Laurel was informed that political party El Elefante y La Palmera [Elephant and Palm Tree], which had made the official request, had been declared dissolved by the Guinean government, and that he was one of several activists targeted for arrest without formal charges. The government crackdown centers on the political party El Elefante y la Palmera [Elephant and Palm Tree], known for its peaceful protests of police and government brutality, and is officially focused on the arrest of party founder Salvador Ebang Ela.

Avila Laurel, whose first book in English is forthcoming from And Other Stories in a superb translation by Jethro Soutar, is no stranger to government harassment. After declaring a hunger strike in February 2011, he eventually sought exile in Spain at the recommendation of national and international observers concerned for his safety, where he lived for two years before having his request for asylum denied. Since his return to Equatorial Guinea, Avila Laurel has been active in organizing peaceful protests of the Obiang regime, especially its police brutality.

Under the leadership of Guinean president Teodoro Obiang Nguema, now the longest-serving head of state in Africa, Equatorial Guinea continues to rank among the most corrupt states in the world. Its human rights record is particularly concerning. The Human Rights Watch World Report for 2013 reports:

Corruption, poverty, and repression continue to plague Equatorial Guinea under President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in power since 1979. Vast oil revenues fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while most of the population lives in poverty. Those who question this disparity are branded “enemies.” Despite some areas of relative progress, human rights conditions remain very poor. Arbitrary detention and unfair trials continue to take place, mistreatment of detainees remains commonplace, sometimes rising to the level of torture.

Avila Laurel’s extensive work includes novels, short stories, plays, and poetry, like this newly translated poem from his collection Intimate History of Humanity:

Guinea

Panfleto de
Reyes godos
en boca de pelinegros
de seso torcido.

Ni evangelismo
ni patronatos
de indígenas indigentes
de fe y bravía.

Al color rojo lo llaman sangre
porque desconocen
la púrpura de los prebendados.

Bantúes con lengua negra
y con todos los pecados capitales en la punta
de los pies y labios carnosos.
Eso sí, no murió el gran Cristo entre nosotros.
Y playas, ríos, plantas y otras plantas que atraen
el vicio
de ladrones de ilusiones ajenas.
¿Un nombre?
Muchos citan el refrán del río.

Guinea

Satire of
gothic Kings
in the mouth of black-haired men
with twisted brains.

Not evangelism
nor patronage
of the indigent indigenous
of faith and savageness.

To name the color red blood
because they don’t know
the purple of the prebendary.

Bantus with a black tongue
and with every cardinal sin on the tips
of their feet and fleshy lips.
It’s true, the great Christ didn’t die among us.
And beaches, rivers, plants and more plants that attract
the vice
of thieves with foreign illusions.
A name?
Many cite the refrain of the river.

translated from the Spanish by David Shook

Juan Tomás Avila Laurel’s safety is currently at risk; he faces dire conditions if captured by Guinean security forces. The international visibility of his situation is an important protection. Follow his case and learn more about what you can do at the PEN Center USA and EG Justice websites.

Back to the Post-Apocalypse: Jericho on Economic Politics

By Jonathan Alexander

SINCE 9/11, several SF television series, from the one-season Threshold (2005-6) to the more recent Continuum (2012-present) have grappled with the specter of terrorism.  Many, like Threshold and Continuum, play out hyperbolic scenarios of terrorist infiltration and attack, variously alien or from the future, to speculate on governmental and individual responses to terror.  At their worst, such series offer us terror as spectacle, with all the perverse thrills of mass destruction.  At their best moments, they become gripping meditations on the ethics of our various responses to terror.  What price security?  What sacrifices of freedom, individually and collectively, are we willing to tolerate to feel secure?  And, most provocatively, what critiques lie latent or ignored in terror attacks—critiques that, had we paid sufficient attention to them, might not have become manifest so destructively?

Currently available on Netflix, Jericho is one such series that deserves another look.  Running for two seasons (September 20, 2006 through March 25, 2008), Jericho is a frequently powerful drama about a small town in Kansas trying to survive in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack on the US that nukes 23 major American cities, including nearby Denver.  What’s perhaps most interesting about Jericho is how much narrative force comes from not knowing who the “enemy” is.  Islamic terrorists?  The Chinese?  Homegrown traitors?  Midway through the first season, the Chinese make a food drop, with notes saying “Do Not Fight”—but this seems a red herring.  And we eventually learn it is.

But who are the terrorists?  Jericho plays a teasing version of hide-and-seek here.   A whole subplot revolves around the character Hawkins, an FBI agent in hiding who relocated with his estranged family to Jericho just days before the bombs detonate.  His background and intentions are shrouded in mystery.  Indeed, for much of Jericho we don’t know what’s happening, with Hawkins particularly or the situation more generally.  More curiously, we are also asked to identify with, or at least sympathize with, the plight of Hawkins, whom we are led at times to believe might actually be one of the terrorists, now trying to protect his family in the aftermath chaos.  The confusion of identification is a striking aspect of many of these terrorist-themed, post-apocalyptic shows.  Whom, ultimately, can we trust?  Such questioning certainly builds narrative interest, but it also gestures toward conspiracy theories and plays to a sense shared by many viewers that we never really have the full picture—on the show or in real life—when it comes to global politics.  The most we learn in Jericho’s first season comes late in the plot development: apparently “cells” set off the bombs in a coordinated attack to “change the world.”  But who controls these cells, and to what purpose?

Jericho started airing in 2006, shortly before the economic collapse and right at the height of the Iraq war, which increasingly seemed run by—and for the economic benefit of—corporations.  The plot of the show interestingly follows suit.  An entire background story slowly emerges about one of the main characters, Jake, a badboy played by Skeet Ulrich, who gets stuck in Jericho after the attacks and eventually turns from punk and prodigal son to hometown hero.  We learn that he had been a mercenary with shady dealings in Afghanistan, including arms running and association with a Blackwater-style company named Ravenwood (in a nice play on words).  This background steadily becomes important, particularly as the town has to deal with Ravenwood, which has gone rogue as a gang of mercenaries (in the absence of government employers) to collect and control increasingly scarce resources.  Jake’s association with Ravenwood is a sore spot, one he seems to spend much airtime regretting and trying to make up for.

Seemingly in contrast to this comment on government and corporate complicity, much of the first season is taken up with a kind of romance of the small town, whose isolation is its primary saving grace as it’s largely out of the way of most mercenary and predatory interests.  The townsfolk use their relative safety to try to keep American traditions alive, such as celebrating holidays and hosting communal picnics.  But those traditions keep running into their own economic issues.  There’s a whole subplot about the local supermarket and the management and distribution of increasingly scarce resources.  Who, or what, should control such management and distribution?  What’s “fair,” particularly at a time of scarcity?  The fight for mayor–between the salt mine company-owning Gray, who wants to take a hardline on crime as well as who’s in and who’s out of the community, versus the recently ousted patriarch Johnston Green, who seems to want more “state” control over the distribution of resources but who also talks a lot about democracy–seem to reference different approaches to economic policy (not to mention immigration) in the mid-2000s.  Gray’s insistence on giving away all the available food seems to map onto Bush’s tax cuts and refunds and the conservative desire to deregulate more broadly: spread the wealth so it can trickle down.  Johnston’s more city-controlled policies of food distribution harken back to Clinton’s sometimes austere fiscal management while maintaining more liberal policies of state support and social welfare.  In the penultimate episode of the first season, the townsfolk make deals with the supermarket folks and the mercenaries to protect the town and its resources, primarily farmlands. At times of resource uncertainty, odd compromises must be made.  It’s hard not to read such a plot as referencing the “compromises” made in the early 2000s: we went to war to protect our interests, but whose interests, ultimately?  And at what cost ethically?

The second season heats up considerably as Jericho becomes part of the new emerging regime, the Allied States of America.  We quickly learn that the ASA has been set up by the orchestrators of the terrorist attack, who blamed (and then nuked) North Korea and Iran for the attacks. They’re re-writing history (literally, through new textbooks) to cast the former US as weak, lacking military force of will.  We also see Ravenwood, now backed by the ASA, assume policing responsibility for Jericho.  In a likely reference to Haliburton, Ravenwood is owned by Jennings and Rall, the company that serves as the bureaucratic arm of the ASA.  Interestingly, it’s worth noting that this season started airing in 2008, toward the beginning of the financial crisis, and, curiously, in that season we steadily see more focus on corporations and government complicity at the expense of democratic process and protection of civil liberties.  One of the farmers, for instance, is maneuvered into signing a really bad mortgage contract that essentially indentures him to Jennings & Rall.  Indeed, we slowly learn that J&R are behind everything, having created a plan in 1993 for the government to prepare for a disastrous attack—a plan that becomes the basis for an attack.  The company IS the government.  The government IS the company.

In some strange twists in the last episodes, we discover that “John Smith,” who’s been giving Hawkins information, has apparently set off the original 23 bombs in protest of corporate abuses.  He wants to detonate the remaining bomb in the ASA capital Cheyenne to destroy the new government, which is completely “corrupt” as a government set up by J&R to further its corporate interests.  He seems, though, like a psychopath, and we are not sure as viewers how to read his extraordinarily brief appearance in the second season.  It almost feels as though the series is backing away from strident anti-corporate critique to blame the whole apocalypse on one lone nut.  The series ends with two major characters, Jake and Hawkins, making their way to the Republic of Texas, which will apparently join forces with the former USA (headquartered in Ohio) against the ASA corporatists.  There is a comic that propels the story into a “third season,” but you’ll have to check that out on your own.  As is on TV, the story seems to end with the possibility that J&R and the ASA will eventually be brought down.

Jericho ultimately seems to play up some good old-fashioned American patriotism in its final episodes, simplifying its earlier narratives of and comments on the politics of economics.  Nonetheless, it’s still striking as a show that steadily blends, in just two seasons, concerns with corporate-investment in the Iraq War with more general fears that the government is fully a corporate state.  It’s hardly perfect in its latent critiques, and what’s not in the show is also odd.  Most notably, racial and religious conflicts are pretty much absent, although it’s clear that Jericho is a pretty white town, with the only visible black family (Hawkins’) one full of deceptions and secrets, and an Indian doctor who turns out to be a drunkard.  A more complex and compelling examination of government complicity with corporate greed might have woven in how frequently such complicity relies on religious rhetoric and racial bigotry.  But not in this small town.  Still, Jericho satisfies for the questions it raises and the buttons it pushes about the interconnectedness of politics and economics.  Absolutely worth another look.

¤

Space Invaders

THE THIRD SEASON of Girls opens with Hannah and Ray discussing the aftermath of a breakup in the show’s version of New York. At stake in their chat, which is partly about pessimism, optimism, and what constitutes (to use Ray’s phrase), “real life,” is what kind of fictional NYC is. Hannah says it’s inevitable that Ray will run into Shoshanna again. Ray counters that it isn’t: New York is big, there’s no reason for their paths to cross. When Adam walks in, it’s clear this conversation about exes was a setup for Adam to run into his ex (and possible rape victim), Natalia, and her pal played by Amy Schumer. In an exchange laced with hypothetical babies (“she’s pregnant!” Schumer says of Natalia, who admits she isn’t but casts aspersions on Hannah’s ability to feed a baby), Natalia excoriates Adam while Schumer (who’d been egging her on) says “you’re better than this.” Adam may not like confrontation, but it turns out the show’s Big Apple is exactly as small as Hannah says it is.

It’s fitting, then, that almost every shot in the first two episodes of Girls feels slightly overcrowded… [READ MORE]

An Open Letter to LARB Supporters from William Giraldi

giraldi

IN AN INSPIRED ESSAY on Baudelaire, the great critic James Huneker made an assertion I’ve never succeeded in shaking free, even when I’ve felt most unworthy of its substance: when literature is done well, Huneker said, when it is executed with the torque and pitch of true art, “there is no mental toil comparable to it.”

We writers require and deserve to be paid for that mental toil; I for one have always been glacial when it comes to subscribing to magazines or providing donations to worthy literary venues — glacial as in slow, indeed, but also glacial as in maintaining the frigid rationale that it is I who should receive money from magazines, not the inverse. I’ve recently become quicker to donate and subscribe to worthy outfits because the real estate for serious, sustained literary comment has been eroded by a lobotomized marketplace, elbowed away in favor of book reviews no better than book reports polluted by knee-jerk emotions, or else replaced by the pop-culture pabulum that belongs jailed inside People magazine.

What LARB has accomplished in so short a span often strikes me as outright miraculous: a respected venue for serious, sustained literary comment in a cultural milieu which should have shunned its existence, retarded its every development directly from gestation. You know the value of LARB not only because it has survived against every odd, or provided a conduit for your own work, but because you have spent time there with the work of others who have earned your regard. Now an uncommon opportunity is upon us (and we contributors, if we have pledged our lives to serious reading, have a moral imperative to employ that pronoun, us, never them). In five days LARB will receive the tremendous gift of $50,000 if we can match the funds.

If every contributor would join me in a one-time donation of $100, we’d go a long way in securing this generous match — in helping to secure the health and punch of a literary outfit which in turn helps to transmit our fought-for ideas to a discerning readership. Recalling Dr. Johnson’s most notorious quip, about the mercenary motive of every writer, let’s bear in mind that this grant also augments the ongoing mission of LARB to pay contributors a fee equal to their abilities.

We writers are poor by some standards, and especially during this holiday blitzkrieg upon our pocketbooks, I realize. But we are poorer still if LARB diminishes or disappears from a dearth of support, if this venue which helps to buttress our mental toil fails to be buttressed in return. Please do click here, and may you and your work thrive in 2014.

Sincerely Yours,
William Giraldi

АИЛD ЛАNГ ЅYNЄ

An evening, sometime in the near future…

Simon Critchley
KADASHEVSKAYA HOTEL
26 Kadashevskaya nab. 115035 Moscow

January 1st, 2019

I guess we could all have seen it coming a few years back. Things really started to get worse around the end of 2013 and then dragged on into the long, cold winter months. That whole business with that guy, what was his name? Mountain in Wales. Snowden. That’s it. He went underground for a while and then emerged as the CEO of Bozhe Moi! (My God!): the amazing Russian search engine that overtook Google early in 2017. Totally wiped them out. I find it reassuringly old world and Le Carré-like to have the FSB watching all of us rather than the NSA.

Shortly after the President’s death, events moved fast. Well, suspicions were raised when they declared it accidental. Everyone knew it was suicide. He lost face (and faith) after that awful video circulated. You all know the one I mean. That was just after the attempted toppling of 1WTC. Why did they build that thing? It looked like a huge robot schlong. It was lucky that only a couple of hundred people died in the rogue drone strike, but the building’s been empty – cursed – since then, apart from a shelter for the homeless on the ground floors. The city began to go bankrupt after whatshisname, Di Blasio, was unable to raise taxes to pay for all the damage from the great storm of summer 2016. That was when the BBB movement (“Bring Back Bloomberg”) really got momentum. It turned out that people missed his bad Spanish at those press conferences. He’s been in power for a year now, even bringing back everyone’s pal, Ray Kelly. It’s just like old times.

Biden governed heroically, if ineffectively, until they called an early election due to the state of emergency. But he was never going to beat Chris Christie, particularly after Hilary had to pull out of the primaries because of that scandal with Anthony Weiner’s ex-wife. God that guy really embraced new technology. I think he’s still serving time. Chris Christie was a surprisingly popular president. It was like being governed by Tony Soprano. People love a benevolent despot. But I guess we weren’t surprised when the heart attack happened. He was inspecting the Acela line to Boston after it had been destroyed by floodwaters.

President Rubio has been in power for over a year now. He looks the very picture of health, glowing like the self-satisfied Miami sun when he speaks. Obamacare has been fully repealed, the rather minimal tax increases on the rich have been reversed, the federal budget has been slashed (his “War on Debt” campaign), and Rubio plans to implement the NRA’s proposal to arm all schoolkids. That’s equality. Everyone gets a gun. People seem to feel safer that way. Or they just stopped caring after that horrific school shooting in Greenport: the sixth one last year. I mean, who’s counting, right?

The truth is that national politics no longer seems to matter. Neither does the state. Cosmos is the new 1% international political force, set up by Jamie Dimon and other senior business figures from across the world. Its radical plan is to abandon all states and national borders and establish an independent league of mega-cities (initially New York, Shanghai, London, Tokyo, Mumbai, Moscow, but many others want to join) with its own police force and border agents. They’ve already begun to issue passports. It comes free when you sign up for their premium credit card. I have one here in my wallet. It has their catchy motto engraved on the titanium: “The world is ours. Make it yours”. They were initially called “The League of Rootless Cosmopolitans”. But they shortened their name: like the magazine, like the drink. The only political imperative was how to preserve the patina of liberalism while maintaining existing levels of inequality. Unsurprisingly, this is not that hard. It turns out that this is what we had anyway. A large proportion of the funding base for the Democratic Party has evaporated. Bozhe Moi ! is also a big funder of the Cosmos party. Secession from their various states is expected to begin this year.

After the whole Google glasses debacle and the copycat suicides where people filmed their own deaths while wearing them, huge amounts of money were spent on lawsuits and the program was abandoned. Capital was poured into the development of what was called “inner space research.” There were various plans to insert probes under the skin at the wrist in order to internalize search functions with fingertip control. They also tried to develop an ultra-gossamer type mask where computer and skin surface would meet and merge. They called it “2 Skin”. It also failed. As did the plan to insert implants in the retina. The stroke of genius at Bozhe Moi! was realizing that the search engine and the whole apparatus could be run from a customized pair of headphones. People really like headphones. It turns out that there is still a huge difference between what you are prepared to stick in your eyes and your ears. I’m wearing mine right now to talk to you. The translate function means that everyone can speak any language they wish which is what I do here in Moscow. Rosetta Stone is already a distant memory.

Of course, we knew that the rise of Bozhe Moi! was a soft authoritarian takeover. Old-fashioned leftists would proclaim that the promised means of our emancipation (the internet circa 1996. Remember that?) had merely shackled us more tightly in virtual servitude. Boring! I mean we read Foucault too when it still mattered.  But the truth was that people didn’t really care about their privacy. Not really. Not even the Germans.

Wars came and went in the Middle East, huge populations were displaced and innocent civilians were killed. Business as usual. The pieces moved slightly on the global chessboard and then moved again. We stopped caring, particularly after the big broadcast networks began to fold – CNN was first. We knew less and less about world, particularly after all those attacks on BBC journalists. But life was just fine here. There is still no two-state or one-state solution in Israel and settlements are still being built. After the attacks on Iran following their nuclear tests, the Ayatollahs even took out a new fatwa on Salman Rushdie and one on Bono too, after he was involved in that hit musical about the Iranian Revolution. But I think they both still go to parties.

I guess the weirdest changes have been around sex. The omnipresence of the highest quality 3D pornography, combined with “sensorium” patches that went on sale in 2015, effectively killed it off. Together with the first cases of a fatal testicular cancer caused by a variant of the HPV virus that was said to be in 90% of the sexually active young male population. That got their attention.

This led to two trends. A sudden vogue, that summer, for reckless, public sex: in buses, parks, sidewalks, subways, everywhere. It became a kind of display of political indifference or even resistance among the poor, but it was picked up and imitated by a lot of college kids. They call themselves the “League of Lovers” or LOL as way of mocking the Cosmos. There continue to be many arrests and an African-American couple was shot last weekend for refusing to stop making love in Prospect Park. Not so much “Stop and Frisk” as “Stopping Friskiness.”

The other trend – less numerous, but much more influential – was the Cenobite movement, where people would pay significant amounts of money to live together but in such a way that they could remain apart and not constitute any kind of threat to each other. The first one was founded outside Warren, Vermont a few years back. But they have spread all across Vermont, New Hampshire and Upstate New York. After electing to withdraw from the world – what they call anachoreisis – each Cenobite is given an “anchorhold” where they can stay safe and warm with their devices and sleep. Any participation in public events is optional, but with the right use of a wonderful new anxiety medication called Atarax, cenobites are able to be together socially and even main eye contact without looking at their devices for up to two minutes. For fear of contagion, celibacy is the rule in all cenobite groups. This did not extend to masturbation, of course. That would have taken things too far.

People incapable of even this degree of social activity or who could not bear to be disconnected from their devices began to gather outside the Cenobite communities in more extreme groups. They began to be called “Hamlet camps” or the “Inkies” after their customized black clothing, that was something between sports clothing and a Beneditcine habit. The sign up fee is prohibitively high in order to pay for the private police force and guarantee exclusivity. But I hear that some of the “Inkies” are beginning to produce some really high-level electronic music.

New York City began to feel too much like Alexandria in the late fourth century and I decided to get out when the right job offer came through. I’ve been living in this hotel in Moscow for the last 6 months working for a contemporary art space funded by one of oligarchs behind the Cosmos. It’s alright. The Russians make a generic version of Atarax and I have a bodyguard and a driver. But I stay in the hotel most of the time as it’s too dangerous to go out. Oh, happy new year.

Late-Breaking Iran and China News: A 1979 Flashback

Strange+Rebels
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

The weekend before Thanksgiving was a big one for international headlines. The biggest breaking story, coming out of Geneva, was of a multinational team of negotiators hammering out a nuclear-arms deal with Iran.  When John Kerry announced this agreement, American commentators reached quickly for historical analogies, focusing mostly on two years in the last century. Those happy about the agreement likened it to a 1972 diplomatic breakthrough: Nixon’s famous meetings with Mao. Those displeased by it cited a 1938 disaster: Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement of Hitler. Thinking about the news out of Geneva, as well as these polarized reactions to it, I was reminded of a different year: 1979.

Admittedly, that year’s been on my mind a lot throughout 2013, partly because it was a key one for Deng Xiaoping, and new President Xi Jinping has been striving to identify himself in people’s minds with that most powerful of post-Mao Communist Party leaders. I thought of 1979 back in June, for example, when Xi came to the U.S. to meet with Barack Obama in what has become known as the “Shirtsleeves Summit,” since the main photo op that came from the meeting showed the two leaders walking and talking sans coats and ties. As I noted in a commentary for the History News Network at the time, Deng’s 1979 visit to the U.S., the first by a Chinese Communist Party leader, had also included a memorable bit of sartorial symbolism: his donning of a cowboy hat at a Texas rodeo. More generally, in 1979, as he was consolidating his position as China’s paramount leader, three things Deng did was call for a pragmatic approach to development, push for social and economic reforms, and crack down on domestic critics (in that case, those involved in the Democracy Wall Movement).  Xi has done these same three things.

There is, though, a quite specific reason that 1979 came to my mind when the news about the Iran deal broke and analogies to both Nixon meeting Mao and Chamberlain giving in to Hitler began to fly: that year began with a January 1 joint declaration by Beijing and Washington proclaiming a full “normalization” of relations between China and the United States.  Some Americans hailed this 1979 agreement as an important step toward fostering world peace, but others denounced it as a case of a liberal President doing a dangerous disservice to a valued ally.  Complaints from some quarters then that Jimmy Carter had sold out Taiwan parallel closely some that are being heard now from those convinced Obama has done wrong by Israel.

The analogy is not perfect, which is only to be expected—nothing that happens in one century is going to be exactly like something done in the previous one. The Iran deal involves several countries, for example, whereas the 1979 agreement was between just two nations. And Obama’s policy on Iran has broken from that of his Republican predecessor, while Carter’s engagement with China carried forward things that Nixon and Ford had done.

Still, the more I think about the 1979 parallel, the more I’m convinced it is a good one, and a better China-related one than 1972.  One reason it seems more useful to look back to the late 1970s than the early 1970s is that when Nixon went to China, he met with a Chinese leader who had been in power for a long time, so the main question about Mao was how much he had changed.  Seven years later, by contrast, when the normalization of relations was announced and then Deng came to America, a lot of foreign talk about China focused, as much on Iran does now, on how novel a course a new leader vowing to move in reformist directions would take his country.

1979 analogies seem stronger still if we look at a second international news story that broke right before Thanksgiving: China’s declaration of plans to start monitoring the airspace above and around the islands known as the Diaoyu in Chinese and the Senkaku in Japanese. These specks of land, located near undersea oil reserves, are claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo but have been effectively under Japanese control in recent years.  Due to America’s long-term security alliance with Japan, as well as the White House’s commitment to maintaining the status quo where island disputes like this one are concerned, Kerry ended up having a very busy weekend indeed. He needed to follow up his upbeat statement on Iran with a downbeat one on Beijing’s proclamation of a new Air Defense Identification Zone that included the islands, criticizing it as a provocative and inappropriate move.  Kerry made these two statements so close together that separate articles on each appeared in the front sections of the same editions of some newspapers.

This simultaneous 2013 reporting of developments suggesting that relations between Washington and Tehran are moving in a positive direction, while tensions between Washington and Beijing rising represents an eerie inversion of the 1979 situation. This is because that year, which began with Beijing and Washington normalizing ties and Deng making a successful state visit to the United States, also witnessed the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini coming to power and denouncing America, and the start of the hostage crisis.

Again, the analogy is not perfect, especially since, thankfully, it is likely that we are seeing just a minor souring of relations between Beijing and Washington right now, not the start of any kind of full-blown crisis.  Still, it is relatively rare that stories concerning China and Iran jockey for the attention of the American public at the same moment, and one of the few times this has happened before was back in 1979.  A valuable visual reminder of the temporal overlap of China and Iran stories almost three-and-a-half decades ago is provided by the February 12, 1979, cover of TIME.  The main headline read “Iran: Now the Power Play,” and the image accompanying it and taking up most of the cover featured a stern looking Khomeini, shown in color, breaking through a giant black-and-white portrait of his own face, symbolizing that he was now a formidable man on the spot, as opposed to a figure in exile who provided a rallying point for opponents of the Shah.  Up in the right-hand corner of the cover, though, was a very different smaller headline and smaller image: it referred to Deng’s “triumphant tour” and showed two faces, that of the Chinese leader and that of Carter.

A final 1979 and 2013 note is in order, which has to do with the book whose cover is shown at the top of this post.  Early this year, my friend Christina Larson, who used to be an editor at Foreign Policy and is now China correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, told me that, given my interest in placing China in comparative perspective and connecting the past to the present, I should be sure to get hold of a forthcoming book by Foreign Policy contributing editor Christian Caryl.  Valuing Christina’s judgment, when Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the Twenty-First Century came out, I made a point of getting a copy.  Reading it, I was duly impressed.  And even though I’m unwilling to give up on the notion that 1989, with the Tiananmen protests and the fall of the Berlin Wall as well as many other major events, was an even more consequential year than 1979, at moments like this it is well worth remembering just how dramatic that often overlooked earlier decade-closing twelve-month period was.

I Don’t Know I’m Beautiful

Dear Television,

I FIND MUSIC VIDEOS to be a lot of work. When someone sends me a link to a new (and frequently contentious!) music video asking my “thoughts?” I hide. Close tab close tab close tab. Time-wise, they’re not actually that bad. Unlike articles, you know exactly how long it will take to finish one, and usually it’s less time than skimming an article! But theoretically, even logistically, they are difficult creatures. This is partly because music videos enter my life as interruptions or interludes into my usual business at the computer — that of writing or reading — and my brain has a hard time dealing with the change in not just media, but genre.

Remember MTV? Remember their top 40 countdowns? Remember YTV’s Hit List? I grew up receiving my music videos not from the computer, but the television, screen. It was ideal, because music videos almost fit into the category of movies-on-TV. They are clips that one could dip in and out of (which is almost necessary when one is often coming into the middle of them, by chance), and that needn’t hold or build to much narrative logic to generate interest.

On TV, music videos resemble casual short films, and are not always immediately distinguishable from film trailers. The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Sky’s the Limit”? Spike Jonze’s short film. Foo Fighters’s “Everlong”? Michel Gondry’s short film. Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”? Both his and Bob Giraldi’s love letter to West Side Story. (Ahhhh music videos and musical theater do not get me started!! But if you want to get started, one word: Madonna.) Britney Spears’s “Lucky”? Short film about the making of a film. Very meta. Very clarifying. Music videos were literally made for television. Generically, they are something between the TV show, the movie, the commercial, the commercial-for-films, and the song — and they know it. But even if it’s hard to be a music video — to get it just right (as Phil’s stunning piece on Arcade Fire this week shows) — the aim is to make this difficulty look easy. As Annie suggested, something that can simultaneously convey surface and depth, as if anarrative nonsense were constitutive of and perhaps even necessary to the genre. Effortless meaning, or meaningless effort! Something like that.

It’s hard to be a music video, and honestly it’s hard to watch them. This is partly a problem of the medium’s time constraints paired its attempt to do too much. The music video is often at cross-purposes with itself: it must sell the song, sell the artist, and sell the album by way of communicating (or, a form of that, which is selling) a particular narrative. In calling the music video a casual short film, I’m getting dangerously close to labeling it as a commercial movie: digestible, easy, and made for some kind of magical lowest common denominator. This is not quite what I mean. As we know, not all anarrative music videos are successful.

Television is an organizing force, and even MTV must propose some kind of structure: countdowns, best ofs, or music video competitions. Often it is about what is winning or popular. But the internet has completely changed the value and exchange-value of the music video, and written commentary or criticism on the music video forces viewers to reconsider these images at a different speed and pitch. I honestly need to sketch graph to parse most of the music videos I watch. But the internet also allows us to rewatch videos in controlled and condensed spurts; this kind of viewing allows certain details and the internal structure of a video to emerge.

I find music videos to be a very complex, extremely loud, and incredibly close-up genre, especially when viewed in isolation on my computer screen. They’re uncomfortable and irritating and if their aim is to be immersive, then I’ve learned to respect this by approaching them on my own terms — in conditions conducive to paying attention. One must prepare for the internet music video! Television meant coming across them by chance, but the internet has perhaps paradoxically done the opposite: it has made the viewer work harder at curating their music video experience. Can you imagine if music videos just popped up while you scrolled websites? I would lose it.

My attempt to offer even the illusion of context back into music video-viewing is to continue thinking of them narratively. It is to consider them as still related to narrative film, or at least television, because I don’t think the music video has entirely forgotten its beginnings. The music video is aware — is, indeed, often hyper-aware, and this is partly what makes attempts at immersion seem so exhausting. The seams, at cross-purposes with one another, are constantly showing, and, as such, viewers often find themselves more at ease when the seams are simply made apparent as part of the music video form. The loudly self-aware music video is rewarding to watch.

Because if the music video is first and foremost televisual, then it must be conscious about its visual and musical oddness in the context of televisual narrative and structure even as it attempts to elide this discrepancy. Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together” is paradoxically not about irreversible disconnection, but about seamlessness. It is filmed in one continuous shot, and there is, not incidentally, a prominent transition by way of a television screen.

This 3 minute 36 second music video is an exceptionally self-conscious response to Taylor Swift’s exaggerated brand as a serial dater: her body literally effects the transitions in plot, music, and image.

Swift is especially good at literalizing generic scripts, which makes sense when you consider that her roots are the very narratable country song.

She is a lousy actress, so the blatant embrace of literalizing lyrics through gestures is pronounced in her videos aaaaaand it works!

She both is and isn’t the hot girl in “You Belong With Me.” She both knows and does not know that she’s a princess in videos such as “Teardrops On My Guitar” and “Love Story.” It’s an incredibly hard space for the female pop star to inhabit, especially since any straddling of the pole between self-knowledge and naivety all too quickly generates accusations of narcissism. But how much does she really know?, one asks. To acknowledge Swift’s intelligence is to maintain both a diegetic and extra-diegetic understanding of her music video narrative — to know that she is, in a way, blatantly acting out a stereotype as well as volleying it back at us. It’s, to return to Annie’s post, a way of reveling in spectacle while also allowing the viewer to participate. It’s fun! And perhaps this dual understanding of Swift is also what has been lacking in evaluations of “Bound 2.” At the same time, perhaps the intimacy of “Bound 2” is exactly what makes it difficult to watch. Take the uncanny one step too far, and viewers are irrevocably thrown out of any engaging loop.

If you think that I’m stretching, I would redirect us to what one might consider the simplest music videos — those of pop songs — to see how self-awareness is not just possible in the music video, but actually endemic to it. Even if the music video is largely made for the viewer’s pleasure, it is ultimately to benefit the artist. Interest always lies in the body on display, and the related economic interest is what makes it possible; music videos have, time and time again, capitalized on this fact by thematizing it in visual form. A multiplicity of perspectives is constitutive of the medium itself (it is partly what makes it so exhausting to watch). When the artist is directly addressing the camera, any potential emersion in their pop star aura does not preclude an awareness that we know they know they are being watched. Even when they are, unlike Swift, predominantly singing about you, the presumed viewer, there is never a moment wherein we forget that this music video is largely about them.

Take One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful”:

Maybe I don’t know I’m beautiful, maybe I do, but who really cares? What matters is that YOU, ONE DIRECTION, LOOK GREAT. I love how you flip your hair, Harry Styles. Gahhhhhh. See? Immersion by way of a sense of distance — it totally works! The music video is especially conducive to it. It’s also totally why adult women can get close to sincerely and wholeheartedly adoring One Direction.

The gift of the music video is that it doesn’t take much to theorize it; the music video already theorizes itself, theorizes its subject, brings viewers close by suggesting just how far away the singer really is. It’s built into its very form.

¤

Thanks for the Memories, Dhaka: Selected Notes From the Hay Festival, Bangladesh

IMG_5377by C.P. Heiser

A few weeks ago I found myself in Bangladesh for the Hay Festival.  I was visiting the capital Dhaka at the invitation of our friends at Bengal Lights, a literary journal and book publisher affiliated with the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh. In the typical Western imagination, a literary festival is not what crops up first at the mention of Bangladesh. Instead you get, if anything, a Third World potboiler of cyclone disaster, garment industry horror, and political unrest, backed by a George Harrison soundtrack (if you’re old enough to remember).

But get this: Bangladesh, the People‘s Republic of Bangladesh, is a nation of Muslims with a secular constitution. It provides more U.N. peacekeeping forces than any other nation in the world. And since the Liberation War with Pakistan in 1971 (the same year Ravi Shankar got his buddy George to write a song about it) Bangladesh has made great strides in primary education, gender equity, population reduction and health services.

The capital Dhaka is also home to one of the many Hay Festivals that have proliferated around the world.  Now in its third year, I arrived at the Hay with a contingent of Americans, including Mario Bellatin, the Mexican novelist, David Shook, poet and translator, and Eliot Weinberger, the essayist and renowned Octavio Paz translator. Dhaka, a megacity, teems. With a population of 15 million, it is perhaps the densest city in the world. It surprised us at every turn.

Tariq Ali, British Pakistani writer and journalist

Tariq Ali, British Pakistani writer and journalist

Tariq Ali, the British Pakistani journalist and novelist headlining this year’s Hay Festival in Dhaka, had not been been back to Bangladesh since before the ’71 Liberation war. At that time, he predicted that anything short of independence for what was then East Pakistan would not be enough. His return was, to say the least, well received. He appeared several times on panels and speaking engagements and each time the Q&As had to be cut short due to time constraints. His rather grim assessments of global capitalism’s destructive path – Ali’s unrelenting focus – were incapable of dampening the enthusiasm of the Hay attendees. But this iconic figure was not the only one to enjoy such a reception. Other panels were equally enthusiastic, whether the topic was translation or Latin American fiction or “world literature” – Tariq Ali or no Tariq Ali – Dhaka’s literary and intellectual scene is engaged, opinionated and focused on a global discourse. It was inspiring to witness such involvement given what so often feels like a parochial and self conscious community back home. Even the headliner Ali, who lives in London and clearly brought a very contemporary brand of First World pessimism, could not dampen the mood. In fact, his pessimism seemed, refreshingly, out of place.

Rickshaw art from the "CIty of Rickshaws"

Rickshaw art from the “CIty of Rickshaws”

In the street, the bicycle rickshaw prevails in Bangladesh though it’s virtually disappeared in other South Asian cities. Confiscated rickshaws get impounded by the police and sit, waiting to be recouped in lots outside the city. You can buy a new bicycle rickshaw for about $300, but a majority of the drivers rent their rickshaw for a few dollars a day. In trying to wrap your mind around Dhaka – an impossible task to be sure – it might be best to simply ride with the rickshaws.

The sheer awesome human effort of the drivers, collectively, might just power not just their own movement but the city’s daily electrical output as well.  Even in nightmare traffic, even in the chaos of streets without apparent rules, some of the happiest faces I’ve seen in any urban setting are passengers on the bicycle rickshaw – mothers and children, friends, lovers – when they are suddenly breaking free onto an open stretch and sailing in the open air with a contentment you never see inside a New York City cab. Dhaka never lets you forget what a city is for.

Dhaka skyline.

Dhaka skyline.

Like other “emerging market” cities, Dhaka (and its economy) grew from a provincial capital to an unplanned megalopolis in less than forty years.

Dhaka’s architecture defies easy category, then – finished, unfinished, ruined – it’s not always immediately clear. But the primacy of rebar is without question – sprouting like weeds from concrete pillars and pilings on rooftops of apartments and office buildings wherever you look. At first, you think every building is perpetually under construction, or in the process of demolition.

A masterful dystopian effect, it has everything to do with lax construction practices though not what I first guessed was a kind of rainy day move: why finish a building when you might want to add on a story or two later? It should have been obvious there was no intention of adding to the weather-beaten urban-stained buildings, the kind which you mostly see in Dhaka. Instead, the city’s tax code – which collects only on completed buildings – compels the rebar rooftop style. It’s hard not to wonder at such monumental tax evasion. It’s also hard not to see that this endemic kind of corruption will be solved as the Bangladeshi middle class continues to grow and prosper.

And this is the thing about the Hay Festival Dhaka, and Bangladesh generally: though the political and social realities are still very difficult, there is ambition, and energy, and debate. Returning from Dhaka, back to our own problems in this country, I was reminded that the future is still a possibility.

Thank you, Dhaka.

With poet Ahsan Akbar (far left) and Bengal Lights editor Khademul Islam.

With poet Ahsan Akbar (far left) and Bengal Lights editor Khademul Islam.

 

 

Saturday Night Live’s Alumni Problem

Dear TV,

WE’RE TALKING SNL this week, and I’m … excited. Which isn’t a feeling I’ve gotten from SNL in quite awhile. I wasn’t even aware of how much my enthusiasm for the show had waned until I legitimately guffawed at Noël Wells’s Hannah Horvath and Kate McKinnon’s Jessa in the Girls sketch during Tina Fey’s week hosting, an experience recently topped by Beck Bennett’s incredible sketch of the financial wizard in the body of a baby. That was some of the best physical comedy I’ve seen since David Hyde Pierce’s “A Valentine for Niles” and Maria Bamford’s entire oeuvre. So… what gives? Is SNL good again?

A lot of ink has been spent bemoaning SNL’s awfulness over the years, and I’m not particularly interested in investigating the merits of that critique, which I’ve been hearing for as long as I’ve been aware of TV criticism. What does interest me is the persistence of that narrative. If Anne Helen Petersen walked us through how stars use SNL to “thicken” their celebrity persona, I want to think about how the show is dealing with its own image problem: namely, that it’s routinely perceived as being, at best, mediocre TV.

The fact is, the comedy we have available to us on tap these days outperforms SNL on the regular. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are consistently sharper and funnier than Saturday Night Live. Now, those shows use a different format, they’re scripted, they’re not live, and they don’t require that there be laughs every second, but the point is that if I want a topical laugh, Saturday Night Live isn’t where I go for clips. In its own sketch comedy genre, Mad TV was already making SNL look a little passé back in the late nineties, but — to return for a second to AHP’s post on how distribution changes everything — now that we can stream old favorites like A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Kids in the Hall and newer sketch shows like That Mitchell and Webb Look, get all of Louis CK’s standup for $5, and see Bamford’s entire show on Youtube for free, SNL suffers by comparison. This is strange to say of a live format, but it’s just too polished relative to the gritty low-production-value comedy that’s since come to define the experimental, spontaneous and new. Garfunkel and Oates, anyone?) It’s become the slightly square authority where it was once the rebel, and it’s low-octane comedy these days, comedy that’s a little too glitzed up to be much good, and it’s even competing against itself: you can stream the old (and always “better”) Saturday Night Live on Netflix!

SNL’s position as the Jay Leno of comedy isn’t helped by the fact that its alumni have done as well as they have and have aged publicly. It’s hard for people of our students’ generation, for instance, to believe that the Chevy Chase of Community was ever comedically innovative, or young, or game. When asked whether he learned anything from “established” comedians like Chevy Chase, Donald Glover:

Chevy’s like hilarious cuz he will do, um … none of it ever makes it, but he’ll be like, let me show you something really good, and it’s always like an old dude kinda joke, and I’m like oh, and it really helps me with my comedy science, like why doesn’t that work anymore? … It’s kinda like you learn more from a bad movie than you do from a good movie.

Now, Chevy Chase is the SNL alum extraordinaire: his infamous (second) Comedy Central Roast (which Comedy Central buried because it was so vicious, but you can see parts of it here) amounted to a revolt of younger comedians against everything they perceived Chase to represent — namely, the self-serious egomaniacal sellout who made a huge number of crappy movies for the dollars and not the laughs but still considered himself a comedy genius. But Chase is only the oldest and most embittered of a whole slough of aging SNLers who have in one form or another addressed their time on the show and — perhaps accidentally — degraded its image. Let’s face it: comedy fans these days are purists and they’re weirdly idealistic. We believe in the truth-telling power of comedy in ways we don’t believe in much else, and while that isn’t new — it’s a tradition that dates back to long before Shakespeare’s various Fools — it has intensified recently. Louis CK has disciples.

SNL hasn’t typically honored that priestly tradition, and former cast members have a habit of taking self-referential roles that further erode the sacred character of what we’d like comedy to be. Adam Sandler’s later-in-life turn toward serious acting culminated in the appalling Funny People, which explicitly framed his old comedy (much of which was based on SNL characters) as a hollow ploy for bucks without any regard for quality work. Jimmy Fallon’s turn to late-night hosting only confirmed what we always suspected when he broke in every sketch: he likes chatting up celebs and wearing suits. Rob Schneider. ‘Nuff said. Then of course there’s 30 Rock. I genuinely believe my estimation of SNL subconsciously suffered thanks to Liz Lemon’s world-weary cynicism regarding 30 Rock’s TGS, which is clearly an SNL knockoff and never represented as being anything other than pure crap. 30 Rock’s Achilles heel, in my opinion, is that Jack so often turned out to be right: there is no meaning to Liz’s work.

What I’m getting at is that there’s a certain artistic bankruptcy built into the brand of comedy SNL puts out. It’s always billed as a bit of a hack compromise, albeit with very talented hacks (this quality comes through in both Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch’s autobiographies). It’s live, it’s what we could write in a week, it’s what the host could stomach. In the end, of course, the Famous Person is the weak link. Structurally, the host is a built-in generator of comedic mediocrity: he or she is a contaminant virtually guaranteed to dilute the funnies unless she miraculously possesses or develops comedy chops.

And that was all fine until recently: in a way, it was a version of Celebrity Jeopardy! (one of SNL’s most successful ongoing skits). You get to watch the famous people do something different and burnish their celebrity profile, and you’ll laugh! But this side of the equation, the See the Famous Person side, has collapsed too: we have way more access to famous people than we ever had before thanks to Twitter, fashion sites, gossip sites, deleted scenes, interviews, reality TV and paparazzi. We aren’t starved for the phenomenon of a celebrity unfiltered — LIVE! — the way we once were.

But what — I hear you ask — about SNL statesman Bill Murray? He’s the exception that prove my theory that there are just too many SNL alumni running around degrading the brand. One reason we keep hearing how much better SNL used to be is because most of the old cast members have obligingly faded from view, and Murray has in the interim demonstrated a kind of lifelong comedic integrity: a dedication to comedy as an art form that has taken them into serious spaces without ever abandoning the funny or condescending to the audience. This has retroactively branded their time on SNL as purer and more brilliant (I’m talking about the PR narrative here) and so has death: Andy Kaufman, Chris Farley, and Jon Belushi are comedy saints.

But these guys only got quiet and intense with their funny as they got older, and that’s important. SNL comedy has a certain profile that fits it best, and however muted and prophetic its elder statesmen have since grown, that profile wasn’t subtle or understated or melancholy or wise, it was loud and brash. I’m talking Rachel Dratch and Will Ferrell’s wonderful The Lovahs and Carvey’s Church Lady and Ferrell and Gasteyer’s singing duo and Molly Shannon’s armpit-sniffing and Maya Rudolph’s Donatella Versace and Cheri Oteri’s Get Off My Lawn bits. What these all have in common is that they’re buffoonish and, again, loud. But SNL was tapping into another comedic vein in the ironic 2000s. Let’s call its practitioners the Clever Clan. This is the Seth Meyers/Tina Fey/Amy Poehler/Bill Hader/Jimmy Fallon style. It’s smirky. I like these comedians individually (except for Meyers, who I find likable but totally unfunny and Fallon, an incredible performer but an average comedian) but — to return to where I started, which was wondering when my enthusiasm for SNL had waned — they’re a winky, good-looking bunch, and the ensemble effect was more wry than hilarious. I think this hurt the show. Wry is not a mood Saturday Night Live does well. There are, as we’ve seen, simply too many other people doing it better.

Now, no one says SNL has to be great comedy. It isn’t and doesn’t; as I’ve said, the show’s constraints make greatness almost impossible. But it should be good comedy: you should be laughing a few times a night.

Here’s the sketch that made me realize how quietly bored I’d become by SNL — or at least, how far I’d drifted from an actual laugh into Mildly-Amused-But-Sort-Of-Waiting-For-It-To-End-Land:

This made me laugh my head off. The physicality is SO DISTURBINGLY RIGHT. It’s not a clever meta-joke, it’s an in-your-face belly-joke. For Beck Bennett, who’s new to the show, it’s an instant classic and total triumph. What seems to me really wonderful about a few recent SNL offerings is that the cast is willing to go broad with gusto (and without winking). The turkey sketch Annie mentions is one example; so is the possum sketch with Edward Norton. Aidy Bryant is a delight, Cecily Strong is great (though I wish they’d kill that Girlfriends Talk Show sketch), and Bobby Moynihan’s face is a national treasure. (I want Vanessa Bayer and Taran Killam to do a sketch called The Killer Smiles where they play a couple, the Smiles, whose creepy grins have convinced everyone in the neighborhood — wrongly — that they’re serial killers.) It feels, this season, like there’s less eye-rolling and more energy in the room.

Embrace your inner hack,

Lili