Monday, February 27, 2012

SKINS S1E6: The One Where They Go To Russia

Skins gets political! Okay, well Skins gets political the same way Breaking Dawn does: a few key sentences here and there amid the rubble. But still, I appreciate it!
So Maxxie (Gay Skins Kid) and Anwar (Muslim Skins Kid) are good friends and both are content to let the slight gay tension linger between them until suddenly Anwar isn't anymore: On a school trip to Russia, he has an abrupt influx of homophobia. Then Tony has an abrupt influx of homophilia. And Maxxie isn't having any of it. 
Maxxie cuts to the heart of the issue very quickly: Anwar is a terrible Muslim. Sure, he prays five times a day, but he doesn't really know why or to whom he's doing it. And that's as far as his adherence goes--he drinks and takes drugs and swears and (later in this episode) fucks a Russian (and presumably, given her wardrobe, non-Muslim) girl. So why does he feel like the one belief he has to stick to is hatred of homosexuality? Good fucking question, Maxxie. 
Unfortunately Anwar follows Maxxie's logic in the wrong direction, concluding that he has to become a better Muslim in all ways (this is after he samples that Perestroika Pussy, of course). It ends up being a pretty bleak message about children raised in religion: Anwar chooses to be a Muslim simply because he can't fathom anything else. 
Meanwhile, Goofball Teacher puts the moves on Angie, and Chris is there to rescue (and then finally fuck) her.
And Anwar has that brief fling, with a Friends-quoting Russian girl--and I don't know how well-versed you all are in the world of Friends, but her exclamation that "We were on a break!" totally slayed me. Elsewhere, Jal and Michelle seduce like, an entire police department, and Maxxie befriends an old Russian lady who shares her blunt wisdom.
Well said. Other moments I liked (this was a very slight episode, lots of little stories and nothing particularly impacting. Which is fine! They can't ALL be showhorses. Where would we get glue?):
  • Michelle catching Tony trying to put the moves on Maxxie. But something tells me Tony is going to find a way to make it not seem awkward. That guy is awkward-proof. 
  • Sid's monologue after Anwar leaves him to deal with an angry Russian. (You still have nobody to blame but yourself, Sid). Setting anything in Russia should require a few scenes of intrigue, right? I like the headfake toward that trope--Sid as the worst fucking spy in the world. First he can't get the drugs out of his ass and then, after valiantly taking a bullet for Anwar, he leads the angry Russian guy right back to him.) 
  • Angie telling the other teacher to fuck off. Weirdly satisfying.
  • Maxxie giving Sid another much-needed proverbial smack upside the head after showing him a sketch of Cassie. "You made her look beautiful," Sid says. "She IS beautiful," Maxxie corrects him.
As always this episode is available on Netflix Instant and also YouTube, right here. Thoughts?

Thursday, February 23, 2012


At the end of the last chapter, Miles told Alaska that sometimes he doesn’t get her. “You never get me,” she says. “That’s the whole point.” Ugh. ALASKA DO YOU KNOW HOW INSUFFERABLE THAT IS? I mean, yeah, we know on some level that you are deliberately cultivating this aura of mystery, but you can’t come out and SAY you’re cultivating the aura  or it totally punctures the aura! (A process known as “Lana Del Raying.”) Anyway.

“99 Days Before”

Miles is reading Ethan Frome, which is a real motherfucker of a book. I  was profoundly disturbed by that shit, on like, the order of Requiem For A Dream. But he calls it “miserably uninteresting,” which is really hard not to take personally. Why don’t you like anything, Miles? Why do most YA narrators have no interests whatsoever? Is it because they’re trying to make them universally relatable? Because this passionless blank-slate thing is much harder to relate to for me than even like, someone who was crazy about... baseball. Or pogs! Hey, remember pogs?

(Thinking about this some more though, I am realizing that I had friends in high school who had no apparent interests. Or maybe I was just an inconsiderate friend? But I can start to relate to Miles from that perspective, which I hadn’t considered before. I’m The Colonel, not Pudge. I’m Gatsby, not Nick! Okay, I’m not Gatsby.* I’m probably Tom’s wife or whatever.) 

(*But I did say “I‘m fuckin’ GATSBY!” during one of my LA videos, and nerdfighter types freaked out. John Green did a video--oh man, I am getting sick of typing that phrase!--about The Great Gatsby, making it a cool book on the Internet for like five days. I saw like, Instagram shots of pages from the book on Tumblr. For real.)

Then he and Chip go for a smoke break with Alaska and Takumi at the Smoke Hole Lounge and are promptly busted by The Eagle--who, don’t forget, is the HUMAN villain named after a bird, not the bird villain who is just a regular old bird. He tells them he will see them in “Jury” tomorrow, which is the unorthodox and kind of dark way the school dishes out punishment which we will get to in a second. Because then as The Eagle is leaving, Alaska picks up her discarded cigarette--an act of rebellion (and addiction). He turns, she drops it, and then Miles thinks he catches the principal smiling. As someone who was often aided in my school-related mischief by teachers and other staff members, this isn’t exactly a revelation for me--and given that I share like 99% of the cultural DNA of most nerdfighters (I have opposable irony thumbs, though) I imagine it’s not really a revelation for anyone reading. But it’s a nice moment nonetheless.

“98 Days Before”

Culver Creek elects a Jury of students at the start of every school year, and the kids hand out punishments to each other. So I kind of went into this expecting to hear “Your punishment for smoking is free candy!” but The Eagle presides as judge and the students more or less act the way they assume he’d want them to. Which is kind of a terrifying message about authority, and how even when you give power to the people they follow the same rules The King set down for them--because they’re scared, and because it’s easier.

Anyway Alaska and Chip take the fall for Takumi and Miles--and our narrator doesn’t really understand why yet. Has he never seen any movies about organized crime? He owes them a favor now, duh.

“89 Days Before”

Alaska tells Miles she’s found a girlfriend for him--Lara, the Soviet Sexpot. That’s vaguely interesting, but so is this, which comes when The Colonel disses Moby Dick.

“I like that book,” Alaska said.
“Yes.” The Colonel smiled and leaned over to look at her from his top bunk. “You would. Big white whale is a metaphor for everything. You live for pretentious metaphors.”

We’re kind of skirting the line between “dialogue that conveys something interesting about characters” and “personal thesis statements spoken aloud rather than worked into the story in a meaningful way” but I think this one is in-bounds. Maybe because the Colonel is saying it about Alaska, rather than her saying it about herself. But this too:

“She has great breasts,” the Colonel said without looking up from the whale.
Now he looked up. “Sorry. Perky breasts.”
“That’s not any better!”
“Sure it is,” he said. “Great is a judgment on a woman’s body. Perky is merely an observation. They are perky. I mean, Christ.”

No flag on the play, but I definitely reached for it.

“87 Days Before”

Alaska sets up a “triple and a half date” for herself and her boyfriend, Chip and that blond bitch, Miles and Lara, and Takumi by himself. FUCK OFF, TAKUMI! OBVIOUSLY no one wants you here. Jake, Alaska’s man, shows up while she’s ironing a shirt for Miles. Adhering to the patriarchal paradigm is fine if you’re trying to get some pussy for your friend, I guess. Anyway Jake has “blond hair to his shoulders, dark stubble on his cheeks, and the kind of faux-ruggedness that gets you a career as a catalog model.” So he’s Tim Riggins, in other words. Again, the patriarchal paradigm is fine if it gets you out of having to fuck some weird nebbish am I right Alaska?

She keeps kissing him, which is understandable if he looks like Tim Riggins, but she apologizes to Miles. “I just can’t seem to stop kissing my boyfriend!” Okay, well not really an apology I guess. SIDEBAR: Teenagers are really, excessively fond of the terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” aren’t they? Which is why high school is a series of brutally exclusive relationships with the illusion of promiscuity (even on Skins barely anybody is ever getting fucked). And lots of single adults I know (like, uh, my dad) have a lot of trouble with those terms. They hate using them! Is that because once they’ve been around the monogamy track a few times, they want to avoid being drawn back in? Or is it just because the words sound funny and below their stature? 

Sometimes when I have vague ideas for a joke I just put a note at the bottom of a post and push it down until I find room for it. I can tell this one isn’t going to get anywhere though (Re: Lara) so I will just leave it to die: Vladimir Putitinher. 

Before dinner they go to another basketball game, and Alaska tells our narrator about her boyfriend’s band, Riggins’s Rigs. “They’re like Radiohead meets the Flaming Lips,” she says. So, like Radiohead then? But Miles finds Jake to be a thoroughly unhateable dude, and finds the way Alaska grinds all over him to be charming. I’m a good enough wingman to remain unconvinced. You deserve that crazypussy, Miles! Go back to Tyra, Tim Riggins!

Takumi and The Colonel prove to be less effective wingmen: The Colonel taunts a player from the other team, said player (they call him the Beast, not that that could POSSIBLY matter even a little bit)  walks toward the stands as if to fight our heroes, Takumi runs (keep running, Takumi! Run right out of the book, don’t look back!) and Miles is sufficiently panicked enough to follow.

Which is a terrible idea because 1. there is no way he is getting laid tonight whereas a fight, won or lost, would have guaranteed that, and 2. the basketball player throws a basketball at apparent tremendous velocity and hits Miles in the head, knocking him to the ground. I’m of two minds here: a blow to the brain is probably bad for Miles personally, but if it will slow the onslaught of metaphors it might be OK for everybody generally. One person for whom it is emphatically terrible is Lara, though: As she and the rest of the crew catch up to Miles, now reeling outside the gym, she tries to comfort him.

And then I leaned forward and threw up onto Lara’s pants. I can’t say why I didn’t lean backward or to the side. I leaned forward and aimed my mouth toward her jeans--a nice, butt-flattering pair of jeans, the kind of pants a girl wears when she wants to look nice but not like she is trying to look nice--and I threw up all over them.

Takumi and Lara drive Miles to the hospital--they don’t have a nurse at the school?--and he lays in the back of the car repeating “The. Symptoms. Generally. Associated. With. Concussion.” That is the most John Green-y that Miles gets--it feels like a line from a vlog. “Thoughts From Concussed Places.” The doctor tells Miles to sleep a lot, which is the opposite of what you are supposed to do I think, and they all go home.

That night the Colonel (who, it turns out, went forward with the rest of the date) tells Miles that his girlfriend dumped him. Sara, I think he name was? Sorry Colonel, but nobody cares. “I mean, I said I loved her,” he says. “I lost my virginity to her.” Cool story, bro. As this scene unfolds, a still-concussed Miles tries to nominally participate in the conversation but also clearly doesn’t care much. Which is funny and meta in that it reflects how little we readers care, but also, like, so why is it being written about? Whither Sara?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

SKINS S1E5: White People Problems

Ugh, Sid. There was a time when I felt some measure of sympathy for this kid, but those days are over. Throughout this episode, we see how simple it would be for him to fix his problems—and plenty of people observe as much to Sid himself. But he doesn't fucking care. Taking a single step in ANY of the right directions available to him would do a world of good. But he always either fails to act or takes the easy, wrong way out.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Raise High The Roof Beam, Cat Marnell

I. Cat Marnell is like a spiritual big sister to this blog. She ostensibly writes about beauty products and uses them as a jumping-off point to explore culture and her own battered psyche; we use books about vampires to examine the battered psyche of you know, the nation.

And as someone who finds her writing compelling and unusual (Hi, I'm a 24 year old male who visits XOJane!) and also as someone who doesn't have a moralizing bone in my body (except for maybe the one...ladies) (huh? what?) I consider myself an unabashed Cat Marnell partisan. Haters to the left! (Rehab is also on the left.)

Marnell has obviously incited controversy during her time at XOJane--blah blah blah birth control (you know what, just go read the third paragraph of some other article about Marnell and you will get the gist of what should be here)--and also she periodically disappears from the site and into some haze or another. But right now, lady is on a roll.

II. First came her reflection on Fashion Week--what it once signaled for her, and what it signals now:
And yes, my life is more"glamorous" now than ever before—unbelievably so, sometimes, professionally and socially—and yet still I'm always looking for the exit sign. Whether it’s from a fashion tent or the best new club, I'm always slipping out. I go outside and smoke cigarettes and walk home without saying goodbye to anyone. And then I go do drugs alone at my apartment. 
You want that? 
If I close my eyes and muddle through the darkness of these past few years I can remember who I was years ago and how happy I thought I would be to be exactly who I am right now. I'm crying and dripping snot all over my laptop. My phone is blinking; my friend wants to get high. 
It's so hard remembering who I used to be.
BOOM. But the even better piece came when she wrote about the death of Whitney Houston. The article is mostly about Marnell herself, a person who (she is quite willing to admit) was once fairly likely (and is still sort of likely) to die in a bathtub too. And a person who wasn't surprised at all by the news.
It would be wonderful if we lived in a world free of drugs and drug addiction, but we don’t. In the end, the addict will die of overdose, of disease, or serious self-neglect, and half the time, you won't even see it coming for her. So I am telling you that there are people all around you with one foot in the door—where you see them—and one foot out, where you can’t.
I could quote a lot more of it, but I want you to read the whole thing. It's a memorable one. Even Gawker praised it! But of course commenters there and elsewhere are complaining, calling Marnell a "narcissistic psycho."

III. So, the "psycho" part she may not actually contest, but let's talk about this Narcissism Question. You see it a lot. Look at ANY article you've heard about recently, but especially the celebrity profiles: Julie Klausner's profile of St. Vincent, Edith Zimmerman's profile of Chris Evans--those kinds of comments (they made it "too much about themselves") are always among the first you will see. Before that people said it about Chuck Klosterman, and before that about Hunter S. Thompson, and before that... I mean, where could this line of complaint have come from? You'd think it would have started when writers started inserting themselves into the stories they wrote. So, uh, the thirteenth century, or so? ("Ugh, why does Dante think we want to hear about HIM? I just wanted to read about hell, dammit!"-a commenter) But I think the prevalence of this argument has more to do with the Internet than anything.

For good or ill, the Internet makes people want to say things. Lots of people without microphones now have microphones. And the volume varies, but everybody has one, and nearly everybody's using them. The saying goes "everyone's a critic," but it wasn't empirically true until recently.

And I've written before about how this "critical mass" phase of the Internet we seem to be in values people who can churn out a lot of reasonably clever writing very quickly. So one thing you see is increasing coverage of bottom-denominator stuff. M.I.A. gave the middle finger and people pounced. That one was easy to write about.

(There's a concurrent, and I think separate phenomenon on TV, because of 24 hour news cycle, and sometimes the topics chewed up and spat out by both machines are the same. Or, they feed off of one another: M.I.A. flips the bird, the TV news machine groans to life, and the blogosphere snaps into action to write about the TV news machine groaning to life.)

And the other thing you see is recurring lines of criticism--ones you can cut and paste and apply to any piece. Saying that the writer shouldn't have inserted herself so much is such an easy complaint that people trot it out immediately, whenever they can. It's so important to have something to say, after all.

(But is that really what you want? For Dante to just talk about hell? Were there not 2,000 other articles about Whitney Houston these people could have read if they just wanted an obit? Is Britney Spears as interesting as Chuck Klosterman? Well, maybe NOW, but ten years ago?)

I look back at old blog posts (usually looking for a joke to steal from myself) and see that I have often been the victim of this craze too (hey look, this author is making it about himself, too). Sometimes forcing myself to write a blog post created some interesting ideas, lines of reasoning I wouldn't have come up with organically. But sometimes I just fell back on old tropes. Cut and paste. You have to say something, after all. And it gets repetitive.

This post's sister article (essentially) is here. Have a President's Day Weekend, y'all.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

SKINS S1E4: It's Alright Ma

I've never been abandoned by one of my parents. I've also never had a fifteen-hour erection. Ergo, there's almost nothing for me to relate to in this episode of Skins. And yet I do! I suppose it is because the actor who plays Chris Knitcapper brings so much humanity and compassion to his character. This guy keeps Chris grounded, which is no easy feat. Motherfucker gets wrapped up in some cartoon ish like ERRRRYDAMNDAY.
In some ways he is the opposite of Tony, right? They're both pill-popping sex-crazed sociopaths, but Tony is so stone-faced and unfeeling and, subsequently, impervious. Chris feels everything, too much, and his actions have consequences of which he is all too aware. Mid-way through this episode, Chris is so world-beaten that he looks like a corpse.
But before that, he wakes up to an envelope full of cash and a permanent boner. PARTY ON, WAYNE.

And the other way in which Chris is Anti-Tony is that he has actual romantic feelings for a girl (who just so happens to be his teacher but whatever!). During the above party scene, Tony cruelly mocks Michelle's breasts and then she fucks him anyway. Meanwhile Chris makes an earnest, if addled speech to Angie about how much he wants her to stay at his party and have fun. She's convinced, but then she hugs him and feels his, uh, Monsieur Rabelais. Whoops! 
And that magic boner becomes symbolic (uh-huh) because it finally leaves Chris as the truth dawns on him: his mother is gone for good. And that is bad enough news, but then some hippie dude who's been sleeping in his shower stages a coup and kicks Chris out of the house. If you want to come up with some rebirth metaphor about a naked Chris getting pushed out the front door of his house, well, be my guest.
But if it's a Jesus metaphor, the order is all off, because after his rebirth comes the three days when he's dead. Accompanied by Jal, Chris walks us through the actual horror of his life: a father who wants nothing to do with him, and a dead brother he once idolized.
And by the end of it, Chris's situation hasn't really improved much. Angie hooks him up with precarious new digs on campus, but his mother is still gone and his father is still gone every way but corporeally.

Maybe these aren't visual metaphors for rebirth. Maybe we're just seeing how every time Chris busts out of one box, there's just another one surrounding him. A slightly bigger box, sure. But he's still confined.
Other notes:

  • Tony is really awful, huh? Any goodwill he earned in the first episode is gone now. Instead I feel like he's being set up for a fall.
  • No word on the condition of Mr. Mustache, Sid's malefactor, but I'm still presuming him to be dead. 
  • Cassie continues to throw herself at Sid, this time demanding a date in the near future. I want to tell Cassie she can do better than Sid, but I guess he's an OK dude. And who else does she really have? British Doyle Murray, maybe. If he was even real. Was he real? 
  • Muslim Skin and Gay Skin continue to be nonentities to me, but that will probably change next time! 
  • Oh, and Jal lost that competition. Boo.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


Last time, The Colonel got kicked out of a basketball game for being a jackass. Miles regarded him enviously and expressed his desire to be “intense” like that (Miles, I promise that will cease appealing to you in like, two weeks). And then this happened:

But for now, at least I knew such people, and they needed me, just like comets need tails.

Huh? This is the first of a few deep-sounding but essentially nonsensical metaphors I found throughout this book. I first clued in to John Green’s tendency to do that sort of thing when I saw this video about the time he spent in Amsterdam (which was the second JG video I ever saw!):
Pretty good video, but then it ends on that part about being a boat half-full of water. What the fuck does THAT mean? Nothing, is the answer. It sure SOUNDS like it does, but it doesn’t, sorry. For a more charitable view of that tendency, read on. 

“108 Days Before”

I noted a few installments ago that Green was probably going to use The Old Man, Miles’s religion teacher, as a device with which to kind of just drop knowledge on his audience, unencumbered by plot or character development. That is more or less what happens in this 2-paragraph chapter--Old Man pulls Miles aside and insists to him the importance of being “present” in every moment. That’s good advice (it’s hard as fuck to do, by the way), but I’m not sure if I like encountering it here, cordoned off from the rest of the book. If these interludes were more frequent, if Green kind of got a rhythm going with Alaska Event/Deep Thought over and over, it might be a little more palatable. I don’t know. I think I am still going to let him get away with it?

(How would I not? I’m gonna show up at one of John Green’s signing with handcuffs? “You are under arrest by the post-modern police. You have the right to remain meta.”)

“105 Days Before”

Alaska spearheads a study group for an upcoming math test (MPDG, emphasis on the NERD) at McDonald’s, and loads Miles, Chip, and several extraneous characters into her car. A cute, vaguely Russian girl (Miles in unsure about her origin, which forces me to assume she is a SPY) is forced to sit in our narrator’s lap, and he has no complaints about that. Nor should he! I’m a little disappointed her name is not Ana, though, because at this point in my life I have been friends with like a dozen Russian girls named Ana (I swear I’m not running some kind of sex worker ring) and I was kind of pretending that “Ana” was the only name Russian girls could have. Anyway Alaska’s shoddy driving in her even shoddier car causes Lara to grind all over Miles for the whole trip--so, well done Alaska!

And then Alaska lectures them about math while smoking and eating french fries. Listen, if you don’t understand why that’s hot, I think you and I can’t be friends. 

“100 Days Before”

On page 53 Miles uses the word “perennially” for the second time in like, four pages. SLOW YOUR ROLL, BUDDY. He’s hanging out with Alaska in the common room watching MTV, and he asks her where she got her name. You know that part in the Adam Sandler movie Big Daddy where Adam Sandler lets the kid pick his own name? Yeah, same thing. “As she talked,” Miles says, “she bobbed her head back and forth to the MTV music, even though the song was the kind of generic manufactured pop ballad she professed to hate.” If I’d been writing this five years ago I might have used that moment to launch into a discussion of hipster ethos, and the hypocrisies that haunt anyone who claims an interest in authenticity (see Del Ray, Lana). And if I’d been writing this five years before THAT I’d call Alaska a sellout and be done with it. But I am writing it NOW, and all of those discussions are fucking exhausting. Also: MTV playing music? Put another check in the anachronistic column. (I’d like to do an architecture joke about anachronistic columns here, but I don’t really have the knowledge base to do so.)

(*I’m a little disappointed--I was hoping Alaska’s parents were like Ron Howard and his wife, who named their kids after the cites in which they were conceived. Bryce-Dallas, etc. So great, right? All my kids are just going to have the middle name “Ibangedyourmom.”)

We learn that the word Alaska is derived from an Aleut word that means “that which the sea breaks against.” That’s pretty cool, and like, vaguely/nonsensically symbolic in a good way. I know I just chastised John Green about this shit, but that one works on me, okay? What he really does is (and this is the more charitable view) he writes novels with rock lyrics. So some of his lines work on you and some of them work on others. Plenty of bands I generally like have plenty of lyrics I hate.

“And [Alaska] was big, just like I wanted to be,” Alaska says. That’s a weird ambition--to be as big as a state--but I kind of have to applaud 7-year-old Alaska for picking the ACTUAL biggest state, mercator projections be damned. And then she--while holding our narrator’s hand, no less--shares with him her idea that she might one day teach disabled children. That’s a decidedly un-MPDG career path. I was thinking she would be want to be a rainbow scientist. Or a pro-bono drug dealer. Or someone who puts birds on things. Miles is unaccustomed to this level of intimacy, and takes it as his cue to kiss Alaska. But she breaks away before he can make a real move, saying that she’s not going to be “one of those people who sits around talking about what they’re gonna do. I’m just going to do it. Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.” That’s deep, Alaska. Wait, or is it? Did John Green just trick me again? Fuck!

Until next time: How do you picture Alaska? How do you picture Pudge? How do you picture The Colonel? For what it is worth, I just go with these three.
The Colonel, Alaska, Pudge

I didn’t much care for Scott Pilgrim as a movie (though I have been meaning to check out the books), but I carry a torch for Mary Elizabeth Winstead and a different kind of torch for that Culkin kid, so it actually aids my enjoyment of the book a lot. But do you have something better?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Visit From The Goon Squad, A Review

First off: some stuff I wrote that you might have missed this week:

Here's the thing: Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad is pretty good. It's this kind of spiraling, self-destructing narrative about a collection of people loosely associated with the punk rock/independent music scene in the 80s and 90s. The writing is mostly great, and roughly half of the characters (there are a few dozen) seem fully formed and vivid despite short amounts of page-time.

As you wander from chapter to chapter, getting further and further from where you started, the novel actually starts to get further and further from, like, being a novel. It sort of degrades? Which is a pretty cool trick at first. (Though you could ALSO make a pretty compelling argument that it IS NOT a novel at all, but rather a collection of short stories. What makes this a novel and Junot Diaz's Drown a short story collection? An arbitrary decision from someone at a publishing company, I guess?)

But A. Egan doesn't really stick to to that whole infinite regress thing and B. Some of it ends up being terrible.

Like: mid-way through the novel we get an article written in a very obvious parody of David Foster Wallace's style. As someone who has criticized and appreciated DFW in equal measure, and in fact as a person who quit reading Infinite Jest in favor of this book, I could appreciate that. But it goes on and on, to the point where--much like the experience of reading Infinite Jest--you're saying "I GET IT, MOVE ON PLEASE." And then the DFWesque character sexually assualts someone. Huh! So was he really mean to Jennifer Egan at a party once or something? (And didn't Jeffery Eugenides recently allegedly base an unflattering character on DFW? Has the statute of limitations expired on grave-spitting?)

You should also know that this is a 9/11 novel. And there's no good way to work that fact into this blog post, which is appropriate given that it is not really meaningfully worked into this book, either. It's there mostly as a way to clue you in to the way we are drifting back and forth in time, but it also hangs over certain characters (including the DFWesque one) to evoke a certain kind of nostalgic melancholy. I sense as much, anyway. But the fact of the matter is, I was 14 (so like only a few real conscious years) when 9/11 happened, and so the sense of before and after isn't so evenly balanced for me. I remember the before, a little, but I only meaningfully experienced the after. So maybe the impact of 9/11 on this book is more deeply felt for slightly older readers.

But after the DFW thing, we settle back onto the rails and everything is fine for a while. And then (DUN DUN DUNNNN) we get a look at Jennifer Egan's view of the future. Well, actually, what we get is half her view of the future and half a high parody of what she's pretending the future will be like based on implied critiques of today's culture. This is a little hard to explain, but it's not the first time I have encountered this problem. (And I suppose you could consider this spoiler-y. But only because knowing about the dumb shit at the end will color your experience of reading the good stuff at the beginning, maybe.)

It's implied that fifteen or so years after 9/11, we've become a police state--aided by global warming, perpetual war, and everyone's willful submission of data about their personal lives to corporations on the Internet. The glancing references to this stuff is fine, though the stuff about everyone unwittingly giving their authenticity away to Facebook et al is a little heavy-handedly righteous. The BIG problem, though, is when Egan moves away from realistic, subtle mode and moves into symbolic jackhammer mode.

For instance: passing references to there being a lot more desert in the US, as well as passing references to the word "American" only being used ironically now, etc. =good. Explicit references to the earth's orbit being altered to compensate for climate change= COME ON.

And when Egan talks about the future of communication and the music industry, she really jumps off the deep end (into the ball pit). Because in the future, the destroyed music industry has been revived by "handsets" which are like semi-telekinetic iPhones that everyone has and uses for everything. But particularly the industry's been saved by "pointers"--infants equipped with handsets who are for some reason allowed to purchase music for themselves by pointing at things in a virtual interface of some kind. Where these kids get enough money to reshape the music industry is beyond me, but there you are, apparently the music industry has entirely refocused itself around children's entertainment, and all anyone ever sings is nursery-rhyme type shit. So that's a pretty blunt criticism of musical culture, no? Though what that criticism IS, specifically, I am not sure. The "fuck you" part of the "fuck you because..." is pretty clear though.

And then there's the future of text messaging. Egan depicts even her adult characters as constantly communicating and sometimes even THINKING in comically truncated texts, which is like the kind of future your grandmother would have predicted after having seen "brb" for the first time on your computer screen (in 1998).
U hav sum nAms 4 me? he read on the screen.
hEr thA r, Alex typed...
That's a real quote! The idea that the Internet and instant communication is killing our grammatical resolve is an old trope, and these days it is an incorrect one. Twitter has done more to refine my writing and sharpen it than has, like, reading a novel! George Orwell originally and deftly sounded the alarm about the way language could be condensed to limit freedom, but, like, we heard him, yo!

And in fact there's a scene in which two characters seem exhausted by sharing a few words with each other and can only seem to express themselves properly when they resort to text messages. That works as an Onion story, but in a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel?

Goofy texts aside, the problem with the heavy-handed future shit is that the rest of the book is achingly realistic--and that humanity even penetrates the heavily stylized sections (two of which are very cool: a story told in PowerPoint slides, and a story that does something very nifty with second-person narration). There are all these pull quotes on the book about how wonderful the characters are, how much you care about them, and that is mostly true. So it kind of feels cruel to see them launched, at the end, into this ridiculous, heavy-handed satirical look at the future. (Egan has cited The Sopranos as a major influence on the book--and the Sopranos made some famous forays into weirdness. But it was usually weird for the sake of being weird, not weird for the sake of making overworn points about technology and privacy and--she also goes after blogging for some reason, I just remembered).

But that stuff is honestly just the last 30 or so pages of the book. Most of the rest of it is quite good. I would give it a shot, if you haven't already, provided that occasionally gimmicky post-post-modernism doesn't bug you too much. Have any of y'all read this already? What did you think?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

SKINS S1E3: Britain's Kidz Got Music-Playing

I continue to be happy that I stuck with Skins past the first episode, though maybe not as happy as I was last week. This episode focuses on Jal, and this time it REALLY focuses on her. I mean, we get a little bit of classic Skins gang antics:
And a lot of development on the Sid/Professor Mustache plot (more on that in a second but spoiler alert: it is probably resolved!) but otherwise Chris (the artist formerly known as Knit Cap Skins Kid), Gay Skins Kid, Muslim Skins Kid, and most notably Cassie are more or less shelved entirely for the duration. NEEDS MORE CASSIE! But we meet Jal's family: her successful rapper/producer father, his dipshit Ke$ha-like girlfriend, and her (Jal's) aspiring rapper brothers. Who are very funny. At first I was like, "are they terrible rappers or am I just racist?" But they're terrible rappers! 
And in the end, her brothers are pretty great people who rush to their sister's defense when Professor Mustache finally strikes. Not that they seem to do a lot of good, but it's the thought that counts.

Hahaha BUT ANYWAY PLOT SUMMARY: Jal plays the clarinet, and she's headed to some kind of big competition for young musicians. We very quickly see that she's done this entirely on her own. Her best friend is too busy banging her boyfriend to care, her father is willfully unsupportive, and her school is hilariously (in a dark way) condescending. 
But right before the big event, Mustache and one of his henchmen (he has henchmen, I guess) corner Sid and Jal in an alleyway. Mustache lashes out by destroying Jal's clarinet. And for a minute you're like, oh no, she won't be able to compete! And then her father yells at her for some reason but it turns out he is only doing it to set up the fact that he bought her a new one? And then you are like "Oh, her father is a rich musician, what was I worried about?" And then she goes to the competition and it cuts to black right before she plays the first note, which would be super effective were it not the exact same way the last episode ended. Just sub a clarinet for the burger. ("Just sub a clarinet for the burger."-I used to work at the Hard Rock Cafe and this wouldn't have been a totally insane request given the price of those burgers HEYOOO.)
Oh, and before that Jal's dad tracks down Mr. Mustache and (probably) kills him!!!
Other than that, the only thing this episode did was finally endear me to Tony, who unwinds around Jal in a way he won't allow himself to do when Tony and Michelle are around.
Also, Tony's sister makes a brief appearance, in which she seems weirdly elated that her brother is getting some action? It's creepy. She makes a blowjob gesture and then has this weird, far-away smile. I was skeeved out. 
Don't be so weird, Tony's sister! So, Janis, I guess!
Stay trashy, Skins. Previous posts are in the sidebar now.