HistoryJournal.org

‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ by Dave Eggers

Posted in American, Culture, Literature, Storytelling by Alex L. on May 23, 2010

I never thought of the Chicago suburbs as a place worthy of literature. Books, on the contrary, are something suburbanites use, like drugs, to escape the reality of their environment – a dull, slow, lonely locale, without the drama of a big city or even a small rural town. As Dave Eggers notes in his book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (hereafter referred to as AHWoSG), often under the veneer of a safe and calm neighborhood, the spirit of a suburbanite dies slowly.

I’ve had this book since high school, just sitting on my shelf. I began reading it when I was eighteen, but, coming off of English classes focusing on Faulkner, Camus, and Sartre, I was sick of authors who played fast and loose with the rules of language, especially to evoke depressing thoughts. I just graduated high school, was looking forward to college, and didn’t need these heavy stories. So I stopped reading after skimming the first few pages.

Six years later, I tried reading AHWoSG again, and finished it in the course of a week. I did not realize until this latest attempt to read AHWoSG that a good portion of the book takes place in Lake Forest, IL. In fact, the author grew up there. One of the most influential novels of the decade was written about one of the most boring places on earth.

I was inspired by this, this entering of the Chicago suburbs into literary history. There is some beauty here  after all, if one has the eyes to see. (more…)

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“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac

Posted in American, American, Culture, Literature, Reading, Storytelling by Alex L. on May 4, 2010

"On the Road" cover - Penguin Great Books of the 20th CenturyWhen I was younger, I used to love reading a good book so much that I never wanted it to end, never wanted to say goodbye to its characters. Now, in my relatively more mature years, I rarely get this feeling, though I still love to read good books. Reading the last page about Dean Moriarty, I felt little sadness.

Beat writer Jack Kerouac writes in the last pages of On the Road,

So Dean couldn’t ride uptown with us and the only thing I could do was sit in the back of the Cadillac and wave at him. The bookie at the wheel also wanted nothing to do with Dean. Dean, ragged in a motheaten overcoat he brought specially for the freezing temperatures of the East, walked off alone, and the last I saw of him he rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue, eyes on the street ahead, and bent to it again. Poor little Laura, my baby, to whom I’d told everything about Dean, began almost to cry.

“Oh, we shouldn’t let him go like this. What’ll we do?”

Old Dean’s gone, I thought, and out loud I said, “He’ll be all right.” And off we went to the sad and disinclined concert for which I had no stomach whatever and all the time I was thinking of Dean and how he got back on the train and rode over three thousand miles over that awful land and never knew why he had come anyway, except to see me.

Reading On the Road, I wondered whether the spirit of the character of Dean Moriarty had suffused itself into American culture – I saw it everywhere. The incessant traveler, lover of sights and people and smells, rubbing his belly for joy, sweating, American Odysseus without a home, Walt Whitman re-incarnate. Without Dean Moriarty, the journeys that author Jack Kerouac wrote about that he took with Dean would never have taken place. Dean was the leader. (more…)

Love and apocalypse in current pop culture

Posted in American, Culture, Film, Music by Alex L. on February 25, 2010

Hollywood has popularized the idea that romantic love is salvific, that all of one’s problems in life will be resolved by finding “the one true love”. Boy gets girl and they live happily ever after. Unlike old European fairy tales, there is no heroic quest (such as slaying monsters or the like) for the boy to endure before he gets – chauvinistically – the girl as a prize. In a typical Hollywood narrative (gross exaggeration intended), getting the girl is the quest.

In the past decade or so, there have been some works of art that have challenged this traditional Hollywood love story. In fact, they downright portray the opposite: romantic love not as salvific but as apocalyptic. The film Fight Club, with its fascist and destructive undertones, is also surprisingly a love story. The narrator, played by Ed Norton, claims in the opening scene that “the guns, the bombs, the revolution all have something to do with a girl named Marla”.

In music, the young singer-songwriter Josh Ritter’s song, Temptation of Adam, echoes similar themes to Fight Club. The song is an allegory of romantic love compared to both the fall of Adam in the Bible and the nuclear apocalypse of the Cold War. The song ends with these words, which interlace imagery and symbolism from all of those themes: “So I think about the Big One: W-W-I-I-I / Would we ever really cared the world had ended? / And you could hold me here forever, like you’re holding me tonight, / I think about that big red button, and I’m tempted.”

Are these works of art in current pop culture a reaction against the sugary Hollywood love story? And yet the two works mentioned above are not purely apocalyptic; one could argue that they have equally hopeful themes apart from the destruction portrayed in them (a contemporary example where destruction is indulged in for its own sake is the song “Aenema” by the band Tool). Perhaps this theme of ‘romantic love as apocalypse’ has always run parallel to ‘romantic love as salvation’ in American pop culture. I haven’t looked into it too much, but it does make for interesting works of art.

Stephen Colbert is greater than Achilles

Posted in American, Greek, Just for Fun, Television by Alex L. on May 21, 2009

Stephen Colbert portrait

A while ago, I was reading Stephen Colbert’s biography on Wikipedia and was impressed by why he decided to become an actor. The article states, “After two years [at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia], he transferred to Northwestern University’s School of Communication to study performance, emboldened by the realization that he loved performing even when no one was coming to shows.” What a way to live and work! Although Stephen Colbert’s career as a comedian and social commentator is presently monumental, it did not seem to be heading that way when he first started acting. But, choosing to pursue work whose excellent completion was its own reward (detached from other incentives such as money or praise), Colbert truly has lived the good life.

Thoreau, in Walden, writes, “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of others?” Most people work not to perfect their chosen art but rather to fulfill other desires – for money, women or reputation. The classic example of living in this sort of way is the hero Achilles from the Iliad. His greatness is completely a function of the honor ascribed to him by others. He kills to acquire others’ wealth. He possesses women for the same reason. He amasses this plunder to build his reputation, exhibiting his power before others. He is not self-sufficient in his greatness; he requires others to perceive him as great. To be fair, many people labor for personal motives, such as supporting their family, even though they may not care for the work they do itself. That, too, is noble. But in so much as Stephen Colbert’s work is self-sufficient and done for the love of its own perfection, he is greater than Achilles.