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Reviews on the Run

January has been a productive month for me—so much so that I'm way behind in terms of blogging what I've been reading and watching. Here's an effort to catch up.

Asterios Polyp, by Dave Mazzuchelli: My only complaint about this incredible graphic novel is that it is laid out too simply (click on the image at left to enlarge); I suppose I prefer the formal clutter of Chris Ware. This is certainly not to say that Asterios is a simple work, just that the pages and panels encourage speed and movement, and not detailed contemplation, like a poem without enjambment. The facility of the page's appearance isn't deceiving, however; it's certainly intentional, as the spareness of (most of) the panels is itself a part of the story, representing the Bauhaus-like functionalism of Asterios's mind. The natural speed of the book, however, should be an encouragement to multiple re-reads, as the art may be swift but certainly not shallow.

Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov: This book falls under the category of "difficult to write about because I enjoyed it so much." A story completely in tune with its narrator, somehow avoiding momentum or momentousness with a combination of luck (both good and bad) and diffidence. A perfect "minor" work.

The Red Letter Plays, by Suzan-Lori Parks: I found these plays much more satisfying than either of her more famous works, Venus or Topdog/UnderdogIn the Blood and Fucking A, which reimagine Hester Prynne from two ingenious angles, have a depth to them that I found missing from Parks's other work, which can be glibly symbolic; these two plays deliver an intellectual resonance that is so much richer than their clever intertextual premises. Fucking A in particular, which is about as Brechtian as any American play has been or maybe can be, is truly a masterpiece.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick: I would rather write this book up in a full post, but I'm afraid I'll have to shortchange it a bit, but perhaps that is for the best. The numerous ideas at play seem to me to work together more impressionistically than systematically; that is, I feel as if it would be better to discuss the novel in the context of another book than it would be to write about it on its own. That's certainly not intended as an insult: I think it works very well as a novel (although the ending seems quite muddled to me), and I like it about 40x more than Blade Runner, which may be my least favorite film ever, but I would like to write about Androids perhaps later, in the context of another book with similar themes.

Glee: For a show that has featured a number of quite recent hits, Glee is strangely atemporal—there is very little topical humor or efforts to periodize itself as "now," and the "issues" dealt with by the characters are perennial ones—even things like teenage pregnancy and coming out to your parents have more of an archetypal, impersonal quality that exceeds even other high-school-set shows (Gossip Girl, for instance). It's as if the show could have been set any time between 1985, when The Breakfast Clubcame out, and now, or really even five years from now. The humor does owe its tone and style to this post-Arrested Development moment—Sue Sylvester in particular could easily have been a Bluth aunt or cousin, and seriously, Will Schuester and Michael Bluth can be the same character at times—but Glee seems disconnected from our present in a really vivid way, perhaps because it channels all the emotional energy into the performances of the songs. Maybe I'm just describing the natural state of musicals, but I find that Glee's suspension of reality absolutely lovely. 

Up in the Air: Actually a pretty good film—Clooney's character is tough to feel anything for, but Farmiga and Kendrick are tremendous. It's too bad that Hollywood thinks so little of women that they'd never give them a film of their own—the scene where they kind of square off about what and how to look for a husband is exceptional. The script overall is pretty good; it's heavy-handed and more than a little predictable, but I didn't mind all that much—most business-people seem to me extremely fond of blunt metaphors and predictable messages, and it's tough to be subtle about people who think that way. I almost hoped that the film might end with a PowerPoint slide of take-away points, but I guess that might have been too meta-.

The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy-Casares: "A recluse can make machines or invest his visions with reality only imperfectly, by writing about them or depicting them to others who are more fortunate than he." For Borges (and, now that I've read him, for Bioy-Casares), writing always seems to be an almost unfortunate necessity, a form of communication that is more of a resort than a choice, less a medium than a technology. Which is not to say that either man is a bad writer, but that there is a desire, like the recluse in this quote, to invest their vision more directly than with the written word, and a resistance to the acknowledgment that there may not exist a perfect (in the sense of complete, whole, entire) order beyond words—there are no machines which are perfect enough to render words superfluous. I have mixed feelings about this attitude—it can be a little frustrating in the recursions it generates, but it can also be quite profound in its utopian aspirations. At any rate, I don't think I was as captivated by The Invention of Morel as others have been (it's a little too much like L'année dernière à Marienbad for my taste, although of course it came out first), and, like Bonsai, it's too short for me to feel like I should count it for my Latin American project; I'll probably read Ricardo Piglia's Money to Burn for my Argentinean entry.