Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Reading: Elias Khoury and Sinan Antoon

At some readings, you can reasonably expect some form of protest. For example, when Salman Rushdie came to Houston, a few picketers talking about his defamation of Islam stood around the theater where he read. Some protests take you by surprise, however: a handful of people came out to condemn Dave Eggers for profiting from the pain of others. I half-expected to see a few protesters to emerge for Elias Khoury and Sinan Antoon, given their pro-Palestinian leanings, but alas, I was disappointed. I was also slightly late, so maybe that had something to do with it too.

The authors' new works deal with imprisonment -- an important sub-genre of Arabic literature, Khoury says -- and the ways in torture and oppression destroy and recreate the imagination. Antoon's work had a much more playful quality to it: in the hero's imaginings, the Arabic alphabet gambols and trades dots or become leaves falling from trees. The playfulness, of course, underscores that these are fever dreams borne of torture.

Khoury's new novel, Yalo, has a much more somber tone and carried more emotional resonance. In the process of writing his life story (an actual torture technique, according to Khoury), the title character must reconcile his language (Syriac, an Eastern offshoot of Aramaic) and own personal narrative with the language and narrative which his captors wants him to use. Khoury read from the English translation of his work, and at times stumbled over words; I wonder, then, if he would have done a better self-translation. But perhaps that's not his forte. Lord knows, I have trouble translating my own thoughts into something resembling standard English. And I think in English; that's how bad it is.

Still, with all the talk of torture and imprisonment and pain -- never had I read such a poetic rendering of what sounds like a horrific experience with a Coca-Cola bottle -- Khoury still found time for levity. He explained the difference between the Syrian and the Ba'athist Parties: the Syrian Ba'athists persecute writers, and the Iraqi Ba'athists persecute readers. The audience tittered gently, and I thought, Hoo boy, I'd be screwed.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Movie: Apartment 1303

The cover of Apartment 1303 proudly exclaims "from the author of The Grudge." If I were the marketers, I'd downplay that connection; otherwise, viewers might be apt to notice how much of a rip-off Apartment 1303 is.

Let's go through the Japanese horror movie checklist:
Pale female spirit with long black hair? Check!
Cute but creepy young girl? Check!
Loss of narrative cohesion 2/3s of the way through? Check!

The film centers on a number of single women living in the eponymous apartment who continually throw themselves off the balcony. Young Japanese women... the new lemmings? (See Suicide Club as a comparison.) No, no... there must be something else. It's up to Mariko, investigating her the "suicide" of her sister Sayaka, to uncover the dark secret behind the string of deaths. And while the working hypothesis is a variable rate mortgage, the actual answer is much, much darker. And predictable.

To its detriment, Apartment 1303 has a cheap feel to it; the visual effects are lackluster. How do we know so-and-so is a ghost? She fades out! Georges Méliès is like, "That's so last century!" Shaking cameras (to represent activity both seismic and supernatural), smoke machines, and spools of black thread do nothing to enhance the spooky atmosphere, either. Now many films with modest budgets overcome their shortcomings with imagination, but Apartment 1303 lacks that as well. The connections to The Grudge are inescapable, both on the surface and in its subtext. So, not only does the film have an implacable ghostly spirit emerging from the closet, but it also displays an anxiety about familial relations, particularly how the younger generation relates to the older.

While the topic provides an interesting subtext, Apartment 1303 uses it as a blunt mace for horror, rather than a subtle knife. The monstrous mother is a familiar trope in horror movies, but the end is extremely muddled. We have the presence of no less than 4(!) different ghosts, and I'm not sure who's haunting whom. Whatever happened to Mariko's mother? And did the sound effect imply a splash or a splat? I'm all for ambiguous endings, but this one ended up with a little more head trauma than I normally enjoy.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Book: "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country" by Ken Kalfus

Ekeing humor out of national tragedy is hard work -- "I flew all the way from Hiroshima, and, boy, are my arms tired!" -- but Ken Kalfus extracts ghoulish glee out of 9/11 with A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (Ecco, 2006). In cobbling together a class on "The Literature of 9/11" (see below), this novel handily made the list. It speaks to my own interests, of course -- the intersection of personal life with national narratives -- but the wicked satire is sharp enough to skewer constructed notions about 9/11.

Consider the ghoulish glee of the opening chapter. As Roger and Joyce, an endlessly divorcing couple, discovers that the other is believed to have perished, they react with unabashed joy: Joyce smiling as the Towers collapse, Roger skipping away from the Tower site itself.

It's a tough act to follow.

The remainder of the book follows Roger and Joyce's attempts at sabotage, with varying degrees of success (Joyce tries to implicate Roger in an anthrax hoax, Roger tries to drain Joyce's 401(K) account). But what would otherwise be another "divorce-from-hell" story takes on new implications in the altered New York City landscape; as much as the United States tried to make sense of the new war in which it found itself embroiled, Roger and Joyce muddle through their own war.

Kalfus' witty language keeps the growling antagonism between the main characters vivid. His attempts at more broad humor miss their mark, however; Roger's sex-obsessed divorce lawyer and Joyce's FBI paramour feel too contrived to hit their mark. But when Kalfus hits it, he really hits it. The scene involving Roger's ersatz suicide vest manages to be simultaneously hilarious and discomforting, one that exposes the blurry faultline between love and hate. It ranks with the opening scene as a standout moment.

Kalfus ends the book on a positive note, which belies a deep, biting irony and a more pessimistic worldview. Roger and Joyce achieve a kind of peace, but, Kalfus implies, their happiness is as much a fantasia as a happy ending for our current state of war.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

New Potential Boyfriend: Ira Silverberg

Pity Ira Silverberg. He may be an incredibly powerful literary agent, but he's had a rough streak of authors. Last year, there was that whole JT Leroy incident. And now, there's the Ishmael Beah scandal. Isn't anyone who he says he is? Given the explosion of memoirs-that-really-weren't (James Frey, Margaret Jones) and given the numerous self-effacting interviews that Silverberg has had to give, won't someone cut the poor guy some slack?

Yes, I say, yes! I will! Setting aside his knack for representing powerhouse queer authors (Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, Adam Haslett), he's quite fetching. He looks determined, forthright; he continues to champion Ishmael Beah's veracity even though the evidence to the contrary seems quite convincing.

A joint Ira Silverberg venture isn't necessarily just about advancing my literary career; it's about fulfilling his life on an entirely different level. No longer would he have to fear of some concocted identity: why, I've been right here all along, making toast and buttering your muffins. Good morning! And the possibility that he'll be burned by another concocted memoir? Forget it; I'm fiction all the way. (At least until I get around to my memoir. But even then it'll be 100% true. And mostly verifiable.)

I urge Mr. Silverberg to take me on as a client at his earliest possible convenience. It's in his best interest, really, considering all the cheats and frauds littering the marketplace. In fact, it may be his only safe bet.

Possible positive boyfriend aspects: Shameless literary hucksterism. I'll no longer have to send out stories; Ira will do it, and the New Yorker will clamor to rush me into print. "Alice Munro who?" they'll say.

Possible negative boyfriend aspects: If I'm not mistaken, I believe his current partner works for the New York Times, in which case, Michiko Kakutani might come gunning for me.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Reading: Adrian Tomine

In the two years I lived in D.C., I never went to Politics & Prose. It always seemed too far away, not sufficiently Metro-friendly. That's not to say that I never wanted to go. But near enough to me was Second Story Books and Atticus Books (owned by Gargoyle editor Richard Peabody). I think only one of those still survives today in a bricks-and-mortar form.

Luckily, I finally made it to Politics & Prose -- lured both by a sense of having been remiss and Adrian Tomine's coincidental appearance there. I felt unnaturally hip among the young 20-somethings that lined the reading space in folding chairs. Unnaturally hip because, you know, I wasn't. Comforting fact: there were several other Asians in the room. Discomforting fact: most were, sad to say, still more hip than I was.

Tomine began his slide show by addressing the whole "Asian-American" issue; that is, how he's been criticized for not writing (drawing?) the Asian-American experience. With any interview, he counted down the minutes until the topic was brought up. And while it's an annoying question -- and in certain ways unfair -- I still can't say that it's not valid. Asian-American artists shouldn't necessarily have to be cultural ambassadors, but then we run the risk of being represented by Arthur Golden.

The other hot topic: graphic novels... the new literature? The critical drumbeat of late has been that graphic novels can and should be accorded the same weight as "serious" literature. Certain graphic novels bear this out: Maus, Persepolis, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on the Earth. But it's still a young genre -- both in terms of how long it's been around, as well as its demographic.

That said, Shortcomings is nonetheless a great read. And if it doesn't conform to the expectations of "Asian-American" literature (read specifically: the immigrant narrative), all the better. If I had any drawing ability, would I be doing graphic novels? Possibly. But I'm content to leave that in the hands of Adrian Tomine.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Book: "Lost in the City" by Edward P. Jones

Edward P. Jones makes Washington, D.C. sound like an awfully violent city. And while the physical violence in his debut short story collection Lost in the City (Morrow, 1992) looms large -- the drug-related shooting in "His Mother's House, the petty crime of "Young Lions" -- the more understated moments of violence have the most resonance. The romantic yearning of the single mother in "An Orange Line Train to Ballston" explodes in a moment of almost unbearable harshness onto one of her children. It's a moment that feels so true and so compelling -- violence as an almost a natural consequence of passion.

Jones excels at creating a sense of place. He evokes the city and its peculiarities effortlessly, whether speculating the flashing lights in the Metro stations or recreating 'Cleopatra's Wig Shop' seemingly from memory. Certainly, he showcases a side of D.C. which most people would consider as strange waypoints on the Metro line. Equally at ease with Anacostia, Shaw and Northwest, Jones unveils these neighborhoods with intimate knowledge. And yet, as the characters traverse from one part of the city to the next, they reveal themselves as much as the city itself. In the title story, a young woman takes a cab ride, with each avenue and street bringing forth a new memory -- a mental journey moreso than a physical one. Indeed, each story is accompanied by a grainy black-and-white photograph that helps ground the reader in the place even more.

Most of these stories are told in the limited 3rd-person. One of the two stories in the first person, "The First Day," has become anthologized widely, for good reason. It seems like a small tale -- a girl's first day of school -- but Jones adds layers (illiteracy, aspirations, wounded pride) onto the story, until the cumulative emotional effect packs a wallop. The other first-person narration, "The Store," takes a long view; whereas most of the stories here take place within the length of a day or less, "The Store" follows a young man's affiliation with a story, first as an employee, then as a nominative manager.

Jones would later win the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Known World, but Lost in the City takes the political center of the free world -- just a few square miles, really -- and opens up its soul, street by street.