Yearly Archives: 2006

Againt the Recent Reich . . .

Regarding Robert Reich’s Wednesday, December 20th commentary on “Marketplace” on American Public Radio.

While I usually appreciate Robert Reich’s astute analyses of the country’s economic peccadilloes, I find him way off the mark in suggesting that the tax code should limit charitable deductions to “real” charities and not to the arts and cultural institutions. Few would quibble with the excesses Reich offers as examples: yes, a donation to Harvard, which already boasts the largest university endowment in the nation, might seem self-indulgent, a ruse of the rich to ensure their progeny’s future access. It’s also easy to mock a gala dinner held by captains of industry for New York’s Lincoln Center arts complex.

But obscured by Reich’s heavy sarcasm is the fact that public educational institutions now receive very little federal or even state support, and that the arts have been summarily taken off the list of federal funders’ priorities because they’ve been made a political football by the conservative right.

If the wealthy can’t declare deductions for their largess to education and the arts, to whom could more upstart, avant-garde, community-based arts organizations turn for support as they struggle to establish themselves? In Austin, Texas, where I live, yes, we watch with despair as our public university pours millions of dollars into expanding its already mammoth stadium and upgrading the perks for its star student athletes, while the College of Fine Arts cowers, under-funded and under-appreciated, in its shadow. Would that every “Texas-ex” who gives a dollar to the Longhorns would kick in another for the arts.

But legislating against charitable donations such as these would also mean that Austin’s rich array of small arts organizations would no doubt expire. Without the deductible donations that support their operating budgets and their capital campaigns, and that pay their artists a living wage to use their imaginations to improve the world, we’d see the quick demise of the dozens of performance companies that enhance our local quality of life daily.

These arts organizations also serve the Austin community, engaging residents in the performance, music, film, art, and culture who might not otherwise be invited to share their stories on stage, or to participate in a filmmaking event, because of their race, class, or level of education. The arts in Austin do, as Reich proposes, try to make a difference for the poor.

I hope Robert Reich can nuance his argument, so that he’s not advocating that the bathwater of wealth donating to wealth be thrown out with the baby of tax incentive-supported private patronage for the arts and education.

The Feminist Spectator

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Drag King Dreams

[Note: Once again I apologize for the six week lag time between entries. The academic semester foiled me again. With the December holidays here now, and looking forward to being on leave next semester, I should be able to meet the challenge of bi-monthly writing.]

I read Leslie Feinberg’s classic novel about transgender experience, Stone Butch Blues, 10 years ago, although the book itself was published in 1993 (by Firebrand Books; a 10th anniversary edition was published by Alyson Press in 2003). Feinberg has always been at the forefront of transgender politics, well before they became a more visible issue in progressive movements around gender and sexuality. Hers was the first fictionalized autobiography to address the complications of being a subject born a woman, living in a body purposefully constructed as masculine. I recall being captivated and moved by the story of his/her (or hir, the compromise, composite transgender pronoun Feinberg uses in his new book, Drag King Dreams) challenges and triumphs, and learning more than I knew about what it means to be (as Max, the hero of Feinberg’s current novel describes it) fluent in the languages of gender, but only able to articulate yourself in one—and not the one that dominant society has assigned to you.

Reading Drag King Dreams 10 years after Stone Butch Blues is a less revelatory experience. The book’s heart is large and earnest; Feinberg remains a righteous crusader for not only trans rights, but for a progressive coalitional politics that draws careful connections among gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and ability oppressions, as well as immigration rights and the complex suppression of freedom prompted by the post-9/11 security crackdown. By demonstrating these interlocking systems of power and their tactile effects on people’s lives, Feinberg brings home polemics that might otherwise feel abstract and distant. I applaud the novel for the sincerity of its passionate political vision, even while the construction of its sentences sometimes makes me wince.

Max Rabinowitz, the hero of Drag King Dreams, is an aging transman, a denizen of the night who scrapes by without bank accounts or credit cards, eking out a living in a twilight cash economy by working as a bouncer and then a bartender in two different Manhattan clubs. Both cater to drag kings and queens, and other queer people who consciously perform their genders of choice and likewise choose their names, rather than living under the proscriptions of the ones assigned them at birth. Thor, Deacon, and Weasel all act as men; Ruby and Jasmine act as women, although in the trans cosmology, it’s more apt to look at these characters through degrees of gender performance and desire.

Max’s family of choice is a panoply of race and ethnicity, drawn more tightly together by the brutal death of their friend Vickie, who was most likely killed by someone motivated by lethal hate. Vickie’s death haunts the narrative; it’s the sign of fate with which each character grapples as they make their way through a social world where everything is dangerous for their people. (Or, as they call each other, their “family,” neatly resignifying the conventional understanding of the now fraught word.)

Thor, for example, is arrested for using a bathroom; Feinberg doesn’t specify if Thor used a “men’s” or “women’s” room. It doesn’t much matter, since Thor clearly doesn’t quite “fit” in either. His liminality causes his arrest. Feinberg positions the police throughout the novel as agents of oppressive, uncaring, unchecked power and hatred. They roughly cart Thor away to jail, where they beat him up and most likely assault him in other ways that Feinberg leaves us only to imagine.

Ruby, the drag queen who is Max’s intimate, falls ill early in the story, and is taken, although she’s uninsured, to a local hospital, where she is humiliated by nurses who call her “sir” and sneer at the transgendered caregivers who stand staunchly by her side. Unwilling to be subjected to the physical and emotional brutality of those for whom her birth gender is fixed, static, and determining, Ruby insists that Max sign her out of the hospital, and leaves, regally leaning on his arm.

Jewishness crosses trans in Drag King Dreams as another part of an identity that requires Max to stage his public resistance. His cousin, Heshie, is a differently abled computer geek, who lives in a cold water warehouse dreaming up virtual reality games and developing software that frees people from the limitations of their flawed or otherwise constraining flesh. Through Heshie’s technology, Max explores alternate realities in which he can look for others like him, or feel what it might mean to fly, unleashed from the gravity that ties him to conventional notions of identity.

Max and Heshie fight over the politics of Israel and Palestine, with Max arguing for a Palestinian homeland and Heshie for a two-state solution. Their Jewishness and the strength of their history asmishpoche (or birth family) isn’t enough to make them the “same” or to let them find “home” with each other without struggle or accommodation. Heshie instantly offers shelter when unknown assailants with most likely political motives trash Max’s apartment. Max appreciates the temporary solution to his transience, but they both know that while they might be blood family, they’re not “home” to one another.

Max’s search for “home” in fact propels the narrative’s fits and starts. The book refuses more conventional crises and resolutions. While Vickie’s death begins the story and her memorial service happens near its end, other incidents crop up and melt away with what feels like little consequence. Max befriends two Arab men who live in his neighborhood; one of them disappears mysteriously after a political demonstration, which teaches Max about the precariousness of life for people of Middle Eastern descent living in the States after 9/11. He finds common cause with Mohammed, the man left behind, who protects Max’s belongings when the thugs trash his place, and feeds him with a tenderness exactly opposite the brutality he finds at the hands of the police who supposedly keep the nation safe.

Max entertains several tentative flirtations, one with his friend Jasmine, the Asian-American transperson who manages the clubs at which their friends work together as a team. Another flirtation happens on line, in a game Heshie gives Max called AvaStar, an LGBTQ environment that nonetheless requires players to enter through two-gendered locker rooms where they assume identities that even in virtual reality can’t accommodate the kind of flexibility Max needs to feel whole. Max, entering under the screen name “Pollygender,” signals his more complex gendered performance by awkwardly translating the semiotics of the street through the controls of the virtual space. Several other players are astute enough to read his signs and ask to meet him privately. One is a femme, the other more ambiguously described, but both seem to “get” Max and his multifaceted difference, even in this simulated place.

These moments of virtual play mix with historical time in Drag King Dreams, as the people Max meets in these futuristic internet environments reveal themselves as rather old-fashioned gender rebels, some of whom even call themselves lesbians. When asked if he’s a lesbian, Max responds yes, even though the material world through which he moves requires more complicated identifications. The AvaStar moments are at once the book’s most hopeful and most strangely nostalgic, sentimental, perhaps, for old gay and lesbian and butch and femme communities of face to face interaction, support, and love. While his screen interactions highlight Max’s loneliness, they also gesture toward the possibility of connection, both online and off.

The book’s central tension lies in its effort to recreate community through the eyes of a character who’s become an inveterate loner. Over the course of the book, Max begins to remember an earlier activist moment in which he and Ruby planned marches and plotted proactively to make change. The story’s finale finds him and his friends back in jail, arrested at a march against injustice they planned and led. But in between these two eras of his character, the story meanders a bit, as Max slowly works his way back toward the possibility of his own liberation.

Feinberg’s writing lacks a certain nuance; Max’s feelings tremor close to the surface of the author’s language, and often, his politics overwhelm any depth of characterization the story might otherwise achieve. Max’s conversations with his friends often devolve into polemics, whether he’s arguing about Israel with Heshie or talking about the old days with Ruby. We don’t learn much about anyone aside from how they proceed through the trials of the present. What Feinberg imagines of their pasts seems contrived only to explain current oppressions.

Yet if Feinberg skimps on her characters’ depth and individuality, she’s committed to drawing out what connects them to each other and the tenaciousness of their bonds. At Vickie’s memorial service, Max relates a proverb passed on by the Yiddishe aunt who raised him: “Tell me who you know; I’ll tell you who you are” (220). This crystallizes Feinberg’s point: that a relationship, or a community, or a movement consists of the lines drawn between us by history, by labor, and by commitment to an idea of family much deeper than origins, because these new ones are families we make and nurture and refuse to see sundered.

Feinberg’s generation of transgendered activists claimed their connection to gay and lesbian, feminist, and civil rights. Although Feinberg never places her characters in specific age groups, they acknowledge that a younger generation has come up after them whose issues and lives are different in myriad ways. Yet another of the hopeful moments in the novel comes at the team’s climactic march for gender rights in Sheridan Square, the historic site of the Stonewall uprising in 1969. Ruby fights a cordon of obstructive police to join her cohort with a younger generation of transpeople working their way toward them to protest by their sides. That commitment to trans-generational thinking and coalition demonstrates Feinberg’s insistent faith in the potential for change.

In fact, Max’s belief in possibility resurrects itself over the book’s arc. By the end, despite their incarceration and the uncertainty of their release, Max and his friends are planning their next demonstration and making more connections to others who are disappeared or dispossessed. A loud, aggressively supportive, activist crowd lobbies for them on the station house steps.

Throughout the book, Feinberg writes obliquely about each characters’ race and gender; for example, we don’t know if Deacon is female or male, black or white. We know Max is “he” and Jewish; that Thor is a drag king; that Ruby dresses like a woman; that Jasmine, too, dresses like a woman and is Asian. But their chosen names conceal their bodies and identities of origin on the page, requiring us to accept them according to what they call themselves and by the gender and sexuality Feinberg tells us they perform.

Only at the very last moment of the novel do we hear their birth names, as each of Max’s family of friends is called out of the common jail cell in which they’ve been conveniently held. As policemen come to collect each character individually, the officers read from clipboards their original names: The stolid Thor, who took his name from the Norwegian god of thunder, is called out of the cell as “Carol Finster.” For the glorious, glamorous Ruby, they call “Tyrone Lanier.” The enigmatic Deacon is harnessed to the prosaic “Ronald Jackson.” And finally, as he dreams of the resurgence of community in which the living mingle once again with the dead (the literary equivalent of the fantasy party that ends the first gay film about HIV/AIDS, Longtime Companion), an officer comes for Max, sneering at his Jewish surname, then attaching it to his first, calling, “Maxine Rabinowitz.”

With these final two words, Feinberg drives home how far “Maxine” is from describing Max and his world, and let’s us feel that the state’s investment in this official identity (which Max has long since overthrown) is superfluous, ridiculous, and archaic. And yet by that name, Max remains affixed to state power as closely as a photo is laminated to a driver’s license, always subject to its ability to maim her physically, emotionally, and politically. Hence the need for drag kings to dream.

Drag Queen Dreams isn’t great literature. But it does manage to bring home how ideology pierces our flesh, and to illustrate how the complications of identity overflow the apparatus of a state (and a body) that would contain it neatly and enforce it brutally.

The Feminist Spectator

Original link to post on Blogspot.

On “The Road”

Cormac McCarthy isn’t an author I’ve ever before read. Even in good reviews, his books have always sounded rather male-identified. That is, they seem to be resolutely, openly, avowedly, unashamedly about men. And that’s fine. It’s just that those aren’t the kinds of novels I usually pick up and enjoy.

But reviews of The Road intrigued me, and reading the book, I was powerfully moved, so I’m recommending it here. I can’t offer you background on McCarthy, or compare this latest novel to his oeuvre. I can only offer you my impressions and how it felt to be carried along by this story and the searing images McCarthy has wrought.

The story is simple, bleak in its desperate elegance. A man and a 10-year-old boy walk empty interstate highways in a post-apocalypse environment, consulting frayed pieces of an ancient map to find their way south or to a coast. McCarthy doesn’t explain how they came to be on their journey. The little bits of back-story he provides appear like moments of color in an otherwise black and white film. No exposition cushions the catastrophe of the world through which they move.

Pushing ahead of them a shopping cart that holds meager possessions covered by a rotting tarp, the man and the boy (neither have names) follow the blistered black top, watching behind them for the “bad guys” that might not just impede their journey, but ruthlessly end their lives.

Their lives, such as they are, seem hardly worth saving. They forage for food and approach starvation numerous times through the short narrative, which takes place over the course of a few months or so. The road they walk is covered in gray ash, the landscape unrelieved by color or even movement, except when the weather shifts and cold winds or lashing rains drive them under their makeshift shelter.

Their clothes are ragged, their shoes long since disintegrated. Their bodies are filthy, their hair matted, their bones sharp under their skin, and the father’s lungs are wracked by a hacking cough that sometimes incapacitates him. Both wear face masks covered with soot to protect their breath from the toxic air through which they move.

Their conversation runs in fits and starts, short, declarative sentences often as simple as “okay” or “I don’t know.” Few adverbs or adjectives adorn the prose, and yet you can hear, as you read, the quality of their voices, the care they take with parceling out their emotions in a world in which despair and desperation seem the only logical things to feel.

Their exchanges are full, the father’s with his concern for his child, the child’s with a protective silence about the truth of their existence. They perform for each other a kind of normality, a refusal of resignation, a determination just short of hope, that keeps them trudging toward a destination they can barely even imagine. Their interactions are tender, full of love they never directly express.

In the spare, waste-free poetry of his words, McCarthy renders the intimacy of utter solitude. The man and the boy could be the last people on earth; there’s no way to communicate outside of their brief exchanges with each other. They know they’re not alone, that bands of villainous cannibals who roam this perverse world could appear at any moment. This keeps the narrative tense with the unknown and unexpected, even as McCarthy underlines the tedium of days and weeks lived simply pushing the fragile cart through a landscape of obstruction and debris.

The horror the father and son encounter is unimaginable, and yet seems such a likely outcome for a world in which nuclear annihilation is always possible. Cities stand empty and gray, their buildings rifled by the few survivors that people the place. Houses are ransacked for food and firewood, clothing and blankets. No one, it seems, can stay anywhere permanently, because the danger of the marauding bands of “bad guys” is too grave.

The bad guys are the cannibals, who roast headless infants on spits in the woods, soulless haunts who ramble like anarchists through a world in which rules no longer apply. The few close-ups McCarthy provides of these degenerate beings are chilling. The fact that the women among them are pregnant is both frustrating in its apparent misogyny—that even in a post-nuclear holocaust landscape, women would be barefoot and pregnant—and nauseating, in the presumption of a future signaled from within the wombs of this new world’s most evil antagonists. Perhaps the women are simply growing their own food.

In fact, when the man and boy come unexpectedly to a house with a locked cellar, the father works fiercely to open it, assuming that only food could be guarded so securely. When the door opens and he ventures down the stairs, finding his way with an old lighter, he sees filthy, naked men and women huddled together, blinking in the light. One person lies on a table, the stumps of his legs bleeding freely. One of these creatures approaches the man, saying simply, “Help us.”

But in this ethical economy, survivors can only help themselves. Any care they might extend would mean less to keep themselves alive. The man retreats up the stairs, relocking the door behind him. He knows he’s leaving fellow human beings to their fate as food; he knows that he did indeed break into a trove of nourishment, one palatable only for those who could bear to eat their own kind. McCarthy inverts the comforting domestic tropes of so much fiction; if this house is a womb, then like the women the man and boy see through its windows, it can only be incubating a new supply of humans to be eaten by others.

The father responds dispassionately to these horrors, saving his rage for moments late in the obsidian nights when the boy sleeps and the father is up, coughing and railing at a god he knows doesn’t exist. He recalls snippets of a “before,” not before this holocaust, but before he and the boy set out on the road. His wife killed herself, refusing to stay alive only to wait for a sure and violent death. He can remember only flashes of color, light, and sound, of birds that used to fly. His memory holds references to signs that no longer have meaning; the boy has never seen live birds, has never known a world that wasn’t covered with gray sludge and inflicted with vicious weather.

The boy, though, is the story’s moral voice. When he and the man meet a little boy his age, darting in and out of abandoned buildings, the father’s boy wants to save him, take him with them on their journey. But the pragmatic father shunts aside his own compassion to save themselves.

Later, a lone man robs them, stealing their cart and its contents. The father and son track him down and when they overtake and disarm him, the father forces the thief to strip, taking his clothes along with their belongings and leaving the man alone in the road. The boy is stricken with grief, knowing that there are tantamount to murdering the man. But the father insists that the thief intended to kill them. The world around them might be monochromatically gray, but the father’s actions brook no shadings. Survival can only accommodate black or white, yes or no, life or death.

The boy and his father “carry the fire,” which seems both metaphorical and mystical in The Road. One way or another, even when they don’t have food or water, the father lights a fire every night, gathering wood that remains plentiful, and starting the flame in ways McCarthy never describes. The fire also seems internal; the father and son are the “good guys,” plodding forward toward a future they don’t even know exists.

[Spoiler alert.]

When they arrive at the coast, when they can go no further, they still keep walking, tracing their way along the shore, weaving inland and back again to the beach. The ocean is no longer blue as the father remembered and the boy had hoped, but now just pestilential waves of gray water crashing on blackened sand. The father falls fatally ill and won’t survive. He tries to secure the boy’s safety, teaching him to go on as they have before, keeping with him the pistol that’s the barest insurance of their potential security, even though all but one of its bullets are carved from wood and wax instead of metal. They go on, determined:

“They went on. Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel.
The nights dead still and deader black. So cold. They talked hardly
at all. He coughed all the time and the boy watched him spitting
blood. Slumping along. Filthy, ragged, hopeless. He’d stop and
lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he
would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back
at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle”

This strikes me as a powerful statement of faith in a desolate, spiritless world.

I won’t reveal The Road’s end, since part of what compelled me through the book was wondering how McCarthy would finish a story that only seemed able to close in one cataclysmic way. Instead, the final moments of the book accomplish the most remarkable feat of all, which is to instill hope in the midst of utter despair.

I looked at my world through new eyes as I read The Road, suddenly aware of the depth of color and texture and sound and life that surrounds me every moment. McCarthy’s achievement is to capture so viscerally what it would be like to be the only living beings in a dead landscape, and the utter desolation of trying to keep not only your body, but your spirit, alive.

The world he paints so horribly, though, doesn’t seem that far-fetched, given North Korea’s posturing about its nuclear program, and the fear that Iran, too, is building a nuclear arsenal. McCarthy refuses to draw these analogies, or to lay blame, or even to explain what’s happened to the world as we think we know it.

He doesn’t have to. Reading The Road, you instantly understand that the landscape he depicts is the inevitable outcome of the insanity of human power gone tragically awry, of human dominion taken to one of its logical, malevolent extremes. That McCarthy also persuades you by the end that benevolence and love can continue to exist in such an ethical wilderness makes The Road an intense and moving read.

And strangely analogous to a stunningly hopeful historical moment in which the Democrats have regained Congress.

To the future, then,
The Feminist Spectator

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Why I Blog: On the Theories and Practices of Feminist Blogging

I’ve been invited to contribute a linked essay on blogging to the web journal, Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture. Their next issue is called “Theories/Practices of Blogging,” and includes a special section of posts on blogging, along with about a dozen essays addressing the practice. If you’re interested, do follow the link to see what other writers have to say.

I’ve been blogging now for a year and several months. I was inspired to create my own space in which to write by my desire to comment from a feminist perspective on contemporary theatre and performance, film, television, and novels in a free and unfettered space.

I’d approached editors of Austin’s daily and weekly papers, interested in reviving what had been an earlier part of my career as a more regular critic, which I distinguish from my work as an “academic” critic only by the frequency and limited number of words a trade critic has to make his/her claims. Those limitations of print journalism, though, persuaded me to look for another forum in which to ply my critical wares.

In my critical work, I’m inspired by the same things that persuade any critic to write: the desire to be in dialogue with cultural production and to open another space for social discourse about the representations that fuel us. Theatre, performance, film, television, novels, and other forms of artistic expression and representation tell us who we are and help us imagine who we might be.

By identifying with or against various characters, framed by new narratives or unique perspectives on old ones, we shape ourselves as acquiescent or resistant to normative (that is, popular or dominating) cultural understandings of what we should be, especially around the identity markings of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, age, and ability. Because of culture’s influence on our selves and our relationships, critical engagement with its meanings is imperative.

But it’s also fun and moving and emotionally—as well as intellectually and politically—affecting. I love popular culture as much as I love high art. I’m as easily drawn to write about a television show as I am about a performance piece I see locally, in New York, or elsewhere. Part of my love comes from the community I imagine forged around our habit of watching and then discussing shows likeGrey’s Anatomy and Ugly Betty, for instance, or films like Little Miss Sunshine or V is Vendetta, or performances like Anna Deavere Smith’s.

My pleasure in viewing is enhanced by reading about, talking about, and writing about how I’m struck by these shows and films and performances, and how they represent social relationships in new and often insightful ways.

Blogging gives me an outlet for rumination on these artifacts of culture. This more free-form writing lets me reflect on what I’ve seen and felt and fulminated on, and extends my imagined community to a wider sphere.

Twenty-five years ago, I was part of a group of feminist graduate students in the Performance Studies Department at New York University debating about starting a publication called Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. We had a nagging sense that we weren’t the only ones concerned with how gender is produced and represented in theatre and performance. Somehow, we knew that our concerns, inspired by the heyday of second wave American feminism, were probably shared widely.

First we thought a newsletter would be enough, a way of connecting people around common concerns about the status of women theatre artists, as well as about how art inculcates certain notions of gender and other aspects of identity. But our ambitions quickly grew because we knew that feminist performance theory and criticism, nascent as it was in 1981, would be an important academic subfield as well as a popular critical practice.

We decided it deserved the gravitas and visibility of a quarterly or (more likely, given our resources) biannual journal. Sitting with our thoughts in our department’s lounge, the eight or ten of us knew that we represented hundreds or thousands more, people eager for a feminist critical perspective on the performance that shapes and propels our lives.

I have that same feeling these many years later when I sit down to write in my blog. “The Feminist Spectator” is named after my first book, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (1988), in which I launched a feminist critique of performance, poaching theory from film studies and anthropology and psychology.

The book argues that we need to look at art and representation as feminists, to turn the lens on culture away from conventional, dominant understandings. I argue that we need to look from the margins, to see what culture reveals about expectations of gendered relations, and about the possibility for radically reconfiguring what our social roles and identities mean.

A feminist perspective on culture is, happily, no longer radical in American life, but it’s still vital. I write “The Feminist Spectator” blog to keep reminding myself that a feminist critique tells us things about ourselves and our world that somehow aren’t seen or said by more conventional critics (whether academic or trade).

Despite my own move back toward what I like to call “radical humanism,” and my own recent to desire to track social commonality instead of differences, my critical perspective still begins with a keen sense that the world could and should be changed, to be made equitable, kinder, inhabitable, loving, and open to innovative ways of leading our lives. I learned that perspective from feminism.

I blog to keep honing my feminist critical skills. I blog to feel myself part of a larger community of readers/spectators/viewers who care about culture and what it means to our everyday lives, as well as to the possibilities of our futures. I blog to work out my own confusion and to chart my own emotions when I’m stirred by cultural productions that affect me strongly.

I blog to reach people with whom I’d like to have a dialogue. I blog to be part of a public sphere I can’t see but can feel on some intimate, ineffable level, the way I feel myself part of something larger than myself when I’m physically present at the theatre. I blog to retain the sense of community that’s necessary before I can believe in social change. I blog because talking about the arts makes life rich and meaningful; writing about it lets me hold onto those feelings just a little longer.

A year and two months past the inauguration of “The Feminist Spectator,” I only wish I could blog more. I’ve promised two entries each month; sometimes I’ve managed more, sometimes less.

But my blog is constantly present as a “place” in my mind, somewhere that lets me devise things to say, to germinate reviews and essays I want to write, to mull observations about culture I want to share and the feedback I hope to receive.

While I’ve always engaged with culture, now I have an always ready imagined audience for whom I’m always thinking of things to write. Being part of this dialogue makes me an even more avid spectator and cultural consumer.

That’s why I blog.

I’ve come to cherish this rather imaginary place, and want to thank anyone reading this for visiting. Come back often, and stick around to comment.

The Feminist Spectator

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More Fiction: The Emperor’s Children

Like Anna Quindlen’s Rise and Shine, this novel by Claire Messud sits on The New York Timesbestseller list, probably on the basis of rave reviews by their own staff. Intrigued by the idea of a pre-9/11 story of three Brown University graduates approaching 30, I joined the queue and bought my copy. But as with Quindlen’s book, Messud’s disappointed. What promised to be incisive social critique read to me as self-involved, narcissistic, and shallow, a rather tiresome attempt to “say something important” about our lack of deep social vision, our self-serving American propensities to superficial intellectualism and ambition, and the petty complications of emotional lives that don’t resonate beyond the Manhattan environs that lend them their only edge or color.

Messud’s impeccable pedigree would lead a reader to expect more. Her books have been finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award; her work has achieved various “Books of the Year” or “Notable Books” lists; and she’s been awarded all the requisite high end, visible fellowships. Her prose, in fact, is impressive; she writes with a kind of dense, descriptive fluidity that captures place and character exceptionally well. Her sentences are long and introspective, precise and detailed. The problem is that the characters she draws don’t elicit empathy or interest beyond the surfaces they represent.

Murray Thwaite is a famous essayist, a public intellectual to whom New Yorkers turn for words of wisdom and pithy insights. In his desk drawer, however, resides a novel, his dream of telling the truth in a more fictional form, kept under lock and key perhaps because of his buried knowledge of his own limitations.

The book-in-progress is found, however, by his brilliant but socially awkward nephew Frederick “Bootie” Tubbs, who’s come unannounced and uninvited from upstate New York to live under his famous uncle’s tutelage. Reading the unrefined prose, Bootie sees through his uncle’s pretensions and decides to unmask him as a fraud in The Monitor, a new magazine of social critique about to be launched by Thwaite’s daughter, Marina, and her louche Australian new husband Ludovic, whose own dastardly ambitions require his proximity to his wife’s father.

Marina, meanwhile, works doggedly at her own manuscript, a social history of children’s clothing called The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes that was commissioned on the basis of a short article she wrote some five or more years before. Marina’s effort to become her father’s protégé, the rightful heir to his intellectual legacy, seems paltry and trite beside his grander, theoretically more important literary pronouncements.

Messud also gives us Marina’s best friends from their days at Brown: Danielle—a would-be documentary filmmaker with her own radical pretensions, stuck doing a story on liposuction when she’d rather be filming Australian Aborigines—and Julius, a gay would-be journalist whose relationship with a wealthy Jewish stock-trader derails his own career while it temporarily enhances his material life.

To twist the circle one last time, Murray, for no good reason, starts an affair with Danielle, who too quickly (and not terribly believably) falls in love with her friend’s famous father, a womanizer twice her age. The secret affair lasts until the first time they spend the whole night together turns out to be September 10th, 2001.

They wake the next morning to a too-perfect view of the planes flying into the World Trade Center towers, and as Murray trudges uptown to his long-suffering but loyal (and socially noble, given her work with underprivileged children) wife, Danielle understands that she’ll never truly be significant to him, and promptly falls into despair. That her friends think she’s devastated by the events of 9/11 is one of the novel’s more bitter twists.

To give Messud the benefit of the doubt, I have to assume she means to critique her characters’ petty emptiness, but what might have been meant as the novel’s satirical edge never cuts through these people’s pampered lives and distasteful actions. The plot meanders without signaling ironic or critical intentions clearly enough for the reader to bear the superficiality of its characters’ feelings.

When in the last eighth of the book the Towers go down, Messud’s description of the event—despite all the television and newspaper and magazine and web stories we’ve seen or read since—is original, wrenching, beautiful, and somehow right, as she delivers the images with the benefit of hindsight to characters seeing it happen in the moment.

But there’s something crude about using 9/11 as a plot device to facilitate the end of Murray and Danielle’s affair, and to propel Danielle to recognize her insignificance to him. The social tragedy is reduced here to a personal one, and a predictable one at that. Of course Murray, coated by the dust of the Towers, will return to his wife. Of course Murray will resume his place as the omniscient commentator on the world’s events, a man whose smooth surface isn’t even ruffled by his betrayal of Danielle (his wife expects his adulterous interludes and refuses to let him confess to her). Of course, for the powerful and the lucky, life goes on.

Julius, too, suffers an ill-fated relationship, in which David, his lover, furious when he finds Julius in a bar bathroom having sex with another man, beats him senseless and bites off a piece of his cheek. (That David, who along with Danielle is one of only two Jewish characters in the novel, is a rich, spoiled banker from Scarsdale with an ugly mean streak is really unfortunate.) When Julius calls himself “scarred for life” (388), his tragedy, too, is personal, not social.

Although no one deserves the brutality of his attack, the wound seems to give him dignity (perhaps Messud means to draw parallels here between the attack on the US and its brief receipt of international empathy generated by the world’s horrified reaction). But (perhaps like the US) Julius learns nothing from what he suffers. With the despicable end of his relationship, he returns to his Lower East Side walk-up and proceeds much as he did before, despite the indelible mark on his face.

September 11th does nothing more to these characters than to secure their hollowness. The Monitor’s launch is cancelled; the first we hear that the magazine was meant to satirize American social mores is when Ludovic complains that 9/11 makes it irrelevant (I guess this is Messud’s nod to that quick moment people thought was the end of irony). As Marina and Ludovic walk through Union Square a day or two after the Towers fall, Ludovic calls the posters searching for missing people “necrophiliac pornography,” (376), insisting that all the people pictured are dead.

“This is what we should have a cover piece about, this,” he went on, in an apparent seething fury. “About how in this country everybody wants a happy ending. To the point of dishonesty, as if sticking up these posters can somehow undo, or fix, or change what’s just happened. Who’s going to say to them, ‘Go home and face the facts! Your son, mother, niece, is dead, dust, gone. [. . .] But it’s the fucking land of lies here, isn’t it? So nobody’s going to say that. And we’re not going to say it, either, because we don’t have a fucking magazine.” (376)

Marina comforts him in the park, knowing that passers-by have no idea he’s angry for his own material loss, assuming instead he’s sharing the common grief.

Moments like these could be powerful indictments, but Messud hasn’t set the tone early on to prepare us to read her characters as lynchpins of a satirical critique. They’re inherently unlikable from the start, but we’re somehow invited to admire them, rather than see them for what they are, as an author with a better hold of social parody (like Richard Russo in The Straight Man or even Tom Wolfe, at his best) would do.

Messud could be suggesting that without this critical perspective, no one is keeping an eye on American culture, that the voice of critique is officially silenced. But if this is her intent, it’s too obfuscated by her characters’ unbearable privilege to read clearly. They’re all finally spoiled brats crying over toys crushed by the hammer on the anvil of the “real” that was 9/11. Toward the end of the book, Julius and Marina exchange what’s perhaps meant to be an ironic, self-aware social temperature reading:

“No, no,” Julius laughed. “We just want to be at the Party of Big Ideas. Ideally, to throw it. We see there’s no contradiction.”
“Only the insufferable suffer for art. That’s what Ludo says. ‘It’s so déclassé.’”
They laughed, a little awkwardly.
“Does he really believe that?”
“He doesn’t believe in suffering, no.”
“Like suffering is a choice?”
“Whatever.” Marina had stood, put their cups in the garbage, and they had gone back out into the cold. (407)

“Whatever” pretty much sums it up.

The Feminist Spectator