When I first read the press materials for Josh Melrod and Tara Wray’s documentary Cartoon College, I’ll admit that I was mostly interested in the prospect of seeing comix legends like Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, Chris Ware, Scott McCloud, and Stephen Bissette discuss their craft. What Melrod and Wray deliver though is much more—an intimate and often very moving look at the lives of the young artists who attend the prestigious Center for Cartoon Studies. This is a film about passion, drive, commitment, and what it means to be an outsider.
In my review, I wrote: “Cartoon College offers an intriguing story about real people trying to do something that they love, and I enjoyed that. This is a film about the impetus, motivation, and hard, hard work that goes into the creative process. Great stuff.”
Josh was kind enough to talk to me about making the film over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: How did you begin the documentary Cartoon College? How did the project come about?
Josh Melrod: In 2006 my wife, then my girlfriend, Tara Wray, had just finished her first movie, Manhattan, Kansas, and was looking for her next project. She’s a huge fan of Chris Ware and she read an article about how he’d been a visiting lecturer at CCS, which had just opened a year earlier, and that was enough to get her thinking about a cartoon school documentary. She asked me if I’d consider moving to Vermont for a year–we were living in New York, and had been for a while–and I said ok. Then we had to convince James Sturm and Michelle Ollie, who founded the school, to let us film, which took several months of emails and a couple of face-to-face meetings and a trip or two to White River Junction. Once they gave us the green light we basically packed up and moved to Vermont. That was in August of 2007, and we’ve been here ever since.
Biblioklept: So you guys were shooting for like, three years? When you started did you have an idea of the kind of story you wanted to tell in Cartoon College?
JM: Our original conceit for the movie was a year in the life of a cartoon school. It was supposed to be more about the institution and how it was helping to revitalize White River Junction, which had been a town in decline for about a century. So we shot for the 2007-2008 academic year and then started working with an editor in New York that summer. It took about six months to get a rough cut put together, but when all was said and done we weren’t happy with what we had. Part of it was that the story of the school’s impact on the town didn’t quite come together–it was an arc that was unfolding too slowly to really be seen during the year we’d been filming. But we also realized that what really interested us, much more than the school itself, was documenting the creative lives of the students and witnessing these aspiring artists at a very pivotal time in their careers. We basically scrapped the rough cut, which was a pretty difficult decision, and went back to film for what turned out to be another year-and-a-half.
Biblioklept: Some of the students, like Blair Sterett and Jen Vaughn, for example, are on screen a lot more than others. Was this because they were more open to the cameras? Were there students who were reticent to talk to you?
JM: Jen is kind of a natural in front of the camera, so in a sense she was more open than some of the others. But there were only a very small handful of people during the entire production who told us they really didn’t want to be filmed. A lot of the cartoonists we spoke with are fairly introverted, and quite a few, both the younger and the more experienced artists, discussed how they express themselves best through their comics, but it doesn’t take too long for most people to begin to forget the camera is there.
Biblioklept: I like that the film is really about the career of cartooning, and that the film focuses on the arcs of these aspiring cartoonists. You’ve got all these great interviews with people like Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns, but their comments ultimately work to illuminate or enrich, through their perspectives, what the students are going through. It seems like there’s a lot of restraint and wise editing on your end here. Can you talk about how you put the film together? I’m curious how intuitive the process of forming the narrative was . . .
JM: By the time we finished shooting we had something like 150 hours of footage. I don’t remember how it all broke down, but maybe forty percent was interviews. There was a lot to go through. But it was pretty clear what the character arcs were for Blair and Al and Jen. Actually, it’s kind of hard for me to remember the process in any great detail. I was just starting to work on the rough cut when Tara and I had our twins, so for the first six months of the edit I was working from around ten at night until six a.m., stopping every couple of hours to help with feedings and changing diapers, and getting a few hours of sleep here and there during the day. It’s all very blurry, and sort of miraculous that I finished the rough cut at all. My method of working was to cut the footage down from 150 hours to just 10, which is a manageable amount of material, and from there put together an assembly that had the basic structure of a movie, and then loosely refine that into a two-hour rough cut. Then I went to New York to work with another editor, Chris Branca, who came in with a ton of great ideas and further refined the story. As for the interviews serving to illuminate what the students were going through, that was pretty organic. The challenges that a person faces when they decide to become an artist are fairly universal–the self-doubt, managing your time, coming to terms with your own limitations, figuring how to make a living, etc.–so the experiences shared by the established artists were in-line with what we documented from the students.
Biblioklept: You brought up that Tara’s interest in Ware’s work kind of sparked the genesis of the documentary. Were you a fan of comics too? How much did you know about the cartooning world going into the filming process?
JM: As a kid I loved Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County/Outland and The Far Side, but those all ended when I was in high school and I pretty much stopped reading comics at that point. Then, after Tara and I moved in together, I’d pick up some of the books she’d leave around the apartment–like Jimmy Corrigan and Hate, I remember in particular–but I knew virtually nothing about the cartooning world when we started the movie.
Biblioklept: Have you become a fan since then?
JM: I love comics, but I’m a very casual fan. I still gravitate towards non-graphic novels, and I’m not quite sure why that is. Comics certainly demand more attention from the reader, if the reader we’re talking about is me–the interplay between the pictures and the text require a level of focus that isn’t needed when you’re just reading words, although I’m not sure I ever noticed that when I was a kid–and so maybe it’s that I don’t always have the mental energy to pick up a heavy graphic novel. I am really interested in reading comics from the people in the movie–CCS graduates are doing just incredible work and a lot of the former students we followed are starting to put out books now. Katherine Roy just illustrated a book and has a couple of others coming out soon; Jen Vaughn released a book last week; Josh Rosen is going to start serializing the project he was working on while we were filming; Joe Lambert, who we interviewed but didn’t appear in the movie, although he designed the poster, made a book about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller that’s just incredible.
Biblioklept: What kind of movie would you like to do next?
JM: I’m working on a short, a fiction movie, with a couple of guys who used to edit a literary magazine with me. It was called the Land-Grant College Review and we published for five or six years starting in about 2002. We wanted to work on something new, and I’m really interested in doing a narrative, and they’d been thinking of doing a screenplay, so that’s what we decided to do. We’re still writing, but we have some good advisers on board and the plan is to shoot next summer. And I’m in the development phase on a pair of new docs. They’re both about personalities, as opposed to being issue-based, which is a common denominator. One follows a semi-famous performer and the other involves a family on its summer vacation. It’s still pretty early to talk confidently about any of this stuff. I just have to keep plugging away and see what happens, but these are the projects I’d like to do next.
Biblioklept: The docs sound intriguing. I spent some time in the Land-Grant College Review archive just now—what a great collection of authors. Your little microfiction there is a good creepy laugh. What are you reading now?
JM: Thanks! We had a short but good run, and got to publish a lot of great writers. One of my most prized possessions is a postcard that David Foster Wallace sent me–in response to a letter I’d written asking him to send us a story–saying that he’s “just working on stuff that isn’t suitable for publication any place.”
As for what I’m reading, I just started [Erik Larson’s] The Devil In The White City, which I’d been hesitant to open for a few years since I do a lot of reading before bed and I thought it would mess with my sleep. So far so good.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
JM: No, never stolen a book, but I have gone a long time without paying for a book. A lot of the books on my shelf I picked out of piles left on the curb or at the recycling center near where we live now. Sometimes I like to let the universe decide what I read depending on what I find in front of me, which is how I got to read The Universe And Dr. Einstein, a lay readers guide to general relativity that I still managed not to understand.
In the opening scene of Josh Melrod and Tara Wray’s new documentary Cartoon College, aspiring cartoonist Ryland Ianelli lays out the reality that, despite all the progress the medium has made as an art form worthy of respect, comic books are still outré: “It’s gotten easier to talk to people who are open to the idea of comics being worthwhile—but at the point you say, Yes I’m going to school for comics, they’re completely ready to dismiss you.”
Cartoonists have always been outsiders—even in art schools, a traditional gathering spot for outsiders—and it’s this feeling of alienation and displacement that undergirds the emotional platform of Cartoon College. The film is not just about the Center for Cartoon Studies (CSS), a highly-selective two year MFA program founded in 2005 in White River Junction, Vermont, or the cadre of master cartoonists who inspired the school, and, in some cases teach there. For plenty of comix nerds (like me), it’s enough to see masters like Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, and Chris Ware talk about the art, medium, and business of cartooning. But this documentary offers more. Cartoon College succeeds because it tells the genuinely moving and engaging story of its students, self-described outcasts who find a sense of community and even family in the program.
Melrod and Wray take us into the extreme demands of the CSS program. In the first year (“boot camp”), students practice fundamentals—drawing, theory, writing, history. In the second year, the students produce a thesis—a finished work of some kind—to determine if they pass the program and receive an MFA. All this work is to ensure that students “will be ready to face the uncertainty of a career in one of the most labor-intensive, drudgery inducing art forms,” as the film puts it.
The faculty (all distinguished cartoonists, including Stephen Bissette, James Sturm, and Alec Longstreth, who are featured prominently in the film) repeatedly remind students and audience alike that most of cartooning is labor-intensive drudgery: it’s not really that fun, it requires lots of discipline, and most people can’t cut it. The CSS, like most art schools, employs a workshop technique to help students grow, get feedback—and also, implicitly, as a means of maintaining quality control. Workshop scenes and other critiques are often some of the most painful moments in the film, as they highlight the very personal stakes for the aspiring cartoonists, who quite literally put their lives into their work.
Melrod and Wray wisely compose their narrative around just a few of these students, while giving us enough scenes with others to flesh out the film. Blair Sterrett gives the film a definitive arc. He’s clearly a troubled, struggling artist, trying to channel his former experiences as a Mormon missionary into a thesis, but as the deadline approaches, it’s clear his book’s unfinished. Sterrett’s scenes (particularly an early critique) are very moving, and—a bit of a spoiler—there’s a triumphant feeling when he returns to the CSS to finish his MFA.
We find another arc in Jen Vaughn, who has too many jobs and too many ideas. Of all the student artists, she seems the most open to the camera, and her self-assured posture by turns belies a greater vulnerability and depth. In one illuminating scene at the MoCCA Fest, Vaughn tries to pique a muted festival goer’s interest in her project Menstruation Station; when he walks away without seeming to say anything we catch a glimpse of weariness bordering on desperation.
There’s also Al Wesolowsky, who at 61 is the oldest student. An archaeologist at Boston University, Wesolowsky tries his hand at the CSS program despite his self-admitted limitations as a draftsman. In some ways he’s the soul of the film. At one point he delivers a brief monologue wherein he describes the loneliness he feels at having no family, but the pleasure he’s found in a makeshift family at CSS.
Loneliness and alienation are perhaps the bedrock themes of comix and cartooning, as anyone who’s read Spiegelman or Ware or Burns—or really any of the master cartoonists interviewed in Cartoon College—can attest. Spiegelman is the first professional to pop up in the film, after the filmmakers have already introduced us to the students, and one of the first comments he makes is that comix allows cartoonists to come into contact with “a bunch of other outcasts.” This sentiment is repeated again and again, by students, teachers, and masters alike; we learn that Ryland Ianelli was voted Prom Queen by the cruel students of his high school; student Casey Bohn tells us that everyone in his small town thought he was “gay or British”; Lynda Barry puts it plain: “Childhood seemed to me like it lasted too long.”
Of all the master cartoonists on screen, I was most captivated by Chris Ware, who comes across as reflective, cerebral, and even philosophical. He points out that cartoonists are always “sifting through generations”,” handing down tropes, skills, ideas. Ware, chronicler of loneliness, perhaps makes the strongest case for cartoonists-as-community.
The idea that the students need to foster a community is reinforced by Bissette, who tells the that they must share contacts, share ideas, and be colleagues. Bissette and the other CSS instructors repeatedly emphasize the publishing dimension of cartooning, paying special attention to the idea that these cartoonists can self-publish. Cartoon College is larded with shots of students hand-crafting their art, and Bissette likens what they are doing to Warhol and his Factory. He also points out that this new generation’s desire is not to draw Spider-Man or Batman but their own creations.
An energetic scene at the MoCCA Fest shows this cottage industry at work, as artists buy and trade for each other’s work. But the instructors and pros are very clear—or try to be clear—about the economic realities most cartoonists will face. Ware and Burns point out that commercial illustration is a necessity to feed their other projects. Juxtaposed with these moments, our students describe their dreams of a comfortable retirement and book deals, a moment undercut by Lynda Barry gleefully pointing out that she makes most of her moeny selling “shit on E-bay.”
It might have been tempting for Melrod and Wray to cram all the footage they had of famous cartoonists like Barry, Françoise Mouly, Scott McCloud, and others into Cartoon College, but to the filmmakers’ credit they use the masters sparingly. Art Spiegelman tells us at one point that “We think in bursts of language, not in long Jamesian sentences…the number of words that might be able to fit in a speech balloon are the core of a linguistic thought.” The insight is intended for cartooning, but the filmmakers apply it to their medium, letting the camera do much of the work for them, offering only the most essential moments (like when Charles Burns completes a sketch and the student audience breaks into applause). Cartoon College is at its best when it shows us the difficult experiences of the students intercut with commentary by the seasoned, successful professionals, who understand precisely the pain these people are undergoing.
Before I started watching Cartoon College, I wondered who it was for. My interest in Spiegelman, Ware, Burns, et al. was enough to prod my interest (and the soundtrack featuring Archers of Loaf, Portastatic, and Tortoise didn’t hurt)—but would the film appeal to, uh, non-geeks? Ultimately, I think the documentary is about the drive toward art and self-expression, and the ways that communities and relationships can form around this drive. Cartoon College offers an intriguing story about real people trying to do something that they love, and I enjoyed that. This is a film about the impetus, motivation, and hard, hard work that goes into the creative process. Great stuff.
Website and trailer:
Paul Auster’s 1985 novel City of Glass explores doubling, shadowing, and what it means to wear another person’s skin, so it’s fitting that the book has its own doppelgänger in the form of a graphic novel by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli (maestro Art Spiegelman served as catalyst and counselor). I should admit upfront that although I’ve read a few of Auster’s books, I haven’t read City of Glass, considered by many to be his masterpiece. I have read Mazzucchelli’s excellent novel Asterios Polyp (and plenty of stuff by overseer Spiegelman), so the adaptation intrigued me. I wasn’t disappointed. I read Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s City of Glass in one brisk sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it. What’s it about?
Okay, so there’s this novelist, Quinn (“rhymes with twin”), who, after the death of his wife and son, takes up writing boilerplate detective novels under the pseudonym William Wilson. Late in the book, Quinn (if he’s still Quinn at that point, which I’ll get to) identifies the pseudonym with the “real” name of NY Mets center fielder (and future coach) Mookie Wilson—but savvy readers will also recognize “William Wilson” as the name of an Edgar Allan Poe story about a man haunted by a doppelgänger of himself to the point that he goes insane. In the Poe story, Wilson and his doppelgänger (whose name is, of course, William Wilson as well) share the same birthday, January 19th, which also happens to be E.A. Poe’s birthday (and my brother’s too, although that is not germane to this review). Auster is clearly working from Poe’s story, although he never announces this explicitly (at least not in the comic-bookization). Arthur Hobson Quinn, for example, wrote an exhaustive biography of Poe (published in 1941). Crossing from the real to the fictional, from authorial to character, Auster inserts himself into the story from its outset. At the beginning of the book, protagonist Quinn gets a mysterious call, like something out of the noir novels he writes:
Bored, or perhaps ventriloquized by a force he doesn’t understand, Quinn takes up the identity of detective Paul Auster and agrees to take on a case for Peter Stillman, a man who, as a boy, suffered feralization at the hands of his insane father, who hoped to discover the Ur-language of god through the boy. Stillman’s monologue is one of the highlights of the book, showcasing the malleability of language—and also, significantly, the malleability of speakers:
Stillman hires Quinn/Auster to track his father, also named Peter Stillman (Peter is also the name of Quinn’s dead son). Actually, it’s Stillman the Younger”s wife/speech pathologist who hires Quinn/Auster; she’s certain that Stillman the Elder, freshly released from a mental asylum, will return to harm his son.
Quinn/Auster slides into the role of Max Work, his noir novel protagonist—or, perhaps more accurately, William Wilson’s noir protagonist—and begins tracking Stillman the Elder (or a version of Stillman the Elder—I won’t spoil the novel’s strangest, most maddening metaphysical gambit here). And, predictably, as Quinn/Auster/Wilson/Work shadows Stillman Sr., he morphs into yet another doppelgänger:
Quinn/Auster/Wilson/Work eventually confronts Stillman, and the pair have a series of fascinating conversations about language, Milton, Humpty Dumpty, and the Tower of Babel. The motifs and themes are telegraphed fairly straightforward here, but also communicated through a lens of madness that comes to dominate the book’s third act—an act that initiates in a meeting between Q/A/W/W and the “real” Paul Auster, a writer who’s working on an essay about the authorship of Don Quixote. The Don Quixote conversation is perhaps too overt, the sort of postmodern cleverness that I increasingly find a big turnoff, but it’s not clumsy or awkward. Still, there’s something mildly irritating about an author tipping his hand and then showing you how he’s tipping his hand.
The third act of City of Glass feels compressed, rushed even, and will definitely disappoint readers who wandered in for a detective stories, hoping for concrete answers and a neat and tidy plot. However, the book’s themes of fantasy and reality, play and work, sanity and madness, and character and author are rich if frustrating in their circuitousness. Mazzucchelli’s art is evocative and fitting, recalling at times the rough-hewn pop art of Raymond Pettibon and the traditional prowess of masters like Kirby and Eisner. (I’ll bring up Spiegelman again too, who introduces the volume. A friend of Auster’s, he brokered the project and oversaw its development, and his work as a creative director here is evident in the book’s cohesion). I imagine fans of Auster’s New York Trilogy, of which City of Glass is the first book, will be interested in checking this one out. Having come first to the graphic novel, I now look forward to reading its doppelgänger, Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Good stuff.
Little Lit: Strange Stories for Strange Kids is a collection of comix (and other oddities) for kids, edited by Art Spiegelman and his wife artist/publisher Françoise Mouly. I saw at random and picked it up for my daughter, whose birthday was the next day. She loves, loves, loves this book, spending hours poring over all its weird images and picture games. Cover is by the great Charles Burns; there are also comics by Spiegelman, the late great Maurice Sendak—
—a weird search picture by Martin Handford (here’s a detail)—-
—and comics by other notables like David Sedaris, Paul Auster, Claude Ponti, Jules Feiffer, and Kim Deitch. The endpapers — “Strange Cartoon Lessons” are by Kaz:
I also picked up Burning Your Boats, which collects all of Angela Carter’s short stories:
I was looking for her dystopian novel The Passion of New Eve, but no go. Of course, I couldn’t pass up this volume, which comprises four collections, as well as early and uncollected stuff.
“In the Dumps,” originally published in The New Yorker, is collected in Spiegelman’s latest MetaMaus.
1. Donald Harington, The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks
I want to publicly thank blogger BLCKDGRD for sending me this book; it arrived in sections, the binding glue cracked, its abused condition surely a sign of love. I happened to be recaulking the margins of my screened in porch the day it arrived, so I used silicone caulk (along with c-clamp) to repair it.
The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks rightfully should have shown up on my Books I Didn’t Read in 2011 post, but it was doubly neglected, left under a pile of half-read books that I intend to keep reading: Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces, the Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden, a volume of stories by Breece D’J Pancake (two stories remain unread; I am sure they are awfully sad), Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma. In short, I didn’t want to own up to abandoning it because I intend to go back and finish it. I read a little over half of Harington’s big, rich, funny history of Arkansas, told through the lens of the species of spaces inhabited by the Ingledews and their fellow Stay Morons. The book is lively, deeply ironic, and stands with Kurt Vonnegut as perfect American satire.
2. Just Kids, Patti Smith
I found Just Kids, which was a Big Deal book in 2010, while looking for a copy of Lillian Smith’s The Killers of the Dream (don’t fret; I found that book too). I’ve loved Smith’s music since I was a kid; like The Talking Heads, she was hard to place, not outright punk rock, definitely not pop, very weird.
I usually read the first few pages of books in the store if I think I’m going to buy them; I ended up reading about 10 pages of Just Kids, taking it home, and then reading for a few more hours. I’m almost finished with it now.
Smith documents a fascinating time in a fascinating place (New York City’s art/lit/music scene in the late sixties/early seventies), but her perspective for most of the book is that of an outsider, a would-be artist struggling to help Robert Mapplethorpe become famous for his art. Smith is in love with literature, particularly Romantic French stuff.
She’s also an object fetishist; I can’t think of another book that details so many tchotchkes, so many surfaces, so many contours, so many things. She’s an aesthete. There are also several incidences of book theft. I’m not sure if I’ll write up a proper review of this book—it won the Nat’l Book award and made all the year end lists in 2010—but I have been enjoying it as a chronicle of creative energy.
3. Imperial, William T. Vollmann
There’s a strange shift between the first and second chapters of Vollmann’s massive book about Imperial County. The first chapter, “The Gardens of Paradise,” reads like a magazine article (and it was; it was published in abbreviated form in Gear in 1999)—lots of dialogue, short paragraph breaks, a spare, lucid syntax, but nevertheless rippling with verve. The second chapter, “Delineations” is a heady brew, a page right out of Ishmael’s big book, as we see Vollmann try to delineate or define his white whale Imperial. And yet he seems to realize that delineation is a fantasy:
People say it was miraculous that Christ walked across the water, and yet they don’t think twice when the same is performed by this entity invisible everywhere except in its representations, whose substance is comprised of equal parts imagination, measurement, memory, authority, and jurisdiction! Delineation is the merest, absurdest fiction, yet delineation engenders control.
The territory and the time Vollmann treks in just a few dozen pages astounds . . .
4. MetaMaus, Art Spiegelman
Okay—not really recent reading, although I did pick it up again and thumb through it before writing this piece; mostly, I wanted to try to write something about this book before the end of the year (I put it on my “best of ’11” list, by the bye). This book is Spiegelman’s attempt to measure Maus: where it came from, how it was made, what making it did to him and for him—and to his family. Like Smith’s book, MetaMaus is very much about the creative process (forgive the hackneyed phrase)—only, where Smith breathlessly gushes in the glowing, enriching flames of art, Spiegelman guides us through the nitty-gritty nooks and crannies of how he made what is perhaps the signature work of comics art of the twentieth century.
The book is beautiful. Take a gander:
5. Pancha Tantra, Walton Ford
The index at the end of Pancha Tantra contains a series of citations that illustrate Ford’s paintings (hang on, the elements of that last phrase should be vice versa, right?). To wit:
6. A Dance with Dragons, George R. R. Martin (audiobook read by Roy Dotrice)
I really liked the first three Game of Thrones books (yeah, I know they have that long silly name; I’m not gonna write it). I listened to them on audio, all read by Roy Dotrice—who is a great reader—and I gave them a positive review. The first three books detail a world of Machiavellian scheming, a phallocentric, desacralized universe where power is constantly shifting and idealism will get you beheaded. The character development is excellent, the plots are engaging, and the prose is good enough.
The fourth book, narrated by John Lee, was almost too much to get through. Here are some words to describe it: bloated, plodding, sagging, lazy, meandering, over-expansive.
I’d heard that A Dance with Dragons was much better, knew that Dotrice was narrating again, and knew that the book picked up with some of my favorite characters who were left out of that fourth book (Tyrion, Danaerys).
I’m nearing the end—it’s much better than the last one, but not nearly as good as the first three. Martin could probably make the book a third shorter simply by cutting out the endless descriptions of food, the awful, gross sex scenes (actually, he can go ahead and keep those), and the terrible stock phrases. (How long do things last in ADwD? “Half a heartbeat.” Also, I would love to never hear the phrase “Much and more” again in my life. I’m not even kidding. And “Useless as the nipples on a breastplate” doesn’t need to show up more than once in your book).
Even with my gripes, there have been some good episodes so far, including a creepy cabin fever Sadean setpiece that reminded me of the South Africa episode of Pynchon’s V, which is like one of my favorite things in literature.
7. Various public domain books on Kindle Fire, including Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson
I got a Kindle Fire. I like it. I downloaded a bunch of obscure American Renaissance stuff—letters, reviews, essays—and have been scrolling over it quite a bit late at night. More thoughts on this device to come.
I teach a night class on Wednesdays, and although I enjoy it, I also teach morning sections on Wednesdays, so I’m exhausted when I get home over twelve hours later that night. Anyway, I was thrilled to find a nice little packet from Shocken/Pantheon when I came home last Wednesday—a memoir, a graphic novel, and a book that blends and comments on both.
Meir Shalev’s My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner is new in translation from Schocken. Their description—
From the author of the acclaimed novel A Pigeon and a Boy comes a charming tale of family ties, over-the-top housekeeping, and the sport of storytelling in Nahalal, the village of Meir Shalev’s birth. Here we meet Shalev’s amazing Grandma Tonia, who arrived in Palestine by boat from Russia in 1923 and lived in a constant state of battle with what she viewed as the family’s biggest enemy in their new land: dirt.
Grandma Tonia was never seen without a cleaning rag over her shoulder. She received visitors outdoors. She allowed only the most privileged guests to enter her spotless house. Hilarious and touching, Grandma Tonia and her regulations come richly to life in a narrative that circles around the arrival into the family’s dusty agricultural midst of the big, shiny American sweeper sent as a gift by Great-uncle Yeshayahu (he who had shockingly emigrated to the sinful capitalist heaven of Los Angeles!). America, to little Meir and to his forebears, was a land of hedonism and enchanting progress; of tempting luxuries, dangerous music, and degenerate gum-chewing; and of women with painted fingernails. The sweeper, a stealth weapon from Grandpa Aharon’s American brother meant to beguile the hardworking socialist household with a bit of American ease, was symbolic of the conflicts and visions of the family in every respect.
The fate of Tonia’s “svieeperrr”—hidden away for decades in a spotless closed-off bathroom after its initial use—is a family mystery that Shalev determines to solve. The result, in this cheerful translation by Evan Fallenberg, is pure delight, as Shalev brings to life the obsessive but loving Tonia, the pioneers who gave his childhood its spirit of wonder, and the grit and humor of people building ever-new lives.
I read Daniel Clowes’s Mister Wonderful that Wednesday night. It was a treat—a wonderful balance of sweetness and acidity. I’m sometimes frightened by how closely I identify with Clowes’s protagonists. Full review next week.
I can’t believe that Art Spiegelman’s MetaMaus hasn’t been remarked upon more—perhaps folks are still digesting it, like me, I guess. I consumed the first 50 pages immediately after finishing Mr. Wonderful, staying up way too late (all of this, accompanied by some mediocre red zin led to a mini-hangover and a generally poor performance teaching classes the next morn). Anyway, MetaMaus is far more engaging than any description of it might suggest. It combines Spiegelman’s cartoons with interviews and other media to detail the process behind creating the original Maus books (or, book singular I suppose is more appropriate). Fascinating stuff, covering memory and art and representation and mice &c. I’ll probably review it in bits and pieces—it seems like too much to process. It also comes with a DVD which I haven’t taken the time to look at yet—-
In his essay “In the Ruins of the Future,” published in December of 2001, Don DeLillo wrote this about the 9/11 attacks: “The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us. Is it too soon?” His question was both profound and at the same time utterly banal—of course it was too soon to measure the effects of the 9/11 attacks. But could time’s distance somehow sharpen or enrich perspective? DeLillo continues: “We seem pressed for time, all of us. Time is scarcer now. There is a sense of compression, plans made hurriedly, time forced and distorted.”
In retrospect—what with the Bush administration’s ludicrous invasion of Iraq and the power-grab of the Patriot Act—DeLillo’s notation of “plans made hurriedly” seems downright scary. Still, I remember that immediate, overwhelming shock, that paralyzing inertia that had to be overcome. DeLillo wanted—needed—to grapple with this spectacular destruction immediately. David Foster Wallace responded with similar immediacy; the caveat that prefaces his moving essay “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s“ states that the piece was “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” The same caveat would also apply neatly to Art Spiegelman’s big, brilliant, messy attempt at cataloging his impressions immediately post-9/11, In the Shadow of No Towers.
In contrast, the trio of 9/11 stories at the heart of Chris Adrian’s short story collection, A Better Angel, all employ distance and distortion—both temporal and spatial—as a means to address the disaster (or inability to address the disaster) of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Adrian’s 9/11 tales (and his works in general, really), ask how one can grieve or attest to death on such a massive, spectacular scale. The victims of the 9/11 attacks forever haunt his protagonists, literally possessing them, demons that can’t let go, forcing the living to wallow in grief. In “The Changeling,” for example, the grief of the attacks is literally measured in blood, as a father repeatedly maims himself as the only means to assuage the terror and confusion of his possessed son. Adrian sets one of the collection’s most intriguing tales, “The Vision of Peter Damien,” in nineteenth-century rural Ohio. This temporal distortion veers into metaphysical territory as the titular Damien, along with other children in his village, become sick, haunted by the victims of 9/11. Adrian’s displaced milieu creates a bizarre cognitive dissonance for his readers, a response that DeLillo also articulated in his 2007 novel Falling Man.
DeLillo initiates the novel as a sort of creation story: “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” The demarcation of this new world recapitulates DeLillo’s initial concern with time and space, but his novel seems ultimately to suggest an inertia, a meaninglessness, or at least the hollow ambiguity of any artistic response. This stands, of course, in sharp contrast to his sense of urgency in his earlier essay. Like the performance artist in the novel who is repeatedly sighted hanging suspended from a harness, there’s a sad anonymity in the background of Falling Man: the artist hangs as static witness to disaster, but looking for comfort, or even perhaps meaning, in the gesture is impossible.
David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Suffering Channel,” (from his 2004 collection Oblivion) is in many ways a far more satisfying take on 9/11, although to be fair, the majority of the story’s events take place in July of 2001. The story (or novella, really; it’s 90 pages) centers around a magazine headquartered in the World Trade Center that plans to run an article—on September 10th, 2001—about a man who literally shits out pieces of art. Wallace’s critique of American culture (shit as art, commerce as style, advertising as language) is devastating against the context of the looming disaster to which his characters are so oblivious. As the novella reaches its close (culminating in the shit artist producing an original work for a live audience), we learn more about “The Suffering Channel,” a cable channel devoted to broadcasting only images of human beings suffering intense and horrible pain. Wallace seems to suggest that The Suffering Channel’s audience watches out of Schadenfreude or morbid fascination, that modern American culture so disconnects people that genuine suffering cannot be witnessed with empathy, but only as a form of spectacular, disengaged entertainment. And yet even as Wallace critiques American culture, the specter of the 9/11 attacks ironically inform his story. With our awful knowledge of what will happen the day after the shit artist article is published, we are able to see the ridiculous and ephemeral nature of the characters’ various concerns. At the same time, Wallace’s tale reveals that empathy for suffering is possible, but also that it comes at a tremendous price.
To contrast the journalistic immediacy of pieces like “In the Ruins of the Future” and “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” with their respective writers attempts to measure 9/11 in literary fiction is perhaps a bit unfair. Still, Wallace’s and DeLillo’s essays transmit something of the ineffable, visceral quality of that terrible day, as well as the strange ways we sought comfort through human connection. In contrast, the distance and distortion of their literary efforts lose something. I apologize—I don’t have a word for this “something” that the essays have that the novel and novella lack (perhaps the absence is purposeful; perhaps not). It’s not clarity, but perhaps it’s a clarity of distortion that the essays convey, the duress, or to return to Wallace’s own notation, the pieces were “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” It’s that shock, I suppose, that I’m trying to name, to say that it’s still there, accessible in those early responses (I realize now I’ve unfairly neglected Spiegelman’s book, which is a great example of immediacy). And to relive that shock is important, because, as Wallace reveals in both of his pieces, the cathartic power of shared tragedy makes us human, allows us to really live, and to be thankful that we do live.
Looking over this piece, I realize that it’s overly long and really says nothing, or at least nothing much about 9/11, or literature, or whatever. But I don’t want to be negative. I highly encourage you to read (or re-read) “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” and “In the Ruins of the Future.” And I’ll leave it at that.
[Editorial note: We ran a (somewhat sloppier) version of this essay on 9.11.2009]