Monday, 12 September 2005

Good Grief: Peanuts and Post-WWII Ennui I'm back from San Francisco with a backlog of ready-to-read posts that need only be written. The first is inspired by the afternoon I spent at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California. As I wandered its halls and read its walls, I remembered Catherine Jurca's article on Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. (A version of this article appears as the fifth chapter of her excellent White Diaspora.) According to Jurca, Sloan's novel about the money problems plaguing a recently returned WWII veteran "legitimates a contradictory truth for the [professional-managerial class]: its anxiety and unhappiness are inevitable components of its professional and economic well-being" (90). This anxiety, Jurca argues, "is crucial to the achievement and preservation of middle-class economic and social privileges" (92). While she convincingly argues her point, she shortchanges what I take to be Sloan's: namely, that the constellation of symptoms Jurca believes the "the sanctimonious suburbanite" in the 1950s exhibits is the product of the protagonist, Tom Rath, being a veteran of the Second World War. Rath's hostility to the empty conventions of suburban life manifests most saliently during those moments in which he compares (often unwittingly) the vividness of his time as a soldier with the routine of time as a cog. He resists the Great Machine only because his wartime experiences have tempered his soul; commonplace life becomes unbearable because there was a time when life was not commonplace but meaningful. (Jurca is certainly correct in her contention that there's more happening in the novel than what I've sketched out here. Contrary to popular opinion, I often openly admire the work of other scholars. Consider this one of those occasions.) What does this have to do with the afternoon I spent wandering the halls and reading the walls of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center? Schulz, like Rath, was also a veteran of WWII. (Were I allowed to take pictures inside the museum I'd festoon this paragraph with the sketches which accompanied his letters from the front. Brilliant satires of military life encapsulated in the space of an envelope.) He returned from war and created a world-famous comic strip about a boy who suffered from clinical depression not necessarily because of his constitution but because of the forces militating against him. Lucy pulls the football. Snoopy torments him. The entire world, in fact, works to make Charlie Brown's life more difficult than it needs to be. Unlike the eponymous Everett True, whose outbursts are the guff of legend, Charlie Brown never throttles Lucy for pulling for the football or throws Snoopy from a train for tormenting him. He yells "Good Grief!" with the resignation of a war veteran who long ago acquiesced to the unfair demands of the world. In short, my argument-by-suggestion is that Sloan's portrayal of a man whose wartime experience emptied civilian life of meaning applies equally to Charlie Brown (and perhaps Charles Schulz, although that would be a far more...
On Terrible Neologisms, Gene Wolfe & Stylistic Consistency Someday I'll write an impassioned defense ("necessitated" by some "recent" comments) of The Atlantic Monthly via an analysis of William Langewiesche's work. But not today. Today's fancy has been struck dumb by something that needs a better name (or an agglutinative one) than brilliant-one-trick-pony syndrome. What I mean is a stylist who employs the same breathtaking style in every single thing he or she writes. Some would accuse David Foster Wallace of being one such stylist. But his novels, shorts and essays are focalized through a variety of characters. Because each of his characters speak with a unique voice, his overall style remains heterogeneous despite his penchant for footnotes and sentences of Faulknerian length and complexity. (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men works as a perfect litmus test: no one "interviewee" sounds like any of the others or, for that matter, Hal from Infinite Jest.) Gene Wolfe, however, suffers mightily from brilliant-one-trick-pony syndrome. It doesn't influence my impression of any one, two or three of his novels, but once some critical point has been passed the cumulative effect of his prose stylings begins to falter before the law of diminishing returns. As keen readers of my sidebar already know, I recently finished The Fifth Head of Cerebus Cerberus. [Thanks John. Screw you Mr. Sim!] Quite the collection of novellae. (Novellae? It scans better than "novellas.") It begins when Severian... ...kidding, kidding. Severian isn't in this collection. But he could be if you judged by narrative voice alone. I could explore this in sufficient detail to prove my case, but because the three novellae intertwine in such surprising ways that I don't want to ruin them for you (should this post inspire you to read them). Suffice it to say that the collection thematizes the very issue I've raised here as it dances around the consequences of one man populating a planet with clones and the possibility that an aboriginal race of physiological mimicks have replaced the settlers of a colony so long ago that they now believe themselves to be (and have always been) humans. That's all I can say without ruining the collection, but that's enough to make my point: Wolfe seems to want to perfect (and in large measure has) a single narrative voice through which he can write all his novels, novellae and short stories. (I haven't read many of the latter but, despite my aversion for the form, I intend to.) He refines it further with everything he writes. (I realize I should date this discussion, or at very least ground it chronologically, but my point's sufficiently "meta-" to avoid what could reasonably be considered "work.") I can think of other writers (some of them former speechwriters for Republican Presidential candidates) who also fall into this category but am solliciting the expert advice of my erudite readership instead. (Not because I'm lazy, however, but because I've been so friggin' responsible a dissertator the past two days I want to pretend I am.)

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