Sunday, 08 March 2009

I performed an experiment on myself and I do believe I failed. A friend sent me the text of a recent WSJ editorial entitled “Will This Crisis Produce a ‘Gatsby’?” I’ll link to it later—for now I want to recreate my bad-faith reading experience in all its glory. My first reaction was to the title, even though I know authors never write their own titles. But this one seemed sufficiently troublesome to warrant criticism. I wrote: You would think someone at the WSJ would know that enough about literature to know that The Great Gatsby was published in 1925. If you grant the title its premises, the question should be “Did Someone Write a ‘Gatsby’ in 2004 and If So Who Was He or She and What Was the Title of It?” But that’s not quite right. The WSJ‘s infuriating decision to publish the titles of books in quotation marks means that we’re not even sure whether the current crisis will be producing a novel affectionately called Gatsby or a fictional Jew with class insecurities who meets an untimely end. Because we have umpteen examples of the latter—Curb Your Enthusiasm may even be a Gatsby-in-progress. Tune in next season to find out! But even that’s not quite right. Given that The Great Gatsby preceded the financial crisis by more than half a decade, maybe the author wants to claim that Fitzgerald’s slim volume caused the Great Depression. In which case we must discover and burn all copies of the mysterious 2004 novel or unwrite the fictional Jew. Obama said we all needed to chip in. This is how we, as literary scholars, can do our part! Then I started reading the text itself. The mention of Louis Adamic seemed promising, and the rest of the article built what I took to be a fairly solid case until the last few paragraphs: John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath” made the Joad family’s flight from the dust bowl into an emblem of people coming together to remake their world. A similar image was implicit in the very title of Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s documentary book “An American Exodus.” Even works of light entertainment like the massively popular “Gone With the Wind” or John Ford’s landmark Western “Stagecoach” were in keeping with the prevailing message of the times. All these works told of epic journeys in which a group of people overcame destructive competition in their discovery of a common destiny. Each called for Americans to act collectively to remake a democratic society where opportunity would be open to all. In effect, such declarations helped lay the cultural groundwork for the New Deal, providing the ideological infrastructure for the new governmental institutions created during the ‘30s. My response? If there’s one thing I learned writing my dissertation, it’s that you can’t throw words like “ideology” around like that—especially not when you’re claiming that a book published in 1939 laid the groundwork for the policies that were curtailed in 1939 by “Dr. Win-the-War.” If I’d tried to end-around history like that I would’ve—I don’t...
Watching Watchmen: How unfilmable novels become unwatchable films. (This beast began as the post I promised last week. Now that I've played hooky all my points about the uniqueness of Watchmen's narrative mode seem more salient in light of their absence from the film. So I decided to fold my review into the half-composed post. But for the record I still never get around to discussing my larger theory of Manhattan as readerly proxy.) Some books teach you how to read them: Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow, JR, and Infinite Jest spring first to mind. From a purely formal perspective Watchmen belongs in their company. It does to the conventions of comic narrative what Joyce did to realism, Pynchon did to pulp, Gaddis did to dialogue and Foster Wallace did to sentiment. All the techniques discussed in the following had been used in comics before—there is nothing new under the oxen of the sun—but never in the service of creating a new breed of reader. Consider the following sequence of panels from the funeral of the Comedian: The first three panels transition moment-to-moment. Such transitions slow down the action by forcing the reader to observe actions divided into their constiuent parts. They typically depict a realization on the part of the character which the author wants the reader to linger over (for example) or a demonstration of how fast or powerful someone is. But the "action" that Moore slices into its constiuent parts consists of "listening while standing still." For a hack like Mark Millar the amount of dialogue squeezed into the slow zoom of those panels would stretch credulity. But Moore is no Millar. (How better to compel readers to pay attention to a face than four consecutive panels that zoom in on it?) Moore wants the reader to focus his attention on the expression Ozymandias wears and the pat content of the eulogy. The payoff of the latter is dialogue-driven and immediate; the former, however, pays off in a way only comics can. When the moment-to-moment transitions give way to the scene-to-scene transitions in the third and fourth panels the change in Ozymandias's expression is as subtle as it is important: As the scene moves from the present to the past the vacant expression Ozymandias wears in the third panel gives way to weariness in the fourth. Pay attention to the eyes: somehow neither the mask nor the adhesive with which he glued it to his face can hide the bags beneath his eyes in the fourth panel. The moment observed by the steely eyes in the third panel brims with resignation and despair . . . and yet those eyes reveal nothing but cold resolve. Whatever flashback the reader witnesses will involve some sort of transformation from the man in the fourth panel into the man in third. Ozymandias later confirms this suspicion: That meeting catalyzed Ozymandias. It changed him into the man who could do what he eventually did. While serving witness to the burial of a brutal man, Ozymandias remembers the moment he realized his...

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