Sunday, 03 May 2009

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BREAKING NEWS: John Cheever not remotely like a character in a John Cheever story, actually. From “How Cheever Really Felt About Living in Suburbia,” published in today’s Times: [His] writings suggest that he seemed to take a jaundiced view of so manicured and lovely a setting. But there is evidence in a new biography of Cheever that he relished his life as a suburban burgher and did not disdain his fellow suburbanites as a class. Cheever was “crazy about the suburbs,” said Blake Bailey, whose book, Cheever: A Life, published in March by Knopf, was written with apparently unrivaled access to Cheever’s journals. “He loved the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley,” Mr. Bailey said. “He loved walking through the woods along the Croton Aqueduct. He liked his neighbors.” I’m not sure how someone can have “unrivaled” access to materials held by Harvard and The New York Public Library, but that’s neither here nor there. This article—from the hard-hitting Connecticut desk—is a full-scale assault on the body of Cheever’s work by people who insist that, in truth, they were all quite normal, thank you very much. Cheever himself was a conventionally quaint exurban alcoholic: Mrs. Cheever casually took care to point out that her husband wrote only in the mornings because by the afternoon he was often drunk on gin. “In those days, people did drink ever so much more than they do now,” Mrs. Cheever said with a chuckle. “It sounds shocking now, but it was not shocking then.” Not to mention boyish and civic-minded: “He once got to drive the fire truck, and that was a big thrill,” Mrs. Cheever said. His family were old-fashioned: “We were old-fashioned,” she said. “We were brought up in private schools.” He was old-fashioned: “He was that old-fashioned,” she said. He was utterly unlike a character in a John Cheever novel, except when he wasn’t: Yet at the same time, Cheever could say in ["The Housebreaker of Shady Hill"], “If you work in the city and have children to raise, I can’t think of a better place.” Note that “say” there. Cheever didn’t write that sentence, because if he had, it’d be a sentence written about a character in a Cheever story and we can’t have that, now can we? It would be inaccurate in the way all the unhappiness Cheever wrote is and will forever be inaccurate. How deeply pathetic is it that the Times tries to deny Cheever ownership of his insight by doing to him what he undid to his characters? It was all very fine, the Times implies, like in that famous story of his that ends: The place was dark. Was it so late that they had all gone to bed? Had Lucinda stayed at the Westerhazys’ for supper? Had the girls joined her there or gone someplace else? Hadn’t they agreed, as they usually did on Sunday, to regret all their invitations and stay at home? He tried the garage doors to see what cars were in but the doors were locked and rust came off the handles onto his hands....
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Why even fight if you don't fight dirty? I always have a hard time convincing students that the violence in Watchmen is categorically different from the chompurfzung violence traditionally featured in comics. Dave Gibbons draws Watchmen in the same style he used in a previous collaboration with Alan Moore ("For the Man Who Has Everything") to depict Wonder Woman thrutching Mongul: Although there might be an implied low blow in that panel, the thrust of the violence clearly moves from her fist to his face. Compare that to what Lori does to a street thug in Watchmen: Gibbons and Moore let you know that Lori's the sort of hero who castrates men with her bare hands. There's no incidental knee to the groin here as there was in the Wonder Woman panel: Lori grabs the thug by the balls and yanks. The creases in the thug's shirt do the work that the speed lines do for Wonder Woman. (Much like the blood in these panels.) The absence of speed lines creates the impression of a quiet violence that persists even as the palette shifts from the browns and yellows of the first panel to all shades of pain in second. Yet because Wonder Woman and Lori are both cartoons, on first read students think these very different violences more similar than not. And did I mention Lori enjoys doing this? Compare her face to Dan's when they each realize what's about to happen: They know the thugs stand no chance. They know they could dispatch them with ease. Yet Lori still fights dirty. She's the tenth-grader who picks fights with fourth-graders and goes for the eyes. In this respect, the gratuitous violence in Snyder's film actually corresponds to what we have in the book—and what we have in the book is a portrait of the hero as a sadistic bully.

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