Thursday, September 20, 2012
Sunday, September 16, 2012
I always feel particularly ignorant and doubly impoverished when my first awareness of an artist whose work I wish I'd already long known comes only upon the news of his or her death. Such is the case with the passing of New Zealand artist Don Binney, who died on September 14th, at the age of 72, following a heart attack.
Binney was known primarily for his bold, iconic paintings of birds. Binney described himself as an amateur ornithologist and said that his close observation of birds allowed him an entry point into landscape as a whole, and, consequently, a way to see and paint the world around him. That world, as he came to see it, was a place of wonder and enchantment, which he communicated in his equally enchanting paintings.
An interesting sidebar: During an interview, he once explained that his characteristic bird-centric compositional style was not, as is sometimes assumed, the result of either a conscious or unconscious primitivism. But that it quite probably derived, at least in part, from his ornithological habit of viewing birds through a pair of binoculars where they quite logically dominated the visual plane.
On the subject of his reverence for nature and the environment, he once wrote:
"A friend of mine who is interested in comparative religious imagery and the universal belief in the fairy, the demon, the pixy, the duende, was talking to a group of students. One question he asked was: 'Does anyone here believe in an enchanted forest?'
I'm glad to say that the general consensus was that a forest must be enchanted. The enchanted forest must be entered with reverence, but freely, like a shrine. The minute it's said, 'You will not enter this place without a permit', it has ceased to be a shrine: it's become a profit and loss thing."
In the few short hours since I've discovered Binney's work, my life has been enriched by both his vision and his philosophy. I look forward to enjoying his work for the rest of my life. I only regret that it took his passing for me to realize that, until yesterday, we shared the planet for such a long time without me so much as noticing.
You can see some of his work at: http://www.thediversiongallery.co.nz/intro_artists.php?gallery=donbinney
The little watercolor above in today's "daily eyeball" was obviously executed under his influence. I suspect it's an influence that I'll be operating under for some time to come.
Posted by mw at 10:48 AM
Friday, September 14, 2012
By their very nature, alternate histories can be great entertainment and a lot of fun. When they are penned by a great writer like Philip Roth, they can be a lot more than a deliciously chilling "what-if."
Such is the case with "The Plot Against America." Roth doesn't merely posit a world in which the Nazi's win World War II. Instead, he does something far more subtle, more terrifying, and more realistic. He imagines an American that never goes to war at all. This is an alternate America in which the pro-fascist elements that actually existed in the country at the time win popular support through the legal electoral process. As a result, no less an eminent personage as Charles Lindbergh becomes president. Yes, though it may be little known or forgotten, men like Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and other prominent, otherwise eminent and respected Americans were fascist sympathizers back then. Either they didn't see clearly what Hitler and his gang were about, and/or they considered him less a threat to democracy than an inundation by the red tide of world-wide communism.
In any event, the historical plausibility of a Nazi-sympathizing United States amps up the reality of Roth's alternate history. As does his method of telling his story: through the experience of a Jewish family in Newark as reported by its youngest member, a boy named Philip Roth.
By taking a microcosmic, personal view, Roth is able to replicate the realistic feeling of powerlessness that the individual feels in the face of historical events that come to us through news reports and official government proclamations of dubious veracity. Much of the power and plausibility of "The Plot Against America" comes from how very little of what happens is verifiable, the uncertainty in determining how much is propaganda, how much is paranoia. Is Lindbergh really a Nazi? Is the U.S. Government truly on a path to a pact with Hitler that will lead to concentration camps and crematoriums in the American heartland? The parallel to our own times is sharp and unmistakable. How much of what we're told about the dubiously ubiquitous "War on Terror" is really true...and how much of it a ploy to drum up "patriotism" and at the same time squelch dissent and marginalize those who oppose the government as crackpot conspiracy theorists and traitors?
These are among the issues that Roth tackles in "The Plot Against America" at the same time that he tells what would otherwise be a typically untypical Rothian coming-of-age story. Here the usual dark humor of a boy approaching sexual awakening in a riotously imperfect, well-meaningly dysfunctional, but ultimately loving Jewish-American family is made all the darker by the specter of genocidal pogroms. Think, perhaps, Anne Frank, except she's a boy growing up in a blue-collar family living in Newark, NJ.
Powerful, intelligent, and thought-provoking, "The Plot Against America" could hardly be more timely--or timeless. Roth has made the alternate history novel his own, elevating it, as he elevates everything he does, to literary art.
Posted by mw at 7:38 PM
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Sunday, September 9, 2012
Paul Auster frustrates my ability to give a simple and straightforward answer as to whether I like his work or not. I'm not even sure I can explain why I'm so unaccustomedly tongue-tied on the matter.
But I find myself in the same predicament after reading "The Brooklyn Follies."
On the one hand, Auster always draws you irresistibly into his fictional worlds with an engaging narrative voice and a compelling premise. This is the case in "The Brooklyn Follies," the story of Nathan Glass, a divorced, embittered, ex-insurance salesman and cancer survivor. What can be more compelling than a man who's given up on life? Who's returned to his old childhood home to die? You figure he's going to find a reason to live and you want to know what that reason will be. It's one of the best hooks in the fiction business.
So off you go, following Auster into this novel of failed academics, runaway daughters, art swindlers, ethereal beauties, eccentric cranks, and earthy, ordinary women whose treasure chests conceal hearts of pure gold for the man lucky enough and wise enough to appreciate them. Along the way, however, you run up against what I always I find sets my teeth on edge about Auster. He's eminently "readable," his voice is engaging, conversational even...I'll hand him that. But he's a "casual" prose stylist, at best; at worst, his prose seems merely sloppy and carelessly thrown across the page like paint slapped on a pig’s ass. There are the long back stories that can start anywhere at any time about practically anyone in the narrative, sending you off on a tangent, and tending, as often as not, to grind the plot down to a halt for interminable lengths of pages. Then there is the admirable, but embarrassingly glaring attempt to shoehorn characters of as many different sexual and racial persuasions as possible into the plot, all described in glowingly noble terms, so we don't forget what a tolerant guy Auster is...though, all-man as he feels compelled to point out as when Nathan assures his girlfriend that he'd "rather lose his right arm than sleep with a man." I mean, really. I'd have to think that sleeping with practically anyone or anything would be preferable, at least in theory, to the prospect of losing one's right arm. In fact, the first thing I'd suspect of anyone who expressed *that* much repulsion over sleeping with a member of the same sex was a powerful albeit deeply suppressed and catastrophically sublimated homosexuality.
Auster wears his political predilections on his sleeve, which would be more annoying if I didn't in large part share them, but his political views are so often inessential to the plot and delivered in such an off-the-cuff-every-sane-person-must-agree-with-me manner that they carry no weight whatsoever as political analysis and would really rankle, I suspect, if you weren't on Auster's political wavelength to begin with. Basically, they are just shout-outs to those who already agree with him, a wink and a nod to another member of the club. But less forgivable than all of the preceding, however, is the unabashed over-sentimentality. Oh god, how thick the treacle drips from some of these pages! It's not just excessive; it's stunningly excessive. It's downright embarrassing in a serious author to so consistently sound so many false emotional notes, so embarrassingly, stunningly, unrealistically excessive is the sentimentality at times that you start to wonder: *Is* Paul Auster a "serious" author?
In the end, I'm always left on the fence about Auster. I always seem to go back to him, though. So I have to figure that when all is said and done I like him more than I don't, that what I consider his negatives are in the last analysis overcome by his positives.
And the biggest positive of all is Auster's ability to hone in on a compelling dilemma archetypal of the human condition. He makes us care about the situation his character faces because it's an important one--one that we all share. That's what he does in "The Brooklyn Follies." In Nathan Glass, he has created an Everyman who is asking the most basic question of all: Why live?
You'd have to be a pretty uncurious sort to walk away before you hear the answer. Auster knows this. And he employs what are his considerable storytelling skills--slapdash prose style and gushing emotions aside--to keep legions of readers, myself among them, turning the pages. And that, of course, is the first and most important prerequisite of any successful popular writer, serious or not.
Posted by mw at 4:51 PM