Before mercury, my blood used to fill thermometers.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Femme Fantômas.

Taschen had a sale, and I ordered Rose, c'est Paris on the strength of its cover. There is some more substantial precedent: I've been in love with the cover since the book's release. The words "Rose" and "Paris" are the kind that will get me to investigate something with which I'm not all ready familiar, since I assume that by invoking those words, the book and I have something in common, and it is that we are sexy and mysterious.

Beyond not being disappointed, this is one of my favorite books I own now.

B., the protagonist, moves through the worlds of Paris looking for her sister, Rose, who she finds missing, their apartment wrecked. The book runs through different dreamlike scenarios that could justify or explain Rose's vanishing and are framed by B.'s even more dreamlike day-to-day, which includes masked nudes galore, Magic-City (known for its drag balls), and an ongoing fantasy about being the femme Fantômas. According to Bettina Rheims, the whole project is very much a tribute to the influence of the Surrealists. There are many direct visual puns, but it is not vital for one to be familiar with the canon to enjoy the images. Subjectively, I would say that anything velvety in black and white, full of "confused identities, artistic phantoms, unseen manipulation, obsession, fetish, and seething desire" will yield significant enjoyment.

The movie is amazing, too. It comes with a movie! A whole, two-hour film of the story depicted in the photographs in the same, astonishing black and white. Lately I have been falling asleep as soon as I get home from work, around 6:30, and waking up at 2 in the morning. Unlike a lot of dazes, this one has sustained its pleasantness over the course of this happening seven times or so since May. Rose, c'est Paris on film is magnificent at that hour. So is Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I watched twice in a row this morning.

An aside: I can't believe it took me this long to see Picnic at Hanging Rock. The sinister, beautiful seventies film is my genre (Picnic, Black Moon, Wicker Man — the pastoral is an important element to the genre, but Rosemary's Baby as its urban equivalent is my first love).

I did not know that off-duty Fantômas works the David-Bowie-alien-in-Man-Who-Fell-to-Earth look.

Of all the images, there is one of a traffic-filled street under rows of long, dangling lights that look like rhinestone necklaces that is my favorite. And it's one of so many. I love the story floating around the images and the faces and the city and the phantoms! I hate to just go "I love, I love" about something but sometimes you need a fantasy and it is good to feel the momentary erasure of the critical impulse and just go AAAAHHHHHHHHHH!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"What we need is to use what we have."

I've got some news!

My editors at work sent my article about Mad Men and this season's similarities to the work of Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey/Gosford Park) to the Daily Beast! I don't know if anything will come of it, but that's such a vote of confidence in my work. That made me feel wonderful. Also wonderful: PolicyMic is taking it — !

Meredith Turits recommended my short story "May Two People Breathe in a Real Room" from Hobart at Bustle's "5 Short Stories to Get Lost in This Weekend." !!! This is the greatest honor and surprise! Bustle has a dedicated "books" section, so I am ecstatic to have had this brought to my attention.

Illustration by Aamon Perry, Doodletillomega

My first contribution to Today's the Day Harrisburg is here! There will be more. Here, I quote Susan Sontag (that's what the title of this post is, too) and discuss the human role in a city's sustainability. Today's the Day is getting a design overhaul soon and I am freaking out; I can't wait to see it. So, watch that space.

I know it was just here, but my fury about Terry Castle's irresponsible anti-Plath screed in the New York Review of Books has received a lot of compassionate, thoughtful responses. I'm so glad other people took notice of what a weird act of violence it is. It also gave me the valuable chance to tell Elizabeth Winder, author of Pain, Parties, Work, that she wrote the Plath bio that YOU MUST READ, that is fun and genuinely informative, and now I'm telling you, reader, to check that out.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

I want to be unbearable.

I was ecstatic to see the New York Review of Books devoted four full pages and a tiny bit of a fifth page to a review by Terry Castle, called "the Unbearable," of two of the three Plath biographies that came out this year, Carl Rollyson's American Isis and Andrew Wilson's Mad Girl's Love Song.


And I do not mean she thinks poorly of the books. "It will come as no surprise that I'm one of those who will always be turning away from Plath," says Castle at the start of the review's final paragraph. Okay, whatever — she admits to her bias, that's fine. "I find her grisly — unbearable, in fact" — really? Why — "because, even five decades after her suicide, she and her corpse-infested verses hold on with such ghoulish tenacity. She seems never to tire of creating tragic inhuman mischief from beyond the grave."


"She seems never to tire of creating tragic inhuman mischief from beyond the grave."

That is absurd, Terry Castle. That is a fringe blog rant at best and nowhere near a valid criticism.

Wait! She does not just let this wild complaint hang there — she provides an example.
A respectful fisheries biologist — he taught at a university in Alaska — Nicholas Hughes had apparently done everything possible to distance himself geographically and psychically from his parents' cursed history. (Most of the people who worked with him knew nothing of his family story.) Yet Lady Lazarus caught up with him at last. He was said afterward to have been "lonely" much of his life and depressed by his failure to find love. His mother was by then long dead — he had never had any memory of her — yet even so I couldn't help wanting to kill her.

"I couldn't help wanting to kill her."

Oh my god! Until this point I was conventionally disappointed. I don't find the observations that make up the bulk of the review really illuminating. She sloughs through the history of Plath-as-biographical-subject, including the bias exerted by the executor of her estate, Olwyn Hughes. She cites the death of many key players in Plath's life as an advantage of Rollyson and Wilson without so much as even kind of trying to maybe acknowledge that a distinct disadvantage of there being fewer and fewer tangible connections to one's subject makes one prone to PROJECTION. Which, in the case of both books, it did. And in the case of this review, it did.

I am relentlessly disappointed by the inability of critics to judge the work, and even here — when the work being judged here is by Misters Rollyson and Wilson! — Castle is totally overwhelmed by Plath the human. She's so totally overwhelmed that she cannot even judge writing that is about her, and the review dissolves into one long blah about Plath's poetry using "Nick and the Candlestick" to segue into that grotesque WTF at the end.

In the sole concrete observation about what new access to Plath's archives has yielded, Castle picks out the most mundane fact that is, at its kernel, not exactly a bombshell (Plath had a crush on Richard Sassoon that persisted after she met and took up with Hughes — those who think she fell fully for Hughes the moment they met are mere Plath hobbyists). There are totally revelations to be found in those two books (one of which I reviewed in HTMLGIANT) and she does not touch on them or the dubiousness of some of the conclusions both biographers draw. Her chief comparison is the pace of the two books: Wilson's dwells in Plath's life before Hughes and Rollyson's rips through her life manically from start to finish.

The one interesting note that Castle makes in all the many words that she devoted to these books is about the abrupt ending to Wilson's book: "how easily the 'life before Ted' might have become the 'life without Ted.' Would such a tweak in the course of destiny have meant more years — with or without poems — for Sylvia?"

Holy shit, when people call Plath "Sylvia" — would it not make you stop if, reading an esteemed publication, you saw T.S. Eliot referred to as Tom? That really shakes a critic's credibility for me right there. And this is last on my barometer of concerns regarding this review.

I'd sooner recommend American Isis and Mad Girl's Love Song than this review, and both are inferior biographies. It's hard to pick a lesser evil between "she was a goddess too rare for this world so of course she had to die" (Rollyson, mostly) and "she's an evil hag casting spells from beyond the grave to get bulemic [sic] female undergraduates to keep her heinous poems in vogue." Castle actually makes this characterization, and unless NYRB messed up bulimic on purpose to be saboteurs, way to diminish the suffering of untold numbers of living humans with psychiatric conditions and appear unable even to Google a word you do not know.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The wrong kind of death.

This was a rough year. Good fortune only enhances that contrast. Sometimes I have flashbacks. Acquaintances tell me I sigh heavily, noticeably.

VICE's fashion spread on female writers' suicides moved me to consider what catharsis has meant to me in the past year. The absence of their work from the captions — not to qualify what's worst about the series, but that's what upset me viscerally. That was the first thing, followed by the fact that the omission was not the first thing anybody was likely to notice since that is how so many people know these authors, or it is the sole capacity in which they know them. Ugh (VICE rescinded the spread online).

Harriet quoted Ariana Reines in the LA Review of Books and I want to echo it:
...[S]he is a problem because she is a suicide, and suicides are seductive because we all want to die sometimes, and dead young women artists and dead women artists of any age are a problem because it has always been easier for this culture to love their artworks when they, the women, are not alive to interfere with our relations with them, and her precocity was and remains a problem because of its completeness and because precocity is also always resented and dismissed, and she is a problem because it has historically been too easy to praise what is dead and too difficult to nurture what lives, and she is a problem because she is a martyr and ours is a culture addicted to martyrs and martyrology and powered by competition and self-loathing, which leads to the wrong kind of death...
What I derive from the work: not only that it can be extraordinary but that it can be crushingly hard. This is personal. Knowing work like Plath's is possible, to use the big example, has been as vital to my development as the validation of the difficulty, which, I shouldn't have to say how better it would be if that had never been proven or wasn't true at all. And it is shining and enlivening to see Words Right Now spring up and this, even though it's slim and is missing one of my favorite shots:

Clarice Lispector

My ultimate feelings are wrapped up in what I have experienced as the premiere positive force in my post-undergraduate life, about how many impossibly skilled, serious writers are working now and doing things better and beautifully and how much I want to see them and want others to see them. I just devoured Carina Finn's Lemonworld. Her work is the most infuriatingly exciting. I am loving and luxuriating in Beyond This Point are Monsters, Roxanne Carter's second book, and it is magnificent to inhabit. Claire Donato's Burial is so necessary now:
Drying hair, damp from a shower, think, 'The morgue is a comfortable place.'
But the mind, the lab is not comfortable. In the work there is no denial of life.

Monday, June 17, 2013

I was afraid you were a baby.

My short story, "May Two People Breathe in a Real Room," is up at Hobart!!! It's about two girls who are kidnapped and escape, very small and very complicated.

The penultimate MakeSpace interview is up at Harrisburg Magazine! This one is with Shannon Sylte, and from her excellent brain came thus:
What I've observed is that some individuals view the community gardens in this city as invasive. In conjunction with the art scene, I have not observed much cultural diversity in the projects I'm involved in. I'm interested in finding ways to amend this. It seems as though this city is divided into a mosaic of “cultural ecosystems.” Those ecosystems could work together, but dissonance overwhelms and seems to inhibit the growth of the community. I hope that we can establish a way to coexist that everyone can view the renaissance that Harrisburg is going through as beneficial.
Shannon joined the MakeSpace while the interview series was in progress and surprised me with some extraordinarily thoughtful answers to my feeble, exhausted questions.

I wrote about bad charities and unpaid internships at work today. Their respective relevance to my own life is extreme. As extreme as Carina Finn's Lemonworld, which I ripped open and inhaled after I got home? Not that extreme. I have these expectations for Bret Easton Ellis' the Canyons that it cannot possibly live up to but Lemonworld actually filled all that lack. I'm coming to understand I only have one set of equal-opportunity desires that can, at any moment, be fulfilled by a book, even if I think it's a movie I want. Carina's brattiness is the most refreshing thing in words. YOU CAN GET IT.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Secret worlds in Frances Ha.

More than any of the films or kinds of films it references — Woody Allen at his most romantic, Truffaut and the like — seeing Frances Ha for me was like seeing Ghost World. A girl watches her best friend wade into mediocrity embodied by a bro banker boyfriend in Frances Ha and an apartment and adult job in their sad town in Ghost World. Ghost World's Enid thinks there maybe is a place for her in hoarder-shut-in-jazz-fan Seymour's life, but she likes herself better, in the end, nowhere. Frances Ha is also preoccupied with place, where Frances can afford to be literally and figuratively. Even though money squeezes her out of the apartment she shares with two guys, I love her rejection of the brief and perfect nouvelle vague tableau they have. I love the interplay between the very real-world condition of not being able to afford a place in these tableaux and their resemblance to entrenched cinematic fantasies!

My favorite scene in the whole film that felt like a moment in the secret world Frances describes is when she is offered an office job in the dance company for which she apprentices and she turns it down. She was not accepted onto the touring company and the consolation prize the office job represents hurts her all over again. After the movie, my significant otter said that part made him feel terrible; he wanted to scream at her and make her take the job, to respect herself and do herself a favor. When I was between jobs, turning down offers — as unreasonable as that activity is — was one of the only things that made me feel like I had any power. I cheered for her in that moment that I would always and forever experience as a fantasy.

Subjectively, I love Frances Ha more than almost any other film I've ever seen. I love it as much as Ghost World, which has long been the sole occupant of a part of my heart otherwise dedicated to real people. So it is not fair to count it alongside other films at all. "So many honorary degrees!" — I'm fortunate to enjoy a best-friendship of that romantic, mythical intensity that isn't borne of a fear of the future, like Enid and Rebecca in Ghost World, or the us-against-the-world-ness of Frances and Sophie. But Ghost World was instrumental to my high school experience, and Frances Ha is really overdue. I need a lot of comforting knowing my best friend and I are on separate paths that might not converge again like they did when we were teenagers. Some days I really need fantasy.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

I never strangled a chicken in my life.

I've been combing through old Mad Men episodes not intending to look for "maybe Pete Campbell is gay" clues but finding them anyway. The absolute winner is when he cheerfully recalls, with his brother, watching Rope. They're talking about murdering their mother, which, it's just delightful that Bob Benson's move was provoked by Pete's attempt to keep his mother alive.

I trust the story to be worth it, so I don't gun (pardon) for anything to manifest the way I want, but if only Pete would join Bob Benson and conquer everything with love. In the third season, Duck Philips identified Pete and Peggy as the ideal agency, which Ted did again in Sunday's episode. They should unite as business partners, Peggy with her cat and Pete with Bob. Joan can be the Roger and Trudy, understanding everything, can just be fabulous.

Peggy also tells Duck at their first lunch meeting that she likes his turtle neck, setting some precedent for Ted. I could just keep going.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Gosford Park Avenue.

While I'm confident in what I have to offer in as far as Girls criticism goes, when it comes to Mad Men, that I love with equal fervor, I prefer to just watch it and revel. I really enjoy the direction, the design, the costumes, the stories, the characters — and that's all, I just enjoy them. I enjoy them enough to catch myself talking about only it on the weekends, when I get to speak to anyone, like "Megan" and "Pete" are people in my life. But I'm not provoked, and that's fine — I have limited resources. I reserve all my provoked-ness for Girls and I like my viewing life that way.

To wit,

Something's come to my attention in watching this season of Mad Men that I really like that is very, very subtle. I could be missing a reference within the reference here, but there's a lot of tiny, potentially unconscious nods in the way of Gosford Park. As a sprawling but — by virtue of being a movie — contained ensemble piece, it's interesting to consider alongside a show that, in its sixth season, is frustrating some critics with a perceived de-emphasis on the ensemble as it zeros in on the protagonist, Don.

I'm presenting this observation because I have three examples. Two is a coincidence, but three is a pattern. Since I feel like my example might really be two-and-a-half — that's what this blog is for.

Matt Weiner's summary of the scene pictured above features his characterization of Bob as an "opportunist." This was noted and dismissed by Tom + Lorenzo, to whom I defer on most matters of Mad Men, but this is the exact way Julian Fellowes described Henry Denton, Ryan Phillippe's character in Gosford Park. Fellowes refuses to dignify Denton with a precise sexual orientation and insists that observations one way or another are wrong: he's only in it for what it can get him.

The parallels in these characterizations led me to consider Bob's other appearances with Henry Denton in mind. This was fun to discover: something that puts everybody off in Gosford Park is the way Denton constantly winds up where he should not be which, in that setting, is defined by what floor he's on. SC&P has a brand new upstairs/downstairs that, after much buildup, has only been defined by a few funny moments of people running. If the stairs weren't situated in the prime real estate in front of Don's office, the only way viewers would consistently understand the agency had an upstairs/downstairs would be when a certain someone is reminded he's on the wrong floor, and that someone is Bob.

An aside: every time I watch that .gif I hear Feist's "1234." I 100% endorse Bob + Pete. Much of the response to their knee-makeout has been of the "ew-why-Pete" variety. I am happy to take this moment to express my love and devotion to moments in stories when I learn something about a character, and learning that that character thinks sexy people are sexy is real From Justin to Kelly territory. Bob's interest in Pete could be explained away by Pete's standing in the agency, some say, but I think someone canny enough to target Joan to help him stay afloat during the merger would better understand to align himself with Ken Cosgrove, who has Chevy — which Bob's involved in, too — and who has been hit on by everybody. There could be a scene yet to come where Ken is all, "No, Pete, he did that to my knee, too. He's done that to everyone's knee — swig, winsome look and all." But I think it would be a superior leap in storytelling for us to explore someone who loves someone who's gone down, mother-approved, as definitively unlovable.

The other example was the most overt. Since it's a blood-relation of one of the canniest lines in Gosford Park, I'm wondering if it wasn't a reference to something else, but here: when Joan met with the Avon executive on what she thought was a date that she successfully turned into a productive lunch, he asked what her position was at the agency. Since the real answer didn't impress her — and since it's probably still lurking somewhere circa "Director of Agency Operations" — she cleverly described her job using terms almost identical to Helen Mirren's character in Gosford Park, the Joan of the manor who anticipates the needs of her employers, who knows what they want before they want it themselves. This self-characterization comes on the heels of her poisoning her employer, and Joan's self-characterization precedes something as destructive: she almost sabotages the procurement of a client. Both schemes are upended by the "real" protagonist, the young lady (Peggy on Mad Men, Mary in Gosford Park).

If Matt Weiner has been watching Fellowes' work, I'm glad he invested in Gosford Park. I don't care for that other thing he did (and now Dan Stevens is gone and now there is no point).

This all might seem really slight, but considering how everyone's place in the scheme of the business is in question, how the scrappy camaraderie of seasons four and five is totally erased because of the machinations of the big white dads — and their big white dad at GM — the subtext of class anxiety is very appropriate.

Also, if Matt Zoller Seitz's wishes for Pete come true — I could not agree more with every last one of his feelings on that subject — it would make a moment from last season even more explosively, preciously wonderful than when it happened. After Megan left the agency and Jaguar still wanted Mr. and Mrs. Draper to test drive the car, Pete tried to console Don by reminding him of the sheer momentousness that was landing a car account:

Pete: You know, if I told you last December that we’d be in the running for a car, you would’ve kissed me on the mouth
Don: Maybe you and I should go as a couple.

Yes. Yes.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

There are feathers all over the place.

Listening to Elissa Schappell's Other People interview, part of my effort to catch up on podcasts. The interview to beat so far is Natasha Vargas-Cooper, recently on Longform. She is subjectively pivotal to me as my ideal of a journalist, the way Hole is my ideal of a rock band.

Two PennLive posts have come totally out of my heart: this entertainment roundup — concerned with the ebook price-fixing case and the Fox Mole book — and this tiny meditation on the meaning of the graduation gift. Mine was a sakura tree that, having yet to really bloom, has proven itself to be a strident underachiever. When I fail, I look at that tree and feel better.

The visibility of this achievement—that is, writing on PennLive—is contrasted by my very quiet off-stage achievements of getting my fiction out to exciting places. I've had one MAJOR acceptance recently that I haven't announced! Hobart! I can't wait to share that story!

In addition to furtive fictioneering, I am reckoning with the legion of magazines I subscribed to while I was unemployed, for that was the form my grief took. I kept up with them fine when I wasn't working, but now they require me to be a little more disciplined about my time. Because they are important.

In reading, I cried Olympic-sized tears over Leanne Shapton's Swimming Studies. The book is aquamarine and of a quality that whitens easily, with dark blue details that are easy to rub away. It's really beautiful and the thing of a vocation dying inside of oneself devastates me.

I swim, moving every limb exaggeratedly to generate heat, then push facedown to the farthest life preserver, toward the two women. When I get there I raise my head. One woman talks about how her child is adjusting to school. The other makes noises of assent and sympathy. I wonder: Did they come here as friends or befriend each other in the pond? How long have they been swimming in water this cold? Will I ever have a friend who swims in freezing ponds with me? I circle again and my body feels warm, but it is the warmth of a slap: blood rushing the flesh.
Shapton, Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits are working on a book together called Women in Clothes, which represents so many wishes fulfilled all at once!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Areas of my expertise.

I got a job. I got a really good job.

Evaluating my career so far, 2011 was the worst year, and now I'm far enough away from it I don't even feel it anymore. In 2011, Google Earth photographed me crying on a street corner.

Last week, a strange man stopped me at Barnes & Noble* and asked me where he could find the photography books. He seemed all ready aware of his mistake when he added, "I know you don't work here, but you look like you really know what you're doing."

See, I am crushing it and everybody knows it.

* - I don't work at B&N — I work here! Details forthcoming.