Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Reductive Review Time: Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach

At the beginning of Beckett’s Molloy, the reader finds a narrator atop a hill, from which the narrator can view the travelers below simultaneously from afar, from above and from very near. While Beckett plays with the omniscient and omnipresent perch of the narrator, the problem of perspective has provided ample fodder for the struggles of many a novelist and her narrator, back to Ford’s cuckolded husband in The Good Soldier and beyond. Ian McEwan has made a career in fiction in this line, dissecting the flesh of the moment in which competing narratives clash, as well as its subsequent ossification in memory.

McEwan’s novels give us repeated examples of the elevated perspective brought low – Briony Tallis’ misinterpretation of the fountain scene from a nursery window in Atonement; Henry Perowne’s inspection of London’s skyline and a comet that becomes a burning plane piloted by terrorists in Saturday (until he finds it was merely a cargo plane with engine trouble); Clive’s view, while perched on a Lake District cliff, of what could be an argument or a prelude to rape in Amsterdam. While acknowledging the problems of perspective has become almost a requirement in a post-foundational literary world (if it ever wasn’t) few writers do so with McEwan’s urgency and skill.

McEwan’s latest work, On Chesil Beach, revisits these problems in a much smaller universe – the fragile world of two newlyweds attempting to forge a common narrative without the ability to express either of their own. While the Cold War and vague plans of musical fame and academic authorship weigh on Edward and Florence’s minds, the majority of the novel takes place in the first few hours of the protagonists’ honeymoon on the titular beach. As usual, McEwan’s forte lies in his detailed exploration of the internal condition of his characters. Florence and Edward’s conscious co-narrative of the mundanities of their relationship (“how did they meet?”) outwardly related to friends, rapidly dissolves into separate, less confident internal narratives of their separate conceptions of love, marriage, and ultimately, sex.

While set mainly in the early Sixties, ostensibly a period in which polite English society prevented frank discussion of the physical realities of marriage, an exploration of the times is subordinate to a greater conception of the individual’s movement between poles of internal/personal narrative, extrapersonal/communal narrative, and heteronormative pressures to be “normal.” These pressures are such that Florence can think “in triumph, she belonged among the generality.” Edward and Florence are under stress to create a home in the image of a norm neither of them have ever seen exemplified. Fittingly, Edward’s mother lives in a fog of dementia, seeing a perfectly organized family and household where there is none. (While nowhere is McEwan’s technique lacking, the figure of the brain-damaged character is almost to be expected in his work. Such characters lend much to the discussion of perception and memory in relation to societal norms, but the trick loses its luster when it pops up in novel after novel.)

As critical to McEwan’s novelization of the problems in expressing perspective is memory’s place in narrative. Edward’s recollection of a walk with Florence exists with “a penumbra of oblivion around it,” at a point when novelistic narrative envelops disparate mental scenes connected only by vague impressions. (It is also the point when McEwan seems most indebted to Ford.) The penultimate scene is McEwan at his finest, when the travails of two greatly unremarkable people would descend into melodrama in less capable hands.

Edward’s confident assertions of the nature of the past in the final pages acknowledge the mistakes he could have forestalled with a more perfect reading of the present. Considering the difficulties he and Florence come upon in the previous two hundred pages, this seems of comfort only to him, while the reader is left upon Beckett’s magical hill.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Beware the Fariy Tale Ending

How could we have been so mistaken? There was the promise of making history, the sense that a victory was part of a larger, predestined plan. The tremendous momentum. The opponent with a fancy pedigree but not much to show for it. The outcome seemed inevitable. Obvious, really. And still, the journalists got it wrong – almost twenty points wrong.

Only this time, the journalists weren't political writers covering New Hampshire. They were sitting at the sports desk, covering the Super Bowl as if the New England Patriots had already beaten the New York Giants.

Of course, the means by which one predicts political victories (polling) is a different animal than by which you predict sporting outcomes (point spreads). And yet, the impulse to create a narrative based on little more than a gut feeling and some hastily assembled numbers has dominated both Super Bowl and Super Tuesday coverage over the past few weeks.

It’s no secret that a narrative arc makes for a better read than just a rote recapping of the facts as they happened. And a narrative arc requires one to tell a story with a foreshadowed outcome, even when reporters can’t even truly predict what that outcome will be. This is why we get both the elections and sports, not to mention a lot of other things, wrong. So Obama ahead in the polls after a win in Iowa is too easily turned into a larger narrative: a young icon winning over the hearts and minds of a cynical electorate, a sea change in the Democratic Machine. The Patriots heading to the Super Bowl is no longer just another Big Game; after an unbeaten season it becomes an even Bigger Game, one that will go down in the record books and make for good Monday Night trivia.

The irony is that Clinton winning in New Hampshire and The Giants winning in Arizona are better stories, specifically because the narrative favored by the press is so predictable and preordained. With Clinton’s victory, the election became a nail-biting, delegate-counting horserace; a real competition that’s lead to increased news coverage and increased interest on the part of news consumers. Had Obama won in Iowa, then New Hampshire, then in South Carolina, the story becomes one sided and predictable. The first headline would have been great (and easy to write beforehand) but the excitement would soon wear off.

Likewise, the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl would have made for good copy – but as the coda to a story that had been building all season. It was the Hollywood ending, the final world. Now, sportswriters will keep busy analyzing what went wrong, how the Giants stopped the unstoppable, and what this means for next year. There will be off-season reports and player profiles with more color, and more interest – an “Eli as underdog made good” piece is so much more compelling than another fawning profile of Tom Brady.

The players and the politicians have it right: “I know it’s a very important game, but we cannot play it like that, like it’s history being played out,” said Tom Brady in a Sunday New York Times article. “It is a football game we want to win, and the only way to do that is to treat it like a football game.” It’s worth noting that the article began proclaiming that “New England Patriots take the field Sunday for Super Bowl XLII seeking perfection and a place in sports history,” then proceeded to seek insight history-making sports figures of years past: Nadia Comaneci, UCLA’s former basketball coach, John Wooden, and the first man to bowl three consecutive perfect 300 games.

In the end, it didn't matter what advice Glenn Allison, that legendary kegler, had to say - with less than two minutes remaining to play, the Giants rewrote what had seemed like a perfect ending to a perfect season. And in doing so - no matter how much stress it may have caused for reporters who thought they had it all figured out - created something even better.

Friday, January 11, 2008


This has got to stop:

Gloria Steinem… asks whether a woman born in exactly Barack Obama's circumstances would ever have made it to the U.S. Senate, much less have a shot at the presidency, but she never stops to ask whether a black woman with Hillary Clinton's bio would ever have enjoyed the advantage of her husband's success at the highest level of politics to slingshot her on her way.

The point is that Hillary's path is the privileged one here, in a way that only a female candidate could be. She emerged into regional and national prominence because of her husband, not because of herself. His career opened her door, however admirably she has taken advantage of that fact. (Chris Crane via Andrew Sullivan)

To say that “she emerged into regional and national prominence because of her husband” is reductive and misleading, and has gone on unchecked throughout this entire election. Bill Clinton's career succeeded in large part due to Hillary Clinton’s hard work behind the scenes, her firm grasp of policy, and her clear vision for the future. To imply that Clinton just “slingshot”-ed her way to the top makes denies how instrumental she was in her husband’s ascension, and how much political acumen and experience she has because of it. Read the Carville/Matlin book, where Carville talks about how Clinton’s smarts and grasp of the issue helped Bill Clinton run a successful campaign.

Read Sullivan himself, who just yesterday said, “[Bill] Clinton will be deeply involved in a possible future Clinton administration, just as his wife was in his.”

Read any number of the conservative critics who, in 1992, said "that the Clintons may have pushed too hard on the concept of an unprecedented partnership in the White House,” They called her:

"a hall monitor" type whose drive and earnestness are off-putting: "She doesn't complement Clinton because she appears to be another liberal policy wonk. It doesn't seem like a family -- more like a merger." (NY Times, May 18 1992)

When she was involved in her husband’s campaign and presidency, she was a meddling power-hungry bitch. Now she’s a privileged lady who gets to side-step all the “real” work while her husband - ever so chivalrously - "opens the door" for her to waltz right through.

Calling another Clinton presidency represents a "dynasty" – a word used by both Democrats and Republicans – is just as frustrating. It implies that Bill has taken all he earned and handed it to her in a neatly wrapped package. The truth is that she and Bill earned it together, and now it’s her turn to step up. Using the term "dynasty" implies a sense of entitlement and privilege which completely disrespects the hard work she’s done for the past 40 years.

Hillary Clinton did what a lot of women of her generation, and the generation before that, ad nauseum did: they married a man they loved and believed in, did what they could to support his career, then allowed themselves to be the center of attention once his goals were achieved. Now the same people who endorsed and imposed that system are trying to punish her for following their rules. It's enough to make you want to cry.


"How to Look Good Naked," the new Lifetime reality show with former Queer Eye Carson Kressley, is a culmination of several recent, irritating, cultural trends: “love your body” gimmicks featured in every women’s magazine, Dr. Phil pop psychology, unscripted filler makeover shows, gay man as fairy godmother archetype (fairy god stylist, as Kressley himself says), shopping as panacea and rah-rah feminism lite. And man, is it fantastic.

90 percent of the half-hour show features a short, heavy woman in her underwear. Along the way, she learns how to wear a bra that fits, how she misperceives her own body shape, and how pedestrians respond to the 30-food projected image of her on the side of the building. The whole thing culminates with a tasteful nude photo shoot.

The description makes the show sound horrific. And vapid. And exploitive. And maybe it is. Still there’s something so endearing about seeing the show’s subject feeling so attractive in her new bra and panties set that she walks out of the dressing room to show it off in the store.

Compare that with the horror show a few channels down on MTV’s "Made." That show gives high schoolers six weeks and the help of a coach to reach a transformative goal – the drama nerd wants to complete a triathlon, the girlie girl wants to learn to breakdance. In a recent episode, a Goth girl wanted to transform into a beauty queen – and had a full on meltdown when faced with the prospect of modeling her swimsuit. “I just don’t want people to laugh at me!” she choked out between sobs, cowering half naked in a department store dressing room. Her self-loathing and body hatred were so palatable it was painful to watch.

On "How to Look Good Naked," have Kressley asks a woman to point out her flaws. Gently as can be, he then tells her why she’s over-reacting, while pointing out her stronger assets. “Are you perfect?” he asks. “No. Are you beautiful? Yes.” When was the last time women and girls got 30 minutes of that message? This is by far the least mean-spirited of all the body-focused makeover shows. While that may be a low mark to shoot for, it shouldn’t downplay how sweet and positive and enjoyable it is to watch.

Yes, the “big is beautiful” ethos still celebrates superficial beauty and sexuality in women. Yes, it changes the emphasis from unattainable weight loss standards to attainable beauty care of MasterCard, where all one needs to love oneself is a day at the spa and super expensive undergarments. (And if you don’t shell out, you don’t respect yourself). And yes, the show’s cutesy body-positive message is broken up with cutesy weigh loss commercials.

But what’s wrong with feeling good in your own skin, with deriving both power and bride from your body, and with not wanting to cry when faced with a dressing room mirror?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Lambda Legal fund is suing a Gary Indiana high school for forbidding a dress-wearing male from attending prom. The student, who self-identifies as female, had women's clothes to school during the academic year, and met with little resistance from other students. But when she donned some taffeta and tried to enter the end-of-year formal, the principal literally blocked the door. The principal's rational, according to The Stranger? A man wearing a dress violated the school's code of conduct, forbidding “clothing/accessories that advertise sexual orientation, sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, profanity, negative social or negative educational statements.”

The Lambda lawyer is upset that sexual orientation is lumped into the same category as drugs and alcohol. Fair enough. But consider that a female student was allowed to enter in a tux. Why is a man wearing a dress that is more evocative of sexual orientation than a woman in a tux? And why do the clothes we wear broadcast messages about for whom we’d like to take those clothes off?

It's an old, tired question, one with lots of potential answers. But it raises importantquestions about the link between gender and sexuality and the faulty assumption that wanting to wear a dress also means you want to have sex with a man. (In fact, the majority of transvestites are heterosexuals. And lesbians wear dresses, too. As do nuns, who last I checked weren't sleeping with anyone.)

The student in question was, in fact, transgendered. The irony is that while crossdressers (mostly straight dudes) initially wear women's clothing for a sexual charge, transgendered thinking has less to do with sex and more to do with identity. Yes, part of that identity may be sexual. But the all-too-common tendency to conflate the two is dangerous.

Back to The Stranger for an example: last month, Dan Savage came under fire for this column, wherein he confirms the suspicions of a concerned aunt. Yes, he says, her dress-wearing, musical-watching, 3-year-old nephew is gay. (Or rather, "There's a 99 percent chance your nephew is gay.")

The rest of his advice tells the aunt to create a safe space for her nephew, in which he can engage in "gay" behavior, even if it means lying to the boy's disapproving father. A debate ensued, with some readers taking Dan's side and others saying the father, though possibly in the wrong, had to be respected. Others said just because you wear dresses doesn't mean your gay. Only one reader brought up what I think is the most salient point, which is "How 'bout we add the advice of not making assumptions about our young nephew while providing a safe space in which he can work it out for himself?"

It's admirable to want to accept kids for who they are and not force them into any pre-ordained expectations for gender play or normal behavior. Why then turn around and label them with yet another category with pre-ordained behaviors and norms?

This is not to say that kids "turn" gay when they hit puberty, or that gay children don't already instinctively know that they're gay from an early age. But we don't looking at a Barbie-playing girl and saying, "She's going to grow up to love banging dudes!" Why then are we comfortable saying a kid will grow up to be gay? In essence, we're identifying a norm (a girl playing with dolls) and an abnormality (a boy wearing a dress); we feel the need to label the latter as "other" instead of expanding our view of the former. So even though the impulse to name is kindly, we reinforce gender and sexual norms in the naming.

Of course, we know that being gay carries with it social and personal signifiers far beyond who you want to take to bed. But isn't it time for a little deconstruction? As Judith Butler said, "identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression."

Boys of all ages should be able to wear dresses and have that be accepted at face value - not, as it stands now, be accepted in spite of their difference, or be accepted along with a whole other host of unspoken assumptions about what else or who else they like. Remember the nineties, when all those progressive straight boys would go see Michelle Shocked wearing hippie skirts? What ever happened to them?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


The New York Times ran a piece today about breast flashing at Gate G in Giant's Stadium, tradition at Jet's home games. Apparently, men congregate in the spiral stairwell and encourage women, in the form of lewd cheers and catcalls, to expose themselves.

Two interesting things about this piece:
1) No one within the organization seems to take responsibility, or care too much about the halftime shenanigans - boys will be boys, after all. You can follow the bouncing ball of denial and indifference from one agency to the next; a nice bit of reportage from the story's author.

2) The reporter interviewed almost everyone involved - a concerned parent, a disappointed spectator ("Normally we see a lot more," he says) and the one flasher ("I love my body and I like what I have, so let everybody share it.") He fails, however, to get any comments from the hundreds of women who choose not to flash. Or from the woman who thinks about it, decides against it, and then is spit at by the angry mob, who also throw trash in her direction. What's her take on this little ritual? Do the rest of the women feel afraid? Ashamed? Annoyed? Angry? Are they indifferent or horrified? There's no way to know - the reporter never asked. Though their experience is more representative of a woman at a Jet's game, it's the one perspective that's left out.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


In Debate Team, posters put forth a thought or idea to stimulate discussion. The opinion is not necessarily that of the author - in fact, in many times it's quite the opposite. In no way are any of the ideas presented fully formed. Instead, the post is meant to test assumptions, tease out ideas, mix high and low culture, and start a conversation. Comments are encouraged: pst on how wrong this opinion is, what books refute it, what ideas support it, what started out strong then devolved into craziness and what large points are overlooked.

Resolved: Football Protects the World from Fascist Politics.

It's easy to compare football and other organized sports with facist propaganda events like the Nuremburg Rallies. A superficial analysis often leads one to assume that football is our generation's equivilant of these rallies, and that organized sporting events dangerously mimic the right-wing politics of fascism. And sure, on the surface, there's a lot in common: chanting, cheering, singing songs of loyalty, bravado, matching outfits, common symbols. But to compare football to fascism is to confuse the medium with the message.

Football, in fact is the antidote to fascim. Fascism was successful in part because it tapped into people's inherent need to belong. Man wants to feel a part of something bigger; it wants to be part of a group that's unified both in favor of one group and against another; it wants to be on a winning team. Football allows people to satisfy those instincts, while channeling the energy created into something totally meaningless.

It's exhilarating to be surrounded by people who all believe and support the same thing; it's fun to sing the same songs and clap and cheer with hundreds of your closest friends. Fascism didn't create this; it co-opted it and used this instinct to promote an insidious agenda. Just as most Americans went to the Lincoln Douglas debates for entertainment and social purposes, most participants attended the Nuremburg rallies for the spectacle of it all. They went to the rallies because they were fun, because it was An Event, and because it gave them a reason to clap and cheer. Hitler and other fascist leaders captured and directed that energy towards evil.

In football, you get all the trappings of fascist rallies without any of the dangerous consequences. The sense of belonging that comes with identifying as an "us" versus a "them" is satisfied through cheering for your home team against it's various opponents. Wearing jerseys, waving flags, and buying a Redskins bumper sticker lets you affiliate yourself with a movement without having to do anything more than root for Washington on Sunday. The cheers, songs, and chants performed at the game add to the sense of togetherness. However, As soon as you step out of the stadium - even as soon as the game ends - the emotion and energy dissipates. Sure, you're upset for a few days after your team misses a shot at the playoffs, but you don't take it out on the fans of the opposite team; while you may "hate" Steelers fans, you don't spend your week actively plotting their demise - or standing idly by while the leaders of your football team does.