Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sense and Sensibility: The Capitalisms of F.A. Hayek and Ayn Rand

There is a lot of hubbub over the economy and how that's being handled by our new(ish -- it's been a year already) presidential administration. "Socialism" and "planned economy" -- even "fascism" -- have once again become Republican invective and are being slung at the various initiatives Obama and his people have been putting into effect, or with the notable example of healthcare reform, been attempting to put into effect for months and months only to be stymied by all kinds of partisan bickering, which let's be honest, you'd expect that of our government. Capitalism all the while remains The American economic model, but I'm beginning to think that's not such a bad thing.

Not to be overly cynical, but the bloated perversion of healthcare reform we appear on the cusp of getting should do well at satisfying no one as it struggles to resemble what large numbers of people had ostensibly professed desiring with Obama's significant victory in November '08. But we people did want lots of stuff, so it's hard to be sure. All I know is I'm jaded enough. Or I should say I was jaded until I read Atul Gawande's article "Testing, Testing" in the recent December 14th issue of The New Yorker. I was even jaded for the first page of Gawande's article, when he wrote things of the health care reform bill like, "Does the bill end medicine's destructive piecemeal payment system? Does it replace paying for quantity with paying for quality? Does it institute nationwide structural changes that curb costs and raise quality? It does not." DAMMIT! I bellowed within earshot of my friend's cat whose expression chided me silently. Or perhaps that isn't a true thing that happened at all.

So I read some more. "Instead, what it offers is . . . pilot programs." Huh? Well, for fear this post will become too overwrought with healthcare reform info taken almost entirely from The New Yorker, I will sum things up like this: Gawande makes a compelling argument using the historical example of agriculture at the turn of the 19th century in the U.S. for why pilot programs may be the most fruitful course in effecting real change in health care today, with an appropriate level of government intervention. Read the article yourself, and see for yourself. I highly recommend that you do.

So then what? How does all this health care shinola apply to F.A. Hayek and Ayn Rand? It's all in the approach, I think. Ayn Rand has got a lot of cultural currency right now, one of those popular zeitgeists who always pops up, apparently, in times of great economic woe, especially when there's a president of startling contrary opinion like Obama in office (though he resembles a Randian protagonist in more ways than her adoring minions would probably want to admit). Hayek, meanwhile, is the sensible alternative to Rand and the man whose real-world influence has vastly exceeded her own, Milton Friedman. Friedman, who spawned neo-liberalism and all its glorious unrestraint and wrote an introduction to Hayek's seminal "The Road to Serfdom."

Full shocking disclosure: I've always been wary of capitalism. The idea of money in exchange for services or goods rendered is something I've long seen as convincingly logical but always cold and alienating. It's hard to be friends with the people with whom you share a vested monetary interest of some sort, say insurance salesman v. those (s)he insures. Even Ray Kroc, one of the preeminent capitalists of all time and certainly the last one hundred years, acknowledged that much, when for example he refused to act as supplier to his operators, worrying for good reason it would compromise their carefully established mutualistic relationship. As he put it, "There is a basic conflict in trying to treat a man as a partner on the one hand while selling him something at a profit on the other." But that isn't because he doesn't like them, just there'd be money that needed making, and so must be. He added, "The temptation could become very strong to dilute the quality of what you are selling him in order to increase your profit." Yup, I mean I guess that mildly impugns Kroc's character, but it's probably true and basically honest.

Kroc's McDonald's model is also representative of what I think works (and absolutely representative of what I abhor) with regard to capitalism. This is a form of capitalism I'll also add has been colored by my own way of thinking. So you know, you've now been warned. What worked with respect to McDonald's is what worked in the case of agriculture and pilot programs: a system of trial and error, with a largely hands off centralized force (in the case of McDonald's it was the corporation and in agriculture the USDA) offering opinions and coordinating the collective efforts of the component parts for the betterment of the whole. As Kroc said, he couldn't do what he did while simultaneously having a monetary relationship with his operators. The same is true of healthcare: and like it or not, a hands-off governmental approach has been shown to work in the past, provided it doesn't go too far. Maybe that's too much to ask but I don't think so.

What's also worth noting is that while all of these innovations required the kind of big-picture vision of a Ray Kroc they were surprisingly egalitarian, and combined the best elements of socialism and capitalism into one. Obviously, nothing's ever going to be perfect but that's exactly how Gawande describes these types of desultory, fluid circumstances defining health care, agriculture, and -- less so today, it would seem -- even McDonald's. He wrote, "There are, in human affairs, two kinds of problems: those which are amenable to a technical solution and those which are not . . . Problems of the second kind, by contrast, are never solved, exactly; they are managed [emphasis his]."

Now, as I say it won't be perfect. McDonald's for example is far from perfect, in part this is due to how far they've strayed from the spirit of the original business model due to their inevitable, massive expansion. Independent franchisees, while still playing a role, are not nearly as free to be entrepreneurial as they were before the process of McDonaldization became ossified, but it's the spirit of the enterprise that counts -- even if today's McDonald's would not be recognizable to the operators who played such an important role in its genesis, and wasn't when the transformation originally began to take place.

Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism makes no room for an arbitrating entity like the government to intervene in the affairs of man. More full shocking disclosure: I profoundly dislike Objectivism. It reads to me like the hyper-masculine dreck that may prove useful in inspiring and coaching football players but question begs its way out of relevance in a real world setting, full of the shades of gray it rejects. Objectivism is presumptuous, oh yes. It presumes the irrelevance of determinism (i.e. factors such as upbringing, genes or economic conditions play no role in one's success or lack of success, with special emphasis on the latter condition). I'm fine with her rejection of all things spiritual (fate, religion), if I'm not totally in agreement with her there, either, but you don't need to read "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell to know that there is something deeply flawed in completely dismissing exterior factors as playing any role in one's chances for a "great" life, one marked by at least some significant monetary gain.

Explain to me why those (liberal, conservative, libertarian, et al) who have the means to will do everything they possibly can to send their offspring to better schools than, say, the school or schools they live nearest? And if you want to argue that it's merely harder to pull yourself out of those abject conditions, then you're already admitting that such circumstances at least play some part in one's chances, or you're racist / prejudiced and presume the true problem is something internal belonging to the broad impoverished segment of the global population. If anything the fact that certain people then do rise up out of their difficult circumstances and succeed belies Objectivism by putting at the fore the reality that there is nothing inherently lacking in these impoverished people. Plus if you admit the situation the child was put in by his or her parents is a factor, then once again you're conceding an element of determinism, i.e. pre-existing economic conditions, which might expand to a macro, sociological level of significance. Ignoring history as Objectivism presumes to is particularly irritating.

Let me make it clear that I think a healthy ego is important to the individual and his or her attaining the success he or she desires, but the unbridled ego that Objectivism in many ways presupposes and absolutely encourages is frankly horrible. Don't agree? First, imagine a conversation with an immodest professional athlete. Second, imagine everyone was like that athlete. Ok, so that's not necessarily how it would be. But seriously, it wouldn't be significantly less horrible than that. Would people at least be required to pretend like they weren't completely self-interested? ("Self-interest" is the single word Rand used to define Objectivism's ethics, so says my copy of "The Fountainhead.") I guess my biggest issue with Rand is that she proposed a capitalism of unchecked ego and excess. She proposed a capitalism that is damaging to the body politic. I'm inclined to think that others get to where they are with at least some help from their peers.

And I know I mention this book a lot, which even though I do it might be the least of the Walter Kirn I've read, but "Up in the Air" has an interesting part in which Ryan Bingham is dictating to his microrecorder a part of the preface to his allegorical-philosophical manifesto he titled "The Garage" -- yet another important component of the book that the movie abandons, but I'll say no more about that. In the preface he's dictating he says:

In 'The Garage,' I propose a bold new formula to replace lurching pursuit of profit: 'Sufficient Plenitude.' Enough really can be enough, that is. A heresy? Not to students of the human body, who know that optimum health is not achieved by ever-greater consumption and activity, but by functioning within certain dynamic parameters of diet and exercise, work and leisure. So too with the corporation, whose core objective should not be the amassing of good numbers, but the creation and management of abundance.
Never mind that this idea more or less runs contrary to the M.O. of Ryan Bingham, who is among other things dead set on achieving his goal of one million frequent flier miles. Bingham himself wonders, "Is it possible to be wiser on the page than you are in life?" So while I'm aware there might be a sarcastic and expedient quality to the above quoted elucidation, I think that it makes a sensible claim. It's a claim that runs contrary to Ayn Rand's and Milton Friedman's similar (and in Rand's case schmaltzy romantic) notion of capitalism.

F.A. Hayek, to return to the other individual for whom this post is written, is from my perspective also imperfect as concerns his economic theory (which is absolutely not the same as his being flatly wrong, I freely acknowledge I may well be wrong and need to amend my opinion in the future. I'm less certain Ayn Rand will one day produce in me this possible reevaluating effect, however). But Hayek was right about socialism, to the extent that certain untempered derivations (the Communist bloc nations, China, North Korea) became the same ossified, oppressive regimes which they vehemently opposed in the more forthrightly iniquitous fascist governments against whom the world went to war in the 1930s-40s. This is especially true where economic matters are concerned. The level of government control involved and necessary in planning the economy, as Soviet Russia and China did, necessarily precluded the freedom and free will of their peoples. On that Hayek and I are in full agreement. Of course there are social aspects that distinguish fascism from socialism more obviously, but in terms of economics the two forms of government are markedly the same. Hayek also saw the utility in involving a limited form of government into the affairs of the marketplace, which again I see as sensible and right. Here is how Hayek puts it in "The Road to Serfdom":

In all these instances there is a divergence between the items which enter into private calculation and those which affect social welfare; and, whenever this divergence becomes important, some method other than competition may have to be found to supply the services in question. Thus neither the provision of signposts on the roads nor, in most circumstances, that of the roads themselves can be paid for by every individual user. Nor can certain harmful effects of deforestation, of some methods of farming, or of the smoke and noise of factories be confined to the owner of the property in question or to those who are willing to submit to the damage for an agreed compensation. In such instances we must find some substitute for the regulation by the price mechanism (44).
My hope is that one day instead of the aggressive, unchecked mentality of ceaseless consumption that has colored our nation's (and similarly influenced other nations, such as the now, more or less, free market China) spending habits for so long we will see how by coordinating our efforts to some meliorative level of economic prosperity we will be far better off than at present. That relies on certain naively idealistic hopes for our current character, I admit, so I'll settle for a return to what is sensible, to making a better effort to base things around what seems to work best for all parties concerned and not what's simply best for you to get yours.

All right, that's all I've got for now, but I imagine this won't be the last time I refer to either Rand or Hayek. In fact, barring world-ending calamity, I guarantee it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Strange Experience: Reading "Lolita"

The first thing you should know I didn't know about Vladimir Nabokov is he was funny. This humorous bent shows itself especially in the tongue-in-cheek portrayal of his narrator in "Lolita," the woeful, ostentatious pedophile Humbert Humbert. The novel as a whole is surprisingly funny, too. I guess I'd always had Nabokov pegged as a writer too stodgy and turgid (this was without actually reading him) to make such complete mockery of his protagonist, but evidently I had him pegged incorrectly. The ostensible skepticism with which he proffers Hum's claims, usually these acting as segues to subtle boasts, is scorching. Don't let the people who don't know tell you otherwise, because they're liars whereas I'm telling you the truth. Comedy abounds in "Lolita."

Humbert's eventual tutelage and subsequent journeys with his nymphetic ward, Lolita, provide countless situations one could rightfully construe as being hilarious. I'm glad Nabokov takes full advantage of this interplay between father and daughter, and the forbidden lovers they are in private. It relieves tension in one sense, and provides the story with important dimension in another. It also undermines the seriousness of Humbert's arguments, which has him seeming much more unreliable in his telling the story than most first-person narrators seem. He is much more compromised by his own poetic interpretation of events, a fact that does come to light more clearly as the novel reaches its climax.

First, the relationship, which starts with Lolita, or Dolores Haze, as a girl of about 12 and spans her coming of age to her late teens, is one that provides the reader frequent moments of discomfort and confusion. Their physical intercourse, described in terms more florid than truly graphic by Humbert Humbert, impels a response -- at least in this reader -- that is deeply conflicting. Call it arousal, call it titillation, call it whatever makes you comfortable, any scene in fiction depicting sex or sexuality usually inspires one of the aforementioned terms as reaction. I think we can all agree it's a deeply human reaction. I at least can agree for you all, and you're free to lie and say that it isn't. Go right ahead.

The great fun of Lolita is at any moment that this sensation would typically occur you're left to remember that this is a pubescent girl -- if you somehow manage to lose yourself in the narrative and forget this fact (very hard to do), Humbert is always there to avail you with a reminder that Lolita is still categorically in every way not a woman. The book forces you to consider your visceral urges much more forthrightly, and consider them while reminding yourself that pedophilia simply is not your thing, hence the discomfort. (Similarly, a friend recently reminded me that Chabon's "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" forces you to consider whether being gay or bisexual is your thing.) At the risk of sounding a little glib, Nabokov writes pedophilia as tastefully but as comprehensively as I suspect is possible.

But what's stranger than that is how funny Nabokov manages to be, making good use of the desired seriousness Humbert wishes the reader will take him with, oozing from his every sentence . "Lolita" is definitely in part a fantastic black comedy. I know I'm probably beginning to sound overly surprised by this fact, that humor has any place in "Lolita," but what needs to be clarified is I'm someone who first became acquainted with "Lolita" by watching the previews on TV for the 1997 film version starring Jeremy Irons. My dim memory of this is filled primarily with images of stuffy romance, and I was made mildly curious by the significant margin of age separating Lolita from Humbert. But that's it. So after about 12 years of letting that idea ferment, and for some reason never conversing with anyone about the story beyond a superficial understanding of the pair's sordid relationship, I had a deep-rooted impression of what the story must be. Nabokov then turned my notions of his novel upside down, which was a nice surprise.

Comedy can be used as an effective build up to the acme of tragedy. This is especially true when one character (e.g. Humbert Humbert) proves hopelessly in denial about the harm his actions are doing to another character (e.g. Lolita). "Lolita" may be the best tragedy I've ever read as well as being one of the best black comedies, then. Not to give the ending away (and so a SPOILER ALERT!!! BIG TIME FROM HERE ON OUT!!! is appropriate), but after Humbert tracks down Lolita following their long separation at the meddling hands of Clare "Cue" Quilty, an interesting subplot I nevertheless won't veer into, he discovers her much as he left her. She's visibly the same, with the noted differences of being three years older, seventeen, and made gravid by her husband, Dick Schiller, a veteran who is hard of hearing because of injuries inflicted during whatever conflict he participated in. So she's actually considerably different, but externally isn't the half of it. She's clearly more mature than when we left her, at that time still a precocious youth possessing a sharp and acerbic wit. She now has an idea of what she wants in life, to move with Dick to his nebulous employ with an unnamed agency somewhere in Alaska. (Does appear like a voluntary exile, yes.)

Humbert is instead confronted with the fact that Lolita honestly wants nothing to do with him. He begins to realize that if she ever thought anything of their relationship it was purely transactional, a quid pro quo. He meanwhile understands that she longed covetously for a relationship with a father like that which her friends enjoyed. Humbert describes the example of her friend Avis and Avis's father, and one particular visit of theirs, as follows:

Suddenly, as Avis clung to her father's neck and ear while, with a casual arm, the man enveloped his lumpy and large offspring, I saw Lolita's smile lose all its light and become a frozen little shadow of itself, and the fruit knife slipped off the table and struck her with its silver handle a freak blow on the ankle which made her gasp, and crouch head forward, and then, jumping on one leg, her face awful with the preparatory grimace which children hold till the tears gush, she was gone -- to be followed at once and consoled in the kitchen by Avis who had such a wonderful fat pink dad and a small chubby brother, and a brand-new baby sister, and a home, and two grinning dogs, and Lolita had nothing.
Humbert concludes this candidly deprecating but simultaneously immodest show of delayed sympathy for his ward with the following remarks, which sums their relationship up fairly well:

It had become gradually clear to my conventional Lolita during our singular and bestial cohabitation that even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif.
Now if you want my opinion, what proves Humbert's insincerity or, at least, vanity is his insistence on getting his revenge against Cue Quilty, whom he only knows as the man who lured Lolita away while his back was effectively turned. Were Humbert truly sorry and sure of his own certain culpability he would never waste time looking for the straw man Quilty inevitably becomes. He wouldn't need to destroy the embodiment of all he loathes in himself because he would understand that there is no extricating the one from the other, that what he has done to Lolita is inextricably who he is, Humbert 1 AND Humbert 2. We know he understands this distinction between himself and Quilty when nearing the end of his last visit with Lolita ever, during which he does attempt semi-seriously to get her to leave with him, the following is disclosed by each:

"Is there no hope of your coming? Tell me only this."

"No," she said. "No, honey, no."

She had never called me honey before.

"No, she said, it is quite out of the question. I would sooner go back to Cue. I mean --"

She groped for words. I supplied them mentally ("He broke my heart. You merely broke my life").

Of course, Humbert's ego was also bruised by Quilty, who evaded detection by signing his name at various hotel stops under aliases that made it impossible for Humbert to determine his true identity and thus where he might have taken Lolita. Regardless of that frivolous little distress imposed (Quilty himself later pointing out: ". . . my dear Mr. Humbert, you were not an ideal stepfather . . ."), Humbert, who is narrating throughout "Lolita" from the custody of a sanitarium and awaiting trial for Quilty's murder (he does kill him), never seems to truly understand his role and the distinction between himself and Quilty, as the final lines of his story read like an ego-maniacal, self-penned epitaph, to wit:

And do not pity C. Q. [i.e. Quility]. One had to choose between him and H. H., and one wanted H. H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.
Mostly, he's a real jag-off. Pardon my coarseness.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Donald Barthelme's "Not-Knowing" is Half the Battle

I know, "'Not-Knowing' is half the battle" is probably the worst GI Joe pun imaginable. Sorry, and what's done is done. (Stick around, too, because it won't be my last.) But also I say, where there is a horrible GI Joe pun, there is often much in the way of truth. You will have to judge this for yourself, but I'm going to attempt to bring meaning to my bold statement. It's the least I can do for Donald Barthelme, who wrote and spoke as thoughtfully on the subject of postmodernism and the past / present / future role of literature as anyone I've heretofore encountered.

Barthelme's essay "Not-Knowing" is extremely useful to all who are concerned with the very apparent challenges of a writer's craft, and of getting from point A (no story) to point B (a created story). Moreover, the selfsame titled book -- a collection of essays, short works, interviews and reviews compiled posthumously by its editor Kim Herzinger and, ostensibly, the Barthelme Estate -- covers a pretty sprawling range of territory, although considering the author that shouldn't be very surprising. Barthelme cared a great deal about "doing his homework" as one interviewer refers to his noticeable propensity to pore over all sorts of research material.

What I find especially unusual about Donald Barthelme is his willingness in seemingly all his interviews, or at least those made available in "Not-Knowing," to elaborate when answering questions in anything but the somewhat common, boilerplate authorial way you tend to expect. He also answers questions with a modest candor that seems strikingly absent from most others I've read, which is not a criticism I reserve strictly for the authorial realm. With Barthelme there is no evasion, it seems. Here for example is a question and answer that I think succinctly covers both of the aspects of what I admire about his answering style (the question is put forth by J.D. O'Hara):

You keep up in philosophy and psychology, do you not?

Not really. I have a very mercantile approach, I read whatever I think might be useful, might start something. I read other writers to discover what they do well; that helps me, reminds me why I got into this peculiar business in the first place. It's most unsystematic.
Ok, so fine he uses the phrase "It's most unsystematic" and you could say that's a smidgen pretentious sounding, but other than a smidgen of pretentiousness, which I think might be unavoidable to the whole artistic endeavor and so forth, Barthelme is pretty well-reasoned and open. I would think that could be difficult for a writer of his renown. Maybe it's not. Maybe it's easier to be modest when you've achieved something significant with your writing. I don't know. Not for me to speculate on. I like the exchange, the above exchange and the others to be found in his various interviews, which I will no doubt quote more of them before this post is done.

Take for example Barthelme's answer to the question of the moral responsibility of the artist. This is tricky territory, which I think is something most people who read for stuff like subtext will agree. And I think Barthelme replies with a very non-copout opinion, which is:

I believe that my every sentence trembles with morality in that each attempts to engage the problematic rather than to present a proposition to which all reasonable men must agree.
It's frustrating to read authors dither or flat-out deny that their work should be interpreted as making a statement -- pro or con -- with regard to a given moral issue. Of course Barthelme doesn't come right out and admit he's inclined to make a pro or con moral statement, either, but what he does do is say that I am not the objective eye in the sky, watching but not acting. In effect, by the very nature of my presenting this morality in my work I'm acknowledging it as being problematic, as a condition worth addressing and perhaps declaratively condemning or failing that, then allowing for the possibility that it could be condemned (as you who read may see fit to react). The word is probably "engagement." In the same interview, prior to the above cited quote, Barthelme invoked the words of Karl Klaus, who said, "a writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer." I can't decide to what degree I believe that comment is accurate but I do like where Barthelme goes with it, which I think fits his attitude regarding the role of morality in an author's work. He says:

There's also an element of reportage, the description of new situations or conditions, but that's pretty much a matter of identifying them rather than talking about solutions. Baudelaire noticing that the boulevards of Paris were no longer a means of getting from here to there but had become more like theater lobbies, places to be, and writing about that. The search is for a question that will generate light and heat.
That last part about what will "generate light and heat" strikes me as most profound and insightful. Where is there substance in the life of a given society at any moment in its existence? The writer must determine this, draw it out to the best of his or her ability. I think that is true. You're free to disagree, as always.

In another interview Barthelme remarks about the TV news (a far different thing in the '80s from what it is today, but his thought is still relevant and probably will continue to be for the foreseeable future) and what is most troublesome about the way in which it is culled and delivered, saying, "I think there the problem is because of time. Both in gathering the news and in presenting it, you get a very thin, rather than rich, version of events." According to Barthelme, concerning the trend of the 1980's Reagan administration to release information to the media that was ambiguous in its meaning -- which is a trend that continues to be true today, even post-George W. Bush, though Obama's administration is more forthcoming -- the question that must be asked in any situation where our government fails to be transparent is the same, if for no other reason than its directness:

'What do you mean?' is a question that can be repeated indefinitely, until you finally locate the meaning -- if there is a meaning to be located.
It's a shame we lost Barthelme at the early age of 58. That's all I've got left to say. For now, anyway.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Inherent Vice a Vision of All That is Good of Thomas Pynchon

I like the recondite, fragmentary style that has always been a staple of Pynchonian fiction and done to epic effect in novels like "V." and "Gravity's Rainbow." Sure, yes they are difficult to follow at times, a narrative is broken up and a new narrative is introduced, regularly without the slightest hint of warning and so keeping you, reader, on your toes. It's reading that can be very rewarding and stimulating, but it's reading I'll concede is taxing and requires some patience, as well.

Most of the reviews I read of "Inherent Vice" -- Thomas Pynchon's latest literary effort -- said that it was something of a departure for one of the great antecedents of contemporary fiction, a lion postmodern literature style. He wrote a novel that tells the same story, follows the same main character faithfully, from beginning to end? (Has Pynchon gone soft on us?) No, though certain elements of Pynchon are lost in this not-as-sprawling text of about 370 pages, the story is as interesting and enjoyable as any of his I've read, also as Pynchon-ey in just some of the best ways.

"Inherent Vice" is a uniquely Pynchonian take on the noir genre -- something akin to a novelization of "The Big Lebowski" but also simultaneously a story going by its own unique drumbeat, to be sure. Doc Sportello is thrust into a typically paranoid Pynchonian narrative, which begins innocently enough, as most detective novels do, with the arrival of his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth who informs him of a plot being hatched by the wife of a wealthy real-estate developer, Mickey Wolfmann, and her lover. The plot they've thought up is to take control of Wolfmann's assets by having him committed to a mental institution. Hepworth had meanwhile become Wolfmann's lover and is asked by his wife, Sloane, and Riggs Warbling, her lover, to assist them in carrying out their plans. Things devolve rapidly and chaotically from there.

I've always wanted to read a Pynchon novel that tells the story of characters like "V.'s" Benny Profane and The Whole Sick Crew and "Gravity's Rainbow's" Tyrone Slothrop et al without interruption. What some people don't know or won't admit is that Thomas Pynchon is actually extremely funny, although this is hard sometimes to pick up on when reading through dense tracts regarding the mechanics of a World War II era V-2 Rocket and its parabolic arcs and achieving "Brennschluss," or the strange nature of espionage and deceit and drunken elephants in early 20th century North Africa, plus conceptualization of the mid-20th century phenomenon dubbed "Non-humanity" by Fausto Maijstral.

Doc Sportello affords Pynchon with an ideal mark on which to spring various unfortunate and hilarious gags. To name some: pornographic neckties, confrontation with a motley assortment of strange musicians and bikers, a cryptic and sub rosa organization known only as "The Golden Fang" dangling precipitously on the tongues of everyone Doc meets. Then of course there is the pervading sense that America has failed to be a shining "City on a Hill," and perhaps there is a new undiscovered continent forming even further west, which it's supposed or implied will somehow reach fruition in a way that the United States has failed to, deliver on the promise that was once our own.

Is that a negative interpretation? Maybe it could be construed more positively. It probably could, but these are negative times, times that try souls. And thankfully we have still got Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo around to proffer their literary opinions, nebulous as they sometimes are -- and I hope it's not too much of a stretch to attach that kind of meaning to their writing (been reading a lot of Donald Barthelme lately and his opinion of literature and what effect it can produce has emboldened me to make this interpretive leap. More to come on Barthelme, though). DeLillo didn't publish a new novel this year, but he did make an appearance in the New Yorker last month with his short story, "Midnight in Dostoevsky." It describes two young students of a college town, walking around it and debating each other. I'll end with a quote from the narrator that I found particularly poignant:
At times, abandon meaning to impulse. Let the words be the facts. This was the nature of our walks -- to register what was out there, all scattered rhythms of circumstance and occurrence, and to reconstruct it as human noise.

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Up in the Air" Not So Much Like "Up in the Air"

Are you like one of those people who worry about whether the zeitgeist has been adequately captured for a particular time and place? Especially a time and place that you and everyone you know is currently experiencing? If so then I encourage you to see the theatrical version of "Up in the Air" -- "based" on the novel by Walter Kirn. Director / adaptor-to-film Jason Reitman contrived, as far as I can tell, a completely new story, using many of the same characters from Kirn's novel and vaguely similar plot points but that's where the parallels end.

I'm not a purist or, much worse, a fan boy. I don't need to be told the same story in order to enjoy it. I just think in the case of "Up in the Air" the spirit of the novel was lost to something 1) more immediately accessible to mainstream audiences and 2) egregiously schmaltzy and cloying in a way that uses stentorian terms requiring no discernment, like: "THIS IS REALITY AND THESE ARE THE REAL PEOPLE HARMED BY IT, AMERICA!" Does Reitman do some interesting things with these tropes that are as new to cinema as Frank Capra and his populist stories of the '30s and '40s? Yes, he does demonstrate that things are not always as easy as they may seem at first blush, and he isn't necessarily going to give the audience what they want, but he will give them something close to that.

"Thank You For Smoking" his first major success wasn't exactly a firebrand of controversy when it hit theaters in 2005. By that time the whole notion of smoking as an unconscionable vice was pretty well established, not to imply that was specifically what Reitman and company meant to showcase. Maybe Reitman was sad because he missed the zeitgeist as smoking goes, and wanted something that would make up for it. If so he really took Kirn's novel and ran with it, and contorted it while he ran with it, contorting it into something perplexingly easy. My problem is the book made a lot of the same points as the film, but better. Without hammering you over the head with the fact that Ryan Bingham's life as a nomadic traveler of the airways fails to fulfill the book achieved the same effect. In the end of the novel, Ryan Bingham is seated with Soren Morse, the CEO of Great West Airlines, Bingham's airline of choice. Bingham has just surpassed his monomaniacal objective of 1 million frequent flier miles (in the film it's 10 million, you figure adjusted for inflation and everything's bigger on screen) and discovers himself to be just as empty as he'd been before, just with 1 million frequent flier miles instead of without. A crescendo moment in his conversation with Morse goes like this:

"My miles go to children's hospitals," I say.

"That's great. What a gesture. We should get this out. I'll contact press relations when we land. You're serious?"

"Don't use my name. No name. It's not a gesture. It's barely charity. I'm sick myself; I can't use them anyway. Plus, I've been everywhere you people fly."
To be clear, this is not the conversation Clooney's Bingham has with the plane's captain (Sam Elliott, and his being the captain instead of the CEO is another departure from the novel I had no qualms with) when he achieves his objective of 10 million in the end. The substance is similar but the self-loathing is lost. The lack of any place left to go is lost. There is too much sugar coating the movie "Up in the Air." Perhaps that is why it struck me as deeply dishonest and flawed.

After seeing "Fantastic Mr. Fox" it was hard to watch George Clooney return to his standard, playing the character Ryan Bingham in his usual manner, essentially the same as in Oceans 11 through 13. Bingham a la Clooney is charming and guileful, with a little more of his ribald touch that has been evidenced better by him in better movies like "Burn After Reading" and "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" And the effort to make him a little ribald in the end seems to me to be the point of including the character Natalie Keener, played to good effect by Anna Kendrick -- even if I found her role to be very typical. She did well with limited material. In fact my favorite scene in the entire film involves her firing via computer a man in a Detroit office, which is easily the most moving, emotionally jarring part of the film, and her unnatural-to-her-character stoicism and unfeeling is nicely executed here, as we the audience know she is dying inside.

I wouldn't have as much of a problem with "Up in the Air" were in not for the fact that everyone, critics of all strips and audiences alike, seem to think it is deserving of a Best Picture Oscar, Reitman has achieved something great and that George Clooney somehow outdoes himself, all of which are praise I'm at a loss to understand. I even found the inclusion of the real people who'd been fired to be disjointing and misplaced, and even vaguely exploitative -- less of an effort to truly showcase the humanity that is discarded callously by our system and more to trot them out like animals on parade, in part because their stories aren't adequately told. We in the audience simply understand that they are "real" because it's a point that's been highly publicized about the film, and there they are, talking in pithy, generic lines you'd expect of someone who's been recently fired, maybe about what actually befell them, maybe not.

I know that I disagree this film is good. It is a C-, no better. That's what I think.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Old Bohemian Bones: The Burger Love Continues with Ray Kroc

Ray Kroc, or "Old Bohemian Bones" as I and I alone call him, sure created a fine mess. That's one thing you could call McDonald's, "a fine mess." Like, "fine" as in "really swell," and which "really swell" means that sure it's a mess in certain respects but it's good at being one. It does what it does "really swell," to quote myself. Ray Kroc, the man with the plan, was super psyched about McDonald's, though, but don't take my word for it -- read his autobiography "Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonald's" by Kroc with Robert Anderson (whoever that is -- I mean, besides his ghost writer). Kroc speaks of his enthusiasm for the restaurant chain on practically every page and in glowing terms usually reserved for one's offspring. He found a surrogate family in McDonald's, realized as closely to his idea of perfection as a family could be. He'll have you questioning (to an extent) whether that's such a bad thing by the time you've finished his autobiography, too.

Ray Kroc's last name, Kroc, is fun to write I think, so you'll be seeing more of it than you'd normally see of other names, for example -- Kroc, Kroc, Krocitty, Kroc, Kroc, Kraroo.

Let me start this thing off by saying that Ray Kroc does not seem to be as bad as the image in my head of "Captains of Industry." And when I refer to "Captains of Industry," I'm thinking of the 19th century classics like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and George Pullman -- all of whom can be cited at one point or another for the callousness with which they treated their labor in pursuit of certain great ends. There is a cutthroat mentality that all these men share. Daniel Day Lewis' scheming oil tycoon Daniel Plainview of "There Will Be Blood" is an adequate embodiment of this dark side. He is the misanthropic shadow of their collective character and the indefatigable yearnings that defined it. And I think in that dark side there are similarities to be drawn between Kroc and the Captains of Industry.

These were men enamored by a fantastic vision of what the sum of their designs could equal, Kroc very much included. Kroc's biography is oddly candid in this way, including details that don't shy away from his great propensity to get what he wanted no matter the costs and those who'd get in the way be damned (Josh Ozersky writes in "The Hamburger" Kroc once said of his rivals, "If they were drowning, I'd put a hose in their mouth." Words I can imagine being spoken by Daniel Plainview, as well), and his penchant for heated outbursts directed against those who under his employ had in their own right failed to live up to his expectations. Kroc was the man with a vision. The McDonalds brothers revolutionized the food service industry, but Mr. Kroc was the one who made it salable to the American people and beyond, being in the right place at the right time (not far from an aspect of the thesis of Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers") and making full use of his years of accrued business experience, as Kroc himself says:
People have marveled at the fact that I didn't start McDonald's until I was fifty-two years old, and then I became a success overnight. But I was just like a lot of show business personalities who work away quietly at their craft for years, and then, suddenly, they get the right break and make it big. I was an overnight success all right, but thirty years is a long, long night.
Kroc seized the moment and history has rewarded him handsomely for it, but what has been the ultimate cost? Was Kroc's vision inevitable, and had he not been the one to carpe diem wouldn't someone else have? Certainly there were other models very relatable to McDonald's (I'm thinking Burger King, Big Boy, Jack in the Box and Burger Chef) that were coming into existence at essentially the same time. But McDonald's had the most invasive and sound business model, which prevented it from being absorbed by larger food distribution conglomerates, as was the fate of all the others. It's hard to say if anyone would have seized the opportunity quite as Ray Kroc had, with the noted financial wizardry of Harry Sonneborn, who is considered by many to be as essential to McDonald's growth and viability as Kroc had been.

Kroc championed the entrepreneurial spirit his system evoked, and the evidence of McDonald's success suggests this is very much the case, but the system as systems seem to inevitably promise has become ossified. It is a perversion of whatever noble free market dream had served as its impetus. Is it easy to sit and ridicule the McDonaldization of American and, concurrently, global culture, to lament its growing homogeneity? Yes, it is -- but I can't make myself comfortable with the fact that sameness predominates where local character once stood, and the disconcerting possibility that this combine might kill the creative spirit that, in some ways, begat it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

America Food: The Hamburger

Any semiotician can tell you, in America, a hamburger is not just a hamburger. And Josh Ozersky's The Hamburger: A History is full of gems and golden nuggets of hamburger-related info which provide testimony of exactly how true that statement is. For a variety of reasons I won't bother to get into, I've become an amateur hamburger-as-American-pop-cultural-icon historian in my own right. This isn't bragging, I swear. I'm just for those reasons I can't fully explain very fascinated by the subject and have culled a little knowledge of it as a result. So when I learned of The Hamburger, I of course giddily acquired and nerdily pored over it to its completion (only 130 pages, not very tough at all to get it read). Anyone looking for a good primer on the hamburger as an American pop culture mainstay and what it took to get there (and really who wouldn't be?), I politely encourage you to look no further than Ozersky's book.

Why? The Hamburger is edifying. How? In many ways -- for example, guided by Ozersky's central thesis, which to paraphrase is, the hamburger as we know it today is a uniquely American creation and over time has, both positively and negatively, come to emblematize the American way of life, one is led through a fascinating description of the nascency and evolution of the hamburger and, necessarily along with it, the hamburger stand. Thinking about the hamburger as an emblem of abundance, size, value, and multiple tiers of efficiency, to name but a few, Ozersky showcases through the hamburger's rise to prominence why it was and remains America's most ubiquitous sandwich.

He starts by providing some examples of the progenitors of the hamburger, citing a recipe in Hannah Glasse's Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (1763), which describes the proper way to prepare a Hamburg sausage, a meat that hardly resembles anything we'd today refer to as a hamburger. But still as Ozersky notes, "Glasse's recipe is the Australopithecus of the hamburger family, a barely recognizable progenitor, primitive and inauspicious, but the missing link nonetheless -- the earliest shared ancestor." The Hamburg steak grew from the 18th century sausage, and was served minced or scraped according to Ozersky. It was affordable and similar to meats already popular in densely populated port towns like Hamburg, where scores of immigrants and citizens often had no choice but to eat standing. In New York City, the more wieldy Hamburg steak made that task far easier. Ozersky also disputes the claim that Hamburg steak was a German import by arguing first with the precedent of Glasse's 18th century English recipe and that:
". . . obviously, people from Hamburg wouldn't call their own brand of minced beefsteak Hamburg steak any more than a coffee shop in Dallas serves Texas chili."
He then offers background of the provenance of White Castle and the role the chain played in paving the way for McDonald's and the many, many others that followed. The history of the hamburger from that point onward becomes inextricably linked to the rise of America's fast food culture.

For better or worse, the hamburger is America's most recognizable food export, our beefy, bready ambassador athwart the globe -- sorry, apple pie enthusiasts. We export the hamburger (and the hamburger industry) better than we do democracy. But why hamburgers? As Ozersky contends it is in part because there are no apple pie-focused (or for that matter any other comestible) fast food restaurants defining the American fast food-selling landscape. Ray Kroc, then, is very arguably the man most responsible for the massive explosion of fast food eateries and the McDonald's phenomenon's widespread popularity and duplication, and thus the rise of the hamburger as America's staple food. The hamburger has succeeded where other foods failed owing in large part to the fact that it's very portable and can be eaten on the go, unlike chicken and various barbecued meats commonly available at the drive-ins and hodge-podge of casual dining restaurants that predominated before the arrival of the fast food method -- invented by the McDonalds brothers in the early 1950s. Considering the revolutionary business model of the McDonalds brothers, it's also important to note that the hamburger is well suited to being prepared in large quantities very quickly. And the simple fact is that the hamburger does in most people's opinion taste very good. Combined, these basic facts have contributed pronouncedly to the hamburger's great fame, and all the controversy that was certain to come with it.

Ozersky's book is fun.