Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Two Readers Project, Ch V

"Giving Blood" by John Updike

Instead of trying to talk about this entire story I thought I would pick out a few paragraphs and talk about those specifically.  The point is to isolate an effect--in this case the way Updike transforms going to a hospital to give blood into something mysterious and otherworldly.  (It's very much in keeping with what I think is one of the thematizing sentences in the story; "Romance is, simply, the strange, the untried.")
At the desk they were directed down a long corridor floored with cigar-colored linoleum. Up and down, right and left it went, in the secretive disjointed way peculiar to hospitals that have been built annex by annex. Richard felt like Hansel orphaned with Gretel; birds ate the bread crumbs behind them, and at last they timidly knocked on the witch’s door, which said BLOOD DONATION CENTER. A young man in white opened the door a crack. Over his shoulder Richard glimpsed—horrors!—a pair of dismembered female legs stripped of their shoes and laid parallel on a bed. Glints of needles and bottles pricked his eyes. Without widening the crack, the young man passed out to them two long forms. In sitting side by side on the waiting bench, spelling out their middle names and recalling their childhood diseases, Mr. and Mrs. Maple were newly defined to themselves. He fought down that urge to giggle and clown and lie that threatened him whenever he was asked—like a lawyer appointed by the court to plead a hopeless case—to present, as it were, his statistics to eternity. It seemed to mitigate his case slightly that a few of these statistics (present address, date of marriage) were shared by the hurt soul scratching beside him. He looked over her shoulder. “I never knew you had whooping cough”
“My mother says. I don’t remember it.”
A pan crashed to a distant floor. An elevator chuckled remotely. A woman, a middle aged woman top heavy with rouge and fur, stepped out of the blood door and wobbled a moment on legs that looked familiar. They had been restored to their shoes. The heels of those shoes clicked firmly as, having raked the Maples with a dazed, defiant glance, she turned and disappeared around a bend in the corridor. The young man appeared in the doorway holding a pair of surgical tongs. His noticeably recent haricut made him seem an apprentice barber. He clicked his tongs and smiled. “Shall I do you together?”
We're going here to give blood but we're also entering into a kind of strange almost phantasmagoric forest.  It contains a witch, whose door says BLOOD DONATION CENTER.  In it, there are dismembered legs, and medieval barbers with tongs who offer to 'do you together.' Elevators are alive (or at least alive enough to "chuckle") and "glints of needles and bottles" prick our eyes.  (What a great, great sentence) like deadly weapons.  If romance is, as the narrator asserts, simply the strange and untried then this experience is undoubtedly romantic.  It's romantic in the strict sense, the one given by the narrator, and it's romantic in they way probably most of us define it; it leads to romance, to the birth (or rebirth) of love.  After they've made their journey into this strange forest, the Maples emerge newly joined.  Their fragile relationship is at least momentarily healed.    ("Hey, I love you.  Love love love you." Richard says as they leave the hospital).    

The prose of course is beautiful but it's subjected to an organizing idea; without that larger structure, the individual sentences would never pop the way they'd do.  

For more on Updike's basic thesis--check out this post, and the accompanying article.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

This New Video Magic

I really dig this, both for the song (by Fleet Foxes) and the video itself. Yesterday I was talking to a student about the true definition of the word "marvelous." (It means "having to do with herring.") I think this is a pretty excellent example.

Mykonos from Grandchildren on Vimeo.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


I am going to see Confessions of A Shopaholic.  This is because I love my wife.

Will I still love her when the day is over?  That remains to be seen.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Poker Challenge

This is big news in the poker world.  Young online phenom Tom Dwan has challenged all comers to play him heads-up, at least four tables at a time, for a minimum of 200/400 blinds.  They must play at least 50,000 hands.  If Dwan loses money, he has promised to pay his opponent 1.5 million dollars (on top of whatever he's already lost).  If Dwan wins, he gets 500,000$ from his opponent.

Patrik Antonius and Phil Ivey have already accepted. 

Should be interesting.  For those of you who have real lives and jobs, 50,000 hands is a massive massive amount--even four-tabling.  It should take months.  Given those stakes, someone could lose 3 million easy, independent of the side action.

You can read a long debate about it(and some clarifications) here.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Two Readers Project, IV

"Labor Day" by Alice Munro.


First off, I’m glad you chose Alice Munro; it’s given me a chance to reassess her work. As of course you know, Munro is a writer admired by all--or nearly all.  I’ve read most of the Selected Stories before, but for whatever reason they've never much excited me.  Maybe it’s the subject matter or maybe it’s the general emotional terroir from which they spring.  Maybe it’s a failure of imagination on my part.   

I won’t say rereading “Labor Day” has radically changed my view of Munro, but it has given me a new respect for her writing.  I admit it; she does a lot well.  Here are some passages or moments that I particularly admire....
  • The first sentence: “Just before six o’clock in the evening, George and Roberta and Angela and Eva get out of George’s pickup truck—he traded his car for a pickup when moved to the country—and walk across Valerie’s front yard, under the shade of two aloof and splendid elm trees that have been expensively preserved.”  I LOVE 'aloof.'  It's perfect.   It’s also an unusual word to use to describe a tree.  Its strangeness doesn’t manifest itself immediately because it’s buried so deep within the sentence. I think it ends up being a key word in the story—a thematizing word, as it were.
  • The present tense makes it seem like something reported, as opposed to told.  Probably the present tense always does something like this but it seemed especially noticeable here.  
  • “The four people are costumed in a way that would suggest they were going to different dinner parties.” Again: aloofness,  separation. “Costumed” is excellent; it gives the sense that while these people are taking part in something they haven’t completely surrendered to it. The whole dinner is a kind of performance. Roberta acts the part of a caring girlfriend, the daughters act the part of loving daughters, George acts the part of a dutiful husband. Underneath, they all fear; they all have reservations, doubts. But for tonight, the performances goes on.
  • More on costuming: Roberta…”herself has given up wearing long skirts and caftans because of what (George) has said about disliking the sight of women trailing around in such garments, which announce to him, he says, not only a woman’s intention of doing no serious work but her persistent wish to be admired and courted. This is a wish George has no patience with and has spent some energy, throughout his adult life, in thwarting.” I love the rhythm of that last sentence; the appositive “throughout his adult life” is masterful.
  • I was unpleasantly surprised by the transition, midway though, to George’s thoughts.  (“George is enjoying the scything.”) Munro has done so much to make us dislike him at that point, that going inside his mind felt like it be hugely unappealing.  But, of course, Munro is better than that.  Instead of giving us more cruelty and aloofness, she presents a view of the Roberta/George relationship.  Suddenly, he becomes sympathetic.  He feels underappreciated; she doesn’t help out around the house; she doesn’t work. She doesn’t seem happy and he takes her unhappiness personally. It’s a perfect interlude and it makes the story far more interesting.
  • George starts scything as soon as they reach the party. I wonder if this is intended to evoke Levin, from Anna K.  Munro wears a deep erudition very lightly; it’s not too big a stretch to imagine she did this deliberately.
  • Another intertextual clue: Roberta’s linked to The Tale of Genji. I wonder how much more I would understand about her character, if I’d read that book.
  • What do you make of the discussion between Valerie and Roberta that begins…”this is a bad time for you….”? (“I doubt if things happen so symmetrically."/“I don’t think so either, really. I don’t think you get your punishment in such a simple way. Isn’t it funny how you’re attracted—I am—to the idea of a pattern like that? I mean, the idea is attractive, of there being that balance. But not the experience. I’d like to avoid them. “you forget how happy you are when you’re happy.“And vice versa. It’s like childbirth.”   I don’t think I really understand it.   And yet I sense that it is somehow crucial.
And this takes me to my final question—a question with which I’m often visited, arriving at the end of a Munro story: What the hell just happened? I don’t mean that glibly (well, a little), but what was that story about? What does the final image portend? (“The shaggy branches of the pine trees are moving overhead, and under those branches the moonlight comes clear on the hesitant grass of their new lawn”)

Actually, transcribing that sentence about the moonlight (which reminds me, oddly, of Hemingway) has given me an idea. Consider the adjective Munro uses here to describe the grass—“hesitant.” What does that remind us of? I’ll tell you what it reminds me of; the trees, at the start. It must be deliberate. We’ve gone from trees which are “aloof” to grass which is “hesitant.” Is that the transformation that the story has described? Both are thematizing words, I think; both personalize the inanimate.

I know, reading Munro, that beneath the seemingly arbitrary happenings her stories describe exists a profound internal coherence. The coherence is never immediately apparent. (If it were, it wouldn’t be profound). But we intuit it, just as someone who has no experience with classical music can nevertheless intuit some abiding structure beneath the seemingly superficial melodic dalliances of a Mozart concerto. And that’s, I think, is the mark of a great craftsman—the ability to reconcile order and chaos. The first gives us hope. The second gives us truth.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Favorite Poem

I've been reading quite a bit more poetry of late. This is one of my old favorites.  I think it's Byron's best.

So We'll Go No More A Roving

So, we'll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.