Or yes, it is possible to have a PhD in American Literature, to have “actually read” Gatsby, and to be completely supportive of Jay-Z’s masterful new soundtrack.
Note: NPR has taken down the livestream of the Gatsby soundtrack, since the soundtrack was released for purchase today.
I have spent the past two days in an ecstatic swoon, listening to the new soundtrack for The Great Gatsby over and over again. Haven’t heard it yet? NPR is streaming it on First Listen, giving the English majors of the world something to do with their media-time until the film FINALLY comes out this Friday. My love for the soundtrack is not surprising; when the first trailer came out last year, I was elated by its pairing of hip-hop and Prohibition-era glamor. I got that thrill – the one we go to the movies to get – when the trailer opened with shots of fast, glamorous cars careening to Jay-Z and Kanye’s menacing, pounding “No Church in the Wild.”
But not everyone has shared my enthusiasm. And as professional writers and passionate individuals alike began responding to the soundtrack and to early viewings of the film, I picked up on a pattern: to dismiss Luhrmann’s glossy, glittery remake and Jay-Z’s equally sequined soundtrack as somehow “inauthentic” to the original Gatsby – or, more subtly, as missing the novel’s entire point, reproducing the very American Dream that Gatsby was intended to critique (as we all dutifully learned in our high school English classes).
Now. I don’t do this very often. But. As someone with a PhD in American literature, I feel like I have some professional clout behind my own reflections on whether a hip-hop, cinematic orgy of a film can be considered “authentic” or “faithful” to an American modernist novel. And as someone with a developing love of contemporary popular music in general, and 21st century hip-hop in particular, I think I can talk about Jay-Z’s involvement in the project without the kinds of knee-jerk reactions I was noticing all over the comments sections of The New York Times and NPR – comments that were basically the equivalent of “You kids with your hip hop music! Get off my American literature! Now Maud, turn that NPR jazz hour back on!” But for once, I’m going to flaunt the professional clout. Because if I see one more Facebook post snidely asking if “anyone who liked the soundtrack had actually even read the whole book,” I am going to go all George Wilson on their asses. So. I’m not saying that Baz Luhrmann’s and Jay-Z’s take on Gatsby is THE right one, but I think it is A right one. And I want to explain why a trained literary professional can totally get behind this fusion of hip-hop with The Jazz Age.
The books we love tell a lot about us, particularly the ones read multiple times. And not because it shows you’re “old fashioned” or “feminist” but because if you can understand why a book gets to you so deeply that you’ll return to it again and again you’ll understand something about yourself. For example, it’s objectively true that Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House is a great book. But I read it for my connection with the titular professor, a character for whom I have empathy and criticism in equal measure. The fact that I read for the professor (and have little emotional interest in Tom Outland) reveals something about me—whether a truth of personality or a whisper of something I strive to understand.
I recently re-read one of my favorite childhood books, a novel that I read so many times its edges are grey and rumpled and the cover finally fell off. This time, however, I found it painfully wanting. Yet it also provided a telescope down the rabbit hole to my childhood self. I see why I liked it then and it has nothing to do with it being objectively good.
The book in question is Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, easily the least of the four novels about the Murray children (the others being A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet). Many Waters focuses on the “normal” twins between the eldest daughter, Meg, and the youngest son, Charles Wallace. Sandy and Dennys Murray lack the genius as well as the awkwardness of their sibling but they nevertheless get their own adventure. In sum, they accidentally mess with one of their father’s space-time experiments and blast themselves to the time of Noah mere months before the flood that will destroy the known world.
The ancient world L’Engle creates is fascinating. All the people are small with the exception of the mysterious nephilim (fallen angels) and beatific seraphim (angels on earth), each of whom can transform from its beauteous, be-winged humanoid form to a unique animal host. Sandy and Dennys jointly fall in love with Noah’s youngest daughter, a beautiful, virtuous girl named Yalith who falls in love with both of them. Yalith, of course, is not part of the official story, nor is she meant to board the Ark that “El” has ordered Noah to build. What is this odd, religiousy threesome to do?
L’Engle’s solution has Yalith being taken into the “Presence” by one of the seraphim, just as her grandfather Enoch who walked with El and then was no more. Pretty it up with mysticism all one wants, Yalith essentially dies. The twins get home using a combination of seraphim and virtual unicorns and the rains come.
As an adult, I see this as L’Engle’s most conservative novel. In her other Murray books she counters the anti-scientific streak in American Christianity (which has only grown more virulent since she wrote the books) while also insisting on an essential battle between darkness and light, evil and good in the universe. I would call the other three required reading for all Christian children and nearly-required reading for non-Christian children, particularly A Wrinkle in Time. (A claim I cannot make with a fully clear conscious for other series on both sides of the spectrum, on the one hand, Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, on the other, Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy.) Many Waters, however, puts L’Engle into ambiguous territory that she can’t write her way out of easily, particularly in a children’s book. It insists that El is good and highlights the virtue of Noah’s immediate family so it cannot or won’t account for the cruelty of wiping out everyone, including Yalith. It’s her least scientific novel, in part because it wants to vitalize a myth. And for a woman with a host of fantastic female characters under her belt, L’Engle peoples this book with women who are caricatures of virtue or vice.
So why did I love it so much as a child? Despite my current dislike, what insight did it bring me that merits this much thought? As a child I was sentimental, spiritual, and imaginative—always longing for transcendent experience. Yet I was also a mini-intellectual, enjoying to think about things, and somewhat inherently personally conservative, enjoying classic plots about princesses and love and Big Truths. (I’m still this way with my imagination; it’s why I’m such a lousy fiction writer.) Many Waters brought to life a story I was raised to believe was historically true, it seemed intensely romantic to my child self, and yet it didn’t flinch from the hardness of a Big Truth (Big Truths, like virtual unicorns, tending to exist in various ways at the same time). It’s little wonder that this somewhat ridiculous novel touched a nerve in me and that I read it and read it and read it again.
Sometimes one re-reads a book, from childhood or otherwise, and discovers something even more magnificent than one remembers. Time and experience bring a new way of understanding the work and you find that it has grown richer. (This happened to me in another recent re-read, To Kill a Mockingbird, which I did not really “get” as a child but fell in love with on re-reading.) I think my days of re-reading Many Waters are now officially over. But I’m still glad I went inside its world one more time. Not because I enjoyed spending more time with the (let’s face it) terribly boring Sandy and Dennys but because I got to spend a bit of time with the child that used to be me.
Irrational Games’ latest opus, Bioshock Infinite, was released last week, to universal acclaim. Creative director Ken Levine has been making the kind of upscale promotional rounds usually frequented by novelists or filmmakers—rare air for someone who has just made an ultraviolent first person shooter, the most reviled (and most lucrative) subgenre of the most debased popular art form. Like other games of its type, the new Bioshock features plenty of gunplay and gruesome melee finishers; unlike other games in any genre, Infinite’s storytelling, setting and themes explore the most troubling aspects of American history, providing a fairly scathing commentary on the interplay of American exceptionalism, racism, religion and labor exploitation. What really struck me is the way that the game evokes—in its narrative and mechanics—two very different responses to historical guilt, responses which make the game’s politics both fascinating and contemporary.
WARNING: massive spoilers below, including major plot twists and ending!
Note: This post contains adult-themed videos probably in the PG-13 range. Potentially NSFW and watch at your own risk/desire.
On the surface, a show about a sexist, moronic super-spy with zero self-reflection and serious mommy issues might not seem like a candidate for any kind of progressive title. But bear with me. Sure, ISIS agent Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) consistently makes racist, sexist, ageist, and homophobic comments (as do many others among the cast of characters). He’ll also blow his cover faster than you can say “martini” if he thinks being a “spy” will appeal to whichever woman (or women) he’s hitting on. The show is rife with Archer’s horror at any mention of his mother, Mallory Archer and ISIS head (Jessica Walter), having sex. And all the characters consistently grimace at the sexual exploits of overweight Pam (Amber Nash) and the strangulation fetish of Cheryl/Carol (Judy Greer).
Yet I still maintain that Archer may be the most progressive show on television regarding women’s sexuality.
Because despite the distaste expressed by the characters over their colleagues’ sexual predilections, the women in question ignore this kind of slut shaming and do what they want. Cheryl finds men (or machines) who can strangle her…just…right… Pam sleeps with, well, basically everybody; furthermore, her lovers unequivocally desire her OR only sleep with her when drunk but then keep coming back for more. And Mallory, a former super-spy herself, is still a stone fox who sleeps with everyone from the head of the KGB to Bert Reynolds.
Further, the animation frequently shows its characters in various states of undress or carefully concealed nudity. Mallory and Cheryl are represented as conventionally beautiful—even Mallory with her wrinkles. Archer’s counterpart and former fiancé, Lana (Aisha Taylor), is the most aggressively attractive of the female cast, with her long legs and giant breasts, and yet the show mocks her cartoonishly superhero figure with jokes about her “man hands.”
One’s reaction to nude Pam probably depends on one’s reaction to overweight women in general. Yet while the show gets laughs out of the characters’ comments about Pam’s weight (as well as her drinking, lack of sophistication, and lesbian tendencies), the animators don’t play Pam’s nudity for laughs. It just is, and a fairly accurate presentation as well. The situation might be funny, as well as the characters’ reactions to it (including reactions to Pam’s sexual activity and size), but her figure itself is not part of the joke.
Last, returning to Lana. She is one of the show’s most likable characters, one of the few who can give back Archer a piece of his own and who can actually get under his forever-adolescent emotional skin. They are the fated couple at the heart of the series. It’s also very refreshing to see an African American woman in such a prominent and powerful role. However, out of the female characters, Lana has the most standard role and the most standard sex life—infrequent, paved with jerks and losers, perpetually overshadowed by her ex (equally objectified by the animators, I might add). Thus, Archer further overturns expectations for women’s sexuality by offsetting the stereotypical aspects of Lana’s love-life against the unabashed antics of her lady-peers. Pretty impressive representin’ from a spy series merged with an office comedy.
What say you? Do you agree or disagree? Any other contenders for this title?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice never gets old. My ninth-grade copy of the book is so dog-eared by now that it’s practically a basset hound, and I’ve rarely met a film version of the story that I didn’t like. So when I learned about a web series called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I knew I had to check it out.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has everything you’d hope for in a modern-day Pride and Prejudice adaptation. Lizzie is a smart, sarcastic 24-year-old grad student in mass communications who’s living at home, along with her sisters Jane, an underpaid fashion assistant, and Lydia, a college student and full-time party girl. With the help of her cradle-to-grave pal Charlotte Lu, Lizzie starts making video diaries as a class project—just as a certain rich, handsome med student named Bing Lee moves in next door.
The series finds plenty of parallels between Jane Austen’s gossip-obsessed English society and the digital age, and between the vicious economics of entailments and the rocky financial climate of the present. Jane’s defaulted on her student loans; the Bennets worry they’ll lose their home. As Lizzie points out, there’s a reason all three adult children are still living with their parents—and why the never-seen Mrs. Bennet (role-played by Lizzie as an overwrought southern belle who’s accidentally stumbled into suburban California) is so anachronistically obsessed with ensuring that her daughters marry well.
But the thing that’s most noteworthy about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries isn’t its new-media savvy and socioeconomic commentary. Nor is it the series’ excellent and diverse cast (Bing, Charlotte, and Bing’s sister Caroline are all Asian-American) or the crackling chemistry between Lizzie and Darcy, a snobby, stiff-as-a-board tech company executive with—who would’ve guessed?—a secret heart of gold. The most important thing about the series is its reclamation of a certain irrepressible redhead by the name of Lydia Bennet.
In Austen’s novel, and in most adaptations, Lydia is an entertaining but unredeemable character. She learns nothing from her mistakes, and she’s as superficial and oblivious as her mother—too caught up in charm, money, and good looks to be able to distinguish right from wrong or good people from bad. And then there’s the matter of Lydia’s “natural self-consequence”: “self-willed and careless,” she refuses to listen to her sisters and other women who try to get her to change her reckless behavior.
So when Lydia runs off with dastardly Wickham with no aim of getting him to put a ring on it, we’re meant to be worried about what it will do to Lizzie and Jane’s reputations—but not much concerned for the welfare of Lydia herself. Austen had little sympathy for characters lacking in common sense and self-awareness, and anyway Lydia’s too thick-headed to feel pangs of regret.
The concept of slut-shaming didn’t exist back in Austen’s day, since it was basically automatic. What else were you going to do with a young woman who refused to bow to societal conventions? But reading the book today, it’s clear that Lydia is an asteroid racing through the novel’s moral universe. A woman lacking in decency and virtue will cause destruction wherever she lands; the best you can hope for is to minimize the damage. Continue reading
Pretty Little Liars Recap Times Two: Season 3, Episodes 20 (“Hot Water”) and 21 (“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”)4 Mar
Things literally heAted up on Pretty Little Liars last week: Spencer got steamed in the shower (that looked awful!) but also got steamy with Wren; Fitz is back and baby drama is definitely afoot; Emily and Paige had a heart to heart; and Ashley was tormented by Wilden. Importantly too, Spencer has risen from her dark phoenix phase and is back (I think) with a smart-as-a-whip vengeance. Then this week, Toby mAybe is dead and Spencer is heartbroken; Aria is not ready to be a parent; and Emily was badass. But until then, here are our thoughts on this week’s PLL revelations.
Last week, Spencer was back! But now, after finding Toby’s dead body in the woods, Spencer is a mess–and institutionalized at Radley. Discuss.
Phoebe B: I was so excited last week to see Spencer back and on fire. But then, the scary steamy shower and her confession to the PLLs about Toby (why doesn’t Emily believe her??) and the downward spiral begins again. It was so sad to see her break down and then be picked up in the morning by the park rangers, and that last scene of her sitting in the bed staring off into space. I wonder if the nurse’s feet we saw were the lady in red/A-leader? Also, do you think just maybe that Spencer is faking it to get close to the truth? I really hope this is all part of her big plan (even though I would quite surprised I suppose if that was indeed the case).
Sarah T: I do think it’s possible that Spencer is faking–perhaps as a way to lure in Mona–but I think she’s probably grieving too much to be plotting simultaneously.
Detective Wilden is Rosewood’s number 1 creep and this week he had it out for Hanna and Ashley. What do you make of his encounters with the Marin ladies? And where did he go after Ashley ran him over?
Phoebe B: He is! But I do think he is perhaps dead in the woods OR potentially in the car. I thought he was horrible to Hanna and Ashley, but I thought it was good that there was proof he was threatening both the Marin ladies (ie the video feed in his car). I think two things are possible post-accident … one, that his body is in fact the one Spencer found in the woods (thinking it was Toby), or two, his body was in the car that Hanna and Aria pushed into the lake (I feel distinctly that pushing the car in was a very bad idea).
Sarah T: Hahahaha don’t you think pushing the police car into the lake was totally the large-scale version of Hanna and her mom’s general approach to problem-solving? Small incriminating evidence they throw in sinks and blenders, large ones they push into bodies of water. Also sometimes embezzled money goes in lasagna boxes. A place for everything and everything in its place. MARINS I LOVE YOU. But yes, I do think that Wilden is probably dead and either taking Toby’s posthumous place or in the trunk of the police car. My money’s on the former, because I don’t think Toby’s really a goner.
Also, I’m confused by the video in the police car. It totally exonerates Ashley, right? You can hear Wilden threatening Hanna and see him getting rough with her. You can’t see him pull the gun, but it’s pretty clear he is not acting in official above-board cop capacity. This makes me think she’s going to trial but that she’ll be cleared by the video down the line. Continue reading
Well, if you’re alive in the blogosphere or if you live near a television, at this point you probably know that Jennifer Lawrence took home the 2013 Best Actress Oscar for her recent role as the depressed widow Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook. And if you know me, you’re probably not surprised to hear that I love Jennifer Lawrence ferociously. I thought she was amazingly tough in Winter’s Bone and that she was perfectly steely in Hunger Games. I have loved her even more since reading her recent Vanity Fair interview where, despite the super-sexy photographs that accompany the article, she comes across as entirely human: a little goofy and awkward and just on the border of appropriate. And now, I love her beyond belief for biffing it on the stairs at the Oscars, and then beaming anyway. I love how her flustered acceptance speech feels so true to my experience: when the good things that you’ve always wanted happen to you, sometimes you just fall over in shock and forget how to be graceful. I love her hilarious post-win interview, where she destroys our cultural dream of actresses as poised princesses: they’re clumsy and flustered – they trip and curse. They aren’t decked out by fairy godmothers and gilded in dreams: they take a shower, take a shot, and take a fall, even when they’re on top of the world. In other words, her victorious Oscar persona has much in common with Tiffany, even though Lawrence is wearing Dior and Tiffany’s usually in sweaty spandex and sneakers: Lawrence in real life and Tiffany as a character both suggest that the most beautiful things come with some assembly required – come full of cracks and pockmarks, flaws, imperfections, pain, embarrassment, struggle. And that all that imperfection doesn’t have to be something we hide in order to find beauty, experience love, or build a better life.
Liz Stephens needed to get out of Los Angeles so she packed up her husband and her dogs and moved to…Wellsville, UT. She moved ostensibly for grad school but found she learned as much from diving into local history, her Mormon neighbors, the animals she raised and gave away and the ones who died, as she learned in books and classes. In her lovely, meditative memoir, The Days Are Gods, Stephens tells about white teenagers dressed up as Indians, a French kid who spends his summer on a Dude Ranch, surprise goats, and discovering how going to a non-trivially alien place helped her discover (or become or transition or whatever) into her adult self.
Stephens received her PhD in creative nonfiction from Ohio University. Her work has been featured in Brevity, South Dakota Review, Western American Literature, and Fourth Genre. She received the Western Literature Association’s Frederick Manfred Award and was a finalist for the Annie Dillard Creative Nonfiction Award. She’s equally talented at making a cup of earl grey tea and a mean mint julep. She will stop to ogle or coo over any animal in the vicinity, especially dogs. She can parallel park like a boss.
You can buy The Days Are Gods from University of Nebraska Press or from Amazon. You can also find out more about Liz Stephens and her work on her website, thedaysaregods.com. After you finish reading this interview and buy her book, be sure to read her devastating essay “Ten Years I’ll Never Get Back.”
SS: Okay, let’s just start out with a big one: At one point you write about the sight of a grey barn on a mountainside: “I’ve seen that movie, the one with the barn in the mountains. I’ve read that book, the one with the treacherous winter. And now I am really there.” Now that you’ve lived in Utah and returned for visits, spent 4+ years in Ohio, and returned to Los Angeles (not to mention written and re-written this book), is there an essentiality to “the West” or is it—always and forever—artifice? Or narrative? Or dream?
LS: I think the West is like a celebrity who when interviewed says, “You know, there’s me, and then there’s capital letter Brad Pitt”—or whoever—the distinction of course being that from inside one experience you know a thing, and then culturally there is this mystical entity fed by a whole culture’s desires. Cultural values I wanted to attribute to the West exclusively were demonstrably true of Ohio as well: tractor derbies are good fun, and you should keep your business at the local feed shop or they will close and you will be screwed some day in the future when you need them. Neighbors are, like fences, worth investing time in. Being a college professor living in the country is not the same as being a grounds keeper at the campus and driving in to work, and none of you are going to be able to pretend it is. It’s a wise idea, that you suggest in your own question that the West may be a narrative. It is. If you tell your life in a big epic way, those are the features you feature in your surroundings, no matter who you are or your line of work. If you keep stories small and close to the home, you value that in your narrative of your own life. You describe your region in which that life plays out accordingly. Sometimes the West is simply the line of box stores you are most familiar with, with a really long snowy season.
People have a lot of thoughts about Beyoncé’s Superbowl outfit.
A Huffington Post headline screamed, “Beyoncé Goes XXX at the Superbowl Halftime Show.” Conservative corners of the blogosphere fretted that Beyoncé was too sexy for the Superbowl, as well as, presumably, her car (too sexy by far). Meanwhile, some feminists and cultural critics–including people whose opinions I respect very much–expressed disappointment with the way Beyoncé’s wardrobe catered to the objectifying male gaze.
I’m not surprised that conservatives dredged up beef with Beyoncé. If the goal is for all female musicians to act and dress like pretty pretty wholesome-family-values princesses, obviously lots of them are going to fall short. (Although Beyoncé really is remarkably apple-a-day wholesome: Besides being one of the most successful performers alive, she’s a devoted wife and mother, friend to the Obamas, and ready to fight childhood obesity with the power of the Dougie.)
Reactions on the other side of the ideological fence, however, took me aback. It’s not that I disagree that part of the point of Beyoncé’s outfit—a leather bodysuit with lace accents, fishnets, and knee-high boots—was to emphasize her sexual allure. But her costume didn’t strike me as anything out of the ordinary for a pop star. Nor did her dancing seem particularly risqué. Because she is Beyoncé, she obviously looked like a blazing blinding goddess of beauty, but beyond that her appearance seemed like nothing to write home about. She definitely didn’t look XXX to me.
Partly, I’m sure, this is because I’m immersed in a culture that objectifies women all the time. My sensitivities on this issue are probably dulled. But I also didn’t spend much time thinking about Beyoncé’s outfit because I was too busy cheering for her awesome lady guitar player, and for the reunion of Destiny’s Child, and for her all-women-of-color band–a first in Superbowl history. And now that I have devoted more time to contemplating Beyoncé’s Superbowl outfit, the main thing I’ve concluded is that it’s counterproductive to spend time worrying about what other women ought to wear. Continue reading