The Most Entertaining Chapters Of The Worst Chapters Of Human History

If you don't have or know children there's this cloying kids' show from the Jim Henson empire called Dinosaur Train which basically combines the top two things kids are obsessed with: dinosaurs and trains. It's about a group of animated dinosaurs that either work on or like to ride trains. It's about as crass as can be. The only thing worse would be if they took trains to other planets.

Similarly, Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad combines the best parts of slavery — graphic violence and psychological torment — with actual trains. It's like Ken Burns meets the Lionel-Industrial Complex. Here's hoping that Railroad is never taught to high schoolers, lest they starting thinking the Underground Railroad was a literal subway from Georgia to the North.

It's not that magical realism should be unwelcome when depicting brutal chapters of human history, but it can seem a little wrong. Once, back in the 1990s, I remember cheerfully asking an older colleague if she had seen the quirky, heartwarming Life Is Beautiful. "I didn't need to see it," she tersely answered. At the time, I hadn't realized she was a Holocaust survivor.

Of course you can argue that if you took the choo-choo parts out of Underground, it'd be a straight-up tale of an escaped slave. Sure, but then you start to think about why it's a piece of fiction in the first place. Which is why I think there's a reason 12 Years a Slave exists — same brutal imagery, but being an adaptation of a first-person account it's insulated from this criticism.

At this point I would like to take a minute to humbly announce that I have read Moby Dick — as an adult, in fact — and in proving so, note the similarity between the slavecatcher character in Railroad and Melville's iconic Ahab. In Dick the obsessive was tracking a whale. In Underground, a human. It's provocative. Also weird.

Speaking of ridiculously, unaccountably obvious statements to make, Whitehead has a habit of beating a point to death. Or at least underscoring it twenty times and referring back to it later on, just to make sure you realized it. Kind of like Scorsese's Rat. In Whitehead's case, the line "Look outside as you speed through, and you'll find the true face of America" — because they're in a darkened tunnel, get it? No seriously, do you get it?

Look, I know people are dim. I didn't really think about the line the first time I read it. But why not just let it be? Maybe if it comes up again, or someone smarter mentions it, or a TA blows minds with all manner deep cuts then it could be a nice little moment. Instead it becomes THE FUCKING BIG SYMBOLIC STATEMENT YOU NEED TO REMEMBER ABOUT THIS UNDERGROUND — NO, LITERALLY UNDERGROUND — TRAIN SYSTEM.

Which is sort of when you start to see Underground as a giant spec script or something. Because, after all, the only thing people love more than human misery is trains, and this thing could have a lot of legs, if only . . . oh wait.

And so when we read Railroad in book club, you know how many people this bothered? Exactly no one. Which goes to show, I suppose . . . but people, really? (I'm saying this to 12 really brilliant, interested readers . . .) No one? Not one of you thinks it's a little weird? And no one does.

So it's clearly just my own hangup. I'll get over it.

Posted: March 24th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: ,

Stoppard In Under 200 Words

I got ready to read Tom Stoppard's Arcadia thinking it was going to be a slog, but it was actually pretty entertaining. It's funny, for one — the opening scene between the tutor and the young woman sets the tone and pulls you in. It's also kind of poignant, what with the young woman set ablaze at the end. Even though it dives deep into random intellectual shit that so much Stoppard material tends to do, Arcadia feels like it has heart.

At some point you start to wonder who the audience is for Stoppard's work — who is this consumer who lives life in such proximity to the author's mental space? I want to meet this person, because as textured and multi-facted and intelligent as the milieus Stoppard creates may be, I only pick up on a fraction of whatever it's supposed to be about. At one point I may not have admitted as much, but life is too short to feign like you truly got the full meaning of The Coast of Utopia. All of which may explain Shakespeare In Love — maybe it's his diffusion brand or like Philippe Starck's Target line or something.

Posted: March 20th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: ,

Blood From A Stone, Or A Rock, Or A Rockefeller . . .

Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman unravels the mystery behind Michael Rockefeller's death in Dutch New Guinea in 1961. You might have heard in passing the story about the primitive art collector who was eaten by cannibals; I thought it sounded kind of halfway familiar, at least. This is that story.

Michael Rockefeller was just out of college with a plan to take a year or so off before whatever lucrative future awaited a Rockefeller when he decided to pursue his passion of collecting so-called primitive art in Dutch New Guinea — now that part of Indonesia on the same land mass as Papua New Guinea. Art had been a Rockefeller family passion, and, as it's portrayed in Harvest, this new focus on the art of so-called primitive ("primitive" appears so much that it starts to weigh on you) people fit into an avant-garde early 1960s movement — the idea being to place the folk art of primitive people without context in a modern art setting, allowing the viewer to experience it in a visceral way, unmoored from preconceived notions and cultural expectations. It's a cheerily idealistic view of human culture that also happens to be nauseatingly paternalistically outdated.

Savage paints Michael Rockefeller as emblematic of this archaic relationship between the West and whatever else. That in itself is a fascinating time capsule. The arrogance of parachuting into a far-flung so-called backwater (a lot of things become "so-called" in this kind of story) and flashing a lot of cash for sacred objects that are meant to be consumed in the most sterile manner possible in Midtown Manhattan almost makes you want to root for the cannibals.

To that point: Savage Harvest opens with the story of Rockefeller getting eaten by cannibals. The brief opening chapter is Rockefeller setting out to shore after his boat capsizes. The brief second chapter details the cannibalistic ritual itself, with specific people named spontaneously deciding to kill and eat Rockefeller after he washed ashore. The second chapter is grisly, gruesome and brilliant — jarring and upsetting and unforgettable.

It's an interesting rhetorical move, which sets up the story and tips off the ending. Much of Savage is about the cat-and-mouse game between the author and modern-day subjects, and Hoffman's quest in trying to pin down some specifics about Rockefeller's deather, for while it's assumed he was eaten, it was never proven, and the Rockefeller family (and Dutch and American governments) were apparently happy to assume he just drowned trying to make it back to shore. For most of the book Hoffman gets nowhere trying to confirm the headhunting story. He returns home at one point, then regroups and figures out a way to find out the truth. In short, the mistakes he made initially were the ones Rockefeller himself made: parachute in, ask a few questions, leave immediately. The final time he goes he spends a month living there and eventually surmises that, yes, it probably happened the way people assumed it happens.

There's a lot of first-person this or that in there: the entire structure of the book switches back and forth between his current research and telling of Rockefeller's story; it goes chapter by chapter, with dates at the headers. The lack of good research material drives this — interviews go nowhere, which Hoffman explains, which becomes part of the story. And the subtle ending — which is really, really subtle, because he doesn't really get anyone to confirm that anyone ate Rockefeller but kind of sort of does, which, between that and the forensic evidence (or lack thereof, as counterintuitive as that sounds) is basically convincing.

Now, eventually the question becomes, Who cares if Michael Rockefeller was eaten by cannibals? Fair enough. It's an old mystery, for one, which is not the worst reason to track down the truth. But to me, the negative space is what becomes compelling here. And by "negative space" I mean the reasons that no one wanted to figure out the truth inform the reason it became a mystery in the first place. Hoffman does a great job contextualizing the silence that persisted over the years. One, Michael Rockefeller was a very big deal — an American governor's son getting eaten by cannibals is a big deal, but son of a governor who also hails from like the richest family in the world (or some such) is a very big deal. At the same time, the Dutch government was in the middle of process of handing over Dutch New Guinea to Indonesia, and was keen on proving that they weren't just walking away without any supportive institutions. You can see why they'd want this quiet. The Rockefeller family itself seemed to want to conclude that Michael died by drowning. Then there's the American interest in keeping governments in the region away from the Soviets — and therefore wanted Indonesia to quickly see Dutch New Guinea see independence (with Indonesia). Every actor in the story — including of course the ones who ate Rockefeller — seems to have benefited from a cone of silence about this story. And so it was for years, until Hoffman kind of got sort of good proof that what people assumed happened actually happened.

In short, a blunt-force (literally, I guess) story that becomes subtly layered. Not totally satisfying an ending, but props to Hoffman for getting the ending he got, and feeling comfortable enough to go with that.

Posted: December 13th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: ,