Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Review: Lucking Out, My Life Getting Down and Semi-dirty in Seventies New York

Upon first glance at the title and subject of my book review you might wonder to yourself, dear reader, "why is Mitch going to talk yet again about the 1970s?! Just what we need: another book on the 1970."

Yet my review of James Wolcott's memoir of being a writer for various publications in the 70s, chief among them, Village Voice is going to be an elaborate foray into what I have really been discussing all along in my blog and its motley installations: style and tone. The content and the topic of Mr Wolcott's book may involve the 1970s, but I am going to do a close reading of it as an aesthetic object, as if it were written at (almost) any time. That is, I am going to review it as a piece of writing. This is something that is rarely done since we don't get book reviews that much these days; instead we get something like reviews of an author's attitudes towards this or that issue of the moment, and to what social needs to which the book may or may not be a sufficient response. Here I offer an alternative. As I proceed we will learn a lot indeed about the times in which we have been living along the way, but we will also learn about certain problems in writing more generally over the past thirty or forty years.

The plot of this memoir needs to be summarized so that we may better get into the manner which is the matter of the thing. A young man of humble origins, partially on account of a fan letter written in defense of Norman Mailer to which Mailer responds finds himself in the New York city of the 1970s and manages, through work at the craft of writing, perseverance and the gift of an outsider stance, to work his way to the top of the world of journalism. He travels through various worlds of the 70s: the worlds of punk, and the cinema, the latter where Wolcott finds his hero and mentor in the person of Pauline Kael and to which Wolcott owes something of an aesthetic position.

It is my aim to prove in this review that prose style and even syntax is more important than subject matter in determining the real meaning of a written text.

One of the chief rhetorical moves of Wolcott is to offer dense reductionist and summarized typologies of what he observes. Every potential sensation, mood or emotion is turned into a type or specimen with the help of particular jazzy cultural allusions. Of course Wolcott is heavily indebted to Pauline Kael, The New Yorker film critic who all but invented this stylistic mode. In Kael it consisted of exaggerated caricatures of, say, actor's physiques or mannerisms, or chatty and vernacular celebrations of the popular i.e. "What's so wrong with entertainment? Would they rather have punishment?" Or when she complained that because a character played by Marcello Mastroianni wasn't aroused by having Sophia Loren in bed with him that he and the film were not worth the audience caring about, arguing from both utility (entertainment again) and a rather literal sense of "reality". (The best criticism of this aspect of Kael's writing remains Renata Adler's "The Perils Of Pauline.")

Wolcott follows Kael in seeing in criticism the opportunity for seizing upon some kind of catchy expression or phrase that reduces the meaning of what is being written about to an essence or a type. A favorite device of Wolcott's is the catchy noun phrase that aims to capture something definitive that he seems to hope the reader will be in on the joke or essence. For example he will write that a person is one of the "mole people" without describing who or what that is, or what bearing it has on the writer's work. In one instance he mentions the important actor/writer/director Tom Noonan, known commercially as playing Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter, but whose high artistic achievements include two very good films, What Happened Was and The Wife. Yet the only mention Wolcott can muster of Noonan is Noonan's "eggplant head".

I shall choose one lengthy passage to stand for the entire book. Here is Wolcott describing an ostensible backlash against the sensibility of Anais Nin and introducing a writer/colleague at the Voice:

"But in 1973 the backlash against Nin's queenly deportment-the narcissism slathered like moisturizing lotion across thousands of pages-had yet to commence, and she swanned through the village like the last dollop of dyed splendor in a Sidney Lumet world of screeching tires and clogged sinuses. Donald Barthleme once dropped by at the front desk, a confabulator whose stories in The New Yorker, were whirring devices constructed from from exquisite diagrams with sadness peeking from the corners, leaving residue. Jill Johnston, the dance writer turned Joycean stream-of-consciousness riding-the-rapids diarist, would wait for someone to open the back stairs (she was phobic about elevators), occasionally plucking a seashell from her denim vest to leave on the counter as a souvenir. I always liked Jill's entrances because she seemed to bring a playful breeze with her, a sense of salutation that was like a greeting from a grasshopper, owing no allegiance to the daily grind. Voice writers talked a good game of being uninhibited, but for them it was more of a policy statement, a plank in the countercultural platform. She was more performative. It was Jill who would roll on the floor with a lesbian pal at the Town Hall debate on feminism starring Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer, an antic that provoked Mailer to snap, 'Jill, act like a lady.'

To use a word Wolcott would surely love (and must be in his memoir somewhere), let us "unpack" this passage. First there is the casual, even cruel dismissal of Nin. Not only does he never demonstrate, that is, prove why Nin is second rate, he applies a psychoanalytic category to her person and, by implication, her art: "narcissistic". Why is Nin's particular memoir work narcissistic and Wolcott's trustworthy? And finally, there is his need to always look to the context at the expense of the text (a reigning habit of our particular critical moment): Nin was once fashionable, but now or shortly thereafter people caught onto her or saw through her, or else she simply became dated. Then there is the clever cultural allusion, insuring or trusting that his readers know the reference - New York city genre cinema of Lumet and 1970s, Dog Day Afternoon in particular. The problem here, though, is it assumes that what matters most in Lumet's work are isolated sensory effects like a screeching tire. (He never explains what the clogged sinus stands for). This reduction of Lumet's oeuvre to such sensual and sensory texture is a deep mistreading of Lumet's work. Sidney Lumet is not, say, Robert Bresson. In Bresson it is the case where such effects are often the point and the engine of meaning. Lumet is far more traditional in his narrative than is captured by such an inventory of effects.

Wolcott's description of Barthleme does nothing to help our understanding of the latter's fiction. As usual the author is typed: he is "the confabulator", as if Barthleme were a genre. (In Wolcott's mode of criticism everything is a genre of one kind or another). Again: what is a "whirring device?"

And finally there is Johnston's entrance. She becomes her entrance. Neither Johnston the woman nor Johnston the critic is ever addressed. What is important about her is her dramatic entrance. Saying that she owes "no allegiance to the daily grind" substitutes vernacular catch phrases for real analysis. I would say that when Wolcott finally gets to something of genuine meaning and value - to issues of 70s Feminism, and Norman Mailer's feuds - he never tells us what to think of them, or analyzes them too deeply. All he notes is that they happened and many of us old enough already know of them. Surely we should get more than this list and the usual anecdotes about Mailer's "colorful" sexism.

This paragraph is a view of the world, a view both of what matters in life and what reality is. This is what styles do. This is why styles are not superficial settings for the more important content. None of what I am discussing has anything to do with the plot i.e. the story of Wolcott meeting colorful characters like Jill Johnston. It is all in the telling.

I must admit a bias here since Wolcott and I are in opposing camps. (This is curious since I share many similar enthusiasms as him, notably the New York City Ballet of Balanchine, Farrell and Martin.) Wolcott makes clear his rejection of the overtly serious rigor of Susan Sontag. I admit I am in part of Sontag's party. It was Susan Sontag, after all, who, rather than writing praises of Brian DePalma as did Kael, championed some of the greatest of filmmakers when they were underappreciated like Ozu and Bresson, championed often neglected Eastern European writers, and wrote definitive essays on matters in art over which we are still debating today. If you were to ask me the one area in which I agree or am sympathetic to Kael it is in her strong defense of the need for violence in the arts. She was the one critic to defend its graphic usage against would-be censors and prigs. Kael also had a partial understanding of classical Hollywood, though she wrote about it in too casual a way in keeping with her extreme populism (as in her piece on Cary Grant).

I don't mean to give the impression that Lucking Out is all bad. Wolcott is at his best when he writes of the New York City Ballet. It is one of the rare instances where he actually addresses in somewhat a direct fashion an actual text a well as its reception.

Recently there was another memoir covering a similar period of time and set in roughly the same geographic location. This memoir happened to be a big hit and a bestseller, eventually winning the National Book Award. Of course, I mean Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids. Let us compare her writing style:

"Robert was not especially drawn to film. His favorite movie was Splendor in the Grass. The only other movie we saw that year was Bonnie and Clyde. He liked the tagline on the poster 'They're young. they're in love. They rob banks.' He didn't fall asleep during that movie. Instead he wept. And when we went home he was unnaturally quiet and looked at me as if he wanted to convey all he was feeling without words. There was something of us that he saw in the movie but I wasn't certain what. I though to myself that he contained a whole universe that I had yet to know."

Now it might strike you as unfair to compare an incomparable poet and musician like Patti Smith to a journalist like Wolcott. She is clearly the better writer. But notice how she achieves this. For one thing, notice how much she accomplishes in such a short paragraph! The whole paragraph builds. Not only is it an ode of praise to Kazan's film, but is a summation of a point in a relationship between this man and this woman. (It even arouses curiosity in the reader who might say, "Maybe I should go back and revisit Kazan's film"). Moreover, the passage is about something of value. That is, it points to what is valuable in an object by appealing to a direct relationship of value rather than a list of catch phrases. It appeals to the realms of feeing and mystery. It builds slowly. At first he slept during movies but here was a movie that was different. Here was a movie where Robert cried. Part of Smith's rhetorical genius rests upon the rhythm of simple declarations: He didn't. He went. There was. This propels the narration further leading us to Robert's crying and a view of the power of art itself, what even a studio film, one directed by Kazan can be.

Lest I be misunderstood I am not saying that the problem here is that Wolcott's prose is dense and cluttered, and Smith's is superior by virtue of its being leaner. The crucial difference is that in Smith we are made to undergo and experience something rather than a reductive typology of mere effects. Smith could have accomplished this with the most dense prose imaginable. The real question is whether the prose reduces or expands our understanding. James Wolcott tells a good story to be sure; there is some fascinating history, yet, as my brief analysis of his style shows, there is more to a piece of writing than its movement and its content. There is attitude too. And it is in the attitude (or tone) where, arguably, the real story is to be found.

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