The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Well, I'm still waiting for the Big One from Colson Whitehead. APEX HIDES THE HURT, his novel of a couple years ago, shows a writer with a great deal more confidence and control than he had in either THE INTUITIONIST or JOHN HENRY DAYS, but the book still lacks something. The plot, such as it is, deals with a "nomenclature consultant" who has taken an indefinite leave from his job because of an injury. He's hired by a small town to come up with a new name for the town, and in the course of his residence there discovers that the town was founded by freed slaves (and thus initially named "Freedom") but later became the home base for a barbed-wire magnate named Winthrop, who then had the town named after himself. In the book our hero must make his recommendation while avoiding the menacing bartender and hotel housekeeper.

Whitehead's narrative voice is very impressive--clever without being show-offy, assured, and leisurely and compressed simultaneously. The main character is interesting and the reader wants to be in his head. The problem is that the plot peters out halfway through this short novel--after we got the backstories of all of the characters, there was just no drive or energy behind the story. Whitehead is so talented, and I trust that eventually he'll find the plot that is ready for him, but I'm still waiting.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

NYU college republicans

I wasn't very fond of NYU when I was there, but this certainly wasn't something I would have expected:

'[M]embers of the [NYU College Republicans] who present their N.Y.U. identification become immigration agents looking for an illegal in the crowd. The agent who successfully identifies the illegal immigrant wins a gift certificate.

Students have sent club officials e-mails calling the the event “racist” and “disgusting.” But the club said it is about stoking debate on the issue of illegal immigrants.

(Further clarification — it seems that an “actor” will play an “illegal immigrant,” wearing a label saying as much. The first contestant to find him or her in the crowd will win a prize.)

On today’s illegal-immigrant hunt, Sarah Chambers, the 21-year-old president of N.Y.U.’s College Republicans, told The A.P., “It’s not a racist event, first and foremost. Just because we don’t want illegal immigrants being able to completely disregard the laws of our country doesn’t make us racist.”'

I don't quite know what to think about this. Does this mean NYU has finally achieved its goal of leaving behind its educate-the-children-of-city-immigrants identity and ascending to quasi-Ivy League status--a haven for the white and smug?

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

elmo pop-up

elmo pop-up
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Boy #2 found the Elmo pop-up toy; Boy #1 shows him how it's done.


colson whitehead

I went to hear Colson Whitehead read last night as part of the Drue Heinz Lecture series. Whitehead is a young writer whom I've been reading, although not religiously, for some time now. His first novel, THE INTUITIONIST, is a great urban-nowhere novel, with resonances of Auster, Bellow, Ellison, Kafka, and the great New York cartoonist Ben Katchor. The novel deals with a woman who works for the elevator-inspection authority of a large metropolis, and is both very rooted in a place and sensibility and also very nonspecific: it is clearly New York, but it isn't. His second novel, JOHN HENRY DAYS, didn't quite do it for me, although I did appreciate its ambition, its desire to explore folk tales (John Henry), historical figures (Paul Robeson), and places foreign to Whitehead (West Virginia). It was much like another failed second novel from a writer whose first novel I loved, Zadie Smith's AUTOGRAPH MAN. Since then, he's written two books--a collection of essays on New York City and a third novel, APEX HIDES THE HURT, that I didn't have any burning desire to read until last night but now have put it next on my list--and is working on a fourth novel.

Whitehead's lecture/reading was very appealing. He's just self-deprecating enough (I suppose you'd have to be if you've won a McArthur "Genius Grant" or you'd be insufferable) and didn't read a bunch of excerpts from just one book. He read a bit from a NEW YORK TIMES piece on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Empire State Building, several pieces from APEX HIDES THE HURT, and a long chunk from his new novel, which he describes as autobiographical. It deals with a group of teenage boys who live in a house in Sag Harbor, Long Island, during a summer in the 1980s--the brothers' parents work in the city and only make it out to the island on weekends. This excerpt really seemed rough to me, as it was largely a nostalgic reminiscence of pop culture--and, more specific than pop culture, processed foods--of the time. I lost track of the characters or the plot as the narrator went on interminably about the qualities of Stouffer's boil-in-bag meals versus Swanson's TV dinners or the nature of Garanimals as a source of ridicule. Whitehead's got a great sense of voice and of detail, but this just felt unedited, gushing out, and restrictive (because the more the writing was about the products of the time, the less readers who weren't teenagers in the 1980s would be interested; hell, I was a teenager in the 1980s and I quickly lost interest).

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

the cold

it has been so goddamned cold here recently, our pipes froze. Fortunately there was no real damage to the house--the water meter burst but I got the main valve shut off quickly, so the worst we have is now-gelatinous cat litter on our laundry room floor, and the water company replaced the burst meter for free--but I've been waiting all day to thaw out the pipes. I discovered late this afternoon, after pointing a space heater at the pipes for hours, that the problem is almost certainly that the source pipe itself is the one that's frozen, and I've been waiting for the "welder" to come for hours now--apparently they run a current or something through the sidewalk box and it melts the ice. Oy. I've learned that this is happening all over the city; everyone's got a story today. It gets cold here but rarely this cold (below zero two days in a row).


Monday, February 05, 2007


Although I'd read about a dozen reviews of Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD from the time it came out (November, I think), all of which were glowlingly positive, I really hadn't developed any great desire to read the book. His last, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, didn't impress me. I loved the "Border Trilogy" and in fact spent a lot of time down in West Texas-New Mexico camping and wandering and hearing McCarthy's language run through my head. But NO COUNTRY wasn't great; it was just a crime book, and not a particularly brilliant one at that. It did have McCarthy's great language, but also showed some of his limitations as a writer (plotting, female characters, a variety of tone). And when I read that THE ROAD was a postapocalyptic story, a nuclear winter kinda thing, chronicling the journey of a father and his young son (never specified, but maybe 8-10 years old) from the north down to the Gulf Coast area, I figured that it would be McCarthy's natural finishing-point. His specialty has always been the barren, the cruel, the senseless, and the ways that people (especially men) maintain relationships and devotion to each other through those kinds of adversity. He also has a boundless interest in the details of life for men who work with their hands, with animals and tools and such. I'm not sure any writer has every used the word "hasp" as much as McCarthy does.

I picked up THE ROAD at 10:30 on Saturday night and I could not put it down until it was done. I haven't read a book like that in years--probably since I read THE CROSSING, also by McCarthy. There's not much of a plot, because it really is just the story of this father taking care of his son as they walk the road and try to avoid the "bad people," the "blood cults" of cannibals who have banded together to hunt and eat other people. (Several years into a nuclear winter, no plant life whatsoever can grow and almost all edible animals are extinct, so people either eat whatever canned food they can find that hasn't already been scavenged or other people.) There are times when the details of the book transcend McCarthy's older fascination with blood and violence and cruelty--such as in BLOOD MERIDIAN--and move into Stephen King or pulp fiction territory (headless gutted infants on barbecue spits, a padlocked crawl space/larder full of naked, partial amputees awaiting further amputation and cooking), but probably because of McCarthy's relentlessly serious language it never feels like a parody, although it is RIPE for parody. And the deeper theme that he is exploring is hardly one that's he's the first one to explore: the power of father-son devotion.

But by creating this nightmarish world, a world where suicide really does seem like the most sensible option (the mother kills herself soon after giving birth to the son because she realizes that), McCarthy asks whether the paternal imperative to protect a child and keep that child going, even at the cost of one's own life, continues to make any sense when the world itself is lifeless, when staying alive probably means joining one of those blood cults and living by cannibalism and marauding, and when things will never--guaranteed--get any better. In this way THE ROAD is really just a male version of BELOVED, another book about a parent who chooses death for her child because life (in this case, as a slave) is worse than oblivion. In Morrison's book, the murdered daughter returns as a revenant to haunt the mother's post-slavery life. In THE ROAD, the father makes the opposite choice: he will keep his son alive and will die in the effort. Why? the reader asks. Why does this father think that living in this barren world is worth it? Is he another of McCarthy's typical heroes, living by first principles only (stay alive) and focusing his thoughts not on existential questions but on practical ones, such as how to bore out the axle of a shopping-cart wheel to make it run true (I think I ran across three words I'd never seen before just in that passage)?


Saturday, February 03, 2007


Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Boy #1's brother is, as you can see, healthy and big. He could lap his brother in a year.



I've been working on and thinking a lot about the Cold War recently--my scholarly work these days deals with it, I'm putting together an anthology of articles on the subject, etc. And although I was never a spy-story fan I do have an appreciation for John le Carré; listening to THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD on books-on-tape was one of those literary experiences that I really remember (along with ULYSSES and Roth's AMERICAN PASTORAL on tape--very vivid) from the last few years. So although my interest in the Cold War is more in overt propaganda and cultural diplomacy than in skulduggery and black ops, I was struck by an irresistible desire, while at the library the other day, to pick up le Carré's TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. It might have had something to do with seeing THE GOOD SHEPHERD two weeks ago, which is a fictionalized portrayal of CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton.

What struck me first about the novel is how little it compromises with the needs of the general reader: there's essentially no exposition apart from what is given by the charactets, and that is in the jargony shorthand of people in a secretive, insular profession. It's very difficult to follow the plot, although the setup is pretty easy: after a series of disastrous or blown operations, the head of British intelligence (name of "Control") is deposed and dies soon afterward. Exiled with him are several of his key lieutenants, most notably George Smiley. Control had suspected that there was a mole high up in the intelligence service and so, after his departure, the Prime Minister's office wants to continue that investigation, but without involving anyone still in the service. George Smiley must investigate and find out which of the top men is actually working for the Soviets.

It's one of those puzzle plots, where the investigator talks to a bunch of people and gradually pieces together the whole story until he has enough to make an educated guess about the identity of the mole. He then lures the mole out and tapes him making incriminating statements. It takes at least a couple reads, I'd imagine, to really put together everything that's happening--the chronology of the operations Smiley traces, the personalities and responsibilities of the main characters, and the significance of the clues. It's fundamentally disorienting. I ended up checking out the BBC miniseries version of TINKER, TAILOR from the library, and although I understood the broad outlines of the plot watching that miniseries really cleared up a lot of the details of the plot for me. (Although the miniseries is much easier to follow than the book, the DVD company was so concerned that viewers wouldn't understand what was happening that they included a cheat-sheet in the case, glossing some of the vocabulary but also laying out who the characters were.)

The miniseries is pretty remarkable: five and a half hours, the vast majority of which is Alec Guinness just talking to people in dingy rooms. There is so little action of any sort, and so few exotic locales, that it doesn't seem like a "real" spy movie--like the BOURNE cacaphonies, for instance. It's slow and grim and quiet, and the actors are gray and unappealing. But it's entirely engrossing.