Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I Totally Meant To Do That

I spent my lunch break reading this and while I still love it, sometimes it seems like Jane Borden doesn't know the exact type of Williamsburg, Brooklyn cliche that she is. Struggling young person from a small town loving the anonymity and unpredictability of city life, sure. But she also comes across sometimes as one of New York's most loathable types: rich hipster tourist kid slumming it with "the real people" for a few years so as to pretend to be interesting even though he or she will be returning to his or her world of shelter and privilege soon enough.

But still. I find her New York references less annoying than those of say Peter Hedges or Gary Shteyngart, maybe because rather than being throwaway in jokes or just plain pointless, they actually add something to her story if you're familiar with, say, the J train or The Abbey.

Example: "After leaving Black Betty, John and I popped by a new bar in the building next to mine on Bedford Avenue. But we stopped short in the doorway; something was slightly off. It was too loud to be so empty. And it was a bit too, if this is possible, red. Plus, the bartender eyed us desperately. It was like the bar was trying to be a bar, instead of being a bar. And it was trying too hard."

I know that place. I spent part of my 30th birthday there, before I moved to New York. Later, a friend arranged to meet an Internet date there, not knowing they'd be showing porn on the big projection screens in the back.

I'm completely not kidding, and, yes, that is her entire description of the bar, and, yes, I'm sure I have the right place. Who's the Brooklyn jerk now, we ask ourselves.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Cartoon Assassin

"The Cartoon Assassin" is as spot-on a description of what it's like to move to New York as anything I've read on the topic. It's an essay in Jane Borden's book I Totally Meant To Do That. I saw her speak at Brooklyn's Greenlight Bookstore a while back and when I returned to the store with more money in my bank account and a long weekend in front of me, I picked it up. It's the tale of a well-bred southern debutante moving to Manhattan and struggling to fit in.

New New Yorkers find ourselves constantly swapping tales about all of the stupid things we did and discovered -- standing around on the A train platform at Penn Station forever until realizing oh, if the A is running local, it will be stopping on the C/E platform (duh), nearly stepping in chicken guts when innocently walking home from the local bar, learning what "train juice" is when it drips down off the M train tracks first thing in the morning. Borden describes this parade of disaster perfectly.

"The city isn't evil; it's simply in it's nature to destroy. It can't help itself. Kind of like the god of the Old Testament. Except New York is craftier, enjoying the chase. It will sneak up behind you, giggling, and stuff dynamite in your backpack. And if you happen to spin around too soon, it will hid its weapon, look the other way and whistle ... And sure enough, you later find a skull-and-crossbones bucket propped above your door. The city relishes it's perdition. It's a gremlin, a cartoon assassin."

And when I read this, I had to pause, put down the book, and wipe away tears from laughing so hard: "A gust of wind covered my fresh vanilla ice cream cone with dirt and trash. A falling Diet Coke can -- origin unknown -- bounced off my head. It was empty, but still: That is absurd."

I will never forget my first truly miserable hot summer day in New York. I was crossing Dekalb Avenue below Fort Greene Park directly behind a stopped bus. The bus roared away in a cloud of hot, nasty pollution and grime, including a piece of trash that, yes, bounced off my head. It was a harbinger of so many things to come.

Monday, May 16, 2011

All Families Are Psychotic, by Douglas Coupland

I think this book is about how Canadians see America, if the way Canadians see America is: incredibly fucked up and terrifying, in a "whee, that was a wild ride" sort of way.

It reminds me of an episode of a British TV show that I loved. The show is called Top Gear and it's about cars. In this particular episode, the hosts go to the U.S. to drive from Miami to New Orleans in cars they purchase in Miami for $1,000.00 or less. They go around in these like rusty pick-up trucks spray painting "Richard Petty is gay" or what have you on each other's vehicles and trying not to get punched and it's all fun and games until they get to New Orleans a year after Katrina. Then they're like "well ... how messed up America is is actually not that amusing at all. And boy do we feel like jerks." And they give the cars to poor people and return to Europe looking haunted.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Learning to Drive, by Katha Pollitt

I have an unfinished post about A Visit From The Goon Squad. That's because I think three posts is plenty, but I haven't finished the book, either. I haven't finished the book because I had 20 pages to go when I gave it to my mother. Drat. I plan on just going out and buying it, as I'm going to be pushing it on friends for years to come.

Meanwhile, I had a stack of library books rapidly approaching their due date, so I reread The Great Gatsby (had been meaning to do that for ages), then started on Learning to Drive. Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation; I've seen her work but don't read it with any regularity. She's the sort of middle-aged left-wing Manhattan intellectual who does not seem to have any counterpart in my generation, maybe because the counterparts can't afford to live there. Regardless, while I thought that Julie Klausner, who is my own age, didn't really have my number, Pollitt surely does.

" ... I had always thought that left-wing men were the worst. In college I would look around the cafeteria tables where the anti-war activists sat for hours over tuna melts and Cokes and think how sad it was that my politics had led me to this very small pool of potential boyfriends, all seriously problematic. The Maoists of the Progressive Labor Party were rigid and bizarre and always trying to get you to hand out leaflets at six in the morning. The rock-and-rollers and Weatherman sympathizers were callow and conceited and usually stoned. And yet it was not possible to be with a man who was conservative or apolitical, or even just a Democrat, someone who might have, say, voted for Hubert Humphrey. Even a McCarthy supporter was pushing it. Those people were so naive."

Har har. Marxists. Don't think they're not still around.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Visit From The Goon Squad

It just gets better. Franzen without the hokeyness. Foster Wallace without the self indulgence.

Though I fear certain aspects of getting older, as most people do, in other ways I feel like I was made for it, because I always want to know what happens in the end. In my early 30s, I am already starting to learn who lives, who dies, who stays married, who gets a divorce, who succeeds, who fails. I'm getting to know people I knew when they were babies as adults, and I remember thinking about them when they were very young, I can't wait until you're old enough to have a real conversation with me.

A Visit From The Goon Squad is the perfect book for someone who always wants to know what happened. We see characters at 40-something, then back at 17, and others at 17 and then at 40-something. Some characters we meet and learn the fate of all in one chapter, almost as an aside: this is what happened to that person.

I also love this book because it is filled with women who make what one character terms "disastrous choices," but doesn't portray them as without agency. That seems obvious: choices, agency. But it isn't. In so many cases, the younger ex wives of a record producer would be portrayed as pitiable victims, and also as secondary characters, relevant only as per their role in his path toward redemption and maybe treating women better someday. Here, they are people who, as anyone does, make mistakes that they learn from. One woman comes back from an international expedition with her wealthy older boyfriend thinking, well, that was fun, but time to get on with my graduate work. She looks around at her ratty apartment, sees year after year of squinting over textbooks and living on lentil stew stretched out before her and thinks, hmm, pitching grad school to marry a guy who is fun and rich, maybe not so bad. Then, later, she's like, well, that was stupid, but what can you do. Pretty much everyone I know thinks just like that.


When I'm in a certain mood, this is also how I feel:

Jules put his arm around her. "If you'd ask me this morning, I would have said we were finished," he said. "All of us, the whole country — the fucking world. But now I feel the opposite."

Stephanie knew. She could practically hear the hope sluicing through her brother. "So what's the answer?" she asked.

"Sure, everything is ending," Jules said. "But not yet."