Thursday, October 28, 2004

Neal Stephenson Interview

When I began reading this provocative and charming interview with the provocative and charming Neal Stephenson, I wondered why ALD hadn't linked to it. Stephenson is a witty, articulate, code-writing, evo-bio, history-smitten brainiac, who presents his case for a rational pragmatism with compassion and humor – you’d think this would be natural material for ALD. But Stephenson was one step ahead of me, helpfully explaining why this oversight is only natural: he is a Beowulf writer, while ALD is entrenched among our Dantes.

Returning To The Globe, For A Moment

So here's the weird little item that pulled together most of my thoughts about The Globe & Mail's China Rising issue: a book review. The Books section (not available online, alas) was similarly devoted to the paper's theme, covering new fiction by Ha Jin and Gish Jen. One novel, Jin's War Trash, recounts the trials and torments of soldiers from the Chinese People's Liberation Army as they flee from defeat at the hands of North Koreans; the other, Jen's The Love Wife, probes the swamps of emotional confusion that surround the American acculturation of an immigrant Chinese family. To my mind, these two reviews provided the bedrock for the one review that took hold of the larger question (crisis?) of North American identity: Julie Crysler's review of Hello, I'm Special: How Individuality Became The New Conformity, by Hal Niedzviecki.

Hello, I'm Special begins with Niedzviecki receiving nothing less than a Hallmark birthday card, which reads, "Happy Birthday To A Non-Conformist." From there, Niedzviecki wonders at the free market's ability to co-opt the public urge for "Non-conformity" in order to achieve massive sales figures. In Crysler's words, the two questions behind Niedzviecki's book are: If everyone's a rebel, what are we rebelling against? And: If everyone is special, how special am I really?

Flash back to the modernist revolution currently in mid-swing in China. A great deal of artistic energy is now devoted to a legitimate howl against generations of Communist oppression. Hand-in-hand with that enterprise is the exploration of all things previously taboo to this society, some of which are a joy to discover, some of which are quite tragic, with plenty of giddy oddities occupying a vast middle ground. All of this activity is generated, or at the very least aided, by the novelty of wealth and public consumption. These traits also just happen to bear resemblance to characteristics we've come to associate, in the last five decades, with Western adolescence.

Moralists more strident than I have declared/lamented that North America is caught in a perpetual state of adolescence. I'm not entirely convinced, but when I first read the review, I wondered if Niedzviecki had kids. Granted, this is the smug sort of platitude that justifiably earns universal scorn toward Soccer Moms (and let's just admit it: we are all Soccer Moms), but the act of becoming a family unit can quickly inject a little clarity into issues such as non-conformity and specialness. No sane parent encourages their adolescent to pursue celebrity stardom. Instead, what you hope for, work towards, encourage at every turn is diligence, strength of character, perseverance, and a generous recognition of one's place in the local, to say nothing of the global, village: nurture these within your children, alongside a sense of joy and wonder, and you have a list of characteristics we hopefully spend a lifetime nurturing within ourselves.

I would say if the North American sensibility is chiefly held in thrall with adolescence, it still contains communities and voices beckoning it toward maturity. A measure of reason, self-censure, sanity, and a capacity to appeal and to listen - these are characteristics of maturity I wish were more evident in myself, as well as in my home and native land. And these are characteristics that would be a blessing to encounter in turn, when we are finally made to hear the voice of China Rising.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

The Globe & Mail Rising

This Saturday's Globe & Mail is recommended reading, particularly for my American friends who have grown weary/frantic over electioneering bafflegab. To you weary souls I say: muster up your remaining energy and head for the nearest boxy book superstore (or independent international newspaper outlet) and dole out the bucks for a truly unique collection of news and perspectives.

I haven't yet checked the website, but the newspaper proper is devoted, almost exclusively, to China Rising: The Birth of a Superpower. (Wup - just did, and the site pales in contrast to the paper.) In this issue, the attempted breadth of G&M's coverage is impressive to the point of foolhardiness - Editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon is demonstrating the sort of gumption one wishes was a seasonal force of habit among newspaper publishers.

This is the first time I've ever been excited by a newspaper issue, so forgive me if I slip into unrestrained loopiness. At this point, I've read about 60% of the articles, and glanced through the rest of it. I expect to return to another 20% by tomorrow. The portion that completely captured my attention was the Globe Review. John Barber desperately tries to summarize the explosion of architectural Goliaths, rising up in Beijing and Shanghai, where the high priests of po-mo (Rem Koolhaas, Paul Andreu, et al) have found a new congregation of believers, happy to pony up the dough. He calls it Instant Modernity. To which I can only say: whatever happened to Feng Shui?

Alright, that was too glib to qualify as a bon mot, but it does contain a kernel of legitimate concern. Modernist liberations are fine and dandy affairs, typically provoking a wild flurry of exciting, artistic activity, but when tradition is tossed out the window, it's difficult to discern between the bathwater of constrictive repression and the baby of form, concept, and productive discipline. In an article entitled Frogs, live sex and dead cats, Marcus Gee summarizes just such an artistic maelstrom, which is producing all manner of weirdness. Could it surprise anyone to learn there is a sexual revolution in China that makes the one we experienced in North America look like an afternoon tea party? New money - astonishing, entirely unexpected amounts of it - is transforming a culture very much the way it did in North America. The difference: it's happening at an unprecedented speed, in an ancient culture intimately familiar with unimaginable tyranny. What, finally will the new tradition look like? What will the new China look like?

These thoughts and more are percolating away, thanks to this issue, and I expect to return to a few (hopefully with greater acuity). I think the only thing I would have like to have seen addressed is China's increasing appetite for oil. This is surely going to introduce a whole new edge to Mid-East difficulties. How is China likely to assert itself in this volatile arena?

That's it for now, though. The rest of you: buy the paper, and blog, baby - blog!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Only Dylan Piece You Need To Read (If You Don't "Get" Him - But Live With Someone Who "Does")

In the spring of 1999 I read what remains without contest the best piece on Bob Dylan. It was a lengthy New Yorker profile, called The Wanderer, by Alex Ross. I wasn't hopeful. The inherent and by now thunderously obvious peril in approaching the cipher Dylan - especially when the writer is a fan - is getting the job done only to come out looking like a boob. Ross walked the highwire, acknowledging with an understated humour the pitfall on either side, and delivered an estimation of Dylan's talent that manages to be baroque and ecumenical, with none of the gassy pomposity those words (mine - sigh) suggest.

Alright, fine: so just how successful was he? I read the piece aloud to my wife, during a lengthy car-ride. At the end, she declared, "That makes me actually want to listen to his music!"

Mission accomplished.

You can read the piece here. I came to it courtesy of this Slate discussion re: Dylan's hot-off-the-presses memoir.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

My Christopher Reeve Story

I was in the book biz back when Christopher Reeve's autobiography was published. At the CBA Convention that year, there was a great deal of buzz about his possibly attending. During one of countless martini breaks (there's nothing like a bookseller's convention to get the gin flowing by the gallon), I spoke with a guy from Random House who quietly admitted he was just one person of many responsible for making sure Mr. Reeve's forthcoming visit was a smooth one.

"Will he be signing his book?" I asked. The guy stared at me; I cleared my throat and apologized for my distasteful sense of humour.

"Oh," said he, "I've been asked that very question in all seriousness. And when I try to point out that the man is quadriplegic, people still say, 'Well, doesn't he write with his mouth? Couldn't he at least leave a thumb-print?'"
We talked some more, and I found out just what a logistical nightmare this visit presented. Given Reeve's sensitive physical condition, a route had to be charted in advance that guaranteed his motorized chair would experience no bumps whatsoever. Apparently convention centres, for all their slate-like anonymity, are surprisingly difficult for someone in his condition to navigate.

Despite my conversationalist's gin-loosened tongue, there was no getting him to say when Reeve would arrive. They didn't want a mob on their hands, so it was to be a surprise. Sure enough, sometime later the murmur on the convention floor grew louder, and people converged. Christopher Reeve rolled in, smiling magnificently. I watched as people applauded and wept without pause.

The depth of people's emotional response surprised me, and when I'm not careful it surprises me still. It took me a while to tease out why I wasn't as profoundly moved as others obviously were, but strange as it might seem, I think it was due to my religious background. I had already met with and heard the stories of other quadriplegics. In fact, there are quads and other people with significant challenges who can and do maintain a decent living working the speaker circuit in Christian circles, evangelical or otherwise. These people present their stories to an audience that is receptive for political reasons, yes, but also for deeply personal reasons. A quadriplegic can embody our darkest fear, but also our deepest hope - that no matter what our condition, our humanity still retains and will be accorded the highest value.

The current media environment devotes some energy to "human interest" stories, but I think the emotional response I witnessed was an indication of just how rarely we encounter stories of human depth. Christopher Reeve managed to become one of those stories, and to have his story conclude, as they all must, is something to be mourned. But a larger tragedy occurs if it is forgotten and buried in the distracting chaff being sold to us as "reality." I hope that doesn't happen, because clearly the public needs his story - and others like it.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Review: The People I Know

Our small town has a limited number of DVD titles, so I often slap down a fiver for anything with a critical rave on the cover. That Travers guy from Rolling Stone Magazine was excited about The People I Know, and sometimes he discovers the odd prize, so we gave it a spin. Now here’s another critical quickie for the cover of the inevitable two-disc collector’s edition: Interesting failure! – Whisky Prajer”

I don’t want to get too down on this trifle; it did manage to hold my attention to the bitter end. And it has a swell premise: a Public Relations has-been finds himself in over his head in covert political intrigue. Hey - why not? Anyone who’s ever met a PR person – any PR person - is apprised of three basic facts within the first five minutes of conversation: this person knows 1) Larry King, 2) George W. Bush, 3) at least one member of the bin Laden family. This raises the obvious question: why hasn’t Larry King told the President to fill the CIA with PR people?

Here’s another universal PR trait: they operate at an energy level that the human body is not built to endure. Which brings me to Al Pacino, which might as well bring me to the three weaknesses of this film.

1)Al Pacino – For the first few minutes I had no trouble watching Pacino affect a reedy-thin voice and a “Don’t-touch-me-I’m-falling-apart” demeanor. It doesn’t take long, however, for Pacino’s Bronx drawl to shoulder its way through the attempted Alabama lilt. But by now everyone knows if you give Pacino full rein of a production, he’ll devour the scenery and every bit player within range. Not that that can’t be entertaining to watch. But this brings us to...

2)The premise - The McGuffin that Pacino comes to possess contains footage of Powerful People engaged in illicit sexual (and opium based) compromise. Shadowy Operatives are closing in, and for reasons that are unclear to the PR man, one of his clients seems to be at the centre of a Dark Conspiracy. This plotline works about as well as a viewer might modestly expect, but I have to wonder: given how “Intelligence” has come to acquire an ironic status, couldn’t the film have generated greater entertainment wattage with, say, a Catch-22 take on the same plotline? That would surely have allowed us all to have more fun with...

3)Kim Bassinger’s ponytail - Now I’ll be the last person to complain about her appearance in a film – any film – but just how many more “sweet-girl-from-the-country” roles does this woman have left in her? Actually, that’s a little mean: she's still got the hair and face for it, and for Bassinger it’s just another paycheck. Rather, the blame for this thankless role lies squarely at the two left feet (thumbs?) of the writer, Jon Robin Baitz (a member of TV's West Wing writer's stable). C’mon, dude – women are more interesting than that! And movies should be more interesting than this.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

You Don't Hear The Mistakes

Yesterday was one of those days when a pedestrian ailment knocked me into bed by the early afternoon. Remarkable how soothing it is to listen to your daughters practise piano in the room below...