Creation *

12 01 2010

Last night a good college friend asked me to accompany him to the movies to catch an early screening of Creation, the Charles Darwin biopic starring real-life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly. He had apparently gotten the tickets from the Secular Humanism Society, of which he is a member. I would give those tickets back if I could. What an unbelievably god-awful movie (pun intended). It was jaw-droppingly awful. Awful awful awful with a big ass awful on top. Needless to say the theater was jam packed with atheists who for the most part couldn’t hold back the knee-slapping whenever Charles Darwin popped a squat on Christianity with a little zinger here, a little zinger there. My agnosticism, or the deliberate dichotomy I was expected to be continually slapped with throughout the movie were not the main, propelling reasons why I was initially interested in watching the film. It was Darwin himself that interested me. This is Charles Darwin we’re talking about. He led a very exciting life, right? He was a hardcore iconoclast; the Galileo Galilee of the 19th century, the Indiana Jones of Great Britain, the man that supposedly presented the world with the most revolutionary “idea in the history of thought” as the film unabashedly states in its proem. Well, you’d never guess it from watching this lifeless, curmudgeony muck that deigns to call itself a motion picture. There’s a moment in the very beginning of the film, when a photographer pleads with Anne Darwin, Charles’ precocious daughter to sit still so that he can perfectly capture her daguerreotype. Well, that’s pretty much what this film should call itself. A daguerreotype – not a motion picture. It is torpid hell. Immediately after the movie finished (well, first I ran out of the theater, then I had a thought) I figured that the producers of this film are some dusty, rich atheists who backed this picture up for themselves and their friends; something they can all watch in their English country home lounge over a glass of gin and a game of bridge. That’s the only possible audience for this movie right? But then I realized – it wasn’t the atheists who made this movie, it was The Church! This was their revenge! It’s the ultimate way of smearing the Darwinian name! It really is the only thing that makes sense.

The film centers on Darwin’s near completion of On the Origin of Species, which he had been working on for the better part of 20 years. In all honesty, who gives a rat’s ass about the marital trials Darwin faced as he was completing his magnum opus? I want to see him skedaddle in the Galapagos! I want to see all the great adventures he’s always telling his children about in this movie. That’s as close as the audience ever gets to some action. Paul Bettany, sitting around a campfire with his film-children, telling them about all these great adventures that WE, the audience, want to see for ourselves! If I want to see Jennifer Connelly go mad alongside her brilliant husband then I’ll just watch A Beautiful Mind (I’m sorry A Beautiful Mind. Didn’t mean to compare you to Creation. That was a low blow. My bad dawg). Also, his precocious little daughter who thinks she’s Anna Paquin in The Piano ends up croaking, which then in turn strains Charles’ relationship to his religious wife even further. He’s already going mad trying to complete his book and then he starts imagining that he sees his daughter alive, standing like a prototypical creepy child, just waiting to be chased by her father down curvy streets. I for one am so over the whole “let’s chase the phantom girl that we know is dead down the street” bit. Well, Creation feels like slapping you across the face with this flaccid cock of a trope not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES!

The film was directed by Jon Amiel, who once upon a time made a film I still greatly admire, Copycat. It’s a shame to see a director miss the mark in such an embarrassing manner; moreso than Michael Bay did with Armageddon (seriously). Towards the end of the movie, Charles feels like taking over for his wife by reading to his remaining three children from a book of stories. They tell him to not read, but to tell them something real, like he used to do for their dead sister Anne. He asks them if he’s already told them the story of how his ship was struck by St. Elmo’s Fire, or about earthquakes here and savages there. They had apparently heard it all. That’s great kids, but maybe the audience wants to hear about it, because like logical human beings, we’d expect the director or the screenwriter or ANYONE in this production, to have him blab about his adventures so that maybe, possibly, we can have just a fragment of a flashback to these exciting adventures. Nada.

In the row in front of me there was this one man that just could not stop yawning. Eventually he had to leave the theater because he couldn’t take it anymore. I hear you brother. I only wish you could’ve taken me with you. The walk down the stairs would’ve been more exciting than watching this shit.





A Single Man * * * *

12 01 2010

“It’s not as good as the book.” We all know what this sentence means – we’ve all said it before when comparing a movie to its original book form. When A Single Man, Tom Ford’s directorial debut, first premiered a few months ago, I read a scathing review that dismissed the film almost entirely on the liberties that Mr. Ford took with the material. This comparison is useless I’ve learned. If you read Watchmen before seeing the movie, you’ll know what I mean. Not that it wasn’t true to the graphic novel. On the contrary. It was too loyal to the material. That whole book was on the screen and it bordered on unbearable. We’ve got to realize that these are two separate mediums and an artist has to make the material all his own. I for one am doing my best to be done with this fruitless “ugh! It sucked! They totally changed the ending! So not cool” mumbo jumbo. Tom Ford has made one hell of a beautiful picture – not just on an aesthetic plane, but in his way of understanding what it means to truly love someone, and even more so, what it feels like to grieve.

The movie takes place on November 30, 1962 – the day that Colin Firth, a college English professor, decides to end his life after deciding he can no longer handle grieving over the loss of his lover of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode). The film guides us through his unfaltering resolution to kill himself. He buys bullets for his gun, which he carries around with him all day in his perfect suitcase, he takes out his trust and insurance policies out of his safety deposit box, writes a goodbye letter to the one friend he has left in the world, and even leaves a wad of cash for his housekeeper. It seems there’s no doubt that he’s actually going to go through with it. He’s presented with so much love and so much life throughout the whole day and yet, he doesn’t flinch – not after dinner and drinks with his best friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore) or when his stunningly beautiful student Kenny (Nicholaus Hoult) reaches out to him because he looks like he needs a friend, or even when both he and the audience witness a beautiful Spanish male prostitute experiences love at first sight at the look of him. But the movie is not without levity. There’s definitely some humor sprinkled throughout; moments that make you smile, but mainly it’s moments of wonder and just awe at how beautiful this film is. It’s not boring for a minute, but I wouldn’t say the pace is infectious. Actually, Mr. Ford gets just a little teeny tiny bit carried away with his poetic license. At times, it really is a little bit of a self-suck extravaganza, but you forgive him for it because at least the man is consistent. The art direction is…well, artsy artsy artsy, the music is heartbreaking and Colin Firth’s performance, at least to me, is the best male performance of 2009. It hurts to take the title away from The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner, but there’s just no denying that the man knocked it out of the park.

Ford was obviously influenced by the 1970s Italian adaptation of Death in Venice – the music even sounds like Gustav Mahler’s 4th Movement: Adagietto which plays throughout Death in Venice. But mostly, it reminded me of one of my all time favorite movies, The Hours, another movie that wraps its arms around itself in its depression. So I like sad movies. Sue me. Not going to lie: you’re going to walk out of the theater feeling as if you yourself have just gone through the grieving process itself. It’s a rhapsodic experience through and through, but it leaves you feeling emotionally exhausted. I can’t wait to see it again.





Ten Best Books of the Decade

17 12 2009

Let the Great World Spin

10:

Let the Great World Spin (2009)

Colum McCann

I’ve become quite impatient with the symbiosis of art and war. Iraq and Afghanistan war themed movies got shoved down everyone’s throats and for the most part, they all floundered. It’s not that I’m not deeply moved or distressed by the events going on in the East – I just haven’t been able to connect with anyone’s vision of the impact that 9/11 or the two aforementioned wars have had on the American public. September 11th, 2001 was a day that no one will ever forget and everyone has that story of where they were when they first heard the news of the attack on the towers. 9/11 and the consequent two wars have become fodder for major artistic crap and I don’t think it was until I read Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin that I was finally able to emotionally connect with another’s vision on the subject. The novel revolves around a group of characters that are all connected by the fateful August day in 1974 when Philip Petit walked eight times across the World Trade Center on a tightrope. Philip Petit is never named in the novel and that’s because he is not more important than any of the other characters in this book. The New Yorkers a quarter of a mile below his tightrope are also walking a tightrope of their own, in the time while the Bronx is burning, while the first emails are being sent out, while America is still trying to recover from the evils of the Vietnam War. The novel is a masterpiece, but even its smaller parts, like a chapter called “Miro, Miro on the wall” could stand apart as one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. Reading it I felt like I was reading the Wandering Rocks of New York City. The book definitely has a Ulysses effect, which I’m obviously going to get all ridiculous about. How typical that an Irishman ended up penning the defining 9/11 novel.

The Road

9:

The Road (2006)

Cormac McCarthy

The cover for The Road pretty much tells you what you’re going to see on this journey through Apocalyptic America: pure blackness, gray ash falling from the sky, and red blood blood blood. I don’t know that an author has really slapped me in the face with the darkness in the soul of man as forcefully as Cormac McCarthy has. His crowning achievement, Blood Meridian, is constantly hailed as the bloodiest book in American literature and let me tell you, they’re not lying. McCarthy has to be an alien from outer space or something. You read McCarthy and you’re awakened to the possibilities and the miracles that can be performed with the language you thought you knew so well. We’re so used to reading the great masters of the form like Joyce and Faulkner and you wonder what has happened to the world – why don’t people write like that anymore? When I read Cormac McCarthy I revel in the fact that there is a living, breathing master still amongst us. Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy will be the two authors that in a hundred years time will be regarded as the masters of the American novel. The Road is McCarthy’s easiest book, to read that is. It’s his most accessible, being nowhere near as hard to follow as say, Suttree. The Road contains some of the most beautiful language you’ll ever read in your life; it’s also one the most harrowing and deeply distressing pieces of fiction you’ll ever come across. The America that ‘The Man’ and ‘The Child’ walk through is beyond anything I’ve ever thought could be possible. This is not some Roland Emmerich extravaganza, where Noah’s Ark lays perched on the tip of the Empire State Building after a giant tidal wave or anything like that. This is a world where the toxins of years before have finally managed to cloud the sun from the Earth, leaving it in total darkness – the only light being the white you can see from the ash falling from the sky. McCarthy presents an incredible display of man’s degeneration, and as compelling and visceral an experience as it is, I pray that the closest I ever get to a world like this is solely through McCarthy’s artistry, but seeing how things are going, that’s probably not going to happen.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

8:

Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006)

Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity Physics gave me the great pleasure I once had, especially when I was in high school, of picking up a brick of a book and tear it to pieces in a day or two. My roommate at the time would come home and find me on the couch laughing my brains off, when she caught me crying my eyes out was when I had finished it.  It presents a murder mystery in the coolest, freshest, most original manner (each chapter titled after a great work of fiction [Othello or Howl for example]) and concludes with a whimsical conceit of a Final Exam. It felt like a hodgepodge of Mean Girls, Six Feet Under, American Beauty and The Da Vinci Code. It’s a book that is as fun as it is intelligent and funny. It didn’t get as much praised as I had originally expected it to receive, but nonetheless, I think it was the most fun I think I had in reading a book this decade. Its conceits tickled me in such a great way and I really never ever had any clue where it was going to go. I feel bad for Marisha Pessl. This was her debut novel and I can only imagine that coming up with something to follow this must be stomach-turning for an author. But whatever, that’s her job. So churn it out good woman! I need more Pessl!

The Year of Magical Thinking

7:

The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

Joan Didion

I didn’t know a thing about Joan Didion when I picked up this small memoir. I’ve never been one to gravitate towards a memoir for that matter. It just didn’t seem like my cup of tea. But, seeing how heavily praised a work it was, I obviously picked it up. I saw that National Book Award stamp and I called it a day. I didn’t know what I was in for. Ms. Didion’s recollections of her life with her husband, the writer and poet John Gregory Dunne and their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael and of her husband’s subsequent death has now beome a classic of what could be called “mourning literature”.  The way she mourns her husband, all the while trying to keep strong for her dying daughter, who will eventually die just short of the novel’s publication, is absolutely heartbreaking. I was a real mess when I read this book. Ms. Didion lets us see her without any of the glamour. We see her at her very worst, when she just wants everything to just crash and burn. She bears her soul in these pages in the most uncompromising way. It’s terribly sad what happened to Ms. Didion and it’s not hard to feel for her, but it’s presented in the most stunningly beautiful language. It’s not the kind of book you can finish and then just move on to the next one. You mind and your emotions need time to repose once you’re done reading this memoir. It’s one hell of a cathartic experience.

Middlesex

6:

Middlesex (2002)

Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex has a narrative arc that I just go gaga for. It’s the same exact paradigm used by Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: Three parts, titled chapters, a family saga that starts with the grandparents of the particular third generation member in question, who typically has a magical power or is just a band apart from the rest in its own unique way. I knew when I read The Virgin Suicides that Jeffrey Eugenides was someone to follow; someone whose works I should know and register. Middlesex is the story of Cal and his Greek immigrant family. Cal is an “intersexed” person who only learned of his undescending testicles at the age of fourteen, when he was still Calliope Stephanides. Middlesex starts in Greece, ships us across the Atlantic, to Detroit, Michigan and all the way to San Francisco. I really appreciate and connect to Eugenides’ sensibilities. His stories are romantic and very dark and his writing is always very calculated and powerful. Middlesex is taboo in the way One Hundred Years of Solitude is taboo about incest and the apprehensions behind making a life, about reproduction. In ways Middlesex is an amalgam of many great stories (the correlations in narrative between Middlesex and Midnight’s Children or One Hundred Years of Solitude are hard to dismiss) but Eugenides still managed to give us a gorgeously inspired piece of work. The second read was even more powerful too.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

5:

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2006)

Junot Diaz

So when I was living with my ex-roommate, she had a galley copy The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. She thought it was brilliant, shoved it down my throat, but I told her I was busy with who knows what at that moment. So she shoved it down our other roommate’s throat and he ended up thinking it was brilliant as well. Still, for some reason, it wasn’t grabbing me. I had to wait, once again, for it to win the Pulitzer for me to do the obligatory Scooby-Doo “urf!?” to finally read this book. It’s one of those brilliant books that everyone loves. I see someone reading this book on the subway all the time and it always makes me smile. I want to scoot people off their seats just so I can sit with the person reading the book so we can talk about it and how I love that part, and has she read that scene?” I can be intolerable and this book made me really intolerable. Its nods to science-fiction, its geekiness, its use of Spanglish and its inherent beauty just floored me and made me jealous that Diaz had written something like this first. I’d be proud of myself if I were Junot Diaz. This is a book to covet, it’s so good. I hadn’t loved a character and been so honestly frustrated by one and felt so connected to a fictitious character in so long that when I finally came to the end I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t read anything else for a little while. I was so wrapped up in my feelings about Oscar Wao. As someone who likes to write fiction on the side, this book immediately made me look inward and made me pick up and a pen and start writing a little bit again. It’s a very passionate book and surely destined to become one of the great works of American literature, not just of this decade, but of the entire canon.

The Savage Detectives

4)

The Savage Detectives (2007)

Roberto Bolaño

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

The Savage Detectives is unlike any book that has ever been written. It presents a style and form that has a writer’s stamp all over it. Once cracked, you’re immediately in the Bolaño world. You’re immediately introduced to The Visceral Realists, a gang of poets that include Chilean poet Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, both founders of the resurgence of this poetic movement which was first started by “the mother of visceral realism” Cesarea Tinajero. The first part of the book is narrated by Luis Sebastian Rosado, a seventeen year old who is introduced to the poets and is eventually taken along on the quest to find Cesarea Tinajero, who had disappeared from world long ago. The second part, “The Savage Detectives” is 400 pages of vignettes, consisting of the dozens of voices of people that Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano meet in the consequent 20 years after their trip into the Sonora Desert to find Cesarea Tinajero. I couldn’t believe how original this book is. This guy juggles what feels like a hundred voices in these four hundred pages and he keeps everything he’s working with in the air. One thing about Bolaño that I really loved and respected was how well he wrote gay men. The relationship between Luis Sebastian Rosado and Luscious Skin is just as truthful and erotic and funny and adventurous as any of the fiery sexual explorations that pepper this novel. It’s a very erotically charged, but it’s very sexy. And I’ll NEVER forget Barbara Patterson, the American hippie chick with the mouth of a sailor, or Amadeo Salvatierra, who keeps trying to shove mescal down your throat every time you come back to his story. How can someone map 20 years in the lives of these two people so precisely and with such gusto? It’s a head-spinning book that really wrapped its fine web all around me till I felt like I belonged in its pages. I lived and breathed this book and it was so sweet to discover it all on my own. It was there at The Strand and I took a chance on it, especially considering that I got it hardcover and that I really never do. Well, it was the discovery of the decade for me. I can’t think of a single contemporary writer that I’ve read this whole decade that has impacted me more than Bolaño.

House of Leaves

3:

House of Leaves: (2000)

Mark Z. Danielewski

The first thing that grabs you about House of Leaves is its size. It feels and looks like a fat movie script. The cover says “A Novel” but once I flipped through its pages, I didn’t see your typical everyday novel. Boxed-in words that you can read only when projected onto a mirror, sentences in the shape of snapped ropes, appendixes, photographs, letters, film reels – pretty much a typographical labyrinth of mad genius that even with its hyper-intelligence, manages to also be highly accessible. I never felt as if the book were leaving me behind, sucking up its dust. There are so many secrets, puzzles, anagrams, acronyms, references that entire websites have been created – discussion boards, blog commentaries and conspiracy theories all of them trying to put the pieces of this puzzle together. At the start we meet Johnny Truant, a young L.A. scenester who moves into the first floor apartment of a blind man named Zampano who has just died. Inside the blind man’s mausoleum of an apartment he finds a pile of manuscripts, pictures, film reels that pertain to a certain project called The Navidson Record. This report is supposedly some Blair Witch kind of underground movie spectacle – a real life family home movie of shot by the Navidson family as they try to fight off…their own house. Slowly, but surely, we start thinking just like Johnny, getting so sucked in to this story that we start believing it’s real. The house on One Ash Tree Lane, as the Navidson family soon learns, bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, well – actually it grows on the inside. Eventually, their children get lost in the house and what ensues is one of the scariest and most thrilling reading experiences I’ve ever had. We hear about theories on sound and echos, parallax, we walk down a 5 ½ minute hallway, and we’re taken down Yeat’s winding gyre – Dante’s ever-turning path down to the bottom of Hell. As terrifying as the experience is, at its true core, House of Leaves is a love story. It’s about fear, definitely, but more specifically, the fear of losing your family to forces that seem out of your control, whether its madness or from random chaos. Bret Easton Ellis’s review on the back cover of my copy asks himself ‘Will I ever recover?’ In my case – any day now.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

2)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2001)

Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a book I’ll never forget. I keep wanting to reread it for a third time, pretty much all the time. There are so many books I want to read, but all I want to do is read this again. So many images from this book stay with me, that just come in flashes every once in a while. The entire premise is so exciting. It’s more than 600 pages and you never feel encumbered. Joe Kavalier was a character I truly fell in love with. Just like I fell in love with Aladdin when I was a wee homo, Kavalier was the fake man of my dreams. I wanted to be around him all the time. I can relate to Sammy Clay in so many ways and there are few love stories that move me the way Sammy Clay and Tracy Bacon’s relationship affects me. The scene at the airport at night and their walk through the abandoned World’s Fair site are some of my favorite scenes in any book I’ve read. It’s a book that contains multitudes too. It’s an immigrant story, a love story, a gay love story, about the birth of comic books, a post-World War II novel and it succeeds on every level.

2666

1)

2666 (2008)

Roberto Bolaño

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

I discovered Roberto Bolaño at the perfect hour. I had picked up The Savage Detectives and was instantaneously addicted to his polyphonic style. I was hungry for more and I started shopping around for some Bolaño, when I heard, who knows where, that 2666 was coming out and that it was a near thousand-page monster. I immediately Googled this said monster and found the cover art and synopsis on Amazon. First off…the cover designs by Charlotte Strick and Jonathan D. Lippincott is without a doubt the best I’ve ever seen. I love book design and it honestly is a big factor in which book I chose to read next. I crumble for a good cover, or overall book design, like Danielewski’s books, as well as Chabon’s on some occasions, Kavalier & Clay to be precise. So, when I saw Gustave Moreau’s “Jupiter and Semele” behind that red demonic typography I knew there would be a real and true universe contained behind that cover. Like a psychopomp, it showed me the way to hell. It also showed me that hell is palpable and that we’re all living in it.

Reading a book like The Savage Detectives can be exhausting, and I sure as hell was weak from retaining so many lives in such a supersonic speed at such an incessant rapidity. I figured it was the incredible and inspired triumph of a writer that just wrote his masterpiece. Surely if I was exhausted, the guy that conceived of what was probably hundreds of characters must still be gasping for air years later. But no, it was just like a regular Tuesday afternoon of jotting stuff down for him. He seemed to inhabit a Shakespearian madness of filling the transparencies of others and the way it reads, so fluid and naturally propelled, it only feels as if it is spilling out of him as he’s writing it – consulting no books, no manic marginalia, no tape-recorder. His prose feels like immemorial knowledge, like the scrolls of a parallel universe. The entire book, in one way or the other, centers around the factory town Santa Teresa, based on the Mexican town of Juarez, where hundreds upon hundreds of women’s murdered bodies have been recovered from the streets and in the deserts on the outskirts of the city.  Although a technically uncompleted novel, 2666 is comprised of five parts: “The Part about the Critics”, “The Part about Amalfitano”, “The Part about Fate”, “The Part about the Crimes” and “The Part about Archimboldi”. It is 893 pages of some of the craziest prose I’ve ever read. “The Part about the Crimes” itself is 280 of carnage, nihilism, rape, shooting, strangulations, murder. We meet all of Santa Teresa’s victims as well as some of their respective families. We learn their daily regimens, the friends they’ve made in their lives, and most shocking, or startling of all – we meet some of the men that killed them, men they knew, and even some they loved.

It was an epidemic; it wasn’t a slasher roaming the streets for a span of more than a decade, but an entire city that seemed borne out of some plasmatic violence. I’m talking about both Santa Teresa (the fictional) and Juarez (the real), for they are separate entities. Bolaño had heard about the murders from an article in a newspaper and wanted to conduct a further investigation, but as luck and the cosmos would have it, he never got much or real information to work with. The lives of all the women in “The Part about the Crimes” are pure Bolaño fancy. But when we read it, it’s as real as knowing your own name. And that’s just one of five parts (but lucky for us, a sixth part has surfaced amongst Bolaño’s papers in Spain).

In 2666, Bolaño takes us through North America, Mexico, and all across Europe in one rhetorically maniacal fell swoop. The worlds created here are so fully-fleshed, so seamlessly drawn from every angle that it’s hard to not accept that Florita Almada, the psychic force of the novel, doesn’t really make those television appearances, or that Archimboldi is a real person that lives or had lived in a universe that wasn’t automatically legitimized by Bolaño’s word. We learn so much from reading 2666, and it doesn’t matter whether any of it is true or not in the physical world. We learn about the various species of seaweeds and sponges, about post World War II science-fiction, that a starfish won’t survive in a normal fish tank and what it might feel like to know you’re crying underwater. If you’ll allow me, this is what we have to learn about ‘stars’ according to 2666:

STARS – (Seaman) said that people knew many different kinds of stars or thought they knew many different kinds of stars. He talked about the stars you see at night, say when you’re driving from Des Moines to Lincoln on Route 80 and the car breaks down, the way they do, maybe it’s the oil or the radiator, maybe it’s a flat tire, and you get out and get the jack and the spare tire out of the trunk and change the tire, maybe half an hour, at most, and when you’re done you look up and see the sky full of stars. The Milky Way. He talked about star athletes. That’s a different kind of star, he said, and he compared them to movie stars, though as he said, the life of an athlete is generally much shorter. A star athlete might last fifteen years at best, whereas a movie star could go on for forty or fifty years if he or she started young. Meanwhile, any star you could see from the side of Route 80, on the way from Des Moines to Lincoln, would live for probably millions of years. Either that or it might have been dead for millions of years, and the traveler who gazed up at it would never know. It might be a live star or it might be a dead star. Sometimes, depending on your point of view, he said, it doesn’t matter, since the stars you see at night exist in the realm of semblance. They are semblances, the same way dreams are semblances. So the traveler on Route 80 with a flat tire doesn’t know whether what he’s staring up at in the vast night are stars or whether they’re dreams. In a way, he said, the traveler is also part of a dream, a dream that breaks away from another dream like one drop of water breaking away from a bigger drop of water that we call a wave…Really, when you talk about stars you’re speaking figuratively. That’s metaphor. Call someone a movie star. You’ve used a metaphor. Say: the sky is full of stars. More metaphors. If somebody takes a hard right to the chin and goes down, you say he’s seeing stars. Another metaphor. Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming. In that sense a metaphor is like a life jacket. And remember, there are life jackets that float and others that sink to the bottom like lead. Best not to forget it. But really, there’s just one star and that star isn’t semblance, it isn’t metaphor, it doesn’t come from any dream or any nightmare. We have it right outside. It’s the sun. The sun, I am sorry to say, is our only star.

For someone so consumed with the lives of writers and poets, it’s interesting that Bolaño fails to mention the span of the literary star, who unlike the movie star and the athlete, can live for hundreds or thousands of years in the minds and the hearts of his devoted followers, of his or her readers. Bolaño for one, I expect, will be read and remembered for a very, very long time. We know that Bolaño is gone, but his light keeps reaching us, and I’m grateful to have looked upon semblances of his making such as that of 2666.





The MTA Art Gallery

13 12 2009

Thank the good Lord Jesus Christ for the underground subway posters brought to you by our dear friends at the MTA (and that’s all the thanks you’ll get from me you dirty bastards). Seriously though, when the city keeps trying to bring you down – when your devil cuntress of a boss has been busting your proverbial balls all day long, and all you can do is sigh and huff and puff in the time before you get home and start slashing your stuffed animals, you can always take a look at the wonderful works of art that constantly surround you on the subway platforms. New Yorkers really are some witty bastards and even if they’re not necessarily witty, we’ve all got some pretty good stories. Consider Exhibit A for example:

So…Tobey McGuire…Hollywood’s golden nerd that can maybe beat you up, pays some poor fuck to be his mule? Tobey McGuire has mules (because let’s get real – this guy’s friend is not the only balloon pooping bastard the McGuister has on his payroll) !?!? I’m very inclined to make some kind of Tobey McGuire – Topher Grace – Maria Full of Grace joke, but I’m only on my second cup of coffee, so I’m stumped. So, if you can finagle that perfect zinger I’m looking for…hook it up. Anyhoo, that being said, Exhibit B…

is for Baldwin! Slap my ass and call me Trudy, this poster is amazing! I stepped off the F train on Friday night, was making my way to the L train when I basically did one of these:

I stopped dead in my tracks, screamed at the top of my lungs and proceeded to piss myself. J.K Rowling, I only pointed and laughed and THOUGHT I might pee myself – because contrary to popular belief, I actually didn’t marry Josh Duhamel. Yes, it’s a crying, pissing shame.





The Ten Best Films of the Decade

12 12 2009

The 00’s, the aughts, or the boob years as I like to call them (thanks for the good times Dubya…) gave us some seriously good celluloid lovin’. And even though I considered myself a sagacious, prepubescent Roger Ebert in  the 90’s, it was in the boob years that I became mature enough to know what was really going on. Appreciation is the basic fabric of movie-going. The release of any new Disney or Pixar film is going to undoubtedly pummel all the opening week competition. Why? Because even the teeniest of children want that accessibility too. I remember being two years old, sitting at a theater in Miami, watching Stand by Me – it’s my very first memory. When I was ten years old I would go to the movies all by myself. Saturday mornings, my parents would still be asleep, and I’d go to the movies for a stretch of six hours, watching three movies back to back. Apollo 13, First Knight and Species was a good batch that I remember and that went on for a long time (until those fuckers started enforcing that R-rating shit on me. “But I live here! You sold me a ticket to Species last week!” I screamed.)

You don’t have to be Roger Ebert to make this list (love you Rog!), you just have to be a living, breathing, human being. Who doesn’t love the movies? The point of this diatribe is that, when reading the countless “Best of the Decade” lists that are now going around at the end of ’09, it seems that no list-compiler is capable of simply writing about the movies they really loved. It all has to come back around to 9/11 somehow. You see these lists and there’s so much calculation, so much research; it’s such an exercise in decade/cross-culture retention. In one such “Best of” list, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was named the best novel of the decade because in the 00’s we saw the birth of blogging; the novel’s form was a mimetic exercise on how the world reads today, with five windows open on your computer screen at a time, each window bearing nine different tabs. Yes, I get it, but…that’s why it’s the best of the decade? What about the sheer pleasure of the experience? I want to see Napoleon Dynamite on a list. I mean, I know I stand alone in this, but I thought Napoleon Dynamite was shit on a stick, but I know even some critics went gaga over it. What did you enjoy the most? What struck the strongest core with you as a movie-goer? Why the intelligentsia?

None of the films you see below have ANYTHING to do with my feelings towards 9/11, Al-Qaeda, or the two wars the United States are waging in the East…nothing. They’re there because I love them and they are my absolute favorites. I just wish I could stick 100 films in my top ten. List building is hard and it really hurt when I had to leave some other films out. So, make sure to look at the bottom for my honorable mentions. I couldn’t bear to not mention them one way or another.

I ❤ "Fuckabees"

10:

I ❤ Huckabees (2004)

Directed by David O. Russell

Written by David O. Russell and Jeff Baena

I ❤ Huckabees is one hell of a weird movie. Existential detectives? Well, considering the pedigree (David O. Russell also made the brilliant and highly underrated Flirting with Disaster) it’s not really such a stretch. Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman (in a ridiculous, yet awesome Sergeant Pepper wig) play Vivian and Bernard, a husband and wife  team of existential detectives hired by the activist and poet Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) to investigate why he keeps running into a “tall African guy.” At the headquarters of I ❤ Huckabees, “the everything store,” Albert is struggling to keep the “Save the Marsh” coalition he started from scratch, a coalition which he constantly puts in jeopardy of losing because he keeps alienating the members of the coalition with his saccharine and honestly shitty poems. No one likes the poems and apparently Shania Twain, the spokesperson for the coalition, “doesn’t give a shit.” No one at the coalition likes Albert. Everyone prefers Brad Stand (Jude Law), the sycophant Ken doll that’s fucking the I ❤ Huckabees spokesgirl (Naomi Watts). In order to piss Albert off even more, Brad hires the existential detectives to solve his own existential conundrums. Turns out he thinks it’s a sham, but not Dawn, his girlfriend, who realizes she has an identity disorder. The hot bombshell shows up to work wearing a bonnet and crushed Oreo cookies in between her teeth. This movie is pure pandemonium. It’s so damn crazy and fun. It also has what has to be one of the flat-out weirdest sex scenes in not just this decade, but in movie history. I never, ever get tired of watching this film because it’s also one of the most quotable movies of the decade. I probably quote this movie on a, if not daily, weekly basis. “Shania doesn’t give a shit” being my personal favorite. “Have you ever transcended space and time?” “Yes. No. Time, not space. No I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Go and contain her. She said Fuckabees!” David O. Russell is supposed to be a real hardass to work with, but from over here, I couldn’t imagine how all these actors weren’t having a blast making this movie.

Closer

9:

Closer (2004)

Directed by Mike Nichols

Written by Patrick Marber

The one and only time I felt a tinge of heterosexuality flow through me in this decade (or any other, let’s get real) was in Mike Nichols’ third attempt at making the same movie, the brilliant and merciless Closer. This was when my crush for Natalie Portman began and it remains to this day. Closer was a brand of film that was completely new to me when it was first released. I had never seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or Carnal Knowledge, Nichols’ prior two films about cutthroat foursomes, so when I finally saw Closer I couldn’t believe my ears. At first I was enthralled by its rhetorical lasciviousness; it was funny! The Jude Law and Clive Owen internet chat scene was hysterical. But then it became a movie about brutal, unabashed honesty. “He tastes like you, but sweeter.” If there was one total car crash of a movie where your eyes are just glued to the screen, despite the emotional bedlam playing out before your eyes, it was Closer that takes the prize. All four actors were in peak form in this film and a special kudos to Julia Roberts, who played subdued cunt for the first time in her career with true aplomb. It was so refreshing to see her turn the volume three, four notches down. Closer was definitely smart and although maybe a bit too honest to the point of exaggeration, its inherent sauciness wins me over every time.

Pan's Labyrinth

8:

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Written and Directed by

Guillermo del Toro

Almodovar, please forgive me (right…like he really gives a shit), but Mexican director Guillermo del Toro one-uped you in your native country of España with his macabre fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth. The film was glorified at Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered and soon enough, before it was widely distributed, the praise elevated it to the level of high fantasy akin to that of The Lord of the Rings. When I first saw it, I liked it. I thought it was “pretty cool.” I blame my initial tepid response on The Hippodrome Theater, where I also saw Little Children, another movie that I didn’t enjoy as much as I had expected to until I saw it in the privacy of my own home. The thing is it didn’t take a second viewing for me to realize what an amazing work of art Pan’s Labyrinth actually is. It happened in the interim. The movie simmered in my brain, specific images kept flashing through my brain for weeks after seeing it: the blood making its way back up her adorable little nose, the stalactites gliding in the hollow of the tree when she first makes her way into the labyrinth, but more than anything it was the language. What would’ve been the final result had El Laberinto del Fauno been made to be Pan’s Labyrinth? My best guess is that it wouldn’t be the film that we now know and love so dearly. It was a real stroke of genius to make this film in Spanish. And that’s not a ludicrous statement…at all. How many films have been torqued to suit the needs of the American public? Countless, countless movies! I’m grateful Pan’s Labyrinth didn’t end up a casualty of mainstream Americana fodder-producing film conglomerates, and that del Toro ended up making his movie the way he wanted it made. Is it on the same alter of high-fantasy as The Lord of the Rings? Yes. But this even better.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

7:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Directed by Michel Gondry

Written by Charlie Kaufman

It’s hard to believe that a movie like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind actually exists. The conceit is eccentric enough: Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) wants to erase every trace, every glimpse of a memory of his now ruined relationship with his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet). When you see a film like this it’s very easy to imagine how it all could have floundered. Its merits are endless; the perfect plotting, the idiosyncratic characters, the visionary direction by Gondry and not to mention the amazing performances from both my favorite screen siren, Kate Winslet and from Jim Carrey, in what can only be called his best performance to date. I naturally admire what a well oiled machine Eternal Sunshine is, but what absolutely destroys me is the romance. Watching the memories evaporate is constantly dazzling, but when we see the memories that shouldn’t go away, like the elation of simply cuddling under the covers with the one you love, disappear into some unknown ether, it’s hard to imagine any scenes in this decade that can provide more genuine heartbreak.

Atonement

6:

Atonement (2007)

Directed by Joe Wright

Written by Christopher Hampton

Based on the novel by Ian McEwan

So many people have problems with this film. Ian McEwan’s novel was so bloody good. It’s a hard act to follow, yes, but I was so surprised by Joe Wright’s execution. I thought Pride and Prejudice was fantastic, but I had no idea he had so much flair (and I sure do love me some good flair). He’s the only director that manages to make me like Keira Knightley (that fake, rehearsed smile of hers drives me up the fucking wall). But in Atonement, the woman rocked it. The on-screen chemistry between Ms. Knightley and the nail-biting James McAvoy (seriously James, stop biting your nails, it’s so gross) was really damn hot. Atonement also introduced us to the brilliant Saoirse (pronounced “Sheer-sa” according to a certain little Irish boy I know) Ronan, whose Briony Tallis is one of film’s most reviled characters in recent memory. I also couldn’t get over what a truly intelligent score this movie produced, which is such a rarity. You hear of great scores, but a smart one? It’s an enervating experience to watch this movie. My love for Atonement was instantaneous. I left the theater completely shaken. And yes, the novel’s finale is a bit different, but I think it helped that I read the book after I saw the film. The twist ending, and Vanessa Redgrave’s jaw-dropping five minute performance, completely floored me. Seeing this movie in theaters once was not enough (and that really is the forum for this kind of movie. This isn’t Merchant-Ivory England – this was something else altogether). Oh, and that green dress. Goddamnit, that fucking dress. Fucking gorgeous. Unfortunately, as beautiful as that dress is, it was better received by the public than the movie actually was. Atonement. You don’t really get it until the very end. I left the theater completely broken, but also reinvigorated with my love for cinema. If my spirit and belief in the things cinema is capable of had abated in any way, Atonement swelled the lack in an unprecedented way for me Say what you will about the deviations from book to screen, but in my eyes, it’s a gigantic masterpiece in its own right.

Almost Famous

5:

Almost Famous (2000)

Written and Directed by Cameron Crowe

For those of us who did not live through the 70’s, we’re always hearing about how great it was. Every time I see Almost Famous you better believe I wish I had lived in the 70’s myself. Well, moreso than living in the 70’s, I wanted to ride in the Almost Famous-Tour 73 bus with fine ass Billy Crudup, the nutjobs in his band and the band-aids, getting high as hell, singing awesome music, and getting high again. I love this movie so much I want to take it behind an elementary school and get it pregnant. Few movies make me feel so good and it’s pretty much the only good thing Kate Hudson has ever done with her life, except for getting blazed and watching Showgirls every night before bed with her ex-husband (an apparently true story). If no other movie in this list will be remembered in 20 years, this one will. I want to rant and rave about everything I love about Almost Famous, but to do that would be to transcribe the screenplay in its totality. There isn’t a wasted scene in the whole film and the damn thing should have its own Bartlett’s: “Feck you,” “Rock stars have kidnapped my son,” “I am a golden god!” “I’m gay!” I really never wanted it to end. It’s funny that in the beginning of the picture we see young William Miller and his mother, played brilliantly (as usual) by Frances McDormand, walking out of a screening of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the end of Almost Famous, after Russell Hammond finally gives William the interview he had been killing himself for and gets back on the tour bus, and Penny Lane hops on a plane to Morocco, I had the same feeling that I had when I finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird myself. Boo Radley simply went back into his house and as Scout simply says, “I never saw him again.” I wanted to hop on that bus and on that plane – hell, I wanted to hop right into the screen. I don’t like the idea of never seeing these characters again, but at least I got to meet them in the first place.

Brokeback Mountain

4:

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Directed by Ang Lee

Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana

Although Brokeback Mountain was released at the very end of 2005, we had all been hearing about Brokeback Mountain since the beginning of that year. Dubbed “the gay cowboy” movie, it was pretty much the most talked about picture in a long time. I was living in England in the fall of that year when I picked up Annie Proulx’s short story. I don’t remember how many times I read that story that fall. The last time was on my train ride from Prague to Paris and I just kept on asking myself, “How the fuck are they going to pull this off?” When it was published in the New Yorker it was 12 pages long – and this is supposed to be a fully fleshed-out movie? Well they did it. It’s all there. Except for the addition of one character, everything that was in those 12 pages was on that screen. The lonely western silences and the incredible cinematography (goddamn I want to go to Calgary. That’s in Canadia. Yeah…this movie is so gorgeous it made me want to go to Canada) were characters in themselves. It’s a miraculous adaptation of what is probably the best short story written in decades and its celluloid doppelganger is pretty much just as beautiful. Sure, I’m a big old fag, but that’s not why I’d consider this the greatest love story of the decade. I guess, just like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that the greatest love stories, for me at least, have to be enmeshed in the memory of what has been lost. When Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are in their old age, bitterly saying goodbye to one another at the edges of Brokeback Mountain, 20 years into their clandestine relationship, Jack falls into a flashback, of when he would sleep standing up like a horse and Ennis would come up from behind to wrap his arms around him, telling him they had to pack up their camp, after which Jack watches him ride away in his horse, jovial and inundated with love for Jack. But now, Ennis is driving away in his truck, bitter and depressed, too broken down by 20 years and thousands of miles of restriction. Gay or straight, it’s the oldest story in the book. Not unrequited love, but how everyone else can get in the way of being with the one you love. The tire-iron, the two shirts and that shithole of a family plot is how it all ended. My heart was screaming “how is that possible!?” But I had to accept it, in the name of poetry.

Kill Bill

3:

Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003-2004)

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Starting this review immediately puts a big ol’ fat smile on my face. I saw Kill Bill Vol. 1 on opening night, when I was a freshman in college. Cinema had changed forever for me after that day. Okay, I know what you’re all going to say. Tarantino is nothing but a charlatan, a big recycling plant. And yes, he does borrow (HEAVILY) from spaghetti westerns, kung-fu movies, 1970’s B-pictures, etc. But the truth of the matter is that I hadn’t been exposed to that yet. Watching Kill Bill now, I can’t help but point and say, “hey! That’s straight from Baby Cart in Peril from the Lone Wolf and Cub series” or some such shit. The truth is that Kill Bill was an educating experience. My appreciation for cinema on an ecumenical level was expanded, my vision and tolerance and enthusiasm increased five-fold. Kill Bill may be the product of many, many sources, but it was still my initiation into a brand new branch of cinema that I hadn’t yet allowed myself to explore, and you never forget your first. It was the most kinetic, breath-taking experience. And on top of it all, it was Tarantino’s words that were flying through the screen along with the axes, swords, bullets and even rock salt. He may have borrowed from every other great master in cinema, but Tarantino’s words are always undoubtedly Tarantino’s words. I mean, I’m queerer than a three dollar bill, but I carried around a Pussy Wagon keychain for something like two years. The man is hysterical, even in the grizzliest, most perverse situations. The Kill Bill universe seems to contain everything; it’s a celluloid cultural concordance all on its own.

Traffic

2:

Traffic (2000)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Written by Stephen Gaghan

“Last night I had an ugly nightmare” is how Traffic, the movie that sky-rocketed Erika Christensen into stardom, begins (seriously though, what would’ve this decade been had we not been blessed with the movie making miracle that was Swimfan?). In all seriousness though, we’re talking about the best war movie of the 00’s (I’ve yet to see The Hurt Locker, but I hear that’s pretty great). I find it rather interesting that this film came out before 9/11 and yet, the war on crime was so much more interesting than any of the Iraq movie corpses that Hollywood kept on shoving down our collective throats these past eight/nine years. Traffic juggles a series of interlaced vignettes: the newly appointed drug czar has to deal with his free-basing daughter’s addiction; a Mexican cop who earns 300 American dollars a month starts working with the DEA to bring the Tijuana cartel down to its knees; a pregnant wife learns that her husband is the Tony Montana of La Jolla, California and does everything in her power to keep her family from falling apart…and maybe another two or three more stories in the two and a half hour mix. Traffic was such a badass drama. The instantaneous grabber was the photography by Steven Soderbergh, who credited himself under his alias “Peter Andrews” – the arid landscape of Mexico, whether in the dense streets of Tijuana or in the arid purlieus of the city are drenched in the humid orange of a polarized lens; the outskirts of Ohio, where 16 year old white prep-school kids are shot in the frigid blue of impacted ice. The performances, especially by Benicio del Toro are fantastic. Till this day, I still have no idea what he was doing with that character. Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez. I know he was supposed to be Mexican, but he didn’t really sound Mexican. Throughout the whole thing, I kept thinking, “wait…is he Mexican? Is he Colombian? Shit, I don’t care! I love it!” But what really struck me was Catherine Zeta Jones. In what looks like her third trimester, her Que Pasa USA husband, Stephen Bauer, is sent to the clink and she becomes the Don of cocaine export for the whole of California in one fell swoop. Without blinking an eye she orders the execution of the prime witness against her hubby and teaches America that we had it wrong all along: The godfather was a woman. Put that in your crack pipe and smoke it.

The Hours

1:

The Hours (2002)

Directed by Stephen Daldry

Written by David Hare

The Hours is one of the single most incredible movie-going experiences of my life. It’s dark – granted. It’s something of a downer – fine, I agree with you. But it manages to caress and embrace my sensibilities as a human being like few films on this planet. I’m not completely sure what it is that did it, but The Hours made me want to be a writer. The unending and enduring love for Virginia Woolf began with this film and having seen the movie before I read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, written by the damn genius that is Michael Cunningham, I can still say that the film is an even more gratifying experience (not too many people will agree with me on this). Film and literature are my two greatest passions in the world and I have yet to see a more perfect marriage of the two than in this miracle of a picture. Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf? How did Stephen Daldry ever think of this? What kind of mad lighting was he stricken with to even consider such an idea? To anyone who says it was just the nose, you can just go to hell. It was such an impassioned, masterly performance. Few people have actually heard Mrs. Woolf’s actual voice. It’s insanely posh; very high-pitched, almost bird-like. Listening to Virginia Woolf, one would swear she were satirizing her countrymen with every syllable, consonant, vowel  – as if she were poking fun at her own proletariat caste. But Ms. Kidman took a completely different route. She presented the Woolf we hear in our own heads whenever we pick up a book written by the real Virginia Woolf. Hell, you don’t even have to read a book by Virginia Woolf to imagine this sort of speak. The personality at times, as reserved and as scared of the world as she could be at times, when her madness wasn’t overwhelming her, seemed even greater than the genius of her works. The direction and the editing of this picture, how we see all three principle characters – Virginia as she is concocting her miniscule opus Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Brown (played by Julianne Moore) reading Mrs. Dalloway and accepting the epiphany that she, like Mrs. Dalloway, is a prisoner in her own seemingly perfect life, and Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), a contemporary Mrs. Dalloway living in NYC, whose sense of purpose is supported by the slowly eroding life of a dying poet (Ed Harris) – is an exercise in pure cinematic mastery. And to tie it all together, is what I’d say is the greatest score of the decade, courtesy of the highly-imitated, never surpassed brilliance of Philip Glass. This is a film that haunts me – a movie that will never leave me for the rest of my life. And I suppose, and it seems only fitting, to conclude this passage, with an excerpt from Mrs. Woolf’s diary, which lends itself to the conclusion of this film itself – a conclusion as beautiful and poetic as any I have ever seen in a movie before: “Dear Leonard. To look life in the face…always to look life in the face…and to know it…for what it is. At last…to know it, to love it…for what it is, and then…to put it away. Leonard, always the years between us…always the years. Always the love. Always…the hours.”

Honorable mentions:

40 Year Old Virgin, A.I., Amores Perros, Chicago, Children of Men, City of God, Crouching Tiger-Hidden Dragon, Dogville, Elephant, Ghost World, Into the Wild, Little Children, The Lord of the Rings, Lost in Translation, Me And You And Everyone We Know, Mean Girls, Million Dollar Baby, Minority Report, Monster, Mulholland Drive, No Country for Old Men, Requiem for a Dream, The Royal Tenenbaums, Shopgirl, Talk to Her, The Virgin Suicides, Volver, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Zodiac





Trusting the Distance: Q&A with National Book Award winner Colum McCann

12 12 2009

Mr. McCann answering audience questions

TRUSTING THE DISTANCE

A Q&A with Colum McCann following a reading from his new National Book Award winning novel, Let the Great World Spin at 192 Books on December 9th, here in NYC.

CM: Does anyone have any comments or questions?

Audience: I was wondering if you’ve ever met Philip Petit.

CM: I have a message on my answering machine (in a French accent) “hello this is Philip Petit. I am looking for Colum McCann…” but no I’ve never met him. I sent him the book. I talked about what I wanted to do, but I haven’t heard from him, so I don’t know whether he likes it or not. But, in a way, well I would love for him to like it, but in a way I don’t really care because it’s not so much about him as about so many others. But I think what he did was beautiful and I think he handled it that moment when he was up in the air with the most beautiful grace. It’s…it’s an impossible thing. What Philip Petit did was impossible – it was beyond possible. And what happened to the towers was impossible, beyond possible, and how they match together – this act of creation and this act of destruction and it becomes its own strange double ground (sic). I don’t think there’s any one way to write about 9/11. Don DeLillo did a beautiful job. So did Jonathan Safran Foer and Claire Messud did it beautifully. But the thing is there’s all sorts of stories to tell and I wanted to tell it from the allegorical point of view and allow people to experience it maybe in a different way. Really, the whole novel, what I tried to achieve is two little black kids are coming out of the projects in New York and they get rescued. Take it from the very high to the supposedly low. The lowest part of Manhattan, late midnight when the kids are taken away by Social Services. I’m sure Petit would recognize that.

Audience: I wanted to ask about your process of research versus writing. You put a lot of research obviously into this book and into Zoli. Do you separate the two very distinctly? Do you set yourself a period of time in which you do research? When do you know when to begin to write? Do they kind of feed off each other? How does the process work?

CM: I wish I had an absolute answer to that question. You research it and then you walk away from it and try to forget it. I fill up notebooks first off and then I never consult the notebook again. It’s very strange. This one wasn’t so hard. Zoli was a much harder book to research and not as successful a book in many ways. Even Dancer was a harder book for me to research. But this is a New York novel and I’ve been here for the best part of 20 years, so it was an easier thing to do. Like Tillie, for example, what I did was, I got in touch with Richard Price, who I love, one of America’s great writers, and I knew that he knew the cops in the city and I said, “Hey Richard can I borrow your cops?” And I went out on what you call a ride-along with them. And I did a ride-along in the Bronx and I did walk-alongs with Housing cops in the projects and things like that. And then they gave me access to files from 1974 of all the prostitutes and all the nicknames and all the lingo that were in the rap-sheets and reports. And then I went to the New York Public Library, greatest library on Earth, and looked at all the photographs and any films that I could get. And then I went and spent six months trying to capture her voice and essentially failed right until the end when, that line that I read to you tonight, “the skinniest dog I’ve ever seen is on the side of a Greyhound bus,” that was the line that allowed me access to her voice. It was late one night and I was about to go to bed and I tell my wife “I’ll come to bed in five minutes” and she tapped me on the shoulder and it was the next morning. You know, it was one of those things – you get into her voice. And then you forget the research and just hope that it comes out. But I kind of don’t write about what I really know about. I say this to my students at Hunter College – essentially I have a very boring life. I live on the Upper East Side. Sorry. I have to apologize for my address all the time. No, but I have a very normal life, but I write towards what I want to know. That’s where the research is.

Mr. McCann signing books after the reading and the Q&A

Audience: Tillie for me was a difficult character of all the characters. It’s hard to get into her. It’s hard to get attached to her and then when she’s in prison there’s such enormous despair. You sort of brought this vital woman to our lives and I was thinking about this today before coming up here and it’s like…she tried to save her daughter, she tried to take the rap and her daughter ends up dying anyway. And there she was with no one to really talk to about it, about how she was in a system that she despised. And she’s been successful at avoiding it, except for short stays in prison. How did you create that despair for Tillie? It made me feel very sad.

CM: Sometimes these characters just take over and we don’t know where they’re going to go. One of the big secrets about writing and I think most writers will tell you this, is that we really don’t have a clue what we’re doing and we just hope it’s going to work out. One of my favorite quotes is from Doctorow where he says that writing is like driving in a fog at night with your headlights on, and you can only see a certain distance down the road and you trust that distance, and eventually it’s going to get you somewhere. I’d say with Tillie, I didn’t know what she was going to do. I didn’t know what she was going to do to herself in prison. I didn’t even know that her granddaughters would get rescued. It was just the process of writing the book. Later on you make sense of it. I realized like 3/4 of the way through the book that I kill off the two major characters in the first chapter, Corrigan the Irish Monk and Jazzlyn the prostitute. They’re actually the two pillars of the novel. So, these two pillars, or maybe we can call them towers, fall in the first chapter and then you spend the rest of the book reconstituting. That was a real revelation for me. But I didn’t know that! I’m not being disingenuous when I say that I’m not as clever as my readers, but I’m emotionally clever and I can feel things. And if you can walk into that and you can trust it, then hopefully it’s going to work out. Honestly, I really believe, that a book is never finished until it is read and completed and examined and pulled apart and maybe it should haunt you afterwards. That’s what good books do to you; that’s what they do to me. Like Michael Ondaatje. He haunts me! Like when I think of In the Skin of a Lion or when I think of Divisadero – that book haunts me so much. I think that’s the purpose of good writing.

Audience: In Man on Wire, where he’s talking about living your life like you’re a man on wire – when you set out to write this book, did you set out to break some rules? Did you feel like you were a man on a wire?

CM: I’ll tell ya, the honest to God’s truth is – I had this idea shortly after 9/11 and I became a citizen. I was down there protesting and I was like, what if I get arrested? – they can deport me and whatever. I thought I was going to write a book only about the man on the wire and what I was going to do was mix some history and I was going to make him fall because he was way too slow. And that was it, you know. And that was going to be that big sort of image. And then it seemed to me that that was almost too easy because people were perverting justice and I wanted to pervert the idea of history. Again, as a writer, all these people that were gathered down below became much more interesting to me, and I realized that they were the ones walking a tight rope. But they’re more like six inches off the ground, but the thing is if they fall, they fall just as hard as anyone else. I wanted to talk about the grace of the man up above, but I really wanted to talk about the grace of the woman on Park Avenue who has lost a son, or of the Irish monk who believes that someday the meek might inherit the earth. That was the sort of tight rope. As for me personally, I never felt I was walking a tight rope. I know the image of the writer that walks the tight rope, but I never felt that. I swear I couldn’t even stand on this table without collapsing. I have terrible, terrible vertigo.

Audience: When you talk about being haunted by books you’ve read, I was wondering if you could talk more specifically or at length about what, if anything, you hope that your work accomplishes in the lives of other people that read it.

CM: Wow, that’s an enormous question. I don’t know that books can do a lot, and I believe in literature; it’s the only thing that sustains me, as well as my family. I think books can shift things sideways just a little bit. I don’t think books cure things or anything like that, but I think if you find things in say, The Skin of a Lion or Coming Through Slaughter, or Peter Carey’s work, or whoever it happens to be, that we can be changed slightly and our relationship to the world has sort of a domino effect. I sometime think about things that happened to me when I was young, but one very significant thing happened to me when I was very young. My father took me to see my grandfather in London, and my grandfather was dying, and afterwards, because my father thought I was freaked out, he took me to the Hard Rock Café and I remember I had a burger – I didn’t even know what a hamburger was. Is anyone here from Ireland? No? Well, there’s no hamburgers. But we were in London and we had gone to see my grandfather and this Irish waitress was there and she leaned over and she heard that I had just met my grandfather and she touched my face – just  touched my face and she bought me an ice-cream sundae. I swear that she probably forgot that the next week; no big deal for her. She just did a kind thing. But every time I go to London I think of that woman, and who she is and what she did. The enormity of the small moments build up in our lives in the same way that the enormity of the small moments in literature can build up and have an impact on culture or on ideas. When I think about a book like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and how powerful it was for me, how it shifted my relationship – to a community, a whole community, or even in the way to tell a story. Is it enough? Yes, it’s enough. Is it small? Yes, it’s small. Does it have a larger impact? Yes, I think also has a larger impact.

Audience: Could you talk about why you felt that this particular event was something to not only write about, but to create a common thread amongst all these characters in particular?

CM: Simply because it was so beautiful and to write toward it seemed so other-worldly. It had profound influence because when you write “World Trade Center” on a page – we know what it means to us now. I was very aware that if I had written this novel in 2000 it would’ve been completely different than having written it now. It was these things that holds the whole – let’s go back to your question – the tightrope is the thing that holds the whole novel together. I just thought…I don’t know…it was extraordinary.

Audience: Does this book exist in its current form without the events of 9/11?

CM: No. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I knew that from the beginning. I said something like that, except I think I said “anti 9/11” novel and I don’t know what that means now, except that I wanted it to be different from other 9/11 novels. I didn’t want it to be full of “oh woe is us,” because I think the most important thing that we have is the ability to be empathetic and become alive in another skin – certainly in another body. I wrote about this earlier this year, because I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks and I reread Ulysses, and that was the greatest experience. I was on morphine and Percocet; listen it helped. But listen, my dead grandfather walked into the room – because he had been alive on June 16, 1904 and my dead grandfather sat on the bed and read that book for me, really, he was there, and that seems to me the great thing about books. And if you want to know about say, June 16, 1904, you want to know about the early part of the century go to Ulysses. It’s an encyclopedia of human knowledge, and moreso than any history book.