Monday, March 30, 2009

Fiction Mondays: "Then We Came to the End"

Lately, it's rare for me to get through a novel in a matter of days; between working full time, writing for a local magazine, and keeping up with my own fiction and plays, my schedule and level of energy just doesn't always lend itself to getting through a book quickly (see: The Savage Detectives). But last week, in probably about four days, I burned through Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End, a hilarious and surprisingly affecting novel about workers in an ad agency.

When I bought the book, I was worried I would grow tired of its narrative style, written in the first person collective, but I don't think it would have been as amazing if it had a more traditional voice. The book makes you, the reader, complicit in the actions of the narrators, and this at times can be an uncomfortable feeling, as they don't always act in a way you agree with. They gossip, they watch a grieving woman on her lunch break, they judge everyone around them. But they also, despite the fact that they lack names, faces, or any other characterization, manage to produce some real insight into the nature of work and all of the human interactions a day job can bring you.

There's a middle section that steps out of this voice, where Lynn, the narrators' boss, tries to figure out the best way to spend her last night before surgery to remove breast cancer. The author called it the "emotional core" of the novel, and I agree: to step, for just a few pages, out of the office and its trivialities and to exist with one character facing the possibility of death changes the way you read the second half. I think it changes the book from a dark comedy to a kind of tragedy, and towards the end of the book, when a character who is being let go from the agency talks about how they're all losing their minds, it makes more sense because of the closeness of death in the middle section.

I don't want, in reviewing this book, to give too much away, but I have to mention Tom Mota. He's one of the first characters we really get to know, and he is central throughout the entire book as something of an angel of chaos, sending long cryptic e-mails and appearing in an insane, dark, funny scene that serves as the novel's climax. From the first chapter, we know that he is fired, and that he probably is a little insane. He begins to wear three company polo shirts, layered over one another, around the office, and when they ask him what he's doing, his response is, "You don't know what's in my heart." That was the line from the book that resonated with me, and I think about it a lot while I'm at work. I am surrounded by so many people, who I see every day, who I complain about the job with, who I make small talk, but it is true that they don't know what's in my heart, any more than I know what is in theirs.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Art Show at ESU Tomorrow!

If you're in Northeastern Pennsylvania tomorrow between 5 and 7pm, stop by ESU's Fine Arts building for the annual student art show! Allison has a painting that's going to be in it, and light refreshments will be served!

That is all.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Harvey Milk

Saturday night, Allison and I watched Milk, Gus Van Sant's amazing film about gay-rights activist Harvey Milk. I now think, even more than I did while watching the Oscars, that Slumdog Millionaire did not deserve best picture. It just did not stand up, in my mind, to the ambition and compassion of "Milk." The script, which won Best Original Screenplay, blurred what was real and what was imagined in such an intelligent way that the movie almost read like a documentary reconstruction rather than a scripted, acted work (and isn't that what we're going for when we write? Making the audience forget that this thing that they're reading or watching is a construct?), and the directing really added to that feeling by mixing footage from that time period with the actors portraying these individuals.

The best part had to be when, before the credits, they showed a short clip of Harvey Milk speaking. Sean Penn really deserved his Oscar, because based on that few seconds, it looks like he got the mannerisms, down to the really subtle facial expressions, exactly right.

I highly recommend seeing this movie if you haven't already. I was reading an interview with some editors, featured in this months "Poets and Writers," where they were talking about the question of whether a work is essential. I feel like this movie has come along at a time, with Prop 8 existing and intolerance still being so alive and well, when it is most essential.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Everything Dies, That's a Fact

Hopefully by now everyone has checked out the two great new compilations that have been released to raise money for great causes: War Child, Volume 1: Heroes and Dark Was the Night. They're both excellent compilations with a lot of really great music. The latter has a particularly good song by The National (who put together the entire mix) and a bunch of awesome stuff by David Byrne, Antony, and the New Pornographers. But I'd like to take just a few minutes to talk about one track on the "Heroes" compilation that just blows me away: the Hold Steady's long-anticipated cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City."

The Hold Steady performed the song live a few years ago at a big Springsteen event, and ever since then, I've been wanting to hear what they did with it. When I finally got to hear it, I was so glad that it was everything I had hoped for. If you're not familiar with the original, it's the best song on Springsteen's second album, "Nebraska," and it tells the story of a down-on-his luck loser who is hoping to cash out by doing some kind of vague criminal activity. The original has these long Ohh's in the background, giving it a lot of tension and leaving the listener pretty haunted, and for Springsteen, whose largest body of work contains full instrumentation and big sound, the sparseness of the track is a real departure. The Hold Steady's cover is everything you want a cover to be: it reinvents the song without sacrificing any meaning or feeling from the original. Gone are the background Ohh's, but for the first verse and chorus, the only sounds are Craig Finn and a piano. There are a few bits that get cut from the cover, but these are sacrificed for the sake of the story: where Springsteen sings, "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact," Finn gets right to the meat of these phrases. He says, "Everything dies, that's a fact." In his version, there's no need to expand on this sentiment by nodding to the hypothetical listener.

After the first chorus, the song takes an interesting departure, exploding with the saxaphone and full band that Springsteen doesn't use in the original, and I like this touch. It makes it not so much a cover of only this one Springsteen song, but instead a nod to everything the Hold Steady seem to admire in the Boss's work. By far my favorite part, however, is the verse in the song when the narrator talks about getting involved in this criminal act, the line "Last night I met this guy, I'm gonna do a favor for him." In typical Hold Steady style, Finn grabs this line and repeats it several times before breaking it apart and singing, "Last night I met this guy" several times before putting it back together. It's a trick they've used in a few other songs to great effect, and I think it really works in this cover. It seems to cement the narrator's decision to do this favor, and carries the song to the next point, when all of the instrumentation disappears, and we're left with an a capella chorus singing, "Everything dies, that's a fact. Maybe everything that dies someday comes back." Even at the very end of the song, when the whole band comes back in, this line is repeated until the close. It's especially powerful coming from the Hold Steady, who share with Springsteen a certain fixation on the big Catholic mystery of resurrection. In this line, the band's love of broken-down characters who only hope for another chance calls out to Springsteen's love of the same, and the overall effect is beautiful and kind of chilling.

For me, this final line, in the hands of the Hold Steady, hearkens back to "Separation Sunday." Yes, everything does come back, but it's not always in the way you'd expect. Sometimes, it has to be through a girl crashing into the Easter Mass to tell us "how a resurrection really feels."