Friday, January 27, 2006

Hoaxing Literature

Gavin at Wordwright was all over the James Frey disaster from the first, but I thought I would chime in with some recent updates.

Of course, most people know by now that one of the things that fueled the fire was Oprah Winfrey's initial defense of the book -- that if it wasn't true, it was at least truthful, and if not entirely truthful, it was at least "true" in some, I don't know, nonfactual sense.

Well, yesterday, Oprah turned around and bitch-slapped Frey -- live on her own television show! (The NYT's TV critic went with the headline "Ms. Winfrey Takes a Guest to the Televised Woodshed.") She did an about-face on the book's truth content (or lack thereof), forcing Frey to admit to her viewers that he fabricated information -- including, apparently, legal documents testifying to the veracity of said information -- not that Frey forged them, he just made them up as well.

Even people who want to defend the distinction between memoir as recalled and autobiography as recorded fact have to acknowledge that Frey (and quite likely his publisher) went to extreme and probably fraudulent lengths to vouch for the factuality of his memoir, and that its presumed factuality greatly augmented its value as literature. A Million Little Pieces isn't even inaccurate -- it's dishonest, from cover to cover. Once a memoirist gives up even on honesty, there's no way to redeem it, except as a cleverly (or not-so-cleverly) executed hoax. And I think Oprah realized that, or was made to realize that.

Literary hoaxes can have their own fictonal or metafictional value -- Borges's Ficciones is an excellent example at the formal level, the poetry of Ossian (a fictional Celtic contemporary of Homer, invented by James McPherson in the late 18th century) might be another. But this one just stinks.

Actually, though, I was prompted to write this summary less by Oprah than by two excellent and complimentary pieces that appeared on literary hoaxes recently in LA Weekly. The first, "Free James Frey!" by Permanent Midnight author Jerry Stahl, is a smart and witty summary/analysis of the whole Frey affair, and linking JF to George W. -- kinda like the Frank Rich "Truthiness" column on crystal meth.

The second is a whole new hoax, titled "Navahoax," by Matthew Fleischer, about a memoirist named Nasdijj, who, in addition to fabricating his memoirs, is probably lying about being a Navajo Indian AND plagiarized other Indian authors to come up with his stories. It's not as ripping as Stahl on Jim Frey, but has some great lines from everyone's all-time favorite Indian author Sherman Alexie, who spotted the hoax early on, including this one:

“My stepfather once told me, if you want anyone in the world to like you, just tell them that you’re Indian. For some reason we are elevated simply because of our race. I’m so popular I could start a cult. I could have 45 German women living with me tomorrow.”

I don't know what to say after that, other than this little paradox: more than the skill or deceipt of the authors, it's their readers' credulity, and their longing for some kind of authentic experience, that lets these fictions thrive. It's because we live in the world of "truthiness" that anything that seems to offer The Truth about life, any life different from ours, appeals to us. And appeals to us so much that we'll swallow garbage to get it. And anyone can sell it to us.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Why Duchamp is a Genius

I've long been a partisan of the works of Marcel Duchamp. His use of "ready-mades" was one of the touchstones that grounded my academic (and personal) interest in the role of objects in modernist art and literature. So this story in the NYT (via Boing Boing) caught my attention:

PARIS, Jan. 6 - The Dada movement made its name in the early 20th century by trying to destroy the conventional notion of art. Taking literal inspiration from their exploits this week, a latter-day neo-Dadaist took a small hammer to Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain," the factory-made urinal that is considered the cornerstone of Conceptual Art.

The assailant, a French performance artist named Pierre Pinoncelli, was immediately arrested after his act of vandalism, which took place on Wednesday, during the final days of the "Dada" exhibition at the Pompidou Center. The porcelain urinal was slightly chipped in the attack and was withdrawn to be restored. (The exhibition runs through Monday.)

Mr. Pinoncelli, 77, who urinated into the same urinal and struck it with a hammer in a show in Nîmes in 1993, has a long record of organizing bizarre happenings. Police officials said he again called his action a work of art, a tribute to Duchamp and other Dada artists.

Forget the conceptual gamesmanship, everything that you could say about chance or the role of the audience in constructing, constituting, or attempting to destroy the artwork, all of the rehashed crap about the modernist avant-garde closing the distance between art and everyday life, or the role of gesture (on behalf of the artist) and institutional valuation (on behalf of the artwork).

The reason why Duchamp is a genius is this: what other masterpieces in the history of art since the Renaissance could be both pissed on and taken a hammer to and come away "only slightly chipped"? Duchamp has really created a work of art that genuinely endures the ravages of time.

Then again, Pierre Pinoncelli is 77 years old. So he couldn't have been swinging the hammer too hard.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Outsourcing the Welfare State

Americans have Wal-Mart; Europeans have Ikea. The differences are instructive.

Here's one. The story's been kicking around for years now that Wal-Mart employees' low wages mean they rack up a kajillion dollars (or something) in government welfare, amounting to a kajillion dollar government subsidy to Wal-Mart. Another example of American capitalism at its most contradictory and perverse.

Then, I saw this post on Boing Boing linking to this article from Der Spiegel: "The Swedish Feeding Trough." Man, oh man.

If you've ever been to an Ikea, you know that two of its features which make it stand out from American stores are its free-of-charge child play area and its cheap-as-free in-store cafeteria. Now, this hasn't caught on in the states, but apparently in Germany, the following have happened:

1) Pensioners and poor people are turning to Ikea's restaurants instead of soup kitchens. Some are drawn by the low prices, others by the opportunity to "scrounge" for free stuff in the kitchen and bathrooms -- used cups, toilet paper, baby food, diapers, etc.

2) Parents are using the Ikea play center as a free babysitting service: dropping their kids off while they go to work, run errands, etc. In at least one case, parents dropped their daughter off and forgot to pick her up again until an hour after closing time.

In other words, instead of the government subsidizing Ikea, Ikea is subsidizing the government, and people are treating the store's loss leaders as free social services. In other words, European socialism at its most contradictory and perverse.

Monday, January 02, 2006

There Is Nothing Left to Fear

After I'd come across an unconscious Hurricane Katrina theme in my best of 2005 mix CD, I looked at the rest of the songs I'd been lining up to include on the album. After discarding some that didn't thematically fit at all, I noticed that while several of them couldn't be shoehorned into the Katrina mythology I'd cooked up, except tangentially at best, they did have a different and complimentary coherence.

The Mountain Goats' "This Year" is a salutary example. Like all of the songs from the excellent The Sunset Tree album, it tells a story about a heartbreaking and an almost jubilant urge to self-destruction punctuated with fights with an abusive stepfather. I liked how the narrator's "We played video games in a drunken haze / I was seventeen years young" dovetailed into The Hold Steady's "Lord to be seventeen forever" on "Stevie Nix." But mostly it was the attitude of defiance in the face of catastrophe that appealed to me and seemed to fit into the schema I was putting together. I loved the shifting narrative reference of the choral refrain: "I am gonna make it through this year / If it kills me." "This year" could be any year -- the year the narrator was seventeen or now, at the moment of the utterance. The lesson seemed to be that recognition of destruction in the past steeled you to face it in the present, even if ultimate destruction was inevitable.

I've written briefly before about Walter Benjamin and the Angel of History -- ironically enough, in the context of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea -- but it's worth mentioning some quotes again:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
--- Walter Benjamin, "On the Concept of History"
It's strange -- for a nonbeliever, I have a strange affinity for religious visions of the apocalypse. Benjamin's concept of history as a single, unending catastrophe -- which, for him, culminated but did not conclude in the rise of fascism and his own suicide -- almost coincides with a Gnostic vision of our universe as trash, a kind of cosmic accident. I say almost, because the key difference for Benjamin, and what makes his concept of history a Jewish-Marxist one rather than a fully Christianized one, is that redemption is not spiritual or for the soul alone, and that there is and can be no other world but this one -- flawed and failed though it might be.

I've already identified the apocalyptic vision animating Andrew Bird's beautiful "Tables and Chairs" -- one which reconciles the catastrophe with a kind of foolish hope. But I found a better statement of purpose in the verses of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's "Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood":
Now that everybody's here
Can we please have your attention
There is nothing left to fear
No, now that Bigfoot is captured
And the children are all right...
There is danger in the night
There are things we can't control but
Will we give ourselves a fright
When we become less than human?...
We are men who stay alive
Who send your children away now
We are calling from a tower
Expressing what must be everyone's opinion
They are going out to bars
And they are getting into cars
I've seen them with my own eyes
America, please help them!...
The line "There Is Nothing Left to Fear" immediately reminded me of Neutral Milk Hotel's "Ghost":
And there she goes
And now she knows
She'll never be afraid
To watch the morning paper blow
Into a hole
Where no one can escape
The most debilitating part of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has been the cynical attempt to manipulate Americans into being afraid -- not by the terrorists, but by actors within our own government. Hurricane Katrina both exposed the extent to which we were not (and quite possibly could not) protected from disaster and offered up new images to play on our fears.

The lesson Benjamin offers, and which I've embraced, is this: catastrophe is the rule rather than the exception of history. Furthermore, once this is admitted, there is not only nothing one can do to insulate oneself from the storm of history, but there is nothing to fear even from disaster itself. We are absolved from our sense of our own importance -- after all, we are all, and have always been, already dead.

This was when I decided to title my mix CD "There Is Nothing Left to Fear."