Sunday, November 29, 2009

The strip of light under the door

In Mary Gaitskill's most recent novel, the main character spends a lot of time reflecting on people she's known — both the nurturing and the toxic. Sometimes they are one and the same.

"Her tears splash scalding hot on her daughter's face," the story goes. "Even though they are tears cried for love, they do not bring healing; they burn and make the pain worse. My mother's tears scalded me and I hated her for it."

As you can probably surmise, this novel, called "Veronica," is a dark one. Of course, if you know anything about Gaitskill, you know that's to be expected. While I was reading it, I had mixed reactions — at times I thought the novel was overly dour — but by the end it had won me over with its odd mix of painful reflection and calm acceptance. I also enjoyed Gaitskill's incisive prose throughout.

If you're not a reader but recognize Gaitskill's name, that's probably because she wrote the short story that inspired the movie "Secretary," with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. (This is a bit ironic because, while a lot of people rave about that film, in my view it offers a Hollywood-ized, too-happy interpretation of Gaitskill's vision.)

Though it's been out a few years, I first heard about "Veronica" this spring, when I learned that Gaitskill was coming to the Brookline Booksmith for a signing. At the time, I hadn't read any of her work for quite a while, so I was curious.

While gearing up for the signing, I learned that she had also just published a new collection of stories. As part of this, I came across an excerpt from the collection, and though it's well-written, it was a little too violent for me. One of Gaitskill's strengths is her ability to see and describe cruelty, but this excerpt made me wonder if she's started taking it too far. I suppose that might mean I'm a lightweight (I admit that I'm also afraid to read "Blood Meridian"), but that was my reaction.

So, I went to the signing and bypassed the stories in favor of the novel, which I only just finished reading. While I don't think that the novel is perfect, it's an interesting, powerful read.

The story focuses on Alison, a 40-something former model whose life, by many measures, is something of a wreck.

As the novel opens, Alison is going about a typical day. She lives alone, works as a cleaning lady, and has chronic health problems that cause her worry and pain. She finds herself reflecting on the past, particularly her modeling career and its immediate aftermath, during which she befriended an older woman named Veronica — an unfashionable, slightly ridiculous individual suffering from complications brought on by AIDS. In many ways, Alison saw in Veronica, correctly, her future self.

In some regards, this tale is about coming to terms with the inevitable loss of possibilities that we all experience as time passes. Alison seems to acknowledge the vapidness of her modeling life even as she recalls the happiness it brought: the euphoria of being glamorous, of being admired, and, most important, of knowing the world was open to her.

Though the novel is slow and contemplative — most of the action takes place in the past, and we know in advance how the main plot points will be resolved — it has a payoff in Alison's realizations, what she learns from her reflections. Key among these is her appreciation for the possibilities that do still exist, and her ability to see that her pain is not unique.

The novel mostly works, but I had a few complaints about it.

First, I thought the novel had too many characters, some of whom have only barely suggested personas. For example, in one scene, Alison visits a friend who has several little girls. The girls are completely interchangeable as characters, yet throughout the lengthy scene, Gaitskill keeps mentioning one or the other by name, and it's confusing trying to figure out which girl is being referenced and whether she's supposed to be distinguishable from the others. I'm not sure what prompts this writing habit, but I found it frustrating and distracting.

My other complaint is one that I softened on somewhat by the end of the book. However, around the halfway point, I felt that the tone of the novel was simply too dreary. As the book's narrator, Alison seems to find humor in nothing. Gaitskill's view does tend to be dark, and that's OK — I like it, even — but the monotone telling of the story, for me, detracted from its credibility, at least during that first half.

This point is a bit ironic given some of Gaitskill's own comments at the signing I attended. At the event, someone asked her about Nabokov, and she mentioned that part of Nabokov's greatness is his ability to see both the tragedy and comedy in life, and in some cases even to capture both in a single passage. As I read the first half of "Veronica," I sorely wished that Gaitskill were able to see more comedy.

On this point, though, "Veronica" redeems itself somewhat. In the novel's second half, Alison does begin to see, if not humor, at least peace and beauty, often in the mundane. Consider this passage from a scene where the older Alison is riding a city bus:

"The bus stops at a light. ... We are all quiet in the warmth and the sound of the humming motor. I look outside and see a little budding tree, its slim black body shiny with rain. Joyous and intelligent, like a fresh girl, the earth all new to its slender, seeking roots. ... This moment could come to me on my deathbed. ... If it does, I will love it so much that I will take it into death with me."

Ultimately, it's this tranquil vision that brings Alison a measure of peace and makes the novel work.

At least, that is part of what makes the novel work — the other is Gaitskill's spare, graceful prose. She somehow manages to say so much with so little. A character in a movie is "oblivious as a custard." Of a boyfriend, we know all we need to when Alison says, "His friends were horrible, but I wanted to please them." Likewise when Alison remembers a friend's home: "She lived in a tiny shotgun apartment filled with dirty dishes, cat boxes, and open jars of clawed-at cold cream."

Another passage I particularly liked concerns Alison's reflections on a singer her father favors. Her observations blend the dark with the light — just as the novel, at its best points, does.

"Starvation was in her voice all along. That was the poignancy of it. A sweet voice locked in a dark place, but focused entirely on the tiny strip of light coming in under the door."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

This Is It

There's a scene midway through "Michael Jackson's This Is It" where
Michael is working with the show's musical director on a slow, sultry version of "The Way You Make Me Feel."

The musical director is tapping the melody out on a keyboard but not getting the tempo exactly like Michael wants it. Frustrations seem to be building ever so slightly when the musical director says that he'll need explicit guidance if Michael wants, for example, "more booty in it." With that, MJ cracks up, and they try again, with everything seeming to go well until Michael puts out his hands in a "stop" gesture and says, gently but firmly, "You've got to let it simmer!"

This moment epitomizes what I loved about "This Is It." The film offers an intimate glimpse into Michael Jackson's creative process, and the picture is one of wit, perfectionism that's exacting but always professional, and of course great talent.

If you want to see Michael belt it out, you might be slightly disappointed, as throughout the movie it's clear he's saving his voice for the main event that never came. Still, there's a lot to like about the movie's music and dance. You just have to be patient and take the glorious moments when they come, sometimes in surprising places: The dance he does during an extended ending of "Billie Jean" is tremendously cool (and made better by the small cluster of awestruck dancers cheering him on). The rehearsal of "Human Nature" — especially the way he says "I like lovin' this way" — is fierce. With "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," he and backup singer Judith Hill luxuriate in an exceptionally drawn-out ending that seems pretty close to perfect. (By the way, if you feel like being sad, check out her memorial tribute song to Michael.)

The movie also offers insightful peeks at the man behind the music — his work style and inspirations. I liked watching him work with the young blonde guitar player on "Black or White," encouraging her that "this is your time to shine." Also good is a moment during "Smooth Criminal" where director Kenny Ortega points out that the staging Michael wants to use means that he won't be able to see an important visual queue — it will be happening behind him. "Yeah," Michael says, in what seems like complete seriousness, "I gotta feel that." It's cute, too, near the end of the film when Ortega makes some big sweeping movements with his arms, looking a bit like he's pointing toward the emergency exits on a plane, and Michael enthuses, "I love when the stewardesses do that!"

A pleasant surprise was seeing some of the other artists, particularly the dancers. The movie opens with scenes of the dance auditions, and it's a great sequence — very "A Chorus Line" (Michael even says "She's the one!"). From there on, the dancers are impressive. I particularly liked the snippet of one, I think it was Travis Payne, dancing in the foreground during "Shake Your Body." I also liked Mekia Cox, who is the object of Michael's advances during "The Way You Make Me Feel." She plays that part perfectly, and it looks like she's having so much fun.

I don't want to go off on too much of a tangent, but concurrent with seeing this movie, I went back and re-read the cover story from this summer's Rolling Stone special edition on Michael, and I was surprised at how much the piece annoyed me the second time around. I still like certain things about it, but, fresh after having seen the movie, I was especially turned off by the following passage:

"That [the 1983 Motown anniversary show] was the last truly blessed moment in Michael Jackson's life. After that, everything became argument and recrimination. And in time, decay."
I don't know exactly how that dramatic statement is meant to be interpreted, but "This Is It" seems a stark contradiction to any suggestion that Michael's later years were ones of "decay." Certainly anyone who watches this movie will see that he was, up until the end, an artist in full control of his considerable gifts, someone who inspired others, not to mention a person of humor and kindness.

You really get a sense of this near the end of the film when Michael and the rest of the performers gather in a circle, and he talks about his reasons for doing the concert, how he wants to bring audiences a positive message about caring for one another and the Earth, and to convey some "love."

Judging from the cheers, singing, and spontaneous applause that burst out in the theater the two times I saw it, I'd say mission accomplished.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

When worlds collide

During my recent vacation, I spent lots of time with family and friends, but the best moment came when a complete stranger knocked me in the shoulder with a large candelabra.

The mishap occurred at the tail end of a wedding ceremony — the point at which the bossy wedding planner makes all of the guests line up behind the happy couple for a group portrait. There was lots of jostling and rearranging as the heavily hairsprayed planner tried to get us all into the frame. During the hubbub, I felt a jab in my shoulder and turned to see a tall-ish older lady carrying a candelabra that was even taller than she was. She'd been trying to move it so more people could squeeze into the picture. As the photo shoot ended, we realized that she'd actually spilled white candle wax on my wine-colored sleeve. After a brief discussion of how one removes wax from clothes, we parted ways, and I headed for the reception. I wasn't sure who she was; I had never seen her before, and I knew most everyone who had attended the small wedding, so I thought she might work at the church.

A short while later, I was getting settled at the reception with a plate of hors d'oeuvres and a glass of shiraz. At my left was a cluster of people I knew; at the right, to my suprise, was the candelabra lady. We started talking, and I learned that she was a good friend of the groom, my friend Alex, dating back to when she was his choir teacher in high school. She is also a long-time resident of the same Texas metroplex where he used to live, and where I had been a reporter for two years right out of school.

In some ways, this metroplex is like a tumbleweed in my memory. I don't know many people there anymore, and none who can reminisce with me about much of what happened when I lived there, or help me fill in the gaps.

I remember the area as a single point of urbanity in a giant Texas desert. The main city that I reported on was a place both distinctly Texan and at the same time strangely homogenized — it was both a test market for McDonald's, for example, and yet home to what was (at that time) the longest line dance ever performed to Billy Ray Cyrus's "Achey Brakey Heart." And no, I wouldn't remember these facts if certain factions hadn't been so very proud of them.

Unlike Boston, where I live now, things in Texas tended to be big and brand-new, from the state-of-the-art highway system, to the sprawling Six Flags Over Texas, to the multimillion-dollar baseball stadium being erected by George W. Bush and the other owners of the Texas Rangers. Equally big was the look of disgust worn by my then-colleague Shelby the day she returned from a tour of the new stadium. Asked to explain, Shelby, a very liberal and very pregnant woman, said sourly, "George Bush touched my stomach," then employed a string of expletives as she questioned what lapse of judgment had led her to follow her husband to Texas from South Carolina.

Though diverse by Texas standards, the area was mainly Republican, mostly Christian and, as I recall, home to a rather vocal chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. But it wasn't all like that. We had a large immigrant community, an active gay community, and a great strip of dance clubs, each named after a character from "Dallas." (For those too young to know, "Dallas" was a TV show much like "Gossip Girl," except that the characters were done with high school and living in Texas.)

I don't miss the area, but I have often wondered what had became of some of the people I worked with and covered. My friend Alex still goes to the area pretty regularly, but he refuses to read newspapers because they get ink on his hands, so he can't really help.

Enter the candelabra lady, Berta. As luck would have it, she is a close friend of a columnist at the paper where I used to work.

As the reception roared on, Berta and I toasted the columnist, and then she proceeded to relay, in what I had come to recognize as a mild Texas drawl, all she knew about the paper, the school board I used to cover, and other local goings-on. When she got to telling me about the various school board members, I could suddenly see my early-'90s self on the phone with education wonks, learning all about things like magnet schools and tax caps. At the time, I was only 22, and my personal tax experience was pretty much relegated to things like sales tax.

Finally I came up with a few questions Berta couldn't answer, so she actually rang up the columnist and put me on the phone with him. He insisted he remembered me and gave me all sorts of info on the paper and the community. When I got off the phone, I saw that Berta had ordered me a champagne, so we toasted a few more people.

We stopped chatting briefly while the cake was cut, and I thought to myself, "How amazing that I ran into this lady." Alex had been close with her in high school, so I've been hearing stories about her for 20 years, but somehow I had never managed to meet her.

Later, Berta ordered me another champagne — and not just a champagne, a delightful concoction she called a kir royale, which was made with a blackcurrant liqueur. Then she quite randomly mentioned the name of someone she knows on Martha's Vineyard, where I lived right after leaving Texas. His name rang a bell and, after comparing notes, we figured out that this friend is the owner of the first house I ever stayed in on the Vineyard — a restored fishing shack on Edgartown Harbor. I only stayed there for about a week while I was looking for my own apartment, but it looms large in my memory. It had a private dock, a view of Chappaquiddick, and the only California-king-sized bed I have ever slept in. I'm really not a total sucker for wealth, but the house was so beautiful, and it was such a respite to me that first night I saw it, fresh from my days-long car trip across the country, on my way to live on the East Coast for the first time. I remember getting there late that Friday night. It was the first time I'd ever seen the Vineyard, and everything about that house was so comfortable and welcoming, it made me feel certain I'd done the right thing by coming East. Though I haven't laid eyes on it in many years, I'm quite nostalgic about it.

As I took in this new information, I commented to Berta on how amazing it was that we'd finally met, and with such success.

"I know," she said. "And to think it all started when I spilled hot wax on you!"

Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.