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Oct 25/07

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The date above is the date on which this page was started. The more recent reviews appear towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: Exit Ghost (Novel); The Man Who Would Be Queen (Sexuality); On Human Nature (Science); Into The Wild (Movie); The Pillowman (Play); Heat (Cuisine/Memoir)

Exit Ghost (Novel) by Philip Roth, 2007

When you see the latest Philip Roth novel on the seven-day loan shelf of the library, you grab it, no matter how busy your coming week is shaping up to be. After all, Mr. Roth wrote two of the best books that have been reviewed in Dilettante’s Diary. (Everyman, Nov 28/06 and The Plot Against America, Oct 24/05)

When you open Exit Ghost, that distinctive voice of Philip Roth’s pulls you in and it feels like you’re in for a terrific ride. For his narrator here, Mr. Roth has brought back Nathan Zuckerman, a familiar Roth character, now in his seventies. He has been living as a recluse in the Berkshires but he has come to New York for a procedure that might help his incontinence – the result, along with impotence, of surgery for prostate cancer. It looks like he’s set to get involved in life again and you can’t wait to see what happens.

But things soon start interfering with your reading enjoyment. You try to overlook the improbability of the first big coincidence: the narrator runs into a woman he hasn’t seen for fifty years and that very night he receives a phone call from a stranger asking him about that person. When Mr. Roth doesn’t deign to tell us anything about Zuckerman’s experience of the medical procedure, you stifle your curiosity, figuring maybe the gory details aren’t all that important to the story. And then those very long, comma-strewn sentences begin to get on your nerves. But you think: well, this is Philip Roth’s trademark style so we’ll cut him some slack.

More serious trouble comes in various forms.

First, a romantic obsession. Given that it’s all pretty much in the narrator’s self-absorbed head, nothing much happens between the two characters. So Mr. Roth has his narrator write down imagined conversations between them in which still nothing much happens. These dialogues, as play scripts, give some indication why Philip Roth is not famous as a playwright.

Then there’s the business about someone’s ambition to write a biography of a long-dead author whom Zuckerkman had known. The deceased author may or may not have harboured a scandalous secret. Does the hopeful biographer have a right to expose it? The question becomes a huge issue for the narrator. While the problem of a biographer’s responsibilities to his subject engaged me mildly, I couldn’t get as exercised about it as Mr. Roth seemed to think I should be.

And speaking of being worked up, the hysterical grief of young New York liberals over the second election of George W. Bush seems over-the-top. I can appreciate that it was a big deal to them at the time but Philip Roth seems to take their despair at face value, without any artistic distance.

Some aspects of the novel may have some appeal as a roman a clef. It could be fun, for instance, trying to identify some of the people referred to – like the senior Jewish writers who, the narrator says, scoffed at his early success. But then, near the end of the book, come ten pages hymning the virtues of the real-life George Plimpton. It’s nice to know that Mr. Roth thinks the late Mr. Plimpton was such a great guy but this paean of praise seems wildly out of place in the novel.

Worst of all, the recitation of Zuckerman’s mental and physical ills fails to elicit any sympathy. The depredations of age have been done much better in other books, one of them Mr. Roth's Everyman. Ultimately, what makes it so hard to care about the narrator of Exit Ghost is that he is utterly and completely lacking in the slightest speck of humour. Seriously. No kidding.

 

The Man Who Would Be Queen (Sexuality Studies) by J. Michael Bailey, 2003

From various references in the press, it appears that this book annoys lots of people – which seems like a good reason for me to read it. At first, it’s hard to see what’s causing the hostility. According to the cover blurb, Professor Bailey, of the Psychology Department at Northwestern University, is "an internationally recognized expert on the origins of human sexual orientation". In this book, he mostly examines homosexual orientation in men with regard to their perceived feminine and masculine traits. Various studies and questionnaires come at the subject in a variety of ways. Even though Professor Bailey seems gay-friendly to a fault, these discussions may cause some uneasiness because they seem to imply value judgements based on mere social constructs.

But the part of the book that probably bugs people the most is the section on male-to-female transsexuals. The professor scoffs at the common Oprah-level theory that they're "women trapped in men’s bodies". He seems to be saying that most transsexuals are really just very gay men who want to attract straight men and the only way of doing that is to acquire a woman’s body. So this theory would fly in the face of the politically correct belief that the transition is about "gender" rather than "sex". A small minority of transsexuals, the ones whom the Professor calls "autogynephilic", have an erotic fixation on themselves as female; their ultimate sexual fantasy is of themselves with a vagina. For them, the point in having a male penetrate that vagina is simply to prove to these transsexuals that they are truly women.

Granted, it may be difficult for the casual observer to sort out all the combinations and permutations of this very complex subject. But Professor Bailey's book provides a feast of kinky reading for those of us who like that sort of thing.

 

On Human Nature (Science) by Edward O. Wilson, 1978

As you can see, it has taken me a while to get around to reading this classic. Professor Wilson shows that many human qualities – aggression, sexual roles, even altruism and religion – are attributable to our biological roots as determined through natural selection. That means there are limits on how much we can adapt our natures. If we want to transcend our biological limitations, he warns, there are costs to pay.

The overall message isn’t hard to get. But the professor’s style is trenchant and pithy. Professor Wilson sounds like he’s accustomed to speaking with academics who are immersed in his subject matter; he doesn’t always make it easy for us outsiders to see the connections. So I shall have to order this book from the library again.. (The library computer refused my attempt to renew it at this time because somebody else wants it – which is a good thing.) I would like to pick the text apart sentence by sentence to see whether I can follow every turn of thought.

The book bears up well in terms of credibility, even though it was published nearly thirty years ago. The only part that seems out-dated to me is the section where he tries to explain the genetic perseverance of homosexuality in the human gene pool. Supposing that there are homosexual genes, the problem is that most homosexuals don’t have kids. So how could homosexual genes – if there are such – be passed on to subsequent generations? Professor Wilson resorts to the "kin selection" theory. A non-reproducing homosexual, so the theory goes, may tend to help out close kin in such a way that they have increased reproductive opportunities. The resulting progeny would share some of the homosexual’s genes and in this way a genetic propensity to homosexuality could be passed on by natural selection. My impression is that this theory has been largely discredited today.

One of the fringe benefits of reading this book is the exposure to a wide-ranging knowledge of many subjects. Among some of the gems that fascinated me was the reference to a principle in political science known as Director’s Law "which states that income in a society is distributed to the benefit of the class that controls the government." And, in a discussion about the fact that human beings require simple rules to solve complex problems, Professor Wilson quotes this maxim of psychoanalytic theory enunciated by Ernest Jones: "Whenever an individual considers a given (mental) process as being too obvious to permit of any investigation into its origin, and shows resistance to such an investigation, we are right in suspecting that the actual origin is concealed from him – almost certainly on account of its unacceptable nature."

 

Into The Wild (Movie) written and directed by Sean Penn; based on the book by Jon Krakauer; starring Emile Hirsch; with Marcia Gay Hayden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Hal Holbrook

Sometimes you need to go to a movie, even though you get the impression that the critics aren’t impressed. Maybe it’s the star that draws you, or the theme or the setting. In this case, it’s the story. Who hasn’t dreamed of ditching all the phony crap that passes for civilization, taking off into the wilderness, trying to survive on your own, doing the dirty-fingernails-catching-your-own-food-sleeping-by-the-campfire thing? Some of us, me for instance, have actually done it and survived – for about twenty-four hours.

So I had to see this movie about the true-life story of Chirs McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young college graduate who lit out from his home in West Virginia in the early 1990s and ended up in Alaska where he planned to tough it out for the winter. Director and script-writer Sean Penn tells the story about as well as anybody could. We get scenes in Alaska interspersed with fragments of back-story telling us how Mr. McCandless got there and why. Lots of gorgeous National Geographic style photography establishes the mood in Alaska: chilly mountains, snow-laden fir trees, close-ups of plants and curious little animals.

The only part of the story-telling process that nearly made me gag is the voice-over narration. Sometimes the text is taken from what appears to be Mr. McCandless’ diary, sometimes from his sister’s thoughts back home. Too bad the young adventurer didn’t learn anything about writing from two of his heroes – Jack London and Henry David Thoreau. Mr. McCandless’ adjective-heavy writing is strangulated and pompous. Maybe it’s a genetic thing because his sister (Jena Malone) exhibits the same tendency in her narration. Nothing can be done about the fact that some people are inevitably going to write that way but I don’t think we should have to listen to the results in theatres.

Apart from that complaint, I found the movie’s two-and-a-half hours fully engaging. Some of the best bits come from actors playing the people Mr. McCandless meets on his way to Alaska. A nice old guy seems too good to be true at first, but Hal Holbrook eventually convinces you that he’s the real thing. I was surprised by Vince Vaughn’s totally non-ironic and sympathetic portrayal of a redneck wheat farmer. Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker are perfect as a couple of latter-day hippies who know they’re a bit ridiculous. How is it that Ms. Keener manages to convey a warm, funny, genuine womanliness every second on screen? She must be one of the most natural-seeming women in the business these days. I suppose it has something to do with the good luck of having a secret dynamic happening between you and the camera.

Back on the home front in West Virginia, Marcia Gay Hayden and William Hurt do well enough as the annoying McCandless parents but Mr. Hurt’s formidable acting talents are pretty much wasted until his final unforgettable scene.

As for Emile Hirsch in the starring role, there’s nothing wrong with his acting but I’m sorry to say that, for me, he’s not the right actor for the part. He looks more like a pretty-faced Hollywood brat than the tough, manly rebel who would have made the hard decisions that Mr. McCandless made. Part of the problem could be that I’d already formed my impressions of the character from a New Yorker article about McCandless that appeared a few years ago. But the final shot of the movie – a self portrait taken at his campsite in Alaska – shows that, despite some superficial resemblance to Emile Hirsch, the real Mr McCandless was a very different kind of guy. And hey, what’s with the camera that took that self portrait? The fact that Mr. McCandless was packing such technology seems to suggest someone quite other than the St. Francis of Assisi that Sean Penn gives us.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure what Mr. Penn wants us to take away from the story. If this were fiction, you might expect the writer to shape the material a little more skillfully with an eye for the moral we’re supposed to learn. That doesn’t happen here. At first you think you're getting a Whitmanesque ode to the joys of individual freedom in nature. By the end of the movie, though, that theme is turned on its head. We hear about the unhappy home that Mr. McCandless left behind. We learn about his passion for the truth. We understand his bitterness about the hypocrisy of society. We can’t help feeling compassion for the tortures he puts his young body through. But I could never decide whether he was a pure-minded idealist or just a crazy misfit who made some stupid decisions. A note that he scrawls between the lines of a book near the end of the movie seems to indicate that he has learned his lesson. But did he really? In my books, the fact that the movie kept me wondering counts as a strong point in its favour.

Rating: B minus (where B = "Better than most")

 

The Pillowman (Play) by Martin McDonagh; directed by David Ferry; starring Shaun Smyth, Paul Fauteux, Richard McMillan, Oliver Becker; with Zorana Kydd, Paul Eves, Isabella Lobo, (Canadian Stage, Toronto, until October 27)

About forty-five minutes into this play, I was paying less attention to the stage than to the nearby exit, sort of like a nervous passenger on the Titanic eyeing the closest lifeboat. There is so much about this play to bring on that sinking feeling.

The setting, for starters – a grubby interrogation room in some nameless totalitarian state. In a Kafkaesque way, two detectives (Richard McMillan, Oliver Becker) are grilling a young writer (Shaun Smyth) who doesn’t know what he’s accused of. Many ominous references to "The Commandant". Threats and denials go round and round. After about twenty minutes, it develops that some of the writer’s fanciful stories bear an uncanny similarity to the recent murders of some young children. Despite the writer’s pleas of innocence, the cops pour on the torture.

Now I can enjoy violence and sadism as much as the next guy, as long as it’s dished up in a believable way. When it’s heavy-handed and hammy, my esthetic, if not my moral, judgement rebels. Not one moment of the exchanges between these three actors strikes a note of authenticity, especially when the cops lapse into Bronx tough-guy accents. I kept wanting to plead with them: stop with so much acting! And why is it that Toronto directors make their actors yell so much? Is it that they think we audiences are too dumb to know we’re watching a play unless they hit us over the head with the drama of it all? The only respite, if you can call it that, comes when the lights go down for a recitation of one of the young man’s fable-like stories. It's so dorky that you almost wish the cops would start with the violence again.

But then comes a scene with the writer’s brother (Paul Fauteux) who is developmentally delayed. I loathe the overly-familiar shtick of the strong intelligent brother and his mentally handicapped sibling whose sweet nature hides dangerous tendencies. However, these two guys made it work for me. Some beautiful things started happening on stage. I began to think that maybe the play was raising some serious questions: is anybody really happy? is anybody’s life really worth living? Pretty basic stuff, you gotta admit. So I began to want to hear what more the playwright had to say on that score – which is the only thing that got me back into the theatre after intermission.

Unfortunately, the policemen reappeared. Now, we were forced to witness the fact these two goons weren’t quite what they seemed in our first encounter with them. This sort of thing, of course, presents a great opportunity for actors to show their versatility, never mind that the character switches are completely implausible and sentimental. But a problem soon surfaces in that Richard McMillan is much too funny an actor. He turns his role into a bravura comic turn. Granted, the material he has to deliver is pretty silly but a more ordinary actor might have handled it without obliterating any sense of the on-going drama.

Maybe it’s not the actor’s fault, entirely. There actually isn’t much of a drama left. In this final act, the young writer has nothing to do except sit there and react to the two stooges. The only thing that hangs in the balance is whether or not they’re going to burn his crappy stories. Should we care?

Admittedly, the rapid-fire dialogue ricochets back and forth with a David-Mamet-type cleverness. But what is the purpose of all the talk about the different ways that little kids can be killed? Do we really need to hear a fable about a guy who goes around persuading tots to commit suicide? Or to see cartoon cut-out parents re-enacting horrible child abuse? The high school students who comprised ninety percent of the packed house at the performance I attended seemed to find it all brilliantly thrilling. One of their teachers kept up a steady knowing laughter to show us that he was "getting it". His prompting didn’t help me to see any point to it all. For me, it’s a showy theatrical experiment with borrowed motifs from all over the place but one that fails utterly as a play.

 

Heat (Cuisine/Memoir) by Bill Buford, 2006

In 2002, Bill Buford, an editor and writer at The New Yorker, inveigled his way into the kitchen of Manhattan celebrity chef Mario Batali. An amateur cook, Mr. Buford spent about a year working at the hit restaurant "Babbo", learning to do it like a pro. He also followed the master’s footsteps around his training ground in Italy in the hopes of finding the sources of his inspiration.

I thought this was going to be one of those books like George Plimpton’s where he persuades some professional sports team to let him join them for a while, then describes his misadventures on the field, the rink, or whatever. In some ways, Heat is like that, but the writing isn’t as clear or as well-organized as it might be. It’s hard to sort out all the people in the – admittedly – crowded Babbo kitchen. That robs the book of some of the charm it might have had. You do get to know some characters very well but, in some cases – certain prima donna chefs, for instance – you might wish you’d never had the pleasure.

Plus, there’s far more information about the preparation of food than a reader like me needs. Up to a point, it’s interesting to know how the real connoisseurs handle food but some of the lengthy descriptions of preparing a ragu, for instance, get far too detailed for me. In the end, the overall message of the book had a somewhat dispiriting effect on me. Here I thought we’d been eating pretty well all these years but it turns out that, in the opinion of those in the know, our tastes have barely risen above the caveman level.

But I did appreciate what turns out to be one of Mr. Buford's main purposes in his culinary quest: he wanted to understand better our human connection to our food, a dynamic that we often miss in today's hyper-automated and industrialized world. Not to mention the loads of interesting tidbits of information he passes on. Next time you sit down to a turkey dinner, you can impress the hell out of everybody by telling them the real reason for stuffing poultry: it makes the bird cook more slowly and evenly. And I bet you didn’t know that, before Columbus, Italians never used tomatoes in cooking. Even when adventurers first brought those red things back from the New World, the considered opinion of the Italian culinary artists was that they were poison.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com