Tag Archives: winter 2000

The Minor Miracles of Will Eisner

NBM ($7.95)

Dark Horse ($10.95)

DC Comics ($29.95)

by Eric Lorberer

It's a platitude that has been repeated often, but it bears saying again: Will Eisner is one of the great masters of narrative sequential art, a.k.a. the comics. A generation after pioneers such as Winsor McCay and George Herriman laid the foundation for the art form, Eisner further explored its breadth and potential in the 1940s with his newspaper insert comic book, The Spirit. Currently being archived in hardback editions, The Spirit is a monumental achievement that alone would secure Eisner's legacy—its innovative layouts and strong storytelling have influenced generations since—but Eisner's claim to fame also rests with his graphic novels, books that place emphasis on humanity over heroics. Beginning with the 1978 A Contract with God (widely credited as being the first graphic novel, though it is really a set of four interconnected stories), Eisner showed just how literary the comic format can get. Now in his eighties, he remains as prolific and profound as ever, as these three new releases attest.

Last Day in Vietnam

Surely no-one but Eisner, for example, would have the audacity to adapt Cervantes' famed novel Don Quixote into a 32-page comic book, but this is exactly what Eisner has done in The Last Knight. It is nothing short of astonishing that this children's redaction is so enjoyable; while his condensed version (labeled "an introduction to Don Quixote" on the book's cover) sidesteps many of the details and complexities of Cervantes's picaresque, it remarkably conveys the spirit and passion of the book. In the best tradition of children's books that instruct and delight both young and old, The Last Knight will offer young readers access to this timeless tale of idealism, while dazzling those readers familiar with Don Quixote with the fluidity and panache of its adaptation. It is thus a pleasure to report that the publisher promises more classic works as rendered by Will Eisner.

A collection of stories with a much different audience and agenda, Last Day in Vietnam is equally impressive. On hiatus from the more public world of comics, Eisner produced educational tracts for the military in the '50s and '60s—most notably in his P.S. Magazine, a technical manual that provided "maintenance advice in comic-book form." Yet flying into Korea and Vietnam for information gathering field trips also gave Eisner an unencumbered look at the human side of the military equation, and the six stories here pay tribute to individual persons. Eisner may employ a comic touch to some of his scenarios, but all are invested with the tragic sense of life during wartime as well. In the title story, Eisner puts us in role of the camera eye as we are led about by a soldier whose final duty before he ships out is to escort a reporter through the camp; with no editorial intervention, Eisner conveys the contradictions of war with real pathos. In the volume's last story, "A Purple Heart for George," a bureaucratic snafu sends the supremely-unfit-for-war lead character into battle, earning him not only his posthumous award, but the more heartfelt remembrance here. Between stories, Last Day in Vietnam presents full-page photographs of camp life, reminding us that these comics are indeed based on real events.

Minor Miracles

Minor Miracles, Eisner's latest work, is a graphic novel of urban life that provides a perfect bookend to his groundbreaking A Contract with God. Like the earlier book, this one offers four stories connected by setting and theme—the latter in this case is the presence of the miraculous within the everyday—and like most of Eisner's graphic novel work, including Last Day in Vietnam, it is presented in sepia tones that enhance the feel that these are pictures from the past, stills recovered from memory and strung together into sweeping narratives. The stories themselves are in the folklore tradition, tales that enigmatically offer morals about conduct, lessons in love and life. In "A Special Wedding Ring," for instance, Reba and Marvin enact a marital drama worthy of O. Henry, while "A New Kid on the Block," the saga of an abandoned child who changes a neighborhood, reveals a touch of I.B. Singer. But comparing Eisner to the narrative masters of yore is simply to say that he is one of them. His pacing is exquisite, his portrayal of character deft, and his sense of setting enfolds his stories in a world of challenges, heartbreak, compromise and joy—a world we know.

Whether rewriting the classics, revisiting the war, or remembering the lessons of his childhood, Will Eisner is a consummate comics artist, one who strives to connect with his readers with every word and brush stroke. It is a minor miracle that we live in a time when his early work is being reprinted and reappraised while new work continues to appear—we have greater access than ever to the full panoply of Will Eisner's carefully crafted sequential art, and all we need do is sit back and enjoy.

Click here to purchase Last Day in Vietnam at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Minor Miracles at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

CEREBUS: an introductory survey


by Thomas P. Kalb

I hate to say it, but there aren't many comic books that are worth rereading. Let me hasten to append the fact that I am no literary snob; I have been reading comic books for some thirty-three years, ever since my mother, impressed by my dedication to the Adam West version of Batman, brought home a copy of Batman number 181. In the ensuing years I have enjoyed thousands of meaningless battles, hundreds of daring new directions (usually reversed after a few months), death after death, resurrection upon resurrection . . . and a handful of works which reward multiple readings.

Chief among those comics worthy of re-perusal is Cerebus, a comic self-published by Dave Sim, whose title character is a bipedal, intelligent, occasionally erudite, and cute (but dangerous with a sword) aardvark. As of this writing, there have been more than 260 issues (of a projected 300); at an average of 20 pages per issue, that means Sim and his longtime artistic cohort, Gerhard, have produced over 5,200 pages of story. I have read every one of those pages at least three times, and some story arcs have drawn me back for fourth or even fifth readings.

Why? In the beginning, Cerebus seemed to be little more than a parody of Barry Windsor-Smith's work on Conan the Barbarian, both in terms of style and content: Funny little aardvark with sword challenges big bold Beowulf type warrior. It was certainly competent and entertaining, but had it stayed there, I for one would not have lingered. After 25 issues of Cerebus the Barbarian, however (collected in a 500 page graphic novel simply entitled Cerebus), Sim ushered in a new age for his diminutive "hero"—Cerebus became involved in politics. This story arc‚ collected in another huge graphic novel called High Society, dealt with the political scene of a fantasy kingdom by offering an idiosyncratic mix of political satire and comic book and fantasy novel spoofs. Marvel's Moon Knight became Sim's Moon Roach ("It felt like I was having an origin!"), and Michael Moorcock's Elric became the Foghorn Leghorn talking Elrod ("Son, I say, Son…"). Add to that mix the Groucho Marx "like-a-look" Lord Julius and his suspiciously familiar looking brothers and things began to get very interesting. And lest this sound all too juvenile friendly, let's also add that in this story line we were also introduced to the Aardvarkian Age equivalent of PACs, a politically motivated suicide, and a somewhat ambiguous rape scene in which our hero was the perpetrator.

Apparently things still weren't sticky enough for Sim, however, as after High Society he washed Cerebus out of the political game and had the dangerous but cute little animal become Pope. It was a bit of political maneuvering on the part of the Church, whose leaders hoped to be able to pull the naive Cerebus's strings. It didn't work. After his appointment, one of Cerebus's first acts was to address a crowd of the faithful assembled outside his hotel. In a short speech, he declared that the poor and weak were unloved by God (known as Tarim in the world of the comic), and that "The best Most Holy can do is to put in a good word for you with Tarim—however, it is going to cost you. Tarim's mercy does not come cheap!" Cerebus's scheme to squeeze every gold coin out of the people would seem to reflect nothing more than the standard charges of corruption which have been levied at the Catholic Church since Chaucer's time, but Sim does not take this easy way out. After thousands of bags of gold coins have been collected, Cerebus becomes ill. (Not too subtle, that.) Shortly thereafter, in a riveting scene, Cerebus stoops to pick up a single gold coin and the bags begin ripping open as coins fly towards him, melding themselves into a half moon shape which seems to have great religious significance. (Sim is often willfully ambiguous, but that is at least half the charm of this series.) It does seem clear that Cerebus's greed has somehow been manipulated by a higher power—leading us to conclude that in Sim's theology, God works via even the basest of His creations. There is a fundamental belief in the power and benevolence of God at work here—an intuition which finds support in some of Sim's comments in the notes to his later stories.

The "Cerebus as Pope" story is available as Church & State volumes I and II, weighing in at a massive 1,200 combined total pages, and might bear comparison to Flannery O'Connor's classic Wise Blood.

Eventually this story, too, came to an end . . . more or less. Apparently Cerebus is still Pope for some factions, just as he still seems to be Prime Minister to others. But after dealing with these titanic power struggles in the secular and spiritual worlds—and after three or four mystical confrontations with beings from a higher level of reality, a run-in with Oscar Wilde, and a few other quirky scenarios, recounted in the collections Jaka's StoryMelmothFlightWomenReads, and Minds--Cerebus ended up in a bar, in a land where women were clearly the dominant figures, and men were rarely seen and more rarely heard.

Things happened in that bar. A seemingly grim definition of male/female relationships, for instance, and a look into the nature of masculinity—all of which could easily be misconstrued as simple misogyny, of course, but Sim does not make things quite that simple. His obvious disdain for some of the aspects of feminism do not necessarily blunt his points. This is no knee-jerk woman hater. This is a man who has clearly thought about the ramifications of gender in the modern world, and who sees real danger in current societal trends. You don't have to buy, but it's worth your time to window shop.

After the bar story arc, collected as Guys and Rick's Story, things became even more interesting. At this point, Cerebus and Jaka (niece of Lord Julius and Princess of the realm) began to head towards Cerebus's homeland by boat. And for two dozen or so issues the story primarily centered on Cerebus, Jaka, and their fellow passenger, F. Stop Kennedy. One would certainly be justified in thinking that a journey aboard a boat (without sea monsters, Vikings, or pirates to attack) would be quite boring. Au contraire. In fact, this was the first section of Cerebus which I felt compelled to re-reread. F. Stop Kennedy is Sim's version of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and not only does Sim do justice to Fitzgerald in text page "excerpts" of the novelist's work in progress—and not only do Sim's notes show the serious amount of scholarship he has engaged in to write this bit of the story—but he actually inspires the reader to seek out Fitzgerald's works. I had never been much of a fan of Fitzgerald's work, and I would have expected the "man's man" Sim to excoriate this rather feminine styled writer, but his faithful homage inspired me to read The Beautiful and Damned for the first time in my life, and to yearn for the time to read more.

This story constitutes the most recent Cerebus graphic novel, which is entitled Going Home. It would be an excellent starting point for someone who has not been kindly disposed toward "comic books" in the past, as it is so obviously the product of an intelligent and clever mind.

The Cerebus monthly comic book has already reached part 7 of what will constitute the next (and probably penultimate) Cerebus collection. In the latest issues, Cerebus and Jaka have left F. Stop and the boat behind, and are currently sojourning with another familiar looking writer character: Ham Ernestway. I find myself possessed of the urge to go back and finish To Have and Have Not—though Hemingway does not fare nearly so well in Sim's estimation as does Fitzgerald.

The entire Cerebus story (up through the "Fitzgerald" issues) is currently available in graphic novel format—huge, black and white volumes which retail for between $17 and $30. Any of them are well worth the price. The artwork is beautiful (courtesy of Sim's caricatures, portraits, and animated looking people and Gerhard's finely rendered backgrounds), the writing is crisp (and funny and intelligent), and the combination of story and commentary is at the very least thought provoking. I own nearly all of the issues of the comic book, yet I felt the need to purchase the collected editions, also—it makes the re-reading so much more convenient.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

MYSELF WHEN I AM REAL: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus

Myself When I Am Real Gene Santoro
Oxford University Press ($30)

by Jon Rodine

Although Charles Mingus died in January of 1979, in twenty-one years he hasn't lost momentum. Groups like the Mingus Big Band are still out there, playing nothing but his music, and there are still brand new albums (most recently "Pussycat Dues" by singer Kevin Mahogany, and "Peggy's Blue Skylight" by guitarist Andy Summers) devoted entirely to his songs. The legendary bassist/composer, whose brilliance was as immense as his own rotund self, obviously left his mark on the world of jazz, even though he never quite attained the commercial status of someone like Ellington or Armstrong or Miles Davis. And if Mingus was larger-than-life, no stranger to controversy and tall tales and bonafide far-out behavior, it's also plain that his myth won't be his ultimate legacy. What he'll be remembered for, into this new century, is his music: the turbulent, passionate and evocative body of songs that, even while they borrowed from gospel, blues, swing, be-bop, movie scores, Latin and classical music (often within the same song,) always came out sounding utterly unique.

Music and myth and a whole lot more figure into Myself When I Am Real, Gene Santoro's excellent new Mingus biography, a stylized and egalitarian book that takes on an epic life but reads like a breeze. Santoro takes a long narrative and breaks it down into fragments, tight little segments that play off one another, but often describe widely different subjects or ideas, scenes or stories. This occurs from paragraph to paragraph, even sentence to sentence, perpetuating a kind of written collage that builds on itself almost like a jazz solo, creating a flow that seems to echo the nervous energy in Mingus' own psyche, the spontaneity of his actual mind.

That mind, as Santoro portrays it, was expansive and romantic, with a fondness for elaboration. Mingus liked to fashion his own life story in the interests of convenience or showmanship, but Santoro shows the pimping and sexual exploits which filled Beneath the Underdog (Mingus' own "autobiography," originally titled Memoirs of a Half-Schitt-Colored Nigger) to be largely fiction, a more extravagant and sensational version of a somewhat less decadent reality. Mingus did have appetites: for food and argument, for knowledge and experience, but his swagger and antagonism often masked a sensitivity and vulnerability that kept him constantly wary and affected by life, even as he barreled through it with the kind of self-counsel that was construed as arrogance. He had an unpredictable temper, a penchant for accosting band-members, club owners, and audiences, but even as a troublesome leader and performer, with outbursts that became a kind of sideshow to his vast musical gifts, he still exuded considerable magnetism and charm. Women loved him; musicians whom he alienated and even attacked were known to return to his fold over the years, seduced by his persuasions or the potency of his vision. As saxophonist John Handy puts it, "It wasn't that he was evil, he just had a mental problem. He hadn't grown up, in some ways."

Santoro also reveals a Mingus for whom little distinction existed between private, social and creative realms. Personal affections and calamities; social relationships and responses to culture at large; impressions of friends and intellectual obsessions: all these and more became sources for the music that Santoro calls "autobiography in sound." Mingus' work was an aural, hand-crafted assemblage, an emotion-charged song-spectrum that channeled the panorama of 20th-century music through a highly individualized and imaginative voice. "Hog Callin' Blues," "The Chill of Death," "Reincarnation of a Lovebird," "New Now Know How," "Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid Too," "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers," "Put Me In That Dungeon," "Taurus in the Arena of Life." Even the titles paint a picture of the wide, wild landscape across which "The Man Who Never Sleeps" (another song title) took his listeners, a landscape that was both playful and dead serious, filled with both conflict and celebration. He wrote and rewrote pieces, giving them new titles and new personalities, always pointing in forward directions while simultaneously and stubbornly looking back at tradition: at Jelly Roll Morton, at Ellington, at European composers. He was slow to embrace the be-bop renegades, though he came to revere Parker and Gillespie, and at times he recorded and distributed his own records, rather than getting ripped off like so many others. He always went his own way.

That way was also fiercely fixated on the thornier details of race and race relations. Although light enough to sometimes sneak into a segregated gig (he claimed on occasion to be Mexican), his background included Asian-, German- and African-American blood, and Mingus was acutely aware, as Santoro says, of what W.E.B. DuBois termed "double consciousness:" the psychic duality that results from black survival in white, racist America. Race was always there for Mingus, and it was the main topic in many a dialogue or speech or tirade that he embarked upon, with club-owners, audiences, journalists, lovers, family and friends. And since his years of ascent were the incendiary years of civil rights and "Black Power," his song titles once again reflected his culture and the scope of his concerns: "Meditations on Integration," (also entitled "Meditations on a Pair of Wire-Cutters,") "Remember Rockefeller At Attica," "Free Cell-Block F, ‘Tis Nazi U.S.A.," "Fables of Faubus," (named for the segregationist governor of Arkansas) "A Lonely Day in Selma Alabama," and his recitation simply titled "Freedom."

His private life, though, was strictly integrated, to the curiosity of some. Britt Woodman (a childhood friend who eventually gained notoriety as a core-member of Duke Ellington's band) said "Most of the black musicians never knew him. When you'd go to his pad there was nothing but white folks, white chicks." Mingus had a succession of white wives and lovers, whom he enthralled and battled with, and although he kept close to allies from his youth (like Woodman, or musician Buddy Collette,) his friends and acquaintances were more likely to be Beatnik-types like poet Allen Ginsberg, or artist Farwell Taylor, even pop singer Peggy Lee. And while it could be that some white admirers were more taken in by the kind of eccentric behavior with which Mingus liked to entertain his followers, it's also true that he simply enjoyed the kind of bohemian, art-for-art's-sake lifestyle that a lot of white hipsters allowed themselves and could afford to pursue. And the Greenwich Village cafe-types, who painted and smoked pot and hung out in coffee shops, may have romanticized the world of jazz and jazz musicians, but they also bought the records and took the music seriously, more seriously than many black audiences.

Santoro (a veteran of The NationVillage Voice, and numerous other publications) has put together a book that isn't merely a critical biography or personal expose. He examines Mingus in all his kaleidoscopic difficulty and charm, his pathos and vitality, and he looks without sensation at the years of weight problems, pills, prescription drugs, and mental instability. What he mainly affirms is that if there were times when Mingus' mind was troubled, or his body incapacitated, his spirit was never in less than fighting shape. Sue Mingus (his fourth wife, and the tireless promoter of his legacy) is quoted as saying "He had more energy than ninety people running down the block when he was frozen in a wheelchair" (speaking of his final days in Mexico, after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease). And Miles Davis, never known for superlatives, once remarked (though not in Santoro's book) that Mingus had been "a real man," because "he wasn't afraid to make a fool of himself."

Mingus was indeed a fighter, unafraid to risk his reputation for the sake of his own instincts, and like an epic film director (or like Orson Welles, whom he revered in his youth) he lived a life of grand triumphs and grand mistakes. If that made him a real man, than Santoro's is an equally real book, a fitting tribute to a man whose epitaph could fittingly be the words from his own notes to the 1971 album Let My Children Hear Music:

Let my children have music! Let them hear live music. Not noise. My children! You do what you want with your own!

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


La Grande ThéréseHilary Spurling
HarperCollins ($20)

by Nathan Leslie

Hilary Spurling's new biography, La Grande Thérèse, is partially a footnote to her fecund The Unknown Matisse, a work that cast new and revealing light onto the early modernist painter. Where the undercurrent of The Unknown Matisse was heroism and dignity, Spurling's latest biography is a bon-bon of deceit, a tale of a woman who created a glittering illusion of wealth, and who completely swindled hoity-toity turn-of-the-century Parisian society.

Stout and comely Thérèse Humbert was born to a peasant family in rural southern France, and even as a child imagined herself living in a vast chateau with hoards of both wealth and eminence. In one telling episode from her childhood, Thérèse convinced her girlhood acquaintances to pool their jewelry so that she could rotate her necklaces and fool others into believing she was wealthy. In another, Thérèse convinces fancy clothiers to make dresses for her on her ever-present false credit. In fact, throughout her life Thérèse viewed wealth as an illusion, something one could alter with a mere sleight of hand. She was a master conjurer who put Thorstein Veblen's famous notion of "conspicuous consumption" to use; Thérèse knew that, at least in the eyes of moneyed Parisians, style was substance.

By posing as the lover and heir of an imaginary American billionaire named Robert Henry Crawford, Thérèse was able to con her way into Parisian society. Thérèse and her partners-in-crime—the Humbert family at large, including her thuggish brother—were able to live for years by borrowing money against the legacy Crawford would leave her. However, the elaborate hoax collapsed in 1901 when a court asked the Humbert's legendary strongbox of papers to be opened to prove the whereabouts of the so-called Crawford wealth. Thérèse's creditors were horrified to learn its contents: an old newspaper, an Italian coin, and a button. After their failed attempt to flee France, Thérèse and family spent the greater portion of the 1900's in the hoosegow.

The pleasure of reading a book like La Grande Thérèse is the same as that of watching a good film-noir: you can root for the treachery to be discovered, but all along you admire the inventiveness and charisma of the cad. After all, much of the same Parisian society that Thérèse duped also denounced the innocent Alfred Dreyfus in the famous Dreyfus Affair. In many ways, Thérèse is both a crook who stole millions from well-healed Parisians, and a peasant hero who breaks stuffy continental class barriers.

However, in La Grande Thérèse the journey itself is ultimately as rewarding as the destination. La Grande Thérèse is told in clear, condensed prose, which lends itself both to an appreciation of detail, and to a crisp and efficient read (Spurling also effectively uses a number of supplementary turn-of-the century political cartoons and sketches). You know how the story ends, but you still want to know exactly how it unfolds—what will Thérèse pull out from under her sleeve next?

With La Grande Thérèse, Hilary Spurling has confirmed her place as one of the most inventive—not to mention accessible—biographers currently writing. In this work in particular Spurling plays the role of a deft trapeze artist: she has written a book that is minimalistic in scope, without shortchanging her subject, a book that is cinematic in potential, that never panders to its audience, a book that illustrates a morality tale without being moralistic.

In the end of course, Thérèse Humbert dies alone, penniless, and in disgrace. Yet Spurling's tale captures the resonance of Humbert's real legacy—the lengthy and imaginative wool that she pulled over the eyes the French elite for decades. By retelling a forgotten nugget of French history, Spurling has told a complex tale of a complex woman who will continue to live in the popular imagination in infamy and ignominy.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


The House on Dream StreetDana Sachs
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill ($22.95)

by Brian Foye

Single, female, American, born in the 1960s and so too young for any first-hand experience with the American war in Vietnam: these rough facts function as a scaffold for Dana Sachs's experiences in Vietnam. Her new memoir, The House on Dream Street, speaks in an earnest, authentic voice about both her love for the place and the changes it brought about in her.

Sachs spent more than half the 1990s in Vietnam, most of it in Hanoi. She became fluent in the language—not an easy feat, since Vietnamese is a tonal language where rising or falling pitch can mean the difference between "elder" and "fish"—and worked, among other jobs, as an English teacher and journalist. She also fell in love with Phai, a lonely motorbike mechanic who watches Chinese ninja on television and smokes endless packs of 555 cigarettes.

Perhaps too much of the book is spent with the forlorn Phai. He's in love with Dana Sachs, or at least he's in love with the idea of her, and she returns his glances. Soon the glances turn to shy kisses, then awkward love making, then a recognition (by Sachs) of their separateness, then a studied effort (by Sachs) to avoid any glances at all. Ultimately, Phai is no match for Todd, a Berkeley graduate student who packs up and meets her in Vietnam. That Sachs has some clear things to say about nationality, gender, and cross cultural relationships helps to fill some embarrassing spaces. That she later marries Todd, and they return to Vietnam with a son, helps bring the memoir back from melodrama.

The House on Dream Street, however, may disappoint those readers who have read Sachs's previous work. Among other pieces, Sachs wrote a compelling piece for "Destination: Vietnam" about a trip to the pottery kilns of Bat Trang with Nguyen Huy Thiep—something akin to walking through Paris with Samuel Beckett. While some of Sachs's other writing for "Destination: Vietnam" makes it into the memoir, it's puzzling that Nguyen Huy Thiep is relegated to a brief line on the Acknowledgement page. There's also no mention of Sachs's sharp, keen-witted translations of Nguyen's "Crossing the River" and "Remembrance of the Countryside" or Le Minh Khue's "A Small Tragedy." Surely the great contemporary literature of Vietnam was part of Sachs's personal and professional journey through that country. The author, or her editors, should have made room for it in The House on Dream Street.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


The Sokal Hoaxedited by the editors of Lingua Franca
University of Nebraska Press ($23.95)

by Doug Nufer

Growing up with superhero comics, I used to wonder why one of their standard plot devices, the hoax, seldom occurred in the real world. Then came Vietnam, a swirl of assassinations, Watergate, and the CIA's overthrow of Allende, i.e., ten years of support for a suspicion that the hoax, far from Superman trope, had become government policy. Propaganda and advertising ruled the world. Or, to paraphrase Jefferson, we would tolerate any error as long as there was spin to define it.

More recent decades have inspired enough hoaxes, pro- and anti-establishment, to amuse and infuriate old comic book readers. Barbie dolls who talk like G.I. Joe (and vice-versa), authorized corporate histories that are sold as real books, and computer viruses that rage at The Machine have a resonance that other modes of expression can't match. Long afterward, we still laugh about the dolls, incorporate p.r. lies into reasons supporting our views of various industries, and buy new software (perhaps designed by the hackers who made it necessary) to protect our systems from last year's scourge. Hoaxes are con games, practical jokes and slapstick comedy, happenings which—however they may have been conceived or effectively function—may be best considered aesthetically.

Unfortunately, nowhere in The Sokal Hoax is Alan Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" considered purely as art. Introduced and compiled by the editors of Lingua Franca magazine, the book begins with this infamous parody of poststructuralist language that Sokal slipped past the trolls of Social Text magazine in 1996, then presents the follow-up article Sokal wrote (and Lingua Franca published) to announce and explain what he had done. Most of the book consists of newspaper reports, magazine essays, and exchanges prompted by these articles. Secondary sources (the New York PostNew York TimesLe MondeThe NationDissent, etc.) related the coup and spurred debate over the issues Sokal raised, even though a) hardly anyone (including some of the most strident commentators) had read the original articles, and b) no one outside of a few academics and their detractors might have cared.

Not that the issues aren't important or fascinating. Sokal, an NYU physics professor, succinctly explains himself in the Lingua Franca article. He was fed up with the trend where intellectuals on the Left expressed themselves in mushy jargon and built arguments by citing "authorities" rather than by using logic. In particular, he objected to a tendency for critics who knew nothing about science to criticize science by resorting to these tactics. Science studies and culture studies were two related areas where critics had a field day leaping to conclusions that Sokal found to be unfounded. After all, the Right could bray about faith and Creationism, but shouldn't the Left adhere to the principles set forth in the Enlightenment? Whatever happened to reason?

A letter to the editor or a straight article might have been printed—and would have been ignored. To make his point, Sokal chose to write a fake article and submit it to a respected journal that published science studies and culture studies criticism. His choice of Social Text turned out to be right on target. Not only did they not use a peer review system (or even refer articles they didn't understand to someone who might understand them), he could liberally lard his article with quotes by some members of their editorial board.

Some of the most damning testimony about the editors of Social Text comes from none other than the editors themselves in their responses; consistently they come off as stuffed-shirt poohbahs who can't take a joke. There is, of course, the point that an academic writer has no business lying, that the physicist violated some vow of intellectual integrity by trafficking in parody. More regrettably, a knee-jerk line of newspaper stories used the Sokal hoax to bash (in no particular order) intellectuals, college tuition rates, science studies, and famous Frenchmen who write obscurely and thereby lead our own commonly sensible professors astray.

But when you read, "feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the facade of 'objectivity'…" ; and when you behold Derrida, Lacan, Aronowitz, and company paraded out in all their glory in some of the silliest (but real and meticulously noted) statements they ever made, the article is so beautifully bogus as to render all objections null and void. This isn't just some intramural academic grudge match, and the sideshow of Sokal justifying his prank by saying he did it to save the Left only diverts attention from what's best about this accomplishment: it's a piece of work Nabokov would love. After long hours of background reading, Sokal built his article from fragments, filling in enough of his own writing to throw bones to the editors to let them know he's one of them. This is a scientist who refers to the "so-called" scientific method, a physicist who entertains the point of view that physical laws are subject to opinion.

Had Social Text realized how preposterous Sokal's submission was and rejected it, the article might still have appeared as a dazzling work of literature in a slim volume with only an introduction to speculate on what might have been. But "Transgressing the Boundaries" transgressed the boundaries of academia, ordinary intellectual discourse, and even extraordinary literature; and, in so doing, it recuperated the hoax as an art form.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Bellow by James AtlasJames Atlas
Random House ($35)

by Eric J. Iannelli

Saul Bellow has certainly reserved a place for himself in the literary Valhalla. His novels helped re-define American literature after WWII—an influence that won him two National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prize (1975), and the Nobel Prize (1976). His success was largely a mix of good fortune and natural talent. In addressing his deeply personal concerns, Bellow's writing serendipitously captured some key part of a global Zeitgeist.

In his newest biography, Bellow, James Atlas has covered his subject in acute detail. He fares well in presenting a composite, and not simply exposing the man's flaws and foibles. This is achieved by the chronological analysis of Bellow's writing alongside his personal life—rightly so, as both are heavily interrelated. Atlas's research even predates Bellow's birth in 1915 to provide clues toward his nostalgic obsession with his own personal history.

Although the author hasn't always been forthcoming, admirers and critics alike acknowledge that Bellow's oeuvre is a series of romans a clef. With a plot similar to Woody Allen's 1997 film Deconstructing Harry, Bellow has employed his own struggles—and vendettas—to color the characters and action within his writing. Nevertheless, this strong autobiographical strain has invited adverse personal accusations, some of which are only justified out of context. Among them are misogyny, bigotry and elitism. Reverence runs high, but it doesn't preclude the grittier drama from appearing on the pages.

Because most of his grievances were aired publicly, Bellow had few skeletons in his closet. What is needed, however, is a proper examination of their bones. Atlas's work excels in this respect. He portrays him as being distrustful, judgmental, selfish, reticent, and hypersensitive to criticism—all the archetypal makings of a frustrated artist. Bellow, as Atlas argues, has rarely accepted blame or responsibility for his own actions. He thrives on victimization. Perhaps his greatest flaw—or asset—has been to define himself through asperity, suffering as a Jew, an unrecognized genius, or as a disaffected individual. His trials and ordeals were often, one is led to believe, self-inflicted, as if the words of Aeschylus would lead him to enlightenment: 'Suffer, suffer into truth.' After the publication of Herzog, Atlas notes that "Success had a destabilizing effect on him . . . he was more comfortable with opposition. Now there was nothing to resist." Yet his shortcomings have served as his means to success and, in moderation, his most endearing characteristics as an individual.

During especially difficult times, such as his father Abram's death, Atlas claims Bellow "repos[ed] his faith in the vindicating power of his own talent." Elsewhere he emphasizes the author's lack of supreme confidence in the same. So, in light of these oppositions in the author's life, what sort of man does this present to the reader? A contradiction. Atlas, however, handles the equivocal twists well and states his conclusions directly: "Early in his career, Bellow had been angry that he wasn't recognized; now that he was recognized, he was angry that he was misunderstood." He is equally as aware of other general patterns: "The arrival of a child meant that Bellow himself was no longer the child; he had been displaced by his own son."

One cannot write a biography (or its review) without noting Bellow's Judaism—or, better yet, Jewish-ness—and its influence on his collective writing. Unlike the "ethnic fiction" that dominates today's literary market, Bellow always stressed his American-ness over his Jewish-ness; only as he grew older did it gain a more prominent position in his essays and fiction. The universal experience was always his dominant emphasis.

As an enhancement to the copious index, Atlas's bibliography is impressive, consisting of many preliminary and unpublished manuscripts from the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, as well as interviews, criticisms, and private correspondence. That Bellow never kept a journal is daunting for any biographer, but one is hardly conscious of its absence. There are one or two minor editing mistakes, which will likely be rectified in subsequent printings, and some disputable tangential facts—for example, an aside about Dylan Thomas, "who had fallen off a bar stool at the White Horse Tavern and was in a coma at St. Vincent's Hospital." The actual events preceding his alcoholic coma, as I have come to understand them through prior research, were less dramatic. Although Nabokov's footnoted dismissal of Bellow as "a miserable mediocrity" merits a belly laugh, one might enjoy a bit more information about the rivalry between the two. But, on the whole, there are few flaws in Bellow. Atlas has succeeded where Mark Harris failed, notably in Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck (the elusive creature in a Frost poem), Harris's account of his frustrating inability to write the author's biography.

In "The Last Analysis," a 1964 Broadway flop, Bellow's protagonist remarks, "The self-absorption of people who never tire of exploring their depths is the source of our comedy." Now, forty years later, one might be able to change the last clause to read " . . . the object of our admiration." As a man, Bellow himself is intensely human, with all his defects and talents exaggerated. His self-absorption has led to a prolific career, and popularity through his compassionate, empathetic portrayal of the everyman. Bellow deftly elucidates the subtle complexities of its subject and his work. The title bears the name proudly, and it is unlikely that any other work of the same length will surpass it.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

SCIENCE IS FICTION: The Films of Jean Painlevé

Science is Fictionedited by Masaki Bellows and Marina McDougall with Brigitte Berg
The MIT Press / Brico Press ($39.95)

by Kelly Everding

Certain books unveil the marvelous, offering those that encounter them a glimpse into strange new worlds. Such an experience is guaranteed to readers of Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé. Anyone who thinks the love life of the octopus or the limping crawl of the vampire bat may prove enchanting will definitely benefit from this beautiful and thorough retrospective of a singular filmmaker.

Science is Fiction begins, naturally, with a biographical essay detailing the full and fantastic life of Jean Painlevé. Son of mathematician and twice prime minister of France, Paul Painlevé, and Marguerite Petit de Villeneuve, who died soon after his birth (1902), Jean grew up with a strong love of nature and photography. Despite his hatred for school as a child, he eventually graduated from the Sorbonne with a degree in zoology and biology. Painlevé met his life-long partner Geneviéve Hamon there, and together they pioneered science and documentary filmmaking. In the mid-1920s, the couple befriended many avant-garde writers and filmmakers, including many surrealists, taking in the cinematic outpourings of Jean Vigo, René Clair, and Luis Buñuel. Although his first experience with filmmaking was as an actor, Painlevé quickly took to the camera and combined his scientific leanings with the artistic medium of film.

Painlevé's first film, The Stickleback Egg, was screened in 1928 before the Académie des sciences to a great deal of hostility. The scientific community resisted his work, calling it "entertainment for the ignorant." They distrusted film, believing it to be a medium of deceit, but Painlevé's films were embraced by the avant-garde of France. (Man Ray, for example, used Painlevé's footage of underwater starfish in his film L'Etoile de Mer.) A self-proclaimed anarchist, Painlevé took part in anti-Nazi demonstrations throughout WWII, when he temporarily discontinued filmmaking. Throughout his life, Painlevé championed science and documentary filmmaking, serving as director of the Committee for the Liberation of French Cinema (which he co-founded during the war), and founding a nonprofit organization, the Institute of Scientific Cinema, which helped distribute and show documentary films made all over the world. He continued making films until 1982, the last one entitled Pigeons of the Square. Painlevé died in 1989.

Science is Fiction unfolds wonder after wonder. Beyond the fascinating life of Painlevé, we are treated to an insightful essay by Ralph Rugoff entitled "Fluid Mechanics," a critical look at the inner workings of a Painlevé film. "Painlevé's cinema can instill unease and wonder in equal parts," says Rugoff, and rightly so. As he explores undersea and microscopic worlds never before revealed to the general populace, Painlevé artistically plays on the viewer's need to familiarize or anthropomorphize the bizarre creatures' behaviors. As Rugoff explains, "Painlevé's films often proceed according to an alternating rhythm of seduction and repulsion as we are invited to identify with a particular aspect of a given creature, only to have it revealed a moment later just how monstrously different this other life form actually is." Painlevé made three versions of each science film: one for the scientific community, one for universities, and one for the general public—the latter he would often score to modern jazz.

Of course, it would be hard to imagine such fantastic films without some visual aids, and Science is Fiction provides an abundance of them. Pictures of Painlevé and Hamon at work and play pepper the biographical chapters, along with photos of Painlevé with his colleagues and friends such as Eisenstein (when he visited France, Painlevé smuggled him into Switzerland in a laundry basket so he might meet his favorite movie star). And the middle portion of the book includes marvelous photograms and photography by Painlevé. The photograms are stills taken from his films along with the text, giving a nice idea of how the films progress. Included among these is a short sequence of stills from the 1927 film Methuselah, which Painlevé shot to be shown interspersed between scenes of the stage play by Ivan Goll. Antonin Artaud played a small part in the film. In an interview with Painlevé included in Science is Fiction, Painlevé reveals that Artaud, playing a bishop, was approached by two nuns and some young girls who proceeded to kiss his ring. Artaud responded by exclaiming, "Get back, daughters of Satan!" We also learn that Artaud stole the money intended to pay for the actors and filming of these sequences. Painlevé held no grudges.

Painlevé's most successful film was The Seahorse (1934) which was one of the first films to use footage shot underwater (and the only film of his to break even). Painlevé was always experimenting and kept on the cutting edge of camera technology (he and Hamon created one of the very first hand-held cameras, fashioning straps from belts to hold the camera steadily in place). The seahorse held a special place in Painlevé's pantheon of aquatic life because of its unique transgression of gender roles, in which the male seahorse carries and painfully delivers the eggs placed in its pouch by the female. Says Painlevé, "this symbol of tenacity joins the most virile effort with the most maternal care." But Painlevé's oeuvre extended far beyond the animal kingdom; he made films on reconstructive and plastic surgery, a solar eclipse, The Fourth Dimension, and a claymation version of Blue Beard that foreshadows the work of Jan Svankmajer.

Also collected in this book are a number of essays by Painlevé and his admirers. Painlevé writes about the difficulties and rewards of being a science film maker—trying to capture delicate gestures and behaviors without interfering with creatures performing them. In "Feet in the Water," he bemoans his inability to catch fleeting, one-of-a-kind moments, "but there are consolations: the greatest being the ability to eat one's actors—crab, shrimp, sea urchins, squid, all finely cooked in new and unusual ways." In "Mysteries and Miracles of nature," he questions the motives of science films: "Does the complete understanding of a natural phenomenon strip away its miraculous qualities? It is certainly a risk. But it should at least maintain all of its poetry, for poetry subverts reason and is never dulled by repetition. Besides, a few gaps in our knowledge will always allow for a joyous confusion of the mysterious, the unknown, the miraculous." In "The Castration of the Documentary," written in 1953, Painlevé speaks passionately and cogently about the demise of documentary filmmaking, arguing that most filmmakers are sloppy and uninspired. In the end, he exhorts the few documentarians left to rise above the mediocre:

You who do not practice the defeatist motto: "It's better than nothing"; you who have a strong enough cinematic eye to impose it on subjects you feel something for; you who will not agree to make a film about sugar production for the simple reason your grandfather was diabetic; you who scorn saccharine sentimentality and refuse to disfigure a work with it. It is you who hold the fate of the documentary—battered and bruised by a thousand blows from all sides—in your hands.

Painlevé showed true passion for his work and dedicated his life to it. Science is Fiction is a fitting tribute to him, short of a film retrospective. As André Bazin writes in "Science Film: Accidental Beauty,"

The camera alone possesses the secret key to this universe where supreme beauty is identified at once with nature and chance: that is, with all that a certain traditional aesthetic considers the opposite of art. The Surrealists alone foresaw the existence of this art that seeks in the almost impersonal automatism of their imagination a secret factory of images. But Tanguy, Salvador Dali, and Buñuel have only distantly approached the Surrealist drama in which the late lamented Doctor de Martel, preparing for a complicated trephination, first sculpts on the nape of a neck—shaved and naked as an eggshell—the outline of a face. Whoever has not seen that has no idea how far cinema can go.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

THE MEASURE OF LIFE: Virginia Woolf's Last Years

The Measure of LifeHerbert Marder
Cornell University Press ($35)

by Carolyn Kuebler

In his "Prelude" to The Measure of Life, Herbert Marder tells a story about his "somewhat offbeat" decision, as a graduate student at Columbia in the '60s, to write his thesis on Virginia Woolf's novels. Woolf, who wasn't yet part of the standard college syllabus, was also out of political favor at the time, known mainly as an upper-middle-class "lady" who wrote beautiful, experimental novels. But explaining to his advisor that "there are subversive, radical ideas all over her books," Marder won his approval and began an important chapter in his own writing life. His first book, Feminism and Art: A Study of Virginia Woolf, was published in 1968; now, thirty years older himself, he presents a picture of Woolf in her fifties. "I felt that the enlightened Virginia of the 1930s, who displayed great sanity and courage under fire (her decision to choose the time and manner of her death did not diminish that), required a biography of her own."

Despite her highly charged, standard-syllabus feminist essays, A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas, Woolf is better known for her radical style than her subversive political ideas. She broke many rules, and did so beautifully, but her characters (and she herself) were mostly polite and well-behaved society people, much of the outrage and rebellion taking place under the surface. Marder doesn't deny Woolf's poetic capabilities and achievements, nor does he argue in favor of her lesser-known novels, those she wrote during her last ten years. What he shows us is how Woolf's always-powerful sense of anger at political and social injustices grew more and more urgent as she grew older, and how she grew increasingly desperate to manifest this rage in her work.

Marder's interest in Woolf's subversive ideas is well-served by a close look at these final years. As Europe was exploding all around her, Woolf found it nearly impossible to maintain her belief in the significance of her art, and as England prepared for war, she felt she was losing her audience. She wanted desperately to have some kind of impact on the world. As Marder remarks, "When reviewers praised the beauty of her writing, ignoring its substance, she protested that she would rather be known as an ugly writer but an honest one." She even broke with her own writerly impulses in an attempt always to try something new, something that might take her work beyond literature itself and into the realm of real-life influence.

Despite Marder's obvious interest in the political side of things, The Measure of Life does not serve a single theme, theory, or agenda. Clearly the author's devotion to Woolf arose from the novels themselves, from her magnificent sentences, and then grew to include the author's lifelong struggle and the way each book fit into her living and breathing beyond the page. Marder pieces together the letters, diaries, and publications into a chronological narrative, resisting the temptation to surmise and editorialize. At the same time, he creates a personal tone that reckons with its own biases and self-interest. He takes care to explain this at the beginning of the book, stating his purpose and intent: "I vowed to respect the otherness of my subject, to listen to what Virginia Woolf actually said rather than what one expected her to say. In short, to believe her . . . to rely on her own testimony and to trace the self-creating motifs, the core of identity, defined by her own words."

Marder analyzes of each book from this period—The Waves, The Years, The Years, Three Guineas, and Between the Acts—apart from the context of the biography, though always surrounded by it. He provides a sort of Cliffs-Notes description of each book, followed by his own assessments; here is where he allows his opinion to come into play most obviously. These moments of subjectivity are well-deserved and often interesting and astute in their particular observations.

The Measure of Life offers a fascinating look at how a writer's raw ideas and her art merge, and also how they fail to. Woolf struggled doggedly in these last years, her work becoming drudgery at times, and her sense of failure increasing. But there was also a lot of delight in her letters and diary entries from these years, and the energy pours forth to her friends, in particular the robust composer Ethel Smyth. "'Only in myself, I say, forever bubbles this impetuous torrent. . . . I am more full of shape & colour than ever,'" she wrote in 1929. While she may have left behind the image of a thin, cold suicidal intelligence, Woolf was actually very passionate, witty, and engaged in the world around her.

Once an author is canonized and beloved as Woolf is, it's hard to imagine her being susceptible to critics, to bad days, to fear of failure. But Woolf was plagued by all these things, completely shaken by negative reviews, or even careless ones, and she was convinced, from time to time, that all of her work was a failure. When it was most devastating was, of course, when she was still in the midst of it, and The Years, which took five years to write, may have been the biggest struggle of all. She wanted to make it different from anything else she had ever written, mostly because she wanted to continue to challenge herself and to have more impact on social reality. Her writing of The Years is the most harrowing segment of this period of her life, up until her suicide. This book, more than any other, wore her out, and in the end she didn't believe in it the way she believed in her more poetic masterpieces, The Waves and To the Lighthouse.

It's also surprising to hear of her less-enviable attributes. Though she was aware that her being a daughter of a famous man of letters and her connections to the powers that be gave her special privileges, even if not a lot of money, she remained an incurable snob. She looked down on poor people, servants, and anyone without the education she had. Some of her remarks, though generally meant only for her diary or for private letters, are disturbingly classist. She may have been active with the Labor Party and written on behalf of less-privileged in Three Guineas and A Room of One's Own, but she had a tenacious sense of pride in her class that bordered on the kind of "barbarism" she herself so hated.

Virginia Woolf's breakdowns, her marriage to the austere Leonard, her connections to the colorful Bloomsbury circle—all of this is well-documented and even mythologized in the hundreds of books on Woolf that have been published since Marder's graduate school days. But Marder's approach, based as it is on her voice rather than on any "thesis," allows the reader to see Woolf's genius, her failures and her passions, as the complex, variegated days of a life. Woolf comes off as a hard-working writer who never rested on her popularity and praise. In this book, Marder moves the last ten years of her life out from under the shadow of her suicide, and respectfully and lovingly puts this productive time into context. Household chatter, visits to the doctor, quibbles with servants, and blossoming friendships may not change Virginia Woolf's literary output or her influence; they do, however, make a good story of artistic struggle, a story worthy of its many retellings.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Tell Me by Kim AddonizioKim Addonizio
Boa Editions ($12.95)

by Sean Thomas Dougherty

Kim Addonizio's third collection continues the dialectic of urban despair—the dialogue between bar room and beauty, between sorrow songs and simple prayers—that has earned her a wide readership and many honors. Addonizio's poems depict a landscape of failed relationships, drunken lovers, and barroom drawl. She creates poems of casual formality to reflect the discontinuity and loosely held together lives of her speakers, and often evokes the thoughts and talk of Others—sometimes in the disguise of completely created personas, as in her previous book, the novelesque Rita and Jimmy. Here again in Tell Me are the despairing realities Addonizio so eloquently sings—the dim rooms where strangers meet, the death of parents, a painful sequence on a failed marriage—familiar territory that Addonizio narrates with intelligence and grace. But within Tell Me is also the poet's "fierce love" for her daughter, as well as a new voice—that of the Poet/Teacher who mentions "workshops," "writing," and "teaching"—which haltingly asserts it subject position as if to speak from the actual social role of Addonizio as author.

For previous literary generations, the bar room was a strictly male landscape, but in Addonizio's hands it becomes articulated through the subject position of the female body, and all the complex sexual politic which that voice engenders through hazy smoke and drunken sway. Whether Addonizio speaks of the body through a distancing "you," or "she" or intimates the body through the more immediate "I," in her work the body becomes landscape. She speaks of its "tenacious renewal," of "the tongue dipping into the real," of her "ex husband's hands," an "old intimacy" that evokes such sorrow, until her speaker states with slight awe in the book's last poem, "how images enter you, the shutter of the body." How often and simply this occurs:

clicking when you're not even looking
smooth chill of satin sheets, piano keys, a pastry's glazy crust
floating up.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000