About Talking To Journalists

Journalists do like sources who talk plainly, truthfully and on the record. That’s doubtless. A trustworthy and talkative source not only makes the job easier, but more enjoyable. Journalists like to interview people as much as they like to write, after all. When I think back on my jouralism, I have fond memories of my favorite sources.

That said, this, from the always excellent Eschaton blog, is not quite how things work:

“People long said about Woodward that if you talk to him, he makes you look good, if you don’t, he makes you look bad. True of all these things, to some extent.”

Journalists don’t punish people for not talking and we don’t purposefully favor the sources that do. It’s more that sources who talk have more opportunity to get their stories out and they can fill in blanks and explain nuance. Sources who don’t talk but who are factually part of the story anyway, don’t avail themselves of that.

Which isn’t to say that if you’re approached by a reporter you should always talk. In my on-staff journalism days, a colleague and I used to joke that we should form a PR agency where we only advised people not to comment or cooperate with any story. There are a lot of ways that cooperating can go wrong, especially if you don’t have a great story to tell.

But the implication here — that Woodward punished people who didn’t help him and lionized thosed that did is, I think, wrong. If the talkers came off better, it was because they told the story, not because Woodward rewarded or punished.

Slouchers: The 90s Movie Parody Novel We Need at the End of 2020

I was still in high school in New Mexico at the time, but we all know that Seattle in the early 1990s was the most magical, exciting place to be. This is the ethos of Slouchers, the new film-inspired comedy novel from Mike Sacks, who oreviously delighted with Stinker Lets Loose!, a send-up of 70s road movies, and Passable in Pink, his homage to John Hughes. Slouchers takes on films like Singles, Dazed and Confused, Slacker, Reality Bites and the early Kevin Smith films. It’s all about people in their early 20s (and also late 20s and also Kurt Loder) pitting grunge authenti city against yuppie Boomerisms in a short-lived, pre-internet era.

The latest from Mike Sacks

Willow is our hero. She’s moved to Seattle from “back east” and is making a documentary about her generation, embodied by the “Lost Boys,” a group of slackers and stoners. The crew includes: Toodie, her sometime boyfriend who is going to be the next Nirvana; Skip, her boss at a record store who brandishes weapons at people who buy commercial rock albums; Vicky, her best friend who is just kind of average looking but a slut, Wake and Bake (two guys, no explanation needed) and a host of others, including the requisite recently out gay characters whose parents are still coming to terms with what they should have realized anyway. Also, there’s “Mr. Straight,” who is a business man from out of town who is into “commerce” and would as clearly be played by Ben Stiller as Winona Ryder would be Willow. His purchase of the failing record store incites the plot.

Willow, by the way, has been in Seattle all of two weeks, but it was before the release of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, so her roots burrow deep. Her documentary’s goal are comically amporphous:

“But her documentary isn’t about her sex life. Who would be interested in that anyway? It’s really more about her friends and how they are changing the universe.”

Meanwhile her foil, Mr. Straight, is no better grounded. When asked to explain his line of work he answers: “Business,” says Mr. Straight. “Finance. Commerce.”

Everyone is earnest and right on ths surface. It sets up a showdown between grunge authenticity and corporate capitalism, all set to be exploited by MTV. We’re reminded with a laugh and poke in the ribs that any nostalgia we have from that era is nostalgia for something that was created and mass marketed by the same multinational conglomerates we worry about today.

But, don’t worry, there’s no semornizing, except for comic effective and there are multiple laughs per page. Another triumph for Mike Sacks. By the way, I think I read that Sacks didn’t love the 90s grunge era films or the aesthetic, and yet he’s built a following for his novel movie parodies in a totally 90s, DIY, indie way. That’s not the technical definition of irony that I learned studying theatre history back in those days, but it’s close enough for the Hollywood take.

Late to “The Memory Police”

I didn’t hear mention of the Yōko Ogawa’s 1994 novel The Memory Police until 2016, when people referenced it with regards to how fascist governments change people’s reality by slowly altering the parameters of normal life until only the reality of the oppressor remained. At the time, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, I’d already read It Can’t Happen Here and then Night of Camp David, not to mention that Michael Wolff book and so I didn’t pursue this.

What a mistake!

The Memory Police is actually tonic for the purely political novel. As with Franz Kafka, its political dimensions only serve to accent the greater absurdities of human existence and mortality.

This dreamlike book tells the story of life on an island governed by a group called “The Memory Police,” who seemingly at random remove items from people’s lives. The losses have varying significance. Sometimes it’s calendars or music boxes, other times roses or books and ultimately body parts. When an item is removed, the people forget it ever existed. A few, however, remember. The Memory Police hunts down those who can remember, to enforce a strict elimination of objects or ideas deemed irrelevant.

The premise. naturally evokes the kind of gaslighting practiced by totalitarian governments around the world and throughout history. But I think there’s much more to it, especially when the people start to lose memory of their bodies.

One thing I considered, perhaps more horrifying and merciless even than a dictatorship would be a diseases or conditions that rob people’s cognition. Or diseases like diabetes or certain cancers that cost people body parts. Ultimately, The Memory Police seems to be about mortality, the little things that life takes from us along the way and our struggles to preserve what’s precious.

Certainly, it’s a fascinating book and something far bigger than a political commentary (though, it’s that, too.)

Why The Undoing’s Ending Didn’t Resonate (or maybe it did?)

Fascinating essay from author Jane Dykema in Electric Literature today about how Grace’s dissasociated behaviors throughout the murder mystery/court drama made her a murder suspect in the eyes of viewers who have internalized dangerous tropes about “unstable” women. There’s a lot to consider here.

A good portion of HBO’s The Undoing was a murder mystery. A young and exoticized mother has an affair with her son’s oncologist and she turns up dead. The oncologist, who had lost his position at the hospital over the affair and lied to his family about it, then flees the city, only to turn up later to enlist his wife’s help in his criminal defense. The series at that point changes from murder mystery to court room drama and actually seems a bit like its last episodes could have been condensed and slotted into any run of Law and Order.

From what I can tell, folks did not seem universalkly impressed with the series finale, where we learn that, yes, the oncologist is guilty. Dykema’s critique, that Grace (the oncologist’s wife, played by Nicole Kidman) should never have been consideredd much of a suspect by viewers is compelling. She never seemed a murderer, though that might have been an interesting angle.

Another critique I’ve seen is that the victim, Elena, is a seductive latina outsider to the upper west side community that dominates the show’s focus. While you can see the writers trying to turn the series into a critiue of upper crust morality, they wind up turning the crime victim into an after thought and the whole thing becomes Grace’s story. Can Grace, a successful Manhattan therapist also born into fantastic wealth accept that her husband Jonathan is a sociopath and a killer? The practical struggle here is that if she does not, if she decides to persist in the illusion of a perfect marriage to a wonderful man who has devoted his life to curing pediatric cancer patients, that he will get away with the crime. But the justic narrative winds up secondary to her personal journey and we’re really presented with “can Grace find peace with all of this?” This seems a minor issue given that another character has been bludgeoned to death with her sculptor’s hammer.

While I agree with both of these takes, my problem with how the show played out is more fundamental — it seemed like Jonathan was the murderer from episode one. Almost none of the twists and turns thrown in to direct suspicion at any other character can overcome the obvious narrative that Jonathan, after developing a close relationship with the mother of one of his patients, had an affair with Elena. The affair cost him a prestigious and irreplaceable job, so he decided to end it and try to reclaim his old life. Elena, of course, would refuse to be casually discarded and insinuate herself further into his life and at a moment of maximum tension, he kills her.

Seven episodes to get to “he did it,” seemed excessive in retrospect. I craved something more interesting like Grace’s father hated Jonathan and framed him for the crime. But maybe that’s the test of the series — how much do we crave an ending that absolves the otherwise successful white man? Maybe the ending worked out better than I’d thought.

Galapagos vs. Seveneves

Somehow I got sidetracked and despite really enjoying Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 novel Galapagos, it somehow took me more than a month to finish the book. It’s a delight, even read in bits and smatters. Along the way, I was reminded of 2015’s Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.

What the two books have in common is that they both deal with the evolution of the human race after a species-ending event. In the case of Galapagos, it’s a financial crisis, followed by a war, followed by a sterilizing virus. The only survivors are some passengers who take a cruise to the islands that Darwin made famous. There, isolated from the rest of the world, and the virus, they mutate over a million years into what reminds me of a walrus — intelligent, ocean dwelling fishers with flippers instead of arms. In Seveneves, the destruction of the moon rains meteorites onto Earth, setting the atmosphere ablaze and killing everybody but the few who escape to space on an ark and some who flee into the oceans in nuclear submarines. Over millions of years these survivors evolve according to their circumstances, guided by natural selection.

In Stephenson’s world, humanity changes but retains its sentience. Vonnegut tells a different tale — humanity saves itself by losing its sentience. The big brains bestowed upon us by evolution turn out to be a hindrance and were the cause of the catastrophes that befell the species. You don’t need a reflexive self conscious to hunt for fish and so we lose it. Vonnegut’s narrator is the ghost of Kilgore Trout’s son, who refuses to cross into the afterlife and lingers on Earth to watch humanity evolve.

Stephenson’s message is that life will find a way. Vonnegut’s is that life will find a way back. All of humanity is reduced to a small population of semi-intelligent walruses living on or around the Galapagos Islands. Without big brains and opposable thumbs, they’re free from common human mischief. They do not even, Vonnegut tells us, know that they will inevitably die, and are spared the greatest anxiety brought to us by our sentience.

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