Wandering through the Tribeca Barnes & Noble today, I came upon something surprising in these repressed cultural times. The publishers of the maligned and protested American Dirt have stuck by their author, as has Oprah’s book club.
Not only that, but a store employee who likes the book is not afraid to say so.
Of course I’m not saying anybody should like this novel or buy it. But imagine letting readers decide, rather than giving into pressure from activists who are out for nothing more than to silence the people they dislike and the points of view they’re afraid to contend with.
It’s a little weird to push a debut novel that’s already won rave reviews, comparisons to Phillip Roth, a nomination for the National Book Award and was subject of a 10 producer bidding war for limited series rights (won last fall by FX).
But I absolutely loved this novel.
Fleishman is in Trouble is mostly about the divorce of Toby and Rachel Fleishman, he a hepotologist and she a high powered talent agent who helped turn an off Broadway one woman show into the Fleishmaniverse’s Hamilton. They have two children, an awkward and introverted son and a daughter on the verge of adolescence. It’s a book about privilege and rich people problems, yes, but there’s so much more going on.
The story is told, The Great Gatsby style by Libby, a former writer for a men’s magazine who reconnects with Toby and then with Rachel, during a crack-up August as the two finalize their divorce. Like Nick Carroway, she’s an interested observer, though not objective. Unlike Nick, she has her own issues to work out that parallel and add to the story. Since Taffy Brodesser-Akner is also a magazine writer, readers will assume Libby is a stand-in for the author, but all of these characters are so fully imagined that I would not make that leap.
It’s amazing how every character gets their due in this book, with the notable exception of Miriam, who just can’t seem to be fleshed out towards redemption because she’s so… well, you’ll see. She’s really ugh.
It’s poignant, it’s funny, it’s a little sexy and if you have time to pick up and read a copy before the mini-series comes out, it’s more than worth the trouble.
In Woody Allen’s Love & Death, Boris is awaiting execution for the murder of Napoleon, a crime he didn’t commit. “But isn’t that life?” he wonders. “Aren’t we all condemned to die for a crime we didn’t commit?”
I just read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1981 novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold and am so reminded of the sentiment. Our narrator returns to his home town to investigate the revenge killing of Santiago Nasar after a large wedding is ruined by the discovery that the bride, sister to the killers, is not a virgin. She names Nasar as the man she’d slept with before marriage. But it clearly never happened and so Nasar never suspects that anyone wants to kill him and when he finally realizes his danger, he has no idea why it’s happening. He dies, knived to death by butchers, holding his innards.
Which reminds me of Franz Kafka’s novella The Trial in which Josef K. is informed that he has been charged with capital crimes and will be judged for them, though the accusations are never stated. Josef K. is also found guilty and sentenced to death. When he is butchered on a public street he can only think that they have killed him, “Like a dog!”
There’s a lot going on in both stories about the inhumane social and legal systems we subject ourselves to while living in a society. But the heart of it all is Woody Allen’s observation that we will all die, saints and sinners alike, as we were sentenced from the start for the crime of being born. This seems to put the search for some original sin into perspective, though the culprit is probably remorseless entropy.
As a former magazine employee (though really after what’s now remembered as a last “golden age”), I might find it too heartbreaking to read the Dan Peres memoir about Condé Nast. But as it was published, I’d finished reading This Could Hurt, a workplace novel by Jillian Medoff where the heroes all work in the HR department of a market research firm that’s been upended and hobbled by the Financial Crisis.
It’s a solid office-based book and I’m a big believer in fiction that portrays the working life. Very often, to set an interesting plot in motion, an author will rely on some deus ex machina to reduce or eliminate the pecuniary needs of the protagonists. One way to do this is to just make the main characters wealthy enough that they only have to work by choice, if at all. Or maybe there’s an inheritance, or a benefactor with other motives… it is nice to get our characters out of the office and into a small town in Thailand, when we can. But most readers have to go to work and they deserve our attention, too.
Among the reactions I’ve seen to the Peres memoir are people who are shocked or surprised that people might take drugs and then go to work, or that they might drink alcohol at lunch.
Medoff’s novel, published in 2018 and set in the early part of that decade, gets a lot of its plot from people stretching and breaking the HR rules as they develop overly personal relationships with one another, in and out of the office. I dare say that though the novel is written by a high-level HR pro, that much of the behavior in her book would not be tolerated in a real workplace, were it unearthed by the wrong people.
Now, in the old days, especially in media, drinking was tolerated in the workplace — well, not for everybody, because nothing was ever for everybody. The guy who indulged in the 3 martini lunch wasn’t a lush with a problem who is messing up the health insurance premiums for everybody, he was a guy with an expense account and enough clout and influence that he could be tipsy or lazy in the afternoon. So if you wrote a workplace novel back then and had a character tip back strong cocktails in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, the reader would immediately get that they’re reading about a man of influence.
My guess is when presented with that same character in 2020, most readers would see a man with poor judgment and impulse control and a potential villain. Maybe a modern Falstaff would be the best possible outcome.
When I used to work at Forbes there were tales of a long-abolished office drink cart. We 20 somethings wondered, “why don’t they bring that back?” But we knew why and knew it wasn’t coming back. Now people don’t even think it would be a fun idea to bring the drink carts back. They see it as evidence of our collective past dysfunctions.
Last night I read The Cockroach a novella by Ian McEwan where a cockroach undergoes a purposeful, though Kafkaesque transformation into the British Prime Minister. It is a lot of light-hearted fun.
McEwan’s novel got me thinking about potential fictional representations of America’s president and those thoughts crashed into Josh Marshall’s observations about the behavior of post-impeachment Trump, a man who seems beyond all epiphany.
Which brought me to the moment of great change in the last part of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:
“Yes! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!”
How would that end, were his Scrooge our Trump? I see: “Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!”
“‘TOTAL EXONERATION!’ cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.”
“The end of Candide is for me incontrovertible proof of genius of the first order; the stamp of the master is in that laconic conclusion, as stupid as life itself.” -Gustave Flaubert
I’ll never be able to sum that up as well as Flaubert. The famous ending is, after all of the calamities, misfortunes, tortures and pains endured by Candide and his friends Pangloss, Cunegonde, Cacambo, Martin, the Old Woman, Paquette and Girofleo, that the only solace is productive work and that excessive philosophizing is just a path to superfluous misery.
“We must cultivate our garden,” says Candide, dismissing another of Pangloss’ arguments that everything has turned out for the best in this best of all possible worlds. By this point in the story, Pangloss has renounced him optimism but has decided to keep arguing for it anyway, because that’s what philosophers do.
It’s nice to see the roots of literary and theatrical absurdism creep out from a satiric epic. Though Voltaire would likely skewer an observation like that.
Barnes & Noble pulled a “hold my beer” after the American Dirt fiasco and announced the Black History Month publications of some classic texts with the main characters featured as people of color on the cover. What I find most interesting about the story is at the end of this Slate wrap up, where it is revealed that: “The head diversity officer of TBWA\Chiat\Day [the agency behind the initiative] took inspiration from J.K. Rowling’s response to a black actress being cast as Hermione in the London staging of The Cursed Child.”‘
The inspiration made sense. In theatrical productions, especially small ones, casting actors from different races or genders than the source characters is common, sometimes to controversial effect and sometimes to no discernible effect.
One reason for this, particularly at the community theater level is that parts are cast based on who’s available. But even in big commercial productions, a decision might be made because a director wants to bring a specific talent into the show. Also, at all levels, directors and producers might make these decisions to make a statement. It should go without saying (but it doesn’t) that casting a role for a character described as white with an actor from another background, is generally okay but the reverse is not, given the art form’s history (and present) of exclusion, not to mention blackface.
This is extremely common with classic texts, like Shakespeare. Often, the director, producer or dramaturg will have to make adjustments around the casting, though. This just can’t be done with books, hence the very reasonable objection, highlighted in Slate, that “The project assumes that stories written by and about white people are somehow racially neutral and that you can just slap a black or brown face on them and declare them diverse. But just because a character isn’t described as having pale skin or golden hair doesn’t mean that their whiteness isn’t a part of their narrative.”
Unless you’re going to rewrite the books, making diverse covers just isn’t going to cut it. Seems like one of the reasons that the Barnes & Noble project was appealing is that, as with recasting and rewriting Shakespeare, you are operating in the lower-cost and rules-free realm of the public domain. Maybe a better alternative would have been to have published and highlighted a set of public domain classics from diverse authors. One would have to start planning now to execute this next February.
Gertrude Stein lived the very best of literary lives because she was both an artist and an appreciator. The writers, painters, sculptors and musicians that she nurtured made the world a better place, as did her own writing, particularly The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Everybody’s Autobiography.
I do wonder what she’d make of our own lost literary generation.
Classic Stage Company has a fantastic and advanced Frankenstein on stage right now, playing in repertory with a fresh adaptation of Dracula. The new telling if Frankenstein by writer Tristan Bernays presents the story of Frankenstein and his abandoned creature with just two actors one playing mostly the Creature (and sometimes Frankenstein) and the other a musician who represents a chorus of the books other characters, including the Blind Man, the child, and Frankenstein’s bride, Elizabeth.
The Bernay’s adapation really captures the origin the Mary Shelley’s story — it’s like being told a macabre tale in a darkened room on a winter night. The adaptation is a triumph.
In a two person show, the cast obviously has to be strong and versatile. CSC has access to the best talent so it’s no surprise that Stephanie Berry impresses with her range and stamina in the lead roles and Rob Morrison keeps the rhythm and atmosphere of the show as the chorus. Director Timothy Douglas ably leads a cast tasked with inspiring our imaginations.
I grew up with and have long practiced a kind of first amendment absolutism that seems now to be out of step with our times. It’s not that people don’t believe in the first amendment — polls show that most do and pretty much everyone I know would say they do — it’s more that people will no longer rank it as the highest value as issues of safety and social equality have taken new precedence in our discourse.
I first encountered this impulse directly in the 1990s, as part of an Albuquerque-based theatre company producing Ntzozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf with a multiracial cast, a decision that ran afoul the sensibilities of a local bookstore and led to protests. It didn’t even matter to those offended that Shange had explicitly blessed the production and casting.
We tend to view new attitudes about speech and whats constitutes offensive speech as a highly contemporary development, but this has been with us since the social awakenings of the 60s and was huge in the 90s. Along the way, the right of anybody to say whatever they want has eroded and the simple dismissal “you’re just complaining about the social consequences of speech,” doesn’t really suffice as an answer. Not if those social consequences are shutting people out of global conversations.
In an online literary forum where the topic of American Dirt was raised, I wrote: “We all have an absolute right to tell any story we want.”
The first response: “Hard disagree.”
This isn’t exactly an attack on the Constitution is how the argument tends to proceed. The Constitution only guarantees that the government will not stop something like American Dirt from being written and published. It makes no promises about people buying the book, agreeing to sell the book or not protesting the book’s existence. That’s all true. The right to write a book is equal to the right for somebody to protest the book’s existence. That’s the deal.
But I sill believe that the conviction that certain people shouldn’t even attempt to tell certain stories represents the beginning of an erosion of free speech. “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt,” is just not an argument I can get behind even as “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt badly,” is one I’m fine with.
We should argue about the quality of speech, not the existence of speech. The Freedom Forum Institute, which conducts an annual poll about first amendment attitudes shows that absolute support for free speech is slipping. In 2018, 23% of the poll respondents said that first amendment protections “go too far.” That number climbed to 29% in 2019. Can nearly a third of Americans really believe such nonsense?
35% of respondents believe that student journalists in public schools should need school administrator approval to write about controversial topics in student run publications. 27% believe that teachers should be allowed to punish students for the contents of their social media posts.
We allow and accept, by the way, that employers can fire people for what they post on social media or for having political bumper stickers on their cars. We also allow and accept that the massive corporate gatekeepers of the internet and the wider culture, like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Twitter can promote or ban whatever speech they want and we say that this is proper because they are private even though corporate censorship may be a bigger threat than government censorship in contemporary America.