Albee, Guare and the Novel on Stage

It was a treat to notice that the movie version of Six Degrees of Separation showed up on HBO Max this month. A faithful adaptation of the Lincoln Center production of John Guare’s play, the film has stuck with me over the years and it was exciting to see it anew. The virtuouso performances still thrill and the dialogue remains unrivaled for its cleverness, rhythm and subtext. The film is a reminder of what movies could be doing for us in 2021 and what a mistake it was for audiences to have allowed Hollywood to abandon the character-driven, indie aesthetics of the 80s and 90s. Or, maybe the problem is that we’ve ceded film to Hollywood when what we need are the more traditionally grounded “New York” stories, from Breakfast at Tiffanys’ to Mean Streets.

After I watched Six Degrees (twice) I read the script for the stage play and was struck by how little Guare changed adapting it to film. In the play, originally staged in a 3 quarter thrust, Flan and Ouisa, the couple at the center of the action, break the fourth wall to narrate directly to the audience, as if engaging them in cocktail party conversation. A theme of the play is how we so easily reduce life-altering events to fodder for idle conversation. In the movie, they set up each recount to have an audience (at a wedding, at a charity dinner) rather than have our protagonists talk to the camera. However they are presented, the words in the screenplay almost perfectly match the words in the stage script.

What sets Six Degrees apart is the layering of meaning in each line. The audience almost doesn’t realize that they’re watching the dissolution of a marriage as the story plays out because the director and writer respect them enough not to spoon feed everything. In this, Six Degrees is novelistic in its story telling.

Reading Six Degrees sent me to other scripts in my collection, including some shorter works by Guare and then, finally, back to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It has also been a long time since I’d cracked open those words and maybe it’s all the talk of Catcher in the Rye in Six Degrees, but reading Virginia Woolf was very much like reading a short novel. The dialogue is fast-paced, hilarious, layered and detailed. The stage directions are artful. With different formatting, I think you could offer up Albee’s play, word for word, as a novel and it would not only pass, but stand up as a solid work of dialogue-driven prose fiction.

It even has its own “Catcher in the Rye” moment when the history professor George, left alone for a few moments during a drunken night of “Hump the Hostess” and “Get the Guests” with a younger biology professor and his wife, sits down to read a book and recites: “And the west, encumbered by crippling alliances, and burdened with a morality too rigid to accomodate itself to the swing of events, must…eventually…fall.” I wondered if Albee had made this up or was quoting some real book about foreign policy from the late 1960s. If it were real, I might even want to read that book, as a glimpse into the thinking of the time. That is an amazing accomplishment — Albee set me off on an intellectual path separate from his domestic tragicomedy. It seems Albee had invented this sentiment, another layer of reality that adds depth to the entire story.

I’m no declinist about the state of the arts. I know there’s a lot of great writing out there right now, in film, theatre and prose. But, we’re no longer seeing work like Guare or Albee get consistent, mass attention and financial support. The culture is poorer for it. We need and deserve more.

About the Bygone Greats

I won’t bother linking to it or calling out the writer by name, but I happened upon a piece today about Kanye West that spent it’s first several paragraphs railing against Norman Mailer, who the writer imagined must have been a difficult subject for critics back when he was considered one of America’s best writers. Mailer’s personality and non-literary deeds were analyzed and then the writer turned to Kanye, with some relief.

Along the way, the writer tried to relegate Mailer to the past, as if his works aren’t still among the best American writers have produced in the last hundred years. It’s nonsense. Think what you will of Mailer as a person (I never met the man), but if you don’t acknowledge his writing, you simply don’t write well enough to criticize art.

My favorite Mailer, by the way, is one of his least celebrated short novels: The Gospel According to the Son. I read it around the time I read The Last Temptation of Christ and I think about it now as I consider delving into Leo Tolstoy’s retelling of the gospels.

It seems like some people would like us to be in some sort of cultural interegnum, where we must slay the giants of the past so that new talens can be born. I think this is folly. We shoul celebrate our cultural legacy, improve upon it and advance it, without being so dismissive.

There’s a book to be written about all the good we’re throwing away, mistaking a hasty clearance of history for progress.

Polemics and Fiction

One idea George Saunders brings up in A Swim In A Pond in the Rain is the notion that fiction is a damned poor vehicle for an author to make philosophical or political arguments. While certainly an author’s ideas and tastes and Utopias will spill into creative work, the characters have to drive the abstractions into the story, not the other way around.

So, in the Tolstoy presented by Saunders, the idea of the saintly serf shows up twice — this is a Tolstoy trope. The servant is depicted as humble, ready to please, and beatific. But also, as Saunders remarks, there’s an element of the idiot here, that the serf is a sucker. Tolstoy doesn’t try to write around that. It’s just there for the reader to decide.

It takes a lot of humility to write that way and it also calls into question the purpose of fiction which is not, as some suspect, to teach the reader how to live a good, moral, productive or even happy life. Around the time I read the Saunders book I also read Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by art historian Alexander Nemerov. I can’t find the exact quote but in it, the purpose of art is described as depicting what it’s like to be alive at a certain place and time. I suppose this would be the artist’s place and time, even if they paint something from the past or future, just as we view historic or science fiction as representative of the time it was created, rather than its fictional setting.

Either way, the accurate depiction of life in a time and place is just too complicated for polemic and if artists forever have to struggle with their most honest work existing in tension with their most fervent ideas.

Reading Update, March 1

It’s hard to populate this site because I want it to include observations about what I’m reading and seeing. Both take time and with reading I somtimes get into something but then put it away and circle back later. It’s all very whim-driven.

My shelf right now is:

A reread of Slaughterhouse Five, a story I last visitied by reading a theatrical adapation created by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. I’ll have a lot to say about it when I’m finished. It’s aged remarkably well.

I’ve also unearthed a compendium called “Masters of Modern Drama,” put together by RandomHouse in 1962. I plan to work my way through each script, though it’s an odd compendium, certainly not as inclusive as you’d get in a book like this today.

The novel that next seems to be calling from my shelf is Ling Ma’s Severance, and also the latest from George Saunders. The book that I don’t own that’s calling to me is that new biography of Tom Stoppard.

The nonfiction book I’d like most to write about is Millennium by Jacques Attali. It was published in the early 1990s but very accurately predicted the thirty years that followed.

I’m working on a new novel. It’s called Unique, New York.

Authory – A Service Every Working Writer Needs

More dissapears from the Internet than a writer might expect. I started writing for publication in the 1990s and some newspapers like The Albuquerque Tribune, a former Knight Ridder stalwart, are no longer with us. Some alternative papers I worked for like Crosswinds never archived online and then there were all of the do-it-yourself zines that exist only on the Way Back Machine. I also worked for 10 years at Forbes, which has changed a lot since I joined their staff in 1999. I wrote hundreds of articles there for its print and online publications and have lost many over various redesigns and iterations of their business model. I was also, for a good run, an op-ed columnist for The Daily, a News Corp publication, intended for tablets only, that launched in 2010 and folded two years later. Its entire online archive is gone. I have only some of the drafts I submitted.

I was never the kind of writer who kept scrapbooks full of clips. As business has moved online I’ve assumed anybody wanting to do business with me would just Google me anyway and I’d have to be comfortable with the results, whether they were investigative features, comedy pieces or salty comments I’d left over on Gawker.

Then I found out about Authory. With just a few clicks, you can aggregate all of your online writing into one website, and organize them by type, date or publication. My page is here and I love it. The interface is easy to use and its aggregation features are thorough. Any working writer, especially these days, will find themselves impressed by the breadth of work it uncovers — we’re all writing a bit for money and a bit for passion and occassionally for both, after all. Just seeing my work in one place as reignited my interest in writing book reviews, which was something I’d allow to trail off in recent years.

Authory also makes it easy for me to direct potential employers and collaborators to specific types of work that I do while still allowing me to showcase a broad range of interests. I can see integarting Authory into almost every part of my professional development — and it really takes a lot of the strain out of pitching work. Most of us write because we enjoy writing, not because we like selling products or ourselves.

It may seem as if Authory will breed its own reliance but they have a cool feature where you can download your entire archive from them at any time, so you’ll never lose the work they’ve done for you if you cancel for any reason. That a high-touch, personal clippings service like Authory is a bargain at current prices.

A Kid Posts About Kubrick

“Why is Kubrick trending?” I wonder, and fall right into one of Twitter’s traps, despite having watched The Social Dilemma just two short days ago. I click, thinking maybe some undiscovered work has emerged or somebody has found yet another clever way to link Dr. Strangelove to current events. Instead I get this:

The Twitter takes were harsh and cutting. There are the jokes about Kubrick somehow not living up to his potential, there are the screen grabs that prove that most of Kubrick’s output was an outright criticism of toxic masculinity, there are screen grabs of other headlines by Mendelsohn that reveal, to put it kindly, immature tastes.

Which got me thinking, he must be young. I found his bio on ScreenRant and for sure he is new at this and developing his style there and at CBR.com, putting out a mix of serviceable listicles and criticism. He seems to be enjoying himself.

“Jon Mendelsohn is a graduate of Ithaca College with a degree in film. Currently a writer for both CBR and Screen Rant, Jon is also a filmmaker and lover of anything and everything pop culture. When not writing or binge-watching Netflix, Jon loves to travel and find all the hottest foodie spots.”

He’s just out of school. He’s making films, thinking about films, talking about films and writing about them. He’s also coming up in an age where living wages for writing is rare, where the internet demands quantity over quality and where the traditional and vital relationships between editors and young writers is hard to come by.

Put another way, how many editors saved me from my own piss-poor, just out of school takes? Mendelsohn is trying to make his way through the world with some productive grit and creativity. The temptation to earn internet clout by citing Kubrick’s “toxic masculinity” as his artistic Achilles’ heel may be intense.

At my feet sits a bin of notebooks, written mostly between 1997-2000. Some of those thoughts went into columns and reviews I wrote for Lies Magazine. I had column one devoted to politics and one to jazz and blues music. That I considered myself an authority on jazz and blues is now embarrassing to admit. Politics is for everybody, but jazz and blues? That takes deeper understanding and I didn’t have it then and don’t have it now. Really liking Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown is not enough.

I’m always tempted to look in those notebooks but I know there’s embarrassment on top of embarrassment in there. Fortunately, they’re at my feet and not online. Even the stuff I put online, for publications or my old blog, seem not to have survived outside of the Wayback Machine, if they’re even there.

Young writers and critics and artists today are really operating without a net. They can publish on impulse and so their impulses have to be perfect. Hopefully, the day that a young John Mendelsohn tried to get a dead Stanley Kubrick to get over his hang-ups and realize his potential won’t be long remembered. If it is, let’s remember it for the risks young writers, thinkers and artists face these days. Mendelsohn has plenty of time to realize his potential and I’m sure he will, if he’s encouraged with care.

A Return to Science Fiction

In high school I desperately wanted to write science fiction, to the point that writing in other genres hardly seemed worth the time. In middle school I wrote hard boiled detective stories, which must have been laughable, given that I was 12, but Star Wars and Star Trek were always around and those Pocket Book Star Trek novels were my friends apart from comic books. I think I tried to write my first Star Trek novel by freshman year in high school. I even submitted it to Pocket Books. I forget what it was about but I’m sure it had Klingons, Romulans, the original cast and explosions. I did think to solicit the guidelines and tried to follow it closely, so there were no crossovers with The Next Generation.

Soon after, I was reading Isaac Asimov, partly because he wrote not only stories but about how he got them published, how much he was paid and how he trekked from Brooklyn to Manhattan to bring his carbon copies right to the offices of Astounding Science Fiction. I even subscribed to the digests of the 1990s — Analog and Amazing Stories. This was the life I saw for myself.

An English teacher in high school broadened my horizons a bit. To be fair, they all did, but one in particular turned me on to Woody Allen, which led me down the path of playwriting, humor writing, and telling stories about real people, even if magical things happen to them.

During our junior and senior years, my best friend and I still wrote a science fiction novel, but then we went off to separate universities where we both found more grounded literature and I pursued journalism and playwriting and by the time we got back together in Ireland after graduation, I think I wanted to be a cross between Hunter Thompson and Mac Wellman.

GOLDEN AGE SCI-FI: 1934–1963 – HILOBROW
Just a pair of dimes!

But science fiction was always around. The cool kids at the college paper got me to read Snow Crash. The cool kids in theater got me to read The Illiminatus Trilogy and just what was Infinite Jest, anyway, if not science fiction? Also, in high school I learned that I could read any Vonnegut, as fantastic as some of its premises were, and get credit for reading literature. I even have Kilgore Trout’s Venus on the Half Shell.

These days, it’s creeping back into my life. I just read Scalzi’s first entry into his Collapsing Empire series and rather loved it. I just downloaded a cheap copy of Samuel R. Delaney’s Nova and I enjoyed reading the first two of the Murderbot books last year.

While I’m not feeling an itch to write science fiction, I think I am looking to it to inspire some high concept contemporary fiction. Not that you asked. I just have stars and robots, intergalactic empires and artificial gravity on my mind.

Brett Easton Ellis’ White is a Necessary Manifesto

I don’t recall Brett Easton Ellis’ first nonfiction book getting all that great a reception when it was released last year, but the Goodreads ratings come in at a strong 3.5 and there are themes in this book that the legacy media might be reluctant to support. White is about people self-censoring in the post-Empire age of American public life where we are all subject to sudden mass judgment and expulsion based on musings, wisecracks and opinions uttered on social media or in print. Ellis’ book is a fun lamentation of the death of Open Society and should be read as a warning, not dismissed as reactionary.

Though Ellis doesn’t say it outright, I think he’s understanding that the First Amendment, as a legal term, cannot encompass everything that’s demanded of a society that truly celebrates freedom of expression. If you tell somebody say, protesting a speech on their college campus or demanding that a publisher doesn’t release a book that they’re working against free speech they will argue back that they, too, have a right to criticize, to make demands and to shape the culture.

No adult should be afraid of a writer.

Of course, they do. But how they exercise that right matters. As the author of American Psycho, which has its original publishing contract canceled at the last minute after people who had not even read the book protested against what they assumed were its themes, Ellis knows full well that there’s a big difference between a civil society that says “Sure, publish it and then I’ll argue against it” and one that seeks to suppress creative work that might be challenging or, in contemporary parlance, “triggering.”

Ellis got a lot of attention for calling Millennials “Generation Wuss” and so the response to White was that the former literary brat packer had become an old man yelling at the kids. But he’s really trying to save the kids by bringing them back to a culture of aesthetic appreciation where, yes, you can watch and enjoy Roman Polanski film without concerning yourself with the director’s life, if you so choose.

From my vantage, the Millennials are not really to blame for the emergent anti-speech culture. They were children and toddlers or unborn when “political correctness” became prominent in the 1990s. Around that same time, we were slapping warning labels on popular music and people were threatening to outright censor sexual content on MTV and violent content in video games (after the Legend of Zelda massacres, of course, I kid).

There’s always been a tension between speech and society’s stability (just ask Socrates) but Ellis is refreshingly blunt about the mental illness of adults who allow themselves to be psychologically triggered and disrupted by other people’s opinions and aesthetics.

There’s a lot of art and opinion I don’t like in the world and some of it makes me mad and some of it makes me uncomfortable. Ellis, for example, loved horror movies in his youth while I’ve always hated them and scenes of even absurd horror violence can still worm into my mind and rob my sleep. But I don’t agitate against horror movies. I don’t demand that they aren’t distributed or made available to others, though I surely have every right to do so.

There’s ultimately a difference, and it’s deeper than a legal one, between saying “I don’t like something or somebody,” and saying, “Those things should not exist, those people should not be allowed employment in industries where I can see them.” It’s also funny and telling that our society is highly judgmental over who gets to be an actor, director or writer for a living but that we’re almost entirely unconcerned about who foams our cappuccino. Some of those baristas probably have hair curling opinions.

Ellis fans will also want to read White because there’s a lot of cool detail about the mindset that led to Less Than Zero and the creation of the Ellis-verse that includes all of his books. I was only a little disappointed that Glamorama isn’t mentioned at all.

Voltaire on Writing

A lot of Candide content coming up. For a Saturday, some writing (and playwriting) tips assembled from the Paris chapter of Voltaire’s masterpiece:

“How a play can be of some interest but of almost not merit:”

  1. It is not enough to contrive one or two situations found in any novel that always captivate audiences.
  2. One needs to be original without being far-fetched.
  3. Be sublime, but always natural.
  4. Write like a poet without letting the characters speak like poets.
  5. Never sacrifice sense to rhyme.

There are few good tragedies out there. These are the most common failures:

  1. Mere idylls in dialogue form.
  2. Political tracts in dialogue form.
  3. Addresses to gods by writers who cannot reach humans.

Voltaire intended a few shots at Corneille and Racine. Fun stuff.

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