Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Reason I Jump

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I bought this book myself because I love anything to which David Mitchell contributes his beautiful, beautiful words.)

The Reason I Jump, Naoki Higashida
Read: 22 to 28 October 2013  

4 / 5 stars

For a book that comprises less than 200 pages and can be read in a single sitting, The Reason I Jump is deceptive in its brevity. Using a computer and an alphabet grid to form and "anchor" words "that would otherwise flutter away," it is the first real chance that then-13-year-old Naoki Higashida had to share his rich but silent inner world and explain the impulses that drive his seemingly erratic behaviors, as autism had prevented him from responding to the volley of questions and years of unwanted stares his condition has prompted from others.

The book itself is nearly a decade old but was only recently published in English, as British writer David Mitchell and his wife KA Yoshida translated Naoki's painstakingly chosen words from their original Japanese. While Naoki's own jovial warmth and tactful sincerity deserve much of the credit for the charm within these pages, the couple adds a palpable sensitivity to the task of bringing this big-hearted book to a new audience with their unique combination of struggles, as their son has autism and Mitchell himself is a stammerer; while a stammer may not be as debilitating and imprisoning as autism, it does lend the afflicted a keen understanding of what it's like to be rendered speechless and to have one's intelligence doubted by a wanting verbal fluency, never mind the capacity for eloquence that waits in frustrated silence.

Both Mitchell in his introduction and Naoki in the Q&A portion that comprises the bulk of The Reason I Jump emphasize that autism is by no means a disorder of universal constants, though it does feature a handful of commonalities--enough commonalities, in fact, that Mitchell said this book allowed him to "round a corner" in his relationship with his son. While Naoki tends to speak in the first-person plural when he talks about autism, he does so usually with a preface that he's basing his explanations on his own experiences and most often as a plea for understanding. Early in the book, he answers the question "Do you prefer to be on your own?" first as a person and then tinged with the communicative defeat faced by a person with autism: "I can't believe that anyone born as a human being wants to be left on their own ... The truth is, we'd love to be with people. But because things never, ever go right, we end up getting used to being alone."

Naoki fields a battery of questions with a combination of maturity, grace, honesty and willingness to admit when he just doesn't know how to answer a question that is remarkable for a teenage boy. He effectively dismantles the longstanding presumptions society has assumed about people with autism, such as a lack of empathy or that there can be blanket catch-all descriptions for the way autism manifests itself in each individual, the latter being a point that Mitchell, too, makes by pointing out that "[e]very autistic person exhibits his or her own variation of the condition--autism is more like a retina pattern than measles."

Of all the autism myths that are effectively, beautifully obliterated in The Reason I Jump, it is that supposed dearth of empathy that is most enthusiastically debunked. Naoki acutely feels the stress he places on his caretakers and the frustration they feel over his powerlessness to resist the impulses that keep him jumping, spinning, running, repeating, organizing and wandering. He gently reminds his audience that while the caretaker's exasperation is fleeting, he is the one who will always feel like a captive in a body he can't control. But Naoki also says that he no longer would trade being autistic for being "normal," as his autism has helped him see the beauty in little things while offering him comfort in realizing that he's a part of something much bigger that connects us all.

Tucked in amidst Naoki's thoughtful explanations are short stories that read like more ethereal Aesop's fables, demonstrative of Naoki's active imagination, knack for parable, and desire to emphasize a thought or feeling he finds worthy of extra mention. He revisits the Tortoise and Hare theme to illustrate the necessity of kindness; another metaphorical tale shows that even those we envy are always searching for happiness and self-fulfillment. The final section of the book is a longer, emotionally ripe allegory for what it's like to live with autism, which would read as an apology for the stress he has caused his parents if it weren't so girded with hope: "If this story connects with your heart in some way," Naoki's foreword to the short tale says, "then I believe you'll be able to connect back to the hearts of people with autism too."

One of the most remarkable features of this book is not even that is was laboriously created with an alphabet grid or that Naoki displays nearly tireless optimism but rather the slow dawning of empathy it quietly draws from its reader. He explains what it's like to live inside autism using "normal" examples that betray an outsider's wistful observation, such as likening his inability to move forward in certain actions without a verbal prompt to a pedestrian waiting for the "Walk" signal, as well as explaining his interests in terms of exaggerated reactions to routine stimuli, like his love of nature offering comfort in its sense of belonging to something so big it reduces a person to the tiny speck in the universe that so many of us try to forget that we really are.

Naoki's inventive approach to writing a memoir offers an enlightening look at a still-misunderstood disorder while embracing the beauty in imperfection and proving that one person's normal is another's mystery. It doesn't provide all the answers, which isn't a reasonable request from any one person anyway, but it begins an invaluable dialogue by approaching all the right questions.

Monday, December 30, 2013


Vineland, Thomas Pynchon
Read: 15 to 26 May 2012
5 / 5 stars    

I don’t usually finish a book and start a review in the same breath. But I also don’t usually allow myself to read more than one of an author’s works within a calendar year (many books, little time--though of course Stephen King would be this year’s other exception because the Tower, all things yield to it): T. Ruggs, you magnificent bastard, I hope you know how many personal rules I’m violating because you’re the first time since auspiciously picking up my first collection of Bukowski poems that I’ve been able to add a This Writer Changed My Life For Always notch to my literary bedpost. Reading Vineland confirmed what Gravity’s Rainbow left me suspecting: I bloody love Thomas Pynchon. Rilly.

Finishing Gravity’s Rainbow left me with an almost obscene urge to help myself to another serving of Pynchon, which is an urge I’ve been fighting for months now. I finally caved, intending to take on V. but settling for Vineland because part of the joy of Pynchon is the inherent madness, and I just can’t handle another meaty tome yet (the latter weighs in at a few pages shy of 400; the former.... uh, does most assuredly not). And because I haven’t talked about GR enough, I am still a little battered from that experience (my opinion on bananas might be forever changed, too). I needed something a little less daunting first. Enter: Vineland.

This book was so good. Now being able to pinpoint a Pynchonian pattern--a few: musical outbursts, sleuthing plots, oddball character names, stunning tangents that really aren’t that tangential after all, a natural vocabulary only found in the most ruthless of Scrabble opponents--helped me identify what I adore most about Pynchon’s prose. It’s his ability to concoct some of the most overtly zany scenes in literature, to confront the reader with these in-your-face storms of hilarity for the sake of maximizing the subtle tragedies he gently lets the story consider, leaving the reader to marinate in sadness. It’s an effect that would be any mixture of sloppy, condescending, formulaic or tedious if attempted by anyone else but Pynchon makes it work. The real success is that his characters who need be sympathetic are so when someone realizes that her best days are behind her or comes to the dawning realization that he’s being used by an entire government or has an ugly epiphany about the mother she never knew, it is the most heartbreaking scene in the world.

As for the effort involved in decoding the obscure references that are sprinkled throughout Pynchon’s books as liberally as the Bacon Bits on any salad worth eating, I was deeply grateful that T. Ruggs's novel begins the same year as I did, which meant I caught waywayWAAAAY more cultural allusions this time. The narrative flows better when I’m not running to a secondary source every three lines and I appreciated the opportunity to enjoy this book less haltingly, which isn't to say that I didn't need to have a few reference materials handy. There were enough hazy hippie memories to keep me on my toes, though I caught a number of those as often as I had a flutter of joyful recognition every time The Doors or Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or some other People's Republic of Rock and Roll favorite got a shout-out.

I feel a reread of The Crying of Lot 49 and maybe Inherent Vice in my future. Color me fucking amped.

American Decameron

American Decameron, Mark Dunn
Read: 4 October to 12 November 2012
4 / 5 stars    

Creatively constipated in New Jersey

Maddie stares at her work monitor--the third machine on which she's attempted to write her American Decameron review, a review that has hit more brick walls than a driving-school vehicle--with her fingers poised over the keyboard and ready for speedy transcription of all the ways she wants to gush about Mark Dunn's newest gift to the world, a gesture as fruitless as her fervent hopes that staring at a computer screen long enough will magically produce words.

"Fitting," she grumbles to herself, only half caring that her officemate (who's well-versed in her special breed of crazy) might overhear, "that a book comprising 100 stories would take 100 attempts to write about."

The joy of finally finishing a book in the face of natural disasters, a thankless job's busy season and other, more pleasant assorted things that prevent her from falling into what would be her ideal natural state of existence (i.e.: bookworm hermitage) waned considerably as the frustration of reviewing being a use-it-or-lose-it skill grew like... like.... like what, Maddie?

"Fucking similes," she mutters with an inappropriate degree of hatred, for Maddie is nothing if not a classy lady as her fondness for expletives shows. "Fucking stupid review. Why can't you just write yourself?"

She sighs as if the world were ending, then rereads the paltry dross she's managed thus far:

Mixed emotions always accompany the news that Mark Dunn is publishing a new book. On one hand, it's always a cause for celebration when one of my favorite living writers blesses the literary world with a new work; on the other, it's impossible to predict how much of an optimistic cock tease the initial expected publication date is versus the harsh reality of the much more distant one. Fortunately, this is one of those times I was rewarded for not being a technological curmudgeon: While the hardcover's expected publication date has jumped around the 2012 calendar like an overzealous child playing hopscotch, the Kindle edition was there to ease the terminally delayed gratification that's so inherently intertwined with the advent of a new Dunn offering.

"Too boring," Maddie says to herself while shaking her head in self-disgust and not caring that she probably looks like Tippi Hedren to anyone neither inside her head nor in front of her computer screen.

Still, experience has taught her that nothing plows through writer's block quite like hammering out whatever comes to mind so she continues with the unsatisfying direction her review has taken:

I'm never really sure what to expect from Dunn as a writer so I suppose the surprise release dates are rather fitting for a scribe whose playwright and novelist hats both suit him to equal success. As far as Dunn goes, this ambitious book is markedly lacking a kooky hook: It's not an epistolary novel that takes increasing liberties with spelling as the available alphabet diminishes, it's not a biography rendered entirely in footnotes, it's not the tale of a modern-day Dickensian society sequestered in Pennsylvania or extraterrestrial-fearing neighbors sequestered in each other's homes. What it is is 100 individual stories that serve as a better American history lesson than any American history textbook not written by Howard Zinn (though it's definitely more life-affirming than Zinn's fare).

On a totally superficial level, one could erroneously call this a short-story collection but it really isn't (much to the relief of my indomitable but ill-founded bias against short stories). Even if the bookending chapters didn't tie everything together by showing how many of the characters populating Dunn's 100 American tales have crossed paths to (mostly positively) results, the overriding theme of each story being part of something bigger is present without being intrusive. And it's the way that the macro- and microcosms play against each other that highlight my favorite thing about Dunn's writing, which isn't his snazzy word play and his clever presentation--it's the palpable humanity and innate goodness he infuses into the staggering majority of his characters. More on that in a sec because, really, who needs to organize their thoughts?

This is where Maddie lets loose an unladylike but totally characteristic snort over her own blatant cop-out. The thing is, she doesn't want this review to become a gush-fest about how the characters in this book, the forward of which betrays the non-fictitious nature of much of the cast parading through this book's 700-some pages, give her hope for humanity, just as Dunn's books and plays usually do. But Maddie is also deeply cynical about the goodness of people, despite her desperate (and, admittedly, more successful than she had anticipated) efforts to change her own mind. And she doesn't want anyone to know that her soft heart has been bleeding more than usual lately.

Dunn covers a lot of ground, both in terms of time (all of the 20th century, occasionally punctuated by lapses into the past and flash-forwards to the future) and geography (50 states, one district, various airspaces and bodies of water--including at least two oceans--and Botswana). This is a day in the life of an American year as seen by seemingly inconsequential, everyday folks. Some of the personal stories collide with the bigger front-page stories (like journalists investigating the plausibility that the Wright brothers' incredible flying machine is a credible, airborne success), some are outright influenced by them (like Lusitania survivors bonding over an accidental encounter) but most illustrate how history affects people and how people affect history incidentally. Humanity and history are the main characters here, and Dunn breathes life into both intangibles with great deals of sympathetic realism.

"But.... but... there's so much more to it than that!" Maddie almost exclaims, forgetting where she is in the throes of her needlessly intense internal battle. She sighs again, is briefly rocked back to reality as her coworker asks if she's okay, and finally concedes that she can't do in a Goodreads review what Mark Dunn's achieved with his daunting accomplishment of a far-reaching, far-sighted tome.

And she also admits that, like every other book she's read, this one was all about how she related to it, a justification she makes by telling herself that books do not exist in a vacuum and serve to delight, entertain, challenge and otherwise move readers. And what better way than by finding the human connection in a book that is, at its core, all about human connections.

She gets teary-eyed as she grapples with recounting the specific ways that the 1988 installment--"Stouthearted in Florida," in which a teenage girl goes against her mother's wishes to sneak her ailing grandmother's lesbian lover into the hospital--absolutely tore her up inside but abandons the effort, knowing that no one can express the gamut of inherent goodness and love of which people are capable as well as Dunn illustrated with this and all of his other works.

"Fuck this," Maddie proclaims, wiping at her eyes as surreptitiously as possible before emerging from the safe blockade that the monitor allows her. "I'm going to lunch."

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. Again, I preordered this bad boy well before I knew I'd be writing about it for anyone other than myself and GR.)

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell
Read: 11 to 19 October 2013 
4 / 5 stars   

In the long-running tradition of so-bad-it's-good entertainment, 2003's The Room is a fairly recent but impressively groan-worthy addition. Its low-budget approach to visual effects, a script held together by non sequiturs and the wealth of glaring continuity errors make it either instantly derided or ironically charming, depending on the viewer's stomach for shoddy craftsmanship and clueless defiance of cinematic etiquette.

For the enviably/unfortunately uninitiated, The Room is yet another take on the love-triangle template, offering up one more tale of a fellow whose quietly mundane existence will be predictably turned upside down by the barely concealed affair between his fiancĂ©e and best friend, the latter played by Greg Sestero, who also served as the flick's line producer. What sets The Room apart is its enthusiastic departure from the conventions that make a movie watchable. The acting is uneven, as even the more talented cast members could only do so much with the ridiculous script and inept director. Dramatis personae inexplicably come and go with all the finesse of a drunken hippopotamus, and they cling to and then disregard their motives with similarly contrary abandon. The dialogue is wooden at best and hilariously incoherent at worst. Plot lines are introduced, run with and cast off without resolution. In short, this is the very stuff that cult followings are made to immortalize, and the audience participation that screenings both public and private invite help to reshape this train wreck into sublime chaos.

While this book heralds itself as being Sestero's life inside The Room, The Disaster Artist reads more as Sestero's attempt to make sense of both writer/producer/director/lead actor Tommy Wiseau, depicted as an independently wealthy manchild who houses more insecurities than does a comprehensive guide to mental maladies, and his self-funded, self-promoted and self-delusional labor of love. Sestero, with enough writing assistance from journalist Tom Bissell to warrant a co-authorship, explores the torturous trajectory of The Room from nascence to its opening night, as well as the strained but symbiotic friendship between Wiseau and Sestero. Sestero's own faltering forays into Hollywood are chronicled as a sort of apologetic explanation for why he stuck with a project he clearly expected to fizzle into obscurity and stuck by a man who gave him both a place to live and an opportunity for work in exchange for the mind-bogglingly creepy way that Wiseau leeched off Sestero--the more successful actor and infinitely more attractive and youthful of the two--as if Sestero's good looks and acting chops were things he could possess for himself via sheer proximity.

Much of the book is devoted to recounting Wiseau's especially memorable bouts of weirdness, jealousies and general inability to function as an adult: Goading Sestero into nearly abandoning him just to prove that he has the power to offend; producing a demo reel fashioned nearly blow-for-blow from a scene in one of Sestero's other movies; spectacularly failing to remember the very lines he wrote; subjecting the whole of The Room's creative team to his unnecessary and gratuitously filmed nudity; spending extravagantly on the film when he feels it's in the best interest of his vision but skimping on paychecks and other details he arbitrarily dismisses as minor.

To me, if not for a friend's firsthand assurance that Sestero is a genuinely likable guy who regards his accidental ascent to pseudo-fame with equal parts wry humor and gratitude, the book's tone--that of a young actor desperate to make it in L.A., whose naivete, curiosity and willingness to look beyond his vampiric guardian angel's downright hostile quirks all work together to cement an uneasy friendship that barely survives a disastrous attempt at living together--would be off-puttingly glib. Wiseau is painted as the perennial (though unintentional) sad clown who would be a tragic figure if not for his nigh unflappable hubris. But Sestero does, to his credit, try to soften his description of a man who has clearly suffered some obsessively guarded psychological setback that has seemingly forever grounded him in the defensive, combative mindset of a newly minted teenager. An example: All attempts to inject a hint of unscripted coherence in Wiseau's film are met with such disproportionate resistance and unfounded accusations that it's unsurprising the film went through several incarnations of its cast and crew; Sestero attempts to explain that, to the best of his understanding, Wiseau sees all attempts at changing his project for the better as mutinous trespasses, a threat to the tenuous authority he has purchased with his self-propelled picture. Even in the instances where Sestero seems inexplicably passive in his inability to assume control when Wiseau has lost all touch with reality, there is a strong undercurrent of desperately gleaned sympathy that keep his remembered interactions buoyantly surreal rather than needlessly cruel.

Still, the bulk of the book's humor is at Wiseau's expense, as it is impossible to read about his diva-sized antics, tantrums, paranoia and obstinate refusal to divulge personal details without cackling the nervous guffaws of tension-eroding disbelief because Wiseau's fiery outbursts are in no way proportional to their triggers. The Sunset Boulevard and Talented Mr. Ripley quotes that begin each chapter and, later, the copious nods to both films just may be the most perfect encapsulation of Wiseau within these pages. This is a man who is painted as sleepwalking through life, who literally cannot help how bizarre he is, who rewrites his own personal history as he sees beneficial.

The lingering effects of The Disaster Artist are an increased sense of respect for the hapless players at the mercy of Wiseau's deranged puppet master as well as a nagging suspicion that $6 million can't quite buy talent but it sure can stack the odds in one's favor if one is hellbent on crafting a blockbuster from incoherence and birthing a star from a woeful dearth of thespian proficiency, reality be damned.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Being Dead

Being Dead, Jim Crace
Read: 24 March 2009
4 / 5 stars  

This is such a gracefully, unflinchingly graphic tale following two main paths. The death of a middle-aged married couple -- which is told initially in reverse from the moment of their murder before it hurtles through the present, detailing the bodies' six days of exposure, discovery, and clinically detached removal and processing (which plays well against their ever-evolving daughter's reactions) -- collides with the simultaneously celebratory and tragic story of how the two first met.

The character development is mostly approached in retrospect and makes for one of the richest cast of literary players I've seen in a while. Celice's awkward and naively confident blossoming into a ripe young lady clashes well with the more reserved woman she became in her 50s, admitting that she has never been fully satisfied in her marriage; the small gestures of touching affection she allows her husband, however, speak volumes about her capacity for love. Joseph's nearly 30 years of tender loyalty -- from the first gesture of shyly calculated courtship to his dying show of devotion -- contrasts achingly with his initial coldness. It is through their conflicted daughter, who adds just enough raw humanity to the present after the two bodies have been discovered, that their presence lingers palpably on.

Mr. Crace's gift for both language and storytelling added to the morbidly voyeuristic pleasure of this book. As bleak as the story is, it does capture the beauty of a love that has had decades of lessons in learning how to suit both partners. The small splashes of careful detail, the finely constructed pace at which the plot unravels and spins, the stunning language.... it all made for a delightfully jarring contrast to the perceptively ugly (though wholly natural and inevitable) act of dying.
At 196 pages, it almost seems natural to say that I could have happily lapped up 100 more (this is the first time since reading The Gunslinger that I've started and finished a book on the same day), especially since the pacing of the plot and progression of the story makes the short novel so wonderfully compelling.
When the book comes to a close with Celice and Joseph's killer nowhere to be found, it's really not that important. Closure isn't the aim of the narrative because this book isn't about solving a murder: It's about the six days of "grace" that Celice and Joseph's bodies spend together as nature goes to work indiscriminately returning two dead things to the earth and its elements.