Monday, October 01, 2012

We Can Do Better

I think people are much duller than they used to be. That's the conclusion I reached after finishing the assigned reading for class this week, which featured Mary Rowlandson's firsthand account of the slaughter of her friends and family and subsequent enslavement. Then a bit from Uncle Tom's Cabin where Eliza eludes pursuers with a baby in her arms, a bit from The Scarlet Letter, Chapter XVI which contains a brief and fascinating portrait of Hester Prynne's daughter Pearl, a peculiarly carefree child who's described against a beautifully rendered scene of a small glade. And the final bit of reading was this excerpt from A Million Little Pieces in which James Frey describes getting off a plane, meeting up with his parents and checking into rehab with all the imagination and insight of a court stenographer. What the fuck? We didn't cover any of this material in class to-day so I can only assume this was either sadism on the part of the instructor or intended as a contrast to instruct us on the shortcomings of modern prose.

I remember feeling no small amount of schadenfreude when Oprah was embarrassed by the revelation that Frey had made up his "memoir". As one of the chief con artists of modern society, Winfrey was hoisted by her own petards as far as I'm concerned, but now I'm angry Frey probably made a pile of money off this piece of dren. Less because he doesn't deserve it, more because it's evidence of how unbelievably dull many readers are that they'll happily swallow this stuff so long as they think it's true. Reading the excerpt, I kept thinking of The Bell Jar and all the character and insight Plath expressed in her true story--the subtly condescending doctor, her nervous mother, that wonderfully funny moment when Plath, without any apparent awareness, at the time, of how it would seem, mysteriously dumps out a bunch of shredded paper from her purse for the doctor. There's nothing like that in Frey's work, not the barest hint of anyone's personality or an imaginative evocation of setting. But this is the shit that sells URGH. Well, I suppose I can take comfort knowing Frey was consistently rejected when he tried to shop it as a work of fiction.

I started watching a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera last night. I used to love listening to the original cast recording when I was a kid, but watching it with a different cast last night, a 25th anniversary production at Royal Albert Hall, was pretty disappointing. The voices of the leads were pretty blandly normal, sounding like American Idol contestants, almost totally devoid of the personality that Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman injected into it. So I stopped after "Music of the Night" and watched some clips of Brightman and Crawford performing the song on YouTube. I'd watched the Lon Chaney film a couple weeks ago and although I like the romance Webber brings to it, and I like the rumination on the artist and muse relationship between Phantom and Christine, there's a more satisfying rawness to the silent film, and something a bit too white-bread about Webber's take. I think that's why I spent the rest of the evening surfing through punk videos--The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Slits, before inevitably ending up with The Smiths. I also watched an entire Siouxsie and the Banshees concert with Robert Smith on guitar. It's amazing what you can find on YouTube sometimes.

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