Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City arcs through the life of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair--the white city--from conception to abandonment, and follows it along with the story of the first big serial killer to emerge from the nation's headlines. It's non-fiction, but it's told in the human scale of a novel, not presuming quite so far as to invent dialogue and carry on with the narrative authority of an novelist--it's not fair to call it fictionalized but it does develop the story with some familiar thematic elements, in a fashion that reads like a plot advanced through the usual means of witnessing human conversations and travel, and revealed in descriptive passages of what a narrator might have seen were he present. When possible, he includes actual first-hand impressions, from letters or diaries, and this fills out the details pretty nicely. The prose styling felt a little too conscious to me, Larson peppers in some undergraduate-level wordplay here and there, and it reads a little like a weekend news magazine piece, but it's not meant to be a deep meaningful novel, and fine for what it is (and it's not like I don't sympathize).

I think he's got a bigger problem with filling out the character of the serial killer, one (pseudonymous) H. H. Holmes. He admits (his notes are very considerate) that he took some liberties about Holmes' motivations and mannerisms, basing it largely on modern criminology. And that's just it: pretty much anyone who's read a mystery novel, watched a movie about one of these monsters, or cringed at yet another expert profiler (like a police psychic, but with university credentials) offered as a resident experts by an ever-hungry news cycle exploiting the horror du jour, and you sort of realize that even if this Holmes guy coughed up the first sick nugget, this is still the exact same vein of twisted criminal psychology that's been artistically mined for a hundred years now, readily identified even to someone like me who normally goes far to avoid this kind of crap.

And Larson had an opportunity to make him something different too, maybe something scarier, because this was one industrious psychopath, a man who carefully worked in a crematorium and laboratory space within the hotel and retail space he creepily and inexpertly engineered. The views of the facilities got to me a lot more than the customary(!) psychological portrayal of a mass murderer. In terms of a physician's curiosity he was not really that far afield from the popular concept of the ghoulish efforts of the earlier Victorian medicos, with the important caveat that Holmes hastened the cadavers to his studio. He couldn't have been good at it, and here I'm left wondering what lies this sick motherfucker told himself as he donned the apron. His amorality and his obsession were the scary parts; his oily smoothness and whatever frisson he might have attained from a murder was less convincing, absorbing too much from popular research. I am not grateful for imagining these things.

I'll give Larson some credit, though: the horrifying spectacle of our first signature serial killer seems to grab something essential about late nineteenth century America, as does the sensation of the 1893 fair. The world's fair, chock-a-block with corporate exposition, artificial landscapes, Bowdlerized history, inaccurate ethnicity, and engineered marvels, feels like it's catching the modern American mindset at its source. It's like the lies we told ourselves were fresh enough to be charming, a fake paradise designed with real integrity. Reading about the world's fair is like witnessing the arrival of a beautiful throwaway culture developed before injection molding made it reproducible and ubiquitous. We get a great tour of the architectural and engineering* talent of the day, all management and salesmen with big ideas and an eye toward the grand. It took big imagination, persistence, and a hell of a work ethic, pulled off at great expense and just in time. People a hundred years from now will doubtlessly be curious about our quaint optimism about, say, the digital age, and marvel how it belies the horrors of our time. They'll see their own culture in here too.

The fitting counterpoint to the ideal of the white city was, of course, the dismal squalor of urban life, the reeking stockyards and fever and coal dust (which, I'll add, Larson portrays very effectively). To the theatrical fact of the fair, the criminal is a fine juxtaposition. I can't believe that this was the first serial murderer our country housed, but his was the first case to grow into a modern media circus, and probably the first such case to really get absorbed and solved. Maybe, oddly enough, it was a function of the growing value of life.

* And what the hell, here's Ferris and Roebling, and no mention of the college that positively owned nineteenth century engineering?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Housing Recovery

On the radio yesterday, I listened to snips of President Obama's speech about housing recovery. NPR had a streak of reports from boom towns now gone bust, and the president gave his speech from the home-flipping mecca of Phoenix AZ, offering a plan in which the banks would be forced to finance so that monthly payments don't exceed a third of gross income. Sounds like an entire circle of hell might fight over the details of that one, but it's possibly an equitable out.

(You know, I live in an unloved little burbclave too, and even paying a fifteen year mortgage in a pricey region I never quite got to a third of my net income. It was by choice, and it's why I don't live in a bigger house or in an even pricier region, as my means are not exorbitant. I still wonder: what the hell do all the palace dwellers do for a living?)

Anyway, it occurred to me that at least part of the problem is that there was suburban sprawl booming in waterless places like Phoenix. Is that a development model that's particlularly wise to recover? Probably not so much. Then I read this today, and it depressed the hell out of me.

American Idol Season 8

First of all, let's get the yearly apology back on the table, and then out of the way. I hate the show: it's transparently manipulative, it highlights an awfully narrow (and frequently awful) spectrum of musical taste, and the only judge that's not a simpering retard is the production genius that brought us Il Divo. Since, however, 3/4 of my household is comprised of young girls and moms--the precision demographic of the show--there's no escaping the chugging dawgs and the paint-peeling glory notes, not at that volume, and really, talking about it is my minor act of subversion. I've tried to follow Vote for the Worst, but it doesn't strike quite the right groove for me… I think I'm still a little itchy from last year's marathon Idol conversation with the excellent company on quiblit.

I watched this year's buildup of young talents, and the most remarkable thing about the pre-singing episodes is that they're really letting the talented clowns shine this year, going all the way to the feature stage, while downplaying the truly pitiable. As a captive audience, I support this both for it's entertainment value, and it's reduced malice (people really delude themselves, and AI scores ratings on humiliating them--someday I'll post a heartfelt lament for all of us untalented dreamers). From the show's perspective, I suspect that they want to send the message that yes, they need freaks and drama queens of ambiguous sexuality to show up and be exploited, but no, they're not what "America" wants. (Unless, of course, it is. After meddling in "country," "rock," and "soul," maybe they're now fishing for the next Fallout Boy or something).

Anyway, even with a few quality nutbars in the wings, Tatiana Del Toro with her starry-eyed neediness and her infectious SpongeBob-like giggle is already missed. But the thing is, Tatiana actually has singing talent, and she was a lot less painful to watch on the stage than that stumbling tuneless troll Michael Sarver, whose only talent appears to be the fact that he's really white. And a roughneck. On a real Texas oil rig. They have some kind of wildcard round this year, so maybe the judges will allow Tati to re-emerge in her scary, hungry glory. Anoop ("Noopsy") Desai also lost to Mikey Roughneck because he doesn't fall into a ready American ethnic stereotype. Also because the song he sang was boring as shit. He has a good voice though, and he seems nice, and he's been pimped madly by the judges, and I take this to mean he is sure to get wildcarded, even if they have to cheat.

A couple of teenagers were disposed of last night too, deservedly. One of them sang "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" because it's so fun and uplifting, not that childish disconnection from the material is always a deal-breaker on this show. The thing about Sting (who now joins Whitney Houston on the AI verboten vocal list) is that he can't really sing, but in spite of this, he's able to communicate the emotion of the music, which is at least sometimes interesting. Our young tart got it wrong from both angles.

I've already forgotten the name of the girl who sang "Natural Woman," but I think she got a bad deal from the judges. I don't pretend to have a good ear, but her singing really felt like it clicked into the music, which I identify as a sign of good pitch and good time, and while it may not have been a star performance by any means, given the flailing of the other eleven, I felt that singing pleasantly in key should have counted for something in the judges' comments. In the car I was thinking how "Natural Woman" is to soul what "Whipping Post" is to rock or country. Would you ever want to hear anyone to a simple, straight take (smiling smugly, fingers snapping jauntily) on that one?

Finally, at what point did Danny Gokay turn into one of a pair of undertalented not-gay nerds (he looks like the creepy progeny of Robert Downey Jr. and Bud Bundy) to the next sure thing? (And why does my wife love the guy?) I know he's got a sob story, but his style is mediocre, and even though he sang better on Tuesday than I'd heard him before, I still don't want to hear him again. And . I thought the producers where playing him up so that he could face his best friend in a sing-off, but it looks like he's an anointed contender. Judging from the people who passed through, it's going to be a long dull season of this terrible show.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Review: U.S.A., by John Dos Passos.

U.S.A. is Dos Passos' landmark trilogy, containing The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, and although they've been sold in omnibus editions at various points in their publication history, I bought each one separately. Now, I consider myself too old to fall for the trilogy scam: I read to slowly for one thing, and I'm just too damn judgemental to suffer an author who can't decide how to market his bloated epic. Write one book or write three, dammit. But anyway, this isn't formula fiction and U.S.A. is epic enough as it stands to bustle its way into timelessness. It feels almost like a Western War and Peace, a tale of class struggle honoring the oppressed but expressed lengthily through the intersecting lives of sympathetic middling elites, this one full of obnoxious quick-talking (quicktalking) American verve. It was, at a minimum, engaging enough to break my rule of reading the same author sequentially, which, given Dos Passos' technique of breaking the book into stylistically different sections, it half feels like I'm doing anyway, even in one book. Stupid rules.

The bulk of U.S.A. follows the characters, a rat-a-tat exercise in plotting, drawing them from childhood through their adult lives, a miniature life story pulled quickly this way and then that, actions and consequence, ongoing. What the plot narration lacks in introspection, Dos Passos brings out in a long series of highly subjective snapshot segments, "The Camera Eye," closeups of what are presumably his own experiences told in a kind of freely structured prose, heavy on perceptions. (Heavily influenced by Joyce, I understand, but can't personally assert. The Camera Eyes are not challenging to follow.) I find some resonance in this approach, it captures the dynamic of early memories, images and feelings caught in time, both lucid and dreamlike. Here and there a detail sneaks out of these restless memories into the general plot, which is interesting, but not so frequently done as to write an easy thesis about it. He reserves his more obvious social commentary for another separate section, a series of snapshots of historical figures, painted tragically, lovingly, with contempt or irony. These figures lead more stable and pointed lives than do his various characters. "Newsreel" is the fourth running segment, short sections made up of song lyrics, newspaper clippings, and headlines pasted together into bits of found art, which sometimes informs the story clearly and sometimes vaguely, and generally gives the external context of confusing stuff happening all around. I enjoyed the Newsreel segments a good deal, and they'd be a fun motif to adopt in a short format like this one (much as I try to avoid being topical), in the modern wash of low-quality information.

What the U.S.A. trilogy conspicuously lacks is a discursive narrative heavy on analysis, on interpretation, on assumed significance, on romancing the horrors and the joys of the human condition. Even the introspective sections don't appear to go after any deep parallels, and whether Dos Passos was attempting to reveal a grand arc with all of small pieces is really what kept me reading until the end. Leisurely descriptions are also missing from these novels, although short serviceable ones abound. (It's interesting to read the characters describe one another differently, for example.) There's a solid sense of place that evolves, which almost surprises me, and many places get highlighted, a good fraction of which I've visited. Dos Passos takes us through industrial Connecticut, suburban Washington DC, Seattle,* Chicago, California, Paris, Miami, Pittsburgh, and while New York City is frequently featured, it's blessedly not the center of the universe, and as a canonical experience, farm life is (thankfully enough) completely neglected. There is humor, although not much, and it's delivered in small patches like everything else. If Dos Passos' Wildean quips felt sort of tortured, he was in his amusing element when he let the plot and dialogue unwind with a quick-spoken huckster's absurdity. The sense of time is most poignant, and it wasn't lost on me that this is my great-grandparents' generation. The survivors of U.S.A. would have been checking out just as I was checking in. Tag.

Considering Dos Passos' abrupt sort of plot exposition, the length of it is impressive. Stuff happens, and then it keeps happening. I started out really digging the short-story-ness of this approach, motivation and character economically dispensed with, and then scenes unfolding and closing like a life does (and as quickly). After a few iterations, this mode of exposition gave an impression of a mixed-and-matched set of plotlines, tracking a life through a sympathetic childhood to a disagreeable adulthood, going through some benchmarks in between: young impressions, walking out on the home, making friends, drinking, having sex, business success, drinking, dealing with unwanted pregnancy and/or closeted homosexuality, and eventually getting older. When the lines start interacting with one another, it's actually surprising, it seemed till then that the intent had been to present slices of so many unrelated lives, and if that trick is bordering on tiresome by the middle of 1919 (when everyone is in Paris somehow), it grew interesting again as the third novel progressed, as if he were looking, like I said, for a broad point as similar life events got repeated under evolving circumstances.

Ultimately I see the trilogy as a critique of the times. People have similar impulses, and the scope of their consequences is directed by external stimuli, and it's the latter, the external, which Dos Passos is really commenting on here. The 42nd Parallel features bright young people making their way, following their short-term desires, and if there are ideals tied up in their motivations, they are more tied to their upbringing or their character than to any universal good. Though it's clear where the author's sympathies lie, their ups and downs aren't governed by anything more than their own shallow decisions, and for all the bad times, the trend is upward in the first third. It's weird--really weird--that we see so little of the war, but the war still feels like a turnaround. Some characters suffer more tragically (almost in a conventional literary way). History gets warped as a consequence of the conflict, and importantly to Dos Passos, the Labor movement becomes more critical and (he appears to hope) adversarial. By The Big Money, some of the big events are hitting the character's lives in an obvious fashion, there's influenza now killing people on screen, and the lives lived in the boom twenties brings are larger, the self-destruction is deeper into society and more personally deadly to the people we're supposed to relate to. We see, by the end, shots of hopeless mine-town squalor, and of idealists getting beaten down and shot. We see a movement rise, which I'll tell you, is impossible to advocate in historical hindsight. But it's a subtle picture that emerges from the whole, put together almost like a mosaic of similar pieces, and it's an epic one.

* For the first several entries, it felt like Dos Passos was following me around, and there are enough O'Higginses, Higgenbothams, and Higginses sneaking around in the margins to make me positively paranoid.