Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Curse of Prescience

Super Sad True Love Story Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Super Sad True Love Story offers a vision of the future that follows present day social, political and economic trends to their sardonically satirical dystopian conclusion. It is a novel that sets a star crossed romance against the backdrop of the decadent west in decline. The author, Gary Shteyngart, imagines his future dystopia literally rather than allegorically. This allows him to create characters that are more real than symbolic. But it also leads to some odd examples of a kind of warped literary prescience.

The emergence of an Occupy Wall Street type movement in the imagined future of the novel is probably the most prominent example of this prescience. The book was published over a year before the tents started to go up at Zucotti Park, but the parallels between the rolling campsite protests that occur in the novel due to the U.S.'s continued economic problems bear an eerie resemblence to what transpired in reality not so long after the book hit stores. Of course, it quickly becomes clear that Shteyngart's inspiration for his fantasy protests is the historical tent cities of bonus army veterans and other agitators that emerged during the Great Depression, and this is an inspiration he probably shares with some Occupy organizers. Art imitates life, life imitates art, life imitates life, art imitates arts, etcetera etcetera and so on and so forth.

But the prescience cuts both ways. In a throwaway gag near the end of the story, the protagonist's parents are less concerned with the apocalyptic breakdown of the political and economic system of the United States than with the recent passage of legislation permitting gay marriage in the state of New York. Shteyngart looks smart for having predicted Occupy-style protest, but the recent real world passage of gay marriage legislation in New York perfectly displays Shteyngart's narrow pessimism. It didn't take until the apocalypse to legalize gay marriage in New York, in fact it barely took longer than the book's appearance in a paperback edition for a once unthinkably radical expansion of civil rights to come to fruition.

Super Sad True Love Story is eminently readable. You could call it a dystopian page turner. And it succeeds in characterization, in narrative economy, and in razor sharp social satire. But it also shows some clumsiness that is difficult to wholly overlook. Its allusions to Chekhov and the other masters of nineteenth century Russian literature are naked to the point of embarassment. Its political satire is less astute than its social satire, particularly when it seems overly dated to the era of Bush and Rumsfeld. Its economic satire is admirably ambitious but only halfway successful. The protagonist narrator, clearly a stand-in for the author, admits he doesn't understand currency exchange and the other details of finance and economics. Based on the most literal explorations of dystopian economics that the novel takes on, I can only assume shares his protagonist's ignorance in such matters.

But the book's strengths overwhelmingly outweigh its weaknesses. Shteyngart's tale is by turns absorbing, incisive, hilarious, and emotionally wrenching. Books that manage such a delicate balancing act while imperceptibly drawing the reader forward page by page deserve high praise.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bring On the Dwarves

Snow White and the Huntsman
2012. 127 minutes. USA. Directed by Rupert Sanders. Watchdate: 6/15/2012.
Snow White and the Huntsman is a completely forgettable and pointless action adventure-cum-romance, though I did enjoy Charlize Theron's unhinged, over the top performance as well as the super mushroomy forest trip and the seven dwarves (including Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, and Nick Frost). Why again did they deemphasize the dwarves in this version? They are the best part of the story.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The University of Flushing Toilets Online

Recently, the University of California Office of the President unveiled a new logo for the most prestigious public university system in the world. Since then, the logo has been met with near universal revulsion and outright disgust. It has been widely compared to a flushing toilet, or, more kindly, to one of those annoying loading icons that everyone loves to hate in this age of computers and attention deficits. In response, the fifteen-year-old girls at the UC Office of the President responded using Facebook, the average high schooler's public forum of choice:
Here's the thing: It's [the new logo] not replacing anything. There wasn't a logo before, and the UC seal isn't going anywhere. The symbol also isn't new. It's been on websites, brochures, advertising and other places for nearly a year now. Did we consult people and test it? Of course. Does everyone like the new symbol? No. That's very clear. But strong differences of opinion and energetic debate are part of what's made UC such an amazing place...it [the flushing toilet logo] may evolve over time.
Does everyone like the new symbol? No. Does anyone like the new symbol? The designers sure do. Are they laughing all the way to the bank? Yes. Are we going to respond constructively to the overwhelmingly negative response to the toilet bowl icon we have foisted on the University of California like some turd of an overpaid corporate consultant? No. Does asking rhetorical questions make us sound as petulantly defensive as Donald Rumsfeld at a hostile Iraq War era press conference? You bet your sweet bibby it does!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Restrictions on Bargaining Are Not a "Right to Work"

Republicans in the state legislature of Michigan have come together this week to institute new prohibitions on the freedom of contract in their state. These new state-mandated prohibitions would put certain restrictions on people's right to bargain and sign contracts reflecting the outcomes of such bargaining. Republicans often portray themselves in opposition to big government regulations of the economy. However, when it comes to putting new restrictions on the type of contracts that can be arranged between free and consenting adults, they always seem to forget they are against big government. See also "tort reform."
Prominent Example of Big Government Interfering with Freedom of Contract
For some reason, many prominent reporters and news commentators have decided to refer to the legislation in Michigan as a "right-to-work" law. I guess newspaper editors decided it would be a good idea to try to confuse their readers as much as possible. Instead of calling the legislation "restrictions on bargaining," "new prohibitions on the freedom of contract," or an anodyne (albeit somewhat vague) term like "economic regulation," they settled on a term that does nothing to illuminate the underlying law it is meant to describe.

If you asked any normal person what "the right to work" means, I believe they would say a guaranteed right to be employed. As with the right to free speech, there would probably be some limited restrictions on the right for practical reasons, but in general, if an individual was willing to work, they would have a right to be gainfully employed. That's actually a great idea! But it is an idea that bears no resemblance at all to the legislation favored by Republican legislators during the post-election Lame Duck Session.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Nazi Canary in the Allied Coal Mine

Europa
1991.  112 minutes. Denmark. Directed by Lars von Trier. Watchdate: 7/16/2012.
Wow! I am certain this movie strikes a different chord now that Lars von Trier has publicly expressed sympathy (jokingly?) for der Führer. Until watching this movie, I had never really given any serious thought to Nazi dead-enders conspiring in Germany after the second world war ended.

It does make sense that there would have been some kind of violent political insurgency during the Allied occupation of Germany (not Iraq level, but something!). I'll give von Trier credit for provoking me to think about that peculiar historical footnote. And he either deserves great credit or a resounding demerit - I'm not sure which - for pressing me to even have just the barest modicum of sympathy for the purest evil that humanity has witnessed.

I have to acknowledge the movie's imagery - bizarre, haunting, elegiac, disturbing and occasionally even goofy - and certainly like very little else I have ever seen.  Also, I am quite surprised that just as with Melancholia, the movie is extremely funny in an off-kilter  deranged sort of way. Two of the three von Trier movies I have seen were actually quite playful and hilarious, giving the lie to his reputation as an extremely serious, arty director. In a way, this movie reminded me of the work of the Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin but with a slightly more pretentious axe to grind.

Finally, I must single out the surreal and wonderful performances of Eddie Constantine and especially Udo Kier. I first became familiar with Udo Kier's bravura work in the video game Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, in which he played a Soviet mind control svengali named Yuri. Here he shows he can play a human being, not just a cartoon, and manages to be even more haunting as a regretful ex-Nazi.
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