Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Stuff I've Been Reading Vol. 3

Books Read
Quicksand--Nella Larsen
Nightwood--Djuna Barnes
Orlando--Virginia Woolf
Sideways--Rex Pickett

Books Bought
I have spent too much money on Moon Hamlet this month to afford more books.

I actually really liked all three of the books I read for Modernism this quarter. Each one plays with gender, class, and identity in very different ways, and each writer approached these subjects with such a distinct voice. Nella Larsen was richly descriptive, Djuna Barnes lyrical and poetic, and Virginia Woolf cheeky and oddly witty. Larsen's novel is probably the most traditional and accessible of the three. Barnes' only grows particularly strange toward the end. Woolf's Orlando, though, requires many stretches of the imagination just to allow the story to take place. I liked them all, but I think the first half of Nightwood is significantly better than the second half. Read on for things I find interesting in each novel; I will come to my comparative analysis of the film and book versions of Sideways, later.

The thing that most interests me about Nella Larsen's Quicksand is the emphasis on commodity, consumer culture, and how these things play into race and gender. As a costumer, I obviously ascribe to the adage that "clothes make the man (or woman)." Quicksand certainly plays off the cliche. I have this theory that clothing is what equates class and status because without clothing we would all be naked and equal in our nudity. (Obviously, commodities other than designer duds also emphasize class, but for the sake of my tiny fabric-covered world, and Helga Crane's, allow me the distincting between the two.) Larsen spends ample time in Quicksand describing the lush fabrics of Helga's garments compared to the drab, harsh fabrics of those of the other "Naxos Negoes." Helga is shunned for her style, as those in Naxos try to assimilate drab Saxonness as much as possible. In Chicago and Harlem, the brightness and lushness of Helga's dress is sometimes paled by those of other fashionable black women. She is obviously not high class among the black women of those cities, but, through her dress, actually does fit in quite well in those social circles. In Copenhagen, though, fabric and color are celebrated on Helga--practically poured over her to illuminate her glorious difference from the Danes as much as possible. (Like Josephine Baker to the Parisians in the '20s, so is Helga Crane to the Danes in Quicksand.) She is allowed to dress as a woman of high stature, despite her blackness, and perhaps is allowed to be much more decorated because of it. When Helga returns to America and finds herself in the Bible Belt, her love of color is once again shunned. She is even called Jezebel for wearing a red strappy dress to church. Clothes indeed make the man. And clothing enacts class, status, and performative race in Quicksand better than any other commodity Helga Crane could possible acquire.
(As a sidebar, I'd like to announce that I all kinds of trumped this guy in my English class who wears 3-piece suits on a daily basis last night when we were studying. He disagrees with me about clothing enacting class "because most milionaires these days wear jeans and t-shirts around the house" and "I can wear a tux and go about high class social circles, but those people will know that I'm not like them." Both of his points reinforce mine: clothing enacts class and status. I asked him why he wore 3-piece suits every day. He said they are comfortable. I told him that virtually no man finds suits comfortable. He went on to explain to me, a costumer, that his suit is a brown suit worn without a tie, so it is technically a weekend suit, therefore a casual suit that can be worn daily. I replied that I would accept that as an answer if this were 50 or 60 years ago. I know the suit hasn't changed much since the 19th century, but one thing that certainly has changed is that the suit is not casual wear. "What exactly are you trying to convey about yourself through suit-wearing?" I asked. He could not reply. He knows I'm on to his game. He's not really a philosopher-poet, he just dresses like one.)

Woolf's Orlando is also a lot about fashion, particularly when Orlando reaches the 19th century. Reading Orlando requires so many stretches of the imagination, as Orlando lives roughly 300 years but does not grow any older than age 36. Also, at age 30, somewhere under the reign of King Charles, Orlando wakes up one day a woman. He is exactly the same person, just a different sex. The book turns on androgeny and class and poetry. There are so many thematic layers in Orlando, yet, curiously, nothing really happens in it. It's very clever, nonetheless. Woolf has a lot of fun playing with genre (Orlando's subtitle is "a biography") and sex. Her lover, Vita Sackville-West, in fact, was the model for Orlando both in character and in the portraits interspersed with the text. The book handles fluidity of identity better than Todd Solondz' fim Palindromes ever could--even if he had executed it well. And I would recommend that if you want to understand how time and identity are fluid things that you read Virginia Woolf's Orlando instead of giving Todd Solondz any of your money for his poorly made, overly ambiguous, apparently "non-issue" abortion movie that "explores the fluidity of identity" in such a half-assed manner that, were Woolf alive, she would slap him in the face with her lengthy tome and tell him to read Orlando.

As I am interested in women who deny constraints of femininity, Djuna Barnes' Nightwood was entirely fascinating--for the first half. I was much less interested in the second half of the book where all of the characters Robin Vote has destroyed seek solace on the couch of Dr. Matthew O'Conner, who likes to wear lipstick and wigs and monologue about his problems with his kidneys and how he wishes he had been a woman. Robin Vote is such an interesting woman to me because she cannot be tied down. I am always fascinated by women who can leave their children, by cold mothers and unfeeling wives. I am even more fascinated by women who can kill what they create--perhaps why Toni Morrison's Beloved is my favorite book of all time. To call Robin a woman really isn't accurate, though. She is "a thing caught in a woman's skin." She merely enacts femininity, or, rather, denies it. She leaves her husband and son and takes up with two female lovers, whom she usually deserts at night to wander in the dark dressed as a man. Robin, not a woman, but posing as one, then performs masculinity through her cross-dressing. Really, she is this wild and unattainable thing, who finds more communion with her lover's dog than with any human character in the book. Perhaps this is why her name is Robin, not only gender neutral, but species neutral, as well. She is a "thing caught in a woman's skin," called by the name of a bird. Nightwood is definitely bizarre, but Barnes' prose is achingly poetic, and that alone is worth the read if Robin Vote isn't enough for you.

So, Sideways.

First of all, the film is a helluva lot smarter in the book. The book is entirely lacking in the "wine is a metaphor for people" department. From this, I have to say that Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor certainly have the souls of poets, because they added something to the story that Rex Pickett for all his screenwriter-turned-novelist "I'm gonna write a book for once!" gumption missed out on entirely.
Second of all, Sideways as a film, aside from the aforementioned improvements (and a serious change for the better in terms of plot toward the end of the book) is a very faithful adaptation. The characters are adapted dead on, and most of the scenes in the book make it to the film in tact . . . except for the things about that book that were clearly intended to make a very different kind of movie adaptation. For example:
  1. Early in the week, Miles and Jack decide to let a local take them hunting. Crazy local starts shooting at them, and Jack and Miles rob him, beat him up and strike a deal with him that they won't file a report if he agrees to chauffer them and the lovely Terra (Stephanie in the film) and Maya around the Pinot festival the day before Jack's wedding. The payoff is satisfying, and crazy gun-toting local Brad is redeemed, but there was absolutely no reason for this to be there. Taylor and Payne omitted the Pinot festival anyway, so I'm glad they decided to leave out bear-hunter Brad.
  2. While Maya does like Miles and is interested in him on her own, Jack pays her $1000 to seduce Miles on a double date that never makes it into the film. In the book, this is a pretty sexy scene, involving lots of crazy-expensive wine being poured on Maya's crotch, but I commend Payne and Taylor for removing this god-awful twist. This is not a twist book! And what kind of person would take $1000 dollars to seduce someone? The problem with this twist is that 2/3rds of the way through the book, we are suddenly only able to like Miles because Terra is easy, Maya is now a "whore" and Jack is a pimp with no morals. Until that twist, I could sympathize with Jack wanting to have one last affair--the book is essentially a week-long road-trip bachelor party--but when a character I like and sympathize with turns a nice woman with no overt sexuality into a whore, it's kind of a huge problem with character consistency.
  3. Needless to say, Maya only confesses that Jack whored her out after Miles confesses to her--next morning, post coffee and pastry--that Jack is getting married on Saturday.
  4. Terra just disappears! After threatening to kill Jack with the shotgun he pilfired from Brad, Terra only manages to get into a slap fight with him and claws his face. How weak little Terra is constructed. And after all this, she disappears. Maya never even mentions her again. I'm not pleased with Terra's disappearance or her character construction in the book at all. Congratulations to Payne and Taylor for allowing Stephanie to beat the shit out of Jack for lying to her. They created a much stronger woman who can dish out exactly what she can take.
  5. The injuries that Stephanie gives Jack in the film are, therefore, slowly incurred over a series of minor scrapes.
  6. At the wedding, Miles dances with newly-wed Babs the costume designer (Christine, the lovely Armenian trophy wife in the film) and Babs asks if Jack fucked anyone over the course of the trip. Miles refuses to reply and Babs simply says, "Well, if he did, tell him we're even."

I was disappointed in the book. The twists that Pickett creates are good for film, not for literature. Either way, they are clearly out of place in this genre. The film adds a certain artistry and poignancy that the book lacks--and I would not have expect that at all. Congratulations, Payne and Taylor, you turned a bottle of Two Buck Chuck into an '82 Latour.

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