An Unexpected Pleasure: “The Good Luck of Right Now” by Matthew Quick

I’ll go ahead and admit that Silver Linings Playbook is one of my favorite movies of all time. The quirky comedy/drama/romance is set in blue-collar Philadelphia, and features two off-kilter adults, played spectacularly by Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, struggling with mental illness and trying to get their lives back in order. Though I haven’t read the book, I liked the movie so much that I was very excited when I heard that author Matthew Quick was scheduled to give a presentation at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting back in January. Matthew Quick is kind of strange! But in a good way. The unusual tone of Silver Linings Playbook that I enjoyed was also present in his talk, and, happily, in his second novel as well.

Matthew Quick seems committed to writing about issues, ideas, and settings in which most other writers don’t have much interest. I only took a few notes during his presentation, but I think I told him afterwards that I liked his speech because it was unusual. Which, as you can imagine, I don’t think he really liked hearing! Anyway, he’s got a specific kind of optimism that’s a strange mixture of superstition, Buddhism, Catholicism, and average Joe philosophy. He summed up his theory by observing that “…maybe there’s no formula for art… maybe we can’t know all the answers, and isn’t that beautiful?” I’ll tell you what was beautiful — getting a free, autographed copy of his new book, The Good Luck of Right Now. 

The Good Luck of Right Now

By page 3, I knew that I liked this book. It’s comprised of a series of letters 39-year-old Bartholomew Neil writes to movie star Richard Gere. Bartholomew is a bit of an odd bird. He’s spent all of his life with his mother, and has never had a job. When his mom succumbs to brain cancer, Bartholomew is suddenly left alone in the world. Struggling to cope with his grief, Bartholomew imagines that Richard Gere is his spiritual advisor and proceeds to tell him about the changes he is trying to make in his life.

The supporting cast of characters are all endearingly bizarre. There’s Father McNamee, a drunken Irish priest with bipolar disorder who defrocks himself and moves in with Bartholomew. Wendy, Bartholomew’s young, pretty grief counselor, is stuck in an abusive relationship with a handsome doctor. Max is obsessed with cats, and says f*** an average of three times in every sentence. Max’s sister, Elizabeth, volunteers at a library and isn’t capable of doing much after a traumatic event several years prior. Everyone is sort of floating around, moving through life with relatively little success, and coping with their own quirks and insecurities.

There’s definitely something unusual, I guess you would say, about Bartholomew Neil, and he’s painfully aware of this fact. He knows that he lacks social skills, and things that are easy for most people are sometimes very difficult for him. But Bartholomew’s mental illness is never explicitly laid out, and I think the book is stronger for the omission. After all, most mental illnesses overlap with one another, and even the more distinguishable ones are usually arranged along a gradient. Bartholomew’s peculiarities don’t prevent him from being a good person, though. In fact, he has the opportunity to prove himself a hero several times over — he is extremely sweet and good-natured, but sometimes his nervousness and introversion make it difficult for him to take action. He’s also capable of moments of startling insight, such as when he speaks with a Canadian border agent:

Are those types of questions able to define us as people — measure our worth, our goodness, and whether or not we are safe visitors? Where are you going? What do you do for a living? Business or pleasure? Do the answers prove whether our lives matter, and whether we’re worthy of being admitted into Canada? …Any criminal worth his or her salt would be a proficient liar and could easily get through the border patrol stop, but — left to our own devices — people like me will fail every time. (p. 208-209)

Bartholomew understands that he sometimes makes people feel uncomfortable, which subsequently makes it more difficult for him to conquer his insecurities and behave appropriately in social situations. His guiding philosophy, though, “The Good Luck of Right Now,” maintains that whenever something bad is happening to him, something good has to be happening elsewhere in the world. In other words, the positive and the negative cancel each other out, and everyone eventually gets a dose of good luck.

“What have I been telling you since you were a boy? Whenever something bad happens to us,” Mom said as she tucked me into my new bed, “something good happens — often to someone else. And that’s The Good Luck of Right Now. We must believe it. We must. We must. We must.” (p. 153)

Even though Bartholomew sometimes finds it hard to believe in The Good Luck of Right Now, it’s a reassuring worldview that helps him to take both the good and the bad in stride. Bartholomew eventually extends this yin-yang outlook to encompass himself, Elizabeth, and Max; without abnormal people around, there would be no way of defining “normal.” Nothing can exist without its opposite.

“Well, if there weren’t weird, strange, and unusual people who did weird things or nothing at all, there couldn’t be normal people who do normal, useful things, right?”

“What the fuck, hey?” Max squinted at me.

“The word normal would lose all of its meaning if it didn’t have an opposite. And if there were no normal people, the world would fall apart — because it’s normal people who take care of all the normal things.” (p. 212)

It’s a refreshingly simple and infinitely comforting philosophy. You exist in the universe so that your opposite may exist. Bad exists so that good may exist. Darkness exists such that light may have meaning (incidentally, that last example is what Russian masterpiece The Master and Margarita uses to argue that God exists — because don’t we see the Devil in action every day?). While I may not necessarily completely endorse this philosophy, it would be arrogant of me to pretend that I don’t have my own ways of rationalizing the world that make it easier for me to get through day-to-day life.

Overall, I have a feeling that this book isn’t quite as compelling as The Silver Linings Playbook, but that’s ok, because it means I’ll probably like that one even more! I’m really glad that Matthew Quick became a writer, because as I said, I don’t think anyone else is writing about the same things he does, and definitely not in the same way. The only book that marginally reminded me of The Good Luck of Right Now was She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb, which I pretty much hated because it meandered all over the place. If you’re in the mood for something different, something simple yet perceptive, and written in a fresh, easy-to-move-through style, then you ought to try reading The Good Luck of Right Now. I also secretly hope that David O. Russell will make it into a movie.

Overall rating: 4/5 stars

 

Blue is the Warmest Color: When the Movie Exceeds the Book

Blue is the Warmest Color was one of last year’s international indie darlings. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and I suspect that much of the popularity of both the graphic novel and the movie had more to do with the subject matter than with the quality of the story itself. It’s an explicit tale about two girls who fall in love, and because there are still relatively few high-quality queer stories that make their way into the mainstream, I’m afraid that Blue is the Warmest Color was given more credit than it deserved. However, the film was significantly better than the book. My review and comparison of the two follows below.

Blue is the Warmest Color

The graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color is beautifully illustrated by French author Julie Maroh. Cast mostly in somber gray tones, the book’s only distinguishable color comes in the form of Emma’s hair — the confident and talented art student with whom Clementine falls in love. The first thing you’ll notice about the graphic novel (or at least, the first thing I noticed) was Clementine’s horrible personality: She is an immature 15-year-old schoolgirl, who, in spite of her desire for Emma, still harbors homophobic tendencies. She is ashamed to admit that she might be gay; she complains to her gay friend, Valentín, repeatedly, and also to her diary, the narration of which constitutes the dialogue in Blue is the Warmest Color. Told from this perspective, Clementine comes across as whiny, unsure of herself, and more or less stalkerishly obsessed with Emma, who is in her last year of art school and approximately seven years older than Clementine.

I understand that the coming out process is an extremely difficult one, and, furthermore, it is not something that I have personal experience with, so how can I criticize a character in a fictional book? Still, at the end of the day, because there are so few mainstream queer love stories, I think it is critically important that those stories contain examples of healthy relationships. Clementine and Emma’s relationship in the graphic novel does not fulfill this expectation. Clementine remains ashamed to admit that she is lesbian, which eventually undermines her relationship with Emma. Emma, meanwhile, is insecure enough to be seduced by someone much younger than she, and to cheat on her current girlfriend, Sabine, as if unwilling to make a decision between the two. Clementine is always the instigator, and when Emma finally has an excuse to end their relationship, she does so spectacularly. Their relationship is based primarily on Clementine’s unbridled lust and desire, and while that’s an important aspect of a functioning sexual relationship, it’s unwise to let that be a substitute for interpersonal development.

On top of all of this, because the graphic  novel is narrated by a 15-year-old character, the dialogue is predictably trite and superficial. Conversations are filled with hackneyed phrases, and all of the stereotypical developments in a gay coming-of-age novel come to pass. When Clementine inexplicably falls ill and dies rapidly, the denouement feels cheap and unearned. It’s like A Walk to Remember with queer instead of Christian overtones.

Overall, I found the book extremely disappointing. It’s probably my least favorite graphic novel. Which is a shame, because the artwork is stunning, and I usually love graphic novels. Luckily, the movie was a huge improvement.

blue is the warmest color - movie

In the movie Blue is the Warmest Color, Emma and Adèle’s relationship is significantly less dysfunctional. In fact, during the first half of the film, they have a beautiful connection. You’ll notice that Clementine, the 15-year-old schoolgirl, has been replaced with 17/18 year-old Adèle, a mature high school senior who is immensely attracted to Emma without becoming obsessive. Their relationship feels more equal, balanced, and united by common attraction, instead of a one-sided pursuit. Emma is less cowardly; Adèle, less immature and flighty. In addition, the diary narration is gone, replaced by sparse dialogue and evocative facial expressions. I was pleased that Adèle’s breasts were not overemphasized in the movie the way they were in the book; the attraction between Emma and Adèle felt organic, mutual, and exciting, and despite the explicit 10-minute sex scene, it felt less gratuitous as well. Gone is Clementine’s unwarranted fear of dating a girl; gone is Emma’s insecurity and her subservient relationship with her ex-girlfriend Sabine. Instead, the relationship blossoms naturally, with Emma finding herself surprised that an 18-year-old could pique her interest. Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos are both marvelous, filling their roles with ease.

Unfortunately, although all of the changes from the graphic novel significantly improved the film adaptation, the latter half of the movie is extremely difficult to watch. Emma and Adèle drift apart, as many couples do, but although Emma, confident in her burgeoning painting career and with a cohort of like-minded art colleagues, manages to recover quickly from their disastrous breakup, Adèle never does. She put so much of herself into Emma, and into their relationship, that she failed to develop her own personality. This leads to the infamous scene in the cafe, in which Adèle attempts to convince Emma to return to her. She grovels and sniffs her way through the conversation; it’s one of the most painful and achingly sad scenes that I’ve ever watched. It’s much more tragic than Clementine’s inexplicable death in the graphic novel, not to mention completely deserved.

I enjoyed the first half of the film very much and was looking forward to a rosy ending. The second half nearly ruined it for me, even though it was well executed. I’ll never be able to watch it again thanks to that scene in the cafe. Nonetheless, it’s beautifully done, and certainly worth watching.

Again, I understand why Blue is the Warmest Color became the phenomenon that it did, because most, if not all, marginalized communities are desperate to see their experiences reflected in the media they consume. Unfortunately, Blue is the Warmest Color falls flat in terms of offering much in the way of guidance. But to be honest, I can’t think of a better example. My advice? Skip the book, watch the movie if you like, and I’ll keep looking alongside everyone else for good literature about queer romance.

Overall rating, graphic novel: 2.5/5 stars
Overall rating, film: B-

Linklater’s ‘Boyhood': A Masterpiece?

boyhood poster

I’ve heard many things about this movie. It’s already been reviewed by just about every blog I follow, though I’ve avoided reading those reviews. I did, however, pick up on the fact that everyone has adored it. Well, I’m not sure if “adore” is the right word to describe my reaction, but I did leave the Moxie Theater feeling uncannily validated.

Boyhood is, quite simply, about a young boy growing up in the United States. Nothing special, except for the rather extraordinary fact that director Richard Linklater managed to get the same group of people (Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, and Ethan Hawke) to agree to be filmed a few weeks a year for 12 consecutive years. I’m sure you’ve heard about that feat of coordination as well. It would be wrong to describe this as a movie with a plot. It’s just a peek inside of a few people’s lives as they ebb and flow. Things happen, but organically. If it weren’t for the high quality of the film, and its ability to perfectly capture all of the “key” moments, you could reasonably believe that it was real.

Which is part of the reason why I have a hard time evaluating this film. Is it good? Oh yeah, definitely. Is it great? I’m not sure. It resembles my own life so closely that it’s impossible for me to separate my experiences from those captured on Linklater’s camera. And believe me, I am fully aware that that was the point. It’s somewhat eerie seeing most of your life up on a big screen. I’m not just talking nostalgia — it’s something both more profound and belittling  than that. Those striped denim jeans that Samantha was wearing? I had a pair of those, and so, apparently, did all girls in elementary school. Common features of my life that I didn’t even realize were common were suddenly revealed as archetypes. I don’t think it helps that I spent three years in Wichita Falls, Texas and two years in San Antonio. Even the landscape, the brick facades of the houses in which Mason lived, were nearly identical to those I occupied. The only thing missing was a fluffy, friendly dog.

Closely evaluating the film would mean subjecting myself to a possibly uncomfortable level of self-scrutiny. To say that it resonated with me would be an understatement, and I suspect that the same is true for the vast majority of people who’ve seen it. I felt like someone had hidden a tape recorder in my home, my car, my school and gotten ahold of all of the conversations I’ve ever had, then played them back to me with someone else speaking the words. Boyhood isn’t really an accurate title; something even more generic, like “Life,” would be better. (But who would go see a movie called Life? I probably wouldn’t. It’s too epic and self-congratulatory).

I think this movie works best if you’re white or middle-class. Certainly, it’s meant for Americans. It feels so familiar, as though someone held up a mirror for you to watch your experiences play back in astonishing clarity. Those assumptions about familiarity, though, run deep throughout the film. What does it mean to say that Nintendos are familiar, that of course you dress up for the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, grabbing your hardbound, pre-paid copy from the attendant, only to flounce home in your cape and plastic glasses and read it under the covers in your own room, in a brick-fronted house, before being dropped off at a featureless stone building for school the next day? It felt familiar to me, but did it feel familiar to everyone? I’m almost certain that it didn’t, and the movie is an uncomfortable reminder not only of the typicalness of my life, but everything that I haven’t been given a reason to question.

In the end, it’s a marvelous achievement. As someone for whom this movie is written, it rang authentic throughout (even the pretty and irritating high school girlfriend). The acting, particularly from Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, is impeccable, as is the steady, never rushed, never boring, sense of time passing. Something remarkable has been made out of a series of lives that are inherently unremarkable. It’s a discomforting type of self-affirmation. How appropriate that Arquette’s character was a professor of Psychology.

So, in the end, I would certainly recommend watching this, particularly if you’re American, and especially if you’re a white American, and irrefutably if you’re a white, middle-class American. Average, average, average until the end of the day, but don’t we average folks just love having our lives reflected back to us? If you leave the theater feeling nostalgic, I think you probably missed the point. But if you leave it with a heavy sense of deja vu, and a startled reaction to how easy it was to pinpoint all of the important moments in your life — then I think you’re on the right track.

Overall rating: I have no idea. (A+ for accuracy. C- for exclusivity).

Review: The Googlization of Everything by Siva Vaidhyanathan

If you’ve ever been troubled by Google’s seemingly omnipotent presence, its domination over the Internet, or just the sheer size of the behemoth company, then you might consider reading this book. I typically don’t go for nonfiction because I prefer arguments and ideals to be subtly embedded within a fictional framework, but overall, I am glad that I took the time to read it.

DSC_2236

Although Siva Vaidhyanathan is Professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia, The Googlization of Everything reads less like an academic text and more like a long-form article in Time. I say this largely because most of Vaidhyanathan’s arguments are on the superficial side; there are both merits and drawbacks to his more casual approach. I wouldn’t read The Googlization of Everything if you want a critical analysis of the way in which information itself has been re-defined in the digital age. Instead, I would consider this a primer on the history and founding of Google, as well as a broad overview of its business practices. It certainly doesn’t hurt to know a bit more about one of the most important companies in operation today.

That caveat aside, Siva Vaidhyanathan has a refreshingly skeptical attitude toward Google. Most people I know don’t think twice about typing terms into the search box. Vaidhyanathan examines this uncritical attitude and reveals how the general public’s unquestioning acceptance of Google is made possible through the conceit of technofundamentalism. Technofundamentalism can be loosely defined as “the unquestioning embrace of all that technology has to offer, believing that it holds the answer to every problem” (source). Because of this almost mythological belief that technology is the key to human progress, everyone—from the U.S. government, to libraries, to consumers—has allowed Google’s growth to proceed virtually unchecked. Granted, some of Google’s intrusions have come with huge benefits, e.g. an ordered and searchable Internet. At the same time, Vaidhyanathan cautions us to be skeptical of Google’s unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil.” At the end of the day, Google is a corporation that is motivated by profits, growth, and the market, something that, as Vaidhyanathan emphasizes, is all too easy to forget.

In my opinion, the most valuable argument that Vaidhyanathan makes has to do with the concept of “public failure.” The privileging of private, corporate, and individual interests over the common good has allowed several crucial public institutions in the United States to fail—from schools to libraries to the prison system. Basically, what happens is that taxpayers are unwilling to shoulder the justifiably substantial costs of running these institutions. Budgets are slashed, but the institutions are held to increasingly higher standards. When the institutions finally (and predictably) fail, the public declares their existence unsustainable.

Public failure…occurs not necessarily because the state is the inappropriate agent to solve a particular problem; it may occur when the public sector has been intentionally dismantled, degraded, or underfunded, while expectations for its performance remain high…The public institutions that were supposed to provide services were prevented from doing so. Private actors filled the vacuum… In such circumstances, the failure of public institutions gives rise to the circular logic that dominates political debate. Public institutions can fail; public institutions need tax revenue; therefore we must reduce the support for public institutions. The resulting failures then supply more anecdotes supporting the view that public institutions fail by design rather than by political choice. (p. 41)

It was in this atmosphere that Google stepped in and took on the monumental task of making sense of the Internet. Should this have been handled by a private corporation? Was Google given more trust than it deserved? Should libraries have attempted to tackle the vast expanse of the Internet? Should there have been intergovernmental treaties? The point that Vaidhyanathan makes is that while Google might have been a viable contender in this conversation, the conversation never happened. Google declared its interest, and Google has dominated the interwebs ever since.

Indeed, why should the government have bothered with designing a sophisticated search algorithm when a private corporation could do it efficiently and, seemingly, for free? The problem, as Vaidhyanathan emphasizes again and again, is that privacy, both collective and individual, is the price that must be paid in order to access all of that “free” information. Google tracks every search you conduct, records information about your search preferences, your political beliefs, where you live, and how much money you earn. People are (hopefully still) disgusted when they discover that the government is spying on them, yet don’t think twice about surrendering all of their personal information to a private company. Furthermore, as more and more information moves exclusively into the online domain, libraries and other public institutions no longer seem like necessary repositories of human knowledge. Why bother keeping the physical book when you can just scan it and put it online for everyone to read? Ignoring the tangle of copyright complications, of course.

The drawbacks of The Googlization of Everything are twofold. First, the book was published in 2011, meaning that it is simultaneously dated (several important court decisions have been handed down in the intervening years) as well as too little, too late. Conversations about the meaning of the Internet have circulated in academia since the technology’s inception—yet Vaidhyanathan doesn’t seem to acknowledge most of those conversations. Many of his reservations have been expressed elsewhere, time and time and time again, though perhaps not as comprehensively as in his book. Or perhaps I have misunderstood the issue. Perhaps there truly aren’t many academics who are concerned about Google’s omnipotence and the way the company both expands and curtails access to knowledge. It’s not a sector of academia that I am terribly familiar with, so perhaps the oversight is my own, not Vaidhyanathan’s. At any rate, Vadhyanathan began a conversation, but he didn’t conclude it.

Second, Vaidhyanathan is a victim of the very technofundamentalism that he decries. I got the sense that he was never able to entirely separate his respect for Google from his criticism of the company, which is a shame, as I think it prevented him from delving into deeper critiques. His first chapter, entitled “The Gospel of Google,” is an obvious allusion to Genesis and the creation of the world as we know it. This was undoubtedly a tongue-in-cheek decision, but it unwittingly revealed Vaidhyanathan’s perception of Google as a company of Biblical proportions. Technofundamentalism is the unquestioning, almost mythological, belief in technology, yes, but it’s also a broader form of myopia, in which people are unable to discuss technology in relation to the forces that shape its creation, distribution, and use. In other words, what is our contemporary, philosophical relationship with knowledge? How does this enable the concept of a “public failure?” How does the disconnect between individual privacy vs. individual consumption of “free” goods arise? What, besides apathy and inattention on behalf of the public, could explain Google’s meteoric ascent? I don’t believe that Vaidhyanathan provided satisfying answers to these questions, and perhaps that wasn’t the task he set out to fulfill with his book. Overall, I don’t think he wasn’t critical enough.

That said, until Vaidhyanathan speculated as to what might happen to the billions, if not trillions, of webpages that Google has copied & stored as cached pages if the company were ever to be sold, or, even more improbably, go bankrupt, I have to admit that I had never, in my entire life, imagined a world without Google. I never thought, at any point, that Google would ever, could ever, cease to exist. This reveals my own status as a technofundamentalist. Google is like Standard Oil, the massive, horizontal oil company that dominated the United States from 1870 to 1911, until the Supreme Court ruled that it violated anti-trust laws. That was oil. This is the history and intellectual output of a huge swath of the human population, from the late 1990s onward. When Standard Oil failed, other oil companies stepped in. But which company, government, or nonprofit will be able to take on the role that Google has assumed? Nobody, including myself, likes to think about that.

For further reading on the subject of technology, information, and how the Internet has changed ways of knowing, here is a series of three excellent articles that I recommend:

The Disconnectionists – By far the best article I’ve read about digital connectivity, the call to “unplug” from our devices, and the newly-created anxiety over whether we aren’t engaging in “real life” because we spend too much time browsing the Internet.

The Limits of the Digital Humanities – The author explains why technology, no matter how sophisticated, can’t ever replace critical analysis or contextualized research.

5 Things I Learned from Deactivating Facebook – A student explains how, contrary to popular belief, digital networks are inherently tied to physical networks, not a bastardized versions of them.

Overall rating, The Googlization of Everything: 3.5/5 stars

Photo credit: GvL

 

 

Published in Bookbird!

Bookbird

Work on this article began nearly three years ago, in September 2011, when I was starting my junior year in college. Craziness! The research/publishing cycle really does take as long as they say.

I’ve alluded to this article on my “About” page, and it’s still hard to believe that it’s finally here. I like to think that since Bookbird is one of the top international children’s literature journals (it really is; there aren’t that many of them!), that my inclusion in the magazine legitimizes all of those children’s literature posts I like to do. See? I’m not just some random person on the Internet posting stuff about children’s literature left & right. I’m a real, published (article) author!

Article in Bookbird

The article, which is around 3,500 words long if I remember correctly, is entitled “María Elena Walsh and the Art of Subversive Children’s Literature.” In the essay, I argue that Walsh, probably the most famous of all of Argentina’s children’s book authors, was a Lewis Carroll figure in her home country. Her subversive books for children challenged all sorts of societal norms and undermined the dictatorial government.

To be honest, I haven’t read my article since I submitted the final version back in September last year (!!), so I’m not sure whether I would be embarrassed by it at this point. I hope not. I remember thinking that I had some good analysis in there, particularly towards the ending!

Article in Bookbird

Writing the article was a challenge, but a welcome one. My mentor, Jeff, encouraged me from the very beginning of my research project to consider submitting an article to a scholarly journal. I’m not sure if he actually expected it to happen (it’s quite rare for undergraduates, especially those outside of the sciences, to get published!), but I took his word for it. And may I just say that most professors don’t give their students/research assistants enough credit. I was very lucky to find a mentor who took me even more seriously than I took myself!

My research on María Elena took me to the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany, and to Buenos Aires itself — Walsh’s home city. Perhaps even more important than those fabulous trips was the permanent installation of a lifelong appreciation for children’s literature. It’s one of those genres/subjects that people tend to overlook or consider worthless. All I can say is that much of the artwork in picture books, and much of the writing in children’s/YA books, far exceeds the pithy offerings churned out for adults.

Unfortunately, the article isn’t open access just yet. You can download the PDF from Project Muse if you have access via your institution. If you can’t download the PDF, however, just contact me and I’ll see what I can do. I also have an extremely lengthy bibliography on Walsh that I compiled for my senior honor’s thesis. It’s a bit of a researcher’s bonanza, if I’m being honest!

In addition, if any of you are curious to hear more about the details involved in researching, writing, and submitting an article for publication, let me know and I’ll see if I can’t whip something up.

As for this blog, I’ve got a couple of very good children’s literature posts coming up soon, if I do say so myself!