Tired of narratives that use pop-culture references as a form of characterization

Why are our books full of little hipster kids?
Why are our books full of little hipster kids?

Awhile back, I posted on Facebook about how I never want to watch another romantic comedy where the heroine displays a quirky interest in old records or classic movies, because it’s only being used as a lazy shorthand for ‘this is a cool chick.’ And that doesn’t really work for me, personally, because: a) why should an interest in a particular kind of media make a person more desirable as a partner; and b) even if liking classic movies did make a woman more desirable, I’d still be annoyed at how cynically this character trait was being deployed.

However, since then, I’ve gone through a spate of reading children’s books (by which I mean middle-grade and young adult novels), and  I’ve become sensitized to a form of pop-culture reference that is so much more annoying: the age-inappropriate pop-culture reference.

Wonder was full of these, in that all of the books and media that were name-checked were obviously ones that the author had consumed in her youth, and not necessarily ones that a kid would consume today (for instance, the main character was obsessed with Star Wars and makes references to E.T. and The Hobbit and all kinds of other 80s standbys). And right now I am reading a John Green novel where the main character is obsessed Neutral Milk Hotel.Now, I mean, sure…I bet there were teens in 2010 (the year the novel came out) who were interested in NMH, but it still strikes me as a little bit precious.

I guess what I object to is the idea that we’re supposed to respect a character more, and maybe even consider them to be something of an iconoclast, if they have media tastes that are a bit outside the mainstream. I mean, I know that’s an essential part of the self-image of many outcaste children and teens: the idea that they’re more sensitive and perceptive than those who torment them and that this sensitiveness somehow manifests itself in their ability to take joy in media that their tormenters, who have duller intellects and grosser senses, are unable to understand.

But what I don’t understand is why we, as adults, need to buy into a notion which is clearly false. Liking an indie band does not make you a better person. And there is no reason why it should be implicitly correlated with the heroes other decent traits.

Also, on a more personal note, I will say that although I have far-ranging media tastes, they don’t really impinge that much on my ordinary walking-around consciousness. When I see a handsome, but stern and beetle-browed, gentleman on the sidewalk, I don’t think to myself, “My, what a Heathcliff!”

In fact, I live inside the setting of one of my favorite shows (The Wire), but I never think, “Oh man, that cop was a real Herc” or “I bet there’s a Dukie at that school on the corner.” Instead, I at least attempt to perceive the world as it is and to form independent judgments about the things that I see. Now, those judgments are guided in subtle ways by the media that I consume (for instance, I probably carry within me the decidedly Herc-like image of the big, blustery, idiotic man-baby of a cop and perhaps I do attempt to map that image onto the cops that I see…but that isn’t something that I’m consciously doing.)

Of course, other people are different from me. I have no doubt that some of them live far more intimately with their favorite media than I do with mine, but I’ve read five children’s books in the last two weeks and every single one of them (even the futuristic dystopia!) had a protagonist with an unnatural interest in and love for media that was popular before they were born.

Just once, I’d like to read a young adult book about a teen who read one book last year and it was the Hunger Games and she liked it alright, but, really, she’s got better things to do with her life than sit around with her nose in a book.

Surprisingly Good Books, Part Two

2017225833The Fault In Our Stars by John Green – This year, I’ve read a fair number of YA novels with contemporary settings, but this was one of the first of them. It was also the best. The novel’s triumph is its self-aware voice. The narrator is a teenager who’s suffering from cancer. And she’s a teenager who’s also read a ton of novels about teenagers who are suffering from cancer. As such, she knows exactly where and how her story is beginning to sound like the tear-stained narrative of a “cancer girl”. But, underneath the playful metatextuality, this novel is actually about a young girl who has cancer, and one who is mostly likely going to die quite young. Its playfulness allows it to avoid sentimentality and the typical easy answers, instead, it proceeds along in a jagged but very satisfying way. If you cry when you read books, there’s a not insignificant chance that this book will make you cry, but there’s more to it than that. There aren’t very many contemporary YA novels that rise above the formulas that they embrace. This one has so many of the formulas, but it also treats each page as something interesting and important. There’s a fullness in this book that you don’t find in many novels.

10778499-largeEscape From Camp 14 by Shin Dong-Hyuk and Blaine Harden – Alright, yes, there are two trashy nonfiction books about North Korea in this list. Didn’t I tell you that I loved NK in a way that is probably beginning to seem a bit creepy and perhaps problematic? So, in North Korea there is this huge network of prison camps in the northern mountains. Hundreds of thousands of people live in these camps. People are born in these camps and they die in these camps. You can get beaten to death pretty much whenever the guards in these camps feel like it. You gotta work all day doing horrendously dangerous stuff. You don’t get nearly enough food and the only way to survive is to suck up to the guards and inform on your friends and such. And only like ten people have ever escaped from the camps. This book is the memoir of one of those people (the memoir was narrated to Blaine Harden, a journalist, and Harden does considerable work in arranging and laying out the memoir, so I am crediting him as one of the authors). Shin Dong-Hyuk was born in Camp 14 and the camp was his whole world. When he escaped, he had only the vaguest conception of geography: he knew nothing about the United States or the Korean War. He’d never even been in the rest of North Korea. The tiny town near his camp looks, to him, like a bustling metropolis. But, nonetheless, he slowly makes his way to China, then to South Korea, then to the United States. And, meanwhile, he struggles with the things he had to do to survive. If you’re anything like me, you will feel like a terrible, exploitative person for enjoying this one. But it is soooo enjoyable.

odyssey-fitzgerald-translation-george-herbert-palmer-paperback-cover-artThe Odyssey by Homer (trans. Robert Fitzgerald) – Yes, I know, it makes me sound like a goober to say that the Odyssey was surprisingly good. But, check it, The Iliad is gooood, but it has also has numerous very boring parts: pages and pages and pages where “Hexachimeles, son of Xardes, of the mountains of Illymaches” lashes out with his spear against “Porythribes, son of Kallybdis, of the fair island of Scythinivax”. For whole chapters! And don’t even get me started on the processions and on the lines of long, black ships. I mean, all that stuff might’ve been interesting back in the day, when perhaps Porythribes was, like, your legendary great-great-granddad. But for modern people, it gets a bit much. But, there’s none of that in The Odyssey: It’s all story. And it’s fascinating to see how the story differs from our popular conception of it. Most media depictions of The Odyssey focus on the events of the sea voyage: encountering the sirens; fighting Polyphemus; captivity at the hands of the witches, Circe and Calypso. But that’s really only about 1/4th of the book. Most of the book is concerned with what happens after he comes home (hint, he kills a ton of people). And there’s also this fascinating counter-narrative, where his son sails around Greece and faces dangers and we learn how Agammemnon was killed by Clytemnestra. The book isn’t about adventures. It’s about homecomings. It’s filled with these strange homecomings that overshadow and parallel each other. All in all, it’s pretty fun times. Shorter than The Iliad too.

Liars-poker-free-ebookLiar’s Poker by Michael Lewis – You know, a lot of books on this list are memoirs. I understand why nonfiction sells so well. Memoir is just so satisfying. It doesn’t need to have quite as much thematic resonance. It can focus on the details of how things work. And then, at the end, you don’t necessarily need any big lesson other than, “Welp, that’s how things work.” This one is the first book by Michael Lewis (who went on to write Moneyball and The Blind Side and such). It details his four years as a bonds trader for Salomon Brothers in the 80s, during that flashy cocaine and yelling era so ably depicted by movies like Wall Street. I kind of feel like the primary reason that this book is popular is that it validates the lives of those of us who decided not to attempt to get a finance job (in my case, because I’m not willing to work 100 hours a week on anything [and that includes writing]). This book makes finance jobs seem terrible. Which is exactly what I like to believe about all high-status, high-paying professions. Is there a book out there that makes doctoring look terrible? I’d read that in a second. But aside from that, the book is a lot of fun. It also contains much technical (albeit probably out of date) detail on bond trading and the structure of financial firms. And a ton of interesting characters. This book started me on a Michael Lewis kick, and I have to say that I’ve enjoyed his books a lot. Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short are all well worth checking out.

Heroines-Kate_Zambreno-Fanzine-330Heroines by Kate Zambreno – Several blogs started talking about this book right as I was starting to feel a bit mopey about my writing career. After seeing Nick Mamatas’ review of it, I bought the book. It’s the memoir of a woman on the fringes of academic life. She leaves New York to follow her husband, a rare books librarian, to Akron and then to Raleigh-Durham. She does a bit of adjuncting here and there (mostly in Women’s Studies), but has no chance at getting a real appointment. She’s a writer of fictions, but her works are small-press and not terribly successful. She spends her days lying around the apartment and reading and not really doing much of anything else. And, woven through the above story, she free-associates about the women of modernist literature: Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien Leigh, Jane Bowles, Djuna Barnes, and Virginia Woolf. She examines how their lives were shaped by their marriages and how their writing ambitions to suppressed by the cultural milieu. It’s a really fascination performance, and one that it’s difficult to describe in one paragraph. Throughout, the book reminded me most often of David Markson and the way that he can write entire books composed of one-paragraph facts about artists: the facts are carefully chosen, and they resonate in interesting subtextual ways.

The First and Last Novels That Made Me Cry

So, I was recently recommended John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, which is a YA novel about a sixteen year old girl with terminal cancer (its main schtick is that the girl herself is somewhat aware of cancer-novel tropes, which the novel sometimes subverts and sometimes gleefully obeys). Anyway, I was basically promised that the novel would make me cry. I was ready to cry. I was primed to cry. And although I loved the novel, I did not cry.

I was disappointed. I have cried while reading novels before, but it is not common, and I am always startled and happy when it does happen. So much of novelistic pleasure is, for me, somewhat abstract cerebral, that it feels really strange to be reminded that some part of my mind actually believes that this crazy written-down shit is happening to real people in some real place.

Anyways, I wish that I had, once upon a time, made a list of novels that made me cry. But, alas, I made no such list, and now I cannot remember whether Grapes of Wrath or The Jungle caused any moisture. What I can remember, though, is the first and last books that made me cry.

The first was, I think, near the end of Mercedes Lackey’s By The Sword, where the mercenary captain Kerowyn is coming to the rescue of the beleagured nation of Valdemar, but shit looks totally helpless, and everyone looks like they’re going to die, but people are waiting to die heroically…well, I teared up (I was about eleven). And I remember thinking, “Wow, this is the first time that a book has ever made me cry.” Man, I’ve reread that book so many times, and I still love it.

The last time I cried while reading a novel was about three months ago, on Christmas Day. It was somewhere during the closing chapters of Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks Of Being A Wallflower: a YA novel about a slightly disturbed high school freshman who makes friends with some totally awesome high school seniors who are like the coolest thing ever, jeez, my eyes are stinging just thinking about it.

Oh, I also just remembered that the first time I cried during a video game was during Phantasy Star IV (for the Sega Genesis), when Alys died. Man, that was so sad. It was such a good death, too. It wasn’t a girlfriend getting refrigerated; it was a powerful female mentor sacrificing her life (Obi-Wan style) to save her naive male mentee.

And the first time I cried during a movie was in Braveheart, when that motherfucking Robert the Bruce betrayed Mel Gibson and lost him the Battle of Falkirk.

Both of these prior two crying incidents were around when I was eleven. I know this because right after I cried while reading By The Sword, I remember stopping and thinking, “Hmm, I wonder what other stuff I’ve cried during. Oh yeah, there was that time during Braveheart….”

I think the lesson here is that the best media-related crying comes either: A) when you’re a kid; or B) while consuming media meant for kids. What times have you cried while consuming cultural product?