Monthly Archives: May 2008

In the Valley of Elah; or suffer the little ones

I watched “In the Valley of Elah” on DVD last night. As with most things, I find the pace of my life puts me about 4 steps and six months behind the rest of the world, and most often my very long list of things I’m going to get to later ends up being a private fantansy. Still, I’m glad I actually did get to this film. Most of In the Valley of Elahthe commentary in the immediate aftermath of it’s release was relatively laudatory, especially of Tommy Lee Jones performance, but also noted the distaste of the American populace for hard and depressing films about the war. One wants to say, “duh.” This is unsurprising. Several reviews I’ve read since last night take Haggis to task for disjointed storytelling and for not making his references clear. A number of folks complain that the title of the movie makes no sense.

Au contraire.

I think what’s central to the film is not the question of David’s heroism against Goliath in the Valley of Elah. What’s central is that old men send children to fight their wars without armor and without weapons. The film is, of course, an essay against war in general and the war in Iraq in particular, and if you can’t stand films that have a thesis, however poignantly rendered, then you’re not likely to enjoy the film. But more specifically the film is a powerful meditation on the notion that old men start wars and young men, or children, fight them. Several reviewers comment on how old Tommy Lee Jones looked. Well, of course. He is, and magnificently so. But almost no one remarks on just how young and unprotected the soldiers look, childlike even when drunk and hanging out in topless bars and strip clubs. Perhaps the most chilling scene of the film isn’t anything to do with Iraq and the immediacy of its violence. The most chilling scene for me was watching the young man–who looked mostly like an all star blond high school quarterback–confess to killing Tommy Lee Jones’s son, Mike, and then laugh as he reflected on how Mike would torture prisoners by probing their open wounds, a practice that earned him the Menglesque nickname of “Doc”.

The point of the Valley of Elah is that the mythology of David and Goliath is a lie, that children do not destroy giants in war. They kill and maim and destroy one another, and in the process destroy themselves. We discover that in the first week of his tour of duty, Mike, had run down a small Iraqi boy who appears to be throwing a stone at his Humvee. And while there is a certain domestic delight in seeing Hank Deerfield tell Charlize Theron’s son the story of the story of David and Goliath, in the context of the film as a whole this is a terrifying scene, showing that the mythologies of domestic safety are actually the training ground of a violent imagination, one that would encourage this small boy to believe that he too, perhaps, could throw stone at Goliath, or at a Humvee, and emerge unscathed. The same imagination requires us, of course, to imagine that a small boy throwing stones at a Humvee is really a Goliath to be destroyed.

On this score, I think several people have misread the scene where Jones tries but fails to read “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” to Charlize Theron’s son. It is yet another story where children are encouraged to believe that they should be at the forefront of the fight against evil. I’m not completely sure myself of what to make of that particular reference, but Hank Deerfield/Tommy Lee Jones does say he can’t Deerfield trying to read Lewisunderstand a word of it. In my own view, this book has a confused take on the role of violence in confronting evil–on the one hand insisting that Aslan self-sacrifice is the key to victory and on the other using his resurrection as a means of wreaking a satisfactory bloody end on all the evildoers. Still, in the context of the movie as a whole, I think what Hank Deerfield can’t read in the book is that Aslan would lie down on the altar to take the knife willingly, rather than take up a stone or a gun to destroy the White Witch. I’m not sure about this, again, because of the confused take on violence and self-sacrifice that I think is at the heart of the tale. Still, it does strike me that the book is a book about children at war, and yet it is a partially different take than that offered by the story of David and Goliath.

A final note, given that this blog is mostly about reading and writing. I was struck by the role of text and reading and visuality and orality in this film. Notably, the father and the son are in touch with each other less through words than through images. In the film itself, we are shown emails that we can’t really read (or at least I couldn’t), but the email is merely a pretext for the really important stuff, the images that the son sends to his father and through which he attempts to communicate with him. I was struck watching this film how much email and media files had changed the war film convention of the letter home from the front. Soldiers don’t send letters home, they call home, they email home, and most importantly in this film, they send images home.

The failure of text, and of language more generally, is a central trope of the film. Hank Deerfield can’t really talk with his son on the phone. The soldiers lie repeatedly. Deerfield can’t read The Lion, The Witch,and the Wardrobe–indeed, for a moment I wondered if Deerfield were really illiterate in some way, though I knew it was impossible given other moments in the film. On the other hand, it’s not clear that images are any better. The files are corrupted. They are without context. Deerfield can’t understand what to make of theDeerfield asks for an image to be explained pictures until he has some of Mike’s comrades explain them to him. The only genuine communication in the movie–or at least the appearance of communication–is in those moments when first Jones and then Theron are talking with the little boy about David and Goliath. And this communication itself is, in the context of the film as a whole, based on a lie that the rest of the film everywhere exposes.

In the end, Deerfield is left with what feels like a futile gesture (and to be honest, the only one in the film to my mind that was absolutely over thesis-like) when he hangs the American flag upside down on a local flag pole. Earlier in the film Deerfield told an El Salvadoran immigrant that hanging the flag upside down was the ultimate distress signal, a sign telling others that you were in “deep shit” with absolutely no way out unless someone came to get you. The film as a whole suggests that it is America itself that is in “deep shit” with no way out.

Who will see this sign and come to save us?

Tales of the Toilet; or, W(h)ither Fiction?

A couple of days ago, The Los Angeles Times reported the following

MADISON, Wis. — Two children and their mother lived for about two months withToilet Art from Jacob Earl the decaying body of a 90-year-old woman on the toilet of their home’s only bathroom, on the advice of a religious “superior” who claimed the corpse would come back to life, authorities said Friday.

===========When Deputy Leigh Neville-Neil …. opened the last closed door, she smelled “decaying matter” and noticed something piled on what appeared to be a toilet. Lewis told her it was Middlesworth’s body, the complaint said.

Lewis told the deputy that Middlesworth had died about two months earlier, but that God told her Middlesworth would come to life if she prayed hard enough.

She said she couldn’t say anything more until she spoke with her “superior” — Bushey, 57, also known as Bishop John Peter Bushey

She said she propped Middlesworth on the toilet and left the room to call Bushey, who told her to leave the woman alone and pray for her, the complaint said. He said he had received signs that God would raise her from the dead with a miracle.

The story, wretched as it is, reminded me of another tale of the toilet from a couple of months ago in which a horribly obese woman was found to have been living on a toilet in Kansas for two years, having been fed and tended to by her boyfriend as she refused to leave the bathroom. According to EMT reports she had literally grown to the toilet seat, which had to be removed and transported with her to the emergency room.

It’s hard to know what is more astonishing to the imagination, a disturbed woman who could not bring herself to move as she felt her body melding with porcelain, or the boyfriend who brought her breakfast every morning as he pleaded with her to leave the bathroom. A kind of prayer, to be sure, though one less literal than those of the woman and her children in Wisconsin. One wonders what neural snyapse firing in the boyfriend’s brain finally signaled the end of faith, a loss of hope. Why two years instead of two months? Or why not three years instead of two? What finally says to the self, let’s make an end of it. In any case, a synapse firing that had not yet occurred in Wisconsin as a woman watched her mother decay into “something piled on what appeared to be a toilet.”

One gapes, shudders, cries, or gags. And, yes, one laughs. Hopelessly, hysterically, apologetically. When you are at the bottom of the human drain, what else is left to do but laugh at horrors that we come to.

I remember my own shuddering sense of horror and delight and sorrow at first reading “A Rose for Emily” and saw in my minds eye the decaying corpse in the bed, imagined Emily there in bed beside her imaginary lover. Or Miss Havisham, Emily’s literary avatar, in Dickens Great Expectations. Or the perverse grotesques in O’Connor’s fiction–especially Norton, the grieving boy who hangs himself in “The Lame Shall Enter First” in a twisted and in some sense literal leap of faith.

But one looks at this stuff published daily and has to say helplessly that Dickens and O’Connor and Faulkner have nothing on this. Stephen King could do no better in calling up the bizarre extremes of human existence. No wonder contemporary readers have little taste for fiction, and novelists feel compelled to present their fictions as spurious memoir. With a world as it already is beyond all imagining, what role for the writer who wants to imagine what is not.

Of course, I still hold out hope that one role of fiction is to redeem the time. Imagination isn’t just an effort to invoke the extreme, but to shape it, to tame it to a tale. I think most contemporary fiction has given up on that part of the task, perhaps disbelieving that the rotting something on a toilet stool that is our material can be wrestled into meaning. Itself a kind of collective loss of faith.

Other toilets in the news:

According to Reuters, “A woman in Germany put an end to her troubled marriage by chopping up her husband and flushing parts of him down the toilet, authorities said on Tuesday. ‘You won’t find him, I’ve flushed him down the toilet,’ is what she told (her children).” And Hitchcock thought he was imaginative by having a man bury his wife in a Garden?

The airline Jet Blue apparently required a man to sit in the toilet, discovering after takeoff–after takeoff!!–that the flight was ovebooked. The man is suing… because the toilet had no seatbelts and he was bounced around during turbulence. A man who clearly has his priorities in place

Officials in Montgomery Country Maryland have announced a plan to save money by rationing toilet paper for prison inmates. They are using the savings to requisition more body armor in anticipation of the ensuing riots.

Not to be outdone, a family in Manhattan is going without toilet paper for a year in order to be environmentally friendly. They are also going without friends. Not to be outdone, Will Smith proudly points to his new paperless toilets that clean and dry you. I’ve used a bidet, but I admit that the blow dry effect of Will Smith’s Japanese toilets seems just a bit much. Who knew that toilets would be the cutting edge of greenToilet instructions in Japan awareness.

We can also be glad that some enterprising young fellow has given us the following clever visual instructions for toilet usage. (Is it just me or do some of these look like positions from the Kama Sutra).

Aspiring MFA students take note, I see the makings a collection of short stories here. That they are all factual and more imaginative than anything you could dream up on your own should not stop you. There is still no law against writing the world as it is as if you came up with it on your own.

A final news note: Computer Keyboards can be dirtier than toilets.

On that note, I think I’ll go wash my hands. If I’m gone for two years, please come check on me.

Book Glutton: Two Thumbs Sideways

Ok, I’m finally getting back to talk about Book Glutton, and I’m probably not being fair to them since I actually finished Treasure Island more than three weeks ago. I’ve probably been delaying because it’s always easier to review or talk about something that you love or hate. Easier to get exercised and visceral when you want to damn things to perdition, or when you think we’ve arrived at A-MOMENT-OF-WORLD-HISTORICAL-REVOLUTION. Perhaps unfortunately for Book Glutton, it strikes me as neither world-historical or revolutionary. It is–in that damnably tepid turn of phrase–“OK.” Or as I sometimes say on my student’s papers: “Not Too Bad.” No wonder they hate me.

First what is Book Glutton? On the one hand it is just another of many online sites where one can get full-text versions of literary classics and not-so-classics, though they also promise to be a publishing venture for contemporary writers. The books are loaded into a reader in your computer browser. The reader is the approximate size of a typical paperback, and through several nifty features the reader gives human readers a lot of options that aren’t available either through other e-book services and readers or via traditional board and paper books. For one thing, I can join an online club reading the book I choose, and we can leave each other notes filled with our readerly wisdom. We can also communicate in real time via a chat window attached right to the reader window itself. Thus I can talk and read at the same time, something my children and my students seem to find unexceptional but which I still find somewhat like patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time.

I’ve been on record as having my doubts about e-books, so let me go on record first with what I liked or found interesting about the whole experience. The first thing to say is that reading the book itself was, well, surprising like reading anything else, at least insofar as the story itself was concerned. I liked the yellowish-white cast of reader’s pages since it looked a little bit like a slowly aging paperback, and it reduced eyestrain to boot. I also liked the page-like feel of the presentation itself. One problem with many online texts is something we might otherwise think would make them convenient, the scrolling itself. I’m not alone in finding the long lines and the unending page of text in a lot of online e-texts completely maddening. There is something comforting and rhythmic about completing 30-40 medium size lines of text and turning a page, the sense of completion somehow necessary to the process of going on. A little bit like  breathing in a swimming stroke.

Book Glutton accomplishes this in much the same way as dedicated ebook readers, recreating the approximate page size of a normal books such that I can attend to the text, complete it and move on. And for the most part, the story was still the story that I could read and absorb and be absorbed by just as I might any other novel. As I suggested in my last post on Treasure Island, I found the book great fun. As an academic, I found it thought provoking in ways no one else would probably care to find thought provoking. In other words, its being an e-book by itself didn’t do too much to alter my reading experience as such.

I think I would go so far as to say that there are a couple of features of Book Glutton’s presentation that I even liked better than traditional books. The scroll bar at the bottom of the page told me how much further I had to go in a particular chapter. Thus the reader has both the best features of a traditional book–page length chunks of prose–while also overcoming one of the few annoying features of traditional books. When I get bored with a book I’m reading, I’m given to flipping through pages to see just how many pages I have to the end of the chapter. It can be vaguely exasperating to flip and not find what I’m looking for, whereas Book Glutton let’s me know exactly how far I have to go, and I can determine whether it’s worth my time to just plow on through or give up for the day until I can get more interested.

I also have to say I liked the fact that at the click of a button I could enlarge the text so that my aging eyes could read just a little more easily.  The text automatically reorients while still retaining page length chunks of prose, just less prose per page.

Some features of Book Glutton hold a lot of promise, but didn’t work too well for me. I created a book club, but no one came. I invited the entire faculty of my college to join me. I think three people said they would, but I don’t think anyone actually read it. I had three anonymous online folks say they wanted to be part of the group, and I signed them up, but they were never on when I was reading, and I couldn’t find that they left me any nifty notes with pearls of wisdom.

Clearly Book Glutton requires a more hands on and somewhat fascist book group leader than I am. Someone who demand more participation. Maybe someone who would get everyone on board to be reading at the same time. Theoretically I can see an interesting place for this kind of thing. Studies show that people who read with groups or who at least are around other people who read are more likely to keep reading through their adult lives. This, in general, is a great service the web provides, connecting readers from around the world. Book Glutton is another take on this general principle, enabling real time participation in common reading. I could see this kind of thing as being really useful for secondary and even college classrooms, and especially for the task of getting kids interested in reading. In this age driven by buzz, it’s not the thing itself that is inherently cool, it’s the fact that everyone around you is in to it. So Book Glutton or similar services could be a route toward making books “the bomb” so to speak. But it just didn’t work out for me.

There were some negatives. I found lugging my computer around, booting it up, connecting to Book Glutton all just a little bit tiresome and inefficient. Why can’t I just open my books and start reading, I wondered. I also had the problem of connecting. I brought my laptop several places and tried to get connections while I was waiting around for something else to happen–a common time to spend reading. Problem is that Wifi isn’t everywhere, no matter what the TV commercials tell me.

The heating pad effect of my laptop lying on my capacious belly was also a bit unnerving. I’m not used to getting belly sweat from a novel.

As I suggested above, most of the reading experiences themselves were not terribly different from a regular novel, but I did find the lure of the internet a bit astonishing even for an incipient codger such as myself. In the normal course of reading a section of a book that started to bore me, I’d skim through until my interest picked up again. With BookGlutton, however, the ready availability of email or other texts was all but irresistable. Rather than skimming through the book, a way of sticking with it, I would abandon the book and go read my email for a half hour. At the end of which I couldn’t quite pick up the thread of the reading again.

Similarly, the chat mechanism is promising, but I also found it insidiously distracting.  I actually had a conversation online with one of the poohbah’s an BookGlutton.  A really nice and helpful guy who was very receptive to some of my suggestions.  Sorry, I can’t remember his name.  It was the only chat time I got during the whole experience, and I found after thirty seconds or so that i was more interested in chatting than in reading.  This is, of course, a common feature of book groups.  They don’t actually talk about books, if they even read them.  However, it is a peculiar thing to have this happening while you’re reading.  It’s almost as if you’re in a library but people you don’t know come up and start talking to you about the book you’re reading.  Many of the people who do this in library, of course, are either homeless or otherwise imbalanced, so what does this say about denizens of Book Glutton.  No, just kidding.  However, I did actually end up disciplining myself to not open the chat feature while I read a chapter, only opening it at the end of chapters.  The temptation to keep seeing if anyone else was around was compelling, a feature of the internet that interferes with the kind of absorption typically associated with literary reading.

This distraction is an important consequence of reading online I think, something that digital utopians champion as a “new literacy.”


I tend to think that describing the frantic skimming that goes with reading on the web as “new literacy” is a little bit like me saying my belly fat is a form of stored energy. It is, but does that really tell me anything or make me feel any better. No, but it does give me a convenient reason for not working out. Call it conservation.

In a similar fashion I think all the discussion of new literacy is a somewhat fancy name for the inability to attend.

Still, overall this is not too many negatives associated with BookGlutton. So why only two thumbs sideways?

I guess I feel like e-books need to demonstrate a clear superiority to board and paper books, a reason that this technology is clearly superior to the technology I already have in hand. At this stage they don’t present themselves to me as such. While there’s some nifty things associated with Book Glutton, I’m not sure most committed readers are really interested in being nifty persons. Book Glutton is kind of neat, but not neat enough to make me spend my time on Book Glutton instead of in a book store.

It’s a little like a decent three star summer movie. Kind of glad I went to see it, and might go see another one, but I don’t feel like my life will miss much if I had missed it.

Or even more, it’s almost as if we’ve got a good television show that a movie theater decides to show on a big screen. It might be kind of neat to watch “Lost” on the big screen, but at some point will you really start watching all your television shows down at the theater. I kind of doubt it.