Caps, Coitus, and Caipirinhas

Martha Gellhorn, her late ex-husband, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Hunter Thompson walk into a bar. Gellhorn orders a mojito, Hemingway demands gin, Marquez cracks a bottle of local beer, and Thompson loudly asks to be shown the bottle of Wild Turkey winking at him from behind the bar. They’ve traversed time and space to descend on this little bar on Chicago’s South Side. Thompson thinks about the gun in his belt. Hemingway thinks about the one in his hand. But they haven’t come to shoot, drink, and reminisce about the golden age of print journalism. No, they’ve come to fulfill a higher purpose: picking out an author and novel to carry their legacy on into the 21st century. Someone whose penchant for quick, incisive, dynamic narrative and the subtle beauty of the language can weave a story full of romance, intrigue, and foreign affairs. This author is Idra Novey, and this novel is Ways to Disappear.

Blistering in pace but somehow leisurely in its sentence structure, Idra Novey’s debut novel has made an immediate mark on the literary community. Former contributor to The New Yorker and Professor of Literature at Trinity College Francisco Goldman, quoted on the homepage of Novey’s website, described it as “the most sublime novel I’ve read in a long time” (1). The novel also appeared on the New York Times’ editor’s choice list, and Kirkus called it a “delightful and original Tour de Force” (1). Few authors could dream of bursting onto the scene with such glaring intensity; even Thompson’s The Rum Diary is hotly rivaled by this book.

Novey’s first outing in original prose after a career of translations and poetry collections, Ways to Disappear tells the story of Emma Neufeld, a Portuguese-to-English translator living in Philadelphia. Talented, ambitious, and impulsive, Emma lives with Miles, her boyfriend of five years, working exclusively on translating the work of enigmatic Brazilian novelist Beatriz Yagoda. The novel begins with a single page describing Yagoda climbing into a tree with a heavy suitcase and promptly disappearing. When the news of her author’s disappearance reaches Emma, she leaves Miles to his own devices and takes off for Rio, determined to track down the whereabouts of her idol.

Time flies for us as readers, Novey’s often fleeting chapters flying off the pages faster than I can turn them. Once in Rio, Emma makes the acquaintance of Flamenguinho, a loan shark who makes it perfectly clear to our hero that Yagoda owes him a massive sum of money, and that she had better turn up soon, or else. With this information, Emma seeks out Raquel and Marcus, Yagoda’s children whose starkly disparate personalities bring out Novey’s uncanny ability to create tension in a scene. Raquel, whose eyes “were small and suspicious, her default expression one of displeasure”, and Marcus, whose gaze is described as “sensual and sleepy”, team up with Emma to find a way out of the situation they’ve found themselves in. A wealthy publishing house, an online poker addiction, a severed ear; a torrid, if not painfully predictable, love affair; this adventure has it all.

One of my favorite aspects of this novel is Novey’s penchant for time and place. Throughout the novel, we’re greeted with perfect details of just how Brazilian this story is. Constant mentions of cachaça and brigadeiros, reference after reference to the blazing sun, and a nagging reminder that getting the police involved will only make things worse stick the reader right in the heart of Rio. Novey also employs the broadcast of two radio DJs chiming in every ten or fifteen chapter to frame the story from an outside perspective. All this put together makes for an intensely localized novel. So deep-seated are the references to Brazilian culture that my Brazilian-descended girlfriend has just about reached her tipping point with my stupid questions. She couldn’t believe I didn’t know what a caipirinha was.

In the thick of the novel, Emma recalls a story Yagoda once told her about a man who was killed by a creeping blue fungus—a story which both captures the overarching theme of Ways to Disappear and flashes Novey’s talent for the beauty of language:

“An old man got into bed with the only book he’d ever owned and found that a blue fungus had begun to bloom over the words. The man tried to pick off the fungus with his fingernails. He knew the sentences by heart but he still opened the book for the pleasure of the letters, of seeing them form the words he already knew. Yet the more fungus he scraped off, the bluer his hands became. By the time someone from the village found the old man deceased in his bed, they couldn’t tell where the fungus on the pages ended and the old man’s blued hands began.”

 
At its core, Ways to Disappear is a look at the inner workings of a translator’s mind; an attempt to encapsulate what it means to let a text or series of texts totally consume you. With a skilled tongue and gift for delivering high-energy narrative in a graceful, methodical way, Idra Novey has crafted a story any of the previously mentioned authors would read with pride. Fans of criminal intrigue, foreign adventure, forbidden romance and the frustrating reality of siding always with one’s passion would do themselves right by seeking out this book straight away.

 

WAYS TO DISAPPEAR

By Idra Novey

258 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $25.

 

 

On the Table: Comedy and Sexuality in The Bald Soprano

I was beyond glad to see that Melissa Thompson came at The Bald Soprano from a comedic standpoint rather than a dramatic one, because different interpretations can yield different results. On the one hand, the theater of the absurd can be viewed through an analytic lens, making incisive social commentary by way of defamiliarization and existential shock. Take Artaud’s To Have Done With the Judgment of God, a raving, vitriolic attack on anyone and everyone, from the clergy to the political elite to the beggars in the alley. While the performance is unsettling up to and beyond a comic note, it is nonetheless a social critique meant to capture the attention of listeners. It could be taken at face value as an absurdly funny piece of work, but its message would be lost in the process.

On the other hand, the theater of the absurd is inherently funny, and should maybe not be taken too seriously. Scholars and thespians alike have a tendency to seek out themes and elements in a work which don’t really exist. Sometimes, things are just funny. For instance, the portrayal of the Fire Chief was comedy gold. His old Hollywood mannerisms and his rapid, staggered way of speaking – like a mix between David Puddy and William Shatner – made him an absolutely hysterical character. Of course, the Fire Chief is not necessarily an unfunny character on paper, but his portrayal onstage was a brilliant choice which added a real element of fun to the experience. I thought letting the natural comedy of the play come through let the absurdity flow, if you will. Rather than suffocating it with an analytical pillow, the director embraced the comedic side of the play, and the resulting absurdity was far more entertaining than a dramatic interpretation of the play would have been.

By that same token, the portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Martin was another compelling element of the production. The choices the actors made for the characters brought a new sense of depth to them. On paper, Mr. and Mrs. Martin are bland, albeit comically nonsensical, characters. Nothing about them intrigued me beyond their most basic trait of babbling, and even then, the word “intrigued” is being used liberally. But with the way the actors portrayed Mr. and Mrs. Martin, like some sort of depraved androids whose personalities are only exposed after a heavily implied liaison on the couch, made them really pop out as characters.

The choice to create these ultra-dull personalities for the Martins was a stroke of genius. I don’t know what previous productions of this play have done with the characters, but I thought their absurdity increased tenfold by speaking in a wholly uninterested monotone. With every utterance of “good God what a coincidence”, the bit got funnier. And the choice to have their personalities lit aflame by a bout of voracious lovemaking was unthinkably funny. Nothing says “this marriage is over” like being unable to conjure a smile or throw a loving glance without first having your basest needs met by the person you love. Mr. and Mrs. Martin played the role to perfection.

To Boldly Go: A Queer and Feminist Reading of Spock in “Star Trek”

One of the key ideas surrounding queer studies is the exploration of non-normative sexuality. That is, sexuality that falls outside of the cultural norm of heterosexuality and heterosexual behavior. Whether focusing specifically on homosexuality, or delving into the vastly complex realms of queerness, gender identity or gender fluidity, queer studies approaches human sexuality as a matchless spectrum of action, emotion, and desire. In a famously vulnerable episode of Star Trek, we’re treated to a rare look at the sexual identity of Spock, the chief science officer and second-in-command of the Federation Starship Enterprise.

In this episode, Spock is essentially in heat, desperate to return to his home planet to marry and consummate before his condition kills him. It is revealed to us that Spock is in the throes of pon farr, a natural process for Vulcan males, one that recurs every seven years and will in fact kill him if he is not able to mate. Spock is essentially going through an estrous cycle, albeit a particularly voracious one. This struck me as being open to queer interpretation. To humans, a man experiencing an estrous cycle is a foreign concept, as the estrous cycle is limited only to females of a given mammalian species. Queerness is all about non-normative sexuality, and Spock’s grappling with pon farr is as non-normative as it gets. Not only is he not dealing with typical male biology, he’s not even approaching this from the standpoint of a human.

By experiencing pon farr, Spock is deviating from the established gender models of human sexuality. Judith Butler proposes that humans “build models of gender through repetition” (191). In other words, experiencing a certain gender norm over and over again “produces a taken-for-granted idea that certain ways are natural and right” (191). By our default understanding of male and female sexuality, Spock’s mating ritual seems strange, foreign; indeed, it seems queer. The thought of a man’s body attacking him for seven days, forcing him to mate or die, is quite fantastic to anyone with a basic understanding of mammalian sexuality. Spock is breaking those “models of gender” by succumbing to a process which is natural to a Vulcan observer, but wholly unnatural to a human.

Spock’s situation also drops into the realm of feminist study, especially surrounding role reversal and “good” or “bad” feminist depictions. In this episode, Spock is essentially taking on the role of a woman (in human terms, at least). He’s in heat, in desperate need of a mate, and completely out of control when it comes to his needs and desires. The presence of these stereotypical traits of a human woman raises another question: is Spock a “bad” character, and Star Trek a “bad” TV program by portraying Spock, who is exhibiting the characteristics of a human woman, as weak and out of control? In his essay on feminism, Robert Dale Parker invokes the work of Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway to illustrate sexism in literature. Parker’s protagonist in “A Telephone Call” is a meek, pathetic woman obsessing over a call from her lover. She is quite an empty character, and Parker reminds us that “the desperate narrator has made herself depend entirely on a man’s affection” (165). The same goes for Brett Ashley, the unwieldy femme fatale of Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”. In the novel, Brett is nothing more than “a mere sex object” who “makes a mess of her life” (165).

At one point or another, Spock embodies every one of these negative female stereotypes. His role is to mate with a female Vulcan, he is entirely dependent on this occurrence to live, and he seems to have lost complete control of his emotions and, indeed, his life. By modern feminist standards, Spock miserably fails the test of a dynamic, independent character, reduced instead to fulfill the stereotypical gender role he has fallen into.

Cultural Masculinity through the lens of “Steak and Chips”

In this essay, Barthes writes that steak is “the heart of meat”; something that is “the very flesh of the French soldier”; something that the aforementioned soldier “feels nostalgia for” when he is abroad. In short, steak is the classic, “nostalgic and patriotic” meat which a man eats to feel at home, and, subliminally, to feel like a man. The imagery Barthes puts forth while writing about the “bull-like strength” of men who partake of steak is both visceral and raw. The repetition of the word “blood” and all the verbs immediately associated with it — bleeding, tearing, ripping, gouging, etc — provides a sort of raw, violent, masculine image of steak, one that makes a man feel at his manliest. The imagery hearkens back to a time when men ripped the flesh from conquered creatures for sustenance, letting the blood drip down his chest as his teeth gnash through muscle and sinew. The cultural message of steak is clear and unforgettable: this is the food of the man’s man. The Steak-Man, if you will. If you like to hunt, drink, fight, fuck, and live, then steak is your food.

This idea of masculinity is ubiquitous in American culture, and has leaked into literature, film, television, advertising and more. Let’s examine a couple of examples of how men are meant to act based on this idea of the Steak-Man.

First, we have television character and cultural icon Ronald Ulysses Swanson. Portrayed by Nick Offerman on Parks and Recreation, Ron Swanson is the archetype of the Steak-Man. He hunts, he explores, he despises the federal government, he drinks Lagavulin whisky, he has a thick, glorious mustache and, of course, he eats steak. Lots and lots of steak.

The character is allowed to exist because of the widespread cultural fetishism surrounding steak. Steak is a sign of masculinity; of toughness of both body and mind. By making their macho, headstrong, whisky-drinking man’s man an avid lover of steak, the writers of this show confirm his personality to a viewer. Your average American sees a burly, mustachioed man eating a steak, and their mind goes exactly where yours just went: to the manly man. You think “this guy is a real tough mudda”. Steak speaks to that without saying a word. Steak is a ubiquitous symbol for the raw and masculine, and creators of television, literature and advertisement know that.

This rugged masculinity in our culture is not limited to steak, of course. Consider Hemingway’s Cap, that most absurd item from the J. Peterman Catalog, which paints a picture of a customer who can feel the same sense of danger and adventure Hemingway himself felt so many times during his life simply by buying this cap. The blurb mentions material which is “unaffected by repeated rain squalls” and a color that is the “same as scalding espresso”. These images suggest that the wearer might find himself in a situation where a rugged, durable cap is absolutely necessary to his adventuring. The man who might buy this cap is the man who fancies himself a real man’s man; the kind of guy who would knock somebody out at a bar for looking at him funny, then proceed to crush his beer and ravage his woman before riding his motorcycle into the sticky Moroccan night. The Steak-Man. While this sort of masculinity is toxic to say the least, it has appealed to many men throughout history, and, once again, those who create content like this know it.

As a little cap to this post, I wanted to share a clip of a fictionalized J. Peterman from Seinfeld, the writers of which recognized and poked fun at the almost comical masculinity characteristic of the Peterman catalog.