Monday, July 13, 2015

Quick Thoughts: 'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt

While The Goldfinch possesses moments of unmitigated joy and transcendence, it is ultimately lacking in one key facet: I cannot say I know precisely what Tartt wants me to understand after reading this book. Sure, The Goldfinch is a sprawling rollick of a novel, but it must be more than that, right? In the serialized, episodic tradition most readily associated with Dickens (to Western readers that is), Tartt delivers something broad, vast, and fantastical. Yet unlike Dickens, too much of The Goldfinch feels simply unnecessary and therefore contrived.

Many critics have quibbled with Tartt’s prose, suggesting that The Goldfinch reads like a bloated young adult novel. While I cannot disagree with these criticisms, I suppose that was her not-too-bashful intent. The book’s narrator, the hopelessly self-destructive Theo Decker, has some laudable education credentials (New York prep schools for example), yet he does not possess an unambiguously literary voice in the fashion of Nick Carraway (nor is he, by my estimation, meant to). Like his mother, Theo’s aesthetic sensibilities and voice are filtered through a visual prism, which perhaps explains the meandering, economic, and at times, trite prose. For a point of comparison simply read Tartt’s first book, The Secret History. There Tartt’s sparse prose is visible, but so is a transparent literariness that established her as a unique voice over 30 years ago. Critics that dismiss The Goldfinch for this reason fail to recognize the commitment Tartt makes to narrative coherency and verisimilitude. More often than not reading Theo is exhausting; as it should be. To her credit, Tartt presents a pedestrian voice that speaks to and represents our fraught contemporary moment, freshly peppered with emoticons, clich├ęs, and overburdened sentimentality. For this reason I might be inclined with a wrinkle of hesitation to recommend The Goldfinch.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Cluttered Desk Podcast Is Here!

This is a link to my podcast, The Cluttered Desk PodcastHere is a description of the first episode...enjoy!

Welcome to The Cluttered Desk Podcast! In this episode of The Cluttered Desk Podcast, Colin and Andrew discuss the acclaimed Chris Claremont X-Men comic book run, The Dark Phoenix Saga. What do they think of Jean Grey’s sacrifice? What are the philosophical implications of the Phoenix Force? Next, our hosts consider whether or not Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is the ideal means of introducing new readers to William Shakespeare. Finally, in the coda, Colin and Andrew discuss what they are drinking.

Here are links to some of the things we discuss in this episode:
X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga by Christ Claremont
Romeo + Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann
See for the podcast, Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men 

Please find us on Twitter and Facebook. You can find Andrew on Facebook and you can find Colin on Twitter @ColinAshleyCox.

We would like to thank Test Dream for supplying The Cluttered Desk Podcast's theme music. You can find Test Dream at their website,, on Facebook, and on Twitter @testdream.

Episode 1 is available here through iTunes.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Quick Thoughts: Edge of Tomorrow

Yesterday I watched last year’s science-fiction action film, Edge of Tomorrow or Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow. Henceforth I will refer to the film as EOT. Also, I will mention important plot details, so if you have not watched the film, please do so before reading these comments (assuming spoilers are a problem). Finally, my commentary focuses exclusively on one or two aspects of the film. That is to say, this commentary is not intended to be comprehensive.   

Many audience members familiar with the “summer blockbuster” are probably also intimately familiar with the Tom Cruise character archetype. Cruise’s characters, with a few notable exceptions, are too often unlikeable (but certainly redeemable), arrogant narcissists. Think Top Gun, Cocktail, A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky, and The Last Samurai. EOT is notable because it subverts the Tom Cruise archetype. This may sound counter-intuitive to those of you who have watched the film, because Cruise’s character, Cage, seems to experience a similarly banal arc. Unlike the characters from the films mentioned above, Cage does not possess any redeemable characteristic or set of characteristics that will eventually be resurrected as the film—and the character—develops. Unlike Jerry Maguire, whose fear of loneliness, abandonment, and insignificance informs so much of his undesirable behavior, Cage is a coward. Simply put, the coward, unlike shall we say, the megalomaniac, the sociopath, or the loner, repels audience sympathies. Cowardice is an irredeemable designation, thrust irrevocable into a vapid, forgot margin.

Yet, Cage experiences a clear arc, so are we to assume that Cage becomes something other than a coward? Is he, in effect, a coward transformed through repetition to become noble? Perhaps. The important difference is, of course, the repetition effect. Conventional wisdom argues one of two binary positions: either people have the capacity to change or people do not. EOT configures itself in stark opposition to the binary I just explained. Simply put, the film’s repetitive narrative thrust complicates and challenges this simplistic binary. The conditions of Cage’s ontology is so radically disrupted by his environment’s repetitive quality, he has little choice but to change. In this respect, EOT is an attempted reaction to Sartre’s No Exit and the theory of “the look.” According to Sartre, “the look” is simply the recognition of oneself as an object when confronted by another person. That is to say, when we confront other people (other subjects) we cease to be the subjective center of our universe. We become objects (objectified), not unlike traditional commodities like phones, clothes, and motor vehicles. This experience occurs without reprieve (assuming we elect to encounter other people). Since Cage repeats each day presumably ad infinitum until later in the film, he disrupts the object state of his subjectivity. What if, for example, any of use could actually know the moves, actions, and behaviors of those around us? Our omniscience would establish us as the subject par excellence, thus confusing the non-positionality of “the look.” But of course, this subjective position cannot last. Despite how unconventional EOT is, it is still a transparently conventional film that realizes its audience’s desire for a reconcilable arc. Cage ultimately losses the ability to repeat or “re-spawn” thus thrusting him unceremoniously back into the inevitability of “the look.” Cage’s experience leads its audience into assuming that Cage has, in fact, changed. After losing his convenient re-spawn ability, Cage continues to risk his life to salvage mankind and its threatened existence. But is it actually that simple?

The final point I want to make regards the film’s ending. After destroying the Omega, Cage is cloaked in a black, acrylic residue, clearly the Omega’s blood. He suddenly awakens in the aircraft that carried him to London at the beginning of the film. Like Marty McFly returning to an adjusted 1985 at the conclusion of Back to the Future, Cage’s reality is adjusted as well. He quickly realizes that humanity has won the war by destroying the Omega, thus negating his actions throughout the film. Not only is Cage alive and unharmed, but so is the film’s other protagonist, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). This entire sequence is left unexplained by the film. A cynical reading of this moment would suggest that this is once again the filmmaker’s attempt to acquiesce to audience expectations (i.e. the happy ending). However, a less-cynical reading would suggest that this is the actual horror of the film. Following the film’s logic, Cage is once again imbued with the Omega’s time manipulation ability. But unlike before, Cage is presumably unaware of or unaffected by this development. If Cage dies will he return to the aircraft? Perhaps. But what I find so horrifying is Cage’s choice to return when he returns. It is my contention that Cage now choices when to return. And this makes some sense, does it not? Cage learns earlier in the film that the Omega derives its power by manipulating time. Unlike its enemy, the Omega can return to the past and correct mistakes, which makes it a seemingly unbeatable opponent. Cage now presumably has this ability through a cross-species pollination. By returning to a moment in time prior to his declaration of cowardice (see the opening scene with General Brigham after the new reel montage), Cage attempts to erase this moment entirely. This is perhaps his definitive act of cowardice: eliminating any evidence (either act or utterance) of said cowardice. Remember, Cage is a spokesperson, therefore, he deftly understands the importance of the utterance as an act of rhetoric. It is precisely this declaration of cowardice that Cage needs to reconfigure or “spin.” This choice of “when” to return suggests that Cage has perhaps not changed, and it is this decision that reveals how dynamic EOT is. Cage is not an anti-hero or a tragic hero. Nor is Cage the film’s villain: Cage is a non-entity, determined less by what he is capable of (i.e. his potential) and more by what he is never capable of. Therefore, in yet another Sartre turn, Cage epitomizes the notion of “bad faith.” Cage cannot see beyond his own limitations as a coward. If he could, perhaps he would make a different set of choices. Quite simply, Cage refuses to understand himself as anything but a coward, even if the trauma and “growth” he experiences throughout the film insinuates character development. Similar to Sartre’s waiter, Cage cannot disassociate himself from his function. So as Sartre writes, “All his behavior seems to us a game.”    

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The 27 Play Project Volume 3: Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay by Robert Greene

Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is a robust, multi-layered historical comedy that heralds many of Shakespeare’s problem comedies such as Much Ado About Nothing and Measure for Measure. The play begins with the Edward, Prince of Wales, bemoaning his affection for the Keeper of Fressingfield’s daughter, Margaret. Edward dispatches Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, to woo Margaret for him. In addition, Edward intends to use Friar Bacon’s magic to “enchain her love” (1.123). However, after Lacy and Margaret meet, Lacy quickly falls in love with her as well. Edward is momentarily outraged by this perceived slight, “Choler to see the traitors ’gree so well / Made me think the shadows substances” (6.129-130), but soon reconciles himself and marries Elinor, the daughter of the King of Castile.

Before Margaret and Lacey marry, she attempts to settle a dispute between two neighbors vying for her affection: Serlsby and Lambert. Margaret momentarily tempers the dispute, “Give me but ten days’ respite and I will reply, / Which or to whom myself affectionates. (10.77-78). However, Serlsby and Lambert ultimately kill one another in a duel (I discuss this point in more detail below). Later in the play, Margaret receives a letter from Lacy inexplicably denouncing his feelings. In response, Margaret decides to enter a nunnery. Before Margaret takes her vows, Lacy explains that the letter was simply a test to “try sweet Peggy’s constancy” (14.74). With little reluctance, Margaret accepts Lacy’s explanation and agrees to marry him.

Friar Bacon and his sorcery feature prominently as well. Throughout the play he completes remarkable feats of magical acumen. For example, in Scene 9 Bacon vanquishes a rival scholar, Jaques Vandermast, by instructing Hercules (Vandermast’s conjuring) to carry Vandermast back to Germany. Despite Bacon’s abilities, he is unable to complete, by his estimation, his great feat of sorcery: a Brazen Head to protect England. Bacon’s inability to remain awake in conjunction with Friar Bungay’s incompetence leads to the accidental destruction of the Brazen Head. Upon waking, Bacon realizes the destruction of the Brazen Head mirrors the destruction of his reputation, “But now the braves of Bacon hath an end; / Europe’s conceit of Bacon hath an end. (11.113-114). Later in the play, Bacon intervenes in Serlsby and Lambert’s disagreement. Through his magic glass, Bacon shows the two young men an aggressive duel between their fathers. In response the two young men fight and kill one another. Bacon feels responsibility, and pledges to discontinue the use of magic:
Bacon, thy magic doth effect this massacre. 
This glass prospective worketh many woes,
And therefore, seeing these brave lusty brutes,
These friends youths, did perish by thine art,
End all thy magic and thine art at once. (13.76-80)
The play ends with a wedding ceremony—a conservative genre custom. But despite its seeming conventionality, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay ask a series of thought-provoking questions about the power of the self. Bacon is simultaneously celebrating and derided for his sorcery, further reflecting the play’s ambivalence toward hyper-inflated goals and aspirations. Unlike Faustus and Prospero, Bacon wills his sorcery toward national stability and security, which is arguably the most conservative piece of this multi-layered play.  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Rob Ford, Falstaff, and Another Misappropriation

Writer of Rob Ford musical says mayor 'very Shakespearean' by Victoria Ahearn

TORONTO — In creating an upcoming stage musical about scandal-plagued Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, playwright Brett McCaig couldn’t help but think of a certain literary figure.

“Falstaff from Shakespeare,” McCaig said in a telephone interview. “He’s very Shakespearean or operatic. He’s our modern tragic hero — he rode in on his white horse, stallion, to save his village and then through his own weaknesses fell hard.”

McCaig will be looking to fill the shoes of such a character on Monday when he and his collaborators hold an open casting call for “Rob Ford The Musical: The Birth of a Ford Nation” at Toronto’s Second City Training Center. The show is set to run at Toronto’s Factory Theatre from Sept. 16 to Sept. 28, although McCaig said there’s a possibility of extending it.
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