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The Entasis Journal Blog

Entasis Hates Mad Men (Pt. 1)

This article from the New York Review of Books started a civil war among the Entasis editors (and friends).
RA: Watched Season One. Bored by the end.
JG: As soon as we find out that DD is a whoreson, it’s already jumped the shark, and that was early in Season 1. And the whole deserter and switching identities? Worthy of one of Verdi’s middle-period operas. You have to overlook the copious style to see that there’s not much there there.
GM: Meh. I read the article and I disagree with it — as much as one can disagree with a personal preference. This article’s main analytical technique consists of describing some characteristic of the show in a highly reductive way and then sta…ting a version of, “to my mind, it doesn’t work.” Clearly, though, before he gets to the assertion that something’s not working, we’re meant implicitly to understand his driving objection, as sheep being driven by a haute-intellectual shepherd. Baa. Early in the article he describes other shows, like “Battlestar” and “The Wire” that are, to his mind, standouts. Okay. So? Yes, Dan, you’ve uncovered a key truth: different people like different things. And he correctly points out that the show’s large following says more about ourselves than it does about, say, the sixties. So, welcome to the entire justification for cultural criticism. Really? Is this fresh writing? Mr. Mendelsohn might try grokking the fact that his review tells us a lot about him as a reviewer — but very little about the show. His conclusion would be laughably cynical — we’re all watching the characters in the way children watch adults, so we can forgive our parents or something — but this summation of the show’s appeal is as offensive and shallow as he claims the show is. I call imitative fallacy and self-incrimination: go work out your issues with Daddy, Danny, and get back to us when you’re ready to actually write a review. While I’ll confess that I like “Mad Men” quite a bit, I’m open to reading legitimate criticism. But this piece isn’t really criticism; it’s merely passionate opinion with the NYRB masthead. Not, by the way, that I don’t understand your reaction, man. If you’re bored, you’re bored — not only do I not doubt it, I think I can understand reasons why that would be. But Mendelsohn’s idea of analysis has auto-stimulated lovestink all over it, I don’t care who he’s writing for.
RA: I usually agree with Greg’s ‘preferences’ which makes this disagreement particularly interesting. In general I like Mendelsohn’s pieces, btw. He ain’t Zizek but it’s probably a good thing that there’s only one. Mad Men certainly isn’t as aw…ful as Lost but besides the fantastic clothes and really good-looking people, I, like Mendelsohn, found little to hang onto as Season 1 unspooled. Draper does seem like a handsome emptiness, and his affairs unconvincing (although that Jewish chick is SMOKIN’), as is the crisis of his marriage (compare it to similar themes in a work of genius like ‘Revolutionary Road’). The portrayal of say, the Beatniks, seems caricatured, as do the office mores (and the political discussions are simplistic). Peggy’s pregnancy was a typical soap opera move, including her unawareness of it. Draper’s back story felt flimsy, and his brother’s suicide another bit of soap silliness, as was his mom the ho’. The guy from Angel was intriguing at first but it turned into another bit of stereotypical Oedipal razzle dazzle. It was a For Dummies historical drama. This is preference, yes, but I think, given world enough and time, that I could support many of these arguments with ammunition. One of the few times I found myself genuinely moved was, also like Mendelsohn, by the slide show. I found myself thinking about my the photos of my parents from the 70s and the adults they were and the unhappiness they were already bequeathing to me as caught fragments of their lives through doorways or at the top of the staircase. The alien mystery and wonder of it.
JG: I pretty much agree with your assessment, RA. I also thought the slide show was truly brilliant. The writing is ham-handed, the characters undeveloped. But there are wonderful things here and there, like that scene; also the scene where Joan is taken off the task that Mendelsohn mentions. I loved the exchange in the parking lot between Betty and Glen late in the first season. But on the whole I think the show is overrated, and, as I said above, positively Verdian in its plot twists.
GM: Posh. All you’re doing is agreeing with Mendelsohn’s points and not paying much attention to how he’s making them. Okay, so you found Peggy’s pregnancy unconvincing? Fine. I found it entertaining. Once again, the label “soap opera,” applied… because of similarities to well-known examples of that genre, is supposed to *mean* something, but *that* move — the idea that we should recoil at the mere application of a middlebrow term — is a signature shuffle on the poseur’s dance floor. If you don’t like the show, you don’t like it. I won’t try to convince you that you should. But if you intend to lend credence to Mendelsohn’s psychoanalysis of the Mad Men audience by painting it with soft, personally selected colors — “I, too, have thought of my parents” — then you’re giving a pass to a boneheaded arrogance that’s already stamped with higher culture: the NYRB logo. Please. “Pseudo-intellectual disdain is so very now!” Besides, nothing’s immune to this treatment. Mendelsohn admires “Battlestar?” Sorry, man. Much of what he says about Mad Men, I could easily state about Battlestar, and more. Ham-handed? Bad acting? Oversimplified politics? God, cover your eyes and pick any episode, and whenever Tricia Helfer walks onscreen in her red dress, reducing an entire show’s purported philosophical sophistication to an appraisal of how well Helfer’s purr goes with her chest, I’ll scream “nerdporn!” What Mendelsohn completely misses out on — because, as I said, he’s not interested in actual analysis, but only an easy paycheck — is that Mad Men IS Battlestar, for a crowd that can’t take space battles and the swords-and-sorcery worship of the latter show. Both shows take a run at politics, sex, women in red, flawed leaders, counterculture, war, and *especially* hidden identities, and both do it in gloriously overbaked ways disguised as dramatic sophistication. It might be interesting to get at why, as a culture, these themes are important. Or, we could be Mendelsohn’s Heroes, and summarily dismiss entire audiences with a wave of our pseudopsychological wand. Bah.
RA: Sir, I appreciate the vigor of your response but, well acquainted with the clarity of your thought and the distinction of your taste, I find it impossible to believe that you were in any way ‘entertained’ by Peggy’s pregnancy; or if you wer…e entertained, entertained in the way we are entertained by a comic telling us a joke we have heard a hundred times before. That is, we are pleased because the repetition tells us that the world we leave in remains unchanged, and there is always comfort in familiarity. In the case of Peggy, as with so many of the plot turns in the show, we have an incident carrying meaning in the most ham-fisted of fashions – progressive woman is dragged down by the iron laws of an unprogressive world – if only she hadn’t fucked! And we are supposed to follow along with the absolutely unbelievable idea that a sexually active woman in 1962 would, not only have no idea that she could get pregnant, but be able to carry a child to term in absolute oblivion. It didn’t work for me and I have a hard time believing it worked for you, but, given the respect I have for you, sir, I must take you at your word. Certainly, I have no problems with soap operas, or serials, if you wish to use a less-charged term (‘soap’ by the way is no middlebrow term, it’s lowbrow. Middlebrow is Mad Men, the lowbrow that doesn’t delight in its preposterous nature). Serials are the way in which the complexity of human life – the fact that it goes on – escape the confines of the movie or mini-series. What I do have a problem with is the celebration of soap opera standards as exemplars of high art – it’s the confusion that gets me (the divorcee who supports Kennedy is another train you can see a comin’ from a long way off). You cast stones at Battlestar Galactica nerds but I say, let the man with no sin cast the first stone. What made BG fascinating for the first few seasons – and yes it succumbed to the banal into seasons three and four – was how it upended conventions of the serial form. For example, making Starbuck a woman, or in the playing with the idea of what makes a villain. I may be parroting Mendehlson, but I do know that long before I read a word of his essay. I’d tuned out Mad Men, in the way I haven’t tuned out Buffy or the Wire. I want to believe. I just don’t want to be spoon fed. Sir, the most interesting, to me, part of your discussion is the fascination of ‘hidden identities’. The threatened interior or the impossibility of there being an interior, a self. I just think Mad Men doesn’t as well as some of the others. Even Dollhouse, which I enjoy, yet realize that it’s half treacle.

Death in Long Beach

Our first reading in Long Beach at Open. Good space, nice turnout, great readers – Susan Davis, Nathan Bishop, Leah Kaminski, Vanessa Garcia. We had a print edition of the journal to hand out. This editor read a short piece reflecting his current sense of nihilism toward that thing called love (semi-obscure jazz reference with an even more obscure reference to this Coltrane tune).
There are even photos.
We walked out exhilarated, ready to talk, to drink, and walked into a crime scene – yellow tape, a dozen squad cars, people on the corners gawking, a coiffed, supercilious news anchor smiling in front of a camera. The story came to us in fragments: a liquor-store clerk had been shot and killed in a robbery, no arrests, just the slow revolve of the red lights and the closed street.
Long Beach is a half hour up the freeway from Irvine, my ersatz home over the last two-and-a-half years. Irvine is pleasant; pleasant is a design spec, included in the brochure, its Irvine’s DNA. There are all kinds of pretty girls. People smile and apologize if they get in your way, even when it’s your fault. It has bike lanes. The green lawns complement the condo complexes with their beige walls and red tile roofs. You have to go up to the top of a hill to see the brown smudge of Long Beach and the outline of big factories and refineries. Long Beach is far enough away that you never have to deal with it if you don’t want to.
Walk on the narrow sidewalks in downtown Long Beach though and you realize you’re missing something, that something being most of human life. Around the world, most people don’t live in condos with jacuzzis and pools. They jostle on the narrow sidewalks, they see people who don’t look like them and who don’t talk like them, they take the chance that they might be in the liquor store at the wrong time. They live there, whether or not they want to.

Formal Feeling, or: Kicking the Jukebox at Heartbreak Hotel

Almost twenty years ago I was pushing a shopping cart through the Safeway near my apartment in SF. I had just gotten my heart broken for the first time in my life (up to three now and counting…). And when I say ‘broken’ I mean I was broken: wheels coming off, systems failure, spewing oil, five minutes to autodestruct, the real Humpty-Dumpty all-the-king’s-horses-and-all-the-king’s-men kind of shit. It was a Shuttle Challenger break up, trail of smoke, screams and pieces spread across half a continent.
And I didn’t acknowledge it at all; couldn’t admit my own raving misery. I hated her. She was a traitor. When she called, which was fairly often, I slammed down the phone (but oh how sad I was when the calls stopped coming). ‘No I’m fine,’ I told myself. ‘It’s all good. Screw that bitch.’ My house was going up in a three-alarm blaze and I kept making breakfast in the kitchen. The smoke? Just the toast getting crispy. But who were all those dudes in metal helmets carrying hoses?
As I pushed my shopping cart down the aisle in dull zombie rage, a song started playing on the PA. It was a song I knew, a radio hit from the 70s, ‘She’s Gone’ by Hall & Oates. I hadn’t liked the song when I was kid – I was making the turn to rock then and didn’t have much appreciation for well-crafted white soul. But the song had been on all the time, enough to infect my musical DNA, and as it hit the crescendo of:
She’s gone, oh I, oh I, oh I
I’d better learn how to face it
She’s gone, oh I, oh I, oh I
I’d pay the devil to replace her
She’s gone, oh I, what went wrong…
I understood for the first time that she was gone. That she wasn’t coming back. That my beautiful California girl had bolted to LA to enjoy rich-kid life and try to launch an acting career and was already with the semi-successful musician she would marry and divorce. That I was left under the fluorescent lights, doing a weekly task that had been a lot of fun with her and was now a zombie plod. I hadn’t cried since before college but tears started running down my face, tears hastily wiped away, because how could I be crying in Safeway to a song I couldn’t stand, a song that wasn’t even cool?
In the following weeks, all the songs started doing that to me, many of them great songs. ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ by the Supremes. Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’. ‘When You Were Mine’ by Prince. ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’ (Al Green version). ‘These Arms of Mine’ by Otis Redding (I’d just scammed the Stax-Volt boxed set from Columbia Record & Tape). Songs of heartache and despair. But the songs didn’t make me feel worse. They made me feel better.
When you are hurt in that way, a sometimes mortal wound, the experience is overwhelming. It’s animal pain, so intense that your language can’t touch it. It overwhelms you, drowns you, extinguishes you. It hits below thought, below any way of rationalizing it. Proust compares it to being shot – there’s no way you can get ready for a twelve-gauge blast to the torso. Rage was my young man reaction but it didn’t help, not really. Freud wrote that ‘we are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.’ Freud was right.
So what good did the songs do? When things were at their worst, in the first months, in the withering pain, they didn’t do anything at all. Losing a lover is a twin death, her death – to you – and yours, the death of the man you were when you were with her. Since you’re mostly that man after the breakup, you turn into a zombie, an animated corpse (a corpse that unfortunately, still feels pain). Eventually though, the songs offered a way out. I was getting better. I wouldn’t think about her for entire minutes. I was making the first step toward survival, even when the songs hurt in the way that ‘She’s Gone’ hurt under the fluorescent Safeway lights. In a world where religion has faded, music gives us a way to suffer (‘As a religious problem, the problem of suffering is, paradoxically, not how to avoid suffering but how to suffer, how to make of physical pain, personal loss, worldly defeat, or the helpless contemplation of others’ agony something bearable, supportable – something, as we say, sufferable.’ – Clifford Geertz). That language addresses our suffering, gives us a way to voice our pain, pain that we don’t have a language for. But the language isn’t a language we invent, it’s a ready-made, provided for us. This is important. Because these common enough words help to, in a word psychologists like to use, ‘norm’ us. They tell us that others have felt our pain, that this agonizing private death is part of being human, and can be talked about. That there is a way out, even if it’s a lie.
But it’s not just the lyrics. As I moved down the private track of my pain one of the melodies would come into my head and I’d find myself humming the song. I’d switched off the track of my pain onto another path, one with a soundtrack, suffering felt better with a backbeat. Psychoanalysis has noted how music helps paranoiacs. Broken hearted-dlovers are not far from paranoia – they believe that they’re isolated and being destroyed. Music tells you that this isn’t true. In the three-thousand-odd pages of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust offers similar comfort. Our love, he says, is our creation and doesn’t come from the other person at all: the beloved is only the inspiration for a masterpiece. As soon as we can embrace that truth we can be whole. Of course, the truth that Proust offers in theory is one that the matter of his masterpiece denies on every page. It’s not true, but if we can make ourselves believe it, it is a consolation. The person that we loved is real, and the fact the she is gone is something we have to bear. Art is a way of bearing it. Nietzsche wrote that ‘We possess art lest we perish of the truth.’ For those of us who aren’t as solipsistic, or as brilliant, as Proust and can’t write our own seven-volume masterpieces, well, that’s why Berry Gordy invented Motown.
Part I of this entry is on my personal blog.
– RA

The World's a Mess (It's in My Kiss)

– …I think people write because things didn’t come out the way they’re supposed to be.
– Or because we didn’t.
— William Gaddis, Carpenter’s Gothic

The world is in pieces, friends. Pieces include your family being 2500 miles away and it’s Thanksgiving, missiles in Korea, the former football pro talking really fast on TV to prove he doesn’t have brain damage. We assemble our lives over great distances—the ex-girlfriend you shoot an email to on a lonely night, the article on dinosaurs surviving the Cretaceous in Science Daily, a Curtis Mayfield tune you haven’t heard in twenty years as you stroll through Albertsons. Distance and fragments, lives so divided into that although world culture is smaller than it has ever been, it’s easy to feel that the people who live three blocks away are extraterrestrials (especially if you live in the Bronx, or Long Beach).
Two books try to bridge the distance, in very different ways. One is Carpenter’s Gothic by William Gaddis. Gaddis wrote ‘difficult’ novels; Carpenters Gothic is the shortest of them. All of the action takes place in a rented house – the Carpenter’s Gothic of the title – over the Hudson River in New York. Yet even though the novel is confined to one location the entire world, in all its hysteria and cruelty, makes its way inside. Connected by a tissue of TV programs, newspaper ads, junk mail, and long-distance phone calls are corrupt preachers, gold mines, civil war in Africa, politicians on the take, all of which end up impacting the life of the lost, neurasthenic woman staying in the house.
The second book is Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. It tells the story of an extended family in the Bronx in the 80s and 90s as they struggle to find joy and make the least bad decision in a place that only offers bad and worse. LeBlanc follows the family through drug busts, murders, rape, and prison sentences with sympathy and a quest for clarity.
Nothing could be more different than these books. Novel and non-fiction, high and low. But LeBlanc is trying to make those scary people in the Bronx more than nightmare headlines – that is, human beings. And Gaddis is trying to show us how our American lives touch the greater world. Neither writer is completely successful. The end of Gaddis’ novel is preposterous, while LeBlanc’s depiction of her characters becomes flat, and she trusts hearsay too much, people’s romanticizing of themselves. And yet … They bring these others closer to us. That’s one of the things that I want art to do. Something like love.

Badlands

“Makhóšiča”, (literally ‘bad land’) to the Lakota Sioux,  “les mauvaises terres à traverser”  (‘the bad lands to cross’) to the French trappers who came for Lakota furs. The Spanish called it tierra baldía (‘waste land’) and ‘cárcava’ (gullied). Wiki tells us that: ‘Badlands form in semi-arid or arid regions with infrequent but intense rain-showers, sparse vegetation, and soft sediments: a recipe for massive erosion.’ And, “…badlands contain steep slopes, loose dry soil, slick clay, and deep sand, all of which impede travel and other uses.” Badlands can also be man made after mines play out and farms wash away. Nothing there for the practical to exploit but a place to stare into the sublime.
The English philosopher Edmund Burke defined the sublime as: “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger… Whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror.” But he also thought there was something pleasurable in the experience, like being held over a cliffside by your ankles. Shelly’s Mont Blanc perfectly captures this feeling of sublimity. I see the sublime in the Long Beach refineries tipped with fire, or in the wasteland around the UP railroad tracks in the City of Industry.
It isn’t just the outside world though, that can bring the sublime. For Burke, Milton’s Satan was a sublime figure. Springsteen (Bruce!) told us that to be real you had to confront the badlands but he wasn’t talking about a park in North Dakota. He meant ruined lives, those days, months, years when your soul looks like Bikini Atoll after the A-Bomb. I think the sublime is all over Cynthia Mitchell’s story from our first issue. It’s these different badlands that I hope we can reach in our next issue.
– RA

Behind the Veil of Appearance

Recently, I’ve been struggling to write about … let’s call it nature (shameless self-promotion or me on golden eagles). The struggle comes from the fact that I’m a city critter, and not just any city but Gotham, where we have three species of animals: the rat, the roach, and the pigeon. What I struggle with is my ignorance of the natural world. I don’t have a vocabulary to talk about what I see, even when it moves me. Birds have wings, some are bigger than others. Some have long beaks, some short. Lizards are a dusty green. Plant-life makes a russet smear on the ubiquitous California hills. The impulse is to wax romantic about what you see, like D.H. Lawrence in Mexico rhapsodizing about the peasants on the side of the road squatting with the patient enduring ancient wisdom of their ancestors, a symbol of human suffering and endurance. When the reality is that they were waiting for the bus. Lawrence was a lot better on miners in Northern England – that was the world he’d grown up in. He knew it. The same holds for say, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus which deals a lot with music, particularly Schoenberg and tone rows. Mann didn’t know much about music, so he went to Theodor Adorno, who had studied with Schoenberg (all three men were living in exile at the time. In Hollywood!). You can actually pick out the places in Faustus where Mann is putting in his own responses about music and where he’s drawing on Adorno. The Mann stuff is gooey romanticism, souls soaring, the spirit of man, that kind of garbage, while the Adorno sections have a depth that only knowledge can provide. Which is not to say that knowledge is enough to write well – hell no. But I think it’s an essential first step. You have to show respect to your subject in its own … I guess the word I’m shrinking from is ‘being.’ Otherwise you’re just falling back into yourself, into the brutality of mysticism. Mental masturbation.

Calle 10

In the late-90s I freelanced for a ‘cafe magazine’ in NYC. The thing was owned by a trust fund guy who was so cheap you literally had to put cold steel to his throat to get him to cut you a $50 check (meanwhile he was buying a duplex on Avenue A). But I digress into class warfare. As with magazine offices everywhere, pretty much every inch of space was crammed with review CDs and books, most forgettable or despicable. One day, I picked up a small novel with a cool cover called ‘Calle 10’  by Danny Romero, and eventually read it. And then read it again. And over the past fourteen years, have read it at least nine times that I can remember.
Three or four years ago I finally got around to looking up the novel and discovered that it hasn’t gotten any of the credit it deserves. Not one of the early reviewers seems to comprehend how hysterically funny it is ( a friend and I were reading it to each other and crying with laughter). And that’s only the beginning. Its unsentimental portrayal of ‘low-life’ in Oakland is pitch perfect and undistorted by pieties or agendas. The opening scene on a bus  is a small masterpiece, and there are Beckett-like absurdities throughout. In a better world, Calle 10 would be required reading. It makes me wonder, and not for the first time, about the life experience of those writing book reviews for major publications.  Maybe they have trust funds too?  I eventually tracked down Romero to find him teaching writing at a college in Sacramento, I believe.  I like everything he writes but Calle 10 is up in the stars. It would be a great screenplay. If they could add an extra day to the week – and an extra zero to my bank balance – I would buy the rights and write it.

Is Irvine the New Compton?

I was sitting in my room enjoying the sound of  traffic when I heard the buzz and squawk of police megaphones. Since it went on for a while, I went outside to find Irvine cops treating a carload of kids like a cross between Al Qaeda and NWA. I mean, those kids had guns in their face, had to kiss blacktop and wear the steel bracelets.
It made me think about David Foster Wallace. Why? Because I always consider DFW as the avatar of a certain white, liberal, NPR listening, Volvo-driving, college town, extremely twee, middle-class. The kind of person who would never in his life had to belly down on the pavement for a cop, yet who would, at the same time, cluck his tongue at the treatment of those kids.
I’ve been writing an essay for a while about a particular DFW piece. In my mind, the DFW piece represents the failure of a certain branch of the American left. Because DFW was smarter and more sensitive than a lot of his colleagues, you can see his awareness of this problem, his struggle with it, his unhappiness with it. Which is why he makes a good target.
But I’m not sure: at what point does it become fair game to kick a dead man?
– RA

Cock-Fighting & The Ecology of Aquariums

GM: I only wrote one piece for the VQR and my sense of Genoways tracks that of the writer who did the piece you linked. I have experience of monsters and can usually sense it when one is in the room. None of that with Genoways. His sending the magazine in a new direction seemed to be part of the problem. It made me think about the dearth of real long-form journalism in the media today. I want to read eight- or ten-thousand word pieces about interesting subjects, and the mainstream media no longer carries them. Leaving it to people like Ted Genoways, and, I hope, us. For Genoways, interesting meant deeper looks at hot spots, crises: Afghanistan, the ‘war on drugs’ (that calls for quotes), Iraq. Me, I tend to prefer subjects that aren’t in the spotlight. I’d rather read my ten thousand words about Balinese cock-fighting, or the ecology of aquariums. Which leads me to some of the reasons why I’m excited about the two prose pieces in this issue. I have nothing against MFAs in fiction, unlike this guy, but a lot of the work that attracts me comes from people who didn’t go that route. I read a draft of Cynthia Mitchell’s story thirteen years ago and it has stayed with me ever since. We’re lucky to have it. Cynthia hasn’t written a lot of fiction – she leans toward the visual arts – but everything I’ve ever read of hers is fantastic. Steve Geng is another outsider to the world of letters. As his sister was writing for the New Yorker in the 70s and 80s, Steve was a career criminal and junkie. Yet he managed to publish a memoir that lit me up when I read it. Having chops is one thing, a craft, but knowing what to do with them, that makes the artist. — RA

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