Wednesday, November 06, 2002

The Lit'ry Life: October 2002

Note to the Death of the Author semiotic/deconstructionists: Gee, I guess you were right after all.

Of the 15 best-selling nonfiction books on the New York Times hardcover list for September 29, five have no authors.

There are two books credited to the editors of Life magazine, one is "by the New York Times," one "by CBS News," and one by "photographers of the New York City Police Department.

Of the remaining ten titles, three are by journalist employees of newspapers, and one by a TV commentator.

Well, at least these behemoth corporations aren't being coy about controlling book publishing. I always thought that they should take their rightful share of the credit.

My reading since last time: I finished Mark Epstein's "Thoughts Without a Thinker" and went on to his "Going On Being," which in some ways is a more involving book. He structures it partially around several people, his particular teachers who each provided a different point of view, a different piece of the puzzle, which he assembles in his both his practices-- Zen meditation and psychoanalytic practice with patients.

Redemption Motifs by Marie-Louise von Franz is one of her many short books constructed from a series of lectures to Jungian analysts. I always enjoy reading these, and I always seem to be learning something, although afterwards I'd be hard pressed to tell you what.

A quote in a review of a book by Margaret Atwood sent me back to Northrup Frye, who I haven't read in many years. He is a penetrating observer and thinker, centered on literary criticism, but since literature leads to so many other places--contemporaneous culture, traditions, personalities, history, mythic mysteries---he is awfully acute and interesting on many matters. So far I've read one collection of texts delivered as talks or speeches, called "The Eternal Act of Creation." I have "Spiritus Mundi" (a selection of essays) and his classic "Anatomy of Criticism" newly on the shelf.

I read one novel last month--Tom Robbins' "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas." It was fun. Reminds me what the basic art of the novel is: delay. You start all these plot elements in motion, and delay and delay the payoff, until the reader understands that it's the journey that's entertaining. Which is good, because the payoff isn't that great in this case. Still, he's added a sci-fi kind of sensibility to his countercultural romps, and his particular take on the Nature of Things nicely links elements of the Doris Lessing sci-fi novels to Kurt Vonnegut's "Galapagos."

I am impressed by Theodore Rozak's "America The Wise" aka (in paperback) "The Longevity Revolution," which I've finally gotten around to reading. This is an important book, not be overlooked. I felt strongly enough about that to write the author, and to review it gratis for My review follows, BUT FIRST...

If you define the literary life to include stories in all their forms, then a few comments on what I've been watching on TV seem appropriate. At our house we've cycled through the cop dramas so prominent this year, and found the experience to be ultimately empty. Several of the series we were faithfully watching this summer---"Monk," "Deadline" and "Breaking News"---are either off the air or awaiting new episodes. That left us with "The West Wing" as the only ongoing series, though we often let ourselves watch "Law and Order" afterwards--I watch it partly to catch glimpses of New York actors I used to know, including one who was in one play I wrote, and carried around another for his audition piece.

The only new series I'm faithfully watching is "American Dreams." It's another one of those miracles---a solidly well done drama, skillful and innovative, that not only blows away just about everything else on TV but advances the drama series form in new ways. That it's about the 1960s is even more amazing. The 60s have never been portrayed well on TV and almost never in the movies. But this series is smart, it's largely accurate, and it has heart. All the actors are strong, the writing is very good, the editing and storytelling is remarkably subtle.

I grew up a few hundred miles from where this series is set (it's in Philadelphia; I was outside Pittsburgh) at about the same time. I'm not exactly the age of any of the characters, but very close. I also grew up in a Catholic household and attended Catholic schools, as the kids in this series do. Although there are plenty of anachronisms in the expressions and gestures characters use (which is part of the fun of watching it--"We didn't say that!" "Nobody pointed at each other like that then!"), most of the context is completely convincing.

Because this is series television drama, all the main characters are basically sympathetic. They all have flaws and all have redeeming characteristics. We see them change, sometimes within the 40 minutes or so of an episode. In that sense, it's unrealistic. Family dynamics and people don't really change that quickly or that much. But if you put a realistic portrait of, for instance, my father, or the fathers of my friends, you wouldn't necessarily have a sympathetic character week after week. In a dramatic play or a film, nuances within a set character can be revealed in interesting moments, or a character can be tested by a single large event. But when you're creating a character for people to follow week after week, that character has to be sympathetic, or else an out and out stereotypical villain.

In "American Dreams," this does something that TV drama series can do in a unique way: it can heal. Those of us who remember growing up in the 1960s may recall the generational battles and bad feelings, the unfulfilled yearnings and confusion of adolescence and our particular circumstances. In "American Dreams" we can relive moments in a better way. There is in fact a psychological technique of dealing with actual dreams that counsels you to recall your bad dreams, then "daydream" them again but with the plot and outcome you want to happen. This is healing. And so is watching the lovely young woman on this show dancing with such joy, in scenes you dearly wished could happen but never did. In the show, for instance, a group of teens that includes a famous pop group circle their cars, train their headlights on a center area, get out This never happened, or could happen, in my teenage life. We were too backward, awkward, self-conscious and unimaginative. But it sure looked like fun.

The situation is similar within the family. This isn't "Father Knows Best," but this father isn't your dumb sitcom dad, either. He is complex, stubborn, yet responsive. The children, perhaps because several are relatively close in age, treat each other and respond to each other as people. In short, this series is a combination of how things were and how we wish they were. Which is a perfect combination for a TV series.

"American Dreams" has already dealt with the response to President Kennedy's assassination with great sensitivity and accuracy. It is beginning to deal with race, and is laying the foundations for dealing with Vietnam, feminism and the sexual revolution. Music is central, as it was then. One of the main characters is a regular on American Bandstand, and the television studio scenes are dead-on, full of terrific subtext and bits, probably because Dick Clark---the originator of American Bandstand---is one of this series' exec producers. This is the most promising drama series to hit TV since "The West Wing."

Like aspects of "American Dreams," this season's "The West Wing" serves as much- needed fantasy fulfillment. In the first couple of episodes, President Bartlett made speeches so far above the rhetoric and content of speeches by current politicians, it was enough to make you cry. Apparently this season's shows are being criticized for getting too close to reality in portraying the Republican presidential candidate as a folksy, brainless opportunist from Texas---sorry, I mean Florida (!), but I make no apologizes for finding this therapeutic. We need an intelligent President unafraid to speak honestly, even if it's only on Wednesday nights.

Now, as promised, the review of AMERICA THE WISE/ THE LONGEVITY REVOLUTION by Theodore Roszak.

First a caveat: This book is sometimes offered along with Roszak's "America The Wise." They are however the same book--"America The Wise" is the hardback. I haven't compared them, but if not precisely the same, they are virtually the same, according to their author.

Frankly the worst thing about this book is the title--both titles. The book itself however is a very important one. For anybody who would like some hope for the future, and especially for baby boomers, this book is essential.

It's not about longevity, really. It's about the next twenty years or so, when the boomers--Roszak calls them the New People--reach traditional retirement age. It's likely that they will be healthier and more active and involved than previous generations. And there will be a lot of them (it's time to fess up, I guess--a lot of US.)

Roszak contends--with good reason--that the panic about boomers destroying Social Security and Medicare is largely manufactured for political purposes. Social Security is solvent now and will be for the next generation, and with minor adjustments, can be made so for the indefinite future. Medicare is a problem mostly because the whole health care system is a mess. Besides, the demographics suggest the increase in dependent older people will likely be offset in a decrease in dependent children.

But where this book shines is in outlining societal attitudes that could change due to an aging population. Advertisers don't like older consumers because they aren't so impressionable--they can't be lured so easily by absurd ads. So patterns of consumption could change, for the better. Other elder values plus the necessity for taking care of the very old and ill will challenge us to become more compassionate as a society, and more interested in living than moneymaking. For after all, as Roszak says, this aging of the population is going to happen--not just in the U.S. but worldwide-- and we're going to have to deal with it. It's either take care of each other, or kill the old folks. But don't let them know, not as long as they can still vote!

By and large this book is very cogent. It may be provocative to some, but it states its case with admirable clarity, so readers can easily confront what Roszak has to say. Baby boomers like to think of themselves--ourselves--as forever young. So perhaps we've ignored being slandered as selfish whiners who will bankrupt young folks (as Roszak points out, a lot of young folks are being kept afloat by parents.) But we don't have to die before we get old. The best may be yet to come.

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