Saturday, September 10, 2011

Visit By The Goon Squad (Revisited), by Jennifer Egan

I have already reviewed this book here, but I am thinking about it again in light of Slate's recent Audio Book Club Podcast about it.  It's the format that was raised, and which I think is more deliberate than I thought before.

One way to describe this book is that it is a series of short stories that interlock around a world of rock and roll.  The two most central characters are Bennie Salazar, who goes from a member of a high school rock group to a successful producer on a comeback, and Sasha, a women who was originally Bennie's assistant.  The stories travel back and forth in time, and have as their subjects a number of people who are more or less tangential to Bennie and Sasha.  The parts to create a sort of a whole--it would not be accurate to call this "a book of short stories" because they are more connected than that, although it is hard to call it "a novel" because it is so diffuse.  It lacks a central figure or narrative arc.

I have come to the tentative conclusion that the best way to think of A Visit by the Goon Squad is as a concept album--the literary equivalent of Sargent Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.  I still think Sargent Pepper is primarily a collection of songs, and any larger arc or form is little more than coincidence--but people have long claimed that it is the expression of a singular vision and has to be viewed as a whole.

I feel the same way about Goon Squad--there is a little bit more than mere assemblage, but less than a complete narrative.  Which is actually a very interesting artistic choice for a book about the people who make rock records.

So, I'm happier with the book as a whole when I view it through that lens.  Not a bad result!

Will, by Christopher Rush

Another book for my class on Adapting Shakespeare, this one an imagined fist person narration of the man's life, told to his lawyer: a confession in the guise of drafting a will.  Will's will--play with the puns as you like it.

It's a long book, with lots of words.  Possibly too many words.

Rush has tried to depict the man from Stratford as The Man who wrote the plays, showing us a dying Shakespeare so in love with language that it pours forth from him, recreating his own lineage, his youth, his path to London, how his life informed the writing of his plays.  He ties the great plays to the autobiographical details, making a convincing argument for the ability of a common man to write transcendent literature.  More interestingly, in crafting the man Rush finds ways to talk about the plays--which is clearly his great love.

The first third of the book is long and slow and drags on to little purpose.  In some ways, it seems like Rush felt obligated to put in every verifiable fact about Shakespeare that exists.  We get background into his parents, his grandparents, aunts and uncles, the rude mechanicals of Stratford.  Rush takes great pains to recreate the sights and smells of 16th century rural England, and especially the religious conflict.  Bloody Mary had tried to reinstate the country to Catholicism, only to be succeeded by her Protestant sister--herself on the throne less than six years by Shakespeare's birth.  Rush posits the family as less religious than prudent--fond of the old religion, but not willing to die for it.  Will speaks of a cousin of his father's, executed as a traitor to the new religion, his head stuck up on London Bridge.  It is a convincing argument for Will's refusal to commit himself to any religion.

The early part of the book has certain jobs to perform--as mentioned, it has to incorporate all the scanty facts known about Stratford Will; it has to show us a lad with enough education to plausibly have been a playwright; it has to show us a love of language and stories.  This last is done through the characterization of his maternal grandmother, "Arden Agnes" he calls her, who tells him the country horror stories of witches and ghosts, firing up his imagination in a way that plausibly provides for his later work.

The book doesn't actually come alive, however, until Shakespeare himself is 18, meets Anne Hathaway, and falls in love.  Moon-calf love, forever stealing out of his bed at night to wander the lanes between his house and hers, too shy to declare himself, too hormonal to stay away.  Was there an arrangement between Shakespeare's father and Anne's to marry off their children?  Possibly.  Anne was eight years older, and in Rush's telling, her father was dying and needed to get her landed safely.  John Shakespeare is limned as a soft touch for an old friend--no real advantage to the Shakespeare family to ally with the Hathaways, but a favor to a dying friend to see his daughter provided for.

It didn't matter, as Will fell hard for Anne, but in his stupid youth, he wasn't able to do anything but wander around on fire for her until the day of her father's funeral.  Which rather left Anne in the lurch--as happened the rest of her life.  Rush captures the joy of first love, the burn and the madness, and it is here that his Shakespeare becomes believably the man of the sonnets.

The details accumulate--the hasty marriage and rapid birth of his first daughter, Susanna, followed the next year by the twins Hamnet and Judith.  They lived in the Henley Street house with his father, and Rush paints a sad life for Anne--surrounded by her own babies, and her husband's siblings, the youngest of which was still quite small, and only Anne and Mary Arden Shakespeare to do all the work for the house full of men.  It must have been crowded--some eleven people in the one house, and Will had no employment.  This Will doesn't care for the butchery necessary to work for his father, and so he goes to London to make his fortune.

He finds work for Burbage at The Theater, starting as a livery boy, holding horses for the playgoers.  London at this time is mad for Marlowe and Tamburlaine, and Rush gives us a swift precis of the jobs Will might have done in a city where theater was cheap and popular, getting closer and closer to the stage.  It is after Will sees the botched execution of a poor, elderly priest named Hartley that he takes up the pen to write.  Drunken crowds roam the street after Hartley's death, roaring their hatred of Spain and papists.

The cries grew fainter.  I shut my eyes again.  It all went round in my head: Tarleton, Hartley, Jacki Vautrollier, Marlowe, Tamburlaine, the Armada, the drunken crowd, fuck the Pope, fuck Parma, long live the Queen!. . .That crowd down there in the street, full of blind energy and leonine pride--it was loose in London and it had no theatre for it's will.  It needed a state.  It needed to see itself up there. It needed a glass and a chronicler of the time.  The future was out there.

So he writes Henry VI, the pageant of national theater and national identity, and his star rises.  The book then paces through the questions that lie at the heart of Shakespeare studies and hits all the marks.  Marlowe did indeed die in Deptford, but it was the assassination of an operative, to keep his secrets buried.  Marlowe was a spy, and one with an inconvenient amount of damaging information, so he and those around him were picked off, one by one.  The quarrel over the bar bill was part of the plot--take him to Deptford, to wait for a boat to take him safely out of England.  Ply him with drink the long day, then pick a fight over the bill.  Marlowe will fall for it--especially drunk Marlowe, and his death will not cause repercussions.

The early epic poems, Venus and Adonis was commissioned as an attempt to get the young earl of Southampton to marry and create heir, and when it failed to convince the young man to give up his youth and settle into a premature middle age, a second (less lucrative) commission to browbeat him with the idea of what would happen should he fail to have heirs--The Rape of Lucrece.  This was also the beginning of a youthful friendship between the earl and the writer, and the reason for a first lot of sonnets.  And then Rush identifies The Dark Lady as Emilia Bassano, the Italian-Jewish wife of a court musician, an exotic beauty who was lass than discriminate with her favors.  Will fell hard, and it all ended in tears and heartbreak when Southampton (Henry Wriothesley) also found his way into her bed and Will caught them.  No more sonnets, and apparently the end of the two men's contact.  But Will was able to buy a place in the Lord Chamberlain's men with the money he made while with Southampton, so onto another chapter of the life.

Hamnet's young demise brought Will back to Stratford briefly, and he purchased New Place--out of a sense of grief and guilt, perhaps.  And then back to London to King John and then to invent Falstaff and Hal--Falstaff as the great expression of the English people, the gravitas and center of the plays, the recognition that the leaders and aristocrats are remembered, but it is the unnamed and unnumbered dead to won Agincourt and Shrewsbury, and they are the real England.  This is Rush's declaration of why Shakespeare is still relevant today--why he remains beloved.  Because he cared for the actual people of England, and spoke to them and for them.  His talent was to show the people their own roles in history. 

The book wends it's way through all the plays, all the family deaths and losses, and paints a picture of a man aged by the death of his only son, tiring of the effort of London, putting his griefs into Hamlet and Lear, his cynicism about politics into Macbeth, constrained and inspired by the players available and the life around him, but burning out.  The Tempest was his last great effort, and after that, he was burnt out entirely.

Rush offers explanations for the odd provisions of the will, the infamous "to my wife, the second best bed" is an acknowledgement of the coldness of their marriage.  Judith's limited inheritance is explained as the legal way to limit her no-good husband's access to Will's wealth; Susanna takes the bulk of the estate and Will hopes she will have sons to secure the family name.  In the end, the line burns itself out through lack of children, even female, within two generations.  There are only nieces and nephews, too far removed and thus the estate and library and possessions of Will Shakespeare get dispersed, and remain untraceable.

Rush even takes on the doggerel on Shakespeare's grave, "explaining" it as written only as well as necessary to scare off future sextons from digging up the bones and using the space for newer dead.  It also served to keep Anne Hathaway from sharing the grave--which was also important to him.  As they were never close in marriage and life, his will was to enforce similar distance in death.

It's a brave effort--a lot of scholarship and effort went into it, and it takes a fair amount of effort to read it.  So many words--words piled up on each other, phrases and clauses scattered about, lists of elements and the sheer volume of facts substituting for actual poetry or description.  But hard to love, most of the time.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Tamer Tamed, by John Fletcher

The second book I've "pre-read" for my course on Shakespeare and Adaptation--meaning that while classes haven't started yet, I'm trying to get a jump on the reading because I have no idea how long it's going to take me to get through these book lists.

The Tamer Tamed  is a play, written by John Fletcher probably in 1611, and at least some scholars think it was written as a way for Fletcher to introduce himself to Shakespeare.  It is a sequel, of sorts, to WS's own The Taming of the Shrew, in which Petruchio gets a taste of the medicine he so liberally dispensed to Katherine.

As the play opens, we find that Petruchio has been widowed, which from his perspective is probably just as well.  Apparently the "taming" he performed in Shakespeare's play didn't actually take, and his marriage was fraught with the level on conflict you would expect from someone as vivid and unhappy as the Katherine of Act I.  Nevertheless, Petruchio has chosen hope over experience, and married again, this time to Katherine's cousin Maria. Supposedly all that Katherine was not, Petruchio is unprepared for what happens that night, when Maria locks him out of his own house, and announces to the public that she will not be sleeping with him for the foreseeable future.

Maria has laid in food for a month, and brought in her cousin Bianca (also from Taming of the Shrew, Katherine's sister and herself now widowed) and invites all women who have been "worn out by marriage" to join her in laying down the conditions for their domestic lives.  Soon they are joined by Maria's (originally obedient and tractable) sister Livia, who loves the handsome young Roland, but who is going to be forced by her father into marriage with the old, ugly, smelly and disgusting (but rich!) Moroso.  Other women from the city and the country join the women inside Petruchio's house, bringing supplies and taking a stand for women's rights.  All this is by the second act, with three more to go.

According to the introductory materials, The Tamer Tamed was a very popular play, and was performed in repertory with Shrew.  It was performed before Charles I and his queen, and revived during the Restoration as well.  There are records of its performance into the 18th century, and the Royal Shakespeare Company revived it and brought it to America in 2003.

Certainly, when paired with Shrew, it makes the "taming" experience less deeply uncomfortable.  On the basis of the text alone, The Taming of the Shrew feels like psychological warfare and spousal abuse.  Katherine is deprived of food and sleep and purposely disoriented for days, until her spirit is broken, and apparently her mind as well, and it's all presented as good clean fun. I have seen a few performances that have subsumed the dialogue to broad slapstick, and in those cases, Katherine gives as good as she gets, but the text itself is still troublesome. After all, from the modern perspective, what has she done that is so wrong?  She doesn't want to get married, and she has found a way to avoid it--run off all your suitors.  She's managed to make a life for herself that suits her, and the only "problem" is that her father has this ridiculous rule that her sister can't marry until she does.  Is this Kate's problem?  Should she bind herself into marriage that she doesn't want just because her father has this stupid rule?

Into town drifts this lout--a man who will take any woman, provided she is rich.  Who would want to marry him?  And why should Kate agree to be handed over to a man who is idle, wealth-seeking, and arrogantly certain of his ability to break her?  Why is this an outcome anybody should cheer for?

It's a rom-com formula in extreme--in which the people who are "fated" to be together initially cannot stand each other, but learn to see each other in new and better ways.  Which is fine, except for the abuse.  Perhaps enforcing patriarchal privilege was funnier in the 17th century than it is now, or audiences were more frightened of women than they are now, but what looks like despotic parenting and authoritarian enforcement of heterosexual male privilege just doesn't amuse me.

Fletcher's play tips the balance the other way, more or less, but does so in obviously ribald fashion, which makes the whole thing more farcical and thus less disturbing.  It also benefits from the fact that when the obviously powerless women score some advantages for themselves, they do so without the men apparently losing anything in the bargain.  From the start, Maria's demands are actually small--she wants to have authority to run the household without being questioned about it.  She wants to guarantee she will have life's amenities--clothing, food, transportation--consistent with her station.  She wants to control her own sexuality, and require her husband to gain her consent.  What does Petruchio want?  He wants to be able to sleep with his wife, get into his house, and experience domestic tranquility.  All of which he gets.  What does he lose?  Only a smidgeon of "face"--other men see his wife make demands, and they see him acquiesce.  He doesn't seem too bothered by it, as evidenced by the fact that as soon as she tells him she is going to make demands, he basically agrees to them, whatever they might be.  It is her father and some of the other men who urge Petruchio to stand fast, to beat her into submission, to assert his manly rights to be in control.  Since none of the men are ever shown to actually be in control, the stakes are pretty low.

Contrast that to Katherine's plight in Taming of the Shrew.  She doesn't choose marriage, she doesn't chose her husband, and when she is sold into marital bondage, she has no control over what she wears, what she eats, where she goes, or the nature of her relationship to her husband.  She is forced to give up all her preferences, all her autonomy, and simply agree to anything and everything he says, regardless of how crazy that may be.  Sure, as far as the text goes, we don't actually see him beating her, but there is no real guarantee that she would be allowed to object to that either.  It is the doctrine of couveture in the extreme, where two people become one, and that one is Petrucchio.

Fletcher's play has an entirely different tone--the stakes are lower, and the strategems are much less squicky.  Rather than sleep deprivation and withholding of food, as in Shakespeare, Fletcher's Petruchio makes plays for sympathy and pity.  He pretends he is ill--and Maria beats him at that game by telling everyone that he has the plague and needs to be sealed inside his house so he doesn't infect anyone else.  Petruchio is reduced to shooting his way out of his own house.  Maria compliments his intelligence, and maneuvers him into having to travel abroad.  Rather than going, he fakes his own death, and presents his "corpse" to his supposed widow, hoping she will admit she treated him badly.  Instead, she cries for his wasted live and claims that his death is a blessing, because it means that now he is spared the worse things he was bound to do if he had lived.

This is the final straw, and in a scene that suffers from being seriously underwritten, he asks "Why, why Maria?"  And for no good reason that I can see, she confesses that this was all a trick to tame him, and she has now achieved her aim.  Now she can go back to her true personality and promises to dote on him and make his life pleasant.  In the B plot, Livia has also faked an illness, and supposedly signed documents releasing Roland from their engagment, witnessed by her father and Moroso.  In fact, she has switched the documents for a marriage contract, and thus managed to marry the man she wanted to marry.  They consummate the marriage while her father and Moroso believe she is still ailing. Again, the stakes for the men are low, and the women's victory doesn't require the utter defeat of the men they are set against.  Moroso is free to find another woman to marry--he doesn't seem to have any particular attachment to Livia other than her youth, and her father doesn't seem to have any reason to have preferred Moroso than the man's money.  Meanwhile, Livia manages to arrange a happier life for herself than would have been possible if she had simply obeyed her father's orders.

The silliness of the play is so pervasive that almost any page would provide some bawdy exchanges and double entendres--for the moment, take my word for it that it is not in any way a serious meditation of gender roles.  It also is worth noting that after writing the play, Fletcher collaborated with Shakespeare on at least three plays we know of: Henry VIII; Two Noble Kinsmen;  and the lost play Cardenio.  By all accounts, Fletcher had a brilliant and productive career, producing some 50 plays before his death in 1625.

When you hear of Puritans disapproving of theater, THIS  is the kind of play they must have had in mind--it's knee deep in sexual innuendo and outright sexual talk.  Characters are forever overturning chamberpots on each other, and pissing against door frames.  It's a silly play, and one that makes Shakespeare's language that much more impressive.