Friday, April 29, 2011

An Evening of Gentlemanly Pursuits, Part IIIa

What follows is a setting of a scene--something that contributes to the understanding of the grand sweep and narrative context that found me walking up Fulton Market Street on an almost impossibly warm day in early May 2010, on my way to an interview with Paul Kahan at Publican.  Of course, not everyone agrees about the importance of historical flows and contingencies, and so this is an interlude, a prelude to that interview itself.  Skippable, sure.  After all, there are those that refuse to acknowledge that we are all bound up in contexts and stories and narratives.  That we are more than the mere technologies that record these contexts and stories and narratives.  That we contain each other.  That the remediation of loneliness and apartness comes, in part, from reminders of this togetherness across time.  Remember this Mr. Achatz, if you think that you are some kind of context-less newcomer with your fancy cocktails and your seasonal menu.  Remember your history. Remember as you sell tickets to the opening of your latest concern.  Because we may seem like our own most important moment, but even as we hurtle toward whatever we perceive as the future, the tentacles of our collective pasts tug at our tendons, our tissues and weave themselves into something that we might call, in our more contemplative or hopeful or fearful moments, a soul.

A Brief but Important History of the Blommer Chocolate Company and the West Loop, Vitally Necessary to an Understanding of what One Might Think About on the Way to an Interview with Paul Kahan, Restaurateur

The Blommer Chocolate Company was founded in 1939 in Chicago.  The Blommer family--Henry Blommer and his two sons Al and Ben--built a handsome modern headquarters and factory in the Near West Side at the intersection of Kinzie and Desplaines, a few steps from the western bank of the putrid stench of the Chicago River.  The city still had no solution for the dumping of industrial waste into the River, and its flow had long before been reversed to reduce pollution of the city's blue jewel, Lake Michigan.  The factory was close to the cheap and desperate muscle of a Depression-ravaged immigrant populations, and yet within shouting distance of the Loop--long the city's commercial aorta.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The High Life Man: Masculinity in America

Overture: The High Life Man's Credo
I went up to the Block Cinema at Northwestern University last week to see Errol Morris's latest documentary Tabloid.  I'm a longtime fan of Morris's extensive series (more than 100 ads in all) of advertisements for Miller High Life.  According to Morris's website, so is he.  The director of documentaries like The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War considers the High Life commercials "his most impressive achievement."  Their sheer volume aside, Morris's meticulous attention to consistency of tone, humor, and warmth throughout the campaign is pretty amazing.  Because they ran for so long (almost eight years), and seem to establish a consistent aesthetic for a certain kind of ideal American man, Morris's commercials raise a lot of issues related to the supposed crisis of confidence plaguing American masculinity.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Newspapers in "Falling Man"

Trying to combine the last two posts together a bit.  Don DeLillo's 9/11 novel Falling Man thinks a lot about the relationship between the individual and the historical, but in a way that is much different from Junot Diaz and Jennifer Egan.  Here the concern is about the relationship between individuals and an exemplary/spectacular/singular event.  How does an individual's relationship to a historical event like 9/11 differ from that individual's relationship to the ongoing narrative of a continuous history?  I think the novel helps us address some of these questions, while at the same time providing some insight on how newspapers mediate the transition from post-trauma to ordinary life.  Or something.  I'm really tired.

Don DeLillo's Falling Man presents characters with different relationships to visual, literary, and performance art.  The novel meditates on the ability of different genres and forms of art to mediate trauma--to help characters work through the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.  Meanwhile, the novel itself attempts to work in different genres.  The staccato, stilted dialogue of the characters often seems more like terse poetry than realistic portrayals of conversations; and (as we discussed in class), the tightly stylized form of the book resembles a self-contained still life.  In other words, Falling Man engages with questions about the usefulness (uselessness) of artistic forms as means of smoothing the transition from trauma "back to" ordinary life.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Wondrous Goons

I've been swooning over Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad for a while now.  It's no longer my private recommendation--my "sleeper" candidate for best book of 2010 (and, to be fair, it was everyone else's sleeper candidate in that category well before it was mine.  That is, well before I got around to Goon Squad, the secret that the book was a secret success had very much gotten out).  By now, everyone knows it's a book that deserves to be torn apart, read multiple times in multiple directions: one whose parts can seem momentarily greater than the whole, but only momentarily.  And this is great news for a lot of reasons that involve a lot of things--particularly the opening up of the novel as a form, and the generation of dialogue about the future of fiction making.  But I wasn't so much thinking about the future as the past.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Does Dave (only) Tell us How it Feels to Him?

I have been writing and thinking about terrorism, ordinary life, patriotism, trauma, and collective identity a lot in the past two years. (Again, really, I'm a happy person in general disposition). This week I reread The View from Mrs. Thompson's, a brief essay by (I know, I know) David Foster Wallace. In light of the official publication of his posthumous novel The Pale King this week as well as the beautiful Jonathan Franzen essay in The New Yorker--and because I just realized (reading this thing for the tenth time is no less heartbreaking, of course) that he "gets" the things I wanted to "get" better in four pages than I did in thousands of writing, reading, revising, rehashing, suffering through--here are a few thoughts on Dave's account of "The Horror."

In the first half of his essay "Tell me How Does it Feel?" James Wood indicts novelists interested in writing the "Great American Social Novel," claiming: "they will sooner or later be outrun by their own streaking material." In other words, a writer attempting to capture the totality of a social moment--its interpersonal, economic, demographic, horticultural (etc) elements—will always fall short of actually describing the world. And worse, in the process of trying to do so, she will also fail to document anything essential about human feeling. Yet Wood seems to rely on the assumption that human feeling should reside solely within the world that the author portrays. He ignores the possibility of locating feeling within the narrative voice.

I’m not sure if this perspective necessarily addresses Wood’s concerns—and perhaps it merely suggests that writers are vain and solipsistic and can only talk about the interior landscape of their own heads. But if this portrayal is honest and curious, and conducted with the interest of connecting the writer to a reader, is it something we should lament?

In The View from Mrs. Thompson's
, David Foster Wallace takes it as a given that it would be impossible to describe all of the elements necessary to understand how to synthesize the feelings induced by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The piece does not attempt to portray the totality of the moment; rather, by cataloguing details he observes from the ordinary lives of individuals in Bloomington, Wallace in effect tries to at least give the reader an understanding of how he makes an effort to cope. He describes some conditions “on the ground” in Bloomington--but does so in order to give readers insight into the only consciousness that he feels able to occupy in the wake of “the Horror”: his own.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Evening of Gentlemanly Pursuits, Part II

Part II: Solipsism is Just a Kind of Self-Love

My ambitions at the start of the whole process of writing about Paul Kahan far outstripped my abilities as a journalist and reflect the naive belief that one can fake good intentions and yet write something that people actually want to read--something, that is (and maybe I'm assuming incorrectly about what readers want to read, but I'd like to think that I'm not too far off here), honest about the world that we inhabit that explores why and how we choose to inhabit it together.

Essentially, I was bored and broke--reading a lot of novels and living off of excess student loan money and the occasional sale of stock. I wanted to eat at fancy restaurants and pretend that I was a writer.

So I said I wanted to write something about Chicago and its relationship to food. I said I wanted to write something about the stagnation of twentysomething upward mobility in the midst of a recession. I said I wanted to write about politics. I said I wanted to write about happy hour crowds choking down organically fed pork and going nowhere very fast, but laughing very, very hard.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

An Evening of Gentlemanly Pursuits, Part I

Some background.

Grant Achatz, Chicago celebrity chef/darling/villain/prettyboy, will open two new restaurants in the West Loop very soon: Next and Aviary. Though he rose to fame with Alinea, now ranked among the greatest restaurants in the world, he is trying to woo a new following. Enter Donnie Madia and Paul Kahan. The pair essentially started the West Loop’s renaissance when they first opened Blackbird more than ten years ago. More than that, Kahan literally grew up here, working at a deli on Green Street. Achatz would be nowhere near West Fulton Market Street were it not for Kahan, Madia. And now he’s elbowing into what is very much their territory.

This piece began as an article about the restaurants that Donnie Madia and Paul Kahan opened.

Last year, well before I knew about Achatz, I wanted to find out why all of the restaurants in the Kahan-Madia empire—there are five, soon to be six, in all—are so popular. I pitched the story to a writer for The Atlantic, who said he liked the idea, but it never got published. Why it never got published will become apparent, I think, almost immediately. But the more I think about that night, and everything leading up to it, the more important it seems to become. So here, after rewrites and more rewrites and revisions, in roughly 1000-word installments (and with Achatz as an excuse), is the article in a radically different form than the one I first “submitted.”

One last thing. It’s no longer as much about food as it is about other things. Some things are reconstructions, imaginations, and outright lies. A writer's claims to veracity are always conditioned by his or her sense of how words relate to reality; by the substances they consume while "researching"; and by whom they're trying to impress. To varying degrees, my own sense of the relationship between language and the world is affected by all of these. The piece is nonfictional to the extent that it aims to capture a real mood, a sense, a bundle of affects that characterizes a particular moment in my life and the life of a friend. In this way, I have convinced myself that the writing is honest. And maybe only in this way.

Part I: Aftermath

I woke up on the hardwood floor in Tyler’s apartment, twisted into a crumpled pile of chewed up meat. There was blood everywhere. On my shirt, my pants. The tip of my thumb was sliced somewhat less than totally open, and had turned an alarming shade of purple. There was a crust of stale sweat coating my body. It felt as though the alcohol had sucked all the fluids out of my skin, and now I lay as dried out as an iguana. Pieces of malignantly flaking skin hung off my lips. I ran my shriveled tongue against the raw roof of my mouth and felt something scrape off. I swallowed and coughed, as the day began to insist upon consciousness, sputtering like a dying fish on the deck of a listing ship.