September 2015 Media Round-up (Books)


Shampoo Planet, Douglas Coupland

There’s something appealing about Coupland’s more driven characters, even though (or perhaps because) they’re not as personally relatable as his more aimless and lonely protagonists. Tyler, the protagonist of Shampoo Planet, starts off as a hotel-motel studies major who collects hair products and dreams of working at the major conglomerate Bechtol, which:

Nowadays, while they no doubt still manufacture death rays and other megatech items, they also make untold millions of people happy in their chain of spiffy luxury hotels spanning the globe, hotels in which I want to be employed and hotels which are part of Bechtol’s brilliant corporate diversification strategy.

Bechtol, for that matter, is involved not only in hotels these days, but in genetic research, poultry ranching, fish farming, chromium mining, ready-to-wear sportswear, and a myriad of other exciting and profitable ventures. This diversification was spearheaded by Mr. Frank E. Miller, CEO of Bechtol, a man whose biography, Life at the Top, I have reread many times and heartily recommend to all of my friends.

Notably, this is a corporation which Tyler’s mother claims to have fire-bombed in her youth; the whole hyper-consumerist Reagan youth thing Tyler has going on is obviously an act of rebellion against his hippie upbringing, but it’s interesting how earnest he is about it. Plus, there’s the fact that we generally see rebellion going the other way—children reacting to overly conservative upbringings—so this feels somewhat1 novel.

The specificity and lack of grandiosity in that dream—in contrast to, say, wanting to become an Artist—is also a detail that I really appreciate, and I think one of the bits that recurs throughout Coupland’s various books is this idea of having a manageable dream2. (Although, of course, it’s hard to commit to pursuing a manageable dream if you still have the desire for your life to be a story.) And Coupland is just very good at coming up with these weird, specific occupational things—the mattress salesman in Eleanor Rigby, the lab mice breeder in Player One, the cat-food pyramid scheme in this book, the Minecraft-esque start-up in Microserfs, etc.

Of course, not everything goes swimmingly for Tyler, so we do still touch on Loneliness In The Modern Age and other existential issues, but the ambitious protagonist and ’90s-ness makes it not as much of a distressingly poignant “get out of my head, you Canadian Visionary!” read as, say, Eleanor Rigby. 

Selected quote:

Work and money; money and work—strange but true. Fifty years of this stuff ahead of me—it’s a wonder I don’t just hurl myself off the bridge in the center of town right away. How did we let the world arrive at this state? I mean, is this it? And where, exactly, is the relief from this creepy cycle supposed to be? Has nobody thought of this? Am I mad?

Howards End, E. M. Forster

Between reading Howards End and writing this, I’ve read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty3 and watched the 1992 movie adaptation of Howards End, so you would think that I would be full of deep insights about Howards End at this point, but alas, that is not quite the case. Some scattered observations, then:

Inversion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Granted, this was not a trope, at least not with that specific name and connotations, at the time that this was written, but it’s useful terminology for me to describe this, so let’s go with it. When we think of MPDGs, we generally think of (hot) quirky girls who force our depressed male protagonists to embrace life, be spontaneous, pursue his dreams, etc. but aren’t themselves written in a way that suggests that they really have an inner life or purpose for their existence apart from the male protagonist. Before we get to the whole “insider information on the Porphyrion Fire Insurance Company” plotline, we can sort of imagine a (probably shittier) version of Howards End told completely from Leonard Bast’s perspective in which the Schlegel sisters simply come across as MPDGs that help to awaken him to the beauty of the world rather than individuals with their own complex shit going on.

And yet, since we spend more time with the Schlegels than with Bast, we instead see the Schlegel sisters deciding that they need to change Leonard’s life and make him have Real Experiences based on their not quite perceiving him as an individual with agency. The Schlegels see Bast as a cardboard cut-out on which to project their own ideals, as a representative of his class and an object for their charity rather than the flawed individual which the reader is allowed to see that he is in the few chapters revolving around him. Margaret Schlegel w.r.t. Bast:

“His brain is filled with the husks of books, cultures—horrible; we want him to wash out his brain and go to the real thing. We want to show him how he may get upsides with life. As I said, either friends or the country, some”—she hesitated—“either some very dear person or some very dear place seems necessary to relieve life’s daily grey, and to show that it is grey.”

Out of context, that’s essentially the Manic Pixie Dream Girl MO, right? If we didn’t know anything else about Margaret as a character, it would read as totally selfless and benevolent, if a bit naive. And this is where we get to one of the big issues with Manic Pixie Dream Girl as a term—Margaret is very much not a MPDG, but it would be easy to label her as one based on this passage and an incomplete understanding of the intended connotations of the term.

The thing is, Leonard Bast only exists on the periphery of Margaret’s motivations throughout the novel—somewhat less so for Helen, whom he (SPOILER) impregnates later on, but even so, the Schlegel sisters each have a variety of concerns in life, rather than single-minded pursuits. Part of this is due to their class privilege—not needing to work or marry to maintain their standard of living—but part of it just that they’re presented as real people. So, right, their involvement with Bast is far from the driving force in their lives—in fact, their detached response to his decline throughout the novel is pretty fucking callous given their initial involvement. But ultimately, he just served as an interesting case study for their women’s debating society and a token lower-class acquaintance to satisfy their liberal intellectual ideals.

Speaking of liberal intellectual ideals: That discussion in the debating society about the most effective form of philanthropy was everything. It is 105 years later and we are still having basically the exact same debate.

What even is the deal with the relationship between Margaret and the Wilcoxes? I feel like there’s just some weird subtext that I’m failing to parse in both in the Margaret/Mrs. Wilcox friendship and the Margaret/Mr. Wilcox courtship. Like, Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox genuinely liked each other in a really deep way—or at least deep enough for Margaret to be hurt when Mrs. Wilcox flakes on their plans to go to Howards End together and for Mrs. Wilcox to eventually want to leave Howards End to Margaret—and yet, there’s always this sense of awkwardness and distance in their interactions. So I don’t know; maybe the implication is that the intimacy of their friendship developed in scenes not shown, maybe social conventions have changed too much in the past 105 years for their friendship to take a form recognizable to a modern reader, maybe I just don’t understand adult interaction, or maybe it’s just something else altogether.

And w.r.t. the Margaret/Mr. Wilcox relationship—to some (perhaps a very large) extent, she’s marrying him for his property, right? There is some sort of non-property related attraction going on there too, I think, but I guess because this was the early 20th century, that’s only vaguely hinted at, so who knows. And there’s that weird aspect to their relationship where Margaret consciously plays into his (sexist) conceptions of how women should be in order to manipulate him. Is she trying to slowly change him or just manage him? I don’t know. But it’s interesting to see a romance where the woman is like, “Yeah, I know this dude is an asshole, but I also understand how to use his flaws to get what I want and I’m willing to do that, even if it means not presenting my True Self at all times. Moving is a bitch, you know?”

Selected quote (Moving is a bitch):

The Age of Property holds bitter moments even for a proprietor. When a move is imminent, furniture becomes ridiculous, and Margaret now lay awake at nights wondering where, where on earth they and all their belongings would be deposited in September next. Chairs, tables, pictures, books, that had rumbled down to them through the generations, must rumble forward again like a slide of rubbish to which she longed to give the final push, and send toppling into the sea.

Player One, Douglas Coupland

Okay, so probably relevant background on this book’s publication history: the Massey Lectures. Basically, every year since 1961, CBC Radio broadcasts a five-part lecture series given by a “noted scholar.” In 2010, Canadian Visionary Douglas Coupland was chosen to be this “noted scholar,” so he wrote a novel and delivered each of the five chapters as a one-hour lecture in a different Canadian city.

What that ends up meaning, especially because of the 5-hour real time structure, is that Player One is a super efficient delivery system for Couplandisms. It sort of reads as the novel version of a greatest hits album—basically every poignant, clever, and/or interesting idea that I took notice of in his other books occurs in this book. given the context in which this was published, it’s pretty brilliant, even though It’s annoying when one has consumed so many Coupland books in such a short time to hear the same sort of esoteric ideas phrased in such similar ways again. Then again, I suppose is not meant to consume the majority of his bibliographic output over the course of a few months of unemployment.

I don’t know, it’s like the Hans Zimmer thing again—there’s nothing wrong with having specific motifs to return to again and again, but the specificity of some of the recurring bits can be somehow irksome. Consider:

[By] the age of twenty, you know you’re not going to be a rock star. By twenty-five, you know you’re not going to be a dentist or any kind of professional. And by thirty, darkness starts moving in—you wonder if you’re ever going to be fulfilled, let alone wealthy or successful. By thirty-five, you know, basically, what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your life, and you become resigned to your fate.

– Player One

By twenty-five you know you’re never going to be a rock star, by thirty you know you’re never going to be a dentist, and by forty there are maybe three things left that you can still be—and even then, that’s only if you run as fast as you possibly can to try and catch the train.

– The Gum Thief

[At] twenty, you know you’re not going to be a rock star. […] By twenty-five you know you’re not going to be a dentist or a professional. […] And by thirty, a darkness starts moving in—you wonder if you’re ever going to be fulfilled, let alone wealthy or successful. […] By thirty-five, you know, basically, what you’re going to be doing with the rest of your life; you become resigned to your fate.

– Girlfriend in a Coma

I mean, it’s a really great passage; each time I encountered it, I was like, “aww yeah, that’s some good shit” before realizing that I had seen it before. And it’s relevant to whatever each character is going through each time they say it, but still, when you realize that it’s almost exactly the same phrasing used by different characters in different books…idk, man. Idk.

Selected quote:

“Luke, feeling unique and being unique aren’t the same thing.”

“I know. But still. We have to count. I want to be part of history. I want a Wikipedia page. I want Google hits. I don’t want to be just a living organism that comes and goes and leaves no trace on this planet.”

Maurice, E. M. Forster

This also has a fascinating publication history. Apparently Forster mostly wrote it in 1913, with a few revisions later on, but didn’t want to risk publishing it until British attitudes towards homosexuality changed. Wikipedia tells me that he left a note on the manuscript saying “Publishable, but worth it?” Anyway, Forster died in 1970 and Maurice was published in 1971, so here we are.

Right, basically the main things that I would want to discuss regarding Maurice are already touched on way more articulately (obviously) in Forster’s 1960 afterword. So we kind of have to include a few excerpts from that in the following:

Maurice is a totally average dude who happens to be gay.  I think, particularly given the period in which this was initially written/set, we would expect a novel with a gay protagonist to focus on someone more, I guess, exceptional—probably someone more like Clive, the sensitive intellectual tortured believing from a young age that he is “damned” for his desires until he heads off to college and finds solace in Plato (and Maurice’s arms). And Maurice, well, in terms of fictional portrayals of gay men, he’s neither the flamboyant, Wildean type nor a saintly, tragic figure.

From the actual text of Maurice:

Maurice was not intellectual, nor religious, nor had he that strange solace of self-pity that is granted to some. Except on one point his temperament was normal[…]

From Forster’s afterword:

In Maurice I tried to create a character who was completely unlike myself or what I supposed myself to be: someone handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, not a bad business man and rather a snob. Into this mixture I dropped an ingredient that puzzles him, wakes him up, torments him and finally saves him.

He’s actually even a bit of an asshole in his treatment of his mother and sisters and general class snobbery. He’s really just this dude, who, if it weren’t for that one “ingredient,” would lead a thoroughly unexceptional life—he would become a stockbroker, marry, and have kids, probably without any extreme success or failure. Maybe an affair or a mild drinking problem or some general ennui, but nothing really novel-worthy.

But no, instead we get to see how that “ingredient” ultimately leads Maurice to Transcend, to realize that the social conventions he’s blindly put stock in his whole life are worthless if they’re going to actively keep him from happiness, or, better yet, to stop giving a fuck. It’s glorious. (It’s also similar to the ending of A Room with a View, come to think of it. We may have to discuss that in the October books post.)

The happy ending! I mean, you could argue that the fact that Maurice’s sexuality requires him to break with society in order to be happy kind of devalues the “happiness” he attains, but I don’t know, Forster thinks it’s a happy ending:

A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood. I dedicated it “To a Happier Year”and not altogether vainly. Happiness is its keynote—which by the way has made the book more difficult to publish. Unless the Wolfenden Report becomes law, it will probably have to remain in manuscript. If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors. But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime.

Apparently one of the earlier drafts had an epilogue in which Maurice’s sister encounters Alec and Maurice living as woodcutters some years later, but this was later scrapped. Instead, we get a satisfactory final confrontation between Maurice and Clive, with the implication that Maurice is going to go off and be happy with Alec while Clive remains in his probably loveless marriage as a member of respectable society. Not that it was an angst-free journey to get to that happy ending—there’s the whole thing with Clive going through a bout of Meaningful Illness that apparently turns him straight and then dumping Maurice, marrying a woman, and remaining friends with Maurice while barely acknowledging the depth of their college relationship. And the thing with Maurice going to a hypnotist in an attempt to “cure” himself, post-Clive. But still: happy ending! Yay! Refreshing!

Selected quote:

On reaching home he talked about Durham until the fact that he had a friend penetrated into the minds of his family. Ada wondered whether it was brother to a certain Miss Durham—not but what she was an only child—while Mrs Hall confused it with a don named Cumberland. Maurice was deeply wounded. One strong feeling arouses another, and a profound irritation against his womenkind set in. His relations with them hitherto had been trivial but stable, but it seemed iniquitous that anyone should mispronounce the name of the man who was more to him than all the world. Home emasculates everything.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I really, really enjoyed Americanah, but I don’t have anything wothwhile to say about it. Um, here are some things I enjoyed:

  • The gossipy narration—the specificity of a lot of the characterizations and the judginess that comes through.
  • The sense of time—I think Adicihie manages to weave in references to pop culture and technological advances in a way that helps ground it in the real world and convey the passage of time (which is, what, about 15 years?) And I like that that gives us the device of Ifemelu’s blog posts.
  • The Obinze/Ifemelu romance: such an epic romance. Also a “happy ending, yay!” here.

Selected quote:

She had never understood the quarrel with malls, with the notion of finding exactly the same shops in all of them; she found malls quite comforting in their sameness.

The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford

Ugh, whatever. Infidelity is not the most interesting topic ever, to me. I guess “the point” of The Good Soldier is not the actual plot but the style in which it’s told. Since I was ostensibly reading this for fun, however, I was not quite reading it carefully enough to notice the apparent inconsistencies in the (unreliable) narration or to read into the subtext. Perhaps I should have looked it up on Wikipedia before starting to get a sense of how to read it. There are certain books that are probably best read in the context of a class if you haven’t fully developed your close-reading abilities (I so haven’t), and I suspect The Good Soldier is one of them.

Still: ugh, whatever.

Selected quote:

In all matrimonial associations there is, I believe, one constant factor—a desire to deceive the person with whom one lives as to some weak spot in one’s character or in one’s career. For it is intolerable to live constantly with one human being who perceives one’s small meannesses. It is really death to do so—that is why so many marriages turn out unhappily.

[1] Not completely novel, granted. Coupland himself has something similar going on 14 years later in JPod with the character John Doe (not his birth name), who grew up on a lesbian commune and is now on a mission to become as statistically normal as possible. And Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife springs to mind as a non-Coupland example, although I’m sure there are plenty of others. Who knows if this was the case back 1992 (when Shampoo Planet was published), though. ^
[2] Explicitly in at least Eleanor Rigby and Player One—“You know, there’s a lot to be said for having a small, manageable dream” and “Rick now believes there is much to be said for having a small, manageable dream,” respectively—although the contexts are different and I don’t know that either work is unambiguously siding with or against that statement, because I’m certainly not at a point in my life to be an objective reader of anything revolving around that particular sentiment.  ^
[3] A modern…adaptation? homage? [insert appropriate term denoting the specific type of intertextuality here, as this blogger majored in computer science and thus took like two college lit classes, both of which were Dostoevsky-focused and not really great preparation for general literary criticism]? of Howards End. ^


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