My name is Jonah Bromwich and I live in New York City and write about music, books, movies, random pop culture, and sometimes, the world. I started this blog about a week before I graduated college in 2011. As of now it's for any thoughts that I feel are worthy of blogdom. I will try not to write about things I know nothing about.
Love this picture by the artist Istvan Banyai, of Pooh getting tossed from McSorley’s. Predictably, Piglet is no help.
If some sadistic teacher assigned you The Crying of Lot 49 when you were an undergrad, you know how difficult it can be to read Thomas Pynchon. Never mind whether or not you liked the book. Even die-hards will grant that it’s a struggle to keep track of half a hundred names, places and obscure bits of information that may or may not hold the key to the entire novel. There’s more to miss in those slim 183 pages than in the entirety of War and Peace.
That’s the price you have to pay as a reader to duel with one of the few authors capable of rendering the macro-contemporary world in all its complexities, ironies, and minute details. (Ok, macro-contemporary, I’m super obnoxious, right?) I guess what I mean is that, there are a good amount of authors who can write a character sketch and make it breathe, but there are very few—Pynchon, Delillo, maybe Franzen—who can build the fictional world that surrounds their characters to the point where it feels as vivid as our own. The world ends up mattering way more than the characters, or the plot that brings them out into it.
Pynchon has been able to make that magic happen since he began writing fiction, and he does it again in Bleeding Edge, writing about late-capitalist New York, the internet, September 11th and his old favorite—conspiracy theory—with an impressive, and yeah, unique, combination of snark and grace.
The main character in Bleeding Edge is the wise-cracking, semi-divorced, self-proclaimed-yenta, Maxine Tarlow, a combination of Mickey Spillane, Dorothy Parker and the matchmaker from Fiddler on the Roof who runs a small fraud-busting business on the upper west side. Maxine is sucked into a whirlwind of intrigue that includes the requisite cast of Pynchonian characters (supremely evil web geek, mafioso in a venture capitalist’s clothing, ruthless veteran of the South American juntas and possible love interest and murderer, a code geek with a foot fetish) and the requisite Pynchonian confusion about what the hell it is our hero Maxine is actually looking to do. Ostensibly, she’s put on the trail of the company hashslingerz, owned by the evil Gabriel Ice who may or may not be funneling money to the Middle East, but she’s also pretty interested in who killed a harmless web geek named Lester Traipse who was sucked into Ice’s world. And as the book moves along, the love-interest/murderer, a Nicholas Windust, rears his head, just in time to see the towers fall and the suddenly post-9/11 world come sharply into view.
Of course, after 9/11, that entire plot becomes secondary, as it was always meant to do. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, seeing as it takes until page 316 out of 477 pages to get to the first plane. But trust me when I say that Pynchon nails everything about that day, and afterward. He ducks the mediated, communal view that we’re all so used to in favor of a reminder of what the day was like on an individual level. He does it without showboating, without milking the moment, without being exploitative in any fashion. Here’s the plane hitting:
“Maxine heads for work, puts her head in a local smoke ship to grab a newspaper, and finds everybody freaking out and depressed at the same time. Something bad is going on downtown. “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center,” according to the Indian guy behind the counter.
“What, like, a private plane?”
“A commercial jet.”
Uh-oh. Maxine goes home and pops on CNN. And there it all is. Bad turns to worse. All day long. At around noon, the school calls and says they’re shutting down for the day, could she please come and collect her kids.”
And that’s the scene. Our hero does what we did, and Pynchon is able to bring the day alive again by reminding us of that, rather than grandstanding. Only later does the poetry come, dispersed amongst single pages and again, never overdone. There are descriptions of various events following the initial shock, a family argument split down the middle between pro-conspiracy and pro-Israel, an acknowledgement of the fact that IRONY was blamed by some for the tragedy and other all-too recognizable moments. Pynchon manages the politics, the conservative hysteria, the liberal backlash to the conservative hysteria, the radical theories, with a total mastery, reminding us how frantic we all were, how desperate to deal with it. It’s positively uncanny and makes the entire book worth reading.
That’s the best part of Bleeding Edge and unfortunately, not all the material rises to match. No one yet has managed to write about virtual reality without seeming ridiculous and Pynchon doesn’t manage to pioneer anything on that particular subject—several drawn out scenes in a deep web environment known as DeepArcher are some of the clunkiest in the book. We are reminded again and again about the collapse of the first tech bubble, and while Pynchon gets in plenty of smile-worthy gags around this fact, it becomes old fast. There are also a couple of moments in which Pynchon does that “look, my characters are predicting the future” thing that can be so obnoxious. Here’s Maxine’s buddy, Reg: “Someday there’ll be a Napster for videos, it’ll be routine to post anything and share it with anybody.”
Kind of irritating. But the details of the turn of the century (like Napster) are there in full, beanie babies and Pokemon and Dragonball Z characters, techspeak, fashion choices, everything. And Maxine, who pairs classic New York attitude with gumshoe panache is a great tour-guide, even when we’re not sure exactly what it is she’s giving us a tour of.
By the end of the book it becomes a bit clearer. New York, the city that has lately become “the-greatest-city-in-the-world-to-publish-an-obnoxiously-long-farewell-letter-to” was already in deep trouble before the towers fell. The place was teeming with money and tech and the money-hungry whether tech- or otherwise oriented. You come away from Bleeding Edge feeling that it’s all just so familiar, not because 12 years isn’t really all that much time (because hey, that’s half my life) but because despite the trauma, we really haven’t learned much of anything since.
Notes: Best advice I ever received on reading Pynchon: underline all proper nouns and take a note of the introduction in the margins. Yeah it’s annoying to read with a pen but it’s better than frantically searching through two hundred pages to try and find a seemingly meaningless character who has suddenly become central.
12 Years a Slave is a brutal movie. As a document of human evil and a catalog of the horrors of slavery, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen anything like it. It is horrific to sit through. And it is beautifully directed by Steve McQueen and acted in a way that would be difficult to find fault with. Oscar chatter has surrounded the movie since before it was released and I do not think that many people will be upset if it sweeps the awards shows in the next few months.
The movie’s plot is straightforward. A free black man named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor is brilliant—more on that later) is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He splits the majority of his time between two plantations, one owned by a “nicer” slaver (Benedict Cumberbatch) who respects Northup’s talents while denying him his humanity and the other by a slaver, played by Michael Fassbender, who is an evil drunk. We watch as Northup lives through Herculean anguish and we see horror after horror committed against him and the other slaves.
Whether or not you see 12 Years a Slave as a success though, depends on what you think of as the movie’s mission. The movie is a terrific portrait of evil and the way in which it corrupts. Every single character which slavery touches (outside of Brad Pitt, playing a kind of inversion of the magical negro here) is made complicit in some way. That includes the slaves—in their obsequiousness and competition against each other, and in far more awful ways. At one point a slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who has a dangerous relationship with Fassbender’s character asks Northup to take her life. He refuses and his answer robs her of her dignity and dooms her to further captivity. This is not to say that Northup makes the wrong choice—killing her and robbing her of her limited potential for freedom would be no better.
In this way, 12 Years of Slave introduces in its viewer a feeling of helplessness. There is simply nothing to be done (by either Solomon or the viewer) except wait, and fear and despair and occasionally hope that an opportunity to escape has presented itself. McQueen delights in the irony of overlaying images of brutality with ones of grace. A fiddle tries in vain to be heard over the sobbing of a mother who has lost her children. The one woman who appears to be enjoying being made to dance in the middle of the night has her head smashed open. These moments are abrupt and breathtaking and they are unforgettable. So in its familiarity with the way that evil works and its portrayal of an institution that is only evil, the movie gets things all the way right.
But if slavery dehumanizes Solomon Northup in a way that Ejoifor captures fully, than the movie’s script dehumanizes him again by failing to make him into a thorough person. I can’t tell you much about Solomon Northup. He plays the fiddle. He is proud and then broken. He is a victim. He is saved by a white man with Brad Pitt’s ridiculous accent. After spending two hours with Solomon, I should know more than that. An idyll is all we see of Northup’s life before he is kidnapped. That makes the horror of slavery even starker but it also makes Northup seem like a cartoon.
Because the movie’s script fails to show us that Solomon Northup is a human being, it strays dangerously close to being the type of art condemned by both Vladimir Nabokov and James Baldwin. Here’s Nabokov:
"For me a work of fiction exists only in so far as if affords me what I shall bluntly call aesethetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash."
Baldwin, writing about Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which was written after Harriet Beecher Stowe read 12 Years a Slave) is even more precise:
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin—like its multitudinous, hard-boiled descendants—is a catalogue of violence. This is explained by the nature of Mrs. Stowe’s subject matter, her laudable determination to flinch from nothing in presenting the complete picture; an explanation which falters only if we pause to ask whether or not her picture is indeed complete; and what constriction or failure of perception forced her to so depend on the description of brutality—unmotivated, senseless—and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds.
But this, let us say, was beyond Mrs. Stowe’s powers; she was not so much a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer; her book was not intended to do anything more than prove that slavery was wrong; was, in fact, perfectly horrible. This makes material for a pamphlet but it is hardly enough for a novel; and the only question left to ask is why we are bound still within the same constriction.” (Selections of the essay helpfully republished by New York Magazine)
12 Years a Slave succeeds with some of its characters, where Baldwin claims that Uncle Tom’s Cabin failed. We see relatively full portraits of the twisted humans played by Fassbender, Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and others. But on the Colbert Report the other night, Steve McQueen recommended seeing his movie on the grounds that it is “the true story of an American hero.” And that just isn’t the case. Slavery and the script of 12 Years a Slave conspire together to make it a movie about someone who is for the most part, a cipher. Survival in the face of great odds does not make Northup—indeed, as far as the movie succeeds, it does so by showing us just how impossible heroism was in the face of the institution of slavery.
12 Years a Slave, anti-slaverypropaganda (propaganda in contrast to art, not as a pejorative) though it may be, is redeemed in many ways by its medium. Film gives us actors, and good actors, even when not given much to work with, can make warm-blooded characters out of props in a writer’s lesson plan. I don’t know much about Northup as a human but through Ejiofor I can at least tell he is one. This is true of almost every character in the movie except for, again, Brad Pitt’s. (I swear, I really like Pitt, this is just a terrible role for him.)
I don’t know much about the original 12 Years a Slave but I know that it was a book with a mission. Its adaptation retains that structure and characterization never intercedes. It is thanks to McQueen and his cast that the movie has an incredible impact. Come March 2nd, by all means give them their due. The movie is a lesson, and a powerful one at that. But because it so often ignores the humans which reside within it, particularly the man which is its supposed subject, it does not deserve full credit as a warm-blooded work of art.
A good way to evaluate rappers is through their guest appearances; it’s a low-key measure of pure rapping ability. Before Acid Rap, Chance the Rapper announced his arrival by dominating a Joey Bada$$ cut called “Wendy and Becky.” Tyler the Creator has always been a decent rapper; but he turned heads in 2011 when he appeared on Pusha T’s “Trouble on My Mind” and The Game’s “Martians Vs. Goblins.” And, believe it or not, the young Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller has been a beast on the 16’s this year. From Action Bronson’s “Twin Puegots,” (on which Mac gets in a weed boast that outdoes anything Bronson has to offer on the green-laden Blue Chips 2) to a spot on Camp Lo’s “Megan Good” (on which Mac outslicks some of the slicker rappers ever) to Earl’s “Guild,” to The Jet Age of Tomorrow cut “Juney Jones,” Mac has been showing up on some of the best songs of 2013 and tucking his hosts into bed.
All of which drove me, finally, to his mid-year full album release, Watching Movies With the Sound Off with higher expectations than I ever would have thought to hold for a dude who I used to think of as the JJ Reddick of the rap game (eminently hatable white guy who every critic secretly thinks they can best). And while the record isn’t quite as much fun as Mac’s various guest roles from this year suggest, it still shows him to be one of the more talented rappers around, a fact that many may have rejected, even when they heard his name rounding out Kendrick’s list of competitors on his Control verse. (For those of you who don’t read about rap, this was the best rapper in the world naming those that he thought were worthy of competing with him in a verse this year.)
Watching Movies with the Sound Off does suffer from self-seriousness; Miller, like his friends in Odd Future, is a card-carrying member of the sensitive young man squad. This is all fine and good when it’s disguised or explored but Mac is often painfully earnest on WMWTSO. He’s not soulful to carry off a chorus that ends with “you hurt so good, Girl your loving hurts so good” and even when nimbly delivered, lines like “All these earthquakes don’t wake me from this deep sleep, diving into this cold lake” should be met with stone silence. “Objects in the Mirror” is a particularly treacly song, occasionally lapsing into plain-spoken lyrics which are too sappy to listen to with a straight face. And Mac’s melancholy is complemented by a set of mostly downer beats. Maybe it’s just because I came to this thing expecting nonstop fun but it’s just a little too dour in here for me even with an all star cast of producers including Flying Lotus, The Alchemist and Clams Casino.
And that’s where my complaints end. On Watching Movies with the Sound Off, Miller shows as a restless, talented, formally inventive rapper. Check the part on “Avian,” where he delivers a nice punchline involving a blind guy, appears to switch subjects, only to double back twice over, delivering sequential conclusions to both lines:
“I’m pissed off like a blind person looking for a restroom
Probably be dead soon inhaling cigarette fumes [coughs]
Sorry for that blind people comment, that was just rude
And I was raised better, say God bless you”
And he’s smart enough to carry the Quasimoto sped up voice on “Gees,” a nice way to switch up his style without rotating another rapper in; though Schoolboy Q comes in anyway, and gives the song an unnecessarily gruesome punctuation mark.
Miller is also one of the straight-up funniest dudes rapping today; for evidence look at the Chapelle reference in “S.D.S.” or a hashtag gem, also from “Geees,” which combines wordplay and insulting Tony Romo in a way that any football fan should appreciate.
He may not sound his best over such cloudy production but Mac is still a boom bap expert; when a beat steadies out, as on “Bird Call,” he goes in like few can, making a showcase out of one of his album cuts like he does to other people’s songs on guest appearances all year. Miller knows what makes a good verse and Watching Movies with the Sound Off, while it could be shorter and stronger, is filled with examples of a kid growing into a serious artist by remaining, when he’s at his best, as playful as possible.
Grade: 73 (Going to be grading music out of 100 as I’m most comfortable reviewing it; I may eventually do the same for movies and books.)
Notes: Action Bronson, who features on “Red Dot Music,” is really taken with the idea that his beard resembles a lion’s mane.
Book: Political Fictions by Joan Didion
I picked up Joan Didion’s Political Fictions sometime this past summer, and only got around to finishing it a couple of days ago. That has nothing to do with the book’s quality—it’s broken up into long, absorbing essays, and when I got to the point where I only had one essay left, I started to get worried that I would take the book somewhere, finish the essay and be left with nothing to read. (It’s the same reason that I often to neglect to read the last short-story in any given collection).
My interest in politics was catalyzed by two things: the fact that my friends had started talking about the subject and I wanted to keep up, and the fact that I started working at The Times. I’ve learned that, much like with sportswriting, the political writing I like is far-ranging, incisive, and meta, in that it tends to focus on other political commentary. Political Fictions was my ur-political reading and it was a great place to get started. Didion understands the landscape of contemporary politics (the events covered in the novel range from the late 80’s to the 2000 presidential campaign) in ways that few inside the system possibly could. Political Fictions, then, functions as a condemnation of a hugely insular political world, in which the insiders speculate on the opinions fewer and fewer voters and facts are abandoned for empty words, which Didion calmly punctures. This is the hypocrisy-noting of The Daily Show writ large, and far more serious—it’s This Town without the joviality.
In one essay after another, Didion compiles quotes from various figures, both Democrat and Republican, that together work to build a picture of what the political temperature is thought to be. By comparing these statements with the statements of Americans outside of the political class, or otherwise with statistics, Didion shows them to be false and/or fatuous. There’s a point to which Didion’s graceful prose disguises her rage, but the outrageous rhetoric that she exposes is enough to make the reader crazy (particularly if that same reader has been reading the news, and notes that the trends that Didion exposed are far from over.)
This is my first one of these posts, and I plan to take better notes in the future, particularly if the movie/book/album I’m writing about is as fantastic as Political Fictions. But in the last essay alone, Didion presages the rise of someone like Nate Silver, condemns that slimeball Joe Lieberman (it might be common knowledge to people older than I am, but I had no idea that Lieberman was a kind of religious fix-it reaction to Clinton’s actions nor did I remember how concerned with virtue the 2000 campaign was), introduces the reader to the conservative policy influence of Marvin Olasky and explains, for better or for worse,one of the key factors in the Democrats loss of the White House in 2000. It is thrilling reading—intelligent, precise, fact-based and cool-headed, though Didion’s ire can’t help but shine through in her concluding sentences: “The distinct possibility that an entire generation of younger voters might see no point in choosing between two candidates retelling the same remote story could benefit only one campaign, the Republican, and the failure of the Democratic campaign to recognize this could yet neutralize the advantage of the legacy it has worked so assiduously to disavow.”
Notes: Didion’s shredding of Bob Woodward is included in Political Fictions. If you enjoy "The Deferential Spirit" you’ll enjoy the book.