Book Shorts

Book Shorts
Kim Benabib

Obscene Bodies

HarperCollins

          IS THE PUBLISHING industry really floating on the wave of a literary renaissance, or is it merely being pumped up with a bookish equivalent to junk bonds? I'd wager the latter, to judge from the number of pretty packages billed as "outstanding debuts" from "promising young writers." Obscene Bodies, which has supposedly "already observed controversy" because of its characters' thinly veiled similarities to real-life New Yorkers, is one such book.

          When protagonist (and probable authorial alter-ego, as with so many literary debuts) Stuart Finley, a 28-year-old wunderkind curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, takes up with SoHo art chick Claire Labrouste, we take off on a whirlwind tour of the downtown art world in all its hypocritical, decadent glory. As envisioned through Stuart's buttoned-down, Upper East Side lens (which is supposed to give the book its "satirical edge" and "biting wit"), we dine at the restaurant so of-the-moment it doesn't even have a phone number, and get the skinny on the inner workings of the public relations biz. We witness a blue-chip dealer's sale of one of his "obscene bodies" (a.k.a. works of art) attend an auction at Sotheby's, and hang at the fabulous SoHo loft of a world-famous artist-celebrity. All this, plus a little kink thrown in via heroin-dabbling and lite S/M.

          Sound tantalizingly trashy? Try just plain bad. Here, for example, is Benabib's idea of "insight," as Stuart sizes up Claire's snobby co-workers: "It was all in the attitude, the stance, the presumption of power and expertise. I thought, in expertise they're all sheep in front of me, though I was content to conceal this, employing my critical prowess with the restraint of a martial arts master, I told myself, only when provoked. (Of course this conceit was an unfair exaggeration and, if nothing else, a healthy way to deal with my own insecurity at such moments, a convenient and effective defense mechanism for which I could be forgiven in the face of so much oppressive judgment.)"

          Um... yeah. Actually, most of the prose reads more simply, and with all the passion of a dull sixth-grader's burped-up book report; the book should be titled Obscene Boredom. The NYC-born-and-bred Benabib may know the art world (he's got a painter mom and an art dealer dad), but that doesn't mean he can write--even if promo blurbage from Spalding Gray, of all people, crows just that ("some young can still write"). Who knows, maybe Spalding is friends with Kim's mom; or maybe his dad knows someone high up at HarperCollins). In fact, Obscene Bodies would seem to benefit from the very system it purports to critique, in which PR masterminds groom the frivolous, the fraudulent, and the out-and-out talentless to receive their unjust desserts. (Julie Caniglia)

Joyce Carol Oates

We Were the Mulvaneys

Dutton

          "WE WERE THE Mulvaneys, remember us?... From summer 1955 to spring 1980... there were Mulvaneys at High Point Farm... a well-known property in the Valley, in time to be designated a historical landmark, and 'Mulvaney' was a well-known name.... For a long time you envied us, then you pitied us. For a long time you admired us, then you thought Good!--that's what they deserve."

          Thus, with Cheeveresque grandeur, Joyce Carol Oates opens her 26th novel, the self-consciously tragic account of an American family's fall from grace. Narrated by Judd Mulvaney, a 30-year-old newspaper editor and the youngest of the four children, We Were the Mulvaneys is a classic tale of hubris and its consequences.

          The American family of myth and sitcoms--the father is a self-made millionaire, the eldest son a football star, the daughter a popular cheerleader--the Mulvaneys live in Edenic abundance at High Point Farm, a homestead that is itself emblematic of America: "Dad said of the house that it had no style, it was styles, a quick history of American architecture."

          Though the big, realistic novel (this one runs 454 pages) seems out of date, Oates tells a hell of a story. Despite its sometimes melodramatic plotting, the novel is not without narrative sophistication; throughout, Oates conducts a subtle investigation of the nature of memory and knowledge, of faith versus scientific inquiry. When, at times, the details of the story don't sync up--apple cobbler is served at dinner, but the father is said to eat cherry--one understands that Oates is reminding us of the unreliability of recollection and of history.

          The violent incident that topples the once-great family occurs in the '70s and is juxtaposed with an argument about the Vietnam war. It is hard not to read the novel as an allegory for the decline of the American dream, to read in it a history of a nation whose faith in divine providence and its own Manifest Destiny was irrevocably shaken by the war.

          At the book's conclusion, a dinner-time debate among various Mulvaneys pits Christian faith against the equally American faith in science. It is 1993 and Oates has brought us up to date, to a point at which--within the frayed American family that is this nation--the divergent positions have all been stated. It is only a matter of time, one senses, before things will come to blows. (E.J. Levy)

Hugh Kenner

Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings

University of California Press

          RIDDLE ME THIS: How is a cartoon like a cathedral? (Forget about the latest feature-length Disney atrocity; we're talking those old six-minute reels.) The answer is that both art forms can be produced only under certain conditions; when those conditions no longer obtain, the art goes out of business. There are reasons (which I will not go into here) why every vacant lot is the future site of a Wal-Mart, while the construction of new cathedrals remains in a four-century slump. As for the six-minute cartoon--the kind made to be shown in a movie theater, before the feature--its death knell was a 1948 antitrust ruling that forced movie studios to divest the theater chains they owned, and its executioner was that blue-eyed cyclops: the teevee set.

          But oh, the monuments left behind. On the one hand, you've got Chartres, created by anonymous artisans; on the other, Duck Amuck and What's Opera, Doc? and One Froggy Evening, produced under the supervision of a guy with a stupefyingly ordinary name. As Hugh Kenner writes in Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings, "Should you ever face the solemn task of preserving just one six-minute instance from the unthinkable thousands of hours of animated footage that's accumulated... since 1914, you'd not go wrong in selecting 'a Jones.'"

          Kenner is a heavyweight scholar, the most distinguished of all the literary critics who overrate the poetry of Ezra Pound. In his admiration for Chuck Jones, however, Kenner is right on target; and thankfully, this brief book moves gracefully, with a minimum of citations and pontifications. For Kenner, the essence of Jones's art is to show "Character by Way-of-Moving, not by mere Appearance." With the help of illustrations provided by Jones, the critic explains how this was done at Warner Bros. in the '40s and '50s. And he gives a brief tour of the history of animation, which explains why it isn't being done any more--too labor-intensive. (Although the 84-year-old Jones does have a new Daffy Duck short in selected theaters this fall...) Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings may be about an art form whose best days are long past, but it's a vigorous, enjoyable read. It'll blast your beak around the side of your head. (Steve Schroer)

Michele Zackheim

Violette's Embrace

Riverhead Books

          SOMETIMES YOU'VE GOT to wonder who edits books anymore. For example, who told Michele Zackheim, an artist for 36 years, that for her first book she should tackle the wildly complex and tormented life of Parisian writer Violette Leduc? And not only that, but should contort it into a semi-autobiographical account of her own development as a writer? If you're confused, well, you should be. First off, don't feel hopelessly ignorant if you've never heard of Violette Leduc. Her contemporaries--including De Beauvoir, Sartre, Genet, Gide, Cocteau, and Camus--respected her talent, but she was virtually unread until 1965, when her acclaimed autobiography, La Batarde, was published.

          "My mother never held my hand" is that book's first line, an appropriate opening to a tragic life. Leduc was raised by a hard-hearted single mother, and constantly ridiculed for her looks (her own mentor, De Beauvoir, called her "the ugly woman"); she fell in love with gay men, and saw her writings on lesbianism censored while gay male contemporaries were praised. She struggled with mental illness, was institutionalized, and died more or less alone, save for a few friends. Her only solace was writing; and toward the end of her life, when she'd settled in her own house in Provence, she told a friend she had finally found a home, a world, in words. Jean Cocteau once wrote of her, "Violette Leduc does not what is done, but what will be done. It is the secret and mythology of true artists."

          It's an incredible story, mostly told to us by an incredible character, Lili Jacobs, an old friend of Violette's whom author Zackheim met in Paris. Lili's own tales--of work in the Resistance, life in a Gestapo prison, and marriage to a Jewish intellectual--adds depth to Violette's. There are also wonderful details about Parisian cafe society and Leduc's life as a black market smuggler during the war. Jacobs describes Leduc's obsession with De Beauvoir (whom she called "God" in her journals); her horrendous botched abortion; and numerous other intimacies. Yet we must also read rather pointless descriptions of Zackheim's travels, her family, and her ever-so-lovely home in New Mexico. They bear no weight on Leduc's story, they distract, and ultimately, they bore. How very American to presume one is entitled to an audience, and to inject oneself into someone else's story. (Kate Sullivan)

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