Sunday, April 25, 2010


In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees, New Orleans artist Jana Napoli spent months wandering around her city and collecting hundreds of discarded household drawers, drawers that had come from bureaus or kitchen cabinets or desks or elsewhere, drawers that had once held meaningful or trivial objects for their owners, drawers that would later serve as a monument to all that had been lost and a symbol of the significance of everyday objects. Working with co-creator Rondell Crier, Napoli created "Floodwall," an installation of the drawers which has taken on various configurations -- as a wall and looking rather like an enormous dresser, or as a room that surrounds the spectator, or arrayed on the floor like gravestones.  All the drawers have been photographed, logged in a database available online, and the artists have started doing taped interviews with the owners about the story of their drawer, and what it contained. Short clips of some of those stories have been posted here, including one of a woman who says that her mother kept in this drawer the pink dress that she wanted to be buried in. "Floodwall" was most recently mounted in early 2009 in Germany, but is well documented on the project website. (The video above is a news segment about "Floodwall" from KLPB television in Lafayette, Louisiana.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010


From David Shields' book "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto," some quotations he has assembled. That several of the following ideas refer to memoir does not make them any less relevant to people who are not memoirists; aren't we all always composing little stories out of our own experiences -- and telling them to ourselves or others?

"What I believe about memoir is that you just happen to be using the nuts and bolts of your own life to illustrate your vision. It isn't really me; it's a character based on myself that I made up in order to illustrate things I want to say. In other words, I think memoir is as far from real life as fiction is. I think you're obligated to use accurate details, but selection is as important a process as imagination." (104, Susan Cheever)

"Tell the story of your life that is the most emotionally cathartic; the story you 'remember' is covering the "real story" anyway...  Human memory, driven by emotional self-interest, goes to extraordinary lengths to provide evidence to back up whatever understanding of the world we have our hearts set on -- however removed that may be from reality." (161, 164 Patrick Duff)

"Our personal experience, though it may convey great truths, most likely won't be verified by security camera later... Autobiographical memory is a recollection of events or episodes, which we remember with great detail. What's stored in that memory isn't the actual events, but how those events made sense to us and fit into our experience." (172, Alice Marshall)

"I have never written fiction, and this memoir may be as close as I ever get to it. No more than a biography or a novel is a memoir true to life. Because, truly, life is just one damn thing after another. The writer's business is to find the shape of the unruly life and to serve her story... The moment you put your pen to paper and begin to shape a story, the essential nature of life -- that one damn thing after another -- is lost." (193, Dorothy Gallagher, in this NYT piece)

(A NOTE: "Reality Hunger" is composed of 618 passages, mostly quotations, and most of which David Shields has "revised, at least a little." So the above may not be exact quotations. But that suits Shields, who says a major focus of the book is appropriation and plagiarism, and that he must engage in those practices in order to treat them. He attributes the passages only on his publisher's insistence, and only in an appendix, which he encourages readers to physically remove from the book with scissors. I've erred on the side of his publisher here, and provided citations. Besides, while I appreciate the notion of being free to play with other people's ideas, I often like to go back to the source -- or rather the previous source, because no doubt the person being quoted is herself drawing on still other, prior ideas in circulation -- so as to know more of the life that produced the idea. Shields' book is provocative, but what I would've found still more provocative is if he left his name off the cover, or if he didn't cite the plentiful blurbs on the front and back jacket. If he doesn't care to cite the people in his book, why should he want his own name, or those of the people who praise him, to be known?) 

Sunday, April 18, 2010


First off, please allow me just say how much I wish I were Deborah Treisman. Not even so much because she has the enviable job of fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine; if under some bizarre circumstances I were chosen to replace her -- circumstances such as, say, a mysterious orange cloud that removed her and all viable candidates for the job to a prison with no telephone or internet access or chance of escape -- then I would surely steward the magazine's fiction section into ruin. And I don't want that. Rather, I'd like to be Deborah Treisman because of her knowledge of and feel for literature, and maybe also because of her lovely voice, which she uses on The New Yorker fiction podcast (link opens the podcast in iTunes). In each episode of the podcast, a fiction writer who has been published in the magazine selects and reads another writer's story published in the magazine, and discusses it with Deborah Treisman.

The February episode featured Julian Barnes reading Frank O'Connor's story, "The Man of the World," about a couple boys who, wishing to learn the ways of adults, spy from a window on a couple across the way and below them. Julian Barnes links this view from the window to something in O'Connor's autobiography, "An Only Child." In the podcast, Barnes reads a few lines from that autobiography, but let me provide a slightly more complete version here:

"I was always very fond of heights, and afterwards it struck me that reading was only another form of height, and a more perilous one. It was a way of looking beyond your own back yard into the neighbours'. Our back yard had a high wall, and by early afternoon it made the whole kitchen dark, and when the evening was fine, I climbed the door of the outhouse and up the roof to the top of the wall." It was not the only view that O'Connor had. A nearby quarry with a sheer face had ledges and hollows he could sit in for a view of the whole neighborhood, the open country behind it, and the River Lee in the distance. "I felt like some sort of wild bird, secure from everything and observing everything—the horse and cart coming up the road, the little girl with her skipping rope on the pavement, or the old man staggering by on his stick—all of them unconscious of the eagle eye that watched them.”

Julian Barnes, who edited and wrote an introduction for "The Best of Frank O'Connor," says in the podcast that we can move from the high view from which the two boys in the story spy on the neighbors, to the high view we as readers have on characters in a story, to O'Connor's view as a writer -- "also writing from a height," says Barnes, "not in a sense that implies condescension, but that implies a better view, and also a view of people when they don't know you're watching." 

A view from on high is of course just one perspective that a writer or reader may assume in a story. Characters may be seen from a close perspective, face to face, or from the inside, or from across a room, through a peephole, or perhaps from another plane of existence, as if seen by a ghost or a god. Whatever the perspective, what Julian Barnes identifies as "a view of people when they don't know you're watching" is perhaps most intimate. Characters in a story, however, are often watched by other characters in the story, and this may affect their behavior. But so long as they don't know that they are being watched by their creator, the writer, or the minions of readers, maybe they will act more unselfconsciously. Or about as unselfconsciously as a person of faith behaves, believing she is being watched by her creator. 

Somewhere in here there is a thesis that takes a sociological perspective on literary criticism -- Erving Goffman's "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" as applied to stories. Goffman uses the metaphor of theater to say that we are all performers, we perform our selves to different audiences. The big question is, is there an authentic self apart from the selves we choose to perform to those around us? We may reverse his metaphor, and instead of understanding the sociology of everyday life through the metaphor of theater, we look at fiction through the prism of the sociology of everyday life. This equation presumes that a character can exist apart from her writer-creator. But that is a post for another day. 

Friday, April 16, 2010


This from the first paragraph of Padgett Powell's "The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?" a book composed entirely of questions:

"Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it be Constantinople? Does a nameless horse make you more nervous or less nervous than a named horse? In your view, do children smell good? If before you now, would you eat animal crackers? Could you lie down and take a rest on a sidewalk? Did you love your mother and father, and do Psalms do it for you? If you are relegated to last place in every category, are you bothered enough to struggle up? Does your doorbell ever ring? Is there sand in your craw? Could Mendeleyev place you correctly in a square on a chart of periodic identities, or would you resonate all over the board? How many pushs-ups can you do?" And the first question that made me laugh out loud -- on only the second page -- "Why won't the aliens step forth to help us?" 

"The Interrogative Mood's 165 pages do not tell a story," writes Luc Sante in his back-jacket blurb. And he's right, for the questions do not cohere into any sort of plot. Instead, he continues, "They [the 165 pages] tell thousands of stories, all of them starring you. By the end you will feel as rich as Haroun al-Rashid on the thousandth night."  He's got a point. It's hard not to imagine events from your own life when posed such direct questions as these: "Are you a physical coward? Are you bothered by your cowardice? What are the top three things in your life you wish you had not done, or done differently than the way you did them? How old is the oldest human body you have ever seen naked?" 

The hilarity of many of the questions, and the expanding and contracting rhythms of the book often make it feel more like comic poetry than a personality test. And yet, not quite halfway through the book, Powell asks: "Are you curious to know what I'll do with the answers you've given me? Do you think I can make some kind of meaningful 'profile' of you?" You, you, you -- the book's relentless questioning doesn't allow you to hide in a secret perch as you might in reading a book told from a third-person omniscient view.  (The reader is allowed no more escape in Lorrie Moore's brilliant short story "How to Be An Other Woman"; written in the second-person and the present tense, it feels like the prophesy of your, the reader's own life as it unfolds.)

Whatever and however many memories or meanderings of your own "The Interrogative Mood" may prompt you to flash on mentally, perhaps the larger narrative here is that of the person who asks these questions. Powell gestures to that idea in the question that follows the one above: "Could you, or someone, do you think, make such a profile of me from the questions I have asked you?" 

Certainly the questioner is more revealed than the answerer by these oddball queries: "If you were part of a couple living in a three-story wooden Victorian house with a bad paint job outside and a shabby interior, to the extent that some of your rooms were lit by bare lightbulbs on swinging cords effecting heavy glare on the beadboard walls, wouldn't you consider it an appropriate diversion for the two of you to play Norman Bates and his mother at least sometimes? Do you take pleasure in cleaning and repacking ball bearings?" 


If all Padgett Powell intended to do was to spark conversation, he would have written something more like Gregory Stack's fun but prosaic "The Book of Questions" -- which provided conversation-starters such as "When is the last time you stole anything?" and "Would you accept 20 years of extraordinary happiness and fulfillment if it meant you would die at the end of this period?" (My answers: today, if stolen glances count; and yes, so long as the scenario does not involve drowning, fires, or shark bites.) But Stock's book was a party game, whereas Powell's aim is more literary.

What emerges from his book may be the reader's own stories, or the author's off-kilter perspective, or a peculiar sort of poetry. It may instead (or also) be just a mood, the interrogative mood of the book's title. So much of life and literature is declarative, expository. But the interrogative mood sees every aspect of life -- lived, imagined, possible, or otherwise -- as suitable for questioning. Why is anything the way it is? Who am I? What the hell is going on? Why am I being asked so many questions? Why don't I ask more? And just how often do I get asked, "What is your position on yard raking?" or "Do you like to sharpen pencils?" 

Now that's just silly.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


In any lifetime, I would hope, there are those rare experiences of extraordinary beauty or art. I wish I could say that Paul Chan's 2007 staging of "Waiting for Godot" on the streets of New Orleans was one such experience for me. By that I do not mean that I saw it and was unmoved. Rather, I dearly wish I had been able to go see it, but could not. A friend of mine who saw it described it as one of the most surpassingly powerful experiences of art he'd ever had. (Photo credit: Donn Young and Frank Aymami, for Creative Time.)

It was a stroke of genius to stage Samuel Beckett's seminal play about waiting in a devastated city that had been waiting ever since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck, the levees failed, and the city was flooded. In 2007, when the play was staged, many people were still waiting to get out of FEMA trailer parks, waiting for the levees to be brought up to snuff, or waiting for insurance money to come through. Not to say that New Orleanians hadn't been active in their own affairs: on the contrary, citizens were doing more than any government for the resurrection of their homes and lives and their city. But no matter how much they could do on their own, larger forces were at work that compelled them to wait. The basic infrastructure of schools, flood protection, health services and so on had to be rebuilt, for this one-of-a-kind city to be inhabitable again.     

As much as "Godot" is about waiting, it is also about action, as Holland Cotter pointed out in an excellent article in the New York Times. He writes that while the artist is part of an art industry "driven by a thumbs-up, thumbs-down imperative," still "Mr. Chan wants to try out -- everything is a tryout -- a new story, as have other artists, Beckett among them, who feel they are living in a time of moral emergency. The soul of 'Godot' isn't in Vladimir's despairing cry of at being marooned in nothingness, but in something he says later in the play: 'Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let's do something, while we have the chance! It's not every day that we are needed. Let us make the most of it before it is too late.' When these words rang out in the night in the Lower Ninth Ward and in Gentilly last month [the neighborhoods where the play was staged], every person present knew exactly what they meant, in that place, at this time. And Mr. Chan knew, which is why we were there in the first place, participants in an art project that had everything, or at least a lot: objects, words, images, ideas, emotions, discourse, actions, lessons, beauty, politics, criticality and generosity. At the same time, it wasn't all that big a deal. An artist -- an unusual one, to be sure, and rarely idle -- saw a chance and made the most of it." 

I imagine that it was the convergence of factors -- the condition of the city, the vision and hard work of the people involved, the quality of the night air during the shows, the gumbo meal that was served beforehand, the neighbors gathering for a performance that might speak to them, the chit-chat and conversation you might share with the people around you -- that resulted in what, for my friend anyway, was a rare and special experience.

For me, the story of "Godot" in New Orleans is the story of a missed opportunity. Maybe I'm inclined to romanticize the production precisely because I didn't see it -- after all, it's the one that got away. Perhaps I wouldn't have liked it, or might not have been ready for it, might not have come with open ears, or might have eaten too much gumbo and gotten a stomach ache, might have been unable to hear very well, or might have had an obstructed view or something else on my mind. Who knows. But in the event, the feeling of missed opportunity makes me more inclined to take a chance -- just as Paul Chan took a chance -- in creating or taking part in such stories. 

Documentation of the project (photos, a short video, Paul Chan's artistic statement, including discussion of his work in New Orleans) is on the website of Creative Time, here. I understand that a film and exhibit about the project is scheduled to take place starting this June at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Now that I will not miss!

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Sometimes history leaves physical traces, doesn't it? Other times, those traces are covered up or erased. Just down the street from my old apartment, there's a big ugly bank and office building that was the site of some controversy in the 1970s. A radical underground group threatened to bomb the building if the developer went ahead with plans to build several more monstrosities just like it up and down the block. Whether because of the threat or some other reason, the developers opted not to proceed with the razing of the old and the raising of the new. But not a single trace of this struggle remains on the building itself. However, there are the markings of another, more recent controversy. During the late 1990s, the dot-com boom hit the area, and mostly white tech workers were displacing  long-time residents, many of them Latino. The owner of this particular building kicked out many of the nonprofit tenants to make way for one giant dot-com company. Protests ensued, and the building got paint-balled with the colors of the Mexican flag -- green, red and white splotches of paint still dot the large, windowless west face of the building. So, in this case, there are traces that hint at some of the building's more recent history; however, the more distant history -- more distant in time, but not in relevance -- has no such clear markers. 

I was thinking about this as I strolled around the Central City area of New Orleans. An artists' collective called "Mondo Bizarro" has created an innovative sort of walking tour called "I-Witness Central City." There are signs posted around the neighborhood (like the one in the photo above) that prompt passers-by to dial the phone number given, then dial the code for that particular location, and listen to a cell-phone story about something that happened in that exact spot. Some of the stories relate to places or works of art that are still there, such as the murals underneath the elevated I-10 freeway. (Ironically, however, some of the murals are of trees that were destroyed to make way for the construction of the I-10 roadway. So the story is about art that still exists, but some of the art is of trees that no longer exist.) Other stories refer to long-past sites or events that have left no visible reminders, such as the old home of the Free Southern Theater, a legendary troupe that served as a cultural arm of the Civil Rights movement. In telling these stories, "I-Witness" peels away the topmost layer of these sites to reveal the underlying past that animates them.

"I-Witness" encourages wandering. The stories are numbered, but the project doesn't dictate any particular route or sequence you have to follow. There's a story map online that you can print out or look at on an iPhone as you meander. But I enjoyed just chancing upon a few of the story sites as I strolled around the area after a second line parade. I figured I could always come back for more at my own leisure. Callers can also leave comments after the recorded stories, and hear other people's comments if they choose. In this way, just as a place accumulates layers of history (a theater company office becomes a church, which may later become something else), the telling of that history also accumulates layers (people leave comments adding or responding to a recorded story). Just another sign, if you will, that history is never separate from its telling.

For those who can't make it to Central City, "I-Witness" also has a story map online, which allows you to click on any of a couple dozen pointers and see a video version of the stories in the collection.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


New Orleanians may have had a good laugh at the bomb of a TV show "K-Ville," which took place in their city. An article in Offbeat magazine said that show "was dismissed by locals almost immediately when it introduced us to a tradition we never knew we had: the gumbo party." Oh vey.

Well, strike that show off the list. But expectations are running high for an HBO series premiering this Sunday, called "Treme," named after a historic district in the city. The new show, from "The Wire" creator David Simon, follows the lives of a handful of musicians and other New Orleanians starting a few months after Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees. (That's the trailer for the show, above.)

The show's creators have done tons of research, cast lots of locals, and hired local writers to join the creative team -- including Lolis Eric Elie, a former New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist, and the writer of a fascinating documentary film called "Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans," which was directed by Dawn Logsdon. Lolis, in the photo at left, lives in Tremé, is the central character in the documentary, and, well, suffice it to say, he's thought a lot about the city's culture and travails and how it gets represented and why that matters. We talked about these two treatments -- one factual and one fictional -- and how each in its own way gets at some of the truth about New Orleans. 

Like what you see on HBO's "Treme"? Support an organization that the show hosted a benefit for -- the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic. They provide medical care for New Orleans musicians and other bearers of local culture -- in other words, they help keep the city's peerless music tradition alive.

Included in this episode of the podcast are a couple short snippets of music from a second line parade on Super Sunday, though I'm afraid I didn't catch the name of the tribe and band that sang and played it. If you recognize the singing / music, please let me know.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


I just got back from a trip to New Orleans, my first time in four years. Stay tuned for a couple upcoming podcasts on the city's Neighborhood Story Project, and on Faubourg Treme -- the historic district that's the subject of a 2008 documentary and the setting for HBO's new series. But for now, a bit about some other stories.  

I was in New Orleans in October 2005, just over a month after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. The water had of course receded by that time, but many houses still had high-water marks, and orange crosses with numbers on the doors, indicating whether rescue workers had inspected the building for people living or dead, and what or whom they found. The scene was a shadow of the awesome force that pounded the city; it was easily understandable why some people I spoke with -- pained as they were at the terrible losses they'd suffered -- were proud at having survived the storm. (Guiltily, their stories made me wish a little that I had been there during the storm; for however terrifying it was, the experience of genuine awe is rare, as is the sense of community that came about among residents.) And even those who had fled for safer spots and were just coming back to town, they wanted to talk. Maybe New Orleanians just love to talk. But on top of that, many people wanted to testify. How they'd escaped. How they'd ridden out the storm. What they lost. Whom they'd rescued. Their outrage at the failure of the levees, or of the government.

They had each other to talk with, of course, but there were plenty of others to hear their testimonials. News crews. Trauma counselors. And oral historians from far and near. The Historic New Orleans Collection has a list of some oral history projects. HNOC's oral history work focused on first responders, and included interviews with corrections officers who helped evacuate jails and prisons. Other sites include the "Hurricane Digital Memory Bank," which is "collecting and preserving the stories of Katrina and Rita." The "I-10 Witness Project" interviews New Orleans residents about their storm-related experiences. And "Do You Know What It Means" implores visitors to "help remember New Orleans" before Katrina -- drawing its name from the song made famous by Louis Armstrong, "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" Heroic or outraged or funny as some of the stories are, the whole enterprise of documenting this calamity is somehow terribly sad, as if the inimitable city of New Orleans were being reduced to mere memories, a collection of digital files to be found online, electric impulses, 0s and 1s floating in the air.

Or that's how I felt before going to New Orleans last week, my first time since Mardi Gras 2006. Plenty of rebuilding remains to be done, but the progress is encouraging, and tangible. Katrina's legacy is of course still present everywhere, but like the waters, it, too, is receding. People are talking about the music, and the new HBO show coming up, and the Saints, and everything else people talk about. Part of the reason they can now do that is the reckoning that took place through oral history. And so these stories, which seemed so sad to me just recently, look different now. Katrina and the levee failures will surely go down in history. But whether or not these particular stories on these particular websites ever make it into any book or documentary film, whether they reach anyone a few generations from now, whether and how they are transformed in time into family legend that someone's great great grandchild recounts many years from now -- whether or not any of that happens, the stories had to be told. They are not just mournful memories of a lost city, but the powerful assertion of an irrepressible culture.