Monthly Archives: November 2007


I really didn’t want to write anything else about the Robert Zemeckis-directed Beowulf: as I already explained, I didn’t much like it. It seems to be making a bit of money, so I guess it’ll be just a matter of time before we see Gilgamesh starring a CGI-encrusted The Rock, with Denise Richards as Ninsun and a cameo appearance by Billy Crystal as Urshanabi. Whatever.

But now I see that Roger Avary, who co-wrote the screenplay with Neil Gaiman, appears to think he pulled off something wild and outrageous. So let me introduce this piker to Jeff Sypeck and Doc Nokes, who point out that the idea of making Grendel into a misunderstood misanthrope instead of a ravening enemy of decency is not terribly original or daring. This leads to an interesting discussion of John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel, which was the first attempt to ring a few changes on the nature of Heorot’s unwelcome guest:

Like many a postmodern protagonist, Grendel embodies the intellectual trends of the day, but he’s not some whining prep-school antihero or an English professor coping with a midlife crisis; rather, he’s a creature of consequence. Julie Taymor has suggested of Grendel that “the monster is the most human of humans,” but I don’t think she’s right. Instead, he’s a truly wretched creature: an abomination cobbled together from the spare parts of modernity—a monster made insane by modernity itself.

There’s much more to say about Grendel, and I suspect my students, an increasingly candid bunch, will surprise and enlighten me with perspectives that aren’t stuck in 1971. Accustomed to other novels that sincerely praise nonconformity, they’ll probably notice, without my prompting, that Grendel isn’t just the story of a sensitive rebel, a Morrissey with bloody claws.

Grendel is a work of stark medievalism. It expresses little sympathy for the prejudices of the modern wit and outright disdain for the fatal affectations of the anti-hero. This Grendel is misunderstood—every time a reader assumes he ought to be seen as something other than the embodiment of doctrines that presumably rot the modern mind. Forget the conventional wisdom: Far from being a postmodern paean to the moody outcast, John Gardner’s Grendel may, in fact, be one of the most reactionary novels an English major will ever read.

I’ve always been puzzled by the appearance of Grendel on high school reading lists — Gardner’s novel assumes deep knowledge of the original poem, which would seem to be plenty enough work in itself. (There’s an animated version of the novel out there that I’d like to track down sometime.) Perhaps Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman should be required to take a few night classes on the topic, as penance.

Your Blake weekend

It really puts a crimp in one’s style to have the 250th anniversary of William Blake’s birth arrive in the middle of the work week. It may be possible, with some effort, to think of the New Jersey Turnpike as the highway of excess, but instead of leading me to the palace of wisdom it brought me, as usual, to Hoboken’s dark Satanic condos. So, a Blake weekend it will be. Meanwhile, let’s browse this gallery during lunchtime and then see what other people have to say.

This appreciation by Terry Eagleton hits easy, unilluminating notes:

Blake’s politics were not just a matter of wishful thinking, as so many radical schemes are today. Across the Atlantic one great anti-colonial revolution had held out the promise of liberty, and to the poet’s delight another had broken out in the streets of Paris. Together they promised to bring an end to the rule of state and church – “the Beast and the Whore”, as Blake knew them. Most of our own writers, however, seem to know little of politics beyond the value of individual liberties.

In this, they are faithful to the libertarian lineage of John Milton; but Milton knew rather more about politics than freedom of expression. In his greatest poem, he mourned the paradise that radical Puritans had hoped to witness on earth. As mythologer-in-chief of the English 17th-century revolution, he urged the cutting off of the king’s head, and was lucky to escape with his own. It is hard to imagine Craig Raine or Ian McEwan posing a threat to the state.

Almost as hard as it is to imagine Terry Eagleton, I guess. This Eric Ormsby piece is an improvement. We’ll do better talking to Patti Smith, one of our most Blakean poets, who made Blake the presiding spirit when she curated the Meltdown Festival in 2005:

“Blake goes back to my childhood,” she says, “I read the Songs of Innocence and of Experience when I was a little girl. I thought he was a children’s writer, and in a way he was – making me aware of the life of a chimney sweep. But then I grew with Blake, with his sense of spirituality, of social activism, his visionary experience, his compassion for the flaws in human nature and his own nature. When I did the performances for the Tate exhibition, I delved deep into Blake, and read Peter Ackroyd’s masterful biography, which is sometimes itself pure poetry.”

“It was Blake that first bound me to Robert Mapplethorpe,” says Patti Smith, of one of her first great loves and friends. “When we met in 1967, we were both artists, both working in bookstores. I was into abstract expressionism; he was into tantric art, but what we had in common was Blake. We would spend whatever money we had on books, even if we had nothing to eat, and spent a lot of time together with our Blake books. Both of us had what I’d call a Blakean palette. He was a very 19th-century person, and so am I.”

Leave it to a bunch of Bob Dylan fans to take note of Blake’s birthday. As is so often the case with Dylan’s debt to Blake, we leave the last word to Michael Gray.

Hard sell

A little advice from eBay on how to sell reflective kitchen items. Take a close look at the picture.

The finest weed in the South Farthing

J.R.R. Tolkien’s great-grandson is having a bit of trouble with the law. And it ain’t Old Toby he’s been smoking, either. 

Updike’s version

My first reaction to hearing that National Geographic had hired John Updike to write about weird dinosaurs was that the Rapture was surely at hand, or at least the breaking of one of the seven seals. But on second thought, the coming together of author, subject and venue isn’t all that unlikely. One of my favorite Updike novels, Roger’s Version, shows great familiarity with many areas of science as well as the pseudo-science of creationism, arguments over which form the novel’s spine. And the article is a perfectly good read.

The return of Mattie Ross

I have known some horses and a good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts. I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces?

Charles Portis is as unprolific as Thomas Pynchon and much less well known, and the news that Portis’ second novel, True Grit, has been reissued for its 40th anniversary is enough to make me celebrate by building a bonfire of unread copies of Mason and Dixon. And folks, that would be a big bonfire.

Hardcore Portisheads tend to prefer The Dog of the South or Masters of Atlantis, but True Grit is the Portis novel I return to most often. Maybe it’s because the heroine, the endearingly implacable Mattie Ross — a frontier teenager intent on avenging her father’s murder — is a veritable Sherman tank when compared to the ineffectual eccentrics who populate other Portis novels. The entire novel is presented as a monologue, recalled in her old age, of her adventures she tracked an outlaw into Indian territory, determined neither to stray from her path nor be tempted into using contractions, and it’s one of the great voices in American fiction.

I always thought it was appropriate that True Grit was featured in the Saturday Evening Post just before the magazine gave up the ghost in 1969. By that point the magazine was a nostalgia act, a classier version of Reader’s Digest sustained by reprints of old Tugboat Annie stories and Norman Rockwell paintings. Reading True Grit in such surroundings must have been like viewing a genuine Frederic Remington painting in a gallery of Grandma Moses knockoffs.

Blue Monday

I don’t know why it never occurred to me to look, but it only stands to reason that Richard Thompson’s devoted fans would have loaded YouTube with great performance clips. MetaFilter can point you to just a few.

What, that’s not enough for you? How about Thompson singing duets with David Byrne?

Harry Potter and the Insanely Valuable Collector’s Item

Want to see what The Tales of Beedle the Bard, J.K. Rowling’s hand-written collection of stories set in the wizarding world of Harry Potter, looks like? I don’t know if it’s any different from the copies Rowling gave to friends, but the edition about to go up for auction at Sotheby’s looks pretty spiffy. And at a starting bid of 40,000 sterling (that’s well over $82,000 in bushbucks) it sure puts the most valuable book in my collection, a fine copy of Skull-face and Others, completely in the shade.

Going ape for a day

For those of you who grew up in the Big Apple metro area and are old enough to remember the former New York television station WWOR, Glenn Kenny has an unexpected bit of Thanksgiving nostalgia for you. Yes, sprouts, there was a station that understood there are more important things than football on T-day. The perfect capper is the old opening of the Million Dollar Movie segment. That montage of scenes from old Gotham set to the theme from Gone With the Wind is pretty poignant now, don’t you think?

Toy stories

Until she was about three years old, Dances With Mermaids knocked around in overalls, tiny workboots, T-shirts and denim pants. Tomboy stuff. Then she got her first look at a Barbie doll, and that’s when the whole story changed.

But I’m getting ahead of my story. I was reading this post at Outside the (Toy) Box in which a mother talks about the ways stereotypes about gender get reinforced with kids at an early age, and how confusing and infuriating it is to be a parent watching the stereotyping accomplished, with the most benign of intentions, by friends and relatives bearing gifts:

For his first birthday my son got a total of nine vehicles. One toy airplane, two toy fire trucks, a toy globe with a train that goes around and around inside, a tractor, and a few other sundry transit items.

That’s what boys like.

Except he didn’t have a wish list. Nope — I didn’t take him, diaper and all, to do a registry or something. This isn’t what he wanted, this is what others wanted for him.Big difference.

I remember the year my daughter got 8 babies for Christmas. I loved one in particular, much like the killer radio flyer ride-on fire truck. It isn’t any one item that makes my skin crawl. It’s the bounty — it’s the power of emphasis and omission. Like the kids can’t hear what the toys are saying.

She received a kitchen at 2. He’ll get a train table.

To compensate for my daughter’s doll museum, I bought her the tool bench. I bought her the doctor’s kit, I bought the little tykes basketball hoop. I don’t have a problem with baby dolls or with vehicles, but I do have a problem with proscriptive identities.

And I especially have a problem with the shitty biological determinist lay talk about gender. Like the well-blogged stupid Tonka commercials, “Boys — they’re just built different.” Sure they are — I change diapers. But what my daughter and son have in common is so incredibly vast in comparison to how they differ.

And what of the differences that they’ll have later on? They are likely to be grand and real. But isn’t it time we recognized that we’ll bear a good deal of responsibility for the authoring of those differences (that’s the universal “we,” not the you and I kind of “we,” you and I, well, we’re already brilliant)?

If one more person calls him Little Man or Tough Guy . . .

I’ll smile politely, probably. I was socialized too, you know.

All true, all too true. Plenty of times I’ve walked past parents who were dealing with their little son’s tears by saying “Boys don’t cry.” But as my children get older and become more and more a part of society, I am surprised to realize that I’m becoming less of a gatekeeper and more of a referee between them and the outside world. There are things they choose for themselves. Do they choose them because of societal pressure or personal inclination? Is there any way to tell? And even if I can, how stiff-necked am I going to get about it?

Which brings me back to little denim-clad Dances With Mermaids, walking with me in the Pathmark supermarket. There was a display of Barbie dolls at the end of one aisle — displayed on a lower shelf, at eye-level for a little girl. Dances With Mermaids stopped cold. She was transfixed. “Oh looooook,” she said, speaking in a narcotized voice. “It’s beautiful.” Up to that point, her dolls had been of the floppy, Raggedy Ann sort or, more often, stuffed animals. But from the moment Dances With Mermaids saw her first Barbie, her brain and my bank account became partly-owned assets of Mattel Corp. Societal pressure? Did she love Barbie instead of other dolls because of her DNA, or because Barbie looked something like the real-life women she saw every day?

I don’t know. I quickly accustomed myself to the Barbie invasion, helped along by the observation that Dances With Mermaids and her friends imposed their own imaginations on the dolls, even as the dolls imposed brand names on their imaginations. The direct-to-DVD movies are, for the most part, a class act. But I can’t help but notice that while the DVDs, which are apt to be seen by parents as well as kids, go for empowerment talk and messages about personal integrity, the Web site — which is likely to be experienced in private, without parental interference — is all about shopping for new clothes, getting new salon hairstyles and meeting new boys. It is also remarkably easy to click “accidentally” on order forms and marketing pages.

I would prefer to live in a world where toys are used to tell stories instead of sell stories, but nobody asked me for my preferences. I recognize the frustration of dealing with the gender-stereotyping influences raining down on our kids, but I’ve come to decide that holding off the equally relentless buy-buy-buy messages may be a more important and more winnable battle.