Sunday, July 04, 2004
Fourth of July
I’m familiar with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” of course. We all are˝ it’s been inescapable for twenty years. Or so I thought. It turns out, instead, that I somehow have managed to escape hearing the intro and the first verse until just this past month, when the song was used as part of Jamie’s fifth-grade graduation video (as the background music for his school’s visit to Fort Robideau). That’s no doubt because, as a paid-up member of the latt╚-drinking liberal cultural ╚lite, I tend to avoid social occasions and gatherings in which the song is played and sung along to.
And needless to say, I think the song is odious almost beyond measure. That’s not because I’m a paid-up member of the latt╚-drinking liberal cultural ╚lite who sneers at my fellow citizens’ simple, heartfelt expressions of patriotism; it’s because the song’s version of patriotism is completely contentless. Two verses and three choruses, and Mr. Greenwood couldn’t find a single reason to love the U.S.A.? Yeah, yeah, I know, pride, pride, freedom, freedom: “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” But free to do what? To fire employees without cause, thanks to the at-will employment doctrine? To abolish the estate tax? To hold up a sign saying that Matthew Shepherd got what he deserved? Or to protest foolish wars, march for civil rights, and support the right of kids with Down syndrome to be educated in regular classrooms where they can go to visit Fort Robideau with their nondisabled peers? “God Bless the U.S.A.” doesn’t say, and that’s what makes it such a perfect emblem of a certain kind of right-wing contentless patriotism, the kind of patriotism that supports the troops by flying flags from cars while supporting a President who leads the troops off to needless slaughter and then cuts their veterans’ benefits. Had Greenwood said anything about that freedom˝ “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free of all taxes on my estate of $36 million,” or “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free to fight for the right to register Mississippi’s black voters in the face of murderous right-wing opposition"˝ one imagines that his song would be a good deal less popular.
OK, well, that’s what I thought before I heard the song’s instrumental intro. And all I could think, after hearing the intro for the first time, was Oh. My. God. Tinkling electric piano . . . the kind of thing one associates with Lite Rock Radio˝ more specifically, with abominations like Chicago’s “Hard to Say IÝm Sorry.” What in Abraham Lincoln’s name is going on with that electric piano? Is it supposed to make us reflective and sentimental? Is it supposed to suggest sincerity and devotion? Doesn’t anyone realize what happens to Real Men when they listen to stuff like that? It’s not even dreck˝ it’s something much worse. It’s Wuss Rock.
Part of what’s going on with the tinkling electric piano, surely, is what went on with a great deal of corporate country music in the 1980s, namely, the Barbara Mandrellization of the genre. (Bless old Merle Haggard’s heart, “Okie from Muskogee” is a real song, and tinkling electric piano wouldn’t be allowed within fifty yards of it.) But I don’t want to excuse the intro as being part and parcel of its historical milieu˝ that would be a classic, latt╚-drinking liberal cultural ╚litist kind of thing to do. I want to suggest, instead, that the song actually saps its listeners’ vital essences with that electric piano, and then tries to cover for it by making the closing choruses increasingly bombastic.
But on this Independence Day, people, don’t be fooled. We need our purity of essence now more than ever. So if you’re grilling something good and fleshy today (I’m planning on making the kids hot sausage sandwiches with red and green peppers, and I intend to wash ‘em down with some fine Genesee Cream Ale) and you’re looking for some real American music to make you feel better about this land in these dark times, play X’s great version of “Fourth of July,” originally written by Dave Alvin when he was with the Blasters and included on the 1987 X album, See How We Are, when Alvin briefly replaced Billy Zoom on geetar. You’ll be glad you did.
Saturday, July 03, 2004
No one asked, but in between doing this and doing that in France, I read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which I picked up from Shakespeare and Co. on the banks of the Seine (a tourist thing to do, I’m told, but (a) I was a tourist, and (b) I wanted to read the book, so I’m not feeling too conflicted about this), and J. M. Coetzee’s latest, Elizabeth Costello, which one of Janet’s former graduate students gave to her and which I yoinked (Nick’s verb-- should be self-explanatory) once I’d finished Haddon. So here’s my book report.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Haddon novel. I’d heard a great deal about it, of course, because it’s narrated by a 15-year-old young man with Asperger’s syndrome, and in disability circles, especially where those circles overlap with literary-criticism circles (producing really tiny shaded areas in the Venn diagram of Haddon’s readership), it was much talked about when it was published last year. I’m in the process of finishing an essay on cognitive disability and its relation to narrative, especially with regard to characters whose cognitive disabilities prevent them from understanding the principles of the narrative they inhabit, so Haddon’s book was professionally interesting on that score even though Christopher John Francis Boone, its narrator, is no Benjy Compson. He not only understands narrative features like “digression,” but is in fact an enthusiastic reader of murder mysteries, and as many theorists before me have noted, detective fiction is almost always recursive, rewarding those characters in the narrative who are the most capable readers of the tropes of detective fiction. And Christopher knows quite well that he’s writing a murder mystery himself, so Christopher’s a fairly “high-functioning” disabled narrator, as such characters go.
But quite apart from the piddling question of how I could put The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to work for me in my day job, I was simply caught up in the plot: once Christopher finds those letters (and that’s all I’ll say about the novel’s major pivot, for those of you who plan to read the book soon and don’t want crucial plot devices given away on some guy’s blog), I couldn’t stop reading until I found out what happened next. You know, the most basic and least sophisticated of readerly impulses: and then what happened? and then what happened? and then? (This kept me going all the way to will he pass his math test?) Again, I won’t tell you any of what happened, but I will say that the question of whether Christopher gets to his mother’s house is rendered exceptionally complex by the terms of his disability, so that the most trivial and mundane aspects of travel become not only narratable but strange and urgent. One of the things this feature of the book does, then, is to make apparent to us what kinds of complicated cognitive operations we execute whenever we get on a train, which is to say that Haddon makes the familiar unfamiliar with regard not only to mundane aspects of travel but mundane aspects of narrative itself. Which is, all told, pretty cool. (Some of you will know that I’m referring here to Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s definition of “literariness” as a mode of “defamiliarization” that renews perception and “makes the stone stony.” For a brief explanation, check this out. For those of you for whom the Russian formalists are extremely old news, remember, this was not a definition of “literature” but of “literariness,” and eventually opened the door to the analysis of every kind of textuality, once people finally gave up trying to distinguish “literary” from “ordinary” language on the basis of the “intrinsic” features of each.) And there’s nothing cloying or sentimental about the book, either, none of the drama of pity or horror characteristic of manipulative “disability” narratives. As for the psychological phenomenon of reading about a developmentally-disabled teenager who has a great memory and loves Indian food while travelling with a developmentally-disabled 12-year-old who has a great memory and loves Indian food, well, it was weird. But Jamie’s nothing like Christopher in other respects.
Domestic tasks call. If I get to Elizabeth Costello today I’ll append it to this post. If not, Coetzee will get his own heading tomorrow. Short verdict: interesting in places but kind of bloodless, with one especially annoying feature that pops up here and there and, for me, torpedoes the final chapter altogether.