Tuesday, March 19, 2013

TO-READ l Tiger Writing

The other night, I had the great pleasure of attending author David Shields' reading at Magers & Quinn bookstore, in Minneapolis. Which for those of you unfamiliar is what happens when you cross the Mississippi and keep going. In many ways, author Gish Jen's anthropological memoir is about going beyond the... Oh, right, but David Shields. So David Shields the other night was calling for a literature less occupied with setting, less ruminatively paced, less characteristically narrative, in other words, in favor of work patterned (or fractured, as the case may be) after how we live today. That is, distracted, hyperactive and, generally, in our own heads. (That's hardly the whole story to Shields work or latest book, by the way, but it's a start.) Shields' call to action stirred in me a sense not just that he was right, but that we needed to start burning novels written during or prior to the Victorian era.

Wait, no. I seem to have gotten off track there. Plus, you know, it's writing we're talking about, so I don't know if it's a call to "action" so much as a call to stop impersonating Henry James in between long stretches of looking at friends' pictures of trips to Minneapolis on Facebook. Shields, in fact, was one of the most gracious and attentive authors I've met, and his remarks were as clear-eyed as inclusive of his audience's viewpoints, as well as works of art he finds no longer worthy of creative emulation, but no less rigorous and emblematic of their place and time. There's a better word for that... there's a better word for that... there's a better word for that... CONTEXT! Which according to Gish Jen's Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, we Western storysmith's don't pay near enough attention to. Or is it the other way around? That Easterners, historically, don't value isolation? 

If David Shields' talk brought to mind poet/fascist/scraggly old Ezra Pound's invocation to "make it new," Gish Jen's Westernized self-scrutiny, and that of her ancestors, might rally one to "make it whole"; to represent the self, in part, by neglecting to cull grains of life from one lived in the sandbox, not insidiously but, rather, habitually; neglecting to make clear the blurry vision of our steeped (to borrow a traditional, Eastern image of the making of identity, or lack thereof), amorphous memories, attenuated, in a sense, by a culture that insists the self is in no way enlivened by ignoring its surroundings. Not that Jen is choosing sides.

In paintings, photographs, and more expository narratives, including those of her father and grandfather, Jen finds much to speculate, in terms of its relation to an invisible, but promissory, or perhaps tantalizing, "inner" I. Pointing out, for instance, that her grandfather's retelling of a birthday celebration that for one momentous afternoon unlocked his family's eight palatial doors speaks to the hierarchical framework through which he, as well as his son, saw what Jen refers to as their "interdependent" situation in the world, and would eventually go on to write about it. What, Jen's left to wonder, are they thinking?

We have inherited a gift for analyzing, in the West, which we generally think of as a good thing, and indeed does serve us well, as individuals. (Thanks a ton, Aristotle.) But maybe that's the problem. For as Jen seems to suggest, it's our ignorance of that which binds, in favor of what stratifies that tends to turn our stories into stone. Characters and plot outlines (even and especially those that lurch from the supposed depths of reality), like chemically-grown vegetables, aren't quick to age or, in the case of characters, mature, develop, grow, instead resembling vestiges of their would-be dexterous and unbranded selves. How interdependency relates to organically grown produce, I have no idea. Indeed, no one wants to read about Harry Potter getting high on anything besides a broomstick, or watch Reese Witherspoon shave one leg and spiral out of control on Steaz Organic Iced Tea. Actually, a lot of people would probably watch that.

What's more, not surprisingly perhaps, is how apt we are to notice when our icons, like artifacts in a museum at night, mysteriously leave their place. In one study Jen cites, Westerners shown pictures of a series of things set against a fixed hotel room background, are perceptive to the change, while Easterners are more likely to register a swap in background that accompanies an eagle frozen in mid-flight, less alert to that which sets itself apart, in other words.

In Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience, Liah Greenfeld writes,"Citizens of the twenty-first century enjoy unprecedented freedom to become the authors of their personal destinies. Empowering as this is, it also places them under enourmous psychic strain." It probably is the case--and Jen is quick to be the first to point out the flaws that come with making inferences based on cultural generalizations--that more and more both East and West will come, as Greenfeld says, to see themselves as "authors" of their lives, and more pressingly, identities. Jen's lectures, filled with self-effacing humor and empathy, don't have in mind to argue or negate first person points of view, so much as remind that ego manifests itself through myriad and often unrecognizable outlets.

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