Sunday, August 19, 2012

Essays: Modern American Culture and the Classics

Although as a single white middle aged female I don't come close to being the target demographic for GQ Magazine,  I may start regularly thumbing through it just to discover if there are any new pieces of "long form journalism" by John Jeremiah Sullivan.  I took his Pulphead: Essays with me on vacation and it, surprisingly, turned out to be one of the most enjoyable of my deck reads. 

I say "surprisingly" because Sullivan writes about things in which I am not remotely interested.  Christian Rock Music festivals.  Axl Rose.  Bunny Wailer.  Reality TV.   I would begin each Essay assuming that after the first few pages I would get bored and move on to the next.  But Sullivan consistently sucked me in and kept me reading to the end.  To say that his style is engaging doesn't really do it justice.

It is hard to say exactly how he does it.  In some ways, his style is very much like the "everyman" style prevalent in many magazine feature articles today.  The Writer sets out to write a feature article on some element of pop culture but due to circumstances beyond his control the Writer ends up writing as much about himself and his quest as about his ostensible subject.  Sullivan may be writing about a Christianized Woodstock-type festival but he manages to build tension by describing the enormous RV he has rented (it was all that was left) and his adventures in parking it.   He goes to Jamaica to interview Bunny Wailer, the last living member of Bob Marley's band, but ends up spending a great part of the essay telling us about hanging out with the ordinary Jamaican guy he hired to be his driver.  

And per usual in this style of writing, along the way the Writer reveals little bits of himself to the reader, usually in a self-deprecatory way.   Sullivan is no different.  We learn about his past experience with a Christian youth group.  In the last essay (the only one that I had previously read) he writes about the experience of allowing his own home to be used by the television production One Tree Hill.

On the other hand, unlike other writers, when Sullivan really does get down to his subject, he is informed, educated and, most of all, respectful. His essay about Michael Jackson, written after Jackson's death, is one of the best meditations on Michael Jackson that I have ever read.

It's fascinating to read the interviews he gave to Ebony and Jet over the past thirty years. I confess myself disoriented by them, as a white person.  During whole stretches of years when the big media were reporting endlessly on his bizarreness and reclusiveness, he was every so often granting these intimate and illuminating sit-downs to those magazines, never forgetting to remind them that he trusted only them, would speak only to them ... He spoke differently to black people, was more at ease. The language and grain of detail are different ... It's only after reading Jet and Ebony that one can understand how otherwise straightforward-seeming people have stayed good friends with Michael Jackson these many years. He is charming; his mind is alive. 
Sullivan doesn't write about American pop culture purely from a fan boy perspective.  He recognizes the dark side of his subjects.  He addresses the allegations of  Michael Jackson's pedophilia. He talks about Axl Rose biting the leg of a security guard.  He admits his annoyance with the One Tree Hill production team.  But he ultimately approaches his subjects with respect.  I got the impression that Sullivan is a person who is truly interested in other people and what makes them tick. Which is, I think, in the end what kept me reading.

 An entirely different kind of respect permeates Daniel Mendelsohn's book of essays: How Beautiful it is and How Easily it Can be Broken.   Mendelsohn writes critically for the New York Review of Books, also ostensibly about modern culture, and I am far more familiar with his work than I was with Sullivans'.  I say that Mendelsohn writs ostensibly about modern culture, meaning that each of his essays is essentially a review of a play, movie or book. But they are much more.  They are almost a course in the classics of ancient literature.

Unlike Sullivan, Mendelsohn doesn't even pretend to be an "everyman".  If Sullivan is "engaging", there is no word to describe Mendelsohn other than erudite (as Mendelsohn himself  might inform you, from the Latin eruditus, "learned",  and from the past participle of the Latin verb erudite, "to educate").  Mendelsohn is what the British used to call a "classics man" (or, maybe they still do, I don't know) and when it comes to the Greeks he knows his stuff.   I was many pages into his review of the Brad Pitt movie Troy before I realized that it was a movie review.  I thought I was simply reading an engrossing essay on lost Greek epics, the meaning of "epic" and pitfalls in constructing "epics" (poetic and otherwise).

A plot, by contrast, is what the Iliad has.  For all its great length, the poem is precisely about what is proposed, in its famous opening line, as its subject matter:  the wrath of Achilles, its origins, its enactment, its consequences.  (So too the Odyssey, whose concomitant episodes all refract what it, in its equally famous opening line, purports to be about:  the "man of many turnings who wandered wide"; no part of the poem does not illuminate his cleverness, his yearning for home, his humanity.)  To be sure, Achilles' rage, as it plays itself out through the poem's twenty-four books, sheds light on a vast host of issues; the meaning of heroism, the nature of war and of peace, the sweetness and bitterness of human life.  But the Iliad is able to illuminate so much precisely because of its searing focus on one praxis, which is what gives it its awesome weight and grandeur.  Which is to say, what makes it truly big, truly "epic."
Of course Troy is a disappointment to Mendelsohn.  But did any of us  really expect it to be good?  Probably not, but most of us probably can't explain in depth that it fails partly because it jettisons the Homeric codes of behavior, which "makes a hash of much of the characters' actions." 

Unlike Sullivan who approaches his subjects warily, expecting them to be strange or trivial or odd, but ends up embracing them wholeheartedly, Mendelsohn seems to approach each experience with great expectations only to find that the reality doesn't live up to the hype.  By the end of the book I was hoping that he would finally find one experience that left him ecstatic.  This is not because he tired me with constant nitpicking.  On the contrary.  He seems so intellectually stimulated by the subjects he writes about, even when they are flawed, that I simply couldn't imagine to what heights he might soar if he found a "worthy" subject.  But, alas, that was not to be. 

I don't think Mendelsohn is for everyone.  At the risk of sounding snobby, I'd say that you really have to like "to think" to enjoy his style.  It probably helps if you have an interest in the classics.  He is not the everyman that Sullivan is. I can, and did, throw the Sullivan into my beach bag.  I needed a quiet place with few distractions to read Mendelsohn.  But I can imagine re-reading Mendelsohn at some point whereas Sullivan was simply a good read for the summer.