Kid A(ntarctica): Radiohead and our melting polar ice caps

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I heard a story on NPR while I was in the car last week that featured exactly the kind of interview I find bittersweet and funny – when interviewed regarding his research on methods of modeling the melting Antarctic glacier, the scientist they were talking to essentially said, “Duh, we’ve known this would happen for years.” By the time Radiohead released Kid A in October 2000, scientists had spent decades predicting the eventual dwindling of Earth’s glaciers.

Browsing in a used record shop a few years ago, I stumbled across a special edition of Kid A featuring 12 thick cardboard pages of additional artwork chronicling the melting of polar ice caps. The book isn’t worth much cash (it goes for about $5 on eBay), but it’s a cool little collectible if you’re a fan of the band or of unusual books in general (I happen to be a fan of both). Here are the pages in chronological order. I chose not to present these in a slideshow because the art is so layered and the text is so cryptic, in keeping with Radiohead’s style.

Text: Kid A, Book and Compact Disc. Compact Disc by Radiohead. Book by Stanley and Tchock.

Text: Kid A, Book and Compact Disc. Compact Disc by Radiohead. Book by Stanley and Tchock.

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(L) Nobody likes nothing. I certainly wish with all my heart that it did not exist. (R) But wishing is not enough. We live in the real world where nothing does exist. We cannot just disinvent it.

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(L) Nothing is not comprehensible. Neither you nor I have any hope of understanding just what it is and what it does. (R) It is hard to know if nothing is actually nothing and thus difficult to know if a policy of doing nothing is successful.

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(L) Nothing, however effective it may have proved up to the present, can hardly continue to do so indefinitely. (R) If I had to choose between the continued possibility of nothing happening and of doing nothing I would unquestionably choose the latter.

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(L) Or the former.

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(Hammer added to prop pages open.)

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We will not hesitate to carry out what has been threatened. This is not over until absolute unconditional surrender and complete meeting of all demands. There will be no further warning whatsoever. Airstrikes are imminent.

Short post today because my full time job as a News Intern at Charlottesville Tomorrow kicked off this past Tuesday, totally knocking my reading schedule off kilter. The eternal struggle between personal creative projects, work-related writing and research, and my thesis research has officially caught up to me after a refreshing few weeks of focus on some personal projects. I’ve sadly abandoned the Joads in a government camp in Weedpatch, California, as I diverge into some craft books on writing that my boss assigned the interns, but I’m hoping to evaluate my schedule this weekend and come up with a new plan.

Recently, I came to the realization that this constant juggle is never going to end – I like diving into big projects and I’m interested in almost everything, so as long as I’m me, I will probably keep taking on too much. Rather than denying my information addiction, I think it’s time to just start managing the cracks in my daily life when they inevitably appear.

Steinbeck’s “big words” and why we should read them

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“Ever know a guy that said big words like that?”

“Preacher,” said Joad.

“Well, it makes you mad to hear a guy use big words. ‘Course with a preacher it’s all right because nobody would fool around with a preacher anyway.”

I have a confession to make: before this week, I had never read The Grapes of Wrath. I normally dig novels that deliver their content in unconventional forms, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s use of illustrations or David Grossman’s surrealism. I’m a news junkie who’s constantly consuming the New York Times and The Atlantic, so I tend to get my dose of realism from those nonfiction sources. But I decided that before I wrote my thesis on mixed race families in modern America, I needed to dig a little deeper, back to earlier roots of the images of the American nuclear family that come to mind today.

Instead of straight realism, I was surprised and pleased to find some pretty unconventional, Modern prose in Steinbeck. I loved the chapters of free-form dialogue that appear in between chapters that more conventionally plot the Joads’ journey from Sallislaw, Oklahoma, to Bakersfield, California. The speakers in these chapters are sometimes later identifiable as the Joads and sometimes a sort of Everyman, stream of multiconsciousness (streams of consciousness?) essence of the shared experience of the Dust Bowl, and Steinbeck often interjects political musings in place of these Joyce-esque rambles.

Throughout the novel, which is formally complex and ideologically robust, I was struck by the juxtaposition of Steinbeck’s neat narrative prose and his use of alternative, vernacular spellings and punctuation in the dialogue. The quote above, about big words, jumped off the page for me as an early signal of an implicit division between Steinbeck’s vivid use of dialect-driven spelling and grammar and his use of standard English. I identify three distinct types of writing within The Grapes of Wrath: first, Steinbeck’s use of standard grammar in his narration of the Joads’ journey; second, Steinbeck’s use of nonstandard grammar in the relatively freeform chapters of quotation-mark-free conversations; and third, Steinbeck’s use of vernacular language, which is contained between quotation marks as the Joads converse with one another and others they meet on the road.

Published fifty years and several artistic movements later, Gish Jen’s postmodernism amps up the juxtaposition of vernacular language with elevated language in a way that is often elaborately humorous, delivering deadpan passages like this one from Mona in the Promised Land:

More and more, [Mona and Sherman, a new student from Japan,] joke. For example, [Sherman] often mixes up thinking with sinking — which they both think is so funny that all either one of them has to do is pretend to be drowning, and the other one cracks up. And he tells her things. for example, that there are electric lights everywhere in Tokyo now.

“You mean you didn’t have them before?”

“Everywhere now!” He’s amazed too. “Since Orympics-u!”

In the hands of another author, Jen’s spelling of “Olympics” would be questionable or even a downright racist parody. But in the context of the book – as Mona patiently and empathetically helps Sherman to practice his English to speed his assimilation into their high school – the spelling is simply true to the phonics a new speaker of English might use.

Similarly, Steinbeck’s larger discussion in Grapes of Wrath concerns class division and structural problems of agriculture in America. His vernacular spellings accurately capture the voice – right down to every last “somepin” and all of the dropped consonants at the ends of words – of the migrants who endured hundreds of miles of rough travel to seek a better life in California. Steinbeck captures voices that otherwise went unheard, communicating the story of a population that was largely illiterate and delivering it to an audience that likely shared neither their challenges nor their speech patterns.

In December of last year, NPR reported a story entitled “Ax vs. Ask” (the story is only 3:38 long, and well worth a listen), which examined the necessity of switching between vernacular speech and standard English. The debate pitted two pronunciations of the word that means “to request an answer or information,” both of which, as it turns out, have deep roots in the English language. NPR reports that although “ax” is often seen as an uneducated pronunciation, the word was actually used by Chaucer and in the first Bible in English translation: “Axe and it shall be given.” Still, those who have been raised in households where “ax” is the most common pronunciation find it necessary to switch to “ask” in professional settings.

When pronunciation and vocabulary signal class, race, or other markers of identity, realism begins to look blurry. Steinbeck’s realism is actually a careful combination of elements, with enough standard English to prevent a reader from feeling alienated and enough nonstandard spelling to give the narrative an authentic vibe. By providing an intimate look at the Joads’ hope, fear, discomfort, grief, and ambition, Steinbeck avoids using nonstandard spelling as a way of making the Joads a spectacle or parody of poverty. Within these complex challenges, Steinbeck faced another obstacle: how to elevate the Everyman into a subject worthy of wealthy, highly educated readers’ attention without weighing his prose down with multisyllabic vocabulary words that the Everyman himself  would need a dictionary to decode. Steinbeck handles this problem by offering crisp prose that is elegant in its simplicity, which is why The Grapes of Wrath is an enduring classic in the American literary canon.

Elsewhere, Joyce also recognized language’s ability to implicitly contain class or racial tensions. In Ulysses, Joyce writes, “I fear those big words, Stephen said, which make us so unhappy.” I’ll end this post with a zine I (amateurishly) made at a workshop earlier this year, based around this quote and the idea that small words can be just as unhappy as those $5 vocabulary words. The text and images are mostly from Rolling Stone, along with a few clipped from catalogues.

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My reading this week will hopefully carry me to the end of The Grapes of Wrath, and Anna Karenina is up next on my reading list.

 

Asians Americans: The New Jews?

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It’s 1968. The North Vietnamese army launches the Tet offensive, injecting 70,000 troops into the weary war. Incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson declares that he will not run for a second term in office. Andy Warhol is shot (and lives). Robert Kennedy is shot (and dies). The Prague Spring challenges Soviet Communism in Czechoslovakia. Richard Nixon declares his intention to enter the presidential race. NASA launches Apollo 7 and Apollo 8. And in fictional Scarshill, New York, Mona Chang is coming of age.

Mona Chang might better be known as Mona Change. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Mona converts to Judaism and is subsequently (and fondly) dubbed Changowitz by her classmates. Surrounded by diverse friends and acquaintances, Mona’s bildungsroman unfolds as she navigates tough questions of how various ethnic minorities are perceived, and how these perceptions shape the opportunities available to them in the “promised land.” In reviews by The New York TimesKirkus Reviews, and Publisher’s WeeklyMona in the Promised Land is described with words such as “droll,” “rebellious,” and “melting pot.” Unfortunately, other than these few scattered book reviews, there’s a near-silence in Internet chatter regarding Mona in the Promised Land, and the few commentaries I read were riddled with errors regarding the plot. This quiet is part of the reason I’m writing my thesis project on one of Gish Jen’s other novels, The Love Wife. In both novels, Jen’s manipulation of postmodern convention is masterful, and her storytelling is an entertaining vehicle for her ability to unpack the endless complexity of race in America.

Jen has a knack for nailing a wide range of ethnic voices, and Mona in the Promised Land showcases this talent. There’s Mona’s best friend Barbara Gugelstein, whose mother dupes her into a nose job financed by her father’s Wall Street salary. There’s Alfred, an African American cook at the Changs’ pancake house who is at the center of a so-called mod squad espousing Black Power rhetoric. There’s Mona’s parents, Ralph and Helen, who live by the Chinese mantra of “make sure.” There’s Naomi, Mona’s sister’s African American roommate, who teaches Mona and her sister “how to be Chinese.” There’s Seth Mandel, Mona’s pseudo-intellectual Jewish boyfriend (and later common law husband) who lives in a teepee in his backyard (lest Native Americans be excluded from this complex look at minorities in America). Finally, there’s the enigmatic Sherman Matsumoto, a Japanese ex-pat who uses Judo to flip Mona in the garden after their first kiss and later decides to become Hawaiian – or so it seems, until this later iteration of Sherman is revealed to be a hoax conducted by Seth and a boy named Andy Kaplan. Though Sherman’s reappearances are sporadic, they serve as a measure of Mona’s belief in one’s ability to “switch,” which evolves as her idealism is gradually molded by experience.

As all of these characters meet and mingle, they exchange pieces of their performances, adopting mannerisms and opinions that push them in new directions. The permutations of race, class, gender, and ethnicity are seemingly limitless, but the wall this kaleidoscopic postmodern reverie repeated bumps up against is the inevitable question: But what will you do? As much as Jen’s characters talk, her larger point is that while laudable, open-minded idealism cannot make up for the sometimes sad, sometimes practical reality that circumstantial actions form the core of race relations.

The novel opens as the Changs search for a new house in Scarshill, New York. Their white relator shows them a predominantly Jewish neighborhood:

“Moneyed! Many delis!” In other words, rich and Jewish, she! for one! would rather live elsewhere!

This is such a nice thing to say, even the Changs know to be offended, they think, on behalf of all three Jewish people they know, even if one of them they’re not sure about. Still, someone has sent the parents a list of the top ten schools nationwide, and so many-deli or not, they settle into a Dutch colonial on the Bronx River Parkway. For they’re the New Jews, after all, a model minority and Great American Success. They know they belong in the promised land.

Having grown up in northern Virginia, where the booming population of Hispanic immigrants tend to be described as “Mexican” in a tone that transforms national identity into a shorthand slur for “unassimilated,” I realize now that I have internalized a compulsion to resist racial labels, even ones that are accurate to the demographic in question. I was startled by Jen’s freedom, even playfulness, in drawing parallels between the stereotypes applied Jewish and Asian Americans alike. To explore her comparison further, I turned to the Pew Research Center, where statisticians attempt to illuminate characterizations of anything from race to age through national phone surveys.

In 2013, the Pew Research Center released an updated edition of their study of Asian Americans. Though I plan to reread the study as my research develops, my first reading uncovered several details that resonate with Mona in the Promised Land. For example, Jen’s decision to set Mona’s story in the 1960s makes a lot more sense given that U.S. lifted a quota that limited the number of eligible Asian immigrants in 1965, after which the percentage of Asian Americans jumped from 1% to today’s roughly 6%. Mona also fits within a larger pattern of interracial/-ethnic marriage; the study reports that Asian Americans “are the most likely of any major racial or ethnic group in America to live in mixed neighborhoods and to marry across racial lines,” citing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent marriage to Priscilla Chan as a high-profile example of the “37% of all recent Asian- American brides who wed a non-Asian groom.”

In a similar study of Jewish Americans, the Pew Research Center found that American Jews are increasingly identifying with Judaism on the basis of religion rather than on the basis of ethnicity, while the population of Jews who regularly observe religious rituals is in decline. Mona’s conversion to Judaism includes her observance of rituals which her ethnically Jewish partner, Seth, ironically ignores.

Additionally, this disclaimer in the study on Asian Americans grabbed my attention: “Unless otherwise noted, whites include only non-Hispanic whites. Blacks include only non- Hispanic blacks. Hispanics are of any race. Asians can also be Hispanic.”

What? I had to reread this several times, and I’m still not certain that I grasp what they’re saying. The point I took away from this is that ethnic heredity is rarely pure, groups overlap, and broad labels can mask significant historical distinctions between groups. Take, for example, the friction between Japanese and Chinese Americans, both of whom are contained within the broad “Asian American” label:

“Atomic bomb dropped on only one people,” Sherman says. “The Japanese do not forget.” On the back of an old mimeograph sheet, he draws another Japanese flag, a bigger one, which he puts on the icebox door with daisy magnets. “In school, in ceremony, we dis way,” he explains, and bows to the picture.

When Helen [Mona’s mother] comes in, her face is so red that with the white wall behind her, she looks a bit like the Japanese flag herself. Yet Mona gets the feeling she’d better not say so. First her mother doesn’t move. Then she snatches the flag off the icebox, so fast the daisy magnets go flying. Two of them land on the stove. She crumples up the paper. She hisses at Sherman, “This is the U.S. of A., do you hear me!

This scene captures three distinct experiences of assimilation. Unlike American-born Mona, Helen and Sherman have experienced life both within and outside of America, and both characters bring a non-Western perspective on history that has not been planted within Mona. The tensions in this scene are interethnic, intergenerational, and international, combining to offer a glimpse of the difficult terrain Mona must navigate in the process of claiming her own identity. Unable to fully relate to her parents or even other Asian Americans, Mona’s conversion to Judaism helps her to stake a claim to an identity that is uniquely her own. In life and in Jen’s novel, distinctions between religious and ethnic groups only become blurrier and more fraught with complexity under closer examination.

One blogger who read Mona commented that “an awful lot was tackled in this book, maybe more than the premise could comfortably contain, and there were times when I felt like I was reading more of a fable or a satire than a novel. The race conversations came on strong and many and were a little hard for me to read.” While I agree that the novel embraces complications (perhaps to an excessive degree), I do think that it’s important to keep in mind that Jen writes in a postmodern style that’s what I think of as “highly fictional realism.” Her characters possess an impossible range of cultural references and viewpoints, and the novel contains many moments that have the distinct feel of a thought exercise, albeit a hilariously funny one. (For example, Mona quotes James Joyce during the act of losing her virginity: “Yes,” says Mona. “Yes I said yes. Yes.” “Shut up,” says Seth.) In a paper from National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan, Fu-Jen Chen concisely explains that “postmodern theories of subjectivity highlight a subject’s inability to remain either stabilized or unified, thereby featuring a liberating proliferation of multiple forms of subjectivity.” Jen allows Mona and her friends to exemplify the reality that identity is a performative act by writing them in a heightened style that’s supersaturated with detail. So, if this is your beach read, just be sure not to take Jen too literally.

This week, I’ll be switching from Jen’s tongue-in-cheek scrutiny of our American melting pot to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a novel described on its own back cover as “perhaps the most American of American classics.” Without any ill-feeling toward Steinbeck, I challenge the publisher’s notion – after all, is a white man writing in 1939 more quintessentially American than the story of a Chinese American woman growing up in a Jewish suburb during the 1960s? Who gets to decide what is “quintessentially American”? I suspect that the phrase has an expiration date that’s quickly approaching if it hasn’t already passed. In the postmodern age, the only quality that seems to be “quintessentially American” is hybridity.

Smash Mouth: A Close Reading

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The first thing every English major learns to do is present a good close reading. It starts out like this: you analyze a text within an inch of its life, and at first you don’t see much. While cleaning out my closet in my old bedroom at my parents’ house recently, I found an old binder full of AP Language worksheets I had filled out in the 11th grade. “ALLITERATION,” I had scribbled next to any two words that started with the same letter. “ANAPHORA,” alongside lists that repeated the same starting word in every additional clause.

But as time goes on, close reading becomes more fun. After a semester of studying literature in college, I began to see more allusions – Biblical, Shakespearean, historical. Later, I studied Joyce and Pound, two writers who packed so many allusions into their work that it was actually intended for university study, and then on to Flann O’Brien, who built stories within stories, and Bruno Schultz, whose untimely death by Nazi bullet is mourned in at least half a dozen works by contemporary authors like David Grossman and Cynthia Ozick. In time, I began to eavesdrop on more and more of the intertextual conversation that makes studying literature so much fun. As explored in Portlandia‘s “Did You Read?” sketch and Derrida’s theory of deconstruction alike, any given text is inherently, addictively referential.

While getting my finals-fried brain back in gear for my thesis research this summer, I’ve done some close listening that turned into a close reading of sorts. I’ve been listening to a lot of Smash Mouth recently, more specifically Astro Lounge, and I think Smash Mouth deserves a hell of a lot more credit for their lyrics. We’ve all heard “All Star” about a billion times at this point, but when was the last time you stopped and actually listened to the words? If you have as much affection for Smash Mouth as I do, the results won’t surprise you – Astro Lounge offers an entertaining intersection of 90s rock and science fiction with a surprisingly consistent thematic interest in space (the opening track, “Who’s There?” conflates looting with alien invasion), technological devices (“Radio,” “Satellite”), and even the androids/cyborgs (“Defeat You”), along with much less surprising low-brow interests in topics such as marijuana (“Stoned”) and the fleeting nature of romance (“Waste”). Not only that, Smash Mouth offers some pretty sophisticated wordplay along with the silly computer-animated cover art.

Let’s start with one of their biggest hits, “All Star.” Not only is the song infectious, the lyrics contains a variation on a phrase whose etymology can be traced all the way back to 1596, when William Shakespeare (more or less) solidified the version of the saying that we use today. In The Merchant of Venice, Morocco says,

All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.

Shakespeare’s point is that wealth and glamor aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and they certainly don’t offer any protection from the wormy, subterranean fate that inevitably awaits us all. There’s definitely truth to this, as evidenced by the phrase’s persistence through years of printed texts and oral tradition. It ranks right up there with idioms like “raining cats and dogs” or “rings a bell,” one of those phrases that seems automatically accessible, like the default software on a laptop.

Smash Mouth capitalizes on that built-in recognition by repeating the phrase – but with a twist. Take a look at the chorus:

Hey now, you’re an all star, get your game on, go play
Hey now, you’re a rock star, get your show on, get paid
And all that glitters is gold
Only shooting stars break the mold

Smash Mouth turns Shakespeare’s quote on its head. Instead of intoning the reality that wealth is ultimately temporary, “All Star” is a song about pursuing ambition, enjoying success, and having fun in a mad modern world on the brink of the Millennium. From this evidence, one might conclude that Smash Mouth isn’t concerned about mortality. Wrong. Check out the next verse:

It’s a cool place, and they say it gets colder
You’re bundled up now, wait till you get older
But the media man begged to differ
Judging by the hole in the satellite picture

The ice we skate is getting pretty thin
The water’s getting warm so you might as well swim
My world’s on fire, how ’bout yours?
That’s the way I like it and I never get bored

The words in these lines are efficient and compressed, conveying a double meaning throughout. In keeping with the song’s account of fame and fun, the first line is vague – “cool place,” “they say” – from which the listener can infer an exclusive in-crowd, a sense that’s amplified with the ambiguous warning, “wait till you get older.” A “world on fire” could be ablaze with creativity, partying, intrigue, and more, but the final line (“That’s the way I like it and I never get bored”) slips so quickly in before the chorus that it comes off as defiant; the chorus takes over so abruptly that the listener almost gets the sense that, given any more thought or less distraction, the fast-paced world of celebrity might not be so pleasant. And that sounds a lot like what Shakespeare was talking about.

The verses take on a double meaning when you consider their connotations of Global Warming. “But the media man begged to differ / Judging by the satellite picture,” the lyrics run on, evoking the thinning ozone layer as they modulate the meaning of “cool” from referring to style to signifying temperature. “Thin ice” communicates risk as well as the melting of polar ice caps. Against this backdrop of impending environmental calamity, the final line (“That’s the way I like it and I never get bored”) is an explanation for frivolity. If the world is ending, why not have fun? That’s the real question Smash Mouth asks, again and again, from “Walkin’ on the Sun” to “I Just Wanna See.” In this context, Smash Mouth doesn’t seem to be contradicting Shakespeare’s phrase at all, but rather using it ironically.

From my earliest memories of Astro Lounge, listening to the album on repeat throughout most of the third grade, the bridge of “All Star” has always been a highlight. Studying English has given me the vocabulary to explain what makes the wordplay in this lyric so appealing. I now know that “All Star” contains my favorite literary device of all: syllepsis, also known as zeugma. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it:

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Let’s look at the bridge:

Somebody once asked could I spare some change for gas
I need to get myself away from this place
I said, “Yep, what a concept, I could use a little fuel myself
And we could all use a little change”

This example follows Merriam-Webster’s second definition: “change” is splintered into its dual meanings of “fuel” and “to make or become different.” The lines capture both a moment of environmental anxiety and the frustration of being mired in a place and a routine. Though the notion of paying for gas in change seems insane now, according to Energy Almanac, a gallon of regular gas was priced at $1.347 on June 7, 1999, the day before Astro Lounge was released, so it’s not as far-fetched as it might seem today. Still, despite low gas prices, environmental activists in the 1990s were well aware of the pollution and destructive mining associated with fossil fuels. I think the bridge has always been my favorite part for the element of sadness it contributes to an otherwise recklessly poppy song: “the years start coming and they don’t stop coming / fed to the rules and I hit the ground running,” the lyrics continue, only now that the idea of being stuck has been planted, the challenge of seeing the world (“so much to do, so much to see”) seems impossible to meet. That’s why Smash Mouth has proved to be a band whose music has accompanied me as I’ve come of age, and why I’ve continued to listen to them long after even Pizza Hut has stopped using their songs in commercials.

And all of this material for close reading from a band that also brought us a song bluntly titled “Stoned” and a song about a menage a trois fantasy (“Can’t Get Enough of You Baby”).