(Still) not learning poo from history?

Quickly, Octopoe returns to this concept that we (Americans as generally manifested on the global geopolitical stage) often miss those vicissitudes of history which could otherwise inform our current set of predicaments. It is my sense that our public discourse has increasingly sensationalized an adversarial duality between China and the West, some of which twinges on talk of a seemingly impending military clash. In drawing some connections between this contemporary dilemma and a time from the past, we do not have to jump back to antiquity as before to dig up a historical precedent long since missed about our devastating involvement in Afghanistan. We need only skip back about a century or so to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cheery years filled with fierce nationalistic rivalry for political and economic domination of the globe, intensified by the imperialistic expansion of the industrialized powers – the United States, Europe in many of its national manifestations, the Empire of Japan. Images of industrial war modeled on this period have been featured on Octopoe in the past.  In the one hundred years leading up to the end of the Second World War, nearly every corner of the world had been touched by the global economic order (via imperialism or imbalanced foreign relations) and affected by the industrial-scale wars which left swathes of Europe and Asia destroyed. While the history is admittedly complex and nuanced, one can draw simple tropes from the record, such as the reluctance of those powers in relative control of the global geo-political scene to make room for the rising players while nationalistic rhetoric fuels competition and ultimately conflict. Some writers whom I have read on the subject speak to a relative unlikelihood of conflict with the trade connections between the two and the general troublesomeness it would create for a region which will only thrive with continued stability. A country which can barely keep the top on its on kettle at times, and flinches at the mere hint of a whistle (thinking about the Western media’s recent reporting of increased crackdowns within China against artists and dissidents, such as Ai Weiwei) may desperately avoid a destabilizing war. Being an internationalist pacifist and a language educator who has nothing to gain from conflict between my people and my number one client, I hope this recent bout of nationalistic propaganda does not drum us into the horror of the trenches and camps, the aerial bombardment and atom bombs.

[Poe] PoMo Notes as Ishiguro Weaves Sound and Prose

[I have been meaning to get to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for some time now, yet have not managed to get a copy in front of my eyes. However, I recently did have to read his collection of short stories, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. Not loving all of the stories, I found most of the composition brilliant for its strange amalgamation of musical reference, tender relationship shift, somber invocation of dusk, and harkening to past readings. Having read and considered Nocturnes, I hope to pick up Never Let Me Go very soon.

In considering Ishiguro’s collection, I decided to dust off the web journal and tweaked the poe format slightly. Please read no further if you have not read Nocturnes, as this posting will do nothing but serve as a spoiler. If you have read the collection and have something to comment on, please do so.]

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (from here I will simply refer to the collection as Nocturnes for brevity, omitting the byline – the singular form references only the fourth story, Nocturne), we are afforded a collection of short stories to which music, and those who create and love music, are integral in creating a post-modern effect in which we are lost somewhere between music and prose. In this joining of forms, Ishiguro plays with invoking music and past traditions to give us a collection which is somber and reflective. We come to see that all of the stories are tied to the ideas of music and nightfall, which Ishiguro invokes in both a narrative style modeled on a musical composition and his characters and their circumstances. Interestingly, we also see Ishiguro reference past forms of short fiction, developing a composition which fuses prose and music in a uniquely post-modern fashion.

The overarching structure of Ishiguro’s collection is the initial reference to a musical composition, in that Ishiguro intentioned the five stories to be read as a single unit. This mimics the vinyl LP, from which the audience is intended to experience the entire album as a single auditory experience. Any individual song, and in the case of Nocturnes, any individual story, is not meant to be enjoyed singularly. As a collection, the five stories each bring a sense of musicality to the overall experience, with the stories themselves shifting in tone to create a different feeling in that musical reference. For example, a musical composition might have peaks and troughs of excitement, action, and sound, which the stories of Nocturnes mimic. Crooner starts us off slowly on an emotional note. Come Rain or Come Shine, the title itself taken from another musical composition, increases the intensity and gives us a zanier feel to match the content of the story, which we return to momentarily. Malvern Hills brings us back down to a more relaxing pace before we get the brassy, eerie feeling of the fourth story, Nocturne. Finally, we are again released from the intensity of this flow in the final story, Cellists, which takes a more closing and somber tone.

Another element which signifies the centrality of music to Ishiguro’s work is his cast of characters and the circumstances in which we find them. In considering the title of the collection, a nocturne itself is a musical piece appropriate for the night or evening, often with a dreamy or pensive character. In considering its definition, ‘nocturne’ is a highly apt title for the collection, as nightfall, or dusk, is the moment of universal transition in our day, a moment built into our consciousness. Simply, many of the stories take place during dusk or during the night, yet we catch the characters in Nocturnes in a series of awkward moments in terms of their personal relationships, with notes of transition and thoughtfulness that mirror the end of day. Tony and Lindy Gardner of Crooner are in the process of transition, each perceiving a need to move on from their seeming marriage of convenience. Janeck’s accompanying of Tony on the gondola-bound circling and then serenading of Lindy takes place at the end of day, mirroring the ultimate closing of Tony and Lindy’s marriage.

Later in the collection, Lindy still seems to be in transition, as we hear Tony’s records eerily coming through the hotel wall in Nocturne. She even loses herself for a moment with Steve in the room, “After a while, though, I’d stopped paying much attention to the music because there was Lindy in front of me, gone into a kind of dream, dancing slowly to the [Tony’s] song” (Ishiguro 142). Clearly, we could doubt that Lindy has entirely moved on, yet we might take her dreaminess to originate in the cocktail of medications she is presumably on after her plastic surgery. This note of possible drugged-dreaminess chimes throughout Nocturne. Especially in the more absurdist moments of Steve and Lindy’s nighttime adventure and conversations, “I tried again to pull the statuette out of the turkey” (Ishiguro 178),  one might wonder if the pair are inebriated, sniping in the kitchen and being caught out, on stage, turkey on hand by a cell-phoned Hollywood type. This is one element of Nocturne which demonstrates Ishiguro’s mixture of story-telling traditions to create his composition. We get an image that is truly Kafkaesque, with mundane details like heightened air-conditioning because a head swathed in bandages gets warm juxtaposed with the image of Lindy and Steve playing chess and chatting with ghost-like masks on their faces. The masks turn increasingly creepy as the two run through the vast maze of the hotel in the night, as Ishiguro invokes the Gothic tradition and the idea of the monument to create general eeriness. The large hotel, segmented into many rooms with people presumably all around, is only inhabited in our view by our ghost-faced protagonists, “She led the way down hidden stairways, along back corridors, past sauna rooms and vending machines. We didn’t see or hear a soul” (Ishiguro 162).  These moments in the story resonate with Truman Capote’s Miriam, which also featured a large monument which invoked spookiness. In that story, Capote isolated the elder Miriam within her large New York apartment building, creating the sense that she was powerless and helpless against the phantasmal younger Miriam despite being surrounded by neighbors. This blend of absurdist and Gothic tropes create a truly post-modern feeling in this particular story in Ishiguro’s composition.

This blending of traditions and the invocations of music and nightfall also shape Come Rain or Come Shine. In this story, we get a much more complex relationship in flux. Ray, Charlie and Emily are bound in a triangular relationship built on: past college friendship, Charlie and Emily’s marriage, and Ray and Emily’s college friendship based on a mutual love of music. Many years later they have reached new stages of their lives, and the old bonds that held them together have broken. Again, we have a completely Kafkaesque whirlwind of moments between these three characters. Charlie’s plot to reignite his marriage with Emily is absurd, being built on manipulation and lies. Ray is so passive in the face of Emily and Charlie’s constantly putting him down, we have to wonder why he remains connected to them. The events only unfold to become more absurd, with Ray’s odorous concoction brewing away on the stove as Ishiguro invokes Franz Kafka’s Samsa Gregor becoming the insect in The Metamorphosis:

“Encouraged, I knelt down, opened one of the magazines and scrunched up a page in a manner, I hoped, would find an echo when eventually Emily came across the diary. But this time the result was disappointing: too obviously the work of a human hand rather than canine teeth. I’d fallen into my earlier error again: I’d not merged sufficiently with Hendrix. / So I got down on all fours, and lowering my head towards the same magazine, sank my teeth into the pages. The taste was perfumy, and not at all unpleasant” (Ishiguro 76).

Ray has become the neighbor’s dog (whose name, most likely a reference to Jimi Hendrix, adding to the musical nature of the collection) in his ridiculous effort to cover up is earlier perceived transgression against Emily’s diary. Ray goes about his task in a practical way, adding to the silliness of the scene. Using his reasoning, he knows he must “merge” with Hendrix, and ultimately makes the move onto all fours (versus the two feet of the acceptable human mode) and bites the magazine as a dog. This exact moment of absurdity is then immediately followed by a banal observation as to the taste of the magazine, a comment which could easily have followed Ray sipping a glass of red wine with Emily. We melt back to reality when Emily eventually discovers Ray in this position, and Ishiguro switches traditions again into a more realist mode, as the pair spends the next part of their evening listening to music and negotiating their relationship through that music. Their mutual love of a particular genre of music acts to both bring them together and separate them. Emily’s incredulity at Ray’s comment that he does not listen to their music anymore shows the historical meaning it has for Emily. Charlie’s willingness to use it as a wedge between the two marks his willingness to let Ray go in order to ultimately have Emily to himself. We are left with the three in flux, the music playing, and the evening progressing. As will mark the collection, we are again left with a sense of impermanence, as though we are only catching this glimpse of this story, one bit of the song.

The other two stories in this collection, Malvern Hills and Cellists, similarly invoke the themes of transition and music. Our protagonist of Malvern Hills is himself continuously working on the bridge of a song, echoing his listless state as the bridge of a song represents a transition from one part to the next. Working on this bridge, he himself is stuck in this transitional space, somewhere between academics and adult life. This stagnancy is balanced against the transition that is going on for Tilo and Sonja, two fellow musicians whose marriage is unraveling in the company of our protagonist. Cellists also conjures references to music and change. Our two characters, the musician Tibor and the pseudo-virtuoso Eloise, are joined together for a moment in a teacher-student bond before the realities of their separate lives bring about change, with Tibor taking a job and Eloise returning from Venice to the United States.

Sourced from WordPress blog, Monilogues.

Throughout Nocturnes, Ishiguro manages to weave invocations of music into his stories. He does this with characters who are themselves music practitioners or lovers – music always plays a central role to their relationships in flux while their stories are littered with references to music. In keeping with the definition of a nocturne itself, Ishiguro keeps our stories in the somber mood of dusk, conjuring change and movement in each of the stories. Each is set in a transitional space as well, featuring tourists and people traveling, moving through and inhabiting spaces that evoke change. Ishiguro in effect affords us a truly post-modern fusion of sound and prose, rendering this ecphrasis while hitting the notes of realism and absurdity which add depth to his composition.

Works Cited

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. New York: Vintage International, 2009. Print.

[Travelogue] I ♥ Hong Kong

I do love a thick, teeming city, and Hong Kong is certainly no slouch. Those attributes which make me absolutely swoon over New York — the stark vertical landscape bristling with sky-scraping buildings, trains and buses and non-automotive methods of transit, and a hustling populace who had managed to find a foothold within — are present in Hong Kong. Only the systems of Hong Kong are seemingly much cleaner and more efficient. As discussed in a previous post, I love when the tension of our habitats causes a feeling of insignificance, the sense of being a small part in an otherwise moving, thoughtless machine in which we participate, but over which we have only a fraction of agency.

Before I ever set foot in the city of Hong Kong, I had clocked a good amount of time in the Hong Kong airport en route to other destinations in the region. Getting out of the airport and finally seeing the city was the culmination of a fair amount of anticipation. Hong Kong has been amongst those fantasy destinations to which I have been plotting an escape. While an expatriated existence has been in mind for years, becoming an English teacher (a teacher of English to speakers of other languages) has provided some considerable impetus and instrumentality to the aim. As the final stage in an overall trip to China, I was in Hong Kong not only to finally check out this vibrant city, but also to evaluate it as a potential future locale in which to live and work.

Sitting on the Airport Express making its way to Central, I was glued to the window, absorbing what visuals I could. Getting off this train and stepping out into the MTR, Hong Kong’s subway system, delivers you right into the complex which is the north side of Hong Kong island: cold steel buildings and scampering buses, cars, and people at street level, connected by subway and high-end shopping malls beneath the surface. This underground entanglement of trains and retail spaces always seemed to be inhabited by a sea of people, crowded and bustling no matter the time of day. After San Francisco and riding the subway in New York, it is rather discombobulating to find a Gucci or Coach outlet waiting for you on the other side of the turnstile. At every turn there actually seems to be a shopping mall for your convenience, below or above ground.

The cityscape is so immense, from within while at street-level, or when you manage to reach an elevated point such as Victoria Peak. What little space is available is certainly not wasted, and the scale matches the space. I was amazed by pencil thin buildings, maybe only three or four rooms to a floor, but reaching far into the sky like a reed of grass. Delightfully these stick apartment buildings would have charming names such as “Chungking Mansion”, or “Pacific Manor”. This monolithic cityscape is traversed by an ecstatic amount of public transit, which positively excites me as mentioned. Not only is there the MTR, but also various levels of bus service, double-decked or otherwise.

After having traveled on the mainland, my first meal in Hong Kong was at Life, the perfect throwback to my life in San Francisco as it focuses on raw, organic, and vegan delights. While the food on the mainland was incredible in its own right, having posh mini pizzas and a glass of wine was totally refreshing. Life is right off the escalator in SoHo, so named for its resemblance to the eponymous neighborhood in New York. Only if we had some of those escalators in San Francisco.

While I find the city exciting and thrive off the density and the glow of neon lights, the one element which I did find troublesome is the rampant commercialism. The city seems steeped in a money intensive culture which clashes with my non-materialistic California laxness. As mentioned, you cannot throw a stone in Hong Kong without hitting a luxury shopping mall. While there are endless options for getting around on public transit, there is also a fair share of sleek luxury cars floating around the streets. I was reminded of driving along the 101 south of San Francisco, where office buildings dot the landscape with their requisite software company name emblazoned across their tops, for Hong Kong harbor is littered with giant buildings, obelisks to corporate gods with titles scrolling across their peaks. It also seemed that Hong Kong’s art scene is not as vibrant as I would like, yet I would love to hear from any webfarers out there who know otherwise and can share their experiences.

Even with those faults, I am considering Hong Kong as a place to teach. However I have a few years until I reach my MATESOL, and I may find some other metropolis for which to fall in the intervening years.

City College still needs help

In an ongoing, depressing campaign to keep minds learning, City College of San Francisco (CCSF) is still appealing for aid from the public. They have now developed a pretty smooth interface on their own website from which to handle donations. Our bankrupt state has slashed out $630 million from the California City College System, which means a mere 1,500 classes have been cut for this year. If you have a spare moment and dime, consider helping out your local community college in order to keep classes open and minds learning.

CCSF Donation Drive for Fall 2010 Classes

Below is the verbatim message that I received from City College of San Francisco (CCSF), which is trying to make up for the shameful lack of prioritized resources by turning to their staff and students to raise the needed funds. On the line are classes and resources which arguably need to be saved. What are the political implications for a society that cannot prioritize higher education enough to keep minds learning? Depressing! But if you have five bucks and can afford to spare them, consider helping out your local community college:

TO: CCSF Community
FROM: Chancellor Don Griffin
RE: Donation Drive
DATE: March 1st, 2010
Today, in cooperation with the Planning and Budgeting Council,  we are embarking on a community-wide City College of San Francisco (CCSF) Donation Drive. If each CCSF employee and student donates $5 or more, we can raise over $500,000 – half a million dollars! All money collected will go directly to the restoration of classes and services at CCSF for the Fall semester.
Please consider making a donation of whatever you can. Each donation matters. A little from each can make a big difference for all. Hundreds of us have already begun to donate. Please join us in this effort!
We will tally the donations weekly and keep you posted on our progress.
HOW TO DONATE?
Drop cash donations in one of our donation boxes at the Ocean Campus Bookstore or Cafeteria (we plan to expand to other campuses in the future). Or  you can mail a check payable to City College (subject reference: Restore Classes Fund) and send to:
City College of San Francisco — Bursar
50 Phelan Ave. Box E103
San Francisco, CA 94112
For more information, please email ccsfsave@ccsf.edu

A pleasant surprise in film adaptation

As mentioned in a previous post, I often feel a slight twinge of disgust when I learn that literature I treasure is going to be morphed into a film adaptation. It’s not that I dislike the act of doing so as a concept; it’s just that the current body of film adaptations does not instill any hope that new ones will be any good. So imagine the horror and despair I felt when I learned that a former fashion designer (a field for which I do not have much respect) had adapted the most accomplished novel from my most revered writer into a new film?

To my pleasant surprise however, Tom Ford’s rendition of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man was highly enjoyable to watch. And while I reserve some criticism around his choices in bringing this devastating story to the screen, I would recommend it overall, particularly for those of you who enjoy Isherwood’s work. It was refreshing to finally see Colin Firth as George break out of those interminable tethers to his famous presentation of Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice, which he seemingly represents in nearly all of his roles. Julianne Moore, as George’s boozy British best friend, is also a delight, but that is nothing new.

Ford manages to convey the power of Isherwood’s story: the ordinariness of George’s pain in losing his long time lover, suffocated underneath the cultural conservatism and fear rampant in mid-century America. In doing this, Ford seems to have done just fine with his film. What more can we ask? As originally determined from the film’s trailer, the visuals are stunning. Sometimes it almost reaches the point where I was not sure if I was watching a commercial for high end luxury products or a film. We can forgive Ford his indulgences, for he does give us imagery that is astounding overall and coaxes his actors into fine performances. I thought the New York Times review of the film did very well in comparing Ford’s work to that of Pedro Almodóvar and Wong Kar-Wai.

This adaptation was tastefully done: any changes made to the story seemed natural in the transition from written word to moving screen image. Adding the gun and George’s desire to commit suicide gave the movie some dramatic impetus, which is needed in a film but can be left out of a piece of literature. My one main criticism has to do with the hyper-stylization of the film, even though I did find it gorgeous. Art directed to the maximum effect, Ford seems to pander to the materialistic and consumptive side of our culture in needing to make everything beautiful. The characters seem to be wealthier than represented in the novel, and everyone is so fashionable! But perhaps this is what audiences want to see, why would we want to be reminded of our drab lives? It just rings a little false in comparison to Isherwood’s original story, which was not glamorous. It seems like Ford did a great job of adapting the novel, but in bringing it to the screen put the entire thing before his personal fashion panel: anything that could be made pretty was done up, the whole tableau of visuals fit together too perfectly.

Overall though, the film was a very pleasant surprise from an untested filmmaker, who managed not to crap all over a seminal work in modern queer literature. For this alone, Ford deserves praise. It will certainly be interesting to see what he does next with his new found path. Hopefully this wonderful novel will get a bit more attention now that the publishers have slapped Colin Firth’s mug on the cover for a re-print.

[Travelogue] Wandering through The Valley

Being an enthusiastic émigré from the greater Los Angeles area earlier in life, going back on the annual holiday-induced pilgrimage to visit family and friends is a loaded prospect nowadays. I have nothing short of the perplexing love/hate feeling towards Los Angeles, and this applies to the vast environs that are connected to it by the endless strips of concrete, box-stores, and neon lights that are the region’s highways. Namely, these are the 101 and the 118*, my links from Thousand Oaks to Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, popularly known as The Valley, respectively. The part that is always partially stunning is the amount of driving that needs to be undertaken while touring the region. Having given up my car years ago for the bus in San Francisco, I personally do not drive much these days and do not particularly enjoy being driven around. However, while in southern California, it’s simply not convenient to be riding public transit between the far flung points to which one may have to go. I typically arrive in an airplane, usually Southwest to Burbank, and get picked up by someone in a car. We drive to some other point in The Valley, or to the Conejo Valley, in which is nestled the sweet little city of Thousand Oaks. It is really just over a small range of hills, easily reached in your individual automobile pod along the 118. From my parents’ fortified suburban stronghold, there is no bus, there is certainly no train. We drive and drive to eat at restaurants or buy food to bring back and devour in time, usually under the auspices of holiday feastings. The hill and field which were once open space near the stronghold are quickly being devoured by new suburban bastions. Another disconcerting element of being in Thousand Oaks is the pristine silence that can be reached in the quiet hours of the night. I stand on the porch of my parents’ house and hear absolutely nothing. Sometimes you hear the baying of coyotes. Days are accorded to quality time with different people, whom I can usually only reach by car. I went from Thousand Oaks to Granada Hills (one of the many cities in The Valley!) to spend a day with my cousin and her French husband, a day of driving around and around, smoking and listening to music. We saw an old Cold War missile defense installation on top of a hill, restored unlike Hill 88 in Marin. It necessitated a consideration of the sweeping views of the entire San Fernando Valley, gray and white with high clouds. We lost our minds and thought it a good idea to go to Griffith Park and see the view from the Observatory, which was a strategic mistake in having to deal with hordes of people and the automobiles which helped them carry out the mutual intention. The view of the Los Angeles cityscape was worth it though, as the lights of the valley sparked into flares consistently as the sun went down over the sea in the distance. The twinkling lights and incredible redness of the sky from the pollution fueled sunset burned in such a way as to unnerve me. The crimson dusk was ominous as we returned to the car, desiring beer to warm ourselves and limber our minds. The evening eventually brought us to what was described as one of the numerous dive bars dispensing libations in The Valley, a windowless hole which time had long since passed, Casey’s Tavern. Three dollar cocktails were brought to our boothed table by an ancient waitress. The transaction seemed to go one forever, but it was fine. New Year’s decorations festooned the drab interior, worn with years of use and smelling of it. In these moments, the boundary between love and hate is mixed. I feel at times warmth for the nostalgia of coming back to these southern California locales, memories of them built in childhood. Of course not Casey’s particularly, but these newly accessed spots add to the old. The height of the blend comes with driving around Granada Hills endlessly, passing the same nameless mini-malls with their precious individual parking lots in search of a madly Christmas-themed house, epic in proportions, at the whim of my cousin’s husband (a willing émigré from France to this place). Santa clung to a helicopter, loading spinning presents onto a western-themed wagon-sleigh, drawn by the reindeer, partially lifting off into the sky. Every other part of the house was covered in some sort of holiday piece or string of lights. A bench was provided for one to have a picture taken with the orgiastic display of Christmas spirit. My ambivalence comes from all these reminders of the place I left ten years ago, thrown into my face constantly by those that still connect me to this place.

When this portion of the trip wraps up, I am driven to Union Station in Los Angeles, the disembarkation point of a train (a fresh relief as mentioned before) to the similar if slightly different, same-same but different, San Diego, for more days of driving around to culinary points of interest and passive hanging out activities. Most of this time is spent in Encinitas actually with friends and not in San Diego proper. The only time I see my charming public transit again is after the return flight to San Francisco.

*I fully own my usage of the definite article along with the number of the highway in common vernacular and in writing.