...the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life...

Friday, June 27, 2014


Renata Adler's unconventional book is perhaps more interesting than compelling. I had difficulty reading it for any duration; it seems meant to slow the reader down. Even so, I marked, in the copy I borrowed from the library, several bits I liked. There are many things I'd love to quote here--too many. This is one of the episodes (the whole 'novel' is a collection of episodes) that stunned me and made me want to read it again:
A tall man was beginning a Tiny Tim sort of grateful frenzy--covering his ears, and shaking his head and saying, shrilly, often, how wonderful to him everybody was, how wonderful. Once, at a Christmas party on Park Avenue, when somebody was reading, beautifully, aloud from Dickens, I began to giggle, uncontrollably. It was that classic Tiny Tim and his damn crutch. I have always thought of the other, singing Tiny Tim as serious. Elva Miller, Frances Foster Jenkins, but Tiny Tim especially--being somehow bent to play out the American freak triumphant, to sing in falsetto about tulips, when what he longs to do, knows how to do, does seriously, is sing in exact imitation of 78 r.p.m. records, complete with scratches, old forgotten songs, in exact imitation of the voices of the dead. There he was, then, Tiny Tim, on the talk shows, in no sense a comedian but a loser meant to win it for the losers. The underside, a fifties person. Or rather, contra-fifties, in his peculiar way. For years now, there have been other, sounder contra-fifties people. Against all that modesty, domestication, niceness--Joe Namath, Bobby Fischer, Mark Spitz, Jimmy Connors, Bobby Riggs, Muhammad Ali. For the ladies, well, for the ladies, Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, Diane Arbus, Janis Joplin, Anne Sexton, and, after all on another racetrack, Ruffian.

All those unendearing braggarts and, on the distaff side, the suicides. Books about Ali. Ten years earlier, the preoccupation with Monroe. But there was a day, or there came, as Sam Dash would say, a time, when an actual Evel Knievel metaphor appeared--in an event that was inconsequential, small. The proposition was deep. It virtually spun. People were invited to see somebody ride his motorcycle over a canyon gap. That was what it was said they had been invited to pay to see. An early truth of the matter was this: it could not be done. The performer and his sponsors knew what he was going to do. The people who paid their admission knew what they were coming to see. By the end, the morally spinning proposition was this: when, by some miscalculation, the motorcyclist was actually exposed to a danger which he had not foreseen, when his parachutes almost failed so that he nearly did get killed (not, it is true, in a manner that had anything to do with the alleged hazards of his ride, but rather by being slammed by his parachutes into the sides of cliffs), when, in short, the escape procedure became the menace, were the members of the audience entitled to feel cheated in any way. They had paid to see him die. He had arranged to escape unharmed. There was nothing of the old-style prestidigitator-understanding in this thing. In their separate ways, neither party ever seriously entertained any notion that the motorcycle could rocket successfully over that canyon gap. What did, then, occur; what was the event? A performer and an audience conspired that someone should be misled. The performer intended a motorized parachute jump. The audience paid to see a suicide. No fifties teamwork or nice-guy qualities in it anywhere. Nothing went according to plan. The question was who was misled, whom were they conspiring to mislead? Why, history. For a perfect moment it was like almost every other event in public life.

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