Thursday, March 27, 2008
In the Penny Press!
Quite a bit that's noteworthy in the penny press this time around, which is a bit surprising! Take the 31 March issue of the New Yorker, for instance: instead of having one article that's mildly interesting and fourteen that are instantly forgettable, this issue lots of great stuff in it. Great and by turns both fascinating and infuriating.
The infuriating comes hung on the same point here as everywhere else in the Penny Press this week: Senator Barack Obama's epic speech on race in America, the one he made in response to the furor kicked up by his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright but which so quickly and overwhelmingly surpassed the occasion of its origin as to render that occasion irrelevant. Obama's speech, made by the first serious black presidential candidate in American history - a deeply intelligent, deeply personal speech as frank as it was remarkable - was instantly a milestone, but that hardly matters in this present tawdry age. The noxious new verb is 'swift-boating': the quick, conspiratorial, clamorous and only hazily accurate. This week in the penny press, the swift-boating of Obama's speech, and the New Yorker is, alas, no exception, with George Packer writing the astonishing line: "It isn't clear that Obama's elevated dialogue last week is in the long-term interest of his campaign."
In Packer's defense, he does also write this: "The speech seemed to have been composed in intense solitude, and it has the personal drama, the encompassing structure, the moral and intellectual intricacy, of a great essay."
Still, we'll come back to annoyance on this particular point. In the meantime, there's plenty in this issue of the New Yorker that carries no annoyance at all, that only pleases. Like, for instance, David Owen's wonderful piece on the persistence of the penny, a familiar subject for devotees of The West Wing, in one episode of which Sam Seaborn has to deal with the whole issue of why something as useless as the penny continues to exist. Owen has an abundance of fun facts to pass along, like this:
More than a few people, upon finding pennies in their pockets at the end of the day, simply throw them away, and many don't bother to pick them up anymore when they see them lying on the ground (Breaking stride to pick up a penny, if it takes more than 6.15 seconds, pays less than the federal minimum wage).
Pennies, it turns out, cost more than a penny apiece to manufacture, and nickels cost nearly twice their worth to turn out - a state of affairs the mint and the treasury know perfectly well, but what's to be done? The problem is the million or so vending machines all throughout the country - they sort and value the coins they're fed by weight, and altering the composition of the nickel to make it more cost-effective would almost certainly change its weight. Americans cannot live without their vending machines, so the problem of the nickel might well be intractable. This doesn't stop Owen from having his fun with the subject:
Consider, after all, the opportunity cost of stroring billions of dollars' worth of small coins in dresser drawers, often for decades, and then losing track of them entirely. This taxlike penalty is self-imposed, since no law prevents anyone from filling his pockets with pennies before leaving the house, but even people who do use small change bear the burden of lugging it around and sifting through it - the old-lady-with-a-coin-purse problem, which has doubtless been slowing checkout lines since the Lydians invented coinage, in 500 B.C. or so.
Hell, even one of the issue's poems appealed to us this time around, which will no doubt grieve our young poet friends, who deplore our taste in the art. This is by Stanley Moss, and it's called "Anonymous Poet":
Sometimes I would see her with her lovers
walking through the Village, the wind
strapped about her ankles.
Simply being, she fought
against the enemies of love and poetry
like Achilles in wrath.
Her tongue was not a lake,
but it lifted her lovers
with the gentle strength of a lake
that lifts a cove of waterlilies -
her blue eyes, the sky above them -
till night fell and the mysteries began.
My friend I love, poet I love,
if you are not reading or writing tonight
on your Underwood typewriter,
if no one is kissing you, death is real.
But the most surprising thing of all - the most surprising thing in any given issue of the New Yorker, is to find that the short story is good, and that's the case this time around as well: Jeffrey Eugenides turns in "Great Experiment," a fast-paced and utterly winning short story involving greed, graft, and Democracy in America. This short story alone is worth the price of the magazine, and we here at Stevereads recommend it.
The issue ends with a Hilton Als piece on current theatre in New York, one that deals with Carol Churchill's latest work, "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" Als generally likes the new play (the British press held a dim view of it), calling it "wildly beautiful" (a glance at the text of the thing itself is sufficient to show anybody that), and he of course approves of Churchill's body of work, although it's a little puzzling to see him call "Top Girls" "malodorous" - the work is an assured masterpiece, nothing 'malodorous' about it.
But then, we suppose Churchill should be happy to escape with her scalp, since "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" doesn't fare so well in the same week's issue of New York magazine, where Jeremy McCarter maintains the play a "cartoonish" failure and then lards it with faint praise:
Even when she's not at her incisive best, Churchill delivers a sly theatrical punch. When [main characters] Sam and Guy coo about the endlessness of space, she makes the giddiness of megalomania sound like the giddiness of love. Yet much like the scattered laughs in David Mamet's presidential comedy November, moments like this serve mainly to remind you how small the play looks next to the writer's other, tougher work, and how much better our murky times ask great writers to be.
Yeesh. And as if that weren't bad enough, the same issue also includes an infuriating squib referring to a hatted and hoodied Tom Brady as "a New York Patriot" ...
And the irks just keep on coming, because this issue, like the New Yorker, feels the need to oh-so-cynically swiftboat Barack Obama's race-speech, saying it contains factually arguable misstatements and the like, inconsistencies that will get major air-play when the footsie-playing preliminaries of the primary season are over and the heavyweight savagings of the general election begin. The article, by John Heilemann, doesn't stint the candidate's intelligence, but even so, the put-upon world wearniness of the thing is grating on its face:
Obama knows that this is coming. He has his answer ready: that a lot has changed in twenty years, that voters want to move past the kind of politics that "uses patriotism as a cudgel"; that they are burning, yearning, to declare, as he put it in his speech last week, "Not this time." One hears him say these sorts of things and hopes, audaciously, that he is right. Then one sees the Republicans licking their chops and fears that he is not.
To which we here at Stevereads feel like responding, simply: will you all please just shut the Hell up? If these nefarious Republicans are indeed licking their chops for the bloodsport to come, isn't there at least a chance that Senator Obama will have changed the zeitgeist even minimally, even to the point where the tactics Republicans are drooling to employ will explode in their faces? That's the magic of espousing a campaign of vague-enough 'change': if your opponents to anything they've done before, they make themselves your target.
Barack Obama has so far run a cleaner, more upright presidential campaign than virtually any other aspirant in American history. It's possible, just possible, that such a campaign has strengths of its own, unique to it, that need not tremble in such abject John Kerry vulnerability to the tactics it may face in a general election. Swift-boating appeals to the tabloid mentality, the least-common-denominator baseline of the American psyche; there are other, better aspects of the collective American mind - there always have been. Ironic indeed - and intensely historical - if Barack Obama were to be the one to tap into them, even to save his chances.
Luckily, the issue ends on a wonderful one-two punch, both blows falling in the magazine's regular 'Party Lines' feature. First, and most wistfully, Martin Sheen, who is and will always be President Jed Bartlett (as one TV ad campaign put it years ago, "the president we can all agree on"), telling his interviewer that he considers former president Bill Clinton a friend and likes Obama 'a lot.' And second, at the premiere of the second season of Showtime's The Tudors, Peter O'Toole (who turns in a wickedly nonchalant performance in that season as Pope Paul III) is asked his opinion of Pope Benedict XVI. His response is priceless:
[Places finger under nose and raises hand in a Hitler salute] He's winding the clock back nicely, isn't he? He might go back to 1530 if he keeps on going. He doesn't like women, but then again, very few popes do.