PHILLIP MACIAK on AMC’s Mad Men.Image courtesy AMC
Toward the end of “Tomorrowland,” the final episode of the fourth season of AMC’s Mad Men, Don Draper (the girl-, booze-, and epiphany-hound played to the nines by Jon Hamm) gazes with rapt wonder into the eyes of his newest lover. Something of a cut-to-the-chase lothario until this point, Draper’s googly candor is a bit surprising as he lays his heart on the bedsheet. “Did you ever think,” he says, “of the number of things that had to happen for me to get to know you? But everything happened, and it got me here. What does that mean?” Hamm utters these lines in the kind of tremulous whisper-shout normally reserved for stoners commenting on double rainbows. But it’s not just love that has Draper so high, or at least not only love. Don Draper, in this scene, is amazed by the sheer happenstance complexity of the events leading up to this new relationship. In the context of Draper’s life, it’s a romantic speech about the magical workings of fate. In the context of Mad Men, however, it’s a romantic speech about the magical workings, and plottings, of serial television.
Mad Men, in addition to being an abundantly detailed, almost classically composed piece of historical fiction and a genuinely ambivalent critique of consumer culture, is also an intriguing meditation on narrative itself. This is not to say that Mad Men is the best show on the air, or that this self-consciousness somehow allows it to transcend its peers. The self-consciousness of a show like FX’s Louie, for instance, is far more daring and revelatory, and Mad Men is by no means a consensus pick for the Great American Television Series. Indeed, over the past few years, Mad Men has been bloodied by a number of high-profile hatchet jobs — notably at the hands of Daniel Mendelssohn in the New York Review of Books and Mark Greif in the London Review of Books, both of whom raise fair points concerning the show’s often uncritical exuberance about its own aesthetic. Not to mention the fact that Mad Men suffers from the unfortunately common ailment that its protagonist can only ever claim to be the fourth or fifth most interesting character on his own show. Don Draper can run off to California to join a proto-hippie sex commune all he wants, but I cannot conceive of a viewer who would not rather spend the time of these elaborate set-pieces with the sultry and sad accordion-playing Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) or even Draper’s own deeply troubled daughter, Sally (played by the mesmerizing child actress Kiernan Shipka).
It is not necessarily a value judgment, then, to say that narrative is, very simply, what Mad Men is about. From the nostalgic yarns Draper and his fellow ad men (and token lady) spin in order to sell cigarettes to the elaborate lies they concoct to maintain their lifestyles, the characters on Mad Men devote more attention to the stories they tell about their lives than they do to the lives they actually lead. On the surface, this makes Mad Men an examination of a group of people whose collective narcissism has transformed them into a kind of self-sustaining utopian community of cheating spouses and the secretaries with whom they cheat. It also makes it a show with a lot to say about the difference between content and form: the actual events of our lives and the shape or meaning we choose to give to those events. But, more importantly, and often imperceptibly, it makes Mad Men a self-reflexive show about how stories, televisual or otherwise, are constructed.
The Glatstein Chronicles
Translated by Maier Deshell and Norbert Guterman
Edited by Ruth R. Wisse
Yale University Press, November 2010. 432 pp.
On my trip to Poland this past winter, I brought the perfect book as my traveling companion. The Glatstein Chronicles was written in 1934, after the author, celebrated American Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, was summoned home from New York to his dying mother’s bedside in Lublin, Poland. Recently retranslated, edited, and published in English by Yale University Press, the poet’s travel narrative is both first-rate reportage and a fever dream of Europe on the brink of disaster.
Glatstein (named “Yash” as the book’s narrator) travels back to the Old Country by trans-Atlantic steamer. “The ship seemed to be carrying me back to my childhood,” he writes, “as though we were sailing back in time.” His is a half-forgotten, mythical childhood, where, “in the center of the synagogue, the fearful shadow of a hanging lamp swayed back and forth, like a body dangling from a rope.” These sometimes ominous, sometimes joyous memories are both interruption and counterpoint to Yash’s encounters with an international cast of characters as he crosses the ocean and travels across Europe by train.
Dreaming in Chinese
on a recent trip to China.
“This place is more American than America,” I observe candidly to my student minder on the taxi ride toward downtown Shanghai, sorely sleep-deprived following my 13-hour flight from New York. “It makes Manhattan look provincial.” One’s first sighting of Shanghai is unforgettable. Perhaps nowhere else in the world today does one find such a massive concentration of concrete high-rise structures, stretching as far as the eye can see. Most of these distinctly unsightly edifices have been built over the last 20 years. With its 20 million-plus inhabitants, Shanghai is the metropolis of the future — and it is already here. Along with it come all the joys of the 21st-century urban experience: smog, pollution, overcrowding, and epic traffic jams. Whatever one’s destination, one always needs to depart an hour early to account for traffic.
As it turns out, my unscripted initial words would return to haunt me. Two days later, I unthinkingly repeat them in the course of an interview with a journalist from the Oriental Morning Post. To my chagrin, he and his editor decide to use them as the interview’s headline.
China and the Chinese display a profound ambivalence toward modernity and all that it entails. On the one hand, they are extraordinarily proud of all that their nation has accomplished over the last 30 years. At the time of Mao’s death in 1976, China was still a predominantly rural-agrarian society. The post-Maoist leadership is credited with lifting 400 million peasants out of poverty. By the same token, most Chinese I spoke with had strong reservations about the accelerated pace of modernization, which allows little time to savor the virtues of traditional of Chinese life: family, community, and nature.
2050 or Bust
on urban planning in the Egyptian desert.Pipes being installed in Dar es Salam neighborhood of Cairo,
January 2011 © Meredith Hutchison. Courtesy of the Photographer and CairoFromBelow.org
Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control
The American University in Cairo Press, 2011, 335 pp.
This past August in Heliopolis, the Cairo suburb built over desert by a Belgian industrialist in 1905, I sat in an architect’s office, a place called Cube Architectural Consultants, and heard a glowing, impromptu presentation on “Cairo 2050.” Cairo 2050 is a series of outlandish master plans and megaprojects for Egypt’s capital that the regime of Hosni Mubarak began promoting in 2008, with the help of the United Nations and the Japanese government. Its future, an earnest architect informed me gently, was “uncertain in the new Egypt.”
Imagine Dubai in the Nile Valley, if instead of building it on empty sand, futurist skyscrapers and business parks rose over what are now the packed, informal neighborhoods that today house the majority of Cairo’s estimated 17 million people. This authoritarian, outsized development “vision” would involve relocating millions to the furthest edges of the desert — areas banally termed “new housing extensions” — to make way for “10 star” hotels, huge parks, “residential touristic compounds,” and landing-strip-sized boulevards lined with a monotony of towers. It’s unlikely to happen in an Egypt after Mubarak — if it was ever possible at all, given budgets and popular resistance. Still, Cairo 2050 offers a glimpse at the Egyptian government’s approach to urban planning and policy. As David Sims, an economist and consultant who has worked in Cairo since 1974, writes in Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, the Cairo 2050 project represents “a continued penchant for the manufacture of unrealistic dreams” on the part of “government planners and their consultants.”
on José Parlá (now showing at OHWOW Gallery in Los Angeles)
and Mark Bradford, two archivists of urban ruins.
Top: Cyclone’s Capsule © José Parlá 2011
Courtesy of © José Parlá Artist Rights Society, NY and OHWOW Gallery
Bottom: The Devil is Beating His Wife © Mark Bradford
José Parlá: Walls, Diaries, and Paintings
Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011. 188 pp.
Christopher Bedford and Hamza Walker
Yale University Press, in assoc. with the Wexner Center for the Arts, June 2010. 256 pp.
Admirers of the decaying wall, the crumbling edifice, and the forgotten ruin are many, and you can always count on a masonry enthusiast for a fancy prose style. But if you want to find a true poet of dereliction — a troubadour of the trash heap, even — you could do a lot worse than starting with Baudelaire.
In his 1851 essay, “On Wine and Hashish,” the poet wrote of a city-walker who stalks the street rather than strolling it as his dandyish flâneur might, and more out of necessity than a desire for detached, delighted observation: the rag picker.Here is a man whose task it is to gather the detritus of a day in the capitol. Everything the great city throws away, everything it loses, everything it disdains, everything it breaks, he catalogs and collects. He consults the archives of debauchery, the clutter of refuse. He makes a selection, an intelligent choice. Like a miser gathering up a treasure trove, he gathers garbage for the god of Industry to chew over and transform into objects of use or pleasure.Baudelaire’s attraction to the rag pickers’s daily trudge was born out of admiration. He saw their practice as analogous to the poet’s, who might spend “[an] entire day wandering in search of rhymes.” But the rag pickers’s “project” of scavenging — which of course to them was no joy, just everyday life — takes on an even deeper air of solemnity and grace when one thinks of them as archivists of urban ruins, smartly sorting the previously-owned material of life, foraging for what we’ve left behind, what has become extinct, outmoded, or unloved, finding proof of where we lived and the stories that we told about ourselves, and evidence of ways we didn’t want to be anymore or have simply just forgotten that we once were. When things fall apart, you want those who pick up after you to have excellent curatorial taste.
The artist José Parlá has been called a flâneur, an archaeologist, a documentarian, a calligrapher, a historical landscape painter, an archivist, even an alchemist. His artistic admixture admits all of those designations to varying degrees, but without the specific context of the city — its walls, its neighborhoods, its histories — from which he draws his inspiration, all of them are meaningless. It is the city street that is the great subject of his paintings: streets bounded by walls that shelter and confine and eventually act as canvas, recording the shouts and whispers of those who walked them.
Parlá (whose new show, “Character Gestures,” opened yesterday (September 9th) at OHWOW Gallery in Los Angeles and runs through October 22nd) was born in 1973 in Miami to Cuban émigrés who moved him briefly to Puerto Rico and then back to Miami in the early 1980s. Growing up as a teenager at that time, the call of hip-hop — itself born in the Bronx, and bred everywhere restlessly imaginative kids could “get over” by writing on walls, spinning records, rapping over them or dancing to them — was one to which Parlá coukdn’t help but respond. It was graffiti, though, that Parlá most gravitated toward, writing the name “Ease” (which still occasionally makes its way into his work) on walls and trains and all over the precious black books that graf writers treasured and shared with each other like bibles of style.
Keys to the City
CASEY WALKERCity Girl © David Trulli
The Triumph of the City
Penguin, February 2011. 352 pp.
John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, March 2011. 480 pp.
Consider the problems which beset the frenetic mega-city of your choice — not just New York or Los Angeles, but places like Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo. Each has its slums, its political morass, its dangerous, dispersed particulates in the air. It’s tempting to imagine the best solution to the chaos is an unspooling: level the fire-trap tenements, empty the choked highways, shut the dangerously sub-par schools, run those few, prosperous global traders out of their well-appointed penthouses at the point of a pitchfork. End the misery, once and for all. You could feel that way about any of the above cities, or even about a hundred cities in China you’ve never heard of, some of which are expanding by an entire Pittsburgh every year. Listen to the bottom-rung stories of global commerce — suicidal workers in China’s booming factory cities, life in the no-go zones of Rio’s favelas. That’s enough to make you want to send us all back to the land.
And yet, for all the smog and political corruption and inequality, our clustering in cities has a logic. It is neither an accident nor a disaster that humanity is now, for the first time in its history, a predominantly urban species. The rationale for city life is not simply economic efficiency, and it is not simply the giddy cosmopolitanism of art museums and restaurants and architecture. What cities offer is contact — “super-linear” contact, as the Santa Fe Institute calls it, exponential connections among people. This contact breeds innovation, the production of more and better knowledge. If an increasingly urban way of life is our collective future, now would be a good time to refine the conversation, to pay better attention to what cities do well and get a sharper handle on the problems for which we can fault them.
For help in this task, we have Edward Glaeser’s thrillingly optimistic account of our current urban moment and its future prospects. Rather than environmental despoliation, for example, Glaeser encourages us to see efficiencies that vastly outweigh the environmental costs. Glaeser contends that people aren’t crushed by cities, but ennobled by them; that cities attract poverty much more than they create it; and that, for the world’s rural poor, urban life offers a level of economic and social mobility that far outstrips the life offered by subsistence agriculture. Resurrect Jane Jacobs as a Harvard economist with a sharp eye for government policy wrinkles and unintended consequences, and you get Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City.
Elephant Families and Others
JAVIER GRILLO-MARXUACH on a boy’s love for his disturbed mother in Jennifer Richard Jacobson’s Young Adult novel, Small as an Elephant.
METTE IVIE HARRISON on Judy Blundell’s latest, a YA novel about motherless triplets in the 1940s, and the one who, at seventeen, is trying to become a star.
METTE IVIE HARRISON
Scholastic Press. 320 pp.
Red-headed Kit Corrigan is one of the “Corrigan Three,” triplets whose birth killed their mother, and who are raised by a father, Jimmy. The three were put on stage in their first months of life, their unique birth exploited in order for the family to earn a living during the 1930s and ’40s. From the get-go, Kit’s father has billed her as the saucy actress of the three, and over the course of the story, she slowly grows into her own sense of self as a dancer. At seventeen, she is ready to leave her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, and go to New York City to find stardom on Broadway. But her hometown isn’t as easy to leave as she thinks.
From the first paragraph of Strings Attached, National Book Award winner Judy Blundell throws the reader into the harsh, glittering world of off-Broadway sixty years ago: “COCKTAILS AND SPAGHETTI blinked in cheerful, lipstick-red neon at me from a window.” Kit lands a job in a chorus line and gets a cheap room with one of the other girls, whose good will Kit cannot afford to lose. But when she is distracted by the appearance of Nate Benedict, a notorious mob lawyer and the father of her hometown boyfriend, she steps on toes — literally and figuratively. What follows is a cascading effect that ends in Kit’s accepting Benedict’s offer of a free apartment. He claims he wants to do right by his son, who has joined the army suddenly and whom Kit might eventually wish to marry. Kit has a sinking feeling, however, that Nate’s offer is too good to be true, but she can’t act on it until it is too late and her old life sinks away from her, out of sight.
Saving Folks, Solving Mysteries
MARGARET STOHLFarm Family © William H. Johnson 1940
Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon
Zora and Me
Candlewick, 2010. 192 pp.
“What the grown men to do around these parts if little girls gone be the ones saving folks?” So ask grown men like Mr. Slayton the first time the “mighty deserving” fourth grader Zora acts as a “deputy” to the local Marshal, Joe Clarke, in the mysterious case of Old Lady Bronson falling at the Blue Sink swimming hole. As narrated by best friend Carrie, Zora feels compelled to answer the question of whether Old Lady Bronson was pushed or fell. Which will resolve, in turn, the issue of whether Mr. Pendir, who lives by the Blue Sink, is or is not a half-man half-gator. Which will finally solve the central mystery lurking in the margins of the book: is the story-telling Zora crazy, or a liar?
The Eyes Think
DANA BUNTROCKUntitled from the series Katsura.
Ishimoto Yasuhiro, Japanese, born 1921.
Japan, 1953-54 . Gelatin silver print, printed 1980-81 .
Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Gift of the artist in memory of Ishimoto Shigeru.
Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture: Photographs by Ishimoto Yasuhiro
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, July 2010. 168 pp.
A Japanese stroll garden plays out along a rambling path. Stepping stones, uneven and irregular, insistently demand a downward glance. You look up again, and each small step forward unveils a newly unfamiliar scene.
The finest stroll garden is found in the one-time capital of Kyoto. Within is a sprawling, seventeenth-century structure, the Katsura Detached Palace, and a scattering of teahouses with fairy-tale names: Pine Harp Pavilion, Arbor for the Admiration of Blossoms, Shelter for a Laughing Heart. There is an intricate gate of bamboo and bark, a platform for contemplating the moon. A tiny temple.
Only a few cultural icons emerge that are, over and over, reinterpreted and reappropriated, each time offering as much insight into the era as the original itself: Leonardo’s Last Supper, say, or Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Katsura, far away, its interior unattainable (tours are arranged by application only and limited to the garden), is architecture’s twentieth-century touchstone, its legend launched by the German architect Bruno Taut’s first brief visit in May 1933. Taut claimed (immodestly, and unmindful of his Japanese hosts) to have rediscovered Katsura, declaring its simplicity an antecedent of the modern, monochromatic International Style then fighting for a foothold in Japan. Scores of books have since been published on Katsura, two dozen incorporating at least an English introduction. Each offers renewed insight, each includes new perspectives or new scholarship. Walter Gropius, Kenzo Tange, and Arata Isozaki followed in Taut’s footsteps, adding to accounts by other architects once well known, but now nearly forgotten everywhere but in Japan.