Saturday, March 31, 2012

"A Visit from the Goon Squad": Coming Full Circle

I picked a good week to read A Visit from the Goon Squad, which my mom gave me for Christmas. It felt appropriate to read the 2011 Morning News Tournament of Books winner as I eagerly followed the 2012 Tournament. Appropriate, to read a book centered around the music industry the week that I attended a concert, something that I don't do all that often. Appropriate, too, that I had it in my bag when I met Emma Straub, and then I read an interview with her where she mentioned it as one of her favorite books. Weirdly appropriate, that on the day I read one of the book's oddest and funniest chapters, the one about the self-loathing magazine journalist who is assigned to write a profile of a teenage starlet and ends up assaulting her in Central Park, I should read this Gawker article about the sexual politics of the celebrity profile, which covers many of the same themes.

And, I guess, most appropriately of all, that I started seeing weird connections to this book and its themes everywhere, when it, itself, is a book about weird connections and some of the world's biggest, most pervasive themes. Maybe every week is a good week to read A Visit from The Goon Squad!

This book has received a lot of awards and acclaim, so you probably already know about some of its distinctive features (is it a short story collection or a novel?; no two chapters have the same protagonist; the PowerPoint story). And I know I'm not going to be able to write a blog post that does justice to the book as a whole. So, herewith, some disjointed impressions, as a way of saying "I enjoyed this book and I'm still thinking about it."

The book covers a roughly fifty-year timespan -- the earliest story, "Safari," takes place in the early 1970s, and the last two stories take us into the near future of the 2020s. But the characters in every story feel equally real, human, and relatable. The stories that take place in the '70s don't feel like "historical fiction," and the stories that take place in the future don't feel like sci-fi, but a plausible extrapolation of how things might be in fifteen years or so. (Even if Jennifer Egan's predictions don't come true, her novel will still have value as a record of how people in 2010 envisioned the future would be.) I did find the references to Clinton's inauguration at the beginning of "Out of Body" a bit forced, an awkward way of letting the reader know that this story takes place in 1993. But then Egan does such wonderful things with the second-person-singular voice in the rest of the story, I am powerless to resist it.

While the major theme of the book is how the passage of time affects its characters, the emphasis is less on how they are affected by big historical events and more on how they are affected by new technological innovations and gradual shifts in cultural attitudes -- which feels more true to the way that people's lives actually change. The same goes for Egan's attitude about the future: it's not a utopia, it's not a dystopia, it's just a place where people will continue trying to make meaningful connections with one another, the way they have always done.

The way that minor characters in one story will become major characters in another, the way that time grinds them down, and the overall structure of the book (complex, circular, surprising) are heart-stoppingly good.

And I doubt that anyone will ever come up with a better metaphor for the conspicuous consumption of the early 2000s and the 2008 stock market crash than: "scalding oil [fell] onto the heads of every glamorous person in the country and some other countries, too. [...] Her guests shrieked and staggered and covered their heads, tore hot, soaked garments from their flesh and crawled over the floor like people in medieval altar paintings whose earthly luxuries have consigned them to hell."

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Meeting Emma Straub

Between the time I bought my ticket to the Magnetic Fields concert a few months ago and the time I attended the show on Saturday night, I had developed a secondary motivation for being there -- beyond my desire to see one of my favorite bands perform.

See, when I read The Millions' "Most Anticipated Books of 2012" article at the beginning of this year, the title that intrigued me the most was Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub, "about a Midwestern girl who moves to Los Angeles and, at great cost, becomes a movie star in 1940s Hollywood." I'm writing a play about a '40s movie star, so of course I thought "I have to read this novel when it comes out!"

And it just so happens that Emma Straub is on tour with the Magnetic Fields as their "merch girl" and maintainer of their tour blog! When I realized this, I decided I'd try to introduce myself to her at the concert and let her know that I am truly excited about her book.

So, during the opening act, I went out to the lobby and recognized Emma Straub from her author photo -- she was standing near the merch booth. Though I'm always a little nervous in situations like these, the friend I was with cheered me on, and I went up and introduced myself.

Because the Fox Theater insisted on using their own employees as merchandise vendors, Emma didn't have anything pressing to do and I was able to chat with her for a few minutes. We talked about '40s cinema (we're both Hitchcock fans) and how fun it is to watch old movies and call it "research." She also asked me a little about my play and the Olympians Festival.

According to Emma, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures actually spans several decades in the life of its heroine, from the '20s to the '70s -- so the blurb on The Millions was a little misleading. Nonetheless, I'm still super excited to read it, and Emma couldn't have been nicer or more approachable.

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures will be Emma Straub's debut novel, but she is currently represented in bookstores with a short story collection called Other People We Married -- which I want to read now, too!  Here is a video where she reads some of her fiction and Stephin Merritt plays some of his songs, in a joint appearance at the NYC Barnes & Noble earlier this month. She is also chronicling the Magnetic Fields tour for the band's official blog and for the Paris Review blog.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Magnetic Fields at the Fox Theater, Oakland: Love and the Lack Thereof

I was at Oakland's gorgeous/kitschy Fox Theater on Saturday night to see the Magnetic Fields' tour in support of their new album Love at the Bottom of the Sea (my review). Their 90-minute acoustic set included seven of their new songs and plenty of older favorites.

Stephin Merritt is famous for his world-weary baritone voice and deadpan stage presence. Both were in ample evidence on Saturday night. He delivered such quips as "You can never have too many revenge fantasies," and provided short, sardonic intros to the songs: "This is a song about a dead animal" (cue "A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off"), or "This is a song about a horrible, horrible town that some of you may have been to" ("Come Back From San Francisco").

After Shirley Simms sang the brief ditty "Boa Constrictor," Merritt commented, "You know, I think that's my favorite one of the 69 Love Songs." And then promptly launched into everyone else's favorite song from that album, "The Book of Love." We all sang along, quietly, during the choruses. The atmosphere was almost worshipful.

He introduced the beautifully bleak "Smoke and Mirrors" ("That's all love is / Behind the tears / Smoke and mirrors") by saying, "This is a song about love and the lack thereof," which raises two questions:
  1. Why hasn't Stephin Merritt written a song called "Love and the Lack Thereof"?
  2. Would he mind terribly if I did?
(Seriously, it's not every day that you realize that the English language contains an under-utilized rhyme for "love.")

We attendees of the Oakland concert got a special treat: the normally five-person band was joined by a sixth member, accordionist Daniel Handler. Handler plays on Magnetic Fields records, but presumably his commitments as a well-known novelist (under his own name and that of Lemony Snicket) make it impossible for him to tour with the band. He lives in San Francisco, though, so he came onstage and played on several songs. Most memorably, he capered around with his accordion while Claudia Gonson sang "The Horrible Party" and Merritt played a noisy kazoo.

Gonson was a cheerful presence at the piano and the mic, singing "Reno Dakota" and "My Husband's Pied-à-Terre" with great enthusiasm and some hammy gestures. The band's other female member, Shirley Simms, played her ukulele like a trouper and tended to sing the more country-flavored numbers like "Fear of Trains," "Drive On, Driver," and (from the new album) "Goin' Back to the Country." The two women harmonized beautifully on "Plant White Roses," another sad country song.

Indeed, the all-acoustic instrumentation (cello, guitar and harmonium in addition to the aforementioned piano, accordion and uke) made clear the Magnetic Fields' debt to country and folk music, even if many of their albums draw on synth-pop. It also seemed to make the quieter moments and slow ballads more effective than the more upbeat or humorous songs. Though the witty lyrics of "Andrew in Drag" definitely made the audience laugh, the live performance felt less invigorating than the recorded version.

But what really stands out for me is the band's performance of the gorgeous "Busby Berkeley Dreams." In the album version (from 69 Love Songs), the chorus lies at the top of Stephin Merritt's vocal range, and the song gains much of its emotional power from the way his voice sounds like it could crack at any moment. Saturday night, Merritt elected to sing the chorus down an octave, which lessened its soaring sadness, and made the final note so ridiculously low that you couldn't help but giggle. Then, after the instrumental break, he sang one chorus in the original, higher octave -- and the effect was absolutely heartbreaking. And then he got so discomfited by people taking photos that he muffed the lyrics, and we got so discomfited by his discomfiture that we applauded before the song was actually over, though we knew it by heart. From the ridiculous to the sublime and back again, in the course of a three-minute pop song.

Monday, March 19, 2012

My Copy-ous Free Time

Expect radio silence from me this week as I work hard on copy-editing the BOA Anthology. (And also take the time to attend some fun events, which I hope to blog about once we've delivered the anthology to the printers'.)

In the meantime, if you're free tonight, come to the Cafe Royale to see SF Theater Pub 3.3: The Odes of March! Including my contributions, Ode to the Props Master and Ode to the Costume Designer. (related post)

And remember that a $25 pledge to the BOA Kickstarter campaign gets you a copy of the play anthology.

And yes, I did write this post just so I could title it with an egregious pun.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

BOA 2012 on Kickstarter

Check out this video to see me saying some rather intelligent things and doing some rather silly things, all in the name of convincing you to fund BOA 2012 via Kickstarter!

I am the dramaturg for BOA (the Bay One-Acts) this year and am excited to be part of this festival, which brings together many of the Bay Area's best independent theater companies. Performances start April 22. In the meantime, I'll be working behind the scenes and also assisting with publicity.

Donate just $25 and get a copy of the BOA anthology, lovingly copy-edited by yours truly!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Love at the Bottom of the Sea" by the Magnetic Fields: Sad Gavottes

Love at the Bottom of the Sea is the Magnetic Fields' first album in over a decade to feature synthesizers, their first album in fifteen years not to be guided by an overarching formalist conceit -- and (I add, solipsistically) their first new album since I became a fan two years ago. Long on sharp, specific lyrics and unusual synthesizer textures, if short on straightforward emotionality, this collection of under-three-minute pop songs has been entertaining me since it came out last week.

Lead single "Andrew in Drag" is delightful, a catchy tune about an appealingly off-kilter situation: a straight dude realizes that he has the hots for his friend Andrew, but only when Andrew is dressed as a girl. It's sweet and playful, but vaguely melancholy too, since the narrator's desires will never be fulfilled. And I love the Magnetic Fields when they are in sweet-but-melancholy mode (cf. my abiding affection for "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side").

My other favorite song on the album is the waltz "The Only Boy in Town." "Oh, if only you were the only boy in town / For then I could not play the field and let you down," it begins, and continues for three verses and a stunning bridge, full of damnably clever lyrics including a rhyme on "France," "seance," and "for the nonce." But for all the skewed logic and screwy wit, I found it the most relatable song on the album. It's about a woman who wishes she could force herself to love someone wholeheartedly -- and who among us has not felt the same way?

Several of the songs on this album mix old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley songwriting craft with contemporary subject matter -- "Andrew in Drag," a consideration of the vagaries of sexual attraction, being a prime example. The satirical "God Wants Us To Wait" is the perfect song for an era (and a nation) that considers Rick Santorum a viable presidential candidate. It is not a very pretty song, but presumably the martial beat and robotic-sounding vocals are intended to convey that evangelical anti-sex freaks are scary and fascistic. "The Machine in Your Hand" is a song about wanting to be your lover's smartphone the way that Romeo wanted to be a glove upon Juliet's hand -- the lyric "I'll have magical powers / Only they're scientific!" made me giggle.

Speaking of Shakespearean allusions and magical powers, the album also has a song called "I've Run Away to Join the Fairies." Reading the title, I was afraid we were in for something terribly twinkly and twee, about what jolly good fun it is to live in Fairyland. Fortunately, Stephin Merritt sees fairies as powerful and frightening, the way they are portrayed in traditional European folklore. To suitably eerie music, he sings that the fairies "will enchant me and enslave me" and give him an ass's head.

The Magnetic Fields are in goofy high spirits in many of these songs. "The Horrible Party," clearly a take-off on Noel Coward's "I Went to a Marvelous Party," sounds like it should be in a Broadway musical version of Vile Bodies. (Have I mentioned that Vile Bodies and the Bright Young People are my new obsessions? Because they are.) And the album ends with an electro-mariachi parody number exhorting us to "hire Saatchi and Saatchi / To advertise the sausage in your pants."

Yet I think the lyric that sums up Love at the Bottom of the Sea occurs in the unrequited-love ditty "I'd Go Anywhere With Hugh," which calls a love triangle "a sad gavotte." This feels like an emblematic Magnetic Fields line, and not just because Stephin Merritt is one of the few working songwriters who'd use the word "gavotte." "Sad gavotte" describes the characters' situation, the musical style of the song, the overall mood of the album, and, ultimately, the value and the appeal of the Magnetic Fields.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Thinking Creatively, Thinking Practically

NPR once did a video feature where they asked Stephin Merritt (the brilliant songwriter of the Magnetic Fields et al) to compose and record a song, so they could document his creative process. To get started, they provided him with a few writing prompts to choose from. Merritt picked a creepy-looking photo and the number "1974." He explained that he would interpret "1974" as the 1, 9, 7, and 4 notes on the scale and use that as the basis of the melody.

I thought this was so interesting. Most people, if they got a prompt that said "1974," would interpret it as the year 1974, and write a song about an event that took place that year, or using a style of music that was popular in 1974, or something. So, in one sense, Merritt was thinking outside the box. But in another sense, he was thinking quite practically. NPR gave him just 2 days to write and record the song, and under such constraints, all shortcuts are helpful. His decision to see 1-9-7-4 as notes of a musical theme probably saved time and kept him from being overwhelmed by too many melodic possibilities.

You know, sometimes we consider "creative thinking" diametrically opposed to "practical thinking," but it ain't necessarily so. Especially in the arts! So much of the fun of making art comes in working within the constraints of our genres and materials, which spurs both creative and practical thinking.

I found myself pondering this -- how thinking creatively can also mean thinking practically -- after the first writers' meeting for the scribes of Theater Pub 3.3: The Odes of March. Karen, our producer, asked us why we were drawn to the specific odes we were writing. People went around the room giving heartfelt, touching answers, e.g. "Not a lot of people know what a House Manager really does and I wanted to share that with the audience," or "Good stage managers are so underrated and I wanted to pay tribute to them."

Then it was my turn. "Well," I said, "I signed up to do the Ode to the Props Master because a props master is always dealing with a lot of different things --I mean objects, nouns, you know -- so I thought it would be easy to rhyme."

Everyone laughed and I felt a little ashamed to have chosen my topic in such a logical/practical way, rather than emotionally or intuitively. But I knew that if I paid attention to the practical considerations first, I could more easily exercise my creativity later.

All of this is a digressive preamble to lead up to the announcement that YES, I have two pieces in the Odes of March Theater Pub next Monday night, the 19th of March.  Ode to the Props Master, in stately heroic couplets à la Alexander Pope!  And Ode to the Costume Designer, in anapestic quatrains with trick rhymes!

There will be 19 odes total, performed by some of the most charismatic actors of the San Francisco indie theater scene. Including McPuzo & Trotsky's latest composition, a send-up and deconstruction of every Broadway musical ever written -- trust me, you do not want to miss this!  As per usual, the performance begins at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale (corner of Post & Leavenworth), San Francisco.

Additionally, I hope you don't mind that I began this post by talking about Stephin Merritt, because March will be Magnetic Fields Month on my blog! I'll be going to their concert in Oakland on the 24th and hope to blog about the performance, as well as their new album.

Very excited about attending both of these shows, Odes of March and the Magnetic Fields. Rhymes galore!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Merchants" by Susan Sobeloff: A play for the Great Recession

Is No Nude Men starting a tradition of producing new plays each March that deal with the current economic crisis? But while last year's Hermes was about the greedy and amoral one-percenters who are responsible for the economic mess, this year's Merchants, by Susan Sobeloff, is about a middle-class American family trying to deal with the economic downturn -- it's a play for the 99%.

Merchants focuses on two sisters: Lilah (Ariane Owens) has always been the responsible one with a good job, while Mercedes (Maura Halloran) has always been her flaky bohemian kid sister. But when the recession hits, forcing their mother (Trish Tillman) to close the family business and causing Lilah's husband Theo (Tony Cirimele) to lose his job, the family decides that their best hope of making money is to turn Mercedes' performance-art hobby into a viable career. Soon, Mercedes is going out on tours and the phone is ringing off the hook with requests to buy T-shirts and schedule bookings. But this new method of making money also causes stress for everyone -- forcing them to do things they never thought they'd do, things they always hated. Ultimately, it forces them to grow.

Sobeloff makes the striking and unusual choice not to show Lilah and Mercedes really interacting with one another until the very end of the play, whetting our anticipation for what the sisters will say to each other when they finally get to have a real conversation. Other good scenes include the one where we get a taste of Mercedes' performance art and the funny scene of Lilah and Theo interacting with customers on the phone.  Director Stuart Bousel, the cast, and the rest of the No Nude Men team have given the play a solid production for its world premiere.

At first, I wasn't sure I was going to blog about Merchants. I thought the play and production were well-done, but I wasn't sure if I had any special angle or insight into them. Then I realized that perhaps my very lack of an angle is a virtue. That is, Merchants is not a trendy or a cutting-edge play.  It is squarely in the tradition of psychologically-realistic American plays that depict a family dealing with economic hardship. (Often, as in Merchants, these plays deal with Jewish families -- cf. Awake and Sing or Death of a Salesman.) But who says that a play can be good only if it's hip or experimental? The subject matter of Merchants is timely, the script provides good roles for women, and the story is ultimately satisfying. Furthermore, with this production, No Nude Men is taking a chance on a first-time female playwright. And what's not to like about that?

Merchants runs through March 24 at the Exit Stage Left, San Francisco. Tickets here.

Disclosure: I was comped to Merchants last weekend.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sketchy Shakespeare

A college friend of mine recently started a blog called Shakesketch -- whimsical illustrations inspired by Shakespeare quotes.

I suggested "Egypt, thou knew’st too well / My heart was to thy rudder tied by the strings / And thou shouldst tow me after" from Antony and Cleopatra, with this as the result:

Go over to Shakesketch to check out the other illustrations and send your own favorite Shakespeare quote to the artist!

It really is a great daily reminder of the richness of Shakespeare's language and metaphors.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Finding the Pleiades

I'm ashamed to admit this, but I wrote an entire play based on the Greek myth of the Pleiades without knowing how to sight the Pleiades star cluster. The instructions I found tended to presuppose more astronomical knowledge than I had: "Find Capella, then find Aldebaran". And just what does a "star cluster" look like, anyway?

But then I discovered two key facts (source):
  1. If you follow the stars in Orion's belt in a straight line to the right, you will eventually hit the Pleiades.
  2. You can recognize the Pleiades because they are shaped like a mini-Dipper.  We're talking a cute, tiny Dipper shape, much smaller than the actual Little Dipper. 
It's easy!  On a dark, clear night, find Orion and mentally extend the line of his belt to the right until you hit the dipper-shaped cluster.  If you want to be sure you're on the right track, about halfway between Orion and the Pleiades is a very bright reddish star: Aldebaran, in the constellation Taurus.

Caveats: If there's too much light pollution, you can't see the Pleiades (they are dimmer than Orion and Aldebaran). Also, these are winter constellations, so if you are in the Northern Hemisphere you have only about a month more to view them this season. Currently, they are best seen in the early evening, just an hour or two after sundown.

The Pleiades are small, but distinctive, and many cultures have incorporated them into their mythology. I myself realized that while stargazing in years past, I had observed a cute little Dipper-shaped grouping -- I just had never known that it was the Pleiades. When I finally learned how to sight them using the "Orion's belt" method, I felt like I was seeing an old friend.

"Hello, girls," I said.