Kunzru’s Transmission and Gaiman’s Coraline

I’m not sure why I started reading for pleasure two separate novels on the eve of the new semester, but I did. Maybe I’m trying to squeeze a few more drops of summer out of the first week of classes, before my reading for work grows too heavy.

First up is Hari Kunzru’s Transmission. The book reminds me of early Neal Stephenson, with the way Kunzru adopts different styles of language to convey points of view. Here’s one of the first scenes with Guy Swift, whose vapidity becomes increasingly obvious as the novel progresses:

In a glittering career Guy had raised awareness, communicated vision, evoked tangible product experiences and taken managers on inspirational vision journeys. He had reinforced leading positions and project-managed the generation of innovative retail presences. His repositioning strategies reflected the breadth and prestige of large portfolios. His communication facilitiation stood out from the crowd. Engaging and impactful, for some years he had also been consistently cohesive, integreted and effective over a spread spectrum.

It’s clear that Kunzru is making fun of Guy, but what is so great about the passage is that Kunzru uses Guy’s own specialized language to do it. It’s what Bakhtin calls “double-voiced discourse”: using someone’s own mode of speaking — their word choice, structure, and tone — against them. The passage is an assemblage of buzz phrases from the management world and seen here, piled onto one another in a collision of corporatespeak, it is all revealed for the silliness that it is.

The second novel I picked up and tore halfway through at midnight last night, when I should have been sleeping, or at least prepping for class, is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Amazon says the book is for 9-12 year olds, but I don’t know. It is creepy. Extremely creepy. Verging, at the halfway point, on downright scary. Dave McKean’s eerie illustrations aren’t helping.

I’ll have to dig around in the databases to make sure, but I can’t believe that nobody has looked at Coraline in the context of other children’s gothic novels. It’s a haunted house novel, and I don’t recommend reading it at night, when you’re all alone in your own house. Or, as I was, alone in a house that isn’t yours.

Let Us Now Praise the Tater Tot

Tot Bomb
Creative Commons License photo credit: JaseMan

I’ve always suspected that Tater Tots were the ultimate comfort food. Something about them calls us back to childhood, back to the deep fried goodness of elementary school cafeterias. Even full grown adults are susceptible, drawn to the warm potatoesque mush inside and the crunchy, flaky shell outside. Some salt and some ketchup, and we’re in heaven.

My theory was confirmed today at the campus cafeteria. One of the a la carte lines had a hot batch of tots, fresh from the fryers. I helped myself, of course. It was the best thing that happened to me all day, maybe all week.

And as I was walking to a table, no less than four total strangers stopped me, asking where I had found the Tater Tots. They wanted them too. They wanted the comfort, the serenity, the salvation promised by each tiny perfect little tot. All across the cafeteria today were delighted students and professors, as eager for each new tater morsel as my grandma was for her Sunday Eucharist.

My musty old comic books

Super Friends No. 13Adam and I have been friends for over thirty years — he’s one of the few people I regularly keep in touch with from my childhood. And lately Adam’s been mining our childhood for memories of our individual and collective comic book “habit,” writing some wonderful reflections upon comic books and what they’ve meant to him through the years. Adam’s most recent recollection describes buying his first comic book with his own money — Superfriends No. 13 — and he mentions that he is nearly certain I was with him at the time. My memory is more than a little fuzzy about this; I don’t recall it at all. I would’ve been seven at the time.

But I just dug through an old battered cardboard box, hauled around the country with me ever since my parents cleaned out their attic a few years ago, where I haphazardly store my fading, musty collection of comic books. And there it was: Superfriends No. 13, featuring some sort of giant green mutated shrew. So either Adam and I bought the same comic at different times, or we each bought our own copy at the same time (thus avoiding the fate of Bart Simpson’s rare copy of Radioactive Man). Either way, this cover is actually imprinted on my mind, and I didn’t realize how familiar it was until I saw it again (the image here is scanned from my own copy; I’ve also got a larger version where you can see just how wrinkled and scratched this thirty-year-old cover is).

Captain Atom
As I was rummaging through my stash of comics I also discovered my first comic book. I didn’t buy it with my own money, so it’s not in the same category as Adam’s, but it is the first comic I remembering owning, reading it over and over. Undoubtedly my parents gave it to me as some sort of bribe on one of our long family car trips. The comic, seen here (larger version), is No. 83 of Captain Atom, one of the many radioactive superheroes who never made it big. (You’ve never heard of him, right?)

Nonetheless there are some surprising coincidences here: (1) Captain Atom bears some resemblance to the Simpson’s Radioactive Man, so here I am again preliving a more wholesome version of the fictional Bart Simpson’s life; (2) I remember that at the time (age six) I thought Captain Atom was Captain Adam, because I knew Adam was my friend, but I had no idea on earth what an atom was; and (3) if you look closely at the larger image, you can see the legendary Steve Ditko’s signature. Captain Atom was one of Ditko’s creations from the early sixties (my version of Captain Atom No. 83 is a reprint of a much earlier appearance), and Ditko would of course go on later to create the much more memorable Spider-Man — the anchor of the Marvel Universe, which I would soon join myself, leaving behind the innocence of the Superfriends, the naive Wonder Friends, and the forgettable Captain Atom…

The World Trade Center (from the archives)

Lately I’ve been reading up on the history of the World Trade Center. It’s easy to forget, in this post-9/11 world, that for most of their life the Twin Towers were reviled. One of the most prominent critics was Wolf Von Eckardt, the Washington Post‘s eminent architectural critic. Upon seeing Minoru Yamasaki’s model for the buildings in 1966, Von Eckardt called the World Trade Center a “fearful instrument of urbicide.” Its two towers, he wrote, “just stand there, artless and dumb, without any relationship to anything, not even to each other.”

Von Eckardt calls the scale of the Twin Towers “utterly inhuman.” Maybe that’s why they eventually gained acceptance–if not from the architectural community, then at least from the popular media. What else could King Kong climb, except for something that was utterly inhuman?

Click for larger image

Mergers and Acquisitions

The recently proposed merger between JP Morgan Chase and Bank One has got me thinking about the ways that multinational corporations work. Never forget that these two “banks” are really corporations — meaning that their primary concern is, always, to make more money. And, ironically, to make more money at any cost. The cost, unfortunately, is almost always measured in human lives. Who can forget the 1995 Chase Manhattan memo recommending that the Mexican government “eliminate the Zapatistas” rebels in Chiapas in order to secure foreign investments? Who can forget? Apparently most everyone.

Multinational banks are not the only corporations that keep the balance sheet of bodies hidden from view. Indeed, we almost expect it from banks. But from a record label? The phenomenal indie band Godspeed You Black Emperor! offers a homemade diagram (full-size diagram) on their website that details how major defense contractors have holdings in record labels like Time Warner, Sony, and BMG:


So in addition to Britney Spears albums, this network of companies produces bombs, missiles, and fighter jets. These corporations form a node that GYBE! calls “Yanqui U.X.O.” — a phrase which is not so difficult to understand once you know the language. UXO is a military term which means “unexploded ordnance.” In other words — a bomb waiting to go off. And Yanqui is Yankee, seen (and spelled) from the colonized’s point of view.

These corporations deal in real violence, but there is also a kind of metaphysical violence going on in the way that their interconnectivity and culpability is obscured. Britney’s smash CD comes out on a Jive Records label. Jive Records is owned by BMG. BMG in turn is connected to the Franco-Belgian oil giant TotalFinaElf. And TotalFinaElf owns Hutchinson Worldwide, a company that makes, through its subsidiary Barry Controls, essential avionic and missile components for the defense industry.

I am reminded of a scene in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Somebody asks the serial killer/Wall Street bigshot Patrick Bateman what he does for a living. She thinks she hears him say “mergers and acquisitions.” Which makes sense, because he does work for an investment firm. What he really says, and what she chooses not to hear is this: “murders and executions.”

In LA this week

In LA this week I met a former animator for Disney who now designs murals and sculptures for the Disney Stores. Right now he’s working on a Goofy sculpture for the Disney Store in Paris. He told me that every detail of the three-dimensional Goofy—the length of the ears, the diameter of the eyeballs, the size of the hands—is measured by a precise caliper to ensure that Goofy is perfectly proportioned. Quality control, he called it. There’s a danger of a kind of perspective drift in which over time Goofy’s ears, for example, could slowly become exaggerated, growing ever larger. Eventually Goofy would no longer be recognized as Goofy. The same thing happened with Mickey Mouse. The first twenty or so years of his life Mickey was allowed to evolve, from a very obvious caricature of a blackface minstrel to the wide-eyed, decidedly non-Rat-like mouse we know today, the version that Disney so assiduously protects with a brigade of lawyers and a shield of special-interest trademark legislation, passed by Congress solely for the sake of Disney.