Read This: Orfeo

Richard Powers, OrfeoI’m writing the occasional book review and literary feature for The Daily Beast now, and this weekend they published “The Bioterrorist Who Loved Mahler,” where I look at the new Richard Powers novel, Orfeo.

I’ve been a fan of Powers for nearly two decades, since my discovery of Galatea 2.2 coincided with my initial fascination with the new-fangled Internet back in the mid-’90s, and I’ve written other articles about why his previous novel Generosity, as well as several of the novels before that, ought to be classified as science fiction. I feel the same way about Orfeo to some extent, although it’s also (I think) utterly within the realm of scientific plausibility based on contemporary technology. So maybe an apt comparison might be the most recent novels of William Gibson, although—even with a man-on-the-run premise—Powers is distinctly less action-oriented, more overtly geared towards immersive contemplative sequences.

This was a fun review to write: I got to namecheck Milton Babbitt and Philip K. Dick, and how often does that opportunity present itself naturally, right?

25 January 2014 | read this |

Read This: Fosse

When Sam Wasson saw Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz for a film course as an undergrad at Wesleyan in 2001, he “felt something… like depressive exhilaration,” he recalls. “It ate my imagination. I’d had some version of that feeling before, of being consumed by a great work, but it had always registered more like catharsis. It felt good. All That Jazz I loved with an intensity that erased me.”

His reaction isn’t hard to understand. All That Jazz is the type of overwhelming creative vision that can convince even the most hardened materialist to accept the auteur theory—but, more than that, it’s one of a handful of films where the filmmaker’s vision becomes inseparable from his personality to the point that you find yourself on a guided tour of his psyche. In Fosse’s case, despite his superficial attempts to obscure the issue, it was an explicitly autobiographical tour spurred by a series of heart attacks in 1975, when he was simultaneously trying to edit the film Lenny and launch the original Broadway production of Chicago. The film’s climactic number, “Bye Bye Life,” stretches the Everly Brothers classic “Bye Bye Love” so far that it nearly becomes meditative—and would be, if it weren’t for the non-stop choreography and the way Fosse extends the dream-like quality of the Hollywood dance sequence into a provocatively surreal realm… then brutally pulls the rug out from under his fictional stand-in (played by Roy Scheider) and the audience.

That college screening planted a seed in Wasson that has culminated, more than a decade later, in Fosse, a massive biography that builds upon previous accounts of the director-choreographer’s life with extensive original research and interviews. His efforts to explain his subject’s genius are relentlessly psychological, taking its cues from the outline Fosse himself laid out: Scarred by his adolescent experiences working alongside sexually aggressive burlesque dancers, in an environment his parents should have known enough to keep him from, he would grow up to love and hate show business with equal passion, sublimating the moves he learned in those cheap joints for the Broadway stage and the big screen. For Wasson, that process becomes a consistently frustrated attempt to work through his youthful suffering.


13 January 2014 | read this |

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