Wednesday, January 28, 2015

“Just empty spaces next to empty spaces”

When I read advance copies of books, I generally begin writing my review right away, but The Sculptor, a graphic novel by Scott McCloud, requires some time to simmer. David Smith, a young sculptor, frets he will never realize the recognition he deserves. To guarantee his artistic immortality, he makes a deal with Death, who appears as his late Uncle Harry. This apparition promises him fame for exchange for only 200 more days of life.

Then he meets Meg, a quirky young woman he quickly falls for. Knowing his time is limited he resists submitting to a relationship with her. While trying to avoid involvement with Meg, David works on trying to score a solo show at the gallery where his friend Ollie works. 

David finds he has super human strength to mold any substance, be in granite, metal or rock, into art with his bare hands. When David feels betrayed by Ollie, who gives the show to someone else, he decides to make his art known by surreptitiously creating sculptures throughout the city. He becomes the most famous “vandal” in the city, even though no one can prove the work is his. Ironically, his anonymous works make him a hot commodity, but he risks arrest if he comes forward.

One universal truth addressed in The Sculptor is it’s futile to resist love, especially when someone so needy and insecure as David. Meg helps him realize his potential. He tends to whine about his work being unfocused, yet she helps him realize he thinks too much. “You can still focus, just go deep, not wide.”

Throughout the tale David attempts to come to terms with his impending death, yet he is still drawn to Meg. He wants to tell her the deal he made with Death, yet the penalty for revealing it will shorten his life even more.

The book offers a subtle criticism of the ugly politics of the art world, where it’s often “all just about celebrity, not the art at all.” In a conversation about art’s purpose with Ollie and another artist, Ollie says, “the viewers are the material. We’re nothing without them.”  The novel also addresses a universal question: who will remember us when we die, and for what will be remembered?

The illustrated tale weighs in at nearly 500 pages, and transcends well beyond an ordinary comic book. It’s a full bodied novel. At times David Smith is a pain in the ass with his whininess and histrionics, yet the young are often impatient and impertinent. Besides, David knows he has very little time.

The book will be available Feb 3, 2015, through First Second Books. $29.95

Happy Reading.

Friday, January 2, 2015

I Got Schooled

Recently I was called out for using the word “shrapnel” in the title of my last blog post which discussed the Italo Calvino novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and how this book speaks for the reading/writing connection. I entitled the post “Days under Bombardments, watching the shrapnel fly.” I received the following comment: “Shrapnel is not a synonym for submission, splinters or fragments. Do not use it unless you know that it comes from a shrapnel shell, as used to cut barbed wire in the First World War and against aircraft in the Second World War.”

Have I just been scolded online?

The word shrapnel is often used in conjunction to explosive events, and just the other night I heard a reporter describe wreckage from a plane crash as “shrapnel.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary, shrapnel is “an artillery shell containing metal balls fused to explode in the air, the metal balls themselves, or fragments from a high explosive shell, mine, or bomb.” The urban dictionary recognizes these definitions, yet adds it can also mean “loose change of little value.”

How many of you have heard words used in a manner where they sound atonal, like a John Cage concert or off key whistling? A co-worker says, “I have literally been to the moon and back today.” Or you hear a friend describe someone as “the most artistical person I know,” Then there’s my favorite: “I’m writing a fictional novel.” These things screech inside your head as if you’re braking a rusted schoolbus down a steep slope, so I suppose my use of the word shrapnel felt that way to my censurer.

This isn’t my first semantic faux pas. I grew up in a white, Republican household where my father regularly said things like, “see if you can Jew him down on the price.” (Is it any accident his favorite TV character was Archie Bunker?) I am ashamed to reveal I inherited his politically incorrect phrases. While having dinner at a conference one evening, I remarked someone was “very Jewish with his money.” One of my tablemates, who is also a friend, said to me, “I’m Jewish, and what you just said it offensive.”  It never occurred to me a statement like that denigrates an entire culture. It’s a metaphorical phrase I grew up hearing countless times, yet it never occurred to me to consider the literal meaning behind those words.

Because we are human and flawed, each of us has diction preferences. Most of my erudite friends wince at hearing “I have went there,” and “where’you at?” and other bad grammar. A former student says the word ‘snacks’ make her cringe, and a friend of mine can’t stand hearing the word ‘panties’. I hate the word “gals.” When I am referred to as a gal, I picture a woman dressed in buckskin wearing a ten gallon hat. I am not a gal.

The word ‘shrapnel’ does not appear in my essay, only the title, “Days under bombardments, watching the shrapnel fly.” I responded to my critic to clarify this, remarking “It’s a quote from the book. The character is describing his work in the military. I used it because I like the sequence of words.” To avoid confusion, I probably should have explained the quote somewhere in my post, but I thought the quotation marks surrounding the title let readers know this was a quote.  I could have saved myself embarrassment by choosing a different portion of text to quote, or by contriving a bland title, such as “My Feelings About Italo Calvino’s Book.” I chose to use the words for their cadence, not context.

Language is not static. Just as bad now means good, and phat does not refer to weight, the word shrapnel is commonly tossed around out of context. I’ve heard it used in many contexts, such as, “ice was falling like shrapnel,” and “After the tornado, the yard was nothing but shrapnel.”

At the beginning of this post I said I was “called out” by someone. This terminology is a recent addition to our vernacular to describe a scolding. Poets understand the liquidity of language and metaphoric use of words. When poet Naomi Shihab Nye says, “Music lives inside my legs,” she does mean her bones are literally connected to speakers that broadcast songs, yet her readers understand the visceral use of the metaphor.

I apologize ahead of time for any semantic foibles I will commit in the future. As I age, the one thing I know for sure is we are, to steal a title from Anne Lamott, ‘imperfect birds.’

Happy Reading and Writing.