William J. Cobb's Blog
December 7, 2014
So I’d heard that James Franco had made a film version of Cormac McCarthy’s powerful-and-disturbing novel Child of God (1974), and I casually wondered why I hadn’t heard anything about it. A year ago Franco also did a film version of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), which I showed to an American Gothic literature class I was teaching, and that went well enough, even if it did seem rather amateurish at times. So innovator and film-buff that I am, I decided to show Child of God to a graduate seminar, in which we had just read Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful new novel, Lila, which concerns a loner/misfit of sorts, Lila Dahl, who often lives in isolation, and whose life is marked, at least to some extent, by violence. The stories have some similarities, but are also greatly different. It would illustrate a range of fictional/mythical approaches. Sounds reasonable, right?
Child of God is basically the life story of Lester Ballard, the misfit of all misfits, a deranged hillbilly that makes The Misfit of Flannery O’Connor’s great short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953) look like a lightweight schoolteacher. He’s also a little like Faulkner’s Bundrens or Snopeses—or their evil twin, at least—an Appalachian ne’er-do-well to the nth degree. So I’d be comparing the representations of two isolated loners, both released recently, with Robinson’s novel published this year and Franco’s film made just last year. What could go wrong?
Still, I wondered why I hadn’t heard anything about this film. Now I know why. To say it’s horrible is an understatement. It mangles (and sexually abuses) the novel into a poorly done horror film. Not to mention it’s downright disgusting. The necrophilia was just too much. It makes The Hills Have Eyes (1977, 2006) look like The Sound of Music (1965). So be warned. I have to reread COG again to see how closely Franco’s aberration of a film follows the novel, but the main difference, I believe, is Franco shows the necrophilia that was mainly implied in the novel. At some point you realize you’re watching a crazed hillbilly screw dead women. Oy. It’s the reversal of that old adage: Show, don’t tell. In this case showing is not the right move. Or perhaps I (and all my shocked and dismayed graduate students, thank you very much) am just too squeamish. It was so awful it was kind of funny. Kind of.
My wife suggested, “Perhaps you could have watched the film first, before showing it to your class?” Good idea! Although not an idea whose time has come, but rather one that’s a bit late, like the horse that has escaped the proverbial barn, because she couldn’t stomach what that crazed hillbilly was doing in there . . . .
I’ll say it’s this bad: I feel the need to defend the novel. McCarthy’s Child of God is creepy and disturbing, true, but it’s also eloquent, austere—even poignant. There’s a touch of the sublime, and a compassion for the misfits of the world. Here’s a good mini-review of it by no less than Mary Gaitskill:
“The travails of a homeless, retarded necrophiliac killer roaming the hills of Kentucky. It sounds like a joke but somehow, it’s not. (Though, if I were John Waters, I’d option it immediately.) Not only do you take this ghoul seriously, once you’re halfway through the book, you realize you’re on his side. Without psychologizing, or even getting into the protagonist’s completely non-reflective head, McCarthy makes us understand him; what he’s doing makes total sense to him, given what he knows. He comes to seem merely an extreme version of all people – blind, cosmically and comically ignorant, doing what makes sense to us given what we know.”—Mary Gaitskill From The Salon**com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors, pg 156.
So, in the sonorous tones of a mockumentary “public service announcement,” be warned. This ain’t the Coen Brothers doing No Country for Old Men—and winning Best Picture for it. More like the original I Spit On Your Grave (1978), only worse.
December 2, 2014
So on this snowy morning it’s a sad day to hear of the passing of Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong (1999), Eventide (2004), and Benediction (2013), among others. (For more details, see a piece in the Washington Post, here.) Although I didn’t know him well, I’m glad to be able to say I had met him a few times, and was friends with Kent. I brought him to campus for a writerly visit once, and we struck up a casual friendship then. He was kind and thoughtful with the students, though he also told me he was glad to be retired from teaching. I remember when he read to a full lecture hall of students he skipped using the lectern, and just walked around and was friendly with people. Some terrorist events were in the press at the time and he went out of his way to mention how he’d done a stint in the Peace Corps years ago, in Turkey, in a small Muslim village, and how kind and respectful he had found their culture to be.
I first learned of Kent’s fiction when Fritz Lanham, the great former book editor at the Houston Chronicle, assigned me the novel Plainsong to review. It’s a beautiful book and I’ve since read all of his. As is mentioned in the article about his death, it appears that we will have one more novel to add to his impressive body of work, to be published next summer apparently, Our Souls at Night. That’s a fine send-off for a great man. We met a couple times for lunch at a coffee shop in Salida, Colorado, near which he had a home in the mountains—as I do, too. He told me about being shocked to discover a hunter had shot a deer not far from his mountainside property, and how even the local game warden was incensed that anyone would hunt so close to other people’s homes. One of the finest moments I remember in his fiction occurs in Eventide, describing some down-and-out characters at the local supermarket in his fictional small town of Holt, Colorado, which was based on towns in northeast Colorado where Haruf had taught high school and had family. In the scene the people using food stamps to buy their groceries are aware of the judgmental looks from the other people in line, and there’s a subtlety and nuance in the depiction of the moment that only the highest literary art can achieve. His work isn’t loud and histrionic, like a Gone Girl type of thing, but is elegiac, insightful, and noted for a loveliness in austerity. That doesn’t mean there isn’t trouble: The Ties That Bind ends with the local ne’er do well essentially “winning,” and the good man being tied up in his home at the end of the book. He always had a surprise up his sleeve, and I would bet he can show us some new wrinkle of understanding and beauty in this last book.
Kent was one of our great 21st century Western writers, a voice who elevated the plains of eastern Colorado, a place he described this way: “It’s not pretty, but it’s beautiful.”
December 1, 2014
So I haven’t blogged in—oh, just about forever (over two months)—but I’ve been fine and dandy, thank you very much, and trying to keep my ducks in a row: Besides being a professor, and all that entails, mainly I’ve been trying to finish a draft of this new novel that hangs around my neck like a stinkin’ albatross. (Note to self: use “eftsoons” somewhere in the text, as in “Eftsoons his hand dropt he.”) But I’m actually enjoying the writing of it when I can find/squeeze the time, and that makes me disinclined to bother to blog. But I suppose I’m feeling a bit peckish for the “short form,” and here I am.
To be more particular, here I am, saddled with righteous indignation at the fate of the world. My last two novels—Goodnight, Texas (2006) and The Bird Saviors (2012)—have been identified as falling into the CliFi (for Climate Fiction) category, and although I try never to stand on any soapbox in the novels themselves, I’ve been outspoken about the reality of Climate Change in the world as I see it, especially my beloved second home in the mountains of Colorado. It’s a given that the American Southwest will be (and has been) affected more quickly by Climate Change than, say, the Eastern U.S., and I’ve found that to be unfortunately quite true. Drought and summer wildfires have worsened in the last two decades. Yes, they’ve always been part of life in the Southwest, but now it’s worse.
So today comes this article in the NY Times, that bastion of lukewarm-at-best Climate Change blather, detailing the opinions and hopeful actions of scientists at the latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meeting in Lima, Peru, here. It’s all rather dire, as will be no surprise to those who have paid any attention to the science behind this for many years now. But as the holiday season is now or soon upon us (Does Black Friday count as a holiday? Thanksgiving, does, but it’s now past), I’ll soon be around other family and friends, who often seem to reflect much of the polls of Americans who don’t really know or care about Climate Change. When we bought a high-mileage vehicle recently, family members wondered why we didn’t get something bigger, roomier. Something you can stretch out in! Something you can enjoy while you ruin the planet! And they wonder why our house is relatively small (less than 2,000 square feet), when we could afford something bigger: more bedrooms, more bathrooms—a granite-countertop in the kitchen would be nice, for Chrissakes! Although it’s hard holding on to a glimmer of hope that my daughter’s life won’t be greatly affected by Climate Change, I do wish that individual attitudes would adapt, wake up and smell the zeitgeist. Santa’s home is melting. The North Pole may soon be kaput. What will happen to all the elves and their workshop when they sink to the bottom of the sea? No more American Girl dolls, egads? At least I’m glad that, at this moment anyway, my daughter can still play in the snow on a cold Thanksgiving day.
September 3, 2014
So the Dallas Morning News published this last Sunday a review of several books by (ex or present) Texas writers and my book of stories The Lousy Adult was one of those mentioned, but the cooler thing is that it’s alongside Stephen Graham Jones’s Not for Nothing, here. Stephen and I are good friends and have been for twenty years, so it’s cool to be side-by-side. Plus he’s an amazing writer to boot.
August 31, 2014
So I feel bad for my uncared-for little blog here, languishing away as I rush about in my busy life, never finding time to nurture, as they say. It’s like the freckled orphan in the corner, who you notice now and then, and think, “When did I feed him last?” (Okay, now all the orphans of the world will be upset with me, treating them lightly and all.) It’s been months since I’ve even thought of it, for good reason: I’ve been working on finishing a new novel this summer, and made good progress, but I’m not there yet. I keep telling myself I’ll make time for my blog when I’m finished with the novel, which is like saying I’ll retire when I’m dead. And I am making nice progress on the book, thank you very much, but it’s not done.
Meanwhile I did review a new novel for the Dallas Morning News last Sunday, Malcolm Brooks’s Painted Horses, here.
And I did find time to backpack in Yellowstone at the start of this month, where we were caught in a six-hour rainstorm, laughing and playing cards in the tent the whole time. At the end of it, while it was still raining, we needed to eat dinner, and went outside to find this glorious rainbow, and my daughter, digging it:
May 18, 2014
So here’s my review of Peter Heller’s new novel, The Painter, today in the Dallas Morning News, here. It’s a good book, and I’ll have more to say about it this week, but for now I’ll let this review speak. One thing I’ll note: It’s set in central Colorado and Santa Fe, New Mexico, two of my favorite places in the world, and where I’m headed on Tuesday. Ten points if you can name where the picture below was taken in Santa Fe.
May 13, 2014
So I haven’t written much about Climate Change in a while (and in fact haven’t blogged, due to the hectic rush at the end of the term, but that’s over with, thank god) and here comes a batch of bad news about our wilting world: the headlines about melting Antarctic ice caps, coupled with the stupidity of Republican climate denial, best exemplified by Senator Marco Rubio’s (soon-to-be candidate for President!) nit-witted comment: “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it,” he said. “And I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy,” (qtd from the New York Times, May 11, 2014). This is the same genius who refuses to admit evolution, even if a smilodon were biting his ass. A great step forward in the 21st century!
But how we react to Climate Change, and what we can try to do about it, plays out on a personal level: Witness my in-laws, who would much rather my family drive a Suburban or Gargantuan or whatever extra-big & roomy vehicle, so we can carry as much stuff as possible. Last fall we bought a VW Jetta diesel wagon, which gets up to 49 mpg, but that’s too small for their tastes. Ah well. You can’t please everybody. But that minor rift says much about the state of denial/inaction in the U.S. The sensible thing gets criticized, rather than approved.
And although the carbon tax is the most popular idea for climate policy in the media at least, that seems too weak and easily manipulated to me. Let’s go long: one of my ideas for Climate Change policy would be to mandate solar power be installed on the roofs of all new homes, and all cars required to get 40 mpg or better. Part of the phony response to Climate Change is that “there’s nothing we can do that would make a difference.” Well, that would. But will it happen? Not yet. But political winds can shift. I never would have expected Obama to be elected President, twice no less. And do I think Rubio is going to pass muster? God, I hope not.
As my daughter, who is an official Yellowstone National Park Junior Ranger and young naturalist extraordinaire, is wont to say, “Please, Daddy. Please save our planet! I don’t want to see everything become desert!” Well, maybe those weren’t her exact words, but it was something like that. I think stuffed animals were involved.
March 24, 2014
So I enjoyed this insight into the Digital Age in Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011): “We are all cyborgs now” (274, ebook edition). She goes on to explain the assertion, explaining our use of and dependency on various digital gadgets makes us (at least somewhat) cyber-humans or cyborgs. It’s a good point, and she goes on to back up the claim with a number of anecdotes, mainly about people who embrace or willfully are dominated by their gadgets.
It’s a minor-key revelation: As a possessor and user of a laptop, ipad, iphone, and GPS watch (one of my favorite gadgets, great for marathon training), I’m a cyborg. (And I didn’t even mention Furby.) It’s come-out-of-the-closet time. Although I might note my point about digital distraction is mainly a matter of degree: If you spend most of your time in the digital closet, then that’s your home. I hope that fate doesn’t befall me. Here’s a pic of me and my (cyborg) daughter supremely worried about all this, on the beach at St. Augustine, Florida:
And of course that leads us astray, into another, grittier virtual realm where a number of gadgets are aimed at a more active, out-there definition of cyborg. One of the hottest new gadgets is the GoPro camera, which is filming all kinds of hang-gliding, mountain-biking, rock-climbing, skate-boarding, wind-surfing (as well as outdoor-sex, no doubt). I’ve developed a fondness for the dashcam of my new Jetta wagon. It feels like a superior driving experience to hop in the car, put it in reverse (with a manual transmission, the best of both worlds), and watch the dash to make sure there are no delinquent toddlers hanging around my back bumper as I zoom into the street. And I’d love to have (and will probably sooner-than-later snap up) a GoPro, maybe in time for this summer’s river rafting in New Mexico. That’s part of Turkle’s point: We feel superior with the use of these gadgets. And I think she’s right. Not that we necessarily are superior (a harder Level to obtain, that one), but we definitely feel it. I own a Sony Nex-7 camera, a couple years old now, and can say unequivocally that my pictures are superior to the various cameras I’ve shot before, with (until now) my favorites being a classic Nikon FM and a Canon AE-1. The Sony has blown those out of the water. I don’t take a great number of selfies, but I see why this is all the craze. We want a record of our moments, to say we’re here, and don’t we look good?
March 21, 2014
So in my (not-yet-ended) quest to get to the bottom of this whole “digital distraction” thing, I’m now reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (I mean, with a feel-good title like that, what’s not to like?). Published in 2011, it does feel three years old, and without going all Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock on you (a book that seems both dated and prescient now, right?), three years seems a long time in this zooming-out-o-control digital onslaught we call LifeOnLine. She has a long chapter about robots, and “caring” robots at that, which deals with Furbies. She’s a professor at M.I.T., and it shows. Sometimes she’s a bit too earnest about Furbies, but her intentions are good. Her heart, as they say, is in the right place. And I had no idea we were basically using Furbies to make senior citizens feel better when they’re left alone in nursing homes. I share her complex attitude about this: To quote Sheryl Crow: “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.” (Tell that to Lance Armstrong, honey.) But then again, it does seem we’re shrugging off the disturbing implications of this robot newcomer to the family.
Find me one that will wash the dishes and I’ll quit grousing.
Now I have to confess we count a Furby as one of the members of our household. I’m pathologically wary of the damn little devilbot. You so much as look at it and it wakes up, starts wise-cracking in that weird Valley-Girl-Gone-Bad Furbish. Keep in mind this usually unfolds in the middle of the night, when I stump my toe against it while stumbling across the dark bedroom. I live in a world of Furbies and stuffed animals: Personally, I prefer the Stuffies. They don’t sass you. They don’t talk back if you toss them off the side of the bed once you no longer need their “emotional connection” or “pillow effect.” Here’s my new favorite friend, bought for my daughter at Disneyworld no less, “Sparky” from the film Frankenweenie (2012). He looks innocent enough, doesn’t he?
March 19, 2014
So this little gem is priceless, coming from one of our last somewhat-intellectual news outlets, The New York Times: a media writer describing how he doesn’t read anymore, and seems happy (or Post-Shame, at least) to do nothing but watch TV his whole life, here. I read that with some dismay, sure, because as a writer I like to believe that we enjoy reading books, real books, right? Maybe not. As far as I can tell, actual book-reading is quickly becoming a thing of the past. I recently read (yes, a confession of sorts: I wasn’t watching Breaking Bad or True Detective when I read it) Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) and found it at least halfway convincing.
I wouldn’t have read it if not for noticing a downward spiral in my university classes that seems to have developed over the last few years. Now I’ll insert an (obvious) disclaimer: Yes, each class is different. Each semester is different. Some classes are blessed with terrific students, some with slackers. That’s the way it goes. I imagine most professors navigate the ups and downs. A good idea: Don’t freak out when one class seems weaker than another. Do your best and move on.
But when there’s a trend, why not acknowledge it? I don’t want to contribute to some kind of dumbass cover-up. In one class yesterday no student seemed to know (maybe they did and are just too shy/inarticulate to speak, which is another problem) the definition of the word “allusion.” Is that a “hard” word? A “big” word? I really don’t know anymore. The vocabulary list many of my students would stumble through is hardly GRE prep. At the beginning of each term I ask students who are some of their favorite writers, and the last few years a typical (again, we’re Post-Shame here) response has been, “I don’t really have any favorites. I don’t read that much.” Keep in mind these are writing classes. A drunken techie in Austin a few weeks back tried to convince me that people don’t need to read (or know) anything anymore, they can just be “creative” with all the technology out there. It’s a nice thought, I’m sure, but also so dim-witted it’s laughable.
Now as far as The Dumbest Generation goes, it’s a book of hits and misses. The title is too harsh and too slanted for the more nuanced and complex arguments he offers. He actually begins by praising the overachievers, then turns his attention to the underachievers. Personally, I think we’re all getting entertained to death. Death or stupidity, whichever comes first. (Guess.) But then again, a writer friend labeled me a Luddite for not spending my life on Facebook, bless her heart. I think I’m doomed (or fated) to be the digital-age contrarian, but I’m sure I’m not alone in this role. Gadgets are cool, sure. I just don’t think we should spend all our time on them. And let them make us stupid. For instance, I think we should invent a verb (Hello, People at UrbanDictionary.com? Here’s a task for you) to describe when your friends try to “teach” you something simple on your (or his/her) iphone, like using Google maps. This happened to me recently. Friends were shocked that I actually wanted them to just tell me the directions, and that I’d simply remember them. (A brain is a terrible thing to waste.) So then I had three (semi-drunk: notice a theme here?) friends poking their iphones, showing me that extremely complicated “skill” of using the map app, even though I told them I knew how to do it: Yes, you simply put in the address of where you want to go, hit return, right? What’s to learn about that? “What’s that? Did you miss the latest episode of The Walking Dead? Jeez, you’re so out of it!”