Optimal mental health—if such a thing there be—probably lies somewhere roundabout midway on the self-awareness continuum, but often without thinking,...moreOptimal mental health—if such a thing there be—probably lies somewhere roundabout midway on the self-awareness continuum, but often without thinking, people assume that 'not giving a fuck what other people think' is a sort of modern virtue, suggesting confidence, strength of character, and (if nothing else) the sheer convenience of living only for oneself. If we stop and scrutinize the concept, however, we soon realize that it's an ideal sorely in conflict with the fundamental nature of our lives: we are social beings, enmeshed in countless relationships with others, whether they are close friends and family members or strangers we find ourselves driving 75 MPH beside on the highway—both of us trusting that the other won't suddenly veer into our lane. We don't even consider these kinds of relationships because they are usually automatic; except maybe once in a while we marvel at the fact that we've survived however many years without some asshole harboring a death wish driving head-on into our car, killing us instantly. In the end there are just so many tacit (and fragile) rules holding this thing called society together.
What does this have to do with anything, you wonder. Well, The Disaster Artist by actor Greg Sestero and writer Tom Bissell happens to be about a self-styled actor-director named Tommy Wiseau, who, if the particulars of this book are accurate, may be the most un-self-aware person I have ever heard of (who is not a diagnosed psychotic). Wiseau's magnum opus (and only opus) The Room from 2003 provides more than enough evidence to support the case that the man has absolutely no understanding of how the world works and how he fits into it. (If you are unfamiliar with the film, I recommend it to you. It is without a doubt one of the worst films ever made—which of course makes it more entertaining than many, many films that are objectively speaking better than it. This 'highlight' reel will give you some indication what the film's like.)
I'm not implying that anyone should be limited by social conventions—but neither should one perhaps flout these conventions without understanding them... or at least being aware of them. It's as if Wiseau were dropped on the planet earth by an alien spacecraft and his only preparation for life on this planet was reading the Cliff's Notes on human civilization. What else can you say about a strange-looking man of indeterminate age and origin who imagines that suddenly he can decide to be an actor, a screenwriter, and a film director without any of the necessary skills or qualifications? This is a man who is unable to assimilate normal casual human behavior in his day-to-day life; how can he hope to emulate other behaviors? Lacking much empathy in his real life, how will he empathize with the characters he will play? Can such a level of narcissism even crawl out from under the weight of its own immediacy?
Well, one logical solution is for the narcissist to write the role for himself—and to make that role as approximate to his own peculiar personality as is possible. He can go even one step further: he can position that self-characterization in a world that is entirely contrived to express his own childishly narcissistic agenda. As Sestero/Bissell points out in the book, one commentator said that The Room was essential a $6 million daydream in which an adolescent mentality (i.e., Wiseau's) gets to act out his suicide and watch his friends mourn him and regret how poorly they've treated him. Was there any petulant teenager who didn't have this fantasy at some time? But not all of us had millions of dollars to pour into a vanity project that would literalize the fantasy.
The Disaster Artist is told from the perspective of Wiseau's co-actor in The Room and erstwhile friend Greg Sestero, a pretty-boy actor and former model who is (I believe) the only actor in the film that had a professional credit to his name. Sestero and Wiseau made for an odd couple. Sestero was young, tall, blond, and handsome while Wiseau was an eccentric raven-haired European, trollish in appearance and significantly older—although he would never reveal his actual age. The two met in acting class in San Francisco. Sestero was fascinated by the oddball Wiseau, whose acting was so bad that it beggared belief. After all, it's not easy to be that ostentatiously awful. But Wiseau was, and Sestero was intrigued.
Gradually, as Sestero gets to know him better, Wiseau becomes all the more mysterious. He won't discuss his past—or what he does for a living—or where he gets all his money—or where he was born—or how old he is. Sestero, whose mother is French, is convinced he is not French, based on his accent, but his accent is strangely indeterminate—a mongrel accent that's impossible to pinpoint. Naturally, Sestero's girlfriend, his mother, and his friends are all leery of Wiseau and advise him to steer clear.
As Sestero enjoys some limited measure of success in his career, their relationship becomes strained. Wiseau grows increasingly jealous of Sestero's auditions and his new friends. At one point when Sestero is dozing off on the sofa one night, Wiseau makes an ambiguous comment about sharing a bed. Is Wiseau in love with Sestero? Does he want to be Sestero? Suddenly Wiseau decides he's going to be an actor too—despite the fact that he's too old, too unattractive, and too untalented to embark upon a career. When he grows despondent from his lack of success in the acting biz, Wiseau elects to write, direct, and star in his own (self-financed) movie The Room, which is not only the self-aggrandizing vanity project to end all vanity projects; it's also a sort of revenge on everyone who rejected him—and even on Sestero himself.
The Disaster Artist surprised me. I expected it to have a lot of interesting gossip, but I didn't actually expect it to be a good book. And it is. If you need any more convincing, I stayed up until 3 AM last night finishing it, and I was so tired this morning that I took a vacation day at work. It's more than a behind-the-scenes tell-all, it's also an engrossing character study. I don't know to what extent this book is Sestero's and to what extent it's Bissell's, but Sestero's first-person persona is likable and generous to a fault, as he navigates the unforgiving and unending road to stardom and exposes this odd little man named Tommy Wiseau, who took a shortcut. Ironically, The Room did make Wiseau a 'star' of sorts, in the sense that infamy is a parallel route to celebrity.(less)
Hey, everyone! I finished a book! I realize that this is approximately the equivalent of crying out, 'I got laid!' at a brothel, but there you have it...moreHey, everyone! I finished a book! I realize that this is approximately the equivalent of crying out, 'I got laid!' at a brothel, but there you have it. I've been reduced to this. For the past eighteen months or so I've been a non-reader—a demographic I'm not generally comfortable consorting with—or, at best, a half-assed reader; I'll read forty pages of this and set it down—and then thirty pages of that and set it down. My home is a ruins of literary misadventures. I hate to be the philanderer who blames his serial infidelities on his humdrum spouse for reasons of her humdrumness, but none of the books I've trysted with have given me the (metaphorical) blowjob that rocked my moribund world. So I've looked elsewhere for gratification. Instead of reading, I found myself doing bizarre things, like watching The Call starring Halle Berry in a fright wig as a renegade 911 operator. For a while, I blogged—as we all must, sooner or later—but there are only so many screeds you can write about petty annoyances before you start sounding like Seinfeld's standup routine.
But then... (Speaking of screeds!) I decided to revisit my old buddy Tommy 'The Parade Rainer' Bernhard—he of the obsessive, misanthropic tirade fame. With his despondent novella Yes, Bernhard once again satisfies my narcissism by creating a literary figure I can relate to. (I should actually say 'a literary figure I can relate to to some extent' so that nobody calls the people with the straitjackets.) The Unnamed Narrator (hereafter, UN) of Yes is a thoroughly miserable and fucked-in-the-head scientist who, in my amateur diagnosis, suffers the combined effects of obsessive thinking, social isolation, and chronic negativity, mainly directed outward as a handy excuse for his own dysfunction. On the verge of a total and perhaps irreparable breakdown he visits his acquaintance Moritz, the town real estate agent, in order to spill his guts and thereby to purge his accumulated craziness. (Anyone who—in the midst of some personal trauma or drunken state—has revealed too much about himself, at great length, to another person knows how humiliating such a fit of exhibitionism can be. Desperation makes fools of us.)
UN does find some relief in vomiting up all his masticated neuroses for Moritz, but there is a far greater consequence of his visit: He meets the Swiss couple, or more specifically the Persian Woman. The Swiss couple—actually a Swiss power plant mogul and his Persian companion—has recently purchased an otherwise unsaleable land parcel from Moritz on which to build their new home. The UN becomes fixated on the Persian woman, who says nothing at the meeting and appears sullen. The meat of the novella concerns the unusual and ephemeral 'friendship' (if that's the right word) between the Persian woman and UN. They take walks mainly. Sometimes in silence. They both like Schumann and Schopenhauer. They both hate the backwoods Austrian town that fate has delivered them to.
I think Yes is maybe Bernhard's bleakest work that I've yet encountered. The title itself—that little affirmation—is wonderfully ironic because in the context of the novella, it's anything but affirmative in the absolute sense. As usual, Bernhard gives voice to pessimism—a hopelessness so dire and maddened that it can't help but be humorous. Bernhard's narrators may reject society at large; they may feel persecuted or misunderstood; they may even resort to morbid self-pity at times. But Bernhard, distinct from his narrators, appreciates the absurdity of these kinds of outlooks. The human psyche—repetitious, obsessed, self-perpetuating—reveals its grimly comic aspect when it's literalized into plain language. And that's exactly what Bernhard's novels do: they translate the dysfunctional mind into (yes) screeds that at once sympathize with the human condition and riff on its follies. (less)
Last night's demoralizing Oscar ceremony—like many stillborn ceremonies before it—makes me wonder why people continue to give a damn at all. Yes, I kn...moreLast night's demoralizing Oscar ceremony—like many stillborn ceremonies before it—makes me wonder why people continue to give a damn at all. Yes, I know there are a bunch of you cranks out there who (loudly) disavow an interest in showbiz spectacle, and you're only too anxious to take a steaming piss on the red carpet to assert some kind of hazy moral superiority. We thank you very kindly for your tsk-tsking, but everybody already knows full well that the frivolous ostentation and shameful self-love that these award shows entail don't look so good juxtaposed next to starving kids in Africa or the victims of drone strikes in Iraq. We get it. But I could say something roughly similar for Super Bowls, World Cups, amusement parks, and sprawling shopping malls. In short, there are all varieties of poisons—and if you're pious enough never to have tasted any of them, then please go scale the self-actualization triangle and leave us to wallow in the muck and the mire.
I bring up the Oscars because the book Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris culminates at the 1968 Oscar ceremony. Admittedly there isn't much suspense. Anyone with a modicum of curiosity and energy can google the particulars and quickly discover that Norman Jewison's high-minded film In the Heat of the Night won the Best Picture award that year. Harris suggests that the film was a sort of compromise victory—splitting the difference between the nascent adventurism of New Hollywood, exemplified by co-nominees Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, and the musty traditionalism of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Doctor Doolitte. (The latter film, which was both critically and commercially unsuccessful, is alleged to have 'bought' its nomination. Its creators were the unscrupulous forebears of Harvey Weinstein, whose handjobs are proverbial but apparently still pleasurable in Hollywood today.)
Harris has selected 1967—the year in film—as emblematic of the fundamental change Hollywood was forced to undergo to remain culturally and artistically relevant. He does an admirable job of weaving together the backstories of all five Best Picture nominees in a surprisingly coherent (and fascinating) narrative; he probably overstates the significance of this particular moment in cinematic history to add a little drama and consequence, but we can forgive him his indulgences in the interest of a more succinct overview.
Harris doesn't scrimp on the dish either. If you're a Rex Harrison detractor (as I am) and you've just been jonesing for some fuel for your fire, this is the book for you. What an insufferable jackass he was. He lorded it over the production of Doctor Doolittle as if he were god's gift, motivated by professional jealousy and an inflated sense of his own importance. Occasionally, however, Harris touches on rumors better left on Page Six. (Were Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn bisexual? He brings it up but fails to really address it, so you'll end up remembering the rumor without any idea if it's plausible or even where it originated.)
Despite its minor failings—the author worked for Entertainment Weekly (sniff) so what can you expect?—I can't recommend Pictures at a Revolution strongly enough for readers interested in film history. Even if you aren't interested in these specific films, the book is valuable as an excavation of the shrine to New Hollywood. And it's also a surfeit of riches with its tangential anecdotes, like the story of the death throes of the Hollywood Production Code.
Sure, none of this is very important in an absolute way, but I pity the poor souls who are immune to thrills of celebrity tattle. A life that's purely necessary is anything but a life, if you ask me. (Yes, that's my rationalization.)(less)
I'm an irritable person. More and more in my daily life I find myself at the mercy of blinding fits of spleen. Whether it's people who drive too slow...moreI'm an irritable person. More and more in my daily life I find myself at the mercy of blinding fits of spleen. Whether it's people who drive too slow or order iced tea in restaurants or sniff deodorant in the store or watch NBC's The Voice, there's always some irritant ready-at-hand to set me at odds with the world. You see, I'm the kind of perpetually grousing curmudgeon that you pity or avoid—because if you're optimistic or excited about something, I'll inevitably try to take a piss all over it. Now don't imagine that my piss-taking is an intentional offense against you personally—because it's not. It's true that there's something about dunderheaded optimists that makes you (meaning me) want to cut their brake line, but it's only because they are incarnations of the delusions and ignorance which shape the fate of humankind.
I feel safe in claiming to you that I've found a kindred spirit in Thomas Bernhard. I've read most of his novels and a few of his plays, and generally speaking his oeuvre is a private celebration of gripe and gloom—hidden away from the pitying tsks of the Pollyannas of the world. Society—particularly American society—teaches us to be ashamed of our negativity. It is a defect, an error, a direful mutation of the prudence which should guide our thoughts and actions.
For as long as it takes to read a Thomas Bernhard book, I can be as spiteful and pessimistic as I want to be. I can savor the comfort of like-minded company without fear of being censured by the amused smiles of those persons who resist reality and then call this resistance reality itself.
Gathering Evidence is not a novel; it's a five-volume autobiographical work. Despite its genre, it hews close to Bernhard's tried and true formula of choleric ramblings. The substance of most of his works has the appearance of digression, almost anarchism, but there's a rhythmic wholeness to them that couldn't feel more precise.
One of Bernhard's particular targets in Gathering Evidence is the city of Salzburg. To say that he hates Salzburg is a lot like saying that I hate planets without oxygen. There is something fundamentally untenable about the city of Salzburg to Bernhard, at least in retrospect. It isn't even a case of simple preference; it's a totalized rebellion against an environment that is unliveable. It verges on a matter of survival.
I suspect that Bernhard's antipathies are caricatured, to whatever extent, but that's only because there's no proper language to articulate his alienation to his audience. Instead he wears them down—beats them over the head. If you ever feel the ecstasy of that kind of pain, then this is the autobiography for you. If not, you're probably one of them...
(My review of My Prizes, also included in this edition, can be found here.)(less)
Coincidentally I had just previously read (part of) Ubik by Philip K. Dick which is also a novel about a person 'gifted' with the power to change the...moreCoincidentally I had just previously read (part of) Ubik by Philip K. Dick which is also a novel about a person 'gifted' with the power to change the past retroactively, so my opinion of The Lathe of Heaven was probably (unfairly) affected by this glut—do two books qualify as a glut?—of past-altering fiction in my reading schedule. I want to alter the past and start with a different Ursula K. Le Guin novel instead.
As a disclaimer of sorts, I have to admit that these kind of wackadoo premises are a tough sell for me. It's not that I'm an intensely rational reader who expects rigorous scientific realism from all of my literary entertainments; it's just that there are certain things I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for—ghosts, aliens, talking dogs—and other things that seem too metaphysically muddled to accept—like the subjective manipulation of the past and Adam Sandler's film career—just to name a few.
I thought Le Guin would overcome the raising of my eyebrow. She's certainly no slouch in the writing department and leaves many of her genre colleagues in the dust, but the plot gets old after awhile. This milquetoast guy named George Orr discovers that his dreams have the power to change reality (so that nobody else in the world notices the difference), so he starts abusing drugs to stave off sleep. A psychiatrist named Dr. Haber is at first skeptical about George's talents but later discovers he can manipulate them and turn himself into a makeshift god. What follows are too many episodes of Haber trying to 'save' the world (often with negative results) by directing George's dreams—while George frets about the rightness or wrongness of the arrangement with little consequence.
You can almost hear the simple construction of the tale buckling and snapping under the weight of the ponderous allegory. For the first two-thirds, The Lathe of Heaven was a diverting little narrative, but at the end it got to be too much and too little at the same time.(less)
My childhood self—a pale stalk of glowering boy—is standing on a deserted beach as I wave to him from the vantage of adulthood, aboard a mighty 18th-c...moreMy childhood self—a pale stalk of glowering boy—is standing on a deserted beach as I wave to him from the vantage of adulthood, aboard a mighty 18th-century warship. I'm setting sail—against my will, of course—for dangerous adventure and already missing the security of that solid shoreline, still visible but dwindling rapidly as the muscular winds shove my vessel further off, beyond the horizon. I can still make out my childhood self... Now he's pellet-sized—next, he's a granule. His hand is raised, I think—but I can't tell whether he's hailing me or flipping me off. It's difficult to remember what I would have done at that age. While I'm squinting, trying to make it out, the waves suddenly heave me this way and that—and I vomit over the rail, splattering my breakfast across the hull. And when I look back up, the shore has vanished—so I vomit again and relinquish my fate to the seas. Holy shit, this is life, isn't it?
Now I'm trying to think back. Would that twerp standing on the shore have enjoyed a book like Escape from Hat? Well... for starters, said twerp didn't read much. He only watched television. The Brady Bunch, Happy Days, Inspector Gadget. But a new day has dawned for children's books... When I was a kid, we had to walk three miles through the snow and rain and insurgent gunfire just to obtain one dog-eared book about woodworking from the library. And then we had to share it with all the other kids with polio in the tenement building.
But now... the spoiled brats have books like Escape from Hat, a charming and disarming tale of a rabbit named Leek who must escape from the dark, cat-ridden netherworld that lies at the bottom of a wannabe magician's hat. I'll admit that the premise is slightly anti-felinist, but [SPOILER] everything turns out okay in the end. In the cosmology of this Escape from Hat, everyone on earth has a good luck rabbit and a bad luck black cat. Both of these agents of fate follow us around—generally without our notice—causing us either to win the lottery or to contract leprosy. Or both. Leek the rabbit and Milliken the cat belong to Cecil Bean the boy—but Milliken, more devious than your average rank-and-file mischief-maker, hatches a plot to get rid of Leek and have Cecil all to himself, to inflict limitless bad luck upon him. The majority of this wry chapter book is then concerned with the adventures of Leek as he tries to escape from his banishment in Hat—with the aid of friends and allies, including a somewhat bitchy rabbit named Morel, a bewarted monster, a tribe of pig people, and a flute-playing mouse.
A few caveats: Despite its appearance, this is a chapter book, not a picture book—and it includes a lot of challenging words—so it's probably not good for very young children. There's also some toilet humor strewn here and there and a few passages that might provoke questions. ('Mommy, what's a wench?') Although the book is predominantly text, it is peppered throughout with incredible full-color and black-and-white illustrations by the extremely talented Brian Taylor.
I should probably disclaim here. I actually went to high school with Adam Kline, the author of this book, but lest you imagine I can't write an excoriating review of a book by someone I've met or known, there's evidence out there to prove what a dick I actually am. I didn't want to have to rip this book a new one, but thankfully I didn't have to. Even as an old, bitter, hateful, scheming man, I enjoyed reading this book. While I hate to speak for others, I think the childhood version of me, standing on that deserted beach, would have probably enjoyed this book a lot—but he also enjoyed Manimal, so there's really no accounting for taste.(less)
Could you kill someone? (Shush now. That's a rhetorical question. Think the answer to yourself in your head. We don't want to hand over compromising e...moreCould you kill someone? (Shush now. That's a rhetorical question. Think the answer to yourself in your head. We don't want to hand over compromising evidence to the prosecution in your inevitable criminal trial.) Now I'm not asking you if you could kill in self-defense or to protect your loved ones from harm—because those cases are ethically cut-and-dried and very boring; I'm asking if you think you are capable of ending someone's life for pettier reasons: jealousy, revenge, or just good old-fashioned unclassified hatred. Before you don your barrister's wig and get all indignant about it, I want you to remember that the question is whether you could, not whether you would. We don't even need to consider all (or any) of the deterrents that would stay your machete-wielding hand—such as moral conscience or the threat of punishment. I am only wondering if you think that, in a moment of emotional heat or psychological abandon, your mind and body would allow you to, say, pull the trigger, thrust the blade, or hold down the pillow. (Assume for the sake of this discussion that you are mechanically capable or strong enough to kill your victim. This is a question about will, not about the precision of your aim.)
Émile Zola's La Bête Humaine is predicated on the assumption, I think, that most humans have murderous inclinations stowed away in their psychological hope chests and that it's only a matter of how difficult it is to pick the lock. The first chapter introduces us to a railway station employee named Roubaud and his wife Séverine—a seemingly contented and loving couple who are spending an afternoon in Paris. They're having a pleasant enough lunch—when one thing leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another, and—long story short: Séverine admits that she was repeatedly molested as a child by her guardian, the prestigious and powerful Grandmorin. (I know. Talk about losing your appetite.) In response to the revelation, Roubaud does what any reasonable and compassionate husband would do under the circumstances: he beats the living shit out of Séverine and threatens her life. A regular Renaissance man. He's not upset at the crime of molestation and the victimhood of his wife—he's enraged because in the used car lot of brides, he bought himself a lemon... a used and abused woman whose odometer had been rolled back. Too bad he can't trade her in for a showroom new model—but trust me here: Showroom new models are pretty hard to come by in France. Most kids have their first torrid love affairs when they're eight, I think.
Being a 'sensible' man, Roubaud decides not to kill Séverine. He may beat her a while longer to work out his frustrations, but then he'll move on to Plan B: Kill Grandmorin. Always crazy like a fox, Roubaud figures he'll implicate Séverine in the crime so she won't ever spill the beans. (And—hey—since she's the lemon in this transaction, she should do some of the dirty work... Am I right or am I right?)
You may think you've been spoiled upon, but the preceding events all occur within the first chapter. This is actually only the gentle prelude to the madness which will follow. (And by madness, I'm referring particularly to the events in Chapter Ten—which, by the standards of 19th century literature, are pretty shocking and over-the-top.) Make no mistake: this is a violent and cynical book. Although the major characters are differently bad, none of them is perceptibly good, even in the most degraded sense of the term. We may understand them—to varying degrees—but the elaboration of their universal impulses into (grisly) action makes me think that Zola needed a good SSRI.
Oh. And to answer my own question: I think that I could in fact summon the will (if I desired, which I don't) to kill someone, merely out of spite. I recently watched the film God Bless America (directed and written by Bobcat Goldthwait) in which a middle-aged schlub (played by the guy who plays Freddy Rumsen on Mad Men) and a teenage girl go on a killing spree. Their targets are all the most loathsome people in our culture (in my humble opinion, and theirs too), such as pandering political pundits, reality TV stars, people who won't shut up in movie theaters, and so on. Even though the film isn't terribly well-made on the whole, I was vicariously thrilled by it. Apparently Bobcat Goldthwait and I have the same things stowed away in our hope chests.(less)
What's that you say? There aren't enough children's books about experimental lesbian writers from the modernist period? Well, Jonah Winter and Calef B...moreWhat's that you say? There aren't enough children's books about experimental lesbian writers from the modernist period? Well, Jonah Winter and Calef Brown have felt your pain and are rushing to the scene with an analgesic salve known as Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude, a picture book dedicated to the life and times of Getrude Stein. (Can a William Gaddis coloring book be far behind? Hold your breath for that one, kiddies.) Stein's questionable politics and her penchant for muff-diving are gracefully skipped over in favor of (suitably whimsical) details about her Paris salon and the writers and painters she influenced, championed, and badgered, in equal measure. The writer Jonah Winter seems to have set two goals—to celebrate artistic creativity in all of its anarchic abandon and to loosely mimic Stein's characteristic writing style. While he succeeds at the first, his sentences certainly lack Stein's musical rhythms. Getrude Stein is, after all, the gertrudesteiniest person in town—so woe betide the pretenders who dabble in her unique wordsmithery. They wind up sounding as parodic and off-course as Peter Brady's Bogie. ('Porkchops... and apple sauce... Isn't that swell?') But all in all, it's an immensely satisfying means of indoctrination for liberal arts parents who want to cut Dora the Explorer off at the pass. For Christ sake, let your little ones' first lesbian be Gertrude and not Ellen! [Thanks, Tommie. You're my number one tomato.](less)
Here's why Nana should never be made into a movie... (Too late. It already has been. Four times.) Emile Zola has created a character so preposterous t...moreHere's why Nana should never be made into a movie... (Too late. It already has been. Four times.) Emile Zola has created a character so preposterous that casting agents in every corner of the globe would be hard-pressed to locate an actress capable of making her believable. Now I am not claiming that a woman like Nana could not exist—because our world is certainly chock-full of the preposterous—but she would necessarily be so exceptional—such an astounding confluence of so many unlikely variables—that her successful imitators must surely be just as rare. The part of Nana would require not only acting wherewithal, but also a physical allure (not a traditional beauty perhaps, but a certain... je ne sais quoi) so commanding that men (and women too) of every station in life, every class, and every moral conviction consider themselves powerless to resist her. What could such a woman possibly look like? She couldn't be adequately described, I don't think, because there would be something ineffable or even transcendent about her looks which would resist the banality of all the adjectives at our disposal. Oh, and did I mention—she has to be trashy too? There has to be the well-trafficked cooter stench (if only subliminal) of a Kardashian about her. In other words, I'm not seeing Katherine Heigl or Keira Knightley in the role.
One of the advantages of reading over film-viewing is that I can imagine Nana any way that I want. Zola provides a few descriptors along the way—plump, tall, blonde, large-thighed—but these are fairly neutral construction materials which can be fashioned into an architecture of my choosing. My imagination, safely tucked away in the cellars of my mind, also isn't subject to the disapproval of others ('You think that's attractive?'). The spectral Nana of my conjuring becomes the authoritative Nana. Because she seduces me, she seduces everyone.
Let's talk more about this Nana. There's really no getting around it: she's a cruel, calculating, ridiculous woman. She allows men into her life only to suck every last sou out of them and to send them, spitefully, on their way. She manipulates their affections—drawing them in to a sexual complacency and then, when she's taken everything she wants or gets bored, she belittles and abuses them and, finally, throws them out. A primary victim of her allure—although there are many—is Count Muffat, an older, distinguished, and erstwhile religiously devout man who ruins himself completely in his futile attempts to possess Nana. Nana cheats on him so often and so flagrantly that she seems like a sexual vending machine. Anyone with the cash on hand is entitled to a bag of Funyuns.
Based on what I've told you, you probably won't be surprised that Nana has been attacked as a misogynistic work. If you approach the book prepared to understand Nana as symbolic, in whatever sense, of all women and to infer that many of the male characters' attitudes toward women are the author's own, then you will likely find Nana a repellent novel written by a repellent man. I, on the other hand, view Nana not as the Woman, but merely a woman. The misogyny of the male characters in the book, meanwhile, doesn't strike me as Zola's, given what I know about him: his avowed goal in his twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series was to shine a 'scientific' light on the central role of social environment and heredity in the psychological determination of the individual. Nana's parents were poor, alcoholic, and abusive. Should we wonder that Nana ends up being this woman in this particular society? Is Zola blaming it on her gender? I don't think so. Of course, many of Zola's views on heredity seem ridiculous today, but no sane person doubts the tremendous effect of environment on the formation of an individual's character.
I don't think anybody, male or female, comes off very well in this novel. We sometimes say that realists provide us with a 'warts-and-all' depiction of reality, but I think Zola prefers to dwell on the warts in Nana—and he certainly doesn't restrict himself to the title character's. Zola, on the one hand, clearly had a somewhat pessimistic view of the ills of society, but I think—and this is pure speculation here—he found some kind of hope in being able to illuminate these ills so that they could be remedied or guarded against.
Lastly, a few practical notes: I read the creaky, dusty, and very British public domain translation published by Barnes and Noble. It was written in 1922, I believe. I'm taking it as a article of faith that there is a better translation out there—maybe more than one. If you decide to read Nana, seek out more opinions on translations because I'm guessing this one isn't the best bet. Also, this novel takes a while to really sink into. At the beginning, it's a little confusing—particularly at Countess Sabine's party—because there are a LOT of characters. But if you soldier on, I think you'll find yourself starting to like it at about the one-hundred page mark. (less)