Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Weekends are Difficult: Elephant & Piggie Edition

...& it represents postmodern death-denial
Over-thinking, over-analyzing, taking the fun out of reading. There are a lot of negative associations with intellectual, academic interpretation and deconstruction, with having to crank out a five-page paper about a book you love or feeling pressured to throw jargony words around in class, and I do agree, there is a lot of joy and value in just giving yourself over to a book, turning off the part of your brain that asks questions and submitting yourself to the events, images, and emotions of a book. That said, and maybe I'm just kind of a weirdo, but I think deconstructing and over-analyzing something can be, well, fun. To me, it's an exciting and challenging exercise to see just how far I can stretch the meaning of someone else's words. And, to be honest, I think there's a point where super literary critical language starts getting, well, funny. It can land in this very strange, and, to me at least, entertaining zone that is equal parts eye-rolling sarcasm and wide-eyed sincerity. You're able, simultaneously, to poke fun at and celebrate the almost limitless potential for meaning contained in even the simplest collections of words.

So last Saturday, a customer came in and said, "I don't know anything about the book I need, just the names 'Gerald' and 'Piggie.'" Of course, that was more than enough information for me to lead him to the section with Mo Willems' absolutely brilliant, staff favorite, Elephant and Piggie series. But the phrasing of the customer's question snagged in my brain, just enough to lead me to wonder on Twitter:

The real question is, Why is Gerald nominally self-actualized while Piggy is indelibly tethered to species-level identification?

Or to put it in a less Josh-sometimes-likes-to-write-about-silly-things-in-the-voice-of-an-over-the-top-literary-critic, why does the "Elephant" in "Elephant & Piggie" have a name, but the "Piggie" doesn’t? The exploration continues:

Paradoxically, identity-stability undergirds identity-fluidity
Or, is Piggy asserting a politics of identity fundamentalism that Gerald eschews, or objects to, through nomenclature?
Apparently, I wasn't the only one asking the question.:

Kazia Berkley-Cramer ‏@cateyekazia I have actually thought about that a LOT and still have no answer.
Nor was I the only one offering potential answers.

Alexander Danner ‏@alexanderdanner Piggy's rich internal life obviates such limitations (e.g. I Am a Frog). Gerald's human nomenclature masks deep insecurity.

Which lead me to speculate:

@alexanderdanner Gerald does experience anxiety in a way Piggie doesn't. Maybe he retreats to "Elephant" when "Gerald" becomes stressful.
Or perhaps it goes in the opposite direction: "Gerald" represents a permanent retreat from a traumatic event suffered as "Elephant."
Which raises the possibility of a pre-narrated "Elephant & Piggie," a "Gerald origin story," if you will, not shared, by Piggie or with us.
But I was far from finished mining this vein of consideration:

One could argue this has more to do with plot than anything, raising the possibility that there could be an "Elephant" that is not Gerald.
Although, as our friends at Politics & Prose point out, the opposite is, in fact, true.

P&P Kids and Teens ‏@KidsandProse This becomes even stranger when you consider we've met other pigs, but not a single other elephant.
P&P Kids and Teens ‏@KidsandProse  The pigs even have their own DAY, while Gerald has no elephant community at all.
The key to friendship is changing "on you" to "ennui."
P&P Kids and Teens ‏@KidsandProse Piggie claims a pig identity because she knows what it means, whereas Gerald has no frame of reference for elephant identity
And this all before leveraging any of the canonical interpretive structures and expanding the consideration to other works in the Willems canon, as Lynne Doncaster points out:
LynneDoncaster ‏@LynneDoncaster Are we going to explore a Freudian analysis of Pigeon's hot dog obsession?
Fear not! The Lacan reference did follow the Freudian question. (Who says I don't know how to have a good time!)
Actually, the hot dog functions as a Lacanian transcendental signifier, or as Freud said, Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Of course, as I described above, the point of this kind of intellectual exercise isn't necessarily to determine definitive answers to our questions but to explore possibilities. This is an act of free play in the void bounded by an agreed upon foundational text. That said, I think we made progress towards a more stable understanding--with its own interpretative potential--by borrowing terms from another critical lexicon.
One could easily also apply the Unified Theory of Muppets to Gerald & Piggie. Gerald=Order Muppet Piggie=Chaos Muppet.
Narrative requires conflict, conflict is a function of chaos, thus, Piggie almost always asserts agency as the subject in the titular phrase
The conflict is resolved through the interactions btw chaos & order, as Piggie interacts with Gerald. It is important to note…
...that this is an "interaction" not a "competition" so conflict is not resolved by the supplication of chaos to order but through…
...order & chaos finding accord in a dynamic yet stable relationship.
Duh Perhaps it's "Gerald the Elephant" & "Piggie" as in "Kermit the Frog" & "Miss Piggy." "Piggie" is just the child version of "Miss Piggy"

Yes, "Duh," is a high specialized, highly technical critical term derived from Deleuze & Guattari's Thousand Plateaus. (The fun! It just, it just won't stop!)

And, of course, the result is not some kind of finality, but rather, an impetus for further intellectual exploration, which means there was only one way to close out our discussion.

NO! Tear not the the veil from my blissful ignorance
Well, now it has become clear that someone needs to write the bildungsroman of Piggie becoming Miss Piggy. "Gerald, I want to be a star!

Sure, it's little ridiculous to use this kind of language in relation to a book designed to help teach literacy to young children, but I think that ridiculousness is exactly what makes this kind of thinking so much fun. And besides, exploring the identity politics of "Piggie" and "Gerald" as proper character names in the context of the series title "Elephant & Piggie" is way easier to teasing out the interpretive threads of author/reader relationships in the context of meta-fictive exercises in which the very concept of "talking back to the text" is inverted, present in We Are in a Book.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Interview with Matthew Quick

Matthew Quick (aka Q) is the New York Times-bestselling author of several novels, including THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, which was made into an Oscar-winning film, and THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has received a PEN/Hemingway Award Honorable Mention, among other accolades. Q lives with his wife, novelist-pianist Alicia Bessette, in North Carolina. He’ll be reading from his latest book LOVE MAY FAIL on July 14th, at 7PM. David asked him a few questions.

Your other books involve characters with somewhat “obvious” mental disabilities. Here it’s more subtle – Portia’s mother and her hoarding, for example – but the subject of mental illness is not front and center. Thoughts about that?

MQ: Many people who struggle with mental-health-related issues function just fine and without detection, but that doesn’t diminish their struggle. When I began speaking openly about my own battles with depression and anxiety, many of my former students were surprised. I tried not to show that side of myself in the classroom. It took a lot of energy to hide my depression and anxiety, but I was a pro. There were hints, of course, and if you knew what to look for you would have seen that I was struggling. Portia struggles with depression in LOVE MAY FAIL. So does Nate Vernon, and in a pretty intense way. You don’t have to spend time locked up to be a part of the mental health community. You don’t have to be on a certain type of meds. And you don’t have to be a label either. I am not a depressed anxious person. I am a person who sometimes struggles with depression and anxiety. At almost every event I do, mental health comes up in the Q&A. There are readers who admit their struggles in front of the crowd and then there are those who simply give me a look that lets me know. The important thing is to be open to talking about our problems with someone. And, while it’s not my primary goal—I try to tell a good story, first and foremost—whenever my work helps start conversations about mental health, I’m very grateful.

A follow-up to that last question – in both this novel and the last one, THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW, you’re able to use the behavioral peculiarities of characters as a significant source of the humor in the book. To do that you have to walk a thin line between empathy and ridicule (which by the way I think you manage very skillfully) – how do you navigate that?

MQ: I try to mine the absurdity of life, not humiliate anyone. Pretty much everyone can tell the difference. There’s nothing funny about my own special brand of depression and anxiety, but both give me a unique view of the world that can often lead to surprising and sometimes hilarious revelations. I’ve heard that we laugh at what surprises us. When a movie character trips and doesn’t get hurt we laugh because the fall is unexpected. When we metaphorically trip and don’t get hurt too badly, it helps to laugh too. My wife is always telling me to laugh more. She and I laugh a lot, but it’s still good advice.

You’re writing here about the experience of publishing a novel. I think it’s always challenging for a writer to write fiction about writing. Was that always meant to be a central focus of the book? Does it pose special challenges?

MQ: I’d say it’s more about the disillusionment that occurs when my character makes the transition from "person who dreams of publishing one day" to "published author." It’s quite a step. And it’s not always a safe one. Most writers I know, whether they admit this publicly or not, struggle with the publishing part of the writing life. Everyone is grateful, everyone is hopeful. But it’s not always all fun and games. Fiction writing is—for me and many others—a private act. Publishing is anything but. You don’t really grasp the full implications of that contrast until you publish. I’m not sure writing about writing or publishing about publishing poses special challenges. Maybe there are taboos? Maybe someone somewhere says, "Thou shall not do this?" I don’t know. I write about what interests me. I create characters and try to make them authentic. Portia had an unrealized dream. I took the story where it needed to go. "Serve the story," they told me in the MFA. I always do my best.

How did your experiences as a high school teacher inform the character of Mr. Vernon, and the way he relates to his students?

MQ: Mr. Vernon’s character is 10% informed by my former teachers and 90% informed by my own experiences as a high school English teacher battling it out in the trenches of public education. Most teachers start out with grand notions about making a difference in the world and inspiring the next generation. That’s how they get young people to teach. They appeal to our youthful hearts. We’re not lured in by the money, believe me. I never worked harder for less money and I used to roof for $8.50 an hour. I had a good teaching friend who used to say, “If you’re doing it for the kids, then you’re doing the right thing.” I really believed that. Unfortunately, the people who do it for political gain or their own advancement usually end up controlling public schools. That was a spirit-crushing lesson to learn in my twenties. When I left teaching it was partly out of protest. I fought a few political battles and lost. I began to realize that the values I held up in my literature classroom were never as highly regarded as winning sporting events or SAT scores. Too many people simply want teachers to shut up and, by any means necessary, get their kids into top colleges. I felt badly beaten up by the system when I left. It grinds you down. You have to be a saint to survive it long-term. (There are saints teaching in every high school. Please thank them if they have taught you or are currently teaching your children.)

You have the good fortune, well-deserved, to have had a blockbuster movie made of your first novel (your first novel for adults, that is). Has that affected your writing since then? – in other words, do you write with a thought of how the book might translate to film?

MQ: I’m influenced by film because I watch so much of it. That was true when I was writing SILVER LININGS in obscurity, years before my trip to The Oscars. When I write a book, I try to tell the best story in novel form that I possibly can. I’m working on a screenplay for The Weinstein Company now. When I write a screenplay I try to write the best film I possibly can. Whenever people want to make films of my books, I’m grateful. But the first thing they do is write a screenplay, which is always different than the book. Just the way it is. Different forms.

Ken Humes, whom we meet in the first pages of the book, is an absolutely unsavory character who is not only personally but also socially odious. Anything in particular behind the decision to have a pornographer as a character? Did you create him solely from your imagination or did you spend time talking to people in that industry to flesh out (bad pun intended) what it’s really like?

MQ: Ha! No research was necessary. The book isn’t about pornography or Ken. Spoiler alert. Spoiler alert. Once more, spoiler alert. The idea of Ken—a pornographer—cheating on his wife with a woman half his age and then becoming more religious as a result was funny to me. I had that twist in my mind all along and the scene where Portia cries for her failed marriage on the hotel balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico is one of my favorites. When Portia leaves Ken, it sparks a series of events. There is a line in the book that goes something like this: When you do nothing, nothing happens. Action creates action. I don’t admire or particularly like Ken, but I primarily see him as a mismatch for Portia. He is definitely holding her back. But could she be holding him back too? That question was/is interesting to me.

The book presents a first-person female narrator. How difficult was it for you to assume that voice, and what did you feel you needed to do to make it read as authentic?

MQ: I’m not one of those people who think that men are from one planet and women are from another. Everyone—regardless of gender—has unique quirks, thoughts, and personality traits. My job as a writer is this: climb into a skull for a while, figure out the character, and then present her/him as authentically as possible. I know many women from South Jersey. So it would be much harder for me to write about a man from, say, the Czech Republic than a woman from South Jersey. That said—several women, including my wife, edited the manuscript.

Last question - any sharks?

MQ: I haven’t seen any in Kill Devil Hills. I’m seeing a bunch on TV. It is Shark Week after all. (Did I just plug TV via a bookstore? What?)

Hear more from Matthew on July 14th, at 7PM.

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