Tuesday, 10 May 2011
Satire is a difficult thing to review for the same reason that Saturday Night Live sketches generally don’t make good movies: because satire by definition has little depth, and its thin premises are soon exhausted. Satire is simply a cleverly skewed presentation of truths everyone readily acknowledges, and one can find little to say about it before having to resort to obvious truisms. And so although I’ve intended to write a review of The Onion’s first ever “columnist-written” book, A Book of Jean's Own! All New Wit, Wisdom, and Wackiness from The Onion's Beloved Humor Columnist,by Jean Teasdale (really Maria Schneider), ever since it came out last fall, coming up with enough words on the subject has involved much mental scratching about. But I was determined to get this review written. I do think Jean comes close to transcending her satirical type and becoming a realized character with some interesting ramifications. I won’t go so far as to say she makes her readers care about her, exactly, but she’s real enough that many people who read her say they know someone very much like her, and sometimes cringe at her partial likeness to themselves. I have several friends who are equally into the Jean Teasdale material and we have very lively conversations about her and talk about her as though she exists. Tellingly, these conversations often seem to be on the theme of “how we could get her life on track”, and thereby tap into one of the most important veins in Jean’s character.
Human beings have a natural bent towards improving themselves and their lot. If we didn’t, we’d all still be living in caves and gnawing on raw meat. After millions of years of progressive development and invention we’ve exacerbated and inflated this tendency until we’ve reached a point of schizophrenic divide. We’re bombarded with images of perfection and incredible achievements while at the same time have reached such an apex of material comfort and convenience that comparatively little effort is absolutely required of us. At least in North America, and under certain circumstances, one can with relatively little effort and knowledge ride the crest of excess material goods and easy credit and self-satisfied ignorance like a sun-baked, slurpee-sipping water park visitor on an air mattress in a wave pool. Resolving this tension within ourselves, deciding upon realistic individual standards, and maintaining a reasonable and consistent level of effort can require concerted effort. Some people find their balance in this matter easily, but for others this schism is a source of great conflict and practical difficulties. Entering the ring of this conflict is one Jean Teasdale, proud and willful lowest common denominator.
Jean is at once an exasperating and enjoyable departure from the social norm of at least making some effort towards being all you can be (or, failing that, feeling guilty if you don’t). Some of Jean’s best and most hilarious moments are those in which she is on the very brink of achieving a state of mindfulness and then turns and snatches the iron, or rather, her Teflon psyche, from the fire. One classic example of such a moment occurs in one of my very favourite Jean columns, the one she wrote after 9/11, in which she decides to deal with the horror of the terrorist attacks by pretending they never happened, and this column about her marriage contains another example. It’s almost refreshing to see someone decide to not only embrace but wallow in her own rock-bottom laziness and sub minimal standards: someone who has “dress sweats”; who happily reports that she wears Crocs and clogs so as not to have to lace up her own shoes; who reads only home making and bridal magazines and romance novels; and takes to her bed, well fortified with junk food and sweets, whenever reality encroaches and life presents her with a challenge.
But then too, there is the urge to “fix” Jean. Her refusal to expect anything of herself or to be realistic has led to a life of precarious mental balance, and forces her increasingly more deeply into denial. She’s like someone who enjoys the free and easy ride on an escalator so much she tries to stay on it all day, and runs into all the drawbacks and hazards one might expect. Her marriage is a hopeless mismatch, she is a middle-aged women with a net financial worth of well under zero, she thinks she’s going to have the three children she dreams of even though she’s 40 and married to a man who doesn’t in the least want a child, she’s so overweight it impacts what she can physically do, she’s been fired from a long series of thankless minimum wage jobs, and she has no skills or education beyond high school.
My friend Jay and I have discussed how Jean could turn her life around or at least make it suck a little less. I suggested that Jean could sell the hundreds of stuffed animals and dolls and “collectibles” and assorted crap she seems to have acquired, which would surely give her a nest egg of at least a few thousand dollars, get at least a part-time minimum wage job and take it seriously enough to hold onto it, make up a budget and stick to it, cut up her credit cards, start knocking down some debt, and look into part-time community college programs. Once she has her finances under control, skills, and a job with enough income to be self-sufficient, she can move out. Jay thinks Jean should leave Rick and declare bankruptcy, immediately.
Maria Schneider has said that the Jean columns get more depressing with each one she writes, and that’s understandable. I first discovered Jean in the summer of 2001 upon reading this column, and not too long after read most of her archived columns at one sitting. It induced a weird mental state in me that I can only compare to the feeling one gets from eating an entire bag of chips at one go. Such matter may be enjoyable going down, but it leaves a bad aftertaste, and there was a unwholesome feeling of mental somnolence, as though I’d gone too far into Jean’s warped and confining little mindset and couldn’t get back into my own. Like the potato chips, Jean is meant to be enjoyed in small doses, and I think that may be partly why I didn’t enjoy A Book of Jean’s Own as much as I hoped. Jean’s columns are all solidly crafted with their own narrative arc and make for an enjoyable few minutes of entertainment each. The book was more of a hodgepodge of Jean’s thoughts on this and that: Jean’s tips on how to throw a pity party, her daily schedule, her sketch of her dream wedding dress, fiction she wrote about herself, extracts from her cat Priscilla’s “diary”, an account of the time she reacted to a job loss by shaving her entire body bald, recipes for chocolate goodies that sound revoltingly sweet, assorted lists, her accounts of her “most memorable” false pregnancy alarms (the first occurring before she’d even lost her virginity), her husband Rick’s scribbled contributions, etc. Jean says in the book that she’s not one of those “snobby authors” who expect their book to be read beginning to end, but I do think it’s best to read it that way, as the only narrative force it has comes from Jean’s growing desperation to fill the book (at one point she fills five pages with the repeated sentence, “I am limited!”), her progressive breakdown as her deadline looms, and Rick’s stepping in to finish the manuscript. Not that I regret buying or reading the book, but the columns are the main body of work and the book is better enjoyed as an adjunct to the columns than the other way around.
On the whole the book simply maintains and fleshes out Jean’s character as set in her columns. Maria Schneider must have run head-long into the limitations of the character in conceiving this book. Jean, of course, would never be able to focus and discipline herself to the task of writing a book. And, if she did, she would never come up with an interesting premise, let alone develop it into a book-length manuscript. The book, therefore, is the only thing Jean could ever write: a hodgepodge of Jean-like thoughts.
There are a few editorial sleight-of-hand changes which I suspect were made with an eye to the column’s future. For one thing, her age has recently become fixed and lowered. Jean has been “pushing forty” since her column’s debut in the mid-nineties and she used to make a lot of references to David Cassidy and other such seventies-era pop culture, but she celebrated her fortieth birthday in the summer of 2010, which makes her of an age more likely to have swooned over Michael J. Fox. Also the genesis story of her column has been changed. In a column that seems to have been taken down, I remember her telling the story of how she sent out copies of a column called “That Cathy Cartoon Was Bang-On!” to a number of newspapers on spec, and that just The Onion and some sort of coupon or sewing newsletter (that went out of business shortly afterwards) took it. Now the story is that her first column was “Day 24 in Deely Boppers and Counting!”
On the plus side (no pun intended, really!), I love that Jean’s drawings of herself are cartoon versions of her “official” photo. The drawing of her engaged in her “naked Plush Jamboree” past-time is – well, I won’t describe it, because it really needs to be seen. Suffice it to say it is arguably the best item in the entire book. The photos of Rick Teasdale and Jean’s pal Fulgencio are superb and just what you might have expected when picturing the characters. And there were several moments where Jean hits some all-time new low ebb of self-awareness. It turns out that her cherished cats Priscilla and Garfield actually hate her, probably because she insists on constantly subjecting them to an affectionate mauling regardless of whether they’re in the mood.
I also really enjoyed having a long-cherished theory of mine confirmed. My friend and I had a running argument regarding Hubby Rick, with Jay holding that Rick was a jerk and saying that Jean should leave him immediately, while I opined that while Rick may not be a palatable character he’s no worse a spouse than Jean. Yes, Rick’s obviously an alcoholic who expects Jean to do all the housework, makes no effort to do anything to please her, drops the occasional mean comment, and threw out Jean’s “Think Spring” balcony display (even though his agency in the disappearance of this display typically escaped Jean completely). But Jean, for her part, expects Rick to pay all their bills, makes fun of him constantly in her published column (including references to his, er, competence in the bedroom), calls him "Hubby Rick" though he hates being called that, and makes no effort to accommodate his tastes and needs. She has filled their apartment with dolls and stuffed animals and frou-frou knickknacks that he hates, adopted two cats against his will, and gives him dancing flowers and potpourri for Christmas. A Book of Jean’s Own confirmed my take on Rick. Jean is a classic unreliable narrator (reading between the lines of what she says is the biggest payoff of reading her work), and Rick’s section of the book is quite revealing on both their parts. It so happens that Rick turns out to be, if less literate than Jean who can at least spell and write in complete sentences, more intelligent, realistic and insightful. He knows he has a problem with drinking and he readily admits he’s fat, but he’s also equally straightforward about his intentions not to bother changing. More interestingly, he “gets” Jean. He knows she lives in a fantasy world and that he’s enabling her by paying their rent, but he’s willing to do so because he knows she doesn’t have any better options and because he, unlike her family and many of the other people in her life, does have a certain real if grudging affection for her. This is hardly a good foundation for a healthy marriage, of course, but in a way it’s an improvement on Jean’s passive aggressive denial.
I would be open to reading another Jean book, though I can’t imagine where Maria Schneider could possibly take the character that would produce enough material. I’m hoping that some of the listed future book titles in the back of the book are merely a joke, especially Priscilla Teasdale’s Kitty Letters to God. I do enjoy Jean’s increased internet presence almost more than the book that occasioned it. Before the launch of the book in late 2010, Jean got a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and a web site for the book, where “she” posted sad accounts of her book tour appearances. This all served to give the character a startlingly realistic dynamic, especially when Jean interacts with her followers on Twitter. So, although the book may not have been quite what I hoped for, I look as eagerly for new Jean columns as I’ve always done, and now can also follow Jean on Twitter. As Jean would say herself, "Success!!!"
Saturday, 13 March 2010
A few months ago I came across a copy of Especially Father, by Gladys Bagg Taber, in Value Village. The book, written in 1948, seemed to bear promise of being a type of book I quite like. Though I don’t know exactly how I should classify or even describe this kind of book. Probably the best description is that of “vintage memoir”. I’m thinking of books like Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough; We Shook the Family Tree by Hildegarde Dolson; and E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, though Diary of a Provincial Lady is autobiographical fiction rather than a memoir. These books and the events they describe all belong to the first half of the twentieth century, and are all in a literary vein one doesn’t come across these days: erudite yet understated; delicately witty; self-deprecating yet dignified. And, if you can get your hands on an older edition, the yellowed pages with their well-aged scent and old-fashioned typeface adds to the feeling that one is stepping back in time.
Upon reading, Especially Father did prove to be this kind of book written by this kind of author. Taber penned more than fifty books, besides publishing a great deal of work in the periodicals of her day, and seems to be best known for her books about Stillmeadow, the seventeenth-century Connecticut farmhouse she bought and restored. I’ve made a note to myself to get my hands on one of these books sometime. But I expect to enjoy those books more than I liked Especially Father.
The book that Taber meant to commemorate her father, Rufus Bagg, does not do so in the way she intended. It’s evident that she loved her father and found that the excitement and hubbub he generated compensated for his shortcomings, but lacking her affection, and perhaps also her level of tolerance, I can’t agree. Good and even admirable characteristics her father had, yes. His level of physical energy seems to have been titanic. His knowledge of geology was profound and immense – as was to have been expected of a mining engineer and college geology professor – and he could discourse about it in a fascinating, poetic way. And he seems to have loved his wife and daughter deeply. But he also seems to have been an utterly unbearable man. Taber details his exploits: how she and her mother nearly starved in a rented room in Mexico because her father went off on an expedition to the mines in the mountains, supposedly for only a few days, and didn't return for a month (during which time Taber's mother ran out of money); how her father beat little Gladys black and blue for telling a neighbour where they hid their spare house key; how he left her in a store one morning and never remembered her until he returned home at suppertime; how he got up by six every morning and made such a racket no one else in the house could sleep; how he fought bitterly with the college librarian over a seventy-five-cent fine for months; how he browbeat his older brother into giving up his courtship of the girl who became Taber’s mother so he could court her himself; how he thought the only problem with Mexico was “all those foreigners” who lived in it; how he didn’t believe in red lights and never stopped for them; how he never understood any viewpoint that differed from his own and was convinced his own opinions were infallible.
Taber evidently wants her readers to admire her father as much as she did, but the really admirable character in this memoir is Taber’s mother. Without her mother’s sympathy, reason, and astute management, Taber’s childhood would have been a miserable experience. It would have taken a rare woman to put up with her father’s pigheadedness, and Grace Bagg seems to have had both the depth of sweetness and the strength of character to not only put up with him but to be happy with her lot – and to be the woman every other woman in town came to with her troubles. Taber writes that her father took her mother entirely for granted, that he expected her to do all the housekeeping, give the best parties of any wife on the faculty, feed six extra dinner guests at no notice, edit his papers, compose his speeches, find anything he had mislaid, and account for every penny he ever gave her. Many married women would have been expected to do the same at the turn of the twentieth century, but surely most would have received in return at least the occasional compliment or some consideration from their husbands. Grace Bagg did not, and she seems to have remained remarkably unresentful through it all, though Taber remembers how her mother would sew furiously late into the night when really perturbed. Grace Bagg did occasionally do battle with her husband to get what she really wanted – and win, too, because she had an understanding of his nature and therefore an ability to use his weaknesses to her advantage that he lacked – but generally she seems to have been able to take most of her husband’s behaviour in her stride and to see the never ending turmoil he caused as an adventure and a joke. But even while I marvelled at Grace Bagg’s spirit and fortitude, there was no getting away from the fact that she should not have been treated in such a way as to make such heights of self-abnegation necessary.
Taber does seem to have been fully aware of her mother’s worth (as she wrote, “Mamma was a genius”) and she is also cognizant of her father’s faults, but she could certainly have gone several steps further towards understanding the extent of his shortcomings. I found the pride not only Rufus Bagg but Taber herself showed over being a descendant of Cotton Mather to be appalling. Taber wrote:
I thought of the first ancestor, back there in 1632, setting his firm unfrightened foot on the new and terrible terrain.
It was his crest, and he was perfectly confident that he was virtuous and noble. And if the goodly man cheated the Indians, it was always for their own good, or for the glory of God. If he persecuted the witches, he was saving their souls or defending the innocent wretches they were casting spells upon. Sin was his mortal enemy, compromise a word he never knew.
Sure Mather treated the native people and their rights like nuisances to be swept aside, and presided over the cruel executions of innocent people, justifying it on the basis of an imaginary threat. But hey, he meant well, and compromising is for the weak and afraid!
Virtue, like everything else, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The blame or praise we attach to an action or characteristic is wholly dependent on its context. Compromise can be good or bad; persistence can be constructive or destructive. Good intentions need to be coupled with good judgment and competence if they are to lead to positive results. Anyone with a passing knowledge of history or politics knows what happens when those in power refuse to compromise or to be subject to checks and balances and ride roughshod over the rights and opinions of others to achieve their own ends.
Taber opens the book by telling us in a prologue that she came to write this book about her family because she did not want her memories, especially those about her father, to be lost, and ends it by describing a Bagg family reunion and commenting,
The sight of these, the last of the Puritans, standing there gave me an uneasy sense of weakness in my own generation…. If the time came for Communism to sweep the world, Father would face a firing squad still shouting, God bless the Republican Party.
This may have a fine rhetorical ring to it, but the truth is, far from sweeping the world, Communism was to collapse of its own accord, while the American Republican party has become a corrupted and destructive force. And none of Taber’s fond nostalgia about her father stands up to deconstruction much better than that example. Surely there’s no benefit in glorifying the kind of pig-headedness and complete lack of consideration for others that Rufus Bagg showed. We’ve seen what happened when the U.S. was governed for eight years by a man who prided himself on his own ignorance, who said that we were “with him or against him”, who said that dictatorship would be fine “if he was the dictator”.
Especially Father is a mildly enjoyable little memoir, but the reactionary, overly simplistic, and reverent tone of it did it no favours whatsoever.