Monthly archives of “May 2014

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Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, Jim Holt (2012)

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Well I just wrote a long post about this which disappeared when I hit the “publish” button. Coincidence?

So, nutshell: Nicely done. Occasionally got a little too sciencey for me, and when people start talking about logic I want to jump out a window, but there was a lot of great stuff in here. I particularly liked learning about the fecundity principle, Spinoza, and the bias toward nothingness as the ontological norm.

Weird.

P. S. The titular question is not the one Holt poses to the various philosophers and scientists he interviews. Rather, he asks the far more interesting “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I guess the publisher’s publicists didn’t think that was catchy enough.

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The Post Office Girl, Stefan Zweig (193?/1982/2008)

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Strange set of dates, right? This novel was unpublished at the time of Zweig’s death in 1942, didn’t appear in the original German until 1982, and was only translated into English in 2008. It continues to boggle my mind, how thoroughly this writer was forgotten. I know plenty of writers are forgotten, but Zweig was literally world-renowned before his death, and almost completely forgotten after. I think it has to do with the fact that his was a world, and a readership, which had largely disappeared by the time he died, either by violence or disillusionment. Of course that’s true of many others, too, but others had the chance to make a second act — like Brecht (though only briefly), or Fritz Lang. Zweig foreclosed that possibility with barbiturates.

This is the first of Zweig’s fiction I’ve read. I come to it very well disposed to like it, since I’ve become so fascinated with him through his memoir. It’s not a great novel. The story is quite simple and actually moves a lot like a screenplay. (Perhaps unsurprisingly; my very first (and entirely unconscious) point of contact with Zweig, as may be the case with you too, was Max Ophüls wonderful Letter from an Unknown Woman, based on a story by Zweig.)

The titular post office girl is a victim of postwar Austria’s grinding poverty, has the chance to spend a week at a glamorous resort in Switzerland with her aunt who’s married a rich Dutchman and lives in New York. That’s act one. In act two, she has her mind blown by opulence, but things go sour, and she winds up right where she started in her crummy garrett. In act three, she meets a man, a fully disillusioned and nihilistic veteran and former POW, and together they determine that because society has failed them so completely and unfairly, they will have their revenge through crime. It’s not joyful vital American crime like Bonnie and Clyde, though; it’s more of the existential killing an Arab variety. The end.

Pretty pedantic, but perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist, and I was surprised and somewhat (though not entirely) charmed by Zweig’s prose, which, contra its subjects and concerns, is full of froth and elan. He describes the hell out of everything in paragraphical gusts, and offers tasty little observations and figures on almost every page.

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Nebraska, Alexander Payne (2013)

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Some stilted acting from the support staff, some over-baked moments of sentiment, and a consistent willingness to come pretty close to mockery when pointing the camera at non-coastal Americans (NCA’s! we ought to apply to the feds for protected-class status), but all the good things buoying this movie won’t let its problems sink it. The MacGuffin is simple as a stick: An old grump on the verge of dementia gets a dopey sweepstakes flyer in the mail and thinks he’s actually won a million dollars, so he determines to get to Omaha from Billings to collect his prize. His wife and sons can’t talk him out of it, so off they go. Simple, but brilliant too. The dream of quick riches, the road trip quest, the mad solitaire, the yearning to make meaning of a life on the edge of its end — all sorts of archetypes are in play, especially American ones. The movie’s super smart about aging and raging against the dying of the light, and pairs that theme elegantly with subtle but devastating demonstrations of America’s once vital “heartland” in tatters. The main street in the small town where the family washes up makes the main street in The Last Picture Show look like the Miracle Mile. The young men are out of work and fat; the old men are lean, Lutheran-silent, and obsessed with how great their old Buicks were. The women — not a well-represented or much considered constituency here, which is too bad; more could have been done — appear to do not much but make sandwiches, until now and then we realize that they’re the ones contriving to keep their families together and solvent. It is perhaps unkind and unnecessary to say so, but I found June Squibb hammy and Will Forte annoying. Bruce Dern is absolutely fantastic; he makes one of the roundest characters I’ve seen on the screen in a long time.