The Tree of Life
America has found its prophet, or at least a director of astonishing rank. "More than any other active filmmaker Mr. Malick belongs in the visionary company of homegrown romantics like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and James Agee," A. O. Scott recently wrote of the director of The Tree of Life. And indeed, what Terrence Malick has created with his newest film is a masterpiece on par with some of the greatest works of literature. The comparison to Melville is especially apt because what Malick has given the world is not merely an American classic but a spiritual tour de force.
In the tradition of Augustine's Confessions, The Tree of Life is the story of a single life drawn upward to God. Jack O'Brien, the main character, asks, "When did you first touch my heart?" and the rest of the film formulates an answer. Jack's journey begins with his own memory: a reconstruction of the great and small tugs that finally brought him into true, inward reconciliation. When did God begin to draw Jack to himself? When was Jack aware of God's presence? And when did he at last open himself to it fully? For Jack, the answers are as personal as the swirls on a fingertip: a mother's kindness, a brother's forgiveness, the beauty of the Texas sky. "Mother, brother, it was they that led me to your door," Jack concludes as he retraces his epiphany.
The Tree of Life is ultimately the story of two contrary motions: a soul being drawn into the mystery of God's grace in the midst of the downward pull of human nature. "There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. We have to choose which one we'll follow," the mother's voice declares early in the film. Therein lies the story. As young Jack grows, he is torn between the example of his mother (Jessica Chastain), the way of grace, and his father (Brad Pitt), the way of nature. Jack's mother tells him to love. His father tells him to pursue the ideal of self-sufficiency to get ahead in the world. Jack's mother revels in the landscapes around her, while Jack's father tries to dominate them, weeding and forcing grass to grow where there is no light.
Art and Madness
Standing on my tiptoes, I shifted my view through the bookshelves to the semi-circle of editors sitting at the front of the bookstore. The staff of a prominent journal was having a discussion on the future of publishing at McNally Jackson Bookstore in Soho, and I was one of many who crammed into the tote-bag haven hoping to absorb the aura of the prestigious journal.
I moved to New York City to be close to the literary scene. I made my home in Brooklyn and took a job in the editorial department at a book publishing house. I emailed famous authors daily and sat in on meetings that determined the future of notable books. In my free-time I went to readings and bookish events. Still, I felt somewhere outside the inner ring and so the siren call was loud in my ears.
My pilgrimage into the literati clique is a weary American tale. It’s been told a hundred different ways from Jo March’s publishing triumph to Esther Greenwood’s undoing after a summer internship at a prominent magazine to Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, which chronicles three graduates’ attempts to forge literary careers. Now, the story has been told yet again, this time by the novelist Anne Roiphe in her latest memoir Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust without Reason.
Anne Roiphe’s story, however, is not ultimately about how she broke into the guarded elite, but how she got out of it. It is an expose on the limits of literary fame, and all the grime and groveling that can go along with it. By recounting her “lost years,” Roiphe shows what happens when art becomes an altar.
Minimalism is in, but beauty isn’t always simple. It can be as intricate as calligraphy or as complicated as love. Beauty can be slender, or it can be opulent, like 672-pages-enshrouded-in-an-ornate-hardcover-binding opulent. This is what Craig Thompson has proved in his long-anticipated graphic novel, Habibi . In this work, Thompson has created something truly spectacular by infusing more instead of less into every pen-stroke, metaphor, and plot twist.
Set in a timeless desert unfettered by any particular time period, Habibi tells the story of Dodola and Zam, two orphaned slave children who find love and security in each other. On the cusp of adulthood, they are torn apart, abused, and left to reckon with the traumas of adulthood on their own.
Nothing in Habibi’ s sprawling landscape is simple, and Thompson is not one for reductionism. The extravagance of his layout and lavishness of his images wonderfully correspond to the excessiveness of the content.
At its center, Habibi is a love story, but the trope transcends sexual attraction. Sex”of which there is a great deal in the story”actually becomes the adversary, resulting in abuse, depression, mutilation, gender-confusion, and self-loathing. In the story’s grim world, sex is a currency at best and death at its worst. Thus, the real love at the center of Habibi is more sacred, less physical; more ultimate, less carnal.
How Dreary to Be Somebody
The Life of Alice James
We take it for granted that biographies are composed because of a certain fame someone has achieved. Alice James, however, is the worthwhile exception. The sister of psychologist William James and novelist Henry James, Alice is notable precisely for who she did not become.
It takes an exceptional biographer to tell such a person’s story. In Alice’s case, she is fortunate to have been found by the shrewd, sensitive Jean Strouse. In Alice James: A Biography, first published in 1980 (it won the Bancroft Prize) and now reissued by New York Review Books, Strouse uncovers a woman of immense fascination, untapped genius, and heartbreaking fragility. By deciphering the traces of Alice’s life in the writings of her brothers, Strouse not only opens up a fresh perspective on this famous family but also delves deep into the psyche of a challenging woman. As Colm Toibin’s new introduction observes, “Strouse is not a biographer who begins with a theory and sets about proving it; her version of this complex life is judicious and detailed.” But perhaps even more significantly, Strouse has shown that one’s legacy can’t be measured only by what one “accomplishes.”
Alice James was born in 1848, the youngest child and only girl of the five James children: William, Henry, Garth Wilkinson (“Wilkie”), Alexander Robertson (“Bob”), and then Alice. Being born into “a perfectly self-sufficient erotic-intellectual commune,” as Jacques Barzun has described the James family, was as much a burden as it was a blessing. Alice was a woman in a family of men during an era of Victorian repression; on top of that, she was smart. While defending herself from her brothers’ taunts and even William’s “overtly sexual” flirtations, Alice had to endure her father’s confusing partiality. Though he loved his daughter dearly, Henry James, Sr., remained convinced that women should be excluded from intellectual spheres. Thus, he focused solely on educating his sons, leaving Alice to gather the scraps of her brothers’ studies. “To be a James and a girl then was a contradiction in terms,” Strouse observes, and “it is Alice’s struggle to resolve that essential contradiction, her attempt to find something whole and authentic in her own experience, that gives her life its real stature and interest.”
Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture
Before many Christians are ready for the rapture, they apparently have a lot of baggage to unpack. Lucky for them, Daniel Radosh has taken it upon himself to shake out all their dirty laundry.
In his recently published book, Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture, Radosh bravely ventures into Christian music festivals, Holy Land theme park, Christian comedy clubs, and even Christian pro-wrestling matches to dig out the hairy secrets buried in the kitschy recesses of pop evangelicalism. And he lives to tell about it. And tell about it he does, spilling the embarrassing facts of this $7 billion industry.
But why? In an interview with Christianity Today, Radosh, a humanistic Jew, explains: “Honestly, I did it because a lot of it is quite funny.” But Radosh, who is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and a contributing editor at The Week magazine, was not on a mission to mock or shock. He goes on to explain: “We think about pop culture as something ephemeral and superficial, and I wanted to try to understand how that could be combined with something like faith, which is eternal and deep.”
Optional by Necessity
Dave Eggers' latest anthology of "Nonrequired Reading."
Dave Eggers revels in presumptuous and multilayered titles. In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the book that put him on the literary map, Eggers' seemingly arrogant self-consciousness is quickly revealed to embody a painfully humble rawness. In the Nonrequired Reading series, with one brush of the title, Eggers divides "reading"—which for most people is always nonrequired—into "nonrequired" and "required," thereby redefining the terms and modulating the canon.
A first reading of Nonrequired Reading 2007 suggests that no one is more qualified than Eggers to compile an exceptional collection of writings, slap the term "nonrequired" onto them—thus slapping the literary canon (i.e., required reading) in the face—and in the end make a grand contribution to contemporary literature. With the help of eleven high school students from his San Francisco writing center, Eggers has made the nonrequired required by making it nonrequired. With his tongue in his cheek, he rolls around a set of short blurbs, short stories, and short thingamabobs, including new words, personals from the around the world, six-word memoirs, creationist explanations for the world's natural wonders, failed TV pilots, and a commencement speech by Conan O'Brien, not to mention several short stories and the best names of horses expected to have undistinguished careers. It is a profusion of brilliance under the alias of clutter.
Nonrequired 2007 defines the upcoming generation of America by being as indefinable as the culture it represents. It explains America's state of mind by attempting no explanation whatsoever. It is the perfect postmodern study of postmodernism because it haphazardly employs an eclectic symposium of wit, humor, social awareness, pain, creativity, and ______ (fill in the blank with whatever you want) to do nothing but entertain while accidentally arranging meaning. To be this essential to this age, it had to be optional.
The Mission to Hawaii
Imperialism? Evangelism? Both.
If you were packing for a trip to Hawaii in the 1820s, you wouldn't be bringing swimsuits, surfboards, and snorkel gear. You'd be dragging Bibles, dried meats, and household goods. When the newlyweds Peter and Fanny Gulick boarded theParthian on November 3, 1827, to set sail for the Sandwich Islands, what awaited them was anything but a vacation. They were leaving a life of relative ease in New England for an arduous career as missionaries in Hawaii, a post they held for 46 years.
According to Clifford Putney, assistant professor of history at Bentley University, the Gulicks influenced the history of the 50th state in profound ways. InMissionaries in Hawai'i: The Lives of Peter and Fanny Gulick, 1797-1883, Putney turns his undivided attention on this displaced Puritan clan not simply because they lived fascinating lives but also because the Gulick family is "a window that offers a unique view of Hawaiian history and the American missionary enterprise." Seven of their eight children went on to become missionaries in other parts of the world, "creating one of America's most important evangelical dynasties."
Another book that has recently opened a window on the same subject, albeit from a different vantage point, is Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, a meandering survey of Hawaii's Americanization. Vowell, the irreverent historian who keeps Jon Stewart on his toes, "tells the story of how … Americans and their children spent the seventy-eight years between the arrival of Protestant missionaries in 1820 and the American annexation in 1898 Americanizing Hawaii, importing our favorite religion, capitalism, and our second favorite religion, Christianity."