Tag Archives: Essay

Book Review: The Complete Ballet

This book review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 8 October 2017.

Chances are good that you’ve never read a book quite like The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in FIve Acts, a genre-bending mix of dance criticism and novel/fictional memoir that is unique in concept and execution. It is by turns engaging, illuminating, ridiculous, funny, heart-wrenching, and educational.

Each of the five acts of the subtitle is focused on a famous ballet, the themes of which author John Haskell ties into his running story. The ballets are La Sylphide, Giselle, La Bayadère, Swan Lake, and Petrushka. Not only does Haskell describe the stories the ballets relate, he discusses the history of their creation and famous productions, as well as the outsized personalities who brought them to life.

All the big names are illuminated here: Nureyev, Fonteyn, Baryshnikov, and Sergei Diaghilev, the latter of whom “brought ballet into the twentieth century with the Ballets Russes, which he founded in 1909. Pavlova danced for him and Coco Chanel designed for him and Balanchine choreographed for him.” And he was paired for many years with the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

Where did the author’s own interest in ballet originate? Page one introduces the writing of Arnold Haskell, the renowned ballet critic and force behind the Royal Ballet School. Coincidence? If there’s any relationship, it remains unacknowledged, though it would be interesting to know whether something about the shared last name prompted the idea for this intriguing project.

The unnamed first-person narrator, on the other hand, explains almost immediately that his interest in ballet began when his young daughter fell in love with The Nutcracker, and the two began reading ballet stories together.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that we’re not hearing directly from the author. Repeated references to Arthur Haskell’s writing convey the sense that John Haskell and his narrator are alter-egos:

“Unlike Haskell, I’m not interested in writing a guide to dance. I’m trying to find for myself a version of life that expresses itself like dancing, like the moving body thinking itself into existence.”

In its barest outlines, Ballet’s “story,” set in the L.A. of the 1980s, relates, in bits and pieces, how our hero plunges deeply, desperately into debt to some truly dangerous characters, and where he goes from there. At the time, his life is shambles anyway, though he still seems hopeful enough to be seeking that version of himself and his life that might think or move or will itself into existence.

A case in point is the guy he thinks of as his best friend: Cosmo, a good-time schmoozer who owns a strip club. Though Cosmo is not a great role model, our hero keeps trying to act like him, hoping that it will stick and he’ll become that guy, but no luck. “Although his self-sufficient relaxation was worthy of emulation, when I tried to sit like he sat…I didn’t feel what sitting like him felt like.”

At the same time, the object of his hazy affection is one of the club’s dancers, Rachel, who also happens to be Cosmo’s girlfriend. It’s a classic ballet plot.

The narrator uses the stories of the ballets to echo his own, and to weave in details of his life, though it’s the story from an opera, Rigoletto (inspired by a Victor Hugo play, just as Giselle was inspired by a Hugo poem), of a father’s failed efforts to protect his beloved daughter, where he draws the closest parallel to his own life:

“And I don’t know if I ever had a curse laid on me but I remember watching my daughter, on her blue scooter, scooting along on the sidewalk in front of me, and she was a cautious person but don’t take your eyes off her for an instant, that’s what I told my wife and she told me but all it took was that one time she didn’t stop at the corner, and it was like a curse.”

The entire narrative has that breathless, stream-of-consciousness quality to it, helped along by the fact that, though there are section breaks, there are no paragraph breaks. In relating his story, our hero approaches and then backs away from various subjects, then returns to them later from another oblique angle. You can almost see the corps de ballet advancing, retreating, advancing, like waves on the shore.

In virtually every ballet, someone dies tragically. Often it’s the heroine, and very often she dies through the obtuse blundering or fickle-heartedness of her beloved. Sometimes both lovers die, but sometimes there’s a happiness to it, a transformation that allows them finally to be together on some other plane. It may not be as satisfying to the audience as a corporeal happy ending, but finding a measure of fulfillment at the ragged end of tragedy is hardly the worst outcome.

When, in The Complete Ballet, our hero finally achieves his own transformation, paradoxically willing himself into existence by disappearing into a different character, it’s more satisfaction than he or we might reasonably have hoped for.

A Lesson in Every Object

This column originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 28 September 2017.

In June 2013, author/philosopher/videogame-designer Ian Bogost and Loyola University New Orleans associate English professor Chris Schaberg introduced a series of books and essays called Object Lessons, described as “a series on the hidden lives of ordinary objects.”

Bogost and Schaberg serve as the series’ editors, while the 2,000-word essays are published in no less a venue than the Atlantic (in their online Technology section), and the 25,000-word books are published by Bloomsbury.

Bogost explained the origin of the idea as having grown out of the concepts he explored in his book Alien Phenomenology; in particular, “a call for more frequent and more sustained attention to specific things.”

As he described it in the announcement of the series, “Each Object Lessons project will start from a specific prompt: an anthropological query, archeological discovery, historical event, literary passage, personal narrative, philosophical speculation, technological innovation, anything really — and from there develop original insights around and novel lessons about the object in question.”

Since then, 31 installments have been published, with at least 15 more in the offing, and the team continues to solicit proposals for additional projects. Besides being beautiful little hand-sized objects themselves, showcasing exceptional writing, the wonder of these books is that they exist at all. A couple guys champion the idea of establishing an open-ended essay project to a pair of big-name publishers, and they say yes! To essays!

The list of existing and forthcoming books is a random walk through a heap of objects, from the large-scale and encompassing (Earth by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Linda T. Elkins-Tanton) to the small and specific (Sock by Kim Adrian); things of which we have too much (Waste by Brian Thill) and too little (Silence by John Biguenet); things whose time has come (Drone by Adam Rothstein; Pixel by Ian Epstein) and gone (Phone Booth by Ariana Kelly; Shopping Mall by Matthew Newton); things that are a phenomenon of modern life (Jet Lag by Christopher J. Lee); and the things modern life is excising (Whale Song by Margret Grebowicz).

I wonder what object lesson lies in realizing that the two most politically charged objects in the series are head coverings: Veil (by Rafia Zakaria) and Hood (by Alison Kinney).

To read a few of these books is to understand generally what you will find in any of them. That’s in no way dismissive. The writing is uniformly excellent, engaging, thought-provoking, and informative. Each one uses its base object as a jumping-off point to range widely through a surprising collection of interrelated topics.

So, if a book called Sock makes you think, “Twenty-five-thousand words on socks? Uh, no,” then you’re unclear on the concept. You’re also missing out on a thoroughly delightful discussion of, among other things:

  • Why humans no longer have fur, but instead have many sweat glands and a layer of fat.
  • Georges Bataille’s essay fragment “The Big Toe,” which posits the subject body part as the true evolutionary launch point for humanity, because its forward orientation enabled bipedalism, which in turn allowed us to develop and exploit the opposable thumb.
  • How tracing the evolution of clothing lice (a.k.a. body lice) as a distinct species from both head lice and pubic lice, allows us to date the emergence of the use of clothing by humans.
  • The many delicate, nuanced adjustments needed throughout the body to keep humans from pitching forward onto our faces with every step.
  • Foot odor, which is not caused by the quarter-million sweat glands in our feet, but rather the poop from the bacteria that flourishes in our laced-up shoes and feasts on dead skin.
  • The distinction between a partialist — one whose sexual obsession is aimed at a part of the body — and a fetishist — one whose obsession is focused on an object — so that it’s no longer considered entirely correct to speak of a “foot fetish.” (Author Adrian addresses many facets of our complicated sexual relationship with feet, though one imagines that Sock serves as the hors d’oeuvre for this subject ahead of Summer Brennan’s forthcoming Object Lesson, High Heel.)

Imagine, then, that the less-prosaic of the Object Lessons are at least as wide-ranging as Sock. For me, it’s illuminating to understand the reason each author chose the subject she or he wrote about. The whimsical Eye Chart arose from author William Germano’s lifelong issues with myopia, while Anna Leahy’s project, Tumor, is informed by her intensely personal experiences of her father’s death from liver cancer and her mother’s from pancreatic cancer.

After digesting several of the OLs, I began to consider what mine should be. It didn’t take long to decide: Paper Route. True, it’s not an object quite like Remote Control (by Caetlin Benson-Allott) or Personal Stereo (by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow), but I’d argue it’s as much an object as Jet Lag or Traffic (by Paul Josephson).

Like many of the OLs, the launch point here is from my own personal narrative. I’ve had a job since I was 9, and that first one was delivering the now-defunct weekly Montgomery County Journal. Later, I progressed to delivering the now-defunct daily Washington Star.

It was never my idea to get the paper route, and I was not always a willing or gracious participant, but I had to save for college since, in my household, it was a given that 1) we kids were going to college, and 2) we kids needed to find a way to pay for it.

Thus, Paper Route, should it ever exist as an OL, will address certain obvious topics, though I would hope to make it more than just a misty-eyed elegy on the disappearance of both paper and news, or a grumpy lecture on the value of hard work and saving money (and walking barefoot uphill both ways in the snow).

Some of the less-obvious paths I’d like to explore include debt, higher education, the plummeting participation of able-bodied men in the workforce, and the need to recognize licensed trades as being of equivalent value to college degrees in a healthy, functioning economy and society.

I’ll let you know how it goes.