Wednesday, March 26, 2008


My final paper for my Dostoevsky class examined D.'s use of Hamlet--as the quintessential Western text--to portray Russian misreadings of Europe across the character of Ivan Karamazov, an inverted Hamlet with his own response to patricide. So, in short, a ton of fun to write. I seized upon the fact that Ivan's apparition doesn't wear a watch. This paper by Liza Knapp argues that Ivan's devil can't tell time because he doesn't need to, and all of this points to an understanding of theoretical physics--specifically, time as the fourth definition--well before Einstein invented it. I argued that this was a reference to Hamlet's and Horatio's confusion about the time before they see the ghost of Hamlet's father, but that these two interpretations weren't mutually exclusive.

One of the best things about my husband is that he's right-brained enough to read and critique my papers. One of the unfortunate things about my husband is that he's left-brained enough to question the grand theories we humanists tend to invent out of his training as a physicist. Apparently, the idea that Dostoevsky would have thought this up is laughably anachronistic, even if he was familiar with some of the pre-Einsteinian arguments about time, because those arguments weren't about relativity at all, and Knapp's understanding of Ivan's devil relies on relativity.

And thus we see the both the benefits and the pitfalls of interdisciplinarity.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 6:33 PM :: (0) comments

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Berkeley was, like, totally awesome

Well, it was. And that I find myself reduced to Valleyspeak to convey its general excellence--brilliant, accessible faculty; brilliant, friendly classmates; and, you know, the actual town of Berkeley itself, not to mention its proximity to San Francisco--should say something that my list of superlatives doesn't and can't really communicate. By the time I left, there was talk of an interdisciplinary history of the book reading group established with the Townsend Center's funds and any concerns about constantly battling the system to do work in Russian and French literature or in entirely different disciplines altogether had been put entirely to rest. Nobody made me feel the least bit bad about being interested in seventeen different things, and it turns out that roughly 80 percent of the other students write or want to write fiction and aren't particularly afraid to admit it--and one of them even got something published. Even my least favorite event of the weekend--a large and incoherent house party at which nothing was said and nothing was heard--gave off a strong whiff of the collegiality of the graduate students. (Was it the pink lighted punch fountain? Probably.) As per usual, I took my sweet time at Moe's and came home with quite the cache of lovelies, including Bakhtin on Dostoevsky and the first volume of Boyd's Nabokov biography (I bought the second last time I was there). I hesitated over the double set of Moretti's novel anthology, but ultimately returned it to the shelf because of my backpack's space constraints. Later, as I was hiking up a very steep hill to the Berkeley Rose Garden and a view of the sunset over the Bay, I realized I'd made the right decision, as each volume is 700 pages or something like that.

So, in summary: at least seven or eight faculty members with whom to work, the best place in the U.S. to live, a very decent fellowship, classmates who won't cut your throat while you sleep, and the opportunity to work on more or less anything...yeah, Berkeley WAS, like, totally awesome.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 11:11 AM :: (0) comments

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Cynical, momentary deviation from the usual topics

Client No. 9's problems have thus far provided endless hours of distraction from less important occupations, like answering emails, raising our children, and, you know, governing this nation, and one almost hates to add to the noise, noise, noise...but alas, I, like everyone else, Have an Opinion. Fortunately, Slate intuited my opinion and printed it up in an easily read format for wide distribution over the Internet. I think it's fair to say that sympathy for Tilda Wall Spitzer has reached that level called "outpouring" by uncreative journalists searching for a cliche, and that's not a bad thing. Blaming the victim is just as futile here as it is in any situation when a person does something this wicked and stupid to another person, especially one he claimed to love. But every time I see another friend or classmate pick a job because she thinks it will give her the flexibility to go part-time when she has children, or quits because she finds that the world of work is not quite as pliable as she thought it was, I want to take her by the shoulders and shake some sense (and a work ethic) into her. What's going to happen when he leaves you? Or he dies in an unfortunate midlife crisis-related accident? Or the two of you just get sick of each other? Linda Hirshman argues pretty persuasively that the opt-out revolution (whereby highly educated women quit their jobs to raise their children and perhaps do some nominal unpaid charity work) is the worst thing to happen to women...well, ever. She proposes the following rules for use by women who don't want to end up in Tilda Spitzer's situation:
  1. Don't study art (or music, or theater). Use your education to prepare for a lifetime of work.
  2. Never quit a job until you have another one. Take work seriously.
  3. Never know when you're out of milk. Bargain relentlessly for a just household.
  4. Consider a reproductive strike.
  5. Get the government you deserve. Stop electing governments that punish women's work.
My husband told me about an alarming study (I'm having trouble locating now) which indicates that most women are stopping themselves at Step 1--and practically single-handedly accounting for the wage gap between men and women--by deliberately choosing low-paying, low-pressure majors (like education) which will allow them time away to raise their children later. So when their husbands make the argument, "You know, honey, you're only working part-time now, and most of your salary is going towards the babysitter, anyway. Why don't you just quit?" they're completely unprepared to make the response they should, which is this: "I value my job, the money it brings in, and the sense of self-esteem I get from having an identity independent of my status as wife and mother."

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 9:15 AM :: (3) comments

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A good poem is hard to find

Or this one is, at any rate. My husband is a Google black belt, and it took him at least fifteen minutes to locate this K. Amis gem, one of my favorite short poems in English.

So in the interests of making Great Literature more available, even to those of us who aren't professional class Googlers, I bring you Aberdarcy: The Main Square.

By the new Boots, a tool-chest with flagpoles
Glued on, and flanges, and a dirty great
Baronial doorway, and things like portholes,
Evans met Mrs. Rhys on their first date.

Beau Nash House, that sells Clothes for Gentlemen,
Jacobethan, every beam nailed on tight--
Real wood, though, mind you--was in full view when
Lunching at the Three Lamps, she said all right.

And he dropped her beside the grimy hunk
Of castle, that with luck might one day fall
On to the Evening Post, the time they slunk
Back from that lousy week-end in Porthcawl.

The journal of some bunch of architects
Named this the worst town centre they could find;
But how disparage what so well reflects
Permanent tendencies of heart and mind?

All love demands a witness: something "there"
Which it yet makes part of itself. These two
Might find Carlton House Terrace, St Mark's Square,
A bit on the grand side. What about you?

Suggested use: Give it to someone planning a romantic getaway in a hideous place. If you really dislike the person, that is.

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Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 8:27 AM :: (0) comments

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Memoirs and Consequences

Another day, another literary hoax. There's something simultaneously unsurprising and interesting about the typical locus of this increasingly common form of fakery, which I'll call the tribulation memoir. The pattern is beginning to calcify into its own genre, with its own conventions:
The fact that we can now discuss the tribulation hoax in terms of its conventions leads me to believe that there's something cathartic in the very act of unmasking a fake--that it responds to a deep psychological need. One of my favorite books on literary forgery (K.K. Ruthven's Faking Literature) argues that the revelation of the hoax is a response to verisimilitude: by calling out a betrayal of trust, writers mask the fact that all of literature is a kind of betrayal of trust. For the length of the book, the reader is required to take part in that oh-so-famous contract, the suspension of disbelief. You're supposed to let yourself be fooled, but after giving that initial consent, let the book take hold of you and try to forget that you're being duped altogether. The literary hoax, by piling on an extra layer of distance from reality, becomes the focal point of resistance to verisimilitude, a diversion from the fact that any book worth its salt is in fact intended to distance you from reality.

The tribulation memoir plays a variation on this theme. The hoaxers make a decent argument: why are their books less worthy as fiction than as non-fiction? Ultimately, in asking this, they misunderstand what their audiences seek in reading about descent into addiction, madness, the bowels of the Los Angeles County Child Protective Services, etc. The memoir is a way to circumvent the suspension of disbelief compact, to get a hit of artfulness without the subsequent crash when you realize afterwards, in the cold hard light, that it was all made up. Memoirs are broadly novelistic--and often analyzed as novels--in the sense that they attach themes to otherwise random occurrences, but without the niggling sense of having wasted all of that time and caring on people who don't actually exist. The standards for style can be lower because the style is not, in fact, the point. The point is the suffering and redemption, underlined by a Law and Order-like declaration that this happened to real people (perhaps continues to happen to real people, in the American manifestation of the genre). Of course, no memoir is ever absolutely truthful--any piece of writing is someone's approximation and stylization of reality--but unmasking the outright hoaxes is a kind of affirmation of the memoir genre itself. It reminds us of the differences between stylization and lying, and it should remind us that even non-fiction is a compact between reader and writer. Changing a name or a place or adding an overarching theme to a life that really just is a series of random events involves an acceptable suspension of disbelief; creating an entirely different childhood for yourself to secure a publishing contract is not.


Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 11:05 AM :: (0) comments