Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bright Lights

I unintentionally lived through a scene of one of my favorite books this weekend. Once I realized what was happening I geeked out over having such a literary experience. I also realized I miss putting my English major to use.

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, is a second-person novel that serves as a harsh indictment of 80s yuppie culture told through the eyes of a coke-addicted wannabe writer that just can’t let go of his wife that abandoned him. He’s having a quarter-life crisis and his job as a fact checker at a New Yorker-type of magazine, along with the late-night coke excursions, has taken a toll on his mind and body.

The whole coke and yuppie thing isn’t me, although there are some similarities - particularly the quarter-life crisis bit. It’s one of the few novels that I’ve read multiple times. One of the first scenes of the book has the unnamed protagonist stumbling out onto the streets of New York after an all-night bender with Bolivian Marching Powder (his words, not mine) and some unsavory women in a seedy club. He shamefully realizes, it’s Sunday morning and people are walking the streets in their best clothing while he looks like something from the gutter.
"You know for a fact that if you go out into the morning alone, without even your sunglasses--which you have neglected to bring, because who, after all, plans on these travesties?--the harsh, angling light will turn you to flesh and bone. Mortality will pierce you through the retina."
My circumstance was a bit different. All I had that night were some criminally overpriced drinks, but I was still up way too early – or too late - considering it was dawn. My eyes were bloodshot. My hair was a mess and the lack of sleep had me a little out of my mind. The bakeries were open and that’s when I realized I was living a watered down version of the scene from Bright Lights, Big City. The book begins and ends with the bread from a bakery. At first, it’s the indignity of being up the same time as the bakers and not doing anything productive like they’re doing. At the end, it symbolizes redemption. Deep stuff.

At least it was so early that the other people on the streets had no legitimate reason to be there either, except for this one girl at Grand Central. She was playing a ukulele rather well in the nearly empty station. Everyone else I saw that morning looked like they were up to no good. I think I was somewhere in the middle of the two groups.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Power and Responsibility

I’m a bit of a comic book snob, so I don’t typically read the super hero stuff. I go for more of the high brow or independent stuff, but there’s one superhero comic that has made me cry (at least twice): Ultimate Spider-Man.

There are a bunch of different versions of Spider-Man, and that’s not even counting the ones from movie and TV. Each one seems to retain the basic elements: a young man learns to become a hero after his uncle is murdered. Ultimate Spider-Man sort of reboots and re-imagines the comics for people who haven’t been able to keep up with the hundreds of issues (thousands maybe?) from the past few decades. I'm definitely part of this intended audience.

What I love about the series is that, like the other versions of Spidey, Peter Parker is in high school when it happens. The difference is that, even after 133 issues, he’s still in high school. They haven’t made him a grown up, and the series is for the better because of it.

I really enjoyed the first two movies even though Peter is an adult by the end of the first movie. Like in the movies, the Ultimate version of Peter as an decent person that has to deal with tragic situations. No matter how much good he does, he still suffers. The comics really crank this up a notch, and although it was designed with a younger audience in mind, some of the stuff is absolutely heartbreaking.

His parents were killed.

His uncle was killed.

His best friend was killed.

His non-romantic kinda-girlfriend was killed. So was her dad.

This tortured 16 year old has to deal with all this stuff, in addition to school, his girlfriend(s), sketchy government agencies and mass-murderers that want him dead. Sometimes things get pretty dark for a mainstream comic, but there’s always hope. His dedication to doing the right thing almost never wavers no matter how hard things get. And trust me, they get difficult.

Even though this is a series about a teen kid with superhuman strength that shoots webs from his wrists and goes against villains like “Dr. Octopus” and “Venom”, I find it inspiring. Maybe that’s one of the nerdiest things I’ve ever said, but it’s true. Ultimate Spider-Man is heartbreaking, hopeful and inspiring.

Plus, he works for a newspaper. I can relate.