Saturday, March 28, 2009

In defense of architectural kitsch or Why we should preserve giant sized Americana

As a child my family spent many an hour on the highways between Nebraska, where we lived, and Minnesota where my grandfather resided. I remember the miles of cornfields, an endless yellow and green blur, sometimes punctuated by a silo in red and white. Every so often in this landscape of anonymous uniformity a startling, one might say shocking, vision would appear—the roadside tourist trap.

Giant sized Indians, cowboys, corn…and the greatest of them all, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox towering above the landscape. Actually there were and still are two giant Paul Bunyans in Minnesota, one that talked, in Brainerd and the other, which stood mute, in Bemidji. These roadside attractions represent a quickly disappearing art form that is a link to the best and worst of pre-interstate America—an unbounded desire for the new and weird melded with crass commercialism.

This uniquely American art form that combines art, artifice and advertising on a grand scale can be broken down further into two sub-categories. The first is mimetic architecture, buildings meant to resemble a person animal or object, as in the Brown Derby Restaurant—a building in the shape of, yes you guessed it, a brown derby hat—in Los Angeles. The other category consists of giant sculptures with no utilitarian purpose as in the above-mentioned Paul Bunyans. The common trait of all these works are a sense of the naive that can be compared to the paintings of Grandma Moses, that is, the proportions may not be correct, but the work has undeniable vitality and truthfulness.

I’ve found that the most exotic of man-made wonders have been built in places with a dearth of natural ones. Middle America could perhaps be considered the roadside attraction epicenter for this reason. Miles of corn, wheat or barren moonscape seems a natural setting for a giant bull, T-Rex, or an aqua-blue whale. But in the America of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, anywhere people passed through or vacationed was fair game and competition often pushed the boundaries of the imagination.

Henry Ford, by mass-producing his Model T and thereby lowering the cost of the automobile, helped usher in the era of roadside tourist traps. The entrepreneurial of spirit could now fleece the passing motorist in a way that P.T. Barnum never has the opportunity to do. If you weren’t lucky enough to own the rights to some natural wonder like a cave or scenic vista you could always build something big enough or strange enough to pique the interest of a passing motorist.

Route 66 was once lined with both categories of giant sized Americana. A few examples survive today, including the Wigwam Motel in Hollbrook, AZ., and an over-sized space man known as the Gemini Giant in Wilmington, IL., but much has been lost.

When President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 into law, he helped sound the death knell of roadside attractions in America. The law instituted the federal interstate system, connecting the country in a new way, but bypassing most of the tourist traps near smaller highways that no longer saw a large amount of traffic.

All across the country these irreplaceable pieces of America are in danger or are already gone forever. In California, Las Vegas and the Jersey Shore a number of examples of Googie architecture of the 1940s and 50s, which often used mimetic devices, have been torn down and in most cases replaced with designs of modern and post-modern simplicity or ubiquitous boxes lacking any semblance of style.

Monday, March 16, 2009

the Spirit of the Place

Editor’s note:This is the second interview with Stephen Bergman, a novelist, playwright and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who writes under the pen name Samuel Shem. This interview focuses on his latest work, The Spirit of the Place, a novel of history, redemption and love that is set in a small city in New York's Hudson Valley. The novel was published in 2008 by the Kent State University Press and has been awarded the National Best Book Award for general fiction.

Look, Read, Listen: There seems to be a palpable sense of history—local, national and personal—that runs through the novel, as well as a conflict between past and present; looking back and remembering as Miranda does or blotting out the past, typified by the desire of Milt and Henry to tear down the Worth Hotel. What is the importance of history in your novel and how do these different types of history relate to one another?

Samuel Shem: When I went to college I was pre-med and majored in psychology I thought that history was a worthless subject to study. Now the main thing I read is history and biography. When I heard about the Hudson Bicentennial in 1985 I started to revisit my hometown—my mother and father still lived there at the time—and I became fascinated by what I had never known. As in the novel, I had been taught, "They caught whales in the river." Imagine my surprise when I realized that this was not so, and when Hudsonians shared this view almost to a man/woman. In THE SPIRIT history is a constant deep theme, both in terms of the actual history of the town and of how this impacted and continues to impact the personal history of all the characters, especially the main character. THE SPIRIT actually is one story from a mammoth book I wrote, and in fact via digressions and documents I carry the history of Hudson and its characters all the way back to the Henry Hudson voyage and a devilish man called von Schoonerstroom who jumps ship and is last seen walking in to the woods with the Indians. Stay tuned.

LRL: As compared to your first novel, 1978’s the House of God, your new work seems to have a different sense of depth and pacing (a slow profound unfolding as opposed to urgency). Could this be due to the subject matter, your writing style or the fact that you are writing as a man 30 years older with all the experience that brings with it…or some combination of all these things?

SS: THE HOUSE was forged in the fire of delayed adolescence and dawning medical and personal wisdom; THE SPIRIT began when I was 40 (like the main character) and had a different tether—to understand some very basic things—love, death, betrayal—about my family and my town. The novel is elemental in that you don't have to be a doc to be captivated by the story and characters, the loves, deaths, and breakages of the town. Of all the spirits of the town.

LRL: The main character of the House of God learns the value of not doing too much for patients, while in the Spirit of the Place, Dr. Rose learns from his mentor the importance of being present with patients and the “old-fashioned” type of medicine that is based on practicality (and perhaps psychology) rather than medical science. Do you feel that these are important lesson for doctors to learn? And if so is it possible for this to be taught or does it have to happen organically as it did with both these characters?

SS: One review called THE SPIRIT the "perfect bookend to THE HOUSE OF GOD," in that HOUSE was about medical training, and SPIRIT is how to be not only a doctor, but a doctor/person when you get out. HOUSE was trying to cope with the conflict between the received wisdom of the medical system and the call of the human heart, and the response of the characters is to get out of the line of fire—while not yet knowing how to "be with" patients. Starbuck and Orville in THE SPIRIT place the "being with" the patient at the forefront—as he says, "80% of the time the patients who come into the office have no diagnosable physical complaint." The best way to learn how to be with people is to live your life with people who are caring. Late in the novel, Orville hears the words, "don't spread more suffering around." There is a universal journey of human suffering, and if you go through your own suffering with caring others, you will heal. He came as a doctor to heal the town and the town heals him—by its constant working of its crazy, horrifying, tender breakages on his life, and not letting him leave (his mother's "will")

LRL: Forgiveness seems to be a major theme of you newest novel. Is there a connection between Orville’s exposure to Dr. Starbuck’s kind of medicine and his eventual forgiveness of both his mother and Henry?

SS: Starbuck, like Dr. Harold Levine of my growing up years in Hudson, is a gentle wise, forgiving presence. When Orville got in trouble, Starbuck doesn't say much but takes him around to see patients giving birth, or dying, or whatever. Orville learns that happiness is not an individual matter, and that understanding brings love, and love understanding—and forgiveness. Orville doesn't exactly forgive the town bully Schooner, but he connects with him, at the end giving him the lovebird, Starlight.

LRL: Why did you choose the early 1980s as the time in which you set your novel?

SS: Because the Reagan years were a bloodbath in many parts of the world (Central America) that needed to be brought to light, and Reagan was the beginning of the really sophisticated lying that disguised the blood—which of course is nothing compared to the Bush years which saw it accepted that it wasn't necessary to disguise the fact that you are lying. I started the first draft of the novel in 1983 or so, so that was when it was set.

LRL: In both the House of God and the Spirit of the Place, the specter of the political power structure (Nixon, Reagan) becomes another character in these works. What is the importance of political climate as it relates to the settings of your novels?

SS: I am motivated by "Hey wait a second" moments, when you see or do or don't do something in your daily life and you say to yourself, "Hey wait a second why am I doing or not doing that?" and then you just ignore it and move on. HOUSE was in the Nixon impeachment year; MISERY in the early Reagan years, SPIRIT in the Reagan reelection year. The next novel is set in 2003, in the first "Mission Accomplished" horror of the Cheney/Bush regime. I take history very seriously; it takes us more seriously—witness the relief that gone.

LRL: Would you consider your new book to be part of the Magic Realist tradition or to simply contain elements related to it? Or are we as readers to believe that Dr. Rose is not actually being visited by his dead mother?

SS: Marquez is my favorite modern author, so he influenced me, but hasn't everyone seen their dead mother flying around and having talks with her? Orville Rose is the only one who sees his mother. And he notices, near the end of the novel, the "she wouldn't fly in the face of love," i.e., that when he is in love, she does not appear. That's a clue, not an answer.

LRL: In the Spirit of the Place, Columbia, which is based on the city of Hudson, where you grew up, becomes another character in the book. Was it difficult to balance the truthful and fictional elements of the setting and the characters that inhabit it?
Nope easy. In THE HOUSE OF GOD, and MOUNT MISERY, the sequel to it, it was horrendously difficult to write the doctors and patients without getting sued; Hudson was easy. Almost everything I write is virtually true, and one step off real.

LRL: Dr. Rose faced some difficulties growing up Jewish in Columbia. Did you face similar challenges when you were young?

SS: Yes. Enough said.

LRL: What are you working on now?

SS: I just finished the new novel, SPOOK ROCK VENTURE, which is set in "Columbia" again, but 20 years later. Many of the same characters make an appearance—Orville the town doctor with a new sign in Bill's office: "YES SMOKING—NOT REALLY"), and Miranda and Cray and, yes, Mrs. Tarr who, two decades later, is still leading her oxygen tank around town on a leash. It is my first novel without a doctor at the center. It's the great junkyard novel. Stay Tuned. I'm also working on a nonfiction book with Janet Surrey my wife, and coaxing our play, BILL W. AND DR. BOB to productions in the USA and Brazil and Russia and Paris etc. And I'm a third of the way through my most radical novel yet.