AUTHOR: Beth TITLE: DATE: 8/16/2004 08:34:00 AM ----- BODY:

Stendhal's Syndrome

Saturday, August 14, 2004 When is the last time I was at this mall? Three years ago? Four? When was the last time it was the place to be? Ten years ago? Fifteen? "Ah," I say grandiosely to Steve as we approach the Food Court doors, "Welcome to the mall of my childhood." He goes to the D'Angelo. I go to the Panda Wok. He's on his lunch break from work. It's Saturday. At the Panda Wok, I order the rice, which is pale and strange-looking, but the "chow mein" (really lo mein, but what Food Court connossieur really knows the difference?) appears crunchy. I also order orange chicken, the fumes from which scorch the back of my nostrils as I wait for the girl in the apron and visor to punch numbers into the register, ask me if I'd care for a drink, and hold out one limp hand for my money in a way that suggests she only condescends to be here. "Wanna drink," she deadpans when I finally get there. The routine, the plastic predictability of it, is sickly comforting. "Sure, I'll get A medium...Sierra Mist." On the outside of the drink fountain there's a color photo, backlit, that shows the size of the drink cups. The medium looks reasonable. I miss the fine print that shows that the medium is about 32 ounces--about the size of a large soda at most fast-food places, maybe more. When she hands over the yellow cup, I can barely fit my hand around it. This is a "medium"?? No wonder I'm a 2XL. Steve and I meet at a table, sit down to chew together and watch people pass by. After a while I notice that the same girl seems to be going by over and over again. Then I look closer, and Not the same girl--this one's outfit is a different color. Seriously, there seems to be a strange hive-mind at work, here, as I watch girl after girl pass by, all of them seeming to be the exact same height, the exact same shade of tanning-booth mocha, the exact same pale lip gloss and 1960's style eyeshadow (must be making a comeback), the exact same sleeveless solid-color t-shirts and short, short, short ruffled skirts, which only avoid earning them an indecent exposure rap because of the way the waistbands are slung low around their hips, exposing a slight tan curve of stomach. Flip flops. Little patent-leather purses. Cell phones. Nail polish in pale shades. Hoop earrings. Not one of them looks a day over fifteen. And all of them, ironically, probably read magazines whose headlines are some variation on, "How to make him notice you!" They buzz around the Food Court like flies at a picnic, their own irony lost on them. Steve has to go back to work. I meet Andy in the cafe, and spend the rest of the afternoon mercilessly destroying him at Scrabble. Following a final score of 253-168, during which there were a number of disputes requiring the official Scrabble Dictionary, it was time to cool down with a nice read or two. Or three. Or four or five, in my case. A weekend or two ago, Steve, Andy, Elizabeth and I met for coffee at Barnes & Noble (just for a change of pace), and I picked a novel out of the stacks that I haven't been able to stop thinking about since. I can't remember anything about it besides the fact that it was shelved next to Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and may have been by the same author. Wandering out from the cafe is like swimming from shore into a sea of jellyfish. Books snag me, tear at my skin, dig their stinging tentacles in. It's impossible to simply walk in a straight line toward the Fiction / Literature section. I gaze at each of the new hardcovers, absorbing their lurid colors, until my pupils dilate too far to see clearly. I'm yanked this way and that by coquettish bits of text. Jenna Jameson's memoir, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, stops me dead in my tracks, staring and wondering at the obscene parody of Marilyn Monroe she is on the cover. By the time I hit sci / fi, I'm already carrying a pile. I feel dizzy. There's apparently a name for this condition, which often strikes people at art galleries: Stendhal's Syndrome, defined as:
Dizziness, panic, paranoia, or madness caused by viewing certain artistic or historical artifacts or by trying to see too many such artifacts in too short a time.
This happens to me every time I go to the bookstore and allow myself to wander through the stacks. Every time. I'm caught again by The Coma, by Alex Garland, and juggling my pile, I manage to open it enough to read the book flap:
The acclaimed author of The Beach returns with a mesmerizing and highly original work of intrigue. Proclaimed "a gifted storyteller" by The New Yorker and "a huge literary talent" by Kazuo Ishiguro, Alex Garland, the internationally bestselling author of The Beach, The Tesseract, and writer of the critically acclaimed film 28 Days Later, returns with yet another gripping page-turner that blurs the edges of reality and probes the boundaries of consciousness. A man is attacked on the Underground and awakens to find himself in a hospital, apparently having emerged from a coma. Or has he? Garland's brilliant tale is illustrated with forty haunting woodblock print illustrations by his father, Nicholas Garland, a well-known political cartoonist for the Daily Telegraph (UK) and noted artist.
I shrug. Might as well, though I despise the man already. Add it to the pile, add it to the stack, here among the sewer rats, a breath away from hell...that line from Les Miserables occurs to me now and then. The books of Gregory Maguire catch my eye as usual in the Fantasy section. But, as always, once I pick up the smooth Quality Paperbacks with their pen-and-ink illustrations that look to have been done by the same artist who illustrated Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, I lose interest. I feel about this particular author's books the way I used to about coffee: loved the smell, hated the taste, wished to God I liked it. Past the wrapping paper, gift bags, greeting cards, tassels, little "to-from" cards, bows, past the Mighty Bright Book Lights and the picture frames, past the leatherbound journals and the romance novels, and now we've reached Fic / Lit: the belly of the beast. I remember this author's name starting with M. I know by heart where that segment of the alphabet will fall among the shelves, and once there, I scan over the book-spines quickly...Marquez, McMurtry, Montgomery...Maybe I'm remembering this wrong...Martel, Mills, Moore...the hell with it. I go to the computer, unloading my pile from my forearm with a sigh. I type in C-o-r-e-l-l-i-'-s M-a-n-d-o-l-i-n. "Captain Corelli's Mandolin", the computer corrects me. "Whatever," I mutter. "At least I can spell Corelli." The author's name is Louis de Bernieres. M, de Bernieres, close enough... There they are, black-bound books in the same style, all together with the square white type on their spines. I skip completely over Corelli's Mandolin, because it was made into a movie with Nicholas Cage, whom I despise, and I know I will not be able to read this book without picturing the excruciatingly banal Mr. Cage in the lead role. And then, there is the book that bewitched me, waiting like the coveted quest object of a fairy tale, the intriguingly titled War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts. Hear me out. It begins like this:
It had been an auspicious week for Capitan Rodrigo Jose Figueras. On Monday he had with his platoon stopped a truck loaded with marijuana on the road from Chiriguana to Valledupar and made the peasant park it near a bridge. According to the usual procedure, he had confiscated the truck and its contents from the driver, whereupon the driver, as was usual, offered to "pay the fine" instead, which meant buying the consignment back. He handed over to the Capitan one of several bundles which he carried for this purpose, one for each roadblock. The Capitan then shot the driver through the head and liberated entirely the truck, its contents, and many thousands of pesos. The lieutenant began to write a brief report on the driver--"shot while resisting arrest"--and sealed it in an envelope with the man's identity card. Meanwhile, the Capitan took the truck and the Jeep to the farm with the airstrip and sold the marijuana to the gringo with the airplane for many more thousands.
The brilliance of this is that it's written in such a style that you can hear the accent, but avoids caricature; it accomplishes this by using no contractions, spelling Figueras' title as "Cap-ee-tahn," which establishes the palette of sounds the voice telling the story is drawing from, and using a tiny tweak to the word order, saying "he had with his platoon stopped a truck..." That, and it tells a complete, rounded, plot-driven, fascinating, surprising story in seven sentences. I'm reading a lot slower these days, in case you couldn't tell. I used to swallow books whole, but now I cut them apart, dissect them, dissolve each word slowly before gulping it down. I reverse engineer the stories, run my fingers over the fabric of the syntax, study and gape the way the tiny embroidery stitches make up the work. Chuck says that any time is writing time as long as you are "picking up some good tricks." This provides me with a convenient rationalization that hides the heart of the matter: I simply love the written word, and sometimes when I am particularly self-indulgent I can allow myself to sigh and wring my hands over another person's use of it in lieu of approaching the ornery medium with my own hands. Finally I bring the books back to Andy. Since I know I will be purchasing Nether Parts, I focus on an issue of Details Magazine with an article entitled "The Case Against George W. Bush," by a certain Ron Reagan, and Jenna Jameson's memoir. "Her name was Vanessa, she was young, she was beautiful, and she was dead," Jameson begins. I'm hooked like a 30-year-old virgin cruising Sunset Boulevard. Because it's such a pulpy, cheesy, cliche-ridden first sentence, and yet done with such a tongue-in-cheek sardonic overtone, yet at its heart attempting to earnestly convey all that vulnerability, that I know right then that I will be taking home a porn star's memoir, if only because she is a living character study. This is what I tell myself. As we're walking toward the checkout, and then the doors, and then Chili's, and then the movie theater, and then Denny's, I notice Uma Thurman striking a lithe pose on the cover of Kill Bill, Vol. 2, which I point out to Andy, who comments that he already owns the thing, which leads to my not-so-subtle suggestion that he let me borrow it, which leads to his counteroffer that we watch it together, which leads to the following exchange: "Okay, so we're going to go see Open Water, like we talked about earlier," I say, "And we're going to watch Kill Bill, Vol. 2 together. What else are we going to talk about and never do?" "Well," Andy says, "I'm going to cut my demo, and you're going to write a book." Ouch.