The Laboratorium
July 2005

Latent Ambiguity


What I mean when I say “reservation” and what a large moving-equipment company means when it says “reservation” are two quite different things. From my perspective, their preferred meaning might better be described as a “preference,” or perhaps as a “joke.”

My Writing Hand Hurts


Well, with some luck, that will be the last standardized test I ever have to take.

Babel Tower


Here are some of the things I did not like about Babel Tower:

  • I have the wrong legal temperment to enjoy the courtroom scenes; I’m just not a trial lawyer.
  • I’m not sure that I was supposed to start reacting to the sex scenes in the novel in the same unsettled and increasingly disgusted way that I was to react to the sex scenes in the deliberately provocative novel-within-a-novel. In any event, there were too many of them; the number of male characters swooning over Frederica eventually became comical.
  • I haven’t read much E.M. Forster or D.H. Lawrence at all; Byatt more or less assumes quite close familiarity with Howard’s End and with Women in Love, and devil take the unprepared reader. (Then again, after “The Conjugal Angel,” I suppose I was on notice.) What’s more, if you don’t share Frederica’s passion for nice arguments in literary criticism about the relationship of the novel to life, you are going to be veeery bored for substantial stretches. Me, I had that interest beaten out of me in college.
  • Especially in the second half of the book, the extended quotations really get out of hand. I can objectively admire Byatt’s talent for stylistic mimicry while still finding it tedious.
  • Babbletower has been “edited” to purge it of the most interesting bits. No, not the ugly pornographic parts that lead to the obscenity trial. I mean some major plot developments.
  • Frederica, while not unsympathetic, does get on one’s nerves. In contrast, fascinating side (?) episodes involving other characters go undeveloped.
  • For some reason, I felt the discussions of science, even more than the discussions of literature, were gormless.
  • I guess I’m just not a child of the sixties, either literally or tempermentally.

Even with all of these complaints, I enjoyed the book. The plot was interesting, when Byatt attended to it, and even when she didn’t, her writing was up to her usually high standards of arch wit and comfortable grace.

Too Bad Their Theme Song Has No Quotable Words


I’ve noticed that in the last few years, Simpsons characters have been popping up more and more frequently in legal hypotheticals. Homer leaves a will naming Marge, Bart, and Lisa; Lisa wants to buy a car; Bart is caught by police driving a stolen car. I suppose it’s confirmation of their omnipresent cultural status and cross-generational appeal. (If I should be so lucky as to be writing hypotheticals some day, I think I might enjoy using the names of lesser-known figures from the Simpsons universe. The pure incongruity of a question involving Disco Stu, Bumblebee Man, Mindy, and Kodos, for example, seems like the sort of absurd juxtaposition the show itself would revel in.)

At any rate, I find Simpsons names a lot less jarring than the bad puns (puns so bad it’s almost misleading to call them “bad” or even “puns”) who populate so many sample bar questions. Ohner, Bonnie Fyde, Bea Holden, Gash and Gimpy, Sellers, Byar, and Al Kaholl are some of my least favorite, but there are many, many more.

Sooo Not Helpful


I have a large box of mostly-unread bar review materials in my room. Why mostly-unread? Because every time I go beyond the BigNameCo outline and the sample questions, I find “mnemonics” as:

LEGISLATIVE POWERS = SWAPTIPBCCCCSD

Or, even more usefully:

PEELZITSWASSPLAD = PEELZITSWASSPLAD

No thank you. I’m not even going to get into how much fun it is to try to study from sample essay answers containing obvious glaring mistakes.

Something Worth Remembering About Blogs


When you write about a blogger, almost by definition, the blogger has an easy way to reply.

Thus: Paul Boutin writes about Jorn Barger for Wired; Jorn Barger replies via Wikipedia.

Corollary: If you have a weblog yourself, you have an easy way to reply to the reply.

Thus: Paul Boutin’s further update, noting that Barger wasn’t living on the street, just on Andrew Orlowski’s couch.

Thus Also: Nanny tells the mother who hires her about her blog. Mother gets sketched out by nanny’s posts. Mother and father fire nanny on pretext. Mother writes about the episode in the New York Times. Nanny replies via blog.

It’s almost remarkable how easy it is to analyze this last one in terms of queer theory categories of multiple identities and the self as performance. (I’m even going to leave aside the discussion of bisexuality in the article and the blog; bringing that in would make this exercise trivial.) Try reading the stories this way:

A adopts role of “nanny” for her job watching B’s children. A adopts role of “Tessy” for her blog. These roles have different contexts and audiences. A mentions blog to B, who reads blog, and becomes uncomfortable with this mixing of roles. B finds herself increasingly unable to maintain the role assigned her in the narrative of A as “nanny.” Further, B and her husband, guarding their roles as parents, resist being incorporated into A’s “Tessy” online role. (As A writes, her husband “does not … care to find himself a character online”). After B’s New York Times piece, A responds in similar terms—B’s role as “Modern Love columnist” is dissonant with her role as “nanny-hiring mother.” But more unforgiveably, B has misunderstood A’s “Tessy” performance, has misread the identity A was offering to the world through her blog.

Blogging can function as an act of identity construction, as I’ve argued before. What’s interesting about these more recent stories is how much more effective blogging is becoming as a way of countering someone else’s attempt to make assertions about your identity.

Number Six


Yes, I went at midnight.

No, I’m definitely not buying my copy of number seven there next year.

Yes, I started reading it immediately when I got home.

No, I didn’t stay up straight through.

Yes, I’m done now.

Yes, it is that good.

Underground Again


In light of the tragic bombings in London, I’d like to recommend Haruki Murakami’s Underground, which remains a moving evocation of the experience of living through a mass transit terror attack.

Murakami interviewed survivors of the Tokyo sarin releases in 1995, and then assembled their stories into a collective portrait of the events and their aftermath. The chilling second half of the book then uses the same technique of presenting interviews with people in their own words to explore the motivations of the members of Aum who carried out the attacks. It’s not an emotionally easy read, but it’s rewarding.

Lucky Day


I’m very happy to use this, my one-thousandth entry here at the Lab, to announce my engagement to Miss Aislinn Black. Thanks in part to an unexpected Ommegang, we’re as happy as could be.