Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Literature of Passing

One of my favorite short novels is the book Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen, a Harlem Renaissance writer. Her two short novels, Quicksand and Passing are usually sold together in one volume as Quicksand and Passing. Both books are excellent and worth reading, but Passing is one of those books that my interpretation completely changed after I talked to a friend. The book is about a two black girls (Clare and Irene) who are good friends. One of them, Clare, has extremely light skin hence can pass as a white person. Because of this, they go different ways. Clare marries a white man and lives among his world. Most of the book is about the relationship of the two women when they meet up again as adults. The "passing" in the title meant racially passing to me as I read through the book, but this friend pointed out that Clare was also passing as a gay woman pretending to be straight. This blew my mind. She pointed out passages in the book where there are erotic undertone to how Clare describes Irene and how Irene has a sexless marriage. I've always wanted to reread the book. It is so short, I am not sure why I haven't.

I have been thinking about this lately because I recently read an article in Salon about a professor, Carlyle V. Thompson, at Medger Evers College in Brooklyn that is proposing that Gatsby (from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby) is a light skin black man passing in the white world. This is the first time I have heard this and it is intriguing. This book came out just a few years after Larsen's and it is possible that Fitzgerald did recognize the hypocrisies in our nation's racial politics and coded it therein. The textual evidence is light, with Gatsby hair being "close-cropped" and he owned 40 acres and a mansion (as opposed to 40 acres and a mule).  The best case for this is that Gatsby's past is unknown and mysterious. No one knows anything about him. He changed his name from Gatz to Gatsby and claims that his family is all dead. The only overt reference to race in the book is when Tom Buchanan (Gatsby's rival for Daisy), a Nordic with a body with "enormous power" and "two shining arrogant eyes," starts talking about the black race taking over the world. Tom says "next they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white." This is pre-Hitler set in an era when eugenics was discussed casually.  Miscegenation was still controversial. The only person that seems uncomfortable with Tom is our narrator, Nick Carraway.

If anyone is passing in The Great Gatsby, it is Nick. His family's discomfort for his isn't only because he is single. It is possible that he is a gay man passing in a straight world. He tells us of his experience with the "feminine" male photographer Mr. McKee that "I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands." Indeed. We are then given an ellipsis ridden paragraph and four hours missing from the plot line. This is about as homo-erotic as we get in any novel of the sexually repressed Jazz Age.

I am not sure how relevant it is whether Gatsby is black or Nick is gay. It just throws more depth in an already masterful tiny book that I can be reread many times without catching everything. Should I give it a fourth read? I'm sure I will get around to it, eventually. Fitzgerald lived in Paris for a short time hitting the jazz clubs with Zelda and Hemingway. His exposure to other ways of life was undoubted rich. I have no doubt it had an effect on him.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

What Happened To Dr. Crusher?

It has been awhile since I blogged about Star Trek. I like to do so because my blog hit stats go way up.  Trekkies can't seem to get enough of reading and writing about the show even though it has been off the air for about ten years now. When the Star Trek: The Next Generation (aka TNG) came out in 1987, on demand viewing did not exist yet. The Internet was still a baby, known by very few people. To catch the week's new episode, you had to be at your television at the time it played which made for more communal viewing. For me, it was 7PM on Saturdays. I was still living at home so I roped my dad into watching it with me. We were a one-tv home. I am not sure if those exist anymore. I could always set the VCR's timer to record the show for me, but that didn't always work. Now, it is a real treat being able to pull out my phone and watch any episode at a moments notice if I want to.

Great television shows were a rarity back then. If TNG came out now, it may not have been such a sensation, but at the time, there wasn't much else worth watching from a sci-fi standpoint. I'd go out on Saturday nights to meet friends and that week's episode would always come up. This is something that we miss now. Most of us don't watch shows at the same time. Water-cooler talk doesn't go into the realm of television much when everyone is binge watching different shows.

The first season of TNG was uneven in quality. The characters were kinda goofy, the music was awful and the writing was all over the place. It was nice to see Star Trek back on television but I wasn't optimistic that it was ever be as good as the original series (aka TOS). At the time I referred to TNG as "Yuppies in Space." The characters looked so handsome and neat without any edge and depth. The feeling was that all our problems in the future are resolved and everyone is going to be boring. The first seasons ended in a low point, during the writer's strike. The last episode of that season, "The Neutral Zone," is one of the worst episodes ever made with two unrelated plot lines that go nowhere. They had pulled some fan fiction from a pile and a few producers carved the episode together. By the end of the first season, I doubted if the show was going to be on the air for long, but the ratings were so high, it was clear it wasn't going away.

The changes they made in the second season may have saved the show. At least it did for me. Many were subtle. Commander Riker grew a beard. He looked a lot older without the baby face. The only female character from the first season to make it into the next season was Deanna Troi, the ship's counselor, who also got a badly needed hair-style change. The ship now had a bar with Whoopi Goldberg as the bartender. Of course, the biggest change was the new chief medical officer, Dr. Pulaski, portrayed by Diana Muldaur, who appeared in two TOS episodes portraying two different characters. Gates McFadden, aka Dr. Beverly Crusher, was fired after the first season.

Many of the characters, particularly the females characters, were poorly developed in the first season. The actresses were not happy about it. Denise Crosby, aka Tasha Yar, didn't make it through the entire first season. It was clear to her that the male characters, Worf and Data, were gaining in popularity and her character was being thrown into the background by the writers. She quit and they killed Yar off in the 23rd episode. Yar was very poorly written, flippant and inconsistent. You wonder if Crosby would have stayed with the show if Yar would have been developed better like the rest of the show. Gates McFadden, who portrayed Dr. Crusher, had the same gripe with the writers. The added stress of the writer's strike didn't help. The working relationship became unmanageable and she was fired.

One of the better things that happened to the show in the second season was the introduction of Dr. Pulaski to replace Dr. Crusher. She was a better actress and her character was better written. Her character was edgy, which was badly needed on this show. All the characters up to this point were just perfect people, particularly the humans. They all got along too well, with little conflict and very few flaws. Then came Dr. Pulaski. She was abrasive and somewhat of a bigot which made her interesting. Her bigotry was a new one for the 24th century. She was uncomfortable around androids. She would refer to Data, the android on the crew, as "it" and she would continually challenge the idea that he was a sentient being. While the rest of the crew was not phased by his sentience and accepted it unquestioningly, she struggled with it. It was this struggle that made her a better character than the rest of the crew, annoying but more realistic. This was the kind of stuff that we expected from Star Trek. McCoy had a problem with Vulcan and this made for good television.

Of course, most people don't agree with me. The fan-base of the show complained and demanded the return of Dr. Crusher. The character hadn't been killed off. She was written out of the show by stating that she was the head of Starfleet Medical so they could easily write her back in. Nothing much was said about the reasons for her return. Her character was still overshadowed by most of the male characters although she did star in some of the episodes, some of the worst Star Trek episodes ever made.