Monday, February 21, 2011

How Half-Naked Becomes Poetic Essays: The Muse Is Always Half-Dressed In New Orleans

The Good: Excellent diction, Poetics of language, Some interesting philosophies
The Bad: Some of the essays are blah, Poem chapter is beating a dead horse
The Basics: Andrei Codrescu's collection of essays is a good introduction to the essayist as he explores the media, Romania and American institutions.

[Note: This review was originally written in 2007 when I read this book the first time. Thus, references to the Bush Administration were timely at the time. Today, I'm feeling too lazy to change them. Enjoy!]

Andrei Codrescu can write. There is little doubt of that from the first few pages of his essay collection The Muse Is Always Half-Dressed In New Orleans. Codrescu, of NPR's All Things Considered collected twenty-six essays together in one volume to share his thoughts on language, travel, Romania and American institutions.

The quality of the chapters (essays) vary quite a bit, though the quality of the writing is fairly consistent. Codrescu writes with a casual, but educated, voice that meanders through his journeys or his points to share stories with more of a familiar feel to them than most straight-out essays. He has a distinct voice that often addresses the reader directly. In some ways, this is an interactive, thoughtful work. For example, when musing on how Transylvania (Codrescu is a native of Romania), he notes, "To be bit by the absurd is every bit as liberating as being bit by an immortal, but why not be bit by both?" Throughout the work, Codrescu challenges the reader with whimsical or thoughtful questions.

And Codrescu's diction is fabulous. It is refreshing to read a book intended for adults that does not insult the intelligence of adults. Yes, The Muse Is Always Half-Dressed In New Orleans assumes that if you are picking up this book to read it you are either someone who is insulted by the low level of writing used in newspapers in the U.S. or you are armed with a dictionary. So, for example, where a newspaper would frame a concept: "Older middle class people in America, numbed by television have been shocked by youth and are afraid of outsiders," Codrescu beautifully phrases, "Her generation, in America, was a television-narcotized middle class that had been traumatized by the rebellious younger generation, and was suspicious of foreigners if not downright xenophobic (23)." It is that level of vocabulary that permeates the book, making for a rich reading experience.

The essays, as I mentioned, vary in quality of subject and delivery throughout the book. The collection essentially introduces Codrescu to the reader, provides the reader with select life philosophies before railing on the media, attacking the Gulf War as a promotion of theatrics over substance and then volunteering to essentially act as a travel guide for the reader to Romania. One of the chapters, "Not A Pot To Piss In My Life As A Pot" is a poem.

The format is quite disarming, though. Codrescu gives us an introduction to himself by criticizing photography for capturing the world as it is, then provides us with the motivations guiding his writings and then we hit the poem. The poem is not the best I've ever read. It's long and it belabors the metaphor of containers (pottery) to the point that the reader is likely to sit up and yell "We GET it already!" Yes, yelling at a book is even more foolish than yelling at a television, but sometimes it seems appropriate.

In a similar way, there are moments that Codrescu is simply desperate to end an essay and the ending crashes. "The Unsurveyed Arts, The Unsurveyable Artist," which makes some intriguing points on the concept of funding disposable art, ends with a line that feels tacked on. And "Vegetarian In The Sky," which explores airline food, ends with a ridiculous non sequitor, "Next time you're on a plane, be wary, traveler! The veggies you're eating may be eating you (169)!" This has none of the style or phraseology or even concept of the rest of the essay, making for an ending that is not sharp or clever, but silly - not in an enjoyable way.

On the other hand, The Muse Is Always Half-Dressed In New Orleans offers some intriguing insights into Romania. Codrescu writes much about his childhood, Romania under Communism and Romania after the fall of Communism with the rise of a dictatorial regime under Ionesco. Codrescu has an editorializing style, but his investigative reporting during the regime change - relayed in some of the essays in this volume - led to the revelation that much of the revolution there was staged.

The implicit connection between George Bush's Gulf War and the role the media played there and the rise of the Ionesco regime and the role the media played there is brilliant and telling. Codrescu's natural skepticism to authority works well in making the connections and now, over a decade later, it is intriguing to see the parallels in the current Bush Administration.

Interesting enough from our current vantage, Codrescu observes the rise of the use of torture in the world and I think it's telling that he was able to see that so far away. It's enough to want to meet him now and ask him about it.

In the end, though, this collection is not as strong as I might like. It's not Twain's Letters From The Earth (reviewed here!), but it's a decent read and worthy of attention.

For other philosophy and essay books, please visit my reviews of:
Meditations - Marcus Aurellius
The Souls Of Black Folk - W.E.B. DuBois
When You Are Engulfed In Flames - David Sedaris


For other book reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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