Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is a favorite novel of mine. For one, Philip Roth, like Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen, was from New Jersey, and he manages to artistically encapsulate the working-class, Newarkian fervor that seems to extend down to and characterize so much of our state – north, south and central. American Pastoral is about European immigrants and their successive American generations, calling to mind my not-so-distant ancestors who ventured to New York and New Jersey from places like Italy and Scotland. They, like the Levovs, were in pursuit of something like the American pastoral, that Waspy utopia of spacious, suburban homes and Ivy League educations. Of course, as the novel contends, it is easy to shoot for the dream, miss and be cast away to the American berserk.
I watched To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before last week — twice, actually, because as much as I like to scorn cliché and make fun of it, I really am a hopeless sap when it comes down to it, and also because it was so damn cute and sweet and wholesome. Much of this sweetness and wholesomeness results from the fact that the film makes copious use of the tropes we’re familiar with in high school rom-coms. Even the characters are in on this; the film’s protagonist, Lara Jean Covey, is obsessed with romance novels, and her shock is apparent when she finds out her fake boyfriend Peter Kavinsky has never heard of Sixteen Candles. Similarly, much of the film’s fashion takes inspiration from the ‘90s, what with its plaid skirts and slip dresses, combat boots, chokers and leather jackets. However, the movie manages to be referential in such an earnest, wholehearted and honest way that it’s hard not to like it. Good, old-fashioned sorts of teen movies like this seemed to have been waning in popularity for the better part of this past decade.
The recent news that Mr. Robot’s fourth season will be its last signals the end of a show that redefines what it means to be revolutionary. The techno-thriller chronicles the story of cybersecurity engineer Elliot Anderson, a morphine addict who wants to save the world from corrupt corporate powers. The cybersecurity firm that he works for protects the data of conglomerates such as E Corp, a manufacturer of most of the world’s computers and phones and a provider of much of the world’s entertainment. E Corp, led by a power hungry board of directors, also covered up a toxic gas leak that led to some of their workers contracting leukemia — including Elliot’s father. Thus, despite the mission of his workplace, Elliot works to expose some of E Corp’s secure digital records with the hopes of diminishing their grasp over the global market.
At this year’s Met Gala it wasn’t Rihanna’s extravagant pope ensemble or a Kardashian’s ethereal interpretation of sainthood that grabbed the internet’s short attention span, but rather the debut of an unlikely couple: Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and experimental pop artist Claire Boucher, who goes by Grimes. The juxtaposition of Musk’s white jacket and priest’s notched collar with Grimes’ goth gown and silver Tesla choker underscored the sense of surreality surrounding their coupling. Musk, one of a new generation of tech titans, an elite group consisting of household names like Bezos and Zuckerberg, embodies a greater neoliberal push toward innovation at any cost, often accompanied by hazy ethical grounding. Grimes, on the other hand, is a counter-cultural synth icon who has gained a cult following by working with the avant-garde. The unlikely union is at once shocking for what seems like a bizarre mismatch in fundamental ideology, and completely logical.
I worked in a research lab at a university in my hometown this past summer and, for the first time in my life, experienced what it’s like to have a long commute — an hour and a half each way standing in a hot, humid, insanely crowded subway car. Most of my fellow commuters spent these long and miserable daily trips on their phones, either scrolling through Weibo (think Twitter) feeds, watching viral videos, playing online games, binging the newest hit TV series or reading trending articles on Wechat (a Chinese amalgamation of Facebook and Instagram). Hundreds of commuters with headphones on staring down at their smartphone screens was quite a sight be behold but also incredibly frustrating, especially when I had to transfer lines at one of the busiest stations downtown, and had to follow a massive crowd of people up flights of stairs to another platform, a process slowed down significantly by those who were too absorbed in their phones to even walk properly. Despite my frustration, and because social learning is a natural thing that we all do, a few days into this commuter life, I also started killing time by spending it solely on my phone, going through my Weibo feed more times than necessary, replying to comments, reading Wechat articles that I normally wouldn’t care for and, when all that was still not enough, busted out my VPN to go through Instagram and Twitter. Yet, as you may have guessed by now, aggressively working my way through every social media platform every morning and evening did not make me feel “more connected” to friends and family, all the articles I read did not make me significantly more knowledgeable in certain areas or enlighten me on social or political issues, nor did the viral funny videos make me happier.
During events like homecoming or reunion weekend, I love listening to the older alumni of my fraternity tell stories about their time at Cornell. I suppose that I’m a nostalgic person — an old soul — and I really enjoy trying to discern the similarities and differences between the campus dynamics of now and then. Some of them, the “’80s brothers,” share memories of their flippant college years, of wild parties, inside jokes and ridiculous traditions. All of their memories conjure in my mind an image of Cornell, 1984, like some Richard Linklater movie where boys will be boys and chase girls, Van Halen is always playing in the background, Ronald Reagan is president and it’s morning in America again – think Everybody Wants Some!!. Of course, this world excluded a lot of people, dismissed much of the agency of women, and cast away individuals of minority cultures to mere supporting roles.
Recently, as I was perusing the poetry section of a Barnes and Noble, I was surprised to come across a section containing volumes by Rupi Kaur, Lang Leav, r. h. sin, and the like. My surprise was not at seeing these collections standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those by Keats and Lorca but at the fact that the sight so resembled the shelves of poetry I’d seen a few weeks earlier at an Anthropologie. These “Instapoets,” as they’ve been called, seem to be everywhere, like a plague of clichés, unpunctuated verse, and ill-timed line breaks. These poets have huge social media followings — take Kaur, for example, who with 1.5 million Instagram followers seems to be the most popular. Kaur first garnered attention when she posted a picture on Instagram of herself in bed on her period, menstrual stains on her pants and bedsheets.
Walking into a dark theater to watch Incredibles 2 this summer, I was excited to watch a highly anticipated sequel to a movie that had been a part of my childhood, not to be emotionally wrecked. When the customary animated Pixar short began, I gasped as the image of a squat Asian woman deftly shaping meat-filled buns on her kitchen counter filled the screen. The familiarity of the motions as well as the hunger-inducing detail of the ingredients brought to mind moments of my own childhood, moments that I hardly expected to be represented in animation before a blockbuster Pixar film. The short film, “Bao,” depicts the complex relationship between a Chinese mother and her son, a steamed bun that suddenly comes alive, from birth to rebellious adolescence. Directed by Domee Shi, a Canadian-Chinese woman, “Bao” is able to accurately capture bits and pieces of the Chinese-American experience, from a house filled with objects that can be found in every Chinese household to the pain and distance the son inflicts on his mother in his attempts to navigate assimilation.
Where should we, as listeners, mainstream media consumers and socially minded citizens, stand on Kanye West? It is a question that, in today’s world, flickers in our minds about as often as “what’s for dinner tonight?.”
With every concert hall rant, tweet and piece of Kardashian-related gossip, that spotlight has only grown brighter. Often, his career as an artist is only examined superficially, as if it is second to his worldwide image as an erratic pop star. This summer, following his support for Trump on twitter and preposterous statement that 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice,” Kanye released his G.O.O.D. Music series consisting of five albums.
So where do these five albums fall on the stage of Kardashian gossip, tweets and rant? Is it fair to evaluate Kanye’s music without the context of his personality and erratic behavior?
I really don’t wanna talk about it, and I shouldn’t even really, so I’m barely going to. The last few weeks have been surprising, disorienting and mainly just sad for anybody who has ever admired Kanye West as a musician, artist, public figure and person who doesn’t befriend alt-right figures and espouse their disgusting revisionist histories. The music he has released during this time — while it, as usual, sounds pretty good — has either been a platform for his new, semi-incoherent ideology (“Ye vs. the People”), or a troll so broad that it begs the question of whether he’s taking any of this shit even remotely seriously (“Lift Yourself”). In the end, it doesn’t really matter all that much, at least to me, whether he actually believes what he’s been saying, or whether he just believes that he is continuing a long career of reactive, disruptive speech regardless of its content, or whether it’s all just a huge joke at the expense of everybody except for Donald Trump, Candace Owens and people who believe that 400 years of slavery were a choice.