Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How Naïve The Essay?

I love Mary Ruefle’s book “The Most of It” because of its naivety, which leads her down delightful paths of thought and fancy. You want to hug her. You want to take her home. She’s endearing.

But how much know-how do we want from the essayist? Can everyone get away with Ruefling? Can naivety go too far and become strained and unbelievable? Can we really be that naïve in today’s fast-paced, technological, polluted, globalized world? Should we mitigate or offset our naivety? What is lost when there is no naivety in an essay?

Entries without naivety so far: The Gregory Brothers and David Shields. These artists situate themselves in the modern world with their savvy appropriations. The tones of their work are different: the Gregory Brothers are satirical and goofy but hip, while Shields is intellectual and intense; the Bros spoof, while Shields argues. In both approaches, something essential has been lost. This might sound too harsh but, for me, spoofing is for teenagers and convincing is for adults. Naivety has a whiff of the child in it. Naivety retains a refreshing degree of wonder, vulnerability, and curiosity.

The most naïve entries so far: Bahrani and all the maps, that is, Schalanksy, Solnit, and Wood. On the surface, “Plastic Bag” appears to be the most naïve work. I’m sure we could all convince a roomful of kindergarteners to write from the perspective of a plastic bag. But Bahrani’s work is polemic and ironic, and—sorry, I’m in such a harsh mood right now—gimmicky. Yes, I love Herzog. Yes, I loved the radical bags ripped on a barbed wire fence. But many of the scenes, I could not get behind, especially with what felt like inspirational music modulated in the background. Ultimately, “Plastic Bag” felt forced and affected.

I learned a new word the other day in class: “twee.” This term was applied to one of Solnit’s maps. You, as I, might be wondering what the hell “twee” means. I looked it up: “affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint.” The “Tribes of San Francisco” map reminded me of the laminated placemats I grew up spilling my food on. I never liked them as a kid—they were stuffy and uptight, meant for fake kids. Though Solnit has various maps—many of which are quite beautiful, many of which are cluttered and overloaded with information, she does not successfully tap into the child-like naivety that I am now arguing for.

So what are real kids like? How naïve are they? I think they’re more complicated than first blush. Kid fears must be weighed in—kids can be surprisingly dark and superstitious. Yes, they also adhere to their stereotype of uninhibited, honest, and carefree, but they know and sense more than they can express or fully understand and this can be ominous. What I’m driving at: the most successful naïve essays create a counterbalance for their naivety; they have an edge; they refuse to be cute; they throw in some adult.

For this tough naivety, my favorite essays thus far: Schalansky and Wood. They retain their wonder and imagination, their tactile welcome and fascination, but anchor themselves in dark and unusual places. We find loneliness, cannibals, dystopias, and issues of conquest in Schalansky. Though Wood is not as dark thematically—only one map, the police calls is overtly ominous—his maps transform surprising perspectives. He takes what might be a naïve impulse—jack-o’-lanterns, for example—and makes it map-able. Wood in many ways achieved what Solnit set out to do: to show that there exist an infinite number of possible perspectives to map. He allows his naivety breathing room, then development. His essays (within his overall essay) retain their child-like wonder, presence, and idiosyncrasy.

An aside: Soll’s “Puppet” has the subject of the naïve adult. What could be more uncanny and wondrous than a puppet, especially modeled off of a real human (no frills, no purple, no Barney)? But is subject enough?

Where my other favorite essay, Boully’s “Short Essay on Being,” fits in to this wayward discussion on naivety, I’m not sure. Her angst and revenge might have more to do with the teenager or the outraged adult. But studies have shown that when we are mad, angry, or threatened, we revert back to childhood reactions and behaviors. If she has naivety, it is mischievous, layered, and risky. She could have got caught at the end of her essay, and exposed herself not only to her culinary victim, but also to herself and the reader.

This is just to say, I like essayists who act as naïve adults: full of curiosity, strangeness, and the ability to get in trouble.

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