The Mini-Me Decade and Other Digressions

1: Mini-Me Mania. What is it about Mini-Me, what’s the deal, why am I–and, apparently, much of the rest of America–so intrigued by the dwarf clone of Dr. Evil in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me ? Why did Mini-Me make Entertainment Weekly’s “It” list of “the hundred most creative people in Entertainment”? Why do I still laugh every time I think of him sitting up there in his high chair in Dr. Evil’s Starbucks Space Needle Headquarters?

O.K. I have a theory (surprise!). I think it has to do with the true nature of our “inner child.” Not the simpering little innocent homunculus within us all envisioned by the self-help, recovery movement books. Not the little Bambi-eyed fawn-in-the-forest tyke who supposedly represents the true childlike self we’ve all tragically lost access to due to the abuse we’ve suffered from dysfunctional families and a cruel and exploitive society that has cut us off from our kinder gentler essence. Not the prelapsarian Edenic Adam curled into the fetal position within us–that Redemptive Child who, if we could only get back in touch with, would bring us out of our shame spiral and make us all better people.

No. I don’t think so. I think we all know what our inner child really looks like: a lot more like Mini-Me than Bambi. Not as malign as Chucky, say, the evil child-doll in Child’s Play and Bride of Chuck y–a series that was accused of inspiring the notorious Bulger child murders in England. More like Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse,” say.

I suspect that the way we as a nation have welcomed Mini-Me into our hearts can be seen as a vast collective sigh of relief that we no longer have to pretend that we have Bambi inside us, a vast collective repudiation of all the bogus Inner Child sentimental psychologizing over human nature. And a more realistic willingness to come to terms with the imp of the perverse within, the real day-to-day shape human malignity shows up as: not Satan, not Hitler, not a serial killer, not Evil incarnate but a dwarf clone of evil, the kind one nonetheless has to keep an eye on, because if not restrained it will go around, like Mini-Me does at one point, biting people in the crotch. Mini-Me gives us a chance to get down–in a good way–with our Bad Self. And he may well have finally given us the name for the 90′s we’ve been seeking but not finding for 10 years. Not the “Me Decade,” but the Mini-Me Decade.

In homage to Mini-Me, the column this week will take the form of several more Mini items. Beginning with:

2: The Sable at Barney Greengrass. Yes, I know: After writing several combative columns celebrating the chopped liver at Barney Greengrass as one of the supreme achievements of Jewish-American civilization, after having my assertion triumphantly vindicated over the choice of carpers like Gael Greene and Daphne Merkin in a blind taste test conducted by that repository of the values of Jewish American civilization, The Forward (Isaac Bashevis Singer’s newspaper!), you would think that I would be wedded to their chopped liver forever. Or, at least that I would order it every time I go there. But, in fact, I am compelled to report I have switched. No, not to another place’s chopped liver. Barney G.’s is still the best. But to another delicacy at Barney Greengrass. To the sable. I’ve come late to the smoked fish thing, I know, perhaps because sturgeon leaves me cold and nova is kind of a taste cliché, however good it gets. And I didn’t even know what sable really was until recently when I got a brief tutorial from Gary Greengrass. As it turns out, Sable is the name given to smoked black cod, a name that was considered more fancy-sounding (I guess because of the fur coat association) than the plebeian “cod”–although black cod is considered a delicacy in Japanese cuisine.

I’m not going to make an effort to summon up the verbal equivalents to the taste of the sable at Barney Greengrass. It’s less a taste than a pure, empyrean high, a transformative total body experience. It’s that good. Order it very plain without all the pickles and olives and accessories they tend to clutter the plate with at Barney G.’s. Order it very plain and place the slices on a lightly toasted bagel and experience the way the essence of ocean is compressed and expressed in the pearly translucence of the black cod flesh. The pounding waves, the vast sunless depths of the sea, the creatures stirring on the ocean floor, the treasures spilling out of the shipwrecks, the pearls in the eyes of the drowned sailor in the “full fathom five” song in The Tempest . Sable is Mini- Sea .

3: The Truth About Cats and Dogs . Even more satisfying than the vindication afforded by The Forward ‘s blind taste test was the recent scientific vindication of my position in one of my most controversial columns ever: “Stumpy Versus Lucille: The Great Pet Debate” [Aug. 10, 1998]. It was a column in which I tried gently and compassionately to disillusion the fine writer Caroline Knapp, who (in her book, Pack of Two ) showed herself to have been utterly conned by her canine companion Lucille into thinking that she, Ms. Knapp, had won the sincere love of her dog and that her dog’s love somehow validated her self-esteem. Her dog had become her inner child when it was really her inner con artist.

What I tried to explain to her and to all dog lovers, as a onetime dog owner and dog lover myself, as someone who grew up with dogs, but who had never truly known anything about the profound nature of the bond with an animal until I adopted a stray cat I called Stumpy (my true Mini-Me)–was that the love of dogs is false and deceitful, that dogs are shameless flatterers who will lick and slaver and make goo-goo eyes and waggy tail at anyone who gives them food and security. But that this “love” has nothing to do with your deserving character and shouldn’t be seized upon (as Caroline Knapp sadly does) as some index of her self-esteem. Rather, the love a dog displays is just the commodified currency of the canine con game, bestowed as eagerly and fervently on serial killers as it is on saints. But never bestowed “sincerely.” The sincerity of dog love is a delusion of self-congratulatory owners with a need to believe they deserve unconditional love.

Shakespeare knew this. In her famous study of Shakespeare’s Imagery , the British scholar Caroline Spurgeon called attention to the recurrent cluster of images that are linked to the word dog in Shakespeare’s works: “images of licking and fawning … called up inevitably by the thought of false friends or flatterers.” In her 400-page study of such image clusters, Ms. Spurgeon called this, the dog-licking-and-fawning-and-flattery cluster, “the clearest and most striking I have met with” in all Shakespeare’s work.

Still, many were skeptical about my argument, many thought it was just a matter of taste, some personal preference for cats being expressed although those (particularly, discerning women) who had met Stumpy completely understood my point of view.

And now comes Science, in the form of a cover story in The Atlantic Monthly , titled “Why Your Dog Pretends to Like You.” A story (by Stephen Budiansky) that demonstrates how the study of evolutionary genetics confirms just about everything I was saying about dogs as false flatterers. Dogs are Darwinian con artists trained by centuries of evolution to fake orgasms of affection: “Just as we are genetically programmed to seek signs of love and loyalty, dogs are genetically programmed to exploit this foible of ours.” That’s the difference between dogs and cats, if you ask me. We’re programmed, dogs are programmed, but cats see through the whole game. At least Stumpy does.

4: The Overratedness of 2001: Isn’t it about time someone said it? This photographer I know, let’s call her “Nicole”–called me one night from the darkroom with a question. She’d been up developing some work and she’d had the television on in another part of her loft and there was this weird sci-fi movie on she’d caught a glimpse of. From what she could tell, she said it was “just a bunch of apes gibbering at each other with all this pretentious cinematography and no voice over.” Did I have any idea what the film was?

I looked up the time slot in my TV guide and guess what was playing? 2001 , the alleged Kubrick masterpiece we’re all supposed to be even more reverent about now with the passing of the Master. Don’t get me wrong. I think some of Kubrick’s work justified some of the adulation he enjoyed. Dr. Strangelove certainly, and maybe The Shining . But after watching 2001 again on tape, I have to believe that Nicole was not far off in describing it as “a bunch of apes gibbering with some pretentious cinematography.” It is gibberish: 2001 may be the single most overrated work of art in the cinema if not in the culture.

Of course, it might be that I never saw it at the right time with the right substances. I never saw it when it first came out. In part because everyone who saw it then said it had to be seen tripping and I never found myself in possession of an elixir worthy of this peak visionary experience. So it was years before I saw it at all, saw it straight, and it was such an Emperor’s New Cinema moment. The gibbering of the apes in the first part, the tedium of the astronauts in the second part, the incoherence of the antiquated light show at the end, the anticlimax of the “star child” payoff. (Was the star-child fetus Kubrick’s Mini-Me?)

When I watched it once again after the call from Nicole, after Kubrick’s death, it only seemed to get less impressive–although I do see now where the dancing-dwarf dream sequences in Twin Peaks (featuring David Lynch’s own Mini-Me) came from now.

I know there are people who are still into it. Who still watch 2001 over and over again. I asked one of these people to explain the relationship between the David Lynch-style dream sequence part (which follows the light show) and the birth of the starchild. But he couldn’t. He got all twisted up in talking about “wormholes” and parallel universes and who the Advanced Race that implanted the monolith to stimulate our cosmic evolution was in relation to the Starchild. But there is no answer, because it’s an incoherent work of art. And not in a good way. And beyond that, 2001, even when it is coherent suggests a really juvenile view of cosmic causation and human evolution: that all human endeavor, all human progress, imagination, comedy, tragedy, art and love is really incidental–all subsumed to the eugenics project of some Big Daddy-type galactic paternalists who are programming us to develop in their image. The human race is their Mini-Me. It’s a childish Master Race fantasy. Let’s face it, this bad, pretentious, incoherent master-race-worshipping film is the stunted Mini-Me, the dwarf runt of Stanley Kubrick’s otherwise impressive body of work.

5: Loiterature and Out of Sheer Rage. I felt sheer rage in trying to read Loiterature. It’s a wonderful title for a wonderful project: examining the literature of digression, of loitering, of digressive and discursive paths through the world and the word. I love some of the literature Ross Chambers (the “Marvin Felheim Distinguished University Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan”–even his title is a long and winding road) examines in Loiterature (University of Nebraska Press). I love Tristram Shandy , I love Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog (Bulgakov perfectly captured the slinking, conniving, petty criminal, canine character in his brillant comic fable), although Professor Chambers leaves out the great classic of eddying, loitering, idleness: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov . Still, I liked–at first, anyway–the fact that Professor Chambers opens a section of Loiterature called “Learning From Dogs” with what seems at first like a hilarious parody of an academic deconstructing Barbara Bush’s Millie’s Book –the work she supposedly co-wrote with her spaniel. “One’s doubts about Millie’s ‘authorship’ grow more strongly when one looks more closely at the front matter,” Professor Chambers (parodically? solemnly?) informs us before concluding (I believe in all seriousness) that Millie’s Book is evidence of the imperialist thought-control project of the hegemony. Teaching people to read (the profits from Millie’s Book go to the Foundation for Family Literacy) is a way of inculcating “a suitable sense of one’s inadequacy with respect to the hegemonic model.”

Here is where the sheer rage comes in. At the fact that this “Marvin Felheim Distinguished University Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan” (no trace of the hegemony in the way he presents himself, huh?) seems to take this sentiment so seriously that he can actually proceed to somehow link the depiction of Millie the poodle to the slogan over the gates at Auschwitz: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” “It’s a bit hard,” the Marvin Felheim Distinguished etc. tells us, hard “on Barbara Bush and the Foundation of Family Literacy, I know, to draw a parallel between Millie’s Book and the gates of Auschwitz …”

No, it’s not merely hard ; it’s ridiculous if not meant as self-parody. If it’s meant seriously, it makes the Distinguished etc., into just what he, in his habitual overkill, calls poor Millie “a complete, unmitigated, totally uncritical dope.”

But I am grateful to Loiterature for the title, for the conception of a literature of loitering–and for the sheer rage its silly, jargon-clotted execution inspires. It gives me the excuse, and the method for making a loitering, digressive transition to what I believe is a new classic of true loiterature, a book called Out of Sheer Rage , by Geoff Dyer (North Point Press), the smartest, funniest memoir of a writer I can recall ever reading. A memoir of Mr. Dyer’s agonizing and comic attempt to write–or to avoid writing–a study of D.H. Lawrence.

Please put aside your prejudices against Lawrence because I had to when two writers I’d met recently–Justin Kaplan and his wife, Anne Bernays– and my wise and knowing former editor at The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker , Robert Vare (who knows my sometimes dilatory writing tendencies all too well), spent almost an entire dinner insisting I read this book. Believe me, I never liked Lawrence, his leaden, overwrought, overblown prose, his German metaphysics–never liked anything he wrote except the dirty parts of Lady Chatterley’s Lover , if you want to know the truth. But they, Mr. Kaplan, Ms. Bernays and Mr. Vare, were right! Out of Sheer Rage has little to do with Lawrence and everything to do with the dark comedy of the writing life.

I’m fairly sparing in my absolute uncritical recommendations to my readers. Even my enthusiasms are frequently tinged with edginess. But when I’m right, I’m right, as people who have recently been reading The Dog of the South , the Charles Portis novel that I’ve gotten back into print, have told me. You’ll have to trust me on Out of Sheer Rage : Geoff Dyer is our Oblomov, the comic genius Portis of literary nonfiction.