Burn, Brunch, Burn!

Increasingly, it seems, New Yorkers try to get out of throwing a New Year’s Eve party-yet still receive points for hospitality-by throwing a New Year’s Day brunch instead. One can just imagine the host’s line of thought: Well, it’s less pressure. The guests are not going to be 100 percent. People can just come and go as they please; I can even have the TV on!

What a scam. Now that the year 2001 is approaching, maybe it’s time to declare brunch over, dead-cold as yesterday’s hot cakes.

What killed it?

1) That old, brazen “potluck” gambit. We all know that some guests are going to spend all day slaving over a 500-degree stove producing sourdough bread from wild yeast starters they conjured from thin air, only to be confronted with some other guest’s half-smushed Entenmann’s box-and that person gets equal credit! Totally undemocratic.

2) Timing. Is it at 11 o’clock? One? three? Who can say?

3) The horrible proliferation of those $8.95 brunches, entire sad little strips of which now line Second Avenue in the East Village and Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side. By night, these are average restaurants; by day, they reincarnate themselves as “cozy brunch spots,” slinging viscous eggs Benedict, suspicious hash browns and little piles of mesclun, with one pathetic free drink per person. And speaking of drinks-

4) Admit it, the entire concept of Bloody Marys is disgusting: Who wants to think of blood in the morning? And just what is a mimosa, anyway? Why ruin perfectly good champagne with some pulpy orange juice? Didn’t that lose its novelty in, like, sophomore year of college?

5) A city’s fitness craze. Much harder to hit the Nordic Track with a bellyful of Belgian waffles.

6) The rise of Internet news services. It used to be a trope of intimacy in a new relationship to spread one’s bagels and lox over The New York Times. But Yahoo? Picking out crumbs from a keyboard is a procedure best performed soi-même.

7) Starbucks, since it could be argued that a gigantic latte is, in itself, brunch.

In sum, this unhappy mingling of day- and nighttime foods, which can leave you wondering when to have dinner and what in God’s name you should do with the rest of your sucked-up day, is long overdue for obsolescence.

Three little words for 2001: Breakfast is back!

-Alexandra Jacobs

Pretty Horsies

Arriving in movie critics’ mailboxes last month, Cliffs Notes on McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses is a 75-page booklet written by Jeanne Inness, Ph.D. Cliffs Notes is a widely known and widely disparaged line of literary summaries with distinctive yellow and black covers. Other titles in the series include Cliffs Notes on Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Cliffs Notes on Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Cliffs Notes on the Bible.

Background and Introduction to the Text

This particular Cliffs is a digest, in approximately 25 percent of the original page count, of Cormac McCarthy’s 1992 National Book Award winner, All the Pretty Horses. It is being provided to film writers in an attempt to ride the slipstream of Miramax Films’ publicity blitz for its Matt Damon–Penélope Cruz vehicle, All the Pretty Horses, directed by Billy Bob Thornton.

In an accompanying letter, Cliffs describes its product as an “in-print trailer” for the novel, a “quick, riveting read” filled with “insider information.” This is a rather pumped-up retake on the regular, sober-sided, this-is-not-a-cheat-guide Cliffs Notes pitch, which emphasizes “intellectual exploration” and warns that “thorough appreciation of literature allows no short cuts.”

A Brief Synopsis

When a work of Lit. Fic. attains a certain level of fame and success, it unavoidably becomes a commodity-or rather, it changes from one kind of commodity to another. All the Pretty Horses was in its first incarnation a spectacular triumph. It is a plain and sharp-paced adventure yarn about a teenage Texas rancher, John Grady Cole, who runs off to Mexico with his best friend in 1949: Boy meets horses, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy keeps horses. The story is elevated by Mr. McCarthy’s totalizing, minimally punctuated voice-of-God prose, laconic and thundering at the same time-Hemingway titrated into Faulkner, against all laboratory protocols-and thickly spiked with technical cowboying lingo, O.E.D. vocabulary and untranslated Spanish dialogue. It left its readers feeling braced and awed, proud to be American and literate.

With that accomplished, the question is how to spread that sense of worthiness to a greater audience-one that doesn’t necessarily read novels, or at least novels that don’t put quotations in quotation marks and that toss around words like gutta-percha, incoordinate, and hackamore. One theory is that you can force young people to read the book and to write term papers on it. This is presumably why Ethan Frome and The Scarlet Letter are adored from sea to shining sea-which is to say, this is why Cliffs Notes is in business. And taken at face value, as a study aid, the Cliffs volumes address an actual need. Bookworms may snipe, but they’re not the ones who need a leg up.

The other theory is that you can eliminate the reading bit altogether. For Miramax, the novel’s certified greatness is something fungible, to be leveraged for its own ends. The company has raised Oscar-mongering to a science by flattering the Academy’s sense of purpose. With Shakespeare in Love, the point was that the Bard of Avon was, at heart, a fellow entertainment-industry toiler. This year, with Pretty Horses, the message is that quality cinema is the sibling of quality literature. Indeed, movies can supplant the source text. Fans of the novel, browsing the M’s in bookstores today, will find that its stark and iconic black-and-white cover-title, ears, mane, landscape; the cover that made Chip Kidd Chip Kidd-has been replaced by a full-color movie-poster rendering of Mr. Damon and Ms. Cruz.

Critical Commentaries

Plying film writers with Cliffs Notes would seem to be a thoroughly pointless stunt: If people are going to see the movie instead of reading the book, they’re going to see the movie instead of reading the synopsis, too. It’s Miramax that ought to be trying to co-opt Cliffs’ customers, not vice versa.

But after stripping away the daunting bits, Miramax ended up not with its hoped-for easy-watching sentimental oater, but a mess. Mr. McCarthy’s prose, it turns out, doesn’t just sound taut-it is taut, so economical that when you try to retell the story, the plot goes sprawling all over the place. Mr. Thornton’s first cut reportedly checked in somewhere in the four-hour range; chopped nearly in half, the movie lurches from set piece to set piece, with yawning gaps in the story. Somewhere, one half suspects, film-company execs may be thanking Cliffs for offering to brief critics on missing motives and events.

Unless, that is, they’ve read the notes themselves. Forget the repurposing business about the Cliffs being a “quick, riveting read.” They exist not to alleviate drudgery for unwilling readers, but to organize and systematize it into the sort of Themes, Comparisons and Interpretations that English class demands. In an age where kids can hook prefab term papers off the Internet, the Cliffs stand for a rather old-fashioned kind of hard work.

But Jeanne Inness, Ph.D., has not kept faith with her public. Like Mr. Thornton, she is overmatched by the novel; her Notes are addled and wrongheaded, clanking with instructional jargon and oiled with bogus generalizations. The boys in the novel “have suffered abandonment.” John Grady’s horse-training technique is “eclectic and creative …. This is the American way-solve the problem and forget the rulebook or the blueprints.” It would be nice to hear what Mr. McCarthy, author of the gore-sodden anti-Western Blood Meridian, would make of that reading.

Nor can the reader turn to the Cliffs for help with the facts. The reader will learn, correctly, that John Grady is 16, fluent in Spanish and a master horseman-none of which, it should be noted, describes the 30-year-old Mr. Damon-but the rest is caveat lector. Ms. Innes warns the reader that Mr. McCarthy introduces characters without naming them, then promptly names a character without introducing him. She transposes events, misdefines vocabulary and puts words in the wrong mouths. At one point, she spends three sentences explaining the significance of the boys’ eating yeasty “readyrolls” after a diet of tortillas; in the novel, the readyrolls in question are cigarettes.

Review Questions and Essay Topics

The Notes compare the prison scenes in the novel, without explanation, to prison scenes in Dostoyevsky, Camus’ The Stranger and James Jones’ From Here to Eternity. Compare and contrast them to prison sequences in John Woo’s Face/Off.

A film critic, like a struggling English student, may conclude from the film or the Cliffs Notes that he or she just doesn’t “get” Literature. Or is it something else this person doesn’t get?

-Tom Scocca