Wednesday, August 27, 2008

(Un)compromising War on Whimsy

More evidence of a well-timed restlessness brewing in the internets. Exhibit A: Kazys muses on the intense hyperreal renderings of Lebbeus Woods, asking whether anything remotely as interesting will ever come again. Kazys notes how
The boom has not only produced almost no good buildings, by distracting architects from the proper task of developing the discipline, it has set our task back by over two decades. There is almost no speculative work worth mentioning, almost no serious research going on in a field that begs to be rejuvenated. A few people, generally at the intersection of architecture and media, do interesting work. But they don't get the attention they deserve and are constantly tempted by industry money. The architects I respect the most today work outside of the traditional field. They make exhibitions, set designs, graphics, program computers, and make maps but they tend to be abandoning a dying field rather than applying the defibrillation it needs. The boom has undone architecture. There are no new ideas and architecture is hurting.
Exhibit B: in yesterday's issue of Things Magazine, a riposte against the triumph of whimsy. The editors note that
This is a multi-disciplinary world where art direction, amateur photography, architecture, illustration, craft, cartoons and technology all fuse into one another, creating - dare we say it - a homogenous pop culture aimed at the attention deficient more than anything else. It's also a global culture (see 360 magazine from China, for example), having evolved from the enthusiastic sub-cultural adoption of Japanese Manga in the West into an ability to absorb specific local influences to generate an all-pervasive yet ultimately placeless sense of the 'exotic'.

So where does the profusion of imagery leave actual, concrete, physical design? We'd speculate that architecture has been fairly comprehensively damaged by the attraction and dominance of the ephemeral - what might rather unkindly be called the triumph of whimsy. Consider Ruum, a new architecture and design magazine (found via Creative Boys Club, which is a mecca for the New Eclectic). With layouts and type that draw on a variety of sources, fashion shoots that have a kitchen-sink inclusiveness and a collage-friendly emphasis on the collation and presentation of imagery, Ruum demonstrates the influence of 21st publishing successes like MARK magazine and, to a lesser extent, A10.

In these publications, architecture is reduced to being little more than the generator of the layouts, not a series of three dimensional spaces but a 2D form that inspires print design, rather than spatial interaction. MARK and A10 differ from late C20 eclectics like Nest through their fatal attraction to novelty, a fascination with the sheen of what is apparently innovation, but is more usually the blurred hinterland between render and photograph, the point at which the computer-generated becomes indistinguishable from reality. Ladel on the increasingly clip art-like imagery found on art, architecture and illustration aggregators, and you end up with design that is simultaneously timeless and utterly of its time.
Exhibit C: wherein Kazys echoes a similar sentiment:
This essay from the photo blog "the Luminous Landscape" (must reading for photographers) suggests that just as film has faded into history, the print will too. As high definition screens exceed anything that print can do (this will come one day soon), why continue to valorize an outdated technology?

And why not? I already barely use my printer for my photographic work. It's either printed in books and magazines or viewed on the Web. Can any gallery deliver the kind of recognition that Flickr can? Why own? Of course unless things go awry, high definition screens for viewing art will be open and works will soon be pirated and traded openly. You'll be going to rapidshare to download the newest Gursky. Artists may protest that this is awful. But it isn't, really, it's just a different model of property that other fields, like music, have to deal with.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Reading and Reviewing Bolaño's "The Savage Detectives"

There's something satisfying about a book with heft. If a novel is, say, more than 400 pages, it requires a commitment. And once you start, the book's weight will become all too familiar. If you stand fast to your commitment, you will notice the bookmark travel across the bound pages. You gauge your progress via a mysterious unit of measurement. At the end of the day, you look at the side of the book and think to yourself, I'm moving along.

Reading a large book also requires a certain amount of task-orientation. I will read x pages per day. But if you are really liking a particular book, you may read two, three, four times the amount you thought you were going to read. There will be times, however, when you fall short of the goal. Perhaps you have a stomach virus. Or you have errands to run. Stuff happens, and oftentimes, this stuff can get in the way of reading.

And this brings me to this question: should different books be read in different ways? Does a shorter book require a closer reading than a larger one? There could be some sense to this. Because a smaller book has a lesser amount of words, perhaps a more stringent editorial process took place. But, as it becomes evident, this makes no sense. The 500-pager may be the end result of a heavily edited 1,000-page number. You could start thinking about this in near-Borgesian exponentials. This, too, makes no sense. The book you hold in your hand is a finished product. Dry ink, handshakes, signatures, and all.

Here's an experiment I tried a couple of years back. I read David Schickler's short story, "The Smoker" and was taken aback by the main female protagonist, a high-school senior who read one novel per night. I wanted to try this. I began with unread books that were lying around in my apartment. The first evening, it was Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class. The next, it was Rafael Moneo's Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies in the Work of Eight Contemporary Architects. The following evening, it was Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire. I thought to myself, okay, this is kinda working.

I noticed two things. First, reading became physical. In addition to manually turning pages, I started using my index finger as a reading instrument. I would follow it as it traversed each word, each line, each paragraph. This soon got in the way of the page-turning, so I imagined my finger moving across the page. I would then train my eye on this imaginary finger-moving, only to make my second observation: that reading involves a certain amount of peripheral visual activity. While reading a particular word, you start noticing how that word physically fits in the sentence. That sentence has a particular location in a paragraph. The paragraph is set on the page in a certain way. It was as if reading became a three-dimensional process. I was not only reading and understanding the words on the page, but I was looking at the words as a series of black and white spaces. Positive and negative space on the page.

It kinda worked. Just when I thought that this process was working better with shorter books, I noticed that I was bringing a different type of concentration to bear with longer books. It was a little like falling in a trance. Or like running. After the first thousand feet or so, moving your feet ceases to require your attention. It just happens.

Reading in this way has its drawbacks, of course. You would certainly miss an author's lyricism. And in some instances, you may not give yourself time to enjoy a labyrinthine plot. I certainly encountered both of these circumstances in my speed reading phase. I thus forced myself to be somewhat parsimonious in the deployment of this technique. Speed mode was default mode. I would stop or slow down if the author required me to. Like I said, it's about commitment.

I like headspace that books create. I use the word "space" here quite literally. A book is immersion in the purest sense of the word. Words form their own panoramas. In the depths and expanses of a book, you submerge yourself in a worded infinity.

Roberto Bolaño (Source)

Two days ago, I finished a big book: Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives. The book was written in 1998. The author died in 2003 (thanks mario b!). Since then, he's received just about any accolade an author can receive in the Spanish-speaking world.

Bolaño in 1998 (Source)

I found two things about this book very alluring, and both of them had something to do with space. First, the book was in many ways about writing. All the characters in the book are writers. They constantly write about the writing process. And often, it is very rote. The book's main protagonist will often say something like, "And then I went home and wrote poems until daybreak." Such statements take the idea of "headspace" for granted. Bolaño's characters -- Roberto Belano, Ulises Lima, the Font sisters, Luscious Skin, and others -- are devoted artists whose everyday activities are suffused with the practice of writing.

Second, the book's middle section (called "The Savage Detectives") features a seemingly endless collection of testimony, each prefaced by the precise physical location where the statement was being given. Because each testimony began with a person's name, a street address, and a city, The Savage Detectives took on a decidedly geographical feel to it. The various characters spoke from a host of different locations: Mexico City, Paris, Vienna, San Diego, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv. The narrative is fractured and (literally) worldly.

How to write about a book that is about writing and that is about writing in the world? Issues of big "G" Globalization are apt to be raised. An imaginary review will begin with a quotation from another source. This is a time honored way of establishing an argument.

It may begin something like this. In his essay on the Swedish detective novelist Henning Mankell, Slavoj Zizek notes how the novelist's particular type of police procedural is "the exemplary case of the detective novel in our era of global capitalism." One reason for this, Zizek tells us, is that Mankell is able to oscillate between different locations. This "parallax view" results in there being "no neutral language enabling us to translate one [location] into the other, even less to posit one as the 'truth' of the other." And to state his case, Zizek looks to Mankell's professional life, spent in between Sweden and Mozambique. In other words, "A true global citizen is today precisely the one who (re)discovers or returns to (or identifies with) some particular roots, some specific substantial communal identity -- the 'global order' is ultimately nothing but the very frame and container of this mixing and shifting multitude of particular identities."

It seems that this is a way to begin post about The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño's dizzying 1998 novel. Like Mankell, Bolaño is a creature of global circumstances. And like Mankell, Bolaño's particular flavor of fiction is detective fiction.

The Savage Detectives is not a police procedural. There are deaths, missing bodies, dastardly deeds, heinous and questionable characters, but Bolaño's novel resembles a Mankell book in that its narrative revolves around the search of a missing person. The missing person is the mysterious Cesárea Tinajera, the founding member of the visceral realists, a Mexican avant-garde poetry sect.

Zizek uses the detective genre to stand for something else: the ability to know one's environment. In searching for clues, questioning witnesses, etc., protagonists may not find what they are looking for, but in their search, they will become more and more familiar with their surroundings. The idea is that one does not have to travel to become a global citizen; by familiarizing himself with a particular place, a detective adds to the established knowledge of places. A mysterious, as-yet-undefined portfolio of world places accretes more and more knowledge.

Such knowledge is then collected in a book. Although Mankell's stories may tell of regional differences in Øresund, the fact that they are commemorated in written form is of consequence. And Zizek indicates that this is more important than the fact that Mankell is a geographically-displaced person (he lives in both Sweden and Mozambique).

The same could be said of The Savage Detectives. Though Bolaño lived his life in various countries (he left Chile after Pinocher's 1973 coup), The Savage Detectives is the record of this exile.

Could this be a strong corrective to current literature about displaced persons and multivariate geographies? Perhaps there are no non-places (to use Augé's term). In this current globalized climate, are all places non-places? Are all non-places therefore places? A deliberate misreading of the word utopia brings this to the forefront. Phonetically, utopia could be "eu-topia" ("beautiful place") or "u-topia" ("no place").

Perhaps Zizek is alluding to the fact that a book of Mankell's (or even of Bolaño's) could be either eutopic or utopic.

But let's get to the physical data, the hard data about The Savage Detectives that will help moor it in our reality.

Here are its dimensions. The paperback version (the version I read) is 8.2 x 5.4 x 1.5 inches.

Like I said, it's a big book. 672 pages.

I read it in four days (about 168 pages per day).

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fiction(s): 8.22.08

Airspeed is relative, but from up here, near operational ceiling, it is a comfortable 87 miles per hour. Michigan's upper peninsula slips slowly underneath. Ribbons of moonlit cirrus are cut by the propeller slipstream, creating glowing whorls in its wake.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Filmic Coincidences

This has been covered before by others, but is worthwhile to again notice the distinct similarity between Hans Pölzig's Großes Schauspielhaus (1919) and the interior of Emperor Shaddam IV's spaceship in David Lynch's Dune (1984).

The spaceship throneroom From Dune:

Reverend Mother Ramallo (Silvana Mangano, L) and Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer, R), from Dune (1984) (Source)

Ferrer in the throne room (Source)

And still another screen capture (Source)

The most obvious similarity between the set design and art direction for Dune and the Großes Schauspielhaus is the use of stalactite forms.

Pölzig's interior to the Schauspielhaus:

For those of you who keep track on these types of things, Dune's production designer was Anthony (Tony) Masters, who also worked on Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Images at War

Errol Morris has written an interesting Op-Ed piece for the New York Times regarding the digital manipulation of images. Using the famously-maligned doctored image of a missile launch in Iran, Morris shows how some of the most famous instances of image manipulation for political purposes were the most "low-tech."

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Promises of Mobility

Carscape from Jacques Tati's Trafic (1971) (Source)

The signing of the treaty establishing the European Economic Community in 1957 has had an interesting effect on car culture in Western Europe, so says a 1962 Time article on "Filling Europe's Highways." This effect was noticeable. For example, one executive boasted (from a car showroom near the Arc de Triomphe) that 40% of light trucks in France were manufactured by Volkswagen. This was a testament to how reduction of cross-border tariffs facilitated a situation where the largest car manufacturers in Europe (Volkswagen, Renault, Fiat) were poised to dominate European markets. Time also noted that this new spirit of economic unification creation had a palpable psychological effect on the population of Western Europe. In other words, everyone now wanted a car. The article states that "Common Market economists agree that the chief reason for the auto boom is the buoyant psychological climate which the vision of a single market of 170 million customers has created in Western Europe." When the narrator of a 1957 Pathé newsreel concerning the signing of the Common Market Treaty asks "Why a European Common Market?", he answers, "Parce que l'economie moderne exige de grands espaces vitaux" ("Because the modern economy demands great vital spaces").

The consequence for this demand is visible in Trafic (1971), Jacques Tati's last film as the beloved Monsieur Hulot. Like Tati's earlier works, Trafic takes a simple story arc as an opportunity to explore a spectrum of themes via a comedic lens. Here, Hulot plays the director of design at Altra, a small French car manufacturer. Along with Maria, a bumbling PR specialist (played by Maria Kimberly), and a jack-of-all trades truck driver (Marcel Fraval), Hulot has been hired to take Altra's latest car -- a hilariously outfitted ultramodern Camper Car -- to the international auto show to be held at Amsterdam's RAI International Exhibition and Congress Center.

RAI Interior, from Trafic (Source)

And because this is a Tati film, one can foresee that Hulot's arrival in Amsterdam is delayed due to human and technological happenstance. Trafic could be read as a continuation of the commentary on architecture and technology seen in Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967). If Mon Oncle levels Tati's critique at the scale of the living unit, and Playtime at the metropolitan scale, then Trafic could be said to operate at the infrastructural or regional scale. But this distinction could be a little too facile. After all, though Tati is beloved for his comic inventiveness, he was a rather sophisticated filmmaker.

Roadscape with Tower and Cars, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

Tati takes advantage of a rather generous, yet boxy aspect ratio to portray European roadspace in Trafic. French, Belgian, and Dutch motorways are orderly and pristine. The camera follows them at car-speed as the painted meridians slide up and down the screen, in time to a bouncy jazz score. All scales of traffic are present here: large cargo trucks, family sedans, two-door coupes, police motorcycles. Most of the time, these objects are all captured in establishing and long-shots, a tactic that ensures that the various motor vehicles become part of this roadspace.

Keeping true to the tenor of the Time magazine piece, medium shots (and the occasional tighter close-up) are reserved to depict the sheer number of automobiles and their users. In these shots, arterials are clogged with vehicles. It is the opposite of the type of doggedly efficient technocracy seen in Playtime. In that film's famous last moment, cars circle endlessly on a roundabout, their motion choreographed to carnival music. In Trafic, cars barely move. They seem to move attached to each other, bumper-to-bumper, along the highway routes from France to the Netherlands. One famous long shot (see top image) fills the screen with cars, with the occasional umbrellaed Hulot-esque person walking amog the automotive labyrinth -- it is very evocative of the very scene in Playtime where Hulot looks at a orthogonal arrangement of cubicles: near static-humans affixed to their work consoles, drudging away.

Choreographed Trunk Opening, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

It is therefore highly ironic how those moments depicting the static displays inside the auto expo at the RAI seem unusually dynamic. Visitors open and close car doors and trunks, extract and retract antennae. The persistent klang of metal-on-metal becomes Trafic's only appropriate soundtrack. In fact, it drowns out the cool-jazz soundtrack present throughout the film.

Auto Expo Inside Amsterdam's RAI, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

These motion-less cars at the expo are capable of exhibiting more movement than on the motorways. When displayed under the RAI's graceful parabolic glazed space frames, the cars are (literally) mobilized by architecture.

Choreographed Accident from Trafic (Source)

As a counterpoint to the above-mentioned "carousel" scene from Playtime, the most famous choreographed scene in Trafic involved a drawn-out series of car crashes inside the Dutch border. This scene, and others, provides us with a different portrayal of technology. If the technologies from Mon Oncle and Playtime seem inept, at least they are beautiful. The gleaming surfaces of the Arpel kitchen in the former, and the shimmering glass and gunmetal grey surfaces from Playtime's Tativille set (containing some shots of Henri Vicariot's Orly airport) barely conceal a utopic promise: these films seem to capture artifacts from a not-so-distant future, only to distill them under the alembic of Tati's camera eye.

M. Hulot (L), Truck Driver (C), and Mechanic (R) Watch a Moonshot, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

Trafic becomes a type of coda: on the motorways, cars and trucks in the film are either banged-up, wrecked, or destroyed. After the above-mentioned accident inside the Dutch border, Hulot and Co. take the damaged Altra camper car to a local mechanic (Tony Knepper). He lives in an ivy-covered hovel (presumably suburban) by a river. While he smooths out the camper car's crumpled dents by hand, Hulot and Maria indulge in some quality country time and camp out in a moored houseboat. At the hovel, the truck driver and mechanic watch what is perhaps the apotheosis of technological achievement at the time: Neil Armstrong walking on the moon on July 20, 1969. In another instance, the truck driver looks outside only to see a pile of junked up cars rotting on rainy, muddy plain. The juxtaposition between images of technological prowess and disrepair becomes one of Trafic's most poignant moments.

Junked Cars, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

M. Hulot Inside the Altra Camper Car, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

But no discussion of technology in Trafic can continue without a (somewhat) closer look at the Altra camper car. Like Hulot himself, the car is a bit of an anachronism. It is a counterpoint to Trafic's air-cushioned Citroëns, ruddy Renault's, feisty Fiats and venerable VW's. Painted in an Altra blue-and-yellow scheme, the car comes to life as a type of mobile habitat. Rear bumpers become seats. Hulot cooks a steak on the radiator grill. The rear part of the car, which extends to accommodate a double bed, even contains a portable shower and coffee grinder. It is anything but sleek or sexy. It is, however, the logical counterpart to the Arpel's kitchen from Mon Oncle. That film was released only a year after the signing of the Common Market Treaty. If we take Time's prognostications about the treaty at face value, it seems strangely perfect that the public would want the technological accoutrements of the Arpels kitchen on an automobile chassis. And yet, the Altra camper car is designed to operate far way from the city, perhaps even in the Dutch countryside.

The car expo in Amsterdam is, if anything, an emblem of the aspirations associated with the 1957 Common Market treaty. Under the span of this building, cars from different countries are displayed to all Europeans. Translators and interpreters are in abundance. Announcements in French, Flemish, Dutch, and even English ring in the busy air. This even mirrors the actions of Hulot and Co. in their distraction-ridden outing to Amsterdam. The Dutch car mechanic even addresses Hulot in English.

The 1957 Common Market Treaty was only one episode of many demonstrating how Western Europe continued to create linkages in the aftermath of World War II. These linkages were cultural, political, and even infrastructural. A highway map of Western Europe reveals that Amsterdam is around 500km north-northeast of Paris. It is pretty much a straight shot. Once you are driving out of Paris' incomprehensible sprawl, you will take highway E15 and pass by both Le Bourget and Charles De Gaulle airports, testament to the city's place in the annals of infrastructural development. On to highway E17, which takes you through Lille, and then on through Belgium, via Gent and Antwerp. Once inside the Dutch border, highway A27 takes you through Utrecht and finally to the outer rim of Amsterdam.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Madison Avenue Blues

Don Draper, With Eyes Full of Smoke (from Mad Men) (Source: AMC)

In catching up on the first season of AMC's excellent Mad Men, it is hard not see the show as a type of architectural low-hanging fruit. The show's set and production design is teeming with the bric-a-brac of high modernism: vertiginous shots of curtained walls, a passing glance at the Lever House (seen in the background, through an office window, of course), and even the ESTO-inspired views of Sterling Cooper's offices and copy pools. The show's title sequence is a CGI'd mélange of all these things: Saul Bass meets Robert Longo as suited men fall from the Madison Avenue glass canyons.

One could even say that "Modernism" and "Modernity" are even elided in a couple of scenes in the show's first episode. When asked by a trend researcher if he had ever read Freud, Donald Draper (Sterling Cooper's account manager, played by Jon Hamm) replies, "Freud? Now what firm did he work for?" This scene is played with a wink and a nod, as Draper knows exactly why Freud is being brought up in the context of an upcoming meeting with representatives of the Lucky Strike brand. Invoking the idea of a smoker's death wish does the exact opposite of leveraging a brand. Or does it? In another scene, Draper meets with Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), an executive for a failing yet famous family-owned department store. When Draper's team suggests that the store print discount coupons in magazines, Menken objects, stating that in reality, there should be no difference between her department store and a Chanel boutique. In other words, she looks to the brainpower and talent of Sterling Cooper's mad men as generators of conspicuous consumption.

Again, the astute thinker of things architectural will note that all this is played out in a dazzling, ravishing series of depictions of New York ca. 1950-1960. One is apt to evoke solidity melting into air, organizational complexes, playtimes, etc. Insert critique of architectural modernism here.

Office Environment from Billy Wilder's and I.A.L. Diamond's The Apartment (1960)

There are other ways in which Mad Men treads familiar ground. In one scene, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), Sterling Cooper's office manager, introduces Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) to an electric typewriter. Uncovering the machine, and raking the air above it with the back of her hand, she facetiously remarks, "Don't be afraid of the technology." A similar observation on the mechanical, rote nature of office work is also the focus of the opening moments of Billy Wilder's The Apartment, which was released in 1960 (the same year as the action in Mad Men). Here, C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon) recites some memorable statistics as we see his hands banging on a computer.

Opening Moments, Typewritten, of Billy Wilder's and I.A.L. Diamond's The Apartment (1960)

No relief would be in sight for typists. Only a year later, in 1961, IBM would introduce its revolutionary, Eliot Noyes-designed Selectric typewriter.

Cover Page of IBM Selectric Manual (1969)

Here then is another manifestation of the well-known observation made by Friedrich Kittler and others -- that the main producers of typing instruments were weapons manufacturers (Mauser, Remington, etc.). Like a modern firearm, the success of a typewriter in the workplace depends on interchangeable parts. The IBM Selectric offers a new phase in this well-worn conundrum. The very company responsible for the computing behind the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) is also behind the most revolutionary writing instrument of its time. Again, exchange "interchangeable parts" for "interchangeable people", and you realized that we've read this before.

And this is precisely why - if we are to look to depictions of built environments to get a sense of Mad Men's psychological tenor -- some of the show's more potent scenes take place in the suburbs. In those first few episodes, when we take our first glances at Mad Men's normative universe, we don't know exactly where Draper goes when he goes home. There's a bit of affluence on display, as the few exterior and establishing shots of the Draper home show two-story colonials with sumptuous lawns and generous tree canopies. And only through dialogue do we know that the Drapers live in Ossining, in Westchester County.

The interiors in the Draper household reveal a combination of state-of-the-art appliances and neo-Biedemeier plushness. Kitchens sparkle with shiny metal and bakelite. The family room glows under a television set's blue neon haze. In the master bedroom, the most dominant object is an upholstered blue head board. In this and other ways, the Ossining home becomes Sterling Cooper's own buried mirror (to borrow a term from Carlos Fuentes): wholly reflective, yet waiting to be unearthed.

Don and his wife Betty (January Jones) thus occupy the same role in the city-versus-suburb divide. Each embodies, quite literally, attributes of their respective environments. If Don Draper embodies, in his demeanor, his dress, his figures of speech, everything that we want to find abhorrent about Madison Avenue, it is because these are things that are quite easy to read. But leave it to Rachel Menken, who in a memorable scene, tells Don that he too is an outsider, an observer watching everything laid out before him, and unable to participate. Betty, on the other hand, also becomes a bit of a cipher. A polished exterior barely conceals the onset of a psychiatric episode. And this too results in an inability to participate. Except that this inability is quite physical. In Episode 2, Betty's hands become numb, rendering her incapable of everyday tasks such as applying lipstick or driving her kids to the store.

The guidebook for this landscape could very well be J.D. Salinger's "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," one of the installments of his Nine Stories (1953). In that story, Mary Jane and Eloise, two suburban housewives get drunk and reminisce about their former lives. Through their drunken dialogue, we not only learn that Eloise is unhappily married, but that her daughter, Ramona, is near-blind. As Eloise continues to drink, she reveals an unrequited love for Walt Glass, who died in 1942 in an off-duty accident. Unsatisfied with life, and numbed by cocktails, Eloise's own universe begins to slowly collapse around her as she asks Mary Jane "I was a nice girl ... wasn't I?"

Like the Draper's Ossining home, Salinger's Connecticut does very little to conceal the unhappiness of its inhabitants. But the amount of consumption in this story as well as in Mad Men is remarkable. And here, I am not talking about conspicuous consumption but rather of alcohol and cigarettes. As Mary Jane and Eloise become drunker and drunker, the offices of Sterling Cooper and the Draper's Ossining home dissolve into clouds of tobacco smoke. G&T's, vodka gimlets, and Lucky Strikes -- these are first and foremost products conjured, packaged, and huckstered by people like Don Draper. As he tells Midge Daniels (Rosmarie DeWitt), his bohemian mistress, "There is no such thing as love .... it was invented by people like me to sell hosiery."

But back to the cigarettes. There is rarely a moment when Sterling Cooper's mad men are not puffing smoke. It is a fitting metaphor, for their job is to really get smoke in everyone's eyes. The men bristle with nervous energy, a seething nicotine-addled cockiness that Bobby Darin sings about in 1958, two years before the Mad Men's story line begins. The song in question is his very popular interpretation of Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife", whose upbeat arrangement and swing stylings present a more comic, yet sinister reading of the song. And the cigarettes? A lyric from another "Shark" song -- Laurie Anderson's "Sharkey's Day" (1984) -- comes to mind. Right before a serrated guitar solo by Adrian Belew, Anderson belts out something that might as well be coming from Sterling Cooper's meeting rooms: Deep in the heart of darkest America. Ha! Ha! Ha! You've already paid for this. Listen to my heartbeat.