- A recommendation for Graham Greene’s The Quiet American:
But that’s not why I keep reading and rereading The Quiet American, like many of Greene’s books, and have it always with me in my carry-on, a private bible. Certainly it’s true that if you walk through modern Saigon, as I have done, you can see Greene’s romantic triangle playing out in every other hotel. And if you think about Iraq, Afghanistan, elsewhere, you see the outline of the same story.
What touches me in the book, though, is something even deeper and more personal. The novel asks every one of us what we want from a foreign place, and what we are planning to do with it. It points out that innocence and idealism can claim as many lives as the opposite, fearful cynicism. And it reminds me that the world is much larger than our ideas of it, and how the Vietnamese woman at the book’s center, Phuong, will always remain outside a foreigner’s grasp. It even brings all the pieces of my own background — Asian, English, American — into the same puzzle.
You must read The Quiet American, I tell my friends, because it explains our past, in Southeast Asia, trains light on our present in many places, and perhaps foreshadows our future if we don’t take heed. It spins a heartrending romance and tale of friendship against a backdrop of murder, all the while unfolding a scary political parable. And most of all, it refuses the easy answer: The unquiet Englishman isn’t as tough as he seems, and the blundering American not quite so terrible — or so innocent. Both of them are just the people we might be at different stages of our lives. The Quiet American, in fact, becomes most haunting and profound if you think of it just as a dialogue between one side of Greene — or yourself — and the other. The old in their wisdom, as he writes elsewhere, sometimes envy the folly of the young.
- On songs for a (non-denominational) funeral:
Nearly all of the above, I’m almost painfully aware, are cliches: solid, mainstream Boomer hits that are pretty much exactly what you’d expect of someone born in 1957 and eager to hear the orchestral fullness of The Arcade Fire (caught in passionate concert in Osaka only a few weeks ago), but not always able to see what their driving vision is. When you watch a Curtis Hanson movie (”The Wonder Boys,” say, or “Lucky You”), you come upon a sudden sequence of songs on the soundtrack — Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen — that has the same effect on many as saying your favorite writers are Updike, Mailer, Vidal and Roth. This is, in short, as far from a Wes Anderson soundtrack, with its rabidly quirky sampling of Nick Drake and everything this side of Tiny Tim, as you could get.
But that’s the point, at least for a funeral. You don’t want quirk, you don’t want originality. You’re ready to draw on Beethoven, Bach and Handel without shame, and to pull together Psalms, the end of “Hamlet” and (who knows?) the final sentences of “Gatsby.” I’ve spent my life traveling, and I could easily choose the cool Haitian band Ram (who, at least when I was in Port-au-Prince, played knockdown concerts in the lobby of the Hotel Oloffson once a week); Madagascar covers of Merle Haggard (which I happen to love); and the latest grunters I chanced to hear on Easter Island. But the main thing I’ve learned on my travels is that the stuff that travels — and even that lasts — tends not to be too rarefied or even cool (think Lionel Richie, Dire Straits and “Three Times a Lady”). For most of the world Eric Clapton will always be remembered for his swoony balled “Wonderful Tonight” (which I recently saw being played on an ancient Chinese instrument in the 6th century Shinto shrine that stands in the sea off the sacred Japanese island of Miyajima. And under moonlight on a warm November evening, no traditional song — not even “Layla” — could have been more luminous).
Besides which, Van’s “The Garden” is as transfixing a visit into the “Four Quartets” as the Man has ever made — less rousing than such foot-thumpers as “Whenever God Shines His Light,” but only because it’s more genuinely mysterious, and worthy of the great poets (Donne and company) he’s always mumbling about. “A Case of You” could break your heart into pieces when Joni Mitchell sang it onstage in 1970, and then could harrow you in some far more spooky way when she sang it again, voice ravaged by decades of cigarettes, in her later years. Anyone who doesn’t get touched by Jackson Browne’s tribute to a sister who died too young — symbol for all the kids he saw flame out in 60s California — and who doesn’t ache at the sound of David Lindley’s violin lament doesn’t deserve to hear a solo acoustic version of “Song for Adam.”
Green Day have to be here, much though I’d like to include the Clash or even the Enemy (this is a funeral, after all, and we need high spirits). Sigur Ros are the modest saviors of our time, ready and willing to take us across to the other shore and recall to us, calmly, our dragons and our angels. As for Jewel, she is one of the startlingly mystical voices of her generation, and only traduced because her first record, made when she was a teenage girl, happened to speak to other teenage girls (who were no doubt looking for a new Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath, or even just a Joni Mitchell for a generation that had outlived many of the older hopes). The only person who can legitimately and convincingly bring Jewel down is Jewel.
The other items here don’t really need explaining, except by virtue of the stories they bring: Jane Siberry was one of the radical and fearless artists of the ’90s and is now, I’m told, reduced to selling her autograph to survive; Richard Thompson, through all his many lives, has always, always been acclaimed as the most under-rated guitar hero ever, but his sepulchral songs of love gone wrong and droll troubadour despair have never quite shone the way they did when he was singing with his ex-wife Linda, who joined him in bringing Thomas Hardy and Rumi into the same chorus; and anyone who tells you that songwriters shouldn’t be candidates for the Pulitzer, the Prix Goncourt and even the Nobel can take down some Leonard Cohen from the shelf and see what happens when the leading young poet in Canada — winner of his country’s equivalent to the Pulitzer (the Governor-General’s Award) 40 years ago — decides to give his words extra weight and reach by singing them to the sound of a droning backbeat.
Should I apologize for Springsteen and U2? Only because they have — sad or happy to say — touched more lives and affected more hearts and consciences, more eloquently, than pretty much any writer of their age. And in making the final choice here — well, if it’s 1:21 a.m., and you’re 17 hours out of sync, having just flown across the Pacific, who else are you going to turn to but the Dead, absolute proof (for those who were listening) that Al Gore, longtime Deadhead, wasn’t what he seemed?