EXT. CAFETERIA. EVENING.
Bill stands on the steps of the cafeteria with a handful of bright blue fliers in hand. As a young woman listening to a walkman passes:
‘Scuse me? Hey -- ‘scuse me?
The Eastover Herald is starting a blog about
the upcoming election. A blog is like a web-
site with user-generated --
The young woman musters an expression of deep apology and points at her headphones. She quickly turns and walks away.
Bill sighs, just about at the end of his rope. So much for that plan -- it’s been an hour and only two of the forty people he’s spoken to have expressed even the mildest curiosity. To think he’d hoped to meet people this way.
The doors of the cafeteria clatter open loudly behind him and he turns. A young man has just exited the building and is lighting a cigarette from the top of the steps, someone whose presence is unlike anyone Bill has ever known in real life: haughty and vampiric, with the most extreme and perfect features Bill has ever seen in his life. He wears impossibly, almost restrictively tight pants and an unreasonably filthy leather jacket. His hair appears to have congealed into sweaty segments that hang around his head like the fronds of a palm tree. A delicate gold chain hangs from his neck.
(hearing a voice not his own,
speaking without meaning to)
‘Scuse me? Are you interested in becoming a
founding member of the Eastover Herald's
The dude slows down, his eyes meeting Bill’s with such a steely gaze that Bill instinctively recoils.
A blog?! Edgy. Kids say the darndest things,
He picks up his pace again, swaggering down the rest of the stairs. He leaves a slow stream of smoke like the exhaust of a car in his wake. “That right there,” Bill thinks to himself, “is my least favorite person I’ve ever met in my life.”
INT. CLASSROOM. DAY.
A stately seminar-style classroom with dark wood panels and paintings framed in gold. An anachronistic whiteboard is bolted to one of the walls, an aggressive testament to the passage of time. About fifteen students sit around a conference table in the center of the room, Bill among them, all facing PROFESSOR JUDY MAXWELL, mid-50s, an intensely brilliant, wisecracking woman whose jokes often go above their recipients’ heads. She has curly reddish-gray hair and wears a silk neckscarf that seems highly unnecessary, even masochistic, in the early September heat. She speaks at warp speed. This is ENGLISH 240: AMERICAN NARRATIVES 1760 - PRESENT, an intermediate-level class which was no easy feat for Bill to get into.
Alright, everyone; now that we’ve gone
through the syllabus and you’re all
adequately intimidated and/or privately
planning on dropping this class the moment
this meeting is over, let’s begin. You’ve all
now read Sister Carrie, or at least you all
alleged to, and if you even read just one
page of it you know that it is not set at the
beginning of American history but rather at
the turn of the century - over a hundred years
into the development of the idea of American
identity. Many have called the book the
greatest American novel ever written and it
certainly is up there for me. So before I direct
I’d like to know what you thought of it.
A long, silent beat. Everyone is too afraid to talk.
PROFESSOR MAXWELL (CONT’D)
Did no one do the reading or are you just
A young woman walks into the class, harried and mouthing apologies for her tardiness.
PROFESSOR MAXWELL (CONT’D)
(to the incoming student)
Describe Carrie for me.
Carrie? Um... Okay... She’s hard-working...
Very interesting that’s the first quality you
list. I don’t disagree...
And she’s pretty materialistic -- she measures
her self-worth in her belongings...
Excellent. Yes, she’s a perfect model of the
concept of conspicuous consumption that Veblen
draws out in his Theory of the Leisure Class,
which will be an absolutely critical text for
But she’s self-aware, I think, and she’s loyal.
Loyal? I don’t know if I can recall a single
instance of Carrie demonstrating anything I
would call loyalty...
Um... I mean, I’m honestly not super familiar,
but I know she was really supportive of Miranda
when she became a single mom...
I’m asking you about Theodore Dreiser’s novel
Sister Carrie, which was published in 1900 and
which was the reading you were assigned for the
Is this “Approaches to Representation in Cinema”?
(rolling her eyes)
That’s next door.
The young woman zips out. Now Maxwell notices a hand in the back:
PROFESSOR MAXWELL (CONT’D)
A dude in a Von Dutch hat speaks up.
I honestly hated this book. Carrie’s so
Someone else offers a quiet “yeah” in agreement.
She’s so desperate and self-sabotaging. Nothing’s
ever enough. I’m like, “Can’t you be content with
what you’ve got?”
There’s an interjection from across the table, the same side Bill is sitting on:
But I feel like that’s what the entire book is
The classroom turns: it’s one of the dudes from the bookstore! Bill hadn’t noticed him at the beginning of class, most likely because he was too busy making sure his paper filing system was in order. Today the Radio Host wears a faded t-shirt with a picture of Mary Tyler Moore on it, throwing her hat in the air. He is as before: he reeks plainly enough of refinement that he’s afforded a distinct spontaneity of presence. He’s positively ebullient. He manages to address the whole room as though the class is a party he’s hosting, speaking with a warm, generous tone that makes his point sound less like condescension and more like a contribution toward a shared goal.
RADIO HOST (CONT’D)
Or I mean, I at least thought the whole
point is that she’s never gonna be satisfied.
She’s supposed to be, like, the embodiment of
the futility of the American dream. Right?
How possessions reflect status but no amount
of possessions will ever reflect the ultimate
status, because there is no fucking ultimate
status. Y’know? So being desperate and self-
sabotaging, like, constitutes who she is, but
it was imposed upon her.
A few gasps around the room at the profanity. Who is this guy? Bill wonders. But Professor Maxwell claps delightedly.
Spoken like someone who took my English 126
last year. Yes, Jacob; that’s very nice,
although I’m going to want us to unpack the
question of Carrie’s agency as we move forward,
not only vis-a-vis the historio-cultural
conditions into which she was born but also --
MUQTEDAR KHAN | THE NEW YORK TIMES | SEP. 7, 2003
MATT TAIBI | THE NATION | 9/18/2003