Thursday, December 05, 2013

Music in 2013

One of my biggest disappointments this year was the Voice Of The Valley noise festival. The past two years, it's been a highlight of the year, to get out of the city, to go camp in the woods of West Virginia for a few days, with a large group of people from Baltimore creating a miniature version of the city that can sit around a campfire. The music is generally great: All of a "noise" or "experimental" nature, but with a great deal of variety. In 2012 there was Tiger Hatchery's free jazz and Gary War's blown out synth pop, each playing in front of an audience that was generally into what was happening, with whoever was particularly into one act or another circling to the front of the stage. This year, the event was held at a different campground, with one person previously heavily involved in the curating sitting out, sound that was pretty much garbage, and almost no female performers. Everyone was bummed out and disappointed, and when the rain turned the dirt to mud and soaked through tents to make sleeping bags into breeding grounds for hypothermia, many bailed out early. It felt like something dying, even if it was just my interest. As people played their undercooked electronic music, I kept on thinking about how much I'd rather be listening to rap.

A much smaller disappointment is that I did not end up consistently writing about music for a print publication this year, although for a minute there I thought that would happen. I'm not sure how interesting of a columnist I would've ended up being: I think the initial offer was made from an assumption that I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, including lots of "experimental" stuff, but this year I had almost no interest in any of that, and was instead mostly into pop music. This definition of pop music is not the same as everyone's- I'm not sure how genuinely popular anything I listened to was- but it seemed at least to be made by people with an interest in pop music, and an interest in "swinging for the fences," some degree of emotional transparency, and a disinterest in abstraction. The music I liked pretty much all chose warmth over coldness. Also I think pretty much all of my favorite non-rap music was made by women, at least in part. If you look at that big post I made where I discussed the books I was reading, pretty much all of my favorite books were written by women, and my favorite comic to come out this year was probably Anya Davidson's School Spirits. (This certainly says more about me as a person than it says about women as a gender but take it however you want to take it.)

But what am I actually talking about, you might be asking yourself?

My favorite band this year was probably Blanche Blanche Blanche, who are definitely experimentalists at heart. But that experimentation seems more related to jazz, and song, than electroacoustic composition or whatever- It seems very human. If you had never really heard Frank Zappa but only knew him as a dude who championed Captain Beefheart and The Shaggs- Wooden Ball is sort of like the dissonances of Trout Mask Replica played on a synth, while being grounded (like how bass can work in a jazz context) in these sort of flat speak-sung girl vocals. I've described them as being "younger sibling music," invested in a sort of brattiness. Breaking Mirrors has parts being played by a rock band and it feels very tight, only slightly off-beat. The energy seems related to what Deerhoof were doing ten years ago. It also feels related to Matthew Thurber's comics - they just did the music for an online ad for Infomaniacs but I'm not sure if that's for a love of the game of if Matthew just paid them - and the newspaper Mothers News. These are my favorite things. This band seems to be doing the thing that happens when you call a band your favorite band, beginning to seem like a part of my identity, or conception of self, as much as they're a separate entity. It makes me wonder if Zach Phillips was into They Might Be Giants when he was a pre-teen.

The new Saturday Looks Good To Me is such a classic conception of pop, that K Records thing of romanticizing the 1960s and girl groups, this infatuation with reverb and romance that is so distant from today's pop music emphasis on bass and the body, that it feels at odds with almost everything in the world that includes music and its attendant culture. This feels so distant from the world of partying I don't even remember what horrible stupid shit had went down the night before that led me to tweet the lyric "The city's falling apart, time to build a new city." This record is a form of gorgeousness that you only see when everything else looks ugly save for the weather.

I ended up feeling the new Marnie Stern really hard. I had been really into her first record when it first came out, the way it moved like a Deerhoof record, but it seemed like, in the intervening years, as she was becoming more straightforward, she was moving through classic hard rock in a way I found a little unpalatable. The Chronicles Of Marnia feels like it's hitting the pop spot cleanly, and it suits the inspirational pep talk thing Marnie does well. It feels bright, effervescent.

Similar feelings are evoked by the new Fielded record, Ninety Thirty Thirty, a lot, although certainly some songs are better than others. I've seen her do noise sets, and her last record I viewed as a sort of experimental folk record, but this is bright, shiny. I described it on a couple of occasions as "Kate Bush meets Bruce Springsteen" and while both of those are artists that I can't really listen to a full record by, I don't think, somehow the sweet spot between the two, when it converges with Lindsay's own particular sensibilities, I was able to get behind. (Fielded is the project of a woman named Lindsay Powell. I need to point this out because it seems like in the context of this sort of rock-based but with eccentric edges pop music I could be alluding to Lindsey Buckingham. And the Fielded aesthetic does seem like the work of someone who might have a shrine to Stevie Nicks somewhere in her soul.)

And while invoking Fleetwood Mac I should mention that I was just as into that Haim record Days Are Gone as every major press outlet. The personalities behind the record seem deeply normal, to the point of blandness, almost, but I found that compelling. Most music feels like it's being made by "artsier" people: People who found each other and it was a great relief. This band of sisters feels so assured, relaxed and comfortable, that it feels adamantly mainstream. But they make the sort of music that you want normal people to make, rooted in all sorts of pop music that's actually really good, as opposed to the sort that's actively horrible. There is in this music the sort of niceness that you get sometimes in people who are privileged enough to have never learned the defensiveness and fear that infects most people. I like this sort of person a lot but they never really want to hang out with me as they've got their own thing going on.

Much more personable was Speedy Ortiz's Major Arcana, which in its obvious nostalgia for 1990s indie rock shares my interests. It seems really similar to Helium, or a Pavement record. Their lyrics read well, they sell poetry zines at the merch table, and the bandname is a Love And Rockets reference. A similarly fun rock band, 2 Ton Bug made really satisfying garage rock, while maintaining Twitter accounts that make me feel like I would get along with them really well if we lived in the same city. They made my favorite music video of the year:

Other indie rock records I liked a lot that are sure to show up on other people's end-of-year lists were those made by Yo La Tengo, My Bloody Valentine, Neko Case, and Bill Callahan.

The rap record I listened to the most often this year was Earl Sweatshirt's Doris, but the rapper I kept up the most with, downloading multiple mixtapes, was Starlito. His Step Brothers 2 record with Don Trip is probably stronger than this two solo albums from this year, but people looking to dive into his oeuvre with a free mixtape are recommended to check out Funerals And Court Dates from last year. Rapping that goes super-hard, verbally and is incredibly moving in the way that writing can be when it means it the most. As interesting as the Kanye West record was in terms of production, these records actually rewarded paying close attention to them. I also liked Young Thug, for not really rapping but taking the form of rap and just making it weird- his work on the Gucci Mane song "Virgin" is incredible. I don't mean to go over the entire genre of rap in a single paragraph, but I feel like this music has been discussed plenty, enough so to actually inform my thinking, and I cannot even have the illusion that I have something new to say. Lil Ugly Mane's "On Doing An Evil Deed Blues" was a great song. Danny Brown's Old was good. I liked the Cam'ron and Da Mafia 6ix mixtapes although I only listened to each once or twice. I'm looking forward to the new Future record dropping before the end of the year, as well as the new R Kelly.

Music I thought was beautiful, more rooted in chamber music or instrumentals, was Colleen's The Weighing Of The Heart and the cassette tape release of Brute Heart providing a soundtrack for The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari. I also liked the White Poppy LP on Not Not Fun and her cassette tape Drifters Gold, which were much less composed, more loop-based and repetitive, but still beautiful.

There is other music I liked this year, and this is still far too long and disordered to be any type of year in review. These are the things I feel like I have to talk about, the things that to not mention would be lying.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Small Press/Self-Publishing

The other day while riding the bus I struck up a conversation with a dude with a Picturebox tote bag. "Pretty cool publishing company," I said, and went on to recommend he check out Anya Davidson's School Spirits. The conversation turned to comics, whether I made them, I said that I wrote prose, and then I talked about self-publishing, or chapbooks- I feel like this comes up a lot, when I say that I write, but that I don't have any substantial work published. Self-publishing is presented as a viable option.

For comics, self-publishing is a viable option, a decent business model. Many of my favorite cartoonists have published minicomics or zines. Now that the serialized alternative comic book is pretty much dead, at least as far as distributors dealing with retailers are concerned, small presses (and the internet) are pretty much the way to access the newest shit, the things that feel like the future.

For prose, though, I am still only interested in books published by actual publishers. Maybe this is because the well of literature is so deep that it seems relatively unexplored- there are hundreds of years of books available, and the desire for the newest shit is drowned out by the feeling to only explore that which has stood the test of time.

The other thing is the question of slightness, immediacy. The peer-to-peer communication which characterizes the low print run makes sense for zines of drawings in a way that it doesn't for the storytelling impulse. Showing your sketchbook to a friend is a way to explain the visual ideas you've been having, while a story in pupa form can be conveyed verbally. The oral storytelling tradition is a rich one.

Contradicting this idea is the idea that the written word and the spoken word are two very different things- and again, the chapbook is more a form for poetry than for what I'm characterizing as "the storytelling impulse" for probably just that very reason. It's maybe related to the fact that a small limited-release cassette tape (of which I have dozens) is different from a live musical performance, which is maybe more analogous to the folk form of storytelling. But then, people prefer music to literature, and can ingest more of it, more casually, than they can consider the written word. All that said, while I love the cassette format, I find the small-scale nature of the seven-inch record a disgusting waste of resources.

When I think about books, or literature, I think of volumes, works of effort. I think of Italo Calvino's collection of Italian Folktales, say, a herculean effort that, were it a fraction of its size, only consisting of a handful of tales, would not need to exist: Those stories could just be told in their original form. Or I think about joke books, compendiums of tiny bits of thought that then act as a testament to a moment in time, the culture that conceived them. It's cool and interesting that Fantagraphics is collecting books of minicomics, and they're these bricks of four-hundred-plus pages: Not the work of a single author, but documents independent culture during specific time periods. That's what's interesting about small works: In time, they don't exist as themselves. They don't get to transcend their era. They are contextualized in shorts programs and anthologies. It's funny, I guess, the idea of things feeling like the future that end up being just documents of their era.

I don't know how to conclude this post. I wish I was just saying these ideas out loud, that this conversation could move on, to be about anything else, but maybe the idea of it would linger with you to be repeated, moving into the future, rather than just living on as link on this blog's sidebar with the heading October 2013.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Drugs: Don't Do Them

There are plenty of drugs out there, and many varieties of them I have never ingested. I have never done cocaine, or amphetamines, or any form of opiate, never even been given prescription painkillers in the aftermath of surgery. The only illegal drugs I've ever taken fall under the general rubric of "hippie drugs," and I have not even done very many of them, or very often. There is a post on this blog I wrote approximately ten years ago, where I posted the notes I'd made in Wordpad the first time I smoked pot, one bored night in college. My thoughts were racing too fast for me to get them down, but none of them were that insightful. I feel like what I experienced was all of the unconscious thoughts that precede conscious thought, all of the "what is the word for that" that you need to have at hand in order to form a sentence. Years later, I would have the experience of smoking pot, or maybe it was hashish, and rather than try to transcribe my thoughts, I attempted to socialize. As my friends spoke, the same thing happened, as I attempted to formulate a response. I had so many things to say in response I was not really listening, and certainly I could not keep track of the overall shape of the conversation. It really depressed me, knowing that this was how my friends went through their days, that most of their interactions with me had this taint to them, that they were too lost to themselves and the noise of their thoughts that it seemed impossible they could understand me and my personality. I have been told by people who smoke a lot of pot that when you smoke a lot of pot this is no longer the experience, that once you build up a tolerance your thoughts don't move as relentlessly, but I am still responded by the joke from Jim Breuer's stand-up comedy, that you can stump any stoner with one question, What were we talking about just now, and and that has been pretty much borne out through the years.

A few years after my first experience smoking pot, I tried LSD, and I enjoyed it, although in most ways it was the same experience, but worse: Thoughts accelerating to such a pace that they deconstructed themselves. Maybe it is because I am a writer, but in retrospect, at this moment, I want to say that the whole thing of language, how you put a name to what you see and as such understand it, combined with the hallucinatory effect of seeing things other people cannot, falls apart. I feel like I saw how my brain works, how all brains work, but in the feedback loop of trying to process this, through language centers or whatever, I eventually disassembled myself, ending up in a blank of neurons firing. It was interesting, but one of the other revelations I had in the midst of this was that I am not someone who uses drugs, really, and what I was doing, and pretty much resolved not to bother again in the future.

It was not a firm resolution, however, and there was a time since then where I used the drug and ended up having a really nice time, not really disabled, but I lay on my bed, listening to music, and thinking about my friends. This must have been a weak dose, or hit, and here, instead of having everything disassemble itself, I felt more like I understood the intentions of everyone, the imagery and moods the music was created to express or capture, and the nature of my friends, filled with love and beautiful. I feel like when people talk about the importance of setting, this is what they are referring to: I can imagine being in a really dirty room, walls and rugged stained with cigarette smoke and cat piss, and feeling the cold indifference of people who do not want to improve themselves.

About a month ago, I tried LSD again. This time, I was trying to experiment with "microdosing," which I'd read about in the context of psychedelics research. The idea is that, you take a hit of acid and dissolve it into a bottle of water, then mark that bottle of water, dividing it into fractions. You would then take a sixth of a hit in the morning, every three days, and keep a journal of what happened. This is meant to be such a small amount that you do not actually hallucinate. Most, apparently, report just having "a real good day," where they are able to get a lot done, with their mind working quickly, without the locked-in, mechanical feeling that is said to come with doing amphetamine derivatives like Adderall. This sounded great to me. I thought I'd be able to do a lot of writing. And maybe, on one of those days, I did. I was not actually keeping a journal. Nor did I have the acid-infused water in a bottle, because I try to avoid purchasing bottled water. I had a tall glass of water I kept in my bedroom, vaguely aware of the scope of it, and I didn't have the methodical approach to only take a small amount every few days, partly because I was worried about the water becoming stagnant and stale, sitting out on my bookshelf, without a top to it. I drained the bottom third one night, aware of the fact that I would probably feel something, and was resigned to the idea that this would probably be a good time.

And it was, for most of the night, until I tried to go to sleep, which I realize is actually maybe a classic mistake in the annals of trip reports. Had a weird night, basically, at that point, my brain's attempts to shut down combined with other active parts led to some unpleasantness. The next day, while trying to read something- Dhalgren, maybe?- that made me nod out with boredom, this then led the drug to reinitialize itself, which wasn't really something I was aware could happen, and I ended up spending two consecutive nights, feeling myself go crazy. It the days and weeks that followed, I was essentially afraid of the hypnagogic state, the border between waking and sleep. Often during the waking days I was also just afraid of my drug experiences in the past, things I'd already worked though, coming back to say "this isn't real." The idea of such deconstruction of thoughts, and the connection of sleep to death, and death to DMT, led to me becoming freaked out by the idea of death, even, which is something I've been accepting of the inevitability of for my entire life. It kept me up at night, and made me feel weird and distant around people I care about. I wanted to tell them about what I was going through, dealing with, but also didn't want to think about it, so this awareness was just a loop at the back of my brain, that I could tune past when I was really engaged. I feel like in general my standing heart rate was elevated, like I was on speed or something, and felt like the speed of my thoughts was such that I couldn't really engage with other people's tempos, my mind racing to the point where I could read, but wouldn't really retain what I was reading. I could watch a movie, and wanted to watch movies, out of a desire to distract myself, but I wouldn't really be engaged with it. (Just yesterday I watched the new Nicole Holofcener movie, totally awake, feeling like I had a hummingbird heart, but I don't think I really got anything out of the movie. To be fair, it's totally possible the movie is mediocre- most of the movies I've been seeing have been pretty mediocre, the things I'm able to choose from when seeking distractions is mostly limited to what's at Redbox, because during this time I have also been pretty damn broke. I watched This Is 40, which is a total piece of shit, much as I'd expected, out of a desperation to fill the hours.)

I feel really certain at this point that what is most important in life is engagement: personal interaction, taking care of those close to you, communicating with them, sharing their joys and sorrows, helping them. What's important is being present in the world and not lost inside your own head. Partly I think that the lingering effects of that last trip over the past month have been because I have been feeling really lonely, and one of the revelations that struck me during said trip is how it's sort of absurd to be lonely in a world with so many lonely people, although previously I'd felt about loneliness the same way I felt about death, as an inevitability that should be accepted. Language, the thing that psychedelics deconstruct by separating the symbol from the symbolized, is, if not truly a miracle, near enough to one, the redemptive force that humans have to connect them. Self-consciousness is paralyzing, and while it is good to be aware of yourself to the extent that you do not say something stupid or hurtful, to be too hyper-conscious is to reach a place where you do not say anything, do not communicate anything, because you are lost in solipsism. I am saying this to you even though I do not even really wish to write it, partly because of my dislike of the way it sounds, either morally scolding on one hand or waving a sign that says "mentally disturbed drug user" on the other. It's me contending with anxiety, the act of consciously thinking about what I don't want to think about, because trying not to think about it doesn't work. Writing this, I feel present, but my hope as I write this is that when I am done with it I will be able to put it behind me, having thought this out and through, and being able to move past it, to focus on things other than the drug I did a month ago, or the drug I did seven years ago. It is absurd to be consumed by those things, despite the all-encompassing feeling they create. I hold in suspicion even the exhilaration of euphoria, feeling now that peace is found in stillness and silence.

Anyway: I'm drinking a tea before bed as of the past few nights, a mixture of valerian and camomile, which has me sleeping pretty well, and I've got a new job to fill my weekdays. I am hoping also that writing this helps me to get past these things. One of the things that sucks about me, and has been damaging, is that I often walk around, thinking about these novels I've written, and imagining myself talking about them to people who'd read them. One of those books, that I finished four years ago, is partly about a dude with psychological issues compounded by drugs, and the importance of getting out of your head through connecting with other people. Literally, I wrote a book about this, and one of the things I imagine myself as having to say is that I don't want to viewed as a "drug writer," but as of the last month of time I've had to amend that to hoping that this book could be therapeutic for those dealing with the same sort of shit as I've been dealing with recently. That's a book that I started writing before I'd done acid, but I took acid during the writing of, partly in the hopes that it would make the book easier to write. Another book I've written is, sort of, about me working through the revelations of that drug trip, or sort of being a response to the idea that Paul McCartney, after his first acid trip, wrote a note to himself that "there are seven levels," and then correlating that concept to the idea, in m-theory, where spacetime consists of eleven dimensions, the four common dimensions (including time) and the seven higher dimensions. These fantasies of talking about myself (self-consciousness and solipsism, again! Which in the book I identify as one of the seven higher dimensions. Man, I hope no one steals my book idea, extrapolating from the explanation within this blog post) have become newly tainted by anxiety, and make it harder to know what it is I am supposed to think about, when I don't have anything to think about. Just writing these past few sentences have made me feel anxious again, after feeling good and relaxed for most of this blog post's composition. I want to keep on writing now, until the point I feel calm again, which I had reached at the conclusion of my last paragraph. But this is still more self-consciousness, which I have already identified as being a problem. This David Foster Wallace style eating of oneself. I'm trying to write a new novel now, that would be more straightforward, and it is to be a horror story, and I think to a certain extent this engagement with terror is what has led to this incessant anxiousness, which has made me too distracted and unfocused to actually write said horror novel. I am just going to assume, now, that this newest bit of panic and tension in my chest is actually just hunger, and move now, to post this and prepare myself a dinner.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Books I've Read So Far, In The Year 2013

I have probably read more books in the year thus far than I have any year previous. Partly this is the result of feeling like I have already seen every movie that I would ever love, and the changes in Netflix service that followed this thought. Partly it's seeing these long Blake Butler lists of all the books he reads in a given year, serving as a reminder for how much literature there is out there to be explored, if one does not merely wait for a critical mass to accrue around something before you feel as if you have to read it. I have also had a lot of free time on my hands, but always paired with an anxiety of thinking that this free time could at any point disappear.

I wanted to write about the books I read, to be able to remember that I read them. The reading has been so constant that to talk about these things also seems to form a type of a diary, a chronicle of a time of my life that's been largely uneventful except for this continuous consumption of prose. With the exceptions of the works I loved, my reaction is generally "It is what it is," and while that response is completely unhelpful, it is the works I had that response to that I am most likely to forget I read. I will try to explain what it is they are. Some of these responses might seem dismissive, but they're still not nearly as dismissive as it is to not read something.

I was going to post this at the end of the year, and then I was offered the chance to do a "sponsored blog post," which I accepted. It being for a grammar-check website then made me feel like I should actually write sentences in response to these books, as opposed to the sentence fragments I think I generally use when I'm chronicling my reaction to something, and not forming an argument. It's important to note this isn't in strictly chronological order. At first I was not keeping a list, and the first chunk of this list, where works are grouped together by author, was from memory, at the time I decided to write down all that I had read, after realizing it had been quite a bit.

Blaise Cendrars, Moravagine. I bought this in Philadelphia, on the way home from Christmas, and while I was very excited about it, I also sort of dreaded its supposedly horrific content. Moravagine, as a word, means "vagina death," and the talk around the book gave the impression of misogyny, that it was a book with a lot of rape in it. Reading it, it didn't come off as a transgression or a provocation, as much as sort of a more well-written pulp thing, in the tradition of the European romanticization of the villian, as seen in Fantomas, but here we have a protagonist who is mentally ill rather than brilliantly cunning. I thought it was fun, and the violence is never gruesomely detailed in a manner I found disturbing.

Alan Garner, Red Shift. Another NYRB Classic, purchased from Joseph Fox bookstore at the same time. I don't think I knew, going in, that this was a YA novel, I anticipated a science-fiction thing, but then mostly just following one of its three (?) narrative threads, the romance between two adolescents. I liked that plenty, and like the idea that there is stuff I missed because I wasn't paying attention- I read this in line at the food stamps office, so the parts that were just dialogue between two characters were obviously the easiest to follow.

Ian Svenonius, Supernatural Strategies For Forming A Rock And Roll Group. I went to the reading this the same night my friend Carson was getting ready to leave town, and I took a bunch of books from him that I didn't really try to read, that are at the moment just objects, reference books. These would be things I'd like to learn about, like the I Ching, and the Popol Vuh. Svenonius' first book, The Psychic Soviet, is one of my favorite books, and I talk about its argument, that the evolution of musical trends is a form of downsizing, fairly often. Chris Day said he liked this book more, found it more personal, and while that is maybe true, I both appreciate the theoretical quite a bit, and find certain hints at Svenonius' personality here rather frightening. There is a chapter about communication, with people outside of the group, which is a form of gang, that discusses it in terms of this sort of challenge, a game for you to win, that feels like an admission of a sort of intellectual sociopathy. I've witnessed it, its a funny insight into the world, but it's also kind of a bummer. Not included in the book is the biographical factoid that sort of explains this sort of behavior, that Svenonius' dad was a college professor. I learned of that detail through one of his former students, my friend Matt who writes for Tiny Mixtapes.

Apology, Volume One, edited by Jesse Pearson. This magazine was mostly bad, I thought, although the article of questions Frederick Exley asked Gloria Steinem article was something I obsessed over and thought a lot about. Steinem, being a public figure that Exley, has a lot of information about her readily available for Exley to research, but, in his being a novelist, what he wants from a subject is so much more, to almost obsessive detail. I thought about this in the context of being a man talking to women. Exley kinds of as kind of a creep, almost stalkerish, with these questions he rambles into a tape recorder while drunk, but his curiosity is admirable.

Jonathan Lethem, They Live. It feels good to read this sort of articulate parsing of all that is at work within a film, all the things I feel like I intuitively grasp as a viewer. My issue with most Lethem is the sort of inevitability I feel while reading it, like I am not being told anything I don't already know, since I am someone who shares many of his interests. It reads like a conversation where you are constantly being told things you agree with, and mostly nod along. The excerpt from a Stanislav Lem novel in here is awesome.

John Berryman, The Dream Songs. I mostly just read the original book, although the edition I have contains follow-ups. Sort of cool, but, like all sorts of books I own, almost more of a reference point object than a text I actively engaged in. There are some good parts here but I didn't internalize them.

Lawrence Wright, Going Clear. A lot of people read this book, a big Scientology expose, and I was one of them. Reading the early chapters, I felt the allure of most new-age spiritualities, understood the appeal, which isn't really the point of the book, but reading about its early stages, I could see the same appeal that Burroughs saw, although he quit engaging with the Church pretty quickly. Later in the narrative, David Miscavige is a crazy madman, violent. An allegory that I think Twig Harper was telling me about The Master was that Phiiip Seymour Hoffman is the L Ron Hubbard figure and Joaquin Phoenix is like David Miscavige. There is a lot of talk about celebrities in this book, too much for me to find interesting, although the constant returning to Paul Haggis and Tom Cruise does sort of lend it its narrative thread.

Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity. I loved a lot about this, not the least of which is the law talk, the morality of being a public defender that most people do not see in their desire for a law and order that punishes the guilty. This book was originally self-published, and while I saw some people talking about it needing an editor, I'm not sure what could be cut, it's a ramble intentionally. Even though I found the talk about television the weakest part of the book, the part that felt the most 1990s, I appreciated it as filler, essentially, that it was not just about its plot, even though its crime elements were well-handled. Reading discussion of this book made me want to read Moby Dick.

Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister. It took me a bit to find the posture for this book, due to its weird opening, a drawn-out description of a puddle. I really like that the main character in this book was a bully growing up, clowning on a mediocre nerd, who goes on to run a country but remains small and petty. It feels like an inversion of so many popular tales we tell ourselves and our children. Nabokov's politics are weird, he's mostly disinterested in them, almost out of a snobbery for the common rabble, viewing the pageantry as bread and circuses. This is a novel opposed to totalitarianism for the way that totalitarianism won't let you ignore it, and the emotional core of the book remains a father's love for his son. In the end it becomes aware of its being a fiction, almost to lighten the load, a further pleasure, and another way of Nabokov averting himself from the implications of writing a political work.

I also read Nabokov's biography of Nikolai Gogol, which goes more into what he values in terms of literature's pleasures, and his disinterest in social comment. He seems to love Gogol's work but is completely dismissive of Gogol's stated goals for what he's doing. It's interesting in its crotchetyness, although not so much as to make me want to read Gogol, who I've tried to read in the past and found I couldn't get into.

Joyce Carol Oates, Foxfire. I picked this up because I enjoy Oates' Twitter feed and wanted to read something by her, and this was a novel about girl gangs. I thought this was okay. It's interesting to think about someone who just writes all the time. It feels impersonal, somehow, and my mind viewed it like a movie, a narrative that I understood, intuitively, almost like it was a collection of cliches, just this general feeling that it was something I had seen before, and I could not really be surprised by it. It is worth noting that I don't really read books for plot, so much as voice, and this sort of narrative, that seems like it's a guide or insight into a particular milieu, a time and a place, I find myself reading at a remove. That's not to say it isn't well-written.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities. This is the one book I took from Carson that I read. It's a quick read, that I guess most people are already familiar with. This sort of conceptual thought exercise does a lot more for me than Oates' approach, and this feels like a really pure example of what I think of Calvino as doing. There are things I like more, and things I like less, but they're all generally more impure.

Italo Calvino, Difficult Loves. I read this partly as research for an interview with Molly Colleen O'Connell, who named her comic from Domino that came out last year the same thing. When I asked her about it, the answer was that while she loves Calvino, this isn't her favorite book of his. I strained to read this, and thought it was real boring, so much about a war, so far from the area where Calvino excels. This is his early work, before he found his more experimental form.

Amos Tutuloa, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts/The Palm-Wine Drinkard. This book kept on coming up, being recommended. One dude at a party talked about it in the context of hearing about it in an interview with Jeff Mangum, which I think is what finally pushed me to read it. It is, narratively, pretty haphazard, but fascinating for how it reveals how deeply felt and real the myths and beliefs in ghosts are in Africa. This fascination for me arises, specifically, because of how bizarre and anti-narrative the stories are, the bits of cow-transformation and ju-ju. Imagine believing dreams to be real even when, as you retell them, they sound like total nonsense that contradicts itself, existing in a culture where that logic somehow supersedes that found in the waking day. Please do not interpret this in a racist way, where I am diminishing the Yoruba culture: I am not a huge fan of the rationalist worldview and find these sorts of insights into cultural subjectivity. Why not believe in dreams?

Cormac McCarthy, Suttree. A collection of scenes, chapters, without progression. I liked the way the sex scenes were told, or really the whole thing. Long and somewhat haphazard. Made me feel like I could give Blood Meridian another go, like I could read it if I tried to in an upright chair. The first time I tried to read Blood Meridian I kept on falling asleep, the opacity of its language forming a warm blanket. I was able to read this, although it certainly took some time to do so.

Patrick DeWitt, The Sisters Brothers. Reading this right after Suttree really made me want to write a western, really made me think about the form. I really liked the bit of period detail about the invention of the toothbrush. I liked the weirdness of the interludes, the voice of the narrator, everything about it. It's really easy to read. I want to watch Terri, the John C Reilly movie he wrote the screenplay for. At the time I confused it with Cyrus, and Cyrus turned out to be a winner, in a way that I then interpreted to mean it was THE winner, which I no longer am so convinced of. Once I reactivate my Netflix, it'll be top of the queue.

Amelia Gray, Threats. Liked the voice in this. It's interesting to read Goodreads or Amazon reviews where people complain about it not making sense. It is true that the plot does not resolve satisfactorily, and while I feel "who cares" about that sort of thing, it's interesting to me that a lot of readers really expect resolution. It's a mystery that is not solved, where it is unclear what, even, is going on. Does it make sense that fans of mysteries are not so much a fan of the mystery so much as they are the solution? I suppose, if you view mystery as a genre and not just a fact of life.

Amelia Gray, Museum Of The Weird. Reading this I thought about the idea of it not being satisfying- I read it so quickly, owing to it being a collection of very short stories, easy enough to go through it like it's a thing of Pringles. Some of it's good, or funny, but the idea of FC2's "innovative fiction" prize felt absurd, with this stuff like Donald Barthelme but more engaged with the fantastical, and not as good. (I rate Barthelme pretty highly.) The frame of saying "weird" is off-putting as well, I suppose. Quirky rather than horrifying, whereas Threats felt dark enough to possess a threatening undertow this mostly lacked, although the story about a serial killer named God was good. For the sake of disclosure I should admit that currently I have a novel's manuscript submitted to the same contest that Amelia won a few years ago. It makes sense that a short story collection would win because of how different people can like different stories, and this is one that tries enough different things for that to be the case. I don't expect to win. The idea of calling anything "innovative" seems self-congratulatory. It's used as an alternative to "experimental," I get that. I think I just prefer the idea of "novel" as indicating some kind of novelty, by itself, and think that all the genre things people read for comfort should be the things given a separate label, like "narrative reinforcement" or something. Of course, this is not a novel, but a short story collection. And there I just think I prefer the idea of "stories" to the idea of these things being "weird." I don't think these stories are weird, I just think they are what they are, and don't like deferring to the terminology of people who would call themselves "normal."

Joy Williams, The Changeling. Oh shit I loved this one. I tried to summarize this book to Matt when I had just started to read it, but it starts off with this parade of false starts, plot movement at its most jagged. From a woman being on the run, she is immediately retrieved to be put on a plane that then crashes, and simultaneous to this action there is an occupation of this hallucinatory territory, that then takes up most of the book, as it slows down to just being about a drunk on an island surrounded by children. The critic who loved State Of Grace and then hated this book seems like someone who must have tastes completely the opposite of my own. Harold Brodkey. What were some of his other opinions, I wonder? Reading his Wikipedia page I can read people's negative reviews of his own fiction.

I also read Dimmer, by Joy Williams, which is contained in this anthology of stories originally published in the Paris Review. Many of the things in this collection were pretty terrible, including the story Joy Williams picked by someone else, about the world of literary publication, but the story she actually wrote, from 1969, I think, was good. Good sentences, not reprinted elsewhere. I wish her new book was not an e-book.

Joy Williams, Taking Care. Towards the end of this, there's a story about the characters that make up Breaking And Entering. I like Joy Williams a lot, I prefer to spend those extended jaunts in the novels than her stories, but these were good. It feels really hard to remember individual short stories when they're done in this mode, though, the "literary fiction" mold. When people talk about how literary fiction is a genre like any other, it is short stories that fit that description better, as opposed to the way a novel can have its tangents and surprises and weirdnesses. I wonder if people who read "Breakfast" in 1982 remembered it when reading Breaking And Entering in 1988. Perhaps as you read this, you are thinking "It seems like you don't find short fiction that rewarding," and maybe it is true that I tend to prefer novels in general. But if you were to then ask "then why don't you just not read short story collections?" keep in mind that would be sort of stupid and close-minded on my part to just avoid that form of expression altogether as a rule.

Nicholson Baker, A Box Of Matches. This would be an example of a novel I didn't find all that satisfying, that didn't really have the heft I want from Baker. Which is almost absurd, considering how devoted to the tiny and slight Baker is, as that's pretty much his entire agenda. It's really short, its chapters are short, and each start in the same way, with these little introductions, and it doesn't have the weird forward pull from thought to thought, or the level of obsession, that The Mezzanine has.

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke. This book is huge, but it's about all the little things that have been written out of history. Specifically, pacifism, that ideology that people treat as being quaint, that Baker takes as his own, and takes very seriously in this work of history. It doesn't really try to make an argument, it just sets out the facts, both of pacifist objections to World War II during the buildup, while also including things about Roosevelt's anti-semitism. The latter is disappointing, a further reminder that there are no real heroes to be found in history, but overall while reading it I kept on feeling like it didn't have a thesis, or I didn't understand its argument. Although I think that marks it as an important bit of history, and certainly I have no interest in reading a book with a political agenda that can be easily understood. One person who might be a historical hero, actually, is Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress who was later the only member to vote against war with Japan after Pearl Harbor, who believed that women's participation in politics was the key to peace. Thinking about her in contrast to current political climate makes me want to weep at how far we've fallen from any sort of idealism.

Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist. I read this around the same time as a friend of mine from college. Cameron was real proud of having sent Nicholson Baker a fan letter and eating a lunch with him in Maine. This book's real good, I had avoided it because it seemed boring, as it seemed to be all about rhyming poetry, sort of seeming like it would just be a non-fiction book about a subject I wouldn't read about. All that stuff ends up being interesting and smart, and the voice is consistently engaging, but it turns out to maybe be more about failure. I am surprised by how comfortable this book is, how the relentlessness of The Mezzanine turned out to be a fluke.

Around the same time,I started reading Finnegan's Wake, but didn't finish it. I had this idea ten years ago I would read that book when I turned 27, in June of 2012, almost in preparation for the world's ending, or in some way becoming deeply crazy and chaotic. When that didn't happen, I realized I could still start reading it and maybe finish it before I turned 28. That didn't happen, I didn't even finish the first book of it, but I like that I own the book now. I like its long sentences, its rhythms when read as if out loud, getting the occasional meaning behind a joke. I like it more than Ulysses, which I also didn't finish. I can be fine with it being an object I dip in and out of for the rest of my life, as the "plot" or whatever is completely indiscernible. I could read a guide to decoding it, but the pleasures for me are mostly in the music in it, at least at this point.

Another book I started to read but didn't finish, but that I got out of the library, rather than buy a copy of, was Clarice Lispector's Near To The Wild Heart, which takes it title and epigraph from Portrait Of The Artist as a Young Man. The thing I don't like about Lispector is how it doesn't progress, not just in terms of plots, but in terms of its arguments, or its psychology- Having a psyche is so repetitive, the thoughts you return to incessantly, that reading something like this irritates me. I should try to go back and finish it, but yeah: One of the things I was thinking about was how I don't like the psychological novel because psychology isn't novel, in fact it frustrates novelty all the time, these repetitions, how circular thought patterns are. I don't even like rewatching movies, which so many people find comforting: I crave stimuli, to not just go into the same tracks again, the comfort of depression, the depression of comfort. This wasn't inspired by the Lispector, which at least in the early going is linguistically fresh enough to avoid these sorts of thoughts, but rather an awful play.

Brian Evenson, Fugue State. This unwinds it's psychology in short bursts, the better to make potent what singular thoughts are. It's a short story collection, and some pieces I remember better than others. For something that seems like overall the effect that is being gone for is one of horror, it's interesting how the story from this I most remember is one of the more humorous. Overall I probably remember more of this than I do of most short story collections, because of how each story seemed to have a separate goal. I'd read one of these stories in McSweeney's ages ago and remembered it upon rereading, although at the time it didn't make enough of an impression on me to track down more of Evenson's work.

Brian Evenson, The Open Curtain. I didn't love this the way some people apparently do, but liked parts of it, the progression, the feeling of tension and danger in the descent into madness, the ending scene with post-it notes in the mind of someone whose brain has snapped, but sort of didn't like the actual ending, the payoff to the growing horror, the killing of the girl who felt doomed from her introduction on.

Blake Butler, Nothing: A Portrait Of Insomnia. Got this on the cheap after reading a bunch of Butler's writing about books and liking them, but feeling sort of distrustful of his view of literature. His embrace of experimentation and darkness seemed a bit too whole-hearted, where I would be more reticent. He likes a lot of stuff, which is what led to me reading a bunch of work he's vouched for. I do this thing, when reading, where I think about my own writing, wondering what I'm getting out of it, how much it aligns with my goals or whatever. I think that Blake probably does the same thing, but by viewing himself as more of an experimental writer (whereas I don't really know what I am, and am looking for something that makes sense) he's able to embrace a good deal more than I would. I think that fails him, sometimes, in this book, which I liked a lot of parts of, but I felt the dives into the more self-consciously experimental portions, or the parts heavier on philosophical quoting, fell flat. I think I would say this book is about two-thirds to three-quarters good. I sent Blake an e-mail recommending issue 4 of Ganges, which approaches some similar subject matter with a different tone. For instance, while Blake, in talking about insomnia, will quote dense philosophical writing, Huizenga talks about the appeal of such writing to the insomniac as a possible sleeping aid for the circularity of its logic.

Blake Butler, There Is No Year. I don't think I like pages with lots of negative space on them. Interesting the bleakness, or reading Blake's blog from when he was writing this and talking about how evil it felt, like he was getting out the evil by writing this. Interesting again to think about readers, people on Amazon giving negative reviews, and think to myself, "Yeah, people don't want evil" but there's good stuff in here, interesting feelings. Obviously there are words and phrases that dude returns to incessantly and that's problematic too, distracting, or stupid. I like the scene where the son looks through pictures of people who died young, and his picture is there too, and the feeling that the list is sort of all people that Butler respects in some way or thinks about. DJ Screw and Ol' Dirty Bastard and David Foster Wallace are all there. Later this year, there was a thing in Vice's fiction issue, (which only contained women writers, but people didn't know about that context) this photospread recreating the suicides of women writers, and many found it to be offensive. I thought about that scene, and how what people consider rude towards death could actually be a sign of respect, but it's a territory that people get very uncomfortable about.

Vernon Chatman, Mindsploitation. I recommended this in the same e-mail to Blake. Vernon Chatman, of PFFR, did this thing that's sort of like a prose follow-up to his film Final Flesh. That was about hiring companies that make custom pornography to act out absurdist scripts. This is about hiring companies, seemingly largely located outside the United States, that write essays for people's homework, to answer prompts that are absurdist in their formulation. It's more interesting in concept than it is funny to read, but it's occasionally fascinating how far out it gets, this reckoning of absurdity and profundity, these words so uncomprehending of the underlying joke that it feels like a computer made them but accidentally spits out truths.

Steve Erickson, Amnesiascope. So pretty much every Steve Erickson book is the same, and there is a degree of diminishing returns for sure, in these easy reads, these dreams of a brain that thinks about movies and sex all the time. Sometimes it feels corny, but in this seamless way where in retrospect, it's always corny, embarrassing, but it's continuously compelling as well.

Tamara Faith Berger, Maidenhead. This won the Believer Book Award, and I got excited to read it. It's got a good cover design, charged with this sexual energy almost like a forbidden object or something, a privacy that is in itself erotic, contained to the function of a book. But it's not very good. Partly it is distracting to me because the protagonist's object of erotic obsession is named Elijah, which is the name of a friend of mine. It is sort of like Judy Blume, only dirty, in its talk about teens, but also frustrating in its constant talk of theory, philosophizing. It's interesting to find out that the reason some people didn't like it is because they wanted it to be erotica but then were skeeved out by the abuse and the youth of the protagonist. There are some good sentences, enough to make me wonder what it would be like were the writer talking about something other than sex, or about a protagonist that wasn't young and therefore naive and therefore undergoing a coming-of-age. There's a voice it comes to that's focused, before it gets lost to either the sensation of what's happening or the over-thinking of things.

Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances. I didn't really like this, but read it quickly enough and would take naps and feel its sentence rhythms in my head like I was still reading them. This was a big hit a few years back when it came out, I guess owing to its gimmickry, and reading it I kept on thinking about New Yorker fiction, or what I think a certain swath of books is like.

Kira Henehan, Orion You Came And You Took All My Marbles. This I loved, kind of, although I didn't think it was funny, its voice was interesting, weird, I want to read Henehan's prose-poetry, or the other books she might one day write. Similarly sort of about brain damage or weirdness as the Galchen but more internalized, less dry, immediate, while its plot is chaos, its setting practically a dreamscape.

Got a copy of Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales, and like Finnegan's Wake it is an object to have on hand, to skim, to be a reference book. Like the Tutuola the stories and plot structures are insane and haphazard. It is cool to laugh at story structure, to realize that a story is just something someone made up, sometimes as they go, and not someone sitting around for weeks coming up with a three-act screenplay in their head.

Renata Adler, Speedboat. I loved this. It's beautifully written, with a really engaging voice. The journalist's eye for detail turned to transcribing ambient chatter, telling details that feel like they are just about what we are, as people.

Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays. This did nothing for me. It's pretty much the opposite of what I want to read. It felt melodramatic in its plot mechanics, but flat in its affect, as if just the motions of the plot it was describing were enough to elicit a reaction. The edition I read also had this horrible introduction, about how much blank space there was, how that was for crying. I've heard good things about Didion's journalism.

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies. I liked this pretty well, a cute and easy read that still felt like it had a lot of ideas going on in its head, planned out in advance for its themes to resound off each other, but primarily interested in being a character-focused comedy.

Lance Olsen, Calendar Of Regrets. This has the same basic structure of nested narratives as David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, but I'm not really sure why. It doesn't seem like form matches content so much here. It's also less interested in genre than the Mitchell book, and more historically based, with "experimental" passages that seem freely imagined where there would be something more easily pinned as science fiction. I wish I could think of ways to talk about this book without comparing it to another but I kind of can't. If I was more familiar with Olsen's other works I suppose I could discuss it in terms of his themes and preoccupations, but I don't know what those might be.

Helen Dewitt, The Last Samurai. This is a heavy hitter and, like Joy Williams' also-incredible The Quick And The Dead, shares a title with a movie it has nothing to do with, but this will need to be explained to people. This book is about a single mother raising a genius son, and not telling him who his father is, even though he desperately wants to know, because the truth would disappoint him, and by keeping his options open, the son's want leads to a pursuit for knowledge, all to impress the fathers he could theoretically have. The book ends up engaged with the question of genius, of potential, better than any other, and contains passages about languages and math and various sorts of intellect. It wears its intelligence outwardly but is really moving and relatable. I recommend it highly, but it's worth noting that it's out of print, only available second-hand, and the author has a place on her website where you can Paypal her the two dollars that a royalty would get her if the book had remained in print. It's not rare, copies of the book can be had for rather cheap, still.

Vanessa Place, The Guilt Project. I wrote about this in my most recent post, but to reiterate: This is a book written by a woman who works as an appellate attorney in California, defending convicted sex offenders. This is the book about how she rationalizes what she does, essentially, by talking about the ways in which the law's system of punishment is in some cases harsh to a point beyond sense. Like Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, it makes an argument that is going to be hard for many people to understand, difficult in this instance even to hear, over the instincts of morality's demand for punitive measures.

Dennis Cooper, My Loose Thread. A lot of people really love Dennis Cooper, although at least one such person told me he didn't really think of this as a major work. Somehow I imagined my issue with Cooper's body of work would be the violence, and transgression, but somehow what I found a harder time with, in this, was the flatness of the tone, that confused, zonked ambiguity that indicates distance between a narrator and his actions.

Lindsay Hunter, Don't Kiss Me. This made me feel weird about the state of contemporary literature. I read a bad review attacking it for feeling more like summaries of stories than stories itself, which is a complaint I can imagine applying to my own writing, and so don't hold against her. It's funny, sometimes, this book, and that's what got me to pick it up and buy a copy. Some of the stores are better than others, but overall they felt like candy bars. I thought of candy bars reading this, reading one story after another, and getting exhausted, not really happy with my decision to read it so fast, even though it was easy to do so. The incessant use of the word "momma," the limitations in the peculiarities of its vernacular, these things hit my brain like refined sugar. The idea that these are "moving" feels like such weird hype. Just let them be funny stories, comedy routines told in separate voices.

Renata Adler, Pitch Dark. I didn't like this as much as Speedboat, as it is more focused in the stories it tells, less free-associative. Its storytelling is more about the false start, repetition owing to not knowing where to begin, as opposed to Speedboat's circling of its subject. Towards the end there is talk about stories and the law, and that stuff I liked a lot, the argument finally coming together. The things about the law, the byline, all seemed really applicable to current stories about Edward Snowden and wiretaps in a way that felt very immediate and not dated at all, even as it makes the disclaimer that it is not truly interested in such subjects, that the story she is telling is about a relationship. It's iteresting to think of Adler identifying as a moderate, or a member of the radical middle, and wonder what she thinks about these modern moments. The Ireland trip that make up the majority of this book don't do much for me.

Vladimir Sorokin, Ice Trilogy. Another NYRB Classic, but this one, I didn't like. Three books in a single binding. It's interesting for its anti-humanism, how that's what maintains itself throughout its modes. The first book is all about this sort of new age awakening that leads to people being given magical powers and feeling alienated from humans. They gather themselves up, to end the world, and from the new age stuff comes sequences that are more action-oriented. This book is blurbed by Gary Shteyngart, who I know nothing about except that the fact that his most popular book is called "Super Sad True Love Story" and I am convinced he sucks off that title and his endorsement of this book. He also wrote a book called "Absurdistan," another "I will never read that book" title. I'm sort of unclear how much the anti-humanism is Sorokin's real worldview and how much the book is intended to be a satire of totalitarianism. I think I saw a movie Sorokin wrote the screenplay for, 4, years ago back when I was in college, at the Seattle Film Festival, and one person who I knew who liked it explained its argument as being basically that humans are dogs. Last year I read NYRB's The Adventures And Misadventures Of Maqroll, another compilation of books into a single volume, that I pretty much loathed.

Helen Dewitt, Lightning Rods. This book is very different from The Last Samurai, an ostensible comedy that I never really thought was that funny. I suppose "satire" is the better word. Its voice is that of corporate-speak and inspirational seminars, and this is used to tell a story about workplace sexual harassment, or institutional sexism.

Carson McCullers, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. I had a dream that I was being visited by the spirit of Carson McCullers, before I read her. Her name was a proper noun plucked from the ether to be the subject of a dream. I read this afterwards, to honor that name. It's a story taking place in a small southern town, a young girl growing up inside it, similar to To Kill A Mockingbird but without the racial elements, just about loneliness. A mute whose only real friend is another mute has everyone project their ideals onto him. This is not normally the sort of thing I read but it seemed fine.

William Vollmann, Rising Up And Rising Down (abridged version). Vanessa Place talks about how Vollmann's whole idea of a moral calculus is absurdly simplistic in the introduction to The Guilt Project. Around the same time I also started to read Vollmann's novel The Rifles but put it down pretty quickly, feeling like Vollmann basically overwrites. I also didn't finish this abridge version, feeling frustrated with it pretty much the whole way through it, and decided to skip to the "case studies." Those are interesting bits of journalism, nice to have that insight into parts of the world, although I'm not sure I felt like there was any real insight into the idea of violence, the book's ostensible theme, which is too large to really capture, let alone make sense of. I also consistently felt like it was overwritten in a way that made me not want to read it.

Carson McCullers, The Member Of The Wedding. This was in the same volume as The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, a Library Of America collection I checked out from the library. I'm not sure I would've pursued it just on the strength of the first book. This is another book about a young lonely girl's view of the world, about how youth projects its hopes onto other people. It's different from her first book in that it is not as much of an ensemble piece, not so much plotted to see the same thing in people in general, to make a grand statement like "the heart is a lonely hunter" to instead talk about a single individual, "the member of the wedding."

Mary Robison, Why Did I Ever. This book is great. I keep on returning to it, flipping through its pages, and recommending it to people. It's about a woman with ADD who keeps on gobbling speed, told in short disconnected sections, a portrait of neurosis that is frequently funny, but sadness runs through it. The way that its voice seems like it stems from its subject matter makes it feel like we are not just in the company of an interesting writer, but rather that a character is being revealed to you, that feels alive.

Vanessa Place, LA MEDUSA. This is another great one, but rather than being focused and made out of bite-sized pieces, it is huge, with different voices, long sentences, and doing so many things right that it made me feel like I had no idea what I was doing.

Joyelle McSweeney, Percussion Grenade. I wrote an Amazon review for this, so exciting did I find it. Poetry, that's wild with its rhythms so much it becomes a form of shrapnel. It uses violence in its aesthetics, as a weapon against the way that violence is smoothed over to a form of aesthetics in, say, video games that double as military recruitment tools. Somehow the idea of a poem against war feels naive and useless in a way that this doesn't- Its aesthetics are its politics and it succeeds in its arguments by being visceral and felt. It opens with instructions to read it aloud, and doing that, you become more aware of the rhythms you are making, and the disruptions to these rhythms, which are constant, become funny, as you say things you did not expect to say.

Vanessa Place, Dies: A Sentence. Rather than shift from voice to voice like LA Medusa, this book feels completely unmoored, like it's just running wherever, restrained only by the fact that it can't stop itself with a period. I love the long sentences in LA MEDUSA, the bits at the end where the narrative stops and Place is just talking about her life in this breathless manner, but this just didn't really make sense to me. I think I would have enjoyed it more had it stuck to its premise of being narrated by a dude who'd lost his limbs in World War I.

Barry Hannah, Long Last Happy. I hadn't read Barry Hannah before, despite having friends who adore Airships. Reading this collection, the material from Airships is not as strong as the material as that found in Bats Out Of Hell, which I think is an idea I got from an interview with Hannah I read around the same time. The conversation around Hannah posits him as a "sentences-first" writer, and what's weird is I'm not convinced that the contortions of the sentences, the odd shapes and the ways they jut, really works in service of the narratives he's telling. The stories I liked best are the longer ones, that take on odder shapes themselves. There is one involving a William S Burroughs analogue, for instance, that I found pretty fun. I checked this out from the library at the same time as I checked out Moby Dick, which I didn't really dive into because this presented easier pleasures. I liked what I read of Moby Dick and hope to at some point get my own personal copy and try again.

Joyelle McSweeney, Salamandrine. I ordered three books from the independent publisher Tarpaulin Sky and ended up liking none of them. This is a short story collection, but McSweeney's language games, without Percussion Grenade's outward focus, end up just exploding over the stories, tripping them up into this unreadable mire. I did like the first story in this, "Welcome A Revolution." One of the other stories in here also ran in the anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer, which I have a copy of but haven't read all of. Joy Williams' story in there is pretty good, as are the pieces by Alissa Nutting, who gives the book its title, and Kathryn Davis, whose story seems like it's expanded into her new novel, Duplex. Brian Evenson, Francine Prose, and Lydia Millett's stories are all pretty good.

William S Burroughs, Naked Lunch. I didn't read this ten years ago, surprisingly. I've read other Burroughs books, of course, and started to view them as maybe interchangeable. I generally enjoy his writing, however, and picked up a copy of this one at a yard sale. I can't imagine this being read by anyone who doesn't know what Burroughs' writing is like, or that I would have anything to say about a book as classic as this one. I'll say that last summer I was doing a reading of some of my writing and decided to include some of more explicit material and flipping through a copy of Naked Lunch in someone's bathroom pretty much convinced me it would be fine, which it turned out I was wrong about. It is crazy to think about literature in the 1950s, as it's harder to construct a narrative out of all of the disparate threads than it is to do with film, which has developments in technology to keep it all straight.

Joanna Ruocco, Man’s Companions. Another book from Tarpaulin Sky, this one a short story collection. The members of the band Humanbeast are listed in the acknowledgments section. These stories aren't bad. They move with a weird logic and I wasn't really sure what to make of them, or what all they added up to. They are flash fiction, basically, and like most flash fiction just sort of form a blur. I think my favorite story in here was the longest but I don't remember anything about it besides that it felt like the logic had a few more jags and odd movements to it than the rest, but I was never really deposited anywhere.

Kim Gek Lin Short, China Cowboy. The third Tarpaulin Sky book. Stephanie Barber has a rock band I really like, Bobby Donny, and they cover one of the songs at the end of this book, and Stephanie said she really liked this book and thought it was really dark. It did nothing for me. It's sort of a cross between a novel and poetry, moving forward to tell a narrative but shifting its form, but I didn't feel like the things you want from poetry or prose ever really found themselves here. It just felt vague and slight. The decision to order these books from Tarpaulin Sky came from trying to think about the idea of "small press literature" in not so much of a disparaging way. Generally I think of it as something that only people who are engaged in it as writers read, and that what's published there is small in scale. I think I was trying to convince myself I could be wrong but my biases ended up being confirmed after all.

Bob Levin, Most Outrageous. I talked about this in my last post as well. This is a non-fiction book about Dwaine Tinsley, cartoonist for Hustler, who got accused by his daughter of molesting her. Many things suggest she might be lying, but the district attorney uses his cartooning against him.

James Dickey, Deliverance. I didn't know that Deliverance was the first novel written by a well-respected poet, nor did I know that The English Patient was written by a guy whose poetry people liked. I still have no interest in reading The English Patient, or seeing the film, but I heard Deliverance was good, and it is. Not pulpy in its voice at all, it's simply a tale of survival, lean and resonant, men in nature.

Cesar Aira, The Miracle Cures Of Dr Aira. Cesar Aira seems interesting, an Argentinean author of a bunch of novellas, whose most known champion is Roberto Bolano, whose name is I think largely known on the basis of 2666, a book that's incredibly long. Aira writes books for people who like to read, that he writes by sort of creating corners and then writing his way out of them, without going back to revise. Also, it seems like he frequently uses his own name as the name of his first-person protagonists. The one I want to read is How I Became A Nun, but this was on sale at the Barnes And Noble where I live, near Johns Hopkins University, which is really good about getting New Directions books in stock, seemingly. This was a fun way to spend a few hours. In some ways, it's a book that doesn't make sense, which isn't to say it's incoherent, just that, at any given moment, it feels like what you are reading is being written in accordance with only one set with principles, to get across one particular idea, and many of the issues being raised are not going to be acknowledged. Trying to explain what I mean by this would take a plot summary, which, because the book is driven mostly by that plot, or the storytelling impulse, seems unfair to the book and the author's intent.

Mary Robison, Oh! This was written about twenty years before Why Did I Ever, and is Robison's first novel, after writing short stories. It's a domestic comedy, basically, about a family interacting, made into a movie that I haven't seen,1989's Twister, with Harry Dean Stanton, Crispin Glover, and the girl from Near Dark. It is probably one of the first movies I will see when I reinstate my Netflix account. I checked this out from the library at the same time as I took out a copy of Samuel Delany's Dhalgren, which I started to read and realized I didn't care about, and will probably never try to read ever again.

Lily Hoang, Changing. I really did not like this. Written in hexagrams, it never develops, and this harping without progress continually reinforces the feeling of the voice as being twee. Mostly unpunctuated and reading as childish, still the voice of the book, meant to be that of the author, addresses itself to "lover," over and over, incessantly. If anyone wants my copy of this book (or Ice Trilogy or any of the Tarpaulin Sky books or Atmospheric Disturbances or Patricia Eakins' The Hungry Girls) I will send it to you for little more than the cost of shipping and handling.

Apology Volume Two. I am not sure how much I like Apology Magazine, but I have considered buying a subscription to it. This had a good Patrick DeWitt short story and some cool photos of teddy bears. Jesse Pearson, a former editor of Vice, who felt guilty about the tone of Vice, started this magazine which is more like a literary journal in some ways but also does not have any of Vice's engagement with journalism, the world outside of the U.S., and instead includes things like really long interviews with Tim and Eric or a conversation with George Will about baseball. It seems weird to me that someone's response to Vice would be to make something LESS politically engaged. It's like the decision was made to be "more intellectual," not to correct any of the self-satisfied impulse, so much as to direct it in a different way. So there's like a long piece about the semicolon. Maybe the rationale is that political engagement leads to nihilism by just making readers think "everything is fucked" and that engaging with art and literature actually gives one a reason to believe in hope. I suppose it doesn't matter, as there are other magazines. It's not like I couldn't just buy a subscription to Harper's for its journalism, and be satisfied with Apology pursuing its path of the public intellectual, as it will probably continue to publish at least a few things each issue I enjoy reading.

David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress. I haven't read Wittgenstein. This book seems to be making the argument that memory is both all we have and is totally subject to getting thigns wrong and misremembering. It's written from the perspective of a woman who is the last creature alive on Earth. She recalls things, including bouts with insanity. Most would say this book is a classic. David Foster Wallace said it was one of the most moving works of experimental fiction ever written. It is pretty sad, and mostly moving in the sense of making you feel crazy along with it.

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers. I think this is the newest thing I've read, a critically-acclaimed novel of the sort that is all about its milieu, which in this case is the world of motorcycles, the New York art world in the 1970s, and the political upheaval of Italy in the 1970s. (The latter is also the subject of one of the stories in Lance Olsen's Calendar Of Regrets, FYI.) I thought it was good, although I read it with an awareness of distance, that this is not normally the sort of thing I read, although there are maybe books published like it. It seems to have a very pure storytelling impulse, which is maybe most in evidence in a portion towards the end where one of the characters fabulates a story of their past. It's interesting to me how more experimental works, like the Markson book I read right before this, in some ways wear their point more on their sleeve, that there is a tone they are trying to reach, a place they are trying to get to, whereas something like this, more romantic in its textures, creates these characters for the sake of realizing them, and isn't necessarily trying to say something about "how people are," but maybe wants to capture things like the differences in classes and cultures.

William Gass, In The Heart Of The Heart Of The Country. This is the first William Gass I've read, although The Tunnel has been recommended as being really good in the same breath as I've been warned that it's really dark. Reading these short stories, I am reminded of the Sun City Girls, their lyrical strategies' engagement with evil and misanthropy. It's a prickly darkness that I am able to appreciate on a certain level, although it resists being loved. It seems like horror, divorced from any thriller elements. Order Of Insects is pretty much the exact same story as Lispector's The Passion According To G.H.

Next to be read is Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, and then Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes. I keep on waiting for the pattern to break, to slow down to a more reasonable reading volume. I would like to have more going on in my life than just reading incessantly, to have more things to talk to people about.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Vanessa Place

I haven't been posting much here lately- this feels mostly abandoned, thoughts about comics are up at, thoughts about music will maybe run in print in Acres magazine, and while I've been reading a lot of prose fiction this year, I am imagining I will save all those thoughts until the end of the year, at which point I will make a monstrous post about a year's worth of reading.

But one of the books of prose I've read recently is a bit of non-fiction published by a comics publisher- Bob Levin's Most Outrageous, published by Fantagraphics. That's a book about the life and trial of Dwaine Tinsley, Hustler cartoonist, who was accused by his daughter of molesting her as she grew up. Showing up late in the book, as the attorney handling Tinsley's in a court of appeals, is Vanessa Place, who, coincidentally, is one of the writers whose books I've read this year.

Vanessa wrote a book of non-fiction about her work as an appellate attorney representing sex offenders, The Guilt Project, which is an interesting book for, I guess, its ambiguous morality, its nuanced point in an area that would probably bother a lot of people. Her argument is counterintuitive, I suppose, in the sense of "intuition" as a synonym for "gut reaction." You can read a "conceptual review" of this book that consists entirely of quotes from the book itself, edited by a person uncredited.

Place also wrote a completely awesome massive brick of a novel, LA MEDUSA, published by FC2, which really made me feel like I had no idea what I was doing as I went about my own fiction-writing. A bit of text on the back cover describes it as "a polyphonic novel of post-conceptual consciousness." The main thing Place is known for being, I suppose, or what her public persona at this point revolves around, what she maybe holds out hope to get a tenured professorial position on the basis of, is her work as a conceptual poet. She was written texts explicating her aims, the goals of this project, and has put out works that are conceptual poems, mostly in the sense of being appropriated texts. The work that makes me most wince is a thing called "Statement Of Facts" which is based around court documents, appellate briefs she's filed. "Not for the squeamish" in any number of ways. The conceptualism makes me uncomfortable, as a writer- It's sort of a feeling related to the "this is so good it makes me feel like I don't know what I'm doing" of LA MEDUSA, but also feels like someone operating at another irony level than you, a frame around a frame, away from earnest expression, the sort of thing that makes people nervous and self-conscious. It is a strange fright but probably you have felt it. Perhaps I have even made you feel this way, at some point in the past.

I think an interesting thing about feminist art is its ability to make a male audience uncomfortable, by upsetting their presumed authority. I think that's awesome, theoretically, and in a lot of ways making men more self-conscious about the things they do unthinkingly is a bit of fair play. What Place does would probably make a lot of self-identified feminists uncomfortable, both with what she does for a living and how she turns that into art, all the ways she turns these things, which she certainly understands the horrors of, into capital of one kind or another. That said, I would urge anyone upset by the mere concept to track down a copy of The Guilt Project. I am doing the book a disservice by not really going into it, specifically out of respect for the intelligence of an imagined reader of this blog- does this blog still have readers? All the comments are from spambots- that they track down the works in question to actually do the reading. Although as I say this I should perhaps acknowledge the irony that I haven't read Place's critical writing about conceptual writing. I should note, also, how in LA MEDUSA, despite its lack of emotion, it proves that Place can write- Her conceptual appropriations cannot be dismissed as the defense mechanism of someone who can't write.

In another weird coincidence, much like Place showing up as a figure in the Bob Levin book, another one of the great books I've read this year, the other novel of notable length, is Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity, and that is a book written by a public defender of indigents in New York City, and is a good introduction to the moral necessity of defense attorneys, in a legal system that is pretty much stacked in favor of putting people who've been arrested behind bars for as long as possible.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

New Movies

As of late, I have been thinking about the rhetorical strategy of "new literature"- the idea that somehow past forms have failed us, and new solutions need to be devised. I am not sure of the efficacy of the thinking, not sure how many of the elements thought to be discardable are in fact crucial. Still I apply the idea to film, cinema, as the median quality of narrative film craft seems to be diminishing. Luckily in the past week I saw two new films that excited in their strangeness.

The first was Upstream Color, which won me over by its insisting on engaging with its visual language, told in short scenes and disconnected dialogue. Something that doesn't give the mind room to wander, that the viewer needs to put together "what is happening" at every moment, and divine an interpretation, some sort of thematic resonance. For my part, I viewed two separate characters as being one character and interpreted something much darker than was intended, initial scenes of rough content lingering into later acts' beauty. Watching it I thought about comics like Dash Shaw's Bodyworld and the Alan Moore Swamp Thing, and movies like Saul Bass' Phase IV.

Computer Chess, on the other hand, I was on its frequency from the jump, it felt like. Its story was parseable, initially posing as a faux-documentary about an interesting milieu, filled with interesting characters, and then going on to feel more like a novel, as it introduced elements separate from it initially presumed to be about, introduced loose ends, and grew into a totality. The characterizations, the performances by non-actors, felt true: The way socially-awkward men interact with the sole female in a male milieu. The way nerds jockey for social capital, competing according to their own codes of what constitutes coolness. Meanwhile, strangeness, a horror, at the edges, connected to the questions the characters bring up as challenges to one another but in some truer sense avoid asking. The period setting doesn't give way to jokes, only one wink to the future that the audience knows is coming, that is in keeping with its thematic thrust. I loved it.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Comedy in 2013

Currently reading Vernon Chatman's book Mindsploitation. Chatman was the PFFR member behind Final Flesh, a taunting of made-to-order porn companies with absurdity. This is that for the online-essay-writing industry, this conceptual gambit that maybe strays into the profound, by way of people for whom English is probably not their first language contending with a series of puns and gambits.

The Comedy Central series Nathan For You has a different tone and sense of humor but seems to proceed from at least some of the same premises. It is produced by Absolutely, the Tim and Eric production company, and I am probably forever going to view their work in parallel with the PFFR gang in my mind. Nathan For You is about a canadian comedian, going around, helping businesses with sort of short-sighted or gimmicky promotions. Or, that's the nominal premise, but there have been episodes that don't fit into that model at all: It is sort of about spectacle as a be-all end-all in a world where business and money-making doesn't really work, so doing things that are sort of ridiculous or fun or dangerous serves as an end in itself, because of how ridiculous everything is.

The tone on Nathan For You, despite it maybe seeming exploitative in its premise, is pretty gentle, warm. It seems like the same people advocating for it on Twitter are the same people who were proponents for HBO's Enlightened, a few weeks ago, the Laura Dern vehicle created by Mike White, that I really liked but sort of knew was not for everyone due to how gentle it was. Enlightened is a show that is about politics, or the damages being wrought by capitalism on the world at large, and the people who, in their activist opposition to these systems, might be damaging the lives of people close to them.

Armando Iannucci's Veep could also maybe be brought into this argument, with its politicians that act out of self-interest and accomplish nothing. These are dark times, these feel like appropriate satirical responses, targets along an axis point. Mindsploitation takes on globalism, and the laziness of American students, Nathan For You addresses the desperation of small businesses, Enlightened is about corporate malfeasance and indifference to its workers, Veep is about politicians' operating desperately out of self-interest. All of these things are also sort of only able to get meager laughs: The first two because of the distancing effect of their conceptual aims, (aiming more for a sort of stupefied awe), Enlightened because it is basically a melancholy drama, and Veep is sort of relentlessly jokey and mean in a way where its moments don't breathe. Comedy at this particular moment seems like it is being made by people who sort of view comedy as useless, a mild balm that can't really destroy sadness, and is frequently used as a device to stifle real change. (See also: Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, where comedians stop making jokes altogether and instead write dark science-fiction that blurs into horror.)

But still all these things seem way more liberal and effective and "good art" and "not just the ruling class congratulating itself" than TV drama does, to say nothing of action cinema's franchise propagation and deeply problematic politics.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

On Animal Collective, and nostalgia

I dutifully picked up copies of the last couple Animal Collective LPs when they came out, despite not being particularly into the works that preceded them. I found Merriwether Post Pavilion too slick, and Centipede Hz sort of just generally irritating. But they're a band whose career arc I feel emotionally invested in, in sort of a strange way.

This is because the last record of theirs I loved was Feels, which was essentially a folk record. Folk music seems "mature," in some ways, musically. On the Drag City roster you can see any number of people who started off noisy and experimental and later moved into a more stripped-down and song-oriented direction. Bill Callahan would probably be the best example. It seems like something to age into, in your dotage, for a musician, as the idea of being abrasive no longer feels true to where you're at.

But for Animal Collective, that ended up being a detour. The path they were on was towards song, and the electronics of their early work got pushed into more rhythmic directions, and they found a good deal of success there.

So when I pick up a new Animal Collective record I am partly expecting a return to austerity, or something; a realization that the pop song is an adolescent form. But: They've found success with these songs. Every one of their records, since Here Comes The Indian, has brought them increasingly larger audiences, been a breakthrough that's brought them into playing larger venues. I realized only fairly recently that a lot of people got on board with the follow-up to Feels, Strawberry Jam.

Around the time of that record's release, some members of the band had children. I read an interview where one of them remarked that this meant they felt a deeper commitment to their art, that they could no longer phone it in.

I don't want to talk about these pop songs in terms of being a sell-out move. I think it makes sense as an arc. But it's interesting, also, the idea of artistic maturity not in terms of musical signifiers of austerity, but in terms of art being something you do to pay the bills, that you can make a career out of. And Animal Collective's audience, I think, is generally younger than they are- They cannot retreat to the NPR circuit, or academia, or anywhere where there's institutional support. They are young people in the shit, they actually have to sell records.

A funny thing about Animal Collective, though, is their attraction to the band the Sun City Girls. It's this attraction that led to getting Scott Colburn to produce Feels, following his involvement on so many Sun City Girls records. The Sun City Girls, famously, did not give a shit about the quality of their records, and put out a ton of crap. Feels, then, would be one of the best-sounding records Colburn ever produced, with not much in terms of competition, really, until the death of Charles Gocher precipitated the brothers Bishop actually attempting to make a beautiful Sun City Girls record, 2010's Funeral Mariachi.

The other thing, about Sung Tongs, and Feels, is that, although they are folk records, they're also nostalgic for childhood, for bits of beauty found there. The shift that happens afterwards is that the music is still sort of about childhood, but from a different perpective; experiencing it vicariously, through the eyes of your children, now that the band themselves are parents.

This is a path that makes sense, artistically, in another sense: Life is too long to be prematurely old, and nostalgia for childhood is, in some sense, an old man's emotion. The dudes in Animal Collective will probably not make another folk record in some time. Quite possibly, it'll have to wait 20-odd years, until their children are out of the house and taking care of themselves.

So this then leaves Feels and Sung Tongs in an odd spot of being charged with meaning, a path artistically unexplored, that they never made other records like those, records that a listener like myself, who heard them when they came out, can hear nostalgically, for the time period past that won't come again. I am sure there must be people now who are getting into those records, maybe finding them more meaningful and closer to their experience than the music Animal Collective is making now. Who knows where we'll all be the next time we're in the same place?

Monday, March 04, 2013

Music Writing

I have some little music reviews coming out in a print publication later this week. I've tried to do this before, and it's tricky. There is plenty of music-writing being done, all over the internet, and while I would not want to say that a lot of it is terrible, a lot of it does things that I tried specifically to avoid doing.

I did not want to talk about music using the reference point of other bands. In some ways, this is a stupid rule to set for myself. A lot of music being made sounds like other music that has already been made. That is how we, as listeners, are able to understand it as music, for the most part. In many ways, the music that already exists is better, more historically important, and so is deserving of having attention directed towards it. But- and here's my rationale- maybe if we didn't do this so much, if we didn't play this game, we would be less likely to write about music with such obvious reference points. If a writer likes a band because they sound like Nirvana, but can't mention Nirvana, maybe they will not write about that band, and music with less obvious forebears will be discussed instead. I don't know. This is probably a stupid rule.

I should make it clear that the magazine is about art more generally than it is about music. This is why I chose to write about music that can be discussed more as an art project, more as an articulation of an idea or a practice than a historical lineage. Obviously in the art world historical referents are still huge, but this was just my way of attempting to engage an art audience.

I just saw today a little thing on Twitter where the music writer Marc Masters- he writes for Pitchfork about the more interesting or avant garde music that gets reviewed on Pitchfork these days- was mentioning how he would like to see less comparing of female artists to other female artists, more comparison between the work of people of separate genders. I think this is a good idea, a good constraint to set for oneself- Sort of similar to the one I employed, but to different ends. But what's funny is that my approach, of trying to write, essentially, about the implied personality of an artist, their concerns as reflective of where they're individually coming from- would in many ways call attention to an artist's gender, as that identity is a fairly large shaper of identity. I guess the logic, then, would be to bring up if an artist is male or not. Which, actually, rereading my reviews, I did do, for the two releases attributed to a male solo act. Although I didn't mention gender in my reviews of groups consisting of couples, one of which is gay, one of which is straight.

Another thing I tried to avoid using was adjectives, of the vague sort that generally show up in music criticism: Gauzy, ethereal, angular, etc.

I also didn't want to talk about myself and my own experiences.

My point with all of this is that music writing is such a weird and fucked up animal of a thing that I recommend using Oulipo-style constraints of some kind or another to avoid the weird patterns of received wisdom, and to try to get at original thought. I hope that I get more chances to try to develop this critical practice, as a way of expanding the scope of what I'm discussing without developing any bad habits. I didn't write any negative reviews, which could be a rule, and is certainly one other people I know have set for themselves, but I think I'm actually interested in doing that with a set of constraints, without just going to the well of mocking the signifiers a band employs, or my imagining of their fanbase. It seems inevitable that these rules would in time become a hindrance, or in other ways unproductive. (I was also writing about only a small group of releases, and trying for diversity while also not just talking about high-profile work. In retrospect I wish I had talked about more obscure work, but hopefully that will come in time, if I get more chances to do this writing, and expand my scope.)